Once Burned Page 25

’’Um, sure, the European Mafia are scary people-’’

’’Not them.’’

He must not have thought I was moving fast enough because he tugged me behind the staircase. My borrowed coat muted the effects of the voltage, but a wince still crossed his face.

’’It's him,’’ he said, gesturing to Vlad's coat. ’’That man isn't who he says he is. Vladislav Basarab is an alias, and a twisted one. I know you must care for him, but when I ran his name through my contacts, you wouldn't believe what I found.’’

Struck by the same exhausted, overstressed irrationalism that led some people to cackle at funerals, I laughed. I couldn't help it. Maybe this was the last straw for my sanity.

’’I can imagine your face when they told you that was the real name of Dracula!’’ I snorted, tears leaking out. ’’That's what you get for snooping instead of being sequestered from the outside world like you're supposed to under witness protection.’’

His expression was like a thundercloud now. ’’This isn't a joke, Leila. The man who goes by the name Vladislav Basarab is so heavily involved in organized crime that my contacts advised me not to investigate him further or I might disappear. Does that sound funny to you?’’

Organized crime. That was one way to describe it, if you didn't know that vampire hierarchy predated most current laws.

’’Dad,’’ I said, getting control of myself, ’’Vlad isn't who you need to worry about. He won't hurt you, Gretchen, or me, but you do need to stop investigating him. None of your contacts would be able to dig up anything close to the truth, anyway.’’

’’Then tell me the tru . . .’’

His voice trailed off, and his gaze narrowed. ’’Why are there blood specks on your collar?’’

Before I realized what he intended, he'd yanked my turtleneck down.

’’What is this?’’ he spat, staring at the holes in my neck.

I didn't have the chance to reply. Shrapnel appeared, lifting my father off the ground with one meaty arm.

’’What are you doing?’’ I asked, aghast.

’’He grabbed for your throat,’’ Shrapnel said in explanation, my father's furious struggles not even causing him to twitch.

’’Leila, run!’’ my dad said hoarsely.

’’Oh my God, what is happening?’’ Gretchen screeched, rounding the bottom of the staircase.

If a bridge had suddenly materialized, I would've jumped off it. ’’Let him down,’’ I told Shrapnel, who released my father with a muttered ’’Fine, but if he lunges for your throat again-’’

’’He won't,’’ I said shortly. ’’Gretchen, stop screaming. Dad, I don't need to run. Vlad's people are crazy protective of me and you might not see them, but trust me, they're around.’’

My father stared at me like I was a stranger. ’’What have you gotten involved in?’’ he asked, so quiet that I could barely hear him above Gretchen's litany of ’’Oh God, oh God.’’

’’Your neck, his alias, this castle.’’ My dad's tone hardened. ’’Is that the trouble you're in? You saw some sick form of role-playing among rich foreigners that went too far?’’

’’And now I'm struck with deja vu,’’ an ironic voice said behind me. ’’You may go, Shrapnel. I'll handle this.’’

Shrapnel bowed to Vlad and vanished. I was used to people disappearing with vampiric speed, but my sister blanched and my dad's brows drew together like they'd been yanked by a string.

’’How the f**k did he do that?’’ he demanded harshly.

I had two choices: Tell the truth, or have Vlad mesmerize my dad and sister into believing a lie. Nothing less than mind control would work now that my dad had seen holes in my neck and the two of them watched a bulky guard seemingly disappear.

Vlad moved next to me, his hand resting on my back. ’’I'll honor whatever decision you make, but the truth is always better than a lie, even when it's the more difficult path.’’

I looked at my father's granite expression and my sister's frightened one, and sighed. ’’They'll tell people.’’

Vlad flashed a charming smile at my father. ’’No they won't. He's smart enough to realize that repeating such information is futile. The only people who'd believe him are others of my kind, and they don't suffer whistleblowers or fools. As for her’’-a nod indicated Gretchen-’’she'll do as he tells her.’’

My sister bristled. ’’I'm twenty-two years old. No one tells me what to do!’’

’’Gretchen, be quiet,’’ my dad growled.

