Once Burned Page 15

Since me, I thought, tensing in anger. If Vlad was available to forbid me from leaving, he'd damn well better be available for me to speak with.

From their glances, everyone began to figure out that I was the reason for the delay, but they chatted as though nothing was amiss. After about ten minutes, the privacy glass came down. Maximus now sat in the passenger seat, glaring at me.

’’Did you really think you could sneak away?’’

That brought the conversation to a halt. I stared back at him, my temper flaring.

’’I'm not sneaking anywhere. I'm going out with the other residents of this house. I notice they didn't have to check in with anyone before leaving, so why should I?’’

’’Because you belong to Vlad,’’ Maximus said at once.

My fists clenched. Not this again.

Ben caught my frustrated clenching. ’’Hey, it's cool. We all belong to Vlad,’’ he said, patting my knee in a comforting way.

Maximus's gaze went from gray to bright green in an instant. ’’Not like she does, so remove your hand or I will remove it from your body. No one touches her except Vlad.’’

Ben's hand flew off my knee as if I'd channeled lightning into him. Maximus's meaning could not have been clearer. I was torn between wanting to sink into the seat in embarrassment-or leaping forward and electrocuting him. The latter was more appealing, but then it would ruin my plans for the evening.

’’Now that you've marked your master's territory for him, can we leave?’’ I asked, icicles hanging off every syllable.

He nodded at the driver, and the car took off. Sandra nudged Joe and hissed, ’’Raise the glass.’’ He pressed the button, and the front seat was once more blocked off.

As soon as it was up-as if that would keep Maximus from overhearing us-Sandra grinned at me. ’’Leila,’’ she said in an admiring voice, ’’you must tell us everything!’’

I was getting drunk. Rip-roaring, stinking, worshipping-at-the-porcelain-altar drunk. Damn Maximus for his big mouth, and damn Vlad for his incomprehensible arrogance.

’’It's not like that,’’ I muttered, looking out the window rather than at the seven sets of eyes fixed on me. ’’Nothing's happened between us.’’

Sandra let out a knowing laugh. ’’But Vlad must intend for something to happen to make it known that you're his.’’

Not without me agreeing to it, I thought grimly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ben shake his head. ’’I should've known something was up when Vlad came himself after you fainted. If any of us gets sick or injured, we get sent a doctor, but we don't see him.’’

Several murmurs of agreement. I still said nothing, but I filed that away for potential mulling later.

’’Tell me about this club,’’ I said, changing the subject.

From their description, even on a winter week night it would be busy since it was the only one in a town of about three thousand. We arrived in thirty minutes. I was by the door, so I got out first, looking around.

FANE'S was on the front of the two-story, wood and stone building. A long stone chimney puffed smoke into the clear night. The other buildings on this street looked closed, but across the street, some of them had their lights on. I liked how the streetlights resembled iron lanterns on tall poles. It added to the aged feel of the town.

Maximus got out of the limo but stayed close to me. ’’What, are you my babysitter tonight?’’ I grumbled.

He shrugged. ’’Call it what you like.’’

Wait until I saw Vlad. This sort of crap might have worked in the fifteenth century, but it would backfire on him now.

’’Do me a favor,’’ I said, not bitching at Maximus only because I still felt guilty over yesterday. ’’Stay far enough away so I don't look like I've got a Viking-sized backpack?’’

Maximus smiled slightly and held open the door. ’’I'll try.’’

I went in, surprised to see that on the inside, Fane's didn't look very different from the bars back in Gibsonton. A smattering of tables took up the space leading to the long, curving bar, with a fireplace adding to the restaurantlike atmosphere. Sandra first took me to the coatroom, where all of us unloaded our heavy outerwear. Then I followed her to the bar and took the seat she kindly saved for me.

’’What will you have to drink?’’ she asked.

Red wine was normally my drink of choice, but tonight, I wanted something harder.

’’Vodka and cranberry juice, if they have it. If not, vodka and whatever they have to mix it in.’’

She grinned. ’’Oslow!’’ she called out. The bartender turned. ’’O vodka si un suc de coacaze in contul voivode.’’

The only word I recognized out of that last sentence was voivode. Prince. ’’What did you say?’’

