Prince of Twilight (Page 9)

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Stormy followed Lupe through the mansion into the sunroom that had been added on at the rear, a room that was like a tropical rain forest. Enclosed in glass, filled with plants and trees, fountains and a bubbling hot tub, and paths that wound amid them all. She barely had time to appreciate the ingenious beauty of the indoor paradise before they were exiting through a glass door and heading along another path. This one led through an even larger paradise, an outdoor garden that seemed to cover acres.

The entire area was heady with the almost overpowering scent of countless flowers. Above them, between the colorful limbs of flowering trees, was a broad expanse of sky painted orange and pink by the sunrise. The path they took wound and branched until Stormy wasn't sure she could find her way again without an escort. At the center of the garden, or what Stormy presumed to be the center, stood a giant granite sculpture of the goddess Athena. She stood proudly, an owl on her shoulder, a staff in her hand and a crown of stars encircling her head. Her stone robe flowed from one shoulder to pool around her feet and drape in places over the square base on which she stood. The base had been chiseled with twisting vines, and a few real ones had begun to creep over it. The entire image was utterly amazing.

“My God,” Stormy whispered.

“Goddess, you mean.” Lupe knelt in front of the statue's base, which was at least four feet high, and touched one of the leaves that were carved there. Immediately a part of the base slid outward, along hidden tracks in the ground.

Stormy gasped, shocked. She hadn't even realized there were seams in the granite, they were so cleverly hidden by the pattern of the vines.

“This way,” Lupe said, and she walked into the black void behind the chunk of stone.

Swallowing hard, Stormy followed, and as soon as she stepped inside, the stone slid home again, blocking out any light.

“Stay still a second,” Lupe said. Stormy was sur-prised to feel Lupe's hand, palm flat against her shoulder, as if to ensure she obeyed.

Then there was light, and Stormy blinked in the sudden brightness before she realized Lupe was holding a glow-stick in one hand. Lupe held it out ahead of her, and Stormy saw that they were standing at the top of a set of stairs that vanished downward, into the darkness, plunging deep into the earth.

“You guys take this secrecy shit seriously, don't you?”

“We have to. Follow me.” Lupe started down the stairs.

It was a long flight, with a hundred-yard tunnel at the end of it, and a door at the end of that. When they finally reached the door, Lupe punched a code into a numbered panel mounted to it, and the door opened.

She led Stormy inside, closed the door behind her and hit a switch. A light came on near them, then another and another, each one revealing more of the incredible room they had entered.

Room? It was more like a mini-stadium: huge and round with a concave ceiling. And the entire thing was lined in books. Hundreds-no, thousands-of them. Perhaps tens of thousands. She couldn't even begin to examine titles or subjects; she only got a sense of great age, and that could have come as much from the musty smells of old paper and leather as anything else.

“What is this place?” she asked in a whisper. Because it seemed appropriate to whisper in there.

“The Library of Athena,” Lupe said. “There's barely a subject we can't research here. We have a hundred women employed at a separate facility, transcribing the books into computers, one by one. They don't know who they work for or why they're doing what they are. They just type and save, or scan the ones that are solid enough to withstand it.”

“That's probably wise. If there were ever a fire-“

“There was, once. At our library in Alexandria.”

Stormy blinked, stunned. “That was… ?”

“This way,” Lupe said. She crossed the vast room, and at the far end, she took a book from one of the shelves and reached into the space left behind. The shelf behind her swung open to reveal a hidden doorway. “Follow me.”

Stormy followed her into the shadowy dimness, down another set of steps-a smaller one this time-and at the bottom there was a far smaller room. It was square, and its walls seemed to be made of rows upon rows of small doors in various sizes. One section held tiny doors, another slightly larger ones, and another, still larger ones. Some were tall and narrow, others short and wide. Each one of them had two things in common: a lock and a number.

Two of them were very different from the others. Both were tiny. And both stood wide open.

The room was dark and shadowy; the only light came from the still-open doorway into the stairway. But as Stormy stood there, staring at the two tiny open doors, her mind racing with the possibilities they suggested to her, she heard a moan and tore her eyes away from the little vaults.

