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Authors: Stephanie Faris

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BOOK: 25 Roses
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I shook my head, but she wasn’t looking at me anyway. She was looking all around her. I knew Ashleigh. At this very minute, every guy who walked by was being closely looked at with the question,
Is that my secret admirer?

“Go on to class,” I said. “I’ll drop the cart off.”

It might make me late for class, but at least it would get me away from this conversation. Ashleigh was all glassy-eyed by then, so she didn’t seem to even hear me. I rushed for the office before she could call out to me again.

“Hartley.”

The sound of my last name made me freeze. No one called me that. I turned around to see four girls from the soccer team heading straight toward me. They were headed up by Trudie Kepler, the best athlete at our school, who some girls had made fun of until she got bigger than them.

I was a little scared of Trudie myself. I’d thought that by giving her one of the twenty-five secret admirer roses, I might get her to soften up a little. Plus, I’d never seen Trudie Kepler
smile. I thought giving her a rose would maybe take away that mean look she always had on her face. I’d been wrong.

“Who sent this?” she asked.

She stopped in front of me, a hand one hip, the rose in her other hand. Her friends were lined up on either side of her. This wasn’t looking good.

I looked down at her rose. The attached note had referred to her soft side, and I’d been hoping it might bring it out. At the moment, it didn’t look likely.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You have to know.” She held up the card, which she’d detached from the rose at some point. “You’re the one who sold it to the person.”

“Some of the roses weren’t bought before school,” I said. That was a good cover story, even though it wasn’t true. I decided I’d use that with anyone else who asked. “I don’t know where they came from.”

I hated lying, but I didn’t have a choice at this point. I just told myself I was doing this to help others, so it was worth it.

Trudie’s hard-as-steel expression loosened up a little. She stepped back, her shoulders falling, and looked far less like she was about to punch me. I suddenly realized I’d been
holding my breath this whole time and let it out.

“How will I find out who sent it?” Trudie asked, looking down at the rose. “I need to know.”

That was another question I hadn’t prepared to answer. I thought for a second. It was important to come up with a good answer for this question.

“How was it signed?” I asked.

“Secret admirer,” one of Trudie’s friends piped up to say. “She has a secret admirer? What does that even mean?”

“It means someone admires her but in secret,” one of Trudie’s other friends said.

“Hush,” Trudie said. She turned her beady eyes back on me. “You’re telling me someone filled out one of your cards without you knowing?”

“Sixth and eighth graders were selling roses,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe your crush isn’t in this grade.”

That was the same cover story I’d used with Ashleigh. I wasn’t sure if it had worked on her, but it was worth a try on other people. Trudie looked like she was about to say something else, but the warning bell rang, reminding us all we were going to be late for first period.

“I have to go,” I said, stepping backward as I pushed the
cart forward behind me. “Congratulations on the whole rose thing. Not everyone got one.”

I held out my left hand to show it was empty. Then I looked up. There, on the faces of a couple of Trudie’s friends, was a look I knew all too well. It was that same sad look I’d seen on flowerless people’s faces last year. Pity.

No roses for me. I suddenly felt really, really sad about that. Maybe I should have sent myself one, just to fit in.

As I turned and rolled the cart back toward the office, I looked around. Roses everywhere. I didn’t know which was sadder—not having a rose or the fact that the only way I could have gotten a rose was if I’d sent it to myself. So much for feeling less invisible. Suddenly I felt more invisible than ever.

CHAPTER FOUR

To: Alex
From: Mia
I miss the days when we could just hang out without all this weird stuff between us.

After a morning of watching everyone show off their roses, I headed into the cafeteria to sit at a table full of people showing off their roses. I was actually a little bummed. My brilliant plan was turning out to be not the best plan ever for me. I had to listen to everyone talk about their roses while I had nothing.

“You ate yours?” Ashleigh was asking Alex. “Seriously?”

Alex shrugged. “What was I supposed to do? It’s chocolate.”

“Save it.” She looked over at me and rolled her eyes before turning back to him. “Tell me you at least still have the stem.”

“Why would I save that?” He bit into his sandwich and looked at me while he chewed. Like I had an answer for that.

“Sentimental value,” Ashleigh said. “Boys are so blah.” She looked at me. “Did you hear Sun Patterson got a rose?”

One of Ashleigh’s science classmates stuck her teeth over her lower lip and began imitating a squirrel. Ashleigh didn’t laugh, but the other girls down at that end of the table did. All I could think was how glad I was that I’d given Sun a rose. It would suck for someone to be making fun of me like that.

Sadness washed over me again as I remembered that look of pity Trudie’s friends had given me just that morning. Wasn’t this the same thing? People could be making fun of me, too, for all I knew. After all, at least Sun had gotten a rose.

“Sun’s pretty cool,” Alex said. “She’s in my sixth period.”

“She
is
kind of cool.” I looked at Ashleigh. “You should get to know her.”

Instead of looking ashamed of herself, as she should have, she gave me her
what’s up with you?
look. “Playing Cupid turned you into a weirdo,” she said. Then she looked at Alex. “And you’ve always been one.”

Alex shrugged off her statement and continued eating his sandwich. I, meanwhile, had an agenda of my own.

“So,” I said, leaning forward to put myself closer to Alex. “Who sent you the rose?”

