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"Dude. How about that one?" My best friend, Kat Parker, pointed toward the far corner, to a table occupied by three boys about our age.
One guy was hot enough to melt a polar vortex. One wasn't handsome in the traditional sense, but with his unusual chartreuse eyes, it hardly mattered. The third was amazingly rugged, with a fresh scrape on his cheek and scars on his knuckles.
Well, well. We had finally found a smorgasbord of different flavored man-meat.
"Perfect," I said with a nod.
"I don't know." Reeve Ankh, my other friend, surveyed the boys and chewed on her bottom lip. "I'm getting danger vibes from the one on the right."
The one on the rightKnuckle Scars. Excellent. Her dan-dardanger radarwas working at optimal levels.
In our little trio, she'd always been the voice of reason. Or, as Kat would say, "the voice of shut up and live a little."
My darling Kat meant it in the nicest way possible, of course. She simply had no filter. She always spoke her mind, always stood up for what she believedthat her way was the best wayand lived by the motto I'm On Board the Awesome Train and You Can Hop On or Get Run Over.
Was it any wonder I loved her so much?
"This is stupid, you guys."
The grumble came from Mackenzie Love. Once my archenemy, now one of my favorite pet projects.
Most people were surprised by our sudden friendship, but I'd learned life could change in the blink of an eye.
Everything could change in the blink of an eye.
I accepted, and I rolled.
"Suck it up." Trina Brighton, the last member of our group, kicked Mackenzie under the table. "This was your idea."
"That's right. You asked for our help, and we agreed to give it to you on one condition. That you do what we say, when we say." Grinning her happy-kitten grin, Kat rubbed her hands together. While I had grown to like Mackenzie, she hadn't. But she had softened
ish. "This is gonna be fun. For me!"
Hated to admit it, but
yeah, it was gonna be fun for me, too.
We were at Choco Loco, a chocolate bar where girls picked up treats and boys picked up girls. Not that I wanted to be picked up.
I'd been going out with the drool-worthy Cole Hollandofficially
againfor a little over a month. And, okay, yeah, there was a slight problem with our relationship. In the course of that month, we'd been on
give me a second to count themzero dates. We'd had a total of
let's see, let's seezero minutes alone. And we'd kissed
oh, I don't knowzero times.
Here are things that suck worse:_.
Okay, fine. There are a few things that suck worse. Like the time I was an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for zombies. The time I battled the worst Z-poisoning in the history of ever. And my personal favorite, the time Anima Industries locked me away, electrocuted me, starved me and studied me like a freaking zoo animal.
Considering all I'd been through, my love life should have been a sparkling diamond in a sea of coal. Or a sea of "Cole." Har har. We had tried to get together, like, plan-everything-down-to-the-last-second tried, but each of our sneak-overs had encountered one teensy-weensy problem.
Her name: Nana.
Seriously, my grandmother had morphed into the Make-Out Police, and okay, okay, I didn't really have to rack my brain to figure out why. One night Cole had saved me from a very painful death, and we'd decided to celebrate. Alone. He'd stolen into my bedroom, and we'd done what we always did. (I refuse to provide the down-and-dirty deets. But it was. Down and dirty. Anyway) She'd heard usthe horror!and had busted in.
We'd still had (most of) our clothes on, but yowza, the position she'd caught us in
Ever since, Nana has been attached to my side. In fact, the only time she detaches is when I'm hanging with my girls, or when I'm prowling the streets, hunting zombies.
Don't get me wrong. I love Nana to pieces. And so does Cole. When the three of us get together, we actually have fun. But I want more. I need more. I'm addicted to Cole's hands
and his mouth
and oh, Ali-want, his nipple ring. Withdrawals stink!
"What are you waiting for, love buns?" Kat banged her hand on the table. "Did I not make it clear that you don't get a vote in this? That the tribe has spoken? You know what you gotta do, so, do it."
A waiter stepped up to our table before Mackenzie could respond. He set a mousse shooter in front of each of us.
"Um." Reeve frowned. "We didn't order these."
"Compliments of the hounds in the corner." A wink, and the waiter was off.
In unison, my friends and I gazed at our chocolate-addiction enablers. Hot and Chartreuse lifted their own mousse shooters in a toast. Knuckle Scars just stared.
Reminded me of Cole.
Kat stood and called, "My friend MacLovin' will come over and thank you in person just as soon as her heartbeat settles. You totally rocked her"
Mackenzie tugged on her arm, both returning her to her seat and silencing her. "Do you have to be so humiliating?"
