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

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 6: Part 1

Grim Fairy Tale

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

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

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

“Who would’ve thought?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had little choice,” I reminded her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cami—” my mother began.

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

“Are you done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END Ch6P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 5: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much better.”

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

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

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

“Camellia,” he sang, “invite us in.”

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

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

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

“You are incredibly rude,” Leslie snapped.

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I could—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never would’ve happened,” Justin said.

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

“She said it’s silk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course! This is huge.”

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

“Okay, okay. You’re right. Try me.”

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

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

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

END Ch5P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 5: Part 1

Shop Around

What I knew about dresses was nothing, which is why I wandered around La Boutique without the first clue. Justin tried to be patient with me.

We had already visited the tuxedo place. The two men in charge of the shop knew exactly what to do when Justin told them he would be attending Benoit’s party on Friday. Since it was Wednesday, only two days before the event, they chastised Justin for waiting so late in the week. Didn’t he know they would have to alter the tuxedo? Did he expect miracles? When he told them that Selene of House Wells was his mate, they assured him that they would get the job done in time. He needed to come back for a fitting on Thursday, and they would fix anything he didn’t like on the spot. Justin and I struggled to hide our surprise at how quickly they had changed their tune. The fact that we needed to come back the next day added to my irritation. I felt exposed. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to roaming free in the daytime, mingling with other humans as if we belonged.

We’d been to three dress shops before La Boutique. In my opinion, all the dresses were either too low cut or too binding. I wanted to be able to move if I needed to and not have to worry about anything falling out when I did. Justin approved of almost everything I tried on, but I hated them all.

“You’re going to have to wear something,” he said. “I liked the red one.”

“I don’t want to advertise that I’m full of red stuff,” I complained.

“Maybe I should’ve told the shopkeeper she could help us after all. I’m going to get her.”

“Justin, wait—” but he was already off and looking for her.

I frowned at the rack in front of me. Who chooses to wear such ridiculous things, I wondered. The dresses fell into two categories—not enough dress or hideous in color—and several fit into both. I looked up to see the human in charge of the store following Justin. When he gestured to me, her eyes went wide, and she scurried over to help.

“Hello, Lily,” the woman said kindly. “I’d love to help you pick out a dress. You are a six or eight?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been trying on whatever looked decent and comfortable.”

By her expression, she thought I was either simple or clueless. Since she had some tact, she went with clueless. “That’s no way to choose a dress. Well, I’ll just have to measure you.” She whipped out a tape measure. Within a minute, she had all she needed to know, and I felt a little violated. “Right. Muscular build. Hmm, a tall eight. Now, your man here tells me this dress is for Mister Benoit’s Fall Gala, so you will need something long and formal, not too flashy, but alluring. Oh, and honey, a little makeup wouldn’t hurt. The salon has some, and they can probably work you in to do your hair.”

I had no intention of going to a salon, whether they had makeup or not. Since Justin and I planned to go by the grocery store, I decided to get whatever makeup, if any, was in stock. The manager turned her back to me to look over the dresses I had already tried, and I made a face at Justin. He stifled a laugh. As I went into the dressing room, Miss Helper went off in search of things for me to try.

Two hours later, we left with a heavy garment bag. I hated the dress, but when Justin swallowed very hard and nodded, I thought it would do. To go with it, I had shoes, a wrap, and a small handbag. I was firmly against earrings, even if they were clip-ons, or any other jewelry.

At the grocery store, Mark was on duty and chatting with Travis. When they noticed me, both stopped talking and smiled.

“Hey, Lily,” Travis called. He shook hands with Mark and then walked over to me. “I was afraid I had missed you. Who is this?” He eyed Justin.

I took a moment to worry that maybe I had flirted with Travis too much. I cleared my throat and said, “Travis, this is Justin, my bodyguard.”

Justin held out a hand, and after a moment, Travis took it. As they shook hands, Travis sized up Justin. When he saw the pin on Justin’s collar, his eyes cut to me. He noticed my broach, too, and abruptly ended the handshake.

“You are part of Leslie Wells’ household?” he asked. Leslie hadn’t exaggerated about the pins letting people know that we belonged to him.

“Mate,” I corrected. “And he’s,” I jerked a thumb at Justin, “Selene’s mate. Do you know of her?”

“Vamp who looks like Snow White, yeah sure. Mate,” he echoed me and frowned. “Wow.”

“Well, we are running a little late today, and I still need to pick out some makeup to go with my dress for the gala Friday. See you, Travis.”

“See you.” He smiled at me and nodded to Justin as we passed him.

