And then there was everything I felt for him. The way I looked forward every day to seeing him. How he made me smile with the simplest of looks and the way I yearned for the briefest touch, to be able to kiss him. There had always been something there between us. I’d just always believed it was only on my side.
He smiled a little. “So I think we should take it slow.”
“Slow?” Slower than baring my chest and sitting in his lap?
“Yeah, like let’s go out on a date. How about that?”
My first response was to say no. There was too much risk...and if I was being honest with myself, I was scared—terrified of finally getting something I’d always wanted. What if it didn’t work out for any of the million reasons why it couldn’t? What if it ended in disappointment and destroyed our friendship? What if Zayne lost his soul because of me?
There were so many risks, but as my heartbeat skipped, I realized that half demon or not, life was full of risks and I was tired of not living—of not trying.
A date couldn’t be bad, right? I stared at him as my lips spread into a wide smile. “How does a movie sound?”
* * *
Zayne stayed up the following morning after returning from hunting, and drove me to school. To the clan, that didn’t seem out of place, and Nicolai was probably thrilled to be relieved of the duty.
Things were normal between us.
He teased me.
He made me blush.
He made me want to hit him at some point during the drive.
And when I arrived at school, the way he leaned in and pressed a sweet kiss to my cheek made me wish I could give him a worthy goodbye kiss.
I wasn’t sure what our relationship was. Were we dating? Were we boyfriend and girlfriend? Nothing like that had been established, and it was probably for the best at the moment. In spite of wanting to take the risk, I wasn’t sure we could pull this off.
Or if trying made me the most selfish person in the world.
Either way, there was a stupid smile plastered across my face as I entered the school. When I’d woken up this morning, all of the issues we were facing appeared to be a bit more manageable, as if all the problems had been dipped in glitter.
I giggled at that, earning a weird look from the girl walking beside me. Oh well. Rounding the corner, I’d passed the still-empty trophy case when a familiar coppery head appeared. Broom handle in one hand, Gerald motioned me over with the other.
Slipping around a cluster of girls, I headed over to him. “Is everything okay?”
He nodded and kept his voice low. “They took care of the problem in the basement of the school. Cleaned it all and even got rid of the muck.”
“Great.” I was relieved to hear that. Zayne had left last night to meet up with the others, but we hadn’t talked about it this morning.
The skin around his eyes crinkled as he glanced around us. “I also wanted to thank you.”
“For not saying anything to the Wardens about me,” he responded, shifting the broom handle to a different hand. “I know you didn’t, because I’m still standing here, and I appreciate it.”
“It’s no problem. I don’t think they’d have a problem with you, but I wouldn’t take that risk.” Maybe I would’ve a few months back, but not now, and that realization killed a bit of my happy buzz.
Gerald’s cherry-hued eyes darted around nervously again. “Are you still planning on visiting the coven in Bethesda?”
“Yes.” We were starting to get some odd looks from the students. And teachers. From where we were, I could see Stacey waiting for me at my locker, standing by a perplexed-looking Sam. Her expression pretty much said it all.
Gerald’s brows creased with worry. “I wish you would reconsider. There has to be another way.”
“Unless you know of a handy Lilin for Dummies book, I don’t see any other options.” But that would seriously be helpful. “Look, thank you for your concern, but I have to get—”
“You don’t understand.” His hand snaked out and curled around my wrist. The sudden punch of fear in my gut rocked me, and now that I knew it wasn’t coming from me, it was even more unsettling. “You seem like a nice girl, in spite of everything, but sometimes, child, you go asking questions, you don’t like the answers you find.”
Gerald dropped my hand before I could pull away. As he turned, he cast a long look back toward my locker, and then hurried back into the utilities room.
Okay. That was weird, and maybe more than typical witchy weird.
Shaking my head, I pivoted around. Stacey eyed me curiously as I made my way through the throng of students. “Hanging out with janitors now?”
“Holding hands with him?” Sam asked.
“Shut up,” I said. “Both of you.”
Flipping me off, she grinned when I rolled my eyes. “What happened with you yesterday? Please tell me you didn’t run off with Roth.”
Well... “Nah, just went home. Didn’t feel good. You know how that...” I cocked my head, frowning. Something about Sam looked different. Wasn’t his hair, even though the unruly waves appeared to have been brushed for once. Then it hit me. “Where’re your glasses, Sam?”
“He lost them,” Stacey answered as we started down the hall. “Doesn’t he look hot?”
“Sure does.” I grinned. “But are you going to be able to see without them?”
“I’ll be fine.” He stepped easily into the flow of traffic. “But why was that janitor grabbing your hand like that? Kind of creepy.”
“He helped yesterday when I was feeling sick.” The lie came too quickly to my tongue. “He was just shaking my hand.”
The sweet, wild scent announced Roth’s nearness. I glanced over my shoulder. He was coming down the center of the hall, frowning down at the cell phone he carried in his hand. He wasn’t even watching where he was going, but people moved out of the way for him.
Roth looked up, his gaze colliding with mine. There was a faint smudge of blue along his jaw, a sign that a Warden packed a powerful punch. I hastily looked away, cursing under my breath for the twisting motion of guilt. Two seconds later, he was sliding around me. “Good morning, ladies and gent.”
“Hey,” Sam replied with a smile. “I’ve got to get to class. See you all at lunch?”
I watched him turn on his heel and disappear back up the hall. So did Roth. There was a weird twist to his mouth. “Is our little Sam turning into a big boy or something?”
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, turning to Stacey. “No glasses. Actually dressed today as though his mom didn’t lay his clothes out for him, and you’re staring at him as if you want to make little bespectacled babies with him.”
Stacey’s cheeks turned bright red, but she giggled. “Maybe I am.”
