Once Burned

Page 54

"Shoving you away?" My voice rose as long-buried wounds rocketed to the surface. "I was a little busy trying to cope with getting Mom killed and electrocuting everyone while reliving their darkest secrets, remember?"

"Know what I remember?" While I'd gotten louder, Gretchen's voice became soft. "Coming home from school to find you in a bathtub full of blood. Calling 911 while holding your wrist together and praying I wouldn't have to bury someone else I loved, and I remember that as soon as you got better, you left."

If she'd screamed it at me, it would've been easier, but the quiet despair in her voice cut me deeper than that knife had back then. How could I explain the darkness I'd felt trapped in? Or the conviction I'd had afterward that if I didn't get away from her, I'd destroy her life more than I already had?

I couldn't explain, and in hindsight, it didn't matter.

"I was wrong, Gretchen," I said, blinking back tears. "I couldn't see past my own pain so I let it swallow me up. By the time I fought through it, you wanted nothing to do with me and Dad was wrapped up in his job again. Marty was all I had. That might have been my doing, but I abandoned you once when I shouldn't have. I'm not making that mistake with Marty now."

Then I went over and touched her cheek, my new gloves making it possible to do so without hurting her. She swatted my hand away, but her blue eyes were shiny, and redness peeked through her artfully applied makeup.

"I'm not trying to get killed, I just want this over with," I said softly. "Szilagyi wants me for my abilities. I'll let him think he's got me, and then Vlad will bring the pain."

She looked behind me to the vampire I still hadn't convinced yet. Her chin lifted.

"I'm supposed to trust Dracula with your life?"

"Not Dracula," I said with a faint smile as I turned around. "Vlad Tepesh, former voivode of Wallachia and the most arrogant, deadly, frightening man I've ever met."

His lips curled with disdainful amusement. "Compliments won't sway me any more than the word please, Leila."

"You take those as compliments?" Gretchen was incredulous.

"Of course." His smile bared his fangs. "She named all of my best qualities." Then that unrelenting gaze landed on me.

"I'll consider this as a possible option for later, but for now, the answer is still no."

"You promised," I said angrily, ignoring the look of surprised approval Gretchen shot toward Vlad. "You said if I came up with a plan to rescue Marty that didn't put your people in too much danger, you'd act on it. Well, here's the plan!"

"It endangers you too much" was his implacable reply. "As my lover, you're also considered one of my people."

"But not as valuable," I countered, a hurt I hadn't known I carried causing me to say the next part. "You've admitted that you'll never love me, so if something goes wrong, it's not that hard for you to find another girlfriend. Marty does love me, and he's the best friend I've got. I refuse to abandon him."

Vlad's eyes turned flat green and he stood so still that it made looking at him almost painful. Not a breath or twitch disturbed his beautiful, inflexible frame. Even his gaze didn't waver by the slightest degree. No one alive could hold himself so immobile, and it was as if he showed me the unbridgeable distance between us with that icily rigid posture.

"My people will continue to scour the area," he stated after a silence that sliced like knives across my emotions. "Starting tomorrow, you will also visit nearby prominent vampires' houses looking for a trace of Szilagyi's essence. Someone has to be assisting him. Once we find out who, that will lead us to your beloved friend."

Then he walked away, throwing one last scalding comment over his shoulder.

"If you need something else tonight, you'll find me in the dungeon, doing what I do best."

Chapter 36

I was glad Vlad was occupied with his gruesome task. It gave me time to mull our latest spat without worrying that he was clued into my thoughts since his "due diligence" policy meant the prisoner would receive all his attention. To help take the edge off, I took a bath and drank three glasses of wine while I quietly acknowledged the reason behind my unexpected venom toward him tonight. It wasn't just frustration because he refused to implement my plan. It was because I'd done the stupidest thing possible-started to fall in love with a man who would never love me.

Sure, Vlad might care for me in his fashion, but he'd never allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable enough to love. With his usual brutal honesty, he'd stated that up front. I thought I could deal with it, but somewhere along the lines, this complicated, mesmerizing, often terrifying man had gotten so deeply beneath my skin that he'd pierced my heart. Now, I wasn't so sure that having most, but not all, of him would be enough, and the hell of it was, I still didn't want to let him go.

Maybe I wasn't the only one with psychic abilities, I thought. Unless something drastic changed, Marty would be dead on in his prediction that Vlad would break my heart.

The last thing I felt like doing was sleep, but I'd need to be clearheaded tomorrow if I was using my powers to hunt for Szilagyi. A couple hours of restless tossing and turning later, I'd just started to drift off when sharp raps at the door startled me. Vlad wouldn't knock, and Maximus was busy helping him play hide-the-hot-poker on Szilagyi's captured henchman.

"Leila." My father's voice, followed by another series of raps. "Let me in. We need to talk."

Gretchen, I thought with a mental groan. She must've told Dad about what she overheard earlier. Why hadn't I asked Vlad to glare her into keeping her mouth shut?

I got up, putting a robe over my silk nightgown before I opened the door. My father came inside, his rapid but thorough glance taking in the area that was a smaller, paler green, and more feminine version of Vlad's bedroom.

"Where is he?" he asked without preamble.

"Torturing the hell out of an enemy combatant he captured tonight," I replied with equal abruptness.

"And this is the man you're risking your life for?"

Hugh Dalton had the kind of hardened, self-possessed stare that some vampires a hundred years older hadn't manage to perfect, and he turned it on me with full force. It bounced off.

"No, I'm risking it for myself, Marty, and a nice boy who helped save me recently and then got killed by the vampire I'm trying to take down," I said coolly.

He spun in a half circle and paced a few steps away, his limp making the strides shorter and less graceful than his former militarily precise movements.

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