“What broke your mood, Dear?” my mother asked. She walked up behind my chair and reached over its back to pat my shoulder.
“Snow White’s a vampire, Cinderella is a slave, and Beauty looks like Aster.”
“I don’t know that Snow White was a vampire. She was still human, and true love saved them all.”
I coughed out a laugh. “True love. Fairy tales,” I grumbled. My mother walked around the chair to face me, and I looked up at her. “It’s been twelve years, and I still miss her.” I stood, and my mother hugged me tightly.
“I know.” She rubbed my back, the way she had when I was little. “And because of what happened to her, you refuse to bond with anyone.” My mother had a way of getting to the heart of things. Well, I did, too, but her deliveries were nicer than mine typically were. “I understand why, but I don’t think it’s healthy.” She pushed back from me, holding my upper arms in her hands, and gave me a searching look. I frowned at her, and she touched my cheek. “Go eat. The vampires will be here soon.” She gave me a soft pat and then let me go.
As I walked toward the kitchen, I cast a glance back over my shoulder at her. “They’re coming tonight? Why?”
“Leslie sent a messenger today, a tall, broad young man, with a cockney British accent.” She did an impression, which had us both laughing. “The young man asked if Leslie could pay us a visit. You know, talk to you, and see how things went today. I have to say, he looked sorry that he missed you. I think he wanted to see if you lived up to the hype.”
She winked at me. I knew she would have preferred I do almost anything other than be a slayer, but she knew that I had to do what I had to do. She was proud of me, and she loved me very much.
“Leslie?” I asked. “So now you’re on a first name basis with him?”
She followed me into the kitchen. “We’re trying to work with him. Friendships can’t form if we keep such stiff formality between us.”
I rolled my eyes and dished up chili into a bowl. My mother got out a box of crackers, and I took a sleeve.
“I get it,” I said with a wave of my spoon. “This messenger was cute, huh?”
She smiled at me and nodded. I leaned back against the counter and began shoveling in the chili. My mother grabbed my arm and dragged me to the table.
“You need to slow down, use your table manners. I taught you some, years ago.”
“Sorry. A lifetime of speed eating is hard to break.” I opened the crackers and shoved a whole one in my mouth.
“Well, try.” She swatted my hand. “Justin certainly is.”
Suckup, I thought, but said nothing as I tried to mete out a reasonably-sized spoonful of chili and eat it at a moderate pace. I took out another cracker, bit it carefully in half, and chewed it.
After she left me, I went back to shoveling. I wondered if Leslie and Selene dined on fine china and drank from crystal goblets. I shook my head and reminded myself that they didn’t eat regular food. Still, I bet they drank blood out of quality stemware. We were lucky in that there were dishes in this house, but then again, Leslie probably took care of that for us. I looked at the two-eye propane camp stove my mother set up on the counter so that she could prepare a stockpot of chili. Next to it, the large range sat cold and unused.
Maybe I should ask Leslie to turn the power on after all. I got up to fill bowl number two.
The scratching of fingernails down window glass sent shivers up my spine, and I sent the chili slopping onto the counter. With my jaw set, I put down the bowl and went over to the window. It was just after sundown, but there was still enough light to see. Selene looked skyward, embarrassed, while Leslie continued to paw at the window, smiling.
“Camellia,” he sang, “invite us in.”
I opened the door and said, “Selene, you may enter.”
I turned and went back into the kitchen, cleaned up my mess, got another bowl of chili, and took it to my room. I sat on the floor under the bedroom widow, cross-legged, bowl perched in my hands with Snow White in my lap. She had brown eyes in this picture, not blue like Selene’s. I was curious to see what Justin had forgotten.
I found that Snow White had taught the dwarves good manners and good housekeeping. I wondered if she made them soft or if they’d ever been hard. They certainly mourned her passing. They hunted down the witch, but in the end, she accidentally killed herself. No one had blood on his hands except the witch, and she was dead. It was unrealistic, improbable.
“You are incredibly rude,” Leslie snapped.
I continued to stare at my lap. “You got invited in, didn’t you? And, you should knock, like a normal person.”
“I only wished to tease you a bit.” He walked over to stand at my side. “What are you reading?” So quickly I hardly saw it, he took the book from under my hand. I turned my full attention on what was left of my chili. “Snow White? A bit old for fairy tales, aren’t you?”
I shrugged and shoveled the last of the chili down the hatch. “I never heard of it before today.”
I set the bowl down so I wouldn’t throw it and turned my head to look steadily in his eyes, even if I couldn’t see them so well in the gloom of the room. “My family went into hiding just before I turned five. Do you think that when my parents had the time to read or teach their daughters they spent it on fairy tales?” I waited a beat to let that sink in. “No, my father taught me how to fight, how to kill. My mother taught us French in case we went to Canada, Spanish in case we went to Mexico. Math, some science, civics, and important literature.” I ticked these things off on my fingers. “They didn’t bother filling our heads with make-believe nonsense about romance and love when our days centered around whether or not we’d even live to see another.”
“Daughters? You have sisters? Where are they?” Leslie looked around as if one of them might be hiding in this very room.
“I had one sister, and she is none of your business,” I said even as he opened his mouth.
He changed subjects easily. “Five, huh? No school?”
I looked away from him. “My family did their best, and I read whatever I came across in the houses where we’ve lived. It’s good enough.”
