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Authors: Jennifer Ziegler

Tags: #Ages 12 & Up

Alpha Dog

BOOK: Alpha Dog
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For my dog, Cutter,
the most devoted friend
I’ve ever had

“I’m gonna buy me a dog,
’cause I need a friend now. . . .”


The
Monkees
(Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart)

Acknowledgments

I am deeply beholden to the following people: Stephanie Lane and her wonder dog, Gabby; Lisa Holden; Carla Birnberg; Julie Carolan; Joe and Louise McDermott; the Wethington family; Lisa Shubin; my muse, Lucie; Donna Seago and the incredibly kind staff at Griffith’s Small Animal Hospital in Austin, Texas.

Special thanks to my parents, Jim and Esther Ford, for allowing me to become “alpha,” and to my husband, Carl, for his limitless patience and encouragement.

Prologue

Y
ou want to know something tragic about me? I hate birthdays. Not everyone’s, I mean. Just my own.

I guess I’m what you might call birthday challenged. While most people have elaborate,
fantasy filled ceremonies on their birthdays, mine play out more like Shakespearean tragedies.

It started when I turned six and only one girl showed up for my party. Everyone else I invited was either going out of town or sick with a stomach flu. Later, when we were having cake, Rosemary Eggleston, my one and only guest, started throwing up all over the dining room table. To this day I can’t look at Rosemary without being reminded of partially digested strawberry ice cream.

From then on, every one of my birthdays has been marred by some sort of disaster. A hired pony with a gastric disorder. Four stitches in my scalp after a piñata mishap. A rental flick so scary all my slumber party guests went home early.

At times I wondered if some powerful sorceress put a spell on me, dooming me to emotionally scarring birthdays for the rest of my life. In fact, in my entire seventeen years, I’d only had one magical birthday moment. . . .

The summer I turned thirteen my dad decided the whole McAllister family should go to Ireland to see his “homeland.” (Actually my dad was born and raised here in San Marcos, Texas, but he’s really into the whole family ancestry thing.) The day of my birthday we were taking a walking tour of Dublin. We saw a lot of cool historic buildings and heard a lot of Irish history, but I just couldn’t get into it. Basically I was feeling sorry for myself. I hated missing out on a real birthday party and not being able to go to dance camp. So I kept lagging farther and farther behind until I wasn’t even part of the tour group at all. Eventually I missed a light at a street crossing and got stranded on the corner.

Right then it started to rain—I mean really pour down. I could see my mom open our king-sized umbrella and look around for me. As soon as the light changed, I took off running across the street. Unfortunately, the cobblestones were slick, and three years of dance lessons hadn’t made me any less of a klutz, so I ended up slipping and falling flat on my back. My head banged against the stone pavers, making me achy and woozy. And the worst part was, through the swirling rain, I could see a car coming around the corner— heading straight for me. Strangely, my only thought was, “Great. I’m about to die wearing the frilly unicorn underpants Grandma Hattie sent me.”

Then all of a sudden,
he
was there.

Tall and muscular, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with dark messy-floppy hair and the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen. He waved his arms to stop the approaching car and then bent over me. “Let me help ye up,” he said in a husky brogue. He grasped my hands and pulled me upright so swiftly and easily, he probably could have sent me soaring over his shoulder had he wanted to.

After walking me to the curb, he bent toward me, pushed wet strands of hair out of my face and asked, “All right?”

I nodded and said something like “Ungah.”

And then he smiled. A gorgeous, dimple-popping, eye-twinkling smile. I can’t be totally sure, but it seemed that the clouds parted slightly and a ray of sunlight beamed down on him.

At that point a voice called out, “Katherine Anne! Where have you been?” Cringing, I glanced to the left and saw Mom trotting down the sidewalk toward me, Dad lagging behind her, not wanting to miss a single second of the tour.

“No need to worry,” the guy said as she approached. “She took a bit of a spill runnin’ across the street, but I’m sure she’ll be all right.”

