When Caleb woke on Sunday, he discovered quickly that he had slept until midday, which earned a round of teasing from Paige. However, Katrina was pleased he had slept that late, knowing how exhausted he had been from the previous day's events. Sunday was spent lounging around the house, although by early evening Caleb offered to grill some steaks and potatoes for him and Gil. Then the four watched the film Public Enemies in the theater room.
On Monday, Caleb returned to work, pleasantly noting that at least he had no evening classes to teach; those were only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, the day seemed to last longer than normal because he had some quiz grading to do before he went home for the day. He knew that he would be too distracted by his house guests if he dared take the work home. By early evening, an unexpected visitor arrived as he continued grading at his desk. Paige appeared at his office doorway with a sly grin and wearing a pair of form-fitted blue jeans and turtleneck sweater.
"Hey, tiger," she greeted in a perky voice. "So, this is Professor Central, huh? You about to finish up for the day?"
He smiled up at her from his chair. "Hey, Paige. Yeah, this is the place, my home away from home. Thankfully, I'm almost finished. What brings you around?"
She shrugged. "I'm just wondering if you might want to run an errand with me after work."
He was intrigued. "Okay, I'll bite. Where to?"
She leaned against his door frame and adopted an innocent expression. "Oh, nothing major, really. But while I'm thinking about it, would you mind loaning me your car keys?"
But she merely held out her empty, open palm. Then she snapped her fingers impatiently. "Come on, come on. Keys, please."
He laughed and tossed her his car keys, which she snatched out of midair and turned to leave. "Thanks! I'll be right back, so just stay put."
He chuckled and shook his head as his mysterious friend disappeared from view, followed closely by sound of the nearest exit doors abruptly opening and closing. Her actions had piqued his curiosity, but he returned to grading quizzes so they could leave soon.
Minutes later, she returned with a satisfied expression, but he noted she was without the car keys in hand.
"Hey, what about my keys?" he asked.
"Oh, Gil's taking your car back to the estate," she replied off-handedly. "I sure hope he doesn't get my directions confused. I mean, I printed off a Google map for him, after all."
"Gil was here?" he asked. "Didn't he want to go with us on the errand?"
"Nah, but then, you know how Gil is," she replied evasively as she plopped down in the guest chair beside his desk and inspected the items and decor in his office.
Actually, I don't, he mused, but let the topic drop for the time being.
"Go ahead, finish grading. Let me watch the young history professor in action," she urged while perusing the titles of books on the nearby shelf.
He shook his head slightly, and then shrugged and returned to grading. Within another thirty minutes he had finished and stacked the quizzes into an orderly pile. As he filled his backpack with take-home items, Tanisha stopped by his open office doorway on her way out of the building.
"Goodnight, Caleb," she offered as she shifted her leather satchel to her left hand while reaching into her shoulder purse for her car keys.
"Oh, Tanisha, there's someone I want you to meet," he beckoned, rising from his desk and gesturing to Paige.
Tanisha smiled at him and took in Paige more fully as her attention shifted. Paige's bright blue eyes stared into Tanisha's with amusement as a smirk played across her face at the woman's mild surprise. However, Tanisha maintained her cool sense of grace and immediately extended her right hand to take Paige's in a polite grasp.
"Paige, I'm proud to introduce you to my friend and colleague, Dr. Tanisha Browning," Caleb offered. "She's our highly regarded Professor of Women's History. She's also a priceless mentor to me since I started at the college."
He turned his gaze to Tanisha with a wide grin and offered proudly, "Tanisha, I'm happy to finally introduce you to Paige Turner. She's like an adopted sister to me and one of the dearest people in my life."
Paige's eyes darted to him for only a split second at the grand introduction, but quickly refocused her attention back to Tanisha.
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Paige," the petite, hazel-eyed professor offered with an appraising smile. "Caleb neglected to tell me that he had an adopted sister."
"It's a dynamic title, of sorts," Paige replied as the two women released hands. "That's to say Caleb and I are like family, and he's also very dear to me."
One of Tanisha's eyebrows rose ever so slightly. "Oh, I see. I thought at first you might be related to Katrina."
Paige frowned with genuine curiosity. "Really? Why would you think that?"
"Although there's a difference in height, I sense you both have similar qualities," Tanisha observed with a glance at Caleb, who by that time regarded the sudden change in the nature of the conversation warily.
"Purely a coincidence," Paige replied easily. "But then, Katrina's a long-time, close friend of mine, so perhaps we've rubbed off on each other a little bit."
"Perhaps," Tanisha accepted politely. "It's a pleasure to meet you, nonetheless. Any friend of Caleb's is a friend of mine."
Tanisha glanced at him and prompted, "I'd better run, Caleb. Desta has a recital this evening, and Richard and I promised we wouldn't be late for it."
"Tell Desta I'm pulling for her," he offered as Tanisha headed for the building's exit.
When the door shut behind her, he released a heavy sigh. For some reason, he felt as if he had just dodged a bullet.
"She's perceptive," Paige observed. "You'll need to watch yourself with that one, kiddo."
Caleb countered, "She's a good friend, Paige, not a threat."
But she turned to face him fully. "Not to you, to her. If she even guessed about our true nature…"
He swallowed hard, understanding her meaning all too clearly. It hadn't been long since Katrina had nearly threatened to kill Tanisha for similar reasons. Concealing their existence was the first concern in every vampire's mind. Even the normally playful Paige became lethally serious as the topic surfaced, which unnerved him somewhat.
"Don't worry. I know," he replied dutifully. "Katrina's already warned me."
Paige seemed satisfied and didn't press the issue further. Instead, she recovered her previously playful smile and demanded, "Okay, enough stalling. Let's hit the road."
Caleb nodded and turned to collect his backpack when Paige's cell phone buzzed. The petite vampire fluidly slipped it from her waist and flipped the cell phone cover open with a flourish. "What's up, Red?" she asked.
He looked up at Paige, and her eyes glistened brightly as she gazed back at Caleb with a penetrating look. "Well, I'm glad Gil was able to follow directions. And yeah, our boy's right here," she confirmed. "Sure, everything's just fine. If you don't mind, I need to kidnap him from you for a short time tonight. I have an errand to run that he's going to accompany me on before we head back to the estate."
"Our boy?" he asked with raised eyebrows.
Paige grinned at him and continued, "Nah, tell Gil to go ahead and eat. Yes, I'll make sure Caleb eats before we come home. His jacket? Yeah, I'm on it. It's hanging on his door hook as we speak." She rolled her eyes, nodded her head, and used the fingers and thumb on her left hand to make the symbol for someone being very talkative.
He barely restrained himself from laughing out loud at that.
"Yes, I'll tell him you love him," she replied. "Okay, you overprotective nag, we need to get going now." She flipped the cell phone shut with a sigh and slipped the device into the holder at her waist. "She loves you, by the way," she offered before ushering him out of the office and locking and shutting the door behind them as she slung his backpack over one shoulder.
He chuckled while slipping into his leather jacket. As the two of them walked through the parking lot to Paige's rental car, he commented, "Hey, it's not kidnapping if I go willingly, you know."
A cold wind blew from the north, and she casually wrapped her right arm around his waist as they walked. "That's true, I suppose. At least for now, that is," she alluded.
What an odd comment, he noted warily. Just where are we going?
She activated the remote on her keychain to unlock the doors to her black rental sedan and followed him around to the passenger side as she heard his pulse increase in a slightly agitated manner. He opened the door and pulled the seat forward so she could toss his backpack into the back seat. Then he pushed the seat back and turned to stare at her with a curious expression.
"So, where are we headed, anyway?" he inquired after reconsidering her odd, earlier comment.
"You trust me, don't you, kiddo?" she asked gently.
He didn't even need to consider her question. He trusted Paige with his life and had done so on a couple of occasions in the months he had known her. The corners of his lips upturned, and he replied earnestly, "Of course, silly. You're my surrogate vampire, my guardian. I trust you completely."
She smiled warmly, stepped closer to him, and popped a kiss against his cheek. Then she held the passenger door open and said, "Good, you should. So, get in already, and we'll hit the road."
He got in and fastened his seatbelt, and within minutes, they were speeding onto the nearby highway entrance not far from campus. She played some rock music to break the silence as they traversed the cold February evening. Ten minutes later, he noticed they were traveling north on highway 75 out of Atlanta, and his curiosity increased.
When Caleb noticed their exit at the South Marietta Parkway, his heartbeat increased noticeably. The only reason he could divine for coming to Marietta was a less than desirable one, and he gritted his teeth. "Where are we going, Paige?" he demanded sternly, despite having a bad feeling that the answer had to do with Devon Archibald.
She glanced over at him and replied, "I just need to stop by to visit with someone for a few minutes, so relax. After all, it's not often you and I get to go someplace alone together. Just think about where you want to go for dinner tonight."
She was relieved that she had been able to assuage his curiosity for as long as she had. It was a good testimony to the degree of trust they shared. However, she hoped he would be agreeable from that point on since he obviously had an idea of why they were in Marietta.
He silently fumed for a time as they continued through the city streets.
"Nice little town, actually," she commented agreeably as she realized they were getting closer to their destination. She had memorized the MapQuest directions before leaving the estate to pick up Caleb.
He merely grunted and mumbled, "Except for one resident, in particular."
She failed to contain a smirk at his acidic wit, which she found amusingly out of place coming from someone who normally maintained such an upbeat and cheerful disposition.
When they pulled into Devon's driveway, Paige noted that his car was already there. She had called him earlier to arrange their visit and was encouraged that he seemed agreeable. Though they had interacted via email a couple of times, this was her first occasion to meet the vampire in person. Fortunately, Katrina had given her very detailed information about him and his background.
"We're here," Paige announced calmly. "We're simply going inside to chat for a few minutes, and then we'll leave. Okay?"
He reached for the door handle, but withdrew his hand and turned to look at Paige. "I think I'll stay here. You go ahead."
She chewed her lower lip and considered the situation for a moment before shrugging and exiting the car. After shutting her door, she walked calmly around to the passenger side of the vehicle and opened the door for him to exit. But he kept his seatbelt on and crossed his arms across his chest defiantly as he sat silently staring straight ahead.
Paige reached into the car and grasped the bicep of his right arm in her small hand and squeezed until she had a firm grip on him. "The reality is you're going in with me. So, how about a deal, tiger?" she offered plainly. "I'll play nicely, if you will."
His jaw clenched, and he turned to stare at her with incredulity as he recalled how she had used the same declaration with him when she had first met him last fall. He realized there was likely no arguing with her, but it galled him that she would force her will upon him. She knew full well how much he hated Devon Archibald.
"Fine," he replied levelly, conceding there was little to be gained from causing a scene.
She released his arm and adopted a pleasant expression as she waited for him to release his seatbelt and exit the vehicle. As she shut the door and used the remote to lock the car, he stepped aside to look around the mostly dark neighborhood as the cold north wind whipped around him. He noted the area didn't appear in decline, but it was an older-looking neighborhood.
"Are you scared?" she asked gently. It occurred to her that some of his anger could be masking a sense of fear, although she only detected moderate wariness from him.
"Just irritated," he admitted as he stared up at the house before him. It appeared somewhat ominous at night despite the warm glow from the front porch light. Why the hell did Paige have to bring me here?
"We have a very reasonable agreement with Devon," she reassured him. "And besides, I'm a burgeoning alpha. I can handle my own against a vampire, if needed."
He frowned at the spunk that she exuded under the circumstances and recalled how scary she had been at the estate when interrogating an intruder last December. He shivered slightly at either that memory or the biting wind, or both. "He's huge, Paige," he recalled quietly as events from the night at the wildlife preserve replayed in his memory.
"Babysitter's on duty, so don't worry," she replied. "Now quit stalling."
He felt her hand pat the small of his back gently, and he slowly walked up the driveway towards the house. He stopped at the foot of the small front porch for a moment and sighed, but he felt the gentle pressure of Paige's hand at his back again. He glanced back over his shoulder at her with a dark expression, but she merely stared back with mild amusement.
"Something funny?" he asked.
