A Bloody London Sunset (Sunset Vampire #2)

Chapter 2

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It was a late-January Monday afternoon at Robert Fulton Community College in downtown Atlanta. Caleb gazed into the mirror mounted on his office door at a tired-looking face with pale blue eyes and sandy brown hair. He had lost a lot of sleep recently from recurring nightmares, though he was happy that the events of the previous month were behind him.

Stretching his legs in the chair behind his modest desk, he smirked at how his lean, muscular frame fit comfortably in the small pocket office. Only twenty-six years old, he was happy to be the newest history professor in the Social Sciences division. It was his second semester of employment, but he still felt like he had won the lottery at being freshly hired out of graduate school. Given the poor state of economy, perhaps in a manner of speaking he had.

Glass formed one side of his first-floor office, revealing the winter grounds of the campus. While the wind was cold and brisk outside, at least the sunny blue skies made the winter feel somewhat less depressing. Caleb had always enjoyed sunny days, but more and more he longed for night when the ultraviolet radiation was no longer a threat to those about whom he cared dearly.

His life partner, though the official title was "mate," was a tall, red-haired vampire named Katrina Rawlings. At least, that was her name until the time again came to change identities and localities, yet another of the many issues with which eternal beings had to contend. Katrina, whom he had affectionately nicknamed Kat, was the love of his life. A rush of warmth and pride flowed through him merely at the thought of her and of all she meant to him.

He smiled appreciatively, pulling a silver chain from beneath his pressed blue dress shirt, and gazed at the sterling silver heart-shaped pendant engraved with the inscription, Caleb belongs to Kat. He warmly recalled how Katrina had given it to him as a Christmas gift. She had a matching pendant, though inscribed differently. When he had first viewed Katrina's pendant, he had been shocked to see that hers was inscribed with Caleb is mine, which had caused him to gape incredulously as he re-read his pendant's inscription to note the seemingly singular theme of the set. She had laughed while flipping her pendant over, revealing the additional inscription, Kat belongs to Caleb. He chuckled, recalling how much she had appreciated his initial shocked reaction to her little joke. However, he was relieved the pendulum swung both ways.

A knock sounded outside his open office door, and he turned to see a young, dark-haired student. He could not recall the young man's name, but recognized his face as one of his morning history students. Slipping the pendant back inside his shirt, Caleb greeted his visitor with a welcoming smile. He recalled the recent memo from the campus president, Dr. Patrick Beaumont, emphasizing that improved student retention began with a positive, welcoming demeanor from all faculty and staff. While only the second week of the spring semester, the battle had already begun to advise students not to drop out from classes. And the faculty was charged with encouraging their students to that end. The economic conditions in Georgia were especially poor, and the state's colleges were fighting for improved enrollment numbers to justify funding increases.

The student, Tim Dominguez, wanted some advice on how to handle some schedule change requests that involved moving from his morning section to one of Caleb's two evening sections. Caleb momentarily thanked fate that he was teaching both of his evening classes on Tuesday and Thursday night, giving him ample evenings each week to enjoy activities with Katrina. After advising Tim, he leaned forwards in his chair to sort his notes for the next day's classes. He failed to notice the light fading outside as the winter's early sunset approached.

Setting his notes aside, he raised his arms over his head to stretch and yawn. Then his cell phone rang. The caller was a stately mannered, English vampire named Alton Rutherford, who was both a close friend of Katrina's and her former mentor. Alton was not yet someone whom Caleb considered a close friend, but the vampire had earned his respect, admiration, and appreciation for all he had done for them in recent months. Additionally, he was advising Caleb on how to help Katrina through a tough emotional experience following her battle with Chimalma. He felt particularly fortunate to have survived that dangerous adventure in mid-December, just days prior to the Christmas holidays. Alton had been instrumental in helping with that challenge as well.

"Hi, Alton."

"Hello, Caleb. I hope I haven't called at an inopportune time," the vampire countered in his crisp English accent, sounding entirely like a titled nobleman.

Caleb knew virtually nothing about Alton's past, including how old the vampire might be. Alton had never actually indicated he was from royalty or noble birth, though it was not a stretch to think he might be. When they had first met, Caleb had referred to him as Sir Alton, to which the vampire corrected, "Just Alton."

"Caleb?" Alton asked.

Caleb broke from his reverie. "Not at all, Alton," he stammered. "It's always a pleasure to hear from you."

The vampire chuckled. "Very kind of you to say. I'm calling to find out how your recovery is coming along.

Caleb frowned. "I've been doing much better, actually. It's just…"

"Yes?"

"Well, we've been getting along fine. It's just that she's stopped feeding from me for some reason."

Silence.

"Really?"

"After the night she accidently attacked me, she stopped," Caleb explained. His thoughts drifted back to when Katrina had been immersed in a series of aggressive and violent endeavors following the unexpected appearance of Chimalma in their lives last December. He shivered while recalling how he had been savagely bitten by Katrina as she experienced a disturbing nightmare. The resulting pain had been physical and emotional for both of them.

"And sex?" Alton asked.

"Well, that part's okay, actually," Caleb replied with a grin.

"I see. Well, bear in mind that your near-death experience prior to Christmas interrupted our original plans to curtail Katrina's renewed desire for violent activities," Alton explained.

"I've been thinking about that lately," Caleb absently noted as his thoughts drifted to a past conversation. Alton had told him that Katrina previously spent large portions of her life pursuing violent activities, and the desire had been rekindled during their recent trials to stop Chimalma. He had explained that Katrina was an alpha vampire who was innately drawn to participate in violent, aggressive activities, marking her as one of her kind's most dangerous predators. Having seen Katrina's aggressions firsthand, he could only agree wholeheartedly with Alton's assessment.

"Do you recall what I recommended?" the vampire asked.

"Of course," Caleb replied. Alton had devised a two-phase process for him to help Katrina adjust to her violent feelings in a more positive manner. Phase one had been easy for him. It involved encouraging Katrina with less aggressive activities, such as more displays of affection, appreciation, and intimacy. He avoided arguments and confrontations with her and told her how much he needed and appreciated her. That had worked fabulously and was perfectly suited behavior for his peaceable, easy-going personality.

Phase two involved more physically challenging pursuits, and Alton had asked him to adopt an exercise regimen to improve both his muscular and cardio-vascular conditions. However, he had been partially debilitated during his recovery from nearly dying of injuries sustained in the final battle with Chimalma.

"Phase one worked well," Caleb said as he shut the door to his office, preventing his voice from carrying out into the hallway. "In fact, my increased physical workouts haven't raised Katrina's suspicions at all. She associates it with my recovery from last December."

"Excellent," Alton remarked. "Are you ready to begin phase two?"

While Caleb understood that he was expected to engage in hunting-styled activities that Katrina might enjoy as much as the dangerous pursuits from her past, Alton had been rather vague regarding the details.

"Sure, I'm in pretty good shape, actually," he replied, thinking of the improved diet and stamina-building activities that had increased his muscle tone and endurance.

Alton fell silent, but somehow Caleb imagined him smiling at that moment.

"Excellent. Shall we proceed?" Alton baited.

"Um, sure," Caleb replied. "What exactly does that involve again?"

"Think of it as an aggressive form of hide and seek," Alton suggested. "Approach it like a playful form of escape and evade."

Caleb silently nodded his head. "Okay, I can do that. Any suggestions?"

"Certainly," Alton continued. "Find terrain that poses a challenge for her. Preferably somewhere outdoors, such as a forest or national park. After some practice, you can vary the location and setting. Just try to avoid public places where the use of her vampire abilities might be noticed."

Caleb considered that for a moment. "But wouldn't a public place restrict her abilities and make it more challenging for her?"

