I parted my lips to say something to Jackson—anything to get him to stay—but he just gave me that curt chin jerk, then followed Selena to their wing of the mansion.
So much for his insistence that we always sleep in the same place.
Once they’d gone, the voices buzzed anew. I fought to dampen them, telling myself that nothing could ruin my first real shower since the Flash.
Under the hot water, my cheeks stung where Jackson’s stubble had abraded my skin, reminding me of how much my night was shittily declining.
Surely he couldn’t transfer his interest from one girl to another just like that. We’d had something between us, right? So says the girl with such little boy experience.
After I’d showered and dried my hair, I slipped on a dark jean miniskirt—that nearly hit my knees but was tight over my ass—and a body-conscious red tank. I decided to go barefoot. None of Selena’s shoes had fit, and I refused to pull on my wet boots. Besides, it was a cookout by the pool.
I assessed myself in the mirror, my mood lifting. Not bad, Greene. My eyes looked bright, my hair clean and shiny. The tank molded over my chest, which Jackson would surely appreciate.
This wasn’t over. One last glance, then I set off downstairs.
Out on the lanai, Selena and Jackson were drinking beer and grilling the quail—while discussing bowstring tensions.
Instead of announcing myself, I decided to observe them from the shadows, doing recon on Selena.
My mood soured once more when I saw her man-eater outfit: a slinky, off-the-shoulder couture blouse, a micromini, and four-inch heels. Her eyes danced as she gazed at Jackson.
With his face clean-shaven and his new clothes—a black hunter’s T-shirt, broken-in jeans, and boots—he looked even more gorgeous than usual.
She laughed at something he said, grazing her fingers over the scar on his forearm, having no idea what that mark meant to him—to me. . . .
Another joke, another laugh, another round of beers popped open.
Another brush of her fingers. She seemed to be taking every opportunity to touch him.
He was letting her. Just an hour ago, he’d been trying to sleep with me. Now here he was getting drunk with this strange girl in the moonlight.
The Bringer of Doubt? Oh, she’d brought it.
Evidently he didn’t figure her for a miserable tease. And she was lapping up the attention. Why wouldn’t she? Jackson was handsome, strong, an incredible protector.
Not that Lara Croft needed any help in the protection department. Her longbow was propped up right next to Jackson’s crossbow, both within easy reach.
She didn’t even know how wicked a kisser he was.
Jackson seemed to be hanging on her every word as their conversation moved on to motorcycle engine horsepower and tire treads.
How could Selena know all that stuff? It was like they spoke a foreign language that I could never learn.
My heart sank when she drank out of his beer, then gave the bottle back, as if they were a couple.
Back at Haven, I’d wiped his flask with my sleeve.
His attraction to me truly had been just about slim pickings. He’d liked me out of nécessité. As he’d readily admitted. But give him a choice . . .
He would never want to leave this realm of beer and electricity and leggy archers.
And I needed him to get to Gran’s. Only to get there. For no other reason. At all.
Maybe I shouldn’t roll over and let her have him so easily. I recalled how possessive I’d been about Brandon. I thought of what Mel would say: “Stop being a puss and take your toy back. What are you—minced meat?”
Selena asked him, “Will you say back there again?”
He complied. With his accent, it sounded like a rumbly bag dare.
“Cajun is sooo hawt, J.D.”
J.D.? Okay, that was the final straw!
I strolled out onto the lanai, fake smile in place. “Dinner smells delicious.”
Jackson’s gaze moved over me. I thought I detected approval in his expression, but then he looked away as if he could barely stand the sight of me.
“Just in time, Evie,” Selena said. “I’ve got everything ready.”
I surveyed the outdoor table, immaculately set with nice silver and crisp napkins. Covered dishes steamed with mouthwatering aromas.
“We’re having quail, asparagus, and mushroom risotto. Hot apple cobbler for dessert.”
I smiled thinly. Martha Stewart called, wants her shtick back. “Can I help?”
Jackson snorted. And Selena play-slapped his chest, like he was her mischievous boyfriend.
