Page 17

“Eli. Only my parents call me Eligius,” he said, and I heard it inside my head.

I pulled on my gloves, watching him with wary eyes, and I didn’t respond. His look was anything but wary. I felt the room close in and fill with one hundred percent intense male sexuality, and although it was tough, I turned my back and started punching the bag. After a few minutes, I sank completely into my workout; the music pounded as I kicked hard and struck fast. I didn’t forget for a second that Eli was behind me or that my baby brother wasn’t coming home. I hit the bag hard, as though it was the very thing responsible for it all, and I felt the shock of it vibrate through the muscles in my arms. Desperation inundated me, and I don’t know how long I worked out, but by the time my lungs seized, and my muscles were on freaking fire, tears fell furiously from my eyes. Angered—at myself, Eli, the Arcoses, and everyone else I could think of to blame for Seth’s absence—I pulled my gloves off with my teeth and threw them hard across the room. Without a word or a glance, I swore, slung open the double doors to the small balcony, and stepped out into the night. I fought not to literally break down and sob. With my hands I gripped the cool wrought iron until the skin over my knuckles pulled taut, and I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. “Fuck,” I said between clenched teeth, astounded by the rage building inside of me. I wanted to scream, shake the iron railing loose, and throw it into the river. I leaned my head down to my shoulder and rubbed the tears off my cheek.

“You’d better pull it together, Riley. You can’t be losing it in this game and expect to win,” Eli said quietly, so close I could feel him crowd me in the confined area of my balcony. At the same time his body pressed against my back; he placed an arm on either side of me, his hands next to mine on the rail, bracing himself. I reacted, my reflexes leapt, and I grabbed his arm with both hands. Had he not had vampiric strength to stop me, I would have easily flipped him over the edge of the balcony. I let go of him, heart racing wildly. He simply stood, pressed hard against me, keeping me prisoner; he was aroused, and I felt that, too. It enraged me and turned me on at the same time.

“The monster in me is still there, just below the surface,” he continued, as if my reaction hadn’t fazed him at all, and his lips barely grazed the skin on the side of my neck. I shuddered, and I know he felt it. “Never forget that. Even with your Gullah magic inside you, I can smell your unique blood,” he said, his mouth next to my ear. He inhaled a long, deep breath. “You have no idea how much of a temptation you are to me, Riley Poe,” he said, the slight French accent making his voice erotic. “No . . . idea how much control I truly have not to simply taste what rushes through your veins, with barely more than a paper-thin layer of skin to stop me.” I shivered as his breath rushed over my neck.

“That and a fucking contract,” I muttered, and with what strength I had, I pushed hard against him to escape; he easily turned me around, and now we were face-to-face, body to body, and panic etched into my brain. Exerting the slightest pressure, he bent me backward until I felt the cool iron handrail press against my back. I felt every hard ridge and muscle Eli possessed pressing into me. And I mean every one. His eyes searched mine, then dropped to my mouth, where they lingered. “Vampiric cravings aren’t the only ones I possess, but they’re the only ones I can halfway control,” he said. “I’ve still got the sex drive of a healthy, hot-blooded twenty-five-year-old guy, heightened times a hundred by what I am.” He dropped his head close, his lips a breath away. “Don’t tease me again, Riley, unless you mean it. I can’t promise that kind of control.” He lifted his head and stared, his eyes dark as he searched mine. “I don’t think you could handle me.”

Desire and fury raged within me, such a lethal combination that I thought I’d come if he pressed his crotch against mine just a little harder, held it there a little longer. I wanted him, and I hated myself for it—especially knowing he was just effing with me. “Get off of me,” I said quietly. “Now.” Prick.

The corner of his mouth lifted slightly, and he moved away from me. I pushed past him on shaky legs and waited for him to clear the balcony; then I shut and locked the doors. I started for the bathroom, but his next words stopped me. I didn’t look at him.

“We’ve got three weeks, and despite what your brother’s becoming, the desire to return to what’s familiar to him is strong. His transformation grows every day as the quickening progresses—get it? Once the cycle is complete, and he makes his first kill—”

I nearly choked at his blatant honesty, and I looked at him over my shoulder and interrupted his chilling words. “Okay—I get it. And I promise you—all abilities I possess to fight and save my brother, I’ll use, without hesitation. I might not be a vampire, but I’m as strong as hell, and I don’t scare easy. I want him home, here, with me. I want Seth back, no matter what it takes.” My voice cracked, and I stuck out my chin. “And I’ll goddamn get him.”

