Blood Noir

Laurell K. Hamilton

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

To Darla, who has made herself simply indispensable. Sherry, for organizing a house full of artists. Mary, for bringing order, and someone to call for advice. Charles, for security, research help, shooting range trips, and reminding both Jon and I that this really is cool. Shawn, for research questions answered, and for simply being the only other human being on the planet who understands. Marshal Moriarity, whose input came too late for this book, but well fix it next time. Happy retirement.

To the winners of the Jason stage name contest:

Kim Montano, Maitland, FL

R. Malinen, Finland

Sarah Shelton, Arlington, TX

My writing group, The Alternate Historians: Tom Drennan, Rett MacPherson, Marella Sands, Deborah Millitello, Sharon Shinn, and Mark Sumner. Never give in; never give up.

And Lieutenant Robert J. Cooney, Commander of Mobile Reserve, HRT, and K-9 19642008.

1

I CAME HOME to find two men sitting at my kitchen table. One of them was my live-in sweetie. The other was one of our best friends. One of them was a wereleopard; the other was a werewolf; both of them were strippers. At least once a month they took off more than just their clothes on stage. They changed shape on stage in front of a live audience. Those nights the club was standing room only. I mean, you can go to other clubs to see men take their clothes off, but their entire skin and bodywell, that was unique.

Nathaniel came to greet me with a kiss and a hug. I let my hands play in the long, thick auburn hair that trailed down his broad shoulders, the curve of his waist, the tightness of his ass, and the long muscular legs. He was five-seven now, an inch taller than when Id met him. In my three-inch heels I was still an inch shorter than him. At twenty-one he was finally growing into the promise of those shoulders. His face was less soft than it had been, and more masculine. He would always be beautiful rather than handsome, but the bone structure had changed minutely so he just suddenly looked his age, instead of like jailbait.

He blinked down at me with the soft lilac of his eyes. On his drivers license it said his eyes were blue, because they wouldnt let him put lavender, or purple. His eyes were different shades of color, depending on his mood, or what he wore, but blue was never the color of his eyes.

His hands slid underneath the jacket of my suit, and a little lower to trace the top of my skirt. His hands hesitated a little at the Browning BDM in its shoulder holster. Guns do get in the way of cuddling.

I wrapped my arms around the bareness of his upper body, breathed in the scent of his skin. He was wearing what he usually wore in his off time in the summer, little bitty jogging shorts. Most of the wereanimals would go around nude if you let them. I wasnt quite comfy with that, so he wore the shorts to save my delicate sensibilities. There were some who thought I didnt have any of those left, but they would be wrong, and they would be jealous.

Holding him, breathing in the warmth and sweet vanilla of his skin, I understood the jealousy. Though frankly, not all of it was about sex or even having found love at last. It was about power and them wanting it, and me and mine having it. It was about me being the human servant of Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis. It was about body count, and me having the highest kill count among the vampire executioners in the good ol U. S. of A.

I would give a less favored body part to have a woman greet me at the end of the day like that, Jasons voice said.

I had to peer around Nathaniels body to see Jason. He was still at the kitchen table nursing a coffee mug. It even smelled like coffee, but he huddled over it, as if it were something harder and more intoxicating.

Jason was two years older than Nathaniel, which made him twenty-three now. Strangely, Id met them both when they were nineteen. Jason was my height, give or take a half inch or so. His hair was that shade of yellow blond that movie stars are fond of, but his was real, and didnt have to come from a good salon. His hair was cut businessman short. I liked long hair, but I had to admit that Jasons face looked cleaner, better, more handsome even, without the hair to distract. He was wearing a blue T-shirt that made his eyes even bluer than they were. The color not of spring, but of summer skies, before the heat has gotten too hot, but you know its not May anymore.

The clothes hid what I knew, that he looked even better out of them. It wasnt for lack of cuteness and desirability that Jason wasnt my sweetie. He was my friend, and I was his.

What about Perdita, Perdy? You and she are going steady, right?

He grinned at me. Going steady, youre so cute.

I frowned at him. What else do you call it?

Nathaniel kissed me on the forehead. You really are cute.

I moved away from him and scowled at them both. Im serious, what else do you call it? You arent just fuck buddies. She isnt a one-night stand. Shes a serious girlfriend. If its not going steady, what do you call it?

You make it sound like I gave her my class ring, Anita. Perdy and I were lovers, and she wanted it to be exclusive.

I thought you were exclusive.

Except for you, I was.

Wait, youre talking past tense. Are you saying you and Perdy broke up?

She gave him an ultimatum, Nathaniel said. He trailed his hand down my arm as he moved away. Ill get you coffee.

I went to the table and took the seat that Nathaniel had started in. What kind of ultimatum? I asked.

Jason stared into his coffee cup while he answered. She wanted me to stop having sex with Jean-Claude and Asher, and you.

Wait, you arent having sex with Jean-Claude and Asher, unless theres something I dont know.

He smiled at me. The look on your face, man. He raised his fingers in the Boy Scout salute. I am not now, nor have I ever been having sex with Jean-Claude or Asher.

Nathaniel set fresh coffee down in front of me and took a chair across the table on the other side of Jason, so wed both be able to look at him. It also meant we wouldnt be able to do more than hold hands, which was probably good; we tended to distract each other.

But she didnt believe you, I said.

Nope, she didnt. He took a sip of coffee.

Why wouldnt she believe you? I asked.

Im not sure.

If my feeding the ardeur off you through sex bugged your steady girl, you should have said something.

I am Jean-Claudes pomme de sang, his apple of blood. I am his blood donor, and I go where my master tells me to go. The ardeur is your version of a blood feed and youre his human servant. Jean-Claude shares me with Asher, his second-in-command, for blood and you for sex, and its his right to share me. I am his. I belong to him. Perdy knows that. She got kicked out of Cape Cod because she wanted to be more than just a blood donor to the master vampire there.

Samuel didnt say anything about that. In fact, his son, Sampson, said that Perdy was here to spy on him for his mother.

Yeah, but Sampson went home, and Perdy didnt.

Sampson had gone home because St. Louis got invaded by some of the scariest vampires in the world. Jean-Claude had thought it was a bad idea to risk getting the eldest son of his friend and ally killed. Besides, Sampson was a merman, and they arent big on offensive abilities, at least not this far inland. Perdy was a mermaid, too. Though Id never seen either of them turn all fishy. They just looked like people to me.

Perdy stayed for you, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. She wanted me to be hers. Shes very jealous, very possessive. Im just not into that.

So you have a woman who greets you like Anita greets me, but the rest doesnt work.

No, Nathaniel. She used to greet me sort of like that, but for weeks now its been, Where have you been? Who have you been with? You fucked the master again, didnt you? You fucked Asher, didnt you? You were with Anita again, werent you?

Ive put you on the back burner for feeding me, I said. I got the impression Perdy didnt want to share you that much, but I had no idea she thought you were doing more than just donating blood to the vampires.

Shes like crazy jealous, and she wont believe me when I tell her I havent been with anyone else. Its why I asked Jean-Claude to take me out of your feeding schedule for a while. I thought if I stopped having sex with the only other person I was really having sex with that Perdy would calm down.

Nathaniel and I exchanged glances across the table. He shrugged. I asked the question. Did it work?

No, he said. He took another drink of coffee, and it must have finished the cup because he got up and went for the French press beside the sink. He took the coffee cozy off of it, then put it back on without filling his cup. He set the cup in the sink.

I dont want more coffee.

You can never have too much coffee, I said.

He turned and smiled at me. You think so, but the rest of us get a little ODed on your level of caffeine.

What happened, Jason? I asked.

The smile slipped a little more. He was solemn when he turned to us. He leaned his back against the cabinets, crossed his arms across his chest, and again didnt quite meet our eyes.

She wanted me to marry her. Till death do us part and all that. Shes a mermaid, which means shell outlive me. She can live for hundreds of years, not immortal like a vampire, but close.

You didnt want to marry her, I said, softly.

He shook his head. Shes obsessed with me. She says she loves me, but it doesnt feel like love. It feels like Im smothering.

Shes not the right one, then.

He grinned, and it almost reached his eyes. Look whos talking about the right one. You cant pick just one either.

Thats different.

Why, because youre a living vampire who feeds off sex, so you have to have a bevy of lovers? The ardeur is like the perfect excuse to never have to say youre sorry.

Id change it if I could, you know that.

He came to me then, put his arms around my shoulders, and rested his cheek on the top of my head. I didnt mean to make you sad, Anita. God knows I didnt. Please, dont tell me youd change it if you could. You love Nathaniel, and Micah. They love you. You love Jean-Claude and Asher, and they love you. Youre still a little confused about what to do with Damian, but youll get there.

I shook my head and stood up, moving away from him. Dont forget Requiem, and London, and sometimes Richard. Oh, wait, and the swan king pops in now and then, no pun intended. It sounded angry and bitter, and I was glad.

I didnt mean to say the wrong thing. I didnt mean to make you feel bad, or to have another woman mad at me tonight. Please, Anita, please, dont be mad. Im upset. You have no idea how upset. Please, please, Im a bastard, but dont be mad.

He held his hand out to me. His face pleaded along with his words. Id never seen his eyes full of quite this kind of pain. The look in his eyes was more than just losing a girlfriend he didnt want anymore.

I held out my hand, but made him take the step to close our fingers around each other. His eyes glittered in the overhead lights.

I took his hand, held it. His breath came in a soft gasp, and I thought for a second he was going to cry, but he just looked at me. His eyes that had glistened a moment before were almost dead, as if whatever he was feeling hed locked away somewhere. In a way, to me, that was worse. I went to him, and he wrapped his arms around me as if he were at the edge of a cliff and I were his only handhold. That quiet holding on was somale. A woman would have cried, or talked more, but for a man, after a certain point this is their pain.

I held him back, tried to tell him it would be all right. I whispered it into his hair, against his cheek. Its all right, Jason. Its all right.

Nathaniel came up behind him and wrapped his arms around us both. He pressed his cheek against his friends hair and said, Were here, Jason. Were here for you.

Jason just held on wordless, motionless, the strength in his arms, shoulders, pressing against me, but it wasnt about sex. Id never been pressed so close to any man and thought only, God, whats wrong? Either he had loved Perdy and now he was regretting letting her go, or the other shoe hadnt dropped. What else could be wrong?

We ended up on the floor of the kitchen, simply sitting in a row with our backs to the kitchen island. He still hadnt said what else was wrong, or that he was desperately in love with Perdy and how could he fix it? I kept waiting for him to share. If hed been a girl friend Id have asked by now, but guy friends are different. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them like some sort of wild animal, no wereanimal pun intended; all men are leery of their emotions, spook them and theyll shut down. If youre careful, quiet, not too eager, sometimes youll learn more. Of course, sometimes you have to club men over the head with some question to get any sense out of them, but they prefer to speak from a quiet place.

Jason had his head against Nathaniels shoulder, and a hand on my leg. At least he, like most of the men in my life, was cuddlier than most. I appreciated that.

Jasons voice came flat, empty, as if he were afraid to let his voice feel anything. My fathers dying of cancer. My mom called last night just after Perdy and I broke up.

I exchanged a glance with Nathaniel. His wide eyes let me know that it was news to him, too.

Jesus, Jason, Im sorry, I said.

We hate each other, of course, and now the cold bastards dying and I wont have time to forgive him before he dies.

What can we do? Nathaniel asked, softly.

He smiled, a little weak, a little watered down, but he managed it. I thought it was a good sign. I hoped it was. You really want to know?

Name it, I said.

He smiled again, but his eyes flinched, as if Id hit him instead of told him Id do anything he wanted if it would take the pain away.

Perdy isnt here to tell me dont, or to tell you dont. Im a free man again. He tried for a laugh, but it was a sound more like a sob.

I get it, Nathaniel said.

I frowned at him. Then explain it to me, because I dont.

He wants to have sex with you again.

What? I said.

Perdy cant tell him, or you, no anymore. You can be lovers again.

You mean now, like in right now?

Nathaniel gave a half-shrug. Jason moved his head off the other mans shoulder. He dropped his hand away from my leg.

Its okay, Anita, Ive fucked this up. I know this isnt the way to approach you. But my head is so ugly tonight; I just cant seem to think clearly.

He pushed to his feet and started for the doorway.

I opened my mouth to say dont go, and yes. I closed it without saying any of it out loud, and looked at Nathaniel. I frowned at him. He was more than just my sweetie. The ardeur made me a sort of living vampire who fed off sex, but with the downsides came some interesting upsides. Nathaniel was my animal to call, which meant he was like my familiar. We shared emotions, power, and sometimes thoughts. Youre projecting inside my head, arent you?

You can shut me out if you want, he said.

Jason hesitated just short of the doorway. He frowned at us both. Im missing something.

I looked into the face of a man that I loved. Is this really what you want?

Hes my friend.

You know, most guys dont want their girlfriends to sleep with their friends.

If youd never slept with Jason, that would be different, but you have. Why is it wrong to sleep with him tonight?

I opened my mouth to say something reasonable, then closed it, because for the life of me, I couldnt come up with a clearheaded answer. Why was it wrong to sleep with Jason tonight? Because I hadnt planned on it? Because it felt slutty? Were any of those reasons good reasons?

Jason stopped in the doorway, caught between the light of the kitchen and the darkness of the living room beyond. Ive made you feel sorry for me. Im not sure I want that to be your motivation for taking me to bed.

Once upon a time, you wouldnt have cared why you got to sleep with me.

I was a slut, I know.

I didnt mean that, Jason.

Stay here tonight, Nathaniel said.

He half-turned so he could see us, but his face was still mostly in shadow. Why? Why do you want me to stay?

I shrugged at Nathaniel, with a this-was-your-idea expression.

Because youre our friend. Because we care about you.

And you, Anita, whats your motivation?

I looked up at him. There was something defiant about the set of his shoulders, as if he expected me to hurt him. I tried very hard not to do that. It just seems wrong for you to walk out the door right now. Stay, if the sex is an issue, then just stay for a big puppy pile. We can actually just sleep.

He shook his head. You never want to make me just sleep, Anita.

That made me uncomfortable. I dont know what to say to that, Jason.

Say you want me.

I started to say something, but Nathaniel touched my hand. He needs the truth, Anita.

And what is the truth? I asked, taking my hand away from his.

Tell him how you feel, really feel about him.

I took a deep breath and thought about the truth; what was the truth? You are one of the best friends I have, Jason, and you shouldnt be alone tonight.

Jean-Claude would let me sleep with him.

But you wouldnt let him hold you while you feel miserable.

How do you know I wouldnt?

Call it a hunch.

He stood frozen in the doorway as if he couldnt decide, or as if part of him wanted to and part of him didnt. Id made him come to me to hold his hand. Now I went to him.

I wrapped my arms around him. He stayed stiff and unyielding. I pressed my head to his shoulder. Stay with us tonight, Jason, please.

He whispered against my hair, Why?

Because you want to.

Not good enough, he whispered.

Because I can feel how much it would hurt Nathaniel to see you leave tonight, and know that you didnt have anyone to hold you while you slept.

Its not sleep I want, Anita. Im afraid to sleep. Im afraid Ill dream. Last night wasbad.

I lifted my face up to look at him. You found all this out last night?

He nodded.

Bad dreams? I made it a question.

The worst; something about the news about my dad just raked a lot of shit up.

Nathaniels need pushed at me, almost staggering in his desire to have Jason stay. I tried to shield against him, but realized that one of the reasons I couldnt shield was that I agreed with him. A large part of me felt Jason should stay. Nathaniel was right; Jason was already on my list of lovers. Why was it wrong for me to admit that it was fun to sleep with Jason? Why was it always wrong for me to admit that I simply wanted to be with someone? Not because I had no choice, but because for once, I did?

He kissed my forehead. Ill go home.

I hugged him tighter, kept him in the doorway. It would be lovely if you stayed.

He looked startled. You sound like you mean that.

I nodded. I do.

He smiled, and it was a shadow of his usual one. Somewhere in there did you actually say please?

I smiled at him. I think I did.

Ive never heard you ask a man to please stay with you.

I dont usually have to.

Stay with us tonight, Nathaniel said.

I nodded. Stay.

The bed will be a little crowded when Micah gets home.

Hes out of town, I said.

A new wereleopard wanted to join our pard. Hes off interviewing, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. I like Micah, you know that.

But hes not your best friend like Nathaniel is, and hes not a girl, I said.

Jason nodded again. Tonight, I dont really want an audience.

Damian is even sleeping over with his latest vampire lover, Nathaniel said. We have the house to ourselves.

Some tension I hadnt been aware of slid away from Jason. I love everybody, but sometimes the group thing gets a little old. It was one of the things I liked about Perdy, at first.

You dont want a group orgy every night, but you dont want to be monogamous either, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. I am so fucked.

Not yet, I said, hugging him, but we can fix that.

He grinned at me, and it reached his eyes. Bedroom, bathroom, living room, or kitchen?

The kitchen floor is hard and the tile is cold. Why not just go to the nice soft bed? I asked.

Jason looked at Nathaniel.

Nathaniel answered the question. Jason has made love in a bed and only a bed since he started being with Perdy.

I frowned, then looked at Jason, still in a loose hug with me. I understand no shower or bath sex. Mermaids have trouble retaining human form in water, but nothing but the bed?

He shook his head.

Standard positions, too? I made it a question.

He nodded.

My eyes widened. Oh, Jason, Im sorry, I didnt know. I hugged him tighter.

He moved back so he could see my face. With all the bad news Ive had today, and you look that stricken that my girlfriend would only do standard bed sex?

I tried to put into words what I was thinking, not always my best thing. You love sex. Youre good at it.

Why, gee, thanks. He grinned.

I gave him a look, but kept talking. I was going to finish this thought, damn it. Sex is one of the most personal things we do as people. To have someone who says she loves you limit how you express yourself in the bedroom is like a small death. It kills the soul.

The grin left his face, then his eyes. He stared at me, and there Jason was, that part of him that he hid from most people. Heck, that he hid most of the time. He let me see that there was a good mind and a deep thinker inside those usually smiling blue eyes. It made him look sad, and older, but I valued that look. I valued that he let me see him all the way down.

How did you get to be so smart? he said, softly.

I have smart friends who give me good advice sometimes. I smiled. Sometimes I even take it.

He smiled back and ran his hands down my back. So, youd really let me pick where we make love?

I nodded.

Just because I havent had a choice in a while.

Yes.

What if I want something too freaky?

Then Ill say no, and you can back it down a little.

His eyes had that solemn look again. He searched my face. You mean it.

I put my hands on either side of his face and nodded. I try not to say things I dont mean, Jason. I put a soft kiss at the end of the sentence.

He moved his hand lower on my back to press us closer together. Close enough that I could feel that his body was already happier than when we hugged last.

He closed his eyes and took a breath. He looked at Nathaniel. Do you have a preference?

Youre the guest.

Jason lifted me off the floor with a hug. We were both short enough that I was in no danger of hitting the doorjamb. I love you guys; you make me feel less weird about myself.

Why, because were weirder? I asked.

No, he said, laughing up at me, because your relationship works. It just flat works for you guys. You make me feel that out there somewhere is someone weird enough to make me happy.

Id rather not do the bathroom, Nathaniel said, it takes forever to dry my hair.

Jason let me down, so I was standing on the floor again. Im leaning toward the living room.

There are chairs, and the couch has a back and arms, Nathaniel said.

How sturdy is the coffee table?

Not that sturdy, Nathaniel said.

Id caught on. No, not sturdy enough to have sex on.

Start in the living room, move to the bedroom? Jason said, making it a question.

I looked at Nathaniel. He nodded, and gave a little shrug.

Deal, I said.

2

T HEY HAD A disagreement on whether I should leave my heels on or take them off. Nathaniel voted for on; Jason wanted off. Jasons point was, I want to go down on her, and the heels will hurt.

Nathaniels point was, Yeah, the heels hurt, whats your point?

I settled the argument this way. Whoever is doing the oral sex on me gets his preference on the shoes.

Lose the shoes, Jason said, and there was a look in his face that tightened things low in my body without him touching me at all.

I lost the shoes. They lay on their side in the dimness of the living room. The only light was what spilled in from the kitchen doorway. I stood in front of the couch, while they moved the coffee table far to one side of the room.

Jason came back and dropped to his knees in front of me. He gazed up at me with one half of his face lit, the other in darkness. The look in the one eye I could clearly see made me shiver.

Nathaniel came to the end of the couch and took his shorts off in one smooth motion. My pulse was in my throat at the sight of him nude in the darkened room. He let the shorts fall to the floor.

Jasons hands slid up my legs, underneath my skirt, and I was back to staring down at him. His hands caressed the hose up to my thighs, went up, oh, so gently, until he found the lace tops of the thigh highs. He traced the very top of the lace, trailing fingertips over the rise and fall of the fabric. He rolled fingers back and forth where the hose elastic had rolled down in back. No matter how careful you were, if you had any thighs at all, the hose always did that. But he treated it like what it was, not an imperfection, but something different to play with.

His fingers slid around that edge, brushing the very upper edges of my thighs. He rubbed his thumbs on that warm inside hollow that frames a womans groin. He massaged my thighs, but it was the pressure of his thumbs that helped draw my legs farther apart. So he could reach what he wanted, and what I wanted him to reach.

Nathaniel came in behind me. Without the coffee table there was room enough between me and the couch. His arms wrapped around me, pinning my arms against my upper body. The feel of his nakedness pressed against the back of my skirt was amazing. Then he let me feel the strength in his body, as he held me, held me so tight. It sped my pulse faster, caught my breath in my throat.

So strong, I whispered.

So trapped, he breathed against my face. He squeezed harder, just this side of bruising my arms against me. But I didnt tell him to stop. I loved knowing that I was trapped. If he had meant me harm, I couldnt have stopped him. My gun was trapped under my arm, digging into my body. All it would take was Jason to grab my legs and I was trapped.

I hadnt much liked that I enjoyed things like this. In fact, Id hated it. But lately, thanks in part to sharing emotions with Nathaniel, who loved bondage and submission, I was acknowledging that fantasy was okay. That I didnt need to analyze why in real life being trapped made me fight like hell and do all in my power to destroy the ones trapping me, but in sexual fantasy I liked being trapped, a little. In a safe place, with people I trusted, it was more than just exciting.

What are you doing up there to make her react like that? Jason asked. His hands had gone still against my thighs.

Holding her, very, very, tightly, Nathaniel said in a voice that showed the strain of holding me tight.

Jasons fingers suddenly dug into my flesh, from gentle to bruising in an instant.

I whispered, Yes.

Is that the game we want to play? he asked, and his voice had changed, too, deeper, darker, for lack of a better word.

I do, Nathaniel said.

Jasons fingers pressed harder into my thighs, so that I cried out, and told him, Enough, enough.

Thats her safe word, Nathaniel said.

Ive already stopped, Jason said.

But I havent stopped, have I? Nathaniel whispered.

No, I said, voice breathy. He was holding tight enough to be trapped, but not quite tight enough to hurt. It was a fine edge to walk, but Nathaniel knew how to walk it.

Do I rip the panties off, or take them off? Jason asked.

Rip, Nathaniel said, and it was almost a growl.

I said, Please.

Please what? Jason asked.

Off, I whispered.

He ripped the satin panties in one harsh move that jerked my body. Nathaniel tightened his grip on me, until it was hard to breathe.

I whispered, Ease up.

He eased until he was back where hed been. Tight, but not too tight. Trapped, but not hurt. Of all forms of sex that Id found, BDSM took the most trust, the most communication.

Jason pushed my skirt up until he bared me to the light from the kitchen. How rough can I be? There was no sex in the tone of his voice; he was truly asking.

Start easy, Nathaniel said, shell let you know.

I realized that Jason had never given me oral sex before. Id gone down on him, but hed never had a chance to return the favor. He used his hands to spread my thighs wider. He let me feel the strength in his hands, but not as hard as hed been when I told him to ease up. The sensation of being bound by the sheer strength of him was amazing. There was no need of ropes or chains when you could feel how terribly strong they both were.

Jasons hands were harsh, but he leaned in toward me as if he were going to give the gentlest of kisses. The juxtaposition of the harsh and the gentle left my mind not knowing how to react. Then his tongue slid across me, and there was no conflict, there was only sensation.

He dug his fingers into that space inside my thighs, so harsh, I cried out. He forced my legs farther apart. Nathaniel lifted me. I could feel his shoulders and chest flex until I was suddenly off the ground. It allowed Jason to spread my legs more, use the strength of his fingers to force me wider.

Jason plunged his tongue inside me, sudden and abrupt. I cried out for him, and he leaned back enough to gaze up the line of my body.

It was as if I could feel the weight of his gaze, because it made me look down at the same time he looked up.

God, he said, that look.

What look? I managed to say before Nathaniel squeezed harder and I had no breath to talk.

That look, Jason whispered, and lowered his mouth to my body. He kissed there as he had kissed my mouth, maybe a dozen times before. Most men dont kiss between your legs the same way they kiss your mouth, but Jason did. He kissed me just as thoroughly, as completely, as expertly. Then he began to do things that you couldnt do when you kiss a mouth. He licked and explored, trying different things, judging his progress by the sounds I made, and how much I writhed.

He didnt just find the spot and stay on it like it was a button; he explored every inch of me, biting the inside of my thighs between attentions.

Nathaniel held me through it all, sometimes so tight I couldnt breathe, sometimes just tight enough to let me feel his strength, and then he squeezed hard enough that my gun cut into me, and it felt as if he were trying to crush me. I cried out while I had breath, then all I could do was writhe.

Jason drew back enough to ask, Am I doing that, or you?

Me, Nathaniel said, and eased up so my breath came in a ragged gasp.

I managed to say, So strong.

I need to try harder, Jason said. He pulled down my hose and bit me, not a love bite, but bit me on the thigh.

I screamed for him.

He plunged his mouth between my legs, rougher this time. I writhed and cried out. He pressed teeth into the most intimate part of me. When I didnt tell him to stop, he worried at me with his mouth, his teeth, pulling and biting and licking. The pleasure began to build between my legs, like heat and pressure and the beginning flickers of orgasm like previews of the pleasure to come.

Nathaniel tightened his grip just as Jason pushed me over that last edge. The orgasm was one of those that came in waves, one after another as if as long as he kept sucking I would keep going. I shuddered and danced in their hands, cried out when Nathaniel let me, or gasped in breathless silence when he held me too tight for words.

Jason finished with a lick from front to back that made me cry out all over again. Still on his knees he said, That was fun.

Nathaniel braced, changing positions just a little. Fuck her.

Jason, still on his knees, said, While you hold her?

Yes, Nathaniel said, and it held an edge of bass growl that wasnt his normal voice.

Jason looked at me, the light from the kitchen glistening on his chin and mouth. Seeing him wet from me tightened things low in my body that had just had their fun, so it started a new wave of writhing.

Jason held my thighs while Nathaniel held the rest of me. When my body quieted, Jason laughed, that sound that is all male. Anita, are you okay with this?

Do it, I said, please, please

No, Nathaniel said, Im topping her tonight, its my permission you need.

Jason hesitated as if waiting for me to protest. There was a time when I would have, but Id been working at understanding Nathaniels idea of sex. Id found that some of the bondage and submission worked just dandy for me.

Jason said, You top us both?

We top Anita.

Jason smiled, but his eyes held something more serious than a smile. I always thought it would take at least two of us. Tell me what you want me to do.

Nathaniel said, Get a condom.

3

J ASON PRESSED HIS fingers into the backs of my thighs, spreading my legs wider. Nathaniel squeezed me tight at the same time, as if hed crush my arms against my body. I made small, helpless noises for him. Jason lifted me minutely, getting the angle he wanted, then shoved himself inside me. There was nothing gentle about it, and I was wet enough I didnt need gentle.

The feel of him shoving himself into me, as hard and fast as he could, drove a sound from my mouth, but not the sound he wanted. He said, in a low, breathy voice, I cant get the angle I want.

What do you need? Nathaniel asked, from behind me. His voice wasnt breathy, but just deep.

Jason had stopped moving inside me, so I could think again. A new position, I said, my voice breathy, too.

Oh, Jason said, I am not doing my job if you can still talk. He put action to word and started moving, slowly, in and out of me.

It felt wonderful, but Jason was right, he needed a different angle to push me over that edge. I looked him in the eyes and said, in a clear voice, Youre right, this position isnt going to do it.

Jason laughed. He kissed me, and if he hadnt still been wet with my juices, I might have called it a friendly kiss. Some men would be insulted.

You arent some men. You like feedback, I said.

Nathaniel had stopped squeezing me, and was more just holding me. That helped me think, too. Do you want a new position? and he wasnt asking me.

Yes, Jason said.

I want to do one thing before we change, Nathaniel said.

What do you want me to do? Jason asked.

What you were doing, Nathaniel said.

Jason looked at him a moment, but he went back to going in and out of me. He wasnt as hard as hed started, too much talking, too much hesitating, but he was still hard enough to do what Nathaniel asked. For me, I was simply content to let Nathaniel be in charge. Content to revel in this blossoming strength, as he owned his sexuality in a way that he never had before. Id been working with Asher to help meet Nathaniels needs in the BDSM, and it had brought out a deep, inner happiness in him that I hadnt known was there.

While Jason pushed between my legs, Nathaniel raised my skirt the last few inches to bare my ass, so that I could feel his nakedness against me. The sensation of his hardness pressing into my ass, and Jason inside me at the same time, threw my head back, closed my eyes, made me cry out.

What are you doing back there? Jason asked.

Rubbing. What position do you want? he asked.

Her, on her back on the couch. This time he didnt ask me. I think he knew what Nathaniel would say, and there was no bad choice here. It was just a matter of how good it was going to be.

Nathaniel pressed himself harder against me, and it made me writhe again. Asher and Nathaniel had taught me that neither of them had to be inside me to make me react like this. There was just something about being pressed between two men, feeling them rubbing against me, that simply did it for me.

Jason was harder, more securely inside me now. He liked the writhing, but then most men did. It was an involuntary response on my part, but I liked the effect it had on most men, and the effect that their liking it had on me. My body encouraged them with every movement, every spasm, and their bodies responded to that encouragement. Go, team.

4

W E ENDED WITH me on the couch, my arms above my head over the arm of the couch. Nathaniel held my wrists against the arm, but it wasnt like he was holding me down. It was more the way you hold hands when one of you has thrown your body into the sky, and you reach out to catch the hands that you know will be there. The hands keep you from falling. The hands that keep you airborne. Jason found his angle on top of me, his body slamming into mine as hard and as fast as he could. Since he was stronger than your average human, that was very hard and very fast.

He rose above me so that most of his body was held away with his hands on the couch, his lower body the only thing that was touching me. It gave me an unobstructed view of his body pounding into mine. Just the sight of it was enough to throw my head back and make me scream my pleasure. I fought against Nathaniels hands, fought to touch Jasons body, to carve my nails down that smooth flesh, but Nathaniel held me tight; his strength held me tighter than any chains.

I felt Jasons body give one last hard push, and I opened my eyes. I watched his body spasm over mine, watched him fight his body to keep his hands on the couch, his body held above mine. He kept his position for one last shudder that made me writhe underneath him. Then he collapsed on top of me, as if someone had cut his strings. He collapsed on top of me, his breathing ragged, heart pounding so hard I could feel it through my shirt.

Nathaniel said, My turn.

Jason laughed, then said, still on top of me, Cant move yet.

Move enough for me to move, Anita, Nathaniel said. He made it sound quite orderish. So unlike Nathaniel only a few weeks ago.

Jason rolled himself off the couch to half-collapse onto the floor. Nathaniel grabbed me under the arms and pulled me over the arm of the couch. He didnt try to get me to walk; he knew better. He scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the bedroom. He tossed me down on the bed, pulled my jacket over my shoulders, and threw it on the floor. The look on his face was so intense, so eager, a controlled franticness. He had to undo my belt so he could get both the skirt and my shoulder holster off. I tried to help, but he slapped my hands away. I was playing bottom tonight, which meant he wanted me either passive or obedient. Obedient wasnt my gig, and he knew that, so passive it was.

When he had me nude, he put his hands on my waist and half-lifted, half-pushed me toward the head of the bed. His voice was breathy, eager, and full of all that newfound force, when he said, I want you in the cuffs.

He was the dominant in that moment, but he still asked, rather than ordered. Why? Because Id never worn the cuffs. They were sport cuffs attached permanently, of late, to the headboard. But they were soft nylon and fastened with Velcro. I flat refused to use handcuffs, or anything that I couldnt get out of if I had to. The sport cuffs were perfect. You could be tied up for real, and still know that you could get away if you wanted to. Me, trust issues, nah.

Nathaniel had used the sport cuffs on our bed more than once. Even Micah had done it, though I think he did it more to humor us than because of desire. But never me.

I stared up into his face. His desire, his bravery at asking, was all there in his face. Id been tied down with Asher and Nathaniel, and if I admitted it to myself, Id had a good time. Why not this, then? Issuesmine.

I looked up into the face of the man I loved, and I said, Okay.

The smile he gave me made it worth a yes. He fastened the Velcro around my wrists, nice and snug. I pulled on the chains because I could never not pull. I could never not test the limits.

Nathaniel leaned down, his body kneeling between my legs but not touching. His hair spilled out around us like some sort of warm, living tent. On another man I would have said it fanned out by happy accident, but Nathaniel used his hair in his act, as a sort of extra body part to caress and tease. He knew how to spill his hair around a woman so that it framed and billowed. He leaned down with all that hair framing his face, our bodies, the edges of the thickness of it caressing the sides of my body. He kissed me, soft, gentle, his lips caressing mine.

It wasnt the kiss I was expecting. It must have shown on my face, because he smiled and said, I am going to fuck you, but I wanted you to know how much I love you before I fuck your brains out. He grinned at the last.

I had to smile back. I want you inside me, Nathaniel, please. Tied up, I knew hed like the please even more than normal. I was learning the rules of being on bottom as well as on top.

He gave me a look that made me shiver. A look so dark, so full of potential that I pulled on the cuffs at my wrist. I couldnt help it. There was somethingdangerous in that look. It was one of the highs of BDSM, that possibility of disaster and pain. Not the pain you wanted, but that this time your partner could go too far. We had our safe words, and I trusted Nathaniel implicitly, or I would never have let him tie me up, but stillpart of the game was that you looked into your lovers eyes and let him see, that you saw the darkness in them. That you saw the potential forevil, but you trusted that he wouldnt do it. You trusted him enough to be helpless. It was a lot of trust to have. More than Id ever had in my life for anyone, I think. This odd trust.

He swirled his hair over one shoulder the way youd sweep a cape to one side. He bared the line of his body and lowered himself toward me. He didnt put on a condom. I was on the pill, but I still made most of the men in bed use condoms. Micah was fixed, so there was no need. But lately, with Nathaniel, wed just stopped using them. Id had sex on just the pill for years with no problems, but stillBut I could feel the difference between condom and no condom, and I knew that Nathaniel could.

There was something about being tied down while he slipped inside me with no protection that added to the illusion. BDSM was like stripping. Stripping was about the illusion that the customer could have the dancers for real sex. BDSM was about the illusion that you would truly hurt the person, that you would truly do exactly what the game pretended.

He plunged himself as deep inside me as he could get, then he hesitated. I caught movement from the corner of my eye. Jason was leaning in the doorway. The condom was gone, so hed cleaned up.

Nathaniel started to do what hed said, he started fucking me. Almost immediately, small sounds of pleasure fell from my lips. But I managed to gasp out, You waited for Jason?

Yes, he said, and drove himself in and out of me. He knew where the spot was inside me, from almost every position wed tried. Tonight was no different. He drove himself over that spot close to the entrance, but he also hit that spot deep inside me, because he knew Id go from both.

The orgasm from the G-spot grew, a slow, powerful build, but the orgasm from the cervix being hit didnt grow, it was just suddenly there. One minute I was riding the rhythm of his body, the next I was screaming, pulling at the chains hard enough to rattle them. I wanted to touch his skin, wanted to mark my pleasure down his body.

When my body quieted, Nathaniel drew back, so that he no longer hit deep inside me. He played himself over and over in shallow strokes on that other spot. He was in a position similar to the one Jason had taken, but with even less of him touching me, not much more than the tip of him caressing over and over on that sweet spot.

Jason was beside the bed now, leaning on the lower bedpost. He watched us, and I caught Nathaniel looking at him. Nathaniel liked an audience.

He turned his attention back to me, and I watched him fight his body, to keep that shallow rhythm. I watched down the line of his body, watched his stomach, his groin, his hips, all working in that athletic line, that muscular control. And all the while, the orgasm grew like some pressing weight, some building energy between my legs. Then between one stroke and the next, the orgasm spilled up, over, through, and I shrieked my pleasure to the ceiling. Head back, eyes closed, back arching, and screaming.

I pulled on the restraints at my wrist and they added to the pleasure, they made me scream louder. I dont know why, I couldnt have explained it, but I liked being held down. I just did. Sex isnt about logic; its about what feels right.

Nathaniel waited until my body had quieted before he plunged back inside me as far and as hard as he could. He fucked me until he brought me one last time, and then, and only then, did he let himself go. He shuddered above me, inside me, and I felt his release, and that made me cry out all over again.

He leaned over me, a dew of sweat decorating his chest, a smile spread across his face. He said in a breathless voice, I love you, Anita.

Nathaniel, I love you, too.

Jason leaned on the bedpost, staring at us with serious blue eyes. Hed enjoyed the showthat showed in his face, and his bodybut there was something a little lost around the edges of his eyes. We were his friends, maybe his best friends, but it wasnt the same thing. Even with sex added, it wasnt the same thing.

5

W HEN WE COULD walk, we cleaned up. Then all three of us went back to lie on the bed and recover a little. I ended up in the middle, as I did most of the time. Jason said, You are so uncomfortable with sex, Anita, but once you decide to do it, you give yourself over so completely. Its amazing.

Youre pretty good at it yourself, I said, and my voice still sounded breathy.

He laughed, and that one sound made it all worth it. Even if the sex hadnt been incredible, hearing him sound like himself again made it even better.

My dad thinks Im gay.

Nathaniel and I looked at him. Why? I finally asked.

My friends in high school were mostly girls, and my best guy friend was, and is, gay. I also didnt want to play sports. I stayed in dance from elementary school to senior year.

The lone guy in a room full of girls, I said.

He nodded, grinning. I was the only one who could do the lifts, and tote and fetch the girls. It was fun. I was the male lead in most of the musicals in school.

I didnt know you could sing.

He laughed. I dance better than I sing, but I can act, and I can sing, and I can dance. The combination is sort of rare in a small private high school, especially among the guys.

This was a side of Jason I hadnt known anything about. I thought you were going to college for a business degree when I met you, not theatre.

My parents wouldnt pay for a theatre degree. They would pay for a business degree.

If you didnt have to pay for college, why get a job as a stripper?

Bugging the hell out of my parents was some of the charm. But it was a way of performing that I could do on the weekends, which meant I could go to college full time.

Does the rest of your family think youre gay? I asked.

My oldest sister does. I dont know about the rest. Probably. Im a stripper and I live with Jean-Claude.

They think youre doing him just like Perdy did, Nathaniel said.

Yeah, Jason said.

I stroked my hand along Jasons stomachnot sexual, just trying to be comforting. Her issues must have reminded you of your family.

Yeah, bad fucking timing, huh?

Nathaniel went up on his elbow, his hand resting on my hip. What can you do?

Short of getting the kind of job that my dad thinks is a manly job, getting married, and starting a family, not a damn thing. He cuddled down in the pillows, putting his arm across my stomach, his face against my shoulder. Youll never believe what my mother wanted me to do.

What? Nathaniel and I asked at the same time.

I felt Jason smile against my shoulder. She wanted me to bring my girlfriend home to prove to my dad Im straight. So he can die in peace.

Bad timing for you and Perdy to break up, I said.

I couldnt have taken her home, Anita. You have no idea how bad the jealousy had gotten. Shed flip out when the first old girlfriend said hi on the street.

Like crazy jealous, I said.

He nodded, snuggling closer, as if I were his life-size teddy bear. I told her that Perdy and I broke up. She said, Pick a friend, I know you have other friends. Bring a girl home and make your father happy.

What did she mean about the I know you have other friends comment? I asked.

I was a slut in high school and college. I slept with any girl that would have me. The entire town thought my best friend and I were a couple. At best, they thought I was bisexual, and to most people there aint no such thing.

Youre either gay or straight, Nathaniel said, and something in the way he said it made me look at him.

You have trouble with people thinking otherwise? I asked.

Nathaniel shrugged. I did; now I know what and who I am, and Im okay with it. But when youre young, its harder.

Youre twenty-one, thats not exactly ancient.

He smiled and kissed me. I had a long, hard childhood; it makes me older.

Hed been out on the streets before he was ten. Hed been a child prostitute not long after. By thirteen hed been addicted to drugs. Hed been clean since he was seventeen, but saying Nathaniel had had a hard childhood always sounded like calling the Titanic a boating accident.

I touched his face, drew him down for a more thorough kiss. He drew back, laughing. Even I need more recoup time than this, Anita.

I blushed, I couldnt help it. I didnt mean that.

Jason looked up with his body still tight against mine. Blushing, thats so cute.

Stop it, both of you.

Sorry, Jason said.

Nathaniel just smiled at me. Do you want to take a girl home to meet your dad?

Jason frowned at him. Id love to rub my dads face in the fact that I like girls. I wouldnt mind if I were gay, but having him not believe me is just He laid his head facedown on the pillow.

Frustrating, Nathaniel said.

Infuriating, I said.

Jason rose up enough to say, Both, more. We never got along, him and me. Im his only son after two daughters. I was his only chance for someone to be a chip off the ol block. He went through college on a football scholarship.

I take it hes taller than you are, I said.

Hes over six feet. Im closer to my mothers height.

Bad luck, I said.

I dont mind being short, but my dad hated it. If he hadnt pushed so much I might have tried harder at sports, but it really wasnt my thing.

Why dont you take Anita? Nathaniel said.

Take Anita where? Jason asked.

Home to meet your dad.

We both stared at him. We stared long enough and hard enough for him to look uncomfortable. What? he asked.

What do you mean, what? I asked.

Im with Anita on this one, Nathaniel. I mean that would be too sitcom. Taking home a girl who happens to be a friend, but isnt my girlfriend, to prove to my dad Im not gay. Thats just too sweeps week.

Nathaniel sat up, the sheet pooling in his lap, barely covering. You and Anita are friends, right?

Jason and I looked at each other. Yeah, I said.

Yes, Jason said.

You and she are lovers, right?

We both said a slow yes.

You hang out with us. We watch movie marathons, and go out to eat. You arent with us the way Micah is, but you spend a lot of time with us, right?

Yeah, but, Jason said.

Why but? Nathaniel said. Shes your friend, shes a girl, you really are lovers. Its not a lie.

Jason and I looked at each other. He shrugged. I turned back to Nathaniel. I dont think a fuck buddy is what his mom had in mind, Nathaniel.

Youre more than fuck buddies, Anita, even I know that.

I didnt know what to say to that. I was speechless, not out of distraction, but because I just couldnt think my way past it all. I knew there was a reason not to do this, a good one; Id think of it in a second.

I cant take Anita home to meet my family; it would imply things that arent true, Jason said.

There, hed said it. Yeah, I said.

But you arent going to say youre engaged or anything. Your mom wants you to bring home a girlfriend, so bring one home. If you dont care what your dad thinks, then screw it, but if it matters to you, then why not take Anita with you?

Jason looked at me, and I did not like the look on his face. Oh, no, I said.

You dont have to do this, Anita; its too big a favor to ask of anyone.

You really think taking me home would help ease your fathers passing? I tried not to sound sarcastic or too harsh, but probably failed.

Hes a cruel bastard. He wouldnt even let my mom tell me he was sick. He said if I didnt care enough to see him when he was well, he didnt want pity.

But, I said.

But the doctors say he has only weeks. He wont make another Christmas.

How long has it been since youve seen him?

Three years.

I looked at Nathaniel. I cant feed the ardeur off just Jason for long.

You know you have more control over it now. Jean-Claude can divide the ardeur up among us. I know last time it worked because youd fed off the crowd at Guilty Pleasuresbut we can try to feed you for a few days, just like we do when youre in the middle of a police investigation.

Jason looked at me. Youre not seriously thinking about saying yes to this, are you?

Are you seriously thinking its a good idea?

He grinned. Probably a really bad one, but watching you and my father go head-to-head might be worth it.

Hes dying, I would think youd want me to be nice to him.

Be nice to him if hes nice to you, but dont let him push you around. Hes a bully.

You really dont like him, do you?

Jason shook his head. No.

Did he abuse you physically? Nathaniel asked.

Jason looked at him, with a strange, almost empty expression on his face. He was always hurting me by accident, trying to toughen me up. Hed try to teach me a sport and Id come home bruised and bloody. He broke my arm finally trying to teach me football, and Mom wouldnt let him take me out by ourselves again. He was always careful that it wasnt abuse. Nothing you could call him on, but he was always too rough, too harsh for my age, my size. I started therapy in my teens because the school counselor encouraged it. Therapy taught me that my dad was abusing me. He wanted to hurt me.

I touched his face. Jason, Im sorry.

His face was very solemn. Me, too.

You dont want to go home by yourself, do you? Nathaniel asked.

No. Id ask you to go with me, but if I show up with you itll just confirm what my dad and most of the town thinks. He grinned suddenly. Well, anyone who didnt have a teenage girl about my age. The fathers hated me.

I would think that your being promiscuous with the girls would make your dad happy, I said.

Youd think, but he seemed to hate me for that, too.

If someone wants to hate you, you cant stop them, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. Yeah, my dad has hated me for as long as I can remember.

Youre my best friend; if you want me to go with you for moral support, Ill go, Nathaniel said.

Jason smiled, then shook his head. Nothing personal, Nathaniel, but you are not going to help me convince my dad Im straight.

Nathaniels straight, I said.

But he doesnt look like my dads idea of a straight guy. And its all about appearances with him.

I took a deep breath, let it out. How long would you need to be there?

I dont know, a couple of days at least.

I cant believe Im saying this, but Ill go, if you want me to.

Jason looked at me, startled. Youre joking, right?

Do I look like Im joking?

No, he said, and he sat up, kneeling in the bed. The sheet was behind him, so he was very not clothed. Even though wed just finished having sex, I found myself fighting to give him eye contact. Sometimes my hang-ups puzzle even me. This is like the biggest favor ever.

You would owe me for the rest of your life, thats true.

A look passed over his face that I couldnt read. He looked down at me with so much emotion in his eyes that it was uncomfortable to see. I fought to look into those eyes.

Youd really do this for me? Something this stupid and this sitcom? Youd really do it?

I finally had to look away from the intensity of his eyes. Yes, Jason, Id really do it.

You realize well have to fly.

Shit, I said, you will like owe me extra for getting me on a plane.

But youll still do it, even though youre terrified of flying?

I crossed my arms underneath my breasts and sulked, but said, I said Id do it, didnt I? How long is the flight?

He bounced down beside me, and the look of joy on his face made it all seem far less stupid. I know you dont love me the way you love Nathaniel or anyone else. But you really do care for me, dont you?

I looked into that face. A face that had been my friend for years and more than just a friend for about a year. I said the only thing I could say: Yes.

6

W E CALLED J EAN -C LAUDE while it was still night, so we could tell him what his pomme de sang, Jason, and his human servant, me, had planned. I thought he might tell me it was a stupid thing to do, and tell us no. He was Jasons boss and master, and technically he was my master. Though honestly, I didnt let him pull the master card on me very often.

Jason told him, then handed the bedside phone to me. He wants to talk to you.

Jason got up and padded toward the bathroom. Nathaniel stayed where he was beside me. Hey, Jean-Claude.

Ma petite, I am surprised that you would agree to this.

Me, too.

He laughed, that wonderful, touchable laugh. It made me shiver and not from fear. Nathaniel cuddled closer to me, as if hed gotten a taste of it.

Thank you for taking care of Jason in a way that I could not.

So youre not going to talk us out of it?

Do you wish me to?

I realized that yes, I did. Now that Id said yes, I was feeling awkward about it, and even more foolish. Its going to be sort of awkward.

It will be difficult for you. You will be his only emotional support in a very traumatic situation.

You sound like therapy-speak, Jean-Claude.

What would you have me say?

What youre actually thinking?

He gave that laugh again, and my shields dropped enough so that I knew he was sitting in his bed wearing nothing but the silk sheets. I got a glimpse of that curling black hair over the perfect white of shoulders. I closed the shields down before I could literally see the midnight blue of his eyes.

I took a deep breath in, and let it out slow and counted as I did it. If I wasnt careful the tie between him and me could distract me, a lot.

What are you thinking about, ma petite?

You, and trying not to. Where is Asher?

He is running late, but he will be here.

Jason wants to leave in the morning. Who will you feed on while were both gone?

There are always willing blood donors, ma petite.

I didnt like the way he said that. A small spurt of jealousy came and I clubbed it to death before it could sound in my voice. Dont eat anything that disagrees with you.

Are you jealous, ma petite?

Maybe.

I, too.

What do you mean?

You will be going home to meet Jasons family. You will be doing something very ordinary, very human, that will forever be denied me.

I dont understand.

My family died long before you were born, ma petite. I cannot introduce my mother to you, or my sister. I cannot give you the very normal experience of seeing where I came from, and who my people are.

Ive met the head of your bloodline, Jean-Claude. I figure that Belle Morte is your people.

Non, ma petite, she is my master, or was, but she was never family. She was lover and goddess, if you will, but that is not the same.

Youre jealous that Jason has living family to take me home to.

Oui.

I lay there with the phone to my ear, and just thought about that. I never thought that would be important to you.

I do not regret what I am, ma petite, but I do regret some of what I do not have. I would give a great deal to have you meet my mother, and my sister.

No father, I said.

He died when I was very young. I dont have many memories of him.

Again, something I hadnt known. Tonight was just chock-full of new discoveries about people I thought I knew intimately.

Are you upset that I havent taken you home to meet my family?

He made a small sound. No, I He laughed, but it wasnt sexy, more laughing at himself. I think I may be. Maybe I feel you do not think me good enough.

I think my Grandmother Blake would chase you out of the house with a crucifix and holy water, is what I think.

She is a devout woman?

Fanatical. Ive been informed shes praying for my soul because of you.

Have I estranged you from your family, ma petite?

No, I was already estranged, if thats how you want to put it. Lets say Grandma Blake was praying for me about the whole raising-zombies-from-the-grave thing. My sleeping with the undead is just another symptom of my damnation.

I am sorry, ma petite, I did not know.

I shrugged, knew he couldnt see it, and said, Its okay.

So you will go with our Jason and meet his family, be his girlfriend.

You are jealous.

My voice was empty of emotion, he said.

Yeah, and when your voice is at its most empty, youre hiding something. You know you dont have to be jealous of Jason.

I am not jealous in the way you mean.

Then explain.

Nathaniel had gone very still beside me, listening.

You are not yet thirty and he is twenty-three. You are both so very young, ma petite. You will go away to his hometown and be very young together. It is something I cannot be with you. I cannot be young and nave and uncertain.

You wouldnt be you if you were any of those things. I love you the way you are, Jean-Claude.

Did I sound like I needed to hear that, ma petite?

Yes, I said.

