And truthfully, the change in my tagging routine was all thanks to Roth.
“It’s just that those two idiots were probably messing with Dean,” Sam continued as he finished off the pizza in a nanosecond. “People snap.”
“People usually don’t have fists that could be considered lethal weapons,” Stacey retorted.
My phone chirped, drawing my attention. Bending, I pulled it out of my bag. The corners of my lips tipped up when I saw it was from Zayne even though the pain behind my eyes steadily increased.
Nic is picking u up. Meet me in the training room when u get home.
Ah, training. My stomach did a funny little twist, a familiar reaction when it came to training with Zayne. Because at some point during the grappling and evasive techniques, he’d get sweaty, and inevitably his shirt would come off. And, well, even though I was hurting something fierce over the loss of Roth, seeing Zayne shirtless was something to look forward to.
And Zayne...he’d always meant the world and then some to me. That hadn’t changed. It never would. When I’d first been brought into the clan, I had been terrified and had promptly hidden in a closet. It had been Zayne who’d coaxed me out, holding in his hands a no-longer-pristine teddy bear that I had dubbed Mr. Snotty. I’d been attached to his hip since then. Well, until Roth had come along. Zayne had been my only ally—the only person who knew what I was, and...God, he’d been there for me, my rock these past couple of weeks.
“So...” Sam drew the word out as I sent Zayne a quick okay and dropped the phone back in my bag. “Did you know that when snakes are born with two heads, they fight each other for food?”
“What?” Stacey asked, brows furrowing together like two angry little lines.
He nodded, grinning a little. “Yep. Kind of like a death match...with yourself.”
For some reason, a bit of stiffness went out of my posture when Stacey choked out a laugh and said, “Your capacity for useless knowledge never ceases to amaze me.”
“It’s why you love me.”
Stacey blinked and heat infused her cheeks. She glanced over at me, as if I was somehow supposed to help her with her recently discovered crush on Sam. I was the last person on the face of the Earth to help when it came to the opposite sex.
I’d only kissed one boy in my entire life.
And he’d been a demon.
She laughed loudly and brightly as she picked up her soda. “Whatever. I’m too cool for love.”
“Actually...” Sam looked as though he was about to explain some kind of random fact about love and temperatures when the pain in my head flared.
Sucking in a short breath, I pressed my palm above my eyes and squeezed them shut against the red-hot stabbing sensation. It was fierce and quick, over as soon as it started.
“Layla? Are you okay?” Sam asked.
I nodded slowly as I lowered my hand and opened my eyes. Sam stared back at me, but...
He cocked his head to the side. “You’re looking a little pale.”
Dizziness rose over me as I continued to stare at him. “You...”
“Me? Huh?” Frowning, he glanced at Stacey quickly. “I what?”
There was nothing surrounding Sam—not a single trace of robin’s-egg blue or the soft buttery yellow. My heart tripped as I twisted toward Stacey. The faint green of her aura was also gone. That meant that neither Sam nor Stacey had—no, they had souls. I knew they did.
“Layla?” Stacey said softly, touching my arm.
I twisted around, scanning the packed cafeteria. Everyone looked normal except there was no halo around any of them. No soft shade of color. My pulse picked up and I felt sweat dotting my brow. What was going on?
Searching out Eva Hasher, whose aura I was all too familiar with, I found her sitting a few tables back from ours, surrounded by what Stacey lovingly referred to as the bitch pack. Beside her was Gareth, her on-and-off-again boyfriend. He was leaning forward, arms folded on the table. Staring off at nothing, his eyes were red and glazed over. He liked to party, but I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen him high at school. There was nothing around him.
I shifted my gaze back to Eva. Normally there was a halo of purple surrounding the überhot brunette, meaning she’d been slipping into questionable soul status for quite some time. The need to taste her soul was always great.
But the space around her was also empty.
“Oh my God,” I whispered.
Stacey’s hand tightened on my arm. “What’s going on?”
My gaze flitted back to her. Still no aura. And then to Sam. Nothing. I couldn’t see a single soul.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a daze. I hated to think that Stacey and Sam were used to my random mood shifts and disappearing acts, but they were. Neither of them pushed me about my odd behavior.
