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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

Anita blake 19 - bullet

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Bullet( Anita Blake - 19 )Laurell K. Hamilton

The triumvirate created by master vampire Jean-Claude, necromancer Anita Blake, and werewolf Richard Zeeman has made Jean-Claude one of the most powerful vampires in the U.S. He's consolidating power in himself and those loyal to him, doing in America what Belle Morte did in Europe when she was at her height of power. She almost owned Europe, and there was those who are determined that Jean-Claude won't do the same in America. Jean-Claude's motives may be kinder, but as any lawyer will tell you: motives matter, but you're just as dead.

Assassins are coming to St. Louis to kill them all. Anita knows they're coming, but even being forewarned doesn't mean you can win.

Bullet(Book 19 in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series)Laurell K Hamilton

One mustn’t look at the abyss, because there is at the bottom an inexpressible charm which attracts us.

—Gustave Flaubert

To Jonathon, who has stood at my side and looked into the abyss and found both charm, attraction, and love, for we are not made up only of our light and happiness but also of darkness and sorrow. To deny the darkness of yourself is to deny half of who you are, and when you love, truly love, you need to love the whole person not just the part that smiles and waves, but the part that thinks murderous thoughts and knows that pain is both pleasure and temptation, but still thinks puppies are really cute.

Acknowledgments

Carri, who took point on this one, and stayed at my side during some pretty rough weather. I keep waiting for her to rethink thatI’ll quit work when you do, because apparently I never quit. Wendi and Daven, who let me retreat to their house and lick my wounds. To my daughter, Trinity, who is now old enough to tell me, “Mom, maybe you need a vacation.” Out of the mouths of babes . . . To Pili, who helps nourish us with food, friendship, and just being herself. To the rest of the crew, Mary, Sherry, and Teresa: Thanks for staying at your posts under fire. Shawn, who keeps the home fires burning from a few states away. I’m hoping for quieter times soon, but I can’t promise. To my writing group, who have seen some of the battles: Tom Drennan, Deborah Millitello, Marella Sands, Sharon Shinn, and Mark Sumner.

1

I WAS WORMING my way through a mass of parents and children with a tiny clown hat clutched in one hand. In my navy blue skirt suit I looked like a dozen other mothers who had had to come straight from work to the dance recital. My hair was a little curly and a little too black for all the blond mothers, but no one gave me a second glance. The one saving grace as I threaded my way through the crowd of parents, aunts, uncles, grand-parents, and siblings was that I wasn’t one of the parents. I was just here as moral support and last-minute costume rescuer. It was just Monica Vespucci’s style to leave part of her son’s costume at her house and need an emergency save. Micah and I had been running late with client meetings so we got to ride to the rescue, and now since the vast majority of the performers were female I was the only one safe to go backstage without scandalizing the mothers. What did little girls who only had male relatives do at things like this? My dad would have been at a loss.

A little girl and her mother damn near knocked me down the stairs in their rush to get up past me. The little girl was knocked into me so that my suit jacket pushed back and she was staring at my holstered gun and U.S. Marshal badge. The child’s eyes went big as she met my eyes. The mother never noticed, dragging the silent child up the stairs. I let them get ahead of me, the little girl’s huge, dark eyes following me until the crowd hid her from sight. She couldn’t have been more than five. I wondered if she’d even try to tell her mother she’d seen a woman with a gun and a badge.

I started pushing my way up the stairs, keeping the hand with the clown hat in it close to my jacket so I wouldn’t flash the gun by accident anymore. I was going to try to keep my occupation a secret from the screaming children and their frantic mothers. They didn’t need to know that I hunted bad little vampires and wereanimals for the preternatural branch of the U.S. Marshals Service. They certainly didn’t need to know that I raised zombies as my day job. I blended in as long as no one figured out who I was.

I got to the upper hallway and there was one lone male over the age of twelve being herded by his mother. She had an almost embarrassed look on her face, as if apologizing for not having a girl. I knew there were more men up here, because some of them were mine, but they were safely away from the estrogen-rich room of little girls.

Monica’s son was under five, so he didn’t count as male yet. He was just a generic child. Now if I could only find the generic child, hand his mother the hat, and flee to our seats where everyone was waiting for me, I’d count it as a win, though knowing Monica she’d need something else. I didn’t like her at all. But her husband had been one of Jean-Claude’s vampires who died sort of in the line of duty, so Jean-Claude made sure that he and others stood in for her lost husband. It was honorable, I even approved of it, but I avoided Monica when I could. She’d betrayed me and a shared friend to some bad vampires once. She’d apologized, and she depended on Jean-Claude’s people for emergency babysitting and things like tonight. She’d been bad because the old Master of the City had been bad; now that we had a good Master of the City, Jean-Claude, she was good. Sure, and the Easter Bunny is a friend of mine.

The fact that I had a key to her house in case of emergencies still bugged me, but Jean-Claude was right; someone who could go out in the daylight needed to have the key. He also knew that no matter how much I disliked Monica, I’d do the right thing. He was right, damn it. A herd of pink, sequined little girls barreled past me. I hugged the wall and let the teachers chase them down. There were so many reasons I didn’t have children yet.

I heard my name squealed out, in that high-pitched generic toddler voice, “’Nita, ’Nita!” I had no idea why, but just lately Matthew, Monica’s son, had taken a liking to me.

