Once Burned

Page 23

Vlad had to hear what was churning inside my head, yet he made no comment. He also didn't drop my arm or move even an inch away. Instead, he led me down a staircase located behind the winter garden that ended in an enclosed stone hallway.

"What else is down here?" I asked to break the silent standoff between us.

"Aside from the gymnasium, there are the lower kitchens, laundry rooms, servants' entrance, storage facilities, swimming pool, root cellars, and humans' living quarters."

I did look at him then. In shock. "You keep your live-in blood donors in the basement?"

"It's a very nice basement. Much better than the dungeons. Those tend to be quite cold in winter."

I couldn't tell if he was serious. He might indeed think nothing of housing his blood donors next to his root cellars, or he might find it hilarious to let me believe that.

"I'd love to meet them one day," was what I said.

His lips twitched. "Would you, or are you trying to discover if they're shivering in a dark room even now?"

"I never said that," I muttered.

He stopped walking, but his hand remained on my arm. "I don't shirk my responsibilities, and everyone here is a member of my line directly or indirectly. Their living quarters contain normal bedrooms, and you are welcome to see that for yourself."

"Thanks," I said, adding, "I didn't really think you kept them housed in tiny underground cellars."

His mouth quirked. "You gave it fifty-fifty odds."

"Well, you do have an active dungeon," I pointed out.

He laughed, the sound rolling over me more than once with the echoes in the enclosed hallway. His laughter was so unique-part amused growl, part purr, and all self-assured male. Its effect on me was tangible, turning up my own lips and making me step closer to him before I realized what I was doing.

Emerald flared in his gaze and his fingers tightened on my arm. A throb started inside me, low but unmistakable, making my mouth go dry and my pulse begin to speed up. One more step would have our bodies touching, we were standing that close. But that single step would probably seal my vision into reality. Don't let it happen, Marty had urged me. He'll break your heart and ruin your life . . .

I took not one but two steps backward, slipping my arm out from Vlad's grasp. He let me go without trying to stop me, and I expelled the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. Anxious to defuse the unspoken tension, I pointed at a door with stone ivies carved around the frame.

"What's in there?"

"The entrance to the chapel," he replied.

I let out a nervous laugh. "Maximus told me this place used to be a monastery, but you actually kept the chapel?"

"No, it was destroyed," he said, not commenting on my edginess or the reason behind it. "I had this one rebuilt on the ruins of the old citadel tower. Would you like to see it?"

"No thanks," I said at once.

"How emphatic. Not the religious type?"

"No, why? Don't tell me you believe in God?"

"Many vampires do. The story of our origin states that the mark of Cain was God turning him into the first vampire by forcing him to drink blood as penance for murdering his brother."

Then he leaned forward and his voice dropped to almost a whisper. "Surprised? Is it impossible to believe that I think a day will come where I'll be held accountable for each life I've taken, every drop of blood I've spilled . . . and yet I continue to do whatever is necessary to keep my people safe?"

I swallowed, as unnerved by that thought as I was by his nearness. Vlad was such a study in extremes that I couldn't figure out if he was being rhetorical or serious, but maybe that was for the best. It was easier to walk away when I wasn't being pulled further into his intriguing complexities.

He still stood very close. Without thinking, I rubbed the place on my arm where his hand had been. The spot felt oddly barren now. Ridiculous, I told myself. You came down here to unload tension. Quit stockpiling more of it with your idiocy.

His lips curled as he glanced at my arm. He'd heard that, of course. How I wished I could shut him out of my mind.

"Is the gym far?"

He inclined his head toward a door on the opposite wall.

"Right there."

We'd been standing only a dozen feet away and he hadn't said a word? I would've demanded to know what sort of game he was playing, except I didn't think he was playing one. Instead, as his brow rose in silent challenge, I wondered if he was doing something worse-intensifying his pursuit of me.

If so, then the next move was mine, and with my attraction to him growing, I didn't know if I'd choose wisely.

Chapter 15

The gym turned out to be filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Good for whoever lived here, but useless for me. However, it had a large exercise mat, some free weights, and a knotted rope suspended from the high ceiling. I made the most out of those three things, forcing my aching body through a series of routines I'd used when I was training for competition.

I had the room to myself for the first two hours, then I heard voices right before the door banged open. A group of twenty-somethings entered, chatting in what I now recognized as Romanian. They stopped short when they noticed me dangling from the rope upside down, my black hair fanning out underneath me.

"Hi," I said, feeling self-conscious as I realized that I probably looked strange. "Any of you speak English?"

"Most of us," a husky, curly-haired guy replied, to other murmurs of assent. He started to grin. "What are you doing?"

"Sit-ups," I said, demonstrating by hoisting myself up until my face touched my thigh. "Works more muscles this way."

"I bet it does," he said, still staring at me.

I uncoiled the rope from around my leg and climbed down. My abs had been killing me anyway. Once I was back on the ground, I smiled at the group.

"I'm Leila," I said, using my real name because everyone else here called me that.

I knew the moment they saw the scar. A collective wince seemed to ripple over the group, though it took longer for some of the guys since they checked out my body before getting to my face. I kept my smile in place, used to this reaction.

"It's from an accident when I was a kid," I said by way of explanation. If I didn't offer any information, people would just ask. That I was also used to.

"Oh, how awful," a pretty, petite, strawberry-blond girl said in heavily accented English.

"Glad you, uh, healed up," the curly-haired guy replied awkwardly. "Nice to meet you. I'm Ben, and as you can tell from my accent, I'm American, too. This is Joe, Damon, Tom, Angie, Sandra, and Kate, but her English isn't good so she'll probably just grunt at you."

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