"I've been looking for you," he stated while his gaze darted around. "No one would tell me where you were, either. They just said I'd see you at dinner."
After decades of being in command, my dad would love that sort of evasiveness. He started toward the back of the staircase and gestured for me to follow. I did with a sigh, making a mental note to tell Vlad to have his people be a little more forthcoming than their normal, stonewalling selves.
"Sorry about that," I began. "Vlad's staff is used to-"
"You have no idea the danger you're in," my father cut me off, voice still barely above a whisper.
"Um, sure, the European Mafia are scary people-"
He must not have thought I was moving fast enough because he tugged me behind the staircase. My borrowed coat muted the effects of the voltage, but a wince still crossed his face.
"It's him," he said, gesturing to Vlad's coat. "That man isn't who he says he is. Vladislav Basarab is an alias, and a twisted one. I know you must care for him, but when I ran his name through my contacts, you wouldn't believe what I found."
Struck by the same exhausted, overstressed irrationalism that led some people to cackle at funerals, I laughed. I couldn't help it. Maybe this was the last straw for my sanity.
"I can imagine your face when they told you that was the real name of Dracula!" I snorted, tears leaking out. "That's what you get for snooping instead of being sequestered from the outside world like you're supposed to under witness protection."
His expression was like a thundercloud now. "This isn't a joke, Leila. The man who goes by the name Vladislav Basarab is so heavily involved in organized crime that my contacts advised me not to investigate him further or I might disappear. Does that sound funny to you?"
Organized crime. That was one way to describe it, if you didn't know that vampire hierarchy predated most current laws.
"Dad," I said, getting control of myself, "Vlad isn't who you need to worry about. He won't hurt you, Gretchen, or me, but you do need to stop investigating him. None of your contacts would be able to dig up anything close to the truth, anyway."
"Then tell me the tru . . ."
His voice trailed off, and his gaze narrowed. "Why are there blood specks on your collar?"
Before I realized what he intended, he'd yanked my turtleneck down.
"What is this?" he spat, staring at the holes in my neck.
I didn't have the chance to reply. Shrapnel appeared, lifting my father off the ground with one meaty arm.
"What are you doing?" I asked, aghast.
"He grabbed for your throat," Shrapnel said in explanation, my father's furious struggles not even causing him to twitch.
"Leila, run!" my dad said hoarsely.
"Oh my God, what is happening?" Gretchen screeched, rounding the bottom of the staircase.
If a bridge had suddenly materialized, I would've jumped off it. "Let him down," I told Shrapnel, who released my father with a muttered "Fine, but if he lunges for your throat again-"
"He won't," I said shortly. "Gretchen, stop screaming. Dad, I don't need to run. Vlad's people are crazy protective of me and you might not see them, but trust me, they're around."
My father stared at me like I was a stranger. "What have you gotten involved in?" he asked, so quiet that I could barely hear him above Gretchen's litany of "Oh God, oh God."
"Your neck, his alias, this castle." My dad's tone hardened. "Is that the trouble you're in? You saw some sick form of role-playing among rich foreigners that went too far?"
"And now I'm struck with deja vu," an ironic voice said behind me. "You may go, Shrapnel. I'll handle this."
Shrapnel bowed to Vlad and vanished. I was used to people disappearing with vampiric speed, but my sister blanched and my dad's brows drew together like they'd been yanked by a string.
"How the f**k did he do that?" he demanded harshly.
I had two choices: Tell the truth, or have Vlad mesmerize my dad and sister into believing a lie. Nothing less than mind control would work now that my dad had seen holes in my neck and the two of them watched a bulky guard seemingly disappear.
Vlad moved next to me, his hand resting on my back. "I'll honor whatever decision you make, but the truth is always better than a lie, even when it's the more difficult path."
I looked at my father's granite expression and my sister's frightened one, and sighed. "They'll tell people."
Vlad flashed a charming smile at my father. "No they won't. He's smart enough to realize that repeating such information is futile. The only people who'd believe him are others of my kind, and they don't suffer whistleblowers or fools. As for her"-a nod indicated Gretchen-"she'll do as he tells her."
My sister bristled. "I'm twenty-two years old. No one tells me what to do!"
"Gretchen, be quiet," my dad growled.
She glared at him but didn't say anything else. My lips twitched despite the seriousness of the situation. Vlad's instincts were correct-she'd never go against a direct order from our father. Hugh Dalton had always intimidated her.
"Tell me the truth about what's going on," my dad ordered.
I, however, had never been intimidated by him. But I did want to try and repair my relationship with my family, and if our reconciliation wasn't built on honesty, then it wouldn't be real.
"Show him, Vlad," I said.
His gaze changed from copper to bright, glowing green, and his smile bared teeth that now had two sharp fangs. A muscle ticked in my father's jaw but his expression didn't change.
"Fancy contacts and novelty teeth don't im-press me."
"I didn't think they would," Vlad replied in a silky voice. "But that happens before I do this."
He levitated into the air, hovering several feet off the ground. Then flames erupted from his hands, first eerie blue, then orange, yellow, and red. They climbed up his arms, licked the edges of his long brown hair, and while their heat was palpable, not a stitch of fabric or a single hair on him burned.
"I am Vladislav Basarab Dracul, born 1431 as a mortal, but reborn in 1462 as a vampire," Vlad stated, staring into my father's eyes. "And I am but one out of millions of vampires, ghouls, ghosts, and demons that live in secret among you."
Piling the drama on a little thick, aren't you? I thought. Then a thud made my gaze swing to the right.
My sister had fainted.
Vlad opened the wine and poured the deep red liquid to the brim before handing me the glass. I accepted it like it was a lifeline, taking a large, graceless gulp. On the plus side, my father no longer thought I was mixed up in a rich, role-playing cult. In the negative column, he was probably on the phone with the Pentagon right now, helping to organize a full-scale attack against any creature that didn't have a pulse.