A Bloody London Sunset (Sunset Vampire #2)

Chapter 5

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When Caleb's eyes fluttered open, the room wasn't as dark as before, and he realized from the dim glow that a lamp had been turned on somewhere across the room. He was lying on his stomach, and one side of his face was pressed into his pillow. Upon trying to move, he winced as his neck and upper back muscles ached in protest.

"Oh, crap," he moaned.

He rolled onto his back and rubbed his eyes. Feeling the bed jiggle slightly, he removed his hands to see Katrina staring down at him. She leaned over him with her hands planted on each side of his body and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"Good morning, sleepy head," she greeted with a warm smile.

"Mm, morning," he murmured.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

His mind quickly recalled the events from the night before, and he frowned. "Oh, that's right. I think I'm okay."

She continued to hover over him as she studied his features, and he noticed she was already dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved turtleneck. "Wha-what time is it?" he stammered.

She glanced at the clock across the room. "Almost ten-thirty, my love."

"Geez!" he exclaimed. "I need to haul my butt out of bed then. I don't want be rude just lying here all day."

But she pressed her palm against his bare chest and pushed him gently back onto the bed. "No hurry, it's Saturday. And Gil only roused an hour ago," she reassured him.

He relaxed somewhat and studied her eyes for a moment. He could spend hours gazing into those beautiful orbs.

The corners of her mouth upturned slightly in amusement. He has that mesmerized expression again.

He deliberately blinked and looked past her face to regain his concentration. "What's next?" he asked.

"I called Alton last night after your outburst," she replied. She related how Alton had listened intently to her story of meeting Caleb as a child, as well as all the events that transpired, including taking the dead body of Caleb's father with her that night to bury him in an undisclosed location. Her former mentor had been very patient and waited until the very end to ask clarifying questions. Finally, he had remained so silent before speaking again that Katrina had feared he had hung up on her. He explained how tricky hypnosis was and ventured how difficult it might be to alter what she had done.

"Alton said he knows of a vampire in London who's a long-time practicing psychiatrist who might be able to help you," she said. "Although he'll have to provide details later. He suggested we might be able to address that when you and I visit him on our trip to England."

"That's kind of him, of course. But I'm curious what he said about our real initial meeting?" he asked pointedly.

Her expression was unreadable as she fell silent for a moment. "He was sympathetic, actually," she recalled. "But he was very intrigued and said that it answered a few questions he had about your and my relationship. I'm still not sure what he meant by that; he was terribly hedgy on the subject. But he did have a message for you."

Caleb's eyebrows rose. "Yeah?"

She smirked. "He used that term of his again. He said, 'Tell Caleb that, to be brutally honest, I'm concerned for him and want to help as much as possible.'"

He smiled at the use of their special phrase "brutally honest" to indicate the sincerity of his comments versus merely being polite. Katrina studied his reaction carefully and wondered if there were more to the message than what had been stated.

"That was very kind," he replied.

She decided not to press the topic. "You gave Paige a bit of a scare last night too. She's very concerned."

He grinned shyly. "Really? She's a good friend, and a great guardian. We're tight."

"Even closer, I think," Katrina observed and kissed him softly on the lips. But I'm okay with that level of friendship, she conceded fleetingly, so long as it remains a friendship.

"Hungry?" she asked.

"Sure!" he replied brightly.

She shook her head. "When are you not?"

He adopted a mock-insulted expression, and she used her hand to dishevel his hair even more than it already was. "Okay, now you need to get that cute butt of yours out of bed," she prompted with a sly smile.

"How about breakfast in bed?" he countered with a smirk.

She arched an eyebrow in a challenge and swiftly wrapped her right arm underneath and around his waist. Pulling him from the bed with a lurch, she swung his body around until his toes touched the carpeted floor. He nearly lost his breath and teetered unsteadily as he landed on his feet, but she steadied him with her arm still wrapped securely around him, for which he was grateful.

"Wha –" he started, but she crushed her lips to his.

His arms encircled her waist, and he pulled her towards his body as they kissed. "I'll be up soon," he promised.

She pressed against his body and countered, "I sense you're already up." What a nice way to start the day.

He flushed slightly regarding his body's excited reaction as she pulled deliberately away from him. She moved in a blur to appear at the top of the stairs, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk. The door slid shut behind her, leaving him standing in silence.

"Damn, she's fast," he muttered with a grin, shaking his head.

After he showered, shaved and slipped into a pair of jeans and a Georgia State baseball sweatshirt, he proceeded upstairs and immediately smelled the fresh scent of pancakes. He smiled with sincere appreciation as he noticed Katrina flipping fresh pancakes over a griddle. Paige stood next to her, watching with an amused expression, while Gil sat at the kitchen bar counter eating a stack of three large flapjacks.

Katrina glanced at Caleb from over her shoulder as he walked closer to the stove. "Ready for some pancakes?"

Paige looked at him with a raised eyebrow and an expression of awe and asked, "When did all this cooking stuff start?"

He grinned. "Just recently. Kat's a great cook, actually."

Katrina smiled appreciatively as Paige reached out to pull Caleb into a sideways embrace with her left arm. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "How ya feeling this morning, kiddo?"

"Better, thanks," he offered as his right arm quickly slipped around her waist to complete the hug.

Katrina slipped three pancakes onto a large plate and handed it to him. "Eat up," she quipped.

"Mmm," he hummed, and plopped onto a barstool next to Gil. "Morning, Gil. How'd you sleep?"

Gil's eyes played over to Caleb's fresh pancakes, and he looked back over his shoulder at Katrina.

She anticipated his request and asked, "How many, Gil?"

"Three, please," he replied gratefully before returning his attention to Caleb. "A good night for me last night. Pretty sore in some places when I woke up, though. But it was the good kind of sore I wouldn't pass up again tonight, if you catch my drift."

Paige shook her head as she moved across the kitchen to fill a drinking glass with water. She sat the glass down in front of Caleb while glaring at Gil. "A little too much info, Gil."

Caleb smirked as he drizzled syrup on his pancakes. "Couldn't agree more, Paige." He dug into his pancakes with a vengeance and complimented his mate, "These are great, Kat!"

She neatly slipped a fresh stack of pancakes on Gil's plate with her large spatula and lightly ran her fingernails down the back of Caleb's neck in silent response, causing him to shiver pleasurably.

"Yeah, these are good, Katrina," Gil offered. "Thanks."

Paige used Caleb's momentary distraction to slip a forkful of his syrupy pancakes into her mouth with an appraising expression. "Tasty, actually," she offered with surprise.

"Want some?" Katrina asked her with a smirk.

"Make 'em with blood, and I'll consider it," the spunky vampire replied.

"Major gross," Gil muttered around a mouthful of pancake.

Paige popped him playfully on the back of the head with the flat of her hand and teased, "Ha! Just wait until you try burning some stinky dead animal meat in my kitchen again."

"So, what are we doing today?" Caleb asked.

"How about we go around town and take in some sites?" Gil suggested. "We can all hang out together."

Caleb stopped chewing and looked sidelong at the young man with upraised eyebrows while Paige just rolled her eyes.

"The ladies are vampires, Gil," Caleb reminded him. "Remember? Sunlight bad, nighttime good?"

"Oh, yeah," Gil replied foggily. "Sorry, they just seem so normal that I forgot about that."

Katrina gazed wide-eyed at Paige, who slowly reached out her hand towards Gil's neck from behind him as if to choke him while glaring into the back of his head.

"How long have you known Paige exactly?" Caleb asked warily while noting Paige's reaction out of his peripheral vision.

"Oh, just a few weeks now," Gil replied as he continued eating his pancakes, oblivious to the shaking motion Paige was making with her closed fist behind his head.

Katrina stifled a laugh and interjected, "Maybe Caleb can take Gil out for the day to scope out some activities for tonight."

"Please, take him away already," Paige muttered.

Gil chuckled, not realizing Paige was actually annoyed with him.

Caleb defrayed any further aggravation on Paige's part by offering, "I'll show Gil some of downtown. Like Kat suggested, we'll locate some potential hot spots for this evening. How's that?"

Before long, the two men were on their way. To Caleb's satisfaction, Katrina had been kind enough to let them take her Audi out for the day. He drove them past a number of areas of interest in the Atlanta area, including some historic plantation homes, museums, the Centennial Olympic Park, Civil War locations, the Atlanta Zoo, and a host of other noteworthy attractions. He stopped at a number of interesting locations with the hopes of piquing his West Coast visitor's interest. However, Gil seemed most intrigued by the heart of the city itself and was curious about the locations of some of the city's most popular clubs, particularly ones catering to alternative rock.