When I saw Nicolai waiting for me in front of the high school, I knew my superspecial-demon-sniffing abilities had gone to Hell. The Wardens all had pure souls—a beautiful white glow that I knew tasted like heaven. Even Petr had a pure soul in spite of the fact he was the worst sort of male and had tried to kill me.
But Nicolai, a Warden I knew was as good as Zayne, didn’t have his usual white glow today. I climbed into the black Escalade, eyes wide as I pulled the door shut behind me.
He passed me a quick look. Nicolai rarely smiled since he’d lost his wife and his only child during childbirth. I used to get more smiles than most, but not since the night the clan had caught me with Roth.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his blue eyes identical to Zayne’s. All Wardens had the most brilliant blue eyes that looked like the summer sky before a storm. Mine were the palest gray, as if they’d been leached of all color, a product of the demonic blood in me.
When I did nothing but stare at him like a goober, his handsome face slipped into a slight frown. “Layla?”
I blinked as if coming out of a trance and fixed my gaze on the people crowding the sidewalk. The sky was overcast from the recent cold rain and the clouds looked fat with more, but there were no traces of a soul to be found. I shook my head. “I’m okay.”
We didn’t speak again during the unnecessarily long drive to the compound just over the bridge. Traffic was always a pain. When Morris drove me, he didn’t talk—he never talked—but I’d pretend to have a conversation with him. With Nicolai, it was just about seven kinds of awkward. I wondered if he still thought I’d betrayed the clan by assisting Roth in finding the Lesser Key of Solomon, if he’d ever smile at me again.
It seemed as if it took thirty minutes and ten years before the Escalade rolled to a smooth stop in front of the compound. As usual, I grabbed my bag and threw open the door. I’d done it so many times I didn’t look where I put my foot. I knew the curb of the sidewalk leading to the porch steps would be there.
Except as I hopped down, my booted foot met nothing but air. Caught off balance, I threw my hands out as I toppled forward. My backpack was flung to the side as I went down palms first. Bambi shifted without warning, curling along my waist as if she sought to somehow not end up squished if I went down.
Real helpful there.
I caught myself before I kissed the pavement, sliding on the slippery, broken stone. Skin tore across my hands, sparking little bites of pain.
Nicolai was out of the Escalade and by my side in record time, swearing loudly. “Are you all right, little one?”
“Ouch,” I moaned, rocking back on my knees as I lifted my battered hands. Other than feeling like a three-legged gazelle, I was okay. Cheeks red, I bit my lip to stop a flood of curse words from coming out. “I’m fine.”
“You sure?” He curled his hand around my upper arm, helping me stand. Bambi shifted positions the moment he came in contact with me, and I felt her crawl up the side of my neck, reaching my jaw. Nicolai saw it, too, jerking his hand back. He cleared his throat as he fixed his stare on my eyes. “Your palms are scratched.”
“They’ll heal.” And they’d heal within hours. Hopefully Bambi would slither back to somewhere less visible in that time. None of the Wardens liked to see her for a crap ton of reasons. “What happened to the curb?”
“No idea.” Nicolai frowned as he stared at the crumbled gray stone. “Must’ve been all the rain.”
“Odd,” I muttered, spying my bag in a puddle. I sighed as I stomped over to it and wrenched it out of the muckiness.
Nicolai followed me up the steps. “Are you sure you’re not hurt? I can get Jasmine to take a look at your hands.”
I had no idea why Jasmine, a member of the New York clan of Wardens, was still here. Not that I had any problems with her. Her younger sister Danika, the beautiful, full-blooded gargoyle who wanted to make babies with Zayne, was another story. Then again, considering all that Roth and I had shared, I really had no room to be jealous.
But the bitter burn was there every time I saw the dark-haired beauty. Double standards sucked, but oh wellsies.
“Really. I’m good,” I said as we waited for Geoff, hidden somewhere in the belly of the compound, to unlock the doors. “I’m just obviously not very graceful.”
Nicolai didn’t respond and—thank baby Jesus and cuddly angels—the front door opened. Careful not to step through an unexpected hole in the floor, I set my bag down just inside the door and hurried upstairs to my bedroom.
