Once Burned Page 9

Shock made my voice come out hoarse. ’’You're Vladislav Basarab Dracul, former voivode of Wallachia, but over five hundred years ago, they used to call you Tepesh. The Impaler.’’

Vlad didn't blink. ’’They still do,’’ he replied in a caressingly lethal voice, and then released me.

I was glad my legs managed to hold me so I didn't slump to the ground. Falling before Vlad's feet would be cliche in the extreme, even if he was the real Vlad.

I glanced at Marty. He was still by the staircase, but he seemed okay. Maximus was there, too. From the other vampire's grip on his shoulder, he'd been keeping Marty from interfering.

’’Could you hear what I experienced from touching that ring?’’ I asked, unable to contain a shiver at the memory.

’’Yes and no.’’ His lips twisted into a humorless smile. ’’When you utilize your power, your mind is locked behind an impenetrable wall. But when you're finished, you think about what you saw, and I hear that.’’

I tried to chase away any remaining thoughts of those murders, which was easier to do when I focused on Marty.

’’Okay, now I know you're not suffering under a delusion from too much role-playing.’’ The last of that trembling left my limbs and I took a step toward him, my voice sharpening. ’’It doesn't excuse you from breaking your word not to harm Marty.’’

Vlad folded his arms across his chest, drawing my attention to the dark stains on his shirt that smelled like one of Marty's foul-tasting shakes.

’’No, I promised not to harm you,’’ he countered. ’’I only promised to keep him alive, which I have. But though it never occurred to you that Marty might have been in collusion with the vampires who kidnapped you, the thought did occur to me.’’

My mouth dropped. ’’No. Marty wouldn't do such a thing.’’

’’Thanks, kid,’’ he muttered from across the room.

’’I believe that now,’’ Vlad said, glancing at Marty without the slightest hint of remorse, ’’but I wasn't about to take a stranger at his word.’’

His expression hardened even more. ’’I come from a line of princes who all have one thing in common: They were murdered. I've been surrounded by death, betrayal, and power coups for hundreds of years, yet I've survived and kept my people safe by being smarter and more ruthless than my enemies. What I did may disgust you, but only the naive or the foolish would have trusted Marty on his word alone, and I am neither.’’

He came toward me, and once again, I fought the urge to back away. Vlad might have kept his promise in the strictest sense of the word, but torturing Marty on the mere chance that he might have been involved with my kidnapping also proved that Vlad was one of coldest people I'd ever met.

Then again, after the glimpses I'd seen of his past, not to mention what I'd seen of him since we met, I was the naive fool for expecting anything different.

He stopped when he was only inches away, still nailing me with that hard, copper-colored stare. Then he held out his hand.

’’My ring.’’

I put it in his palm, forgetting to switch it to my left hand before touching him. A current sizzled into him with the contact, which I expected, but I didn't expect what came next.

The gothic hall vanished, replaced by the hazy cocoon of midnight-green drapes encircling the bed I was on. I wound my hand into the thick fabric while a moan left my lips, sharpening into a cry at the incredible pleasure shooting through me. My grip on the drapes tightened as I writhed under the erotic combination of wet, deep strokes and lightly chafing stubble against my most sensitive flesh.

’’Please,’’ I gasped.

Vlad lifted his head, his hair like dark silk against my thighs and his gaze lit up with emerald.

’’No,’’ he said throatily. ’’More.’’ And he lowered his mouth again.

Vlad's face crystallized in front of me, but instead of green drapes all around us, we were back in the hall and he was staring down at me, frowning.

’’I know you caught a glimpse of something when you touched me. Your mind went silent. Tell me what it was.’’

My cheeks flamed with heat. At the same time, disbelief washed over me, covering the remains of pleasure more intense than I'd ever experienced while masturbating. That hadn't been a vision of him with another woman, yet still, denial screeched across my mind.

No. Not me and Vlad like . . . like that!

His frown cleared, replaced by a brow going up. Damn his mind reading. Think of something else! I mentally screamed, avoiding his stare. ANYthing else!

I no longer looked at Vlad, but I could almost feel his gaze roving over me, noting my newly tight nipples, accelerated heartbeat, and probably picking up on that damn lingering throb between my legs, too.

