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If Casey Cartwright was sure of anything, it was that if she had to spend her last hours anywhere, the Zeta Beta Zeta house was not the worst place to do it. The sorority house with its dignified white colonial exterior had been her home for the best years of her life, and surely her sisters would give her a decent burial, despite the undignified nature of her final hours perched atop the center island of the house kitchen.
The second thing that she was sure of she decided to voice, if only to pass the time. "If this is how we go, at least we're doing it together."
"Speak for yourself," Ashleigh said, leaning over the edge with a ladle in hand. "I'm not starving to death when there are Cheeseritos five feet away." Unfortunately for Ashleigh Howard, ZBZ president and Casey's heroine, not even a positive attitude could make the ladle she was holding longer, and it dropped with a crash to the ground. "Crap!" A gap still stood between them and the cheesy nourishment on the far counter. "Fisher!"
Ashleigh's boyfriend, the ZBZ house hasher, stood in the doorway, motorcycle helmet under one arm. "Why are you squatting on the counter like stranded—"
The aforementioned menace made his latest squeak, darting in and out of view between the cabinets. At which point Fisher, their manly savior, dropped his helmet not in a desperate bid to rescue them from the invading rodent but to leap up—albeit in a manly way—onto the counter, landing between them.
They stared. He squirmed. "Sorry. My freshman dorm was infested. I still have nightmares."
Casey and Ashleigh sighed.
"Do you know how long we've been up here? I am this close to eating the box of salad croutons."
"And I am this close to sharing them," Casey said. "Rebecca, don't!"
Rebecca Logan was not easily startled, not even when she was in her pink pajamas and matching robe, giving a softer edge to her often-icy exterior. The daughter of former-Senator Logan—now divorced and beset by a scandal involving a prostitution ring—had been through a lot and was not easily perturbed. Not that she had been easily startled while her father was still a distinguished senator. She'd always had a politician's craftiness. Rebecca's often-nefarious expression, complemented by her brown eyes and dark hair, made her a frightening figure when she wanted to be. Fortunately, that was not all the time, and she was by no means dour. While her tone was always serious, she could and would make jokes—sometimes at other people's expense—and she got along with her sorority sisters…most of the time. "What?"
"Mouse!" they shouted, all three in unison.
Rebecca did not jump, or shriek, or have any other reaction comparable to theirs. She looked down at the floor, then at them, then moved past them all to the refrigerator in the back. "People keep them as pets. Once you've seen one fed to a boa constrictor, you've seen them all." She pulled down a plastic bowl from above the fridge and unceremoniously dropped it on the floor, trapping the intruder without so much as a blink. "To the victor goes the spoils." With that, she grabbed the entire bag of Cheeseritos and left.
"So—not our most glorious moment," Casey said as she slid off the counter, only to discover her feet had fallen asleep. "Ow." Casey took almost everything in stride—or at least appeared to, with her natural confidence and dignified presentation. Her long blond hair was—usually—perfectly settled on her shoulders, and her mischievous smile and blue eyes disarmed most ill-intentioned people—except for rival sorority sisters, who seemed to have some kind of immunity.
"Yeah, best we never speak of this again," Ashleigh said. Ashleigh was an ideal sorority sister in all the good ways—she was friendly, at times selfless, and eager to please while maintaining her self-respect. She was thin, her wild outfits complementing her mocha-colored skin and perfectly combed black hair. She was fashionable without being a diva, and graceful without being a ballet dancer. Ashleigh gave Fisher a kiss and her sweetest smile. "And, Fisher, can you empty that bowl?" She pointed to the captured mouse without looking directly at it. "You know, kitchen duties. Because it's in the kitchen." She offered no consolation at the sight of his horrified expression.
Casey decided it was best to leave presidential matters—such as designating duties within the house—to her president and friend. Casey's brief tenure as interim president had given her a new appreciation for the job. The previous year, a pledge named Jen K—admitted because she was a legacy—had written an exposé on Greek life, specifically within the sacred confines of the ZBZ house, which earned Jen her first Associated Press credit, and put ZBZ on probation by ZBZ Nationals. Frannie, the sitting president, had ordered the girls to lie to the National ZBZ officer who'd come to assess the situation, but Casey stood up for the truth—and herself—and was named president instead. When she'd finally run for the position officially, it was against Frannie, who had failed to graduate and was spending a fifth year at Cyprus-Rhodes. Because of their negative campaigns, they'd both lost to Ashleigh, who wasn't even running. The entire episode had given Casey a taste for politics but a sense of cynicism when it came to Greek life; only Ashleigh and her responsibility to her sisters had brought Casey back to the house for her senior year of college.
