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Flying at high speeds through a forest is less dangerous than it looks. At least, that’s what I told myself the few times I opened my eyes. Mostly, I kept them shut. Not just because it was easier to maintain my psychic link with the man we were hunting, but I also didn’t need to know how close we came to the countless trees Vlad maneuvered us around as we flew through the thickly wooded countryside.
You’ll survive if he hits one, I reminded myself. We were both vampires, so we could heal almost any injury in seconds, but I hoped I wasn’t about to find out how much it would hurt if we splatted into a tree at over a hundred miles an hour. I already knew more about pain than most people ever would, and I didn’t want to add to that repertoire.
“Is Branson still in the manor?” Vlad said, raising his voice so the wind couldn’t snatch away his words.
I ran my fingers over the belt buckle I’d been holding on to this entire time. It had once belonged to Branson, and Branson was in league with Vlad’s nephew/stepson/new worst enemy, Mircea. We’d been looking for Mircea for months, yet had come up empty. Branson was our best lead on him, and soon we’d find out exactly what Branson knew about Mircea.
I concentrated on the essence trail that Branson had imprinted upon the belt buckle until it sharpened my inner focus. Once I had followed it back to its source, my surroundings changed, taking on the look of an odd double exposure. Part of me saw the forest we flew through while the rest of me saw a long, ornate room with high ceilings and tall, fancy paintings lining both sides of the walls.
“Yes. He’s pacing now, and he keeps checking his cell phone.”
I felt Vlad’s chuckle as it vibrated against my forehead, and it held the distinct undercurrent of a predator’s growl. “He won’t be waiting long for my reply.”
With that, we broke through the tree line. I dropped my link so I could see the imposing structure I’d only glimpsed before through my psychic connection. The large house was made entirely of gray stone, with the main building over two stories high and ancient lookout towers over the formal entryway. The tall trees hid the city beyond, and the vast grounds kept the other views of civilization away, making it look as if we’d been dropped back in time several hundred years.
Since Vlad had been born in the fourteen hundreds, he ought to feel right at home in this medieval setting. Since I was only twenty-six, I didn’t.
Vlad slowed down, dropping us onto the manicured part of the lawn that surrounded the fortress. “Stay here,” he said, striding toward the entrance.
I caught up to him instead. “What part of ‘we do this together’ did you translate as ‘leave Leila behind’?” I hissed, keeping my voice down since we weren’t the only ones with supernatural hearing.
His aura broke through his inner shields. Even though he’d released only a sliver of his power, it still felt as if I’d just gotten subconsciously scalded. If I were anyone else, I’d be terrified at pissing off the legendary Vlad Tepesh, meaning “Impaler,” aka Dracula, aka don’t-ever-call-him-Dracula-if-you-want-to-live, but I was Mrs. Vlad Dracul, thank you very much. Uncrowned prince of darkness or no, Vlad wasn’t pulling this crap with me.
“We can fight about it until Branson hears us, or we can get him together quietly,” I went on, narrowing my eyes. “Your choice.”
The high-arched portico covering the fortress’s main entrance suddenly exploded, jetting out fire and pieces of stone. I ducked from instinct, but Vlad walked right toward the burning chaos, the fire parting to let him pass.
“Does that answer your question?” he asked.
Before I could respond, a wall of fire sprang up, spreading until it encompassed the entire castle. Guess he’d changed his mind about being stealthy. Worse, now I couldn’t follow him. Unlike Vlad, I wasn’t fireproof.
“That’s cheating!” I shouted. No need to talk softly now.
I thought I heard him laugh, but between the roar of the fire and the cracking of stone from the crumpling entryway, I couldn’t be sure. Damn Vlad and his archaic ideas about women in combat. He’d rather I be under heavy guard back at his castle in Romania. I probably would be, if an enemy hadn’t blown up his castle and kidnapped me from its rubble months ago. Otherwise, Vlad would never have agreed to go back on his no-wife-allowed-on-killing-missions rule.
Or, I thought, eyeing the wall of fire that only he could pass through, it seemed he’d only partially gone back on it. My teeth ground. I could stand here and seethe, or I could make myself useful. Besides, revenge was a dish best served cold, and I would get him back. I just had to wait until everything around me wasn’t on fire.
I rubbed the belt buckle again, seeking the essence imprint. Once I had it, my surroundings changed into the richly furnished room that our quarry was still standing in. Branson wasn’t looking at his phone anymore. He was staring out the window in horror at flames that leapt all the way up to the roof. Branson knew only one vampire in the world could control fire this way, and it was the same vampire that he’d been caught betraying.
Then Branson ran, which I expected, but he didn’t head for the door. Instead, he pressed a panel near one of the room’s many paintings. A hidden door swung open, and he darted inside a steel-lined room and closed the door before I could mentally switch channels.
Branson has a panic room! I sent to Vlad once I was tuned in to him.
Vlad paused on his way up a long, curved staircase, giving an amused glance toward the second floor.
“Then he’s in for another surprise.”
His words reached me through our link instead of the normal way, so the continual portico collapse must be drowning out everything else. Once I had hated my psychic abilities so much that I’d attempted suicide, but now they came in handy. I still loathed reliving people’s worst sins the first time I touched them, but nothing important came without a cost.
A red Porsche bursting through the wall of fire surprised me into dropping my link to Vlad. The car’s speed caused it to fishtail as soon as it hit grassy terrain. Glowing green eyes revealed that the driver was a vampire, but it couldn’t be Branson. He’d locked himself in a panic room.
This had to be one of Branson’s friends. Maybe he was in league with Mircea, too. Even if he wasn’t, only someone who’d also betrayed Vlad would be in such a hurry to get out of here. With Vlad busy trying to bust in the panic room, I was the only person standing in the way of this treacherous driver and his freedom. I chased after the car. If it reached the driveway, I’d be screwed. Unlike Vlad, I couldn’t fly, and the Porsche could go much faster than me once it was on flat, paved ground.
