The dock groaned and Xena’s ears pinned flat against her head as the slap, slap of flip-flops drew near. Emily Parrott waved as the breeze caught the flowing skirt of her sunflower yellow dress and tangled around her legs. “Damn nature!” she hissed, and pushed her sunglasses on top of her head before gathering the silky lengths. “You Goodes and your always wanting to be outside weirdness.” She paused and adjusted the shoulder strap of her oversized neon pink bag before continuing. “There are perfectly good venues in town where you could’ve thrown the best birthday bash. Venues that have a/c and free Wi-Fi that would make your ridiculous midnight curfew more bearable.” She wrinkled her nose and cocked her pointed chin. “More bearable for me, at least.”
Hunter closed her journal and fastened it shut with the buckle she’d found in her mother’s basket of Kitchen Witch Accoutrements. “It’ll still be the best, Em. Even without air-conditioning and Wi-Fi and with us leaving at midnight.” Hunter’s throat tightened and she scrubbed her fingers along the thick trunk of her pendant.
Before Hunter could wrangle the giant Maine coon, Xena jumped off the lounger and stalked toward Emily.
The contents of Emily’s bag clanked as she thrust it in the cat’s direction. “If you don’t move out of my way, I’m going to skin you and make you into a scarf.”
The tabby arched her back and hissed. Her puffy black-and-brown-striped tail twitched in the air like a fly-fishing line.
Hunter tossed her journal and pen onto her empty seat as she stood and scooped up the mound of irritated fluffiness. “It’s okay, Xena,” she murmured, and rubbed the tufts of fur sprouting from the ends of the cat’s pointed ears. “It’s just mean ol’ Emily Parrott. And she would never make you into a scarf.”
Emily sneezed into her balled-up dress and rubbed her watering eyes. “I would, cat. Just try me.” Another sneeze. “She knows I’m allergic and is trying to kill me.” She wiped her nose on her dress and frowned. “See?” She held out the fabric as evidence. “That cat is making me leak!”
Xena melted against Hunter’s fingertips as she scratched under the cat’s chin. The Maine coon had been slinking around Goodeville, monitoring the town of five thousand Illinoisans, since before Hunter was born. Xena had even been there on the very day Hunter arrived in the world—quiet and doe-eyed (so her mother said), fifteen years, three hundred and sixty-four days and nineteen and a half hours ago. But who was counting?
The Maine coon’s long body vibrated with a round of purrs while Hunter stroked her long back. “You should go, Xena.” Hunter kissed the top of the cat’s brown-and-white head. “Thanks for checking in.”
Xena nuzzled Hunter’s chin a final time and leapt from her arms. She landed at Emily’s flip-flop clad feet, glared up at the tall, lanky brunette, and hissed before padding away toward the end of the dock.
“Begone, cat!” Emily shouted as Xena jumped onto land and twined herself through the wildflowers rimming the shoreline. “That cat is practically a dog, following you and your sister around all the time.”
Hunter gathered her journal and pen before plopping back down into the chaise. “She really wouldn’t like that you said that.”
“She’s a cat. Unless your mom has some kind of cat-talking spell, Xena has no idea what I’m saying.” Emily dropped her bag and it landed on the dock with a clatter. “Not that I’d be surprised if your mom did have a cat-talking spell. I mean, that cat has been alive for a million years…”
Hunter picked at her fingernail. There were some things even Emily shouldn’t know.
“Oh my god, your mom has a cat-talking spell!” Emily kicked off her flips and pushed them under the empty chaise next to Hunter. “I can’t believe you’ve been holding out on me! Spill!”
The blaring speakers of a nearing ski boat saved Hunter from having to tell a lie Emily would have seen through before it left Hunter’s lips.
Emily’s back stiffened and she craned her long neck to get a better view at the boat’s passengers. “Well, well, well, would you look at that.”
Hunter tucked her chin into her shirt and followed Emily’s gaze. The black-and-red boat was back. The five guys stood in the center, bobbing in time to the pulsing music. One of the shirtless members crouched down. Silver cans glinted in the sunlight as he tossed one to each of his friends.
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