Once Burned Page 7

I might have spent the past dozen-plus hours like this, but I still couldn't get over having someone touch that hand without jerking back in pain. True to his assertion, he seemed to have suffered no ill effects though I must have dosed him with enough electricity to kill a regular vampire three times over.

’’Was ordering me clothes part of what you were doing when you were on the phone?’’ I asked, slanting a look at him. He might have disparaged cell-aholics, but he'd been on his cell for most of the hour before we landed. Even one-handed, he could text like the wind.

’’Among other things,’’ he replied. His fingers grazed my knuckles in a light stroke. ’’While you're a guest in my home, I'll provide for all your needs, but be careful that you don't abuse my hospitality.’’

I stifled a snort. What did he think I was going to do, demand only designer outfits? I'd be happy with any clothes as long as they were warm. It looked like we'd landed in an arctic wonderland from the scenery we drove past.

’’That's not what I meant.’’

Damn him for always listening to my thoughts. I couldn't wait until I had my mental privacy back.

His gaze became cold even as he continued to draw little patterns on my hand. ’’You should be grateful I can hear your thoughts. It's kept me from employing more invasive methods to determine if you were telling the truth about your kidnapping.’’

I flashed back to the memories I'd relived from the vampires Vlad had burned to death, and a shudder went through me. Yeah, I'd much rather have him read my mind than experience his fiery abilities personally. Even the thought made me want to snatch my hand away from his potentially deadly grip.

’’You're still afraid of me,’’ he stated. ’’Good.’’

’’You get off on people being afraid of you?’’ Was he some sort of insecure undead killer? Great, then I could look forward to him scaring the shit out of me on a regular basis just to make himself feel better.

In reply, Vlad pressed a button and the dark glass window separating us from the limo driver came down.

’’Maximus, do you fear me?’’ Vlad asked.

’’Yes,’’ the blond driver replied without hesitation.

Vlad pressed the button again, and soon that privacy glass was back in place. Once more, I resisted the urge to pull my hand free because the atmosphere between us had changed. Gone was the sense of truce I'd felt for the past several hours, and in its place was tension thick enough to choke on. Invisible currents seemed to circulate around Vlad, making the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention in warning.

’’I want you afraid of me for the same reason I want my people to fear me,’’ he said, his voice as much of a caress as his fingers on my hand. ’’Then you won't attempt to cross me. In the future, someone may try to persuade you to betray me. If that happens, remember this: I find and kill my enemies no matter how long it takes.’’

I swallowed to relieve my suddenly dry mouth. ’’I have no intention of switching sides. You're not the one who sent child murderers to snatch me up, and they were going to kill me once they were done with me;I saw it when I touched Jackal. I don't see my death when I touch you, so I'm Team Vlad all the way.’’

Some of that coldness left his gaze. ’’Good, because I wouldn't enjoy killing you. Thus far you're not boring or irritating;a rarity. I also reward those loyal to me, so keep your fear of me, Leila, but know this-you need not fear anyone else as long as you're under my protection.’’

He said those last words with a quiet intensity that sent shivers up my spine. I might not have bought his vow of protection despite the convincing pitch, but the memory I'd relived through him made me a believer. He knew what loss felt like. For loss to be the wound that scarred his soul more than any other made me think he didn't take vows of protection lightly. Slowly, I nodded.

’’Once again, we have a deal.’’

A brief smile curved his lips. ’’You dislike that I can read your mind, but that pales next to your abilities. I don't need to tell you never to reveal to anyone what you saw, do I?’’

You just did, I thought pointedly.

’’So I did.’’ Another quicksilver smile. ’’You'll learn far more once you're in my home. Many of my furnishings are centuries old and must hold numerous memories. I trust you'll treat any new information you glean with the same discretion.’’

’’Yes, but believe me, I'll try to touch as little as possible.’’ Antiques. Oh, how I hated those essence-heavy things!