"Sorry, but Katrina's so right. You're really cute when you're annoyed," she observed with a smirk.
He rolled his eyes and felt her arm encircle his waist as she pulled him forward to stand before the front door with her. She reached out and rang the doorbell once.
A moment later, the door opened to reveal Devon Archibald wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt. He towered above both of his visitors, but had a pleasant smile on his face. "Please, come in," he offered as he stood aside for them to enter.
Caleb took a moment to stare up at the tall, muscular vampire. He intended to allow Paige to enter first, but he felt her arm press him forward, and she followed him into the small entry area.
Devon closed the door behind them, and then held his hand out to shake Caleb's politely. "Welcome to my home. I hope you'll permit me the courtesy of starting our introductions over by shaking your hand in a gesture of mutual respect and civility."
Caleb wasn't happy to be there, but he conceded that there was no reason for him to be rude in the vampire's own home. He extended his hand, only to have it disappear in Devon's. But the vampire grasped his hand with a courteous degree of pressure and shook.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Taylor," Devon offered formally.
"Likewise, Mr. Archibald," Caleb replied, feeling a little silly."You can call me Caleb, I suppose," he added.
"Thank you," the towering vampire replied. "And please feel free to call me Devon."
Afterwards, the vampire moved to shake Paige's in turn. "It's nice to finally meet you in person, Paige."
"Likewise, Devon," she replied. "And thanks for seeing us on short notice. I hope that didn't create any hardships for your schedule."
"Not at all," he replied, gesturing towards the living room for them to enter. "Please make yourselves comfortable."
As they entered the living room, Caleb scanned the room warily before sitting next to Paige on the couch. He took particular interest in the pastoral paintings depicting wildlife and outdoor scenery, and he frowned at the seemingly domestic setting before him. His throat suddenly felt dry, and he coughed into his fist to clear his throat.
Devon started to sit down, but glanced at Caleb when he heard him cough. "Caleb, would you like something to drink?" he asked. "I have Coca-Colas in the fridge."
His eyebrows rose. "You do?"
Devon nodded as Caleb found himself feeling somewhat surprised by the revelation. It was his favorite cola, though perhaps Katrina had tipped him off to that.
"Well, um, please," Caleb stammered. "That would be nice, thank you."
"Glass or can?" Devon asked.
"Oh, a can would be fine, thanks."
Devon looked to Paige, but she shook her head. "No, nothing for me thanks."
The large vampire disappeared around the corner, and Caleb looked at Paige with upraised eyebrows. She nodded back at him reassuringly.
Well, he seems polite enough tonight, Caleb thought.
Devon returned with an open can of Coke and handed it to Caleb.
"Thanks," he replied, accepting the beverage. "Much appreciated."
Devon smiled pleasantly and sat in the reading chair opposite from them. "What brings you to grace my doorstep tonight?" he inquired.
"Caleb and I thought it would be a good idea to meet you in person," Paige began. "I'm not sure when I'll be leaving town, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity."
Devon appeared thoughtful while steepling his fingers before him. "I'm surprised Katrina didn't join you," the large-framed vampire observed. "I thought perhaps with Caleb being present for our first official meeting…"
She smiled in a manner that wasn't reflected in her steely gaze and casually placed her left hand on Caleb's thigh, of which Devon took immediate notice.
"I'm Caleb's guardian, his surrogate vampire. So, I have the latitude to act in his best interests as I deem necessary," she explained while looking at Caleb. Then she glanced at Devon. "Providing I don't run contrary to Katrina's wishes, of course."
Katrina had spoken at length with Paige regarding what she had said to Devon concerning their agreement, and she felt it important to mirror Katrina's words as closely as possible to avoid confusion.
"Of course," Devon replied with a nod.
"I was hoping you might tell me a little about yourself," she prompted. "That is, unless you feel uncomfortable discussing such personal matters with us."
Devon considered the two of them for a moment and told them much of the same background story he had related to Katrina, though he glossed over the details of his relationship with Nadida. Caleb found his tale somewhat intriguing from a historical perspective, and he almost forgot his anger at Devon during the recollection. Paige had already heard the story once from Katrina, but displayed respectful interest as the tale was relayed.
"And here we are," Devon finished and turned to Caleb. "But before we speak further, I'd like to offer my apology for attacking you that night at the preserve. I thought you were prey, but I should have curtailed my hunt after you declared yourself a vampire's mate. For that, I am particularly sorry, and I hope you'll accept my apology. And while the offer stands no matter your response, I harbor no resentment if you decline. In my past, I've been hated by people who didn't know me for who I truly was, and yet I haven't allowed it to make me a bitter person."
Caleb remained thoughtfully silent for a moment. "Yes, I can see where, in your past, you may have been hated by others simply because of the color of your skin, which is certainly reprehensible. But then, you weren't hunting them as food at the time, either. Despite that, and hatred aside, does the rabbit not dislike the wolf by its very nature?"
Devon's eyebrow rose in a degree of surprise and appeared introspective as he considered Caleb's response. Paige's hand tightened ever so slightly on Caleb's thigh, and she glanced at him with a slight frown.
Interesting. I hadn't looked at it quite that way before, she mused.
But before anyone spoke, he continued, "But I'm willing to accept your apology in the spirit in which it was offered. However, while I can't guarantee we might ever be friends, I can certainly agree to be polite and respectful in the future. And I appreciate the gesture of your apology."
Paige looked sidelong at her young charge with a curious expression, admiring his diplomatic craft. Devon, too, seemed impressed.
"Thank you," the towering vampire replied. "And yes, I can agree to polite and respectful dialogue from this point. I'm confident Katrina would encourage that, as well."
Caleb took a swig of his Coke as he glanced at a picture of an elk on the wall to his left. While he wasn't feeling as angry or anxious as when he arrived, he wasn't feeling overly happy about being there either.
"There's something else, actually," Paige interjected. "There's a small matter of your blood supply."
Devon looked taken aback and corrected, "I'm afraid you're misinformed. I don't maintain a blood supply here."
"Exactly," she agreed. "But if you're going to be around Caleb much, then I insist you do. I don't want you encountering him when you're hungry."
Devon nodded with understanding, but countered, "That's a rather expensive prospect for me, you understand."
"I appreciate your circumstances," she said. "I was there myself not so many years ago. However, I'm prepared to carry your delivery and blood supply expenses under my account at no cost to you."
Devon looked up with genuine surprise, and even Caleb cast a perplexed glance at his blonde-haired protector.
"Why?" he asked carefully. "Why would you do that? I mean, forgive me if I seem suspicious, but you have no direct vested interest in my agreement with Katrina, so I'm not sure what your incentive might be."
The corners of Paige's mouth rose, and she casually draped her left arm behind Caleb's lower back. "Understand: I'm Caleb's surrogate vampire. That means his interests are now my interests," she explained as her blue eyes penetrated Devon's.
Caleb smiled and placed his right hand on Paige's upper thigh.
"And that's all the incentive I need," she added with a glance at Caleb.
Devon's eyes went between Caleb's and Paige's faces, and he nodded, as if in understanding. "This is all very unusual to me," he observed. "I haven't met other vampires such as you and Katrina, and not merely because you're alpha females, either."
There was a brief pause as the dark-complexioned vampire considered the situation. "I appreciate your offer, and I accept. Are there conditions with this gift?"
Paige nodded and answered, "Just that you look after Caleb as called to do so and never allow your hunger to pose a threat to him."
"Done," Devon replied easily. "And thank you."
"You're welcome," she said, once more the perky, carefree vampire. "I'll email you when the first delivery is scheduled. Oh, and always feel free to call my cell if you have questions regarding most anything, particularly matters concerning Caleb."
She rose from her seat, and Caleb followed suit behind her. "Now, I better get him to a restaurant. He's not pleasant to be around when he's hungry, either," she quipped. "He's mostly stomach, you understand."
Devon grinned, shook the short vampire's hand and turned to Caleb to shake his. "I'll show you to the front door."
Caleb found that to be an interesting prospect given the front door was visible from where they stood, but perhaps it was just southern hospitality or something. Nevertheless, he was happy to be leaving, although he conceded the visit had gone better than he had expected.
As Devon opened his front door and stepped aside for them to pass, he offered, "Thank you for stopping by, and please come again anytime. Although I'm away at work a lot, so maybe call ahead of time so you don't waste a trip unnecessarily."
They nodded, and Caleb offered, "Well, feel free to visit our home as well. That is, if you happen to be in the neighborhood. And thanks for the cola."
"You're welcome, and thank you for the offer, Caleb," Devon replied. "But keep in mind what I said about hating blindly. I've seen what it can do to a person."
Caleb nodded with a polite smile.
Devon added, "But I'll also consider your hunting analogy, as well."
Paige and Caleb stepped outside into the cold night air as Devon watched them walk away. The front door shut quietly as they neared their car.
"Well, the vampire-human summit went pretty well overall," she said.
"Summit, huh? He tried to eat me not long ago, you may recall," he pointed out as she unlocked the car doors with her remote.
"I might also have under different circumstances," she countered slyly as she followed him around to the passenger side.
But he returned her sly expression with one of his own and quipped, "You know, under different circumstances, I just might have let you."
Her bright blue eyes stared mischievously into his for a moment. She grinned at him and playfully ushered him into the passenger seat with a flurry of her hands. "Don't tempt me," she challenged as she softly patted him on top of the head with the palm of her hand, and then shut his door.
She got into the driver's seat and started the car. Then she paused and turned to Caleb with a smirk. "I'm a wolf, you know. And yet, you don't hate me by nature, do you, Mr. Rabbit?"
He grinned and downed the remainder of his Coke before placing the empty can in the in-dash cup holder. He turned to her and replied matter-of-factly, "Ah, but I adore you, Ms. Wolf, because you're a friendly wolf."
"Think so?" she countered with a raised eyebrow. She grinned, gunned the engine, and whipped out of the driveway and down the street. Once they were navigating through the main streets of the town, she glanced over at him and asked, "Okay, Rabbit, where do you want to eat dinner then?"
He considered that at length and finally replied with a sneer, "Pizza buffet."
"Pizza buffet?!" she demanded incredulously. "Do you know how strong the stinky, dead, burned meat smell will be in there?"
He remained silent, but grinned back at her evilly.
"This is payback, isn't it?" she asked with a sour expression.
He chuckled and replied, "Yep."
"Evil bunny," she muttered and sped onto the highway headed back towards Atlanta. Once in Atlanta proper, she took him to a pizza place with a dinner buffet and nursed a cola while watching him eat. Despite the strong scent of cooked pepperoni, sausage, and all manner of meats in the air, she relented to nibbling at a slice of cheese pizza and some salad just for show. In the end, they had an enjoyable visit together and chatted and laughed just like two best friends enjoying each other's company. Afterwards, they returned to the estate, where Katrina was watching some television in the back living room.
Caleb squatted down to kiss Katrina on the lips as she lay on the couch holding the remote control. One brief smell of him told her exactly where they had been.
"Pizza and a lingering scent of…Devon's home." She noted the latter with narrowed eyes.
"That's right," Paige interrupted before he could be grilled further. "We had a brief meeting, which went very well, I might add."
Katrina looked up at Caleb, her right arm snaking out to encircle his waist and asked, "Indeed?"
He sighed, leaned against her while squatting on his knees and replied, "Yeah, it went pretty well, actually."
"How about some random vintage of blood for the pizza-beleaguered vampire?" Paige suggested dryly.
"Sure," he replied with a grin. "You too, Kat?"
"No, thank you," she replied and released her arm from around him so he could rise. Once he disappeared into the kitchen, Katrina focused her attention on Paige fully. "Why did you take him there without me?" she demanded in a whisper.
Paige positioned herself next to the couch, planting both hands atop her slim hips. "Think about it, Red. You're already in the doghouse for the agreement with Archibald in the first place. This way, I got to meet him, and Caleb didn't have to blame you for dragging him there. I get to be the bad guy instead of you for a change. Or are you so ready to be back on the skids with him so soon after your romantic redemption last night?"
