A Bloody London Sunset (Sunset Vampire #2)

Chapter 3

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"Daytime again," Katrina lamented while sitting at her computer in the sublevel room, or rather, her chamber. She finished putting her long red hair in a pony tail and stared at the computer screen while toying absently with the sterling pendant around her neck that commemorated her commitment to Caleb. As she finished reviewing a list of books she was interested in ordering from an online bookseller, her thoughts drifted to her sandy-haired young mate.

Caleb was so kind, gentle, and caring towards her, like her late husband, Samuel, who had died over five hundred years ago when she was just a human herself. To Katrina, Caleb was the complete package as a mate, and she loved him dearly. As she narrowed her book selections, she fondly smiled at how happy he made her. So much like Samuel, and yet, so different. But in a good way.

She refocused her attentions on the online order before her. The first book was a biography on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, which she could discuss at length with Caleb. She enjoyed their history-related conversations, being an amateur historian herself. Face it, survive five hundred years, and by natural selection, you're a historian. She fondly recalled taking Caleb's introductory history class the previous fall semester and the subsequent attraction she had felt towards him from that first day. Frankly, she had been caught off guard by that initial spark of desire for him.

The other book she ordered was a romance novel set in the late eighteenth century. She had been a vampire since the 1530s, so it was a period she recalled vividly, though without many of the glamorized trappings presented in historical romance fiction. Still, she had a soft spot for the genre and smiled at how Caleb would likely tease her over that. Alpha vampire and romance reader.

Yet I'm a woman. I deserve occasional romance, right? She had tried to demonstrate that to Caleb regularly and openly, mainly so he wouldn't be intimidated by her. However, being a woman doesn't mean being a pushover.

Fortunately for her, Caleb wasn't someone who challenged her for the alpha role. And while she wanted to claim that her commanding nature was important in order to protect him better, she admitted that she enjoyed being in control. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to mind that either, she thought with a smirk. He even seemed to enjoy it at times. Yes, he's so unlike my previous relationships.

She moved quickly from browsing the Internet, which was undoubtedly one of her favorite pastimes, to reading new emails. She read some jokes that Paige passed along, including viewing a humorous video of someone falling off of a ladder in a buffoonish manner while painting his house. There was another series of emails similar in tone to others she had been receiving for weeks. Most were from vampires with whom she hadn't previously corresponded. Each congratulated her on killing Chimalma or asked for further details of her exploits in doing so. Frankly, she was happy to leave the entire affair in her past, as those horrific events had nearly brought about her demise, and more importantly, Caleb's.

Still, she went through the process of responding to each message, as she had nothing more pressing on her agenda. She was merely passing time until Caleb called to inform her about the mysterious plans he had for them that evening. Lately, he had been very creative about their time together, and she approved of his most recent game, Find Caleb. Despite having only played once, she was already looking forward to future activities in that same vein.

As agreed the day before, Tanisha waited a little longer at her office than planned that Friday afternoon in order to transport Caleb to the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area. He removed a medium-sized backpack, heavy brown winter coat, and rolled-up sleeping bag from the trunk of his Honda Civic and transferred it into the back of Tanisha's light brown Cadillac Escalade.

"That's all you're bringing?" she asked.

"Yep," he replied. He glanced overhead at the sunny sky, appreciating the favorable weather conditions.

Once inside, he took a moment to appreciate the regal interior of the vehicle and the comfortable seating. It made his older-model Civic seem like a horse-drawn carriage. He smirked at how odd Katrina's garage looked with his car parked next to her sleek Audi. Maybe with the money I've been saving from sharing expenses with her, I'll be able to trade in my car on a new one in the next year or so.

"Nice ride," he said.

She smirked as the Escalade's engine purred to life. "Thanks. William teased me when he bought it, saying his African Queen had to travel in style."

Caleb grinned, recalling that he had called Katrina a "Queen of the Vampires" not so long ago.

"Not that I'm complaining, mind you," Tanisha added with a sober expression. "A little respectful attention is a proper way to treat a woman."

"Ah, so William calls you his queen, then?" he teased.

She grinned slyly as they pulled out of the parking lot. "Mm-hm. He's a caring and loving man, my Will. He still courts me even after ten years of marriage. But it probably isn't like with you and Katrina. We're a little more…"

"Conventional?" he interrupted with a grin.

"Hey, I'm not judging anybody."

He shook his head as they made their way to the highway for the short trip to Lithonia.

It was late afternoon when Tanisha pulled up at the side of Klondike Road, adjacent to the preserve. Caleb thanked her and reassured her that Katrina would be joining him very soon. After he removed his sleeping bag and backpack from the Escalade, he waved goodbye and watched her turn around and drive away. He briefly considered how well things were going with him and Tanisha and how he was thoroughly enjoying getting to know her.

He turned and headed towards an area where the forest was growing thicker. His plan was to transfer his scent to a number of surfaces, including large rocks and trees, so he could confuse Katrina from going directly to his location once she arrived.

There weren't many people around on that cold, late January afternoon, which suited him just fine as he was enjoying the peace and quiet. As he trudged amidst the lush pine trees, he realized it was time to call Katrina to reveal the location of their evening plans.

He was thankful to see he still had two bars of signal strength on his cell phone. Didn't think about that beforehand. He made a mental note to verify cell phone availability in future Find Caleb locations. Safety was a condition Katrina insisted upon, and he didn't want to cause her undue worry by overlooking something essential.

The phone only rang once before she picked up, and he smiled. That was fast.

"Caleb?" she asked.

"Hi, Kat," he greeted. "Tonight, it's time for another exciting episode of Find Caleb. I hope you're feeling up to it."

He thought he heard a brief, uncharacteristic giggle at the other end. "I'm always ready to find Caleb. Where's the location, and what are we playing for tonight?"

He was pleased to hear the anticipation in her voice, and he realized he was as excited to take part as she seemed to be. Alton was correct, after all.

"Tonight's hunt takes place at the Arabia Mountain Heritage Park and Nature Preserve. It's less than half an hour's drive via highway from the estate, and even during the winter, it's a beautiful location. The game starts as soon as you arrive, and tonight we're playing for an all-over body massage!"

She snickered. "Okay. Time limit?"

"You have until daybreak," he said smugly.

"Daybreak?" she asked with surprise. Just where the heck is this place?

He heard her typing furiously on her keyboard, followed by rapid mouse clicking sounds. Initially, he had been surprised that Katrina was so very tech-savvy, because he had always envisioned vampires as Old-World beings. He quickly learned that vampires utilized technology to the best of their advantage. They had to keep up with human society in all areas if they were expected to survive and maintain their anonymity.

"Caleb!" she exclaimed, "There's nearly two thousand acres for me to search!" That's a hell of a leap from the woods near our house, she fumed.

"It should be a challenge," he conceded. "But you have all night, and I've seen you move, or more pointedly, not seen you move. You're fast and can cover a lot of ground in a short time."

She sighed, though he wasn't sure if it were with resignation or disapproval, and he frowned. He wanted her to have both an enjoyable and challenging experience.

"It's supposed to be cold tonight, Caleb," she warned. "Are you sure you're prepared?"

"Oh, yes," he assured her. "I brought water, some snacks, a sleeping bag, and even some of those chemical warmers for camping. I also have some pepper spray in case I run into any unfriendly wild animals."

Silence.

"Pepper spray, huh? Hm. Well, okay. But if I haven't located you by 4 AM, or if anything feels dangerous, you'd better be signaling me somehow."

"I can agree to that," he replied.

"It wasn't a negotiable request, my love," she stated emphatically. Your safety is paramount to me, silly man, she thought while shaking her head.

