This wasn’t the first time I’d woken up as a captive. It wasn’t even the second. I so needed to reevaluate my life choices. From past experience, I knew not to snap my eyes open or alter my breathing. Instead, I took inventory while pretending I was still unconscious. Headache, no surprise, but other than that I felt okay. My arms were tied behind my back. The thickness around my hands was gloves, tightness around my ankles, restraints. Uncomfortable gag in my mouth, self-explanatory. Once I was done taking stock of my physical condition, I moved on to my surroundings. The pitch and roll beneath me had to be waves, which meant I was on a boat. Some of my captors were topside, from the voices, but one of them was in the room with me. He didn’t say a word, but after years of living with a vampire, I’d become adept at picking up the barely perceptible sounds they made. So when I opened my eyes, my gaze landed unerringly on the black-haired vampire across the room. The only surprise he showed was to blink.
“Didn’t expect you to be up already,” he drawled. I glanced down at my gag and back at him, raising a brow. He translated the silent message. “Do I need to tell you that screaming is useless?” I rolled my eyes. What was this, amateur day? He smiled before rising from the opposite berth. “I thought not.” During the short time it took him to cross the room and remove my gag, I gleaned as much about him as possible, too. The vampire looked to be around my age, but with his scar-free skin, short haircut, clean-shaven face, and average build, I judged him to be less than a hundred in undead years. Vamps older than that tended to have more wear and tear on their skin and they usually scorned modern hairstyles. But the most telling aspect was his gaze.
Really old vampires had a certain . weight in their stares, as if the passing centuries had left a tangible heaviness. My nameless captor didn’t have that, and if I was lucky, neither did anyone else on this boat. Young vampires were easier to kill. “Water,” I said once the gag was removed. Between that and the aftereffects from being drugged, my mouth was so dry that my tongue felt like a wadded-up sock. The vampire disappeared and then returned with a can of Coke. I gulped at it when the vampire held it to my lips, which meant that I let out an extended burp when I stopped swallowing. If that burp happened to be aimed in my captor’s face, well, it wasn’t my fault. I was tied up.
“Charming,” he said dryly. “I lost my concern for social niceties when you shot my friend up with liquid silver,” I replied in an even tone. “Speaking of, I want to see him.” The vampire’s mouth quirked. “You’re not in a position to make demands, but yes, he’s still alive.” “You don’t want to take me to him, fine,” I said, thinking fast. “I assume you know I pick up psychic impressions from touch, so take these gloves off and let me touch you. Then I’ll know if you’re telling the truth.” The vampire chuckled, a brighter green swarming in the peat-moss color of his eyes. “Touch me? Don’t you mean use that deadly electrical whip you can manifest to cut me in half?” I stiffened.
How did he know about that? Most of the people who’d seen me wield that power were dead. “That’s why these rubber gloves are duct-taped onto you,” he went on, unperturbed. “Just in case.” “What’s your name again?” I asked, glad I sounded casual. Those wide lips stretched further. “Call me Hannibal.” I smiled back. “Okay, Hannibal, what do you want me to do? Use my abilities to find one of your enemies? Tell you if someone is betraying you? Or read the past from an object?” Hannibal laughed, and though it was more Dr. Evil caliber than chilling, it was still foreboding enough to creep me out. “I don’t want you to do anything, little bird.
I’m merely the delivery boy. I don’t even know who I’m delivering you to. All I know is you’re worth three times as much alive, but if you try anything, dead is still a good payday for me.” Hannibal gave me a cheery wave before leaving the room. I said nothing, trying to think of a way out of my predicament. I was not going to let myself be delivered to some unknown baddie. I’d find a way out of this if it killed me. Chapter 1 Four weeks earlier I stood under a waterfall of flames. Vermilion and gold spilled over me, twining through my hair, separating into rivulets along my body before sliding between my fingers to fall at my feet. The flames were so dense that I couldn’t see through them, reducing my world to a glowing arena of sunset-colored hues.
Being engulfed this way should have killed me, but I was unharmed. I wasn’t even afraid. A strange sense of longing filled me instead. I kept trying to catch one of the flames but I never succeeded. Fire might cover me from head to toe, yet it still managed to evade my grasp. “Leila,” a voice called, too faintly for me to discern who it was. “Leave before it’s too late.” Logic urged me to do what the nameless person said, but I didn’t want to. The flames didn’t seem to want me to go, either. They kept gliding over me, caressing instead of burning my flesh.
