He gave me an innocent look. “Don’t knock it till you try it.”
“I’ll never dip Twizzlers into chocolate ice cream.”
Zayne shoved me playfully and stole my place in line. I shoved him back, but he didn’t move a centimeter. The souls around us were various degrees of pastel colors, soft and, thankfully, uninteresting to me. And no demons were in sight. Score. He ordered a bowl of chocolate ice cream and I got a banana split, the same thing I always ordered.
Pleasant temperatures for November had driven people to the shop in droves. Indian summer or whatever Zayne called it. We were lucky to find a small booth to squeeze into. This shop was one of my favorite places to go in the city, a mom-and-pop business shoved in the middle of a modern downtown, and it felt good being here. The floors were checkered black-and-white, the booths and tables were red and family photos adorned the walls. What was not to love?
It felt like a home.
I watched Zayne gleefully dip the ropy stick in his chocolate. He caught my eye and winked. “Sure you don’t want a bite?”
I made a face. “No, thank you.”
He offered the candy to me, a thick glob of chocolate syrup dripping off the end. It splattered against the table. “You might just like it.”
I took a bite of my banana split instead. Shrugging, Zayne popped it in his mouth and sighed. I studied him. “Do you think I’m pretty much going to be on house arrest until I turn eighteen?”
“Afraid so,” he replied. “Father isn’t budging on anything.”
“That’s what I feared.”
He poked my hand with a Twizzler he hadn’t dipped yet. “I’ll break you free as often as I can.”
“Thank you.” I forced a smile. “So...how are things with you and Danika?”
His brows knitted as he focused on his bowl of ice cream like it held the answers to life. “Good. She’s a...great girl.”
“She’s freaking hot. I’d kill to have her body.” I glanced down at my food. “Come to think of it, how many calories are in this thing?”
Zayne’s eyes flicked up. They seemed brighter than usual. “You’re...perfect just the way you are.”
I rolled my eyes. “Have you been watching Bridget Jones’s Diary?”
He studied me a few more seconds and then went back to his dessert. There was stiffness in his shoulders that hadn’t been there before, as if he was suddenly carrying some unseen weight. Like an idiot, I kept talking. “I overheard Jasmine and Danika talking. She said you two hadn’t talked about your future...together.”
It seemed like his shoulders tensed even more. “No. We haven’t.”
I poked a cherry around. “So are you still planning to buck the system?”
Zayne ran a hand over his head, squinting. “I don’t look at it that way. If I’m going to mat—if I’m going to marry, I want to do it on my own terms.”
“And what does Abbot have to say about that?” I offered him the cherry, which he took. “Or have you been stalling?”
He shrugged as he studied the cherry’s stem. “I’ve just been avoiding it.”
“But you haven’t been avoiding Danika,” I pointed out. “You like her. So what’s the deal?”
“It’s not about me liking her or not.” He sat back in the booth, hands bouncing restlessly off the table as he stared at the tubs of ice cream behind the glass. “She’s a great girl. I have fun with her, but I really don’t want to talk about her right now.”
“Oh.” Sort of knew where this was heading.
He shot me a knowing look. “I’d ask how you’ve been holding up, but I think the dollhouse answers that.”
I sighed. “I’m trying not to think about it. It’s not working. I mean...”
“It’s heavy stuff?”
I cracked a smile. “Yeah, it’s pretty heavy.” Poking a slice of banana around, I shook my head. “Zayne, I...”
“What?” he asked after a few seconds.
Looking up, I met his stare before I lost my nerve. “I haven’t been completely honest.”
“Really?” he said drily. “Could’ve fooled me.”
I flushed. “I am sorry, Zayne. Not because I got caught, but because I know it hurt you and it was wrong. I should’ve trusted you.”
“I know.” His hand landed on mine and squeezed gently. “I was pissed—part of me is still pissed—but it is what it is.”
Hoping he still wanted to breathe the same air as I did after he learned what I’d done, I pulled my hand back and cast my eyes to my now-soupy ice cream. I decided to approach it like ripping a Band-Aid off. “I took Petr’s soul.”
Zayne leaned forward, his brows furrowing as if he didn’t quite understand what I’d said, and then he sat back. His hands slid off the table as his throat worked. Silence hit like a bomb.
“I know you sort of guessed it when I came home and I was sick.” My fingers twisted around the spoon. “I was defending myself. He was going to kill me. I didn’t want to. God, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but he just kept coming after me and I didn’t know what else to do. It did something to him, Zayne. He didn’t turn into a wraith like a human would. He morphed, but his eyes were red. I’m so sorry. Please don’t—”
“Layla,” he said quietly. He grabbed the hand clenching the spoon and gentled unraveled my fingers from around the handle. “I know you did it to defend yourself and it wasn’t something you intended to do.”
“But the look on your face,” I whispered.
He smiled, but it was strained. “I was shocked. Like you said, I suspected something, but I thought you might have tasted the soul. I didn’t know it went...all the way.”
Shame was a pail of rusted nails I’d swallowed. I couldn’t help but feel it, even though I knew that I’d most likely be dead if I hadn’t taken his soul, giving me a reprieve until Roth had shown up. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”
“Oh, Layla, it has nothing to do with me being disappointed. You defended yourself, and I wish you hadn’t needed to. Not because of what you are.” He kept his voice low. “But because I know how sick it makes you. I hate seeing you like that. I hate seeing you like this.”
Using my free hand, I swiped under my eye. God, I was crying.
“See? You’re blaming yourself because of what you did. And I hate that you’re doing that to yourself.”
“But you said I was better than this.”
He flinched. “God, I wish I’d never said that to you. And you know, the way you look at yourself—it’s partly our fault.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
Sitting back, he lifted his hands. “We raised you to hate that part of you. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do. I’m not sure anymore. I’m not sure of anything.” He thrust his fingers through his hair. “I do know that I’m not disappointed in you. I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. Even if you don’t see the true pleasure of Twizzlers dipped in chocolate.”
I choked out a laugh as I blinked back more tears. “Funny.”