He swallowed and amended his statement with, "Understood."

"Much better," she said in a more upbeat tone of voice. "I'll be there just after sundown. Be careful. Love you."

He smirked as the line went dead and tucked his cell phone into his belt holder. Then he went about covering as much territory as possible, spreading his scent around by brushing against trees and other surfaces.

By the time evening fell, it had turned very dark in the preserve. His scent-spreading efforts tired him out, so he stopped in a densely wooded area to eat some trail mix and drink some water. He was thankful he had packed a few bottles of water in his backpack. The nighttime air had a definite chill to it, and while activating a chemical hand warmer to place inside his winter coat, he mentally congratulated himself on bringing them. Fortunately, the cotton-lined leather gloves that he wore were doing an excellent job of keeping his hands warm.

He decided to trudge around a little more in order to stay warm and proceeded out of the trees and down a nearby hiking trail that led towards a high peak on the east side of the preserve. Despite the cool conditions, he thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors and was pleased he had selected the venue for their latest challenge.

As time passed, he contemplated the relationship he had formed with Katrina. It was so different from any he had experienced with other women. He was unused to being the focus of her attentions, and despite her tendency to be overly protective and somewhat commanding at times, he nevertheless loved her for it. There seemed to be nothing he wouldn't try to make her happy, including trudging around in cold, remote areas of Georgia during wintertime.

He glanced at his watch with a yawn, realizing nearly two hours had passed since he had last spoken with Katrina. Surely she's at the preserve by now. He felt a surge of adrenaline reinvigorate his system and tried to listen more closely to the sounds around him. He considered that he needed to keep more to the trees so she wouldn't easily see him and focused on trying to move more stealthily. Still, there's a lot of territory for her to cover, and she may be miles away from me right now.

After no more than half an hour of quietly maneuvering between pine trees and listening for unusual noises, Caleb settled down a few feet into the trees from a nearby hiking trail and laid out his sleeping bag to try to rest up a little. The cool winter air penetrated his jacket, and he activated another hand warmer, slipping the spent one he replaced into his pack. He absently placed his backpack against the trunk of a large pine tree. He unwound his sleeping bag, slipped into it, and sat up with his back against the same tree. Zipping the sleeping bag closed, he was able to hide most of his face inside the enclosure for warmth.

As he listened closely to the natural sounds around him, he failed to notice when he was lulled asleep.

"Well, what have we here?" a deep voice resonated as he lurched awake.

Caleb squinted into the darkness to see a large man towering above him. His heart rate soared instantly, as he was completely surprised that anyone else besides him or Katrina might be trudging around the preserve in the middle of a cold January night.

Maybe a park ranger, he wondered.

"I didn't expect campers out here during winter," the baritone voice observed. "But then, I haven't been hunting around here for very long, either."

A hunter then, Caleb mused. "You startled me," he said as he unzipped his sleeping bag. "I was just resting, but I'll be on my way now."

The tall man chuckled. "No need to leave on my account."

Caleb tried to focus on the man before him. Although it was dark, he distinguished blue jeans and a dark-colored sweater, though he wasn't wearing a winter coat or gloves. He appeared to be sturdy-framed, broad-shouldered, and African-American by his dark skin tone. A final quality sent a shiver through Caleb's body: the man had glowing violet eyes.

A vampire, he gasped with realization. What are the odds?

The vampire emitted another deep chuckle, and a scowl showed on his face as he perched his large hands atop his hips, glowering at Caleb from above.

"You're a vampire," Caleb muttered with as much reassurance in his voice as he could muster, fully realizing his revelation wasn't a positive one.

The vampire's scowl faded abruptly, and his arms went out to his sides in an aggressive posture as he demanded, "How so?"

"Your eyes," Caleb said as he slipped his hands from his gloves and grasped a small can of pepper spray in his jacket pocket. "The glowing eyes are a dead giveaway."

"Just how do you know so much about vampires?" the figure demanded.

Caleb turned on a small flashlight with his left hand and saw that the vampire's expression appeared unsettled. "I'm a vampire's mate," he announced boldly.

"Oh, really?" he asked with a white-toothed smile, revealing pronounced fangs. "And just who might that be?"

"Katrina Rawlings," he stated calmly despite his turbulent emotions.

The tall figure frowned, and his violet eyes narrowed slightly. "Seems like I've heard that name somewhere," he growled.

"My name's Caleb. Caleb Taylor."

The vampire squatted down to look him in the eye. "Devon Archibald, although it's not really going to matter much in a few more minutes."

Caleb's eyes widened, and he pressed, "Wait! I already told you I'm a vampire's mate."

Devon smirked and made an elaborate gesture of looking to his left and then to his right. "Well, where is she? I don't see, or sense, any other vampires besides me," he challenged. "I've been here since just after sundown looking for wild game and haven't seen anyone else but you."

"She's here somewhere," Caleb promised. "We're just playing a hunting game."

Devon grinned. "It looks like I won. Well, small game is better than no game."

Caleb's heart nearly stopped, and he immediately made an effort to glance past the man's shoulder as if recognizing someone. The hulking vampire frowned and glanced over his shoulder for just a second, giving him the time he needed to withdraw the pepper spray from his pocket. As Devon turned back to him with a frown, Caleb activated the dispenser, spraying the vampire's face.

Devon growled angrily, and his hands went to his eyes as Caleb launched himself up from the sleeping bag and lurched onto the hiking trail, using his flashlight to light the path before him.

"Ka-trin-a! KAT!!" Caleb shouted desperately from the top of his lungs as his heart pounded away in his chest. "Need help, Kat!!"

As he ran, horrific fear raced through his mind that perhaps she wasn't nearby, or worse, not even at the preserve. But she has to be, or she would've called me by now!

His thoughts quickly returned to his current situation and his desperation to be as far from the hulking vampire as possible. He gripped the pepper spray tightly in his right hand as he ran frantically along the hiking path. He considered glancing over his shoulder behind him, but decided to keep running instead.

"Ka –" he started to yell before being knocked to the ground from behind.

The pepper spray flew from his hand, but he managed to hold onto the flashlight as he hit the hard, uneven ground before him with a thud. His body no sooner hit the ground before he felt a huge hand wrap around the back of his neck, hauling him upright as he struggled to get his footing so his weight wasn't being suspended from his neck alone. His right hand darted to the vampire's grip on his neck as he clawed futilely to pry his attacker's hand loose.

"That was stupid!" Devon barked. "And now we end this."

Caleb was frantic, and his mind was a flurry of thoughts. His right hand slipped into his front jeans pocket, and he managed to extract his small pocket knife. The small blade was only a couple of inches long, but was easy to use because it had a thumb release on it.

"You better not!" he yelled, stalling for precious time as he stealthily opened the pocket knife. "Katrina's an alpha!"

"What?" Devon demanded.

Caleb tried kicking at the vampire's knees from behind, but he couldn't get a proper angle to be effective. He felt Devon's hot breath at the back of his neck, and he tensed his body, bracing himself for the painful tearing of his flesh that he recalled from Katrina's involuntary attack.

In a last-ditch effort for freedom, he swept the knife blade backwards and slammed it into the vampire's upper right thigh, burying the short blade to the hilt. The dark, towering figure howled with pain as he abruptly released Caleb's neck.

Caleb immediately darted up the trail with speed born of a fear-induced adrenaline rush, yelling, "KAT!"

His feet seemed barely to touch the earth as he darted across the uneven ground and around the abrupt turns in the trail. The light from his flashlight bounced frantically in front of him, but he hoped it would provide an additional indicator to Katrina of his changing location. Given that vampires could see in the dark, it was a moot point to avoid using the flashlight to elude his pursuer. Besides, he needed the benefit of seeing the path before him as clearly as possible.

