Once Burned Page 27

I couldn't explain, and in hindsight, it didn't matter.

’’I was wrong, Gretchen,’’ I said, blinking back tears. ’’I couldn't see past my own pain so I let it swallow me up. By the time I fought through it, you wanted nothing to do with me and Dad was wrapped up in his job again. Marty was all I had. That might have been my doing, but I abandoned you once when I shouldn't have. I'm not making that mistake with Marty now.’’

Then I went over and touched her cheek, my new gloves making it possible to do so without hurting her. She swatted my hand away, but her blue eyes were shiny, and redness peeked through her artfully applied makeup.

’’I'm not trying to get killed, I just want this over with,’’ I said softly. ’’Szilagyi wants me for my abilities. I'll let him think he's got me, and then Vlad will bring the pain.’’

She looked behind me to the vampire I still hadn't convinced yet. Her chin lifted.

’’I'm supposed to trust Dracula with your life?’’

’’Not Dracula,’’ I said with a faint smile as I turned around. ’’Vlad Tepesh, former voivode of Wallachia and the most arrogant, deadly, frightening man I've ever met.’’

His lips curled with disdainful amusement. ’’Compliments won't sway me any more than the word please, Leila.’’

’’You take those as compliments?’’ Gretchen was incredulous.

’’Of course.’’ His smile bared his fangs. ’’She named all of my best qualities.’’ Then that unrelenting gaze landed on me.

’’I'll consider this as a possible option for later, but for now, the answer is still no.’’

’’You promised,’’ I said angrily, ignoring the look of surprised approval Gretchen shot toward Vlad. ’’You said if I came up with a plan to rescue Marty that didn't put your people in too much danger, you'd act on it. Well, here's the plan!’’

’’It endangers you too much’’ was his implacable reply. ’’As my lover, you're also considered one of my people.’’

’’But not as valuable,’’ I countered, a hurt I hadn't known I carried causing me to say the next part. ’’You've admitted that you'll never love me, so if something goes wrong, it's not that hard for you to find another girlfriend. Marty does love me, and he's the best friend I've got. I refuse to abandon him.’’

Vlad's eyes turned flat green and he stood so still that it made looking at him almost painful. Not a breath or twitch disturbed his beautiful, inflexible frame. Even his gaze didn't waver by the slightest degree. No one alive could hold himself so immobile, and it was as if he showed me the unbridgeable distance between us with that icily rigid posture.

’’My people will continue to scour the area,’’ he stated after a silence that sliced like knives across my emotions. ’’Starting tomorrow, you will also visit nearby prominent vampires'houses looking for a trace of Szilagyi's essence. Someone has to be assisting him. Once we find out who, that will lead us to your beloved friend.’’

Then he walked away, throwing one last scalding comment over his shoulder.

’’If you need something else tonight, you'll find me in the dungeon, doing what I do best.’’

Chapter 36

I was glad Vlad was occupied with his gruesome task. It gave me time to mull our latest spat without worrying that he was clued into my thoughts since his ’’due diligence’’ policy meant the prisoner would receive all his attention. To help take the edge off, I took a bath and drank three glasses of wine while I quietly acknowledged the reason behind my unexpected venom toward him tonight. It wasn't just frustration because he refused to implement my plan. It was because I'd done the stupidest thing possible-started to fall in love with a man who would never love me.

Sure, Vlad might care for me in his fashion, but he'd never allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable enough to love. With his usual brutal honesty, he'd stated that up front. I thought I could deal with it, but somewhere along the lines, this complicated, mesmerizing, often terrifying man had gotten so deeply beneath my skin that he'd pierced my heart. Now, I wasn't so sure that having most, but not all, of him would be enough, and the hell of it was, I still didn't want to let him go.

Maybe I wasn't the only one with psychic abilities, I thought. Unless something drastic changed, Marty would be dead on in his prediction that Vlad would break my heart.

The last thing I felt like doing was sleep, but I'd need to be clearheaded tomorrow if I was using my powers to hunt for Szilagyi. A couple hours of restless tossing and turning later, I'd just started to drift off when sharp raps at the door startled me. Vlad wouldn't knock, and Maximus was busy helping him play hide-the-hot-poker on Szilagyi's captured henchman.

