The sounds of the tide’s ebb and flow blended with the bubbling oyster shoals close by, and the crackle of palm fronds split the night air as the storm that had been threatening since midnight picked up strength. No rain—just wind, thunder, and streaky lightning that occasionally flashed the dark sky. I lay in the semiwarmth of a vampire’s embrace, his hard, perfectly shaped body wrapped possessively around mine, and I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be right now. Sharp, salty air assaulted my senses; a scent I loved and drew fully into my lungs. I picked up another scent—faint, farther away, and I smiled as I recognized Preacher’s tobacco. It was weird how one of my vampiric tendencies was a caninelike sense of smell. Gilles had said it was because somewhere along the Arcos vampire family tree a loup-garou had come into play. So I not only had strigoi venom floating around inside me and permanently attaching itself to my friggin’ DNA, but werewolf slobber, too. I hoped to God I didn’t start lifting my leg and peeing on bushes, or worse—humping legs. Christ Almighty damn.
The pipe tobacco drifted to my senses again, and I smiled. No doubt Preacher had sneaked outside to smoke, out of reach of his wife’s broomstick. Estelle would whack him for sure if she caught him. Root doctor, conjurer, or not—Preacher was still susceptible to mortal diseases. I thought so, anyway.
See? My thoughts rambled from vampire venom to Gullah tobacco smoke to wives smacking husbands with broomsticks to werewolves humping legs to cancer, all in the matter of minutes. I was brain fried. Or, I suppose, some would call it Southern fried. Whatever that meant.
I needed a walk, a breath of storm-salty air—a good lung-burning run—to clear my thoughts. I shifted, eased off the quilts, but Eli’s strong arm stopped me.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, nuzzling my neck with his scruffy chin. “Can’t sleep?”
I turned my head and pressed my lips against the strong, corded column of his throat. “You know I can’t, faker. I just want to go for a run along the beach.” I slid my palm along his bare hip, then over his chest. “I’ll be back in a few, okay?”
Eli groaned—a sexually frustrated noise that stirred my insides. “Hurry.”
I kissed his Adam’s apple. “You’re a prince. I’ll be right back.” I rolled off the quilts, blindly grabbed the short cotton dress I wore over my swimsuit, and pulled it over my head and bare body.
“Thought you weren’t modest,” Eli said. “No one on this island but us. You could run naked.”
At the tent’s open doorway, I turned and looked at him. Arm bent, head propped on the heel of his hand, Eli watched me like a hungry wolf. I grinned. “I trust your brothers about as much as I trust Riggs. They’re all pervs. I’ll be right back.”
Eli’s laughter followed me out into the night.
I ran, and I ran hard—no warm-up jog, no stretching—I didn’t need a warm-up; just a full-out, haul-ass run from the moment I stepped out of the tent. Sand and shell bits, and probably an unfortunate fiddler or ghost crab or two crunched beneath my bare feet as I tore up the shoreline, and the faster I ran, the more invigorated I felt. It took a lot for my lungs to burn any more, so I ran on as if I could literally run forever, fast, furious, my thighs and calves pumping, my arms swinging fiercely. It was … freeing—well, almost freeing. My mind still ran rampant, and my heart, well … It still chugged sluggishly along, in complete contrast with my body’s motion. I’m not sure it would ever pump fast again. Weird. I felt adrenaline, but you’d never have known it with my body’s response. Preacher and Gilles said it was the strigoi venom—a side effect that would never leave me; just one of many, so they said. I’m still discovering them. Right now? I didn’t feel like attacking anyone. I didn’t seem to have a craving digging at me from the inside out. I wasn’t sure if that was because I was on this barrier isle alone, with just Eli, or if it meant I finally had run the d.t.’s course. Still, the discovery of each and every strange tendency was sort of like opening presents at Christmas. There was always something you didn’t expect. Sort of like how I was involved with a family of guardian vampires whose own DNA had been altered by centuries of hoodoo herbs and magic; it still boggled my brain to see Eli out in the sun, in the middle of the day, looking like the rest of the world. Well, minus the fact that he was painfully beautiful. You know what I mean, though—Hollywood’s concept of vampire’s doesn’t quite cover what’s really out there. I hadn’t once seen Eli rise slowly from a coffin, or even wear a black cape with a red lining. My vampire needed only a good nap during the day to function. His skin didn’t catch on fire in the sunlight and he not only ate food, but peed—if he drank a lot of beer. Weird.