Katrina was taken aback by her frank assessment, but she conceded that her friend made some good points. It was true that she was very happy with how things had gone between her and Caleb the previous night, and she didn't want things to change. "Okay, points well made, actually," she admitted. "I suppose thanks are in order."
"None needed, Red," Paige countered with a shrug. "It was nice to spend time alone with him, actually."
Katrina nodded. She knew how much Paige adored Caleb, and a little time alone with him was probably reasonable. "By the way, tomorrow's the day I'm announcing my territorial claim, and I'm pronouncing you and Devon as Caleb's protectors."
Paige nodded. She was fully aware that Katrina and Alton were working on that, but was still a little surprised that Katrina was willing to make such a public declaration given how private and reclusive she had been over the years in the vampire community.
"By the way, where's Gil?" Paige asked.
"In the theater room," Katrina replied. "He was bored and wanted to watch some new vampire movie that Caleb recently added to my film collection."
Paige rolled her eyes, not typically a fan of Hollywood vampire films. Although, she admitted the romantic one with the young male vampire who fell in love with the clumsy brunette teenager was rather endearing. Although that one also had werewolves, and everyone knew that werewolves weren't real. She plopped down on a nearby upholstered chair with a sigh, draping one leg lazily over the arm rest.
After a few minutes, Caleb returned with a glass of heated blood for Paige, who gratefully accepted it. "Thanks, kiddo."
He slipped his shoes off and went to lie down beside Katrina on the oversized couch. The red-haired vampire smiled gratefully, wrapped her arm around him, and even handed him the remote control.
"Surf away," she remarked and kissed him on the cheek.
"Yeah, but no vampire movies tonight, okay, sport?" Paige remarked before sipping from her glass and reflecting on the evening's events. "Pizza buffet, of all places," she mumbled sourly, only to hear Caleb chuckle in response.
On Tuesday, Caleb was once more at work teaching history classes, meeting with students, and mingling with the daytime world over which humanity presided. During occasional free moments, he considered the meeting the previous evening between him, Paige, and Devon. The towering vampire had surprised him somewhat by providing access to an entirely different side of his personality, as well as by sharing his intriguing life story. He had been quite critical of Katrina's decision to spare Devon's life, but he felt a glimmer of sympathy for the vampire. At the very least, he was willing to wait and see how things progressed.
During the early afternoon, he checked his personal email account for messages. Among the usual spam was a message with the header, "Declaration of Territorial Claim," which Katrina had BCC'd him on. As he read the message, he found himself holding his breath.
Greetings Fellow Night Dwellers,
I bid you peace and well wishes from Atlanta, Georgia. In the interest of good relations and cooperation, I hereby inform you that I am officially claiming and declaring the city of Mableton, Georgia, as sovereign territory under my personal jurisdiction, including a small portion of the city proper in downtown Atlanta. The specific area claimed downtown relates to the campus of Robert Fulton Community College and an area of two miles radius surrounding the campus property. Individuals under my sanction and protection include my human mate, Mr. Caleb Taylor, and his vampire protectors, Ms. Paige Turner, and Mr. Devon Archibald. In addition, the culling of humans within and around my stated territories should be curtailed to avoid unnecessary scrutiny and/or visibility to myself and our kind.
I appreciate your cooperation in observing my claim, and I welcome advance notification of planned visits into or through my territory to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. Thank you, and may your hunting by fruitful.
Katrina Rawlings of Mableton/Atlanta, Georgia, United States
After he finished reading the message, he sat back in his desk chair and looked out his office window. The human world beyond continued on its merry way though life, completely oblivious to the fact that part of their city had just been claimed by a vampire. The very thought seemed surreal to him. However, in the same manner that he had become accustomed to the idea of his having been claimed by a vampire, so too would he to this latest revelation. The question was, would others kindly observe Katrina's declaration? More to the point, what would happen if they didn't? He tried not to contemplate the latter question at length. Instead, he picked up his desk phone and dialed the estate. On the first ring, the phone was picked up.
"Hello?" Katrina inquired.
He smiled at the sound of his mate's voice. "Hi, Kat. I just read your message a few minutes ago, very nicely written," he said, closing the door to his office.
"Thank you, my love," she responded with a pleased tone. "Were you surprised?"
"Actually, yes, I was," he said. "It's somewhat eerie to think about everybody's being oblivious to the declaration. It's like secretly asserting that someone has just claimed your property, and you're completely oblivious to it."
She chuckled at his analogy. "Sorry that we didn't have a chance to discuss it beforehand, but Alton conveyed a sense of urgency about getting that out. He believes the recent notoriety of our experience with Chimalma will encourage additional unexpected visitors unless we quickly establish some ground rules."
"Hmm, that's a good point, I suppose. But I have a quick question or two," he said. "What about vampires who don't have email? And what about vampires whose addresses you didn't have access to?"
There was a silent pause.
"Excellent questions, my love. There's always the possibility of an occasional transient visitor from the off-line ranks of our kind. But at least an effort has been made on my part. The Internet makes things so much easier for us, as a matter of fact. And as for those whose addresses I didn't have access to, some of the recipients may pass my email along to others. But I'll also post the message on some of the secure blogs and chat rooms that our kind utilize."
"You have chat rooms?" he inquired with surprise. "What next, vampire dating services?"
"Very funny, my love," she replied dryly. "But yes, we're quite active online despite being a diverse and often reclusive community."
"Do vampires Tweet?"
"Tweet? Oh, ugh, I hate Twitter."
He chuckled. "Yeah, me too."
"How's your day?" she asked.
"Oh, okay, I suppose," he replied. "But I wish I were home with you right now."
"I wish you were here too," she purred.
"Well, I'll be home right after class tonight," he promised.
"Great," she replied. "And I'll have some paperwork for you to sign, as well."
"Later. Have a good remainder of the day, my love," she replied and hung up.
He frowned as he pulled the handset away from his head and stared at it with a bland expression. I hate it when she does that.
Later that evening, once Caleb had arrived home, he dropped his backpack next to a chair in the dining room. He glanced into the living room and noticed Paige lying peacefully on the couch with her hands folded across her stomach as a black and white classic movie played on the television. He observed the steady rise and fall of her chest, wondering if she were asleep. It would have been the first time he had ever caught a vampire sleeping.
He moved slowly and quietly towards the end of the couch until he neared where her head rested. From his vantage he was able to see that her eyes were closed. He reached out to grasp at her shoulders to startle her, but at the last moment her hands darted out to grab him by the lower arms. She propelled him forward, pivoting his body in a semi-circle until he landed on top of her.
"Gotcha'!" she hollered as her hands tickled him about the stomach and ribs mercilessly.
He laughed and thrashed, desperately trying to wriggle from atop her and onto the floor. Seconds later, he was having trouble catching his breath, and she stopped abruptly. The petite vampire swiveled into a sitting position and pulled him next to her on the couch. He finally managed to inhale a deep breath and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
"I thought I had you there for a minute," he said once he caught his breath. "You looked completely asleep."
"Actually, I was napping," she conceded. "But I heard you the minute you entered from the garage. Still, I'm a pretty good actress, eh?"
"Academy Award-winning," he agreed. "Hey, where's Gil?"
"He went out for cigarettes about an hour ago," she recalled. "I'm sure he's trying to find his way back about now."
He shook his head and offered with a sigh, "Should I go looking for him?"
"Nah, he'll call when he's desperate enough," she said. "Besides, Red's waiting for you in the study. Something about paperwork. Better be careful, kiddo; she seemed pretty angry."
He looked at her sharply. "Angry?"
"Yep, you better take her a glass of blood as a peace offering," she advised. "Maybe a little massage on her shoulders when you go in. After all, couldn't hurt to start off on a positive note."
He nodded as his mind raced as to why Kat might be angry with him. "Yeah, good idea. Thanks."
He rose from the couch, made his way down to the wine basement to retrieve a packet of blood and heated it in a glass in the microwave. After a few minutes, he went down the dark central hallway on the first floor until he reached the outer door to Katrina's study. The door was slightly ajar, and he could see enough to determine that she was sitting at her desk looking over some paperwork. But instead of just entering unannounced, he knocked on the door frame politely.
"Caleb?" she asked. "Please come in."
She smiled up at him when he entered, and he offered the best hopeful expression that he could muster as he walked towards her desk. Unfortunately, his heart was beating more rapidly than normal, though he was certain she had already determined that before he entered. Once again, she had the advantage over him.
He sat the glass down carefully, making sure to avoid any of the papers strewn across the desktop. He moved to stand behind her and reached out to massage her shoulders gently between his fingertips. She leaned her head back and moaned with pleasure from his efforts.
"How was the rest of your day after I spoke with you?" he asked carefully. She didn't sound angry earlier today.
Katrina frowned. "Caleb, is everything okay?"
"Me? Sure, just fine," he reassured her, his fingers rubbing a little harder as he tried to discern why she would be upset with him, although she didn't seem terribly upset with him at the moment.
She reached up to grasp his hands and swiveled in her leather chair to face him, looking up at him with a curious expression. "Is there something I should know, my love?"
His mind raced as he swallowed hard and replied, "Um, I don't think so."
She narrowed her eyes as she continued to hold his hands in hers.
He rolled his eyes and conceded, "Look, I don't know what I did, but I'll confess if you'll just tell me what I did wrong. Can we just get this over with, please?"
She looked at him as if he were insane. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.
He looked into her eyes with his mouth agape, saw the confusion on her face and asked, "Aren't you angry with me for something? Paige said –"
She interrupted him with an amused expression, "Paige is having some fun with you, my love. I'm not angry at all. But thank you for the massage, as well as the warm blood. I was getting a little hungry."
The feeling of relief surged through him like a blast of cold air on a hot summer day. A new mission flashed in his mind, and he tried to pull his hands away from Katrina's, growling, "Oh, I am so going to kill her!"
But she laughed, held onto his hands, and stood up from her chair. "Okay, okay, you can kill her in just a minute. While you're here, I want you to sign some things for me."
He stopped tugging and let her steer him into the chair. She picked up the glass of blood, took a sip of it, and pointed to some papers on the desk before him. "Just sign those two where you see the yellow highlight," she instructed him, resting her left hand atop his shoulder.
He picked up the ink pen lying to the side of the papers and looked over them for a moment. "What am I signing?" he asked.
She savored another sip of blood and replied, "I'm adding you onto one of my bank accounts as a co-owner, as well as requesting you to be added to one of my credit cards as joint-owner. It will make things so much easier for you when we go to Europe."
He looked up at her and shook his head. "You don't have to do that, Kat," he insisted. "I don't want your money."
She smiled down at him fondly. None of her previous mates had ever refused her gifts, particularly the monetary kind. But Caleb was in a different class altogether, making all the previous ones seem like frauds and interlopers. The sole exception was her human husband, Samuel Lawnder, of whom Caleb reminded her a great deal. Sometimes it takes five hundred years to find true love again, she mused as she licked her lips and set the glass on the desk.
"Kat?" he asked with upraised eyebrows. "Are you okay?"
She broke from her reverie and bent down to kiss him on the lips warmly.
"I love you so very much, " she whispered and kissed him again.
He sensed a slightly metallic aftertaste from the hint of blood on her lips and murmured, "I love you too."
She deliberately adopted a mock-stern expression, placed her hands on her hips, and ordered, "You're my mate, so what's mine is yours. Now, sign."
He smiled up at her with an appraising expression, impressed with her stern visage. "You're so sexy when you do that," he commented and turned to sign the forms.
While his attention was focused on the paperwork, she grinned slyly. I know, and you love it. Then she turned serious and pointed out, "You need to realize that having the strength of proper funding in some parts of the world is essential to ensure safe travel. And it can get you out of a lot of delicate situations with a minimal amount of questions."
He put the ink pen down and turned his head to glance up at her with a grin. She reverted her facial expression to a more sedate one.
"Thank you," she offered pleasantly. "I'll let you know when your credit card arrives."
Suddenly, Paige popped into the room from around the corner and teased with a mischievous grin, "Hey, tiger. Think you could heat up a glass of blood for me, too?"
