Once Burned Page 24

I blinked in confusion, but then I heard Maximus's voice on the other side of the door.

’’You'd kill me if I didn't interrupt you with this information.’’

I hadn't even heard Maximus knock, but he must have. Vlad still held me tight. From the emerald blazing in his gaze and that hard, thick flesh pressed against my belly, he was close to telling Maximus to go away or die bloody. But then he let out a harsh sigh.

’’Wait there.’’

Disappointment mixed with the lust that had my loins throbbing. Vlad smoothed my hair back, his mouth swooping down to give my neck a final, lingering lick.

’’It must be important or he wouldn't dare disturb me now,’’ he murmured. Then he drew away to look at me. ’’If it's not, I'll kill him and return to you directly.’’

I would have laughed, except I wasn't sure if he was kidding. ’’I understand.’’

My body didn't. It ached with denied need while my neck continued to pulse with icy hot vibrations. I touched it, feeling the twin holes. Vlad's eyes followed the movement and emerald took over his gaze again.

’’I love seeing my marks in your flesh.’’

If he'd looked smug while saying it, I would have been piqued, but his expression showed unadulterated possessiveness instead. Must be a vampire thing.

A grin bared his teeth. ’’It's very much a vampire thing.’’ He gave me a hard kiss that took away the breath I'd just started to get back under control. I blamed blood loss on the fact that I had to sit down when he finally let me go.

’’I'll be back as soon as I can,’’ he said. Then he flung open the door. ’’Maximus,’’ he greeted the stony-faced blond vampire on the other side. ’’This had better be good.’’

The door shut behind them and I closed my eyes, taking several deep breaths. Less than a minute later, the door opened.

’’Leila.’’

Vlad's foreboding tone made my remaining desire vanish, and I stood so fast that I nearly stumbled.

’’What's wrong?’’

He came over and took my arm. ’’You need to come with me.’’

Chapter 32

I walked between Vlad and Maximus down the narrow stone staircase. Every fifty feet or so, we came to a landing where we passed through a metal, guarded doorway that led to another set of descending steps. This part of the house didn't have heat, so my breath came in white plumes. Despite Vlad giving me his coat, I couldn't stop shivering. It also didn't have electricity, so if not for the torches he flamed into light, I would have been blind in the stygian darkness. I knew it was my imagination, but the walls of the tunnel seemed to shimmer with despairing essences, adding to my sense of dread. The dungeon was the last place I wanted to go to, but it was where we were headed.

The last guarded door opened into a cavernous area that was pitch black until Vlad lit more torches with his power. The first thing I saw was several sets of manacles embedded in a huge stone pillar in the center of the area. When we approached it, I saw that these manacles were unusually thick, with silver spikes lining them that faced inward. From their varying heights and sizes, I calculated their purpose.

Side ones were for the wrists. Bar between them, the neck. Lower, wide bar for the waist, the two below that, the thighs, and the ones closest to the floor, ankles. The pillar faced the thankfully empty cells cut into the rock across from us. Knowing Vlad, their positioning was so that any prisoners could see whatever was done to the unlucky person restrained here. Between the pillar and the cells were three deep holes, and from the dark stains lining them, I guessed that they were normally occupied by thick wooden poles. The outdoor area must not be the only place Vlad where got his impalement on.

’’I regret that this is necessary,’’ Vlad stated, grasping the wrist manacles.

His words echoed in the subterranean surroundings, ominous and eerie as they bounced back. I wished this wasn't necessary, too, but I said nothing as I took my gloves off, tucking them into his coat. Then I walked over, leaned back against that looming rock wall, and felt the weight of icy, unforgiving metal as Vlad set the clamps against my hand.

I have no idea how long I screamed, but my throat was burning by the time I regained control enough to distinguish reality from other people's memories. My face was also wet from tears, and shudders wracked me so violently that the ache in my limbs wasn't due to phantom pains, but from being so lost in the horrific memories that I'd managed to hurt myself with my reaction-something that had never happened before.

