Once Burned Page 6

That stopped me in my tracks. Yes, I'd seen him wield fire without the slightest burn to show for it. Even his clothes seemed immune to the flames, but I was so used to my touch being dangerous that my mind immediately rejected Vlad's statement that I couldn't harm him.

He didn't attempt to pull me forward this time, but waited as I digested this information. It seemed inconceivable, but I supposed if there was someone in this world I wasn't able to harm, it would be a vampire who could call forth fire from his flesh. The danger from electrocution was stopping someone's heart-not an issue for any vampire-and the inevitable, ever-increasing burns. If burns didn't affect Vlad due to his pyrokinesis, he really was immune to me.

No wonder I hadn't taken him down when I'd shot him full of voltage earlier. All that must have done was annoy him.

I looked at the plane with a sense of exhilaration this time. I'd never thought to fly in one again. Sure, I could keep protesting, but why? Vlad didn't need to go elsewhere to torture or kill me;this deserted area would make a great spot, if that's what he intended. The most logical assumption was he did want to talk, and if he wanted to do that while on a plane . . . well. Hopefully he wouldn't talk the whole time. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it was before the accident, when there was nothing special about me except my aptitude for gymnastics . . .

’’Okay,’’ I said, trying to suppress my grin.

His snort told me I hadn't been successful. ’’Then come.’’

He jumped into the plane, pulling me along as if I was weightless. Once inside, I admired the plush cream interior with its sleek tables and leather reclining chairs. I'd only flown coach before, which was night and day compared to this luxurious aircraft. Vlad said something to the two pilots in a language I didn't recognize, and then they closed a small curtain, giving us the illusion of privacy.

’’Where's Marty?’’ I asked, seeing no other passengers.

’’Taking a different route,’’ he replied, shrugging off his coat. ’’Here.’’

The air-conditioning felt like it was on full blast. Since I was no longer in his toasty embrace, I was chilly. Had he read that from my mind? A glance down made me stifle a groan. Nope. With nothing more than thin spandex covering my chest, even the blind would notice that my ni**les were so hard, they could cut glass. I took his coat with a mutter of thanks, not looking at him as I settled it around me. It felt like an electric blanket from his body heat, cocooning me in warmth. The inner lining had heavier objects in it, but I didn't explore. Probably silver knives, though Vlad's most formidable weapon was his hands.

Guess we had that in common.

He sat in one of those the comfy-looking leather chairs and I followed suit, choosing the one to his left since he'd need to keep my right hand in his throughout the flight. The plane immediately started to taxi, no safety instructions or admonitions to buckle up, and I was surprised to feel it lift off moments later. Must not need much of a runway.

Vlad's hand was still warm, but it didn't give off the same scalding heat it had before. It felt strange for anyone to touch my right hand, let alone for this long. If he wasn't a dangerous vampire whose intentions toward me were still suspect, I'd have reveled in a smolderingly attractive man holding my hand. For the past decade, that had only happened in my dreams.

With a flash of discomfiture, I remembered Vlad could hear my musings. A current slid into him, powered by my embarrassment. Instead of pretending that he hadn't caught my thoughts, his mouth curled into a sly smile.

’’That one tickled. If electrocution is your way of flirting, I commend you on your originality.’’

’’Yeah, well, I remember you weren't impressed by the word please,’’ I responded tartly, my brief embarrassment gone.

’’Were you born with these abilities?’’ he asked, changing the subject.

’’I was electrocuted by a downed power line twelve years ago. It kept me in a coma for months. When I woke up, I had extensive nerve damage and this scar.’’ My finger swept from my temple to my wrist for emphasis. ’’The nerve damage eventually healed, but that came with unexpected side effects.’’

I couldn't stop the memories that followed my summary of the accident and its aftermath. Me going back to school, trying not to notice how the other kids stared at my awkward gait or extended scar. Then my horror when I glimpsed people's darkest secrets through my right hand, let alone the realization that I shocked everyone I came into contact with. The whispers I was meant to overhear in the halls and classrooms. She's a monster now . . . All scarred and weird, like some sort of Frankenstein monster . . .

