I struggled to sound calm and collected. “Okay,” I said, running my hands through his hair and squeezing out the excess water. Grabbing the towel that was half draped over his shoulders, I pulled it onto his head and scrubbed. “Done. Let’s have a look.”
Eli straightened, grabbed onto the towel, and dried his hair, and I couldn’t help watching the muscles move and flex with the motion; creamy smooth skin stretched taut over the hard ridges of his stomach and chest; his biceps bunched into rocks, shoulders broad. Long veins snaked up his arms, and wide hands moved over his head in a careless, guy manner. When he dropped the towel and looked at me, we were standing too close; I knew it and did nothing about it. Eli’s new black hair hung in wet, shaggy strands over blue eyes that grew dark and dangerous as he looked down at me, and I couldn’t move. He leaned a hip on the counter, braced his weight with an arm behind me, and leaned close. My heart began to race erratically, and I moved a bit closer. I felt like I’d been placed under a spell, knowing in the back of my head that what I did was a bad move but unable to help myself at the same time.
“You play a dangerous game, Riley Poe,” he said with steely restraint, and his gaze dropped to my exposed cleavage, then rose to my mouth, where it froze. A muscle flinched in his jaw. “I suppose I’m part to blame.” He looked at me and moved closer, his mouth at my ear, his voice even, low. “Ever since I heard you say you wanted to fuck me, I haven’t been able to shake you.” Eli moved his entire body in front of mine, all bare chest and ripped abs trapping me against the counter, his arms now locked on either side of me. With ease, he grasped my hair behind me and pulled with just enough pressure to force my face upward to meet his gaze, then held it there. He inhaled deeply, his face inches from mine. “I sensed it the first day I saw you through the window, and it’s grown stronger with each encounter.” He searched my eyes, his voice lethally quiet. “Do you want to know why I’ve been gone for twelve years, Riley?”
I could barely breathe, much less talk. Never had I been held under such a tight restraint as Eli’s penetrating gaze. “Yes,” I finally said, forcing my voice to be strong and wondering why the hell he was torturing me. He was so close that his warm breath brushed my neck, my chest, making me thrilled and shivery at the same time.
“Because I lost control,” he warned, emphasizing each word as a low, painful growl, his breathing becoming more ragged. I could feel the air snap between us with a mixture of sexual tension and tightly reigned rage as he struggled. “So stop twitching your tight little ass in front of me,” he said, and let his gaze drop to my breasts once more. His stare lifted and bored into me. “You’re a greater temptation to me than your mortal mind could possibly grasp.” He let my hair go. “And I don’t know if I’d be able to stop with you.” He pushed off the counter but kept his eyes trained on mine. “There’s too much at stake here to risk that.”
My heart was beating so hard and fast, it hurt; my breathing burned my lungs. Inside, I shook, and all I could make myself do was stare at him like some fucking mute and move past him. Rejection in any form sucked; rejection tinged with fear sucked even more, and I wanted to escape the living room, escape Eli’s scrutiny. So twisted inside that I could hear my own heartbeat, feel it beneath the thin cotton of my cami, I hurried to my bedroom. I’d escape the mortification of the moment now; in the morning I’d be cool; his transformation could continue. I still needed to do something to his hair, and I didn’t exactly trust myself with a pair of scissors right now.
I felt his eyes on me as I disappeared up the hall, but even though rooms separated us, I could feel him still on me, his voice inside me, his breath brushing my skin, and I wanted to scream until it vanished. I wanted it all to go away—the Arcoses, the Duprés, everything.
The moment I stepped into my bedroom, I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I stumbled to an abrupt halt as I laid eyes on my brother, standing at the now-open double doors of my balcony. Reaction to action took over, and I moved toward him. “Seth!” I said, my voice cracked and jagged with holes, emotion.
The look in my brother’s eyes froze me; they were feral, frigid, vacant, and terrifying at once. He looked like himself, yet didn’t; he looked . . . starved. Before I could move or say another word, a gust of air blew past me, and Seth lunged viciously toward me, out of control and as fast as lightning. I hadn’t even seen Eli move, but he now had Seth by the throat in a tight grasp, hanging him over the balcony’s edge.
My scream reverberated off the centuries-old bricks of my bedroom.
Seeing my brother’s body writhing in a frenzy to escape Eli’s grip—in an attempt to get at me—ripped my heart out and terrified me at the same time. It also kicked in my adrenaline, and I reacted. As scared as I was, I hurled myself at Eli and grabbed his arm. “Don’t hurt him!” I yelled, and pulled hard. “Eli, stop it!”
