Strong, callused hands move to my shoulders and slowly turn me around. My breath lodges in my throat when my eyes meet my company: long, silver-blond hair hangs straight past his broad shoulders, half of it pulled behind his head and secured. Eyes nearly the same color as his hair stare down at me, and they look like liquid metal. Full lips, sensually curved, sit above a square chin and strong jaw. Perfectly shaped brows lift. “Not what you expected?” he asks.
“No— Who are you?” I manage. His beauty is so great, it almost hurts to look at him. Literally.
His sexy lips curve. “My name is Athios.” His eyes move to where his hands rest on my shoulders, and his fingers skim down my arm, tracing my dragons. His gaze lifts. “You are the most exquisite woman I’ve ever seen,” he says, amazement lining his unusual accent.
“What do you want with me?” I ask, uncomfortable with how sexual this stranger makes me feel simply by touching my arms. “Why did you want me to come here tonight? Why do you sneak into my dreams? I thought you were . . . someone else.”
He smiles. “I . . . don’t know. I couldn’t help myself.” His silvery gaze lingers on mine. “I had to see you again. I have only imagined you. Like this. Inside your head. Inside my head.” His gaze drinks me in. “But to see you in life, standing before me, under my touch? I can’t believe you’re real.”
His words even turn me on. That low hum is beginning to get the best of me, and my concentration is slipping. Why is my body reacting to him? I’m angered at myself for even thinking it. I want to leave, yet I don’t. “You are one of the Fallen.”
His jaw muscles flex. “Not willingly, but yes, I am. And you’re one of the hunters.”
Slowly I nod. I can’t seem to take my eyes off his . . . eyes. They’re mesmerizing. His scent, his entire being is intoxicating. I don’t understand it, and confusion makes me frown. The ringing . . . it’s starting to make me dizzy again. The hum is now a whine, like the low-pitched sound a dog hears. I want to cover my ears.
“What’s the matter?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Ringing. In my ears. Hurts.” I clasp my hands over my ears.
Athios grazes my temples with his fingertips, and the humming stops. “’Tis the relics, I fear,” he says. “Your acute hearing is attuned with their low frequency.”
I blink. I’ve been hearing the freaking relics the whole time? Now my body heats, and I can’t take my eyes off of Athios. Again, I frown.
“What is it?” he asks. His hands skim down my sides, pulling me closer.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “I . . . know this is wrong, yet I can’t help myself,” I say. “You are controlling me.”
“Why is it wrong?” he asks. “Do you not recall the other night? The one we shared with such passion?” He lifts my chin with his hand and forces me to look at him. “How can that have been anything but right?”
“You don’t know me,” I say. “I know that the Fallen seek pure souls. Mine is anything but, so don’t get any funny ideas about sucking mine out of me.”
Athios laughs low, deep. “That’s the farthest thing from my mind,” he says. “And I do know you, Riley Poe. From the very first encounter, I scanned your entire soul. I know what your very first cognitive thoughts were, all the way up until now.” He grazes my jaw with his thumb. “I know your whole life. And I admire the person you are. I envy your fiancé. You’re an amazing woman.”
“Well, I don’t know you at all,” I answer, feeling the drug of his touch against my skin. “How do you know my fiancé?”
“You know me better than most,” he answers, ignoring my question about Eli. “Please hold still, Riley,” he whispers, drawing close. “Just for a moment.”
I go deathly still as he leans toward me, head bent, and brushes his lips over mine. His silky hair slips over my shoulder, and the sensation across my skin makes me shudder. His lips are full, pliable, and they move expertly over mine in a possessive caress, tasting me with his tongue, pulling at my bottom lip with his teeth. My hands move to his chest, up the collar of his tux, and around his neck to pull him closer. His hands move over my back, pulling me against his body. I can’t seem to get close enough. His lips claim mine seductively, softly, slowly, and I sigh into him. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I stop? Instead I urge him on, moaning softly against his mouth.
“Athios,” I whisper, kissing him back. “Beautiful.” My mind whirls, and deep inside, I grasp onto what little control I have left. My hand moves to my thigh, and slowly, I inch my gown’s hem up. My fingers grate my blade, and I release it from the sheath. Gently, I lift it until the blade rests against Athios’s throat.
“Get off of me,” I say with a growl. Control is barely in my grasp. I press the blade harder, and Athios flinches. “Now.”
Athios pulls back just a fraction. “Impressive.”
