Once Burned Page 16

’’Maximus!’’ I shouted, hoping he'd managed to defeat Silver Hair and the other vampires. ’’Maximus, I'm here!’’

Nothing but the still-blaring music and ominous breaking sounds that probably indicated the club was starting to fall apart. I coughed more, feeling light-headed. What had the fireman whose near-death experience I'd relived done to save himself? He'd covered up, for starters.

I grabbed every coat I could and piled them on top of me. The heat was unbearable, but they'd provide a barrier against the flames. Then I took one of the thinner coats and wrapped it around my mouth, trying to use it as a filter against the smoke.

’’Maximus!’’ I screamed again. ’’Maximus, where are you?’’

Still no response. Panic rose but I pushed it back. If there was one thing I'd learned, it was that panicking never helped anyone. Okay, either Maximus couldn't hear me above the music and crumbling structure, or he was dead. I'd have to try something else.

I got as low as I could, keeping the blankets over me and trying to think past the dizziness and searing pain that radiated all through me. If only I had something of Vlad's, then I could link to him for help. Even if he wasn't near enough to come himself, he could tell someone where I was. But I didn't, and I hadn't seen him today.

Maybe desperation gave me the crazy idea, maybe it was the growing lack of oxygen to my brain, but I stuck my right hand under the coat and began to rub my lips. Please, oh, please, let Vlad have felt something when he touched them yesterday! If that near-kiss hadn't meant anything to him, then I was a dead woman. But if he'd felt a strong enough emotion, I might be able to find a hint of his essence that I could follow back to him-

The cloak room vanished, replaced by Vlad encased in an indigo background that took me a moment to realize was the night sky. Relief made me want to weep, but before I could say anything, his voice cut across my mind.

’’Leila, where are you?’’

I didn't answer out loud because I was coughing too much.

In the coatroom at the club.

’’Get out,’’ he said tightly. ’’You must know it's on fire.’’

Do you think that escaped my notice? I asked in disbelief. My legs are broken and part of the wall is pinning me.

His eyes closed. When they opened, they were bright green.

’’I'm only minutes away. Cover yourself with whatever is near and stay as close to the floor as you can.’’

A coughing fit kept me from responding because it took all of my concentration to breathe. I wasn't sure if the roaring in my ears was the flames eating through the walls or an indication that I was about to pass out.

Already done, I managed before my mind started to wander even more. Part of me knew that was a very bad sign, but the rest of me didn't care.

’’Leila,’’ Vlad said sharply. ’’Do not pass out.’’

So arrogant, I thought. As if you can order someone to stay conscious. Bit by bit, my coughing lessened, as did the agony in my legs. The relief from the pain was overwhelming in more ways than one. If I couldn't feel my legs, maybe I wouldn't feel the fire.

’’You won't burn.’’ Even amidst my drifting away, I caught the vehemence in his voice. ’’I will make it in time.’’

I didn't respond. Vlad said something else, but it was lost in the beautiful roar all around me. If I concentrated on it, I felt like I could fly. I focused on that, and soon everything began to fade away. I was lighter, floating, free . . .

Pain dragged me back into consciousness with pitiless abruptness. I wasn't on the floor anymore, but wrapped inside a hard embrace as Vlad picked me up. Red and orange flames were all around us, their heat blistering, but then the flames extinguished and a path cleared as if by magic. Vlad strode through it and soon the choking smoke vanished, replaced by flashing lights and soot-streaked people. He bit his wrist, and then something warm and wet pressed against my mouth.

’’Drink,’’ he ordered.

His dark hair curtained everything else from view as he kept his face close to mine, making sure I swallowed in between fits of coughing. Pain erupted in my legs before fading into a dull ache and then finally an odd itching. My coughing lessened, too, though I still couldn't seem to draw enough air into my lungs. Finally Vlad removed his wrist, and my head fell back against the cradle of his arm.

’’You made it,’’ I said weakly.

His smile was brief-and fierce. ’’I told you I would.’’

