Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 16: Part 2

Some time later, Kyler returned, and he and Santiago took Justin upstairs. Not long after that, Jay came into the dining room and helped me out of the chair. He looked showered and doctored, yet I was stiff and dirty. My scratches were red and swollen, and the gash down my right arm oozed. I suddenly realized I had no shirt on, just a sports bra and shorts, my skin pale from the cold.

Jay went with me into the bathroom, as if he was afraid I might fall over at any minute. When I saw myself in the mirror, I jumped. Dried blood trailed down my neck and chest where it wept from a big cut on my face. I looked like a teenager in one of the thriller movies Jay liked so much. Any moment now the killer would burst in the front door, except this was no movie and the killer was a pine tree.

I struggled with the sports bra to no avail and sighed in exasperation and exhaustion. I hurt all over, and I couldn’t get it off by myself. Jay started to leave, but I motioned for him to wait.

“Jay, I’m too sore, and my hands are stiff. I need you to pull this thing off me.”

“What? Your bra?” he asked. “You can’t get it off?”

“Hurts too much. Help a girl out, would you?” I gave him my best sad-eyed look. It didn’t take much effort.

“When you ask like that, who could say no?” Although he knew I wasn’t in the mood for it, he couldn’t help but smile.

I turned my back to him and lifted up my arms. I felt his fingers slide under the bottom band of the bra and grip it. As carefully as he could, Jay tugged on the bra, working it up and off my chest. I felt warmth where his fingers skimmed up the sides of my body. When the bra was over my shoulders, I pulled it off my arms.

“I can help with your shorts too,” Jay said, craning his neck around to look at me and offering me another crooked smile.

I had to smile back this time. “I think I can manage. You and Santiago okay?”

I turned toward him and tossed the bra to the floor without another thought. Fatigue overshadowed my sense of modesty. I looked over his cleaned cuts, turning his face in my hands. The cut at his hairline wasn’t as deep as I thought; it just bled a lot.

His eyes flicked between the ceiling and me. “I think J twisted his ankle. We’re a little banged up, but nothing like you and Justin.”

Satisfied that Heather tended him well, I released his face. He waited a beat while I tugged the band off the end of my braid and began undoing it.

“You saved me and J from the worst of it. If Justin hadn’t been running that little bit ahead of you, he wouldn’t have been so bad off.”

“He always has to be first. It’s a stupid male overprotective thing.” My hair, now free of the braid, fell over my shoulders in waves.

“You got some wicked scars, Cami-girl,” Jay complimented me.

“High mileage, as my father says.” I raked my hands through my hair to work out any knots.

He looked at me admiringly. “I think you must be in shock.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You know I can see your breasts right? I mean, they are lovely, top-notch,” he smiled as he saw realization come to my eyes. “In fact, there’s not much about you that isn’t, including the scars.”

I straightened my shoulders and through clenched teeth said, “It slipped my mind. Anything else you want to see before I get my shower?”

“Now that you mention it—” he started.

As I shoved him out the door, his eyes never left my chest. I slammed the door in his face.

He laughed, and I heard him call out, “J, Cami-girl’s got a rack you wouldn’t believe.”

I rolled my eyes at my reflection, which reminded me why I looked like the victim of a horrible accident. Tears threatened, so I pulled off my shorts and started the water. Debris came out of my hair and off my body, and I worried that I would clog Leslie’s drain. The water and soap stung, especially when I dabbed and probed the gash and other visible cuts. I did my best to get the bits of bark and dirt out of my wounds. After ten minutes of gingerly patting at myself and ruining Leslie’s white washcloth, I was as clean as soap and water would get me. I got out, dried off, and wrapped the towel around my torso.

As I came out of the bathroom, I asked, “Who can sew?” All the humans, except Justin, were in the living room, and they looked over at me. “Whoever can make the smallest whipstitch needs to sew me up.” I pointed to my face and my upper arm, which were bleeding but only a little.

“I can do it,” Court offered. “Heather, get the alcohol, gauze, tape, and bandages. I’ll meet you both at the bar.”

“He wants to be a surgeon,” Heather explained as she collected first aid supplies. “Leslie has been teaching him when he has time. It’ll be of good use.” She swabbed my scratches, and I couldn’t help wincing at the sting. “Justin’s been cleaned up and put to bed. Selene was so embarrassed.”

“She said Leslie normally does that sort of thing.”

“Vampires, even very old ones, are emotional about blood. Being bitten can be very exciting, so I’m told. Leslie has the best control of any vampire I’ve seen.”

I wondered how many times Heather had seen Leslie feed another human his blood. Maybe she had some herself. That was probably a very personal question and none of my business, especially since I didn’t know her that well.

Court came into view and brought with him thread, a needle, and sewing scissors. “Pink’s the closest color we’ve got.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I assured him and propped up my arm. “Do this first. It’s the worst.”

Court rubbed my arm with what looked like iodine. It burned like hell, but I didn’t complain. After that, he sterilized the needle by holding a lighter to it. Heather had slipped in and out of the kitchen without me noticing and now offered me a glass of sweet tea. I accepted it and took a long drink. The sugar gave me a boost and raised my blood sugar close to normal.

“I wish I had something to numb the skin,” Court continued, threading the needle. “I should remember to ask Leslie about bringing home more supplies. Keeping you all together is going to be a full time job, I think.”

“I’ve been stitched up so many times. You’ll do fine.”

I felt the prick as the needle pierced my skin. It was uncomfortable at first, but I blocked it. My mother was a much better seamstress than Court, but he eventually found his rhythm. My mind drifted as the needle and thread tugged through my skin. I wondered what caused the tree to fall. We hadn’t had a particularly wet fall, but I wondered if the summer had been so dry that the tree was partially dead. If so, a few soaking rains could cause it to uproot. Still, I thought someone should go check it to make sure it was bad luck and not foul play. I didn’t think that was the case, especially with how the vampires were watching the woods for anything suspicious. I couldn’t imagine who would be dumb enough to try to spy on Leslie.

Someone spoke to me, but I wasn’t really listening. I stared out the closest window, wondering where Leslie went and when he would return.

“You have an unusually high tolerance for pain, Camellia,” Court said a little amazed. “I’m afraid you’ll scar though.”

“Look at me.” I twisted my arms back and forth. I stretched out my neck and showed him my shins and knees. “And that’s just what you can see. Trust me, it’ll add to the charm.” I inspected the stitches. “This is good work. Not as good as my mother’s, but with me around, you should get lots of practice.” I leaned on the arm and turned my face toward him so that he could pat it with the same burning disinfectant goop.

Court gave a slight frown as he looked at the cut. “I wish I had some liquid stitches for this. You know, like super glue for the skin? I hate thinking about the scar this will leave, all the way from your eyebrow to your jaw line.”

“Charm,” I reminded him as he set to work.

When he was done, he smeared both areas with ointment. He wrapped the arm in gauze and put bandages over the stitches in my face. Someone, probably Heather, made soup, and Jay took a break from watching movies to bring me a bowl along with a hunk of bread. He stood behind me and rubbed my shoulders while I ate without much interest, wincing when the act of chewing pulled at my stitches. The massage felt good, and at some point, I told him so.

I drifted for a while. People spoke to me and I responded, but I had no real interest in what they said or asked. I felt drained, numb. Sometimes, it was just easier, if not necessary, to be blank.

I made my way up to Justin, tucked snuggly in the pretty bedspread. A fire crackled in his hearth. When I came over to stroke his brow, he didn’t stir. His color was back, and he slept easily. The cuts were only vague pink places on his skin, and he looked clean. I crawled onto the bed beside him and stared at him for a while, thinking about the last time we had sex and the sacrifices he always made for me.

After staring at Justin’s sleeping face for what felt like an hour, I got up and walked over to stare out his window. The rain had turned to drizzle, and night would fall soon. I wondered if Selene or Kyler would go clear out the driveway. I had no doubt that either one of them could pick up the tree and toss it out of the way.

I drifted again. This time, I went up to the third floor loft. Now that I actually looked around, I noticed that the room held a grouping of two chairs and a sofa, facing a small TV, and another grouping of two chairs and a sofa that more or less looked out over the railing. There were also several freestanding open bookshelves. After scanning a few titles, I discovered the collection was devoted to human-written stories about vampires. It made me smile a little. It must have read like comedy to them.

