Monstrous. That was the only word for it. Deep reds and yellows flashed at me, hurting my eyes. The sparkles were almost enough to put me right over the edge. What the heck were those things?

Rhinestones? Who wore rhinestones anymore?

Only Miriam.

“What do you think, Ava?” Miriam asked.

I bit my lip, searching my mind for a way to tell her that it was the fugliest thing I’d ever seen without off ending her. I cast a quick glance about us. Thanks to the after-dinner hour, the hospital cafeteria where we sat at a chipped Formica-topped table was almost empty. No one else seemed to notice us, or the horrible dress that my best friend was waving around. But combined with the smell of disinfectant that clung to the stark white walls and pastel plastic furniture, the dress was enough to make me dizzy.

Nope. There was no way to be polite.

“I think it’s horrible,” I admitted. Miriam’s fashion sense tended toward the wild side, but that dress crossed a line. Besides the garish sequins, the neckline looked like it would hit her navel.

“Really?” Miriam held the dress at arm’s length and studied it with a critical eye. “I thought it might be nice for the graduation party. I don’t graduate from medical school every day. Might be a good chance to wear something saucy.”

I suppressed a shudder at the idea of wearing something so flashy in public. But that was Miriam. Brave and fun and willing to journey into the scariest places fashion offered. Despite our differences, we’d been best friends ever since the day in middle school when Miriam decided we would be.

Miriam got what Miriam wanted.

She was also my favorite person in the world. So it worked out pretty darn well for me.

“Besides, once I start my residency, I won’t be out of scrubs for years,” she said. “There’s only so much you can do to make scrubs look good.”

The ache that had settled into my chest ever since the reality of Miriam leaving had hit me flared into pain. I was twenty-five for crying out loud, far too old to be using my best friend as a security blanket, even if she was leaving me alone in Chicago to pursue her dream of being a medical doctor in New York City. Mentally quashing the loneliness, I forced a grin.

My grin didn’t fool her and she frowned at me, then shoved the dress back into a Nordstrom bag. “You’re tougher than you think.”

“I know,” I said automatically. My fear of getting physically near people—heck, even being in the same room as large groups—was the source of many, many, many of our arguments.

Especially lately. The last thing I wanted was to get into it again. Miriam was a gem, but she spent way too much time worrying about me.

Some things weren’t fixable.

I pushed down the self-pity the thought caused. The emotion was silly, self-indulgent, and unfounded. Sure, I wasn’t exactly sociable because of the constraints placed on me by my curse, but I still had a decent life. One that was a heck of a lot better than most people’s.

As long as I was careful not to touch anyone.

“So, I need to get as much Ava-time in as I can before I go. What are you doing tonight? You should come with me to find something to wear to the party, since you have to compete against this amazing dress.”

Compete against that? So not my style. The dress was a walking banner proclaiming Miriam to be vivacious and outgoing.

And more than a bit of a daredevil. If my clothes had a sign attached, it would identify me as “cautious,” or just scream “don’t touch.” There was no competition. And shopping? A sudden need to be out of this place, alone and in my own space, hit, and I tugged on my sleeves.

Miriam’s gaze shifted, just enough that I could tell she noticed. Awesome friend that she was, she pretended she hadn’t. “Actually, I’m a little beat,” she said. “Maybe I could bring a movie over? Something filled with angst and love and Colin Firth.”

“Are you ever getting out of the Colin Firth phase?”

She pushed up from the table, face serious. “Colin Firth isn’t a phase, Ava. He’s a way of life.”

“He’s a tad refined for my taste, but”— I stood and pushed my chair in—“I wouldn’t want to deprive you of something so important.”

Miriam turned to walk out of the cafeteria when she suddenly froze, her eyes widened, and her gaze locked on something over my shoulder. She let out a quiet whistle. “Wow, cute. Forget Colin Firth.”

As casually as I could, I snuck a glance behind me.

The man was anything but cute.

He could have been anywhere from his late twenties to midthirties. His good looks weren’t marred by the thick and ropey scar that ran down the side of his face and neck. I could see him playing Double Oh Seven, not Darcy. But the way he carried himself—arrogant but guarded—seemed out of place in the quiet hospital. His gaze weighed and categorized everything it took in and made my stomach clench and my heart speed up.

Fight or flight?

I looked at Miriam. “Quit grinning at him,” I whispered. “He looks like a thug.”