Once Burned Page 10

I had a sense of where this was going, and I squirmed in my chair. Drop it, I thought warningly.

He ignored that, gesturing to me with his wineglass. ’’Now look at our guest, Maximus. Full lips, ice blue eyes, long black hair, and strong, shapely body. Beautiful, isn't she? So beautiful I'm confident you and several others in this house would like to f**k her, yes?’’

I gasped at his bluntness. Maximus blinked, his gaze flicking to me and then to Vlad. ’’Is this a trick question?’’

’’Not at all,’’ Vlad said, eyeing him with cool appraisal. ’’For the length of Leila's stay, all of my people are free to pursue her, if she's agreeable. Or, if she wants to skip the preliminaries and f**k one of you right now, that is allowable as well.’’

I could feel the heat rise to my face, but I wasn't sure if it was embarrassment or fury. Maximus seemed at turns uneasy and interested, like he didn't know whether to leave in case I was about to electrocute everyone in my rage, or stay and see if I demanded that he whip out his c**k and get started.

’’I have a question,’’ I said, my tone bright although I was still seething inside. ’’Who do I have to screw to get any dinner around here? You have all these shiny plates but no food. It's like you're a terrible tease.’’

A little smile played about Vlad's lips. ’’Sorry, Maximus. Seems our guest has chosen other cravings.’’

’’Or maybe I'm not into him or anyone else being ordered to service me as if they're se* slaves,’’ I countered.

’’He's not ordering me;he's telling me the normal rules concerning guests don't apply to you, if I'm interested.’’

Maximus stared at me as he spoke, and he'd dropped the formal vernacular he'd used in our prior conversations. Guess with this topic, formalities were redundant.

Then he looked at Vlad. ’’You want her. Why are you offering us this chance?’’

’’Because she's wrong about me,’’ Vlad said with that infuriating sureness, ’’and she needs to realize that. Besides, in the unlikely event that she's right, then she's not worth my time.’’

I threw my napkin on the table and stood. ’’I'm done listening to this.’’

Maximus touched my arm. ’’Please, wait. I am interested. Before anyone else jumps into the equation, I want a chance.’’ A hint of green flickered in his dark gray eyes. ’’Not to be too blunt, but working with Vlad doesn't leave much time for meeting women. Besides, you're beautiful, ballsy, and your abilities fascinate me. So if you're interested, too, I'd say yes, and it would have nothing to do with being ordered.’’

My gaze flew to Vlad, who continued to stroke his jaw in relaxed contemplation. You smug bastard, I thought, and then turned my attention to Maximus, torn between my anger over Vlad's ruthless manipulation and awkwardness because Maximus did seem genuine in his offer.

’’It doesn't have to be se* tonight or nothing,’’ Maximus went on. ’’Say you'll let me show you around the house tomorrow.’’

Again I looked at Vlad, but his brow rose as if daring me to decline. I cursed. This was what I'd wanted-an attractive, nondangerous man I couldn't easily kill asking me out. Vlad might be convinced that I held a special attraction for him, but I'd prove him wrong and have fun doing it.

’’A tour sounds great,’’ I told Maximus, sitting down again. ’’How about one p.m. tomorrow, or is that too early for you?’’

’’One is fine. I'll look forward to it,’’ he said, smiling. He had dimples and they made his rugged features look younger, making me guess he was my age when he was changed over. Then he turned to Vlad, bowed, and left.

Silence fell on the dining room, broken only by the crackling sounds from the triple fireplace that took up the wall behind Vlad. I stared at him, silently assuring him that he'd made a huge mistake.

Finally, Vlad spoke, but it wasn't to me.

’’You may serve dinner now.’’

The room was suddenly filled with half a dozen attendants, each bearing a large domed platter that had delicious scents emitting from it. But although the food they uncovered and placed on the table looked even better than it smelled, oddly enough, I was no longer hungry.

Chapter 13

I'd figured Maximus would be prompt, and I was right. As soon as the clock struck one, a knock sounded on the door.

I opened it, forcing a smile even though that was the last thing I felt like doing. Despite the bed being the softest, most comfortable one I'd ever lain on, I'd hardly slept and my whole body felt sore. All the various scrapes, bumps, and bruises over the past few days must've caught up with me. Add that to disturbing dreams I had the few times I did fall asleep, and I was in a miserable mood.