We did a little shopping and then spent some time searching for the makeup aisle. “You’d think it would say ‘Makeup’ real big, not ‘Mineral Wear,’” I complained. “Sounds like dirt.”

There were about a hundred compacts and tubes in various shades and with different purposes. Justin took down a compact and flipped it over to read the back of the package. “From what I can tell, it mostly is.”

“What should I get?”

Justin rubbed his chin. “My mom used to wear makeup, but you know, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I don’t think it was minerals back then.” When I gave him a helpless look, he glared at me. “Here.” He went down the aisle and gathered a handful of cases, tubes, and brushes. When he came back to me, he said, “Your mom will help you sort it out.” He paused, and we watched a glassy-eyed woman with several bites on her neck walk past us without looking or speaking. “I’m ready to leave, Lily.”

I nodded. Justin wrapped an arm around me and led me to the exit. As I thought about the people that I had encountered in the grocery store, I realized that I was lucky. When we were back in our car, I grabbed Justin’s hand, squeezed it gently, and kissed the back of it.

He looked at me, surprised but smiled. “What’s that about?”

“I just…you’re a great friend, and I’m glad you’re in my life and on my side. I’m glad we’ve never been caught.”

I closed my eyes and just breathed for a moment, enjoying the knowledge of my freedom. Justin started the car and pulled out onto the road. Behind my closed lids, I saw flickers of light as the sun flashed in between the buildings or trees we passed on our way home. I wanted to feel the sun on my face. Though toughened by hard living, I dislike the cold of winter, even in Florida.

After several minutes, I opened my eyes to find Justin trying to look at me and the road at the same time. “Hey, watch the road.” I waved my hand toward the windshield.

“You’re worrying me.”

“Sorry. I just got to thinking about all those people.” I sighed. “I’m glad you were with me today. It was good to have you along to help me and to have another set of eyes and ears.”

He frowned but kept his eyes on the road. “I don’t know how you get anything out of those people, and Travis just feels wrong to me.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s a soldier.” I thought back over our conversation and his reactions. “Say, do you know who Snow White is?”

“Yeah. I saw the movie when I was a kid.” His brow furrowed a bit but then eased when his smile came. “Selene does sort of look like Snow White, minus the innocence.”

“Do you remember the story?”

“Some.”

“Tell me.”

He told me that the evil witch envied Snow White and plotted her death. He said that Snow White came to live and care for seven dwarves. I learned how the witch disguised herself as an old woman and tricked Snow White into eating a poisoned apple. In the Disney princess version, Snow White fell into a deep sleep. What I’d seen of Disney looked like a giant, chipped golf ball, but I kept that to myself and let Justin continue.

“In the original story, Snow White actually died. The curse lifted when a young prince, who loved her, kissed her.”

“But she was dead.” I wrinkled my lips. “And he kissed her anyway?”

“Yep. That’s true love, I guess. In the world of fairy tales, it can overcome even death.”

“And she came back to life?” I shrugged. “Maybe vampires made up this story.”

Justin looked at me, and then he laughed until I thought he would need to pull over to keep from wrecking. Tears streamed out of his eyes, and I thought about what Selene had said about them. Vampire eyes tend to be larger and the color strange and bold. Justin’s grayish eyes were on the rare side for humans, and Selene’s blue eyes struck me as too ordinary for a vampire.

“What happened to the witch and the dwarves?” I wondered.

“I don’t remember much about them. I was more interested in the prince and the princess. I think the witch was killed. The dwarves had this song they loved to sing.”

He sang what he remembered of Hi, Ho for me. It was catchy, and I sang along with him as we entered the house, my hand in his, smiles on our faces, and a garment bag draped over my free arm. My parents hurried into the dining room as Justin and I broke into a fit of giggles.

“Good day?” my father asked. My mother beamed at me.

“Justin was just telling me the story of Snow White.”

“Fairy tales?” my mother asked. “We have several of those types of books for little Katie.”

“Maybe I’ll give them a look.” I shrugged and skipped down the hall to my room. After I stowed the dress and shoes in the closet, I went to the children’s room to find the books. I found Katie playing with the doll that I had brought her from the grocery store.

“Hey, Katie. I want to read your fairy tale books. Is that okay?”

When she gathered them up and brought them to me, she asked, “Will you read them to me?” It was such a motherly thing to do, but I was curious, so I agreed. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and she scrambled into my lap, arms full of books. “Which one do you want first, Cami?”