He laughed again, and made me shiver down closer to Nathaniel. I find myself strangely conflicted. Jason is my pomme de sang, and is precious to me. That my human servant is taking care of him in such a caring way is a lovely thing. It will make other vampires think me a very kind master, but I know that you do it because you care for him. He is young and handsome and charming.

You cannot be insecure.

Why can I not be?

Because you are beautiful and amazing in bed, and I love you.

But Jason can be one thing for you that I cannot, ma petite.

Whats that?

Mortal. He can involve you in the youth of his life. He can offer you the mess of his family. He can show you where he grew up, introduce you to people who knew him as a child. All those to whom I can introduce you knew me as a vampire, never as a mortal.

I think this is your issue, Jean-Claude, not mine. Im not actually looking forward to traveling down memory lane with Jason and his abusive dad.

I feel that you mean that, but I find myself strangely envious. I had not missed my family in a very long time.

You sound homesick.

I suppose that is as good a word as any. He sounded sad.

Do you need us to come there tonight?

To what purpose? You would arrive not long before dawn, and you would leave before I awoke for the day.

I feel like you need a good-bye kiss, I guess.

Thank you for the sentiment, ma petite, but I will work on, how do you say, my issues. You, I think, will have your hands full working on Jasons.

What could I say to that? Yeah, I said.

Je taime, ma petite.

I love you, too, I said.

I guess in the end, what else is there to say?

7

I HAD ONE other phone call to make before I flew off into the sunset with Jason. I dialed Micahs cell phone, because when he did the out-of-town trips it was the best way to get him.

Hey, he said, and that one word was full of affection, happiness, contentment.

Hey, yourself, I said, and my voice had the same tone. Id felt that way about Micah almost from the moment I met him. Weird, especially for me, the poster child for panic when I was attracted to a man. Wed learned only in the last few months that it had been the ardeur, my very own version of vampire powers, that had taken away my reluctance. In a way, Id rolled Micah and myself. But neither of us regretted it; maybe that was vampire powers, too.

I asked him how the trip was going. He told me he liked the new leopard, and so did his bodyguards, Mel and Noah. Good to know.

But you didnt call to ask about the new wereleopard, he said.

Couldnt I call just to chat?

He laughed, and I could picture his face. He was back to having his summer tan, which made him dark enough to pass for something other than Caucasian. But his features were entirely too Northern European, to really pass for anything else. His face was delicate, and so was he, at my height exactly. His eyes were chartreuse leopard eyes, from where a truly evil man had forced him into animal form long enough so his eyes never changed back. Id killed the evil man, and Micah had moved in. Wed been a couple ever since.

I told him the Readers Digest version of what was happening with Jason. Im sorry to hear about his father.

Me, too.

How did you get volunteered for this trip?

You dont think Id come up with it myself?

No, he said, and there was no doubt in his voice.

Nathaniel.

Hmm, he said.

You sound upset.

That youre going off with another man to meet his family? Hmm, let me think, why would that upset me?

Are you telling me not to go?

I would never do that.

But, I said.

But nothing, telling you what to do isnt the kind of relationship we have. But Im allowed to be a little jealous that youre getting to go home with Jason.

Jean-Claude said the same thing, sort of, but his family is centuries dead. Its not possible for him. You never talk about your family.

When Chimera was alive, he used peoples families against them. He tortured them, or made them into wereanimals so he could control them. To keep my family safe, I had to pretend I hated them. I did a good job of it, Anita. I doubt theyd want to see me again.

I heard such regret in his voice. You never know until you try, Micah.

Well see.

If it works out, Id love to meet your family.

Really, you dont seem much interested in your own.

Im allowed issues with my own family; that doesnt make me hate everyones family.

Okay, but he sounded cautious.

Really, Micah, Chimeras dead, he cant hurt you or your family anymore.

I know that, you killed him for me.

You wanted me to kill him.

Yes, I did. And there was that note in his voice, that tone, that said he was all right with the violence that I did. Hed watched me kill Chimera, and hed been just peachy with it. There were so many reasons that Micah and I worked as a couple. One of those reasons was a certain ruthless practicality in both of us.

I would go home to see your folks, Micah.

Would we bring Nathaniel, too?

That stopped me. We all three lived together, butI dont know. I guess that would be your call.

Ill think about it, all of it, the family, and whether I have the guts to show up after all these years with you and Nathaniel. Put that way, I could sort of see his problem. It was sort of similar to Jasons problem, actually. Perception is all.

Im sorry if my going off with Jason bothers you.

Im sorry it bothers me, too. I need to work on that.

Micah, I love you.

I know, and I love you, too. Give my love to Nathaniel. You better start packing.

Micah, I

No, its all right, Anita, really. Do what you need to do for Jason. But I guess I really would like to introduce you to my mom and dad, my brother and sister. I just never thought it was possible.

A lot of things are possible, Micah.

I guess. Ive got to go. I love you, Anita.

I love you, too.

Give my love to Nathaniel.

I will.

He hung up, and left me not sure how to feel. Guilty that it bothered him, yes, but more puzzled. Hed almost never mentioned his family. How was I supposed to know that he even wanted to see them? Sometimes the hardest part of dating this many men was juggling everyones emotions. People talked about the sex, because sex was easy; hearts were hard.

8

J ASON HAD SAID he lived in a small city. I hadnt understood what that might mean for the flight. What it meant was that we would have been on a freaking prop plane. The only thing that will get me on shit like that is life or death, as in a police investigation, where if I dont go more people will die.

Maybe the panic showed on my face, because Jason made a second call to Jean-Claude. I keep forgetting that he owns a private jet. I dont know why I keep forgetting, but I do. I think Im just a little uncomfortable that Im dating someone who owns one. It just seems a little too idle rich for me. Of course, Jean-Claude is about as idle as I am, which means hes always working. He manages his little growing empire of preternatural businesses, and is good at it. I raise the dead and slay bad vampires. Busy, busy, busy.

But it meant that I didnt have to brave a puddle jumper to do the favor for Jason. If Id had to get on a tiny prop plane, well, I couldnt think of a sexual act deviant enough to make up for the phobia abuse. Luckily for both of us, the private jet, though small by commercial standards, wasnt horrible. If I hadnt been both claustrophobic and afraid to fly, it might even have been comfortable.

The last time wed been on the plane Jason had been jumping all over the place, teasing me about my phobia. This time he stayed in the swivel seat beside me, staring out the window. Of course, last time hed been wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Now he was wearing one of the Italian-cut designer suits that Jean-Claude had had made for him. The suit showed the broadness of his shoulders, the narrowness of waist, the sheer athleticism of him.

He was wearing the navy blue pinstripe. Other than the cut it was a conservative suit. A blue shirt made his eyes even bluer than they actually were, with a darker blue tie, complete with gold tie bar. I knew the tie was silk. I knew that the shoes that gleamed on his feet cost a hell of a lot more than my high heels. I refused to pay hundreds of dollars for yet another pair of uncomfortable high heels. They were good shoes, but not as good as what Jason was wearing.

Hed dressed carefully. He might hate coming home, but he wanted to impress them. He and Nathaniel had chosen my clothes, too. I didnt care. If it was in my closet I was usually okay with it, or it wouldnt be there. There was a section of stuff that Jean-Claude had bought me that was more club or fetish wear, but other than that my closet was fine.

I was wearing a royal blue skirt suit, with a silk shell that actually matched. The only thing Id added to the skirt to sort of ruin the feminine look was a wide black belt. It matched my shoes. The belt also held a Browning BDM at the small of my back at an angle, not up and down. I didnt often carry guns at the small of my back. I usually favored a shoulder holster, but I didnt go anywhere unarmed, and Id worn the gun this way before when my boss thought being armed was a little too scary for clients. If they had a metal detector at the hospital Id flash my federal marshal badge.

I had more guns and holsters in the luggage, but I figured for the hospital visit Id try to be low-key about my job and the whole violence thing.

Frankly, I never thought about going home to meet anyones folks, let alone Jasons. But Id play by the rules. Rule one had to be not to scare the prospective in-laws. Yeah, Jason and I both knew that we had no plans for marriage, but I was the first girl hed brought home, to my knowledge. People would assume a lot, and I wasnt sure how much Jason wanted them to assume. My only goal was not to lie outright to anyone; beyond that it was all game.

Jason let me keep a death grip on his hand, and complained only once that he was losing feeling in his fingers. He was too worried to tease, which made me worry about him. Jason teased the way he breathed. Solemn wasnt his thing.

I tried to comfort him. He finally turned to me with a smile so sad it made my throat tight. Its okay, Anita. I appreciate the effort, but I cant think of anything you can say that will make me feel better.

He raised my tense hand to his face and rubbed his cheek against my knuckles. The horrible tightness inside me eased just a touch.

He smiled, and it was almost his old smile. His eyes sparkled with it. I knew that look. He was about to say something I wouldnt like.

A little more touch made you feel better, too.

I nodded.

The smile was pure Jason when he said, We could do the whole mile-high club; that might make me feel better.

Mile-high club? I made it a question.

He kissed my knuckles, soft, a little more open mouth than would be polite in public. Sex on a plane.

I shook my head and laughed. It was almost a normal laugh. Points for me. Now Im not so worried, I said.

Worried about what?

You, if you can flirt and tease, youll be all right.

He pressed my hand to his face, and his eyes went from teasing to too serious. Who says Im teasing?

I gave him the look the suggestion deserved. I could not possibly have sex on a plane. I can barely keep myself from running up and down the plane screaming.

The lascivious look changed instantly to that sparkling, teasing look. Might take both our minds off our problems.

I tugged at my hand.

He smiled, and kissed my hand, the way it was supposed to be done. A bare touch of lips, not open mouth, no tongue, chaste. Ill behave if you insist.

I insist.

The extra touching made you feel better, too, Anita. I could sense it in the way your hand felt, the way your body smelled less like prey. Seriously, why not have sex? Why not feel better?

I frowned at him, because I realized he really was serious. One, the pilot might walk in on us. Two, were on a plane, Jason, I couldnt possibly. Im too freaked.

Can we have sex when we land?

I frowned harder. You mean when we touch down?

No, hotel, I guess.

I wasnt offended anymore, I was too puzzled. He wasnt teasing. He was dead serious. It wasnt like him. Wont you want to go to the hospital or your old house before we get all messy?

He smiled, but it left his eyes worried. I dont want to go to the hospital. I dont want to go to the house. I dont want to do any of it.

I held his hand tight, not because of my fear, but because of the pain in his voice. Strangely, worrying about him helped me be less afraid about where we were. Who knew therapy for someone else was the answer all along to my own fears?

I dont think having sex is going to make this visit easier.

He smiled then, and a look ran through his eyes so quick I almost didnt catch it. But it was similar to a look that Nathaniel had, so I knew it, all too well. It was a look that said I was nave. Jason was years younger than me, and he hadnt had all the bad experiences that Nathaniel had had, but hed had his share.

I am not being nave, I said.

You read me that fast?

Nathaniel has a look pretty close to it, I said.

Of course, it couldnt just be me you knew that well. He sounded bitter.

I began to worry that I was in a much different problem than I thought with this favor. Whats that supposed to mean? I asked.

I want someone to want me the way you want Nathaniel. I want someone to love me the way you love the men in your life.

Perdy loved you that way, I said. Was it mean to say that, or just true?

He gave me an unfriendly look. Are you trying to be mean?

I took a deep breath, let it out slow, and tried to be honest, but not mean. I am on a plane, which means I am not at my best. Let me try this: youve told me before that you want to be consumed by romance, by love. You want to burn with it. Since I spent years fighting against anyone who wanted to love me like that, I dont quite get why that is your goal, but you say it is, so it is.

What am I supposed to say now, Anita? That I threw away someone who wanted to consume me with her love? I guess I did.

I shook my head and tried one more time. No, I dont mean that. I mean Perdys idea of love and your idea of love arent the same. You want to be consumed, not smothered. A fire needs air to burn bright. She took your air away, and the fire died.

He studied my face. That was actually smart.

Gee, Jason, thanks, you sound surprised.

He smiled. I dont mean that. I mean, that makes sense, that makes me feel less stupid about not wanting Perdy to love me. I do this big thing about wanting someone to be obsessed with me. I get it and I dont want it. I thought I was being fickle.

Obsession isnt love, Jason. Its possession.

I want to belong to someone, Anita.

But you want closer to what Nathaniel has, than a traditional marriage.

You mean I want to belong but not be monogamous.

I shrugged. Technically, Nathaniel is monogamous. He doesnt have sex with anyone but me.

Jason grinned, blue eyes shining. He so has sexual contact with other people.

Hes a stripper. Sexualized contact with other people is part of the job description.

I didnt say sexualized. I said sexual. At our jobs we cut it pretty fine, but actual sex is illegal.

I closed my eyes, but that made the purr of the engines seem louder. I opened my eyes wide and tried to think of what Id been saying. What do you mean then?

He gave me another of those looks that said I was being either nave or obtuse. Since I wasnt being either on purpose, I didnt know what he meant.

Dont give me that look, Jason. I honestly dont know what you mean.

It was his turn to frown. You dont, do you?

No, I dont. I couldnt help but sound grumpy.

What do you consider sexual contact, Anita?

I dont know, sex.

Anita, Ive seen Asher feed on Nathaniel. Hell, Ive had him feed on me. Youd have to be a hell of a lot more homophobic than either Nathaniel or me not to understand that when Asher feeds, its sexual.

One of Ashers abilities was to make his bite orgasmic. It wasnt just mind tricks either. It was like a special ability. When hed been a bad little vampire hed used that ability to get money, land, protection from his victims. People had begged him for one more night, even when they knew it would kill them.

I know what Asher can do, better than you do, Jason.

Oh, geez, Im an idiot. How could I forget that? He hugged me. Im sorry, Anita, Im so sorry.

Asher and I had had sex and blood alone for the first and only time. Hed nearly killed me with pleasure, because I asked him to. Begged him to. We werent allowed to be alone anymore, because Id admitted to Jean-Claude that I still craved what wed done. Of all of Jean-Claudes vampires, Asher was the one I feared the most. Because he was the one who made me want him to do deadly things to me.

Jason hugged me and said, Im scared and thats making me stupid. Im sorry.

The pilots voice came over the speakers. It made me jump and make that girl eep. Jason kissed my forehead.

Were about to land, Ms. Blake, Mr. Schuyler. If you could take your seats, thatd be good.

Im okay, Jason, neither of us is at our best.

Forgive me.

Nothing to forgive, I said.

Jason nodded, but not like he believed it. I wasnt used to him being like this, emotional, forgetful. His father was dying. His mother was blackmailing him, emotionally. I guess he was entitled to be a little off his game.

I tightened my grip on the seat and his hand. Id be better when we landed. It would all be better when we landed. I tried to believe that, but part of me knew if Jason was already having problems, it was only going to get worse.

How did I end up holding his hand for this? Oh, right, Nathaniel volunteered me. I was so going to make him pay for this. The plane bounced a little on the runway, and I gasped a little. But we were on the ground. Things were looking up, at least for me.

9

I SAT IN my swivel seat for a second relearning how to breathe and fighting down the nausea. I told my stomach to stop being such a baby. We were on the ground, for Gods sake. I could always insist on renting a car for the ride homethough I knew I wouldnt. Id never be able to live with myself if I let my fear get that much of an upper hand. Fear was like cancer in remission. If you gave in to it, even by an inch, it would flare up again and eat you alive.

Jason stopped at the open door and looked back at me. You are coming, right?

I nodded. The nausea was past. I could breathe again. It was cool. Okay, that was a lie, but it was the best I could do.

Jason came back to stand and look down at me. I couldnt quite read his expression. It really scared the shit out of you to do this, didnt it?

I shook my head, then shrugged. I finally said in a voice that was way too breathy for comfort, The runway is kinda small, dont you think?

He bent down and kissed my forehead again.

I looked up at him. What was that for?

Being brave, he said, and he looked serious when he said it. He offered me his hand.

There was a time when I wouldnt have taken it, when I would have seen it as a sign of weakness, but Id grown up a little since then.

I took his hand. He squeezed it and gave me a smile. This smile was one of the reasons I was on the damn planethe smile that said he understood how much it had cost me, and that he understood me in a way that a lot of people didnt. We would never be real boyfriend and girlfriend. Wed never be each others sweetie, but Jason got me in a way that some of the men I was dating didnt. And I tried my best to understand him.

I realized as he led me down the narrow aisle hand in hand that it wasnt just Nathaniel who considered Jason one of his best friends.

Jason went first down the little folding steps, bent sort of backward, to help me. That was a little more help than I probably needed, but then I was wearing heels.

A man met us at the bottom of the steps. He was average height, more bald than hair, in a nice suit. Not as nice as the one Jason was wearing, but it wasnt a bad suit.

Mr. Summerland, I didnt expect you until tomorrow. He was smiling until Jason helped me down the little stairs in my heels.

Im not one of the Summerlands, Jason said. He said it as if the confusion wasnt unexpected.

The man looked at Jason, then at me, as Jason helped me down from the plane. The man winked at him. Of course not, youre Mr. Smith?

I was finally on solid tarmac, yea! Why dont you make it Mr. Allbright, its more original, I said. I thought I was making a joke.

The man began to scribble down Allbright on his clipboard. Of course, Mr. Allbright, were glad to have you with us.

Jason sighed. She was making a joke. The name is Schuyler, Jason Schuyler.

The man crossed out Allbright and wrote in the right name. Whatever you say, Mr. Schuyler.

Crap, Jason said under his breath.

Whats going on? I asked.

If I was a Summerland, why was I coming in tomorrow?

The man looked puzzled, but he played along in whatever game he thought we were playing. Your bachelor party, of course. Youre getting married at the end of the week. Your brother arrived yesterday with his fiance.

Look, I am a distant cousin of the Summerlands. I got mistaken for the twins all through school. My name really is Jason Schuyler. This is my friend Anita Blake. Im here to visit my family.

Of course you are. It was clear he didnt believe Jason, but at the same time very clear that he would repeat whatever lie Jason spouted, and swear to it in court afterward.

I take it the Summerlands are big shots around here? I said.

The biggest, Jason said.

The man with the clipboard looked from one to the other of us. The bride-to-be is already in town. Her bachelorette party is tonight.

You invited? I said.

He looked flustered. Of course not.

Then how do you know so much?

Ive been helping get the guests settled, he said, and sounded indignant.

Fine, but we are not guests.

Of course not, and if asked, I havent seen Keith Summerland. He will arrive tomorrow as planned. The man seemed pleased with himself as if hed said a smart thing. Then he walked away with another wink.

I looked at Jason. We are speaking English, right? I mean he does understand what were saying, doesnt he?

You have to know Keith to understand the mans problem. It would be like him to come in a day early with another woman. Hed probably bring the stripper in personally.

A wild child? I asked.

He thought he was. I just thought he was a dick.

Do you really look that much like him?

Yes. He said it flat and unhappy. I look enough like them both to make this visit even harder. The media will be all over this wedding.

But theyre like local celebrities, not national, right? I mean, it wont be that bad.

Do you know who Governor Summerland is?

I stared at him. Youre joking.

I wish.

The governor that theyre thinking about running for president is this Summerland?

Yep, Jason said.

I dont watch TV or read newspapers much, but even I know who he is.

If his eldest son is getting married this week, the media are going to be everywhere, and I look like his twin. We were always getting confused for each other in high school.

You cant look that much alike.

He pretended to be me on a date with my girlfriend. She caught on, eventually. He took a beating for me once from some of the guys at school. Id smarted off, and they found him first. He was hitting on a girlfriend of mine again. Pretending to be me.

And he got beat up for it? I said.

He did.

Very karmic, I said.

Jason nodded, actually looking happy. We had our bags on the tarmac and the pilot was asking for a return schedule when we were joined by a man who, though well dressed in a nice conservative suit, had thug tattooed across his forehead. Metaphorically speaking.

The suit was tailored well enough that if I hadnt been looking for it I might have missed the bulge on his hip. But I was looking, and I knew a gun when I saw it ruin the line of a suit. The Browning did not ruin the line of my suit jacket. For such a big gun it was strangely invisible under my little jacket in its new sideways holster.

I actually moved in front of Jason. Just automatic. After all, I was packing a gun, and he wasnt. The conservative thug didnt even look at me. He had attention only for Jason.

The girl gets back on the plane.

The girl has a name, I said.

What I dont know, I cant lie about. Please, Keith, dont do this.

I am not Keith Summerland. Do I have to prove it?

Keith, stuff like this isnt funny anymore.

Do you want to see my drivers license?

The man finally looked puzzled. What?

Call up the governor, or his wife, or even Kelsey, tell them that Jason Schuyler is just trying to visit his family, and you wont let us leave the airport.

The muscleman looked at Jason. Keith, I thought this kind of shit was over.

Jason got out his wallet and flashed his ID. I got confused with them both in high school, too.

The man looked at the ID, like he was really studying it. He looked at Jason, then got a small flip phone out of his outer jacket pocket. This is Chuck, Id swear its Keith, but Im looking at an ID for a Jason Schuyler. He said uh-huh a lot, then closed the phone and handed Jason his ID back. Im sorry about this, Mr. Schuyler. The governor says hes very sorry about your fathers illness.

Yeah, my father is dying of cancer, and instead of being able to see him in peace, Im going to get stopped by every piece of media from here to the hospital. Jesus, if Id known about the wedding I might have held off a week.

I touched his arm. You couldnt have done that.

I know, Jason said, what if he died this week? I think he tried to make it a joke, but it fell flat and bitter.

I am truly sorry about the misunderstanding, Mr. Schuyler. We have limos waiting for the guests to arrive; if we can drop you anywhere to make up for the difficulties, just say the word. The limos have dark glass, and weve had lots of the brides friends arriving. The media has stopped hounding the limos, because the interviews all sound the same.

And if I take a taxi theyll wonder why Keith is with a brunette that isnt his fiance, and why hes not in a limo, Jason said.

Chuck shrugged massive shoulders. That did occur to the governor.

Fine, drop us at the hotel.

But wont us getting out of a Summerland limo sort of add to the confusion? I asked.

Chuck looked perplexed, as if I was forcing him to think about things that werent usually his business. Hed been perfectly comfortable shoving me back on the plane. Forcing Keith to be a good boy. But figuring out what to do with an identical cousin who wasnt close enough to be included in the wedding, that was beyond him.

Well take the limo, and get a taxi to the hospital. I dont know what else to do, Jason said.

Ill call the press secretary from the limo, Chuck said. You guys look enough alike that it could be a real problem. If the media think youre Keith and are cheating with this chiquita here, itll get ugly.

Youve called me girl, now chiquita. Chuck, you are not winning brownie points with me.

He gave me a look that clearly said he didnt give a damn, and who was I to complain?

This is Anita Blake; shes my very close friend, Chuck.

Girlfriend? He made it a question.

Jason nodded. Im bringing her home to see my dad before he dies, that put it in perspective? Jason squeezed my hand as if to say, Just agree with me. I wasnt sure I disagreed, or agreed, so I just stood there and let Jason handle it. It was his crisis, not mine.

Chuck nodded and gave me a much more respectful look. Im sorry, Miss Black.

Its Ms. and its Blake, I corrected.

He blinked at me, then said, All right, Ms. Blake. I didnt understand that you were more than agirlfriend. Im sorry, I didnt mean any disrespect.

Yeah, you did, but my ego doesnt bruise that easy, Chuck. I admit to making his name sound a little choppy at the end.

He frowned at me.

Jason squeezed my hand again. Lets just get us to the hotel as quietly as possible. I want to go to the hospital today, just in case.

Chucks face managed to look truly sympathetic. Your dad that bad?

They gave him weeks to live, but Id hate to be in town and miss him by a day.

Then lets get you in the limo, Mr. Schuyler, Ms. Blake. He put a little irony in that last part, and when he bowed to match, he flashed the gun on his hip. I realized hed unbuttoned the jacket so Id see it. Like a vampire that wanted you to see the fangs. Wanted your fear.

I smiled sweetly at him. Your hands are a little big for a thirty-two, arent they, Chuck?

His own smile wilted around the edges. It gets the job done. But he sounded uncertain, as if my reply didnt match the box hed put me in. Fine with me. I liked it when muscle underestimated me. Made it easier later if later got bad.

Jason didnt push me into the back of the limo, but he made sure I didnt linger trading clever repartee with Chuck.

The big man asked, What hotel?

Jason named it.

Chuck said, leaning in the doorway of the limo, Damn, thats the same hotel the wedding guests are staying at.

Its the best hotel in town, Jason said.

Chuck nodded. Yeah. He gave me a look as he closed the door. It was the first look from him that didnt think piece of ass. Which meant he was brighter than he looked. Id have to be careful not to underestimate ol Chuck.

Why was I worried about him? Answer: he was a thug. Id been working with the police too long not to know one when I met one. What was a presidential hopeful doing with someone like that?

Dont tease him, Anita, Jason said as the limo started. We rode out of the hangar and down a separate drive, a little distance from the rest of the main airport.

Sorry, I said, Im not sure I can help myself.

Try, for me. He patted my hand, but was already looking out the window. It was worth a look. There were wooded mountains rolling out, and out, like layers of soft dragon spines curled everywhere.

For a few minutes I forgot about thugs and politicians and just looked at the mountains.

Its beautiful, I said.

Yeah, Jason said, I guess it is.

You guess? I motioned at the mountains. There were hotels and fast-food places tucked in near the road, but it wasnt close enough to ruin the view. A river cut along the left-hand side of the road, all silver shallows and sparkling rapids, set in all that green, all those trees. This is prettier than the Smokies in Tennessee.

Well, its the Blue Ridge Mountains, he said matter-of-factly.

I had a smart thought. You grew up here, so its not spectacular to you, its just normal.

Yeah, and have you ever noticed where its beautiful, theres a lot of pretty, but not a lot of jobs. Unless you worked for the university.

University? I made it a question.

University of North Carolina at Asheville. Jason didnt seem to want to talk about the scenery. Okay, I could stay on track.

You dont seem surprised that the Summerlands have someone like Chuck working for them.

Theyve always had someone like him working for them.

Why? I asked.

He looked at me. Dont do this, Anita.

Dont do what?

Dont play cop. Just let it be.

You know something.

Let me see my father, Anita. Let me see some old friends. Let me just try and keep out of the Summerland family mess. I dont want any part of them. Okay?

Tell me why they have muscle and Ill let it go.

What did Chuck think he was doing at the airport? he asked.

I frowned at Jason. He thought he was keeping this Keith from bringing in another woman just days before his wedding.

Exactly.

I frowned harder, and then the light dawned. Hes their cleanup man.

Jason nodded.

Why does their cleanup man need to be armed?

Why are you armed?

I dont go out of the house unarmed, I said.

Jason gave me a look. Maybe Chuck is as paranoid as you are.

I dont

Jason knelt on the floorboard of the limo at my feet. He took my hands in his and gazed up at my face with a look of pure begging. Please, please, God, let this go, Anita. I will do anything, you name it, if you will just not poke at the Summerlands. Because of the wedding and the family resemblance we are going to have enough trouble.

He laid his head in my lap, and said, Please dont make more trouble, please, dont make this harder for me. Please.

I said the only thing I could say. Okay, Jason.

He raised his face up and flashed me that infamous smile. It wasnt his real smile. This was the smile Id seen him use on customers at Guilty Pleasures when he was trying to part them from their cash. Jason didnt want cash from me, he wanted peace. Id have rather shoved a twenty down his pants then let go of the niggling feeling that there was something wrong with the Summerlands. Something that needed an armed cleanup man. Something beyond a womanizing son. But I did for Jason what I wouldnt have done for almost anyone else. I let it go.

If Chuck of the too-small gun would leave me alone, Id leave him alone. I wasnt here as a marshal. I was here to help Jason say good-bye to his dad. Id just keep repeating that over and over, no matter how many clues I tripped over. The question was, clues to what?

None of my business. Id promised Jason, and it really was none of my business. Unless the Summerlands turned out to be evil vampires, it would never be my business.

I went back to looking at the amazing scenery on either side of the road. There was no bad view. Jason was back to looking out the window, too, but he didnt seem to be seeing anything special. I thought the drive into Asheville, North Carolina, was one of the prettiest drives Ive ever been on, but then I hadnt grown up looking at it all. I guess you get jaded about anything you see every day. Was I jaded about zombies and vampires? Maybe. But the mountains were pretty.

10

T HE SCENERY STAYED all mountains and hills and green with more evergreens than we have at home until we turned off the Highway and onto Charlotte Street.

Then we were in small-town America. No building too tall, nothing too built up, a lot of houses and small businesses among the trees.

The limo had dark glass so no one could see in, but we could see out just fine. One of the interesting things you find out if you ride in limos. Jason was more interested in the scenery now. I guess he was just a city boy at heart.

Theres the dance studio, he said in an excited voice. There was a sign with a silhouette of a ballet dancer outside one of the larger homes. Two little girls in leotards were being led inside by a laughing woman.

I wish we could stop. Id like to see my old teachers again.

If it had been our limo, or rather Jean-Claudes, I would have said stop, but we were borrowing. It would be the height of rudeness to ask.

We can come back, I said.

He nodded and pointed at a small mom-and-pop grocery sitting just doors down from the studio. I would have thought Sigliers would have gone out of business. I got my first cigarettes there.

You dont smoke, I said.

He turned and gave me a grin that filled his eyes with laughter. I dont smoke, but everybody tries them at least once.

Something on my face must have shown, because he scooted closer to me. You never tried to smoke, not once?

I shrugged, and moved a little in my seat to try to keep the gun in a comfortable spot. I was beginning to remember why I seldom wore a gun there. It made sitting down harder. I had a couple of cousins who were bad influences.

So you did smoke.

I tried cigarettes, not the same thing as smoking.

So you werent completely pure when Jean-Claude met you?

I frowned at him. Id tried cigarettes, Jason; that didnt really prepare me for Jean-Claude.

Jason was suddenly solemn again. No, I guess it didnt. Its hard for me to believe that youd only had sex with one other guy before Jean-Claude.

Why? I asked, not sure I really wanted to know the answer.

I told you, I slept with just about anyone who would have me. I cant imagine turning down all the guys who must have asked.

Trust me, Jason, there werent that many.

He looked at me like I was joking. Come on, Anita, I have eyes. You are sooo hot.

I squirmed in my seat, which ground the gun into my back, which made me cranky, and the conversation had already made me cranky.

I wont debate that with you. You know that sometimes I can see it, and sometimes I cant. There were guys attracted to the packaging, but they didnt want what was inside.

I dont understand, he said.

I had at least three guys in college say something along the lines of, If only your inside matched your outside. Or one of my favorite first dates, who told me I was perfect until I opened my mouth.

Jason stared at me. I know youre serious, but damn, how stupid were these guys?

I smiled and patted his hand on the seat. Thats sweet, but Ive always spoken my mind. Ive always been independent. That is not the trait that draws men to pretty, petite, delicate-looking women. They want to protect and coddle, and do stupid shit like that.

You intimidated them, he said.

I nodded. I know that now.

I like strong women, he said.

I smiled at him. Ive noticed.

He flashed me the real version of the smile that parted women from their money at the club. If they thought the fake version was something, they should have had the full weight of the real deal. It was enough to turn a girls head. Or make them blush, damn it.

Youre blushing, he damn near chortled. He bounced in the seat. I love that you do that.

I covered my face with my hands. I dont.

His hands on my wrists were the first clue I had that he was so close beside me again. I let him draw my hands away so he could look into my eyes.

I love that Im one of the men you react to, Anita. I was like invisible to you. I mean, Im not in Jean-Claudes league, but there are women who would do a lot to be with me, and have, he said, with a look to the side that tried for humble and almost made it.

Ive seen the fans at the club, and the women going in and out of the Circus.

He took my hands in both of his and rested his chin on our joined hands. He wasnt exactly looking at me. More at the memory in his head.

But you never saw me like that. I was a responsibility first. Someone else you felt you needed to keep safe, and then I was your friend. He looked at me with that mischievous grin. Youd seen me buck naked and you didnt react to my body. That was a real ego bruiser, let me tell you.

I blushed again and looked away from his face. You were my friend, Jason, you dont look at friends that way.

You dont, but I did. I thought I wasnt up to your standards.

The homes are really nice here, I said. They were. The more narrow road was surrounded by lovely, older, expensive homes.

Youre changing the subject, Jason said.

Trying to, yes.

I dont want to change the subject.

I pulled at my hands. This conversation was too intimate for me. Id forgotten one thing Jason did that made me the most uncomfortable. He had a penchant for in-depth soul-searching talks. When I needed one, it was great, if sometimes painful. But I could not spend the next two days being analyzed; it would drive me mad. I kept staring out at the beautiful houses nestled into their green yards and trees. It was still pretty, but no amount of pretty was going to make up for being analyzed for days.

He kissed my hands gently, then let me pull away. You know that wasnt it, Jason.

I know you were trying to hold on to what virtue you felt you had left.

I nodded, still not looking at him. Can I ask you a favor, Jason?

Sure.

Im not up to you analyzing me on this trip, okay?

I wasnt

I held up a hand. Just dont poke at my wounds too hard. Im supposed to be here to support you; if you make me face my demons too head-on, I wont be as good for you here. Do you understand? I looked at him at the last.

He was solemn again, but he nodded. I have trouble when I realize something about someone, some secret thing I didnt know before. I want to know why, or what the other person was thinking, feeling. His face went from solemn to pained. Ive always been that way.

Something about the way he said it made me wonder what truth hed pushed for as a child that he hadnt wanted to know. If our roles had been reversed he would have asked me, but it was me, and I was already out of my depth.

Alone with Jason for a few days, Id thought the sex and his problems with his family would be the awkward bits. What I was realizing now, far too late, was that Jason himself was the danger. It was too intimate, this visit. I had trouble keeping my emotional boundaries up once sex was involved. What the hell had I been thinking?

11

T HE NARROW, TWISTING road was edged by evergreens, and other trees, but mostly evergreens. There were still a few nice older houses, and some newer expensive houses dotted along the road, but mostly trees. We were climbing, though. Climbing out of the valley that most of Asheville sat in. The rich always seem to live up.

The first hint we had that the hotel was ahead was the cluster of news vans blocking the road.

The curving drive that led between the trees and the vans was being kept clear by men in uniform. Not police uniforms, but really nice valet uniforms. They kept the photographers, reporters, and cameramen at bay long enough for the limo to slip by.

The gently curving driveway spilled out among yet more trees, and suddenly we could see the Grove Park Inn.

The setting in the hills was lovely, but the building helped make it lovely. It was all stone and sort of pseudo-Bavarian, as if men in eighteenth-century clothing should come striding into view with dogs and servants. It should have looked overdone, or silly, but it didnt.

The inn looked like it had sprung up from the rocks and trees around it, perfect in its setting, organic and right.

Ive loved this place since my parents brought us here for Mothers Day when I was seven.

I see why you want to stay here, I said, and I did.

The window between the driver and Chuck and us whirred down. Chuck turned and said, You saw the media out front. There is no way they will let you explain, or believe, who you really are. If you go in there, it will be all over the news that Keith Summerland is cheating on his fiance days before the wedding.

What did the publicist want us to do about that? I said, and my voice wasnt friendly when I said it.

Chucks eyes flicked to me, then back to Jason. If you would change hotels, wed pay for your stay as long as you are in town.

I can pay for my own hotel, Jason said.

I can see that, but you see the problem from our end, right?

Jason sighed, and settled back in the seat.

Look, I said, we need to check into the hotel and get to the hospital today.

How about if we drive you to the hospital? Well wait outside. You visit with your dad, and well drive you back to the airport. That way theres no confusion with the media.

The limo had stopped a little short of the front of the building, where more well-dressed valets waited. We idled at the side of the parking lot.

I stared at him. Are you telling us to get out of town?

No, Chuck said, but his eyes were all on Jason.

Im not sure one hospital visit will do the job, Chuck, I said, getting angry and not caring that it showed.

Mr. Schuyler, Chuck said, voice soft, almost deferential.

Jason shook his head. No, Im sorry; tell the governor that I dont want to be a problem. But I havent seen my dad in three years. Were estranged, thats why he wouldnt let them tell me sooner. Now he has weeks to live and Ive got to try and make up with him. Hes a bastard, and always has been, and Ive got a few days to try to get that Hallmark moment. He looked at Chuck. Tell the governor Im sorry, but one hospital visit wont get the job done.

Will you change hotels then? Chuck asked.

No, Jason said, Ive earned the right to be here. Not because my daddy paid for it, but because I earned it. Im not going to slink away because Keith Summerland is a dick. Talk to your publicist, try to figure out a way to do damage control that doesnt include me being hidden away at some cheap motel.

You could stay with your family, Chuck said.

No, Jason said, I couldnt.

Chucks eyes hardened. Just a flash of a look, but it was one Id seen before. He had just put Jason in the problem box. A box that men like Chuck usually took care of in unpleasant ways. Maybe I was overreacting, but he just made my bad-guy radar go off too loud to ignore.

I had to repeat Chucks name twice to get him to look at me. Even then it was a dismissive look. He, like most of the guys in college, was looking at the physical package and making assumptions.

Chuck, lets be very clear with each other. We will do our best to stay out of your hair, and the wedding, but Jason needs to see his dad. Its bad timing that it happened on the same week as this wedding, but that is not our bad.

You are going to give them fodder to trash Governor Summerlands family in the media.

Well do our best not to, but if it happens, then Summerland is paying people to do damage control. Let them do their jobs.

She always this pushy? Chuck asked.

I hated it when men did that. Asked the men I was with why I was such a pushy broad.

Jason laughed. If you think this is pushy, Chuck, you have been hanging around with some weak-ass women.

The driver asked, Do I drop them off in front of the inn or in the parking garage?

You wont change hotels? Chuck asked.

No, Jason said, we wont. He sounded so serious, so unlike himself, that I touched his shoulder. Almost as if I was reassuring myself it was still him. He could be firm, and strong, but he usually chose not to be. Id always known that it was a choice on Jasons part, but for the first time I was seeing just how much strength of will he hid behind that charming smile.

Drop them off in the parking garage; itll slow down the feeding frenzy.

The limo passed the front entrance and glided into the dimness of the parking garage. There were armed security guards making sure that no one got back there who wasnt supposed to be there. Id never seen uniformed security at a hotel before. I wondered who was paying for it.

The driver got my door, and Chuck got Jasons side. I ignored the driver and slid out with Jason. A show of solidarity, yeah, but also that creepy feeling I had. Id have flashed my badge at Chuck if Id been certain seeing a federal marshal would have spooked him more. Some professional bad guys react really badly to badges of any kind.

Id hold the whole badge thing in reserve. This was Jasons gig, not mine. My flashing my badge when I didnt need to might undermine hiswhatever the hell he was doing.

The driver got the bags out of the trunk. Chuck said, Can you at least not be too intimate in public so they dont get pictures of you doing the brunette?

She has a name, Jason said.

Im sorry; can you please not be up close and personal with Ms. Blake in public while youre in town?

One of the uniformed security came close and whispered something to Chuck. Shit, he said.

Whats wrong? I asked.

Theyve spotted a photographer hiding among the cars. I thought we were paying you guys to make sure this didnt happen.

Jason looked around, and I followed his gaze. There was a figure crouched between two midsized cars. He had a camera with a huge lens on it.

Chuck grabbed a suitcase and tried to get us moving. I was willing, but Jason took my hand. He drew me in against him. I knew what he was going to do before he did it. I said, Are you sure this is a good idea?

No, its a terrible idea. He said it just before he kissed me. He kissed me, not like he meant it. He kissed me not because he wanted to kiss me, but because it would cause trouble. I didnt like it, but I knew if I struggled that it would both smear my lipstick and maybe make him try for more of a kiss. He was in such a strange mood that I just wasnt sure how to handle him.

Chuck came and shielded us from the camera with his broad back. To the unfamiliar guards, he said, Get that camera. To Jason, he said, Why?

Jason broke from the kiss and gave the taller man a look Id never seen before. It was a look: part anger, part stubbornness, part just strength and ill will. It was a look more at home on my face than Jasons.

I dont like being told what to do, Chuck.

Now you do sound like Keith.

You have no idea how much like Keith I can be.

I dont need the two of you fucking this week up, Schuyler.

I am not one of the Summerlands, Chuck. You dont get paid to boss me around, so dont try.

Jason reached for my hand. I made sure he got the left one. I wanted my gun hand free just in case. Because if looks could have killed, Jason would have been a greasy spot on the pavement.

Teasing large armed men was not a healthy hobby, and Id be talking to Jason about that when we werent in public.

The big mans hands were flexing slowly at his sides, while I think he counted to twenty. If a camera hadnt been aimed at us, I was pretty sure wed have seen more of Chucks temper than just a little flexing.

The photographer was running toward the sunlight with the guards in pursuit. He was taking pictures over his shoulder the way youd shoot a gun to slow down your attackers, but not really sure youd hit anything. But he was aiming at Jason and me, not the guards.

Carry your own damn bags then. Chuck said it through gritted teeth.

Happy to, Jason said, and his voice was angry. His eyes were very blue, a rich, deep color. I realized it was the color of his eyes when he was angry.

The photographer was out of sight now, and the guards had vanished with him. Jason picked up both suitcases, got the balance of them, and headed for the door. I took the overnight case with all the guns in it and followed him. I kept an eye on Chuck as we moved up the back entrance.

He was right about one thing: Jason had deliberately put a rumor into that camera. It would hit the news before anyone thought to ask if it was some distant relative. Theyd all believe it was Keith Summerland with a lover going into a hotel just five days before his wedding to someone else.

Shit.

12

W E GOT TO the room after Jason had proved with his ID that he was not a Summerland. They kept trying to check us into Keiths room. Jason got overly familiar looks from several of the female staff. One even tried to give him a note while I was holding his hand in the elevator.

We finally got to the room, tipped the bellperson, shut the door, locked it, and were alone. Jason leaned against the door.

The room was big, with two different conversation areas complete with couches and chairs. Large windows let in sunshine and a view of the mountains. There was even a four-seat table near one set of windows so you could eat and look out at the view. Big, roomy, but the dcor stopped me in my tracks. The couches and chairs were all deep purple and red, but their shapes were vaguely organic. The drapes were heavy as if the sunlight were fighting to get through, and there were paintings everywhere on the walls. Most of them were modern art, which is okay, I own some, but modern art isnt meant to be plastered on like wallpaper. It was all very artsy and sort of claustrophobic.

They call it the Gallery, Jason said. I looked at him. Hey, it was either this or the Swinging 60s. Its painted completely in pink.

Pink?

Pink.

The rooms lovely, I said.

Thank you, he said.

The bed was around the corner. There was a fainting couch near it. I sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the high heels. Maybe if I concentrated on the problem at hand, I wouldnt keep trying to figure out how many noses the picture in front of me had. What the hell was that all about? You begged me to leave the Summerlands alone, especially Chuck, and then you tweak his tail badly.

I know, Jason said. It was really stupid, and petty.

Why did you do it?

He loosened his tie and flung himself onto his back on the bed hard enough for me to bounce a little where I was sitting. I dont know.

Liar, I said.

He turned his head to look at me. Whats that supposed to mean?

It means you have some kind of history with these people.

They moved away when he became governor. I didnt know theyd come back here for the wedding. It must be a local girl. God, I pity her.

Yeah, I saw how the women on staff were looking at you, like as soon as I turn my back theyll pounce.

Keith looks like me, and I clean up well, but hes rich, and his dads rich. There always seem to be women who want to be close to rich men.

And now his dad is governor and about to make a run for president. I think thats adding to the Summerland appeal, I said.

Jason nodded, then sat up. He leaned his elbows on his knees and held his head. I should not have posed for the cameras like that. That was childish, but the twins were the bane of my childhood. We were always getting mistaken for each other, by teachers, girls, guys, strangers. Keith would deliberately do shit and get me blamed. He did the same thing to his brother, too, so I wasnt so special there.

Kelsey, right, the brother?

Yeah.

Is the brother any nicer?

Kelsey was in some of the plays with me. He was quieter, a little shy. As awkward with the girls as Keith was smooth.

Sounds like you like Kelsey.

I would have, if he hadnt been a Summerland and Keiths brother. You couldnt be friends with Kelsey unless Keith allowed it, and he hated me.

Why?

I got a few girls who had turned him down. I mean they turned him down, then slept with me, Anita. Think about that.

I did. They turned him down not because he wasnt cute, but because he personally was an asshole.

Yeah, and all his daddys money couldnt buy him the girls who knew what he really was.

Jason got up and went to the mirror, started straightening his tie. I went to college in St. Louis, and he stayed near the state capital. But I heard rumors that he had a couple of date-rape charges. Dropped, never saw court, but Id believe date rape for Keith. He never took no very well.

And his father is making a run to be president on a family conservative ticket, I said.

Thats probably why theyre in such a rush to get him married off.

Marriage doesnt cure you of being a bastard, I said.

He grinned at me. Nothing cures you of being a bastard. He came to me and held his hand out. I took it and let him get me on my feet. Lets go to the hospital.

I thought we might eat first.

He shook his head. If we start taking off more clothes for comfort Im going to want sex, and as you pointed out well get all messy. I desperately dont want to go to see him. So that means go now, get it over with.

I thought I was the jerk-the-bandage-off type, not you.

Maybe years of watching you be brave is rubbing off on me.

I was sort of embarrassed. Im not that brave. I nearly threw up on the plane.

Before I knew you, I thought brave was not being afraid. Youve taught me that bravery is being terrified and doing it anyway. He drew me closer into his arms, and because of the nearly identical height it had that intimacy that Micah could do. When you arent looking up, really, but at a man.

I studied his face, tried to see the fear he was talking about. I see more anger in you than fear, Jason.

Youre going to ignore the compliment and go straight to the business, arent you?

I shrugged, a little awkwardly, with my arms around his waist and his around me.

He closed the almost invisible distance wed been keeping between our bodies, so we touched from chest to groin and thigh. The closeness made me both uncomfortable and more comfortable. It felt good, and bothered me that it felt good. I never said I wasnt conflicted about my sexuality. What helped it not be that sexual was Jasons attitude. Hed gotten closer to comfort himself, not to start foreplay.

Jason gave a smile that was more a baring of teeth. Yeah, Im pissed. Im pissed that the Summerlands ruined my childhood and now are going to ruin my last visit with my dad. Im pissed at my dad. Pissed that he wouldnt let my mom call me sooner. Hell, Im pissed at my mom for not calling me sooner, or my sisters. They could have called me, but they all sat around waiting for the big bully to give them permission.

Is he really a bully, or are you just pissed?

Jason hugged me, burying his face in my hair, as if to breathe me in. Youll meet him in a little bit. Judge for yourself. Ive hated him and tried to love him for so many years I cant see him clearly.

I hugged him back, then said, Let me put the heels back on. Do we call a cab?

Yeah, he said, and reached for the phone.

13

T HE TAXI COULDNT get out of the drive in front of the hotel unless the driver was willing to run over members of the press. That would probably qualify as some sort of First Amendment violation, and Im all about defending the Constitution. Besides, manslaughter sucks, too.

The driver turned around. I cant get through, Mr. Summerland, Im sorry.

My name isoh hell! Jason stared at the crowd that had descended from the road to surround us. Where were the valets who had been at the road earlier? Cameras were exploding everywhere. Reporters shouting questions. Who is she? Did you break up with Lisa? Is the wedding off?

Shit, he said softly, but with feeling.

The windows were covered by people and cameras. It was suddenly hard to breathe. I forced myself to breathe slow and even, but the press of people around the cab was claustrophobic. Fuck.

Finally uniformed security and the spiffily dressed valets appeared in the crowd of press. They began to push them back, an inch at a time. The cab tried to ease forward, but even with the guards and valets we were stopped.

The cabbie turned around and looked at us. You want to just give up?

I think were going to have to, Jason said.

I looked out in time to see a guard and a photographer get into a pushing match.

I cant get through this, the cabbie said.

Jason looked at me. If I hadnt done the kiss in the alley Id say fuck them, but its my fault.

I just looked at him. I mean, what was I supposed to say? Hed wanted to cause a scandal, and hed succeeded.

A uniformed security person knocked on the window. Jason opened it a crack. The man said, I think you should come back inside, Mr. Summerland. We need more people to guarantee your safety, and theyre going to follow you wherever you go. Its not safe.

What do you want us to do?

Another guard pushed in against the window; he stumbled as if he was being shoved from behind. We cant clear the road enough for the taxi to move, unless we start busting heads.

We dont have permission for that, the first guard said. That seemed to imply that with permission they would have happily waded into the press. What kind of guards were they?

Were going to force them back, and then you get out of the taxi. Theres enough of us to form a circle around you both. Stay in the center and itll be fine. His mouth was saying fine, but his eyes werent as certain.

I leaned around Jason. Well be stampeded.

No, maam, well protect you. Its our job.

Hell keep us safe, Jason said, because otherwise the governor will be very, very unhappy with him. With all of them. Isnt that right?

The uniformed guard licked his lips. His eyes actually showed too much white. He was well and truly scared. Either his nerve was weak, or Governor Summerland was scarier than your average politician. Or maybe it was the whole lose-your-job thing; yeah, that might do it.

Yes, sir, he said.

He turned and started shouting orders to the other uniforms.

You spooked him on purpose, I said.

I did.

Why?

He motioned at the mob they were pushing back. The guard was right; unless were willing to get rough, we could get hurt. I dont want to take another beating for Keith.

They pushed them back, like a weird version of a football scrimmage line, except with cameras and microphones. The reporters were shouting at us, at the guards, at each other, so that it was noise like a storm, so all the sounds combined into one roar of unintelligible noise.

When there was room, the nervous guard opened the door for Jason. I wasnt sure it was a good idea, but I didnt have a better one. He got out and helped me out of the cab.

I thought we would go blind from the flashes before wed moved two feet. I clung to Jasons hand, trying to shield my vision and wondering what the hell Id done with my sunglasses. If Id ever needed them, it was now.

There were cries of Keith, Keith!

Jason waited for a little lull in the murmurous noise. He spoke loud and clear, My name is Jason Schuyler.

They didnt believe him. They said so. They also pressed in on the circle of men protecting us. We came to a standstill on the sloping driveway. The guards and valets kept them back but couldnt move forward.

Jason shouted this time, My name is Jason Schuyler. Who wants proof? He got out his wallet. Who wants to put my drivers license on camera?

There was a lot of jostling for that, and while they argued over who got it, I whispered, Cover your number and address.

He nodded, and changed his hands around so only his picture and state were visible. The lucky winner got to come forward with a camera and a crew, and filmed the license. The guards actually let them through, but the rest were more patient now, waiting their turn or hoping for blood. The talking head who came with the camera shoved a mic in Jasons face.

If you really are this Jason Schuyler, then why do you look so much like the Summerland boys?

We were always getting confused by people in school. You can see why.

You could be triplets, she said.

He nodded, sort of grimly. Im home to visit my family, which has nothing to do with the Summerland wedding. I just need everyone to let me have some room to visit my folks.

What brings you home?

He looked at me. I shrugged. My father is dying of cancer. He doesnt have long. Id ask that everyone give us some space to say good-bye.

And who is your father?

If I tell you, are you guys going to bug him in the hospital?

Wed love your familys take on having a son who looks so much like the famous Summerland twins.

My dad is dying. He has weeks. Please, Im begging you, dont torment him. Please.

