After a brief reunion with Gretchen and my dad to assure them that I was fine after my captivity, I pleaded exhaustion and went to my room. I was tired, but I couldn't sleep for many reasons. One of those was because of what happened at the stable. It didn't bother me that I'd killed Rend and the other guards. Given the right circumstances, most people were capable of taking a life, and this had been a kill-or-be-killed situation. But what I hadn't anticipated was how I'd enjoyed it.

Surviving against deadly foes accounted for some of the exhilaration I'd felt, but not all of it. I could use the excuse that Vlad's ruthlessness was rubbing off, but deep down, I knew this cold-bloodedness was all mine. Vlad had even pointed out the darkness in me before our relationship began. I'd thought he was referring to everything I'd seen from my abilities. Now I realized he meant what lurked within me, and it had probably been there since before the accident.

As disturbing as that realization was, what really kept me awake had nothing to do with my unexpected harsh streak. The sun burned off most of the morning fog by the time I heard Vlad's booted stride down the hallway. He came into my room, threw his dirt-smeared coat onto the floor, and was in the process of kicking off his boots when what I was doing made him pause.

I sat in front of the mahogany fireplace, my right hand inside the orange and blue flames. They leapt between my fingers and curled around my wrist, but not one of them directly touched my skin. Instead, they skipped over me as if I wore an invisible glove, and while their warmth was pleasant, it wasn't scorching as it should have been with my proximity.

"Ah, so my aura is still embedded in you," Vlad commented, not sounding concerned. He resumed his boot removal.

I withdrew my hand, looking at its unblemished state with a mixture of wonder and dismay. "Did you find Szilagyi's bones?"

"No." Boots off, he came over, kneeling beside me. "Don't worry. If he managed to survive, it will take a day at least for him to dig his way out. My men have the area surrounded, and now you, my beauty, can link to him and see if he'd dead, or see what hole he's attempting to crawl out of."

I stared at him for a long moment. The dirt and soot made him look fiercer, darkening that sexy stubble along his jaw and making his cheekbones more prominent. His lips were parted, showing a glimpse of white teeth that could tease and terrorize with equal skill. Firelight added a hint of gold to his copper-colored eyes, and those encircling rings of emerald grew as his brows drew together in a frown.

"What's wrong? You smell distraught."

I glanced at the fire. If not for Vlad willing his aura into me, I would have died from flames last night, but my survival had come at a price neither one of us had anticipated.

"I already tried looking for Szilagyi," I said, glancing back at Vlad. "There's nothing to link to anymore."

He started to smile. "Then he truly is dead."

I savored his expression because it might be the last time he looked at me this way. Then I forced myself to continue.

"I don't know. It's not just Szilagyi's essence that I can't link to anymore. It's everyone's."

I stroked the ornately carved wood around the fireplace for emphasis. "I'm not picking up impressions from what I touch anymore. Coating me with your aura did more than make me fireproof, Vlad. It also covered my abilities like some sort of supernatural glove and nothing gets in."

Very slowly, he rose, his expression changing from satisfaction to absolute inscrutability. Neither of us spoke the words that seemed to scream in the silence. Was if this wasn't temporary? It might be a cure for the psychometric abilities I'd long wished to be rid of, but they were also the main reason Vlad had been drawn to me in the first place. If their loss was permanent, I'd gained some of the normalcy I longed for, but it might cost me the man I was falling in love with.

And his enemy might still be out there. The explosion should have killed Szilagyi, but he'd cheated death before, and a bone-deep pessimism warned me that we hadn't seen the last of him.

"Don't worry," Vlad said, repeating his earlier words with less conviction this time. "I'll double the guards at Poenari. Either my men will find Szi-lagyi alive, or, once your powers return, you can verify that he is truly dead."

I didn't dispute his belief that I'd get my abilities back. Right now, we were both guessing on that count.

"Reading my thoughts again?" I asked dryly.

He flashed me a tight smile. "Always."

Then he put his boots back on, leaving his coat where it lay. "I'll notify my men to double the watch, and now I intend to take one more sweep of the area before I rest."

He kissed me, and when we drew apart, something I couldn't name flickered over his face as he stroked my right hand. But all he said was, "Get some sleep, Leila. I'll return soon."

After he left, I realized he'd taken the time to reassure me over Szilagyi, but hadn't said a word about my thought that I was falling in love with him. Was he avoiding that topic because he was incapable of love-something I now doubted-or because my power loss had indeed made him reevaluate our relationship?

In the very near future, I'd put both possibilities to the test. I didn't want to lose Vlad, but I wouldn't start running from my problems again. I'd confront them despite their potential cost, and with or without any additional abilities.

"Get ready, Vlad," I whispered into the empty room. "This is far from over."

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