Once Burned Page 4

He continued to stare at me until I squirmed. Aside from it being unbelievable that he could hear me, he seemed able to see me, too! How? I wasn't there, after all.

’’I don't see you like you're thinking,’’ he answered, a tight smile playing about his lips. ’’You're a voice in my head, but when I concentrate, it's though you're here yet you're invisible.’’That sounded creepy. I didn't have time to ponder it, because he went on.

’’Someone named Jackal is after me? I don't recognize the name, but it's likely an alias. He kidnapped you, you say?’’

He and three of his buddies snatched me right off my trampoline this morning, I answered, grimacing at the memory.

’’Do you know where they're holding you?’’

I knew exactly where I was. Even if I couldn't tell by touching items in the room, the phone had the hotel's full address printed on it. Still, I wasn't about to tell Mr. Inferno where that was until we agreed on some terms.

He grunted in amusement. ’’Terms? You want a reward for turning them in to me?’’

I want to live, I thought at him grimly. I saw what you did to Neddy and Raziel, so I want your word that if I tell you where Jackal and the others are, you'll kill them, not me.

’’Depends,’’ he said, voice crisp as though this were a business transaction. ’’If you truly were forced into this as you claim, then I vow you'll come to no harm. But if you're lying in an attempt to lead me into a trap . . .’’

He flashed one of those charming smiles that had been the last thing Neddy and Raziel had seen. I shuddered.

I'm not lying, I sent to him. The only people I'm trying to trap are Jackal, Pervert, Psycho, and Twitchy.

’’Then you have nothing to fear from me,’’ he said, not commenting on the other names. He clasped those deadly hands in front of him. ’’And it's time we were properly introduced. I'm Vlad, and you are?’’

I hesitated, but replied with my real name because I didn't want to risk even a white lie with this creature.

Leila. My name is Leila.

’’Leila.’’ He said my name as though he could taste the syllables. That charming smile widened. ’’Now, tell me where you are.’’

Chapter 5

Jackal tossed the partially melted belt at me. ’’Try again. Knowing he's at his house is worthless. We need to know where he'll be when he's away from that fortress, not safe inside it.’’

I glanced at the clock on the dresser. Almost two a.m., more than eight hours since I'd spoken to Vlad-who was taking his vampire status way too seriously with that name. What was keeping him? Had he decided these men weren't worth the effort to kill? I'd love to touch the melted belt and find out, but I didn't know if I could get all of them to vamoose again. Jackal had promised me an hour alone before, but he'd barged into the room only thirty minutes later.

’’I'm exhausted,’’ I said, rubbing my forehead for effect. ’’Reliving all these deaths, repeatedly trying to connect to someone in the present . . . it takes a toll.’’ And I also had a nasty headache, but I didn't think they'd care about that.

’’You want me to wake you up with these?’’ Psycho snarled, baring his fangs at me.

Jackal laid a hand on him. ’’That's not necessary,’’ he said in a soothing tone. ’’Poor Frankie's tired. We should let her get some sleep. I know-let's go grab dinner. I saw a tasty-looking family in Room 302. Plenty for all of us.’’

My stomach heaved, because the cold glint in his eyes said he wasn't bluffing. Pervert, Twitchy, and Psycho smirked, silently daring me to make their night. I got off the bed.

’’Let me pee and splash some water on my face, then I'll try to find him again,’’ I said, silently cursing them. I walked the short distance to the bathroom and shut the door. At least none of them tried to insist on coming in with me.

That stalling tactic only bought me a few minutes. Soon I was back on the bed, shivering under the air-conditioning and reaching for the silver knife.

’’Why not the belt?’’ Jackal asked at once, stopping me.

I glared at him, too mad over his dinner threat and worried that Vlad had changed his mind to feign politeness. ’’It's easier to develop a connection through something I've already used.’’

He grunted. ’’Fine. Get to it, and we're not leaving unless you want us to find that family.’’

