Once Burned Page 11

Vlad rose when he saw me, which for some reason angered me. Why did he keep pretending to be mannerly? Someone with manners didn't torture innocent people or offer to pimp out their staff in order to prove a point!

Then I gave myself a mental shake. Just because I still felt like crap and was unable to prove him wrong didn't mean I had the right to spew venom all over him. Sorry, I thought, assuming he was tuned into my thoughts as usual.

The sardonic smile that curled his lips when he held out my chair confirmed my suspicions.

’’Your date wasn't everything you'd hoped?’’

I sat down with a small sigh. I hated lying and he could read my mind, so what was the point trying to deny it?

’’No, but Maximus wants to give it a week, and I agreed.’’

Once I was settled at the table, Vlad returned to his chair, again making the simple act of sitting appear commanding. Give him a throne and he'd look right at home. Then again, he probably had one stashed away somewhere. Maximus hadn't shown me the fourth floor because he said it was ’’private.’’ I translated that as ’’Vlad's personal territory’’ and wondered why he needed the equivalent of an apartment building for his quarters.

Or maybe that was where he did all his torturing. I could understand Maximus not wanting to show me that room.

’’No, I do my torturing in the dungeon like any other respectable castle owner,’’ he said, amusement clear in his voice. ’’And the fourth floor isn't merely mine. My most trusted staff members have their rooms there, too.’’

’’You really have a dungeon?’’ Talk about old school.

’’Of course.’’ Spoken as he gestured with two fingers. An attendant appeared, pouring dark red wine into my glass.

At least, I hoped it was wine.

’’It is.’’ With more amusement. ’’Aside from its obvious purpose, the wine should assist you in getting a better night's sleep tonight. It will also help to soothe some of your aches.’’

Your ability is so intrusive, I thought, glaring at him.

He only smiled and raised his glass in silent salute.

I took a small sip of mine, letting the liquid roll around my tongue before swallowing. Hints of violets, black cherry, and . . . smoke. Very nice, I decided, and took a larger sip. Some of the tightness started to leave my shoulders.

Vlad watched me, whatever he was thinking hidden behind that enigmatic half smile. I'd dressed down for dinner, but he hadn't. The rich material of his aubergine shirt made it far more elegant than your average button-down. Lights from the chandelier gleamed off jeweled cuff links, and his charcoal-colored pants fit him so perfectly, it was hard not to stare. His hair was brushed into smooth, dark waves and that eight o'clock shadow hugged his chiseled jawline, making me forget myself long enough drink in his appearance along with my wine.

I'd expected him to smirk over my obvious admiration, but his expression didn't change as he stared back at me. His long, tapered fingers stroked the stem of his wineglass, and I flashed to how it felt when he'd caressed my hand as I unleashed all my electricity into him. Warmth spread through me that I told myself was the effects from the wine, but I knew better. Three hours and two kisses with Maximus hadn't made me feel as much as a glimmer of heat, but less than five minutes sitting across from Vlad and I was mentally fanning myself.

Now his expression did change-into a slow, knowing smile.

’’You see? You don't react this way with every man,’’ he said with satisfaction.

Nothing would make me happier than to tell him he was wrong, but I did feel something for Vlad that I hadn't felt for anyone else. Maybe he was right and it was that damn darkness in me recognizing a kindred spirit. That didn't make him any less hazardous to my physical or emotional well-being, however.

’’Stop,’’ I said quietly. ’’Find someone else to toy with. We both know I lack experience, so I don't know how to play the game without getting hurt. Besides, I hate games. I prefer knowing straight up what's real and what's bullcrap.’’

He sat back, something lurking in his gaze that tempted me despite knowing better. I gulped my wine for a distraction.

’’It's your directness and refusal to lie to yourself that I find most appealing. And I'm not toying with you. I'm very serious about making you mine.’’

I held the wine in my mouth for a long moment before swallowing. Not to test the flavors this time, but in an effort to gain control. Two Leilas seemed to be battling it out inside of me. The first was outraged that he still considered it a fait accompli that I'd give in to him, and the second . . . that slutty bitch was wondering what Vlad looked like na**d.

