Penny’s hands gripped my hips, pulling me across the floor and into his arms. He wrapped a long-fingered hand around my neck, our mouths connecting, his tongue flicking against mine. The palm of his free hand skimmed my hips, sliding along the curve of my waist, until his hand closed around my breast. I shivered, pushing my body closer to his. With his thumb and index finger he pinched my nipple, making it pebble at his touch. His mouth pulled from mine, and I made a gasping, desperate noise I’d never heard come from my throat.
With one motion he swept me into his arms, carrying me the short distance to the couch. He put me down, resting his forehead against mine, caressing my hair. When he spoke, it was in a voice unlike one I’d heard in the many years of our friendship. It was deeper than normal, emotion resonating through each word.
“You have no idea how much I care for you,” he said, pressing soft kisses to my cheeks. “How much I need you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, afraid to see the emotions spilling from his eyes. A swelling balloon of panic rose in my chest, making it difficult for me to breathe. I sat up, knocking him slightly off balance, but managing to press my mouth hard against his, replacing his soft words with rough kisses. The abruptness of my move caused him to hesitate, but as my tongue tickled at his lips, he returned the kiss, biting my lip so hard he drew blood.
One of his hands slid up my inner thigh, and without further prompting, I swung myself over to straddle his lap. His hands cradled my ass, holding me tight as I leaned forward to nip at the tender skin of his neck with my teeth. He groaned as I pulled his skin into my mouth, his hips arching. I moved lower, to bite at his collar bone, but he caught my chin, holding me in place.
His eyes were dark with desire, but there was something more there; something that glistened and made the balloon of anxiety return in full force.
“Caro,” he whispered in that new voice from before, causing goosebumps to erupt along my skin. “You can’t tell me that after all this time you never realized? Surely you’ve always known how much I—“
I pulled my chin from his grasp, clambering off his lap.
I thought it would end the conversation, and at first I was right.
The couch creaked as he stood, crossing the small distance between us. His hands wrapped around my waist, holding me.
“Penny…” I said, but any follow-up words were cut off by his warm breath against my neck and then his lips brushing against the sensitive skin of my throat. I leaned into him as his hands slid up my torso. His mouth moved from my neck, and he pressed kisses into my hair until he nuzzled against my ear.
“Caro,” his voice was rough, sending hard shivers down my spine.
My breath sped up, but not because of his teeth pulling at my earlobe. He was going to start saying things I didn’t want to hear; things better left unsaid. Our friendship was good. It worked. It didn’t need to be anything else.
“Caro,” he said again, my name sounding like a prayer, “I l—“
I pulled out of his grasp before he could say more, my chest constricting, all the air leaving my lungs in a great burst.
I shoved him.
He stumbled back a few steps, but managed to keep his footing.
I couldn’t look at him. My eyes were burning and my esophagus felt swollen, as though an entire nest of hornets had flown into my throat stinging everything in their path.
I don’t know what would’ve happened if my phone hadn’t rung. I think Penny would’ve walked out the door, and I wouldn’t have tried to stop him. Maybe once, before he was a werewolf, I would’ve jumped at the chance to have him as my boyfriend. But too much had changed since then. He shouldn’t say those things, and I shouldn’t—could not—listen. There was too much at stake.
Instead of any of that happening, I dug around the pile of my clothes on the floor until I extracted my iPhone, aware the entire time of Penny standing quietly behind me.
I recognized McGregor’s number, and answered. It was hard to believe that only a few hours before we’d confronted a clan of angry vampires.
“What?” I asked, surprised my voice came out strong and steady.
“Try to imagine,” McGregor said in his fakest manner, “what happens when a house-full of werewolves picks up the scent of a group of vampires.”
“Uhhh,” I said, remembering the way that the adrenaline rush of the confrontation with the vampires caused Penny and McGregor to half-transform. “I’m betting it wasn’t pretty.”
“No,” he agreed. “And, as I’m sure you realize, we can’t attack them.”
“That would be a bad move,” I said, fingers tightening around the edge of my phone. “Are they posing any danger?”
“Not at the moment,” he sighed. “But you know why they’re here.”
“It’s a warning,” I said, dropping my head and rubbing my free hand against my forehead.
“Try not to do anything stupid,” McGregor said.
I’d already done enough of that for the day.
I ended the call, totally aware that Penny was still standing behind me, waiting.
When I finally turned towards him, his hands were on his hips, eyebrows arched with irritation, giving him the appearance of an ill-tempered nanny. I knew that what had just transpired between us was forgotten for the moment. Instead, we were about to have the same argument we’d been having for weeks now. I stalled by collecting my clothes from around the room, pulling them on as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You’re gonna head right back to that swamp, guns blazing, to kill those zombies. Consequences be damned.”
