I’d just fallen out of a car minutes ago and could seriously pass as an albino from a distance.
“What?” I whispered, folding my arms—sweater and all—over my stomach.
He shook his head side to side as he walked—no, stalked—toward me, each step full of purpose and with an inherent grace a dancer would be envious of. “You’re beautiful,” he said, eyes a brilliant, luminous shade of blue. “I don’t think I’ve ever told you that.”
“You haven’t, but I’m n—”
“Don’t say you’re not.” His gaze dipped once more to where Bambi’s head rested, and air leaked out between my parted lips. For once, the demonic familiar didn’t move. “Because you are, Layla. You’re beautiful.”
Thank you formed on the tip of my tongue, because it seemed like the right thing to say, but the words died when he lifted a hand. The strap of my bra had slipped down my upper arm and he scooped two fingers beneath it. His skin grazed mine, and a fine shiver coursed throughout my body.
A strange surge of possessiveness hit me. A need to claim him, so deep and so hard that it made my knees weak and my breath catch in my throat. As he slid the strap up my arm, his fingers brushed over my skin, and the yearning was so entrenched that I knew it was mine, but something about it was foreign. A hunger that I felt, but...
His gaze collided with mine, and now his pupils were completely vertical. My mouth dried and for a wild second, I thought he might kiss me. Every muscle in my body tensed, causing Bambi’s tail to flicker over my spine. A thousand fantasies, and I’d had many of them when it came to Zayne, couldn’t have prepared me for this moment. Zayne...he meant the world to me and before Roth—
Air hitched in my throat at the thought of the golden-eyed demon. The image of him formed easily in my mind—hair as dark as obsidian, cheekbones high and angular, lips curved in a knowing smirk that had infuriated and excited me.
How could I be standing here with Zayne, wanting him to kiss me—because I did want that—when I’d just lost Roth?
But I never really had Roth and kissing Zayne was impossible.
With what appeared to be a great effort, he tore his gaze away and glanced over his shoulder. Dear Lordie Lord, the door was open. Anyone could’ve walked by and seen me standing there. In my bra—my black bra.
Heat swamped my face again as I stepped back and hurriedly dragged my sweater back over my head. I turned away, smoothing my hands over my static-filled hair. My face felt as though I’d been basking in the sun during a solar storm and I had no idea what to say as I fixed my jeans with shaky fingers.
Zayne cleared his throat, but when he spoke, his voice was still deeper and rougher than normal. “I guess I probably should’ve knocked, huh?”
Counting to ten, I turned around and forced a casual shrug. He was still staring at me as though I hadn’t put a sweater on. “I do that all the time to you.”
“Yeah, but...” His brows rose as he scrubbed his hand down his jaw. “Sorry about that and the...um, the staring.”
Now I felt as if I’d smushed my face against the sun. As I sat down on the edge of the bed, I bit my lip. “It’s okay. Just a bra, right? No big deal.”
He sat beside me and tilted his head toward me. Thick golden lashes shielded his eyes. “Yeah, no big deal.” He paused, and then I felt his gaze move away from me. “I came up here because Nicolai said you fell outside.”
Oh God. I’d forgotten about my humiliating spill.
“Are you okay?”
I lifted my hands. The palms were scratched and pink. “Yep. I’m fine. But the curb isn’t. You have any idea what happened to it?”
“No.” He reached over, taking my right hand. Gently, he smoothed his thumb over the blemish. “It wasn’t like that this morning when I came home from hunting.” His lashes swept up. “Did you get Jasmine to look at your hands?”
As nice as his holding my hand was, I pulled it free with a sigh. Jasmine had a natural talent when it came to working with healing herbs and all that jazz. “I’m fine. You know these marks will be gone by tomorrow.”
He watched me for a second and then leaned back on my bed, resting on one elbow. “That’s why I came up here. Thought you were more hurt than you were saying and that’s why you hadn’t made it down to the training room.”
