Love curses don’t exist. At least that’s what Jonas, master of the meaningless hookup, tells himself when a letter warns him he’s an Eros Guardian cursed to endure a test of true love or forever be alone. His levelheaded longtime friend Cora figures it’s a revenge prank by an ex. The way Jonas stamps each girlfriend with a weeklong use-by date, it serves him right.
But when an impulsive kiss between the two friends reveals potential for more, Cora becomes the target of the Groth Maar: demons sent to wipe out the Eros Guardian line. And suddenly the curse becomes dangerously real.
Breaking the curse means Jonas’s biggest challenge yet. Failure guarantees Cora’s death. But success may cost him his own life...and the loss of his carefully guarded heart to the one girl far too sensible to fall for him.
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Beth was already waiting beside the Beetle when I came out. One look at my uninspired Kung Fu Panda T-shirt and denim skirt, and she shook her head. "Nice to see you made an effort."
I shrugged. "I'm not out to impress." And tonight, next to her, I stood no chance. Her knee-length sundress floated about her slender frame while long blonde hair feathered bare shoulders. In the dimming evening light, she could have passed for one of those organic shampoo commercial girls, all lithe and ethereal. That was Beth; she could wear a garbage bag and still draw all eyes her way.
"How am I supposed to find you a boyfriend when you give me this to work with?" She waved her hand over me and screwed her face up in mock disgust.
"I didn't ask you to find me a boyfriend." I threw her the car keys over the hood of the Beetle. I could drive here on my New York license, but after a year of driving on the right, I didn't want the first time I tackled the left side of the road again to be in the dark. "And if I was looking for a boyfriend, tonight would be the last place I'd start."
I'd never been to one, but Jess Tanner's pool parties were known for two things. One: the Tanner's mammoth, oasis-like swimming pool, complete with a cascading three-meter-high waterfall courtesy of her landscape designer father. And two: an obscene number of alcohol-fueled, guaranteed-to-be-regretted hookups, courtesy of, I don't know, the Blue Lagoon-like atmosphere. Apparently that was all it took: a cup of lukewarm beer, some moonlight, a fake waterfall, and girls swapped common sense with marshmallows for brains. Ah ... no, thank you.
Beth grinned at me as she pulled out of the driveway. "Come on, you might meet some nice and respectable accounting student." She made "nice and respectable" sound like something you needed a course of anti-fungal cream for. But I had no problem with "nice and respectable." A guy like that might not start slow-burning bonfires in the pit of your stomach, but he was also less likely to run off to Manhattan to shack up with an old high school sweetheart.
I'll never forget the look on Dad's face when Mom finally confessed to the affair. Not shock. Not pain. Not even anger. Only a helpless, glassy-eyed resignation that their marriage had come to an end.
That look had killed me. It was then I decided if ever I got serious with a guy, it would be with someone least likely to put that look on my face. Someone steady, safe, and — unlike my mother — committed to sticking around.
Not that it mattered. I wasn't looking for a boyfriend.
"Beth, if I meet anyone remotely respectable tonight, like a guy who asks for nothing more than my phone number, I'll let you dress me for the first date."
Her smile was pure Cheshire cat. "I'll hold you to that."
"You do that." Because the Barrier Reef had more chance of repairing itself than me meeting a "nice" guy at this party.
When we arrived, a long string of cars already lined the road outside the Tanner house. The place pulsed with an R&B beat. Laughter, hoots, and bodies splashing about in water rounded off the soundtrack.
We weaved our way through the front room, and I smothered an oncoming eye roll when some halfway-to-hammered guy in designer board shorts shoved the requisite lukewarm cups of beer under our noses. I told board shorts guy no thanks and hurried Beth along into the hallway.
"Remind me again why we're here?" Especially when we could be at my place watching the latest Bond and working our way through the tub of hazelnut gelato waiting for us in my freezer. Beth took her time to answer, making me wonder if she herself was grasping at reasons as to why we were at this party.
"Have you seen the pool?" she said eventually.