The car shot forward with a burst of speed. Damn, the driver must’ve spotted me. Now he was only a dozen feet away from the driveway. I put everything I had into a desperate lunge. If I reached the car’s bumper, I could flip it—
I ducked when multiple cracks smashed through the back windshield. Two bullets whizzed over my head, and the third one struck me in the shoulder instead of the heart. From the burn, the bullets were silver. Of course. Any other ammunition was useless against vampires.
Pain caused my powers to flare. A long, sizzling whip shot from my right hand and I cracked it toward the car. The electricity it contained caused it to tear through the Porsche’s frame as if it were butter. More gunshots had me spinning to avoid another volley of bullets, and I used my velocity to full advantage. When I swung back around, my electrical whip had lengthened, and I lashed the car with all the force I had in me.
It split in two, the front section still going several feet before the car’s weight caused it to cave in. A fire broke out, and I couldn’t tell if it was those flames that made the driver scream, or if I’d sliced through more than the car’s frame. I stayed low as I circled around to the driver’s door, my whip crackling as I readied it to strike again.
“Drop the gun and get out, or—”
I didn’t get a chance to complete my threat. Flames shot over the car, too thick and numerous to be from the electrical fire. Then Vlad slammed down next to me, the ground shuddering from the force of his impact. He shoved me behind him and rounded on the burning car.
“You shot at my wife?” The flames intensified. High-pitched, panicked screams made me wince from more than their assault on my enhanced hearing.
I grabbed his arm. “Stop, we might need him alive.”
Vlad glanced at me and saw the blood from the bullet wound in my shoulder. At once, his arm became so hot that my hand started to catch fire. I let him go, and he turned back to the car with a smile that made further argument useless.
I knew that smile. It meant someone was about to die.
I took a few steps backward as the screams from inside the car became even more frenzied. When Vlad’s shields dropped and I felt the full force of his rage, it didn’t surprise me to see the Porsche begin to glow as red as the car’s paint job.
Then the car melted into itself as Vlad’s incredible power turned metal into molten liquid. The screams stopped. So did the sounds of breaking glass and twisting steel. Soon, all I heard was a hiss as the ground caught fire.
I reached out to Vlad again, this time not dropping my hand even though his flesh still scorched me through the thin material of his shirt. “You might want to consider working on your anger management issues,” I said in a light tone.
A bark of laughter escaped him. “So say my many enemies.”
When he turned around and pulled me to him, his body was no longer scorching, and the emotions intertwining with mine now felt only marginally insane with rage; a vast improvement. He kissed me, and I didn’t care that the stubble shadowing his chiseled jaw rasped my face. All I focused on was his kiss and the wave of love pouring through our connection, even more powerful than the rage that had caused him to melt a car as easily as a normal person could strike a match.
When Vlad stopped kissing me, another emotion poured through the bond that had formed the moment Vlad had raised me as a vampire. Regret.
“I shouldn’t have done that.” He gave a frustrated glance at the smoldering heap of melted metal. “I know better than to kill an enemy before I interrogate him, but I saw the bullet hole in your shirt and . . .”
“Blew your fuse,” I finished, giving him a lopsided smile. “Happens to the best of men, I’m told.”
Another harsh laugh. “Perhaps, but never to me.” Until you, was left unsaid, but I didn’t need to feel his emotions to know he was thinking it.
“Cheer up,” I said, striving to lighten his mood. “Once you bust through that panic room door, you can interrogate Branson for days, and no one will ever know you spilled your lighter fluid too soon with this guy.”
This time, his laughter held hints of real amusement. “I look forward to such a redemption.”
“Well, let me make sure Branson didn’t try to run for it while you were out here,” I said, grabbing the belt buckle again. In moments, I saw the inside of a small panic room. It had a single chair, a twin set of control panels, and several screens that showed live video feed from both the interior and the exterior of the manor.
Branson was staring at the screen that showed Vlad and me next to the smoking, misshapen remains of the Porsche. Then he looked at the steel walls of his panic room, and an expression of horror crossed his features.
“He’s watching us, and I think he just realized you can melt your way into his hideout,” I narrated.
Vlad’s hands erupted into flames and he gave Branson a cheery wave while mouthing the words, Here I come.
Vampires were naturally pale, but Branson blanched a shade I’d only seen on someone deaddead. Vlad began striding toward the manor, and I watched as Branson reached into a drawer. He came up with a gun, and with shaking hands, he checked the clip to make sure that it was loaded. It was, and from the look of them, they were silver bullets.
“He’s got a gun filled with silver,” I told Vlad, who was now at the front of the manor.
He snorted. “Branson just saw me melt a car. Doesn’t he realize I can melt a gun, too?”
“I’m sure you can,” Branson said, and though Vlad couldn’t hear him, I could through my psychic link. Then, very calmly, Branson put the gun to his chest and pulled the trigger.
“Oh shit!” I shouted, seeing Branson continue to shoot himself although his movements were becoming stiff and uncoordinated. “Hurry, Vlad, he’s killing himself!”
Vlad flew the rest of the way, blasting through walls to get to the second floor. Then, with an expulsion of power that knocked me to my knees even a hundred yards away, he tore a molten hole into the panic room. He was kneeling by Branson’s prone form less than thirty seconds after my warning.
It was still too late. My link to Branson weakened as he began to wither, his body reverting to its original age as all vampires did when true death overtook them. When the link dropped completely and I felt nothing but emptiness on the other side of Branson’s essence trail, I spat out a curse.
Branson had been our best chance to find Mircea. With him dead, we were now back to square one, which was having no idea where Mircea was.
Vlad had had powerful enemies before, but Mircea was unique. He was a powerful sorcerer, though necromancer was a more accurate term since Mircea could bespell the undead as well as humans. That and a spell linking us together meant that Mircea could find me any time he wanted to. I gave one more look at the smoking car and the still-burning mansion. Yeah, I had no doubt that I’d be hearing from Mircea soon. Very soon.
