Prince of Twilight (Page 7)
He wanted another woman.
Elisabeta's borrowed heart felt as if it were slowly turning to a chunk of cold ice. Her prince, her husband, who had promised her eternal life, still wanted her, yes. But he wanted his precious Tempest, as well.
Well, she'd fooled him. She'd pretended to obey his wishes, to withdraw and allow Tempest to return to control. In truth, she'd only feigned sleep until he left the room.
But no more.
The woman whose body she possessed, Tempest, who called herself Stormy-the enemy-writhed within, struggled to regain control. Elisabeta felt her own grip weakening and knew she had to work fast. She had to do what was necessary and do it quickly. And she wasn't certain she trusted Vlad to do it for her. She had to do this on her own.
“You're not coming back,” she told the one she'd displaced. “Not this time.”
Stormy dreamed. And more pieces of her past returned. Once again she was in Romania, in Vlad's castle.
Vlad carried an oil lamp from the great room, and led her toward the wide and cold stone staircase. The bannister was wood, solid and coated in dust. Not ornately carved, but beautiful in a rough and rustic way. He didn't take her hand as he led the way. She walked beside him, and when a piece of one of the stone stairs fell away beneath his foot and he had to grip the rail to keep from falling, she clasped his upper arm instinctively.
He looked at her, the lantern glow flickering between them, his eyes intense, as if he, too, felt the power that seemed to surge between them with any physical contact whatsoever. It surged even in something as innocuous as her hand on his biceps.
She had to lower her gaze from the burning intensity in his eyes. She shifted it to the lamp instead. “Maybe I should carry that, given that your kind are nearly as combustible as the lamp oil.”
He lifted his brows but didn't object as she took the lamp from his hand. She held it by its slender neck, between the wide glass base and the sphere that held the oil. Its chimney was tall and narrow, sooty near the top. It was warm to the touch, unlike the man who'd been carrying it.
They resumed climbing the stairs and moved along a high-ceilinged corridor past arching doors that each seemed to be cut from a single slab of wood. Black iron hinges and knobs gave the place a gothic feel that was fitting, she thought. Pausing at one of the doors, he pushed it open wide and let her precede him with the light.
Its golden warmth spilled onto a huge canopy bed with sheer white curtains surrounding it. It was stacked high with pillows and covered by a thick comforter. And the room was remarkably dust free. She moved closer to the bed, noting the tall windows in the far wall, the thick red draperies held back with, fringed golden ties. Bending, she ran a hand over the comforter and caught the freshly washed scent coming from the bedding.
“It's clean,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at him.
He stood near the doorway. “I phoned ahead. Asked the caretakers to come in and make up a room for you. I hope it's comfortable.”
“It's fine.” It was more than fine. It was darkly beautiful, like something out of a gothic fairy tale. She turned and held up the lamp to look around, noticing the ornate, ancient-looking furnishings, a rocking chair, writing desk and chest of drawers and wardrobe. There was a fireplace here, too, and she set the lamp on the mantle, and glanced into the hearth to see wood and kindling laid ready for the touch of a match.
He came closer then, removed the screen and took a long wooden match from a tin holder on the mantle. With a flick of his thumbnail on the match-head, it flared to life, and he bent to light the kindling.
“You do mess around with fire a lot, for a vampire.”
He shrugged. “I'm careful.”
She nodded toward the windows. “What about those? Are the drapes thick enough to… ?” She let her words die as he turned to look at her, the question in his eyes.
“I hadn't planned to rest here with you, Tempest. Though if you would prefer me to, I-“
“No. No, that's not what I meant.” She averted her eyes, shaking her head in denial, though it had been exactly what she had meant. She'd just assumed… “Actually, I'll be grateful for the privacy. I have a lot of thinking to do. I just-I'm not used to sleeping by day, and the sun streaming in might keep me awake.”
“I see.” She was afraid he did. All too well.
He moved to the windows, untied the golden cords and tugged the draperies together, blocking out the graying sky beyond. “Better?”
