For someone who had preached to Denis about impulse control, I wasn’t setting a very good example.Once left alone in the suite, I continued trying everything possible to get out-emphasis on the “try” part.
Nathan had acted like keeping a prisoner was a rare thing, but from what I could tell, this place had been built to hold people in.The door and window remained impassible, no matter how hard I beat at them or threw objects against them.
I didn’t bother with the chair this time and instead used one of the living room’s end tables, hoping it would carry some extra heft. It didn’t. When that didn’t work, I actually tried entering random codes into the door’s keypad. Also useless.
Finally, exhausted, I collapsed onto the leather sofa and tried to assess my options. The process didn’t take very long. I was trapped in a house full of Strigoi. Okay, I didn’t know that for sure, but I knew there were at least three here, which was far too many for me. Dimitri had referred to this place as an “estate,” which I didn’t find comforting. Estates were big. The fact that I appeared to be on the fourth floor was proof of that. A big place meant that there could be lots of room for lots of vampires.
The one comfort I had was that Strigoi didn’t cooperate very well. Finding large groups of them working together was rare. I’d observed it a couple of times-the attack on the Academy being one such occasion. They’d come then because the school’s wards had dropped, and that had been a big enough incentive for the Strigoi to unite. Even when they did try to work together, the unions were usually short-lived. The friction I’d observed between Dimitri and Nathan was proof of that.
I closed my eyes. Dimitri was the reason I was here. I’d come to free him from this state of living death and had promptly failed, just as he’d said.
Now, it appeared I might be on the verge of joining him. Yeah, good job, Rose. I shivered, trying to imagine myself as one of them. Red rings around my pupils. Tanned skin gone pale. I couldn’t picture it, and I supposed I’d never have to actually see myself if it happened. Strigoi cast no reflections. It would make doing my hair a real pain in the ass.
The scariest change of all would be within, the loss of my connection to my soul. Both Dimitri and Nathan had been cruel and antagonistic. Even if I hadn’t been around to start the fight, it probably wouldn’t have taken long for them to find some other reason to turn on each other. I was combative, but it was always driven by some passion for others. Strigoi fought because they relished the bloodshed. I didn’t want to be like that, seeking blood and violence because I enjoyed it.
I didn’t want to believe that of Dimitri either, but his actions had already branded him as a Strigoi. I also knew what he had to have been eating this whole time to survive. Strigoi could go longer without blood than Moroi, but it had been over a month since he was turned. There was no question he had fed, and Strigoi almost always killed their victims to eat. I couldn’t picture that of Dimitri… not the man I’d known.
I opened my eyes. The topic of feeding had brought my lunch to mind. Pizza and brownies. Two of the most perfect foods on the planet. The pizza had long gone cold during my escape efforts, but as I stared at the plate, both it and the brownie looked delicious. If the outside light was any indication, it hadn’t been a full twenty-four hours since Dimitri had caught me, but it was getting pretty close. That was a long time to go without food, and I wanted to eat that pizza badly, cold or not. I didn’t really want to starve to death.
Of course, I didn’t want to become Strigoi either, but this situation was quickly running away from what I wanted. Starvation took a long time, and I suspected Dimitri was right: he’d turn me long before I had a chance to truly starve. I’d have to find some other way to die-God, not that I wanted that at all-and in the meantime, I decided I might as well keep up my strength on the feeble chance I might be able to escape.
Once the decision was made, I gobbled down the food in about three minutes. I had no idea who Strigoi hired to do their cooking-hell, Strigoi couldn’t even eat regular food, unlike Moroi-but it was fantastic. Some wry part of me noted that I’d been given food that required no silverware.
They really had thought of every possible way I might get my hands on a weapon. My mouth was full of my last giant bite of brownie when the door suddenly opened. Inna slipped deftly inside, the door shutting almost immediately.
“Son of a bitch!” Or at least I tried to say that through my mouthful of food. While I’d been debating whether to eat or not, I should have been staking out the door. Dimitri had said Inna would check in on me. I should have been waiting to overpower her. Instead, she’d gotten in while I wasn’t paying attention. Once again, I’d slipped up.
Just like when she was around Dimitri and Nathan, Inna made very little eye contact. She held a pile of clothes in her arms and paused in front of me, holding them out. Uncertain, I took them from her and set them beside me on the couch.
“Um, thanks,” I said.
Pointing at the empty tray, she actually glanced up at me shyly, a question in her brown eyes. Seeing her straight on, I was surprised at how pretty she was. She might even have been younger than me, and I wondered how she’d ended up being forced to work here.
Understanding her query, I nodded.