By mid-afternoon, Gil asked to stop at a bar or pub to grab a beer and a bite to eat. Caleb began a quick search on the car's GPS for possible locations, but Gil pointed to a random bar just up the street. Caleb realized that they weren't in the safest part of town, but relented after sensing the enthusiasm in Gil's demeanor. The bar was a reasonably maintained establishment called Brandy's whose parking lot teemed with sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks. In fact, Caleb took note of the fact that their sports car was the only actual car in the parking lot. A large-framed fellow with mustache and crew cut parked beside them and gave them a long, wary look as he walked past their car to head into the bar.

By the time the two of them crossed over the threshold of the front door, Caleb wondered how poor a choice they had made. The customers consisted mainly of what appeared to be gritty, hard-nosed types. Even the furniture looked nearly as worn and hard as the clientele, relegated to a variety of scratched oak tables and chairs that looked as though it was generations since they had been refinished. The stools lining the worn-looking bar were vinyl-covered, though most had cracks and tears in the material.

George Strait blared from a jukebox across the room, and some older model televisions mounted above the bar displayed rodeo, monster truck, and boxing events. Most of the faces in the room looked up at the two newest patrons with expressions ranging from amusement, to wariness, and even mild disgust. Obviously, despite the inclusion of their leather jackets, Caleb's college sweatshirt and Gil's Green Day concert t-shirt failed to impress anyone.

"We should go," Caleb urged with a wary expression.

"No way man, I'm thirsty," the suddenly willful young man from California retorted as he strode purposefully up to one of the available wooden tables. He pulled out a worn chair and plopped down.

"Just great," Caleb muttered as he followed and pulled up a wooden chair opposite him.

A short, blonde waitress who appeared in her forties wearing faded jeans and a polo shirt with the bar's name on it stopped by their table with a slightly raised eyebrow. "You two stayin'?"

Caleb looked across the table at Gil, who was taking in the decor in the room and sighed. He glanced at the waitress, noted her nametag and replied, "Well Peggy, it kind of seems that way."

The woman shrugged. "Just thought I'd better ask first. What can I get you?"

Gil immediately popped up with an order for a Modelo Especial on tap, and Caleb ordered a bottle of Samuel Adams.

"I'll be back in a minute," the waitress responded. "Menus are on the table."

As Caleb reached for one of the worn-looking menus, he heard a chortle from the table next to theirs where three burly, rough-looking guys were sitting, including the large-framed man with the mustache who had preceded them into the bar. Their laughing was followed by a deep voice razzing, "Hear that, Wes? No salt or lime to go with that Modelo for the punk-rocker."

A round of chuckling ensued, including some cursing, followed by the response, "Hell, I haven't heard about anyone ordering old Sam Adams since he died at the Alamo!"

The history professor personality inside Caleb cringed painfully. It always incensed him when people made such inaccurate historical references. Still, it wasn't as if the guy would care to know that Sam Adams was actually a reference to Samuel Adams, a prominent founding father from the American Revolution. It would just escalate tensions, which was precisely what Caleb didn't need at the moment.

"Well, ya' old bastard, I guess you'd know since you were there!" another teased.

A round of laughter ensued, followed by the thumping of empty beer mugs on a tabletop. One fellow boomed, "Peggy! Another round of Buds for the real working men over here!"

The waitress appeared with Caleb's and Gil's beers, plopped them onto the table, and barked at the men, "Keep your shirts on. I'll get to you in a minute!"

The men grumbled and returned to talking shop.

Peggy's demeanor became somewhat more professional as she regarded Caleb. "You boys ready to order something from the menu?"

"Any recommendations?" Caleb asked with a hopeful expression.

She regarded him with a sober expression and suggested, "Drink here, eat somewhere else."

"Maybe just a burger, well-done, and some fries, please," he requested politely as the waitress scribbled on a small notepad.

Peggy looked at Gil. "And for you?"

Gil's face turned oddly introspective. "So, about the nacho platter. Is it pretty good?"

Her expression turned a mix of sour and amused, and she retorted, "You been to the state fair before and ordered nachos?"

Gil shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Well, these ain't as good as those," she replied.

Gil frowned with distaste and offered, "Uh, yeah. Well, I'll just have the same as him, well-done on the burger, too."

The waitress smirked as she wrote on her pad, and then silently walked back towards the kitchen. Gil and Caleb simultaneously exchanged curious glances, and one of the burly fellows at the nearest table muttered to his buddies, "Five dollars says they can't even finish eatin' those greasy burgers."

Caleb ignored the comment, took a swig of his beer and asked, "So Gil, what do you think of Paige so far?"

The rocker considered his question. "Well, she's a free spirit, you know. But I like her, and she's a hell of a lot of fun out clubbing. And damn, she rocks that body, man. But you probably already know that, eh?"

Caleb frowned. "Not really, Gil. I haven't been out clubbing with Paige. At least, not yet. She keeps threatening to get me out on the town, though. And as for rocking her body, we're almost like family, you know. She means a lot to me, but we're not like that."

Gil glowered and took a long pull from his beer.

"What?" Caleb pressed.

"Well, it's just the way you two act," Gil began carefully. "Listen, I ain't an idiot, Caleb. You're not her family, after all, no matter what she says about being like a sister and all that. And then there's the way she pressed against you last night. Damn, Caleb. My buddy Skeet has a sister, and they don't look at each other the way Paige does you. Although Skeet and his sister aren't all that close, I guess. Hell, I don't know. I just know nobody ever looked at me like that before, dude."

Caleb felt a pang of concern run through him.

"Gil, you've got it all wrong," he countered. "Paige, she's really more like a sister to me. I mean, I really care about her. But I'm not a threat to you and her. It's cool."

Gil took another swig of his beer and cast a glance to the men at the nearby table who were distracted with fresh beers from Peggy. He regarded Caleb with a more relaxed expression and grinned, "Hey, no problem, Caleb. I get it."

But he sensed something from Gil and lowered his voice as he leaned across the table. "No Gil, you don't. You've got it all wrong about Paige. She's like my guardian angel, a protector. I mean, she's saved my life on at least two separate occasions since last fall. I owe her my life, for God's sake. But I want her to be happy, and if you do that for her, then I'm all for it. Got it?"

Gil responded with a quick nod and half-grin before being distracted by something across the room.

Caleb observed him looking pointedly at the old jukebox along the back wall and watched him get up from his seat. He immediately suggested, "Hey Gil, I'd just leave well enough alone there if I were you. We'll finish eating and head out of here, okay?"

But Gil seemed determined and insisted, "Man, this lame bumpkin scene is killing me. We're gonna change the sound around here, at least while we're stuffin' our faces."

Caleb just shook his head and watched as the young man strode confidently over to the old jukebox and sorted through the available titles. He fed dollar bills into the jukebox, and there was a pause as titles loaded. In a matter of moments, hard rock began to play, starting no less than with Green Day's "When I Come Around."

"Just great," Caleb remarked under his breath before taking a swallow of beer and casting a wary glance at the rowdy fellows seated nearby. The men were talking, but paused as the music blared. Their narrowed eyes followed Gil all the way back to the table, glaring at him as he sat down.

"Friggin' punk rock shit," one of the men growled. "I told Butch he shoulda kicked that damned old jukebox to the curb years ago if he wasn't going to pack it with more country."

Caleb took a swig of beer and silently considered how quickly they could make it to the exits if things turned ugly. Fortunately, the men seemed to be content to just curse and complain, rather than take any action.

Moments later, Peggy arrived with their burgers and fresh beers, and she seemed more upbeat for some reason.

"Here's the burgers, guys," she announced. "And good job on the music. Nice to hear something else besides George Strait or Brooks and Dunn for a change."

She departed quickly, leaving Caleb and Gil exchanging surprised expressions. Both shrugged and returned to their burgers and beers. Everything seemed more sedate for a short time until they were almost done eating. That's when the three guys at the nearby table divvied up money to pay and rose to leave. Each of them made a point to brush up against either Caleb's or Gil's chairs while walking past.

"Friggin' yuppies," grumbled the man with the dark bushy mustache and crew cut as he banged into the back of Caleb's chair while passing.

