"It's fine to hate me," he stated, jaw clenching as he shot a pain-filled look my way. "I failed your mother and I should have been there for you after the accident. I . . . part of me blamed you at first. You must know that after touching me, but deep down, there was never a question as to who was really responsible for her leaving and subsequent death. Me. So please, even though Marty was a better father to you than I, don't expose yourself to more vampires trying to save him. Keep punishing me, I deserve it. But don't endanger yourself more than you already have."
The truth we'd both known for years was finally spoken between us, and now that the words hung in the air, I felt a weight inside me ease. I'd told Vlad that talking about my father's deepest sin was too painful, but what I didn't realize was that the wound had only festered by ignoring it. Memories I hadn't allowed myself to recall sprang to my mind like clips from a movie reel: The four of us collecting seashells along the Virginia shoreline when my dad was stationed near D.C. How Gretchen, only eight, had fallen giggling into the sand while I taught her cartwheels. My dad sweeping us up and spinning us in circles until we screamed with delight while my mom laughingly chided him to put us down before we got dizzy.
The happy family we'd once been had broken into pieces, but broken things could still heal. I was proof of that. We are all more than the sum of our sins, Vlad had said. If I wanted to lay down the burden I still carried over my darkest deed, then I had to forgive my father for his.
"We both failed her," I said, voice roughened from the pain of remembrance. "But if Mom were here, she'd tell us to get over it already. She'd say that nothing was more important than our family sticking together, and I-I want to listen to her now like I didn't back then."
He grabbed me, pulling me against him despite the current that made him shudder. His cane dropped to the floor as he put both arms around me, tucking my head into his shoulder as he'd done when I was a little girl. I embraced him back, keeping my right hand to my side since I hadn't gone to bed wearing my gloves. It had been so long since I'd hugged my dad, breathed in that blend of Old Spice and aftershave, yet somehow, the years of estrangement seemed to melt into mere months.
Then I gently pushed him away and gestured at his ruined leg. "A bomb blew your convoy apart and crippled your knee, but you still crawled toward the survivors and kept providing cover fire." Watery smile. "I'm going with Vlad to help look for the vampire who captured Marty, but it's not because I think he was a better father to me than you. It's because I'm the daughter of a man who refused to abandon the people he felt responsible for even when he was outgunned, bleeding, and only able to crawl."
"God, you're as stubborn as your mother," he said in a voice that cracked from emotion.
I laughed even though my vision blurred from tears. Guilt had made memories of my mom too painful to dwell on, but now it felt good to recall the various aspects of her personality.
"She was stubborn, wasn't she?"
My father opened his mouth to reply, but then Vlad entered the room. He didn't seem surprised to see my father. I guess he would've heard us talking as he approached.
Dad retrieved his cane and straightened to his full six-foot height. Then he stared at Vlad with an intensity that would've made a lesser man squirm.
"I don't care who or what you are. You fail to protect her while using her as a homing device on your enemy, and I'll find a way to kill you."
Tough as Hugh Dalton still was, it was the equivalent of a house cat threatening a Bengal tiger. To his credit, Vlad didn't laugh or crack one of his charmingly lethal smiles.
"Oh, I always protect what's mine," he replied, and his tone made me think he was speaking to me, too.
My dad glanced at me, sighed in a way that said he strongly disapproved of this relationship, and left, his salt-and-pepper head erect even if the rest of his body was no longer straight. I closed the door behind him but waited before turning around, not sure if I'd finished one confrontation only to have another.
"Done already?" I asked neutrally.
"I am. The others aren't" was his reply. A slithering noise followed, and then seconds later, the hiss of water.
I turned around. His clothes and shoes were in a pile on the floor and he was in the shower. He hadn't bothered to turn the light on, but the door was open and he'd chosen to shower in my room. Not his. For Vlad, that was as much an offer to join him as a formal invitation.
I shouldn't. The smart move would be to go back to bed and sleep on all the concerns I had about this relationship, but I went into the bathroom instead, flipping on the light. The glass doors encasing the shower concealed nothing from my gaze.
Vlad's head was directly under the spray, dark brown hair appearing longer with the water sluicing through it. Red rivulets turned to pink and then ran clear as the blood that had soaked through his clothes washed away. From his taut ni**les, the water was cold, but faint steam rose as it hit him. His body was even more tempting with that glistening wetness highlighting every ripple, hollow, and bulge. Long, thickly muscled legs set off the twin mounds of an ass that practically dared you not to stare at it. I did until he took a bar of soap and began rubbing lather over himself. White suds clung to sinewy arms, draped across broad shoulders, gathered in the hollow of a sculpted chest, slid down the enticing dark trail on his stomach, and then crowned in the crisp hair of his groin.
My gaze stayed there, and when he lathered flesh that grew and thickened under his hand, a distinct throb began in my loins. Vlad's seething masculinity was matched only by his incredible power, and though both were way out of my league, I was drawn to him like the proverbial moth to a flame. Without thought, I slipped out of my robe and then my nightgown.
When I met his gaze, it was bright green and predatory, making a shiver run through me that had nothing to do with being naked in a chilly room. I'd never had someone stare at me the way he did. As if he already owned me body and soul, and I was the only one who hadn't realized that yet. Moving like I was in a dream, I entered the shower, gasping when he pulled me to him. The water was icy, but his flesh was scalding, and the shock of burning and freezing at the same time was heightened by the intensity of his kiss. His mouth was molten bliss, tongue a sinuous brand; large hands igniting desire everywhere they roamed. My nails dug into the muscled expanse of his back, and he let out a low laugh at the current that jolted into him.
"I love how excitement sharpens your power." Growled as his mouth trailed down to my neck. "When you're about to come, your whole body vibrates. Most incredible thing I've ever felt."