’’Not surprising,’’ he said at last, his voice thicker with things I didn't want to name. ’’I predicted the same thing myself.’’

My cheeks continued to heat until I expected them to burst into flames like his hands. I brushed past Vlad and headed for the staircase, not daring to look at Marty, either. How could I? I'd just gotten a glimpse into a future where I was in bed with the man who'd tortured him.

’’Nothing's set in stone. I've changed my premonitions before,’’ I muttered, both to Vlad and myself. Still, I took the stairs two at a time.

Chapter 12

An hour later, Marty opened my bedroom door without knocking. He'd changed out of the torn, bloody clothes and had taken a shower, from the damp look to his hair. I was sitting cross-legged in bed, trying without success to pretend I'd misunderstood the image I'd glimpsed. Yeah, right. Because Vlad had been between my legs looking for a set of keys he'd lost.

’’Frankie?’’ Marty said gruffly. ’’I don't wanna bother you, but I don't have long to talk.’’

’’Why? What's going on?’’ I asked at once, leaping up.

Marty shut the door behind him, scratching one of his long, bushy black sideburns. ’’I'm leaving for a scouting mission.’’

I didn't ask, Scouting for what? ’’Vlad might not even be right,’’ I muttered. ’’Maybe no one told Jackal and the others to snatch me up. Maybe they thought of it all by themselves.’’

’’They didn't,’’ Marty replied, grimness clear in each syllable. ’’That vampire from the hotel, Shrapnel, spent the whole plane ride grilling the redhead who took you-and he was creative. But that was nothing compared to what Vlad did once we got here. Next to that, I got off easy. They didn't act alone. They were sent after you, but they didn't know by whom. All they had was a phone number and a big deposit in their bank account with promises of more if you gave them the goods on Vlad.’’

I sighed. I hadn't really thought this would be over so quickly, but I'd hoped. ’’I'm so sorry, Marty.’’ I gestured at his chest, wanting to cry at what he'd been through. ’’He shouldn't have hurt you.’’

Marty snorted. ’’I'm happy to be alive. You probably guessed that I tailed you from Gibsonton, waiting until there were fewer vampires guarding you. When I realized it was Vlad I attacked, I thought I was done for. The only reason I'm not toes-up is because you made him promise not to kill me. I'd heard that he holds to his word. Never thought to find out personally.’’

I managed a limp smile. ’’Since I'll be spending time with him looking for this mysterious puppet master, is there anything else I should know about Vlad?’’

’’Yeah.’’ Marty's expression became hard. ’’What you saw in that last vision . . . don't let it happen.’’

I closed my eyes, feeling my cheeks warm again. So Marty had figured out what I'd glimpsed, too. Not a shock;he was a vampire, and I'd been anything but suave in my reaction.

’’Marty,’’ I began.

’’I wouldn't care if it was someone else,’’ he cut me off. ’’This isn't about your inexperience with men.’’

’’Announce that to everyone, why don't you!’’ I hissed, my eyes flying open. With how well vampires could hear, he may as well have tattooed a big V onto my forehead.

He waved a hand impatiently. ’’You're missing the point. Vlad isn't your typical vampire. We're all ruthless at one time or another, but he's in a class by himself. You let yourself get involved with him, he'll rip your heart out and destroy your life, and if I didn't love you like the daughter I used to have, I wouldn't say this when I know damn well that he's listening.’’

The raw pain in his voice took away my embarrassment.

’’Don't worry.’’ I forced myself to sound nonchalant. ’’I know how dangerous he is and I don't want to get involved with him. I must've had a case of temporary insanity because he's immune to the electricity in my touch.’’ A shrug. ’’I'll get over it.’’

Marty chucked me on the hip. ’’That's my girl. I don't know how long I'll be gone, but you watch your back.’’

’’I will,’’ I promised Marty. ’’When do you leave?’’

Marty sighed. ’’Now. Give me a hug, kid. Love you.’’

I knelt down and wrapped my arms around him, careful not to touch him with my right hand.

’’Love you,’’ I whispered. ’’You watch your back, too, Marty. Don't you dare let yourself get killed.’’

