Instead, she’d cried herself to sleep, something she hadn’t done in years. Not since the first night she’d spent at Aegis HQ, when gratitude had overwhelmed her, gratitude that Kynan and Lori had taken her in and given her a safe place to sleep for the first time since her mother died. They’d said they wanted her. Every foster parent had said that, but she’d quickly learned not to believe it.
Her own mother had said it, but if that were true, she would have stayed off the drugs. Yes, she’d had a demon tormenting her, driving her to self-destruction, but Tayla couldn’t shake the belief that if she’d only been a better daughter, her mom would have fought harder.
And now Eidolon said he wanted her. If only she could believe him, could believe that for the first time in her life, she was something special. Worth more than what the state paid someone to take care of her, worth more than her fighting skills.
He’d hurt her last night when he’d hesitated to answer her question, and she’d struck back with Roag’s death, a low blow, and something he hadn’t needed to know.
Desperate to hold off on a confrontation that would surely end in his kicking her onto the streets, she showered, taking a long time to inspect the new decorations on her arm. They weren’t as sharply defined or as dark as Eidolon’s, but they were otherwise identical—and she knew because she’d traced every one of his with her tongue.
Whatever Eidolon had done to her had also sealed The Wound That Wouldn’t Heal. Not even a scar remained, though she’d had to use his scalpel to remove the stitches.
When the water started to run cold, she rinsed and dressed in leather fighting pants and a lace tank top, and when she couldn’t stall any longer, she entered the living room.
Where Gem was standing, holding Mickey. The recliner behind her was rocking; she must have heard Tayla coming and gotten to her feet. A map of the abandoned zoo lay spread out on the coffee table, along with photos and a notebook with wildly scratched notes next to it.
“What are you doing here?” Tayla growled.
“Eidolon called me last night. He wanted someone here with you.”
Tayla’s heart squeezed painfully. He’d been so angry, probably on the verge of violence and hatred, and yet, he hadn’t wanted her to be alone. “How did he sound?”
“Destroyed. On edge.” Her gaze flickered to Tay’s arm, where the markings on her skin itched. “What did you do to him?”
Why did everyone automatically assume she’d done something to him? Maybe because this time, she had. “That’s none of your business. Get out. I thought I’d made it clear that I never wanted to see you again.”
“Yeah, about that . . .” Gem cleared her throat. Swallowed a few times. That was when Tay noticed her puffy, bloodshot eyes. Gem must have been up all night. “I killed him.”
“Our sire.” Gem sank into the chair, her midnight-blue skirt squeaking on the leather cushion. Always an emotional barometer, Mickey scampered down and under the couch. “When I was sixteen. He came to me. We fought. I stabbed him. It wasn’t pretty.”
“Jesus,” Tay whispered. “Why didn’t you tell me this last night?”
“You flipped out before I had the chance.” She peered up at Tayla through watery eyes. “And I think I kinda wanted to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? Why?”
“I was jealous. Of how you grew up. Of how you have this ‘Teresa was my mom and not yours’ vibe going on. You knew her. You got to do things with her.” Gem hung her head and played with one of her two braided ponytails. “All I have are a few grainy pictures taken from blocks away and a fading memory of what her voice sounded like.”
“Gem, I didn’t know her that well. She was killed just as we started to mesh.”
“You still . . . you still had a life I didn’t have.”
“Yeah. You had everything.”
“Except a mom,” she said quietly.
“But you had—”
“Demon parents who were always disappointed in me.” She sighed. “Don’t get me wrong. I love them. And they love me in their own way. But I couldn’t be everything they wanted me to be. I didn’t even want to be a doctor. I did it for them. You grew up in one world. It might have sucked, but it was one world. I was the product of two worlds, and they never let me forget it. Even today, I can’t tell humans what I am, and I can’t tell demons I’m half-human. Only you and the Axis of Evil know the truth.” When Tay raised an eyebrow, Gem elaborated. “Eidolon, Wraith, and Shade. I’ve called them that for years, mainly because it annoys them.”
