Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 13: Part 1

Sharing

“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?”

“Selene—”

“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

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 12: Part 2

I stood in front of the refrigerator, nibbling on a piece of cheese (real cheese!) and trying to decide what else to eat. Yogurt was good and so was fresh milk, in moderation. I didn’t know if I could ever go back to powdered milk. I picked up both of them and, closing the door, found Justin standing behind it. I yelped in surprise.

“Jeez! You scared the crap out of me.”

“Did I?” He looked down at my bottom and gave me a half smile.

I rolled my eyes at him. “Gross. You know, we never kept anything in a refrigerator because we never had power. Now that I have one to look in, I find it’s much harder to make up my mind what I want.” I poured two glasses of milk and returned the milk bottle to the refrigerator. “How’s your head?” The bruise on his cheek had fully bloomed.

Justin rolled his eyes. “Selene woke me up every two hours, asking me who I was, if I knew where I was, all sorts of questions about my life that she wouldn’t know the answers to anyway.” He smirked. “I’m fine. Just a touch of a headache. Sorry about your hand.”

I turned my glass up and chugged the milk. Confused, Justin took my hand and twisted it from side to side.

“I swear I broke it or at the very least gave you a good sprain. I was ready to grovel and beg for forgiveness for hurting you.”

“Well, if you didn’t break it, I certainly did when I punched Leslie.”

He grinned at me. “You punched Leslie?”

“Yep, for the whole thrall thing. That really burns me.” My brows furrowed in remembered anger. “It was our fight.” I rinsed out the glass in the sink.

“Yeah, well, we were getting out of hand. You were going for a lethal blow,” Justin reminded me.

“I was going to pull it.”

“Okay, but now you need to explain to me why your hand is fine.” He snatched my other hand, looked at it, and then grabbed my chin to examine my lip. “What the hell? You have no scabs on your knuckles, and your lip is healed.”

Pulling away from him, I said, “Leslie’s a fine doctor,” and raided the pantry. I found a large container of granola bars, made by Selene from scratch, and devoured one. I liked it so much I had another.

“What did he do to you?” Justin grabbed my arm and spun me around. “Tell me.”

“He didn’t do anything to me. He presented me with three options for repairing my hand, and I chose the only one that was viable.” I jerked my arm out of his grip.

“What options?” I tried to move away, but Justin grabbed me with both hands this time. “What options?”

“I would need surgery. The bones in my hand, they were all out of place. I can’t go to a hospital, and I couldn’t let it heal on its own. I wouldn’t have had much use of it.”

“What did you do?”

I took a deep breath and spilled. “I drank his blood.”

“What?” Justin shook me. “Are you mad? You could turn. What were you thinking?”

“That I didn’t have much of a choice!” I shoved and swatted at him until he let go of me. If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought how funny it was that I had gained a big brother. “And I had very little, nowhere near enough to turn.”

“We could’ve set it, put it in a cast, something,” he shouted as he paced in front of me.

“Yeah, and then I would be totally useless.” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“You mean you wouldn’t be as useful of a fighter.”

“That’s what I said, ‘totally useless.’”

Justin shook his head at me. His mouth opened, and he started to speak but stopped himself. He snorted and stalked toward the stairs. He got halfway there, stopped, and then came back to me.

“The way you see yourself, how you are useful, is seriously warped. So, maybe you couldn’t fight. Who cares?” He threw his hands up in the air. “You’re still human, and that is worth everything.”

This time, when he walked off, he stayed gone. I didn’t see what the big deal was. I didn’t turn. Leslie made sure to stop me before I did anything I’d regret. As I munched on an apple, I wondered what Leslie regretted. The “incident” this morning certainly upset him. Thinking back over that made me smile, cringe a little, and want to get under the covers with him. I wanted to see what he was hiding under all his clothes.

In the dining room, I spied several boxes containing things I recognized from our old house, and I found a box with my name on it. It was mostly empty, as packing light was essential. My clothes were already in Leslie’s room, but the box had my ancient backpack and my running shoes. At the bottom, I found my journal. With great relief, I took it from the box. It was time to do some serious recording of events.

I found my pencil wedged inside and took a seat at the dining room table. Out of habit, I flipped back through a few entries. I always wrote small, from top to bottom and edge to edge. I tried my best not to waste any bit of paper. The reward was that most of my life was recorded in this large book with a good many pages left.

As I scanned here and there, I noticed how activity occurred in spurts. There were long periods where I recorded nothing, and then a week or even a day consumed pages. I had written in it only once since I’d met Leslie. With all that happened at the gala and what he had planned for Florida, I had a feeling that I was on the verge of a longer period of recording.

When I finally reached the first blank page, two pieces of paper fell out of the journal. They were high quality, cream-colored. When I unfolded the first letter, embossed with a script “A,” I recognized Aster’s handwriting.

Cami,

I hope you find this letter. Isn’t it odd that we can communicate in our dreams? It’s never happened before or with anyone else. Maybe it’s the blood tie. Who knows how these things work or why?

Just in case I can’t reach you again, I want you to know how happy I am knowing that you’re alive. I figured you and Mom and Dad would’ve been killed by now, but I should’ve known you’d find a way to survive. You were always brave and smart. I’m glad that, if you had to be found by a vampire, it was Mr. Wells.

I want you to live with me. If you would ask, maybe Mr. Wells would reunite us. I miss you every day. Please consider it. I plan to speak to Mr. Wells about it.

I love you,
Aster

As I read the letter, the dream came back to me. I thought about how giving up—because that’s what it would be—would release my parents from their obligations to me. Justin would move on with his life. I would be back with my original best friend. A cold woman, Justin called me. A cold woman wouldn’t have to stifle herself from crying over her sister and an impossible decision.

My resolve failed. I swore to kill Aster, and now, I seriously considered whether I could bear to live with her as a vampire. No, I wasn’t cold, not anymore. I was slipping.

I carefully refolded the note and took out the other one. It had an “L” on it in an even more elegant style than Aster’s A. I smiled, thinking it might be from Leslie, and read.

La Belle Fleur, Camellia,
I like this name, your name. It’s much better suited to you than a tender lily. Lady Aster requested that I write to you, and I find this form of communication sadly lacking. I would prefer to speak to you in person. I suppose this will have to do for now.

I will be punished for my transgression against you and Monsieur Wells, and I have given my promise to respect his wishes. You need not fear me, should you desire to visit your sister or even, if Monsieur Wells will grant her heart’s desire, live here with her. You would hold a place of high honor in our household, and you would be well cared for and protected.

