Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 16: Part 2

Some time later, Kyler returned, and he and Santiago took Justin upstairs. Not long after that, Jay came into the dining room and helped me out of the chair. He looked showered and doctored, yet I was stiff and dirty. My scratches were red and swollen, and the gash down my right arm oozed. I suddenly realized I had no shirt on, just a sports bra and shorts, my skin pale from the cold.

Jay went with me into the bathroom, as if he was afraid I might fall over at any minute. When I saw myself in the mirror, I jumped. Dried blood trailed down my neck and chest where it wept from a big cut on my face. I looked like a teenager in one of the thriller movies Jay liked so much. Any moment now the killer would burst in the front door, except this was no movie and the killer was a pine tree.

I struggled with the sports bra to no avail and sighed in exasperation and exhaustion. I hurt all over, and I couldn’t get it off by myself. Jay started to leave, but I motioned for him to wait.

“Jay, I’m too sore, and my hands are stiff. I need you to pull this thing off me.”

“What? Your bra?” he asked. “You can’t get it off?”

“Hurts too much. Help a girl out, would you?” I gave him my best sad-eyed look. It didn’t take much effort.

“When you ask like that, who could say no?” Although he knew I wasn’t in the mood for it, he couldn’t help but smile.

I turned my back to him and lifted up my arms. I felt his fingers slide under the bottom band of the bra and grip it. As carefully as he could, Jay tugged on the bra, working it up and off my chest. I felt warmth where his fingers skimmed up the sides of my body. When the bra was over my shoulders, I pulled it off my arms.

“I can help with your shorts too,” Jay said, craning his neck around to look at me and offering me another crooked smile.

I had to smile back this time. “I think I can manage. You and Santiago okay?”

I turned toward him and tossed the bra to the floor without another thought. Fatigue overshadowed my sense of modesty. I looked over his cleaned cuts, turning his face in my hands. The cut at his hairline wasn’t as deep as I thought; it just bled a lot.

His eyes flicked between the ceiling and me. “I think J twisted his ankle. We’re a little banged up, but nothing like you and Justin.”

Satisfied that Heather tended him well, I released his face. He waited a beat while I tugged the band off the end of my braid and began undoing it.

“You saved me and J from the worst of it. If Justin hadn’t been running that little bit ahead of you, he wouldn’t have been so bad off.”

“He always has to be first. It’s a stupid male overprotective thing.” My hair, now free of the braid, fell over my shoulders in waves.

“You got some wicked scars, Cami-girl,” Jay complimented me.

“High mileage, as my father says.” I raked my hands through my hair to work out any knots.

He looked at me admiringly. “I think you must be in shock.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You know I can see your breasts right? I mean, they are lovely, top-notch,” he smiled as he saw realization come to my eyes. “In fact, there’s not much about you that isn’t, including the scars.”

I straightened my shoulders and through clenched teeth said, “It slipped my mind. Anything else you want to see before I get my shower?”

“Now that you mention it—” he started.

As I shoved him out the door, his eyes never left my chest. I slammed the door in his face.

He laughed, and I heard him call out, “J, Cami-girl’s got a rack you wouldn’t believe.”

I rolled my eyes at my reflection, which reminded me why I looked like the victim of a horrible accident. Tears threatened, so I pulled off my shorts and started the water. Debris came out of my hair and off my body, and I worried that I would clog Leslie’s drain. The water and soap stung, especially when I dabbed and probed the gash and other visible cuts. I did my best to get the bits of bark and dirt out of my wounds. After ten minutes of gingerly patting at myself and ruining Leslie’s white washcloth, I was as clean as soap and water would get me. I got out, dried off, and wrapped the towel around my torso.

As I came out of the bathroom, I asked, “Who can sew?” All the humans, except Justin, were in the living room, and they looked over at me. “Whoever can make the smallest whipstitch needs to sew me up.” I pointed to my face and my upper arm, which were bleeding but only a little.

“I can do it,” Court offered. “Heather, get the alcohol, gauze, tape, and bandages. I’ll meet you both at the bar.”

“He wants to be a surgeon,” Heather explained as she collected first aid supplies. “Leslie has been teaching him when he has time. It’ll be of good use.” She swabbed my scratches, and I couldn’t help wincing at the sting. “Justin’s been cleaned up and put to bed. Selene was so embarrassed.”

“She said Leslie normally does that sort of thing.”

“Vampires, even very old ones, are emotional about blood. Being bitten can be very exciting, so I’m told. Leslie has the best control of any vampire I’ve seen.”

I wondered how many times Heather had seen Leslie feed another human his blood. Maybe she had some herself. That was probably a very personal question and none of my business, especially since I didn’t know her that well.

Court came into view and brought with him thread, a needle, and sewing scissors. “Pink’s the closest color we’ve got.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I assured him and propped up my arm. “Do this first. It’s the worst.”

Court rubbed my arm with what looked like iodine. It burned like hell, but I didn’t complain. After that, he sterilized the needle by holding a lighter to it. Heather had slipped in and out of the kitchen without me noticing and now offered me a glass of sweet tea. I accepted it and took a long drink. The sugar gave me a boost and raised my blood sugar close to normal.

“I wish I had something to numb the skin,” Court continued, threading the needle. “I should remember to ask Leslie about bringing home more supplies. Keeping you all together is going to be a full time job, I think.”

“I’ve been stitched up so many times. You’ll do fine.”

I felt the prick as the needle pierced my skin. It was uncomfortable at first, but I blocked it. My mother was a much better seamstress than Court, but he eventually found his rhythm. My mind drifted as the needle and thread tugged through my skin. I wondered what caused the tree to fall. We hadn’t had a particularly wet fall, but I wondered if the summer had been so dry that the tree was partially dead. If so, a few soaking rains could cause it to uproot. Still, I thought someone should go check it to make sure it was bad luck and not foul play. I didn’t think that was the case, especially with how the vampires were watching the woods for anything suspicious. I couldn’t imagine who would be dumb enough to try to spy on Leslie.

Someone spoke to me, but I wasn’t really listening. I stared out the closest window, wondering where Leslie went and when he would return.

“You have an unusually high tolerance for pain, Camellia,” Court said a little amazed. “I’m afraid you’ll scar though.”

“Look at me.” I twisted my arms back and forth. I stretched out my neck and showed him my shins and knees. “And that’s just what you can see. Trust me, it’ll add to the charm.” I inspected the stitches. “This is good work. Not as good as my mother’s, but with me around, you should get lots of practice.” I leaned on the arm and turned my face toward him so that he could pat it with the same burning disinfectant goop.

Court gave a slight frown as he looked at the cut. “I wish I had some liquid stitches for this. You know, like super glue for the skin? I hate thinking about the scar this will leave, all the way from your eyebrow to your jaw line.”

“Charm,” I reminded him as he set to work.

When he was done, he smeared both areas with ointment. He wrapped the arm in gauze and put bandages over the stitches in my face. Someone, probably Heather, made soup, and Jay took a break from watching movies to bring me a bowl along with a hunk of bread. He stood behind me and rubbed my shoulders while I ate without much interest, wincing when the act of chewing pulled at my stitches. The massage felt good, and at some point, I told him so.

I drifted for a while. People spoke to me and I responded, but I had no real interest in what they said or asked. I felt drained, numb. Sometimes, it was just easier, if not necessary, to be blank.

I made my way up to Justin, tucked snuggly in the pretty bedspread. A fire crackled in his hearth. When I came over to stroke his brow, he didn’t stir. His color was back, and he slept easily. The cuts were only vague pink places on his skin, and he looked clean. I crawled onto the bed beside him and stared at him for a while, thinking about the last time we had sex and the sacrifices he always made for me.