Someone yelled from the crowd, Whos the brunette?

Jason stepped back and I was suddenly on mic. Im Anita Blake.

Who are you to the Summerlands?

No one to them; other than knowing of Governor Summerland Id never heard of his family until today. Im Jason Schuylersgood friend. There, the first awkward pause. I was betting it wouldnt be the last one.

Jason put his hands on my shoulders from where he stood beside me. The flashes intensified.

Another voice yelled out, Hey, youre Jean-Claudes Anita Blake, arent you?

Jean-Claudes Anita Blake; not federal marshal Anita Blake, not the vampire executioner Anita Blake; no, I was just Jean-Claudes girlfriend. Great.

Yes, I said. Who was I to quibble?

Oh, my God, youre Ripley! A womans voice from the crowd. Ripley was the name Jason stripped under. Yes, he had chosen his stage name because of the movie Alien. When Id asked him why, hed replied, Sigourney Weaver is so hot. His more ardent fans called him Rip for short. He had a fan among the press. That was going to be either good, or really bad.

Other voices asked the reporter, Whos Ripley?

Jason leaned over my shoulders to say, loud enough for other mics to pick it up, Ripley is the name I strip under at Jean-Claudes club in St. Louis, Guilty Pleasures.

A shiver went through the collected press, almost as if they were one beast with a single skin that had just been touched by a giant hand.

The press let the woman who seemed to know who we were come to the forefront; she had better questions. Anita, you are Jean-Claudes girlfriend, right?

Yeah, I said, again, not really happy that all my own accomplishments had been boiled down to being someonesanyonesgirlfriend.

Then what are you doing here with Ripley, I mean Jason?

Jason told you that his father is gravely ill, thats true. Hes coming home to say good-bye, and Im with him for moral support.

Oh, my God, she said, youve come home to meet his family. Youve left Jean-Claude for one of his strippers.

Holy shit. No, I said, I mean, its not what you think, its

But it was too late. Another kind of feeding frenzy had begun. It was simply out of our control, like some force of nature.

The reporters started yelling answers to each others questions, as if they were questions for us, but the answers they were giving were actually drowning out ours. It was one of the most bizarre experiences. It was a hurricane of rumors, and there was no stopping it.

Chuck appeared with the plainclothes guards, and I was happy to see all of them, even Chuck. They got us out of the press, down the driveway, and inside the hotel. I couldnt even argue. The taxi wasnt going anywhere.

14

W E ENDED UP in a spacious room just off the main lobby that was filled with chairs and had a podium. I think this was the place where the tamer press events happened.

There was a woman in one of the chairs. She wasnt that tall, but she managed to be leggy in spike heels and a killer designer suit. Her auburn hair was in a tight bun that left her perfect makeup and overly dramatic eyes suitably noticeable.

No more talking to the press unless you clear it through me, she said.

I am not one of the Summerlands, Jason said, and he sounded tired. I didnt blame him.

He fell on his sword out there for us, Dubois, one of the other suits said. This one was older, his gray suit only a little darker than his hair. His face was lined, but it was a good face. If hed dyed the hair he wouldnt have looked his age. A different suit would have helped, too. Gray wasnt his color.

She gave one abrupt nod. He did give them something else to chew on, Ill grant that. But the little kiss in the alley was childish.

I know that, Jason said, but Chuck here had bossed me around, and Im not Keith. I dont need the babysitting.

After that kiss and the impromptu press conference, the hell you dont, she said.

Are all press agents this pleasant? I asked.

She gave me an angry look. And youpointing a long painted nail at meare not helping.

Im a federal marshal and a vampire executioner. I also raise the dead for a living. But all the press cared about was my boyfriends. But I didnt argue with the reporters. I let them ask sex questions and didnt get mad on camera. I think I behaved myself admirably.

Jason hugged me one-armed. You really did control your temper. Im very proud of you.

I gave him a look that made Ms. Duboiss look seem tame. He winced, but he didnt mean it.

Frankly, I said, I was too surprised to know what to do. Ive done some press with Jean-Claude, but nothing like this.

Dubois seemed to have gotten over her snit, because she offered me her hand. Me, not Jason. It earned her a brownie point or two. Im Phyllis Dubois, press secretary on site for the wedding week.

I took her hand. She had a good firm shake for a woman, but then so did I. Im Anita Blake, and I guess all I am today is Jasons girlfriend.

Jean-Claude is that sexy master vampire of St. Louis, right? she said.

I nodded.

Did you leave him for Jason?

I gave her an unfriendly look. Dont you start.

She smiled and it made her face younger, more in tune with the nearly club makeup. Sorry, but if it were true it might help us deflect some of the heat from our boys.

Youd blow the story up even more so theyd feed on us, I said.

She shrugged narrow but elegant shoulders. My job.

How do I get to the hospital to see my dad? Jason asked.

Well put you in a limo, and if we have to well get you a police escort, Dubois said.

Why? Jason said, unusually suspicious for him.

I answered it, Because a limo with a police escort will draw off part of the press that is hanging around for the bachelorette party tonight.

You really do think Im going to throw you to the wolves, dont you?

Oh, I like wolves, I said, its the reporters that scare me.

Gray Suit said, I dont think theres any way to get you quietly to the hospital. In fact, we should send people ahead to warn the hospital so the reporters dont get into Mr. Schuylers room.

Good thinking, Peterson, as always. Call our liaison at the hospital.

Peterson, aka Gray Suit, took out a cell phone and went toward one side of the room. Apparently for some privacy for the call.

Another phone sounded. Dubois got a slim one out of her pocket and started talking into it.

Chuck said, Youre a federal marshal, for real?

For real, I said.

He looked me up and down, not like a man will, but like he was sizing me up for other things. Things that had nothing to do with sex.

Youve got a gun at the small of your back. Its lying sideways, not up and down, so its almost invisible.

I nodded. And you missed it completely when we first met.

My bad, he said.

Sloppy, I said.

It wont happen again.

What wont happen again?

Me thinking youre just agirlfriend.

You always hesitate before you say girlfriend, Chuck; what do you actually start to say?

You wont like it.

Im betting I already know the phrase thats on the tip of your tongue, Chuck.

Jason was watching us, the way he did sometimes when people were doing something that interested him or puzzled him. Hed watch, file it away, and talk to me about it later. Sometimes much later.

Chuck glanced around, and when he realized that both Dubois and Peterson werent in earshot, he said low, Piece of ass, I wont make the mistake of thinking youre just a piece of ass.

I nodded. Yeah, thats what I thought you were thinking.

15

W E ARRIVED AT the hospital in a style that even Jean-Claude couldnt have managed. The city wouldnt have given him a police escort unless he was being arrested. But we got one to St. Josephs Hospital, with its nearly brand-new trauma unit. The trauma unit was in the Summerland wing of the hospital. I smelled an amazingly large donation.

It took us awhile to get past the upper brass of the hospital, who had spilled out to the sound of sirens and the limo. Hell, we had some of the suits with us. Peterson was in charge instead of Chuck, which was a step up, but it was still an understandable mistake on the hospital administrations part. If someone had given me enough money to put a wing on my hospital Id be nice to them, too.

In the lobby, while we were trying to explain that Jason was neither of the Summerland twins, I saw a portrait. It was an old-fashioned painting of a man in a black cloth suit, white shirt, stiff collar, and dark yellow mustache. But underneath the strange clothes and facial hair, it was Jasons face.

I actually walked toward the portrait without meaning to. Jasons blue eyes stared down at me from this stern-faced stranger.

Jason came to stand beside me. I looked from him to the painting. Creepy, isnt it? he said.

It could be you in a few years, if you did the mustache.

Meet Jedediah Summerland. He was the head of the religious community that came here to get away from the worldly temptations. He was a very self-righteous guy, but strangely a lot of families that trace their ancestors back to when he was alive have a lot of kids that look eerily like him.

A lot of cult leaders seem to have a weakness for women, I said.

He nodded, then smiled, though it left his eyes empty. Jedediah was actually killed by vampires. Apparently he tried to convert them to the Lord, and they didnt like it. Frankly, I think he tried to seduce the wrong undead lady and paid the price.

He turned to me, not with a smile, but with something in his eyes that I couldnt quite read.

What? I asked.

I guess getting hooked up with vampires runs in the family. He turned away, keeping his face to himself so that whatever he was thinking, I couldnt see it.

I looked at the face on the wall. It was Jasons face, but if the artist had captured Jedediah correctly, then there was no humor in the eyes, no smile always tugging at the corner of that mouth. Same face, but a very different person.

Peterson came up beside us. He gazed up at the portrait, too. The family resemblance is almost disturbing, if you dont mind my saying so.

I dont mind, Jason said.

Ive cleared the way for you to see your father, Mr. Schuyler. Ill accompany you up with a second man. The hospital staff have already caught two reporters trying to sneak upstairs. Ive asked them to treat your fathers privacy as they would the governors. I think that should keep the press away.

Thank you, Jason said. He was still looking at the painting when he said it. He turned and gave Peterson a grin. It filled his eyes with laughter, and changed the face toJasons face.

Peterson looked almost startled, then smiled back. Jason had that effect on people.

Jason reached for my hand, and I helped him find it. The smile faded around the edges, and his eyes looked almost as stern as the ones in the portrait. Lets get this over with.

We went for the elevator, but there was already a suit holding the door, and the admin for the hospital. Apparently, she was going to ride up with us. The rich and powerful really are different, or at least theyre treated better.

Jasons hand was a little warm to the touch, not sweat, just nerves. He was a lycanthrope, which meant that nerves could bring on the change. He had control, really good control, but his body temperature was rising with his anxiety. That wasnt good.

For the first time I wondered what would happen if Jason shifted in front of his family. Surely they knew he was a werewolf. Didnt they?

The media would know once they checked the website for Guilty Pleasures. It listed not just the usual stats for strippers but if they were vampires, or wereanimals, and what animal you could watch them shift into. If the media stayed interested enough in the story, theyd out him.

The nice admin was talking to Jason, who was making small noises at her and not hearing a thing. I actually looked across him to her and said, Its very nice of you to help his father like this.

Any friend of the governors is a very special guest of ours, she said, smiling.

Jason said in a voice bitter enough to hurt, My father isnt a friend of the governors.

The woman looked at me, then at Peterson. I thought

The governor felt that since Mr. Schuylers resemblance to his own sons was the problem with the media, the least we could do was make certain his fathers last days werent hounded by the press.

The resemblance is uncanny, she said. Even standing this close to you Id swear you were one of the governors sons.

Jedediah was a busy boy, Jason said, softly.

Excuse me? she said.

Jason shook his head. Nothing.

I tried small talk, never my best thing. How long could the elevator ride be? Jason didnt know the twins would be in town, so the press caught us off guard. With the wedding and everything, it got wild. I dont envy the real Summerlands if this is typical for the way theyre treated by the press.

Its gotten worse since the presidential bid, the other, younger suit said.

Peterson gave him a look. The look said clearly, Dont talk. The younger suit stopped talking and did his best to both stand very straight and ready and vanish into the corner. Not easy to do at the same time, but he tried.

Of course, of course, the admin said.

The doors opened, and we got to step out into a hospital corridor. No matter how nice the hospital, it is still a hospital. Theyd chosen nice paint, a color that was actually cheerful, but the smells hit youthat antiseptic smell they use to try to hide the smell of sickness, the smell of death. The only corridors that dont smell like this are maternity wards. Its almost as if death truly has a smell, and so does life. You cant fool the difference with cleaning solution. The nose knows, and so does the part of the brain that doesnt understand elevators and presidential bids. That part of the brain thats been hopping around with us humans since we werent sure walking upright wasnt just another fad.

Jason stopped dead in the hallway. His hand clenched around mine. I realized if I could smell that, it would be a hundred times stronger to his nose. Even in human form the wereanimals could smell things humans couldnt.

The admin stopped and turned. Your fathers room is just down this way. She actually motioned as if she were directing us to anywhere. I guess she worked here every day. Maybe you dont smell it after awhile, or feel it.

Jason squeezed my hand again, gave me a watered-down version of his smile, and nodded. We moved, we followed, we went where she pointed. Jasons hand was hot against my skin.

16

A WOMAN APPEARED in the corridor just ahead of the admin. The woman wore a soft pink suit and had short blond hair. She was about our height. She turned toward us, and the moment I saw her face I knew she had to be Jasons mom. The same eyes and hair; the face was different, thinner; a little more pointed chin, but the eyes were like looking into Jasons eyes. But just like the painting downstairs had filled those eyes with disapproval, her eyes were filled with worry.

She saw Jason, and her face lightened for a moment. Her eyes flicked to me, there was a moment of doubt in her face, and then she came toward us smiling, arms out, but her eyes never quite lost the thought, the clear thought, Is this a good idea? I hoped his mother never played poker, because she would have sucked at it.

He let go of my hand long enough to hug her. She wrapped her arms around him, her hand patting the back of his hair as she broke away from him. She tugged at his suit, putting it back in place as if shed mussed him.

You look good, she said.

Jason nodded, and reached back for me. I came to his hand. This is Anita Blake. Anita, this is my mom, Iris.

I shook Iris Schuylers hand. It was about the same size as mine. Her handshake was a bare touch, then away, as if she didnt shake hands much.

Im being silly, she said, and she hugged me. I fought not to be stiff in the embrace. I dont like being touched by strangers. I also wondered if shed find the gun, but luckily she hugged like she shook hands: barely. It was a nice awkward hug on both sides. I did my best, and found the suit loose on her frame, as if shed lost a lot of weight recently.

Its nice to meet you, Mrs. Schuyler, I said, as I got to go back to Jason. Unlike his mom, I could lie with the best of them.

Iris, please, call me Iris.

Then you have to call me Anita, I said.

Anita, she said, and she touched me again, on the arm.

I managed to keep my smile, but it was a little strained. God, was his family one of those touchy families? Richards family was like that. Id made peace with the fact that Richards mother would hug me, and touch me, but I never liked it. The men behaved better because of the whole sexual taboo thing. But Richards mother and his sister were both touchers. Eeeh.

Jason put his arm around my waist and drew me tight in against him. Either hed picked up my discomfort or his own had gotten worse. Either way, I was okay with it. Jason had permission to touch me.

Jasons mother took his free hand and led us toward the room shed come out of. I didnt like her leading him by the hand like a child. But I let it go; one, I wasnt really his girlfriend-girlfriend, and two, her husband was dying, so maybe shed earned the right to hold her sons hand.

A woman whose hair was almost as black as my own came out of the room. She was tall and broad-shouldered, but still gave the impression of delicacy of bone. She wore jeans and a T-shirt with some sort of slogan on it. She saw us and gave a glad cry of Jason!

The next thing I knew, she and Jason were hugging. She damn near smothered him in a nice chest. The height difference was considerable, with her on the tall end.

Jason drew back enough to say, Anita, this is my sister Julia.

Sister? No one in my family hugged their brother like that. Then I got a Julia hug, and realized it wasnt the least bit sexual. She was just one of those enthusiastic huggers. I was the same height as Jason, so I had more proof than I wanted that she was about as well-endowed as I was. Dear God, even Richards family wasnt this touchy-feely.

Jason laughed and rescued me. Let her breathe, sis.

Julia backed off, but kept an arm around my shoulders. Its just so good to see you, little brother. And I dont think youd have brought a girl home if it wasnt serious. She hugged me again, a little less furiously, but still I was really wondering how to get away from her.

Her shirt said Browning and Schuyler Gardening Center with a few plants done in line art. The shirt was a shade of yellow that most people couldnt have worn, but it looked fine with her coloring, and great with her summer tan. It looked like shed tan almost as dark as Richards family, and they had American Indian in their background.

I wondered if Julia was a half-sister.

You run the gardening center? I asked, hoping to distract her from the hugging.

Me and my hubby, Brian. Hes minding the store so I could come visit Dad. The sunshine faded a little from her big brown eyes. It was like watching a flower sag from lack of water; you just knew if some good news came soon shed perk back up.

LetAnitagosis. Jason said it laughing. He took my hand and drew me away from his sister.

She flashed him a grin. I knew that grin. It was a totally different face, but the grin, that was Jasons.

I slid an arm around Jasons familiar waist with a sense of relief. Strangers hugging me, aah.

Hello, Jason. A woman who looked too much like Julia not to be another sister stood in the doorway. She was wearing a navy business skirt suit with a white shell. Sort of a more conservative version of what I was wearing. I was betting she wasnt wearing a gun under hers, though.

Roberta, hi. This is Anita. He led me forward, and she moved to meet us. I tensed for another hug, but she offered a hand instead.

She had a firm, but not too firm handshake. It felt like she shook hands a lot. I gave her a smile, grateful she hadnt touched me more.

Conservative but nice makeup brought out the brown eyes that dominated her face. It was her best feature. Where Julia had a delicacy to her height, Roberta was tall. The bones of her face were too square for beauty. Shed done well with the makeup to sort of carve out the face she wanted you to see. She was attractive, but it was an almost masculine beauty, for lack of a better word.

Where Julias hair had been carelessly cut just above her shoulders, Robertas was carefully styled past her shoulders.

Are you really his girlfriend? she asked me.

I let myself look startled. Why would you ask that?

Iris came up, touching Robertas arm. Youre being rude.

No, I dont want Dad upset. She turned those eyes back to me. Are you really Jasons girlfriend, or just someone he brought here because Mom panicked?

I looked at Jason. I was trying to figure out how to answer this question and not lie. I guess I simply hadnt expected anyone to be this bold about it. You in the habit of bringing girls home who arent your girlfriend?

I brought home a few fuck buddies, but other than that, no.

Jason, his mother said, in that tone that mothers have that lets you know youve been naughty.

Why are you being mean, Bobbi? Julia asked.

My name is Roberta, she said, as if she had to say it a lot, and Im not being mean. I just want to be clear. Dad will know if youre lying, Jason, and that will bother him more than the truth.

The admin shook some hands and made herself scarce, going for the elevator. Peterson and the suit took up posts in the hallway. The young suit looked like hed rather have taken the elevator with the admin. Peterson gave great blank face; all in a days work.

Robertas dark eyes glanced at the men, then back to Jason. You finally have your own guards, just like the rest of the Summerlands.

Roberta. Iris said it like she meant it. That one word cracked into the sudden silence with more force than I thought Mrs. Schuyler had in her. Under that delicate exterior there were tougher bits. Good to know.

Roberta gave her mother a look almost as angry as the one she was flashing at Jason. I was beginning to think Roberta just wanted to be pissed at someone, anyone. Sometimes grief will do that to you, make you attack random targets.

Tell Dad the truth, Jason, she said in a softer, but still tight voice.

And what is the truth, Roberta? he asked, and his voice was flat and unfriendly. I dont know if Id ever heard him sound quite like that. No love lost between him and this sister.

Youre gay, Jason.

He laughed, but not like it was funny. You and Dad have believed that since high school. I dont know why, but you have. Mom says come home; bring a girlfriend if youve got one, so your father can die in peace. Cant let him die thinking his only son is a faggot, can we?

Hed rather you just admit it.

I raised a hand. Can I say something here?

Jason said, Yes. She said, No.

Yes, Jason said more vehemently.

Im his very good friend, Roberta. Your mother called him yesterday. I dropped everything to get on a plane and come out here with Jason. I wouldnt do that if he wasnt important to me.

She gave me a look of damn near rage. I had no idea where this anger was coming from. He always had a lot of fag-hag girlfriends.

Iris and Julia both said, Roberta!

I stared at her openmouthed for a second.

Thanks, Bobbi, love you as much as you love me, Jason said.

She turned that rage-filled gaze to Jason. I know you slept with girls in high school, but you slept with boys, too. That makes you gay, Jason.

Technically, that would make me bisexual, Bobbi. Would you or Dad tell me why you are convinced I slept with guys in high school?

I saw you.

One night, you think you saw me, and you told Dad, who always thought I was gay anyway. I told you then and Ill tell you now, I wasnt there. I dont know what or who you think you saw, but I was with someone else.

Who? Just tell me who, and maybe Ill believe you.

I promised her no one would ever know, and I keep my word.

Isnt that convenient. I know what I saw.

Jasons hand started rubbing back and forth on my hip, gently. He was doing it to comfort himself, like all the lycanthropes do. The Browning at the small of my back forced him to put his hand low enough to touch my hip. My waist was used up with the hardware.

Touch her all you want in public, it doesnt change the truth.

Look, I said, I dont know what family problem Ive walked into, but Jason and I are lovers.

And how many men are you sharing him with?

None, I said.

She gave Jason a withering look. Youve got her fooled.

Julia got between them at that point. Bobbi, stop it. I know youre hurt about Dad, but hurting Jason wont save him.

Roberta looked away from us. She shook her head. Ive got to get out of here. She went, not for the elevator, but down the hallway. We watched her walk around the corner out of sight.

I am so sorry, Anita, Iris said.

Julia hugged Jason. I believe shes your girlfriend.

Thanks, but Im betting that Dad will agree with Bobbi.

Julia hugged him a little tighter, but her face showed the same thought. Julia, like her mother, Id have played poker with any day of the week. Roberta, I wasnt sure about yet.

A deep voice came from the open door. If youre going to fight, do it where I can see it.

Jason sighed and leaned in against me. He put his face against my neck. He breathed in the scent of my skin, the way you get a last breath of oxygen before diving into the depths.

Iris went ahead of us, saying, Frank, be nice.

I was betting that Bobbi took after her father. Fun, fun, fun.

17

F RANK S CHUYLER TOOK up most of the bed, so that his feet were sort of stranded over the edge of it, as if they hadnt been able to find anything big enough to fit him. Even lying down he was obviously over six feet. But the cancer had left him almost nothing but the height. The strong bones of his face that had shown in Robertas face were prominent in the way that skeletons are. His eyes were deep sunken brown caves. He still had a head full of black hair and a mustache just as dark. Apparently, either hed refused chemo or they hadnt found the cancer in time for it to be worthwhile.

He was hooked up to tubes in his arms and nose. The smell of death was heavy, but not worse than the corridor. Whatever was killing him hadnt taken all his dignity with it, not yet at least.

Jasons come to visit, and he brought his girlfriend, isnt that nice? Iris tried for happy, but it came out strained.

Hi, Dad, Jason said in a flat voice.

Why did you come? his father asked.

Jason took a stronger grip on my hand. Mom asked me to come. His voice was still careful.

You dont have to hold the girl so tight, the man in the bed said, in a voice that was so deep it was almost painful to hear. You dont have to pretend for me, Jason. His voice was a lot less hostile than his eyes. Maybe he just couldnt help the eyes.

Jason let go of my hand and put his arm around my waist, one hand on my hip below the gun. I played my hand back and forth on his side underneath his jacket, trying to give what comfort I could.

Ill hold Anita any way I like.

Robertas right, boy, you can touch the girl all you want in public. Its what you do in private that matters.

What do you think Ill be doing in private that I dont do in publicDad? Jason asked, softly.

Your mother told you to bring a girl home so I could die happy thinking my only son wasnt a He stopped as if he wasnt sure what word to end the sentence with.

A what? Jason said, still soft, but with an edge of anger to it. His otherworldly energy was beginning to creep along my skin where I touched him. Not good.

A fruit, Frank said.

A fruit, I said, and fought not to laugh. It was just one of those moments when the tension gets too high and you want to laugh.

He looked at me as if Id just appeared. Sorry, I said.

You think its funny that my wife told him to bring you and lie to me. To lie to me on my deathbed, you think thats funny?

I bumped my head against Jason. What do you want me to do?

Be yourself.

I moved away enough to look at him. You sure?

He smiled. Positive.

I shrugged, still with my arm around him. I looked back to the man in the bed. I tried to think of a polite way to begin. I think its funny that you think Jason is gay.

You hanging all over him doesnt change that hes a homo.

Fruit, homo, cant you even say homosexual?

You like that word better, girlie, fine. Hes a homosexual.

His mother had moved closer to the bed, but not to it. She was hovering somewhere between her husband and her son. I got the feeling that shed spent a lot of Jasons life caught like that.

I think Im in a better position to know what Jasons sexual preferences are than you are, Mr. Schuyler. There, that had been polite.

Dad, Julia said from near the door, Jason brought Anita here to meet you, doesnt that say something?

It says shell lie for him.

Jason moved away enough to just have my hand. He drew me toward the door. Lets go, Anita.

No, Iris said, grabbing his other hand.

Dad, Julia said, he came all this way. Both of them left work and everything to come here. Be nice.

Im dying, Julia, I dont have time to be nice. I want my son to be a man, and hes not going to be.

Jasons shoulders rounded as if hed been struck a blow. That was it, the last straw. This camel wasnt taking any more crap from anyone, not even the dying.

I kept Jasons hand, but turned toward the bed. Jason is a better man than you are, Mr. Schuyler.

Those cavernous eyes glared at me. Whats that supposed to mean?

It means that a man is courteous. A real man is kind. A real man loves his family and treats them like human beings.

Im dying, Ive earned the right to be a son of a bitch.

I bet youve always been a cruel bastard.

A look I couldnt read came over his face. Im not the bastard.

Oh, I think you are. So youre dying, so fucking what? Were all dying, Mr. Schuyler, you just know the checkout time and how much the bill will be.

Get your little chippie friend out of here. Putting a cross around her neck doesnt change what she is, he said.

Jasons hand tensed on mine, drawing me back a little. I must have moved toward the bed without realizing it. Id been told wearing my cross was wrong because I raised the dead, but never because I was a whore. It was a new insult. I didnt like it much.

You should not have said that, Jason said.

Does chippie mean what I think it means? I asked.

Yeah, he called you a whore, Jason said. I couldnt read his tone, but it wasnt angry exactly, more shocked, as if even for his father it had been too much.

Julia and Iris were standing openmouthed, as if they too were too shocked to know what to say.

Franklin, Mrs. Schuyler said, finally, in a breathy, uncertain voice.

Stripper is just one step up from whore, he said, totally unrepentant.

So now Im a homo and a whore, Jason said. He didnt sound angry, more like tired.

If the shoe fits, his father said.

Franklin, dont do this.

You told him to lie to me, Iris. You told him to bring his little stripper friend, so Id die in peace. Hes a fucking fairy and fucking coffin bait to boot.

Jason turned away; the otherworldly energy just stopped, as if hed put up some big shield that cut off everything. The furry energy, the emotion, all of it. He shut down.

I held his hand, kept him in the room. If you walk out of this room, thats going to be it.

I know, he said softly.

If its over, can we go out with a bang instead of a whimper?

He looked at me, studying my face. Then he nodded. Why not?

I smiled at him, and knew it was that smile, most unpleasant. The one that used to scare me in the mirror, but Id gotten used to it. I knew it was in there now. I turned it on the bed and the man in it.

Some of my best friends are strippers, Mr. Schuyler, people I love, even. So thats not the insult you want it to be. Im Federal Marshal Anita Blake. I let go of Jasons hand so I could get my badge out of my pocket with my left hand. I moved close enough to the bed for him to see it.

I dont believe it.

I put the badge back and slipped off the left sleeve of my jacket so I could show him the worst of my scars from my job. The scar tissue at the bend is where a vampire gnawed at me. The doctors thought I might lose the use of my arm. The cross-shaped burn is from some human servants who thought it would be funny for a vampire hunter to have a scar like a vampire. The claw marks were from a shapeshifted witch.

So youre one of the federal marshals who hunt vampires.

Yeah, I am.

You know hes fucking the master vampire of St. Louis.

Actually, I know he isnt. Jean-Claude gets a lot of people thinking hes sleeping with anyone whos seen with him in public. One of the downsides of being a beautiful man, I guess.

Those deep brown caves of eyes stared up at me. You telling me he doesnt give him blood?

I thought we were talking about sex.

Same thing.

If you think taking blood is the same thing as sex, Mr. Schuyler, then youre the pervert, not either of us.

Iris said, Anita! as if she were my mom and that tone had ever worked on me.

He said, No, no, dont stop her, I started it. He gazed up at me. But youll finish it, wont you?

You damn bet I will, I said.

He smiled, just a little one. Youre really my boys girlfriend?

What do I have to do to prove to you and his other sister that were dating? Were lovers and were friends, so I guess that makes me his girlfriend. The word just sounds a little too junior high, dont you think?

He smiled again. I guess it does. He reached out as if to touch the scars, then hesitated. He wasnt the first to want to touch them. I moved closer so he could.

His fingertips were very rough, as if his day job had been something with his hands. There was a gasp behind me. I turned and found Mrs. Schuyler with her hand to her mouth and her eyes a little surprised.

Jason moved up to lift my jacket into place. She saw the gun.

Gun, Julia said.

Jason helped me on with my jacket, and the scars were invisible again. Well, except for the one in the palm of my right hand. Its a smaller cross-shaped burn scar. That one I got because a very big and bad vampire was trying to possess me and someone shoved a cross into my hand. The vampire hadnt given up until the cross had sunk into my flesh.

I dont go anywhere unarmed, I said quietly.

Jason kissed my cheek, and I moved back to stand with him. Ill take Anita back to the hotel. Well leave in the morning.

Stay a day, or two. His father said it, flat, almost no emotion. But the two other women in the room all tensed, as if that one small statement meant more than youd think.

Jason put his face next to my neck and breathed in the scent of my skin again, as if he needed another hit. I felt him use that touch and scent to help his voice be calm when he said, We wont leave tomorrow, but beyond that Ill have to see. We both have jobs.

Ill see you tomorrow, his father said.

Jason nodded. I guess you will.

We went for the door. His father said, Glad to see you cut your hair.

Jason looked back, and it was not a friendly look. If Id known Id be coming home, Id have started growing it out again.

Because you know I like it short.

No, because you think when its long I look too pretty to be a boy. Anita likes long hair.

Then why did you cut it? his father asked.

For a change. Ill see you tomorrow, Dad.

Ill be here.

His mother started to follow us out, but his father said, Iris, in a tone that called her back. She waved at us, and called, ByeI love you. Jason didnt reply.

Julia followed us out and hugged us both very thoroughly. Jason hugged her back; I did my best.

Peterson and the suit fell into line around us. Jason put my left arm through his so he could touch my hand and arm with his hands. He was icily calm in the elevator going down and in the lobby, and perfectly calm as we slipped into the limo.

Peterson closed the door. We were alone. Jason held on until the motor started, and then his shoulders started to shake. He put his hands in front of his face and cried. He cried with his whole body, shaking, shivering.

I touched his shoulder, and he flinched. I tried one more time and he fell sideways into my lap, so that I held him while he wept. I held him while he cried in huge racking spasms, but he wasnt loud. His body felt like it was being torn apart with grief, but he didnt shout with it. He cried like someone whod been taught not to attract too much attention with his grief. Too much noise and they come find you, to find out why the tears.

Call it a hunch, but I was betting that Franklin Schuyler had thought boys werent supposed to cry, especially his very small, very pretty, very-unlike-him son.

18

T HE TEARS BEGAN to slow, and finally he just lay in my lap, very still, as if the tears had emptied him of everything. I stroked his hair; I made the noises you make when you know that the pain is so vast that nothing you can do will fix it. The soft Its all right, when you know that it isnt all right, and never will be again, and perhaps never had been.

Peterson opened the door for us. Jason wiped at his face and sat up. If hed been a woman he would have asked if it looked like hed been crying, but he was a man, and he didnt ask. We got out, hand in hand again. Theyd taken us around to the parking garage again. I hadnt even noticed. The world had narrowed down to the man in my lap and his grief.

Peterson led us up the back stairs, which meant there was probably some real Summerland newsworthy event in the lobby. Fine with me; Id had enough circus for a while. I was ready for some bread.

Peterson and the suit waited for me to open the door with the little key card. They waited until we were inside the room. I half-expected them to check that the room was safe, but they resisted the urge. Bully for them.

Thanks, I said.

Peterson handed me a business card. If you have any more incidents with the press, call. Its going to be a mess here this week. Its very unfortunate that your friend and his father are going to be caught up in it. The governor is very serious about helping keep you out of the limelight.

I appreciate the effort, Mr. Peterson.

My job, Ms. Blake.

I nodded. Good night.

Good night.

I closed the door, locked it, and put on the flip-bar door lock at the top. I always locked up tight. Yeah, most of the things I hunted could bust through a door without a problem, but you never knew, some bad guys were only human.

I didnt expect bad guys tonight, but then I hadnt expected to need the gun today either. Id brought it anyway.

Jason had gone for the bathroom and closed the door. I heard water running. I almost left him alone, but I was starving. I knocked on the door.

The water stopped. Yes.

I want to order some room service, what do you want?

Im not hungry.

You have to eat, Jason. It wasnt just normal have to eat. Wereanimals all had better control of their beast if their bellies were full. One hunger feeds the other, and one emptiness calls another.

Nothing is going to sound good to me, Anita.

I know. I leaned my forehead against the door. Im sorry, Jason.

I heard him at the door, and moved away enough for him to open it without bumping me. What are you sorry about?

That your dad was so awful, I guess.

He gave a smile that was so bitter it hurt my heart to see it. Hes been awful to me my whole life. I guess I thought, hes dying, well have that Hallmark moment, but its not going to happen, is it?

I didnt know what to say, except, I dont think so.

He liked you, though. That surprised me.

Why?

He likes Mom all soft and yes, dear. He likes Roberta best of the girls because she always agrees with him. But he liked that you stood up to him.

I shrugged. My peculiar charm, I guess.

He smiled at me. Is that what theyre calling it these days? He walked past me into the room.

I frowned at his back. Whats that supposed to mean?

It means he touched your scars.

A lot of people are fascinated by them.

No, they arent. They ignore them and pretend they arent there. Or they stare, but dont want to. Your scars embarrass people, make them uncomfortable.

I try to ignore it all, I said.

Yeah, but theyre your scars, so it bothers you. I get to just watch peoples reactions. He took off his tie and threw it on the floor.

I shrugged. I didnt know you were that interested in how people reacted to my scars.

He smiled at me as he took off his jacket. I like people-watching, you know that.

All wereanimals do; Ive always thought it was the same way a lion watches a herd of gazelles. You know, looking for the weakest link.

He shook his head and started unbuttoning his shirt. Ive always liked watching people, but then once I thought Id be an actor. We collect mannerisms the way other people collect stamps.

I thought about it. I guess that makes sense.

You took your high heels off the moment we came through the door last time. Get comfortable.

It seemed like days ago that wed first been in the room. I was drained from all the family shit that Id witnessed. Jason seemed okay, as if the crying in the car hadnt happened at all. He was a little hollow around the eyes, but other than that he seemed back to his usual self. I knew it was a lie, it had to be. Which made me wonder how often Jason hid his emotional turmoil back in St. Louis. If he was this good at it, he could be hiding how he truly felt all the time.

What? he asked. His shirt was open down the front, with only the French cuffs with their gold cuff links left to unfasten.

Im just wondering how often you do this in St. Louis.

Do what? he asked.

Pretend everything is fine when inside its not.

His blue eyes hardened, and some of the strain showed in his face, but only for an instant. Then he smiled at me, and it filled his face up all the way to his eyes.

Ill eat if you make me. He moved close to me. And just like that, I wanted to move back from him. He hadnt done a thing, really. His expression was still pleasant. But there was a promise in the way he just stood there that made me uncomfortable.

Ill eat because youre right, he said. I dont need to be hungry when Im under this muchhe touched my facestress.

That one play of fingertips made me shiver. I closed my eyes, not sure whether I was closing them to keep the sensation closer, or so I couldnt see his face. His eyes werent smiling now. They held something too grown-up, too real, toouncomfortable.

His hand slid along the curve of my jaw, to cradle my face. He kissed me, and with me in the heels I was a little taller. It felt different enough that it made me open my eyes. I was suddenly staring into his eyes from inches away.

You look startled, he said, voice soft.

I had to swallow before I could say in a voice that was oddly breathy, I guess I am.

Why? Weve kissed before.

I stared down into his face. I couldnt put it into words, butI licked my suddenly dry lips and whispered, I dont know.

You look almostscared, he said, and he was almost whispering, too.

I stepped away from him, far enough that he couldnt touch me. That was better.

He put his head to one side and looked at me. Youre nervous, he said, and he sounded surprised.

I walked to the little sitting area to the side of the room, with its chair and ottoman. I sat down and didnt look at him as I took off my shoes and set them beside the chair.

Talk to me, Anita, he said.

Lets order food, I said.

He came and knelt in front of me. His shirt was still held in place by only the French cuffs. The shirt spread around the smooth expanse of his chest, the muscles of his stomach bunching as he knelt.

I looked away again and started to get up. He put his hand on my wrist. My pulse sped under his touch. I stood up and was caught between Jason and the ottoman. I started to fall backward. He moved in one of those incredible too-fast-to-see moves. He was just suddenly standing, holding my wrists, pulling me forward. I ended up falling into his body, and he caught me around the waist. We were the same height again without the heels.

I was left staring into his face; the eye contact was so intimate, too intimate. I pushed at him, almost fought to get away.

He let me go, but said, Whats wrong?

I opened my mouth, shut it, took a deep shaking breath, another, and finally said, Im not sure.

Liar, he said.

I frowned at him. Im not lying.

Normally, I cant tell when youre lying. You dont even smell like youre lying, but your pulse sped, and your eyes showed it. Whats wrong, Anita, please, talk to me.

Lets order food first, and then while we wait Ill try to explain.

You want the time to organize your thoughts. He made it a statement.

Yeah, I said.

He nodded. Okay, lets find the room service menu. His face was careful, closed down. He did not need me to go all weird on him now. I was supposed to be his refuge while we were here, and I was blowing it.

He went to the desk at the side of the room and found the menu on top of it. He opened it without looking at me again. But he was too good a friend for me not to see how he was holding his shoulders. The line of his body told me he was unhappy. Shit.

I knew what was wrongmy own weird internal argument with myself about sex. Nathaniel helped ease me through it, as did Micah, and Jean-Claude. Even Jason himself had helped me deal with some of my issues about Nathaniel when I was still trying not to be his lover. But though Jason could help talk me through issues with other men in my life, Jason had never tried to talk me through issues about him. I hadnt known I had any issues about Jason. But I had one.

I loved Jason. In that friend way, yes, but he lived on that emotional edge for me. That edge that felt familiar. The edge that Nathaniel had lived on for a while. That edge that Asher had lived on. I had other men who were more frequently in my bed, but none of them were as close to that emotional moment. Love, whether its friendship or more, is like a cup. It fills up drop by drop, until one last drop and the cup is full. The liquid hangs there almost above the rim, hangs there on the surface tension alone, and you can feel that one more drop and it will spill over. Once, I hadnt been aware of the process, but Id had it happen too many times now. I couldnt afford another spill. I couldnt afford another man in my life, not like that.

Could I just not tell the difference? Was that it? Was I so confused about sex and love that without Nathaniel or someone else I couldnt tell the difference between wanting a man for lust, and wanting him for love? Maybe, maybe. God help me, I didnt know.

I know what Im getting, Jason said. He offered me the menu. I took it, trying not to look at him. Trying not to let him read whatever was in my eyes.

He knew what he wanted. I wish to hell I did.

19

J ASON CALLED THE food orders down: grilled chicken Caesar for him and grilled chicken sandwich for me. He had to argue with them to make sure they didnt put some weird cheese or sauce on my sandwich. Who the hell puts blue cheese on chicken? He sat down on the bed, finally undoing the cuff links and taking off his shirt. He followed with his socks and walked around barefoot for a few moments before he bounced down on the bed and said, Now, talk to me.

I got up, walked to the closet, and put my jacket on a hanger, while I tried to figure out how to start. Ive never had sex with you when we were alone, except when I had to feed the ardeur.

Okay, I guess thats true.

I turned and looked at him. He was lounging on the bed, propped up on one elbow. I admitted to myself he looked pretty cute lying there. I didnt want to admit it.

Get a grip, Anita, I thought. I made myself walk to the bed and sit on the corner so I could undo the stockings. I had to lift the skirt to get to them, and that, too, felt too intimate. My fingers felt clumsy as I tried to undo the garters.

Leave the hose, he said.

I looked at him, and I dont know what look was on my face, but whatever it was it made him slip off the bed and come to me on his knees. Anita, whats wrong? God, you look like Im going to attack you or something. You cant be afraid of me. Its Jason, just Jason.

I stopped fiddling with the garters, and tried for truth. It had always been truth between Jason and me. It was one of the reasons we were friends.

Im afraid of how I feel about you.

He gave me a look I couldnt read, and leaned back on his knees again, with them too wide, so his stomach muscles bunched again. I realized it was a position he used a lot on stage. It was either comfortable, or habit.

I dont know what youre trying to say, Anita. Normally, Id be the first one not to push, but Im a little stressed tonight. Just talk to me.

Im embarrassed that I want you, just want you. Not because of the ardeur, or any metaphysical thing, but just because you are Jason. I like you.

I like you, too, he said. He looked at me, sort of perplexed. But you feel bad that you want me, not because of the ardeur, but just because.

I nodded.

He smiled and took my hand, gently, in his. That you could still feel this nervous around me is sweet, Anita. Really, it is. He took my hands in both of his. But I need you to work through whatever issue this is. Well eat, but then I need closeness. I need you to help me drown out this day. Do you understand?

I did, actually. Sex is almost the only time that I relax completely. Nathaniel jokes that its my only hobby.

Jason grinned, and raised my hands up to kiss them. Its one of my favorite things to do, too.

I started to blush and tried to catch it, knowing I couldnt. I dont mean it like that.

He kissed me on the nose. You are so cute.

I pushed him away and stood up. I am not cute.

He lay on the bed on his stomach, gazing up at me, still grinning. You are cute, beautiful, but cute when you get like this.

Get like what?

Try to complicate your life.

Whats that supposed to mean?

Youre feeling all squidgy about wanting to have sex with me, right?

Something like that.

You have permission from every man in your life to be here with me. They all knew wed be fucking like bunnies if I had anything to do with it. So you cant be feeling guilty because youre cheating. Cheating implies lack of knowledge. Heck, one of your live-in sweeties volunteered you for this trip.

I crossed my arms under my breasts, and knew I was pouting but couldnt stop it. Thats sort of bugging me now, too.

Why?

I shrugged, arms still crossed. Its not just the sex.

What is it then? Tell me.

Im afraid that the way I feel for you will change.

That you wont like me anymore?

No, that Ill like you too much.

He rolled off the bed and stood in front of me. Anita, are you saying that youre afraid youll fall in love with me?

I shrugged, and didnt meet his eyes.

He touched my arms, peered under my gaze, so I had to look up and into his face. His face was a little surprised, and a little almost sad. It wasnt the look I expected. If I really thought that was possible, Id be the happiest guy in town, but you are doing what you always do. You want me for sex, and as a friend, but you want sex and Im here. But that makes you feel guilty for some reason, so youre starting to try to convince yourself that its more than just friendship.

How can you be so sure?

Because you do not watch me in a room the way you watch Jean-Claude, or Asher, or Nathaniel, or Micah, or Richard. Im a little ahead of Requiem and London, and Damian, but Im not ahead of the others. You see me now, your body reacts to me, and that is wonderful. I cant tell you how I hated being the invisible boy around you.

I saw you, I said.

You saw me, but you didnt see me.

I started to move away, but his hands tightened on my arms. Jason, Im not sure I know the difference between loving someone and just lusting after him.

A lot of people get that one confused, but honestly, Anita. If Nathaniel were here and it were a choice, youd drop me in a hot second, wouldnt you?

I wouldnt have to, he likes sharing.

Jason grinned. He does that, but if Micah were here youd choose him over me. My ego hates it, but its true.

Micah shares pretty well, too.

He shares you with Nathaniel, and Jean-Claude, and sometimes Asher, but he doesnt share you with me.

I thought about that. I guess its never come up.

Micah shares you, but he doesnt enjoy sharing you the way Nathaniel does. My best friend likes watching you with other men. I dont think the same is entirely true of Micah.

I thought about it, and said, Im not sure what Micah thinks about the sharing. Hes cool with it, but youre probably right. He doesnt prefer it.

Nathaniel almost does, Jason said. Sharing you appeals to a lot of his kicks.

I guess so.

Jason hugged me, and laughed. Dont talk us into a problem we dont have, Anita. Please, please, I need you to just have uncomplicated sex with me after the food, okay? I need you to be a friend with benefits; dont make it more or less than it is, okay?

I nodded. Most of me even agreed with him. There was just that tiny voice in my head that said, Be careful. Maybe I was borrowing trouble, or maybe Jason didnt understand that he had charms of his own.

20

T HERE WAS A knock on the door. I thought it was food, but Jason said, I dont smell food.

I took the Browning out of my holster and went to the door in my stocking feet. I used the peephole and found that it wasnt room service. It was Chuck.

I kept the flip-bar on and opened the door just that much. I kept my gun out of sight, but in my hand against the door. What do you want, Chuck?

Now is that any way to greet me? I came to tell you to turn on the television, channel thirteen.

Why?

Its a media shitstorm, but not the one we thought wed have. Youll want to see it. He looked sort of tired around the edges.

Wait here, I said.

Id like to come in, he said.

Id like to be taller, but that aint happening either. I closed the door, gently.

He says to turn on channel thirteen.

Jason found the remote and turned on the TV. The woman wed seen earlier, who had been a fan of Jasons alter ego, Ripley, was on-screen. She was in midsentence: When asked earlier today if she had left Jean-Claude for one of his own strippers, zombie raiser and vampire hunter Anita Blake had no comment. They showed bits of the press conference and us leaving with the questions still being shouted at us. Jean-Claudes glossy was on-screen now with her voice-over: The Master Vampire of St. Louis has refused to comment on rumors that the love of his life has left him for Jason Schuyler. The picture from the website for Guilty Pleasures flashed on the screen. Jason looked pretty, well, strippery, in the picture. Cute, but the picture was not going to help squash any rumors.

I said, Shit, soft, but with feeling.

Jason went to the door and let Chuck in, then came to stand by me. Chuck stayed near the door, but he was watching the TV, too. It was like a car wreck; you couldnt look away, even though you knew you didnt want to see it.

Rumor has it that theyve come back to Schuylers hometown for a quick marriage so his father, who is dying of cancer, can see his only son married before he passes. It looks like Anita Blake, pinup for the supernatural set, has finally picked one of her men to settle down with, and it is a surprise to everyone, except those closest to the situation. We have a live interview from St. Louis.

A man appeared; he was standing in front of Jean-Claudes dance club, Danse Macabre. We have one of Jean-Claudes master-level vampires here in an exclusive. The camera pulled back to show Gretchen.

Shit! I said.

She was still the blond, blue-eyed bakers daughter whom Jean-Claude had seduced centuries ago. Her name had been Greta then. She was pretty, but not breathtaking in that way of most of the vamps of Belle Mortes line. But I guess Gretchen would say the same of me, if not worse. She had an almost pathological jealousy about Jean-Claude, and a hatred of me. She saw me as the only thing preventing him from being her lover once more. Even if I vanished tomorrow, he wouldnt go to Gretchen. But it was easier for her to blame the other woman than accept that the man for whom shed given up her mortality and her family inheritance didnt love her, and probably never had.

Jean-Claude had landed in this country pretty much penniless. His first few seductions had all been about financial or physical security.

She was dressed in modest club wear, because she was one of the vampires who roamed the dance floor at Danse Macabre. One of the selling points of the club was that you could dance with a real live vampire. Gretchen was the vampy equivalent of an old-time taxi dancer. You could even get tips, depending on how good a dancer you were, or how friendly you were. Gretchen wasnt making many tips. There was only one man she wanted to dance with, and he was the boss.

The reporter held the mic near her pretty face and asked, Are you surprised that Anita Blake has run off with one of Jean-Claudes strippers?

No, she said in an oh-so-reasonable voice. She could sound so sane if you didnt let her talk long enough. Shes been sleeping with Jason for months.

Isnt he Jean-Claudes pomme de sang, his blood donor?

Yes. He donates blood to Jean-Claude and sex to Anita.

Did Jean-Claude know that they were lovers?

I dont know.

Liar, I said, softly.

What do you think Jean-Claude will do when he learns that Anita and Jason have eloped?

What would any man do if his honor and his heart were so betrayed? she asked.

None of the other vampires would speak on camera with us; why did you decide to come forward?

Here it comes, Jason said.

Jean-Claude deserves a woman who will honor him above all other men like a true wife would. Anita will never be faithful to him, never.

But shes willing to marry Jason Schuyler.

Shell cheat on him, too. She is incapable of being true to only one man. Her carefully made-up eyes were a little wider, her breathing faster. She is a whore, and whores know no loyalty.

Isnt that a bit harsh? the reporter asked, but he moved closer to her, as if encouraging what his words were discouraging.

She has a string of lovers. Eleven that I know about. There are probably more.

There was movement behind them, and vampire bouncers came out of the club. They went for the reporters and for Gretchen. The reporters backed up, but kept filming. They filmed as the vampires took Gretchen by the arms and started escorting her into the club. She screamed back over her shoulder, I love Jean-Claude. Ive always loved him. Anita doesnt love him. She doesnt love anyone but herself. Shes a whore, a Then they started having to bleep out what she was saying. The camera crew beat a hasty retreat, with the male reporter saying, And thats the scene here in St. Louis where the vampire community is shocked that their Master of the City has been dumped by his girl. Back to you, Candice.

Jason hit the remote and made the TV go dead. I sat down on the bed with him. My gun was still in my hand, but it couldnt help us against this. Mother of God, I said, what the hell just happened?

Phyllis Dubois helped the rumors along a little, but she didnt know that she should have helped you get a lower profile, Mr. Schuyler. I wanted to come and assure you that the governor had nothing to do with this, and did not approve this.

Jason nodded. I know he didnt. He would never want me in the spotlight at the same time as his sons. I know that.

I looked from one to the other of them, with that feeling that I was missing something.

Chuck looked at me; his eyes glanced at the gun in my hand. You always answer the door with a gun in your hand?

Most of the time, yeah, I said.

He almost smiled. The governor sent me to tell you that anything you need to help with this mess, you have it.

Can we just deny it? I asked.

They both gave me a withering look, as if Id said something incredibly stupid. We can, Jason said, but how? How do we deny it, and make it stick? He looked at Chuck. What did the press agent do to get things this bad, this fast?

She mentioned the surprise marriage thing.

Why did she do it? Jason asked.

Chuck looked uncomfortable. Im not at liberty to tell you.

Jason stood up. Not at liberty to tell me? You have no idea what you have just done. Jean-Claude isnt just my boss, hes my master. Im his blood whore. He is not going to be happy about this.

In my head I thought, Hes going to have to punish Gretchen for what she said. The last time they put her in a cross-wrapped coffin, shed come out crazier. If she went much crazier she wouldnt be safe out in public. In the old days before vamps were legal citizens he would simply have killed her, probably. A lot of masters would have anyway, but if she vanished now the police would ask questions. Shit.

What can we do? I asked everyone and no one.

You need to leave now, Chuck, Jason said. Anita and I need to talk.

The governor wants to offer his help.

Just go, give us your cell phone if you want, but we need to talk in private.

He looked at Jason, then at me. I was no help to him. I said, You heard the man, get out.

If you want to wait in the hall you can, but we need some privacy, Jason said.

Chuck scribbled a number on the back of a business card. Ill go to the hotel bar; call when youre done discussing it.

Jason took the card without really looking at it. I motioned at the door with the gun. Get out, Chuck.

