Prince of Twilight (Page 11)
As Stormy walked in the clear, warm night, she felt the rush in her mind as more of Vlad's blocks fell away and more memories of her time with him sixteen years ago returned.
She and Vlad had returned to the castle with Rhiannon, to find Rhiannon's mate, Roland, there waiting for them. Roland had, she recalled, coaxed Stormy into taking him for a drive into the local village for a proper meal. Partly to give Rhiannon time to speak to Vlad in private, Stormy suspected, and partly to give Roland time to speak to her; to ascertain for certain whether Vlad was holding her against her will. She had assured him that wasn't the case.
But as they'd driven back, along the winding road to the castle, she'd seen something that had hit her hard. A meadow, with an old foundation crumbling in one corner. She'd stopped the car and gotten out, compelled beyond reason. And then she'd blacked out.
When she roused again, Roland had been carrying her into Vlad's castle. And then…
She felt weak, sick, achy. Her body was limp, her head down, supported against Roland's shoulder, and her eyes refused to stay open for more than a heartbeat at a time.
“What the hell happened?” Vlad demanded.
“Damned if I know, my friend.”
Vlad took her from Roland as he spoke, then turned and carried her into the castle. He laid her on the chaise, hands going to her cheeks as she felt his senses probing her mind. “Tell me everything, Roland.”
“Of course. We had dinner, talked a bit. She seemed perfectly all right. Healthy, strong. But on the way back here… ” Roland paused, and Stormy forced her eyes open in time to see Vlad shoot him a look, one that begged the rest of the tale.
Rhiannon sucked in a breath. “By the gods, Roland, what happened to your face?”
Roland touched his own face, and for the first time Stormy noted the four long scratches that ran from high on his cheek nearly to his jaw.
“Roland?” Vlad prompted.
“I don't know what happened, Vlad. She stopped the car and got out, hurrying into a meadow to examine an old foundation. I went after her, naturally. She seemed… distressed. Kept saying, 'She's coming.' And then… then she changed.”
“In what way, Roland?” Rhiannon asked.
“In every way,” Roland whispered. “Her voice, her stance, her scent. The color of her eyes turned to black, and she began speaking in a language I do not know. But I'm certain it was Italic.”
“Romanian,” Vlad said softly. He was stroking her hair now, leaning in close to watch her face, willing her to come more fully awake with his mind. She felt it but was too weak to obey. “It's happened before.” Vlad looked away from Tempest only long enough to glance at the other man. “She put those scratches on your face?”
“Yes, when I tried to keep her from running off into the forest.” He frowned. “She was strong, Vlad. Stronger than a mortal should be.”
“It's exactly as Maxine described,” Rhiannon said. “Is this an example of how your precious Elisabeta's spirit is melding with Stormy's own? By taking control from her? By attacking a friend?”
He continued stroking Stormy's face, her neck. “Wake up, Tempest. Wake now.”
“Vlad, I do not remember your bride as being either violent or strong,” Rhiannon said. “This is more like some kind of possession.”
He shook his head. “Beta is confused and frustrated. Five hundred years she's been trying to find her way back to me. And now that she thinks she has, Tempest insists on fighting her.”
“Perhaps for good reason.”
Tempest blinked slowly and opened her eyes more fully. “I'm… I'm okay.” She sat up slightly and pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead, closing her eyes tightly. “I remember seeing a foundation in a meadow and feeling compelled to explore it more closely. I pulled over, and Roland and I-” She stopped there and shot a look at Roland, then quickly lowered her head. “I did that to your face. I'm sorry.”
“I don't believe it was you at all, Stormy,” Roland said.
“It wasn't. Not really.” She glanced at Vlad. “What made her come through so strongly?”
Vlad shook his head in apparent bewilderment, then glanced at Roland again. “Where was this foundation?”
“Off the main road, if you can call that dirt track a road,” Roland said. “About a half mile down, where the forest ends, there's a large meadow with the foundation of a house in one corner.”
Vlad closed his eyes and said nothing.
