“That was really unwise,” Leslie scolded as I vomited into the toilet again.
“Lesson,” I retched, “uh, learned.”
When my stomach was empty, I slid onto the floor, laid my face against the cool tiles, and closed my eyes. My heart hammered, and my chest felt like there was a brick on it. My body twitched as the adrenaline edge burned off. Behind it was exhaustion. The muscle men hadn’t fired on me, and as I regained the ability to form coherent thoughts, I wondered if they were on my side.
“Who are they?” my voice cracked.
“Jay and Santiago.”
“You know them.” I kept my eyes closed and willed my heart down from my throat. My hands shook, and my mouth tasted sour.
“They share the room next to the twins, but they’ve been out since you arrived. I called them. Imagine my surprise when I came up and found you gone.” He didn’t sound surprised at all. He sounded royally pissed.
Slowly, I sat up and leaned against the wall. My ears rang, and I felt green. “I left a note.”
“Yes, I saw it. Lot of good it would do if someone other than my people had found you.”
“They didn’t catch me, and why did they keep chasing me?” I looked up at Leslie.
His expression was angry, but his eyes showed fear. “I wanted them to scare you.”
“Well, they did.” I closed my eyes again.
“Leslie!” The panic was clear in my father’s voice. “Did they find her?”
“In here.” Leslie squatted beside me and brushed the sweat-matted hair back from my face.
“Where the hell did you go?” my father demanded.
I opened my eyes to see him bracing his arms against the doorway. His face had the same look as Leslie’s. “I went for a run. This place was beginning to feel like a prison. I needed air, exercise.”
Wounded and insulted, Leslie said, “My house is a prison? You feel like a prisoner here?”
“That’s not what I mean.” I waved my hand at him. “No disrespect, but I’m not used to staying in all the time.”
“All the time? You were in for one and a half, two days.” Leslie stood and paced toward my father and back.
“Maybe it was the letters,” I mumbled, but there was no maybe about it. My reaction was a direct result of the letters and the feeling that it was time to hit the road again. Something that ingrained was hard to ignore.
“What letters?” Leslie asked. He stood in front of me, looking down at the top of my head.
I didn’t have the energy or interest to look up at him. This whole conversation was tiresome. “The ones I found in my journal.”
As soon as I said it, I was sorry. Leslie blew past my father. So much for my one private possession.
Dislodged from his place in the door, my father walked over to me. “Honey, you know you shouldn’t go off alone. It’s not smart.”
“Yeah, Dad. Leslie already gave me the lecture.”
“Okay, well, how about instead, you explain to me how your broken hand is perfectly fine.”
I put my head in my hands and scrubbed my eyes. I didn’t feel like doing that now or ever. It would just lead to another lecture, more yelling, more anger. I was so tired of everyone being angry and disrupted. It was hard not to blame the vampires.
“Ask Justin. I’m going to be sick again. Would you please leave and close the door?”
I rolled onto my knees and shut my eyes. After a count to ten, I heard the bathroom door slam. I wasn’t going to be sick, but it was a good way to get rid of my father. I needed to think, to plan.
I stripped off my sweaty clothes and, for the second time in three or so hours, climbed into the shower. I had gone from a bath every two or three days to two or three baths a day. I got as far as soaping up my arms before I realized I had no clean clothes with me.
When the yelling started, I tried to ignore it. From the sound of it, Leslie, my parents, and Justin were having it out. There would be hell to pay. Since there would, I stayed under the spray even after everything was scrubbed.
I wondered if I should just run, make up a new name and history for myself. Surely being alone would be easier than dealing with all these annoying, arguing people. Still, I loved these annoying, arguing people.
Another option was going to Aster. If accepted into the household, I had no doubt I could put an end to Benoit. I just wasn’t sure what else I would have to endure, or if I could endure it, in order to achieve that goal.
Justin came into the bathroom and yanked open the shower door. “Get out. Dry off,” he ordered. “I’ll bring you some clothes.”
“And just who do you think you are telling me what to do?” I snapped.
Instead of answering, he grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the tub. I stood on the bath mat, dripping, as Justin grabbed a towel off the rack and began rubbing me dry.
“Get off, Justin.” I pushed him back from me.
“You should shut your mouth and do what you’re told.”
The right cross I threw caught his left cheek with a gruesome squishing sound. I hadn’t hit him hard enough to knock teeth loose, but he would have a bruise to match the one on his other cheek.
“How dare you?” I shouted at him. “You think you can order me around?”
The fury leapt into his face so quickly that I took a step back from him. He snatched my wrists in his hands. “I should break both of them.”
