We did it.
I don't remember much, and most of what I do remember is just a blur. A delicious cheesy blur. All I know is that it took more than an hour, and it wasn't pretty. When I came back to my senses, I was sitting back in my chair, my face and shirt practically painted red with pizza sauce, patting my stomach happily. Stark and Kimberly looked much the same. The only one of us who had retained even a shred of dignity during the insane feast was my mom, but I didn't care. If she didn't want to really live, that was her problem.
"Holy crap," I said dreamily, "I've never felt so full before."
"I'm never going to eat again," Kimberly added.
I became aware of a presence beside me, and I turned my head to see Andre standing there with a look of mind-blown awe.
"I have worked at this restaurant for fifteen years," he said in a reverent voice, "and I've never seen anyone finish the American Dream that fast."
I smiled. "Well, I guess we're— burrrp!" I covered my mouth. "Sorry. I guess we're just talented."
"There's only four of you, too," Andre went on, shaking his head. "The smallest group I've ever seen finish it was, like, seven people!"
Stark held up his hand. "So, it's free, right?"
Andre hesitated, but then nodded. "Uh, yes sir. You beat the challenge fair and square. I just... I don't know how, but you did it."
"Great!" Stark clapped his hands and rose to his feet. His knees wobbled beneath him, and he let out a yawn. "Happy birthday, Amber. Now let's go home."
Murmuring our agreement, Kimberly and I got up too. The world swam in front of my eyes, and this time it was a yawn that escaped my mouth. Kimberly let out a smaller yawn, and Stark rounded things out with a huge one that sounded like it should have come from a bear.
"I don't know about you girls, but I'm going to sleep all night long after eating that," he said, making his way to the door. "In fact," he held out his car keys, "I probably won't even make it home. Jennifer, I'm gonna need you to drive."
"You'll all be lucky if you don't gain twenty pounds tonight!" Mom grumbled good naturedly, snatching the keys out of his hands. "You should have saved some for leftovers. Then I wouldn't have needed to cook for a week!"
"You folks come back, all right?" Andre called after us as headed out the door.
"Then I would've had to pay for it," Stark argued. "I ain't payin' $75 for no dadgum pizza!"
We all climbed into the car, with Mom in the driver's seat this time. It took Kimberly a few clumsy attempts to buckle herself in, but as soon as her seatbelt snapped she collapsed with her head on my arm and fell asleep immediately. Mom turned the key, bringing the car to life, and put it into reverse. But just before she backed it out...
"Those people just followed us out of the restaurant," she said, looking at something in her rearview mirror.
"So what?" I asked, more than half asleep myself.
"While you three were busy pigging out, I noticed them staring at us the whole time we were in there."
"We weren't exactly being subtle," Stark grunted, but sat up and turned around to look out his window anyway. Suddenly, his back went rigid. "Jennifer, drive."
Now that caught my attention. Doing my best to shake the sleepiness out of me head, I turned around. Sure enough, there were two people standing just outside Pepperoni Nation's door, a man and a woman. At first I didn't see what would make Mom and Stark so nervous. They both just looked like normal, everyday people. But then it struck me: they were staring right at us.
"Amber, turn around," Stark ordered me as Mom started to back out of our parking space. "Act natural. Don't look at them too long."
I did as he said. "Why? What's going on? Who are those people?"
He wasn't paying any attention to me anymore, though. "Jennifer, just drive normally," he said. I looked down and saw the way his hand was gripping his arm rest so tightly it turned his knuckles white. "Take us straight home. No detours, okay?"
Mom nodded silently, but I sat forward in my chair, almost making Kimberly fall over. "Who are those people?" I asked again. "Are they..."
My voice trailed off when images of black coated, tooth pulling psychopaths flashed through my brain, and I shuddered.
Seeing my expression in the mirror, Stark shook his head. "No, nothing like that. They're... I'll tell you when we get home, okay?"
I sat back again while Mom turned onto the road and sped up. I wasn't stupid. Stark might be making light of it, but whoever those people had been, they were enough to make an alpha werewolf go running off into the night with his tail tucked between his legs. He said they weren't Slayers, but... well, I can't think of anyone else in the world who could scare him that badly. And hadn't Dex just warned me that they might still be around here?
Maybe they're with Hendricks, I realized. Come to think of it, that made a lot of sense too. Hendricks had already proven that he couldn't go to Stark's cabin without his wards driving him away, so what better time was there to get me than when we were all out of the house? I hadn't gotten a good look at those two, but they obviously weren't the Octopus and Becky. That didn't mean much, though. What's to say he didn't have other henchmen besides Becky and the Octopus? Henchmen I'd never heard of before?
I looked backwards, even though we were too far away from the restaurant to see them. Suddenly, I became aware of just how much danger I might have put my pack in. Between Hendricks and the possibility of the Slayers still lurking around, we would have been better off staying home. But no, I'd made us all leave the cabin. And for what? A freaking pizza. My stomach did flip flops inside me, and I began to regret eating as much as I did— for more reasons than one.
"Everyone relax," Stark said, turning around and giving me a stern look. "We're not in danger. We're going to be..."
His voice trailed off too, and his eyes opened wide. In the reflection of the rearview mirror, I caught sight of two pricks of light coming up behind us. Headlights. I swallowed, and then turned around again. Sure enough, a white minivan was leaving the parking lot. We were too far away to see who was driving it, but I had a strong feeling I knew exactly who it was. I faced forward again just as Stark let out a grumbled string of profanities that made my mom gasp.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she demanded.
Stark sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Nothing. Hey, take a left here."
"I thought you said no—"
"Just do it!"