Of course, in all the recollections I'd relived, I had never experienced anything like this. When I realized that I was sagged in Vlad's arms, my first reaction was revulsion so deep that a roar tore from my wounded throat.

’’Getawaydonttouchme!’’

He released me so abruptly that I fell onto the floor. Instinct made me curl my right hand to my side instead of using it to break my fall. I sprawled into a heap, but the action meant I didn't pick up any new memories from stained stone ground, which was the most important thing.

’’Should I help?’’ Maximus asked in a carefully neutral tone.

I doubted the question was directed at me, but I answered anyway. ’’No. Give me a minute.’’

My voice was still raw. I sat on the floor, trying to paste together my fractured emotions while hugging myself for warmth. That was a mistake I wouldn't have made had I been thinking clearly. As soon as my right hand came in contact with Vlad's coat, another memory assailed me.

I stood na**d in front of a closet on the far side of my bedroom. With the press of a button, row upon row of clothes whirled by, some casual, some formal, and a few so ornate they were meant only for ceremonial events. I stroked my jaw as I considered my choices. I couldn't meet her family wearing just anything. She deserved better than that. Finally, I selected a long coat inlaid with black sapphires at the collars and cuffs.

This would do. Perhaps the gloves would also help to soothe her ire. Their completion came not a moment too soon.

That image faded, replaced by Vlad looming over me in this oppressive dungeon instead of gloriously na**d in his bedroom. I stared up at him, the memory of his actions shocking me for a different reason this time.

’’You dressed up to meet my family?’’ The unexpectedly thoughtful gesture made me choke on a laugh. ’’How can you be the same person that did all those other things? You're not just versatile and complex-it's like you're a schizophrenic!’’

Vlad knelt next to me, an emerald sheen encompassing his eyes like a cat's when light shone upon them.

’’We are all more than the sum of our sins,’’ he said in an even voice. ’’You know that better than most people, Leila.’’

Then he held out his hand. I stared at it, what I'd experienced through the multiple essences contained in those manacles making horror flit over me. Then other images covered those, my memories of Vlad, so different in comparison. Very slowly, I placed my hand in his and let him help me up. I walked back to the manacles, repressing a shudder. The second time is always easier, I reminded myself. Vlad had ordered my family pulled in, but Maximus had been unable to reach Marty. He might be fine or he might need help, and the only way to find out was to follow the essence trail Marty had left in these restraints the day Vlad had questioned him.

Before I grasped the wrist manacles again, I fingered the edge of Vlad's coat and gave him a faint smile.

’’Nice choice. You looked great in this.’’

His brow arched. ’’Of course I did.’’

His indefatigable arrogance made me shake my head, but it also gave me the last bit of strength I needed to grab the metal clamps again. That same swarm of horrendous images bombarded my mind, but as expected, they were fainter, allowing me to fight through them and find the essence thread I was looking for. Once I did, I concentrated until everything else fell away.

To my dread, the new surroundings I found myself looking at didn't appear much better than the ones I was actually in. Instead of dark stone walls, concrete was all around me, the few splashes of color a wooden door in the corner and blood staining the front of Marty's shirt.

Mihaly Szilagyi stood in front of him, wearing another nondescript outfit and holding a knife dripping with red. The silver-haired vampire who'd snapped my legs and left me to die was there, too, restraining Marty while chewing an unlit cigarette and looking bored.

I dropped the link with a snarl that came from a part of me I hadn't known existed.

’’I found Marty. Szilagyi's got him.’’

’’No,’’ Vlad said again.

I paced in front of the fireplace. Despite him turning it into an inferno that was barely contained by the gilded grate, I still felt chilled to the bone.

’’I have the right to talk to the bastard who kidnapped my friend,’’ I snapped. ’’Since we don't have his phone number, linking to him through my abilities is the only option.’’

Vlad settled back into the crimson Louis XV chair, an elbow propped on the armrest, chin balanced on his hand. He looked completely relaxed except for his eyes, which focused on me with unrelenting intensity.

’’You link to Szilagyi, and his response will be to torture your friend to a level designated to break you. That's why he took Martin. He wants you to see what he does to him, but if you're not looking, then he won't spare the effort.’’