"Hm," Alton considered. "You have a point."

Then Caleb frowned. "I don't stand a chance without getting a head start," he ventured. "But I could pre-stage somewhere and call her on the phone. I should also give her a time limit because, once her gaze falls upon on me, I'm as good as bagged."

"Also excellent points," Alton agreed. "You're actually better at envisioning this than I gave you credit for, young man."

Caleb beamed at the rare compliment. "Honestly, though, I don't think humans stand much of a chance against pursuing vampires."

"Caleb," Alton mildly chastised, "it's not as if anyone's trying to harm you. This is all for Katrina's amusement. Besides, you may learn to enjoy it over time. And she's bound to be grateful for your efforts. There could be rewards forthcoming you haven't even considered yet."

Caleb slyly smirked at the suggestion. "That's always nice."

"Let me leave you with some final advice," Alton interjected. "Remember that Katrina can see much further than you and in the dark. And since you'll have to do this at night, you'll be at a disadvantage. Most of all, don't try to hide from her; keep moving. She can hear your heartbeat when she's near you. She also has your scent imprinted, so she would locate you immediately if you tried bunkering. As your mate, Katrina has finely tuned and honed her senses to your body's signature."

After momentarily considering those final pieces of advice, he replied, "Thanks so much, Alton. I appreciate the helpful advice, and I'll let you know how it goes."

"Good luck," Alton offered. "Oh, and by the way, I extended an invitation to Katrina for the two of you to come visit me in London during your spring break. I hope you'll decide to take me up on that offer."

"How could I possibly refuse? I'd be honored," Caleb said. "I've never been out of the country before, and I've always wanted to see Europe."

"Excellent," Alton confirmed in a strangely satisfied tone. "I believe you'll find it an interesting experience. Well, I must be going for now. Again, good luck on your new hunting venture. And do call me if you have questions or concerns."

"Thanks, Alton," Caleb said before hanging up. "Nice talking to you."

He leaned back in his chair to mull over ideas regarding his hunting venture with Katrina. Hide and Seek with a vampire?

The minutes passed as he lost track of time, and then lurched suddenly in his chair upon realizing it was getting late. Katrina will be wondering about me.

The drive home to Katrina's estate in Mableton, just outside of Atlanta, took less time than Caleb expected. He grinned while pulling through the regal-looking front security gate to the exclusive Pine Valley addition in his older model Honda. Who would've thought I'd ever live someplace like this?

He proceeded down the central dark road that wound through the remote, heavily wooded area. Each property was at least five or more acres in area, and most of the homes were veritable mansions. Each estate was a reflection of an owner's taste, resulting in diverse styles of architecture. However, most estates sat so far from the street that few were visible without entering the private driveways leading onto each property. In the case of Katrina's estate, which had become his residence in December, a private wrought-iron gate blocked the entrance to the driveway.

After he activated a button on his remote control, the gate swung open, and Caleb proceeded up the lengthy driveway to the four-car garage. He still marveled at how expansive the six thousand square foot manor looked from the driveway. It was a beautiful place to live, sporting all of the modern technological conveniences, including a state-of-the-art security system.

As he pulled into the garage, he glanced to the right to see Katrina's black Audi sports car parked inside. He longed to see her again after a long day at the college. Despite the months that had passed, he remained in awe at having been chosen as her mate. She could have picked any man in the world, but she chose me.

Caleb glanced down for only an instant to place the car in park, but when he looked up again he saw Katrina already standing next to his car. She observed him with an endeared expression as he exited the vehicle, and he smiled brightly at her. He stopped while reaching into the back seat to retrieve his book bag to take in the magnificent vision of his mate. My vampire.

Katrina wore designer jeans and a crew neck sweater. Her long red hair cascaded across her shoulders like a mantle, and the gaze from her deep green eyes seemed to penetrate directly into him.

She's ravishing for someone who's over five hundred years old, he mused as he took a moment to appreciate her nearly six-foot, lean physique, and the way her skin looked almost milky in the light. Though pale skin was a telltale indicator of a vampire, it didn't imply that she was a corpse. Vampires were definitely alive, breathing beings with blood flowing through their veins. Their inhuman characteristics set them aside: the ability to regenerate from wounds, retractable fangs, vast strength, amazing speed, and heightened senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch.

They're amazing, breathtaking, and terrible all at the same time, nature's perfect predator, although their favorite prey is humans.

She gazed at him with a curious expression. "Welcome home, my love. It's getting late, and I was growing concerned that something might have happened to you. Is everything okay?"

"Sorry, Kat. I got distracted doing things at the office. I would've called if something happened."

During the weeks of recovery from his December injuries, she had behaved more protectively around him. However, in recent days, he sensed an added sense of attentiveness from her. Not that I'm complaining, of course. Who wouldn't want to be the center of attention to a loving vampire mate?

He walked around the car to her and glanced down to realize that, despite the cold concrete floor, she was barefoot. "Let's get those cold feet back inside."

She giggled in a charming fashion. "Silly boy, I'm nearly immune to extreme temperatures."

"My vampire superhero," he quipped. Being a couple inches shorter than she, he tilted his head up to kiss her soft lips warmly.

"Are you hungry?" she asked as they made their way through the garage and into the house.

He noted a sly smile on her face. "Actually, yeah," he replied as the scent of fresh-cooked food wafted from the kitchen. It smelled like sausage, eggs, and hash browns. That's strange, he thought. I'm the only person in the house who eats food. Not that vampires couldn't consume human food, of course. They merely didn't need anything except blood for sustenance to survive. As he walked into the kitchen from the small hallway leading from the garage, he saw those very items on the stovetop.

"You cooked those?" he asked as Katrina appeared at the stove in a blur and began serving up everything onto a large plate.

She pulled a tray of biscuits from the oven, slipped two onto the plate, and placed the food on the kitchen counter before one of the barstools.

"Guess what?" she asked in a giddy manner that was completely out of character for her. "I've been watching some cable cooking shows over and over on the DVR, and I think I've managed to make breakfast!"

He dropped his book bag to the floor with a thump and alternated stares between the plate and Katrina in amazement as she retrieved a glass of ice water for him and placed it next to his plate.

Katrina cooking, he mused. Is this the Twilight Zone or the apocalypse? "Wow," he said.

She continued smiling and ushered him to the counter to sit down. "Go ahead," she urged excitedly. "Give it a try and tell me what you think. I know it's evening and supper time, but I couldn't wait for you to try everything."

As he picked up the fork lying next to the plate, he glanced up at her with a smirk and teased, "What have you done with my normally somber vampire?"

Her smile faded, and she adopted a predatory expression. "Eat, my love, while you still can," she offered grimly.

His smirk transformed into an evil grin. "Now that's my lethal lover."

Caleb tried each of the items and was astounded by the taste. Truth be told, she nailed these perfectly.

"These are terrific, Kat. Honestly, this is wonderful. I appreciate it, and not just because I'm hungry."

Her former smile returned, and she propped her chin on one hand while leaning on the counter next to him. "Thank you," she cheerfully replied. "I wanted to do something nice for you. Cooking is a little offering of myself that I can give to you. I haven't cooked in centuries."

His eyebrows rose. "You never tried cooking for your previous mates?"

"Nope. You're the first since my human husband, Samuel," she replied with an endeared expression.

Caleb beamed with pride at that, given how important Samuel had been in her life. She hasn't cooked since the early 1500s then, he realized.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an overly stuffed large plastic trash bag sitting on the floor. He frowned, recalling that he had taken the trash out that morning before heading to work.

"So," he carefully ventured, "did you have to practice much?"