Vlad and I didn’t speak much on the flight back to Romania. He also had his emotions locked up, but I figured that was more to shut out the pilots than me. They were also vampires he’d sired and thus could feel him the same way I did. I’d spent several hours of the flight looking through the memories locked inside Branson’s bones—another handy perk of my psychic abilities—but I hadn’t found anything useful.
Memories in bones were more erratic and imprecise, like trying to understand a movie if you watched it backward at a high speed. All I’d been able to glean from his bones was that Branson had been in league with Mircea for at least a few months, which we already knew from Vlad’s diligent spies. Yet those spies hadn’t been able to discover where Mircea was, and if Branson knew, he’d taken that secret with him to the grave.
I’d spent the rest of the flight trying to diminish the grimness of our coming back empty-handed, but Vlad had brushed off my attempts at optimism. When we arrived at the magnificent castle that was an exact replica of the one that had been destroyed several months ago, he announced that he had business to attend to and he’d see me later.
I knew him well enough not to argue. He needed some time to blow off steam, and I needed time to shower and feed, preferably in that order. I nodded to the few vampires I saw as I walked up the four flights of stairs that led to our bedroom. Even though they weren’t on display like the various works of art in this house, Vlad had a lot of his people on guard here, and the ones I walked by bowed to me as I passed.
I’d never get used to that, but I’d tried asking them to stop, and it was the only request of mine they didn’t obey. Many of them still considered Vlad their prince in addition to the master of their line. So, as his wife, I got bowed to the way they bowed to him, no matter my preference on the subject.
I entered the midnight-green room that Vlad and I shared. I went right into the bathroom, ignoring the marble tub in favor of the large glass shower. I spent the next several minutes enjoying the hot water and the clean, herbal smells of the specially formulated shampoo, conditioner, and body wash I used.
I was out of the shower and dressed in one of my favorite caftans when a metaphysical knife suddenly slashed me across the shoulder. Magic sucks! I thought, scowling at the crimson stain that instantly appeared on my dress. Figures I’d be wearing white when my batshit nephew-in-law decided to carve into me.
Hello, Leila, said an all-too-familiar voice, his words slithering across my mind as if they were a snake.
Hello, Mircea, I thought in reply, allowing my hatred of him to invade my mental voice. What an unpleasant surprise.
I heard his laughter as if he were on the other end of a cell phone. In a way, he was, except this was a magical connection and I hadn’t figured out how to hang up on him yet.
You didn’t miss me? he mocked. How strange. Most women do.
Yes, Mircea was beautiful in a stop-and-stare way, complete with copper-colored eyes that had obviously run in the family. Mircea was Vlad’s nephew by blood and his stepson by marriage, thanks to Vlad’s second wife getting it on with Vlad’s brother, Radu. But Mircea was also as vicious as he was pretty. I had this tie to him after the most powerful of his magical attempts to murder me had backfired, linking us together in a way that no one seemed to know how to break.
I heard about Branson, Mircea went on. Poor Leila, are you still trying to find me? Don’t you know that you won’t succeed?
One day we will, I sent back, fighting a swell of frustration and bitterness.
Vlad and I were forced to search for Mircea the normal way because he’d somehow managed to block me. I could link to anyone else if I had their essence imprint, but though Vlad had brought me artifact after artifact of Mircea’s, I was unable to link to him. He was either magically or psychically preventing me. If it was the former, I was screwed, so I chose to believe it was the latter. That way, I still had a chance that my powers would grow, and I’d beat him at his own psychic game.
So naïve, Mircea said, ending his words with a tsking sound. I wonder how my father stands you.
Stepfather, I corrected immediately. Or call him Uncle Drac if you must, but Vlad is not your father.
Another mystical slash across my shoulders had me biting back a cry of pain. Wow, he’s sensitive about that, I realized, filing the information away for later. Good thing Mircea couldn’t hear my thoughts unless I deliberately directed them to him. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t hear his thoughts, either, or I might have learned where he was.
Within moments, the pain faded and my skin knit itself back into smooth, unblemished flesh. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t call out for help. Mircea could hurt me, yes, but there were limits on what he’d do. It wasn’t because he had a conscience; every injury he inflicted on me had to be carved into his own flesh first.
That was the beauty—and the curse—of the spell that bound us together. It had forced Mircea to stop the suicide-inducing aspect of it so I no longer had the urge to chop off my own head. The flip side was, even if Vlad and I did find Mircea, we couldn’t kill him. Not without killing me, too.
Seriously, what do you get out of our little talks? I went on, thanking God that Vlad lost his ability to read my mind as soon as I became a vampire. Otherwise, he’d overhear everything I was thinking, and know that Mircea was mentally messaging me as well as cutting into me.
Perhaps I do it to find out why you mean so much to Vlad, he snapped. Thus far, it’s a mystery. You’re not as beautiful as his former lovers and you’re a damn sight less intelligent.
Must be my electric personality, then, I deadpanned, but inwardly, I was intrigued. Why did he keep logging on to my mind to talk to me? It couldn’t be just to trade insults. Sure, Mircea had only been in his late teens when he was turned into a vampire, but that was over five hundred years ago. More than that, Mircea was usually smug when he used our link for his mental and physical assaults. Now, he sounded upset. Maybe enough to lose his cool and reveal something critical for me to use against him?
I pressed my advantage. This is the sixth time you’ve contacted me in the past four months. I used to think it was because you were testing our connection to make sure that the spell still bound us flesh to flesh and blood to blood, but you don’t need to talk me up to cut into me. Why do you keep doing it? Are you bored? Or are you just really, really lonely?
I’ll show you why, he said with a snarl.
I didn’t like the sound of that. Before I could reply, he said, What? in a surprised way, then abruptly dropped our link.