As dusk approached, I walked over and leaned against the window just as Leslie and I had only nights before, or was it day? No, it was night because the shades had been open, and we had leaned against the cool, bare glass. I wondered if my parents were settling into a new home now. I hoped Leslie’s people took good care of them. Again, I reminded myself to ask Leslie about them.

I wondered if my parents had still been here, would they have let Justin die rather than risk him turning? It was fine to talk big when a willing and friendly vampire wasn’t around to offer, but when one presented him—or herself, the option was much harder to ignore. I wasn’t ready for Justin to die, but apparently, I was willing for him to be a vampire in order to avoid death. It was incredibly selfish, and I had no right to ask him to do that, to risk his humanity. I wanted to take it back, and I didn’t. At the time, I was so confused and scared for him that I just reacted.

Sometime later, when it was full dark, I watched the headlights of the limo come down the drive. Faint thudding noises signaled Leslie entering the house and coming into the living room. Sound carried in this house. Up on the third floor, I heard almost everything from the living room and kitchen.

“Would someone like to tell me why my house smells like a blood bank?” Leslie asked.

“You missed the show, Leslie,” Monte said. “Have a seat.”

“Before you get all worked up,” Court said in a calm, even tone, “no one’s dead. Well, Justin might change, but he hasn’t really shown any signs of it.”

“Leslie, don’t be upset,” I heard Kyler’s voice now, unusually urgent. “You can be proud of Selene.”

“And Cami-girl. That’s a strong one there,” Jay added. “Let’s tell you how it all went down.” There was murmuring I couldn’t make out, and then Jay started telling the story — what he did best. “We were running, her, Justin, me, and J. She had us run after she and Justin threw us around and beat us to a bloody pulp. You believe it?” He paused where I assumed he waited for some sort of reaction. “Well, out of nowhere this big pine comes crashing down.”

“I didn’t notice it on my way in,” Leslie said.

“I moved it so Bern could drive in,” Kyler said.

I suddenly thought, Where does Bern sleep?

“Yeah, well, if it wasn’t for her, that bloody thing would’ve smashed the four of us to mush,” Jay insisted. “It knocked us flat, and she bolts up, blood everywhere, scratches galore, pulling me and J out, checking me over like a mother hen, like I’m the one hurt.”

Kyler interjected, “That reminds me that I need to dispose of the bloody branch.”

“Don’t get upset, Les; it wasn’t her,” Jay soothed. “It’s Justin. When she goes to get him out, he’s got a branch shoved right up in his belly.” I imagined the hand gestures that were going along with this story, and I half-smiled. “He’s bleeding all over, so I set off running back here to get Ky and Sellie.”

What ridiculous nicknames he makes up for everyone, I thought. It made me smile when what I wanted to do was start crying again. As I expected, Santiago came right behind Jay, filling in the action that Jay had missed.

“She tore the shirt off her back, held onto him, and talked to him until Selene and Kyler came,” his deep voice carried easily into the loft. “She’s tough.”

“Selene and I brought them back,” Kyler said. “Camellia demanded that Selene feed him. You should’ve seen her. She was brave, Leslie. When she reached that point, you know, when she was filled with lust for his blood and his body, she called for me to stop her.”

I realized that as the humans praised me, Kyler praised Selene. Oh, everyone all around was so proud and happy and brave. Oh, and my lover for the last five years almost died and might become a vampire. I wanted to scream.

“Is she okay?” Leslie asked.

“She’s steering clear of him until the wound closes and we know for sure whether he’ll change,” Kyler said. “I don’t think he had enough blood for it though.”

“I meant Camellia,” Leslie yelled. “Is she okay? I know she would have seen to everyone before even thinking of herself. So I know you are all fine, but is she?”

“Calm down,” Kyler said. “Your queen has been cared for.”

“Don’t start with me.”

“I don’t understand this fascination—”

“Cami-girl’s tough, a warrior,” Jay interrupted. “She cleaned herself up, and Court did a fine job on her stitches. Our girl is covered in scars. She’s going to have two more beauties after today. We fed her, Heather offered to dress her, and I tried to steer her over to the sofa to rest, but she’s pretty much ignoring everyone. She’s been wandering around in a bloodied up bath towel for a few hours now.”

I had to strain to hear Leslie ask, “Why is that?”

“She’s in her own head right now,” Santiago explained.

END CH16 P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 16: Part 1

Trauma

After only a few minutes, Leslie went in, and shortly thereafter, a limo with vampire-safe tinted windows left. Justin and I spent the next hour going over basic form for blocks and punches. It wasn’t that the members of Leslie’s family didn’t know how to fight; it’s just that they didn’t have any formal training. My training wasn’t formal in the old sense of the word, but I knew I had near perfect form.

We spent part of the second hour going through my usual yoga routine to encourage flexibility and muscle tone. At the end of the second hour, Selene and Kyler went back inside the house. Not long after that, the rain came. We were filthy, hungry, and grumpy. Tired of their grumbling, Justin and I cut the others loose, but we weren’t done for the day. It was our routine to run after combat training and yoga. Everyone else trudged up the steps as I did a final stretch of my already loose quadriceps.

“You’re not coming?” Jay called to me.

“We always run,” I called back. “Yoga and running—that’s how you get the lean muscle.”

“But it’s raining,” Santiago complained.

“I’m not made of sugar.” I turned my face up to the sky briefly before I turned to Justin and nodded.

“No shit,” Santiago murmured, and I smiled.

Justin and I set off down the drive. Since I’d known him, we had run together. He always ran to my left because I tended to drift to the right at times. At least this time, I wouldn’t have to worry about foot soldiers or reprimands for running alone.

After a few moments, I heard more footsteps behind us. Jay jogged up on my right, and I bumped into him. Glancing behind me, I saw Santiago. Neither of them looked particularly happy, and I wondered if Leslie had asked them to keep an eye on me permanently. Well, even so, they could use the cardio.

“Three miles,” I explained to them. “If you get tired, let me know. We’ll stop.”

“We can run three miles, no sweat,” Jay promised me. “There’s worse ways I could spend my time than watching you from behind, Cami-girl.”

I shook my head and laughed as he dropped back behind me, and the four of us made our way down the drive. As the rain continued, my clothes stuck to my skin, and my hair stuck to my head. The end of my ponytail slapped against the side of my face and neck.

Trained to endure almost any weather conditions, the rain didn’t bother me. If you have to run, you can’t worry about weather. The only thing to worry about is running at night. I thought about one of those nights when we had to run. Maybe we hadn’t been careful enough or maybe it was just bad luck. Vampires discovered us, and because we refused to invite them in, they set fire to the house. As the house filled with smoke, I crawled on the floor, the glass from broken windows scraping my palms and knees. Screaming and terrified, most of our family panicked and ran out the front door straight to the waiting vampires. I stayed calm, kept my head. I was a good girl, and Aster was, too. We did exactly as my father told us, which was why we made it to the underground escape tunnel and got away. After that, my father always chose houses with lots of doors.

While I ran, I mentally tallied how many we had lost at night over the years. It was so rare for anyone to go out after sunset, and I thought about how utterly stupid it was for Aster to go outside at night, by herself, for a crying child. Throwing caution aside, she darted out the door, before it even registered to my mother and before I could get hold of her to stop her. In any situation, I assumed there was a trick. The pessimism kept me alert and alive. Even as we ran, I scanned and prepared, which was probably why I was able to dodge the tree.

I heard loud creaking, and then a large, mature pine fell at us across the drive. I stopped dead, grabbed Justin’s shirt, and threw out my right arm to halt the advance of Jay. In reaction to me, Jay grabbed my arm and then Santiago’s. My head whipped right and left—watching the tree, watching the men. As the trunk crashed down in front of us, the limbs swatted us to the ground.

A large branch broke over my right hip, but I regained my feet almost as soon as I went down. I did a quick assessment. No breaks, twists, or sprains, but bleeding from a gruesome gash on my right arm. Blood ran down my face, but there was nothing life threatening.

I scanned the sea of branches and needles. Closest to me, several branches trapped Jay. With my help, we managed to pry them apart so that he could climb out from under them. Without a word, I patted down his arms and looked over his shirt for gouges or slashes. Then, I pulled up his shirt, briskly sliding my hands over his chest and back, to check for gashes or punctures. I turned his arms over and felt up and down his legs.

“I’m okay, Cami-girl,” he panted, grabbing my hands and giving them a gentle squeeze. When he released me, he winced. He had a few small scratches on his face, and a cut at his hairline bled.

