MY GUN WAS digging into my back, so I shifted forward in my office chair. That was better; now it was just the comforting pressure of the inner-skirt holster, tucked away underneath my short royal blue suit jacket. I’d stopped wearing my shoulder holster except when I was on an active warrant as a U.S. Marshal. When I was working at Animators Inc. and seeing clients, the behind-the-back holster was less likely to flash and make them nervous. You’d think if someone was asking me to raise the dead for them that they’d have better nerves, but guns seemed to scare them a lot more than talking about zombies. It was different once the zombie was raised and they were looking at the walking dead; then suddenly the guns didn’t bother them nearly as much, but until that Halloweenesque moment I tried to keep the weapons out of sight. There was a knock on my office door and Mary, our daytime receptionist, opened it without my saying Come in, which she’d never done in the six years we’d been working together, so I wasn’t grumpy about the interruption. I just looked up from double-checking my client meetings to make sure there wouldn’t be any overlap issues and knew something was up, and knowing Mary it would be important. She was like that.
She’d finally let her hair go gray, but it was still in the same obviously artificial hairdo that it had always been. She’d let herself get a little plump as she neared sixty and had finally embraced glasses full time. The combination of it all had aged her about ten years, but she seemed happy with it, saying, “I’m a grandma; I’m okay with looking like one.” The look on her face was sad and set in sympathetic lines. It was the face she used to deal with grieving families who wanted their loved ones raised from the dead. Having that face aimed at me sped my pulse and tightened my stomach.
I made myself take a deep breath and let it out slow as Mary closed the door behind her and started walking toward my desk. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to tell you over the phone with all the clients listening,” she said.
“Tell me what?” I asked, and fought the urge not to raise my voice. She was about one more uninformative answer away from getting yelled at.
“There’s a woman on line two; she says she’s your future mother-in-law. I told her you weren’t engaged to my knowledge, and she said that she didn’t know what to call herself since you were just living with her son.”
I was actually living with several men, but most of them didn’t have families to use words like son. “Name, Mary, what’s her name?” My voice was rising a little.
“Morgan, Beatrice Morgan.”
I frowned at her. “I’m not living with anyone named Morgan. I’ve never even dated anyone with that last name.”
“I didn’t recognize it from your boyfriends, but she said that the father is hurt, maybe dying, and she thought he’d want to know about his dad before it was too late. The emotion is real, Anita. I’m sorry, maybe she’s crazy, but sometimes people don’t think clearly when their husband is hurt. I didn’t want to just write her off as crazy; I mean, I don’t know the last names of everyone you’re dating.”
I started to tell her to ignore the call, but looking into Mary’s face I couldn’t do it. I’d trusted her to screen callers for years. She had a good feel for distraught versus crazy. “She give a first name for her son?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never dated a Mike Morgan. I don’t know why she called here, but she’s got the wrong Anita Blake.”
Mary nodded, but her expression looked unhappy. “I’ll tell her that you don’t know a Mike Morgan.”
“Do that. She’s either got the wrong Anita Blake, or she’s crazy.”
“She doesn’t sound crazy, just upset.”
“You know that crazy doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real, Mary. Sometimes the delusion is so real they believe it all.”
Mary nodded again and went out to tell Beatrice Morgan she had the wrong number. I went back to checking the last of my client meetings. I wanted to make sure that no matter how long it took to raise each zombie, I wouldn’t be too late for the next cemetery. Clients tended to get spooked if you left them hanging out in graveyards too long by themselves. At least most of the meetings were historical societies and lawyers checking wills, with the families of the deceased either long dead or not allowed near the zombie until after the will was settled in case just seeing the loved ones influenced the zombie to change its mind about the last will and testament. I wasn’t sure it was possible to sway a zombie that way, but I approved of the new court ruling that families couldn’t see the deceased until after all court matters were cleared up, just in case. Have one billionaire inheritance overturned because of undue influence on a zombie and everybody got all weird about it.
MARY CAME THROUGH the door without knocking. “Micah. Mike was his nickname as a kid. Morgan is her name from her second marriage. It was Callahan. Micah Callahan’s mother is on line two, and his dad is in the hospital.”
“Shit!” I said, picking up the phone and hitting the button to put the call through. “Mrs. Callahan, I mean, Mrs. Morgan, this is Anita Blake.”
“Oh, thank God, I’m so sorry. I just forgot about the names. I’ve been Beatrice Morgan for eighteen years, since Micah was twelve, and he was Mike to us. He didn’t like Micah when he was a little boy. He thought Mike was more grown up.” She was crying softly, I could hear it in her voice, but her words were clear, well enunciated. It made me wonder what she did for a living, but I didn’t ask. It could wait; it was just one of the thoughts you have when you’re trying not to get caught up in the emotions of a situation. Think, don’t feel, just think.
“You told our receptionist that Micah’s dad was hurt.”
“Yes, Rush, that’s my ex, his father, was attacked by something. His deputy said it was a zombie, but the bite isn’t human, and it’s like he’s infected with something from it.”
“Zombies rarely attack people.”
“I know that!” She yelled it. I heard her taking deep breaths, drawing in her calm. I heard the effort over the phone, could almost feel her gathering herself back. “I’m sorry. When Mike left us he was so horrible, but Rush said he’d found out that Mike did it to protect all of us and that some of the people had their families hurt by these people.”
“What people?” I asked.
“Rush wouldn’t tell me details, said it was a police matter. He was always doing that when we were married, drove me nuts, but he said that he’d found out enough to know that other wereanimals in that group had their families killed, and Mike had to convince them he hated us, or they would have hurt us. Do you know if that’s true? Does Mike want to see his father? Does he want to see any of us?” She was crying again, and just stopped trying to talk. She hadn’t been married to the man for nearly twenty years, and she was still this upset. Crap.
I was remembering that Micah’s dad was a sheriff of some flavor, and now his mom was telling me that somehow the dad had found out more about Micah and his animal group than I thought anyone with a badge, besides me, knew. I’d had to kill people to rescue Micah and his group, and I hadn’t had a warrant of execution, so it was murder. I was a little leery that Sheriff Callahan apparently knew more about it all than I’d thought. I knew that Micah hadn’t talked to his family in years, so how had his dad found out, and how much did he know?
It was my turn to take a deep breath and make myself stop being so damn paranoid and deal with the crying woman on the other end of the phone. “Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Morgan, how did you know to call here? Who gave you this number?” Maybe if I made her think about something more ordinary she’d calm down.
She sniffled and then said, in a voice that was hiccupy, as she tried to swallow past the emotion, “We saw Mike in the news as the head of the Coalition.”
“The Coalition for Better Understanding between humans and shapeshifters,” I said.
“Yes”—and the word was calmer—“yes, and you were mentioned in several stories as living with him.”
I wondered if the stories had talked about Nathaniel, the guy who lived with us, or the fact that I was also “dating” Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis? I almost never watched the news, so I didn’t always know what was being said in the media about any of us.
“Why didn’t you call the Coalition number and ask for Micah directly?”
“He said really awful things to me last time we spoke, Ms. Blake. I think I’d fall completely apart if he said that again to me with Rush hurt like this. Can you please tell him, and then if Mike wants to see us, to see Rush, before . . . in time . . . I mean . . . Oh, God, I’m usually better than this, but it’s so terrible what’s happening to Rush, so hard to watch.”
“Happening? What do you mean?”
“He’s rotting . . . he’s rotting alive and aware and the doctors can’t stop it. They have drugs that can slow it, but nothing slows it down much.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You mean that something preternatural attacked Mr. Callahan and now he’s got some disease?”
“Yes,” she said, almost a breath rather than a word.
“But they’ve seen it before, this disease?”
“Yes, they say it’s the first case outside the East Coast, but they’ve learned enough to slow it down. There’s no cure, though. I overheard a nurse call it the zombie disease, but she got in trouble for saying it. The older nurse said, ‘Don’t give it a name that the media will love.’ I heard doctors whispering that it’s just a matter of time before it hits the news.”
“Why do they call it the zombie disease?” I asked, partly to just give myself time to think.
“You rot from the outside in, so you’re aware the whole time. Apparently it’s incredibly quick, and they’ve only managed to prolong the life of one other person.” Her breath came out in a shudder.
“Mrs. Morgan, there are questions I want to ask, but I’m afraid they’ll upset you more.”
“Ask, just ask,” she said.
I took in a deep breath, let it out slow, and finally said, “You said prolong. For how long?”
Shit, I thought. Out loud I said, “Give me an address, phone numbers, and I’ll tell Micah.” I started to promise we’d be there, but I couldn’t promise for him. He’d been estranged from his family for about ten years. Just because I’d have gotten on a plane for my semi-estranged family didn’t mean he’d do the same. I took down all the information as if I were sure of his answer.
“Thank you, thank you so much. I knew it was the right thing to do to call another woman. We manage the men so much more than they think, don’t we?”
“Actually Micah manages me more than the other way around.”
“Oh, is it because you’re police like Rush? Is it more about the badge than being a man?”
“I think so,” I said.
“You’ll bring Micah?”
I didn’t want to lie to her, but I wasn’t sure the absolute truth was anything she could handle; she needed something to hang on to, to look forward to while she sat and watched her ex-husband rot while still alive. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just thinking it was terrible. I couldn’t leave her to watch it with no hope, so I lied.
“Of course,” I said.
“See, I’m right, you just say you’ll bring him. You manage him more than you think.”
“Maybe so, Mrs. Morgan, maybe so.”
She sounded calmer as she said, “Beatrice, Bea, to my friends. Bring my son home, Anita, please.”
What could I say? “I will . . . Bea.”
I hung up, hoping I hadn’t lied to her.
UNDER OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES I would have softened the news, maybe even had Nathaniel with me to help ease Micah into the family disaster, but there wasn’t time to be gentle. I had to tell him like jerking off a bandage, because the one thing I didn’t want to have happen was his father dying before Micah could say good-bye because I had delayed. So I had to not think too much about what effect it would have on the man I loved and the life we’d built together. Like so often in my life, I just had to do it.
I used my cell phone instead of going through the business lines. He’d see it was me, and he’d pick up without my going through his front office people. My stomach was in a hard knot, and only years of practice kept my breathing even, and because I controlled my breathing I controlled my pulse, which wanted to speed up. I so didn’t want to be the one to tell him this news, and yet I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have done it. Some things you wish you could delegate, and simultaneously know you wouldn’t, even if you could.
“How did you know I was just thinking about you?” he asked, not even a hello, just his voice warm and happy that it was me. I could picture him sitting at his desk, his suit tailored down to his slender, athletic body. He was my height, five foot three, but with wide shoulders leading down to a slender waist. He was built like a swimmer, though running was his exercise of choice. His curly, deep brown hair was just past his shoulders now, because we’d carefully negotiated both of us cutting a few inches off our hair, without breaking our deal, which was if one of us cut our hair, the other one got to cut theirs.
I should have said something romantic back to him, but I was too scared, too full of the bad news that I had to tell him. I had to just do it, no hesitation, no games, no words of comfort, because anything but just saying it was only going to make it worse, like I was lying to him, or putting sugar in the poison. I wrapped the sound of his happy, loving voice around me like a warm, safe blanket, and then I said, “Your mom just called me.”
The silence on the other end of the phone was loud, because I could hear my blood rushing through my ears. My breathing sped up as Micah’s stopped, my pulse thundering while his paused, as if his whole body had taken that breath just before you launch yourself over the cliff.
I couldn’t stand the silence. I said, “Micah, did you hear me?”