He came rushing at me in his bright multicolored clown outfit with the little balls on the front that matched the ones on the hat. His hair was a deep auburn like his mother’s, but there was something about his three-year-old face that made me think of his dead father. Robert hadn’t been my favorite vampire, but he’d been handsome and Matthew was a cute kid. He came running with his arms up and launched himself at me. He was not big for his age but it was still startling. I caught him and swept him up in my arms because to do anything else would have either knocked me flat or been churlish.

He put those little hands on my shoulders and leaned in for a kiss. I offered a cheek, but he touched my face and shook his head, very solemn. “I’m a big boy now, ’Nita. I kiss like a big boy now.” Cheek kisses had been fine until about two weeks ago, and now Matthew was very certain that cheek kisses were baby kisses. It made me wonder if Monica was being overly friendly with the new boyfriend in front of the kid. It was Monica; there would be a boyfriend.

I’d told Monica about it and she thought it was cute. Matthew puckered up and planted one on my mouth, which meant he was wearing my very red lipstick. “Now you’ve got my lipstick on you, and that’s more big girl than big boy,” I said, as I looked around for some Kleenex or something to wipe his mouth with. I was also looking for his mother. Where was Monica?

“Itisbig boy if it’syourlipstick.”

I frowned at that tiny face just inches from mine. “What do you mean, it’s big boy if it’s mine?”

“All the big boys kiss you, ’Nita.”

I had a sinking feeling that maybe it wasn’t just Monica and a boyfriend in front of Matthew that were giving him ideas. “Where is your mother?” I said, and began searching the room for her a little desperately.

She finally separated herself from the mass of women and girls of various ages and came toward us beaming. It creeped me out a little that Monica seemed to think I didn’t hold a grudge about her betraying me five years ago. I did hold a grudge and I didn’t trust her. She seemed unaware of that.

She had Matthew’s curly auburn hair, cut shorter and more styled, but her face was thinner, more of a sharp triangle, as if she’d lost weight since I saw her last. Once upon a time you could have asked if she was feeling all right, but now women dieted for no reason at all. Monica was shorter than I was by a few inches, and I was five-three. She was still in her skirt suit, too, but her blouse was white, and mine was blue.

Matthew kept his arms around my neck while she used a wet wipe on his mouth. Then she put a paler shade of lip gloss on his lips, though they didn’t seem to need any to me. She took the hat from me and put it over his curls. If he’d been any older the outfit would have been embarrassing to any boy I’d ever met, but at three it was actually . . . cute. I would not admit it out loud, but it was.

“Thank you so much, Anita,” Monica said. “I can’t believe I forgot it.”

I could, but I just smiled and kept quiet. Quiet usually worked better between Monica and me. A mass of little girls dressed in the girl version of his outfit bounced up, and he wiggled to be put down. I did so, happily.

Monica watched him run away with the others in his class with that proverbial mother’s look: pride, love, and almost possession. I never doubted that she loved her little boy. It was one of the reasons I was nice to her.

She turned to me, still smiling. “I’m so glad the recital is tonight so I can concentrate on the business tomorrow.”

I nodded, and tried to make my escape. Monica was apparently a better lawyer than she was a human being, or at least Jean-Claude trusted her to do up the contracts that might, or might not, be getting signed tomorrow. I trusted Jean-Claude to be a good businessman.

“Agreed,” I said, and tried to slip away.

She grabbed my arm. I don’t like to be touched by people that I’m not close to. I stiffened under her hand, but she didn’t seem to notice. She leaned in and whispered, “If I was being offered a seventeen-year-old boy toy I’d be more excited, Anita.”

Matthew was out of sight so I let my eyes show just how happy that comment made me. Monica let go of my arm, her eyes a little wide, face surprised. “Oh, come on, Anita, what woman wouldn’t be flattered?”

“First, I haven’t agreed to letting him stay in St. Louis when they bring him in from Vegas tomorrow. Second, don’t ever call him a boy toy again.”

“Touchy,” she said, and then her face softened and her eyes glittered with some thought that I knew I wasn’t going to like. “Defensive of him already, Anita. My, my, he must be better in bed than I remember at that age.”

I leaned in and hissed in her ear. “We were all mind-raped by one of the scariest vampires to ever exist, Monica. She used me to feed on his power as a weretiger. She used me, and him, and all the other tigers in a bid to survive even if it meant destroying all of us. You tell me, what part of that was a good thing?” I had grabbed her arm somewhere in all that.

She spoke low. “You’re hurting me.”

I let go of her, and stepped back. She looked up at me, and I think for a moment let herself see me, really see me. She was angry, and for just a moment I knew that she didn’t like me any more than I liked her, not really. Then I watched a different look cross her face, one that most men would have thought was a good look, but a woman knows when another woman is about to drive the blade home.

“Funny how it’s never your fault when you have to have sex with all these men, Anita,” and with that she walked away. She walked away with the proverbial knife stuck deep and hard right through my heart. Nothing cuts deeper than when another person says exactly what you’re afraid to say out loud. Hell, Matthew had said it, too, in his way.All the big boys kiss you, ’Nita.

I fled the laughing costumed children and Monica’s knowing eyes. I waved at Matthew as he called my name, all lined up with the little girls in his class. I wanted to be in my seat so I could see him; he’d go on second. Yeah, that was it, I hurried to my seat to make sure I’d see his performance, but I knew that wasn’t the truth. I ran toward my seat and the men waiting for me, because part of me believed that Monica was right and all my words were just a case of the lady protesting too much.

