Once Burned Page 8

I cleared my throat to distract myself from the unexpected tightening of certain parts down below. It didn't help that he stroked my skin as he waited for my response, even that small touch sending more pleasant tingles through me.

’’Are you sure?’’ I had to drain myself in order for this to be effective, and though he was fireproof, it might still hurt.

He leaned down, his long hair brushing my face. Those dark strands shouldn't have felt like teasing caresses, but they did, and again, I cursed my strange reaction to him.

’’I never do anything unless I'm sure.’’

His voice was lower, and his fingers tightened on my hand. A bolt slid into him that I hadn't meant to send, but he didn't appear to mind. A slow smile spread across his lips.

’’More.’’

The soft word was filled with challenge, as if he were daring me to hold anything back. Still bewildered over how he affected me, I took in a breath and then released the hold I kept over myself. Those inner currents unleashed in a burst of power that would've made the ground shudder from its intensity, but Vlad absorbed it without flinching, emerald sparks in his gaze the only visible indication that he felt anything. I was the one who swayed, feeling slightly dizzy at the expulsion of so much energy, so fast.

’’I-I think that's enough,’’ I said, the words uneven from the sudden weakening in my knees. I didn't usually feel like this after releasing my excess voltage. Maybe it was just because I hadn't eaten in almost two days.

Vlad stared down at me, not moving. ’’Are you able to manage the steps, or do you need assistance?’’

My knees still felt wobbly, and though the idea of being in his hot embrace was dangerously appealing, I was not going to be carried to my room like some sort of war spoils. ’’I'm fine.’’

He let go of my hand and stepped back, nodding to Maximus. ’’Prepare her food immediately after you show her to her room.’’ Then to me he said, ’’I'll see you at dinner.’’

I used the banister for balance as I followed Maximus up the curving staircase. Thirty hard-fought steps later we came to a landing. I was relieved that Maximus exited there instead of continuing up the staircase. Maybe I was suffering from jet lag combined with an emotional crash from all the stress of the past couple days.

Off the landing was a wood-paneled sitting room with views of the forest and mountains from windows that took up most of one wall. A long hallway was at the end of the lovely space, and I fought the urge to touch the walls to see if the material covering them really was velvet.

Maximus opened the third door in the hallway, standing aside to let me enter. I tried to act nonchalant when I saw that it was just as opulent as the rest of the house. I'd originally hoped it wouldn't take long to help Vlad find the person who directed Jackal and the others to kidnap me-if he was right and there was a mastermind behind the plot. But now, the idea of the hunt stretching out a few weeks didn't bother me. I couldn't get used to this kind of luxury because I was going back to my borderline-poverty life as soon as this was over, but in the meantime . . . life was too short not to enjoy a windfall.

’’This is amazing,’’ I told Maximus, who seemed to be waiting to see if the room met with my approval.

’’I'm glad you're pleased,’’ he replied. His formal manner seemed at odds with his formidable appearance and direct gaze. Maximus was a foot taller than my five-six height, and his thick muscles and rugged features made me think ’’scary bodyguard’’ more than ’’mild-mannered butler,’’ but who was I to judge?

’’You will find a change of clothes in the wardrobe,’’ he went on. ’’Also, the electricity in this room was rewired to be voice activated. Lights on,’’ he commanded, and sure enough, the bedside lamps and wall sconces flared to life.

I was stunned. ’’How did you-?’’ Then I stopped. Vlad.

He'd not only made good on his promise to provide me with clothes, he'd also managed to have his guest room rewired since without my glove, I couldn't touch a light switch without frying it.

Maximus waited to see if I would complete my sentence. When I didn't, he continued on as if I hadn't spoken. ’’You can also say 'dim'or 'lights off'when you want to retire. Dinner is served at nine in the main dining room on the first floor. Will you need me to show you where it is?’’

’’No, I think I remember seeing it,’’ I said, still taken aback by this unexpected kindness from Vlad.

’’Then I will leave you. Your lunch will be delivered shortly, but if you have need of anything in the meantime, pull this cord.’’

He illustrated the statement by pulling on a long tassel that hung near the door. I didn't hear anything, but I took him at his word that it worked.

