1. Get through college, however she can.
2. Keep her four-year-old sister away from her mom's hoarding.
3. Never, never let disorder take over her life.
Of course, studying, working, and taking care of a toddler mean Sarah has no time for fun. Until she meets Zac.
He's sweet, he's funny, they have compatible plans for the zombie apocalypse. But Sarah can't let him in. It's not just his three drooly, sloppy dogs—with him in her life, the pristine future she's working for would be shredded before you can say Down, boy!
Sometimes falling in love is really all about letting go.
***Previously published in 2016 with a different cover.
Release date: August 16, 2019
Publisher: Twisted Press, LLC
Print pages: 376
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Kate L. Mary
One more mile.
The pounding of my feet against the pavement echoed through my head as I slowly sucked air into my lungs, working to calm my hammering heart. I had to have a second wind in there somewhere. Even though I was only halfway through my run and already out of breath, the salty bite of the Charleston air was refreshing. It would help me keep moving.
I pumped my legs harder, leaving Waterfront Park in my dust as I headed back through town. The final stretch. Soon I’d be home and getting ready for my night out with Meg. Freedom Friday, as we liked to call it, was the highlight of my month.
A bead of sweat made a trail down my back, and I took a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention before lifting my arm and taking a big sniff. The soft scent of lavender fabric softener, mixed with just a hint of baby powder, greeted me. Still fresh. Good.
Come on, Sarah, you can do it! Pretend there’s a mob of flesh-eating zombies behind you. It’s run or be eaten!
It was my typical mid-jog pep talk, and as usual, it got me moving faster. My calves ached when I picked up the pace, tearing through downtown with only one goal in mind: Making it home safely before the mass of undead lurching my way had a chance to sink their teeth into me. Even better, I pictured Daryl Dixon in front of me, his crossbow clutched in his hand as he urged me to move faster.
Hell, yeah. That got me moving!
I was lost in my apocalyptic fantasy when I turned the corner and a giant lunged at me. A scream ripped its way from my chest and I back-pedaled, practically tripping over my feet when I put my legs in reverse. My heart played a tune that was oddly similar to the Jaws theme song, right before the shark pops up and takes a big ole chunk out of someone. But it wasn’t a shark that had jumped out at me—not even the mythical land-shark of Syfy invention. It was a dog.
He sat on the sidewalk in front of me and wagged his tale, tilting his head to the side as he cocked one ear. His mouth hung open and his pink, slobbery tongue dropped out one side. I could practically smell the kibble on his breath. He was big. No wonder he scared the shit out of me. Golden retriever, maybe?
No. That can’t be right. Is that a dog? Do they use dogs to look for gold? I had to have made that up.
The dog stared up at me with his big, brown eyes and wagged his tail, and I took another step back. “Oh no, doggy. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
I chuckled at my own joke and bounced on the balls of my feet as I searched the area for the animal’s owner. Cars passed me on the street and a few blocks down I caught sight of a woman pushing a baby stroller. The clop of hooves greeted me from a couple streets over, but as far as I could tell, no doggy owner.
Pressing my lips together, I stared at the mutt for a few seconds while I considered my options. I could take him home, but was he really lost? Weren’t there movies about dogs traveling hundreds of miles to find their owners? Yeah, that seemed legit. There was no reason for me to bother taking the mutt home. He could just follow his own trail back to wherever he came from.
“Later, dog,” I said over my shoulder as I started running again.
It only took two steps for me to realize my rhythm was messed up, though. My heart rate had slowed, and the motivation I’d managed to muster had slipped away. What had I been thinking about before the dog tried to attack me? Oh, yeah, Daryl. Messiah of the zombie apocalypse, crossbow god. He’d save me from the horde of monsters at my back. I just needed to run faster!
I picked up the pace and focused on my breathing, ignoring the burning in my calves and the slight ache in my side. Damn dog screwed up my concentration.
When something clicked on the pavement behind me, I glanced over my shoulder. Doggy wagged his tail as he charged after me, and my heart jumped like he really was a zombie. He wasn’t a monster intent on scooping the brains out of my skull, but he was awfully big. And he was following me. I was probably the only person in the entire human race who did not get the whole man’s-best-friend thing, but dogs were much too messy for my life. Not to mention needy. I was way too independent for that.
I kept my focus on the road in front of me, putting one leg in front of the other as I worked to block out the dog trotting along after me. If I ignored him, he’d get the point and go away, right? It worked with guys. Most of the time.
So that was what I did. I concentrated on my Daryl mirage and pumped my legs faster, trying to ignore the click of the dog’s nails against the sidewalk and the way his tag clinked with every step he took. Only he didn’t stop following me. I made it another two blocks—digging my nails into my palms the entire way—before I finally gave in and stopped running.