"Have you seen the board-short-wearing piranhas?"
She huffed, or blew her bangs out of her eyes; I couldn't tell. "I was hoping you'd ditched Cautious Cora in Manhattan. Loosen up a little, will you? Take a dip in the pool. Go diving for nice and respectable." She winked at me. I gave her the eye roll I should have given board shorts guy.
"Oh, come on." She tugged at my arm. "If nothing else, we'll have a swim and watch Leo turn down a girl or two. That's always entertaining."
I couldn't help my growing grin.
That brought out Beth's frown. "What?"
"I'll tell you what's entertaining — your interest in Leo turning down a girl or two."
She huffed. "In his dreams."
As though conjured up by our talk of him, Leo, and Jonas, appeared the moment we stepped out into the oasis-like yard.
"Sweet, you made it." Leo saluted us with the can in his hand. "Who's up for a handstand comp? This freak here" — he nudged Jonas with his shoulder — "refuses to go in the water."
Jonas took a bored swig from the bottle he held. "I've spent half my life in the water. It's overrated."
So his mood hadn't improved since this morning's trip to Dumpsville, but at least he wasn't tugging at his hair around me anymore. I should thank Ashley for her timing.
If Jonas was Mr. Killjoy, Beth was Miss-Up-For-A-Good-Time. She slinked out of her sundress and threw it down, checkered-flag style, on a nearby pool lounger as she eyed Leo in challenge. "I'm in. Prepare to be whipped."
He narrowed his eyes. "Yeah?"
And they were off, Beth diving into the pool with the grace of a synchronized swimmer and Leo following her in with an uncoordinated, arm-flailing bomb.
Jonas shook his head. "I was hoping you'd talk her out of coming tonight."
I let out an exasperated sigh. "I tried," I said as I sent my bag and towel to join Beth's dress on the lounger. "Even dangled a night of Daniel Craig and copious gelato in front of her. No chance."
Jonas cracked a smile, possibly the first since this morning.
Despite the dim light, his eyes glinted, the blue in them intensified by his navy button-down. "I don't think Beth shares your Daniel Craig fascination."
I crossed my arms. "I don't have a Daniel Craig fascination." Jonas cocked a brow. Okay, so maybe I had a small Daniel Craig fascination, but I wasn't going to admit that to his face. "So I like a guy who can hold his own in a fight. Sue me."
"Is that right?" Another swig from his bottle, eyes never leaving mine, the corners of his mouth turned up and twitching. And just like that, I knew exactly what he was picturing: the last time we'd faced off in a dojang, just over a year ago; one of the rare times he'd managed to wipe the floor with me.
Ugh. I decided I liked him better surly.
"Jonas! You made it!"
We turned to find Jess Tanner rushing toward us, her minuscule bikini in danger of a serious wardrobe malfunction. She threw her arms around Jonas and pressed herself against him in a hug. She held on a fraction too long for it to be purely friendly.
"Thanks for the invite," Jonas said when she finally let go of him. I had to give him credit; he kept his eyes above her neck. Mostly.
"You know you're welcome anytime." Jess's smile rivalled the Mona Lisa's. Jonas's gaze dropped to her mouth, then slid lower. I couldn't blame him; if she arched her chest any farther those puppies would be barking up his nostrils. The whole exchange was giving me indigestion.
I cleared my throat. "Hi, remember me?"
Finally, she turned and acknowledged my presence. "Umm ... Clara, right?"
I forced my mouth into a smile. "Cora."
"Cora, yes." Jess nodded, but her vague expression made it obvious she didn't remember me. And didn't much care. "And you're here with ...?"
"Me," Jonas said.
"Beth," I said at the same time.
Jonas shot me a quick glance. "Both of us," he clarified.
Jess ramped up the volts in her Mona Lisa and inched closer to him. "Need some help getting wet?"
Give me strength.
"I'm good," Jonas said. "Staying dry tonight."
"How about we catch up a little later, then?"