“Damn you,” I muttered. Not that he could hear me anymore. I didn’t know how I could always tell when he was really gone, but it was as if a door closed in my mind.
Didn’t matter, I decided. Mircea was probably bluffing on whatever he was about to “show” me. In any event, now I had to change clothes and destroy this bloody dress. If Vlad caught sight of it, it would enrage him, and he was wound up enough already.
If I were the vindictive type like Mircea, I could get his attention back by cutting into him the same way he’d carved into me. But, even though my dress was already trashed, I didn’t do it. For one, I might be getting more vindictive by the day, but I wasn’t masochistic. Yet.
I went into my bedroom closet. A few minutes later, I was deciding between a pale blue dress and a lavender one when a new pain erupted in my chest. Unlike before, this pain was so ferocious, I dropped to the floor. Once there, I found myself gasping for air I no longer needed. I recognized this kind of pain, and fear made me attempt to crawl to the door, but my limbs stopped working. All I could do was twitch in agony.
This wasn’t Mircea hurting me for his usual cruel kicks. It was something far worse.
Hollywood had it wrong when it came to vampires. You didn’t shove a wooden stake through their heart to kill one. That would only give those of my kind a nasty splinter and an even worse temper. Instead, you cut their head off, burned them into ashes, or destroyed their heart with silver. From what I was feeling, Mircea had just stabbed himself—and thus me—in the heart with a silver knife. The only reason we weren’t already dead was because Mircea hadn’t twisted the blade. Yet.
I tried to call out to Vlad. He couldn’t do anything to stop this, but some desperate part of me needed to see him one last time. Yet all I could manage was a gasping whisper. Vlad might have supernatural hearing, but he was three floors below me and there was endless banging, clanging, and other noise from the construction on the mansion’s south wing.
All I had was my mind, and though it felt almost as frozen as my limbs, I summoned the last of my strength to establish a link to him, then let out a mental shout.
A wave of energy filled the room, followed by a slew of emotions slamming into mine. That was more effective than a reply to let me know that he’d heard me. Moments later, I saw a tall, dark form moving with blurring speed toward me.
“Leila.” He lifted me up, leaning in so close than his hair formed a blackish-brown veil around us. “What—?”
He stopped when my arms fell away, revealing the bloody hole directly into my heart. A shockwave of emotion exploded from him, and the rebounding effects hit me with such force that I almost passed out.
“No,” he said, anguish choking the word. “No!”
His scream echoed through every part of me. Vlad clutched me while grief, panic, and despair howled through our bond. In the midst of the awful, clawing pain in my chest, I felt burning spots on my face that I didn’t understand until he drew away enough for me to see him.
Pink lines streaked his face. They had to be tears, but I hadn’t known that Vlad was capable of crying. I also had never seen the tiny orange droplets that now beaded on his skin before burning my clothes and anything else they touched.
He’s sweating fire, I realized, amazement threading through me even as death dragged me down farther into its grasp. I love you, I tried to say, but all that came out was a gasp.
So I stared at him, trying to concentrate on his face instead of the awful coldness overwhelming me. I loved the dark stubble on his jaw, the winged black brows framing his coppery-green eyes, and his masculine yet sensual mouth. I loved his long dark hair and the scars covering his hands, and most of all, I loved his fierce, beautiful soul. I wished I could tell him all of that, but speech was beyond me.
I love you, I thought again, trying to force the words into his mind. From the fresh wave of emotions that rolled over mine, he’d heard me. I love you, I repeated as my vision went black and everything else slipped away. Forever . . .
All of a sudden, that excruciating coldness vanished. My limbs began to flop as if belatedly following the frantic instructions I’d given them before. Vlad jerked back, his grief turning to incredulous relief as we both watched new, healing skin cover over the deep, blade-shaped hole in my chest.
Mircea must have pulled the knife out instead of twisting it. The knowledge that I wasn’t about to die filled me with such joy that I let out a choked laugh. Vlad shouted something in Romanian, then he kissed me, bruising my lips while more feelings tore through our connection.
“I love you, too.” His voice vibrated as he broke away to press searing kisses all over my face. “Forever.” He kissed me again before stopping far too soon.
“Get out,” he said in a very calm tone.
The sound of rapidly retreating footsteps made me aware that we hadn’t been alone in the room. Right, Vlad’s people would’ve felt his emotions the same way I had, and just moments ago, he’d been a maelstrom of grief and panic. Not surprisingly, that must’ve sent several of them running to see what was wrong.
Vlad’s relief continued to strafe my subconscious, yet now it was mixed with ever-growing fury. I felt him struggle to get control of it until he drew his inner shields up and blocked everything off. He let out a slow breath, and the droplets of flaming sweat that had burned little holes all over my dress disappeared from his skin. Yet his hands remained scorching hot as he reached out to touch my face.
“That was close,” I said in a shaky voice.
Even with the iron control he was exercising, he couldn’t keep the fury from his voice. I’d be furious at Mircea later, too, but at the moment, I was too grateful to be alive to be mad at the viciousness of his last attack.
Vlad’s shields were up, yet I didn’t need our tie to know that he was still ping-ponging between relief and killing rage. Waves of energy kept spilling from him, and his scent changed from smoky cinnamon to something that smelled more like a forest fire. I was concerned that he was on the verge of spontaneously combusting. While that was normally a figure of speech, he was a centuries-old pyrokinetic vampire with staggering abilities and an equally impressive temper, so for Vlad, that was a real possibility.
“You need to power down,” I said. “You leveled this house once, and you just finished putting in the new fourth floor.”
His quick smile smoothed some of the harshness from his face, but I knew better than to believe the crisis was over.
“Vlad,” I began again.
“I’m fine, but you’re too weak to keep talking,” he said.
I would’ve argued, but I felt almost as tired as I’d been when I was a brand-new vampire and the sunrise rendered me unconscious. That’s why I didn’t protest when he carried me to the bed, barking out an order in Romanian at the same time.