More rage flared, but I pursed my lips and said nothing, picking up the cold blade. Neddy's death washed over me again, and I pushed through those memories until I found the link to the fire starter. To my surprise, it barely took any time. A vast expanse of indigo replaced the hotel room around me. Vlad was in the middle of that dark expanse, stretched out full-length, his eyes glowing emerald as he looked at something I couldn't see.

For a moment, I was confused. He almost seemed as though he was swimming in his inky surroundings, except he had on a long gray coat that wasn't wet. What . . . ?

’’I'm not swimming, Leila. I'm flying.’’

Vlad's voice flowed over my mind, sounding amused. I realized that the endless expanse around him wasn't water, but the night sky. He had to be high up, too. I didn't see any lights below.

If I lived through this, I was kicking Marty's ass for not telling me some vampires could fly! What if Marty could fly, too? What if all vampires flew? My escape chances would be blown to hell if that were the case-

’’Who is Marty? You didn't mention him before.’’ Vlad's cool voice interrupted my train of thought.

Marty's a vampire, too, I thought, still trying to absorb this new information. But he's not involved in any of this except for probably being worried sick about me.

’’You belong to another vampire?’’

A note of suspicion was back in his voice, and the way he said ’’belong’’ implied se*ual or edible benefits. Or both. I scowled, forgetting Vlad couldn't see it.

No! We work together and we're friends, but that's it.

Ew, I couldn't help but add. Marty was like a second father to me. The idea of him poking his fangs-or anything else-into me was repellent.

What's taking you so long? I thought, getting back to the most important topic. It's been hours. Did you change your mind?

It sounded like he snorted, but with the whooshing wind all around him, I couldn't be sure.

’’I didn't change my mind. I was very far from Florida.’’

So he was still coming. Relief competed with anxiety. They made me find you again, I told him. I tried to stall, but they threatened to eat a family. Said telling them you were at your house wasn't good enough and they'd need to know where you were when you were away from that place.

A grin stretched his mouth. I didn't find anything funny in my statements, but we must have a different sense of humor.

’’Are they with you now?’’

I couldn't see them at the moment, but I knew Jackal, Twitchy, Pervert, and Psycho were still clustered around me.

Yeah. They wouldn't leave me alone this time.

’’Good.’’

If I didn't know the others could hear me, I would've let out an audible scoff. Vlad could at least pretend to care that my neck was in danger of becoming a Capri Sun.

He chuckled, flipping up his coat sleeve to glance at something. Whatever it was seemed to please him, because his teeth flashed in another grin.

’’I want you to start narrating, Leila. Tell the others exactly what you see me doing.’’

Why? I almost blurted aloud, catching myself just in time.

That emerald gaze seemed to laser on me. ’’Because I told you to,’’ he said, his tone implying that he didn't appreciate having his directives questioned.

I hope this doesn't get me killed, I sent to him irritably. My hand tightened around the silver knife. It might be my only hope if this stunt backfired and Jackal realized that my tie to Vlad went both ways.

’’I can see him,’’ I said out loud. If I believed in God, I would've started praying.

In the midst of the wind whistling around Vlad, I heard Jackal's voice. Felt his hand shaking my shoulder.

’’In the present? Or future?’’

’’Present,’’ I said, again hoping I wasn't signing my death warrant. ’’He's not in his house anymore. He's flying.’’

The shaking grew rougher. ’’What's he flying over, Frankie?’’

’’How should I know?’’ I replied truthfully. ’’It's dark. I can't see much . . . wait.’’

Vlad had angled his body downward. The noise from the wind increased. In the distance, I saw tiny dots appear.

’’He's over somewhere populated now. I can see lights. Lots of them.’’

A slap burned the side of my face. ’’Where? I need something more specific than 'populated'and 'lights,'you stupid bitch!’’

I wanted to cradle my cheek, but didn't because I needed all my attention on my link with Vlad. I hope you go medieval on his ass when you get here! I mentally spat.

Vlad's grin widened, showing those sharp-looking upper fangs. ’’I'll remind you that you said that.’’

Then he angled his body in a steeper slant. The glow of lights beneath him became brighter, objects forming distinguishable shapes instead of blank nothingness. I squinted to try and see better, hoping he wasn't hours away.