Oh please! Can she be any more obvious? I was on the verge of barfing into her Blue Lagoon.
Jonas flashed her a noncommittal smile. "Find me later."
Jess countered with another Mona Lisa, this one on steroids, then she sauntered off toward the pool.
"So, you planning on going in?" Jonas pointed to the pool where Leo's legs stuck out of the water at an odd angle, toes almost but not quite saluting the stars.
"I'm here. Might as well."
He peered at me through his too-long hair. "Be careful, yeah?" The cocky smile was gone, telling me he wasn't talking about my ability to keep afloat. I couldn't decide if I was annoyed or touched by his show of worry.
"I can look after myself, Jonas."
"Just stick with Beth. Have each other's backs. That's all I'm asking." His expression mirrored the concern in his voice, and I found myself drifting toward touched rather than annoyed.
"Okay. If it'll help you sleep tonight." I reached for the button on my skirt; Beth was waving at me from the pool to hurry up. "You definitely not getting wet?"
"I'm good. Safer out here."
I didn't know about that, not with the way some of the girls were eyeing him. It irked me more than I liked to admit.
I tugged off my T-shirt. When I'd wrestled my head through the hole, I found Jonas staring.
"What?" I studied his expression but couldn't pin it down.
His gaze skimmed down the length of me, hung for the briefest of seconds on my exposed stomach, then it fled across the pool, zeroing in on a group of idiots preparing to dive-bomb from the top of the waterfall.
"What happened to your one-piece?" The question came out tight, almost as though he had to force it past his vocal chords.
"In a shipping container, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean." Along with all my other nonessential stuff. Yep, epic packing fail, but it'd been glove and beanie weather when I'd stuffed my suitcase, and swimwear hadn't seemed all that essential.
"Why? You got a problem with my swimmers?" I looked down at the two-piece Beth had lent me. Not what I usually wore since I was all for function over aesthetics, but I pulled it off darn well, if I did say so myself.
Eyes still glued to the diving action like it was Olympic quality, Jonas shook his head, the movement stiff. "Nope. Just ... not used to seeing you in a ..." He tore his gaze from the brouhaha across the yard to glance at me, but only briefly. "... Not in a one-piece."
I wasn't sure what to make of his words, but the raspy tone in which he said them sent a surge of warmth through my body. Time for a dip in cold water. I ran a hand through my hair, wishing I'd ignored Beth's nagging and pulled it back in a ponytail like I'd wanted to. "Last chance. You definitely staying dry?"
He took a gulp from his bottle and stared straight ahead. "With a capital D."
I shrugged. "Suit yourself." Then I made my way into the water.
Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty —
Someone shoved my legs. I overbalanced and tipped backward out of a perfect water handstand. Dammit, I would have cracked forty. Swiping wet hair out of my eyes, I looked around for the culprit.
"Total fluke!" Beth splashed water in my face, not a smidgeon of remorse for her sabotage anywhere on her face.
"Skill! Total skill." I got my own back with a well-aimed arm swipe. Then it was on: full out water fight, a multidirectional downpour. Handstand comp completely forgotten, I couldn't stop grinning.
Through the splashing I spied Leo's dark, wet mop next to Beth's fair one. Two on one ambush. Not fair! Where was Jonas when I needed him? Probably having his surly mood taken care of by a member of the lukewarm beer brigade. The thought washed the grin from my face in a way the pummeling water couldn't.
Annoyed with myself for even thinking about what Jonas was up to, I dove into the cool blueness, skimmed the pool floor, and swiped Leo's and Beth's feet out from under them. Then I tore out of there. I didn't surface until my fingers touched the smooth pebbles covering the steps on the far side of the pool. I'd be back at the lounge chair before they realized where I'd gone.
Halfway up the steps, someone grabbed my arm. I pulled away, partly because my training made it instinctive, but also because the guy had an uncomfortably cold grip.
"Easy. Just trying to help you out of the pool," he said.
