Once Burned Page 17

I set the skull down, blinking past the sudden moisture in my gaze.

’’She's not one of them. She was next to me when everyone started panicking, and she brushed my hand . . .’’

And that ended up killing her, whether my touch had stopped her heart or knocked her unconscious long enough for the fire to finish her. I never should have gone to the club last night. If I'd stayed in, this girl would still be alive.

’’No, Leila,’’ Vlad said quietly. ’’Her blood is on my hands because she was killed by my enemies. Even if you'd touched her out of sheer carelessness, without that attack, she would have survived. Don't carry sins that aren't yours.’’

I swiped my eyes and silently resolved to get another huge rubber glove at once-and never go out without it no matter how much unwanted attention it drew. Then I grasped one of the other charred skulls. Vlad was right. First things first.

More colorless images skipped across my mind. This skull belonged to the vampire Maximus had decapitated. His name was Cordon, and seeing his worst sin made bile rise in my throat. I tried to push past that and the images of his death to see what happened before. It felt like watching a movie on rewind because everything moved so fast as to be mostly incomprehensible. That was one of the drawbacks to pulling information from bones. They held a lot more history than a single object.

Vlad and Maximus remained silent, which helped with my concentration. After several minutes, I caught a scene that seemed promising: Cordon and the silver-haired vampire, their expressions serious as a distinguished-looking man in his forties with a frame like a tree trunk barked at them in a very odd-sounding language.

This was the other drawback to pulling information from bones-I wasn't experiencing everything as though it was happening to me. If I had been, then I'd understand what was being said because I'd be in Cordon's mind, but this was similar to linking to someone in the present. I was merely an invisible observer in the memory I'd stumbled across.

’’I think I've got something,’’ I said aloud. ’’I see two of the vampires from the attack and it looks like they're getting orders, but I don't understand the language.’’

’’I'm fluent in dozens of languages, repeat whatever you hear,’’ Vlad directed.

The other man had spoken rapidly and the language wasn't easy to replicate, but I gave it my best shot. After I parroted some sentences that may or may not have been accurate, Vlad's whistle yanked my attention away from the memory.

’’I believe you've found our elusive puppet master.’’

I disengaged the link to center my attention back on him. ’’You understood him? What language was it?’’

’’Old Novgorod.’’ A tight smile twisted his lips. ’’I haven't heard that since I was a boy. Either he is at least as old as I am, or he's very clever by communicating through a dialect few knew even before it became extinct.’’

’’What was he saying?’’

His smile remained, but his expression hardened. ’’You were missing a few words, but I heard enough to determine that surveillance equipment in the town alerted them to your presence. Once you were spotted, his men were told that if they couldn't succeed in returning with you, they were to kill you.’’

Considering the silver-haired vampire had broken my legs and left me trapped in a burning building, the ’’capture or kill’’ order didn't come as a surprise. Still, it didn't give me the warm fuzzies. Before, I'd wanted to help Vlad catch the mastermind because then I would be safe. Now, I wanted to catch the bastard so he could pay for everything he'd put me through.

’’Tell me more and you'll get your vengeance,’’ Vlad promised. ’’Do you know his name or where he is?’’

’’No,’’ I said, and explained why. Even their surroundings were of no use. The three men had been in small room with wall-to-wall concrete and not much else. Vlad stroked his jaw when I was finished, his expression thoughtful.

’’Maximus,’’ he said at last. ’’Find out who the world's best sketch artist is, and have him or her here by dawn.’’

Chapter 22

The other bones didn't reveal anything significant. Just more images of their owners'sins and more flashbacks of the distinguished-looking gentleman who spoke Old Novgorod. Vlad left to find the surveillance equipment and to, I assumed, burn the ass off anyone involved with its setup. I kept trying to sort through the deluge of memories to discover more about the people behind the bones, but after several frustrating hours, I called it a day. The truth was that I might be giving myself a headache for nothing. Now that I had a face behind last night's attack, if the sketch artist panned out and Vlad recognized him . . . checkmate would come tomorrow.

That left tonight to settle the other issues between us.

