The Harlequin / Chapter 5-6

Chapter 5-6


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Chapter Five

I WASN'T SO angry that I forgot to check out the crowd as we moved, but I had to force the anger down to be able to see straight. I was actually more embarrassed than angry, which meant the fight could be all the worse for it. I hated being embarrassed, and usually masked it with anger. Even knowing that's what I did didn't change the fact that I did it. It just let me know why I was angry.

I actually waited until we were in the parking lot to say, "Nicky? What the fuck kind of name is that?"

"One I'd remember," he said.

I jerked away from him hard enough that he almost dropped the box. "I'm never going to be on stage again; I don't need a stage name."

"You don't want them to figure out your real name, do you?"

I frowned at him. "I'm in the news enough. They'll figure it out eventually."

"Maybe, but if you give them a stage name to remember, they'll think of you as a stripper, not as a federal marshal. You're embarrassed enough that Detective Arnet saw us on stage that night."

"Yes, and I'm still waiting for her to tell the rest of the police that she and I work with."

"But she hasn't," he said.

I shook my head.

"She can't admit she saw you without admitting she was there, and why," he said.

"Cops go to strip clubs all the time," I said.

"But she didn't go to see strippers, she went to see me."

That stopped me. Made me turn and stare at him. "What do you mean?"

"She came to the club on a night you weren't there. Since you've avoided the club as much as possible, that's a lot of the time. Can we have this conversation in the car?"

He had a point. I unlocked the car, and we climbed in. "Where's the other car?"

"I had Micah drop me off, so he'll have the car if he needs it. I knew you'd drive me home."

It made sense. I turned on the car so the heater would start working. I finally realized it was a little chilly. My anger had kept me warm even with my coat flapping open. "What do you mean, Arnet came to the club?"

"She paid to have a private dance."

I stared at him. "She did what?"

Detective Jessica Arnet worked on the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, RPIT for short. It was the branch of local police that I worked with the most. I'd known she had a crush on Nathaniel, but I'd been so busy trying not to admit that I was living with a stripper that I'd kept him too much a secret. Until I brought him as a date to a wedding that Arnet was at. Then the secret was out, and she was mad at me for not telling her we were an item sooner. She seemed to feel like I'd let her make a fool of herself. She hadn't made a fool of herself, but she had come to Guilty Pleasures for the first time that one night that Nathaniel got me on stage. She was now convinced that I was abusing Nathaniel. Chain someone up on stage and hit them with a flogger a few times, and people think you're abusing them. Of course, the flogger had been Nathaniel and Jean-Claude's idea. A part of Nathaniel's regular show, apparently. What I'd done next had been all me, and Nathaniel. I had marked him, bitten him hard enough to bleed him, on stage. It had been the first time I'd voluntarily marked him like that, not just because the ardeur got out of control, but because he liked it, and I liked it, and I'd promised.

Arnet was convinced that I was Madame de Sade and Nathaniel was my victim. I'd tried explaining that Nathaniel was only a victim when he wanted to be, but she hadn't bought it. I'd been convinced she would tell the other cops and out me, badly. Living with a twenty-year-old stripper with juvenile arrests for prostitution was bad enough, but getting on stage myself, well, that would have been... oh, hell, bad.

"How private a dance did she get?"

He grinned. "Are you jealous?"

I thought about it for a second, then had to say, "Yeah, I guess so."

"That's so sweet," he said.

"Just tell me about Arnet."

"She didn't want the dance. She wanted to talk." He seemed to think about it for a second, then added, "Okay, she wanted the dance, a lot, but she was too uncomfortable with me to ask for what she wanted. We just talked."

"About?" I said.

"She tried to get me to admit that you were abusing me. She wanted me to leave you and save myself."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were already worried about Arnet telling Zerbrowski and the other cops what she'd seen. You were in the middle of some messy murder investigation. I didn't figure you needed the hassle, and I handled it."

"Has she been back?"

He shook his head.

"Tell me next time, okay?"

"If you want."

"I want."

"She can't tell on you, because she'd be afraid you'd tell them that she has a thing for your stripper boyfriend. She doesn't want to admit that what bothered her the most about the show you and I did is that she liked it."

"I didn't think Arnet swung that way," I said.

"Neither did she."

I looked at him, studied that face. There was a look on it now. "Just say it, the look in your eyes, just say it."

"You hate most in others what you don't like in yourself."

"Huh."

"What?"

"I thought something almost identical to that earlier tonight."

"What about?"

I shook my head. "Do you really think giving Greg and his girlfriend a stage name for me will keep them from making the connection to Anita Blake?"

"Yeah, I do. They'll think of you as a stripper named Nicky and that's it. You won't be anything or any more to them than that."

"Strangely disturbing, but why Nicky, why that name?"

"Because I knew I'd remember it."

"Remember it, why?"

"Because it was my name when I did porn."

I blinked at him. "What?"

"Nicky Brandon is the name I used when I did movies."

I did the long blink, the one that meant I was thinking hard, or too surprised to think. "You gave me your pornography name?"