Caleb discreetly rolled his eyes at the comment. It wasn't as if either he or Gil looked anything like young urban professionals, particularly dressed as they were. Ignorance is definitely bliss with some people.

"Redneck bastard," Gil muttered under his breath as the guy walked away.

The man turned abruptly to grimace at Gil, demanding, "What was that, punker?"

Gil swallowed his bite of burger and started to say something, but Caleb cut him off with, "He said 'better eat faster,' that's all."

The burly fellow sneered, shook his head, and cursed under his breath while continuing to the door to leave. Caleb relaxed somewhat once the last man walked out and looked over at Gil with barely contained contempt.

"Are you anxious for a bar fight or something?" he chastised. "Those guys are just blowhards. Geez, let's just eat and get the hell out of here."

Within minutes, Caleb finished his beer, and both of them declined another refill when the waitress stopped by with their bill.

"I hope you weren't bothered by those guys who were in here," Peggy suggested. "They're just a bunch of complainers who usually shoot off their mouths. Butch, the owner, threatens to ban them from this place, and they usually simmer down."

Caleb thanked her and took care of the check with cash, making sure to leave a generous tip for Peggy. Barely ten minutes after their biggest fans had left, Caleb and Gil were exiting the bar out to what was a sunny, warmer-than-expected February afternoon.

"Gil, next time, I get to pick the bar," Caleb remarked absently.

Everything seemed fine, until they spotted the three troublemakers from the bar standing around Katrina's car at the side of the building where they had parked. Caleb shook his head in near disbelief as he stared at the throng of men, only to realize the guy with the mustache and crew cut was relieving himself onto the Audi's right rear tire.

A surge of anger ran through him, but he managed to keep himself in check as he walked slowly towards their car. The man zipped up his jeans, and all three men started laughing as they cast incendiary glances towards Caleb and Gil.

"Hey, assholes!" Gil snapped as he walked a little faster than Caleb towards the car.

"Just get in the car, Gil," Caleb warned, deactivating the alarm with the key remote.

But Gil was already approaching the three men with his fists balled up tightly.

Caleb swore under his breath as the mustached man barreled forward while Gil shifted next to the car. Gil barely had time to lift his fist before the man punched him in the gut, causing him to double over.

"Aw, crap," Caleb growled as the other two men moved deliberately towards him.

Everything happened so fast after that. Caleb barely realized that one of the two men had swung towards him, but he managed to pivot his body, only catching a glancing blow to the left side of his head.

Something shot through him, like a cross between a flashback and an electrical surge. The memory of Devon Archibald's attack on him at the wildlife preserve replayed in his head like a lightning flash. Only this time, instead of fear, he felt intense anger and resentment. He was tired of being attacked, and since these guys weren't vampires, an important notion occurred to him: they were only human, which made them beatable.

Reactions began to flow in his body without the need to think as some of the combat training Katrina had drilled into his head activated. Of the two men approaching him, the second fellow, a red-haired man, aimed his fist at Caleb's stomach while his buddy recovered his balance from the initial missed punch. But Caleb grabbed the red-haired man's forearm with his left hand while slamming his clenched fist into the front of the man's throat. The assailant immediately gasped with a choking sound, and fell forward onto his knees onto the asphalt parking lot.

The first man, a bearded guy with curly hair, recovered and punched Caleb in the lower back around his kidneys. Pain shot through him, but it was bearable and nothing like the pain from Devon's assault, so he had enough stamina to whirl and catch the man in the side of the nose with the back of his right elbow. Caleb heard a crunching sound as his elbow slammed into the bearded man's face, followed by a shriek as the guy reached up to cup his face with both hands.

One glance at Gil revealed he was quickly losing in the brief melee of fists flailing between the two men. The mustached man made a quick punch to Gil's jaw, sending him banging into the side of a beat-up old pickup parked next their car. The young rocker slumped groggily down to the asphalt after that.

Caleb rushed forwards to side-kick at the mustached man's left knee, sending the yelling thug to the ground. Caleb landed punches against the left side of the guy's head and jaw, requiring only three sharp blows before the guy fell unconscious onto the blacktop with a heavy thump.

Caleb was spun around from behind, glimpsing the red-haired man who he'd hit in the nose with his elbow. Blood still ran down the guy's mouth and chin as his fist landed against the left side of Caleb's face, popping his head backwards. The man weighed into Caleb with a left blow to his ribs, but Caleb maintained concentration on retaliating by foot-sweeping him. As the red-haired man fell backwards, Caleb slammed the flat of his foot into his head, knocking it back against the pavement with a thud. All the fight ebbed from the thug as he rolled onto his side moaning and grasping at the back of his head.

Caleb breathed heavily while glancing around for witnesses as he grasped Gil by his arm and helped to steady him as he rose. Gil shook his head slightly, seeming to recover his wits and looked at Caleb with a surprised expression.

"Where the hell did you –"

"Just get in the damned car!" Caleb yelled as he felt warm blood running down into his left eye.

"Shit, no, dude! I better drive," Gil insisted as he picked up the keys from the pavement near the front of the car. "Dude, your face is bleeding wicked bad."

Caleb cursed and fell into the passenger seat of the car as Gil raced around to the other side, hopped into the driver's seat, and revved the engine. He peeled out of the parking lot and into the late afternoon light traffic.

"Shit! I'm not even sure which way is home," he complained.

Caleb managed to remove his blood-covered sweatshirt, wadded it up, and used it to press against the bleeding side of his face as he attempted to discern their location. He glanced at the GPS, punched the preset for home, and barked, "Just follow the GPS!"

"Okay, just chill," Gil snapped. "Don't get all cracked out on me, dude."

Caleb grumbled under his breath, wishing he had some ibuprofen or something for the pounding in his head. He shifted slightly in the seat to test his back and ribs, but didn't think anything felt broken or out of place. Still, most of his body ached, and his right knuckles were throbbing. He glanced sidelong at Gil, who had a bloody lip and bruises on his face, but otherwise seemed okay. What a sight-seeing trip, he thought darkly. Katrina's sure as hell not going to be happy about this, he considered as an afterthought.

It only took about twenty minutes for them to make it back to the estate, though that was partly due to the fact that Gil enjoyed speeding down the highway at any opportunity. They lurched into the driveway, and Caleb activated the garage door opener, muttering, "Just leave the car out. We have to hose down the tire and fender, remember?"

"Yeah, sure," Gil replied absently as they got out of the car and walked into the garage.

Katrina and Paige sat in the living room at the back of the house sipping glasses of warm blood and discussing the prospects of the prospective territorial claims needing to be declared by Katrina around Atlanta. The quiet was broken as Gil burst into the kitchen, announcing grandly, "Ladies, your knights have returned! Hey, Katrina! Your car is one bitchin' machine!"

Both vampires cast curious glances at each another and turned to stare at Gil as he walked into the living room. Gil hastily tossed the car keys across the room towards Katrina, who neatly caught them in one hand over her head without even glancing at them. Both vampires were transfixed, studying the bruises and cuts on Gil's face. Paige finally demanded, "What the hell happened to you?"

"Oh, shit, man," Gil began excitedly. "We just got a beer and burger, and so these three rednecks were bitching about our music. Then…"

While Gil rambled about their adventure, Caleb sneaked behind and past him through the kitchen and made his way down the main hallway to the sublevel chamber where he could clean up and tend to his bleeding face.

As Gil rambled on, both vampires abruptly sniffed the air, and Katrina cast a sidelong glance at Paige with a knowing look in her eyes. Caleb's blood, she determined.

Paige seemed to sense the same conclusion, because she jumped up from the couch and held up her hand for Gil to stop talking. "Wait!" she insisted. "Where's Caleb?"

"Caleb?" Gil asked. "I dunno. Maybe he's hosing off the car tire."

She frowned with confusion, but Katrina already sped past her and was following the blood scent trail through the house.

"Car tire?" Paige asked with narrowed eyes. "Why would he –"

"One of those assholes peed on the car," Gil explained.

Paige sighed and demanded, "Where were you two again?"

Gil started to speak, but Paige grabbed him by the arm and led him into the kitchen saying, "Never mind. Let's get you cleaned up first. And don't bleed all over the new carpet; Katrina's had it less for than a month."

Caleb removed his bloody t-shirt and dropped it to the tile floor atop his blood-soaked sweatshirt. As he washed his face in cold water, the bathroom door knob rattled. Then came an immediate knocking sound and Katrina's voice.

