"Yes, but believe me, I'll try to touch as little as possible." Antiques. Oh, how I hated those essence-heavy things!

He continued to study me, his expression a mixture of pitiless calculation and curiosity. "You said you've had this ability for a dozen years, which must be half your life judging from how young you look. I was already old when I developed the power to read humans' thoughts, yet the depravities I uncovered still managed to disturb me. Your gift reaches much deeper than that. I'm amazed you haven't snapped under the strain of it."

I shrugged as if I hadn't been driven to a suicide attempt over the countless atrocities I'd relived. "Sometimes it's helped. I know who to avoid. People can perfect whatever façade they want, but everyone holds their sins close to their skin."

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His laugh held a hint of grimness. "How true that is."

The limo bounced over a rut, jostling me. I looked out the window. Trees laden with snow and ice were most of what I saw, but if I craned, I could see the terrain was starting to get steep. After a minute, my ears began to pop. I forced a yawn to relieve the pressure, missing Florida's sea-level altitude.

"Is it very far to your house?"

I hadn't eaten in almost two days since I'd skipped breakfast the morning I was kidnapped. Then again, this was a vampire house. I remembered what Marty used to stock in the refrigerator, and it hadn't been anything I wanted to sample. I regarded the wooded landscape bleakly. Probably wasn't a grocery store or restaurant within fifty miles of here, either.

An amused grunt directed my attention back to Vlad. "I have ample food, Leila, and this is Romania. Not the northern wilds of Siberia. We'll be at my house shortly, and on the way, we'll pass through a town that has both grocers and restaurants."

I flushed at his mocking tone, once again reminding myself to watch my thoughts-if I could figure out a way to do that.

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"You eat regular food? Marty was never into that. Said it all tasted like clay to him."

"It does, and I don't, but I have an abundance of food for the humans who live with me. If they were undernourished, then they wouldn't be able to feed me or my staff."

His tone was completely casual, but I was starting to realize that Vlad never said anything by accident. I met his gaze, noting the hint of challenge. He was almost daring me to be offended by his flesh version of a pantry.

"Marty always drank from tightfisted tourists," I said, arching a brow in answering challenge. "Said it served them right for not tipping after our performance. He never tried to drink from me, of course, because he said that business and food should be kept separate."

Vlad's lips curled. "Subtle you're not. If you're wondering whether I'm intending to drink from you, don't play games. Ask."

"Are you?" I responded at once, adding, "I don't want you to. I know it won't kill me or turn me into a vampire, but I'm already an 'instrument.' I don't want to be dinner, too."

"No, I'm not," he replied calmly. "Nor will any other vampire while you're under my protection. Your friend Marty and I agree about keeping food and business alliances separate."

That was a relief. Maybe staying with Vlad wouldn't be too different than living with Marty, though hopefully it would be much shorter than the four years Marty and I toured together.

"What did the two of you do?" Vlad asked, lacing his free hand behind his head.

"Traveling circus performers," I answered, braced for the scorn most people showed upon hearing that.

Nothing changed in his expression. "Clever, with your condition. If anyone noticed your tendency to electrocute people, they would assume it to be a circus trick, and you wouldn't remain long enough in one place for more serious questions to arise."

"That's exactly it," I said with surprise. If only my dad and my sister could grasp that logic so easily. My job was an embarrassment to them. The last I heard, they told people I was a stage actress.

Vlad shrugged. "Vampires have experience hiding what we are. Ah, here is the town. Beyond it is my home."

I glanced out the window to see us whizzing by a small town that did indeed look like it had shops and restaurants. With all the snow and the quaint, picturesque architecture, it also could've doubled as a snapshot of the mythical Santa's Village.

"Pretty," I said, "but I hope your driver doesn't get pulled over. I doubt the speed limit here is eighty."

It sounded like Vlad stifled a laugh. "No need to worry."

I kept looking out the window, seeing large rocks peek up amidst the trees. A shift in balance leaned me farther back into my seat, confirming that the road was getting steeper. Still, the driver didn't slow down, whipping around the bends and turns with what seemed to be total disregard for life and limb. I glanced at Vlad, but he appeared unconcerned. Of course. He could survive the car careening off a cliff or hitting a tree.

"No need to worry," Vlad said again with more amusement.

"Oh, I'm glorious," I replied through gritted teeth. Closing my eyes was probably the best way to get through this.

It might have only been ten minutes before the car came to a stop. To me, it felt like a solid hour. I'd probably sent enough nervous currents into Vlad to power a small locomotive, but he hadn't let go of my hand. Now, however, he entangled himself from my grasp.

"We've arrived."

I opened my eyes. His body briefly blocked my line of vision, but once he was out of the vehicle, I saw the house we'd stopped at. And stared, my mouth falling open.

Chapter 9

The word house didn't begin to do justice to the white and gray structure in front of me. I actually had to tilt my head back to see all the way up to the roof. It was at least four towering stories high, with additional floors on the triangular turrets that rose dramatically on each corner. A myriad of carvings decorated the exterior, from intricate balconies in front of soaring windows to stone gargoyles that glared down from their perches. They weren't the only sentinels of this gothic-looking palace; at least a dozen people were stationed in various spots around the house, some standing so still that at first glance, I'd thought they were statues, too.

The only thing more startling than the mansion's height was its length. I couldn't tell where the right side ended because a line of lofty evergreens blocked my view, but everything to the left of me went on for the length of a football field. A high stone wall with manned lookout towers encircled the property. Beyond that and the surrounding forest, dark gray mountains acted as a natural barrier, adding to the imposing feel of the place. No wonder Jackal didn't want to try anything until Vlad was away from here, I thought, awed. This wasn't a house; it truly was a fortress.

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