Since it was the last week of summer, Capri was busy, and the park itself was packed. Gemma, Marcy, and Daniel had to wait over five minutes across the street from the park until traffic slowed down enough that they could make it.
“You’re gonna try all the chowders before you cast a vote for Pearl’s, right?” Marcy asked Daniel as they made their way through the crowd toward the pavilion where the cook-off was being held, and that’s when Gemma finally figured out why Marcy had suggested coming down here. She never turned down free food, especially when it was Pearl’s famous clam chowder.
“Yeah, those are the rules,” Daniel said. “But I already know hers is the best.”
Marcy furrowed her brow. “You seem pretty biased. I’m not sure if you’re qualified to make this kind of judgment.”
“Oh, I am an expert on chowders,” Daniel persisted. “Nobody is more qualified than me.”
“We’ll see about that,” Marcy said.
“Do you wanna chowder off?” Daniel turned to face her, pretending to look all angry like he wanted to fight, and Marcy met his fake rage evenly.
“Oh, hells yeah, I wanna chowder off,” Marcy shot back.
“What is a chowder off?” Gemma interjected.
“I have no idea, but we’re going to do it, and I’m going to rule at it,” Daniel said.
“We need to set up some serious ground rules then,” Marcy said.
While Marcy and Daniel debated the rules of their new challenge, Gemma looked around to see what else was going on.
Somewhere nearby, she heard a band playing a weird country version of a Rihanna song. Little kids were walking by with tigers and butterflies on their cheeks, so she guessed a face painter had to be close.
Since she was right by the cook-off, the scent of food should’ve overpowered everything, but she could still smell the sea, like the cologne of a lover left lingering long after he’s gone. She could even hear the waves, calling to her over the crowd and the music and her friends’ bickering.
Gemma closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, hoping that would satiate the hunger inside her somehow. Swimming yesterday with Harper had helped, but her appetite was only growing stronger. Her transformations yesterday must’ve taken something out of her, and now her body was demanding to get it back.
Her only hope was that Diana would have an answer and that that answer would come quickly. She would sooner kill herself than hurt another innocent person. She might not have been able to remember clearly when she’d killed someone, but the image of Lexi’s tearing out Sawyer’s heart was still vivid in her mind.
And Gemma would never do that. She could never be that monster.
Then she felt a hand, strong and warm on her shoulder, startling her from her thoughts, and she turned to see Alex standing behind her.
“Hey.” She smiled and tried to erase her dark thoughts. “That was fast.”
“I just came from the docks.” Alex motioned to the other end of the bay. He must’ve had a chance to change out of his work clothes because instead of oil-covered overalls, he had on a pair of jeans and a shirt with an extra button undone on the top, revealing a bit more of his tanned chest. “Sorry if I smell like fish.”
“Actually, you smell like…” Gemma didn’t even have to breathe in, and her nostrils were filled with the scent of chemicals and fake leather. “You smell like you overdosed on body spray.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Alex appeared sheepish and shoved his hands in the pocket of his jeans. “I borrowed some body spray from one of the guys at work. I might have gone overboard.”
Gemma laughed. “It’s okay. I’m just glad you came.”
“Me, too.” He bent down, kissing her gently and briefly on the lips, but it sent delighted butterflies swirling in her stomach.
When he slid his hand into hers, Gemma thought she might explode. It was so simple, but she didn’t think she’d ever be able to do anything like this again. At least not with Alex. She’d been afraid that her chance with him was over, and now here he was, holding her hand as they walked into the cook-off pavilion.
And nothing said romantic reunions like watching Marcy and Daniel run around, taking little sample cups of soup from each entrant, and wolfing them down with lightning speed. Well, Daniel was eating rather fast, but Marcy was literally gulping it down, then racing on to the next chowder.
“What are they doing?” Kirby asked, and Gemma looked over to see that he had joined Gemma, Alex, and a handful of onlookers in standing off to the side, watching Marcy and Daniel run around.
The breeze ruffled his dark hair, and his blue eyes were fixed on Marcy. Even though he was actually a year older than Alex, he was shorter and leaner, especially now that Alex’s physique had grown muscular.
Not that Kirby was bad-looking. He was cute, with an easy smile and an earnestness about him that had endeared him to Gemma earlier this summer. Despite that, he wasn’t Gemma’s type, and she was happy to see him getting on so well with Marcy.
“I’m not really sure what they’re doing,” Gemma admitted. “It’s called a ‘chowder off,’ I guess. I wasn’t paying attention to the rules, though, but it seems kinda like some type of eating contest or race or something.”
Kirby’s eyes widened, and he shrugged. “Makes sense.”
Gemma laughed, and she was relieved to see that he didn’t seem to harbor any attraction to her anymore. In all honesty, she didn’t think he’d ever truly been into her because as soon as he had the chance to take a break from her and her siren charms, he’d lost interest.
But his eyes did seem fixed on Marcy, and while that sounded like a peculiar pairing to Gemma, she couldn’t really think of anyone that sounded like a true “match” for Marcy anyway. She was just about to ask Kirby if he and Marcy ever had their Finding Bigfoot marathon, but then Marcy threw up her arms in the air and shouted.
“Done!” Marcy announced proudly, and walked to the center of the pavilion with her arms held high above her head. Then she pointed at Daniel. “I schooled you!”
Daniel shook his head and walked over to her with a half-eaten sample in hand. “Okay, there is no way you tasted all that chowder. You could not get all the nuances and subtle flavors in them.”
“Whatever,” Marcy insisted, and crossed her arms over her chest. “I got the nutmeg, the hints of sea salt. That one over there in the corner had cilantro in it.”