Page 8

Author: Tracy Wolff

“Yeah, sure.” Ash shoves his chair back from the table like he’s been searching for a reason to get the hell out of Dodge. Not that I blame the guy. The last half hour can’t exactly have been fun for him. Not with the way Luc is making goo-goo eyes at Cam, who keeps glancing at me from under her lashes while I lust after Ophelia, who is doing a damn good impression of giving head to an ice cream cone. Ash probably feels like he’s fallen down a f**king rabbit hole—of the pornographic kind.

“But I’m not done with my ice cream,” Ophelia complains.

“Yeah, you are.” I snatch the cone out of her hand and dump it into the nearest trash can. It’s one thing for her to eat the thing like that in here, where we’re the only customers. There’s no way I’m taking her out on the street with it, where every as**ole tourist in Park City can imagine exactly what I’ve spent the last thirty minutes thinking about.

“So much for the Welcome Wagon,” Luc mutters, but Ophelia doesn’t object about the lost cone. Instead, she just looks at me, her big green eyes so innocent that I know—I know—she’s screwing with me. She’s been playing me from the second she came back from the bathroom tonight, messing with my head just because she can.

Which somehow only makes me hotter.

Not that I have any intention of letting her know that.

I’ve been desperate for a distraction for two days. Desperate for something, anything, to hold back all the bullshit tumbling around inside me. So far, meeting Ophelia has done a pretty decent job of it. Which means it’s time to take things to the next level. Time to—

I catch sight of a mom and a little girl walking through the door of the ice-cream shop and freeze in the middle of pushing back from the table. The girl, maybe six or seven, has long black hair, big blue eyes, and cheeks rosy from the cold. One of her hands clutches her mother’s, while the other holds a ragtag stuffed rabbit that has definitely seen better days.

Oh, shit. Oh, shit. She looks just like April. Her hair, her eyes, her smile. Even her damn purple jacket looks the same.

I turn away, just in time to realize that Cam has seen the girl, too. I can tell by the way her eyes widen and dart back and forth between the girl and me. By the way she grabs Luc and wrenches him to his feet. By the way her voice sounds all wrong when she says, “Time to go.”

Then again, maybe it’s my ears and not her voice. God knows, everything feels off inside me, the pressure building up where no one can see. Just like last night, only worse. So much worse. Because tonight I’m shaking apart, ripping at the seams until the jumbled mess inside me is even more mixed up. I’m shredded all over again.

And because of what? A morbid anniversary that I shouldn’t bother remembering and a little girl and her damn stuffed rabbit.

It’s ridiculous. Humiliating. And at the moment I couldn’t care less.

I head for the door at the closest I can get to a run, brushing past the girl and her mom without so much as an Excuse me or a Fuck you. I’m sure I look like a total pu**y to everyone—Z, cracking under the pressure—but right now that doesn’t matter. Nothing does but getting out of here.

I hit the nearly deserted street and start walking, barely aware of the fact that the others are trailing me down the sidewalk. I’m pissed—at life, at the universe, at that damn little girl even though none of this is her fault.

It’s my fault. It’s always been my fault. Trying to blame someone else won’t change anything.

The thought has me slowing down enough that the others can catch up to me. Ash bumps shoulders with me on the left, while Cam grabs my elbow on the right. I know they’re concerned, know they’re just trying to help, but right now sympathy is the last thing I need—especially when it’s sympathy that I don’t deserve.

I want to shrug them off, to tell them to back off, but none of this is their fault, either. So in the end, all I do is knock my own shoulder into Ash’s even as I wrap my arm around Cam’s shoulders. Then I turn to grin at Luc, who is walking right behind me, a worried look on his face that I know I’m responsible for. Even Ophelia looks uncomfortable, like she’s aware she missed something important and doesn’t quite know how to act in the face of all this tension.

Time to change that, and fast.

“So, who’s up for a party?” I ask, reaching into my back pocket for my phone. “I got a couple of texts earlier about one at Mandy’s house and one at—”

“Seriously?” Luc interrupts me. “That’s all you’re going to say?”

Damn straight. “I was also going to ask if you wanted to stop by Danny’s and get some weed, but—”

“You’re a jerk. You know that, Z?” Cam looks furious.

“I never said I wasn’t,” I tell her with a grin.

I glance at Ash, expecting him to say something to back me up, but he just looks sick. Goddamnit. Bad enough that I’ve already been to the ER today, but now I’m dragging them down with old baggage that none of us can escape from.

“You don’t have to front with us, man,” Luc says. “We get it—”

“No, you don’t.” The words pop out before I even know I’m going to say them. But I’m not doing this. Not here. Not now. And sure as hell not in front of Ophelia. “I’m fine.”

Ash actually grinds his teeth. It’s obvious he wants to say something, but unlike Luc and Cam, he’s very aware of the fact that Ophelia is with us. I wait for his frustration to get the better of him, but it doesn’t, and in the end he keeps his mouth shut.

That doesn’t mean Luc and Cam will, though. And I’m done with being the charity case of the week. Before I really know I’m going to do it, I turn and sprint toward the small community park at the end of the street. I can hear them behind me, their boots crunching on the new layer of snow that coats the ground all around us.