"You hellion!" he blurted and leapt from out of the desk chair with a lurch, leaving the chair spinning in his wake as he charged towards the doorway. Paige disappeared down the hallway with Caleb in close pursuit.
Katrina giggled at the sound of their footsteps rushing down the hallway and observed, "'Hellion.' I like that one." She shook her head with amusement and muttered, "Ah, how I missed the sound of children playing in a house."
Abruptly, the phone rang, and she picked up the cordless handset from the desk with a flourish. "Hello?" she asked. "Hi, Gil. Yes, I'll send someone to lead the way back. Where are you?" She paused a moment longer and said, "Got it."
She moved to the open doorway and yelled down the hallway, "Gil's at the Quick Mart about five miles away and can't find his way back!"
"Well, crap!" Paige exclaimed irritably.
Katrina paused and heard Paige venture hopefully, "Um, Caleb?"
"Hey, he's your boyfriend," he countered.
"Come on, kiddo, at least drop me off so I can drive the car back," she pleaded.
Following a brief silence, Paige added, "Come on! Back rub?"
"We'll be back soon, Kat!" came Caleb's booming voice.
Katrina chuckled, heading back to her desk to finish preparing the forms. She was very pleased that everything seemed to be going so well for a change. Then she frowned and wondered how long that would actually last.
By Saturday, an important first-time event was about to take place between Katrina and Caleb. It was February 14th, marking their first Valentine's Day together. Caleb had been thinking about the prospects of that particular occasion because it was a holiday that seemed uniquely suited for a vampire with the color red and the symbolisms of the human heart. He made sure to acquire a romantic greeting card, of course, but he also tried to think creatively regarding his gifts for Katrina. He even managed a little something for Paige, the second-dearest woman to his heart.
Caleb spent the day at the college assisting with a community outreach project to curb domestic partner abuse. He answered phones at the call center and helped prepare lunch for community members attending the free seminars and workshops. As a victim of abuse himself, he felt it was important to reach out to others suffering under abusive circumstances, understanding fully how helpless and lost a person could feel. He was grateful that his and Katrina's relationship was nurturing, respectful, and violence-free.
By the end of the day-long event, he eagerly made his way home. Upon his arrival, he noticed that Paige's rental car was nowhere to be seen, and he entered the house only to be greeted with the sound of silence. However, he did smell the scent of one of his favorite cuisines, barbeque.
"Kat?" he inquired as he slipped the backpack off his shoulder and sat a paper sack full of gifts on the dining room table.
Upon hearing only silence, he laid aside a small, shiny red gift bag covered with red tissue paper and a greeting card. He sat out a small square gift wrapped in silver wrapping paper, followed by a single red rose accented by baby's breath in a slender crystal vase. He left the remaining two gifts in the sack at the other end of the table.
He walked into the kitchen, only to see Katrina standing before him wearing a black mesh gown open to reveal a matching g-string. Her long red hair cascaded down across one shoulder, and her emerald eyes glinted in the dim kitchen lighting as she smiled at him alluringly.
"Happy Valentines' Day, my love," she murmured in a sultry voice. "Do you like?"
She had shopped for just the right outfit to entice him. And while it seemed somewhat cliche, she sought to appeal to his baser desires before offering a more sentimental gift to him later.
"Oh, you're ravishing," he whispered with a growing sense of desire. He crossed the distance to her and bent his head up slightly to kiss her on the lips.
She reveled in his response and offered, "Gil and Paige are out for the evening, so the house is ours for a while. I hope you like what I've catered for you."
His mouth watered from the scent of barbeque, and he appreciated how much of a sacrifice she was making to allow it to permeate through the house. "Oh, it's wonderful," he replied with a grin.
"Are you hungry?" she asked playfully.
He silently nodded.
"Food, or fun first?" she asked with a smirk.
He grinned, took her by the hand, and started down the hallway with her in tow. But then he stopped, turned, and led her back into the dining room. While the desire to make love to her surged through him, he made a deliberate effort for patience in order to present her gifts to her first.
She followed him into the dining room and observed the array of gifts before her. She picked up the vase with the rose and took a moment to savor its sweet fragrance. Setting it down, she opened the romantic greeting card. It included a poem about true love and his own handwritten note, To my true love: the woman of my dreams, the fulfillment of my desires, and the angel who watches over me. My life, my blood, my body for you. I love you. Your mate, Caleb.
She closed the card, her heart melting over his sincere declaration. She gave him a smoldering look and pressed her lips against his in a passionate kiss.
He grinned with satisfaction. So far, so good.
She placed the card on the table with a look of satisfaction and removed the tissue paper from the red gift bag. Reaching inside, she removed a small gift set of cherry blossom-scented body lotion, creams, and shower gel. It was her favorite scent and, she had discovered, Caleb's as well.
"Perfect. How did you know that I needed some more of those?" she asked and glanced down at the remaining small, silver-wrapped box.
He picked it up from the table and placed it in her hands with a hopeful expression, prefacing, "The best for last."
She removed the paper delicately from the box to reveal a soft, black leather casing. Her fingers slowly pivoted the lid open, and her breath caught in her throat at the sight of two perfect emeralds suspended from gold earring posts.
"Oh, Caleb, they're beautiful," she whispered appreciatively. She felt a small pang of guilt as she realized that they must have cost him a great deal of money, given their exquisite cut, clarity, and size.
He beamed with satisfaction and offered, "When the light catches the gems just right, they remind me of your beautiful, glowing eyes."
She was both impressed and deeply touched and turned to embrace him. She nestled her nose against his neck, kissed his supple skin and moved to his lips.
"I love them," she murmured. "And I love you."
They held each other at length, relishing the closeness. Then she pulled away from him, gazing into his eyes with approval. It was definitely a memorable Valentine's Day for her, the first in so many years. And now it was her turn to make it memorable for him. She took him by the hand and suggested, "Now, come with me. I have something for you to unwrap. It's a gift I think you'll find keeps on giving."
He grinned and gratefully followed her down into the sublevel chamber.
During Katrina's five centuries of existence, she had mastered a number of talents and skills, including the refined art of lovemaking. And while Caleb was no novice to sex, she reveled in the opportunity to explore a number of techniques that were wholly new to him.
Following their intimate time together, during which time Katrina made him work up an appetite, she served him a wonderful barbecue dinner. She also gave him a new Rolex wristwatch, engraved on the back with his initials. He had been shocked to receive such an expensive gift on Valentine's Day.
Later that evening, they changed into comfortable clothes and lay on the couch together watching a romantic comedy in the living room. Before long, they heard Paige and Gil returning from their evening out, and Caleb quietly slipped from Katrina's arms, kissing her on the cheek beforehand. She smiled and pinched him on the rear as he got up, resulting in his smirking back at her.
"Take your time," she offered quietly as her attention returned to the movie.
"I'll put the flowers in some water while you go upstairs to shower," Paige's voice emanated from the kitchen. "I'll be up before long."
"Sounds good, babe," Gil replied eagerly as he strode through the kitchen.
Caleb leaned against the kitchen door jamb, casually folded his arms across his chest, and watched her retrieve an empty glass vase from one of the cabinets. She began arranging the dozen roses in it, then glanced up at him with a curious expression.
"Nice flowers," he observed pleasantly.
She smiled wanly. "Yeah, that was sweet of Gil, actually."
"What else did he get you?" he asked carefully, uncertain whether it was a good idea to ask.
She wrinkled her nose. "Lingerie. Black lace with pink accents, and skimpy, of course. I asked him to take it upstairs with him when he went up to shower."
"Hey, you have the body to wear it, so be happy," he offered with a smirk.
She shrugged and ran water from the tap into the vase. "True, I suppose."
He regarded his friend soberly, realizing she wasn't particularly happy. A pang of sadness ran through him, and he was suddenly pleased he had made the gesture to do something nice for her. He had the feeling a surprise was exactly what she needed at the moment.
"I took him to dinner at a nice seafood place downtown," Paige said as she set the vase of flowers on the counter. "Reservations were hard to come by, but I sort of charmed my way into one last week, since I had anticipated we'd still be in town. Gil was really happy about that. Food is definitely one way to his heart."
"Have time for one more surprise tonight?" Caleb asked as he stared into Paige's pale blue eyes.
She grinned at him and replied slyly, "A surprise? From you?"
He feigned an indifferent shrug. "Maybe." He glanced in the direction of the dining room and waited patiently.
Her expression immediately turned playful, and she darted past him in a blur into the dining room. "Are both of these mine?" she asked happily with a tone reminiscent of a child's at Christmas.
"Yep," he replied, following her into the dining room to watch. He glanced over to the couch and noticed that while Katrina still lay there, she had cocked her head to one side to listen more closely.
Both gifts were wrapped in bright red paper, one the size of a small jewelry box and the other about one foot square. Paige picked up the larger box, shook it, and tore the wrapping off in a flurry of hand movements. She popped the cardboard box open to reveal a black t-shirt. When she shook it open to look at the front, it had a picture of two white fangs with blood dripping from them and a slogan in white letters reading Got Blood? below the fangs. She giggled, held it up to herself, and glanced at him.
"I love it!" she exclaimed with a gleam in her eyes. "It's so me!"
She set the t-shirt down and smirked as she picked up the smaller box. That one she took the time to open delicately at each end and slowly remove the wrapping paper from around it. It was a small, black velvet jewelry case, which she deftly popped open with her fingers. Inside was a sterling silver bracelet with an inscription.
She beamed at him and removed the bracelet to place it on her wrist. The engraving stated: Happy V-tines to my guardian & babysitter. Luv, Caleb.
"Oh, Caleb, I love it," she offered and moved in a blur to wrap her arms around him in a warm embrace.
He embraced her happily. "Happy Valentine's Day, Paige."
"They're both perfect," she assured him softly. "Thanks, tiger."
"You're welcome. I'm really glad you like them."
"The t-shirt is too cute," she added. "And if it wasn't for Red, I'd kiss –"
"Oh, shut up, and kiss him!" Katrina barked with exasperation from the living room.
Paige giggled and reached her head up to kiss him on the lips discreetly. He responded in kind and gave her a big hug, lifting her off the floor momentarily.
"You're the best, kiddo," she said, her blue eyes seeming to sparkle in the light. She was touched and particularly loved the bracelet, suddenly realizing she hadn't received a gift so special and sentimental from anyone in a very long time.
He smiled, watching as she gathered up the small jewelry box and t-shirt and walked back through the house with a huge grin.
"Nice earrings, Red," Paige remarked as she passed by the living room and glanced in at Katrina.
"Thanks, Shorty," Katrina replied. "All right, now get back in here and snuggle with me before I get jealous…kiddo," she teased Caleb.
He shook his head with a smirk and dutifully proceeded back towards the couch. He beamed with contentment that it was a memorable first Valentine's for the two most important women in his life. But as he started to lie next to Katrina, she held up her hand and regarded him with a conspiratorial expression.
"It seems you have one last item to open," she prompted.
He looked at her with a puzzled expression and glanced around the room for anything resembling a gift or envelope. "Really? Where?"
She smirked and pointed to the cabinet doors on the entertainment center across the room. He walked over and opened them, revealing a small, rectangular gift wrapped in shiny blue paper. He picked it up and noted that it felt rather weighty. He glanced over at Katrina, who was watching him intently, and slowly unwrapped the gift.
After removing the paper, he was left with a plain, white cardboard box. She put the television on mute and waited as he removed the box lid. It contained an eight-by-ten dual-picture frame made from sterling silver. He parted the frames, revealing two photographs. The one on the left was Katrina in the sexy, blue sequin dress she had worn the night they went clubbing. The photograph on the right was of Paige, wearing the red dress she had worn that night. Both were smiling in their photos, and each had signed their pictures. Katrina wrote: To Caleb, my love forever. Kat. Paige wrote: Always watching out for you, kiddo. Love, Paige.
He was so proud to have those photos, and he looked up at Katrina with surprise. "These are wonderful! I've always wanted a picture of each of you. But I thought that vampires don't give out their photographs." The entire time he had known her, she had consistently refused to allow her picture to be taken.