As the toasters high-fived, Kat slapped Mackenzie on the shoulder. "What are you complaining about? We came here to find you a date, and now, thanks to me, it's practically mission accomplished. I've set the stage, so all you have to do is walk over there and pick your favorite boy toy. You're welcome."
Mackenzie leaned over and bashed her forehead against the table.
"Why are you acting like such a baby?" Kat gave her another slap. "You're, like, some kind of super ninja warrior who spends her nights catching butterflies and"
"Good glory," I said. "Stop calling it that."
"Seriously." Mackenzie stopped bashing and looked up. "You make us sound like" she shuddered "girls."
Though Kat and Reeve were civilians, not slayers, they knew about the dark, secret world in operation around them. And Kat, well, she now liked to refer to slaying zombies as catching butterflies. She was sweet like that.
"I'm fine with calling it catching butterflies," Trina said.
Mackenzie gaped at Trina.
"What?" Trina shrugged. "I'm confident in my masculinity."
I snorted. Trina might look like she could lift a bus, but her heart was as soft as marshmallows.
"You should talk to the boys and get it over with, Mac." Reeve ran her finger over the rim of her shooter and licked away the chocolate. "Kat looks ready to drag you over there."
"True story," Kat said with a nod. "Just seconds away."
"If she does," Reeve continued, "the last five minutes will become your happy place."
"Fine." A scowling Mackenzie pushed to her feet. "But I'm not going to try to charm them."
"As if you could," Kat said, and Mackenzie's scowl darkened.
"You've got this in the bag." I truly believed that. Mac wouldn't have to use charm. Not with a face like hers.
All of my friends had model-perfect faces. And yet, each was so different.
Kat, with her straight dark hair and hazel eyes, was girl-next-door lovely. Reeve, with her brown waves and doe eyes, was traffic-stopping stunning. Mackenzie, with her black curls and emerald eyes, was child-of-an-angel exquisite. And Trina, with her short spikes and black-rimmed eyes, was punk-rocker cool. I was the oddball, with pale hair and eyes so blue they were freaky.
As Mackenzie trudged closer to the boys, a shadow fell over our table.
Kat squealed with delight and threw herself into the arms of the culprit.
No need to glance over to figure out who had just arrived. Frosty, her on-again, off-again boyfriend.
They had a weird relationship, because even when they were off, they were on. Like, all-over-each-other on. I'd never seen two people more bat-crap crazy for each other.
She peppered his face with kisses. "You came!"
"And you look amazing."
Ha! Such a perfect, confident response. Such a Kat response. I'd have to remember it the next time Cole complimented me.
"I couldn't stay away." Frosty combed his fingers through Kat's hair. "I believe your last text said, and I quote, 'If you aren't here within the next ten minutes, I will probably forget all about you and fall in love with someone else.'"
My girl had such a poetic way with words.
Lucas, as attractive as ever in a polo with the sleeves rolled up to display his dark arms to perfection, stepped out from behind Frosty. He nodded at Trina, peering at her for several seconds beyond polite. A lance of awareness arced between them. Well, well. I'd suspected they were secretly seeing each other, and this just cinched it. Good. They deserved a steamy dose of happiness.
Kat wrapped her fingers around Frosty's wrist and pulled him closer. "I've always believed open lines of communication are the key to making any relationship work. That, and presents. Do you have one for me?"
"Me, too!" Reeve waved her hands expectantly. "Gimme."
Frosty ignored her. As usual, he cared only about his girl. "Shouldn't my exalted presence be present enough? I ditched Cole and Bronx and broke speed records to come snap the spine of anyone who's made a play for you. And since that's surely everyone breathing, I just need you to tell me where you'd like me to start."
My ears perked at the mention of Cole. "Where'd you leave him?"
Of course, Frosty ignored me, too.
"Tatty's Ink," Lucas said. "Bronx is getting Reeve's name inked into his arm. Which, I just remembered, is supposed to be a surprise."
Reeve cooed happily, thrilled with her boyfriend's unexpected gift.
I'd decided to get two new tattoos myself, so
why not drive over there now? Cole could hold my hand through the process, and afterward, he'd realize there had never been a more perfect chance for Nana-free time. Two birds, one delectable stone. Afterward, we could
do things. I shivered with anticipation.
Knowing it would have been criminal to leave a single drop of my mousse shooter behind, I downed it and licked the rim, then licked again just to be safe. I knew I wasn't over-hyping the dessert when I muttered, "This is the best thing in the entire world."
"Agreed," Reeve said.
Finally, I made the brave decision to step between Frosty and Kat.