Instead of breaking my wrists, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. All his anger, his frustration, his inability to change my will poured into the kiss. His hands skimmed up and down my damp body.
I heard the pain in his voice when he said, “I want to stop loving you, but I can’t.”
His hand traveled down my body until his fingers glanced over the very fresh, very real bite marks. His fingers probed a little more gently, as if to prove that they were really feeling what he thought they were. In that instant, his passion dissipated, and he released me.
“He bit you,” Justin accused. “Didn’t waste any time, did he?”
“I’m sure it’s not your business. Despite what you think you don’t have exclusive rights t my body.”
He stared at me for a moment and then said, “I’m going to get your clothes now.”
I stood in the bathroom and shivered. Out in the main room, it sounded as though a few more people had joined in the arguing. When Justin returned, he stuffed a stack of clothes into my arms. He stood watch as I dressed, and when I had finished, he took me by my upper arm and hauled me out of the bathroom. I struggled against him, but Justin was a lot stronger and heavier than I was.
As we exited the bathroom, the arguing stopped, and everyone turned to look at me. The muscle men, Jay and Santiago, were at the bar and each having a glass of water. Both nodded at me in welcome.
When we reached my parents, Justin said, “Let’s go.”
His brows pinched together angrily, Leslie asked, “Where do you think you’re taking her?”
“We’re leaving Florida, and she’s coming with us.”
Leslie’s eyes narrowed into slits. “I think not.”
“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing.” Justin glared at him. “Maybe you’re really bored and looking for some excitement. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I know I said I wanted in on this, to help with this, but not at the expense of these people.” He stood in front of my parents and pulled me behind him.
“Justin, don’t get bent out of shape,” I said.
He whirled on me and poked his finger into my chest. “And what’s gotten into you? Oh right, I know what’s gotten into you. We all know.” My cheeks grew hot. I had never embarrassed this easily before we lived with vampires. “You’re two nips and two sips away from becoming one of them. Are you fucking him, too?”
“What if I am? It’s my body and my life,” I shouted at him.
“And what are you going to do with your life? Huh? Are you going to go live with your crazy vampire sister? Misery loves company.”
If looks could kill, the one I gave him would do the job.
“That’s enough Justin,” my mother said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Justin began, “but I know Camellia’s been giving it serious thought.”
“What do you mean?” Leslie asked.
“You think you know her? You know nothing.” Justin looked at me longingly. “I know her. I know how she thinks.” He gave me a mirthless half-smile. “So much like your father. The instant you read that letter, you started thinking of ways to get your parents out of here so they would be hidden and safe. You’ve been wondering if you should go to Aster, like a diversion.” Justin waved his free hand out to the side. “Like, ‘Look over here vampires.’ Then, we sneak off, and you’re dead, hopefully taking down Aster with you. How far off am I?”
“Not very,” I mumbled.
My mother gasped, and my father cursed. I had other ideas in the works, but there was no need to bring them up right now.
“Right, so we’re leaving Florida today.” Justin turned away from Leslie, pulling me wit him, and my parents turned to follow us.
Leslie suddenly appeared in front of Justin. “You can leave any time you want, but you won’t take Camellia with you.”
“I thought you were all about free will, Wells,” Justin spat at him. “So, is she free or not?”
“Of course she is free to do what she wants, no matter how stupid or dangerous I think it is.”
“So, she can go.”
Justin started to brush past Leslie, and Leslie caught his arm. I thought we looked like a game I had as a child. Try to hook several monkeys by their arms and drop them in a barrel. Look, I got three!
“If that’s what she wants,” Leslie clarified, “even though it’s not what I want.”
“And what do you want?” my father asked, stepping forward into our awkward group. “Let’s be perfectly clear for once.”
“I want to destroy Benoit. I want your family to have peace as far as Aster is concerned, whatever that may mean.” Leslie looked at my father sympathetically. “I want to use my power and position to release humanity from bondage and punish those who would deny you your right to be free.”
“And why is Camellia so important to all this?” Justin barked. “I’ve never understood that.”
“Because I’m Camellia,” I said simply.
“What the hell does that mean?” Justin asked looking even more irritated.
“It means I’m staying.” Though it pained me, I pried my hand free of Justin’s. “Leslie needs me more.”
Finally, I began to understand what he meant. He needed my mind, my abilities. He needed a free human with experience, one with a strong desire to see things through. He needed my leadership and maybe even my celebrity. Now, he needed my friendship.
“This movement needs me, but you,” I looked at my parents and Justin, “should go. You’re my family, and I love you. I want you safe. I want you to consider that you could live out the rest of your lives in safety and comfort. You deserve it, and if I knew that you were, I wouldn’t constantly be worrying over you.”