“You got whacked in the head,” I told him as I swiped at his scratches with my fingers and rubbed his blood on my shirt. He looked even paler than usual. “Get Santiago out. Justin!”

As I climbed around in the limbs, I heard grunting. The smell of pine sap hung in the air, and the slick, wet needles slapped at me as I dug through them. When I found Justin’s arm, I yanked, which issued a sky-splitting scream from him.

“What is it?” I perched above him with my legs straddled wide. When I moved a large thatch of greenery out of the way, I saw a branch puncturing his abdomen. “Oh, God, Justin.”

I reached toward where the branch was in him, and he grabbed my wrist. “It’s bad,” he choked and winced.

I swiveled my head around to where Jay was pulling Santiago free. “I’m on it, Cami-girl.” Jay took off running toward the house.

Although scratched and bleeding, Santiago was standing. He scanned the trees. “How bad is it?” he asked, limping over closer to Justin and me.

“Bad,” I answered.

I leaned my upper body down from my crouched position to reach Justin and hold his hand. He began to shiver, so I took off my shirt and tried to arrange it over him. I felt something on my shoulder and turned to find Santiago had removed his shirt, too. I covered Justin with it and began wiping blood from his cuts with mine.

“Don’t bother.” He sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’ll just ruin it.”

“Shut up. They’ll come. You’ll be okay.”

“Camellia.” No, not the dreaded full name. He grunted in pain. “I’ve got a large branch shoved up in my guts. I’m bleeding a lot. What do you think’s going to happen if anyone tries to remove the branch?”

“Jay’ll be back at the house in less than five minutes. It’s raining so the vampires’ll come out for you. We’ll figure it out.”

He sighed and closed his eyes, “I’m going to bleed to death.”

“No! You can’t. I forbid you. Look at me, Justin.” I reached down and pinched his cheeks. “Open your eyes and look at me.” I shook his face until he opened his eyes.

He tried to smile at me. “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?”

“Liar,” I said fiercely so that I wouldn’t be tempted to cry. I let go of his face and brushed away the needles and his hair. He tried to laugh and ended up coughing and choking. “We both know Selene is way prettier than me. You’re just a suck-up.”

“Tell me how we met. Please. It’ll take my mind off the branch.”

The way he tried to give me a stupid smile left me no choice. “Okay. Um, we were in California. I was leading a group in cleaning out a neighborhood just outside of San Fran.”

“You were what eighteen, nineteen?”

“Shh. Don’t talk,” I said and stroked his brow. “Almost twenty. We came in the house you were using for a bunker, and you had it booby-trapped. The homemade explosives on the windows wounded three of our members so badly that they ended up,” I choked a little, “bleeding to death. The sledge at the door broke two of my ribs.” I wiped at the cuts on his face again. “I found you sleeping in the attic, and I almost slit your throat for the hell of it. You woke up, asked me if I was the angel of death, and kissed me for the first time. That’s why I didn’t kill you. You’ve always been good at kissing.” He squeezed my hand. “Of course, once you realized I wasn’t, you freaked out and fought us.” This brought a smile to his face. “We checked you for bites, which must have been humiliating. We had to tie you and gag you to get you out of there and back to our house without drawing the attention of anyone in the area. You really were wild.” I gave him the best smile that I could. “My parents welcomed you to our home with open arms, despite the three we lost.” He shut his eyes. “My ribs still hurt sometimes when it’s really cold.”

“I love that story,” he said softly. “Kiss me again.”

“Shh. Justin, you shouldn’t talk, okay?”

“Someone’s here,” Santiago said, limping closer to me.

My head shot up, and I scanned the area. I listened, but all I heard was the hammering of my heart and Justin’s labored breathing. Santiago made some hand signal, and I got the gist that he heard the sound from off in the woods, not from the drive. I looked off in the direction of Santiago’s line of sight but saw nothing. When I panned to look up the drive, a blurry Selene headed toward us. About the time she reached us, Kyler landed heavily in front of the downed tree. Gravel sprayed in my direction. Carefully, Selene made her way over to me. When she saw Justin, she gasped.

“He’s in bad shape. Selene,” I grabbed her fancy blue sweater, smearing Justin’s blood on it, “don’t you let him die.”

She nodded once, understanding my meaning, and looked over at Kyler. I backed out of the tree branches, and Santiago limped over to me and put his arm around me. Before I counted to ten, Selene severed the tree limb and lifted Justin. The branch still stuck out of him, and I saw a pool of blood where he had been lying. This was bad, very bad.

I swallowed back a sob and looked at Kyler, who motioned me over to him. “What do you want me to do?”

“Let me hold you. Show her J,” he said to Santiago, who walked over to him.

Santiago put his arm over Kyler’s shoulder, and Kyler slid his arm around Santiago’s back, pinching him at the waist. I walked over, and he did the same to me. His grip was so tight that I almost cried out, but when he jumped, I was glad for it. Kyler didn’t fly, but his leaps were close enough. Four great bounds brought us back to the front porch, where he released us. As he sped forward and opened the door, Selene shot past him with Justin in her arms.

I put an arm around Santiago, and we shuffled up the steps behind them. Inside, Jay perched on a stool while a nervous-looking Heather tended his injuries. He bit his lip as she dabbed at his cuts. When she looked at me, I saw her gulp.

“J, you okay?” Jay asked, and Santiago nodded. I helped him limp over to the bar where he sat next to Jay, who reached out for me. “Cami-girl, you’re all cut to pieces. Come let Heather see to you.”

“Later,” I said brusquely. “I have to see about Justin.” At that moment, I heard Justin scream, and I ran into the dining room.

Selene had him up on the table, and the bloody tree branch was now lying on the floor. Someone had ripped open Justin’s shirt, and his face was white with pain and cold. I ran to him and grabbed his hand. His hold was weak, but he looked at me with wide, terrified eyes.

“C-Cami, I’m g-going t-to d-die,” he chattered as I shook my head violently.

Giving her a piercing stare, I said, “Do it, Selene.” She looked at me and then back at Justin.

“D-Do what? C-Cami, what are you talking about?”

“Drink from her. It will heal you. You won’t die.”

“I’m not drinking vampire b-blood,” he said with as much force as he could before his strength gave way. “You can’t make me.”

“Like hell! Listen to me, Justin Frederick Bellemead. I’m not ready to let you die because a stupid fucking tree fell on you. You can do it; I did. It’s no big deal. Right, Selene?” When she didn’t answer, I snapped, “Right?” and glared at her as I gripped Justin’s hand in both of mine.

“I don’t normally feed humans. It’s something Leslie does in emergencies. I don’t have his control, Camellia. It could end badly.”

Selene looked at Justin’s face, which grew paler by the second. Justin was in pain, and there was pain on Selene’s face. She didn’t want to lose him, but she was afraid.

“Well, Leslie’s not fucking here,” I shouted, freeing one of my hands and slamming my palm down on the table repeatedly to emphasize each word. “It’s gonna end badly sure enough if you don’t try. If you don’t, then let Kyler.”

She straightened her shoulders. “I can do it.”

Kyler pressed Santiago’s T-shirt to Justin like a compress. I held firmly onto Justin, and he looked as if he was on the verge of both passing out and passing away.

“Justin, do it for me. I don’t want to lose you.” A tear escaped as I looked down into Justin’s gray eyes, like the color of the rain clouds.

“Jeez, you’re crying. Don’t cry,” he whispered. “Okay. I’ll be a good boy and take my medicine.” His head rolled to the side. “What do I do?”

Selene positioned her arm in front of his face. “Just bite me enough to draw blood and suck.”

Justin slowly nodded his head. His eyes closed, but he opened his mouth, and I watched as he bit into Selene with as much force as he could manage. She made an excited noise, and her fangs extended. Biting was certainly a turn-on for vampires. After Justin secured his mouth over the bite, he sucked and swallowed.

Now, I had done this very thing not long ago, but I found it repugnant to watch, and my stomach rolled. Two swallows and Justin’s eyes popped open in surprise and delight. His mouth curved into a wide smile before he shifted and licked Selene’s arm.

“It tastes like candied apples and cinnamon rolls with a steak and a baked potato,” he murmured before latching onto her.

I pursed my lips. “I guess it’s different for every vampire.”

“It’s different because what food Justin likes is different from what you like,” Kyler explained. “Vampire blood tastes different from human to human, but each of you has a distinct flavor to a vampire.”