"Half of it," he said.

I didn't know what to say. Was I supposed to be flattered, or insulted? "I declare this fight over until I figure out if we're actually fighting."

"Trust me, Anita, this isn't a fight."

"Then how come I'm angry?"

"Let's see: there's some bad vamps in town messing with us, you always hate it when fans recognize Brandon the stripper, but tonight, for the first time, you got recognized from the one time you went on stage. If you're embarrassed by my job, you're even more embarrassed that anyone would think you could be a stripper."

"I'm not embarrassed about your job."

"Yeah, you are," he said.

I started the car. "I am not."

"Then next time you introduce me to your friends, don't call me a dancer, call me an exotic dancer."

I opened my mouth, closed it, and started backing up. I wouldn't do it. He was right. I'd keep introducing him as simply a dancer. "Do you want me to introduce you like that?"

"No, but I want you not to be ashamed of what I do."

"I'm not ashamed of you, or your job."

"Fine, have it your way." But his tone said clearly that he was letting me win, but that I was wrong, and hadn't won anything. I hated when he did that. He just stopped fighting in the middle of the fight, not because he'd lost, but just because he didn't want to fight anymore. How do you fight with someone who won't fight? Answer: you don't.

The real trouble was, he was right. I was embarrassed about his job. I shouldn't have been, but I was. When he was a teenager, he'd been a runaway, and a prostitute, and on drugs. He'd been off drugs for nearly four years. He'd been out of "the life" since he was sixteen. He'd done porn, and I knew that. But I didn't dwell on it. I assumed he'd stopped doing the movies about the same time he stopped hooking, but I wasn't sure of that. I hadn't really asked, had I? He was a wereleopard, which meant he couldn't catch any sexually transmitted disease. That helped me ignore his past. The lycanthropy killed everything that could injure the host body; it kept him healthy. It made it so that I could pretend he hadn't had more sexual partners than I wanted to know about.

I was trapped at the light across from St. Louis Bread Company when I said, "Want to hear what Jean-Claude told me about the mask?"

"If you want to tell me." He sounded mad.

"I'm sorry that I'm not completely comfortable with your job, okay?"

"Well, at least you admit it."

The light changed, and I eased forward. We'd had two inches of snow, and everyone here forgot how to drive in it. "I don't like to admit when I'm uncomfortable, you know that."

"Tell me what Jean-Claude said."

I told him.

"So they may be here for Malcolm and his church."

"Maybe."

"I'm surprised you didn't demand more answers on the phone."

"I didn't know what the happy couple wanted. Jean-Claude said we're not in danger, so I hung up."

"It's not my fault that they recognized us."

"You. They recognized you."

"Fine, they recognized me." He was back to being mad again.

"I'm sorry, Nathaniel, I'm really sorry. That wasn't fair."

"No, you're right. If we hadn't been out together they probably wouldn't have spotted you."

"I am not embarrassed to be seen with you in public."

"You hate it when fans recognize me."

"I thought I was pretty cool when that woman passed you her phone number at dinner, when you were out with Micah and me."

"She waited until you went to the bathroom."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" I turned onto 44 and headed toward the city.

"She didn't want to intrude on our date."

"She thought you and Micah were escorts, and that I was paying you for the evening."

"The last time she saw me that's what I was doing for a living, Anita."

"I know, I know. She passed you her number because she wanted to see you again, and the old number wasn't working. You're right, she was polite about it."

"I told her I was on a date-date, and she was embarrassed."

I still remembered the woman. She'd been slender and elegant and old enough to be Nathaniel's mother. Thanks to Jean-Claude I knew clothes, and she'd been wearing expensive ones. The jewelry had been understated, but very nice. She was one of those women who headed charity balls and sat on committees for the art museum, and she'd been hiring male prostitutes young enough to be her son.

"I think what bothered me about her was that she didn't look like someone who would..."

"Hire an escort," he finished for me.

"Yeah."

"I had a lot of different kinds of customers, Anita."

"I figured that."

"Did you, or did you try never to think about it?"

"Okay, the latter."

"I can't change my past, Anita."

"I didn't ask you to."

"But you want me to quit stripping."

"I never said that."

"You're embarrassed by it, though."

"For God's sake, Nathaniel, let it go. I'm embarrassed about being up on stage myself. I'm embarrassed that I fed on you in public." I gripped the steering wheel so tight it hurt. "When I fed the ardeur off you that night, I fed off the entire audience. I didn't mean to, but I fed on their lust. I felt how much they enjoyed the show, and I fed on it."

"And you didn't have to feed again for twenty-four hours."

"Jean-Claude took my ardeur and shared it around among you guys."

"Yes, but he thinks that one of the reasons he was able to do that is that you fed off the crowd, and me. I loved that you marked me in front of the crowd. You know how much I loved it."

"Are you saying that if I hadn't gone up on stage and accidentally fed from the crowd, the ardeur would have gotten out of control in the middle of that serial killer case?"

"Maybe."