He went. Jason locked the door behind him. He came to stand by me at the foot of the bed. Weve got to help Jean-Claude clean this up.

What do you mean, help Jean-Claude? Isnt it you and me that are in the mess?

This story is going to cause Jean-Claude to lose serious face among the other Masters of the City, Jason said.

When we come back not married, theyll know it was all lies.

If you were a normal human servant you would have a lot less freedom, Anita. Some of the masters see your freedom as Jean-Claude being sort of pussy-whipped.

What the hell are you talking about?

Jason held his hands out, as if to say, Dont shoot the messenger. Remember, most of the masters are men and most of them come from an age when women knew their place, so theres that problem, but most of them also see human servants as very much servants.

Are you saying that Im making Jean-Claude look bad in front of the other masters?

Remember when Jean-Claude invited all the main Masters of the City that he sort of trusted to the big party?

I remember.

They were supposed to meet you that night. They had brought pomme de sang candidates for you to taste.

The entire thought of it all had made me so uncomfortable that Id dreaded the night. The idea was that I could simply dance with each candidate, turn them down as not my cup of tea, and be done with it. That way I didnt have to be alone with any candidate, and I could politely refuse them all. It had seemed like a good plan until my version of the ardeur had shown itself so unpredictable.

We decided I was too dangerous to taste the candidates. I would have been introduced to everyone, but that would have been it.

But you never even got to be introduced, did you?

You know I didnt. I sounded sullen even to myself.

Jason went down on his knees in front of me. Dont be mad, but dont you see how it made things look for Jean-Claude? He had commanded his servant to do something and she didnt. You didnt even bother to make the grand entrance with him.

I was a little busy, I said.

I know you and Asher were confronting some very bad vampiresthe leaders of the vampire dance troupe that had damn near rolled every Master of the City in that audience. Jean-Claude and you, and Auggie, saved the day, kept them from eating us all. He put his hands over mine.

Asher and I were negotiating with the leaders.

Yes, and the other masters were okay with that. Jean-Claude did it deliberately to show how much he trusted Ashers powers.

I widened my eyes at him.

Asher is seen as weak, Anita. A very weak second-in-command, there only by the grace of love and centuries of friendship.

My hands were still under his. He was touching me, but I wasnt touching him back. I didnt like this conversation and I really didnt like that Jason was beating around the bush. He was leading up to something. The more careful he was, the more I was certain I wouldnt like it.

Asher proved himself when Jean-Claude nearly died in December.

Jason nodded and squeezed my hands; when I still didnt respond he dropped his hands away from me, and just stayed kneeling. He was ruthless and effective, and he surprised a lot of people.

Not me, I said. I knew he was tougher than everyone thought.

So tough he nearly killed you.

I stood up and walked a little distance away from him. Jean-Claude told me to feed and go meet the other masters.

Asher was food, I know that. But food doesnt usually bite back.

Youre creeping up on some idea here, Jason. Its not like you to play twenty questions so gently. You usually go straight for the meat of the problem.

He stood up. Okay, if you dont like the gentle approach, we can skip to the point.

I wish you would.

He gave me a look. Liar.

All right, I dont want to hear your point, because I think I wont like it, but Id rather just hear it and get it over with than have this long lead-up.

Jason made his point, holding up a finger for each part of it. You have more freedom than any human servant is ever allowed. You dissed the other masters when you didnt appear for the party, especially when they knew you were having sex with Asher. You bailed on your master to fuck one of his underlings.

It wasnt like that, I said, but felt myself beginning to blush anyway.

Im telling you how it seemed to them.

Jean-Claude never mentioned that he was having a problem with the other masters because of it.

And if he had, it wouldnt have made any difference. You are who you are, he accepts that. Jason sat on the edge of the bed closest to me. He loves you, Anita. Hell, in his own way, he loves us both, but he cannot let this story stand, Anita. He cannot be perceived as so weak that he cant even control his woman, and his food.

But its not true, Jason. We havent run off together. We arent getting married.

But its a really good rumor, Anita. Everyone loves a good rumor, even master vampires.

Has Jean-Claude been having trouble with rumors like this before? I asked. I got up and moved to the middle of the room toward the door. I was pretty sure Jason wasnt done with his revelations, and being closer to the door made me feel better. I always feel better when I know where the exit is.

Anita, some of it isnt rumors, its fact.

What do you mean?

He does let you sleep with men other than him, while he isnt allowed the same privilege with other women.

I stared at him. So if I let Jean-Claude sleep around, his reputation would be better among the other masters?

Maybe.

I shook my head. If you have a point, youd best be getting to it.

If you and Jean-Claude were simply not monogamous, then the other vampires could understand it. You have no idea the world-class talent Jean-Claude has turned down lately.

I dont know what youre talking about.

The other masters keep trying to send him gifts.

What kind of gifts?

You know what kind.

I havent noticed a bevy of strange women at the Circus lately.

They start with pictures on the computer or home movies. Theyve decided that if he could see them in action and pick the ones he likes best, he might take some of them into his group.

He never mentioned any of this to me.

Why should he? He knows you would never share him with another woman. He waits a polite amount of time, then turns them down.

Does he watch thestuff?

Sometimes, enough so he can answer questions when they call and ask him how he liked what she did in this or that scene.

Scene?

Vampire porn is a growing business, Anita.

I shivered. I wasnt aware of that.

Auggies been branching out into it, as a legitimate business.

Legitimate. I made it sound like I felt.

Legal, then. Jason seemed tired.

I had a thought, and I let it go all the way through. Does Jean-Claude want to sleep with other women?

Hes never mentioned it to me, Jason said.

Then why are you mentioning it to me?

Because this story is going to need some punishment.

What, the lies about us?

Jason nodded.

What do you mean, punishment?

Jean-Claude is going to have to be seen as regaining control of you and me, Anita.

Thats insane. We arent out of control.

Arent we? Youre here alone with me. We are lovers. Youre meeting my family. Most people will consider all that pretty serious.

Are you saying that Jean-Claude will have to appear to punish us for something we havent done?

Jason nodded, and he was way too serious about it.

Thats crazy. Jean-Claude wont punish us for something we havent done.

No, he wont, Jason said, voice soft.

I came to stand in front of him, arms crossed over my chest, then had to shift my arms. Standing like that works so much better without breasts. Then what the hell are you talking about?

Im saying that we need to come up with punishments for him to use on us.

I shook my head. You are making no sense at all.

Im making a lot of sense. You have no idea how badly your behavior at the party affected your masters standing among the rest of the vampires.

I didnt mean for

You didnt mean to have sex with Asher?

No, I mean, yes. I sat down on the bed beside him. I dont know what I mean. Neither Asher nor I meant for things to go so wrong. It got out of hand.

Which is why you and he arent allowed to be alone together anymore. The other masters saw that as fitting punishment, but expected more severe punishment for Asher. That made Jean-Claude look weak, too.

How serious is this, Jason?

Jean-Claude has to be seen as bringing his house back to order. He must do things that make him look strong to the others.

Are you seriously saying that some other master might challenge Jean-Claude for his territory, just because of this rumor?

Remember, Anita, most of these guys come from a time when if a man couldnt control his wife, he was seen as less than a man. There are vampires out there who are beginning to think that its not his power, but yours that makes him strong.

Im his human servant, Jason.

Yes, a human servant with her own vampire servant, and her own animal to call. An animal to call that is a different animal from her masters.

It gives Jean-Claude a hold on the leopards, too.

No, it doesnt. Micah and his leopards answer to Jean-Claude out of courtesy and Micah knowing a good thing when he sees it, but he is not drawn to Jean-Claude. Hes drawn to you, just like all the other big cats. Thats your energy, not Jean-Claudes.

But Im drawn to the wolves.

Youre metaphysically tied to Richard, our Ulfric, our wolf king, too. So whos to say that its your tie to Jean-Claude that gives you wolf or your tie to Richard?

Im still missing something, arent I?

Jean-Claude heard a whisper, not even a rumor yet, that some of the masters are speculating that if you were their human servant they could be as powerful as Jean-Claude, but they would be strong enough to keep you in line.

They would, would they? I said.

This isnt funny, Anita.

It wasnt like Jason to discourage any attempt at humor on my part. Things were bad, maybe much worse than I knew. Im sorry, Jason.

He smiled at me. Its okay, you cant know what you arent told.

Why would Jean-Claude not tell me?

Because you arent going to change. He doesnt even want you to change, really, but we have to find a way to change the perceptions of what is happening in St. Louis.

How?

Stop discouraging the rumors that have Jean-Claude making love to all your men. If you shared them with him, then it would explain his patience.

But its not true.

He gave me a look.

A master vamp can smell a lie on me, if theyre powerful enough. I can control my face, my eyes, my body, my voice, but Jason, I dont know how to control the scent of my skin, or the speed of my pulse. Im not that good at lying.

Almost no one is, he said.

Then how do we lie to a bunch of Masters of the City?

Dont lie, Jason said.

What does that mean?

Let Jean-Claude share the men, or let him sleep with others.

I stared at him, openmouthed, and finally recovered enough to say, You volunteering?

He laughed then, and let himself fall back on the bed with his legs dangling off it. Ive told you before, Anita, I asked and he turned me down. He turned me down because he thought you wouldnt approve.

But you dont like men, I said.

Not generally, but Jean-Claude just gets past all the exceptions for me. Maybe its being his pomme de sang, but youd have to be a lot more purely heterosexual than I am not to think about it.

I remembered Jason telling me this, but I had put it in that box with all the other thoughts I didnt want to think.

I thought you told me you experimented with some other guy, and it wasnt your cup of tea.

Lets just say I like giving more than receiving.

I must have looked puzzled, because he sat up and kissed me on the forehead. You are terribly cute for someone who is the first living succubus in recorded history.

I am not cute.

You are, you just dont like that you are.

I dont know what I would have said to that, because there was another knock on the door. This time it was food. I wasnt sure I was really hungry anymore, but I was grateful for anything that stopped this conversation. Id had about as much honesty for one day as I could handle. I hoped Jason felt the same, but doubted it. When Jason got an idea into his head, he saw it through. Even if you didnt want to hear it.

21

W E LET THE waiter, if thats the term for room service, put the food on the dining table. Id never been in a hotel room that had a full-size table for eating before. Since the room was in his name, Jason signed the check and figured out the tip. I just sat there and let them do it. I was thinking, or trying not to think.

The chicken sandwich wasnt bad. The French fries that came with it were excellent. Jason seemed to be enjoying his Caesar and chicken. Once I would have let the conversation stay dead, but Id grown up a little since then. Though I couldnt help thinking that the last time Id gone out of town with one of my guys it had been Micah, and we had had an uncomfortable and revealing conversation, too. What was it about being alone in hotel rooms with them? Maybe it was that whole alone thing. Maybe.

Some of the other guys in St. Louis have suggested that everyone who is a regular in my bed grows in power.

Jason looked at me, a bite halfway to his mouth. He put the fork down and looked surprised. I was going to drop the conversation, and let you think about what Id said.

I shook my head. If there is even a whisper that some of the other masters are thinking if they took me over, theyd be more powerful than Jean-Claude, we need to nip that idea in the bud. Ive had vampire marks forced on me before and I didnt like it. Ive had a Master of the City do it, a couple of times. Its pretty horrible. I so do not want to go through that, ever again.

He took a bite of his chicken and looked at me. Those spring-sky eyes showed every bit of shrewd intelligence, all the deep thinking that he normally hid behind the flirting and the smiles. Youre right, but I thought it would take you a few days of thinking it through before you realized how bad it could get.

I shrugged. Maybe Im growing up, finally.

He grinned at me. You are one of the most grown-up people I know.

Whats that supposed to mean?

You have a lot of trouble letting yourself enjoy yourself. You dont play well.

I think a lot of the guys in St. Louis would say I play very well.

He actually almost looked embarrassed, but fought it off. You are an amazing bed partner, Anita, but you dont have any hobbies. You dont do anything to relax except sex.

I like going to the firing range.

He tsk ed and wagged his fork at me. Thats work, and you know it. Youre not a gun nut like Edward and his friend Otto, or Olaf, or whatever secret identity hes using.

I couldnt argue that, so I didnt try. I went back to concentrating on my food.

So thats it, you make one comment and its no more talk, he said.

Hey, I put the ball in play, you can pick it up, or you can let it sit there. Ive been brave, I restarted a conversation that I dont want to have; now its your turn.

He smiled, and put his silverware beside his plate. His salad was mostly gone. He, like most men in his age group and younger, could eat damn fast when they wanted to, or werent forcing themselves to slow down.

I still had most of my sandwich left. Of course, the French fries were crisp and yummy, which was also distracting me from the chicken. Was I concentrating on the food so I wouldnt concentrate on the conversation? Maybe, but not on purpose.

Okay, Jason said, we have to help Jean-Claude appear as powerful as he is, or more so.

How do we do that? I asked. I ate French fries while we talked. Jason had left some of his chicken and a lot of his grilled veggies.

Im not sure, but first we have to put a stop to this new rumor about us.

How do we do that?

I think we need a reporter who gets an exclusive that we can trust.

No one I saw here today is trustworthy.

I was thinking of a fellow werewolf and St. Louisian.

I stopped eating and blinked at him. Irving had to back off on all the exclusives I was giving him, because people started asking questions.

Jason nodded. I know you almost outed Irving as a werewolf by accident.

Yeah, the idea is that I wouldnt be sharing secrets with a human being. Did that last sound bitter?

Jason reached across the table and patted my hand. Apparently, it had sounded bitter. Its hard to be painted as a monster when youre still human.

I shook my head, and moved my hand away from his. I havent been straight human since I was a child, Jason. Remember, I saw my first ghost in elementary school, and called my first zombie by accident in junior high. That isnt human by most peoples standards.

People can be pretty cruel, he said. His face had gone all serious. Somehow I didnt think he was thinking about my childhood. Shit.

I stood up and came around the table to him. He gazed up at me. I kissed him on the forehead.

What was that for? he asked, but he smiled when he did it.

I smiled back. So youd smile.

He pulled me into his lap, and our arms were just suddenly around each other. I can think of other things that would make me do more than smile.

I give you a sisterly kiss on the forehead and all you can think about is sex.

He gave me that smile, the real version of the smile that helped separate customers from their money at the club. He could look like everyones favorite brother, or the best friend you had in college or high school; he was everyones buddy, until he got that look. The look that stripped him of the pretense of innocence. The look that let you know behind the boy-next-door charm was someone wicked who would help you be wicked, too.

The look brought my breath out in a sigh and made me lean in, not quite close enough for a kiss. Is there a reason you left food uneaten on your plate?

The lascivious look faltered. You never do or say exactly what I expect you to.

You arent the first man whos noticed that, I said, still not quite close enough to kiss.

He acknowledged that with a small nod. A too-full stomach impedes good sex.

Only if you plan to be vigorous, I said, leaning in just a little closer, so that I was staring into those blue eyes so close, so very close.

He grinned, and then that look filled his face. Oh, I plan to be vigorous, eventually.

Eventually, I said, and closed those last inches, so that his lips touched mine as he said, Oh, yes.

22

J ASON MIGHT HAVE planned on being vigorous, but he started out slow. When I got carried away and wanted to move things along, he finally turned me on my stomach and made me touch the headboard.

Slow, Anita, we have all night. Ive never had all night with you, and I want to enjoy it. He said that with his nude body kneeling beside me.

Why is it that all of you remind me that you never get me to yourself?

Because its true.

I went up on my elbows and gazed down my body to find him at my feet with his body stretched out so that his feet were closer to me than anything else. Are all of you tired of sharing me?

Not tired, but every man likes to think a woman likes him just for himself, not because hes an extra pair of hands, an extra mouth, a spare dick.

I must have looked as shocked as I felt, because he crawled back up the bed and hugged me. Im sorry, Anita, I shouldnt have said that, I really shouldnt have.

Is that how you all feel?

He shook his head. No, I swear to you, no. Nathaniel enjoys sharing. Jean-Claude loves that you let him share you with other men, especially Asher. I dont know about Micah, he doesnt talk to me like that. Richard, well, our Ulfric doesnt like sharing anything lately.

But its how you feel, isnt it?

Truthfully, me and most of the men who only get a little of your attention. Come on, be honest, we are just extra men in the bed.

Thats not true.

If its not true for me, then why dont you ever approach me when the ardeur isnt in emergency mode?

Im with you now.

Yeah, but its a different kind of emergency. I know this is sort of mercy sex.

I dont do mercy sex. I sat up.

Oh, God, I am not in the right mindset for this.

Then maybe we should stop, I said, moving so that I was sitting against the headboard.

He hid his face in a pillow and made a muffled scream of frustration. He came up for air, and said, Maybe youre right. We should probably call Irving first and give him the real story about this trip.

You agree we shouldnt have sex right now? I made it a question.

Yeah, and maybe we should call Jean-Claude and get his approval on our plan. I guess the other masters are right. Your word is enough to get things done. Im as bad as anyone else. We dont always check with Jean-Claude or anyone else. You say jump, we jump. Richard really hates that about the wolves, by the way.

Does Jean-Claude hate it?

He hasnt said so.

I pulled a pillow into my lap and hugged it. Ill call Jean-Claude; you call Irving and tell him that the story doesnt run unless Jean-Claude approves it.

Jason nodded. Good plan. He used the landline, and I used my cell phone. I got Jean-Claude on the line while Jason was still trying to find Irving.

Jean-Claudes voice was as neutral as Id ever heard, empty. I knew that if Id been standing beside him he would have held that stillness that the really old vampires could do, as if, if you looked away they would be invisible. I wondered if you would call, ma petite.

I should have called earlier, but the reporters sort of threw us.

It was unexpected, he said, still in that empty voice.

Jean-Claude, Jason is trying to find Irving Griswold to give him the truth about why were down here. Do you think an exclusive will help?

You do not usually ask my opinion when you are far away, ma petite.

I guess I deserved that, but Jason explained some things to me, and Im sorry.

What are you sorry about, ma petite?

Im sorry that my freedom has made you look bad in front of the other Masters of the City. Im sorry that Asher and I having our little problem made you look weak in front of our guests. Im sorry that I havent included you more in decisions that affect you.

His voice held a hint of surprise. Ma petite, is this truly you?

Fine, fine, make fun of me.

He laughed then, that touchable, glide-down-your-skin laugh. I am sorry, ma petite, but you have surprised me. Give me a moment to recover.

Am I really that big a pain in the ass? No wait, dont answer that. I know the answer.

He laughed again, and it made my body shiver. Stop doing that, if you want Jason and me to concentrate on the problem at hand.

You have not had sex with our young werewolf yet? He again let me hear surprise in his voice.

We thought about it, but we thought wed try to be good little servants before we got distracted.

I do not treat you as my servant, he said.

No, you dont, and maybe I need to reward that by acting in public a little more like one.

What do you mean, ma petite? His voice had gone cautious.

First, can Jason give Irving the truth, and will it help?

He can, and it will, but wont it ruin your cover story with his father?

I guess it will, but what else can we do? Jason says that this rumor is going to make you look weak to the other Masters of the City. We have to let them know its not true.

Yes, but what can Jason say to our reporter friend that will kill the rumor, but not spoil the reason you are both there?

I glanced at Jason. He seemed to have Irving on the phone at last. Hang on a minute, I said to Jean-Claude. I got Jasons attention.

He said, Hang on a second, Irving. He put his hand over the phone.

Jean-Claude is curious what we can say to Irving that will fix the rumor but wont ruin things with your folks?

Youve met my folks now, Anita. I cant please my father, not really, not in the time hes got left anyway. My sister Roberta isnt going to be won over either. It was a good try, Anita, but weve got to tell the truth. Its more important that Jean-Claude be safe than that my family believe some lie.

Its not a lie, I said.

He shrugged. What isnt? We arent getting married. We arent leaving Jean-Claude. We didnt run away, and do some stupid Romeo and Juliet thing. It is all lies.

I touched his arm. We are lovers. You do like girls better than boys.

Yeah, but there are a handful of guys that I wouldnt mind getting up close and personal with, and bisexual is just gay lite as far as my family is concerned. He shrugged again. Well have one more visit at the hospital tomorrow and then well go home to St. Louis.

I wanted to say something, but didnt know what to say. Jason turned back to the phone and started talking to Irving.

I went back to my cell phone, which I hadnt bothered to cover. Did you hear all that?

I did, Jean-Claude said.

I feel like Ive screwed up.

You could not have foreseen these events.

I guess not, but I should have thought how the other master vamps might think you were, well, that I wasnt behaving like a very good human servant.

You are who and what you are, ma petite. I love you as you are.

I smiled, though he couldnt see it. I know that, but Jason said we need to come up with punishments for us. That you have to be seen as getting your house in order, that you cant be seen as losing control of your woman and your food.

Jean-Claude was very quiet on the other end of the phone. Sometimes it was unnerving talking to vampires on the phone. They didnt have to breathe, and the old ones had no sense of movement. I finally said, Jean-Claude, breathe or something to let me know youre still there.

The other masters see my allowing you access to my pomme de sang on a romantic trip as a weakness; if they only understood what a strength it was.

Which means that Jason is right. We need to be perceived as being punished for this, even though its not true. You need to be seen as bringing your house in order, so they dont keep thinking youre weak.

I would never have suggested it, ma petite, you know that.

I do, but now that Jason has let the cat out of the bag?

It would be helpful to my standing among the other masters.

Would you have just waited until someone made a move on you before you explained that it was my fault you appeared that weak?

That would have given me the opportunity to bring the subject up, yes.

Jesus, Jean-Claude, youve got to stop keeping this much from me.

I do not know what magic our Jason has over you, but it seems that he is one of the few people who can tell you hard truths and you accept them. You are not even angry.

I thought about it. I guess Im not. I think Im too worried to be angry. Jason told me theres a hint that some of the masters think if they could take me as their human servant, they could be as powerful as you, but control me better. That kind of talk could go really badly since I travel all over the country doing my job. I needed to know that, Jean-Claude.

I thought you would see it as manipulation either to curtail your travel or to force you into a more servile role.

My ego is secure, Jean-Claude, but my safety and yours might not be if the other masters keep talking shit behind your back.

What are you willing to do to help stop this merde, this shit talk?

I havent thought that far, but Im sure you have, so either tell me now, or wait and well have this talk when we get home.

I have put some thought into things that might satisfy the perceptions of others, but not harm us in our own eyes, he said, again his voice very careful.

Is it anything we can do right this minute?

Non.

Then save it, let me digest all the news tonight. Well talk tomorrow.

And you will do what is necessary to repair my reputation?

Some of it, but if Jason was right, and he usually is, he suggested that if you were truly having sex with some of the other men, it would help repair your reputation.

The silence on the other side of the phone was thunderous.

Well, shit, I said.

His oh-so-neutral voice said, Why the exclamation, ma petite? I have said nothing.

Sometimes silence with you is louder than words, I said.

I do not understand.

Lets say that I know the quality of your silences, and that last silence means Jason is right. So Ill say this: I have no idea how the other men would feel about it, and I sure as hell dont know how I feel about it. Though Asher would probably turn cartwheels.

That is unfair; he has been very patient.

I know that. I struggled to keep the impatience and near anger out of my own voice.

Now you are angry.

Its a lot of stuff to digest, Jean-Claude, and the reporters going berserk today was a little weird. And whats up with Gretchen?

She is being punished.

The last time you put her in a cross-wrapped coffin, she came out even crazier than she went in; I dont think she can survive another round of it.

I am open to suggestions, ma petite.

You cant kill her, because it was too public, thered be too many questions.

If it had not been so very public?

Its not just me and the men that make you look weak to the other masters, Jean-Claude. Most of them would have killed Gretchen and Meng Die, already.

I could kill Meng Die; she has not made a public display.

I dont mean kill her, but they have both behaved badly and most master vamps wouldnt tolerate it. I love that you feel guilty about taking their humanity away. I love that you feel guilty that you never loved them, but only seduced them. I love that you are thathuman. But the other vamps see it as weakness, dont they?

They see me as weak for the very reasons you love me.

Well, most of them are men, they cant help being a littlemale.

He laughed, and it slithered across my skin as if hed trailed a feather across my body. Oh, God, Jean-Claude, dont do that again. Were being good over here.

You are being very, very good. He made the very, very sound utterly suggestible.

Stop that, I said.

He laughed again, and I clung to the pillow like a lifeline. I said, Do you want to raise the ardeur in me and force Jason and me to have sex?

You will have sex either way, ma petite, I know you and our Jason. Sex for the two of you is only a matter of when, not if.

Well, thank you very much.

Why should a healthy appetite for carnal knowledge be a bad thing, ma petite? It is good to know what you want and need, and to have those needs met.

Have I been keeping you from meeting some of your needs?

We have spoken enough of difficult things. When you have finished giving the truth to Mr. Griswold, then enjoy yourselves.

We were planning to, but I dont like that you seem to be rooting for it.

Would you enjoy it more if I did not give my permission?

No, I would never cheat on you.

He was quiet for a moment then he said, Je taime, ma petite.

Je taime, Jean-Claude.

He hung up, and I did the same. He always had an excellent sense of when a conversation was over. I, on the other hand, was always trying to beat a dead horse. Hed learned long ago to just leave the conversational mazes with me. Conversational mazes only worked when you had someone to talk to, but wait, Jason was still here. I could always talk the two of us into a corner after we stopped spilling our guts to Irving. Yeah, the night was young; there were all sorts of unpleasant topics we could cover.

23

I HADNT TALKED to Irving Griswold in months, ever since he told me that my exclusives to him, and him alone, were beginning to make people question his humanity. He was a werewolf and a member of our local pack, but he was deep in the closet. His choice, but when he told me to back off, I did.

I could picture him on his end of the phone: short, a little round, built sort of like a square, not fat, but just that body build that if hed been taller would have made him a great linebacker. He had curly hair and a bald spot starting, but apparently that had begun before he became a werewolf, and being a werewolf meant it would never go further. Id seen him in wolf form and the animal didnt have a bald spot on its head. Interesting.

Anita, I know I told you to leave me alone about the exclusives, but I didnt expect you to vanish off the planet for me.

I had expected a lot of things from Irving, but not hurt feelings. Are you really upset I stopped talking to you, or did you just miss what the exclusives were doing to your career?

That is cold, Anita, very cold.

Just a question, Irving.

He laughed then, and his laugh was so nicely ordinary after the magic of Jean-Claudes that it made me smile. Couldnt I miss both you and the career opportunities?

I suppose. Jason filled you in on the problem.

Thats you, Blake, all business.

Were in deep shit, Irving, so yeah.

He sighed, and his voice was serious when he said, Yes, Jason explained the problem. Though someone here at the paper made sure I saw the segment about you. They said my old girlfriend was on the news.

Girlfriend? I made it a question.

Apparently, no man can be seen too often with you without it ruining his reputation.

I didnt know that, I said.

You didnt need to know.

So it wasnt just about your career, was it?

No, Im dating someone here at the paper pretty seriously. She was a good sport, but the office gossip was pretty virulent.

Virulent, huh, thats a big word, and a serious one.

Heh, they wont let me trot my vocabulary out in my articles; Ive got to prove Ive got that college education somehow.

I smiled again. Id missed Irving more than I thought. Can we fix this mess?

Articles by me can help minimize the damage, but a good rumor is really hard to kill once it hits the major media.

What can we do?

I was thinking a series of articles about what its like to be part of Jean-Claudes life. You know, talk to Jason about what its like to be his pomme de sang. What its like for you to be his girlfriend. Well start with a denial of the rumor, but maybe our Master of the City is overdue for some good press.

Press that makes him seem in control of his city.

Yeah, Jason hit the highlights that Im not allowed to write about. If I werent afraid of being outed, this would be such a better story.

Being outed would be the least of your worries if you wrote everything you know, Irving.

Is that a threat? he asked.

I thought about it. No, not consciously, but I am still Bolverk for your pack, the evildoer.

He lowered his voice. Yeah, you punish the bad little werewolves, I know.

But no, it wasnt a threat, just an observation. I think Richard would get to you long before I could.

Yeah, our Ulfric seems to have acquired a temper.

Sorry about that.

Is it true hes inherited part of your temper? Irving asked.

Seems so.

Then my compliments for your self-control all these years.

I wasnt sure what to make of the compliment, so I ignored it. Thanks, now what do you need from me?

Well run the first article about Jasons dad and the cancer, and how his master couldnt travel on such short notice so you came with him for moral support. Itll play very sentimental.

Wont that make Jean-Claude look weak in the eyes of the other masters?

Anita, there are only so many ways to explain this rumor away. Showing Jean-Claude as generous to his people may make the other masters think him weak, but trust me, us underlings will read it and go, Wow, hed be a great master to work for. I wonder how I get to move to St. Louis. Revolutions start from the bottom up, Anita, rarely top down.

Are we starting a revolution?

The way Jean-Claude runs his territory is revolutionary, Anita. Im not the only reporter whos in deep cover. There are a couple of us who sit around and bemoan the great stories we could write if we werent pretending to be normal.

I leaned back against the headboard, the pillow still in my lap. I guess I thought you were the only reporter in that deep a cover.

No, theres one swanmane, and another werewolf, and even a weretiger.

And youve all managed to hide what you are?

Yep.

Must be hard, I said.

Its hard to hide, but youre seeing how hard it is not to hide.

I sighed. You got that right.

Though you being his human servant isnt going to be part of the articles, just the dating.

Ive looked it up, and me being his human servant isnt legal grounds for my dismissal as a federal marshal, or even an ordinary cop, if I were one.

You saying I can use it?

No, but Im saying its not legalities, but perceptions that Im hiding from.

Okay, Ill write up the article saying how misguided my fellow reporters are, and then well start with Jasons article. Then yours, and then well see who else wants to talk; my editor is going to love it.

How about your girlfriend?

Ill talk to her when I get off the phone. Shell be okay. Shes in the business.

Okay.

You sound tired, he said.

I leaned my head against the wall behind the headboard. Maybe.

Ill go hunt up my editor and get this started. You guys be careful.

Im always careful, Irving.

He laughed then. If this is your version of careful, then be reckless; its gotta work better.

We hung up, both laughing. I put the phone in its cradle and went back to leaning against the wall. I even closed my eyes. I was tired. I couldnt even decide why I was this tired.

I felt the bed move and opened my eyes to find Jason kneeling in front of me. His eyes were very close to mine. He was also still nude, because other than the pillow in my lap, neither of us had thought to get robes.

Weve done the best we can, Anita, he said.

I gave him a smile to match how I felt, which wasnt all that much of a smile. Sometimes it would be nice not to have to do my best. Sometimes it would just be nice not to have a crisis to deal with.

He grinned. I know what you mean. The grin went from his normal to his Ive-thought-of-something-naughty-to-do grin.

What? I said, and the one word held a wealth of suspicion.

He laughed, and it made his face look even younger than he was, like a glimpse into a Jason I had never met. Jason before Raina nearly killed him, making him a werewolf. Jason before he became Jean-Claudes morning snack. Jason before life rubbed all his edges away.

The laughter leaked away and his eyes were serious as he gazed down at me. The look on your face, what are you thinking?

I shook my head. A dozen thoughts ran through my mind; that I was tired, that hed given a story to the media that would spoil our cover story with his family, that he was being very brave, that I knew he must be hurting, that he was my good friend and I wanted him to know that. What I finally said was, Kiss me.

He had a moment of looking startled, and then he smiled, and the smile was worth the careful choice of words. That smile that said I had asked first; without the ardeur loose, I had asked for a kiss from him.

24

T HE KISS GREW until he pressed me back to the bed, and his body grew eager against the front of me. Eager enough that I wrapped my legs around him, and the most intimate part of him was suddenly pressed tight against the most intimate part of me. He drew back with a shaky laugh.

We need a condom.

I closed my eyes and had a moment of embarrassment. Of course, we do, Im sorry I got carried away.

He leaned down and kissed me quick and hard, and let me see the delight on his face that I had forgotten myself that much with him. Jean-Claude gave me very few restrictions, but this was one. No unprotected sex. He kissed me again, then slid off the bed to hunt for condoms in the luggage.

I lay there thinking about the fact that I might have forgotten enough to have unprotected sex with Jason. I was on the pill, so technically, it wasnt exactly unprotected. Id been so careful since the pregnancy scare a few months back. How could I have been so careless? Irvings words came back to me, about how my caution hadnt worked, so maybe it was time to be reckless. Was that it? Was I just tired of my best efforts going so wrong, so why try? No, no, just carried away with a handsome man in my bed. Jesus, that didnt sound any better.

Jason came back with a little string of unopened condoms in his hand. I counted at least four. Arent we being ambitious.

He glanced down at the condoms, then laughed again. In case one gets put on inside out, or has a hole. I dont want to leave the bed to look for another one.

I had to smile at him, and that was one of the best things about being with Jason. He always made me smile. No strings, no love on the line, just good friends who had managed to be lovers and still be friends. It was good.

He put the condoms on the bedside table, then climbed onto the bed, still smiling. The smile changed as he moved closerhis eyes growing more serious, the smile sliding away to leave his face almost empty of expression except for the intensity of his eyes. His eyes were all blue skies, spring skies, but as he leaned in toward me the blue had deepened, so that his eyes were the color of summer, and nothing as soft as spring.

He hesitated, then half-leaned in for a kiss, his body still to the side of mine. The look on your face, Anita, he breathed.

What look? I asked.

He smiled, but it left his eyes that serious, deeper blue. He leaned in and answered with his mouth just above mine. That look.

He kissed me. Gentle at first, then it grew, and as the kiss grew, he let his body fall against the side of mine, so that the nude front of him was pressed against the long, bare line of my side. The sensation of his groin against my thigh made me thrust into the kiss with hands and arms and mouth. Either he understood, or his body simply responded, because he grew harder, and pushed against my thigh, while he thrust deep into my mouth and I thrust back. The kiss became another way of fucking, gaining its own rhythm as if we both knew what we were mimicking. Our bodies grew with the kiss, so that he began to thrust against my thigh in time to our mouths.

He drew back, laughing breathlessly, pulling his body inches away so that he was no longer touching my thigh. If we dont stop, Im going to go like this.

I had to try twice to find enough air to say, Then we have to stop, because thats not how I want you to go.

He propped himself up on one elbow, his other hand playing lightly over my bare stomach. If Id been just a little less metaphysically powerful Id have had some really serious scars for him to play with, but the weretiger that had tried to gut me hadnt left any mark at all.

Youve gone all serious on me, Jason said.

I was just thinking that if I were a little less powerful, thered be scars for you to play with on my stomach.

He touched my face. Dont think about what weve lost, Anita. Think about what we have.

I smiled at him, because he wanted me to. You mean dont think about the fight that would have gotten me the scars, and dont think about who died to save me.

His face went soft, serious, tender. Now youve done it.

I opened my mouth, and he touched a finger to my lips. He shook his head. If you keep this up, youre going to have to help me get back in the mood.

I smiled with his finger still against my mouth. He moved, so I could say, You still look in the mood to me.

Girls have such an unfair advantage, he said, you just look down and there we are.

I like that about boys, I said.

He gave a soft laugh. Ive noticed.

He leaned into me again, showing that he was still erect, but not quite so hard. My moods gone a little soft, so no serious thinking. I want you thinking only about now, about me.

I searched his face. His body was happy, but his mood was more serious than normal. I guess I should have expected that, but Jason was my cheerful lay. The sex, at least, was uncomplicated. The pillow talk afterward could get downright therapy-deep, but the sex, never.

Thats a serious face again, he chided.

I was doing what you asked, thinking about you.

Why so serious then? he asked, frowning a little.

I slid my hand through the short silk of his hair, just at the base of his neck, ran my hands up through the utter softness of it, and drew him down toward me at the same time. You have the softest hair of anyone Ive ever touched.

Softer than Nathaniels?

Yes, I said. I tried to bring him down for a kiss.

Fibber, he said, and pushed against my hand so he didnt come closer.

Fibber? I said.

Ive had sex with the two of you, remember. His hair is like fur on the skin.

Yeah, but its not as purely soft. Its a different texture than yours.

Jean-Claudes hair is soft.

I frowned at him. Yes, but not as soft as yours. Curly hair is never as soft as straight hair can be.

Ashers hair is like foam.

I frowned harder, and took back my hand, so I was just looking up at him. I give you one compliment and you have to pick at it?

Im sorry, but I just suddenly didnt believe you.

I dont lie during sex, Jason. I dont say things I dont mean, and I dont fake anything.

He lowered his face, so I had only his profile. It was a nice profile. Im sorry, Anita, this isnt your issue, its mine. He looked at me, and his eyes had begun to fade back to his normal, paler blue.

What issue? I asked.

Youve met my folks now. Ive spent my life not being the person anyone wanted in their life. My dad wanted a different son, Anita. Do you know what it feels like to know that your dad is always wanting some other kind of son?

Not the son part, I said.

His eyes intensified, getting that look of interest he got. Did your dad want you to be a boy, or something?

I smiled. No, he was happy with me. I was still his hunting buddy, and we did all sorts of the guy stuff together.

Your stepmother, Judith, he said.

You are a little too smart sometimes.

Sorry.

They married when I was ten, and from the moment she came I was not good enough. Not blond enough, not girly enough, not nice enough, not cooperative enough, not the daughter she wanted.

Shes got a girl your age, right?

Yeah, Adriana. Shes the perfect daughter for Judith.

Whats she do?

Shes a lawyer, engaged to another lawyer.

Wow, a lawyer, and engaged to be married before thirty. Hard to compete with that, Jason said.

I figured out somewhere in my midteens that I couldnt compete, so I stopped trying. You acted out your way, I had my own version.

Like what? He lay down on his stomach, with his arms cradling his head, his face alive with attention. He wanted the sex, yes, but he wanted to learn more.

I became the ultimate tomboy. I refused to wear a dress. I refused to play the game with Judith.

Did you do the whole black T-shirt and gloom?

Was I Goth?

He nodded, head still cradled on his arms.

Yeah, I guess so, but not really because it pleased me, more because it didnt please her. I found the most offensive T-shirts I could get away with, and most of them came in black. But my friends in high school were the nice girls, not the death poetry writing crowd. I found themtiresome.

Why?

Because Id had real death in my life, and I thought most of them were pretenders.

You dont have much patience with pretending, do you?

No.

But you could always tell yourself that Judith is the wicked stepmother.

Yeah, but Grandma Blake, who raised me for the two years before my father found Judith, well, thats a different problem.

What sort of problem?

Remember, I saw ghosts in elementary school; by my early teens Id accidentally started raising roadkill. I raised my dead spaniel from the grave at fourteen. My dad took me to see my mothers mother, Grandma Flores, so I could learn to control it. But Grandma Blake didnt want me to learn to control it. She was convinced that if we prayed hard enough, the evil would just go away.

Jason looked at me, eyes a little wide. She really believes that, even now?

I think so. I know she prays for my soul. I know she believes that raising the dead is evil. I know she believes that sleeping with vampires is a mortal sin.

How does she feel about shapeshifters?

Oh, youre damned, too.

Does she know youre living with two of them?

Nope.

He grinned at me. Saving the news for a moment when it will bother her the most?

No, I plan to never tell my family.

He looked at me. Youre never going home for the holidays and taking anyone with you?

I sighed. Who would I take?

He seemed to think about that. The vampires are out, I guess.

I nodded.

Wait, you dont want to go back home for the holidays, so living with two shapeshifters means you dont have to go back, because your family would never understand.

I thought about what hed said for a few seconds. Maybe, but Nathaniel and Micah arent an excuse to not visit my family. I love them, and Ive finally got a domestic arrangement that suits me.

He nodded. Ive known you longer than either of them, and Ive never seen you this relaxed, or this happy.

I smiled. All right, now that weve analyzed me, is it your turn?

He actually looked a little embarrassed. Im sorry.

If I didnt want to talk about it, Id have just said no.

True, why did you confess so much?

Because Ive seen your family, and I thought youd earned the right to know a little more about mine.

You did it to try to make me feel better, he said.

Maybe. Did it work?

I watched the thoughts trace over his face, and then he nodded. Yes, it did. I guess I needed to know that Im not the only one whos the stranger at every holiday meal.

Yeah, I said, that sums it up. Everyone else goes home for nostalgia, and happy memories. I end up feeling like I never fit in with the family as a child, and being older hasnt changed that. When I was little I thought Id been left by gypsies, or switched at the hospital, except I had my mothers pictures to look at. I look too much like her not to be her daughter.

She was from Mexico, right?

Her family was, she was first-generation American.

You dont look very Hispanic.

I smiled. The skin color is my fathers, but the hair, eyes, and bone structure are more my moms. My fathers cheekbones have given me less of that nice high, ethnic line, but I am the ghost at the banquet, Jason. The older I got, the more I reminded Dad of the wife he lost, and Judith of the woman she replaced.

Is that your issue, or theirs?

A little of both, I think. Remember, my mother was Dads first love, maybe his first lover, I dont know, but a lot of firsts. Thats a lot of baggage to overcome. Then you have that whole dying-young-and-tragically thing, it tends to put a romantic haze around everything.

Hard for Judith to compete with a dead saint? he said.

Something like that.

Are you projecting, or do you know for certain that wicked stepmom felt this way?

I dont know, Jason. I know thats how I feel, and how they seemed to feel, but I was a kid, and now I cant see them clearly. Theres too much baggage in the way.

I hear that, he said, and his face was back to being all serious, and unhappy. I wanted to drown in the sex and not think, but here we are doing the whole therapy thing that you hate.

I touched his shoulder. Youve earned some talk.

Why, because my fathers a bastard and dying?

Yeah, and youre my friend, and Im supposed to be here to give you what you need. If you need talk more than sex, then we can do that.

You need to feed the ardeur, he said.

Yeah, but if worse comes to worst, I can just release the ardeur and it will take away all our doubts.

The ardeur is great, and it can take the place of a lot of foreplay, but its not what I want right now.

What do you want, then? I asked.

He looked at me, and his face was that serious, almost strangers face, as if the things hed seen today had changed him. Or maybe the things that had happened today had allowed him to show me a part of himself hed kept hidden. Or maybe the stroll down my own tortured memory lane was just making everything seem more serious. I couldnt tell anymore, and I didnt have Nathaniel or Micah here to help me work it out. The only other man who could usually help me see through the maze of confusion was lying beside me on the bed, lost in his own problems.

I want you, he said, simply.

I frowned at him.

He gave a gentle smile that left his eyes untouched. To that question in your eyes, Ill clarify.

You know me that well?

In bed, yes. You stop trying to control your face once the clothes come off. Dressed, youre almost as hard to read as Jean-Claude sometimes.

I thought about that for a second. I guess I feel like I dont get naked with people I dont trust.

He smiled. Yeah.

I settled back against the pillows and said, So, clarify.

I can find women to sleep with, or fuck. Im a stripper. Theyre always trying to give me their numbers, persuade me to go beyond whats legal. Im Jean-Claudes pomme de sang; a lot of women want to sleep with me just for that. To get close to the vampires. The whole werewolf thing gets you a different type of groupie. Then he flashed me that grin that filled his eyes with sparkle for a moment. It made me smile to see it. And, I get my share of women who dont know any of that, and probably could be persuaded.

I waited for him to continue, but had to watch the shine fade from his eyes, and the grin fade. His face was caught between his usual charm and this new, serious side.

But, I finally prompted him.

He took a breath and said, But only you will tell me the truth. Only you will tell me exactly what you want, or dont want. You said it yourself, you dont fake anything here. You dont protect my ego. Either Im good, or Im not. You dont want to trap me into anything. You dont have an agenda beyond the pleasure. You arent worried about what were going to do afterward, or what we did a moment before. You are completely and utterly into the sex, almost from the moment you touch a man. Its relaxing, you dont know how relaxing.

Doesnt everyone do it that way?

He smiled and shook his head. No, no, they dont. Most people let their day get in their head and in the way of the sex. A lot of women just cant turn off their heads long enough to relax to even begin to enjoy themselves.

Ive known some men that way, too, I said.

He smiled, again. Me being one of them.

Not usually, but sometimes. You usually save the analyzing for after the sex, as if the sex clears the way for you to have the big heart-to-heart.

He grinned. Thats not it. I want the sex more than I want the talking.

But not tonight, I said, softly.

His eyes held onto the humor a little longer, but his face began to slide toward that more serious, older version that I realized was probably going to start peeking through more and more as the years went by. Maybe we were all growing up, even Jason.

No, not tonight. But Im done with the talk. I want to touch you, and I want you to touch me. I want to drown in the scent of your skin, the taste of your body. Sex has been my addiction since I was a kid, and its still my escape of choice.

Actually addicted to sex? I asked.

Therapy-speak again? he said.

I had to smile. You know, Nathaniel is in therapy.

I know that he is diagnosed as a sex addict, or was, if thats what you mean?

Then you know how bad it got for him?

I know, Jason said, and no, if youre really going to make me give a definition, then no, Im not a sex addict. I was close in high school, and really close in college. But Raina nearly killing me during sex sort of cured me of the risky behavior, better than any therapy could have.

Through a metaphysical accident Id shared that memory with him once. It had been horrible, because Id been in Rainas head, and I knew for a fact that the ex-lupa of our werewolf pack hadnt given a damn whether Jason lived or died. Hed agreed to be tied up and have her change on top of him, and have that as his way of being brought over to the pack. What he hadnt understood was that she would slice him up with no care. It had been about violence more than sex for her, true serial killer mentality. I think the only thing that had kept her from having a higher body count was that the lycanthropy saved her victims lives. Though, in honesty, I couldnt find anyone else shed brought over as violently as Jason. I pushed the thought away. I was still able to channel her, sometimes, and this was not the time.

So, because you could stop the behavior through a shock, you werent a true addict?

Something like that, though it depends on what therapist youre talking to, I guess.

We were left looking at each other, both too serious for being in bed naked. Both of us thinking too hard for what we were supposed to be doing. I wondered how to get us past this and into something else, or whether it was time to put the clothes back on.

I love watching you think, he said.

I frowned. What does that mean?

It means that even in the middle of sex, sometimes something will happen and Ill watch you think. Not about your day, or about something extraneous, but about the sex, about the man youre with, about what youre doing.

How can you be sure thats what I was thinking?

Fine, what are you thinking?

I tried not to smile, and failed. Wondering how to get you from this to sex.

See?

What are you thinking, right now, Mr. Serious-Face?

He smiled. That I want to watch your face while you stare up at me while we make love.

So you get to be on top? I asked, and tried to make a joke of it. The joke fell flat in the face of his serious eyes.

Eventually.

Eventually, huh.

He leaned in toward me, and that smile crossed his face, the one that if the customers at Guilty Pleasures could see it, theyd empty their bank accounts. Yes.

I started to ask what he wanted to do first, but he kissed me, his hands slid over my body, and I didnt have to ask what he wanted to do first. He showed me.

25

J ASON SHOWED ME with his hand between my legs, his mouth on mine. He showed me that he was done with his doubts, done with everything but my body and his.

Id never been with him alone when the ardeur was not riding me. Id never been with him when we could pay attention only to each other, without anyone, or anything, else to distract us, to distract him. He was all hands, and mouth, and teeth, and need. He brought me with his fingers between my legs, then slid his fingers inside me and found that sweet spot. He brought me again, and again, with a flick of fingers and flex of hand. Brought me until I shivered, twitched, and writhed, and damn near convulsed on the bed, while he knelt between my legs so he could find just the right angle for his hand.

I managed to gasp, God, Jason, God! Then he stole my words with the pleasure of his hand inside me. He left me with my eyes rolled back into my head, so I was blind to everything but the sensations of my body. Only then did I feel him above me. Feel the press of his body, the weight of him settling on top of me, making me cry out again. I struggled to open my eyes, to see his face hovering over me. The look in his face was everything you want to see in that moment. There was no uncertainty, only the knowledge that he had done this, that his body, his touch, his expertise had brought me to this moment, when the innocent lay of his weight above me could make me cry with pleasure.

He whispered, Now Im going to fuck you.

I whispered back the only word I could think of. Yes.

He smiled, and I would have tried to decide what kind of pleased smile it was, but he chose that moment to work his hips between my legs and push himself inside me. I was so wet, so ready from everything hed done that he slid inside me in one strong movement.

It rolled my eyes back into my head again and tore a sound from my throat as my neck bowed backward, and my spine bowed underneath us both.

His voice came from beside my ear, against my hair. So wet, so tight, so ready. He shoved himself as deep inside me as he could, made me cry out again, and writhe. Then he kissed me, kissed me with our bodies buried as close as they could get. He kissed me, as if the kiss were all, and he werent beginning to move himself in and out of my body. He kissed me, explored me, fucked my mouth as he fucked my body. Hed done his foreplay right; it seemed only minutes and I was screaming my orgasm into his mouth, squeezing it around his groin, clawing it into his back and shoulders. My hands slid in the glisten of sweat on his back. I screamed for him, and he fought to keep his mouth on mine, his bodys rhythm inside me. The only thing he changed was that he fucked me harder, pounding himself inside me harder and faster. I screamed and shrieked, and clung to his body with nails and hands and arms, as if the pleasure would tear me apart, or I would tear him apart.

He finally rose up enough to pin my wrists to the bed. It meant he couldnt kiss me anymore, but he could still fuck me, and he did. I could watch his body work in and out of mine now, and the sight alone brought me again. Without his mouth to stop me, the screams were long and ragged.

His voice came breathy, strained with effort, as his body kept working in and out of mine. Feed, Anita, feed.

It took me moments to fight back from the waves of pleasure, to hear the words, to even try to understand them. I managed, What?

Feed the ardeur, Anita. Feed before I go.

I blinked up at him, and it must have shown on my face, because he laughed, a wonderful masculine laugh, so happy, so Jason, but more. You forgot, you forgot about the ardeur.

I managed to nod.

I do good work, he gasped, but feed now, Im almost His body convulsed above mine, eyes closing, his body beginning to lose its rhythm.

Feed, now!

I almost didnt have enough concentration left to find that metaphysical piece inside me and let it go. But at the last moment, with his body almost gone above mine, and the effort showing on his face, in his shoulders, his arms, his chest, I found the ardeur, and let go. It rose from me like a nearly visible force. Jasons body reacted to it, like a blow. He cried out above me, his body shoved inside me one last time, and I felt him let go, too. Let go of his control, let go of his effort, and give himself over to the ardeur, give himself over to that piece of me that fed on pleasure. It fed on the feel of his body buried deep inside mine, it fed on the strength of his hands holding me down, it fed on the salt taste of his skin as my mouth rose and licked at his chest. I fed, as his body convulsed inside mine, not once, but twice, three times. I brought him with my body squeezed around him, pulsing for every last drop. I brought him with my mouth on his skin, his chest, licking the last salty bit off the hardness of his nipple.

He paused above me, head hanging down, the edges of his hair plastered to his face with his efforts. His shoulders began to collapse, so that he finally lay down on top of me. He kept his hands loosely on my wrists as his face lay beside mine on the pillow. He was still inside me, but we were both done. We lay there, not for more sex, but to catch our breaths, and let our bodies be able to move again.

He kissed my cheek, and I turned, with effort, so he could kiss my lips. It was a gentle, breathless kiss, and I swear I could taste his pulse in his mouth.

I like you, he said, and managed a smile as he said it.

It made me laugh, and that made him wince, rather than writhe. No more, God, please.

Hed reached that point where he was too sensitive to do more. Cool. I kissed him back and said, I like you, too.

