I angle my head toward the speaker, and it feels like someone fired an iron dowel into the well at the base of my skull.

I’m not sure I believe what I see.

The flame-haired warrior watches me, eyes glittering in the low light. I have to think hard to remember the last time I saw a man. I mean a real man; flesh-eaters no longer fit that description. The dowel in my brain interferes and I can’t remember.

“Who—” I try to ask him a question, but out of my throat comes a sound like somebody’s peeling an onion.

He reaches behind my head and lifts it, holding a mug to my lips. The water has a metallic tang but I’m thirsty and I keep sucking until some of it goes down the wrong pipe. He withdraws the cup so I can cough it out — and I discover every broken place in my body.

Settling back, I finish my sentence. “Who are you?”

He’s close now, and I can see his eyes are blue. Seriously blue. And he’s got this amazing hair—thick and wavy, the shade of red people call mahogany, even though it’s not.

“Paladin,” he says.  

I stare at him, my heart sinking, because he’s either crazy or a product of my injured brain, and both of these are a big disappointment. In my former life I worked for a game developer, so I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

I close my eyes. “Name or profession?”

My suspicion about his lack of corporeal existence seems confirmed by the silence that follows—also by the fact that he is just too beautiful to exist post-FOM. (That’s “fall of man,” for the uninitiated.) Despite all my rules about self-sufficiency, I feel deflated.

I open my eyes slowly, hoping they’ve tired of the practical joke. But he’s still there, eying me over a dented pot he’s stirring. The look he’s giving me . . . I don’t know if a look can be husky like a voice, but that’s exactly what I’d call it: a husky look.

“So, Red,” I say real slow in case it will help, “you got a name?”

“Red’s as good as any,” he replies. I roll my eyes. But he’s finally uttered enough syllables for me to mark a line in the "not a hallucination" column. 

His eyes go back to his pot, and protective reflexes finally kick in.

“You can’t have a fire here!” I sputter. “If they come for us, we’ll be trapped.”

I’m not sure where “here” is exactly, but I can see we’re in a partially collapsed parking garage. Smoke’s like a dinner bell to flesh-eaters—nobody lights fires except their favorite prey animals.

I try to sit up, but pain rips across the front of my chest and I sink back down.

“We’re safe for now.”

I shake my head, and this time the pain shoots between my shoulder blades. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard someone say that right before—”

“You need to calm down.”

There’s something about the way he says this that just . . . well . . . makes it happen. I watch my chest rise as my lungs fill with air. I let the breath out slow, feeling my injured ribs.

“Fine,” I sigh. “I’m flesh-eater kibble anyway.”

I’m not morbid, I’m just a realist. My injuries will keep me down for weeks. Nobody has that luxury post-FOM. Whoever my new friend is, no chance in hell he’s sticking by me that long. I’d never do it.

Closing my eyes again, I know I’ve just lied to myself. I have done it. More than once. But never again.

“What happened back there?” asks Red.

It’s like his question releases a lock in my brain, and suddenly I remember everything. My throat tightens, with anger and something else.

“Bloody bastards are getting smarter,” I mutter. “It was a little girl.” Same age as my niece. “I couldn’t tell until I got up close she was one of them.”  

He’s looking at me hard now. Not frowning and not smiling, but it’s intense and I look away.

“Did you save me?” I don’t know why I’m asking because I don’t really want to know. If he did, I owe him. Being accountable to or responsible for another person was another item on my Top Ten Ways To Get Digested list.

And yet still I’d gone in for the girl.

“I came along at a good time,” he replies.

A chuckle burst from my lips. “Understatement.”

He uses the mug to scoop something steaming from his pot, and he moves to kneel beside me. He’s tall, more than six feet, and strong. Muscles bulge under the sleeves of his black T-shirt. I thought redheads mostly didn’t tan, but his forearms are bronzed, freckled, and lightly coated with golden fuzz. I swallow and send my gaze elsewhere. Some women like chests. Some like asses. Some a chiseled jaw. I’m an arms gal, myself. This guy’s got A, C, and D. I’d bet my best blade he has B too, but I’ll have to evaluate that one later.

Then I notice something else about him.

“Why are you so clean?”

“Soap’s not hard to find,” replies Red, almost giving in to the grin tugging at his lips.

“Yeah but a waste of time, and a good way to get killed.”

He shrugs. “Here, drink this.”

I raise an eyebrow. “What’s in it?”

Another shrug. “What I could find. Dandelion greens, wild onions—good for healing. A few dry potatoes. A bag of turkey jerky.”   

My stomach growls. Meat is hard to come by in the fallen cities, and I have to admit it smells pretty good.

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