I wasn't about to let him take more abuse, especially on my behalf, so I tried to angle myself in front of Marty. He kept sidestepping me with that damn vampiric speed until it looked like we were engaged in some sort of strange dance.

"Fine, I'll talk to you like this," I snapped to Vlad, Marty still in between us. "You promised you wouldn't hurt him, but you had him impaled. Tell me why I shouldn't break our deal right now, and threatening me with death isn't good enough. Been there, done that a thousand times, remember?" My lip curled. "Besides, you need me and we both know it."

Vlad smiled with luxuriant coldness, coming closer. "Calling me a name I detest and accusing me of madness and lying. I've killed people for less, but you're right. I do need you. So let's settle the first two issues."

Advertisement

Marty was suddenly gone. Vlad had thrown him aside before I'd even seen him move. A thud by the stone staircase told me where he'd ended up, but when I started to go to him, Vlad grasped my arm, his coppery green gaze boring into mine. My heart skipped a beat, but I didn't flinch. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

"What now?" I asked with open challenge.

His brow arched. "This," he replied, and shoved a small, hard object into my right hand.

Chapter 11

Images exploded across my mind, but unlike most impressions, they weren't through the perspective of just one person. They came from multiple people.

First, I relived the memory of an older man being cornered by soldiers. They held him down, jeering, as one of them cut away all the skin on the man's face before slitting his throat. The next memory was even more brutal-a burning hot coal used to put out a young man's eyes before he was buried alive. The third was of an even younger man who bore a striking resemblance to Vlad being ambushed and then stabbed to death inside a church. The last was that young man's murderer, pleading to no avail, as a dirty and blood-streaked Vlad shoved a long wooden pole through his midsection, then hoisted him aloft and sat watching the entire two days it took the man to die.

-- Advertisement --

When reality at last replaced those grisly images, I found myself backed into a wall, Vlad's grip on my arms the only thing holding me upright. His gaze was hooded, lean face utterly expressionless as he looked at me. Phantom pains still lingered in various parts of my body, but they faded until only a dull ache from clutching whatever Vlad had given me remained.

I opened my hand, glancing down to see a thick gold ring with a dragon emblazoned across the wide, flat stone-the same ring each of those men had been wearing when they were killed. It was so filled with the essences from its former owners' murders that I half expected it to start dripping blood.

The deaths I'd been forced to relive had conveyed more than the horror of knowing what it felt like to have my face cut off, which had been a new one even for me. I'd also gotten a glimpse into the murdered men themselves. From that, I knew all but the last of them had been members of Vlad's family, and now I also knew exactly who held me against the smooth stone wall.

Shock made my voice come out hoarse. "You're Vladislav Basarab Dracul, former voivode of Wallachia, but over five hundred years ago, they used to call you Tepesh. The Impaler."

Vlad didn't blink. "They still do," he replied in a caressingly lethal voice, and then released me.

I was glad my legs managed to hold me so I didn't slump to the ground. Falling before Vlad's feet would be cliche in the extreme, even if he was the real Vlad.

I glanced at Marty. He was still by the staircase, but he seemed okay. Maximus was there, too. From the other vampire's grip on his shoulder, he'd been keeping Marty from interfering.

"Could you hear what I experienced from touching that ring?" I asked, unable to contain a shiver at the memory.

"Yes and no." His lips twisted into a humorless smile. "When you utilize your power, your mind is locked behind an impenetrable wall. But when you're finished, you think about what you saw, and I hear that."

I tried to chase away any remaining thoughts of those murders, which was easier to do when I focused on Marty.

"Okay, now I know you're not suffering under a delusion from too much role-playing." The last of that trembling left my limbs and I took a step toward him, my voice sharpening. "It doesn't excuse you from breaking your word not to harm Marty."

Vlad folded his arms across his chest, drawing my attention to the dark stains on his shirt that smelled like one of Marty's foul-tasting shakes.

"No, I promised not to harm you," he countered. "I only promised to keep him alive, which I have. But though it never occurred to you that Marty might have been in collusion with the vampires who kidnapped you, the thought did occur to me."

My mouth dropped. "No. Marty wouldn't do such a thing."

"Thanks, kid," he muttered from across the room.

"I believe that now," Vlad said, glancing at Marty without the slightest hint of remorse, "but I wasn't about to take a stranger at his word."

His expression hardened even more. "I come from a line of princes who all have one thing in common: They were murdered. I've been surrounded by death, betrayal, and power coups for hundreds of years, yet I've survived and kept my people safe by being smarter and more ruthless than my enemies. What I did may disgust you, but only the naive or the foolish would have trusted Marty on his word alone, and I am neither."

He came toward me, and once again, I fought the urge to back away. Vlad might have kept his promise in the strictest sense of the word, but torturing Marty on the mere chance that he might have been involved with my kidnapping also proved that Vlad was one of coldest people I'd ever met.

Then again, after the glimpses I'd seen of his past, not to mention what I'd seen of him since we met, I was the naive fool for expecting anything different.

He stopped when he was only inches away, still nailing me with that hard, copper-colored stare. Then he held out his hand.

"My ring."

I put it in his palm, forgetting to switch it to my left hand before touching him. A current sizzled into him with the contact, which I expected, but I didn't expect what came next.

The gothic hall vanished, replaced by the hazy cocoon of midnight-green drapes encircling the bed I was on. I wound my hand into the thick fabric while a moan left my lips, sharpening into a cry at the incredible pleasure shooting through me. My grip on the drapes tightened as I writhed under the erotic combination of wet, deep strokes and lightly chafing stubble against my most sensitive flesh.

"Please," I gasped.

Vlad lifted his head, his hair like dark silk against my thighs and his gaze lit up with emerald.

-- Advertisement --