Bound by Flames, Page 1Jeaniene Frost
To Aunt Dottie and Uncle Bob,
with much love, admiration, and thanks.
Excerpt from A Night Prince Novel Series
Halfway to the Grave
One Foot in the Grave
At Grave’s End
Destined for an Early Grave
This Side of the Grave
One Grave at a Time
Up From the Grave
About the Author
By Jeaniene Frost
About the Publisher
First and foremost, I have to thank God for gifting me with the job I dreamed about when I was a child. None of this would be possible without Your many blessings, Lord. Of course, I would have had a much harder time writing about romance if not for my husband, Matthew, who has been the love of my life since I was sixteen. Speaking of writing, sincerest thanks go to my wonderful editor, Erika Tsang, for her work on this novel and the many others before it. I haven’t made it easy on Erika at times, but she’s soldiered through with vampiric-like determination and I couldn’t ask for a better editor. Thanks also to my fabulous agent, Nancy Yost, for too many things to list here, and to my dear friends Melissa Marr and Ilona Andrews, who are truly the wind beneath my wings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to thank Tom Egner for another sizzling cover, as well as Pamela Spengler-Jaffee, Jessie Edwards, Liate Stehlik, Shawn Nicholls, and the rest of the tremendous team at Avon Books for all of their hard work. I’d also be unforgivably remiss if I didn’t say a heartfelt thank you to the readers, reviewers and bloggers who’ve given my books a chance. You could do many other things with your time, and I so appreciate that you’ve chosen to spend it on one of my stories.
Last but by no means least, I want to say thank you to my family. I don’t say this often enough so let me put it in writing—I love all of you, and I’d be a far lesser person without you in my life.
Hundreds of candles glowed from the ballroom’s gothic chandeliers, casting soft amber light onto the guests below. The lack of modern illumination wasn’t because this house used to be a medieval stronghold. The owner was a pyrokinetic vampire, so he was rather fond of fire.
I was perched on one of the ceiling’s corner rafters, taking a brief rest from my evening’s covert activities. A few stories below, all the guests wore masks and costumes, but even without seeing fangs or glowing green eyes, it was easy to determine who was human and who wasn’t. Vampires had an inherent grace, making their movements appear as seamless as water rushing over stones. Their mortal counterparts—well, let’s just say they lacked that finesse. Not that it was their fault. Unlike vampires, humans didn’t have supernatural control over every muscle in their bodies.
Until several weeks ago, neither did I. Changing into a vampire had had some unexpected side effects in addition to the now-I-drink-blood stuff. Before, I also didn’t have my new ability to briefly hold in the electrical currents that had surged through me since touching a downed power line when I was thirteen.
The candles in the chandeliers suddenly blazed brighter, coinciding with a man striding up to the balcony that overlooked the ballroom. If that wasn’t enough to announce his presence, his aura flared, too, sending invisible currents rippling through the room. When they hit me, it felt like being engulfed by an electrical field, which, considering my own inner voltage, was ironic. Only a handful of Master vampires in the world could manifest an aura big enough to encompass the gargantuan ballroom. Vlad’s was so powerful, it proclaimed his identity more clearly than if he’d been wearing a neon name tag.
That’s why his disguise was pointless. Beneath the mask made famous by the movie V for Vendetta was a darkly stubbled jaw, high cheekbones, winged eyebrows and burnished-copper eyes ringed with emerald. His black tuxedo elegantly covered Vlad’s lean, muscled body, almost daring onlookers to fantasize about what lay beneath that. When he held up a hand to silence the musicians, candlelight reflected off his wedding ring, making the twisting bands of gold briefly gleam.
“The unmasking is in one hour,” Vlad announced, his cultured voice tinged with a Slavic accent. Then he smiled, radiating charm and challenge at the same time. “Until then, enjoy the mystery of wondering who’s beside you, if you haven’t already guessed.”
Light laughter and applause greeted his statements, but I was alarmed. If the unmasking was an hour away, I was almost out of time.
A flick of Vlad’s hand had the musicians playing again, and the dance floor was once again filled with costumed, waltzing couples. I didn’t spare them a glance as I leapt onto a nearby ceiling beam, balancing myself instantly on the narrow plank of wood. I could’ve used reflexes like these back when I was a circus performer, not to mention when I was trying out for the Olympic gymnastics team. Supernatural agility was another perk of becoming a vampire.
Once I’d sprinted back to the network of organ pipes I’d climbed to reach the ceiling, I slid down, landing in the utility space between the walls. Music from the pipes swelled, almost deafening me, but that was the point. Not even vampires with their hyper-elevated senses could hear me above the racket. I crept around until I reached an air-conditioning filter, removing it before squeezing myself into the cramped air duct. Good thing I was wearing a formfitting costume. If I’d dressed as Marie Antoinette, I’d have never made it through.
Finally, I shimmied out of the duct into a closet. Once there, I replaced the filter, brushed the dust from my black costume, and headed into the ballroom to resume my spying. I hadn’t made it ten feet inside before a hand landed on my back.
