Once Burned Page 23

I was saved from more embarrassment over my aggrandizing declaration when the front door opened and a gust of cold air blew in. Shrapnel bowed first to Vlad and then to me as he held the door open for the people trailing behind him.

’’Look at this huge f**king place!’’ a familiar voice exclaimed. My sister, Gretchen, was the opposite of demure.

I snatched the gloves and put the right one on. Vlad tucked the box back in his jacket and slid the left one on for me since the thicker material made it more awkward. Still, it was a thousand times less bulky than the industrial glove Marty had gotten me from a Florida Power &Light employee. No one would look twice at these while the other led to constant questions.

’’Thank you,’’ I murmured.

His hands lingered on mine, their heat apparent even through the material. ’’You're welcome.’’


My sister's voice yanked my attention back to Gretchen. She managed to look around in awe while also marching forward at an angry clip. Her straight black hair was shorter than the last time I'd seen her, but even though she'd been on a plane for over a dozen hours, her makeup was perfect as usual, accenting pretty features, full lips, and an upturned nose. Blue eyes a few shades darker than mine glared at me.

’’What kind of cluster f**k have you gotten us into now?’’ she demanded.

’’Hello to you, too, Gretchen,’’ I said dryly.

Then my voice caught as I saw the man behind her. Hugh Dalton's hair had more salt than pepper now, but he still wore it cropped close to his head in the same style as when he'd been a lieutenant colonel. His blue-gray eyes took in Vlad's house with watchfulness versus admiration, and though he used a cane, his air of authority and tempered toughness remained the same.

I swallowed the lump that rocketed up my throat. ’’Hi, Dad.’’

I am the world's WORST liar, I thought an hour later. I'd tried to stall by urging my family to go to their rooms to unpack, but Gretchen was having none of that, and with less dramatics, neither was my father.

Vlad wasn't helping me come up with a cover story, either. No, he'd introduced himself as Vladislav Basarab without a moment's pause, though the significance of that name went over my family's heads. Shrapnel had offered them little explanation during his scoop-and-run procurement, so Vlad was leaving it up to me to tell my family a big whopping lie, or the truth.

I went with a big whopping lie, of course.

’’You witnessed a mob murder and now you're in the Romanian witness protection program?’’ My father cast a pointed look around at the magnificent, two-story library. ’’Seems a lot different than the American version.’’

Wait until he saw the rest of the house. ’’Well, Romania is broken into communes and Vlad is um, like a mayor of several of them. Since I'm hiding from members of the European Mafia, the Romanian’’-were they called something other than police here?-’’authorities thought his house would be the safest place for me until, uh, they catch the bad guys,’’ I finished lamely.

Vlad glanced away, but not before I saw his mouth twitch. Okay, it sounded like the load of bull it was, but I'd thought he would come up with something to tell them! Or at least give me more than a two-minute warning to make up a story myself.

Maybe he would've warned you earlier if you hadn't avoided him all day, an insidious little voice taunted.

Up yours, I snapped back at it.

Vlad coughed, something that didn't seem unusual to my father or sister, but made me narrow my gaze. Vampires didn't cough. Was he muffling a laugh?

’’I'm sure Vlad can go into more detail if you have questions,’’ I added in a frosty tone.

The grin he flashed me made me sure about the muffled laugh. ’’No, you're doing a splendid job.’’

My father frowned, adding to the new lines in his face that I didn't remember from the last time I'd seen him.

’’How long are Gretchen and I expected to stay sequestered with you?’’ he asked with his usual directness.

The million-dollar question. I took a deep breath. ’’We're not sure. Maybe a couple weeks. Maybe a few months.’’

My sister rose to her full five feet four inches. ’’You can't expect me to put my life on hold that long!’’ she screeched. ’’I have a job, friends, plans-’’

’’Lower your voice,’’ my father said tersely.

I'd never been able to get Gretchen to quiet down when she went on a verbal rampage, but decades of command hung in that single sentence. She stopped talking, yet the glare she shot me promised there was more where that came from.

My father turned his attention back to me. ’’What if we elect not to be sequestered with you? What then?’’

