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.”


“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.”


“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?”


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.”


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

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 9: Part 2

“Because you are Camellia Rosegarten,” he said simply, leaning back against the door.

“Some answer,” I huffed. “So, you don’t sleep in your bed. Do you hang from the rafters like a bat?” I flapped my hands at my sides like wings.

“No,” he growled, his calm façade slipping. “No, when I have to rest, I hide, if at all possible.” He looked angry with himself or me or the world. “Fuck, I tell you too much,” he exclaimed and popped his fists against the door. “I tell you too much.”

He cast his eyes back down to the floor, and I softened. Here was a vampire, so respected and feared, yet he felt he had to hide when he rested. I wondered what happened to him to make him so lacking in trust, so overly cautious. He was over a thousand years old and, after all that time, still wounded. I reached out to touch his face, but he jerked it back and glared at me.

“Don’t pity me,” he snapped. “I don’t need or deserve it.” He pushed off the door and walked down to the other end of the counter. He leaned against it and crossed his arms, mimicking me. “I worked very hard to have what I have. I need some privacy, some security. I have that in the basement of this house.” He pushed off the counter and came to stand in front of me and very close. He looked down into my eyes, but I didn’t feel him trying to influence me. “I’d like to share my space with you, but if you’d prefer, you can take the other room I already offered.”

“Why do you trust me?” I didn’t understand, and I wanted to badly.

“Call it a hunch.” He shrugged one shoulder and then reached around me to hold my braid. “If you sleep in my bed, your parents can have the other. I’ll find a place here for Justin.” He examined the braid as if it were some amazing scientific discovery. “I like your hair loose.”

“It looked horrible after I slept on it wet, but you’re distracting me. Leslie, why do you even have the bed if you don’t sleep in it?” Before he said anything, the other purpose for which it was nice to have a bed came to mind—the very purpose for which I had tried to lure him into it. “Oh, sex. Oh, and I slept there.” I suddenly felt dirty and made an icky face.

“You are the only one who has been on that bed.” Leslie dropped my braid, turned, and strode out the door.

When I finally came out of the bathroom, Leslie had returned to the dining room to continue the discussion with my family. I had nothing left to say and wanted to give them time without me to make up their minds.

Heather was gone, as were the other family members Leslie claimed occupied the house. I supposed they were making themselves scarce so that my family would feel more comfortable. Leslie made all sorts of concessions, but my family didn’t care. I shook my head.

I discovered Selene and Justin bustling in the kitchen and offered to help prepare the evening meal. It was just after sundown, and someone had opened all the shades. From the windows over the sink, I saw that the forest hugged the house, and I felt comforted.

The magnificent kitchen was situated under the second story bedrooms. A long bar separated it from the rest of the open living area, and the counters formed a three-sided work zone that was open at the end pointed toward the staircases. Angled in the corner was the refrigerator, and Selene gathered ingredients from it.

Justin took down a large stockpot from where it hung above a work island and took it to the sink to fill it with water. After setting an armload of vegetables on the island, Selene swooped over to check the temperature on one of the double ovens. She twirled around Justin as he carried the stockpot to the six-burner stove and slipped her arm through mine.

“Would you mind slicing the vegetables?” She pointed her chin at a cutting board beside the pile. “They’ve been washed.”

I laughed. Fresh food, hot water, refrigeration, and heat. A girl could get used to it. A girl could get soft from it.

“I’m a butcher, not a chef,” I warned her.

“A lesson then.”

Selene showed me how to hold a chef knife and the motion to use for cutting. I found it challenging to slice the vegetables uniformly, but it was rhythmic and soothing. I decided that my mother must have taken up knitting for the same reason. Well, that and the constant need for sweaters, mittens, and caps.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Justin promised. “I’ll sleep on the floor if I have to.” To that, Selene smiled widely.

“That’s sweet of you,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll at least let you sleep on a sofa.”

“Just so you know, Cami, I’m not doing this just because I care about you. I feel strongly about it, maybe even more than you do. I want to take that bastard down and free your sister, whatever it takes. I’d want the same thing if it were my brother.”

Justin had told me about his family. He was about ten when he, his parents, and his younger brother went into hiding. One day, he went out on a supply run and came home to find his house burned to the ground, his family with it. He was only fourteen. After that, he had roamed the country alone until we found him.

My parents wouldn’t abandon Justin any more than they would me. I thought of him as true family, almost like a brother, which was why I would never love him the way he loved me. I decided that it was time I made that clear to him.

“Justin,” I paused and looked over my shoulder, “you know I think of you as family.”

“Sure,” he said, never looking up from something he mixed for Selene.

“No, I mean, not like Robert or Mandy. I mean like my parents, real family. I’m closer to you than anyone.”

“I know. I understand what you’re saying.” He stopped stirring and looked at me. “I know you don’t love me like I wish you would, but I know you do love me, despite how hard you try not to have any feelings for anyone. I know what losing Aster did to you.”

I was quiet as I slid the chopped vegetables into the large skillet Selene had heated and coated with olive oil. I shifted the pieces around the way she indicated. I hadn’t really shared my feelings about Aster, but I guessed they came out whenever someone mentioned her.

Justin went back to his mixture, asking Selene’s opinion. She smiled at him whenever he made eye contact. I knew she had feelings for him, but I had to think of my family first. The safety of my parents was of utmost importance to me.

“Justin, if my parents decide to leave, would you go with them?”

Selene gave me a hateful look that Justin didn’t catch. “I don’t want to leave you. I promised your father.” He came over to me and dumped his mixture in with my vegetables. Selene shooed me away and tossed the ingredients with an expert flair.

I glared at her behind Justin’s back. “I’d feel better knowing you were with them,” I pressed.

“It won’t matter because they won’t leave you. You’re the only one in the world they have worth fighting for.”

That sounded so dismal, but he meant what he said. My parents always gave me the impression that they had faith in man’s (humans’, that is) ability to survive and eventually conquer any trials thrown at him. I believed that wholeheartedly. I didn’t like to think that they had given up hope.

“I’m not the only one.” I gave him a small smile, and he hugged me close. “Justin, I wish I felt differently. Oh, you are such a good man. I don’t deserve your love.”

He shook me once while he still held me. “Your heart is closed, if you tried to open up a little—”

“I can’t, and you shouldn’t love someone who can’t return your feelings.”

“You mean won’t,” he accused, flinging the empty mixing bowl in the sink of soapy water.

“No, I mean can’t.” I threw my hands in the air. “Justin, I won’t ever be the kind of woman you deserve. I can’t be a wife or a mother. Fighting, it’s what I do best.”

“That may be true, but you could be a wife, even be a mother—”

“No, Justin.” I shook my head. “I can’t. The sooner you realize that I can’t give you what you want, the better.” I went to the sink to wash the bowl he tossed in, and I murmured, “I never should’ve slept with you.”

“What did you say?” He grabbed my shoulders and spun me to face him. The dishrag I held slopped water all over his jeans and my baggy flannel pajama bottoms. “No, I know what you said. Five years I’ve been your lover, at your convenience, and you say that? You are a cold woman.”

“You’re right.” I set my shoulders. “And you shouldn’t waste anymore love on me.”

Through clenched teeth, he said, “Good idea,” and shoved me against the counter before he stormed out of the kitchen.

I flung the dishrag back into the sink. No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, I always hurt him.

“Camellia,” Selene said calmly, “Take the pasta off and drain it. Add it to the vegetables and stir it with these tongs here.” She waved them at me and set them on the counter. After giving me a hard look, she left to go after Justin.

I felt like throwing the pasta in the floor, but instead, I focused on the task before me and did as Selene instructed. I held the handles with mitts and poured the pasta into a large colander that Selene had placed in the bottom of the dry side of the sink. I shook it to make sure it wouldn’t drip and carried the colander over to the cook top. As I scooped pasta from the colander into the skillet, I sensed Leslie even before he spoke.

“You have a gift for angering people. I’ve never seen your equal.”

He leaned against the counter to my right and watched while I struggled to blend the pasta into the vegetable mixture. He nudged me aside and took over cooking. With just as much finesse as Selene, he flipped the contents of the skillet to combine them before sliding the tongs back and forth.

“Can vampires do everything perfectly?” I asked grumpily.

“If you live for several human lifetimes, you get bored. You find hobbies. Selene enjoys cooking, but she’s not the only one who can cook.” He slid the contents onto a waiting platter.

“I’ve really screwed things up with Justin.”

“Yes, you have.” He set the platter down and put his hands on my shoulders. “But he needed to understand your feelings, wrong though they may seem.”

I frowned at him. “Why are they wrong?”

“I said they seem wrong. You come off as cold, tough, impenetrable, but I’ve seen the other side of you.” He smiled at me. “When your guards are down and your rational thoughts are at rest, you have a lot of passion and heat.” I felt my color rise, as I remembered how I’d kissed him as I’d never kissed anyone. “Don’t worry,” he said, picking up the platter in one hand and running a finger down my cheek with the other. “I won’t tell on you.”

He sailed from the room, and I heard him call everyone for dinner. I swallowed hard and grabbed the stack of plates Selene had set on the counter. This was going to be one of the most unpleasant dinners of my life. I was ready for it to end before it even started. When it ended, I would find out if I still had a family.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 9: Part 1

Leslie’s Nest

In the first of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had, I danced at a lovely ball. I wore a light blue Cinderella gown and my hair in a tight bun. The faceless prince, in his white jacket and dark red pants, whirled me about the dance floor. I heard laughter other than mine and turned my head to find Aster.

Her golden hair fell down her back. She wore a pink version of my dress. Selene whirled by on the arm of an imp who floated in mid-air. Her mouth moved but made no sound, “Shh. Don’t say his name.” No, no, I shook my head. I could keep secrets.


