The Harlequin / Chapter 37-38

Chapter 37-38


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Chapter Thirty-seven

I WATCHED JOSEPH walk toward the bed. He was tall with dark blond hair cut short. He was dressed for a business meeting in a suit complete with tie. I was betting his wife, Julia, had picked the outfit. He started undoing the tie before he got to Wicked and Truth. They stopped him a little short of the bed. Normally, I might have thought they were being overly cautious, but my body agreed with them. I was healing, but only through a miracle of metaphysics; eventually you run out of miracles.

"Anita, how are you doing?" He tried for a neutral tone but it came out nervous.

"Ted Forrester has gone to find a doc. I may get out of bed today."

"That's great," and the relief chased over his face. His hands flexed and unflexed. "Julia said you'd be all right. She said that you'd find someone else to feed on. She said you would all be all right, and you are." He was talking a little too fast, as if even he didn't believe it.

"Who are you trying to convince, Joseph, me or you?" My voice was flat and my eyes empty. I'd had dinner with him at my house. I'd thought he was a good man. But in the end, he'd let us die.

"Anita." He tried to step closer to the bed, but the vampires stopped him.

"You're close enough," Wicked said.

"I would never harm her."

I raised the hospital gown, showed him the healing wounds that crossed my stomach and ribs. "The only thing that made me powerful enough to heal this was Donovan Reece's letting me feed on every swanmane in this country. He gave me the power to live through this."

Joseph's face had paled. "I'm married, Anita. Julia and I take our vows very seriously."

"If you were human that would be fine, Joseph, but you aren't human. You're a werelion. A werelion who owed allegiance to his allies. We needed you, and you failed us."

He went to his knees. "Do you want me to beg? I'll beg."

I shook my head. "My lioness has never wanted you, Joseph. Had you ever wondered why? Why wouldn't she want the strongest lion she could find? That's what she's programmed to do." I felt the lioness stir down that long dark tunnel in my head, or in my gut. I thought calm thoughts at her, and she stilled. I was almost surprised that it worked. I said a little prayer of thanks, and went back to paying attention to the lion in front of me.

"I thought you left me alone out of respect for my wife."

I looked at him. There was nothing wrong with him. He was good looking enough, if a little too masculine for my preferences, but he had never moved me. My lioness had never even tried for him.

"My lioness reacted to your lion the way she does to all the lions, but she was never drawn to you, the way she was drawn to some of the Chicago lions."

"You react to the Chicago lions because you slept with them. And their master vampire."

"Is that what everyone's saying?" I asked.

He looked puzzled. "It's the truth."

"No, it's half the truth. Augustine, yes, but I was very careful with his lions. I was careful because I didn't want to fuck up your lions. I left his lions very alone, because I was worried about you and yours."

"I knew you sent them back to Chicago, but I thought... I am grateful that you turned them down for us."

In my head, I could admit that it hadn't been entirely for Joseph and his people. The lion that most attracted my lioness had sooo been bad news.

"I did it because you were my ally, and I thought it was somehow my fault that the other werelions were going to come and take over your pride. I've learned since then that Augustine has had your pride on his to-do list for a while now. Because you and your lions are too weak to defend yourselves, and all the other lions know it."

"I kept my people safe," he said.

"No, I kept them safe. Jean-Claude kept them safe. Richard kept them safe. The wererats have died keeping your city safe. The leopards nearly lost their queen. The swans risked everything. Where were the lions while the rest of us bled and died?"

"If you had asked we would have fought for you."

"Why would we want the lions to fight for us, Joseph? You're too weak. You don't train in combat, or weapons. You are werelions, so fucking what? We're all wereanimals, but we offer more than just teeth and claws. What do the lions offer us, Joseph?" The anger stirred that place inside me, and I had to close my eyes and count, slowly, breathe, slowly. The stirring eased again. Two times in a row the beasts had quieted because I'd asked, or concentrated on being calm. Maybe I was finally getting the hang of this.

"We are lions," he said, but his voice was soft.

"You are weak," and my voice was soft, too. Soft because I couldn't afford the anger.

Joseph reached his hands out toward me, between Truth and Wicked's legs. "Do not let them kill us."

"Am I your Rex? Am I your Regina?"

"No," he said, and his hands began to lower.

"Then why do you turn to me for help?"

"Because I have nowhere else to turn."

"Whose fault is that, Joseph? Whose fault is it that after this many years your pride is so weak that you have to turn to humans and vampires, and other animal groups for safety?"

His hands were on his thighs now. "Mine," he said.