I riffled through them. Since I just heard Snow White, I opted for Cinderella. The girl on the cover looked soft, but I soon learned she was a slave to her stepmother and stepsisters. I appreciated how the animals enjoyed helping Cinderella, but I thought the idea of a fairy godmother was absurd. Still, I tried my best to get into the spirit of the story for Katie’s sake. She knew the story was impossible as surely as I did, but it was nice to live in someone else’s world for a while.

Katie cried when Cinderella’s lovely evening was over, when the prince couldn’t find her, and especially when he finally did. It was a lovely thought that someone of royalty fell for a sweet, true-hearted woman. I wondered how Cinderella coped with society life.

“Read Sleeping Beauty next, will you Cami?” Katie asked.

She passed me the book, and I stared at the lovely young woman on the cover of the book. She looked like my sister, Aster. Her light blonde hair curled in fat, loose ringlets down her shoulders, framing her round face. Her cheeks were rosy, and her lips were plump and pink. She slept soundly on a puffy bed.

“Maybe after dinner. It should be about time to eat.”

I suddenly lost my appetite. There I was, sitting in the floor, reading to a child. It was what my sister always wanted—children, to have them and to teach them. She loved children, and it killed her.

“Don’t be sad, Cami. Fairy tales have happy endings.”

Katie hugged me and crawled out of my lap. I sat on the floor of her room for a while, staring at Beauty. I turned the book over in my hands, and on the back, a wide-awake Beauty greeted me with bright blue eyes. She stood on the balcony of a castle, with the blue sky behind her and a little blue bird perched on the rail. Blue, blue, blue. What was the deal with princesses and birds? I tossed the book back on the pile and went to the living room to watch the sun set.

END Ch5P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 4: Part 2

For the remainder of the evening, Justin and I were to practice acting like the mates of our respective vampires. We milled about the house, discussing things like vampire etiquette and societal norms, and my parents gave us constructive criticism.

Since it went completely against my nature, it was a challenge for me to act demur. However, I had a feeling that once I was in a large house packed with vampires, I wouldn’t have any problem keeping silent and being polite. I planned to stick to Wells like glue, and the fact that he was relatively old for a vampire meant I didn’t have to worry about being bothered. Still, after so many years of reacting to a vampire with violence, it was hard to be at ease around them, even if they were well mannered and friendly.

When Wells walked up behind me and put his arms around my waist, I jumped. “No one is going to believe you’re my mate if you don’t relax,” he said. He stroked a finger down my arm, and I twitched away in reaction. “See? You get all stiff and tense.”

“Look, Wells,” I began and then leaned back so that only he heard me, “I’m used to killing vampires, not making friends with them. On top of that, I’m not used to giving or receiving affection. Bonding with other humans, it’s just too risky. I don’t expect you to understand what it’s like to lose someone you’ve become attached to.”

“You have no idea how much I’ve lost,” he said flatly. “But forfeiting the ability to love and receive love destroys part of your humanity. If you aren’t capable of at least  pretending to care about me, this won’t work.” With me in his arms, he swayed from side-to-side.

I was a little surprised, and I wondered if Wells was just different from other vampires. The way he spoke, it was as if he had regular human emotions.

“I imagine that very few humans care about their vampire mates, and when humans pair up, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You can be someone’s mate without all the touchy-feely stuff.”

“Not mine, and that attitude won’t deter Benoit’s man, Luc, or anyone else from making me an offer for you.”

He turned me around to face him and danced with me as we talked. I had no idea how to dance, never having a need for it. I looked down to watch his feet. Before long, I learned the steps enough to look like I knew what I was doing.

I had a lot on my mind, but Wells’ statement about deterring the interest of other vampires bothered me. “I thought you said they would back off, what with you being so old and powerful, and me wearing this.” I deliberately looked down at my broach.

“Of course, but if they were to see that you were unhappy with me, they would continue to press the issue. Even knowing that as my mate, you are free, they might try to lure you away or offer me a trade of several women for you. I am curious what they would offer, but I don’t want to risk it. Do you?” He whirled me to arm’s length and pulled me back.

“No.” I had to try harder. “Okay, so you’ll have to help me.”

“Easy enough. Learn by example.” He pointed to Justin and Selene with our joined hands.

I never knew that Justin could dance. He glided around the floor like a pro. He and Selene smiled and made small talk. A casual touch here and there, lots of eye contact. They were believable as a couple, much like my parents.

“Justin is naturally an affectionate person, though. He’s a people-person. I’m just not either of those, Wells,” I complained.

“First, you have to start calling me Leslie, or no one will believe that we are a couple.”

“Okay, Leslie. How do I act more affectionate?”