I thought about that for a second as I drove. I thought about the ardeur going out of control in a van full of cops, Mobile Reserve cops, our answer to SWAT. I thought about the ardeur getting out of control while I was in a nest of vampires that had killed over ten people.

"If that's true, then why didn't Jean-Claude try to get me down to the club again?"

"He's offered."

"I've refused."

"Yeah," Nathaniel said.

"Why tell me now?"

"Because I'm mad at you," he said. He lowered his head on top of the box in his lap. "Because I'm mad that our date is ruined. I'm mad that some metaphysical crap is going to ruin our almost-anniversary."

"I didn't plan this," I said.

"No, but your life is always like this. Do you have any idea how hard it is to have a normal date with you?"

"If you don't like it, you don't have to stay in it." The moment I said it, I wished I hadn't, but I didn't take it back.

"Do you mean that?" he asked, in a low, careful voice.

"No," I said, "no, I don't mean it. I'm just not used to you picking at me. That's usually Richard's job."

"Don't compare me with him. I don't deserve that."

"No, you don't." Richard Zeeman had once been my fiance, but it hadn't lasted. I'd broken up with him when I saw him eat someone. He was the head of the local werewolf pack. He'd broken up with me when he couldn't handle that I was more comfortable with the monsters than he was. At the moment, we were lovers, and he was finally letting me feed the ardeur off him. I was his girlfriend in the preternatural community, lupa to his Ulfric, and he wasn't shopping to replace me in that part of his life. He was shopping for a completely human woman to replace me in the part of his life where he was a mild-mannered junior high science teacher. He wanted kids and a life that didn't include full moons and killer zombies. I didn't blame him completely. If I'd had an option for a normal life, I might have taken it. Of course, Richard really didn't have the option either. There was no cure for lycanthropy. But he was going to divide his life into pieces and try to keep all the pieces from finding out about the other parts. Sounded hard, hell, sounded like a recipe for disaster. But it wasn't my life, and so far he was just dating people. If he got serious about someone else, then we'd see how I felt about being the other woman.

"You missed the turn, Anita," Nathaniel said.

I cursed and braked too hard in the thin snow. I got the Jeep under control, then let us coast past our exit. I'd turn around. You could always turn around. "Sorry," I said.

"Thinking about Richard?" He tried for neutral and failed.

"Yeah."

"My fault, I guess; I brought him up."

"What's with the tone?" I asked. I turned into a section of town that was in the middle of being gentrified but hadn't quite made it yet. But we were headed back toward the riverfront.

"If Richard were a stripper, would you be embarrassed by him, too?"

"Drop this, Nathaniel, I mean it."

"Or what?" There was that first prickling run of energy over my skin. He was angry enough that it was making his beast peek out.

"You're picking on me tonight, Nathaniel. I don't need that."

"I believe that you love me, Anita, but you love me by hiding from what I am. I need you to accept who I am."

"I do."

"You tell Arnet that I'm not your victim, but you won't tie me up during sex. You won't abuse me."

"Don't start this again," I said.

"Anita, the bondage is part of who I am. It makes me feel safe and good."

This was one of the reasons I'd fought so long and hard to stay out of Nathaniel's love life. I did some stuff, nails, teeth, and I enjoyed it, but there were limits to my comfort level, and he'd been trying to push me past those limits in the last few weeks. I'd worried from the beginning that he wouldn't be happy with someone who was less into the bondage scene than he was, and that was exactly what was happening.

"In some ways you make me feel better about myself than anyone ever has, Anita, but you also make me feel bad about myself. You make me feel like an evil freak, because of what I want."

I found a parking spot just down the street from Guilty Pleasures's glowing neon sign. It was unusual to find parking this close to the club on a weekend. Parallel parking is not my best thing, so I concentrated on that, while part of me thought furiously about what to say to him.

I finally got us parked and turned off the car. The silence was thicker than I wanted it to be. I turned as far as the seat belt would allow and looked at him. He stared out the window away from me.

"I don't want to make you feel bad about yourself, Nathaniel. I love you, damn it."

He nodded, then turned and looked at me. The streetlight glittered on tears. "I'm terrified that I'm going to drive you away. My therapist says that I'm either a full partner in the relationship, or I'm not. Full partners ask for their needs to be met."

Truthfully, I'd thought his therapist would be on my side, but BDSM was no longer considered an illness. It was just another alternative lifestyle. Damn it.

"I want you to get what you need out of our... out of us."

"I'm not asking for that much, Anita. Just tie me up while we have sex. Then do what we would have done anyway. Nothing else."

I leaned over and brushed the tears from his cheeks. "It's not the tying up, Nathaniel. It's that once I say yes to that, what's next? And don't tell me there isn't a next."

"Tie me up, make love to me, and we'll go from there."

"That's what scares me," I said. "I say yes to this, and there'll be something else."

"And what's wrong with something else, Anita? What scares you isn't my needs, but that you might like it."

"That's not fair."

"Maybe not, but it's true. You like being held down during sex. You like it rough."

"Not all the time."

