In the first of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had, I danced at a lovely ball. I wore a light blue Cinderella gown and my hair in a tight bun. The faceless prince, in his white jacket and dark red pants, whirled me about the dance floor. I heard laughter other than mine and turned my head to find Aster.
Her golden hair fell down her back. She wore a pink version of my dress. Selene whirled by on the arm of an imp who floated in mid-air. Her mouth moved but made no sound, “Shh. Don’t say his name.” No, no, I shook my head. I could keep secrets.
When I said her name, she floated across the floor and clasped hands with me. “Wow.” She smiled. Her eyes closed for a moment, and then she said, “It’s my sister, Camellia.”
We began to skip in a circle as we had when we were little. “Does he know who you are?”
I didn’t know whom she meant. I focused on her. “I still love you. I miss you.” I squeezed her hands tight in mine for emphasis.
“Me, too. Don’t be sad, Cami. I’m a real princess.”
I pulled her close and kissed her cheek. “Don’t bite me,” I said, but there was no fear in my voice.
“How could I?” As we began to dance again, I heard a soft voice calling her name. Out of a swirl of fog and rose petals, Guillame’s head flew toward us. “He has loved me from the moment he saw me. He saved me from death.”
“And do you love him?” I asked.
She arched one eyebrow and tilted her head, an old gesture that meant I should know what she was thinking. She grabbed my shoulders and turned my back to her. I faced my prince, who was now Leslie. She shoved me forward, and I stumbled toward him. Before I could fall into his waiting arms, another pair grabbed me and yanked me out of his reach.
“Mine,” Luc snarled, clutching me close.
I smelled blood and rot on his breath. His yellow-green eyes stared at me triumphantly as his tongue came out to lick my neck.
The scream tore out of me as I awoke. The bedroom door burst open, and I leapt from the bed and plastered my back to the wall. I grabbed the first thing I could, which happened to be a hairbrush, and slashed it through the air at the person in the doorway. Waving her hands in a gesture of peace, the short, slender woman took a step back from me.
“Who are you? Where is Leslie?” I jabbed at her with the brush again.
“I’m Heather.” She held out a calm hand toward me. “Mister Wells is upstairs in a meeting with your family. He asked me to come down to his quarters until you awoke or he returned.”
Slowly, I lowered the hairbrush. “Human or vamp?”
“Human. He thought it was best.”
“Of course, he did.” I set the brush down and rubbed my hands over my face. “Please, take me to him.”
“Ah, perhaps you’d like a minute to freshen up?”
She smiled at me and jerked her head toward the mirror over the dresser. I glanced over and got a good look at my hair. I jumped at my reflection.
I went into the bath to try to tame my hair. Sleeping on it wet resulted in the unattractive smashed and crumpled mess I saw in the mirror. I took the brush to it but quickly decided a braid was in order.
When I dug around in Leslie’s bathroom drawers looking for a hair tie, I found a framed sketch of a woman. The paper looked handmade and very old, and the ink was faded almost to nothing. I made out her smiling face, her round cheeks with subtle dimples. I wondered who she was before I reminded myself that it was none of my business. I shoved the frame back in the drawer and resumed my search.
Finally, I found a band. As I whipped my hair into a braid, I reviewed my dream. It was so real in some ways. However, I knew that disembodied heads didn’t float in mid-air, and Rumpelstiltskin never danced with Selene. I suddenly wished that I had a chance to dance with Leslie. I sighed and secured the end of my braid with the band.
I found Heather in the outer room. Still in my pajamas and socks, I followed her out of Leslie’s quarters and up the stairs.
“They’re in the dining room.” She pointed to a room on the other side of the stairwell that Leslie and I had used to enter the house.
As I approached the dining room, I heard my father shout, “How could you let this happen? That monster could’ve killed her or worse, bitten her.”
“I would think being killed would be worse,” Selene said.
“Selene,” Leslie snapped. I made it to the doorway as he turned to my father, and in a calmer tone, explained, “Mister Rosegarten, she ran from me because she was going to be sick. I had no reason to think she would end up outside or anywhere she would be in danger.”
The calm in Leslie’s voice brought back the memory of what had happened between us before my nap. I felt my color rise. I had thrown myself at him. I had kissed him as if starved for him. I had torn his clothes, and I realized how incredibly lucky I was that he was such a gentleman.
“That whole place was a danger,” my father said.
“Hi,” I said stupidly as I walked into the room. The entire family was in the room. My father leapt from his chair, came over to me, and hugged me fiercely. “I’m okay, Dad.”
“Like hell you are.” He released me and looked me in the eyes. “He says you can’t come to the house because you may have swallowed some of that other vampire’s blood. Says we have to change houses because your scent is there.”
I was glad that Leslie was so levelheaded. I hadn’t even thought about anyone following my scent. I shook my head. “It was so stupid of me. I tried to spit out the blood, and I didn’t even realize I left my wrap.”
“The wrap is incidental,” Leslie said. “If Luc unwisely decided to hunt you by blood or by smell, he wouldn’t need it.”
I nodded to him. “Thank you for getting my family out of the house.”
“Yeah, thanks a boatload, Leslie,” Mandy sneered. My father gave her a stern look, and she shrugged.
“You should be thanking him. It’s his house,” I spat back at her. My father looked like he swallowed something bitter. “Before you keep heaping blame where it isn’t due, did he tell you why I got sick and ran? Why he didn’t chase after me?”
“He said you had too much to drink,” my mother volunteered.
“Which was my fault,” Justin added.
“That’s what he thought at the time, before he knew the truth. You didn’t tell them?” I turned to look at Leslie.
He shook his head. “I thought, something so personal, it would be better if you told them.”