’’Leila.’’ My father's voice, followed by another series of raps. ’’Let me in. We need to talk.’’

Gretchen, I thought with a mental groan. She must've told Dad about what she overheard earlier. Why hadn't I asked Vlad to glare her into keeping her mouth shut?

I got up, putting a robe over my silk nightgown before I opened the door. My father came inside, his rapid but thorough glance taking in the area that was a smaller, paler green, and more feminine version of Vlad's bedroom.

’’Where is he?’’ he asked without preamble.

’’Torturing the hell out of an enemy combatant he captured tonight,’’ I replied with equal abruptness.

’’And this is the man you're risking your life for?’’

Hugh Dalton had the kind of hardened, self-possessed stare that some vampires a hundred years older hadn't manage to perfect, and he turned it on me with full force. It bounced off.

’’No, I'm risking it for myself, Marty, and a nice boy who helped save me recently and then got killed by the vampire I'm trying to take down,’’ I said coolly.

He spun in a half circle and paced a few steps away, his limp making the strides shorter and less graceful than his former militarily precise movements.

’’It's fine to hate me,’’ he stated, jaw clenching as he shot a pain-filled look my way. ’’I failed your mother and I should have been there for you after the accident. I . . . part of me blamed you at first. You must know that after touching me, but deep down, there was never a question as to who was really responsible for her leaving and subsequent death. Me. So please, even though Marty was a better father to you than I, don't expose yourself to more vampires trying to save him. Keep punishing me, I deserve it. But don't endanger yourself more than you already have.’’

The truth we'd both known for years was finally spoken between us, and now that the words hung in the air, I felt a weight inside me ease. I'd told Vlad that talking about my father's deepest sin was too painful, but what I didn't realize was that the wound had only festered by ignoring it. Memories I hadn't allowed myself to recall sprang to my mind like clips from a movie reel: The four of us collecting seashells along the Virginia shoreline when my dad was stationed near D.C. How Gretchen, only eight, had fallen giggling into the sand while I taught her cartwheels. My dad sweeping us up and spinning us in circles until we screamed with delight while my mom laughingly chided him to put us down before we got dizzy.

The happy family we'd once been had broken into pieces, but broken things could still heal. I was proof of that. We are all more than the sum of our sins, Vlad had said. If I wanted to lay down the burden I still carried over my darkest deed, then I had to forgive my father for his.

’’We both failed her,’’ I said, voice roughened from the pain of remembrance. ’’But if Mom were here, she'd tell us to get over it already. She'd say that nothing was more important than our family sticking together, and I-I want to listen to her now like I didn't back then.’’

He grabbed me, pulling me against him despite the current that made him shudder. His cane dropped to the floor as he put both arms around me, tucking my head into his shoulder as he'd done when I was a little girl. I embraced him back, keeping my right hand to my side since I hadn't gone to bed wearing my gloves. It had been so long since I'd hugged my dad, breathed in that blend of Old Spice and aftershave, yet somehow, the years of estrangement seemed to melt into mere months.

Then I gently pushed him away and gestured at his ruined leg. ’’A bomb blew your convoy apart and crippled your knee, but you still crawled toward the survivors and kept providing cover fire.’’ Watery smile. ’’I'm going with Vlad to help look for the vampire who captured Marty, but it's not because I think he was a better father to me than you. It's because I'm the daughter of a man who refused to abandon the people he felt responsible for even when he was outgunned, bleeding, and only able to crawl.’’

’’God, you're as stubborn as your mother,’’ he said in a voice that cracked from emotion.

I laughed even though my vision blurred from tears. Guilt had made memories of my mom too painful to dwell on, but now it felt good to recall the various aspects of her personality.

’’She was stubborn, wasn't she?’’

My father opened his mouth to reply, but then Vlad entered the room. He didn't seem surprised to see my father. I guess he would've heard us talking as he approached.

Dad retrieved his cane and straightened to his full six-foot height. Then he stared at Vlad with an intensity that would've made a lesser man squirm.