When love isnt on the menu, like isnt a bad thing to be able to say, and mean it.

26

T HE SEX HAD been good enough that it wasnt a matter of deciding how long to cuddle afterward, it was simply we both fell asleep. We fell into that deep, exhausted, damn near unconscious rest that comes after the sex has been long, and hard, and sweaty, and amazing, and the day has been too long, too hard, and you can finally let it all go. You can finally rest, against the skin and touch and weight of your lover.

I woke with Jason and I wrapped around each other; legs and arms intertwined, bodies almost melded together with sweat, and fluids, and sleep.

He made a small, soft sound that was almost a laugh, but not. The sound was one of those utterly contented noises that have no spelling, no place in a dictionary, but they are often the sounds that say more than any full word just how happy we are.

He turned his head enough to see me, and gave me the smile and the look that went with that soft almost-laugh. I moved my head toward him, still on the pillow, and he moved, too, so that our lips met in the middle of the pillow, our bodies still intertwined.

Jason drew back just enough to look at my face, our faces still pressed to the same pillow. Thatwasamazing.

I smiled. Yes, it was. I focused a little past his face and saw marks on his shoulders. I lifted my head enough to see better, and found nail marks on his back. Jesus, Jason, Im sorry.

Its a compliment, he said, giving that lazy smile.

I laid my head back down on the pillow, because it still seemed too much effort to move much. Thats why you pinned my wrists.

Yeah, he said, grinning, I love that you lose control with me like that, but I wasnt really in the mood to bleed too much tonight.

I rose up again, to see the marks more clearly, bending from the shoulders this time and not just the neck. There werent many marks, but what there were had dried blood in them. I made a face. Sorry.

He shook his head and cuddled closer to me on the pillow, so that our faces touched when my shoulders relaxed. Never apologize for enjoying being with me, Anita. I love that you enjoy me.

I kissed his forehead because it was closest. I know a lot of women enjoy you.

They have, he admitted, but not lately.

I stroked my hand down his shoulder. She really screwed with your head, didnt she?

You mean, Perdy? he asked. Hed gone very still beside me.

Yeah.

She said she loved me, but she told me what I wanted to do with her was wrong, perverted.

Did she actually say perverted? I asked, and put another kiss on his forehead.

No, he said.

See, youre projecting.

She said evil.

That made me go still beside him, with my lips against his face. Evil? I made it a question.

Yep.

What the hell could you have asked for that she would have called evil?

He tensed beside me and looked toward the door. There are people at our door. One of them has been drinking, a lot.

You can smell it, I said.

He nodded, still looking at the door. I didnt immediately go for my gun on the bedside table. I mean, they could just be a bunch of partiers going to their own room.

Then someone pounded on our door, and a womans voice said, Keith, I know youre in there, you bastard! Open this door, you cheating bastard!

Jason looked at me. Dont look at me, I said, this is so not my kind of problem.

So you dont know what to do either?

Not a clue, I said.

Great, he said, me either.

She hit the door so hard it shook. Where she was hitting the door said she wasnt that tall, but she was giving it all she had, and drunk she was using more strength than she would have used sober. Shed be bruised in the morning, and probably not remember why.

Jason went for one of the thick robes that were always in the nicer hotel rooms. He tossed me the second robe.

Were not going to open the door, are we? I asked, and let my voice sound suitably horrified.

Shes not going away.

Shes also drunk enough that one look at us in this room like this is going to convince her shes right.

I cant help that I look that much like him.

Keith, you son of a bitch, open this door!

Mr. Summerland, do you really want the eleven oclock news to show you leaving your fiance outside your door while you have sex with another woman?

I sat up, suddenly very serious about the robe. Oh my God, there are reporters with her.

He started looking for Chucks business card. You call Chuck, tell him whats happening. I didnt argue, I just took the card and started punching buttons.

Jason went to the door but didnt open it. He yelled through it, My name is Jason Schuyler, I am not Keith Summerland.

You tried that in high school, Keith, pretending to be Jason when you were screwing Nan Brandweiss.

I had Chuck on the phone. This is Chuck.

Anita Blake. We have reporters outside our door with Keith Summerlands very drunk fiance, demanding to know why hes cheating on her.

Oh, shit. He said it with real feeling.

My sentiments exactly. What do we do?

I thought you werent going to call, Im not at the hotel. Ill be there as soon as I can. Ill alert some of the other guards. Hell, they should be with her now. Do not open the door.

Do you want the eleven oclock news to show Keiths fiance banging on the door, but not having it open? Thats what the reporters are threatening. Shes crying and shes drunk.

Damn it, Ill be there. Just, oh hell, this is going to go to shit.

Going, Chuck? I think its already gone.

Jason called through the door, Lisa Bromwell, is that you?

Keith, this isnt funny, dont humiliate me like this, dont make me beg.

Jason started to unlock the door.

Gotta go, Chuck, Jason is unlocking the door.

Cant you control him better than that?

About as much as you can control Keith and his fiance, I said.

Then were screwed, Chuck said. He hung up. I hung up. And I couldnt have agreed more.

27

I GOT MY gun from the bedside table and put it in my robe pocket. Not because I thought I needed my gun handy, but because it was my gun and it was my job to control it. A very drunk woman scorned was about to come through the door. I did not want to give her any ideas. A loaded gun unattended could be a real disaster. The robe hung funny on that side, but it was better than the alternative.

Jason opened the door and a short blond woman spilled through, pounding fists on his chest. She was screaming at him. A reporter, complete with camera and lights, pushed in behind her. Perfect.

Jason was trying to out-yell her. Its Jason. Lisa, look at me, its Jason!

Lisas eyes were squeezed tight as she pounded at him and screamed. She had wanted in the room, but she didnt want to see.

I stood there without a clue as to what I could do that might help. I could have forced the reporter and cameraman out; I was armed. But somehow I thought that might play badly in the press. To the hysterical Lisa I was the other woman, so trying to touch her would be bad. I had no freaking idea what to do. Fuck.

The camera was getting it all: me standing in the robe, the mussed bed, the string of condoms in their wrapper on the floor where Jason had dropped them. There were even a few pieces of clothing draped on the rooms chair. Again, perfect.

The reporter shoved a microphone into Jasons face. Keith, is this the new woman? Is the wedding off? Lisa deserves the truth, Keith.

Jason spoke into the mic. My name is Jason Schuyler. I went to school with Lisa and Keith and Keiths brother Kelsey.

Maybe they would have listened, maybe not, but struggling with Lisa had finally loosened his robe so that it spilled apart enough for the camera to try to get the whole show. If it was network they wouldnt be able to show it, but how often do you get a chance to get film of a presidential hopefuls son nude? The cameraman wasnt missing his opportunity.

Lisas hands were on Jasons stomach, and shed stopped screaming. She was blinking down at him, not up at his face. She muttered, Jason? as Jason managed to get his robe a little more closed.

The fact that seeing him nude had made her believe it was him made me wonder, just how close a friend had Lisa Bromwell been to Jason in high school?

Voices from the hallway, mostly men, yelling. Peterson was the first one in the doorway, but he had other suits with him, and some of the uniformed guards wed seen earlier. They were what we needed. Someone to be bad guys to the press and rescue us at the same time. I didnt usually wait to be rescued, but this level of press attention had thrown me. How do you handle people this rude that you cant belt in the nose?

Peterson and his men got the press out. They tried to get Lisa Bromwell out, too, but she was now clinging to Jason and blinking up at him blearily. A second woman from the hallway was trying to help Peterson persuade Lisa to let go of Jason. The new woman was tall in heels that made her at least six feet, with sleek brunette hair that had been styled straight, but was thick enough I was betting it curled when left to its own devices. She was beautiful in that perfect-makeup, I-read- Cosmo sort of way. You know, beautiful enough to make other women jealous and men stare, but she didnt seem quite real. Women like that almost never make me feel insecure. I dont understand them enough to be jealous.

Peterson got the reporters outside the room with the help of the uniformed guards. Two of the younger suits stayed on our side of the door and took up positions against it, as if the press might try to break down the door. Surely not, but I was beginning to realize that wed passed into a sort of press Twilight Zone, where the normal rules did not seem to apply.

The brunette offered me her hand. Im Trish, friend of the brides, and Im sorry that I couldnt stop her in time. She had a good handshake, though her hand was big enough, and her nails long enough, that it felt almost dangerous, as if shed cut me if she shook too hard.

How did she find our room?

The reporter knew your room number. He told her theyd seen Keith check in with a brunette. They had pictures of the two of you in the hotel obviously going to a room.

The bachelorette party must be in full swing for her to be this drunk, I said.

Trish shook her head. It hasnt really started yet. She was this drunk when we got to the room for the party.

I looked over at the small blond woman, inches shorter than Jason and me. She swayed against him, clinging to his robe as if without it and his hands on her slender frame shed have hit the floor. It must have shown on my face because Trish said, Apparently she got drunk alone in her room. Her bridesmaids found her this way, clutching a handful of pictures of Keith with you.

Not Keith, I said.

Trish nodded. Apparently not, but the resemblance is eerie.

I couldnt argue with the eerie part. Now that Lisa wasnt screaming or crying hysterically or trying to claw Jasons eyes out, I realized that she and he looked alike. In fact, Lisa Bromwell looked more like Jasons sister than either of his actual sisters.

You are the first woman Ive gotten to talk to who isnt from this town. Is it just me or do they look alike, too? Trish said.

Its not just you, I said.

Have you seen many of the descendants of old Jedediah and the original families from his little town in the hills?

Not yet, I said.

They all look like that, like theyre related.

Jason said that Jedediah Summerland helped populate most of the town in his day.

When you see the wedding party, youll believe it.

I gave her a look.

She nodded, eyes a little wide. Just wait, youll see, its very Twilight Zone.

We just had a reporter with camera and lights burst into our hotel room, I already feel like Im in the Twilight Zone.

Id like to say itll get better, Anita, I can call you Anita, right?

Sure.

Ive been friends with them since they announced the wedding, and the closer it gets the weirder the press get. One of the reasons that they were so sure of you andJason, right?

I nodded. of Jason being Keith is that there is a rumor going around that he has a brunette on the side. It may even be true.

Jason had sat Lisa down in the chair. He rubbed her shoulders as he talked softly to her.

If its true, then why is she marrying him? I asked.

Trish gave me a look.

What?

Hes rich, hes handsome, hes fun as hell when hes not being a bastard. His father is governor of the state and about to run for president. He may even make it all the way to the Oval Office.

She stopped talking, as if that explained why a woman would put up with a man who would cheat on her days before her wedding. I finally said, You havent said anything that would get me down the aisle with someone who would cheat on me days before my wedding.

How about its one of the biggest weddings of the year in this country, and backing out now would be more humiliating than going through with it?

I shook my head. That doesnt work for me either.

Trish studied my face, as if she were trying to decide if I was serious or not. You really would just dump his ass, wouldnt you?

In a hot minute. It was my turn to study her. Wouldnt you?

She gave a laugh, a nervous laugh. Ive married for worse reasons than money and politics, Anita.

And divorced, I take it.

She shrugged. Yeah, but the alimony was the kicker.

In that moment I knew I might like Trish eventually, but I would never understand her, nor she me. We were both women, but our girl culture was too different. She was a girl-girl, and I was just a woman. She married for money and politics and potential alimony. I couldnt think of anything that would get me down a church aisle, but love would have been higher on the list than anything the woman beside me had listed. Who the hell married already planning how much alimony shed get? That wasnt a marriage, that was a business transaction with rings exchanged.

How much trouble would we get into if I managed to talk Lisa Bromwell into dumping Keith Summerlands ass days before their wedding? It had possibilities, and not all of them were bad.

28

I GOT INTRODUCED to the bride-to-be eventually. Thered been a point in my life when I wouldnt have wanted to meet strangers dressed in nothing but a robe, in a hotel room, with a man who I wasnt married to, who was also in a robe. Strangely, this was so mild in comparison to my life lately that I didnt even flinch.

She blinked pale blue eyes at me. What makeup shed started the night with had surrendered to tears and the damp rag that Jason had fetched for her. She blinked up at me, stray wisps of yellow hair clinging to her face where theyd been wetted down, other bits of her hair just all around her face. Without the makeup she looked about twelve, though I knew she had to be Jasons age. Twenty-two or twenty-three; she did not look it.

I said automatically, Nice to meet you, Lisa.

She blushed a nice pink color and looked down. I am so embarrassed.

Jason knelt in front of her, making sure his robe covered him. Its okay, Lisa, you didnt know I was back in town, and the reporters lied to you.

And I was drunk, she said, softly.

I thought, That, too, but out loud I said, Did the reporters lie, or could they really not tell the difference between you and this Summerland guy?

Lisa and Jason looked up at me together, and the mirror effect was startling. They really did look alike.

They do look that much alike, Lisa said.

Trish came up beside us, towering over all of us in her heels. Wait until you see Keith, youll freak at how much alike they look. I swear its like the Summerlands had triplets instead of twins.

Jason stood up. Yeah, everyone intermarried a little too much in Promise.

Promise? I made it a question.

It was the name that Summerland gave to his little religious community in the hills above Asheville. Promise to God was the full name, actually.

You mean like those Puritan names, Pass-through-the-valley-of-death Smith?

He smiled and nodded. Yeah, like that, but it got shortened to Promise.

The school is still called Promise School, Lisa said, as if she were trying to focus and making some headway.

You can still get free tuition if you prove your ancestors came in with Jedediah, Jason said.

I take it your moms side of the family came in with ol Jedediah, I said.

Mine, and Lisas, and others.

In my head, I thought, So does that make Keith and Lisa some sort of kissing cousins? But it wasnt any of my business; once you leave first cousins behind, most states dont care. I decided to concentrate on something that interested me more than ancestors and religious zealots who got eaten by vampires.

Lisa figured out that it was Jason, though, even drunk, I said. Okay, I was trying to be subtle, because what I wanted to ask was, Why did seeing him nude convince you he wasnt Keith? I just couldnt figure out a polite way to ask it.

Jason grinned at me, eyes not quite sparkling, but it was his grin.

I gave him a look that Id once thought would squash that grin, but now I did it out of habit; nothing I could do would ever take the spark out of that smile.

Lisa blushed again, and was very flustered. IKeith isntI She stood up, abruptly, swayed.

Jason and I both caught her arm.

May I use your bathroom, please?

Ill take her, Trish said. The taller woman eased Lisa out of our arms and toward the open bathroom door. Uncharitably I hoped she wouldnt throw up in our room anywhere, but I was glad for the privacy. Though, looking at the two suited guards at the door, I guess privacy was stretching it.

We waited until the door closed behind the women, and then I looked at him. I take it you and Lisa dated in high school.

He nodded. We did. He was going to make me ask. Fine.

She recognized you once you were nude, Jason. What clued her in? You and the Summerland boys not quite identical when the clothes come off?

Youre mad I made you work for it, he said, grinning.

Not mad, just tired of being embarrassed about stupid things. Answer the question.

I shave.

I assume so does Keith.

I wasnt talking about my face.

Oh. You mean you shaved totally smooth in high school, too?

No, but I did shave enough so that no body hair showed in the costumes for dance recitals. I didnt start shaving completely until after I started stripping. I got enough grief from the other guys about what I did shave, I cant imagine what they would have said if Id showed up smooth as I am now. He shook his head. I liked parts of high school, but other parts sucked.

Amen to that, I said.

There was a knock on the door. One of the suits turned and spoke quietly to the door. He started to take the flip-bar off.

I called, Stop.

He glanced at me, hand still on the flip-bar. He had brown eyes and hair to match. His eyes tried for hard and empty, but he was too fresh out of the package to carry it off.

Our room, so we get to say who comes and who goes.

Brown Hair looked at his partner, who was also young, with hair cut so short I could see his skin through the hair. He wore small silver-framed glasses over pale eyes. The haircut made me think ex-military. Id have to wait and see if the haircut matched anything else before making the final call.

Military Cut gave a tiny shrug.

Brown Hair said, Its Peterson and the governors man.

The governors man, you mean, Chuck? I asked.

Another exchange of looks between them, and then they both nodded as if theyd timed it.

I exchanged a look with Jason. Did he think their referring to Chuck as the governors man was as strange as I thought it was?

Jason shrugged. I think we have to let them in; we did call them for help.

He was right, darn it. I nodded at the suits by the door. Let them in.

The two suits exchanged another look. It was Military Cut who said, You do know we dont take orders from you.

All right, guys, first, what are your names?

They looked at each other again. Did they do that before they answered any question, or was it just because I was confusing them?

Im Shadwell, Military Cut said.

Im Rowe, Brown Hair said.

Youre Shadwell and Rowe? I made it a question, because I knew if they hung around I would never be able to resist calling them Shad and Rowe, it would just be too fun.

Jason proved he knew me well, because he touched my arm and said, Be nice.

I grinned at him for a changebut controlled myself out loud. I could always be irritating later; I was good at it. Okay, guys, heres the deal: you say you dont take orders from me; well, we dont take them from you, either. Well need to figure out a way to cooperate or its going to be a very unpleasant few days.

There was a sharper knock on the door, and I was pretty sure it was Chucks voice saying, Open the door.

Rowe said, Can I open the door now? in a tone of voice that said he was unimpressed with anything Id said.

Sure, I said. Because he could be unimpressed, as long as he did what I wanted him to do.

29

P ETERSON AND C HUCK were having a fight, sort of. They werent yelling or throwing punches, nothing so uncivilized, but they were pissed at each other. It was there in the way they spoke to each other, the set of their body language, the way their eyes worked when they had to look at each other. The point of contention seemed to be something to do with us, or maybe Lisa. Trish had helped her out of the bathroom; she looked pale, but better. Shed even brushed her hair and put it back in a neat ponytail.

Ill take Lisa back to the party, Trish said.

Everyone agreed that was a good idea.

Lisa grabbed Jasons arm. You have to come to the partyshe looked at meboth of you. Please, most of my bridal party are girls from school. Theyll want to see you, Jason, and theyll want to meet your new girlfriend.

I soooo did not want to go to Lisas bachelorette party. But I was pretty sure what Jason was going to say, and he did not disappoint me. Wed need to get dressed first.

Of course, of course, Lisa said, and then she turned that fragile face to him, but youll come, right?

He nodded, and I did not like the look he gave her. It was way too intimate a look from a man to another mans fiance. Id wanted to throw a monkey wrench into the wedding plans, but not like this, no, this was a bad idea.

As if hed read my mind, Chuck said, This is a bad idea, Lisa.

She looked at him, and the one look told me two things. One, she didnt particularly like Chuck; two, there was more force of will inside her than Id seen yet. It blazed to life in those blue eyes, gave some color to her face that wasnt embarrassment.

I say who comes to my party, not you, not my future in-laws, me.

He took a breath as if hed argue.

Trish said, Lets not fight.

Chuck frowned at her.

Lisa said, Im not fighting; Chuck is an employee, you dont fight with employees. She said it cold and hard. Point for her, but the look on Chucks face made me want to touch my gun in its robe pocket. Chuck didnt like Lisa any better than she liked him. Interesting.

Fine, Trish said, fine, but lets get you back to your party. The other girls are going to wonder what happened to us. Her tone of voice alone said that shed been doing a lot of managing in the last few days. I wondered if Lisa had a drinking problem. That would be bad.

Lisa wouldnt let go of Jasons arm. She gave him all the eye contact she had in those blue eyes. You will come to my party, right? Promise me that you andAnita, right?promise me youll come. The other girls are going to flip.

Whos all there? he asked.

All the Jennifers, and she grinned. It wasnt quite his smile, but it was still close.

He grinned back. All of them? he asked.

All of them: Jen, Jenna, and J. J. She grabbed his arm with both hands. And Ashley, and Kris. Oh, theyll kill me if you dont at least come say hi.

He nodded, as Id feared he would. Well get dressed and Im sure someone here will be happy to take us to your bachelorette party. That last was almost mean for Jason, because he knew damned well that none of the men wanted him at that party. Hell, I didnt want him at that party, though not for the same reasons. I just didnt want to go.

She let go of his arm with one hand and grabbed my hand. Please, Anita, I know Ive been horrible. I guess its wedding nerves, but please let Jason come. Please, come with him. Give me a chance to prove to you that Im not some crazy woman, please.

I looked down into her face. She had to be under five feet tall. I didnt get to look down at many people. But it wasnt the height that made it hard to say no. It was the look in her eyes. But I could have withstood that, too. It was the look in Jasons eyes. He wanted to go. He wanted to talk to his old friends. Well, Id already met his family, what were a few old girlfriends compared to that? I tried to believe that as I agreed that wed get dressed and join them at the party.

30

T HE FIRST THING we did after we got the crowd out was shower. The sex had been good enough that you needed a shower the way you do after a good workout. We tried to get Shadwell and Rowe to step out of the room while we cleaned up, but they wouldnt do it. So two strange, armed men whom Id just met got to sit out in the room while Jason and I took turns in the shower. Why turns? Because I didnt want two strange, armed men whom Id just met alone in our hotel room. Paranoid, who, me?

What do you wear to a bachelorette party for the future daughter-in-law of one of the richest men in a given state, who is also a presidential hopeful? Id brought nice businessy clothes and comfortable clothes, and a lot of weapons. The choices were limited in everything except armament.

They were Jasons friends, so I let him choose. I know, if the girl union ever hears that I asked my straight male friend to dress me for a party Ill get my union card yanked, but hey, left to my own devices Id have grabbed jeans, a T-shirt, my jogging shoes, and an extra gun. Maybe a couple of knives for added comfort.

Jason didnt think the bachelorette party would get that out of hand, but I remembered the last bachelorette party Id gone to. It had been my friend Catherines, and it had gotten so out of hand that what started that night almost got me killed.

Jason had said, There wont be vampire strippers at this party, Anita. I think you and I together can handle the normal humans.

He had a point, butwe compromised. I switched the Browning from its more hidden location at the small of my back to its normal shoulder holster rig. I put a nice black suit jacket over a perfectly red T-shirt and nice blue jeans. My badge went in the jacket pocket. The Nikes gave way to a pair of short boots. I added knife sheaths in two wrist sheaths under the jacket.

Jason had protested, but Id told him the truth. I wont be able to take off the jacket or Ill flash the gun, so I might as well have my knives.

Youre not wearing the big-ass knife that sits at your spine, are you?

No, I said, I left it at home, thank you. I didnt think your family was that dangerous.

Wed tried again to get Shadwell and Rowe to step out of the room, but they had said they couldnt disobey a direct order, and if they left their posts, they would lose their jobs. Fine, they had watched the negotiations. It had strained their professional bodyguard blankness to its limit, I think. At least Rowe had given me wide eyes a few times. Jason and I had to take turns changing clothes in the bathroom.

I was finally dressed, and armed, and sitting in one of the rooms many purple chairs waiting for Jason to finish changing. Id gotten my cross out of the bedside table, and it was pretty visible against the shirt. What wasnt visible was the charm under my shirt. I wore it almost all the time, too. But the cross was a religious symbol and protection against bad vampires. The ancient charm was protection against only one vampirethe Mother of All Vampires, whod taken an unhealthy interest in me a few months ago. The charm was made of metal so ancient it bent if I pressed against a hard surface. It bore magical symbols so old that I had found no human able to read it. But there were vampires who could, because that was who had given it to me. Theyd given it to me to keep Marmee Noir from using my necromancy to wake herself up and become their queen again.

Shad and Rowe tried to not look at me. It was sort of a very mild version of what the guards do outside Buckingham Palace. Duty first and foremost, nothing else exists. Once I would have left them alone, but first, I was a girl, and that meant I felt damn near compelled to talk to anyone in a silent room, and second, I just wanted to yank their chain. Maybe Id been hanging around with Jason too long.

How long have you been out of the military, Shadwell?

His body reacted, but not his face, a stiffening of the shoulders, the spine. Haircut? he said.

That and you just dont taste like a civilian.

He turned those pale eyes to me behind their wire frames. It was not a friendly look, or an unfriendly one, more neutral. Two years.

Rowe looked at me.

I fought not to smile. God, he was still so bright and shiny. I cant peg you, Rowe. You dont taste like military, or cop, but you taste like something that isnt civvie.

He grinned at me, eyes sparkling with pleasure. Yeah, I kicked ass at undercover.

So cop, or fed?

Wouldnt you like to know? he said.

Shad gave him a look, and a brief Dont.

Rowe stopped smiling, but his eyes still gleamed with some inner happiness. So Shadwell was senior man.

Dont what? I asked.

We are supposed to guard you, not fraternize.

Fraternize, I said, and laughed. Fraternize, havent heard that word in a while.

Shadwell frowned at me. Its an accurate word.

I nodded, and fought not to look more serious. It didnt help when I caught Rowes gaze. His eyes were practically shining with suppressed mirth. The edge of his mouth twitched and I had to look away, or Id have lost it.

Shadwell seemed to sense it, because he gave Rowe a hard look. Rowe had to have a coughing fit to cover the laughter that was almost spilling over.

What got you off undercover work, Rowe? I asked.

Still recovering from his coughing fit, he said, My sense of humor.

I looked at him, tried to see if he was serious. He was implying that hed been fired, or at least reassigned, because his sense of humor had gotten him in trouble.

Rowe, Shadwell said, she does not need to know your background.

Yes, sir. Rowe went back to attention by the door, but his eyes and a certain set to the mouth said he didnt really mean it. I was beginning to see how Rowe might have gotten in trouble with his superiors.

Shadwell gave us both a hard look, and it was a good look, a real look. Bad guys must have flinched under his gaze, but I wasnt a bad guy. I was just someone wondering why the guards were on our side of the door. It seemed a little excessive.

Fine, Shadwell, are you and Rowe here going to stand inside our room all night?

No.

Then why are you standing here now?

Because we were told to, he said.

Rowes mouth twitched again. Someone with a sense of humor had partnered them with each other.

Isnt it kind of weird to be on this side of the door? I mean the danger is out there, not in here.

Shadwell frowned, then smoothed it out. Im following orders, Ms. Blake.

Marshal Blake, I said, because it just seemed good to remind rule-and-order Shadwell that I wasnt really a civvie either.

His eyes flickered to me, then back to staring into space. If youre a federal marshal, then youll appreciate that Im following orders.

That made me laugh. Nicely done, Shadwell. If Im a federal marshal. I assure you I am, badge and all, but Im not really real, am I? I mean I got grandfathered in, and didnt go through the training, so Im not really a marshal, right?

I did not say that.

You implied it, I said, and my voice was no longer pleasant.

Are you trying to pick a fight with Shadwell? Rowe asked, his face curious.

I shrugged, slumping back in the chair as much as the shoulder rig would comfortably let me. Maybe, and if I am, Im sorry. Im just a little bored, a little tense, and I really, really, dont want to go to this party.

Its a bad idea, Shadwell said.

The worst, I said.

He looked at me. Then why are you going?

Because Jason is going, and he wants me with him.

Shadwell nodded. My wifes the social one. I hate parties, too.

I tried to pretend that Shadwell hadnt just done exactly what hed yelled at Rowe for, which was overshare. Yeah, but I bet your wife doesnt drag you to parties where strange men will be taking off their clothes.

You dont think your friend in there will want to stay for that part of the party? Shadwell asked.

I shrugged, and sat up straighter. He may.

The two men exchanged glances. Even Rowe didnt seem to think it was funny. Then Rowe grinned as if he couldnt help it. The last time I saw male strippers I was getting a lap dance.

We both looked at him. He shrugged, and actually blushed, which you dont see in an ex-cop much. Wed had a rash of gay bashing that turned into serial murder. All the vics had frequented this one club. Then he grinned again. I was the only one on the undercover unit who was secure enough in my manhood to do the job.

With that revelation the door to the bathroom opened. Jason came out in a blue T-shirt that matched his eyes to perfection, so that his eyes were incredibly blue. The T-shirt also fit very well, so that all that muscle work showed. The blue jeans were date jeans, which meant they were tight and fit well. Hed added his own short boots and had a black suit jacket to throw over it all, so it looked somewhere between semiprofessional and club wear. But he looked good, and he knew it. Hed dressed to be yummy. He might not be planning to date anyone at the party, but he wanted them to see him. Sigh. He was so going to flirt his ass off.

31

I HAD LEFT the big-ass knife at home and the special leather rig that let me carry it along with a handgun. But one of the reasons I had an entire carry-on of weapons was that I had to bring my vampire hunting kit. Why? Because the regulations for the preternatural branch of the federal marshal program had changed. Now, if we traveled, even on personal business, we had to have all our gear with us so that if an emergency call came up near us, and we were the closest body, we could take it. This new regulation had come up when one of my colleagues had been on a family vacation that turned into a vampire hunt for the local cops. The hunt had gone badly, and the report that hed had to submit had listed the major problem as that his kit was at home. He needed his stuff. Didnt we all.

So that meant I had some really dangerous stuff with me. Stuff that if Id had to get on a commercial airline, theyd have never let me get on the plane. Not even with a badge. I had the usual: extra guns, extra ammo, stakes, holy water, holy wafers, extra crosses. Id even thrown in some holy items from other faiths because Id had occasion to work with local law enforcement that were not Christian, and having everybody armed with a holy item was a good thing. If you got a few atheists, pray that they are well armed, but dont tell them youre praying for them. Some of them have about as much a sense of humor as the right-wingers.

What would have gotten me kicked off the plane, or in an interrogation room with Homeland Defense, was the Heckler and Koch MP5 and the phosphorous grenades. Id never actually used the grenades, but my friend Edward, alias Ted Forrester, also a federal marshal for the preternatural branch, had said they worked wonders. Frankly, all grenades scared me, but something that burned even in water would be truly bad news to the undead of any kind. It would even work on zombies and ghouls, which are both so much harder to kill than vamps. The government said I needed all my toys, so I brought themwell, not all of them. I have resisted Edwards desire to teach me how to use a flamethrower. They scare me.

All this to say that we had to make a stop at the main desk with my little carry-on. Shad and Rowe had not liked that I had to do this, but when they realized I was dead serious, they ordered up enough uniformed guards to form a phalanx around us and escorted us to the lobby. I thought it was excessive until we caught the full barrage of the cameras in the lobby. I actually slipped my sunglasses on to keep the glare down. No wonder movie stars wear them.

The guards formed a wall around us so I could flash my badge to the nice lady behind the desk and explain that I had some sensitive items in this case and didnt want to leave it in the room unattended. Before everything got weird, I might have, but I had this horrible image of reporters breaking into our room when we werent there. If I didnt want the uninitiated playing with my guns, I sure as hell didnt want them playing with phosphorous grenades.

The lady, whose name tag read Bethann, was more than happy to help us. She even let Jason and me walk the case back to this huge-ass safe. The fact that she never blinked or asked a single question showed that I wasnt the only guest with sensitive materials. Though I was willing to bet I was the only one with this much firepower in one little case.

When the case was secure and wed shaken hands with Bethann, we all turned around and went for the elevators. The reporters were screaming at us, What did you put in the safe? We had some of them shouting Keith, but some were actually shouting the right name. Jason, Jason, have you talked to Jean-Claude? Anita, is he better in bed than the vampires? We ignored all questions. The earlier disastrous impromptu news conference had taught us our lesson. The press was a danger neither of us knew how to handle, not at this level. It was like being really good at peewee football and suddenly realizing you were up against pros. We were out of our league, and now we knew it.

Most of the uniformed guards stayed in the lobby, probably to wrangle the press so that other guests had a chance of walking through the lobby without being brained by a boom mic.

Shad and Rowe took up posts near the door, with us behind them. I looked at the line of their suits and knew where everyones gun was, and that Shad was carrying something extra in his pocket, and Rowe had something on his ankle. I was betting the ankle was a small gun, but the pocket could have been a lot of things, just not a gun. Not a gun opened up a wealth of possibilities.

Jason leaned over and whispered, I would accuse you of checking them out, but youre looking for weapons, arent you?

I just nodded.

He hugged me one-armed and gave an excited sound, almost a laugh, but not. His eyes were bright with anticipation.

I whispered, How many of these girls are old girlfriends?

All of them.

How many are old lovers?

He grinned. Most of them.

Great.

He hugged me tighter. Ill be good, I promise.

Youre always good, Jason, I said out loud, but will you behave?

He gave me a look, and the look was enough. Hed try, but no, the honest answer, was no. I sighed and settled back against the wall as the elevator came to a stop. We had, of course, gone all the way to the top. The rich and powerful always seem to prefer the tops of buildings. Hasnt anyone ever explained to them that higher just means you have farther to fall?

32

S HADWELL STEPPED OFF the elevator first. Rowe stayed with us. Id had enough bodyguards of my own not to argue. When Shadwell was certain it was safe, hed let us know. He stepped to one side with a nod and Rowe motioned us forward.

That was the most serious bodyguarding theyd done, and it made me nervous. Were there threats on Keith Summerlands life? If so, Jason and he looked enough alike that it could be a serious problem. Maybe there was more than one reason that we suddenly had guards. Shit.

One of the doors in the hallway had Peterson standing sort of at attention by it. Chuck was talking low and urgently to him. So this was where the two of them had vanished to.

Chuck turned, and gave Jason a look. It was neither friendly nor unfriendly, but it wasnt a good look. It was more as if he were trying to see Jason, see what he was made of, and what it meant. I didnt like the look. It meant Chuck was thinking too hard about Jason. We were leaving this town in a day. That look was too serious for in twenty-four hours were gone.

Chuck smoothed his suit jacket where it had bunched over his gun, and said, over his shoulder, as he moved past us for the elevator, Its your ball until I get back, Peterson.

You arent technically my superior, Ralston.

So Chuck did have a last name after all. Peterson didnt sound very happy with him by any name.

Chuck walked past us like we werent there. The uniformed guard was holding the doors of the elevator open as if hed been ordered to. If you dont like it, Peterson, call the governor, see who he thinks is in charge tonight.

Petersons face closed down, fighting for blankness, but his hands flexed, and I knew pissed when I saw it. What had been happening between the two of them while wed been in Shadwell and Rowes tender care? Something was up; question was, what? It was none of my business; I kept repeating that in my head like a mantra. Jason had gotten me to promise that I would not mess with Chuck, but God, he made it hard not to yank his chain.

I was good. I let Chuck get on the elevator. Let the doors close, and said not a word.

Jason squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek.

What was that for? I asked.

For being good. I dont know why, but Chuck seems to make you want to pick at him.

You, too, Mr. Kiss-Me-in-the-Parking-Garage.

Jason actually looked embarrassed, which I didnt get to see often. I treasured it for the rare gift it was, and we were left facing Peterson. Him I didnt want to mess with; he seemed sort of harassed. Or maybe hed been nice at the hospital and it cut him more slack than Chuck.

Shadwell and Rowe were still with us like good bodyguards. Until Shadwell had gone all serious getting out of the elevator, Id begun to suspect they were guarding us to make sure we didnt do anything embarrassing to the Summerlands as much as they were guarding us from the press. But the exit from the elevator had been too real. I could leave Chuck alone, but I needed to know what was up from someone.

You have about a half hour until theentertainment arrives. He said entertainment like it hurt.

Are you kicking us out then? I asked.

He shook his head. I just assumed that Mr. Schuyler would be more comfortable leaving then, but no, I dont have any orders for when you leave the party, or if. Again, his voice said he didnt like it.

Jason said, Im sorry if our coming to the party is a problem.

Peterson looked surprised, but recovered himself. I think you mean that. You may look like Keith, but you dont sound like him.

Shadwell and Rowe stiffened beside me, as if they werent used to Peterson being quite that honest.

Jason gave him a bright smile. Thats one of the nicest things anyones ever said to me.

Not true and I knew it, but it made Peterson smile, and I think that was what Jason wanted. Jason liked everyone to be happy if he could manage it.

The door opened behind us, and a flock of blond women who all looked like Jasons sisters should have looked swarmed over him, squealing happy cries of Jason, Jason! They pulled him into the room, and he went, laughing.

I was left in the hallway with the bodyguards. Peterson looked at me. It was a wondering-what-Id-do look. Was he worried Id be jealous? Was that part of why he hadnt wanted us here?

Rowe stifled a laugh that he tried to turn into a cough.

Shadwell said, in a dry voice, You really should get something for that cough.

I smiled at them all. Its okay, guys. Im not going to go all jealous because Jason is flirting and theyre flirting back. Im cool.

No woman is that cool, Shadwell said.

I smiled and shook my head. Jason flirts like he breathes. Both will stop only when hes dead.

Shadwell said, You are not his girlfriend, or this would bother you.

I gave him full eye contact as I said, Hell flirt with them, Shadwell, but hell be fucking me later.

His pale eyes flinched, and his face went sort of grim. You trying to shock me?

No, Shadwell, Im trying to make you understand that if theres a problem tonight it wont be me.

Peterson said, Enough. I dont know what is happening with the two of you, but I do not need it tonight. Is that clear, Shadwell?

Shadwell gave one clear nod.

Good. Peterson looked at me. Ms. Marshal Blake, do you have an objection to Shadwell and Rowe being inside the room with you for at least the beginning of the party?

Okay, thats it, the civvies are inside the room, with more guards, I assume?

Peterson just nodded.

Shadwell and Rowe stayed on our side of the hotel room door. They did a serious exit from the elevator up here. They had a shitload of uniforms downstairs when I insisted on putting my carry-on in the hotel safe. I thought that was to keep the press at bay, but somethings happened. What is it?

You may not be a civilian, Marshal Blake, but you arent one of us. We cant

Is the threat against all the Summerlands, just the kids, or is it Keith specifically?

Rowe and Shadwell exchanged glances. Peterson fought not to look at them, and to keep my eye contact. He had to work at it.

We are not at liberty to discuss

Dont give me that bullshit, Peterson. You were at the hospital today. I do not want to go to his family and say we got their only son killed because he was mistaken for a Summerland boy. Not to mention that I wouldI waved my hand in the air, trying to think how to say itit would leave this big hole in my life to lose Jason. So we arent going to lose him, are we? I glared at all three of them.

We are doing our best, Peterson said.

What has changed in just the last few hours?

I cannot share the information, you dont have clearance.

How much danger is Jason in? I asked.

You know its not him.

But he could be hurt by accident, I said.

Peterson made an exasperated sound low in his throat. Yes, he looks enough like both the boys to be in danger.

In danger of death, or kidnapping, or what? I asked.

This time they exchanged a flurry of looks, including Peterson. Shadwell said, She isnt cleared for this.

I will have to clear it with my superiors, but Ill try to get permission to fill you in on some of it, Peterson said. Go to the party, enjoy yourselves, stay longer than thirty minutes; maybe by the time the party is over I can tell you more.

Theyll never go for that, Shadwell said.

Until they give you my job, Shadwell, I will run this operation the way I see fit. Is that clear?

Very, sir, Shadwell said, and managed that great neutral military voice, where you can say Yes, sir all day long while inside youre thinking You motherfucker.

Then do your job. Ralston will be back to check on things later.

Ralston, sir? Shadwell said.

Peterson nodded. Yes, Ralston.

Why is Chuck in charge of the party? I asked.

Ask the governor, Peterson said. He leaned back and opened the door for me. He was going to see me safely inside the room before he left, apparently. I didnt argue, just let Rowe go into the room first, then me, then Shadwell. Shouldnt they have done that for Jason? Oh, wait, hed been safe behind the wall of beautiful blond women. Now thats body armor.

33

T HE ROOM WAS almost identical to ours except for the dcor. It was all white and golden-tan, much cleaner lines, less fuss than our room. It was much airier and through the windows which were still open to the night I saw a balcony railing. The two groups of sofas and chairs were empty. There were presents on the glass dining table still in their sparkling wrappers. Apparently it was a combination bachelorette party and bridal shower. Either that or theyd changed the rules for bachelorette parties and now you got presents.

Where were Jason and the girls? Then I heard a giggle. It came from around the corner where, if it had been our room, the bedroom lay. Of course, it did.

Shad stopped me with a hand motion. I hadnt even realized Id made a movement forward. He called out, Price, Sanchez?

A man came around the corner. He was the first non-WASP that Id seen in this town. Well, unless you counted Jasons dad and his sisters. They, at least, werent blond. But Sanchez was nicely dark; other than skin tone he looked like all the other guards. They all had this stamped-out-of-the-same-mill feel to them. Rowe was the closest to his own person, but everyone else smelled of a system that trained large groups of men to fight other large groups of men. They came out of the military straight into another kind of unit, which had not helped them lose their cohesiveness.

He talked as he moved in front of the minibar to stand beside us. They wanted to show the man the wedding dresses, Sanchez said.

I looked at Shad. May I?

He nodded.

I stepped forward and offered a hand to Sanchez. He looked a little startled, but he gave me a good handshake. He had small hands for his size, or at least for the shoulders that were straining his suit. It looked like hed hit the gym a lot recently, and hadnt bought the next size up suit. It made his gun show very stark at his hip under the jacket.

Rowe said, Sanchez, you gotta get a bigger jacket, man. Your gun shows bad.

Sanchez shrugged the big shoulders, though he was only about five foot six, the shortest guard Id seen among Petersons people. Maybe thats why hed hit the gym so hard; compensation.

His eyes were so brown they were almost black, darker even than my own. He flicked the eyes to Rowe with a frown, then said, Not in front of

The mark, I said, the job, what do you call the people you babysit?

He gave me a speculative look out of those very dark eyes. Youre from out of town. He made it a statement.

I smiled. You have no idea.

He actually grinned, before Shadwell said, If theyre changing clothes you and Price can stay outside the room.

Sanchez shook his head, frowning again. They arent changing, but our orders were explicit. Until further notice we do not lose sight of ourhe glanced at me, then finished withcharges. He said the last softly, as if it wasnt quite the word he would have used if one of the charges hadnt been standing in front of him.

I smiled at him, and something about the smile made him shift, or maybe the gun was digging into his side.

Your jacket fits nice, but its harder to hide a shoulder holster, he said.

Oh, hed noticed the gun. It was my turn to shrug. I got used to wearing it.

Shadwell said, Shes a federal marshal, and the girlfriend of the man.

Sanchezs eyes went a little wide. He dont act like he has a girlfriend.

I smiled, and this time it was a happy one. Are his clothes still on? I asked.

Sanchez tried not to look startled, but failed a little around the edges. Last I checked.

I smiled wider. Then Jason hasnt gotten too carried away yet.

He take his clothes off in front of groups of women a lot? Sanchez asked.

I nodded. All the time, I said. I didnt explain what Jasons job was; I was enjoying Sanchezs reaction too much. It was helping me delay going into the next room, which was pretty much my goal.

Hes a stripper, Shadwell said, a little disgusted.

I gave him a dirty look. Ill thank you to keep a civil tone about my boyfriends job, thanks.

Shadwells eyes flashed at me from behind his glasses, showing that there was a little blue to all that gray in his eyes. No offense.

Sure, I said.

He the entertainment? Sanchez asked.

No, Shadwell said, and he didnt explain either.

Great, we were just going to play need-to-know until we were all confused.

It was Rowe who moved around so he could look me in the face. His eyes had seemed very brown, until I had Sanchezs to look into; now they seemed pale.

Youre delaying so you dont have to go into the other room.

I gave him an unfriendly look. You dont know me well enough to make that guess.

Its not a guess, he said.

I turned the look into a glare.

He laughed, and raised his hands ceilingward. Hey, dont give me that look just because Im right.

I shrugged, and tried not to be childish about it. I settled for sounding a little sulky, but I couldnt help that part. Youre smarter than you look, Rowe.

Now youre just being mean, he said.

Accurate, Sanchez said, with a smile.

You said if we had a problem tonight it wouldnt be you, Shadwell said.

I turned the remnants of the unfriendly look on him. But explaining might keep me in this room until they stopped looking at the wedding clothes. I am an unmarried woman who is dating a man seriously enough to drop everything and come home to meet his folks. We have no plans to marry, but if I go into the other room with the wedding dresses being ooh ed and aah ed over, the women are going to ask about our plans. Jason and I dont have any plans, and that will bug the women. I dont want to mess with it.

Why would you come home to meet someones family if you have no plans to marry? Shadwell asked.

Ill answer your question if youll answer one of mine first.

He looked suspicious, but I think they werent much more eager to go into the next room than I was. The sound of giggling was being punctuated by Jasons laugh. You can ask.

What caused the order to come down that you arent to let your charges out of your sight?

Shadwell shook his head. If Peterson gives us permission Ill be happy to tell you, but until then, I cant.

Orders, I said.

Chain of command, he said.

I nodded. What happens when Chuck comes back? Is he higher in the chain of command than you are?

They all exchanged glances. Shadwell actually rolled his lower lip under, which was the most nerves Id seen him show.

You dont know where he stands in the chain of command, do you?

Thats none of your business, Shadwell said.

Whatever you say, shall we go see if everyones still got all their clothes on?

We could just keep talking out here, Rowe said.

We could, but Ive delayed as long as my self-respect will allow. Time to brave the giggling horde.

All women giggle, Rowe said.

I dont, I said.

He gave me a look that was neither professional nor okay from a strange man. I bet I could make you giggle.

Rowe, Shadwell said, in a serious voice.

You just lost points in my book, Rowe, serious points.

He held up his hands in a push-away gesture. Sorry, that was out of line.

Yeah, I said, it was, and if you expect to be in the room with us while we sleep tonight, you are so very wrong.

Shadwell actually stepped between us to break the eye contact. We hope the orders will change by then.

Im sorry, Rowe said again, its just nice to talk to a woman that doesnt have that look in her eyes.

What look? I asked.

That how-fast-can-I-get-you-down-the-aisle look.

I laughed. I think thats your nerves projecting, Rowe.

This from the woman who didnt want to go into the next room because shes afraid theyll press you to marry your boyfriend.

You can tell how happy a couple is by how hard the women try to fix up their single friends, I said.

Some men do that, too, Sanchez said.

There was a loud thump from the next room, and near-hysterical laughter.

Shit, I said, and started for the room.

I thought you didnt want to go in there, Rowe called.

I dont, but I just realized Im actually nervous about it, which means Ive got to go in.

That makes no sense, Rowe said. Youre going to do it because you know youre afraid to do it?

I didnt correct his afraid to my nervous, because my pulse was up, my muscles tense. I was just meeting some of Jasons old girlfriends, for Gods sake. He and I werent even really an item.

Shes got to do it now, Shadwell said.

Why? Rowe asked.

That you gotta ask that question is why you had to leave the cops early.

What the hell does that mean? Rowe asked.

Shadwell had hurried his step to catch up with me, then slowed down because his stride was about twice mine. We didnt have to look at each other to understand. If something scares you, no matter how small, you gotta face it, because if you start failing on the small stuff, youll eventually fail on the big stuff. Shadwell got that; Rowe didnt. Shadwell and I didnt necessarily like each other, but hed go through into the bedroom with me. Sanchez was right behind us. Rowe trailed behind.

I could see a metal folding screen that hid most of the bedroom from view. Shadwell went past the screen first, and suddenly we could see in. There was a storm of giggling, and deep blue crinoline was everywhere. A pale blue dress came flying through the air to land at our feet. It was raining blue bridesmaid dresses.

34

I ACTUALLY HAD to stop beside the fainting couch just inside the room, because it looked like someone had planned the image. The bed was covered in blue dresses. In among the dresses were Jason and the women. They were all blond, blue-eyed, delicate, and looked like cousins or closer. They were all out of breath, and lying or sitting like theyd just finished doing something strenuous. The blue dresses near their faces made their eyes incredibly blue.

Trish stood to the side of the little party like shed fled the bed when the fun started. She stood behind a man in a suit who had to be Price, Sanchezs other half.

What did you guys do, I asked, have a dress fight?

Lisa pushed back a puffy blue slip and said, Yes. We are going to be in such trouble when the wedding coordinator sees the wrinkles, but it felt so good.

Trish bent over and picked up a dress that had fallen to the floor. If we hang them up now, they wont wrinkle.

Most of the women on the bed started picking things up and searching for hangers. But one of the women slid off the bed and came to me. She was taller than the others, taller than me by several inches, at least five foot eight, but still had that delicacy of bone that seemed par for the course.

She was wearing either a sheath dress or a slip with the thinnest of spaghetti straps that clung to her body to show every muscle, every curve. She didnt have enough body fat to really have curves. Her breasts were small and tight to her body. But she moved well, and the muscles that showed in her bare arms and the body of the dress were more than the muscles you get from working out to keep in shape. There was a physical potential to her that you didnt see in many women.

Jason bounced off the bed, literally, and caught her hand before she got to me. Anita, this is J. J.; she and I were in dance together all through school.

J. J. gave me an appraising look that I couldnt quite figure out. It wasnt just an old girlfriend looking at a new one, but that was in there. I couldnt read the look, and that bothered me a little.

I took her hand, carefully manicured but with nails short enough for function. She had a good grip. I take it youre still dancing.

She gave me a smile that was shy, eyes turned down, looking under her long lashes at me. The lashes were golden and very long, and the color had to be natural because mascara would have ruined it. Does it show that much?

The workout does, I said, and realized she seemed to have no intention of breaking the handshake. I had to draw my hand away from her. Her fingertips lingered on my wrist, and down my hand.

She was flirting with me. Great. I had no idea why, or what to do about it. Women always confused me when they hit on me. I kept forgetting that they could do that, or would want to. If it stayed this subtle I could ignore it, but for J. J. to be even this bold right out of the box made me pretty sure that it wouldnt stay subtle.

I gave Jason a look, as if to say, What have you told her about me?

He gave me a look back that said, Not my fault. I didnt believe the look. He moved between us and hugged me tight. He breathed against my ear, more than whispered, I did not tell her that you would be interested.

If he said it outright, I believed him, butI still didnt know what to do about it. I did what I always did when someone confused me: I tried to ignore her. The other women helped, by wanting to be introduced to Jasons girlfriend. First Jean-Claudes girlfriend, now Jasons. Sigh. You get a career, work your ass off for a reputation, and you still end up being introduced as someones girlfriend. Peachy.

35

J ENNA WAS A real estate developer, or worked for one. Jen was a stay-at-home mom married to her high school boyfriend. They had two kids. Kris was about to graduate with her degree in architecture. Shed done most of the set design for the plays at school. Ashley was finishing up her student teaching; she was hoping to teach drama somewhere along with English classes. They talked about the time shed directed Pygmalion, which was the nonmusical version of My Fair Lady, and what an amazing job shed done. So glad you stayed in the business. J. J. was performing with a professional dance company in New York City. Lisa had come home to work in her dads law office as a paralegal. He was the local lawyer for the Summerlands. Its where Keith met her again. No one said it out loud, but it was strongly implied that her father wished fervently that hed sent his daughter on that European trip shed wanted instead of insisting she get a job right away.

They talked about plays theyd worked on, dreams theyd had, dreams theyd followed, dreams theyd lost. Only Jason, Ashley, and J. J. had stayed with the dance outside school all the way through collegethough Jen was taking an adult ballet class, trying to get back into shape after having two kids in less than three years. She wasnt out of shape, but the weight made her look older than the other women. Or maybe, just the lack of sleep of having two kids still in diapers. Itd age anybody.

Trish and I were the odd girls out. We had no old times to remember, so we drifted back to the edge of the group, finding a spot in the far conversational grouping. There was only a white sectional sofa with its back to the bedroom, because the dining table took up the room near the windows. We sat on the sofa, a discreet distance from each other, both of us a little uncomfortable. I never warmed up instantly to strangers, and I think Trish was waiting for me to be mad at Jason, or the other women.