“Much. But I could have done that.” She dared to look at his face again and was surprised to see that his eyelids had become heavy, kept drifting closed. “Go on, go to bed. I can handle things from here.”
He nodded but seemed hesitant to leave, even then.
“I'm not going to run away, Vlad. We made a deal. I always keep my word.”
“That's good to know. Good rest, then, Tempest.”
“You too. See you at sundown.”
He nodded and left her alone in the room.
As the fire licked to life, the room grew brighter. Bright enough to let her explore it more thoroughly. There was a dressing table, and its surface was far from bare. There were a gorgeous silver hairbrush, comb and hand mirror lying on the top, and she wondered if they'd been there before or if he'd had them brought in for her. She wondered if they'd been Elisabeta's, then thought they would surely be tarnished with age if they had. Curious, she opened some of the drawers and found that they were not empty, either. A selection of under garments-bras and panties, nightgowns and camisoles, and a few pairs of socks-filled them. Frowning, she moved to the wardrobe and opened its doors, wondering if she would find fancy dresses and gowns.
She didn't. Its hangers were filled with jeans and blouses, and a warm coat. Two pairs of shoes sat on a shelf-hiking shoes and running shoes. She picked up a shoe and looked at the number on the bottom. It was her size. The chest of drawers held sweaters and T-shirts. He'd definitely had these things brought in for her. And he knew her sizes, and her style.
Another door revealed a bathroom that was surprisingly modern, at least in comparison to the rest of the castle. Indoor plumbing must have been a more recent addition. The tub was old, claw footed and deep. The sink was a pedestal model, the toilet a huge one that must have been manufactured in the fifties. All the fixtures were brass and shining. Towels and washcloths, all clean smelling, were stacked on a shelf. And a small stand with a mirror behind it and a stool in front held bottles and jars-familiar ones.
Hair care products, moisturizer, soaps and razors, and a supply of makeup. All her brands. All her colors.
My God, how did he know so much about her?
Stormy wasn't sure whether to be touched that he'd gone to so much trouble, taken so much care, to provide for her comfort, or creeped out by the fact that he seemed to have dug into her life-or maybe her mind-so deeply without her knowledge.
Maybe she was a little of both.
She would have loved a shower, but that wasn't an option. No showerhead. Sighing, she put the stopper into the tub and started a bath running. Then she went back into the bedroom to choose a nightgown. The one she pulled out was long and white and flowing. Perfect attire for the heroine in a gothic novel, stranded in a strange castle in a foreign land with a vampire for a host. Why not?
The bath relaxed her; the nightgown felt heavenly against her skin. She hadn't expected to be able to sleep at all, but when she crawled into the bed, she knew she would. The mattress was covered in a downy featherbed, and her body sank into it as if she were sinking into a cloud. So comforting and warm, with the down-filled comforter snuggling her and the pillows cradling her head. She thought it would put the most hopeless insomniac to sleep. She sank into slumber as soon as she'd pulled the covers around her shoulders.
She slept for a long time. Deep, uninterrupted, blissful, restful sleep.
Until the dream came.
In the dream, she wasn't herself. She was someone else. Elisabeta. Oh, it was Stormy's body, her face, but the other woman's eyes lived in it. She was standing on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump.
Stormy felt as if she were inside the body of the other woman but not in control. It was as if she was just along for the ride. But she knew everything Elisabeta knew, felt everything she felt, as she stood on that precipice, high above a thundering waterfall. The night sky above her was dotted with stars, and behind her, grasses and wildftowers spread out as far as she could see. But her gaze was drawn to the woman again. Somehow she could see her, even though she felt trapped inside her.
Elisabeta wore a simple dress that reached to her feet. There were grief and loneliness, a great yawning emptiness, inside her, filled only with pain beyond human endurance. It hurt so much. Stormy felt it. She ached with it.
I've lost everyone. Everyone I ever loved. I have nothing left.
The Plague, Stormy thought slowly. Elisabeta's family had been taken by the Plague. Her mother. Her father. Her brothers. Her baby sister.
