Zayne closed my door before I could say anything else. As he crossed paths with Dez, he said, “You know I won’t let anything happen to her.”
He nodded. “Still. Just be careful.”
As Dez disappeared into the further recesses of the garage, I looked over at Zayne as he got behind the wheel. “Guess what?”
“What?” The engine purred to life.
“I’m a girl.”
His lips curled up. “Shut up.”
Zayne backed out of the garage as he asked if I’d heard from Stacey or Sam yet. Stacey had called me earlier and the conversation had been a little bit awkward, but all in all, it had been normal. Except that I’d told her what I was really doing tonight for the first time ever. There was something freeing in not lying about my extracurricular activates.
The drive into Alexandria, to the town house of the recently departed, didn’t take long. Traffic was minimal and we were relieved to find inconspicuous parking in the back.
Zayne picking a lock was surprisingly hot.
I wasn’t sure what it said about me that I got turned on by his confidence as he worked the pick until we heard the click of a lock being thrown.
“That’s a handy skill.”
He grinned as he straightened. “It’s either that or break it. Figured a gentler touch worked best.”
Roth would’ve broken it and been gleeful doing so. There were no two guys more different than them.
Quietly easing the door open, we waited to make sure an alarm wasn’t triggered. When silence met us, we stepped into the darkened foyer. The house was full of shadows. Only a small end-table lamp was lit in the front room. Floorboards creaked as we moved farther in.
Zayne hefted the canvas bag over his shoulder, eyeing the paintings adorning the green walls. As we walked into the dining room, a small shadow zoomed out from underneath the table.
It was a gray cat.
Instead of pulling a stranger-danger dash and run, it curled around Zayne’s legs and then mine. Bambi stirred in interest as I leaned down and scratched the cat’s ears. Silently, I issued the snake a stern warning not to even think about eating it.
I wondered if the kitty belonged to the woman or the fiancé. Or was it both of theirs? The thought of that made me sad.
The house was tomb quiet as we entered the kitchen. A bowl of kitty chow was near the stove, along with a full dish of water.
“Everything seems normal,” he said, turning to me. “You feel anything?”
I shook my head.
“We need to check upstairs.”
Kitty followed us back through the house and up the stairs. There wasn’t enough light to make out the framed photos hanging on the wall, but they seemed like the family sort that might’ve been taken over the holidays.
There were only two bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom shared by both. One bedroom was a makeshift office and in the other, another small lamp had been left on.
The kitty dashed across the room and pounced onto the bed as soon as the door opened. There, she rolled onto her back, showing off a well-fed belly.
I petted the cat while Zayne checked out the bathroom. Unlike Roth’s kittens, this one didn’t try to kill me as I idly rubbed its belly.
It felt wrong being in here, all up in someone’s privacy. The bed wasn’t made. Pillows were haphazardly strewn across the head of the bed. Dresser drawers were left half open and there was a glass of water on the nightstand, next to a framed photo of a couple. Drawn to the picture, I left the kitty on the bed and picked up the photo, holding it under the light.
A tremor ran through my arm. I almost dropped the frame. “Oh my God.”
“What?” Zayne called.
I couldn’t speak as I stared at the photo. A man smiled at me. He was probably in his late twenties. He had his arm draped over the shoulders of a shorter woman.
A woman I’d seen before, although briefly.
Zayne came to my side, lowering the bag. “What is it?”
I was shaking as I handed the photo to him. “This is their house, right?”
He frowned as he took it. “I guess so. It would be weird for the owners to have another couple’s photo by the bed.”
Panic knifed through my chest. “I know her.”
My knees felt weak. “It’s her—the cupcake.”
Confusion poured over his face. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
There was a good chance my heart was going to beat itself out of my chest. “She’s the woman I fed off of Thursday night.”
Zayne dropped the bag, startling the cat. His throat worked. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I started to sit, but then I couldn’t bear to be still.
“How can you be sure? You saw her—”
“It’s her!” I shouted, pressing my hands against my lower stomach. Nausea rose. “Oh my God.”
“Wait.” He reached for me, but I edged away. “Just hold up a second. You fed off her and she walked away. Did she seem fine?”
“Yes, but you saw what happened to the lady at the foster home—to Vanessa.”
“We don’t know if that’s true and even if it was, you didn’t kill Vanessa.” He thrust a hand through his hair. “And you didn’t kill this one.”
“She’s dead. That’s a huge coincidence, right?” Sweat dotted my brow. That horrific thought from the night before came back. “What if...?”
Then I felt it.
Tiny hairs on my arms rose. The stench of something unnatural crept into the room like insidious smoke. The cat’s back arched like one of those Halloween cats’. Hissing, it darted off the bed and under it.
“Shit.” Zayne knelt, opening the bag. “We’ve got a wraith.”
“Of course we do,” I mumbled, numb to the core.
I’d killed this woman. Somehow I’d done this and taken her soul, damning her to an eternity in Hell. How else would she have become a wraith? The likelihood that the Lilin had stumbled across her was astronomically small.
And that was if a Lilin even existed....
The temp in the room dropped severely. Puffs of misty clouds formed in front of my mouth.
The wraith was close—the wraith I’d created.
“Layla,” Zayne snapped, at my side in an instant. “I need you here with me. Do you understand? This isn’t going to be easy. I need you here. Are you?”
Air rushed out of me. Pull it together. Moving panic and horror to the back burner, I forced a nod. I needed to be in the present. “I’m here.”
“Good.” Zayne zeroed in on the open bedroom door. “Because so is the wraith.”
A dark mass filled the doorway, roughly the same size as Dean’s wraith. A shadow person. It didn’t move. Appeared to just stand there and check us out.
Zayne shoved the bundle of dry incense into my hands. He lit it and the pungent odor of frankincense pillowed out in puffs of smoke. “Whatever you do, don’t drop this. If you do, the whole exorcism will stop.”
