Once Burned Page 5

I wanted to stay hunched in a protective ball, but there was no time. I rose, assessing my options. I'd slammed into the front of a car with my wild dive, but beyond that was the welcoming darkness of the parking lot. I shook my head to clear the ringing that probably indicated a mild concussion and sprinted toward it as fast as my aching muscles could take me.

’’Stop her!’’ a voice commanded behind me.

I glanced back while adding some extra oomph to my stride. Smoke and flames still poured from the ruined window, but no one chased me. With luck, they'd be occupied long enough for the fire department to distract them from coming after me. Bye bye, biters! I thought, smiling despite pain radiating through me. Too bad I hadn't been wearing my running shoes when I was kidnapped.

Out of nowhere, something snatched me from behind with what felt like bands of steel around my midsection. I doubled over, almost vomiting from the abrupt resistance that made me instantly come to a stop. For a dazed second, I didn't know what happened, but then I saw dark arms looped around my waist and felt something large and solid behind me.

’’I've got her,’’ a male voice called out. Then a cool mouth pressed to my ear. ’’Don't bother with the stun gun again. It won't be enough against me.’’

Wait until my new assailant realized my entire body was a stun gun. He must be another vampire or he'd be on the ground from touching me after the extra voltage I'd absorbed from the light socket-and that was just what my body gave off. My right hand was now a formidable weapon, but I needed more leverage to use it to its best advantage.

’’All right,’’ I said, trying to sound meek. ’’You're hurting me,’’ I added to see if that made him loosen his grip.

It did. So my captor wasn't cruel like Jackal or the others. Without that unyielding grip cementing me in place, I was able to step away enough to glance behind me.

The vampire who'd grabbed me was the brawny African American I'd spied Vlad talking to earlier today. Guess the fire starter had arrived with backup, but holding me hostage hadn't been part of our deal. The man looked me up and down, grimacing when his gaze followed the scar that zigzagged from my temple all the way to my right hand.

I was so used to that pitying reaction;it didn't even elicit a twinge of self-consciousness. Right now, I was grateful for every sympathy-inducing advantage I had.

’’I think I sprained my ankle,’’ I said, holding one foot off the ground for effect. Hey, I was getting better at this lying thing! ’’Could you look at it?’’ The vampire let me go, starting to kneel just as I'd hoped. His attention was on my ankle as I extended it, leaning forward like I was having trouble balancing. One touch of my right hand on his head should incapacitate him long enough for me to run away. I reached out-

’’Touch him, and I revoke my promise not to harm you.’’

Vlad's voice cut through the night air, freezing my hand an inch away from its goal. The other vampire stood at once, back on full alert. Shit! I silently screamed. How had Vlad known what I was going to do?

’’The same way I knew you were spying on me before,’’ he replied with sardonic amusement. ’’You have your unusual abilities. I have mine, and mind reading is one of them.’’

Mind reading. No wonder he'd been able to hear me when I established a link with him! Slowly, I turned toward his voice. Flames still shot from the hotel window, illuminating Vlad in an orange glow. He strode toward us while dragging someone who was so covered in soot and scabs, I couldn't tell which of my former captors he was.

’’Where are the others?’’ I asked, striving to sound calm.

His features were still hazy from smoke and shadows, but I caught a glimpse of white teeth as he smiled.

’’Ashes.’’

His captive tried to pull away, but Vlad's grip tightened until his fingers disappeared into the blackened flesh beneath them. I looked away, my stomach twisting. Sirens cut through the mutterings of people who came out of their hotel rooms to gawk at the blaze. Vlad was unperturbed, as if torching a hotel room and then restraining a charred vampire was what he normally did on a Thursday night.

’’You have what you wanted,’’ I said, still managing to sound composed. ’’Now hold up your end of our agreement and let me go.’’

That emerald gaze seemed to pierce me to the quick. ’’I agreed not to harm you and I haven't. As for letting you go, I will . . . after we have a more detailed conversation.’’