She picked the tray up and waited a moment. I wasn’t sure why; then it occurred to me she must be waiting to see if I wanted anything else. I was pretty sure “the combination to the lock” wouldn’t translate very well. I shrugged and waved her off, my mind spinning as I watched her approach the door. I should wait for her to open the door and then jump her, I thought. Immediately, a gut reaction sprang up in me, hesitation at striking out at an innocent. Another thought squashed that one: It’s me or her. I tensed.
Inna pressed herself close to the door as she punched in the combination, effectively blocking my view. Judging by how long she was punching in numbers, the code appeared to be pretty long. The door clicked open, and I braced myself to act. Then-I decided against it at the last moment.
For all I knew, there could be an army of Strigoi out there. If I was going to use Inna to escape, I probably only had one opportunity. I needed to make it count. So, instead of leaping up, I shifted slightly so that I could see beyond her. She was just as fast as before, slipping out as soon as the door unlocked. But in that moment, I caught a glimpse of a short corridor and what looked like another heavy door.
Interesting. Double doors on my prison. If I did follow her, that would prevent me from making an immediate escape. She could simply wait by the other locked door, holding out until Strigoi backup showed up. That made things more difficult, but understanding the setup at least gave me a spark of hope. I just needed to figure out what to do with this information, provided I hadn’t screwed myself by not acting now. For all I knew, Dimitri was about to walk in and turn me into a Strigoi.
I sighed. Dimitri, Dimitri, Dimitri.
Looking down, I took the time to actually see what she’d brought me. My current attire wasn’t bothering me, but if I stayed here much longer, my jeans and T-shirt were going to get pretty gross.
Like Tamara, someone wanted to dress me up.
The clothes Inna had brought were all dresses and all in my size. A red silk sheath. A long-sleeved, form-fitting knit dress edged in satin. An empire-waist, ankle-length chiffon gown.
“Oh, great. I’m a doll.”
Digging deeper into the stack, I discovered there were a few nightshirts and nightgowns tucked in there-as well as some underwear and bras. All of those were satin and silk. The most casual item in the whole lot was a forest-green sweater dress, but even it was made of the softest cashmere.
I held it up, trying to imagine myself making a daring escape in it. Nope. With a shake of my head, I heedlessly tossed all of the clothes onto the floor. Looked like I’d be wearing grungy clothes for a while.
I paced around after that, turning over futile escape plans that I’d already spun around in my head a million times. In walking, I realized how tired I was. Aside from the blackout when Dimitri had hit me, I hadn’t slept in over a day. Deciding how to handle this was like deciding how to deal with the food. Let down my guard or not? I needed strength, but each concession I made put me more at risk.
At last, I gave in, and as I lay down on the massive bed, an idea suddenly occurred to me. I wasn’t totally without help. If Adrian came to visit me in my sleep, I could tell him what had happened. True, I’d told him to stay away last time, but he’d never listened to me before. Why should this time be any different? I focused on him as hard as I could while I waited for sleep to come, as though my thoughts might act as some sort of bat signal and summon him.
It didn’t work. There was no visit in my dreams, and when I woke up, I was surprised at just how much that hurt me. Despite Adrian’s infatuation with Avery, I couldn’t help but recall how kind he’d been to Jill the last time I saw them. He was worried about Lissa, too, and he’d displayed none of his usual carefree bravado. He’d been serious and… well, sweet. A lump formed in my throat. Even if I had no romantic interest in him, I’d still treated him badly. I’d lost both our friendship and any chance of calling for help through him.
The soft rustling of paper snapped me from my musings and I jerked upright. Someone was in the living room, his back to me as he sat on the couch, and it took me only a moment to recognize who. Dimitri.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, climbing out of bed. In my groggy state, I hadn’t even registered the nausea.
“Waiting for you to wake up,” he said, not bothering to turn around. He was overly confident in my inability to inflict damage-as well he should have been.
“Sounds kind of boring.”
I walked into the living room, moving myself far to the side of him and leaning against the wall. I crossed my arms over my chest, again taking comfort in that meaningless protective posture.
“Not so boring. I had company.”
He glanced over at me and held up a book. A western. I think that shocked me almost as much as his altered appearance. There was something so … normal about it all. He’d loved western novels when he was a dhampir, and I’d often teased him about wanting to be a cowboy. Somehow, I’d imagined that hobby would go away when he turned. Irrationally hopeful, I studied his face as though I might see some radical change, like maybe he’d turned back to the way he’d been while I slept. Maybe the last month and a half had been a dream.
Nope. Red eyes and a hard expression looked back at me. My hopes shattered.
“You slept for a long time,” he added. I dared a quick look at the window. Totally black. It was nighttime. Damn. I’d only wanted a two-hour power nap. “And you ate.”