She nodded. "We don't, typically." She momentarily considered how much trouble a simple picture of herself as Amber Simmons had caused her recently. But then, this was different: it was for Caleb.
"But you're special, kiddo. So we made an exception," Paige announced from the other side of the room.
His head turned in time to see her grin and blow him a kiss before disappearing back upstairs in a blur.
Suddenly, Katrina was standing next to him, and she wrapped her arms around him from behind in a warm embrace. "Happy Valentine's Day, my love," she whispered before kissing him on the neck.
He smiled with delight and realized it was indeed the best Valentine's Day he'd ever had.
Another week passed, and Caleb had gotten used to having two additional house guests. It was almost like Gil and Paige had taken up brief residence with them. While he enjoyed having Paige close by, part of him wondered how Gil liked the extended visit. The young aspiring rocker had seemed restless the past couple of days and, while polite, had acted more distant towards him when they chatted. More often than not, Gil and Paige spent their nights out on the town, only to return home long after Caleb had gone to bed. Katrina seemed quite comfortable hosting their extended visit, so he merely continued with his weekly routine.
On Friday, he was pleased that his afternoon at the college was a short one, because he was anxious to initiate his third installment in the Find Caleb series. He decided to move forward with his plans for the construction site. He anticipated that it would prove easy to navigate due to the dormant state of the late-February foliage.
He had some surprises up his sleeve and had purchased a couple of lengths of climbing rope, as well as the gloves and accessories required for climbing and rappelling . One positive aspect of his challenges for Katrina was his growing familiarity with the inventories of the local sporting goods stores.
By late afternoon, he left the college with a trunk load of equipment. He arrived at the abandoned site before sunset and parked his car well off of the road behind a stand of pine trees. Once he had unloaded his gear from the car, he set everything in place. Darkness fell two hours later, and he ate a sandwich and some chips he had brought out to the site. Then he dialed the estate's number from his cell phone, and someone picked up after only two rings.
"Hello?" Paige answered.
"Paige?" Caleb asked. "Where's Kat?"
"Hi, tiger," she replied. "Oh, she's finishing some laundry. Hey, we've been wondering when you're coming home. Any problems?"
"No problems," he answered proudly. "Tonight's another installment in the Find Caleb series for Kat."
"Sounds good. Where's tonight's exciting episode taking place?"
"An abandoned construction site not far from the estate, actually," he explained. "I have an idea to give me an edge this time."
"Ha! Good luck, kiddo," she replied. "Hold on, I'll get Katrina."
He gnawed apprehensively at his lower lip at her tone and heard what sounded like wind rushing into the receiver at the other end. Damn, vampires are fast.
"Caleb?" Katrina asked. "We've been wondering about you. Do you have to work late tonight?"
He grinned. "Nope, I'm calling to inform you that it's time to play another installment of Find Caleb tonight."
She giggled. "I was wondering when you'd spring one of these on me again."
He appreciated her upbeat tone. "I'm at a place not far from the estate tonight. Do you remember the abandoned construction site not far up the highway?"
She was silent for a time.
"The place with the three-story frame and the overgrown landscape?"
"That's the one."
"Time limit?" she asked simply.
"Coming by car?"
"Nope, running," she answered. "It's not far, and it's a great night for a run. I'll just ride back with you."
He nodded and glanced at his illuminated watch facing. "Okay then. Twenty minutes from right now."
She chuckled. "Better get ready…here I come!"
The phone went silent, and he pulled his cell away from his ear to stare at the display. He shook his head and muttered, "Someday I'm going to get in the last word."
He ran a quick pattern of spreading pre-worn clothing through the trees to diffuse his scent in multiple locations before heading to his staging location. He appreciated the lack of wind on that moonless, cold night as he pulled on some snug-fitting leather rappelling gloves and checked the straps on his climbing harness. The lack of wind would prevent his scent from being spread in one direction, giving him more opportunities to move around. He was determined that the evening would mark his first successful evasion from Katrina within the specified time limit.
He glanced at his watch and tried to determine if ten minutes were enough time for her to cover the few miles. Standing near a small copse of pine trees, he listened for any unusual noises. He could see the dim glow of a street lamp to his left in the direction of his parked car, and on a whim, he took out a small pair of binoculars to survey the area.
As he sharpened the focus settings, he saw Katrina standing near his parked car. He held his breath as he watched her scan the area slowly, then take a deliberate deep breath and hold it. He smiled, realizing he was actually viewing her in the act of hunting him. A feeling of exhilaration shot through his body at the thought of being hunted, and his heartbeat increased rapidly. He glanced at his watch again, realizing that roughly two-thirds of the time limit had expired already. A nervous feeling formed in his stomach as he watched her, estimating it would take only minutes for her to run through the area looking for him. It could take scant seconds more to get to him once she spotted him.
Katrina slowly moved out of the illuminated area and into the trees where he had scattered some of his clothes and in a direction that put her at a right angle to his current position. The analogy that immediately came to his mind was of chumming the water when trying to attract a shark in the ocean. He experienced a strange moment of complete clarity in which he weighed the skills of his opponent and was very happy this was a playful game and not a matter of life and death.
He determined he had spent enough time in one position and slipped his binoculars into a small nylon satchel clipped onto one of the rungs on his climbing harness. He moved in the direction of the partially constructed building while trying to muffle the noise of the metal rings attached to his harness.
He was making good time while moving very quietly, but the toe of his hiking boot caught on a discarded piece of lumber that was partially buried in the ground. All the metal rings on his rappelling harness jingled like an alarm all at once, and he winced with frustration, only barely managing to avoid cursing out loud.
Suddenly, Paige appeared out of nowhere. She moved at a quick pace, grabbed him by the upper portion of his left arm, and hauled him forward at a dead run. His eyes widened to the size of saucers with surprise until he realized who it was.
"Way to go, Mister Ninja!" she exclaimed as she half-pulled him along. "Where did you learn how to sneak, Bugs Bunny cartoons?!"
"Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded, barely managing to keep his footing alongside her as they ran towards the abandoned concrete structure looming ahead.
"I just had to see this for myself," she replied with a chuckle while slowing down to match his pace. "Can't you run faster?" she demanded.
His heart raced as he ran as fast as his feet could carry him, his harness rings jingling loudly. He stole a glance back over his shoulder, but didn't see Katrina anywhere. He wasn't sure how long they had before she would appear, but he knew it had to be quick. The two of them made it onto the building's lower level slab, and he turned on a red-lens flashlight just to avoid running into anything that might be lying around. The concept of stealth was completely lost at that point, and instead he merely tried to run out the clock.
Of course, Paige had no problems seeing in the dark, and she pulled him from behind as she headed in the direction of the open concrete stairwell.
"Hurry! Get to the top floor!" she barked as she grasped his rappelling harness in one hand and half-carried him up the stairs with her.
In less than a minute, they made it up to the third floor. Caleb ran over to the side of the open-walled structure and gazed down to see if Katrina were down there yet. Paige appeared at his side and pointed off to the left of where he had been staring.
"She's just left the tree line, kiddo," she noted. "And we've got less than a minute before she's up here with us."
His eyes darted around and spotted the coiled up length of rope he had tied to a concrete support column earlier in the evening. It was one of a few ropes he had pre-staged on both upper floors. He interlaced the rope into his rappelling harness hurriedly.
Paige grinned as she watched him. "I was wondering about that harness," she observed with amusement. "At first I thought it was just part of your costume."
He paused only a moment to give her a withering look and muttered, "Costume, my ass. I used to rappel in college, you know."
She giggled, took the coiled end of the rope, and tossed it over the edge of the building. After cocking her head to one side, she nodded. "Say goodbye now," she said. "You've got about four seconds."
He grinned, grabbed her around the waist, and quipped, "Got to have my good luck charm!"
"What?!" she demanded incredulously. But she was distracted as Katrina came into view with a smile and announced, "Ha! Found you!"
He waved one hand in a half-salute and tightened his grip around Paige's waist. Unfortunately, his dramatic exit was ruined as he half-stumbled over the edge of the building with her in his arms.
"Awww, CRAAAAAAP!" she shouted as the two of them disappeared from view.
"Caleb!!" Katrina screamed, rushing to the edge of the building. She watched them with a mix of surprise and helplessness, her heart in her throat.
They plummeted downwards like a rock as Paige gripped him tightly, but he managed to right them properly. He hadn't anticipated a passenger, and despite the relatively light weight of the petite vampire, he had to compensate for the added weight while also controlling the feed of the rope in spurts through his gloved hands.
They hit the ground with a bounce, and he fell somewhat off-balanced to one side, causing them to fall over onto the cold, hard ground.
"Ooof!" he grunted, rolling across the ground and releasing his grip on Paige.
The blonde-haired vampire rolled to a stop next to Caleb, lay still for a few seconds, and complained, "Well, that sucked."
"Okay, so it's been a while since my last rappel," he admitted with a groan while arching his back.
"More practice, Mr. Bond," she rebuked in a mock-evil voice as she gingerly rotated her right shoulder.
Then the timer on his watch went off with a series of beeps. A second later, Katrina towered above them with partially glowing eyes.
"You two idiots could've killed yourselves!" she barked while kneeling down to check on her mate.
Paige sat up absently rubbing her thigh and retorted, "Hey, Indiana Jones here was the brains of this operation! I was just the baggage on this flight."
But Caleb chuckled happily and exclaimed, "Awesome! I finally won!"
Katrina stared at him as if he were crazy and shook her head. "I did Find Caleb before the timer went off," she noted with an air of superiority.
"Ah, but you didn't 'tag' Caleb," he countered, sitting up and brushing the dirt off his leather jacket.
"He's got you there, Red," Paige interjected with a smirk.
Katrina looked sidelong at her friend and chastised, "Oh, and what are you now, the referee?"
She stuck her tongue out at Katrina and got up to brush at the seat of her jeans.
"Hey, thanks for the assist," Caleb offered to Paige with satisfaction. "You get half the points on that goal."
She grinned and reached over to dishevel his hair. "Anytime, tiger."
Katrina sighed with resignation, merely happy that neither of them was injured.
As the two vampires turned to walk away, Caleb prompted, "Hey! Um, how about a hand with the clean up?"
They stopped, looked at each other, and then back at Caleb.
"What do you think, Red?" Paige asked. "Gil's probably fine back at the house."
Katrina smirked. "Well, he did actually win tonight, I suppose."
"Great, thanks!" he replied. "Maybe you two could go through the woods to retrieve my clothes hanging up in the trees?"
The two vampires exchanged amused glances.
"Better yet," Paige clarified, "you get your own clothes, and we'll get the ropes and other equipment from in and around the building."
"Besides, I still have to pick up my heart from the third floor," Katrina retorted.
"Oh, all right," he replied sourly.
Paige and Katrina victoriously smacked each other's open palms in midair as they walked towards the concrete structure, appreciating their easier task.
"I really didn't know he could rappel," Katrina noted quietly.
"Ha! I still don't," Paige snickered, and then added seriously: "He's full of surprises, though, and with some additional training –"
"Oh, don't encourage him," Katrina chided, but smirked. She was proud of him for trying, despite the anxiety it had caused her.
Meanwhile, Caleb proceeded into the nearby woods with a sigh. At least I won this round, he considered proudly. However, he realized his victory was partially due to the aid of another vampire. He wondered if he would ever really be prepared to confront vampires on an equal footing.
Saturday morning, Katrina spent time sorting though emails. It seemed that her recent territorial declaration was the focus of conversation in the vampire community, and some were wondering if she were creating some form of organizational structure. A few vampires were even interested in joining such a structure under the right circumstances. However, Katrina had hoped her initiative would serve as a subtle deterrence rather than an open invitation, and it annoyed her that the declaration was only partially successful. She discussed her concerns with Alton, but he seemed rather amused, conceding that such a result had been within the spectrum of possibilities.
Funny, she thought irritably. Alton never mentioned that as a possibility leading up to my decision.
Alton reassured her they would discuss it further when she and Caleb came to England in March. It occurred to her that their trip to the United Kingdom was taking on more and more significance, which wasn't encouraging.
