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Authors: Tera Shanley

Love Starts With Z

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Cover

Title Page

Love Starts with Z


Tera Shanley


Omnific Publishing

Los Angeles

Copyright Information

Love Starts with Z, Copyright © 2015 by Tera Shanley All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.


Omnific Publishing

1901 Avenue of the Stars, 2nd Floor Los Angeles, California 90067

www.omnificpublishing.com


First Omnific eBook edition, February 2015

First Omnific trade paperback edition, February 2015


The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data …

Shanley, Tera.

Love Starts with Z / Tera Shanley – 1st ed ISBN: 978-1-623421-65-6

1. Contemporary Romance—Fiction. 2. Zombies—Fiction. 3. Apocalypse—Fiction. 4. Urban Fantasy—Fiction. I. Title …

Cover Design by Micha Stone and Amy Brokaw
Interior Book Design by Coreen Montagna

Dedication

My mom has always supported me
with all of my crazy (I pitched them as creative) ideas,
and my dad has always encouraged me
to be the strongest woman I can be.
He taught me weaponry and safety the second I showed interest,
and gave me the tools I needed to write a book like this.
It didn’t matter what I was interested in,
they were always up for the adventure.

This one is for my parents, Paul and Paula Muller.

Prologue

C
OLTEN
M
C
T
AVISH
was as good as dead.

He slowed his breathing just enough to hiss, “Kaegan, do you copy?” into his handheld radio. “Kaegan, if you can hear me, I need backup.”

The hum of static was his only answer. He cursed softly, dropping the radio dexterously back into its sling on his hip and pulling his Glock in one fluid motion. After confirming his lack of ammunition he looked from one gruesome, decaying, fleshy face to another. If he didn’t thoroughly believe Deads were brainless monsters, he would’ve sworn they had been hunting him like a pack. They had successfully cut him off from his team and cornered him in an area littered with only the oldest and most unclimbable pine trees in all of the Rocky Mountain range.

This was the first time Kaegan hadn’t been there to pull him out of trouble. His loyal-to-a-fault best friend must be dead or turned. It was the only explanation.

“Well, brother,” he growled, “I’ll see you there soon enough.” Colt whipped the cold metal of the handgun against his temple and took three quick, steadying breaths. He’d feed the monsters, but he’d be damned if he was going to be alive for the show.

Just as his finger brushed against the trigger, the storm clouds that hid the heavens opened up just enough to let a single ray of sunlight escape. It blanketed a tree a short distance away. One lone branch hung low enough for him to be able to reach if he got a running start. Sign enough. He sprinted and fired on the running Deads closest to him. One shot, drop, one shot, drop, arc the gun,
click. Click
.

The hollow sound was a fighter’s worst nightmare. It was the sound of an echoing, empty chamber. It was the sound of impending doom. One monstrous Dead blocked his path to salvation, and lacking another option, Colt flung the gun at his age softened skull. It wasn’t a kill shot by any means, but it had the desired effect just the same. The creature’s mouth had been eaten away, and a row of dirty, jagged teeth jutted out of the hanging flesh of its face. The Dead roared an inhuman bellow as he was knocked backward just long enough for Colt to blow past him. Colt leaped through the air and huffed out a triumphant laugh as his fingers found purchase.

His muscles strained with the effort to hoist himself upward into the sanctuary of the branches above. Deads couldn’t climb—a byproduct of decayed muscles and lackluster motor skills. He’d be safe up there where the tip of the tree touched the cloud speckled sky. Just a couple more branches.

An unwavering hand clenched onto his calf. The chill of long-dead flesh seeped through the thickness of his cargo pants, and the pull and strength of that grip was a weight Colten’s slipping hands would lose to.

A scream he didn’t recognize burst from his chest as the Dead ripped into the flesh of his leg.

