Once Burned Page 19

’’Good morning, yourself,’’ I said huskily.

He gave me another, far shorter kiss before releasing me. Then he looked over my shoulder.

’’Shrapnel, let it be known that henceforth, no one needs my permission to tell Leila where I am, or where anyone else is, either. If she has a question, answer it.’’

I turned in time to see Shrapnel bow, first to Vlad, and then to me. Then he walked away, disappearing into one of the many rooms in this house.

’’Tell me sleeping with you didn't automatically upgrade me to bowing status,’’ I said, uncomfortable.

Vlad's chuckle was confirmation enough of my suspicion.

’’Really?’’ How twisted.

His arms slid around my waist as he leaned down, pinpricks of emerald in the coppery depths of his eyes. ’’Of course my people will now treat you with the utmost respect. I told you;I don't take many lovers. You're also the only one I've shared my bed with, and the first to sleep in the room adjoining mine.’’

I didn't know what to say. A tiny part of me thought it was chauvinistic that Vlad had had se* with those other women, yet hadn't deemed them worthy to share his bed or the closest room. That, however, was overshadowed by the fluttering of my heart and the sudden urge I had to pump both fists into the air.

But maybe he had another reason. A practical one. Vlad might not want me to relive images of him with other women if I touched the wrong item in one of his usual tryst rooms.

His lips curled. ’’How admirably jaded of you to think that, but I could always change out the furnishings in another room if I didn't want you to see such things.’’

That was true. Way to wreck a nice moment, Leila!

’’Sorry. You know I'm winging all of this, but even if I'd been a through dozen prior relationships . . . I don't know if any of them would've prepared me for being with you.’’

’’They wouldn't,’’ he said with complete assuredness.

His arrogance really would take some getting used to.

’’Then let me say what I should've said in the first place.’’ I placed my hands on his chest and stood on tiptoe. ’’I'm glad,’’ I whispered near his ear before kissing it.

His arms tightened around me, one hand sliding down to press my h*ps to his with the same sensual authority he'd shown last night. But we weren't in his bedroom anymore-we were in the large hallway where at least a dozen vampires lurked nearby.

’’Stop,’’ I said, glancing around to see if anyone saw that.

When I looked back, Vlad's gaze more than half glinted with emerald. ’’If that sketch artist wasn't here, I wouldn't stop.’’

Then he let me go, his eyes changing back to deep copper. ’’But Hunter's death needs to be avenged, as does your treatment. Come. Her name is Jillian, and she's in the library.’’

The sketch artist was a petite woman with deep laugh lines and blond hair that had mostly faded to white. Maximus bowed when we came in, but Jillian didn't even seem to notice. She was too busy looking around with the same dazzled expression I'd probably had when I first arrived. The library was two stories tall, a spiral staircase leading to the second level and a massive stone fireplace with crimson Louis XV furniture in the center. Thousands of books filled the shelves, some regular-sized, some so enormous that they must weigh thirty pounds each.

’’Madame, les voila,’’ Maximus said, his gaze lingering on me before he glanced away.

Vlad's hand rested on my waist. Even through my sweater, I felt his temperature suddenly spike. I glanced over, puzzled, but when he addressed Jillian in the same language, he sounded perfectly relaxed. Must be nothing, I decided.

I smiled at her while thinking that I should've studied French instead of Spanish in school. Vlad must have told her not to shake my hand because she didn't make a move toward me, but smiled back while speaking in heavily accented English.

’’Happy to make your meeting, Leila.’’

’’You too,’’ I said, getting the gist of what she meant.

Several sentences in French were directed at Maximus while she gestured to the chairs by the fireplace.

’’She wants you to be comfortable while you describe who you saw,’’ Maximus translated. Then he smiled sardonically at Vlad. ’’And she wants to be paid in gold instead of euros.’’

Vlad flicked his fingers as if he could care less. I sat in the place indicated. Then I glanced over at Vlad.

’’I'll describe him better if I'm holding one of the bones.’’

’’Maximus,’’ Vlad said, with a nod at the door.

