The glittering lights of the aurora wrapped around Zanya’s body, spinning in a cyclone of ghostly blue, emerald green, and purple. The light in her chest, signifying her power as the Stone Guardian, beamed with life.
Jayden stepped back into the darkness, nearly tripping over his own feet, unable to tear his gaze from Zanya. The lights bonded souls, both in this world and in the afterlife. If they were touching Zanya, it could only mean one thing.
She was bonding with someone, and that someone wasn’t him.
The crowds near the base of the temples gathered around their sacred fires with offerings of jade and maize. They cheered and chanted, beating on drums and dancing like the aboriginal Mayans once had, carrying out the tradition for thousands of years.
Jayden backed away from Zanya, nearly stumbling on protruding rocks half-buried in the grassy hill. Everyone in their group waited with wide eyes, their chests puffed out as if they held their breath, waiting for her soul mate to be revealed.
Jayden’s gut tightened as the woman he would die for—had died for—reached for Arwan’s hand.
It should have been him holding her close.
It should have been him kissing her.
He swallowed against a dry throat. It didn’t make any sense. Arwan was half underworlder. Bonding with Riyata was forbidden. Hell, it was impossible. The two bloodlines simply weren’t compatible.
Zanya’s mother, Eleuia, trembled with fury. “I mean it,” she demanded, her sharp gaze trained on Zanya. “Choose him,” she jabbed her finger at Arwan, “or us. Because I won’t allow that thing back in my house.”
“For the gods’ sake, Ellie,” Renato pleaded.
“No!” She spun and glared at her brother. “You’ve done enough damage as it is. She is my daughter.”
Jayden watched Zanya. She was so damn beautiful in that dress. He clenched his fists.
“You can’t be serious,” Zanya said, shaking her head. “How can you ask me to do that?” Her chest rose and fell with every quickened breath, her fingers now interlocked with Arwan’s.
She held him so close, as if letting him go would ruin her. For the first time, Jay believed it actually would. She was bonded. Any chance he’d had with Zanya was lost.
A collection of cheers shook the air. Jayden looked at the crowd in the valley below. He’d almost forgotten where he was. With the lights retreating into the sky, the winter solstice celebrations had begun. Newly bonded couples were hugged and congratulated, though the Riyata group was far out of the crowd’s reach.
“How can you guys just stand there and let her do this?” Zanya’s desperate tone brought his focus back to her. It took a moment to realize she was speaking directly to him.
He parted his lips, but couldn’t speak. He couldn’t…wouldn’t stand up for them. Not while everything he wanted was torn away. Not when he still loved her.
Zanya’s gaze shifted to her best friend, Tara, who walked toward the newly bonded pair. “Yeah, this is messed up.” Tara reached Zanya’s side and faced the rest of the group, then crossed her arms over her chest. “They don’t have any control over this stuff.” She stared pointedly at the lights in the sky. “There’s got to be something more going on here. Something you guys missed.”
“Missed?” Eleuia’s tone turned deadly. She stepped toward Zanya, who shifted in front of Arwan as if she were protecting him. “I didn’t spend all this time hiding and running, to return to a piece of underworld garbage like him,” she spat, glaring at Arwan. “He’ll ruin our kind’s only hope at a future. He is the reason I missed you growing up, Zanya. Why your father isn’t here anymore.”
Zanya flinched and dropped her head. Waves of her hair drifted in the warm breeze. “No, Mom.” She lifted her chin, revealing a soft sheen in her eyes. “My father died because you fell in love with someone you weren’t supposed to.” She turned to face Arwan and took both of his hands.
Jayden’s throat tightened and each breath grew harder to take as dread bore deep into his gut. He raked his fingers through his hair. Shit. He had to get the hell away. With Zanya bonded and her mom ready to light a torch and wave a pitchfork, things were about to get ugly. He’d be forced to choose. They all would. It was an impossible ultimatum.
If he chose Eleuia’s side, it would mean turning his back on Zanya forever, because it would mean rejecting her bond with Arwan, and therefore, rejecting everything she was from this moment on.
But if he chose to stand by her, it would mean turning his back on his own heart.
Jayden looked away, at the sky, the ground, anywhere but at Zanya. He caught a glimpse of Hawa studying him. She held his gaze for a split second before he looked away.
He couldn’t stay if he had to watch Zanya be with someone else, and he’d be damned if he spent another second as the pathetic ex-boyfriend who couldn’t win her back.
Jayden analyzed his surroundings. The ruins of Tikal were crowded with parked cars for the celebration. Even the taxi drivers had abandoned their cabs to participate in the solstice.