After staring at Justin’s sleeping face for what felt like an hour, I got up and walked over to stare out his window. The rain had turned to drizzle, and night would fall soon. I wondered if Selene or Kyler would go clear out the driveway. I had no doubt that either one of them could pick up the tree and toss it out of the way.

I drifted again. This time, I went up to the third floor loft. Now that I actually looked around, I noticed that the room held a grouping of two chairs and a sofa, facing a small TV, and another grouping of two chairs and a sofa that more or less looked out over the railing. There were also several freestanding open bookshelves. After scanning a few titles, I discovered the collection was devoted to human-written stories about vampires. It made me smile a little. It must have read like comedy to them.

As dusk approached, I walked over and leaned against the window just as Leslie and I had only nights before, or was it day? No, it was night because the shades had been open, and we had leaned against the cool, bare glass. I wondered if my parents were settling into a new home now. I hoped Leslie’s people took good care of them. Again, I reminded myself to ask Leslie about them.

I wondered if my parents had still been here, would they have let Justin die rather than risk him turning? It was fine to talk big when a willing and friendly vampire wasn’t around to offer, but when one presented him—or herself, the option was much harder to ignore. I wasn’t ready for Justin to die, but apparently, I was willing for him to be a vampire in order to avoid death. It was incredibly selfish, and I had no right to ask him to do that, to risk his humanity. I wanted to take it back, and I didn’t. At the time, I was so confused and scared for him that I just reacted.

Sometime later, when it was full dark, I watched the headlights of the limo come down the drive. Faint thudding noises signaled Leslie entering the house and coming into the living room. Sound carried in this house. Up on the third floor, I heard almost everything from the living room and kitchen.

“Would someone like to tell me why my house smells like a blood bank?” Leslie asked.

“You missed the show, Leslie,” Monte said. “Have a seat.”

“Before you get all worked up,” Court said in a calm, even tone, “no one’s dead. Well, Justin might change, but he hasn’t really shown any signs of it.”

“Leslie, don’t be upset,” I heard Kyler’s voice now, unusually urgent. “You can be proud of Selene.”

“And Cami-girl. That’s a strong one there,” Jay added. “Let’s tell you how it all went down.” There was murmuring I couldn’t make out, and then Jay started telling the story — what he did best. “We were running, her, Justin, me, and J. She had us run after she and Justin threw us around and beat us to a bloody pulp. You believe it?” He paused where I assumed he waited for some sort of reaction. “Well, out of nowhere this big pine comes crashing down.”

“I didn’t notice it on my way in,” Leslie said.

“I moved it so Bern could drive in,” Kyler said.

I suddenly thought, Where does Bern sleep?

“Yeah, well, if it wasn’t for her, that bloody thing would’ve smashed the four of us to mush,” Jay insisted. “It knocked us flat, and she bolts up, blood everywhere, scratches galore, pulling me and J out, checking me over like a mother hen, like I’m the one hurt.”

Kyler interjected, “That reminds me that I need to dispose of the bloody branch.”

“Don’t get upset, Les; it wasn’t her,” Jay soothed. “It’s Justin. When she goes to get him out, he’s got a branch shoved right up in his belly.” I imagined the hand gestures that were going along with this story, and I half-smiled. “He’s bleeding all over, so I set off running back here to get Ky and Sellie.”

What ridiculous nicknames he makes up for everyone, I thought. It made me smile when what I wanted to do was start crying again. As I expected, Santiago came right behind Jay, filling in the action that Jay had missed.

“She tore the shirt off her back, held onto him, and talked to him until Selene and Kyler came,” his deep voice carried easily into the loft. “She’s tough.”

“Selene and I brought them back,” Kyler said. “Camellia demanded that Selene feed him. You should’ve seen her. She was brave, Leslie. When she reached that point, you know, when she was filled with lust for his blood and his body, she called for me to stop her.”

I realized that as the humans praised me, Kyler praised Selene. Oh, everyone all around was so proud and happy and brave. Oh, and my lover for the last five years almost died and might become a vampire. I wanted to scream.

“Is she okay?” Leslie asked.

“She’s steering clear of him until the wound closes and we know for sure whether he’ll change,” Kyler said. “I don’t think he had enough blood for it though.”

“I meant Camellia,” Leslie yelled. “Is she okay? I know she would have seen to everyone before even thinking of herself. So I know you are all fine, but is she?”

“Calm down,” Kyler said. “Your queen has been cared for.”

“Don’t start with me.”

“I don’t understand this fascination—”

“Cami-girl’s tough, a warrior,” Jay interrupted. “She cleaned herself up, and Court did a fine job on her stitches. Our girl is covered in scars. She’s going to have two more beauties after today. We fed her, Heather offered to dress her, and I tried to steer her over to the sofa to rest, but she’s pretty much ignoring everyone. She’s been wandering around in a bloodied up bath towel for a few hours now.”

I had to strain to hear Leslie ask, “Why is that?”

“She’s in her own head right now,” Santiago explained.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 16: Part 1


After only a few minutes, Leslie went in, and shortly thereafter, a limo with vampire-safe tinted windows left. Justin and I spent the next hour going over basic form for blocks and punches. It wasn’t that the members of Leslie’s family didn’t know how to fight; it’s just that they didn’t have any formal training. My training wasn’t formal in the old sense of the word, but I knew I had near perfect form.

We spent part of the second hour going through my usual yoga routine to encourage flexibility and muscle tone. At the end of the second hour, Selene and Kyler went back inside the house. Not long after that, the rain came. We were filthy, hungry, and grumpy. Tired of their grumbling, Justin and I cut the others loose, but we weren’t done for the day. It was our routine to run after combat training and yoga. Everyone else trudged up the steps as I did a final stretch of my already loose quadriceps.

“You’re not coming?” Jay called to me.

“We always run,” I called back. “Yoga and running—that’s how you get the lean muscle.”

“But it’s raining,” Santiago complained.

“I’m not made of sugar.” I turned my face up to the sky briefly before I turned to Justin and nodded.

“No shit,” Santiago murmured, and I smiled.

Justin and I set off down the drive. Since I’d known him, we had run together. He always ran to my left because I tended to drift to the right at times. At least this time, I wouldn’t have to worry about foot soldiers or reprimands for running alone.

After a few moments, I heard more footsteps behind us. Jay jogged up on my right, and I bumped into him. Glancing behind me, I saw Santiago. Neither of them looked particularly happy, and I wondered if Leslie had asked them to keep an eye on me permanently. Well, even so, they could use the cardio.

“Three miles,” I explained to them. “If you get tired, let me know. We’ll stop.”

“We can run three miles, no sweat,” Jay promised me. “There’s worse ways I could spend my time than watching you from behind, Cami-girl.”

I shook my head and laughed as he dropped back behind me, and the four of us made our way down the drive. As the rain continued, my clothes stuck to my skin, and my hair stuck to my head. The end of my ponytail slapped against the side of my face and neck.

Trained to endure almost any weather conditions, the rain didn’t bother me. If you have to run, you can’t worry about weather. The only thing to worry about is running at night. I thought about one of those nights when we had to run. Maybe we hadn’t been careful enough or maybe it was just bad luck. Vampires discovered us, and because we refused to invite them in, they set fire to the house. As the house filled with smoke, I crawled on the floor, the glass from broken windows scraping my palms and knees. Screaming and terrified, most of our family panicked and ran out the front door straight to the waiting vampires. I stayed calm, kept my head. I was a good girl, and Aster was, too. We did exactly as my father told us, which was why we made it to the underground escape tunnel and got away. After that, my father always chose houses with lots of doors.

