Where should I begin? With travesty? Heartache?No. I don’t want to begin with where I am now.I don’t want to end that way, either.We’ll start with this. A truth. Everything around us is subjectto change. Today is cold. Tomorrow, heat will come. Flowersbloom, then wither. Those we love, we can grow to hate. Andlife…life can be perfect one minute and in shambles the next.I learned that lesson the hard way when my parents and be-loved little sister died in a car crash, shattering every corridorof my heart.I’ve done my best to weld the pieces back together, but—tick,tock.Another change.A change that cost me everything.The respect of my friends. My new home. My purpose. My pride.
My boyfriend.And it’s my fault. I can blame no one else.One mistake gave birth to a thousand others.I knew there were monsters out there. Zombies. I knew theyweren’t the mindless beings movies and books portrayed themto be. They exist in spirit form, unseen to the ungifted eye.They’re fast, determined and, at times, smart. They hunger forthe source of life.Our spirits.I know, I know. That’s laughable, right? Invisible creatures de-termined to feast on humans from the inside out? Please. Butit’s true. I know, because I became an all-you-can-eat buffet—and offered my friends as dessert.Now I’m not just fighting the zombies. I’m fighting to savethe life I love.I will succeed.Tick, tock.It’s time.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINING
few months earlier More and more I’d been dreaming about the crash thatkilled my parents and younger sister. I relived themoments as our car flipped end over end. The sounds ometal crunching into pavement. The stillness wheeverything was over, and I was the only oneawake...maybe the only one alive.I’d struggled to free myself from the seat belt, desperateto help little Emma. Her head had been twisted at such aodd angle. My mother’s cheek had been slashed open likea Christmas ham, and my father’s body had been throwout of the car. Panic had made me stupid, and I’d hit myhead on a sharp piece of metal. Darkness had swallowedme whole.But in my dreams, I watched my mother blink open her eyes. She was disoriented at first, moaning in pain andtrying to make sense of the chaos around her.Unlike me, she had no problem with her seat belt,freeing herself and turning, her gaze landing on Emma.Tears began to rain down her cheeks.She looked at me and gasped, reaching out to place atrembling hand on my leg. A river of warmth seemed to rush through me, strengthening me.“Alice,” she shouted, shaking me. “Wake up—”I jolted upright.Panting, my body dotted with perspiration, I scanned mysurroundings. I saw walls of ivory and gold, painted iswirling patterns. An antique dresser. A furry white rug onthe floor. A mahogany nightstand, with a Tiffany lamp perched next to a photo of my boyfriend, Cole.I was in my new bedroom, safe.Alone.My heart slammed against my ribs as though trying to burst free. I forced the dream to the back of my mind andmoved to the edge of the bed to peer out the large baywindow and find a sense of calm. Despite thegorgeousness of the view—a garden teeming with bright,lush flowers that somehow thrived in the cool October weather—my stomach twisted. Night was in full bloom,and so were the creepies.Fog that had brewed on the horizon for hours had finallyspilled over, gliding closer and closer to my window. Themoon was round and full, set ablaze with orange and red,as if the surface had been wounded and was bleeding.Anything was possible.Zombies were out tonight.My friends were out there, too, fighting the creatureswithout me. I hated myself for falling asleep at such acritical time. What if a slayer needed my help? Called me? Who was I kidding? No one would call, no matter how badly I was needed.I stood and paced the room, cursing the injuries thatkept me tucked inside. So I’d been sliced from hip to hip afew weeks ago. So what? My stitches had been removedand the flesh was already scarring.Maybe I should just arm up and head out. I’d rather savesomeone I love and risk another life-threatening injurythan do nothing and stay out of harm’s way. But...I didn’tknow where the group had gone, and more than that, if Idid manage to track them down, Cole would freak. Hewould be distracted.Distraction killed.Dang it. I would do as I’d been told and wait.Minutes stretched into hours as I continued to pace, asense of unease growing sharper with every second that passed. Would everyone come back alive? We’d lost twoslayers in the past month alone. None of us were preparedto lose another.The hinges on my door squeaked.Cole slipped inside the room and threw the lock,ensuring that no one would bust in on us. Relief pluckedthe claws right out of the unease, and I thrilled.He was here. He was okay.He was mine.His gaze landed on me, and I shivered, waiting for avision...hoping for one. Since the day we’d met, we’d experienced a smallglimpse of the future the first time our eyes locked on anygiven day. We’d seen ourselves making out, fightingzombies and even relaxing in a swing. Today, like almostevery day since my stabbing, I experienced nothing butcrushing disappointment.Why had the visions stopped?Deep down, I suspected one of us had built up somesort of emotional wall—and I knew it hadn’t been me.I was too entranced by him.Always he threw off enough testosterone to draw thenotice of every girl within a ten-mile radius. Though hewas only seventeen years old, he seemed far older. He hadmajor experience on the battlefield, had fought in thehuman/zombie war since he could walk. He hadexperience with girls, too. Maybetoomuch experience.He knew just what to say...how to touch...and we melted.I’d never met anyone like him. I doubted I ever wouldagain.He wore all black, like a phantom of the night. Inky hair stuck out in spikes, with leaves and twigs intertwined ithe strands. He hadn’t bothered to clean his face, so hischeeks were streaked with black paint, dirt and blood.So. Danged. Hot.Violet eyes almost otherworldly in their purityshuttered, becoming unreadable, even as his lipscompressed into a hard, anguished line. I knew him, and knew this was his let’s-just-burn-the-world-to-the-ground-and-call-it-good face.