In the meantime, Saturday afternoon Caleb learned the proper techniques for basic knife-fighting from both Katrina and Paige, including some advanced combat techniques. After a few hours of repetition, both vampires were impressed with his ability to observe and duplicate the methods demonstrated, though Katrina intended to test him every few days to ensure his continued competency. Early on, Gil asked to participate, but after only a short time was relegated to being a stand-in for demonstrations rather than a student.
That evening, the four of them went out to dinner and then perused the downtown Atlanta area for impromptu diversions. For Gil, that primarily amounted to seeking out prospective clubs and bars that looked promising. Once they were downtown, Gil recalled conversations with patrons at the previous weekend's club activities about a couple of bars that sounded interesting to him. Paige rolled her eyes, but conceded to let Gil lead the way. However, Caleb's limited experience with Gil engendered a wary sensibility regarding the former rock singer's choices and decisions.
Fortunately, the two bars that Gil selected were in reputable sections of the downtown area, which relieved Caleb. The first was a popular bar named Atlanta Tap, frequented by a number of the college students and the urban twenty-something crowd. The music was loud, and the atmosphere was lively, and the four of them stayed for a couple of hours. However, the mood and conversation between Gil and Paige seemed somewhat distant and tentative.
The second bar, Downtown Blues, presented them with a mostly thirty-something or older crowd. It was styled with rock and soul music memorabilia and hosted a live classic blues band. The bar offered a number of locally brewed beers, as well as a decent selection of food on their menu. Caleb and Gil took the opportunity to order something to eat, while Katrina and Paige contented themselves with watching them while nursing their beers and appreciating the live music.
While Paige hardly ignored Gil, her attention was often subtly distracted as she observed the interactions between Katrina and Caleb with satisfaction. Her blue eyes caught Caleb's as he and Katrina laughed at a joke he had made, and Paige winked at him approvingly. One of the primary reasons for her journey to Atlanta had been to determine what was happening between Katrina and Caleb, and she had not only done that, but also managed to aid in mending a rift in their relationship. She reflected on how she had been able to lay the groundwork to help mend the social rift between Caleb and Devon Archibald. Additionally, she had learned so much more about Caleb's past and why Katrina had been so drawn to him initially. Finally, she was able to spend some long-overdue quality time with Caleb. All in all, it had been a productive and informative visit to Atlanta, and she was content to have helped the two people who were perhaps most dear to her. They're like family, she affirmed.
After a couple of hours, everyone agreed it was time to leave. While Gil excused himself to use the restroom, Caleb paid the tab for everyone as Katrina and Paige left the bar to wait outside for them. On his way to the exit, Caleb saw the merits of a restroom break before joining the women. As he passed through the initial men's room door, he overheard Gil speaking somewhat loudly. Gil's somewhat angst-ridden tone of voice caused him to pause just inside.
"…so this scene is lame and getting lamer by the minute, dude," Gil complained. "Everybody's nice enough, I guess. But Paige has turned out to be a real drag for a vampire."
Caleb's eyes widened as he listened to the conversation, and a momentary feeling of shame ran through him as he reflected on his eavesdropping. But then, the conversation suddenly seemed important enough to override his social sensibilities.
"What? Hell yeah, Skeet, a frickin' real vampire! Fangs, super-fast speed, the works. Oh man, I think I can snap a pic with my cell, and I'll show you her teeth. Dude, they're real. I ain't freakin' lyin'!" Gil blurted excitedly. "It's like I'm some kind of 'blood on tap' for her, but she always has a way of erasing the teeth marks so they don't show."
Caleb realized that his own rule number one had been broken, and though he never recalled Paige's mentioning the rules for her own companions, he was nevertheless confident that was a universal one. One was never to reveal the true nature of a vampire's existence to anyone, no matter the emotions or motivations driving such an inclination. Katrina stressed that rule above all others as the most important to maintain the safety of a vampire. Anonymity was their best friend in a twenty-first century world where humanity probably wasn't ready to deal with the realities of vampires among them. And yet, somehow he wasn't entirely surprised that Gil seemed oblivious to that fact.
"You want to see a picture?" Gil asked. "I guess I could try to snap a pic, if she'll let me. But Dude, you'll just bitch about how it looks like makeup and photo editing."
Gil paused. "Really? Yeah, I remember Doug. He works over at that rag magazine, right?"
Another pause. "A thousand bucks for one picture? Ah, hell, are you trippin' me?!"
Caleb's anger flared as he realized where Gil's conversation was heading.
"Hell, yeah," Gil said. "That would pay some serious rent for me, dude. And with me between bands, I need all the spare Benjamins I can lay my hands on. Besides, she doesn't even read the Inquirer. She'll never know. And hey, would they pay for additional shots?"
Caleb started to burst into the room and yank the guy's cell phone from his hand, but paused as Gil said something that stopped him in his tracks.
"What's she like? Ah, hell, she's a great lay," Gil replied emphatically. "But it ain't like I'm hookin' up prime time with her, either. She can be bossy and kind of bitchy at times. Paige is more of a nighttime gig only, if you're followin' me. And there's this guy I think she has a torch for or something. I dunno, it's shit!"
Caleb had tried to reassure Gil that Paige was only a friend. Then again, am I the one getting the wrong picture? He pushed that thought from his mind and instead refocused on the situation at hand. He stormed into the room, fuming over the gall of Gil's indiscretion, and saw the young man looking back at him with wide-eyed surprise. Caleb walked directly up to Gil, reared his arm, and punched him squarely in the face with a balled-up fist. However, he winced as his knuckles were impacted slightly by the leading edge of Gil's teeth.
"Shit!" Gil exclaimed after recovering from the blow. "What the hell?!"
"Don't even think about doing that, asshole!" Caleb demanded.
Gil glared back at Caleb abashedly and stammered, "Hey man, chill! I was just joking, you know?"
Caleb considered punching him again, but then shook his head, spun around, and walked purposefully back out of the restroom. He stalked back though the bar and exited out onto the street, still shaking his head with aggravation. His mind raced with a host of emotions: fear that humans would find out about Paige and Katrina, anger that Gil was such a creep, and concern that the balance of another human's life was essentially in his hands based upon "the rules" he was supposed to follow. Another realization struck him. Maybe there are two people's lives in my hands. Surely, that other guy — Skeet? — will have to be addressed as a loose end or something. An anxious feeling formed in the pit of his stomach, but his concern for the two dearest women in his life far outweighed his reservations at that moment.
Katrina and Paige were idly chatting, and both looked up with curiosity as Caleb approached. They immediately noted the troubled expression on his face, and their countenances turned more serious.
Paige sniffed at the air, and her eyes went immediately to Caleb's right hand and his bleeding knuckles. Katrina noted the scent and Paige's attention, and her eyes quickly focused on his hand with a curious expression. Caleb blinked once slowly, looking at each woman in turn, and absently flexed his sore right hand.
"Bars are dangerous places for you, it seems. Is everything okay, kiddo?" Paige asked. "And hey, where's Gil?"
He frowned. "He's still in there…probably still talking on his cell, I think."
"Caleb?" Katrina ventured with concern evident in her voice. She could tell by his distracted expression that he was troubled, and she was confident that his knuckles hadn't been injured by accident.
He looked at Katrina only for a moment before his gaze focused on Paige fully. "Listen, there's something you need to know about Gil. I'm afraid he's just not right for you."
But Paige misinterpreted his comment with a smirk. "Is he taking a hit from a joint in there? He's kind of a pothead at times."
"That's not the problem, believe it or not," Caleb replied before staring into her bright blue eyes in penetrating fashion. He fell silent, not exactly sure how to proceed.
Katrina watched silently, waiting for him to say more, and suspected the news wasn't good.
"Go ahead, tiger," Paige encouraged as she grasped him gently by the shoulders and directed him towards a small, darkened alley close by. "Tell me more."
The three of them relocated down the dark, narrow alley a short distance away, although Caleb glanced warily into the darkness.
"We're alone," Katrina assured him with a gentle brush of her hand across his back.
Caleb's eyes darted briefly to Katrina's before settling his gaze on Paige. "Rule number one was broken."
Paige's eyes widened with surprise, and Katrina pressed closer to Caleb to place a supportive hand on his shoulder. By the look in his eyes she knew he hadn't been the one who broke the rule.
"Tell us what you know," Paige encouraged in a serious, yet reassuring voice as she continued to grasp Caleb gently by the upper arms.
He quickly recited everything that he had overheard from Gil and tried not to include any of his own reflections or emotions so as not to influence the presentation of facts. He focused on maintaining eye contact with Paige in the same manner that Katrina did with him on occasion to give the vampire the opportunity to gauge his emotions further. It wasn't as if he were trying to mislead anyone, but he wanted Paige to know he was both serious and forthcoming with everything. During his recollection, Paige occasionally squeezed his shoulders in an encouraging fashion, which he appreciated.
But the one item of information he deliberately left out was the accusation that Paige had affections for someone else. He wasn't sure the topic was wise to mention at the moment.
Paige frowned momentarily as she detected a change in his body language, but patiently listened as he described his own animated response towards Gil. Both vampires adopted amused smirks when he recounted punching Gil in the face.
When he finished, he stood silently and felt Katrina's fingernails stroke the back of his neck in soothing fashion.
Paige removed her hands from his shoulders and softly cradled his face between her warm palms. She stepped up to him and placed a light kiss on his forehead. "I know how hard this must be for you," she offered tenderly. "But thank you for having the courage to come forward."
He nodded while she cradled his face in her hands. "I won't let anyone or anything threaten you or Katrina, if I can stop it."
Paige smiled in a warm, appreciative manner, and softly, yet deliberately, kissed his lips. A small charge seemed to pass through her as their lips touched, and for a split second her eyes widened with surprise. He's a good kisser. She was also struck by the sincere, protective nature of the young man, as well as the fierce sense of dedication he had shown to her. As humans went, she had never met anyone quite like Caleb before, which only added to his aura of intrigue.
Katrina's eyebrows rose slightly, but she said nothing. She felt a momentary pang of jealousy, but quickly reined it in given the nature of the topic at hand. She shared the preeminent concern of any of her kind to protect their identities from humanity.
However, Caleb blushed slightly from Paige's intimate appreciation as he stared back into her deep blue eyes.
"Thank you for protecting me, kiddo," she offered before releasing his face and adopting a far more serious expression.
He offered a tentative smile back at her and cast a sidelong glance at Katrina to gauge her reaction to the kiss.
Katrina noted the silent inquiry in his eyes, and her arm reached out to encircle his shoulders supportively. "It's fine, and I'm very proud of you, my love," she offered in a soft voice.
Paige looked up at Katrina with a hard expression. "Red, I need a flight ready to leave for California sometime tonight. Think you can set that up for me?"
Katrina nodded. "I'll see to it."
Gil exited the blues bar and looked around searching for them as he rubbed his jaw with one hand. His face was still reddened slightly where Caleb had punched him. Paige stepped out of the alley into his line of sight, and the young man grinned sheepishly.
"There you guys are. Why've you been hanging out in the alley?" he asked nonchalantly. "Where to next?"
Paige turned to glance at Katrina with a serious expression and whispered humorlessly, "We'll be returning late to the estate."
Katrina nodded, and Caleb swallowed hard at the steely look in Paige's eyes. One of the rare times he had seen that look was following a mercenary attack on Katrina's estate when he and Paige had been sequestered. Paige had done an excellent job of protecting him, and he recalled that gaze as she had interrogated one of the surviving mercenaries in Katrina's garage. A shiver momentarily played down his spine at the vivid and disturbing memory.
"You okay?" Katrina whispered with concern.
He merely nodded and watched the exchange between Paige and Gil intently.
"We're going to break away from these guys," Paige offered to Gil in a suddenly light-hearted tone. "They're lightweights and want to head back to the estate."
Gil grinned in semi-relieved fashion as Katrina and Caleb stepped out of the alley and back onto the sidewalk.
"Yeah, old Caleb doesn't seem to be the out-all-night type. I think he's a little on edge tonight," Gil agreed with a scowl and nod of his head towards Caleb.