“You should worry more about yourself,” Justin chastised. “You’re going to end up getting yourself killed, or worse, become one of them.” Leslie’s jaw tensed at the insult.
Selene, her voice heavy, asked, “Is that how you feel about me?” Justin turned to the direction of her voice. We couldn’t see her. “Am I just a monster to you?”
“You’re breaking my heart, you thoughtless boy.”
She zipped past us, pausing long enough to brush a kiss over Justin’s cheek. Just as quickly, she vanished. I heard a door in the basement bang shut.
“Idiot.” I elbowed him hard in the ribs. “She loves you. She may be a vampire, but she has feelings.”
Justin looked utterly confused, and new grief marred my parents’ faces. I took one of each of their hands and drew them to the side.
“Do this for me,” I begged of them. “Leave Florida.”
“We’re not leaving you,” my father insisted.
“Please.” I pinched my eyes closed and clenched my fists. “I’ll be fine. When this is over, I can come visit you.”
“You’re all we have left,” my mother said.
“I know. I love you both so much.” I hugged and kissed them. “You are good parents, the best. You kept me alive and free until I was twenty-four years old. In this time, who else can say that? Now, it’s my turn to keep me alive.”
For the next half hour, my parents tried to convince me to come with them, and I tried to make them see why I couldn’t. They were getting too old for this—the constant moving and fighting. They were worn out, and they deserved some peace and safety. I wanted that for them so badly, and I told them so. They needed to go just as much as I needed to stay. I wanted to be part of what Leslie was doing. I could help, and it would be easier for me if I knew they were safe and happy.
Finally, after a lot of words, tears, and hugs, they agreed. Leslie offered to arrange for them to live in one of his other homes or in any free state. He assured them that they would be safe. When Leslie offered his outstretched hand, my father took it.
With a stricken look on his face, he said, “We appreciate your hospitality and your thoughtfulness of our well-being.”
“Let me make a few calls.”
When he started toward the kitchen, my father stopped him. “You better take good care of my daughter, Wells. She is the most precious thing we have.” His words touched me. I’d never heard him speak of me so.
“I couldn’t agree more, and you have my word.” Leslie nodded and continued into the kitchen.
When he was out of sight, I walked back over to Justin. I held his hand. I hated that things were ending this way between us. We had shared five years of our lives.
“You are my closest friend, Justin, so please don’t hate me. If you love me, please go with my parents. Keep them safe for me.”
Justin looked at my parents. “I promised Harold I would stay with you, and I don’t break my promises.” Relief washed over my father’s face. Very gently, Justin pulled me into his arms and hugged me. “You are my best friend, and I’m not going anywhere without you, no matter how hard you push me away. Do you hear me?” He squeezed me tighter before he pulled back to look me in the eyes. His hands came up to cup my face, and he kissed me just as gently.
“Why, Justin? You know you’re only going to hurt yourself more.”
I felt helpless. I didn’t want him to continue to torture himself over me. I had tried everything I could think of to push him away, and yet, he was still there whether I thought I needed him or not.
He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s my problem.”
Over his shoulder, I saw Leslie standing against the end of the only interior wall of the kitchen. A piece of the chair railing crumbled where his hand dug into it, but his calm veneer slid over his face before he rejoined us. Sensing him, Justin released me.
“A car will be here shortly,” he informed my parents. “Pack what you wish, but know that you’ll be provided for regardless. I have houses all over the southeast. Just tell the driver where you want to go. You’ll be welcomed.”
Always polite, always gracious, I thought as I sat on Leslie’s oversized sofa and waited with my parents for the car. My mother cried again, and I felt terrible knowing I was the cause. She and my father had shed enough tears for two or three lifetimes. I wanted them to be with me, but I knew that staying with me put them at a greater risk for injury or death. They needed to go.
Leslie was giving them real freedom. After twenty years of fighting to survive, they deserved some enjoyment and a true retirement. Now that they had a real chance of living free and without fear, they had to take it. I would stay behind and fight to ensure that.
After twenty minutes of hugs, promises, and I-love-you’s, the car arrived, and I saw my parents to it. Instead of feeling like good-bye, it felt more as if I was shoving them out the door. When I went back inside and closed the front door, a door inside me slammed shut.
I wondered if sending my parents away made me a bad child. It didn’t matter; I needed them to go. They would be safe and far enough away from me so that no one could use them to weaken or harm me. Reasoning that way, I made myself feel better about what I was doing.
END CH13 P1