It was gross but incredibly interesting at the same time. While I pondered this new information, Justin propped himself up on one arm and let go of me.

“I want him, I want him,” Selene chanted as she tore at her sweater with her free hand.

At the sound of her voice, Justin removed his mouth from her arm, made a hungry sound that could only be associated with sexual desire, and grabbed her by the arms. Her fangs shot out, and her chest heaved. From the looks of things, he wanted her just as badly.

“Kyler, help me,” she pled, her eyes large with panic and her pupils dilated with lust. “We’ll kill each other.”

Kyler stepped to them and wrenched her free. “Mind him,” he barked at me as he dragged a squealing Selene from the room.

Justin collapsed back onto the table. The T-shirt compress fell to the floor, and I saw the hole in his abdomen had stopped bleeding as the internal tears began to heal.

“Cami, oh Cami, Cami,” he cooed. “You should’ve told me it felt so good. It’s almost as good as when I’m inside you.”

“Hush, Justin.” I eased into one of the dining room chairs. “You’re talking out of your head.” He rolled over, following the sound of me, and reached out for me. His eyes opened as I took his hand in mine. “Once you heal, you’re going to feel like a new man.”

“Can I have my kiss now?”

I looked at him. He wore a blood-smeared, self-satisfied grin, as if he’d already gotten dessert and was trying to wheedle an extra piece of candy.

“I think you earned it.”

I kissed the fingers of my free hand and pressing them to his mouth. He frowned and, on a surge of energy, yanked me out of my seat so that my mouth crushed into his. His hands shot up, one around the back of my neck and one into my hair as his mouth moved against mine. When the burst passed, he released me and panted.

“I want you, here, now, but it hurts.” He made a weak sound of pain and collapsed.

I felt for his pulse and found it strong and steady. Not dead, just unconscious. I sat down heavily in the chair. Asleep and alive, I thought, resting my forehead on my crossed arms. Now that the first stage of the crisis was over, I burst into tears.

END CH16 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 15: Part 2

Leslie didn’t have much in the way of a yard. A left turn off the main drive formed a loop at the front of the house that enclosed a wide oval of dormant grass. The main drive led to the back “vampire” entrance, as I started to think of it, and connected with the loop on the other side of the house. Between the drive and the forest, the oval of grass was the only area large enough for training.

Since the front of the house had a northern exposure and it was late autumn, the wide covered porch provided shade all day. This allowed the vampires to be outside in daylight. It was around ten o’clock when I made it out to the yard, and the sun was well risen.

Selene and Kyler weren’t resting today. They sat in rocking chairs and held large mugs. Selene’s eyes followed Justin as he instructed the others. I laughed to myself as I watched Kiera watching Santiago as he focused on Justin.

I stepped out onto the porch and stopped beside the vampires. “Enjoying your morning coffee?” When we could get it, coffee was one of the few luxuries my parents allowed themselves. I didn’t care for it, but they certainly did.

“Something like that,” Selene said and smiled at me. Her lips and teeth were red.

I shivered, and she and Kyler smiled in appreciation of my reaction. “If you don’t mind my asking, Selene, how are you? Did you work out your problems with Justin?”

“I don’t mind you asking. I think this is all outside of what he thought was possible, you know?” She looked up at me. “He doesn’t understand vampires any better than he does people, even though he is usually very good at handling both.”

I cast my eyes into the yard. “Some things you just can’t handle.”

“Like you,” she said. “He’s so frustrated that you don’t act or feel how he thinks you should, and it frustrates me that he holds on to his love for you.”

I walked over and hopped up to sit on the railing. It felt as though Justin and I had come to some sort of understanding, not that I would ever understand why he loved me. He had admitted that he knew I didn’t return his feelings, and I couldn’t help but be glad that he didn’t hate me for it.

“I know you’re angry that I tried to send him away.”

I searched her face, but she only waved a hand at me as she sipped at her mug. Leslie came out with his mug of vampire “coffee” and leaned against the railing next to me. I swallowed hard and tried not to look at it.

After swallowing, Selene said, “You were trying to protect your family. I understand, even if it was against my wishes. Still, he didn’t go. I may not like the reason for it, but I’ll take it.” She took a moment to give Leslie a long look. “Nice of you to join us today, sir. Feeling better now that you’ve thrown a tantrum?”

I turned to look at Leslie. He had one of his polite smiles in place, but his eyes were chilly. “You’re one to talk about tantrums,” was his response. “And, you know how trips down memory lane can be bumpy.” She grunted in agreement.

“Hey, Cami-girl?” Jay called, which drew the attention of everyone. “You going to sit up there all day in the shade with the fangedfolk or are you going to come down here and fight me?”

I snickered at his nickname for the vampires. “You’ll get your chance, Jay,” I called back to him.

“Bloody right, I will. I’m going to catch you today, you’ll see. Then, it’ll be kisses for Jay.”

Bubbling with laughter, I said, “You must be an idealist.”

“A dreamer,” he said loftily, putting his hand over his heart. “A man’s got to have his dreams, hasn’t he?”

I laughed and turned back to the vampires who were looking at me oddly. “A kiss,” I explained, “to the man strong and fast enough to take me down. My incentive?” I looked meaningfully at Leslie.

“That’s your incentive?” He looked first at Jay and then at me. “They’re easy.”

I smacked him on the arm, and he laughed. I noticed a look pass between Selene and Kyler. I was sure people didn’t go around slapping Leslie in any way. Perhaps, the amount of my antics he tolerated amused them. I skipped down the stairs and took my place next to Justin.

“I’ll get warmed up. We’re following you today,” I said to Justin and began stretching.

“That’s a Rosegarten for you folks. Always taking charge. It doesn’t matter that the rest of us have been out here for almost two hours. She just shows up whenever and then puts me in charge.”

I looked wide-eyed at Justin and then around at the faces of Leslie’s family. I wished that I could crawl in a hole. Justin, on the other hand, whooped with laughter.

“Oh, you should see your face. Ha,” he hooted. “I was kidding, Cami. You have inherited your dad’s bossiness.”

“I like to think of it as taking and delegating responsibility,” I snarled. My face flamed, and everyone smiled at me.

“I’m sure you do. Well, now that I’ve had a good laugh to get me fully awake, let’s get started.”

END CH15 P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 15: Part 1

Rude Awakenings

The dream I had while I slept on the sofa was no less vivid than the previous dreams I’d had while staying in Leslie’s house. It began with Aster. I interrupted her from reading, but she didn’t mind. We chatted happily about childhood things like making flower necklaces and playing school with her dolls.

All too soon, the conversation turned to current, adult subjects. I promised her I would talk to Leslie about coming to visit, but I doubted I could come live with her. She gave me an odd look and then yelled at me about family. When she got pushy like that, it was best to ignore her, and when I did, she vanished from the dream.

I floated happily, a dandelion puff on the breeze, and the scene changed as I felt a hand, gentle and soft, stroking my hair back from my face. I found my head was on a pillow in Leslie’s lap. I felt comfortable and the stroking was very relaxing.

“Missed you today,” I said and felt a little thrill when he smiled, a real smile.

“I had some thinking to do,” he said softly. “It was a big day for you.”

“Like Jay. Drank beers.” I rolled onto my back and flung an arm over my head. Leslie stroked from my wrist down my arm, and I purred. “Like this dream.”

“Do you?” He sounded amused.

“Like dreams you’re in.” I hummed as his hand trailed down my arm from my wrist and over my shirt to my waist. He repeated the movement, skimming the side of my breast.

“Justin made up.”

The movement stopped. There was no sound, so I thought I had ended the dream. Then, the stroking resumed, and I felt myself smile.

“And?” he asked.

“Says crazy things.” I bent my leg, pulling my knee up, and Leslie stroked from my wrist to my ankle. With each pass of his hand, a little trickle of electricity ran down my body.

“Like?”

“You love me.” I hummed again as his hand came down and cupped my breast briefly before moving on to my leg.

“And what did you say?”

“Brain damage.”

It got quiet again as Leslie continued to stroke me like a well-loved cat. I dreamed within my dream about a shark that had been swimming for centuries until it found a beautiful woman. I watched in horror as it bit down on her leg. Red filled the ocean around her, and she screamed soundlessly. The bottom half of her leg was gone, and she would drown now, if she didn’t bleed to death first. The shark swam in a circle around her one time before it stopped and faced her. After kissing it, she held its head as she sank into the darkness.