As if in slow motion, Eli turned toward me, and his beautiful face had grossly distorted into the same elongated, unhinged-jaw, fanged creature Gilles had turned into—only more frightening. I physically flinched, my insides turned frigid, and I froze at the shock of seeing Eli transform, but something snapped inside of me, and I didn’t release his arm. All-white eyes with tiny pupils bored into me, almost challenging me, maybe even a little ashamed. And it was in that very instant that everything became crystal clear. If Seth and I survived, our lives would never, ever be the same.
Over Eli’s shoulder, I glimpsed my brother. Seth didn’t seem to care that a vampire had him by the throat; all he wanted was to get at me, and my unique blood, which now tempted him. Seth’s eyes were wild and hungry, and while his face wasn’t contorted, he clawed and kicked the air as he struggled against Eli’s hold. Deep in his throat, Seth made a noise that . . . didn’t even sound human. Definitely not Seth. I can only explain it as desperate. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he was on drugs, and trust me—I knew the look all too well; his long, choppy bangs were sweaty, his skin pasty, his eyes rabid. If only it were drugs.
“Are you sure you want me to let him go?” Eli asked, and his voice, too, was somehow different. Darker. Edgier. Seth growled and struggled harder.
“No,” I answered angrily, and I hated saying that word more than anything. I knew it wasn’t Eli’s fault that Seth was in transition, but I blamed him all the same, and he obviously read my mind, because he narrowed his eyes. “Leave us.”
I stared first at Eli, then at Seth, and my heart ached to hold him, smack the hell out of him, and shake his lanky adolescent body until he snapped out of it. But I knew that wouldn’t happen, and no amount of shaking would change anything. It killed me to obey Eli, but I did. “Don’t hurt him,” I stated, and stared hard at Eli. He didn’t agree or even acknowledge my request, but I knew by the way he looked at me that he’d not hurt my brother. I turned and headed for the door, and just that fast, a gust of briny air brushed the side of my face. When I looked over my shoulder, they were both gone. Uncertainty and an agonizing pain I couldn’t define washed over me and sucked every ounce of energy from my body, and my knees collapsed. I sat down right there on the floor. I wanted to run to the window, to see where Eli and Seth had gone, how they’d gone; I couldn’t. My insides were locked, and an inescapable feeling of helplessness overcame me. Then, the tears. The goddamn tears. I hated them, hated the weakness they represented, and hadn’t allowed myself the luxury of them since the day I found my mother dead in a bathtub. By the time we’d had her funeral, I was angry and the tears had dried, and I hadn’t shed one more tear until last night. Fuck it. Pulling my knees up to my chest, I locked my arms tightly around them, put my head down, and cried.
How much time lapsed, I couldn’t say; I must have seriously been in a haze, because when next I was conscious of my surroundings, I was in my bed. I could come up with no conclusion other than that Eli had put me there, because I didn’t remember crossing the floor and climbing beneath the covers myself. The lights were out, the room shadowy, and my mind was fuzzy with cobwebs. Pushing up on my elbows, I looked around, noted the familiar stream of light coming through the French doors, and remembered everything I wished to hell wasn’t really happening. I sat up and rubbed my swollen eyes.
“Go back to sleep, Riley.” Eli’s steady voice came from a dark corner of the room. “It’s early.”
“I think you’ve confused me with someone you can boss around,” I answered, just as steady. “Seth?”
There was a long pause, and my heart leapt. But then Eli answered. “Safe for now.”
My body eased at his words, and I shoved my fingers through my hair and searched the darkness. “Why are you hiding?” I asked.
In the time it took me to blink, he was standing over me. The light from the French doors morphed his figure into a silhouette, his face nothing more than a black cutout. “It’s called sentry, smart-ass. I’m watching over you.”
Carefully, I regarded his dark profile. “Thanks for not hurting my brother,” I said, and managed to say it with some sense of strength.
Again, another pause, this one longer than the last. “Had he hurt you, he wouldn’t have been so lucky.”
My insides shook at Eli’s words. I knew he was dead serious, and while it pissed me off, it intrigued me as well, and I couldn’t help asking, “Why?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said flatly, and I knew then he’d never tell me his reasons. “Now, go to sleep.” Still, he stood above me, next to the bed.
I sat there for a while, rebellious and determined that Eli Dupré’s self-prescribed supremacy over me would not get the better of me. Why the hell did he want me to go to sleep so badly? Apparently, I sat there too long. With my next breath he’d pushed me flat back onto my pillow, his arms braced on either side of my head. Although he wasn’t as hot-blooded as I was, the electricity remained, and my whole body tightened at his closeness and the tension it caused. You could feel it in what little air there was between us.