She glared at him but didn't say anything else. My lips twitched despite the seriousness of the situation. Vlad's instincts were correct-she'd never go against a direct order from our father. Hugh Dalton had always intimidated her.

’’Tell me the truth about what's going on,’’ my dad ordered.

I, however, had never been intimidated by him. But I did want to try and repair my relationship with my family, and if our reconciliation wasn't built on honesty, then it wouldn't be real.

’’Show him, Vlad,’’ I said.

His gaze changed from copper to bright, glowing green, and his smile bared teeth that now had two sharp fangs. A muscle ticked in my father's jaw but his expression didn't change.

’’Fancy contacts and novelty teeth don't im-press me.’’

’’I didn't think they would,’’ Vlad replied in a silky voice. ’’But that happens before I do this.’’

He levitated into the air, hovering several feet off the ground. Then flames erupted from his hands, first eerie blue, then orange, yellow, and red. They climbed up his arms, licked the edges of his long brown hair, and while their heat was palpable, not a stitch of fabric or a single hair on him burned.

’’I am Vladislav Basarab Dracul, born 1431 as a mortal, but reborn in 1462 as a vampire,’’ Vlad stated, staring into my father's eyes. ’’And I am but one out of millions of vampires, ghouls, ghosts, and demons that live in secret among you.’’

Piling the drama on a little thick, aren't you? I thought. Then a thud made my gaze swing to the right.

My sister had fainted.

Vlad opened the wine and poured the deep red liquid to the brim before handing me the glass. I accepted it like it was a lifeline, taking a large, graceless gulp. On the plus side, my father no longer thought I was mixed up in a rich, role-playing cult. In the negative column, he was probably on the phone with the Pentagon right now, helping to organize a full-scale attack against any creature that didn't have a pulse.

Vlad gave me a look of sardonic amusement as he poured his own glass. ’’High-level officials all over the world already know other species exist, but as long as we don't interfere in their affairs, they're happy to pretend that we're not real.’’

In truth, I was less worried about my father telling anyone than I was about him and Gretchen getting over their horror that the undead existed-and that I was dating one of them. Now that I was thrown together with my family, I realized how much I'd missed them. We'd all made mistakes, but maybe we could learn to work through them enough to have some sort of relationship.

If Gretchen ever stopped screaming, that was.

’’What about your other girlfriends?’’ I muttered, plopping onto the bed. ’’Did their families eventually settle down?’’

He sat next to me with a fluid, powerful grace that only someone with control over every muscle in their body could exhibit. If I'd moved like that when I was thirteen, I would've been a shoe-in for a gold medal.

’’Depends,’’ he said, surprising me by answering what had mostly been a rhetorical question. ’’Five of them were vampires themselves. Out of the humans, the last one's family did come to accept it, the two before her didn't tell their families, the one before that didn't have any living family, and the first . . . her family incited others in their village to burn my house down while shouting, 'Death to the wampyre!'’’

I laughed before the underlying significance made my breath catch. ’’You're almost six hundred years old, but you've only had ten girlfriends before me?’’

’’Ten lovers, two wives, and a few dozen anonymous encounters when loneliness got the better of my standards.’’

Wow. Vlad said he was selective about who he slept with, but some part of me must not have believed him.

’’The woman by the river. Which one was she?’’ I asked, holding his darkly burnished gaze.

He set his wine on the floor. ’’My first wife. She bore me a son, and a few years later while I was fighting the Turks, I met Tenoch. He showed me what he was, turned me, and then killed himself shortly after he saw me through the initial blood craze. I returned home intending to reveal what I'd become to my wife, but my actions on the battlefield had upset her.’’ His mouth twisted. ’’She thought I'd become too brutal. It seemed an inopportune time to tell her that I was no longer even human.’’

’’I bet,’’ I said softly.

’’I had to avoid her to keep my secret.’’ Another humorless smile. ’’I went off on another military excursion and we were ambushed shortly before dawn. Vampires may not die in sunlight, but new vampires are exhausted by it for the first few months. While I was fighting, the sunlight felled me and my men thought I was dead-little wonder since I no longer breathed. Word was sent to my wife, who thought the Turks were on their way to capture her. I'd told her of my treatment under the Ottoman Empire as a boy, and she decided she'd rather die than face the same brutality. She threw herself from the roof of our home into the river below, and that is where I found her after I awoke and returned to tell her I was alive.’’