He took a deep breath. “Don’t act more affectionate, be more affectionate. Start by touching my cheek or my hair every once in a while, holding my hand, sitting or standing very close to me when we’re not dancing.”

“Maybe I should take notes.”

Leslie shook his head and smiled. “While we’re swaying here, just practice running your fingers through my hair, like I did yours a few minutes ago.”

I lifted my hand and looked into his eyes. They were so bright and clear, like the Caribbean Sea in the picture I had torn out of an old encyclopedia I’d found in one of the many houses we’d inhabited. I slid my fingers into his hair and found it was soft, almost like a child’s. It wisped through my fingers and fluttered against his cheek. I pushed it behind his ear.

“Very good,” he praised. “Your stare could bore holes in a man. So intense.” He continued to look at me. “I almost believed you wanted me.”

That made me uneasy, and I pursed my lips. “Maybe it’ll be enough for other people to believe it, too.”

I refused to let my eyes drop first. It was as if we were engaged in a battle of wills, but I found myself getting lost, swimming around, wondering what it was I should be doing. My hands slid off his shoulders and down so that they pinched his waist. I pulled him closer. His eyes flashed, and suddenly, his touch and his kiss were all I wanted. He leaned toward me, and I parted my lips just a little.

Instead of kissing me, he whispered, “Did you know that a few vampires can hold humans in thrall without having their blood?”

“No,” I mumbled before my foggy head cleared, but I thought I had gotten a taste of it firsthand. Whatever he was doing to me, he stopped. I realized how intimately I held him, and I released his waist and took a step back from him. “I thought the vampire had to bite the human first.”

“Biting isn’t necessary. Drinking the human’s blood is. To not require it is a very rare gift.”

“And you have it?”

“Yes,” Leslie said.

“How convenient.”

“It can be, very. I’ve used it to diffuse situations and add fuel to the flame, like I did to you just now.”

I sweetened my tone. “Makes me wonder.”

“What is that?”

“How many women you’ve hypnotized in order to get what you want.” My voice could have iced a glass of tea.

Unoffended, Wells said, “It works on men too, but I assure you that I stopped using it for sexual gratification a long time ago.”

He took my hands and resumed dancing with me. “Like having slaves, it left me feeling as though I had taken their rights away. However, it can be very useful when you wish to command a large room. It makes it especially easy to kill when your targets are all mesmerized.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” I said, intrigued. “It would be a good way to take out patrols, bodyguards, overly-protective mates.”

“Not just humans.”

I drew back from him to look into his eyes. My mouth fell open in surprise. “You can do this to vampires?”

“Yes. It’s one of the main reasons why I am a judge.”

“You’re a judge?”

“Did I not mention that?” He shrugged. “Anyway, truly exceptional talents vary, and few vampires have them. Those that do tend to stay alive longer, and hence, rise to positions of power. Because of my talents and position, I’ve met vampires that possess extreme talents in speed, agility, strength, vision, hearing, and smell. The most common sort of bonus skill is flight.” He paused for effect. “I can do that, too.”

Flight. Every human, at least once in his or her life, dreamed of being able to fly. Too bad you had to die first, and that wasn’t even a guarantee. I had encountered a few vampires that could fly and guessed that was where all the turning-into-a-bat stories originated.

“I haven’t ever met a vampire who could shape-shift, was psychic, or was telepathic. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” he was quick to add, “just that if they do, they are extremely rare.”

“Like you.” This time, he nodded before he whirled me around the room. “What about being a judge?”

“The vampire justice system is somewhat similar to the justice system that humans used.” I nodded. I knew a little bit about government and civics, as my father had tried to explain the old ways to me and my sister. “In the case of vampires, when there are crimes or disagreements in the south, they call on me to make decisions,” Wells explained. I hoped that meant that he was wise and fair. Changing the subject, he said, “Those two paired nicely, I think,” and gestured toward Justin and Selene.

It was disconcerting how cozy they had gotten. I shouldn’t care if Justin was intimate with someone else. No, I shouldn’t, but why did she have to be a vampire? I frowned in their direction. “Sun’s almost up. Shouldn’t the two of you be heading for home?”

With a heavy coat of sarcasm, Leslie said, “I was enjoying your company so much that I lost track of time. Are you always so rude?”

“I prefer blunt.” I dropped my voice lower. “Even though I don’t love him, I don’t like her fawning all over him.”

“Well, I’m sure he doesn’t like me touching you either, but he has some manners.” Leslie’s brow furrowed as I set my jaw. We stopped dancing and just stood there, glaring at each other.