"And I don't like being tied up all the time, but I like it some of the time. Why is that wrong?"

"I'm not sure I can meet all your needs, okay? It was one of the things that worried me about us as a couple from the beginning."

"Then are you okay with me finding someone else to meet those needs? Sex with you, bondage with someone else?" He said it fast, as if he were afraid he'd lose his nerve.

I just stared at him. "Where the hell did this come from?"

"I'm trying to find out what the limits are, Anita, that's all."

"Do you want someone else?" I asked it, because I had to ask.

"No, but you have other people in your bed, and I'm okay with that, but if you won't meet my needs, then..."

"Are you saying that if I don't come across, you'll break up with me?"

"No, no." He hid his face with his hands and made a frustrated noise. His energy level swirled back through the car, like hot water spilling across my skin. He swallowed the power back and looked at me. He looked pained. "I need this, Anita. I want to do it with you, but I need it with someone. It's part of who I am sexually; it just is."

I tried to wrap my mind around letting Nathaniel play sex games with someone else, then come home to me. I couldn't do it. He was right; I was forcing him to share me with other men, but sharing him with another woman... "So what, you'd have tie-up games with someone else, then come home to me?"

"I can find a master who doesn't do sexual contact. I can find someone who will just do the bondage."

"But bondage is sex for you."

He nodded. "Sometimes."

"I can't do this tonight, Nathaniel."

"I'm not asking you to; just think about it. Decide what you want me to do."

"You're giving me an ultimatum; I don't deal well with ultimatums."

"It's not an ultimatum, Anita, it's just true. I love you, and I'm happier with you than I've ever been with anyone for this long. Honestly, I didn't think we'd still be together this long. Seven months is the longest relationship I've ever had. When I thought it would be like all the rest - a few months, then over - it wasn't a big deal. I could behave myself for a few months, until you got tired of me."

"I'm not tired of you."

"I know that. In fact, I think you're going to keep me. I didn't expect that."

"Keep you? You make yourself sound like a lost puppy that I picked up on the street. You don't 'keep' people, Nathaniel."

"Fine, pick a different word, but we're living together and it's working, and it might last years. I can't go years without having this need met, Anita."

"It might last years; you still talk about us like we won't last."

"Years is lasting," he said, "and everyone gets tired of me, eventually."

I didn't know what to say to that. "I'm not tired of you. Frustrated, puzzled as hell, but not tired."

He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I know that, and if I didn't feel secure enough, I wouldn't make any demands. I'd just go on being unhappy about this, but if you love me, then I can ask for what I want."

If you love me, he'd said. Jesus. "It must be true love, Nathaniel, because I'm not booting your ass to the curb for this."

"For what, asking for my sexual needs to be met?"

"Stop, just stop." I rested my forehead against the steering wheel and tried to think. "Can we please drop this for now, while I think about it?"

"Sure." His voice sounded hurt.

But his voice could sound hurt; I was out of my depth. "How long have you been saving this conversation up?" I asked, still resting against the wheel.

"I kept waiting for there to be a quiet time, when you weren't ass-deep in alligators, but..."

"But I'm always ass-deep in alligators."

"Yeah," he said.

I rose and nodded. That was fair. "I'll think about what you said, and that's all I've got tonight, okay?"

"That's wonderful. I mean it. I was afraid..."

I frowned at him. "You really thought I'd dump you because of this?"

He shrugged and wouldn't look at me. "You don't like demands, Anita, not from any of the men in your life."

I unbuckled my seat belt and slid over so I could turn him to look at me. "I can't promise that this won't eventually break me, but I can't imagine not waking up beside you most mornings. I can't imagine not having you puttering in our kitchen. Hell, it's more your kitchen than mine. I don't cook."

He kissed me and drew back with that smile that made his face shine with happiness. I loved that smile. "Our kitchen. I've never had an 'our' anything before."

I hugged him, partially because I wanted to, and partially to hide the expression on my face. On one hand, I loved him to pieces; on the other hand, I wished he had come with an instruction book. More than almost any other man in my life, he confused me. Richard hurt me more, but most of the time I understood why. I didn't like it, but I understood his motivation. Nathaniel was so far outside my comfort zone sometimes that I had no clue. That I understood vampires that had been alive over five hundred years better than I understood the man in my arms said something. I wasn't sure what it said, but something.

"Let's go inside before Jean-Claude wonders what happened to us."

He nodded, still looking happy. He got out on his side with the box in hand. I got out, hit the button to make the Jeep beep, and eased between the cars onto the sidewalk. He'd put his hat back on. Nathaniel in disguise. I put my left arm through his, and we walked over the melting snow toward the club. He was still all glowing from the "our" comment I'd made. Me, I wasn't glowing. I was worried. How far would I really go to keep him? Could I send him to a stranger for slap and tickle? Could I share him if I couldn't meet his needs? I didn't know. I really didn't know.

