It Started with a Sunset

Chapter One



Summer Graham breathed in the sweet morning air as she walked with her roommate from the staff parking lot toward the Student Center. As a student, she’d always lived for summers. As an admissions recruiter at Lake Baldwin State University—her alma mater—summers were the boring part. The part that lacked the energy of students milling all around campus.

This—students walking down the sidewalks, backpacks slung over their shoulders, stopping in groups to chat, hurrying to class, studying under the shade of a tree, setting up hammocks on the quad—was why she worked at a university. “Don’t you just love the smell of the first day of fall semester?”

“Nah,” Valeria, Summer’s roommate, best friend, and ceramics instructor in the Visual Arts department said. “You’re just still living off the thrill of last night’s game night and having so many people hang out at our apartment until so late.”

Summer smiled just thinking about it. It was a pretty great night. Being around so many friends, new and old, fueled her like nothing else.

Valeria shrugged. “I prefer the second week of class, personally. That’s when we’re past the references to the movie Ghost in my pottery classes, and we’ve moved beyond the ‘What did Clint Eastwood say before firing the ceramic bowl he made in pottery class? Go ahead, bake my clay’ joke that everyone seems to want to tell.”

“Well, it is a classic.”

Valeria stopped at the fork in the sidewalks where she and Summer would split up—Valeria heading toward the Fine Arts Center and Summer heading to the Student Center. She fluffed her tight curls, smiled wide, and placed a hand on her curvy hip. “What do you think? Do I look ready to take on a class of freshman art students, while at the same time looking like I’m ready to move up from ‘Instructor’ to ‘Assistant Professor’?”

Summer tapped a finger on her chin like she was actually considering the question when she had no doubt in her friend’s abilities or look. “You look like a professional who is small in stature but big in brains and creativity. And hair.”

“Like, excessively big hair or exactly right hair? Because I was going for ‘make people jealous of my luscious locks,’ not ‘stuck my finger in a light socket’ locks.”

“Exactly right hair. You look ready to take on the world.”

Valeria seemed to consider it a moment and then nodded like Summer’s assessment fit. “Okay, now let’s look at you. You’ve got your winning smile, your new, stylin’, spunky shorter hair, your LBSU Welcome Center polo, your dark wash professional yet stylish jeans, and oh, no.”

“What?” Summer looked down, panicked. She didn’t see anything on her shirt, she hadn’t forgotten her lanyard with her school ID, nothing was wrinkly. She looked back at her friend.

“You’ve got most of the Welcome Center’s dress code down, but those are definitely not ‘sensible shoes.’”

It made Summer smile just looking down at her red ankle-strap wedges and then back at Valeria. “But the way I see it, it’s my job to help potential LBSU students feel like they could be at home here, right? And people feel most at home when they’re around ‘their people.’ Who is going to represent the fabulous shoe-loving demographic if all of us in the Welcome Center wear ‘sensible shoes?’ I’m taking one for the team here.”

“You’re such a rebel.”

Summer’s smile was broad. “But I’m a rebel in stylish shoes.”

And she kept grinning as she walked the rest of the way to the student center. She was a rebel, and she was proud of it. Well, really, she just didn’t like people telling her what to do. And that was one reason why she loved working at Lake Baldwin State.

Four years ago, her dad told her that she had one year to finish her degree or he’d stop paying for it. And, okay, she’d been in school for five years at that point, but it wasn’t like she’d been wasting those years. There were just a lot of interesting majors.

She’d have finished school at the end of that sixth year even if he hadn’t brought it up. But it was the fact that he told her to be done with college that made her find the loophole and get a great job at the university. And now she got to enjoy being a rebel every day as she took this walk to the Student Center.

In fact, still working at the Welcome Center after three years was a rebellion in a way, too, since everyone expected her to quit and move on to something else challenging by now since that’s what she did. She mastered something and then moved on.

She stopped and took the perfect selfie—with her smiling face in the foreground and the six-foot-high metal letters spelling out Aquamoose in the background, complete with two students posing behind the letters with their faces in the double O’s, a friend taking a picture of them.

She captioned it with Living my best life, added a few fun embellishments, and posted it. Then she headed into the Student Center and walked down the hall to the Welcome Center, which just happened to be the best part of the entire university. It was where all the excitement was.

She was early, of course—she had to be to get in a morning meeting with the student ambassadors before prospective students started showing up—so there weren’t many people in the office yet. But it didn’t matter how early she got there, Brock always beat her there. She could see him through the glass wall of his office, already meeting with a student, even.

Coming in early because it was fun was one thing. Coming early because you were a workaholic was unfathomable. She was definitely all-in for the fun.

Although she was over fifty student ambassadors, only five worked at a time on most days. Technically, the six of them could all fit in her office for their morning meeting, but who wanted to be that squished? So she headed to the big meeting room—it was where they had all the students and their parents meet together before heading off on campus tours, so it was by far the room that was the most Ambassador Territory, anyway.

She should’ve guessed that Paige and Alejandro would already be there. They were the school versions of workaholics. Schoolaholics?

As she sat down on the table at the front of the room, chatting with the two of them, McKay strolled in, showing the tiniest little sliver of first-day jitters beneath his confident exterior. She heard Takeshi’s chortling laugh before she saw him walk in with Jessa, who seemed to always bring a gale force of excited air bursting into the room, swirling around her and trailing behind her, and a part of Summer kind of expected a flurry of fall leaves to swirl around in her wake.

