30

I wanted a long, hot shower. I settled for a brief, hot shower. I'd called Dolph back first to let him know I wasn't dead. But all I managed to do was leave a message. I was hoping to give him the name Franklin Niley and see if there was any criminal connection. Dolph didn't usually share police info with me unless we were involved in a case together, but I was hoping he'd make an exception. Dirty cops are one of Dolph's least favorite things. He might help just to spite Wilkes.

I put on white jogging socks, blue jeans, and a royal blue tank top. I'd put a short-sleeved dress shirt over the tank top to camouflage the Browning. The holster would chafe a little around the edges, but when it comes to summer wear for concealed carry, the options are not limitless. I'd have worn shorts if I hadn't planned on tramping through the woods after trolls and biologists. I was trading being cooler for protection from the underbrush.

I smeared hair goop through my curls while they were still damp, combed it, and the hair was done. Since I didn't bother with makeup, it was a quick shower. I stared into the oval of mirror that I'd cleaned off with the towel. The rest was still lost to steam. The bruises from the original beating were gone, swallowed into my skin as if they'd never been. But my mouth was slightly puffy on one side, and a spot of red sat on my skin near my mouth like a wound. At this rate, I could have a beating a day and be healed in time for the next one.

There were voices on the other side of the door. One of the voices was Richard. The other voice had a low bass rumble to it that sounded like Verne. Good; I needed to talk to him. There were more voices. I heard Nathaniel's voice, high and clear: "I didn't know what else to do."

The gang was all here. I wondered what the topic of conversation was. I had a few ideas.

I put the Browning down the front of the jeans. As long as I didn't sit down, I was okay. The barrel was too long for comfortable sitting. I opened the door, and the conversation stopped like I'd pulled a switch. Guess I was the topic of conversation.

Nathaniel was standing the closest to me. He was wearing silky jogging shorts and a matching tank top. His long hair was in a thick braid down his back. He looked like an ad for an upscale gym. "I was on guard, Anita, but they're cops. I didn't know what to do." He looked away, turned away, and I had to catch his arm to turn him back to me.

He turned those big lilac eyes to me.

"Next time, just yell a warning. That's all you could have done differently."

"I suck as a bodyguard," he said.

This was sort of true, but I didn't want to say it to his face. There really wasn't much he could have done.

I looked across the room at Shang-Da. He was sitting with his back to the wall, balanced effortlessly on the balls of his feet. He was dressed in black slacks and a white, short-sleeved shirt. The claw marks on his face had turned to angry red welts. What should have been scars that he would carry for the rest of his life would be healed in a couple of days.

"If you'd been on duty, Shang-Da, what would you have done differently?" I kept hold of Nathaniel's arm while I asked it.

"They would not have gotten past me without your permission."

"Would you have fought them if they tried to handcuff you?"

He seemed to think about that for a second or two, then looked up at me. "I don't like being handcuffed."

I pulled Nathaniel into a half-hug. "See, Nathaniel, there are bodyguards who would have given them an excuse to start shooting. Don't worry about it." But secretly, I planned on Nathaniel never doing guard duty alone again. I also planned on the same for Shang-Da. For very different reasons, I didn't trust either of them alone.

Verne sat in the big chair by the window. Except for the T-shirt being different, he was dressed as I'd first seen him. Maybe that was all he had. Jeans and an endless supply of different T-shirts. He'd tied his long, greying hair in a loose ponytail.

Richard had put on a pair of jeans and blow-dried his hair, but that was it. He'd go an entire day wearing nothing but jeans or shorts, slipping on shoes only if he had to go outside. The shirt only appeared when he was going out. Richard is comfortable with his body. Of course, when you've got a body like his, why wouldn't you be?

"Are you okay?" Verne asked.

I shrugged. "I'll live. Speaking of living, how is ol' Terry? Did the hospital get his arm reattached?"

Richard reached his hand out to me. I hesitated, then took his hand. I let him draw me to my knees beside him. I took the Browning out from my jeans so I could sit between his legs. He folded me back against his bare chest, jean-clad knees on either side of me. His arms were warm and very solid. I leaned my head back against his chest. I kept eye contact with Verne the entire time.

It didn't hurt that I had the Browning naked in my hand.