“What are you doing out of bed, Ali?”I ignored the question as well as the harshness of histone, understanding that both sprang from a place of deepconcern for me. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Whathappened out there?”Silent, he disarmed, dropping daggers, guns, magazinesof ammo and his personal favorite, a crossbow. He’dcome to me first, I realized, not even bothering to stop athis house.“Were you bitten?” I asked. Suffering? Zombie bites lefta burning toxin behind. Yes, we had an antidote, but thehuman body could take only so much before it brokedown.“I saw Haun,” he finally responded.Oh, no.“Cole, I’m so sorry.” A while back, Haun had been killed by zombies. The fact that Cole had seen hiagain meant only one thing. Haun had risen from his graveas the enemy.“I suspected it would happen, but I wasn’t ready for thereality of it.” Cole’s shirt was the next to go.The blade-sharp cut of his body always stole my breath,and now was no exception, regardless of the horror of our conversation. I drank him in—the delightfully wickednipple ring, the sinewy chest and washboard abs coveredwith a plethora of tattoos. Every design, every word, meant something to him, from the names of the friends he’dlost in the war to the depiction of the grim reaper’s scythe.Because that was what he was. A zombie killer.He was total bad boy—the dangerous guy monstersfeared finding intheir closets.And he was closing the distance between us. I buzzedwith anticipation, expecting him to draw me into his arms.Instead, he bypassed me to fall onto the bed and cover hisface with scabbed hands.“I ashed him tonight. Ended him forever.”“I’m so sorry.” I eased beside him and brushed myfingers over his thigh, offering what comfort I could. Iknew he understood that he hadn’t actually ashed Haun, or even the ghost of Haun. The creature he’d fought hadn’thad Haun’s memories or his personality. It had had hisface and nothing more. His body had simply been a shellfor unending hunger and malevolence.“You had to do it,” I added. “If you’d let him go, hewould have come back for you and our friends, and hewould have done his best to destroy us.”“I know, but that doesn’t make it any easier.” Hereleased a shuddering sigh.I looked him over more intently. He had angry cuts onhis arms, chest and stomach. Zombies were spirits, thesource of life—or afterlife in their case—and had to befought by other spirits. That was why, to engage, we had toforce ours out of our bodies, like a hand being pulled out of glove. And yet, even though we left our bodies behind,frozen in place, the two were still connected. Whatever injury one received, the other received, as well.I padded to the bathroom, wet several washrags andgrabbed a tube of antibiotic cream.“Tomorrow I start training again,” I said as I tendedhim, distracting us both.He glared up at me through lashes so thick and black helooked as if he wore eyeliner. “Tomorrow’s Halloween.ll of us have the day and night off. And by the way, I’mtaking you to a costume party at the club. I’m thinkingwe’ll stick with the whole battered and bruised theme andgo as a naughty nurse and even naughtier patient.”My first outing in weeks would be a date with Cole.Yes, please.“I think you’ll make a very sexy naughtynurse.”“I know,” he said without missing a beat. “Just wait tillyou see my dress. Slutty doesn’t even begin to describe.nd you will, of course, require a sponge bath.” Don’t laugh.“Promises, promises.” I tsked, then triedto continue more seriously. “But I never mentionedhunting.” Too many people would be out, and some would be dressed as zombies. At first glance, we might not beable to tell the real deal from the fake. “I only mentionedtraining. Youareworking out tomorrow morning, aren’tyou?” He always did.He ignored my question, saying, “You’re not ready.” “No, you’renot ready for me to be ready, but it’shappening whether you like it or not.”He scowled at me, dark and dangerous. “Is that so?”“Yes.” Not many people stood up to Cole Holland.Everyone at our school considered him a full-blow predator, more animal than human. Feral. Dangerous.They weren’t wrong.Cole wouldn’t hesitate to tear into someone—anyone— for the slightest offense. Except me. I could do what Iwanted, say what I wanted, and he was charmed. Evewhen he was scowling. And it was strange, definitelysomething I wasn’t used to—having power over someoneelse—but I’d be lying if I claimed not to like it.“Two problems with your plan,” he said. “One, youdon’t have a key to the gym. And two, there’s a goodchance your instructor will suddenly becomeunreachable.”Sincehewas my instructor, I took his words as thegentle threat they were and sighed.When I’d first joined his group, he’d thrown me into thethick of battle without hesitation. I think he’d trusted hisability to protect me from any kind of threat more thahe’d trusted my skills.Then I’d proved myself and he’d backed off.Thenhe’d accidentally stabbed me.Yep. Him. He’d aimed for the zombie snarling and biting at him; I’d stepped in to help, and, with a single touch, ashed the only thing shielding my body from hisstrike. Cole had yet to forgive himself.Maybe that was why he’d built a wall.Maybe he needed a reminder of just how wily I could be.“Cole,” I said huskily, and his eyelids lowered to half-mast.“Yes, Ali.”“This.” A slow smile spread as I circled my handsaround his ankles—and jerked. He slid off the bed andthumped to the floor.“What the hell?”I leaped on top of him, pinning his shoulders with myknees. The action caused the scar on my stomach to throb, but I masked my wince with another smile. “What are yogoing to do now, Mr. Holland?”He watched me intently, amusement darkening hisirises. “I think I’ll just enjoy the view.” He gripped me bythe waist, squeezed just enough to make sure he had myfull attention. “From this angle, I can see your—”Choking back a laugh, I took a swing at him.“Shorts,” he finished, catching my hand just beforeimpact. I wasn’t given the chance to tug free. He rolled meover, stretched my arms over my head and held me down.Tricky slayer.“What are you going to do now, Miss Bell?”Stay just like this and enjoy?I could smell the pine and soap of his scent. Could hear the rasp of our breatintermingling. Could feel the heat and hardness of his body pressing against me.