Mom’s eyes widened. “You were running in the
rain
? I’ve warned you a thousand times not to do that. What is wrong with you, Katie? Why can’t you be more careful?” She shook her head and let out a long, pained sigh.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, hanging my head in embarrassment.

The guy took a step away from me and turned toward my mother. “ ’Twas only an accident. I’ve slipped on these cobblestones a time or two meself. Seems the best thing to do would be to have a laugh and make her feel better instead of worse.”

Mom’s cheeks turned the color of raw salmon. “I was only . . .”

For the first time in my life, my mother was at a loss for words. It was astonishing and wonderful and amazing and all those words people use after witnessing a miracle.

A few seconds later, my dad finally caught up with us. “What’s going on?” he asked, craning his head to keep his eye on the tour guide behind him.

“I fell in the street and he”—I gestured to my hero—“he helped me up.”

Dad’s eyebrows flew up. “Is that so?” He stepped forward and held out his hand toward the guy. “Well, then. Thank you for your help, Mr. . . .”

“Seamus,” the guy said, giving Dad’s hand a shake. “Just Seamus.” He gave me one last grin and a pat on the shoulder, then turned and walked away.

I never saw Seamus again, at least not in person. But for the next few years he had the starring role in all my romantic dreams—asleep or awake. All I had to do was close my eyes and I would see him, as if his image had been tattooed onto the backs of my eyelids. I could even smell the rain and the musty odor of wet wool on his clothes. For a long time I thought I was in love with him. Until finally I grew up and got real. A real boyfriend, that is.

Which brings me back to birthdays and the worst one ever.

On the morning of my seventeenth birthday, two days after my junior year ended, I was sitting in Taco Loco, my favorite restaurant in all of San Marcos, talking to my mom on the cell phone.

“I’m doing a huge favor letting you borrow my car. I expect you to follow all the rules of the road.”

“I will.”

“Don’t speed and don’t get on the interstate. You know that’s where all the drunk drivers are.”

“Mom, it’s the middle of the day. It’ll be fine.”

“That’s just the sort of lazy attitude that gets people into wrecks. When I was your age, I knew the importance of driving defensively. Maybe that’s why I never had an accident.”

When I was your age . . .
It was her favorite song— her mantra. My mom and dad are on record as the most perfect teenagers ever to exist in Hays County.

Just so you know, my dad is Shane McAllister. He’s a lawyer for a group of local banks and is on the board of directors of many important civic groups, with names like Sons of Irish Immigrants, the Irish Heritage Club, and Young Irish Professionals. And my mother is Laura McAllister (formerly Laura Keller), Junior League president, PTA vice president, and former beauty queen. In her day she was Cotton Princess and a first runner-up Miss San Marcos. But you’ll have to check the
Daily
Record’s archives to figure out what year, because she won’t say.

“. . . and be sure to come back in an hour,” she rambled on. “We have a ton of shopping to do and I have to speak at the city council meeting later tonight.”

“Okay,” I said irritably.
God, another meeting?
What’s she protesting now?
You’d think she’d be tired of telling me what to do 24/7. But no. Mom apparently feels the need to tell the greater population of San Marcos how to behave.

From there on, my end of the conversation went something like this: “Okay, Mom. Right. I know. Yes. All right. I promise.
Bye,
Mom!” By the time I hung up and tossed the cell into my purse, my ears were ringing with the staccato cadence of her voice.

“Can I get jou anything,
señorita
?” Chuy, the restaurant’s grandfatherly owner, stood beside me, a wide smile lifting his gray-streaked, meticulous mustache.

“Two Macho Nacho platters,” I said, tapping my finger against the laminated menu. “And two Cokes with lemon, please.”


Ay yi yi.
So much food for such a little lady,” Chuy teased as he set down the complimentary bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips.

“It’s my birthday,” I explained happily. “And it’s not all for me. I’m meeting my boyfriend.”