Despair crashed over me. Vlad's idea of a detailed conversation probably meant torture followed by execution. I should have known someone who'd callously burned several people to death wouldn't honor his word to let me go. But then, unbelievably, I heard Marty's voice over the blare of sirens.

’’Run, Frankie, run!’’

Vlad swiveled toward the sound just in time to see Marty barreling toward him as though he'd been fired from a cannon. I'd wondered why he hadn't done anything when I was kidnapped, but he must have followed me and stayed hidden until he thought he had the best chance to rescue me. Problem was, this wasn't it.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion instead of fast-forward this time. Vlad's companion pulled out a silver knife and shoved me to the ground. Vlad made no attempt to avoid Marty's assault, but kept his grip on the charred vampire and widened his stance as if daring Marty to take him down. It was dark, but I thought I saw Marty's determined expression the instant before his body crashed into Vlad's. As if trapped in a nightmare, I watched Vlad absorb the blow while remaining on his feet, his deadly free hand erupting in flames as he reached for my friend.

’’No!’’ I screamed.

Instead of running like Marty commanded, I flung myself at Vlad. My right hand landed on his leg, desperation making those hated inner currents rocket from me and into him with far more power than normal.

With my panic and the voltage I'd channeled from the light socket, Vlad should have been blown clear across the parking lot. Instead, he remained where he was, the only effect a shudder wracking him and the smell of ozone briefly overcoming the scent of smoke. That flaming hand snatched Marty up before I registered that he'd moved, and then Vlad's dark head swung in my direction, bright emerald eyes meeting my shocked gaze.

’’That,’’ he bit out, ’’was rude.’’

The sight of him restraining two struggling vampires was the last thing I saw before my vision went gray. The parking lot and burning hotel vanished, replaced by towering trees and a twisting, ice-filled river.

I knelt by its rocky bank, my clothes soaked, but I paid no attention to the cold. I couldn't feel anything beyond the pain that roared like an inferno through my veins, building until I threw my head back and howled at the overwhelming anguish.

The woman in my arms didn't react. No breath stirred her lips, and her eyes continued to stare sightlessly ahead. I clutched her closer, more agony ripping through me as if it were my body that had been broken beyond repair instead of hers. For all my new power, I had never been more helpless. Death had stolen her away, and she would eternally remain beyond my reach.

That knowledge made a new howl erupt from my throat, despair mixing with the grief that threatened to rend me apart. This was my doing. The river might have washed away all traces of her blood, but I would forever carry its stain on my hands.

’’Hold them,’’ a curt voice directed.

The woman, river, and forest vanished, replaced by billowing smoke and the Red Roof Inn parking lot. Marty was still alive, to my vast relief, though he looked like he'd gotten a good scorching. Vlad handed him and the other, far more charred vampire over to his friend. I was on the ground, kneeling, tears streaming down my cheeks from reliving Vlad's darkest memory. To be honest, I'd expected a far more gruesome image after touching the fire starter, but what scarred his soul appeared to be loss, not murder.

Once Marty and the other vampire were secured, Vlad knelt next to me. His hands were no longer engulfed with flames, but that might be because the fire truck had pulled up and that would draw too much attention. The wailing siren seemed to pierce my skull with its screech, but though vampires had better hearing, Vlad didn't seem bothered by it.

’’Stop crying,’’ he said shortly. ’’I'm not going to kill you, if that's what you're so hysterical about.’’

He thought I'd fallen sobbing to my knees because I was afraid to die? The lingering echoes from his anguish made my ironic snort come out more like a sniffle.

’’Those tears were yours, not mine. Whoever she was, you were really broken up over her death.’’

His brows drew together. He was close enough for me to notice that despite igniting several things-and people-he didn't have so much as a charred speck on him.

’’What nonsense is this?’’

’’Don't tell him anything, Frankie,’’ Marty hissed.

I looked up at my friend, but Vlad's cold voice snapped my attention back to him.

’’Take them away, Shrapnel. I'll catch up with you later.’’

I stopped myself before touching Vlad in instinctive appeal. Electrocuting him again wouldn't help my cause.