He continued to study me, his expression a mixture of pitiless calculation and curiosity. ’’You said you've had this ability for a dozen years, which must be half your life judging from how young you look. I was already old when I developed the power to read humans'thoughts, yet the depravities I uncovered still managed to disturb me. Your gift reaches much deeper than that. I'm amazed you haven't snapped under the strain of it.’’

I shrugged as if I hadn't been driven to a suicide attempt over the countless atrocities I'd relived. ’’Sometimes it's helped. I know who to avoid. People can perfect whatever façade they want, but everyone holds their sins close to their skin.’’

His laugh held a hint of grimness. ’’How true that is.’’

The limo bounced over a rut, jostling me. I looked out the window. Trees laden with snow and ice were most of what I saw, but if I craned, I could see the terrain was starting to get steep. After a minute, my ears began to pop. I forced a yawn to relieve the pressure, missing Florida's sea-level altitude.

’’Is it very far to your house?’’

I hadn't eaten in almost two days since I'd skipped breakfast the morning I was kidnapped. Then again, this was a vampire house. I remembered what Marty used to stock in the refrigerator, and it hadn't been anything I wanted to sample. I regarded the wooded landscape bleakly. Probably wasn't a grocery store or restaurant within fifty miles of here, either.

An amused grunt directed my attention back to Vlad. ’’I have ample food, Leila, and this is Romania. Not the northern wilds of Siberia. We'll be at my house shortly, and on the way, we'll pass through a town that has both grocers and restaurants.’’

I flushed at his mocking tone, once again reminding myself to watch my thoughts-if I could figure out a way to do that.

’’You eat regular food? Marty was never into that. Said it all tasted like clay to him.’’

’’It does, and I don't, but I have an abundance of food for the humans who live with me. If they were undernourished, then they wouldn't be able to feed me or my staff.’’

His tone was completely casual, but I was starting to realize that Vlad never said anything by accident. I met his gaze, noting the hint of challenge. He was almost daring me to be offended by his flesh version of a pantry.

’’Marty always drank from tightfisted tourists,’’ I said, arching a brow in answering challenge. ’’Said it served them right for not tipping after our performance. He never tried to drink from me, of course, because he said that business and food should be kept separate.’’

Vlad's lips curled. ’’Subtle you're not. If you're wondering whether I'm intending to drink from you, don't play games. Ask.’’

’’Are you?’’ I responded at once, adding, ’’I don't want you to. I know it won't kill me or turn me into a vampire, but I'm already an 'instrument.'I don't want to be dinner, too.’’

’’No, I'm not,’’ he replied calmly. ’’Nor will any other vampire while you're under my protection. Your friend Marty and I agree about keeping food and business alliances separate.’’

That was a relief. Maybe staying with Vlad wouldn't be too different than living with Marty, though hopefully it would be much shorter than the four years Marty and I toured together.

’’What did the two of you do?’’ Vlad asked, lacing his free hand behind his head.

’’Traveling circus performers,’’ I answered, braced for the scorn most people showed upon hearing that.

Nothing changed in his expression. ’’Clever, with your condition. If anyone noticed your tendency to electrocute people, they would assume it to be a circus trick, and you wouldn't remain long enough in one place for more serious questions to arise.’’

’’That's exactly it,’’ I said with surprise. If only my dad and my sister could grasp that logic so easily. My job was an embarrassment to them. The last I heard, they told people I was a stage actress.

Vlad shrugged. ’’Vampires have experience hiding what we are. Ah, here is the town. Beyond it is my home.’’

I glanced out the window to see us whizzing by a small town that did indeed look like it had shops and restaurants. With all the snow and the quaint, picturesque architecture, it also could've doubled as a snapshot of the mythical Santa's Village.

’’Pretty,’’ I said, ’’but I hope your driver doesn't get pulled over. I doubt the speed limit here is eighty.’’

It sounded like Vlad stifled a laugh. ’’No need to worry.’’

I kept looking out the window, seeing large rocks peek up amidst the trees. A shift in balance leaned me farther back into my seat, confirming that the road was getting steeper. Still, the driver didn't slow down, whipping around the bends and turns with what seemed to be total disregard for life and limb. I glanced at Vlad, but he appeared unconcerned. Of course. He could survive the car careening off a cliff or hitting a tree.

