“You’re right. I don’t. This might be a fake, but the Lesser Key is older than dirt. How could you be in it?”
“I am just one of many,” he said, voice flat and cold. “Those who came before me met untimely ends or no longer served their purpose.” He smiled, but it lacked everything that made it human. “I am the most recent Crown Prince.”
I sat back. “So...you’re like a replacement?”
“An identical replacement.” He laughed humorlessly. “Each Roth before me looked just like me, talked like me and was probably almost as charming. So yeah, I’m a replacement.”
“Is it like that with the other demons?”
Roth dragged his fingers through his hair. “No. Demons can’t really die, but the fiery pits are our equivalent of death. All the former Princes are there, suffering in ways you couldn’t even imagine. I can hear their screams. Kind of serves as a good reminder to behave.” He shrugged casually, but I knew this whole thing bothered him. “So you see, I have lied a bit. I’m practically not even real.”
I closed the book, wanting to push it off the bed. Roth still sat beside me, stiff as stone. He was a replacement, created because the one before him had failed at something or had fallen prey to a devil’s trap. I couldn’t begin to imagine what that must feel like. Was he even his own person or an accumulation of the dozens, if not hundreds, that came before him?
I felt terrible for him. While I had barely scratched the surface of my heritage, Roth knew far too much about his own.
Silence stretched out. I could hear the kittens under the bed, purring like little freight trains. I dared a look at him and found him watching me intently. Our gazes locked.
He took a deep breath. “What?”
“I’m...I’m just sorry.”
Roth opened his mouth and then closed it. Several seconds passed before he spoke. “You shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I don’t.”
I didn’t believe him. Suddenly so many things made sense. “That’s bullshit.”
His eyes popped wide.
“It’s why you like it up here so much. You don’t want to be down there. You want to be up here, where everything is real.” I leaned forward, keeping his gaze. “Because you’re real and not just another Roth when you’re here.”
He blinked and then laughed. “Maybe that would be the case if I actually cared about that kind of stuff. I am what I am. I’m—”
“You’re a demon. I know.” I climbed onto my knees, facing him. “You always say that. Like you’re trying to convince yourself that’s the only thing you are, and I know that’s not the case. You are more than that, more than just another Roth.”
“Oh, here you go.” Roth flopped on his back, grinning up at the ceiling. “Next you’re going to tell me I have a conscience.”
I rolled my eyes. “I wouldn’t go that far, but—”
His chuckle cut me off. “You have no clue. Just because I like it topside doesn’t mean anything other than that I like places that don’t smell like rotten egg and aren’t a billion degrees.”
“You’re such a liar.”
He rose onto his elbows, his laughter fading into a smirk. “And you’re so incredibly naive. I can’t believe you feel sorry for me. I don’t even have a heart.”
I pushed his shoulders. He fell onto his back not because I’d exerted any real power, but mainly from surprise. It was all over his face. “You’re such an asshat. I’m ready to leave.”
Roth shot up and caught my arms, pressing me down in half a second. He hovered above me. “Why do you get mad when I tell you the truth?”
“It’s not the truth!” I tried to get up again, but he had me pinned. “I don’t understand why you have to lie. You’re not all bad.”
“I have reasons for doing what I do.” His gaze drifted off my face, down my body. “None of them are angelic. All of them self-serving.”
“No,” I whispered. I knew it wasn’t true. “You’re more than just the next Prince.”
He leaned down and we were chest to chest. His face was a mere inch or two from mine. Air hitched in my throat. “I am only the next Crown Prince. That’s what I am—all I am.”
Roth didn’t respond as he softened his grip and trailed his fingers down my arm. His hand skipped to my waist, then to my hip. Heat followed his touch, eliciting a sharp pang of yearning and even fear. He brought his gaze up, and the intensity in his stare had a magnetic pull. That heady tension was here, pulling us together. I was tired of ignoring it, tired of believing it was wrong when it was what I wanted—what I needed.
Because Roth was more than just a demon and I was more than just a girl caught between two races.
Slowly, I lifted my hand and placed it against his cheek. Only his chest moved, rising unsteadily. It was then that I realized he was just as affected as I was by whatever it was between us. It wasn’t just a game or a job. It was more than teasing and flirting. “You’re more than just another Roth. You’re more than that. You’re—”
Roth’s lips brushed mine. I sucked in a startled breath, freezing underneath him. It wasn’t much of a kiss, just a tentative caress, surprisingly soft and gentle. He didn’t push it or deepen the contact. He just hovered there, the butterfly kiss doing more to me than anything ever had.
And I wanted more, so much more.
Roth lifted his head and stared down at me. There wasn’t so much a question in his stare as a feral promise of things I probably couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
I placed my shaking hands on his chest. To push him away or pull him closer, I didn’t know. So many thoughts jumbled together. I wanted this, but I didn’t know what this was. The day by the park with Roth had been my very first kiss, and I wasn’t even sure if that counted as a real kiss. Oh, it had been good—really good—but had it been born out of passion? I didn’t think so. If anything, he’d kissed me to just prove that he could.
But now he’d really kiss me. I knew it in my bones.
I moved my trembling hands to his shoulders. I didn’t push hard, but Roth released me immediately, the muscles in his arms bulging as he breathed raggedly.
“What?” His voice was deep and endless.
Heart pounding, I pulled my hands back, folding them across my chest. My shirt was bunched up, our legs still tangled together. His eyes...they seemed to glow golden. “I think...I don’t know about this.”
Roth was very still for a moment, and then he nodded. I bit down on my lip as he rolled onto his side. I expected him to get up or be upset that I’d pulled the brakes before anything got started. Hell, a huge part of me was upset. Why had I stopped him?
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I sat up and tugged down my shirt. “It’s just I’ve never—”
“It’s okay.” The bed dipped as Roth gathered me in his arms and pulled me back down to the bed. He stretched out, keeping me pressed close to his side. “It’s really okay.”
The black-and-white kitten jumped on the edge of the bed, rubbing against Roth’s foot and then mine, drawing our attention. The distraction was a good thing, because it felt like a swarm of butterflies had erupted in my stomach.