Chapter One

S
OREN
M
ITCHELL
F
ELT
S
ORRY
for Deads. Zombies really didn’t have much going for them on the pro list, while the cons stretched on for eternity. Take the one shuffling slowly through the woods in front of her, for example. From the length of her matted, auburn hair, and the once likely attractive sundress that hung in tatters against her gray, putridly rotting flesh, she had probably been an attractive woman before. Back when the world made sense. Soren guessed at boyfriends she’d had and parties and schools the Dead attended. The only pro she could see from her vantage point as she sketched the walking corpse furiously before she disappeared, was that Deads seemed to find solace in traveling in groups. Pro—at least they probably weren’t lonely?

Soren rubbed her back distractedly against the base of the giant pine she leaned against and scanned the woods. This one was definitely alone, and a wave of pity washed over her again.

The Dead swiveled her head toward Soren’s small movement. She waved but the creature only stared back with yellowed, vacant eyes. Her blue-tinged lip curled slightly as she flared her nostrils toward Soren and switched directions. The pine needles that blanketed the forest floor made a muffled sound under the Dead’s bare feet as it shuffled closer.

Soren’s heart hammered, as it did every time she found herself in such a situation, but she didn’t move. Instead she cocked her head and waited to feel a connection with the red-headed creature. The Dead stopped just a few yards in front of her and tilted her chin up, scenting the air again. It took a long drag of mountain air and dropped its head. Grunting as if disappointed, it meandered off in the direction it came from.

Soren didn’t smell like food. Yet another reminder that she wasn’t human.

Hybrid.
That’s what Dr. Mackey, the Dead Run River colony doctor, proudly called her. Twenty years of testing and experimenting and researching, and still they had never been able to track down another living creature—or unliving?—like her on the entirety of the ravaged planet.

One of a kind. Yippy-freaking-wee.

Even though the sky was covered with clouds, and she couldn’t really see the sunrise, her internal clock said it was time to get going. The colony might take her for a complete and utter freak, but she was a punctual freak. She shoved her sketchbook and pencils into a leather satchel that had molded to fit across her shoulders perfectly through the years, and headed up the mountain to Dead Run River.

Andrew Dennison stood watch at the colony gates with an older guard. He was easily the hottest of the guards with loose brown waves framing smoldering eyes only a shade or two darker. Eyes that basically dared a woman not to give him everything he could want. He was only a few years older with an easy smile for all of the girls who tripped over their own feet to swoon for him. Except with her, when his smile looked more like the grimace that prefaced a gag. Good with the boys, she was not.

Now, it could’ve been that he had a prejudice because both of his parents had been turned by Deads when he was a child and he had been an unfortunate witness to the traumatic events, or it could’ve been that she didn’t look all that human and her eating habits were a little off-putting. In her defense, she tried her best to hide her preference for raw meat, but the rumor mill spun out of control when it came to her. This week she was apparently eating baby soup for breakfast.

She stifled a smile at Andrew’s withering look at her approach. So she wasn’t his Juliet. Accepted. But he was a barrel of monkeys to mess with on a slow day.

She pulled her shirt over her head before she even reached the gate, and his eyes narrowed. The older guard, Bear everyone called him, chuckled and shook his head. She started to unfasten her bra but Andrew furiously held up his hand in a halting motion. Oh, she could imagine what he saw. Pale skin the color of alabaster, hip length, wavy hair so blond it was almost white, and eyes that would terrify even the bravest of children. They were the color of the moon—so pale they couldn’t pass for human on even her best day. She wasn’t albino, but she was pretty damn close.

“Stop it, Z! You know good and well we don’t do bite checks like that anymore!”

The nickname stung. Z. Zombie. “Just wanted to be thorough,” she said with an empty smile.

“Just go!” he yelled, waving his hand impatiently for her to pass through the opening gates. “You can’t even be turned, so just keep your clothes on next time. And put your muzzle on, or I’m calling it in to Mel!”

She gave a two fingered salute to a smiling Bear, gave Andrew the finger over her shoulder, and slid her shirt back over her head without breaking stride.

“Douche-wagon,” she muttered under her breath as she pulled the muzzle around her face and fastened it in the back. Her heart always grew a little heavier at the sound of it clicking closed. Straps to hold it in place, mismatched pieces of leather sewn together, a metal grill over her mouth, and now she looked like the Hannibal Lecter of the apocalypse.

