Once Burned Page 12

’’Is the gym far?’’

He inclined his head toward a door on the opposite wall.

’’Right there.’’

We'd been standing only a dozen feet away and he hadn't said a word? I would've demanded to know what sort of game he was playing, except I didn't think he was playing one. Instead, as his brow rose in silent challenge, I wondered if he was doing something worse-intensifying his pursuit of me.

If so, then the next move was mine, and with my attraction to him growing, I didn't know if I'd choose wisely.

Chapter 15

The gym turned out to be filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Good for whoever lived here, but useless for me. However, it had a large exercise mat, some free weights, and a knotted rope suspended from the high ceiling. I made the most out of those three things, forcing my aching body through a series of routines I'd used when I was training for competition.

I had the room to myself for the first two hours, then I heard voices right before the door banged open. A group of twenty-somethings entered, chatting in what I now recognized as Romanian. They stopped short when they noticed me dangling from the rope upside down, my black hair fanning out underneath me.

’’Hi,’’ I said, feeling self-conscious as I realized that I probably looked strange. ’’Any of you speak English?’’

’’Most of us,’’ a husky, curly-haired guy replied, to other murmurs of assent. He started to grin. ’’What are you doing?’’

’’Sit-ups,’’ I said, demonstrating by hoisting myself up until my face touched my thigh. ’’Works more muscles this way.’’

’’I bet it does,’’ he said, still staring at me.

I uncoiled the rope from around my leg and climbed down. My abs had been killing me anyway. Once I was back on the ground, I smiled at the group.

’’I'm Leila,’’ I said, using my real name because everyone else here called me that.

I knew the moment they saw the scar. A collective wince seemed to ripple over the group, though it took longer for some of the guys since they checked out my body before getting to my face. I kept my smile in place, used to this reaction.

’’It's from an accident when I was a kid,’’ I said by way of explanation. If I didn't offer any information, people would just ask. That I was also used to.

’’Oh, how awful,’’ a pretty, petite, strawberry-blond girl said in heavily accented English.

’’Glad you, uh, healed up,’’ the curly-haired guy replied awkwardly. ’’Nice to meet you. I'm Ben, and as you can tell from my accent, I'm American, too. This is Joe, Damon, Tom, Angie, Sandra, and Kate, but her English isn't good so she'll probably just grunt at you.’’

’’Well, her English is better than my Romanian, so she's got me beat,’’ I replied, waving at everyone.

’’Are you . . . new to residing here?’’ the strawberry blonde introduced as Sandra asked.

I assumed that was a nice way to inquire if I was going to be a live-in donor, and I stumbled over my reply.

’’Ah, not really. I'm just helping out Vlad with, uh, a project, but I'm leaving once it's done.’’

’’Vlad?’’ Ben looked surprised. His gaze swept over me again. ’’You're human, right?’’

’’Yep.’’ The rest of them still seemed taken aback, so I had to ask. ’’Why? Is it unusual for Vlad to work with a human?’’

Ben's brows rose. ’’We wouldn't know. None of us see him unless he's hungry. Then it's bend, get bitten, and beat it.’’

Now my brows went up, too. ’’Bend?’’ Did he mean-?

My expression must have given away my thought, because he hastened to add, ’’I mean bend as in this.’’ Ben tilted his head to the side, exposing his neck. ’’Most of the others chat with us a little first. Vlad doesn't.’’

’’Oh.’’ I felt like I should apologize even though I wasn't the one with the wham-bam-bite-'em-ma'am record.

He shrugged. ’’Not a big deal. Can't beat the benefits.’’ Then he smiled, looking me over again. ’’Hey, we're going to a club tonight. If you're not too busy, wanna join us?’’

’’There he goes again,’’ the tall, rangy brunet named Damon muttered.

That was my cue to leave. ’’Thanks, but I can't.’’

’’What, too good for us breathers now?’’ Ben teased.

Sandra elbowed him. ’’Rude,’’ she hissed.

I gave the group a measured stare as I reconsidered leaving. They all looked normal, which meant I would usually hide the reason behind why I couldn't go to anything as contact-heavy as a club and then avoid them at all costs. But they weren't normal. They were the willing blood donors to a house of vampires, and either I told them about me, or I stayed away from them the whole time I was here.

