Basket Case

From the storage space under the basement stairs, I took out my mother’s wooden picnic basket. I opened the lid, with its grinning sun. I removed the plastic utensils and plates. I spread the checked napkins on the bottom. On them, I laid

  • a ceramic chicken
  • a plastic mouse in a vest
  • a triceratops sticker
  • a drawing of a snake-clad woman

I closed the lid and took the basket with me.

I kept the basket safe for years, never opening the lid until one day, you needed me to open it. I took out these precious talismans, hoping somehow they could help me help you. I released the pieces of my heart they held and tried to bandage your wounds.

Too strong. Not strong enough? Spoiled? For whatever reason, it did not work, and there isn’t enough of my heart left to try again.

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 2

“Where would you like to bite me?”

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

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

“Um, your wrist, I guess.”

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

“So, I just…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know I want you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aster, that’s naïve, even for you.”

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

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

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

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

“Get in line,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

“Is this Leslie or Justin?”

“Leslie,” he answered, irritated.

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

“The first and only what?”

“One I’ve ever loved.”

END CH11, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 11: Part 1

Bloody and Broken

“Be still.”

“It hurts, okay.”

“I’m trying to set it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I swallowed hard.

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah. Could you lick my wrist?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what do we do about it?”

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

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

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

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

“Other than feed off me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took a few deep breaths and stood.

END CH11, P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 2

“I want to know.”

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

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

“No.”

“Okay, but why?”

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

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

“I am honest with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Leslie responded.

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

“Please stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a doctor?” my father asked.

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

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

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

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

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

END CH10, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 10: Part 1

Breaking-in the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, what about your history?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I think you actually do.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Some do. We can if you’d like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you tell her?”

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

“W-what?” My eyes widen in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

END CH10, P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 9: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lesson then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END CH9, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 9: Part 1

Leslie’s Nest

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

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

“Aster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And do you love him?” I asked.

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

“Mine,” Luc snarled, clutching me close.

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

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

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

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

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

“Human. He thought it was best.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which was my fault,” Justin added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

“Rash?” my father boomed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mandy—” my father began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END CH9, P1