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

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 8: Part 2

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

“Where are we?” I asked.

“My carport.”

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

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

“I spit it out,” I said, indignantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the other one?”

“Mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t stay with me?”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen the Caribbean?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END CH8, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 8: Part 1

Night Terrors

It was too much. Aster, my sister and best friend, was a vampire. I let it all out—the anger, the sorrow—in a torrent of tears.

Other than to use a tiny cell phone like Selene’s, Leslie sat quietly and held me while I fell apart. When the crying ran its course, I felt numb and empty. My breathing hitched and stuttered, and Leslie’s hold on me tightened, as if that might help. He kissed my hair and then buried his nose in it. I heard him sniff it, and then he pulled back to sniff my neck.

“You smell strange.” When I thought about how Luc had rubbed his face all over mine, I shuddered. “You’re shivering. Did something happen to you after you left the ballroom?” He sounded angry, confused, and worried.

“Yes, Luc—”

Leslie roared, “What did he do to you? Did he bite you?” Leslie released me and turned my arms over. He ran his fingers along my neck. When he felt along my legs, my breath hitched, and I pinched my knees together.

“Camellia, did he rape you?” he asked so quietly that I hardly heard him. The seat cushion behind me ripped as his fingers dug into it.

“No. He…he was very unhappy that you wouldn’t trade or share me.”

“Both he and Guillame confronted me tonight. Of course, I refused, but Luc is used to getting his way.” He shook his head and pounded his fist into the seat back. “I should never have let you go off—”

“How could you have known that the one place I ran to was the place where he was?”

Leslie pinched his lips together. “Please, you must tell me what happened. If the offense is great enough, I can ask that he be punished for it.”

That gave me the determination to tell Leslie what Luc said and how I tried to fight. I thought about how I would have landed a solid kick and gotten back inside if it weren’t for the damned dress and stupid shoes. I took a moment to wrench the shoes off my feet and hurl them toward the front of the limo. One bounced off the glass that separated us from the driver.

I told Leslie how I scratched Luc and bit him when he kissed me. I watched Leslie’s face fill with rage when I told him what Luc did after he tore off my panties.

“He put his fingers in you?” Leslie seethed. Never before had he lost this much control around me, his calm veneer all but gone.

“Uh, yeah. Twice.” I swallowed. “I went crazy when I heard him unzip his pants.”

Leslie closed his eyes and looked like he was trying to control his breathing. Of course, he didn’t need to breathe. “What stopped him?”

“Benoit came out onto the veranda, grabbed Luc’s throat, and threatened to kill Luc if he didn’t let me go unharmed. He said he didn’t want you as an enemy.”

By this time, I was shaking again. Leslie gave me a handkerchief for my eyes and nose, and then held me closer. It was impossible to tell what time it was or how long we spent driving around the city. The tint on the windows was so dark that I couldn’t see anything.

As Leslie made another phone call, I pushed Luc out of my mind and thought of Aster. I had no idea how to break this news to my parents. I wondered if Aster would even recognize me if she saw me and how she would react. I had no idea what I should do. She was a vampire, a bad one. I had to end her. Yet, she was my sister, and I didn’t know if I could kill her for I still loved her so much. Twelve years. I wondered how she survived the destruction of the group that took her.

“What are you thinking? It’s killing me,” Leslie said quietly.

“You’re already dead,” I said and laughed at my poor joke.

“Sorry. I’m wondering how Aster survived when the group of vampires that took her were destroyed.”

“How were they destroyed?”

“Benoit, of all people. We were in Miami then. Aster was about seventeen, but she’s older than that now. Someone kept her human for about four years before turning her.” I thought about it a bit more, and then my eyes went wide. “That’s it! Benoit didn’t kill her when he destroyed the ones who took her.”

“I came to Florida to oversee an emergency trial about the same time. Why do you think Benoit destroyed the family of vampires that took your sister?”

“You want the whole story?”

“Please.” Gently, he brushed my ruined hair away from my face.

I explained to him how Aster loved children and wanted to be a mother and teacher. Between her and my mother, who had been a teacher, they managed to somewhat educate me. Aster was the daughter raised as a caretaker. I was so much more talented at fighting, and my parents knew that it broke Aster’s heart to have to kill other humans, so they were content to let her care for the children in our family. She trained, like everyone else, but she was really too sweet.

“You saw her,” I said, as if that was all the evidence necessary. “She looked like a princess even before she was turned.”

I went on to explain how we came across a well-guarded nest. We managed to kill some of the human guards and the mate of the leader, but we didn’t have the time or resources to finish off the rest before sunset. Two days later, they tracked our scent and found our house.