Tayla laughed at that, the discharge of tension and emotion a welcome release. “You really are my sister.”
Gem tugged on a thick braid. “So we’re cool? Me and you?”
Listening to her instincts, which told her she needed to let her sister into her life, Tayla nodded. “Yeah. We’re cool.” But what now? She was willing to accept Gem into her life, but that was the Gem she saw before her now, the one that appeared human. What lurked beneath the pretty, pierced exterior? “Can I ask a favor? Can I see what you keep locked away behind the tattoos?”
For a moment Gem looked as if she would refuse, and then she nodded, slowly, sadly. “I guess you need to.” Closing her eyes, she concentrated. A low moan dredged up from deep in her chest. Her entire body began to vibrate, and then she just . . . exploded. Like a kernel of popcorn. One second she was a cute Goth chick, and then next . . .
“Well? This is my other side.”
Gem hadn’t spoken in English, but Tay understood her. Knees practically knocking, she forced herself to move closer to the beast in front of her, a strange cross between human and Soulshredder, a terrible, beautiful creature with red skin, black claws, and Gem’s eyes.
“I have to change back,” Gem said. “Every second like this reduces my human instincts.”
The vibration started again. Tayla leaped back, and then Gem was standing there, sweating bullets.
“Man, that stings.”
Shaking a little, Tayla circled the other woman, checking for . . . what? Leaks? “So, you can control yourself when you shift?”
“To some extent,” Gem said, watching as Tayla came around front again. “I can’t when it happens spontaneously, which is why I got the tats.”
“So if I were to integrate, I could control it?”
Gem grinned. “Does that mean you’re thinking about it?”
Tayla looked down at herself, wondering how her body would change should she be integrated. Then she sighed. “It might not be an option anymore. Eidolon hates me.”
“What happened between you two?”
“Mainly, I killed his brother.”
“But I just saw—”
“It was Roag.”
Gem blew out a long breath. “God, Tayla. He was devastated when Roag died.”
“Did you know Roag?”
“Not well. Roag wasn’t around much. He and Wraith fought like vamps and slayers—” She shot Tayla a sheepish smile. “Sorry, Guardians. Eidolon was always afraid they’d kill each other, especially after Roag went through his s’genesis.”
Tayla rubbed her eyes, exhausted and bitterly regretting what had happened between her and Eidolon. She should have kept her mouth shut about Roag. Had she known more about the s’genesis and the mating requirements, maybe she wouldn’t have flipped out like she had. But then, how was she supposed to have known? The Aegis had an extensive library at its disposal, but anything but the most basic of books had to be ordered from headquarters, approved by the Regents, and now it was too late to do any of that.
“Tayla? Are you okay?”
Not at all. “I just wish I knew more. About Seminus demons. About Soulshredders.”
“Yeah, well, don’t beat yourself up. I grew up with demons, and I know exactly squat.” She straightened her skirt, which had bunched up during her transformation. “Have you checked out E’s library?”
Tayla resisted the urge to thunk herself on the forehead. “You’re a genius.”
In the den, they sifted through the hundreds of tomes on the shelves until Gem found what amounted to an encyclopedia of demon species. Tay sat down with it, started with the section on incubi, and specifically, Seminus demons. The information, while a bit more generic than she’d hoped for, still gave her some insight into Seminus behavior, mating rituals, and dermoire symbols.
“Gem, you’ve been friends with Eidolon and his brothers for a long time, haven’t you?”
Gem glanced up from one of the medical texts she’d been reading. “Years. My parents took me to UG
for most of my medical appointments.”
“Has . . . has Eidolon really been searching for a mate for so long? Is he really that desperate?”
“God, Tay, I’m sorry I said that—”
Tayla cut her off with a shake of the head. “Wraith said something like that, too.”
