Bambi managed to get all six feet of her coiled into the top floor, her head resting on the miniature bed. She looked...comfy. And it looked weird.
Minutes passed as I stared at the demonic familiar. A chill formed in my chest, replacing the god-awful burn. Why had Roth given her up to me? Bambi was his familiar, not mine, and he’d always seemed fond of the snake. It didn’t make sense, but it probably also didn’t matter. Long ago, he’d admitted there were things he did without any reason.
And as it turned out, I was just one of those many things.
It hurt something bad as I climbed into bed, lying on my uninjured arm. It wasn’t even late as I squeezed my eyes shut, but it felt like forever since this morning. Everything seemed to have changed in the span of a few hours.
I smelled like an Upper Level demon. Roth was back and he was relatively unharmed. A Lilin had been born. Apparently an orgasm was apocalyptic. And Roth...he’d never cared about me.
I’d just been a job to him.
And nothing more.
* * *
My head ached as though I’d spent the night banging it against the wall, which would’ve been more fun and fruitful than staring at the ceiling, replaying all the moments Roth and I had shared. I’d been looking for a fatal flaw in our wannabe relationship and that had been as productive as drilling holes in a bucket and trying to carry water in it.
Roth was a demon.
A male demon.
A male demon who liked to covet pretty things.
And I was as inexperienced as a nun, so of course, I’d attributed a lot to what he’d said to me, to the way he’d looked at me, to every touch and kiss. I’d thought it all meant something and the hurt was intense, tasting like bitter grapes in the back of my mouth. Strangely, as much as my throat and eyes burned and for all the tears that built in my eyes, those tears didn’t fall. I wished they would. It felt as though there’d be something cleansing in the act.
When it came time to rise for class, I snuggled down under the heavy, warm comforter. I waited for someone to come and tell me to get out of bed, but all that came were the footsteps of Nicolai around the time he’d leave to take me to school. He didn’t open the door to check in. After a few seconds, his steps faded down the hall.
I closed my eyes, unsure if I should be grateful that no one seemed to care or if I should be hurt by that. Before Roth...before the clan knew of him and our relationship, Abbot or someone would’ve been in here, dragging me out of the bed or at least making sure Freddy Krueger hadn’t snatched me. Now? Not so much. More than ever before, I was a permanent guest in their home, one that had outstayed her welcome.
As I drifted back off, my brain wandered in every direction. An old plan resurfaced, one I hadn’t given much thought to in a while. My sleepy gaze drifted to my desk. The empty OJ glass rested on top of the stack of college applications. Those papers were nearly forgotten and it was probably too late to seriously consider enrolling for next fall, but maybe that was what I’d do.
Screw all of this—the Lilin, Roth and all the Wardens. I could go to college far away from here and pretend to be...pretend to be what? Normal? I could do it. I’d been doing it for so long. Blend in among the humans and make this all into a distant memory. It was a selfish decision, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be selfish and I didn’t want to be here, in this body any longer or stuck with these problems.
One good thing was I wouldn’t see him at school. There was no reason for Roth to return there.
At some point I drifted off again, awakening when I felt the bed shift under sudden, unexpected weight and the stirring of the covers. Disoriented, I blinked open my eyes. Heart kicking in my chest, I glanced over my shoulder.
Two cerulean eyes met mine.
Zayne stared back at me, momentarily obscured by a length of blond hair. I held my breath as he eased down on his side and tugged the covers up to his waist. My gaze dipped. He was wearing a gray cotton shirt and it stretched taut over his shoulders as he reached under the comforter, finding me in the bundle of blankets. With his arm around my waist, he snagged me back against his chest. Every muscle in my body tensed as he settled in behind me, curving his body around mine with a natural ease that scattered my senses. There was virtually nothing between us but our thin sleep clothes, which were no shield from the heat he radiated.
And that warmth...oh. It seeped into my muscles, easing out the knots and all the sore spots. Within seconds, the rigidness flowed out of my spine and my cheek returned to the pillow. The bed turned into a cloud and I felt as if I was in one of those cheesy mattress commercials Stacey and Sam always made fun of, but Zayne had the power to change an ordinary mattress into something wonderful. I closed my eyes, letting my body sink down. In the moments that followed, I wasn’t thinking about anything and that was great.
He lifted his hand from my waist long enough to brush strands of my hair out of his face and then I felt his warm breath against the back of my neck. A series of shivers danced over my skin. A different kind of tightness formed in my lower stomach as I focused on breathing normally and not as though I’d just attempted to run up and down bleachers.
It had been a long, long time since Zayne had done this—climbed into my bed to rest instead of taking a deep sleep. Not since we were much, much younger, when sharing a bed was harmless and innocent, and no one could get the wrong idea about it. Shock flickered through me. Especially after last night, I didn’t expect this from him. He’d sensed that I’d been close to caving to the need. Truthfully, he was in constant danger when he was around me. At any moment, I could roll over and our mouths would be centimeters apart. And it would be so easy to take his soul.
“How’s your arm?” he asked.
When he spoke, his voice rumbled through me. I cleared my throat and then winced at how abrasive it sounded. “It’s okay.”
“We should check it out later.” He shifted his arm and his hand ended up on my belly, just below my navel. I jerked back in surprise, but he didn’t pull away or move his hand. “It’s not why you didn’t go to school, then?”
Swallowing a sigh, I pried my eyes open. On the nightstand, the neon green lights showed 9:01 a.m. I should be on my way to bio at this point. “No.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Talking about Roth while lying in bed with Zayne was the last possible thing I ever wanted to do. “No.”