’’It looks like . . . he might have just flown over an amusement park,’’ I continued. He was going so fast, it was hard to be sure. ’’I think I just saw a roller coaster.’’

He didn't slap me again, but if Jackal shook me any harder, he'd dislocate my shoulder. ’’What park?’’

’’Stop that!’’ I snapped, anger getting the better of me. ’’You want me to lose the link? Then keep breaking my focus by roughing me up.’’

The shaking stopped, but Jackal's hand felt like a concrete boulder on my upper arm. ’’What park?’’ he repeated.

’’Too late to tell, he's past it now. I see lots of roofs and buildings coming up . . .’’

And water. Excitement threaded through me. Florida had theme parks set near water and large cities. If Vlad had just flown over Disney World, he might only be about an hour away.

Is that where you are? I sent to him. Florida?

Another grin was the only reply I got, but the blur of scenery below him began to take clearer shape. It took me a second to realize why.

’’He's slowing down. Dropping lower . . .’’

My heart began to beat faster. I wasn't adept at recognizing landmarks from a bird's-eye view, but I thought the cluster of buildings Vlad just flew over looked familiar.

’’Well?’’ Jackal's grip tightened again. ’’What do you see?’’

That thumping in my chest continued to increase when I saw a harbor that I was now positive I recognized.

’’He's over a marina. I can't see any street names yet, but he's . . . he seems to be slowing down even more.’’

’’A marina?’’ All of a sudden, Jackal sounded uneasy. His hand loosened on my arm.

I clutched the silver knife like it was a lifeline. ’’Yes. Now he's heading toward a city. I see lots of buildings . . . he's dropping down even lower . . . I see a sign on one of them-’’

’’What does the sign say?’’ Jackal interrupted, his voice tight with urgency. ’’What's it say, Frankie?’’

I dropped the link to Vlad, not needing it anymore. The hotel room seemed to rush around me in a series of colors, swallowing up the inky darkness that had surrounded Vlad. My heart pounded like it was trying to free itself from my chest and sweat slicked the knife in my hand.

’’It says,’’ I rasped, nerves and determination making my voice rougher, ’’Red Roof Inn, Tampa.’’

I only had a moment to savor the shock in their expressions before the hotel window imploded from a large form hurtling through it.

Time seemed to switch into fast-forward. One second I was being pelted by flying glass, the next I was shoved into a corner, staring at the back of a dark-haired man in a trench coat. Before my next blink, flames coated the walls in orange and red waves, covering every inch of the room except the section where I was.

’’I heard you were looking for me,’’ a now-familiar voice said mockingly.

The instant heat and smoke had me looking for a way out, but before I could attempt to crawl away, a blur of violence erupted in front of me. It was so fast I was reminded of the cartoons I'd watched as a kid, only this whirling mass of limbs was frighteningly real. With their incredible speed and the smoke making everything hazy, I couldn't tell who was winning, or if more than two people were involved in it.

If I got caught up in that deadly maelstrom, I'd be finished, but this was my chance. I took in a deep breath for courage, coughed at the smoke, and crawled to the nearest light socket. Then I placed my right hand over it, feeling the instant surge as the currents in me connected to the voltage in the socket.

Energy flooded me like an adrenaline shot to my heart, followed by a searing ache along my nerves. The lights blinked out, but even with the sudden darkness and my eyes watering with pain and smoke, I could still see the window Vlad had decimated. Flames and some jagged pieces of glass clung to the frame, making it look like the mouth to hell. A few feet away, several vampires were locked in a death match that defied tracking with the na**d eye. None of that made me hesitate. I took in another coughing breath and then hurtled toward the window, jumping at the last second as if the floor were a springboard.

Chapter 6

’’Leila, don't!’’ a harsh voice shouted.

Too late, not that I would've obeyed anyway. My jump was high enough to clear the three-foot ledge, and I tucked into a ball immediately, rolling as soon as I hit the ground. My arms protected my head for another few bruising, scrape-inducing tumbles until something hard stopped my momentum. Air burst from my lungs at the impact, pain radiating through my body.


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