Alex dragged his gaze—reluctantly—from his sandwich and narrowed his eyes at me. “You know who sent it,” he said.

My heart did a little jump-skip. He was onto me. I leaned back in my chair, shaking my head. But denying it would be a waste of energy. Nobody knew me as well as Alex. Except maybe Ashleigh, and she was off in her own world right now.

“I do not,” I said.

Hey, I had to try, right?

“Do too,” he said.

“Why would I know who sent you a chocolate rose? That makes no sense,” I argued.

“You were the person who sold it,” he said. “I’d know your handwriting anywhere.”

I looked at Ashleigh, who now was eyeing me with interest. “I didn’t write any of the cards,” I said. At least that much was true. I looked at Ashleigh. “Tell him.”

“The committee just wrote what was on the sheet,” Ashleigh said. “Mia and I took almost all the orders for seventh grade.”

All of them, actually. But I’d keep that part to myself.

Alex looked back at me. “So you know who paid for the
rose because you’re the one who took the order. Spill it.”

They were both staring at me. Oh, the pressure. That was when I remembered what I’d told Trudie.

“Other grades were taking money too,” I said. “If someone in sixth grade bought a rose for you, a sixth grader would have filled out the card. I also got some last-minute orders and they were all rushed. I didn’t know what those said. You could have been one of those.”

“You had last-minute orders?” Ashleigh asked. “I didn’t see that.”

“It was yesterday morning,” I said with a shrug. I didn’t like to lie, but I had no other choice. “You and Alex left for class early.”

“It could have been an eighth grader,” Alex said.

I looked over at him and realized he was more focused on who sent the rose than on what I was saying. I nodded. It could have been an eighth grader. An eighth grader
could
have a crush on Alex. Why not? He was cute for a boy, I guessed. Kind of geeky with his obsession with movies, but cute for
someone
, I was sure.

“What?” Alex asked. He gave me a strange look. I didn’t like that look. I didn’t know what it meant, but it made me feel all squirmy.

I realized that I was staring at him and jerked my gaze away. “Nothing,” I said.

“Where’s the list?” Ashleigh asked, obviously not even noticing the weird thing going on right in front of her. “Maybe we can recognize the handwriting.”

Alex perked up at that. “I’d like to see it,” he said. “Where is it?”

Uh-oh. “I . . . uh . . . threw it away,” I said quickly. The office had a copy of all the lists, so I was hoping they wouldn’t check.

They seemed to buy that. Thank goodness. I certainly didn’t want to spend the evening faking different handwriting on a pretend list to show them.

“It’s weird,” Ashleigh said, lowering her voice to barely above a whisper. “Knowing someone has a crush on you. I keep looking around, and every time I catch someone looking at me, I wonder if that’s
him
.”

I held back a smile. That made it totally worth it. Ashleigh was happier than I’d seen her in months. I’d given her something to look forward to and somebody to focus on besides Rob Martocci, the guy she’d been crushing on since forever.

“Do you think it’s Rob?” Alex asked.

I gave him a look. Was he for real? I’d finally gotten her
to think about something besides Rob for once, and he was actually bringing it up. I realized maybe that wouldn’t help her get over him if she thought he sent it.

Luckily, the bell rang, ending the conversation before it could get worse. I hopped up and headed toward the tray return without waiting for either of them to catch up with me. If I could avoid talking about crushes and Cupid and Valentine’s Day stuff the rest of the day, that would be perfect.

Unfortunately, my parents had other plans. Every year for Valentine’s Day, my parents give my sister and me flowers and heart-shaped boxes of candy. Which meant that every year, it was the
only
thing I got for Valentine’s Day. While all my friends received chocolate roses from people they thought were secret admirers, I came home empty-handed. So much for karma. I knew it shouldn’t bother me. After all, I was the one who wrote all those cards.

But it kind of did.

My mom totally geeked out when it came to Valentine’s Day—or any holiday, for that matter. You should see what she did on Halloween. For Valentine’s Day this year, she
ordered one of those heart-shaped pizzas and surrounded it with pink-frosted cupcakes.

“Surprise!” she yelled when Dad walked through the door. He looked genuinely surprised, probably because of the crazy number of candles Mom had lit all over the room. A strong breeze would set this whole place on fire.

“Well, well,” he said. “What’s this all about?”

“Can we eat now?” Kellie asked, staring down at her phone. She would rather be anywhere than hanging out with our parents on Valentine’s Day, but they had a strict “home on school nights” rule that they wouldn’t let her break no matter how many times she complained,
But that’s not fair!
It was the only time they didn’t give in to her demands.

When finally we were all seated—I was starting to worry the pizza would get cold—we had to deal with one difficult question. “How was your Valentine’s Day?” Dad asked all of us.

Dad meant well. He probably thought he was merely making small talk. But a question that on any other day would bring up bored responses of “Fine” from both of us and be okay was a much bigger question on Valentine’s Day.

“Fine,” I said. Because I didn’t really want to go into it. I hoped he’d leave it at that.

“Oh, you can do better than that,” Dad said. “Did Cupid’s arrow strike?”

He asked the question with a big gleam in his eye. I knew he didn’t actually think Cupid’s arrow struck anything. This was Dad, the guy who had told us we couldn’t start dating until we were thirty-eight. I was starting to think he might get his wish. With me, anyway.

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