Chapter Six

I OPENED THAT metaphysical connection I had to Jean-Claude. Opened it and thought, Where are you? I felt him, or saw him, or some other word that they hadn't invented yet for seeing and feeling what someone else was doing in another room. He was on stage, using that voice of his to announce an act.

I drew back enough to be solidly on Nathaniel's arm. Sometimes when I tried mind-to-mind stuff, I had trouble walking. "Jean-Claude is on stage, so we'll go in the front."

"Whatever you say," he said.

Once, in our relationship, he'd meant that. He'd been my little submissive wereleopard. I'd worked long and hard to make him more, to force him to be more demanding. Try to do a good deed and it bites you on the ass.

The bouncer at the door was tall, blond, and way too cheerful for the job. Clay was one of Richard's werewolves, and when he wasn't bodyguarding someone, he worked security here. Clay's gift was avoiding fights. He was really good at calming things down. A much more useful ability for a bouncer than brute strength. Last week Clay had been helping guard my body. No pun intended. There'd been a metaphysical accident, and it had looked for a while like I'd be turning into a wereanimal for real, so I'd had different lycanthropes with me so that whatever I changed into, I was covered. But I had gotten some control over it all, and it looked like I still wasn't going to turn furry. Clay had been one of my watch-wolves. He was happy to be off the duty. I scared Clay. He was afraid the ardeur would make him my sexual slave. Okay, he didn't say that exactly. Maybe it was just me projecting my terrors on him. Maybe.

His smile slipped a little when he saw me, his face going all serious. He gave me a hard look as he said, "How's it going, Anita?" He wasn't just being polite; as afraid as he was of some of my metaphysical abilities, he'd been convinced it wasn't a good idea to take all my guards off duty. He thought it was too soon.

"I'm fine, Clay."

He peered at me, leaning that six-foot frame down to my five foot three. He studied me as the crowd behind us grew to four. His gaze went to Nathaniel. "Has she really been fine?"

"She's been fine."

Clay stood up straight and motioned us through. He looked positively suspicious as he did it, though.

"Honest," Nathaniel whispered as we went by, "not a twinge of anything furry."

Clay nodded and turned to the next group. He was the gatekeeper tonight. We entered the permanent dimness of the club. The noise was soft, murmurous, like the sea. The music picked up, and the crowd noise both was drowned out and got louder. The murmur of it was drowned out with the rise of the music, but the screams and yells of encouragement were louder.

The woman behind the coat area came out, smiling. "Crosses aren't allowed in the club."

I'd forgotten I was wearing one outside my clothes; usually I just tucked it out of sight and got to avoid the holy-item check girl.

I spilled the cross inside my sweater. "Sorry, forgot."

"I'm sorry, but just hiding it isn't enough. I'll give you a claim check just like for a coat."

Great, she was new and didn't know me. "Call Jean-Claude over, or Buzz; I get a pass on this one."

Nathaniel took off his hat and gave her a grin. Even in the dim light I could see her blush. "Brandon," she breathed, "I didn't recognize you."

"I'm in disguise," he said, and gave her that look that was part mischief, part flirting.

"Is she with you?"

I was holding on to his arm - of course we were together. But I stood there and was quiet. Nathaniel would handle it. Me yelling at her wouldn't help things. Honest.

Nathaniel leaned over and whispered, "Joan thinks you're a fan that just grabbed me at the door."

Oh. I gave her a real smile. "Sorry, I'm his girlfriend."

Nathaniel nodded to confirm it, as if women claimed to be his girlfriend all the time. It made me look at his smiling, peaceful face and wonder how many overzealous fans he had. How weird did it get?

Joan leaned in to us to whisper over the rising music. "Sorry, but Jean-Claude's orders are that just because you're dating a dancer, the holy item still doesn't get inside."

On one hand, it was good that she was good at her job. On the other hand, it was beginning to irritate me.

Two of the black-shirted security people came over to us. I think the hat and coat fooled them, too. They didn't act like they recognized either one of us. Lisandro was tall, dark, handsome, with shoulder-length hair tied back in a ponytail. He was a wererat, which meant somewhere on him was a gun. A quick glance didn't show it under the black T-shirt and jeans, so it was probably at the small of his back. The wererats were mostly ex-military, ex-police, or had never been on the "right" side of the law. They always went armed.

The other security guy was taller and way more muscled. The weight lifting meant he was probably a werehyena. Their leader had a thing for weight lifters.

"Anita," Lisandro said, "what's the holdup?"

"She wants my cross."

He looked at Joan. "She's Jean-Claude's human servant. She gets a pass."

The woman actually blushed and apologized. "I'm sorry. I didn't know, and you being with Brandon. I..."

I held up a hand. "It's okay, really, just let us get out of the doorway." There was a crowd behind us that went out the door. Clay was peeking inside, wondering what was happening.

Lisandro helped us ease through the room away from the door, but not quite to the tables, closer to the drink area. I would have said bar area, but they weren't allowed to serve liquor. Yet another of the interesting zoning laws about strip clubs on this side of the river.

The weight lifter stayed near the door to help sort the crowd with Joan.