Vlad flew me back to the house, but instead of stopping at the second floor, he strode up to the fourth and deposited me in a stunningly gothic room with a high, triangular ceiling. With its size and grandeur, I would've thought it was his room, but the bed didn't have those distinctive midnight-green drapes.

’’What's wrong with the other room?’’ I asked, still feeling dizzy and worn out even though his blood had healed my injuries.

He pulled my boots off, tossing them to the floor before he whisked back the covers and set me on the bed.

’’Someone wanted you badly enough to attack on my territory. It's been a hundred years since anyone dared such a thing, so you'll stay close to me until I find them.’’

I closed my eyes, guilt and anger swarming me. ’’Maximus?’’

’’I saw him, he's alive,’’ Vlad said, to my vast relief.

He settled the blankets over me. I normally hated anyone treating me like I was helpless-I'd had enough of that when I'd been helpless right after the accident-but now, I didn't mind. Having the most dangerous vampire in the world look after me somehow made me feel safe, and after nearly burning to death, I wanted to hold on to that feeling a little longer.

’’How did you end up trapped in the cloakroom?’’ Vlad asked almost casually. ’’Maximus was supposed to protect you.’’

I grimaced at the memory. ’’A silver-haired vampire who looked a little like Anderson Cooper threw me into it after I electrocuted him.’’

Both dark brows went up. ’’You attacked him?’’

’’Maximus was fighting the other three vamps and Silver had just killed Hunter. He was about to jump Maximus, so I zapped him. It gave Maximus time to beat one of the vamps and get out of the way. But Silver Hair was pissed and chucked me through the coatroom wall to show it.’’

’’What were you thinking, risking yourself that way?’’ Vlad muttered.

Did he miss the part where Maximus was about to get killed? ’’I'm drunk,’’ I said testily. ’’I'll try anything if I'm drunk.’’

His teeth flashed in a quick grin. ’’I'll remember that. We'll speak more about this tomorrow. Now, you need to rest.’’

His authoritative tone reminded me of why I'd gone to the club in the first place. Despite feeling like I might conk out, I pushed myself up on the pillows.

’’Not yet. We have some things to clear up first.’’

’’Such as?’’ The question was mild, but his eyes glinted.

’’Why have you been avoiding me?’’

’’I haven't. I was out gathering items with Mencheres and the others. I'd only been back an hour when Ben called to report the attack on the club.’’

His gaze never wavered, but . . . ’’Then why did Maximus say you ordered him to shadow me there?’’

’’He called to tell me what you were doing.’’ Vlad's tone hardened. ’’Though it seems you did a better job protecting him.’’

Okay, so he hadn't been ducking me. That left the bigger issue.

’’Why didn't you tell me there was a catch to drinking your blood? Maximus said that doing it made me, ah . . .’’

’’Mine,’’ Vlad finished without hesitation.

My temper rose at his complete self-assuredness. ’’I didn't agree to that, so forget it.’’

He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned down, setting his arms on either side of my face.

’’You think my blood is the only tie between us?’’

His voice was low, yet edged with palpable hunger. It seemed to rub me in places I'd only ever touched before, making my anger fade under a flash of desire. Vlad was so close that his hair was a shadowy veil all around me, and when he began to caress my face with light, sure strokes, it was all I could do not to close my eyes in bliss.

’’This is our true tie,’’ he whispered, his breath falling hotly onto my lips. ’’You're meant for me, and I will have you.’’

Then his mouth lowered in a hard, claiming kiss. A groan parted my lips and his tongue snaked between them to stroke mine with sensual dominance. He tasted like sin made into wine: dark, heady, and impossible to resist. The raw demand in his kiss and his hard body pressing me into the bed made my nerve endings flare with blinding sensation. Need overwhelmed me, causing an exquisitely painful clenching in my loins. I pulled him closer, tangling my hand in his hair and gasping when I felt his fangs slide out. My trepidation vanished when he kissed me deeper, drawing my tongue into his mouth and sucking on it until the throbbing between my legs matched the pace of my pulse.

Suddenly, he was across the room, his eyes scalding green and a bulge straining against the front of his pants.

’’If I don't stop now, I'll forget about searching for your attackers or you still being weak. Rest. I'll see you soon.’’