“Save Aster. She’s drowning,” I shouted.

Panic surged in me. I ran, but it was like running in a foot of water, slow and sluggish, through total darkness where there was no light and never would be. I had something a minute ago, and now it was gone. I fell to my knees and used my arms to try to sweep away the water. I felt all over for the lost object.

“Leslie, where are you?” I found nothing but darkness. “You’re never here when I need you.”

“Here,” he said. “I’m here.”

I felt his hand caress my cheek. Monsters didn’t deserve affection, and I was something worse. I didn’t want to be, and so I cried. As the grief spilled out of me, I drifted off into the black again.

* * * *

When I finally woke, I saw a tiny lamp burning in one of the outlets in the bathroom, and I knew I was in the basement instead of on the couch. I couldn’t remember coming down the stairs. It was a wonder I hadn’t fallen and broken my neck.

My dreams came back to me, disturbing me deeply. I understood the symbolism in the shark and the beautiful woman, on several levels. I shivered at the memory of the darkness. There were many foul creatures in the world, and I was certain that I should be included in the group.

I caught a whiff of myself and decided it was time to start making an effort to shower before I got into bed all sweaty and stinky. My hair smelled like fried meat and potatoes. Leslie was in bed with me again, unconscious again, and I was determined not to repeat the previous day’s mistakes. This time, when I got up, I lacked the grace, speed, and subtlety of the previous morning, and I jostled the bed.

Leslie’s eyes flashed open, and he hissed at me before he flung himself out of bed against the wall. He was wearing a long-sleeved pajama shirt and boxers, which I would’ve thought funny if I hadn’t been more concerned that he was about to attack me. Every visible muscle in his body tensed, ready to strike. He lunged at me, and I danced back, flicking on the bathroom light. I jerked my hands up in defense.

As calmly as I could, I said, “Leslie, it’s Camellia Rosegarten. Don’t attack me.”

His eyes, clouded with fear and rage, cleared as he relaxed in degrees. “I’m so sorry,” he panted. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just reacted. Please, don’t let this scare you off from sleeping in the bed.” He came around to me and took my hands in his. “I can sleep elsewhere.”

“It’s not necessary,” I assured him, “but I’d like you to tell me why.”

“Why what?” He tried, and failed, to sound oblivious. He rubbed my hands with his, as if trying to warm them.

“Don’t play dumb with me. Why are you afraid? Why did you tell me that you normally hide when you sleep, but you sleep with me? Then, you tried to attack me.”

“I told you that I feel safe…no, safer with you.” His hand came up to tuck some loose hair behind my ear as he looked into my eyes.

“Leslie,” I tilted my head, “that didn’t look like you felt safe at all. I thought you were going to tear me to bits. Tell me why.” I searched his face, saw the internal debate in his eyes.

“I don’t speak about it.”

“Well, you better start. If I get my throat ripped out one morning I’d like to know there was a good reason why.”

He took both my hands again and pulled me down to sit on the bed. Facing me, he took a deep breath. “I would never rip out your throat. I would never hurt you. The fear, it fades very quickly once I’m aware. Please, believe me.”

Not to be swayed by his pleading look, I said, “Spill it,” and glared at him.

He closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths. “You’re the first I’ve ever told, so try to bear with me.” He looked at me, and I nodded curtly. “The one who made me,” he looked down at our joined hands, “kept me alive for weeks before he made me. Once he did, he and his followers often starved me and…did other terrible things to me. They encouraged ally groups that joined us to treat me the same.” He paused and looked up at me briefly. His eyebrows knit before he looked back down at our hands and toyed with the ring he had given me. “Do you remember when you said that you thought I was exceptionally attractive?” I nodded, as my head filled with images of tortures he might have endured. “The vampire that made me and those that joined him thought so, too.”

“What did they do to you?” I asked softly, carefully banking the anger that erupted in me. I lifted my ring hand to his face, and he put his over mine.

“I won’t speak of it.” His voice hitched. “You don’t want to know, and it doesn’t matter.”

“Clearly, it does.” He wouldn’t look at me. “You made them pay for it.”

He nodded then looked up into my eyes. I wasn’t sure how to respond or how to comfort him. Horribly abused and taken advantage of, it was no wonder he was such a big fan of free will.

Slowly, I took him into my arms and held him. I laid my chin over his shoulder and rubbed his back, a gesture my mother always used to comfort me when I was sad or hurt. Leslie’s arms hung loosely around my waist, but when I said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” he pulled out of the embrace.

Embarrassed, he stood. “You see, when you’re scarred that badly as a young vampire you don’t get over it, even if you live a thousand years.”

“And I startled you, so you went into attack mode,” I extrapolated.

“That’s an accurate description. I want you to keep sleeping in the bed. I rest better by your side than I ever have.”

“That’s funny. My dreams are vivid, incredibly vivid. In fact, I think I might have sleepwalked down here last night.” I got up and went into the bathroom. I took off my shirt and tossed it into the bedroom, where Leslie swiped it out of the air.

“You didn’t sleepwalk; I carried you. I found you asleep on the sofa.”

“Oh, well, thank you. I must have nodded off during the movie. I’ll try to watch it again some other night.”

I started to take off my pants but remembered we were training today. There was no point in bathing only to get filthy and stinky all over again. Instead, I brushed and braided my hair. When I came back into the bedroom, I motioned for Leslie to return my shirt to me. He gave me a puzzled look, so I explained.

“There’s really no point in showering since we’re just going to get all sweaty again.”

Amused and intrigued, he asked, “Why is that?”

“Oh, I meant the humans. Training. Justin and I are going to whip your family into shape.”

I took my shirt back from Leslie and yanked it over my head. How easily he had maneuvered me from talking about him to talking about me. I needed to pay special attention to avoid the trap.

“It’s a good idea. At least if you and Justin are working together, I won’t have to worry that you’ll hurt each other.”

As I sat on the bed to tug on a fresh pair of socks, I noticed my journal sitting on the dresser. Apparently, Leslie brought more than just me downstairs.

“Aren’t you going to dress?” I asked, lifting an eyebrow. Leslie strode into the walk-in closet on his side of the room. I went over to the dresser and flipped through the journal. After checking a few pages here and there, I decided that everything was in order. “I don’t know that they’re particularly excited about it, except for Jay and Santiago.” I found my running shoes just outside the bedroom door. I sat down in the floor and shoved my feet into them.

“Why are they so enthusiastic?” Leslie appeared in the doorway, fully clothed in a dark green sweater and khaki pants. “I always get the impression they’re as trained as can be.”

“Well, they’ve got plenty of muscle, but they love me of course.”

Well, of course,” he agreed and smiled.

I considered Leslie’s choice of sweater. “You shouldn’t wear that color. It dulls your eyes.”

“Since when are you a fashion expert?” His smile widened, and he casually crossed his arms.

“Since never, but if I had eyes like yours, I would do everything to, what’s the expression? Play them up.”

He rolled said eyes at me and disappeared into the closet again. “Love,” he said, returning before I finished tying my second shoe.

“Love?” The word startled me, and I yanked my shoelace too tight.

“I wouldn’t think that would make someone want to be beaten up by you.”

“Oh.” I shook my head. “Well, they have another incentive.”

“What’s the incentive?”

“Ask them.” I smiled up at him and saw that he now wore an eggplant-colored sweater. “That’s much better.” I sighed before clearing my throat and my mind. “Well, I should go grab a quick bite.” Leslie held out his hand and easily tugged me to standing. “You’re a survivor, you know. Sometimes, you do things—things you aren’t proud of, for that purpose alone. I hope one day that you’ll feel like you can share more with me. If not, maybe you should think about keeping a journal. It helps me think, and it can help me get closure.” When I had the courage to let it.

“Yes, I’ve read a few of your recent entries.”

Shocked and embarrassed, I felt my face going red again. “Those are my private thoughts and feelings.”

“They certainly are.” He trailed a finger down my cheek. “You shouldn’t leave it out where anyone can read it. It would give Jay quite a lot to tease you about. It could give someone the wrong ideas about you.” He smiled at me and let his finger drift down my neck. “Or maybe the right ones.” If he had been reading my journal, then he knew how much it excited and bothered me to be physically attracted to him. Sensing my uncertainty, he took a few steps back. “I may be a patron, but I’m not a saint. If you knew all the sins I have committed against other people, and not just for survival…I don’t think you’d care for me much.” He frowned a bit. “I have done terrible things out of spite, out of revenge, out of desire, and on a whim. I’ve been making an effort to do and be better for some time now, but you only know that side of me. You shouldn’t pity me.”

