Sitting around a roaring campfire on a Georgia barrier island at night with a handful of centuries-old vampires, Gullah conjurers, and adolescent boys with vampiric tendencies made for a way more interesting crowd than any other I’d ever hung with in my wild teenage years, or in my adult years, truth be known. No lie—it was surreal. Bizarre. Oh, and Zetty—can’t forget the big Tibetan. The fact that he sat across from me with a pouch of ground-up black cat bone (I pray the poor thing was dead before its bones were harvested, but I have my doubts), graveyard dust, and God knows what else Estelle mixed up made me want to write to Zetty’s mother in Kathmandu and tell on him. He was one seriously superstitious dude who no longer trusted me, and it’d probably be a long time before he did. I’d really freaked him out when I was detoxing on the vampire venom.
I looked around at my other fireside companions. Of course, the Duprés were their same charming, French selves. Phin and Luc sat in conversation, and Luc was peeling a piece of saw grass and throwing little slivers of it into the sand as they spoke. Strangely enough, they both looked serious, and it made me wonder what they were talking about. Gilles and Elise, next to them, were totally into each other, which I found pretty cool, given the number of years they’d been together. Gilles held Elise’s hand, and her eyes lit up when looking at him. I’m guessing that’s one of a vampire’s greatest perks: When they love you, they really love you—obsessively, faithfully, and forever. I liked it.
Josie sat next to Seth; their heads bent together in conversation. Every handful of seconds, one or the other—or both—would laugh at some private joke they were sharing. They’d grown pretty close since the night the humans had been saved and brought to Da Island, and as long as she kept her fangs out of my brother’s arteries, I was totally cool with all that.
Lord of the Flies
gang, all wearing T-shirts and board shorts, sat huddled together, their bare feet dug into the sand. Riggs had a stick that he kept jabbing into the fire, sending a spray of red sparks flying above their heads. Having’ caught my eye twice already, he raised one eyebrow and grinned. I shook my head. Just what a juvenile guy needed—the sensual tendency of a vampire. He’d been bad enough when he was just plain teenage pubescent Riggs. Now? Good God. I couldn’t help but like the kid, though. I’d watched him spar with a boy named Jacoby—both about the same size, same height. Riggs was fast, and he moved with such grace, he’d seemed to be floating. Like Seth, he’d matured physically, and he was damn fast. Mentally, as well—to a certain extent. I’d witnessed his intense concentration while he was sparring. Gone was the awkward gangliness of a fifteen-year-old. I was seriously impressed. I felt sorry for all parents of young available girls in Savannah.
Estelle and Preacher sat on one side of me, Jack and Tuba on the other side of them. Every once in a while Tuba would slip me a glance, then grin, his wide white smile seemingly glowing in the dark.
Gilles cleared his throat, and we all turned our heads toward him. The firelight played against the age lines grooved into his face by life, prior to becoming a vampire. His eyes, that same shocking Dupré blue, looked like glass as the amber light from the flames reflected in their depths. He glanced around. “You’ve all done well and have worked hard at honing your new skills. I remember, way back when, after I’d gained my own talents. Not an easy accomplishment.” He gave a short nod. “I am proud.”
A low murmur ran through the boys, pride evident on their faces.
“As you have acquired vampiric tendencies, there are things we will expect of you. You are all custodians of the city.” Gilles’ gaze searched the group of boys, and he smiled. “
. That does not mean you must clean up, although if the notion strikes you, it would be an admirable thing to do.”
The crowd chuckled, and Gilles continued.
“That means you are now like us—guardians. And things will be expected of you as such. You will watch over the city and keep the humans safe. If you use your tendencies against the humans, you will first be brought to trial, here. With Preacher and his dark ones.”
The boys all looked around.
“And if they deem it necessary, we will relinquish your skills from you,” he said.
Understanding lit the boys’ eyes but fear quickly replaced it. That meant the Duprés would have no choice but to kill them. I prayed it never came to that.
“Now,” Gilles continued, “we leave here in two days. You’ll return to your homes, to school, and you will set examples for others your age.” The smile he gave did two things: It warmed and chilled at the same time. Weird. “We’ll be watching.”