’’Don't kill him, he was only trying to protect me. That's Marty, and he didn't know that I, ah, called you. He probably thought you were with the crew that kidnapped me.’’

Poor Marty. He'd followed Jackal and the others, biding his time until he thought the odds were better. How could he have known that Vlad was tougher than four other vampires combined? Of course, if Vlad had already made up his mind to kill Marty, my plea not to harm him would fall on deaf ears. He was capable of murder, but the memory I'd pulled after touching him made me hope there was more to Vlad than his tendency to torch people.

His features hardened. ’’What memory?’’

Right, he had mind reading abilities. That made Marty's urging not to tell Vlad what I'd seen pretty much moot.

’’You and the dead woman by the river,’’ I replied. ’’I told you I pull images from people or things I touch. I saw her when I touched you, and I was crying because I felt everything you felt that day.’’

He stared at me with such unblinking intensity that it hurt to hold his bright gaze. I didn't look away, though. He might be able to read my mind, but I'd ripped open the wound he held closest to his soul. The least I could do was not take the coward's way out by staring at the ground.

’’Keep them both alive, Shrapnel,’’ Vlad said at last. ’’I'll rejoin you later.’’

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other vampire nod. Then he just . . . vanished. Either teleporting was another vampire ability Marty had neglected to mention, or Shrapnel moved faster than greased lightning.

Vlad stood, his eyes changing from glowing emerald back to burnished copper.

’’You're coming with me,’’ he stated, holding out his hand.

I looked at it but didn't move to take it. ’’So you are reneging on our deal.’’

’’I don't like being called a liar, which is something you'd do well to remember,’’ he replied in a tone that made shivers of trepidation run through me. Then a small smile touched his mouth. ’’We need to talk, and there are too many people here for that. You know I can overpower you despite your unusual talent, so the smart move would be to take my hand.’’

Yeah, I was aware that he could overpower me. I'd given him the biggest dose of voltage I'd ever harnessed and it hadn't so much as made him lose his balance. Right now, it wasn't just the smart move to take his hand. It was my only move.

I reached for him with my left hand. He ignored that, mouth twisting as he clasped my right one instead. A current slid into him, but he didn't pull away.

’’Sorry,’’ I muttered.

He let out a short grunt. ’’I can handle the effects from your touch if you can.’’

I was about to tell him that I only pulled impressions of sins from people through a first touch, but the feel of him when he drew me close distracted me. It wasn't just his hands that were unusually warm. His entire body gave off heat, searing through my flimsy leotard as he enveloped me in his arms. Normally vampires were room temperature, but Vlad felt like a furnace. Before I could ask what was up with that, or why the impromptu hug, he vaulted us into the air, the wind snatching away my yelp of surprise.

Chapter 7

After a pulse-pounding half hour of flying, Vlad set us down in a large patch of dry vegetation. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the small plane ahead in the clearing. So he had more than one way to fly, but that didn't mean I was game.

’’You can't expect me to go anywhere in that,’’ I stated.

His brow arched. ’’You'd rather stay and be a feast for mosquitoes? I can think of better uses for your blood.’’

If he meant to intimidate me with that comment, he'd succeeded, but it didn't change anything. ’’I didn't get a chance to grab my rubber glove when I was kidnapped, so you put me in that and my hand will fry every circuit it touches-’’

’’Then we won't let it touch any circuits,’’ he interrupted, clasping it firmly as he led me forward.

I tugged away, but that had no effect on slowing his stride. ’’Even if I agreed to get on that plane, which I haven't, you can't hold my hand the whole time we're in the air. You should've figured out that I don't just zap someone once. The longer you touch me, the more voltage you'll absorb, and eventually, it'll cook you from the inside out.’’

And then I'll cause the plane to crash and get killed, too, I mentally added, which was what concerned me the most. Even Marty had to limit his contact with me to no more than an hour when we trained, or risk his entire body breaking out in what looked like radiation blisters.

The grin Vlad flashed me was amused and a touch feral-a combination I wasn't sure I liked. ’’And you should have figured out that I'm fireproof. You can't harm me, Leila, no matter how much voltage you channel into me.’’


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