“I heard you.” There was no happy warmth to his voice now. His voice was as empty as he could make it; if there was any emotion it was a cold anger. I’d never heard him like that. It scared me, and that made me angry, because it was stupid to be scared, but it was that emotional scared—when you acknowledge how important someone is to you and your world and yet know that they are a separate person capable of fucking everything up with a few bad decisions. I trusted Micah not to do that, but I also hated being that dependent on anyone emotionally. I allowed myself to love, but part of me was still afraid of it. That part of me tried to make me angry at him in a sort of knee-jerk reaction, a preemptive strike. If I lashed out first it wouldn’t hurt so much, or that had been the idea I’d lived with in my subconscious for years. Now I knew better, but the old habit was still in me. I just had to ignore it and be reasonable. But none of me liked the fact that he was this emotional with just the news that his mother had called me; I hadn’t even gotten to the part about his dad. It didn’t bode well for how he’d take it.
“What did she want?” he asked, still in that strange, cold voice.
I took in a breath and let it out slow, counting to help calm all the neurotic impulses I had around this much relationship emotion, and spoke, calmly, in a voice that came out ordinary and a little cold. I wouldn’t be angry as a first strike, but the old habit of preferring anger to being hurt was still a part of me. I was working on it, but something about the whole conversation had hit an issue of mine. I was better than this, damn it. I wasn’t the sad, angry girl he’d first met.
“Your father is hurt, maybe dying. Probably dying,” and my voice wasn’t angry now, or cold, but more apologetic. Shit, I so sucked at this.
“Anita, what are you talking about?”
I started over and told him everything I knew, which seemed like damned little under the circumstances.
“How bad is he hurt?”
“I’ve told you what I know.”
“He’s dying? My dad is dying?”
“That’s what your mom said; she seemed pretty hysterical about it, actually.”
“She was always pretty emotional. It kind of balanced Dad’s stoicism out. Anita, I can’t think. I feel stuck.”
“You want to see your father, right?”
“If you mean do I want to make peace with him before he dies, then yes.”
“Okay, then we catch the first plane and get you to his bedside.”
“Okay,” he said. He sounded so unsure, so unlike himself.
“You want company?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you want Nathaniel to come?”
“I’ll call him and let him know. I’ll call Jean-Claude and see if his private plane is available.”
“Yes, good. Why can’t I think?” he asked.
“You’ve just learned your dad is in the hospital and you’re running out of time to make up with him. You’re having to make up with your whole family during a crisis of epic proportions. Give yourself a few minutes to process, Micah.”
“Good points,” he said, but he still sounded shell-shocked.
“Do you need me to stay on the phone?”
“You can’t call about the plane if you’re talking to me,” he said. The words were reasonable; the tone was still stunned.
“True, but you sound like you need me to keep talking to you.”
“I do, but I need you to arrange the trip more. I’ll give myself a few minutes to process and then I’ll arrange for other people to take the business end here while I’m gone.”
“I’ll do the same.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you more,” I said.
“I love you most.”
“I love you mostest.”
It was usually something that he, Nathaniel, and I said to each other, but sometimes just two of us would do it. Sometimes you just needed it.
IT WAS LATE enough in the day that the vampires had begun to rise in the underground beneath the Circus of the Damned, so when I called to see if we could borrow the private jet, Jean-Claude was awake enough to take the call himself. His voice held none of that sleepy edge because he didn’t really sleep; he died during the day, so when he woke it was abrupt and instant “awake.” Vampires sleep more like a switch: on, awake; off, dead. His body would even cool over the hours, not as cold as a real corpse, and there was no color change, because the body wasn’t really “dead,” and it wasn’t beginning to rot. If you were really dead, and human, the body began to rot as soon as the heart stopped. It’s like cutting a flower in your garden; you can put it into water, delay the process, but from the moment you pick it, it begins to die. The flower looks pretty for a long time, but it’s just a waiting game, the end is inevitable. Jean-Claude was a vampire, Master of the City of St. Louis, and he’d been dead and beautiful for about six hundred years; his end was not inevitable. Theoretically, he could still be fresh as an unblemished rose five billion years from now when our sun finally gave up the ghost, expanded, and ate the planet. Of course, I’d killed enough vampires in my job as a legal vampire executioner to know that even being master of a territory and head of the newly formed American Vampire Council didn’t make him truly immortal, just fucking powerful. That was one of the reasons he was awake with the sun still shining in the sky. If he hadn’t been deep underground in what had begun as a natural cave system but had been carved out decades ago into luxurious rooms, even he would have still been dead to the world.
“I can feel your anxiety, ma petite. What has happened?”
I told him.
“I can arrange for you and Micah to go, but I will not be able to follow until I have reassured the master of that territory that we are not coming to take over his lands.”
“It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d need to clear it with the local vamps to visit Micah’s dad in the hospital.”
“If you and he were simply a couple, then no, but you are my human servant, one leg of the triumvirate of power that we share with my wolf to call, our reluctant Richard. If it was Richard, two of us heading into another’s territory, they would be certain we were coming to destroy them.”
“We just need to get Micah to his dad’s bedside before it’s too late, that’s all. Surely they can just check and see that the man is in the hospital.”
“It is never that simple to cross from one land to another for master vampires or for the leaders of wereanimal groups. Micah and you are the Nimir-Ra and Nimir-Raj, leopard queen and king, of our local pard. Are there wereleopards in Micah’s hometown?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You need to know,” he said, quietly.
“Shit,” I said, and put real feeling into it. “This is going to piss me off really soon.”
“The new vampire council is very new, ma petite; we cannot afford to be seen as tyrants and bullies. If you enter other territories without at the very least alerting them, then it will be viewed as arrogance. It will seem as if you—we—feel that the entire country is ours to visit and use as we see fit. It will make the lesser leaders nervous and even be used by our enemies to stir up more rebellion against us.”
“I thought we took out the last rebels, or do you know something I don’t?”
“I do not know of rebels in our country, but I know with certainty that there is discontent, because there is always discontent. Never in any government of any form is everyone in an entire country happy with being ruled. It is the nature of the political beast to be hated.”
“So you’re saying they hate us because we formed a council to keep them safe from all the rogue vampires?”
“I’m saying that they ran to us for safety, but now that they feel safe, they will begin to look at the very power that enabled us to keep them safe, and they will begin to mistrust it, even fear it.”
“Well, isn’t that just peachy. So, Micah, Nathaniel, and I can’t go to see his father.”
“He’s our third. Micah wants him to come.”
“Ah, I thought perhaps you were taking Nathaniel as your leopard to call, and Damian as well, as your vampire part of your own triumvirate of power.” A super-powerful vampire could form a three-way power structure between their human servant and a wereanimal whose beast form was their normal animal to call, but I was the first human to be able to do my own equivalent of it. Jean-Claude thought that the fact that I was a necromancer and his human servant had enabled me to do the metaphysically impossible, but honestly, we didn’t know how I’d done it, just that I had.
“I hadn’t planned on taking Damian. He’s part of my power base, but he’s not our sweetie.”
“He is your lover on occasion.”
“If I took everyone who was my lover on occasion, we’d need a bigger plane.”
He laughed, that wonderful, touchable sound that thrilled down my skin as if he were touching me over the phone. It made me shiver. His voice still held that deep edge of masculine laughter as he said, “Very true, ma petite, very true.”
I had to swallow past the pulse in my throat. He’d made me breathless with just his voice. “God, Jean-Claude, stop that. I can’t think when you do that.”
He laughed again, which didn’t help at all. I realized he was doing it very deliberately when I felt the weight deep inside my body like the promise of orgasm. “Don’t you dare!”
The power began to retreat. He’d never been able to make me do the full-blown orgasm over the phone with just his voice until he’d been made head of the new American version of the vampire council. I’d known that it meant that all the master vampires had to make a fealty oath to Jean-Claude as their leader, but I hadn’t understood that it came with a power bump, or what that might mean. We’d had no choice. It was us in charge or someone else, and I trusted us.
“I am sorry, ma petite, this new power level is a heady thing. I can see why the other masters fear the head of the council, because to be head and take the oaths of their leaders means we have a little bit of all their power. It is a great deal of power.”
“You’re saying if you weren’t a better person that power corrupts and this much power would corrupt you absolutely?”
“I am not always certain that it is I who am the better person, ma petite, but together we are the better person.”
“I don’t think I’m always the civilizing influence, Jean-Claude.”
“Nor do I, but through all the metaphysics we have Richard’s conscience, Micah’s sense of fellowship, Nathaniel’s gentleness, Cynric’s sense of fair play, and Jade’s memories of the terrible use that her master made against her of his ultimate power. The people we have gathered and bound to us have helped make us powerful, but they also help me remember that I am not a monster and do not wish to be.”
“Can you not be a monster just by deciding not to be one?” I asked, and he knew me well enough to know that it wasn’t his impending monsterhood I was worried about.
“You are not a monster, ma petite, and if we are both conscious of the possibility I believe we can avoid becoming such.”
“So, what do we need to do before Micah, Nathaniel, and I show up at the hospital?”
“Are you intending just the three of you to go?”
“Well, us and the pilot, yes.”
“You must have bodyguards with you, ma petite.”
“If we take guards, won’t the locals be even more sure we’ve come to take them over?”
“Some, perhaps, but if our enemies were to realize that my human servant, her leopard to call, and her King of Beasts were all alone and unguarded, I fear the temptation would be too great to see what would happen to the rest of us if the three of you died.”
“Kill enough of our power structure and the rest die with us; yeah, I remember the theory.”
“It is more than theory, ma petite. You have seen Nathaniel and Damian almost die when you drained them of energy. You have felt the loss when Richard and I were injured. Let us not test the theory of what would happen if three of us were injured simultaneously.”
“Agreed, but it has to be minimal guards, Jean-Claude. We’re going to be seeing Micah’s family for the first time. Let’s not scare them too much.”
“You feel confident that you can protect yourself and them with minimal guards?”
“With the right ones, yeah, I do.”
“So confident, ma petite. It is both admirable and a little frightening to me.”
“Why frightening?” I asked.
“Just because you are dangerous, even deadly, and kill easily and well, does not make you bulletproof, ma petite.”
“Or bombproof,” I said. “I’m not Superman. I know I can be hurt, and I’ll have Nathaniel and Micah with me. Regardless of the metaphysical fallout, if they got hurt I don’t know what I’d do.”
“And if it were I that were hurt?”
And there it was: This beautiful, amazing man could still feel insecure, still wonder if I loved him, or at least how much. Since we could all feel each others’ emotions when we weren’t shielding like sons of bitches, it was interesting that we could all still be insecure sometimes. In Jean-Claude, whom I’d once thought the ultimate ladies’ man, it was endearing and made me love him more.
“I love you, Jean-Claude; I wouldn’t know what to do without you in my life, my bed, my heart.”
“Very poetic for you, ma petite.”
“I’ve been hanging out too much with Requiem, I guess.”
“When this crisis is taken care of, we will need to decide if he should return to Philadelphia permanently.”
“And become Evangeline’s second banana for good,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“You know, my dad used to breed beagles when I was little. I never wanted to give up any of the puppies, and when I got old enough I always worried the new owners wouldn’t take care of them the way we did.”
“I did not know that,” he said.
“We’re giving away a hell of a lot more than puppies, Jean-Claude. These are our people, our lovers, our friends, and we’re sending them away. I don’t mind the ones who are going to rule their own territories as new masters, but the ones we’re giving over to other masters as second-in-command, that sort of bugs me.”