“Tell us what?” My father’s eyes darted between Leslie and me.
I took his hand in mine, looked at my mother, and motioned for her to join us. Her hand rose to her throat, but she came over to me. After the three of us linked hands, I told them about Aster.
My father’s face turned an alarming shade of red, tears welled up and flowed down my mother’s cheeks, and I saw on their faces how their hearts were breaking all over again. The worst had happened: my sister was a vampire. As they wept anew for their lost eldest daughter, Leslie and I tried to explain what we thought had happened.
My mother shook her head as I hugged her. “Not Aster.”
“If she’s in with Benoit, she must be ended,” my father said, wiping his eyes dry.
Other members of the family murmured amongst themselves, but Justin came over to hug each of my parents. He had never known Aster, but his eyes were a little damp. It reminded me how caring he was. He looked up to my father and respected my parents. Then, I knew that something was terribly wrong with me that I couldn’t return his feelings.
“What if she wasn’t with Benoit? What if we could convince her to join us?” Leslie offered.
“She wouldn’t betray her mate,” Patrice said. “Vampires don’t do that.”
Leslie gave her a look that told her what she didn’t know about vampires was a lot. He turned back to my father. “This is something we should look into before we do anything rash.”
“Rash?” my father boomed.
I understood the logic behind it, especially after the dream I just had. It was risky to put faith in a thing like a dream, but I felt certain that Aster didn’t love Benoit. I believed she had really spoken to me, crazy dream or not.
“I have to talk to her,” I insisted, holding my father’s hands.
“Madness.” He shook his head at me. “She might try to kill you.”
“I’ll kill her first.” I stood up straight and held up my chin.
“Then, I’ll lose both my daughters. Best if we move on.” He patted my upper arms. “This Luc can’t find you if we go far enough away, and we’ll never come back to Florida.”
I shook my head, and my father shook me. The others liked my father’s plan.
“I need her,” Leslie barked. “Go if you must, but leave Camellia with me. I can protect her.”
“I won’t leave my daughter, and I’m not convinced of your ability to protect anything,” my father shot back.
This started a shouting match where everyone accused everyone else of not doing their jobs, not being careful, not thinking of the needs of others. Of all the combinations of people, my current family was as mismatched in terms of ideals and goals as it had ever been. None of us understood why I was so important to Leslie’s plans, and Leslie refused to enlighten us, saying it was between him and me, although he had shared only the tiniest bit with me. Fed up, Mandy and Robert wanted the whole group to leave me behind and start over somewhere else. Justin looked as miserable as I felt.
“Calm down,” I yelled over them. “No one has to leave Florida. We can find you a new house. You’ll be fine. I’m fine. In fact, the family should get along much better without me there.” I heard Mandy snort.
“Mandy—” my father began.
“Never mind her. You know things will be better if I’m not there right now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at me, making me realize where I had gotten the gesture. “Dad,” I said softly, “we’ve had to split the group before. We can do it now.”
“We’ve split but never you from us. I won’t have it.”
“In a democracy, it’s not up to you really,” I reminded him. “You should hold a private meeting and vote on whether to stay or go. I want you and the others to feel safe. Despite what you think, it’s best if I stay here with Leslie. What I told you before hasn’t changed. I’m doing this. I’m going to help bring down Benoit, and in the process I’m going to kill Luc and possibly Aster.” I blew out a breath. When I said it like that, it felt overwhelming, impossible.
“If you’ll allow it, I can arrange for you to be moved somewhere nearby, say twenty minutes away and still in the forest area,” Leslie offered.
I turned to him and asked, “They can’t stay here?”
“Your parents, Justin, perhaps. I only have the one spare bedroom. The other rooms are already doubled up with my family.”
“Excuse us for a moment.” I glowered at him. “May I speak with you, alone?” He frowned and followed me out into the main room. “Where can we have some privacy?”
He motioned to a door between the two staircases that went down to the basement.When I entered, I discovered it was a long, narrow bathroom. I strode over and propped against the counter.
As soon as he closed the door behind him, he started. “I’m not moving my family out for yours.” He walked over to stand in front of me. “I may be a vampire, but I need people around me that I trust. I don’t trust your family any more than yours trusts mine.”
“I wasn’t going to suggest you throw anyone out,” I said. “We don’t need beds, and you have all that space in the basement.”
He paced in front of me. “That’s my personal space.”
“Oh, I see.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “I should’ve known a wealthy, powerful vampire like you would be spoiled and selfish.”
I turned around and began eyeing myself in the mirror. I cared what I looked like about as much as I cared for high heels. However, the gesture said that I cared so little about his excuses that I found myself more interesting.
“No, you don’t see.” He looked into the eyes of my reflection.
Despite some myths, vampires can see themselves in mirrors. Leslie stared at me with such fierceness and such sadness that I turned back around to face him.
“I…” He looked down and took a deep breath, out of habit rather than necessity, before continuing. “It always has been very difficult for me to live among groups of any size, but if I want to accomplish my goals, it’s necessary. I only keep my most trusted friends in the same house with me.”
“Hard to believe. You looked quite natural cruising around a room full of vampires, soaking up their compliments, and patting them on their heads while they groveled at your feet.”
His head snapped up, and he glared at me. “Social situations are different. I’m very old, strong, gifted, and powerful. That gives me a lot of clout with vampires. It’s why they gave me the southern United States when I asked for it.”
“Oh, really? You’re wary of having strangers in your house, yet you let me sleep in your bed. I’m barely more than a stranger to you.”
“That’s not the same, and I don’t sleep there very much.”
“Why is it not the same?” I demanded. I crossed my arms over my chest and waited for his answer.
“Because you are Camellia Rosegarten,” he said simply, leaning back against the door.
END CH9, P1