“Because you are Camellia Rosegarten,” he said simply, leaning back against the door.
“Some answer,” I huffed. “So, you don’t sleep in your bed. Do you hang from the rafters like a bat?” I flapped my hands at my sides like wings.
“No,” he growled, his calm façade slipping. “No, when I have to rest, I hide, if at all possible.” He looked angry with himself or me or the world. “Fuck, I tell you too much,” he exclaimed and popped his fists against the door. “I tell you too much.”
He cast his eyes back down to the floor, and I softened. Here was a vampire, so respected and feared, yet he felt he had to hide when he rested. I wondered what happened to him to make him so lacking in trust, so overly cautious. He was over a thousand years old and, after all that time, still wounded. I reached out to touch his face, but he jerked it back and glared at me.
“Don’t pity me,” he snapped. “I don’t need or deserve it.” He pushed off the door and walked down to the other end of the counter. He leaned against it and crossed his arms, mimicking me. “I worked very hard to have what I have. I need some privacy, some security. I have that in the basement of this house.” He pushed off the counter and came to stand in front of me and very close. He looked down into my eyes, but I didn’t feel him trying to influence me. “I’d like to share my space with you, but if you’d prefer, you can take the other room I already offered.”
“Why do you trust me?” I didn’t understand, and I wanted to badly.
“Call it a hunch.” He shrugged one shoulder and then reached around me to hold my braid. “If you sleep in my bed, your parents can have the other. I’ll find a place here for Justin.” He examined the braid as if it were some amazing scientific discovery. “I like your hair loose.”
“It looked horrible after I slept on it wet, but you’re distracting me. Leslie, why do you even have the bed if you don’t sleep in it?” Before he said anything, the other purpose for which it was nice to have a bed came to mind—the very purpose for which I had tried to lure him into it. “Oh, sex. Oh, and I slept there.” I suddenly felt dirty and made an icky face.
“You are the only one who has been on that bed.” Leslie dropped my braid, turned, and strode out the door.
When I finally came out of the bathroom, Leslie had returned to the dining room to continue the discussion with my family. I had nothing left to say and wanted to give them time without me to make up their minds.
Heather was gone, as were the other family members Leslie claimed occupied the house. I supposed they were making themselves scarce so that my family would feel more comfortable. Leslie made all sorts of concessions, but my family didn’t care. I shook my head.
I discovered Selene and Justin bustling in the kitchen and offered to help prepare the evening meal. It was just after sundown, and someone had opened all the shades. From the windows over the sink, I saw that the forest hugged the house, and I felt comforted.
The magnificent kitchen was situated under the second story bedrooms. A long bar separated it from the rest of the open living area, and the counters formed a three-sided work zone that was open at the end pointed toward the staircases. Angled in the corner was the refrigerator, and Selene gathered ingredients from it.
Justin took down a large stockpot from where it hung above a work island and took it to the sink to fill it with water. After setting an armload of vegetables on the island, Selene swooped over to check the temperature on one of the double ovens. She twirled around Justin as he carried the stockpot to the six-burner stove and slipped her arm through mine.
“Would you mind slicing the vegetables?” She pointed her chin at a cutting board beside the pile. “They’ve been washed.”
I laughed. Fresh food, hot water, refrigeration, and heat. A girl could get used to it. A girl could get soft from it.
“I’m a butcher, not a chef,” I warned her.
“A lesson then.”
Selene showed me how to hold a chef knife and the motion to use for cutting. I found it challenging to slice the vegetables uniformly, but it was rhythmic and soothing. I decided that my mother must have taken up knitting for the same reason. Well, that and the constant need for sweaters, mittens, and caps.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Justin promised. “I’ll sleep on the floor if I have to.” To that, Selene smiled widely.
“That’s sweet of you,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll at least let you sleep on a sofa.”
“Just so you know, Cami, I’m not doing this just because I care about you. I feel strongly about it, maybe even more than you do. I want to take that bastard down and free your sister, whatever it takes. I’d want the same thing if it were my brother.”
Justin had told me about his family. He was about ten when he, his parents, and his younger brother went into hiding. One day, he went out on a supply run and came home to find his house burned to the ground, his family with it. He was only fourteen. After that, he had roamed the country alone until we found him.
My parents wouldn’t abandon Justin any more than they would me. I thought of him as true family, almost like a brother, which was why I would never love him the way he loved me. I decided that it was time I made that clear to him.
“Justin,” I paused and looked over my shoulder, “you know I think of you as family.”
“Sure,” he said, never looking up from something he mixed for Selene.
“No, I mean, not like Robert or Mandy. I mean like my parents, real family. I’m closer to you than anyone.”
