Great, I’ll die an old man alone.… By myself.

Awkward silence hung between them until Nick cleared his throat. “Uh … what are you doing here? You’re not stalking me, are you?”

“Hardly. You said you were going to work tonight, so I thought I’d give you a ride home.” She held her keys up to show him the pink furball key chain. “Surely you’d rather ride with me than on a streetcar, right?”

Not really. The streetcar didn’t make him nervous. Nor did he feel like a loser geek there. But he wasn’t about to tell her that and up his nimrod quotient for the day. If the captain of the cheerleaders offered to take you home, the correct answer was always “Sure. That’d be nice. Thanks.”

She smiled, but the strange thing was, it didn’t make his stomach flutter the way Kody’s smile always did.

I am not right.…

Only a real idiot moron would pine for a woman who’d been sent to kill him. Color me idiot moron.

Truth be told, Casey really was the hottest girl in school. He should be thrilled she was even deigning to talk to him. But then, she was also the most screwed up. She had to be, to play ping-pong relationship all the time with Stone. One minute she was all over him, and the next she was chewing him out and storming off, then coming on to Nick. Only to go back to Stone. It was enough to make a man dizzy.

With bouncing steps, she led him down the stairs and out to the street where her car was parked. Nick slowed down as he saw some vintage something that reminded him of a mouse—it was even the same pink as her key chain. All it needed was ears and a tail to make the image even more accurate. Heck, the front end looked like it already had a set of whiskers.

“What is this?”

She grinned. “1972 Karmann Ghia convertible. Couldn’t you just die? It’s the cutest thing ever! I love this car. It’s fully restored and like driving a time capsule or something.”

It was pretty awesome. “I never heard of one before.”

“It’s a Volkswagen. Now get in and be careful with the interior. I don’t want it damaged.”

Wow, that was a first. A girl who treasured her car. Maybe they had something in common after all. Not that he had a car, but he did love and appreciate other people’s rides.

Reaching the side of it, he frowned in uncertainty. Awesome though it was, the car was a tiny two-seater that didn’t leave a lot of room for his long legs and overloaded backpack. “You want me to put my gear in the trunk?”

“Sure.” She laughed lightly as he headed to the back end. “But it’s not in the rear, silly. The engine’s there. The trunk’s up front.”

Nick reversed course. “Oh. Sorry.” He’d had no idea it was like a Porsche. Must be a German car thing.

She opened the trunk for him, then invaded his personal space in a most distracting way. “Want to grab a bite on the way home?”

The seductive way she said that, he wasn’t too sure she was talking about food. And it was making him really nervous. Girls who looked like her didn’t usually notice him. Even though she’d been coming on to him off and on this last year, he still couldn’t quite accept that it wasn’t on a dare or something.

Nick took a step back. “I thought you were back with Stone.”

She wrinkled her nose. “We broke up.”

“Since when?”

“Since I found out you were available.” Eyeing him like the last bone in a dog kennel, she ran her tongue along her bottom lip.

Nick’s heart raced. He felt like a cornered fox surrounded by hounds. Help me.…

Before he realized what she was doing, she fisted her hands in his hideous Hawaiian shirt and jerked him toward her. Then she gave him the hottest kiss he’d ever had. One that set fire to his blood and stole his breath. Loosening her grip, she slid her hands around to his back and held him tight against her.

His body roared to life at the taste of her. I am hallucinating. This isn’t happening.

It couldn’t be.

She pulled back and nipped his chin with her teeth. Gah, I hope I shaved close enough. How horrifying to have her nip his three hairs and be grossed out by his lack of a real man beard.

“So how ’bout it?” she asked.

How about what? He’d totally forgotten whatever they’d been talking about.

It was food, idiot.

Oh yeah, that was it.

Nick licked his lips. “Um, I’ve already eaten.”

She rolled her eyes, then laughed. “You are so wonderfully clueless at times. And I don’t mean that as an insult. You are just so cute.”

“Yeah, ’cause that’s so what I was going for,” he said sarcastically.

She laughed again. Slamming her trunk down, she headed for the driver’s seat.

Unsure and, in truth, a little frightened of her, Nick headed to the passenger side and got in.

“So where do you live?” She started the car.

He was still getting used to not being mortified whenever someone from school asked him that question. Their former condo had been a dilapidated POS that wasn’t fit to house the ten million families of cockroaches who called it home. “A couple of blocks away from school … over on Bourbon.”

She gaped at him. “You really live on Bourbon Street?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t it loud at night?”

He wasn’t sure if she was horrified or intrigued by his address. “Not where we live. Once you get past St. Ann’s and head toward Ursulines, it’s really quiet … except during Mardi Gras. Then, there’s not much in the Quarter that doesn’t shatter the eardrums.”

She pulled away from the curb. “Tell me about it.… Well, since we have to go down that way to drop you off, you want to stop for beignets at the Café Du Monde?”

This was probably the first time in his life that he was turning down food, but for the sake of his sanity, he couldn’t bring himself to accept. It would just be too weird to be there with Casey. Not to mention, beignets were not first-date food since the loose powdered sugar topping made everyone who ate them look like a messy toddler. Really not the image he wanted her to have of him. Powdered sugar was the only thing on earth that could make his shirt uglier than what it already was. “I need to get home. My mom will be worried about me.”