Eli watched me for several seconds, as though trying to determine whether I was bullshitting or for real. He decided. “I believe you,” he said, and I could have sworn I heard admiration in his voice.

“Good. Now, can I pee and shower without you watching?” I said.

With his fingers he shoved his long bangs out of his eyes. “Yeah, I guess.” He gave a slight grin.

I nodded. “Good. Stay out of my personal belongings. When I’m done, we need to talk. There are things I’ve got to know, and ground rules that need to be set. Agreed?”

He gave a nod but didn’t budge from where he stood. “Agreed.”

Rolling my eyes in part frustration because it looked like he was going to stand in my bedroom until I finished, I headed to the bathroom and shut the door. The water was freezing, but I needed it—dammit, I’d never before had a reaction to a guy like the one I’d had with Eli. To think with a clear head, and to be able to look him in the eye during a serious ground-rule-making discussion without screwing his brains out in my mind—that was what had to happen. That was what would happen. How could I have such a reaction to a guy who didn’t even have a freaking pulse? I wasn’t even sure I’d make it through the night alive. With my teeth chattering, I hurried through my shower and was seriously grateful I’d spent the cash for laser hair removal on my legs, bikini and pubic area, and underarms; I couldn’t afford razor nicks at this point.

Finished, I twisted my wet hair in a towel and wrapped another around me. When I walked out of the bathroom, I saw that Eli had left the room. I was only mildly disappointed. After digging in my dresser, I pulled on a pair of cotton sleep pants and a black tank, and went to find my keeper. I found him flipping channels, once more sprawled on the sofa. I safely kept my distance, parking in the overstuffed chair kitty-corner from him. The TV screen had Channel 11 News on, and I stopped in my tracks as another murder report was broadcast. A woman, late twenties, had last been seen leaving the SCAD campus at eleven the night before. Her body had just been found crammed between two parking meters on East Bay. I watched as another black plastic body bag was loaded into the coroner’s van. The screen went black, and Eli tossed the remote onto the cushion beside him. He regarded me just as thoroughly as I regarded him. Finally, he rubbed his jaw. “Ground rules?” he said.

I inclined my head to the TV. “Those murders,” I began. “They’re not . . . normal.”


I tried to get the visions of dead bodies out of my head, pulled up my knees, and locked my arms around them. Time to change the subject, because if I dwelled on it, my mind would never settle down. “Okay. Ground rules,” I said, and locked gazes with Eli. “I pee alone and I shower alone. Some things need to remain a mystery, and those are two I firmly believe in.”

Eli looked amused, but he gave a nod. “Agreed. Next?”

“Don’t interfere with my business at Inksomnia—no matter how crude and rude some of my clients might seem. Trust me—I can handle myself, and I’ve done it for some time without your help. It’s my livelihood, how I plan on putting Seth through college.”

This time, he didn’t look so amused, if I was reading the hard stare correctly. “I’ll do my best,” he said.

I gave a nod. “Good.” I shifted in my seat, and I admit—I was tired. Drained. But I turned my full attention to Eli. “There are things I need to know,” I said.

His eyes never left mine. “And there are things I want to know.”

“Me first,” I claimed, and thought about it. I knew I couldn’t find out everything in one night—I had to eventually get to sleep. Eli nodded in agreement, and I thought for several seconds. “About the contract,” I started.“Your father said the Gullah provided necessities in exchange for guardianship. What . . . necessities?”

Eli rose and walked to the window facing the water-front. He stood, staring out into the night. “When my family and I first arrived from Paris, we were . . . wild, newlings, completely out of control.” He turned to me. “Fresh, young vampires, and we were ravenous. We killed . . . many.” He kept his eyes trained on me. “A lot of the yellow fever victims weren’t really yellow fever victims, if you know what I mean. Until the contract with the Gullah. Not all Gullah, mind you—just Preacher’s kinsmen. Those days were primitive; they supplied willing donors, and we took only what we needed to remain alive.”

Chills ran through my body at the thought of Eli and his family sucking blood from the necks of willing donors . I stared back. “So, what—they just lined up, like at a soup kitchen?”

“Sort of.”

“And none of the Gullah transformed?” I asked.

Eli pushed the curtains aside and glanced out the window. “No. They have to drink our blood to transform.”

I froze. “You mean Seth drank the blood of one of those freaks?”