’’You'll be captured, tortured, and eventually killed by the people after your daughter,’’ Vlad replied in a casual tone.

My mouth fell open at his bluntness. Gretchen let out a shocked gasp. Vlad looked at me and shrugged as if to say, You wanted me to take over.

My father gazed at Vlad with open calculation. I'd seen that hard stare cower countless people, but of course, it had no effect on Vlad. He stared back, that pleasant half smile never leaving his face.

’’I still have top-level connections,’’ my father stated. ’’Leila can be protected back in her own country.’’

Vlad's brow arched. ’’With her abilities? You know better than to expose her to your government or military. She'd never see the outside of a covert research facility again.’’

His derision when he said ’’research’’ was unmistakable. A muscle ticked in my father's jaw.

’’So you know what she can do?’’

Vlad and I were on opposite ends of the same couch, him relaxed, me stiff, but at that, he caught my hand and kissed it.

’’I'm very well acquainted with her abilities.’’

Gretchen's eyes bugged while my father's expression darkened. Vlad couldn't have been clearer in his meaning.

’’Ah, I'll take over from here,’’ I said.

’’How can you stand touching her?’’ my sister blurted, staring at our clasped hands. ’’Doesn't that hurt?’’

I seized on the change of topic. ’’These gloves are specialized rubber. They block the current.’’

Gretchen's gaze traveled over Vlad, disbelief still stamped on her features. ’’Yeah, but how do you two do anything else, unless he has a special, current-repelling glove for his-’’

’’Gretchen!’’ my father cut her off.

My cheeks felt hot. Don't say a word, I thought to Vlad, seeing his chest tremble with suppressed laughter.

’’He has a natural immunity,’’ I gritted out.

They didn't know about vampires, and that was the explanation I'd given for how I could work with Marty. Considering the unusual abilities other circus performers had, immunity to electricity wasn't too much of a stretch.

Gretchen looked mollified, but my father's stern gaze told me he wasn't buying much of anything I'd said this past hour.

’’I want to speak with whoever's in charge of your sequestering, Leila.’’

Vlad's smile was languid and challenging. ’’You are.’’

’’Then I want to speak with someone else,’’ my father replied curtly.

’’I'm sure we can arrange that,’’ I said at once. Vlad could get one of his people to play the part of Romanian WitSec, and if all else failed, mind control could be employed. I hated to do that, but my dad's life was more important.

After a moment of loaded silence, Vlad rose. He hadn't let go of my hand, so I got up with him, feeling the weight of my father's stare even as I pasted a false smile on my face.

’’We'll talk more at dinner,’’ I said. ’’Until then, I'm sure you want to unwind, unpack, and, um, freshen up.’’

’’Shrapnel, please show our guests to their rooms,’’ Vlad stated, his pleasant tone in stark contrast to the tension swirling in the air.

The large, mocha-skinned vampire appeared in the doorway. Gretchen stood, shaking her head at me.

’’This is so messed up, Leila.’’

You don't even know the half of it, I thought.

Chapter 31

As soon as we were out of my family's sight, I pulled my hand from Vlad's and headed up to the fourth floor. Then I went straight into the paneled sitting area instead of my bedroom.

’’If there's any chance of salvaging things between us-and I must be crazy to even consider that-you need to start off with a huge apology,’’ I stated without preamble.

His arms folded across his chest. With that stunning jewel-encrusted coat adding to his already commanding presence, I felt like I'd somehow shrunk several feet, but I refused to be cowed. I stood straighter and began to tap my foot.

He glanced down. ’’Is that supposed to intimidate me?’’ he asked, his voice edged with satin-covered steel.

’’It's supposed to show that I'm serious,’’ I ground out.

When we'd entered the room, the fireplace hadn't been lit. Now flames shot up in the hearth like a bomb had detonated. I glanced at those, at Vlad, and crossed my own arms.

’’Now who's trying to be intimidating?’’

’’Because of my actions, your family is safe from Szilagyi.’’ The fire nearby blazed higher. ’’Yet you give ultimatums and demand that I beg your pardon?’’