His teeth flashed in a wicked grin. ’’Many women wonder, but few find out. I'm very selective in my lovers.’’

’’Because you're so special?’’ I couldn't help but ask with open sarcasm.

That grin faded and his expression became serious. ’’Because at points in my life, I've lost everything. This house, my other homes, the cars, planes . . . they're my possessions, but anyone could own them. My body is the only thing that's truly mine, so I don't give it away as though it's worthless.’’

I'd lost everything before, too. It was worse than death in some ways, so I wasn't surprised that it had had a lasting effect on Vlad. Loss seemed to haunt him, from the source of his darkest sin all the way to this.

’’Again I say my mind reading doesn't come close to your abilities,’’ Vlad said softly. ’’You saw right into my soul with one touch. How does overhearing a few thoughts compare to that?’’

I glanced away, clearing my throat. ’’I don't know. Some of those thoughts I'd really rather you not have heard.’’

He chuckled, low and decadent. ’’Ah, but those were the ones I most enjoyed hearing.’’

’’Any luck rounding up items for me to touch?’’ I asked, desperately trying to change the subject.

Vlad still had a devilish glint in his eye, but he let the previous topic drop.

’’I have enemies, but they're not open in their stance against me. Probably because I tend to kill my adversaries rather quickly, so first I have to determine who's paying me lip service, and who's wishing me dead.’’

’’I could help with that.’’ I leaned forward, anxious to find the person who'd dragged me into this. ’’Get me items from the top ten people you think might be double-talking you. I'll touch them and tell you who is and who isn't.’’

His sly grin was back. ’’Oh, Leila. Now you're just making yourself irresistible to me, aren't you?’’

I drained the rest of my wine, wishing he'd stick to being either terrifying or charming. Being both wreaked havoc on my equilibrium. ’’Serving dinner yet? I'm starving.’’

I woke up with a groan at the sunlight streaming in. My sleep had been interrupted by dreams that had me waking with my heart pounding and my nightgown damp with sweat. They weren't nightmares where I relived Jackal kidnapping me, but they did feature a vampire. One who hadn't been doing anything against my will, but had left me gasping and pleading for more-and my dream lover hadn't been Maximus.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed. I was no stranger to wanting something I couldn't have, and there were two remedies I knew that could help. One I couldn't indulge in because the mind-reading vampire who haunted my sleep would know what I was doing, and worse-he'd know I was thinking about him while I was doing it. That left the other remedy.

Even though I still felt like a piece of meat someone had hammered for maximum tenderness, I got up and went over to the dresser, pulling out a pair of pants and a runner's bra. Maximus told me this house had an exercise room. I was going to find that room and burn off all my misdirected, useless lust until I was too tired to fantasize about anything except a nap.

Once I was dressed, I went downstairs. The great hall looked empty, but I knew better.

’’Hello? I need to know where the gym is,’’ I stated.

Before I could mentally count to three, a figure slipped out from behind one of the tall stone pillars.

’’It is below this floor,’’ the vampire said, an Irish brogue adding a pleasant cadence to his speech. ’’I will escort you.’’

I'd started to smile in thanks when a familiar, far more subtly accented voice made me freeze.

’’No need, Lachlan. I'll show her where it is.’’

I mentally groaned. It was bad enough trying to exorcise Vlad from my thoughts when I only saw him at dinner. If I ran into him during the day as well, I didn't stand a chance.

And thanks to his damn mind reading, now he knew that.

Lachlan bowed to Vlad and vanished again. I waited, not turning my head. A scarred hand slid along my arm, leaving gooseflesh in its wake more from my reaction to his touch than the result of his heated flesh compared to the hall's chillier temperature.

’’Are you always this warm?’’ I asked, not looking at him.

Something tall and dark filled my peripheral vision. ’’If I'm utilizing my power, I'm even warmer, but you know that. If I'm asleep, my temperature drops to that of a normal vampire.’’

So every part of him would be at least this heated. Didn't that invite musings I was better off not having?