Katrina's eyes darted to the trash bag still sitting nearby and innocently looked back at him. "Not so much, I suppose," she said. "Although I might have made a couple of orders to the grocery store on more than one occasion."

Thanks to online grocers, he mused. Last December when she had sequestered him in the house to protect him from Chimalma, she had located an Atlanta-based grocery chain that offered online ordering and delivery.

"I see," he said with a smirk as he continued eating.

"I'm just going to take the trash out, and I'll be back," she said.

"I thought I took the trash out this morning?" he asked after swallowing a forkful of eggs.

"Oh, hush," she mildly chastised as she walked out to the garage.

He smiled while continuing to eat.

She returned in seconds and washed her hands at the kitchen sink. "Alton called today," she mentioned as she dried her hands on a towel. "He invited us to London when you go on spring break in March."

"Yeah, he called me earlier about that, as well," Caleb admitted. "It sounds like fun."

Her eyes narrowed. "Really? Did he mention anything else?"

"Not so much," he replied elusively. "Except to ask how I was recovering. He wanted to make sure I'd been rehabbing well from my injuries."

She nodded, though her gaze was penetrating as she observed his reply.

Caleb knew why. Vampires had an uncanny ability to sense lying and deception in the human condition by monitoring heartbeat, pulse, eye reaction, and muscle tension. They were amazing lie detectors in an eerie way. Fortunately, everything he said was true. I wouldn't try to lie overtly about anything important. Trust was vital in a relationship, more so when your mate was a powerful vampire.

"You've been exercising quite a bit recently," she observed. "Your dedication is impressive, and your muscle tone is better now than before your injuries."

His eyebrows rose slightly as he realized very little got past her. "You noticed?"

She confirmed in a seductive manner, "You're always a subject of focused study for me, my love."

He shivered slightly, and his eyes darted fleetingly to her as he chewed his food. Katrina had a way of unnerving him slightly when she wanted to, but always in a manner that he found both mysterious and pleasurable. It's a remarkable quality, he conceded.

She walked behind him to caress her fingernails playfully down the back of his neck. A tingling sensation rippled across his skin, and she kissed him softly on the back of the neck. Then she silently exited the kitchen and walked deeper into the house.

"I'll be in the sublevel room, my love," she said. "I'll start making our travel arrangements for the trip to England."

"You mean you're going to the lair?" he teased.

He had playfully coined the phrase to describe the large room that was at one time an oversized basement, but had since been converted into a mini-apartment. There were no windows, and Katrina had added a full bathroom and walk-in closet. Other additions included a wet bar, a wall-mounted LCD television with a surround sound system set before a large couch, two desks, a king-sized bed, and other bedroom furnishings. The centerpiece arrangement was an oversized computer hutch containing her vast array of computer equipment and the controller for the estate's security system. If Katrina had been a superhero, the sublevel room would be her secret hideout. It did have an obscure entrance in the form of a hidden panel door leading from the main hallway, appearing as nothing more than a section of the wood paneling lining the hall.

Katrina stopped in the hallway and turned to stare at him. "Maybe we should start calling it our chamber," she suggested with an edge to her voice.

"That works, if you prefer," he said agreeably before lifting a forkful of food to his mouth. For reasons beyond his understanding, she didn't care for the nickname he had selected.

"When you're finished, please change into something casual," she advised. "We're going out tonight."

"Will do," he acknowledged.

After he finished eating, he cleaned up the kitchen and washed the few dirty dishes and pans. He proceeded to their chamber and changed into a pair of khakis, but kept his blue dress shirt on. He appreciated how gracious Katrina had been to allocate space in a chest of drawers and the walk-in closet for his clothes and belongings when he had moved in with her. Fortunately, his former apartment had been small, so there were relatively few clothes and belongings he needed to move into her estate. And though he still had trouble considering it his home, he enjoyed living there with her.

Maybe if she'd let me pay part of the bills, I'd feel better about it, he mused while brushing his teeth.

Katrina appeared behind him, which startled him, much to her amusement. He shook his head and rolled his eyes to the ceiling as he finished brushing.

"Surprise," she offered with a smirk.

He admired her reflection in the mirror. She had changed into black slacks and a turquoise turtleneck cashmere sweater. Her hair was tied back in a single ponytail, accented with a sterling silver clasp.

"You look great," he observed after rinsing.

She grinned appreciatively. "Thank you. About ready?"

They made their way to the garage, and Katrina pulled the keys to the Audi from her small purse.

"May I drive?" he asked tentatively. "Please?" he added with a hopeful smile.

She cast an amused glance at him, knowing that he loved driving her car. Happy to indulge him, she tossed the keys to him. Ever the gentleman, he held the door for her and smirked on his way around to the driver's side.

He drove contentedly to the nearby highway, but then realized that he didn't know where they were going. Katrina interpreted his frown and curious sidelong glance.

"The chauffeur can proceed to the High Museum of Art, midtown just off of Peachtree Street," she offered with a smirk.

He nodded and replied in his best mock-English accent, "Thank you, miss. We're on our way."

After a short time on the highway, something occurred to him.

"Hey, isn't the museum normally closed on Mondays?"

She smiled. "Not tonight. They're promoting a new exhibit that started last week. It's a special traveling gallery of select eighteenth century artwork."

He arched one eyebrow. "Sounds intriguing."

After locating a downtown parking garage, they held hands on the walk to the museum. The High Museum of Art was actually a grouping of three primary buildings. As one of the premiere museums in the country, it was a key hub for special exhibits. There were over three hundred thousand square feet of space in the multi-storied buildings. Each was styled in an appealing mixture of angles and curves, while making excellent use of glass panes along portions of the exterior for a thoroughly twenty-first century appearance.

After they made their way into the main building, Caleb scanned the interior while paying for their entrance fees. The museum seemed well attended, but not overly crowded, for which he was thankful so as not to feel rushed while viewing the exhibits. The museum's interior was bright and open, sporting multiple tiers of curved walkways bridging each floor.

They made their way leisurely to the newest exhibit area and browsed the collection. They stopped at a particularly striking landscape painting called "Gainsborough's Forest," also titled "Cornard Wood." It was labeled circa 1748 and credited to the English landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough. It depicted people performing daily activities among a hilly and tree-strewn terrain accented by a nearby stream and pond. One worker gathered branches into a bundle, while two others appeared to be working beside a dirt road as another man observed them.

Caleb stared at the painting at length and then looked at Katrina, who was appreciating another work hanging a few feet away. He contemplated that she had been a vampire at the time of the painting, which seemed utterly surreal to him. Ever since the past December when she had revealed that her human birth was in 1506, he had struggled to wrap his mind around the idea that she had experienced over five hundred years of human history. It's astonishing, he mused while staring at her.

Her eyes darted to look at him and noted his penetrating gaze. She smirked, moved to stand beside him, and snaked her left arm loosely around his waist. "You're staring at me with that look again," she whispered in his ear with amusement.

"What look?" he whispered, once again staring at the painting.

"You know what look," she challenged while tightening her grip around his waist. "That faraway, doe-eyed expression that says, 'I can't believe she's that old.'"

He blushed over how well she had been able to read his expression. He had marveled at that alarmingly accurate ability since their initial courtship the past fall. "Well, maybe a little," he conceded. "It's just amazing, that's all."

She sighed and confessed, "I realize it's a lot for a human mind to comprehend, given your limited life span."

"Was it really like that in the 1700s?" he asked while staring at the painting.

She considered the painting silently. "Well, yes, actually. Everyday life for the average person was rather mundane, mixed with toil and struggle and interspersed with occasional moments of celebration or some personal noteworthy accomplishment."

"Do you ever miss anything about those times?" he asked, looking around to ensure that nobody was close enough to overhear their conversation.