I ate dinner alone in the wood-paneled sitting room that adjoined my new bedroom. Then I stayed there after the plates were cleared away. The modern leather furniture and large flat-screen TV looked out of place next to the antique bookcase containing editions so old, I could barely read the letters on the bindings. Those contrasts in extremes, plus the ancient shield above the fireplace bearing the same dragon design as Vlad's ring, made me guess where the other door in this room led to. Therefore, when I heard it open, I didn't turn my head, but stayed on the couch and continued to stare into the crackling orange flames.

A tall form blinked out of the corner of my eye before I felt warm, strong hands slide down my arms and then the rasp of stubble against my cheek. Despite my resolve to settle a few things first, I couldn't help but think that the heat seemed to travel from his hands down to a specific place in my body.

’’Wait,’’ I said, but the word came out wispy.

Dark laughter made my neck tingle where it landed.

’’How unconvincing. Try again.’’

I couldn't stop my eyes from closing when his mouth settled in the same spot where his breath had been. A slow graze of his lips had me exhaling in pleasure, then the sudden firm suction made desire stab me right in the center even as I gasped.

’’Vlad!’’

Another chuckle before I felt the dangerously sensual pressure of fangs. Vlad continued to draw on my neck, those sharp teeth grazing my skin without breaking it. My pulse jumped against his mouth as if begging to be bitten, but then I slid off the couch, pivoting to face him.

He stalked over, his eyes glowing with emerald highlights. Now that I got my first look at him, I saw that his cuffs were undone and the top buttons of his black shirt open, that V of hard flesh entrapping my gaze even as I backed away. The most I'd seen of his skin before was when he rolled up his sleeve to give me his blood. I found myself wondering if his chest had the same crisp dusting of hair as his arms, or if the hint of darkness I glimpsed was from the firelight's shifting shadows.

His teeth bared in something too predatory to be called a smile. ’’You'll soon find out.’’

I stretched out my hands as if to ward him off. ’’Not yet. I want to know what your end game is first.’’

Another flash of teeth, this time showing his fangs. ’’To have you screaming my name within the hour.’’

Those words made my pulse pound so strongly that my neck felt like it vibrated. His gaze flicked there and then he reached me in the next stride, catching my hands and using them to pull me closer. Excitement shot through me as he pressed our bodies together, his arms a sensual cage around me. When I felt something hard pulsing against my belly, lust burst forth with enough strength to shove my other concerns aside. I wanted to touch him there. Taste him. Feel him so deep inside me that I screamed out his name just like he promised-

’’Not until you tell me the catch to sleeping with you,’’ I managed before those cravings washed away all rational thought.

He'd already slipped his hands under my sweater and unhooked my bra, but at that, he paused.

’’The catch?’’

My rapid breathing made the words come out jumbled. ’’Yes, the catch, cost, downside, or thing that will make me say, 'Oh, shit'tomorrow when it's too late. Tell me now.’’

He pulled back to stare at me in the strangest way, like he was amused but also debating whether to ignore me and finish taking off my bra.

’’Ah, that catch,’’ he said at last. ’’To start, if you betray me with another man, I'll burn him to death in front of you.’’

I'd expected something like that, but I wasn't about to agree without conditions. ’’Only if you hold yourself to the same standard, and don't pull any of that 'You're mine'garbage if things don't work out between us.’’

His hands left my back to weave in my hair. Then he leaned down until his face was very close to mine.

’’I never set a standard that I won't keep myself, and if you ever want out, you need only say the word. But mean it, Leila, because once I leave, I'm gone forever.’’

Vlad's eyes bled back to deep copper as he spoke, and though they were no longer glowing in that inhuman way, somehow, they were more compelling.

’’Right back at you,’’ I said, matching his unyielding stare. ’’Is that all?’’

His lips twisted. ’’No. I can give you honesty, monogamy, and more passion than you can stand, but not love. That emotion died in me long ago, as I suspect you already know.’’

I took a deep breath, fighting a twinge that made no sense because he was right. I had guessed that about him.