Flinching a little under his sharp tone, Mom obeyed and pulled into the turn lane at the upcoming light. The headlights behind us were still tiny pinpricks of light, but they were getting closer by the second. Mom anxiously drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, and Stark was giving the red light such a withering glare I was surprised it didn't turn green from sheer intimidation. The lights got nearer and nearer, and I fought the urge to turn and look again. Kimberly gave a soft snore, but still didn't wake up.
"Come on, come on," I heard Stark muttering.
I heard brakes squeal behind us, and the sound of slush being crushed under car tires, and I held my breath. They had caught up. They were right behind us. What was going to happen now? What were they—
The light turned green.
"Go!" Stark exclaimed. Mom floored the pedal, making the tires spin underneath the car. We didn't go anywhere for a few seconds, and when we finally did lurch forward the back tires tried to swing around to the side, threatening to spin us in a circle. Mom let off the gas just long enough to get the car under control and pointed in the right direction, and then took off down the road as fast as she dared go.
"Amber, are they still behind us?"
I looked back just in time to see the minivan sitting right where we'd left it, the windshield wipers running furiously back and forth to clear away the slush Mom had inadvertently sprayed on them. When they didn't immediately move, the light turned yellow, and then red.
"No," I said, settling back down in my seat. "Looks like we lost them."
"Lost what?" Kimberly asked, groggily raising her head from my shoulder.
I sucked in a breath. "Nothing, honey. Go back to sleep."
I could tell by looking into her unfocused eyes that she wasn't really awake, but the last thing I wanted was for her to wake up all the way during... whatever this was.
"I lost a donkey once," she said. "I think he went... to school on the... moon..."
With that, she laid her head back down on my shoulder and began to snore again. I gently reached my other hand around and stroked her hair. "Stark," I whispered, "what the hell is going on?"
"I told you," he snapped back, "I'll tell you when we get home. Jennifer, take another left here."
"What for? Where are we going?"
Stark appeared to relax and sit back in his seat, but I noticed the way his head kept twitching to the right, like he was checking the mirror. "We're still going home, but I want to throw them off so they don't follow us. Keep going three lights, and then take another left."
I opened my mouth to keep prying him for information, but then closed it. Stark was tense. I think the only time I'd ever seen him this tense was when Hendricks had shown up on our doorstep. If I kept pushing him, who knows how he'd react? Kimberly stirred a little and mumbled something in her sleep. Then again...
"Stark," I said again, forcing myself to swallow my fear, "is Kimberly safe?"
This, for some reason, seemed to get Stark's attention, and he finally turned around to look at me. I looked into his eyes and saw... not fear, but sadness.
"No," he said, speaking so softly that I wouldn't have been able to hear him without my werewolf senses, "she's not in any danger."
I nodded, but before I could say anything else, Stark pointed out the back windshield. "Keep an eye out for me, and let me know if you see them coming up behind us again."
Okay, fine, I got the hint. Sighing, I twisted around in my seat so that I'd be able to look behind us. The streets were far from deserted at this early hour of the night, but I didn't spy the white minivan that had been following us. Trust me, after that initial panic attack I practically had the image of that van burned into my memory.
Stark had Mom take us home on a back road that turned what should have been a thirty minute drive into more than an hour, and I kept my eyes glued on the back windshield the entire time. With Stark's promise that we weren't in any danger, and the pizza still warming me from inside, my eyelids were getting heavier by the minute. Luckily, the white minivan never showed itself again. It was nearly 11:00, and I had just decided to rest my head on the back of the seat and close my eyes for a few seconds when we finally pulled back into Stark's driveway.
"Get her out," Stark said, throwing his door open and getting out to look up and down the street. "Put her in bed. Hurry!"
Shaking the sleepiness out of my head again, I unbuckled and hustled to do what my alpha said, almost slipping on the icy driveway as I made my way to Kimberly's side of the car. I undid her seatbelt and eased her out of the car as gently as I could, and Mom opened the garage door for me as I carried her in.
"Hey, wake up," I whispered into her ear, shaking her a bit.
"Huh?" she mumbled, waking up again. "Whazzuh..."
"Time for bed," I told her, pushing her bedroom door open with my hip and setting her down on her bed. "Come on, get into your PJs."
A few minutes of sluggish undressing and redressing later, Kimberly was tucked into bed, and I was switching the light off and closing the door behind myself. When I turned around, I wasn't surprised to find Stark waiting for me at the end of the hall.
"So," I said, giving my arm an anxious squeeze, "sorry for, you know, putting us all in danger."
Stark sighed and shook his head. "Nobody was in danger, Amber. I just... If they had followed us home, it would have been bad. Very bad."
"Who were they?"
Stark crossed his arms and leaned wearily against the wall. "Think about it, Amber. We were all out in public tonight. Who would see us and want to follow us home?"
I thought about it. "Majestic already knows where we are. So does Hendricks. So... who else would even care? Another werewolf pack?"
Stark shook his head again.
"Then I don't know. Who?"
Stark didn't answer at first. He closed his eyes, like he was about to fall asleep right there leaning against the wall, and I didn't blame him. The pizza, coupled with the stress of being chased by whoever that had been had left me ready to pass out and sleep for a week. But then Stark opened his eyes again and looked at Kimberly's door.
"It was them," he whispered sadly. "Those were Kimberly's parents."
NEXT TIME: Ooh, bombshell! Wonder what kind of crazy (or not so crazy) shenanigans this is gonna cause! Good thing the pack was already laying low… as low as you can while eating a pizza the size of Rhode Island, of course, but still low.