Once Burned Page 14

I looked at it and cleared my throat. ’’Ah, sorry.’’

’’Leila has unusual abilities,’’ Vlad said, breaking the awkward moment. ’’She gives off electricity, particularly her right hand. She also divines psychic impressions through touch and can glimpse events from the past, present . . . or future.’’

Cat whistled through her teeth. Mencheres blinked once before turning his unsettling black gaze onto me.

’’Extraordinary.’’

The way they all looked at me made me feel like the instrument Vlad once casually likened me to. I also jump through flaming hoops for REAL, ran through my mind before I could squelch the derisive thought.

’’Oh, you're right,’’ Cat said, aghast. ’’We're giving you the freak stare! How rude.’’

’’I'm used to it,’’ I replied. At least they hadn't gawked at my scar as openly as most. Then I looked at Cat again. Now I knew why she'd seemed familiar! She was the really depressed girl I'd glimpsed when I touched the door frame in my room. Whatever she'd been upset over at the time had been strong enough to leave a mark.

’’Huh?’’ Cat said, frowning. ’’I've never met you before.’’

I rubbed my head. ’’No offense, everyone, but it was bad enough when only Vlad was eavesdropping in my mind. I don't think I can handle a group of people doing it.’’

Mencheres stepped forward and laid his hand on Vlad's arm. ’’Leila, a pleasure to meet you. Vlad, my friend, walk with me.’’

He didn't move. ’’I'll see Leila to her room first. She injured herself only a short time ago.’’

Bones looked at Vlad and then at me. He sniffed, oddly, and a slow smile spread across his features.

’’No need, Tepesh, we'll be glad to escort her. If it's the same room my wife stayed in, she'll remember where it is.’’

Vlad bristled, and if I didn't know better, I'd swear I smelled smoke.

’’What makes you think you can tell me what you will do with my guest in my house-’’

’’Vlad,’’ Mencheres said, drawing his name out with a touch of censure. I expected him to round on the other vampire with even more anger, but he let out a frustrated sigh.

’’You brought him here. You knew this would happen.’’

’’Let them escort her,’’ Mencheres said in a more cajoling tone. ’’Besides, you requested that I come here because you have a question to ask, and you won't want to ask it with Cat or Bones nearby.’’

’’Hey, why not me? We're friends,’’ Cat protested.

’’Yes, but you tell him everything,’’ Vlad said with a jerk of his head toward Bones. ’’Kira can come, though.’’

Kira grinned mischievously at them before linking her arm with Mencheres. ’’Good to meet you, Leila.’’

’’Yeah, you too,’’ I said, piqued that I didn't get to hear this question, either. It was probably about how best to use my abilities, so you'd think I should at least be privy to it.

The three of them departed, leaving me with the vampiric versions of Ken and Barbie-which I regretted thinking as soon as Cat let out a snort.

’’Thanks, I think.’’

’’Sorry,’’ I said while grinding my teeth. ’’It was a compliment because the two of you are really, uh, pretty.’’

Perfectly so, and not just their features. Their skin was pale and creamy, not a visible flaw on an inch of it. Just looking at them made me feel as though my scar stretched and widened until it covered half my face and all of my arm.

’’Oh, I have scars, too,’’ Cat said, tapping her leg. ’’Stake puncture, right here. Stab wound in my stomach, another one on my back-’’

’’Stop, please,’’ I said, holding up my hand.

’’Really intrusive when your thoughts aren't your own, isn't it?’’ Bones stated, giving me a speculative look. ’’Used to drive my wife barmy before she changed over, but’’-here his voice lowered-’’there's a way to limit what someone can listen to, if you're interested.’’

My eyes widened. Was I interested? I'd give all my teeth for some mental privacy right about now!

Bones grinned. ’’Thought so. See, it takes a rare form of willpower for a human to block a mind-reading vampire from their thoughts, and most people don't have that. But what you can do whenever you suspect you're being eavesdropped on is sing something wretched to yourself.’’

’’Sing?’’ I repeated doubtfully.

A nod. ’’In your mind, of course, but remember-it has to be so annoying and repetitive that it distracts the person from breaking past that mental melody.’’