I glanced at the glass front door, searching for Chuck’s tall silhouette. He was late, but that was typical. In the two years we’d been going out, he’d only been on time for a date twice. I’d learned to deal.

“¡Feliz cumpleaños!”
exclaimed Chuy, clapping me on the back. “Happy birthday!”

“Thanks.”

“How old are jou now? Sixteen?”

I could feel my face flush. People were always thinking I was younger, on account of my five-foot-five frame, freckles, and round green eyes. “
Seven
teen,” I corrected, a slight edge to my voice.

Chuy didn’t seem to notice. “
Es
muy especial.
I’ll bring a free piece of flan.”

I was about to tell him not to bother (I really can’t eat flan; its gummy, gluey texture always makes me gag), but he’d already trotted off to the kitchen.
Whatever,
I thought.
Maybe Chuck will eat it.

Right then, I saw Chuck through the window. It was his stride I noticed first—the guy just couldn’t
not
swagger. It was as if his body were a complicated system of gears and pulleys. His shoulders dipped and swayed, making his arms swing backward and powering the slightest, cutest circular motion in his rear end.

I smiled proudly as he pushed through the squeaky, grease-streaked door. Chuck Rhodes was one of San Marcos High School’s major hotties, and he was all mine. Of course, I’d nabbed him two years ago when he was only a minor hottie. But as the older guys graduated and went away, Chuck had become known more and more as a superstud. Lately lots of girls had been telling me how lucky I was.

They were right. I took note of his many attributes as he strutted toward me: his tall, lean swimmer’s build; his spiky, platinum-blond hair (with an occasional greenish tinge from the chlorine); his perpetual tan; and, since getting the braces off a year ago, his gleaming, movie-star smile.

I quickly pushed my hair over my shoulders and adjusted my new blouse. A pale green scrunched V-neck. I liked it because it made me look older. The color showed off my eyes, and the neckline created a slight optical illusion—making my B cups look more like Cs.

“Hi there.” I greeted Chuck as he walked up to the table.

“Hey,” he said, sliding into the chair opposite. I’d been hoping he’d kiss me hello, but Chuck never could get mushy in public. Something else I’d learned to accept.

“You’re late,” I teased. It was protocol—our own little joke.

“Aw, come on. I had to get my hair just right.” He ran a hand over his lime-gold bristles and flashed me a lopsided grin. He was so cute.

A big bubble of anticipation swelled inside my chest, helping me fill out my new top. “Well?” I asked, unable to contain it any longer. “What is it?”

“What?”

“You know,” I whined, bouncing slightly in my seat. “Whatever it was you needed to tell me!”

“Yeah, that.” Chuck swallowed and looked down at the tabletop.

He’s nervous.
A prickly flush spread over me. We’d been going out for almost two years now and Chuck had been starting to hint around about us getting more . . . serious. You know . . . physically. A lot of our friends had done it. And it was an unwritten school rule that anyone entering their senior year still a virgin was a certified loser. I wondered if Chuck wanted to celebrate my seventeenth birthday in a major way.

He drummed his hands against the table and looked up at me. “Uh . . . let’s order first. Then I’ll tell you.”

“I already ordered.”

“Really?” He looked surprised and slightly annoyed. “For both of us?”

“Well, yeah,” I replied with a shrug. “I mean, we always get the same thing. Besides, I don’t have much time. I’m sorry. Did you want something different?”

“No, it’s okay,” he said, still sounding a little put out. “It’s too late anyway. Here comes Chuy now.”

“Here jou go,
novios.
” Chuy walked up behind me, holding a large tray aloft. He set down a plate of nachos and a Coke for each of us and placed a small bowl of lemons in the middle. Then he waved a gigantic piece of flan in front of my face. It jiggled and glistened like a square of compressed yellow snot. “For jour birthday,” he said, plunking it next to my nachos.

BOOK: Alpha Dog
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