She considered his question at length. Finally, she replied, "For the most part, no. Technology makes things so much easier for vampires. However, I miss the formal gowns and dresses, as well as some of the lavish balls and parties. Everyone is so casual in this day and age. People rarely dress formally anymore."

He nodded as she gently steered him towards another painting.

She whispered in his ear, "Of course, during those days I would've been preoccupied with my next hunting experiences, so I attended very few formal events. Blood banks didn't exist yet, and I spent a lot of time planning to secure my meals clandestinely. I had to be discreet at formal events because people grew suspicious if someone abruptly disappeared from the party. As is much the case today, the poor and working class took the brunt of the average vampire's focus."

Caleb contemplated that and asked, "Did you normally kill your prey?"

Katrina pulled him close to her and bent down slightly to place her lips against his ear. "I killed animals and humans alike. But often I tried to get a person plied with enough liquor so they would pass out. Then I could have my meal, leaving them with nothing more than a sense of lightheadedness after they woke. That was particularly useful if I selected someone from the formal events we just spoke of. It could all be attributed to their overindulgence of spirits. Then perhaps I could revisit a previous target for future consumption. By rotating around to various people, my meal sources lasted longer. And using my saliva to heal fang wounds made the feeding process inconspicuous as well."

Though being a firsthand beneficiary of such ability, Caleb nevertheless shivered upon considering the leechlike behavior that vampires engaged in while feeding. However, given the tender manner with which Katrina always treated him during feedings, it wasn't as if he was complaining. Of course, that's before she stopped feeding on me altogether, he reflected morosely.

She frowned after noticing his sudden physical tremor and glanced down at him. She placed her lips to his check and kissed him for a moment longer than a simple kiss would have lasted.

He appreciated the comforting feeling of her soft lips and turned to press his own against hers before she pulled away from him.

She used her arm, still wound around his waist, to lead him towards a small secluded alcove nearby. He thought she was guiding him to another painting, but when he glanced up at her, he noted her gaze was focused upon him fully.

In the alcove, she turned her body away from the main gallery and pulled his body close to hers. Her lips pressed against his, and he gratefully and passionately kissed her in response. As her left arm encircled his waist, her right hand cupped the back of his neck, and she kissed him in a slow, deep manner.

He felt completely mesmerized as his pulse increased dramatically. It was a feeling he never tired of and one he greedily wished would never end. But in a matter of moments, she withdrew her lips from his. He elevated himself up on the balls of his feet to pursue her, but she tightened the grip on the back of his neck to hold him in place, though without causing him any pain or discomfort.

"I want to kiss you some more," he whispered in an almost pleading fashion, causing him to blush slightly from the admission.

She smiled slyly and promised, "Oh, I realize that, and I'll accommodate your wish very soon, my love. But first, we need to take advantage of this rare artistic opportunity."

"Sorry, Kat," he apologized.

Her emerald eyes locked onto his pale blue ones with sudden intensity, and she reassured him, "You never have to apologize for that. It makes my heart soar that you feel that way."

"I love you so much," he whispered fervently, "More than anyone or anything."

The insistence in his voice spoke volumes, which pleased her. "And I you, my love."

She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to scan the area and turned back to him to bend down and kiss him warmly on the lips for a few brief seconds. At the last moment, she drew her breath in sharply as their lips sealed against one another, and he felt a momentary dizziness wash over him as his breath was abruptly pulled from his lungs.

I just love doing that to him.

Their lips parted, and she held his waist firmly to steady his balance. She slowly led them from the alcove, noting a dapper museum aide walking towards their location. Seeing them departing, the aide stopped and diverted to another direction once they began moving towards other paintings.

Attentive staff, Katrina mused with a smirk.

They enjoyed browsing through the remaining exhibits and periodically paused to discuss appealing aspects of various pieces. As the mood struck him, Caleb took the opportunity to ask additional historical information related to the eighteenth century and was intrigued how Katrina seamlessly elaborated upon or validated a painting's depictions as historically accurate. It seemed as if he were accompanied by his own historical accuracy meter. In turn, she reveled in both his pronounced interest and rapt attention, and they both thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

The crowds thinned to the point that the gallery seemed nearly deserted by the time they left the museum. They held hands during the brief walk from the museum grounds to the parking garage. Once again, Katrina permitted him the satisfaction of driving them home in the Audi. Halfway home, he smiled while recalling the occasion when he had asked why she typically wanted to drive.

"It's not a reflection on my confidence in your driving skills," she had assured him. "It's merely that vampires have quicker reaction times, which is safer for both of us."

He had wisely conceded the logic of her argument. However, it didn't stop him from asking for the keys from time to time.

Upon arriving at the estate, they had no sooner exited the car and walked into the house, when Katrina tugged on Caleb's left arm from behind. She spun him around to face her and noted that his eyes had widened with surprise. As she adopted a sly smile, a wave of passion crashed over her, and she sought his lips aggressively.

She pressed her body to his, forcing him backwards into the dark hallway behind him. Her hand quickly cupped the base of his head to prevent it from smacking the wall, and she kissed him with passion. His arms reached out to encircle her waist as she wrapped her free arm around the small of his back.

He responded eagerly to her passionate kisses and felt her silky tongue press its way into his mouth. Their tongues met as they continued to kiss deeply. A longing grew in each of them, though hers was torn between both the desire for sex and the craving for his blood.

It had been weeks since she had taken his blood, an episode she recalled ruefully and all too well. It had been the second night following her and Alton's return from battling Chimalma. Her reunion with Caleb went seamlessly, and she had felt as if their lives were returning to normal again. However, while sleeping beside him, she had a horrible nightmare in which she had been attacked by assailants. Then one assailant transformed into the visage of Chimalma. In her dream, Katrina attacked Chimalma by sinking her fangs into her. But the real nightmare began when she tasted Caleb's blood in her mouth and awoke to hear him screaming in the darkness next to her. She had unconsciously bitten into his upper shoulder, and blood had streamed from the gouges formed as he had tried to dislodge her fangs by lurching away from her. One of the gouges had been so severe that he still retained a small, faint mark on his upper left shoulder, despite the healing power of her saliva.

Since that horrible, fateful night, Katrina vowed not to take blood from him. Instead, she had shared and displayed her love and intimacy with him in the traditional human manner of sexual coupling. In fact, she had not slept beside him until just a couple of weeks ago, though she had often lain awake in bed beside him to share at least in the intimacy of being next to him while he slumbered. Her sleep was attended to via naps taken during the day and always when he wasn't beside her merely to avoid any accidental recurrences of nightmare-induced attacks.

However, that evening, sleep was the last thing on Caleb's mind. His desire grew rapidly as they kissed lustfully in the hallway. His breathing and pulse were both elevated significantly, a fact not unnoticed by his red-haired mate. She used a proportional amount of strength with her arm around the small of his back to press him in the direction of the mostly dark living room, where the only available light emanated from the glow of the exterior eaves' lights through the sheer curtains. He eagerly complied as they kissed, not paying attention to the path they took, but instead concentrating on the amorous application of his lips to hers.

Katrina giggled, interjecting a pause in their kissing, and Caleb felt a faint smile form on her lips. The moment they were sharing felt comfortably familiar to her. She instantly recalled the first time she had kissed him in the front entry room, not far from where she had herded him through the kitchen.

"What?" he whispered with confusion.

"The first night we made love," she prompted. "Remember?"

He rolled his eyes and smirked, easily recollecting that night. He had been so nervous, having deliberated for days following the abrupt revelation to him of her true vampire nature. He recalled that night, marking his first experience when she drank his blood. It had been both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. But in the end, he had felt bonded to her in a far more special manner than he had with any other person. Most of all, it had made him feel special and desired. How could I forget?

