After only a few minutes, Leslie went in, and shortly thereafter, a limo with vampire-safe tinted windows left. Justin and I spent the next hour going over basic form for blocks and punches. It wasn’t that the members of Leslie’s family didn’t know how to fight; it’s just that they didn’t have any formal training. My training wasn’t formal in the old sense of the word, but I knew I had near perfect form.
We spent part of the second hour going through my usual yoga routine to encourage flexibility and muscle tone. At the end of the second hour, Selene and Kyler went back inside the house. Not long after that, the rain came. We were filthy, hungry, and grumpy. Tired of their grumbling, Justin and I cut the others loose, but we weren’t done for the day. It was our routine to run after combat training and yoga. Everyone else trudged up the steps as I did a final stretch of my already loose quadriceps.
“You’re not coming?” Jay called to me.
“We always run,” I called back. “Yoga and running—that’s how you get the lean muscle.”
“But it’s raining,” Santiago complained.
“I’m not made of sugar.” I turned my face up to the sky briefly before I turned to Justin and nodded.
“No shit,” Santiago murmured, and I smiled.
Justin and I set off down the drive. Since I’d known him, we had run together. He always ran to my left because I tended to drift to the right at times. At least this time, I wouldn’t have to worry about foot soldiers or reprimands for running alone.
After a few moments, I heard more footsteps behind us. Jay jogged up on my right, and I bumped into him. Glancing behind me, I saw Santiago. Neither of them looked particularly happy, and I wondered if Leslie had asked them to keep an eye on me permanently. Well, even so, they could use the cardio.
“Three miles,” I explained to them. “If you get tired, let me know. We’ll stop.”
“We can run three miles, no sweat,” Jay promised me. “There’s worse ways I could spend my time than watching you from behind, Cami-girl.”
I shook my head and laughed as he dropped back behind me, and the four of us made our way down the drive. As the rain continued, my clothes stuck to my skin, and my hair stuck to my head. The end of my ponytail slapped against the side of my face and neck.
Trained to endure almost any weather conditions, the rain didn’t bother me. If you have to run, you can’t worry about weather. The only thing to worry about is running at night. I thought about one of those nights when we had to run. Maybe we hadn’t been careful enough or maybe it was just bad luck. Vampires discovered us, and because we refused to invite them in, they set fire to the house. As the house filled with smoke, I crawled on the floor, the glass from broken windows scraping my palms and knees. Screaming and terrified, most of our family panicked and ran out the front door straight to the waiting vampires. I stayed calm, kept my head. I was a good girl, and Aster was, too. We did exactly as my father told us, which was why we made it to the underground escape tunnel and got away. After that, my father always chose houses with lots of doors.
While I ran, I mentally tallied how many we had lost at night over the years. It was so rare for anyone to go out after sunset, and I thought about how utterly stupid it was for Aster to go outside at night, by herself, for a crying child. Throwing caution aside, she darted out the door, before it even registered to my mother and before I could get hold of her to stop her. In any situation, I assumed there was a trick. The pessimism kept me alert and alive. Even as we ran, I scanned and prepared, which was probably why I was able to dodge the tree.
I heard loud creaking, and then a large, mature pine fell at us across the drive. I stopped dead, grabbed Justin’s shirt, and threw out my right arm to halt the advance of Jay. In reaction to me, Jay grabbed my arm and then Santiago’s. My head whipped right and left—watching the tree, watching the men. As the trunk crashed down in front of us, the limbs swatted us to the ground.
A large branch broke over my right hip, but I regained my feet almost as soon as I went down. I did a quick assessment. No breaks, twists, or sprains, but bleeding from a gruesome gash on my right arm. Blood ran down my face, but there was nothing life threatening.
I scanned the sea of branches and needles. Closest to me, several branches trapped Jay. With my help, we managed to pry them apart so that he could climb out from under them. Without a word, I patted down his arms and looked over his shirt for gouges or slashes. Then, I pulled up his shirt, briskly sliding my hands over his chest and back, to check for gashes or punctures. I turned his arms over and felt up and down his legs.
“I’m okay, Cami-girl,” he panted, grabbing my hands and giving them a gentle squeeze. When he released me, he winced. He had a few small scratches on his face, and a cut at his hairline bled.
“You got whacked in the head,” I told him as I swiped at his scratches with my fingers and rubbed his blood on my shirt. He looked even paler than usual. “Get Santiago out. Justin!”
As I climbed around in the limbs, I heard grunting. The smell of pine sap hung in the air, and the slick, wet needles slapped at me as I dug through them. When I found Justin’s arm, I yanked, which issued a sky-splitting scream from him.
“What is it?” I perched above him with my legs straddled wide. When I moved a large thatch of greenery out of the way, I saw a branch puncturing his abdomen. “Oh, God, Justin.”
I reached toward where the branch was in him, and he grabbed my wrist. “It’s bad,” he choked and winced.
