Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 14: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does Leslie have many movies?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Pornos?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m really sorry about that.”

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

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

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

END CH14 P2

Wild Rosegarten, Chapter 13: Part 1

Sharing

“That was really unwise,” Leslie scolded as I vomited into the toilet again.

“Lesson,” I retched, “uh, learned.”

When my stomach was empty, I slid onto the floor, laid my face against the cool tiles, and closed my eyes. My heart hammered, and my chest felt like there was a brick on it. My body twitched as the adrenaline edge burned off. Behind it was exhaustion. The muscle men hadn’t fired on me, and as I regained the ability to form coherent thoughts, I wondered if they were on my side.

“Who are they?” my voice cracked.

“Jay and Santiago.”

“You know them.” I kept my eyes closed and willed my heart down from my throat. My hands shook, and my mouth tasted sour.

“They share the room next to the twins, but they’ve been out since you arrived. I called them. Imagine my surprise when I came up and found you gone.” He didn’t sound surprised at all. He sounded royally pissed.

Slowly, I sat up and leaned against the wall. My ears rang, and I felt green. “I left a note.”

“Yes, I saw it. Lot of good it would do if someone other than my people had found you.”

“They didn’t catch me, and why did they keep chasing me?” I looked up at Leslie.

His expression was angry, but his eyes showed fear. “I wanted them to scare you.”

“Well, they did.” I closed my eyes again.

“Leslie!” The panic was clear in my father’s voice. “Did they find her?”

“In here.” Leslie squatted beside me and brushed the sweat-matted hair back from my face.

“Where the hell did you go?” my father demanded.

I opened my eyes to see him bracing his arms against the doorway. His face had the same look as Leslie’s. “I went for a run. This place was beginning to feel like a prison. I needed air, exercise.”

Wounded and insulted, Leslie said, “My house is a prison? You feel like a prisoner here?”

“That’s not what I mean.” I waved my hand at him. “No disrespect, but I’m not used to staying in all the time.”

“All the time? You were in for one and a half, two days.” Leslie stood and paced toward my father and back.

“Maybe it was the letters,” I mumbled, but there was no maybe about it. My reaction was a direct result of the letters and the feeling that it was time to hit the road again. Something that ingrained was hard to ignore.

“What letters?” Leslie asked. He stood in front of me, looking down at the top of my head.

I didn’t have the energy or interest to look up at him. This whole conversation was tiresome. “The ones I found in my journal.”

As soon as I said it, I was sorry. Leslie blew past my father. So much for my one private possession.

Dislodged from his place in the door, my father walked over to me. “Honey, you know you shouldn’t go off alone. It’s not smart.”

“Yeah, Dad. Leslie already gave me the lecture.”

“Okay, well, how about instead, you explain to me how your broken hand is perfectly fine.”

I put my head in my hands and scrubbed my eyes. I didn’t feel like doing that now or ever. It would just lead to another lecture, more yelling, more anger. I was so tired of everyone being angry and disrupted. It was hard not to blame the vampires.

“Ask Justin. I’m going to be sick again. Would you please leave and close the door?”

I rolled onto my knees and shut my eyes. After a count to ten, I heard the bathroom door slam. I wasn’t going to be sick, but it was a good way to get rid of my father. I needed to think, to plan.

I stripped off my sweaty clothes and, for the second time in three or so hours, climbed into the shower. I had gone from a bath every two or three days to two or three baths a day. I got as far as soaping up my arms before I realized I had no clean clothes with me.

When the yelling started, I tried to ignore it. From the sound of it, Leslie, my parents, and Justin were having it out. There would be hell to pay. Since there would, I stayed under the spray even after everything was scrubbed.

I wondered if I should just run, make up a new name and history for myself. Surely being alone would be easier than dealing with all these annoying, arguing people. Still, I loved these annoying, arguing people.

Another option was going to Aster. If accepted into the household, I had no doubt I could put an end to Benoit. I just wasn’t sure what else I would have to endure, or if I could endure it, in order to achieve that goal.

Justin came into the bathroom and yanked open the shower door. “Get out. Dry off,” he ordered. “I’ll bring you some clothes.”

“And just who do you think you are telling me what to do?” I snapped.

Instead of answering, he grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the tub. I stood on the bath mat, dripping, as Justin grabbed a towel off the rack and began rubbing me dry.

“Get off, Justin.” I pushed him back from me.

“You should shut your mouth and do what you’re told.”

The right cross I threw caught his left cheek with a gruesome squishing sound. I hadn’t hit him hard enough to knock teeth loose, but he would have a bruise to match the one on his other cheek.

“How dare you?” I shouted at him. “You think you can order me around?”

