The driver got out and opened the door. Selene emerged from the limo in a royal blue gown that matched her eye color to perfection. It was tight and covered very little of her above the waist. The skirt flowed down her body like a narrow stream into a small pool. There was a short train on the dress. She practically glided over to him.
“Wow,” we said in unison.
“Good evening, Justin, Lily,” she said in an amused tone and winked. “Your ride will be along shortly.”
She took Justin’s hand and led him over to the limo. He slid in behind her. I walked over, but she shook her head and smiled as the driver closed the door between us. I was confused until I saw another limo coming down the drive.
Leslie didn’t wait for his driver to open the door. He sprang from the limo before it fully stopped. Taking one of my hands in his, he guided me to the car. After I sat down, he swept my skirt into the car and gently closed the door. In the time it took me to count out a second, Leslie went around to the other side, got in the limo, and resumed holding my hand.
He looked into my eyes and said, “You look shocked, absolutely stunningly gorgeous, and terrified,” before bringing my hand up to kiss it.
“You took me by surprise,” I said, and started breathing again.
“Oh, no. You took me by surprise.” I watched as his gaze traveled down from the top of my hair to where I still clutched the book. His brow furrowed. “You don’t want the book?”
“I’m afraid someone will damage it.”
Leslie accepted this without further questioning. I finally gathered enough of my wits to give him a once-over. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored black tuxedo. Like Justin’s, it had tails and silk lapels but with an embroidered wreathed heart instead of a pin. Leslie wore a white vest-type garment over his shirt and a white bow tie. He looked dashing, and I swallowed hard.
“Perhaps you can read it when you finally come to visit me at my home.”
I shook myself because I was staring at him, almost entranced. I started to ask him about visiting, but he moved on to another topic.
“I have something for you.” He drew a small box out of his pocket. “Since you’re to be my mate, you’ll need a ring. Not all vampires give their mates a wedding ring, but, in that respect, I’m old fashioned.” He opened the box and took out the ring. I studied it after he slid it onto my finger.
“It’s carved, or, uh, engraved I guess is the right word.” I turned the wide band around on my finger. “There are leaves and birds. It’s lovely.”
He held his left hand close to mine, and I saw he wore a similar ring. “The oak leaves represent strength, wisdom, and longevity. The birds, here,” he pointed, “are doves, which symbolize love and fidelity, as doves mate for life.”
“Leslie…” I couldn’t accept something so personal.
“Like most things I have kept over time, it’s old and dear to me, or if you prefer, I can find something else more suited to your taste.”
I had no taste in jewelry. “No, it’s fine.” I decided to let it go. Wanting to brighten the mood, I patted his arm and leaned back into the seat a bit. “Check this out.”
He looked at me with one eyebrow raised as I crossed my left leg over my right. The slit in the gown shifted up to about four inches above my knee. Sensually, I slid my hand into the slit. Then, I jerked my hand out, grasping the no longer hidden knife. Leslie caught my wrist in his hand.
“I’m not attacking you. Jeez.” He relaxed and let go of me. His fangs were out a bit. “I just wanted to show you my nifty setup.”
He looked at the knife. “Nice punch dagger.” He shifted a bit. “Easy to puncture and twist, taking out a chunk of your enemy.”
“I thought so too, and check out this garter thingy. It works great.” I uncrossed my legs and flipped the gown open to expose my thigh and show off how the holster clipped onto the garter. I slid the knife back into place.
Leslie’s nostrils flared. Gently, he pulled my knees back together and smoothed out my dress. He leaned back into the seat.
My brow furrowed. “Look, Leslie, I have to carry some sort of weapon, okay? I’m not going into a nest without something.”
“Of course.” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Then what’s wrong?” He waved a hand at me. “Don’t try to dismiss me. What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine. I should’ve eaten. Don’t worry. I’ll get something at the restaurant.”
“Am I making you hungry?” I poked him in the ribs, and he glanced over at me.
“Yes,” he said so flatly that I quit playing.
“Well, I haven’t eaten in a few days, but that’s not really it. You see…this is going to sound disgusting to you since you don’t drink blood for nourishment.” I rolled my eyes and motioned for him to get on with it. “Well, it’s your time.”
“My time?” I thought a moment. “My period?” I shook my head. “I only spot and only for a few days. It’s not very regular, and it’s already over.”
“The scent lingers,” Leslie said. “It’s nowhere near as strong as freshly drawn blood, but it’s tempting, especially when you add in the dress, makeup, hair, and the little sexy garter holding a deadly weapon.”
I fake-gagged. “One word…Ew.”
“I warned you, and you asked. Just don’t do anymore reveals unless it’s an emergency.”
I had one vague memory of eating at a restaurant. It was what my mother had called a “fast food” place, so this fancy dinner was another new experience. Leslie coached me through it, and Justin thought I was hilarious. I practically jumped out of my skin every time the waiter came by our table.
I ate very little, but I found it helped ease the tension to talk about our goals for the evening. With so many guests, we knew it would be hard to get an accurate head count at Benoit’s, but at least we could over-estimate and plan based on those numbers. I hoped to take a tour of the house and see the layout firsthand. Tonight, the focus was to get to know the people, both human and vampire, so that they would trust us more.