For so many years, I'd been an expert at keeping my temper at bay. Less than two weeks after meeting Vlad, and I felt as volatile as the currents running through my body.

’’I get that you come from a time when using a person's family as blackmail was probably all the rage,’’ I snapped, ’’but it's not cool to do in the twenty-first century! Seriously, how is this surprising to you?’’

His brow arched. ’’We weren't lovers when I first put your family under surveillance.’’

’’You're trying to get off on a technicality?’’ My voice rose in disbelief on the last word.

’’Do you know the last time I let someone strike me without retaliation?’’

’’You're changing the subject,’’ I muttered, but shame pierced me. Violence had no place in a relationship for any reason. I had no excuse for what I'd done and I knew it.

He stalked closer. ’’Aside from last night, there hasn't been a single instance. You've seen the scars on my body, but not all are from battles. Many were from when I was imprisoned as a boy and repeatedly beaten. In the centuries since, I've let few people touch me in friendship, fewer still as a lover, but none in anger without extracting my vengeance . . . yet you struck me, and I did nothing.’’ His voice deepened. ’’If you don't find sufficient apology in that, then you don't know me at all.’’

Confusion added to the other emotions roiling inside me. Vlad's eyes were lit up with emerald, the ever-increasing fireplace flames an indication of his temper, but when he cupped my face, his touch was infinitely gentle. I leaned into his hand without thought, feeling the weirdest mixture of despair and elation. Logic said I should run screaming away from this relationship, but the truth was that I didn't want to.

’’Swear to me on whatever you consider holy that you will never harm anyone I care about. If you can't do that, then this has to end, Vlad.’’

I might not want to let him go, but neither was I willing to take anyone else down with me in this potential quicksand.

His head bent, the rough silk of his stubble grazing my cheek. ’’Unless they try to harm me or mine, I swear it.’’

A vow with conditions, but everything had conditions with him. I closed my eyes as he pushed my turtleneck down, his lips sliding to my neck while his strong, scarred hand still cupped my face. The touch of his tongue sent delicious shivers through me and I moved closer, grasping his collar. He made a low, guttural sound and pulled me tighter against him, his other hand kneading my back while his mouth continued to sensually tease my neck.

Then a brush of teeth made me gasp. Fangs pressed against my throat, their hard, extended length adding friction that was both threatening and overtly carnal. The pressure of his mouth increased, tongue, lips, and fangs manipulating my most sensitive spots until my heart pounded and I rubbed against him with a need I couldn't articulate. Another rumbling noise came from him, so primal that my ni**les scraped painfully against my bra and I was wet and aching with desire.

’’Leila.’’ His arms tightened around me, and his voice was darker. Predatory. ’’It's time.’’

I thought he meant se*, which I was on board with. But then his fangs slanted, their tips pressing against my neck instead of their length. My skin broke under those sharp points and a longer, harsher gasp escaped me as they penetrated deep.

That gasp turned into a moan at the sensations that spilled over me. Heat seemed to pour from his mouth, flashing through my veins to envelop my whole body. I felt fevered, dizzy, while the most unexpected surge of pleasure made my head fall back and my knees weaken. I knew vampire bites transmitted a venomlike substance, but I had no idea it felt stronger than morphine and more erotic than foreplay. My pulse throbbed under his mouth, and when Vlad drew in that first long suction, rapture shot from my neck to my loins with such intensity that my inner muscles clenched and I almost came.

Something like a growl sounded against my throat. Then his hand slid through my hair and drew my head farther back while another suction sent more pleasure cascading through me. Everything around me seemed to fall away, narrowing my world to nothing but the indescribable sensation of my blood emptying into Vlad. Strength abandoned me and I would have fallen had he not held me against him with that steely grip. Another suction made my panting break on a cry and I dug my nails into his back, clawing at him in growing need. I wanted him inside me, and I ground my h*ps against him in silent, explicit invitation.

Vlad's mouth was suddenly gone, leaving the spot where he'd bitten me both icy and burning at the same time.

’’Do you want me to kill you?’’ he ground out.

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