Yes, other people had been donkey-punched in the throat for doing such a thing, but I was willing to risk it. I needed my best friend's full attention.
"I'm leaving, and I'm taking Mackenzie with me." Love bug was my ride. "You're not going to have as much fun without me, but I hope you're willing to make the sacrifice."
Kat pursed her lips. "What about this most special of occasions? Girls' day out."
Honestly? "It crashed and burned the second Frosty and Lucas showed up."
"Hey," Frosty said behind me. "I only crash and burn the people who say I crash and burn things."
"True story." Kat blinked up at me. "But that aside, let's cut through the crap and focus on what you're really saying. I have to choose between him and you."
If it would save me from having to argue about leaving?
"Oh. Well, then. I choose you," she said with a sunny smile. "Of course."
Should have seen that coming. As much as she loved Frosty, she loved me. Maybe more. We were sisters of the heart rather than blood, and (almost) always put each other's needs above everyone else's.
"Get lost, Frosty." She made shooing motions over my shoulder. "You can remind me of my affection for you later."
"But, kitten," he said, his tone beseeching. And it was funny, hearing one of the biggest, baddest Z-killers in Birmingham, Alabama, reduced to begging, all because a tiny fluff of nothing had decided not to play with him. "I have a fever, and the only prescription
is more cow-kat."
Kat narrowed her eyes at him. "Cow-kat?"
"Dude," Lucas muttered. "Do you want to lose a testicle?"
"Okay," Frosty said, "I'm man enough to admit that might have come out wrong."
I gripped Kat by the shoulders. "You don't have to worry about hurting my feelings. I'm foaming-at-the-mouth eager to see Cole."
"You planning to make out with him?"
"Yes," I admitted, even as my cheeks heated.
"That's so cake. And you'll give me every detail?"
"My new favorite word, meaning so totally beyond amazeballs."
Well, okay, then. Soon, it would be the world's favorite. "If you insist, I'll give you a play-by-play." I knew she would.
She thought for a moment, sighed. "Fine. Go. We'll reschedule."
"What can I say? I'm a giver."
"Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you." I kissed her cheek and raced to Mackenzie's side.
"must be a light switch, because every time I look at you, I'm turned on," Chartreuse was saying.
No. Just no. Pickup lines were never okay. "We've gotta go," I told her.
Chartreuse frowned. "But she just got here."
Relief radiated from Mackenzie. "Sorry, boys. It's been. Yeah." She said no more as she tugged me toward the door.
"Hey!" Reeve called. "No one said 'bye to me."
I waved, saying, "'Bye. We love you!" over my shoulder.
She blew me a kiss.
Trina laughed at something Lucas said, unconcerned by our departure.
Mackenzie and I stepped into the wintry afternoon. The sun was shining but the air was chilled. Shoppers wove in and out of nearby boutiques, each lost in their own little worlds.
"Thank you," Mackenzie said with a shudder. "The only guy I had any interest in never spoke a word to me."
"Let me guess. Mr. Knuckle Scars."
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
"We have similar taste." Proof: we'd both dated Cole. "He would have been my choice, too." And not just for his rugged appeal.
Every slayer in the war against Z's had lost loved ones to bites and battle wounds, and the sorrow and grief tended to build barriers around our hearts. More and more, it became clear that the strong had a better chance of survival; Knuckle Scars had definitely been the strongest of the bunch.
Shockingly enough, Frostywho had lost more than mostwas the exception to my theory. He'd fallen for Kat despite her kidney disease. But I wasn't going to think about her illness and the pain she wasand would beforced to endure. I'd break down and be forced to compartmentalize, shoving the heartbreak into a deep, dark corner of my mind, to be dealt with later.
My compartments were almost full.
I'd told myself I'd stop doing it, stop locking away the hard emotional crap and finally deal with my feelings, but I'd fallen back into the habit
and honestly, I wasn't in any hurry to change.
"Where are we going?" Mackenzie settled behind the wheel of her truck. "It's too early for patrol."
Oh, yeah. We had to patrol for zombies this evening. We'd be with Gavin the man-whoreanother one of my pet projects, despite his warped sense of humorand the mostly silent Bronx. Time was limited.
"We're going to Tatty's," I said and explained why.
"I'd advise you to play a little hard to get, but I swear, it doesn't matter what you do. Cole thinks it's the most adorable thing ever. It makes me want to stab you both in the eye."
A few weeks ago, she would have spat those words at me like weapons. Because the moment Cole had displayed an interest in mewhich had been at moment one, thank you very muchshe'd hated me.
My sparkling personality had eventually won her over.