“That is why we have a trial visit, or three, to make certain it is a good fit and that our people are being well treated.”
“Requiem doesn’t love Evangeline,” I said.
“No, he loves you.”
I sighed. “I didn’t mean for him to fall in love with me.”
“And I did not mean for you to acquire the power of my ardeur, my fire of lust, and become a living succubus to my incubus, but the damage is done. We are what we are, and now you know the power that you possess during sex when you feed the ardeur.”
“Requiem is a master vampire, Jean-Claude, and he broke the initial unintentional binding.”
“I believe he loves you, ma petite, not because of the ardeur, but because of you, and him. Love is never about the object of our love, but always says more about us than them.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
“It means that Requiem needs to love someone. He has always been a hopeless romantic, and what is more hopeless than being in love with someone who is in love with others?”
“You make it sound like he needs therapy.”
“It would not hurt,” he said.
I sighed. “You think he’d see a therapist?”
“If we ordered him to do it, he would.”
“We can order him to make appointments and talk to someone, but we can’t force him to actually do the work. You’ve got to be willing to work on your issues. You’ve got to be willing to face hard truths and fight to get better. That takes courage and force of will.”
“He has courage, but I do not believe he wishes to recover from this sickness of love.”
“I can’t help that he cares for me more than I care for him.”
“No, you cannot.”
“Back to the crisis at hand,” I said.
“You’ve had enough of this topic, I take it.”
“Yeah,” I said. I’d actually had more than enough of it, but . . . “One crisis per day, okay?”
“As you like,” he said.
“This isn’t what I like, Jean-Claude. I didn’t know if I’d ever meet Micah’s family, but I didn’t want to meet them this way.”
“No, of course not, ma petite. The plane is at your disposal. It only remains to choose the guards to accompany you.”
“How many is minimum?” I asked.
“Two apiece,” I said.
“Can you arrange for the plane while I do the guards?” I asked.
“Of course, and I would suggest that most of the guards be your lovers. You will need to feed the ardeur, and Micah’s grief may make his interest in such things less.”
I nodded, knew he couldn’t see it, and said, “Agreed.”
“I have regretted in the past not being able to take you home to visit my family, because they are long dead, but moments like this remind me that there are worse things than having lost them long ago.”
“Yeah, losing them here and now sucks a lot.”
He gave a small laugh. “Ah, ma petite, you do have a way with words.”
“I am frowning at you right now, just so you know.”
“But you do not mean it,” he said.
I smiled. “No, I don’t.”
“Je t’aime, ma petite.”
“I love you, too, master.”
“You always say that with such derision and usually an eye roll. You will never, ever, mean it.”
“Do you really want me to mean it?”
“No,” he said, “I want true partners, not slaves, or servants. I have learned that is why I chose you and Richard. I knew you would fight to remain free, to remain yourselves.”
“Did you know just how hard we’d fight?” I asked.
He laughed then, and it shivered over my body, making me shut my eyes and shudder at my desk. “Stop that,” I breathed.
“Do you truly wish me to never do that again?”
My breath came out in a shaking sigh. “No,” I said, at last. “I’ll call Fredo and see whom he can spare from the guards I want, and if he agrees with the mix of skills.”
“I trust you and our senior wererat to work out such details.”
“Thank you. There would have been a time when you would have insisted on picking them yourself.”
“There was a time when you were attracted to weaker men, but that has ceased to be true.”
“Remember, I was attracted to you in my weaker-men days,” I said.
“You have made me a better man, Anita Blake, as you have all the men, and women, in your life now.”
“I don’t know what to say to that. I feel like I should apologize or something.”
“It is in the nature of some leaders to bring out the best in those around them.”
“Hey, I’m not in charge of this little metaphysical bus; you are, remember?”
“I am the political leader, but in an emergency most of our people will take your orders over mine.”
“That’s not true,” I said.
“In a fight, they will.”
“Okay, if it’s violence, then yeah, it’s what I’m good at. You’re much better at the politics and dinner party stuff.”
“You have your moments in the political arena.”
“And only a few of the Harlequin are better than you with a rapier.” In fact, I’d been a little amazed at how good he was with his chosen weapon. He’d turned out to have been a famous duelist in his day, as a human and young vampire. He’d explained that his blade work had been what allowed him to survive; the masters of the day had challenged him, and he’d chosen his weapon and he’d killed them. I’d never known until he started practicing in the new gym where the other guards and I could see.
“Are you salving my ego, ma petite?”
“I think so.”
He laughed, and this time it was just humor. “I do not need it. I am king and you are both my queen and my general. One who leads the charge from the front and always will. You know our guards’ strengths and weaknesses better than I, because you practice and work out with them. You have quite shamed me and some of the older vampires into exercising more.”
“Most vampires can’t gain muscle; the body at death is what it is, unchanging.”
“But I can, and my vampires can.”
“One of the rebel vampires said it’s because you take power from them.”
“That helps me be powerful, oui, but I believe it is more that my ties to our wereanimals are more intimate. I accept their warm power more as an equal instead of the master/slave relationship that most older masters had.”
“Yeah, none of this treating the wereanimals like pets and property on our watch.”
“It is one of the bones of contention with some of the older vampires.”
“Yeah, they can just suck it up; the wereanimals are flocking to us because of the more equal rights stance.”
“It is impossible to make everyone happy, so in the end we make ourselves happy and do what we can for others. I want no slaves in my kingdom.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“I must hang up to make the plane ready for you,” he said.
“Yes, of course.”
“You are delaying. Why?”
I had to think about it for a minute, and then I gave him the out-loud, honest answer that once I would have died before admitting. “I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to talk to you again, and I’ll miss you.”
“That makes me happier than I can say, my love. You have quite surprised and pleased me.”
“If I don’t say it enough, Jean-Claude, I love you. I love seeing your face across the table while we eat, and watching you root at Cynric’s football games, and watching you read bedtime stories to Matthew when he stays with us, and a thousand surprising things, all of it, it’s you, and I love you.”
“You will make me cry.”
“A smart friend told me that it’s okay to cry; sometimes you’re so happy it spills out your eyes.”
“Jason, Nathaniel, or Micah?” he asked.
“One of them,” I said with a smile.
“Smart friends indeed. We must go and do our tasks, ma petite. Je t’aime, au revoir, until we meet again.”
“I love you, too, and see you soon.” I hung up before I could get any sillier or more romantic. But a little bit of squirming embarrassment was totally worth it for the happiness in his voice. If we’d dropped our metaphysical shields we could have felt every breath and emotion, even some thoughts of each other, but it was still good to say the words and to hear them. No matter how weird and magical we might be, having the people you love tell you they love you and mean it . . . it never goes out of style. Since we’re made in God’s image, this must be from Him, so even God must need an “atta boy,” an out-loud, in-your-head “Thank you, great job on that sunset, and the platypus was a brilliant fun idea.” Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to pray the way we do, because without it God would be lonely. Sometimes I thought my friends who were Wiccan had something with this whole God and Goddess thing. If people worked better paired up and in love, and we were made in God’s image, then logically it seemed like God needed a Goddess. As I got happier in my own love life, I’d started wondering if God was lonely without His Goddess. Maybe I was hanging around with too many pagans?
I said a prayer of gratitude for my own happiness, and a prayer for Micah’s dad, and let God go back to taking care of His love life as He saw fit. I called Fredo to arrange the guards and shook my head at my own weirdly romantic religious thoughts; so girly, to wonder if God needed a Wife. That was above my faith pay grade. Picking out dangerous men to guard our backs, that I understood.
MICAH TEXTED ME that he’d called Nathaniel to pack for us so he could meet us at the airport. I let him know I’d gotten his message and called the other third of our couple. Nathaniel answered on the second ring.
“Hey, pussycat.” No, most men wouldn’t have liked that as a nickname, but he wasn’t most men. “Micah told me you’re packing for all of us. Can you bear in mind we’re meeting his family for the first time, with the clothes?”
“I am,” he said.
“I need some shirts that aren’t low-cut, okay?”
“We love your breasts,” he said, his voice holding that upward lilt that said he was smiling.
I smiled. “I appreciate that, I even approve, but let’s not overwhelm his family with my assets the first time.”
“Would I pack so that all that creamy goodness was on display in every shirt?” he asked in that fake innocent voice.
“Yes,” I said, and laughed.
“I promise to pack some regular T-shirts, but most of your dressy tops are low-cut.”
“That’s because the plain silk shell blouses don’t lie right when I wear them,” I said.
“They aren’t designed for someone with a triple-E cup, Anita. I didn’t even know that you could have that big a cup size and be as lean as you are without surgical help.”
“Genetics is a wonderful thing,” I said.
“Yay, genetics!” he said with so much enthusiasm it made me laugh. “I’ll pack so we’ll match but won’t embarrass Micah. Promise.”
“Thank you. You’re the only one I’d trust to pack for all of us.”
“I’ll even wear a suit so we all match when we get to the hospital.” Nathaniel had beautiful designer suits, but since his regular job was as an exotic dancer he didn’t have to wear them to work like Micah did. The suits were for special occasions like weddings and certain business meetings where all of Jean-Claude’s main people had to show up looking businessy.
I realized that Nathaniel was strangely happy. It didn’t quite match the reason for the trip. I thought about asking why his mood was so up, but my phone let me know there was another call trying to come through. “I’ve got another call; let me make sure it’s not Micah.”
“I’ll wait,” he said, and again it was cheerful. Was it too cheerful, or was he just better at handling these emergencies than I was?
It was Jean-Claude on the phone. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Are any of the guards you have arranged werewolves?”
“Yes, it’s Micah’s rule and yours that we try to use as many wereanimals for our public bodyguards as possible.”
“You will need to make other arrangements, ma petite.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The local wolves have requested that you not bring anyone in who could challenge them. If there is need of a funeral, then they will understand us bringing in our wolves to call, but until that sad necessity they would like none of our wolves, as a sign of good faith.”
“Are you letting them boss us around too much?” I asked.
“If you want this initial visit to be about Micah and his dying father, no. If you want to have to deal with the local werewolves politically, and perhaps even frighten them enough to have it turn to violence, then by all means keep your wolf guard.”
“Okay, I’ll switch the guard roster.”
“Good,” he said.
“Is there anything else I need to know?”
“The master vampire of the area has forgone the usual politics and wishes our Micah well. In fact, he offered to put his people at our disposal for transportation and errands so that you could all concentrate on Micah’s family.”
“That was very nice of him,” I said, and couldn’t keep the suspicion out of my voice.
“It was nice of him, ma petite, but we are no longer just visiting masters from out of town. We are council members, or their people, and thus we are owed both allegiance and a certain deferential treatment.”
“So, now that you’re on the council we don’t have to do all the vampire political shit?”
“In part, yes, but on the other hand, it means we have to be even more conscious of other masters and their egos, unless you wish to feed the whispers of rebellion among them?”
“You know I don’t,” I said.
“Then remember that when you are dealing with him and his people, please.”
“Are you afraid I’ll be rude and spook them?”
“You, rude, ma petite, why would I fear that?” The sarcasm was not that thick, but the very delicate touch of it brought it home.
“I’ll be good. It’s nice of them to help us out at short notice.”
“They have little choice; the old European council would have seen a refusal of such niceties as a grave insult and would have acted accordingly.”
“What does ‘act accordingly’ mean in this context?”
“You have met envoys from the council, ma petite. What do you think they would do to a master who was discourteous to them?”