While I ran, I mentally tallied how many we had lost at night over the years. It was so rare for anyone to go out after sunset, and I thought about how utterly stupid it was for Aster to go outside at night, by herself, for a crying child. Throwing caution aside, she darted out the door, before it even registered to my mother and before I could get hold of her to stop her. In any situation, I assumed there was a trick. The pessimism kept me alert and alive. Even as we ran, I scanned and prepared, which was probably why I was able to dodge the tree.

I heard loud creaking, and then a large, mature pine fell at us across the drive. I stopped dead, grabbed Justin’s shirt, and threw out my right arm to halt the advance of Jay. In reaction to me, Jay grabbed my arm and then Santiago’s. My head whipped right and left—watching the tree, watching the men. As the trunk crashed down in front of us, the limbs swatted us to the ground.

A large branch broke over my right hip, but I regained my feet almost as soon as I went down. I did a quick assessment. No breaks, twists, or sprains, but bleeding from a gruesome gash on my right arm. Blood ran down my face, but there was nothing life threatening.

I scanned the sea of branches and needles. Closest to me, several branches trapped Jay. With my help, we managed to pry them apart so that he could climb out from under them. Without a word, I patted down his arms and looked over his shirt for gouges or slashes. Then, I pulled up his shirt, briskly sliding my hands over his chest and back, to check for gashes or punctures. I turned his arms over and felt up and down his legs.

“I’m okay, Cami-girl,” he panted, grabbing my hands and giving them a gentle squeeze. When he released me, he winced. He had a few small scratches on his face, and a cut at his hairline bled.

“You got whacked in the head,” I told him as I swiped at his scratches with my fingers and rubbed his blood on my shirt. He looked even paler than usual. “Get Santiago out. Justin!”

As I climbed around in the limbs, I heard grunting. The smell of pine sap hung in the air, and the slick, wet needles slapped at me as I dug through them. When I found Justin’s arm, I yanked, which issued a sky-splitting scream from him.

“What is it?” I perched above him with my legs straddled wide. When I moved a large thatch of greenery out of the way, I saw a branch puncturing his abdomen. “Oh, God, Justin.”

I reached toward where the branch was in him, and he grabbed my wrist. “It’s bad,” he choked and winced.

I swiveled my head around to where Jay was pulling Santiago free. “I’m on it, Cami-girl.” Jay took off running toward the house.

Although scratched and bleeding, Santiago was standing. He scanned the trees. “How bad is it?” he asked, limping over closer to Justin and me.

“Bad,” I answered.

I leaned my upper body down from my crouched position to reach Justin and hold his hand. He began to shiver, so I took off my shirt and tried to arrange it over him. I felt something on my shoulder and turned to find Santiago had removed his shirt, too. I covered Justin with it and began wiping blood from his cuts with mine.

“Don’t bother.” He sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’ll just ruin it.”

“Shut up. They’ll come. You’ll be okay.”

“Camellia.” No, not the dreaded full name. He grunted in pain. “I’ve got a large branch shoved up in my guts. I’m bleeding a lot. What do you think’s going to happen if anyone tries to remove the branch?”

“Jay’ll be back at the house in less than five minutes. It’s raining so the vampires’ll come out for you. We’ll figure it out.”

He sighed and closed his eyes, “I’m going to bleed to death.”

“No! You can’t. I forbid you. Look at me, Justin.” I reached down and pinched his cheeks. “Open your eyes and look at me.” I shook his face until he opened his eyes.

He tried to smile at me. “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?”

“Liar,” I said fiercely so that I wouldn’t be tempted to cry. I let go of his face and brushed away the needles and his hair. He tried to laugh and ended up coughing and choking. “We both know Selene is way prettier than me. You’re just a suck-up.”

“Tell me how we met. Please. It’ll take my mind off the branch.”

The way he tried to give me a stupid smile left me no choice. “Okay. Um, we were in California. I was leading a group in cleaning out a neighborhood just outside of San Fran.”

“You were what eighteen, nineteen?”

“Shh. Don’t talk,” I said and stroked his brow. “Almost twenty. We came in the house you were using for a bunker, and you had it booby-trapped. The homemade explosives on the windows wounded three of our members so badly that they ended up,” I choked a little, “bleeding to death. The sledge at the door broke two of my ribs.” I wiped at the cuts on his face again. “I found you sleeping in the attic, and I almost slit your throat for the hell of it. You woke up, asked me if I was the angel of death, and kissed me for the first time. That’s why I didn’t kill you. You’ve always been good at kissing.” He squeezed my hand. “Of course, once you realized I wasn’t, you freaked out and fought us.” This brought a smile to his face. “We checked you for bites, which must have been humiliating. We had to tie you and gag you to get you out of there and back to our house without drawing the attention of anyone in the area. You really were wild.” I gave him the best smile that I could. “My parents welcomed you to our home with open arms, despite the three we lost.” He shut his eyes. “My ribs still hurt sometimes when it’s really cold.”

“I love that story,” he said softly. “Kiss me again.”

“Shh. Justin, you shouldn’t talk, okay?”

“Someone’s here,” Santiago said, limping closer to me.

My head shot up, and I scanned the area. I listened, but all I heard was the hammering of my heart and Justin’s labored breathing. Santiago made some hand signal, and I got the gist that he heard the sound from off in the woods, not from the drive. I looked off in the direction of Santiago’s line of sight but saw nothing. When I panned to look up the drive, a blurry Selene headed toward us. About the time she reached us, Kyler landed heavily in front of the downed tree. Gravel sprayed in my direction. Carefully, Selene made her way over to me. When she saw Justin, she gasped.

“He’s in bad shape. Selene,” I grabbed her fancy blue sweater, smearing Justin’s blood on it, “don’t you let him die.”

She nodded once, understanding my meaning, and looked over at Kyler. I backed out of the tree branches, and Santiago limped over to me and put his arm around me. Before I counted to ten, Selene severed the tree limb and lifted Justin. The branch still stuck out of him, and I saw a pool of blood where he had been lying. This was bad, very bad.

I swallowed back a sob and looked at Kyler, who motioned me over to him. “What do you want me to do?”

“Let me hold you. Show her J,” he said to Santiago, who walked over to him.

Santiago put his arm over Kyler’s shoulder, and Kyler slid his arm around Santiago’s back, pinching him at the waist. I walked over, and he did the same to me. His grip was so tight that I almost cried out, but when he jumped, I was glad for it. Kyler didn’t fly, but his leaps were close enough. Four great bounds brought us back to the front porch, where he released us. As he sped forward and opened the door, Selene shot past him with Justin in her arms.

I put an arm around Santiago, and we shuffled up the steps behind them. Inside, Jay perched on a stool while a nervous-looking Heather tended his injuries. He bit his lip as she dabbed at his cuts. When she looked at me, I saw her gulp.

“J, you okay?” Jay asked, and Santiago nodded. I helped him limp over to the bar where he sat next to Jay, who reached out for me. “Cami-girl, you’re all cut to pieces. Come let Heather see to you.”

“Later,” I said brusquely. “I have to see about Justin.” At that moment, I heard Justin scream, and I ran into the dining room.

Selene had him up on the table, and the bloody tree branch was now lying on the floor. Someone had ripped open Justin’s shirt, and his face was white with pain and cold. I ran to him and grabbed his hand. His hold was weak, but he looked at me with wide, terrified eyes.

“C-Cami, I’m g-going t-to d-die,” he chattered as I shook my head violently.

Giving her a piercing stare, I said, “Do it, Selene.” She looked at me and then back at Justin.

“D-Do what? C-Cami, what are you talking about?”

“Drink from her. It will heal you. You won’t die.”

“I’m not drinking vampire b-blood,” he said with as much force as he could before his strength gave way. “You can’t make me.”

“Like hell! Listen to me, Justin Frederick Bellemead. I’m not ready to let you die because a stupid fucking tree fell on you. You can do it; I did. It’s no big deal. Right, Selene?” When she didn’t answer, I snapped, “Right?” and glared at her as I gripped Justin’s hand in both of mine.