"I remember," he recalled. "The first time we made love. And the first time you drank from me."

"I knew then you were the one for me," she whispered before kissing him warmly.

Caleb's smirk faded as the realization resurfaced that his lover had not taken blood from him in over a month. It was something he had been hesitant to bring up, not sure how sensitive a topic it was for her. He was already aware of how guilty she felt following the accidental attack on him that December evening. He had long since forgiven her, particularly after Alton had helped him understand the difficult truth about her aggressive nature, the unfortunate catalyst for the attack. Still, he was encouraged that she was once again sleeping beside him, and there had been no recurring accidental attacks thus far.

With sudden resolve, he withdrew his arms from around her waist. Katrina looked down at him quizzically as he unbuttoned his shirt. She took her arms from around his body as she watched him in the dim light of the room. He removed his shirt and t-shirt, revealing his toned, muscular chest adorned only by his sterling silver pendant and chain.

He reached down and pulled his shoes and socks from his feet, never breaking his penetrating gaze into her eyes, which were glowing like miniature beacons. He hesitated, recognizing that her glowing eyes likely indicated either lust for sex, hunger for blood, or a combination. His slacks dropped to the floor, and he stepped from them wearing only underwear. Reaching up to his chest, he took the heart-shaped sterling silver pendant between his thumb and forefinger and lifted the pendant up towards her.

"What does this say?" he asked boldly.

She arched one eyebrow, not needing to look at the pendant to recall its inscription. She had carefully crafted both their pendants' inscriptions.

"Caleb belongs to Katrina," she stated possessively.

He stood, suspending the pendant proudly before her. "What does that mean?"

She smirked and answered in a firm, passionate tone, "It signifies our mutual commitment. You belong to me. You're my mate. You are mine."

He beamed with satisfaction even as a slight tremor ran through his body from the possessive tone in her voice. It excited him and made him feel very wanted and loved. It was an aspect to her assertive nature that never failed to captivate him.

"What specifically belongs to you?" he insisted.

"Your love."

"And?"

"Your body," she added.

"And?" he pressed.

"Your blood," she stated emphatically.

He nodded his head slowly and demanded, "Then take it. Take my blood, Kat."

Her eyes flashed brightly for a moment as the desire for his blood soared. Her ever-present thirst wanted to unleash itself, but she constantly strove to control it, bending it to her will. As an alpha vampire, control was one of her requisite skills. But the memory of her nightmare-induced attack on him replayed in her mind, and she frowned. I can't risk hurting him again.

He noted her consternation and anticipated the nature of her thoughts. "Don't you want my blood?" he asked.

"Of course I do," she reassured him, and she bent towards him, seeking a kiss.

But he backed away from her, dropping the pendant against his bare chest, and challenged, "Are you going to drink from me?"

"Caleb, please," she murmured while reaching out to him.

"There's a special bond we share when you take my blood," he continued. "Now it's missing, and I want it back for both of us."

She regarded him with a frown while contemplating his earnest appeal. She had never wanted to make him feel undesired, unloved, or unwanted. And she certainly felt the desire for his blood at that moment, despite having consumed a packet of blood from the basement refrigerator that afternoon.

"You're the love of my life, Kat," he explained affectionately. "But I won't demand that you take what you no longer want."

He turned away from her as she stared down upon the man she loved even more than her own life. She swallowed hard and came to an immediate decision. While stepping behind him, she wrapped her left arm around his lean waist. Her grip tightened around him as she reached up from behind with her right hand and firmly grasped his chin between her fingers. Using gentle but deliberate pressure, she tilted his head up and firmly placed her lips against the supple skin of his neck.

Caleb breathed in sharply as his pulse increased, and she smiled into his neck while slowly, passionately kissing near his jugular vein. His hands grasped her arm tentatively as it tightened around his waist. His body was guided backwards as she pulled him against her, his head lolling back against her left shoulder. Her body's warmth felt soothing against his bare skin.

As she continued to kiss his neck, she intermittently nipped his skin with her teeth in a teasing fashion, appreciating the sharp intake of breath that it evoked from him. She pressed her tongue against his neck as her lips sealed against his skin, waiting for the effect of her saliva to take full effect.

He felt her silky tongue press against his neck, followed by the progressively soothing, numbing sensation that spread around the area where her tongue and mouth concentrated. He reveled in the sensation, decrying its absence, and momentarily wondered if she intended to drink from him while standing, which would be a first. Caleb recalled the fleeting, distant feeling that assailed him as she fed, and his muscles tightened as he wondered if he'd be able to stand ably enough.

As if reading his thoughts, though more accurately sensing his body language, Katrina drew him towards the nearby couch as her mouth remained sealed over his neck.

Relaxing his body in her grip, he allowed her to lay him down onto the couch cushions. He stared into the fabric of her sweater as she knelt beside his prone form. The numbing sensation increased until he scarcely felt her tongue against his skin.

She parted her lips long enough to whisper, "Freeze."

It was the signal, and he remained perfectly still. He felt a slight pinprick against his neck as her fangs pierced his skin. Her mouth sealed against his neck, and he heard the telltale, subdued slurping sounds as she drew his blood. He closed his eyes and let his mind and body drift across a sea of soothing darkness, accented only by the sounds of his breathing and the faint noises she generated from her consumption. A warm feeling of serenity and compassion flowed through him as she took communion of his blood. Her left hand lay flat against his bare chest, pressing his pendant between her hand and his skin. The fingertips of her right hand gently massaged his scalp as she ran her fingers through his hair. He grinned, reveling in the waves of ecstasy and pleasure as they washed over him.

Finally, he thought.

Time held little meaning to him as he lay with his lover's body draped across him. The darkened room merely added to the lofty sensation of peacefully hovering in nothingness.

After a time, she ceased drinking and pressed her tongue against his skin to heal the punctures in his neck. The renewed numbness signaled the end of his soothing journey, and he almost regretted its passing. However, he knew that if it never ended, it was only a matter of time before his body's functioning ceased from blood loss. He wasn't ready to depart the world so long as Katrina was still part of it. Then, as if on cue, she kissed his neck affectionately and moved to kiss his lips in similar fashion.

"My love, who so willingly submits himself to me," she whispered with ardor.

Images from the past December replayed in her mind. Caleb had slit his own throat to enable his blood to save her as she lay dying on the dining room floor. The truly selfless nature of sacrificing his life for hers touched her in a beautiful and profound manner, which shook her to the very core of her being. No human had voluntarily surrendered such a thing to her. And quite frankly, she had doubted such a selfless human even existed until then. His near-fatal sacrifice eliminated any doubts of his devotion and commitment to her.

And if not for Paige, I'd not have him today, she mused. Paige Turner, her best friend and former pupil, had used her vampire blood to save Caleb's life. Yet another debt I can never fully repay.

Her head rested against Caleb's chest, and she kissed him. Her taste buds savored the lingering flavor of his sweet blood as she listened to his strong heartbeat, as well as the rush of blood flowing through his veins. It was the music of his body and a beautiful symphony to her ears.

"I'm a lucky woman," she whispered, caressing his chest with her fingernails. He was the only being who had such a hold on her heart and soul. For all of her strength, determination, aggression, and power, she was like a fragile rose before his needs and desires. It was a vulnerable feeling and one that as an alpha vampire she wasn't accustomed to. And yet she embraced it deeply within herself and held onto it as if it were the very source of her life force. However, she knew such feelings needed to be tempered properly and revealed to him only in appropriate apportionment.

After all, it's in an alpha vampire's nature, she mused as she once more kissed his chest. My nature, she added.

"Did I taste different given last month's blood transfusion?" he asked.