Reaching down, I cup a handful of snow as I wait for them to catch up. Then, after shaping it into a perfect ball, I fling it straight into Cam’s face.

For long seconds, nobody moves. Even Cam just stands there with her mouth open as snow drips off her eyelashes and down her cheeks.

“What the hell?” Luc demands, looking pissed all over again. But before he can say anything else, a snowball hits him square in the chest.

I glance over at Ophelia, who is grinning with pride. “Cool,” she says. “This is my first snowball fight.”

There’s something in her eyes, something that says maybe she understands where I’m coming from, though I don’t know how she could. I barely understand myself. Still, I’m not about to waste the opportunity she just presented me with.

“Your first snowball fight?” I demand, even as I scoop up more snow. “How is that possible?”

“There’s not much snow in New Orleans,” she answers dryly.

“Is that where you’re from?” I ask, suddenly curious to know more about her.

“Born and raised.”

“So, what brings you to Utah?” It seems a strange choice for a southern girl who’s never had enough snow to make even a few snowballs.

Instead of answering, she sends a second snowball careening straight toward me. It hits me right between the eyes, even stings a little. The girl is a fast learner.

I bend over and start to scoop up some snow, and she takes off through the park. She’s not used to snow, doesn’t know how to run in it, so she isn’t moving very fast. I could catch her without even trying, but instead I let her get a little ahead of me. Lull her into a false sense of security.

Sure enough, after she’s gotten twenty or so yards in front of me, she turns and looks over her shoulder. And that’s when I let her have it. I send a snowball soaring across the distance between us, then watch with satisfaction as it slams straight into her chin.

Some girls would probably get mad—kind of like Cam—but Ophelia just gives her tinkling-bell laugh, a pure, rich sound that echoes through the empty park. It gets to me, has a chill running down my spine even as my c**k twitches a little. Especially when she gathers up more snow and makes a huge snowball. There’s something really sexy about a girl who knows how to play.

I don’t bother to turn around, don’t even think about dodging or running. I’m too fascinated by the laughter she makes no effort to hide and the sparkle in her normally sober eyes. I brace myself for impact, but once again this girl is full of surprises. She whirls at the last second and hurls her snowball straight at Luc.

By the time he figures out he’s about to get hit, it’s too late for him to do anything other than jump to the side. The snowball gets him in the arm, exploding into a million clumps of snow on impact.

And then, quite simply, it’s on.

The rules are simple: there are no rules. And while it may seem vicious to some, this no-holds-barred game is exactly what I need.

Since there are five of us, it starts out as pretty much every man for himself. Still, I stick close to Ophelia in case she runs into trouble. Running on snow can be treacherous, and the last thing I want is for her to slip and break a leg her first month in town. Especially when this is supposed to be about fun, not pain.

We end up running through the whole park twenty or thirty times, Ash and Luc hot on our heels the whole way. Snow is everywhere, so we have no problem making snowballs and lobbing them at the two guys whenever they get too close to us, but we focus so much attention on them that we forget to look out for Cam. Which is stupid on my part, because finding a hiding spot and then building a stockpile of ammunition is totally her modus operandi. She’s been doing it since we were kids.

Sure enough, we’re making yet another circuit of the park, trying to get to the retaining wall in the back corner so we can make our stand without worrying that someone will creep up behind us, when a volley of snowballs rains down on our heads. Cam has set herself up behind the art wall of one of the playscapes so that she’s perfectly shielded as she sends snowball after snowball flying at us. One after another, again and again and again, until we give up any attempt at fighting and instead look for a place to hide.

Ophelia tries to duck behind a teeter-totter, but it’s too exposed. As soon as we turn our attention to Cam, we’ll be sitting ducks for Luc and Ash, who are already circling.

Grabbing Ophelia’s hand, I pull her behind a large tree and flatten her against it with my body. She stiffens, but as the snowballs start flying, she figures out pretty quickly that I’m trying to protect her.

“Get down,” I shout as they start coming faster. Ash and Luc have obviously scented blood in the water, and they’re going to annihilate us if we don’t do something soon. “Start scooping up snow.”

“What’s that going to do?” she demands, even as she starts raking at the snow with her gloved hands. “They’ve got us.”

They do. I know they do. But I’m not willing to give up yet. This is Ophelia’s first snowball fight, and I started it. The least I can do is protect her if I can’t actually help her win it.

I bend down, making sure to keep her covered even as I start to scoop snow as well. “Make as many as you can,” I tell her, “But don’t throw any. Not yet.”

She turns her head, peeks over my shoulder. “You’re getting pummeled.”

“Doesn’t matter.” It’s not like I don’t spend the better part of every day surrounded by or falling into snow. Besides, Ophelia’s shivering already. If I move and she gets hit with a continual barrage of snow, she’ll probably end up with hypothermia or some such shit.

The snowballs are coming fast and furious now, one after the other, and from two different directions—Cam, who has moved out from behind the wall, is hitting us from the right, while Ash and Luc are attacking us from the left.