“Melina!” Lupe shouted. And then she was darting into a dark corner of the room, falling to her knees beside the limp form that had to be Melina.

Stormy joined her there, kneeling on the other side of the fallen woman. She lay on her back, eyes closed, and the dark blotch on the right side of her forehead looked suspiciously like blood. Stormy touched her cheek, patted it. “Melina. Wake up, come on. Tell us what happened.”

Melina's eyes fluttered. “The ring,” she whispered.

“That's right, the ring. Where is the ring?”

Melina's eyes opened. She tried to focus on Stormy, then on Lupe. Her eyes grew wider. “Oh, God, the ring!” She sat up rapidly, then swayed to one side, but Lupe gripped her shoulders and held her upright.

“Easy, Melina. You're hurt. You're bleeding.”

“Help me up. Hurry.”

Lupe and Stormy flanked her and helped her to stand. As they did, she stumbled a few steps forward and stared at the open doors. Then her hand flew to her neck in search of something. A key, Stormy recalled. She'd worn it on a chain, but it wasn't there.

“The key. God, she took the key.”

“No. Look, it's right here.” Lupe bent and picked up the broken chain with the silver key still on it. “And here are the others.” She scooped up another ring, this one huge, with more keys than Stormy could have counted.

“I don't get it. Look, someone better start explaining some things to me, and fast,” Stormy said. “What happened down here, Melina? And where the hell is Brooke?”

“Brooke.” Melina lowered her head. “Oh, God, Brooke. What the hell is she doing?”

“That's what I'd like to know,” Stormy muttered.

Melina lifted her head, met Stormy's eyes and nodded slowly. “We came down here with the ring. I was going to use my key, the master key, to open vault number one.” She nodded to the first tiny door that stood open. “That's where all the other keys are kept. I'm the only one with the master key.”

As she said it, Lupe replaced the giant key ring in its vault and closed it. She used Melina's silver key to turn the lock, then handed it back to her. Melina eyed the broken chain. “She hit me with something,” she said softly. And she lifted a hand to the back of her head. “I turned around to face her, and she hit me again. I went to my knees, felt her yanking the chain from my neck. She took the master key and… I don't know. I lost consciousness.”

“Where was the ring at that point?” Stormy demanded.

“In my hand.” Melina lifted her hand, opened her palm and blinked at its emptiness, her eyes wet. “I can't believe Brooke would betray me-betray the Sisterhood.”

“She took the ring, didn't she?” Stormy asked.

“She… must have.”

“But why ? What the hell could she want with the ring? Unless it's just the value of it,” Stormy said. “She could sell the stone. It's probably priceless.”

“It's not money she's after,” Lupe said softly. She was staring at the second of the two little doors, the one that still remained open.

“What was in that vault?” Stormy asked.

Lupe looked at Melina, who looked to the open door. Her face changed. It was overcome with some-thing that looked a lot like fear. She moved closer and peered inside, but clearly there was nothing there.

“What was in that compartment?” Stormy demanded.

Melina pursed her lips.

“I can only guess,” Lupe said. “But if it was what I think it was…” She turned to her mentor. “It was, wasn't it? We have to tell her, Melina.”

Sighing, Melina lowered her head. “The rite.”

“The… rite?” It took a moment for the meaning of the words to sink into Stormy's brain, and when they did, she damn near gaped. “The rite that's supposed to be used with the ring? The one that's supposed to restore Elisabeta to life? It's been here all along? And now Brooke has it?”

“It looks that way, yes.” Melina closed the door. She didn't lock it.

“But why? Why the hell would you keep something like that from me?” Stormy demanded.

Melina averted her eyes. “You're an employee, hired to find the ring. You had no need to know-“

“Don't give me that bullshit, Melina. You knew about my connection to that ring and to Elisabeta. That's why you hired me. My fucking life is in the rifle sights here, and you had the only bullet. You should have told me.”

“It wouldn't have mattered.”

“No? You don't think so? It's my life, Melina. Shouldn't that have been my call?”

Melina sighed. “I'm sorry, Stormy. I did what I thought was best. I hope you can believe that.”

“Yeah. What was best for you and your damned Sisterhood, maybe.”

