Once Burned Page 13

Silence, and then Marty's guarded ’’I don't know what it could have been-’’

’’Because she's right here, blood staining her hair after it leaked from her ears when she fainted,’’ Vlad cut him off, his tone sharpening. ’’Does that stir your memory?’’

I didn't understand where Vlad was going with this. He clearly thought Marty had something to do with my fainting, but why? How?

My uneasiness wasn't abated when I heard Marty's heavy sigh.

’’I hoped she'd built up enough of a resistance that she'd be okay until I got back, but . . . well, f*k.’’

’’Well what?’’ I demanded, struggling to rise to my feet.

Vlad's arm tightened, keeping me pinned to his chest. ’’He's been feeding you his blood in those shakes,’’ he said flatly. ’’That's why they tasted terrible to you. I should have picked up on that the other day when the scent from my bloody shirt reminded you of them, but I was preoccupied.’’

I was stunned, my mind immediately rejecting the idea. I'd seen what Marty put into those shakes! Carrots, celery, tomato juice, protein powder, some vitamin drops . . .

Red vitamin drops in an unmarked bottle that he claimed he got from a friend who sold them on the side. I never questioned Marty about it. Why would I? I trusted him.

’’Kid.’’ Marty's voice flowed through the silence. ’’I'm sorry I didn't tell you.’’

My teeth ground together until my jaw ached. ’’Hold the phone near my ear,’’ I directed Vlad. ’’Why?’’ I asked as soon as it was close.

Marty sighed again. ’’You were dying when we met. You didn't know it, but I could smell it. You're only human;you don't heal fast enough to undo the harm inflicted on your body from all that power inside you. I thought if I gave you a little bit of my blood every week, it might reverse the damage and even build up your resistance to the repercussions from your power. I was right about the first, but not the second, obviously.’’

In that moment, I was glad Vlad hadn't let me get up because I felt like all the strength left my body. I'd been dying? Could I believe him about that after he admitted he'd been lying to me the entire four years we'd known each other?

’’Why didn't you tell me this before?’’ My voice sounded strong, at least. Anger helped with that.

’’I wanted to, but I was afraid you'd say no.’’ It sounded like Marty sniffed even though he didn't need to breathe. ’’You know what happened with Vera. When we met, you reminded me so much of her that I couldn't . . . I wouldn't let you die, too.’’

I shook my head, still furious but with tears in my eyes now. I wanted to beat Marty for his deception until my arms grew tired, and then I wanted to hug him and tell him Vera's death was not his fault and to quit punishing himself.

’’I gotta go,’’ I said, sniffing myself now.

’’I don't blame you if you hate me,’’ Marty said gruffly.

’’I don't hate you, you dumb shit,’’ I snapped. ’’But I am taking it out on your ass when I see you again. Count on it.’’

He let out a choked laugh. ’’I'll look forward to it, kid.’’

Vlad took the phone and at last released his hold. ’’Martin, I am not pleased,’’ he said coolly. ’’The next time you withhold information from me, rest assured that I'll burn you to death.’’

Marty started to say something, but Vlad hung up. I slid away from him, my emotions still torn.

’’I'd want to kill him for withholding that, too, if not for how messed up he still is about his daughter,’’ I muttered. ’’Dwarfs can have regular-sized children, but you must know that. Vera was thin, long dark hair, blue eyes . . . she looked a little like me, and she was twenty when Marty killed her. I saw it the first time I touched him because it was his worst sin.’’

Vlad said nothing, but his brow arched in silent invitation to go on.

’’In the early nineteen hundreds, Marty and Vera had an act together like he and I do now. After a show, some vampire attacked him, but he didn't stop there. He turned him and just left him. Marty rose as a vampire to find Vera crying over what she thought was his dead body. You know what happened next. No new vampire can control their hunger.’’

’’No,’’ Vlad said evenly, ’’no new vampire can. You're right that her death wasn't his fault, but I meant what I said. If he withholds information from me again, I'll kill him.’’

I stared at him. His burnished copper gaze was utterly dispassionate, the words spoken as if they had no meaning. Or maybe he just didn't care about how much that would hurt me.