He left. Jillian pulled a large pad and several charcoal pencils out of her satchel, humming to herself. Maximus returned moments later with what looked like a femur. Her brows rose, but Vlad said something to her in French that seemed to pacify her.

’’I am ready,’’ she said to me.

Vlad stood behind my chair, resting his hand on my shoulder. ’’Speak normally. I'll translate.’’

I took the bone and placed it on my lap. Then I ran my right hand over it, closing my eyes until I found the man who'd ordered the attack.

’’He has short dark hair with streaks of gray,’’ I began, ’’and a square jaw, kinda like comic book heroes have . . .’’

An hour later, Jillian handed me her pad.

’’Is him?’’ she asked.

Staring back at me was a man with ash-streaked hair, wide forehead, generous mouth, and piercing eyes of indeterminate color. All set off by a handsome face with lines that on men were called ’’character’’ and on women were considered cause for a Botox appointment.

’’That's pretty close,’’ I said, pivoting to hand the picture to Vlad. ’’Well? Do you recognize him?’’

Chapter 25

Vlad looked at the picture, his brows drawn together. After a long moment, he exchanged a glance with Maximus, who shook his head with an expression I couldn't decipher.

Then Vlad turned to me. ’’The only person I know that this picture resembles died a long time ago.’’

’’Oh,’’ I said, disappointed. ’’Well, it's not an exact replica. I'll keep linking through the bones. Maybe there's a detail or two about him that I can describe better.’’

Vlad handed the picture to Maximus. ’’Make a copy and show it to Jackal. Find out if he's encountered this man before.’’

’’Jackal's still alive?’’ I asked in surprise.

’’Of course. Where do you think Shrapnel has been?’’

’’I didn't know he'd been torturing Jackal this whole time!’’ I blurted, forgetting to watch my words in front of Jillian. Hopefully she hadn't understood that.

No such luck. ’’Someone is tortured?’’ Jillian rose, her hand near her mouth. Then a torrent of nervous-sounding French erupted from her as she began to back away.

’’Assieds-toi, ce ne sont pas tes oignons,’’ Vlad said, his eyes flashing bright green.

Whatever he told her, that combined with the power in his gaze worked. She sat, her expression changing from horror to placidness. Satisfied, Vlad turned his attention back to me.

’’Not just Shrapnel. I spend time with Jackal daily, too.’’

Some things I would never get used to with Vlad. This was one of them. I picked my words with care.

’’But you said Jackal didn't know who'd sent him after me, so why all the, ah, extra effort?’’

Vlad shrugged. ’’Due diligence.’’

Only he could describe a week of brutal interrogations so casually.

’’My father would love you,’’ I muttered.

His grin was so at odds with the topic that if I hadn't gotten used to Vlad's quixotic nature, I would've been startled.

’’Most fathers don't.’’

’’Well, mine's a retired lieutenant colonel who swears that water boarding is an acceptable interrogation technique.’’

Another shrug. ’’Fire works faster. Speaking of your family, I have a secure number you can give them. You should contact them soon so they don't worry and report you missing.’’

I cleared my throat. This was an uncomfortable topic to discuss in front of Jillian, even though she seemed oblivious to us at the moment.

’’Not a problem. My dad and I only speak every couple months, and my sister Gretchen and I talk even less.’’

An inner hollowness spread with those words. My dad had been deployed for much of my childhood, so our relationship had always been more of a long-distance one, but Gretchen and I used to be close. All that changed the day my mother died. We hadn't spoken since my aunt's funeral a year ago, and that conversation had been bitter.

Vlad's smile was gone, his expression now flickering between regret and cynicism.

’’Sometimes families bring no peace. On many occasions, my younger brother tried to kill me. Once, he thought he'd succeeded, but I was past mortal death by then.’’ His mouth twisted. ’’Despite this, when Radu died, I mourned him. Family is always irreplaceable, even when they're also irreconcilable.’’

Irreplaceable. Yes, that summed up my mother. My aunt Brenda, too. She'd taken over raising me and Gretchen after my mother's death so we wouldn't have to move all over the world following my father's most recent transfer orders. Aunt Brenda had also been the one to break the news to my dad that something very strange had happened when my damaged nerves regenerated and my whole body began giving off an electrical charge.