“Alanya.” Stormy whispered the baby's name as it floated into her awareness. “She was only two.” Her throat went tight, and she felt tears burning in her eyes. Tears… for Elisabeta.
There was something else wrong with the woman. Woman? No, she wasn't even that. She was barely more than a girl. Her mind was awash with overwhelming emotions, and her body-her body was weak and sick. She'd been growing weaker for a long time now, and she knew, deep down, that whatever was wrong with her would get no better. She saw no need to go on living, suffering from a mysterious malady that would surely kill her anyway, now that her family was gone.
She's one of The Chosen, Stormy realized. One of those mortals with the Belladonna Antigen-the only ones who can become vampires. They always weaken and die young, but God, not that young.
The Undead sense that kind. They watch over them, protect them. Where was her protector now? Stormy wondered.
She heard a shout, glimpsed a man on the opposite cliff. But it was too late for him to stop her.
“I'm finished,” the tormented girl whispered. She opened her arms and rocked forward, just let go. Her body fell, and Stormy fell with it. The pounding foam and rocks below jetted toward her at dizzying speeds, and her stomach felt as if it had stayed behind on the ledge.
And then something was shooting toward her, a person, arrowing through the sky. His body hit hers, driving the breath from her lungs, and then he turned, putting himself beneath her. When they hit, she swore she felt his bones crack before the water swallowed them both. She heard his grunt of pain. He'd broken her fall. He'd kept her from dying. And then water embraced them, and for a moment everything was icy cold and pitch-black.
But then there was a shout.
“He's mine!” the tormented, grief-stricken young thing shouted, and in an instant it was as if Stormy was staring straight into Elisabeta's eyes. The woman spoke without moving her lips. He's mine, and I have nothing else. You will not keep me from him. She closed her small hands on Stormy's throat and squeezed.
When Stormy had woken that dark night so long ago, she'd found herself clawing at the hands on her throat and choking, struggling to breathe. But there were no hands there. She had gagged and struggled as the dream clung to her, then sat up and finally sucked in a desperate breath. The sensation of being strangled faded as if it had never been.
But she soon realized that she wasn't in the big, soft bed anymore. She wasn't even in the castle.
She was sitting up in a grassy field that stretched out forever and was bordered by distant forest. The wind was wafting over her, gentle, not harsh, but cold, and it carried a peculiar dampness that wet her skin. There was a roar in her ears, one that sent a chill to her bones. Slowly, she got to her feet and turned in a half circle, and then she went still and sucked in a breath.
Because there was nothing, just empty space at her feet. Across the yawning, rocky chasm, a waterfall thundered and plummeted into the river below, and a huge cloud of wet mist rose up to engulf her.
“Oh, God. Oh, Jesus.” She took a step backward, away from the edge, hugging herself and dragging in breath after breath of precious air. Her body was shaking. Her throat felt bruised, her lungs tight. God, it was so real! Elisabeta had been choking her. And somehow she'd made her way out here, to the very place she'd seen in her dreams.
Lifting her head, she shot a panicked glance at the night around her. But there was no one. She was alone.
Not alone, she thought. Not exactly. The enemy is inside me.
Pressing her hands to her head, she waited for her breathing to steady and her heart to stop racing. Gradually she recovered, and the dizziness-no doubt from being strangled half to death-faded.
Could she have died? Was it possible for an invasive presence to kill her from within her own body? It felt as if it was.
And she didn't feel alone, even now. She felt watched.
The sky was dark, and she was disoriented. She'd slept for what felt like hours in the cozy bed. Slept like the very dead. But she didn't know whether morning had simply not yet arrived, or whether the day had passed and it was night again.
She wanted to call out for Vlad. And even as she told herself how ridiculous a thought that was, she knew that didn't change it. She craved him like a drug. Or maybe Elisabeta did. She only knew she wanted him, there, with her, right then.
And then, suddenly, he was.
His hands closed on her shoulders from behind. He turned her slowly to face him as his probing, unreadable eyes searched her face. “Tempest?”