’’No need to worry,’’ Vlad said again with more amusement.

’’Oh, I'm glorious,’’ I replied through gritted teeth. Closing my eyes was probably the best way to get through this.

It might have only been ten minutes before the car came to a stop. To me, it felt like a solid hour. I'd probably sent enough nervous currents into Vlad to power a small locomotive, but he hadn't let go of my hand. Now, however, he entangled himself from my grasp.

’’We've arrived.’’

I opened my eyes. His body briefly blocked my line of vision, but once he was out of the vehicle, I saw the house we'd stopped at. And stared, my mouth falling open.

Chapter 9

The word house didn't begin to do justice to the white and gray structure in front of me. I actually had to tilt my head back to see all the way up to the roof. It was at least four towering stories high, with additional floors on the triangular turrets that rose dramatically on each corner. A myriad of carvings decorated the exterior, from intricate balconies in front of soaring windows to stone gargoyles that glared down from their perches. They weren't the only sentinels of this gothic-looking palace;at least a dozen people were stationed in various spots around the house, some standing so still that at first glance, I'd thought they were statues, too.

The only thing more startling than the mansion's height was its length. I couldn't tell where the right side ended because a line of lofty evergreens blocked my view, but everything to the left of me went on for the length of a football field. A high stone wall with manned lookout towers encircled the property. Beyond that and the surrounding forest, dark gray mountains acted as a natural barrier, adding to the imposing feel of the place. No wonder Jackal didn't want to try anything until Vlad was away from here, I thought, awed. This wasn't a house;it truly was a fortress.

’’Leila.’’

Vlad's voice jerked my attention back to him. He didn't bother to hide his grin as he glanced down at my feet.

’’Don't you want to come inside before you catch a chill?’’

I followed his gaze as if I needed proof that I was standing barefoot on the icy ground. I'd forgotten about the cold, being so caught up in the splendor around me, but now sharp needles of pain pricked my feet.

’’Coming,’’ I said at once.

Two huge double doors opened and Vlad entered through them, nodding at the men who bowed to him as he passed. This time, the obsequious gesture didn't seem out of place. Anyone who lived in a palace like this would expect to be bowed to. Hell, it was bigger than some royal castles I'd seen on TV.

I followed after him, unable to keep from looking around like a kid. We were inside an enormous hall with ceilings that were decorated with artful beams, frescos, and shields. Off to the right, the ceiling lowered and became domed glass. Below it, an indoor garden with plants and flowers arranged around chairs, couches, and a marble fountain.

Vlad strode by the garden and I followed, catching glimpses of more magnificent rooms as we continued down the main hall. Finally he stopped in front of a staircase that was wider than the trailer Marty and I had lived in.

’’Maximus will show you to your room,’’ Vlad stated.

I hadn't noticed the blond driver behind me, but he appeared before my next blink, so he couldn't have been far.

’’Wait. Is Marty here? I want to see him.’’ Vlad had promised not to kill him, but what if something happened with the other vampire on their way?

’’I'll send him up after you've showered and eaten,’’ Vlad said without hesitation.

Relief filled me. He must've confirmed that Marty had arrived in one piece for him to sound so sure.

Vlad turned and began to walk away, but my second ’’Wait!’’ stopped him.

’’I, um, can't shower until I release all my excess electricity,’’ I said with a shrug. ’’Don't suppose you have any lightning rods?’’

’’I'll get some,’’ he replied, coming closer. ’’Until then, use me.’’

’’I can find something else,’’ I hedged.

A brow arched. ’’I insist.’’

He grasped my hand with those words. His coppery eyes stared into mine, silencing my next protest before I voiced it. He was so close that I imagined I could feel his unusual heat in the scant space between us. The warmth from his hand was certainly real. It seemed to slip inside my skin, teasing me with memories of what it felt like to be enveloped in his embrace, that hot, hard body pressed along every inch of me.


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