’’Gym,’’ I managed to say. ’’Where is it?’’

His fingers closed over my arm. ’’Come with me.’’

He knew I'd follow him, so his hand on my arm wasn't necessary. He'd chosen my right side, too, so if I wasn't careful, my hand would brush him and I might glimpse that erotic vision again. I never do anything unless I'm sure, he'd said. Was he daring me to see if that vision remained unchanged?

Vlad had to hear what was churning inside my head, yet he made no comment. He also didn't drop my arm or move even an inch away. Instead, he led me down a staircase located behind the winter garden that ended in an enclosed stone hallway.

’’What else is down here?’’ I asked to break the silent standoff between us.

’’Aside from the gymnasium, there are the lower kitchens, laundry rooms, servants'entrance, storage facilities, swimming pool, root cellars, and humans'living quarters.’’

I did look at him then. In shock. ’’You keep your live-in blood donors in the basement?’’

’’It's a very nice basement. Much better than the dungeons. Those tend to be quite cold in winter.’’

I couldn't tell if he was serious. He might indeed think nothing of housing his blood donors next to his root cellars, or he might find it hilarious to let me believe that.

’’I'd love to meet them one day,’’ was what I said.

His lips twitched. ’’Would you, or are you trying to discover if they're shivering in a dark room even now?’’

’’I never said that,’’ I muttered.

He stopped walking, but his hand remained on my arm. ’’I don't shirk my responsibilities, and everyone here is a member of my line directly or indirectly. Their living quarters contain normal bedrooms, and you are welcome to see that for yourself.’’

’’Thanks,’’ I said, adding, ’’I didn't really think you kept them housed in tiny underground cellars.’’

His mouth quirked. ’’You gave it fifty-fifty odds.’’

’’Well, you do have an active dungeon,’’ I pointed out.

He laughed, the sound rolling over me more than once with the echoes in the enclosed hallway. His laughter was so unique-part amused growl, part purr, and all self-assured male. Its effect on me was tangible, turning up my own lips and making me step closer to him before I realized what I was doing.

Emerald flared in his gaze and his fingers tightened on my arm. A throb started inside me, low but unmistakable, making my mouth go dry and my pulse begin to speed up. One more step would have our bodies touching, we were standing that close. But that single step would probably seal my vision into reality. Don't let it happen, Marty had urged me. He'll break your heart and ruin your life . . .

I took not one but two steps backward, slipping my arm out from Vlad's grasp. He let me go without trying to stop me, and I expelled the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. Anxious to defuse the unspoken tension, I pointed at a door with stone ivies carved around the frame.

’’What's in there?’’

’’The entrance to the chapel,’’ he replied.

I let out a nervous laugh. ’’Maximus told me this place used to be a monastery, but you actually kept the chapel?’’

’’No, it was destroyed,’’ he said, not commenting on my edginess or the reason behind it. ’’I had this one rebuilt on the ruins of the old citadel tower. Would you like to see it?’’

’’No thanks,’’ I said at once.

’’How emphatic. Not the religious type?’’

’’No, why? Don't tell me you believe in God?’’

’’Many vampires do. The story of our origin states that the mark of Cain was God turning him into the first vampire by forcing him to drink blood as penance for murdering his brother.’’

Then he leaned forward and his voice dropped to almost a whisper. ’’Surprised? Is it impossible to believe that I think a day will come where I'll be held accountable for each life I've taken, every drop of blood I've spilled . . . and yet I continue to do whatever is necessary to keep my people safe?’’

I swallowed, as unnerved by that thought as I was by his nearness. Vlad was such a study in extremes that I couldn't figure out if he was being rhetorical or serious, but maybe that was for the best. It was easier to walk away when I wasn't being pulled further into his intriguing complexities.

He still stood very close. Without thinking, I rubbed the place on my arm where his hand had been. The spot felt oddly barren now. Ridiculous, I told myself. You came down here to unload tension. Quit stockpiling more of it with your idiocy.

His lips curled as he glanced at my arm. He'd heard that, of course. How I wished I could shut him out of my mind.

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