Cat looked at Bones with open suspicion. ’’I think I know why you're doing this, and it's mean-’’

’’Tepesh has it coming,’’ Bones interrupted, his tone hardening. Then he smiled at me. ’’Go on, try to block me.’’

I understood that Bones wasn't helping me for altruistic reasons, but if it gave me a shield against Vlad reading my mind whenever he wanted . . . well, then his enemy was my friend. Annoying and repetitive, huh? I thought back to the eighties music my mother had loved listening to. It had certainly made me crazy when she'd play the same songs over and over.

I began to mentally sing the lyrics to ’’Relax’’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Bones tapped his chin.

’’I like where you're going with this, but dig deeper.’’

I sighed and began to think of other songs. Madonna's ’’Like a Virgin’’ had been played to death, but it was too apropos considering my own state. I decided on Whitesnake's ’’Here I Go Again’’ and repeated the chorus a few times in my mind.

Bones nodded. ’’Better, but still not slit-your-own-throat annoying. Come on, Leila. Do you want this or not?’’

I let out a frustrated noise while shooting him a dirty look. Then inspiration struck and I smiled. Take this!

After the first few lyrics of the new song, Bones laughed.

’’Perfect. Repeat that whenever Tepesh is around you, and he'll run screaming in no time.’’

Cat shook her head. ’’You are really twisted, honey.’’

Bones just smiled. ’’As I said, he had this coming.’’

Chapter 18

Hours later, I dressed for dinner with more enthusiasm than I had the previous nights. Part of it was because that former lethargy combined with all-over body ache was gone. Even the bruises from my kidnapping and window dive had vanished. Vlad's blood was clearly more potent than Marty's, or I'd had more of it than Marty normally slipped into my shakes. Either way, for the first time in days, I felt great.

I was also anxious to try out my new mental defense. It made me look forward to seeing Vlad even though I berated myself for abandoning common sense with him earlier. To make matters worse, a part of me couldn't stop wondering what would have happened if Maximus hadn't come in right when he did.

As if you don't know, an inner voice taunted.

I sighed. Yeah, I knew. But an affair with him might indeed break my heart. I'd felt lust before-I was a virgin, not dead-and this was more than that. I also wanted to crack Vlad's shell, discover his secrets, and explore the complexities of his personality to find the man beneath the fearsome protector of his people. The fact that I wanted all this after knowing him less than a week was where the danger lay. A lust-based affair was so simple in comparison.

I'd slipped into a conservative yet flattering navy sweater dress when a rap sounded at the door. I opened it, my quizzical expression freezing when I saw Maximus.

’’Uh, hi,’’ I said, not sure if I should've started with an apology. Some dating experience would've helped right about now.

’’Vlad regrets to inform you that he will not be dining with you tonight,’’ Maximus said, speaking as formally as he had when we first met.

Disappointment coursed through me that I hoped didn't show on my face. Then I forced a smile.

’’Will Cat, Bones, and the others be there?’’

’’No, they've left. You can still dine in the main room, if you'd like, or I can have your supper brought to you here.’’

I couldn't keep pretending like nothing had happened. ’’I'm so sorry, Maximus. You have every right to be mad at me. If I were smart, I wouldn't go anywhere near Vlad. I-I don't know why I can't seem to stop-’’

’’I do,’’ Maximus interrupted with a grim smile. ’’For the same reason so many Wallachians fought and died for him over the course of three separate reigns when he was prince-because he draws you in even if you know it will end badly.’’

I grimaced. That wasn't too subtle of a warning. ’’Hopefully I won't end up like them.’’

He shrugged. ’’Either way, you're his now.’’

That made my brows shoot up. ’’Oh really? How odd, because I don't remember agreeing to that.’’

’’He offered you his blood and you drank it. I could smell it on you.’’ Maximus looked at me as though I were slow. ’’What did you think that meant?’’

’’That I needed it because apparently, without ingesting vampire blood my abilities would kill me,’’ I replied, a chill going through me despite the room being warm.

’’Think, Leila,’’ Maximus said coolly. ’’This house has dozens of vampires. Vlad could have summoned any one of us to give you blood. He gave you his blood instead. That makes you his more than if he'd branded his name onto you.’’