’’I ordered your drink and told him to put it on the prince's tab.’’

’’Does everyone know who Vlad is?’’ I asked in surprise.

Sandra ran a hand through her golden-red hair before answering. ’’In this town, many know, but few speak of it, and never to outsiders. Romanians revere the heroes of their history and they know how to keep secrets.’’

Then she slanted a glance at me. ’’As the object of the prince's desire, many would consider you a very lucky woman.’’

’’It's the 'object'part I have the biggest problem with,’’ I muttered, picking up my drink as soon as it was set in front of me. ’’And I'm going to need a lot more of these before I feel anything close to lucky.’’

Six vodka cranberries later, I allowed Sandra to talk me into going to the second floor where the dance area was. Sandra, Ben, and the others seemed to get a kick out of forming a protective circle around me. I kept my right hand glued to my hip and danced like I didn't have a care in the world. I might not understand the lyrics, but a good beat needed no translation.

A few more drinks later, I'd decided that tonight was the best night I'd had in years when a crashing noise sounded above the blaring music. The floor shuddered, too, making me look around in confusion. Did Romania get earthquakes? I wasn't the only one peering about, but then I heard Maximus's roar.

’’Hunter, get her out of here!’’

That was when I smelled the smoke. Another tremendous boom shook the dance floor, and people began to scream.

’’Fire!’’ Sandra shouted, in case the smoke and panic hadn't clued me in.

My circle of friends disintegrated as the crowd scrambled en masse toward the staircase. I tried to keep my right hand from touching anyone, but the crush became too tight. The person next to me dropped to the floor when she was shoved into me. Grayish images of shoplifting filled my mind, and when I blinked back into reality, I didn't see her anymore. The rough jostling had propelled me away. I tried to find her, afraid she'd get trampled.

I tucked my right hand into my armpit to prevent any more accidental contact and fought my way through the crowd, heading away from the staircase. I couldn't risk trying to get out with so many people around me. I might kill someone, if I hadn't already. Maybe Maximus or Hunter could help me with the woman I'd electrocuted. Where were they?

I finally made my way to the balcony. Something blurry caught my gaze below, and another crash shook the rapidly emptying dance floor. That blur became a flash of blond and brawn-Maximus, shaking debris off him as he advanced toward three people who weren't moving even though dozens in the crowd surged against them.

When I saw the distinct flash of silver in the strangers'grips, I understood. This wasn't an accident. It was an attack.

Something hard closed around my arm, whirling me around. I had a second to recognize Hunter the limo driver before he threw me over his shoulder and headed not for the staircase, but the window across the room.

’’Wait!’’ I said, pounding on his back. ’’Grab the woman, too. She's somewhere on the floor, and she's hurt!’’

He didn't stop. ’’You're important. She's not.’’

’’Asshole!’’ I spat, pounding harder. ’’Turn around now-’’

Glass shards tore the back of my legs as another boom sounded, only this one wasn't below us. It was in front of us.

’’Ah, there she is,’’ an unfamiliar voice stated.

Hunter stilled, and I craned to see around him, but his grip on me was too tight.

’’Vlad will kill you,’’ he hissed at whoever had smashed through the window.

’’Not if we kill him first,’’ the other man replied without concern, and then I was dumped on the floor, my head banging painfully against the hard wood.

Even though stars went off in my vision, I had enough sense to scramble back. The smoke was getting thicker, making me cough as I blinked to clear my gaze. The first thing I saw was Hunter and a young man with prematurely silver hair locked in a death match that lasted only long enough for me to grab the balcony rail and pull myself to my feet. Then Hunter fell back, a knife protruding from his chest, his features starting to shrivel before my shocked gaze. The silver-haired vampire looked up from him to smile at me.

’’Frankie, isn't it?’’ he asked pleasantly.

My first instinct was to turn and run, but I didn't. The fact that he hadn't grabbed me yet meant he wanted to toy with me. Great, a murdering sadist, as if I hadn't met enough of those lately. I glanced to my right and then back at him.

’’Yeah, I'm Frankie,’’ I breathed. ’’Nice to meet you.’’ And then I vaulted over the balcony rail.