Her throat tightened. A sob tried to rise, and she clenched her jaw, closed her eyes tight to prevent the tears, and held her body stiffly.
“I woke to find you gone,” he said softly. “What happened? How did you get here?”
“I don't know,” she whispered, and it was an effort to get the words to pass through her constricted airways. “I just… I don't know.” And then she lost it. She couldn't hold herself stiff and strong for another second. She let her body go, let it do what it was longing to do: fall against his strong chest, rest in his powerful arms while her own wrapped around him and held on hard. She lowered her face to his shoulder, and she let the tears come.
As the memory faded, Stormy struggled to wake up but found it impossible. She knew on some level that she wasn't really trapped in some dark nightmare in which she was imprisoned in a lightless, airless tomb.
The tomb was her own body. The cold stone walls were keeping her from the controls in her own mind. She couldn't hear or see or move. But she sensed that her body was moving, awake and walking around just as if everything were normal. Except someone else was behind the wheel.
Bitch. Give me back my mind!
She fought, strained against the darkness. And it seemed to give. Elisabeta must be weakening. But she was fighting, too, and she was stubborn. Stormy pushed harder, clasping a shred of control and then holding on for dear life.
The darkness gave way all at once.
It was like breaking through the surface of a mirror-still lake. First there was nothing, and then, everything. All her senses came to full, screaming life at once. She could suddenly see through her own eyes and feel her own limbs, and for a moment she had no balance or sense of orientation.
Stormy found herself standing near the windows of her room in Athena House, wearing only her robe, her knees weak, her body lurching a little as she sought balance. She blinked her vision into focus. What she saw stunned her to the core.
The large, sparkling ruby ring. She held it in one hand, poised on the tip of her finger, and even as what she was seeing hit her, she was sliding the ring on farther.
She went motionless and stared at her hands, willing them to stop moving. She was holding the oversized ruby stone in her right and was about to slide it onto the forefinger of her left.
A scream was ripped from her chest as she flung the ring across the room. It hit the wall and then the floor, bouncing, tumbling, then coming to a stop, its red stone facing her like some demonic eye.
Her bedroom door crashed open. Melina lunged inside. “Stormy! What's wrong? What happened?” She scanned the room, wide eyed, as the sounds of others pounding down the hallway toward the room reached them.
Stormy gasped for breath, wondering what the hell to say, how to cover, when Melina spotted the ring and gasped. “Is that-“
“Jesus,” Brooke muttered from the doorway. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“I don't know. I don't know!” Stormy's knees buckled, and then Lupe was beside her, sliding an arm around her waist before she could sink to the floor. Stormy hadn't even realized Lupe had come into the room. She was strong, way stronger than Stormy would have guessed from looking at her. She supported her firmly, and moved Stormy backward until her legs touched the bed. Stormy sank onto it gratefully, her entire body trembling. Lupe stayed close, her eyes sharp, missing nothing.
“Was it the Impaler?” Melina asked. She didn't look at Stormy as she spoke. Instead, her eyes remained riveted to the ring. “Has he been here?”
“No. Of course not,” Stormy managed to mutter. It was a lie, but what was between her and Vlad was none of their business. She dragged her gaze away from Lupe's then and frowned as the raging waters of panic began to calm. “Why would you jump to that conclusion?”
She noticed Melina and Brooke and then Lupe looking toward the French doors, which were not quite closed. A breeze came through the gap, fresh and cold, pushing the curtains with its breath.
Slowly Melina turned to face Stormy. “It makes sense, doesn't it? Vlad needs a body for his dead bride to come into. Maybe he's chosen yours,” she said. “Are you sure he wasn't here?”
“I think I'd know if Dracula had paid me a nocturnal visit, Melina. That's not the kind of thing that could exactly slip by me.” She was careful to keep the left side of her throat away from their prying eyes. His marks would still be there, would remain until sunlight touched her skin.
“He's powerful enough to make you forget,” Brooke said. “From what I've read, he can shape-shift, and his thrall is impossible to resist.”