Somewhere down the hall, I heard footsteps scurry to obey. Vlad had ordered his people out of our room, but they obviously hadn’t gone far. By the time he’d set me down on the bed and smoothed my hair away from my face, the captain of Vlad’s guard, Samir, had already returned with three bags full of blood.
I flashed a limp smile of thanks at Samir. He and I had gotten to be friends over the past several months. When I bit into the first bag, that red liquid hit my veins like a jolt of pure caffeine, reviving my strength and making me feel merely half dead instead of circling the grave like I had before. The second bag was even better, chasing the lingering haziness from my mind. After the third, I felt almost normal again.
Vlad stared at me, green flaring around the rich copper shade of his irises. “Better?”
I nodded, leaning back against the pillows. Vlad turned to Samir. “Check all the perimeter sensors, then double the guards. This might have been used as a tactical distraction.”
Samir bowed smartly and left, taking the rest of Vlad’s people with them. I heard Samir order three to stay on this floor, however, and I looked at Vlad with fresh alarm.
“You think someone’s about to attack?”
Vlad’s mouth twisted in a humorless smile. “Probably not. If that was the goal, they would’ve struck when I was consumed with worry over you. Still, no need to neglect due diligence.”
Then he touched the bloodstained smear over my chest. An electric current slid into him with the contact, and I marveled at how weak it felt. Being that close to death must have drained me more than the lightning rods I normally used to offload my excess kinetic energy. Vlad’s gaze moved to the other bloody stains on my dress. His expression darkened, and when his eyes met mine, new fury burned in their depths.
I tried to head off the inevitable fight. “Vlad, I was just about to tell you about that—”
“How long was Mircea cutting into you before you called out to me?” he interrupted.
I was so busted, not only for hiding those initial slashes today, but also the other times. The glint in Vlad’s eyes warned me that he’d figured that out, too.
“About six times that you don’t know about, but Mircea never did anything this serious before, I swear.”
“Six times,” he repeated. His hand grew hotter, until I was surprised that my dress didn’t catch fire beneath it. “And you decided to hide this from me why?”
“I can’t stop Mircea from using our link this way,” I replied, frustration leaking into my tone. “Nor can I stop him from mentally taunting me when he does it, which is something else I hadn’t told you about. But I can stop him from hurting you.” My voice caught. “I told you before, I am sick of being the weapon your enemies use to bludgeon you. Every time I didn’t tell you about Mircea’s attacks, I was thwarting him from hurting you. I might not be able to stop him yet, but I can damn sure not play into his hands.”
Vlad closed his eyes. For nearly six hundred years, he’d built up his power, abilities, and brutal reputation to ensure that neither he nor his people would be at an enemy’s mercy again, and he’d been successful . . . until me.
Admitting that he loved me had done everything Vlad had warned me about. In his enemies’ eyes, I was now the ultimate tool to use against him, and Mircea had hardly been the first to exploit that. As a result, I’d been through hell and back over the past year, yet every wound that others had inflicted on me had hurt Vlad worse because he blamed himself.
When he opened his eyes again, their color had changed from coppery green to bright, vampiric emerald. “I understand why you did it,” he said through gritted teeth. “But promise me that you will never hide such a thing from me again.”
If Mircea hadn’t nearly killed me several minutes ago, I might have refused. But the stakes had just been substantially raised. “I promise,” I said, holding his gaze. “Vlad, I—”
Razorlike pain hit me in multiple places, stopping me from saying anything more. I clutched my abdomen, which did nothing to protect me from blades that were magical instead of tangible.
Vlad let out a vicious curse as fresh blood leaked out between my hands. His shields dropped and his emotions once more smashed through mine. Amidst the blasts of rage, I caught barely controlled panic as he watched Mircea magically cut into me. Would he stab us both in the heart again, finishing the job this time? Had my reprieve been a cruel trick?
If so, there was nothing I could do, so I tried to calm both Vlad and myself in case the worst wasn’t about to happen.
“It’s not that bad,” I said in a tight voice. Thank God our sire tie went only one way and Vlad couldn’t feel that I was lying. “He’s not going near my heart,” I added.
The new cuts were all well below my chest, and I fought not to wince at each fresh slice. These weren’t the long, deep slices Mircea normally went for. They were short, shallow, and connected. What was Mircea doing? Trying the famed death-of-a-thousand-cuts torture on me?
“I am going to break my brain thinking up ways to make him suffer,” Vlad swore, his fists clenching. Then his gaze narrowed and he leaned closer, ripping my now-sodden dress off me.
“Stay still,” Vlad ordered, surprising me by grabbing the vase of flowers from the nightstand and dumping the water it contained all over me. Then, he stretched a dry sheet over me.
When I saw the new bloodstains mar it, I thought, First my dress, now the sheets. Mircea has been hell on the white fabrics today. Then a loud voice in my mind broke through the pain. It was Mircea, and he sounded panicked.
Respond back through your flesh or they’ll kill me!
“What?” I said out loud. “Who are ‘they’?”
Vlad looked around. “Who are you talking to?”
“Mircea,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to focus, but I only heard silence in my mind now. What do you mean? I mentally shouted back, yet still heard nothing in response.
Vlad gripped my shoulders. “Mircea? What did he say?”
I shook my head, wincing at the continued slashes that I now realized were the words Who is there? carved over and over. “He said, ‘Reply back through your flesh or they’ll kill me.’ I don’t know who he means and I can’t ask. He’s gone now.”
“They?” Vlad repeated, his mouth tightening into a steely line. “If this isn’t Mircea’s doing, who is it?”
With a glance at me that managed to be both ruthless and apologetic, he drew a scorching finger across my thigh. It left a thin trail of burned flesh that read as clear as ink. Even as I gritted my teeth against the pain, I noted with ironic appreciation that Vlad’s handwriting was flawless.