See? I thought in defiance. They wouldn’t hurt me. “Leila,” that voice said again, more emphatically. “Leave.” “No,” I replied, and tried to clasp the fire to me again. As usual, those brightly lit bands slipped from my hands, but this time, their lustrous color darkened. When they landed at my feet, they looked like ribbons made of tar. Then the waterfall above me abruptly dissipated, leaving me naked and shivering in the sudden, overwhelming blackness. Fear turned my insides to ice. The voice was right.
Something bad was about to happen . I didn’t have time to run before fire lit up the darkness again. It didn’t spill gently over me like it had before, but crashed into me from all sides. Pain ravaged me as the flames attacked me with all their devastating power, charring and burning every inch they touched. “Why?” I cried, betrayal second only to the agony I felt. “I warned you,” that unknown voice replied, safe outside of the wall of fire. “You didn’t listen.” Then I didn’t hear anything but my own screams as the fire pitilessly continued to annihilate me. “No!” In my head the word was howled in anguish; in reality, it left my lips in a whisper. It was enough to wake me up, though, and I jerked away in horror until I realized I was covered in sheets, not flames.
The only fire was safely contained in the hearth on the other side of the room. It took several deep breaths to shake off the aftereffects of the nightmare. After a minute, my heart quit thudding and settled into a more normal rhythm. With a stab of dismay, I saw that the bed was empty. Now I wouldn’t have to admit I’d had the same nightmare again, but I didn’t like that more and more frequently, I went to sleep alone and woke up that way, too. If I were superstitious, I’d worry that the recurring dream was an omen, but when I got warnings about the future, they didn’t come as vague metaphors in my sleep. They used to come as merciless reenactments where I had a full sensory experience of whatever was going to happen, but I hadn’t had one of those in weeks. I’d long wished that I didn’t pull impressions—and images of worst sins— through a single touch, but now that I needed the ability, it was on vacation. That thought chased me out from under the covers. I swung my legs over the side of the mattress and stepped off the raised dais that made the large, curtained bed look even more impressive.
Then I went straight to the fireplace and knelt in front of it. Most of the flames had died down during the night, but the collapsed logs still smoldered. I pushed the grate aside, held my hand over a log for a second, and then plunged it straight into the crumbling wood. The stab of pain made me gasp with relief until I realized it only came from one finger. The rest of my hand felt fine despite being immersed up to the wrist in the hotly glowing embers. I waited another few moments to be sure and then pulled it out. Aside from a splinter jutting from my index finger and a decade-old scar, my hand was unmarred, not a hair singed on it. Damn. Six weeks later, and it still hadn’t worn off yet. Some women caught venereal diseases from their boyfriends.
That was mild in comparison to what mine had given me—an immunity to fire that inexplicably also blocked my ability to psychically discern information through touch. Of course, I shouldn’t be too surprised. Dating the unofficial Prince of Darkness was bound to have consequences. I yanked the splinter out, sucking on my finger despite being one of the few people in this mansion who didn’t like the taste of blood. Then I fumbled around until I found a large male shirt, the fabric soft as cashmere. It probably cost more than what I used to earn in a month working the carnival circuit, but it had been thrown on the floor with expectant indifference. I never saw anyone clean this room, but I also never saw it dirty. The servants must wait like ninjas for me to leave so they could render this place spotless again. They wouldn’t have to wait long. I had to pee, and despite the splendor of my boyfriend’s bedroom, his bathroom lacked a toilet.
Being a centuries-old vampire, he didn’t need one. I put on the discarded shirt. It was long enough that it covered my tank top and panties, though I’d never run into anyone on my way from his room to the one that was officially mine. The lounge that bridged the two bedrooms wasn’t used by anyone else. Its privacy and elegance made for a more dignified walk of shame, at least. Once I was back in my room—a lighter-hued, smaller version of the midnight-green and mahogany magnificence I’d just left—I went straight into the bathroom. “Lights on,” I said, adding, “dim,” when the instant blaze of brightness made me squint. Soft amber illuminated the creamy marble, highlighting its gold and celery-green veins. A glass shower the size of a compact car also lit up, as did the vanity counter. I’d been awed when I first saw all the fancy fixtures.
