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Chapter One

“This is a bad, bad idea, Hazel. It’s too much.” Sara glanced up toward the gymnasium ceiling filled with balloons in a rainbow of colors. It was perfect, and I knew Ronin would love it.

It was our first anniversary. One year since he’d kissed me as we watched a rainbow fade after a huge thunderstorm. It was magical, and I wanted to recreate the scene. I ordered 365 multi-colored balloons, one for every day we were together and filled them with helium to create a rainbow in the gym. I did not, however, anticipate the lovely lady at the party supply shop would accidentally send 3,650 balloons. Eh, what’s a few thousand more?

“Nonsense. He’s going to love it,” I said, waving her off as I released another bundle of balloons. They floated happily to the ceiling, blending with the other 2,975 we’d already set free. Sara shook her head and continued filling balloons with helium.

“Fine then, but it’s your funeral.” She was dramatic. Sara was always dramatic, always telling me to pull back a little, but I couldn’t. Who could pull back when they were in love? Who didn’t shower the love of their life with affection every chance they got? Of course, our first anniversary had to be amazing. It had to be over-the-top amazing, just like Ronin.

“We’re going to be here forever.” She groaned again and adjusted the skirt of her cheer uniform. It was getting late, and the guys would be finished with practice soon. We still had a few hundred balloons to fill, but I knew we could get it done. I had confidence our efforts would be rewarded, and Ronin would fall in love with me all over again.

I might have been a touch over-confident about how quickly we were moving, though. After a moment, I heard the tell-tale signs the guys had finished practice—squeaky cleats on the gymnasium floor, and a half-dozen soccer balls rolling in from the double side doors.

“Oh, fiddlesticks,” I said. I dropped the handful of deflated balloons I had stuffed in my hand and shoved the box under the bleachers. Sara didn’t have a chance to disappear before the guys crowded through the gym door.

Coach Peters saw us and nodded a polite hello before ordering the guys to shower. He was always a little cranky, but he was also my uncle, so he tried harder with me. He disappeared into his office and closed the door while the guys mumbled about him being a jerk. When the team was out of sight again, we went back to filling the balloons.

We moved a lot faster. Many of them were sadly underinflated, but they blended in with the full balloons that covered the entire gymnasium ceiling. When there were only a few left, Sara turned off her helium tank and pushed it back into the corner.

“I’ve gotta get home, or my Mom’s gonna freak. Call me later?” she asked.

I nodded, working quickly to fill the last few balloons before Ronin came out of the locker room. “Sure thing, but it might be late. I’ve been thinking a lot, and I think maybe tonight might be the night,” I said.

She stopped short, her gym bag half on her shoulder and her eyes wide. “The night? Like the night?”

“Yeah, why not? I’ll be eighteen in a few weeks, and I love him.”

“Right, but just because you love him doesn’t mean you should—” A door slammed, startling us both. “Just… just be sure it’s what you want, okay? You always said you wanted to wait until marriage.”

I hugged her and helped her pull her heavy bag onto her shoulder. “I know, but… I don’t know, it just feels like the right time, but I promise I’ll think about it more.”

“Please do. Anyway, I need to hurry.” She rushed toward the door with a little jog.

“Love you!”

“Love you, too!” she shouted over her shoulder.

I glanced down at my uniform, a little wrinkled from working, but still cute as can be. I cleared the area, picked up the last of our mess, and waited for Ronin. I was excited for many reasons. I couldn’t believe, even after a year, that I was dating Ronin McKinsey. Captain of the soccer team, gorgeous, straight-A student—he was my perfect boyfriend. Sara always said it was cliché, the cheer captain dating the soccer captain, but I thought it was adorable. Who wouldn’t? After every game, he took me for ice cream and cake, our thing. And what guy didn’t love having his girlfriend cheer for him from the sidelines? It was perfect. He was perfect, and we were the perfect couple.

“What the…?” Tanner Gibson gazed at the ceiling, taking in all 3,650 balloons. “Did a bag of jelly beans blow up in here?”

I giggled at him and said, “No, silly. They’re for Ronin. It’s our anniversary.”

“Oh,” he said. “How could I ever forget?” His tone was a bit sarcastic for my liking, but then, he always was sort of a jerk. He yelled over his shoulder and pointed toward the ceiling. “Hey, Tee, come get a look at this!”

Terrence Gordon and several other players filed out of the locker room, following Tanner’s pointing finger. Tee, Ronin’s best friend, gazed upward and let his jaw fall open. Tee and I had always gotten along well, even when I tore Ronin away from their guy’s nights. He looked around the ceiling, every inch covered in bright-colored balloons. His gaze lowered and settled on me, but rather than his usual cheery smile, his face held a look of concern.