Dead Run River was a huge colony, completely fenced in by the tallest of toppled pines and safe from roving undead looking for an easy meal. The air was crisp and clean, and worn trails snaked all through the colony, capped by the mess hall, an antique sawmill, an exit to the gardens where organics sustained hungry stomachs, and last but not least, houses. Log cabins to be exact. Some stood alone, old and sturdy looking, while newer construction models consisted of rows of attached log units that housed various families. Farther up the mountain were rows of RVs that had been painstakingly dragged in and lined up years before, and beyond that, at the highest peak, was Mel’s sprawling home. She was the long-time leader of Dead Run River and arguably the most successful. If one didn’t count the Denver colony, which she did. It was Mel who had put the muzzle rule in place when she’d walked through those gates two years ago, but she couldn’t blame her. It was Mel’s job to keep everyone safe, and after what had happened…Well, the muzzle was obnoxious and degrading, but it was a small price to pay for the safety of the human race.

Soren kept her head down as she walked the trails to Dr. Mackey’s office. She slid her sunglasses over her inhuman eyes and tried her best not to scare the others who passed. There were a lot of new families in Dead Run River, and they weren’t used to a zombie trying to strike up a conversation about the weather just yet.

The door to Dr. Mackey’s office creaked open. If she wasn’t muzzled she would’ve given a greeting, but as it stood, she hated the muffled slur her words adopted behind the mask. Instead she plucked paperwork from her box and scanned it distractedly while she ambled to the back room. The hurriedly scribbled paper said a different variation on the same thing she read every day she came to work.

No cure yet.

A woman screamed, shrill and terrified. “Get her away from me! Get her away from my baby!”

Soren froze in the midst of the chaos around her. A woman she’d never seen before cried hysterically with a finger jabbed in her direction. Soren turned to look behind her and pointed to her chest in question. The woman grew even more frantic and clutched her newborn baby tighter as Dr. Mackey rushed in and tried to calm her. At a loss, Soren backed up until she hit a wall near the front entry.

Dr. Mackey rushed from the room and shut the door firmly behind him. He was an older gentleman who wore a worn Yankees baseball cap to cover the hairless dome of his head. His thick glasses covered intelligent eyes that missed nothing. He gave her an apologetic, lopsided grin.

Soren nodded slowly. “Got it. When should I come back?”

“I’m moving them to a cabin nearby this afternoon. Come back to work after then.”

She headed for the door.

“Oh and, Soren?”

“Hmm?”

“How long did you sleep last night?”

“About an hour.”

“And how do you feel?”

“Fine.”

He scribbled furiously on a notepad and hummed to himself. “Great, we’ll see you this afternoon then.”

She stood there longer than necessary after he disappeared back into the room with his newborn patient. Sometimes she wished he would just ask her a question because he cared about the answer, not because she was a lab rat. He would add the notes to the thirty other pounds of charts he had been writing up since the day of her birth, and she would keep answering him with the secret hope that he would one day ask her questions as a person and not a scientist.

The birds outside chirped their song like they hadn’t heard the screeching new mother inside, and Soren tilted her chin up to the sky before taking a deep breath. She’d give her left femur bone to be a bird. Or a newt, or a millipede, or a pterodactyl, or basically anything other than a whatever-she-was. Her senses tingled like the thin web of a spider vibrating under the small weight of a struggling fly. “You’re late again,” she said.

Seamus grinned shamelessly and stepped around the brush he had been using to shield his body. “One of these days, Soren.”

She snorted. “Please. Your stalking skills are horrendous.”

“Well, excuse me if I didn’t have the infamous Laney Landry as my mother and trainer.”

“Well, you have Aaron Guist as your dad, so you really have no excuse for all of the noise you make in the woods. You’re worse than a Dead.”

Seamus shrugged and pushed his glasses farther up his nose. His gray eyes twinkled under sandy brown hair that threw hints of red in direct sunlight. “You calling in sick today or what?”

Soren headed down the stairs. “One too many baby humans in there. I eat baby soup now, or haven’t you heard?”