Yours,
Luc

I trembled as I read the letter. I would be even less safe at Benoit’s than I would be walking down a street full of vampires who knew my identity. Still, maybe safe wasn’t the answer. In this case, sorry made more sense. I wondered how strong the bond between Guillame and Luc was and if Guillame would give up Florida in order for Luc to have me. The freedom of thousands was more than a fair trade for my freedom.

I stayed at the table until I calmed my breathing to normal. I needed to stay. I wanted to run. I hadn’t been outside the house, and suddenly, it felt too much like a cage.

I tore a blank page from my journal and stuffed the letters back in it. I chucked it into my box and dragged out my running shoes. As I tied the laces, I felt a little bit of the stranglehold loosen. I scratched down a quick note and left it on the kitchen counter.

By the time I stepped out the front door, where the cool November air hit my face and blew back my hair, I felt light. It didn’t matter that unfamiliar forest surrounded the house. I needed to run. I needed to be outside. Down the drive and back, I decided and set my pace. I would run until I reached the end of the drive or I couldn’t run anymore. Exhaustion would certainly ease my tension.

As I jogged, I thought more about my dream. Aster seemed unstable, and I wondered if her relationship with Benoit contributed. I hadn’t known vampires could cry, and perhaps it was just part of the dream. It was hard to know what was real and what wasn’t. One thing I was sure of: my knowledge of vampires was terribly incomplete.

Thinking about dreams and Leslie, my fingers almost tingled at my memory of how his skin felt as I traced his features. In the dream, the cryptic answer had become clear: love. Love was why he cared, why he trusted, why he slept in the open at my side.

Preposterous, I thought. Attraction, yes. It was mutual, as we assessed at the beginning of our partnership. It was growing. That was unprofessional but controllable. A form of friendship had become a part of it. That wasn’t unprofessional. There was respect on both sides. Love, on the other hand…nonsense, and definitely unprofessional.

I saw the end of the drive and felt as though I’d run about half a mile. As I closed the distance and prepared to turn, I heard car doors slam. Suddenly, two huge human soldiers stood in the driveway, armed with shotguns.

Shotguns! Guns were rare and used only in desperate situations. At the moment, the situation was desperate for me. Even if they had been unarmed, I still might not have stayed to fight. Since they were armed, I didn’t take a chance on being able to disarm them both.

“That’s her,” a red-haired giant muscle man said.

He and a brown-haired giant muscle man advanced on me. I skidded to a halt and bolted back down the drive as fast as I could, weaving a little in case they opened fire. My adrenaline kicked in and with it, a little something extra. I didn’t know if it was their footsteps or my heartbeat that pounded loudly, but I yelped, and I shot forward with an  additional burst of speed. The trees flew past me as I ran down the gravel drive. I nearly lost my footing twice.

As the house came into view, I felt relief followed immediately by dread. There in the shade of the covered porch stood Leslie, arms crossed. I bounded up the stairs and right past him, barely slowing when I hit the door, and ran straight into the bathroom where I proceeded to vomit violently.

END CH12 P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 12: Part 1

The Morning After

Even though Leslie’s room was dark, my body knew it was daytime, and I awoke feeling refreshed and energized despite the odd dreams. I was smelly from sparring with Justin and wrestling with Leslie. A smile spread across my face as I thought of the shower with hot water.

More quickly and more silently than I had ever moved, I slipped off the bed and into the bathroom. Leslie’s blood cured my ills and apparently made me more agile. I flicked on the bathroom light and squinted against the glare. After being in complete darkness, it was too bright, so I turned my back to the bathroom. That’s when I saw Leslie, resting just as peacefully as in my dream.

My brow furrowed. If I remembered correctly (and I did), Leslie told me he hid when he rested. I shook my head. Another mystery.

When the spray hit me, it felt heavenly. Even though I don’t sing all that well, I couldn’t help myself when in such a positive mood. Whenever we took out a nest or stayed in an abandoned house, we took the music CDs for playing in the car. We weren’t picky about what we took. My parents considered CDs a way to educate Aster and me about music. My father clearly preferred what he called “nineties alternative” and “classic rock.” My mother’s tastes were more eclectic.

Other than nursery rhymes, I didn’t know the words to many songs, but the music tended to stick with me. As I shampooed my hair, I sang and stomped out a beat that matched my perky mood.

As I washed my face and body, I thought about the books we had found and read over the years. We rarely took them with us, so I got in the habit of writing down summaries of them in my journal. Oh, my journal! I needed to retrieve it from the old house. I had a lot of action to write about now.

Body clean and steaming, I dried off and searched through Leslie’s bathroom drawers for a comb. I found one with wide teeth that would do just fine. I hummed the chorus of an old folk song my mother loved as I worked out the tangles in my hair. Once that job was completed, I headed back into the bedroom.

The light from the bathroom showed me that the previously sleeping Leslie was now awake. On his side and propped up on one arm, a smile spread across his face. “What a wonderful way to wake up,” he said. “You’re singing isn’t that great, but still,” he gestured to me, “wonderful.”

In my bubbling, happy zone, I had completely forgotten about him. There I stood, naked. I would not be embarrassed. My mother had not raised me to be shy or ashamed of my body. Justin had admired it many times.

Someone had the good sense to put some clothes in the dresser. I rummaged through the top drawer and found underwear, my underwear. In another drawer, I found new clothes and, under them, my clothes. I turned around holding a shirt.

“I made a trip to your old house last night. I thought you’d like what was yours. Mm.” Leslie sounded as if he had smelled or tasted something delicious.

“What?” I asked as I tugged on a sports bra.

“Nothing,” he waved his fingers through the air dismissively. “Continue. I’m enjoying watching you dress.”

“No, you said, ‘Mm,’ so I want to know what that’s about because you’re creeping me out just a little.”

“Then, be prepared to be creeped out even more.” He lifted his nose in the air. “Your scent is strong today. Must be a result of my blood.”

“My scent? Like my hormones?” I whipped a long sleeve T-shirt over my head and searched for panties. I had so few pairs.

“No,” Leslie drew out the word. “Your blood. It perfumes the air.” I stopped shuffling clothes and turned to find him sniffing at me. “Delicious.”

I made a face and fake-gagged. “That’s just disgusting. Human blood tastes gross.”

“Just like my blood tasted gross to you?” he countered.

Touché.”

“At least I don’t go berserk every time I get a drop of yours in me,” Leslie said superiorly.

