The girl blanched, her skin matching the color of her hair at the unintended harshness in my tone. Or maybe it was intended? I couldn’t fathom why Abbot would allow something like her to roam freely through his home.
Her eyes widened further, taking on a shiny sheen before she ducked her chin, dropping her hair and picking at the necklace she wore, twisting the chain around her fingers. A pang of shame prodded at me, burning like a hot poker.
“Zayne and I were going to get ice cream,” she said after a few seconds, staring at the floor as she shifted her slight weight from one foot to the next. “I thought that you might like to come with us.”
My mouth opened, but there were no words. She was inviting me to go get ice cream? I’d slipped into an alternate reality. Before I could speak, a blond Warden entered the room, his easy grin spreading into a smile.
Zayne—the very object of my sister’s ever-growing crush.
One did not have to wonder why Danika was so attracted to Zayne. Wearing a light gray shirt, he was tall and built like all Wardens were, but he was an especially impressive specimen. His shirt clung to hard muscles and a lean waist. With that head full of blond waves and high cheekbones, his sculpted face could easily be mistaken for that of an angel’s. Zayne was divinely gorgeous, but my eyes... well, they’d always been focused on someone else.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Layla.” Zayne walked right up to the half demon, displaying no fear whatsoever, and draped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to his side. “I’m ready if you’re...” He trailed off, his gaze narrowing on her and then flipping toward me. One look at me, and his handsome expression tightened in understanding. “Layla, why don’t you go wait for me in the foyer.”
She lifted her head and glanced at me. A small smile appeared on her lips and then she scampered from the room, gliding as fast as a shadow.
Zayne turned to me, legs spread and shoulders tensed, just the way Dez stood when he was angry. “Layla is nothing like what you think or have heard.”
I didn’t even have to ask how he suspected that our little meet and greet hadn’t been pleasant. The fact that I was hiding behind a couch like a total tool, looking as if I wanted to fly out of the room, was probably a dead giveaway.
He eyed me with cool, unfriendly pale eyes. “She won’t hurt you. The very idea of hurting anyone or anything would never even cross her thoughts.”
Flushing to the roots of my hair, I opened my mouth, but he cut me off.
“Layla’s not dangerous.” His gaze held mine, refusing to allow me to look away. “She’s more Warden than she is demon.”
My skin pricked with uncomfortable heat. “I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting to see her. I didn’t even think she was real. She’s... she’s really not a threat?”
Zayne stared at me for a long moment and then blew out a deep breath. As he finally looked away, he thrust his hand through his hair. “Unless you plan on kissing her any time soon, she’s not a danger to you.”
“That’s how close you’d need to get for you to be concerned about losing your soul,” he explained. “It’s not like she just needs to breathe the same air as you. She needs to be close—that close.”
Well, since that wasn’t in my future plans, I nodded. Shame still burned like a flame inside my chest. God, I felt like a bitch. If she took a soul in that manner... the poor girl could never kiss. “I really am sorry. She seems like... like a nice girl. She invited me to ice cream.”
Zayne didn’t look surprised. “The other clansmen don’t want her in the main home with the other females and children. That’s why she’s here, in our headquarters, and there aren’t a lot of females that visit us here. She’s been excited to meet you since we heard that you were coming with Dez.”
Yep. It was official. Now I felt worse.
“I told Dez we were heading out. He said he wanted to come. You’re more than welcome to join us, but if you say one thing or act in any way toward Layla that is even remotely cruel—”
“I won’t,” I said quickly. “I’d love to join you all.”
He nodded curtly and turned. Feeling like a troll, I sighed and followed Zayne to the foyer. He went straight to where Layla waited in the corner, pressed against the wall and so incredibly small that if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t have even seen her. My gaze followed hers to where Dez stood by the door.
Relief poured into Dez’s features as he looked at me. “I’ve been meeting with Abbot. I would’ve come back earlier if I knew you were out of bed and—”
“Are you feeling up to going out?”
“I feel fine.”
I glanced back at Layla. Curiosity marked her face. There was also trepidation, as if she expected an identical response from Dez. It couldn’t be easy for her living among Wardens. I knew that most had to have behaved the way I had. Sympathy rose inside me. That girl could not have had an easy life.
Dez smiled at the young girl and though it didn’t reach his eyes, she smiled back—hopeful. He was wary, but he hid it a lot better than me.
“Everyone ready?” As Zayne spoke, he reached down, wrapping his much larger hand around Layla’s.
“Yep.” Dez looked at me in that intense way of his, and for a moment I forgot about my embarrassing reaction. “You sure?” When I nodded, he said, “We’re ready.”
A different kind of heat flooded my cheeks as I glanced back at Zayne and Layla. The girl was staring up at the Warden, smiling in a way that was painfully familiar.
She smiled the same way I had every time I’d seen Dez—that smile of adoration and love. There was something incredibly sad about that because the obvious love Layla harbored for Zayne would, no matter what, end in painful heartbreak.
We all stared at Zayne in varying degrees of morbid fascination, watching him happily take a Twizzler from a pack he’d brought into the ’50s-style ice-cream parlor and dip it into his chocolate ice cream.
“That is so disgusting.” Layla watched him, her spoon hovering above her banana split. “I mean, there’re really no words for it.”
“What?” Zayne laughed as he looked at her and held the chocolate-covered red licorice close to her face. “Just try it.”
“Ew.” She jerked back, scrunching up her nose. “Get that away from me.”
Beside me, Dez leaned back and smiled. Since he’d already devoured his cone, I expected him to start patting his belly. “That is gross.”
Zayne scoffed. “Whatever. It’s the best thing ever.”
“It’s not,” Layla said, scooping around the cherries. “You could try chips or French fries like a normal person.”
“What fun is being normal?” Zayne countered.
Layla pulled her spoon back as he reached over and plucked up a cherry, popping it in his mouth.
There was no doubt in my mind that these two were close, probably as inseparable as Dez and I had been. And just like my younger self, Layla made no attempt at hiding how she worshipped him.
The more time I spent in her company, the worse I felt about how I’d acted toward her earlier. She really was a sweet girl, and once she got comfortable around Dez and me, she opened up. The chick was spunky.