With my abilities, I'd relived a lot of weddings. I'd also relived enough divorces to know the vow we were about to make had more than a fifty percent chance of failure, but that didn't intimidate me. I'd faced longer odds before, and Vlad was well worth the fight.
He smiled at that: knowing, challenging, and oh so sensual.
"No fight," he murmured. "We are forever now. This first ceremony is only so that you and everyone else know it, too."
First ceremony? I wondered, but then the officiator said, "May we have the rings?" and I froze. With all the activity today, I'd forgotten we didn't have rings. Now what?
To my surprise, Gretchen ascended the dais escorted by Mencheres. The long-haired Egyptian must be Vlad's best man. He handed something to Vlad, and my sister took my bouquet while pressing something into my hand.
I looked down, relieved to see twisting bands of gold forming an unusual-looking ring. Then curiosity had me glancing at Vlad's closed hand. What sort of ring had he gotten me?
"Put the ring on her hand," the officiator stated. "Will you, Vladislav Basarab, take this woman, Leila Dalton, to be your wife . . ."
The words blurred into white noise when I saw the wide gold ring Vlad slid onto my finger, a jeweled dragon emblazoned on its surface. I didn't need Vlad to tell me that this was no replica. I could feel it throbbing from the essences of the ancient princes who'd worn it before me, Vlad included.
He hadn't given me an ordinary diamond ring. He'd given me the royal seal of the Dracul line, resized to fit my finger.
I didn't hear the officiator finish, but Vlad said, "I will," first in English, then in Romanian. The instant roar from the audience startled me out of my shock. Wasn't the cheering supposed to come after both of us said our vows?
Then it was my turn, and I slid the ring onto Vlad's hand while vowing to love, honor, and cherish him. No roar sounded after I was done speaking. In fact, the place went absolutely silent when the officiator stated that if anyone objected to our union, they should speak now or forever hold their peace.
To my relief, neither my father nor Marty said anything. Otherwise, someone in this groom-oriented crowd might have "forever" silenced them on the spot.
Then came the words I never thought to hear - man and wife - followed by a soul-searing kiss I would never forget.
This time, the cheers were deafening.
I found out who ninety-five percent of the guests were while accepting their congratulations. First-generation members of Vlad's line, meaning vampires he'd changed over himself. Apparently, his lineage was so extensive that even his huge house couldn't hold all the vampires his people had changed over, too. From their assortment of accents, Vlad's undead offspring hailed from all over the world. They must have dropped everything to rush here tonight.
Then again, they might have been afraid not to. I couldn't see Vlad taking I was chillaxin' as an acceptable reason to miss his wedding.
The vast number of guests meant I spent the first three hours getting my gloved hand kissed and hearing names I'd never remember. The next hour consisted of sampling bites from a feast so massive the nearby town could eat leftovers for days. Then came an avalanche of toasts, until I had to fake drinking or risk getting hammered at my own wedding.
Gretchen had no such concerns. She'd passed the giggly stage and moved onto is-the-room-spinning-or-is-it-me? phase. My father stayed close, glaring at any undead male who looked twice at her. He hadn't offered a toast, but he was still here.
The gigantic clock struck two a.m. when Vlad rose and held out his hand. I took it, surprised at the cheers that followed. Was that the signal for We're outta here? I hoped so. My energy was starting to wane and I didn't want to spend the last of it here, stunningly lavish though the reception might be.
Vlad laughed low. "Believe me, you won't."
Then he swept me into his arms to the accompaniment of more cheers and quite a few knowing chuckles. I didn't even have a chance to say good night before we were out of the ballroom and up the stairs. Then the hallway was a blur that culminated in a door closing decisively behind us.
I wasn't the one who carried someone over a hundred yards in less than five seconds, yet my heart started to pound anyway. In a reversal of his prior speed, Vlad let my body slide down his, inch by tantalizing inch, as he set me on my feet. All the while he stared at me with an intensity that made words seem insultingly trivial by comparison.
I forgot the thousands of people with supernatural hearing one floor below us. Didn't care that somewhere, a female vampire and other would-be killers were finding out I was alive and that I'd married Vlad. Under the weight of his stare, all of that fell away until there was nothing except the two of us.
Vlad unhooked the gold chain that held his regal scarlet cloak together. It dropped to the floor with a muted thud. I pulled out the clip my veil was attached to and unwound my hair from its bun. The frothy lace fell to my feet at the same pace that my hair spilled over my shoulders.
His hands twined in that dark mass before sliding down to the hidden clasps at my back. I drew in a breath as lace and chiffon were replaced with the searing touch of his fingers. Then I tried to undo his jacket, but my gloves were too cumbersome. I took them off, yet before I could catch the ring that came off with them, Vlad did. Green rolled over his eyes as he slid it onto my bare finger.
Then his hand swept down his chest, the fastenings popping open as if by magic. I only had a second to see the shirt underneath before it, too, was gone and he was naked from the waist up. I drank in the sight of his muscled chest with its dusting of dark hair and numerous scars. Vlad looked like what he was - a warrior who'd hacked his way through battles that would've killed lesser men. Unclothed, his seething masculinity and inherent dangerousness weren't diminished. Instead, they increased, and I'd have it no other way. A groan escaped me as I reached out and touched his hard, heated flesh.
He slid my dress off my shoulders and each sleeve down my arms, leaving me in a bustier, panties, and silk stockings. I wasn't even naked, yet as his gaze moved over me, I felt more exposed than I ever had before. Vlad seemed to stare past my skin into places of my soul that I'd never shared with anyone, and in the space of those moments, he claimed them as his.
I gazed at him with equal possessiveness. Whatever he'd done, whoever he'd been before and whoever he would be in the future, he was mine. If he still had shields over parts of his heart, I'd tear them down or blast them open. You can have all of me, I silently told him, but I'm taking all of you in return.
His smile was sensual and challenging, a dare for me to keep that promise. Then he pulled me into his arms, his bare skin sending shock waves of heat into my flesh. He lifted me, kicking away the fallen dress as his mouth closed over mine.