Could Petr still be here, but as a wraith?
My stomach twisted into knots as I lowered my gaze. “You’re right.” The words were like acid on my tongue. “There’s no reason for there to be a wraith here.”
When I looked up, I realized Zayne was standing straight and he knew what had really gone down that night. I hadn’t admitted it to him, but he always saw through my lies.
“How will you get rid of the wraith that hurt Keith?” I asked, hoping to bring his attention back to the problem at the school.
Abbot held my gaze, his expression closed off. “A good old-fashioned exorcism.”
Time dragged by uneventfully. Probably since I hadn’t left the house. Abbot hadn’t grounded me, which had surprised me. Even though it was obvious that I hadn’t caused the mess that had landed me in out-of-school suspension, I really had thought he’d find some way to lay that blame down on me.
I’d learned from my one brief conversation with Nicolai that an exorcism had been performed at the school Friday, after school let out, and that the wraith formerly known as Dean was no longer an issue. I was relieved to hear that the malicious spirit had been removed and there was no need to call in the Ghostbusters, but it didn’t change the fact that Dean had died without a soul and was therefore in Hell.
Dean hadn’t deserved that and it wasn’t fair. Worse yet, there’d be wraiths. Or there could already be more and we just hadn’t discovered them. The Wardens were investigating suspicious deaths, but it was impossible for them to catch everyone. We were operating in the dark, waiting for a disaster to come ashore.
At least when I had been able to go to school, I’d felt as if I could do something if anything happened, but being stuck here made me feel about ten kinds of useless.
That was it. I was stuck.
The only bright spot in the downtime was the phone calls and messages with Stacey and Sam. They were still under the impression that I’d be joining them for movies with Zayne, but that wasn’t happening. I hadn’t really seen Zayne. Not that I blamed him for avoiding me. Whenever I thought about him, a throbbing ache would light up my chest. I didn’t regret telling him the truth, but it didn’t make dealing with the consequences any easier.
Dinner had already been served and most of the Wardens would be getting ready to head out for the night. Before I headed down to the kitchen to see what food I could hoard, I walked over to where my cell rested on the foot of the bed.
On some kind of weird, annoying subconscious level, I reached for the phone. Stopping halfway, I drew my arm back. “Crap.”
There was a time bomb waiting on my phone.
A text message from Roth that was two days old. A text message I would not, could not respond to.
The message had been innocent enough. A simple are you bored yet? But it had been the first time he’d texted me since he returned from his little trip to Hell and for some screwed-up reason, the text made my stomach decide it wanted to be a gymnast every time I thought about it. In my head, the text symbolized a clearly drawn line and responding would be like cartwheeling across it.
Roth had been right the last time I saw him.
I didn’t understand jack when it came to him. I didn’t know what he was about or what he was trying to accomplish with the things he’d said to me. All I did know was that his outright dismissal of what we’d shared still festered like an infection in the chambers of my heart. That was a fact—a reality. I wasn’t going to allow it to happen again.
And then there was Zayne.
Drawing in a shaky breath, I forced myself away from the bed. As I left the bedroom, I tugged the hair tie off my wrist and yanked my hair up into a half-assed ponytail, which matched my half-assed attempt at dressing. My sweats were at least two sizes too big and the long-sleeve shirt was probably two sizes too small.
I veered away from the dining room large enough to accommodate an entire NFL team. Deep voices radiated from the room, broken up by the soft laughter of either Jasmine or Danika. I lingered for a second by the closed pocket doors, letting the ridiculous yearning to be a part of them take hold for a second.
I shook my head and shuffled on toward the kitchen. Not the one that Jasmine fed her babies in, but what I liked to think of as the place where the food magic happened. The doors closed quietly behind me. House staff milled about, not surprised to see me roaming through the large, industrial space.
Morris turned from where he stood before several bowls, smiling when he spotted me. He reached over, picked up a covered plate and placed it on the island. Then he patted the spot before it.
I grinned as I hopped up on the stool. “Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.”
He shrugged as he handed over a fork and knife, then removed the lid from the plate with a flourish servers all around the world would envy. Pot roast and red potatoes. My mouth watered.
I dug in, chewing to the sound of water running and dishes clanking together. Somehow, over the past month or so, that had become a comforting sound. None of the staff besides Morris really paid any attention to me, but I was okay with that.
I was kind of like them. Ghosts in the house. Nothing really there to get attached to.
God. My mood was somewhere between in the crapper and lying facedown in a puddle.
Gathering up my plate, I walked it over to where the dirty dishes were stacked. Like always I tried to rinse it off, but one of the staff relieved me of the plate with a quickness that was impressive.
“You know, I can clean up my own mess,” I pointed out.
The woman said nothing as she placed it with the rest of the dirty dishes. Making a face, I turned and sharp tingles radiated down my spine as my eyes locked with blue ones.
Zayne stood just inside the kitchen, his expression sheltered as his gaze dropped from my face to the knife I clutched in my hands. He arched a brow. “Should I be worried?”
I was a bit dumbfounded by seeing him in here.
Morris appeared, whisking the knife out of my hand. Eyes widening as he gave me a not-so-discreet push in Zayne’s direction, I stumbled like a doofus. “I was...uh, eating.”
“I gathered that much.” His gaze dipped again, and this time I knew I wasn’t holding any stabby weapons. He was staring at the wide strip of flesh my ill-fitting shirt was showing off. Heat flowed into my cheeks and then turned into a pleasant liquid feeling that went much, much lower. When his lashes finally rose I knew I looked like a tomato. “I was heading to the training rooms. Want to join me?”
Before I could respond, Morris passed behind me and gave yet another well-placed, strong shove toward Zayne. I shot him a look over my shoulder. “Geez.”
