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“We'l figure this out, Nina. We're not going to let anything happen to you. You know that.”

“I don't want anything to happen to you, ” I said softly. I patted his shoulder, and then walked into the bathroom, removing my clothes slowly, feeling numb.

The steam floated up from behind the shower curtain and spil ed over, fil ing the room with a thick, hazy warmth in minutes. I stood under the water, as hot as I could stand it, and tried to remember what Eli had said about being strong. I couldn't cry. Frivolous emotion would help nothing.

Stil , a heavy, portentous feeling settled over my entire body, weighing me down so much that the tile below my feet seemed to dig into my skin.

The more we learned, the worse it was. Preventing the prophecy was useless, because even if we succeeded, Hel wouldn’t al ow the possibility.

The shower knobs complained when I turned them off, strangling the pipes. I towel-dried my hair, and then wrapped my robe around me. When I pushed the door open, a ghostly cloud of steam fol owed me as I walked across my bedroom floor.

I sat at my vanity, raking a comb through my damp, messy hair. The sea of black birds at the church haunted my thoughts, and the crunching sound their bodies made as Jared carried me across the street replayed over and over in my mind.

“Don’t forget about dinner with Ryan tonight,” Bex said.

“He won’t be here until seven,” I said, glancing at the clock. I stil had an hour left.

The main entrance door slammed in the lower level, and I heard not one, but two pairs of light footsteps ascending the stairs.

Jared stopped in the doorway of my bedroom. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said. I kept my back to him, but met his eyes in the mirror.

Claire appeared beside him. “I heard.”

The overly ceremonious door bel chimed throughout the house. Moments later, Agatha joined Jared and Claire in the doorway of my room. “It’s a gentleman, Love. A Mr. Scott to see you.”

I rol ed my eyes. “He’s early.” I stood, tightening the belt of my robe, and then stormed through the path Claire and Jared made for me as they pressed their backs to the wal .

My bare feet tapped against the stairs as I quickly made my way to the spot where Ryan stood.

“You’re early,” I said, crossing my arms.

Ryan smiled, his eyes scanning every corner of the room. “I’m sorry. I’ll wait.”

“Agatha?” I call ed. When she didn’t answer, I gestured for Ryan to fol ow me. “I’ll show you to the Great Room,” I said. Too late I remembered we had rearranged the furniture for our sparring matches.

“Redecorating?” Ryan asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Something like that,” I said. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Ryan nodded, and I jogged up the stairs. Jared and his siblings stood in the center of my room when I returned, seeming nervous and out of place.

“It’s just Ryan,” I said. Once the words came out of my mouth, Claire’s eyes widened, and she shoved me aside, pushing my bedroom door shut.

Her finger touched her lips, and she waited, keeping her hand against the door.

“Nina?” Ryan call ed, knocking twice.

“Yes?” I said, shrugging to Claire.

“I couldn’t help but notice the Lotus Exige you have parked out front. New car?”

Claire’s eyes squeezed shut, and then she looked at me again, shaking her head.

“Er…no…? I believe my mother has company this evening. I’ll meet you downstairs, okay?”

It was silent for a few moments, but then Ryan knocked on the door again.

“Yes?” I said, unable to hide the irritation in my voice. I glanced back at Jared, hoping he would give a sign as to what I should do.

“Isn’t that the same car Claire drove the night we first saw her at the pub?”

When Jared held out his arms and shrugged, I sighed. “I…can’t remember, Ryan. Do you want me to get ready or not?”

“The thing is,” he said, his voice just on the other side of the door, “I ran the plates, and it’s registered to Claire Ryel.”

For the first time, Claire looked nervous. She rubbed the back of her neck the way her brother rubbed his when things between us were tense. It struck me as funny, and a smile forced its way to the surface.

“It’s not funny!” Claire mouthed silently. When I covered my mouth with my hand, a smile crept across her face as wel .

“Uh….” I said, turning once again to Jared. He rol ed his eyes, gesturing for us to somehow fix the mess we’d made. “She was here. She was here earlier helping me…er…pick out a dress.”

“So she walked home?” Ryan said from the hal .

“No. No, she didn’t,” I said, stal ing.

Claire desperately pointed at Jared.

“Jared took her home!” I said.

Ryan puffed. “Okay, but the Escalade is parked behind the Lotus.”

“Shit!” I whispered, interlocking my fingers on top of my head. “He…took her home on his motorcycle.”

Claire gave me a thumb’s up, and I relaxed a bit, hoping Ryan would accept my story.

“Nina,” Ryan said. “Could I talk to Claire for a minute? Just…just for one minute.” The door handle moved, and Claire’s hand instantly gripped around it, refusing to let it budge a mil imeter more.

“She’s not here, Ryan. I told you.”

“Then open the door.”

“I’m not dressed.”

“I’ve seen you that way before.”

Jared frowned, and I laughed once. “It’s different, now.”

“Claire?” Ryan said. “Can I talk to you? Please? I won’t take up much of your time, I swear. I just need to, uh…wow,” he chuckled, “I feel real y stupid right now.”

“You should, since she’s not here,” I said.

“Claire. Please?” he asked.

Claire leaned her forehead silently against the door. She bit her lip and sighed. “Go away, Ryan.”

“Claire?” Ryan said, his voice excited. “Please open the door.”

“Nina told me what you said. It’s sweet, but…,” she cringed, “you’re crazy.”

“I know what I saw,” Ryan said, his tone notably less enthusiastic than before. “I know you were there.”