“The house,” Tempest said softly. “It was her house. Elisabeta's.”
“Yes, it was.” Vlad looked at Rhiannon. “Do you still think I'm wrong?”
“In so many ways,” she replied. “If this invading spirit is that of Elisabeta, Vlad, she is not the woman you remember. She has changed, warped, twisted.”
“You re the one who is wrong.”
She met his eyes, then moved closer to Tempest, leaned over her, clasped her hand. “Come back with us, Tempest. Let me find a way to exorcise this creature from you once and for all.”
Tempest sat up and swung her legs around to put her feet on the floor. She looked at Vlad, searched his face. He couldn't seem to hold her gaze. Guilt? Did he know full well what he was doing to her? she wondered. Did he know Rhiannon was right?
“It will be dawn soon,” he said softly. “There wouldn't be time to leave tonight, even if she wanted to.”
“Dawn has no impact on her, Vlad,” Roland said. “Our jet is waiting at the landing strip fifteen miles from here, with instructions to take her home should she show up asking to leave, with or without us.” He looked at Tempest again. “You can go if you wish it, Stormy. We'll join you as soon as we can.”
Vlad pushed his hands through his hair and paced away. “Dammit, why won't you stay out of this?”
“Because you'll destroy her, Vlad,” Rhiannon said. “How many more of these episodes do you think she can withstand? Look at her!”
He whirled on her, his eyes blazing. “I'll destroy you if you continue to interfere!”
Roland stepped between the two, and Vlad hit him, a single, powerful blow that sent the man sailing across the room, where he hit a stone wall and sank to the floor. Rhiannon hunched herself at Vlad then, growling like a wildcat as she swung both fists into his chest and put him flat on his back as surely as if he'd been hit by a wrecking ball.
She came on as he struggled to get upright. But then Tempest was on her feet, shouting, her voice deep and strong, despite the weakness still invading her body. “Stop it! Stop it now, all of you!”
Rhiannon froze and turned slowly to stare at her. Vlad remained where he was, on his back on the floor, and Roland lifted his head, but not his body, from where it had come to rest.
“Don't you think it should be up to me whether I leave or not? And how I decide to deal with this presence? It's my problem, after all. My life. Why are you all arguing over what I should do when the decision is no one's-no one's-but my own.”
She crossed the room to where Vlad lay on the his back and extended a hand to him. He took it, searching her face. She knew full well he had no intention of letting her go, not yet. Not until she remembered. He was obsessed with his damned dead bride. But Stormy had her own reasons for staying. She needed to solve this thing.
And she hoped he would come to his senses and decide to let Elisabeta go at long last. That he would come to love her, instead.
She helped him to his feet, then turned to walk away from him, and knelt in front of Roland. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, and she helped him up, as well, frowning as she cocked her head to glance at the back of his. “He has a bit of a gash here, Rhiannon. You should bandage it before you rest. Do you two have a place to stay tonight?”
Her meaning was clear in her tone, she thought. They were not to stay here.
“We have accommodations on the jet. Quite luxurious ones, actually.” Rhiannon came to check Roland's head wound as she spoke. She touched it, and Roland sucked air through his teeth. Rhiannon shot Vlad a narrow-eyed glare. “I should kill you for this.”
“No one's killing anyone,” Tempest said. “You two should go if you want to make it to the jet before sunrise.”
“And you?” Roland asked.
Vlad watched her, awaiting her answer, and she knew damn well he would keep her with him by force if he had to. Or anyway he would try.
“I'm staying,” she said. “One more night. I gave my word.” She turned to Vlad. “Just as you gave yours that you'd see me safely back home after that. And I'm holding you to it, Vlad.” She also knew he had no intention of letting her go until he was damn good and ready. But she had to at least pretend to believe. God forbid he should ever realize what a fool she was to have fallen for him so hard.
Stormy turned back to the others. “I'll be fine. You see?”
