Freshman 15 by Alex Winters

Heat Level 3
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SKU 978-0-3695-1007-5

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Campus Crush, 3

The holidays heat up when a curvy co-ed home on winter break runs into the not-so-curvy-anymore townie who’s been crushing on her for years…

Reese Samson has only been home from Sycamore State for an hour when her weight-obsessed mother pounces on the fact that she’s gained the dreaded “Freshman 15” during her fall semester in college. (More like Freshman 30, but who’s counting?) Fleeing from her mother’s house before she can even start a load of much-needed laundry, Reese toils in Hickory Falls, North Carolina’s one and only laundromat, facing an uncertain winter break. That all changes when a handsome stranger interrupts her pity party, asking for change for his own spin cycle. Turns out, he’s no stranger after all…

Cooper Chapman can hardly believe his eyes when he spots his former crush, Reese Samson, through the plate glass windows while stopped at the light just outside the Suds Shop. Hastily parking his car, Reese snatches whatever sorry excuse for dirty laundry he can and stumbles into the laundromat, determined not to let the one that got away get away … again!

“I know, Baby,” Rosie said in that countrified way that made all women ten years younger than her a “Baby” or “Doll” or “Sweetie” somehow. “I’m just trying to lighten the mood, you know? Christmas and all?”

As if to prove her point, the music squelched through speakers in all four corners of the restaurant, a jaunty version of “White Christmas” oozing gently overhead. “That’s actually why I’m here,” Reese admitted, kicking a few of the shopping bags she’d dragged in with her and slid beneath her barstool after her pleasant midafternoon stroll up the store-lined bounty of Maple Lane. “Doing a little last-minute shopping in case…”

Reese’s voice drifted off, the fork full of luscious, flaky crust and gooey cherry filling silencing her sudden confession. Rosie, with a server’s ear and motherly tone, leaned gently forward and said, “In case … what, sweetie? You can’t clam up on me now!”

Reese giggled playfully around her sumptuous pie, her first laugh of the long, nervous day. “It’s nothing, really, I just…” She swallowed, sipped her coffee, strong and black with just a hint of sugar to cut the bitter sheen, then set it down. “Can I ask you a question?”

Rosie glanced around the empty restaurant and rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”

“If you ran into an old friend, just on the random,” Reese began, subtly describing her late-night run-in with Cooper at the Suds Shop without using names. Just in case the poor guy was a regular at Patty’s Pie Palace, of course. “Someone you never quite paid attention to back in school but suddenly he’d blown up and become very, uh, interesting?”

Rosie had subtly drifted from the counter where she’d been leaning to better gossiping distance. “Go on…”

“And he’d asked you to spend the holidays with him after you’d walked out of your fat-shaming household and had nowhere else to go but a cheap, boring hotel room, would you, you know … accept?”

Rosie chuckled in a rough, raspy way that indicated that might not be a cell phone poking against the left corner of her tip apron, but a crumpled pack of gas station cigarettes instead. “Listen, hon, I’ve got three ex-husbands, four kids, six grandkids, and a few holiday friends-with-benefits dangling on the sidelines this Christmas, so I might not be the best person to ask about your holiday living arrangements.”

Reese frowned. “Girl to girl…” She sighed, hardly believing her closest girlfriend at that moment was a random stranger twenty years her senior in a place that sold pies, and only pies. “If you were me, just starting out, feeling a little vulnerable, home alone, family out of the picture, free for the holidays for once and this little tempting offer just dangling out there, waiting for me to thumbs-up or thumbs-down.”

Rosie gave her a somber nod, the kind that indicated she was actively listening. She looked Reese up and down, eyes falling on the smattering of shopping bags at her feet. “What’d you buy?”

“Come again?”

“Your little shopping spree you just finished,” Rosie reminded her. “The one that had you so famished you raced in here for a little midafternoon pick-me-up. What. Did. You. Buy?”

Reese blushed, squirmed, hemmed some more. “I mean…”

“You know,” Rosie wheezed playfully, throwing Reese’s casually uttered words back in her face almost triumphantly. “Girl to girl.”

Reese sensed in Rosie’s motherly posture and wide-eyed glance that there wasn’t any getting out of this. “Okay,” she said. “Just a few things I thought might look cute on me, just in case.”

“Such as?” Rosie persisted persistently.

“Fine,” Reese relented, folding like a cheap suit. “Just a few cute dresses that actually fit and maybe some even cuter things to go underneath them, a present or two for him, and…”

“Girl.” Rosie chuckled, topping off Reese’s coffee as if helping her prepare for the long, uncertain holiday ahead. “Sounds like you’ve already made up your mind. Looks like it, too.”

“Waddya mean?”

Rosie glanced out the plateglass window at bustling Maple Lane, golden sunlight casting a merry glow on the passersby, each clutching a handful of shopping bags as Reese had been when she’d stumbled in some twenty minutes earlier. “Just the way you keep looking out that window, hoping he’ll walk by.”

Reese hadn’t even realized she was doing it. “I am?”

Rosie reached over a cautious hand, covering Reese’s quickly, gently, with her own. “It’s okay, girl. To have a crush. To be excited. To buy pretty things and want to look girly, even when you’re not 100% confident about the way you look right now. It’s fine, really, to just live.”

Reese found herself nodding, almost wistful as the tough, older woman dragged her calloused hand away, leaving only the gentle warmth of her reassurance behind. “Yeah, but nothing is the same and everything now is…”

“Scary?” Rosie offered helpfully. Reese merely nodded. “Or exciting?”

“Both, I guess?”

“It’s a good feeling, though, right?” Rosie reminded her. “Especially around this time of year. Nobody should be alone for Christmas, especially if they’ve got an invitation from someone special enough to buy new panties for, am I right?”

“I mean,” Reese hemmed, blushing all over. “I needed them anyway, but…”

“Sure, girl, sure,” Rosie murmured knowingly. “Listen, my advice? Since you asked? Check it out. See how it goes. Show up with your new duds and wear them around him and see what, uh … develops. You can always leave, right? Just cut out and go back to some boring motel if it doesn’t work out. But if you don’t at least try, you’ll never know and you’ll still be sitting in some boring hotel room wondering the whole time when, after all, something magical could happen.”

“Magical.” Reese turned the word over on her tongue like a brand-new flavor of sweet, flaky homemade pie. “I’m not sure it’s ever felt magical for me, somehow.”

“Never too late to start then, right?”