Chapter Seventeen

I DID A quick cleanup, and then realized I had no clothes in the bathroom. My robe was lying in a heap beside the bed. Great. I wrapped the towel more securely around my hair, then wrapped one of the bigger towels around my body. One of the good things about being short was that the towel covered me from armpits to ankles. The funny thing was that almost no matter who was in the other room, they'd probably seen me nude at least once. I should have just walked out and gotten my clothes out of the armoire and ignored everybody. But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. I wasn't that comfortable around my own nudity. There were days when I was pretty sure I'd never be that comfortable.

Worse yet, my gun was outside in the bedroom. My clothes I could live without, but that I'd left my gun in the other room said just how much Richard affected me. He made me forget myself, even the parts of me that almost no one else could drive from my mind. For some reason I just couldn't go out there unarmed, I don't know why. I just couldn't do it. I was still aching all the way up to almost my belly button. The cramping had mostly stopped, but I was feeling stupid and vulnerable. I wanted a gun. It would make me feel better. There, that was the truth. I'd started hiding guns in the places where I spent a lot of time. They were for emergencies. This wasn't an emergency, but... hell with it, it was my gun. If I felt the need, screw it.

I knelt down by the sink and opened the cabinet doors. I had to reach back and up into the plumbing to find it, but there was my Firestar duct-taped among the pipes. There'd been a couple of times when I'd been separated from my carry guns and needed a gun. So I'd given into my paranoia and hidden a few around. The Firestar wasn't my main backup gun anymore, so it lived here as the ultimate hideaway. I brought the gun out into the light and laughed. There was writing on the tape. It read, "Anita's gun," in Nathaniel's handwriting. He'd been with me the day I did it. Apparently he'd added his own little touch when I wasn't looking. He'd handed me the pieces of tape. Had he written on it then, and I just hadn't noticed, or had he come back later? I'd ask him.

It left me smiling and shaking my head as I took the tape off the gun. I'd have put it in my pocket, if I'd had one. The gun was very visible against the white towel. I tried the grip in my hand, squeezed it a little. A tightness in the center of my body eased. What does it say about your life when a gun makes you feel this much safer?

I checked to make sure the gun was still loaded, because any time a gun has been out of your sight, you damn well better check. Never trust anyone else that a gun is either loaded or unloaded; check it yourself. Gun safety 101.

Towel tucked tight under my arms, and gun in hand, I opened the door. I thought for a moment the bedroom was empty, but then Clay and Graham stood up near the fireplace. They'd been sitting in the room's only chairs.

"Clay, shouldn't you be in bed somewhere? You just got off work at Guilty Pleasures." I looked at the bed and found it stripped down to the slightly singed mattress. My gun had been there somewhere.

As if he read my mind, Clay said, "Your gun is in the bedside table."

I didn't check to make sure he was telling the truth. One, I trusted Clay; two, I had a gun in one hand and the other hand helped hold the towel in place. I was armed and out of hands. "Thanks, but why aren't you in bed?"

"After they found the bugs in all the businesses, Jean-Claude asked us to do double shifts." He ran his hand through his short blond curls. Early twenties looked better on no sleep, but he still looked tired.

"Don't I even get a hello?" Graham asked. I looked at him and couldn't fight a frown. He was about the same size as Clay: six feet tall, but his shoulders were much broader. Graham was muscled in a way that only serious weight lifting would give you. His black hair was so long on top that his dark eyes peered out from the hair. The bottom of his hair was freshly shaved, very short, so that it looked like two different haircuts put together. He wasn't wearing the black T-shirt that was standard bodyguard wear. He was wearing red. The red shirt was a new addition to the bodyguard uniform. Most of them were still in black, some with the appropriate club name and "Security" written on them, or just plain black. Red meant the guard was okay with being emergency food for the ardeur. It had been Remus's idea originally. He'd come up with it after I'd nearly killed Damian, Nathaniel, and myself from not feeding the ardeur enough. I thought the red shirt idea was a joke until the first guard showed up wearing one.

Strangely, since the red shirt policy went into effect, I'd gained a much better control over the ardeur. Let's hear it for fear, embarrassment, and sheer stubbornness. Graham had been trying to get into my pants for months, so no big surprise that he volunteered. What creeped me out was some of the other guards who'd done it. Men I hadn't known thought of me in a sexual way. I mean, it's one thing to suspect a man lusts after you, but absolute confirmation, well, that made me uncomfortable.

"Hey, Graham, nice shirt," I said, and I was happy that it sounded hostile.

"Why are you mad at me? It's not my rule. Be mad at Remus, or Claudia, or Jean-Claude. It's their rule that you are not to be alone in a room unless accompanied by a man willing to feed the ardeur."

"Since when?" I asked.

"Since this mysterious bad guy came to town. No one's giving details, but apparently the people who give us orders are worried that the bad guys will use magic to make the ardeur go out of control. So you have to have food at all times." He didn't sound happy about it. Maybe my being pissy was finally rubbing off on Graham. Good.

"We're short of red shirts today, Anita," Clay said.

"Why?"

"Because the guard is doubled around all of Jean-Claude's businesses. He's having to renegotiate with Rafael and Narcissus for more people."

"I guess we pay more money, we get more men," I said.

The two men exchanged a look. "Maybe," Clay said.

I was getting cold standing there in nothing but a towel, so I went to the armoire for clothes. "What else could they be negotiating for except money?" I said. I stared at the double door of the armoire, because the towel was slipping, and I had a gun in the other hand. I'd never been good at getting a towel to stay fastened. It wasn't like both of the men hadn't seen me naked. But... damn it.