His concern was the last thing on my mind when I caught Ronin staring at the balloons. “What the…”

“Looks like your girl’s been busy. Tell me, when’s the wedding, McKinsey?” Tanner asked.

“Shut up, Tanner.” Ronin’s face was red, and his lips turned down into a scowl.

“Aw, are you afraid it’s gonna hurt your tough-guy reputation? I’m afraid that ship has sailed, my friend. You’re what we call whipped, Ronin. Whipped, I say.” Tanner laughed maniacally as he waltzed out the door. A few of the other guys followed, also snickering. I didn’t understand. Didn’t their girlfriends do nice things for them?

Terrence gave me one last look, then picked up his gym bag and walked out, leaving me alone with a frustrated boyfriend. Ronin ran his hands through his hair and groaned. “Hazel, what is this?”

I walked to the other side of the gym with a purposeful spring in my step. He was upset, but I could fix it. Once I told him the idea, he’d love it. He’d take me to dinner and, well, whatever happened after that would be great, too.

“Balloons, you know, for our anniversary,” I said excitedly. “I wanted to recreate the rainbow we kissed under, so I ordered 365 rainbow-colored balloons to release in the gym for you.”

“This is more than 365 balloons, Hazel!” His raised voice echoed in the vacant gym.

“Well, yeah, see there was an accident when I ordered, and she sent me 3,650 balloons. Since I had them, I figured—”

“There are 3,650 balloons up there? How are you going to get them all down before tomorrow?” he asked, frustration lacing his tone. I thought he’d like it. Why was he behaving as if I’d punched him in the face?


“Yes, Hazel, tomorrow! The biggest basketball game of the season! The deciding game for playoffs, Hazel! Coach Conroy is going to murder you!”

“You don’t have to shout, babe. I’ll figure something out, I’m sure. It’s no big deal. I’ll just come in early tomorrow and…” I gazed at the ceiling. What would I do?

“Ugh, Hazel.” Ronin dropped his head and sighed.

“I thought you would be happy.”

“Did it ever occur to you to just by seven balloons? One for each color of the rainbow?” he asked, looking back at me. He was no longer frustrated, but he wasn’t happy either.

“N-no. I… I guess I could have done that, but I thought—”

“Did you? Did you think, Hazel? Because if you’d taken a second to think about this insanity, then maybe you’d have realized how embarrassing it is!” He’d never yelled at me before, and his tone was beginning to worry me.

“If you don’t like it, it’s fine. I’ll just take them down. It’s not such a big deal, really,” I said, trying to come up with a way to quickly deflate the balloons before he popped a gasket over them.

“It’s 3,650 balloons, woman! How on earth did you even get all of them up there?” he asked.

“Sara and I—”

“Oh, right, Sara. Did she even bother to try to talk you out of this, or does she enjoy watching you make a fool of yourself?” he asked as he dropped his gym bag with a clunk. “For a best friend, she sure does spend a lot of time watching you do stupid stuff without trying to stop you.”

I took a step back, startled by his words. I didn’t want to cry, but it was difficult to keep the tears from falling. I managed to wipe them away when he lowered his head. I coughed, trying to break the silence, but it only got me in deeper trouble.

“Why? Why do you constantly push everything over-the-top? Why can’t you be like a normal girlfriend?” Ronin asked. He jerked his bag up and settled the strap on his shoulder, grumbled, and walked away.

“Where are you going? It’s our anniversary, Ronin! I was trying to do something nice for you!” I shouted at his back.

He turned and yelled back. “You want to do something nice for me? Go home, Hazel. Go home and figure out how you’re going to get those balloons down.” He slammed the door behind him. The sound of it echoed in the gym, even with the giant balloon buffer.

I let the tears fall then, embarrassed and insulted. Those stupid guys. If it weren’t for them teasing him, Ronin would have loved it. If it weren’t for them, Ronin and I would have been on our way to dinner that very second. I grabbed my own bag and hoisted it over my shoulder. At the door, I glanced up once more. How was I going to get them all down before the game?

I sighed, leaving it to worry about when I got home. I flipped the light switch off, darkening the gym. A balloon popped, and it scared the poo out of me. Maybe, with any luck, they would all pop by morning just like my heart. I could come back in the morning and pick up their little skeletons and be done with it. Not much to do about the popped heart, though.

I pulled into the driveway of my family home a little after dusk and parked beside my sister’s best friend’s car. Dizzy was almost always at our house, which I didn’t mind, but Sara wasn’t her biggest fan. Dizzy was loud and a little obnoxious, but I found her to be funny and endearing.