“I don’t normally feed humans. It’s something Leslie does in emergencies. I don’t have his control, Camellia. It could end badly.”

Selene looked at Justin’s face, which grew paler by the second. Justin was in pain, and there was pain on Selene’s face. She didn’t want to lose him, but she was afraid.

“Well, Leslie’s not fucking here,” I shouted, freeing one of my hands and slamming my palm down on the table repeatedly to emphasize each word. “It’s gonna end badly sure enough if you don’t try. If you don’t, then let Kyler.”

She straightened her shoulders. “I can do it.”

Kyler pressed Santiago’s T-shirt to Justin like a compress. I held firmly onto Justin, and he looked as if he was on the verge of both passing out and passing away.

“Justin, do it for me. I don’t want to lose you.” A tear escaped as I looked down into Justin’s gray eyes, like the color of the rain clouds.

“Jeez, you’re crying. Don’t cry,” he whispered. “Okay. I’ll be a good boy and take my medicine.” His head rolled to the side. “What do I do?”

Selene positioned her arm in front of his face. “Just bite me enough to draw blood and suck.”

Justin slowly nodded his head. His eyes closed, but he opened his mouth, and I watched as he bit into Selene with as much force as he could manage. She made an excited noise, and her fangs extended. Biting was certainly a turn-on for vampires. After Justin secured his mouth over the bite, he sucked and swallowed.

Now, I had done this very thing not long ago, but I found it repugnant to watch, and my stomach rolled. Two swallows and Justin’s eyes popped open in surprise and delight. His mouth curved into a wide smile before he shifted and licked Selene’s arm.

“It tastes like candied apples and cinnamon rolls with a steak and a baked potato,” he murmured before latching onto her.

I pursed my lips. “I guess it’s different for every vampire.”

“It’s different because what food Justin likes is different from what you like,” Kyler explained. “Vampire blood tastes different from human to human, but each of you has a distinct flavor to a vampire.”

It was gross but incredibly interesting at the same time. While I pondered this new information, Justin propped himself up on one arm and let go of me.

“I want him, I want him,” Selene chanted as she tore at her sweater with her free hand.

At the sound of her voice, Justin removed his mouth from her arm, made a hungry sound that could only be associated with sexual desire, and grabbed her by the arms. Her fangs shot out, and her chest heaved. From the looks of things, he wanted her just as badly.

“Kyler, help me,” she pled, her eyes large with panic and her pupils dilated with lust. “We’ll kill each other.”

Kyler stepped to them and wrenched her free. “Mind him,” he barked at me as he dragged a squealing Selene from the room.

Justin collapsed back onto the table. The T-shirt compress fell to the floor, and I saw the hole in his abdomen had stopped bleeding as the internal tears began to heal.

“Cami, oh Cami, Cami,” he cooed. “You should’ve told me it felt so good. It’s almost as good as when I’m inside you.”

“Hush, Justin.” I eased into one of the dining room chairs. “You’re talking out of your head.” He rolled over, following the sound of me, and reached out for me. His eyes opened as I took his hand in mine. “Once you heal, you’re going to feel like a new man.”

“Can I have my kiss now?”

I looked at him. He wore a blood-smeared, self-satisfied grin, as if he’d already gotten dessert and was trying to wheedle an extra piece of candy.

“I think you earned it.”

I kissed the fingers of my free hand and pressing them to his mouth. He frowned and, on a surge of energy, yanked me out of my seat so that my mouth crushed into his. His hands shot up, one around the back of my neck and one into my hair as his mouth moved against mine. When the burst passed, he released me and panted.

“I want you, here, now, but it hurts.” He made a weak sound of pain and collapsed.

I felt for his pulse and found it strong and steady. Not dead, just unconscious. I sat down heavily in the chair. Asleep and alive, I thought, resting my forehead on my crossed arms. Now that the first stage of the crisis was over, I burst into tears.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 15: Part 2

Leslie didn’t have much in the way of a yard. A left turn off the main drive formed a loop at the front of the house that enclosed a wide oval of dormant grass. The main drive led to the back “vampire” entrance, as I started to think of it, and connected with the loop on the other side of the house. Between the drive and the forest, the oval of grass was the only area large enough for training.

Since the front of the house had a northern exposure and it was late autumn, the wide covered porch provided shade all day. This allowed the vampires to be outside in daylight. It was around ten o’clock when I made it out to the yard, and the sun was well risen.

Selene and Kyler weren’t resting today. They sat in rocking chairs and held large mugs. Selene’s eyes followed Justin as he instructed the others. I laughed to myself as I watched Kiera watching Santiago as he focused on Justin.

I stepped out onto the porch and stopped beside the vampires. “Enjoying your morning coffee?” When we could get it, coffee was one of the few luxuries my parents allowed themselves. I didn’t care for it, but they certainly did.

“Something like that,” Selene said and smiled at me. Her lips and teeth were red.

I shivered, and she and Kyler smiled in appreciation of my reaction. “If you don’t mind my asking, Selene, how are you? Did you work out your problems with Justin?”

“I don’t mind you asking. I think this is all outside of what he thought was possible, you know?” She looked up at me. “He doesn’t understand vampires any better than he does people, even though he is usually very good at handling both.”

I cast my eyes into the yard. “Some things you just can’t handle.”

“Like you,” she said. “He’s so frustrated that you don’t act or feel how he thinks you should, and it frustrates me that he holds on to his love for you.”

I walked over and hopped up to sit on the railing. It felt as though Justin and I had come to some sort of understanding, not that I would ever understand why he loved me. He had admitted that he knew I didn’t return his feelings, and I couldn’t help but be glad that he didn’t hate me for it.

“I know you’re angry that I tried to send him away.”

I searched her face, but she only waved a hand at me as she sipped at her mug. Leslie came out with his mug of vampire “coffee” and leaned against the railing next to me. I swallowed hard and tried not to look at it.

After swallowing, Selene said, “You were trying to protect your family. I understand, even if it was against my wishes. Still, he didn’t go. I may not like the reason for it, but I’ll take it.” She took a moment to give Leslie a long look. “Nice of you to join us today, sir. Feeling better now that you’ve thrown a tantrum?”

I turned to look at Leslie. He had one of his polite smiles in place, but his eyes were chilly. “You’re one to talk about tantrums,” was his response. “And, you know how trips down memory lane can be bumpy.” She grunted in agreement.

“Hey, Cami-girl?” Jay called, which drew the attention of everyone. “You going to sit up there all day in the shade with the fangedfolk or are you going to come down here and fight me?”

I snickered at his nickname for the vampires. “You’ll get your chance, Jay,” I called back to him.

“Bloody right, I will. I’m going to catch you today, you’ll see. Then, it’ll be kisses for Jay.”

Bubbling with laughter, I said, “You must be an idealist.”

“A dreamer,” he said loftily, putting his hand over his heart. “A man’s got to have his dreams, hasn’t he?”

I laughed and turned back to the vampires who were looking at me oddly. “A kiss,” I explained, “to the man strong and fast enough to take me down. My incentive?” I looked meaningfully at Leslie.

“That’s your incentive?” He looked first at Jay and then at me. “They’re easy.”

I smacked him on the arm, and he laughed. I noticed a look pass between Selene and Kyler. I was sure people didn’t go around slapping Leslie in any way. Perhaps, the amount of my antics he tolerated amused them. I skipped down the stairs and took my place next to Justin.

“I’ll get warmed up. We’re following you today,” I said to Justin and began stretching.

“That’s a Rosegarten for you folks. Always taking charge. It doesn’t matter that the rest of us have been out here for almost two hours. She just shows up whenever and then puts me in charge.”