I decided to take a chance. ’’It's not that.’’ I held up my right hand. ’’My accident changed me. I can't touch anyone or I'll electrocute them, for starters.’’

I had their full attention now.

’’What do you mean, for starters?’’ From the goateed guy with the black hair named Joe. ’’What else can you do?’’

I drew in a breath. ’’I see things when I touch people. Bad things, mostly, but sometimes I catch glimpses of the future.’’

’’No,’’ Sandra breathed.

’’Yes,’’ I said a trifle grimly. Maybe I shouldn't have told them. This might be too weird even for vampire blood donors.

Ben started to grin. ’’That is so cool. How bad do you electrocute people? If you touch me, can you tell me my future?’’

’’Ooh, I want to know mine, too!’’ Angie said, blue eyes bright with anticipation.

The rest of them seemed equally excited. Okay, this I wasn't prepared for. I'd hoped they wouldn't be repelled by me. I didn't think I'd suddenly be popular.

’’I don't always see the future,’’ I hedged, starting to back away. ’’Most of the time, I just see people's sins.’’

’’Really?’’ Ben looked fascinated. ’’If you're not going to zap me into next week, I don't have any sins, so touch away!’’

I didn't want to, but it had been a long time since anyone looked at me like this: with acceptance and enthusiasm. A lonely part inside me reared up and roared, Don't screw this up, Leila! Do it!

I sighed. ’’Let me offload some energy first.’’

So saying, I went over to the bench press. It was made of metal and bolted into the concrete for safety, so it would do. When everyone was on the rubber and foam mat, I laid my right hand on the weight bench and released my strict inner hold.

An audible zzt! followed by a flash of white later, and I felt slightly dizzy. Now I didn't need to dump energy into the lightning rods before showering. Vlad had been quick to get those set up for me.

’’Come here,’’ I said to Ben, waving him over.

He approached, still smiling. He was a nice-looking boy in his early twenties, and I envied his blondish-brown curls. My hair couldn't be straighter if I ironed it every morning.

’’Hold out your hand,’’ I said. The farther my touch was from his heart, the better, even if I had drained myself.

He held out his hand and I gently laid my right one on it. A far softer bolt left me, causing him to yelp, but he didn't fall over or start peeing himself, thankfully. Then, as usual, a slew of colorless images crowded my mind. True to his word, they weren't violent, but I saw no full-color, hazy images afterward.

’’Sorry, I didn't see anything about your future,’’ I said.

His smile was expectant. ’’What'd you see from my past?’’

The others looked interested, too. I glanced away. ’’You don't want me to say, trust me.’’

’’Come on, how else will I know it worked?’’ Ben pressed.

’’Yes, tell us,’’ Joe added.

’’Tell us’’ came in a chorus from the group. I shook my head, muttering, ’’It'll embarrass you,’’ but I was swamped with more demands for proof.

I threw up my hands. ’’Fine, but I warned you. When you were twelve, you stole your little sister's favorite Minnie Mouse DVD and beat off to it every night until your dad caught you and made you buy her a new one out of your allowance money.’’

Stunned silence followed. Ben's face went red.

’’I don't believe it,’’ he muttered, but that was soon drowned out by laughter and good-natured ribbings. I let it go on for another few moments and then cleared my throat.

’’I bet the rest of you have some embarrassing sins, too, so give him a break or I'll start copping feels.’’

The teasing subsided to lingering grins and the occasional giggle. Ben shot me a grateful look. Hey, compared to the sins I'd seen from other people, his was steeped in innocence.

’’When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Miss Piggy so I could marry Kermit the Frog,’’ I told Ben, winking. ’’Kermit. Talk about shameful.’’

’’Ouch. You shoulda kept that to yourself,’’ he said, giving my arm a friendly knock.

The brief contact meant only a tiny bit of electricity sizzled into him, but he winced. Then he grinned.

’’My sister used to rub her socks on the floor and then chase me. Reminds me of that.’’

’’She owed you for the stolen DVD,’’ I quipped.