’’Sometimes I think you're the coldest person I've ever met,’’ I said, rising to my feet.

’’You could have died.’’

When he started to speak, Vlad was still seated on the exercise mat, specks of my blood staining his gray shirt and ruining his otherwise elegant yet casual three-piece ensemble. But before I drew my next breath, he was right in front of me.

’’When someone threatens me or endangers a person under my protection, I make an example of him. This is the second time I've let Marty live out of consideration for you, but he won't get a third pardon. I can't afford to let others think they can get away with similar behavior.’’

’’Because then you'll lose your scary reputation?’’ I asked with a bitter scoff.

’’Yes, and my people will suffer for it,’’ he replied, tilting my chin up so I had to look at him. ’’I don't kill out of a perverse sense of enjoyment. I do it to protect those who are mine because once life is lost, it's lost forever.’’ His voice thickened. ’’You saw into me. You know what loss has cost me.’’

Oh, how I wished he was lying. It would be so much easier if Vlad was a homicidal narcissist who placed no value on anyone except himself, but I did know better. In a twisted way, he valued life more than most people, but in his case, it was specific to his people. No wonder they feared no one but him.

’’Later, I want you to call Marty so I can talk to him again,’’ I said steadily. ’’Give him a chance to come clean on anything else without your death threat hanging over him. After that, he hides something from you at his own peril. Deal?’’

His lips curled. ’’Deal.’’

I started to walk away, but his voice stopped me before I got more than a few feet.

’’We're not finished yet, Leila.’’

I wished I didn't know what he meant, but Vlad unbuttoning his shirt cuff and rolling up his coat and sleeve only confirmed my suspicion.

’’What if I said no?’’ I asked. ’’Would you force me?’’

He gave me a jaded look. ’’I don't have to force you. You might not want to do this, but you want to live more.’’

With his shirt and jacket rolled up, I saw the scars on his hands continued up his forearm, a fine dusting of dark hair covering some of them. I rubbed my own scar reflectively. I didn't remember the pain of my skin splitting open when the electricity from that power line ripped through my flesh. Did he remember what happened when all those scars were made, or had the passing of centuries erased that from his mind?

’’I remember.’’

I jerked my gaze up to meet his unblinking stare. ’’When I was human, I led my armies from the front, and I kept my scars for the same reason you chose to keep yours-so I'd never forget.’’

I flinched at his correct guess that Marty had offered to slice my scar off. If he poured his blood over the wound right after, the incredible regenerative qualities it contained would heal my skin back to the same unblemished smoothness I'd had when I was a baby. But I'd wanted to keep the evidence of what happened. Every time someone winced when they saw my scar, I was reminded of how my selfishness cost my mother her life.

’’I told you once before,’’ I said, the words husky from remembrance. ’’Everyone holds their sins close to their skin.’’

Fangs gleamed for an instant before Vlad bit into his wrist, pooling up two deep crimson holes.

’’Then come,’’ he said, holding it out. ’’And taste mine.’’

Chapter 17

I walked over and took his wrist. If I hesitated or thought about it, I might lose my nerve, and he was right. I did want to live more than I was repelled by the thought of drinking vampire blood. Vlad had only met me a few days ago and he knew that. Marty had lived with me for years and hadn't counted on it enough to tell me what he was doing.

When my mouth sealed over his wrist, I closed my eyes. Pretend it's wine. Really sharp, coppery-tasting wine. My first swallow made me grimace, but I forced my tongue to slide over his flesh, catching any spare drops. His arm was hard as oak with all those muscles, but his skin was smooth. As heated as my lips, and when I ran my tongue over him a second time, it was because I couldn't help myself from finding out what he tasted like without the harsh flavor of blood tainting his skin.

A low growl preceded his hand fisting in my hair, drawing my head back. Vlad's eyes were bright green as he stared down at me, his expression almost frightening in its intensity. My mouth parted, lips still wet from tasting him, but I didn't speak. I knew I should tell him to stop, to back away, but I didn't want him to.

He closed the scant space between us, pressing our bodies together, reaching out with the same hand I'd licked his blood from. Slowly, deliberately, he traced his thumb across my lower lip, capturing that lingering moisture. Then he brought his thumb to his mouth and tasted it, his eyes never leaving mine.

