Roth was extraordinarily patient when it came to working out the knots, more so than me. At this point, I was usually cussing and yanking the brush through my hair. He hummed under his breath as he worked, and I immediately recognized the tune.
“Is ‘Paradise City’ your favorite song?” I asked.
“The song just kind of got stuck in my head,” he said. “For a couple of years, all we could get down below was the classic rock station, and the ‘grass is green’ line always stuck out to me.”
I grinned as I pictured Hell getting Sirius radio. “Why?”
There was a beat of silence. “The grass is never green down below, Shortie.”
My lips slipped down at the corners. “It’s not? What color is it?”
“Gray,” he answered. “Everything is pretty much gray. Except for the blood. And there’s a lot of blood.”
A shudder worked its way down my spine. “Sounds lovely.”
“It’s a weird place. Like I said before, it mimics topside but does a shitty job at it. Everything is shiny at first, almost...pretty. Every single time I go down there, it’s like that—it’s like that for everyone, but it doesn’t take long for things to start to go downhill. It fades. Buildings crumble, the sky looks like it’s polluted with dirt, and the grass...yeah, it’s gray.” He eased the brush through my hair, stopping at another tangle. “Everything is twisted and tarnished down there. Things are real up here. Down below they are sad replicas that fall apart.”
I remembered when Roth had admitted before that this was one of the reasons he enjoyed coming topside. My heart turned over heavily. “Will...will you have to go back?”
He didn’t answer immediately, causing knots to form in my belly. “I don’t know, Shortie. If the Boss calls me back, I can only disobey for so long.”
Closing my eyes against the ache in my chest, I knew this was something we were going to eventually have to face. “Has the Boss called you back yet?”
“No.” He paused, pressing a kiss against my bare shoulder. “The Boss kind of lets most of us come and go as we please, unless we are needed for something. As long as I stay on the Boss’s good side, I should be good.”
That wasn’t reassuring. “But I thought the Boss was displeased with you.”
“The Boss is always displeased,” he replied. “There’s a big difference between him being displeased and me being on the Boss’s bad side.”
I took that statement to heart, but I couldn’t imagine Roth staying on the Boss’s good side forever.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, returning to my hair. I could feel him separate the now-untangled strands into three sections. “Right now, that’s not the biggest of our problems.”
I snorted. “True. But I can’t help but worry that one day, you’re going to...that you’re going to just disappear.”
“I want you to listen when I say this.” He rested his chin on my shoulder, and when I turned my head toward his, he was peering up at me through thick lashes. “Nothing in this world or down below is going to keep me from you. Nothing, Layla. That’s a promise I will never break.”
A deep, powerful emotion stirred inside me. “I will make you the same promise.”
Those thick lashes swept down, shielding his eyes. “You will?”
“Yes.” And I meant my next words. “I’m not going to let anything keep you from me and that includes your Boss.”
Roth chuckled as he lifted his head, pausing to press a kiss against the side of my neck. “I like it when you get all feisty.” He returned to my hair, moving it back into the three sections. Several moments passed. “When I was in the pits, I really didn’t think I was going to get out of there. I figured the Boss would either not care enough to pull my happy ass out of it or would forget.”
I bit down on my lip as he spoke. Roth had never talked about his time in the pits without being sarcastic about it.
“I honestly have no idea how long I was in there. Time moves differently down below,” he continued, twisting the sections of hair around each other. “It wasn’t pleasant.” A dry laugh cracked out of him. “Actually, it freaking sucked, but you got me through it.”
It took a moment for his words to sink in. “How?”
“Easy. I thought about you. You were all I thought about.” His voice was quiet as my heart squeezed painfully. “I focused on the time we spent together, and as crazy as it sounds, I thought about you being topside with Zayne.”
I winced. How was that helpful?
Seconds later he answered my unspoken question. “Knowing that you’d be safe and would eventually be happy made it somewhat more bearable. And I know—I know—that Zayne would’ve laid down his life to protect you. Probably still would. You’d be okay. So knowing that helped when it got...well, when it got hard.”
A lump formed in the back of my throat. “I wish I could take away the time you’ve spent in the pits.”
His knuckles brushed along the center of my back as he continued with the braid he was making. “You already have.”
The lump tripled. “And I wish you never had to sacrifice yourself.”
“I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“I know,” I whispered, closing my eyes again. It took me a moment to find the right words. “You know that I care about Zayne deeply. That’s never going to change. Even though right now he’d probably rather punt-kick me into traffic than talk to me, I’m always going to love him.”
Pausing, I drew in a deep breath. “I told you this before. I love Zayne, but I’m not in love with him, and I don’t know if that would’ve ever changed. Could I have been with him?” I raised a shoulder. “Yeah, I could’ve been, but it would never be like this—like it is between you and me. I don’t know how long I would’ve stayed happy with Zayne if he and I got together and you never came back. Or if he would’ve remained happy with it himself, but at some point, what I felt for him wouldn’t have been enough. That’s unfair to him. So I’m glad that knowing I had someone helped you get through that, and to be honest, that blows my mind, but I want you to know that it would’ve...it would’ve never been enough for me.”
Roth reached around me, placing his hand above my heart. He flattened his palm, and I lifted my arm, folding my hand over his. His breath was warm against my shoulder when he spoke. “I know.”
Drawing back, he flipped the braid over my shoulder. “All done.”
I reached up and smoothed my fingers over the thick braid. “You’re really good at this. Better than me. Did you practice on your demon friends?”
“Only on all my dolls.”
I laughed as Roth tossed the brush aside. It bounced off the foot of the bed and hit the floor. A second later, Fury dashed out from under the bed and pounced on the brush. Its black-and-white hair was raised and its ears were pinned back. The kitten grabbed hold of the handle of the brush, and then dragged it under the bed. I had no idea what it planned to do with it under there.
Twisting at the waist, I faced Roth. Our eyes met. He grinned. The next breath I took was shaky. “I love you. Just wanted to throw that out there.”