’’Thank you,’’ I said, feeling like I should tip him. Not that I could. My wallet was back in Florida.

He inclined his head. ’’My pleasure.’’

I waited until he closed the door behind him before going into the bathroom to check it out. It had a glass shower big enough for two and a sunken garden tub I could almost swim in, plus various other amenities.

I'd longed for a shower, but the thought of soaking my aches away in that tub changed my mind. ’’Lights on,’’ I said, and then used my left hand to turn on the water.

Chapter 10

Several covered dishes were on a tray in the sitting area when I came out of the bathroom. Good thing I'd closed the door or I'd have given whoever brought it a free show. I flipped the lids off to find a four-course meal spread before me. I glanced around, almost expecting people to pop out of woodwork and join me. I have ample food, Vlad had said. No shit. If his blood donors ate like this at every meal, they must weigh three hundred pounds each.

My stomach yowled, a warning to stop staring and start eating. I sat down and dug in without bothering to get dressed.

By the time I was finished, I was so full that all I wanted to do was nap, but Vlad had said he'd send Marty up after I'd showered and eaten. The antique wardrobe turned out to be filled with clothes that were new or rarely worn from the pristine look of them. They were all my size, too, as were the shoes at the bottom of the solid wood piece. I began opening drawers in the nearby dresser and found more of the same. Even the cup size on the bras was correct. Either Vlad had been staring real hard at me while I slept, or he had a lot of experience guessing women's sizes-and a lot of chick's clothes stockpiled at his house.

The latter was no doubt true, but the thought of him checking out my br**sts made things stir in me that I normally kept locked down. Then I reminded myself that Vlad might as well have a ’’Hazardous to Your Health!’’ label stamped on him and chose a sweater, slacks, and thick socks. The fireplace was lit, making this room cozily warm, but the rest of the mansion might not be as comfortable. As soon as I was dressed, I tugged on the tassel. Less than a minute later, a knock sounded at the door. I opened it to reveal Maximus in the hallway. I wondered if his speed meant he was a vampire, or just extremely attentive.

’’Do you know where my friend Marty is?’’

’’Yes. Shall I bring him up?’’

Relief filled me. Vlad was now four for four on his promises. ’’I can go to him,’’ I told Maximus. I still felt a little drained, but I wasn't nearly as woozy as I'd been before.

’’I will bring him to you,’’ he stated. ’’Wait here.’’

Then he was gone in a blur of motion. All right, that answered whether or not Maximus was a vampire. I waited, sitting on the bed after ten minutes standing in front of the empty doorway. Ten minutes into waiting in there, I was starting to get nervous. What was taking so long? Maximus had produced a gourmet meal faster than this!

After thirty minutes, I raced down the staircase to the first floor, trying to remember which direction Vlad had headed off in. The huge hall with its multiple adjoining rooms that had so impressed me before seemed like a maze designed to confound me now. I didn't see a single soul, either. What had happened to all the bowing guys? Where the hell was everyone?

’’Maximus!’’ I shouted, a hard knot forming in my stomach. Something was wrong. I just knew it. ’’Where's Marty? I know you're a vampire, so don't pretend you can't hear me!’’

’’I'm here, Frankie.’’

The words came from directly behind me. I whirled and almost smacked into Maximus, but what filled me with relief was seeing my friend. Marty stood next to the blond vampire, a small, tired smile on his face.

’’Glad you're okay, kid-’’

He didn't finish the rest of his sentence because I grabbed him, crouching down so I could hug him. A shudder wracked him as my previous fear sent a current into him, but he tightened his arms and didn't let me pull away. I might be almost twice Marty's size, but he had ten times my strength.

’’You really okay, Frankie?’’ Marty whispered against my ear.

’’Fine,’’ I whispered back, surprised at the strain in his voice. ’’Didn't you hear? I arrived at least two hours ago.’’

He let me go, glancing up at Maximus. ’’I was busy.’’

The edginess in his tone made me take a good at him. Marty wasn't in the same charred clothes he'd worn the last time I saw him, but his new outfit didn't look much better. Both his shirt and pants were splotched with suspicious dark stains, not to mention his shirt had a big, ragged hole in the middle of it . . .