“What would you like me to do?” I met his gaze, and theair around us thickened, charged with electricity.Would he touch me?I wanted him to touch me.“You’re not ready for what I’d like you to do.” Hesearched my face as he reached between us, his actions belying his words... please, please...until he slowly pushedthe hem of my tee over my navel, revealing every inch odamaged flesh.He looked me over, and my stomach quivered. Heck, allof me quivered. He crawled down, down, and kissed oneedge of the wound, then the other, and a moan left me. Please. More.But a moment passed, then another, and he merelyreturned to his former position, driving me crazy with hisnearness but never doing anything to relieve the tensiospiraling inside me.“One more week of rest,” he said, his jaw clenched asif he’d had to force the words to leave his mouth.“Doctor’s orders.”I shook my head. “I’ll ask Bronx and Frosty to traime.”His eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “They’ll say no. I’llmake sure of it.” “At first, maybe.” Definitely. Everyone alwaysfollowed Cole’s rules. Even other alpha males recognizeda bigger, badder predator. “However, I have a secretweapon.”He arched a brow. “And what’s that?”“Sure you want to know?” I asked, rubbing my kneesalong his hips.“Yes. Tell me.” His tone had gone low, gruff.My knees slid higher, higher still, and he went utterlymotionless, waiting to see what I would do next. I had twooptions. Try to seduce him into making out with me— theway he’s looking at me...I might actually succeed thistime— or prove I wasn’t out for the count.Sometimes I hated my priorities.I planted my feet against his shoulders and pushed witall my might. He propelled backward, catching himself ohis knees.“With you? Distraction,” I purred.Laughing, he stayed where he was and lifted my leg to place a soft kiss on my ankle. “I must be seriouslydisturbed, because I like when you rough me up.”Heat spilled into my cheeks. “You make me sound likesome kind of he-woman.”He laughed again, and oh, it was a beautiful sound.Lately, he’d been so somber. “I also like when you blush.”“Yes, well, I’ll bug Frosty and Bronx until they sayyes.” Apparently my inquisitive personality wasnot charming to everyone. Go figure. “They’ll be so irritated by their lack of fortitude, they’ll throw me around like I’a meat bag.”“So? You’ll get a boo-boo I’ll have to kiss and make better. Problem, meet solution.”I swallowed a laugh of my own and had to concentrateto adopt a stern expression. “I’ll let you kiss me better—ithe boo-boo is on my butt.”“Hmm. Kinky. This is a plan I can get behind... It’s avery nice behind.”Tease!“Cole,” I said with a pout. “You can’t flirt withme like this and then do nothing about it.”“Oh, I’ll do something about it.” The gruff, wanting tonewas back. His gaze locked on my mouth, heating witawareness. “Once you’ve been cleared.”So, seven more days of Cole’s china-doll treatment?on’t whimper.“Mr. Ankh would have cleared mealready if not for you and your protests.” I sat up andshifted my fingers through the silk of his hair. “I’m better now. I swear!”“No, you’re finally on the road to better. But if you starttraining, that could slow your progress. Besides, you’remine, Ali-gator, and you’re precious to me. I want you better. Ineed you better. And okay, yeah, I don’t like thethought of my friends putting their hands on you.”Ali-gator? Really? I think I would have preferredsomething like, I don’t know, cuddlecakes. Anything was better than a comparison to an overgrown lizard, right?And had he just called mehis?See? Melting...“Bronx is secretly into Reeve and Frosty is bat-crapcrazy for Kat. They wouldn’t try anything.” And really, before Cole, no boy hadever tried anything with me. I hadno idea what made me so irresistible to him.“Don’t care,” he said, leaning forward to nuzzle myneck. “I will put my boys in the hospital if they come near you. I don’t share my toys.”I had to swallow a snort. “If anyone else called me their toy, internal organs would spill.”“Agreed. Like I said, you’re mine. And, Ali, I’d love to be called your anything, especially your toy. Ireeeallywant you to play with me.”Okay, I did snort. Hello, mixed signals. “I’d really likeyou to prove that, Cole Holland.”His response? A groan.I sighed. There was nothing mixed about that, wasthere? “Back to the pimp hand you’re planning to throwaround.” I had no doubt he could put people in the hospital —he had before—but his friends? Never. I opened mymouth to tell him so, only to gasp. He’d just bitten the cordof my shoulder, and the most delicious lance of pleasurehad shot through me.“Cole.”“Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. Had to do a little proving.” “Don’t stop,” I breathed. “Not this time.”“Ali,” he said with another groan. “You’re killing me.”He stood with me in his arms and gently laid me on the bed. He stretched out next to me but didn’t pull me into hisside.I swallowed a shriek of frustration. I wasn’t sure if hewas punishing himself for what he’d done to me or if hereally was afraid he would break me. All I knew was thatI missed the feel and taste of him.I rolled toward him and rested my head on his shoulder.His skin was warm and surprisingly soft as I traced acircle around the piercing in his nipple. Bad Ali.Smart Ali.His heart kicked into a faster rhythm,delighting me. Disappointed Ali.He remained just as he was, here butset apart from me.“When you’re better,” he finally said.His ability to resist me was sonot flattering.“I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I caused yoany more harm,” he added, and I lost my ire.His concern for me wasbeyond flattering.“Look, I have to help you guys in some way, KingCole.” The moment the nickname left my lips, I knew I’dmade a mistake. He’d embrace that one a little too tightly.“Doing nothing isdestroying me.”He pushed out a heavy breath. “All right. Okay. You cacome to the gym tomorrow morning. We’ll see how you handle things.”I kissed his jaw, the shadow-beard he sported ticklingmy lips. “I think it’s cute that you thought I was asking for permission.”“Thank you, Cole,” he grumbled. He cupped the back omy neck, tilting my head. My gaze met his. “I just want totake care of you.”“You will...just as long as you keep your swords toyourself.”His eyes darkened. “That’s not funny.”