“People are going to think you two have been married forty years,” my father said, stopping beside me to pat my shoulder. “I’m off to bed. I’m old, and I prefer to sleep mostly at night. This staying up until dawn stuff is for the vampires.”

Selene glided over to us and said, “Please don’t fight. Make peace, and we’ll go. We shouldn’t leave in anger.” I gave her a sharp look and folded my arms over my chest. Justin had already left the room. “I’ll be outside, Leslie.” She darted out the back door so quickly it shocked me.

“She’s fast,” I said, impressed.

“Look, Camellia—”

I cut him off by saying, “You should get used to calling me Lily.”

“Point taken.” He frowned down at me. “And, you shouldn’t get mad at me just because I tell you the truth, even when it’s not what you want to hear.”

“Point taken.”

He tugged at my arms until they unfolded. He took both my hands in his and sighed. “I think I’ll rest today. You take a lot out of me.” He squeezed my hands gently and released me. “Something else to think about practicing.” He quickly cupped my face and kissed me softly. He rubbed his lips lightly over mine and hummed. “Sweet, just like the scent of your blood.”

Then, he was gone, and I stood in the living room all alone. My arms dangled out at my sides where he’d left them, and my body leaned toward where his had been. I stood there with my chin still upturned and the feel of his lips on mine. I shivered as chill bumps popped out all over my body.

He kissed me, a vampire. I covered my mouth to stifle the scream. The fact that it never  came worried me.

END Ch4P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 4: Part 1

Marking

Whatever Wells told my father appeased his fears that we were going to be some lone rag-tag group fighting for the impossible. My family agreed to work with Wells, but we planned to stay in our current house and refused Wells’ offer of turning on the power. My father reasoned that it would be best to keep ourselves hidden until it became impossible.

I paid close attention when Wells showed my father a detailed map of Tallahassee and  surrounding areas so he could X off the houses that held friendly vampires or humans. However, the way Selene flirted with Justin made it hard for me to concentrate on the discussion. Justin seemed oblivious, but his body reacted to her—chill bumps springing up wherever she touched him—warning him that something unnatural and dangerous was near him. Selene’s heavy-lidded eyes were the color of the blue willow china teapot my mother had managed to keep all these years.

“No, Mister Rosegarten, Camellia isn’t listening.” I caught the tone of the voice and my name and started. The whole table stared back at me. “Thank you for joining us,” Wells said easily. I frowned at him. “We were just discussing what a wonderful information gathering opportunity this fall gala at Maison Benoit could prove to be. Tight lips loosen at parties, especially when alcohol is involved.”

“Oh, absolutely.” I nodded and paid closer attention.

“It’s settled then. You’ll need a dress, shoes, and so forth. I’ll write down some addresses for you.”

“Dress?” I asked stupidly. “What dress?”

“Something long, perhaps sparkly, and revealing.” He pointed a finger at me stiffly then turned to Justin. “You should accompany Camellia from now on, acting as her bodyguard. Camellia, you need to work on being a little meeker.”

Justin and I both snorted and then laughed at each other. Most of my family snickered.

“Good luck with that,” my father said and actually slapped Wells on the back.

My, weren’t we chummy? I had to hand it to him; Wells was hard to dislike. Plus, he promised to deliver the goods: human freedom from slavery.

“Justin, you’ll need to get a tuxedo if you’re going to pose as Selene’s mate, and it will be safer for all of you if you wear indicators.”

Wells handed Selene a velvet pouch from which she removed silver pins. Each of the pins was a heart encircled by an oak leaf laurel, but mine was a little different. It was more like a broach. Inset in the center of the heart was a stone that my mother informed me was a tourmaline. It was the same color as Wells’ eyes. Justin’s was the only other one like mine.

“These will be a sign to anyone that you are part of my group. Wear it prominently, and no vampires should bother you.”

I finally found my voice. “I can’t wear a dress,” I shouted.

Exasperated, Wells asked, “Why not?”

“You’ll be okay, honey.” My mother patted my hand. “I’ll teach you how to walk in heels.”

I tried to think of how I could walk, much less defend myself, in formal attire. Wells’ expression softened, as if he finally realized I was truly out of my element.

“If it will make you feel better,” my mother went on, “I’ll give you my garter that doubles as a knife belt.”

“Okay,” I said shakily and wondered why my mother would have a garter.

Wells looked amused by this bit of information, and I glared at him. He had lifetimes of luxury and leisure, and here he was getting a big kick out of the terrifying one I had led. My anger threatened to lash out, so I made an effort to clamp down on it. This was not the time to start an argument.

“One more thing,” Wells said. “You and Justin will need to be marked. It’s unheard of for a mate of a vampire not to carry some bite marks.”