The boys got up and headed to their tents. Their silence meant they were thinking about all that—hard. Good. They needed to. I didn’t want to have to make any more trips to the police station to bail their asses out for doing stupid stuff.
“Gilles, stop,” said Elise softly, playfully smacking Gilles on his thigh. He wore a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts and a white Da Plat Eye T-shirt and flip-flops. He cracked my ass up. Gilles rose, pulling his wife up with him. He eyed me, grinned, then turned back to the small crowd. “You boys will no longer require as much sleep as before. Don’t sit around idly. Read. Study. Make your mind sharp. Play sports.” He thought for a moment. “I always fancied football. Rather, soccer.” With a nod, he pulled his wife along. “Adieu.”
The rest of the crowd dispersed. Preacher leaned over and patted my head. “You be good, child,” he said, his satiny skin shining in the firelight. “Don’t forget your tea.” He grinned, Estelle giggled, and they disappeared toward the tents.
“We’re gonna go for a walk,” Seth said, Josie at his side. “See ya in the morning.”
“Night,” I said, and followed them with my eyes until the shadows swallowed them. Eli and I were left alone by the fire.
“Were you making fun of my father?” Eli whispered. I sat between his thighs, and his arms slipped around my waist. “Shame, shame, Riley Poe.”
I tilted my head upward to look at him. The glow from the fire flicked shadows against his face, and I swear, I’d never seen a more beautiful soul in my life. “I’m not. It’s just . . . funny. I’m used to seeing him dress so formal. Those flip-flops are a kick in the ass.”
Eli’s arms tightened around me, pulling me close. “Yeah, I know.” He settled me in a way that I didn’t have to crank my neck at such an awkward angle to see him. “How do you feel?” he asked seriously. “Ready to go home?”
I thought about it. I’d experienced short bursts of weird feelings, and I couldn’t describe them if I tried. They were almost like little electric jolts. But I didn’t want to attack anyone anymore, so that was a good thing. “Yeah, I am. Ready to see Nyx and my dog—so ready to get back to work,” I said. I twined my fingers through his. “I miss my artwork. The smell of the ink. My music.” I laughed. “I even miss the hum of the Widow.” I met his gaze. “Just keep an eye on me for a while, huh? I don’t wanna slip up and accidentally hurt someone.”
“I guess I can do that,” he said with a grin. He nuzzled my neck, and his mouth brushing my skin gave me goose bumps. “I’ll be glad to have solid walls, a solid bed to take you in,” he whispered, his gaze locking with mine. “Water sex is great, but I’m ready for a soft bed.” He shrugged. “Or a hard brick wall.”
Memories of Eli taking me against the wall in my bedroom rushed through me, followed by a thrill that made my skin flush. “All that nasty sex will have to be tuned down a bit, Romeo,” I said. “My brother lives with me. Remember? Don’t wanna gross him out and scar him forever.”
His fingers splayed against my bare stomach, caressing my hip. “I guess we’ll have to go to my place.”
I studied his face for several moments, enjoying the rush of sensation that came with his fingers dragging across my skin. “You don’t feel the urge to drain my blood anymore?” I asked. “Like before?”
Eli shook his head. “It’s still there, just not as compelling as before,” he answered. “Your DNA has changed, Riley. Your blood type is still unique, but it doesn’t make me crazy like before.” His eyes grew dark as they searched mine. “You make me crazy now. Insane-crazy. And I crave you instead of your blood.”
I leaned into him. “I think I dig that, Dupré,” I said, and slipped my hand up to grasp the back of his neck, pulling his mouth closer to mine. I grazed my lips against his, and it caused an immediate reaction in Eli. His tongue swept over mine, caressed, and he kissed me long. An acorn popped in the fire, breaking our trance. I pulled back and looked at Eli.
“Hey,” I said, scooting back and smiling. “Make the face.”
“What?” Eli said, then rolled his eyes. “Come on, Riley. Jesus.”
“Make it,” I egged. “Please?”
Eli studied me for a few seconds, grinned, then shook his head. “God, you’re a freak—you know that, right?”
I smiled and tucked a long fuchsia red strand of hair behind my ear. “Yeah, and proud of it, too. Now, come on, do it.”