I could finally see who was dancing to the music. Byron was near the end of his act because he was down to a very small G-string. It left the pale, muscled body very bare. His short brown hair curled haphazardly, as if some of his customers had mussed it. A woman was stuffing money down the front of the G-string. I felt him use a small slap of power to capture her just enough to keep her hand out of his pants. It skirted the edge of legal, but the vamps had found that a tiny bit of control could keep them from getting hurt on stage. I'd seen bloody nail marks, and even a few bite marks, on Nathaniel and Jason. It was a lot more dangerous to strip for women than for men, apparently. All the dancers agreed that men behaved themselves better.

Byron writhed around the eager circle of women who surrounded the front of the stage. He laughed and joked. They ran hands over his body and rained money down on his skin. I'd had sex with him once, to feed the ardeur. We'd both enjoyed it, but Byron and I both agreed that it wasn't our cup of tea. That each other wasn't our cup of tea. Besides, the weight lifting helped him pass for eighteen, but he'd died at fifteen. Yeah, he was several hundred years old, but his body wasn't. His body was still that of an athletic teenager. I was still disturbed by the fact that I'd had sex with him. Also, Byron preferred men to women. He'd do bisexual, if it came his way, but he was one of the few men who spent more time ogling my boyfriends than me. I found that disturbing, too.

Jean-Claude was standing near the back of the stage, lost in shadow, letting Byron have his limelight. Jean-Claude turned to look at me, his pale face lost in the darkness of his hair and clothes. He breathed through my mind, "Await me in my office, ma petite."

Lisandro leaned over and whisper-shouted over the music, "Jean-Claude said to take you through to the office."

"Just now?" I asked, puzzled, because to my knowledge no one but me should have heard it.

Lisandro gave me a puzzled look back, and shook his head. "No, after you called. He said to take you back to the office when you got here."

I nodded and let him lead us to the door. Nathaniel had kept his hat and coat on. He didn't want to be recognized, for several reasons. It was rude to distract the audience from Byron's show, and "Brandon" wasn't working tonight. Lisandro unlocked the door and ushered us through.

The door closed behind us, and it was blessedly quiet. The rear area wasn't soundproof, but it was sound-muffled. I hadn't realized how loud the music was until it stopped. Or maybe that was just how bad my nerves were tonight.

Lisandro led us down the hallway to the door on the left-hand side. Jean-Claude's office was its usual elegant black-and-white self. There was even an Oriental screen in one corner that hid an emergency coffin. Sort of a vampire's version of a rollaway. Only the couch against the wall and the carpet were new. Asher and I had ruined the old stuff with sex that got so out of hand, I'd ended up in the hospital.

Lisandro closed the door and leaned against it, on this side. "You staying?" I asked.

He nodded. "Jean-Claude's orders. He wants you to have bodyguards again."

"When did he order that?"

"Just a few minutes ago."

"Shit."

"Did your beast try to rise again?" he asked.

I shook my head.

Nathaniel had set the box on Jean-Claude's black lacquer desk. He took off the hat and coat and laid them on one of the two chairs in front of the desk. "I've got to get a lighter-weight hat if I'm going to keep using it for a disguise. The leather is just too warm." He wiped a thin bead of sweat off his forehead.

"If your beast didn't try to rise again, then why are you back to needing bodyguards?" Lisandro asked.

I opened my mouth, closed it. "I don't know how much Jean-Claude will want you to know. I'm not even sure how much anyone is allowed to know."

"About what?"

I shrugged. "I'll tell you if I can."

"If you're going to get me killed, can I at least know why?"

"I've never gotten you hurt before."

"No, but we've lost two of our rats guarding you, Anita. Let's just say that if my wife ends up a widow, I'd like to know why."

I glanced at his hand. "You don't wear a ring."

"Not at work, no."

"Why not?"

"You don't want people knowing you have people that you care about, Anita. It can give them ideas." His gaze flicked to Nathaniel, just for a moment, then back to me. But Nathaniel had seen it.

"Lisandro thinks I'm a victim. That you need stronger men in your life."

I went to sit beside Nathaniel on the new white couch. He put his arm across my shoulders, and I settled in against him. Yeah, we'd been fighting, but that wasn't Lisandro's business, and it certainly wasn't his business who I dated.

"You can date who you want, that's not my beef."

"What is your beef?" I asked, and let my words take on that slight hostile edge that was almost always just below the surface for me.

"You're a vampire now, right?"

My, my, news travels fast. "Not exactly," I said, out loud.

"I know you're not like a bloodsucker. You're still alive and everything, but you gained Jean-Claude's ability to feed off sex."

"Yeah," I said, still hostile.

"Human servants gain some of their master's abilities, that's normal. You should have gained the ability to help Jean-Claude feed his hungers, but your feeding on lust isn't an extra for his energy, it's a necessity for you. I heard what happened the night you tried to stop feeding it. You almost killed Damian, and Nathaniel, and yourself. Remus thinks you would have died if you hadn't fed the ardeur. If you hadn't fucked someone, he really thinks you might have died."