Melina only shook her head. “Let's get back to the manse. We've got to get to the bottom of this.”

“You're damn right we do,” Stormy said.

Brooke sat in a darkened room in an empty house a few miles away from Athena House. The torn, ragged remnants of curtains that remained in the windows were drawn as tightly as they could be, dimming the early morning light. The only other source of illumination came from the flickering candle that stood on the small round table before her. The other items on the table included a round slab of balsa wood, on which was painted a series of letters and numbers, an upside down wine glass, a pad and a pen.

Brooke had two more items to add. She took them from her pockets now and laid them within the pool of light at the base of the candle. The carefully rolled parchment, bound by a length a yellow ribbon, and the ruby ring. The Ring of the Impaler.

She took a few deep breaths and placed her fingertips on the bottom of the wineglass. “Elisabeta Dracula, I am calling you. Speak to me, Elisabeta. I've done as you asked the last time I contacted you. I have the ring and the scroll.”

At first nothing happened. But Brooke was patient. The reward Elisabeta had promised her was enough to instill patience in her. She repeated her words and waited some more. Eventually she felt a breeze rush into the room. She saw it in the way the candle flame flickered, felt it icy cold on her face. She closed her eyes as was her custom. The wineglass began to move, only slightly at first, but then its motions grew stronger, until it was gliding over the smooth balsa wood in sweeping arcs and circles. When it stopped, Brooke opened her eyes to look and see what letter the glass covered, wrote it down and began again.

The spirit board spelled out: G-O-O-D.

“What do you want me to do now?”

G-E-T the spirit spelled. Brooke took one hand from the glass to jot down the letters of her target. The glass was moving quickly now, and in a far more agitated manner than it had before. T-E-M-P-E-S-T.

“And do what with her?”

P-U-T-R-I-

Brooke frowned at the letters and kept scribbling as fast as she could, even while keeping one hand on the glass, which was flying over the board now. It barely paused on one letter long enough for her to ascertain which one it indicated before sliding to the next.

N-G-O-N-H-E-R

Brooke's pencil fell from her hand and rolled to the floor. She bent to get it, removing her other hand from the wineglass to reach for it, snatched the pencil up and reached for the glass again.

And then she just sat there, staring. Because the wineglass was moving again, still spelling. All by itself-she wasn't even touching it.

A door slammed, but no one was there.

P-A-Y-A-T-T-E-N-T-I-ON

“I'm sorry. You… go ahead.” She looked at the notepad and read what she had written there. PUTRINGONHER. Put ring on her.

“You want me to get Stormy Jones and put the ring on her finger. Yes? But she's not going to let me do that, Elisabeta.”

F-O-R-C-E

“Yes, yes, I understand.”

P-E-R-F-O-R-M-R-I-T-E

Brooke nodded, but disappointment was rushing through her now. There was still nothing about her, not a word about how Elisabeta would keep her promise to grant Brooke the gift of immortality in repayment for her help.

“I understand,” Brooke repeated. “I take her, put the ring on her and perform the rite. By force, if necessary. It's very simple.” She cleared her throat. “And after I do all this, assuming I can pull it off, what happens then?”

I-L-I-V-E

“I got that, Elisabeta, but what I want to know is, what happens to me? You promised me immortality. So when do I get it. And how?”

A-F-T-E-R

Brooke frowned, disappointment washing through her. She didn't trust this Elisabeta, had suspected a trick from the beginning. “No,” she said slowly. “No, I don't think so. You need to tell me now. Tell me how it's going to work or the deal's off.”

The icy wind returned, blowing harder now than before. It blew so hard that a shutter slammed outside the house and the door burst open. The candle went out, and the wind kept coming.

Brooke rose to her feet. “I'm not asking you to do anything. Just tell me, that's all. Tell me how it can happen!”

The wind increased. Her hair whipped, tugged against her scalp and tangled in the air. The candle tipped over and rolled across the floor. But there was no response from the board.

“You were one of The Chosen, Elisabeta. But I'm not. So how can I gain immortality? How is it possible?”

Still nothing.

