“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.
Two days later …
It felt funny being back on the mainland. This was maybe because I knew I had emerged a different sort of human, or maybe because I was keeping a big-ass secret from the mortals of Savannah. I knew what Seth and I were, what Preacher and his family were, and what the Duprés were. I knew Riggs and the other boys were no longer regular teenage guys. I knew Zetty was more than a big Tibetan bouncer from Kathmandu with wicked tats on his forehead. We’d all changed. Maybe just knowing that made things seem so … weird. I hoped like hell I’d get used to it.
Seth rode with Gilles and Elise (yes, vamps drive and they have a kick-ass liquid silver Lexus) while I rode on the back of Eli’s bike. Phin and Luc drove the boys all home, and, as far as their parents were concerned, they’d all been away at a special camp. At Gilles’ request, they’d all—Seth included—continued their schoolwork so they wouldn’t fall behind. A little mind control had to be issued, to the parents, principal, and teachers, but hey—the job was now done. It was the weekend, and school started back on Monday. No sweat.
Gilles dropped Seth and Josie off at Inksomnia, and Eli pulled next to the curb. Before my ass even cleared the bike’s seat, the front door of my ink shop flew open and Nyx bounced out like some crazed Jack Russell on crack, an excited, barking Chaz on her heels. My heart nearly popped, I was so excited to see my friend and my dog.
We all prepared for hugs and licks.
“Riley! Seth! Oh my God, you’re finally home!” Nyx said. Even with a pair of chunky Goth Mary-Janes, striped stockings, and black leather miniskirt, she was freaking fast. She launched herself first at Seth, and hugged him so tightly, I thought my brother wouldn’t breathe for a week. But Seth wrapped his lanky arms around her just as tightly. In theory, they hadn’t truly seen each other in almost two months—ever since Seth began the early stages of quickening.
“Wow—look at you,” Nyx said, physically turning
Seth around. He good-naturedly allowed her to spin him several times. Finally, she stopped and stared at him in awe. “You’re … buff, dude. And tanned.”
Seth grinned. “Right? Crazy, huh?” He flexed his biceps. “Check this out.”
Nyx grasped it and squeezed. Her eyes widened. “Gullah magic did you good, boy.”
Seth glanced at me, then grinned widely. “Absolutely. And Nyx”—he wrapped his arms around her again and buried his face in her neck—“I missed you.”
Nyx’s big blue eyes, always full of every emotion she was feeling, misted with tears. She hugged him tightly, then pulled back; she pushed his hair off his forehead. “I missed you, too, Bro. It’s great to have you home again.” She grasped his face gently and peered into his eyes. “I don’t ever want you to leave again.”
Seth’s cheeks turned red. “I won’t, Nyx. Promise.” He pulled away and knelt down. “Hey, boy!” he said to Chaz, and scrubbed him hard between the ears. Chaz licked his face and wagged his tailless rump.
My brother always could melt a heart—even a dog’s heart.
“And look at you!” Nyx said, turning to me. Her eyes widened again as she checked me out. She pulled me into a big tight hug. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you tanned!” She pulled back and held her pale arm next to my now-browned one. She grinned. “It looks good on you, Ri.” She gave me another hug. “Gosh, I missed you guys! It’s been so lonely here without you.” She immediately turned to Josie and gave her a squeeze; then she turned to Eli and hugged him, too. “Hey, Eli, it’s good to see you again.” She gave him a broad smile. “Thanks for returning my family to me.”
Eli returned the smile and nodded. “My pleasure.”
Nyx’s face suddenly froze; then she turned. “Oh my God—I have a guy in the chair!”
We all watched Nyx hurry inside Inksomnia.
“She’s a great friend,” I said, really to no one.
“You’re lucky to have her,” Eli said, then touched my elbow to lead me inside. I whistled for Chaz, who hurried in ahead of us. The moment the scent of my ink shop hit my nose, I inhaled. It truly was great to be home.
For three straight days, all was perfect; quiet, without the first dream, or further trespassing of my thoughts by Victorian Arcos. Ned Gillespie (the guy with tendencies who’d been bitten by Josie many years before) had nothing to report in regard to any vampiric activity in the Savannah area. Seth and the guys started back to school, and not surprisingly, Seth did so with enthusiasm. He’d always liked school, loved learning, and was a freaking wizard at science. For all of three solid days and nights, my world was settled. God Almighty, I wished it could have lasted. Deep down inside, I’d known better.
Standing at my station, I cracked my neck, rotated it a few times back and forth to loosen up the muscles, and patted the bench. “Hop on,” I instructed an older ranger, maybe late thirties and already adorned with several pieces of art. “And lose the shirt, sunshine, unless you think I can ink you through all that camo.”
The man laughed, unbuttoned his work shirt, and shrugged out of it. “Yes, ma’am.”
I’d felt like having a classics day, and to me nothing was better than a hoppin’ day at Inksomnia, with lots of good-natured customers and old rock blasting through the speakers. Heart’s “Barracuda” pulled me into that groove I loved being in when inking someone— especially someone who was not a tat virgin, like this guy.
“Nice boots,” he said, climbing onto the bench and lying facedown.
I glanced down at my thigh-high black boots that ended just where the hem of my black leather miniskirt began. I’d picked out a Blondie T-shirt, along with a pair of pink plaid suspenders to wear with the skirt—pretty kick-ass if you asked me. “Thanks,” I said, giving him a broad smile. “Ready?”
“I deploy tomorrow,” he replied, in a heavy smoker’s voice. “I’m always ready, honey.”
Rangers kicked ass. I gave him a smile and punched his arm. “Hurry home.”
I transferred the image I’d sketched and printed out from my computer onto his left flank—just about the only place left on his back. It was a wicked-cool skeleton soldier’s head, cigarette clenched between its teeth, wearing a World War II helmet with the words “Fuck Off” across the front of it. Gotta love it. Once the transfer dried, I lined up my ink pots, grasped the needle, and let the Widow’s hum mix with Heart’s lyrics, and together they pulled me into my work. I’d preferred to have stayed there, uninterrupted, in my “Barracuda” zone until the job was done. No such freaking luck. I’d just finished the helmet’s chin strap and was blotting blood when the interruption occurred.
I fed last night, Riley. I’ve never enjoyed it—not like my brother. But it’s necessary for me to live. I promise—I show mercy, and I feed only when I begin to grow weak, and I take only enough to sustain me. I do not butcher those I take from. I hope you believe me. It hurts to think you believe me a monster.
I froze, needle poised over skin, and felt my insides grow cold. Victorian’s voice was so … inside me, I could almost feel the tenor of his voice reverberating off my bones. Now he was sharing his kills with me? The thought made my blood chill. And, he wanted my sympathy? What kind of freak-vamp was he? Wide-ass awake and his voice was just as strong, just as real as if he were in the room, standing right beside me. I glanced around, just to make sure.
“What’s wrong?” Nyx said from her station.