“You should’ve seen your face when you were sucking on my knuckles,” I shot back. “You just keep laughing. You weren’t so jolly last night.”

“No, that was…intense. I wanted to bite you and tear off your clothes.”

“Have you ever done that before?”

“Yes, but not with someone…” He waved his hand again. “Yes, I have ripped clothes off of women and drank from them until they were dry.”

The thought made me shiver, and I could almost see Leslie’s mind sifting through memories that, from the looks of his face, were a mixture of horror and ecstasy. His lips parted slightly, and he sucked in a breath just before he said, “Dress, please. You make it very hard for me to be a gentleman.”

I smiled mischievously. “What if I were to walk over here and…Oops! I dropped my panties.” I held my hand up to my mouth and bent over suggestively in front of him.

“Do you enjoy playing games with me? You know I’ve killed. You know I drink blood.” His Adam’s apple bobbed, and his nostrils flared. “You should take care, have a better sense of self-preservation.” His eyes lost focus.

Instead of picking up my panties and going back into the bathroom like a smart person, I stood up, turned, and walked over to the edge of the bed. His blood made my senses stronger. I caught the scent of him—rosemary, mint, and male—and found myself suddenly aroused. He bit his lower lip, and I smiled.

“Step away from me,” he growled.

“I’m not afraid of you.”

In one flash of movement, he snatched me onto the bed and hovered over me, kissing me like a starved man who has found a feast. “I shouldn’t—” he started to say, but it came out strangled, as I met his hunger with my own. “Rah,” he yelled and pushed me up the bed until the top of my head smacked into the headboard.

His fangs sank into the tender skin of my upper inner thigh. The sensation was nothing like the faux fangs. There was no pain and all pleasure, pure exhilaration. My lower body flooded with heat from the saliva. The humming sensation filled me. I grabbed the headboard with my hands and held on while Leslie fed. I panted, called his name hoarsely. When he lapped at the bite and then nipped higher, I screamed as I reached the strongest peak I had ever experienced.

In one swift move, Leslie was off me and in the bathroom. I felt warm and incredibly fulfilled and then suddenly awkward. This was Leslie. Leslie was a vampire. Leslie had bitten me, and boy had I liked it. I stifled a crazed laugh.

Slowly, I got off the bed and retrieved my panties. I walked into the bathroom and found Leslie staring at himself in the mirror.

“I…am…a…monster.” He said each word slowly and precisely.

“You were provoked.” I waved a hand at him before re-combing my hair.

“It’s no excuse. I didn’t have your permission.” He looked at his reflection disgustedly. “I really didn’t want to make any mistakes with you.”

I slapped the comb down on the counter. “I waved myself in front of you like a red flag.” His eyes flashed up to the reflection of my face. “Don’t be so angry. So, you bit me. Big deal. You’ve already had my blood.”

“I went for your femoral. I fed on you like an animal.” He closed his eyes. “I should have more control, but it is very hard when you act like you want me. At least I didn’t force myself on you.”

I knew I wasn’t acting. I really wanted him, and if he had taken me, it wouldn’t have been against my will. I didn’t know what to make of myself, so I said nothing. Leslie looked so dejected.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he said quietly. “Can you forgive me?”

“Like I said, I provoked you.” I shrugged.

“That’s no excuse for me to hurt you.”

“You didn’t hurt me.”

“Camellia.” He lowered his head and opened his eyes. His voice sounded pained. “You cried out.”

“I had an orgasm, you idiot.”

If vampires could blush, he would have. He turned his head ever-so-slightly to look at me and must have seen the truth in my face. “I…I didn’t realize you, ah, enjoyed it.”

“It surprised me, too.” I couldn’t hold back a smile. “Woke me up better than the shower.”

Leslie returned my smile. “You’re really okay with what just happened?” he asked as he dabbed at his lips with my washcloth.

I held up my hands and then placed them firmly on the counter. “Let’s agree we’re not going to act weird about it. I taunted you after you warned me, and I got bitten. That’s only to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the orgasm, but now that I think about it, I can say I had both of them coming at your expense.”

Leslie shook his head, but he genuinely smiled now. “You have a wonderful flavor.”

“Okay, if this whole not-acting-weird thing is going to work, you can’t say things like that.” He laughed at me, and I smiled back at him. “But, thank you, I guess. You taste like the best dessert I ever had.”

“Okay, thank you.”

“Right, so we’re delicious.”

This time, I didn’t hold back the laughter when it came. Yep, life had definitely gotten weird.

END CH12 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 2

“Where would you like to bite me?”

My eyes went wide. “Are you serious? I thought you’d, you know, bite yourself and uh, drip the blood into my mouth.”

“Yeah, well, you thought wrong. So,” he gestured to himself. “Where?”

“Um, your wrist, I guess.”

Leslie unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his sleeve. His arm was pale and coursed with lean muscle. The top side of it had a few scars on it, and I reached out to touch them. Before I could, he flipped his arm over and raised his wrist to me.

“So, I just…”

“Bite through the skin.” Tentatively, I nipped at him. “Come on, Camellia. Really bite me, hard, like you bit Luc.” I breathed out, and this time I put force behind the bite. The sensation of my teeth sinking into his flesh sickened me, and I almost vomited. “Okay, now you have to drink.”

I looked up at him and saw his fangs poking out from under his upper lip. His eyes were slightly out of focus. I shuddered and looked down at the bite. I licked it and found that Leslie’s blood tasted like the most wonderful substance on earth, like chocolate-caramel- vanilla-peanut butter-cotton candy. I wanted to drink it until my stomach exploded. As I latched onto his arm and sucked, my good hand came up and wrapped around his arm.

After I took three hard draws, Leslie said, “Okay, you can stop.” I shook my head and rubbed my lips at his wrist. “Camellia,” his voice strained, “Stop!” He wrenched his arm free and staggered back from me.

Energized and hungry, I launched myself out of the chair onto him. He caught me by the wrists and held me back. A thin trickle of blood ran down his forearm, and I longed to lick it. I felt that if I had it, all my problems would melt away into delicious oblivion. As I struggled toward it, our bodies brushed. I felt him, hard and excited, pressing against my belly, and suddenly, I wanted his body and his blood.

I rubbed my breasts against his chest, and he lost some of his control. His tongue raced over my neck before he growled in frustration. He flung me toward the door of the bedroom. As I stumbled away, he caught me around the waist, and we flew into the bedroom. I fell onto the bed, and his hands cuffed my wrists, holding them against the mattress. He straddled me and pinched his eyes shut.