“At least tell me this much, Elisabeta,” Brooke shouted into the wind. “Why does it have to be Tempest's body? She's not one of The Chosen either. So why her? Why?”

The wineglass shattered, exploding outward as if some unseen force inside it had expanded all at once. Brooke jumped, emitting an abbreviated shriek of alarm. Then the wind died utterly. The entire house went silent, still as a tomb. Elisabeta was gone.

Brooke calmed herself and went through the house, opening the ragged curtains, putting everything back the way it had been before. “I don't think I trust this bitch,” she said slowly, thinking aloud. “I think she's promising me the one thing she knows I want more than anything else just to get me to help her return to the land of the living.”

“Well, I'll be damned if I'll let her give my reward to Stormy Jones when I'm the one doing all the work to earn it.”

As she picked up the pieces of the broken wineglass, then tucked the spirit board, the candle and the scroll into the small bag she'd brought along, she mulled everything over in her mind. Clearly Elisabeta knew how to make an ordinary mortal immortal. She must know, because she would have to do that very thing to Tempest Jones once she took control of her body. Otherwise she would just end up dead again in a few years. But she'd been very clear about her goals. She wanted to return to life to reclaim the vampire she loved, and then to live with him forever.

Tempest did not have the Belladonna Antigen. She was not one of The Chosen.

So there had to be a way. But if Elisabeta succeeded, then what reason would she have to make Brooke immortal, as well, as she had promised to do? What was to stop her from using Brooke to get what she wanted and then just ditching her, leaving her high and dry?

Brooke wanted immortality for herself. She craved it. Sought it. Had risked everything to get it, and this was not the first time. She would do whatever it took.

There was one last item to put away. She picked the ring up from the small table and looked at it. Smiling slowly, she slid it onto her finger.

“Well, will you look at that?” she whispered. “It's a perfect fit. Maybe we'll just try doing this my way, Elisabeta. What do you think about that?”

Still wearing the ring, she took the scroll from the bag, carefully loosened the ribbon that bound it and unrolled it. She would perform the rite, just as Elisabeta demanded. She would just make one little substitution. “Now,” she said as she read, “let's just see what we need for the ritual.”

When they helped her back into the house, Melina refused to go to her room, heading instead toward the breakfast room, where a dozen or more women were sitting around, sipping coffee and munching fruit and pastries.

They went dead silent, every eye on Melina. And no wonder, Stormy thought. She was a mess. “We've been compromised by one of our own,” Melina said. “That puts us all at risk. We're going to Plan Q. Immediately. Don't delay, unless you know something that might help me trace Brooke.”

There was a collective gasp when she said Brooke's name. No wonder. She had been second in command here.

“Move,” Melina said.

And the women scattered, just like that, heading out of the room like a bunch of third graders in a fire drill.

“So what's Plan Q?” Stormy asked.

“Quit the premises. They'll be cleared out of here in twenty minutes, along with their notes, any personal items that might identify them as part of the Sisterhood, their computers, every sign they were ever here.”

Stormy raised her brows. “Impressive.”

“We drill for this,” Melina said. “Though I never thought it would happen for real. Never.” She blinked what might have been fresh tears from her eyes. “Where's Lupe?”

As soon as she asked the question, Lupe appeared with a first-aid kit in one hand and an ice pack in the other. Melina held up a hand, shook her head. “We don't have time for that.”

“Yeah, we do. You'll be more useful without that blood running in your eyes every time you frown too hard. Sit down.”

Melina sighed, but she sat. “We need to search Brooke's room. And her laptop. We need to go over it, as well. And-“

“And we will.” Lupe handed Melina the ice pack. “Press that to the lump on the back of your head. I'll deal with the front.” Melina obeyed as Lupe opened the kit, took out a gauze pad and soaked it in antiseptic. Then she began dabbing at the wound on the front of Melina's head.

Stormy was still furious, but she needed action, not anger. For now. But she also needed reason. None of this made any sense. For a while she'd thought Brooke might be the one who stole the ring, but why would she leave it in Stormy's own room, only to steal it all over again?

She remembered the tape, the one Vlad had brought her. She had yet to view it. “I need to change clothes,” she said. “And then I'll… meet you in Brooke's room.”