I looked wide-eyed at Justin and then around at the faces of Leslie’s family. I wished that I could crawl in a hole. Justin, on the other hand, whooped with laughter.

“Oh, you should see your face. Ha,” he hooted. “I was kidding, Cami. You have inherited your dad’s bossiness.”

“I like to think of it as taking and delegating responsibility,” I snarled. My face flamed, and everyone smiled at me.

“I’m sure you do. Well, now that I’ve had a good laugh to get me fully awake, let’s get started.”


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 15: Part 1

Rude Awakenings

The dream I had while I slept on the sofa was no less vivid than the previous dreams I’d had while staying in Leslie’s house. It began with Aster. I interrupted her from reading, but she didn’t mind. We chatted happily about childhood things like making flower necklaces and playing school with her dolls.

All too soon, the conversation turned to current, adult subjects. I promised her I would talk to Leslie about coming to visit, but I doubted I could come live with her. She gave me an odd look and then yelled at me about family. When she got pushy like that, it was best to ignore her, and when I did, she vanished from the dream.

I floated happily, a dandelion puff on the breeze, and the scene changed as I felt a hand, gentle and soft, stroking my hair back from my face. I found my head was on a pillow in Leslie’s lap. I felt comfortable and the stroking was very relaxing.

“Missed you today,” I said and felt a little thrill when he smiled, a real smile.

“I had some thinking to do,” he said softly. “It was a big day for you.”

“Like Jay. Drank beers.” I rolled onto my back and flung an arm over my head. Leslie stroked from my wrist down my arm, and I purred. “Like this dream.”

“Do you?” He sounded amused.

“Like dreams you’re in.” I hummed as his hand trailed down my arm from my wrist and over my shirt to my waist. He repeated the movement, skimming the side of my breast.

“Justin made up.”

The movement stopped. There was no sound, so I thought I had ended the dream. Then, the stroking resumed, and I felt myself smile.

“And?” he asked.

“Says crazy things.” I bent my leg, pulling my knee up, and Leslie stroked from my wrist to my ankle. With each pass of his hand, a little trickle of electricity ran down my body.


“You love me.” I hummed again as his hand came down and cupped my breast briefly before moving on to my leg.

“And what did you say?”

“Brain damage.”

It got quiet again as Leslie continued to stroke me like a well-loved cat. I dreamed within my dream about a shark that had been swimming for centuries until it found a beautiful woman. I watched in horror as it bit down on her leg. Red filled the ocean around her, and she screamed soundlessly. The bottom half of her leg was gone, and she would drown now, if she didn’t bleed to death first. The shark swam in a circle around her one time before it stopped and faced her. After kissing it, she held its head as she sank into the darkness.

“Save Aster. She’s drowning,” I shouted.

Panic surged in me. I ran, but it was like running in a foot of water, slow and sluggish, through total darkness where there was no light and never would be. I had something a minute ago, and now it was gone. I fell to my knees and used my arms to try to sweep away the water. I felt all over for the lost object.

“Leslie, where are you?” I found nothing but darkness. “You’re never here when I need you.”

“Here,” he said. “I’m here.”

I felt his hand caress my cheek. Monsters didn’t deserve affection, and I was something worse. I didn’t want to be, and so I cried. As the grief spilled out of me, I drifted off into the black again.

* * * *

When I finally woke, I saw a tiny lamp burning in one of the outlets in the bathroom, and I knew I was in the basement instead of on the couch. I couldn’t remember coming down the stairs. It was a wonder I hadn’t fallen and broken my neck.

My dreams came back to me, disturbing me deeply. I understood the symbolism in the shark and the beautiful woman, on several levels. I shivered at the memory of the darkness. There were many foul creatures in the world, and I was certain that I should be included in the group.

I caught a whiff of myself and decided it was time to start making an effort to shower before I got into bed all sweaty and stinky. My hair smelled like fried meat and potatoes. Leslie was in bed with me again, unconscious again, and I was determined not to repeat the previous day’s mistakes. This time, when I got up, I lacked the grace, speed, and subtlety of the previous morning, and I jostled the bed.

Leslie’s eyes flashed open, and he hissed at me before he flung himself out of bed against the wall. He was wearing a long-sleeved pajama shirt and boxers, which I would’ve thought funny if I hadn’t been more concerned that he was about to attack me. Every visible muscle in his body tensed, ready to strike. He lunged at me, and I danced back, flicking on the bathroom light. I jerked my hands up in defense.

As calmly as I could, I said, “Leslie, it’s Camellia Rosegarten. Don’t attack me.”

His eyes, clouded with fear and rage, cleared as he relaxed in degrees. “I’m so sorry,” he panted. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just reacted. Please, don’t let this scare you off from sleeping in the bed.” He came around to me and took my hands in his. “I can sleep elsewhere.”

“It’s not necessary,” I assured him, “but I’d like you to tell me why.”

“Why what?” He tried, and failed, to sound oblivious. He rubbed my hands with his, as if trying to warm them.

“Don’t play dumb with me. Why are you afraid? Why did you tell me that you normally hide when you sleep, but you sleep with me? Then, you tried to attack me.”

“I told you that I feel safe…no, safer with you.” His hand came up to tuck some loose hair behind my ear as he looked into my eyes.

“Leslie,” I tilted my head, “that didn’t look like you felt safe at all. I thought you were going to tear me to bits. Tell me why.” I searched his face, saw the internal debate in his eyes.

“I don’t speak about it.”

“Well, you better start. If I get my throat ripped out one morning I’d like to know there was a good reason why.”

He took both my hands again and pulled me down to sit on the bed. Facing me, he took a deep breath. “I would never rip out your throat. I would never hurt you. The fear, it fades very quickly once I’m aware. Please, believe me.”

Not to be swayed by his pleading look, I said, “Spill it,” and glared at him.

He closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths. “You’re the first I’ve ever told, so try to bear with me.” He looked at me, and I nodded curtly. “The one who made me,” he looked down at our joined hands, “kept me alive for weeks before he made me. Once he did, he and his followers often starved me and…did other terrible things to me. They encouraged ally groups that joined us to treat me the same.” He paused and looked up at me briefly. His eyebrows knit before he looked back down at our hands and toyed with the ring he had given me. “Do you remember when you said that you thought I was exceptionally attractive?” I nodded, as my head filled with images of tortures he might have endured. “The vampire that made me and those that joined him thought so, too.”

“What did they do to you?” I asked softly, carefully banking the anger that erupted in me. I lifted my ring hand to his face, and he put his over mine.

“I won’t speak of it.” His voice hitched. “You don’t want to know, and it doesn’t matter.”

“Clearly, it does.” He wouldn’t look at me. “You made them pay for it.”

He nodded then looked up into my eyes. I wasn’t sure how to respond or how to comfort him. Horribly abused and taken advantage of, it was no wonder he was such a big fan of free will.

Slowly, I took him into my arms and held him. I laid my chin over his shoulder and rubbed his back, a gesture my mother always used to comfort me when I was sad or hurt. Leslie’s arms hung loosely around my waist, but when I said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” he pulled out of the embrace.

Embarrassed, he stood. “You see, when you’re scarred that badly as a young vampire you don’t get over it, even if you live a thousand years.”

“And I startled you, so you went into attack mode,” I extrapolated.

“That’s an accurate description. I want you to keep sleeping in the bed. I rest better by your side than I ever have.”

“That’s funny. My dreams are vivid, incredibly vivid. In fact, I think I might have sleepwalked down here last night.” I got up and went into the bathroom. I took off my shirt and tossed it into the bedroom, where Leslie swiped it out of the air.

“You didn’t sleepwalk; I carried you. I found you asleep on the sofa.”

“Oh, well, thank you. I must have nodded off during the movie. I’ll try to watch it again some other night.”