“Why is that?” Justin asked.

“Biting and being bitten during intercourse greatly heightens the experience,” Selene explained while she looked at Justin as if she wanted to eat him, literally. She stared at his neck, and he swallowed.

“However,” Wells continued, glaring at Selene before turning back to address the group, “since we would never bite any humans without permission, we have made these.” From his pocket, he removed something that looked like a pair of silver fangs. I noticed it had holes for the index and middle fingers. “Once punctured by the faux fangs, you will appear to have been bitten. The wound can be sealed with vampire saliva so that it won’t become infected.”

“Well, let’s see it,” my father said. “We all want to know what is involved, and I’d like to make sure you don’t lose control and end up eating my daughter.”

“I assure you, Mister Rosegarten, Selene and I have been in control of our hungers for hundreds of years now, but I’m willing to do almost anything to make you as comfortable with the situation as possible.”

“Okay then. So, in a few days, Cami and I will head into town—” Justin started.

“Okay?” I screeched at him. “You’re okay with all this? All this?”

“It’s what we need to do, what I need to do,” he said. “I don’t want you going off alone anymore, Cami. I know Wells can look after you at a party, but he can’t be around in the daytime. I volunteered for this, but he agrees that I’m perfect for the job. If they need to stab me with those things, so be it.”

Selene was right. He was brave, and he cared far too much. Our relationship was so one-sided, and I felt guilty about that. Still, I had done my best to make my feelings, or lack thereof, clear to Justin. If he wanted to be overprotective, that was his deal.

“Fine.” I held out my arm. “Do it.”

“That’s the other problem with your fake bite marks. Very few vampires bite on the arms. We like the wrists, neck, throat, and other places where the pulse is strong,” Wells explained.

“I don’t care what you say, Wells. I’m not letting you stab me in the neck with that thing.”

“I was going to suggest here.” He skimmed a finger to the spot where my neck met my shoulder, the same spot where he had first put his teeth on me. “It’s my personal favorite, in the event that someone offers.”

The family members, who were curious enough to watch, looked ill at ease. Who in their right mind would offer a vampire a nibble?

I wrinkled my nose at him. “Do you have to be so creepy about it?”

“You bring out my playfulness.” He stood and looked down into my eyes. “Now, I’ll warn you, the humans who prefer to be marked this way say that it hurts. You see, when a vampire bites you, the saliva numbs the skin a bit.”

Nifty tip number seventeen, I thought. “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I’m ready. Just don’t hit anything important.”

“If I know anything, it’s human anatomy.”

He plunged the faux fangs onto my shoulder, and I gasped. They did hurt, much worse than the punctures I’d given myself because I hadn’t gone deep enough. Though my tolerance for pain was high, the placement got to me. Almost instantly, I heard my heart thudding in my ears.

Someone said, “She’s turning green.”

Wells removed the fangs. I couldn’t see the blood, but I felt it well and then start to flow out of the marks. My mother smiled at me and patted the wound with a dish towel.

“Leslie, seal it already. She’s going to pass out,” Selene said.

Wells sucked in his cheeks. His mouth moved as if he were gathering up every bit of moisture. When his mouth stopped moving, he indicated for my mother to lift away the towel. Gently, he put his hands on my shoulders and leaned over me. I smelled him—shampoo and soap, something refreshing, like rosemary and mint. Wells half-spit, half-drooled onto my shoulder and then slid his fingers around in the saliva. As his spit smeared in the blood, it made its way into the wounds. The “bite” stopped hurting almost immediately and a tingling sensation, similar to when a limb falls asleep, replaced the pain.

I giggled as if tickled and shook out my arm. Warmth spread up my neck and down my shoulder a bit, replacing the tingly feeling. The massaging action felt nice, and when Wells finally stopped, the wound, as well as the rest of me, felt great. He indicated for my mother to wipe the area clean. Once she had, I stretched my neck back to look down and found two perfect and clearly visible fang marks. The saliva formed a shiny seal over them.

“Well, that felt…different,” I said. “Your turn, Justin.”

When I looked at him and around the table, everyone stared at me as if seeing something private. Wells moved away from me, and my parents looked at the marks, either impressed or shocked at the result. I had the displeasure of watching Justin receive his fang marks and healing massage, from Selene of course. Stabbing with the faux fangs completed, my father questioned Wells about the possibilities of using vampire saliva as a medicine.

“Well, vampire saliva works like stitches and an antibiotic, a sort of miracle salve for flesh wounds, and can deaden the skin. Drinking vampire blood can cure a multitude of illnesses and internal injuries, but one has to be careful.” Wells held up a finger. “Too much can trigger the change. My family uses these extreme measures only when necessary and only if that human is willing.”