When I said her name, she floated across the floor and clasped hands with me. “Wow.” She smiled. Her eyes closed for a moment, and then she said, “It’s my sister, Camellia.”

We began to skip in a circle as we had when we were little. “Does he know who you are?”

I didn’t know whom she meant. I focused on her. “I still love you. I miss you.” I squeezed her hands tight in mine for emphasis.

“Me, too. Don’t be sad, Cami. I’m a real princess.”

I pulled her close and kissed her cheek. “Don’t bite me,” I said, but there was no fear in my voice.

“How could I?” As we began to dance again, I heard a soft voice calling her name. Out of a swirl of fog and rose petals, Guillame’s head flew toward us. “He has loved me from the moment he saw me. He saved me from death.”

“And do you love him?” I asked.

She arched one eyebrow and tilted her head, an old gesture that meant I should know what she was thinking. She grabbed my shoulders and turned my back to her. I faced my prince, who was now Leslie. She shoved me forward, and I stumbled toward him. Before I could fall into his waiting arms, another pair grabbed me and yanked me out of his reach.

“Mine,” Luc snarled, clutching me close.

I smelled blood and rot on his breath. His yellow-green eyes stared at me triumphantly as his tongue came out to lick my neck.

The scream tore out of me as I awoke. The bedroom door burst open, and I leapt from the bed and plastered my back to the wall. I grabbed the first thing I could, which happened to be a hairbrush, and slashed it through the air at the person in the doorway. Waving her hands in a gesture of peace, the short, slender woman took a step back from me.

“Who are you? Where is Leslie?” I jabbed at her with the brush again.

“I’m Heather.” She held out a calm hand toward me. “Mister Wells is upstairs in a meeting with your family. He asked me to come down to his quarters until you awoke or he returned.”

Slowly, I lowered the hairbrush. “Human or vamp?”

“Human. He thought it was best.”

“Of course, he did.” I set the brush down and rubbed my hands over my face. “Please, take me to him.”

“Ah, perhaps you’d like a minute to freshen up?”

She smiled at me and jerked her head toward the mirror over the dresser. I glanced over and got a good look at my hair. I jumped at my reflection.

“Yeah, okay.”

I went into the bath to try to tame my hair. Sleeping on it wet resulted in the unattractive  smashed and crumpled mess I saw in the mirror. I took the brush to it but quickly decided a braid was in order.

When I dug around in Leslie’s bathroom drawers looking for a hair tie, I found a framed sketch of a woman. The paper looked handmade and very old, and the ink was faded almost to nothing. I made out her smiling face, her round cheeks with subtle dimples. I wondered who she was before I reminded myself that it was none of my business. I shoved the frame back in the drawer and resumed my search.

Finally, I found a band. As I whipped my hair into a braid, I reviewed my dream. It was so real in some ways. However, I knew that disembodied heads didn’t float in mid-air, and Rumpelstiltskin never danced with Selene. I suddenly wished that I had a chance to dance with Leslie. I sighed and secured the end of my braid with the band.

I found Heather in the outer room. Still in my pajamas and socks, I followed her out of Leslie’s quarters and up the stairs.

“They’re in the dining room.” She pointed to a room on the other side of the stairwell that Leslie and I had used to enter the house.

As I approached the dining room, I heard my father shout, “How could you let this happen? That monster could’ve killed her or worse, bitten her.”

“I would think being killed would be worse,” Selene said.

“Selene,” Leslie snapped. I made it to the doorway as he turned to my father, and in a calmer tone, explained, “Mister Rosegarten, she ran from me because she was going to be sick. I had no reason to think she would end up outside or anywhere she would be in danger.”

The calm in Leslie’s voice brought back the memory of what had happened between us before my nap. I felt my color rise. I had thrown myself at him. I had kissed him as if starved for him. I had torn his clothes, and I realized how incredibly lucky I was that he was such a gentleman.

“That whole place was a danger,” my father said.

“Hi,” I said stupidly as I walked into the room. The entire family was in the room. My father leapt from his chair, came over to me, and hugged me fiercely. “I’m okay, Dad.”

“Like hell you are.” He released me and looked me in the eyes. “He says you can’t come to the house because you may have swallowed some of that other vampire’s blood. Says we have to change houses because your scent is there.”

I was glad that Leslie was so levelheaded. I hadn’t even thought about anyone following my scent. I shook my head. “It was so stupid of me. I tried to spit out the blood, and I didn’t even realize I left my wrap.”

“The wrap is incidental,” Leslie said. “If Luc unwisely decided to hunt you by blood or by smell, he wouldn’t need it.”

I nodded to him. “Thank you for getting my family out of the house.”

“Yeah, thanks a boatload, Leslie,” Mandy sneered. My father gave her a stern look, and she shrugged.

“You should be thanking him. It’s his house,” I spat back at her. My father looked like he swallowed something bitter. “Before you keep heaping blame where it isn’t due, did he tell you why I got sick and ran? Why he didn’t chase after me?”

“He said you had too much to drink,” my mother volunteered.

“Which was my fault,” Justin added.

“That’s what he thought at the time, before he knew the truth. You didn’t tell them?” I turned to look at Leslie.

He shook his head. “I thought, something so personal, it would be better if you told them.”

“Tell us what?” My father’s eyes darted between Leslie and me.

I took his hand in mine, looked at my mother, and motioned for her to join us. Her hand rose to her throat, but she came over to me. After the three of us linked hands, I told them about Aster.

My father’s face turned an alarming shade of red, tears welled up and flowed down my mother’s cheeks, and I saw on their faces how their hearts were breaking all over again. The worst had happened: my sister was a vampire. As they wept anew for their lost eldest daughter, Leslie and I tried to explain what we thought had happened.

My mother shook her head as I hugged her. “Not Aster.”

“If she’s in with Benoit, she must be ended,” my father said, wiping his eyes dry.

“I know.”

Other members of the family murmured amongst themselves, but Justin came over to hug each of my parents. He had never known Aster, but his eyes were a little damp. It reminded me how caring he was. He looked up to my father and respected my parents. Then, I knew that something was terribly wrong with me that I couldn’t return his feelings.

“What if she wasn’t with Benoit? What if we could convince her to join us?” Leslie offered.

“She wouldn’t betray her mate,” Patrice said. “Vampires don’t do that.”

Leslie gave her a look that told her what she didn’t know about vampires was a lot. He turned back to my father. “This is something we should look into before we do anything rash.”

“Rash?” my father boomed.

I understood the logic behind it, especially after the dream I just had. It was risky to put faith in a thing like a dream, but I felt certain that Aster didn’t love Benoit. I believed she had really spoken to me, crazy dream or not.

“I have to talk to her,” I insisted, holding my father’s hands.

“Madness.” He shook his head at me. “She might try to kill you.”

“I’ll kill her first.” I stood up straight and held up my chin.

“Then, I’ll lose both my daughters. Best if we move on.” He patted my upper arms. “This Luc can’t find you if we go far enough away, and we’ll never come back to Florida.”

I shook my head, and my father shook me. The others liked my father’s plan.

“I need her,” Leslie barked. “Go if you must, but leave Camellia with me. I can protect her.”

“I won’t leave my daughter, and I’m not convinced of your ability to protect anything,” my father shot back.

This started a shouting match where everyone accused everyone else of not doing their jobs, not being careful, not thinking of the needs of others. Of all the combinations of  people, my current family was as mismatched in terms of ideals and goals as it had ever been. None of us understood why I was so important to Leslie’s plans, and Leslie refused to enlighten us, saying it was between him and me, although he had shared only the tiniest bit with me. Fed up, Mandy and Robert wanted the whole group to leave me behind and start over somewhere else. Justin looked as miserable as I felt.

“Calm down,” I yelled over them. “No one has to leave Florida. We can find you a new house. You’ll be fine. I’m fine. In fact, the family should get along much better without me there.” I heard Mandy snort.

“Mandy—” my father began.

“Never mind her. You know things will be better if I’m not there right now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at me, making me realize where I had gotten the gesture. “Dad,” I said softly, “we’ve had to split the group before. We can do it now.”

“We’ve split but never you from us. I won’t have it.”

“In a democracy, it’s not up to you really,” I reminded him. “You should hold a private meeting and vote on whether to stay or go. I want you and the others to feel safe. Despite what you think, it’s best if I stay here with Leslie. What I told you before hasn’t changed. I’m doing this. I’m going to help bring down Benoit, and in the process I’m going to kill Luc and possibly Aster.” I blew out a breath. When I said it like that, it felt overwhelming, impossible.

“If you’ll allow it, I can arrange for you to be moved somewhere nearby, say twenty minutes away and still in the forest area,” Leslie offered.

I turned to him and asked, “They can’t stay here?”

“Your parents, Justin, perhaps. I only have the one spare bedroom. The other rooms are already doubled up with my family.”

“Excuse us for a moment.” I glowered at him. “May I speak with you, alone?” He frowned and followed me out into the main room. “Where can we have some privacy?”

He motioned to a door between the two staircases that went down to the basement.When I entered, I discovered it was a long, narrow bathroom. I strode over and propped against the counter.

As soon as he closed the door behind him, he started. “I’m not moving my family out for yours.” He walked over to stand in front of me. “I may be a vampire, but I need people around me that I trust. I don’t trust your family any more than yours trusts mine.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest you throw anyone out,” I said. “We don’t need beds, and you have all that space in the basement.”

He paced in front of me. “That’s my personal space.”

“Oh, I see.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “I should’ve known a wealthy, powerful vampire like you would be spoiled and selfish.”

I turned around and began eyeing myself in the mirror. I cared what I looked like about as much as I cared for high heels. However, the gesture said that I cared so little about his excuses that I found myself more interesting.

