"Why?" he asked with even more emphasis.
I blinked. "Because she was getting away."
His grip tightened while a wave of frustration and another, far stronger emotion washed over me.
"When I heard the ghouls coming for you, all I cared about was reaching you in time. How often must I tell you that you mean more to me than vengeance? I can live without defeating my enemies, but I cannot live without you."
Before I could respond, he crushed me to him, his mouth covering mine in a blistering kiss. I forgot that I was covered in blood, dirt, and rat hair. Didn't care that a roomful of people were watching, or about anything else. I kissed him back with all the relief I felt at being alive to do so. Now that the fight was over, all the fear I'd held back came rushing forth, reminding me how close I'd come to losing everything. Vlad was right. Enemies would come and go and battles would be won or lost, but nothing mattered more than what we had. Everything else was replaceable.
When he finally drew away, slow tears were running down my cheeks. "I love you," I whispered.
He brushed them away, a sardonic smile twisting his mouth. "And I love you, which is why I intend to lock you inside the house as soon as we're home."
I let out a watery chuckle. "You won't need to. I'll gladly stay put."
Then I fingered my Kevlar vest, the only thing on me that hadn't been chewed or ripped to shreds.
"This was a good idea. I must suck at being a covert operative. Cynthiana took one look at me and started shooting."
The smile he flashed me reminded me of the fire that was so much a part of him - alluring yet deadly, consuming and yet quicksilver.
"It was her determination to kill you that doomed her. When she bewitched the tunnel-dwelling ghouls into a mindless murdering state, she cut off her exit behind her, leaving her nowhere to run except straight to me."
I turned and stared at Cynthiana with a surge of coldness I hadn't known I was capable of. "Time to take her home, and I hope you have a pole with her name on it."
A few of Vlad's men stayed behind to make sure any ghouls who survived the fire didn't make their way to the Metro stations and try to eat the innocent commuters. The rest of us returned to his house via helicopters. As soon as we landed, I followed him and Cynthiana's guard entourage into the dungeon. After being covered in enough rats to give me screaming nightmares, I might long for a shower more intensely than Midas had coveted gold, but I was seeing this through.
Vlad ordered Cynthiana chained onto the large stone monolith. Then he had Shrapnel brought in from the other side of the dungeon to be restrained next to her. He'd done his best to kill me, and yet I couldn't help but feel a twinge of pity at the grief in his expression when he saw her. Cynthiana, on the other hand, didn't seem to be at all upset over her lover's predicament. In fact, her gaze passed over him in a manner that could only be described as annoyed.
"He really was just a pawn to you, wasn't he?" I asked in repugnance.
She didn't answer, of course. Despite being captured, gagged with silver, and facing a truly horrible future, Cynthiana wasn't cowed. Her gaze flicked over me in the way women perfected when they wanted to raze your self-esteem without saying a word, yet all I did was smile wide enough to show my new fangs. I might be covered in filth, blood, and rat hair, but a centuries-old vampire had nothing on the belittling looks I'd received while attending high school with a zigzagging scar, a limp, and the growing ability to shock anyone who touched me.
"Did I mention it was nice to see you again?" I almost purred. "Though you don't remember the first time we met, do you?"
The look Vlad shot me was almost as surprised as hers. Then he went over to Cynthiana, ripping the silver from her mouth.
"If you utter one word of magic, I'll fill you with enough silver to drive you mad before dawn."
Cynthiana stared at Vlad for a long, silent moment before she looked my way dismissively.
"I don't know what you're talking about, dearie. I've never seen you before tonight."
"I don't blame you for forgetting. You were busy staring at a young girl named Dawn who was performing under my stage name. You thought she was me, and that's why you detonated the bomb right after she went into our trailer."
Now her gaze raked over me with calculated intensity. "You used your hair and a hat to cover your scar," she said at last.
"Habit. Now, let's see what your worst sin is."
With luck, it would lead us to whoever else she was working with. I came toward her and she recoiled as much as her restraints allowed.
"Don't touch me."
I didn't reply, but grabbed her arm with my right hand. Only a faint current of electricity slid into her. I'd used most of it up on the ghouls she'd sent to kill me.
Then the dungeon disappeared, morphing into a room that didn't look much different because it consisted entirely of stone walls. It seemed familiar, yet what I experienced next made me forget about that. By the time those surroundings faded and I was mentally back at the stone monolith, I snatched my hand away.
"You sick bitch," I breathed.
"What?" Vlad asked instantly.
I stared at Cynthiana with loathing. "She needed a fireproofing spell, but she wasn't strong enough to do it without crossing into the darkest kind of magic. So she did."
And that magic had required the highest price: lifeblood of a newborn. I'd seen many terrible things through my abilities, but I'd never seen something as brutal as that.
"A fireproofing spell?" Vlad repeated. "Did you think that was the only defense you needed against me?"
She said nothing to that.
Then Vlad sighed. "I know you, Cynthiana. You would never cross me without a protector, so tell me who he is. Refuse, and I'll find out after you've experienced more agony than you can imagine."
She glanced away. "I have no protector."
He laughed in that scary, humorless way.
"Yes you do, although you betrayed him because he wanted Leila alive."
Why would Vlad think that? Every message Cynthiana sent Shrapnel after the bombing had been demands for him to kill me.
Then I remembered what Hannibal said after he'd kidnapped me. You're worth three times as much alive. Dead was the only way Cynthiana wanted me, so Vlad was right. Someone else had been pulling her strings at least part of the time.
She glanced at me. The pure loathing in her gaze I expected; the fear, I didn't. After Vlad's threat, why would she be afraid of me? I'd already done all I could, though finding out her worst sin had revealed only revolting information, not useful -