“Turn her the fuck loose before I take your head right here,” a voice says vehemently in the corridor.
“Do as he says,” another voice demands. “Now.”
Two bodies fly toward us, and I’m shoved backward against the wall. My head smacks the hard, sharp stone and immediately I’m dizzy, and I feel drugged. The bulb is hit and is swinging on its long cord, making shadows and light dance all through the passageway. I hear nothing but fists, grunts, and swearing at first, then the sharp clang of steel against steel. I see nothing; it’s pitch-black.
And I know that voice, those curses, belong to Jake. The other is Victorian.
The fighting continues, and I try to stumble up to help. Stop it! I demand to anyone who will listen. No one does. Jake! The second relic is here somewhere! He just told me! Still, the fighting continues as if no one hears me.
In the fast flashes of light as the lamp swings back and forth, I see Victorian and Jake have both changed; their jaws are dropped, fangs protruding, eyes ablaze. It does nothing to deter Athios. Then, all at once, everyone freezes. No one makes a move or a sound. The air chills even more inside the chamber, and a fierce wind blows through. Suddenly, two more have joined. They stand by Athios. Older. Both wearing tuxedos. One lifts his hand toward Victorian and makes a rising motion, lifting his writhing body up. Jake lifts his sword and charges the two. Then, before I realize what’s happening, the one makes a quick flick of his wrist toward Victorian. He completely . . . vanishes.
I pull every ounce of concentration I have into a small, condensed ball in the center of my chest. I focus on the two Fallen. Leave here. Now!
Nothing happens. No one moves. I strain harder.
Pain, seize their bodies!
This time, I can barely make out their faces. They’re pinched in pain. One points toward Jake.
Jake! Leave here now!
Jake’s face, although filled with rage, charges both Fallen. I aim and throw my blade at one of the older Fallen. It lodges in his chest. They go down, and Jake escapes the way we came through.
Then, everything changes. The room is tilting—at least it feels that way. I shake my head to clear it, but that makes it worse. A black shade is being pulled over my eyes, or a shadow—I can’t tell. Just before I black out my body is lifted, and I feel space and air flying past me at lightning speed. It’s almost nauseating. Soon, though, my stomach is at ease, and I’m floating into darkness. . . .
“Victorian!” I bolt up, my eyes scanning my surroundings. My vision is blurry, and it takes a few seconds for it to clear. It’s almost dusk, which means yet another full day has passed. Gulls scream overhead. The heavy scent of brine fills the air, and the crashing of waves against rock echoes. It’s cold in here, damp, and as I look around I realize I’m in ruins that I don’t recognize.
Memories rush back.
Victorian is gone.
The other two in the passageway were the other Black Fallen. And they’d had the power to make Jake Andorra freeze in his tracks. They’ve sent Vic somewhere. He just . . . disappeared. Or was he dead? Christ, was that it?
Two? I’ve lost two now?
Throwing the covers off, I find I’m still wearing my gown. I snatch up the hem and feel for my blade. Miraculously, it’s still sheathed. I grab for it.
“You’ve no need for that,” Athios says. “I won’t hurt you.”
“How do I know that?” I ask.
“Because I would have already done so. Besides, I left you your dirk.”
“The other two—Black Fallen?” I ask.
“Yes,” Athios answers. “My . . . brethren, so to speak.” He says that with disdain, and it’s unmistakable.
“They killed Victorian,” I say, and an uncontrolled sob rips from my throat. “Fuck!” I say, then scream it louder as it echoes off the decayed stone. “Fuck!” I move to what used to be a grand arched window and look out over the ocean. A fierce, cold wind blows against my face, and I welcome it. It dries my tears.
Victorian and Eli are both gone. I can’t even come to grips with it.
“I was warned about the powers of the Black Fallen,” I say out loud, facing the sea. “I really didn’t believe it until last night.” I turn to Athios. “You are unstoppable.”
Athios, his jacket removed now, still wears the remainder of his tux. The tie is loosened from his starched white shirt. He moves closer. “I’m not like them.”
I study him for a moment. I believe him. “What about Jake?”
“He escaped. Thanks to you.”
“How?” I ask, bewildered. “They could’ve gone after him. Followed him out to the party.”
“Because,” Athios says, moving closer still. “They preferred instead to come after me.”
I’m not sure what that means, but I don’t think it’s good. “You know we’ve found the first relic?” I ask.