“There you are,” a voice with a heavy Hungarian accent said.
I turned. The vampire behind me wore a much fancier version of the Joker’s trademark purple suit, and he’d covered what I could see of his naturally pale skin with white greasepaint. His mask came to his lower lip, and the twisted smile etched onto the ceramic upper one made his face look like it was stuck in a perpetually evil grin.
My mask didn’t cover any of my mouth, so the vampire could see it when I smiled.
“Here I am,” I agreed. I’d made sure to make the Joker’s acquaintance earlier because he’d been on my target list tonight, but he’d also been with another woman. That meant I couldn’t deploy my secret weapon since it required closer contact than his date would’ve put up with. She wasn’t with him now, though, so I seized my opportunity.
“I hope you’re here to ask me to dance,” I said, tilting my head invitingly. At least, I hoped it looked that way. The faux-horned headpiece I wore made me feel li
ke a rabbit with two stiff, extended ears.
“But of course,” he said, linking his arm through mine.
My full-body suit kept him from feeling the electricity coursing through me. If not for the suit, he’d have known my real identity the moment he touched me. That’s why I’d chosen to attend the ball in a Maleficent costume, annoying pointy headpiece or not. The current-repelling rubber covered me from head to toe, leaving only my face bare. The mask took care of any currents radiating from that and my scent would be unfamiliar to anyone who hadn’t met me before, which was most of the people here.
Most. As the Joker—yes, I knew his real name, but this suited him better—led me onto the dance floor, I couldn’t stop from glancing up at the balcony. The place where Vlad had stood was now empty. Good. The only vampire I was worried about tonight was him.
Once we were among the other dancers, the Joker drew me into his arms, his blue eyes flaring with an inhuman glow of green as they slid over my body. The costume fit me like a glove, leaving few of my curves to the imagination, but he looked like he was imagining anyway. Explicitly.
I suppressed a shudder, glad the head-to-toe rubber also muted the scent of distaste that had to be coming from me. The Joker’s silk and cloth attire didn’t act as an olfactory barrier. The scent of lust wafting from him practically clogged my nose, and I didn’t even breathe anymore. Since I needed information from him, I smiled as we began to dance. I’d learned how to waltz exactly one day ago, but that turned out to be practice enough. The Joker whirled me through steps I easily kept up with. He held me closer than the formal dance dictated, though, and I didn’t think it was an accident when his hand grazed my ass.
Once more, I glanced up at the balcony. Thank God it was still empty!
“When will you tell me your name, my enticing stranger?” the Joker asked, his hand still trailing low on my hip. “I can tell you’ve been newly made. Who do you belong to?”
I wasn’t surprised that he’d pegged me as a baby vampire. My costume might hold in my electrical currents and scent, but it couldn’t contain my aura, and like all new vampires, it was weak. Vlad’s guest list contained the biggest and baddest of Eastern Europe’s undead society, so under normal circumstances, I’d only be here as a stronger vampire’s servant. Being written off as insignificant suited me. Not knowing who I was meant the Joker didn’t know about my abilities, and I wasn’t about to give him any hints as to my real identity.
I used the next steps of the dance to maneuver his hand away from my ass. Then I smiled with what I hoped was mysterious allure. “Patience. I’ll tell you who I am at the unmasking.”
“Patience?” he repeated with more than a hint of scorn. Guess my attempt at being mysterious and alluring had failed.
Truth be told, I didn’t have a lot of experience with flirting. I’d started electrocuting anyone I touched at thirteen, which put me firmly in the “dateless” column for the next twelve years. Not even vampires were immune to the dangers of skin-to-skin contact with me, and that’s when I wasn’t even trying to hurt them. Since I needed the Joker to stay close for the next few minutes, I had to keep up my act, poor faux seduction skills or no. Soon, I’d sneak the detachable fingers off my right glove, touch him while holding in my currents, and thus find out his darkest secret.
Lie detector tests had nothing on my ability to discern people’s worst sins through a single touch. I’d hated my psychometric abilities until recently, when they had become a necessary tool for keeping me and the people I loved alive.
The Joker smiled, seeming to look past my less-than-suave flirting skills. Or, I realized as he danced us toward one of the ballroom’s curtained, secluded alcoves, he had something else in mind.
“Patience is a virtue and I hate virtues,” he murmured, using his body to force me into the alcove. “Besides, I don’t really care what your name is or who you belong to. All I want to know is how tight you are.”
Whoa. Talk about coming on too strong! “I don’t think so, my impatient friend,” I said, laughing as if he’d told a joke. “Maybe later, but now, let’s go back to the dance—”
“Let’s not,” he interrupted, pulling me flush against him. Then his hand landed on my ass as if I’d begged him to spank me. I gasped, so horrified at what was about to happen, I froze. The Joker’s head began to lower, his lips nearing mine—
He screamed as flames shot up his face. His hands flew off me to beat at the fire in an instinctive attempt to smother it. The flames only spread, glowing brighter before I could finish shouting, “Stop!”