"Caleb? Caleb, are you okay?" she insisted with concern.

"Fine. Everything's fine," he reassured her, "I'll be out soon."

Outside, Katrina exhaled a deep breath and shook her head. Yeah, right. That's typical guy talk for, "I'm hurt and don't want you fussing over me."

"Open the door right now, my love, or I'm breaking it down," she ordered.

Caleb winced from her tone and held a damp washcloth over the left side of his face where it was still bleeding. He unlocked the door and turned back to the sink to the freely flowing cold water.

The door opened, and Katrina literally towered over him from behind as she looked into the mirror to see his face. "Turn around, Caleb," she insisted gently, grasping him by the shoulders and pivoting him around.

She examined his hand, noting the cuts and bruises on his knuckles and pulled the washcloth away from his face. She gazed upon the gash above his left eyebrow, the cut on his right cheek, his bleeding lip, and the bruises on his face. "Oh, Caleb," she gasped softly.

Paige appeared behind Katrina, scrutinizing Caleb with a clenched jaw and steely expression. "How many?" she demanded tersely, her blue eyes flaring angrily.

"Three," he replied as Katrina took the washcloth from him and rinsed it in the cold water. "But don't worry, we gave as good as we got."

"We?" Paige dubiously challenged. She had not noticed much damage to Gil, which made her think it was less Gil and more Caleb doing the fighting.

Katrina used the washcloth to dab at the cut above his forehead and moved forward to roll her tongue over the wound to seal the cut. The taste of his blood sparked a momentary pang of thirst in her, but she quickly suppressed it.

"Well, Gil helped," Caleb insisted.

"Hold still," Katrina complained as she held his face in place firmly and returned to sealing the cut.

"Do you think they followed you?" Paige asked.

"Don't know. They were still lying on the parking lot when we left," he replied absently, appreciating Katrina's ministrations as the pain in his face ebbed.

Katrina pulled away from him and looked at her mate with surprise. "Really?"

He nodded. "Yeah, really. I got tired of being beat upon by everyone, it seems."

She raised a curious eyebrow, while Paige considered him with an introspective expression.

"Who started it?" Paige asked.

As Katrina returned to lick at another cut on his face, Caleb considered the question briefly and replied, "They did. The waitress said they were troublemakers. Hell, they were pissing on the car when we went out to the parking lot. I tried to avoid a fight, but there it was."

Katrina listened closely to his response, but felt that something was missing from his story.

"Hey, is Caleb okay?" Gil asked, popping his head into the bathroom.

"We're working on that," Paige replied. "Gil, Caleb's a little hazy on how that fight got started. Care to enlighten us?"

Caleb started to speak up, but a hard look from Katrina quieted him.

"Well," Gil hedged, "those guys harassed us in the bar and attacked us after we left."

Paige pressed, "You didn't happen to antagonize them, did you?"

"Aw, c'mon, babe," he retorted. "Just 'cause some tumbles happened at our band's club gigs, you think I started this?"

"I'm just saying, you're good at pissing people off, Gil," she remarked. "Quite a few of the performances your band gave ended up in fists flying. Bouncers tended to get busy around you."

Gil smirked. "You've got some pretty good moves in a fight, too."

But Paige wasn't amused. "Yeah, well, you don't, as I recall. And you appear to be in pretty good shape compared to Caleb right now, too."

He puffed up his chest a little and shot back, "Oh, so now it's my fault just because Caleb caught some more action than I did? What if I did a better job dodging fists than he did?"

"Gil –" Paige warned.

"Hey, chill. Anyway, babe, I always told you I'm a better lover than fighter," he continued, to which she scoffed derisively.

"Lame, Gil. If you can't finish them, don't start them!" Paige snapped.

He made a sour face. "Well, old Caleb here sure took care of those bastards. Hell, he was wiping the floor with 'em!"

Katrina heard Caleb's teeth clench, and she whipped her head around to address Paige and Gil in a flat voice, "Take it upstairs. We're busy here." She didn't like what she was hearing, although a similar stream of thought as Paige's had occurred to her, as well.

Gil took a deep breath, exhaled, and left.

Paige moved past Katrina to stroke Caleb on the less injured side of his face with her fingertips lightly. "Nice job, kiddo," she complimented. "And thanks for looking out for Mister Trouble."

"Yeah, sure," he replied with a slight nod, although he wasn't particularly enthused about taking Gil out on the town again anytime soon.

Paige disappeared in a blur, leaving Katrina and Caleb alone in the bathroom.

"I'm proud of you, my love," Katrina offered. "Remember after the attack that night in the forest, when I said that if Devon were a human the results could've been quite different?"

Caleb nodded.

"Humans didn't fare so well against you today. And someday, vampires won't find you as easy a target, either," she remarked sagely.

"Good. I'm tired of playing the victim," he remarked acidly.

But his tone made Katrina frown, and she considered it would be important to observe him as his combat training progressed. Attitude was important, but so was control. She momentarily wondered at the condition of the three men who he had fought, as well as whether or not they might have reported Caleb to the police. Her experience had shown that often enough the victorious victim could end up appearing as the perpetrator if the loser pressed charges first.

But then, I'll deal with that if I have to. Dead men tend not to press charges.

"I want to lie down for a while," he remarked as a growing sense of exhaustion began to flow through him. "Got any aspirin?"

After a welcome nap, he lay on the bed on his right side beneath a blanket, Katrina curled up alongside him. The room was dimly lit from a table lamp across the room, and he was unsure what time it was.

"Feel better, my love?" she inquired gently.

He yawned. "Yep. How long was I asleep?"

"About four hours," she answered. "It's almost eight o'clock now."

He was surprised by that and stretched to sense how sore he felt. While achy, he felt better than expected. He paused to appreciate lying next to Katrina and would have preferred to stay there for the rest of the evening. But he recalled Gil had wanted to go clubbing that night to some of the alternative rock venues they'd noticed earlier in the day. Then the mid-afternoon encounter with the men at the bar replayed in his mind, and he sighed.

"Thinking about earlier?" she asked, running her fingers through his hair lightly.

"Yeah," he replied. "And how I need to get up, take a shower, and change."

"We can stay in tonight," she offered.

He would have liked that.

"Sounds nice, but I promised Gil," he countered. "Besides, you and Paige have been cooped up at home all day while we were out picking fights –"

"You didn't pick it, you finished it," she interjected mildly.

He nodded and conceded, "Okay then."

She reached around from behind him to pat him his chest with the flat of her hand, one of the few places he wasn't sore, and suggested, "Let Paige take Gil out. We can curl up with a movie in the theater room or something."

He considered that for a moment and quickly warmed to the idea. But a pang of guilt flowed through him. "That's a nice idea, but I wouldn't mind taking you out tonight. That is, if you don't mind my looking like I was dropped out of the back of a speeding truck," he said, deliberately injecting some enthusiasm into his voice.

She chuckled and kissed the back of his neck. "You might want to look in a mirror, my love," she recommended. "I worked on you while you slept, and your face looks pretty good to me."

His mood brightened as his fingers probed his face tentatively, realizing he felt no scars. In fact, his face was only mildly sore in places. He wondered how long she had spent using her saliva to heal his face. "Is your tongue tired?" he teased.

She giggled. "It was worth it, my love. There's no bruising or scars, but you might want to avoid any more fights over the next few days until your facial tissue heals fully."

He smiled and rolled over to face her. He puckered his lips, and she kissed him. "Thanks, Kat. I'll try to stay out of fights, but just for the next few days," he teased.

Her eyes narrowed. "Yes, you will. Because I'll be the one doing the fighting for you in the foreseeable future."

"Just the foreseeable?" he inquired playfully.

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Forever. Except when you refuse to let me and, of course, when you seek trouble while I'm not around."

"Hey, sometimes trouble finds me before you can arrive," he challenged.

She conceded the truth of his statement and kissed him on the tip of his nose. "Touche," she capitulated. "And while I admit I wouldn't mind going out tonight, we'll only stay out for a short time. Paige and Gil can pull an all-nighter if they want, so we'll take separate vehicles."

Caleb smiled wryly. "Yeah, I better hose off your car first."

She grinned. "No need. Paige made Gil do that earlier, actually."

"Good," he replied irritably.

She frowned. "Tell me, did Gil do something to draw you into that fight?"