“Oh.” Roth’s eyes widened. “Dirty.”
Other than the making-babies comment, Roth was rather subdued in class. He didn’t turn around to annoy me or lean back in his chair so that his arms rested on my table.
As always, Bambi got antsy during class and started creating an invisible map on my body. By the time class was over, I couldn’t wait to get out. The bell rang and our sub flipped on the lights.
“Remember,” he said, running a hand over his head and clasping the back of his neck as he glanced down at his planner. “There’s a pop quiz on the schedule—”
The muffled shriek cut him off, and he turned to the closed door. Then louder screams, shrill and horrified screams, roared from the hallway outside the classroom. As a whole, we rose to our feet, shifting nervously.
Roth started for the door as the screams intensified.
“What’s going on?” Stacey whispered.
“I think we all should stay in the classroom,” Mr. Tucker said, trying to intercept Roth, but he was fast and half the class was following him. “We don’t know who’s out there! Come on. Everyone! Back in your seats.”
It was impossible.
There was a minor congestion at the door, and then we all spilled out into the packed hallway, Stacey clutching the back of my sweater. The hall had quieted to the point one could hear a grasshopper sneeze, and somehow that was worse than the screams.
I pushed through the crowds, spying Roth’s back. His shoulders were unnaturally stiff. I broke through and he looked over his shoulder at me, shaking his head. My gaze drifted beyond him to the almost circular clearing amid the throng of students, an emptiness broken by two dull-gray legs slowly swaying back and forth.
“Oh my God,” Stacey whispered.
Dragging my gaze up, my hand rose to my chest. At first, it was as though my mind refused to recognize what it was seeing, but the image didn’t go away. It didn’t change.
In the middle of the hallway, hanging from a light fixture with the red-and-gold school banner wrapped around his neck, was Gerald Young.
With the police and the trauma, school closed early for the day.
My call to Zayne woke him up, but the moment I told him what happened, he was up and out of the house. No more than twenty minutes after the officials started dismissing students, I found myself sitting in a small booth at a bakery down the street with Zayne and Roth.
We weren’t the only people there from school. Eva and Gareth were also there. They sat at a bistro table, under a framed picture of baked bread. Gareth was hunched over a cup he held in his pale hands, his shoulders slimmer than I remembered and his hair a greasy mess.
Gareth looked strung out to the max, but I knew better than to interfere again.
I broke my cookie in half, but for once, there was nothing about the sugary goodness that called to me. I barely knew Gerald, having only seen him for the first time in my life yesterday, but it was like with the member of the Church of God’s Children. Seeing death was never easy, no matter the relationship or lack thereof to someone.
“Maybe Gerald did kill himself,” Zayne said, drawing my attention to the problem at hand. “As sad as that is, maybe it’s that simple.”
Roth toyed with the lid to his hot chocolate. For some reason the idea of a demon—the Crown Prince of Hell—drinking hot chocolate brought a wry grin to my lips. “I don’t know. Why would he do that, especially in the middle of the hallway? That’s a Hell of a way to go out.”
“But you really didn’t know him. Neither did Layla.” The boys were actually having a civilized conversation. “You both spoke to him once.”
“Twice actually,” I said, breaking another small chunk off my cookie. “He stopped me on the way to class today, thanking me for not telling the Wardens about him.”
“That doesn’t sound like something someone would do before hanging himself with the school banner,” Roth pointed out as he leaned back in the booth. He threw one arm over the back. “Why be grateful Layla didn’t put his life in danger if he was about to take his own life anyway?”
“Did he say anything else?”
I nodded. “He mentioned the coven in Bethesda and told me to be careful.” I brushed the crumbs off my hands. “He said something along the lines of not liking the answers we’d find to our questions. It was almost as if he knew something, but was too scared to say it.”
Roth frowned as he eyed me. “Could one of the coven members have gotten to him?” The question wasn’t really addressed to anyone in particular. “Or could it have been the Lilin?”
“Wouldn’t you have sensed a witch running around?” Zayne asked.
He shook his head. “They use charms to block us, just like they do with the Wardens. And we don’t know enough about the Lilin to even figure out if I’d sniff it out or not.”
I sat back, folding my arms across my stomach against the sudden chill that moved over my skin. “It was almost like it was a message.”
Zayne twisted toward me. Shadows had bloomed under his eyes, and I knew he hadn’t gotten much rest. “I don’t like where that thought is heading.”
“But it makes sense,” Roth said.
“We meet him yesterday, he tells us what he is and about where we can find more info on the Lilin, gives me a warning and then not even an hour later, he’s hanging.” I took a deep breath. “Seems like the message there is pretty clear. Back the Hell off.”
Roth’s eyes flashed. “Not going to happen.”
“As much as I hate to say it, the coven is the only lead we’ve got.” Zayne draped his arm behind me, and his body heat immediately expanded. His fingers coasted through the loose strands of my hair in a seemingly absent gesture. “There’s nothing on the streets. We’ve come up empty.”
“Same on my side.” Roth’s gaze drifted to Zayne’s hand and lingered. “Any update on possible deaths related to the Lilin?”
“Nothing out of the norm, but how do we really know?”
A muscle began to tick in Roth’s jaw, and I looked away, focusing on my untouched cookie. There was a sudden loud thump from the other side of the bakery. When I looked up, I saw Gareth on his knees by the table he’d been sitting at. Eva was beside him, her arms wrapped around his upper arm. Two bright pink spots appeared on her cheeks as half the bakery stopped to stare at them.
“Come on,” she said, forcing a smile on lips that were bare of any makeup. “You need to get up.”
I cringed from the secondhand embarrassment. Eva was not a fan of mine, but watching this made me uncomfortable.