“Oh, I see, Stormy. But do you?” Rhiannon had her fingertips pressed to Roland's head to keep it from bleeding. “Do you understand who you're dealing with? This is Dracula, child. And if he decides to keep you here, no power on earth will set you free.”
She blinked, then turned to Vlad, her eyes probing his. “I trust him,” she lied. “He'll keep his word.”
“And if he doesn't?”
She shrugged. “Then it'll be my mistake, won't it?”
Rhiannon scowled at her. “God save us from spunky mortals with more courage than brains,” she muttered. “Courage won't help you in this, Stormy.”
“It's never let me down before.”
Sighing, Rhiannon seemed to give up. “If someone can locate a bandage, we'll be on our way.”
Vlad nodded toward a cabinet visible just through an open door at one end of the room. “I always have a supply on hand.”
“As do we,” Rhiannon snapped. “But we left ours on the jet, never dreaming we'd have need of it here-in the home of my own sire.”
“Sire?” Stormy asked with a gasp. “Vlad, you… you're the vampire who made Rhiannon?”
“I am. Though there are times when I sorely regret it.”
Rhiannon left, then returned in a moment with adhesive strips and gauze, which she applied to Roland's head. Then she took his hand, and, without a goodbye, they headed for the door.
Rhiannon stopped there and turned briefly, but she spoke to Tempest, not to Vlad. “If you're not back in the States in a reasonable period, we'll be back.” She slanted a look at Vlad. “And we won't be alone.”
“Oh?” he asked, his tone sarcastic. “Bringing along an army of vampires, are you? Enough to set Dracula straight?”
“I won't need to bring them, Vlad. There are vampires everywhere. More than an antisocial creature like yourself could even imagine. And while they are different, there's one thing they pretty much have in common. One value we all share, by unspoken mutual agreement. We don't do harm to mortals or meddle in their lives. And we don't tolerate rogues who do.”
“You protect The Chosen. Isn't that meddling?”
“Tempest is not one of The Chosen.”
“And yet you're here, meddling.”
“I'm here to prevent you from destroying her. And in the process, yourself.”
Vlad averted his eyes. “Doesn't matter.”
“Yes, Vlad. It does.” She sighed and opened the door, walked through and, without looking back, spoke to him one last time. “What you've done this night will not be undone. Goodbye, Vlad.”
He didn't respond, only watched as the door banged closed, apparently on its own, and then turned to Tempest. “Thank you,” he said.
“For trusting me.”
“Do you think I'm an idiot?” she snapped. “Hell, Vlad, I don't trust you as far as I can throw you. Not when I know perfectly well whose side you're on in this… this war of mine. I just wanted to get rid of them so we could get on with this. I still think the answers to my issues might lie here, in this place and, maybe, in you.”
His face turned angry. He took her arm and started for the stairs. “Tonight,” he said, “we share the bed.”
“Fine by me.”
She knew he saw what she tried to hide. The flash of desire, of longing, of hunger in her eyes. She wanted him, even now.
She shuttered the desire, hid the ripple of delicious fear, buried them both in sarcasm. “You'll be dead to the world in twenty minutes, anyway.”
“But very much alive again come sundown, Tempest.”
She stopped halfway up the stairs, turning to spear him with her eyes. “Are you trying to frighten me into running away, Vlad? Into taking off as soon as you sleep, finding that jet and begging its pilot to take me home?”
He stared into her eyes. “Believe me when I tell you, frightening you away is not what I want.”
“Then knock it off with the idle threats, okay?”
“My threats, Tempest, are far from idle. And I don't think you will mind at all when I carry them out.”
Vlad carried Elisabeta, in Brooke's body, to the house a few miles away where he'd holed up for the night, and where he'd sensed the presence of a mortal upon waking this very evening. Even without his heightened senses he would have known that someone had been there. There had been shards of broken glass on the floor. Curved, as if from a wine glass. And the small rickety wooden table had been moved, and bore the soft drippings of a recently burned candle. A black candle. Which suggested workings of negative magick.
The scent that lingered was that of a woman.