My father lifted his eyebrows and nodded. There was so much to absorb.

END Ch4P1

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 3: Part 2

Suspicious best described my family’s feelings about the proposition. Everyone, except Mandy and Robert, agreed that my father could give Wells our threshold. The plan was that, after a Q and A session, Dad would revoke Wells’ invitation, thereby booting him from the house, and the family would make a decision.

I tried to give more details and answer questions. To avoid upsetting them further, I didn’t tell them I was doing it regardless. I was still undecided about whether to talk to Justin about my plans. I couldn’t be sure he would agree, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue.

Later that night, Robert was suspiciously absent when Justin led me to his room to “talk.” There, I found my air mattress next to his. I tried not to be angry about it, but the mattress left no doubt as to his intentions.

I’d only had sex with one other person before Justin, and he died in an attack. It wasn’t the same with Justin as it had been with my first partner, not that I expected it to be. Justin was a different person, already a man when I met him, and I was different, too. When we had sex, Justin always satisfied me, but I thought I shouldn’t lead him on anymore.

When he kissed me and casually tried to remove my clothes, I pushed him back and said, “We shouldn’t do this anymore.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because it means something different to you than it does to me.”

“I know, but you just let me worry about that.”

“No.” I pressed a hand firmly against his chest. “That isn’t fair to you.”

He lowered his forehead to mine and cursed. “I don’t care.”

“Justin—”

“Camellia,” he interrupted, “I’m worried that if we don’t agree with you, you’ll go off with this vampire, alone, into a house full of them.”

“You shouldn’t worry about me so much,” I said softly. “I don’t know why, but I have faith in this vampire. He really wants us to have our freedom.”

“It’s not just that.” He brushed my hair back from my face. I hadn’t realized he had loosened it from its ponytail. “I’m worried he’ll take you from me.”

My jaw tensed. “That would be hard since I don’t belong to you or anybody else for that matter.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m afraid for you.”

“That’s perfectly natural, and I appreciate it.”

I held him close and stroked his back because he was always doing, or trying to do, that sort of thing to me. Being that way, showing affection and tenderness, reminded me of Peter, my first love, my first partner. It was enough to stop my hand. I curled it up, held it away from Justin, and against my wishes, I thought about Peter. He had been sweet, brave, and so gentle with me.

Because the memories brought pain, I tried very hard never to think of Peter. In fact, whenever I reread my journal, I skipped over the time I had with him, just as I skipped over my record of losing my sister. I needed to start writing again, both for the therapy and to help me collect my thoughts and ideas.

I left Justin and went to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. On my way back, I veered into the dining room and stared out the large picture window that overlooked the backyard. In the waning moon’s light, I saw the path that led to the clearing. There, at the start of the path, I spotted something pale, and I shivered. The house was chilly, but I didn’t think that was why I suddenly felt cold. For some reason, the pale spot made me feel lonely and angry, so I quit looking at it and went to my room to get some rest.

* * * *

Discussions and arguments took place the next day. Contrary to Wells’ prediction, I wouldn’t start my period for two more days. Period or not, I was cranky, and my mood grew more foul as the day progressed.

At mid-afternoon, I took my journal and pencil out to the clearing to write. For the first time in a few years, I was tempted to go back and read what I had written about Peter. I chickened out, telling myself that it would be more productive to write down what I learned in the last few days. That only brought me back to the current cause of stress in my life. I needed physical release of the violent sort.

While I pounded my fists into a stuffed shirt, the time of the meeting grew nearer. In a few days, I would be back at Human Foods, trying to glean whatever I could from the patrons. I wondered how long it would take to get into Benoit’s house. We needed to know the numbers—humans and vampires. I wondered if Wells could get me floor plans.

“You’re killing that poor scarecrow.”

Startled, I leapt back from the dummy. “If you keep doing that, I’m going to die of a heart attack,” I complained, putting my hand over my sternum. “Then, where will you be?”

“Sad, I have to say.” Wells strolled over to me. “Irritated at having to deal with your grieving parents, and of course, your boyfriend would want to avenge you.”

I stiffened. “Why do you keep throwing Justin in my face?”

“He gives you his heart and you throw it away.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against a tree. “It’s so cruel, so vampiric.”

“Cruel? You think I’m cruel?” I barked. “I could tell you about cruel, Wells.” I paced around and landed a roundhouse kick into the dummy. “And how would you know anything about me and Justin?” Then, I remembered the pale spot in the night. “Oh, you creep! You were lurking around out here last night.” I glared at him as if my eyes could burn him as surely as the sun.