“Take me,” I said, breasts heaving. He kept his eyes closed and my arms pinned. “You want me.”

His eyes flashed open to lock onto mine. “More than anything.”

“You know I want you.”

“Yes, now, but is it real?” His eyes narrowed, piercing me. “Until it is, we’re not doing that.”

“What do you mean, real?” As I began to think of something other than bloodlust, my self-control returned. I relaxed in his grasp.

“I mean until you decide you want me, without having been influenced by thrall or by blood, I won’t make love to you.”

“Another promise you made yourself when you reformed?” Part of me hoped that, by mocking him, I would anger him into taking me. I had never wanted anything more than I wanted to feel his body against and inside mine.

“No. A promise I made myself regarding you.” He closed his eyes and turned his head to the side. While I watched, his fangs retracted.

“Oh, and what makes me so different?” I barked at him.

“You’re Camellia, goddamnit!” He released me and literally swooped out of the room.

I lay still on the bed, just letting my thoughts clear. The bloodlust vanished, and I could hardly remember the flavor. I couldn’t believe the madness that had come over me. I raised my hands in front of my face and found my knuckles and my right wrist completely healed, as if nothing had ever happened to them. It took less blood and time than I thought. I let my hands fall down onto the mattress.

Famous or not, I couldn’t understand why Leslie valued me so much. I wondered why he had been looking for me and why he didn’t just give in to his desires. Now, a completely different kind of ache gnawed at me. Idly, I spun the ring on my finger and the wheels in my head. Since I couldn’t answer my questions about Leslie, I switched trains of thought.

I wanted to see Aster, and I would convince Leslie that it was the right thing to do. If he would agree, she could come visit me at his house, alone. I didn’t want to go back to Benoit’s until I was prepared, mentally and physically. I couldn’t understand why Luc wanted me. He had only seen me the one time, and I thought his reaction to me over-the-top. Maybe he really was especially selfish. Maybe he was crazy. Aster certainly wasn’t all there. Perhaps living with Benoit did something to their minds. I wondered if making friends and loved ones insane was a special vampire talent. Would that qualify as a talent?

I turned over and dragged the bedspread with me. Life had suddenly become really weird.

* * * *

I couldn’t see her, but I knew Aster’s voice anywhere, all vampire-y or not. “This is an unnatural time to rest, but I need to talk to you.” When I only mumbled she said, “Cami, pay attention. Your dreams don’t last very long, and it’s the only time you let me in.”

“I’ll try,” I said testily. “Did you tell them who I was?”

“Of course. I’ve never been good at lying. They’ll let me have you.”

“I love you, but no.” She started crying. I hated it when she cried. I felt myself soften. “Why don’t you join us?”

She pouted. “He’d never let me, but Mister Wells would let you go. We could be together again.” With a hopeful look on her face, she came forward and took my hands in hers. “Yeah, and I’d get fed on and raped by Luc every night. I’d rather slit my throat.”

“I can keep him away.” She gave me a weak smile. “Guillame would see to it.”

“Aster, that’s naïve, even for you.”

“But I want you with me,” she wailed. “I have to see you. Knowing you’re still alive—I feel like my life is worth living again. You have to be with me. I don’t want to be here alone with them.”

She squeezed my hands, and her pleas tore at me. I knew it would be a very bad idea to go to her, but she was my sister. I couldn’t bear to see her in distress. I heard her fear and pain in every word. I saw it in every facial expression and every gesture.

“If you come to me, I’ll end it for you. I can give you release.”

Her eyes narrowed at me. “I don’t want release; I want you.”

“Get in line,” I mumbled.

“Camellia,” she whined. She only used my full name when she really wanted something from me. “I want you to come here and live with me. I’ll make you a vampire if you want. Please.” She knelt before me, crying full force now. I lowered myself down to the ground and hugged her. She wrapped her arms around me tightly. “Please, I love you. I’m begging you.”

“I love you too, but what you’re asking for is my life, Aster.”

“I can give you a new one. Our parents are gone, but we can be a family again.”

If I went to her, no one would have to know my parents lived. They could escape Florida, live safely. For that reason alone, the idea tempted me. “Leave me, Aster. I’m tired.” I needed to think, if it was possible to think inside a dream.

As I waved her away, she raked at my forearms. Pleading, she said, “Say you’ll come.”

“I’ll think about it. I love you.” With that, the dream faded to nothing.

* * * *

Sometime later, I woke but not fully. I felt someone curved around my back. I stirred a bit, and when I tried to roll over, an arm slid around my waist and held me.

“Go back to sleep,” the male someone said. His breath blew through my hair to the back of my neck, and I felt him nuzzle me. The arm at my waist pulled me closer to him.

“Is this Leslie or Justin?”

“Leslie,” he answered, irritated.

“Good,” I cooed groggily. “Hey, I’m sorry.” My speech slurred, and I snuggled into him. Even though I had a blanket wrapped around me, it felt good and safe in his arms.

“I know.”

I smiled and let sleep take me again. Again, I dreamed. In the room, I felt dawn approaching, though there were no windows. I lay on a bed with Leslie at my back, yet he rested. I rolled over, and though it was dark, I saw him. He was lovely, like an angel without wings, and yet he could fly. His hair was a mess, scattered about his pillow, but his face was tranquil.

In my dream, I traced my finger down his nose, across his cheeks, over his lips. He sighed but not his usual exasperated one. This was the sound of deep contentment. It made me smile. So pretty, I thought.

“Why do I matter so much?” I asked the sleeping angel.

“Because you are Camellia, the first and only.”

“The first and only what?”

“One I’ve ever loved.”

END CH11, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 1

Bloody and Broken

“Be still.”

“It hurts, okay.”

“I’m trying to set it.”

I sat in a chair, pulled into the bathroom from the map table in Leslie’s library, with my outstretched arm resting on the counter. As Leslie twisted and pushed on my wrist, the resulting waves of pain generated waves of nausea. Almost uncontrollably wiggly, I felt the need to pee, vomit, or both.

“Be still,” he repeated. He pushed on the top of my hand, and I jerked it away, a reflex from the pain. “Am I going to have to put you in thrall again?”

“No, please don’t. I’m trying to behave. There has to be a better way to do this than by poking and twisting my hand.”

“Well, of course there’s a better way.”

I threw my free hand up in the air in an exasperated gesture. “Then, why are you doing this? Are you into torture?”

“Not really. Not anymore anyway.” I blanched. “I didn’t think you’d be into drinking vampire blood.”