I swiveled my head around to where Jay was pulling Santiago free. “I’m on it, Cami-girl.” Jay took off running toward the house.
Although scratched and bleeding, Santiago was standing. He scanned the trees. “How bad is it?” he asked, limping over closer to Justin and me.
“Bad,” I answered.
I leaned my upper body down from my crouched position to reach Justin and hold his hand. He began to shiver, so I took off my shirt and tried to arrange it over him. I felt something on my shoulder and turned to find Santiago had removed his shirt, too. I covered Justin with it and began wiping blood from his cuts with mine.
“Don’t bother.” He sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’ll just ruin it.”
“Shut up. They’ll come. You’ll be okay.”
“Camellia.” No, not the dreaded full name. He grunted in pain. “I’ve got a large branch shoved up in my guts. I’m bleeding a lot. What do you think’s going to happen if anyone tries to remove the branch?”
“Jay’ll be back at the house in less than five minutes. It’s raining so the vampires’ll come out for you. We’ll figure it out.”
He sighed and closed his eyes, “I’m going to bleed to death.”
“No! You can’t. I forbid you. Look at me, Justin.” I reached down and pinched his cheeks. “Open your eyes and look at me.” I shook his face until he opened his eyes.
He tried to smile at me. “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?”
“Liar,” I said fiercely so that I wouldn’t be tempted to cry. I let go of his face and brushed away the needles and his hair. He tried to laugh and ended up coughing and choking. “We both know Selene is way prettier than me. You’re just a suck-up.”
“Tell me how we met. Please. It’ll take my mind off the branch.”
The way he tried to give me a stupid smile left me no choice. “Okay. Um, we were in California. I was leading a group in cleaning out a neighborhood just outside of San Fran.”
“You were what eighteen, nineteen?”
“Shh. Don’t talk,” I said and stroked his brow. “Almost twenty. We came in the house you were using for a bunker, and you had it booby-trapped. The homemade explosives on the windows wounded three of our members so badly that they ended up,” I choked a little, “bleeding to death. The sledge at the door broke two of my ribs.” I wiped at the cuts on his face again. “I found you sleeping in the attic, and I almost slit your throat for the hell of it. You woke up, asked me if I was the angel of death, and kissed me for the first time. That’s why I didn’t kill you. You’ve always been good at kissing.” He squeezed my hand. “Of course, once you realized I wasn’t, you freaked out and fought us.” This brought a smile to his face. “We checked you for bites, which must have been humiliating. We had to tie you and gag you to get you out of there and back to our house without drawing the attention of anyone in the area. You really were wild.” I gave him the best smile that I could. “My parents welcomed you to our home with open arms, despite the three we lost.” He shut his eyes. “My ribs still hurt sometimes when it’s really cold.”
“I love that story,” he said softly. “Kiss me again.”
“Shh. Justin, you shouldn’t talk, okay?”
“Someone’s here,” Santiago said, limping closer to me.
My head shot up, and I scanned the area. I listened, but all I heard was the hammering of my heart and Justin’s labored breathing. Santiago made some hand signal, and I got the gist that he heard the sound from off in the woods, not from the drive. I looked off in the direction of Santiago’s line of sight but saw nothing. When I panned to look up the drive, a blurry Selene headed toward us. About the time she reached us, Kyler landed heavily in front of the downed tree. Gravel sprayed in my direction. Carefully, Selene made her way over to me. When she saw Justin, she gasped.
“He’s in bad shape. Selene,” I grabbed her fancy blue sweater, smearing Justin’s blood on it, “don’t you let him die.”
She nodded once, understanding my meaning, and looked over at Kyler. I backed out of the tree branches, and Santiago limped over to me and put his arm around me. Before I counted to ten, Selene severed the tree limb and lifted Justin. The branch still stuck out of him, and I saw a pool of blood where he had been lying. This was bad, very bad.
I swallowed back a sob and looked at Kyler, who motioned me over to him. “What do you want me to do?”
“Let me hold you. Show her J,” he said to Santiago, who walked over to him.
Santiago put his arm over Kyler’s shoulder, and Kyler slid his arm around Santiago’s back, pinching him at the waist. I walked over, and he did the same to me. His grip was so tight that I almost cried out, but when he jumped, I was glad for it. Kyler didn’t fly, but his leaps were close enough. Four great bounds brought us back to the front porch, where he released us. As he sped forward and opened the door, Selene shot past him with Justin in her arms.
I put an arm around Santiago, and we shuffled up the steps behind them. Inside, Jay perched on a stool while a nervous-looking Heather tended his injuries. He bit his lip as she dabbed at his cuts. When she looked at me, I saw her gulp.
“J, you okay?” Jay asked, and Santiago nodded. I helped him limp over to the bar where he sat next to Jay, who reached out for me. “Cami-girl, you’re all cut to pieces. Come let Heather see to you.”