At that, the initial mrowr pfft pfft I’d felt transformed into I will cut a bitch.
No, no, no. I had to think about this rationally! She might help me discover more about the Arcana.
But then, Jackson’s assistance was critical to my getting to Gran’s, to finding out all, and I was losing him.
Ever polite, Selena opened a sweating beer bottle for me. “Here you go.”
The last thing I needed was to lose control, but I politely took a sip. “Cheers.”
“You guys take a seat. J.D., you’re over here.” She pointed out the chair right beside hers, which put me on the other side of the large table alone.
When they dug in, Jackson groaned at his first bite. And she can cook, too.
My mouth should have been watering, but I was too nervous. I kept imagining how dangerous—and lonely—the road was going to be without him.
That was the only reason I felt like crying. Not because he’d told me he was going to take care of me, making it sound like a promise.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Selena asked me.
“Doan worry about her.” Jackson spooned more risotto onto his plate. “Plus pour nous.” More for us.
Seemed he was no longer concerned about this growing girl’s ultimate bra size. Because he’d shut those thoughts down. . . .
Over dinner, I learned of all the things that J.D. and Lara Croft had in common. I thought about proposing a new drinking game: Take a swig every time Selena said to Jackson, “No way! Me too!”
They loved to hunt and fish. Both had been shooting a bow since they were little. Selena modestly admitted that she’d been training for Olympic archery before the Flash struck.
Jackson looked far more impressed with that than he had with my dance trophies.
She and Jackson were both soon to be nineteen. Once she’d realized I was more than two years younger, Selena had started talking to me in a patronizing tone, like I was their plucky, annoying tagalong. “Oh, no, J.D., I gave her a beer!” she’d cried, jabbing him with an elbow. “Should we take it away?”
I hadn’t wanted my beer. Now I dared her to reach for it.
Wonder of wonders, Selena was also an ace motocross rider, had even raced against the boys.
In fact, she gleefully told Jackson, “I rode so much each weekend that my family got me my own industrial-size tank of gasoline. It’s still half-full. Hey, we could go off-roading tomorrow, if the weather holds. You won’t believe the trails I could take you on, J.D.”
It was as if Selena had been factory-made for him. Any hope I’d had of keeping his attention was doused.
I didn’t care—I didn’t. Even if he’d liked me, I had nothing to offer him and wouldn’t want some Cajun biker thief anyway. A drunken one. Though I hadn’t finished my beer, he and Selena were pounding them.
As if she felt my eyes on her, Selena faced me. “If you don’t like the quail, I can cook you something else. I’ve got a bunker full of cans, freeze-dried foods, and jarred vegetables. Just let me know, honey.”
Honey? No one called me that but my mother. Thinking of Mom, I forced myself to be polite. “You’re so considerate, but I’m full.” I turned to Jackson. “Can I talk to you after you’re done eating?”
He glanced up, looking maybe a shade less pissed than before. “About what?”
“The trip tomorrow.”
His eyes narrowed. “Non. Nothing to talk about.”
My face heated at his dismissive tone.
Selena blinked in confusion. “The trip tomorrow? Where are you headed?”
Had Jackson not told her? I felt like I couldn’t dodge answering now. “North Carolina.”
“J.D. told me you might stay for a spell.”
He merely raised his brows at me, his expression saying, What are you goan to do about it?
I began to comprehend that I was truly about to be on my own.
“So what’s in North Carolina, Evie?” Selena wanted to know.
“I have family there. A grandmother.”
“Well, you don’t have to leave so quickly. I would love the company, even for a couple of days. And it’s really safe here—no Baggers, no militia-types.” She touched Jackson’s forearm for the thousandth time. “There’s still game around here. The three of us could clean up.”
“Evie? Hunt?” He gave a mocking laugh, and, God, how it stung. “She can’t shoot, no, can’t do much of anything.” He drunkenly snapped his fingers. “Oh, wait, she’s an expert at looking down her nose at folks.”
While I sat there burning with humiliation, Selena glanced from Jackson to me and back.
