Beneath the lamp separating my shop from Da Plat Eye, Preacher stopped and grasped my hands. He was one of the few people who could do so without my reacting badly. “You did good back dere, girl. Only opened dat mouth a couple of times.” He sighed. “I know dis is a lot for you to take into your heart, but you got to do it. You got to do everything dey says to do.”
“What about him?” I said, inclining my head to Eligius, who stood a few feet behind us. “What am I supposed to do?” I’d already decided to sleep in my heavy wool scarf. Behind me, Eligius chuckled—at least I thought he did. I shot him a look over my shoulder, and he didn’t even appear to be paying us any attention.
“You do what dat boy says to do, Riley Poe. He will do you right. And his brodders will watch out for Nyxinnia.”
“What am I supposed to tell her?” I asked, and again, the deathly silence of the night stunned me.
“You tell her dat brodder of yours got into some bad magic, and de Gullah, dey gonna fix him up. Dat’s all you gotta say.” He glanced toward the darkened skies, then back at me. “It don’t feel right out here, Riley Poe. You git inside and stay. And you be nice to dat Dupré boy. I would not let him in your house if I thought he would do something bad. He won’t.”
Emotions washed over me, and I threw my arms around Preacher’s neck and hugged him tightly. “Is all this really happening?” I muttered against the collar of his shirt as I inhaled the odd, sweet mixture of Downy and hoodoo herbs. “Is it real? Is my baby brother going to turn into one of them?” I fought a sob that stuck in my already burning throat. I didn’t cry often, but when I did, it was torrential—and no one ever knew it happened, because I did it in private. I felt a big one coming on now.
Preacher’s big hands patted my back. “Awe, baby, we gonna make things right after all, so dat doesn’t happen. You’ll see.”
I pulled back and breathed. “What about you and Estelle?”
Preacher chuckled. “Dat old crazy woman and me, we fine, Riley Poe. Handled things a lot worse dan vampires, dat’s right. But dos Duprés ain’t like dat, right?” He turned me toward my door and shoved gently. “Now, go git some rest. But come git your tea in de morning; don’t forget dat.”
“Don’t worry—I won’t.” I stood there beneath my door light and watched Preacher make his way to the back entrance of Da Plat Eye, step through the door, and close it behind him, leaving me alone with Eligius. I looked at him standing there, duffel slung over one shoulder, his dark hair carelessly falling over his eyes as he watched me from the shadows. It thrilled me and freaked me out at the same time. “Come on in,” I invited, then turned, stuck the key in the lock, and opened the door. The moment I hit the light switch, he was at my side, and despite being overwrought with sick worry over my brother, my skin heated at his closeness. I was immediately on the defensive. “Back off,” I said. I gave him a warning look and moved to the steps. He followed, closed the door, and locked it. And it was at that moment that Chaz came hauling ass into the foyer from the front of the shop, barking his head off, fur at his scruff standing on end.
“Whoa, Chaz, stop it!” I said sharply, and he came to a halt but stood rigid, head down, a low growl rumbling from deep in his throat as he stared hard at Eligius. It reminded me of his reaction to Seth over the past week. “He doesn’t like . . . strangers,” I said, although I’d meant vampires. I wasn’t ready to hear the word come out of my mouth yet; it sounded nearly as stupid as zombies, although I was starting to believe in them, too. “Chaz! Down!” I commanded, pointing at the floor.
Eligius turned sideways in the narrow foyer and squeezed by me, our bodies inches apart, keeping his hooded gaze trained on me. “He’ll get used to me, too,” he said, and drew closer to my bristled dog. Gently, he eased his duffel to the floor and squatted before Chaz, speaking softly in French. Within seconds, Chaz’s fur settled, his backside wagged, and he whined as one paw lifted and rested on Eligius’ knee. At once I was impressed . . . and betrayed. I grabbed Chaz’s leash from the wall and slapped my thigh. “Come on, boy; let’s go for a walk.” Chaz hurried to me and licked my knee. “That’s better, you traitor,” I said, and scrubbed the space between his fuzzy ears. I glanced at Eligius, who was still squatted down. “Be right back.”
He instantly rose and was at the door beside me. “You go, I go.”
“Whatever,” I mumbled. I unlocked the door and headed back out into the night. I kept a wary eye on Eligius while Chaz inspected the grass, and finally, I caved. “So what’d you say to him?” From the river, a tugboat blasted its horn, someone on the walk cheered, and I could vaguely hear music coming from the Boar’s Head.
Eligius shrugged and met my gaze. “I promised not to kill you.”
“Wow, thanks.” I had a hard time swallowing past the lump in my throat, but I didn’t let him see that it had bothered me. “As long as I keep drinking Preacher’s anti-kill-me potion, right?”
“It’d be a good idea,” he said, and the words made me shudder.