“No, you don’t see.” He looked into the eyes of my reflection.

Despite some myths, vampires can see themselves in mirrors. Leslie stared at me with such fierceness and such sadness that I turned back around to face him.

“I…” He looked down and took a deep breath, out of habit rather than necessity, before continuing. “It always has been very difficult for me to live among groups of any size, but if I want to accomplish my goals, it’s necessary. I only keep my most trusted friends in the same house with me.”

“Hard to believe. You looked quite natural cruising around a room full of vampires, soaking up their compliments, and patting them on their heads while they groveled at your feet.”

His head snapped up, and he glared at me. “Social situations are different. I’m very old, strong, gifted, and powerful. That gives me a lot of clout with vampires. It’s why they gave me the southern United States when I asked for it.”

“Oh, really? You’re wary of having strangers in your house, yet you let me sleep in your bed. I’m barely more than a stranger to you.”

“That’s not the same, and I don’t sleep there very much.”

“Why is it not the same?” I demanded. I crossed my arms over my chest and waited for his answer.

“Because you are Camellia Rosegarten,” he said simply, leaning back against the door.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 8: Part 2

When the limo stopped, Leslie released me and opened his door. He got out, and I looked out of the car door to find that we were inside a driveway enclosed by stone on two sides. Both walls had doors in them, so I knew we weren’t under an overpass. Only the entrance and exit were open to the outside, and dawn was upon us.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“My carport.”

Your carport?” I went on full alert. “Well, that explains why it’s a tunnel, but why are we here? I thought you were taking me home.”

“You can’t go home.” He held a hand out for me. I didn’t move. “You bit Luc. You drew his blood?”

“I spit it out,” I said, indignantly.

“It’s highly likely that you swallowed a little. Besides, he, ah, had some of yours, too. A blood exchange in either direction is enough for a vampire to track you. Do you want Luc paying your family a visit?” That was about the last thing I wanted. I shook my head in the negative. “Right, so, if he wants you, he’ll have to come to my house to find you, which is where you should be if you’re my mate.”

“But, they need to be warned.” I felt desperate. “They’ll think something went wrong.”

“One of my calls was to Selene to let her know what happened. She has taken Justin back to your family. I hope that they were able to explain our situation. If so, and if they want to be safe, they will come here. They’ll have to move.”

Leslie motioned with his hand again, and I accepted it this time. With my hand in his, I followed him through the middle door and up a flight of stairs. We emerged into a large, three-story living room. Windows covered most of the far wall, both on the main level and higher. Thick material hung over them, completely blocking out the sun.

“You’re a vampire,” I whispered. “Why do you have so many windows?”

Leslie let go of my hand and rubbed the small of my back. With his free hand, he indicated three humans, two females and one male, who were milling about in the kitchen. They looked at us and smiled in welcome.

“For my family. Good morning,” he said, addressing them. “Camellia,” he began, sliding his arm around my waist and squeezing me into his side, “has had a very rough night, so I’ll save proper introductions for later.”

He steered me to the stairs that went up to the second floor. Leslie held me close as he opened a door on a large room with its own fireplace and a soft-looking bed. Once we entered the room, he released me.

“I’ve made a room for you in hopes that you’d want to stay here with me. Things worked out in my favor, despite the necessity of it.”

Terror made my blood run cold, and despite the warmth of the house, I cupped my elbows in my hands and hugged myself. The rational part of me understood that no one in the house would harm me, but I was still too wound up from the evening to listen to it.

“Don’t leave me in here.” I lurched at Leslie and grabbed his hand.

Leslie took both my hands in his and looked into my eyes. Very calmly, he said, “There are things I need to see to, and you need to eat, bathe, and rest.”

“Okay,” I shook my head in agreement, “but don’t leave me here.”

“I wanted to give you some privacy. This is the only other private room.”

“What’s the other one?”


I bobbed my head. “Take me there. I’ll be safe there.” He closed his eyes and nodded.

After backtracking to the living room, Leslie led me down a different set of stairs to the above ground basement. An unassuming door led into a vast room, more than a quarter of the size of the main floor. Full bookshelves lined the walls. A sofa and chairs welcomed guests to come in and read, listen to music, or watch TV. Leslie guided me past a table covered in maps and other papers to a room of slightly smaller size divided into a kitchenette, a bedroom, and a bathroom. Leslie motioned toward the bathroom.

“Go ahead and have a bath. I’ll bring you something to eat and some clothes to sleep in.”

I nodded and waited until he left to take off my dress. I wadded it up and hurled it into a corner. I ran the elaborate spa tub full of warm water. Warm water! As I sank in and my bones warmed, I felt as though I might melt into the bottom of the tub. I refused to close my eyes, but I did begin to relax.

After soaking for a few minutes, I took the soap and shampoo that were sitting on the tub decking and got to work on myself. Although I wasn’t dirty, I felt like I needed to wash away the horrible night and the disaster of my makeup. My wrists bruised from where Luc held them, and I scrubbed as if I could erase the marks. I inhaled the aroma of the soap, and realizing the soap was what Leslie smelled like to me, I smiled to myself. The shampoo smelled like his hair, and I took my time, massaging my scalp and taking out the three stray pins I found.

I held my breath and dunked myself to rinse away the shampoo. When I came up, Leslie was standing just inside the door holding a tray. I shrieked.

“Sorry. Food.” He looked down at the tray. “Clothes,” he jerked his head toward the other room.

“What are you, a caveman now?” I sassed. He smiled and set the tray on the bathroom counter. When he turned to leave, I felt panic rising again. “Don’t go,” I barked.

He pointed. “I’ll just be out in the main room.”

“You won’t stay with me?”

He frowned slightly. “It’s better if I don’t.”

“Why?” I felt ridiculous for acting so childish, but I was unable to stop.

“You’re a highly attractive woman. You’re naked, wet, and frightened. The combination makes you too tempting.” I finally noticed that his fangs had extended just a bit. I gulped. He pursed his lips. “It will be better if I go sit out there.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

Once I toweled off, I stuffed the food in my mouth, too nervous and jittery to pay attention to what it was. I dressed in the flannel pajama bottoms, white long-sleeved T-shirt, and thick socks he had set out on the bed for me.

Clean, fed, and clothed, I joined Leslie on the sofa. He didn’t speak but drew me into his arms again, stroking my wet hair and humming that same song again. I felt myself drifting away and fought it.

“I’m afraid to sleep.” Leslie stopped humming, and I straightened my back so I could look at him. “Can you help me?”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” He searched my face.

“Yes,” I said forcefully. “I need to rest.”

He stared into my eyes for a few moments and then said, “Camellia.” The tone brought me even more to attention. I suddenly felt as though doing whatever Leslie asked would make me the happiest woman on the planet. Doing what he wanted was the only care I had.

“Relax for me.” His breath flowed over my face as the softness in his voice made me feel safe and comfortable. I began to drown in the pools of his eyes. My body felt loose and easy.

“Mm, Leslie, you are very pretty,” I heard myself say. His request relaxed my hold on my feelings as well as the tension and fear in my body. He had taken off all the pieces of his tuxedo except for the shirt and pants. The top two buttons of the shirt were open, and I rubbed my hand over his shoulder. “Your eyes are like the Caribbean Sea.”

“Have you seen the Caribbean?” he asked.

“I have a picture I tore out of a book. I hid it in my journal, but I don’t need it now that I have your eyes.”

His hand swept over my cheek and through my hair. His touch left my skin warm and a little tingly.

“Oh, that feels nice, almost like when you massaged me that time, but that was better.” I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him my killer smile.

“Camellia, you’re supposed to be relaxing, remember?” he warned.

In my sexist voice, I said, “Oh, I’m relaxed, Leslie. It feels so good when you touch me. It makes me want you to touch me in other places.”

The need to be held and touched, specifically by Leslie, was so strong. He hadn’t suggested these needs and urges to me. They were there, buried, waiting for my consciousness to be weakened enough for them to surface.

I moved so that my knees straddled his lap, and I hunched my back so that I could find his lips and kiss him. My mouth moved hungrily over his. His arms shot around me as he responded to my needs with needs of his own.

I held his face in my hands and angled my head before I dove into the kiss with renewed vigor. My tongue explored his mouth, and I let the tip of it slide over his teeth. I felt his fangs grow as his desire intensified. The entire time I stared into his eyes, unblinkingly.

I pulled back from the kiss. “Luc asked me if you had long fangs. Do they have a saying about vampires and their fangs like they do about human males and their feet?” I looked down to his lap. He laughed, and the sound made me quiver in arousal. My eyes nearly rolled up into my head. I ran my hands into his hair and gripped tightly. “I want you.”

“I know, but we’re not doing that now. You need to sleep.”

Flustered, Leslie tried to be serious. He gripped my upper thighs, and, as he stood, I wrapped my legs around his waist. I locked my ankles as he carried me to the bedroom and lay me down on the bed. I grabbed the front of his shirt and ripped it open, giggling when I heard buttons bounce off furniture and walls.

“Camellia,” he chided, clutching his shirt closed. He put a hand to my chest, holding me firmly against the bed even though I tried to push up from it. “You’re making this very hard, you know.”

I smiled at him and looked at his lips. They were so soft, like his hair. I wanted to make us both happy, and I knew sex would certainly do that. I bit my lower lip in response to remembering our kisses. I reached down to feel the bulge below his waistband. “Yes, I am.”

“Look at me,” he commanded. My eyes shot to his. “Sleep,” he said, and I dropped out like a light.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 7: Part 2

TW: assault

When we entered the room, he was trapped by endless handshakes, backslaps, and conversations. Everybody wanted something, and Leslie, apparently, was the man who could get it. I smiled. I said hello and nodded graciously at congratulations for having landed Leslie. For the most part, the party-goers ignored me after Leslie made  introductions, which made it impossible to ask questions. I had to assume that anyone bold enough to approach Leslie directly had to be important, but most of them were so intent on complaining to him, that I didn’t catch their names or titles.