I’d made an effort to be pleasant. And look how well that had turned out. I couldn’t compete with the heaven-sent girl who loved every single thing he did, who could talk expertly about all the things he was passionate about.
So what did I have to lose? “I’m also good at keeping secrets,” I murmured to him with a serene smile. “Apparently, that drives some boys crazy.” She shoots; she scores.
His sneer deepened. “Secrets doan keep a bed warm at night.”
Enough. “If you’re going to be a dick, J.D., I’m going to bed.” To Selena, I said, “Thank you for the dinner. Sorry I couldn’t be better company. But enjoy this one, such a classy guy. A real gentleman.”
His knuckles whitened on his bottle.
As I took my plate to the kitchen sink, I heard Selena snickering at something Jackson said. Was he telling her a story about my clumsiness? My cluelessness?
Dejected, I headed back toward my room, listlessly viewing the family pictures in a hallway gallery. Selena was in none of them. I didn’t see a single picture of her shooting her bow in a tournament or proudly gearing up on a motocross track. Odd.
Back in my room, I found some computer paper and a pencil in a desk drawer. I was itching to sketch Jackson as he’d looked when he gazed down at me in the pool, his face lit by the moon.
It hurt too much to draw him; it hurt too much not to. I’d just taken up the pencil in my shaking hand when a knock sounded on the door.
How badly I wanted it to be him! To have him come sleep in the same room with me, as we’d done for weeks.
But he’d never knock. “Come in.”
Selena meandered inside, visibly tipsy. As good as a Bayou Bessie.
“Hey, Evie, can we have a girl chat?” Instead of sitting at the foot of the bed, standard protocol for girl chats, she crossed to the dresser, checking her nearly waist-length mane of hair in the mirror.
“Sure. I’ve got something I wanted to talk to you about as well.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Earlier when we met, you looked like you recognized me. Did you?”
She gazed at me through the mirror with an indulgent expression. “Um, no. When would we have met?”
“It just seemed—”
“I was surprised because I was seeing a girl, Evie. You’re the first female I’ve seen after the Flash. There’re never any girls anymore.”
That made absolute sense. So why did I get the feeling she was lying? “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“I wanted to make sure that you and J.D. aren’t an item.”
“Sometimes guys say stuff to other girls about being single or whatnot . . . well, you know how it is, girlfriend. I wanted to confirm with you.”
I tried to make my tone casual. “What’d he say about us?”
“I asked if you two were exclusive, and he emphatically said no.”
I was so naïve! When he’d told me he was going to take care of me, he’d meant it in that other way—the one usually accompanied by vulgar hand gestures or waggled eyebrows.
Sure, I’d known Jackson had been a player, but I’d stupidly imagined there’d been something special between us. He’d just wanted to get laid.
Even postapocalypse, some things did remain the same.
As Selena gazed at her reflection, pinching her cheeks for color and tugging down her blouse to show more cleavage, I realized his chances were promising.
He’d probably use that condom of his this very night. My face grew hot with unshed tears. Wanting nothing more than to get rid of her—for now—I said, “He’s right, Selena. No ER with us.”
“Oh, thank God,” she said with a relieved breath. “I really like him, Evie. I never expected to meet a guy. Here. With you. Much less that he’d be a perfect match for me.” In a softer tone, she added, “I always assumed I’d be alone forever. I just never expected . . . him.”
For the first time, I got the sense that she was being sincere. And that made me wonder: Had she been expecting me?
Seeming to snap out of her thoughts, she made her manner brisk. “I’ll let him know you were just as emphatic, and clear the air of any misunderstandings. See you in the morning!”
Yes, in the morning I would investigate this girl more. For now I planned to choke on tears and voices.
DAY 236 A.F.
—Need to talk to you.—
The next morning, I heard Matthew in my head, just seconds after I awakened.
I was groggy and puffy-eyed, yawning after my fitful sleep. “Matthew, you won’t believe this, but one of the Arcana is here, the Bringer of Doubt.”