He considered the question, not particularly wanting to lay blame on Gil, but admitting the man's behavior hadn't helped their situation and may have antagonized the men further. "Those guys were real troublemakers, Kat," he explained. "But I'll admit that Gil did antagonize them a little bit. Hell, maybe I should've never let us walk in there in the first place, so it's partly my fault too."

She shook her head at her mate's attempt to defray blame and let the topic drop. However, it didn't engender much appreciation for Gil in her opinion, either. "Okay. Go start the shower, and I'll join you in a minute," she suggested as she removed her arm from around him.

"Hmm, maybe I'll rethink my plans for tonight," he ventured suggestively.

Please, tempt me, she thought as she watched him get up. It was only the past day or so that he had begun to warm up to her again after the Devon and photograph issues. She felt that she needed to work particularly hard on smoothing the rough edges of their relationship. A couple can only endure so much conflict at one time. Though it wasn't any lack of resolve on her part that bothered her; it was her concern that he might give up on her first, and she couldn't bear the thought of that.

Caleb changed into a pair of black casual slacks and royal blue sateen shirt, and then went upstairs. Katrina had gone to the master bedroom on the second floor where she kept many of her more elaborate outfits, and he was anxious to see what she picked to wear for their evening out. And of course, he was looking forward to Paige's being part of the event.

Caleb went to the kitchen, observed Paige standing next to the bar counter, and stopped in amazement. She wore a red key-hole halter dress that perfectly fit her petite frame and ended halfway between her upper thighs and her knees. She spun in a quick circle for him. The crossed spaghetti straps at the back revealed her smooth, pale skin, and she accented the outfit with some strappy, spike-heeled shoes and ruby earrings. Her outfit, coupled with her 1920s hair style, gave her the edgier, modern appearance of her life as a former flapper. While he smiled appreciatively at her, he noted a somber expression on her face.

"Howdy, Miss Sassy, Sexy, and Supernatural," he greeted her. "You look amazing, Paige."

She smirked in classic Paige fashion and retorted, "Well, well, if it isn't our newest resident street fighter and upcoming bar room brawler himself. And yet, you have that subtle out-on-the town look tonight."

He was happy that her quick wit seemed intact, but noted she still seemed more subdued than normal. "Too ordinary looking?" he asked self-consciously.

"Hardly, tiger," she assured him. "Everyone in clubs nowadays is trying to look either too Hollywood or like a rock star, but it's overdone and over-rated. I happen to like men with a subtle and confident look; you don't see that as much anymore."

"Thanks," he replied with bolstered self-confidence before assessing her more closely.

She watched him curiously as he walked up to her and reached out with his two index fingers to lift the corners of her mouth into a forced smile. She deliberately revealed sharp-looking fangs against the backdrop of her otherwise beautiful white set of teeth.

"I'm going to make you laugh tonight, and there's not a 'fang' you can do about it," he teased.

She grasped both of his index fingers in her hands and pulled them away from her face. "Oh, that was a bad one. You deserve a bite to the neck," she mock-threatened.

He wiggled his index fingers playfully as she held onto them.

"You're looking a lot better than when I last saw you, kiddo," she observed softly.

"I took a lickin' from Katrina since then, you know."

She winced, but smiled.

"Another bite earned over that one?" he ventured with raised eyebrows.

She looked at the ceiling briefly through narrowed eyes while shaking her head. "Nope," she replied matter-of-factly. "Just tickling!" With that, she released his index fingers, only to move in a blur and begin tickling his ribs. Despite a twinge of soreness, he flailed and twisted as he tried to evade her wriggling fingers. However, she wrapped her arms around his midsection from behind and continued to dig her fingers into his sides. He laughed and struggled, while she evilly giggled. He was amazed at how spry and balanced the vampire was in a pair of heels.

After a few seconds she stopped, but continued to hug him to her body closely for a minute or so longer. He tried to catch his breath while chuckling to himself as a happy feeling surged through him over the playful exchange. Mission objective number one accomplished, he mused.

"I needed that," she whispered before releasing him.

He frowned slightly, curious as to the reason behind her comment.

"So, where are we going tonight?" Gil asked with a curious expression, appearing suddenly from the living room. He had changed into a pair of leather pants and a tight-fitted, gray and black shirt. It made Caleb think of the trendy, devil-may-care California club scene.

The young rocker stared at Paige with raised eyebrows and a grin on his face. Clearly, he liked what he saw. She looked back at him with a forced smirk.

"Wow, babe," Gil offered. "You look like one of those sexy women from a rock video."

She frowned momentarily and shrugged. "Thanks, I think," she offered while observing Gil's attire with an appraising expression. "You look like the classic vision of a Hollywood rocker tonight, Gil," she added.

Caleb recalled her earlier comments about club attire and glanced at her with a mildly concerned expression.

But her demeanor turned abruptly cheerful, and she changed the subject. "Well, getting back to our plans for tonight. First, we get something for you two to eat," she ventured. "I'm thinking someplace Asian."

Caleb frowned. "Since when do you pick restaurants?"

"Shush!" she mock-admonished, placing her forefinger against his lips. "I happen to know of a little Asian restaurant and bar not far from here, and the online reviews are great. So, then we head to a downtown club called The Gecko Room for some alternative rock and dancing."

"Sounds good. And guess what? Remember when you promised me last December that you wanted to get me out clubbing with you someday?" Caleb recalled with a smirk. "That day has finally arrived."

She beamed with sincere satisfaction. "Yeah, I did, didn't I?"

He grinned back at her as Gil watched both of them suspiciously. The young rocker interjected, "Let me tell you, Paige rocks on the dance floor, dude."

"Aw, she rocks anyway, floor or no floor," Caleb quipped with a smirk.

"Thanks, tiger," she replied with a grin. "And I'm anxious to see how you do out there yourself."

Caleb wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, well, one of my ex-girlfriends said I look like a Muppet when I dance."

Paige chuckled. "I'll have you know, I happen to like Muppets," she admitted shyly.

"Is that like Kerbett the toad?" Gil asked with knitted brows.

"That's Kermit the frog, fry-brain," Paige corrected him irritably with a roll of her eyes.

Caleb was getting the distinct impression his vampire guardian wasn't exactly enjoying her time with Gil lately. He admitted the two didn't seem like a likely pair, though it wasn't really his business to say so. He just wanted Paige to be happy, no matter whom she dated.

"Oh, yeah," Gil replied awkwardly.

"Oh, Caleb? Do you have a minute?" Katrina called from the front part of the house.

He adopted a curious expression as he headed in that direction. He stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor and looked up to the top. What he saw nearly caused him to lose his breath.

Katrina stood at the top of the stairs with a smirk on her face as she appreciated his reaction. She was dressed in a bright blue sequin halter dress with a plunging neckline and open back that fit her like a glove. Her red hair was straight, flowing down her back like a beautiful ruby river. He took note of the strappy blue high-heeled shoes and sequin clutch purse, which finished off the ensemble perfectly. He forced himself to take a breath as he stared up at her sexy vision.

"You like?" she asked, having clearly observed his complete reaction like a scientist studying a test subject. His response pleased her, and she reveled in having captured his attention completely.

"You-You're stunning," he stammered with a grin.

"Thank you," she beamed, slowly stepping down the stairs towards him. "You look handsome and tasty all at the same time, yourself."

She savored the fact that he stood there simply watching her approach, like a deer transfixed by the stalking of a predator. Of course, that's exactly what I am, she considered with satisfaction. She was particularly pleased to see something other than disappointment or resentment in his eyes after all that happened between them recently.

He was mesmerized by her sexy appearance as she descended the stairs and felt a surge of pride run through him. She's my mate and mine alone. He felt other, more animalistic urges rise in him as well.

She stopped before him at the foot of the stairs and bent down to kiss him on the lips. He eagerly responded and reached out to grasp the sides of her waist with both hands. She felt the magnetism in his kiss, and a surge of satisfaction passed through her. Oh, this is good. I should've worn this for him a long time ago.

Her arms draped around his neck to rest atop his shoulders, and she pressed another kiss on his lips. She felt his arms begin to enfold her and smirked into his kisses. "Now, now," she admonished playfully. "We have an entire evening ahead of us."

He wasn't thinking at all about the evening ahead, instead feeling other immediate desires rise in his body. But she removed her arms from around his neck and gently disengaged his hands from around her waist so she could step back.

"Later, my love," she promised.

He merely nodded and stared at her hungrily. Wow. She looks completely irresistible.