They were on the sectional nearest the door with its back to the windows. There were chairs there, but none of the women were using them. They were all cuddled on the sectional, very Roman, as in ancient; very decadent, as in any century. The happy group was beginning to drink a little, except for Jason. He wouldnt drink for the same reason that most lycanthropes didnt drink. It lowered your inhibitions, and that meant it was harder to control the inner beast. No, drinking and drugs did not go with being a good little wereanimal.

Doesnt it bother you that Jason is flirting like that? Trish asked, sipping her drink.

I glanced over at the group on the couch. At the moment, Lisa was draped in his lap, almost prone, while he stroked her hair. Kris was behind him, cuddled so close she was in danger of spilling her drink over him and Lisa. Theyd all had their turns of hanging all over him.

I shrugged, and sipped my Coke. I never did drink, and almost for the same reason Jason couldnt drink, neither could I.

One, its Jason, he flirts like he breathes. Two, hes a stripper, which has sort of encouraged his natural tendencies in this area. Third, he wants them to see him as attractive. He wants to flirt with his old girlfriends.

Wow, Trish said, that is like way more secure than I would be right now.

I smiled, and tried to think if Id feel the same if it were Nathaniel, or Micah, or Jean-Claude. I really tried to think about it. Micah almost never flirted. But Nathaniel did for many of the same reasons that Jason did, and Jean-Claude flirted when he wished to, to perfection. Would I have been more jealous of them than I was being of Jason? Maybe. Probably. I just didnt know.

But it was more than the fact that Jason wasnt my main squeeze. My version of the ardeur gave me the ability to see peoples desires, sometimesif the ardeur was very active, or the peoples desires were that strong.

Jean-Claude had worked with me so that I could sense things with the ardeur but not have it rise for feeding. I was getting better. Tonight let me know how much better. I could feel that most of the women hanging all over him didnt mean it. They were flirting, but not with intent. The flirting and the physical contact was an end in itself for most of them. The exception was the bride-to-be.

Lisa was desperate. It was the only word I had for her energy. She was desparate to fuck someone. It didnt have to be Jason. Her need was the strongest of any over there, and it had an edge of panic to it.

I had not reached out with the ardeur on purpose, but the energies from the couch were strong enough that they leaked around me, like whiffs of perfume. The bodyguards were the biggest problem for sheer lust. Not all of them, and I tried not to pay attention to which ones were basically thinking thoughts that would have gotten them slapped if the women had known. I didnt read minds, especially of strangers, but I caught touches of their desires. Not feelings exactly, because the ardeur didnt work on emotions except those that had to do with desire, love, and the associated stuff.

Marianne, my metaphysical tutor, psychic, and witch, said that I was like an empath, someone who could read emotions, but only a very limited list of emotions. Fine with me; I had enough trouble with the short list. The long list that Marianne waded through was beyond me.

Strangely, the one person who wasnt projecting anything at me was Jason. He was like a blank. I might have risked sending the ardeur into his psyche on purpose, but I wasnt feeling confident enough to risk it. I might accidentally touch his inner beast, too, and that might bring on mine. That would be bad.

Jason caught my eye, and I toasted him with my Coke. He extracted himself from the other women and came to sit on the arm of my chair. He put his arm across my shoulders. You okay over here?

I put my arm around his waist because it seemed like the thing to do. He snuggled into the hug. You mean am I getting pissed that youve been flirting your ass off for the last hour and completely ignoring me?

He laughed, then kissed me on the cheek. Yes, thats what I mean.

I smiled up at him. Youve done about what I thought youd do, except for not checking on me sooner.

He let himself slip down into the chair so that he just ended up on my lap. He took my Coke out of my hand with a practiced move of his hand. Probably something he did at the club to keep customers from spilling their drinks on him. He took a sip of the Coke without asking, and leaned in close enough to kiss me as he murmured, Im sorry.

I pushed him back enough to see his face clearly. I admit the flirting has been a little more than I thought it would be, but its okay. You flirt, you just do. It took me a long time to realize that flirting for you and Nathaniel, and even Jean-Claude, doesnt always mean a damn thing.

He nuzzled my cheek. But when you flirt, you mean it.

Most of the time, I said.

He nibbled his lips along the side of my neck. It made me shiver. Stop that, it tickles.

He did it some more, making me wiggle again. Its supposed to tickle.

I put a hand against his shoulder and pushed him away enough to look up in his face. Whatever he saw there didnt make him happy. I saw that in his own face.

Youre mad, he said, softly.

Trish said, My cue to leave. Have fun. She got up and walked away in her spike heels to join the other ladies.

I thought about what Jason had said, then shook my head. You know how you said that you hated being invisible to me as a guy, and loved me reacting to you now?

Yes.

I think I just realized that you react to all women the way you react to me. You complain that youre not special enough to me in comparison to the other men in my life, but Jasonwhat do you do different with me that you dont do with other women?

He frowned, clearly puzzled.

I tried again. What did you do with Perdy that was different, special?

He frowned harder. She restricted the sex to a point that made it not fun anymore. Her idea of straight was too straight for me.

I nodded. But what I mean is, that you react, or interact, with all women the same. Watching you with them, I cant tell the difference between the early foreplay with them and what you do with me. Its not flattering to realize that you dont differentiate.

He sat in my lap, my Coke still in his hand, thinking at me. He was thinking so loud I could almost hear it. I actually watched the light dawn in his eyes.

Nathaniel acts differently around you than the women at the club. Jean-Claude, too. He seemed to think about it a little more, then nodded. Even some of the men who arent in love with you treat you differently. They want different things from you than from anyone else, like Requiem and Asher.

I nodded. Exactly.

He leaned in to whisper, I thought one of my charms was that I didnt want to be anything more than fuck buddies.

I had to smile. Elegantly put, Jason, but watching you with the women just now, I realized that I like to be special. I dont tolerate being part of a crowd. If you want to tell them that Im just a front to please your family, then do it, tell them the truth. They seem close enough friends. But if you are going to tell them that I am your girlfriend, a good enough girlfriend to bring home to the family, then you cant cuckold me with them.

He smiled. Cuckold?

I frowned at him. Pick a different word, but you know what I mean.

If it was Nathaniel, or Jean-Claude, you wouldnt have sat here for an hour and watched, would you?

They wouldnt have made me.

He set my Coke on the table the lamp was sitting on. It forced him to turn his body awkwardly, but he made it look vaguely promising, as if to say, Look how flexible I am. But I had Nathaniels flexibility to compare with, so I was less impressed than I might have been.

Jason turned back to me and gave me very serious eyes. Ive hurt your feelings.

Yes, but more than that I came here under cover for you, in a role that is not comfortable for me, and you just made all your old friends think that I would allow any boyfriend of mine to ignore me for an hour as he was pawed by old lovers. I wouldnt. The only thing that kept me in the chair was that I couldnt decide what to do. If we are just good friends and nothing more, then have at it, Jason. But if Im still supposed to be this serious girlfriend, you cant do shit like this.

Even if its only pretend that youre my serious girlfriend? he asked.

I nodded. Tell them the truth, and crawl all over them, have at it. But if you dont tell them the truth, then you cannot humiliate me like this, not if you want to maintain that I am in any way a serious girlfriend to you.

I watched him think some more. He opened his mouth, closed it, and glanced at the crowd of people behind us, all trying to pretend they werent there. He got off my lap and took my hand with him, drawing me to my feet.

He led me toward the bedroom. Rowe and Shadwell peeled away from the section of the wall they were holding up and tried to follow. Jason stopped them at the opening. No, and Im going to move the screen so we have some privacy.

Our orders, began Shadwell.

Im wearing more weapons than you are, Shadwell. I think well be all right.

He and Rowe exchanged glances, and then finally Shadwell nodded. If youre in there too long Im coming in, no matter what kind of sounds I hear. Just so youll know.

I think we can behave ourselves, I said.

Jason pulled me into the room and let go of my hand to move the metal screen over so it hid us from view, if we were on the bed. It was the best we could do without a door. Jason sat on the end of the bed and held his hand out to me.

I went to him, let him pull me to sit on the edge of the bed with him. Im sorry, he said.

Me, too, but you need to decide.

If I tell them the truth, what will you do?

What I want to do is go home, but I wont leave until I know what has the bodyguards all freaked. I think theres been some kind of threat against Keith Summerland, and Id never forgive myself if you got hurt by mistake.

His hand came up and cupped the side of my face, ever so gently. You care for me, and I return the favor by making you feel bad about yourself. Im sorry, Anita, really, I wasnt thinking.

Oh, you were thinking, just with the little head instead of the big one. As much as I enjoy both, I like you to make decisions with the top end.

He gave a small laugh, and moved our faces so he could kiss me. The kiss started to get out of hand, but I drew back, so that it didnt; drew back enough to look him in the eyes, his hand still against my face.

That look, he said, I know that look, that look of iron resolve. I dont know what it means in this instant, but it makes me a little nervous.

I smiled. Iron resolve, huh. Its just this, Jason: I dont share. Unfair or not, if you want to break our cover story, then you are free to try to sleep with whoever you want. Youre a big boy, but dont come dragging yourself from some strangers bed into mine.

You have to feed the ardeur at least one more time before we can go home, he said.

I nodded. Ill figure something out. Jean-Claude can help me feed from a distance, maybe. Ive been catching little bits of emotion from the women and the bodyguards and it hasnt raised the ardeur. Im getting more control.

You havent perfected the technique, Anita. Not of feeding from a distance, or control.

Its time we did. Maybe it will all work out for the best. If I could feed the ardeur through Jean-Claude, then I could take more out-of-town jobs without having to bring along lunch.

He grinned at me. Lunch, huh?

I nodded, and smiled at him in spite of myself. I was never sure why he could make me smile when I wanted to strangle him, but he could. It was one of the reasons we were still friends.

What am I going to do with you? I asked.

He spilled himself back against the bed, giving me that lecherous grin. I can think of something.

I stared down at him framed against the bedspread. I knew that I could have touched him and done nearly anything I wanted. Hed let me. The knowledge made things low in my body react, butI was beginning to realize that maybe that was true of most of the women in this room tonight. Somehow that took some of the shine off it for me. I bet you can, but if its one of the blondes youre wanting tonight, you need to fess up to them.

The last time I had sex with any of them was high school, Anita. It was fun, and a few times were very fun, but I have no idea how good they are at anything. The only person whod do nonstandard for sure would be J. J., and that would be complicated. I mean, recapturing the glory days usually goes badly.

I nodded. Yep.

But youd let me go out there and confess and flirt with intent.

I smiled. Flirt with intent, I was thinking exactly that earlier, but yeah, tell them the truth and you can have all the intent you want.

But if I dont tell them, then I have to behave myself better?

I nodded. Im afraid so. I feel sort of guilty asking that of you, but I cant bear it. I cant let them think that any man I might marry would be allowed to diss me this badly. I added, It sets a bad example to the other women, Jason. I mean, if even one woman seems to put up with shit like this, then it makes the other women more likely to put up with it for real. I just cant endorse it.

He clasped his hands across his stomach, looking serious. Only Jason could manage to look this serious and winsome on a bed at the same time. It was a gift.

I guess I understand that.

They think Im like almost your fiance and they are all over you like white on rice, right in front of me. Jason, that is lack of respect, from you and them.

He sighed, very heavy. Youre right, youre right.

Tell them the truth, and you can go back to what you were doing with them.

He sat up slowly like it was some sort of stomach exercise, making the T-shirt demonstrate just how tight it was. I love that, he said.

I blinked and looked from his stomach to his face. What? I asked.

That you watch me like that, that you notice me. I dont want to go back to being invisible to you, Anita.

I shrugged. I dont think youll ever be invisible to me, Jason.

But if I hurt your feelings this badly, reject you, then youll make sure you never act on it again.

You cant reject me if were just fuck buddies.

Thats what I thought, but I realize that were more than fuck buddies. A fuck buddy does not call in to work at a moments notice and say Ive got to fly out of town with a friend. A fuck buddy doesnt drop everything to come play some stupid charade. Someone who is just a fuck buddy doesnt come hold your hand when you see your father in the hospital and smell death on him. Fuck buddies are just about sex, Anita. Im the closest thing youll probably ever have to one, but the idea of a fuck buddy is that they are casual. Once I asked you to fly out here with me, that wasnt a casual request. I could only have asked that of someone who was my very close friend. He leaned in toward me, as if for a kiss.

I drew back a little. Kissing wont answer my question, Jason. Do we walk out of here as a couple, or just friends? I need to know what role Im playing for you here.

How about both? Ill tell them the truth, but I wont sleep around on you while were down here. That way, if any of what they seem to feel for me is real, it leaves it open for them to hunt me up afterward. But if its just old times and wedding nerves, then no harm done.

Actually, the ardeur sort of checked them out. For most of them the flirting is an end in itself. Most of them seem pretty levelheaded. Lisa would fuck you in a heartbeat, but her desire has an edge of panic to it.

Shes about to marry someone. I think shes scared.

I nodded. I can understand that, but Ive always thought if you were that nervous about the wedding, then youre marrying the wrong person.

He smiled. You would think that, but then you are one of the least commitment-phobic people I know.

I stared down at him. I know some people who might argue that with you.

He grinned. They think because you havent chosen one man above all the others that you dont know how to commit, when actually, I think your problem is that you commit too easily, and once you commit to someone you stick.

One woman cannot be committed to this many men.

Maybe, but you treat your lovers better than a lot of women treat their boyfriends.

Sorry to hear that, I said.

He looked wistful for a moment. I shielded as hard as I could so I didnt hit the radar for either the ardeur or your beasts.

I smiled. You did an excellent job; you were a blank.

He smiled again. Good, Im really wishing we hadnt come at all. For me, its great, but not for you. I didnt think it through. Its a bachelorette party; there is going to be a lot of sexual tension tonight. Its going to really challenge your ardeur.

Hard to have a quickie with Shadwell and Rowe in the room, I said.

Whats with them not leaving us alone?

I told you, I dont know yet, but Ill find out.

He sighed. I think Ill tell the girls, but only them. Well pretend for everyone else but my friends.

Friends you havent seen since college may not be as good a friend as you remember.

I know, but when Irvings article comes out tomorrow, our cover is blown anyway.

True. So tell them the truth, but keep your options open?

He nodded, and then a smile began to creep around the edges. Though with J. J. we could do both. Had my first mnage trois with her and a friend.

I shook my head. A mnage trois in high school?

No, I came back for winter break from college and so did J. J.

Trust you to have the two-girl fantasy come true before you were legal to drink.

He grinned full-out. Ive always been precocious.

Ill just bet you have.

He stood up and offered me his hand. Ill try to be as good a friend to you as you are to me, Anita.

I took his hand. Deal.

I tried to make it a handshake, but he raised my hand to his lips and kissed me. I guess either way, we had our compromise. Now we just had to see how the blondes in the next room took the news.

36

W HILE WED BEEN having our heart-to-heart, so had the women. Lisa was crying on the couch with all the women hovering around her. J. J. left the group and came to us.

Were so sorry, Anita, she said. We behaved badly.

Lisa sobbed and talked at the same time. Please, dont be mad, Anita, please She came to us, a little unsteady on her feet. Trish stayed at her side like a spotter. Lisa clutched at my arm, swaying gently on her high heels. The little black dress and heels that she was wearing made her look pale now that all the makeup had vanished from crying.

I tensed my arm under her hands to give her something more solid to hold on to, because without it shed have fallen.

She tried to focus on my face, and looked like it was hard work. Im so sorry, Anita. I was so awful to you.

Its okay, Lisa, I said. She had that feel to her of one of those depressed drunks who might dissolve into tears or hysterics if I didnt just forgive her. Frankly, I blamed Jason more than anyone, so I wasnt mad at her. He hadnt set the rules, nor had I. If the couple doesnt set the boundaries, then you cant blame strangers for not knowing what those boundaries are.

She staggered toward me, I think to see my face better. I was beginning to wonder if it was more than drink. Did she need glasses and wasnt wearing them? She leaned into my face, peering close enough that it was too intimate in the suddenly silent room. She studied my eyes from inches away, clinging to my arm. She was nearsighted, Id have bet money on it, because closer, she seemed to see me better. If I could use her guilt for two things, I would. Try to sober her up, and have someone find her damn glasses.

She overbalanced on her heels and fell into me. I let go of Jasons hand and grabbed her. I found out two things about Lisa Bromwell. One, she was drunk enough she couldnt right herself; in fact her knees started to go. Two, she wasnt wearing a damn thing under the little black dress. Howd I find out that last bit? I grabbed her at the lower waist and inadvertently raised the short skirt enough to bare most of her ass to the room. If I hadnt been worried about flashing the room, I could have just picked her up. She weighed maybe a hundred pounds. But I couldnt figure out how to lift her and not let the men in the room see the entire show. One of those moments when you just go, Huh, no idea what to do.

Jason and J. J. saved me. They both came in and took an arm apiece, which let me shift her dress back down. I watched her eyes roll back into her head. J. J. had time to say, Lisa

I moved to catch her. I didnt mean to move faster than human-normal, but I suddenly found one arm across her back and one arm under her thighs. Jason saw the movement and let go of the arm he was holding. J. J. was left clinging to one of Lisas arms, eyes a little wide. I stood there holding Lisa and being looked at very seriously by everyone in the room. The women were just surprised; the bodyguards had that lookthat if-things-go-bad-we-shoot-her-first look.

Shit. I wasnt used to being faster than a speeding bullet. Okay, not that fast, but I was almost as quick as a real lycanthrope. My reaction times had become bloody spectacular. I had spent most of my life struggling with the best I could offer being barely good enough physically, and nownow just catching one drunk woman had startled a room full of armed men. Crap.

Jason kissed me on the cheek, softly. Its okay, he whispered. J. J. let go of Lisas arm and gave me full wide eyes. That was like magic. One second she was falling, and then you just had her in your arms. Are you that fast, or did you fuck with my mind?

Yes, Shadwell said, from where he was standing away from the wall, hand a little hovery over his weapon, which is it, Marshal? Speed, or did you mind-fuck the entire room like some kind of vampire?

Its speed, Jason said.

Are you a shapeshifter? Shadwell asked.

I shook my head. No, not exactly.

What does not exactly mean? he asked.

I gave him an unfriendly look and said, You like your secrets; you tell me what I want to know, and Ill share. Until then, you arent cleared for this information. I admit, that last part was said in a voice with an edge to it. Was I teasing him, or just pissed at the situation in general? Both.

Trish recovered first and came over with a light jacket that someone had taken off. She draped it across Lisas lower body. I guess she was right. The dress was short enough that nothing I could do holding her in my arms would keep her from flashing the room. Thats what underwear is for, girls, so if an emergency happens you only show your cookies to the people you love.

Lets put Lisa on the couch, Trish said.

I started walking toward the couch with the woman in my arms. Trish said, Isnt she heavy?

No, I said, and she wouldnt have been even before I got stronger than the average human, but then I could still bench-press my own body weight, and I weighed more than Lisa did. Which was why I could carry her across the room and lay her on the couch. There was plenty of room to lay her down because the women had scattered like pigeons when a child runs through them. None of them seemed to want to meet my eyes, or be too close to me. Prejudiced bitches.

I laid her gently down and made sure the jacket stayed over her. Is she out for the night? I asked no one in particular.

Jason said, Guys, I told you that I was a werewolf, and you were okay with cuddling on the couch. Now youre treating Anita like shes scary just because she kept Lisa from hitting the floor.

J. J. said, Jasons right. Were being stupid. She offered me her hand again, but this time there was no flirting, just a very direct look from those blue eyes.

I took the hand.

She said, Thank you for catching my friend. Im sorry it startled us. She gave an unfriendly look to all the others around the couch. We are going to behave ourselves better than this toward our friends girlfriend, arent we, girls? It was phrased as a question, but it was said as an order.

Some of the other women glanced at each other, but it was Jen who walked over and offered me her hand. The mother of two was dressed in the only pantsuit of the bunch. It was a nice pantsuit, though, and showed off the new baby curves to advantage. Her shoulder-length hair formed a yellow frame to all that pale skin and blue eyes. Her makeup was understated, and almost invisible.

She gave me a good solid handshake, and even better eye contact. Shed been one of the few who hadnt hung all over Jason. I guess it was that whole married thing. Monogamy at its best.

First we disrespected you by climbing all over your steady boyfriend, then we react like schoolkids when you save our friend from a fall. I dont know what you must think of us, Anitaplease, give us another chance.

I nodded, and was more nervous or pissed or whatever than I knew, because I said what I was thinking. You didnt do anything inappropriate with Jason, Jen. So no harm done. And a lot of people are spooked by the preternatural stuff.

I guess that was aimed at the rest of us, Jenna said. She came forward in her own version of the little black dress. It was heavier material and not quite as short as Lisas had been, but it was still the proverbial black dress, just the clubbing version. There is a little black dress for business, funerals (those can be the same dress), and parties. The latter are usually shorter and show more cleavage. Jennas dress was no exception to the rule.

Her hair was almost the same white blond that Lisas was. She even had her hair back in a ponytail, too. They looked like Barbie clones, or maybe Paris Hilton clones. Eek.

Jenna offered a perfectly manicured hand with nails painted black to match the dress. She was a little unsteady on her heels, but her voice was firm and didnt sound the least bit drunk. I promise we will do better than this.

I had to smile for some reason. I believe you, I said.

She smiled back, and the others came up one by one to shake my hand and apologize. Kris, who was a wee bit more drunk than everyone but Lisa, hugged me clumsily. Pawing your guy right in front of you, Im so sorry.

I patted her bare back awkwardly. I didnt like strangers hugging me. Why bare back? Because the back of her little white dress was nothing but straps. But most of the group had small enough breasts to carry off a dress where a bra was out of the question.

Kris got a little teary. Ive been a bitch.

I patted her and looked for someone to rescue me from the drunken blonde. J. J. took her off my hands and led her away to the end of the couch.

I looked at Jason, waiting for him to tell his friends the truth. That we werent really that close a couple and he could date them if they wanted. Jason was studying us all, and didnt seem about to raise the topic. Id be damned if Id do it.

There was a knock at the door. Shadwell nodded and Sanchez and the silent Price went for the door. Sanchez called back, Its Chuck and the entertainment. He said both Chuck and entertainment like they were bad words.

I looked at the women, most of them already a little drunk and overly emotional. I really didnt want to see what the group would do around strippers. I went to Jason and whispered, Can we go now?

It was Ashley, who had the most elaborate hairdo of the bunch, like shed gone to a beauty shop and had help, who said, Dont go, Anita. Please, you have to stay. We want to be your friends. If you go now, youll think were terrible.

Kris raised a tear-streaked face. Stay, Anita, stay and enjoy the party with us. Please.

I leaned in and whispered to Jason, through gritted teeth. I am not staying here alone.

He put an arm around my waist and kissed me. Wouldnt dream of leaving you alone. He gave me that look at the end of the sentence. I realized that if Id asked him to leave with me, he would have, but Id in effect asked him to stay with me. Was it too late to do a take-back?

37

C HUCK CAME THROUGH the door, scowling. I wondered who had gotten his panties in a twist. Then I got a glimpse of the man behind him. He was tall, tanned to a nice even brown, with medium-brown hair cut so short on the sides that you got a glimpse of paler skin underneath. His eyes were gray, and looked almost white in the dark of his face. He was around six feet, built slender but with the bulk that a weight room will give you to cover a build that might have been willowy otherwise. He was wearing a white tux that gleamed against his tan and made everything darker and lighter, at the same time.

Two uniformed guards came next, carrying a large trunk between them. Jason tensed beside me, and a second later I felt it, too. A prickle of energy breathed into the room. A second later, the reason for it glided through the door.

He was as tall as the first stripper, but with short curls that fell around his ears, so blond his hair was white. His eyes were blue with an edge of some other color dancing in them. Id have to be closer to know what that second shade was, and I didnt plan on getting closer. Not if I could help it.

Then I felt another kind of energy. A cooler energy.

A second set of guards came through with another trunk, and the last dancer was the cherry on top of this bad idea. He was the same height as the other two, like theyd been chosen for it like a matched trio of horses. His brunette hair was almost black, but I had mine and Sanchezs to compare it to, so it was only brunette. It fell in soft waves to his shoulders, framing a face that was more handsome than pretty, but it was a nice face. There was even a dimple in the chin, and another at the corner of his mouth when he smiled at the room. He smiled delicately, so as not to flash fangs.

No vampire strippers, huh? I said.

Jason put his arms around my waist and drew me against his body. My mistake.

Jason breathed against my ear, rather than whispered, trying not to be heard by the other preternaturals who had just strolled into the room. Ive seen his pictures. This is the vampire that pretends to be Jean-Claude in Vegas.

What Jason meant was that this was the lead performer in a vampire strip revue in Las Vegas. The master of their city, MaximillianMax for shorthad petitioned Jean-Claude to allow him to do a Vegas show that was based on some of the acts at Guilty Pleasures. Some negotiations later and we had our first spin-off show.

Since they couldnt have Jean-Claude, they found a vampire that looked like him. To me, it was a superficial resemblance, but from a seat in the audience it might do.

Jasons arms tightened on my waist, and he breathed against my ear, He calls himself Lucian.

I whispered, Calls himself?

He kissed the side of my neck, and whispered, Stage name.

Ah. Part of me wanted to leave, but part of me was curious. And, at least, the men getting groped by the women wouldnt be any of my sweeties. Which meant I wouldnt have to work at the whole jealousy issue while the show was going on. Thatd be almost relaxing.

I settled my back more securely against the front of Jasons body. He snuggled the side of my face and said, Busmans holiday for me.

I turned so I could see his face. You want to go?

He smiled at me. Just surprised you want to stay.

I shrugged. I dont want to stay, or not want to stay.

He kissed me from behind, pressing my face backward so it was a good, rough kiss. A good enough kiss that it left me a little breathless. We go to our room and we can do this for real.

I smiled at him. You offering me a private dance?

The absolute most private I give. He smiled when he said it, and it was a good smile. A smile that left only one answer.

Lets go.

Keith, the vampire said, coming over to us, I didnt know youd be here, and with another brunette. Lucian glanced behind at the couch and the still-unconscious bride. Wont her friends tell?

Hes not Keith, the white-haired dancer said. He looks like Keith, but he doesnt smell like Keith. The dancer glided over to us and started trying to circle us, but Shadwell and Rowe moved up so the movement was aborted.

The dancer smiled at them, and us, and backed up a little. You vampires, always relying on your eyes. Cant you feel it? Hes one of us, and so is she.

Weretigers? Lucian made it a question.

No, the dancer said, and moved close enough to invade our personal space. He sniffed the air in front of us. Wolf, and something He moved a little closer, inches closer. I could feel his energy like heat rising off his skin.

Back up, I said.

He sniffed just above my face. The energy jump was bigger, harsher, like electric bugs biting along my skin. I dont know what you are, he whispered.

She said to back off. Rowe moved in front of me and forced the weretiger back. I was glad of the help. Because there was a stirring of energy inside me in that dark place where my beasts hid. I breathed through it, concentrated. I could do this. Id been practicing. I could control my beasts, all of them, most of them. Oh, hell, tiger was the newest and new always means a learning curve.

I licked suddenly dry lips and said, Rowe, Shadwell, escort us to the door.

My pleasure, Rowe said.

Shadwell moved up to join him. They moved the dancers back.

Why leave? the weretiger said. Stay and play.

You have plenty of women to play with, I said. You dont need me.

But theyre not as alive as you are, the weretiger said.

Chuck said, Youre being paid to entertain the bridal party, notour visitors.

They turned and looked at him. The vampire gave blank face. The weretiger gave him a speculative look, as if not quite sure what to do with him. But there was an implication in the eyes that eating him was a possibility. It was a very alien look out of a human face. But it wasnt a cat look. It was what you might get if a cat could think like a human but still have the morals of a cat. It opened up so very many possibilities.

I got a flash of something down deep inside me. A flash of orange and a flash of gold. Oh, shit. One of the reasons I was having problems with the tigers was that I held more than one. One was a strain of lycanthropy that Id gotten like you normally do by surviving an attack, but the other was a gift, or a warning, from Marmee Noirthe Mother of All Vampires.

Some said she was the oldest vampire in the world, the first of thembut having met one vampire that was an Australopithecus, I wasnt sure how that was possible. But whatever she was, she was ancient, and she was powerful, and she scared the hell out of me. She was still mostly asleep in her room in Europe, where shed been asleep for more than a thousand years. In her dreams, she terrified me, the other vampires, and anything she wanted to haunt. But her strain of vampirism was old enough that you could be both a vampire and a lycanthrope, which was not true of modern vampirism. The viruses killed each other off, so whatever you caught first, thats what you were.

She had visited my dreams and put a piece of her animal to call inside me. Why had she done it? Because she could.

Isnt she part of the wedding party? the vampire, Lucian, asked. His voice tried for that emptiness of the very old, but didnt make it. He was younger than he was trying to play. A lot of the younger vampires tried to play older. The more they tried to pretend to be older, the younger they were, usually. He also hadnt reacted to my cross being visible. That marked him as very young. Most of the vampires a century or more old reacted to holy objects as if they were always a danger. In truth, if the vampire didnt try to use powers on me, the cross might just sit there.

No, they arent part of the wedding party, Chuck said. The man is an old high school friend of the bride and this is his girlfriend.

I thought it was interesting that he didnt give our names. That, in fact, he introduced us as blandly as possible. That was very interesting.

Just a friend of the brides? Lucian said, and let his voice hold his doubt.

Im a distant cousin of the Summerlands, Jason said.

You look like a close cousin, the weretiger said, and again he tried to move closer to us.

My tiger, tigers, reacted to it. They stalked through the darkness inside me like a glimmer of red-gold, and a swirl of palest yellow-gold. They, more than any of my other beasts, seemed to hide in the depths of that inner place. They used the shadows like trees and foliage to glide in and out of, so one moment there was a striped glimpse, then they were gone. Im told that real tigers are like that in the jungle. Invisible until they want to be seen.

Jason turned me in his arms so that my face was buried against his shoulder and neck. I breathed in the scent of his skin. He smelled like Jason, but underneath was the musk of wolf. It helped keep those glittering shapes away.

The scent of tiger comes and goes like a dream of wind in the desert, he said.

Poetic, Jason said, but were out of here. He started moving us across the floor. I turned my head enough to see where I was going. I caught a glimpse of blue eyes, but they werent human. The color was, but there was something about the shade, or shape, that wasnt human. The sight of those eyes clinched things low in my body, not sexually, but painfully. The tiger flexing its claws, letting me know that it resented being trapped in my human body with no way out.

My name is Crispin, the weretiger said.

Jason touched my face with the hand that wasnt around my waist. Dont look, he whispered.

I did what he said. I kept my eyes forward. Rowe and Shadwell moved with us. I felt Crispin moving up behind us without needing to look behind.

Chuck said, Leave her alone.

I felt someone behind us, and it was Sanchez. Got your back, he said. I wasnt sure who he was saying it to, but my back, their back, our back, Id take it.

My stomach felt like there was something more solid in it than food, like the heaviness of a phantom pregnancy. Except it wasnt some ghostly baby inside me. It was something far more solid, and just like a real baby, it wanted out.

38

T HEY GOT US out of the door and into the elevator. Sanchez waved us onto the elevator. Shadwell, Rowe, and Chuck got in the box with us.

What was all that about, Marshal? Chuck asked.

I shook my head and leaned into Jason. I drew in the scent of his skin, trying to use the scent of wolf to loosen the sensation in my gut that something solid was down there. I breathed through it, slow and even. I could do this. This sort of situation was what Id been practicing for, so I could travel without an entourage of lycanthropes.

Jason answered for me. Im a lycanthrope, and Anitas psychic abilities make her hit the radar as one of us sometimes.

What does that mean, her psychic abilities? Chuck asked.

She raises the dead for a living, and is a vampire executioner. You cant do the first without the talent of necromancy, and there are no vampire executioners without psychic abilities that survive long.

What kind of abilities? Chuck persisted.

The tightness in my abdomen was finally loosening. I could breathe without feeling like a weight was pulling at me. I spoke carefully, my face still close to Jasons neck. Im good with the dead, Chuck. Its what I do.

The tiger said you felt more alive than the rest of them.

The doors opened. Rowe stepped into the hallway first, and only when he nodded did Shadwell let us know we could move forward. Chuck didnt check the hallway as well as they did. He was a fixer of problems, not really a bodyguard.

He was flirting, I said.

Weird flirting.

Ive seen weirder.

Chuck gave me a look like he didnt believe me. I didnt care if he believed me; all I needed was our room and privacy. I needed Jason to help me push the tiger back and feed the ardeur. When that was done wed worry about what Chuck knew, or thought he knew about us.

You dont look so good, Rowe said.

Thanks, I said.

You know what I mean. Did the were-whatever or vampire do something to you that we mundanes couldnt see?

That was a good question; a smart question. Too smart a question. Again, Jason saved me from trying to answer.

For those of us who can sense the energy of the unseen, you have no idea how it can affect you. It can be the biggest rush, or the biggest downer.

What makes the difference? Rowe asked.

Shadwell said, Once were inside the room you can ask twenty questions, Rowe. We need our eyes and ears for work.

We let Shadwell save us from answering the second question, but his being so serious about the hallway walk to the room made me remember that I had questions. Ones that needed answers. But the metaphysical problem was going to outrank the mystery. I had to get better at this stuff. It was affecting my jobs, and my life, in ways that were not good.

When we reached the door to our room, Shadwell held out his hand. What? Jason asked.

Key card, so Im first through the door.

Jesus, I said, Shadwell, you didnt do that earlier. Did you guys get another message that the threat is even worse?

Shadwell tried for blank cop eyes, but ended up just looking angry. Please give me the key card.

Jason looked at me. He did say please.

I started to argue, but something in my stomach contracted so hard that it doubled me over. I thought What? and saw the pale gold and white of the weretiger that had nearly killed me. The tiger looked at me for a second; the old and orange eyes were overlaid with an echo of Crispins from the room above. The thought doubled me over, took my knees out from under me. Jason had to catch me or I would have fallen.

The door got opened by Shadwell while I was still fighting to breathe and remain calm. My fear was part of what allowed the beasts to get the upper hand. But it was so hard not to be afraid. So hard not to anticipate the feel of claws and teeth trying to eat their way out of me. I was tired of the pain; tired of the problem; just plain tired. I had been arrogant. I took a metaphysical ability to feed on lust to a bachelorette party with strippers. Fuck, what had I been thinking?

Shadwell held the door and Jason helped me inside. He picked me up, carried me to the bed. I was staring into the tigers face, but it wasnt just the pale-gold-and-cream tiger, but like a second tiger was superimposed on top of the first as if my eyes were blurring. What was happening? The phantom cat, or cats, stood eye to eye with me in some sort of waking dream. Except this dream never changed; eyes closed, eyes opened, I saw the tigers staring at me. Id never had that happen before.

Everyone out, Jason said.

Our orders are that no one gets left alone, Shadwell said.

Then stay outside the door, Jason said.

Our orders are very clear, Shadwell said.

The tiger moved closer to me, as if it were some huge dog phantom, and wanted to touch my nose with its own. But this was no dog.

I found my voice and spoke carefully, as if afraid that I would spook it. Jason, somethings wrong, different.

I know.

Can you see it? I whispered.

See what? Chuck asked.

No, Jason said, but I can smell it.

Smell what? Chuck asked.

Jason said, You have to leave now, all of you. If you dont go Ill call down to hotel security.

They wont help you, Chuck said.

Ill call the reporters and tell them you tried to molest Anita. How would that play on the network news, Chuck?

You wouldnt do that.

There wasnt just one tiger superimposed over the pale gold one now. It was like looking at a triple negative. Colors of stripes, and one that looked like a shadow of the others, so dark, all smeared over the face of the one strain that the doctors had found in my blood. The rainbow of tigers eased closer to my face. I knew one thing for certain: I did not want them to finish the movement. How do you stop something that isnt solid, that isnt even really there? I lay on the bed, but the tiger walked through it, or occupied the same space as it. It moved toward me as if the ghost of its body werent standing in the middle of a bed. It wasnt real, but Id learned years ago that just because something isnt real doesnt mean it cant hurt you.

I began to ease back on the bed, pushing with my hands, slowly, as if the tiger were real, and I were trying not to attract its attention. Claws ripped through my body from the inside. I screamed, Jason!

He was on the bed beside me, putting his body between me and the phantom tiger. Though the tiger seemed to be able to get through the bed just fine, Jasons body was solid to it. He wrapped his arms around me. I buried my face in his chest and neck, breathing deep of the scent of him.

The sweet musk of wolf was there underneath the cologne, his skin. It was like the truth under all that civilization. He was Jason, but I needed what lay within. I needed the wild truth of him.

A shape moved within that dark part of me that held the animals. My wolf shone in the darkness, the white part of her fur ghostlike in the gloom. She had dark markings on her, but they blended into the darkness, breaking up her outline the way they were supposed to.

Shadwells voice startled her, made her look up, and begin to retreat into the dark, as if shed been a real wolf. Ill call a doctor.

A doctor wont help, Jason said.

The wolf vanished into the gloom, and suddenly the darkness was alive with tigers. Tigers the color of rainbows, impossible colors, wending their way up through the darkness. It was as if instead of being a dark tunnel, it were some phantom forest of huge black, leafless trees. The tigers were coming, and it was more than just my own beast.

Jason, there are lots of tigers, different colors that dont occur in nature. What is happening?

Are they in the room or inside your head?

Inside, I whispered, for now.

Jason rose up, pressing my face against his chest. Unless you know a practitioner of the arts, you cant help Anita, but you can hurt her.

Practitioner of the arts? Rowe said.

Witch, he means a witch, Chuck said.

Yes, Jason said, the metaphysical shit is about to hit the fan. Guns wont protect us against anything that is about to happen, but you delaying me from doing what I have to do to stop this is hurting her.

Id thought this was just my tiger trying to get the upper hand because of the weretiger upstairs, but the shapes gliding through the dark and light were not my beast. Oh, maybe she was in there, but this wasnt my body trying to finally pick an animal to turn into. Something else was happening. Something I had no words for, and no metaphysical experience with. That was bad.

I dont know whats happening, Jason. This is wrong, different.

He held me close. Get out, he told them.

We have to tell him, Rowe said.

We cant Shadwell began.

Chuck cut him off. The threat says that vampires will try to hit the governor and his family. That means the window is an entry point, and not just the door.

The least of our problems right now is a vampire coming through the window, Jason said.

I smelled rain and jasmine. Oh shit. The charm that rode under my shirt grew warm against my skin. It was supposed to keep Marmee Noir at bay, but it had never glowed before. That couldnt be good.

I rose up away from Jason and jerked the chain out of my shirt. The lines of the carving on the charm glowed red like someone had taken a red pen and traced every character, every faded image in the center. It was usually like an old tombstone. You knew there was a picture carved in the center but it had worn away, soft with age and wear. Now it glowed, and looked fresh-made at the end of the chain.

Jason said, Its like a cat, a many-headed cat.

What the hell is that, and why is it glowing? Chuck asked.

I answered, Its a charm against the oldest vampire on the planet.

The vampires here, Shadwell said, and guns came out.

I didnt bother with a gun. I told them the truth. Shes in Europe somewhere, but her magic isnt. I looked up at them. You dont get it. A vampire doesnt have to come through the damn window to fuck you over. If theyre powerful enough they can do you from a thousand miles away.

We have to do magic, Jason said, and you arent allowed to see it. He told half the truth. We didnt want them to see it, but I let the half-truth stand, because I couldnt think of a better way to get rid of them.

Why, you have to kill us if we see it? Chuck said, voice derisive.

Jason and I looked at him. I was the one who said it. We wouldnt have to kill you, Chuck. Wed consider it a bonus. Now get out. Now! I screamed the last at them, flinging myself off the bed. I drew the Browning and pointed it at them, screaming for them to leave. Me calm might not have moved them, but me hysterical and armed helped Jason get them out of the room.

I fell to my knees, the gun still naked in my hand. The tigers swirled inside me. I waited for one of them to run up toward me, inside me, and try to tear its way out, but they didnt. They just paced in the not-trees, the almost-shadows. They seemed to be waiting for something.

The smell of jasmine filled the air. My cross flared to life alongside the glowing lines of the charm. Then the smell of rain and flowers faded. It faded, and the cross quieted. The room was suddenly very quiet, quiet enough that I could hear the blood in my own ears pounding.

Jason knelt beside me. I saw his lips move, but could hear no sound. My gun fell from my hand, and I grabbed his arms, tried to say something, anything. Then I felt it. A sound, a call, a smell, a feeling, and yet that wasnt it either. It was all of those things, none of those things. The tigers that I could see in my minds eye like some sort of waking nightmare stood still. They raised their faces to the air, and roared. The sound of it bowed my spine, sent me to the floor, screaming. It was as if my body were some great bell, and their sound had struck a chord in me. I heard that sound not with my ears, but with my skin, like a silent tuning fork pressed against the spine to vibrate its message along every nerve ending.

Jasons hands were on me. He tried to hold me. I heard his shouts, broken in pieces, as if the ringing call let me hear only snatches of any other sound.

The charms lines glowed again like metal taken fresh from the fire, cherry red, hot enough to sear flesh. I could feel the warmth of it through my shirt. I waited for it to begin to melt through my shirt the way a cross could do, but if it would keep the vampires tigers from tearing me apart, I was willing to get one more burn scar.

Jason tried to get up. I held on to his arm. He mouthed something; I heard, door. He went to the door and opened it. Someone must have knocked, but I hadnt heard it.

It was Crispin, the white-haired stripper. He must have done his dance already because he was wearing nothing but an iridescent G-string. He knelt beside me, and the moment I looked into those strange blue eyes there was silence inside me. The tigers all looked up that long metaphysical tunnel.

Jason came to kneel on the other side of me. Is it better? he asked.

Yes, I said, my voice a hoarse whisper.

I heard your call, Crispin said. I had to answer it.

I wanted to ask, What call? or what he had heard, but he touched my arm. It was such an innocent gesture. The white tiger leapt forward from the rest. It charged up that impossible path inside me like a white blur of grace and muscle and death.

Jason tried to give me his arm to smell, but it was too late for distractions. The tiger was coming, and I wasnt sure how to stop it.

39

C RISPIN LAY DOWN beside me so that we could look each other in the eyes. He gave me those human eyes with that tiger color, and just seeing his eyes like that calmed me. Calm usually meant that the beast in question would stop and begin to retreat, but the visual in my head showed the white tiger gaining speed the way they will do when theyve committed to the huntthat last burst of speed, strength, everything thrown on one leap.

Crispin put a hand on the side of my face, and the touch helped, quieted my pulse. He leaned over me and spoke just before he kissed me. I hear the ladys call and I answer. It sounded more ritualized than anything we did at home, but it was as if he knew exactly what I needed from him.

The tiger hit the surface of my body, bucking me off the floor, slamming me into Crispins body. It was like being hit by a small car from the inside out. Crispins hands held my face secure, so the kiss didnt hurt either of us. I had a fleeting thought, that hed done this before, and then there was no thought, only pain.

The tiger roared through me, poured out of me. It felt as if it had made its own exit, as if it were tearing out through my stomach. I screamed, shrieked, and Crispin screamed with me.

He was up on his arms above me, as if he were trying to get farther away. The charm floated between us. It fucking levitated, and I dont think either of us was doing it. The tiger flowed between us like a rush of white light that you could almost see between his stomach and mine. He should have changed by now. But he stayed human above me. The charm burned bright, and was almost touching his chest.

Crispin put an arm between his body and the charm. It touched his arm, and several things happened at once. The charm stopped glowing, and fell back like any other piece of jewelry. Crispins body flowed with fur, like white-and-cream water flowing over that tall body. I was drenched with clear fluid as his body remade itself above me, on top of me. But it wasnt his beast that rode him, it was mine. I lay pinned underneath him as muscles and bone moved and popped and reknit themselves. Always before when I gave my beast to a shapeshifter in an emergency it had been more like an explosion. One second human, the next theyd been their beast. So violent that bits of flesh had decorated the room, and I had been drenched in that hot clear liquid that ran from their bodies. But this was different, slower, more controlled, morepowerful.

The white tiger wasnt tearing me apart anymore; it was filling up the man on top of me. I could feel his beast, or a beast, or a power, something warm and real, and more than just the shifting of forms. I had a flashback to the first time Id been underneath a lycanthrope when they shifted. It had been Richard, and he had just won his fight to be Ulfric. Hed offered me the power to be bound to the pack. I could have ridden the power and run with the pack that night, but they were about to feed on human flesh, and I couldnt do it.

Richard had said, You refused the power. Hed been right.

Crispin stared down at me with a face gone white and fur-covered. His eyes were still in there, but the rest of him was that graceful half-man, half-cat shape. It was similar to the wereleopards, but different. The proportions were different, bigger, a little less human in the head shape, and a little more tiger.

There were brown stripes on the white fur, narrow but there; he wasnt completely white like the tiger in my vision. He stared down at me with the blue eyes that hed had all along, as if the eyes never changed the way Micahs leopard eyes were always in his face in whatever form he chose.

The only weretiger Id ever seen in half-form had been female, and pale yellow stripes on white. Again, not like the color of a real tiger. Staring at the white-and-chocolate image above me, I wondered if none of the weretigers shifted into that classic orange-and-black design. Maybe Id spent too much time with the wereleopards in their half-forms, but I gazed up at Crispin and noticed that his chest, like theirs, was less furred and more like an overly muscled human chest. The half-form was taller, more muscular, and edged by that white and pale-chocolate-striped fur, but the skin revealed was pale and human-looking down the center of his body. The wolves seemed to be furrier in half-form than the cats Id met, so far. My gaze traveled down his body to find that, like in every half-form, everything was bigger. Noticing made me turn my head, and fight not to blush. I might have told him to get off me, but I saw whod been watching the show.

Chuck, Shadwell, and Rowe stood staring down at us, guns bare but not pointed at anything. Jason said, You both screamed like you were being killed. I had to let them in or they would have busted down the door.

I raised a hand and smoothed some of the clear, slightly thick liquid away from my forehead so it wouldnt drip into my eyes. I wasnt covered in it, but there was enough of it that Id need a shower before I left the room. With as much dignity as I could muster, I said, As you can see, Im fine. Now get out.

What we just saw is a lot of things, Rowe said, and fine aint one of em.

I think because I hadnt told him to move, or maybe because things hurt, Crispin curled on top of me. He moved his much taller body down so that he wasnt covering my face with his chest. It meant that certain things werent touching me as intimately as they had been through my jeans, which was fine, but it did mean that he was curled around me like some gigantic stuffed toy. A stuffed toy with a pulse that snuggled against me when I touched its furred back. But Crispin had saved me, saved me in a way that Jason couldnt havein fact, that no one in town could have done. I owed him, so I didnt tell him to get up in front of the humans. I didnt embarrass him, or react like somemundane. I acted as if this were all just as ordinary as it could be, as if I did this all the damn time.

I wouldnt expect you to understand; just leave so we can Several words went through my mind: talk, finish, do what we have to do, none of them sounded right.

Jason finished for me. There are things we need to do, and theyll weird you out just as much as this. You should see your faces: white, shocked, horrified. You look like youve been to the freak show.

Thats not fair, Shadwell said. We had no idea what was happening in here.

Now you do, I said, still on the floor. Go, just go.

Shadwell licked his lips and glanced at Rowe. Rowe shrugged.

I think we should give themarshal here some privacy like she asked, Chuck said. I wondered what hed been about to say before he came up with marshal? Better not to know.

I half-expected the other men to argue, to say they didnt take orders from Chuck, but they didnt. I think they wanted out of the room, too. Sometimes the weird factor just goes too far for comfort.

Shadwell nodded, and holstered his gun. Rowe hesitated, giving the weretiger wide eyes, but a hard look from Shadwell made him holster his weapon. He didnt like it, but he did it. Training; it will keep you alive, and out of trouble with your superiors.

Well be outside, Shadwell said, until were relieved.

Rowe said, How do we know if theres a problem? I mean the screamingwe really thought that was it. That you were being attacked.

Sorry about that, I said, Ill try to be quieter.

The weretiger moved against me in a motion that seemed to send a wave down his entire body. His tail rose up, to twitch, and then to curve back over the very human rise of his buttocks.

He turned and gave the men the full look at that half-and-half face. His voice came growling low, Ill be good.

Rowe swallowed hard and began to lose the little color hed regained. He just nodded and started for the door. Shadwell followed him, and never looked back. Chuck was the last to leave. He hesitated with his hand on the open door.

I didnt think you knew our dancers tonight, Marshal Blake.

I didnt, I said.

He looked at the tiger on top of me. Do you usually make friends this fast?

What could I say? Sometimes.

He nodded. Sometimes, he repeated, shaking his head. You go back to making friends, Blake. Ill leave Shadwell and Rowe on the door. Though I think youre right. If the vampire threat is real, I sort of hope he picks your window tonight, Mr. Schuyler. Nothing personal, but I think if he climbs in here, he wont be climbing back out.

Jason and I spoke at the same time. No. We looked at each other, and then he motioned at me, and I said, He wont.

Crispin said, Is there a big bad vampire around?

Maybe, I said.

Oh, goody, the weretiger said, something to play with.

Chuck shook his head again, and closed the door quietly, but very firmly behind him.

40

T HE WERETIGER SIGHED and was suddenly heavier on top of me, as if some tension had left his body. Always so hard in front of the humans, he said in that growling voice.

Off, and I added, please. He had saved us; saved me, but he was still heavy.

He half-rolled, half-fell off me, to collapse on his side beside me. He blinked those strange blue eyes at me.

Im sorry if I hurt you, I said.

He smiled; it was a smile full of teeth that could have shredded my throat, but it was a smile. And Id learned through working with the police on serial killer cases that humans had teeth, too. I had so learned things about my fellow human beings that I did not want to know. It made me calmer around the monsters, because I knew scratch us deep enough and we were all monsters.

You fought your tiger. If you had just given it to me, then it wouldnt have hurt either of us.

It must have shown on my face, because his face looked curious, speculative. You didnt know that, he said.

I know that if a lycanthrope fights his beast, the change is more violent; I guess I just never made the logic leap.

Youve done this before with someone, Jason said.

Of course I have. Im an adult male of my clan. This is how we keep our pregnant females from losing our babies.

Jason and I both looked at him. I said it out loud. The weretigers do this routinely with their pregnant females?

Yes, Crispin said, and then he frowned, though his face made it more of a snarl. And you should know that. He frowned/snarled harder. Though your tiger was white, and were the only white tiger clan in the United States. You should be one of our females, but youre not. He rose up on one elbow, balancing with the other arm flat on the wet carpet as if he were still shaky. His face showed concern, all sympathy. You survived an attack, but it cant be one of our clan. We would never do that. Its against the law of every clan to bring someone over against their will. He went back to frowning. And when our master says to attack, it is for killing. We dont leave survivors. He said it easily, as if he knew he could confess all his sins to me.

I felt compelled to say, I really am a federal marshal, Crispin. Be careful what you say to me.

Do they know youre one of us?

I looked at Jason. What could we tell this stranger? What was safe to share? He seemed to understand the look, as he so often did.

Youre one of Maxs tigers from Las Vegas, right? Jason said.