“I know. I understand what you’re saying.” He stopped stirring and looked at me. “I know you don’t love me like I wish you would, but I know you do love me, despite how hard you try not to have any feelings for anyone. I know what losing Aster did to you.”
I was quiet as I slid the chopped vegetables into the large skillet Selene had heated and coated with olive oil. I shifted the pieces around the way she indicated. I hadn’t really shared my feelings about Aster, but I guessed they came out whenever someone mentioned her.
Justin went back to his mixture, asking Selene’s opinion. She smiled at him whenever he made eye contact. I knew she had feelings for him, but I had to think of my family first. The safety of my parents was of utmost importance to me.
“Justin, if my parents decide to leave, would you go with them?”
Selene gave me a hateful look that Justin didn’t catch. “I don’t want to leave you. I promised your father.” He came over to me and dumped his mixture in with my vegetables. Selene shooed me away and tossed the ingredients with an expert flair.
I glared at her behind Justin’s back. “I’d feel better knowing you were with them,” I pressed.
“It won’t matter because they won’t leave you. You’re the only one in the world they have worth fighting for.”
That sounded so dismal, but he meant what he said. My parents always gave me the impression that they had faith in man’s (humans’, that is) ability to survive and eventually conquer any trials thrown at him. I believed that wholeheartedly. I didn’t like to think that they had given up hope.
“I’m not the only one.” I gave him a small smile, and he hugged me close. “Justin, I wish I felt differently. Oh, you are such a good man. I don’t deserve your love.”
He shook me once while he still held me. “Your heart is closed, if you tried to open up a little—”
“I can’t, and you shouldn’t love someone who can’t return your feelings.”
“You mean won’t,” he accused, flinging the empty mixing bowl in the sink of soapy water.
“No, I mean can’t.” I threw my hands in the air. “Justin, I won’t ever be the kind of woman you deserve. I can’t be a wife or a mother. Fighting, it’s what I do best.”
“That may be true, but you could be a wife, even be a mother—”
“No, Justin.” I shook my head. “I can’t. The sooner you realize that I can’t give you what you want, the better.” I went to the sink to wash the bowl he tossed in, and I murmured, “I never should’ve slept with you.”
“What did you say?” He grabbed my shoulders and spun me to face him. The dishrag I held slopped water all over his jeans and my baggy flannel pajama bottoms. “No, I know what you said. Five years I’ve been your lover, at your convenience, and you say that? You are a cold woman.”
“You’re right.” I set my shoulders. “And you shouldn’t waste anymore love on me.”
Through clenched teeth, he said, “Good idea,” and shoved me against the counter before he stormed out of the kitchen.
I flung the dishrag back into the sink. No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, I always hurt him.
“Camellia,” Selene said calmly, “Take the pasta off and drain it. Add it to the vegetables and stir it with these tongs here.” She waved them at me and set them on the counter. After giving me a hard look, she left to go after Justin.
I felt like throwing the pasta in the floor, but instead, I focused on the task before me and did as Selene instructed. I held the handles with mitts and poured the pasta into a large colander that Selene had placed in the bottom of the dry side of the sink. I shook it to make sure it wouldn’t drip and carried the colander over to the cook top. As I scooped pasta from the colander into the skillet, I sensed Leslie even before he spoke.
“You have a gift for angering people. I’ve never seen your equal.”
He leaned against the counter to my right and watched while I struggled to blend the pasta into the vegetable mixture. He nudged me aside and took over cooking. With just as much finesse as Selene, he flipped the contents of the skillet to combine them before sliding the tongs back and forth.
“Can vampires do everything perfectly?” I asked grumpily.
“If you live for several human lifetimes, you get bored. You find hobbies. Selene enjoys cooking, but she’s not the only one who can cook.” He slid the contents onto a waiting platter.
“I’ve really screwed things up with Justin.”
“Yes, you have.” He set the platter down and put his hands on my shoulders. “But he needed to understand your feelings, wrong though they may seem.”
I frowned at him. “Why are they wrong?”
“I said they seem wrong. You come off as cold, tough, impenetrable, but I’ve seen the other side of you.” He smiled at me. “When your guards are down and your rational thoughts are at rest, you have a lot of passion and heat.” I felt my color rise, as I remembered how I’d kissed him as I’d never kissed anyone. “Don’t worry,” he said, picking up the platter in one hand and running a finger down my cheek with the other. “I won’t tell on you.”
He sailed from the room, and I heard him call everyone for dinner. I swallowed hard and grabbed the stack of plates Selene had set on the counter. This was going to be one of the most unpleasant dinners of my life. I was ready for it to end before it even started. When it ended, I would find out if I still had a family.
END CH9, P2