Paige took Gil's arm and glanced back over her shoulder at Katrina with a resolved expression. "Don't wait up for us. We'll catch a cab home."
A chill flowed through Caleb as he wondered if it were possibly the last time he might see Gil. But then, he felt renewed anger that Gil sought to reveal Paige and, quite possibly, Katrina.
As Paige and Gil walked down the street together, Katrina's left arm wrapped around Caleb's waist, and she turned them in the opposite direction. She picked up his right hand in her own and lightly sucked on his bleeding knuckles so her saliva would seal the scrapes.
"I probably just sentenced someone to death," he muttered with cold realization as he appreciated the numbness forming around his knuckles.
But she pulled him against her in a side-hug and countered, "No, Caleb. He committed suicide. There's a difference."
Caleb frowned at her semantics and sighed. He stopped walking and tilted his face up to her lips to kiss her. She eagerly responded and initiated one of her own.
"I love you," he offered sincerely. "And I would never betray you. I'll take your and Paige's secret to the grave if I have to."
She smiled in genuine admiration. "No need to worry. I already know that, my love. And so does Paige."
Katrina drove them back to the estate in relative silence as Caleb considered the evening's events. The topic he had omitted from Paige in his recounting of Gil's betrayal returned to the forefront of his mind. Was Gil right about Paige caring for me in more than merely a friend-like or sister-like manner? The thought burned in his mind like a bonfire and filled him with anxiety. It was a sensitive topic, and he knew that he needed to tread carefully with it.
Katrina sensed his tense mood and glanced over at him with concern. "What's wrong, my love?"
"Gil said something else on the phone tonight," he recalled carefully. "Something I didn't tell Paige."
She frowned and cast another curious glance at her mate. She wasn't certain what the subject was, but she sensed it wasn't good. Reaching out with her right hand, she caressed his left cheek with her fingertips. "You can tell me, my love," she encouraged. "Perhaps I can help."
He swallowed, glanced at her, and looked out through the passenger side window at the darkness permeating the glow of the street lamps. "Gil told his friend that he thinks Paige is 'carrying a torch' for someone else. He was pretty upset about that. He said as much to me at the bar the other day, but I tried to reassure him that wasn't the case. I told him that she and I were just close friends, like family, and that I didn't present a threat to him for her affections."
Katrina remained silent as she considered Caleb's revelation. She wasn't hearing anything that hadn't already crossed her mind. The situation was rather complex and required careful handling on her part. Multiple serious relationships were at stake if the issue were allowed to be mismanaged, and she didn't want that to happen, either for Caleb or for her best friend.
"Paige is quite fond of you," she explained carefully. "She cares for you a great deal, Caleb. I'm not naive about her affections for you, you know. It bothered me at first, but I'm confident she poses no threat to our relationship. Would I be mistaken about that?"
He felt a surge of concern run through him, and he replied hastily, "No. I'm yours, Kat. You're my mate, and I've never been happier in my life. But I also care about Paige. I love her, but not in the same way that I do you."
Katrina sensed the sincere and honest nature of his response, and a feeling of reassurance coursed through her. "She's an attractive, and yet playfully quirky woman," she ventured. "It's easy to see her allure."
He reached out to grasp Katrina's hand as she gripped the console gear shift. "You're beautiful, intelligent, kind, and generous, Kat. How could I ever ask for more?" he insisted before drawing her hand to his lips and softly kissing her skin. He resolved there was nothing he would ever do to tarnish his commitment to her.
She nodded, sensing the earnest nature of his declaration. It sent a warm, reassuring feeling through her. "I'm happy to hear that, my love. Though I don't doubt your intentions."
He continued to hold her hand while casting a quick glance at the profile of her face as she drove. The muscles appeared taut across her high cheekbones. "I love you, Kat."
They continued down the highway in silence for a time longer, until Katrina exited the highway near Mableton.
"Do I need to mention this to Paige?" he asked warily. He was adrift in foreign territory like a boat on an open ocean and needed guidance.
Katrina paused. "No, there's no reason to now. It would only upset her further, I think. She has to focus on getting Gil back to California and addressing him and his friend –"
"Skeet," he prompted.
She looked sidelong at him with a darkly amused expression. "Yeah. Skeet."
The car wound its way down the sparsely lit county roads as Caleb silently contemplated the grim task that was before Paige. But then, she was a vampire; the very act of killing was second nature to her. He tried to imagine himself killing Gil in a measured, calculated manner, and found that he was having trouble envisioning that. Does that make me weak or cowardly?
"A planned killing would be hard," he whispered absently.
Katrina squeezed his hand supportively as their car entered through the gates of the Pine Valley addition. She didn't want to tell him that such things got easier with time, given an appropriate motivation or necessity. She also didn't want to tell him that most vampires, herself included, actually enjoyed aspects of killing. It was a predator's pleasure and part of their very nature. And yet she would have added that his own life was never safer around either her or Paige, despite the constant desire for taking blood that always lay just beneath the surface. Instead she let her grip on his hand speak of her concern.
"I wish Paige didn't have to go," he murmured. He reflected on how much easier life had been with Paige around. She was a part of their extended family unit, not to mention a key friend and protector for him.
Katrina pulled the car into the garage, and her eyes quickly darted to his. "Actually, me too," she offered. She understood that Paige's arrival at the estate was instrumental in helping to mend her relations with Caleb. There were so many reasons why Paige was an important part of their lives.
Caleb unbuckled his seatbelt and looked at Katrina, who had turned off the ignition and remained in the driver's seat staring out through the windshield as if transfixed on something before her.
"Kat?" he asked. "Are you okay?"
She broke from her reverie and turned to glance at him with a smile. "Me?" she asked innocently. "I've never been better," she replied.
"You sure?" he asked as he opened the door and started to exit.
Her expression turned sly, and she challenged, "Sure. That is, sure I'll have your blood tonight if I beat you to the door into the house."
He grinned broadly and spurted from the car, racing towards the door leading to the interior of the house. She moved in a blur, pursuing him like a cat chasing a mouse. As he nearly reached the door knob before her, her hand darted out at the last second and firmly grasped his wrist. She deliberately spun him around before her and caught him in her arms as he slightly lost his balance. Then she leaned down and kissed him with passion.
"Got you," she declared.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he replied before wrapping his arms around her waist and applying a warm kiss of his own to her lips.
They were lying together in the sublevel chamber by the time Paige and Gil finally returned to the estate. Katrina had made the impromptu arrangements for a charter flight to California on Sunset Air for them and left the boarding information on the dresser in the room Paige and Gil shared.
Katrina heard Gil question Paige about the abrupt return, but he seemed relieved to be leaving. The two of them slipped out just prior to dawn to make their way to the airport. Fortunately, Sunset Air took elaborate measures and precautions to ensure that their vampire clients wouldn't be threatened by daylight if the flight arrived after sunrise.
Katrina deliberately let Caleb sleep through their departure per Paige's wishes. The young vampire was never one for long goodbyes, and the nature of Caleb's conflict with Gil the previous night had suggested that such plans were for the best.
Once Caleb woke, dressed, and went upstairs, he knew that Paige and Gil had already left to return to California, but part of him still felt disappointed to discover the house so quiet and empty. He gave Katrina a big hug as she made his brunch, clearly her favorite and most accomplished meal to prepare for him, and she tried to offer upbeat conversation to occupy her mate's thoughts. She was all too aware of how Paige had quickly formed a prominent presence in their lives, making the youthful vampire's absence all the more poignant.
They spent the day doing laundry, reading alongside each other on the couch, and generally appreciating their shared companionship. As the evening approached, Caleb sat at the dining room table sorting through his materials for Monday's classes. He looked over to the couch where Katrina was comfortably reclined and prompted, "Kat, I wonder how Paige is doing."
"She'll call or text us when she can," Katrina replied as she lay on the couch reading a novel. "But I need to warn you, we probably won't be hearing from her for some time. No email, texting, or phone calls. And I suggest you refrain from contacting her as well."
He looked up with surprise. "Why?"
"It's a delicate matter she has to address, my love," she replied in a dark tone. "Think about it. If there's an investigation of some kind, she needs to avoid any communication trails leading up to, or following, the event. It's for our protection, really."
He stared at her as the weight of his Saturday night thoughts returned to the forefront of his mind. He was momentarily surprised that those thoughts hadn't preyed upon him before that and wondered if he had subconsciously blocked them out until then. His musings were followed by a degree of embarrassment at seeming so dense regarding the topic. "Oh, sure," he replied sheepishly. "That makes sense, of course. Sorry."
There was a rush of air near him, and suddenly Katrina was standing next to him. He started slightly, and she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as he sat at the table.
"Don't be sorry, my love," she offered. "This is something new for you. Just try not to dwell on it and realize that Paige will contact us again when she feels it's safe to do so."
He nodded. "Okay, then."
She caressed the back of his neck with her fingernails, causing a soothing sensation to permeate his neck and shoulders. He arched his back slightly forwards, and she lightly ran her nails down his back. A satisfying shiver ran through his body, and he momentarily considered how wonderful life was with her, followed by how peculiar it was that such happiness could be coupled with the dire thoughts of another human's demise at the hands of a vampire. It was a truly odd dichotomy, and he was scarcely able to believe how logical it all seemed or how easily reconciled.
Paige was a patient person, and it was Monday evening before she chose to broach the subject of her concerns with Gil. She met him at a trendy restaurant in town, LA Bohemia, that was frequented by rock bands and Hollywood types who wanted to be seen with rockers. The prices were expensive, but naturally Gil counted on her to pick up the tab.
She wore a black leather jacket, a Garbage concert t-shirt, and fashionable jeans as she waited in a leather booth in a corner of the main dining room. When Gil finally showed up at the table smelling of inspiration in the form of marijuana, she shook her head slightly. She was pleasant as he offered a quick hello, but she rolled her eyes when he wasn't looking as he sat down in the booth across from her.
"Hey, babe," he began tentatively. "Thanks for meeting me here tonight."
I'm not going to miss that whole "babe" thing, she considered grimly. "Sure, Gil," she replied easily while toying with the straw in her glass of cherry Coca-Cola. "No problem at all."
A waitress showed up to take Gil's drink and food order and departed before he continued his chat with Paige.
"So, uh, I was wondering if you were feeling better since Sunday," he ventured as off-handedly as he could manage in his innately abrupt manner.
She looked across the table at him with a slight frown. "Better? I'm fine, Gil. Why do you ask?"
He shifted uneasily in his chair and nodded. "Well, you know. Things were a little quiet on the plane home, and I thought you didn't feel good or something. I mean, we took off out of Atlanta pretty fast, and all."
She nodded, sipped her cola sedately, and offered, "Well, you didn't seem to care for Atlanta that much. And I got the impression that you and Caleb weren't getting along very well, among other things."
He looked up sharply and then back down to the beer before him. "Caleb? Nah, we're good. Good dude, big heart, and all. Why? Did he say something to you?"
Paige listened to Gil's heartbeat among the music and voices of patrons around them. She heard it increase abruptly and knew she had touched just the right nerve. "Oh, not so much," she replied. "It was just a feeling, that's all."
He seemed to relax suddenly and took a big swig of beer. "Oh, well, of course not. I mean, I'm cool with you and him, you know."
Her eyes darted to Gil's sharply, and she pressed, "Cool with what, Gil?"
"You know, how tight you two are," he said with a lopsided grin. "Hey, it's no problem having a guy on the other coast and all. We rockers, we get that better than anyone, you know?"
What the hell? she thought wildly as she gazed across the table at him. "Gil, Caleb and I aren't an item," she insisted. "He's a friend, like part of my extended family."
He shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Like I said, no problem."
"He belongs to Katrina, Gil," she said with an edge to her voice. "Got it?"
His eyes widened slightly, and he took a swig of beer. "Got it, babe," he replied with a nod of his head.
She rolled her eyes and suppressed a growl, not really believing his response. But she refused to bother further with the topic since there were more pressing matters on her agenda. The truth was that she loved being around Caleb and already missed his presence since her return to California. In the end, the issue seemed to her to be a moot point. But then, if that's true, why is the topic still nagging in the back of my mind?