’’Good,’’ I replied in a steady voice. ’’I was worried that you'd turn into one of those obsessed, emo movie vampires, and that would be embarrassing for both of us.’’

His laughter rang out before changing into something rougher and infinitely more sensual. Emerald overtook his gaze once again.

’’Enough talk,’’ he muttered, and lowered his head.

The firm warmth of his lips combined with the dominating flicks of his tongue made me groan deep in my throat. Desire unfurled as he held me closer, his hand slowly tightening in my hair while I gave myself up to the aphrodisiac of his kiss. His other hand left a trail of heat down my back as he explored my curves with possessive hunger. My loins clenched in response, that inner throb almost painfully insistent. I clutched him, digging my fingers into his back and sending a sharp bolt into him before I moved my right hand away.

He clasped it immediately, pressing it back to his body. ’’Don't take your hands off me even once tonight.’’

His voice was harsh with lust, the order more growled than spoken. Then he bent, sweeping me up and covering my mouth with another searing kiss as he strode toward the door.

The one that didn't lead to my room.

It took several of his long, swift strides before he set me on something soft. I'd closed my eyes while kissing him, but when he pulled away, allowing me much needed gulps of air, I opened them-and saw darkness all around. It took a second to see that the darkness was drapes surrounding the bed. They looked black, but I knew they were darkest green instead. Vlad was a shadow looming over me, the brightness in his gaze providing the only illumination in the room.

It wasn't enough. ’’I want to see you,’’ I said, not caring that my voice sounded shaky from passion.

Light blazed in dozens of places as candles I hadn't seen all ignited at once. They showed a staggeringly large room with a high, triangular ceiling and countless rows of shelves, but I only looked behind him for a second. Then my attention was all for Vlad as he drew his shirt off and discarded his pants in one seemingly simultaneous movement.

I sucked in a breath. Candlelight adorned his bare skin as though trying to caress it, showing broad shoulders, corded arms, thickly muscled legs, and a hard chest that was faintly dusted with hair. That hair followed a tempting dark line down his flat stomach before thickening once it met his groin. When my gaze reached that part of him, I stared. Age-old instinct made moisture flare between my legs, yet I also felt a sliver of apprehension. Everyone said the first time hurt, but at least I was no stranger to pain.

I led my armies from the front, Vlad had said. The proof was all over his body, from the scars that adorned his skin in random white patterns to the muscles that flexed and bunched with his slightest movement. If he'd looked like one of those effeminate magazine models, I wouldn't have felt such a powerful swell of lust, but there was nothing boyish or plastic about Vlad. He was devastatingly masculine, and all of that untamed sensuality was now mine to savor. The knowledge caused another rush of heat between my legs.

’’If I didn't want you so much,’’ he said in a deadly purr, ’’I'd let you keep f**king me with your gaze, but you make me impatient.’’

He grasped my ankles as he spoke, stripping off my shoes. I pulled my sweater and unhooked bra over my head, breathless but also a little self-conscious as his hot stare moved over my breasts. His body was so magnificent that I wished I had more for him to look at, but my chest maxed out at a B-cup.

’’Never disparage yourself to me.’’ The words were low, but they vibrated with force. ’’You're mercilessly beautiful, and it's taking all of my control to go slowly with you.’’

A stronger wave of desire filled me, causing me to tremble from its intensity. I'd never wanted anything more than this, so I didn't see any reason to wait.

’’I wish you wouldn't go slowly.’’

Chapter 23

Vlad's gaze blazed a brighter shade of emerald. Then my skirt and panties were yanked off with a distinct ripping sound. My breath caught when he settled his body over mine, his skin so warm that he felt fevered. Then more aching ripples of desire surged through me when he caressed my br**sts and pinched my ni**les to throbbing tips.

His skillful hands and that taut, muscled body covering mine sent my need into near desperation. I pulled his head down and slanted my lips over his, thrusting my tongue into his mouth with blatant demand. An appreciative rumble sounded before he sucked on it and then ravaged my mouth with kisses hard enough to bruise. I didn't care. Anything less wouldn't be enough.


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