I twisted toward him, watching as he reached up with his other arm and snagged Mr. Snotty. He plopped it between us, sitting it up, and I grinned.
“Nicolai also said you were acting strange in the car,” he added after a beat.
Wardens were like gossiping old biddies at their weekly bingo meet-up, but they did have reason to be suspicious of me. I tucked my hair back behind my ears. “Something happened today.”
His large hand stilled on the teddy bear and his eyes met mine. “What?”
Pushing the whole bra and half-naked thing to the side to obsess over later, I scooted closer to him and lowered my voice, mindful of the still-open door. “I don’t know how or why it happened, but in bio class, my vision started to get a little wonky.”
His brows knitted. “Details.”
“It’s the souls. In bio class, I noticed that the auras seemed to...blink in and out, then at lunch, they faded away completely.”
Zayne sat up in one fluid motion. “You can’t see any souls?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Not even mine?”
“I can’t see any soul.” My pulse kicked up as it really settled in. “No one’s. It’s like with demons. Nothing around them.”
He curled his leg up as he leaned toward me, voice low. “And this just happened. They were blinking in and out and then nothing?”
I nodded again as my stomach twisted up in little knots. “At lunch, I got this really sharp pain behind my eyes and I closed them. When I reopened them, all the auras were gone. Just like that.”
“And nothing else happened?” When I shook my head, he rubbed a spot over his heart. “You didn’t come into contact with...with any demons?”
“No,” I said quickly. “I would’ve told you that right away.”
A tense look flickered across his face for a moment, and there was a twisty motion in my chest. Of course he wouldn’t expect me to tell him right away. I’d lied to him about Roth for two months.
“You don’t have reason to believe that and I...I’ve lied to you before.” I swallowed hard when he looked away. A muscle thrummed along his jaw. “And I am sorry for that, but I thought...”
“You thought what you were doing was right by not telling us about him and looking for the Lesser Key,” he said quietly, not saying his name. “And I get that. I’m trying not to hold it against you.”
Pulling my legs up, I tucked them against my chest. “I know.”
He glanced over at me, expression softening after a few moments. “Okay. So nothing else happened? Right.” He blew out a deep breath as he shook his head. “I don’t know. There really isn’t anyone to ask. There’s no other...”
“Yeah, that. There are no other demons around that can do what you can, so that leaves us very little to work on.”
My mother could see souls, or at least that was what Roth had said. Wasn’t as if I could ask her, though, since she was currently chained in Hell.
“Maybe this is just temporary,” he said, reaching over and brushing back a lock of blond hair so light it was practically as white as my face. “So let’s not freak out until we know for sure. Okay?”
I found myself nodding, but I was already starting to freak out. “I won’t be able to tag.”
Zayne tilted his head to the side. “You haven’t really been tagging recently, so that’s the last thing to worry about, Layla-bug.”
“You won’t tell Abbot, right?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.” He paused. “But why don’t you want him to know?”
I shrugged, not really wanting to talk about his father. Zayne loved and trusted him.
Zayne watched me for a few moments and then stretched out on his side. Offering his hand, he smiled up at me. “Want to skip practice?”
Training was important. It kept me from getting my butt handed to me when I did run into demons, but I nodded. Taking his hand, I let him tug me down beside him. We lay there for a few moments, me on my back and Zayne on his side.
He held on to my hand, careful not to push against the torn skin. “How have the cravings been lately?”
I sighed. “The same.”
There was a pause. “Have you been eating normally?”
Brows furrowing, I tilted my head back to see him. “Why are you asking that?”
He didn’t answer immediately. “You’ve lost weight, Layla.”
I shrugged. “That’s probably a good thing.”
“You didn’t need to lose any weight.” A small smile appeared on his lips but didn’t reach his eyes. “I know these past two weeks have been hard on you.”