I need Mircea alive. Name your price—Vlad Dracul
The other mystical cuts on my stomach ceased at once. Vlad dumped the rest of the water from flower vase over me, washing away the old blood so that any new reply would be easily seen. We both waited in tense silence. If I’d still been human, I would have been holding my breath.
Minutes ticked by, and nothing happened. I never thought I’d be disappointed over not being sliced up, but I was almost twitching from agitation as my skin remained unbroken.
“Try sending them something else,” I urged. I might not enjoy this, but I needed to know what was going on.
Vlad flashed me another cruelly tender glance, then started burning out his new message. It was much longer this time, so he needed my entire abdomen to write it out.
Bring me Mircea and be richly rewarded. Kill him, and I will destroy you and everyone you care about.
“Way to butter up whoever this is,” I muttered.
This time, there wasn’t a hint of softness in his gaze as he looked at me. “It’s the truth.”
I didn’t need to feel his emotions to know he’d meant every word. Vlad’s brutal side was my least favorite part of him, yet it was part of him nonetheless. When he’d been a human prince of Romania, he hadn’t held off a far larger invading empire with flowery rhetoric. He’d done it with sheer ferocity, and his centuries as a vampire after that had only hardened him more.
“What if this is Mircea and he’s toying with us?”
Vlad touched the spot over my heart. “One faulty flick of that blade, and both you and Mircea would have perished. I didn’t think it through earlier, but it makes sense that it wasn’t Mircea. He hates me, but he wouldn’t risk his own life so recklessly. That means someone else did it, and Mircea must have told that person about his connection to you—and thus me—in order to save himself.”
Made sense, especially considering the odd What? I’d caught from Mircea right before that happened. He had sounded as if someone had surprised him, and not in a good way. Still . . .
“Mircea is a vampire-turned-necromancer who can disappear into thin air,” I pointed out. “How could someone even manage to hold him down long enough to stab him with silver, if Mircea can dematerialize at will?”
“Only one way,” Vlad said, and his caressing tone reminded me of the sound knives made when they pierced flesh. “Mircea is being held by people even more powerful than he.”
Magic sucks! I thought again, with far more vehemence this time. It wasn’t enough that we’d finally defeated the vampire who’d allied with Mircea in a centuries-long attempt to kill Vlad. Now, we had to worry about a group of mysterious sorcerers, too. And how would we find them when we didn’t even know who “they” were?
I closed my eyes. I hadn’t been afraid of my tie to Mircea before because he couldn’t kill me without taking himself out. Now, my life was in the hands of people I knew nothing about, except that they were powerful sorcerers and they appeared to want the person I was magically tethered to dead.
“We need to break the spell that’s tying me to Mircea,” I said, opening my eyes. “One way or another.”
“Oh, we will. Never doubt that.”
Vlad’s gaze was so bright, it resembled burning emeralds as he stroked my face. Then his hand descended, flattening when it reached the spot where that invisible, magic-fueled knife had stabbed me.
“Mere moments from losing you.”
His emotions remained locked down, but the muscle flexing in his jaw along with his elevated temperature was enough to let me know that inside, he was still incendiary. I reached out and twined my fingers through his, until our clasped hands rested over my heart.
“You didn’t lose me.”
And I hadn’t lost him. Less than an hour ago, I thought I had. I stared at Vlad, remembering how I’d tried to memorize his face because I thought I wouldn’t see it again. Now, I wanted something more tangible than a long stare to remind me that we both still had each other.
I pulled his head down and kissed him. It only took the brush of my lips on his for him to respond. He muttered something wordless, then pulled me out of the soaked, bloodstained bed to lay me in front of the fireplace. The fire rose higher as he stared at me, until those orange and blue flames looked as if they were trying to claw their way past the grate to reach us.
“No one is taking you away from me,” Vlad growled, his shirt tearing away after a single swipe. His pants met the same fate, then his molten body covered mine and he kissed me.
I couldn’t stop the currents that pulsed into him when I clutched his back, and from the low, darkly erotic sounds he made, he didn’t want me to. His hands moved over me with the ruthless knowledge of a lover who wouldn’t settle for anything less than my total, uninhibited surrender. Then his fingers taunted me with strokes that matched the sensual flicks of his tongue. After that, I was more than ready to give him everything he wanted . . . and to take everything I needed.
I reached down, grasping his cock while I arched beneath him. His groan vibrated against my lips as he rubbed that thick, hard length against me, sending a starburst of sensation into my loins. Instead of thrusting forward the way I desperately wanted him to, he grabbed both my hands and pinned them above my head.
“Not yet,” he said in a throaty voice.
My sound of protest turned into an extended moan as he slid down, burying his mouth between my legs. His tongue was a sinuous, fiery brand that had me half crazed from pleasure, and my right hand shot ever-increasing bolts of electricity into him as my passion reached the breaking point.
“Please,” I found myself gasping.
His low laugh teased my aching flesh. “You know that word doesn’t work on me.”
I was too frenzied with desire to let him draw this out. I flipped over, crying out when my abrupt move slammed his mouth against me and he grabbed my hips to hold himself there. Then, even as I was shuddering from the beginnings of orgasm, I forced his head up and slid down at the same time, until our hips were lined up and I could stare into his now-emerald-colored eyes.
“Since you hate the word please,” I said, voice ragged from passion. “What about now?”
His mouth claimed mine at the same time that he thrust deeply inside me.
Several hours later, we landed at a private airport in London, England. When Vlad’s new, sleek Learjet rolled to a complete stop, I let out the breath I’d inadvertently sucked in.
He glanced at me, his lips curling. “With everything else going on, you’re nervous about flying?”
“It’s not the flying part I mind,” I responded tartly. “It’s the crashing part I have issues with.”
This plane was new because Mircea had magically compelled Vlad’s pilots to crash the old one. We’d only survived because Vlad had torn open the side door and flown us away moments before impact. Vampires could survive a lot, but no one could live through a plane hitting the ground at maximum velocity.