“What? Too soon? My near-death experience and your part in it aren’t something we can joke about yet?”“Probably not ever.”I nipped playfully at his chin. “Okay.” Taking mercy onhim, I changed the subject. “Will you finally tell mewhat’s been going on these past few weeks?” Boss’sorders. Business wasn’t to be discussed. “As you can see,if it’s bad news, I can take it.”“Yeah. All right,” he replied, his relief obvious. “Tostart, Kat and Frosty broke up again.”I made a mental note to contact her first thing in themorning.“Also, Justin’s sister is missing.”Justin Silverstone used to be a slayer. Then his twinsister, Jaclyn, had convinced him to switch sides and joinnima Industries; the Hazmats, we called them. Theywanted to preserve the zombies for testing and studying and planned to one day use them as weapons, uncaringabout the innocent lives that were lost along the way.“She probably ran off, afraid we’d come after her,” Isaid. She and her crew had helped bomb my grandparents’home. I owed her.Cole nodded. “Then there’s my search. We need moreslayers. I know there are kids out there as confused as yoused to be, unsure why they see monsters no one else casee, and they have no idea what to do about it.”“Any possibles?”“Not yet. But two slayers from Georgia came to help usout until we’ve rebuilt our team.”For a while, I’d thought the zombie problem existedonly in my home state of Alabama. I’d since learneddifferently. There were zombies all over the world.Slayers, too.“You should have shared this info long before now.You are such a pain, Coleslaw,” I said. Better, but thatnickname wasn’t the winner, either.“I know, but I’m your pain.”And just like that, my irritation drained away. How didhe do it?“Does Mr. Ankh know you’re here?” Since mygrandfather had died and my grandparents’ house had beentorched, Nana and I had moved in with Mr. Ankh and hisdaughter, Reeve.Mr. Ankh—Dr. Ankh to everyone outside his circle of trust—knew about the zombies and did all the medicalwork on the slayers. Reeve had no idea what was goingon, and we were supposed to keep her in the dark. Or else.Her father wanted her to have as normal a life as possible.What was normal, exactly?“I gave Ankh’s security the finger,” Cole said with atwinge of pride. “He would feel the need to tell your grandmother, and I don’t want to be kicked out and have tosneak back in. I just want to be with you.”“So you’re planning to stay here all night and hold me,Coley Guacamole?” Ugh. I shouldn’t have gone there. Thatone reeked.He barked out a laugh. “I liked King Cole better.”“That’s not actually a surprise.”“It just fits me so well.”“I’m sure you think so.” I gave a gentle tug on his nipplering.“I doubt I’m the only one. And yes, I’m staying.” Hecurled his fingers over mine, pried my grip loose and brought my knuckles to his mouth for a kiss. A secondlater, there was a flash of panic in his eyes. One I didn’tunderstand and must have misread. Because he said, “Justso you know, you can call me anything you want—just aslong as you always call me.”
* It might be a little messed up but I'll fix it later. Enjoy.*
On Your Mark...Get Set...STOP!
I woke up alone, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, another dream of the accident hovering at the bacof my mind. I’d seen my mother reaching for me. Felt theunusual heat of her touch. Heard her yell at me. Then I’dwatched as the zombies finished eating my dad, glided toour car and jerked her out, ready for dessert.She’d fought against their hold, her expressio panicked. She’d called my name again. “Alice! Alice!”I’d struggled to reach her, begging the creatures not tohurt her.Then nothing. Now I wanted to cry.Why was I seeing this? It hadn’t happened. Not really.Had it?Had I woken up in the car and just didn’t remember?Could this be my mind’s way of reminding me?Momhad ended up outside, next to my dad, even thougshe’d been in the car when I’d lost consciousness.“Cole,” I said, patting the space next to me. I needed hisarms around me, strong and sure. He would comfort me,whatever the answers.The mattress was disappointingly cold. He was gone. I thought...yeah, I remembered hearing him speak to me before he’d taken off.“I’m supposed to believe you? Just like that,” he’d said,his tone angry. No, he hadn’t been speaking to me. There’d been atense pause before he’d snapped, “Stop calling me, Justin.I told you a long time ago I’m done with you. There’snothing you can do or say to change that.” Another crackling pause. “No, I don’t want to hear the info you’vegot.”I knew of only one Justin. Either Cole had been on the phone with a boy he’d sworn never to speak with again, or my mind had played tricks on me. Right now I wasn’texactly in a mind-trusting mood.Gingerly I sat up to gaze around the room. Brightsunlight slanted through the window. The ice-bluecomforter draping the four-poster bed was wrinkled, andone of the pillows was stained with flecks of black froCole’s face paint. Oops. I’d have to clean that off before Ileft.His weapons were no longer piled on the floor, andneither were his clothes. In fact, the only other sign thathe’d been here was the note on my nightstand. I’m at the gym. Call me and I’ll come for you. X C Humming with sudden happiness, I brushed my teeth,showered and dressed in my winter workout clothes. Idialed his cell, and...went straight to voice mail.“I’m awake and ready,” I said. “You can come get meanytime.” I didn’t have a car. Or a license. Only a permit.If I didn’t hear from him soon, I’d walk. The gym was at a barn a few miles away. “I hope you’re prepared to haveyour butt handed to you.”When I hung up, I noticed there were eleven textswaiting for me. All from my best friend, Kat. I grinned as Iread.One:Frosty SUCKS!Two:Have I mentioned Frosty sucks it raw??Three:How do U feel about murder? 4 or against?? Before U answer,know that I have good reason!Four:If 4, do U know good place 2 hide body??The rest described the many ways she’d like to kill him.My favorite involved a bag of Skittles and a silk scarf.Mmm. Skittles.My stomach rumbled, and I set my phone on thenightstand. I’d call Kat after breakfast, when she was morelikely to be awake and I was more likely to be lucid, andfind out what happened. There was a good chance Frostyhad simply failed to call her after the fight last night, andshe’d worried. I wasn’t sure how to comfort her aboutthat. She’d made it clear the zombies weren’t a topic o conversation she welcomed.First, though, I cleaned every inch of my room. I refusedto let Mr. Ankh’s housekeeper do it for me. I wasn’t asponge and wasn’t going to take anything for granted. Iwas determined to give back, somehow. Thankfully, water and hand soap removed the paint from the pillow.