“T-M-I, Cay. T-M-I. I don’t want to know what, if anything, you hook up with.”

Laughing again, Caleb pulled his car keys out of his pocket. “You want me to take you to work?”

“If you don’t mind. I definitely don’t want to hike with that right now.” Nick got up and stared at his evil five-hundred-pound backpack.

“Really, Nick?” Caleb’s tone was drier than the Sahara. “You want me to carry that, too?”

Nick batted his eyelashes at him. “Why, you’re such a strong, handsome brute, Caleb Malphas,” he said in a thick, overexaggerated Southern drawl. “Why, it’d just mean the entire world to me to have my suitor be so thoughtful and kind.”

Caleb shoved at him, causing him to groan in pain. “Don’t say shit like that out loud. I’ll kill you if someone overhears you and thinks you’re serious.” He jerked the backpack off the bench, tossed it over his shoulder, and headed for the door.

“Caleb, baby, wait! Honey, I didn’t mean to make you mad!” Nick started after him, then had to stop as a wave of pain racked him across his ribs. He cursed Mason under his breath.

You better hope I don’t ever catch you off campus, dickweed. Next time he set someone on fire, it could very well be Mason … and it might not be an accident.

“Nicky? Baby? What’s wrong?”

Nick pulled up short the instant he left the locker room and came face-to-face with the Queen of the Multiple and Annoying Texts.

“Hi, Casey.”

She arched both brows as she noted his arm across his middle and his slumped stance. “Is something wrong, sug?”

“Took a bad hit during practice.”

“Is that why you’ve been ignoring me?”

Nick cringed as he ran through a list of possible responses that wouldn’t cause her to do further harm to his body. The only problem? He couldn’t think of a single one that wouldn’t get him jack-slapped.

“He wasn’t ignoring you, Casey,” Caleb said as he backtracked to Nick’s side. “It was my fault. I took his phone away. I didn’t want him distracted after he’d already been hurt. Sorry.”

Score one for the fast-thinking demon friend. Thank you, Nick shot over to Caleb’s thoughts.

Caleb inclined his head to him.

“So are you done?” Casey asked Nick.

“Not yet. I’ve still got to go to work.”

She flashed a mischievous grin at him. “No, you don’t. I already talked to Mr. Hunter, and he agreed that you could use a night off. So it looks like you’re mine tonight.”

Nick feigned a smile over the sudden lump in his stomach. “Goody.” He glanced past her to Caleb. Help me.

Caleb gave him a wicked grin. Not on your life, amigo. Your girl. Your problem. He handed Nick the backpack so hard that it caused Nick to grunt. “You kids have fun,” he said with an evil gleam in his eye. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Caleb!

He ignored Nick’s desperate call as he headed out of the building.

Coward.

I heard that.

Of course he did. And then the rat chose to ignore it. Fine, I’ll remember this, Malphas.

Casey rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him. “Finally, we have some alone time.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got a lot of homework.”

She nipped his chin. “You’ll get it done. You always do. Besides, you’re number one in the class ranking. Let a night slide and give Brynna some hope that she might actually snag valedictorian away from you before graduation.” She took his hand and pulled him toward the door. “I have a surprise for you.”

That really made the knot in his gut tighten to the point he’d probably pass a diamond later tonight. “I’ve learned to really hate surprises.”

“You won’t hate this one.”

He wasn’t so sure about that. Last time he’d heard that, he’d almost been eaten by a demon.

Casey pulled him to her car, then put his backpack in her front trunk.

“Where are we going?” he asked as they got into the car.

“You really don’t like surprises, do you?”

“Not even a little.”

Sighing, she started the car and waited until they were on their way before she answered. “Did you hear that Alex Peltier is starting a band?”

“Yeah, I heard him say something about it. Why?”

“They’re looking for a drummer.”

He still wasn’t following her train of thought or overly perky attitude about it. “Okay…”

She turned her head to pin him with a pointed stare.

That didn’t help him guess at all. His telepathy only worked with other telepaths. And since Casey was normal, he was clueless. “I’m apparently missing a vital clue. Can I buy a vowel, Pat?”

To his utter relief, she turned her head back toward traffic before they crashed and became a hood ornament for a semi. “They’re looking for a drummer, Nick. You’re a drummer, right?”

Was she insane?

“Uh … no. No, I’m not.”

“You played in band. I remember it.”

So did he, even though he’d tried his best to forget it. “Three years ago for six weeks, and then I had to drop out.”

“Why?”

He clamped his jaw tight before he admitted to her that they hadn’t been able to afford drumsticks. How embarrassing was that? Drumsticks were only a couple of bucks, and until Kyrian had hired him, they hadn’t even had a buck and change left over for him to stay in band.

Sadly, the whole reason he’d picked drums was because it was the only instrument he didn’t have to buy or rent. He’d used his schoolbooks as practice pads. And even that had been more than his mother could afford.

But he would never admit to that poverty out loud. He had too much pride for that.

“I didn’t have time for it,” he lied.

“You still learned how to play.”

“Not well,” he added quickly. “You know, there’s a really big difference between learning what a note is, and being Tommy Lee.”

“Yeah, but I bet you remember a lot more than you think you do.”

He appreciated her confidence in him, but at some point, common sense had to make an appearance in this conversation. “No, Casey, I don’t. I barely learned anything.”