The amusement in his voice grated at me. “Yeah, well, I’m a sucker for pepperoni. What do you want?”
He placed a bookmark in the book and set it on the table. “To see you.”
“Really? I thought your only goal was to make me one of the living dead.”
He didn’t acknowledge that, which was a bit frustrating. I hated feeling like what I had to say was being ignored. Instead, he tried to get me to sit down.
“Aren’t you tired of always standing?”
“I just woke up. Besides, if I can spend an hour tossing furniture around, a little standing isn’t that big a deal.”
I didn’t know why I was throwing out my usual witty quips. Honestly, considering the situation, I should have just ignored him. I should have stayed silent instead of playing into this game. I guess I kind of hoped that if I made the jokes I used to, I’d get some kind of response from the old Dimitri. I repressed a sigh. There I was again, forgetting Dimitri’s own lessons. Strigoi were not the people they used to be.
“Sitting’s not that big a deal either,” he replied. “I told you before, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“?®Hurt’ is kind of a subjective term.” Then, in a sudden decision to seem fearless, I walked over and sat in the armchair across from him. “Happy now?”
He tilted his head, and a few pieces of brown hair escaped from where he’d pulled it back in a small ponytail. “You still stay beautiful, even after sleeping and fighting.” His eyes flicked down to the clothes I’d tossed on the floor. “You don’t like any of them?”
“I’m not here to play dress-up with you. Designer clothes aren’t going to suddenly get me on board with joining the Strigoi club.”
He gave me a long, penetrating stare. “Why don’t you trust me?”
I stared back, only my stare was one of disbelief. “How can you ask that? You abducted me. You kill innocent people to survive. You aren’t the same.”
“I’m better, I told you. And as for innocent…” He shrugged. “No one’s really innocent. Besides, the world is made up of predators and prey. Those who are strong conquer those who are weak. It’s part of the natural order. You used to be into that, if I remember correctly.”
I looked away. Back at school, my favorite non-guardian class had been biology. I’d loved reading about animal behavior, about the survival of the fittest. Dimitri had been my alpha male, the strongest of all the other competitors.
“It’s different,” I said.
“But not in the way you think. Why should drinking blood be so strange to you? You’ve seen Moroi do it. You’ve let Moroi do it.”
I flinched, not really wanting to dwell on how I used to let Lissa drink from me while we lived among humans. I certainly didn’t want to think about the rush of endorphins that had come with that and how I’d nearly become an addict.
“They don’t kill.”
“They’re missing out. It’s incredible,” he breathed. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. “To drink the blood of another… to watch the life fade from them and feel it pour into you… it’s the greatest experience in the world.”
Listening to him talk about killing others increased my nausea. “It’s sick and wrong.”
It happened so fast that I didn’t have any time to react. Dimitri leapt out and grabbed me, pulling me to him and spreading me out on the couch.
With his arm still wrapped around me, he positioned himself so that he was half beside me and half on top. I was too stunned to move.
“No, it’s not. And that’s where you have to trust me. You’d love it. I want to be with you, Rose. Really be with you. We’re free of the rules that others put on us. We can be together now-the strongest of the strong, taking everything we want. We can eventually be as strong as Galina. We could have a place just like this, all our own.”
While his bare skin was still cold, the press of the rest of his body against mine was warm. The red in his eyes practically gleamed while this close, and as he spoke, I saw the fangs in his mouth. I was used to seeing fangs on Moroi, but on him… it was sickening. I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to break free but promptly dismissed it. If Dimitri wanted to hold me down, I would stay down.
“I don’t want any of this,” I said.
“Don’t you want me?” he asked with a wicked smile. “You wanted me once.”
“No,” I said, knowing I lied.
“What do you want then? To go back to the Academy? To serve Moroi who will throw you into danger without a second thought? If you wanted that kind of life, why did you come here?”
“I came to free you.”
“I am free,” he responded. “And if you’d really intended to kill me, you would have.” He shifted slightly, resting his face close to my neck. “You couldn’t.”
“I messed up. It won’t happen again.”
“Suppose that were true. Suppose you were able to kill me now. Suppose you were even able to escape. What then? Will you go back home? Will you return to Lissa and let her continue bleeding spirit’s darkness into you?”
“I don’t know,” I replied stiffly. And it was the truth. My plans had never gone past finding him.
“It will consume you, you know. As long as she continues to use her magic, no matter how far away you go, you’ll always feel the side effects. At least as long as she’s alive.”
I stiffened in his arms and moved my face away. “What’s that mean? Are you going to join Nathan and hunt her down?”