“Listen to me.” Gem slammed the book closed with such force that Tayla jumped. “Eidolon isn’t an idiot. He’s one of the most logical, annoyingly intelligent males I’ve ever met, human or demon. He isn’t so desperate that he’d lock himself into a lifetime of misery with a female who might turn on him or who might be a bad mother to his children. Yes, his life and his hospital mean everything to him, but he’d rather die than be bound to a female he doesn’t love. He loves you, Tayla.”
“I don’t think—”
“I can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. We’re Soulshredders, sis, which means that we can sense weakness and pain in others. Eidolon’s weakness is you. But you could also be his strength. He loves you, even if he hasn’t admitted it, even to himself.”
Tayla slouched in her seat, feeling miserable and lost and guilty as hell. “Doesn’t matter. I hurt him. He wants nothing to do with me.”
“I know how that is,” Gem muttered. She glanced at her watch and laughed, a bitter, scornful sound.
“Perfect. It’s time to get to the hospital. Kynan should be there soon.”
“He isn’t involved in what happened to your parents.” Tayla spoke with the confidence she wanted to feel.
Gem’s black-painted mouth tightened into a grim slash. “I hope to God you’re right. If anything has happened to them . . .”
Gem didn’t have to finish the sentence. Tayla knew what would happen, knew now what lurked behind the cage of Gem’s protective tattoos.
“I’m right,” Tayla said. “Let’s go prove it.”
A deep-seated ache throbbed through her. She had a feeling that after meeting with Ky, whatever hope she’d had to somehow maintain her relationship with The Aegis would be as dead as her relationship with Eidolon.
Just as Gem predicted, Kynan arrived at Mercy General with two Guardians in tow. Tayla watched covertly from around the corner of the main waiting room, her heart pounding with nervous energy as Gem approached him. Dressed in blue scrubs that looked tame and out of place alongside her funky hair and piercings, Gem said something that lured him away from Tim and Jon, and they disappeared into an examination room.
A moment later, Gem slipped out of the room where she’d taken Kynan. Tay met her near the door. “I told him Dennis wanted to talk to him privately about one of his guys. He’s not expecting you.”
“Thanks. Wish me luck.”
Gem grabbed Tayla’s arm as she brushed past. “I hope he’s not involved.”
“Me too, Gem. Me too.”
Sucking in a deep, bracing breath, Tay entered the room where Kynan, dressed in his usual jeans and leather jacket, braced his forearm above his head on the windowsill, looking out at the grassy quad. Tufts of spiky dark hair stood up haphazardly as if he’d been running his fingers through it.
“Hey, Dennis.” He swung around, his combat boots squeaking on the tile.
“Tayla. Jesus Christ.” He came forward as though to embrace her, but battlewise wariness sparked in his eyes, and he halted a stang’s length out of arm’s reach. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
His proximity forced her to look up at him, but she wouldn’t be the one to back off. “Disappointed?”
“How can you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you tried to kill me? Twice?”
To his credit, he looked stunned. But then, in all the years she’d known Kynan, she’d never known him to be anything but brutally honest. If he appeared to be surprised, he probably was. At least, she’d have believed that before. Right now she wasn’t so sure. Not when her life was on the line.
“I’m not sure what to say.” His voice was a deep rumble that gave nothing away about what he was thinking. The man was no fool, and his cautious nature had saved his life more than once.
Her temper flared, because she could think of a million things to say. “How about, ‘Sorry The Aegis tried to turn you into a suicide bomber’? Or, ‘Hey, I apologize for putting a price on your head’? Yeah, I can think of a few things you could say. Why don’t you start with what you were told about my death?”
For a long moment he took her in, from her feet to her face, until she had the urge to fidget. “Lori said you were sent to the demon hospital to release a tracking spell. But when you didn’t release the spell or return, Jagger sent Bleak and Cole to your apartment. They were ambushed by demons. We assumed you’d been killed, too.”