This woman, he realized now. Though not precisely this one. She was different now. She was Elisabeta now.
He took her into the house, but not down the basement stairs to where he'd set up a secure haven. Instead, he carried Elisabeta into the back part of the house, where a sofa was covered in a filthy sheet. Then he yanked the sheet away, relieved that the fabric beneath it appeared far cleaner.
“Here now,” he said, lowering her down onto the cushions. “Just rest. Are you still in pain?” He lifted her blouse to just below her breasts, to see the bruises already darkening the skin that covered her ribs.
“It's… it's better now,” she said, her accent slighter than it had been. He supposed she'd had sixteen years of listening while she lived inside Tempest.
“I forgot how much it hurts to be… alive,” Beta said.
He frowned as he drew his gaze from her bruised ribs to her face. Her meaning, he knew, went beyond the physical pain she had been dealt this night.
“Is it as bad for you?” she asked. “Pain, I mean. Hurting?”
He nodded, lowering her shirt again. “In vampires, sensation is magnified. Pain included.”
“God, how will I bear it?”
His eyes shot to hers. “How will you-“
“But you heal fast, don't you? Every ache and pain goes away as soon as the sun comes up. And when you wake again, you're as good as new. That's the way it works, isn't it?”
She nodded. “It's starting to feel better.” She smiled at him and tried to sit up a little. “When will you do it?”
“Do what, Beta?”
“Change me, of course. I want you to make me immortal. A vampire, like you.”
He stared at her, shook his head slowly as what she was saying became clear to him. And only then did he realize what he hadn't before. He smelled it on her, sensed it on her. The Belladonna Antigen. But it was different somehow. Weak. Thin. Altered in some way.
Brooke had not possessed it before. Of that he was certain. Had The Chosen been so close, he would have sensed it at once.
“It has to be done in just the right way, Beta. At just the right time.”
She clasped his shoulder and drew herself nearer to him, brushing her lips over his jaw and cheek. “When will that be?”
“I don't know.” Her mouth slid around to his, and for a moment he kissed her. But then he clasped her shoulders and held her while he tugged his mouth from hers. “Beta, we have to talk.”
“But I've missed you so, Vlad. I don't want to wait.”
“It won't be long. But if you want to be made over-“
“All right.” She pursed her lips, then turned so that she was sitting up on the old sofa and leaned back against it. “What is it you need to know?”
He nearly sagged in relief. “Tell me about Brooke.”
Her head came up, eyes narrow. “Brooke?”
“It's her body you're using, Beta. I need to know about it. She… wasn't one of The Chosen. I'd have known if one were that close.”
“Oh, no. Do you mean… ?”
“No, love, no. I sense the antigen in you.” He stared at her. “I suppose you must have brought it with you somehow.”
She smiled. “Maybe I did.”
“But it's not full blown, Beta. It's not strong. I'm not sure it's quite the same. The transformation might not work.”
“Or it might.”
“If it fails, you'll die, Beta.”
She blinked rapidly. “Well, we don't want that.” Then she frowned at him. “Are you sure you're telling me the truth, Vlad?”
“Why would I lie?”
Shrugging, she watched his face carefully. “Because of her, of course.”
He shook his head. “She no longer has anything to do with this.”
“She does if you're in love with her. If you've decided you'd rather be with her than me. I've waited five hundred years, Vlad.”
“You didn't wait at all, Elisabeta. Not even three days. You believed them when they told you I'd been killed on our wedding night, and you flung yourself to your death.”
“A living death,” she whispered. “Trapped, like being buried alive. You did that to me.”
“I was trying to save you.”
“You destroyed me. All so you could have me back again. If you've decided you don't want me now, after all I've been through… “
“I haven't. I'm telling you the truth, Beta. We need to take some time, be sure you'll survive the change before we proceed.” She didn't argue, so he pressed on. “Where is Brooke now?”
Beta sighed. “She's here, Vlad. Cowering inside this body. But she will not remain long. This I know.”
“How do you know?”