’’I've met monsters. You're not one of them.’’

Vlad had been unrepentantly listening again. I tried to clear my mind, but it's not like it had an off switch.

’’You told me your name was Leila, but your friend and those other vampires called you Frankie,’’ he continued. ’’You took the Frankenstein insult and shortened it into a nickname?’’

I lifted my chin. ’’Yes.’’ I'd needed to change my identity, and after I got over my hurt feelings, I used my classmates'pettiness for inspiration. If they'd thought their favorite taunt would make me crumble, they'd thought wrong.

’’What made you choose the name Vlad?’’ I asked, unable to resist adding, ’’It's not the most original vampire name you could have picked, after all.’’

Instead of being offended, that little smirk was back. ’’I'm the only authentic Vlad. Everyone else is merely an envious imitation.’’

I snorted, giving him a deliberate once-over. With his long dark hair, striking features, frightening charisma, and seductively muscled body, he looked like he could pass for the infamous Prince of Darkness, but how naive did he think I was?

’’You've got the obligatory dangerous-yet-se*y thing going on, but I'll believe you're the real Dracula when you believe I'm the real Frankenstein.’’

’’Dracula is a caricature born from a writer's imaginings,’’ he snapped, that tiny smile gone. His hand flared hotter, too. ’’It bears no resemblance to me any more than Mary Shelley's story is an accounting of you.’’

Wow, he took his little fantasy seriously. And he just heard you say that, I reminded myself as his look grew pointed.

’’What did you want to talk about?’’ I asked, shaking my head as though it could rattle any incriminating thoughts loose.

’’Your survival chances.’’

His tone was casual, expression back to that pleasant one I found more frightening than a menacing scowl. I'd seen the faces of countless murderers, but none of them had mastered the look of detached friendliness like Vlad did when he killed.

’’Is this the part where you tell me how I'm going to die?’’ I asked, steeling myself for whatever came next.

He squeezed my hand in a companionable way. ’’You should have seen that I don't waste my time with monologues before I kill. In fact, it's in my best interest to protect you.’’

I didn't reply, just raised my brows at this dubious statement.

’’I doubt I'll get any useful information from your remaining kidnapper no matter how much I torture him,’’ he went on. ’’He strikes me as a pawn, so he probably has no idea who sent him after you.’’

I continued with my doubtful stare. He rolled his eyes. ’’I forgot your generation is only familiar with mobile phone games like Angry Birds. In chess, pawns are the lowest level of-’’

’’I know how to play chess,’’ I interrupted. ’’When you can't touch a cell phone or play electronic games without frying them, you learn to make do with the classics.’’

He grinned, revealing those lovely white teeth. I reminded myself that if I mentally recited that famous line from Little Red Riding Hood, he'd hear it.

’’Good. If you checked your e-mail every five minutes, or keep texting and Tweeting in the middle of our conversation, I might snap your neck out of sheer principle.’’

’’You'd feel right at home in some retirement communities with a technophobic attitude like that. You probably love to tell kids to get off your lawn, too.’’

Cell phone addiction annoyed me, too, but I'd never fantasized about murdering anyone over it, unless you counted people who talked on their phones during a movie . . .

His smile didn't slip. ’’You're still half expecting me to harm you, yet you don't hesitate to needle me. Aren't you afraid to make me angry?’’

He could read my mind, so I didn't bother answering with anything except the truth.

’’You're scarier when you're nice, and you've already decided if you're going to kill me. No amount of bantering or begging on my part will change your mind, so I'll keep on being myself. You're not the only one who doesn't care for pretense.’’

This time, his smile widened into a full-fledged, wicked grin that made him almost devilishly handsome. I looked away, not wanting my thoughts to inflate his ego. To distract myself, I concentrated on the scarred hand holding mine. His grip was light, as if I could pull away at any moment, but we both knew better.

