It felt good—a relief—to have some sort of plan, even though it wasn’t the most detailed or thought-out, but in the quiet moments, when Roth was gone or Cayman was passed out in the recliner, I couldn’t help but think about all I had lost.
And I had lost a lot.
Even though the Wardens had turned on me in the end, they still had been my clan and the closest thing I’d ever had to a family. I’d lost Zayne, but if I were honest with myself, I knew that had happened long before the fateful kiss. In reality it occurred when I allowed a relationship between us to start, because I’d known how it would end. With Zayne getting hurt. And now our friendship and what we had between us that ran deeper were gone, and he must despise me since I’d fed off him. He had to be repulsed, because he’d trusted me and I had betrayed that trust on a level that went beyond kissing another boy.
I’d almost killed him.
The hurting from losing him hadn’t eased, and I doubted that it ever would. It was like losing a limb.
And my friends? Sam? Stacey? They were out of my reach, too, and I didn’t even know if I had also infected them and they just hadn’t shown symptoms yet. Not knowing that haunted me. God, so much was messed up.
In those dark moments, like now, I wanted to curl up in a ball and pretty much devolve into something entirely useless. I was seventeen and my life, in a way, was virtually over. Maybe I had a whole new life waiting for me, but it was one I’d never, ever planned on.
Roth strode into the living room, carrying a bowl of cheese puffs. He dropped onto the couch beside me, took one long look at me and then popped a handful of the cheesy goodness into his mouth. Only he could manage to eat something so messy and still manage to look sexy doing so.
Things...things were tense between us. A lot had been said and a lot was still unspoken. One way or another, he’d laid it all out there for me and I wasn’t convinced that those painfully beautiful words he’d spoken had been a product of my imagination. I just didn’t know what to do with those words, if I should trust them or even allow them a place in my heart. Because my heart and my head were so messed up right now.
“What’s up?” he asked, reaching into the bowl and withdrawing a rather large puff.
I shrugged a shoulder as I glanced over to where Cayman was staring at the TV screen. Elf was on.
Roth offered the cheesy puff to me. I took it, flicking it into my mouth. Crumbs dropped into my lap. Sigh. He didn’t say anything and I knew he was waiting.
I wrapped my arms around my legs and rested my chin on my knees. “I want to see Stacey.”
His lips slipped into a frown. “I don’t think that’s a smart idea.”
“I need to see her and Sam. I need to make sure I haven’t infected them,” I explained. Cayman was now, surprisingly, paying attention to us. “Now that I can see auras again, I’ll be able to tell.”
“Speaking of seeing auras,” Roth began, “I want you to take Bambi back. She may make your abilities go wonky, but she does make you stronger.”
I wanted to take her back, too, and maybe I would, but not until we discovered whether she was causing my soul-sucking ability to go to terminator levels. “I will eventually, but I think being able to see souls is important.”
“It is.” Cayman stretched like a cat. “But going to see your friend is stupid. The Wardens—your clan—will be expecting that.”
I held my ground. “They could be, but I need to see Stacey at least. She’s my best friend. I need to know if I’ve hurt her somehow. I...I can’t go without knowing.”
Cayman rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if you are part human.”
“Shut up,” Roth said to him, scrubbing a hand down his jaw. “Okay. I get it. We’ll do it, but we have to be fast and we have to be careful. And then we need to figure out where we’re going.”
Relieved, I loosened my hold on my legs. If only I could see Zayne, but that wasn’t possible. That would never be possible.
Across from us, Cayman sighed. “Speaking of places to go. I hear Hawaii is pretty chill. I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a beach vacation.”
* * *
We went to Stacey’s house the next day, a Friday. With her mom not being home and her little brother in day care until at least five in the evening, we were able to sneak into the house and wait for her there.
By sneaking, I meant that I scooped up the extra key Stacey always left under the huge potted palm tree on the back patio and we let ourselves in.
I breathed in the faint scent of apples and pumpkin, committing the smell to memory. Stacey’s mom had a thing for wall plug-ins that always made her house smell like a toasty fall afternoon.
Roth trailed behind me and I had a feeling he was checking out my ass. The clothing that he and Cayman had “picked up” for me wasn’t stuff I’d normally wear. Dresses, skintight jeans that I had to lie down to put on, leather pants and a whole slew of second-skin sweaters.
Today I wore a pair of white jeans and a black sweater that made me feel as if I was seconds away from stripping off my clothes and finding the nearest pole.
I glanced over my shoulder and Roth raised a brow as one side of his lips slipped up. “Can you walk in front of me?”
He chuckled deeply. “Not in this lifetime.”
Shooting him a quick glare, I hurried into the living room. Stacey would be arriving any moment and with some luck, Sam would be with her. Both Roth and I figured it would be safer not to tell her I was coming, and we’d circled her neighborhood a half a dozen times before parking three blocks down. Roth had felt that his Porsche was too noticeable, so he’d borrowed Cayman’s car.
Which was a vintage Mustang. Yeah, real inconspicuous there.
I sat on the edge of the couch, clasping my hands together.
Roth lingered by the stone gas fireplace. “Want to be naughty and make out on their couch?”
My mouth dropped open.
“Or we can do it on the kitchen counters.” He winked. “Of course, bedrooms would not only make us naughty, but also very dirty.”
Heat swept over my cheeks, and he laughed. “You should see the look on your face.”
“You’re a pervert,” I said, fighting a grin.
Roth shrugged. “Of all the things someone could call me, that’s hardly the worst.”
“And probably the most true,” I muttered.
He laughed again.
From the front of the house I heard the front door open and I lurched to my feet. I started forward, but Roth beat me to it. He was at the entrance to the living room before I’d taken a step.