He slipped away from the group and peered in car windows, one vehicle at a time. If he left on foot, traveling to…anywhere-but-here, would take twice as long. He needed a ride.
He paused when he spotted a pair of keys dangling from the ignition of a taxi. Bingo. He slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine roared to life. He took a moment to draw in a deep breath. Leaving was the only answer. Maybe now that his heart no longer beat, he was incapable of a real bond. He had to look out for himself. No one else would. He clutched the steering wheel tighter.
When he glanced in the rearview mirror, he was able to see the others, still crowded in a tight group, none of them realizing he was gone. Zanya backed away from her mother, drawing even closer to Arwan.
He ground his teeth. To hell with this.
Just as he shifted the car into drive, the passenger door flew open and Hawa launched herself inside, then slammed the door behind her. “Where do you think you’re off to?”
He exhaled sharply. “Get out.”
“Uh, not happening. I saw how you looked back there. There’s no way I’m letting you take off alone.”
He scoffed. “What do you care?”
“Who said I do?”
“Then get out.” He leaned over her and pushed the door open.
Hawa bit her lip for a second while she watched him. “Look.” She shut the door a second time. “I know how bad it sucks to watch the person you care about be with someone else.”
Jayden relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. He’d almost forgotten that she and Peter used to be together, and she’d been forced to watch while the healer fell for Tara.
Hawa shrugged. “Plus, it’ll be nice to get the hell out of the jungle for a while.” She gestured to the path of crushed grass that passed for a makeshift road. “Well? Are we going or what?”
He hesitated, glanced once more in the rearview mirror, and then slammed his foot on the gas pedal. The rear end fishtailed before the tires bit into the ground.
He didn’t look back.
A blur of green streaked by as he sped out of the jungle. Anger bubbled inside of him, paired with a deep humiliation. How could he have been so stupid? He never would have gotten Zanya back. It was just his luck. Always the underdog. Always the loser.
The tension in his muscles wound tighter until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He balled his fist and punched the center of the steering wheel as hard as he could, honking the horn several times in the process. “That wasn’t supposed to fucking happen!”
The car swerved and Hawa grabbed the wheel, preventing them from flying into the trees. “Whoa! Either pull over or calm the hell down before you get both of us killed!”
Jayden punched the steering wheel one more time, and then relieved some pressure from the gas. The car slowed to a reasonable speed.
“You good?” Hawa cautiously let go of the wheel.
He nodded, taking back control of the car. Both of them were silent the rest of the drive out of the jungle. He needed the time to think, and thankfully, Hawa wasn’t one of those girls who couldn’t shut up if her life depended on it.
He slowed when they reached a paved road, making the ride smoother and a little easier to keep his shit together. At the moment, everything about the jungle pissed him off.
“You do realize when we get in town, the cops will probably be looking for this taxi, right?” Hawa slouched in the passenger seat and kicked one of her heavy leather boots up onto the dashboard, bobbing her foot left to right. “Unless the owner of the cab is too wasted to realize it’s been taken until tomorrow morning. That would buy us a couple of hours.”
That was the best-case scenario. It would give him enough time to figure out what he was going to do next, because now, all he knew for sure was he wouldn’t go back to Renato’s house. If Zanya was still there, she’d be there with Arwan. And if she wasn’t, there was no reason to stick around anymore. It was a lose-lose scenario—the story of his entire fucking life.
“So, where to, el capitán?”
The muscles in his shoulders tensed at Hawa’s voice. “I don’t really know.”
“Sweet.” She flipped on the FM radio and fiddled with the stations until Latin music thumped from the speakers. She leaned back again, mouthing the lyrics.
He glanced at her. “That’s it? You don’t care that I have no idea where the hell we’re going?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I’m always in for a good adventure.”
“I’m not going back to Renato’s house.”
She yawned. “Let’s roll down the windows.” She leaned forward and used the hand crank to let the night air pour into the cab, then sat back, relaxing into her seat.
Since when did she want to be around him? She’d always just been the sprinter—able to travel at unimaginable speeds. She never cared about him. In fact, she gave off a screw you vibe every second of the day. Suddenly she was up for a road trip? Maybe she’d decide to split when they arrived at the next town…or maybe not. He glanced at her again, slouching with her eyes closed and black hair whipping wildly around her.
He swallowed as his stomach twisted and bubbled. Why was he so freaked out about her being around?
Jayden blinked and shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind.
He had to keep his shit together. He stole a quick look at the gas gauge. Full tank. Good. He’d drive through the night until they reached civilization. At least he didn’t have to worry about getting tired anymore. He settled back in the seat. This whole kinda-dead thing had its advantages.