“Alice.”Emma’s voice.I turned, and oh, glory, there she was. My eight-year-oldsister. Her spirit anyway. What she’d taught me: death isnever the end. “You’re here,” I said, my heart soaring.She’d visited me before, but every time felt like the firsttime—shocking and unreal.She smiled at me, and I wanted so badly to hug her close and never let go. “I only have a moment.”She wore the clothes she’d died in: a pink leotard andtutu. The dark hair she’d inherited from our mother was pulled into two pigtails, swinging over her delicateshoulders. Golden eyes that had always watched me witadoration were bright.She’d once told me she wasn’t a ghost, but a witness.Ghosts—not that they existed—were spirits of the deadthat retained their memories and haunted. A myth probably born from zombie sightings. Witnesses were spirits thataided.“I wanted to warn you that you’ll be seeing less of me,”she said, the smile slipping. “Visiting you is becoming more difficult. But.If you call for me, I will find a way toreach you.”“More difficult how?” I asked, concerned for her.“My tie to this world is fading.”Oh.I knew what that meant. One day I was going to lose her for good.“Don’t be sad,” she said. “I hate when you’re sad.”I forced my features to brighten. “No matter what, I’llknow you’re out there, watching over me. There’s noreason to be sad.”“Exactly.” Beaming, she blew me a kiss. “I love you.nd seriously, don’t forget to call for me if you need me.”Then she was gone.My features fell and, I was sure, dimmed. I could havecurled into a ball and cried, but I refused to let myselworry about any tomorrows without her. I’d deal with her loss when it came.Pulling my hair into a ponytail, I headed to the kitchen. Iexpected to find the housekeeper. Instead I found Reeve,ana and Kat seated at the table, sipping from steamingmugs of coffee.“—something’s going on,” Reeve was saying, twining alock of dark hair around her finger. “Dad put moresecurity cameras in both the front and backyard—and wealready had a thousand to begin with! Worse, he’s put upso many lamps, my blackout curtains are no longer able to do their job.” Nana and Kat shifted uncomfortably.“Has he said anything to either of you?”“Well...” Nana hedged. She moved her gaze through theroom, as if hoping a distraction would present itself.One did.“Ali! You’re out of bed a week early.” Her chair skidded behind her as she stood. She closed the distance between us and drew me in for a hug. “I’m not sure Iapprove.”Kat buffed her nails and smiled, not looking at all like agirl on the verge of committing a violent crime. She didlook tired, though. There were dark circles under her eyes,and her cheeks were hollowed, as if she hadn’t eaten idays. “I would have been uptwoweeks early, but wecan’t all have my amazing bounce-back, can we?”I kissed Nana’s cheek and returned Kat’s smile. Thegirl had a healthy (and justifiable) ego and wasn’t afraidto show it. Me? I’d always been the girl with her headducked as she questioned her worth.I’d faced death and won, I reminded myself—I should probably get over that.But...just then, I kind of thought Kat was using her egoas a shield to hide her physical weakness. She sufferedfrom degenerative kidney disease.“What are you doing here?” I asked her. “Not that I’mnot thrilled to see you. I so am.” More than thrilled, actually. From the very beginning, she’d never cared whatI looked like or how socially awkward I could be. She’dust accepted me and rolled. “I thought you preferred tosleep till two on weekends.”“I came to see you, naughty girl that you are. You never answer your phone or respond to my mind-blowing textsanymore. My plan was to lecture you until you promised tohave your phone surgically attached to your hand, but Idecided to have some coffee first.”Speaking of coffee... “I’ll take that.” I confiscated her mug as I eased into the seat beside her. I wouldn’t allowmyself to eat or drink anything from the Ankhs, whichmade coffee a luxury. But I didn’t mind taking from my best friend.“Hey!” A second later, she confiscated Reeve’s.“Hey,” Reeve said, then confiscated Nana’s.Musical coffees. Nana shook her head, but I could see the gleam oamusement in her eyes.“No need for a lecture,” I said to Kat, flattening myhand on my side. “There’ll be no more surgeries for me.”Her features softened. “My poor, sweet Ali.”“I don’t understand how you fell down our stairs andreceived such a life-threatening injury,” Reeve said.“You’re not the clumsy type, and there’s nothing sharp onthe railing or the floor.”“Of course she’s clumsy,” Kat exclaimed, covering for me as I stuttered for some type of response. “Ali could gettangled up in a cordless phone.”I nodded and tried not to look miserable—the claiwas only a lie if I failed to believe it. Maybe Iwasclumsy. Once, I’d stepped into Cole’s ankle trap anddangled upside down from a tree. Another time, he’d beenteaching me how to work a sword and I’d nearly removedhis head.So...yeah.“Anyway,” Kat said, quickly changing the subject, “I’msure everyone will be pleased to know we won thefootball game last night.”“Go, Tigers!” we said in unison, and burst into peals olaughter.An alarm sounded from Reeve’s phone. “Crap!” Sheumped up. “Sorry, guys, but I’ve got plans for Halloweenand they actually start this morning. See ya!” She raced outof the kitchen. Nana stood. “I’ve got to go, too. I want to lecture thatgirl’s father about the importance of being well informed.Oh, and, Ali, Cole called me a little while ago and told meyou were in need of a costume, but that you’d be too busytraining to shop. I thought he was kidding, like some kindof Halloween joke I just didn’t understand, since onlyyesterday he’d been so adamant about you staying in bed.But if he thinks you’re ready, you’re ready—and I won’task how he reached that conclusion.” Please don’t!And Cole had actually called Nana?