’’I don't care who or what you are. You fail to protect her while using her as a homing device on your enemy, and I'll find a way to kill you.’’

Tough as Hugh Dalton still was, it was the equivalent of a house cat threatening a Bengal tiger. To his credit, Vlad didn't laugh or crack one of his charmingly lethal smiles.

’’Oh, I always protect what's mine,’’ he replied, and his tone made me think he was speaking to me, too.

My dad glanced at me, sighed in a way that said he strongly disapproved of this relationship, and left, his salt-and-pepper head erect even if the rest of his body was no longer straight. I closed the door behind him but waited before turning around, not sure if I'd finished one confrontation only to have another.

’’Done already?’’ I asked neutrally.

’’I am. The others aren't’’ was his reply. A slithering noise followed, and then seconds later, the hiss of water.

I turned around. His clothes and shoes were in a pile on the floor and he was in the shower. He hadn't bothered to turn the light on, but the door was open and he'd chosen to shower in my room. Not his. For Vlad, that was as much an offer to join him as a formal invitation.

I shouldn't. The smart move would be to go back to bed and sleep on all the concerns I had about this relationship, but I went into the bathroom instead, flipping on the light. The glass doors encasing the shower concealed nothing from my gaze.

Vlad's head was directly under the spray, dark brown hair appearing longer with the water sluicing through it. Red rivulets turned to pink and then ran clear as the blood that had soaked through his clothes washed away. From his taut nipples, the water was cold, but faint steam rose as it hit him. His body was even more tempting with that glistening wetness highlighting every ripple, hollow, and bulge. Long, thickly muscled legs set off the twin mounds of an ass that practically dared you not to stare at it. I did until he took a bar of soap and began rubbing lather over himself. White suds clung to sinewy arms, draped across broad shoulders, gathered in the hollow of a sculpted chest, slid down the enticing dark trail on his stomach, and then crowned in the crisp hair of his groin.

My gaze stayed there, and when he lathered flesh that grew and thickened under his hand, a distinct throb began in my loins. Vlad's seething masculinity was matched only by his incredible power, and though both were way out of my league, I was drawn to him like the proverbial moth to a flame. Without thought, I slipped out of my robe and then my nightgown.

When I met his gaze, it was bright green and predatory, making a shiver run through me that had nothing to do with being na**d in a chilly room. I'd never had someone stare at me the way he did. As if he already owned me body and soul, and I was the only one who hadn't realized that yet. Moving like I was in a dream, I entered the shower, gasping when he pulled me to him. The water was icy, but his flesh was scalding, and the shock of burning and freezing at the same time was heightened by the intensity of his kiss. His mouth was molten bliss, tongue a sinuous brand;large hands igniting desire everywhere they roamed. My nails dug into the muscled expanse of his back, and he let out a low laugh at the current that jolted into him.

’’I love how excitement sharpens your power.’’ Growled as his mouth trailed down to my neck. ’’When you're about to come, your whole body vibrates. Most incredible thing I've ever felt.’’

Then he sucked the spot he'd pierced three days ago. The punctures had healed, but shards of erotic sensation coalesced under his mouth as if reminding me how good his fangs felt buried there. I'd gripped his head and stood on tiptoe to press him closer before I realized what I'd done.

Another chuckle, more darkly possessive than amused. ’’I told you you'd crave my bite.’’ Then the graze of sharp teeth. ’’Is this what you want?’’

It was, and between the taunting strokes of his fangs and his ruthlessly knowing hands, I could barely stay upright. Desire melted my bones to candle wax, and the wetness between my legs was from more than the shower spray, but the sensual triumph in his tone stirred something primal in me. Yes, he'd made me crave his bite, his kiss, and other things I could never have from him, but I refused to be the only one drowning in need.

I sank to my knees, grasping his hardened flesh with my left hand. I'd never done this before, but I'd seen it through the eyes of other people and it seemed basic enough. I closed my mouth over the tip of his shaft, running my tongue along heated flesh that was smoother than velvet, yet hard as marble. Something between a groan and a hiss sounded above me, and then his hand brushed my cheek.


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