Then this was mine. No wonder it hurt so much at first.

"Sorry about, um, the sheets," I said, that awkward feeling returning.


His hand curled behind my head before he brushed his lips over mine.

"Don't. This blood you can only shed once, and you gifted it to me. That makes it worth more than these sheets, this bed, and most anything else in my house."

I swallowed at the intensity in his voice, suddenly glad my abilities had prevented me from throwing my virginity away on someone who might not have cared past the immediacy of getting laid. Vlad was still terrifying in many ways, but even if I could change the past to where I never touched that power line, I wouldn't want to share this experience with anyone except him.

The realization reminded me of Marty's warning that Vlad would break my heart if I got involved with him. To deflect that thought-and the growing emotion inside me-I smiled.

"Besides all that, I bet your staff has lots of experience removing bloodstains."

His lips twitched. "Yes, they do."

Speaking of blood . . . Vlad agreed not to bite me when we first met, but that was when we were keeping things professional between us. We weren't anymore, so in fairness, I shouldn't expect him to keep his fangs holstered. After all, how could I take a vampire for a lover and then ask him to ignore his very nature, especially since I had to drink his blood once a week?

Vlad heard the thoughts whirling in my mind, but he said nothing. I met his gaze and, decision made, brushed my hair away from my throat in silent invitation.

A slow smile stretched his lips, making me flash to the satisfied expressions I'd seen on lions' faces before they sank their fangs into a gazelle. He leaned down, mouth grazing my neck, so warm, sensual, and scary despite my resolve. Then his tongue slid out, circling over the throbbing base of my pulse in a leisurely yet deliberate manner. Finally, he gave it a long kiss with the faintest brush of teeth before leaning back.

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"Not tonight, but soon. And when I do, you will come to crave my bite as much as my kiss."

You are terminally arrogant, I thought, but thus far, he'd also been correct in a lot of his predictions. Case in point: I was in his bed and craving his kisses right now, among other things. But those would wait until I cleaned off first.

I pushed him back and sat up. "You have a shower in this room, right?"

"Of course." His gaze slid over me with heated intent, and when he smiled, fangs gleamed from his teeth. "One that's big enough for both of us."

Chapter 24

I woke up alone in Vlad's bed. All the windows had the drapes drawn, blocking out the sunlight. The candles had gutted out, too, but the fireplace still smoldered, providing enough light that I wouldn't stumble into any furniture on my way out of his lobby-sized bedroom.

I got out of bed, remembering to feel around for the step. I'd learned last night that his bed was on a raised dais when Vlad's quick grip was the only thing that kept me from falling after my foot came down on air instead of flooring. Then I found the robe he'd stripped off me after our long, very erotic shower and put it on, hurrying out of his room. Vlad's stunning black marble bathroom had a shower that could fit four and a sunken tub you could snorkel in, but no toilet. In hindsight, that made sense. A vampire wouldn't need one.

I crossed the sitting area into my room since I didn't want to chance bumping into anyone in the hallway. Everyone in the house probably knew I'd spent the night with Vlad, but that didn't mean I wanted to be seen leaving his room in nothing but a robe. After I finally relieved my long-denied bladder, I looked at the tub with longing. An extended hot soak would help my lingering soreness in certain areas, but the sketch artist might have arrived during the night, so I'd better go with a quicker shower.

Half an hour later, I came down to the first floor and peeked into the dining room. Empty. I could start searching the other rooms in this huge house, or do things the quicker way.

"Hello," I called out. "Need to ask a question."

Before I could count to three, an impeccably dressed black man appeared, his bald head butter-smooth and thick muscles bulging under his beige suit.

"Shrapnel," I said, recognizing him from that night in Tampa. He bowed, which struck me as odd. Normally Vlad got the bows, not me.

"How can I assist you?"

I resisted the urge to compliment him on how pretty the indoor garden was. "Do you know if Maximus got back with the sketch artist yet?"

"He arrived with her an hour ago."

"And where are they?" I prodded.

His expression closed off into a polite mask. "I'll let Vlad know you're awake."

"He knows," a cultured voice stated from across the room.

I turned, my pique at Shrapnel's evasiveness fading when I saw Vlad walking toward me. His wine-colored shirt was a vivid contrast to his black jacket and pants. Both colors accented his emerald-ringed, coppery eyes, but as usual, only his face, neck, and hands were bare. The rest of him was covered, the elegant cut of his clothes simultaneously flaunting and concealing that lean, muscled body.

A body that was now mine to explore and enjoy. All of a sudden, I wished the sketch artist hadn't arrived.

The sly smile that curled Vlad's lips said he'd overheard my thoughts-and liked them. Then he pulled me close, one hand twining through my hair while the other stroked my back.

"Good morning," he murmured before his lips closed over mine.

I'd wondered if he would be reserved with me in front of his people. Obviously not. By the time he lifted his head, my pulse had tripled and my body felt flushed. I'd also slid my arms around his neck without thinking, my right hand flexing against his shoulders. A week ago, I'd never forget about that hand coming into contact with someone. Now, it seemed so right to touch Vlad that it hadn't occurred to me not to.

"Good morning, yourself," I said huskily.

He gave me another, far shorter kiss before releasing me. Then he looked over my shoulder.

"Shrapnel, let it be known that henceforth, no one needs my permission to tell Leila where I am, or where anyone else is, either. If she has a question, answer it."

I turned in time to see Shrapnel bow, first to Vlad, and then to me. Then he walked away, disappearing into one of the many rooms in this house.

"Tell me sleeping with you didn't automatically upgrade me to bowing status," I said, uncomfortable.

Vlad's chuckle was confirmation enough of my suspicion.

"Really?" How twisted.

His arms slid around my waist as he leaned down, pinpricks of emerald in the coppery depths of his eyes. "Of course my people will now treat you with the utmost respect. I told you; I don't take many lovers. You're also the only one I've shared my bed with, and the first to sleep in the room adjoining mine."

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