“Scare the hell out of him, torment, torture, overthrow him maybe if they had someone to put in his place, or in some cases just for the hell of the chaos it would cause.”
“On one hand we are hampered by the old council’s actions; it makes the others fear a council here in the United States. They fear we will go mad with power, but on the other hand, they will offer up service and courtesy in hopes of placating us and keeping us from having a reason to be angry with them.”
“So, on one hand the old council’s reputation makes things harder for us and scares everyone, and on the other hand they’ll probably behave better because they’re more afraid of us.”
“Exactement,” he said.
“Wait, we had to offer food to visiting council people. Are they going to offer us food for the ardeur?”
“I have not arranged it, but if they do not then it is a sign that they are not giving us the same respect that they gave the old council.”
“You’re using this as a test to see how Fredrico behaves toward us, toward you.” I fought not to sound accusatory.
“I did not engineer this visit, ma petite, but now that we have it, yes, it is a test for the local master. We must discover how well we rule, or how weak our rule is, so that we can decide how tightly we wish to hold the reins of power.”
“I’d rather not use visiting Micah’s dying father as a test of loyalty for the local vampires.”
“Not just vampires, ma petite, but local wereanimals. Our Micah travels the country talking to various animal groups, helping them deal with their problems. He promotes better relations between normal humans and the lycanthrope community. He has become the public face of the movement and is often called to handle disputes hundreds of miles from our lands.”
“What are you saying, Jean-Claude?”
“We learned that the reason you have no other king of any other animal group as attached to you as Micah is that metaphysically you have your furred king. Through you, he has ties to many more animals besides the leopards.”
“I know, I know, we have ties to all sorts of wereanimals, and Micah is a real leopard king in the metaphysical sense, able to rule by supernatural power and not just force of will and actions. If I hadn’t had a wereanimal in my bed that was a true king, then it wouldn’t have worked that way, but I thought that was just here in St. Louis. You’re saying that the other wereanimals across the country are being attracted to Micah’s power and don’t even realize it?”
“No, I am stating that when he travels and meets them, the power of a true king follows him. People want to be protected, ma petite. In America they teach that everyone should be the hero of their own story, but most people are not suited for it. They want, and need, someone to follow. If they are lucky they find someone good to lead them; if they are not so lucky . . .” He let the thought trail off.
“Micah’s good,” I said.
“Yes, he is good and strong and thinks of the larger group, the bigger issues.”
“I don’t think Micah has called and talked to the animal groups in his hometown.”
“That is why I did it for him.”
“You should probably tell him you did that.”
“I have,” Jean-Claude said.
“What did he say?”
“He was grateful for the help, and he told me that politics was the furthest thing from his mind.”
“Of course it is,” I said.
“But that does not change the fact that this visit is political, ma petite.”
“Oh, shit, you’re going to say that since Micah can’t, I have to oversee more politics.”
He gave a small chuckle. “Not precisely, but I have spoken with Fredo not about your choice of guards, but about the possible political pitfalls. He said he would inform whatever guards you chose to take with you, though he did say that if it was a political visit he’d have chosen different guards. I told him that your safety is more important than the politics, so go with the original guards, whoever they might be.”
“You know, I totally trust that you didn’t ask who we’d picked.”
“In choosing soldiers, ma petite, I would trust you implicitly.”
“Thank you. I trust you and Micah politically. Bad timing that it’s me with the clearer head on this trip.”
“It is unfortunate,” he said.
I had a thought that I hadn’t before, and felt slow. “I’m feeding off Rafael the Rat King and Reece the Swan King. If either of them had been my lover before I found Micah, would they have been my ‘king’ in the same sense that Micah is?”
“I do not believe so, but I do not know for certain. I do know that the rats and the swans are the only animal groups that have a countrywide ruler. I know you do not feed the ardeur on either of them often, but when you do I have felt the energy of everyone bound to their king.”
I shivered, and not from happiness. It was the most amazing feeling to feel people hundreds of miles away give up their energy to their king, and through him to me. I knew the faces of some of the swanmanes and wererats even though I had never seen them outside a metaphysical energy exchange.
“You think Micah is starting to be the overall king?”
“I believe that he has the unique opportunity to become the . . . high king of most of the lycanthrope community in this country. I believe he has taken the wererat model as his working blueprint.”
“You and Micah have talked about this?”
“Don’t you think I should have been included?”
“What did you think was happening, ma petite? Micah and his Coalition are called in across the country to settle disputes between diverse animal groups so they can avoid violence and be more ‘human.’ When a group of people turn to the same person time and again for leadership, what does that mean, ma petite?”
“That he is their leader, or becoming their leader.”
“The fact that you did not see that is because you did not want to see it. You hate the politics. Micah is not wanting to be king, but he is too intelligent a leader not to see the possibilities.”
“Okay, so I’ve been slow and a little stupid, sorry.”
“Slow, but never stupid, ma petite; perhaps oblivious from time to time.”
“Fine, so what do I do with this visit since Micah is going to be too overwrought to do the politics?”
“Concentrate on Micah. Fredrico was very understanding that would be the priority for this visit.”
“Do we know any of Fredrico’s background?”
“Yes, he was a Spanish conquistador and nobleman once.”
“Usually ex-nobles aren’t very understanding of problems like Micah’s,” I said.
“Very true, ma petite, but perhaps he is afraid of us. As a nobleman you learn to be very polite to those more powerful.”
“I prefer aggression myself.”
“Ah, but you have never had to survive at a noble court; it teaches you humility, ma petite.”
“Humility isn’t my best thing.”
He laughed then, and it was a straight-out, laughing-his-ass-off laugh. I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard him laugh quite like that. When he didn’t stop right away I said, “Fine, fine, laugh it up. I’ve got Nathaniel on hold.”
“I am sorry, ma petite, but you are one of the least humble people I have ever met when it comes to negotiations.”
“I prefer to negotiate from a point of strength.”
“Even if you do not have one,” he said.
“We are stronger than this Fredrico, right?”
“Then he was gracious because he didn’t have a choice,” I said.
“Yes, ma petite, but when you see his people, please do not point that out. Let their master and them keep their pride. Fredrico comes from a time when you challenged people to duels to the death to avenge a slight to your honor. Do not make him feel he has been slighted, please.”
“Is wolf his animal to call? Is that why you were so polite with the local pack?”
“Non, ma petite, he does not have an animal to call. I was political with the main animal groups because that is how Micah would wish it. We are building our power structure on the equality of all preternatural beings, not just the superiority of the vampires. It is a novel approach, very American, very progressive. The younger among us approve; the older ones distrust it, or even disapprove of welcoming the lycanthropes into a broader position of power.”
“Fredrico is an ex-conquistador, so that makes him older. Does he have a problem with us including the furry in the power structure?”
“Not that he has stated.”
“No animal to call makes him pretty low-power for a Master of the City,” I said.
“It does, which was why his territory was initially in a rural area. No one could have foreseen the spread of human cities until his countryside lands became part of a city rich enough with life to make him a much more important master.”
“If he’s that weak, I’m surprised someone didn’t challenge him years back.”
“He kept up his sword practice, and as they challenged him he was able to choose the method of the duel.”
“You’re saying he won because he’s a kickass swordsman.”
“As long as the challenger is not a member of the council, then as the challenged he may choose his weapon, and it would be considered cheating to use animals to call when he has none.”
“So his weakness becomes a strength,” I said.
“But you are a member of the council, so how does that change things?”
“You fought beside me when the Earthmover came and tried to destroy us. As a council member he could have insisted on using every power he possessed. He could have used the very earth against us and reduced our fair city to rubble.”
“The Earthmover wanted to make humans afraid of vampires again. An earthquake wouldn’t have done that, because no one would have believed a vampire did it.”
“True, but he would still have been within his rights to do it.”
“So, if you fought Fredrico we could bring all our wereanimals, everything, and just destroy his ass.”
“And put a master of our choosing in his place, oui.”
“So, we play nice, and let him save face.”
“Okay, I understand that.”
“Good, now talk to our Nathaniel. Do you wish me to call Fredo and tell him we need a new guard?”
“I’d rather help choose the substitute.”
“Then cut short your talk with our pussycat.”
“I will,” I said. “Love you.”
“Je t’aime, ma petite.”
I switched back to Nathaniel. He said, “You’re on speakerphone; I had to keep packing.”
“What did Jean-Claude want?”
“I’ll tell you on the plane; right now I have to finish arranging the bodyguards.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Love you,” I said.
“Love you more,” he said.
“Love you most.”
“Love you mostest,” he said.
I guess both of my wereleopards were feeling a little insecure. Hell, me, too.
I’M USUALLY PHOBIC of flying, and as I tightened the seat belt in my roomy, cushioned seat, it didn’t make me like it any better. The seats were bigger, but the plane was narrower. Did I mention that I’m also claustrophobic? It’s the combination that makes flying such fun. But the moment Micah sat down beside me and reached for my hand, I stopped worrying about my fears and worried about him. His face was passive behind the dark sunglasses, but tension sang through his hand, his arm, so I knew his body was thrumming with it. In all the rush to get ready to leave, this was the first time I’d seen him since I had to tell him the bad news.
“Are you all right?” As soon as I heard it out loud I knew it was stupid, but it’s what you say.
He smiled, but it was sad, and self-deprecating, and held a little anger. It was the smile he’d first had when he came to me. It was a smile, but so full of other emotions that it was never really happy. I was sad to see it back on his face.
I leaned in and wrapped my arms around him, drew him in to me, and let him wrap his arms around me. My seat belt kept me a little pinned so he had to come to me more, but he didn’t seem to mind. My chin tucked over his shoulder, because he was the same height as me. He was the only man I’d ever dated who was five foot three just like me. We could wear each other’s T-shirts, and some of our jeans. He was the shortest and most physically delicate-looking man in my life, but the strength as he hugged me wasn’t delicate. I knew the body under the designer suit moved with lean muscle . . . He ran miles every week, usually outside in all weather. He called it his thinking time.
He spoke with his face buried in my hair. “I don’t know how to do this.”
“See your folks?” I asked.
I kept hugging him but raised one hand to stroke the thick curls of his ponytail. “I’m so sorry you’re having to go home like this.”
He squeezed me so tight that I almost had to tell him, too tight. He loosened his grip before I could do any more than tense. He was a wereleopard, which meant he could crush most metal in his hand, but he was always very aware of his strength.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and drew out of the hug to sit back in his seat, resting his head against it.
I took his hand again and stayed turned toward him. “It’s okay, you’re upset.”
“I’ll be upset this whole visit probably. How do I see them again, Anita? How do I deal with my dad hurt . . . maybe dying?”
He turned his head, still resting against the seat, and spoke directly on a topic that we’d hardly ever talked about. “I can’t imagine losing a parent as early as you did. This feels awful already.”
I nodded. “It is awful, but I was only eight when my mother died. You grew up with both your parents until you were ready to go off to college. I had just my dad until I was ten, and then a stepmom that I totally didn’t get along with and a stepsister my own age, and then they had Josh together. I can’t even imagine what my life might have been like if my mom had lived.”
“I’ve got a stepfather and half-brothers.”
“You never said.”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t close with my mom’s second family. I was on Dad’s side after the divorce. I loved my mother, but she left him. He never really found anyone else to love, just her, as if he could only love one person.”
“You were what, twelve, when they divorced?”
