Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 12: Part 1

The Morning After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touché.”

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

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

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

“Have you ever done that before?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Step away from me,” he growled.

“I’m not afraid of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t hurt me.”

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

“I had an orgasm, you idiot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, thank you.”

“Right, so we’re delicious.”

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

END CH12 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 2

“Where would you like to bite me?”

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

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

“Um, your wrist, I guess.”

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

“So, I just…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know I want you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aster, that’s naïve, even for you.”

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

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

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

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

“Get in line,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

“Is this Leslie or Justin?”

“Leslie,” he answered, irritated.

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

“The first and only what?”

“One I’ve ever loved.”

END CH11, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 1

Bloody and Broken

“Be still.”

“It hurts, okay.”

“I’m trying to set it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I swallowed hard.

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah. Could you lick my wrist?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what do we do about it?”

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

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

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

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

“Other than feed off me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took a few deep breaths and stood.

END CH11, P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 2

“I want to know.”

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

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

“No.”

“Okay, but why?”

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

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

“I am honest with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Leslie responded.

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

“Please stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a doctor?” my father asked.

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

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

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

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

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

END CH10, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 1

Breaking-in the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, what about your history?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I think you actually do.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Some do. We can if you’d like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you tell her?”

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

“W-what?” My eyes widen in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

END CH10, P1

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.

END CH7 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 6: Part 2

The driver got out and opened the door. Selene emerged from the limo in a royal blue gown that matched her eye color to perfection. It was tight and covered very little of her above the waist. The skirt flowed down her body like a narrow stream into a small pool. There was a short train on the dress. She practically glided over to him.

“Wow,” we said in unison.

“Good evening, Justin, Lily,” she said in an amused tone and winked. “Your ride will be along shortly.”

She took Justin’s hand and led him over to the limo. He slid in behind her. I walked over, but she shook her head and smiled as the driver closed the door between us. I was confused until I saw another limo coming down the drive.

Leslie didn’t wait for his driver to open the door. He sprang from the limo before it fully stopped. Taking one of my hands in his, he guided me to the car. After I sat down, he swept my skirt into the car and gently closed the door. In the time it took me to count out a second, Leslie went around to the other side, got in the limo, and resumed holding my hand.

He looked into my eyes and said, “You look shocked, absolutely stunningly gorgeous, and terrified,” before bringing my hand up to kiss it.

“You took me by surprise,” I said, and started breathing again.

“Oh, no. You took me by surprise.” I watched as his gaze traveled down from the top of my hair to where I still clutched the book. His brow furrowed. “You don’t want the book?”

“I’m afraid someone will damage it.”

Leslie accepted this without further questioning. I finally gathered enough of my wits to give him a once-over. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored black tuxedo. Like Justin’s, it had tails and silk lapels but with an embroidered wreathed heart instead of a pin. Leslie wore a white vest-type garment over his shirt and a white bow tie. He looked dashing, and I swallowed hard.

“Perhaps you can read it when you finally come to visit me at my home.”

I shook myself because I was staring at him, almost entranced. I started to ask him about visiting, but he moved on to another topic.

“I have something for you.” He drew a small box out of his pocket. “Since you’re to be my mate, you’ll need a ring. Not all vampires give their mates a wedding ring, but, in that respect, I’m old fashioned.” He opened the box and took out the ring. I studied it after he slid it onto my finger.

“It’s carved, or, uh, engraved I guess is the right word.” I turned the wide band around on my finger. “There are leaves and birds. It’s lovely.”

He held his left hand close to mine, and I saw he wore a similar ring. “The oak leaves represent strength, wisdom, and longevity. The birds, here,” he pointed, “are doves, which symbolize love and fidelity, as doves mate for life.”

“Leslie…” I couldn’t accept something so personal.

“Like most things I have kept over time, it’s old and dear to me, or if you prefer, I can find something else more suited to your taste.”