“Save it. I don’t need a personal tutor.”
I picked up the bowl and took it back to the kitchen. In the dark, I scrubbed the bowl and set it in the other bay of the sink to dry. When I turned around, I realized Leslie had followed me. He sat in a chair in the dining room. Justin and Selene were there, too.
“So, Camellia, you and Justin tell us about your day,” Selene prompted.
“Justin got a tuxedo,” I said. “We pick it up tomorrow.” Selene smiled at this. Her white teeth gleamed in the moonlight that came in through the window. “I got a dress and makeup, and I impressed the hell out of Travis when I told him that I was the great Leslie Wells’ mate.”
“You shouldn’t mock him,” Selene said coolly. “You have no idea how powerful he is.”
“Selene,” Leslie said in a bored tone, “let it go. It’s a good thing I decided to make my move when I did. Travis is one of Luc’s men. It would’ve been a shame for him to have taken you.”
“Never would’ve happened,” Justin said.
“Look, Justin,” Selene reached for his hand, “it’s not that we doubt your or Camellia’s abilities, it just—”
“No, it never would have happened. If, for some unknowable reason, she didn’t kill him first, she would kill herself, and so would I.”
I nodded firmly in agreement. “Never taken prisoner. We’ve learned from our mistakes.” Although I could hardly tell that Leslie and Selene were in the room, I looked at each of them. “Was there anything else?”
“I want to see the dress,” Leslie said.
“You’re posing as my mate. I want to make sure that your dress is appropriate.”
“Whatever.” I stood up and headed out of the room. “Well, are you coming?” He was behind me, nose to my ear before I even finished asking the question. I hadn’t even heard his chair move.
As I walked down the hall to my room, I heard Selene ask, “Justin, what does your tux look like?”
I growled and led Leslie back into my room. “We can take it down to the basement. There aren’t any windows down there, so we can have lanterns at night.”
The closet door squeaked and the garment bag rustled. “I can see it.”
“I promise that I will take a bath, wash my hair and fix it, and wear some makeup.”
Leslie unzipped the bag and removed the dress. I couldn’t see the details of it in the low light, but I could tell he was touching it or pulling at it. I walked over to him and felt the fabric. It was soft and slipped through my hands.
“She said it’s silk.”
“Crêpe de Chine, high quality from the looks of it. The neckline should be flattering. I like this detail here.” When he realized that I couldn’t see, he took my hand and placed it where the fabric swooped into a spiral that would sit halfway between my breasts and bellybutton. He let go of my hand. “The straight skirt will accentuate your hips, and the fabric will move with you beautifully. I’m surprised you went with something this form fitting.”
“It’s close, but I can hide a knife along my inner thigh. I was wearing one at the time, just to be sure. That’s about all the extra room in this thing.”
I grabbed the waist of the dress. It was lightweight, unlike the beaded ones. The halter straps and built-in cups held up my breasts, even if the V dipped between them. The back was low. It was elegant but not flashy. Perhaps it did suit me.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the full effect. This color…” He touched the silk. “It’s like a smoky shadow in a glacier.”
“I’ve never seen a glacier, but the lady said it was a good fall color for me.”
“Yes, the color will bring out your eyes and warm your skin tone.” His hand lifted to my face, and he ran his thumb up my cheek. It stopped at the corner of my eye. “Such striking eyes.”
“Leslie, don’t,” I said quietly. “Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. Don’t.”
After a beat he let it go. “Selene and I will be here, in a limo, Friday at sundown. We’ll go to dinner where we can discuss our plans and goals. There should be appetizers and drinks at Benoit’s. There will be socializing, dancing, and so on.” I nodded briskly. Now, we were getting down to some business. I sorted and filed the information. “I don’t expect you to be meek. In fact, I think that’s probably beyond your acting skills. However, I do expect you to be polite and act like a lady. I want you to make sure to touch me affectionately. Otherwise, you are going to give anyone who’s paying attention room to speculate.”
“Speculate? Don’t vampires take new mates all the time?”
“Not all of us. Certainly not me, not for a long time. I’m not like most vampires, and they know it. Ancients, like me, are thought of as eccentrics. People will be watching you. Remember that. Now, can you do these things for me? If not, I need to know now. Are you going to flinch and stiffen every time I touch you?”
He was still touching me, and it made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t because he was a vampire. I just never let myself get used to another’s touch. I decided to remind him of this fact.
“I told you, I’m not used to touching or being touched intimately by anyone, much less a vampire.”
With a hint of irritation in his voice, he asked, “Do you want to work with me?”
“Of course! This is huge.”
“Then, you’re going to have to let go of the commando attitude and loosen up.”
“Okay, okay. You’re right. Try me.”
I relaxed my stance and shoulders. Leslie slid his hand across my cheek and neck. His hand moved over my left breast and down to my hip. He squeezed it gently.
“Good. The heavy breathing is okay. Just try to look aroused, not panicked.” I let my eyes go unfocused and parted my lips slightly. “Wow. That’s…that’s perfect.”
“Look what lows I’ve sunk to—making out with a vampire.” I snorted and then burst out laughing. I was certain that Leslie was frowning at me, so I punched his shoulder. “I’ll get my act together. Don’t you worry. I know which forks to use and everything.” I smiled at him. “I may not be much of a lady, but my mother taught me how to act like one. I’ll do you proud. By the end of the night, even you’ll think I’m madly in love with you.”