“What?” I swallowed hard.

“Did you pay attention to anything your father and I discussed the first night I met him?”

“You talked about a lot of things. Ow! Crap, Leslie,” I whined. I looked at the wrist, which was now purple. My lip kept splitting open from all the pained faces I made, and repeatedly tasting my blood made the nausea worse.

“Well, one of the things we talked about was using vampire saliva and blood for medicinal purposes. Do you remember that?”

“Oh, yeah. Could you lick my wrist?”

“The skin isn’t broken, and even if it were, I would have to drool about a cup of spit down into the bones and tendons.”

“So, you could do that?” I asked hopefully.

“Very unlikely, and I doubt it would be successful. No, you’ll just have to sit here and deal with me mending your wrist the old fashioned way.”

“Well, will you at least spit on the knuckles of my good hand?”

He sighed and pursed his lips. “Will you be still and behave afterward?”

“I’ll be on my best behavior. I’d just like to have one working hand.”

He rolled his eyes and picked up my left hand. As he peeled the bloody gauze away, it brought a fresh round of bleeding. He tossed the gauze onto the counter and lifted my hand as if he were going to kiss it. Leslie’s eyes focused on the blood. I expected him to spit or drool on my knuckles, but he didn’t. As his lips closed over the first knuckle, his eyes closed, and he made a sort of kissing/sucking noise. I stared at him wide-eyed as his mouth roamed over my knuckles. I felt his fingers twirling the ring I still wore. In the wake of his mouth, a thin, clear barrier covered the wounds.

I knew that blood consumption gave him no more or less power over me, so I didn’t bother getting upset over it. However, I was surprised by how much he enjoyed it. That and he hadn’t asked my permission.

“You’re not going to eat my hand are you?” I gave him a teasing smile. “I didn’t think you would get much blood from something as bony as a knuckle.”

His eyes opened, and his lips parted as they pulled away from my hand. “She smiles,” he whispered.

He stared at my busted lower lip and then licked it with vigor. After that, he kissed me, one slow sweep of his mouth against mine, and then sucked on my lip before pulling away from me. He swallowed and made a humming noise. My knuckles and lip hummed right along with him.

When he drew back from me, I touched my lip and found the split sealed. I curled my left hand into a fist and found my knuckles no longer stiff. The shiny layer of vampire saliva covering the wounds flexed and bent. I made a mental note to ask Leslie to put some of it in a bottle. It wasn’t a bad idea to have some handy.

“That—when the saliva goes into my skin—is just the oddest sensation. Does it just do that on open wounds or anywhere?”

“Injured or thin, delicate skin.” He breathed out before deliberately dragging his eyes away from my lip and returning to the task of mending my wrist.

That gave me a completely different kind of jolt. As old as Leslie was, I was sure he was far more experienced in things of a sexual nature than I was. I thought about what Sue Margaret had said about Leslie’s mates and lovers, and my curiosity got the better of me.

“I bet you’ve had a lot of lovers, haven’t you?” Annoyance flashed over his face. “You’ve been around for a while. Everyone gets itchy. I’m just curious.” He ignored the question and kept gently probing. “Come on, Leslie. Talk to me. How old were you when you were turned?”

“You make it sound as though I was a fruit that rotted.” He let out a barely-audible sigh. “I was twenty-six.”

How old were you when you lost your virginity?” I wiggled my eyebrows at him.

“I didn’t lose it. It was taken from me, and that is not a story I want to share.”

I made a face at him. “Be shy then.” The spit gave me the warm fuzzies, and I babbled, “I gave away my virginity at the age of eighteen. Poor guy, I really liked him, but we lost him in a raid. I think his name was Peter.”

Aghast, Leslie said, “You don’t remember his name?”

“I said I thought his name was Peter.” I put my left elbow on the counter and propped on my good fist. “Anyway, after him, I didn’t do it again until Justin found us, but that was only like a year or so later.”

Leslie waved a hand at me. “I don’t want to hear about that. Talk about something else.”

“Fine, fine. You can tell me about your sexual exploits.”

“No.” The word had the finality of a slamming door.

“Aw, come on Leslie. We’re a couple, remember?” I teased. “Time to come clean about all the women you’ve been with.”

“I’ve lived a long time. You can imagine. Your wrist is not cooperating. I may have to go out for plaster and put it in a cast.”

That rattled me, and I looked down at it. “No, I can’t have that. I can’t fight with a cast.”

“You can’t fight without one either. See this?” He pointed to where something poked up oddly from my wrist. “That’s not supposed to do that. It’s supposed to be here.” He pointed to a dent near the center of my hand. “I can’t move it without cutting open your skin, and after your tour of the house, you know it doesn’t have a surgical suite.”

“So, what do we do about it?”

“I could take you to the hospital for surgery.”

“Hospital?” I was unaware there were any that were operational, anywhere. It didn’t matter. “No.” This time, I said the word with the finality of a slamming door.

“You don’t want it casted, and you don’t want surgery.” He looked at me seriously. “If we don’t do something, you’ll never have full use of it again. It’s your right hand, your strong hand. That’s bad for a fighter, don’t you agree?”

“So, that’s it? Those are my only options?”

“Other than feed off me.”

I looked down at my arm, stretched out on the counter and going numb. Leslie was right I couldn’t leave it the way it was. I needed my right hand to function properly. I was of no use if I couldn’t fight. I tried to imagine surgery. Sure, Leslie would be there, but I didn’t trust any humans who weren’t either free or working with him. In truth, I didn’t trust any humans other than my parents and Justin. I couldn’t be sure what the doctors would do to me while I was unconscious. That left only one choice. I shivered.

“Okay then.” I took a deep breath. “How do I do that?”

“Feed off me? You are serious?” His brows rose. “You surprise me.”

“I don’t trust anyone, so I’m not having surgery. I’m a fighter, so we can’t ignore it or cast it. That leaves option number three. So,” I waved my left hand at him, “let’s get it over with.”

“I need to warn you that, despite what you may think about yourself, the desire to keep feeding once you’ve started is extremely powerful.”

“So,” I gestured at him, “you’ll cut me off when I’ve had enough. You said you had exceptional control.”

“It’s not that easy. For me, um…how do I say this tactfully?” He looked distressed.

“Just say it. I’m about to drink your vampy blood. Who cares about tact?”

“Because I feel…” He cursed and stood abruptly. He walked the length of the bathroom and came back to me. “It will be hard for me to stop you because my natural reaction to you is to want you to drink enough to change.”