“We tested everyone to make sure they’re not bound by one of Mircea’s spells,” Vlad reminded me. “Plus, he would never attempt to crash our plane while you’re still linked to him.”
“Hopefully, that won’t be for much longer,” I muttered.
There had been no new “messages” during the time it had taken us to fly to London from Romania. Not knowing what Mircea’s captors intended was sawing at my nerves. On the plus side, I wasn’t dead, so the mysterious sorcerers had to be taking Vlad’s threat against them seriously. On the negative side, we hadn’t been contacted to say that Mircea was being delivered with a big red bow, so whoever “they” were, they didn’t seem in a hurry to give Mircea up, either.
“Where are we meeting Mencheres?” I asked when Vlad opened the interior door that converted into stairs.
“Here,” an accented voice replied from beyond that doorway. Before I had time to recover from my surprise, a Middle Eastern man with waist-length black hair vaulted up the staircase.
Vlad embraced Mencheres, a show of affection he reserved for only a few people in the world. But Vlad had often referred to Mencheres as his “honorary sire,” so I wasn’t surprised when he also accepted a kiss on each cheek from Mencheres.
Then Mencheres turned his charcoal-colored gaze my way, and I wondered why he’d bothered to tamp down his aura to undetectable levels. Mencheres looked like an attractive man in his early twenties, but looking into his eyes was like staring through a time portal into the ancient past. He was so old; one of the famed pyramids in the Giza plateau had been his.
“Leila,” he said, extending his hand. I shook it because I was wearing my current-repelling gloves and thus couldn’t shock him from the simple contact.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, not adding, but I don’t know why you’re here. Mencheres hadn’t been able to break Mircea’s spell before, although he’d given it his best shot. Unless Mencheres had had a breakthrough since then, I didn’t know why Vlad wanted to meet with him.
“I was in New York, so it was a short flight,” Mencheres said, dismissing how he’d dropped everything to meet us here.
“Where’s Kira?” I asked when Vlad hit the button that caused the staircase to fold back into a door.
“Still there,” he replied, waving a casual hand. “I saw no need to interrupt her time with her sister.”
At the word sister, a pang shot through me. I’d promised my own sister, Gretchen, that once Vlad’s enemy Szilagyi was dead, she and my dad could return to a normal life. Then I’d had to go back on that promise as soon as Vlad had killed Szilagyi. Gretchen had not been pleased about having to stay in hiding indefinitely, and neither had my father.
I was distracted from thoughts of my family when Vlad ordered his pilots to take off. “Where are we going?” I asked, grabbing a chair as the engines roared back to life.
“Nowhere,” Vlad replied. “Just far enough off the ground that no one can overhear us.”
Mencheres settled into one of the plush seats. I sat down, too. This plane could hustle when Vlad wanted it to, and his pilots could obviously guess that Vlad was in a hurry.
“Want a drink?” I asked Mencheres, gesturing to the mini bar protected by a clear glass panel. Just because vampires needed blood to survive didn’t mean we skipped other libations.
He inclined his head. “Whisky, if you have it.”
Vlad gave him a sardonic smile. “From that provincial choice, I can tell you’ve been spending time with Bones.”
A smile ghosted across Mencheres’s lips. “If you two weren’t so similar, you’d likely be friends.”
I stifled a snort as I handed Mencheres a glass of whisky. I didn’t know why Vlad disliked Mencheres’s co-ruler so much, but I didn’t see him getting over it anytime soon.
“Enough about that,” Vlad said, dismissing Bones with a swipe of his hand. “Magic is one of the few things forbidden under vampire law, but like Mircea, there are those who still practice it in secret. I need a guide into that world, at once.”
Mencheres leaned forward, his expression turning very serious. “You are too well-known to slip in and out unnoticed, and vampires who practice magic will kill to keep their identities from reaching the Law Guardians.”
I agreed, and felt guilty over telling Vlad we had to break Mircea’s spell at all costs. “There has to be another way—”
“There isn’t,” he interrupted. Despite his hard tone, the hand he laid on my arm was gentle. “If the sorcerers holding Mircea had any intention of returning him, they would have accepted my offer. Their silence means that they’re either still intending to kill him, or they’re thinking of the best way to use him against me.”
I wasn’t a fan of either option, but I didn’t want Vlad to throw himself into even more dangerous circumstances. His abilities would protect him from almost anyone in the vampire world, but in a secret underworld where magic reigned? Not even his feared pyrokinesis was a match for that.
“We’ll see the voodoo queen again,” I said. “Maybe there’s something she didn’t think of before.”
“Her previous leads came to naught, and if she’d thought of anything new, she would have told me.” His tone became flat. “Marie Laveau would love to have me owe her such a stunning debt. She amasses favors the way the greedy amass fortunes.”
“Who are these sorcerers, and how do they have Mircea?” Mencheres asked quietly.
Vlad let out a frustrated sound. “If I knew either, I would be on my way to kill them instead of sitting here with you.”
I filled in the blanks that Vlad’s frustration had left out. “Whoever they are, they were going to kill Mircea until he proved his connection to me. Vlad offered them a bounty if they returned Mircea to him alive. That was several hours ago, and we haven’t heard anything since.”
Mencheres closed his eyes. After an extended silence, he opened them and looked at Vlad. “I left that world more than three millennia ago when magic became outlawed, but I know one person with recent ties to it, and I trust him to act as your guide. First, however, I need your promise that you will not kill him.”
I felt Vlad’s surprise as his shields dropped and he considered this. “I can’t promise that of anyone who betrays me or Leila,” he finally said. “Aside from that, you have my word.”
“No matter how badly you will want to,” Mencheres stressed. “Despite his many flaws, he is dear to me, and it would pain me to lose him.”
My curiosity was piqued. If this person wasn’t a threat to us, why was Mencheres so sure that Vlad would want to kill him?