2

I GOT BACK to the foot of the stairs and the still-crowded lobby. I scanned the crowd for Micah, but since he was my size neither of us could see the other over the crowd. The people parted and I could see him about halfway across the room, talking with a family I didn’t recognize. He was smiling, face alight with good humor. He laughed, head back, soundless to me over the murmur of the crowd. The crowd closed again and just like that I couldn’t see him. I started easing my way toward him. The crush cleared and I could see him again. He was one of those rare men who could look delicate, until you took in the wide shoulders tapering down to a slender waist. He was built like a swimmer, though his sports were jogging and weight lifting like most of the wereanimals I knew. His suits all had to be tailored-down athletic cuts. Italian suits seemed to fit best. American suits were mostly shaped like boxes and looked terrible on short men with muscles. Though Micah went for strength, not bulk. Micah’s suit fit him perfectly, and I caught several women giving him covert glances as they hurried past with their families. I had to smile because I knew he looked even better out of the suit than in it. A man looked at his ass as he went past. Micah got that a lot, too. I think it was being short and pretty, because I could call him handsome if he wanted, but he was too pretty for words likehandsome. It was also the nearly waist-length hair. Curly, and that rich, deep brown that said it might have been paler when he was little. His hair was almost as curly as mine and spilled down his back to the envy of many a woman. My own hair was almost to my waist, because he wanted to cut his hair and I didn’t want him to. I wanted to take a few inches off my hair and he didn’t want me to. So he’d made me a deal. If I cut my hair, he got to cut his. We had a stalemate, and my hair hadn’t been this long since junior high.

He turned his face toward me as if he’d felt me looking, and I could finally see all that delicate line of face, maybe a little long through the jaw for perfection, but that one line was all that saved him from looking like a beautiful woman instead of a man. Elementary school must have been hell, because short and pretty men don’t usually fare well. He told me that his eyes had originally been brown, but I’d never seen those eyes, the ones he was born with. He’d come to me with leopard eyes trapped forever in those dark lashes, chartreuse eyes green and yellow depending on what color he wore near his face or how the light caught them. Most of the time he wore sunglasses to hide the eyes, but wearing them after dark sometimes attracted more attention than what they hid, and it amazed him how many people could look him in the eyes and only remark, “What beautiful eyes.” Or, “What a great shade of green,” and never make the connection.

Nathaniel would say, “People see what they want to see, or what their minds tell them they should see most of the time.”

Micah gave me the smile that was all for me. It was made up of love, lust, and just that connection we had had from almost the moment we’d met. He was my Nimir-Raj, my leopard king, and I was his Nimir-Ra, leopard queen. Though I didn’t shapeshift to anything, I still somehow held a piece of leopard inside me, and that piece had seemed to know him. Micah had never questioned it, and I had done something unprecedented: I’d let him move in with me. We were two years and still counting; two years and still happy with each other. It was a record for me.

Usually by now I’d wrecked it somehow, or the man had done something I could point at and goSee, see I knew it wouldn’t work. Micah had managed to walk the maze that was my heart and not get caught in any of the traps. He said his good-byes to the people and came to me.

He smiled, the edge of his mouth quirking up like it did sometimes, his eyes shining as if laughter were just a thought away. “What are you looking at?” he asked, voice low.

I smiled back because I couldn’t help it. “You.”

Our hands reached for each other at the same time, our fingers just finding each other, entwining, playing along the touch and feel of each other. I’d had one friend say that we could get more out of just holding hands than some couples got out of kissing. But we did that, too, leaning in and being careful of the lipstick. Micah went through most nights with a touch of my lipstick on his mouth. He didn’t seem to mind.

“Who was that?” I asked as we turned and began to make our way hand in hand with the last of the crowd toward the auditorium.

“One of the families in our support group,” he said.

Micah was the head/spokesperson for the Coalition for Better Understanding Between Human and Lycanthrope Communities. It was affectionately known as the Furry Coalition. The Coalition helped new shapeshifters adjust to the change in lifestyle, and kept them from shifting early outside safe houses. A new shifter was unpredictable. It could take months of full moons before they were in control enough to be trustworthy without older, more experienced shifters riding herd on them. And yes, unpredictable meant they were consumed by a craving for flesh, and fresh was better. They also blacked out and had few memories of what they’d done. Most newbies passed out after shifting back to human form, so they needed to be either in a safe place or where someone could get them under some literal cover.

Micah and some of the other local leaders had come up with an idea for a family support group, where the members of the families that weren’t shapeshifters could talk freely about their parents, siblings, or even grand-parents. It was legal to be a shapeshifter in the United States now, but discrimination still occurred. There were entire professions where failing one blood test would get you excluded forever. Military, police, food industry, medical care—it was hard to keep a job if you were a teacher of children and the parents found out you turned into the big bad wolf once a month. That kind of discrimination was illegal, but hard to prove. It was one of the reasons that Richard Zeeman, junior high science teacher and local Ulfric, wolf king, wouldn’t be here tonight sitting on the other side of Jean-Claude. Richard was technically Jean-Claude’s wolf to call, as I was his human servant. We were a triumvirate of power and should both have been here at his side, but Richard wouldn’t risk being outed and losing his job. That, and Richard really hated being a werewolf, but that was a problem for later. For right this moment, nobody who had come with Jean-Claude had a problem being exactly who and what they were.

