Twice Tempted Page 7

His mouth twitched, the only indication that he heard me. Then he gestured to his left.

’’Leila, you already know Maximus, Shrapnel, Mencheres, and Kira, but let me introduce the rest of our guests.’’

I kept that pleasant smile throughout a list of names I hoped I wasn't expected to remember, because all twenty-eight seats at the huge table were filled. When I'd first seen the dining room with its wall of fireplaces, three-story ceiling, and gargantuan chandelier, I'd thought it was a dazzling waste of space since only me and Vlad ate here. Now its size and splendor came in handy. We would've needed another table if he'd invited more friends, and judging from the women's jewels and the men's resplendent tuxedos, those present were used to luxury.

I wasn't. Neither was Gretchen, who looked as ill at ease as I felt. Our father had been a career military man, so we'd grown up in modest surroundings that frequently varied depending on his change of duty stations. When I struck out on my own at eighteen, I'd scrounged for jobs that didn't involve technology or touching people - and all decent-paying jobs required one or the other. If I hadn't met Marty and joined his traveling carnival act, I might have ended up on the streets.

I certainly wouldn't have wound up at Vlad's, smiling at strangers through a sea of crystal glasses that servants filled with a dark red liquid too thick to be wine. Those same servants then brought out enough food to feed everyone twice over despite Gretchen and I being the only humans. Nerves had stolen my appetite but I dug in with feigned gusto, wondering when Vlad would reveal the true purpose behind this occasion. He didn't invite over two dozen people to his house merely to show off. Vlad was many things, but pretentious wasn't one of them.

The bombshell behind this event dropped during dessert. I'd just helped myself to a spoonful of bourbon butterscotch creme br?lee when Vlad stood and all chatter stopped.

’’Thank you all for coming,’’ he said in the sudden silence. ’’As you are either friends or honored members of my line, I wanted each of you to witness my actions now.’’

Then he moved behind my chair, resting his hand on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to twist around so I could see him. What's going on? I thought nervously.

He ignored the question. ’’Most of you know that Leila has been my lover for the past few months. In addition, she also risked her life to save my people and demonstrated unwavering loyalty even during torture. Because of her great value to me, I now offer her an eternal bond, if she accepts.’’

Then he leaned down, breath warm on my neck as he whispered his next words. ’’You've wondered if I felt differently about you since your abilities diminished. Let this serve as your answer.’’

I caught a glimpse of his scarred hand before he placed a small velvet box in front of me. My heart started to pound while my mind overloaded with shock and joy. At the far end of the table, I heard Gretchen gasp. Out of all possible reasons behind the surprise fancy dinner, I hadn't expected this. Things had indeed changed between us, in the best way possible.

’’Vlad, I . . .’’

Coherent thought and words might have failed me, but my motor skills didn't. With hands trembling from joy, I slowly opened the ebony box.

Gretchen rocketed out of her chair to come toward me. At some point, happy tears must've sprung to my eyes because the box's content was blurry. Still, I could make out a ring. An avalanche of happiness swept over me. It wasn't until now that I realized how much I loved Vlad and how fervently I'd hoped that he loved me, too. I blinked to see the ring more clearly . . . and then my elation became tempered with confusion.

Maximus caught Gretchen's arm before she reached me, but she was still close enough to get a look inside the box.

’’You cheapskate, that's not a diamond!’’ she announced with her usual tactlessness. ’’What kind of engagement ring is that?’’

I'd wondered at his choice, too, since I recognized the ring as a replica of the heirloom that had been passed down from Vlad's father to him. No matter, I'd cherish any engagement ring he gave me. Besides, maybe proposing with a replica was a Dracul family tradition -

’’It's not an engagement ring,’’ Vlad replied crisply to Gretchen. ’’It's the symbol of membership in my line. All the vampires I've made carry one.’’

At those words, my ecstatic jumble of thoughts crystallized into one heartrending realization: He's not proposing. He's only offering to make you a vampire!

Vlad straightened and his hand left my shoulder. He'd heard that. With how it had roared across my mind, he'd have to be telepathically deaf to have missed it.

I knew I should sing something to keep him from hearing anything else, but I couldn't think up a single verse. My pride screamed at me to act as though I hadn't misunderstood, yet all I could do was clutch that box while my previous joy turned to ashes. Nothing had changed except Vlad thought my humanity needed an upgrade, and he'd decided to inform me of that with a roomful of vampires as witnesses.

I glanced up. Our guests'gazes skipped away with pitying quickness while their uncomfortable shifting told me Vlad wasn't alone in figuring out my misinterpretation. If I hadn't felt as though my heart had been ripped out and flambeed in front of me, I would have been mortified.

Gretchen's voice broke the loaded silence. ’’You want Leila to become a vampire? That is so creepy!’’

’’Maximus,’’ Vlad bit out.

The brawny vampire had Gretchen hoisted up with his hand over her mouth before I could blink. Normally, such handling of my sister would've incensed me. At the moment, I was trying too hard to pull myself together to respond.

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