Good news. I didn’t fall down the stairs and Bambi had decided to get off my face and was now back to curling around my body.
Traffic and my impromptu face-plant outside had made me late to meet Zayne, but as I toed off my boots, I wasn’t sure how focused on training I’d be considering there seemed to be a wire suddenly missing in my brain.
Why couldn’t I see souls? And what did that mean?
I needed to tell someone—I would tell Zayne, but not his father. I didn’t trust Abbot so much anymore. Not since discovering that he’d known all along who my mother and father were. And I was pretty sure he didn’t 100 percent trust my rosy-red behind either.
I dragged a pair of sweats and a T-shirt out from my dresser and tossed them on the bed. Padding around my room in my socks, I unbuttoned my jeans and pulled my sweater off over my head. Static crackled in my loose hair, causing thin wisps to stand up around my head. Zayne would know what to do. Since Roth—
My bedroom door flew open and Zayne burst in. “Nicolai told me—holy Christ.”
I froze by the bed, my eyes increasing to the size of spaceships. Holy balls. My sweater was still wrapped around one arm, but I was wearing nothing else but my bra—my black bra—and my jeans, which were half-unbuttoned. Not sure why the color of my bra made a difference, but I stood there, my mouth gaping.
Zayne had come to a standstill, and like with Nicolai, I saw no pearly glow surrounding him. But at the moment I was more preoccupied with what Zayne did see: me, standing in front of him in my bra—my black bra.
His beautiful blue eyes were wide, the pupils slightly vertical. His wavy blond hair, which he’d chopped off recently, was still long enough to frame broad cheekbones. His full lips were parted.
For ten years, I’d grown up with Zayne by my side. He was four years older than me and I’d idolized him like any little sister would, but nothing I’d felt for Zayne, at least not in the past couple of years, had been sisterly. I’d wanted him ever since I was old enough to appreciate rock-hard abs on a dude.
But Zayne had been and would always be off-limits to me.
He was a full-blooded Warden and although I couldn’t see his soul right now, I knew he had one and it was pure. And while he’d had no problem getting überclose with me in the past, a relationship with anyone with a soul would be too dangerous considering I’d turn them into a soul-flavored Slurpee.
And his father expected him to mate with Danika.
Right in that moment though, his potential baby-making future with Danika seemed far removed from this room. Zayne was staring at me as if he’d never truly seen me before, and I honestly couldn’t think of a time he’d seen me in even a bathing suit, let alone a bra. I tried not to think about the red polka-dot undies peeking out from behind the gap in my jeans.
And then I realized what he was staring at.
A flush raced across my cheeks and then followed his gaze down my neck and lower. I could feel Bambi’s tail twitching along my spine. She was curled around my waist, with her long neck stretched up between my br**sts. Her head rested on the swell of my right breast as if it was her own personal pillow, right below where my necklace hung.
Zayne’s gaze tracked the length of the tattoo, and I cringed as the flush deepened. What must he be thinking at the sight of Bambi so blatantly on display, a blunt reminder of how different I was from him? I didn’t want to know.
He took a step forward and stopped again as his stare traveled up with enough intensity to feel like a physical caress. Something shifted in me, and the embarrassment faded into heady warmth. A heaviness settled in my chest, and muscles low in my stomach clenched.
I knew I needed to put my sweater back on or at least attempt to cover myself, but there was something in the way he stared at me that held me immobile and I...I wanted him to see me.
To see I wasn’t the little girl hiding in the closet anymore.
“God,” he said, speaking finally in a voice that was a deep, low rumble. “You’re beautiful, Layla. A gift.”
My heart did a backflip, but my ears had to also be on the fritz, because I know that wasn’t what he’d just said. In the past he’d called me pretty, but never beautiful—never a gift. Not with my hair so pale it could be considered white or the fact that I sort of looked like a demented Kewpie doll, my eyes and mouth way too big for my face. I mean, I wasn’t fugly or anything, but I wasn’t Danika. She was all glossy black hair, tall and graceful limbs. She was stunning.