"Isn't it nice that he shared with everybody," I said.

"You can be all defensive about it if you want, but it's weird as hell. Rafael can't find anyone who's ever heard of a human servant gaining a hunger or thirst like this."

"And how weird my life has become is your business, why?"

"Because you're asking me and my people to risk our lives to keep you safe, that's why."

I gave him unfriendly face because I couldn't argue with his logic. I had gotten two of the wererats killed in the last couple of years. Killed guarding me. I guess he had a right to be pissy.

"It's your job," Nathaniel said. "If you don't like it, ask your king to change your job description."

"Rafael would take me off duty if I asked, you're right on that."

"Then ask," Nathaniel said.

Lisandro shook his head. "That's not my point."

"If you have a point, make it," I said, and let him hear the impatience in my voice.

"Fine, you're some sort of living vampire. A master vampire, because you gained a vampire servant in Damian, and an animal to call in Nathaniel."

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know, Lisandro."

"Jean-Claude chose you as his human servant. He chose one of the most powerful necromancers to come along in centuries. It was a good move to pick you. His animal to call is the head of the local werewolf pack. Richard may have his problems, but he's powerful. Again, a good choice. You both help Jean-Claude's power base. You both help him be stronger." He motioned at Nathaniel. "I like Nathaniel. He's a good kid, but he's not powerful. He gained more from you than you gained from him. The same with Damian. He's a vampire over a thousand years old, and he's never going to be a master anything."

"Have you reached your point?" I asked.

"Almost."

"You know, this is the most I've ever heard you talk at one time," I said.

"We all agreed that whoever had a chance to ask should talk to you."

"Who's we?"

"Me and some of the other guards."

"Fine, what's your point?"

"Did you have a choice about Nathaniel and Damian?" he asked.

"Do you mean, could I have chosen another wereleopard, another vampire?"

"Yes."

"No."

"Why no?" Lisandro asked.

"One, none of us had any idea that this could happen. Like you said, human servants don't gain powers like this. Two, I don't have the control over my metaphysics that Jean-Claude has. Most vamps who gain a human servant or animal to call don't do that until they've got a few decades, or centuries, under their belt. I got thrown into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. I grabbed who the power threw at me." I patted Nathaniel's leg. "I'm happy with the choices, but I didn't know I was choosing when it happened."

Nathaniel hugged me one-armed. "We were all surprised."

"But you have more control of it now," Lisandro said, "and you know what's happening."

"I've got more control, yes, but as to what's happening... pick a topic."

"Somehow you've got three or four different kinds of lycanthropy inside you. But you haven't shifted into any of them."

"Yeah, so?"

"But you're starting to be attracted to the different animals, the way you were to the wolves and the leopards. I'm just saying that if you pick a new animal, can't it be someone powerful, instead of weak? Why can't you choose someone who will help you power up, instead of hurting you?"

Nathaniel shifted beside me.

"Nathaniel doesn't hurt me," I said, but part of me was thinking about our fight earlier. There was room to get hurt, but not the kind of hurt that Lisandro meant.

"He doesn't help you either, not the way Richard helps Jean-Claude."

I could have argued that part. Richard was so conflicted about what he was, and what he wanted out of life, that he crippled the triumvirate among the three of us, but if Lisandro didn't realize how reluctant a partner Richard was, then I wasn't going to share it.

"What do you want from me, Lisandro?"

"Just, if we're going to put our bodies between you and a bullet, can we have some input into the next animal you pick?"

"No," I said.

"Just no?" he said.

"Yeah, just no. This is so not in your job description, Lisandro, not you, or Remus, or anyone. If you don't want to risk yourself, then don't. I don't want anyone guarding me who feels like it's a bad idea."

"I'm not saying this right."

"Then stop saying it," I said.

"Stop explaining and just say what you want Anita to do," Nathaniel said.

Lisandro frowned, then said, "I think Joseph was wrong when he forced you to send the werelion Haven back to Chicago. Joseph keeps trying to feed you his weak-assed pride of lions, and they aren't any better than Nathaniel. No offense, even Joseph's brother, Justin, isn't that much stronger."

It had taken me a moment to remember who Haven was, because I still thought of him as Cookie Monster. He'd had hair dyed that color of blue, and had sported several Sesame Street tattoos. Haven was also an enforcer for the Master Vampire of Chicago. Haven had helped me handle the lion part of my metaphysical problem, but he'd also picked fights with three of the local werelions, including Joseph, their Rex, their leader. Haven and Richard had had a fight. Richard had kicked his ass, proving that Richard could be damned useful when he wanted to be. But also proving that Haven was way too much trouble to keep around.

"You guys all explained to me how lion society works. If someone that tough, and that powerful, had moved into town, they would have felt compelled to take over the local werelions. The first thing most takeovers do is slaughter most of the pride."

"I think you could control him."

"You saw him, Lisandro, please. He's a thug, a professional thug, with a prison record."

Lisandro nodded. "I've got a record, too, juvie, but some bad stuff on it. My wife straightened me out. I think you could do the same for him."