Most of the seats were already full, and it was Asher’s hair that I spotted first, gleaming golden under the lights. I wasn’t kidding about the gold. He wasn’t blond; his hair was as close to true gold and still a natural color as any person I’d ever met. Of course, once I’d found Asher, Jean-Claude was at his side. Jean-Claude’s black hair curled over the seat back, inches longer than Asher’s, which was just past shoulder length. Jean-Claude had grown his hair out because I seemed to like more hair on my men. Asher had informed me, “It takes energy for a vampire to grow his hair longer than it was when he died. I don’t have that kind of energy to spare.” Which implied that Jean-Claude did, and that had been interesting to know.

There was another blond on his other side. J.J., Jason’s current girlfriend, had traveled from New York so she could watch him onstage. They’d gone to school together and known each other a little during college. They’d met again at a friend’s bachelorette party, and now here she was coming to see him onstage. He’d traveled to see her onstage with the New York City Ballet three times. This would be her third trip to St. Louis in as many months. It was as serious as I’d ever seen Jason over anyone.

He’d been almost embarrassed when J.J. said she’d come out for the recital. He’d said, “It’s just amateur stuff. You do the real deal.” I don’t know what she’d said, because I’d left him to finish the phone conversation in private, but whatever she’d said, there she sat looking pale and beautiful, her long, straight blond hair in a neat braid down the graceful curve of neck and shoulders. Her dress was a pink that was almost white, with thin spaghetti straps. She was like most ballet dancers, honed down to muscle and grace so she could wear the filmy dress with nothing much under it and have it look great. I’d have looked like I was in desperate need of a bra. My curves only honed down so far.

Jean-Claude and Asher stood before we’d actually come up to the aisle. They turned without looking around, as if they’d sensed us, and maybe they had. Or at least Jean-Claude had.

Another man stood up in the row in back of them, and only then did I realize it was Truth. He’d combed his shoulder-length hair back in a tight, neat ponytail, and he was completely clean-shaven. Truth’s face was trapped in that not-quite-beard stubble because that’s how he’d looked when he died. Shaving meant that he might not be able to grow it back even if he wanted to. He was wearing a nice suit, too. If his hair hadn’t still been its usual brown I might have thought it was his brother, Wicked.

I stood there staring up into his face, stunned. I wanted to ask,Where are your boots? Where’s your leather?But that seemed the wrong thing to say.

Micah leaned in and said, “Say something to him.”

“Um, you look nice,” I said, and it was hopelessly inadequate. I tried again. “I guess I’ve just never seen you cleaned up like this. You look great.”

He tugged on the front of the suit jacket. “I borrowed it from Wicked. He’s in the row ahead of them.”

Micah mercifully turned me away, so I moved up to Asher and Jean-Claude, who were still standing. Truth always looked like a mix between an outlaw biker and a medieval forest ranger. He was here as security. Had Jean-Claude insisted he get neatened up?

Wicked gave a small nod and a smile from the row in front of them. He looked, more than ever, like his brother’s twin, though I knew they had been born a year apart as humans. His hair was straight and blond, thicker-textured than his brother’s slight wave of brown. They both had the same blue-gray eyes, and now that Truth’s chin was bare, the same deep dimple in their chin was very clear.

Asher took my hand in his and I was suddenly looking up at someone who made both Wicked and Truth look too manly, too modern-day handsome in comparison. Asher was almost as broad of shoulder as the brothers, but that face. The mass of wavy gold hair, the eyes so pale a blue, like ice given life and color, in a rim of darker lashes and brow. But it was the face that was always breathtaking. It was a beauty to make angels weep, or want to trade sides. He was just simply one of the most gorgeous people I’d ever seen. He thought his face was ruined because holy-water scars traced the right side of all that beauty. But they only went about halfway up, and the perfect curve of mouth was untouched. It was almost as if the inquisitioner who had tried to burn the devil out of him had flinched at the ruin of that face.

I knew the scars continued down the right side of his chest to trace the edge of his hip and thigh. He managed the Circus of the Damned and was the masked ringmaster, so he could be beautiful and mysterious and not show everyone the scars. For him to come out in public like this was a good sign. Though he was a master at using shadow, darkness, his hair, so that people around him would probably never see the scars if he didn’t wish them to. He was wearing a soft blue silk shirt with a high, soft collar pierced by a stickpin that held a pale blue diamond almost the color of his eyes. Jean-Claude and I had bought it for him just this year. Admittedly, most of the money for the stone had come from Jean-Claude. I made good money, but the diamond was almost as big as my thumbnail.

Seeing him wearing it so that it attracted attention to his face made me feel that every penny had been well spent. I smiled up at him and went on tiptoe so his six foot one didn’t have to bend down too far.

From the waist down he was wearing dark brown leather and boots that came up to his knees. The fact that I hadn’t looked below the waist until he kissed me said something about just how nice the upper bits were, because it was all nice. I also knew that Jean-Claude had dressed him for tonight. Asher was more suits, unless he was dressing for a fetish event and then leather worked dandy, just not this kind of leather.

It was more a cheek press than a kiss, to save him from wearing my lipstick, but it made me think of what Matthew had said, about everyone kissing me. I’d had sex with every vampire waiting for me. It wasn’t a comfy thought.

Asher whispered, “What has put a frown on that lovely face?”

“Something Matthew said backstage,” I whispered back.

“Precocious indeed if he can make you that unhappy.”

I gave him a look, and he passed my hand over to Jean-Claude. He was wearing a white shirt that was almost identical to the blue one that Asher wore, but he’d put a short black velvet jacket over his, and the stickpin through his cravat was an antique cameo. It had been one of the first Christmas presents I’d ever gotten for him. It was nice, but not even close to the same kind of nice as Asher’s diamond. It made me think I needed to go shopping.