Putting those thoughts behind her, Casey would have finally returned to her and Ashleigh's room for the evening and recovered from her temporary captivity in the kitchen if not for the sudden appearance of her brother in the hallway. "Rusty! What are you doing here? You know boys aren't allowed in the bedrooms of the house, especially after hours. Do you know what time it is?"
"You sound like Mom."
It was accurate, but she wasn't obligated to acknowledge that. "What are you doing here?"
"I was here at a reasonable hour," Rusty insisted, "but they
said you'd be right out, like, two hours ago. And then one hour ago. And then—"
Rather than explain to him that she'd spent the past two hours huddling in fear after an ice-cream run went awry thanks to a mouse, she interrupted him. "What is it?"
Rusty took a deep breath, as he often did rather dramatically before releasing whatever had been bottled up in his thin, geeky frame for so long. Looking at Rusty, one would not assume he was the type to mix with fraternity guys. He was thin, almost bony, and his hair was brown—rust-colored, in fact, appropriate given his nickname. He spoke quickly, often nervously, as if knowing he would spit out something ridiculous before he even said anything, but he made up for it by being a wonderful hopeless romantic. "The honors engineering program is having an awards dinner on Friday, and I need a date."
With all the skill of a ZBZ big sister, Casey briefly thought through her interactions with Jordan, Rusty's girlfriend, since she had last seen her with Rusty. Jordan hadn't seemed in emotional turmoil from a breakup. "Jordan can't go?"
"It's not for me," Rusty said sheepishly. "Dale needs a date." Assigned as his freshman roommate, Dale Kettlewell had not seemed like a good prospect for lasting friendship for Rusty, as Dale was a Bible-Belt, Greek-hating, fundamentalist Baptist who constantly preached chastity and virtue. He even played in a band called Darwin Lied. Time, and Dale's nearly selfless commitment to friendship, had proved Casey's initial assumptions upon seeing Dale's Confederate flag hanging on the dorm wall wrong. For their sophomore year, Dale and Rusty were sharing an apartment off campus. "He's being honored for having a 4.0 grade point average, and he's self-conscious about it. And his purity pledge brothers aren't exactly helping him out. They're going to Fire Island that weekend, again".'
"I know, I looked it up on Google." Dale's ignorance on certain issues was not something Rusty always wanted to defeat. "Don't tell Dale. He'll either go on a holy crusade when they get back or into another depression of biblical proportions. His only other friend besides me is Calvin, and before you say it, he can't take Calvin."
"I wasn't going to say it." Casey imagined Calvin's reaction to being romantically linked with Dale. "Definitely not going to say it. So why are you asking me?"
"Because the ZBZ Sisterhood is comprised of the best and the brightest of our generation, pillars of both the female and larger community, venerable diamonds in the rough, who are meant to be a beacon of light, drawing all in and discriminating against no one. Even lonely sophomores with a 4.0 grade point average and a purity ring."
Casey studied him. "Have you been reading the ZBZ pledge manual?"
Rusty shrugged. "I had to do something for two hours. You shouldn't leave it around if you don't want people to read it. Please, you have to help Dale out. He's desperate."
"I thought he was dating your landlady."
"They broke up. Specifically, she dumped him. Normally I would be happy about that, but he's totally depressed. He's so desperate he doesn't even know how desperate he is," Rusty said. "She had this, like, cougar spell on him. He thought he was in love."
"And you want me to ask a ZBZ to go? Out of what, pity?"
"At this point, I don't care what it is." Rusty sighed. "Please. I need someone to be the Sister of Mercy, extolling the highest virtues of sisterhood and good nature toward her fellow man while shining a beacon of light into the darkness that is—"
Casey put up her hand. "Okay, you can stop quoting the handbook right now. Please. Just…what about Jordan?"
"Uh, she's going with me?"
"Right." She couldn't believe she hadn't thought of that, and chalked it up to rodent-related exhaustion. "Fine. I'll ask the sisters—but it's hands-off for the evening."
"It's Dale. Just feed whoever it is some lines about the importance of feminine virtue, and he'll leave enough room between them for a holy spirit to fit into. Actually, that's a good one. The holy spirit one. She should try that."