Inside, I turned Chaz loose, hung his leash on the wall, and locked the door. As I talked to Nyx on my cell, explaining to her about Seth exactly as Preacher had advised, I watched Eligius move around in my apartment; he seemed to know just where everything was. He walked straight to Seth’s room without pause, tossed his duffel on the floor, and stood there, staring at . . . something. It felt weird having him in my home, completely strange and foreign. He looked too . . . normal, in his plain white tee and faded jeans, not what you’d think a vampire looked like at all. No black cape, no coffin. His complexion was flawless, all except for a small mole on his jaw, just below his left ear. Freshly shaved, even, although he had the slightest hint of stubble. Did vampires shave? It was an absurd thought. I almost talked myself out of believing in what I knew he really was. I didn’t know him from freaking Adam and had only Preacher’s assurance that it’d be okay to have a creature of the afterlight freely wandering my apartment—with me in it. It should be Seth here, and a longing ache for my brother sank deep into my stomach. He was somewhere, roaming the streets with something way worse than anything I’d ever roamed with: monsters. Against my will I tried to imagine his young face distorting like Gilles’; I could not. Without my permission, the vision of Seth attacking an innocent human being and sucking all of the person’s blood out pushed to the front of my mind. I pushed it quickly away. It didn’t seem right. All I could see was his sweet, expressive green eyes divulging every emotion he possessed. Tears stung my throat and eyes, and I hurried into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and grabbed a bottle of Guinness. I had a third of it down when I turned. Eligius was standing no less than a foot away, regarding me closely. I didn’t jump—I forced myself not to. With a knuckle, I wiped my mouth, and his eyes followed my movement with intense curiosity.
“What if I didn’t have Preacher’s herbs?” I asked, his closeness heating my skin. “What if I just stopped taking them?”
Eligius’ eyes dropped to the pulse at my neck, and swear to God, his eyes glowed. “You’d be dead before you could lift that bottle to your lips.”
Until the day break and the shadows flee away.
—Anonymous epitaph, Bonaventure Cemetery
The night dragged by painfully slowly, and I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. I knew that if he wanted to, Eligius could kill me; part of me sincerely believed he did want to. That skepticism royally pissed me off. I didn’t like my life being invaded, especially by a guy so freaking hot and lethal at the same time, he made me burn every time he got close to me. No lie. I’d wanted him from the moment I’d seen him through the storefront. I always was attracted to the bad boy, but this was ridiculous. I supposed he possessed some sort of mind control; it was the only reason I could think of to explain why he made me feel like I was in freaking heat. Again—that pissed me off. I didn’t like being out of control, especially when it came to guys. That had happened once in my life—never, ever again.
My apartment is fairly spacious for a historic-district riverfront structure, but when crammed inside with a vampire, I felt like it was a dollhouse. He sat sprawled on the sofa, looking like any other ordinary dude with a remote in hand, flipping through various channels that included all forms of male interest: MTV, motor sports, extreme surfing, CSI. Yet he watched me—my every move—and was blatant about it. I’d already had a beer and leftover lo mein, and by midnight my insides were crawling with nervous energy. I wanted to go for a run but knew without even mentioning it that if I’d wanted to do that, I wouldn’t do it without a chaperone. So instead of a run through the historic district, I opted to work out extra hard with the bag. I felt like hitting something, beating the holy hell out of something, and working so hard at it that my lungs caught fire. Maybe then I’d be able to go to sleep and lose the horrible images in my head of Seth.
I grabbed the empty carton of lo mein off the counter, dropped it into the trash, and headed to my bedroom, Eligius’ eyes following me the whole way. I ignored him and shut the bedroom door to block his penetrating stare. Kicking my boots off, I yanked my shirt over my head and pulled off my skirt, dropping both into the wicker basket in the corner, along with my socks. A shudder shocked me, and I didn’t even have to turn around to know Eligius was behind me, standing in my doorway. I spared him no more than a quick glimpse over my shoulder, and yep—there he was, leaned against the door-frame in a laid-back guy manner, arms crossed over his chest, head cocked, his eyes fastened directly on me, and no shame in evidence. I wore a black lace bra and black boy-short panties. It wasn’t like I was naked, not that I’d care about that, either. I turned back around.
“I was strip-searched three times by my thirteenth birthday, so don’t think for a second you’re intimidating me,” I said without looking at him. I pulled on a pair of tight black yoga pants that dropped below my hips, and a white ribbed tank that barely covered my breasts. “You can look, if that’s what gets you off.” I spread my legs in a wide stretch and dropped my head down to peer at him from between them. “But don’t touch.” I grabbed my ankles and pulled, extending the muscles in my hamstrings, arms, and back. Rising on my toes, I stretched my calves, then stood straight. I glanced at him. “I’m no part of a contract. Savvy?” In the back of my brain, I knew my cockiness was a bold move; I was teasing a freaking vampire, for God’s sake. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t help it. Eligius provoked me, and it pissed me off that he was in my house. I moved to my iPod station, chose Breaking Benjamin’s Dear Agony, selected “I Will Not Bow,” and cranked up the volume.