Caleb's heart pounded as he ran through the night, and for a brief moment he thought he could get free. He wasn't certain how far or for how long he had been running. Time seemed suspended as the cold winter breeze chilled the skin on his face, and his lungs felt as if they were on fire.

He thought he heard a rustling in the night to his right and glanced in that direction for only a second, though he saw nothing. His body shook to an abrupt halt as it felt like a tree limb fell across his chest. He had only a vague sensation of falling backwards as his body plummeted downwards, and the breath was knocked from his lungs.

His back impacted with the cold, hard ground with a bone-jarring thud, and he thought he heard a gruff chuckle. He realized he was lying in darkness, uncertain as to what happened to the small flashlight. He felt his left leg being hauled upwards, and his body was being dragged across the ground.

He managed to force air back into his lungs, although the effort sent pain coursing through his chest. As the back of his head bounced across the hard turf, he reared back with his right leg and savagely kicked at the figure pulling on his other leg. The heel of his boot impacted with something solid, and a growl emitted from above him. But instead of his left leg being released, his body was lifted into the air and abruptly slammed painfully back onto the ground, again knocking the breath from his lungs.

Pain coursed through his body, and he felt a wave of nausea roll through his stomach. A hard set of fingers grabbed his hair from behind and drew him face-up from the ground, sending a fresh wave of pain through his neck and shoulders. He managed to use his aching arms to push himself up from the ground, while at the same time he felt a knee press into his lower back. His body was spent, and all that he wanted was for the pain to stop. Mercifully, he began to feel himself losing consciousness.

"I love you, Kat," he whispered desperately as he willed his final thoughts to be of the woman he loved.

His body was dropped face-forward back onto the ground following the sound of a speeding truck impacting a meaty wall. He managed to keep his face from impacting the cold earth as he heard intense hissing and snarling and what sounded like breaking tree branches. He reached behind him to rub at the back of his head with his right hand as he tried to focus on the commotion going on in the darkness around him.

He managed to spot his flashlight on the ground nearby and painfully crawled over to it. Grasping it tightly in his hand, he shined it in the direction of the hissing and growling.

Caleb watched as the burly vampire rushed at Katrina only to crash into the trunk of a large pine tree as she darted to the side. She raked some sort of blade across his upper shoulder and darted just out of arm's reach. Devon roared with rage and rushed her. It appeared that, while very fast compared to a human, the large-framed vampire's dexterity was much slower and more sluggish than hers. The advantage was clearly in Katrina's favor, and she used each opportunity either to slash or stab her blade into her opponent. To Caleb's confusion, each cut or stab she used seemed intended upon progressively disabling her opponent without actually making a fatal killing strike.

A loud snapping sound startled him as he propped himself up with difficulty. He heard a whooshing noise followed by the sound of another tree trunk's breaking. With a sudden burst of speed, Katrina appeared less than twenty feet from Caleb in some sort of combat stance, wielding a large military-style knife in her hand. He spotted Devon standing beyond her as he brandished part of a tree limb in his right hand. The huge vampire was dripping blood from multiple locations on his body, including a steady stream oozing down his dangling left arm and dripping off of the fingers of his hand.

"This was a mistake!" the hulking vampire barked as his violet eyes burned brightly in the darkness. "He was easy prey, that's all!"

"Did he tell you he was a vampire's mate?" she demanded savagely.

"Maybe he said something about that," Devon countered. "But I didn't believe he was telling the truth at the time."

Her eyes blazed bright green as she decreed in a cruel, flat voice, "Your last mistake."

"Whoa, whoa!" Devon insisted as he held the tree limb out to his side in a less aggressive stance. "Let's just calm down. This was all a horrible misunderstanding!"

Caleb issued a dry-throated cough and rasped, "You shouldn't threaten her with a tree branch, idiot."

His mind flashed to the time Katrina had revealed her vampire nature to him, and he had fearfully brandished a tree branch at her. She had neatly disarmed him, although at the time she had meant him no harm, unlike with the vampire before her.

"Huh?" the large vampire asked with barely a glance at Caleb.

Devon tossed the branch down beside him and held his hands up in a more peaceable gesture towards Katrina, who seemed to be selecting the optimum moment to attack. "Please, just for a moment, let's just stop," he entreated.

"You didn't grant Caleb that benefit a moment ago," she noted in a flat, lethal voice. Her focus swtiched to dispatching the opposing vampire and seeing to Caleb's injuries as soon as possible.

The vampire's eyes momentarily flashed with surprise, and he apologized, "No, you're right. That was a bad mistake, and I'm sorry. This doesn't need to get ugly for either of us. Really."

"You don't know ugly yet," she seethed through fury-lit eyes as she maneuvered closer to the hulking vampire. She had selected the preferred entry point under his guard and was ready to initiate a killing blow.

"I told you she was an alpha," Caleb spat with satisfaction, though his mind felt hazy and dazed. He managed to sit upright on the ground, despite the ribs on his right side's aching terribly. Pain coursed through his body.

Devon nodded and chuckled nervously. "Yeah, I'm seeing that now. But this is all wrong. I'm willing to make good on this and let bygones be bygones."

Katrina's mouth upturned in a cruel fashion as she maintained her combat stance and expertly brandished her knife in her right hand. Another minute, and she could focus all of her attentions on helping Caleb. "Goodbye," she whispered under her breath as she darted forward.

Devon saw Katrina's body in action and barked, "Please! Listen!"

Katrina scowled cruelly and lunged at the vampire as she shouted, "Too late!"

She darted around to Devon's left side, and her knife thrust underneath his injured left arm and upwards to his exposed throat. The huge vampire's eyes widened and pleaded to her as his arms went up over his head in surrender.

Just as Katrina's knife blade touched Devon's neck, she hesitated and stopped her intended killing strike. There was something about his eyes that made her pause, though she was on guard for any trickery. She felt confident that in his injured stated he would be of little challenge if she changed her mind. Her eyes darted to Caleb to make sure that he seemed stable.

Devon soberly regarded his opponent as he gauged the dangerous and feral nature of the red-haired vampire before him.

"My name is Devon Archibald, just as I introduced myself to your mate over there. I've just recently relocated to the Marietta area from Richmond, Virginia, and I had no idea this was your territory. I don't want to start any trouble with regional vampires."

Katrina regarded him dubiously.

"Please. I'll abide by any territorial claims you make, and I can even be helpful enforcing your interests, if necessary," Devon offered in a gruff voice.

"My primary interest is that man over there, my mate," she seethed, gesturing towards Caleb.

Caleb tried to stand and managed to stagger to his feet. Excruciating pain shot through his back, ribs, and chest, and he was forced to drop back to his knees onto the cold, hard ground. Both vampires regarded him for only a moment, though Katrina's gaze lingered for a second longer before returning to Devon.

"I offer my sincerest apologies for the misunderstanding. I promise it'll never happen again," he insisted before turning his attention to Caleb. "Besides, he looks hurt, and I can't afford for him to die on me now."

Caleb noticed Katrina's blazing eyes focusing on him again, and he thought he saw a worried expression wash across her features. Unfortunately, he felt like he was starting to black out, and he pressed his palms to the cool earth beneath him while lowering his head.

Katrina shot a dark look at Devon and carefully moved to where Caleb was on all fours. Her right hand brandished the combat knife while her left hand reached down to press softly on his shoulder.

"Lie down on the ground and try not to move until I can look at your injuries, my love."

He nodded, slowly lying on his side, and then curled up in his coat while hugging his ribs. He felt numb all over, and his head was throbbing as a mix of dull aches and sharp pains coursed through his chest, back, and ribs.