Rose met me at the door, her phone pressed against her ear. “Okay, yeah. Thanks for letting me know.” She ended the call and slipped her phone in her pocket.

“What was that about?” I asked, observing her overly worried face as I got out of my car. For a moment, I considered getting back in and making a few more rounds through the neighborhood just to… I don’t know, kill time before my sister said whatever it was I just knew was bad news.

“Um… I think we should talk, maybe in my room?” Rose rarely let me in her room. We were close, but she was messy, and I was fanatical about keeping my room neat and organized. I couldn’t help myself. Whenever I entered her room, I instinctively started cleaning it instead of paying attention to her.

“Oh, okay. Isn’t Denise here?” I walked through the door and saw Dizzy sitting at the kitchen island talking to my mother, who was working her magic over the stove.

“Yeah, it’ll be fine. Mom’s teaching her how to make pasta.” Dizzy gave me a faint smile when I passed, but it was forced. Dizzy never forced a smile. What is happening?

Rose closed the door behind us and paced the floor. I began tossing her dirty laundry into her hamper while I waited for her to decide how to say what she wanted to say.

“Don’t do that. Those are clean in there,” Rose said, pulling the dirty items out of the basket.

“Why are they in your basket?” I asked, moving on to organize her bookshelf instead.

“Hazel, stop it.” She took her books from my hands and practically shoved me down on her bed. I yelped when I sat on something hard. I reached under my bum and pulled out a fork.

“Honestly, Rose, you really need to get this mess in order,” I said, tossing the fork onto her desk where the collection of dishes there grew something resembling a biology project gone horribly wrong.

“Hazel!” I gave her my attention, but the fuzzy monster growing on her week-old pizza scraps made it difficult.

“What’s wrong, Rose?”

She sighed, and said, “Ronin’s gonna break up with you.”

I popped up from the bed. “What? Who told you that? Why? When?”

“It doesn’t matter how I know, but my source is solid. What were you thinking, Hazel? Filling the gym with balloons? It had to take like, a thousand balloons to fill it!”

“Try 3,650,” I said, falling back onto the bed.

Her eyes popped. “Oh, Hazel.” She flopped on the bed beside me and took my hand in hers. “I know we’re twins, but even I don’t get you sometimes. I love you, but I don’t get you. Maybe it’s because we’re not identical, who knows, but can you please tell me why you filled a gym with rainbow balloons?”

“Can you tell me who told you?”

She sighed again. “It was Tee. He felt bad for you, and he called me, hoping I could soften the blow. Ronin just told him a little while ago.”

“Wonderful. Now, what do I do?” I asked, not that there was much to do.

“Maybe just pull back? Give him a few days to cool off, and maybe it will work out, okay?”

I knew she was right. Ronin was angry, but he couldn’t stay mad forever, not over some silly balloons. “Okay, maybe you’re right.”

The problem with Hazel Simmons pulling back was that I didn’t know how.

I left Rose’s room already devising a plan to keep Ronin. He just had to remember how good we were together, that’s all. He had to remember the great times like the ice cream and cake dates. That was it, the golden ticket. Once I got all the balloons down from the gym ceiling in the morning, I’d give him an ice cream cake with an apology written in icing.

It would work. He would love it, and I would keep my boyfriend.

My wheels turned, and I barely heard my phone dinging as I practiced inscription after inscription, scrapping each one because they were too long to write on a cake. I finally heard the ding and glanced over at the screen. Four missed calls from Sara and three messages.

Where are you?

I’m worried, please call me!

How did it go?

I silenced the phone, not at all interested in explaining to my best friend why I wasn’t enjoying dinner with my boyfriend. Maybe she was right? Maybe 3,650 balloons were a few too many. Still, I couldn’t think that way. I had to look toward tomorrow and figure out what I would say to make things better.

I scribbled another inscription, made a few quick changes, and smiled. It was good. Perfect.

I opened my laptop and pulled up the website for the local bakery. There were so many to choose from, but I settled on what I knew was Ronin’s favorite—chocolate cake with strawberry ice cream. I perused the additional options, balloons being one of them. No, thank you, I’ve plenty of those. Extra frosting, sprinkles, ah… inscriptions.

I typed in the message, which luckily fit in the 200-character maximum, and clicked on the submit button. Delivery options… Geez, how many questions are necessary to order a cake?

“Hazel! Dinner’s ready!” my mother called from downstairs.

“Coming!” I clicked on the little circle beside the pick-up your order option, paid, and slammed my computer shut. I smiled and hurried down the stairs, pleased with my plan.

Ronin would be so surprised. Boy, would he be surprised.

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Chapter Two

I woke extra early the next morning, having over three thousand balloons to somehow retrieve from the ceiling of the gym. I wanted to get...

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