I had no taste in jewelry. “No, it’s fine.” I decided to let it go. Wanting to brighten the mood, I patted his arm and leaned back into the seat a bit. “Check this out.”

He looked at me with one eyebrow raised as I crossed my left leg over my right. The slit in the gown shifted up to about four inches above my knee. Sensually, I slid my hand into the slit. Then, I jerked my hand out, grasping the no longer hidden knife. Leslie caught my wrist in his hand.

“I’m not attacking you. Jeez.” He relaxed and let go of me. His fangs were out a bit. “I just wanted to show you my nifty setup.”

He looked at the knife. “Nice punch dagger.” He shifted a bit. “Easy to puncture and twist, taking out a chunk of your enemy.”

“I thought so too, and check out this garter thingy. It works great.” I uncrossed my legs and flipped the gown open to expose my thigh and show off how the holster clipped onto the garter. I slid the knife back into place.

Leslie’s nostrils flared. Gently, he pulled my knees back together and smoothed out my dress. He leaned back into the seat.

My brow furrowed. “Look, Leslie, I have to carry some sort of weapon, okay? I’m not going into a nest without something.”

“Of course.” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Then what’s wrong?” He waved a hand at me. “Don’t try to dismiss me. What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. I should’ve eaten. Don’t worry. I’ll get something at the restaurant.”

“Am I making you hungry?” I poked him in the ribs, and he glanced over at me.

“Yes,” he said so flatly that I quit playing.

“Why now?”

“Well, I haven’t eaten in a few days, but that’s not really it. You see…this is going to sound disgusting to you since you don’t drink blood for nourishment.” I rolled my eyes and motioned for him to get on with it. “Well, it’s your time.”

“My time?” I thought a moment. “My period?” I shook my head. “I only spot and only for a few days. It’s not very regular, and it’s already over.”

“The scent lingers,” Leslie said. “It’s nowhere near as strong as freshly drawn blood, but it’s tempting, especially when you add in the dress, makeup, hair, and the little sexy garter holding a deadly weapon.”

I fake-gagged. “One word…Ew.”

“I warned you, and you asked. Just don’t do anymore reveals unless it’s an emergency.”

“Deal.”

I had one vague memory of eating at a restaurant. It was what my mother had called a “fast food” place, so this fancy dinner was another new experience. Leslie coached me through it, and Justin thought I was hilarious. I practically jumped out of my skin every time the waiter came by our table.

I ate very little, but I found it helped ease the tension to talk about our goals for the evening. With so many guests, we knew it would be hard to get an accurate head count at Benoit’s, but at least we could over-estimate and plan based on those numbers. I hoped to take a tour of the house and see the layout firsthand. Tonight, the focus was to get to know the people, both human and vampire, so that they would trust us more.

Leslie and Selene were having their final glasses of blood. My nerves killed my appetite, and watching them drink blood while I attempted to eat made it worse. To take the edge off, I had a glass of wine.

“Leslie’s position and reputation will help, but we want them to buy into us all the way,” Selene said, more animated than I had ever seen her. “You’ll be spending too much time being arm candy to do much else tonight.”

“Arm candy?” I gave Leslie a sharp look.

“Lily, you are the mate of a V-I-V, very important vampire. You’ll be expected to be by his side at all times other than bathroom breaks,” she explained.

“V-I-V, that’s cute,” I murmured. “I know you’re a judge and all, but why are you so important?” I turned to look at Leslie.

Leslie glared at Selene and said, “Just drop it.”

She flicked her head to the side. “No, I won’t. She should know who she’s been insulting.”

“Selene,” he commanded.

She didn’t avert her eyes quickly enough, and it looked like it was painful for her when she continued to talk. “Just tell her,” she grunted. “I know you want to keep this casual, but I’ve had enough of her insulting you.” I put my hands on my hips, which looked ridiculous since I was seated. Leslie reached over to grab Selene’s arm, and she scooted away from him. “Release me,” she begged, wincing. “You know how painful resistance is.”