"No, not just yours. I'm betting your wife had something to do with it. Every time someone remotely stronger than you and your brother came along, she said no, didn't she? She said that you didn't need them, didn't she?"

"Yes," he said.

"If you'd let some strength into your pride, you would have learned how to be a better king."

"Or they would have killed me and taken the pride, taken..."

"Your wife," I said.

He nodded.

"I heard that some of the lion takeovers work like that. I can see where she wouldn't want to take the chance."

"Then you understand."

I shook my head. "I can't afford to understand, Joseph. I can't afford to let you hide behind my skirts anymore. Micah kicked you out of our alliance." I looked across the room to Graham by the door. "Graham, did the other animal groups vote with the leopards?"

"They said pretty much what you've said, that they have all lost people or had injuries and the lions just take resources and don't give anything back."

"I gave Anita the choice of all our unattached young men. I paraded them out for her like some kind of slave auction."

I'd been fighting off feeling bad about this decision, until that moment. "Slave auction, is that how you saw it?"

"You're picking men who will have to have sex with you. If you have no choice, then you're just a slave."

"I haven't fucked any of your young lions."

He looked at me like he didn't believe that at all.

"Didn't you ask them what they did for me?"

"We felt bad enough giving them to you. We didn't need to hear any details."

"You self-righteous prig. I didn't sleep with them because most of them are virgins, or damn close to it. Corrupting the young just doesn't appeal to me."

There was a knock on the door. Who could it be this time? Graham opened the door, and standing in the doorway was the reason for Joseph's fear, and the other reason for me sending the lions back to Chicago that first time. Haven, alias Cookie Monster, walked into the room.

Chapter Thirty-eight

HE WAS TALL, and a little slender for my tastes, but a leather trench coat gave him more bulk through the shoulders than I knew he had. His short, spiked hair was still shades of blue like Cookie Monster and spring skies. His eyes were still blue and laughing. He was still handsome. He was still dangerous.

Joseph got to his feet. Wicked and Truth put a hand on either of his arms. He didn't fight them about it. They just looked toward the other man. They were actually blocking my view at that point. I was okay with that. The less I saw of him, the better.

"It's against the rules for you to hold him for me." Haven's voice was pleasant, as if he were asking about the weather. He probably had a pleasant face to go with the pleasant voice. He could look pleasant and amused right up to the time he hurt you. He was a professional thug, and had been for all his adult life. He was a mob enforcer and a werelion. Like I said, dangerous.

"I beat you last time," Joseph said. That was true.

"You got lucky," Haven said, and the voice was sliding down to something less pleasant.

"But I didn't even know you were here. I came to see Anita."

Truth and Wicked stepped aside, taking Joseph with them. I was suddenly lying there staring up at the other man. I had a moment of staring up into that deceptively blue gaze, such an innocent color, and then his gaze slid down my body. It wasn't sexual; I'd forgotten to lower my gown, so the wounds were still visible.

His face was very serious, and on the edge of that came a flash of anger through those sky-blue eyes. "Weretiger, huh?"

"Yeah."

He reached out, as if he would touch the wounds. I drew the gown back over my skin. He looked me in the face again. There was a look in his eyes that I couldn't decipher. It was a serious look, whatever it meant.

Something stirred inside me, something that flashed tawny and gold in the dark end of the tunnel. I suddenly smelled dry grass and heat so hot it had a smell to it. I smelled lion.

"I'm trying to be good here," Haven said. "If you go all lioness on me, I can't promise to be good."

"I appreciate that," I said out loud, but my hand ached to reach out to him. He was toning down his power level, and I was toning down mine, but the urge to touch him was still there. Micah had figured it out that my power wasn't seeking a lion to be another animal to call like Nathaniel. The power was seeking what Micah was to me, a Rex to my Regina. Chimera had been the same way, I guess; he'd been the dominant in whatever group he took over. The mix of panwere and Belle Morte's line of vamps seemed to have changed it from me trying to be dominant to everyone into trying to be a dominant couple with everyone.

"Take his hand."

I blinked up at them.

Truth repeated, "Take his hand."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea."

Haven reached out to me. I could have moved back, but I was just a little late in moving. Maybe it was a Freudian slip, or maybe it was an entire wardrobe.

His hand wrapped around mine with room to spare. His hands were as big as Richard's, the fingers longer, closer to the way Jean-Claude's hands looked, but the size was all Richard. The feel of his hand in mine made something tight in my chest loosen. I had enough men in my life, damn it. All I had to do was let go of his hand, but I didn't let go.