Katrina's attention returned to Devon, where the large-framed vampire was still standing statue-still. His face appeared calm but haggard, and he leaned heavily to his right to favor his injured left leg. She worried about Caleb's condition, and she berated herself for not having killed Devon already. But for some reason, she felt like she could turn this situation to both hers and Caleb's advantage.

"I concede the fight," he declared. "And I'll honor terms to you, if you'll just agree to a truce."

She frowned and momentarily reconsidered the merits of arriving at some agreement. Her more immediate concern was to aid Caleb, and any further issues with Devon could be handled at a later time, if necessary. "Very well," she agreed warily. "We will finalize matters later. Expect to hear from me soon, Devon Archibald."

Devon's eyes darted to Caleb where he was lying on the ground nearby and back to Katrina. "Understood," he agreed. "And once again, I apologize for the misunderstanding. I invite you to Marietta, where you must grant me the opportunity to solidify an agreement and reintroduce myself in a proper fashion."

Katrina nodded curtly, and Devon turned to depart into the thick pine trees next to the trail. But then he stopped and looked at Katrina with eyes that no longer glowed. "My word is honorable," he insisted. "What was your name again? Your mate mentioned it, but I don't recall."

"Katrina Rawlings of the Atlanta area."

Devon's eyes widened. "Wait, the one that killed the Aztec who was murdering other vampires?"

Katrina's face turned stony, but she nodded. "That's me."

Devon sighed, shook his head, and muttered, "Yeah, just my luck." He turned to look at Caleb and offered, "My respects to him. I've never encountered a human who fought so hard before. He's a tough little bastard, and he gave almost as good as he got."

Katrina scowled. "I'm sure he's happy to hear that."

"Thanks, asshole," was all Caleb managed to rasp in response as he glared at the vampire from where he lay on the ground.

Devon frowned deeply, turned away from them, and disappeared quietly into the forest. Caleb blinked, and when his eyes opened again the hulking vampire was nowhere to be seen. A fresh wave of pain shot through his ribs as he tried to take a deep breath, and his head felt woozy and ached.

Katrina moved in a blur as she both sheathed her knife and sped to Caleb's side. She knelt beside her prone mate with a concerned expression, removed the leather jacket she'd been wearing, and laid it over his prone form.

"Everything will be okay, my love," she tried to reassure him. I'm taking care of you.

He murmured something unintelligible and escaped the continued pain by welcoming the darkness as it finally overcame him.

Caleb heard Katrina's voice talking when he regained consciousness, though he couldn't immediately understand what was being said. He shifted his body slightly, resulting in pain, and realized he was lying in a bed. He slowly opened his eyes to discover the room was dimly lit, and he recognized the estate's sublevel room. He moaned while lifting his hand to his head as dull aching persisted behind his eyes, which he closed tightly.

"I have to go, Alton. He's finally awake," Katrina urged in a near whisper. "I'll call you soon."

Caleb felt the edge of the bed shift next to him, and he opened his eyes to see Katrina sitting beside him in a pair of cotton lounge pants and a t-shirt. Her gentle fingers caressed the skin on the side of his face, and her warm smile soothed him.

"Welcome back, my love," she offered. I'm relieved he's finally regained consciousness. She was confident his body was healing, but worried he might have a mild concussion.

He felt disoriented and somewhat confused as he tried recalling anything beyond blacking out on the hard ground in the forest, but nothing came to mind.

"What happened?" he asked. "How long have I been out?"

"Twelve hours or more," she replied. "How do you feel?"

He tried to swallow and noticed his throat felt raw. "Like hell, but better than back at the forest."

She retrieved a glass of ice water from the nightstand, and he noticed a blood-tinged syringe lying nearby. His eyes met hers with a curious expression.

"How bad was I?" he asked before drinking greedily. He realized from the syringe that she must have injected him with some of her blood.

"Bad enough, my love. You had a couple of broken ribs, likely a mild concussion, and I'm fairly sure from the sounds in your chest that you had fluid in one lung," she replied grimly.

"Holy crap," he muttered. He had no idea his body had endured that level of punishment.

"I should have killed him," she half-lamented.

"You didn't?" he asked with a frown. "I only remember lying on the ground and blacking out."

She explained how she agreed to a truce and Devon's promise to establish an agreement for restitution with her. What concerned her was that he had no recollection of any of that dialogue, although he had seemed semi-conscious at the time.

"You took a lot more punishment than I thought," she said. "What do you remember?" A pang of guilt flowed through her as she wished she had been faster in tracking him down when she heard him shouting her name in the distance.

He described his encounter with the hulking vampire, including as much of the dialogue as he could recall. He told her how he initially used pepper spray against Devon, followed by his pocket knife to stab him in the leg, and finally his attempt to kick him in the knee or groin to try temporarily disabling him.

She adopted a look of approval, admiring his tenacity and fortitude, though surprised he had engaged in so many melees with Devon. "So that's why you're a 'tough little bastard,' then," she surmised. "I'm proud of you, my love. It probably saved your life until I was able to find you."

He grimaced. "Great. I got my ass kicked by another vampire. Real valiant, that was."

She smirked at the level of aggravation evident in his tone and kissed him on the forehead. "Archibald said he never saw a human fight as hard as you did."

"Sure. Then again, maybe he hasn't attacked many people before."

She considered that line of thought. "I did get the impression he wasn't particularly skilled in combat, but rather more of a brawler. Or perhaps he isn't that old a vampire," she speculated. "But he was a brute-sized fellow. He probably hasn't encountered many people capable of putting up a fight. Obviously, you were a surprise of sorts."

"Obviously you were too," he added, recalling brief images of how handily she had engaged Devon in combat.

She bent down and lightly kissed his lips. "My previous years of combat experience came in handy. But more importantly, I think you're getting better at fighting vampires. If he'd been a human instead of a vampire, I'm pretty sure he would have fared very poorly. You seem to have thought quickly on your feet with the resources you had available. We'll continue adding to your fighting skills in the future."

"Yeah, well, thanks for playing Find Caleb again," he said with a scowl. "Given the added challenges, I suppose you get to pick the prize."

"I already picked him." And hopefully I'll do a better job of protecting him when he needs it.

He nodded, exchanged a warm kiss with her, and reached out to stroke her affectionately on the thigh. He was relieved she had arrived in time to help him, although he wouldn't mind being able to take care of himself better in a fight. He resolved to learn how to put some serious hurt on a vampire for any future repeat performances. And with the way his luck typically went, he had the feeling he needed all the help he could get. Then his thoughts turned to the unlikely nature of his encounter.

"Just what are the odds of my running into him out there like that?" Caleb asked. "I'm either the unluckiest guy in the world, or there's a hell of a lot more vampires out there than you've implied. Either way, I'm not encouraged."

"I'm way ahead of you," she agreed grimly.

"Of course you are. But then, you've been conscious for the past twelve hours too," he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes at him. "Devon said he was hunting for wild game, which makes sense on a wildlife preserve, so it's likely you were merely a target of opportunity. For all we know, he's been visiting the location regularly."

Caleb considered that and recalled, "I think he said something about not seeing anyone out there on a winter's night before."

She frowned. "I'm curious about how many vampires are wandering around Georgia. I've never taken much interest in other vampires, but now I have a mate with an apparent sense of adventure, so I have incentive to be curious. This business with Devon has made me consider declaring a territory."

Caleb frowned. "So, what do you mean by that exactly?"

She sighed. "Well, in vampire terms, I would be announcing my location and declaring a specific area as my personal interest. That has the added detriment of garnering unwanted attention by the vampire community, but it means there should be more communication from the socially active of my kind who might travel through here or relocate nearby."