“Not for me. I've been working with his kind for sixteen years, don't forget.”
“Where did the ring come from, then?” Brooke asked. “How did it get here?”
Stormy let the defensive attitude slide off her shoulders. “I… I don't know how the ring got here. I woke up and it was here, that's all.”
“On the floor?” Melina asked. She was moving toward the ring now, reaching for it, and it took everything Stormy had not to knock her aside and snatch the ring before she could. She knew that urge wasn't coming from her own mind, not entirely. It was also coming from Elisabeta's. She flinched forward as Melina closed her hand around the ring and picked it up.
“In my hand,” Stormy said. “I was sleepwalking or… or something.”
Lupe's eyes narrowed at the “or something” part, but she didn't make any comment.
“When I woke, I was standing, and the ring was in my hand.”
Lupe muttered in Spanish and crossed herself.
“That must have been terrifying,” Melina said.
“Someone must have brought the ring,” Brooke said slowly. “You didn't see anyone? Hear anything?”
“No. Nothing,” Stormy insisted.
Brooke thinned her lips. “It didn't just appear here all by itself.”
“I didn't say it had.”
“Get off her, Brookie,” Lupe snapped, stepping closer to Stormy in a way that was almost protective. “Maybe we should search the grounds,” she said, possibly in an effort to change the subject. “We can check for signs, make sure whoever it was isn't still here. Give Stormy time to gather herself. I'll brew some tea. Chamomile, some valerian, maybe a little lavender, and we can talk.”
Melina nodded. “You're very wise, Lupe. Safety first, analysis later.” She turned to Brooke. “Rouse a handful of the girls and search the house, top to bottom. I'll take another group and search the grounds.”
“I'll get started on the tea,” Lupe said. And then she moved closer to Melina and held out her hand. “Maybe I should hold that for you until you get back. Just in case you run into… whoever.”
Melina opened her palm and eyed the ring.
Brooke met her eyes. “I can hold it, if you want,” she said.
Melina shook her head. “Lupe's right, it'll be safer here with her while we search. We'll decide what to do with it later.” She handed the ring to Lupe, who closed her fist around it, nodded and dropped it into her bathrobe pocket. Then she turned to Stormy. “You should come to the kitchen with me. You shouldn't be alone right now.”
The four of them walked into the hallway. Melina and Brook headed down it in opposite directions, each intent on gathering troops to conduct a search. Stormy wasn't worried. Vlad was long gone by now.
But had he been the one to leave the ring with her? How else could it have ended up in her bedroom?
A voice inside asked if she needed to be hit over the head before she accepted the truth. He'd released her from his thrall and kept making love to her, knowing full well that would rouse Elisabeta to life. And then he'd given her the ring to put on. To drive Stormy out, to kill her.
He wanted her dead.
Why did she still want him so much?
She moved as if her legs were made of lead, down the stairs beside Lupe, who glanced nervously behind them and then said, “They know about you, Stormy.”
She was so stunned she almost stumbled. Lupe's strong, tanned arm shot out to steady her. Stormy swallowed and gripped the railing. “They know what?”
“Come on.” Lupe closed a hand around her forearm and picked up the pace, leading her to the bottom of the stairs, then through the mansion and into the oversized kitchen in the back. She ran water into a metal teapot and set it on a burner to heat. Then she reached into a glass cabinet and took out a china teapot, cups and saucers.
“What is it they supposedly know about me, Lupe?” Stormy asked.
“They know about you and Vlad. That he abducted you sixteen years ago, held you for a couple of weeks-time you don't remember. And…” She met Stormy's eyes, searching them and seeming hesitant. Then she gave her head a shake, went to a cabinet and flung open the doors. It was filled with jars, all of them labeled and packed with herbs. She scooped herbs from several of the jars and poured them into a cheesecloth sack with a drawstring closure.
“I'm getting to it, okay? This isn't easy. Saying it out loud sounds freakin' insane. But… they think you're the one. Elisabeta Dracula. Or her reincarnation or something.”