Pressure clamped down on my chest and a ball of emotion formed in my throat. The past two weeks had seconds of warmth and light, but endless hours of darkness and loss. I’d never lost someone I’d been close to before or remembered. I didn’t know how to grieve or move on. Missing Roth was like watching a door to a life you hadn’t dared dream of slam shut in your face.
What was happening to him right now? Was he being tortured? Was he in any way okay? I’d thought those questions so many times they were a constant echo in my mind.
“I know you cared about him,” Zayne said, threading his fingers through mine. “But don’t forget about me. I’m here for you. I always will be.”
My breath caught around a sob.
He lowered his head and, after a second, his lips brushed my cheek. Only Zayne, who knew what I could do to anyone with a soul, would dare to get that close. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I whispered, closing my eyes against the familiar burn. “I won’t.”
By lunch the following day, I still wasn’t seeing any souls¸ but an idea occurred to me as I pretended to pay attention in English class while the teacher lectured on the consequences of reckless love in Romeo and Juliet.
I hadn’t seen a demon in days and maybe something would be different about them, too. Made sense. Sort of. If humans were suddenly absent their souls, maybe I’d also see some difference in demons, who didn’t have souls to begin with.
While Stacey organized her broccoli into a demented smiley face, I sent Nicolai a quick text letting him know to pick me up at Dupont Circle. He’d get it when he woke up and since he wasn’t aware of what was going on with me, it wouldn’t seem strange to him. To Zayne, it would be a different story, but I’d fill him in when I got home.
“No excitement in bio class today?” Sam asked, spearing his broccoli with his plastic fork.
Stacey shook her head. “Nope, but Mrs. Cleo wasn’t there.”
“The poor woman probably had a stroke.” I pushed my veggies around the slop of mystery meat. “We had a sub today—a Mr. Tucker.”
She grinned at me. “And he was hot and young.”
“Really?” Sam asked. Before she could respond, he leaned across the table, smoothing his thumb along the top of her cheek.
Sam grinned as he brushed his finger along her cheekbone again. “Got it.” He sat back.
“Got it?” Stacey murmured.
I started to smile.
“Eyelash,” he explained, his gaze fixed on her. “Did you know lashes keep dust out of your eyes?”
“Uh-huh.” Stacey nodded.
He chuckled. “No, you didn’t.”
“Yeah,” she whispered.
Catching Sam’s look, I laughed. I loved that Sam was finally starting to show some confidence when it came to her. It was obvious that he’d been crushing on her hard for the past two years.
Which gave me another idea. Wonky demon abilities aside, it would be good to get out and do something...normal. “What are you guys doing this weekend?”
Stacey blinked as she pushed her thick bangs off her forehead. “Baby-brother duty both Saturday and Sunday. Why?”
“I thought we could catch a movie or something.”
“I’m free most of Thanksgiving break.” She slid Sam a surprisingly shy smile. “What about you?”
Sam toyed with the cap to his water. “I’m free whenever.” His dark eyes flicked to me. “Why don’t you invite Roth?”
My heart dropped into my belly and my mouth opened, but there were no words. Well, that offer of fun times had bitch smacked me right back in the face.
He glanced at Stacey. “Um, I’m thinking I said something wrong. You guys aren’t hanging out anymore? I just assumed he was going to a new school or something.”
God, how I wished that was it. “I haven’t...talked to him in a while.”
Sam cringed. “Oh. Sorry.” He fixed his gaze on his empty plate.
Stacey quickly reverted conversation back to movie plans and after we left for our next class, she leaned against the locker beside mine, sympathy pinching her lips. “Sam really isn’t that great at social skills, you know?”
I snorted as I pulled out my history text. “He seems like he’s improving.”
“Baby steps.” She giggled, but it quickly faded. “I’ve been hoping you’d tell me what’s up, but I’ve waited as long as I can. What happened with you and Roth by the way? You guys were all hot and heavy. You were supposed to spend the night with him, got busted and—”