“Like I have any other choice,” I said as I fastened the button on my jeans.
“Of course you do. There’s always another choice.”
“No, Penny, there isn’t. If I kill the zombies, it’ll render the vampires’ threats moot.”
“Oh, my God, that’s not how it’s going to work, Spencer.”
“Well, since you’re suddenly so knowledgeable on the subject, why don’t you tell me what’s going to happen?”
“You very well fucking know that already.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “No,” I said. “You’re clearly an expert in this field, so please enlighten me.”
He shook his head, mouth pinched into an angry pucker. “You’re not cute when you play dumb. If those zombies are slaughtered tonight, the next night, a week from now—whatever—then McGregor and the pack are dead. Our families? Dead.”
“Ugh, please!” I said, stalking behind my desk. “I’m calling their bluff. With the zombies dead, they have no reason to retaliate. It’ll be over, and we can rest easy knowing that a horde of the undead won’t be unleashed on our unwitting county.”
“It won’t be retaliation,” he said. The words were slightly muffled by his gritted teeth. “They’ll carry out their threat as punishment.”
“You don’t know that,” I said.
“Are you confident enough to put our families and friends at risk? You know the consequences of trusting vampires.”
“Fuck you, Penny,” I stomped toward the door, intending to kick him out, but he caught me by the shoulders.
“Chill out, Caro. I’m just saying you’re putting a lot of faith into believing they won’t hurt the people you care about.”
“So I should just leave the zombies there?”
“Wait to see what happens.”
“And then what?” I could hear the anger growing in my voice. “Let a rampaging band of the undead kill a bunch of innocent people before we can get together and take them down?”
“It’s a risk,” he shrugged.
“A risk? Children could die!”
“Your brother could die!” he countered. “I could die! Your mom and dad could die!”
“Are the few more important than the many?”
“Are you saying it’s for the greater good that the people we care about get killed before acquaintances and strangers?”
My tongue was heavy in my mouth. I didn’t want anyone to die, but I didn’t know which was better or worse. Maybe there isn’t a better or worse when it comes to deciding who to protect and who to leave vulnerable.
But going out and killing the zombies now was definitive. It was action. It was something I could get done. I grabbed my jacket.
“You can’t be serious,” he said. “Don’t do this, Caro.”
“It has to be done, Penny. And waiting around isn’t going to solve anything.”
“I don’t want any part of this,” he said. “If you kill those zombies, you’re doing it without me.”
“I don’t need your help,” I snapped.
“McGregor won’t help you either. He won’t do anything to endanger the pack.” Penny smiled at me as though this was his winning point. Like without the help of one of the werewolves I would back down.
“Oh, well,” I said as I pushed my car keys into my jeans pocket.
“Do you ever listen to anything I say,” he snarled.
“I listened enough to determine that you’re wrong.”
He bowed his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. “If you go back there,” he said, “we’re done.”
“I have to do this, Jeremy. You know that.”
“Fine,” he said. He crossed to the door in two strides, wrenching it open and nearly pulling it from the hinges in the process.
“Penny—“ I started, not sure what I was going to say to him, but when he turned towards me, his face was devoid of expression.
“No,” he said. “I’m done. I don’t want any part of this.”
He was gone before I had time to think about stopping him. I waited for the slamming of the outside door, but it never came. My fists clenched—if this were a normal temper tantrum, the building would’ve been reverberating with the force of the door shutting.
I went out to my car, fully intending to go back to the swamp and torch the zombies. Only, as soon as my butt hit the seat, exhaustion poured over me. My whole body was limp and heavy, my eyelids on a consistent downward slide to being closed. I lay back against the head rest, giving myself a few minutes of silence.
I decided to head home and hop in the shower for a boost of energy. Then, I’d deal with the zombies.
As I drove, my mind bounced from thought to thought. Penny and the things he almost said—what would’ve happened if I let him say them? Would I have said it back? But then what would that mean for our friendship? And the fight we got into afterwards. I didn’t know who was right anymore. I didn’t want anyone I loved to be hurt, but I also didn’t want that to get in the way of me keeping everyone else safe. No matter how hard I thought, there just wasn’t a right answer.
By the time I got home, my bottom lip was a gnawed, bloody mess, and I was even more confused than before.
I was a few feet away from the front steps when the movement of a shadow where one shouldn’t exist made me look towards the roof.
There he stood, silhouetted against the moon—the Blond God Vampire from earlier in the evening. He must’ve sensed me watching; he raised his hand in greeting.
I flipped him off, and as I stepped through the front door, I swear I heard him laugh.