I wasn’t sure exactly how big the barrier island was that we were on, but I ran around it three times before I stopped. I walked into the surf, the water lukewarm as it lapped at my thighs, and I stared out across the darkness, toward the open sound. There was the tiniest sliver of moon; everything was in shadows except the white, bleached-out sand. Heat lightning (I’m not sure if that’s the scientific term for it, but it’s what Seth and I called it growing up) followed the rumbling thunder and snaked across the black sky in thin silver web threads, and it would throw just enough of a surreal glow over the area to let me know what was out there, beyond the sand, water, palms. Inside my head, my mind whirled.
Victorian Arcos concerned me. I hadn’t heard his voice in my head since that one time, when I’d first awakened on Da Island after being rescued from Bonaventure. I’d not mentioned it to anyone—not even to Eli. Just knowing Victorian was alive and free scared me. I wasn’t scared of him—not physically, anyway. Not anymore. It was a different type of fear; maybe even fear of myself, and my response to him. I didn’t even like to think of it, or him. Unavoidably, I did. He was obsessed with me, and his last words to me were a solid promise to come for me. He might not be in the vicinity, but he was still here. I could feel him. And that freaked me out. He possessed a mind control over me in the dreams that made me respond to him in a way that I loathed. Swear to God, I couldn’t help myself. And one thing I hated was not being in control of my actions and thoughts.
As I dug my toes into the wet sand, I thought of everyone else in my life, and how my changes would affect them. Nyx was beside herself with worry, for me and Seth. As far as she knew, I was fine; it was Seth who’d needed me, after his supposed drug addiction. It was the only thing we could tell her. Seth hated it because he was so adamant about never being on drugs; we’d had no choice. I’d left Inksomnia in Nyx’s very capable hands while Seth and I both spent time recovering. I hated lying to her; she was my best friend. But no way in hell could she ever handle the truth. And even if she did ever dare to believe in vampires, I could almost imagine her running around, hugging them all and thinking a little love would cure their barbaric sickness. If anyone could hug a vampire into being nice, it’d be Master Hugger Nyxinnia Foster. But I trusted only the Duprés in regard to creatures of the afterlight, and receiving Nyx’s hugs. God, I missed her. She missed us, too, and wanted us home. Hopefully, that’d be soon. I suppose since I hadn’t tried to suck anyone else’s blood out that my withdrawals had finally come to an end. Thank God. I was freaking sick of all the ups and downs. It was like going through the midlife change, only with vampirism.
Strong arms encircled my waist, breaking my rambling thoughts, and, unlike my old, prevampiric-tendencied self, I didn’t even flinch.
“Yeah, so why is that?” Eli said, his lips close to my ear. “Why don’t you flinch?”
I rested my weight against him. “Because, you nerd,” I said teasingly, “not only can I smell your scent two miles away, but I can hear you coming. I also heard you lay that quilt on the sand over there.”
“Hmm,” he said, his voice low, seductive, one hand leaving my waist to skim over my hip. “Hearing me come is quite a unique vampiric tendency.” Slowly, erotically, he slipped his hand lower, beneath the hem of my short cotton beach dress, and dragged his palm up my hip. His body tightened behind me, and he buried his mouth into the crook of my neck. “Christ, Riley,” he said, his hand skimming my bare skin, his voice deepening. “Running commando these days?” Both hands found their way beneath my dress, and my head fell against Eli’s chest as the sensation of his palms gliding over first my thighs, hips, abdomen, then lower, came over me. He pulled me against him, held me tightly, and his hardness throbbed, pressing into my lower back. Vampires had to be, hands down, the horniest creatures of any light. Fine by me. As his mouth moved over the sensitive skin of my neck, then my ear, I lifted my hands, grasped his jaw, and threaded my fingers through his hair. The soft, wet brush of his lips caressing my skin turned me on almost as much as his palm cupping my bare, pantiless bottom. Aching for him, I squirmed a bit against his hand so that the sensitive nub would touch the right callused spot, and sensations raced through me as I succeeded. Before I came, he pulled away, lifted my dress over my head, flung it somewhere behind us, then turned me in his arms, and lowered his head until his mouth covered mine. With both hands holding my head in place, he kissed me, tasted my tongue with his, and slowly, he began walking me backward, deeper into the water. We stopped moving when it reached our waist, and although I couldn’t see Eli’s face in detail, I saw the silhouette. He watched me, silent, his hands moving softly over my jaw, chin, cheekbones, grazing my lips. The heat lightning overhead crept across the sky like the fine strands of a spiderweb, and, in the brief second it flashed, I saw Eli’s eyes. They were fixed on me, dark, filled with a craving that caused me to shiver with eagerness.
“I’ve never wanted another as much as I want you,” he mouthed against my lips before tasting them. “I’ve waited for you my whole existence, and I never thought for a second that I’d get so lucky.” He kissed me, his full lips dragging over mine, our tongues brushing. His hands grasped my hips; his fingers dug into my flesh, I gasped, and he lifted me.