Once Burned Page 20

Vlad must have known that I was coming, either from my thoughts or the crunching noises my boots made with my furious stride. The long piece of timber he'd had in his hand when I first glimpsed him through the window was now on the ground. Maximus stood next to him, shirtless, seemingly oblivious to the cold that made my whole body ache, a grim yet resigned expression on his face.

’’Leila,’’ Vlad said, voice as casual as if I'd stumbled upon them sharing a beer. ’’It's too cold for you to be out dressed like that. Go back inside. I'll join you in a moment.’’

’’What, after you finish shish-kebobbing Maximus for no good reason?’’ I snapped.

He actually had the nerve to look at me as if I were the one overreacting.

’’No good reason? I ordered him to protect you. Instead, his actions resulted in you nearly burning to death. Did you think I'd let him off with a tongue-lashing?’’

’’I didn't think you'd go pole-happy on him,’’ I countered, trying to keep my teeth from chattering because that would take away from my hard tone. ’’He'd been fighting off three vampires at the time, which was pretty damn impressive. No wonder he didn't notice what Silver Hair did to me.’’

Vlad's hands sparked. Maximus muttered, ’’Stop helping.’’

’’I am the Master of my line.’’ Vlad enunciated each word as though I suddenly had difficulty understanding English. ’’No matter how Maximus's fighting skills may have impressed you, how I punish one of my people for failing me doesn't concern you.’’

My temper snapped. I was supposed to be his girlfriend, not a lackey so he did not just pull the Big Bad Vampire card on me!

’’Ooh, you told me,’’ I mocked, sketching a bow. ’’You're right, I should've have dreamed of interfering. In fact, however long you sentence Maximus to that pole, I'll be sure to think about how wrong I was while sleeping alone!’’

’’Don't use abstinence as blackmail,’’ he said curtly. ’’It won't work, and we agreed not to play games with each other.’’

I marched over, feeling my hand tingle with angry currents.

’’This isn't blackmail. It's me being seriously pissed over you torturing Maximus for something that wasn't his fault. You do what you have to do, Vlad, I can't stop you. But then I'll do what I have to do.’’

Vlad glanced down, his expression changing from irritated obstinacy to concern.

’’Leila, your hand.’’

I looked and saw a sliver of electricity extending from it like a glittering icicle. I fisted my hand, taking a deep breath as I attempted to stuff my power back inside.

’’It's fine,’’ I muttered. ’’It happened before;I whipped a current across Silver Hair's back when I wasn't close enough to grab him. Maybe drinking your blood amped up my voltage.’’

Vlad stared at my hand before casting a speculative look at Maximus. Then he returned his attention to me. And smiled.

’’What?’’ I asked warily, recognizing his charming ’’I'm going to do something awful’’ expression.

’’Congratulations, Maximus. Leila has won you a reprieve from impalement.’’ His smile widened. ’’And I know just the way you can thank her for it.’’

Maximus stood across from me in the huge hallway, fully dressed now. His features were stoic, but if I were him, I'd be cursing me up one side and down the other. I hoped this hurt less than a pole through the torso, but since Vlad had thought of it, probably not.

’’Sorry,’’ I said for the dozenth time. Then I focused on the knife he held and aimed as much electricity toward it as I could. A pure white current shot out of my hand, whipping across his wrist and leaving an ugly burn. His whole body stiffened, which had been his usual reaction, but this time, Maximus also took a step backward. Still, he didn't drop the knife.

’’Better,’’ Vlad said in an approving tone. ’’With more practice, you'll be able to do this.’’

Then he snapped the whip he held. It flashed out too fast for me to follow with my gaze, but the knife in Maximus's hand was suddenly several feet away on the floor.

Vlad turned to me. ’’I could take his hand off if I wanted to, and this is an ordinary leather whip. You have the ability to channel one made of pure electrical energy. Wielded properly, you could cut someone in half, human or vampire.’’

I doubted that. Vampires healed too fast for my abilities to be lethal unless I maintained contact with my right hand for at least an hour. Case in point: The burn on Maximus's wrist had already vanished, and his posture was now as straight as ever.