I started to take off my pants but remembered we were training today. There was no point in bathing only to get filthy and stinky all over again. Instead, I brushed and braided my hair. When I came back into the bedroom, I motioned for Leslie to return my shirt to me. He gave me a puzzled look, so I explained.

“There’s really no point in showering since we’re just going to get all sweaty again.”

Amused and intrigued, he asked, “Why is that?”

“Oh, I meant the humans. Training. Justin and I are going to whip your family into shape.”

I took my shirt back from Leslie and yanked it over my head. How easily he had maneuvered me from talking about him to talking about me. I needed to pay special attention to avoid the trap.

“It’s a good idea. At least if you and Justin are working together, I won’t have to worry that you’ll hurt each other.”

As I sat on the bed to tug on a fresh pair of socks, I noticed my journal sitting on the dresser. Apparently, Leslie brought more than just me downstairs.

“Aren’t you going to dress?” I asked, lifting an eyebrow. Leslie strode into the walk-in closet on his side of the room. I went over to the dresser and flipped through the journal. After checking a few pages here and there, I decided that everything was in order. “I don’t know that they’re particularly excited about it, except for Jay and Santiago.” I found my running shoes just outside the bedroom door. I sat down in the floor and shoved my feet into them.

“Why are they so enthusiastic?” Leslie appeared in the doorway, fully clothed in a dark green sweater and khaki pants. “I always get the impression they’re as trained as can be.”

“Well, they’ve got plenty of muscle, but they love me of course.”

Well, of course,” he agreed and smiled.

I considered Leslie’s choice of sweater. “You shouldn’t wear that color. It dulls your eyes.”

“Since when are you a fashion expert?” His smile widened, and he casually crossed his arms.

“Since never, but if I had eyes like yours, I would do everything to, what’s the expression? Play them up.”

He rolled said eyes at me and disappeared into the closet again. “Love,” he said, returning before I finished tying my second shoe.

“Love?” The word startled me, and I yanked my shoelace too tight.

“I wouldn’t think that would make someone want to be beaten up by you.”

“Oh.” I shook my head. “Well, they have another incentive.”

“What’s the incentive?”

“Ask them.” I smiled up at him and saw that he now wore an eggplant-colored sweater. “That’s much better.” I sighed before clearing my throat and my mind. “Well, I should go grab a quick bite.” Leslie held out his hand and easily tugged me to standing. “You’re a survivor, you know. Sometimes, you do things—things you aren’t proud of, for that purpose alone. I hope one day that you’ll feel like you can share more with me. If not, maybe you should think about keeping a journal. It helps me think, and it can help me get closure.” When I had the courage to let it.

“Yes, I’ve read a few of your recent entries.”

Shocked and embarrassed, I felt my face going red again. “Those are my private thoughts and feelings.”

“They certainly are.” He trailed a finger down my cheek. “You shouldn’t leave it out where anyone can read it. It would give Jay quite a lot to tease you about. It could give someone the wrong ideas about you.” He smiled at me and let his finger drift down my neck. “Or maybe the right ones.” If he had been reading my journal, then he knew how much it excited and bothered me to be physically attracted to him. Sensing my uncertainty, he took a few steps back. “I may be a patron, but I’m not a saint. If you knew all the sins I have committed against other people, and not just for survival…I don’t think you’d care for me much.” He frowned a bit. “I have done terrible things out of spite, out of revenge, out of desire, and on a whim. I’ve been making an effort to do and be better for some time now, but you only know that side of me. You shouldn’t pity me.”

“Okay, but I still care for you, and I value your friendship and our partnership. I’ll even keep sleeping with you.” I couldn’t help the silly little smile that spread across my face. “But do me a favor and don’t say anything else about biting or blood drinking. I think Justin’s had his limit.” I gave him a quick kiss on the lips and could still hear his soft laughter as I walked through the outer room.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 14: Part 2

Several different conversations picked up, and Justin leaned over to me. “Cami-girl?” he whispered with a pop of laughter.

I eyed him. “Jealous of my nickname? Give him time; he’ll think up one for you, too.”

We talked and drank, and I wondered exactly what our vampire friends were doing. Someone retrieved two bottles of wine. After the first bottle, we all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

As I swirled the chilled white wine in my glass, I wondered where my parents were. Maybe they decided to go back to Georgia or California. I hoped they would stay within Leslie’s realm of rule. I needed to ask Leslie about them, along with whether or not he could set up a meeting with Aster.

Once Heather and Kiera began clearing plates, Justin assumed his role as head trainer and discussed schedules for practice. Regardless of whether or not these other people wanted to train, he and I needed to keep up our skills and physiques. I had a feeling that I could depend on Jay and Santiago. They looked like they worked to stay in peak condition, and my promises of improving their performance interested them. I sipped and watched them.

I found I was looking forward to waking up and kicking Jay’s tight, muscled butt all over the house or yard or wherever. While I thought about it, I smiled and quickly realized that I was staring and smiling right at Jay. He made a kissing face at me, which drew me out of my daydreaming. I must have looked shocked because he burst out with laughter. I stuck my tongue out at him and went to the sink to wash out my wine glass.

When the wine ran out, the members of the household dispersed, going back to whatever they were doing before I’d drawn them in with my greasy, delicious burgers. I was happy that Heather and Kiera had seen to the dishes. I washed my glass, dried it, and returned it to the shelf on the island that held all the dishes, cups, bowls, and glasses.

As I wiped down the counters, I wondered when Leslie would unlock the door so I could get into the room to sleep. Justin moved into the room that my parents had used for one night. I guessed if I had to, I could sleep on a sofa or the floor. I’d certainly had worse  having slept on the ground many times. Mostly, I wanted to see Leslie, to talk to him. For some odd reason, I missed him but quickly pushed the feeling away as silly.

I went back to the dining room. Since the lights were on, I couldn’t see out the windows. It felt odd to have lights on all the time, so I got up and flipped the switch. Light still spilled in from the living room, so I could see to write. I fingered Aster’s letter briefly before I stuffed it in the back of the journal. Finally, I began to read back over what I had poured onto the pages from my heart and soul.

As I reread my run-in with Luc, movement caught my attention. When I looked out the window, I saw Selene. I wondered if I should talk to her or keep my thoughts to myself. She didn’t exactly like me. Even though I had loved Peter, I didn’t understand what it was like to love someone, really love someone, the way Selene claimed she loved Justin or the way he said he loved me. I thought myself incapable and therefore blessed. If immune, I could never be hurt.

As I examined my perfectly healed wrist, I thought about immunity, infirmity, and weakness. I am highly breakable, and I have a dangerous lifestyle to say the least. I surprised myself at how quickly I shed one family for another.

“What does that make me?” I wrote. A monster. No, even monsters could love. That made me something far worse. Heartless? Soulless?

Selene flitted out of view. I stared at the spot where she had been for a long time before I rose and sought human interaction. I went back into the living room and dropped my journal into my box. I considered moving it, but if Leslie still had me locked out, there was no point in lugging it down to the basement.

Jay and Santiago had moved one of the large sofas back into place and were sitting on opposite ends of it and chatting, as much as Santiago ever spoke, while they watched a large TV that was set in an alcove above the fireplace.

I flopped down between them and asked, “Whacha watching?”

Without taking his eyes off the TV, Jay said, “It’s a movie called Jaws about a bunch of men that go looking for a huge shark that’s been eating people. It’s a thriller or a horror movie. I love the thrillers from the nineteen-seventies and eighties.”

“Does Leslie have many movies?”

“Oh, yeah. Loads of them. He’s kept them in mint condition. Some of them are over forty years old. They’ll be in that cabinet.” Jay pointed to a large armoire positioned in the corner of the room. “He’s got some vampire movies too, but they’re not in there. We don’t watch those.”