I found the ceiling to be more interesting than their conversations, but I tried to be attentive. I yawned as a short, plump vampire argued his point on a slave trade gone sour. In soothing tones, Leslie informed him that if he filed a formal complaint, the case would appear on the docket at the next judiciary meeting. I decided that, if I stayed by Leslie’s side, I would likely learn nothing, and the mission would be a waste of time other than to establish the two of us as mates.

Interrupting the vampire’s lecture on proper trade protocol, I said to Leslie, “I should mingle.” Concern flickered in his eyes, but he patted my hand and kissed my cheek to excuse me.

It was next to impossible to tell who lived here and who didn’t, so I set about learning whatever I could. In my mind, I drew a map of what I knew of the house. I crossed the dining hall, stopping to accept compliments from vampires and humans that I passed. Most of the human women bowed to me.

I struck up a few conversations, but chitchatting was time-consuming. Judging by the elaborate wall clock, it took me half an hour to warm up my marks enough to learn a master’s name or a house location. By the end of the hour, I decided that most of the vampires and humans that lived in Maison Benoit weren’t present at the gala.

I made my way over to the fireplace and snagged a glass of champagne from a waiter. While I stood there enjoying the wine, I scanned the crowd. Pretty creatures in pretty clothes, it was all so wasteful. In one corner of the room, I spotted a cluster of young human women, so I set my glass on the mantle and made my way over to them.

At my approach, all but two of them scattered into the crowd. I stopped before the one that looked oldest, maybe sixteen years, and offered my hand. “Hello, I’m Lily.”

“Hi,” she said and accepted my hand. “I’m Jennifer.” The other girl cleared her throat, and Jennifer waved for her to go. “Mrs. Wells,” she whispered, “it’s not proper for us to speak to you.”

My eyes went wide. “Why? Did I do something impolite?”

“No, ma’am, it’s just that you’re Judge Wells’ mate and we’re…you know.” When I raised my eyebrows in question, she blushed and said, “We’re slaves.”

In her dress the color of a golden apple with matching elbow-length gloves, Jennifer looked just as proper as I did. “You’re not just some slave. I’ve never seen a slave in a dress as pretty as that,” I said and offered her a smile.

She blushed again. “No, ma’am. I’m…we’re Luc’s girls.”

Girls? He had a group of six? I turned to see if I could spot the others. They were nearby, eavesdropping, and close enough for me to see the bite marks on their necks and arms. When I turned back to Jennifer, I noted that she had a semi-fresh one where her breast swelled above her dress. I thought about my fake bite mark, which was clearly visible to anyone who wanted to look. Jennifer’s bite didn’t look very deep. Perhaps Luc just liked to nibble a lot.

Jennifer’s dress looked like it would be very hard to walk in, much less run, which was what she suddenly looked as though she wanted to do. Her shy smile became forced, and terror sprang into her eyes as she spotted something over my right shoulder.

“You must be Lily.” When he spoke, my spine stiffened, and it felt like every hair on my body stood on end. With the French accent, the name came out Lee-Lee.

I turned to face him and went on the offensive. “Why is that?”

His eyebrow lifted. “I make it a point to make the acquaintance of all Guillame’s guests.” When I only blinked, one corner of his mouth turned up. “And Travis did an excellent job describing you, though he hardly did your beauty justice.”

“I see. Then you must be Luc.” Leslie hadn’t told me how I should introduce myself without him around, so I went with tipping my head toward him. Since Luc wasn’t angry or displeased, I decided my method of acknowledging him was acceptable.

He was taller than Leslie and muscular. A black velvet ribbon held his light blond hair in a thick but neat tail at the base of his neck. He was a lovely man, not quite on level with Leslie but beyond the usual vampire allure.

Enchanté,” he said and lifted my hand to his lips. He kissed the back of it very carefully. His mouth was wide like mine, with thinner lips that were dark pink, and his fangs were out a bit. His eyes, yellow-green like a cat’s, latched onto mine. “Monsieur Wells was lucky to find such a beautiful mate,” he purred. He still held my hand, and I thought it was probably unforgivably rude for me to yank it free.

Merci, but I’m sure you exaggerate, Monsieur. It’s the dress and cosmetics.”

I continued to hold his stare. Even though my insides quivered, he needed to see that I wasn’t some weak woman he could intimidate. I willed the hand he held to stay dry and steady.

Au contraire. Vous êtes une belle femme, et je pense…feisty.”

I can be, I thought. “Je peux être.”

I smiled at him ruefully. Beautiful and feisty—Luc gave me the impression that he either enjoyed a challenge or enjoyed the thrill of breaking a human with a strong spirit. I tried to give him my coolest stare.

“You speak French, yet you are clearly American. Where did you learn our language?”

“Around.” For all I cared, Leslie could tell Luc that he had taught me. The less said about my past the better.

Letting my hand drop at last, he turned to glare at Jennifer. “You are still here?”

She wrung her hands and shifted from one foot to the other. “I know it isn’t proper, but we,” she swallowed, “we were just talking.”

At his glare, she shrank before him, which made me stand up even straighter and hold my shoulders back slightly. The movement brought his attention back to me.

“I wonder,” he said as he ran a finger over the bite mark on my neck. I tensed involuntarily. Because the cords in my neck stood out, I raised my chin slightly. “Yes, I wonder.”

I couldn’t stand to be touched by him a moment longer, so I stepped back from him briskly. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your last name.”

He grinned wickedly and stepped toward me again. When he tried to take my hand again, I put it behind my back. Luc’s grin became a smile with more fang. “Oui, feisty.” His eyes danced with excitement. “I have lived with Guillame for so long that I go by the surname Benoit. However, all my friends call me Luc, as you did.”

This time, he grabbed my hand and kissed it again. “Are you my friend, Lily?”

I swallowed hard and tugged at my hand. He held it harder and lifted his other hand to capture one of my curls. I gave him a hard stare, and eventually, he let go.

“Such eyes. Oh, I am quite sure Monsieur Wells enjoys you. His fangs are long, no?”

“Is that some kind of euphemism?” I asked, and Luc bellowed with laughter.

When he brought himself under control, he grabbed one of Jennifer’s arms. “Cherie, I have business to discuss with Guillame.” He kept his eyes locked on mine as he pulled her into a rough kiss. “Enjoy your chat with Lady Lily.” He released her and stared at me as he backed away from us and into the crowd.

I felt like I needed a bath, and I rubbed my hand down Jennifer’s bruising arm. Her lower lip bled from two holes where Luc had bitten her. He hadn’t even bothered to seal the wounds.

Jennifer swiped at them with a napkin she took out of her small purse. To cover her fear and embarrassment, she babbled about the history of the wall clock I had used to time my conversations. I tried steering her toward topics of more interest to me, but when her nerves looked thin, I backed off. As I tried to locate Leslie among the crowd, Justin joined us.

“Jennifer, this is my friend Justin.”

She curtsied to him. “How are you, sir?”

“I am well. Thanks for asking.” He smiled at her, and she relaxed. “That’s a lovely dress.”

Justin held out two glasses of wine. The calming effects of the glass of champagne were long gone, so I grabbed the glass he offered and downed it. When a waiter drifted by, I grabbed another glass. This was much stronger stuff, and before the second glass was drunk, my face was warm, and I felt great. When I spotted Leslie walking over to join us, I smiled hugely.

“How much did you have to drink?” he asked, eyeing me.

Justin held up his hands. “I only gave her one glass, I swear. Apparently, she can’t hold alcohol.”

“Not wine anyway, but I can hold you.” I poked Justin in the chest. I was about to prove it to the small group watching us when Leslie gathered me close and whispered in my ear.

“We know you can, my lovely flower, but you shouldn’t announce it to the Florida vampire elite.”

“I like that,” I whispered back and on impulse, I flicked my tongue over his earlobe.

“What?” His voice trembled, and I felt drunker for the power that gave me.

“‘My lovely flower.’ It’s nice. I always thought my name sounded like an old lady name.”

“Lily, I need you to focus. Now, tell me, how many guards were on the roof?”

Asking a tactical question brought me out of my wine-induced fog. “Fifteen that I saw. Why?” I leaned back and stared into his eyes.

“Good to have you back.” He kissed me lightly. “Now, I’d like you to meet Benoit.”

That sobered me up more than anything else he could have said. It took us a while to get to him. Several people stopped Leslie along the way to chat or compliment him on any number of things, including me. He kept me close by his side, and I made sure to rub my hand along his back. I found it wasn’t so hard to act anymore.

“Ah, Leslie,” someone called in a French accent much less pronounced than Luc’s.

“Guillame.” Leslie, with a huge smile plastered to his face, turned and shook hands with Benoit. “I see you are living well in the new house.”

“We certainly have more room here.” Benoit’s smile was a mirror image of Leslie’s. “It has been some time since you’ve been to Florida for a visit. Ah, ten, twelve years? It’s nice to have you back, for pleasure I hope.”

“Yes…pleasure,” Leslie decided, shaking hands with Benoit. I rolled my eyes. I wanted to pinch my nose, as if something stank, but decided it was overly childish. Sensing my disapproval, Leslie ran his hand down my back. “That last time was a nasty bit of business. Glad it all worked out.”

“If we don’t uphold our laws, how are we to remain civilized?”

“We can’t. Guillame, I’d like you to meet my mate, Lily.”

Benoit finally noticed me. He had sleek, dark hair, almost black, and it was longer than Luc’s. His eyes were the color of wet pine bark, and they shone like highly polished metal. A strange look passed over his face. I certainly wasn’t what he expected.