Paige appeared around the corner to view the pair and grinned with admiration. "Nicely done, Red," she complimented.

"Ditto, Paige," Katrina replied in kind.

"Whoa," Gil said with widened eyes as he rounded the corner to view Katrina's outfit. "Smoking hot, Katrina!"

"Thank you, Gil," she replied appreciatively.

"Both the ladies look smokin' hot," Caleb interjected, to which Paige smiled thoughtfully.

The four gathered their jackets and proceeded to the garage. Katrina suggested Paige and Gil take the rental car so that she and Caleb could return earlier in the evening if her mate grew too tired. Paige gave a pained expression, but conceded the merits of her suggestion.

Knowing that Caleb enjoyed driving her Audi, Katrina encouraged him to drive them to the restaurant. While her goal was to please him, she particularly wanted to make him the center of the universe that evening. She hoped he could recapture some of the thrill he had experienced when they had first started dating last fall. She feared that their recent disagreements were taking a negative toll on their relationship and wanted to plant new, enjoyable memories that night.

Caleb was somewhat tired but drove them to their destination capably, though much of the credit went to the impeccable aid of the car's GPS. He barely stifled a yawn as he walked around the car to open the door for Katrina.

The Lotus Garden was a trendy, chic Asian restaurant catering to a sophisticated, yet youthful, crowd. It was bustling with customers, though, much to everyone's relief, Paige had called ahead to make reservations earlier that evening.

The four of them were seated at a table where the food was prepared tableside in an entertaining, uniquely oriental fashion. The two vampires placed Caleb between them, while Paige placed Gil to her opposite side. During the meal, they chatted about the atmosphere and the merits of Saki over other alcoholic beverages while the chef prepared their food in miniature courses. As was common with vampires, the two women picked at their food, which consisted exclusively of vegetarian items.

Katrina paid close attention to Caleb throughout the meal and often placed her hand over his, or draped her arm around him affectionately. He appreciated it and made an effort to return her attentions in kind.

Paige also noticed the improved relations between Caleb and Katrina with a degree of satisfaction, feeling that her interventional visit to Atlanta was continuing to be quite successful. However, she found it difficult to concentrate upon Gil fully, inwardly feeling a pull to Caleb in ways that bothered her slightly.

In the end, they all had a thoroughly enjoyable time, and Paige took care of the check. From there, they proceeded to the alternative rock club, which wasn't far from the restaurant.

Upon their arrival at The Gecko Room, the parking lot was nearly crammed with vehicles, and they had to park in a nearby overfill lot. It was an unusually cold night in Atlanta; the north wind had steadily increased throughout the evening. Caleb and Gil hugged their vampires close to them as they made their way to the front of the building, both oblivious to the fact that neither vampire was affected by the cold.

A crowd of people lingered outside the entrance, and it appeared there might be a wait, but two large-framed men stationed at the door immediately noticed Katrina and Paige and beckoned to them to approach. Caleb and Gil shrugged at each other and followed behind them. In a matter of minutes, after Caleb paid for everyone's cover charge, the four were in the midst of a sea of humanity. Both men appreciated the warmer interior.

The alternative rock music blared as the dance floor was alive with undulating bodies. An alternating series of neon lights created a surreal atmosphere, and the cavernous interior seemed to magnify and echo the cacophony of music coupled with the dialogue of patrons. Tables lined the periphery of the main walls, and two separate lengths of bar were arrayed to the each side of the large room. It was apparent significant funds had been spent preparing the club for efficient function as well as atmosphere.

The environment was almost complete overload to Caleb's senses, not having frequented clubs since well before he had dated his ex-girlfriend, Melanie, nearly a year ago. However, Gil seemed quite at home in the surroundings. Meanwhile, Katrina's and Paige's attentions seemed heightened by the crush of humans crowded around them.

"Must be like a massive feeding pen to them," Caleb whispered with dark amusement, having noticed the women's reactions.

Katrina stopped in front of him, swept her left arm around his waist to draw him against her, and touched her lips to his ear. "Yes, but you're the only one I want to drink from tonight."

His eyes widened with surprise as they walked together, having been shocked that she could have somehow heard his whisper over the din surrounding them.

Katrina silently conceded that her thirst was rising by the minute amidst the humans surrounding her. She heard a thunder of heartbeats among the pounding of the music, and the varieties of scents from the various bodies pressing around her was like standing in the middle of a human-scented candle shop. Still, she concentrated and focused on the singular scent of her mate. Within seconds she picked out his heartbeat among the others, and her senses zeroed in on him from beside her as she breathed in and selected his body's scent. She held her breath for a lingering moment and softly exhaled.

Paige bobbed to the music as they made their way to a small booth in the back corner of the establishment that was being vacated by a group of twenty-somethings. Paige and Katrina received a mix of subtle glances and outright stares from people in the club, both men and women. Gil seemed unaware of the scrutiny, but Caleb picked up on it with unusual clarity. Granted, the two vampires were extremely beautiful, but it was as if other people were magnetically drawn to them.

Minutes later, they were seated at a small corner booth, and Paige swayed to the heavy dance music. A young waitress with long blonde hair appeared at their table, and she took a moment to stare at the two vampires with a wide-eyed expression before speaking.

"Hi. Welcome to The Gecko Room," she offered courteously. "I'm Cindy. Can I get you something?"

"Sex on the Beach," Paige blurted.

Katrina glanced at Caleb and insisted, "Choose for us, my love."

"Two mojitos," he ordered with a grin, to which Katrina nodded with approval.

"Orgasm for me," Gil said.

"Great, I'll be back soon," Cindy replied with a courteous smile.

A particularly energized dance beat began, and Paige began swaying to it. She grinned and rose from her chair. "Come on, Gil," she beckoned while grasping his hand in hers. "Let's cut a rug."

"Wha –" he started to say, but was pulled behind her with a lurch towards the dance floor.

Caleb chuckled as he watched them go and looked around the room to take everything in. As he scanned to his left, his eyes eventually fell upon Katrina's beautiful emerald eyes, which focused on him like lasers. The corners of her mouth were upturned slightly as her penetrating gaze bore into his pale blue eyes, causing a shiver down his spine.

His eyes widened, and he smiled back at her innocently. She felt a surge of desire run through her, both for his body and his blood, and momentarily considered again how he appeared like defenseless prey caught in her gaze. She leaned slowly towards him until her lips were just inches from his.

"You're so intense," he whispered, feeling an almost palpable energy emanating from her.

"Kiss me," she insisted.

He leaned across the distance between them and brushed his lips against hers. Then her lips locked onto his, and he immediately felt her fingers pressing against the back of his neck. He reached one hand across the table towards her, and her hand met his halfway and interlaced with his fingers. Despite the pounding beat of the music and the cacophony of voices around them, he felt that the only person in the room was Katrina, as if everything else was just indecipherable background noise.

Suddenly, her lips were no longer touching his, and he realized that he'd closed his eyes. He opened them, only to see Katrina's face hovering an inch before his. Her eyes glowed back at him with telltale signs of either desire or hunger, or both. His mind raced at how drawn he was to her, despite the distraction of being in the midst of a sea of people.

"I'm really focused on you right now," she muttered loudly enough over the noise that he could hear her.

"It's like you're –" he began in a near whisper.

"Hunting," she completed with a feral grin.

Another shiver cascaded through his body, leaving him speechless. He could only recall one previous occasion when he had sensed such strong energy and emotion from Katrina. It was the night that she and Alton had returned from their first confrontation with Chimalma, after they had raced back to the estate to check on him because he and Paige had been assaulted in the estate by mercenaries. Katrina had stood at the foot of the stairs gazing up at him in the dark, appearing more vampire-like than at any time he had recalled. She was staring at him in that same manner. It was powerful, and he craved to be the center of her attention.

"Stalker," he teased.

"Guilty as charged," she countered slyly.

He blinked once and whispered earnestly, "I love you."

She smiled back at him, and he saw her fangs extend ever so slightly below her lip line. She closed the distance to him quickly, and he felt her lips at his neck. For a split second, he felt her fangs press against the soft flesh of his neck, and then retract. He took a sharp intake of breath, and held it, waiting to see what she would do. But she merely kissed him and sat back to regard him with a predatory smile.

"I love you, and I shall have you tonight," she issued as part challenge, part promise.