“What happens to her is no concern of mine,” he said. “You are. If you were awakened, Lissa would no longer be a threat to you. You’d be free.
The bond would break.”
“And what would happen to her? She’d be left alone.”
“Like I said, that’s no concern of mine. Being with you is.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t want to be with you.”
He turned my face toward him so that we were looking at each other again. Once more, I had that weird feeling of being with Dimitri and not with Dimitri. Love and fear.
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t believe you.”
“Believe what you want. I don’t want you anymore.”
His lips quirked into one of those scary, smirking smiles. “You’re lying. I can tell. I’ve always been able to.”
“It’s the truth. I wanted you before. I don’t want you now.”If I kept saying it, it would be true.
He moved closer to me, and I froze. If I shifted even half an inch, our lips would touch. “My exterior… my power, yes, that’s different. Better. But otherwise, I’m the same, Roza. My essence hasn’t changed. The connection between us hasn’t changed. You just can’t see it yet.”
“Everything’s changed.” With his lips so close, all I kept thinking about was that brief, passionate kiss he’d given me the last time he was here. No, no, no. Don’t think about that.
“If I’m so different, then why don’t I force you into an awakening? Why am I giving you the choice?”
A snappy retort was on my lips, but then it died. That was an excellent question. Why was he giving me the choice? Strigoi didn’t give their victims choices. They killed mercilessly and took what they wanted. If Dimitri truly wanted me to join him, then he should have turned me as soon as he had me. More than a day had passed, and he’d showered me with luxury. Why? If he turned me, I had no doubt that I’d become as twisted as him.
It would make everything a lot simpler.
He continued when I remained silent. “And if I’m so different, then why did you kiss me back earlier?”
I still didn’t know what to say, and it made his smile grow. “No answer. You know I’m right.”
His lips suddenly found mine again. I made a small sound of protest and tried vainly to escape his embrace. He was too strong, and after a moment, I didn’t want to escape. That same sensation as before flooded me. His lips were cold, but the kiss burned between us. Fire and ice. And he was right-I did kiss him back.
Desperately, that rational part of me screamed that this was wrong. Last time, he’d broken the kiss before too much could happen. Not this time.
And as we continued kissing now, that rational voice in me grew smaller and smaller. The part of me that would always love Dimitri took over, exulting in the way his body felt against mine, the way he wound my hair around one of his hands, letting the fingers get tangled up. His other hand slid up the back of my shirt, cold against my warm skin. I pushed myself closer to him and felt the pressure of the kiss increase as his own desire picked up.
Then, in the midst of it all, my tongue lightly brushed against the sharp point of one of his fangs. It was like a bucket of cold water tossed upon me. With as much strength as I could muster, I jerked my head away, pulling out of the kiss. I could only guess that his guard had been momentarily down, allowing me that small escape.
My breathing was heavy, my whole body still wanting him. My mind, however, was the part of me in control-for now, at least. God, what had I been doing? It’s not the Dimitri you knew. It’s not him. I’d been kissing a monster. But my body wasn’t so sure.
“No,” I murmured, surprised by how pathetic and pleading I sounded. “No. We can’t do this.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. His hand was still in my hair, and he forcibly turned my head so that I was face-to-face with him again. “You didn’t seem to mind. Everything can be just like it was before… like it was in the cabin… You certainly wanted it then…”
“No,” I repeated. “I don’t want that.”
He pressed his lips against my cheek and then made a surprisingly gentle trail of kisses down to my neck. Again, I felt my body’s yearning for him, and I hated myself for the weakness.
“What about this?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper. “Do you want this?”
I felt it. The sharp bite of teeth into my skin as he closed his mouth down on my neck. For half an instant, it was agonizing. Painful and horrible.
And then, just like that, the pain disappeared. A rush of bliss and joy poured through me. It was so sweet. I had never felt so wonderful in my life.
It reminded me a little of how it had been when Lissa drank from me. That had been amazing, but this… this was ten times better. A hundred times better. The rush from a Strigoi bite was greater than that of a Moroi’s. It was like being in love for the first time, filled with that all consuming, joyous feeling.
When he pulled away, it felt like all the happiness and wonder in the world had vanished. He ran a hand over his mouth, and I stared at him wide-eyed. My initial instinct was to ask why he’d stopped, but then, slowly, I reached inside myself to fight past the blissful daze that his bite had sent me into.
“Why… what…” My words slurred a little. “You said it would be my choice…”
“It still is,” he said. His own eyes were wide, his breathing heavy too. He’d been just as affected as me. “I’m not doing this to awaken you, Roza. A bite like this won’t turn you. This… well, this is just for fun…”
Then, his mouth moved back to my neck to drink again, and I lost track of the world.