“Aside from my conditions, yes,” Vlad said, the annoyance in his tone emphasizing that he didn’t appreciate repeating himself. “Now, who is he?”
Mencheres gave Vlad a look of grim amusement. “Oh, you know him. And you dislike him even more than Bones.”
We landed in Cheshire, England, which thankfully was only a short flight from London. A chauffeur was already waiting for us, and the unfamiliar driver whisked us away to a manor that looked right out of the show Downton Abbey. The driver dropped us off and then sped away, leaving us in front of the manor’s large double doors.
They opened before Mencheres could knock, revealing a startlingly handsome vampire with vivid turquoise eyes and shoulder-length, auburn hair. I had time to notice particulars about his face and hair because after one glance, I kept my gaze firmly directed upward. Vlad muttered a curse even as the naked vampire let out an aggravated huff.
“You said it was urgent, Mencheres, so do come in.”
“Ian,” Mencheres said in a chiding tone. “You should have at least gotten dressed.”
Ian glanced down, as if just now realizing that the only thing he wore was a very intimately placed silver piercing.
“Do you see a seven-foot-tall woman on my face?” he asked in a conversational tone. “No, because I stopped what I was doing and emptied out my house as you requested, so the least you could do is not scold me for failing to put on a tux.”
I was so startled by the graphic description, I didn’t know how to react. Nice to meet you didn’t seem applicable. Sorry to interrupt your cunnilingus! was probably more appropriate, yet I wasn’t about to say that, either.
“Ah, but who’s this?” Ian went on, angling his head around Vlad to get a better look at me. “Mmmm, isn’t she stunning? If she’s my consolation prize, then I accept—”
“She’s my wife,” Vlad growled before I could correct the misassumption. “And if your cock twitches one more time while you look at her, I’ll burn it off.”
“Vlad, you swore,” Mencheres said low.
“Castration won’t kill him,” Vlad responded at once. “His life was all I promised, and his extremities can grow back.”
Instead of being concerned, Ian laughed. “Here I thought today was going to be boring. Now, I simply must know what’s brought the infamous Impaler to my door, especially if it’s so important, my sire made you swear an oath not to kill me.”
His sire. I cast a surprised look at Mencheres. Ian didn’t seem like the type that the reserved vampire would choose for a member of his line. And what had Ian been thinking, putting silver there? He might not even notice if Vlad burned his cock off. It had to be burning like hell right now.
“Are you quite sure you don’t know anyone else?” Vlad said to Mencheres, not moving to enter the house.
“Few vampires are foolish enough to risk the Law Guardians’ wrath by practicing magic, and fewer still are alive after such reckless disobedience,” Mencheres replied. Ian shrugged, not disputing either charge. “Out of those, Ian is the only one I trust . . . after I secure his word, that is.”
“Mencheres, you wound me,” Ian said, sounding hurt.
“Do not trifle with me.” Mencheres’s new tone startled me. I had never heard him raise his voice before. “Just as I know Vlad, I know you. You would misdirect Vlad for your own amusement, let alone if someone offered you financial incentive. That is why you will promise to show Vlad and his wife the same loyalty you would show to me, and you will swear it on the love you have for me.”
Ian’s mouth curled in what could only be called a pout. “That’s not fair.”
“Swear it,” Mencheres insisted. “And before you argue any further, when was the last time I asked you for a favor? Would you truly deny me now?”
“No,” Ian said, sounding as if the word soured in his throat. “You are one of only four people that I would never deny. Very well, I swear on my love for you that I will show Tepesh and his wife the same loyalty I’d show you during the duration of whatever task you’re about to talk me into.”
A vow with conditions, but then Vlad had had conditions, too. Besides, if we were successful, we wouldn’t need Ian’s loyalty after we broke the spell that bound me to Mircea.
Mencheres turned to Vlad. “See?” he said in his usual calm manner. “Now that that’s been settled, we can proceed.”
Vlad eyed Mencheres in a way that made me wonder if he was about to take my arm, turn around, and leave. Yet finally he shrugged, as if to say, So be it.
“My vow is void if you betray me or Leila,” Vlad said to Ian, flashing him his most charming smile. “And in that case, death will be a kindness compared to what I’ll do to you.”
Ian rolled his eyes. “Save your threats. Thanks to the promise Mencheres forced from me, you don’t need them. Now, what sort of magical trouble are you intending to get into? It must be more than casting a simple spell or Mencheres would’ve done it himself. Before magic became outlawed, he was one of the best practitioners around.”
“It does involve a spell, but we don’t want to cast one,” Vlad said. “We need to break one. To do that, we’ll need access to master sorcerers of even greater skill than Mencheres.”
Ian cast an annoyed look at his sire. “If you wanted to kill me, you could’ve picked a nicer way to do it.”
“This is important, Ian,” Mencheres said quietly.
“Why?” Ian asked, turning to Vlad now. “Getting tired of offing your enemies the fiery way?”
I answered before Vlad could. “I’m spellbound to a necromancer who’s being held hostage by people who want him dead. If he dies, our link means that I die, too, so finding someone more powerful to break that link is our only option.”
Ian looked at me. Not the perverted way he had the first time, but coldly, as if he could care less whether I dropped dead at his feet right that second. Then he looked at Mencheres. In quick succession, affection, resignation, and irritation skipped over his features. I didn’t know what to make of that mishmash, or of Ian’s admitted tendency to backstab for profit or amusement, but Mencheres must trust that he’d hold to his word or we wouldn’t be here. Because of that, we had no choice except to trust Ian, too. For now.
Finally, Ian’s expression settled into cheerful cockiness. When he flashed a smile that turned up the volume on his already dazzling looks, I actually felt an instinctive feminine flutter that I instantly squashed.
“Who wants to live forever anyway?” Ian said. “Right, then, we’ll start with a magic speakeasy in the heart of London. And I do hope that you’re as tough as Tepesh is, my lovely raven-haired poppet, because this will get dicey.”