Vlad was gone before I had the chance to reply. I blew out a frustrated sigh. Rest, riiiight. As if anyone could rest after that.

Chapter 21

After some pacing drained away the last of my energy, I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, I'd come to two decisions. The first was that I was ha**g s*x with Vlad despite the dangers of a relationship with him. The second was that I needed to go back to the club. Right away.

I showered and got dressed, noting that sometime while I'd slept, the dressers and wardrobe had been stocked with clothes from my old room. This room had two doorways, and after determining that one led to an elegant sitting area, I went out the other into a long hallway with only two more doors until it opened into what looked like a set of interior crossroads.

Damn huge house. I should've paid more attention when Vlad carried me here last night, but I'd still been a little woozy.

’’Hello?’’ I called out. Someone else had to be up here. Vlad said his most trusted staff had their rooms on this floor.

I heard a door open, and then Maximus's voice.

’’I'm coming, Leila.’’

He appeared moments later, wearing the same ripped and soot-stained clothes from last night. Once he saw me, he shocked me by dropping to one knee.

’’No apologies are adequate for my leaving you in danger . . . nor can I ever thank you enough for saving my life.’’

I glanced around, glad no one else was witnessing this. ’’Maximus, get up,’’ I urged. ’’You were fighting several vampires. It's not like you decided to go out for a beer.’’

He rose, but his head remained bowed. ’’I thought the silver-haired one took you. He escaped while I fought the others, so after I killed them, I chased after him. I should have searched the bar instead. You almost burned because of me.’’

I smiled bleakly. ’’And Hunter's dead because of me. We could spend the day piling on the guilt, or you can help me make it right by taking me to those other vamps'bones.’’

Now Maximus did look up at me. In confusion. ’’Their bones?’’

’’Vampires might shrivel into beef jerky when they die, but they leave their skeletons behind,’’ I said with grim satisfaction. ’’Nothing's filled with someone's essence more than their bones. Let me touch them, and I can tell you who they were, and if we're lucky, who sent them.’’

Maximus began to smile with such savage anticipation that it made me glad I wasn't on his shit list.

’’I'll have them brought here at once. In the meantime, you must eat.’’

I waved a hand. ’’Not hungry, thanks.’’

He gave me a stern look. ’’You barely ate yesterday and you were almost killed last night. Soon you will use more of your power. Vlad's blood cannot sustain all of your body's needs.’’

Crap, he was right. All I'd had to eat since breakfast yesterday was vampire blood. I wasn't about to get in the habit of blood being the main staple of my diet.

’’On second thought, I'm starving.’’

I'd finished a large helping of eggs Benedict when Vlad strode into the dining room. He dropped a burlap sack onto the table and then stood behind my chair, leaning down to brush his lips against my cheek.

’’Beautiful and diabolical. You make me impatient indeed to claim you.’’

I shivered at the graze of his mouth and his seductively growled words. If he used that same tone of voice in bed, he could probably get away with skipping foreplay.

He laughed, his hands settling on my shoulders. ’’I very much enjoy foreplay. Didn't your vision show you that?’’

I closed my eyes against the flash of memory those words elicited, trying to will away the instant clenching in my loins. Stop. We have killers to catch, remember?

’’Yes, first things first. Maximus, quit lurking and come in, I might need you. Leila, are you finished eating?’’

Did he think I'd want dessert before attempting to find who murdered Hunter and tried to kidnap me again?

Vlad came out from behind my chair and swept my dishes aside, his lips curling.

’’Straight to business-another thing we have in common. The fire caused the building to collapse so this bag contains random remains, but some are bound to be your attackers.’’

Maximus entered the dining room, his expression stony as Vlad emptied the bag where my breakfast plates had been. Four skulls and various other bones spilled onto the shiny oak surface, Vlad catching one of the craniums before it rolled off.

’’May as well start here,’’ he said, holding it out to me.

I mentally braced myself and then took the skull. A black and white stream of images played across my mind, showing a laughing girl named Tanya who looked to be the same age as my sister and whose worst sin was shoplifting.


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