Twice Tempted Page 40

My father grunted. ’’You're too young to be so jaded.’’

I held up my right hand with a short laugh. ’’You remember what I see with this, right? Everyone's worst sins, so I might only be twenty-five, but I haven't been young for a long time.’’

He was silent for several moments. At last, he nodded.

’’I suppose you haven't.’’

Then he leaned forward, lowering his voice to a whisper. ’’But, baby, you've got to stay away from Vlad. In my decades in the military, I've met all types of hardened men, yet I've never looked into any of their eyes and felt afraid. When I look into his, it's like someone just walked over my grave.’’

A rational reaction considering Vlad wasn't your average soldier, mercenary, warlord, or anything else my dad could compare him to. In many ways, he was a slice of history's untamed past among us, yet I had only one response. While it was the last thing my father wanted to hear, it was also the truth.

’’I don't feel that way when I look at him.’’

Then I rose, filled with renewed determination. Vlad thought I loved a faux version of him because I couldn't handle the full Dracula? I'd prove to him - and my hated inner voice - that he was wrong.

’’Good night, Dad. There's something I need to do.’’

I made sure to mentally sing the most annoying song I could think of in case Vlad had come back. What I was about to do might be risky, but when was my life not risky? Besides, the last two times I'd used my powers, I'd only gotten a nosebleed. I'd also had Vlad's blood today, so that further decreased the danger. In short, it was now or never.

Once on the first floor, I bypassed the dining room, library, and conservatory for a room I usually avoided. The Weapons Room, as I called it.

This room was second only to the dungeon in bloody mementos. It was filled with chain mail, suits of armor, swords, long curving knives, mallets, shields, spears, crossbows, and spikes, most bearing dents, stains, and other evidence of use. Even being close to them made my right hand tingle, as if the essences in those objects were reaching out to me.

The last time I'd been here, I kept my right hand glued to my side because I hadn't wanted to know the grisly stories these objects contained. This time, I stretched it out, seeking the events that had made Vlad into the man he thought I couldn't love. The first thing I touched was a long spear.

I hoisted my spear with a shout that was echoed by thousands of soldiers behind me. Outnumbered or no, we would rather die than allow Wallachia to be conquered. Then I urged my horse down the steep hill, hearing the thunder of hooves as my men followed me . . .

That image faded and I went for the shield next, touching the dragon emblem hammered into the metal.

A cloud of arrows blackened the sky. I raised my shield and braced, waiting to see if I lived or died. Once my shield stopped shuddering, I rose, slicing the arrows sticking from it with a rough swipe of my sword. Then I grinned despite the blood streaming from my forehead. Not dead yet . . .

My heart had begun to race from those battle echoes, but I wasn't about to stop. I stroked a wicked-looking mallet next.

I sat on my throne, showing no sign of the rage coursing through me. Mehmed thought to cow me by choosing three of my former jailers to accompany his envoy. He was mistaken.

’’Your piety prevents you from removing your turbans in my presence?’’ I repeated. Then I smiled at my boyhood torturers. ’’Let me assist you in ensuring they stay on. Hold them.’’

My guards seized the officials while I fetched a mallet and several long spikes. Then, my rage turning to cold resolve, I nailed their turbans onto their heads. After the third one fell lifeless to the floor, I flung the bloody mallet at the horrified envoy.

’’Here is my response to the sultan's terms.’’

I fell out of that memory into another one faster than I registered what I touched next. My vision swam as more images from the past overtook the present. Once I glimpsed a woman with luxuriant brown hair, but when I tried to see her face, it blurred. Then she was gone as I touched something else in my determination to see everything Vlad thought I couldn't handle. Phantom pains and emotions blasted into me with each new object, coming so fast and violently that I began to lose focus on what was real. I was no longer a woman seeking validation about her feelings for her ex-lover.

I was Vladislav Basarab Dracul, bartered by my father into hellish political imprisonment as a boy, then as a young man, fighting war after war to keep my country free, only to be betrayed by my nobles, the church, and even my own brother. Then I was abandoned by the vampire who sired me, widowed by a woman who'd shunned me for my deeds, and imprisoned again by Mihaly Szilagyi, a vampire who sought to rule Wallachia through me. Betrayal, pain, and death were my constant companions, yet I would not let them break me. I would use them to break my enemies instead.

’’Leila!’’

As if from a long way off, I heard Vlad's voice. Felt him grab me, but I couldn't see him. My vision had been replaced with red.

Vlad called my name again, but his voice became fainter. Soon I couldn't hear or feel him. Good. Couldn't he see that I was trying to sleep?

Something poured down my throat and consciousness returned. Through a red haze, I saw Vlad's face. Felt his strong arms around me while his wrist pressed to my mouth.

’’Leila, can you hear me?’’ he asked, moving his wrist to allow me to answer.

I blinked, but the red didn't leave my vision. Then I handed him the object that was still clutched in my hand, dimly noting that it was an ancient-looking crown.


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