My voice darkening, I said, “Listen here, Leslie, you suggested this, so you’re just going to have to bone up and do it without letting it get out of hand. I don’t want to be a vampire.”

“I know, and I’m hoping that knowing that will be enough for me to control us both.”

“So, are we doing this?” I asked impatiently.

He took a few deep breaths and stood.

END CH11, P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 2

“I want to know.”

“No, you don’t. Just know it will be thorough and painful.”

“There are lots of things you know that I want to know, Leslie. I want to know what you’re going to do to Luc,” I insisted. “I want to know if you were lying when you said you’d been looking for me for a long time.”

“No.”

“Okay, but why?”

“Because you are Camellia.” He looked down at nothing in particular.

“What’s with that cryptic answer? It’s not an answer at all. You want me to be honest?” My anger sparked. “Why should I be?” I pushed off the glass and threw my hands up in the air. “You certainly aren’t.”

“I am honest with you.”

“Bullshit. You can call it honesty if you want, but really it amounts to you avoiding all my questions and not telling me anything.” Fed up, I strode across the floor. Suddenly, Leslie was in front of me. “Get out of my way,” I demanded, but he didn’t move. “I said get out of my way.” He wouldn’t budge. I moved to go around him, but he just moved in front of me again. “You’re pissing me off.” When I tried to go around him again, he blocked me again, and I swung at him. He dodged the blow and caught my fist in his hand. He held it there as I struggled to pull free. “What, Leslie? What do you want?”

“You want answers?” He released my fist. “Fine. For starters, Luc’s women have been taken away from him.”

“Good!” I remembered their visible bite marks and how Luc had left Jennifer bleeding. “Those poor girls need a break from him.”

“Legally, I’m entitled to cut off his fingers, but Guillame begged me not to.” Leslie looked past me for a moment before he continued. “So, among other things, I will personally whip Luc, fifty times for each finger. Since he did it twice, that’s two hundred lashes. Shall I tell you what modern vampire whips are made of?”

The anger left me, and I shook my head. Whatever I was expecting, whipping wasn’t it. When Leslie looked at my expression, he nodded once, as if to say he told me so.

“Speaking of mates, I forgot to return your ring.” I started to pull it off, but he stopped me by placing his hand over mine.

“I gave it to you as a gift. It’s yours. Please, whether you believe it or not, it makes me happy to see you wear it.”

“Okay. Now, if you’ll let me pass, I’m going to find Justin.”

“Why?”

“I’m going to beat the hell out of him, and I hope he’ll return the favor.”

“And where, in this house, do you think is a fitting place to do such a thing? You surely aren’t going out at night.”

I gave him a toothy smile. “Welcome to being part of a couple, Sweetheart.” I patted his chest. “I’m going to rearrange your fancy living room.”

I whipped my braid over my shoulder. This time, when I went to move around him, he didn’t step in front of me. I trotted down the stairs in search of the one human I knew whose fighting skills matched mine.

No one asked me what I was doing or tried to stop me when I started moving the sofas, tables, and rugs out of Leslie’s living room. As I wrestled with a particularly large and awkward ottoman, I heard laughter from up in the loft. Leslie smiled down at me.

“Don’t scratch my floors,” he called before his head disappeared from view.

I rolled my eyes. Don’t scratch his floors. I would do more than that. I wanted to scratch out his eyes.

As I moved the last lamp out of the way, Justin came into the room, rubbing his wet hair with a towel. He stopped abruptly. “What are you doing? I have to sleep on one of these sofas.” He pointed to where I had moved them.

In my friendliest tone, I said, “I thought you might like to kick my butt before bedtime.”

“Absolutely.” He gave me a crooked smile and tossed the towel over a chair.

I clapped my hands together. “Let me get into something more appropriate, and we’ll begin.” I started toward the stairs to Leslie’s room and then paused. I had nothing to change into, more appropriate or not. “Um, maybe not.”

“Wait,” Selene called from the kitchen. She vanished into the basement and moment later reappeared with a tank and leggings for me. “Here,” she offered. “May I watch?”

“Sure.” I exchanged my shirt for the tank. “This fits really well.”

Selene looked at Justin briefly, as he was sure to watch me change, before turning back to  me. “It has a built-in sports bra,” she beamed. “Best thing ever.” She turned to Justin, “Do you need more than the shorts?”

“No, it’s so warm in here.” Justin patted his bare chest. “The shorts are fine for inside.” To that, Selene bowed slightly and took a seat on the ottoman.

I traded the pajama pants for the leggings and then began warning up. When I was loose, I asked, “Ready?”

Justin nodded, and we made our way into the center of the living room. Movement drew my attention up to the second floor. Some of Leslie’s housemates had returned. I recognized Heather and the other female. The male I remembered was actually one of a set of twins. They and my parents were out of their rooms leaning against the railing to watch us.

“Kick his ass, Camellia,” my father called.

“Yeah, right,” Justin said and then lifted his chin as a signal to begin.

We started in our usual way: running at each other. Justin spun around to kick me. I blocked his foot and the backhand fist that followed it. I recovered and caught him in the stomach with my fist. The blow didn’t land well, and he retaliated by grabbing my fist and hurling me past him.

I slammed face-first into the wall. I anticipated that Justin would come up behind me and squatted, spun sideways a bit, and kicked upward. The blow caught his midsection and sent him pinwheeling back. I stood and slowly twisted my wrists, working out the soreness from catching myself against the wall. Low murmuring trickled down from upstairs. Apparently, Justin and I put on a good show.

We came at each other again, exchanging both closed and open-fisted punches, grabs, and kicks, some blocked and some not. I grinned, glad that I could count on Justin for a fair, all-out fight. My adrenaline was up, and my heart was thumping. I rode the endorphin high that I always got in such intense situations.

All too soon, my lip split, and my knuckles bled. A bruise swelled on Justin’s cheek. He had a few minor scrapes, but I hadn’t drawn his blood.

“Time,” I called to him. “I need to stop the bleeding.”

“I’m not afraid of your blood, you know.” He danced back and jabbed at me playfully.

“Yes, I know,” I said as I deflected his pulled punches, “but in deference to our new friends here,” I indicated Selene and Kyler, who had taken a chair near Selene, “it would be more prudent.”

Justin nodded and stopped punching at me. I looked around to try to decide where to look for first aid supplies. Before I could make up my mind, Heather came downstairs with a washcloth and some gauze.

“We don’t have much need for first aid supplies around the house,” she said apologetically. “Perhaps we should if this is going to be a regular thing.”