She didn't want to dwell on that line of thought at such an enjoyable moment and instead offered in a satisfied voice, "Oh, no. You tasted as sweet as always, my love."

He made a contented sound and whispered, "I'm glad."

After a few minutes, she felt his hand creep underneath her sweater. His fingertips softly massaged her bra-covered breast, and she giggled. She rose up slightly and slipped her sweater off. Her pale skin shimmered in an unearthly manner in the dimly lit room as his eyes played across her body.

"My loving vampire," he whispered possessively as he reached out to pull her hand to his lips. He kissed her open palm reverently.

Katrina smiled at the endearing reference and at the tone in which he made it. "Always, my love," she replied.

His hand traced her shoulders then slipped back to her breasts.

She gazed down at him, sensing his new yearning. As she slipped from her bra, her breasts gently suspended before him. "Do you want me here?" she asked.

His eyes were intense as he gazed into her eyes. "Yes," he whispered.

"As you wish," she agreed, moving in an almost feline fashion while removing her boots and the remainder of her clothing. Her attentions returned to him as she deftly slid his briefs down the length of his muscular legs. She gazed appreciatively at his nude, masculine form with approval while pulling him from the couch and onto the floor with her. Then time stood still.

Tuesday passed quickly for Caleb despite the fact that Tuesdays and Thursdays were his extended days that semester, having both daytime and evening classes, as well as office hours during the late afternoon. Nevertheless, he was grateful when Wednesday arrived. He had special evening plans in store for Katrina. It was time for phase two of his and Alton's plan to spring into action.

Caleb had stowed a pair of faded blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and hiking boots in his car's trunk that morning before Katrina noticed what he was doing. That afternoon, while still at the college, he changed clothes and prepared for a new challenge that he intended to call Find Caleb. He was filled with anticipation as he cleaned off his desk and snapped the lid of his briefcase shut. Thankful for his thick sweatshirt, he hurried out to his car as evening approached. It was cloudy, windy, and somewhat cold that day, but fortunately wasn't raining.

He returned to the estate just as darkness fell, but instead of entering the garage, he parked his car in the driveway. After reconsidering the weather, he left his leather jacket in the car, but slipped on a pair of leather gloves.

Just in case Katrina viewed the house's surveillance system, he walked back down the driveway and out the main gate before heading into a large wooded area adjacent to the estate. The undeveloped area was native forest slated for future development among the large acreage of the addition. He smirked while reflecting upon how perfect the grounds were for his new game.

The night was dark with no moon, and he was pleased he'd brought a flashlight. However, he quickly realized that once he called Katrina, the light would immediately alert her keen vision to his location. He sighed, conceding there were so many considerations that had eluded him as he prepared for the event.

Well, I suppose with practice comes proficiency.

The forest was eerily quiet, save for the sounds of tree branches clacking against one another and the rustling of dry leaves. After negotiating to the middle of the forest, he selected a couple of possible routes of egress in the event…no, rather, for when Katrina located his position. He wondered how much time he should give her to find him and frowned as he tried to gauge how far and fast she could move.

"Easy. Just time a lightning strike," he muttered.

He made a mental calculation and removed a glove so he could retrieve his cell phone. He auto-dialed Katrina; the phone rang merely twice before she picked up.

"Caleb?" she asked guardedly. "Where are you? I noticed your car is already in the driveway."

He hadn't meant to concern her and quickly replied, "Sorry, Kat. I was preparing a special event for you and didn't want to spoil the surprise."

There was a silent pause at the other end before she asked warily, "What kind of surprise, my love?"

He knew that she wasn't keen on surprises; a key aspect of alpha vampires was that they liked to be in control. He rolled his eyes heavenward at the gross understatement of that particular thought and hoped she would be pleased in the end once she understood what he had planned.

"How would you like to play a game with me tonight?" he asked playfully.

Another pause.

"Game? What kind of game?"

"It's called Find Caleb," he replied with a smirk. "It's simple. All you have to do is find me, and catch me, before the timer on my watch goes off."

Another pause.

"You'd better not be doing something dangerous, or I'm going to be upset."

He winced at her admonishment and sensed her protective nature kicking into high gear. Upsetting her was the last thing he wanted, because vampires weren't particularly pleasant to be around when they were angry.

"No, really. I thought this out already, and it's perfectly safe," he reassured her. "This is just playtime for adults, that's all."

Silence.

"Perhaps," she hedged in a milder tone. "Tell me more, I suppose."

"Okay. I'm somewhere outside, not far from the estate. You just need to come looking for me. But you have to tag me before the time limit expires."

"Hm," she replied. "Sounds intriguing. What do I win if I beat the time limit?"

He was perplexed, not having anticipated the need for prizes. But then inspiration struck, and he smiled. "Tonight, the prize is a foot massage," he declared proudly.

"Both feet?" she teased.

He adopted a bland expression and replied flatly, "Yes, both feet."

"Ankles too?" she pressed as she resumed typing on her computer keyboard.

She sure enjoys spending time on her computer. He sighed and agreed, "Okay, ankles too."

He shook his head over the bargaining required just to get a vampire to chase him around the woods. Just wait until I tell Alton about this.

"Okay," she agreed. "When does this start, and how much time do I get?"

"Let's say a ten minute time limit, which starts as soon as I hang up the phone," he ventured.

He heard her chuckle.

"I'll be seeing you very soon, my love."

The line went dead, and he realized with a smirk that she had been the one to hang up the phone to initiate the game. That whole alpha control thing, he mused. He also found her overt sense of confidence somewhat unnerving and wondered just what kind of game Alton had signed him up for.

Caleb put his phone away and slipped his glove back on. He waited, listening to the sound of the wind rustling through the trees around him. The dry branches clicked against one another in a cacophony, and he strained to listen for the sound of crunching leaves that might indicate she was nearby.

Katrina hung up the phone, clicked the mouse to close her browser, and replaced her slippers with running shoes. She considered her jeans and long-sleeved knit shirt in the mirror, ultimately deciding they were perfectly fine for her endeavor.

She grabbed her house key and hurried to the front door. After setting the alarm, she pulled the door closed behind her and took a moment to take in the cold, crisp night air. It's a beautiful night.

She walked to Caleb's car and paused beside it while smelling the night air, categorizing its scents. Cocking her head to one side, she listened for telltale noises. She walked to the side gate serving as her property's access to the adjacent neighborhood park and paused while smelling near the gate handle, but failed to detect Caleb's scent.

Frowning, she considered other avenues of egress. The only other reasonable place was the driveway gate, and she raced over to it. Instead of using the gate code, she effortlessly leapt over the wrought iron structure. After landing on the other side with catlike reflexes, she sniffed the air for his scent. However, given the blowing wind and the intelligence of her mate, she anticipated he would be somewhere downwind of her. She listened again for any sounds that might give him away and darted around the area in the fast-moving pace of which only vampires were capable. However, she was careful to be wary of approaching cars or other humans that might be nearby.

She spent almost six minutes moving in a circular pattern hoping for a quick hit on his location before appreciating how challenging her mate's impromptu game was proving to be. Then she paused in the woods, not far from the neighborhood park, and caught a whiff of Caleb's scent. Listening to the rhythm of nature's sounds, she separated them out individually.

Her hearing filtered out the wind, the tree branches hitting against each other, the rustling of leaves, and the flap of an owl's wings as it flew overhead. Abruptly, she picked out the unusual sound of other movement nearby. Something or someone was rustling leaves while moving among the trees less than fifty yards from her. She heard the sound of a man's voice quietly chuckling and knew immediately it was Caleb. She glanced at her watch to note how much time she had left and stealthily moved towards her target.