I studied his face, tried to read behind the sunglasses. It wasn’t that bright in the plane, but he was used to wearing them in public to hide his leopard eyes. He’d lost his ability to regain full human form because Chimera, the sadistic leader who took over his leopard pard, had punished him by forcing him into animal form so long that his eyes hadn’t come back and never would. I loved his green-gold eyes, especially with his summer tan that he got so easily. I had my father’s Germanic skin, always pale, never tan.
“You said you had brown eyes originally—whose eyes do you have, colorwise?”
He smiled and this time it was a real smile. “My father’s.”
The smile was full of love, happiness, memories, of a son’s pride in having his father’s eyes. I knew that Micah had been his father’s hunting buddy, as I’d been for mine. We’d both grown up hunting and camping.
“So you look like your dad?”
“He’s a little taller, but we’re built alike. He knew to put me into gymnastics and martial arts as a kid, not peewee football. He loves watching the games, but he was always too small to play, and he knew I would be, too, so he didn’t put me through the frustration of it the way his own dad did.”
“Your grandfather?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s five-eight, built bigger. Dad and I are built like my grandma’s side of the family. I don’t know why it never occurs to big, burly guys that when they marry the tiny cheerleader some of the kids may look more like her, even the boys. They never think it through.”
“I take it your grandfather isn’t your favorite person.”
“My dad and he had issues with my dad not being big enough for regular sports, though Dad went to college on a baseball scholarship. He was good enough for college, but he didn’t have the size for the power hitting you need in the majors, and he knew it.”
“Baseball is a manly sport,” I said.
Micah grinned. “Granddad Callahan played football and wrestled. He also muscled up better than we did. More like Nathaniel.”
As if just saying his name had conjured him, our other sweetie walked up the little steps and into the jet. His shoulders were broader than Micah’s, and at five foot seven he carried the extra muscle well. He’d actually had to stop lifting as much in the gym because he was bulking up too much to keep the flexibility he needed as a dancer. Micah fought for every bit of muscle in the gym. Nathaniel’s dark auburn hair must have been pulled back into a tight braid because it gave the illusion that his hair was short. He was still wearing his sunglasses, not to hide his eyes, but because it was bright outside. With his eyes hidden and his hair back and a charcoal-gray suit hiding all his body, there was just the line of his face, with nothing to distract the gaze from the near-perfect line that ran from his temple to the cheekbones, the chin that managed to be both masculine and soft. It was the lips that did it, I think, wide, curved lines, just full enough to soften what might have been handsome to make it beautiful. It was his face unadorned, but that was like saying Michelangelo’s David was unadorned marble.
Micah’s hand tightened in mine, and it wasn’t sorrow now. Had his pulse sped up, too, just watching our other third walk into the plane? His hand tightened a little more and we turned and looked at each other at the same time. I had a moment of looking at the delicate triangle of his face with his fuller lips that dominated more of his face, and then he burst out laughing, and I joined him. It was as if some horrible tension had just floated away.
Nathaniel smiled and then said, “Did I do something funny?”
“No,” Micah said, “just God, you are . . . so . . .”
“Beautiful,” I said.
“Yes,” Micah said.
Nathaniel blushed and gave us one of those big, bright, utterly happy smiles. It made his whole face glow with it, but the blush, that was the rarest of all.
“I’ve never seen you blush,” I said.
He actually ducked his head as if embarrassed, which I’d never seen either. It was Micah who got up first and went to him. I tried to stand up and the seat belt jerked me back to my seat, reminding me that I’d been a little too safety conscious. It meant I got to sit there and watch them hug each other. It started out as the good-friend guy hug, only upper bodies touching, that distinct hip distance kept, and then Micah moved back enough to look up at the taller man and I had a moment to watch them look at each other. With both of them in sunglasses, suits, hair back, I was treated to their faces in profile in a way I almost never got to see. If Nathaniel was carved marble, then Micah was something more delicate, like carved ivory, if ivory could tan dark and have an edge of curls framing its face even with the ponytail. His hair, like mine, was too curly to behave like Nathaniel’s.
They kissed, and I held my breath, watching their lips move, their arms tighten around each other, Nathaniel’s hands tensing against the back of Micah’s suit jacket so he could feel the muscles underneath the elegant conservative cloth.
They broke from the kiss and looked at me, both of their faces full front, nearly side by side, so that I got the full impact of those clean, sculpted lines, the half-parted lips, their arms still loosely around each other.
I’d like to say I said something profound, or poetic, but what I actually said was, “Wow.”
Nathaniel grinned. “I think she liked watching.”
Micah smiled and held one hand out to me, an invitation to join them.
I tried to get up and forgot my seat belt again, and then it was as if I’d forgotten how it worked. I had to fight with it, and the men were laughing as I said, “You have kissed me stupid and I wasn’t even part of the kiss.”
“Do you need help?” Micah asked, his voice full of laughter.
I got free and went to them. They opened up the circle of their arms to bring me in to them. I was suddenly in the circle of their bodies with their deeper masculine laughter, the warmth and weight of them around me, and it was better than almost anything I had ever imagined having. Once I’d thought I could only be in love with one person at a time, but I loved Jean-Claude, and I loved the two men in my arms. I loved them together; as a unit, we were three. Jean-Claude was his own entity, and he and I, even with all the other bed partners, were more a couple. I was in love with him, too.
I stood there in their arms and loving them, and their loving me, didn’t take away from Jean-Claude and me; it added to it. All of the relationships added to one another, until we were all happier than we’d ever been. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-after, but I did believe in happier-than-we’d-ever-been, because I was living it.
I raised my face and Nathaniel leaned down to kiss me, while Micah held us both, or we held him, and I knew once this kiss was done there would be another one from Micah. Life was great. We could get through this, whatever came when we landed in Micah’s old hometown; we could do this, because we loved one another. Love doesn’t conquer all, but it can help you conquer everything else.
VOICES FROM OUTSIDE the plane made us look up from the warm circle of us. I tried to look down the steps to see what was making people raise their voices, but I couldn’t see past Nathaniel’s broad shoulders and chest. He could see, and Micah had a better angle, so I asked, “What’s up?”
“Nicky is blocking the stairs and the other guards aren’t happy about it,” Nathaniel said.
“Nilda isn’t happy about it,” Micah added.
They moved to either side so I could see for myself. Nicky stood at the bottom of the foldout steps like a wall of blond muscle. He was just under six feet, so Nilda towered over him by five inches; at six foot four she was the second-tallest woman I’d ever met and she hit the gym seriously. It had given her long arms smooth tone and muscle, but she was one of those women who didn’t put on muscle easily. She looked strong and imposing, but Nicky’s shoulders were almost as wide as I was tall, a huge spread of muscle that nothing would give Nilda no matter how many weights she lifted. I muscled up faster than she did. It was just one of those genetic things. Her summer tan was a light gold that contrasted strongly with her white-blond hair and made her blue eyes stand out in the high cheekbones of her strongly Scandinavian face like an advertisement for Norwegian Vacations-R-Us. Her full name was Brunhilda, after one of the Valkyries, and yelling into Nicky’s face, her shoulders and arms straining with tension, her face enraged, she looked it. She was one of the Harlequin who had been the bodyguards, spies, assassins, judges, and executioners of vampirekind for centuries. So deadly that to even speak of them could get a vampire hunted down and killed. They had been the elite guards of the Mother of All Darkness, the legendary first vampire, the darkness made flesh, and she had used them to keep her control absolute. Then she grew bored, or old, and fell into a “hibernation” for centuries and her control slipped, and the Harlequin began to fracture into those who believed in their original purpose and those who didn’t. Nilda was the animal to call of one of the master vampires who had been Harlequin, and she was now with us. There were days when I was pretty sure Nilda would have stayed on the other side with the Harlequin who were still pissed that we’d destroyed their mistress, but Nilda’s master was old-school, which meant it had never occurred to him to give her a choice. She was his animal to call, and to the old-school vampires that meant she was just an extension of the vampire, a walking, talking, fighting machine that he occasionally fucked, but sometimes I think he saw it more as masturbating, as if she weren’t real to him. No, I didn’t like Nilda’s master much, but I wasn’t particularly fond of her either. She was on this detail in an effort to merge the Harlequin guards into our own, but some of them fit better than others. I wondered what Nicky had done to set her off. Nilda had a temper, but this was off the charts.
I moved toward the open door and could see two of the other guards sort of off to one side. Dev, short for Devil, which in turn was a nickname for Mephistopheles, was standing there grinning like he was enjoying the show. His handsome golden face was shining with happiness, only his blue-hazel eyes were softer, more careful. I didn’t have to be closer to know that his body would be tensed and ready to do something if the argument got physical. He was halfway between the other two in height at six foot three; even his shoulders were halfway between Nilda’s and Nicky’s in width, though both of them had more muscle development than Dev. He was naturally big, naturally athletic, and it made him a lazy cat in the weight room. He worked out like a son of a bitch in weapons and hand-to-hand training, but he didn’t like lifting the way the other two did.
Ethan watched it all, face serious, body language unhappy. He was only five-eight, one of our shorter guards, but he seemed to work all the harder for it. He was always the last to leave the practice mat and first to volunteer for learning something new. His short hair was a soft mass of curls, longer on top, so that it almost did a natural pompadour. His curls were a blond that was almost white with what looked like gray highlights in it. There was one streak of dark red from the back of his head to his forehead as if he’d added it for dramatic effect, but it was all-natural color. His eyes were a soft gray that matched the highlights.
“I’ve never seen Nilda lose it this bad,” Nathaniel said.
“Me either,” Micah and I said together. I moved out from between the two men and went for the stairs and the almost-fight. I’d try to see if I could keep it from turning into a real fight. I would have thought that Nicky had said something to bait her, but I couldn’t think of anything that he could have said that would have caused this reaction. The Harlequin guard were supposed to be the ultimate spies, so they had to have iron-willed control, but what I’d noticed was that some of their wereanimal members had serious therapy-worthy issues. Their vampire masters were trying to use it as a way of saying, See, they need a tight leash, because they’re just animals. I thought it was more that the wereanimals had been abused for centuries, some a thousand years’ worth or more, and now they had the freedom to be a person and they didn’t know how. Or now that they were allowed their real emotions they were just so angry, and they couldn’t take it out on their masters, so they took it out where they could. Apparently, today Nilda was taking it out on Nicky. Fuck.
I came to the top of the steps and called out, “Nilda, chill out.”
She didn’t seem to hear me but poked a finger into Nicky’s chest. I watched his shoulders stiffen. She’d touched him, escalated the fight, invited the physical. I yelled this time, “No fighting! That’s enough, Brunhilda!”
She glared up at me with her huge blue eyes gone almost gray. Gray meant that she was close to losing herself to her anger. In the months she’d been with us, we’d all learned that tell from our Viking maiden. The next tell was worse. Energy rolled off her in a wave of heat as if I’d stepped too near to a blasting furnace. In the old system, flaunting this much power would have made most other wereanimals back off and concede the fight or flash their own power. Now it breathed along my skin in a near-scalding heat, power so hot it took my breath away for a second. Even for Nilda this was a lot of power flaunting.
“You say we are one of you, but you always take their side! We served the Dark itself and now we are nothing!” she yelled, and it was as if the scalding heat spilled out her voice so that each word growled power, as if I should have been able to see the words hanging in the air between us like flame.
I kept my voice even but forceful as I said, “You’re the one yelling at me, Nilda. You’re the one who’s losing control in public like a newbie. Where is the famous discipline of the Harlequin?”