“Seriously, Nick? You need to learn to believe in yourself. There’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it. That’s why I’m taking you to the audition.”

He glanced at the road and actually considered jumping for it. He’d rather be a stain on the pavement than endure the horrors of what she had planned. “I tell you what I believe.… I believe I’m going to highly embarrass myself … which is something I can do without.”

“No, you won’t.” He heard the deep aggravation in her tone as she snapped at him.

Even though his ribs protested it, he raked his hand through his dark hair. “Why are you doing this to me? What did I do to you to make you hate me like this?”

She gave him a peeved glare. “I don’t hate you, baby. And I’m not doing anything to you. You said just the other day in class that you’d love to be in a band.”

“I also said I’d love to be an astronaut. I hope that don’t mean you’re going to throw me in a rocket and launch my butt into outer space.”

“Stop being ridiculous.”

Nick wanted to beat her. He wasn’t being ridiculous. She was. And unreasonable too.

I don’t need this crap. He really didn’t. The day had been bad enough, and after barely escaping death yesterday—twice—he didn’t want to go through anything horrible today.

Was it really too much to ask for a twenty-four-hour period of normality? His stomach heaved as a wave of terror consumed him.

That feeling didn’t get better as they pulled up in front of Madaug St. James’s house and she parked her car on the curb. She turned in the seat to face him. “They’re auditioning in Eric’s garage. Eric and Alex are the guitarists … or one’s a bass or something. I can’t remember. But you know Eric, right?”

He nodded. Eric was Madaug’s older brother Nick and Bubba had helped to save from zombies last year. “Casey—”

“Shh! No argument.” She got out, then literally pulled him from the car and up the driveway with him dragging his feet the whole way. He hadn’t been this big a baby since he was ten years old and his mother had pulled him into the lacy panty section of Walmart in front of one of his teachers and her daughter who was in his class while the two of them had been shopping for Tina’s training bras.

Oh the humanity and degradation of that nightmare!

Nick felt like he was going to hurl. Why couldn’t Mason have killed me during practice?

As they neared the garage, he heard someone attempting to play … a song he couldn’t even begin to identify. It reminded him of a two-year-old with an overturned pan. The poor kid was hitting the drums very deliberately while counting the beat out loud. He’d stomped the bass pedal with his foot, then counted and hit the snare and floor tom.…

And the serious torture that was going on with the hi-hat and crash cymbals made the hair on the back of his neck rise.

Yeah, okay, Nick could probably play better than that. But the kid didn’t seem to care as he kept going in an awkward style that froze Nick to the spot as soon as they came into view of the drummer. Nick didn’t recognize him from school, but since Eric didn’t go to St. Richard’s with him, Alex, and Madaug, he could be from Eric’s high school instead.

To the credit of the band, none of them laughed or jeered at the guy’s poor skills. Of course, their expressions basically said they were too horrified or shocked to move, never mind speak.

Except for Alex, who had one hand over his mouth while his blue eyes were wide and round as he watched the kid play. Tall and blond, Alex Peltier was a member of the bear clan that owned and ran Sanctuary on Ursulines, where Nick’s mom worked. He and Nick had been cursory friends for a couple of years, and in all honesty, he liked the bear.

Nick really only knew Eric through Madaug and his ritualistic bitch sessions about how much Madaug hated his older brother and the emo stage that Eric seemed to be locked into.

A lot on the odd but extremely brilliant side, Madaug was the certifiable genius who’d created the Zombie Hunter game that had turned half their football team into zombies almost two years ago. Luckily, they’d stopped it, but it hadn’t been easy.

The other two guys who sat in stunned silence with Eric and Alex, Nick didn’t know at all.

Screwing up her face, Casey pressed her finger into her left ear and shuddered.

Finally, the kid stopped abusing the drums. He got up and made a grandiose, formal bow to Alex and company. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” he said, even though no one was applauding. “For the record, I can practice any day but Sunday.” He came forward and handed each band member a card. “That’s my name and number for your convenience. I know, to be fair, you’ll want to hear everyone else audition for the band. Once they’re done and you realize how great I am, you can reach me there until nine. I’m not allowed to take calls after nine or else.” He smiled at each of them. “I can’t wait to hear from you.”

Alex’s mouth opened and closed several times before he finally spoke. “Thanks…” He looked down at the card. “David. We really appreciate you coming by.”

“See you soon.” David drew near Nick and raked him with a sneer. “You should go on home. They already have a drummer.… Me.”

Nice ego there, buddy.

But Nick didn’t say anything out loud. Who was he to hurt someone else’s feelings? Honestly, he envied the kid that kind of confidence. God knew he’d never had a drop of it.

“Hey, Nick,” Alex said, rising to his feet as he realized they were there. “Casey. What are you doing here?”

“I have no idea,” Nick mumbled.

Casey scoffed at him, then she stepped forward, dragging Nick in her wake. “He’s here to audition.”

Alex’s eyes widened. “You play drums?”

“Play the radio, mostly.”

“Stop, Nick,” Casey chided as she pushed him closer to Alex. “He plays incredibly well. He’s just bashful about it.”

Still, he kept fighting her. “Really don’t. I suck, big time.” He gestured over his shoulder to the tiny Chihuahua who wouldn’t get her teeth out of his heinie. “Casey hit her head earlier when they dropped her off the top of their cheerleader pyramid, so I think I’ll take her for a CAT scan and—”



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