“Wait for us in the hall,” Melina said. “Don't go into her room on your own.”

Stormy stared at her, not believing the woman was still issuing orders. But she was not one of the Sisterhood's devoted little robots. “I'm not waiting for anyone. If you're not there when I'm ready, I'll start without you. But before I go, there's something you probably should know. I put in a call this morning to a woman I thought could help us in exorcising Elisabeta's spirit and freeing it from the ring's hold over it. She'll be here tonight.”

Lupe paused in dabbing at Melina's head and turned to search her face.

“Who?” Melina asked.

“A vampiress by the name of Rhiannon.” Their eyes widened, and Stormy felt a rush of satisfaction. “Yeah, I thought you might know her. She sure as hell knows you. I have to say, I'm rather interested to hear what she knows.”

She turned and left the room, then headed up the stairs against the tide of women coming down, bearing backpacks, suitcases, duffel bags. It was a mass exodus. And it was fast and orderly.

By the time she reached the second floor, the stairs were clear, and she could hear vehicles outside, doors and trunks slamming, gears shifting and motors humming.

Stormy went to her room, thrust her hand under the mattress and pulled out the videotape. Answers. She needed answers, and she needed them now. Privately. She was no longer so sure she could trust Melina and the Sisterhood. Certainly Rhiannon didn't. Maybe she had good reason. She'd certainly been right about Brooke.

She took the time to change her clothes, discarding the nightgown in favor of jeans, a T-shirt, a pair of ankle socks and her teal and green running shoes.

She took the tape with her to Lupe's room, and barely took time to notice the darkly stained woodwork and earthy green bedding and drapes, before she spotted the tiny, outdated TV-VCR combo on a stand in one corner. She closed the door and turned the lock-she wanted privacy for this. At least until she knew what she was going to find. She realized that she was trying to protect Vlad, even though he was most likely trying to help Elisabeta kill her. And that, more than anything else, told her what she was expecting to find on the tape.

She was a fool where he was concerned.

Stormy put the video into the slot, hit the Power button, pushed Play and watched as a slightly snowy image of the ring in its display case filled the screen. The time stamp in the lower right corner read nine p.m. According to the police reports, the alarms had sounded around 1 a.m., so she located a remote, sat on the bed, and hit the Fast Forward button. Then she waited and watched the time stamp until she got close.

Finally she hit Play again, set the remote aside and leaned forward on the bed, her eyes glued to the screen.

Right on cue, she saw something. Bits of something flying into the frame. Glass, she realized. The museum's window had just been broken. And a moment later, a small form stepped into reach of the camera's eye.

Not a vampire. Vampires didn't show up in photos or on videotape. This form was mortal, and clearly a woman. Small and slight. She wore a black turtleneck, with a little black knit cap covering her hair. She kept her face turned away from the camera, and she didn't waste any time. She yanked the plexiglass cube from the display, took the ring from its tiny pedestal, dropped it into her jeans pocket, and then turned right back toward the window and walked out of the frame. For just an instant, as she moved off the side of the television screen, Stormy glimpsed the full length of her, from her head to her teal and green running shoes.

She caught her breath. Groping for the remote, eyes still on the screen, she rewound, stopped, then played the tape again, but this time she hit the Pause button at the moment when those shoes appeared, ever so briefly.

Teal and green Nike Shocks.

She rose to her feet and stared down at her own shoes. Teal and green. Nike Shocks. She'd bought them for running.

“It's not possible,” she whispered. “I couldn't have… “

But even as she said it, she remembered how she'd fallen asleep in the bathtub at the hotel that night but awakened in the bed. She remembered the clothes she didn't think she'd worn, littering the floor in the morning, and the way her car hadn't been in the garage where the valet had parked it.

She closed her eyes, disbelieving even now. But she knew she couldn't deny what was being shown to her in black and white. And as she watched the entire theft again, she recognized her own form, her own clothes. But not quite her own stance and stride and manner. She had taken the ring. But she hadn't been the one in control when it happened.

“Elisabeta,” she whispered.