He caught sight of glasses in his peripheral vision and glanced up to see their waitress placing mixed drinks on the table. Cindy smiled down at Caleb, but her eyes quickly darted to Katrina, and her expression became more reserved. A wary expression, he realized.

"Just give a wave when you're ready for me again," she offered to Caleb intently, as if she were concentrating on keeping her eyes on him alone. She departed into the crowd, although at a faster pace than one might normally expect.

"You spooked her, I think," he whispered, realizing that Katrina could hear him as clearly as if they were speaking in a quiet room sitting next to her.

They picked up their drinks and sipped, and she smiled at him and leaned towards him.

"Cindy senses a predator," she answered simply. "Some humans are more perceptive than others. She's more sensitive to such things. In a baser setting, she might be a survivor."

"Survival of the fittest?" he asked.

"Exactly."

"Whereas I would be caught," he quipped with a grin.

She appeared smug and countered, "You already have been; you just haven't realized it yet."

He cast a wide-eyed smirk back at her and sipped his drink again. It tasted wonderful. I'm happy to be caught by her. He considered the revelation about his forgotten encounter with Katrina as a child, followed by the disagreement he had with her over Devon. But instead of a resurgence of resentment, anger, or aggravation, he felt a satisfaction that she was his mate and that he was hers. And while he might still be concerned about those topics, he suddenly realized his love for her was stronger than those issues, and it made him feel a surge of combined happiness and relief.

"Happiness for me is loving you and being loved in return," he whispered as he lovingly gazed into her eyes.

She looked up suddenly from sipping her drink, and a bright smile formed as she stared back at him. "Thank you," she mouthed silently.

Gil and Paige appeared at the table, though he appeared slightly out of breath while she seemed perky and energetic. Paige slipped into the booth at Caleb's right and swept up her drink in one fluid motion. Her lips sipped at the edge of her glass delicately, and she smirked at Caleb.

"Having fun, kiddo?" she asked with a sparkle in her eyes. She had discreetly noted the interaction between him and Katrina from across the room and divined the exchange between them. She also easily recognized the signals Katrina was giving off. Stalking the poor kid.

"Oh yeah," he replied emphatically with a grin and a nod as "Ava Adore," by Smashing Pumpkins, played.

"Man, this place is slammin'!" Gil exclaimed before taking a swig of his drink.

Paige rolled her eyes and looked at Caleb with renewed vigor, almost like a kid with a new toy. The blonde-haired vampire's eyes darted over to Katrina's for a mere second, and she saw Katrina's imperceptible nod that only a vampire's quick vision would catch.

She challenged Caleb, "Come on, you big overgrown Muppet. Let's dance!"

Caleb laughed and allowed her to drag him by the hand through the crowd until they reached nearly the center of the dance floor. Katy Perry's "Firework" began to play as Paige bopped to the music. Caleb relaxed his body and subtly shadowed her movements. She grinned brightly at him, and he smiled back, fully appreciating the happiness emanating from her. Fortunately, the music was easy to dance to.

He admired Paige's fluid movements, marveling at how the beautiful woman before him was such an instinctive dancer. A brief pang of guilt ran through him as he also admired how sexy she looked, her red dress accenting her shapely form. I'm supposed to think of her as a close friend or an adopted sister.

He moved closer to her and said, "It's great to see you so happy."

She smirked appreciatively. "It's definitely the company."

"I'm just glad to be here," he shot back.

"I'm glad you are too," she agreed with a penetrating stare and a gleam in her eyes.

They both grinned and kept dancing. After a few minutes, Caleb noticed that Paige was garnering the attention of a number of fellow dancers, both men and women. He grinned at her knowingly, and she frowned at him for a moment before sweeping the room of her newfound fans. Another popular song started, and they adjusted their movements to match the beat. Caleb was having a great time, and he was happy to see that Paige seemed to be, too.

After the second song finished, "Right Round," by Flo Rida, started. Paige smirked and looked deliberately past Caleb with a nod in his direction. He raised an eyebrow and turned to see Katrina standing behind him swaying provocatively to the music. Her body moved in a smooth, feline manner that was both fluid and sensual all at the same time. He moved his body to the music with hers, although in a much more subdued fashion. A number of eyes in the room locked onto Katrina with a mix of curiosity and mesmerism. But she maintained an eye lock on Caleb as if he were the only one in the room. Her eyes flashed bright green for a split second, and his gaze was drawn to them immediately. He wanted to get lost in her beautiful eyes.

She moved closer to him as her body synchronized with the music and reached out with one hand to caress the back of his neck. He blinked only once, and when he opened his eyes, she moved even closer to him, nearly rubbing against him. He felt strong desire rise in his body, and his breathing became heavier. Her penetrating eyes became the only thing he saw, and before he knew it the song had ended.

In one fluid movement, she moved to his side and slipped her arm around his waist, leading him away from the dance floor and to their table. It was as if he were floating in a partial daze, and he felt strangely at peace as she guided him away. As he passed a number of people in the crowd, he could have sworn they deliberately parted to let them pass. A few moments later, she kissed him on the lips, and he felt the booth's cushion at the back of his legs. He sat down with a near plop and reached for his drink absently as he stared into Katrina's emerald eyes.

"Well done, Kermit," Paige quipped with a grin. "Nice dancing for a Muppet."

"Thanks," he muttered as he brought his glass to his lips to drink. Just the taste of the mojito seemed to help revive his senses, and he felt less like he was in a haze after a moment. He glanced over to Paige, who was grinning at him like a Cheshire cat.

"Somebody still looks a little dazed," she giggled. "We'll do that to you if you let us."

"Glamour?" he asked as his wits returned.

"Not exactly. At least, nothing that strong or involuntary," Katrina explained. "More like a willing state of meditation."

"Cool," he replied with a smirk as he looked across the table and noticed for the first time that Gil wasn't with them. "Where's Gil?"

"The men's room, like, a quarter of an hour ago," Paige muttered with a shake of her head.

"Is he okay?" Caleb asked with concern. "Maybe I should go check on him."

Paige wrinkled her nose, shook her head and replied, "Oh, I'm sure he's feeling fine by now. And don't go looking for him, that is, unless you bring a pizza with you."

He raised his eyebrows with surprise and insisted, "No way. You're sure?"

"Yeah," she replied with a wane smirk. "I strolled by the men's room doorway while you and Katrina were on the dance floor. I could smell the weed from outside."

Caleb shook his head and bit his tongue rather than say what he was thinking: How can Gil even think about smoking a joint when he has Paige here to spend time with? The guy must be crazy.

Their waitress stopped by to bring a fresh round of drinks and promptly departed with a practiced demeanor. Paige looked around at the other patrons, casually scanning the room, and grinned. "Well, I'm going dancing some more."

The spritely vampire bopped onto the dancing floor alone, quickly garnering the attention of men around her. Within seconds, she was dancing with a muscular, twenty-something man. Katrina smirked and cast a thoughtful glance at Caleb, who sipped at his fresh mojito.

"Having fun, my love?" she asked with a smile.

He smiled back and replied thoughtfully, "Yeah, actually this is great, Kat."

The remainder of the evening was uneventful, although Caleb and Katrina shared additional dances. A much mellower Gil returned to the dance floor not long after Paige and sought her out to dance with her throughout most of the remainder of their time there. Much to Caleb's surprise, Paige didn't seem overly annoyed with Gil and took occasional opportunities to dance with other patrons as the mood struck her. She caught his eyes on one occasion, winking at him while flashing a bright smile.

Sometime after midnight, Katrina sensed Caleb was growing tired and suggested they leave. He accepted the idea gratefully, and they bid hasty goodbyes to Paige and Gil, who remained to continue their reveling. Katrina paid the outstanding tab for the four of them, including a healthy tip for their wary waitress, and led Caleb from the club.

The night was quite cold and windy as he wrapped his arm around Katrina's waist on their walk back to the Audi. He held the door for her as she slipped into the passenger seat and leaned in to kiss her warmly on the lips. She laid her purse aside in the console area and freed her hands to reach out for him.

"Thank you for a wonderful evening, Kat," he offered tenderly. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable night, and he was grateful that everything had gone so well between them. It reminded him of happier times when they had dated last fall before vampires like Chimalma and Devon Archibald interrupted their lives.

"I haven't been so kind to you lately, but –" he started, but she pressed her lips against his and wrapped her hand behind his neck to pull him towards her.