Leslie and Selene were having their final glasses of blood. My nerves killed my appetite, and watching them drink blood while I attempted to eat made it worse. To take the edge off, I had a glass of wine.
“Leslie’s position and reputation will help, but we want them to buy into us all the way,” Selene said, more animated than I had ever seen her. “You’ll be spending too much time being arm candy to do much else tonight.”
“Arm candy?” I gave Leslie a sharp look.
“Lily, you are the mate of a V-I-V, very important vampire. You’ll be expected to be by his side at all times other than bathroom breaks,” she explained.
“V-I-V, that’s cute,” I murmured. “I know you’re a judge and all, but why are you so important?” I turned to look at Leslie.
Leslie glared at Selene and said, “Just drop it.”
She flicked her head to the side. “No, I won’t. She should know who she’s been insulting.”
“Selene,” he commanded.
She didn’t avert her eyes quickly enough, and it looked like it was painful for her when she continued to talk. “Just tell her,” she grunted. “I know you want to keep this casual, but I’ve had enough of her insulting you.” I put my hands on my hips, which looked ridiculous since I was seated. Leslie reached over to grab Selene’s arm, and she scooted away from him. “Release me,” she begged, wincing. “You know how painful resistance is.”
Leslie sighed, and Selene relaxed all at once. Justin stared at him, but Leslie just rolled his eyes and gave Selene a look that suggested she go on with it since she insisted.
She cleared her throat and continued, “Leslie told you that he is the judge and ruler of the southern section of the United States.”
I nodded, but this was all news to Justin. His stare turned into a shocked stare. Leslie gave Selene an icy look.
She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry, but she’s just so smug and childish. I thought she should treat you with more respect.” Selene let her eyes drop back to the table.
“I like her that way,” he growled.
Justin finally found his voice. “You’re a ruler? Holy crap. Then you weren’t lying when you said you had lots of people and vampires to back you up.”
“Since there isn’t any use for human money, age, strength, and position make up wealth in the world under our rule,” Selene explained. “Leslie’s position as a judge, and therefore as upper-echelon ruling class, gives him significantly more power and hence wealth.”
Leslie glared at Selene a bit longer and then looked at Justin. “I’ve spent many years visiting my subordinates, feeling out who would be with me and who would be against me. Benoit is opposed to change and, as such, is one of those I need to remove, but he won’t go quietly.”
“Then, you don’t really need us, do you?” I asked.
“When the humans, wild or not, know the Rosegartens are with us, they will have more faith in our ability to change things.”
“But, you don’t really need us.”
“Then why—” I began to press, but he interrupted me.
“You and I will discuss this later, Camellia. It’s time we should be going.” He pushed back from the table and stood behind me to pull out my chair. “Selene, you should tell Justin your motives.”
“He knows my heart and why I want him to work with us.” She stared down at my hand, the one that had the ring on it, making sure that I saw her do it. Leslie nodded and took that hand in his.
More quickly than was necessary, we walked out to the waiting limo. The driver opened the door for me, and within moments, I found a brooding Leslie waiting on the seat next to me.
“Time to come clean,” I joked and tried to make eye contact. He looked out the tinted window into the night. “Leslie?”
Quietly, he said, “You were right.”
“Well, I know, but about what specifically?”
My question made him laugh. After a moment of quiet pondering on his part, he looked at me. “The house…I own it. It was prepared for your family, and I had my invitation into it revoked by one of the humans who works with me.”
“I had guessed as much. What else?” I poked him.
“I’ve been watching you since you moved in,” he admitted, his gaze penetrating me.
I shrugged it off, even though it did bother me a bit. “You already told me that.”
“I wasn’t exactly telling the truth when I told you no one had ever lived to describe you. No vampires, surely, but there have been a few videos from surveillance cameras. One was from a grocery store in Ohio. The other was from the house of a family you took out about six years ago.” He brushed a curled lock of my hair over my shoulder. “I had been looking for you for a few years when I heard of its existence.”
“So, were we total badasses?” I gave him a devilish half-smile. “Everything you heard was true, and you wanted to recruit us?”
“I wanted you with me. If your family wanted to join, that would be fine, but I wanted you.”
“You pretty much told me that already, too. So, what’s the big deal?”
“I suppose there isn’t one,” he murmured, leaving me with the feeling that he wasn’t telling me everything. “Bern, we’re ready,” he called to the driver. He pressed a button on the door console and an overhead light came on. “Let me read you the story of Rumpelstiltskin.”
Leslie lifted his arm over the seat back and motioned for me move nearer to him. I did, and nestled into him, as his arm draped over mine. I grew quite comfortable next to Leslie. He wasn’t as warm as I was, but he wasn’t cold either. Even though I had touched them when I fought with them, I always assumed vampires were cold.
The book lay open in his lap, and he flipped to the proper page. Though he looked like he was reading, I decided he was reciting the story from memory. I wondered how many times he had read the book. In the dark of the interior of the car, I pictured the story as he told it. As Leslie continued to read and the story unfolded, I wondered why the women in most fairy tales were so dumb.