"I'm really kind of surprised to hear you say that, Kat," he ventured quietly.

"It was Alton's idea, actually. I prefer as much anonymity as possible, but our recent exploits with Chimalma have unexpectedly launched us into the spotlight."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I've been receiving emails the past couple of weeks from vampires I didn't even know existed. Apparently, about half of the emails are congratulating me, and the other half just want more details regarding what happened."

Caleb's surprised expression spoke volumes. "So, you're a celebrity now?"

Katrina shrugged. "Not me. Us. A number of emails have pointed out that you're one of the few humans to survive a vampire attack from Chimalma."

He grimaced and added bitterly, "And an attack from the Incredible Vampire Hulk, Devon."

She smirked at him and shook her head slightly. Always the comedian.

He moved gingerly to the other side of the bed, and she frowned.

"Where are you crawling off to?" she asked.

He managed to make it across the bed and swung his legs over the edge with an effort. His body felt like it had been pummeled, but at least it seemed functional.

"Bathroom," he replied with a groan as he fought the soreness in his body and tried to acquire his balance.

She sped around to him in a blur and wrapped her arm around his torso to steady him. "Oh, of course."

After helping him into the bathroom, she closed the door to give him some privacy. Her cell phone buzzed on the computer hutch, and she sped over to check it. A text message from Paige was waiting for her: How's our boy?

Her speedy fingers typed: Ok. Just woke up.

Healed?

Katrina responded: Yes. Better now.

My best 2 you both. Hug N kiss kiddo 4 me.

Katrina smirked as she heard Caleb opening the bathroom door. She helped him back into bed and bent down to tuck him under the sheets.

He felt exhausted merely from the journey to the bathroom and back and sighed. He was genuinely happy to be back in bed.

"Paige texted me just now," Katrina offered while caressing her fingers lightly through his hair.

He smiled. "What's my babysitter up to?"

"Asking about you, of course," she replied with a grin. She bent down, held his body against hers gently and pressed her lips to his cheek to pop a quick peck against his skin just as Paige frequently did.

He chuckled. "From Paige?"

She smiled and nodded and kissed him warmly on the lips. His lips responded greedily despite his exhaustion, and he felt her hand supportively wrap around the back of his head. Her soft lips nipped at his skin lightly as she kissed hm.

"And that was from me," she murmured softly, curling next to him on the bed with her arms around him as he settled down to rest again.

You're amazing, Kat, he thought with satisfaction as he drifted off to sleep.

Caleb awoke with a yawn and a sense of confusion. His perception of time was distorted during his body's recovery, and the situation hadn't been helped being in the windowless sublevel. He scanned the dimly lit room, but didn't see Katrina anywhere. Raising his arm to glance at his watch, he felt an ache permeate his shoulder and back.

It was already midday Sunday, which meant he had slept for another twelve hours or more. He stretched, realizing he only had part of the weekend left before he was expected back at work. At that moment, his stomach growled with hunger. He reached over to the nightstand and emptied a glass of water in a matter of seconds, his thirst nearly as urgent as his hunger.

He returned the glass to the nightstand and perched his body up on one arm. The sliding pocket door into the room opened quietly, and he glanced over to see Katrina peering inside with a grin. In a blur of motion, she suddenly appeared at his bedside. He smirked, amazed again by how quickly vampires could move when they wanted to.

"Welcome back to the world of the conscious, sleepy head," she teased. "You're looking much better, my love."

He nodded. "I feel better, too."

"Do you feel up to a shower? I'll make you something to eat while you freshen up."

It was then he noticed her attire. She was dressed in a fashionable pair of blue jeans, black turtleneck sweater, and stylish black leather boots.

"Yeah, that sounds fine, thanks," he replied absently. "Going out?"

She gently stroked the side of his face with her fingertips and explained, "Yes, once the sun goes down, of course. I plan to meet with Devon Archibald in Marietta tonight. It's important we finalize details on our new arrangement with him while the iron's still hot."

He considered that for a moment and felt nothing but animosity for the hulking vampire. He tried to look past his own personal feelings, but found that his recent experiences were just too fresh in his mind to move beyond them.

He's not happy about that, she noted. But then, I can't say that I blame him.

"I guess I don't need to ask you to be careful," he said with resignation as he reached out to grasp her hand. "I don't trust him."

Katrina reassured him, "I'll be just fine. And I hope you don't mind my not asking if you wanted to go."

"Uh, no. Not on my to-do list," he replied tersely.

She nodded and pulled his hand up to her face to rub the back of his hand against her cheek, which elicited a brief smile. She hoped she was making the right decision regarding the mysterious Devon Archibald.

After she went back upstairs, Caleb showered, shaved, and changed into a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. He went upstairs to the kitchen where Katrina had just finished preparing his food. She laid out a plateful of turkey bacon, wheat biscuits, and a tasty-looking cheese omelet. There was also a jar of black raspberry jam and a steaming mug of Darjeeling tea, a blend she had introduced to him that had become one of his favorites.

He wrinkled his nose at the turkey bacon as he sat before the kitchen counter and sniffed at a piece before nibbling tentatively on one end.

Katrina rolled her eyes. "It's healthier than pork with fewer calories and less fat, but supposedly just as tasty as regular bacon."

He shrugged and adopted a playful smirk as he offered a slice of the bacon to her. "Oh, really? Care to try some?"

She grimaced and stated emphatically, "Not on your life. I just cook it. The grocer was the one who said it was as good as pork. It's all just stinky dead meat to me."

"Thought so," he replied knowingly and tried a bite of the omelet. "That's really good, Kat," he offered. "You're getting pretty good at cooking breakfast."

She smiled and watched him eat for a few minutes before glancing at her watch.

"I need to call Alton before I go, and there are some emails I need to respond to," she explained before hastily kissing him on the cheek.

He frowned. "Still getting fan mail?"

She sighed. "Yes. Like you, I'm starting to wonder just how many other vampires there are in the world. And we're apparently a lot more social than I gave us credit for."

"Why are they interested in you all of a sudden?" he asked while taking a bite out of a jam-slathered biscuit.

She paused to contemplate his question. "Well, this is the first time in decades that a vampire has gone on a killing spree of their own kind like this. The last time was, of course, also by Chimalma. She was viewed in the same way that humans would a serial killer."

"Oh," he replied while thoughtfully considering her comparison.

Her eyes sparkled as she added, "But some of the vampires are intrigued about you, as well. It seems word got around about my mate contributing significantly to Chimalma's demise, as well as sacrificing his life to save me."

His eyes rose to stare at her intently, and his fork remained suspended in midair on its journey to his mouth. "And just how is word getting out about that?" he inquired suspiciously. Great, that's all I need, more vampire attention.

Katrina shrugged. "I mentioned it to only a couple of vampires in confidence. One must have spread the details to others."

He frowned and set his fork back down on the plate. "That's not the kind of attention I'm excited about, Kat."

She patted him on the back. "No offense, my love," she began gently, "But I suspect most of my kind aren't specifically interested in you for the most part. Many probably view you as 'that devoted human of hers.' Everyone thinks that I was the one who issued the killing blow and rid our community of a scourge of sorts. However, I'm happy to set others straight on your important role in that fight. If you'd chosen not to pick up my late husband's sword and come running to aid me…"

She let her voice trail off as she contemplated the horrible consequences of losing to Chimalma. Likely, she would have hunted Caleb down and tortured him just for spite. But then, perhaps Alton and Paige would have been able to hide him away. She was happy things turned out the way they did. No, she was ecstatic.