Crispin moved his gaze to the standing man. Yes.

Max knows what Anita is, and isnt. If he didnt share that with you, its probably not something he wants shared with you. Nothing personal, but I think my master would have to talk to yours before we could explain.

Are you hinting that shes not a weretiger? Crispin asked.

The humans say a picture is worth a thousand words. We know a smell is worth a hell of a lot more.

Crispin just nodded.

Jason knelt in the damp carpet on the other side of me from the weretiger.

The beasts are quiet, I said. I really dont want you both to go furry on me, literally or figuratively.

Do you feel well enough to sit up? he asked.

I thought about it, explored my body not with hands but with thought. I hurt, but not as bad as Id feared. I started to struggle to sit up, and Jasons arm was there only seconds before Crispins longer one. They looked at each other over my head, and I had a moment to feel the testosterone rise.

Dont even think it, I said.

Among our people a female mates with only one male. Its all about competition.

Jason swallowed a laugh, which puzzled the weretiger and made me frown at him. Sorry, Jason said, but Im just thinking that tiger would so not be Anitas animal.

I frowned harder at him.

Just think about your wolf, just enough to bring it to smelling depth.

Smelling depth? I made it a question.

Trust me, Anita, just a little thought, and hell get the idea.

I dont want to, Jason. Im tired, and I hurt, and I dont want this to get out of hand again.

He tried to hug me to him, but Crispins arm was in the way. Crispins long, clawlike hand curled around my waist, between my body and Jasons.

I leaned in against Jasons body as much as that furred and muscled arm would let me. Jason cradled my face against his chest, pressed me to the scent of his skin underneath the T-shirt. I got a glimpse of dark gold eyes surrounded by white and dark fur. My body reacted to it, and the wolf simply started trotting up the metaphysical path inside me. I thought, No. Back.

She hesitated, the wolf, then looked at me. There was suddenly something in her eyes that said No right back at me.

You smell of wolf now, Crispin said. He leaned in, snuffling along my hair and face. It brought the scent of tiger again. Tiger should have been quiet, but there were still tigers inside me. Still striped faces to move in the dark.

I clung harder to Jason, but the wolf wasnt cooperating either. The wolf gave me that flat look, as if to let me know that she obeyed me because she had to, but she still wanted out. She still wanted freedom.

She cant be both wolf and tiger, Crispin said.

You have no idea, Jason said.

Crispin snuffled against my neck, tickling with fur and almost nibbling. It made me shiver, made my body react low and hard. It wasnt a fear reaction. The wolf started trotting harder, and the tigers trailed behind, not too close, but coming. The only thing that made it not an absolute complete clusterfuck was that leopard and lion were still in hiding. But we didnt need them to have it go horribly, horribly wrong.

You have to feed the ardeur, Anita, now. Thats part of whats wrong.

We fed the ardeur before the party.

Youre acting like we didnt, like you need to feed again.

I pushed away from both of them, trying to breathe in things that didnt smell like either animal. God, it was like I almost needed someone who wasnt furry to quiet the beasts tonight.

The ardeur was the talk of everyone who came back from St. Louis after the big meeting. That you have to feed off sex like a real succubus. I thought it was just rumor. Are you saying its true?

I got up on all fours, debated on whether I could stand, thought I could, and tried it. I was a little unsteady but I managed. Away from the two wereanimals the beasts had slowed, but they hadnt gone away. I could still see them behind my eyes like a waking dream.

If its true, Crispin said, I volunteer to help in any way you need.

I shook my head without looking back at them.

Jason said, Ive got it covered, thanks.

I dont think you do.

A low growl came from behind me, and I didnt think it was Crispin. Get out, Jason said.

I think if it comes to a fight, you wont win, Crispin said.

Let me be clear here, tiger. Im grateful for the help, but dont threaten Jason. Hes my friend, my lover, and my masters pomme de sang.

He wants to kick me out, but I can feel your tiger, Anita. I can feel it. Its not gone. Im the only weretiger within a hundred miles or more. You need me tonight.

I need his wolf, too. I finally turned and looked back at them. Jason was standing, but the weretiger was on the floor. Hed rolled away from the wet spot wed made on the carpet, but he was lounging more catlike than human. If hed been a cat it wouldnt have been erotic in the least, but he so wasnt a cat. All the fur in the world wouldnt change what he was, and what he was not.

I smell the wolf, but you cant be both, can you?

I shook my head, again. Long story.

Anita, you need to feed, Jason said.

I know, but every time Im close to you, Jason, the wolf seems stronger.

Ill help, Crispin said.

I gave him a hard look, which didnt seem to faze him in the least. The tiger reacts to you. I dont know whats wrong tonight.

I took you to a room that was so thick with sexual tension you could have walked on it, Jason said. We both know that can make it hard on the ardeur, on you. I wanted to see the girls. I wanted to flirt and be flirted with, and I forgot my duties. He shook his head. You and Jean-Claude trusted me to take care of you and I failed. We have to feed you again. I think once we do that the beasts will calm.

By the way, Crispin said, what the hell is with that necklace of yours?

I glanced down at the charm on its chain. It was back to being dull and almost unreadable. But I had the image burned inside my mind, as if I would never forget it.

Crispin went to all fours and started crawling toward me, in that graceful I-have-muscles-in-places-you-cant-see way that they could do in this form, or even human form. It was just a little more disturbing in this form.

No closer, Crispin, I said.

Jason stepped between us. You heard her.

Crispin growled, a sound that made my body react both for sex and for the tigers crowded at the back of my wolf. No fighting, I thought, as hard as I could. The beasts could fight inside me, and it hurt like hell. Stop it; stop it, both of you. I am having real trouble here with both the tiger and the wolf. I dont need you to make it worse.

Then you should stop calling to me, Crispin said.

I didnt.

Yes, you did. He sat back on his haunches, hands hanging down between his knees so that at least he was covered and I could look at him without worrying about staring at his groin. I tried not to stare at strange mens genitalia; just politeness, I guess. Or squeamishness.

I didnt mean to, I said.

You call to me like a little queen.

You dont mean that as a pet name, do you? Jason said.

He turned those strange blue eyes to the other man. No, little queen is what we call our dominant females who would be powerful enough to eventually break off and form their own clan if our queen would allow it.

What happens if she doesnt allow it? I asked.

She kills the little queen, or has her killed, after shes bred at least once.

I just stared at him. I couldnt read the tiger face quite well enough. Jason said, I think hes serious.

I am. He held his arm up, and showing through the white fur was a raw burn mark. What is this mark on me?

Jason, I said, you look at it. I dont think closer to the tiger is better.

Jason did what I asked, and Crispin raised his arm up obediently. Its the charm. The symbols in a circle and the many-headed tiger inside it. Youve branded him.

I didnt mean to, I said.

What is that charm supposed to do? Crispin asked.

I debated on what to say. It was supposed to keep Marmee Noir from taking me over from far away in Europe. It was designed so she couldnt be as big and bad a vampire as she truly was, but I was beginning to wonder if the charm could do other things that no one had told me about. Had the werewolf who gave it to me known that it had other magic in it? Was it a trap instead of a treasure? Shit. I needed Jean-Claude. I needed to be home, not out here in some strange city with just Jason. If the metaphysical shit hit the fan, I needed more help.

Your face, Crispin said. Youre afraid to tell me.

I can say this, that its never reacted to anyone like it did tonight.

Am I the first weretiger youve been around since you got the charm?

A very logical question. One other, but sheweve been very careful around each other. I didnt add that Christine was an attack survivor. I was beginning to wonder if a born tigertheir word for itwas different enough to make the charm react this differently. Maybe. Or maybe Marmee Noir was figuring out ways around its magic. I needed help.

He is the first male youve been around, Jason said.

I looked at him. So?

He gave me a look. Anita, come on, your magic is based on sex, and girls just dont do it for you. Not that that doesnt disappoint me sometimes.

Hey, fantasize about your little girl-on-girl mnage trois on your own time. Ive still got wolf and a herd of tigers staring at me in the dark inside my head. I dont know whats wrong, Jason, and I dont know how to fix it.

You need to feed.

I nodded. We need some privacy, Crispin. Thanks for the help, and sorry youve got like a brand, but I need to feed now.

You mean you and the wolf are going to have sex.

I closed my eyes and counted slowly to ten, then said, calmly, Yes, that is what I mean.

The tiger inside you may not like that.

I looked at Jason. He hung his head. Honestly, your beasts have been quiet. I would never have brought you with just the two of us, if I thought you needed all your animals with you. I mean, at least its only the two. This is a small town, Anita. There arent going to be that many wereanimals.

Only the two, Crispin said, standing. What does that mean? Are there more inside you? He started toward me, and again Jason moved in his way. The tiger gave a low, rumbling sound from that wide chest. He towered over Jason, but he, like me, was used to being towered over. It didnt impress either of us. But we were used to playing these games at home with people we knew, or who knew us. Playing where we had other people to back us. Crispin didnt know us, didnt understand us, and we didnt understand him.

He went from standing there to attacking Jason. One minute fine, the next claws and teeth, and Jason was still in human form. Blood spattered; Crispin hitting him too fast, too much for him to change. Fuck.

The Browning was on the floor on the other side of them, which said more than anything else how messed up I was. I had a choice of wading into a fight with silver blades, or going for the gun. I went for the gun.

I had the gun in my hand, was raising it up to aim at that tall white figure, when he threw Jason at me, literally. I had just enough time to point the gun up so that it didnt accidentally go off into Jasons body, and then I was on the ground with him on top of me, stunned by the force of the blow, and the weight.

His blood spattered my face, and my wolf started running. No, no!

There was a white blur above me like an out-of-focus mountain. Clawed hands pinned my gun hand and tried for Jasons throat. Jason put up an arm to block the blow. I tried to move my hand for an angle that would let me fire into the weretiger. Jasons hands fumbled at my sleeve, ripped it. He drew my silver knife and struck out at the tiger. Blood spilled across me in a hot arc. I waited for the tigers to chase my wolf, but they looked into the dark. There was something in the dark that was not my beasts.

Id told Chuck and the guards that a vampire didnt have to be in the room with you to fuck you over, but I hadnt realized just how true that was about to be.

Marmee Noir had tried to mark me, and failed as a vampire, but she was truly a shapeshifter, an older strain of both that could live in the same host body. The darkness inside my mind wavered and I heard her voice. Your control is formidable, necromancer. I need it gone.

One moment there was a fight, the next the ardeur was free. She tore my shields down. She destroyed me. She made of me something that simply needed. If it had been blood lust she had raised, I would have torn out Jasons throat, anyones throat. There was nothing but the need. It rose up out of the darkness that she had planted inside me. It hit the cross that shone on my chest, and I tore it off, threw it away. It hit the charm, made it glow, and that, too, went spinning away.

There was no gun, no knife. There was only flesh, and hands, and mouths, and bodies. Then there was only darkness.

41

A SLIVER OF light across my eyes woke me. I blinked up into a lamp. I tried to turn my head away from it and found the pillow stiff and sticky with some fluid. That made me open my eyes wider, and I found that there was a wolfman in bed with me. The long snout, the furred body, all so much taller than Jason in human form.

I had this jumbled memory of sex and him changing in the middle of it. It was a first for us, and I wondered if hed remember any more of it than I did. Why couldnt I remember?

The bed moved on the other side of me. It made me tense and turn like you do in those horror movies when you hear something and know, suddenly, you arent alone. The white-haired stripper from the party last night lay on his stomach beside me, nude. I had a confused image of him in tigerman form above me. The memory was definitely sexual. What the hell had happened last night?

I looked down at my own clothes, and it looked like theyd been torn off me. I had bits and pieces of cloth and leather clinging to parts of me, but for the most part I was nude, too.

I tried to think back to the last clear memory, but it made no sense. It was a fight. Crispin, that was the tigers name, he had attacked Jason. Jason was hurt, and I was trying to shoot the weretiger, but hed pinned my arm to the floor. Jason had gotten one of my silver knives from my free arm, and cut the weretiger. Blood on my face, so hot. Thenthen nothing. Nothing. Just bits and pieces.

Sex, andsomething. But it was as if the harder I tried to think of it, the fuzzier it all got. I remembered feeding the ardeur. I remembered sex with Jason and him shifting in the middle of it. I remembered sex with Crispin already in half-man form. The visual of him going in and out of my body was embarrassingly clear. But how we got to the sex was a blur, no, worse than a blur, missing. Shit.

Missing, something was missing, but what was it? I touched my neck and found my hair plastered to my shoulders with that clear gunk that the lycanthropes lose when they shift. The bed was thick with it. Jason had shifted on the bed, I remembered that now.

Had the ardeur risen up and stopped the fight? Had it just overpowered us? It had never done that before. Which raised the question, was Crispin our enemy? When he woke, would he try to hurt us again? Where was my gun? Where were my knives? My cross, that was it, I was missing my cross.

I needed off this bed. I needed my cross. I needed weapons. Shit. My weapons were still in the hotel safe, but my gun was here, somewhere, and at least one extra magazine of ammo, and my knives. I needed to be armed, and then Id worry about the rest.

Jason was still in wereanimal form, which meant he was probably still hours away from waking. Crispin was in human form, which meant he would wake first. I needed to be armed before that happened.

I tried to ease to a sitting position and let out a small pain sound before I could stop it. I ached deep inside my body almost up to my belly button. I knew what the sensation was: really good, but really rough sex with someone well-endowed enough to put the deep into deep fucking. Jason was very good, but he wasnt big enough for this. Not in human form anyway.

I glanced at him, but he was lying on his stomach, and I wasnt touching anyone in this bed. I wanted out.

I started easing out from between them and had to bite my lip not to make more noise. I was actually a little raw between my legs. What the hell had we done last night?

I hurt other places, too, like Id been in a real fight. My right arm had fresh claw marks covered in dried blood. From the feel of things there were other marks on my back and legs. I fought not to look for what hurt, but just to keep inching closer to the end of the bed. Once I was armed Id look at all my injuries.

I was at the end of the bed, one leg half off the edge, when I froze, staring at what lay on the floor.

A second weretiger, still in tigerman form, was curled on his side. His fur was red and black stripes. The sight of him brought a flash of memory like a broken picture. I remembered being above him, straddling him, his claws in my back. Not a fight, but sex. For the life of me I couldnt remember him in human form. I couldnt remember how, or when, he joined us. Oh, my God.

Fear ran over my skin in a cold wash. What had I done? What had the ardeur done to me? Shit, shit, shit.

Weapons, then call Jean-Claude. Someone had to know what the hell was happening. Didnt they?

I angled to the corner of the bed, where Id touch Jasons furred legs. I knew enough about lycanthropes to know that being in tiger form meant the red tiger would not be waking anytime soon, but I had the horror-movie image in my head of me stepping off the bed and him grabbing my ankle. I knew better, but still I couldnt make myself step close to his clawed hands. I climbed over Jasons unresisting legs rather than risk that imaginary grab. God, I needed Jason to shift and get closer to waking. I did not want Crispin to wake first and be the only one awake with me.

I was finally on the floor; yea! I hadnt woken either of the weretigers; double yea! I stood there a moment in the hush of the hotel room, only the sounds of the mens breathing deep and even competing with the air conditioning. I enjoyed simply not being on the bed with them. I felt a little less trapped.

Standing, I ached more, as if bruises and cuts had been waiting to tell me they were there. I ignored them as best I could while I scanned the floor for weapons.

The floor looked like a clothing store had put up a fight and lost. I saw the remnants of Jasons blue shirt tangled with a mans white dress shirt. Jeans lay beside dress slacks. A mans suit jacket lay whole and untouched near the doors, as if when the red tiger hit the door he had immediately taken off his jacket. It had to be his, unless another man was hiding in the room somewhere.

I really wished I hadnt thought of that. I pushed the thought away and concentrated. One problem at a time. Finally, in a tangle of my shirt and jeans I glimpsed my shoulder holster, which meant the Browning couldnt be far behind. I walked toward it, and it hurt to walk, as in I had to fight not to limp or put a hand over my stomach as I moved. Fuck. Something was wrong with my back, too, as if some muscle or other was hurt.

Kneeling was an experience in controlled movement and not reacting to everything that hurt. I knelt on carpet that was stiff with dried fluids, and tried not to think too hard about what some of those fluids might be. I remembered now that this was where I lost most of my clothes. I checked the Browning to make sure it was still loaded as the memories washed over me. Crispin and Jason and I on the floor. Thered been no more fighting. Whatever the fight had been about, theyd shared me just fine. Oh, God.

I remembered sex with the weretiger here and on the bed. Jason had lost human form here during sex, too, but I also remembered sex on the bed with him. Dear, God, what in hell had gone wrong with the ardeur?

With the gun in my hand I felt a little better, a little more myself, but I had still woken up in a hotel room with three men, two of them strangers, and apparently wed had sex. Lots of sex, and I could remember only bits and pieces of it. That had never happened before with the ardeur. I was supposed to be gaining control over it. I looked at the wreck of the carpet and finally back at the bed and the men there. This was so not gaining control of anything. No, this was definitely losing control.

I was digging through the clothes trying to find my cross when there was a sound from the bed. It froze me; I held my breath like an idiot. All wereanimals could hear a heartbeat, and there was no way to hold that.

The sound wasnt repeated, so I went back to searching and found my cross. The chain had been snapped. Damn. I gripped it in my hand and that was a little better. I felt that prickling energy of lycanthropy, like a wash of electricity across my skin. I turned to the bed, gun pointed. No one moved, but one minute Jason was all movie wolfman and the next his wolf body was melting away and his human body rising up through the receding fur like an island rising from the ocean. The larger wolfman body melted back into the more compact human form. He was still probably a couple of hours or more from waking, but it was progress.

If it had been Micah, or Richard, or a few others, they wouldnt have had to pass out for hours after the change, but Jason and apparently the two tigers werent powerful enough not to fall into the coma just before the shift and just after. OrI lowered the gun, having thought of another awful possibility.

Had the massive ardeur feeding taken too much of their energy? It was possible to drain someone to death with the ardeur. Logically, I knew that if they died they would revert to human form. But fears like this have nothing to do with logic. I suddenly went from afraid of the two weretigers to wondering if Id killed them. No, no Id seen Crispin and Jason breathing. Id heard it. But I hadnt really looked that closely at the red tiger. I stared at him now, trying to see the rise and fall of his chest.

I actually held my breath trying to see that wide striped chest move. I thought for a heartbeat he was dead, and then his body moved with his breathing. I let out the breath Id been holding in a long sigh.

The bed moved as someone shifted position. I knew who it had to be before Crispin rose up on his arms and blinked blue tiger eyes at me.

I pointed the gun at him, two-handed, and the move was too fast. It pulled on the claw marks on my arm, and hurt like a son of a bitch. I held the pose, but had to fight my body to do it. I told him, Dont move!

42

H E DIDNT MOVE, but he said, Do you wake all your lovers up at gunpoint? His voice seemed deeper than it had last night. He coughed to clear his throat. It made me jump, not good when holding a gun. I fought to calm my body. If I shot him, I wanted it to be on purpose, not because I flinched. But I was afraid to take my finger off the trigger, because he was a lycanthrope, and they were just that bloody fast.

I remember you fighting with Jason and me, I said, gun still pointed at him.

He frowned. Yeah, but the fight with your wolf was about you, being your mate. There was plenty of you to go around last night.

Thanks for the phrasing, I said.

He smiled. Sorry, I didnt mean to offend a woman holding a gun on me. But my point is that theres no reason to fight when you share yourself so well. Besides, I got to go first. The smile filled his eyes with a dark light. Not otherworldly, just a man looking at a naked woman whom hes fucked. That possessive, sure-well-get-to-do-it-again look. Crispin hadnt earned that look, not yet.

My wounded arm was beginning to try to twitch. I fought to keep my aim steady. How badly was I hurt?

If youre not going to shoot me, may I get up and use the bathroom?

You dont believe Ill shoot you, do you?

I dont remember everything from last night, which means Ive been rolled. You rolled my mind just like any other vampire. Not that Im complaining, the sex was mind-blowing, but you did mind fuck me. Legally, its rape. You raped me, not the other way around, Anita. I mean, I would have said yes, but a man likes to be asked. I should be the angry one, not you.

I wanted to argue with his logic, but couldnt. I did the one thing I could do: I lowered the gun. My arm was going to make me do it soon anyway.

Does this mean its safe to go to the bathroom? he asked.

Yes, I said.

Great. He got up, and it was interesting to see him moving a little stiffly, too. When the sex has been rough enough for the lycanthropes to be sore, us humans are going to be hurt.

There were scratches on his back, and they didnt look like claw marks. Had I done that? And if I had, why hadnt they healed when he shifted back? Only damage by silver or another lycanthrope could survive the shift of forms for the most part. So why would my nail marks still be on his body?

I pushed the thought away. Id worry about it later. I had way more immediate problems to worry about. What had Crispin said? That Id mind-fucked him just like any other vampire. Had I done that? Had the ardeur done that?

Water started running in the bathroom.

I needed Jean-Claude. I reached out to him down that long metaphysical cord that bound us and foundnothing. I could not sense him. It was like some huge, white blankness where he should have been for me.

Fear came back in a rush of near panic. I started shivering and couldnt stop. I fought the urge to scream at Jason to wake up and tell me if he could sense Jean-Claude. Was it just me, or was something wrong with Jean-Claude? I had a cell phone once. Where was it? When metaphysics fails, you can always try technology.

I started digging through the ruined clothes with the one empty hand I had. Where the hell would the cell phone be? Had I had it with me last night? Or was it in the luggage still? I couldnt remember. Damn it, what was wrong with me?

The water stopped running in the bathroom. Crispin opened the door and came out. Did you lose something?

Just my mind, I thought. Out loud I said, My cell phone.

He frowned, thinking. I remember weapons, but not a phone.

I thought you didnt remember last night.

I remember parts, so youre right, maybe there was a phone. Ill help you look for it. He came to kneel by me. It was too close after last night, and we were both too nude for comfort, but I needed the help. Was it silly not to want to be this close to him naked? Silly or not, it made me uncomfortable. Did he really think Id rolled him on purpose? Did he really think Id done the equivalent of metaphysical rape? Hed said it, but he didnt seem that upset by it. Id threatened to kill people for less; hell, I had killed people for less.

You know, you could look more effectively if you had both hands free, Crispin said.

The gun makes me feel better, I said.

And the cross in the same hand? he asked.

The chain broke.

He stopped rummaging through the clothes to look thoughtful again. You jerked it off and threw it away.

I wouldnt do that.

He shrugged, then winced. You did it. Then he looked at me a little harder. Those strange blue eyes studied me. You dont remember everything, do you?

I debated on what to admit, but finally went for the truth. I remember it breaking, but not who did it.

You did it, and that charm of yours, too.

Charm, I said, what charm?

He looked at my face like he was trying to see through me, then finally said, This charm. He held his left arm out to me. At first I didnt understand, and then I saw the burn in his arm. It was a circle with an animal in the middle of it, done a little soft the way brands get most of the time. I peered at it, getting closer to the skin of his arm. I thought at first it was Cerberus, the dog that guarded Hades in Greek myth, but the animal had five heads. Cerberus only had three. Then I saw, or thought I saw, stripes on the animal. It was a tiger, a tiger with five heads.

Hed said it was my charm that had done it. I stared at the mark on his arm and didnt know what he was talking about. I reached out toward the brand, stopping just short of touching it. Something stirred in my mind. Was it a memory? Was he right? Had I done this?

I tried to remember. Tried to bring that nebulous thought to the front of my head, but it was like this darkness. There was nothing there to remember. Crispin was a stranger to me. Was he lying? I needed Jason to wake up. I needed someone I knew and trusted. Shit. Something was wrong with me. That much I knew. But I didnt know what was wrong, or why I couldnt figure anything out. It waswrong, too. The fact that I couldnt figure out what was wrong. That was a clue. I knew it was, but it was as if my brain wouldnt, or couldnt, make sense of it.

Crispin growled low in his bare chest. I smell wolves.

A second later I felt the energy of them coming down the hallway, but I knew the taste of this energy. I reached out, and could suddenly smell forest, the rich earth of leaves, and the comfort of pine. I had a tactile moment of paws on the leaves and earth of the forest floor. I smelled the harsh, sweet musk of wolf, so thick that it tightened things low in my body, in a good way. Only one werewolf could make me react like that. But it couldnt be him. He would never have risked coming here with other wolves. He would never have risked this much potential media. He was in deep cover, our Ulfric, and coming here like this was not the way to stay hidden.

But impossibly, I felt him out there in the hall, felt him move closer, and knew that there were at least two other wolves with him. Our wolves, our pack.

Crispin was on his feet, his otherworldly energy swirling off of him like invisible fire. It was way more power than hed had last night. Had he hidden it? Was I that bad at tiger energy? Shit.

I stood up, a little slower, gun in hand. Its my Ulfric and my pack.

What are they doing here? he growled from human lips. Once Id thought growling voices from human mouths was strange. Now it was so low on my weird list, I didnt blink.

I dont know. I think they came for me. I was already going for the door. Did we still have guards out there? What would they do about Richard and his men?

I had a moment to realize I was naked, covered in blood and other things, along with wounds. I might have tried to throw something on, but I heard male voices by our door. Stop right there.

Shit.

I took a deep breath and went for the door. Maybe I could hide to the side, and not flash the entire hallway. I had a memory of doing this last night. The red tiger had come and the guards had stopped him. Id opened the door nude and let him in. Id told the guards that I knew him and had asked him to stop by, or something like that. I could remember his human form now. Tall, short hair the dark red of his own fur, and his eyes. Id looked into his eyes and been disappointed. Theyd been brown, just brown. Id known that was wrong, very wrong. I had a glimpse of him with human eyes that were dark rich golden yellow, with edges around the iris of orange, red. Hed had to take out his contacts that hid his tiger eyes before Id let him touch me. Why was that important? Why had that mattered to me? Hell, for that matter, why had I let in a stranger at all?

I heard deep voices, and the guards repeating, Back off, now.

I was out of time to get clothes. The returning memories had distracted me. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

43

I HID AS much of me behind the door as I could, but with one hand on the doorknob and the other hand still holding a gun; it was a little awkward in so many ways.

The guards were Shadwell and Rowe. That was wrong. They hadnt been our guards in the night. What time was it? How long had we been out? Had we cycled back through our guard shifts? Shit, again.

Its all right, guys, I said.

The hell it is, Rowe said.

We cant let them in, Blake, Shadwell said, not without clearing it with someone.

I looked farther down the hall, and there they were. Jamil and Shang-Da stood in front of whoever was behind; they were not small men and seemed to fill the hallway. Shang-Da was well over six feet, the tallest Chinese man Id ever met. His hair was cut short, and he wore a long black trench coat. I knew it wasnt because of the summer heat. There would be dangerous toys under the coat. Jamil was almost five inches shorter, which put him at about six feet. He looked small, but then everyone looked small beside Shang-Da. Jamils hair was in cornrows to his waist with tiny white beads showing. He wore a white suit that made his skin look even darker than it was. The suit was a generous cut, not the formfitting style he preferred. Some suits he had were for show, but this was a business suit of someone who wore weapons and didnt want them spotted. It was a tailoring challenge, I knew that myself.

They were Richards bodyguards, his Skll and Hat, respectively. The names are the wolves in Norse mythology that chase the sun and moon. When they catch them, it will be the end of the world. In werewolf society they are the guards who keep the Ulfric, wolf king, safe.

I looked at them from Rowe and Shadwells perspective. Even if you couldnt feel the otherworldly energy rolling off them, no self-respecting guard would let them inside any room. They just needed signs that said bad ass. No, strike that, they didnt need signs. It was too obvious to need anything else but them standing there.

I dont know how to explain this to you, Shadwell, Rowe, but they are the bodyguards of my friend. They wont move out of the way as long as you have guns out. I appreciate the guns not being pointed at anyone, but theyre just doing their job.

Were trying to do ours, too, Shadwell said. He risked a tiny glance my way, then put all his attention back to the men in the hallway. But you do not make it easy to guard you, Ms. Blake.

I didnt correct him to add the Marshal. I wasnt feeling very marshally right now. I was sore, and tired, and scared, and I wanted badly to talk to the wolves in the hall.

I made my own gun more visible against the door frame, simply by moving my hand up. Oh, I dont know, Shadwell, I think I do a pretty good job of protecting myself.

My voice sounded so confident. Good for me; inside I was screaming. I could feel Richard just a few yards away. He had to be here for a very good reason, and the only reason I could think of was to help me, or tell me something, like why I couldnt feel Jean-Claude metaphysically. I wanted some answers, I needed some help, but me hysterical wouldnt get the guards to move. Okay, maybe it would, but if I lost it that badly, it wouldnt be pretend. I didnt want to be that weak in front of the werewolves. Shang-Da didnt really like me much. He thought I was bad for their Ulfric. There were nights I agreed with him.

Dont make me come out there, Shadwell.

That a threat? he asked.

No, more a plea, I cant find a robe. Id rather not flash the hallway.

It was Rowe who gave me a longer glance than he should have, with what was standing in the hallway. All he could see was an arm to the shoulder, but theres something about telling some men that youre naked. It makes them a little distracted.

Eyes front, Shadwell said.

Rowe did what he was told.

I cant explain this to you, Shadwell, but I need them inside with me.

Why? he asked, without turning his gaze from the men in the hall.

What could I say that would make sense, and not out Richard further than he already was? Nothing came to mind.

Crispin came up behind me. He whispered, Why do you need them when you have me?

I gave him a look that has made bad guys run for cover. He lowered his head, almost a bow. Fine, fine, dont waste the full look on me.

The stripper slept over, Rowe said, and his voice made it sound like he didnt approve.

Who I sleep with is none of your business, Rowe.

How many men you have in there? he asked.

None of your business, I said.

It is if were supposed to guard you.

Then go, just go. I dont need you. I dont want you. Go.

The stripper in question walked a few steps away and came back with the suit coat of the other tiger. Why hadnt I thought of that? Too easy, too hard.

Crispin stood in the doorway, obviously nude. We moved back enough from the door so I wasnt in view while he held the coat for me. He helped me into it while I traded hands back and forth with the gun.

We cant leave without orders, Shadwell said.

Fuck your orders, I said. I was glad that the red tiger was tall and broad. It meant that his suit jacket covered me completely, almost to my knees. Crispin helped me button it. I looked like I was five and playing dress-up in my fathers clothes, but I didnt care. I was covered, and that was all that counted.

I stepped out into the hallway, and realized that my gun was still in my left hand. I did practice left-handed. You never knew when youd need both hands, or injure your right. But it wasnt comfortable. But as I moved into the hallway, my left hand felt just right on the gun. It even had an ambidextrous safety, not that it wasnt already off, but still, if you had to shoot left-handed the Browning wasnt a bad gun for it.

I thought calm, mundane thoughts as I moved toward Shang-Da and Jamil. Rowe grabbed my arm and whirled me back toward him. I let him do it, let his own momentum turn me back toward him; I turned my shoulder into his body, and my foot swept him as I came. He ended up on the ground with my arm still gripped. I twisted my arm in his grip, helped by the bulky coat, and ended with a one-armed joint lock on his elbow. I put enough pressure on the arm that he made a pain sound for me. He still had a gun in his other hand. If this had been a real fight, Id have had to shoot him a second or two before this.

He started to bring his gun up, but mine was already pointed at his face. Move, and die, I said.

You point that gun at her, Jamil said, and you die before he does.

I didnt look away from Rowe on the ground. I trusted that Jamil had a gun out and pointed where it needed to go.

I stared down into Rowes face, kept the periphery of his hand and its gun in my sight. Open your hand, Rowe, just let go of the gun.

Fuck you, he said.

I dont think so. I smiled and could feel it was unpleasant. It was sort of the smile I used sometimes when I knew I was about to kill somebody, but at the same time it didnt feel like me, exactly.

Why had I upped the violence in the hallway? I hadnt needed to do this, but it was a little late to say oops. I stared down at Rowe. His pulse was thick in the side of his throat. He could control his face, but the pulse and beat of his body gave him away. He was scared. Should he have been? Would I really shoot him? There was a small piece of myself that said, quietly, If we have to, sure.

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. You shouldnt have grabbed me, Rowe. Maybe I overreacted, but you shouldnt grab a woman like that unless you know how shell take it.

Dont go all soft on us, Anita. This from Shang-Da.

They helped me last night, Shang-Da. My Hat was not there to protect me, but these two men were.

You smell of fresh wounds. They did not do a very good job.

The shift had changed to other men. These two did their best.

Then why are you about to shoot one of them? It was Richards voice. That calm, matter-of-fact, hail-fellow-well-met voice. My chest actually felt like it squeezed tight at the sound of his voice. God, would I ever stop reacting to him like this? Honest answer: no. Answer I wanted to hear: maybe.

He touched me, and I didnt want him to. My voice sounded rough around the edges as if I couldnt get enough air.

I felt him coming closer. Heard Shang-Da and Jamil protest. They have guns; we cant let you go forward.

Richard said, Shadwell, right?

Yes, Shadwell said.

Put up your gun, and Ill come help.

Help who? Shadwell asked.

Everyone. And there again in his voice was that confidence that he would do what he said. He would try to make it better. At his best, Richard really meant that. Problem was that sometimes there was no way to help everyone. He wasnt so good in situations where there were no good choices. He tended to freeze, or react badly. Of course, I was at my best when the choices all went south. We could have been a good team, if we hadnt hated each other. Okay, honestly, we didnt exactly hate each other.

I didnt really think that Shadwell would put up his gun, but he did. He even said, Drop your gun, Rowe.

Hell, no.

You grabbed her first, Rowe. Maybe she overreacted, but you did touch her.

No way, I am not dropping my gun.

Just open your hand, and slide away from it, Shadwell said.

Theyve mind-fucked you, Rowe said.

She could shoot you before you even brought your weapon up.

Im her bodyguard, for Gods sake, I wouldnt hurt her.

Then drop the gun, I said, softly.

He gave me a look that was part hate and part confusion. How the hell did we get here? he said.

You touched me.

A lot of guys touched you last night, according to the last shift.

And there, there it was, the sad fact that once a woman lets more than one man touch her, some men think less of her. More than that, they think they should get a shot, too. A woman who will sleep with more than one man will do anything, right? Wrong, but hed touched me out of anger, and frustration, and a confusion that had less to do with his job and more to do with him not understanding me.

It seemed a stupid reason to get shot, but Id seen stupider. You didnt touch me to keep me safe, Rowe. You touched me because there was a naked stripper in my room, and I was naked, and he helped me put on yet another mans coat to come out into the hallway, to meet even more men. You touched me in anger, and I reacted to that anger. Dont ever touch me in anger again, or well finish this talk I dropped his arm and fell on him at the same time, pinning his upper arms under my hands, with the gun still in one. He probably could have wriggled away, but his eyes were wide and startled. I had his gun arm pinned. I leaned over his face, and spoke low and soft; with each word I moved my face lower, until with the last few syllables I was just above his mouth. And-you-will-not-like-the-end-of-the-conversation.

Richards voice behind me said, Anita, dont.

I moved back enough to see Rowes eyes. He was afraid, I could taste that on the air above his skin, but underneath that, he wanted me to kiss him. He wanted me to finish what Id started. Hed have let me do it, at least a kiss. That made me stop. That Rowe, with a gun still in one hand, would have let me press him to the floor and kiss the hell out of him, and not have fought back.

Something had gone horribly wrong with the ardeur. I backed off from Rowe and stood up, carefully. Hed let his gun fall from his hand. He stared up at me more like a child caught in the dark. He whispered, Please.

I shook my head, and said the only thing I could think of. Im sorry. I went for the door to our room. The werewolves followed me, and this time neither Shadwell nor Rowe tried to stop them.

44

O NCE THE DOOR shut behind us, I wanted to run to Richard and be held. I wanted to demand to know what was wrong with Jean-Claude. But we had a stranger in the room. A stranger whom I really couldnt afford to kick out, not until I knew what the weretiger inside me was going to do. That much I remembered from last night.

I looked at Richard. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. His hair was piled up under the hat so he looked like he had short hair. He was wearing a bulky jacket. He had come, but he was still hiding. His day job was as a junior high science teacher. Parents dont like the monsters around their children. Too many fairy tales about the big bad wolf, maybe. So he hid to keep the job he loved, but it was like Clark Kent trying not to be Superman. In real life its harder to pull off.

This is Crispin, I said. Hes one of the Las Vegas tigers.

What are you doing in town, Crispin? Richard said, and his voice wasnt quite as friendly as it had been in the hallway.

I was flown in for a bachelorette party upstairs. Then I felt the little queen call, and I had to answer.

Richard lowered his glasses enough so I could see the dark, perfect brown of his eyes. The look in them was not friendly either. Hes already calling you pet names.

Ulfric, Jamil said, business, please.

Richard sighed, deep enough that it made his broad shoulders rise and fall. He took off the jacket, revealing a plain white T-shirt. It set off his summer tan nicely.

Youre right, Jamil. Business first. He looked at the weretiger. We need to talk in private and there is no place in this room far enough away that you wont hear us.

Im not sure its safe for him to leave, Richard. The weretiger went very, very strange last night. I dont know what would have happened if Crispin hadnt been nearby.

Whos this? Shang-Da asked. He was looking down at the now-naked man on the floor at the foot of the bed. Apparently, my stranger had shifted back. He was still unconscious, but he wasnt furry anymore.

Hes another weretiger.

Why did you need two? Richard asked.

Crispin is a white tiger, but this one is red and black. I remember enough to know that it was like the tiger inside me needed a variety. One tiger didnt fix what was wrong.

We couldnt talk in front of Crispin because he belonged to Max of Las Vegas. We couldnt afford for another Master of the City to find out that something was wrong with our power structure. But I was afraid to have Crispin leave, too.

I finally said, Okay, we cant talk in front of Crispin freely, but tell me this, is Jean-Claude all right? I had to know at least that.

Hes fine, Richard said, honest, hes fine.

I must have looked like I didnt believe him, because he repeated it. A tightness in my stomach loosened, and I felt tears press at the back of my eyes. God, why was I about to cry?

There was a sound from the bed. We all turned to it. Jason moved just his head enough to see us all. God, what happened? His voice sounded choked, and thick with either old screams or long disuse. It occurred to me to ask what time it was.

Theres a better question, Richard said, softly.

Whats that supposed to mean? I asked.

What day is it? His voice was gentle.

I stared at him. No, no way.

Its not the next morning, Anita. Its the day after.

Jesus, Crispin said, my boss is going to be pissed.

Jean-Claude has been in contact with Max in Vegas.

I started to go to the bed and sit down, but there was a naked stranger by the bed. Shit, Richard, what happened? What the hell happened?

What weve told Max is that you seem to carry a variety of beasts inside you. That youre a panwere. But being Jean-Claudes human servant prevents the beasts from manifesting completely.

I almost said out loud, Is that really the truth? but I let it go. Richard had very carefully said, This is what were telling Max, the Master of the City of Las Vegas. The ultimate master of the weretiger Id borrowed for two days.

A panwere, Crispin said, thats like not possible. I mean its legend, but

Ive seen it for real, I said, softly. He was one of the most frighteninghe was evil, and I dont use the E-word lightly.

Jasons voice, still thick with sleep, or whatever, said, Little queen isnt a pet name, Ulfric. Its what the tigers call dominant females that could be powerful enough to break off and form their own group, if the main queen allows it.

I nodded. I remember part of that conversation before everything went dark.

We need to talk, Anita, and we cant talk freely in front of him. Richard pointed at Crispin.

I dont know if I have a room to go to, Crispin said. He frowned. Why didnt Lucian come and find me?

Lucian is the vampire who came to strip with him at the party, I explained.

Truthfully, I half-expected to find him here with you, Richard said.

I gave him the look the comment deserved. Thanks, Richard, you always know just what to say.

He sighed. Yeah, to piss you off.

I nodded. Dont knock it, Richard, you have a real gift for it.

Wouldnt it be good to know who this one belongs to? Jamil said. He was standing over the last unconscious man.

Check his wallet, Crispin said, its got to be on the floor somewhere.

It was a good idea. It made me think better of him. I dont know about Richard. It would take a lot more than one good suggestion for him to like a strange man who had had sex with me for two days in a hotel room. Then I had a thought, a really bad thought.

I went for the bathroom and my travel kit. The one that had things in it like toothbrushes, razors, birth-control pills. I knew what Id find. Knew it. But I had to look, had to make sure.

I put the gun on the back of the toilet while I got out the little round of pills. There was an extra pill. Well, fuck.

Richard was in the doorway. Whats wrong?

I just held up the pills. Guess.

He looked stricken, like someone had hit him in the gut. Mother of God.

I nodded. I had sex with three men for two days and Ive missed a pill.

You didnt use condoms? he asked.

My body chose that minute to remind me that what goes in, comes out. I shook my head. We were all metaphysically mind-fucked, so no, we didnt take precautions. I need some privacy.

Anita

I need to clean up, Richard, okay? I fought not to cry, or scream at him. I wasnt mad at him. I was too confused to be angry with anyone.

This isnt your fault, he said.

The ardeur went crazy, why? I asked.

He stepped in, and whispered, It had help going wrong.

I stared up at him. What are you talking about?

We need privacy to talk.

Shut the door, Ill turn on the shower. I need some answers, Richard. Hell, I need a morning-after pill.

Doesnt that tread a little too close to abortion? he said.

Could you watch me be pregnant with some strangers baby? Could you help me raise a strangers baby?

He opened his mouth, shut it. I dontno.

No, I said. I shook my head. Micah and Nathaniel were willing to help me when we thought I was pregnant from someone we knew, one of my lovers, our friends. But this is a stranger. God, Richard, God!

He came to me then, wrapped his arms around me. I stayed stiff in his arms for a moment, and then I collapsed into his body. I clung to him. I let his strength and his nearness hold me. I let him hold me while I wept and screamed and wailed. I lost it completely, and Richard held me while I did it.

45

I CRIED UNTIL my knees went weak, and then Richards arms tightened around me and held me. He held me standing, pressed against his body, when my own body would have fallen to the floor. When the crying began to quiet and he could feel that I was standing again, he loosened his hold on me enough to bend back and see my face.

Well get through this, he said.

I looked up at him. His hair was trailing down from the edge of the hat. Shoulder-length waves of brown with that hint of gold in the lights trailed around his face and the long firm line of his neck. I wanted to see all that hair loose around those perfect cheekbones. I went on tiptoe, found it hurt a little, but did it anyway. I lifted the hat off, and watched a little more hair spill down, but not all.

He turned his head so I could see the really bad bun that someone had done for him. I started to reach for it, to free his hair, but he gripped my wrists and set me back flat-footed in front of him. Leave it.

Why? I asked.

He gave me a gentle smile. Because once you start playing with my hair you tend to get distracted. We cant afford that right now.

I nodded, agreeing with him. Im too sore to get too distracted for a while. I wondered why I felt so awful, but two days of it, that explains it.

He kissed my knuckles on both hands, then let go of them. Your face looks so lost.

I nodded again. I feel lost. I looked up at him. What happened to me, Richard? Why cant I sense Jean-Claude?

He seemed to think about it, then said, Turn on the water. The sound will help drown things out from the tiger.

I went to the shower without another word. I needed to get clean anyway. I could smell the men on my skin, whiffs of it as I moved. It wasnt a bad smell, really, but it was the smell of strangers. I had woken up with the perfume of someones skin against mine before, but never a scent I did not know. I knelt, slowly, careful of all that hurt, and turned on the water.

Richard started talking, Do you remember Marmee Noir?

I tried to look over my shoulder, but found that the big claw marks on my back hurt too much to do that, so I turned more of me to look up at him. The Mother of All Darkness is kind of hard to forget.

He looked relieved. Good, Jean-Claude wasnt sure how much of your memory shed wiped.

I stared at him. What are you talking about, Richard? Marmee Noir didnt wipe my memory. I remember every time Ive seen her, even in dream.

I did not like the look he gave me; it was too soft, too gentle, tootoo you-poor-baby. No, you dont.

Stop hinting and just tell me, Richard.

She rolled you two days ago. Shes the reason the ardeur went crazy.

I tried to think back. What was the last thing I remembered clearly? But it was like the harder I thought at it, the more my mind kept sliding away, as if the surface of the thoughts were slippery and I couldnt hold on. I shook my head. Im a necromancer; vampires cant just mind-fuck me. Especially not from thousands of miles away. Shes in freaking Europe. She couldnt have rolled me this completely from there.

He shrugged those wide shoulders. Then why cant you remember what happened? What caused the ardeur to rise out of control worse than its ever been before?

I dont know, but I swallowed hard enough that it sort of hurt. The water was too hot now, steam rising from it. I added more cold and tried to think about what hed said.

The tiger inside me went crazy first. It did things that none of my other beasts have ever done.

Like what? he asked.

I told him the quickest version I could think of. When I was done, he looked way too grim for comfort. What is it, Richard? Why that look? What the hell is wrong with me?

Were not a hundred percent certain, but you put out a call to all the weretigers in this country. Maximillian, the master of Vegas, called Jean-Claude with all sorts of threats. Said youd stolen or were trying to steal away one of his weretigers. He didnt mind you sleeping with him, but you werent allowed to call him as a mate.

What does this call mean? Crispin talked about it, too. Like it should be in capital letters or something.

Christine was the only weretiger we had to talk to, but shes not a natural-born. She survived an attack, so shes not an expert, but the call is a way for the dominant tigresses to get lovers, and eventually a mate. Only the very dominant can do it, and if Maxs fit was accurate, your call blanketed the country, or damn near. Max thought it was just his clan because you had his tiger, but when his wife contacted the other clans, just to seethey were all hit by this call.

What does that mean, hit? I asked. The water was the right temperature now. I badly wanted to get clean, but I wanted the information, too.

Apparently, the unattached males all felt your call. Only the strongest dominant queens were able to keep their males from getting on the nearest plane, train, or bus to answer that call.

I stared at him. What?

He spread his hands and knelt beside me. It wasnt you, Anita. Youre good, but youre not this good.

Youre saying that Marmee Noir used me to call the tigers here.

Yes.

Why? What does she gain from it?

First, Jean-Claude wants neither you nor Jason to tell anyone that it was Marmee Noir that did this. Hes afraid that if the other vampires know she can use you like this, they may kill you to keep her from gaining more power.

I understood the reasoning. If it hadnt been me that would have to die, I couldnt even argue with it. Understood, but what does she gain from the tigers coming to me?

Jean-Claude isnt certain, but Elinore thinks that the Mother is gathering her forces. The vampire council has finally found something that can unite them. Theyre terrified of what will happen if she wakes from her sleep completely. They are very close to voting to make sure she never wakes.

I whispered, You mean the council is going to kill Marmee Noir?

The last intelligence Jean-Claude got is that there is a vote before the council.

Shit, Richard, shit, I mean, the I almost said the Harlequin out loud. I stopped myself because to say their name aloud was to risk death. Theyd hunt you down and kill you just for saying their name. The only exception to that rule was if they contacted you first. Then, since they were the spies, assassins, jury, and executioner of the vampire world, well, you were in deep shit.

Wed had a visit just in December. Though theyd been sent to police Malcolm and his vampire church. Theyd broken their own rules to give us a very solid scare. Wed lost good men in the fight. Hell, wed nearly lost Jean-Claude, Richard, and me. It had been a very, very near thing.

Once the Harlequin had been Marmee Noirs right hand, but the ones wed talked to seemed as frightened of her as the rest of the vampires. Theyd given me something to keep her away. What was it?

I looked at Richard, searched his face. They gave me something to keep her from manifesting around me. I know they gave me something, but I cant remember what it was. The first cold trickle of fear wormed its way through my veins. Most of the time with memory magic, the more you talked about it, the more you remembered. Not always, but for me, yes. Now this bit of knowledge was gone. Shed wiped it away. Wiped it away without ever being near me.

It was a charm. He made a circle with his thumb and finger. About this big.

Did it have a many-headed animal on it?

Yes, and he smiled. See, you do remember.

I shook my head. No, I dont, but I saw the mark on Crispins arm where it branded him. He said I jerked off my own cross and threw it away. He also said I did the same to my charm. I didnt remember the charm. I didnt remember it when I saw the shape of it burned into his arm. I still dont, Richard. I just remember the shape in his arm, thats it.

He looked way too serious again. You need to get in the shower, but theres more news you cant share with the weretigers.

Just tell me.

Marmee Noir damaged your connection to Jean-Claude.

Damaged it how?

Were not sure, but she cut his ability to sense you. Cut it so hard that he thought you were dead, but he wasnt hurt, and I wasnt hurt. That was the only way we knew that it wasnt injury or death. Its like she just put a wall between you and him.

I swallowed hard again. Did she mark me? Did she give me her vampire marks in place of his?

She would have to drink your blood, and you hers, to do all four marks.

Its the Mother of All Vampires, Richard. She was the first vampire. She can do all sorts of things that the rest cant. I hugged myself tight, and didnt know what to do.

We dont think she did that. We think that even she needs to exchange real blood with you for the third and fourth marks.

But not for the first two, I said, and stared up at him.

His eyes were so sad. No, not for the first two.

So youre saying that she has given me her version of the first two marks.

Maybe.

Maybe? Doesnt Jean-Claude know?

Shes been asleep for a thousand years, Anita. He wasnt alive the last time she was mobile. We cant talk to most of the vampires who remember her awake without giving away whats happening. We cant risk them knowing.

You risked a lot coming here, Richard. You could get outed with this much media.

It had to be an animal she cant control. For whatever reason, she only does felines. Wolf is the only animal you have inside you that isnt a cat. He said the next in a rush. Jean-Claude thinks it might be a good idea if you carried some other noncat lycanthropy strains. He thinks that might make it harder for her to control you.

He thinks I should let some other shapeshifters cut me up?

If it would keep her out of your head and body, would it be so bad?

I thought about that, then had to shake my head. No, no, its not worse than her.

Jean-Claude is talking to the wererats and werehyenas about the possibility.

Id rather not get cut up again until I heal.

We need you safe from her, Anita.

He was right. He was so right. Okay, Ill think about it, but right now find the charm, and I need a new chain for my cross.

He reached behind his neck and lifted out a gold chain. He lifted a small gold cross out of his shirt. Id bought it for him for one of our first Christmases as a couple. The cross was a little oddly shaped, from where it had once melted into my hand. Marmee Noir had been to blame for that, too. I would bear the scar in the palm of my hand for the rest of my life.

Lift your hair, he said, softly. I did, but had to wince; something hurt across my shoulders. He fastened it around my neck.

He touched it where it lay against the bare triangle of my skin in the borrowed suit jacket. There, youre safe.

I looked at him. You might want to find the charm, too.

Ill do that.

He helped me, carefully, to my feet. We want to fly you home, but the other tiger queens cant seem to agree whether your fleeing and not being here when the tigers arrive is a greater insult to them. You made the call; you need to be where they can find you.

Find me, what does that mean?

It means what it means, Anita.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, but that was a mistake because even standing this close to Richard I couldnt smell his skin. All I could smell was strangers, and mixed in with that was Jason. I knew the scent of his skin, but it wasnt enough. I smelled tigers.

I licked dry lips, eyes still closed. Find the charm, Richard, please. I need to get clean now.

He kissed my hand again, and let me go. I opened my eyes to him walking to the door, then out. Something about watching him leave made the tears start again, but at least they were quieter.