"Do Baptists believe in a holy spirit?"
"He tells me to flood my body with it."
"Okay, Rus. That's creepy."
"Yeah, but I definitely prefer it to walking in on a Dale and Sheila make-out session." He shuddered. "Thank you for this."
"I'm only asking them. I can't make them say yes."
"You're the ZBZ pledge educator. You can make pledges say yes."
"Not if I want them to stay pledges. Now go, before people start thinking ZBZ is a dating service." She pushed her brother out the door—never a hard thing to do, considering his size—and headed up for the night, ignoring one last manly yell from the kitchen.
"So? Did it work?"
Rusty was barely in the door and his girlfriend, Jordan, was on him—not literally, unfortunately, but with questions, shouted from the couch of his apartment.
One year ago, Rusty Cartwright would have been able to boast little to no persuasive powers over his sister. He'd entered Cyprus-Rhodes as an honors engineering student with hardly any social life and a big sister who had apparently informed no one that her little brother existed. They were classic opposites, socially until Rusty decided to pledge the notorious party-hard fraternity Kappa Tau Gamma. Being an honors engineering student and a fraternity pledge was sometimes difficult to balance, but it gave him a newfound willpower—and, it seemed, a backbone when it came to wooing women. Granted, that backbone was usually provided by some helpful words from his fraternity big brother and Kappa Tau president, Cappie, but it was there all the same, and had won him a girlfriend who also happened to be, conveniently, a ZBZ pledge.
"Thanks for the pledge book," he said, sitting down next to her. "That totally sealed the deal."
"So who's he going with?"
"I don't know yet. Casey said she would talk to the pledges." He added, "Not you, obviously, because you have a date."
"And a date to the All-Greek Formal."
"And a date to the All-Greek Formal," he repeated, trying not to sound too excited about it. All-Greek meant, of course, that all the formality should make it as uninteresting as possible, and as a Kappa Tau he would have no business going if he wasn't loyally dating a ZBZ. But Rusty, ever the romantic, truly couldn't wait to escort Jordan to the event. She was not his first girlfriend, but she was his best girlfriend, in his humble opinion. She was intelligent, she could be geeky and she loved him. It also helped that she was beautiful—long blond hair and a warm smile, and yet an offbeat tomboyish sense of style that went well with the Kappa Taus, even if it made her somewhat unusual at ZBZ. "I'll be there for emotional support. In a tux."
"Tuxes are sexy." Jordan kissed him. "They make everyone look like James Bond."
The silence that followed was not long-lasting, as Dale appeared in the doorway a wool robe over his clothing. "Hey. Make room for the holy spirit. At least on the knitting couch."
"Nailed it," Rusty whispered, and he and Jordan laughed together.
"Nikki. Tiffany. Christy. Why am I striking out?"
"Because people with I sounds at the end of their name are jinxed?" Ashleigh said from her end of their room, where she was sorting laundry. "Seriously, you have to let up. Remember what happened when you talked me into being Rusty's date to our formal last year?"
Casey grimaced. That had gotten a little awkward when Ash had wound up having a decent time only to have Rusty misunderstand and make a move on her. Luckily they'd straightened things out and ended that evening on a positive note.
She certainly wasn't getting anywhere now by going full steam ahead. Even though the All-Greek Formal wasn't until the night after the honors engineering awards, the pledges all seemed to have dates—or other suitable excuses—for not being available for a pity escort, and they were ready to offer them up before she even said what the date was or whom they would be going with. "You know one pledge even used the hair-washing excuse? As if that works on other girls."
"You can't order anyone on a date."
"It would be in the spirit of sisterhood."
"Face it, Casey—if escorting engineering students without social lives was a pledge tradition, this house would be deader than IKI during a fat-camp excursion week," Ashleigh said, making Casey smile, at least at the mention of the now-former sorority Iota Kappa Iota. "If honors engineers wanted to date sorority girls, they would join fraternities, like normal guys. Isn't that what Psi Phi Pi is for? The Revenge of the Nerds fraternity?"
"Not all guys are meant to be fraternity guys." She paused. "Max wasn't."
Ashleigh sighed. "I wasn't going to say his name, but now that you brought it up, yeah. And didn't he totally have trouble asking you out? Didn't you practically have to ask him out after using your brother as an undercover agent to find out if he liked you?"