“Lovely.” He took my hand and kissed the back of it, much as Luc had. Something beyond us caught his attention, and he called, “Ah, Mon Coeur, come say hello to Monsieur Wells and meet his mate.”

“Mister Wells, I’ve heard so much about you,” said the owner of the warm, soft voice from the bathroom.

As I congratulated myself on correctly guessing her position in the hierarchy, I peered around Leslie and nearly choked. Walking toward me in a stunning dove gray gown was my sister, Aster, and she was a vampire. Her golden hair was in perfect Sleeping Beauty ringlets, and her eyes, as blue as a jay, stared at Leslie. I quit breathing, and I heard my heart pounding in my ears. I must have been gripping Leslie tightly for he turned to me.

“I’m going to be sick,” I squeaked and scurried in the opposite direction as fast as I my dress would let me.

I heard Leslie say something about humans and too much wine, and it felt like everyone was staring at me, even though I knew they weren’t. My face felt hot, and my body felt cold.

When I made it out of the room into a long corridor with high windows, I turned left. I had no idea where I was going. The house was a maze, and I ended up bursting through a pair of (ha, ha) French doors onto a veranda. The air was cool and sharp. Inhaling deeply, I tried to steady myself.

“Don’t be sick, don’t be sick,” I repeated to myself.

Too many questions poured through my mind. Among them, the five big Ws: who, what, where, why, and when. My guesses were Benoit, turned her, in Miami, she’s demur and beautiful, and while she was still young. I pressed my fists onto the concrete railing and used the pain to focus.

“Too much wine, Lily?” Luc asked as he stepped out of the shadow of the house.

I swore and turned in his direction. With his pale skin, the moonlight was enough for me to see him, and it chilled me.

“Yeah, and I missed the restroom.” I looked quizzically toward the doors. Luc moved to put himself between the doors and me. I ordered myself to stay loose. If I couldn’t take him down completely, I would still put up a hell of a fight. “I didn’t want to have an accident in Monsieur Benoit’s lovely hallway.”

“Lily.” Luc sighed and took a few steps closer. “What is so special about you?”

“Nothing.” I tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go except into the railing. My bottom bumped against it.

“Oh, I very much doubt that. I should’ve gone with my instinct and had Travis bring you to me the week before you made your announcement.” He bit his lower lip and looked at my chest before slowly raising his eyes to meet mine. “My mistake, and Monsieur Wells just won’t give you up, no matter what we offer him. He won’t even share you.” He took another step toward me.

“Lucky for me Leslie likes me so much, as I’m certain I don’t want to be shared.”

Luc laughed quietly. “I think it is a bit more than just liking you. I like Jennifer, but I would trade a hundred of her for you.” He reached out to touch my hair, and I slapped his hand away from me. It was enough to make my hand sting, so his probably stung, too. In the moonlight, I saw his smile. “Such heat! Monsieur Wells must enjoy playing with fire. Well, he isn’t here, but I am, and I want to play.”

When he came for me, I pulled out the punch dagger and kicked. I missed him and cursed the stupid dress for it. He kept coming, so I shoved the dagger into his left peck and twisted. I hadn’t taken into account the tuxedo, so I managed to take a large hunk out of his jacket and only a little bit out of him. With my left hand, I dug my nails into his cheek and raked them down his face to his chin. He snatched my wrists and propelled me into the side of the house.

The impact knocked the breath out of me and the punch dagger out of my hand. He shook his face to clear it of the stray pieces of his hair that came free of his ribbon. As I watched, the scratches vanished. The shallow hole in his chest began to close. He looked down at the dagger and wiggled his eyebrows at me.


With so much conviction I believed myself, I said, “If you bite me he’ll know,” and struggled against his hold on my wrists.

“Of course he would. I’m not going to bite you.”

With little effort, he drew my wrists together behind my back and clasped them both in one hand. He sniffed at my face as he pressed me into the wall, bending my shoulders back into an awkward position. I yelped from the pain, and Luc used the opportunity to kiss me, viciously, jamming his tongue in my mouth. I bit him, his lip, tongue—whatever I got my teeth on—and hard enough to draw blood. Quickly, I twisted my face to the side and spat. He laughed at me.

“No, no, I would trade a thousand Jennifers for you.” I inhaled deeply to scream, but his hand clamped over my mouth and nose, shutting off my air supply. “Be a bonne fille. Don’t scream now. It would be such a waste to have to kill you.”

I struggled to breathe, and he waited until I was to the point of passing out before he let go of my face and pressed his body into mine. I felt him hard against me as his fangs extended. His free hand roamed down to the split in my gown and pulled it up almost to my hip.

“You’ve just been in season. I can smell you. Wells thinks he can bring you in here and waft you under my nose. He had to know how badly I would want you.”

His fingers skimmed up my leg, over the garter, and stopped long enough for him to smile. After this brief pause, his hand slithered up between my legs. Out of instinct and fear, I fought to get free.

La Belle Fleur,” he whispered as he pressed his face against my neck.

He didn’t bite me, but his fingers hooked around my panties, and he tore them free of me. Once the barrier was gone, he slid his fingers inside me. He wasn’t hurting me physically, but I sucked in a breath and held it. My eyes widened when shifted his face so he could suck each finger as if dipped in something delicious.

“Just a hint now, like honeysuckle. I can’t imagine how sweet your blood must be.”

After a second taste, he pressed the side of his face to mine. My shoulders screamed in pain again, but I did not. I refused to make any noises that might excite him more. Luc positioned himself so that he stood between my legs. Then, I heard his zipper.

No, no, no. Fight! Every muscle, every bone screamed at once, and I struggled with everything I had in me.

“Luc,” said Benoit. At some point, he had come out on the veranda, and now, he had his fingers at Luc’s throat.

“I want her,” Luc growled.

“Damn you, she is a Wells, and he refused. I have given him my word. I don’t want him as an enemy.” Benoit looked at me and then Luc. “Is she worth me ripping your throat out, old friend? I’ll have to if you persist.”

Luc smiled at me. “Oh, Guillame.” He looked up into the sky briefly and then smiled at his friend. “I think this one would be worth it.” He licked the side of my face before releasing me. I was in shock, but I managed to edge around him and started toward the doors. “Some other time, La Fleur Douce. You come to me when you’re ready to play, oui?” He blew me a kiss.

I raced back inside as fast as the dress and heels would allow me. I had no idea where I was going, and when I nearly smashed into Selene, I grabbed her forearms.

“Where have you been?” she demanded. “Leslie has Aster looking all over for you.”

At the sound of her name, a new wave of nausea passed over me. I gripped Selene’s arms harder and dragged her against the wall. “No. Get me out of here, Selene. I mean it. I’m going to go completely ape shit in about one minute.”

She believed me because she put her arm around me and hurried me toward another door. We were outside, on a different veranda. How many freaking verandas does this house have? Selene had a tiny, cordless phone in her hand. She spoke into it so quickly that her lips blurred. A beat, maybe two, after she put it back in her purse, Leslie’s arms closed around me.

“Leslie,” I said the name as if he was my savior. “Get me out of here.”

I pinched my eyes shut. He never let go of me, not even when we got into the limo, which took far less time than I expected. I shivered from cold and shock and rocked myself in his arms until it felt like I would explode with fury and grief. I wrenched myself free of him and began ripping the pins out of my hair.

“Aster,” I screamed into the interior of the limo.

“Benoit’s mate?”

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” I chanted. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“What is it, Camellia?” Leslie grabbed my upper arms and shook me gently.

“She was my sister!”


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 7: Part 1

A Fine Soirée

“You know what I find interesting?”

“I’d love to know.”

I waved a hand at the book of fairy tales. “This story has no moral.”

“How do you mean?” Leslie’s brows came down briefly, and he smiled a bit.

“Rumpelstiltskin did the girl a favor in turn for favors but never got his final reward. The miller was never punished for lying, but I’ve always found that lying gets you into all sorts of trouble that you usually can’t get out of without telling the truth.”

“I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. However, bad people aren’t always punished, and sometimes, the favors one does go unrewarded.” Leslie closed the book but kept it on his lap.

“How would you have punished the miller?”

“Hmm.” I considered the options. “Well, he would’ve had a big stone to grind wheat and stuff into flour, right?”

“Yes, that’s where the name comes from. Millstone.”

“Well, maybe his millstone keeps breaking until he fesses up.”

“That’s more humanely than how I would punish him,” Leslie decided.

“Oh? And what would you do to him?” I grinned. “Have him eaten by vampires a little every day?”

“No, I think I would just have him fall and get ground up by the stone.”

For some reason, at that moment, that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and I bellowed with laughter. Leslie laughed too, although probably more at me laughing than what he’d said. I laughed so hard that I cried and had to fan my eyes to keep the eyelash powder from running.

I felt Leslie’s free hand on my cheek, and my laughs quieted. He lifted my face to his and kissed me. It was another soft kiss, a gentle brushing of lips.

“I love to hear you laugh,” he said, and I felt his lips move against mine as he spoke.

I always noticed Leslie’s eyes first, but I took this chance to study his face. It was rectangular but soft, with rounded edges. His nose was straight, with a slight swoop to it and a small, rounded end. I took his full bottom lip between my teeth for a moment and then kissed him back, a little more forcefully than he kissed me.

Leslie made an unhappy sound and pulled back from me. “We’re here.” I hadn’t even noticed that the car had stopped moving. “Are you ready?”

I swallowed hard, and my heart, which was already racing, leapt up into my throat. “Let’s do this.”

Leslie’s door opened, and he glided from the limo. Almost as fast as I turned my head, he was at my door with his hand held out for me. I took it, and he drew me from the car. The limo was in the front circular drive of Benoit’s enormous house. Behind us and in front of us, other couples emerged from limos and flashy cars. Leslie released my hand long enough to drape my wrap over my shoulders. Several people nodded or waved to Leslie. One woman craned her neck over her date to look at us.