Leslie sighed, and Selene relaxed all at once. Justin stared at him, but Leslie just rolled his eyes and gave Selene a look that suggested she go on with it since she insisted.

She cleared her throat and continued, “Leslie told you that he is the judge and ruler of the southern section of the United States.”

I nodded, but this was all news to Justin. His stare turned into a shocked stare. Leslie gave Selene an icy look.

She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry, but she’s just so smug and childish. I thought she should treat you with more respect.” Selene let her eyes drop back to the table.

“I like her that way,” he growled.

Justin finally found his voice. “You’re a ruler? Holy crap. Then you weren’t lying when you said you had lots of people and vampires to back you up.”

“Since there isn’t any use for human money, age, strength, and position make up wealth in the world under our rule,” Selene explained. “Leslie’s position as a judge, and therefore as upper-echelon ruling class, gives him significantly more power and hence wealth.”

Leslie glared at Selene a bit longer and then looked at Justin. “I’ve spent many years visiting my subordinates, feeling out who would be with me and who would be against me. Benoit is opposed to change and, as such, is one of those I need to remove, but he won’t go quietly.”

“Then, you don’t really need us, do you?” I asked.

“When the humans, wild or not, know the Rosegartens are with us, they will have more faith in our ability to change things.”

“But, you don’t really need us.”

“No.”

“Then why—” I began to press, but he interrupted me.

“You and I will discuss this later, Camellia. It’s time we should be going.” He pushed back from the table and stood behind me to pull out my chair. “Selene, you should tell Justin your motives.”

“He knows my heart and why I want him to work with us.” She stared down at my hand, the one that had the ring on it, making sure that I saw her do it. Leslie nodded and took that hand in his.

More quickly than was necessary, we walked out to the waiting limo. The driver opened the door for me, and within moments, I found a brooding Leslie waiting on the seat next to me.

“Time to come clean,” I joked and tried to make eye contact. He looked out the tinted window into the night. “Leslie?”

Quietly, he said, “You were right.”

“Well, I know, but about what specifically?”

My question made him laugh. After a moment of quiet pondering on his part, he looked at me. “The house…I own it. It was prepared for your family, and I had my invitation into it revoked by one of the humans who works with me.”

“I had guessed as much. What else?” I poked him.

“I’ve been watching you since you moved in,” he admitted, his gaze penetrating me.

I shrugged it off, even though it did bother me a bit. “You already told me that.”

“I wasn’t exactly telling the truth when I told you no one had ever lived to describe you. No vampires, surely, but there have been a few videos from surveillance cameras. One was from a grocery store in Ohio. The other was from the house of a family you took out about six years ago.” He brushed a curled lock of my hair over my shoulder. “I had been looking for you for a few years when I heard of its existence.”

“So, were we total badasses?” I gave him a devilish half-smile. “Everything you heard was true, and you wanted to recruit us?”

“I wanted you with me. If your family wanted to join, that would be fine, but I wanted you.”

“You pretty much told me that already, too. So, what’s the big deal?”

“I suppose there isn’t one,” he murmured, leaving me with the feeling that he wasn’t telling me everything. “Bern, we’re ready,” he called to the driver. He pressed a button on the door console and an overhead light came on. “Let me read you the story of Rumpelstiltskin.”

Leslie lifted his arm over the seat back and motioned for me move nearer to him. I did, and nestled into him, as his arm draped over mine. I grew quite comfortable next to Leslie. He wasn’t as warm as I was, but he wasn’t cold either. Even though I had touched them when I fought with them, I always assumed vampires were cold.

The book lay open in his lap, and he flipped to the proper page. Though he looked like he was reading, I decided he was reciting the story from memory. I wondered how many times he had read the book. In the dark of the interior of the car, I pictured the story as he told it. As Leslie continued to read and the story unfolded, I wondered why the women in most fairy tales were so dumb.

END Ch6P2