I peeked out from the curtains to see Vlad shoving his way through the guests, who’d quit dancing to stare at the screaming, burning man. Vlad’s mask was off and his long dark hair swung from his rapid strides. His hands were covered in flames, but unlike the Joker frantically pummeling his own face, the flames didn’t burn Vlad. The same power that allowed him to manifest and control fire also kept him safe from its deadly effects.
“Stop?” Vlad’s voice whipped through the air, causing the vampires who’d moved toward the Joker to turn and walk away once they realized who’d caused the fire. “Why would I do that?”
Even if those present hadn’t figured it out, I wouldn’t let a man burn to death just to keep up the pretense.
I came out of the alcove. “Because he didn’t know that I’m your wife.”
I drew off my mask and pulled down my face-framing headpiece. Black hair spilled around my shoulders, but that wasn’t my most distinctive feature. The scar running from the right side of my face all the way down to my hand was.
Gasps sounded and I almost pitied the other men I’d danced with. They probably expected to burst into flames next. Vampires were notoriously territorial over what they considered theirs. Add in Vlad being a centuries-old conqueror who’d earned the nickname “the Impaler” when he was human, and you had someone far scarier than Bram Stoker’s fictional version.
“Lock the doors. No one leaves,” Vlad stated, adding to the newly ominous atmosphere in the ballroom.
A flurry of activity signified his people rushing to obey. Say what you will about Castle Dracula—whether you saw them or not, Vlad’s guards were everywhere.
“Stop burning him, you’ve made your point,” I tried again.
Vlad glanced at the screaming man without remorse. “If he valued his life, he shouldn’t have ignored your refusal. Even if he didn’t know you were my wife, he knew you were my guest.”
Did I mention Vlad tended toward the brutal side of archaic? To him, burning the Joker to death for his forceful come-on was a perfectly appropriate response. A modern man would’ve considered the matter closed after a punch to the face.
I went over to Vlad, slipping my arms around his neck despite his hands still being lit up with flames. His feelings were locked down, keeping me and all the other vampires he’d made from tapping into his emotions like we usually could. Still, he had to be seething. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have blown my cover in such a spectacularly violent way.
Then again, he hadn’t wanted me to go undercover tonight in the first place. I’d had to argue for days to get him to agree. Now this. Pleading wouldn’t save the Joker—the only word Vlad hated more than Dracula was please. Instead, I stood on tiptoe, my mouth brushing his ear as I whispered into it.
“I haven’t touched him to learn what we need to know, so you can’t kill him. You know how hard it is for me to get the information through his bones.”
He said nothing and his body continued to feel statuelike in its stiffness. Then, the flames on his hands vanished as he wound them through my hair, pulling it free of the bun that had mostly come undone anyway.
Two clipped words, but his tone was no longer scathing. The flames on the Joker’s face extinguished as abruptly as if he’d been blasted with a fire hose.
I waited until the Joker’s face returned to normal, if soot-smeared, skin. Supernatural h
ealing was one of the perks of being a vampire. Otherwise, he’d need to wear a mask for the rest of his life.
“Don’t move while my wife touches you,” Vlad ordered. He didn’t need to add a threat. His tone was menacing enough.
“Your wife?” the Joker repeated, appalled. He must have missed that while he was trying to put out his face earlier. Then he glanced at his hand, as if remembering that it had been plastered to my ass only a few minutes ago.
“I’ll take that,” Vlad said coolly, and ripped the Joker’s hand off with a single, brutal twist.
I winced. So he’d seen that, too. I had to act fast, before Vlad yanked something off that wouldn’t grow back. I approached the Joker, who clutched his new stump while grunting harshly. He didn’t scream, though. Losing a hand must not have hurt as much as getting his face torched.
“I need to touch Khal Drogo, too,” I said, referring to the vampire who’d come costumed as the warlord from Game of Thrones. No need for me to be stealthy about copping a feel from anyone now. I gave a frustrated glance at the silent, costumed crowd. This was exactly the way I hadn’t wanted tonight to go.
What did you expect? my hated inner voice whispered. Everything you do ends in failure.
I tried to ignore my nasty internal critic—and the hundreds of people staring at me—as I touched the Joker with my bare right hand. He jerked at the currents that flowed into him since I didn’t bother to hold back my voltage. Why waste the strength? Everyone now knew who I was, so they knew what I could do. Vlad’s oldest enemy, Mihaly Szilagyi, had made sure of that.
As soon as I touched him, colorless images flooded my mind, morphing the ballroom into a farmhouse and me into the Joker.
I kicked open the wooden door, taking in the single room with one glance. Two pallets lay on the floor closest to the hearth, the blankets thin and frayed from repeated use. Something bubbled in the earthen pot above the fire and a stack of wood looked like it had been hastily dropped. I smiled. The small farmhouse appeared to be empty, but it wasn’t.
It didn’t take long to find the trapdoor beneath the single table in the room. The screaming started before I opened it, making me smile wider. I liked it when they screamed. Liked it when they fought, too. The two girls I hauled out of the crawl space were too young and skinny to put up much of a fight, but I’d take what I could get . . .