“Why are they all staring at you?” I whispered.

“They aren’t. They’re staring at you.” My stomach rolled. Leslie tried, ineffectually, to put me at ease with a smile.

“Why?” I clutched the arm he offered me.

“I told you it’s been a while since I’ve taken a mate. They’re curious.” His free hand rubbed mine where I dug it into his sleeve.

“You know, you can take the terrified human bit too far.”

“I’m not acting.”

I glanced around, trying to absorb the details of the main entrance to the house. The blazing red front doors looked to be twenty feet tall. The house itself was a white brick monstrosity with lots of false windows framed by black shutters. Someone had sculpted the shrubbery into spheres, and large stone lions flanked the entrance. Patrols dotted the rooftop and guarded the entrance.

As we entered the foyer, I glued myself to Leslie. I looked around and got the impression that Guillame Benoit liked things soft and gilded. A giant painting of chubby children and  dogs covered most of one wall of the foyer. The frame around it was gold and wider than my waist. The chandelier with tier upon tier of crystal hung over a flowery rug that looked to be hand-woven two or three centuries ago.

The entryway was large enough for six people to enter at once. Five attendants stood ready to take wraps, keys, overcoats, and anything else the party-goers heaped on them. A small woman took my wrap and returned the tentative smile I sent her. Leslie took my arm in his, and we filed past the enormous painting toward a wide arch that stood between two sweeping staircases. The murmurs of conversation echoed up to the high ceilings. They were painted as well.

When we went through the arch, I leaned close to Leslie and said, “This house must have a hundred rooms, like a hotel.”

“Guillame prefers the large and flashy in everything but women.”

Though I couldn’t have cared less, I asked, “What kind of women does he prefer?”

“Demur and beautiful.”

In the next room, foot traffic came to a standstill. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well, at least I won’t have to worry about him.”

Leslie looked at me and ran his finger down my cheek. “Don’t be so sure.”

I began to swim in his eyes, so I looked away, looked for anything. This hallway was as wide as the foyer and lined with white sculptures, mostly of nude women, on gold  pedestals. There were matching doors on each side, one for each restroom. Near the front of the line, I spotted Selene and Justin speaking to a man at a podium.

Just as I said, “I hope they haven’t been waiting long,” a female vampire with an old southern accent boomed, “Oh, dear God. Leslie? Leslie Wells? Where have you been?”

She wove her way up the line to us. She was unhealthily thin with a large pile of  brown curls pinned on top of her head. Her lips and fingernails matched her blood-red dress, which was clingy in the extreme. She did her best to look at me without directly looking at me. I stood straighter and reasserted my clamp on Leslie’s arm.

“Sue Margaret,” Leslie said cordially. “How are you? You look lovely this evening.” They mock kissed each other on each cheek.

“Why thank you, Darlin’. You look just as scrumptious as always. I’m so glad you decided to stay in Florida for the winter. I hope you’ll be throwing one of your fabulous parties.” She batted her eyelashes at him before turning to me. In my heels, I was about four inches taller. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your date?”

“Sue Margaret Wilson, this is Lily Wells, my mate.”

Leslie put an unmistakable emphasis on the word. Everyone in the room, and probably outside the room (these were vampires), could hear him. She looked at me, absorbing every detail. I had a strong, irrational urge to jump on her and tear out her hair.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Wilson,” I said as genially as I could.

“Charmed.” She gave me a brief smile. “You’re quite a lucky human, Lily. Leslie here,” she turned to look at him, “is a catch. He’s been single for, oh how long has it been, Leslie? Longer than I’ve been a vampire. She must be very tasty. Oh, I forgot.” She put a hand on his forearm. “You quit drinking from humans.”

Brushing her hand away, Leslie said, “You didn’t forget, Sue Margaret.” With a huff of breath, she stalked back to her place in line. “Lily, if you need to use the restroom, there’s one right over there.” He pointed and leaned down to kiss me in that same soft way he had in the limo. He whispered in my ear, “Just in case you’d like to vomit after that sickening performance by Sue M.”

I laughed quietly and made my way to the restroom. I didn’t really need to go, but I thought it might be a good idea to freshen up my lip gloss and go back over what I had observed.

The bathroom was bigger than our kitchen and dining room combined, and it had several stalls like store restrooms did. In front of the large, gold-framed mirror, several females, both vampires and humans, primped and reapplied makeup. I hid in a stall. I wanted to roam the house, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea. To calm and center myself, I replayed the evening from the moment I stepped out of the limo and tried to recall everything I saw.

As I was cursing my inability to remember what the woman who took my wrap looked like, I heard Sue Margaret say, “I appreciate your hospitality. I’ve enjoyed these weeks in Florida.”

“We’re always glad to have old friends visit,” another vampire said. Her voice was soft and sweet. It made me feel safe, which was incredibly dangerous. I tried to peer through the crack in the door, but I could only catch a flash of blonde hair, much lighter than mine.

“You look unhappy, Ms. Wilson. Is there something I can do?”

“No,” she grumbled then sighed dramatically. “It’s just…he took a mate.”

“Oh.” Miss Sweet Voice sounded both understanding and sympathetic.

“You should see her. She looks like she crawled through a briar patch.” Sue Margaret chuckled. “She’s pretty though, and young. I’ve never seen him with someone who wasn’t.”

“From what I’ve been told, I would expect so.”

“But she’s human,” Sue Margaret snarled. “She’s ruining my plans.”

“Oh, don’t be upset, Ms. Wilson,” Miss Sweet Voice soothed.

“Maybe he would take multiple mates.”

“I don’t think so.” Sue Margaret cursed. “Do you even remember Leslie’s last mate?”

“No, but I haven’t been a vampire very long, and Guillame doesn’t share work with me.”  From this, I deduced that Miss Sweet Voice must be Mrs. Benoit, or one of many Mrs. Benoits.

“I don’t remember,” Sue Margaret said. “Not that he hasn’t bedded his share. I hope he gets tired of her and doesn’t turn her. All I’ll have to do is wait, and I can do that.”

I dug my nails into my fisted palms. I shouldn’t care who Leslie bedded. He probably  couldn’t even count them, and the thought brought me back to the kisses we shared. I wondered if he was playing some kind of game with me.

“Maybe Mister Wells has developed unusual tastes in his old age,” Miss Sweet Voice said, and they laughed.

“He’s probably the original Anglo-Saxon,” Sue Margaret said dreamily. “What I would do.” There was more laughter, but it cut off a little abruptly. “What is it? You have a funny look on your face?”

“Nothing. I just…smelled something.”

The subject of their talk changed to jewelry and shoes. As they chatted, their voices slowly faded. When I was positive they had left, I came out of the stall. The bathroom was empty, and I took a good look at myself in the mirror.

I was pretty, I thought. I had scars, but I wasn’t horribly mangled or anything. I was tall and muscular. I looked ridiculous with my hair and face all done up, but my curves might make a vampire like Sue Margaret jealous. I touched up my lip gloss.

“Not your business,” I reminded my reflection when I thought about Leslie’s past. I exited the bathroom and went in search of Leslie.

When I approached the man at the podium, he motioned me into a room with deep red carpet. At the center of the room sat a sizable urn of fall-colored roses atop a gold pedestal, and a mural of cherubs decorated the dome ceiling. I had never seen so much decadence.

There were a few clusters of people. Others milled about or walked into the next room. I found Leslie on the left, out of the way, standing with Justin and Selene. Justin looked like he was on high alert, and I smiled at him to try to set him at ease. Selene gripped his arm tightly.

“My, aren’t you two getting a lot of looks,” Selene commented and winked at Leslie. She gave me a moment to rub Justin’s free arm. “Justin, let’s pay our respects.”

She patted Justin’s shoulder and led him into what I decided would have been a dining hall had the house been owned by humans. The theme of rich wood, crystal, and gold leaf continued in there as well. Leslie smiled and nodded at a few more people, before I attempted to drag him out of the way to have a private conversation. He cooperated and pressed me into the corner, blocking me from view with his body.

“You’re not going to panic, are you?” he asked.

“I am panicking. Sue Margaret has it in for me.” I cast quick glances around his body and over his shoulder.

“She wouldn’t dare.” He took my hands in his. “She knows I’d kill her if she hurt you.” Gulp. “She’s just sore because she’s not Mrs. Leslie Wells, especially after she’s put out all the signals.”

“Yes. Give her a test-run did you?” I looked up at him sharply. I just couldn’t imagine the Leslie I was getting to know, and becoming more and more attracted to, doing anything social with that woman.

“Lily.” He grinned. “Are you jealous?” I looked away from him. He captured my chin and turned my face toward him. “That’s very sweet of you but completely unfounded.” He looked at my bottom lip as if he might kiss me again.

“She was going on and on about what a big deal it is that you have a mate. Perhaps you should’ve warned me that people were going to have this big of a reaction.”

“Perhaps, but I doubt you would’ve believed me.” His eyes flicked up to meet mine and held. “Let’s go in. I’ll introduce you around.” He took my arm in his and led me out from the corner.

“She also said she thought you were the original Anglo-Saxon. What does that mean?”

Leslie roared with laughter but never got a chance to answer my question.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 6: Part 1

Grim Fairy Tale

Despite all the training and jogging I used to tire myself, I slept poorly both Wednesday and Thursday nights. I debated having a glass of wine to calm me down but ultimately decided against it. When I did sleep, I dreamed of fanged people in long black gowns who wanted to dance.

Friday morning, when Justin and I went out to spar, I found a package propped against the back door with my name on it in block letters. Justin watched as I opened it and pulled out an old, leather-bound book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Inside the front flap was a piece of paper. Justin opened it and read the letter as I scanned the table of contents.