She pressed her hands to her head and fell back onto Lupe's bed, closing her eyes. And even as she did, a flood of memories came. Memories she had thought were lost to her forever.

“This is the place,” Vlad said in a voice that was oddly hoarse. He'd taken her to the mouth of a cave near the edge of the falls, below the Romanian cliffs where Stormy had found herself only a short time ago, shown her the cave where Elisabeta had helped him find shelter for the night, and now he had brought her to the place where the two had consummated their love, all in an effort to make her remember. To become Elisabeta.

She only wanted to get to the truth and be rid of the woman.

“I had gone to the cliffs that night for the same reason Elisabeta had,” Vlad told her. “To end my life. Oh, I wouldn't have flung myself from the top, as she did. I planned to await the sunrise there by the falls, the most powerful place I knew. But when I saw her, when she pitched herself from the brink, I felt compelled to save her.”

“And so you did?” she asked.

He nodded. “I propelled myself like a missile, through the air, and wrapped myself around her to break her fall before we hit the rocks and water below.”

Stormy didn't really look at the spot where he'd stopped walking. She was looking at him instead, and seeing what he tried to keep hidden: a pain that was almost beyond endurance. It was in everything about him. His walk had become less the powerful, confident stride she'd grown used to. His usual stance-shoulders broad, back straight and chin high-had softened, as if the steel inside him were gradually melting. And his eyes-the hurt that roiled in his eyes was something even he couldn't disguise.

“I was injured, broken. She helped me into the cave, stayed with me there, and I told her my secrets. Told her what I was, what she was. One of The Chosen. I told her I could cure the illness that was taking her life, but only if she would be mine forever. And she agreed.”

“So two suicide cases meet one night and decide to get married? Vlad, don't you see how messed up that is? You didn't even know each other, and neither of you was in your right mind.”

He glared at her. “No one has ever questioned my sanity, Tempest.” The tone held a warning.

“Sane people don't kill themselves, Vlad.”

“You have no idea what it's like to live for thousands of years. To live alone.”

“No, I don't, that's true. But I know lots of vampires, Vlad, and most of them aren't walking into the sunrise, no matter how old they are.”

Forcing herself to tear her gaze from him, she looked at where he'd brought her after the cave. It was a tiny grove of trees, with a circular patch of wildflowers and grasses amid them. It was private, quiet and beautiful. And she knew it was the place where he and Elisabeta had consummated their love.

One night. It was all they'd had.

Moved to tears herself, she put a hand on Vlad's shoulder. “I'm sorry this is so difficult for you.”

He swung his gaze toward her. “Don't pity me, Tempest. I don't want that from you. All I want-“

“Is for me to remember. I know.” She licked her lips and stared at the area around her, but no memories came. Nothing was familiar. “Has it changed much?”

“The trees are bigger. Some have died.” He nodded toward rotting black stumps amid the stand of hardwoods. “Others have sprung up to take their place,” he said, pointing out the spindly saplings that arched their backs as if standing up straight were too much of an effort. “Other than that, no. It's almost exactly the same.” He brought his gaze back to hers, searched her eyes. “Don't you remember anything? Anything at all?”

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I don't.”

“You have to. You will.”

She saw the desperation in his eyes just before he reached for her, and felt a quick jolt that might have been fear, or maybe desire. Or some twisted mix of the two. She didn't have time to analyze it, because he pulled her hard against his chest, snapped his arms around her, one hand going to the back of her head to keep her from turning away. And then he was kissing her.

And, God help her, she loved it. Wanted it-and more.

He opened his mouth over hers, then closed it slightly, as if he were devouring her taste. And when he used his tongue, she went hot right to her toes. Every coherent thought, every rational argument that this was a bad idea, fled her mind. The only thing that remained was sensation. The way he made her feel: wanted, desired beyond reason. It was heady, and it was too powerful to resist. That this man, who could have any woman he wanted, wanted her. And she wanted him, too. Had, from the moment she'd set eyes on him, and maybe even before that.

She twisted her arms around his neck and opened to him, kissed him as passionately, as hungrily, as he was kissing her. God, it was going to be so good. So incredibly, unbelievably good.