Vlad strode over, scowling. ’’If you don't believe you can do it, then you won't do it. Do you think my control over fire appeared the first time I manifested a flame? No. I honed my abilities until I turned them into the weapon they are today.’’

’’Do you two need a minute alone?’’ Maximus grumbled.

Vlad ignored him, grasping my hand and holding it up as if I'd never seen it before.

’’This could be a formidable weapon. You've only ever practiced suppressing your power, but where has that gotten you? Stop trying to get rid of it and bend it to your will instead.’’

’’What if I don't want my power to get any stronger?’’ Exhaustion from continually manifesting currents made my voice harsh. ’’Power might be the ultimate status symbol for vampires, but I never wanted these abilities to begin with. They've shattered my life more than once and without drinking vampire blood, they'd kill me. I want less power, not more.’’

’’You want to survive, don't you?’’ he countered mercilessly. ’’As you are, most vampires could overcome you. Right now you hope that whoever ordered your kidnapping hasn't spread word of your psychic abilities, but if he has, you'll be very popular in the undead world. If that happens, you can stay helpless, relying on my protection forever, or learn how to defend yourself. Your choice.’’

Damn him for knowing the right buttons to push. Growing my abilities might have emotional and physical drawbacks, but they beat being helpless against another kidnapping attempt.

’’Fine,’’ I said after a long pause. ’’I'll hone my power into the best weapon it can be.’’

Vlad traced the path of my scar from my hand all the way up to my face. His voice lowered. ’’First you need to let go of your guilt over your mother's death. It's crippling you.’’

The words hit me like a slap. ’’You have no right,’’ I gasped, knocking his hand away. ’’I never told you about that, so you stole it from my mind! Do I bring up that day by the river to you? No, because you didn't share it with me of your own free will, so I leave it alone. Leave this alone, Vlad. I mean it.’’

’’I'm gonna go,’’ Maximus muttered, slinking away from us.

I ignored him, focused on the vampire in front of me. Vlad stared back, impenitent and uncompromising.

’’You don't need to bring up that day by the river because I dealt with my guilt a long time ago. But you're right. You didn't share this with me of your own free will, so I won't mention it again . . . unless you continue to let it handicap you.’’

Something boiled over in me at that. I could actually feel the current pulsing under my skin as if begging to be freed.

’’I'll show you handicapped,’’ I spat, and snapped my right hand at the nearest statue-a life-sized male warrior. A long, white current rocketed from my skin, lashing the statue's neck. Some part of me must've held back with Maximus before, because this time, the current cut all the way through. The marble head smashed onto the floor, breaking into several pieces.

Maximus ran back down the hall and stared at the remains in horror. ’’That was fifth-century Grecian!’’

My surge of fury vanished as I looked at the wreckage. Surprise at what I'd done competed with shame. My sister Gretchen used to break things when she was upset, and I'd sworn never to be that way. Now I'd broken that vow-and a priceless statue along with it.

’’I'm so sorry,’’ I began, looking over at Vlad, but his expression stopped me from saying anything else.

’’You see?’’ he said with supreme satisfaction. ’’A formidable weapon, just as I told you. Now that you know what you're capable of, we'll keep working to improve on it.’’

Chapter 27

When I finished with my shower, I saw that my bedroom door leading to the sitting area was open. It hadn't been when I first went into the bathroom. Murmured voices drifted in from the other room. Curious, I wrapped my robe tighter around me and peered around the frame.

No one but Vlad on the leather couch, jacket off, feet up, watching a vampire movie of all things. I came inside the room.

’’Didn't know you were a fan of those.’’

He waved at the TV. ’’These never cease to amuse. If we're not being portrayed as bloodthirsty eunuchs, then we're angst-filled imbeciles whining about our lost humanity.’’

’’Then you must love the cinematic retellings of your life.’’

’’Most of them don't retell my life,’’ he replied coolly, his eyes flashing green. ’’They retell Stoker's fabrication, which bears no resemblance to me except for the moniker-and even that's incorrect. Dracula doesn't mean son of the devil. It means son of the dragon, as my father was known in his time.’’