“ ‘Camellia, if you want to read fairy tales, you should read the real thing, not the watered-down, cartoon version. Real fairy tales have relevance and great importance in teaching children morals, good behavior, why they shouldn’t be lazy or jealous, why they should obey their parents, and so on. You are welcome to borrow this volume of mine for as long as you like. Yours, Leslie.’ A book of fairy tales. Ha,” Justin mused, handing the letter back to me.

“Who would’ve thought?”

“I imagine if you’d lived for a thousand years, you’d have a lot of stuff.” I looked at the inside of the front cover. “Holy shit, Justin.”


I pointed at something scribbled in another language. I clearly read “Leslie,” “Jacob,” and “Wilhelm.”

He looked up at me, mouth open. “This book is signed by the real Brothers Grimm. They were German. This,” he pointed to the scribbling, “is something they wrote to Leslie. This has to be one of the first editions translated into English.”

I snatched the book closed and stuffed it back in the envelope. “He can’t loan me this.”

Justin and I worked out for about two hours, being careful not to bruise or cut each other before our big night. After training, I sat down on a heap of pine straw to cool off and decided that a peek at the book wouldn’t hurt. Gently this time, I removed it from the envelope and thumbed through it.

I remembered a few years back that Justin said something about the Big Bad Wolf. I had heard people talk about him my whole life, but I never knew why. Before he left me to go back inside, Justin suggested I read the story about the little girl with the red riding jacket.

She set off to do an errand and good deed for her mother, and things had gone wrong from there. I read it, shaking my head in disbelief. I had no idea how anyone could survive being eaten by a wolf, but I supposed that was what made it a tale. However, the lessons about obeying your mother and not talking to strangers were loud and clear. I skimmed over a few others, making mental notes of the ones I wanted to read. Just as carefully as when I had taken it out, I slid the book back into the package.

The day was sunny, but it was past noon. I needed a shower and at least two hours to allow for hair drying and all the other things my mother had planned for me. I jogged down the path to the house, and as I came in the back door, I heard arguing. It sounded like my mother and Mandy. I paused, my hand on the knob.

“Iris, we just don’t think it’s fair that she and Justin are the only ones who get to go out. When are we going to meet these other sympathizers, huh? I’m beginning to think they don’t exist.”

“Mandy,” my mother said in an appeasing tone, “you and any of the others can go out when you like. As far as participation, we’re staying out of the majority of it for now. If you, or anyone else, want a bigger role to play, feel free to ask Leslie about it.”

“I don’t want to ask him. I don’t want to have to wear this pin to go out, and I don’t take orders from a vampire. Not long ago, neither did you.”

I wasn’t going to stand for that. I stormed into the kitchen and shouted, “My parents take orders from no one.”

Both women’s heads whipped in my direction. My mother wrung her hands, and Mandy looked guilty, as if caught in the act of doing something she shouldn’t. She shook herself out of it quickly.

“Don’t be so sure about it. He says jump, and you do. Justin, too. If he wasn’t so head-over-heels for you, he wouldn’t be sticking his neck out there for the Russian beauty queen to nibble.”

She started to stalk off, and I grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face me. “You leave Justin and my parents out of this. I offered to do this alone, but everyone agreed this was a good move.”

“Not everyone. We’re operating with them on a trial basis. Some of us are not convinced this is the right thing to do.” She jerked her shoulder free of my hand. “You are a strong group. I like the protection you can give me, but I didn’t want to be part of this.” Her eyes narrowed. “You brought him here.”

“I had little choice,” I reminded her.

“Oh, whatever, Cami.” Her face pinched. “All you had to do was tell him no.”

“And keep living like we are? I think we really have a shot at changing things.”

“He’s really gotten to you, huh? What’s that?” She pointed to the envelope under my arm. I gripped it tighter. “Another gift from your master?” I lifted my chin. “I see. Well, you enjoy your fancy party, Cami. I hope someone gets hungry.” She turned to leave.

“Mandy,” my mother snapped. “That is my daughter you are talking to.”

Casually, I said, “Oh, Mom, she’s just jealous.”

“Jealous?” Mandy turned her head in my direction, and her eyes went wide. “Oh yes, I’m jealous. You still have your parents. Sure, you lost your sister. Big deal.” She stabbed a finger into her chest. “I lost my entire family, and you’re ready to run off and play with a vampire.” She shook her head impatiently. “And here’s Justin, hanging on your every word, eating up every crumb you drop for him, and you treat him like an annoying pest. What I would do to have someone like him love me, and you throw it away.”

“I never asked for his love. All I ever wanted was to be free. Now, it looks like we can do something about it. I’m sorry you can’t understand.”

“No, I don’t think I’ll ever understand you. Patrice and I don’t want you in our room anymore. We moved your stuff to the basement.”

I stood, mouth open and in shock as Mandy left the kitchen. I stared after her for a bit. I had never been particularly fond of Mandy, but I fought and killed for her just as much as I did for the other members of the family. I had no idea she disliked me so much.

“Cami—” my mother began.

I held up a hand. “Don’t, just…don’t. When the time comes, you and Dad do what you think is right for them, regardless of what you know I want.”

“I don’t want to lose you, too, Honey.”

Since I didn’t want to make any promises I couldn’t keep, I only hugged her tightly. I told her I was going to run off some more energy. She agreed to fetch me when I needed to start getting ready. As I went out the back door, she sighed and went back to preparing the evening meal.

* * * *

After my run, I went straight to the basement. As I suspected, my bedroll, blanket, clothes, and shoes sat in a jumbled heap on the floor. At least one of them, probably Patrice, was kind enough to lay my dress out on the pool table.

Since there was a bathroom in the basement, I showered and washed my hair down there. After towel drying it, my mother wound sections of my hair into little spirals and pinned them to my head. She arranged the boxes and tubes of makeup and looked through the brushes.

“Well, Justin certainly got enough for me to choose from.”

She removed the lid from a pot labeled “Light Buff,” and dusted my face with the largest brush. After two coats of that, she took out a smaller one and dabbed here and there. She used another brush to swipe “Cool Coral” on my cheeks.

“Are you done?”

She laughed softly. “No. I still need to do your eyes and lips.” I closed my eyes and frowned as she ran a brush over my eyelids and jabbed at my eyelashes. “This is so different from the makeup I used. Well, the blush and eye shadow are similar, but I used liquid foundation. This stuff called lipslick is more like what we called gloss.” I opened my eyes to find her reading the side of the tube. She took several of them and swabbed color on the inside of my wrist with a fuzzy wand. “This one,” she pointed. “Sunset. Good name.” She wiped my wrist and then applied the gloss to my lips. “Now then. Aren’t you pretty?”

She didn’t give me a break to look in the bathroom mirror, but instead began removing the pins from my hair. Gently, she combed her fingers through the spirals then used the pins to fasten the front part of my hair back from my face.

The ritual reminded my mother of getting ready for a big high school dance. I asked what was so high about it, at which point she laughed and explained the words people had used to describe the schools—elementary, junior high, and high. Only elementary made sense to me.

I slid the knife harness (I refused to call it a garter) into place. The side slit in the dress was just right. If need be, I could hike the skirt up a bit and reach into the slit to grab the knife. I practiced drawing it several times before I was satisfied with the placement. Walking in the heels wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and the heels doubled as a pick.

At sunset, my mother hugged me, and I streaked out of the house, avoiding everyone else. Justin stood on the covered front porch. No one used it, but I found the view from it, mostly of forest, beautiful and peaceful. I clutched my wrap and the book of fairy tales to my chest.

“Looking lovely, Cami,” Justin said, smiling and eyeing me sideways. “Did you hide down in the basement so you could do the big reveal?”

I stared out across the front yard. “No, I was moved.”

“What?” He walked over to me and took my elbows in his hands.

I gave him a bland look. “Mandy and Patrice moved me.”

His eyes ignited, and his mouth pressed into a thin white slit. “You can move into my room.”

“That’s ridiculous. You share that room with Robert. I’m fine.”

“It’s not right,” he insisted. “It’s not their room. You should kick them out.”

“Let it go, Justin. They are against what we’re doing.” I looked at him steadily. “Would you be on board if it were someone other than me?”

He shrugged. “Because it is you, I thought about it, and we need to do something. I’m excited about this. We have connections now. I’m looking forward to meeting some of their people and training them.” He looked up the drive. “Selene has such confidence in me.”

“Yes, well, she is very fond of you. Justin,” I said and waited until he turned to look at me. “I have no right to say this, but please be careful around her. She has ulterior motives where you’re concerned.”

He laughed lightly. “Yes, I know. She’s already told me how she feels about me. I’m flattered. She’s quite beautiful.”

“I noticed,” I grumbled, as a black limo approached. “Ready?”


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 5: Part 2

“What broke your mood, Dear?” my mother asked. She walked up behind my chair and reached over its back to pat my shoulder.

“Snow White’s a vampire, Cinderella is a slave, and Beauty looks like Aster.”

“I don’t know that Snow White was a vampire. She was still human, and true love saved them all.”

I coughed out a laugh. “True love. Fairy tales,” I grumbled. My mother walked around the chair to face me, and I looked up at her. “It’s been twelve years, and I still miss her.” I stood, and my mother hugged me tightly.

“I know.” She rubbed my back, the way she had when I was little. “And because of what happened to her, you refuse to bond with anyone.” My mother had a way of getting to the heart of things. Well, I did, too, but her deliveries were nicer than mine typically were. “I understand why, but I don’t think it’s healthy.” She pushed back from me, holding my upper arms in her hands, and gave me a searching look. I frowned at her, and she touched my cheek. “Go eat. The vampires will be here soon.” She gave me a soft pat and then let me go.