Haven was staring down at our clasped hands as if he didn't know what they were. He sounded distracted, like he was thinking about something very different from what his words said. "Your Nimir-Raj has kicked Joseph and his lions out of the coalition. I've checked with the wererats, the werehyenas, and your Ulfric. They're all cool with me doing what needs doing."

"It was good of you to check with everyone," Truth said.

"The animal groups in your coalition with Jean-Claude are still united. I didn't want to piss everyone off the first day back." He was rubbing his thumb across my knuckles as he talked. "I just need to ask you how you feel about it, and I can get started."

"Anita, please," Joseph said. He was still being held between the two vampires.

"No one in the coalition trusts you anymore, Joseph. I don't trust you either."

"So you won't care what I do?" Haven asked. He was looking at my face now. His face was more serious than I'd ever seen it.

"There are some lions in his group that are weak, but they're still valuable. Give them a chance to join you."

"Valuable how?"

"They have jobs. They bring income into the pride so that others don't have to work."

"Money won't be a problem. Auggie bankrolled us until things got up and running."

"And that's another thing; I'll try not to interfere in how you run the pride, but I can't let you bring new mob connections to St. Louis."

"You know that's one of the main reasons Auggie wanted us down here."

"I figured it was, but we've got enough crime without adding. I'll let the lions do what lions do, but the mob is human and I'm a federal marshal. Don't make me have to choose."

"I'll have to talk to Auggie." He was just holding my hand, not meeting my eyes again.

"I'll talk to him if you want, or Jean-Claude can."

"Jean-Claude probably can come up with a compromise that Auggie will listen to," Haven said.

"Remember the two lions you almost broke when you were here last time?"

"The college kids, yeah."

"They've helped me keep my beast under control. In fact, Joseph has a lot of young people in college. Let them finish their degrees, help bring in legitimate money."

His hand squeezed around mine, not hard, but firm. "Did you sleep with them?"

I started to ask why, but there was something about the way he was standing there, some quality of stillness that made me afraid to tease. I said the truth, "No."

"None of them," he said.

"No, but if you're not into sharing then you are holding the hand of the wrong girl."

"I know how many you got on your plate, but they aren't lions."

"And if I had slept with any of the other lions?"

He gave me a look; there was nothing comforting in that look, hell, there was nothing very human in that look. "I won't share with another lion."

"I'll need more than one of each of my beasts. You can't be with me twenty-four-seven."

He frowned. "No, I can't."

"Also, I've got Micah as my Nimir-Raj, then Nathaniel came as my leopard to call. It may work that way with all my animals."

"You only have the Ulfric."

"Not true," Graham said. "She sees a lot of Jason."

"He's Jean-Claude's pomme de sang" I said.

"That's why he's around a lot, but that's not why you do him all the time."

"Thanks for putting it that way, Graham." Funny how Graham reminded me often why he wasn't getting sex from me.

"He's also Nathaniel's best friend." Wicked added that.

"Can we please change the subject?" I said.

"But Jason isn't her animal to call," Truth said.

"Then why does she have a leopard but not a wolf to call?" Graham asked.

"We don't know," Wicked said.

"Guys, enough already," I said.

"She's right," Haven said. He looked at Joseph. "We can't settle this right now, so go. Go tell your pride that you failed them. Tell them that we'll give them tonight safe."

"What happens tomorrow?" Joseph asked.

Haven gave that unpleasant smile again. "Why, then you and I find out if you can get lucky again, or if your luck's run out."

"You will make him your Rex, Jean-Claude's Rex," Joseph said. He looked at the werelion. "Are you prepared to do what the Nimir-Raj and the Ulfric do?"

"What's that?"

"Sleep with her master. Sleep with Jean-Claude."

Funny how some rumors never die, no matter how many times you try to kill them. Before I could say anything, Haven answered, "Do you believe every rumor you hear?"

"They are not rumors, if they are true."

"You thought I was sleeping with your little lions, and I wasn't."

"You say you weren't."

"Get him out of here," Haven said.

The vampires looked at me. I nodded.

They started escorting Joseph to the door.

"You condemn me to death, Anita," he called back over his shoulder.

I didn't know what to say to that, so I said nothing. You can't save everybody, and we couldn't afford to have any ally that wasn't with us completely. It wasn't just the sex. There'd been no lion in his pride good enough to be a bodyguard. Not a single one. You couldn't be that weak and survive.

Wicked was saying something to Joseph, low and urgent. His grip on the man's arm was tight enough to show at a distance. Whatever he said quieted the protests and sent him out the door.

"What did you say to him, Wicked?" I asked.

"I told him that the werelion had given him tonight to be safe, but if he kept saying mean things about our masters, I'd just do him tonight."