"So, maybe we can change the subject, okay?" she pressed in a more conciliatory tone.
He nodded agreeably.
"Good," she said. "Now, what would you like to talk about?"
He considered the question for a moment. Finally, he nodded and proposed in a semi-practiced tone, "Okay then. How about pictures? I noticed you and Katrina both gave Caleb a picture for Valentine's Day. I wouldn't mind having a picture of you, you know."
She smiled pleasantly, but mused, Here we go then.
"What kind of picture?" she asked before sipping at her Coke and glancing casually across the room to scan the other patrons so as not to intimidate him.
He paused. "How about something with your smile? Maybe something with a little fang showing? You know, something classic?"
Caleb was right after all, she thought darkly as her gaze returned to rest on Gil's somewhat anxious-looking features. "Classic, huh? Yeah, I can see the appeal of that," she replied. "But you wouldn't show it to anyone else would you?"
He looked up only briefly and then back down to his beer again and shook his head. "Me? Nah. I mean, who would believe it anyway, right?"
She scowled and offered, "Who, indeed?" However, she also knew a lie when she heard it, and Gil was a terrible actor. Come to think of it, Gil's a terrible singer in reality, as well. Pretty soon, he's going to become a distant memory.
They sat together in relative silence while Paige swayed to the rock music playing in the background above the din of conversation among the patrons. Gil happily accepted another beer when the waitress passed by, and Paige stared back at him thoughtfully.
"So, how about a picture sometime soon?" she offered, lifting her glass to her lips.
His expression brightened somewhat, and he looked up with a renewed sense of curiosity. "Really?" he asked. "You'd be down with that? I mean, that's great and all. I'm just surprised."
She smirked with a gleam in her blue eyes. "I'm absolutely full of surprises."
His food arrived, and he seemed almost gleeful as he dug into a plate of sausage pasta alfredo. Paige made a sour face at the pronounced scent of garlic wafting in her direction and sighed. Her thoughts went back to a time when she had counseled Caleb on selecting meals with less garlic because it generated a pungent flavor to the taste of his blood. Of course, she wasn't particularly interested in feeding from Gil at that moment, which was partially colored by her disappointment in the former rocker's personal judgment as of late.
"So, when's a good time for you?" he inquired energetically.
She regarded him for a moment, paused to sip from her glass, and ventured, "Oh, I'm pretty flexible. What's your schedule looking like? I realize you're trying to get a spot with another band or find some other job options."
He chewed a forkful of pasta at length. "Well, no new prospects for now, but Skeet's helping me out with looking, you know. I've got the feeling something's gonna turn up real soon, though."
She tried to appear nonchalant. "Skeet's helping you out, huh? Friends can be helpful sometimes. And how is Skeet doing these days?"
Gil smirked, took a drink of beer, and replied, "Ah, you know Skeet. He's good. You know, he's got some cool connections."
Paige frowned and countered, "I can't say that I know him. You forget that I've never actually met Skeet, Gil."
He looked up from his plate with a slightly dumbfounded expression and recalled, "Hey, that's right. He's cool. I should set up a meet with you sometime soon. He'd like that, actually. I told him a lot about you."
The corner of her mouth upturned ever so slightly. "Oh?"
Gil stopped chewing his food for a moment and looked up sheepishly. He immediately reassured her, "Well, yeah, I mean being that we're an item, and all. Just the normal stuff, you know?"
She nodded. "Oh sure, the normal stuff."
He smirked awkwardly and returned to shoveling more pasta into his mouth. He tapped his fork against his plate a couple of times as he chewed and made an effort to look around the room as if distracted, but Paige heard his heartbeat increase slightly for a moment, almost anxiously.
"Hey, how about a drive along the coast? It's great weather for a night out," she suggested congenially. "Cool breeze, the sound of surf."
His eyes blinked as he considered the idea. Then he grinned, took a swig of beer, and replied, "Yeah, sounds good."
"Maybe Skeet would like to join us," she suggested. "Then I could meet him. He sounds like an interesting guy. And if he's such a good friend of yours, better to meet him now than later."
Gil shrugged as he chewed his food and nodded. "Yeah, sure, babe," he agreed. "He's got a soft top on his Jeep, too. It's killer for cruising the coastline. I could have him meet us somewhere."
Paige nodded affirmatively and smiled. "A soft top on his Jeep. Sounds perfect."
A couple of hours later, Paige dropped her car off at her condo, and Gil called Skeet to arrange for their meeting. Then she and Gil took his car to Skeet's house in Eagle Rock near Glendale. The house was an older, single-story home with a detached one-car garage to the side. Gil parked his older model Chevrolet Malibu in front of the house in the street and turned to Paige with a grin.
"Man, this rocks," he offered. "You're gonna love Skeet."
She nodded, and the two of them made their way through the recently mowed front yard as she scanned the immediate area for anyone who might be watching. Fortunately, there wasn't anybody hanging around outside at that time on a Monday night. She noted that Skeet's late-model red Jeep was parked in the driveway.
Gil rang the doorbell in the yellow light of the front porch and waited. Paige stood with her arms folded casually in front of her and leaned against one of the wooden banisters holding up the small porch.
A lanky, curly haired man about Gil's age and dressed in a pair of jeans and USC Trojans sweatshirt appeared in the doorway with a grin. Skeet immediately reached out with his right hand to grasp Gil's, pulled him to him in a quick, brotherly hug with the other arm around his shoulder, and laughed. "Hey, bro! Long time!"
"Dude, this is Paige," Gil offered with a grin as he gestured behind him to the blonde-haired young woman.
Skeet's eyes brightened somewhat, and he half-waved at Paige. "Wow, hey, Paige. Gil's told me a lot about you. I've been dying to meet you."
She smirked and gave a little wave with her right hand before concealing it beneath her other arm crossed before her. "Nice to finally meet you, Skeet," she replied in a friendly tone.
Skeet stared at her for another moment, as if looking for something in particular, but Gil broke his reverie by starting to walk forward to enter the house. However, Skeet put a hand to his shoulder and countered, "Hey, the place is a real mess, man. I've got a lot of inventory lying around inside, if you know what I mean."
Paige frowned slightly, but Gil smirked with recognition and nodded. "Yeah, dude. Sorry about the short notice. But hey, we're going out to the coast tonight anyway. So, you ready?"
Skeet nodded, closed the front door, and took the time to lock two sets of deadbolts before turning to follow Gil. The three of them made their way over to the Jeep, and Gil held the passenger door open for Paige. She got into the back, while Gil and Skeet took the soft top down and stowed it. They pulled out of the driveway and made their way towards the coast.
By the time they reached the ocean, it was pretty late, but the evening was beautiful and the temperature perfect for a drive.
"So Skeet, what do you do for a living?" Paige asked as she leaned forward and propped herself between the front seats.
Skeet smirked. "I'm kind of in business for myself. I guess you could say I'm into natural supplements."
Gil stifled a laugh and asked, "Hey, dude, you have any of that natural stuff with you?"
"Glove box," Skeet replied as he sped around a slower car in front of them.
Gil opened the glove box and pulled out a roll of papers and a small plastic bag.
"Ahh, natural supplements," Paige acknowledged with a smirk. "I get it."
"Business is great, too," Skeet added proudly. "Man, I wish I was a doctor, then I could write out prescriptions to people."
Paige smiled supportively, thinking, Somehow, I should have guessed.
Gil primed the cigarette lighter on the dash and rolled a quick joint. He lit up and took a large draw, then offered the remainder back to Paige. She declined, and Gil handed it off to Skeet.
After a short time driving along the coast, Paige pointed to a scenic turnout bordering the small cliffs looking out towards the ocean. "Hey, let's drive along there," she directed them.
The road was almost completely devoid of other cars at that time of night, and Skeet effortlessly pulled the Jeep onto the road. He reached out his hand to Gil, who passed another lit joint to him. Skeet took a long draw, laughed, and leaned his head back against the driver's seat head rest as he steered the vehicle.
"Man, this is the life!" he shouted as the cool night air flowed past them.
Gil took a long draw on his own joint and laughed. "You got that right!"
"You guys better be careful smoking that stuff, you know," Paige offered loudly.
Gil just shook his head and retorted, "Ah hell, come on, babe!"
Skeet scowled. "Yeah, why's that? This stuff never hurt nobody."
She nodded knowingly, noticing the upcoming sharp curve, and explained loudly, "You have to keep a clear head. After all, you just never know when life will throw you a dangerous curve."
"What?" Skeet asked.
Paige reached swiftly over to Gil with her right hand and grasped the back of Gil's neck. She slammed his head forward into the dash, knocking him unconscious, and Skeet shouted, "Hey! What the fu–!"
She moved in a blur to grasp Skeet's head from behind and neatly broke his neck with a quick snap. She grabbed the steering wheel over with her right hand while pressing Skeet's body forward, causing the man's foot to press against the accelerator and increasing the speed of the vehicle. The Jeep swerved slightly for only a second until she stabilized their course.
She directed the vehicle towards the looming cliff railing and, at the last second, leapt out of the back of the Jeep as it crashed through the railing. The car sailed over the edge of the cliff until finally arcing downwards in a steep plummet.
Paige managed to land on the balls of her feet, rolling her body against the pavement while using her leather jacket to cushion her as the momentum from her forward velocity abated. A huge explosion bellowed from beyond the edge of the cliff, and she glanced around quickly to see if any other vehicles were in the vicinity. After a moment, she raced over to the edge and peered down into the night, seeing only the burning remains of the mangled Jeep as the ocean lapped at the rocks below. With her keen vampire vision, she was able to see that both bodies were still in the vehicle, which was exactly what she had hoped for.
A wave of disappointment washed over her, and she shook her head for a brief moment, feeling almost sorry for Gil and his friend. The young rocker hadn't been that bad a guy overall, and she felt somewhat conscience-stricken by what she had just done.
"If only you'd been more honest with me," she muttered absently and turned to race from the area. "And I really hate the term 'babe!'" she growled.
But she realized that the matter had been more than simple honesty. It was a grave matter of maintaining her anonymity among a planet full of humans, and the fact that Gil took that for granted while trying to profit from it was inexcusable in her mind. There were limits to her sense of compassion, and Gil Yeager had exceeded them.
As she raced away from the crash site across the coastal landscape, her mind wandered back to thoughts of Caleb and how fortunate Katrina was to have someone like him in her life. Of course, he was a part of Paige's life as well, but it was a different sort of relationship. A pang of jealously flashed through her, but she quickly stifled it. Sure, I'm fond of Caleb. Hell, I love the little guy. He's not a bad kisser, either.
But the evening's earlier conversation with Gil at the restaurant replayed in her mind, and she wondered why the misguided former singer was so convinced that Caleb had been something more than just family to her. Then she wondered if somehow she had been the one who had the wrong impression about that issue, after all. It was a sense of doubt that scared her a little bit, actually.
Maybe I should stay away from Caleb for a while, she resolved gloomily as she made her way back towards the city. An odd feeling pervaded through her at that thought. For someone who had always been so independent and self-sufficient since her turning in the early 1900s, Paige was suddenly surprised to find that the idea filled her with a sense of longing and melancholy. The confusion she felt over the matter struck her with a mix of shock and aggravation. Suddenly, her traditionally simple vampire life was becoming somewhat complicated, and by a human, no less. I love Caleb, but that's a good thing. Right?
She knew she would have to lay low for a time until she was certain there were no ties back to her for Skeet's and Gil's deaths. It was a blessing of sorts, because it would give her time to reflect on the issues, and her feelings, surrounding her relationship with Caleb. But a part of her wanted to stop and call him on the phone to talk to him. Just the sound of his voice might cheer her up. It was nearly magical, the manner in which he always managed to make her smile or laugh. Of course, she realized it would be some time before it was safe to contact him again. Then again, maybe it's better if I don't. The complications fueling her intense emotions were both confusing and annoying.
"Well, crap," she muttered irritably, speeding through the night on her way back to the city.
Paige Turner didn't appreciate complications, particularly those involving relationships.READ MORE >>