“That’s sweet oyou, but I don’t want us to spend money on an article oclothing I’ll only wear once. I can make something Ialready own work.”Smiling, she patted my hand. “Darling, we’re notdestitute. We have the insurance settlement.”“But wearesaving for a house of our own.” Therewere conditions for living here, and with conditions camean expiration date. I wanted Nana taken care of for the restof her life, no surprises. In fact, I should probably find aob...though that might prove impossible, considering Iwould need to take time off for school and slaying. No. There had to be a way.“I’m getting you a costume, young lady, and that’s final.I’m looking forward to this.”I sighed. “All right, but something from the thrift storewill work just fine.”She kissed the top of my head and followed the same path Reeve had taken. Without agreeing, I realized toolate.My phone vibrated, and I checked the screen.Cole McHottie (as Kat had dubbed him): I can’t leavethe gym 2 get U, Ali-gator, I’m sorry. But we R still on 42nite. I miss UI wondered what had happened to keep him trapped atthe gym. Disappointed, I looked to Kat.“So, where are you and Cole going?” she asked.“Hearts, I’m sure.” It was the only nightclub the slayersfrequented. “Now, about your phone calls and texts. Iwasn’t ignoring you, I promise. It’s just strange, knowingyou now know what I know, yet trying to buffer you fromthe worst of the details.”“It’s not strange. It’s terrible! I hate knowing, but I’vedecided to girl up and finally discuss the...you-knows fronow on. And just so we’re clear, girling up is far better than manning up.”“Good. About the you-knows.” Knowledge was power,and I wanted her safe. Always.The housekeeper bustled into the kitchen, spotted me,and asked if she could fix me something to eat. I declined,and she loaded a tray with croissants and cappuccino totake to Mr. Ankh. The fragrance of yeast and sugar mingled, filling the room and making my mouth water.The moment she was gone, I hopped up to wipe thecrumbs from the counter. Then I grabbed the bag of bagelsI’d bought with my allowance and offered one to Kat.She shook her head. “So...I’m sure you surmised fromy oh so subtle texts that Frosty and I are over. Or is itFrosty and me? I always forget. Anyway, it’s for reals thistime.”“What happened?” I devoured the bagel in record time,and though I craved a second one sobad, I resisted. The longer these lasted, the fewer I would have to buy, and theless I’d have to spend.“Last night,” she said, looking miserable, “I wasn’tfeeling well—not that Frosty knew that part. I asked him tostay with me, and he refused.”“When the you-knows are out, he has to fight. We alldo, if we’re well. It’s our duty.” Our privilege.“A night off wouldn’t have killed him,” she grumbled.“But it might have killed his friends. They need all the backup they can get.”She frowned at me. “Do you have to be so reasonable,tossing out such intelligent responses?”“I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.”“Thank you.”I studied her. She was such a beautiful girl. Petite, butcurvy. Fragile, yet resilient. Her mom had suffered withthe same kidney disease most of her too-short life. Katwas militant about keeping her declining health froFrosty and the boys, and so far she’d succeeded.She lived for the moment. She never held back—iwords or in action. She had no desire to fade from theworld, but wanted to make an impact, a difference, and goout swinging. I could help her with that.“How would you feel about learning to defend yourselagainst the you-knows?” I asked. My dad had trained meto fight them before I’d possessed the ability to see them,and that training had been invaluable when my circumstances changed. Maybe Kat would see the zombiesone day. Maybe she wouldn’t. Either way, I could equipher to make smarter choices.“I’d feel...great. I think.”“That’s good enough for me. Cole has a gym, and it’sloaded with all the equipment we’ll need. I can show yohow to shoot a gun and use a bow and arrow.”She waved a hand through the air, probably trying for dismissive, but I saw the gleam of fear behind the action.“No need for that part of the training.”“You’ve used both weapons before?”“No, but the unaimed weapon never misses. I’d rather stick with that method.”I rolled my eyes.“Will Frosty be there?” She nibbled on her bottom lipas she waited for my answer.“Maybe.”I couldn’t tell whether that pleased her or upset her; thechewing never stopped. “Well, today’s, like, the biggestholiday of the year, so I’ll pencil you in for noon sharptomorrow. Or maybe sometime next week would be best.Yes. Definitely next week.”“Nope. You’ll pencil me in for now and tomorrowand next week. I’m not letting you put this off. We’re going toturn you into a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth fightingmachine. You’ll be so hard-core, you’ll be able to knock Frosty on his butt as easily as breathing.” A scary kind of anticipation lit her features. “Okay, I’min. But only because I know I’ll look good with biceps.True story.” She drained what remained of her coffee andslammed the mug onto the table. “Let’s go before I changemy mind.”I left my grandmother a note, telling her not to expect me back until after lunch and that I loved her. I thought abouttexting Cole, but quickly discarded the idea. I’d surprisehim.“You want to drive?” Kat asked as I made a beeline for the passenger side of her Mustang. “You have a permit.”Acid burned a path up my throat. “No thanks. You’renot old enough to be my escort or whatever.”“But you need the practice.”“Another day,” I hedged.“That’s what I said about training, and you shot medown.”“Do you want to reach the gym in fifteen minutes or fifteen hours?” I asked. If I had to pick between drivingand bathing in manure, I’d pick the manure. Every time.“You know how slow I go.”“True.” She settled behind the wheel.“Did Frosty ever take you to Cole’s gym? Not the one ihis garage, but the gym several miles from his house?” Theseat belt rubbed against my wound, and I shifteduncomfortably.“Nope. According to Frosty, the high and mighty workout station for stallions—his words, not mine—isoff-limits to nonslayers.” Not any longer. I gave her the address without a qualm.The boys had brought Kat into this treacherous world osecrets, and they could deal with the consequences.As we soared down the highway, I checked the sky for the rabbit-shaped cloud Emma used to warn me aboutcoming zombie attacks. Today, there wasn’t one, and I breathed a sigh of relief.Kat swerved to avoid hitting another car, and I yelped.