“Please, try to trust me.” His brow furrowed a bit. “I can offer you protection, aid.”
“Why?” I wondered what the price might be.
“I want to work with you, specifically. Beyond that,” he took his hands out of his pockets, “you should know that a household like Benoit’s is always on the lookout for young females…for various reasons. One of your recent visits to the grocery store drew the attention of Benoit’s right-hand man, Luc.”
I straightened. “How can you know that?”
“His men have been asking around about you, trying to find out who owns Lily.” I grimaced. “I imagine he wants a trade, but knowing his nature, I wouldn’t put it past him to just take you and deal with any consequences after the fact.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’d kill him first.” Then, I shrugged. “Hell, I’ll kill him anyway. Take them all out. That’s the plan after all.”
“I can get you in the house,” he said with a sly grin. My attention snapped to him, and in response, his grin spread to a smile. “I am well-known in vampire circles. You and I could work together; you gather intelligence from the humans, and I get it from the vampires. We use what we learn to end Benoit’s rule and free Florida. What do you think?”
“You know how to tempt me,” I admitted.
He laughed, and the sound made me feel comfortable, the fact of which made me instantly uncomfortable again. “Talk of killing, espionage, destroying and rebuilding the entire world order does it for you?”
“Oh, yeah.” I lifted an eyebrow and nodded. “I’ll have to think about it…um…?” Palm up, I held my hand toward him.
“Sorry. How rude of me.” Gently, he popped himself in the side of the head. “Leslie Wells.” He realized that he had released me and looked flustered for a moment before offering me his hand. I shook it.
“Wells, I need to think about it, and you should realize that my father may not be on board with this even if I am. I, we, will have questions.”
The truth was that I toyed with the idea of going rogue for a few years, and since Justin had made his feelings clear, the need to flee pressed on me harder. Now, I had an option, something huge, that I could accomplish. I salivated at the possibilities.
“My friends call me Leslie or just Les.”
“I don’t know if I should trust you, much less call you a friend. You could be bullshitting me and bring your whole nest back to the house tonight to kill us all.”
“Knowing the reputation of the Rosegartens, at least half of us would be killed trying to get near the house.” He smiled at me, but I felt very uncomfortable, almost sick. “What?” he asked. “I can hear your pulse racing.”
“We have a reputation,” I breathed out, seriously worried now. I leaned back against a pine for a moment.
“I stand in the presence of slayer royalty.” He bowed to me as I propped against the tree. “You have led groups that have wiped out vampires all over this country. If Benoit knew you were here, you wouldn’t last long. There is quite a bounty on your heads.”
I glared at him. “Are you trying to blackmail me now?”
“No, just explaining the nature of the world you kill in. You need some friendly vampires in your corner.” He took a few steps closer to me. “If I wanted you dead, you would be. If I wanted your family dead, I’d bite you and send you back to them. If I wanted to hand you over, I’d have taken you with me already. You have to admit, if you want to take out Benoit, you need me.”
“What do you propose? I need more than pretty words and a name to take back to my father. How exactly do you plan to protect us?”
“It’s simple—you will pose as my mate.” He waved a hand at me like that would magically solve the problem. “That will certainly explain why you aren’t enthralled, why you are out running errands without a chaperone.” He nodded as he thought. “Yes, I’ll say you and your family are rescues. That should explain your obvious nerves.”
I pointed my finger at him. “I don’t have nerves!”
“Mark says you’re jumpy.”
“I take it he’s in on this?” I whirled my finger in the air. When Wells nodded, I re-crossed my arms over my chest. “Yeah well, I’m ready to fight or run. That doesn’t mean I’m jumpy.”
“Mm hmm.” Wells smiled at my glare. “Rest assured, once it is known that we are together, no one will take you without my permission.”
I relaxed just a tad. Wells regarded my self-inflicted bite marks. “Also, they know I don’t drink humans for nourishment so the lack of multiple bites won’t matter, but those marks won’t fool a vampire.”
“I guess, if we want to stay here and take down this bastard, I don’t have much of a choice.” I tore a limb from a nearby shrub and yanked the leaves off one at a time. After I mutilated all the leaves, I stripped off the twiggy branches. When the limb was nothing but a pile of bits at my feet, I looked at Wells. “It’s as likely as not that my family will think I’m compromised and kill me.”
His tone both teasing and patronizing, Wells said, “Justin won’t let them kill you. He loves you. You should offer to let him go with you on Wednesdays as your bodyguard, what with your position and all. He has a rough time of it when he’s not with you.”
“Well, that’s his problem, and it’s none of your business,” I said a little more loudly than necessary. It angered me that he knew so much about us.
“Ouch. Too bad for him.” He rubbed his hands together. “I will relish it when I see the look on Luc’s face when I introduce you to him.”
“If I agree, you mean. Why is that?”
“I would think it’s obvious.” When it became clear to him that I wasn’t of that opinion, he asked, “How long has it been since you’ve looked in a mirror, Slayer?”
