Twice Tempted Page 2

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."

Chapter 2

"This is the only thing that hasn't sucked so far about Romania," my sister stated as she unloaded a stack of clothes in front of the cashier.

I closed my eyes, not knowing who to apologize to first: the cashier for Gretchen's remark about her country, or Maximus, who now had to add more bags to the half dozen he already carried. This is what happened when you gave my sister someone else's credit card. Vlad had a standing rule that any purchases for his guests went on his card.

He might reconsider that when he got the bill. My attempts to encourage thriftiness hadn't worked, either. They'd only annoyed Gretchen to the point that she quit trying things on before she purchased them.

"I'm tired. We should go back," I said, changing tactics.

Gretchen's blue gaze narrowed. "No way. I've been cooped up in your boyfriend's castle for weeks even though his vamp enemy has to be dead or Marty and Dad wouldn't have gotten to leave."

I didn't point out that our father and my best friend, Marty, were less prone to recklessness. The odds were slim, but if Vlad's nemesis Szilagyi had survived, then Gretchen was safer here. She couldn't keep a low profile if her life depended on it, as she'd proved. I glanced at the cashier, forced a smile, and used Gretchen's sleeve to tug her toward me.

"No talking about you-know-what in public," I hissed.

"Why?" she shot back at the same volume. "Half the people in this town know about vampires since Vlad owns it and he uses some of them as blood snacks. As for the rest, Maximus can mesmerize them into forgetting what they didn't already know."

My eyes bugged as I glanced at the cashier. She held up a hand to the blond vampire and said something in Romanian.

"Don't worry, she's loyal to Vlad," he summarized for me. Then his stormy gray gaze landed on Gretchen. "You need to show more discretion or the next person I mesmerize will be you."

"You wouldn't," she huffed.

Maximus straightened to his full six feet, six inches, as if his thickly muscled frame wasn't impressive enough. "I've done far worse to protect my prince."

I still wanted to thump Gretchen, but no one - even a friend like Maximus - got away with scaring my little sister.

"She gets it," I said coolly. "And if she doesn't, I'll be the one who deals with her."

Maximus glanced at Gretchen, gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, and then bent low to me.

"As you wish."

My cheeks warmed. Since I was Vlad's girlfriend, the vampires in his line bowed to me as they did to him, much to my dismay. "Please stop, I hate that."

He straightened, the barest grin tugging at his mouth. "Yes, I remember."

When his gaze met mine, for a split second, I saw the man who'd pounced on the chance to date me when I first arrived at Vlad's as a reluctant refugee. Then that familiar veil dropped over Maximus's eyes, and my politely formal bodyguard was back.

"You have another hour, if you wish to continue shopping. Then we need to return to the house."

"Why?" I asked, beating Gretchen to it.

"Because you need to be ready for Vlad's dinner guests. You don't want to be late to dine."

Gretchen was faster this time. "Dinner guests? Who? Why weren't we told before?"

"You weren't told because your attendance is optional," Maximus answered. Then he smiled faintly at me. "I waited to tell you because you seemed to have enough on your mind."

Embarrassment and resignation mingled inside me. Did everyone know Vlad and I were having problems? Of course they did, I answered my own question. With the hearing abilities of the undead, they probably also knew that Vlad and I hadn't had sex in a week because I'd had my period.

I sighed. "Looks like I need to buy something after all." I hadn't yet despite visiting several stores, not wanting to add to the crushing bill Gretchen had run up.

Something I couldn't name flickered across Maximus's face. "It's not necessary. Vlad has your dress waiting in your room."

First leaving without telling me where he was going. Then unexpected dinner guests, and now a dress picked out for me. My eyes narrowed. What was he up to?

"You're not going to even give me a hint about what's going on, are you?" I asked Maximus.

His smile was a little too tight. "As I said, I've done far worse to protect my prince."

One look at the dress told me that dinner wouldn't consist of Vlad catching up with some old buddies who'd dropped by. It was a black velvet sheath that had a small train in the back and a low neckline in front that looked like it was encrusted with tiny black jewels. Black heels and similarly encrusted elbow-length black gloves - lined with current-repelling rubber, of course - completed the seductively extravagant ensemble. I tried it on, not surprised that it fit like it had been sewn with my exact measurements in mind. It even managed to give me cl**vage - a rare achievement with my small br**sts.

It was the nicest dress I'd ever worn, but I'd exchange it and every other expensive gift Vlad had given me to close the growing gap between us. I stroked the soft fabric, wishing my abilities were back so I'd know if this was his way of making amends for his recent coolness, or simply ensuring that I looked good enough to be on his arm tonight. Either was a possibility with Vlad.

That was why I had to confront him later, no matter the outcome. The last thing I wanted to do was primp, but this was clearly a formal occasion. When I was done, my straight black hair hung in thick curls and my makeup was subtle, aside from dark crimson lipstick that contrasted great with the black dress and my winter-pale skin. All those years in carnival show business made me deft at sprucing myself up. It also made me an expert at concealing the scar that ran from my temple down to my fingers. A glossy black wave hung over that part of my face, with more draped on my right shoulder. I'd pulled the gloves up so only a few inches of skin on my upper arm showed evidence of the accident that had given me my unusual abilities.

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