Jean-Claude’s black leather pants looked poured on, and his boots rose up over his thighs like a second skin. I didn’t have to see the back of the boots to know they laced all the way up his leg. I liked these boots and had seen them with and without pants. I stumbled as he drew me closer, thinking too hard about the boots and nothing else on him, and then there was the moment when I had to look up, had to see that face. He and I had been a couple on and off for five years, almost six now, and I kept waiting for a moment when I could see him and not feel like there had to be some mistake. Someone this beautiful couldn’t possibly be in love with me when he had an entire planet of people to choose from. I cleaned up well, but Jean-Claude made me feel like I’d sneaked into the Louvre and stolen a masterpiece off the wall so I could roll around on it naked.

His eyes were a midnight blue so dark that a shade more would have made them look black, but they never did. His eyes were the darkest true blue I’d ever seen, as Asher’s were the palest. The head of their bloodline, theirsourdre de sang, literally “fountain of blood,” had a thing for blue eyes and had collected different colors of blue-eyed and beautiful men. She’d had centuries to find them, and I had two of her most amazing right here. She’d thrown Asher away when he was scarred, and Jean-Claude had fled from her. Now he was his ownsourdre de sang, the first new master of his own bloodline to appear in a thousand years.

He leaned down and laid a gentle kiss on my lips. I kissed him back, letting my body fall in against his, and his arms encircled me and it was like breathing, as if I’d been holding my breath until we kissed.

He pulled away with my lipstick on his lips, but it was a good color for him. He smiled down at me, his eyes sparkling as if he was on the verge of laughter.“Ma petite.”That was all, just my nickname, but it seemed to hold years ofI love yours.

The lights flashed. It was the signal to get to our seats before the curtain went up. J.J. was standing so that Jean-Claude could help me into the seat beside him where she’d been sitting. She smiled and said hi. I told her I was glad she could make it. “I wouldn’t have missed seeing Jason dance again,” she said, and her face lit up as she said his name. She was pretty, always, but in that moment she was beautiful. She had the same spring-blue eyes that Jason had. They both had the soft good looks that sometimes goes with blond, blue-eyed coloring. They looked enough alike to be siblings, but then they shared a common great-great-grandfather. A lot of the kids from their school looked like siblings. Apparently Great-Great-Granddad had been a busy boy.

Something made me turn and look back to Micah and Asher at the head of the aisle. Asher had tried to give Micah the same greeting he’d given me, but Micah had pulled away. Asher sat down laughing as Micah eased past Jean-Claude and me to sit on my other side by J.J. Jean-Claude patted Micah’s back, as if saying,It’s all right. In private Jean-Claude and Micah greeted each other pretty intimately, but Micah had made it clear that he wasn’t food for everyone. Asher had taken it as a challenge to see if he could seduce Micah, and when that hadn’t worked, he seemed intent on embarrassing him. I loved Asher, but he had a sadistic streak in him that I wasn’t always crazy about.

If he didn’t stop pushing, he was going to be on Micah’s shit list permanently. I wasn’t sure what to do about the rising tension between the two men, but something was going to have to be done before Asher pushed my Nimir-Raj far enough to do something unpleasant. Micah and Jean-Claude had tried to rip each other’s throats out the first time they’d met. If Jean-Claude and I couldn’t get Asher to tone it down, Micah would take care of it; we just might not like how he did it. He wasn’t homophobic, he just didn’t want to donate blood to Asher, and the other man seemed to have taken the rejection badly.

Micah was tense beside me, his face striving for neutral but showing anger if you knew where to look for it. I covered his hand with mine. He was stiff and unyielding and then he relaxed into my hand. He finally gave me a small smile, but his reaction in public let me know that Asher was very close to pushing him too far.

I glanced at Jean-Claude to see if he’d seen it. He was watching the stage as if nothing untoward had happened. Had he not noticed, or was he trying to ignore the problem for a little longer? I needed some backup here, not the old ostrich-hiding-in-the-sand routine. But if Jean-Claude had a soft spot, it was Asher, and okay, maybe me. We both got away with things that he probably should have put a stop to long before he did.

Wicked was looking at me. He’d seen and understood the problem. Both the problem between Asher and Micah, and the fact that Jean-Claude seemed to be ignoring it. I was pretty sure that Wicked and Truth would back my play if I could come up with one that wouldn’t destroy our happy little apple cart.

The trouble was, in vampire land I was Jean-Claude’s human servant, and Asher was a master vampire with enough power to have his own territory. He stayed as Jean-Claude’s second-in-command because he loved us and didn’t want to be without, but it meant that my position of authority was a little shaky.

I was a vampire executioner, but I wouldn’t kill Asher, and he knew that. So my threat was gone. I was a necromancer and could control the undead, not just zombies, but lots of undead, including some vampires. But I knew that if I got out my major mojo and controlled Asher like that he’d never forgive me. And once I had that much control over someone, sometimes it didn’t go away, and that had become completely disturbing to me.

Monica came hurrying up the opposite side of the aisle. The one that made more people have to move their legs or stand up. The side that was farthest away from all of us who were supposed to be part of her group. It was very Monica. She’d apparently made a serious play for Asher and been rebuffed. She’d given him a wide-ish berth since then.

She smiled and waved at all of us as she sat down beside J.J. There was still one seat saved with us.