My hair swung with my furious strides. ’’Marty was already cut up pretty good, so Szilagyi isn't waiting for anyone!’’

’’That's for information’’ was his pitiless reply, ’’but Martin can't relay anything of real import, so his primary effectiveness lies in your affection. Once Szilagyi realizes he can't use him to force you to betray me, Martin's usefulness ends, so if you want to keep your friend alive and in the best possible condition, you won't link to Szilagyi.’’

’’Why doesn't he find another psychic?’’ I muttered. ’’I'm not the only one: psychics work with police all the time.’’

’’A regular psychic isn't enough. You can track people in the present and get accurate glimpses of the future. I've only met two other people with that ability. One is dead, and the other is having what you might call technical difficulties with his power.’’

My fists clenched, currents pulsing so strongly inside me that I half expected the nearest light socket to short-circuit.

’’You wouldn't abandon one of your people to this fate, so don't expect me to respond any differently, Vlad.’’

’’You were at that club less than two hours before those vampires attacked,’’ he stated. ’’When you spied upon Szilagyi, he was fully clothed while resting under several blankets. He made sure you saw him in nothing but a nondescript concrete room, and a nondescript concrete room is where he has Martin.’’

’’What does this have to do with anything?’’ I demanded.

’’It means that he's not far,’’ he replied, tone implying it was obvious. ’’Szilagyi gave the silver-haired vampire orders to kill or retrieve you after they saw surveillance footage of you at the club, so that puts him at less than two hours away. He hasn't left Romania since or he wouldn't be so concerned with you seeing details of where he's hiding, and I doubt it's a modern or even refurbished house because most of those have heat, yet he used blankets when vampires don't easily get cold.’’

He ticked off the items as he spoke. Put together, they made sense, and I cursed myself for not seeing it, too.

’’I have my people scouring all abandoned or seldom used buildings within a two-hundred-mile radius,’’ Vlad continued. ’’It's a large area, but soon we'll either find Szilagyi or force him to run. Once he surfaces, then you, my beautiful psychic, can link to him and see exactly where he is.’’

It was a logical plan that tightened the noose around Szilagyi's neck, yet left Marty to the whims of fate. Maybe Szilagyi would kill him before he ran. Maybe he wouldn't. Problem was, I didn't have a better idea. That didn't mean I was settling for coin-flipping odds on my friend, however.

’’If I come up with a way to stick it to Szilagyi and save Marty, promise me you'll act on it.’’

Vlad's gaze was hard yet steady. ’’I don't want him to die since it would hurt you and he was acting under my orders when he was captured. So if you find a way that doesn't pose more danger to my people, you have my word that it will be done.’’

Chapter 33

I walked through the huge hall, catching glimpses of a few vampires in their discreet yet vigilant positions as I passed. Vlad told me he had some things to attend to before dinner, but I think he sensed that I wanted to be alone. My emotions had been put through the wringer and today still wasn't over. Soon, I had to sit across from my family and keep up the witness protection charade. If their lives hadn't been upended in a spectacular way because of me, I would have pled a headache and stayed in my room, but I couldn't be so selfish.

’’Leila,’’ a familiar voice hissed.

I blinked, seeing my father come out from around the back of the staircase as if he'd been hiding behind it.

’’What are you doing?’’ I wondered.

He walked over, his limp more pronounced from his haste. The effects from the roadside bomb that precipitated his early retirement would stay with him forever.

’’I've been looking for you,’’ he stated while his gaze darted around. ’’No one would tell me where you were, either. They just said I'd see you at dinner.’’

After decades of being in command, my dad would love that sort of evasiveness. He started toward the back of the staircase and gestured for me to follow. I did with a sigh, making a mental note to tell Vlad to have his people be a little more forthcoming than their normal, stonewalling selves.

’’Sorry about that,’’ I began. ’’Vlad's staff is used to-’’

’’You have no idea the danger you're in,’’ my father cut me off, voice still barely above a whisper.


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