Jessa brought that gust right up to where Summer was sitting and said, “Oh, wow, Summer. Those shoes are my new favorite thing ever.”

Summer smiled. See? They did help students connect to her.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Summer clapped her hands together. “Are you all ready? Everything you trained for during our retreat last week is starting!”

Yeah, they were excited. They were sitting forward in their seats, eager anticipation on their faces, feeling the bonding they had developed during the four days they all spent in a cabin at the edge of Lake Baldwin, learning leadership skills and everything they needed to know to be an ambassador for the coming year. That was why not only being an admissions recruiter but also being over the ambassadors was the best job ever.

“Okay, since it’s the beginning of the year, we’ve only got one tour that we’ll split into two groups. Jessa and Alejandro, you’ll each take one. Until they arrive, you two can head to the staging room and work on your plan together. Paige, Takeshi, and McKay, you’re at the desk in the Welcome Center lobby, greeting people and hand-writing this week’s happy birthday cards to prospective students. Whenever you’ve got a free minute, quiz each other on all things Lake Baldwin State University. Any questions? Wait… Paige, why do you look like you’re about to fall asleep?”

Paige tried to stifle a yawn, then said, “Remember back at that leadership event when we first applied to be ambassadors and you recommended that none of us register for a seven a.m. class?”

“Yes. It’s solid advice.” Summer gave it to every incoming freshman she could.

“Yeah, I didn’t listen.”

All four ambassadors shook their heads as if they understood well her folly, even though Jessa was the only one who wasn’t a freshman herself. McKay even reached over and patted Paige on the shoulder.

“What?” Paige said. “My high school started at seven-thirty. And I always went even earlier for band, so I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

It didn’t matter what Summer said, there were always kids who ignored the advice. For some, it was just fine. For most, it wasn’t. “You’ve just got to look at it this way—college is in a different time zone. Seven a.m. here isn’t the same as seven a.m. in high school.”

“I get it now. And I swear I’ll listen to every piece of advice you give from now on.”

Summer tried to hide her smile.

“No, really,” Paige said. “In fact, I’ll take any advice you’ve got right now. Lay it on me.”

Summer was full of advice. After all, she had spent six years going to school at LBSU herself. “Okay, schedule homework just like it’s a class, and schedule it during the day—not at night when there’s fun stuff going on all around you. Don’t overload your schedule with too many classes.” She heard Alejandro suck in a breath. Clearly, that advice was a little late for him.

“Oh, and Professor Burningham is oblivious to clocks in general and never ends on time, so don’t schedule a class on the other side of campus that starts ten minutes after his gets out.”

Takeshi slapped both hands down on his armrests. “Now you tell us that? I have him at one, and I’ve got to be all the way over in Carter Hall at two.”

All the others winced, but Summer chuckled. “Don’t worry, Takeshi. You’ve got this.”

She stayed and chatted with them, answering all their questions about their ambassador duties for the day, making sure they were all pumped up and feeling confident and ready to go. They were about to be the face of the university for high school kids who were still deciding which school to attend, so enthusiasm was key. At a quarter to nine, she had to end the meeting so they could all get to their places.

As they all left the big meeting room, Jessa hung back, her usual gale of excitement feeling more like a slight breeze.

“You okay?” This was Jessa’s third year as an ambassador, so Summer knew it wasn’t because of nerves about the job.

“Oh, yeah, totally.” Jessa was quiet for a moment as they walked toward the staging room. Then she said, “My roommate said something last night that I guess I’m still thinking about. Do you ever… I don’t know. Do you ever feel that it probably looks like you’ve got everything in your life together to other people, because you do on paper, but that there’s just something missing and you can’t quite figure out what it is?”

Summer let out a breath of a chuckle and nodded. “Yeah. All the time.” If she thought about it long enough, she could probably say what exactly that something missing was. The key, though, was to not think about it long enough.

“What do you do about it?”

But before Summer could answer, Alejandro came out of the staging room, looking panicked. “Jessa, I’m so glad I’m doing this with you because I’m kind of freaking out and I think I just forgot what every building on campus is named. I suddenly don’t even remember where my own classes are.”

Jessa turned and smiled at Summer. “Duty calls. We’ll talk later.”

Summer knew that Jessa was who Alejandro needed just then and that she needed to let her little birdies spread their wings without too much interference from her. So she headed to the lobby and down the other hallway that led to their offices and the other part of her job in the Welcome Center.

But as she walked, Jessa’s question hung around, like part of Jessa’s gust of wind was trailing Summer now, asking over and over if something was missing in her life and what she usually did about it.

Now that she thought about it, she knew exactly what she did about it. She surrounded herself with people so she didn’t have to think about it. Everything was better that way. She grabbed her water bottle from her office and headed to the common area—the space in the middle of their offices, where she could currently see nearly all her coworkers—and cupped her hand against the metal water bottle, hitting her rings against its surface three times.

It was the rallying cry for their team. Or at least the “Let’s all go to Aquamoose Crossing, the convenience store down the hall, to fill up our water bottles before the day starts” cry. Her rings hitting against the bottle made the most beautiful, musical sound. A sound that not only drown out any big, unanswerable life questions but brought everyone together and started the day off just right.