As I walked toward the kitchen, I cast a glance back over my shoulder at her. “They’re coming tonight? Why?”

“Leslie sent a messenger today, a tall, broad young man, with a cockney British accent.” She did an impression, which had us both laughing. “The young man asked if Leslie could pay us a visit. You know, talk to you, and see how things went today. I have to say, he looked sorry that he missed you. I think he wanted to see if you lived up to the hype.”

She winked at me. I knew she would have preferred I do almost anything other than be a slayer, but she knew that I had to do what I had to do. She was proud of me, and she loved me very much.

“Leslie?” I asked. “So now you’re on a first name basis with him?”

She followed me into the kitchen. “We’re trying to work with him. Friendships can’t form if we keep such stiff formality between us.”

I rolled my eyes and dished up chili into a bowl. My mother got out a box of crackers, and I took a sleeve.

“I get it,” I said with a wave of my spoon. “This messenger was cute, huh?”

She smiled at me and nodded. I leaned back against the counter and began shoveling in the chili. My mother grabbed my arm and dragged me to the table.

“You need to slow down, use your table manners. I taught you some, years ago.”

“Sorry. A lifetime of speed eating is hard to break.” I opened the crackers and shoved a whole one in my mouth.

“Well, try.” She swatted my hand. “Justin certainly is.”

Suckup, I thought, but said nothing as I tried to mete out a reasonably-sized spoonful of chili and eat it at a moderate pace. I took out another cracker, bit it carefully in half, and chewed it.

“Much better.”

After she left me, I went back to shoveling. I wondered if Leslie and Selene dined on fine china and drank from crystal goblets. I shook my head and reminded myself that they didn’t eat regular food. Still, I bet they drank blood out of quality stemware. We were lucky in that there were dishes in this house, but then again, Leslie probably took care of that for us. I looked at the two-eye propane camp stove my mother set up on the counter so that she could prepare a stockpot of chili. Next to it, the large range sat cold and unused.

Maybe I should ask Leslie to turn the power on after all. I got up to fill bowl number two.

The scratching of fingernails down window glass sent shivers up my spine, and I sent the chili slopping onto the counter. With my jaw set, I put down the bowl and went over to the window. It was just after sundown, but there was still enough light to see. Selene looked skyward, embarrassed, while Leslie continued to paw at the window, smiling.

“Camellia,” he sang, “invite us in.”

I opened the door and said, “Selene, you may enter.”

I turned and went back into the kitchen, cleaned up my mess, got another bowl of chili, and took it to my room. I sat on the floor under the bedroom widow, cross-legged, bowl perched in my hands with Snow White in my lap. She had brown eyes in this picture, not blue like Selene’s. I was curious to see what Justin had forgotten.

I found that Snow White had taught the dwarves good manners and good housekeeping. I wondered if she made them soft or if they’d ever been hard. They certainly mourned her passing. They hunted down the witch, but in the end, she accidentally killed herself. No one had blood on his hands except the witch, and she was dead. It was unrealistic, improbable.

“You are incredibly rude,” Leslie snapped.

I continued to stare at my lap. “You got invited in, didn’t you? And, you should knock, like a normal person.”

“I only wished to tease you a bit.” He walked over to stand at my side. “What are you reading?” So quickly I hardly saw it, he took the book from under my hand. I turned my full attention on what was left of my chili. “Snow White? A bit old for fairy tales, aren’t you?”

I shrugged and shoveled the last of the chili down the hatch. “I never heard of it before today.”


I set the bowl down so I wouldn’t throw it and turned my head to look steadily in his eyes, even if I couldn’t see them so well in the gloom of the room. “My family went into hiding just before I turned five. Do you think that when my parents had the time to read or teach their daughters they spent it on fairy tales?” I waited a beat to let that sink in. “No, my father taught me how to fight, how to kill. My mother taught us French in case we went to Canada, Spanish in case we went to Mexico. Math, some science, civics, and important literature.” I ticked these things off on my fingers. “They didn’t bother filling our heads with make-believe nonsense about romance and love when our days centered around whether or not we’d even live to see another.”

“Daughters? You have sisters? Where are they?” Leslie looked around as if one of them might be hiding in this very room.

“I had one sister, and she is none of your business,” I said even as he opened his mouth.

He changed subjects easily. “Five, huh? No school?”

I looked away from him. “My family did their best, and I read whatever I came across in the houses where we’ve lived. It’s good enough.”

“I could—”

“Save it. I don’t need a personal tutor.”

I picked up the bowl and took it back to the kitchen. In the dark, I scrubbed the bowl and set it in the other bay of the sink to dry. When I turned around, I realized Leslie had followed me. He sat in a chair in the dining room. Justin and Selene were there, too.

“So, Camellia, you and Justin tell us about your day,” Selene prompted.

“Justin got a tuxedo,” I said. “We pick it up tomorrow.” Selene smiled at this. Her white teeth gleamed in the moonlight that came in through the window. “I got a dress and makeup, and I impressed the hell out of Travis when I told him that I was the great Leslie Wells’ mate.”

“You shouldn’t mock him,” Selene said coolly. “You have no idea how powerful he is.”

“Selene,” Leslie said in a bored tone, “let it go. It’s a good thing I decided to make my move when I did. Travis is one of Luc’s men. It would’ve been a shame for him to have taken you.”

“Never would’ve happened,” Justin said.

“Look, Justin,” Selene reached for his hand, “it’s not that we doubt your or Camellia’s abilities, it just—”

“No, it never would have happened. If, for some unknowable reason, she didn’t kill him first, she would kill herself, and so would I.”

I nodded firmly in agreement. “Never taken prisoner. We’ve learned from our mistakes.” Although I could hardly tell that Leslie and Selene were in the room, I looked at each of  them. “Was there anything else?”

“I want to see the dress,” Leslie said.


“You’re posing as my mate. I want to make sure that your dress is appropriate.”

“Whatever.” I stood up and headed out of the room. “Well, are you coming?” He was behind me, nose to my ear before I even finished asking the question. I hadn’t even heard his chair move.

As I walked down the hall to my room, I heard Selene ask, “Justin, what does your tux look like?”

I growled and led Leslie back into my room. “We can take it down to the basement. There aren’t any windows down there, so we can have lanterns at night.”

The closet door squeaked and the garment bag rustled. “I can see it.”

“I promise that I will take a bath, wash my hair and fix it, and wear some makeup.”

“Thank you.”

Leslie unzipped the bag and removed the dress. I couldn’t see the details of it in the low light, but I could tell he was touching it or pulling at it. I walked over to him and felt the fabric. It was soft and slipped through my hands.

“She said it’s silk.”

Crêpe de Chine, high quality from the looks of it. The neckline should be flattering. I like this detail here.” When he realized that I couldn’t see, he took my hand and placed it where the fabric swooped into a spiral that would sit halfway between my breasts and bellybutton. He let go of my hand. “The straight skirt will accentuate your hips, and the fabric will move with you beautifully. I’m surprised you went with something this form fitting.”

“It’s close, but I can hide a knife along my inner thigh. I was wearing one at the time, just to be sure. That’s about all the extra room in this thing.”

I grabbed the waist of the dress. It was lightweight, unlike the beaded ones. The halter straps and built-in cups held up my breasts, even if the V dipped between them. The back was low. It was elegant but not flashy. Perhaps it did suit me.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the full effect. This color…” He touched the silk. “It’s like a smoky shadow in a glacier.”

“I’ve never seen a glacier, but the lady said it was a good fall color for me.”

“Yes, the color will bring out your eyes and warm your skin tone.” His hand lifted to my face, and he ran his thumb up my cheek. It stopped at the corner of my eye. “Such striking eyes.”

“Leslie, don’t,” I said quietly. “Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. Don’t.”

After a beat he let it go. “Selene and I will be here, in a limo, Friday at sundown. We’ll go to dinner where we can discuss our plans and goals. There should be appetizers and drinks at Benoit’s. There will be socializing, dancing, and so on.” I nodded briskly. Now, we were getting down to some business. I sorted and filed the information. “I don’t expect you to be meek. In fact, I think that’s probably beyond your acting skills. However, I do expect you to be polite and act like a lady. I want you to make sure to touch me affectionately. Otherwise, you are going to give anyone who’s paying attention room to speculate.”

“Speculate? Don’t vampires take new mates all the time?”

“Not all of us. Certainly not me, not for a long time. I’m not like most vampires, and they know it. Ancients, like me, are thought of as eccentrics. People will be watching you. Remember that. Now, can you do these things for me? If not, I need to know now. Are you going to flinch and stiffen every time I touch you?”

He was still touching me, and it made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t because he was a vampire. I just never let myself get used to another’s touch. I decided to remind him of this fact.

“I told you, I’m not used to touching or being touched intimately by anyone, much less a vampire.”

With a hint of irritation in his voice, he asked, “Do you want to work with me?”

“Of course! This is huge.”

“Then, you’re going to have to let go of the commando attitude and loosen up.”

“Okay, okay. You’re right. Try me.”

I relaxed my stance and shoulders. Leslie slid his hand across my cheek and neck. His hand moved over my left breast and down to my hip. He squeezed it gently.

“Good. The heavy breathing is okay. Just try to look aroused, not panicked.” I let my eyes go unfocused and parted my lips slightly. “Wow. That’s…that’s perfect.”

“Look what lows I’ve sunk to—making out with a vampire.” I snorted and then burst out laughing. I was certain that Leslie was frowning at me, so I punched his shoulder. “I’ll get my act together. Don’t you worry. I know which forks to use and everything.” I smiled at him. “I may not be much of a lady, but my mother taught me how to act like one. I’ll do you proud. By the end of the night, even you’ll think I’m madly in love with you.”