Caleb stood amidst the trees, feeling relatively confident that Katrina was going to run out of time. He quietly and deliberately moved through the woods to ensure he didn't bunker down in one location as Alton had cautioned. Yet he tried to keep noise to a minimum, as well as to stay downwind from the estate to keep his scent from carrying on the breeze.

Glancing down at his watch while activating the glow button, he registered that Katrina had only two more minutes left to locate him. He quietly chuckled, pleased that the first occasion of his new game with her was going so well. He started to relocate to a new position when he heard a strange clicking noise, much like the sound of a clock ticking. He tilted his head to one side and tried to listen closer, but the sound stopped.

"Found you," Katrina's voice cooed in a lilting, teasing tone.

A shiver went up his spine, and he glanced over his shoulder to look behind him with a wide-eyed expression. She stood not thirty feet away with her hands on her hips, staring at him with a sly expression. She opened her mouth slightly and clicked her tongue against her teeth to generate the noise that sounded like a ticking clock.

He bolted away from her as fast as his legs could carry him, not daring to take the time to glance at his watch, and instead concentrated on navigating through the dense trees in as speedy a fashion as possible. If only he could expend just a little more time, maybe the timer would go off before she tagged him.

He hadn't run more than fifty feet before he felt two arms wrap around him like a steel vice, pinning his arms down to his sides.

"Got you!" Katrina exclaimed.

A second later, Caleb's watch emitted a beeping alarm indicating that time had expired.

She stood with him in her arms, effortlessly lifting him above the ground a few inches, and began walking away with him. His legs swayed back and forth slightly as if she were carrying away an over-sized ragdoll.

"What are you doing?" he demanded with exasperation.

"I'm taking my foot massage trophy home now," she said with an uncustomary giggle.

"Oh, brother," he moaned.

She kissed him on the cheek. "That was fun. I like playing Find Caleb."

He sighed as she hauled him before her, muttering, "Just great."

She giggled and kissed him on the cheek again for good measure.

On Thursday afternoon, Caleb sat in his office chatting on the phone with Alton to fill him in on the results of his first Find Caleb experience. The vampire was particularly amused, occasionally chuckling as Caleb recounted the event. Alton conceded that Katrina had already spoken with him earlier in the day, but said that he appreciated hearing an alternate perspective of the experience.

"You were very successful, dear boy," he said. "Katrina was quite complimentary regarding your performance, and it seemed to provide her with an enjoyable diversion. We appear to have found a viable outlet for her hunting need. Now simply vary the venue, as well as the prospective rewards."

Caleb blushed. "Heard about the reward, eh? I hadn't anticipated the need for one, actually."

Alton chuckled again. "Well, it seems you have an alternate career option as a masseur."

Caleb groaned.

Then the stately vampire's tone turned serious. "But really, Caleb, please continue with that regimen, and I believe we can consider the matter successful."

"Thanks for your help, Alton. Oh, and I intend to up the stakes a little by moving my next attempt to someplace more scenic, and hopefully more challenging, for her."

"That sounds fine, young man. Somehow, I anticipated that you might take to this easier than you first expected."

Caleb paused, thinking he heard operatic music in the background.

"Are you at a concert?"

"Actually, the opera," Alton replied. "It's Paisiello's Fedra. The intermission's just ending."

Caleb promised to keep Alton informed of his success, and they exchanged hasty goodbyes. Flipping the lid of his cell phone shut, he momentarily marveled at how natural his communications with the English vampire had become. Barely a year ago he would have considered the very notion of the existence of vampires to be outlandish. However, he had come to embrace not only their existence, but their social importance in his life. He had a vampire mate, a vampire guardian and best friend, and a vampire cultural advisor.

A light knock sounded at his door, breaking his reverie, and he opened it to reveal a friendly acquaintance. Dr. Tanisha Browning was a Professor of Women's History at the college and was just two offices down. She was a petite African American in her early thirties, renowned as one of the most dapperly dressed professors in the Social Sciences Department. Caleb had formed an immediate respect for the impressive lady. She was intelligent, insightful, and very successful in both her academic and personal endeavors. Dr. Browning was also a keen judge of character, helpfully steering Caleb away from a couple of potential troublemakers in the division.

Tanisha flashed a disarming smile at him and teased, "Hiding from the students again, Caleb?"

He grinned. "Me, hide? Well, now that you're here, I guess it's safe to open my door again."

The hazel-eyed professor had a reputation among her students of being a fair, but challenging instructor. And it was well-known that she didn't accept excuses for poor performance. However, she had earned a great deal of respect from both her students and her peers over the years. Caleb envied how her former students were among her biggest fans.

Dr. Browning adopted a suspicious expression as her eyes darted around her, and she mocked, "Hey, don't say that too loudly, or they'll come looking for me too."

He chuckled.

"Actually, your arrival is perfect timing. I was planning to stop by your office this afternoon because I have a small favor to ask," he said. "And it's no problem if you say no, because I know it's short notice."

"Which is just as it should be," she replied. "Ask away, Caleb."

"I'm planning a surprise for Katrina tomorrow night at the Arabia Mountain Heritage Preserve, and I want to know if you'll drop me off there?" he asked. "I know this sounds odd, but I was hoping for Katrina and me to make the journey back home together, which wouldn't be possible if I also drove there."

He had selected the Arabia Mountain Heritage Preserve because it was quite scenic and located within a twenty-minute drive of Atlanta near the town of Lithonia. The two thousand-acre site sported wetlands, pine and oak forests, two scenic mountain tops, streams, and a lake, all of which seemed an ideally challenging environment for Katrina.

"Is there a reason you're not going together?" she asked.

"Uh, well, I wanted to scope out camping locations for us ahead of time," he said.

Tanisha considered him for a moment. "Or if you prefer, I could drop Katrina off for you while you made your way there in your car. Then she wouldn't have to drive."

He smirked. "True. But I think Katrina's going to want to drive herself."

A knowing smile formed on her lips. "Ah, yes. Katrina certainly seems to enjoy the driver's seat."

He nodded, noting her innuendo. "Katrina's more comfortable being in control."

Her expression turned curious. "You seem pretty easy-going, Caleb, but does it ever bother you that Katrina's the way she is?"

His eyebrows rose as he stared into her eyes. "To tell you the truth, Tanisha, I'm okay with it most of the time."

She smirked. "William and I were talking about you two just the other night. You and Katrina seem to have a very caring dynamic, and I'd venture you're both in love, but I get the impression you two have a somewhat unconventional relationship."

Caleb considered it was a pretty good read on Tanisha's part. He and Katrina had attended both a movie premiere and a jazz concert with Tanisha and her husband during the past two weeks and he was gratified to find that all four of them seemed to get along quite well.

"Conventional is an antiquated term, don't you think?" he countered. "There's usually more to a couple's relationship than what's presented to the outside world. There is always something that's only known between just those two people. What's important is that a couple arrives at mutually agreeable terms for the structure of their relationship."

"So true," she readily agreed, but frowned. "However, I'm usually pretty good at reading people, and I think Katrina has more than just a protective nature about you."

Caleb tensed slightly as he considered the direction in which the conversation was going.

"It's subtle, but I noticed a couple of times that her eyes follow you when you're across the room from her. It's like she always has you on her radar. Take the other night at the movie theater, for example. Katrina and I were chatting near the refreshments area waiting for you and William to return from the restroom, when three rough-looking young men walked into the lobby. You exited the restroom just as those guys walked past you. Well, one of them bumped your shoulder as he passed, and I noticed Katrina's eyes narrow. The way the light caught them, I thought for just a second her eyes were almost glowing."

Caleb's expression turned serious, and he listened closely to what Tanisha was telling him. It was something Katrina hadn't mentioned from that night.