As I turned back to Zayne, I saw his lips twitch as if he was trying not to smile. Good sign or not? “Sure.”
Zayne nodded and I followed him to the narrow door beside the oversize freezer. It was an entrance to the floors below that I rarely used.
“I overslept today,” Zayne said as he closed the door behind us. “Didn’t get in any workout before dinner.”
“Did...did you have a busy night?” I trailed behind him in the dimly lit hall, but he’d stopped and waited until I was walking alongside him. “Hunting?”
“We found an enclave of Terriers over near Rock Creek Park and were dealing with that most of the night.”
“Terriers?” When he nodded, all I could do was shake my head in wonder. Terriers were creatures that were a cross between an ostrich and a raptor, another class of demonic lovelies. “That’s kind of abnormal, right?”
Zayne slowed as we reached the door leading to one of the training rooms. “The last time we’d seen any was right before Dez brought Jasmine down here for the first time.”
“That was years ago.” I stepped into the room as he held the door open.
“Yep,” he said, passing me and crossing onto the blue mats, heading for the equipment laid out on benches. He picked up some white cloth and began wrapping his knuckles. “The thing is, so many of these demons aren’t allowed topside and, because we don’t see them often, we think they’re not here. But they are. They’ve just gotten better at hiding themselves.”
I thought of the club of sorts under the Palisades and all the demons there that weren’t supposed to be walking among humans.
“Want to join?” he offered as he finished wrapping his knuckles.
“No. Ate too much. I’ll just watch.” I tugged on the hem of my shirt and the moment I let go it popped back up, revealing half of my lower stomach. Probably should’ve revisited my wardrobe choices. After dinner, I was rocking a bit of a belly.
Zayne strode past me, settling both hands on the sides of the punching bag. “I really wish you’d reconsider eating with everyone.”
“I really wish you’d stop bringing it up.”
He looked over his shoulder at me, brows raised. “You don’t need to feel like you don’t belong in there. You do. And you’re missed at the table.”
I laughed at that. “By who?”
My lips parted and I really had no response for that. I watched him turn back to the punching bag. He fell back into position and raised his arms. “How have you been enjoying your time off?” he asked, throwing a punch that knocked the bag back several feet.
“I’ve been bored out of mind.”
Expression concentrated, he swung with his other arm. “And you have the rest of the week.”
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me.” I sat down on the mats and crossed my legs.
A slight smile appeared as he moved around the bag, targeting different sides with different hand techniques. Sweat dotted his brow and dampened the blond hair at his temples. “We heard back from a contact at one of the hospitals—the same one Dean had been taken to. They had another DOA brought in two nights ago—a young woman who had no previous health conditions died of a massive heart attack. Heart blown out basically, like with Dean.”
“Her fiancé will be out of town the day after tomorrow to attend the funeral in Pennsylvania, so I’m going to check out their town house,” he continued. “It’s the only way to see if she was infected, you know? If she’s now a wraith, her house would be the most likely place she’d be.”
The Wardens had been doing a lot of that lately—scoping out the recently deceased. “Can I go?”
He stopped, wiping the back of his forearm as he looked at me. A second passed. “You’re starting to sound like Danika. She’s been demanding to be allowed to go on hunts.”
“Why shouldn’t she be? The girl is trained. She’s a full Warden. She can fight.”
“You know the answer to that.”
I frowned. It felt weird to defend Danika when I’d spent so much time hating on her. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be just a baby-making machine.”
He shook his head as he turned back to the bag and got back to working out. Only he could beat the Hell out of something and not be out of breath. I’d be panting, lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat at this point.
“So can I?” I asked again. “I haven’t been tagging, so it would feel...good to do something helpful.”
Zayne threw a couple of punches and then drew back from the bag. The front of his gray shirt was damp with sweat. “I guess it wouldn’t be a problem. Sure.”
A wide smile broke out across my face. “Thank you. I really want to do something that doesn’t...”
I trailed off as he reached down and pulled the shirt off over his head and dropped it to the floor.
Now that was just so wrong.
My eyes roamed over his chest and defined stomach like those of a starved person looking at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Those sweats of his hung low, revealing the indents on either side of his hips. Zayne really didn’t have a six-pack. More like an eight-pack.
“What were you saying?”
Each ab was tightly rolled. As if someone had carved them into his stomach. “Huh?”
Two fingers suddenly pressed under my chin, forcing my gaze up to his face. The corners of his lips curled up as I flushed. “You were talking about going with me to the town house?”
“Oh. Yeah. That.” Important stuff that didn’t involve touching his stomach or anything like that. “It will be really productive.”
Zayne chuckled as he dropped his hand and returned to the bag. The way his muscles worked along his back and stomach as he threw punch after punch was truly fascinating.
I was sure if I sat here any longer and watched him, I’d turn into a puddle of goo on the mats, but I didn’t get up. This was better than looking through Tumblr posts of hot guys.
When he was finished, he swiped a fresh towel off the rack. I was pretty much still sitting on the mat with my tongue lolling out. He lowered the towel. “So, about the movies tomorrow...”
That was like having a bucket of ice water thrown in my face.
Reality sucked. I pushed to my feet, keeping my eyes trained on his sneaks. “Yeah, about that.” I exhaled slowly, working through the lump in my throat. “I guess I’ll text Stacey and let her know that the movie thing is a no-go for us—I mean, for me. There’s really no reason for me to go and it’s probably better that way, because it’s, like, Sam and Stacey’s first date and all.”
I started past Zayne, but he reached out, wrapping his arm around my waist. As he snagged me, the bare flesh of his arm connected with my stomach and I froze at the sudden intrusion of emotion. It was a tangled ball I wasn’t skilled enough at deciphering.