He chuckled warmly. “I did hear that one. Well, forget you then. I’ll find the cure and you’ll be green with envy that you skipped out today when I save the world without you.”

Seamus really did want to find the cure almost as much as she did. Growing up together and just a few months apart in age, they had dreamed of becoming famous scientists who saved the human race with their discoveries. Their childhood fantasies had turned into a full-blown obsession as they got older, but Seamus had very different reasons for wanting it than she did.

His friendship really was a miracle in and of itself. She frowned at his back as he disappeared into Dr. Mackey’s office. Despite having seen the monster that lurked just below the surface, he had stayed loyal and unprejudiced and bestowed one of the only unwavering friendships she had ever sustained. Seamus was slight, and opinionated, always had his head in literature, and was convinced that books were the real weapons that would save the planet. In return for his friendship, she’d happily kept the bullies at bay. A sparkless and symbiotic relationship.

She hopped off the worn path and blazed her own trail through the woods. Home sweet home was well away from the other cabins to give the distant neighbors peace of mind that she wouldn’t storm their tiny castles and eat them in their sleep.

The spring breeze wound through the pines as she walked the well-worn dirt path up the mountain. Lodgepole pines and alder branches groaned at the caress of the wind. Nature’s song, if one had time to listen. And these days, everyone had time to listen. Nature won the right to serenade mankind twenty-four years before when she took the earth back. Now the great civilizations of men, skyscrapers and technology…all of it was dust.

She’d never actually seen any of the good old days, because she’d been born after the end of the world, but she’d heard stories. Old timers talked about the pre-apocalypse world like it was Valhalla come to earth, but she didn’t know. Most of it sounded kind of sad. People so immersed in technology they lost the ability to connect with other humans; the shocking rate they trashed the earth with their oil spills and pollution; the way countries warred for anything, or so it seemed. Now man battled against one thing—turning into something like her.

“Z!” an obnoxious voice trilled through the quiet of the forest. Marie.

Soren barely avoided a groan. There was a wary family traveling the trail in the opposite direction, and whenever she moaned in complaint, people tended to run for the hills or go for a brain shot.

“Let me guess,” she said as Marie approached with a plate of what smelled suspiciously like burned meat. “You’re my handler again this week.”

“Lucky me.” Marie shoved the plate in her hands into Soren’s chest and commanded, “Eat.”

Soren lifted the edge of the cloth rag covering her breakfast and had to work hard to swallow the gag that clawed its way up her throat. A fully cooked steak sat still warm and slathered in some of Chef’s homemade barbecue sauce. The meat was firm to the touch when she poked it.

“Chef said you didn’t eat this morning. Again.” Marie’s dark eyes narrowed with her obvious disdain, and her perfectly arched eyebrows drew down as she dropped her gaze from Soren’s sunglasses to her muzzle. “Mel said you have to eat at your regularly scheduled meals or you don’t have a place here anymore. You know the rules. Mind them or leave. It hasn’t changed in all the time you’ve been here. You’re contagious, Z.”

“Don’t call me that,” Soren muttered.

“It’s what you are.”

Soren clenched her jaw until the muscles there ached. “I can’t eat this.”

“You can and will. It will do you good to eat more like the other people around here. Maybe if you didn’t eat raw flesh, people would be more comfortable around you.”

“I don’t eat raw flesh, Marie. Just raw meat, and that’s not my choice. It’s all my body will digest. This,” she said, shoving the plate back into Marie’s hands, “will make me sick. I’ll start eating at regular intervals if you and Chef will stop cooking my food into hunks of charcoal.”

Marie twitched her head and pursed her lips. “Mel wants to talk to you.” The corner of her lip turned up in a smile like she’d won.

If ever Soren decided to start eating people, she would begin with Marie.

“Fine, bye.” Turning, she lengthened her stride until her heels dug into the soft soil of the path.

Marie didn’t take the hint of dismissal. That or she wanted to watch her get reamed by Mel again, which was the more likely culprit, and she followed directly, loud, like a drunken giant in the woods.

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