I lifted my chin. "It only takes one person to love, but it takes two to make a relationship work. If we're going to try again, it needs to be more than your way or the highway, Vlad."
His hands slid down my arms while he looked at me in a way that made me think of rapturous cries and blood dripping off steel. Possessiveness was so trivial by comparison.
"I don't want to try anything. I want you to marry me."
I thought I had been surprised before. Now I truly knew what the word meant. For several moments, I was convinced I hadn't heard him correctly.
Vlad's smile held a hint of savageness. "Love is a terrible weakness. It gives your enemies a perfect target, clouds your judgment, makes you reckless . . . and that's on a good day."
His hands continued their caressing path to my waist, their heat barely diminished by the thin material of my robe.
"On a bad day," he went on, his voice turning harsh, "it can destroy you. I never wanted to subject myself to that again, so yes, I kept you at arm's length. I even let you leave to prove to myself that you meant no more to me than my previous lovers. And then Martin called, telling me you'd been killed."
His grip tightened painfully before he released me, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.
"I didn't care about anything then. Not crushing my enemies, protecting my people, or how maddening you were by expecting me to behave like a modern man, as if I could shrug off half a millennium of living, based on your whim."
That last comment was unfair, but I'd address it later.
"Then I went to the morgue and saw that those bones weren't yours, heard your voice again in my head" - his eyes closed - "and once more, nothing else mattered."
His mouth twisted as he opened his eyes. "Then, of course, I discovered you'd run off with Maximus because you thought I was the one who tried to kill you. It enraged me, but I was determined to find you. Once I did, you maddened me no less than before, yet over the past few days, I realized it was too late."
Vlad cupped my face as he stared down at me with an intensity that made my heart beat like a trip-hammer.
"I love you, Leila, and nothing else matters."
I never knew joy could be a physical sensation, but I wasn't imagining the wave that swept me from head to toe. My throat contracted, my chest swelled, and my fingers tingled. Meanwhile, something long broken in my soul seemed to snap back in place, and though I didn't feel it physically, it was just as real - and powerful.
"I love you, too, Vlad."
I would have said more, except his mouth scorched mine with a kiss so passionate, I couldn't breathe. It was hard to even think beyond a fervent, jumbled mantra of loveyouneedwantyou!
He lifted his head and, incredibly, stopped me when I began unbuttoning his shirt.
"No time for that," he muttered.
I was incredulous. "You have more important things to do?"
I didn't. In fact, if my ni**les got any harder, the fabric would split where my robe rubbed over them.
He looked down as if judging for himself and a harsh noise escaped him.
"Not more important, but we're both going to be very busy until the ceremony tonight."
"Ceremony?" What ceremony?
The smile he flashed me was part amused and part feral. "Our wedding ceremony."
I had a split second when I thought, This is all a dream. It had to be, because he did not just say we were getting married tonight.
"I didn't agree to that."
His smile vanished. "You're saying no?"
"No. Er, not no, but not, you know . . ."
I knew I wasn't making sense, yet my mind was whirling with joy, shock, and disbelief. At the same time, the rational part of me snapped, Get a grip, Leila! One more sputter and I'd magically transform into a nineteenth-century Southern belle, fanning myself while gasping, "This is all so sudden!"
I gave myself a mental shake and tried again.
"I know my misunderstanding of the ring thing before led to our breakup, but as I said then, it wasn't about angling for a proposal. It was about you being open to love - "
He laughed, which stopped me mid-sentence because it wasn't his sensual chuckle or even his disdainful, I-mock-you-with-my-superiority laugh. It was something new, and if I had to label it, I'd say it had You're in for it now written all over it.
"What did you think would happen when you made me realize I'd fallen in love with you? I'd want to date more? Get engaged to be engaged?"
Another laugh that made gooseflesh ripple over me despite the heat from his body. Then his laughter faded away and he leaned down until his mouth was millimeters from mine.
"As if I'd settle for anything less than making you completely mine, as soon as possible."
He was so close his features were a blur, yet his eyes had never gleamed brighter. I closed mine and it made no difference. I could still see his through the shield of my lids.
"I am yours," I whispered, and it wasn't only a statement. It was a promise.
As I spoke, I rubbed against him, craving more than his hands on me. For a blistering few moments, he complied, kissing me with such intensity that my knees buckled. When I began unbuttoning his shirt again, he drew away, his lips curled into a sensually cruel smile.
"Not unless you marry me."
My mouth dropped. "You're using sex as blackmail?"
That smile widened. "Whoever told you I played nice?"