“Oh, it’ll be a regular thing. I hope that you and some of the other humans here will want to train with us. Vampires might be stronger and faster, but we are not without defenses.”

Justin tied off the gauze for me. “Yeah, and Camellia likes to get bloody,” he added, and I snarled at him. “Ready?”

“Yeah.”

During the next barrage of punches and kicks, I managed to throw Justin. When he landed on his back, I moved in and prepared to pull a punch that would be a killing blow to the nose. I expected him to admit defeat and yield to me, but at the last moment, he caught my wrist and twisted it so violently that I barked out in pain and fell to my knees at his side. At the same time, with our free hands, we latched onto each other’s throats.

“Quit digging your nails into me,” Justin wheezed. “I’m not letting go.”

“Both of you stop.” Leslie appeared at Justin’s other side. “You have a concussion,” he said to Justin, “And you,” he said to me, “probably have a broken wrist.”

Justin and I glared at each other, each daring the other to be the first to forfeit. Neither of us would back off because we both wanted to win and were too stubborn to concede.

“Camellia, Justin.” Leslie’s voice moved over me and dragged my attention to him. I rolled my shoulders and shivered in response. Both Justin and I turned our heads to look at him. “Be still and let go,” he commanded.

We released each other instantly. Justin’s hand hovered near my wrist. I still leaned toward him, but my hand was open instead of closed around his throat. The position was awkward and uncomfortable.

“Selene,” Leslie said calmly. “See to Justin.”

“What is this?” my father yelled. I heard tramping down the stairs. “Have you bitten them?”

Apparently, no one had explained to my father that it was about blood, not biting, and I hadn’t told anyone about Leslie’s special gift. Judging by the expression on his face, Justin was impressed by it. Selene moved across my field of vision. Even though she pulled Justin from under me, I remained in the same position.

My father’s footsteps became louder as he came over to us. The entire time, my eyes stayed locked on Leslie’s.

“No,” Leslie responded.

“It’s one of his abilities, Dad,” I heard myself say, my voice distant. “Thrall without blood consumption, and it works on vampires too.”

“Please stop.”

When Leslie broke eye contact to look at my father, his control of me released, and my will returned. Suddenly, I felt very tired, and my wrist hurt a lot. My body cramped from the odd position I had been holding. The punches and the strain of the choke hold caused my knuckles to start bleeding again. Four red blotches dotted the gauze. Without another thought, I swung my fist, the one with the probably broken wrist, and punched the side of Leslie’s face. His head leaned to the side briefly as his neck and face absorbed the blow.

“How dare you interfere,” I shouted at him. “Ugh.”

My wrist looked very wrong, and the blow that I dealt to Leslie made things worse. My hand pounded, and I cradled it in my other arm. My father hooted, and Leslie’s angry mouth turned up slightly at the edges.

“No, definitely not bitten. Well, let’s see to that wrist.” My father stood and offered his hand to me.

Leslie waved him away. “I’ll see to it. One of my ongoing hobbies is the study of medicine.”

“You’re a doctor?” my father asked.

“I don’t have a degree, but yes. At first, I studied to learn the fastest, most painless way to kill.” My father and I flinched. “But,” Leslie continued easily, “after my conscience got the better of me and the availability of other sources of blood increased, my interest turned to healing. I’ll see what I can do for it.”

Leslie helped me off the floor. Now that the show was over, the onlookers, as well as Selene and Justin, went back to whatever they had been doing. Leslie bid my father good night and moved around to my right side. Gently, he pulled my arm over into his. I winced.

“Well, you shouldn’t have punched me.”

“It felt really good at the time,” I mumbled. “Did it hurt?”

“Well, I could lie to you, but no. It takes a lot to hurt me.”

END CH10, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 1

Breaking-in the House

I had my family—my parents and Justin—but the others chose to go. Leslie arranged for them to stay outside the area in one of his safe houses. In the morning, they would be free to go where they wished. Leslie gave them advice as to safe areas to inhabit, but I doubted they would take it.

Once our former family members left, Leslie introduced us to the other vampire, besides Selene, who lived with him. Everything about Kyler, a German vampire with brown hair and eyes of burnt orange, was large and muscled. Even his nostrils looked tough. He didn’t talk much.

The three made a dynamic group. Leslie, the leader and the brains, was strong and agile. Selene was quick, quiet, and I imagined, quite vicious. Kyler looked like he could knock your head off by thumping it. Since Selene and Kyler were the only two vampires who lived with Leslie, I inferred that he must have known them for a long time.

“Who has the shortest fangs?” I asked. Leslie glared at me. Apparently, that was a rude question to ask.

“I’m the youngest,” Kyler said, “So my fangs are shorter than theirs.”

“Marginally shorter than mine,” Selene added. “Leslie’s, well,” she laughed and slid me a sly smile, “they are quite a bit longer. You’d be hard pressed to find another with his experience.”

“This reminds me that I need to re-mark you, Camellia,” Leslie said. “Selene, you should do the same to Justin.” She nodded and left to retrieve her faux fangs.

It was after dinner, but the three vampires, my parents, Justin, and I were still in the dining room. My parents looked nervous, and I worried about them. I didn’t know whether we could adjust to living with vampires after so many years of killing them. The only way to try was to start seeing them as people instead of monsters.

“I’ve been wondering. Ow.” I drew the syllable out and turned to stare at Leslie. He wiped the faux fangs on a cloth napkin. “That really hurts, you know.”

“Yes. So, what it is you were wondering?”

“Well, were you all slaves at some point in history? I mean it makes sense to fight for the freedom of others, especially if you experienced it firsthand.”

“A vampire’s past is something he or she shares only with most trusted allies. It isn’t my place to tell the histories of Selene and Kyler.”

“Well, what about your history?”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to share that with you, especially when I haven’t shared much of it with anyone. Now, be still. You’re bleeding.”

He drooled onto my shoulder and began rubbing in the spit. The tingling, a little stronger than the first time, went from the mark straight down my body. I wondered how his fingers would feel rubbing other parts of me.

“That feels so…” I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

“Okay, well, you’re set.” He patted my other shoulder and went over to address my parents. “Harold, Iris? If you’ll excuse me, I need to make some phone calls.” He started to leave but turned back to address my father. “I’m sorry your people weren’t interested in working with me, but I’m glad you and Iris decided to stay.” He looked over at me and then back to my father. “Welcome to House Wells.”