He reveled in the heated passion of her kiss and knelt before her in the open car doorway as the cold wind pressed in around them. Her mouth was so warm and comforting against his, and he leaned further into the car against her. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders protectively and continued to kiss him.

A hunger rose in her that was so strong she almost couldn't resist its calling. She yearned for his body and his blood simultaneously and knew she had to stop kissing him, or she might take his blood there and then. Fighting the strong desire, she gathered her resolve and shifted her body without warning.

Much to his surprise, she rapidly rotated him into the passenger seat as she slipped out through the compact doorway. He had no time to react before she snatched the seatbelt and snapped it into place around him.

"What?" he protested, but she pressed her fingertip to his lips to silence him.

"I'm taking you home. Fast," she stated with faintly glowing eyes. She shut the door and disappeared from sight.

Before he could turn his head, she had opened the driver's side door and plopped into the seat. While shutting the door with one hand, she buckled her own seatbelt with the other. The car's motor roared to life and, within seconds, she shifted into gear and the Audi zipped down the nearly deserted city streets.

"You've made me very happy tonight, Caleb," she murmured as her eyes glanced at him with a predatory glint. Her right hand reached out to him, and she ran her fingernails against his cheek lightly and across the soft skin of his neck.

He shivered with delight and smiled back at her. This vampire captured my dreams and made them come true.

The drive back to the estate from downtown went by in a blur as rock music played on the car stereo. Katrina's right hand reached out occasionally to run her fingers through Caleb's hair, or massage at his neck, or simply brush against his cheek. When they happened upon a stoplight, she craned her neck towards him and kissed him deeply, albeit all too briefly.

He started to say something, but she interrupted, "No, my love. Say nothing."

He grinned at her and remained silent, but his mind was racing with a mix of curiosity and rising excitement. His adrenaline flowed freely, and his body's earlier tiredness began to abate.

The time passed so quickly that, before he realized it, they were pulling up the estate's driveway and into the expansive garage. Katrina opened the driver's side door and disappeared from view. Her door barely had time to shut before his was opening and she was standing aside waiting on him. He marveled at that and started to exit before realizing he was still buckled in.

She giggled as she slipped the high-heeled shoes from her feet and gathered them in one hand with her purse. He removed his seatbelt and exited the vehicle, blushing slightly. While kissing him on the lips briefly, she shut his door for him as he stepped aside. She planted a firmer kiss on his lips and herded him towards the door leading into the house.

Dropping her shoes on the floor in the hallway, she sped into the kitchen to disengage the alarm and toss her purse onto the counter. He had barely followed her into the kitchen before she wheeled on him and kissed him passionately. As she kissed him, she unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the back of a kitchen barstool.

He stared into her eyes, glowing brightly back at him. "Hungry?" he asked tentatively.

She nodded.

"Can I get you some blood?" he inquired with a smirk.

She nodded her head again.

He turned around to get into a cabinet for a glass, but she grabbed his wrist to stop him. She drew his arms against him and pressed her lips to his right ear. "Fresh, not reheated," she insisted as her body pressed against his from behind.

He swallowed and inquired playfully, "Perhaps a deer?"

She growled and murmured, "Perhaps you."

He smiled and felt her lips press against his neck to kiss him. Her teeth nipped at the supple skin, and he breathed in sharply. His body's excitement grew, and he turned to meet her lips. Both felt a heated wave of passion as they kissed at length.

After a few moments, she herded him out of the kitchen and down the main hallway. He made a playful attempt to turn around, but she spun him back the other direction and tickled him on the ribs to usher him before her. When he arrived at the doorway leading down to the chamber, she wrapped her arm around his waist and pulled him through the doorway with her in a sudden lurch.

He felt his body sailing into air, realizing she had leapt with him down to the floor of the sublevel area by jumping over the stairs entirely. He landed beside her gently as she tightened the arm's vice-like grip around his waist to keep him from landing hard. He barely had time to catch his breath before she propelled them both towards the nearby bed, only to have their bodies bounce on top of it twice before coming to a stop.

He recovered quickly and rolled over on her to kiss her lips deeply. She responded in kind and slipped from her dress as their lips met. He fumbled with his own belt, but she reached up to pinch the end of his nose, pressed her mouth to his, and drew the breath from him in one quick intake. He felt the world go dark, followed by the sensation of his body's landing on the bed with a bounce, and drifted on a momentary light-headed sea of euphoria for an indeterminate period of time.

When he regained a keener sense of awareness, he realized his clothes had been removed, and he felt Katrina's naked body lying against his. He smiled slyly, having recalled her using that trick on him once before, which he conceded was an ingenious and effective maneuver for a vampire. His eyes focused on her face amidst the darkness, only to see her staring back at him.

"Welcome back, my love," she whispered before kissing him. "Now, about dinner," she ventured with a smirk.

He nodded and felt her mouth move to his neck to kiss and nip at him. His excitement rose quickly, which she appreciated with a chuckle.

Her mouth latched onto the side of his neck near his jugular vein, and she pressed her hand against the side of his face to avert his gaze. He grinned at her sense of urgency and reached around to massage her lower back with one hand. He ran his other hand across her bare bottom and pinched her skin slightly.

She lurched with surprise and grabbed at his hand with her free hand as she straddled him with her body. As the surface of his neck grew numb, he felt her pressing fangs before the process was complete, and he froze in place. She snickered into his neck, holding her fangs against his skin. The predator has control now, she thought with satisfaction. After he remained still, she retracted her fangs and proceeded to numb his skin with her tongue.

"Simply vicious," he teased.

She deliberately pressed her nude body against his, baring her breasts against his chest, which only increased his excitement. She chuckled into his neck again, followed by penetrating his skin with her fangs. He gasped from the sudden sensation, which was thankfully pain-free. He lay very still and felt his blood being deeply drawn from him.

He felt a momentary sensation of light headedness and the feeling of floating in a quiet sea of contentment. She slowed her drawing of blood, and his awareness slowly began to return. He relished the closeness that he shared with her as she fed upon him, feelings of communion, passion, warmth, and love.

Time seemed suspended as he lay beneath her body and vaguely felt her mouth covering his neck. The suckling and slurping sounds continued for a time and then slowed. Eventually, the noises ceased entirely, and he felt her tongue pressing against his skin to seal his bite marks. Then she laid her head against his chest and kissed his bare skin.

"You're everything to me," she murmured. "I'll love you forever, Caleb." Being with him made her so very happy, and she wanted to make him as happy as she felt.

He nodded and wrapped his arms around her body. He loved her dearly and wanted to be hers forever. She fills a huge, empty niche in my life. "I love you too, Kat," he whispered, kissing the top of her head. Then his thoughts turned more amorous, and his excitement rose again as her body lay against his. He lightly ran his fingers across her lower back then across her bottom and down her thigh. She shivered slightly, and he tried to roll her over to lie atop her.

"Mmm," she hummed contentedly and allowed him to roll her onto her back.

He kissed her and cupped one of her breasts with his hand.

"I'm all yours," she whispered playfully as her legs slowly wrapped around his lower body.

Then time stood still.

Later that night, Katrina dried Caleb off with a towel following their shower together.

He felt exhausted and drained of energy as he leaned into the wall with both arms stretched outward. As if in confirmation, he swayed slightly. "I feel like I'm going to fall over," he mumbled.

She smirked. "You've had a long day. First, fighting with bar patrons, then out on the town half the night carousing, and finally drained of a little blood by a vampire. All in all, a pretty full day, I'd venture."

"Well, when you put it that way," he agreed as he took the towel from her and wrapped it around his waist.

She removed two towels from the linen cabinet, wrapped one around her body, and dried her hair with another as she watched him depart the bathroom. I simply adore you, she thought as she appreciated his lean, muscular form.

He slipped on a pair of sweatpants and nearly fell onto the bed. Moments later, Katrina exited the bathroom to slip on some panties and a long, cotton nightshirt. Then she turned off the lamp on her nightstand and crawled into bed. She nestled next to him, pulled the covers over them, and kissed him on the back of the neck. Within a few minutes, she heard his breathing fall into a regular pattern and determined that he had fallen asleep.

She lay next to him for some time afterwards, thoughtfully considering how much better they had been getting along the past day or so. She had no doubt that it was in no small part to Paige's arrival and efforts. However, given Caleb's altercation in the bar parking lot, she questioned the inclusion of Gil into their midst. Returning to happier thoughts, she let the topic drop and snuggled closer to Caleb as she drifted off for a brief respite of sleep.

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