“You sure you don’t want to take leftovers?” Maine held out a Tupperware container holding the last of the honey-bourbon chicken she’d grilled for supper, jogging it temptingly.
“Nah,” Oakley said. “You deserve the extras more than me.”
“Where do you think the bourbon came from?” Maine replied, sealing the lid back on. “I know who my suppliers are. I know who deserves special treatment.”
Oakley accepted the plastic box with a grin. “You spoil me, Maine.”
“Thank you again for the splendid meal,” Memee said from the kitchen doorway, nodding her head to Oakley. “Oakley, I’ll make sure Sawyer fills you in on the next supply run.”
Oakley felt her smile slip but she nodded anyway. “Thanks Memee,” she returned without much enthusiasm. Their fearless leader gave a small wave then returned to her upstairs quarters without another word.
Maine raised an eyebrow. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I know you hate supply detail. But honestly, I’m not entirely sure Sawyer knows what she’s doing. And now she’s going to be twice as stunned.”
Oakley nodded. “I know. The dangerous part is that many people having to look out for each other. Your self-awareness suffers if you expend part of your energy taking care of other people. The more people, the less aware you are of your own well-being. It’s just … math.”
“Add in Sawyer’s need to kill every creeper and not just run away when she knows she’s outnumbered and … well, that’s recipe for disaster really,” Ty-Ty piped up from the sink where she was washing dishes.
Maine gave Oakley an all-sass look. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about this.”
“What? Tell me,” Oakley insisted, setting her leftovers on the marble countertop and climbing onto a stool.
“They didn’t go into that store room just for stock,” Maine shared on a whisper. “Sawyer knew creepers were in there. The truck was loaded, they were set to go, but she didn’t want to leave any of those bastards animated. She told California and Tanya to go kill them. Sawyer has put killing creepers at the top of every agenda, over getting supplies and being smart.”
The floor under her tilted just a bit as the consequences of that hit Oakley. “How do you know this?”
“Maybelline told Tink and Tink told me,” Ty-Ty piped up.
“Are we sure she wasn’t trying to get Sawyer in shit?” Plenty of people on the supply run crew had run-ins with Sawyer from time to time.
“She didn’t tell Rainbow which means Memee doesn’t know,” Maine replied as confirmation. “But this hit Sawyer hard. Maybelline figures that’s punishment enough for being stupid.”
Oakley trusted Maybelline’s opinion, one of the few people in Greenwater she could say that about. The list wasn’t too long; mainly the two women who had just cooked this fantastic meal, Tink, Memee (as long as she knew what was going on), Maybelline and Matilda. The only reason Jess wasn’t on the list was because she was still so young.
“Damn,” Oakley whispered, bringing up her recollections of California and Tanya. They were both sunshine blondes, peaches and cream skin and crystal-blue eyes. Twin sisters. Memee had rescued them from a pimp in San Diego when they were fifteen.
“Yeah,” Maine agreed, lost in her own thoughts as well.
“Well. Should I help with dishes?” Oakley offered, knowing it would be an offer declined.
“Nope. Go on and get. I’ve heard there was some fine-ass, bearded man spotted along the fence just outside your trailer,” Maine whispered with a knowing grin. “When I see you tomorrow you better be grinning wide, honey.”
Oakley rolled her eyes, waved goodbye with the chicken in her right hand, and bounded down the porch steps already smiling.
In her backyard she pulled a small pack down from the peg board above her worktable, shoved the chicken inside, and slid the machete into the sheath she’d had added to the side of the pack that fit snug to her back. She hefted it onto her shoulders, grabbed the field-point arrow that had landed next to her washtub that afternoon, and checked the backs of the surrounding houses. Most of the lights were out; the ones that weren’t did not contain the silhouette of curious observers.
She picked the climbing vine away from a section of chain link, untwisting the wire she’d used to hold a small flap closed. Checking for an audience one last time, she rolled the fence away just enough to climb through, straightened it back in place and fastened the ties again.
On the opposite side of the fence, the world felt wilder. That was likely the real reason she ventured out at all. It wasn’t just the threat of creepers; there could be bears, wolves, hell, even badgers were plenty nasty. Life was unpredictable here and the creepers were no more of a major player than she was.
The sky was tinged with purple, and the shadows loomed that much darker as she approached the tree line and was embraced by the wildness of untouched forest.
The wind blew the leaves and branches overhead. Birds were calling to each other. She could hear squirrels scolding their neighbours. And the unmistakable puffing breaths of a nearby creeper.
Oakley stopped, drew the machete, and turned in a slow circle, giving it time to show itself. Twigs snapped under its shuffling feet, and she turned to her nine o’clock position, ready for it.