Stacey shrieked out in the hallway. “What the—? Roth, you scared the crap out of me!”
“Sorry,” he drawled smoothly.
“Where have you been? Where’s Layla? How did you...?” She trailed off as she appeared in the doorway.
I smiled when I saw her, suddenly weak in the legs. It was relief...sweet, beautiful relief. Her aura was there, like it had always been—a soft shade of green. Not a pure soul by any means, but she was okay. I didn’t understand how since I’d been in constant contact with her, but she was normal and that was all that mattered.
Her backpack thumped off the floor as she spotted me. “Oh my God, Layla, where have you been? I’ve been so worried!” She rushed forward, but I raised a hand, warding her off. She stopped short. “What?”
“Don’t come too close. I’m...well, I’m not sure it would be safe for you to do so.”
She frowned as she glanced at Roth and then me. “Why wouldn’t it be safe to be near you? And where in the Hell have you been? Everyone has been worried. Sam thinks you got kidnapped by those Church people and Zayne has been—”
“What about him?” Roth cut in, stepping close to Stacey. His voice had dropped. Tension dripped off him.
Stacey’s eyes widened as she took a step back. She swallowed hard. “He’s stopped over a few times, asking if I’ve heard from Layla. That’s all.”
My heart pounded against my ribs like a wild animal trying to escape a cage. “How...did he seem okay?”
She looked even more confused by the question. “He seemed normal. Just really worried and upset. Like me.” Her eyes darted over to Roth. “What’s going on, guys?”
“When was the last time Zayne came by here?” The fact that Roth wasn’t referring to him as Stony proved the direness of the situation.
“He stopped by yesterday, around this time. He’s been stopping by every day since—”
Roth swore as he turned to me. “I told you this was a bad idea. We need to leave.”
“Wait!” she screeched, stomping her foot. “No one is leaving until someone tells me what is going on!”
“We have time,” I told Roth. “No one is busting down the doors right now.”
“Yeah, right now.” He faced me, shoulders stiff. “I know you don’t want to think this and while I don’t think he would intentionally ever harm you, I can’t say the same for the others who’ll follow him. Who’ve probably been following him every time he comes here.”
“I do think that, Roth. I’m not stupid. I know we need to leave soon, but Stacey deserves to know what’s going on.”
“Damn straight,” she piped up. “Crown Prince or not, how about sitting down and shutting the Hell up?”
Roth’s brows climbed his forehead and then he laughed. “It’s a good thing I like you.”
“Everyone likes me,” she retorted. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked at me. “What’s happened?”
“You might want to sit down for this,” I suggested.
For a moment she looked as if she’d argue, but finally she sat. I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, not offering too much detail on the cage or torture parts. That wasn’t anything I wanted to relive. By the time I finished, she was pale and shaken.
“God, Layla, I...I don’t know what to say. I want to give you a hug, but you’re going to freak if I get that close, aren’t you?”
I bit down on my lip. “I don’t know exactly how I’m infecting people, but it...it has to be me.”
Tears filled her dark eyes. “No. I refuse to believe that. It’s not in you, even if you don’t know how it’s happening.”
I smiled at her, really wanting to hug her. “Thank you, but...”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t I infected? Or Sam? You’re around us more than anyone else.”
“We don’t know,” Roth said. “But that’s something we’re going to try to figure out.”
Running the back of her hands under her eyes, she sniffed and then dropped her hands to her lap. “What are you going to do? You can’t just leave.”
My stomach ached. “I have to, Stacey. At least until I figure out how I’m doing this.”
“What about school? You won’t graduate. High school, Layla.”
“I think she knows that,” Roth replied drily. “But thank you for pointing it out.”
Her mouth trembled. “I’m sorry, but that’s just a big deal. What will you do with your life? How will you—”
“She’ll be fine,” Roth said firmly.
I sighed. “I don’t know yet. Maybe I can get my GED and take online college classes until I figure this out.”
Stacey stood from the recliner, shaking her head. “That’s not right.”
No. It wasn’t.
She started to pace. “There has to be something we can do. This cannot be your only—”
Roth went rigid as though concrete had been poured down his spine. He swore as he whipped toward me. I was already on my feet, because only one thing would cause that reaction.
“What is it?” Stacey asked, looking around.
“There’s a Warden nearby—close,” Roth answered.
My hands curled in as static danced over my skin. “What time did you say Zayne usually comes by?”
“Around this time, maybe a little later.” Her eyes widened. “He would never hurt you, Layla.”
“I know,” I said, and I hoped we were both right. I had no idea how Zayne would view me now after I’d hurt him.
“A Warden will know we’re here. He’ll be able to sense us.” Roth turned, his features sharpening. “This will—”
A door crashed open and Stacey shrieked. It came from the back of the house, the same one we’d entered through and locked behind us, as if we’d been tracked right up to the door. But I knew Zayne was ridiculously skilled when it came to picking locks. And I knew it was him. The faint winter-mint scent teased my senses.
Roth was suddenly in front of me, but I stepped around him. I wasn’t going to cower or hide. Just as my heart leaped in my throat, a shadow fell across the entry to the living room and then Zayne was standing there.
I had a feeling if a hundred people were in the room, he still would’ve found me immediately. His gaze locked on to mine, and the first thing I noticed was his aura. It was still white and beautiful, but it had dulled a little, like a lightbulb about to go out. And he looked terrible.
Dark smudges crept under his eyes like a faint ink stain. Stubble covered his usually smooth cheeks and there was tension in his jaw. Had I done this to him when I’d taken a piece of his soul?
Zayne stumbled as he took a step toward me, and it was as if he couldn’t move any farther. “Layla,” he said, the one word sounding broken. It was like a bow snapping. Some of the tautness in his body seeped out. His shoulders sagged.