“Why not?” I twisted on the sofa to look at him.

After a beat, he paused the movie and looked at me. “You ever see a movie or even a TV show that vampires made and acted in?” The reflected light from the TV gleamed in his eyes.

“No. I’ve come across TVs in nests before. If the house has power, I check the news if it’s on. I’ve never watched one for entertainment.” I glanced at the TV. “I haven’t seen many movies at all. We only sneaked into a theater a few times when I was very young.”

“Well, vampire movies are different.” Jay glanced over my shoulder at Santiago and then bit his lower lip. I wondered why he looked ill at ease, but Jay plowed ahead before I had the chance to ask. “I’d say most of them are like really gory pornos. You get a few comedies, but the humor is aimed at vampires, so it’s not all that funny to a human.”


“Yeah, you know, pornographic.” I must have still looked confused. “Movies that have very little story and lots of explicit sex,” Jay elaborated. “The movies vampires make…well, all of them are scary, not the fun kind of scary, and usually end up with lots of people getting bitten and eaten, even in the romances. That’s not acting.” Jay looked at me very seriously, and I shivered. “Right. So, me and J, we stick to the human movies, where all the horror and gore is make-believe.”

I looked at Santiago, and he nodded solemnly. I wondered why they knew so much about the vampire-made movies. I started to ask, but Jay began to catch me up on what was happening in the movie.

“See here, Cami-girl, the chief is afraid of water, but he’s got to get out there and get rid of the shark so his island and beach will be safe again.”

“Chief? He’s the leader of these people?”

Jay snorted out a laugh at my question. “No. He’s the chief of the police, a leader of human law enforcement.”

My brow furrowed. “Why would you be a police chief on an island if you were afraid of the water?”

“To add drama,” Jay said dramatically. “You’ve come in just after the chief mistook a school of fish for the shark. He ran everyone out of the water and scared all the tourists  way. The mayor is really pissed at him. I think you’re up to speed on it. Enjoy.” He patted my hand, and I sank back into the sofa to watch the movie.

I jumped, cringed, screamed, and clung to Jay while he laughed at me. In the end, I think he ended up with several more bruises on my account. I kept one hand wrapped around his biceps, and I hid my face in my free hand when the shark got the ship captain. When the movie came to a climax, Jay yelped from me digging my nails into him. After the chief blew the shark to bits, I relaxed, only to shriek when the oceanographer swam to the surface to join him for a swim back to shore.

When the movie was over, I felt emotionally drained and sorry for the shark. “Poor thing. It wasn’t like it was evil or anything. It was just doing what’s in its nature, and they killed it.”

“Some things need to be killed because of their nature,” Santiago said. He shifted uncomfortably. “Good night, Cami. See you for training tomorrow.”

“Yeah, good night, Cami-girl. Wish you were coming to bed with me.” Jay poked me in the ribs. “Thanks for the bruises and claw marks.”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Ah, it was worth it to see your reaction. I had more fun watching you than I ever would have watching a movie.” He winked at me, and the two left me alone on the sofa.

I got up to look through the cabinet and found a section of musicals. I picked up the one entitled My Fair Lady. I opened the case and pushed the center circle down to release the disc Jay called a DVD. Although I had watched him open the player to take out Jaws, it took me a bit of poking to figure out what the symbols on the buttons meant.

In a few minutes, I had the movie in the player and playing. When I heard the beautiful young lady speak, I barked out a laugh. Her accent was like Jay’s. I wondered when he had come over to the U.S. from Britain. I wished I’d had more of a chance to ask him about his past.


Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 14: Part 1

Jay N Jay

While Selene and Justin played a game of cat and mouse and Leslie locked himself away in his room to brood, I tried to write in my journal. I began writing about the gala, and even with the disruption of Selene’s and Justin’s arguments, I made good progress. I wrote for a while and then went back over what I had written, adding or taking away, studying what happened and seeing if I could gain any insight from it.

By four in the afternoon, I had as much as I could stand, which was when I decided to pick a fight with Jay and Santiago. I wanted to find out if I could take them when unarmed. They gladly cleared the furniture once I promised them that I would take full responsibility for anything that got broken, human or otherwise. I wondered if someone had told them about my fight with Justin.

“You two might be big and muscular, but you can learn a thing or two from me,” I informed them.

“From a skinny little girl like you?” Jay, the redhead, teased.

I decided Jay must have been the Brit messenger my mother had described. He had an English accent, a strong one. When he said “little,” it sounded like li’ull.

“You bet,” I taunted. “I won’t run away from you this time. To start, just try to catch me.”

They came at me as a team, and I ducked and spun, taking Jay down with a kick behind the knee, careful not to break it. Santiago danced back, reassessed our positions, and made a grab for me. I spun under his arms and around him and punched him in the back. I skipped away from them and watched as they straightened and rubbed various body parts.

“You’re too slow. You need lightning reflexes. I know you guys are the muscle, but it needs to be fast, lean muscle. Got it?”

They looked at each other and shook their heads. When they looked back at me, they shrugged and then nodded. Their moves were so well-timed that I grinned. When they came at me again, I took both of them down with leg sweeps. I encouraged them to attack, and as they did, I instructed as I dodged and darted out of their hands. Before long, they were both leaning against the wall and panting.

“It’s not as fun as I thought it’d be, Cami-girl,” Jay admitted, christening me with a new nickname. “You’re the scrapper here, not us.”

“I’m thinking we need an incentive,” Santiago said. His coloring hinted at Hispanic heritage, his accent a Texas drawl.

I crossed my arms over my chest and raised my eyebrows. “What more incentive do you need than getting faster and therefore less likely to be killed?”

“Lots. Think up something more fun,” Jay suggested. “There’s been a shortage of fun around here lately. Your little family drama has been the most exciting thing to happen for weeks.”

“I’m so happy my family distress entertained you,” I growled at him. “You’re not endearing yourself to me, Jay.”

“All right.” He patted his hands at me. “How’s about a kiss then?” He wiggled his eyebrows. “There haven’t been enough kisses to go around either.”

“I don’t just kiss people.” I uncrossed my arms and put my hands on my hips.

“Really?” Jay asked. “I got a different impression from the shouting match you all had earlier today.” He winked at me, and the red, a mix of anger and embarrassment, crept into my cheeks.

“Oh, now, don’t get all huffy. Besides, me and J here aren’t just people, Cami-girl. We’re family now.”

“J? Wait, I thought your name was Santiago.”

“That’s Spanish for Saint James. We’re the two Jameses, you see? We’ve been doing everything, well, almost everything,” he paused to give me a knowing look, “together for years now. Somebody started calling us James and James, which shortened to Jay and J, as in J-A-Y and just J to tell us apart. Well, eventually, ‘and’ got shortened to ‘n’—Jay n J, our little nickname.”

“Like mine is now apparently Cami-girl?”

“That’s right.” Happy I was catching on, Jay smiled at me.

I smirked. “Do you do all the talking?”

“No, I just talk more. So, now, back to the kisses.” He wagged his index finger at me. “I say it’s a good incentive. Besides, it’s like traditional or something to give out kisses to the winner of a fight.” He swelled with pride for thinking up that one.

“I don’t think it applies when you’re fighting the one who’ll be rewarding you.”

“So we bend the tradition a bit.” Jay poked an encouraging elbow in my direction. “C’mon. What do you say?”

“Not that it matters. You two won’t catch me.” I eyed them and then caved. “Okay then.” I lifted my finger in the air and righteously said, “Kisses to the victor.”

“Real kisses,” Jay clarified. “Not any of them pecks on the cheek, mind you.”

“Real kisses,” I agreed. “Not that it matters.”