The lights flashed again and Vivian was at the head of the aisle by Asher. He and Jean-Claude stood, so I did, too. Micah was already on his feet. Vivian was petite enough that we probably could have stayed in our seats, but the older vampires often reacted to women as if bustles had never gone out of fashion, and if they could be gentlemen then so could I.

She brushed past me with a hurried, “Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re not late,” Micah said.

I added, “You’re just on time.” That earned me a small smile. Nothing could really make Vivian less than beautiful, but there was tightness around her eyes and mouth, worry lines on that beautiful skin. Her skin was that shade of coffee with enough cream to make it almost white. She was technically African American, but it was by way of Ireland, and that showed a lot from the thick, nearly straight hair to the pale gray-blue eyes. She was one of the wereleopards in our pard. I’d had to rescue her from a very bad man once. He had done terrible things to her. I’d killed him in the end, but revenge only makes things all better in the movies. In real life, once the villain is dead the trauma lives on inside the victims.

She was here to watch her live-in boyfriend, Stephen, onstage. She spoke to J.J. as she sat down on the other side of Monica. Vivian slipped her coat off, and the moment I saw the dress I knew why she was running late. She’d gone home from her job as administrative assistant at an insurance agency to change. The dress was a little slip of nothing, black with a beading of bronze and gold beads so that it shimmered as she moved. Seeing J.J. and Vivian in their party dresses made me half wish I’d changed for the show, but I’d have been truly late. I could have taken something to work to change into, but in all honesty it hadn’t occurred to me until just that moment. Oh, well.

Micah leaned in and whispered, “You look great.”

I whispered back, “Was it that obvious?”

“To me,” he said, and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back and we shared that smile that was mainly just for us. Nathaniel was the only one who got to share that smile sometimes, and he wasn’t here because he was going to be onstage.

Jean-Claude’s hand touched the edge of mine, and I took the hint, leaning my head against his shoulder and taking his hand. He had been a ladies’ man for centuries and he swore that I was the first woman to make him feel a bit insecure. I tended to be hard on the egos of a certain kind of men. The ones who normally swept women off their feet had never moved me much, because I’d always felt that if they swept me off my feet they’d practiced on a lot of women before me, and would practice more with women after me. I’d rarely been wrong on that. Besides, the normal sweep-you-off-your-feet tricks often left me puzzled. I still wasn’t sure if I should apologize to Jean-Claude for throwing his game off this badly, or take a certain pride in it.

There was a part of me that still believed if I’d fallen into his arms easily he’d have wooed me, won me, and left me for other game by now. Was that unfair, my own insecurities talking, or just truth?

His hand was warm in mine. That meant he’d fed on someone. It had been a willing blood donor. Women, especially, lined up to feed him. In fact, one of the reasons I’d spent the last few weeks going through a stack of photographs and DVDs with some help from the other men had been that we needed more regular food. Other vampire and wereanimal groups across the country had sent in applications for some of their people to join us. The DVDs had been everything from flat-out porn to strangely awkward dating tapes. It was like the old idea of an arranged marriage, though this was more an arranged mistress, sort of. The groups hoped it would give them a stronger tie to our power base, and it might.

They’d been sending candidates to Jean-Claude for a while, and he had politely turned them all down. This last batch came addressed to me, personally. They seemed to feel that Jean-Claude had turned everyone down for fear of pissing me off, and there might be something to that, so I’d sat down and watched. I’d had Nathaniel and Micah help some, and Jason, but none of the vampires. I hadn’t done that on purpose, but . . .

Who had Jean-Claude fed on? For a second I wanted to ask, and then I let it go. I didn’t really want to know. Taking blood was entirely too close to foreplay for the vampires of his bloodline. Of course, he shared me with a lot of other men, so my being jealous of him taking blood from some other woman seemed childish and unfair. But just because it’s childish and unfair doesn’t mean it isn’t the way I felt. Stupid, but true.

The lights went down and I was saved from having to think too hard as the curtain rose. I got to sit in the dark holding the hands of two of the men I loved most. It wasn’t a bad way to start the weekend. I noticed Monica watching us. Was it envy on her face, or anger? I turned back to the stage and left Monica to get her face back to its usual polite I-like-you expression. Usually I liked the truth from everyone around me, but I’d make an exception for her. I knew not to trust her, so she could pretend to like me, and I’d pretend to like her. It wasn’t friendship, but it was an understanding.

The music came up; I hugged Micah and Jean-Claude to me, and watched Asher holding Jean-Claude’s other hand. Even in the Bible Belt, when the lights dimmed you could still hold hands.

3

THE FIRST GROUP out was the two-year-old class. Five little girls in pink tights with sparkly itty-bitty tutus walked onstage holding hands in a line. The audience did a group “Awww.” They were almost illegally cute. The dance teacher was at the front of the stage, visible to the audience and the wide-eyed little girls.

The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’sNutcrackerfilled the air. It was one of the few classical pieces I knew well enough to name. The teacher began to move her arms. Most of the tiny girls followed her, but one of them just stared off at the audience with huge, fear-filled eyes. Were the toddlers good? No. But at that age it’s not about being a prodigy, it’s about showing up and being too cute for words. I wasn’t much for babies, older was definitely better, but even I couldn’t deny they were nearly painfully adorable.

Micah began to rub his thumb over my hand. Jean-Claude was still against my other hand. The tots trooped off, holding hands again, to rousing applause, and then it was Matthew’s turn. I heard Monica tell J.J., “Usually they have to combine the two- and three-year-olds, but they had enough this year to have two classes.” Interesting, but my hearing it meant Monica was talking too loud. She had a certain desire to be noticed.