“Okay, but I still care for you, and I value your friendship and our partnership. I’ll even keep sleeping with you.” I couldn’t help the silly little smile that spread across my face. “But do me a favor and don’t say anything else about biting or blood drinking. I think Justin’s had his limit.” I gave him a quick kiss on the lips and could still hear his soft laughter as I walked through the outer room.

END CH15 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 14: Part 2

Several different conversations picked up, and Justin leaned over to me. “Cami-girl?” he whispered with a pop of laughter.

I eyed him. “Jealous of my nickname? Give him time; he’ll think up one for you, too.”

We talked and drank, and I wondered exactly what our vampire friends were doing. Someone retrieved two bottles of wine. After the first bottle, we all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

As I swirled the chilled white wine in my glass, I wondered where my parents were. Maybe they decided to go back to Georgia or California. I hoped they would stay within Leslie’s realm of rule. I needed to ask Leslie about them, along with whether or not he could set up a meeting with Aster.

Once Heather and Kiera began clearing plates, Justin assumed his role as head trainer and discussed schedules for practice. Regardless of whether or not these other people wanted to train, he and I needed to keep up our skills and physiques. I had a feeling that I could depend on Jay and Santiago. They looked like they worked to stay in peak condition, and my promises of improving their performance interested them. I sipped and watched them.

I found I was looking forward to waking up and kicking Jay’s tight, muscled butt all over the house or yard or wherever. While I thought about it, I smiled and quickly realized that I was staring and smiling right at Jay. He made a kissing face at me, which drew me out of my daydreaming. I must have looked shocked because he burst out with laughter. I stuck my tongue out at him and went to the sink to wash out my wine glass.

When the wine ran out, the members of the household dispersed, going back to whatever they were doing before I’d drawn them in with my greasy, delicious burgers. I was happy that Heather and Kiera had seen to the dishes. I washed my glass, dried it, and returned it to the shelf on the island that held all the dishes, cups, bowls, and glasses.

As I wiped down the counters, I wondered when Leslie would unlock the door so I could get into the room to sleep. Justin moved into the room that my parents had used for one night. I guessed if I had to, I could sleep on a sofa or the floor. I’d certainly had worse  having slept on the ground many times. Mostly, I wanted to see Leslie, to talk to him. For some odd reason, I missed him but quickly pushed the feeling away as silly.

I went back to the dining room. Since the lights were on, I couldn’t see out the windows. It felt odd to have lights on all the time, so I got up and flipped the switch. Light still spilled in from the living room, so I could see to write. I fingered Aster’s letter briefly before I stuffed it in the back of the journal. Finally, I began to read back over what I had poured onto the pages from my heart and soul.

As I reread my run-in with Luc, movement caught my attention. When I looked out the window, I saw Selene. I wondered if I should talk to her or keep my thoughts to myself. She didn’t exactly like me. Even though I had loved Peter, I didn’t understand what it was like to love someone, really love someone, the way Selene claimed she loved Justin or the way he said he loved me. I thought myself incapable and therefore blessed. If immune, I could never be hurt.

As I examined my perfectly healed wrist, I thought about immunity, infirmity, and weakness. I am highly breakable, and I have a dangerous lifestyle to say the least. I surprised myself at how quickly I shed one family for another.

“What does that make me?” I wrote. A monster. No, even monsters could love. That made me something far worse. Heartless? Soulless?

Selene flitted out of view. I stared at the spot where she had been for a long time before I rose and sought human interaction. I went back into the living room and dropped my journal into my box. I considered moving it, but if Leslie still had me locked out, there was no point in lugging it down to the basement.

Jay and Santiago had moved one of the large sofas back into place and were sitting on opposite ends of it and chatting, as much as Santiago ever spoke, while they watched a large TV that was set in an alcove above the fireplace.

I flopped down between them and asked, “Whacha watching?”

Without taking his eyes off the TV, Jay said, “It’s a movie called Jaws about a bunch of men that go looking for a huge shark that’s been eating people. It’s a thriller or a horror movie. I love the thrillers from the nineteen-seventies and eighties.”

“Does Leslie have many movies?”

“Oh, yeah. Loads of them. He’s kept them in mint condition. Some of them are over forty years old. They’ll be in that cabinet.” Jay pointed to a large armoire positioned in the corner of the room. “He’s got some vampire movies too, but they’re not in there. We don’t watch those.”

“Why not?” I twisted on the sofa to look at him.

After a beat, he paused the movie and looked at me. “You ever see a movie or even a TV show that vampires made and acted in?” The reflected light from the TV gleamed in his eyes.

“No. I’ve come across TVs in nests before. If the house has power, I check the news if it’s on. I’ve never watched one for entertainment.” I glanced at the TV. “I haven’t seen many movies at all. We only sneaked into a theater a few times when I was very young.”

“Well, vampire movies are different.” Jay glanced over my shoulder at Santiago and then bit his lower lip. I wondered why he looked ill at ease, but Jay plowed ahead before I had the chance to ask. “I’d say most of them are like really gory pornos. You get a few comedies, but the humor is aimed at vampires, so it’s not all that funny to a human.”

“Pornos?”

“Yeah, you know, pornographic.” I must have still looked confused. “Movies that have very little story and lots of explicit sex,” Jay elaborated. “The movies vampires make…well, all of them are scary, not the fun kind of scary, and usually end up with lots of people getting bitten and eaten, even in the romances. That’s not acting.” Jay looked at me very seriously, and I shivered. “Right. So, me and J, we stick to the human movies, where all the horror and gore is make-believe.”

I looked at Santiago, and he nodded solemnly. I wondered why they knew so much about the vampire-made movies. I started to ask, but Jay began to catch me up on what was happening in the movie.

“See here, Cami-girl, the chief is afraid of water, but he’s got to get out there and get rid of the shark so his island and beach will be safe again.”

“Chief? He’s the leader of these people?”

Jay snorted out a laugh at my question. “No. He’s the chief of the police, a leader of human law enforcement.”

My brow furrowed. “Why would you be a police chief on an island if you were afraid of the water?”

“To add drama,” Jay said dramatically. “You’ve come in just after the chief mistook a school of fish for the shark. He ran everyone out of the water and scared all the tourists  way. The mayor is really pissed at him. I think you’re up to speed on it. Enjoy.” He patted my hand, and I sank back into the sofa to watch the movie.

I jumped, cringed, screamed, and clung to Jay while he laughed at me. In the end, I think he ended up with several more bruises on my account. I kept one hand wrapped around his biceps, and I hid my face in my free hand when the shark got the ship captain. When the movie came to a climax, Jay yelped from me digging my nails into him. After the chief blew the shark to bits, I relaxed, only to shriek when the oceanographer swam to the surface to join him for a swim back to shore.

When the movie was over, I felt emotionally drained and sorry for the shark. “Poor thing. It wasn’t like it was evil or anything. It was just doing what’s in its nature, and they killed it.”

“Some things need to be killed because of their nature,” Santiago said. He shifted uncomfortably. “Good night, Cami. See you for training tomorrow.”

“Yeah, good night, Cami-girl. Wish you were coming to bed with me.” Jay poked me in the ribs. “Thanks for the bruises and claw marks.”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Ah, it was worth it to see your reaction. I had more fun watching you than I ever would have watching a movie.” He winked at me, and the two left me alone on the sofa.

I got up to look through the cabinet and found a section of musicals. I picked up the one entitled My Fair Lady. I opened the case and pushed the center circle down to release the disc Jay called a DVD. Although I had watched him open the player to take out Jaws, it took me a bit of poking to figure out what the symbols on the buttons meant.

In a few minutes, I had the movie in the player and playing. When I heard the beautiful young lady speak, I barked out a laugh. Her accent was like Jay’s. I wondered when he had come over to the U.S. from Britain. I wished I’d had more of a chance to ask him about his past.

END CH14 P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 14: Part 1

Jay N Jay

While Selene and Justin played a game of cat and mouse and Leslie locked himself away in his room to brood, I tried to write in my journal. I began writing about the gala, and even with the disruption of Selene’s and Justin’s arguments, I made good progress. I wrote for a while and then went back over what I had written, adding or taking away, studying what happened and seeing if I could gain any insight from it.