He had the most incredible eyes I'd ever seen. Violet eyes. Arresting, but empty somehow, even if the rest of him was worth a second look.
I arched an unimpressed brow. "I don't need any help."
His grin was so slow it made me uneasy. "You sure about that?"
I opened my mouth to tell him what I thought of his patronizing tone, but he turned and dove into the water.
I was almost back at my lounge chair when I heard my name.
I spun around expecting the violet-eyed pool guy, but came face-to-face with a dripping wet body and a pair of eyes the color of late season eucalyptus. I didn't recognize the body, but the eyes seemed vaguely familiar.
"You're the last person I expected to see here," the guy said.
Despite the eyes, I couldn't place him. He didn't give off the same piranha vibe that designer-board-short guy had, so I risked a closer look: light brown hair, short on the sides but long enough to curl on top, angular features. And those eucalyptus eyes that now looked as though they should be framed by a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Again, something twigged in a corner of my memory.
It can't be.
"Markus?" This guy had too little hair and too much muscle to be Jess Tanner's geeky older brother. But he nodded.
I gaped. "No way! What happened to the long hair and baggy Monty Python T-shirts?"
Markus grabbed a towel from the grass and started drying off. "Donated both to science." And why not? Clearly, he had no more need for baggy T-shirts. Based on available evidence, the guy had spent significant time locked in the weights room of the local gym this past year. "I thought you were in the States?"
Wow. His transformation wasn't just physical; his gaze met mine with confidence, unlike the socially awkward boy who'd mumbled his way through Science Club each Tuesday afternoon in eleventh grade.
"Came back to study here." I started walking. Markus fell into step beside me.
"Most people would have stayed to study there."
"I'm not most people." I grabbed my towel off the lounger and cocooned myself in the terrycloth.
Markus sat down where the towel had been. "So what's your course?"
"Med science at Sydney."
"That's where I'm at. Just finished my first year. Economics major." He shifted on the lounger, making space for me.
I sat. "Why economics? I always thought you'd end up in a lab somewhere, leading the way in groundbreaking nuclear fission research?"
He nodded. "That was an option. But I was also good with numbers."
Shouting broke out at the top of the waterfall. We looked up. Two of the idiot jumpers were shoving at each other, attracting a crowd of onlookers.
Markus frowned. "Better go break that up. I promised Dad I'd do crowd control." He stood but hesitated, rubbing the short hair on the back of his head. "I'd like to catch up, hear all about Manhattan. Any chance I could have your number?" His voice suddenly lacked its previous confidence, and his smile teetered on the shy side, giving me a glimpse of the old Markus beneath the new and improved exterior. I smiled. It would be nice to catch up with an old friend. Once I gave him the desired digits, and he repeated them to make sure he had them right, he took off in the direction of the pool.
I scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Where had Beth and Leo got to? They should have figured out by now that I'd ditched them in the pool.
On the other side of the garden, a blond head snagged my attention. Jonas. And some girl playing with the collar of his button-down in a transparent attempt to get her hands on him.
He looked up and for a second our gazes locked. His brow furrowed, but I couldn't read the intent in his eyes across the distance. Then the girl he was with pulled his head down and —
My stomach clenched, but I couldn't look away. If I needed any more proof that Jonas was all wrong for me, this kiss was it. When it came to girls, Jonas Leander was all about a good time. The idea of something more, something lasting, something committed was as foreign to him as peanut butter and jelly on toast.
"Who's the guy with the tasty torso?"
Beth's voice snapped my gaze away from Jonas and his latest idea of a good time. Clearly she wasn't talking about her brother.
I looked up to the top of the waterfall where Markus was telling a bunch of younger guys off for being idiots. "Markus Tanner."
Beth's jaw lost muscle function, rendering her speechless. It took her a good few seconds to recover. "Skinny Markus? With the long hair?"
"That's the one."
She grabbed her towel and plonked herself down beside me. "You're shitting me."
Excerpted from "The Third Kiss"
Copyright © 2017 Katharina Colmer.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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