He laid her down in the grass, pushing the nightgown from her shoulders, baring her breasts to the night, to him. He slid a hand between her shoulder blades to hold her up to him. And then he kissed her breasts, suckled them, gently at first, but with growing hunger, until he was nipping and tugging, making her gasp and pant and arch her back.

Lowering her down, he slid over her, his mouth moving over her collarbones, his lips tasting her neck. She tipped her chin up to give him room and whispered, “God, Vlad, I want you so much.”

“And I want you, Elisabeta.”

It was like being doused in ice water. She went stiff, then drove her hands between them and shoved at his chest.

He stopped kissing her and lifted his head, his eyes glowing with passion and beginning to cloud with confusion. She could feel how aroused he was-he was hard and pressing against her thigh.

“Get off.” She shoved him again.

“Tempest-“

“Exactly. I'm Tempest. I'm Stormy Jones. But that's not who you were making love to just now, is it, Vlad? That's not the woman you want. It's her. Elisabeta. Not me.”

“You can be her. You will be. Don't you see that?”

“No. No, I'm not, never was and never will be. She's trying to take over my body without my permission, and just now, Vlad, you came damn close to doing the same thing. Using me so you could have her, or fool yourself into believing you had her. You don't want me at all, do you?”

He rose slowly, pushed a hand through his hair, paced away from her. “If I've hurt you, I'm sorry.”

“No one hurts me,” she said, sitting up and tugging her nightgown over her. “I'm way too tough for that, Vlad, so don't beat yourself up over it. I'm not some needy suicide case like your child bride was. Not even close.” She got to her feet and started off through the forest.

“The castle is this way, Tempest.”

Leave it to Dracula to ruin the perfect, pissed off, overly dramatic exit, she thought. Worst of all, if she turned around now, he was sure to see her tears. Because despite her denials, he had hurt her. Way more than made any sense whatsoever. She was an idiot where he was concerned.

“I need a minute. Go on ahead. I'll catch up.”

“There are wolves.”

“Yeah, well, I'm good and pissed off, so if they know what's good for them, they'll keep their distance.” She strode off into the trees, just far enough to give herself the privacy to wipe the tears away. She waved a hand to create what she hoped was a drying breeze and blinked to get rid of any residual moisture. And she breathed, deeply and slowly, to try to convince her tight airways to open up a bit.

Finally she turned and, holding her head up, walked back to where she'd left him. And found him waiting there… with another woman.

She turned, and Stormy blinked as the question rolled from her lips. “Rhiannon?”

Rhiannon frowned at her, then shot her eyes back to Vlad. “You've made her cry already?”

“No one makes me cry,” Stormy denied.

Rhiannon gave an exaggerated toss of her long, jet-black hair. She wore a floor-length dress that hugged her willowy form's every curve and might have been made of velvet. “This one could make the sphinx weep. There's no shame in it.” Then she dismissed Vlad with a wave of her hand and turned to face Stormy. “I heard you'd been abducted by the Prince of Darkness himself. Thought I'd better… see for myself.”

“I never knew you cared,” Stormy muttered.

Rhiannon lifted her brows at the sarcasm in her voice. “I don't, particularly. But you happen to be one of those rare mortals I would, on occasion, lift a finger to help.” She examined her own nails as she said it. They were long and bloodred. “Given that you're a friend of several of my dearest friends, I couldn't just leave you to fend for yourself.”

“Fending for myself is what I do best.”

“Maybe so. You do have a reputation for being tough-for a human. But be realistic, Stormy. It's not as if you could hold your own against Dracula.”

“You might be surprised,” Vlad said softly.

Rhiannon glanced his way, and when she looked at Stormy again, it was with speculation in her eyes. “Then perhaps I've come to rescue the wrong party? No matter. Vlad, could we please have this conversation in more appropriate surroundings? Traipsing through the wilds of Romania collecting nettles in the hem of my Givenchy gown is not my idea of a happy reunion.”

“If I'd known you were coming-“

“Which begs the question, why didn't you? You're getting slow, Vlad. Not to sense another vampire making her way to you? It's disturbing. Makes me wonder just what has you so thoroughly… distracted.”

He didn't reply, just began walking back toward the castle.