“Later,” I said brusquely. “I have to see about Justin.” At that moment, I heard Justin scream, and I ran into the dining room.
Selene had him up on the table, and the bloody tree branch was now lying on the floor. Someone had ripped open Justin’s shirt, and his face was white with pain and cold. I ran to him and grabbed his hand. His hold was weak, but he looked at me with wide, terrified eyes.
“C-Cami, I’m g-going t-to d-die,” he chattered as I shook my head violently.
Giving her a piercing stare, I said, “Do it, Selene.” She looked at me and then back at Justin.
“D-Do what? C-Cami, what are you talking about?”
“Drink from her. It will heal you. You won’t die.”
“I’m not drinking vampire b-blood,” he said with as much force as he could before his strength gave way. “You can’t make me.”
“Like hell! Listen to me, Justin Frederick Bellemead. I’m not ready to let you die because a stupid fucking tree fell on you. You can do it; I did. It’s no big deal. Right, Selene?” When she didn’t answer, I snapped, “Right?” and glared at her as I gripped Justin’s hand in both of mine.
“I don’t normally feed humans. It’s something Leslie does in emergencies. I don’t have his control, Camellia. It could end badly.”
Selene looked at Justin’s face, which grew paler by the second. Justin was in pain, and there was pain on Selene’s face. She didn’t want to lose him, but she was afraid.
“Well, Leslie’s not fucking here,” I shouted, freeing one of my hands and slamming my palm down on the table repeatedly to emphasize each word. “It’s gonna end badly sure enough if you don’t try. If you don’t, then let Kyler.”
She straightened her shoulders. “I can do it.”
Kyler pressed Santiago’s T-shirt to Justin like a compress. I held firmly onto Justin, and he looked as if he was on the verge of both passing out and passing away.
“Justin, do it for me. I don’t want to lose you.” A tear escaped as I looked down into Justin’s gray eyes, like the color of the rain clouds.
“Jeez, you’re crying. Don’t cry,” he whispered. “Okay. I’ll be a good boy and take my medicine.” His head rolled to the side. “What do I do?”
Selene positioned her arm in front of his face. “Just bite me enough to draw blood and suck.”
Justin slowly nodded his head. His eyes closed, but he opened his mouth, and I watched as he bit into Selene with as much force as he could manage. She made an excited noise, and her fangs extended. Biting was certainly a turn-on for vampires. After Justin secured his mouth over the bite, he sucked and swallowed.
Now, I had done this very thing not long ago, but I found it repugnant to watch, and my stomach rolled. Two swallows and Justin’s eyes popped open in surprise and delight. His mouth curved into a wide smile before he shifted and licked Selene’s arm.
“It tastes like candied apples and cinnamon rolls with a steak and a baked potato,” he murmured before latching onto her.
I pursed my lips. “I guess it’s different for every vampire.”
“It’s different because what food Justin likes is different from what you like,” Kyler explained. “Vampire blood tastes different from human to human, but each of you has a distinct flavor to a vampire.”
It was gross but incredibly interesting at the same time. While I pondered this new information, Justin propped himself up on one arm and let go of me.
“I want him, I want him,” Selene chanted as she tore at her sweater with her free hand.
At the sound of her voice, Justin removed his mouth from her arm, made a hungry sound that could only be associated with sexual desire, and grabbed her by the arms. Her fangs shot out, and her chest heaved. From the looks of things, he wanted her just as badly.
“Kyler, help me,” she pled, her eyes large with panic and her pupils dilated with lust. “We’ll kill each other.”
Kyler stepped to them and wrenched her free. “Mind him,” he barked at me as he dragged a squealing Selene from the room.
Justin collapsed back onto the table. The T-shirt compress fell to the floor, and I saw the hole in his abdomen had stopped bleeding as the internal tears began to heal.
“Cami, oh Cami, Cami,” he cooed. “You should’ve told me it felt so good. It’s almost as good as when I’m inside you.”
“Hush, Justin.” I eased into one of the dining room chairs. “You’re talking out of your head.” He rolled over, following the sound of me, and reached out for me. His eyes opened as I took his hand in mine. “Once you heal, you’re going to feel like a new man.”
“Can I have my kiss now?”
I looked at him. He wore a blood-smeared, self-satisfied grin, as if he’d already gotten dessert and was trying to wheedle an extra piece of candy.
“I think you earned it.”
I kissed the fingers of my free hand and pressing them to his mouth. He frowned and, on a surge of energy, yanked me out of my seat so that my mouth crushed into his. His hands shot up, one around the back of my neck and one into my hair as his mouth moved against mine. When the burst passed, he released me and panted.
“I want you, here, now, but it hurts.” He made a weak sound of pain and collapsed.
I felt for his pulse and found it strong and steady. Not dead, just unconscious. I sat down heavily in the chair. Asleep and alive, I thought, resting my forehead on my crossed arms. Now that the first stage of the crisis was over, I burst into tears.
END CH16 P1