Seemed easy enough. “Okay.”
The wraith drifted closer and the room turned into an icebox. Wind picked up, whipping around the room. Clothing blew out of the dresser. The lamp fell over. A pillow smacked my arm.
Zayne moved forward, a bottle of holy water and a small jar of salt in his hands. “Stay back. I don’t want to get any of this on you.”
The smoke was choking as I moved out of the way. A high-pitched wail came from the wraith, a sound that was a cross between a hyena and a screaming baby. It charged Zayne. One second, he was in front of me, and the next he was slamming into the opposite wall. He held on to the water, but the jar of salt rolled across the floor, to the other side of the wraith.
It hissed at me, the sound feline and yet distorted, stretched out into a howl. Zayne was back on his feet, hair windblown but still in his human form. He tossed the water onto the wraith and it didn’t go through the shadow. It seemed to soak the holy water up, causing it to bloat like that annoying kid in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
As the wraith spun on him, I took off, heading for the jar of salt. My feet went right out from under me. I landed on my back with a grunt and somehow, by the grace of God, I held on to the incense. I turned my head, spying the jar resting a foot from me.
The wraith laughed evilly as I rolled onto my side. I snatched up the jar and unscrewed the top with one hand just as icy fingers trailed down the back of my neck. The heebie-jeebies I experienced at that moment almost made me scream as though a spider had landed in my lap.
“Toss the salt at the wraith,” Zayne shouted over the pounding wind.
Twisting against the force of airstream, I knew that if I took Zayne’s advice, the purified salt would just blast me in the face. The wind was terribly powerful, robbing my lungs of the ability to draw in a breath.
I pushed to my feet, holding on to the incense tightly as I forced a step forward and then another toward the wraith. Instead of throwing the salt, I shoved it, jar and all, into what might’ve been the creature’s midsection.
The reaction was immediate.
Like a rubber band snapping, I was propelled backward as the wraith let out a scream nightmares were made of. I hit the middle of the bed. The incense slipped, and I dug my fingers in, keeping the cloying crap from hitting the bed, stopping the exorcism and most likely burning down the townhome.
The wraith exploded into wisps of smoke that quickly evaporated as if a vacuum had been placed in the room, sucking out the evil. Everything settled and the heavy presence of the abnormality eased off. The air became lighter.
My eyes met Zayne’s.
He looked as though he’d gone through a wind tunnel. “You okay?”
“Yep,” I squeaked, sitting up. The incense had burned out on its own. How convenient. “Wow.”
“Was it everything you were expecting?”
I considered that as I saw the cat peek its head out from under the bed. “Still wish someone yelled ‘power of Christ,’ but it was okay.”
Zayne shook his head as he hauled me to my feet. Taking the incense from me, he dropped it into the bag and then tied it up. “We need to get out of here stat before someone checks out the commotion.”
I petted the cat one last time and then we hurried through the house. Once we were back inside the Impala, I was relieved to find that the sickly scent hadn’t lingered on our clothing. Glancing at Zayne as he threw the car into Drive and peeled out of the narrow backstreet, I let everything I’d held off seep back in.
With the adrenaline still kicking around in my veins, my thoughts held a razor edge to them. As each one fell into place, it sliced and diced.
We’d reached the rural road that Zayne had taken as a shortcut to get to Alexandria by the time I found it in myself to speak. “We can’t ignore what we found.”
He cast me a quick, sharp look. “What do you mean?”
“Who that woman was. We can’t ignore it, Zayne. I did that to her.” The words cut through me. “I must’ve fed off her more than I thought I did.”
Zayne’s knuckles blanched from how tightly he was grasping the steering wheel. “You would’ve known if that was the case. There has to be another explanation for this.”
“What?” I demanded, curling my hands into tight balls. “The only one is that the Lilin has been following me around and took her soul.”
“Then that’s what happened.” His jaw locked down. “That has to be it.”
I stared at him. Tears burned my eyes. His adamant defense of me was heartbreaking. “What if...what if there isn’t a Lilin?”
My stomach roiled, but I needed to give voice to my fear. I had to put it out there. “What if there is no Lilin, Zayne? What if we just think there is—and Hell thinks there is—but there’s not.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“But it does,” I whispered as the trees blurred past us. “Think about it. No one really knows what was required to complete the ritual. It’s about how we perceive it. What if I needed to lose my virginity for it to work? I haven’t. So if Cayman was wrong, then the ritual didn’t work. It couldn’t. And Abbot even said that it was a Lilin or something similar. I heard him that night. It’s probably why he ordered the other clan members to watch me. He suspects it, too!”
“If the ritual didn’t work, then how did Lilith’s chains break?”
“I don’t know, but it could be something I’m doing. I’m her kid. I probably have an impact on it. Think about it. What the Lilin can do is the same thing I can do—take a soul. We just do it in different ways.” Words spilled out of me, as fast as we were driving. “And where is this stupid Lilin? How come we haven’t seen it and neither has Roth? It’s supposedly at the school, but no one has found it. But I’m at the school! I’ve been around everyone who’s been infected so far and God knows how many other people.”
“Then what about the cocoon in the basement and the Nightcrawlers?”
“Who knows why they were there or what was in the cocoon. It wouldn’t be the first time something demonic showed up there because of me. Remember the zombie in the boiler room? Raum—the demon Roth took out?”
Zayne shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re even saying this stuff.”
“I can’t believe you refuse to see what’s right in your face!”
“Shit.” He swerved to the right, slamming on the brakes. I pitched forward, caught by the seat belt as we screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the road. He twisted toward me, eyes a furious shade of electric blue. “But you didn’t feed off Dean! Or Gareth! You are not responsible for this, Layla.”