The fury leapt into his face so quickly that I took a step back from him. He snatched my wrists in his hands. “I should break both of them.”

Instead of breaking my wrists, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. All his anger, his frustration, his inability to change my will poured into the kiss. His hands skimmed up and down my damp body.

I heard the pain in his voice when he said, “I want to stop loving you, but I can’t.”

His hand traveled down my body until his fingers glanced over the very fresh, very real bite marks. His fingers probed a little more gently, as if to prove that they were really feeling what he thought they were. In that instant, his passion dissipated, and he released me.

“He bit you,” Justin accused. “Didn’t waste any time, did he?”

“I’m sure it’s not your business. Despite what you think you don’t have exclusive rights t my body.”

He stared at me for a moment and then said, “I’m going to get your clothes now.”

I stood in the bathroom and shivered. Out in the main room, it sounded as though a few more people had joined in the arguing. When Justin returned, he stuffed a stack of clothes into my arms. He stood watch as I dressed, and when I had finished, he took me by my upper arm and hauled me out of the bathroom. I struggled against him, but Justin was a lot stronger and heavier than I was.

As we exited the bathroom, the arguing stopped, and everyone turned to look at me. The muscle men, Jay and Santiago, were at the bar and each having a glass of water. Both nodded at me in welcome.

When we reached my parents, Justin said, “Let’s go.”

His brows pinched together angrily, Leslie asked, “Where do you think you’re taking her?”

“We’re leaving Florida, and she’s coming with us.”

Leslie’s eyes narrowed into slits. “I think not.”

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing.” Justin glared at him. “Maybe you’re really bored and looking for some excitement. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I know I said I wanted in on this, to help with this, but not at the expense of these people.” He stood in front of my parents and pulled me behind him.

“Justin, don’t get bent out of shape,” I said.

He whirled on me and poked his finger into my chest. “And what’s gotten into you? Oh right, I know what’s gotten into you. We all know.” My cheeks grew hot. I had never embarrassed this easily before we lived with vampires. “You’re two nips and two sips away from becoming one of them. Are you fucking him, too?”

“What if I am? It’s my body and my life,” I shouted at him.

“And what are you going to do with your life? Huh? Are you going to go live with your crazy vampire sister? Misery loves company.”

If looks could kill, the one I gave him would do the job.

“That’s enough Justin,” my mother said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Justin began, “but I know Camellia’s been giving it serious thought.”

“What do you mean?” Leslie asked.

“You think you know her? You know nothing.” Justin looked at me longingly. “I know her. I know how she thinks.” He gave me a mirthless half-smile. “So much like your father. The instant you read that letter, you started thinking of ways to get your parents out of here so they would be hidden and safe. You’ve been wondering if you should go to Aster, like a diversion.” Justin waved his free hand out to the side. “Like, ‘Look over here vampires.’ Then, we sneak off, and you’re dead, hopefully taking down Aster with you. How far off am I?”

“Not very,” I mumbled.

My mother gasped, and my father cursed. I had other ideas in the works, but there was no need to bring them up right now.

“Right, so we’re leaving Florida today.” Justin turned away from Leslie, pulling me wit  him, and my parents turned to follow us.

Leslie suddenly appeared in front of Justin. “You can leave any time you want, but you won’t take Camellia with you.”

“I thought you were all about free will, Wells,” Justin spat at him. “So, is she free or not?”

“Of course she is free to do what she wants, no matter how stupid or dangerous I think it is.”

“So, she can go.”

Justin started to brush past Leslie, and Leslie caught his arm. I thought we looked like a game I had as a child. Try to hook several monkeys by their arms and drop them in a barrel. Look, I got three!

“If that’s what she wants,” Leslie clarified, “even though it’s not what I want.”

“And what do you want?” my father asked, stepping forward into our awkward group. “Let’s be perfectly clear for once.”

“I want to destroy Benoit. I want your family to have peace as far as Aster is concerned, whatever that may mean.” Leslie looked at my father sympathetically. “I want to use my power and position to release humanity from bondage and punish those who would deny you your right to be free.”

“And why is Camellia so important to all this?” Justin barked. “I’ve never understood that.”

“Because I’m Camellia,” I said simply.

“What the hell does that mean?” Justin asked looking even more irritated.

“It means I’m staying.” Though it pained me, I pried my hand free of Justin’s. “Leslie needs me more.”

Finally, I began to understand what he meant. He needed my mind, my abilities. He needed a free human with experience, one with a strong desire to see things through. He needed my leadership and maybe even my celebrity. Now, he needed my friendship.