He laughed a trifle grimly. ’’I'll try not to.’’

At nine o'clock on the dot, I came down the staircase. I'd considered refusing to join Vlad for dinner after what he did to Marty-among other reasons why I didn't want to see him-but avoiding him would be pointless. We had to work together to find out who'd ordered my kidnapping. I wasn't about to let that person get off the hook.

Besides, I'd gotten over my embarrassment for my naughty vision about Vlad-and for Marty trumpeting the news of my inexperience for every vampire to hear. Was I supposed to be ashamed for valuing other people's lives over my own needs? I wasn't that coldhearted and ruthless.

I couldn't say the same about the vampire who rose when I entered the dining room, his expression showing a flicker of surprise as he took in my appearance. To show that I wasn't suffering from damaged modesty, I'd changed into a strapless black dress, the tight fit clinging to curves honed by countless hours of gymnastics. My normally straight black hair now had waves of curls in it, and the red lipstick and smoky eye makeup looked good against my lightly tanned face.

That's right, Voivode, I thought as his gaze swept over me a second time. I might be scarred, but I'm still tasty-looking, aren't I? Too bad you're not getting any of this no matter what that vision showed.

His lips twitched, but he held out my chair without comment. It wasn't until after I sat down that he responded to my mental gauntlet.

’’If your goal is to dissuade me from seducing you, taunting me with promises of failure won't work.’’ He settled himself into his chair with an easy, arrogant elegance. ’’I enjoy challenges, but I don't think it will be long until you're in my bed.’’

I'd been in the process of unfolding my napkin, but at that, I froze. He did not just talk about me with the same casualness as a dessert he'd eventually get around to eating.

Out loud, I said, ’’Ooh, someone's got an ego.’’

He picked up his wineglass, taking a sip before replying. ’’It's not ego, I'm used to women chasing me. With your age and inexperience, you normally wouldn't stand a chance. But your abilities cut a swath of darkness through all that youth and innocence, making you quite intriguing.’’

’’Lucky me,’’ I gritted out, still steaming at his presumption.

Vlad smiled, as threatening and enticing as a whip curled around a champagne bottle. ’’Yes. People frequently bore me, sometimes amuse me, most often irritate me, but rarely intrigue me. You do, which is why I'll enjoy having you as a lover.’’

I couldn't decide which was more insulting-him lumping me together with women who had ’’chased’’ him, or his continued conviction that I'd fall into bed with him. I glanced at the room with its cathedral-like ceiling, barbarically gorgeous chandelier, and seating for two dozen.

’’No wonder you need such a huge house. Your overconfidence wouldn't fit in anything smaller.’’

He shrugged. ’’Confident I might be, but it's not without cause. You think I'm dangerous and you're angry at me over Marty, but even before your vision, I could tell you wanted me.’’

’’You're hot, big deal,’’ I shot back, refusing to let his knowledge of my most intimate thoughts daunt me. ’’I'm attracted to a lot of hot guys. If Chris Hemsworth were here, I'd light him up like a firecracker with how fast I'd jump on him.’’

’’And that would kill him,’’ Vlad noted.

’’Him and everyone else with a heartbeat, which is why I couldn't date after the accident. I could've branched out to vampires, but Marty told me to avoid them because he was worried they'd try to use me for my power.’’ And he was right, I thought emphatically before going on. ’’Now I'm thrown together with an attractive man I can't kill, and you feel special because I responded like any normal, healthy woman would?’’

I leaned back with a huff. ’’Give me a break. Another reasonably good-looking dead guy would rev my engine, too, so don't break your arm patting yourself on the back.’’

’’You're deluding yourself, but as I told you, I don't run away from challenges,’’ Vlad said, stroking the tight stubble along his jaw. I refused to follow the movement;staring at his mouth would only lead to more thoughts of that vision.

’’Let's put it to the test,’’ he went on. ’’Maximus!’’

He hadn't raised his voice, but the blond vampire appeared almost instantly.

’’Yes?’’

’’He's just one of many men available for you to choose from,’’ Vlad stated with an arch smile. ’’All muscular, virile, single, and good for at least an hour before you'd electrocute them into oblivion.’’


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