They came for me, punching, kicking, trying to work as a team, but they never did catch me. At one point, I grabbed hold of one of the small gold hoops that Jay wore in his ears, teaching him a valuable lesson about fighting while wearing jewelry. He yelped, but I didn’t actually hurt him. Still, I gave both men plenty of bruises and knots. Finally, they gave up, Jay moaning about exhaustion and starvation.

“Well, no kisses today.” I gave each man a slap on the back. “But, if you practice with me enough, you’ll eventually get good enough to win one. How about dinner as a consolation?”

They agreed easily enough and plopped down on stools at the bar to keep me company while I cooked. I didn’t expect to be getting a lesson from Selene anytime soon, so I thought I’d keep it simple. I went to the refrigerator and rummaged through the meat drawer. I found a big package of ground beef. I hadn’t had a hamburger in over a year, and it sounded like the most delicious thing to me.

Getting my hopes up, I went to the pantry, which took up the one interior wall of the kitchen. I found two packages of fresh buns—the large kind, with poppy seeds and onion bits baked onto the tops. I did a mental head count and determined that there would be plenty to feed all humans with seconds if they wanted.

In the bottom of the pantry, I found a wooden box that served as a root cellar. I took out six potatoes and an onion. I decided to press my luck and, after a bit of a search, I found oil, a large, deep Dutch oven, and a fry basket that would fit in it.

“Somebody loves me boys. We’ve got everything we need for hamburgers and fries.” I took down the biggest skillet on the hanging rack and carried it over to the stove.

“You’re not going to grill them?” Santiago asked.

“Texas, right?” I asked, and he nodded. “Well, I’m from nowhere really, but I like my burgers fried and greasy. You want a grilled burger? I’ll save you some patties, but you’ll have to do it yourself.” I set the meat on the island counter and brought a plate over so I would have a place to put the patties. I pressed a wad of meat into my palm and started forming a disk. “Does Leslie have a grill?”

“Les has at least one of everything,” Jay said. “Life’s been good since we hooked up with him, eh J?”

Judging by the look they exchanged, I guessed that whatever had come before Leslie had been on the level of my worst nightmares. I set my first patty down and scooped up another palm full.

“If you’re cooking, I’m eating, and I won’t complain,” Santiago said.

I’d yet to meet a man, human or vampire, who was a picky eater but most human men were reluctant cooks. Justin was capable in the kitchen, but cooking duty wasn’t for everyone. We all had different talents we brought to the group. My best skill was fighting, but I wasn’t above cooking a meal for my friends. I set the second patty down and moved on to the third.

“Okay, can either of you slice veggies?” When I looked up at them, they appeared to be on the verge of saying no. “You fix the fixings, and I’ll fix the rest.”

“Deal,” they both said.

As per my instructions, they got out cutting boards, a large plate for the potatoes, and small plates for the onion, tomatoes, and lettuce. Tomatoes in winter—I smiled and shook my head. Fresh meat, dairy, and vegetables were such a luxury to me, and now that I lived with Leslie, I could have them daily, if I wanted. Thankful didn’t begin to cover what I felt.

After peeling the potatoes and slicing them into fries, I heated the oil in the Dutch oven. When the skillet was hot enough, I slid in the first six burgers. Jay and Santiago chatted while they sliced the rest of the veggies. They also rooted out a jar of pickles, sliced the cheese, and sliced the buns.

The scent of food drew the other humans down to the kitchen. Heather came in with two six packs of bottled beer, which she explained were kept in the refrigerator in the laundry room.

“Laundry room?” I asked.

She passed me a beer and nodded. “It’s on the side of the vampire drive opposite the house. There’s a wine cellar and an incinerator, too.”

I gave her a shrewd look and twisted the cap off my bottle. It had a wonderful flavor, and I enjoyed sipping it while I cooked. I tensed when Justin came sulking into the kitchen. Seeing my reaction, Jay intercepted him with a slap on the back, a beer, and a conversation on fighting tactics. Jay gestured to me with his beer, and the gloom lifted off Justin as he gave Jay pointers on how to take me down in a fight.

When the oil was finally hot enough, I dumped the fry basket in the Dutch oven. As I slid the first round of burgers out of the pan and onto a plate, Justin came up behind me.

“Kisses?” he asked. The way he said it, the tension, anger, and ugliness of the morning evaporated.

I smiled and shrugged. The next round of burgers went into the pan. “You don’t think it’s a good incentive?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I think it’s cruel of you to get their hopes up.” We both laughed. “I wonder…are you willing to extend your incentive to me as well?”

I snorted. “When have you ever asked my permission for a kiss?”

“Never, but maybe a little friendly competition is what they need.” He took a swig of his beer.

“You’re just torturing yourself, you know.” I didn’t understand why he insisted on  holding onto his feelings for me.

“Well, it’s my fault then, isn’t it?”

I flipped the burgers. “Yeah, but you’ll blame me, and then you’ll do something ridiculous like break my bones or call your host a monster in his own house while you sleep in his bed and eat his food.” I gestured at him with the spatula.

“Probably, but you’ll forgive me because I’m your family and the man you’ve been having sex with for the last five years, and he’ll forgive me because he loves you.”

I barked out a laugh as Justin pinched my bottom. I set down the spatula. “I don’t think I gave you a concussion; I think I broke your head.” I gave him a level look and pointed to the fry basket.

“Get the fries out and onto something to drain, would you?”

There were eight of us when we gathered in the kitchen and living room and devoured the burgers as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks. Jay entertained everyone with his jokes and tales of me kicking his butt. His eyes would go wide as he spoke. He gestured with his hands and moved so much that he almost fell off his stool twice.

Santiago was quiet, but he laughed and, on cue, embellished Jay’s stories. When we ran out of beer, he made a trip down to get more.

This dinner gave me a chance to meet Kiera. She and Heather were physical opposites— Heather being short and fair while Kiera was taller and warmer. Kiera spoke even less than Santiago, the person who most captured her attention.

With olive skin, dark hair, dark eyes, Santiago was tall for a Hispanic man. Jay was pale with hair the color of a new penny. Strawberry-blond, that was it, I thought. His intense green eyes laughed, even when his mouth didn’t. Both men were large and muscular, with thick necks and square jaws. To be so differently colored, they looked remarkably alike.

The other two men were twins, Courtland and Montgomery, or Court and Monte for short. They were average height, thin, darkskinned men with shaved heads. They enjoyed team-teasing Jay and finished each other’s sentences.

The beer loosened everyone up, allowing us to get comfortable with one another. Having been at House Wells since the gala, I had scarcely seen anyone but Heather. I wondered if, initially, Leslie told them to stay away to give my family and me time to adjust.

When I asked, Court said, “The house is large. You could go all day without seeing any of us if you wanted. Except for Jay, everyone is usually gone in the daytime. We have projects we work on related to what Leslie’s doing.”

“Right-o,” Jay added. “Since you arrived, Cami-girl, J and I have been helping the vamps by checking the grounds in the daytime. Makes Les less paranoid. The vamps are really the muscle around here, but we can do in a pinch.”

“You aren’t fighters?”

“In a pinch, I said,” he repeated as if I were slow.

“I guess that makes us the trainers,” Justin said pointing between himself and me.

“When we’re here, Kiera and I mostly tend to the needs of the household,” Heather explained.

“Hoy, and needs we have,” Jay added and wiggled a flirtatious eyebrow at her. Kiera rolled her eyes but smiled. Heather waved Jay off, blushing.

“Of course, the vamps do a little bit of everything,” Santiago said.

“Brains, brawn, and a mixture of both in their leader,” I said.

“I think our Cami-girl might be a mix herself. What do you say, J?” Santiago eyed me and nodded. Jay raised his beer. “Cheers, everyone,” he called out, and we drank deeply.


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.


“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.


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.”


“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