My eyes began to sting, but I wouldn’t allow the tears to come. The Vlad in front of me wouldn’t want me crying for the man he’d been. As stated, he’d take that as pity, and there was nothing pitiful about him overcoming the obstacles he had. I’d had no idea my question would unearth such painful and poignant memories, and the fact that he’d relayed them with his usual unflinching honesty was further proof that his inner strength more than matched his incredible power and abilities.
“Clara loved you,” I said, my voice husky. “I felt it in the essence traces she left on you, so whatever guilt you feel over those early days, let it go. You must have made up for it.”
His hand was a warm caress on my face, like the first rays of sun after a long winter’s night. “I tried, but you of all people know how difficult I can be to live with.”
I held his hand against my face. “You might not be the easiest person, but who is? Besides, easy is overrated compared to you in all your spectacular, mercurial, enigmatic glory.”
He smiled, a familiar arrogance now shading his expression. “I’ll remind you that you said that during our next fight.” Then he stretched, the movement making his muscles ripple in a way that claimed my attention long enough to miss the first part of what he said next.
“ . . . second marriage was arranged also, but this one by me. The king of Hungary needed someone to marry his pregnant cousin before her condition became obvious, and I needed a new alliance with Hungary to reclaim my throne.”
“Wait, Szilagyi was the king of Hungary’s uncle, right? So if you married the king’s cousin, that means Szilagyi–”
“Is technically my father-in-law,” he finished, his mouth curling in a mocking way. “Proving yet again that no one has the power to enrage you more than family.”
Did that mean I was technically related to Szilagyi, too, as Vlad’s wife? Without thinking, my hands tightened into fists. If so, then yes. Sometimes family sucked.
“My second wife, Ilona, had little interest in me beyond a name for her unborn son,” he went on. “I had even less interest in her, so our marriage remained unconsummated, though when she became pregnant again, I claimed that child as mine, too.”
“Why? Weren’t you mad?” Female adultery was a big deal back then and Vlad wasn’t the type to share.
He sighed. “Ilona meant nothing to me, as I said. Furthermore, as a vampire, I couldn’t give her children and it seemed wrong to deny her another chance at motherhood. She had been discreet with whoever her lover was, so there was no gossip about the babes not being mine. At the time, my firstborn son was the undisputed heir to my throne, so I didn’t see the boys Ilona bore as a threat.” His features tightened. “I was wrong. Szilagyi was behind my first son’s assassination, and in addition to personal motives, he also did it to put Ilona’s child on my throne after he had mine murdered.”
Once again, he wasn’t sparing himself in this blunt retelling, and I had to bite my lip to keep from saying that I was sorry. I was, though. He hadn’t been much older than me by the time he’d gone through all these atrocities and heartbreaks. I doubted I would’ve made it with my sanity or soul intact, yet he had, even with hundreds more years of adversity piled on.
I slid closer, wanting to dull the painful memories of his past by giving him something else to concentrate on.
“Thank you for answering my questions, and now I want to tell you something personal. It’s not nearly as deep or important, but . . . I’m glad you’re the only man I’ve ever slept with. For years, my voltage issues kept me a virgin whether I wanted to be or not, but then I met you and it felt like . . . you were the one I’d been waiting for, even when I didn’t know it.” My voice caught. “Even with all the awful things that happened, if I was thrown back in time, I would still grab that power line because it’s what eventually brought me to you.”
He kissed me, slow, deep, and with more tenderness than I’d realized he was capable of. Then he drew away, smiling but with a tinge of shadows to it.
“I treasure the gift of your virginity, but if you’d given it to another I would still love you to the same dangerous degree. You are in my soul, and nothing you did before we met or will do in the future can change that. And to answer the question you’ve never asked me, yes, I do love you more than I loved Clara. If she were alive now, I would still choose you.”
Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t speak. How had he known the secret anguish I’d felt wondering if I would ever come close to what he’d felt for her? It was ridiculous at best and selfish at worst to be jealous of a dead woman, but Clara’s memory had felt like a wall around Vlad I could never breach, and I hadn’t dared to hope that he would tear it down himself.
“I don’t know what to say,” I choked out, still fighting back the tears.
His smile was slow, challenging, and sensual. Before I registered what was happening, he’d swept me into his arms and was carrying me toward the bedroom.
“You already said it: yes. Now, say it again.”
The instant I came awake, I tensed, expecting my entire body to be engulfed in agony. After a few pain-free seconds, I dared to open my eyes.
Not only was I not on fire, we weren’t in the bedroom I’d fallen asleep in. Instead of a crystal chandelier, billowy fabric formed a knot of roses in the center of the canopy above me. For a second, I wondered if Vlad had carried me into one of the villa’s other bedrooms, but a glance out the window showed unfamiliar buildings and a wide river below.