“They think?” Stormy sank into a chair, shaking her head. “And what do you think, Lupe?”
“Damned if I know.” She yanked the drawstring tight and dropped the sack of herbs into the china teapot. “I've seen the portrait-photos of it, at least. In our file on Dracula.”
“You have a file on him?”
She shot Stormy a look that clearly said she wasn't supposed to have revealed that and wasn't going to elaborate. “It would make sense. Him abducting you, I mean. If he thought you were her.”
Stormy lowered her head, shaking it.
“That's why Melina hired your firm to find the ring. She knew she would have a better chance of finding it if you were helping. You have a connection to it. A special interest in it. It's yours, if their theories are true.”
“I promise you, Lupe. I am not Elisabeta Dracula. I'm Tempest Jones.”
“Yeah?” She sighed. “So then how did you get the ring?”
“I don't know.”
The teapot whistled. Lupe grabbed it and poured the steaming water into the china pot. The fragrance of the herbs wafted into the room with the steam. “Okay. So what's on the videotape?”
Stormy's head shot up, her gaze snapping to Lupe's.
“I saw it on the night stand. What is it, anyway? Did it get there the same way the ring did, or… ?”
Stormy held up a hand. “I don't know if I want to discuss the tape. Not… yet, anyway.”
“You don't trust me.” Lupe shrugged. “Can't say I blame you. I mean, you don't know me. And you don't have any clue what I risked to tell you what I just did. If they find out… “
She smiled a little, lowered her head and put the china cover onto the teapot. “It needs to steep for a while.” Then she met Stormy's eyes. “You've got more right to this than anyone else,” she said, taking the ring out of her pocket and holding it up.
Stormy shook her head. “It's safer if you keep it away from me. At least until we destroy it.”
“Oh, we can't destroy it,” Melina said from the doorway.
Both women jerked in surprise and turned her way. Stormy had no idea how long she'd been standing there, how much she might have overheard, nor did Lupe, judging from the look on her face.
“But you told me the ring was dangerous,” Stormy said. “That if it fell into the wrong hands… “
“It is dangerous. But legend has it Elisabeta's soul is somehow bound to that ring. If that's true, we have to set it free. With the ring, we can perform an exorcism. And then we can destroy the ring once and for all.”
She reached out a hand, palm up and open. “Until we can do that, I think it best we put it into the vaults.” She slid her gaze to Lupe's, then back to Stormy's, and it was open and reassuring. She fingered a chain she wore around her neck, tugging it from beneath her blouse. There was a silver key at the end. “I'm the only one with access, Stormy. Nothing will happen to the ring there. I promise.”
Stormy thinned her lips, and finally she nodded. “All right.”
“Good.” Melina kept her hand out, and Lupe put the ring into it. “I'll take it to the vaults right after dawn.”
“Why after dawn?” Stormy asked.
Melina licked her lips. “Just as a precaution.”
That wasn't entirely true. Stormy knew it wasn't. Someone must have seen something. Someone knew Vlad had been there, or maybe Melina was as adept at spotting a lie as Stormy was. Either way, they knew there had been a vampire around, and they were not going to risk him seeing where they put the ring.
“Call us when the tea is ready,” Melina said. “I need to check in with Brooke's group.” She left them, taking the ring with her.
Stormy started to follow, but Lupe stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “You have some time,” she said. “There's a VCR in my room, if you'd like to use it. No one has to know.”
Lupe nodded, leaving Stormy to wonder why the girl was helping her, whether it was a trick, a trap or honest assistance. And then she knew it didn't matter. She was on a path here, and she wasn't going to get off until she found where it led.
Stormy thanked her and headed into the next room after Melina. “Melina, just one thing.”
Melina turned to look at her.
“This… exorcism. Do you know how to perform it?”
Licking her lips, the other woman shook her head. “No.”
“Do you know anyone who does?”
“No, not offhand. But I'm sure we can find someone.”
“You don't need to. I… I know someone. Probably the best-maybe the only-person for the job.”