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The cab driver does as I ask. Along the narrow side street he creeps. The road winds around, hugging the marsh and salt water. We’re now at the back of a few rental houses on stilts. They appear to be empty.

“Stop here,” I say as we near one of the stilt houses overlooking the salt water.

“Nineteen sixty-five,” he says, and half turns in his seat to stare at me. “Long drive from Victory.” Again, his eyes drift to my breasts and linger.

“I’ve got it right here,” I say, and then use the power of seduction. I scoot back against the seat, my chest heaving out of my shirt and the cab driver’s eyes glued to it as though he’d never laid eyes on boobs before. Slowly, I ease my fingers to the opening of my shirt, the cabbie all but slobbering on himself. So engrossed with my fingers fumbling so close to my breasts to retrieve what he thinks is cab fare that he doesn’t see what’s really coming. The panel of plastic glass that separates us shatters as I lift my leg and slam my heel against it. The cabbie stares at me in shock, mouth open. With one arm I grab him by his shirt collar and yank him over the seat, right through the remaining shards of plastic glass. In the backseat I straddle him, and for a split second, his eyes lock onto mine and smolder. His cock hardens beneath me, and I almost laugh. The fucker thinks he’s gonna get laid.

That thing inside of me is free now. My eyes close, my body convulses, but only for a couple of seconds. When next I open my eyes, I see nothing, I feel nothing. I hear only the heartbeat. The sound of blood coursing through veins. It beckons me, unleashes my craving. In one fluid motion I tear away the thin layer of his shirt, and I lunge at his chest. My teeth break through skin, bone, muscle, until I feel a pop, and warm liquid settles against my tongue. I’m in a feeding frenzy now, and the man’s high-pitched screams barely break through my focus.

Those screams are quickly extinguished.

My thirst is finally quenched.

Grabbing his discarded and shredded shirt, I wipe my mouth, my face, and climb off of him. Easing out of the cab, I leave the door open and begin to jog up the winding street hugging the marsh. At the bridge, I break into a run. The briny air whips at my face and hair as my speed picks up to an inhuman pace. That suits me. I’m no longer human anyway, so why fuck with human qualities? I can run like the fucking wind. And I do.

As I grow close to Victory Drive, I slow to a boring human pace. My insides soar; a strength I never knew could exist trembles within me. I feel good! Alive! With a quick glance at the oncoming traffic—minimal at this hour but there is a small trail of cars—I hurry across the street and slow to a walk on the sidewalk. Just as I reach the next block, I’m grabbed. A hand encircles my upper arm and I’m yanked to a halt…

“Riley. Wake up.” A hand on my upper arm shakes me.

The voice is muffled, and far, far away. I ignore it, shrug off the hand. Exhaustion tugs me under and away from the voice. Am I asleep or walking along a sidewalk? Either way, I want to stay where I am. Not…with this voice.

“Riley!” This time, the voice and hand speak and shake more violently.

“What?” I say grumpily, and crack my eyes open. It takes a few seconds for my vision and mind to clear. I focus on Eli’s face. My eyes scan the room. My room. At Inksomnia. Slowly, I push up onto my elbows, then I sit up.

Eli lowers himself onto the edge of the bed. With one hand, he pushes the hair from my face and presses his lips to my forehead. When he pulls back and stares at me, I see concern in his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. I feel…dirty. Grungy-dirty, like I need a shower.

Eli’s cerulean blue eyes search mine. “You can’t know how much I hate not being able to read your thoughts,” he says. “What were you just dreaming about? Can you remember?”

“How do you know I was dreaming?” I ask, and let my brain settle on before. While I was asleep.

“You were thrashing around, mumbling,” he says, and laces his fingers with mine. “Your voice—it didn’t even sound like yours, Ri.”

I look at Eli, and we study each other for several seconds. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over how beautiful Eli is. Dark wavy hair sweeps over his forehead, and those blue eyes lock with mine. A strong jaw dusted with dark shade against flawless skin. Perfect facial structure. Perfect period. I exhale, and lean my head back. “All I can remember is walking along a sidewalk. It was dark outside, and I was alone. Then”—I look at him again—“someone grabs me from the darkness, and I wake up. Here, with you. Grabbing me.”

Eli’s stare is intense and bores into me. His gaze drifts to the black angel wings at the corner of my cheek bone. Tracing it lightly with his fingertip, he watches his own movement. Involuntarily, I shiver at the intimacy. Then his eyes return to mine. “I’m worried about you.”