I shouldn't have brought this up. I blamed it on the fact that I was tired and still upset at Vlad for throwing up my mother's death to me, but two wrongs didn't make a right, as the cliche went.

’’Forget it,’’ I murmured.

He rose, walking over with the unhurried grace of a predator who knew his prey couldn't outrun him.

’’You have the right to know about the man you've taken for a lover. Much of what history's written is false, but some things are true, even if my motivations are often portrayed incorrectly.’’

When he reached me, he traced his finger up the sleeve of the mulberry-colored robe. The firelight made deeper hollows out of his striking features, and his coppery eyes seemed to hold their own inner flame.

’’Go on,’’ he said with soft challenge. ’’Ask me something.’’

I glanced away, both enticed and unnerved by the offer. ’’Really, Vlad, I only know what the movies say about you, which you confirmed was bull. I wouldn't even know what to ask-’’

’’Liar,’’ he interrupted, the word more statement than accusation. ’’You have questions, so ask.’’

’’Is Marty right?’’ It came out before I could stop myself. ’’Will you break my heart?’’

As soon as I said it, I wished I could take it back. We'd agreed that love wasn't an option between us, and here I was talking about a broken heart like a moonstruck teenager. Maybe this was a sign that I was already in over my head emotionally in this relationship.

He leaned against the door frame, his body so close that a deep breath from me would have us touching.

’’Why would I seek to break your heart?’’

’’Because you can be a merciless bastard at times,’’ I answered honestly.

A smile flitted across his lips. ’’True, but I want you with me.’’ His head dipped, mouth grazing my neck to send a scattershot of shivers through me.

Even amidst my enjoyment over his actions, I felt a pinprick of disappointment. I hadn't been looking for a promise of forever, but I had hoped to hear something . . . more. He wanted me with him now, but what happened after we caught his mysterious enemy and I no longer needed to live under his roof? Would we attempt a long distance relationship with me back in the States and him here? Would he ask me to stay? If so, would I?

’’Do you feel anything for me aside from lust?’’ I forced myself to ask. Not until the words were out did I realize how much his answer mattered. Yeah, I was in way over my head.

His lips continued to brush my skin with feathery strokes that elicited countless tingles despite my nervousness as I waited for his reply.

’’You challenged my authority in full view of the lowest order of my people,’’ he said at last. ’’And what did I do?’’

’’You had me electrocute Maximus over and over,’’ I replied, not sure where he was going with this.

’’I gave him a lighter punishment while also showing you how to grow your powers,’’ he countered in a seductively smooth voice. ’’If I felt nothing more for you than lust, Maximus would be on that pole for a week, and you, my lovely interloper, would not be here with me now.’’

Hardly the words you'd find on a Hallmark card, but they caused a glow of happiness nonetheless. Okay, so this wasn't love, but at least it was something real to him. That was enough for now. Before Vlad asked what I felt for him-a question I wasn't ready to answer with my runaway emotions-I changed the subject.

’’How like you to kill two birds with one stone: punishing Maximus and working out my powers at the same time.’’

I meant to sound glib, but it was tough when each brush of his mouth made my toes curl. Either my distraction worked or he didn't want to know what I felt, because he addressed my statement instead of my mental musings.

’’As I told you-due diligence.’’

His reply reminded me of the only tidbit I'd gleaned from sifting through hours of memories today.

’’The puppet master,’’ I began, my breath catching when he nipped my neck with teeth that now had two prominent, sharp fangs. ’’He had a funky ring. It was kind of like yours, only it had a bird on the front instead of a dragon.’’

Vlad's mouth stilled. ’’What kind of bird?’’

’’Maybe a crow? It was hard to tell since I only saw the ring when he was gesturing as he spoke-’’

Vlad disappeared into his room before I finished speaking, my robe fluttering from how fast he'd moved. I blinked in surprise. Moments later he was back, holding a torn page.

’’Is this the image you saw?’’

I took the yellowed page from him, not understanding the language of the antique writing on it, but recognizing the icon.

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