Eli’s face contorted in the blink of an eye; jaw unhinged, fangs long and exaggerated, eyes pure white with a red pinpoint pupil. I jumped, then stared in fascination.
“Whoa,” I said in a low voice, completely enthralled. “Wicked.”
Just that fast, his features relaxed and transformed back into the beauty of Eli. He again shook his head. “You are one cheap date, Poe. A freakishly cool, cheap date.” He leaned down and kissed me breathless. “I like that about you.”
I have to admit—I had no complaints. And the way Eli made me feel? It was indescribable. He literally made my heart soar, as if my heart had a motor on it and were flying up an empty highway. As I leaned back against his chest, his steely arms wrapped completely around me and his chin propped on my shoulder, I closed my eyes. Pretending was easy enough—I was a young girl in the prime of my life, with a hot, devoted boyfriend, a rockin’ tattoo shop, booming business, a loving, extended Gullah family, and an adorable brother whom I loved with all my heart. I could pretend everything was normal and the world at my fingertips. I could actually almost forget that two strigoi vamps had bitten me, introduced their wicked-strong venom into my body, and left me with unpredictable tendencies—and that one of the vamps wanted me. Badly. And that he would not stop until he had me.
At some point, I fell asleep; so relaxed and exhausted that I didn’t remember Eli carrying me to our tent. I don’t know how long I slept. But I damn sure remember being awakened....
Riley? Wake up, love. I know you are wrapped in the arms of a Dupré, and as much as I despise it, for now, I can do nothing more than accept it. Only because I cannot be there myself and I wouldn’t dare think of restraining your powerful sexual desires. It causes me physical pain to be away from you, so the only thing I can do to relieve some of the anguish is to connect our thoughts. Imagine me instead of him, Riley, and us blessedly alone. Imagine my arms holding you, my hands touching you, our bodies pressed together. Imagine right now my mouth on yours, our tongues entwined, and my fingers sliding over your soft, bare skin until they reach a place that makes you lose your mind with desire for me. I promise, you’d never long for another again. So powerful my memory is of our short physical time together, I can actually inhale and smell your scent, taste you on my tongue—
“Riley, wake up.”
I darted straight up and looked around. “What?”
Eli laughed. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to scare you.” He pushed my disheveled hair off my face. “Father and Mother are up. Pacing.” He grinned. “Time to train.”
Putting on my best poker face, I shrugged off the heady dream-conversation—one-sided though it may have been—with Victorian Arcos, pulled on a clean bikini top and board shorts, and ducked out of the tent for two more days of training. I wasn’t positive how long I could hide the messages I’d been receiving from Victorian, and I wasn’t sure how it was that Eli hadn’t detected them yet. He often slipped, uninvited, into my thoughts. To be frank, I usually didn’t mind. It was kind of ... a turn-on. Kinky, I know, but I’d never been accused of being prim and proper. This was one time, though, I was glad Eli had stayed out of my head. When the time was right, and if I thought he proved a real threat, I’d let Eli and his family know of Victorian’s torment of my private thoughts. For now, though, I could handle it. I’d dealt with horny pervs nearly my entire adult life, and while Victorian Arcos was a bit . . . stronger, when all was broken down, he proved to be nothing more than a horny twenty-one-year-old dude. Add in the strigoi aspect of it and, okay—you had an extremely powerful, horny twenty-one-year-old dude. But I was no longer a mere mortal. I had strigoi tendencies. And I could damn well handle my own freaking self. I knew if I told Eli, he’d go ballistic, and there was no telling what he’d do. I wanted this right now. Peace; the newness of our relationship and all that it entailed. In other words, I was selfish. I wanted Eli to myself for at least a little while, and minus the stress and anger of dealing with Victorian. I knew it wouldn’t last long, anyway. All in all, though, I felt a little down. I knew the past few weeks had been unrealistic and idyllic, living on a barrier island far away from the reality of strigoi, Arcoses, newlings, and a world where human life meant nothing, their blood consumed in the most gruesome of ways. I had a gut feeling nasty changes were upon us. A fresh batch of newlings had suffered and survived a strigoi quickening; they’d be hungry and out of control. They’d feed, kill, as well as change other humans. It was time to step back into reality, and this time, I’d go in with my eyes wide-open. I had tendencies. And I was freaking ready to use them.