“You do not know what discipline means,” she growled. “You are a little girl who has not lived a lifetime yet. We are Harlequin!” Her power poured around me, so hot it felt like it should hurt to touch my skin. I fought not to flinch and wondered how Nicky was standing so stoically barely an arm’s length from her. Proximity made the effect worse, and touching could be downright painful, yet Nicky stood like a boulder in the rush of that river of power. If he could do it, I could do it.
I stepped down two more steps and it was like wading into a scalding bath, so hot you knew it would leave your skin red and hurting. “You guys fight good, but so far I haven’t been impressed with anything else. And this little girl is in charge of your ass, all your asses.”
“Jean-Claude is in charge; you are less than an animal to call, you are only a human slave. You should not be in charge of anything!”
Ah, here we had it. It was worse than being just the girlfriend, who everyone perceived as being given a management job because she was sleeping with the boss. In the old system of vampireland, preternatural power gave you rank—vampires first, then wereanimals, then human servants. Plain humans were pretty much just food.
“You are not the boss of me, human, and neither is Nicky!” She took a step closer to the big man who stood so silent in front of her.
“He’s not in charge of you,” I said, and I let down my shields and very deliberately touched the beasts inside me. I called my own otherworldly heat and let it trickle down into hers. I took two more steps down into the heat of her rage, and my voice growled low and deep as hers. I held tiger, leopard, wolf, and lion in me; all she held was bear. It was one of the brown bears related to Kodiaks and grizzlies, but bigger. Some of the ancient wereanimal lines held the last genetic link to some extinct animal lines. There were several werebears among the Harlequin’s animals to call, and they were big fuckers, but a bear was only one beast; I carried a menagerie in me. Jean-Claude’s vampire marks kept me in human shape, or had so far, but I held the beasts inside me, including every bloodline of weretiger. “I am!” I let those two words carry my power.
I was close enough to watch her eyes swim to dark reddish brown, her beast eyes in her human face. The eyes are usually the first to shift when a wereanimal begins to change. In all her displays of temper Nilda had never let her eyes change. Shit. My flashing power back should have calmed things down, because it showed I was ready to back down her threat with my own. Instead her eyes had gone. I so didn’t need this today.
“You’re behaving like a first-moon rookie. Control yourself or go back to the Circus. We don’t need this shit.”
“My orders are that you need six guards. I’m the sixth. I won’t disobey my orders.”
“Fredo takes orders from me. If I say you go home, you go home.”
She lowered her head, and I could almost see her power shimmer around her like a heat haze above a summer road. She swallowed it back, and when she looked up again her eyes were just blue and human, though the rage was still there plain to see. That was fine, she could be pissed; what she couldn’t be was out of control.
“I will not disgrace my master.”
Things were calming down, but it was too late as far as I was concerned. I didn’t have time to babysit Nilda’s issues. I felt sorry for her, even understood some of her rage, but Micah needed me and that was my priority. “I don’t have time to babysit your issues, Nilda. I’m sorry that your afterlife has sucked, but it’s not my problem today. Go back with the driver and the car. I’ll phone Fredo and tell him to expect you.”
She looked up at me, and there was no anger now. She was studying my face, trying to read me. That was another thing I’d noticed particularly about the Harlequin’s werebears; they didn’t seem to be good with facial expressions, as if they had trouble interpreting human faces. I still had trouble reading the faces of those nearest and dearest to me when they were in animal form, so I hadn’t asked about it, but maybe I should. Later I would, but not today.
“I have swallowed my power back. I have done as you asked. Why are you still sending me back?” Her voice was so reasonable, as if I were the one behaving badly.
“Because I can’t afford to have you doing what you just did around Micah’s family. His father is a law enforcement officer, which means there will be other cops around the hospital, and if you go all otherworldly around them they might just shoot you first and ask forgiveness later. Remember, this is a western state; they can kill you in human form, and if your blood test comes back showing lycanthropy, and it will, it’s a legal kill. And if you want to come along and get yourself killed, that’s fine, though it’d be a bitch to have your master die with you because you’re being a undisciplined baby, but you’re likely to get people I care about hurt, and that I won’t allow.”
Her wide eyes went even wider, like blue pools in her face, and I realized tears were standing in them. If she blinked the tears would fall, and she was fighting to keep that from happening. Fuck.
“Please,” she said, “please, if you send me back he will know I have failed. You do not understand what he will do to me if I fail him.”
“He doesn’t get to do anything to you without Jean-Claude’s permission, so all that will happen is you get restricted guard duty, local only and out of media sight for a while, that’s it.”
Her breath came out in a long sigh, and she swallowed convulsively. The tears shone in her eyes but still did not fall. “You think you control the old Harlequin, but you do not. They hold with the old ways and punish us in private like whipped dogs.”
“I wouldn’t let any of our people beat their dogs either. Are you saying that Gunnar beats you in private?”
She covered her face with one hand and stepped away from Nicky and the stairs. I guess that was answer enough.
“Shit,” I said, softly, but real feeling.
Micah stepped up beside me, and I knew Nathaniel was just behind him; without turning to see, I could feel them both at my back. “I’ve run into old masters across the country who treat their wereanimal to call like that.”
“We’re leading by example, damn it; that means that no one here in St. Louis gets to do shit like this.”
“If you send her back, then Jean-Claude has to take care of it,” Micah said.
“We can’t take her with us,” Nathaniel said.
We both turned around and looked at him. He was the most submissive of us, so gentle most of the time, and then he’d get a look in his eyes, and you could see the steel inside him. He didn’t want to be in charge; that didn’t mean he wasn’t strong.
“You sound sure,” I said.
“I am.” His face relaxed a little, softening his expression, but he shook his head. “She feels safer than she’s been in years. Sometimes when that happens after a lot of abuse you just fall apart, because you can. You’ve finally got people to catch you when you fall, but if she’s about to uncover centuries of abuse, she can’t do it on this trip.”
I looked into his serious, handsome face and realized that he understood her pain better than most, and he was still not going to let her pain manipulate him. It was a type of strength that I was only now learning. I was a dominant personality; my instinct was to take care of people, but Nathaniel was right. Hard, but right.
“I was Chimera’s special whipping boy for years; I sympathize with Nilda. When we get back I will help you do anything necessary to keep her from being abused by her master, but right now she is not my priority,” Micah said.
I studied the faces of my two men. “Am I wanting to help her more than you do because I’m a girl?”
“No,” Nathaniel said, “because you haven’t had as much therapy as I have. It’s all about boundaries, Anita, personal boundaries. You’ve only known Nilda for a few months. You don’t love her. You aren’t even friends. She tries to cut down all the other shapeshifters, and the humans are just beneath notice, except for you, because she can’t ignore you, but she doesn’t like you. Don’t mistake her cry for mercy for anything but self-serving. It’s all about her and her pain. We’re all like that, but we have lovers who love us and we love back in that almost-married way; we have our support in place, and she doesn’t.”
“I don’t think she had a chance,” I said.
“We didn’t abuse her, Anita,” Micah said.
“I know that.”
“If we don’t take care of ourselves first,” Nathaniel said, “we can’t take care of anyone else.”
It was logical. He was right, so why did it feel so bad?
“Anita,” Micah said, and he put his hands on my arms and made me face him directly. “Even this delay could be the difference between me seeing my father one more time and him dying before I get there. I don’t owe Nilda that.”
I nodded; put that way, he was right. “I’ll call Jean-Claude and Fredo from the plane so we don’t delay anymore.”
“Call Jake, too,” Nathaniel said, naming one of the other wereanimals who were Harlequin.
“Why?” I asked.
“Jake will explain to the other Harlequin that you’ll be unhappy if Nilda or any of the other animals to call are harmed, until you get a chance to discuss it with everybody.”
“The Harlequin respect Jean-Claude more than me,” I said.
“Some do, but I trust Jake to explain one important difference between you and Jean-Claude.”
“What?” I asked.
“Jean-Claude wants the clout of having the Mother of All Darkness’s assassins and bodyguards work for him, so he’ll hesitate to kill them; you won’t.”
“I’m human, Nathaniel; I can’t afford to fight any of the Harlequin. All I can do is kill them.”
“Exactly,” he said.
I frowned. “I don’t want to kill them.”
“But you will,” he said.
“Let’s get the other guards on board and get in the air. No more delays,” Micah said, and that was that—though Ethan stayed behind to help the driver keep Nilda in the car. The driver was human and we didn’t trust her not to go berserk and tear him up. Strong emotions can bring on the change; grief works almost as well as anger. Which made me worry about Micah as the plane left the ground. I’m usually most afraid on takeoff and landing, but as I held my love’s hand, I was too worried about him to worry much about me. Easiest takeoff I’d ever had.
IT WAS DARK when we landed in Colorado, so all I can say is Denver looks like every other city from the air, all lights like electric stars scattered across the ground. We got off the plane to two black SUVs that came with matching vampires and a white SUV that had a very human woman leaning against it. She was built small and delicate like Micah, with curly red hair trailing around her shoulders. I couldn’t see the color of her eyes from where I was standing, but I knew the shape of them, because I’d spent too much time looking into Micah’s eyes and face. There was a lot of similar bone structure, though the red hair and freckles were a surprise. I’d pictured his family as darker like him. She smiled, pushing away from the truck, in her blue jeans, blue polo shirt, and cowboy boots, which looked too beat-up and used to be a fashion statement.
Micah went to her with a huge smile on his face. He said, “Juliet.”
She said, “Mike.”
They hugged like they meant it, though with that below-the-waist distance that you learn with relatives. Thanks to the nearly four-hour flight, we knew that Juliet was Uncle Steve’s daughter, and that Cousin Richie had been Steve’s son, but both of them had died in the attack that had turned Micah into a wereleopard. Micah and Richie had both been only eighteen, Richie back from basic and about to ship out to an active-duty post and Micah back from college. They’d come home to have one last deer hunt with their dads, but while they’d been hunting the doe they bagged, something else had been hunting them. Micah’s dad had been called away for a suspicious death or he’d have been on the hunt with them.
Nathaniel took my hand. I could feel the tension thrumming down his arm. I turned and looked at him. His face looked neutral but it was a nervous neutral. I fought the urge to lower the mental shields that kept us from getting a direct feed into each other’s emotions. We did not need to be drowning in Micah’s emotions right now, and once the shields came down, sometimes it was hard to filter strong emotions from anyone I was connected to. It was going to be hard enough to support Micah through the family reunion without actually feeling the emotions with him. So I moved closer to Nathaniel and whispered, “You don’t have to be nervous.”
“Tell me nothing will change between the three of us,” he whispered back.
“Nothing will change between us,” I said, and squeezed his hand. I would have done more comforting, but one of the vampires from the black SUVs walked toward us. Would I have said glided, once? Maybe, but he didn’t glide, he walked. For graceful movement I had Jean-Claude, Damian, Wicked and Truth, or Requiem, or hell, lots of vampires in St. Louis who made the one moving toward us seem rough in comparison. He was dressed in a black suit and white shirt; even the tie was black. It was Jean-Claude’s signature black and white, but somehow it didn’t work as well for this guy. Maybe it was the cut of the suit being less tailored or the fact that it was a standard suit that anyone could have worn. Jean-Claude always made sure his clothes were his very personal style. This vampire, with his short black hair and run-of-the-mill clothes, looked like someone had looked down a cast list and said, one generic vampire needed. It was boring compared to what I was used to, but I put a smile on my face. I knew how to smile at clients even when I didn’t want to, and this vampire was from the local Master of the City. I could play nice.
I glanced at Nathaniel and found him smiling brilliantly at the vampire. He had his charming game face on. Whatever he was feeling, he put it off his face and down where it didn’t show.