Richard kissed my damp hair. He was trying to remind me to be a good girl. To not start another fight. He was right, in a way. We certainly had enough fights on our plate without starting another one.

"Answer me, Verne," I said.

"Most of my pack passes for human, Anita. Do you really think some shithead would have kept his mouth shut?" He leaned forward in the chair, hands clasped together. Mr. Sincere.

"He was our only link to the other bad guys, Verne. The only one that was willing to talk to us."

Richard's arms wrapped just a little tighter around my arms. I realized that if he squeezed, I wouldn't be able to point the gun. "I'm not going to shoot him, Richard. Chill, okay?"

"Couldn't I just be hugging you?" he asked, voice so close to my ear I could feel his breath.

"No," I said.

His arms slid to either side, loosely around my waist, which put his hands almost in my lap, since I had my knees up. Under other circumstances, it would have been an interesting position, but when I have a point to make, I don't distract.

"The pack is my priority, Anita. It has to be."

"I would never do anything to endanger your pack, Verne. But I gave my word that if he told us what he knew, we'd take him to the hospital and let them try to reattach his arm. I gave my word, Verne."

"You take your word that seriously," he said.

"Yes."

"I respect that," he said.

"You killed him, didn't you?" I asked.

"Not personally, but I gave the order."

Richard's arms tightened around me. I felt him struggling to relax against me. He rubbed his chin against my wet hair, hands rubbing up and down my bare arms like you'd soothe a dog that you were afraid was going to bite someone.

"And I gave my word," I said.

"What can I do to make this right between us?" Verne asked.

I wanted to say, "Nothing," but Richard was right. We needed them. Or we needed someone, and they were all we had. What could he do to make this right? Raising the dead was my department, and bringing him back as a zombie wouldn't be the same thing, anyway.

"Truthfully, Verne, I don't know. But I'll think of something."

"You mean, I'll owe you a favor," he said.

"A man's dead, Verne. It would have to be one hell of a favor."

He looked at me for a long, measuring moment, then nodded. "I guess so."

"Okay," I said, "okay. We'll leave it there for now, Verne, but when I come up with something to ask for or of you, disappointing me again would not be a good idea."

He gave a quick smile. "I don't know if I'm looking forward to you and Roxanne meeting or dreading it."

"Who's Roxanne?" I asked.

"His lupa," Richard said.

Verne stood. "Richard said you and Roxanne would like each other if you didn't kill each other first. I know what he meant now." He walked over to us. He held his hand down, as if offering to help me off the floor. But call it a hunch, I thought it was more than that.

Richard's arms opened, and I took Verne's hand. He didn't so much pull me to my feet as just hold my hand while I stood. The other hand still held the Browning.

"If you ask for something that harms my pack, I can't promise that. But short of that, you have my word. Ask it of me, and it's yours." He grinned suddenly, then looked past me to Richard. "God, she is a tiny thing."

Richard, wisely, did not comment.

Verne knelt in front of me. "To seal my word, I'm going to offer you my neck. You understand the symbolism?"

I nodded. "If I were a wolf, I could tear your throat out. It's an act of trust."

He nodded and bent his head to one side so the big vein in his neck was just below the surface stretched tight under the skin of his throat. He kept hold of my hand the entire time.

I glanced back at Richard. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Kiss the big pulse in his neck, or bite gently over it. The harder you bite the less you trust the person, or the more dominant you see yourself to them."

I stared down at Verne. He was being very good. No trickle of power escaped him, and I was holding his hand, skin to skin. I'd felt how powerful he was; he could have made my skin crawl if he'd wanted to.

I squeezed his hand and moved to stand behind him. I tossed the Browning on the bed. I ran my hand along his neck, finding the big pulse with my fingertips.

I looked at Richard. You could almost see the "no" on his face -┬ĘC the near-warning not to do what I was thinking of. Which in a way made it all the more tempting.

Verne drew me down towards him, pulling my hand across his chest like I was hugging him. It brought my mouth down to his neck, as if he'd done this before.

He smelled warm, as if he'd been out in the sun. The scent of trees and the ground itself clung to his skin. I ran my nose just above his skin. I could smell the blood. It was as if the skin on his neck was growing thinner and thinner, until there was nothing between the smell of sweet blood but a pliable warmth, as if the skin itself almost didn't exist.