Caleb nodded and noted her distant expression. He tried to refocus his anxious feelings by picking up his fork and continuing to eat.

Katrina broke from her reverie and watched him in silence, wondering what he was thinking. "You know, a few of my kind are jealous by the level of sacrifice and commitment you showed to me," she said proudly. I'm a very lucky vampire, she thought with satisfaction while playfully running her fingers through his hair.

"I'd do the same again," he replied proudly. He finished swallowing a mouthful of food and changed the subject. "So, just how many vampires do you think there might be roaming around in the world?"

"Many," she temporized, "Probably hundreds. Maybe more."

His eyes widened as he contemplated hundreds of vampires roaming the world partaking in blood: some by voluntary donors and others through involuntary means. The thought sent a shiver down his spine, and he felt the world shrink a little bit in that moment. He was suddenly very appreciative for how compassionately and kindly Katrina treated him as her mate.

Katrina left to attend to emails and phone calls, leaving Caleb alone in the kitchen to clean up. As he washed dishes, he wondered what kind of events would unfold once she announced her desire to claim territorial boundaries. His thoughts darkened somewhat as the image of Devon Archibald's face formed in his mind. Another thought inspired him to call Paige.

Katrina sat at her computer hutch in the sublevel room sorting through emails, noting three more inquiries from vampires regarding her exploits with Chimalma. One was from Selesta in Brazil, another from Medyev in the Ukraine, and a third from Vince in Juneau, Alaska. She marveled at the continued stream of inquiries from around the world. Vampires were everywhere, it seemed. All the messages seemed innocent enough, but there appeared to be an undercurrent to each of them, almost as if some of the senders were subtly reaching out to her for acknowledgement, as if trying to get to know her better.

She picked up the phone handset next to her and dialed. Alton picked up by the second ring.

"Hello? Katrina?" he asked tentatively.

She wondered what he would say if it were Caleb instead of her calling. Then she frowned, wondering if he wouldn't be as surprised as she imagined.

"Hi, Alton."

"How are matters progressing?" he asked in his crisp English accent.

"Oh, I'm Miss Popularity in the world right now."

"Still?" he asked, although his tone failed to convey surprise.

What more do you know, Alton?

"Three more messages," she said. "Although I'll have to answer them later. I have business with Devon Archibald in Marietta tonight."

There was a pause before he inquired, "You've decided on a pact with him?"

"Perhaps. We'll see how things go when I get there."

"So, you still might kill him?"

"Again, I'll see how things go," she repeated, although part of her was still surprised she hadn't killed Archibald. Caleb had been injured severely and might have died had she been even seconds later than she was. A pang of guilt shot through her at the thought.

Maybe I should have killed him, she mused yet again. She had lost count of how many times she contemplated that in the past twenty-four hours.

"A pact could be helpful to you, you know," suggested Alton. "There may be times when Devon could prove useful, particularly if you needed another set of eyes to watch over Caleb."

She conceded such a benefit. Paige had been enjoying her life in southern California, so she wasn't exactly handy to assist Caleb in a pinch. Still, her mate would need to build a rapport with the vampire, which might be unrealistic given their most recent encounter. There are so many variables to consider.

"Why do I get the impression there's more to this than you're telling me?" she asked pointedly.

After a pause, he replied smoothly, "There seems to be a rift forming in the undercurrent of vampire politics as of late. I'm not yet certain regarding the specifics, but perhaps I'll know more by the time you get to London in March."

She frowned, pondering his revelation. "Do you think all the recent attention I'm getting has something to do with such a rift?"

"Perhaps, but as you've pointed out, we'll have to see how things go," he hedged. "Anything more on the subject would be unhelpful speculation on my part."

She had known Alton long enough to realize he wouldn't speak on a subject until he was ready, so there was no reason to waste time pressing him further. However, she resigned herself to keeping an open mind for the time being. It annoyed her that somehow the upcoming meeting with Devon was quickly taking on more significant connotations.

She sighed heavily. Why does everything have to be so damned complicated? "Fine. I'll let you know how the meeting turns out when I return later tonight."

"Good luck," he offered. "And please give my best to Caleb."

"Will do," she replied and hung up.

The drive to Marietta was uneventful and gave Katrina quiet time to consider what Alton said, as well as to strategize how to proceed with Devon Archibald.

Her thoughts drifted to Caleb, who had been less than happy that she was meeting with his attacker. Before leaving, he told her how he felt as if an aggressor's hostile actions were being ignored in favor of a summit. She had chuckled at his political analogy and wondered if he had been watching too much cable network news lately. Still, she couldn't blame him for the way he felt. She still harbored doubts regarding her own resolve that night.

Upon entering Marietta, she paid closer attention to her car's GPS regarding the proper route to Devon's home. That part of town was one of the older neighborhoods located on the outskirts of the downtown area. She pulled into the narrow, cracked driveway in front of the house, her eyes sweeping the structure before her. The two-story, square brick home was an example of utilitarian architecture from the late 1950s or early 1960s. A series of narrow windows spanned the front of the house, each with closed blinds.

There was no garage, and only a single car was parked in the driveway. As she exited her car, she briefly noted the older model Pontiac sedan, which had a faded paint job. She paused in the chilly night air to glance up and down the length of the neighborhood, noting surprisingly little traffic at such an early hour. Many of the surrounding homes emanated the glow of interior lights, and most driveways were occupied by at least one vehicle.

She approached the front porch with its halo of light around the lamp fixture next to the front door. She chuckled at the wholly unnecessary waste of electricity given her kind's night vision and wondered why Devon had bothered with the gesture. She rang the doorbell and waited patiently. She heard a figure approach the door from inside before the deadbolt made a sound.

The door opened slowly, and the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Devon Archibald appeared before her. He was dressed in gray slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled partway up his arms. The surface of his smooth scalp appeared to shine slightly, as if just recently shaved and rubbed with lotion. He appeared mostly relaxed, though slightly wary. However, he smiled invitingly as he stood before her. The notion of his unease struck her as humorous considering that he towered over her like a giant.

"Welcome, Katrina Rawlings," he offered in a deep voice. "Please come in."

Katrina glided past him and into a small entryway with polished wooden stairs on her left leading up to the second floor. To the right was a short hallway that passed the kitchen and led to a dining room. Devon gestured towards the living room directly before her.

The room was simple-looking. Katrina noted a small bookcase along the wall to the right as she entered, populated by older volumes of classic literature. A flat-panel TV sat atop a faux wood stand to the left of the entrance, and the remainder of the living room's furniture consisted of a sofa with matching end tables, a worn leather recliner with a small table along the left wall, and a central glass-topped coffee table set before the couch. The walls were painted flat white, and there were only three pictures hanging in the room, each of pastoral wildlife scenes.

"I welcome you to my home, such as it is," Devon said. "Won't you please sit down? May I offer you a glass of water or perhaps some wine? I apologize for having no blood on hand, as might be more fitting."

Katrina absently perched on the edge of one end of the couch, distracted by the revelation that the vampire had no blood supply at his home. "No, thank you," she declined politely. "Pardon me for asking, but did I hear you correctly that you have no blood stock?"

He took a seat in the recliner near the couch. "I regret I don't. For one, I prefer fresh blood over stored. And for another, the expense is cumbersome on my limited budget."

Katrina frowned. His statement bothered her in that Devon apparently hunted his blood from fresh sources, a fact that portended potential complications with his living in proximity to Atlanta.

"So, you don't subscribe to a blood delivery service?"

"Alas, no," he responded. "I hunt when my hunger is most pressing."