“Is my driving making you nervous?” she asked. “Imean, you’re supertense. Which is silly, considering thefact that I’ve only been in, like, three wrecks since yowere confined to a bed, and, when you think about it, noneof them were my fault. I mean, sure, I was in the wronglane, texting, but the other drivers had plenty of time tomove out of my way.”How was she still alive? “Mad Dog, you are the bestworst driver I know.”She preened. “That might be the sweetest complimentanyone’s ever given me. Thank you.”A car honked as she swerved across four lanes to exitthe highway, and she seemed utterly oblivious. “So, youand Cole are at the stage where he’s comfortable enoughto call your Nana, huh?”“I know. It’s kind of weird, right, and...” Wait. I knewCole. He’d always been a guy with a plan. A purpose. He never did anything without a rock-solid reason. But whatreason could he possibly have had to— The answer slammed into me, and I nearly liquefied imy seat. I’d lost my family, and this was my firstHalloween without them. He was trying to reduce thenumber of memories I’d have to battle.He didn’t know that I’d never before celebratedHalloween. My dad hadn’t allowed us to leave the houseat night, so there had been no reason to buy a costume, andopening the door to strangers to pass out candy had beeust as big a no-no.“Yeah,” I said to Kat, wishing I could crawl into Cole’sarms and never leave. “We are.”“You’re so lucky. My dad has never been a Frosty fan.I’m pretty sure he’s only ever threatened to castrate the boy.”Had to be those serial-killer eyes. Sometimes, wheFrosty looked at you, you just expected to die horribly.“Your dad still lets you guys date, though.”“Yeah, and he always will. When I was first diagnosedwith defunct kidneys, he promised to let me make my owdecisions and live my life the way I wanted.”Good man.“So, what have you decided to do tonight?”“The same thing you are. And I didn’t mention it beforenow because I didn’t want you drowning in jealousyknowing I was out having the best time ever while yowere still languishing in your sickbed.” She gripped the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles bleached of color.“I’m trying not to be nervous. I mean, I know all theslayers will be there, but the night will be filled with allkinds of creepers, so how will I know who’s dangerousand who’s not?”“You aren’t able to see real zombies,” I reminded her.“That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. First, I told Frostyno, but then he said, ‘Would I ever put you at risk,woman?’ And I said, ‘How would I know? You’ve beenliving a double life since we started dating.’ And he said,‘You want me to apologize again, don’t you?’ And I said,‘Every day for the rest of your life.’ He had the nerve tolaugh as if I was joking.”I smothered a laugh of my own. “So...what’s your costume?”“A too-sexy-to-handle Little Red Riding Hood.”“Let me guess. Frosty’s going as the Big Bad Wolf.”“What else? I have a feeling he thinks it’ll be hilariousto snap his teeth at me and say, ‘I’m going to eat you up,my dear.’”Picturing it, I shook my head. “You’re going to tell himto prove it. Aren’t you?”“I like that you know me so well.”She turned onto a winding gravel road nestled betweerows of trees in the process of shedding their fall coats.When the trees finally gave way to fields of wheat, Cole’s“workout station for stallions” became visible—a big red barn that looked ready to topple over. Actually, the thingcould withstand a military invasion.“This place is in the middle of nowhere,” Kat remarkedas she eased to a stop.“For many reasons.” Slayers coming at all hours of theday and night. The sheer number of weapons kept here.The condition we sometimes left in.There were more cars than usual in the driveway. Ifrowned as I stepped into the coolness of the day. Grunts,groans and even cheers seeped from the crack in the door.“Come on.” I quickened my pace.I stopped just inside the entrance and could only gape.I’d assumed Cole, and maybe the überdedicated Frostyand Bronx would be the only guys willing to forgo acountrywide day off.Kat bumped into me and froze. “Oh, spank me,” shewhispered, her tone reverent.Here they were, all of the slayers in all their glory.There was enough testosterone in the air to jump-start thedeadest of hearts. Most of the boys were shirtless,displaying bronzed muscles honed from more than justweights—honed from hacking at the enemy. I saw wickedscars, sexy tattoos and piercings, and even a few house-arrest anklets.The blond and scarily beautiful Frosty pounded his fistsinto a poor, defenseless punching bag. The rough-and-tumble Bronx held the thing in place, his feet planted firmly on the floor. There was no force on earth that couldmove him, even one as violent as Frosty. Collins ran on atreadmill, and Cruz lifted weights.And Cole, well, he was in the boxing ring with a girl Ididn’t recognize.There was an unfamiliar boy standing at the side,watching the pair. The only other females in the roomwere Mackenzie—Cole’s very feral ex—and Trina, a girlKat had yet to forgive for not having a summer fling witFrosty.Don’t ask.Trina waved at me, and I waved back, but my attentionquickly returned to Cole. He swung lightheartedly at theunknown girl, and she ducked before straightening andswinging at him. He ducked, too, and when she swungagain, he caught her fist and jerked her against the hardline of his body, effectively disabling her.She grinned up at him, all cocky assurance and femininewiles—and she stayed right where she was, clearly happyto be there. A boy with a girlfriend should have releasedher and stepped back. Although Cole stiffened, the gleamin his eyes turning granite-hard, he remained just as hewas, returning her grin with one of his own.I wasn’t sure what any of that meant. I only knew Ididn’t like it.Time for Pep Talk Ali. He’s trained other girls. He’seven smiled at other girls. This isn’t romantic. This isn’t sexual.Of course, Downer Ali wasn’t fully convinced (yes,there are many sides to me). He didn’t pick you upbecause he didn’t want to leave this girl’s side.I shook my head. He was mine, my toy, and I wouldn’tshare.But what if he wanted me to share him? No! Stupid insecurity.Cole wasn’t like that.