Unable to break his stare, I nod. “Yeah. I know. But honestly, Eli. I’m fine. I can handle myself and you know it.” I glance at my arms, and at the dragon scales inked there. “I”—pasting on a comforting smile, I glance up at him—“have the DNA of not one but two strigoi vampires, plus my own crazy blood. I’m good. Damaged though I might be, I can handle myself perfectly fine, Dupré, so stop worrying so much.” I punch his arm. “You know, not to brag or anything, but I was a bad little ass before I met you. Before all of”—I wave my hand in the air—“this. So chill.” I lean over and give him a quick peck on the lips. “I mean it.” I move to leave.

Eli’s fast, and his arm binds my body against him. His profound blue stare nearly makes my heart stop. He studies me, searches my eyes as if trying to see inside my head, my soul. Pulling me to him, he presses his lips against mine, urges them to part and kisses me. Thoroughly. I pull away first.

“Where do you think you’re going, chère,” Eli says, his French accent thick and heavy with lust.

“I need a shower in a bad, mean way,” I reply, and indulge in a little more of Eli’s kiss before escaping the bed. “Hold that thought,” I whisper against his jaw. “Be back in a few.”

As I leap from the bed, Eli playfully slaps my rump. I shoot him a saucy look and hurry into the shower. As the hot water steams the bathroom and runs down my back, over my face, soaks my hair, a small, teeny slice of normalcy washes over me. When I say small and teeny, I mean just that. Most of the time, I don’t even feel like the same person I was two months ago. Only like now, when I can somehow force myself to forget all the crap, can I feel slightly normal. So, I indulge. I use extra liquid soap with moisturizers that fill the steamy bathroom with the scent of jasmine and honey. I stand beneath the rainfall and close my eyes. Moments pass; how many, I don’t even know or care. My body relaxes, the tense muscles ease.

Join me, Riley Poe. Although I cannot see you, I can feel you within me. Just as I know you feel me within you. We are one, you and I. While you fight who you truly are…what you’re becoming…I can show you how to embrace it instead. The feeding is only one aspect of our existence, you know. Everything is heightened thereafter. Our scent, our beauty, our lust. We have eternal life, Riley, and the world is at our fingertips. You no longer belong amongst the ordinary. You belong…with me. I know that now…

“Riley! Damn it, what are you doing?”

I’m cold—frigidly cold. Every bone and muscle in my body aches. I’m shaking, quivering, and it’s unstoppable. That frantic familiar voice sounds far away, and although I feel someone lifting me, carrying me, it doesn’t seem…real. I don’t actually feel skin to skin. It’s more of a numb pressure. Like I’m lacking nerve endings. I can’t even open my eyes. I’m so freaking cold, I just want to sleep…

A sharp sting spreads across my cheek, and my body viciously shakes.

“Riley, goddamn it! Wake up!”

Another sting, more shaking.

Slowly, I crack my eyes open. Again, I focus on Eli’s face.

“You’re freezing, Riley,” he says, and it’s only then that I notice I’m wet and naked beneath the large bath towel he’s wrapped me in. Vigorously, Eli rubs my arms and legs and abdomen. My teeth chatter.

Finally, after he all but rubs the first two layers of skin off, Eli tucks me beneath the covers. He’s sitting beside me now, the weight of his body tipping me toward him. With one hand, he grasps my face and tilts it upward.

“Where were you?” he asks. “I’m not being overprotective. I’m not being nosy or obsessive. I’m genuinely worried about you, and something’s not right, Riley. So, please—where did you go?”

It’s a weird question. Even weirder that I don’t have the answer. “I was here, with you,” I respond.

“And then?” Eli continues.

I think a moment. “I went to take a shower.”

Eli studies me. “You don’t remember going outside?”

I concentrate. Hard. Then I look at Eli. “No.”

“That’s where I found you, Ri,” he said, pushing my damp hair off my face. “In the alley between Inksomnia and Bhing’s store. What were you doing?”

“Naked?” I ask.

“Yes, like you’d walked straight out of the shower and out the door. You were huddled against the wall. Mumbling. Eyes wide open.”

Slowly, I shake my head. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

With both hands, Eli rubs my arms. “We’ll talk about it later. Warming up?” he asks.

I look at him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Where,” I say, and search his eyes, “were you?”

“I’d fallen asleep, Riley,” he answers. “You were gone when I woke up.” His eyes are grave. “Three hours, Ri.”

I stare off across the room. How can that be? “How can I lose that much time, Eli?” I say. Something has to give, and I mean now. What the freak is happening to me?

Eli leans over and kisses my forehead. Pulling back, his eyes search mine. “I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out, Ri.” He strokes my hair. “Your behavior is different. Your demeanor. It’s why I always seem to be so in-your-face. I’m worried. We’ll go to my father. He’ll know what to do. Meanwhile, you need some nutrients. Want something to eat?”