My mouth hovered over that pulsing warmth. I was drowning in the smell of his body. The need to place my mouth over that pulsing, living thing was almost overwhelming. I didn't trust myself to do it, or rather, didn't trust myself not to do too much. Did Richard go through life tasting other people's blood? Could he feel their life like something fragile and touchable?

Maybe I hesitated too long. Maybe Verne felt the power that was trying to overwhelm me. His power broke over my body in a shivering rush that made me gasp. And it was too much. Too tempting a drink to offer a starving man.

My teeth closed over that evaporating warmth. The meat of his neck filled my mouth. My tongue found his pulse, and I bit down, trying to carve that jumping, beating thing out of the flesh.

His power roared over me, and something inside of me poured back like two tidal waves crashing, churning, destroying. Far below, there was a land and a beach, and it was all washed away in the pounding, drowning depths.

I felt eyes open, and they weren't my eyes. Jean-Claude opened his eyes all those miles away, surprised from a sleep that should have lasted hours yet. Shocked awake by his hunger, my hunger, our hunger, being fed.

Hands dragged me off of that pulsing warmth. Hands prying me away. I came to myself with Richard pulling me into the air, completely helpless. Verne still had my hand. He was holding on, trying to drag me back. His neck was bleeding. A near perfect imprint of my teeth sat in his flesh. His hand fell away as Richard pulled me off of him.

Verne's eyes looked heavy-lidded. He drew in a large, shaking breath and laughed. The low chuckle made my body react. "God, Jesus, girl, what the hell was that?"

I didn't fight to get back to him. I didn't fight to finish it. I lay passive in Richard's arms, blinking in a spill of morning light, staring at what I'd done to Verne's neck and not understanding.

When I could talk, I asked, "What the hell was that?"

Richard cradled me in his arms like I was a child. Since I wasn't sure I could stand, I wasn't bitching about it. I felt distant and light and horrible.

He hugged me against him, kissing my forehead. "Us being together has strengthened the marks. Jean-Claude thought it might."

I stared up at Richard. I was still having trouble focusing. "Are you saying that us having sex strengthened his hold on both of us?"

Richard seemed to think about that for a second or two. "It strengthened our hold on each other."

"Put me down."

He did what I asked. I slid to my knees, unable to stand, and pushed his hands away when he tried to help. "You knew and you didn't tell me."

"Would it have made a difference last night?" he asked.

I stared up at him, tears threatening, and I wanted to say yes, but I didn't lie. "No," I said, "no." Last night it would have taken a hell of a lot more than the knowledge that the marks would strengthen to keep me out of Richard's bed. Of course, last night I hadn't understood what it meant. Last night I hadn't just tried to eat my way through a man's throat.

I got to my feet and fell a second time. It wasn't lack of energy. It was almost like being drunk. But it wasn't a downer. It was defiantly an upper. "What is wrong with me?"

Shang-Da answered, "I've seen vampires do this. If they drink someone powerful or drink too much ... power."

"Shit."

"I'm feeling pretty damn good, myself," Verne said. He touched the bite on his neck. "I've never let a vampire do me before. If it feels that good, maybe I've been missing out."

"Better," Nathaniel said. "It can feel much better than that."

"It wasn't vampire," Richard said, "it was power. Verne's power, mine, Anita's, and Jean-Claude's."

"Sort of a preternatural suicide cocktail," I said and giggled. I lay on the floor, hiding my face behind my hands and fighting an urge to roll in the afterglow. I wanted to take the feeling and wrap it around my body like a blanket. And down the long, glowing warmth, I felt a darkness. I felt Jean-Claude like a black hole sucking in all our warmth, all our life. And in that moment, I knew two things. One, that he'd known when Richard and I made love. That he'd felt it. Two, that as he ate from our lives, we ate of his darkness. We drank that still, cold death as surely as he tasted the sun-warmed flesh and pulse of our bodies. And we all drew power from it. The light and the dark. The cold and the hot. Life and death. As the marks drew us closer, the lines between life and death would blur. I felt Jean-Claude's heart beat earlier than it had ever beat in over four hundred years. I felt his gladness, his joy in it. At that moment, I hated him.

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