I shook my head as if that would clear the memories away. ’’That man you said that picture reminded you of, the one who's dead. Could he have a relative who looked like him?’’ One with a grudge against you? I mentally added.

’’He has no biological family left alive.’’

’’Are you sure?’’ Men fathered secret babies all the time-

’’He'd been a vampire for over a hundred years when he died;it was impossible for him to father children,’’ Vlad stated.

I glanced at Jillian to see if the word vampire freaked her, but she still seemed to be insulated in her happy place.

’’Well, what if he didn't die? The man who ordered an attack on you just happens to resemble a vampire you used to know. What if he's still alive and-’’

’’He's not.’’ Vlad's smile was chillingly pleasant. ’’Mihaly Szilagyi was the first person I ever burned to death.’’

Jillian retired to one of the guest rooms. Vlad wanted her to stay for the next couple days in case I discovered any other pertinent details on the still-nameless puppet master. But though I'd spent the afternoon sifting through a flood of memories from the charred remains, all I'd gotten so far was a funky-looking ring the puppet master wore. And a headache.

Vlad had left me alone to concentrate-and to help Shrapnel do terrible things to Jackal while asking him if he recognized the man in the drawing, no doubt. I hadn't seen Maximus since this morning so I had no idea what he was up to. I wished I could take some headache pills and lie down, but I went to the basement level of the house instead. With the chaos of the past two days, I'd never gotten a chance to thank Ben for calling Vlad when the club was attacked. Without that, Vlad might not have arrived in time, and I'd be burned crispy.

When I went into the kitchen, however, no one was there even though it was close to dinnertime. Curious, I followed the sounds of conversation farther down the hall, coming at last to a large, open lounge area.

Ben, Joe, Damon, Kate, and several others were lined up in front of one of the tall windows that, to my surprise, showed trees in the background. Not all of the basement must be underground, but since the house was on a steep hill I supposed that explained it. Sandra sat on the couch, flipping through a magazine, but she smiled when she looked up and noticed me.

’’Leila!’’

Ben left the window at once. ’’Hey, girl!’’

Soon I was surrounded as the rest of them abandoned their places, too. How happy everyone acted to see me reminded me of the camaraderie the carnies had with each other. I didn't know these people very well, but they'd clearly accepted me as one of their own. I was so touched, if I wouldn't have electrocuted them en masse, I would've tried for a group hug.

’’I'm fine, really,’’ I said for the third time. ’’And Ben, thank you so much for calling Vlad and telling him about the attack. He got to me just in time.’’

Ben looked abashed. ’’I didn't know you were trapped in there. I called Vlad because I was worried about my own ass.’’

Sandra elbowed him. ’’Yet you thought to call. We were too panicked to do that. This is why Vlad rewarded you.’’

’’He did?’’ He hadn't mentioned that.

’’Hell yes, he did. Ben will be getting made in the next year!’’ Joe crowed, thumping Ben on the back.

Maybe I was losing something in the Romanian-to-English translation. ’’Made what?’’

’’Into a vampire,’’ Sandra said proudly.

I was stunned. Ben still looked embarrassed, yet hints of excitement and pride clung to him. Obviously, he'd wanted this.

’’Oh,’’ I said, unsure how to respond. ’’Congrats.’’

’’Think about it-next year, you'll be biting one of us.’’ Damon grinned as if amused by the prospect. ’’Just don't f**k up with Vlad or you'll be the next one harpooned on a pole.’’

’’Hey, we'll miss it,’’ Joe said, going back to the window.

Everyone else followed except Sandra, who shook her head.

’’I don't like to watch such things. I am surprised you came to see it, Leila.’’

’’See what?’’ I asked, getting a sinking feeling in my gut.

Ben turned around from the window. ’’See Vlad stick Maximus on a pole for leaving you behind in the club.’’

Chapter 26

I didn't bother to put on a coat, but marched around to the side of the house that was secluded by a tall line of trees. Now I knew the reason why. Any poor tourist who happened to stumble across Castle Dracula would get alarmed at the sight of several long poles stuck in the earth, some of them with remains still hanging from them.


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