Doggy sat when I turned to face him, wagging his tail like I was about to produce a Milk-Bone. I snorted as I knelt in front of him, being sure to keep my distance so he couldn’t get a surprise lick in. There were few things I found more disgusting than a dog slobbering all over a person’s face, and I was completely convinced that one day scientists would find a link between dog drool and some major illness. Cancer, maybe? The flu? Heart disease? Brain tumors! That had to be it. The saliva sank into a person’s pores and invaded the brain. Yeah, made sense.
“Okay, dog,” I said, reaching out to grab his collar so I could get a good look at his tag. “I’m going to try to get you home, but I want you to keep your distance. I don’t need any brain tumors. Too many people depend on this brain, and there’s no way I’m going to let you ruin it.” I tapped the side of my head with my free hand while twisting the tag toward me with the other. “Kal-El?” My nose wrinkled. “Why does that sound familiar? And what kind of a name is that for a dog? Shouldn’t you be named Rover or Lassie or Fido or something like that?”
Kal-El wagged his tail and leaned closer, coming dangerously close to infecting me with his doggy germs.
I jerked back, but kept the tag in my hand so I could get a look at the address. “Whoa! Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not interested. I’m sure you’re a very nice...um...dog, but I’m more of a plant person. They’re a lot less messy. Sorry.”
Kal-El cocked his head to the side and one of his eyebrows shot up.
Wait? Did dogs have eyebrows? No, that couldn’t be right. He did look awfully sad, though. Like he understood every harsh word I’d said and they’d gone straight to his sensitive doggy heart.
“Relax,” I muttered, pulling the tag closer. “It’s not you, it’s me. I prefer a slightly less hairy life companion. One who won’t get my house dirty or fur all over my couch. I’ve had more than enough messes in my life.”
When I got a closer look at the address, I sighed. The dog lived only a couple streets over from me, so his house was on my way home. Which meant I didn’t have an excuse to ignore him. Crap.
I dropped the tag and jumped up, stretching a little while I eyed the dog suspiciously. Like I suspected he was plotting some major attack. He just stared up at me with those big brown eyes, wagging his tail as if I was his new favorite human. How did dogs do that? Somehow, they could sense I didn’t like them and made it their personal mission to torture me—or win me over. I wasn’t sure which one. Either way, dog drool and hair all over my clothes was not the way to win my heart.
“Okay, Kal-El, let’s get moving so we can find your home. I’m not about to scratch you behind the ears or roll around on the ground with you, so I am not the right person for you to be hanging out with.”
Kal-El stood and wagged his tail and I rolled my eyes. When I took off running, he trotted along at my side, wagging his tail the whole way with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He really seemed to be enjoying himself. Must have been nice to actually like exercise. The only way I could get through it was to convince myself that I needed to be in shape when the zombie apocalypse happened, or in case I somehow managed to get thrown into the Hunger Games. No way in hell was I going to be the sucker who got taken out first.
We made it back to my neighborhood and I turned right on Evergreen Terrace. Kal-El jogged along next to me while I searched for the right house, and by the time I’d spotted 742, I was more than ready to say good-bye. He was running circles around me and his tail kept banging against my legs. It tickled in an irritating way that made me want to tell him to knock it off.
When I slowed in front of his house, the dog trotted up to the front door and sat down, wagging his tail expectantly. It was a two-story that had seen better days, but still had some character to it. The yard was nicely maintained, but there were no flowers out front or anything else suggesting female inhabitants, and the beer cans lining the inside of the front window didn’t escape my attention. Party house, maybe?
“Yeah, yeah. Maybe if you like it here so much, you shouldn’t have run away,” I told the dog.
He just wagged his tail faster and I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Oh my God, why did people get so attached to these balls of fur? I mean, I guess he was kind of cute, and I was sure he got excited when his owner came home. But could a person talk to him? Nope. At least not if you wanted an actual response.
I brushed my blonde, sweaty bangs off my forehead as I rang the doorbell, crossing my arms over my chest while I tapped my toe on the porch. Kal-El’s tail beat against the side of the house in perfect synchronization. Like he was a drummer or something. I tapped faster and watched him out of the corner of my eye. His ears perked up and his tail moved quicker. Was he doing it on purpose? I stopped and his tail halted a quarter of a second later.
Damn. Maybe dogs weren’t as dumb as I thought?
No one had come to the door after a minute, so I rang the bell again—three more times, to be exact. Kal-El dropped to the ground and stretched out like he was about to take a nap, letting out a big yawn that was more infectious than a zombie virus.
“Not here, dog,” I said through my own yawn, not even bothering to cover my mouth since it was just the fur ball and me. “Wait until you get inside your comfy house. I’m sure you’re allowed to curl up on the couch.”
He yawned again, and then rested his head on top of his paws. I shook my head and rang the bell again. Still nothing.
“Well, shit. Now what?”
Kal-El just stared up at me. Of course, because dogs don’t talk.