"It's my fight," Haven said.

"I said that I'd do him, not that I'd kill him. After everything he'd just said, I figured rape would scare him enough to get him out of here."

"You don't like guys," I said.

"You don't know what I like. You've worked hard not to know. My pride's hurt, but I'll get over it. But Joseph would believe anything of Jean-Claude's people, even male-on-male rape."

"So there really is a rumor that no one gets to join Jean-Claude's kiss without fucking him."

"Or you," Truth said.

"I'm really disappointed that one isn't true, by the way," Wicked said, with a grin.

"Me, too," Graham said.

I gave them both the look they deserved.

"I do not wish to," Truth said.

They looked at him. "Why not?" Graham asked.

"Because I am already much in thrall to Anita. If I bedded her, I would be little more than the slave Joseph accused us of being."

"Trust me, guys, you're overestimating my appeal," I said.

"I don't know about that," Haven said. He spread my hand on his palm and touched my hand with the fingers of his other hand. "You have such small hands."

"Delicate and dangerous," Wicked said.

Haven started talking, almost as if to himself. "I'm not a complicated guy. I know that. I'm not stupid, but I'm not exactly a brain trust either. I know that, too. I like being a guy. I like being muscle. I like hurting people. I don't mind killing people. I like my job. I like drinking with the guys, a little poker, and strip clubs, fucking. It was a good life."

"You make it sound like it's over," I said.

"I went back to Chicago, to my life, but it didn't work anymore. I still liked hurting people, but I started wondering if you'd hate me for doing some of the stuff Auggie had me doing. I kept thinking, What would she think? Wondering what you'd think started getting in the way of my job. Auggie noticed it."

"I sent you back home, Haven. I didn't make you think about me." I tried to take my hand back, but he wrapped those long fingers around me, and I didn't fight it.

"Yeah, you did, Anita, maybe not on purpose, but you did. First it fucked up my job, then it fucked up my fun. I started looking at my friends and what we did, and thought, She'd be disappointed. She'd think it was stupid." He shook his head. "Damn it, I've never let any woman mess me up like this."

"Haven, I..."

"Let me finish," he said.

I wasn't sure I wanted him to finish, but I let him.

"Women are just for fucking, or marrying so you can have kids if you want them. Women don't count, not in my world, not in Auggie's world. But you counted, to him, and to me. But especially to me. No matter what woman I was with, or how good the sex was, the moment it was over, it felt bad. It wasn't enough. Damn you, damn you, I started thinking about relationships. Having a girl to talk to. Stupid shit that I gave up before I hit fifteen, and suddenly it was all back. I was this kid again, thinking there was more to life than being muscle for Auggie. There isn't more to life, Anita. There isn't anymore." His voice had sunk to a low growl.

I didn't know what to say. Sorry seemed lame, and It's not my fault seemed worse. I didn't mean to fuck up your life seemed the most accurate. I finally settled for, "I didn't make you rethink your life, Haven."

"Yeah, you did. Auggie says you did. He says you didn't mean to do it, but you mind-fucked me just like Belle Morte does, or can. I'm your lion, Anita. I'm yours. Yours in a way I've never been anyone's. You make me want to be a better person. How fucking lame is that?"

Truth's quiet voice came. "A lady always makes a man want to be better than he is. Belle Morte did not make anyone want to be better. She made you obsess about her, follow her like a dog, but you did not think, Will she think less of me if I do this awful thing? She did things so much worse than anything we were willing to do; even Wicked found her immoral."

"Auggie said it was the same mind-fucking shit that Belle Morte did."

"Your attraction to Anita may have been vampire powers, but your reaction to her beyond that is not," Wicked said, and there was a note of almost sadness to his voice.

"What does that mean?" Haven asked, his voice irritated.

"It means, my good fellow," Wicked said, "you're in love with the woman."

"No," Haven said.

"Only love of a good woman will make a man question every choice, every action. Only love makes a warrior hesitate for fear that his lady will find him cruel. Only love makes a man both the best he will ever be, and the weakest. Sometimes all in the same moment."

I didn't know what to say. It seemed like I should say something. Maybe I wasn't in love with him. Or maybe it was just lust. Or... but one thing had to be clear between us.

"I appreciate all the honesty, Haven, really I do, but I need to be certain you understand a few things."

He gave me a look that was both angry and uneasy. "What things?"

"You've done good. You checked with all the other group leaders. That was great. But I haven't said I'd make you one of my boyfriends."