It had been a middle-aged man in life. He wore cargo shirts, a polo shirt and one glove, likely for golfing. There was a nasty, seeping black wound on the side of his neck. He’d been attacked back when the affluent were still trying to live their regular, comfortable lives. The dead were walking around and he’d been golfing for Pete’s sake.
Then she frowned. That was ten years ago, if not longer. How had he been around for that long? They’d started starving at one point. But this one must have been a very lucky bastard.
Until now, of course.
He lurched in her direction and she charged. Not making a sound she swung the machete at his head and the unthinkable happened.
Her swing brought her back around to face him again, and she gasped her surprise as he stumbled a hundred and eighty degrees, starting his way back to her.
What. The. Hell?
In thirteen years she’d never seen a creeper perform an evasive maneuver. It jangled her nerves, made her take a step back, into the waiting arms of something cold, slimy and dead.
She screamed at the surprise of it, but something in her muscle memory was working after all. She had both hands on the machete’s grip and she swung upward, not stopping until the blade hit something. The arms around her let go, she pulled the blade free and stepped away fast. The body behind her hit the dead leaves of the ground, but she didn’t exactly check that it was out of commission because the first creeper was charging her way now.
She changed tactic. She joust-attacked him, running at him and dropping the machete blade last minute in an arc that severed his torso in half. His upper body tumbled one away, the legs stopped for a moment then flopped over forward. Not wasting a second she swung the blade down at the head, just like chopping wood.
The name was shouted from behind her, so she spun fast, just in time to catch a creeper right through the skull. The woman’s skull was hard, though. The blade sunk in about four inches on the one side of her head and Oakley couldn’t move it any further. The woman’s body took the machete as she fell. Once she was down Oakley grabbed the handle and wiggled the weapon free.
“Are you okay?”
The voice she knew. The man walking her way with a fiberglass bow in one hand, arrow at the ready, was also familiar. Her adrenalin prevented the flush of desire she usually experienced at the sight of him, but Oakley did manage to give a weak smile. “Hunter,” she said unnecessarily.
“Holy shit,” he whispered, drawing close enough that she could smell the male scent of him, sliding a hand down the back of her shoulder, a tingle from that touch breaking through the numbness of her survival instinct.
“Did you see all that?” she asked weakly, reaching to her back and pulling his arrow from where she’d lodged it in the pack. She handed it over and he attached it to his quiver without really paying attention. He was examining her, making sure she hadn’t been cut or bit.
“Yeah babe, I saw it,” he murmured, turning her around, hand running over the back of her neck and shoulders. “I was watching you. They came out of nowhere. That one that grabbed you was hiding behind a tree.”
“Did the creepers get a tactical upgrade when I wasn’t looking?” she asked wryly, finally making him smile in a way that split his face half-open and brought out a deep, baritone laugh she felt in the roots of her hair.
“You’re okay,” he declared, swatting her butt then pulling her close with one arm. “You look good and smell good, too.”
She felt her heart flutter, such a ridiculous and girly feeling. “Thanks,” was all she could say before he dropped his mouth to hers aggressively, beard scratching at her chin, moustache scraping her upper lip, tongue sweeping into her mouth just enough to make her tighten her free arm around his waist. When he brought his head up again his smile was downright wicked. “Missed you, Annie.”
Her real name from his lips made the flutter return. “Missed you too, Hunter.”
Oakley’s body mourned his heat as he pulled away from her, but Hunter wasn’t gone for long. He retrieved the chicken from her bag and returned to the sleeping platform, sliding into the sleeping bag next to her and leaning his back to the wall.
This had been a hunting platform, halfway up a huge oak tree. It was an eight-foot-square deck with half-walls around all four sides and a trap door at the top of a ladder built into the oak’s trunk. A double mattress had been added by Hunter for their … meetings. He’d assured her it was brand new, she honestly couldn’t give a damn.
He bit into a piece of Maine’s amazing chicken, growling and letting his eyes roll back in his head. Mouth full he declared, “A taste of my Annie and a taste of this? It ain’t even my birthday.”
She laughed, sliding into his side and resting her head on his chest. His arm came around her shoulders instantly, cuddling her close. “When are you guys going to come to Memee?” she asked casually, her fingers playing through his chest hair.
“Tomorrow or the next day,” he answered then tore more meat off the thigh bone he held. “Haven’t decided yet.”
The day after tomorrow was Matilda’s birthday. Which reminded her about the bad news she had for him.
“Hunter,” she began, tone indicating she was about to tell him something very not pleasant.