My gamble paid off because he clearly hadn't been expecting that. I landed on one of the few patrons who hadn't run out of the club yet, rolling as soon as I felt warm flesh. That lessened the impact, but the person still screamed and then limped toward the exit, coughing at the increasing smoke.

I didn't get more than a step in that direction before a thud sounded behind me and rough hands seized me.

’’Ooh, you do give off quite a charge, don't you?’’ Silver Hair commented.

With his grip, I couldn't raise my right hand to zap him properly, and time was running out. Flames crawled up the club's walls as if they had their own agenda. Multiple crashing noises indicated that Maximus was still fighting, but the screams had died down. Almost everyone seemed to have made it out of the club. Music continued to blare, making it hard for me to hear what Maximus and the other vampires were saying, but I caught ’’Frankie’’ a few times and knew, with a sinking feeling, that I was the reason behind this attack.

Silver Hair glanced behind me and sighed. ’’Looks like they need help killing him,’’ he said in mock annoyance. ’’Stay here.’’

His foot shot out with brutal efficiency. Two kicks later, and I fell to the ground, tears streaming from my eyes. My calves bent at awkward angles, broken so badly that bone protruded from the skin. Silver Hair smiled and then walked toward Maximus, who had his back to him as he fought the three other vampires. Almost leisurely, Silver Hair pulled out his knife.

Hunter had been slaughtered trying to protect me. Now Maximus was about to die. I dragged myself toward them, crying out at the white-hot pain of my broken legs scraping across the floor, but not stopping.

Silver Hair must have heard my cry, but he didn't turn around. He had no fear of me stopping him, and that made my fury grow. Fear for Maximus, hatred of Silver Hair, and ever-increasing agony made my right hand do something it had never done before: It began to form a visible sliver of electricity, like a tiny lightning bolt. I looked at it, at Silver Hair-who had almost reached Maximus-and then crawled faster. More blinding pain shot through me, but that sliver increased, growing longer and thicker.

Silver Hair's companions saw him behind Maximus and doubled their attack. Maximus fell back, not knowing he put himself closer to Silver Hair. I crawled faster, almost delirious from the pain, but through my tears and the smoke, I saw Silver Hair raise his knife. Now my cry was one of pure despair. I wasn't going to make it. I was still a dozen feet away-

A blast of white shot from my hand, quick as a thunderbolt and long as a whip. It cracked across Silver Hair's back, ripping his shirt and making his whole body glow for a split second. He fell to his knees, the knife fusing to his hand as the electrical currents melded his flesh around it. Maximus didn't glance away at the distraction, but one of his enemies did, and with a savage swipe, Maximus's knife cleaved through the vampire's neck. He dropped over, headless.

Silver Hair turned around and glared at me. I recognized that look-I'd seen it on many faces right before someone got killed. I tried to summon another whiplike bolt from my hand, but I felt more drained than I ever had before. I started to crawl away only because I didn't want to die without trying, but I wasn't surprised to be hauled up moments later.

’’Bitch,’’ Silver Hair snarled, lifting me until our faces were level. ’’Now you'll stay put.’’

Then he flung me backward so hard that the last thing I felt was a wall breaking behind me.

Chapter 20

The pain must've caused me to pass out, because when I opened my eyes, it looked like I was under a blanket, but that was impossible. I was still somewhere in the burning club, wasn't I?

I pushed the blanket off me, and smoke immediately had me coughing so hard, my throat felt stripped. Yep, still in the club, and I hadn't been covered by a blanket, but a coat. Several of them were around me, some still on hooks, some fallen from where my impact had knocked them loose. Silver Hair had flung me right through the wall into the coatroom.

I tried to crawl away-and screamed. Pieces of the wall had collapsed on my broken legs, pinning them. The hole I'd made was too far up for me to peer through to see if Maximus was still out there. And the walls around me were getting hot while the smoke continued to make breathing an effort.

Amidst the searing pain and coughing, I had a moment of clarity. I couldn't get out myself, so unless someone came to get me, I was dead. If I was lucky, the smoke would kill me first. If I wasn't, well . . . the pain in my legs would be bliss compared to what burning to death felt like.

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