“Ms. Blake, I presume,” said the vampire, in a voice as bland and unimpressive as his clothes.
I fought the urge to say, Well, I’m not Dr. Livingston, but managed to keep the smart-aleck remark to myself. “Yes, and Mr. Graison.”
The vampire looked surprised. “I’m sorry, our usual protocols don’t demand that I acknowledge a pomme de sang or an animal to call.”
Pomme de sang was a term for the person a vampire took blood with regularly, but it was more than that, almost a mistress, though often the relationship was only about sharing blood and not about sex. Nathaniel had started out as that for me, but that had been a few years ago. He was my leopard to call, but . . . “He’s our third; that means he’s more than just food, or a pet.”
“I’m not familiar with the term third, Ms. Blake.”
“The third part of our couple,” I said.
“But we are given to understand that there are a great deal more than just three parts to your romantic life, Ms. Blake.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, except, “Just because I’m not monogamous doesn’t mean those closest to me aren’t important to me. Think of Nathaniel and Micah as my spouses.”
He gave a little bow from the neck. “My apologies, I did not realize you took your lovers so seriously, except for your master, of course.”
“It would be a mistake to assume my priorities by normal vampire protocol,” I said.
“I’ve angered you,” he said.
“It’s okay, Anita,” Nathaniel said.
I shook my head. “No, it’s not.”
“So, you’re saying this is personal business for you,” the vampire said.
“You know it is,” I said.
“But yet you are wearing your weapons,” he said.
“I rarely go anywhere unarmed.” I let go of Nathaniel’s hand so I could stand facing the vampire more head-on. He’d let me know my concealed carry wasn’t concealed from his vampire eyes. Or maybe he’d been guessing and I’d confirmed it for him. Shit, I so didn’t want to play my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours while trying to support the men in my life. Had I started this game of mine’s-bigger-than-yours? Maybe; I hadn’t meant to.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I am Alfredo.”
“Great, okay, Alfie.”
“How did you know my master calls me Alfie?”
I’d actually just used the nickname to irritate him and throw him off his game. The fact that I’d accidentally used his real nickname just made it better. I smiled knowingly. “Look, I appreciate you coming to the airport to meet us. I appreciate Fredrico behaving like a civilized master vampire, but I’m honestly here to support my boyfriend and meet his family. I don’t want, or feel the need, to play who’s the biggest and the scariest, okay?”
Alfie looked at me, eyes narrowed. “I have not . . .”
“Look, just stop, okay? I’ll stop, if you will. You had to make a point of letting me know you’d spotted my weapons. I made a point of knowing your nickname, but I’m not going to have time or energy to play games like this, so let’s just behave like normal people. Thanks for coming to pick us up. I didn’t realize Micah’s cousin was going to be coming, too.”
“Normal people?” The vampire laughed, a short, abrupt, very human laugh. I put his age at under fifty years. If I’d wanted to let my necromancy out of the box, I could have told his age within a year or two, five at the outside, but if I trotted any of my metaphysical abilities out like that, he could take it as an insult. “Normal people do not have bodyguards. Normal people would not be given royal treatment by my master. You cannot be normal, Anita Blake; you are the Executioner, and now you are the American queen to our new king, Jean-Claude. You are a necromancer and I don’t know what else; the list of your powers and titles is too long, and thanks to your request that we not be formal I do not have to list them all, but normal you will never be, Ms. Blake.”
It was hard to argue with him, though I wanted to, but at that moment Micah came to us. He’d left Juliet at her truck. “Is there a problem?” he asked, his voice low so it didn’t carry back to his cousin.
“No problem,” I said.
Alfie bowed to Micah and said, “Mr. Callahan, I am sorry to meet you under such trying circumstances. My name is Alfie and my master has put me at your disposal in the evenings.”
I thought it was interesting that Micah and I both got a bow, but Nathaniel hadn’t rated one, or any acknowledgment until I made a point of it. No matter how hard they tried, there were going to be vampire politics involved.
“Thank you, Alfie,” Micah said. He turned to me and I knew the look. He was asking me if there was something wrong.
I felt, more than heard, some of our people coming up behind us. The look on Alfie’s face as he looked up and past the three of us confirmed that the biggest, baddest-looking people with us were now right behind us. The fact that the vampire couldn’t keep his worry off his face made me shave another ten years off his undead age: thirty years dead, tops.
I glanced back to see our remaining bodyguards coming up behind us. Bram and Ares looked like dark and light halves to a whole, both six feet, both built tall and lanky; muscle from the mandatory guard workout showed, but neither one of them bulked up fast. They were built for speed and strength. Both still had that military stamp on them, one that lingers if you were in long enough and haven’t been out long enough. Ares’ desert tan had mostly faded, though he tanned darker than most blonds I’d met. Bram couldn’t really tan any darker, though I’d learned that even very dark African American skin could burn; it just took a lot. Bram had been quietly disdainful when he found out that my black curls and dark brown eyes hadn’t come with my mother’s Mexican skin tone, but my father’s blond German so that I just didn’t tan worth a damn. Bram’s hair was still cut military short. He complained that the tight curl bugged him when it grew out. Ares had let his dark blond hair grow out a little, enough that a woman could run her hands through it, as he’d said, but it was mostly longer on top and still left his neck in no danger of being touched by hair. They partnered each other a lot on guard duty.
Ares grinned at us. “How are we supposed to guard your bodies if you keep talking to the bad guys without us?”
“One, they aren’t bad guys, they’re our hosts. Two, not a danger,” I said.
Nicky said, “I told you.” He walked toward us, the spread of his shoulders making him look shorter than the other two guards, though he wasn’t really. His haircut was actually the thing you noticed after the muscles. His hair was short except for half his bangs, which hung in a long yellow triangle down the right-hand side of his face, covering the eye and halfway down the cheek. He used the hair to hide that the eye on that side was missing. He’d lost it when he was a teenager, years before he became a werelion, or he’d have still had the eye. The one eye that was left was a clear blue.
“You told them what?” I asked.
“That you could handle yourself against anything that was on this side of the hangar,” Bram said, in his clear, strong voice. He didn’t talk nearly as much as Ares, but when he did it was usually to the point. Ares would joke and tease, Bram almost never.
“Should I be insulted?” Alfie asked.
I said, “No.”
Ares said, “Yes.”
Micah said, “No.”
Alfie looked from one to the other of us, smiling slightly. “I don’t know what I expected from you, Ms. Blake, Mr. Callahan, but this easy camaraderie is unexpected.”
“Pleasant, I hope,” Micah said.
“Yes,” the vampire said, “most illuminating.”
“Illuminating, why illuminating?” I asked.
“To shed light upon something; I thought it was a very appropriate word.”
I would have asked more, but Micah’s cousin chose that moment to come up and say, “Who’s riding with me?”
“Juliet, this is Anita and Nathaniel.”
I offered a hand to forgo any thought of hugging. I didn’t like hugging people I didn’t know, and some families just hugged willy-nilly. Her hand was as small as mine, but more callused to match the working cowboy boots. She took Nathaniel’s hand, too, and he wasted a smile on her. She smiled back, but it didn’t reach her eyes. They were blue, and the frown between them made them look less the shape of Micah’s.
“Aunt Bea said you were Mike’s fiancée; is that true, or are you just living together? I ask, because if it’s just Aunt Bea’s way of dealing with her issues about living in sin, I can help head off some of the wedding talk.”
It made me half-smile and half-laugh. It was blunt and I liked it. “No wedding plans; can’t we just introduce me as his girlfriend?”
“Nope, believe me. I lived with my husband before marriage, and fiancée is the family’s nice, hopeful double-talk for living in sin.”
I looked at Micah, and he knew my expressions, too, because he answered the unvoiced question. “Some of my relatives are religious in a . . .” He seemed to fumble for words, and finally settled on, “It’s going to be awkward.”
Juliet laughed and shook her head. “Awkward. Oh, cousin, how I’ve missed you. You always were the peacekeeper and the master of understatement. You should be able to come home and see your dad and not worry about this other crap, but you know it never works that way. I’m sorry.”
Micah nodded. “Me, too.”
I was beginning to get a bad feeling that maybe Micah hadn’t gotten back in touch with his family after Chimera’s death for more than one reason. He and Nathaniel had moved in at the same time; we had always been a threesome, never just a twosome.
“We can call Anita your fiancée and the family will let it pass, but you can’t introduce them together like you just did to me, you know you can’t.”
“I could,” Micah said, and there was something in those two quiet words that held way more emotion than it should have.
“Micah should be able to just see his dad and not worry about anything else,” Nathaniel said. “I can just be a friend.”
“No,” Micah said, and he took Nathaniel’s hand in his and shook his head. “No, you can’t just be a friend.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Juliet said, “you’re going to force the issue. You haven’t changed; you were always so quiet, the perfect son, until you weren’t. You’d get something you believed in and you would never back down, no matter what.” She sighed and shook her head. She looked at Nathaniel. “It’s nothing personal. You have to be a wonderful person for Micah to feel this strongly, but I do not want to be in the shitstorm that is going to happen when he introduces you to our family as his . . . what?” She looked at Micah. “What do you say?”
“Significant other,” Micah said, and his voice was very firm.
Nathaniel said, “I love that you say that, but honestly, Micah, this has to be about you and your dad. It’s just words; I don’t want to make this harder on you.”
I saw Micah squeeze his hand and shake his head again. “It’s not just words, Nathaniel, or if it is, words are important, they have meaning and truth to them.” He turned to Juliet still holding Nathaniel’s hand. “I’ll let the fiancée stand with Anita, because if we could figure out how to marry as a group, we would, but since we can’t do that legally, fiancée and significant other will do.”
Nathaniel looked at him. “Do you mean that? That if we could marry as a group, you would?”
Micah looked at him. “Yes.”
Nathaniel threw his arms around Micah, and they hugged. They hugged like they meant it, and I didn’t have to see Nathaniel’s face to know he was crying. I realized I was, too. Damn. I went to them and wrapped my arms around them both, my two men. And just like that the lines were drawn; Micah wouldn’t back down or make Nathaniel mean any less to him, not even to smooth things over with his family. If he could do it, so could we.
THE THREE OF us rode with Juliet, but the guards insisted on at least one guard riding with us. Since they were here to keep us safe, it was hard to argue with the logic, so we didn’t try. What did surprise me was that Dev ended up riding with us and not Nicky. If it was just one of the four I’d expected it to be him. Honestly, I felt odd without Nicky in the car. It wasn’t a matter of trust or skill. I trusted Dev to do the job and guard us just fine, but I hadn’t traveled out of town with Nicky and Dev since they started being partners so often, and I just plain preferred Nicky’s company. I couldn’t have put it into words, because God knew Dev was the better conversationalist and traditionally charming, but Nicky . . . was Nicky. He fit better. Micah, Nathaniel, and I rode in the back middle seat and we put the last row of seats down so there’d be more room for luggage. The rest of the luggage had actually fit into one of the black SUVs, so Alfie was driving Ares, Bram, and most of the luggage to our hotel so they could unload the regular luggage. Nicky was following us in the other SUV that Alfie had given to us as “our” car for the time we spent in town. Most of the weapons we’d packed were divided between us and Nicky’s follow car. As a U.S. Marshal of the Preternatural Branch, I was duty-bound to keep most of my arsenal at hand, because as a federal officer I could be called up anywhere I traveled. The ruling had come down after a case when another marshal had been unable to perform his duties to the degree necessary to help out a fellow marshal who put out a call for aid. At least they’d changed the ruling that had forced me to either carry most of the “equipment” with me or have it in a secure lockup at all times. That ruling had come down after an executioner had his bag of dangerous goodies stolen from the trunk of his car and one of the guns was used in a holdup. The ruling had been overturned when a fellow executioner had taken in all his equipment and challenged the judges to carry it. These weren’t laws most of the time, but “rulings,” basically emergency actions taken from some knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy. Since my branch of law enforcement was never called in until people were dead, there was a lot of tragedy to go around. Worse yet, the “rulings,” even most of the laws that I acted under, were made by people who had never used a gun for real, worn a badge, or had to make a life-and-death decision, let alone that decision in the split second of a vampire hunt or while tracking a rogue shapeshifter.