His voice was matter-of-fact, but I knew the guilt he still carried over her death. I covered his hand with mine.

’’I'm sorry.’’

’’Don't be. It was a long time ago.’’

He took my wineglass, setting it on the floor next to his. Then he pulled off my gloves. Once my hands were bare, he unbuttoned his shirt, staring at me while the green in his eyes grew until it swallowed up that rich copper shade.

’’All last night and today, I've wanted your hands on me.’’ The words were roughened by lust as he yanked his shirt off, revealing that muscled chest with its pattern of scars and those mouthwatering abs. ’’I'm not waiting any longer.’’

I stared at him and licked my lips. Sounded good to me.

Chapter 34

For the second day in a row, Gretchen and my dad declined to join us for lunch. I doubted they'd join us for dinner tonight, either. Hell, they'd pretty much confined themselves to their rooms. I'd give them another day before I tried to talk to them. Finding out that humans weren't the dominant species on the planet was a big pill to swallow. Finding that out while being kept under an infamous vampire's roof was an even bigger pill. At least Gretchen had quit her incessant screaming. Had to be grateful for the little things.

Another thing I was grateful for was that Szi-lagyi wasn't carving into Marty anymore. I linked through the manacles to check on him several times a day, and while Szilagyi still had him restrained in that nondescript concrete room, he seemed to mostly ignore Marty. Vlad must've been right. Szilagyi was keeping Marty so he could use torturing him as a way to make me give in to his demands, but as long as I linked to Marty instead of the puppet master, he never knew when I was watching.

Eventually, Szilagyi would figure out why I hadn't tapped into him again. For now, he believed I didn't know he had Marty, but he was clever. He'd piece it together, and once he did, it would be open season on my friend. I could only hope we'd find him before that.

I'd tried to distract myself by digging into the sweetest, flakiest baklava I'd ever tasted. Then Maximus appeared. If his lack of bowing wasn't sufficient to indicate that something was wrong, one glance at his furious expression would've been enough.

’’Lachlan's group was attacked while searching the old abbey near Reghin,’’ he announced. ’’He and Ben were killed. The others are requesting assistance.’’

Vlad's chair upended from how fast he rose, and fire erupted from his hands. ’’This is the second time Szilagyi's men have attacked on my territory. It will be the last.’’

I stood, too, but in shock. ’’Ben, as in my friend Ben?’’

Maximus shot me a single pitying glance. ’’Yes.’’

Denial made me argumentative. ’’That doesn't make sense. Why would Ben be out searching for Szilagyi? He's human!’’

’’He was training to become a vampire. Observing my men while they were on a scouting mission was good experience for him,’’ Vlad replied shortly.

Was. Past tense. Somehow that drove the reality home more than Maximus's words. Ben, the cute, curly-haired boy who'd helped save my life by keeping his cool in a crisis, was dead. My lunch turned to rocks in my stomach.

Vlad wasn't suffering from denial over this news. ’’Maximus, you're coming with me,’’ he stated. ’’Leila, don't leave the house for any reason. I'll return soon.’’

He gave me a brief, fierce kiss before striding away. If I hadn't gotten so used to touching him, that would've been that. I would've kept my right hand glued to my side and I never would've seen him again. But that hand grazed him during our kiss, and while he walked away, images flashed across my mind in full color yet hazy clarity.

I strode through a crumbling abbey located in the cleft of a mountain that seemed to crouch over it. My knives were splattered with crimson and the angry scent of smoke emanated from me. The fight was over, but I wasn't leaving until I'd searched every inch of these ruins. Szilagyi might have left a clue to his whereabouts. If not, I had other avenues to pursue.

’’Take that one back to the house,’’ I ordered, flashing a genial smile at the prisoner struggling in Maximus's arms. ’’We'll see what information he has.’’

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