“Kitten,” Frosty called, sounding more than a littlesurprised. “How’d you find me?”Kat lifted her chin, the picture of female pique. “Don’tflatter yourself. I’m not here for you. But just so you know,I used my phenomenal detective skills, coupled with Ali’smediocre directions. No offense,” she said to me.“None taken.” Mediocre was actually better than Ideserved.“Don’t be that way, baby,” he replied, unwinding thetape from his fists. “You know I would have given you aride on the Frosty Express. You just had to ask.”Bronx rolled his eyes. Several of the other guysgroaned.Cole’s attention arrowed in my direction. Our gazeslocked, and guilt filled those violet irises.Guilt? Why guilt? Whatever the answer, it couldn’t begood. I will not stomp into that ring. I will not pull the pair apart. I will not beat them both into pulp.He set the girl away from him. Once again I foundmyself waiting and hoping for a vision. I was back on myfeet. Things should go back to normal. But a moment passed, then another. Normal remained at bay.A dash of dread joined a pinch of jealousy, a recipe for trouble.The new guy whistled under his breath, and my attentioshifted to him. Our gazes collided. A second later, theworld washed away, just as I’d wanted it to do with Cole — —we were in my bedroom, standing beside my bed.o, we were lying on my bed. I’d just pushed him down. Itilted his head with one hand and pulled at his clothes witthe other. Then I licked my way down his throat. I wasmaking strange little growling noises, as if I’d never enjoyed a taste so much and had to have more— “—Ali!” Cole shouted.I blinked, and the vision evaporated.Cole appeared, his features tense. “What justhappened?”“Dude,” Frosty said to the new guy. “Your brain justchecked out for a bit. I haven’t seen anything like thatsince Cole first met Al—and uh, yeah, never mind.” New Guy stared at me, looking suspicious and angry.I stumbled back a few steps. I couldn’t believe I’d just mind-cheated on Cole. Like, big-time.“Cole asked a good question,” New Guy croaked.“What just happened?”So he’d had the vision, too. No. No, no, no.What didthat mean? That strong of a connection had never happenedwith anyone but Cole. Why here? Why now? Whythisguy?“I have a better question,” the new girl said with asweet Southern drawl. “Will someone please introduceme to the newcomers?”I had to make sure the vision never came true. Itcouldn’t come true. It would mean Cole and I were over.It would mean the new life I’d carved for myself hadcrashed and burned.A muscle ticked in Cole’s jaw. “Veronica, meet Ali.li, Veronica. She’s one of the slayers from Atlanta. Ali’sfriend is Kat.”“My girl,” Frosty added, proudly thumping his chest.“In your dreams,” Kat replied.They launched into a heated argument.“Veronica is another of Cole’s exes,” Mackenzie pipedup.Oh, good glory, no!“Not just any ex,” Veronica added, offering me a grin assweet as her voice. “I’m his favorite.”I stiffened, waiting for Cole to say the words Actually,li is my favorite—and she’s not an ex. He didn’t. “Nice to meet you,” I whispered, fighting panic.Once I hadn’t thought there was a girl more beautifulthan Mackenzie. Now I knew how wrong I’d been.Veronica was. By far. She had perfectly tanned skin, dark glossy hair that was iron-board straight and fell to her shoulders and light green eyes.Mackenzie had dark hair, though hers was curly, anddark green eyes. Put the three of us side by side, and yowouldn’t have to ask who didn’t belong. I had wavy hair so pale it could have been classified as old-granny white,and eyes so blue they bordered on freaky.One of Veronica’s perfect brows lifted. “So you’re theinfamous Ali Bell, huh? The girl with abilities no one canexplain.”I could see the Blood Lines we poured around our homes, a mix of chemicals the zombies couldn’t bypass.My body sometimes became a living flame, ashing everyzombie I touched in seconds, while other slayers couldonly light their hands and needed several minutes toachieve the same results. I could sometimes see into thefuture.I wasn’t sure why I could do these things, or what mademe different. My slaying genes were no more special thaanyone else’s.“Yes,” I said. Cole wouldn’t look at me. Why wouldn’the look at me? “That’s me.”Veronica’s head tilted to the side as she scrutinized me more intently. “Did you use one of those abilities on myfriend?”I stuttered for a response, but came up empty.“So what if she did?” Kat called, always my backup.“She’s got the boss man wrapped around her little finger.She can do what she wants, to whomever she wants.”How much did I love that girl?Venom leaked into Veronica’s sweetness. “No onewraps Cole Holland around their finger.”Cole left both comments alone as he hopped out of thering. “Later, Ronny. Practice without me.”Ronny? He had an affectionate nickname for Mackenzie,too. Kenze, he sometimes called her. I hated both.He stalked to an open treadmill, motioned me over and pushed a few buttons. “Before you hit the ring, you need to build your stamina back up. Do not—I repeat—do notoverwork yourself.”I closed the distance between us. “You’re right aboutthe stamina, and I can tell you I have no plans to overwor myself, but first we need to talk.”Still he refused to look at me. “Clearly, you had avision with Gavin.”Gavin. The name of the boy I’d just mind-molested. “Y-yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about. This Veronicagirl—”“What did you see?” he said.“I, well, uh...” I couldn’t tell him, and I wouldn’t lie. So, where did that leave me? “Does it really matter? Itwon’t come true.” I wouldn’t let it.“It matters. It will come true. And we both know it.”Cole walked away without another word—without ever looking back at me.I watched him until he disappeared inside the locker room, my heart creating a staccato beat in my chest.Veronica—Ronny—followed him. She paused at the door,and shedid look back at me.To smirk.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 10.02.2014
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One of my favorite books and thought you guys might like it. Sorry if the writing is a little messed up.