“You could call her and tell her we’re stopping off.”

“Yeah, but then she’d drill me on who you are and why we’re stopping, and then she’d be offended that she didn’t get to meet you first.”

“Your mom’s real strict, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

As she drove, she dropped her hand to rest on his thigh. Nick almost came out of the car seat as a rush of adrenaline tore through him. Especially when she began trailing her small, delicate hand closer to his “no zone.”

He caught her hand to stop it in its torturous path before it struck gold.

She scowled at him. “What’s wrong? Stone loves it when I do that to him.”

Yeah, and he would like it, too. But he wasn’t that kind of guy. They barely knew each other. She hadn’t even bought him dinner yet.… “I’m not Stone.”

“And don’t I know it. You’re a lot more delish.”

Nick’s head spun. This isn’t real. I must have gotten hit by that chandelier after all. Yeah, that made sense. He was in the hospital, in a coma, and this was some far-fetched reality conjured by … too many cookies or something.

But then he remembered what Ambrose had told him. Getting girls will not be your problem.… Casey will be a good girlfriend in high school and you’ll be friends long after that.

Maybe this was how their relationship had started. Yeah, and maybe I’m in that coma somewhere. Swallowing hard, he watched the way her hair blew in the wind as they drove through traffic. It was a bit chilly to have the top down, but Casey didn’t seem to mind. She had the heat blowing on maximum.

“You need to relax, Nick.” She stroked his thigh beneath his hand. “And stop being so hard on yourself.”

“I’m not hard on myself.”

“Yes, you are. You’re a great guy, you know? You deserve great things.”

“I have great things.” At least now he did. His past, not so much.

“You might have them, but you act like you’re waiting for someone to snatch it all away. Like you’re not worthy of anything, except table scraps and insults.”

Was it that obvious? And here he’d always thought he had a pretty good poker face. Not as good as Ash’s …

But he wasn’t about to admit any of that to Casey. “I don’t do that.”

“Yes, you do. Case in point, yesterday at practice … The coach called your name as starter and you looked positively stunned. Like you couldn’t believe it. When you ran your drills, even with your helmet on, I could tell that you were waiting for him to change his mind and bench you. You do that with everything.”

He opened his mouth to argue, then realized how right she was. He did hold his head low. Too many years of bitter poverty, of people looking down their noses at him, had left its mark on his soul. Half the school was convinced he’d cheated his way into it.

Half?

More like ninety percent, or more. Even his teammates kept commenting on how the only reason he’d been let back on the team was because they’d lost so many of the their members to Madaug’s zombies. That wouldn’t hurt so much if Coach Devus hadn’t told him that he didn’t care if Nick played or not, he merely needed someone in a jersey to fill out their roster. So in the end, his teammates were right.

For that matter, any time he tried to have even a tiny scrap of ego, someone or something crawled out of the woodwork to mortify him in front of everyone and bash his ego on the nearest rock. So he’d given up on ever having any kind of self-esteem. Yeah, he pretended to be arrogant as a defense mechanism. But inside he knew the truth. He believed himself to be an even bigger loser than the rest of the world did.

She squeezed his leg. “You’re a Ferrari, Nick. It’s time for you to realize that.”

He scoffed. “I might be a Ferrari, but I have four flat tires.” And a rusted-out engine and no doors.

“See … there you go, putting yourself down. Why do you always do that?”

Before he could stop it, the truth came pouring out of him. “It’s easier to take other people’s insults and crap if I beat them to the punch. It doesn’t pay to have delusions of grandeur when there are so many people in the world looking to take you down a notch every time you dare to try and have some dignity. Therefore, why I should try?”

“So what?” she snapped. “Screw them! They wouldn’t be attacking you if they weren’t pathetic. It’s nothing more than their own admission that they are lesser creatures who envy you. Well-adjusted, intelligent people don’t have to put someone else down in order to feel superior or good about themselves. Only massive losers do that. And you, Nick, contrary to what you think, are not a loser.”

Funny, when she said it, he could almost believe it.

“We are young, Nick. Our time is now and there is no coming back to this place in our lives. You need to live it to the fullest. Grab the apple and take a big bite of it.”

“Yeah, but that didn’t work out so well for Adam.”

Laughing, she moved her hand back to the gearshift. “Are you calling me a snake?”

“No. Just pointing out that sometimes caution is a good thing.”

She blew a raspberry at him. “Here. I want you to memorize something for me.… Digmus sum.”

“Dig … how?”

She shook her head. “It’s Latin and it means, ‘I am worthy.’ I want you to say it until you actually believe it.”

Nick frowned. “I don’t know.…”

“I’m serious, Nick. Say it over and over until it becomes a litany.”

“I would, but I’m still stuck on the fact that you actually know Latin.”

She gave him an irritated smirk. “I’m not as vacuous as you think I am.”

“I never said you were vacuous.”

“Your looks have.”

Guilt consumed him. But honestly, he’d never thought of her as stupid. At least not until it came to one thing he couldn’t figure out. “No, that’s more my confusion about what you see in a jerk like Stone. And why you tolerate him all the time.”

Shrugging, she turned the wheel and downshifted. “Life is lonely. Sometimes you just want to be with someone, even if they’re not the best for you. They are better than nothing.”



----