Some of that must have shown on my face, because Maximus's smile faded as he looked closely at me.

’’Are you feeling all right?’’

’’I'm fine,’’ I lied. ’’Just a little groggy. Guess I had too many things on my mind to get a good night's sleep.’’

’’It might be the altitude,’’ he offered, though the faint furrow in his forehead told me he wasn't sold on my excuse. ’’It can make humans feel very tired until they're acclimated to it.’’

His ’’humans’’ comment didn't faze me. After living for years with Marty, I was used to it.

’’Must be it,’’ I said, putting more effort into my smile.

The slight flaring of his nostrils told me it worked. ’’You look lovely,’’ he said, voice deepening as his gaze moved over me with more than concern this time.

’’Thank you.’’ I ran a hand through my hair, letting a swath fall over the scar by reflex. ’’You look good, too. Very GQ.’’

I wasn't lying. He wore a crew-neck navy sweater that looked like it was woven from silk, and his black pants were dressy yet casual. Add that to his great height, attractively hewn features, and thick, muscular build, and he'd make most feminine hearts flutter.

Most, but not mine. I appreciated him taking care with his appearance, but I didn't feel any spark when I looked at him. If my hormones could've been hooked up to a machine, only a flat line would have registered. You're tired, I reassured myself. Maybe Maximus was right about the altitude messing with me.

The altitude didn't stop you from lusting over Vlad yesterday, a dark little voice taunted.

I ignored it. I was tired, that was all. Soon, I'd be thinking half a dozen sleazy thoughts about Maximus. Hell, I might even act on some of those thoughts.

’’Shall we?’’ he asked, drawing my attention back to him.

I'd show that egotistical Romanian prince he was nothing special. ’’Absolutely.’’

’’Where would you like your tour to begin?’’ he asked.

I shrugged. ’’Wherever you want.’’

’’Let's start at the beginning,’’ Maximus said as led me down the ornate hallway. ’’This was originally a monastery built back in the fifteenth century.’’

’’This house is a former church?’’ I asked in disbelief.

’’Monasteries were more than that back then,’’ he replied, gesturing to the huge windows we came to. ’’They were also strategic strongholds. At that time, the Ottoman Empire was trying to invade Western Europe, and Romania was one of the countries in its way.’’

’’So that explains the high walls and lookout towers,’’ I said musingly before adding, ’’And they're still used today.’’

’’Vlad has enemies,’’ Maximus replied, slanting a look at me.

I snorted. ’’Yeah, I noticed after I was kidnapped by them.’’

’’This wasn't where he lived when he was prince,’’ Maximus went on, leading me past the parlor to the staircase. ’’He didn't move in here until the seventeenth century. The walls and monastery were practically in ruins, but he restored them. Built the third and fourth levels of the house on top of them, as well as added new amenities to the first and second floors.’’

’’Like the indoor garden?’’ I asked jokingly.

Maximus grinned. ’’Shrapnel insisted on that. He's a horticulturist at heart, but he'd never admit it.’’

The huge vampire Marty had described as ’’creative’’ in his torture techniques secretly liked to play with plants?

’’What other surprises do you have in store?’’ I asked, adding dryly, ’’Let me guess: You're the real Roman commander that Russell Crowe portrayed in Gladiator.’’

He chuckled, running his hand along my arm and not drawing away at the currents that flowed into him.

’’No, but with the right incentive, you could get me to wear that short leather skirt and pretend to be.’’

His tone was light, yet underneath was a tinge of sensuality. I might not be thinking any naughty thoughts on this date yet-dammit!-but Maximus was letting me know he was.

’’Tell me more about the restoration process,’’ I said, wondering why I didn't feel so much as a twitch at the thought of kinky role playing with Maximus. ’’Were you around back then?’’

If he was disappointed at how I'd changed the subject back to the house, he didn't show it.

’’Oh yes. I was in charge of the rebuilding, in fact. By then I'd been with Vlad for centuries and he trusted me to make sure everything was completed while he was off in Slovenia . . .’’