Silence fell between us as his chest rose and fell against my back in an even, deep rhythm. As relaxed as I was, my body was still hyperaware of his, of every breath he took and every tiny spasm of muscle. In the quiet, an ugly thought crept in. Had he lain like this with Danika? I had no right to the caustic burn of jealousy that invaded my blood, but it was there and it was wrong, because they were able to share more than I’d ever be able to share with him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, speaking the words so quietly I wasn’t sure he’d said them at first.
I closed my eyes. “Why?”
There was another long stretch of silence and then he said, “I know you’re hurting and I want to kill the son of a bitch for that.”
My heart turned over heavily. There was no hiding anything from him. Zayne knew me better than I liked to acknowledge. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to strangle Roth and spin kick him in his junk, but I also had a sneaking suspicion that Zayne really, really wanted to act on his desire, and because I was a girl, I’d cry if Zayne did manage to kill him.
“He’s a demon,” Zayne said. “It doesn’t matter that there are moments when he’ll pull off acts of great compassion, because underneath it, he is what he is.”
I sucked my bottom lip in. “But that’s what I am.”
“No.” Zayne rose slightly, causing his hand to drag across my stomach to my hip. “You’re not just a demon, Layla. You’re also a Warden. It’s not like you can’t be both things and...”
“And?” I turned onto my back, resting on my elbows, and his hand ended up on my belly again, his long fingers reaching the band on my sleep shorts. Our gazes met. “And what?”
He didn’t answer immediately. Instead his gaze drifted over my face and then down, beyond the collar of my shirt. The blanket had slipped below my chest. He swallowed hard as he returned to lying on his side. His voice was thicker than normal when he spoke. “And why can’t you have the best of both worlds? Like the best qualities, you know?”
“Best qualities of both?” I murmured slowly. “You’re saying there are good qualities in demons?”
“In you.” The hollows of his cheeks flushed, and I blinked a couple of times, but the blush was slow to fade. “You’re part demon. Like I said that night at the ice-cream shop, we shouldn’t have made you hate that part of you.”
I remember him saying that. Those words had been lost in what else had happened that night—Paimon and the devil’s trap—but I remembered.
“Every part of you is good—even the demon side.” He paused. “And I saw you that night.”
Lying back, I drew in a deep breath. “What do you mean?”
He leaned over me and several locks of hair glided over his cheeks. “You didn’t look like us when you shifted, but you didn’t look like a demon either. You were a mixture of both.”
“So I looked like a freak?”
“No.” His hand moved and his fingers curved around my waist. “Your skin was black and gray, like mottled marble. It was beautiful. Best of both.”
A pleasant heat crept into my cheeks and I fought not to lower my gaze from the intensity in his. “You’ve been saying that a lot lately.”
“The ‘beautiful’ thing.”
His lips curled up at the corners in a small smile. “I have been.”
“You need your head checked?”
He rolled his eyes. “Anyway...” His thumb moved in slow, idle circles along my lower stomach. He seemed unaware of it, but then he chuckled softly. “I have no idea what we were talking about.”
I smiled. “We were talking about how awesome I am.”
“Sounds about right.” He settled back down and he seemed to be closer than before. The tops of his legs were pressed to the sides of my thighs. And his thumb was still tracing that unseen circle under my belly button, creating a languid warmth that was familiar.
“I was thinking,” I said finally, watching him. His eyes were closed and in that moment, he looked much younger than twenty-one.
There was a beat of silence. “About what?”
“About filling out those college applications and trying to see if I could get in for late admission.”
One eye opened and his thumb stilled. Several seconds passed. “Is it because of him?”
I opened my mouth.
“You know I’ve always supported you when it comes to going to college.” Both eyes were open now. “I think it would be great for you, but don’t make a huge decision like that because of what you’re feeling right now.”
I wanted to deny the assumption that my sudden interest in college had anything to do with Roth, but it would be a pitiful lie. Who was I kidding? Wasn’t like I hadn’t seriously considered leaving here and attending college before, but right now the idea was circling in my head for all the wrong reasons.
Zayne was staring at me now, eyes as bright as midday during the summer. Unrest made me twitchy. “Do you...?” He took a deep breath, and I held mine. “Did you love him, Layla?”
Oh God. My eyes widened and I could feel the heat in my cheeks grow. The question totally knocked me right off the planet.
He looked away and shook his head. “Shit, Layla-bug.”
“No!” I blurted out, and when his head swung back at me, my heart jumped in my throat. “I don’t know how I feel,” I rushed on, speaking the brutal truth. “I don’t know, Zayne. I care about him a lot and he...” I ached at the sudden knot in my throat. “I don’t know.”
And I really didn’t.
Love is a strange creature one thinks one has a grasp on and understanding of, only to discover later that it was only the barest taste of the real thing. And there were so many different kinds of love—that much I knew—and I didn’t know where Roth fell in all of that.
Zayne held my gaze for a moment longer before nodding. “Okay. I get that.” His hand left my stomach and before I could feel the pang of confused disappointment, he found my hand and threaded his fingers through mine. “I really do.”
He squeezed my hand and I returned the gesture obediently, but I wasn’t sure how he could get any of this when I didn’t.
* * *
Zayne had slept the day away with me, leaving my bed as the other Wardens began to stir in the house. I’d watched him leave, cheeks flushed for no good reason other than it seemed wholly intimate watching him sneak out of my room as if we...as if we’d done something naughty.
I’d remained in bed after that, trying to sort through the odd tingling in my chest. There was a slight smile on my lips, because Zayne...well, he’d made my day, but then I’d remember what Roth had said to me the night before and the smile would wash away as if it had never been there.
I probably needed to get used to the whiplash mood swings.
It wasn’t until after dinner that I decided to scrub a day’s worth of gunk off myself. Gingerly, I peeled the bandage off, happy to find that the cut in my arm was healing as expected. I didn’t need to cover it anymore. The arm was still tender, but the Warden blood in me was quickly undoing the damage from the iron.