“There’s a woman at Greenwater that’s got the motherhood urge again.”
“Hmmm.” He knew about Tennessee, of course. It had given her nightmares while sleeping right next to him that resulted in vicious fingernail tears along his arms when he couldn’t wake her up.
“It’s someone I really know and like, too,” she delayed. “Her name’s Matilda. She’s going to be nineteen.”
Hunter guffawed at that, tossing the thigh bone into the Tupperware. “Nineteen, hey? Well one of my guys is going to be a hell of a lucky bastard, isn’t he? Shit. Nineteen.”
She pinched his side, making him yelp. “Hey,” she snapped, making him laugh.
“Damn it Oakley, you know you’re the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had.” That was his default comment when he thought he’d inadvertently insulted her.
“I’m not jealous of her youth you twit,” she snapped, unable to avoid a smile. “I’m … I’m just …”
He pushed her hair over her shoulder, his hand sliding along her jawline. “What is it, babe?”
“She’s decided you’d be a good father.”
His face didn’t change. His attention went from one of her eyes to the other, waiting for the punch line or the Just kidding. When it didn’t come he froze.
She flattened her hand between the pads of muscle on his chest. “She’s a real sweetheart, Hunter. And it galls me to say this but … I want you to give her this.”
He shrank away from her slightly, not so much physically, more as in body language. “Are you insane?”
She bit her lip. “Look, this thing we have isn’t exactly a secret anymore. I’m scared that if it comes out beforehand she’ll change her mind, then resent me for preventing something she really wants. And I’d hate that. I really like her, Hunter. And as much as the whole pregnancy thing freaks me out, what’s the point in surviving if we’re not trying to populate?”
“You are out of you ever-loving mind,” he whispered. “And who knows about us?”
She winced. “Rainbow found out, which means Memee knows. Two friends, Maine and Ty-Ty … well, you know Maine,” she said carefully. Maine had been lucky enough to draw the first choice selection the one time Hunter showed up for sex assignment. Lucky bitch.
“Maine knows? Oh babe,” he said, almost apologetically.
She waved her hand. “I don’t care that you two were together. Whatever. I love Maine, love her cooking, just like you do.”
He shook his head slowly. “There’s no way, Oakley. She’ll have to pick someone else …” he surged to his feet, pacing the small amount of room on the platform that wasn’t occupied by the bed or trapdoor.
Oakley couldn’t even appreciate the sight of that bare skin, lit only by a camping lantern, still shining with good, male sweat. She sat up on her knees, drawing the sleeping bag up over her chest. “Hunter, you have to.”
He shook his head. “That’s … I can’t. I can’t do it.”
Oakley didn’t know how to talk him into it. “You have to. All you have to do is get her pregnant. After that, you don’t have to do anything.”
He dropped his hands from where they were pulling at his hair. “What? You think that’s what’s freaking me out?”
She was lost for words. “Isn’t it?”
“No!” he nearly shouted. “Christ, Oakley. What is this? She has a kid, what are you going to feel seeing that kid every day?”
Her answer was soft and honest. “I’d know you gave my friend a son or daughter.”
He shook his head. “Oh Christ.”
He knelt next to her, taking her face in his hands. “I don’t come here just for the chance to sleep with you, babe. I come here for you. To be with you. Against all the shit going on, I care about you and I want to be with you. If I didn’t think Greenwater was the safest place for you I would have run away with you a long time ago.”
Her breath caught. “You would?”
“Of course.” He sounded pretty pissed off she didn’t believe him. “You’re my girl, Oakley. And if I want a kid with anyone … it’s you.”
She drew in her breath sharply, and he smiled as he watched her clue in.
“You’re getting me now, babe?”
“I get you.”
“So … shit. I don’t know what to do here. If I tell Memee no, what happens?”
Oakley shrugged. “Maybe Matilda has a second choice?”
He threw his head back and laughed at that, bringing her skin back to life again just with that sound. “That’s a flattering thought. Not that any of my guys would care that they weren’t her first choice. Like I said …” he waggled his eyebrows. “Nineteen, babe.”
She smacked him again as he tumbled her to the side, landing with him half on top of her. He smoothed her hair back from her temple. “I can’t do that, Oakley. But I’m worried that Memee’s decision to let us winter here might change because of it.”
Oakley tightened her mouth. “Then you do it, Hunter. You spend the two weeks having wild sex with Matilda. I want to know you’re safe in the winter. That’s more important to me.”
He smiled so sweetly she could have sighed. “Okay, babe. Fair call. Anything to be safe.”
Poll Now Closed – New Chapter Released Soon!