I sighed as I met his gaze. He wagged his tail slowly, but didn’t stand. I couldn’t just leave him, but that would mean taking him home. To my house. My pet-free, fur-free, kibble-free house. The house I worked so hard to keep immaculate. What was I going to do with a dog? What if the owner was away for the weekend? This mutt was going to tarnish my spotless existence!
I knelt down and Kal-El lifted his head when I reached for the tag again. There was a phone number. Too bad I didn’t have my phone. I never brought it with me when I ran—it was too much of a temptation. I couldn’t remember how many times I’d stopped running because I got too absorbed in my Twitter feed or scrolling through Instagram posts.
“So, I guess that means you’re going home with me.”
Kal-El jumped up like he understood, and I nearly fell on my butt when his tongue lapped toward me. He missed my face by less than an inch.
I scrambled to my feet and shook my head, causing the dog to tilt his to the side and finally pull that tongue back in his mouth.
“No licking, got it?”
He wagged his tail and I shook my head again. Why was I wasting my breath?
The dog stayed at my side the whole way home, trotting along happily like we were best buddies. When I reached my condo he dashed inside, and I cringed at the thought of him lying on my couch. That was not happening!
“No!” I practically screamed, running in behind him.
I expected to find him sprawled out across my red sofa, rolling around so he could get every loose hair on his body stuck to the soft, clean surface. But he was just walking around the room sniffing. Why did animals do that? People didn’t walk into a house and start sniffing the furniture when they met someone new. If we did, I guarantee we’d never get invited back, but for some reason people just loved it when a dog rubbed his slimy nose over every surface in their home. Gross.
“Okay, doggy. Don’t get too comfortable. I’m calling your owner and hopefully he or she can come pick you up ASAP, because I’m not zoned for dogs.”
Kal-El stopped sniffing long enough to wag his tail, then went back to his mission of smelling every inch of my condo. Nice.
Good thing I had an excellent memory, meaning I didn’t have to risk his doggy germs again to get the phone number. I whipped my cell phone off the counter and my fingers flew across the screen. Mere seconds later the phone was ringing.
“Please pick up, please pick up,” I chanted, crossing all my fingers and toes.
“Hello?” The guy who answered sounded young and slightly out of breath, like he’d had to dive for the phone, and the chatter in the background nearly drowned out his voice. Maybe he was at a sporting event or something? It sounded like a big crowd.
“Do you have a dog?” I blurted out, and then shook my head. What kind of a question was that? He was going to think I was nuts!
“I’m sorry?” There was a scraping sound and I could almost imagine him scratching his head in confusion.
“I have your dog.” Okay, now it sounded like I was holding Kal-El for ransom.
“My dog?” His voice went up an octave. He was probably waiting for me to demand money in exchange for the mutt’s safe return.
Real smooth, Sarah. Let’s try this again.
“I was out for a run and this dog started following me, so I went to your house but no one was home and I had to bring him back to my place.” I exhaled, and then took a deep breath. “When can you pick him up?”
“My dog?” he said again.
Did I dial the wrong number? Why was he so confused?
“Do you own a dog named Kal-El?”
There was a shuffling sound on the other end, and then he said, “Yes! How did he get out?”
I shook my head. Did he think I was Professor Xavier or something? How was I supposed to know how the damn dog got out?
“I have no idea, but he did. When can you come get him?”
He sighed. “Maybe he got out when Allen went over to leave food. Listen, I’m out of town right now; I can—”
“No!” I practically screamed into the phone. “I can’t keep a dog here!” Okay, that may have been an overreaction; I didn’t want him to think I was insane. “I mean, I’m not allowed to. I rent and if they find out I have a dog, I’ll get kicked out.”
“Crap, sorry about all this. I’m about to head home. Can you keep him for five hours? That’s how long it’s going to take me to get back.”
“Five hours? Where the hell are you?” Why did bad things always happen to good people?
I exhaled and peeked into my living room, searching for the dog. He was curled up in the corner—not on my couch. I guess he wasn’t really hurting anything.…
“Yeah, that should be okay.” I sounded more uncertain than I meant to, but I wasn’t feeling overly confident about the situation. There was a dog. In my living room. This was uncharted territory for me.
“Okay, I’ll get there as soon as I can. Thanks for keeping him.”
There was more shuffling, as if he was getting his things together, and he said something to someone in the background, telling them he had to get home. Then he was back on the line, asking me where I lived. I shot off my address and he promised to hurry. Then he was gone.
It wasn’t until I’d put the phone down that it hit me. I didn’t get his name or give him mine.
Oh well, who cared? It wasn’t like we were going to be buddies after this. He’d thank me a thousand times, then take the dog home, and I’d go back to my animal-free, mess-free existence.
In the meantime, though, I needed a shower. I might still smell fresh, but I didn’t feel it. My skin was sticky and the uncomfortable sensation of swamp-ass was starting to get to me. Ugh. Why did people like running?
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