By four in the afternoon, I had as much as I could stand, which was when I decided to pick a fight with Jay and Santiago. I wanted to find out if I could take them when unarmed. They gladly cleared the furniture once I promised them that I would take full responsibility for anything that got broken, human or otherwise. I wondered if someone had told them about my fight with Justin.

“You two might be big and muscular, but you can learn a thing or two from me,” I informed them.

“From a skinny little girl like you?” Jay, the redhead, teased.

I decided Jay must have been the Brit messenger my mother had described. He had an English accent, a strong one. When he said “little,” it sounded like li’ull.

“You bet,” I taunted. “I won’t run away from you this time. To start, just try to catch me.”

They came at me as a team, and I ducked and spun, taking Jay down with a kick behind the knee, careful not to break it. Santiago danced back, reassessed our positions, and made a grab for me. I spun under his arms and around him and punched him in the back. I skipped away from them and watched as they straightened and rubbed various body parts.

“You’re too slow. You need lightning reflexes. I know you guys are the muscle, but it needs to be fast, lean muscle. Got it?”

They looked at each other and shook their heads. When they looked back at me, they shrugged and then nodded. Their moves were so well-timed that I grinned. When they came at me again, I took both of them down with leg sweeps. I encouraged them to attack, and as they did, I instructed as I dodged and darted out of their hands. Before long, they were both leaning against the wall and panting.

“It’s not as fun as I thought it’d be, Cami-girl,” Jay admitted, christening me with a new nickname. “You’re the scrapper here, not us.”

“I’m thinking we need an incentive,” Santiago said. His coloring hinted at Hispanic heritage, his accent a Texas drawl.

I crossed my arms over my chest and raised my eyebrows. “What more incentive do you need than getting faster and therefore less likely to be killed?”

“Lots. Think up something more fun,” Jay suggested. “There’s been a shortage of fun around here lately. Your little family drama has been the most exciting thing to happen for weeks.”

“I’m so happy my family distress entertained you,” I growled at him. “You’re not endearing yourself to me, Jay.”

“All right.” He patted his hands at me. “How’s about a kiss then?” He wiggled his eyebrows. “There haven’t been enough kisses to go around either.”

“I don’t just kiss people.” I uncrossed my arms and put my hands on my hips.

“Really?” Jay asked. “I got a different impression from the shouting match you all had earlier today.” He winked at me, and the red, a mix of anger and embarrassment, crept into my cheeks.

“Oh, now, don’t get all huffy. Besides, me and J here aren’t just people, Cami-girl. We’re family now.”

“J? Wait, I thought your name was Santiago.”

“That’s Spanish for Saint James. We’re the two Jameses, you see? We’ve been doing everything, well, almost everything,” he paused to give me a knowing look, “together for years now. Somebody started calling us James and James, which shortened to Jay and J, as in J-A-Y and just J to tell us apart. Well, eventually, ‘and’ got shortened to ‘n’—Jay n J, our little nickname.”

“Like mine is now apparently Cami-girl?”

“That’s right.” Happy I was catching on, Jay smiled at me.

I smirked. “Do you do all the talking?”

“No, I just talk more. So, now, back to the kisses.” He wagged his index finger at me. “I say it’s a good incentive. Besides, it’s like traditional or something to give out kisses to the winner of a fight.” He swelled with pride for thinking up that one.

“I don’t think it applies when you’re fighting the one who’ll be rewarding you.”

“So we bend the tradition a bit.” Jay poked an encouraging elbow in my direction. “C’mon. What do you say?”

“Not that it matters. You two won’t catch me.” I eyed them and then caved. “Okay then.” I lifted my finger in the air and righteously said, “Kisses to the victor.”

“Real kisses,” Jay clarified. “Not any of them pecks on the cheek, mind you.”

“Real kisses,” I agreed. “Not that it matters.”

They came for me, punching, kicking, trying to work as a team, but they never did catch me. At one point, I grabbed hold of one of the small gold hoops that Jay wore in his ears, teaching him a valuable lesson about fighting while wearing jewelry. He yelped, but I didn’t actually hurt him. Still, I gave both men plenty of bruises and knots. Finally, they gave up, Jay moaning about exhaustion and starvation.

“Well, no kisses today.” I gave each man a slap on the back. “But, if you practice with me enough, you’ll eventually get good enough to win one. How about dinner as a consolation?”

They agreed easily enough and plopped down on stools at the bar to keep me company while I cooked. I didn’t expect to be getting a lesson from Selene anytime soon, so I thought I’d keep it simple. I went to the refrigerator and rummaged through the meat drawer. I found a big package of ground beef. I hadn’t had a hamburger in over a year, and it sounded like the most delicious thing to me.

Getting my hopes up, I went to the pantry, which took up the one interior wall of the kitchen. I found two packages of fresh buns—the large kind, with poppy seeds and onion bits baked onto the tops. I did a mental head count and determined that there would be plenty to feed all humans with seconds if they wanted.

In the bottom of the pantry, I found a wooden box that served as a root cellar. I took out six potatoes and an onion. I decided to press my luck and, after a bit of a search, I found oil, a large, deep Dutch oven, and a fry basket that would fit in it.

“Somebody loves me boys. We’ve got everything we need for hamburgers and fries.” I took down the biggest skillet on the hanging rack and carried it over to the stove.

“You’re not going to grill them?” Santiago asked.

“Texas, right?” I asked, and he nodded. “Well, I’m from nowhere really, but I like my burgers fried and greasy. You want a grilled burger? I’ll save you some patties, but you’ll have to do it yourself.” I set the meat on the island counter and brought a plate over so I would have a place to put the patties. I pressed a wad of meat into my palm and started forming a disk. “Does Leslie have a grill?”

“Les has at least one of everything,” Jay said. “Life’s been good since we hooked up with him, eh J?”

Judging by the look they exchanged, I guessed that whatever had come before Leslie had been on the level of my worst nightmares. I set my first patty down and scooped up another palm full.

“If you’re cooking, I’m eating, and I won’t complain,” Santiago said.

I’d yet to meet a man, human or vampire, who was a picky eater but most human men were reluctant cooks. Justin was capable in the kitchen, but cooking duty wasn’t for everyone. We all had different talents we brought to the group. My best skill was fighting, but I wasn’t above cooking a meal for my friends. I set the second patty down and moved on to the third.

“Okay, can either of you slice veggies?” When I looked up at them, they appeared to be on the verge of saying no. “You fix the fixings, and I’ll fix the rest.”

“Deal,” they both said.

As per my instructions, they got out cutting boards, a large plate for the potatoes, and small plates for the onion, tomatoes, and lettuce. Tomatoes in winter—I smiled and shook my head. Fresh meat, dairy, and vegetables were such a luxury to me, and now that I lived with Leslie, I could have them daily, if I wanted. Thankful didn’t begin to cover what I felt.

After peeling the potatoes and slicing them into fries, I heated the oil in the Dutch oven. When the skillet was hot enough, I slid in the first six burgers. Jay and Santiago chatted while they sliced the rest of the veggies. They also rooted out a jar of pickles, sliced the cheese, and sliced the buns.

The scent of food drew the other humans down to the kitchen. Heather came in with two six packs of bottled beer, which she explained were kept in the refrigerator in the laundry room.

“Laundry room?” I asked.

She passed me a beer and nodded. “It’s on the side of the vampire drive opposite the house. There’s a wine cellar and an incinerator, too.”

I gave her a shrewd look and twisted the cap off my bottle. It had a wonderful flavor, and I enjoyed sipping it while I cooked. I tensed when Justin came sulking into the kitchen. Seeing my reaction, Jay intercepted him with a slap on the back, a beer, and a conversation on fighting tactics. Jay gestured to me with his beer, and the gloom lifted off Justin as he gave Jay pointers on how to take me down in a fight.

When the oil was finally hot enough, I dumped the fry basket in the Dutch oven. As I slid the first round of burgers out of the pan and onto a plate, Justin came up behind me.

“Kisses?” he asked. The way he said it, the tension, anger, and ugliness of the morning evaporated.

I smiled and shrugged. The next round of burgers went into the pan. “You don’t think it’s a good incentive?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I think it’s cruel of you to get their hopes up.” We both laughed. “I wonder…are you willing to extend your incentive to me as well?”

I snorted. “When have you ever asked my permission for a kiss?”