“I simply do.” She held his gaze; then, lowering her eyelids to half mast, she lay back on the sofa, her hands going to her blouse to open its buttons. “None of it matters. Not really. I'm here now. We can be together at last. The way we've both been waiting to be for all these years.” She rose from the sofa, trailing her fingertips over his face. “Take me now, Vlad. Take my blood. Make me immortal.”
He licked his lips, staring at her as she pushed the blouse apart, baring her breasts-no, some other woman's breasts. And he did want her. But he bent to snatch the sheet from the floor and draped it over her. “Not yet. You're not strong enough. There's something… not right.”
Something changed then, in her eyes. Something dark came into them and shadowed her face. She backed away from him, and, moving so quickly he didn't seen it coming, she yanked out a blade she'd had hidden somewhere in the clothes she wore and drew it swiftly across her palm.
“Beta, don't!” He reached for her, but she danced away. Then she lifted her hand. Scarlet blood welled in her palm. His eyes fixed on it, and he couldn't look away as she moved closer again. And then she pressed her palm to his lips.
Hunger raged in him. He hadn't fed sufficiently in far too long. He had been obsessed with this situation to the exclusion of everything, including his own needs.
He closed his eyes, tasted the blood from Elisabeta's hand, and the bloodlust swelled in him. He gripped her wrist and licked a hot path over her palm, taking every droplet.
And then he drew away, his eyes narrow. “It's partly your blood, Beta. The Belladonna Antigen, the thing that made you one of The Chosen when you lived in your own body, it's there. But just barely. It's still partly Brooke's blood, coursing in your veins. She didn't have the antigen. You know this.”
“How would I possibly know?”
He shook his head, “It doesn't matter. I know. She didn't have it, or I would have sensed it the moment I set foot in this town, much more so on the grounds of Athena House. She didn't have it, and now that you've taken possession of her body, she does. But only slightly.”
“It's enough. It has to be enough. Make me over, Vlad. Make me what you are.” She stared up at him, her eyes pleading.
“It wouldn't work. Not like this.”
She lowered her head and turned away from him. “I don't believe you.”
“Beta, I'm telling you the truth. If I try to change you now, this body you've stolen will simply die. I'm sure of it.”
“I didn't steal it! It was given to me.” Blinking, she turned and stared up at him. “Do you still love me, Vlad? Do you still love me at all?”
“I'll always love you.”
“Then prove it to me.” She moved closer, slid her hands, one of which was now wrapped in a handkerchief, up the front of his shirt, tugged at the buttons there. “Show me you love me and not her. Do it now.” She reached up to kiss his neck, to bite it and tug at the skin there. “Prove it to me,” she whispered, pressing her hips to his.
Vlad closed his eyes, his hands lowering to her shoulders and then to her waist.
She tipped her head up for a kiss, and he couldn't refuse her, not with the longing and hope he saw in her eyes. He kissed her. Her fingers twisted in his hair. She sucked his tongue, drove hers into his mouth and kissed him with a fervor he'd never felt in her before. And when she broke the kiss, she pressed his head to her throat. “It is me you love. I knew it. Take me, darling. It's been so long.”
Very gently, he pulled free of her.
“What's wrong, my love?” She blinked up at him, searching his face. “Is it this body? Is it not to your liking?”
“No, it's not that.” There was nothing unattractive about the body Elisabeta occupied. Brooke's body.
“I can't do this. Not now, Beta. You're far too weak.” And even as he said it, he felt like the worst kind of hypocrite. He'd taken women before. But not like this. In the past, when he'd needed to feed, he'd lured women to him, used the power of his mind to ease every inhibition in theirs and then ascertained the depths of their desire.
Sometimes he only drank. Other times, he took them in every imaginable way, but only if he sensed that, deep down, they wanted it. And always he left them with no memory of what had transpired.
This was different. He couldn't reach Brooke's mind, because Elisabeta was in control of it. He couldn't test her desire, because Elisabeta was ruling her body. But she would be aware. A captive inside her own body. He'd heard Tempest describe it enough times. And even he, even Dracula, wouldn't stoop so low. He'd never needed to.