The little girls I’d seen earlier in their clown tutus came trooping out, with Matthew in the middle in his boy costume. They were holding hands just like the last group, and the dance instructor was at the bottom of the stage visible to the children and the audience. I wondered how old you’d have to be for the teacher to hide.

The music was still from theNutcracker, but it was one of the songs for the dolls that danced in the first act. I couldn’t remember which dance this was, just vaguely where it came from in the ballet. Little arms went up in near unison, and then they danced. Not all the girls danced, they moved, but Matthew and two of the little girls danced. It wasn’t smooth, or perfect, but it was real. They did what the teacher did with smiling faces, but as they continued Matthew lost his smile, his concentration visible on his small face. I watched him do some of the moves I’d seen him practice at our house, with Nathaniel and Jason working on his moves with him.

I leaned into Micah and whispered, “Is it stupid to say he’s good?”

Jean-Claude leaned into us and whispered, “Non, ma petite, he has a certain flair, does Matthew.”

The music stopped, and the children took hands and bowed. The applause was a little more heartfelt this time, or so it seemed to me. It’s not every day you see someone that young display the beginnings of true talent. When they were offstage Asher leaned over all of us to speak to Monica. “He is good, your boy.”

She beamed at him, and she had every right to be proud. Micah congratulated her, too. J.J. said, “For three he’s amazing.”

I spoke in her and Monica’s direction. “I hope that Jason and Nathaniel got to see it; I’ve been watching them work with him.”

“Matthew has really enjoyed his time with his uncles,” Monica said.

I pulled back a little, because I didn’t like the wholeUncle NathanielandUncle Jasonthing, and I had put a stop toAunt Anita. Matthew had given us his own version of nicknames; Natty, Jason-Jason, and ’Nita for me. Jean-Claude was more Gene-Clod. Asher was the closest to getting his whole name. We’d been seeing a lot of Matthew lately.

The music came back up and the next group of little girls, slightly older, came out. And there was a lot of that in the next hour and change. Older girls, sometimes the same girls, because we got to see them do ballet, jazz, and modern, even a couple of tap dances. I liked dance, and it was no reflection on the kids, but my will to live began to seep away by about the fifth group of sequined children.

I had been warned that the dance school didn’t allow anyone to grab their kids and leave until every last student had had their chance onstage. I just hadn’t understood what that meant.

In between acts I leaned over J.J. to Monica and asked, “How long is the show?”

“Last year it was four hours,” she said.

I gave her wide, horror-filled eyes. She giggled. I sat back in my seat and exchanged a look with Micah. He said, “Nathaniel and Jason will be up soon.”

Wicked leaned back from the seat in front of us and whispered, “Did you say four hours?”

I nodded. He looked pained as he turned back to give his attention to the stage, though I knew as security he was actually aware of a lot more than the performance. He’d be aware of things that I would miss, and so would Truth behind us.

Jean-Claude raised my hand up and laid a kiss on the back of it. He was smiling at me in that trying-not-to-laugh way. I glared at him and then caught Asher giving me the same look. I rolled my eyes at both of them and settled back in my seat.

I fell into a sort of daze, and then Micah raised the open program in his other hand in front of my face. I had to blink to read it. Jason Schuyler was listed as accompanying senior student Alicia Snyder. He’d said that the men were really just mobile props so the senior girls could have a wider choice of dances for their last hurrah before going off to college. “We’re just there to make the girls look good, and tote and fetch them.”

When I’d asked, “Then why do it?” he’d looked at me as if I’d said something silly. Jason had been in dance and theater all the way into college; apparently it was just some sort of dance thing that I wasn’t going to understand, but it made sense to him and to the other men that he’d talked into doing it. It had been Jean-Claude and Jason’s idea to make the exotic dancers at Guilty Pleasures, and the less exotic dancers at Danse Macabre, two of Jean-Claude’s clubs, learn to really dance. Jason and Nathaniel had been working with them and the teachers at the school all summer. It was the most men that the senior girls had ever had access to for partners, and most of them had taken our men up on the offer.

The ballerina with Jason was actually shorter than he was, and since he was only an inch taller than me, she was tiny in her black proverbial ballerina outfit with white tights and a flash of sparkle in her bound hair. He’d tied his own longish blond hair back in a tight, smooth ponytail so that it gave the illusion of being short. He wore an outfit that matched hers and I realized I’d never seen Jason in black before. They both looked elegant. Jason was usually smiling, joking, and one of my best friends. He was a lover as well. He was cute and even handsome, but I’d never realized that he could be elegant and beautiful. The music began and I saw instantly why she’d wanted him to partner her. I knew Jason moved well, even danced well, and I’d seen some of the practices, but I hadn’t seen much of him with the girl. I’d never seen him move like this in dance.

He had the grace both of his years of dance training and of being a werewolf. All the wereanimals moved well, as if it came with the disease in their veins. He didn’t have a lot to do but hold her en pointe and help her twirl and do some lifts, and finally lift her completely over his head one-handed and carry her rainbowed body across the stage to bring her in a heart-stopping drop to be caught an inch above the floor with her body still graceful and taut in his arms.

The last move made the entire audience gasp. There was a moment of dead silence and then thunderous applause. J.J. leaned over and said, “That moment of silence is worth more than the applause afterward. It means you’ve nailed it.” She was clapping as she spoke, and when the audience actually rose to their feet we joined them.