He prattled on, ignoring me. “A member of my family, Selene, has been admiring Justin.” The description put me in mind of a work of art or a prized pet. “Perhaps he could join us on our fact-finding missions, as her date. He will feel better if he believes he can protect you.”

Irritated by the things he said, I couldn’t decide which to get angry about first. “Ask him yourself.”

“Don’t snap at me. It’s only a suggestion.”

“I can’t be concerned with feelings,” I shouted. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I flung a stake into the dummy. It struck where the heart would be, if it had one. Wells’ eyebrows went up.

From the back door, my father called, “You must be Leslie Wells. I’ve heard of you.”

“You have?” I turned to my father. “When were you going to share that with me?” I put my fists on my hips, but he gave me a dismissive wave.

Wells, ignoring my interruption, bowed and said, “Mister Rosegarten, the honor is all mine.”

“You are welcome in our house,” my father said, granting Leslie permission to cross our threshold. He gestured for Wells to enter.

“Camellia, are you coming?”

“I think she wants to finish taking out her anger on that poor scarecrow first,” Wells mused as he went inside the house.

My father gave me a questioning look, which I ignored. I already felt as though I was bungling things. Because I couldn’t kick my own ass, I nearly destroyed the dummy.

My work completed, I glanced up to see everyone gathering around the dining room table, humans on one side, Wells on the other, and my parents at opposite ends of the table. Only a vampire would have the guts to sit with his back to a window. As I watched, Wells tucked his hair behind his ear. It was such a human gesture. He wore dark brown pants and a yellow button down—warm, friendly hues. I had no doubt that was on purpose.

Without a sound, another pale figure emerged from the forest. I crouched, stake raised. The vampire held out her hands in a defensive gesture, making her long, black hair swish.

“I’m Selene, of House Wells.” She had an unusual accent, eastern European maybe. “Leslie said to wait out in the woods, but I am curious.” I moved to put myself between her and the house, in case she attacked. “Leslie, show her I mean no ill,” she said toward the window in a voice hardly louder than the one in which she’d spoken to me. I glanced over my shoulder to find him at the back door.

“It’s okay, Camellia,” Wells said. “She’s Selene, the one I told you about.”

My father joined Wells at the back door a few moments later. No one acted upset or tense but me, but then again, I couldn’t see most of the family.

“I’m sorry for intruding.” She bowed her head to him. “I was just too curious, and I see what you mean.” She deliberately turned and looked at me before turning back to him.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said to her. “It would’ve been nice if I could’ve warned them though.” He wasn’t angry with her. Maybe a tad disappointed. He turned sideways in the door to address my father. “Mister Rosegarten, we’ll leave now if you wish.”

“If you wanted us dead, you would’ve killed Camellia two days ago, and we’d all be gone,” my father said.

It sounded cold and callous, but I knew my father only spoke the truth. He went back to the table, and after a beat, Wells followed him.

“What did you mean?” I asked Selene.

“Leslie has an eye for things,” she said absently, her eyes locked on his back. “It will be good for him to have you working with us, but we hope your whole family will agree.” She scanned the scene at the table.

When I understood why, I grumbled a bit then said, “You’re hoping they agree so you can work with Justin.”

“That would be an added bonus. I am fond of him.” She craned her neck to try to locate him at the table.

“You mean you’re fond of how he looks.”

“Well, of course. He has an exceptional body for a male human. He has all that thick, dark hair with those unusual golden brown streaks, and his eyes are stormy gray, but it is more than that. I have heard him and watched him train your people. You are both warriors, yet he is kind.”

When she found Justin where he stood behind Robert, a warm smile spread across her face. I disliked her immediately.

“When you break his heart, and you will,” she said quickly when I tried to interrupt, “I will be there. Don’t be angry, and don’t be afraid for him. You don’t love him, not the way he needs you to. If he wants me, I will.”

She didn’t even know him, and yet she claimed she loved him. It was ridiculous. I wanted to go in and get away from her, to make Justin promise not to get involved with her, but that wasn’t my place. I had no more business telling him how to live his life than he had telling me how to live mine. I needed to keep from getting any more emotionally involved and take steps to reverse any attachment I had to anyone other than my parents.

I was torn between going in to get away from her and staying to make sure she didn’t get up to anything. Then, my father took the decision out of my hands. The door opened again, and he stepped onto the back stoop.

“Selene, you are welcome in our home. Camellia, come on in, too. We’ll need you both.”

Well, crap.