"But doesn't that tend to make your stay around humans particularly tenuous? You are a vampire of large stature, and your blood need is likely beyond the regular capacity of live donors on a frequent basis," she ventured.

Devon inclined his head in deference. "That's correct. However, I make it a point to reside in locations with easy accessibility to populations of wildlife, such as deer."

"So humans –"

"– are usually prey of opportunity, which is less common, unfortunately. I primarily sustain myself on larger animals. Humans are very much the occasional prized steak in a regular diet of chicken."

The edges of her mouth upturned with amusement at his analogy. Despite her misgivings, there was something she liked about him. "And my mate…"

"– was what I thought to be an opportune steak, though I was actually stalking a wild boar the night I ran across him," he supplied.

"So pork was on the menu instead of chicken that night," she offered wryly.

Devon grinned, displaying a set of large white teeth. "Exactly."

Katrina nodded thoughtfully.

"How's your mate?" he asked.

Her expression turned serious. "Caleb's feeling much better, thank you. But his injuries were worse than I expected once I got him home."

"My apologies, of course," he offered. "I'll do my best to extend my apologies in person when, that is if, I see him again."

I think he appreciates the gravity of my visit, she considered. That easily explains the undercurrent of tension when he answered the door.

"Tell me a little about yourself, Devon," she encouraged, sitting back in a more relaxed fashion. Her assessment wouldn't be complete without a better understanding of his background.

Devon settled back in his chair, steepling his fingers before him. "I was born Thadeous Devon Stevens in 1928 near Thomasville, Alabama. My family was part of the working poor, and of course, being African American meant that life was even harder because the jobs were scarce for people of color. My father worked on a road construction crew, and my mother was a seamstress and laundry worker. While in my twenties, I worked odd jobs just about anywhere I could find them. I eventually made my way to Chattanooga by age thirty, where I met a woman while walking down the back alleys on my way back from some late night entertainment.

"Her name was Nadida Kendrick, and after only a brief conversation, she offered me employment as a general laborer at her estate. Her property was vast, one of the largest spreads I'd ever seen at the time. I started as a kind of groundskeeper, but within a matter of months I progressed to helping coordinate the remainder of the staff she employed. I discovered from one of the maids that the previous estate coordinator disappeared abruptly from her employ with no indication why he would've left."

Devon paused, as if collecting his thoughts.

"Ms. Kendrick, as we called her, never came out at daytime, and instead seemed somewhat reclusive, except for occasional socializing a few evenings each week. And though somewhat standoffish to the general public, she was always pleasant around me and the other staff. After about a year of employment, she revealed herself as a vampire to me. I awoke one summer night in 1958 to the sound of shouting coming from the large barn she stabled the horses in. When I went to investigate, I saw a well-dressed man trying to attack her with a pitchfork, so I intervened. Little did I know the lady really hadn't needed my help, but she seemed touched by my sense of chivalry. It was then I found out what she was," he said. He paused and looked at Katrina with a curious expression.

"Please, continue," she encouraged.

"I was scared at first, of course. But she assured me that she meant me no harm, and I began to appreciate how being different was as much a threat to her in a human world as being African American was to me in a predominately Caucasian world. Over a year or more, we grew closer as she observed my trustworthiness and continued loyalty. Eventually, we became lovers. In retrospect, I suppose it wasn't really true love, per se, but rather an intimate partnership that included the offering of my blood. She encouraged my appreciation for classic literature and helped educate me in some of the finer knowledge of the world. Everything seemed fine until 1963 when that part of the country erupted with the early civil rights uprisings. You see, Nadida was wealthy in her own right, but she was a mulatto. At that time, anybody resembling a black was targeted for retribution by whites who opposed civil rights. She said she needed to relocate to another part of the world because she'd stayed in the area far too long. She sensed that her increased visibility was starting to raise additional suspicions. As for me, I didn't want to leave the country, but she promised she wouldn't force me to. Instead, she offered me immortality as a reward for my service and companionship before she left. She stayed only a matter of months after I was turned, just long enough to provide me with the basics regarding my new vampire life. Then she sold the estate and left the country. I've only heard from her on two occasions since then, but we haven't seen each other since she left me in early 1964." Devon stared across the room in a contemplative fashion, as if recalling some private thoughts.

He looked up with a hopeful expression and continued, "Since then, I've moved around the country and adopted the name Devon Archibald. I take odd jobs performing evening shift work in either manual labor or security. Naturally, given my size, I've managed to work as a bouncer from time to time. Right now, I'm a security guard for a tire manufacturing plant here in town and still do work as a bouncer at clubs on weekends when I need some quick cash."

Katrina considered everything she had heard, including Devon's rather humble and secluded lifestyle. His sincerity and forthrightness seemed genuine, and a part of her sympathized with his circumstances despite her intention to remain as neutral as possible to their meeting. Still, she couldn't allow her emotions to enter into her decision as to whether he would live or die that night. But she felt a small pang of guilt over that, as well. Why shouldn't I kill him for attacking, and nearly killing, Caleb?

Devon regarded Katrina curiously as the silence grew and prompted, "Is there anything else you want to know?"

She broke from her thoughts and noticed an old copy of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities sitting on the end table next to his chair. A place marker was stuffed between the pages approximately three quarters of the way to the end. Looks like he's still reading the classics.

"Do a lot of reading?" she asked.

He glanced absently to the book at his left and replied with satisfaction, "Yes, actually. I'm a varied reader for the most part, but I still reread the classics. It reminds me of my time with Nadida."

"I like the classics too," she agreed before falling silent. "So, do you have any questions about who I am?"

"I admit that I've already made some discreet inquiries to learn more about you," he conceded cautiously.

"Understandable." This should be interesting.

"I discovered you've earned quite a reputation among some in the vampire community," he began warily. "I had no idea how popular your recent experience with killing that Aztec vampire has become. I don't stay in regular contact with our kind, you see."

"Really?" she prompted.

"I generally don't have much in common with other vampires. I prefer human blood, but try to keep a low profile in my own community. For that reason, I spend more time outdoors hunting animals than I do being around others. What few human contacts I maintain are shallow because I haven't found anyone I trust enough to reveal my secret to."

I'm so fortunate to have Caleb, she affirmed.

"My prior experiences with women have often led to poor partings or having to dispose of a body and relocate to another part of the country," he continued. "And as for vampires, I see that with some of our kind, even honest misunderstandings might prove fatal. Although I'm interested to hear if reasonable restitution might be possible in my case."

She nodded imperceptibly and sat forward on the edge of the couch, allowing herself easy access to the combat knife hidden at the small of her back beneath her leather jacket. The time had come to make a decision.

"Devon, I appreciate your taking the time to tell me a little about yourself," she acknowledged politely. "And I can honestly say you have an intriguing and compelling life story."

He tensed slightly and quipped, "At least I was able to recite it out loud one last time, if nothing else."

The corners of her mouth upturned slightly in amusement. "There may be an opportunity to recite it again to others, if we can reach an agreement."

His eyebrows rose slightly. "What did you have in mind, exactly?"

"You seem to be well versed in security, so your skills might be helpful to me from time to time," she suggested tentatively. "I may need for you to check into concerns within the pockets of territories that I plan to claim. There may also be times when Caleb might need some additional assistance in the area of personal security."

He adopted a slightly amused expression. "Somehow, I think your mate may not be pleased to hear that right now."

"Very true, I'm afraid," she admitted. "But I preside over matters concerning his security, either with or without his acceptance. And not everything has to be done so overtly or even within his spectrum of awareness."

The large-framed vampire seemed intrigued by that statement. "Would I need to take orders from Caleb?"