“Never, but maybe a little friendly competition is what they need.” He took a swig of his beer.

“You’re just torturing yourself, you know.” I didn’t understand why he insisted on  holding onto his feelings for me.

“Well, it’s my fault then, isn’t it?”

I flipped the burgers. “Yeah, but you’ll blame me, and then you’ll do something ridiculous like break my bones or call your host a monster in his own house while you sleep in his bed and eat his food.” I gestured at him with the spatula.

“Probably, but you’ll forgive me because I’m your family and the man you’ve been having sex with for the last five years, and he’ll forgive me because he loves you.”

I barked out a laugh as Justin pinched my bottom. I set down the spatula. “I don’t think I gave you a concussion; I think I broke your head.” I gave him a level look and pointed to the fry basket.

“Get the fries out and onto something to drain, would you?”

There were eight of us when we gathered in the kitchen and living room and devoured the burgers as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks. Jay entertained everyone with his jokes and tales of me kicking his butt. His eyes would go wide as he spoke. He gestured with his hands and moved so much that he almost fell off his stool twice.

Santiago was quiet, but he laughed and, on cue, embellished Jay’s stories. When we ran out of beer, he made a trip down to get more.

This dinner gave me a chance to meet Kiera. She and Heather were physical opposites— Heather being short and fair while Kiera was taller and warmer. Kiera spoke even less than Santiago, the person who most captured her attention.

With olive skin, dark hair, dark eyes, Santiago was tall for a Hispanic man. Jay was pale with hair the color of a new penny. Strawberry-blond, that was it, I thought. His intense green eyes laughed, even when his mouth didn’t. Both men were large and muscular, with thick necks and square jaws. To be so differently colored, they looked remarkably alike.

The other two men were twins, Courtland and Montgomery, or Court and Monte for short. They were average height, thin, darkskinned men with shaved heads. They enjoyed team-teasing Jay and finished each other’s sentences.

The beer loosened everyone up, allowing us to get comfortable with one another. Having been at House Wells since the gala, I had scarcely seen anyone but Heather. I wondered if, initially, Leslie told them to stay away to give my family and me time to adjust.

When I asked, Court said, “The house is large. You could go all day without seeing any of us if you wanted. Except for Jay, everyone is usually gone in the daytime. We have projects we work on related to what Leslie’s doing.”

“Right-o,” Jay added. “Since you arrived, Cami-girl, J and I have been helping the vamps by checking the grounds in the daytime. Makes Les less paranoid. The vamps are really the muscle around here, but we can do in a pinch.”

“You aren’t fighters?”

“In a pinch, I said,” he repeated as if I were slow.

“I guess that makes us the trainers,” Justin said pointing between himself and me.

“When we’re here, Kiera and I mostly tend to the needs of the household,” Heather explained.

“Hoy, and needs we have,” Jay added and wiggled a flirtatious eyebrow at her. Kiera rolled her eyes but smiled. Heather waved Jay off, blushing.

“Of course, the vamps do a little bit of everything,” Santiago said.

“Brains, brawn, and a mixture of both in their leader,” I said.

“I think our Cami-girl might be a mix herself. What do you say, J?” Santiago eyed me and nodded. Jay raised his beer. “Cheers, everyone,” he called out, and we drank deeply.

END CH14 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 13: Part 2

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Justin’s plans to stay. I was happy that I had someone I considered real family with me. I just didn’t know if the complications—and there would be complications— would be worth it.

I stared at the closed door for a long time and thought about what it meant to be family. If what Leslie told me about his was true, the people living in his home were very special to him and loyal. They accepted me, and although I hadn’t had much chance to get to know them yet, none of them was outright yelling at me or suggesting I leave. That was something.

To try to empty my mind, I walked into the dining room. It was stark compared to the rest of the house, as if Leslie couldn’t decide how to decorate it or its lack of decoration was on purpose. The long, almost black table with straight lines and no frills or embellishments, dominated the room. The chairs had solid backs and seats of the same wood, yet they were comfortable. Leslie had a fair amount of wall art throughout his home, and one rather large painting hung behind the head of the table. I stopped in front of it and stared.

Though I heard no footsteps, I sensed Leslie behind me. He passed a hand down my hair and let his hand rest on my right shoulder.

“That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” I admitted.

“Thank you for staying.” He pressed his forehead into the back of my head.

“You’re welcome. I hope I don’t regret it.”

We stood quiet for some time, and eventually, Leslie’s head lifted. “It’s a work by Francis Bacon.” His hand fell away from my shoulder as he moved around me and approached it.

“It’s terrifying and heartbreaking.” I jerked my chin toward the painting. “He doesn’t have much of a head.”

“That’s not unusual for Bacon. What else do you see?”

“What little bit of eyes there are look hollow, empty, soulless. He’s surrounded by what look like bones and black fabric, I guess. He’s caged, but it’s thin, barely visible. Like a glass box.”

“Why do you think he’s caged?” Though I continued to look at the painting, I was aware that Leslie turned to look at me.

“The hands. They’re like the claws of an animal. Maybe he’s crazy, and he’s locked up for his own protection.” I pointed to where there were dark scribbles all around where the top of his head should have been.

“Maybe he’s locked up for the protection of others.”

“Maybe it’s both.” Now that I finally looked at it and thought about it, the painting disturbed me. I didn’t think I wanted to eat in the same room with it.

“At times,” Leslie said softly, “you have an uncanny ability to see right to the core of a thing.”

“I see what I see. Tell me something.”

“What’s that?”

“No, I mean you’re almost a complete mystery to me, so tell me something about you.”

“Like what?” He eyed me.

“Something about your past. I don’t care. Anything.” I threw my arms up in the air. “I’ve shared a lot with you, both voluntarily and involuntarily. I’d like you to share with me.”

“Let’s see.” He paced down the side of the dining room and back to me. “I was born in what was South Wales in England. Back then, it was a large Anglo-Saxon territory, ruled by the invading Vikings.” He stared over my shoulder. “My family owned land, mostly forested with some access to the sea. It was good for hunting and fishing. I remember the land, and some of my life as a human. I was happiest when I was out in the forest or in a boat on the water.”

He offered me a wan smile, and I thought it must be a tough loss to become a vampire when what you liked most in life was being outside in the daytime. Leslie sighed.

“My name was different because the language was, but over time, I’ve tried to adopt new names that have the same basic meaning as my original one. The meaning of ‘Leslie’ that applies to me is ‘garden by the pool’ which you can tell goes with ‘Wells’ which means what you’d expect.”

I thought forest would be more appropriate for him, but then decided that his land must have had lots of fresh water. Maybe his mother had a lovely garden. I wondered if he ever missed his family, long gone by now.

“You already know I was twenty-six when I was changed,” he continued. “I suppose I must’ve been a vampire almost twenty years before the Norman Conquest began.”

Turning the focus from the history of England back to the history of Leslie, I asked, “Who changed you?”

“A five hundred-year-old Viking who called himself Magnus.” Something unpleasant passed over Leslie’s face. “Even back then vampires thought of making armies and ruling the world. There weren’t as many of us, and we were widely spread.” He glanced down at me. “We’re still nowhere near as populous as humans, but technology made an enormous difference in connecting us. As you are well aware, vampires are even more selfish and power-hungry than humans. It was only a matter of time before we got the upper hand and brought the world to a standstill.”

“Why did Magnus pick you?” He had changed the subject again, and I wasn’t sure that he even knew he was doing it.

“He and a few others were hiding on my family’s land. I was a very strong and handsome young man, and I suppose they thought I’d make a fine warrior and an even better lure.” His fists clenched. “They caught me one evening on my way home from hunting.”

I reached out and put my hand on his forearm. “What did they do to you?” I searched his face, but he only shook his head.

“I’m not ready to share that.”

I would need to tread carefully in order to uncover Leslie’s secrets. I had a feeling there were many. I nodded in concession and asked, “What did you do, afterward?”

“Whatever Magnus told me to do. He was my master. He drank my blood to strengthen his control over me.”

“But you’re not with them anymore,” I offered hopefully.

“No. I wasn’t with them for very long in the grand scheme of things, even though at the time it felt like an eternity.”

“Do you know what happened to them after you left them?”

“They went to Hell, I hope. I killed them all.” Leslie looked away from me back at the painting. “I think that’s enough sharing for today.” He kissed my cheek and left me standing, open mouthed, in the dining room.

END CH13 P2