"What, a good woman is all a bad boy needs to straighten his life out?"

"If the woman has something that the man wants bad enough, yeah."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means I saw the way he looked at you. I smelled what effect the two of you had on each other. The only reason you didn't have sex was that your head overruled the rest of you."

"You know, Lisandro, I liked you better when you didn't talk this much."

"I've seen Haven's record. He doesn't have anything on his sheet that I ain't got on mine."

That made me give him the long blink. Because I hadn't known that about him. "That would make you a very dangerous man," I said, my voice low and even.

"You've killed more people than I have."

"This conversation is over, Lisandro."

"If not Haven, then can Rafael put out feelers for some better lion candidates? Joseph is so scared that some big bad lion will come and eat his weak-assed pride that he won't ever bring anyone to town who will do the job for you."

I started to say no, but Nathaniel squeezed my arm. "Rafael is a good leader."

"He can't interview for new lions. He can bring in new rats, but it's not his place to bring in new lions," I said.

"Lisandro is right on one thing, Anita. Joseph is scared. Everyone he's thrown at you in the last few weeks has been wimpy - not just weak in power, but innocent. Your life doesn't have room for innocents."

I stared into those lavender eyes and didn't like what I saw. I was seven years older, but he'd seen as much violence as I had, or more. He'd seen what our fellow human beings could do, up close and personal. I'd solved crimes of violence, but mostly I hadn't been the victim. He'd been on the streets alone before he hit ten. Nathaniel was weak in some ways that Lisandro counted, but he was stronger than me in ways that most people wouldn't understand. He'd survived things that would have destroyed most people.

He let me see in his face what he usually hid, that I was the innocent. That no matter how many people I killed in the line of duty, I'd never really know what he knew.

"Do you think I was wrong to make Haven go back to Chicago?"

"No, he scared me, but you need a werelion, and they need to know the score."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Two of the lions he sent you were virgins," Nathaniel said. "You're a succubus, Anita. You don't give virgins over to something like that."

"You have to have had bad sex to appreciate really good sex," Lisandro said.

Nathaniel nodded. "That, too, but what I meant was that we haven't met a lion yet who we didn't all think was weak." He looked at the tall guard by the door. "Some of them were tough in a normal-world sort of way, but we all live in a world where guns, and sex, and violence of all kinds can happen and do. We need someone who doesn't make us all feel like we're corrupting children."

We both looked at Nathaniel.

"What?" he said.

"Is that how you really felt about all of them, even Justin?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Justin's idea of violence is the kind that has referees, and limits. The fact that he's Joseph's enforcer is scary for them."

"Joseph's better in a fight," Lisandro said.

"But neither of them is as good as Richard, or Rafael."

"Or your Micah?" Lisandro asked.

"I think Micah would do anything it took to keep his people safe."

"I heard that about him," Lisandro said.

Since we were talking about one of my other live-in sweeties, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Micah and I were both very practical people. Sometimes practical and ruthless were just different words for the same thing.

"You're both saying that you don't think Joseph would do whatever it took."

"The only thing that's kept his pride safe is the fact that there just aren't a lot of werelions in this country. Cat-based lycanthropy is usually harder to catch than other kinds," Lisandro said.

"Reptile-based is harder to catch," Nathaniel said.

Lisandro nodded. "True, but there aren't a lot of lions in this country. The closest is Chicago."

"They won't be trying a takeover. Jean-Claude and I made sure of that," I said.

"But don't you see, Anita, you and Jean-Claude made sure of it, not Joseph. That makes his threat weak," Lisandro said.

"Nobody from Chicago will mess with them now," I said.

"Yeah, but if Chicago noticed they're this weak, then so will someone else."

"I didn't know we had any big prides other than these two."

"One on the West Coast, one on the East," Lisandro said.

"Is that where Joseph got his last candidate?" I asked.

"East Coast pride, yeah. But you turned him down, just like all the others."

"I can't give your leader permission to shop for lions, Lisandro. It's against the rules to interfere that much over cross-species lines."

"Not for you," Lisandro said. "Remember, Joseph asked you not to keep Haven. The moment he asked you to protect him and his pride, he asked you to interfere. You're the leopards' Nimir-Ra, and the wolves' lupa; you were nothing to the lions. Once he asked for your help, he gave you permission to mess with his lions."

"I don't think Joseph saw it that way," I said.

Lisandro shrugged. "Doesn't matter how he saw it, it's still the truth."

I don't know what I would have said to that, because there was a knock on the door. Lisandro went all bodyguardy on us. His hand went behind his back, and I knew for sure the gun was there. "Who is it?"

"Requiem. Jean-Claude requested my presence."

Lisandro glanced at me. I realized he was asking my permission. I liked him better for that. I didn't really want to see Requiem tonight. I was still embarrassed that I'd added him to my list of food. But he'd been in England, so he'd seen the Harlequin in person, and recently. He'd be helpful. Or that's what I told myself as I nodded for Lisandro to let him in.


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