“We never knew why they targeted Aster, but it was clear that they did because they used a child vampire.”

I told Leslie that the child vampire was out in the street crying for his mother. It was so obvious to me, but Aster fell for it. We knew little about vampire laws, but we knew enough to know that making a child vampire was against their rules. Maybe that was why Aster didn’t believe the child was one of them. She ran out to him, and he turned on her. After he bit her, the rest of the group descended on her and vanished, taking her with them.

“We held guard all night and moved the next day.”

“I think the reason I was called to Florida all those years ago was to try this family. They never would say why they made a vampire child. Perhaps the lure of having a Rosegarten was too great.”

Leslie rubbed my arm. “Maybe the leader wanted her specifically since your family killed his mate. Vampires are strongly attracted to beautiful things of which you are now painfully aware.” He gave me a knowing look, and I fought off a wave of tears that threatened to fall down my cheeks.

“A member of our family, a young man who was fond of her, stayed in the area to try to find out what became of her.” I rubbed at my tear-and makeup-coated cheeks. “When he rejoined us, he told us that Benoit had ordered the destruction of the group. We assumed that Aster was killed by the ones who took her or by Benoit’s people.”

“I ordered the destruction of the group, but Benoit oversaw the executions.” Leslie looked down at the floorboard as if the answers were there. “Apparently, Aster struck his fancy. Vampires also hate to destroy beauty.” I gave a sarcastic laugh. “What?”

“In the words of Luc, ‘It would be such a waste to have to kill you.’” Leslie’s face flashed from calm to violent. “Sorry.” I patted his chest. “My sarcastic jokes are in exceptionally poor taste tonight or this morning or whenever it is. Still, it’s fitting though, isn’t it?”

“Bern, stop the car,” Leslie called to the driver, who responded immediately.

Leslie got out of the limo. I slid across the seat and looked after him. With the door open, I could tell it was the grayish time of morning, not too long before sunrise.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

We were in the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest, and trees lined the highway. Leslie stalked across the road. He increased his speed to a trot and, with one swing of his arm, smashed through the trunks of five mature trees, two of which were oaks. He stood with his back to the car, and I watched his shoulders rise and fall. He rolled his head on his neck and turned back to me.

As he made his way back over to the limo, his fangs retracted, and his hands relaxed from the claws they had made. He unfastened his collar, untied his bow tie, and took off his tuxedo jacket. I moved back over to my side.

“Thanks, Bern. Take us home now, please,” he said as he slid back into the car. He smelled like bark and sap.

“Feel better?”

“No.” He pulled me fully into his lap. He laid the jacket over me, and under it, he wrapped his arms around me. I tucked the top of my head into the side of his neck. “I’ll feel better when I tear off Luc’s head with my own hands.” He turned his head slightly and kissed my forehead.

I smiled at the thought. “Can you?”

“I am an old vampire. I can do and have done almost everything.”

I entertained myself with mental images of such a fight. Until tonight, I had only seen the polite, refined, and playful sides of Leslie. I imagined Leslie ripping Luc limb from limb before gouging out his eyes and wrenching off his cock. “You’d think Luc would be more afraid of you.”

“Luc doesn’t know me as Guillame does. I will speak with him on the matter. He’ll be expecting it.” His hold on me tightened. “Luc has been with Guillame for a few centuries, but he isn’t involved in the political side of Guillame’s life.”

For the rest of the ride, Leslie held me in his arms and hummed a song to me. I wondered how Justin’s evening went. Perhaps he and Selene were more successful. Maybe they had gotten a chance to dance. My evening had been full of nerves and terror. I vowed that should I ever encounter Luc again, I would kill him, and damn the consequences.

END CH8, P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 7: Part 2

TW: assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can be, I thought. “Je peux être.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jennifer, this is my friend Justin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Feisty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want her,” Luc growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Benoit’s mate?”

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

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

“She was my sister!”

END CH7, P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 7: Part 1

A Fine Soirée

“You know what I find interesting?”

“I’d love to know.”

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

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

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

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

“How would you have punished the miller?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not acting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Demur and beautiful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe he would take multiple mates.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing. I just…smelled something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END CH7 P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 6: Part 2

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

“Wow,” we said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid someone will damage it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why now?”

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

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

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

I fake-gagged. “One word…Ew.”

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

“Deal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Selene,” he commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“I like her that way,” he growled.

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

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

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

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

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

“But, you don’t really need us.”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, he said, “You were right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END Ch6P2