Once Burned

Page 12

"I've met monsters. You're not one of them."

Vlad had been unrepentantly listening again. I tried to clear my mind, but it's not like it had an off switch.

"You told me your name was Leila, but your friend and those other vampires called you Frankie," he continued. "You took the Frankenstein insult and shortened it into a nickname?"

I lifted my chin. "Yes." I'd needed to change my identity, and after I got over my hurt feelings, I used my classmates' pettiness for inspiration. If they'd thought their favorite taunt would make me crumble, they'd thought wrong.

"What made you choose the name Vlad?" I asked, unable to resist adding, "It's not the most original vampire name you could have picked, after all."

Instead of being offended, that little smirk was back. "I'm the only authentic Vlad. Everyone else is merely an envious imitation."

I snorted, giving him a deliberate once-over. With his long dark hair, striking features, frightening charisma, and seductively muscled body, he looked like he could pass for the infamous Prince of Darkness, but how naive did he think I was?

"You've got the obligatory dangerous-yet-sexy thing going on, but I'll believe you're the real Dracula when you believe I'm the real Frankenstein."

"Dracula is a caricature born from a writer's imaginings," he snapped, that tiny smile gone. His hand flared hotter, too. "It bears no resemblance to me any more than Mary Shelley's story is an accounting of you."

Wow, he took his little fantasy seriously. And he just heard you say that, I reminded myself as his look grew pointed.

"What did you want to talk about?" I asked, shaking my head as though it could rattle any incriminating thoughts loose.

"Your survival chances."

His tone was casual, expression back to that pleasant one I found more frightening than a menacing scowl. I'd seen the faces of countless murderers, but none of them had mastered the look of detached friendliness like Vlad did when he killed.

"Is this the part where you tell me how I'm going to die?" I asked, steeling myself for whatever came next.

He squeezed my hand in a companionable way. "You should have seen that I don't waste my time with monologues before I kill. In fact, it's in my best interest to protect you."

I didn't reply, just raised my brows at this dubious statement.

"I doubt I'll get any useful information from your remaining kidnapper no matter how much I torture him," he went on. "He strikes me as a pawn, so he probably has no idea who sent him after you."

I continued with my doubtful stare. He rolled his eyes. "I forgot your generation is only familiar with mobile phone games like Angry Birds. In chess, pawns are the lowest level of-"

"I know how to play chess," I interrupted. "When you can't touch a cell phone or play electronic games without frying them, you learn to make do with the classics."

He grinned, revealing those lovely white teeth. I reminded myself that if I mentally recited that famous line from Little Red Riding Hood, he'd hear it.

"Good. If you checked your e-mail every five minutes, or keep texting and Tweeting in the middle of our conversation, I might snap your neck out of sheer principle."

"You'd feel right at home in some retirement communities with a technophobic attitude like that. You probably love to tell kids to get off your lawn, too."

Cell phone addiction annoyed me, too, but I'd never fantasized about murdering anyone over it, unless you counted people who talked on their phones during a movie . . .

His smile didn't slip. "You're still half expecting me to harm you, yet you don't hesitate to needle me. Aren't you afraid to make me angry?"

He could read my mind, so I didn't bother answering with anything except the truth.

"You're scarier when you're nice, and you've already decided if you're going to kill me. No amount of bantering or begging on my part will change your mind, so I'll keep on being myself. You're not the only one who doesn't care for pretense."

This time, his smile widened into a full-fledged, wicked grin that made him almost devilishly handsome. I looked away, not wanting my thoughts to inflate his ego. To distract myself, I concentrated on the scarred hand holding mine. His grip was light, as if I could pull away at any moment, but we both knew better.

"You're right on all counts," he said in that smooth, accented voice. "But you'll be relieved to know that you're not about to die. I said it was in my best interest to protect you, and I meant that. If I'm right-and I always am-your remaining kidnapper will be a dead end. That leaves you as my best chance to discover who sent those vampires after me."

"Me?" I repeated, my gaze flying back to his.

"Your ability to divine information through touch as well as locate people in the present and future is priceless. Vampires all over the world would kill to use you as an instrument against their enemies. I'm astounded that you've remained anonymous as long as you have, considering your friendship with another vampire."

"Marty would never use me like that," I flared. It was bad enough to feel like a pariah because of my condition, but being reduced to "instrument" status was worse.

"Perhaps, which is why I'm letting him live," Vlad replied. "That's a kindness I don't usually bestow on anyone who attacks me, but because of his affection for you, he'll also be invested in finding out who was really behind your kidnapping."

What if neither one of us wants to help you? I couldn't help but wonder. Marty and I had nothing to do with whatever feud Vlad had going on with another vampire.

Those coppery eyes sparked emerald for a second. "If I let you go, how long do you think it would be until that same vampire sent another crew to snatch you up? You need me to find this person far more than I do. I'm hard to ambush." He gave me a callous rake of his gaze. "You're not, and since you seem to be an intelligent girl, you already know that."

His hand didn't so much as twitch, but I imagined I could feel it tightening over mine until it formed an unbreakable snare. My pride wanted to refute what he'd just said, but my abilities meant I'd relived too many instances of the unwary falling victim to the unmerciful. I might have a chance against one vampire, maybe two thanks to my electrocution capability, but against a horde of them? Even if Marty fought with me, I'd be setting us both up to fail, and damned if I'd be that stupid.

"Wise decision," he said, still watching me with that unblinking gaze. "You keep thinking like that and you'll live long enough to dance on your enemies' graves."

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