All the breath seemed to leave me and my heart began to pound. I couldn't resist reaching out and resting my hand on his chest, feeling his taut body beneath that crisp gray shirt. His muscles bunched as a current slid into him, and then his hand closed around mine. He pressed it flat, inch by inch dragging my palm over his chest, up to the smoothness of his neck and past the seductively rasping stubble of his jaw until it finally reached his mouth. My breath came faster, both from touching him this way and the look in his eyes as he placed a kiss onto my palm, his tongue flicking out to tease my flesh.

The gymnasium door banging open made me jump as though burned. Vlad released his grip on my hair, but not my hand, and his gaze slid to the left with visible irritation.

’’What?’’ he asked coldly.

Maximus walked over, one glance taking in our compromising position. I backed away, shame replacing the desire that seized me the moment I licked Vlad that second time. I'd agreed to give Maximus a week to see if we clicked, but only a day later, he'd caught me nearly kissing his boss. Slut, I lashed myself.

’’You have visitors,’’ Maximus stated. His face was impassive, but I still cringed, trying to discreetly tug my hand out of Vlad's.

He let me go and folded his arms, smiling in that scary, pleasant way at Maximus.

’’And they are so important that you had to find me at once and enter without knocking?’’

I heard the threat behind those silky words and blanched. He wasn't about to throw down on Maximus over this, was he? Don't, I sent to him, not adding please only because I knew the word didn't work on him.

’’Forgive me, but it's Mencheres and his co-ruler,’’ Maximus stated, not sounding apologetic even though he bowed. ’’Their wives as well.’’

I started to slink away, sanity returning now that I wasn't caught up by Vlad's mesmerizing nearness. What had I been doing? Nothing smart, that was for sure.

’’Leila, stop,’’ Vlad said.

I kept heading for the door. ’’You have company, so I'll just make myself scarce-’’

’’Stop.’’

I did at his commanding tone, and then cursed. I wasn't one of his employees-he had no right to order me around.

’’No,’’ I said defiantly. ’’I'm sweaty and bloody and I want to take a shower, so whatever you have to say, it can wait.’’

Maximus lost his impassive expression and looked at me as if I'd suddenly sprouted a second head. Vlad's brows drew together and he opened his mouth, but before he could speak, laughter rang out from the hallway.

’’I simply must meet whoever has put you in your place so thoroughly, Tepesh,’’ an unfamiliar British voice stated.

’’Did I mention they were on their way down?’’ Maximus muttered before the gym door swung open and four people entered.

The first was a short-haired brunet whose grin made me assume he was the one who'd greeted Vlad with the taunt. He was also handsome in a too-pretty way that made me think with less muscles, a wig, and some makeup, he'd look great in a dress.

Vlad's scowl vanished into a smile as the brunet's gaze swung in my direction as though he'd somehow heard that.

’’Looks as though she's put you in your place as well, Bones,’’ Vlad drawled.

’’So it seems,’’ Bones replied, winking at me. ’’But while I've worn many disguises, I draw the line at a dress.’’

My mouth dropped. Another mind reader?

’’You're shit out of luck, because almost all of us in this group are mind readers,’’ announced the redhead by his side. She gave me a sympathetic smile. ’’Annoying, isn't it?’’

’’Yes,’’ I said emphatically.

Behind the brunet and the redhead was an Arabian-looking man with black hair as straight and long as mine, and a slender blonde who must be the other aforementioned wife. If most of them were mind readers, then I guessed none of them were human.

Maximus bowed once more and then left the room. Vlad walked over to me and rested his hand on my shoulder.

’’Leila, this is my friend and honorary sire, Mencheres, and his wife, Kira,’’ he said, indicating the long-haired Middle Eastern man and the blonde. ’’Also let me introduce my friend, Cat.’’ The redhead, and for some reason, she looked familiar. ’’Her husband, Bones’’-here Vlad smiled coolly at the short-haired brunet-’’is not my friend.’’

’’You two,’’ Cat muttered, shaking her head. Then she held out her hand to me. ’’Great to meet you, Leila.’’


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