Now I muttered under my breath as I hurried to the discreetly screened corner. “Fifty-yard sprint every morning because he won’t add a toilet to his bathroom. It’s not like he doesn’t spend more each night on the dinner he never eats.” Part of me knew my griping was to mask my uneasiness about the increasingly empty bed, but my bladder twisted as if in agreement. After I’d dealt with it, I got in the shower, careful to only touch things with my left hand. Although the currents radiating from me were muted at the moment, there was no need to fry the pipes by accidentally sending a dose of voltage through them. After I showered and dressed, I descended four flights of stairs to the main level. At the bottom of the staircase, a hallway with soaring ceilings, stone pillars, antique shields, and ornate frescos spread out in front of me. Only the indoor garden kept it from looking like Bill Gates’s Gothic Getaway. At the end of that hallway was my frequently absentee boyfriend, Vlad.
Yes, that Vlad, but few people made the mistake of calling him Dracula. His dark hair was the same color as the stubble that shadowed his jaw in something thicker than a five o’clock shadow. Winged eyebrows framed eyes that were a blend of copper and emerald, and sleek material draped over a body hardened from decades of battle when he was human. As usual, only his hands and face were bare. The rest of him was covered by boots, black pants, and a smoky gray shirt buttoned up to the neck. Unlike most well- built men, Vlad didn’t flash a lot of skin, but those custom-tailored clothes flaunted his taut body as effectively as running shorts and a sleeveless muscle shirt. My appreciation was cut short when I saw that he had a coat draped over his arm. He hadn’t just slipped in and out of bed while I was asleep; he was also leaving without a word. Again. Ever have a moment where you know exactly what you shouldn’t do .
and you do it anyway? I didn’t need my missing psychic abilities to know that snapping “Where are you going?” while striding down the hall was the wrong way to handle this, but that’s what I did. Vlad had been talking to his second-in-command, Maximus, a blond vampire who looked like an avenging Viking come to life. At my question, two gazes settled on me, one gray and carefully neutral, the other coppery green and sardonic. I tensed, wishing I could take the question back. When had I turned into one of those annoying, clingy girlfriends? Right after the main reason Vlad became interested in you vanished, my inner insidious voice mocked. You think it’s coincidence that he began acting distant right after you lost your ability to psychically spy on his enemies? At once, I began to sing KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way” in my head. Vlad wasn’t just an extremely powerful vampire whose history inspired the world’s most famous story about the undead. He could also read humans’ minds. Most of the time. His lips curled.
“One of these days, you’ll at least take requests on your method of keeping me out of your head.” If I didn’t know him, I would’ve missed the irony that tinged his tone, heightening his subtle accent and adding an edge to his cultured voice. I doubted he’d ever forgive the vampire who taught me how to block him from my thoughts. “Some people consider that song a classic,” I replied, berating myself for what he would’ve heard before I stopped him. “Proving again that the world doesn’t lack for fools.” “And you didn’t answer my question,” I countered. Vlad put on his coat, that slight smile never leaving his face. “That wasn’t an accident.” My hand tingled as the currents within me surged to it. Thanks to an incident with a downed power line, my entire body gave off electricity, but my right hand was the main conduit.
If I didn’t lock down my temper, it might start sparking. “Next time you want to brush me off, do what modern men do.” My voice was rougher than sandpaper. “Be vague and say you’re running errands. Sounds more polite that way.” That coppery gaze changed to glowing emerald, visible proof of his inhuman status. “I am not a modern man.” Of course not, but would it kill him to be a little less complex, infuriating, and enigmatic? At least some of the time? Maximus slid a glance my way before returning his attention to Vlad. “Everything will be ready upon your return,” he stated, then bowed and left. What’s that supposed to mean? hovered on the tip of my tongue, but I wouldn’t get an answer.
That didn’t mean I was letting this slide. I was done wondering what his increasing absences spelled out for our relationship. If my being psychically neutered meant his feelings for me had changed, he needed to tell me. I paused in my mental singing long enough to think, When you get back, we’re having a talk. This time, his smile was wide enough to show his teeth. His fangs weren’t out, but his grin still managed to carry shades of both lover and predator. “I look forward to it.” Then the spot where he stood was empty. Only the massive front doors closing indicated where he’d vanished through. Vampires couldn’t dematerialize, but some Master vampires could move so fast it appeared that way.
I sighed. In the past couple months, dating Vlad had proved to be as passionate and tumultuous as the movies portrayed. I only hoped Hollywood wasn’t also right about the fate of every woman who fell in love with the infamous Dark Prince. The thought was depressing, but I wasn’t going to sit around brooding. Instead, I’d engage in the most time-tested and venerable of feminine distraction techniques. I sprinted upstairs to my sister’s room. “Wake up, Gretchen!” I called through the door. “We’re going shopping.”