“A while,” I admitted.
“You’ve a few scars, but you’re quite lovely all around. Strong but with nice curves.”
“Thanks for the compliment. You’re not too bad looking yourself, for a vampire.”
He laughed generously at that. He knew he was gorgeous. All vampires had allure, but Wells was particularly pretty.
He stopped laughing abruptly. “Someone’s calling for you.”
I turned my head to listen. “I’m going. Just give me a few days.”
When I started to leave, he swooped to my side. After taking my hand in his, he kissed each of my cheeks and vanished.
The panic and adrenaline hit me. I sprinted back to the house and passed my confused-looking father. I hoped it looked like I’d come in from a run and not like I was terrified. Once inside the house, I went straight to one of the bathrooms, ran a cloth under the tap, and put it on my neck.
I didn’t need a mirror to know that my hair had darkened from the white-blond of childhood to something closer to khaki. My oval face had thinned, making my greenish-blue eyes appear even larger. Better than I knew those colors, shapes, and textures, I knew those of my scars. None was so large that it marred my face or marked me in any distinguishable way, but I had far more than the average human did. They had come from one of three things: scouting in the woods, fighting with a vampire or a slave, or in an escape. It was no wonder Mark had asked about them.
My mother always told me I was tall. I spent almost all my waking hours training, which earned me a lean-muscled build and a flat, hard tummy. Justin had always complimented those, as well as my “nice curves” at my breasts and hips.
I rinsed the rag under the sink, wrung it out, and passed it over my face. I sighed and looked at my reflection. I could see how, even if it looked like somebody had dropped me a few times and then kicked me, someone might say I was “quite lovely all around.” Yet, now that I really looked, I realized I needed a better backstory and to wear long-sleeved shirts.
* * * *
Since I knew my father would overreact, I waited an entire day before I invited him out to the clearing for a private conversation. My idea was to give him proof that it wasn’t a trap. As expected, he was supremely angry, but he stood quietly while I told him about my encounter in the woods.
“He knows everything!”
“Shh. Someone will hear you,” I said. “Not everything.”
“Don’t you shush me.” He shook his head. “It’s a trap.”
“How can you say that? No one came in the night. I believe him, Dad.”
We argued and speculated. My father thought Wells just wanted control of Florida, and no matter what, he thought for sure it would end in our slaughter. I couldn’t tell him otherwise, but the longer we stayed under the sun, the less he argued against the idea of joining forces with a vampire. More importantly, he didn’t order me inside to pack. The temptation Wells dangled so carefully in front of us was too much to ignore.
I tried to make him understand that we couldn’t eradicate vampires, but with vampires like Wells around, we might be able to learn to live with them as equals. Inspired by Well’s passion and my own pleas, I made up my mind to go along with Wells whether or not my parents or the rest of my family agreed. I was ready for change—change in the status quo, change from the constant hiding and fighting. I had a feeling my father was, too.
“It could lead to a better existence for us all. I want that for me and for you and Mom.”
“Set up a meeting with him,” he decided. “We’ll make the way clear tomorrow night.”
“I don’t even know if I can find him. I have no idea where they are based.”
“He’ll find you or vice versa…probably got someone out there right now casing the house. Damn!” He smashed his right fist into his left palm. “That really burns me that they found us.”
When he said that, I realized that most likely we found the house because of Wells. It made perfect sense—big house, water, no vampires in the immediate area, except the (possibly) good ones.
“Dad,” I put my hand on his forearm, “I think we need him and the protection he can provide. Wells told me…he told me that our names, Harold and Camellia Rosegarten, are well-known and hated among vampires.”
He looked at me, and his face turned pale, almost haggard. He was tired. He couldn’t hunt anymore. At the age of fifty-two, his body had seen more wear and tear than most others saw in their entire lives. I knew what I told him would scare him. I only hoped it was enough to make him accept help from a promising source.
He ran his hands over his face and then through his hair. “Hell, that makes us even bigger targets than I might have suspected.” His face darkened, and I knew the train of thought his mind took.
“I already asked if we were being blackmailed, to which Wells replied he would simply turn us over or kill us if he’d wanted that.” I kept my eyes on his. “I don’t think he’s even told his family that we are who we are.”
Angry, he asked, “Oh, so they’re a family now? And you’re so eager to join them? Are you sure you weren’t bitten?” He scowled at me.
“I wasn’t bitten,” I sassed. “Do you want to check me?”
“No.” He sighed. “I believe you. I can’t think that if you were bitten a vamp would leave you so hard-headed and smart-mouthed.”
Despite the tension between us, I coughed out a laugh, and he chuckled. I fisted my hands as I looked at him. “I need to do this.”
“You’re a grown woman now. You can do what you want.” He waved a hand at me. “Although you know I prefer you to stay with me and your mother. Set up that meeting for tomorrow night. After I hear from him, the family will vote.”