’’Like you said, I bought her a new one,’’ he replied, still grinning. ’’Hey, what's wrong with your ear?’’

’’What?’’

I reached up and felt something wet. Ew, I'm still sweating like a pig, I thought, but when I looked at my hand, it was red.

Sandra gasped. That was the last thing I heard before everything went hazy and the exercise bench reared up to hit me in the face.

Chapter 16

’’Leila, can you hear me?’’

I opened my eyes, blinking. Vlad's face materialized in front of me, blurry at first, and then clear enough for me to notice that he looked concerned.

’’Hey,’’ I said, surprised at how weak my voice sounded.

’’Will she be all right?’’ I heard Ben ask.

’’All of you, leave,’’ Vlad responded curtly.

’’That's not nice,’’ I mumbled. ’’You should talk to them before you bite them, too. Common courtesy.’’

His brow went up, but he said nothing to that. I heard shuffling feet and then moments later, a door closed.

’’Did I faint?’’ I asked, trying to remember what happened. I'd been attempting to make Ben feel better about his former Minnie Mouse fetish, and then I saw something red . . .

’’Yes. You were also bleeding from your ears, but it's stopped now.’’

Vlad's words were blunt, but they lacked the brusque tone he'd used with Ben. I tried to sit up, but his features started to get blurry again.

’’Slowly,’’ Vlad said. He grasped my shoulders, easing me into a sitting position. Then he slid behind me so that my back rested against his chest.

’’Don't. I'm all sweaty and bloody,’’ I protested.

’’Heavens, not sweat and blood,’’ he replied mockingly.

I managed to smile. Smartass vampire.

’’Are you anemic?’’ Vlad asked, surprising me.

I frowned. ’’I don't think so, but I haven't been to a doctor in a long time, for obvious reasons.’’

He grasped my hand. Before I realized what he intended, he had my red-smeared fingers in his mouth.

’’Stop!’’ I gasped.

His other arm went around my torso, holding me in place against his chest. Between that and his grip on my hand, no way was I breaking free even if I had all my strength back, which I didn't. I could do nothing but wait as he slowly sucked on my fingers, his warm tongue snaking in between them to get every last drop of blood.

’’You're not anemic,’’ he said when he finally let go and I yanked my hand away from his mouth.

I still felt rattled by what he'd done, and it wasn't because I'd found it repellent. ’’You can tell from that?’’

’’You'd be surprised by the things I can tell from tasting someone's blood,’’ he replied in a lower, darker voice.

I shivered, acutely aware that my neck was only an inch from his mouth. As if to accentuate that point, his jaw grazed my cheek. His stubble doesn't feel as rough as it looks, raced across my mind. Then again, it hadn't felt rough in that vision, either . . .

’’I think I can get up now,’’ I said, trying to scoot away.

His arm stopped me before I got more than a few inches, drawing me back against that hard, heated chest.

’’Stop fidgeting, I'm not going to bite you.’’

’’Going to lick the blood off my head instead?’’ I asked before cursing myself. Give him the idea, why don't you?

I couldn't see his face, but I could almost feel him smile. ’’No, not that, either. Has this ever happened to you before?’’

Being held against my will by a vampire? Sure, lots of times, I thought sardonically.

’’Leila . . .’’ His voice held a note of impatience.

I thought back, ruling out the times I'd felt dizzy after falling during practice and banging my head.

’’Years ago, right around the time I met Marty. Once I fainted when he and I were performing. Then Marty started making me these awful-tasting health shakes, and I got better. Maybe I hadn't been getting enough vitamins before or something-’’

I stopped, because Vlad had tensed. If I thought his chest felt hard before, now it was like leaning against steel.

’’How often did he make you those shakes?’’

I didn't like the sound of his voice. Too controlled and pleasant-the same voice he used when he killed.

’’About once a week. Why?’’

He didn't answer, but pulled out a cell phone, dialing one-handed. With our close proximity, I heard the person answer.

’’Yes?’’ Marty's voice, tight with tension.

’’Why are you-?’’ I began, but Vlad's hand sliced the air in the universal command for silence.

’’Martin,’’ he said genially, ’’did you forget to tell me something very important about Leila?’’


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