“This movement needs me, but you,” I looked at my parents and Justin, “should go. You’re my family, and I love you. I want you safe. I want you to consider that you could live out the rest of your lives in safety and comfort. You deserve it, and if I knew that you were, I wouldn’t constantly be worrying over you.”

“You should worry more about yourself,” Justin chastised. “You’re going to end up getting yourself killed, or worse, become one of them.” Leslie’s jaw tensed at the insult.

Selene, her voice heavy, asked, “Is that how you feel about me?” Justin turned to the direction of her voice. We couldn’t see her. “Am I just a monster to you?”

“Selene—”

“You’re breaking my heart, you thoughtless boy.”

She zipped past us, pausing long enough to brush a kiss over Justin’s cheek. Just as quickly, she vanished. I heard a door in the basement bang shut.

“Idiot.” I elbowed him hard in the ribs. “She loves you. She may be a vampire, but she has feelings.”

Justin looked utterly confused, and new grief marred my parents’ faces. I took one of each of their hands and drew them to the side.

“Do this for me,” I begged of them. “Leave Florida.”

“We’re not leaving you,” my father insisted.

“Please.” I pinched my eyes closed and clenched my fists. “I’ll be fine. When this is over, I can come visit you.”

“You’re all we have left,” my mother said.

“I know. I love you both so much.” I hugged and kissed them. “You are good parents, the best. You kept me alive and free until I was twenty-four years old. In this time, who else can say that? Now, it’s my turn to keep me alive.”

For the next half hour, my parents tried to convince me to come with them, and I tried to make them see why I couldn’t. They were getting too old for this—the constant moving and fighting. They were worn out, and they deserved some peace and safety. I wanted that for them so badly, and I told them so. They needed to go just as much as I needed to stay. I wanted to be part of what Leslie was doing. I could help, and it would be easier for me if I knew they were safe and happy.

Finally, after a lot of words, tears, and hugs, they agreed. Leslie offered to arrange for them to live in one of his other homes or in any free state. He assured them that they  would be safe. When Leslie offered his outstretched hand, my father took it.

With a stricken look on his face, he said, “We appreciate your hospitality and your thoughtfulness of our well-being.”

“Let me make a few calls.”

When he started toward the kitchen, my father stopped him. “You better take good care of my daughter, Wells. She is the most precious thing we have.” His words touched me. I’d never heard him speak of me so.

“I couldn’t agree more, and you have my word.” Leslie nodded and continued into the kitchen.

When he was out of sight, I walked back over to Justin. I held his hand. I hated that things were ending this way between us. We had shared five years of our lives.

“You are my closest friend, Justin, so please don’t hate me. If you love me, please go with my parents. Keep them safe for me.”

Justin looked at my parents. “I promised Harold I would stay with you, and I don’t break my promises.” Relief washed over my father’s face. Very gently, Justin pulled me into his arms and hugged me. “You are my best friend, and I’m not going anywhere without you, no matter how hard you push me away. Do you hear me?” He squeezed me tighter before he pulled back to look me in the eyes. His hands came up to cup my face, and he kissed me just as gently.

“Why, Justin? You know you’re only going to hurt yourself more.”

I felt helpless. I didn’t want him to continue to torture himself over me. I had tried everything I could think of to push him away, and yet, he was still there whether I thought I needed him or not.

He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s my problem.”

Over his shoulder, I saw Leslie standing against the end of the only interior wall of the kitchen. A piece of the chair railing crumbled where his hand dug into it, but his calm veneer slid over his face before he rejoined us. Sensing him, Justin released me.

“A car will be here shortly,” he informed my parents. “Pack what you wish, but know that you’ll be provided for regardless. I have houses all over the southeast. Just tell the driver where you want to go. You’ll be welcomed.”

Always polite, always gracious, I thought as I sat on Leslie’s oversized sofa and waited with my parents for the car. My mother cried again, and I felt terrible knowing I was the cause. She and my father had shed enough tears for two or three lifetimes. I wanted them to be with me, but I knew that staying with me put them at a greater risk for injury or death. They needed to go.

Leslie was giving them real freedom. After twenty years of fighting to survive, they deserved some enjoyment and a true retirement. Now that they had a real chance of living free and without fear, they had to take it. I would stay behind and fight to ensure that.

After twenty minutes of hugs, promises, and I-love-you’s, the car arrived, and I saw my parents to it. Instead of feeling like good-bye, it felt more as if I was shoving them out the door. When I went back inside and closed the front door, a door inside me slammed shut.

I wondered if sending my parents away made me a bad child. It didn’t matter; I needed them to go. They would be safe and far enough away from me so that no one could use them to weaken or harm me. Reasoning that way, I made myself feel better about what I was doing.

END CH13 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

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 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.