The girl curtseyed and was given a bouquet of roses by one of the earlier students still in costume. They kissed cheeks and then the ballerina took two of the long-stemmed roses out of her bouquet and handed them to Jason. He came forward, took the roses, kissed her hand, and then she insisted on bringing him forward so they bowed together. I didn’t need anyone to explain to me that Alicia was showing that she knew she could not have wowed the audience without Jason’s help.

He was beaming, eyes glowing, even as his chest still rose and fell from the effort of lifting and throwing her, and making it all look pretty and effortless.

J.J. said, “I don’t envy who goes next.”

I agreed and was glad it was a senior girl by herself. I didn’t want to see one of our own guys compete with what we’d just seen. It seemed like a damned hard act to follow.

The senior girl was good, but she wasn’t as good, and I sympathized that here at her last performance she had to know she wasn’t going to nail it. I think that would feel bad.

But the next senior girl had Nathaniel Graison listed as her partner, and I actually found myself leaning forward on my seat. It was no longer about just the performance but how Nathaniel would feel after seeing Jason onstage. They were best friends and not competitive in that typical guy way, but still, Nathaniel was my other live-in sweetie and I was a little worried. Nathaniel, unlike Jason, had never been in dance class other than with Jason taking him. He’d been on the streets before age ten, and it had gone downhill from there. Nathaniel had been a prostitute, porn star, still was an exotic dancer, so he’d performed before, but not like this.

Micah’s hand was tense in mine, and we exchanged a glance. Micah said out loud, “He’ll be fine.” But simply by his saying that, I knew he was worried, too. I realized it was more than just being in love with Nathaniel; because of his horrendous childhood we felt almost parentally anxious. It sounded stupid, but he’d never had a chance to be one of the little toddlers in their costumes seeing the parents smile. He’d missed so much as a child, and in a way this was him trying to experience some of what he’d missed. He hadn’t expressed any stage fright about tonight. It was all just my nerves and Micah’s apparently.

Nathaniel entered the stage hand in hand with his ballerina. The girl wore a filmy white gown around her white leotard so that it had the look of white and silver rags, elegant rags, and moved around her as though it were breathing. He wore white tights but his shirt was of rougher material and loose around his upper body, even open at the neck. His shoulders looked amazingly broad, and the rest of him looked even better in the white tights, but that might have just been me. His ankle-length auburn hair was up in a bun at the nape of his neck. The ballerina’s blond hair was cut short and flattened around her face like lace. From this far out in the audience his lavender eyes looked blue.

The music began and though it was ballet it was a very different kind. Jason and his ballerina had been about physical movement in space; they’d been flashy and technically great, but now we saw the difference. This ballerina and Nathaniel told a story. I didn’t know the music and didn’t need to, because they told the story with their bodies, their faces, and their hands. It was graceful and beautiful and they acted. It wasn’t just dance, it was theatre.

It was a tale of lovers lost and found, and of some great tragedy. Nathaniel held her, but it was soft holding, as if their bodies melted into each other, and their gaze made the audience watch their hands as they rose above their heads so that those entwining arms, hands, fingers, seemed terribly important.

I’d known Nathaniel could dance, but as I hadn’t known Jason could be elegant, I hadn’t realized Nathaniel could do this. It was both amazing and wonderful, and made me feel the loss of what he might have been in his life if things had been different. Of course, he was only twenty-two. It wasn’t like it was too late for him to change jobs. But it felt odd thinking that, as if Nathaniel not working at Guilty Pleasures would change things, as if the man I was watching swoon and dance onstage would be someone else if he did this every night.

He lay down on the stage and his hair began to unroll from the bun, but it was too sudden a change and I realized as she collapsed on top of him that the hair was part of the show, the emotion. His hair spilled out around them across the pale wood stage and something about the lights hitting it, or the color of gel used, turned all that auburn hair to red so it was as if they both lay in a pool of thick blood. She made one last futile gesture with her pale arms, and again something about the lighting put her in a pale, white glow so she looked almost translucent. It was a neat trick with the lights, her glowing and ethereal while Nathaniel lay in the richer reds so it was all death and violence and transcendence and beautiful.

There was another of those breathless silences as the lights faded so we wouldn’t see them leave the stage. And then the audience was on its feet again, and it was wonderful.

“Oh my God,” I said, as I stood there and clapped along with everyone else. Micah beside me was shaking his head. I wondered if he’d been thinking the same things that I’d been thinking.

Jean-Claude beside me said, “Our kitten has become a cat.”

I leaned around Micah to J.J. “Tell me if I’m just in love with him, or was that amazing.”

She nodded. “That was really good. With more time and work it could be amazing.”

Another bouquet of roses was brought out for the ballerina. She tore her bouquet in half and handed it to Nathaniel, and made him bow with her.

Monica leaned around J.J. and said, low, but not so low that J.J. wouldn’t hear, “And to think you get to take that home and play with it.”

I must have turned pretty abruptly, and what I was about to say wasn’t friendly, but Micah grabbed my arm and blocked my view of her. The look on his face was enough. It made me count to ten. But while I counted J.J. said, “You’re going to take that from her?”

I looked at Micah. He said, “No, but easy.”

I nodded. Jean-Claude leaned in to it all and said, “Is something wrong?”

I leaned over everyone. “Nathaniel is not anit, okay.”

She made a little push-away gesture, but there was something in her face that let me know she’d baited me. The only question was, why?

Vivian on the other side of her had been utterly quiet through all of it. She was standing and applauding, but she wasn’t looking at us. It was almost like she wasn’t really here.

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