I took my parents to the room Leslie had shown me, which would now be theirs. Leslie promised that someone would go to the old house and fetch my parents’ personal things and whatever supplies the others didn’t take. They had argued bitterly, and I felt it was entirely my fault.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the room before, but now that I did, I found it comfortably furnished with golden oak furniture. A muted floral spread covered the large mattress, which my father gave a testing pat. The fireplace in the back corner of the house was set but not lit. As my mother prattled about the luxury of having electricity, I stuck my head through a door on my right. It led to a bathroom that connected to the next bedroom.

Now that it was dark, the vampire-safe shades on the eight foot-windows were open. It was too dark to see much of anything, but my parents and I stood there and just looked out for a while. We were safe. We were warm. I don’t think any of us knew what to do with ourselves. With a hug and a kiss for each of them, I left my parents to settle.

I continued my self-guided tour of Leslie’s house. The second floor hallway was a long balcony that gave a view of the downstairs living room. My parents’ new room occupied the back corner of the house. As I strolled along the balcony, I passed three more doors, all closed, but I assumed they were the bedrooms of the humans who lived with Leslie. As I wondered which rooms were Selene’s and Kyler’s, it struck me that Leslie would have made the other half of the windowless basement into vampire rooms for them.

At the end of the hallway, I found a spiral staircase that went up to the partial third floor. I set one foot on the bottom step when a soft but insistent voice caught my attention. It was the soft, cold voice—Leslie’s voice—that had me sneaking up the stairs to peek at floor-level and survey the area.

This third floor loft topped the second floor bedrooms, and like the second floor hallway, open railing allowed for a view all the way down to the living room. More eight-foot windows took up almost all of the wall space. Leslie leaned against one of them and looked out while he spoke into a cordless phone.

“I already told you both. She is a free human, untradeable unless it’s her will…absolutely not…I love her. You of all should understand that.”

My best guess was that he was speaking to Benoit. As I replayed what Leslie said, my mind faltered over, “I love her.” Me? No, no. That wasn’t possible. I looked down at the ring I still wore. No, he couldn’t love me. He just met me. I listened more carefully when he began speaking again.

“Guillame, if your wife wanted to leave you, would you let her?…You hold me to my word, and I’ll hold you to yours…It’s preposterous; she’d never.” He listened for a bit and shook his head. “Guillame,” he snapped, “All I want to hear from you on that matter is that you won’t interfere when he is punished…What? Yes, I’ll speak with her.”

Her? This was the annoying thing about eavesdropping. I badly wanted to run over to him and demand he tell me what was going on, but I decided that I would learn more by not interfering. It was rude and dishonest. Nevertheless, I kept quiet and listened.

“Yes?” he asked and paused for a bit. “Is that so…And who all have you told…Yes, I knew. I was looking for her for a while.” I heard an outraged screech come from the phone. “It’s my business and of no concern to you…Yes, really…Did she?” Leslie laughed half-heartedly and raised his arm up to plant his palm against the glass. “Well, you’ve an interesting talent…Just her?…Yes, it does make one wonder…I’ll think about it.”

He clicked off the phone but thankfully didn’t turn. I had no idea how he would react if he knew I heard him. I decided the best approach would be to finish walking up the staircase loudly so he’d think I just showed up by chance.

Leslie sighed then said, “I can hear your heartbeat, Camellia.”

Cheeks red, I rose from my crouch and finished my ascent. “Sorry, I was just…exploring. It’s a fabulous house. This floor is amazing and so is the view.”

“So it is,” he murmured. “I’ve had many houses but never a home.”

I walked over to stand next to him and look out the window. “I know what you mean.”

“Yes, I think you actually do.”

Neither of us spoke for a while. We stood there, four feet apart, each staring out our own window. I started when I saw something dart out into the trees.

“Relax,” Leslie said. “It’s just Kyler checking the property. We don’t expect any visitors, but it pays to be careful.”

The night was so still, with only a hint of wind. It would be Thanksgiving soon. My mother insisted we celebrate traditional holidays as a way to keep our human culture. They weren’t exact, but we celebrated them nevertheless.

Quietly, Leslie said, “I’d like to know what you’re thinking.”

I pressed my forehead against the cold glass. “Do vampires celebrate Thanksgiving?”

“Some do. We can if you’d like.”

Leslie’s brooding put me in a bad mood. I decided the best use of my time would be to either go find a book to read or go find Justin to spar. Maybe we could work out our frustration by beating up on each other. I pushed off the glass and spun in a neat semi-circle, but Leslie caught my arm.

“Camellia, will you be honest with me if I’m honest with you?”

“I’m always honest with everyone. I don’t know a way to be besides blunt and awkward, if you haven’t noticed already.”

This got a small smile from him. “If you want to know something, all you have to do is ask.”

“Okay. Did you tell Benoit that you know who Aster is?”

“I didn’t have to. She knew you and told him who you are, your real name.”

I flopped back against the glass. “Does she know about our parents?”

“I don’t think so. She wants you, and of course I refused.” Leslie looked at me. “She wants to know what I’m doing with you, how I met you. She desperately wants to see you.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That I would think about it, but it’s you who should think about it.” I nodded. “She said she spoke with you, played with you in your dreams.”

“W-what?” My eyes widen in surprise.

“Did you have a dream where you danced with her?” I nodded dumbly. “She said she knew it was you with me at the gala. She smelled you long before she caught a quick glimpse of your face and a good look at your retreating back.” Leslie turned to prop his shoulder against the glass and face me. “The more she thought about your name, Lily, and the more she thought about the scent, she realized it was you. Apparently, when you were small, you had a favorite blanket with lilies and jonquils all over it.”

It was so stupid of me, but I couldn’t have known that she was alive and that she would remember the blanket. I hadn’t.

“She said when she rested, you were dreaming, and she found herself pulled into your dreams.” Leslie shifted closer to me. “She said it has never happened before.”

“It was real.” I hardly believed it, and it worried me. “What do we do? They know who I am now. How can we protect my parents?”

“As far as they know, I only have you.”

I swiveled to look at him. “I should send them away. They should’ve just gone with the others.”

“Probably.”

I blew out a breath. I had never been away from them, and the thought was almost heart-stopping. Only a few days before, I had seriously considered leaving everyone and going out on my own. It seemed easy when I had a choice. Now that I felt like I had no choice, I wasn’t ready to separate from them. I didn’t want to think about it, so I focused on the other part of the conversation.

“So, was there enough evidence, or whatever, for Luc to be punished?”

“Yes, and I will see to it soon,” Leslie muttered.

END CH10, P1