Juliet asked, “Do I need to drive slow so your other guard won’t lose us?”
“You couldn’t lose Nicky if you tried,” Dev said. “You won’t lose him by accident.”
“The roads are tricky after dark.”
“Juliet,” Micah said, “it’s okay; all our people know their jobs.”
Nathaniel and I had put Micah in the middle without talking about it. It was partly just because I knew that Nathaniel would want to keep touching him after the marriage statement and partly because Micah was like most wereanimals in that physical touch made him feel better, and no matter how brave he was being, he needed the comfort. He held on to both of our hands, and I wondered how much hand holding he was going to do in front of his family. In public the two men usually kept the touching to a minimum, depending on where they were; some places were more user-friendly for male-on-male affection than others. Or did Micah intend to shove Nathaniel down his family’s throat? I wasn’t sure that was the best thing, but I’d support his decision.
A streetlight gleamed onto Dev’s hair, bringing out the different shades of blond in his shoulder-length hair. It barely touched his shoulders and was as long as he wanted to grow it.
“Don’t take this wrong, Dev, but I’m surprised Nicky didn’t argue with you being the guard that rode with us.”
“I stayed with the luggage and made sure the people helping with it did their jobs.”
“I’m surprised you stayed with the luggage,” Nathaniel said.
He turned in his seat to look back at us. “Nicky pulled rank,” he said.
“He doesn’t outrank you,” I said.
Dev gave a wide grin. “He’s a better fighter than I am. He reminded me of that.”
I studied his face for a moment, trying to see if he was offended, but there was nothing but the usual good humor in his face.
“Bram says you could be better than Nicky if you’d work harder in training,” Micah said.
Dev’s grin gleamed white in the semidarkness. “I don’t want to work that hard.”
“You’re so used to being faster and stronger just naturally that it makes you lazy in practice,” I said, but I smiled when I said it. It was almost impossible to be really upset with Dev.
“I’m faster, stronger, and I practice hard at what I have to do.”
“But only what you have to do,” I said. “Nicky puts in the extra time to get better, and you don’t.”
“No, and I’m not going to.”
“You are a lazy cat,” I said, smiling.
“But I’m your lazy cat,” he said.
Juliet said, “Is there something I should know about Dev, too?”
“He’s a bodyguard,” Micah said.
“Are you sure? I’ll run what interference I can about you and Nathaniel, but I can’t help if I don’t know what to protect.”
“Dev isn’t my lover,” Micah said.
Dev turned around, his face alight with mischief. The next pool of darkness came and he spoke out of the dimness, “Oh, but I so would be if only you would say yes.” His tone of voice was teasing.
But Juliet took it seriously, sort of. “Oh, sweet Jesus, please don’t tease in front of the family at the hospital.”
Dev turned to her. “I know how to behave. Promise.”
“He does,” I said. “He just doesn’t bother most of the time.”
“Well, please, please, bother this time.”
“I may tease in private with Micah, but I would never do anything to make this ordeal worse.” He turned a very serious face to Micah. “If I haven’t said it out loud, I am sorry about your father.”
“Thank you, Dev,” Micah said.
“You are a lazy cat, but a good one,” I said.
“Don’t tell. You’ll ruin my reputation with the other guards.”
It made us all smile, which may have been part of his purpose. That, and it was Dev. There was more than one reason that his childhood nickname had been Devil and a reason that it was still his name. Of course, when your legal first name is Mephistopheles, almost anything is an improvement.
Micah leaned in against me so that he could bury his face against the side of my neck. Nathaniel moved his free hand up to stroke along the line of neck that Micah had bared by snuggling into me. Juliet talked to us as she drove. We found out that she and her husband did run a working farm. They had two kids. Most of his generation of cousins were either married or in the military, and a lot of them had kids. Being introduced as the fiancée was going to mean a lot of wedding and kid questions. Peachy. Micah asked questions and replied to her, but mostly we petted him, and felt his tension rise, until we pulled into the hospital parking lot, and I could suddenly taste his pulse on my tongue as if the emotion were mine. I redid my shields between me and my leopard king and prepared to go meet the rest of his family. The only concession we made was that Micah took my other hand. It meant I couldn’t go for my gun if bad guys jumped us, but Dev was with us, and bad guys were the least of our worries tonight. I’d take a nice straight-up firefight to families and hospitals any night.
JULIET PULLED INTO the parking lot with Nicky in the second SUV like a shadow behind hers. “See,” Dev said, “you didn’t lose Nicky.”
“No one likes an I-told-you-so,” she said, and began to drive up and down the lanes looking for a parking spot. She passed a lot of police cars of every flavor in the parking lot. “My job just got easier. What’s with all the police?” Dev asked.
Juliet pulled into a parking space with a county sheriff car on one side. Nicky had to drive past us. There were no other parking spots as far as the eye could see. “One of their own is inside,” I said. “We always come like this.” I unbuckled my seat belt.
Dev turned in his seat, belt free, and said, “I understand his friends and coworkers, but some of these marked cars are from towns away. There’s even one from Wyoming.”
“Dad’s been the county sheriff for a long time,” Micah said. “He knows a lot of people.”
But it was Nathaniel who said the truth. “There’ll be officers here who don’t know Sheriff Callahan, but once the word goes out that there’s an officer down for any reason, they come to make sure the family has everything they need and that the officer is never alone. They do vigil.”
Juliet turned in her seat so she could see Nathaniel. “How do you know that? Your dad a cop, too?”
“No, but I’ve been with Anita for years. I’ve been at the hospital when she was hurt and visited when other officers were injured.”
“And they accept you as family?” Juliet asked.
“Most of the local police do.”
“They’re sort of used to my domestic arrangements,” I said.
Juliet shook her head hard enough to make her curls bounce. “Well, I don’t know about the other cops, but our family is probably going to be embarrassing the hell out of us about your domestic arrangements. I’ll just apologize now and get it over with.”
“Appreciated,” I said. Micah squeezed my hand. I gave him a smile. “If I kiss you, you’ll be having to wipe lipstick off.”
“I’ll risk it, if we’re careful,” he said, and smiled.
We kissed gently, and it left a stripe of scarlet in the middle of his lips. Nathaniel said, “Share the go-faster stripe, because I may not be able to kiss you for a while.”
Micah turned to him in the narrowness of the backseat. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. We can’t kiss in public in a lot of places. I know you love me even when we can’t kiss.”
Micah leaned into the other man, and Nathaniel was just taller enough in the upper body to have to bend down a little. It was as gentle a kiss as we’d done, but then Micah slid his arms around Nathaniel’s waist, up underneath his jacket so he could run his hands up the muscled warmth of his back with only the thin dress shirt between him and the other man’s skin. I loved that pocket of heat just underneath the jacket myself, so I knew what Micah was doing.
Nathaniel responded, sliding his own arms around Micah, and the kiss grew. I knew I had a big, happy smile on my face. I loved watching them together.
Juliet said, “You really don’t mind, do you?”
It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me. I glanced at her, not really wanting to stop looking at my two men. “Not mind? I love them, and I love seeing them together.”
“I guess I thought you tolerated it, but the look on your face just now . . . You looked so happy.”
I frowned at her. Micah drew back from the kiss, and Nathaniel just sort of wrapped himself around the other man, putting his head on one of Micah’s shoulders, so his face was buried against him and he wasn’t looking at Juliet.
“I was happy,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t Anita be happy to watch us kiss?” Micah said, holding the other man easily, familiarly.
Juliet had the grace to look embarrassed. “I don’t know; I guess I’d be jealous, or . . . I wouldn’t want to see two men together.”
“It made you uncomfortable,” Micah said, his voice quiet and almost neutral.
“I’m sorry, but yeah, a little. I didn’t know you liked guys.”
“I don’t, not really, but I love Nathaniel.”
“Trust me,” Dev said, “there is a trail of brokenhearted boys back home who wish so much our luscious Micah liked men better than he does. Sadly, where men are concerned he’s a one-man boy.” He gave a pouting face as if he were five, and then that slow grin spread across his face. I wanted to frown at him, but that damn Cheshire grin did me in every time. How could someone so big, so grown up, do mischief so well?
Micah looked at Dev. “There are one or two men back home besides Nathaniel that I notice.” His voice was utterly mild.
Dev’s grin faded around the edges, and his eyes were thinking way too hard. You could almost see him reviewing every interaction he’d seen between Micah and the men back home. It was why Micah had said it: to bedevil our devil.
I turned away to hide my own grin.
Juliet said, “You tease like friends.”
“We are that,” Micah said, his voice still quiet and mild.
“Close friends,” she said, with a little too much emphasis on close.
“Dev is bisexual, cheerfully so, but I’ve already told you we aren’t lovers.” He stroked Nathaniel’s hair with the other man still entwined around him. “If we were, I wouldn’t hide it.”
She looked at what she could see of Nathaniel. “I guess not.”
“It bothered you to see us kiss,” Micah said.
She looked down, frowning, then back up, and nodded. “I’m sorry, but it did. I was all open-minded about it, until . . .”
“It’s why we kissed in the car, because you are open-minded compared to some of our family. But it’s not just our family; it’s the other police, it’s everyone. As men we have to be more cautious, or we can end up with other men up in our face.”
“Yeah, I’d rather not have to guard you against a cop. That could be legally . . . awkward,” Dev said, at last.
“You’d be up on assault charges,” I said.
“So what do you want me to do? The police are like a lot of manly men; they react badly to gay.”
“But you’re bisexual,” Juliet said, and it was brave of her to make the distinction.
“You’re either straight or gay to most people,” Dev said, “and if a guy touches another guy he’s gay, period.”
Nathaniel drew away from Micah enough to say, “Just like a lot of the gay community thinks a man who touches a woman isn’t gay enough. They think bisexual means you haven’t made up your mind or won’t admit the truth.”
“Really?” Juliet said.
He nodded. “The gay community can be just as narrow-minded as the straight community.”
Dev said, “Nicky is almost here.”
I looked out toward the parked cars and the electric glowing darkness but couldn’t see him. “Am I too short to see him from the backseat?”
“Yep,” Dev said.
“I can see him,” Juliet said, “but I hadn’t seen him until your bodyguard said something.”
“Once Nicky gets here,” Dev said, “if there’s still no one in the parking lot, I’ll get out first, and when I give you the signal Anita gets out next.”
Juliet looked at the other man. “You were looking at the parking lot this whole time?”
“Most of it,” he said, and reached for his door handle.
“Why does Anita get out next?”
“Because she’s the next best with weapons after me.”
“I’m better with edged weapons,” I said.
He grinned back over his shoulder. “Yeah, but I make my own edged weapons.” Dev slid out of the car and looked around with the door still open around him.
“What did he mean by making his own edged weapons?” Juliet asked.
“He’s a weretiger,” I said.