Katrina's eyes narrowed. "Within reason, of course, though never when they countermand my explicit instructions. But no matter the instructions, one rule is paramount: he must be protected or defended at the expense of any other objectives."

"Your mate means a great deal to you," he observed respectfully.

"He's everything to me," she stated flatly. "Above all other concerns, goals, or interests."

Devon nodded with comprehension, but frowned with some confusion. "I think I get the picture. Now, pardon me if what I'm about to ask seems odd. But if that's true, and if he likely hates me right now for attacking him, why am I not dead already? Though, not that I'm complaining or anything, you understand."

Katrina fell silent as she considered his pertinent question. "You might be surprised to learn I don't have a precise answer for you on that right now. However, rest assured that I'm prepared to reconcile any incongruities in my logic as I deem necessary," she stipulated.

The broad-shouldered vampire appeared slightly unnerved by her statement and arched an eyebrow in surprise.

"Suffice to say that, in all honesty, I thought there was something about you that merited further investigation," she continued. "And yet, your continued longevity strongly depends upon your sense of personal integrity and in not proving me to be mistaken in my leniency."

His eyes widened. "Just before you arrived tonight, I checked my email, and I had received a message from another vampire who explained she had been seeking me out to perform a background check on your behalf. I believed her only because of the warning in her message."

"Warning?" Katrina asked with an arched eyebrow.

Devon nodded. "Yes. I thought it rather strange, because her message emphasized you were an alpha. She suggested you're quite experienced at killing both humans and vampires. She recommended I accept any reasonable offer made to me and stated that if I weren't on my best behavior for our meeting, I probably wouldn't live through the night," he recalled warily. "She also had a nickname for you," he added with a hint of amusement.

Katrina's lips tightened into a thin line. "Oh, really?" Just who the hell is meddling in my business now?

"She said you were 'a red-haired bitch' when you get angry," he replied soberly.

Her expression turned steely. "And just what was this vampire's name, precisely?"

"Ah, yes. It was Paige," he replied.

She froze in place, though nearly wincing from the revelation, and slowly shook her head. I'm so going to strangle you, my little blonde-haired friend.

Devon still seemed wary. "Is this Paige legitimate?"

She returned a half-smile and confirmed, "Oh, she's legitimate all right." Legitimate pain in the ass sometimes. But one of the dearest, best friends I've ever had.

"So, as to an agreement between us, then?" he pressed.

Katrina's expression turned serious again. "Only if you agree to my terms: defend and protect Caleb, address any concerns within my declared territories, and maintain loyalty to our agreement for the agreed duration."

"What duration did you have in mind?" he asked carefully.

She wondered what was both fair and reasonable for nearly killing her mate. Just the thought sent a wave of nausea through her, and she cursed herself for trying to assign a value against Caleb's life. "What do you think is reasonable?" she countered.

He seemed surprised to be asked and frowned as he fell deep in thought. Finally, he shrugged slightly and offered, "Ten years?"

Katrina realized how youthful in both mindset and lifespan the vampire sitting before her really was. Ten years was like the blink of an eye to most vampires. But he had barely been turned for forty years, so he was still thinking in finite human terms. It would have seemed amusing had the issue not related to someone so dear to her or for consequences she deemed so dire. But perhaps ten years will be enough time, after all. Caleb will be thirty-six by then and in the prime of adulthood as a human, or quite possibly in his infancy as a vampire, she added with anticipation.

She soberly regarded Devon and agreed, "Ten years it shall be."

Devon stood and reached out with his right hand to shake, and Katrina rose to return the gesture. Their hands met and gripped each other's tightly in a single motion.

"I'm an honorable person, Katrina Rawlings," he insisted. "And I keep to my bargains, oaths, and obligations."

She raised an eyebrow and agreed, "Good. As do I."

They released hands, and she withdrew a business card from an interior jacket pocket. She handed the card to him and instructed, "This has my home and cell phone numbers, email address, and home address written on it. Never share it with anyone unless I stipulate otherwise. I will contact you in the near future to confirm my territorial declaration before I announce it. Feel free to contact me if you have questions, concerns, or information you think would be helpful."

Devon nodded.

"Any questions for me?" she asked.

"Just two, really. First, how would you prefer to be addressed? And second, what do I need to know about your associate, Paige?"

She admired his quick thinking.

"You may call me Katrina," she offered. "I take it you prefer Devon?"

"Yes, please," he replied in his deep, baritone voice.

"And as for Paige, she's Caleb's surrogate guardian and protector. You should defer to her orders so long as they aren't in conflict with my own. I'll introduce you to her at the earliest opportunity," she explained, moving towards his entryway to depart. She wanted to return home to Caleb as soon as possible.

"I understand," he replied.

"Oh, and one more thing," she offered while glancing back over her shoulder. "Feel free to call Paige by her nickname."

Devon raised his eyebrows. "What's that?"

"Goldilocks," she slyly replied as she walked towards her car. Right back at you, my little friend, she thought with a mischievous smirk.

He watched her depart, and then slowly walked back inside his house.

When Katrina returned to the estate, she found Caleb lounging on the couch watching television in her chamber, but his body language seemed tense.

"I'm back," she offered encouragingly. "I'm glad that's out of the way."

But he failed to look up at her as she leaned over the back of the couch to gaze down at him.

"You didn't kill him, did you?" he asked in a dark tone.

Her lighter mood turned subdued. "No, but we came to what I believe was a very suitable arrangement."

He made a derisive sound. "It figures," he noted with displeasure.

"Caleb," she placated, "please try to understand. Devon didn't target you maliciously, though he did fail to observe the courtesy of taking you at your word that you were a vampire's mate until proving otherwise. I spared his life, and he'll repay his debt to us by assisting us for a period of time."

"Well, that's just great, Kat," he spat. "So, I nearly die, and he gets community service. How nice that you made a new friend in the end."

She resisted the inclination to sigh and instead fluidly moved around to the front of the couch, perching next to where he was half-sprawled across one end.

"My love," she urged patiently, "he's not a friend. And this arrangement will be of mutual benefit to you, as well. He will serve as a protector to you as needed."

He turned to her with a stoic expression and answered flatly, "I already have Paige as an additional protector. I don't want his assistance. I want him dead."

She was taken aback by her mate's vehemence and frowned. It was so unlike the peaceable, good-natured young man she had known thus far. She reflected upon his recent exposure to violence, including the near-fatal attack of Chimalma the past December and considered that perhaps he wasn't coping well. How is an innocent, gentle person supposed to react to such violence in his life? More to the point, what to do now? Patience above all else.

"My love, it's true that Paige is your assigned alternate guardian, but she's in California," she explained. "You need someone besides me who's also local."

His jaw tightened noticeably, and he glared sidelong at her. "Look, I can't make you kill him. Hell, I'm completely powerless to do anything about it, in fact. But I'll be damned if I'm going to accept anything from him whatsoever."

"Caleb, please try to –" she urged.

But he interrupted her. "Look. Pardon me if I take it personally when someone tries to kill me. And I don't care about the justifications, or the vampire politics, or whatever the hell's going on here. I just hate him. Okay?"

She realized further discussion on the matter would be futile and resigned herself to taking the issue one day at a time. Still, she felt her decision was a reasonable one and hoped he might see the potential benefits once his temper over the topic had abated. However, she feared it would be more of a long-term process.

"I'm going to take a shower," she announced. "Perhaps someone would like to join me?"

"Thanks, no," he replied. "I took my shower while you were gone."

She returned a slightly dejected expression and sighed. "I see," she replied and rose to make her way across the room to her dresser. She picked out something comfy to change into following her shower. Apparently, it's going to be a less than amorous evening for both of us. It appears I'll have time to call Alton with an update, after all.

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