She continued, "It was just an effect of the lobby lights, I'm sure. But her expression made me think, just for an instant, mind you, that she was ready to plow through a lobby full of people just to get to you. It was like she was a canon ready to fire, you know? Frankly, she looked dangerous."

He nodded and tried to appear only casually interested in what she was telling him. But inside, his mind was racing as he easily imagined the event. Although it wasn't as if he had never seen Katrina with a dangerous look about her, either. He reflected on how intimidating and feral she could appear when provoked or angry. But then, that's an alpha vampire for you.

Tanisha laughed. "Well, I was thinking I would hate to be the person who tried to hurt you. Katrina suddenly seemed to be wired as tightly as an attack dog."

He grinned, "Well, it's true that her martial arts knowledge would come in handy in a dark alley."

Her expression turned more serious and introspective, and she asked, "Caleb, was Katrina ever in the military or law enforcement?"

"No, not that I know of. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "No reason. I have a younger brother, Richard, who's an Army Ranger, and he gets that same look in his eyes sometimes. He's seen some heavy combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and once in a while he can almost appear scary to me. I thought that a couple of Katrina's expressions reminded me of Richard's."

Caleb reassured her, "Nope, no combat zones for Katrina. She's the most loving, gentle, and kindest woman I've ever known. But I suppose that, much like any of us, Kat probably has a dark side."

His thoughts mulled over what Tanisha said, and he confessed that Katrina intimidated him on rare occasions as well. Yet, he loved her more than life itself. Moreover, he had to be on guard that his conversations with Tanisha stayed well away from any hint of his mate's vampire nature. Rule number one of his oath to Katrina was to ensure he never revealed her true identity to anyone.

However, it wasn't as if the other six rules were any less important to him. He was ready to reveal to Katrina any knowledge or suspicion of anyone who might have determined her true existence or nature. He would never willingly give or submit himself to another vampire. And he certainly would only partake in Katrina's blood when she offered it to him.

That's handy, he thought, recalling how her blood had saved him from possibly dying of a horrible case of the 'flu. As for the fifth rule, he was not to accept blood from another vampire. The only problem he found with that rule was that Katrina had allowed Paige to give her blood to him to save his life after he had given too much of his own blood to heal Katrina's injuries.

Obviously, exceptions exist.

The last two rules seemed ominous to him. Rule six: he must never ask to become a vampire. That effectively prevented him from joining Katrina for eternity. It was painful to think that he had to endure a vulnerable, finite lifespan that would ultimately set her free from their mate-bond. The very thought was nearly painful to contemplate. Finally, rule seven: he must never lie to Katrina in matters concerning any of the aforementioned rules.

And that was it in a nutshell: the seven rules he was bound to and had sworn an oath to Katrina to uphold. He sighed and realized Tanisha was staring at him intently.

"Caleb? Are you okay?"

He blinked. "What?" he asked. "Sorry, I was distracted by something you said about your brother. That must be tough being stuck in a warzone twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week until you're given permission to rotate out."

Tanisha nodded with a curious expression. "Listen Caleb, I'll be happy to drop you off at Arabia Mountain if you'll just answer one question for me."

He raised an eyebrow suspiciously. "Okay."

She stared directly into his eyes and drew out each word carefully, "Are you in a happy and healthy relationship with Katrina?"

He was taken aback by the nature of her question, and he blinked once as her question fully registered in his mind. What an odd question. He wasn't exactly sure what constituted healthy, but he was happier than he had ever been with someone his entire life. Healthy? Katrina makes me feel loved, protected, and encouraged. She's someone who's willing to accept me just as I am without condition. And I feel desired and needed by her.

A sincere smile formed on his lips as he looked back at her with a determined expression. "Tanisha, I can answer you with a resounding yes to both qualifiers. My relationship with Katrina is the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I'm completely in love with her."

The sage-looking professor merely sighed. "Okay, Caleb. You've secured your ride for tomorrow. And I'm happy for you regarding Katrina. But if you come to work with two black eyes someday, I'm calling the cops on your behalf."

His smile faded somewhat, and he wondered how to respond as his pulse increased slightly.

But before he could speak, she winked at him with a grin. "I'm just having fun at your expense, Caleb."

Relief surged through him, and his grin quickly returned in earnest. After providing Tanisha with the details for Friday, he taught his two evening classes and headed home.

During the drive to the estate, he kept thinking about the conversation he had had with Tanisha. The woman had a knack for keen observation, and he sighed with the realization that he would have to be careful regarding both what and how he spoke with her regarding Katrina. He began to realize the full impact and weight of Katrina's rules and how difficult befriending other humans could become. Since meeting his mate, he had only maintained sparse contact with his old friends, all of whom had either moved away or returned to other parts of the country following college. Tanisha was the first human he had formed a close contact with since college, and he already felt wary and pensive about it. His closest relationships since meeting Katrina had been formed exclusively with vampires, although that didn't bother him in the slightest.

When he walked into the house from the garage, he heard Katrina's voice coming from the kitchen. She was talking on the phone while sitting at the kitchen counter, looking cute in her cotton sweats and thick, fuzzy socks. She smiled at him and quickly kissed him on the lips while listening to the phone.

Caleb continued through the kitchen and casually mentioned, "I had a nice chat with Tanisha Browning this evening. She said if I come to work with black eyes, she's calling the police on you."

"Excuse me?" Katrina demanded abruptly.

"I'm going to take a shower," he muttered as he walked down the hallway wearing a mischievous grin, knowing full well he would have to explain himself later, but wanting to have some fun first.

He heard Katrina ask irritably, "Just what the hell's so funny, Paige?"

Later that evening, Caleb slipped beneath the cool sheets of their king-sized bed and turned out the lamp on his nightstand. The lamp on Katrina's nightstand cast only a dim glow in the sublevel room. He lay with his eyes closed for a short time before hearing the pocket door at the top of the stairs open and close again. He waited and felt someone sit beside him on the edge of the bed. The soothing scent of cherry blossoms, Katrina's favorite, permeated the air.

"I know you're not asleep yet, my love," she whispered.

He smirked and slowly opened his eyes to stare into her lovely emerald irises. Her tight-lipped expression spoke volumes regarding her concern.

"I love you," he offered earnestly. "No matter how unconventional our relationship is."

Katrina frowned, and he recounted the conversation he had with Tanisha. When he finished, her expression appeared more relaxed.

"I'll also need to be more careful around her in the future," she noted.

"Tanisha means well," he said. "And I think we're becoming fast friends."

"Hm. Be cautious, as you should with all other humans."

"I will."

Her expression turned thoughtful. "Caleb, are you truly happy being with me?"

His heart skipped a beat, and his pulse increased anxiously. "Of course, I am," he stammered while raising himself up on his elbows. "Why would you even ask me that?"

She smiled at him adoringly and gently caressed her fingertips against the side of his face. Because I want you to be happy.

"Just checking," she said simply.

He frowned and lay back on the bed while absently grasping the pendant he wore around his neck. His lack of self-confidence bothered him at that moment.

She noted his gesture and reached out to take his hand in hers as he fingered the pendant. "I'm yours forever, my love," she stated resolutely. "You never have to question that."

Caleb nodded as he lay back against the soft pillow behind him. She leaned down and kissed him affectionately, which he returned in kind.

"And?" he teased as he flicked his pendant between his fingers. "Anything else?"

She adopted an aggressive expression, and her hand firmly cupped the base of his neck. She placed her lips against his and stated, "You're mine, Caleb Taylor. And don't you ever forget it."

A rush of excitement coursed though him, and he only had a second to smile before she kissed him passionately.

Unconventional suits me just fine, he mused.

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