46

I D FORGOTTEN HOW much it hurt to have a shower with fresh claw marks. Or maybe Id just never had this many of them all at the same time. Id gotten cut up when someone was trying to kill me, but Id never had this many shallow ones done in the heat of the moment. They werent deep enough to kill or meant to maim, but they fucking hurt when the water hit them. I tried to see in the mirror what my back looked like, but it kept fogging up. What I could see was an impressive amount of damage, even for me. My back almost looked like someone had taken a whip to it. I had more marks on my arms, and a puncture wound on my ass. A memory came with that one. Crispin inside me in tiger form, his hands lifting my ass off the bed for a deeper angle. His claws sliding into my flesh at the moment of his release, and mine.

The memory jerked things low in my body, and made me stumble against the wall. God, what was wrong with me? The only one who could usually make sexual memories this potent was Asher. One of his gifts was that he could make you have total recall of orgasm with him. Think too hard and it was dangerous to drive. But it wasnt supposed to work that way with anyone else.

There were more marks on my hips, the inside of my thighs. It was like I ignored them the best I could until the water hit them. Then they hurt and I couldnt pretend anymore. I was marked up enough that I could have gone into any hospital or police station in the country and they would have believed rape.

Trouble was that rape like this by lycanthropes was a potential killing offense. I didnt want anyone dead; I just wanted a morning-after pill as quick as I could get one. Id already taken the pill I missed. It was what they recommended if you missed one. If I wasnt pregnant, then I was safe again, at least from babies.

I knew the shampoo running down my body was going to hurt worse, and dont even talk about soap, but I had to get the smell of them off my skin. I had to not smell like strange men and sex. Even if it hurt, I needed it off me.

I ended up sitting in the bottom of the tub with the shower still running. I was clean, or as clean as I was going to get. I knew that my skin smelled like soap and me again, but I kept thinking I smelled them on my skin. I was pretty sure it was imaginary, but I still ended up sitting in the water, waiting to feel clean and safe and knowing I wasnt going to. I didnt blame the men, exactly; I blamed the Mother of All Darkness. Shed raped us all. It was even a killable offense in this country to use vampire mind powers to force sex. Magical rape could get a human witch or wizard in jail, and potentially on death row.

There was a soft knock on the door. I didnt say anything. The knock came again, with a voice. Anita, its Jason, are you all right?

I said the only thing I could think to say. No.

Can I come in?

I thought about that, too. I thought about Jason. He was my friend. He hadnt meant to hurt me. He hadnt meant to maybe get me pregnant. I started to cry again, softly; he probably wouldnt even be able to tell through the water from the shower.

Its okay, Anita, I understand you dont want to see me right now.

No, I said, no, its okay. Come in.

I could almost feel him hesitate on the other side of the door, and then I heard the door click open. I couldnt see it through the showers frosted door. I heard him walk, and then the door moved, but not to open. He must have sat down on the floor beside the shower, his body bumping part of the door.

Hey, Anita, he said.

Hey, I said, back.

Is it okay if I open the door a little?

I thought about that, too. Finally, I said, Yes.

He opened the back edge of the door, away from the water. I moved my head so I could see him. I was hugging my knees to my chest, my cheek resting on my knees. Hed put on one of the robes. I looked into his blue eyes; his silky yellow hair stood out around his head in an odd way. Id seen his version of bedhead, and his hair was too straight to stand up like that.

Whats wrong with your hair? I asked.

He almost smiled, then sort of grimaced, then said, There was something on my pillow, and then I ran my hand through my hair.

Something what on your pillow?

He gave me a long look.

Oh, I said, and looked away again. I no longer wanted to meet his eyes. Was it yours? I asked.

I dont know. I dont think so.

I huddled around myself in the hot water. If wed been home Id have used up all the hot water by now, but the hotel had more.

You need to clean up, I said.

Yeah, but it can wait.

Did the other man wake up yet?

Yes, he said.

Who is he?

Hes a reporter.

Shit.

Dont worry, hes deep in the closet and doesnt want to be outed. This is one story he cant afford to report.

Name? His, I mean.

Alex Pinn.

Short for Alexander?

Jason made a movement as if he wanted to ask something, but just said, According to his drivers license, yeah.

You wondered why I cared what the name was short for, didnt you?

Yeah.

Just seems like I should at least know a mans full name if I just spent the last two days fucking his brains out.

Anita

Dont try to make me feel better about it, Jason.

Thats why I came in here.

I turned so I could see him again. I missed a pill while we were trapped in here. The pill.

He did a long blink, but his face remained neutral. His reaction told me it wasnt a surprise. We couldnt help overhearing some of what you said to Richard before the water turned on. You were sort of yelling.

So the tigers know, too.

He nodded.

I closed my eyes. How did they take it?

Crispin was thrilled.

That made me open my eyes. What?

Apparently, its the duty of every good little weretiger to make more little weretigers. Every woman is expected to have at least one child, and two is preferable.

So hes happy about this.

He says it would bring great honor to his clan if you were his wife and bore a white tiger child.

I sat up a little. Did you say wife?

Yep, Jason said.

I frowned at him. Not that I dont appreciate the sentiment, but Crispin didnt strike me as the type to marry a girl just because he knocked her up.

If youre with child, hes honor-bound to marry you and bring you and the child into his clan.

I stared at him. Seriously?

Seriously, Jason said.

Fuck, I said.

Yeah, thats about what Richard said, though he used lots more words.

What did this Alex Pinn say?

Apparently, hes spent most of his adult life trying to avoid being a member of the red tiger clan. He broke with them years ago, but if he got you pregnant hes willing to give you the chance to be taken back to his clan and introduced to them. He says if the child is truly his, it will need the other weretigers around it as it grows to make sure it gets all the training it needs.

Training?

You know how none of the other wereanimals can carry a baby to full term because of the violence of the change?

Yeah.

Apparently, the tigers do it routinely. Theyve just never shared that bit of knowledge with the rest of us. We all assumed they were keeping their women free of the lycanthropy until after they bred a couple of times, then bringing them into full weretiger. But thats not it. Apparently, they do what Crispin did for you. They put a male, or several males, with a female so she wont shift until the baby is born.

But the baby will still be human, right?

If its one of their children it will show signs of their clan at birth. Eye color, hair color that matches their tiger shape. They dont usually shift until puberty, but there have been cases where they shifted as early as nine. Thats why Alex feels that the baby would need the clan for the first few years. Also, the baby would be with other children just like he, or she, is.

If its so great, then why did he leave his clan?

Its a little, no, a lot restrictive. Its almost like a religious cult. They homeschool the kids. They marry within the clan. Its only been in the last few years that theyve been allowed to marry outsiders to bring in fresh blood. Modern genetics has let them realize that a pure clan is a sickly clan.

Jesus, Jason.

He nodded. I know. He started to say more, then stopped. He looked away from me.

What, what is it?

There is a way to avoid the whole tiger clan mess.

Yeah, a morning-after pill.

He gave a quick flash of smile. Yeah, Richard mentioned you were planning that. The reporter, Pinn, is fine with that. Its your body. But Crispin says no. He hasnt bred before, so if its his child, then according to clan rules you cant get rid of it.

What do you mean, cant?

Apparently, the white tiger clan, and Max the Master of the City of Las Vegas, would take a very dim view of you destroying a potential weretiger of their bloodline.

They dont have a choice. Its my choice.

Yes, it is, but Max is pretty freaked, Anita. He made some vague talk about going to war with Jean-Claude.

Its just talk, Jason. The vampire council declared that no Master of the City could battle another because it might fuck up the whole vampires-being-legal thing. Besides, you only fight about territories that border your own. Its about expanding so your lands touch. Vegas is too far away from St. Louis.

Normally, youd be right, but apparently, Max isnt doing the challenge by vampire law. Hes called up some obscure weretiger law. Apparently, they think theyre within their rights to block you from doing anything to a potential baby, and you need to be with the clan during the pregnancy so you dont lose the baby.

I moved back out of the water so I could see his face more clearly. This isnt about weretigers, is it?

My opinion? Jason asked.

Please.

I think Max knows that Jean-Claude hasnt given you the fourth mark. Which means, Anita, that if hes powerful enough to break the marks that Jean-Claude has on you, and he gets to the fourth mark first, he thinks he can keep you as his human servant. Youre the first true necromancer in centuries. Any vampire who can truly control you will be unstoppable. Jason shrugged. Thats my theory.

How did he know I dont have the fourth mark?

There are enough people who know, Anita. Its hard to keep a secret once enough people know.

He was right. Damn it, but he was. Shit, Jason, would Max really start a war with Jean-Claude over this?

I think he might.

Just because I want to make sure Im not pregnant.

Apparently so. Frankly, I think its an excuse to make a play for your power, but I could be wrong. Hes married to the queen tiger of Vegas. She might be pressing him. She might truly be more interested in the child than in you.

Dont call it a child. I may not be pregnant at all.

Sorry, he said.

I couldnt think of it as a child, because if I did, Id start second-guessing myself. I couldnt afford to hesitate right now. I needed a doctor and a prescription today.

There may be a way around the tigers, Jason said.

I looked at him. He looked away again. What could be so bad that you keep looking away?

Im afraid youll be mad at me.

I sighed. Its too late to be mad, Jason. If theres a way to avoid a war between St. Louis and Vegas, just tell me. I am like all ears.

If there is a baby, it could just as easily be mine. That would make it human, or to the tigers, lukoi. Theyd have no interest in the child of a werewolf.

I was back to thinking again. If Jason hadnt told me all the weird and bad news about the weretigers I might have been mad, or at least upset.

You told me all the shit about the weretigers first so this would seem like better news.

Yes, Jason said, still not looking at me.

If we can convince the tigers its your problem and mine, then can I get a morning-after pill?

Your body, your choice.

How do we convince them its mostly yours?

We lie.

You cant lie to wereanimals; they smell a lie.

Youre so upset today that you smell like shock and fear already. Even your heart rate is up and down. They wont be able to read you right now.

Whats the lie?

That we had an accident with a condom before we left. Hell, Anita, we could bring in the fact that you had sex with Nathaniel just before we came here. Hes a wereleopard; they wouldnt want a leopard any more than a wolf.

I thought about it. Okay, wait, can you lie well enough to fool two wereanimals?

Five, he said.

What?

We cant bring Richard, Jamil, and Shang-Da in here to tell them the plan. We have to lie to everyone in the room about this, or it wont work.

Richard willbe I couldnt even finish the thought.

Pissed, Jason offered.

Hell be pissed I didnt tell him we had an accident with the condom.

Yes, but if it gets the tigers off our backs then hell forgive us when we have a chance to explain. But Richard and Shang-Da dont lie well enough for this.

Jamil does? I asked.

Jamil lies like butter wouldnt melt in his mouth; he can even control his pulse.

Nifty, I said.

Jason nodded.

Can you control all that, too? I asked.

Nope.

Then it wont work, I said.

Anita, I got mind-fucked too. Im a little shocky myself. But more than that, I am worried that its mine. I mean, how do I tell my best friend in the world that I took the love of his life off for a weekend and got her knocked up? I mean, Micah will be pissed, but its Nathaniel I cant face. Trust me, Anita, Ive got enough emotion about this to hide any lie in all the truth.

I reached out and touched his shoulder. He leaned his face against my hand. I should have protected you better. Im so sorry, Anita.

You couldnt have protected me against this, Jason.

He looked at me, his eyes haunted. We go out there and lie our asses off, Anita. We get you to a pharmacy and we undo what we can. I cant undo it all, but we can do this much.

I nodded.

He took my hand in his and it wasnt scary or bad. He was my friend, and we both needed the touch of someones hand.

47

I COVERED MYSELF in towels and Jason and I went out there and lied. He was right, it was easy. I was still damn near in shock. Even I couldnt tell what I was feeling from moment to moment.

In a way it was the first time Id ever met the red tiger. I wondered if he felt the same way about me, or if he had more memories of the last two days than I did. Part of me wanted to ask, and part of me never wanted to know.

Knowing how tall everyone else was, I could estimate his height at around five-ten. His hair was the deep red of his tiger fur. It looked like a good dye job, if you were into shades of red that didnt occur in human hair. I think he understood that, because the cut was short and designed, I think, to look spiky on top. If your hair doesnt conform, you might as well get a haircut that doesnt conform either.

Hed found the other white robe. I think his clothes were part of the mess on the floor, well, except for the jacket Id borrowed.

His eyes were the deep, rich golden yellow with an edge of deep red-orange that I remembered from mydream. But it hadnt been a dream. It was a memory. A memory that Marmee Noir had fucked with. If I hadnt had Richard to tell me, and too much evidence to the contrary, would I have been like any other human? Would I have simply thought it was a dream? If I had woken up with the weretigers not in the room with us, would I have just thought it was a funky nightmare and the claw marks were Jasons? Maybe, no, yes. That thought scared me a lot, because if she could do this, what else could she do to me?

Anita, Jamil said, Anita, did you hear that?

I blinked and looked up into the solid brown of his eyes. No, Im sorry, but no. Can you repeat it?

Shes in shock. This from the man in the robe. This fromAlex.

I studied his face, tried to see him, but it was as if I was only getting pieces of what I was seeing. What I saw was crystal-edged clear, but what I wasnt seeing was fuzzed and indistinct. His eyes seemed to distract me from the rest of his face. You had contacts, brown contacts, I said, and even my voice sounded disconnected, flat.

He nodded. You made me take them out.

I wouldnt let you touch me until I saw your tiger eyes, I said, voice soft. Why?

Crispin answered, Your tiger acts like a true-blood queen. Most of the time they wont mate with anyone who doesnt have the eyes.

Why not? I turned to him, and found that he was still nude. Unselfconsciously so. Strangely, I had no trouble keeping eye contact. In fact, I seemed unduly fascinated with the pale blue jewel color of his eyes.

The eyes mark us both as natural-born, and they prove our bloodline is closer to pure, Crispin said.

I dont know what that means, I said, in that strange, unemotional voice.

The clans have started to try to intermarry with other bloodlines in the last few years, the other tiger said.

Why? I asked, but again my voice made it sound as if I didnt really care about the answer.

Our queens are having trouble getting pregnant, and the rate of birth defects was going up, Alex said.

My queen has forbidden our clan to talk about it, Crispin said.

Im so high on my queens shit list, it doesnt matter for me. Let me be very clear, Anita. He smiled and shook his head, and only then could I really notice that he was handsome. It was the smile, the turn of the head, a flash of personality that helped me see his whole face and not just the eyes. I feel like we need to be introduced before I use your first name. Seems weird when you may be He stopped in midsentence, suddenly looking uncomfortable.

I finished for him. Weird when I may be pregnant with your child. Just saying it out loud made me feel colder.

He nodded, and he looked very unhappy. I dont know exactly what happened here, but I am sorry about my part of it. I thought when the call went out that my clan had found me and found a queen strong enough that I couldnt not come to her. I thought they were going to try to trap me into a pregnancy so Id be forced back into the clan. But you look less happy about this than I am; you didnt want this either.

No, I said, voice almost too low to be out loud.

He held out his hand to me. Im Alex Pinn, and I dont even know what else to say.

I almost smiled, which I guess was a good thing. Im Anita Blake. We shook hands, like civilized people.

His hand was large enough that he had to work to shake mine, but he did it. He didnt make it awkward just because my hand was small in his. I liked that.

I cant do this. It was Richard. Of course, it was Richard.

I let go of Alexs hand and turned to find him leaning against the far wall. Id avoided looking at him while Jason and I lied. One, it was a lie. Two, I did not want to see his face while he thought it was the truth. His face didnt disappoint me.

Hed undone his hair and put it back in a tight ponytail that left that painfully handsome face naked for the eye. All the men in his family had the kind of cheekbones and jaw that other men went to plastic surgeons for, perfect bone structure. If you were into that utterly masculine handsome look.

He leaned against the wall, his hands pressed behind him. He was flexing his hands behind his back, because I could see it in the muscles of his shoulders and the glimpse of upper arm. Flexing his hands over and over, which he did sometimes when he was angry. Angry, and fighting himself not to be.

Something about the lack of lamps in the hotel room had put his eyes in shadow so they looked even darker than the brown I knew they were. The shadows took the gold from his hair and made it seem simply chestnut brown.

Shang-Da was standing beside him. He was the only person in the room taller than Richard. Shang-Da glanced at Richard, then back to the room. There was a moment when Shang-Das eyes met mine. Was it just shock, or had he, for a split second, felt sorry for me? Surely not.

Richard repeated, I cant do this.

Cant do what, Ulfric? Jamil asked.

I cant watch her take another man to her bed. I cant do it. His voice was calm, no anger, not even any of that otherworldly energy coming off him. Only the tensing and untensing of his muscles in his upper body showed the emotional turmoil under all that calm.

Im not planning to do anything with either of them again, I said, and there was the tiniest hint of some emotion in my voice.

You never plan it, Anita. I know that. Its weirdly never your fault. If you just cheated on me and couldnt keep it in your pants, I think I could deal with it, or walk away, but you, honestly, dont do it on purpose. He pushed himself away from the wall. Shang-Da took up his post just behind him.

What do you want me to say, Richard? There, a little more emotion. I knew the emotion now: anger. I should have fought it. Anger is bad when you carry beasts inside you. But I didnt fight it, I welcomed it. I fed it sweet words and coaxed it hotter. Anger was so much better than the other emotions running through meemotions so awful I didnt want to look at them, let alone feel them.

I want to see you recoil from his touch, but you didnt.

He was mind-fucked, too, Richard, you know that.

He nodded. His big hands were in plain sight now, flexing and unflexing. You could see the muscles work all the way from his hands to his upper chest now. I know. I cant even hate him. I want to, but youre right. He didnt mean tohave sex with you for two days. He didnt mean to make you forget to take your pill. He seems as horrified as the rest of us. He took another step into the room, and the first warm prickle of energy tiptoed through the room.

Dont you understand, Anita? You steal my self-righteousness away. You make me have to swallow so much, because if I react like a guy, Im a bastard. But I am not saint enough for this. Im just not. Im sorry, but Im not. His energy swirled out through the room like being too close to an oven.

Something stirred inside me, in that dark place. No, not this soon, not again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. I let it out slow, counting as I went.

Jamils voice came. Ulfric, please, youll bring her beast again.

Ill bring her wolf, you mean. I cant bring all her beasts, just like I cant be all she needs anywhere else in her life. For a moment the pain on his face was so raw, it hurt my heart to see it. Then he mastered himself, but the effort was visible. That made me feel bad, too.

Richard, I

He waved a hand at me. Dont, Anita, dont even try. Its not good, or bad, its just the truth. He looked at me then, gave me the full force of those perfectly brown eyes. Only they showed the pain that had a moment ago decorated his entire face. Only his eyes showed how much he hurt. How much I had hurt him. I never meant to cut him up like that, just as he never meant to hurt me. We just seemed to keep doing it, by accident.

I came here to check on you. Ive done that. Our master sent me on one more task. He held out his hand to me. But we need privacy for it.

I hesitated staring at that offered hand. If it has anything to do with sex, Richard

He let his hand fall away. Youre rejecting me? His power slapped against my skin like the opening of an oven door, set far too high to do anything but burn.

Im sore, Richard. I hurt. Anyone would be getting a turndown for a little while.

You like it rough, he said.

And just like that, my pity was gone. The tenderness wiped away with that one oversharing comment in front of strangers. Yes, Id had sex with them, but not while any of us were in our right minds. They were still strangers to me and my body.

And there you go, Richard, there you go.

What? he said.

You dont get it. None of us remember what happened except in snatches. What I like and what I dont is still something they dont know, unless you want to continue to overshare.

He took a deep breath in, then let it out slow. His shoulders hunched as if hed taken a blow, and then he straightened up, shoulders back.

Im sorry, youre right. But you cant blame me for thinking that these two are just like the other lovers in your bed. That they know you in every way.

Most of the lovers in my bed dont know me in every way, Richard. We have sex; thats not a relationship.

He shook his head. I need to do what Jean-Claude wanted me to do, and then I can go back to St. Louis.

Youre leaving, Jason said.

I cant be here with this much media. You both know that.

I nodded. I thought the same thing when you showed up.

What did Jean-Claude want you to do? Jason asked.

Richard pointed a finger at him. No, I dont need to hear from you right now. You are one of my lesser wolves, and you may have gotten my lupa pregnant. Thats a killing offense in most packs.

We had no choice, Richard, I said.

He shook his head, sending the ponytail sweeping over his shoulders. I dont mean what happened here. I mean in St. Louis. I mean making love because you wanted to, not because you fed the ardeur. He glared at us both, anger enough to burn in his eyes. Dont try to tell me that you take Jason to your bed only because hes food. I bought that at first, Anita, but it happens too often.

You sound like youve been listening to Perdy, I said.

Perdita and I have had a few talks. She thought a little tit-for-tat might be interesting.

What does that mean? I asked.

It means, Jason said, that Perdy offered to have sex with him so they could have their revenge on us for cheating with each other. Jasons voice was empty when he said it, as if it hurt too much to share it even by tone of voice.

I hadnt had sex with Jason in months, Richard, not even for food. I took him off the roster when I realized it made Perdy so uncomfortable.

He gave a harsh laugh, and again there was that slap of power, worse this time, like biting insects along my skin. He swallowed the power back, then said, Uncomfortable? You broke her heart, the two of you.

Jason and I exchanged a look. He shrugged. Oh good, he didnt know what to say either. Why would I lie to you about how often Ive been sleeping with Jason, Richard? I have no reason to lie to you. We arent monogamous.

Thank you so much for reminding me of that. His voice was harsh when he said it.

Youre no more monogamous than I am, Richard. Dont try to pretend you are.

I would be, if you would only

Shang-Da went down on one knee in front of Richard, sweeping his long black coat out, so that you got glimpses of some of the armament underneath. He held one big hand up toward Richard. Most of the animal groups had a version of this. It was a request for attention, and a show of subservience.

Richard looked down at him. What is it, Shang-Da?

Perhaps now is not the time to air our personal matters in front of strangers from other animal groups and vampire kisses. His voice was as empty as he could make it, but there was an edge of anger to it. That anger carried a thread of warmth that he couldnt quite swallow.

Jamil had moved closer to both of them, but it was clear he wasnt sure what to do, or how our Ulfric would take the interruption. The very uncertainty of Jamil in that moment let me know that I needed to pay more attention to my duties as lupa. They were afraid of Richard. That had never happened before. Id urged him to be a stronger king, but seeing it now, like this, made me regret. So much about Richard made me regret.

The phone rang. I jumped. God, who could it be?

Jason said, It might be the hospital about my dad. He looked at Richard, as if for permission.

Richard nodded. It made me feel a little bit hopeful. He was still Richard, somewhere in there.

Jason picked up the phone and said hello, then, Just a minute, Ill see if shes available. He held the phone against his chest. Its Peterson. He says hell answer your questions now. Do you know what he means?

Yeah. I went for the phone.

Whos Peterson? Richard asked.

The head security guy for the Summerlands, I said.

And youre going to take his call, now?

I need to know how much danger were all in. This call may tell us that.

And thats more important than this? Richard asked. His otherworldly energy grew a little hotter.

I kept walking for the phone; farther away from his power was better right now. I remembered another reason he and I had broken up. He never could understand that emotion, no matter how strong, shouldnt make you forget the bad guys. Just because the metaphysics has hit the fan, Richard, doesnt make the other problems go away.

How can you do that, Anita?

Do what? I was at Jasons side now. All I had to do was reach out and take the phone, but I was afraid of what Richard would do.

Concentrate on business, on bad guys, when you may be pregnant with someone elses child?

And why cant you concentrate on business in the middle of the crisis, Richard?

His handsome face went angry, sullen. Because Im not a coldhearted bitch.

That was it. I held out my hand to Jason. He gave me the phone, but his eyes stayed wary and focused on someone behind me. I was betting on who. As for me, I didnt want to see Richard right now.

Blake here.

This could lose me my job, Peterson said.

Then why tell me?

Because Schuyler seems like a better person than Keith. I dont want him dying for that little bastard.

Talk to me, Peterson.

Keith is hiding, even from us and his family. Last we heard he eloped to Vegas and married a vampire.

Shit, I said.

Yeah, but its not legal. He can still marry his fiance, and his family is determined he go through with it, if we can find him.

So far, its a scandal but it wont endanger Jason.

Ask me why its not legal.

Okay, why isnt it legal?

The vampire bride is already married. Shes married to a Master of the City.

I was quiet for a second, then said, Seriously?

Deadly serious, he said.

No master would take that kind of insult.

Jason looked at me, eyes a little wide; maybe it was my master comment, but truthfully he probably was picking up at least some of the other end of the conversation. He was standing that close, and his preternatural hearing was that good.

The Master of the City in question has put a bounty out on Keith. He wants his wife alive and Keith dead. Hes sent people to do the job; we just dont know who they are. Until you and Schuyler surfaced they were looking elsewhere for Keith, but if they think hes trying to hide in plain sight He let it trail off.

Theyll come for us, I said.

Maybe.

Is Keith this stupid?

Yes, but she pressured him. Its not an excuse, but she seemed to know him. Not him, but she seemed to know his great-great-whatever-grandfather, Jedediah. Something about him being the love of her life.

Didnt Jedediah die by vampire attack, something about him either trying to convert the vampires to his faith or seducing the wrong vampire lady?

Those are the two versions, Peterson said.

Are you saying that Keith has gotten himself mixed up with the same vampires that killed Jedediah Summerland?

Maybe.

Well, shit.

Shit about covers it, he said.

What Master of the City is it, Peterson?

No, I wont tell you that.

I might be able to take care of both our problems.

No, we cant let this go public, Blake. It will sink the governors chances of the nomination. We have to find Keith, and get the wife back to her husband as quietly as possible.

You dont understand vampires; I do. The master wont back down. Theres no quietly fixing this, Peterson. If his hired people dont do the job, then he will. Your little bastard is a dead man.

No, Blake, my little bastard is too high-profile for the master to come after him personally.

He might not be thinking that clearly, Peterson.

Ive told you all I can. If something happens, now you know.

I really do appreciate it, but let me help you. Tell me the name, or the city. I can do things you cant.

Someones coming, Ive got to go. Be careful, Blake. He hung up.

I turned to look at Jason. His face was a little pale, as if hed heard just enough to understand how deep a hole Keith Summerland had dug for himself.

Did you catch all that?

Enough.

Alex Pinn said, Keith Summerland is involved with vampires. Oh, man, this is too sweet.

Id sort of forgotten about Alexs job. I was told you were too deep in cover to risk a story about this.

About wereanimals, yeah, but not vampires. Im not one of those.

You cannot use this, Alex. Peterson risked his job warning me.

What are you talking about? Richard asked.

I wanted to share with Richard, but one look at Alexs eager face and I knew that Id already overshared. I owed Peterson more than that. I cant say right now, Richard; later.

More secrets! More lies! And just like that, Richards power filled the room. My skin ran with heat, as if Id been thrown into a hot bath. It didnt hurt, but it was hard to get a full breath. So hot, so thick, so powerful; Richards power filled the room.

It called to all the wolves in the room. They could not help but answer their Ulfrics power with a little of their own. Jason was closest to me, so his power flowed along my skin first. It was like someone had turned on a second tap of hot water, to make warm water hotter. We didnt need hotter. We needed to cool down. The question was how to do that.

Shang-Das power and Jamils hit me almost at once, and I was suddenly drowning in the scent of wolf. That sweet musk and I could feel it, my wolf, inside me. Not see her, but feel her like the brush of fur against parts of me that nothing should have touched but a blade.

The sensation was so uncomfortable, so eerie, that I shivered. Richard mistook the shiver, because he said, You can protest all you want, Anita, but you enjoy the power. There are things that the wolves can do for you that the vampires cannot. You just keep fighting it.

The wolf inside me moved through my stomach, like a hand in places it should never go. Nausea rolled over me. I had to swallow hard.

She didnt shiver from pleasure, Richard, Jason said.

Now you know her better than I do, little wolf?

His power seemed to fill the room so there was no air left to breathe. My wolf didnt come running up that long tunnel inside me. No, the wolf was too close for that. I felt it move inside me, brush fur and claws against the inside of my body.

Richard, please, somethings wrong. Help me.

It was Crispin who came to me. Crispin who walked through the rising power. Still nude, still a stranger, but it was he who came to me.

Dont touch her, Richard growled.

Shang-Da, still on his knees said, Ulfric, please, you will bring her beast, and we will have yet one more problem to deal with. He looked up at Richard. Id never seen Shang-Da look so imploring.

Jamil came to the other side and went onto one knee, as well. Please, Ulfric, your power is choking us all. You will bring all our wolves.

Crispin stood in front of me now. He had stopped short of touching me, as Richard had asked. That got him an extra point. He was not making anything worse. In fact, looking up into his blue eyes, his tiger eyes, helped still that sense of fur gliding on the wrong inside-out of my skin.

Jason was closest to us, but I think he could sense my wolf so terribly close under the skin. He knew better than to add his touch to Richards power. Jason walked toward the other werewolves. He stayed out of Richards immediate reach, but he went down, not on one knee, but on all fours. He bowed his head and crawled toward the bigger man.

Id seen the gesture before, from Jason and other wolves. It was his attempt to apologize to Richard for any offense. Jason, too, was trying to make things better. Only Richard stood there filling the room with his warm, crawling power, and made it worse. Why was it always Richard, lately, who pushed things worse? Or me? Never forget me. I could screw things up too, but not tonight. I was too scared to fuck it up on purpose tonight.

Richard, I said, did you find the charm?

He turned and it was as if his power were some huge beast, as if his power turned with him and stared at me out of his wolf amber eyes. I dont know if it was the look, or the power, but it made that brush of fur whirl inside me. I stumbled, and only Crispins hand kept me from falling.

The moment he touched me, the wolf receded. I could breathe through Richards power. I clung to Crispins hand with both of my own, and it was like the world was a little more steady. I waited for the white tiger to rise inside me, but it didnt. I just felt better.

Richards power lashed out, coming with his voice, like something thick and touchable that slammed into me. I said, dont touch her!

Crispin staggered with me, as if whatever Richard had done was solid to him, too. But the weretiger kept us on our feet and drew me in against his body, shielding me from Richard. It was gallant, but if anything was guaranteed to make Richard more pissed, that was it.

He came for us, came for us in a blur of speed, and rage, and power, and I was still standing in a towel with only a gun in my hand, and a strange weretiger on my arm. If I wasnt willing to shoot Richard, I was about to run out of options.

48

C RISPIN SHOVED ME behind him and braced for impact. Alex Pinn, the other weretiger, was just suddenly beside Crispin. I didnt have time to decide whether that was good or bad. All I had time to do was decide that I wouldnt use the gun.

Then the blur of speed that was Richard met the wall that was Shang-Da and Jamil. They had used their own impossible speed to be there before him. The impact of their bodies hitting made enough force of wind and physical energy that it pushed against us like some kind of small explosion.

Shang-Da was yelling, Ulfric, remember yourself!

Jamil was simply trying to hold Richard down without hurting him, or being hurt. Richard was a serious weight lifter and had a black belt in karate. Holding him without being willing to hurt him wasnt going to work for long. Either they were going to have to hurt him, or he would most certainly hurt them.

Shang-Da tried again. Ulfric, please!

Richards anger fed his beast, fed his power. I couldnt breathe; I was being baked alive with his power. His wolf pouring into me, into my beast. Such rage. I knew the taste of this anger. I knew it like a well-worn shoe, or a favorite sweater. The one that fits just right and makes you feel warm and safe. That was how my anger had made me feel for years. It was the only emotion I had allowed myself. It had taken the place of sorrow, pleasure, and love. My anger had been nearly everything to me once. I thought my therapy had helped me deal with some of that bottomless rage, but now standing there I realized that maybe it hadnt been therapy. It had been vampire marks. I hadnt just shared my anger with Richard through Jean-Claudes marks; I had given it to him. A big portion of my rage had simply transferred to my reasonable, calm Richard.

I stared down at the fight on the floor. I stared down at three grown werewolves barely containing the struggling, snarling, yellow-eyed man, and I thought, This is my fault. Id known that what Richard got through me, through the marks, had been my anger, but I hadnt understood until just now what that meant. Id had years of practice before I grew up with that rage. Poor Richard had had it dumped into his lap with no practice. I knew the burden he carried. I knew exactly how he felt. Fuck.

I wanted to help him. I wanted to end this without bloodshed. I wanted a lot of things. Then everything got worse, because the ardeur stirred within me. Fuck, and double fuck.

I pushed away from Crispin. He let me, but was clearly puzzled. But not touching him made Richards power worse, harder to refuse. It felt like the wolf was trying to crawl up my throat, out my throat. I fell to my knees, the towel from my head falling away. My hair was cold and heavy around my shoulders, but the power was so hot I needed that cold. It was a good shock. A reminder that I wasnt truly wolf. I wasnt truly lupa. I wasa necromancer. But that wouldnt help me now. What was I? What was I? I wasa vampire. I just didnt feed on blood.

Id gone two days without solid food; that made all hungers harder to control. Kneeling there with Richards rage, my rage, and his power, throbbing around me, pushing at me, pulling at the furred thing that seemed stuck in my throatI needed to feed, but I didnt feel sex. All I could feel was rage, anger. So familiar, so safe.

I knew anger, I liked it; it did make me feel safe, safer than sex. Jean-Claude had taught me how to feed the ardeur from a distance at his clubs. I could do it now, though it wasnt always easy, or didnt always work, but I knew how to feed on emotion. Feed on the emotion of lust, on love, and recently Id learned that friendship is love done soft and pure. It wasnt a conscious decision. One minute I was kneeling choking on fur and power, feeling the ardeur trying to rise faster than the wolf inside me. The next moment, the ardeur was upon me. My own power chased back the feel of fur in my throat. I could breathe again. I was me again, sort of.

But the rage was still there, beating against my skin, like some old familiar friend. I opened to it. I drank it down, let it soak into my skin. I stood and let the last towel fall away. I stood nude and drank the wrath in through every pore of my body, every inch of me coated with hate. Because he did hate it. Richard hated the anger. He didnt understand it. He didnt understand it, because it wasnt his. It was mine.

I took it back. I sipped it, rolled it on my tongue, enjoyed the bouquet of it, the sweet, ashy taste of it. Oh, yes, this was a vintage of wine that I had kept in the dark, at just the right temperature for a lifetime.

I drew it out of Richard like some kind of sickness, or possession. I drew it out, and felt him grow calm, under the weight of the other men. And at the end of that calmness, I felt the wall between Jean-Claude and me shatter. The anger had been mine, but the vampire marks that had given it to Richard had been Jean-Claudes. I was trying to take away some of that mark, not on purpose, but in trying to remove what was not mine, I found my love again.

Jean-Claude looked up at me with those dark, dark blue eyes, as if the twilight sky could look back at you. He whispered, Ma petite. And with those simple words the marks between him and me were just there again. I could feel him again. I was his again. His and not hers. Though we both felt that she had left her own mark. We would deal with that another night. For that moment, there was nothing but Jean-Claudes smile, and his voice, and the sense of coming home again.

49

J EAN- C LAUDE DIDNT SO much whisper, as I just knew, that he was going to have to shield from my feeding. He could not drink anger as he could lust or love. Anger was not his food. It was mine.

I stood there with my hair still cold against my shoulders, so not much time had passed, but it was one of those moments when minutes turned to hours. I drank back in my anger, but it didnt stay. It didnt go into that dark pit inside me, where my grief and rage fought and mingled. I ate the anger as I could eat lust and love and hearts desire. I swallowed the anger like food. But whereas lust confused me, and could get out of control and spread through me and to those near, angerI was master of that. Anger I could control.

I stood there with my skin tingling with the energy of it. My body thrumming with the feeding. I wasnt just full, I was well fed. If it had been the normal ardeur, Id have been forced to turn that energy into sex, but this wasnt the ardeur. This was something else. This was mine. Mine in the way that the gun in my hand was mine. Mine, not Richards, not Jean-Claudes. I had a food that my master couldnt even digest. It filled me with a fierce happiness. A happiness so sharp that it was almost anger. I was glad, so very glad, that finally I had some power, something that wasnt theirs. Jean-Claudes power was lust and love, but mine was rage. I was okay with that.

Richards voice came, clear and oddly calm. Im all right, let me up.

I saw Shang-Da and Jamil exchange a look together, and then almost in unison they moved back and let Richard sit up. Jason crawled forward, abasing himself beside him. Richard touched his shoulder, but he looked at me. I expected to see the anger in his face, the resentment, but for the first time in a very long time, Richard looked up at me. His face, his eyes, held the Richard Id fallen in love with, the one who had been too squeamish to kill the old Ulfric and take control of the pack. There was gentleness in his face that hadnt been there in so long that Id almost convinced myself it had never been.

Its okay, Jason, he said, its okay. He stood up, leaving his wolves on the floor to peer up at him, wariness plain on their faces.

Alex held a hand up, not exactly moving in his way, but not out of his way either. Youre calm now, Ulfric, but what we just saw wasnt calm.

Crispin moved closer to me, but I motioned him back. Richard was being reasonable; I didnt want another man to touch me right now, especially the only man in the room who was as naked as I was. Crispin took the hint and stayed where he was; he really did take directions well, that was nice.

Richards white T-shirt was so badly ripped it looked like something one of the dancers at Guilty Pleasures would have worn partway through their act. His hair had slipped free of the ponytail, so he came to me with all that thick hair in a tangle around his face. He looked, as he could look, like some walking wet dream, but the smile on his face was gentle and had less to do with sex and more to do with softer emotions.

He touched my face, staring down into my eyes with that gentle smile and his brown eyes full of something more tender than Id seen in months from him.

Thank you, he said.

I touched his hand where it lay against my face. It was my anger. I just took it back.

He let his hand cup the side of my face, and I let myself rest against the warmth of his hand. I thought it was mine to keep.

It may leak over again, I said, softly.

He leaned down, and I knew he meant to kiss me. I wanted that kiss, and didnt want it, all at the same time. Id cut him out of my heart, this new angry, hurtful Richard, but the look in his face now, that was the old Richard. Richard before hed been forced to make so many hard choices. Richard before he had become permanently angry with me.

He kissed me, his lips soft and full. It was a good kiss, but chaste by our standards of late. I realized as he drew back, eyes searching my face, that lately when we were together it had become nothing but sex. Harsh, fun, but harsh. He had come to me rough, because he knew I could take it, and like it, but even the sex had been more about anger than love. Makeup sex can be good, but not if its all you do.

I feel more myself than Ive felt in months, Anita. A lifetime of therapy couldnt have done what you just did.

If Id known I could have taken it back, I would have, Richard.

I know, he said. He took my hand in his as he turned back to the waiting wolves. I couldnt remember the last time hed simply held my hand. Hed even stopped doing it in church, so that the only touch we gave each other was in private and all about sex. Id actually begun to think I needed to go back to my old church, so that he and his family could keep theirs. If we broke up for good, it would be easier for me to change churches than the whole Zeeman clan. But this one moment of holding hands made me wonder what else had changed beside him feeling more himself.

I forced the thought away. Id given up on Richard and me having the white picket fence a long time ago. He was just the one man who made me wistful about not having it. Holding his hand in that moment made me wonder yet again if I had missed the boat. Had he been the one man who might have made it all work?

The moment I thought it, I knew it wasnt my emotion, or my thought. Richard wasnt the only man in my life who made me wonder if he could have been the only one, if the ardeur werent there. But holding his hand, sensing all that emotion, I did regret. The regret was mine.

We need to find the charm, Richard said.

The three werewolves looked at him, as if they didnt trust this new Richard either. Ulfric, are you well? Shang-Da asked.

Better than Ive been in a long time, he said. His thumb began to rub across my hand.

The charm isnt on the floor with the clothes, Jamil said. He looked past Richard to me. Though we did find two of Anitas knives. One of them had blood on it.

Crispin spoke from behind us. Mine.

Richard turned to look at the weretiger, my hand still in his. Why did Anita cut you?

She didnt, Crispin said. He was looking at us, but his gaze wasnt on either of our faces, or my body. He was looking at our clasped hands.

I did, Jason said.

Richard turned back to Jason, moving me minutely with him. Why?

Can I plead the fifth on this one, Richard? Youre not mad at me anymore; Id like to keep it that way.

And you think just answering the question will make me angry with you all over again?

Jason nodded. It might.

Richard turned to me. What do you think?

I squeezed his hand and said Lets just say we all made friends eventually.

He frowned. Did the tiger attack you?

He attacked Jason, I said, and I took offense.

Richard stared down at me, searching my face. Yet you ended up in bed with him.

I frowned at him and tried to take my hand back, but he held on, and I let him hold on rather than struggle. Let it go, Richard, please.

Crispin said, She wants you to let go of her hand, Ulfric.

Its okay, Crispin, I said.

He shook his head. Youre a queen. Queens dont have to be touched if they dont want to be.

Richard drew me in against his body, never letting go of my hand. I put a hand on his chest, to keep us from cuddling as close as we could. I do not need to be fought over, by either of you.

According to our culture, you do, Alex said.

What are you talking about?

I know that the little wolf shares well, Crispin said, and so does the red tiger, but your Ulfric smells of monogamy and ownership.

Crispin, Alex said, you cant hold them to tiger law, if they dont know the rules.

Explain the rules to us, Richard said. He tried to draw me in against his body again. I kept one hand on his chest to keep us a little apart, because I had another flash of certainty. I just needed to get everyone else out of the room. I needed only Richard. We didnt need anyone but each other. What had I been thinking with all the others?

I gazed up at Richard, and he looked down at me. The moment I stared into the perfect brown of his eyes, all I could think of was getting closer to him.

The arm Id been using to keep us apart slid around his waist. He bent down toward me, and all I could think of was how much I wanted him to kiss me.

His skin was so warm where it touched my body; warm and smooth and simplyperfect. It was as if our bodies were meant to be together, always.

I rose up on tiptoe with my nakedness against the front of his clothes and shredded shirt. I rose up to help our lips meet, as Richard bent down. So tall, so far to reach, for the touch of his mouth, but oh so worth it.

The kiss grew from something chaste to a feeding at each others mouths. Richard picked me up, and I wrapped my legs around his waist, pressing my most intimate parts against the front of his jeans. The pain was instant, and too raw to ignore. It cleared my head better than any cold shower.

I broke the kiss and tried to climb down from his arms, but he held me against him. It hurts, I said.

He drew his face away enough to look puzzled, and then he let me down. He tried to make me slide down his body, but I stopped the movement in midmove, because the thought of rubbing myself down the front of something as rough as jeans made me cringe. No matter how nice the package inside the jeans might be.

He let me down onto the floor but kept his arms around me. I was back to putting my hands against his chest to try for some distance. I wasnt sure what had just happened, but it was wrong. It wasnt my thoughts.

Anita, look at me, he said.

I tried not to, but it was almost as if I couldnt stop myself. The moment I held his gaze, the thought returned. I wanted to touch him, and be touched. I wanted

Arms around my waist from behind, and I was jerked backward out of Richards arms. I was also off the ground, held against someone elses nude body. I knew it was Crispin before I saw that flash of white hair out of the corner of my eye.

Alex moved between us and Richard. Easy, Ulfric, but using magic is an unfair advantage.

Shang-Da and Jamil were on either side of Richard, but seemed unsure whether to help him against the tigers or grab him so it didnt get out of hand.

I dont know what you mean by magic, but if he doesnt put Anita down, Im going to use something a lot more solid on him than hocus-pocus.

For me, I felt better in Crispins arms, clearer-headed. I patted Crispins arm. Its okay, you can put me down.

He was trying to bespell you, the way you can do to others.

I know.

Richard said, I cant bespell anyone. Im not a vampire.

I patted Crispins arm again, and he lowered me to the ground, though he kept his arms around me, loose, but with a tension to them that let me know if I moved toward Richard again, hed stop me. On one hand, he had no right to do that; on the other, Id needed the help. What the hell was going on with Richard and me?

You bespelled me like a vampire, Richard. When you touched me, it was harder to think, and when I looked up into your eyes it was impossible. It was like the whole world was nothing except need for you.

Thats how its supposed to be when youre in love, he said.

I shook my head. Pretty to think so, Richard, but this wasnt being in love. This was obsession. The pain helped clear my head, just like it does when a vampire tries to roll me. And all vampire powers are magnified by touch. You know that.

But Im not a vampire, he said.

Me either, but I can roll people as if I am, sometimes.

Richard frowned at me, his handsome face closing down into those petulant lines. Why was it that pretty people did petulant better than the rest of us?

I felt it, too, Jason said. It was focused on Anita, but Ive been rolled too many times not to know it when I smell it.

You are all crazy, he said, but he looked less petulant, and more thoughtful. There was a good mind inside the pretty packaging. It was one of the things that had made me love him.

You dont carry my anger anymore, Richard, but youre still part of the triumvirate with Jean-Claude and me. Maybe when you lost the anger, you gained something else.

He opened his mouth, closed it, then said, Is that possible?

Lets call Jean-Claude and ask, Jason said.

Richard frowned at him. Why dont you shower while we call?

Jason fought to keep his face neutral. Want me out of the way?

No, but if you dont want me pissed again, I need you not to smell like you rolled in Anitas body. He looked past me to Crispin. You, too, Whitey.

My name is Crispin.

Whatever, but if you and Red here could go someplace else and clean up, that would help.

I dont know if the room we booked is even still ours, Crispin said.

I have a room that I booked for the week, Alex said. He looked at me, then at Jason beyond. It is one of the social events of the year, plus politics, and a hint of scandal. I came down here for a story, though that seems like ages ago. He looked thoughtful, shook his head, and then looked back at Crispin. Can he borrow the extra robe?

Jason started untying the sash without being asked twice. He handed the robe to Alex. Ill go shower. He just turned and went for the bathroom.

Alex handed the robe to Crispin. He didnt take it. He actually clasped me a little closer to him. If we are not here to help her escape his powers, then he will have her and chase us out.

Your word, Ulfric, that you wont touch her while were gone.

You have no right to ask that, Richard said.

No, but something is going on here, something different. You gain powers if you are a vampires animal to call, but you dont gain the powers that you and Anita are gaining. Thats not part of the deal. Yet I saw you bespell her. I felt her roll me like a cheap date. Roll me partway like a weretigress, and part like a vampire. Again, very weird.

He gazed at the floor as if the answer lay somewhere on the carpet. I need to give my paper something, or they are going to bitch about the hotel bill. They only footed it because the Summerlands are staying here. Their personal home is a museum now to the history of the family and the towns founding.

Theyre that big a deal? I said.

He smiled at me. You truly dont pay attention to the media, do you?

Not really. I moved away from Crispin, took the robe from Alex, and handed it to him.

You really want me to leave? Crispin sounded hurt. The tone of voice, something about his expression made me put him on the far side of twenty-five. Id thought he was older.

I need some space, Crispin.

How old are you? Richard asked.

Crispin looked at him, then back to me as if to ask, did he have to answer him? I nodded, and he answered, just like that. Obedient, almost disturbingly so.

Twenty-one.

You do like them young, Anita.

Nathaniel is the same age.

I think thats my point, Richard said. At least Im dating people closer to my own age.

I turned and gave him an unfriendly look. If were going to fight, you can leave, too.

A look passed over his face. He had to try twice before he spoke, and the first two times didnt sound anything like what he finally said. You arent safe alone.

Im beginning to not feel very safe with any of you in the room.

What does that mean?

It means that the vampire marks have gone all weird again, and I dont know why. It means Im tired. It means I hurt. It means that I need to find the charm. It has to be somewhere in the room. It means I need to get dressed. I spotted the Browning on the carpet where Id apparently dropped it when Richard had rolled me with his touch and gaze. I picked it up. I dropped my gun, Richard, and didnt remember doing it. I forgot everything but you. Love doesnt make me forget that Im armed, but vampire gaze can.

He tried to trick you, Crispin said.

Go, I said, go to Alexs room, clean up.

Can we come back here when were done? Crispin asked.

I dont know, call me first.

Im going back to work once I put in my spare brown contacts, Alex said.

You do that.

Why do you sound angry? Alex asked.

Everything makes her angry, Richard answered, before I could say anything.

I suddenly wanted to be alone. I wanted them all gone. Fuck them all, or rather, not fuck them all. Jesus, but I needed to catch my breath, and I wasnt sure I could do that with a crowd around me.

You two, out. I actually gave Alex a little push toward the door. YouI pointed at Richardbehave, or you are so out of here.

You arent safe alone, he repeated.

Maybe not, or maybe its time I found out if Im safe alone. Weve been surrounding me with wereanimals for months and it hasnt helped. Maybe I need fewer of you around me.

May I borrow a pair of sunglasses, before I go? Alex asked.

Sunglasses wont make the robe look any better, babe, Jamil said.

Its to hide the eyes, Alex said.

You must like being in your tiger form, Richard said.

I was born with these eyes, just like Crispin was born with his. One of the signs that our blood was thinning out genetically is that fewer and fewer children are born with tiger eyes.

The eyes mark us as pure bloodline of our clans, Crispin said.

Your blue eyes look human enough, I said.

If you dont know what youre looking at, yeah. He had the robe on now, though he hadnt tied it in place, so his body was framed by the white cloth. It was whiter than his skin, but not whiter than his hair.

Out, Richard said, adding, please, with a glance at my face. It wasnt a happy look.

Its not your room, Richard.

No, its yours and Jasons. He didnt have that taste of rage that comments like that usually came with, but he still wasnt happy. I guess I couldnt blame him, and that, right there, was part of the problem. Part of me still agreed with Richard. You were supposed to grow up, find that special someone, marry them, and live happily ever after, till death do you part. Once, Id believed that down to my toes. Now, I knew it wasnt going to happen for me. I didnt miss the wedding. Those always seemed like an expensive pain in the ass, but the concept of one single person being the be-all, end-all for youthat I missed.

Do you really want us to go? Crispin asked, and there was that wistful note in his voice that most of us grow out of by the time we get to be twenty-one.

I smiled, because that tone of voice made you either smile or want to kick someones ass. Go with Alex. Clean up. Get some clothes. Call the room, and well see how Im feeling, okay?

His face crumbled a little around the edges. Again, it was a younger gesture. I had a bad idea. Are you absolutely sure youre twenty-one?

I would never lie to you, Anita. If you really are my queen, then I wont ever be able to lie to you.

Alex took Crispins arm and started them toward the door. We need to go.

Jamil held out a pair of sunglasses. Alex looked almost startled, then took them. Thank you.

They arent cheap, so I want them back in one piece.

Alex actually looked at the side of the glasses. Dolce and Gabbana, these must have set you back a few hundred. Ill treat them like the luxury item they are, thanks again.

Jamil said, We have some people in our pack who cant go back to full human form. Its a pain in the ass.

You dont need to chat, Jamil, Richard said.

Alex gave a little bow in his direction. Good night for now, Ulfric. I am truly sorry if I distressed you.

Anita, Crispin said, please dont send me away. Please let me stay with you, please.

I knew that tone of voice. Shit.

Youve rolled him completely, the way you did Requiem, Richard said. I looked into his face expecting to see anger, but there was only something close to sorrow. Resignation, maybe.

Not a topic for company, I said.

Alex stopped them just short of the door, with the taller man, Crispin, staring back at me like a child being dragged away from the fair too soon. God, please, not another one.

This may not be vampire powers. Her