’’Wait.’’ I held up a hand even as I continued to shake my head in denial. ’’Marty has been secretly giving me his blood for years. If I belong to anyone, it's him!’’

’’Marty didn't claim you. Vlad has. Earlier today, he rescinded his offer to let me court you, as if I hadn't figured out for myself that you were his now.’’ Maximus gazed at me almost pityingly. ’’And if you care for your friend, you will never tell Vlad you think you belong to Marty. He'll kill him.’’

This was too much. I closed my eyes, drawing in a deep breath.

’’Where is he? I need to talk to him.’’

Maximus's face closed off into polite stoniness. ’’He's detained at present.’’

My teeth ground. ’’Please stop the formal talk, and tell Vlad that he needs to undetain himself.’’

He snorted. ’’That's not how it works. No one gives Vlad orders. When he's available, he'll see you. Having a fit in the interim won't change anything.’’

’’I'm not having a fit.’’ I would, that was for sure, but I'd save it for the vampire who'd declared me his without asking my opinion on the subject.

’’Then would you like to eat here, or the main room?’’ Maximus asked, returning to his original query.

I was too mad to have an appetite, but refusing to eat would only be churlish.

’’Here.’’

Vlad continued to be ’’regrettably detained’’ the next morning and afternoon, too. I was torn between being madder than hell and worried. I didn't know if he was here and refusing to see me-Maximus wouldn't say, and neither would any other vampire I asked-or if he was out somewhere. It was ridiculous to worry about Vlad considering his age and power, but people were out to kill him. That was how I'd been thrust into his life in the first place.

By evening, when someone other than Maximus came to tell me that Vlad was still ’’regrettably detained,’’ I'd had enough. He might not want to see me, but I wouldn't sit here stewing any longer. I changed clothes and then almost ran out of my room.

I went down to the level where Ben and the others lived. I hadn't gone far past the chapel when I heard voices. I followed the sounds to a kitchen where several people were gathered.

’’Leila,’’ Ben said in surprise when he saw me poised by the open door. ’’Hey, come in.’’

I gave Ben a big, almost desperate smile. ’’You know that club you mentioned? Are you guys going tonight?’’

He came over, scratching a hand through his curls. ’’Yeah, but I thought you couldn't go because of, you know. Your condition.’’

’’I can't dance,’’ I said with a short laugh. ’’But I can drain my excess energy into something safe, keep my right hand holstered, and drink with whoever else is knocking 'em back.’’

’’That'll work,’’ Damon said, his mouth still full of whatever he'd been eating.

’’Well, then, sure.’’ Ben smiled. ’’I'm glad you're feeling better. What was wrong, anyway?’’

My abilities are killing me and vampire blood is the only cure.

’’Low iron? I'm okay now. No bleeding or fainting, promise.’’

’’All right, we'll be ready in a minute.’’

Then a depressing realization suddenly filled me. ’’Wait. I don't have any money, and I'm not about to hit up one of Vlad's staff for some.’’

’’Money?’’ Ben laughed. So did everyone else there. ’’You don't need money,’’ Ben went on. ’’Vlad owns the town and we're his special plasma kabobs. Everything is free for us, and as his guest, same goes with you, too.’’

My eyes bugged. ’’He owns the whole town?’’

’’The counties surrounding it, too. Romania has communes, and while most people don't own the ones they oversee . . . Vlad has his own way of doing things, doesn't he?’’

He does indeed, I thought, remembering how he hadn't told me the implications behind drinking his blood. Then I forced that thought back and smiled.

’’Then I'm ready whenever you are.’’

Chapter 19

Eight of us piled into a different limousine than the one Vlad and I had arrived in. Due to the freezing temperature, I wore a long, thick coat over my dress. It also acted as a protective barrier for my right hand, which I kept tucked inside it. Once we were all in the vehicle, however, it didn't move though the driver sat at the wheel with the engine running.

’’What's the hold up, Hunter?’’ Ben asked.

’’Getting authorization,’’ Hunter replied, and then rolled up the privacy glass.

’’Authorization? Since when?’’ Ben muttered.


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