He squeezed my hand, traced his fingers across my wrist. I had to fight not to shiver under even that small touch. I knew this reaction. It was too close to how Micah had affected me, too damn close. But when Micah came into my life the ardeur was brand new, and so was having my own beasts. I wasn't new at controlling all of it now. Thank God.

"Your pulse speeds up just from that little touch. How can you say you don't want me?"

"I didn't say I didn't want you. But my life works, mostly. I like living with Micah and Nathaniel. I like bunking over with Jean-Claude and Asher. I don't need another man in my life who won't share. Frankly, I'm trying to thin down the number of men in my life. I really don't want another one."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, don't come down here thinking it's a done deal between us. Don't take it for granted that you'll be able to fit into my life."

He let go of my hand, then, and the look was so cold. "I talk to you like I've never talked to another woman, and this is what I get?"

"Yeah, because my life works. The coalition works. The power structure in this territory works. I won't jeopardize it, not for lust, or even for love."

"Ask her how she feels about you," Truth said.

Haven shook his head.

"Tell him how you feel, Anita."

I didn't want to, but Truth was right. One, Haven had been honest with me. Two, a man's ego is a fragile thing sometimes. The toughest men sometimes are the easiest hurt, and hardest to heal. I didn't know what Haven and I would be doing with each other, but whatever we were going to do, it needed to be honest.

"I thought about you while you were in Chicago, but not to the extent you thought about me. I sent you away because I wanted to touch you. I wanted to be naked with you, and do all the things you do when the clothes come off."

"You're saying you wanted, like it's past."

"I still feel the attraction, trust me. But the initial attraction is the most overwhelming. It was like that with Micah, too. If I can get a little distance between me and the man, then, apparently, I get better control."

"I wonder how your control would be if I weren't shielding my lion from you? You're hurt. You need to heal, but when you're well, I want to see how your control holds up to my lion."

"Don't threaten me, Haven. I don't react well to that."

"It's not a threat, Anita. I am being so good right now. You have no idea how good."

"I appreciate that," I said.

"But I'm not good. I'm bad. I think like a bad guy. You keep pushing me away, and all my good resolutions will go out the window."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means that once I kill Joseph and take over his pride, I'll be a permanent member of your coalition. I'll be the local Rex. Once I take over Joseph's pride, I can't go back to Chicago."

The human part of me, the commonsense part of me said, Send his ass back home. The coldly practical part said, Who else is going to run the lions here? There were no other candidates. The lioness in me wanted to know if he was as good as his brag. Not just about sex, but power. The lioness more than any other of my beasts wanted a mate that could protect her, keep up with her. None of my other beasts were as competitive as the lion. I got a distant swirl of tiger, like a dream of a dream. Tiger wanted to be left alone. Fine with me.

"I'm scared of you, Haven. Scared that you being my lion will fuck up my life. I know you're bad, and you've been bad your entire adult life. That's a lot of bad habits to break."

"I'm not sure I know how to be good."

"I know."

"Do I stay? Decide now, Anita, because once the pride is mine, the choice is gone."

I thought about it. I'd have been fine with him coming in as the new Rex, but coming in as a new boyfriend, well, that just had disaster written all over it. I opened my mouth to say go, but my lioness swiped a claw up inside me, like she was playing with my liver. It made me writhe on the bed and not in a good way.

I was suddenly getting asked by a lot of people, "Anita, are you all right?"

I nodded. I had more control over my beasts, I really did. But apparently, I didn't have complete control. Would the lioness let me send Haven back to Chicago, or would she tear me apart?

I don't know what I would have said to Haven, because I didn't get a chance. The door opened, and it was Dolph again, but with more police at his back.

"Everybody in here carrying a weapon, but not carrying a badge, out."

Since that was everybody but Graham, they went. Dolph was pissed that they'd managed to get past everyone in the first place. Apparently, heads were going to fly, at least figuratively.

Edward came back into the room while Dolph was giving each of the armed "guards" a police escort off hospital grounds. Dolph decided that Ted Forrester and his German friend in the hallway were enough muscle to keep me safe, so Graham didn't need to be here either.

"Dolph, Graham isn't even armed."

"You've got Forrester and Otto Jeffries to guard your back, or is there something going on in our city so dangerous that you need all this firepower?" He gave me those searching cop eyes that always seemed to see everything.

I shook my head. I told Truth, Wicked, Haven, and Graham to go with the nice police officers. They went. Because Dolph was right with Edward and Olaf, I was safe enough, at least from our enemies. I'd seen Olaf use a gun. I knew he was a good man in a fight, but somehow I just never felt entirely safe from Olaf with Olaf nearby. Funny, that.


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