’’You're right on all counts,’’ he said in that smooth, accented voice. ’’But you'll be relieved to know that you're not about to die. I said it was in my best interest to protect you, and I meant that. If I'm right-and I always am-your remaining kidnapper will be a dead end. That leaves you as my best chance to discover who sent those vampires after me.’’

’’Me?’’ I repeated, my gaze flying back to his.

’’Your ability to divine information through touch as well as locate people in the present and future is priceless. Vampires all over the world would kill to use you as an instrument against their enemies. I'm astounded that you've remained anonymous as long as you have, considering your friendship with another vampire.’’

’’Marty would never use me like that,’’ I flared. It was bad enough to feel like a pariah because of my condition, but being reduced to ’’instrument’’ status was worse.

’’Perhaps, which is why I'm letting him live,’’ Vlad replied. ’’That's a kindness I don't usually bestow on anyone who attacks me, but because of his affection for you, he'll also be invested in finding out who was really behind your kidnapping.’’

What if neither one of us wants to help you? I couldn't help but wonder. Marty and I had nothing to do with whatever feud Vlad had going on with another vampire.

Those coppery eyes sparked emerald for a second. ’’If I let you go, how long do you think it would be until that same vampire sent another crew to snatch you up? You need me to find this person far more than I do. I'm hard to ambush.’’ He gave me a callous rake of his gaze. ’’You're not, and since you seem to be an intelligent girl, you already know that.’’

His hand didn't so much as twitch, but I imagined I could feel it tightening over mine until it formed an unbreakable snare. My pride wanted to refute what he'd just said, but my abilities meant I'd relived too many instances of the unwary falling victim to the unmerciful. I might have a chance against one vampire, maybe two thanks to my electrocution capability, but against a horde of them? Even if Marty fought with me, I'd be setting us both up to fail, and damned if I'd be that stupid.

’’Wise decision,’’ he said, still watching me with that unblinking gaze. ’’You keep thinking like that and you'll live long enough to dance on your enemies'graves.’’

’’I thought vampires didn't do graveyards,’’ I said with a sigh. I hadn't asked for this fight, but Vlad was right. I was in it now regardless.

He chuckled. ’’We don't. Graveyards are full of dead people. Vampires want to be where living, drinkable blood is.’’

I closed my eyes, weariness hitting me all at once. It had been a long, stress-filled day, and according to Vlad, it was only going to be the first of many.

’’Where are we going? You never told me.’’

’’My home in Romania.’’

Wow, this guy wasn't kidding with his Dracula fixation.

I heard a snort but didn't bother to open my eyes. Rustling noises sounded like he was getting more comfortable. I did the same. If we were headed to Romania, we were in for a long flight.

Chapter 8

Eleven hours and one stop to refuel later, we landed at a tiny airport that only had one runway and two hangars, one of which our plane taxied into. I glanced down at my bare feet with a mental sigh. Here's hoping we didn't have a long walk to a car. The ground was covered in snow. Vlad had loaned me his coat, but I doubted he'd give up his shoes, too.

My frostbite worries were put to rest when I followed him out of the plane and saw a shiny black limousine waiting inside the hangar. Either Vlad had lots of his own money or he had friends in high places. Of course, he might also have had a vampire associate mesmerize a limo driver into picking us up. That mind-manipulation thing had come in handy when a customs officer asked for our passports during our refueling stop.

A blond man with a Viking-like build opened the limo door when Vlad approached, executing a bow. My brows rose, but Vlad nodded as though having people bow to him was an everyday occurrence. I tiptoed after him, again grateful that I didn't have far to walk. The ground was concrete, but it felt like ice.

The blond man barely glanced at me, which I didn't mind because most people just stared at my scar first anyway. I ducked inside the limo, careful not to touch anything with my right hand. The driver shut the door, saving all the precious interior warmth from escaping. As soon as I sat down, I shoved my bare feet toward one of the lower heat vents.

’’On the way to your house, we need to pick up some things,’’ I said. ’’My leotard will be able to walk around by itself soon, and shoes are a necessity in this weather.’’

Vlad reached out, pulling my right hand into his. ’’It's already been taken care of.’’


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