I darted behind him before Marty could guess what I intended. By the time he spun around, I'd already seen the matching hole on the back of his shirt. It didn't take much imagination to figure out what had caused the bloody entry and exit hole.

’’What. The. Hell!’’ I spat.

Marty grabbed my arms. ’’Calm down. I'm fine.’’

’’You're not fine,’’ I shot back, waving at him as much as his grip would allow. ’’You've been stuck through the torso with a huge frigging pole! Where is Vlad? Did he know about this?’’

Marty glanced at Maximus again, and fresh fury shot through me as the other vampire's countenance became stony.

’’He ordered it, didn't he? Son of a bitch, he had you impaled! Why? To act out one of his crazy Dracula fantasies?’’

’’Shhh, he'll hear you!’’ Marty gasped. His face paled, too, something I'd never seen before.

I was too pissed to worry about Vlad's feelings. ’’I don't care. It's one thing to pretend with the name and the big Romanian castle, but this is insane-’’

’’For the love of God, shut up!’’ Marty interrupted.

’’Good advice,’’ Maximus muttered.

I couldn't believe Marty was more upset about me calling out Vlad for his sick role-playing than being speared like a fish. Maybe Vlad reacted violently to anyone questioning his fantasy. If so, he wasn't just a little deluded, he was a madman-

’’I can't listen to this anymore,’’ an annoyed voice stated.

Marty's face managed to drain of more color. Even if I hadn't recognized Vlad's voice, that alone would've told me who had come up behind me.

’’Don't hurt her, she didn't mean anything by it,’’ Marty said at once, moving to stand between me and Vlad.

I wasn't about to let him take more abuse, especially on my behalf, so I tried to angle myself in front of Marty. He kept sidestepping me with that damn vampiric speed until it looked like we were engaged in some sort of strange dance.

’’Fine, I'll talk to you like this,’’ I snapped to Vlad, Marty still in between us. ’’You promised you wouldn't hurt him, but you had him impaled. Tell me why I shouldn't break our deal right now, and threatening me with death isn't good enough. Been there, done that a thousand times, remember?’’ My lip curled. ’’Besides, you need me and we both know it.’’

Vlad smiled with luxuriant coldness, coming closer. ’’Calling me a name I detest and accusing me of madness and lying. I've killed people for less, but you're right. I do need you. So let's settle the first two issues.’’

Marty was suddenly gone. Vlad had thrown him aside before I'd even seen him move. A thud by the stone staircase told me where he'd ended up, but when I started to go to him, Vlad grasped my arm, his coppery green gaze boring into mine. My heart skipped a beat, but I didn't flinch. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

’’What now?’’ I asked with open challenge.

His brow arched. ’’This,’’ he replied, and shoved a small, hard object into my right hand.

Chapter 11

Images exploded across my mind, but unlike most impressions, they weren't through the perspective of just one person. They came from multiple people.

First, I relived the memory of an older man being cornered by soldiers. They held him down, jeering, as one of them cut away all the skin on the man's face before slitting his throat. The next memory was even more brutal-a burning hot coal used to put out a young man's eyes before he was buried alive. The third was of an even younger man who bore a striking resemblance to Vlad being ambushed and then stabbed to death inside a church. The last was that young man's murderer, pleading to no avail, as a dirty and blood-streaked Vlad shoved a long wooden pole through his midsection, then hoisted him aloft and sat watching the entire two days it took the man to die.

When reality at last replaced those grisly images, I found myself backed into a wall, Vlad's grip on my arms the only thing holding me upright. His gaze was hooded, lean face utterly expressionless as he looked at me. Phantom pains still lingered in various parts of my body, but they faded until only a dull ache from clutching whatever Vlad had given me remained.

I opened my hand, glancing down to see a thick gold ring with a dragon emblazoned across the wide, flat stone-the same ring each of those men had been wearing when they were killed. It was so filled with the essences from its former owners'murders that I half expected it to start dripping blood.

The deaths I'd been forced to relive had conveyed more than the horror of knowing what it felt like to have my face cut off, which had been a new one even for me. I'd also gotten a glimpse into the murdered men themselves. From that, I knew all but the last of them had been members of Vlad's family, and now I also knew exactly who held me against the smooth stone wall.


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