Three hours later, my head was whirling. Maximus took me through the first three floors, which were staggeringly huge. Vlad's house was also littered with enough priceless artifacts to make any museum curator weep with envy. Forget the tapestries, portraits, furnishings, and various jewel-studded objects-the Weapons Room was like walking back in time. It had armor, chain mail, swords, shields, and various other items of war, many with the Dracul family standard or the Order of the Dragon emblazoned on them.

I kept my right hand plastered to my side when Maximus showed me that room. I knew these had been used in battle;the dents and scratches were mute testimony to that. It almost seemed like the room gave off a pulse from all the essence-heavy items in it.

Despite my interest, I felt steadily worse as the day wore on. By the time Maximus brought me back to my room, I was so tired and achy that all I wanted to do was sleep. Maybe my brain was overwhelmed from everything I'd learned, and the lack of a decent sleep was catching up with me.

’’Thanks for a wonderful afternoon, Maximus,’’ I told him. ’’See you at lunch tomorrow?’’

He leaned against the wall in a casual way. ’’No, Oscar or Gabriel will bring you your food.’’

’’Sick of me already?’’ I teased.

His smile remained but his gaze became serious. ’’It's harder to seduce someone when you're also clearing her plates. That's why I assigned others to take care of you while you're here.’’

Inwardly I sighed. Despite telling the truth about having a wonderful time, I still hadn't felt any telltale twinges around Maximus-and I'd tried. I stared at his ass when he walked ahead of me, envisioned my nails digging into that broad back . . . hell, I'd even stolen some looks at his package. Aside from admiring the shape he was in, nothing. I could just imagine Vlad chortling to himself.

I wasn't about to give up, however. Maybe what I needed was some tactile interaction. Thanks to my electrocution issues, I hadn't been kissed since Johnny Staples in the eighth grade. A kiss was bound to kick-start my libido. I smiled, moistened my lips, and hoped Maximus wasn't the shy type.

He wasn't. He bent down, his hand curling around my neck, and lowered his mouth onto mine. His lips were cool, full but firm, and he used far more finesse slipping his tongue into my mouth than Johnny Staples had. I kissed him back, glad it was like riding a bike and I hadn't forgotten how. Our tongues twined together and I had a further flash of gratitude that he didn't taste like blood. I liked being able to put my arms around someone and be held close, though I was careful not to touch Maximus with my right hand. His little moan when he gripped me to him was nice, too. Glad my years without practice hadn't made me the world's worst kisser, and-

Aw, hell, this wasn't working! His large, hard body was pressed to mine and his tongue was doing very enjoyable things in my mouth, but I still didn't feel a rush of heat. Figures. For years, I'd been frustrated over my forced singlehood, but now that I had means and opportunity in the form of a very willing, very attractive blond vampire, I wasn't into him. Maybe I should get myself sized for a promise ring. Did they give those to nonbelievers? Or was it a members-only thing?

’’Maximus, I'm sorry,’’ I said, pulling away from him.

’’Too fast?’’ he asked thickly. ’’Don't worry, I don't mind waiting. It'll take Vlad weeks to gather personal items from all his enemies for you to touch, so we have time.’’

Attractive, understanding, and not falling to the floor with a heart attack from the electricity in my touch. I drew in a frustrated breath. Wasn't he what I'd longed for all those lonely nights? So why wasn't my pulse speeding up? Why was my reaction to him so damn flat compared to what I'd felt when I was with Vlad?

I was so screwed.

’’Maximus,’’ I began.

He put a finger to my lips. ’’Don't. I know that tone, but . . . wait. If you still want to say it after a week, fine, but give me that long before letting another man make a move.’’ Wry smile. ’’What else do you have to do?’’

What else, indeed? Certainly not think about a dangerous vampire who was so sure of himself that he'd set me up with another guy and also practically dared me to sleep with any member of his staff.

’’Okay,’’ I said, and forced a smile.

He kissed me again, and I hoped that I'd feel more this time, but while it was enjoyable, that telltale spark was still missing.

’’Good,’’ he said when he let me go. ’’Then I'll see you tomorrow.’’

Chapter 14

I trudged down the staircase at nine o'clock with all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner going to the electric chair. This time, I wasn't wearing a slinky black dress. I was in gray slacks and an olive turtleneck sweater, my black hair twisted into a ponytail, not a speck of makeup, and lips thinned into annoyed slits. Everything about me should've screamed ’’Do not engage’’ to the vampire already waiting in the dining room.

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