“I do not understand you. What could be wrong with-“
“It would be a rape, Elisabeta. It's not your body. Brooke-“
“Who cares about Brooke? She will be dead soon enough. She is not coming back, Vlad. It won't matter at all.”
He frowned down at her.
“I have what I needed from her. A body. I would have preferred the other one but-“
“How can you sure Brooke's soul will leave this body?” he asked. Partly to change the topic, and partly because he needed to know exactly what was happening.
“I do not know how I know, only that my soul has taken this body, fully taken it. I can feel her weakening, even now. She will be dead in a few days. She will move on to some other realm. She cannot last.”
“Why not?” Vlad asked. “You did. You lasted years inside Tempest's body, even though she was in control.”
“Yes, but I could not move on. I was bound, Vlad, by the power of the ring.”
“If that little bitch would simply have died as she ought to have… But I do not wish to talk about her. Or even to hear her name again.”
He frowned. “She's a part of you. A part of all of this.”
“I hate her,” she said. “I wish her dead. When I am a vampire, she will be my first kill.” As she said it, she smiled slowly, but her smile froze, perhaps at the look of surprise she must have seen in his eyes.
“Oh, Vlad, darling, don't look that way. Death is not horrible. I used to think it was, when I was young and naive. I howled in pain when my family died of the plague. My brothers. My baby sister. I wanted to die with them. But now I understand so much more. Death is… it's a lie. There is nothing to fear in it. When you kill someone, they do not stop existing. They only… move out of the way.” She sighed, smiling wistfully. “To be a vampire-it must be like being a god,” she whispered.
“No, Beta. It's not like being a god.”
“Oh, but it is. I've been paying attention all these years. Tempest, she deals with your kind all the time. You never die.”
“We can die, just as anyone else can. Only the means are different. Fire, or loss of blood, or sunlight-“
“You can read minds. Influence the thoughts of mortals.”
“So can some mortals,” he said. “There's nothing so godlike about those skills.”
“Vampires have the power of life and death in their hands.”
“As does any criminal with a handgun,” he told her. “We're not animals, Beta. We don't kill simply because we can.”
She frowned up at him. “I do not remember this side of you.”
She shrugged. “Vlad, this is not who you are.”
“Not who I was, perhaps. But, Beta, it's been centuries. Perhaps I've changed.”
“It's more than that. You refuse to make love to me, and it has nothing to do with the simpering ghost of a spirit still clinging by a strand to this body. It's her. It's Tempest.”
“She has nothing to do with this. I told you, I've changed.” He studied her. “You've changed, too.”
“Yes, well, being imprisoned for a few centuries will do that to a person.” She turned and started across the room toward the door.
Vlad gripped her shoulders to stop her. “Where are you going?”
“If you will not change me, Vlad, I'll find some other vampire who will. Trust me, I know where to find them. I learned a lot while I was trapped inside Tempest Jones.”
She pulled free, but he gripped her arm again. “Dammit, Beta, don't leave like this.”
She turned so fast that he didn't see it coming, didn't see her hand drawing the knife she'd tucked into the pants she wore. But he felt it. The blade sank deep into his belly.
Vlad's entire body erupted in pain. His eyes went wide, then bulged as he clutched his middle and fell to his knees.
“Well, what do you know? You were telling the truth about that much, at least. You do feel pain more intensely than mortals.” She tipped her head to one side. “Is it true, what Tempest believes? That the older the vampire, the more heightened his senses? Because, if it is, that must really hurt.”
She shrugged, then dropped to her knees so she was at eye level with him again. He struggled to speak but couldn't form a word. The pain was too much.
“I can help you, Vlad. I can bandage that up for you and feed you from my own body. If you will transform me. Make me what you are, what I was born to be.”
“It would kill you,” he told her. “I can't be the cause of that, Beta.”
She shrugged and got to her feet again. “Then… goodbye.”