"Power," Clay said. "Everyone wants a closer tie to Jean-Claude now that he's his own vampire bloodline. And Narcissus is seriously freaked that Asher's new animal to call is hyena."

"Freaked how?" I asked. I tucked the arm with the gun tight on the towel and tugged on the door of the armoire. It stuck.

"We're wolves, not hyenas, so this is all secondhand," Clay said. "Narcissus wants guarantees that Asher won't try to run his clan."

I finally got the door opened; yea for me. "Asher isn't powerful enough to do that."

"Maybe," Clay said, "but Narcissus is worried about it. He wants to negotiate now before it's an issue."

I had black jeans in hand, but I really needed the second hand to get the other clothes.

"Oh, for God's sake," Graham said. He stalked toward me. He was angry enough that as he got closer I got little bits of it, like embers from a fire hitting my skin. He grabbed the edge of the jeans in my hand. I held on. We glared at each other. "I'll just hold the clothes for you, Anita. That's it, okay?"

It was a reasonable idea. It was helpful. So why didn't I want to do it? Because Graham seriously bugged me. His persistent pursuit of sex with me, with no pretense of emotion, let alone love, really hit my buttons wrong. Of course, if he'd lied about me being the love of his life, that would have pissed me off more. God. I let go of the jeans. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and said, "Thank you."

Graham blinked down at me as if I'd never said thank you to him before. Maybe I hadn't. Shame on me then. He put his life on the line to keep me safe. So he was a lech; at least he was an honest lech.

I looked up at him. This close I could see the slight uptilt of his brown eyes. His mother was Japanese, which got him the hair and eyes. The rest of him looked like his blond and blue-eyed father had cloned himself. Meeting his parents by accident one night hadn't made me like him better. In fact it had made it worse. His parents seemed like good people. Would they be ashamed to know how much of a horndog their only child was? It seemed likely.

I shook my head and turned back to the armoire. I'd concentrate on getting dressed. That would help me feel better. I always felt better with clothes on. Grandma Blake's influence. There was a woman who thought naked meant bad.

I was getting low on shirts here. My choices were black or red. Black made me look like one of the bodyguards, and red, well, red looked like all the red shirts were my people, like a special Anita Blake uniform. I picked up one of the black shirts, put it back, picked up a red shirt, put it back.

"Anita, just pick a shirt," Graham said.

"I hadn't realized until this moment that my normal off-duty clothes are the same as the uniform for you guys."

"Why is that a problem?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said, and that was the truth.

"Then pick red. I promise that just because we're dressed like we match, it's not a date, okay?" He finally sounded angry.

I sighed. "I'm sorry that it bugs me that the red shirts mean that people want to fuck me. It does bug me. It really does."

"The color of my shirt didn't change anything about how I interact with you," Graham said. "I've been honest from the beginning about what I'd like to do."

I nodded. "You know, Graham, I was just thinking that. You've been honest. I say I like honest, but I guess I don't like honest past a certain point." I grabbed the red shirt. I needed to grow up about this issue and buy some different-colored clothes. I added jogging socks and black jogging shoes to the pile in Graham's arms. I did the mental list and finally realized I didn't have any underwear in the pile. I opened the bottom drawer in the armoire. Strangely, there was plenty of lingerie. Jean-Claude had gotten me to the point where I didn't own any simple underwear. Everything had lace, or fishnet, or something on it. I had learned to buy two to three pairs of the panties to one matching bra. You could wear bras longer than underwear.

I finally stood up with bra and panties in hand. I started to put them on the pile, but caught Graham's look. I'd picked a red bra to go under the red shirt. It was one of the thinner red baby-doll tees, so I'd picked something that wouldn't show through. The bra and panties were both red satin. The bra was a push-up bra because it got my breasts up and out of the way of my shoulder holster, or rather out of the way of drawing the gun. A moment ago I hadn't thought a thing about it. I'd picked what worked under the shirt. Now, I was suddenly very aware that the underwear was nice underwear.

I met Graham's eyes, and there was such heat in them. It was written all over his face that he wanted to see me in the bra and panties. Bare on his face, in his eyes, that he'd give a great deal to see me in the lingerie, and do something about it.

Heat washed up my face. I blushed embarrassingly easily sometimes. This was one of those times. If he'd been one of my boyfriends, I'd have reacted to that look, that demand. We could have gone into the bathroom and let that heat wash over both of us, maybe. But he wasn't my boyfriend, and his wanting to fuck me wasn't enough reason for me to fuck him. When I'd had the pregnancy scare last month, the fact that I hadn't had sex with Graham, that he wasn't on the maybe-daddy list, had filled me with such relief that I knew he wasn't going to be one of my sweeties. The pregnancy scare had put a lot of things in perspective. I was now back to looking at men thinking, if I got pregnant by accident, how big a disaster would it be? Maybe a few months from now I wouldn't be so freaked, and that wouldn't be a question that I thought of so strongly. Then again, maybe it still would be. I had had a false positive on a pregnancy test. It had scared the hell out of me.

I looked up into his face. He was handsome. There was nothing wrong with him, exactly, but I still remembered how happy I was that he wasn't on the list of men who might have made me pregnant. If you get knocked up, it should be by someone who's at least a good friend, and Graham wasn't even that. He was my bodyguard, and he'd been emergency food, but he wasn't my friend. He wanted to fuck me too badly to be my friend. Any man who would rather have sex with you than anything else is never going to be your friend. Friends want what's best for you more than they want sex. Graham's priorities were there on his face, in his eyes, in the tension of his body as he held my clothes.

"You're blushing," he said, and his voice sounded hoarse.

I nodded and looked down, away from that look. Maybe the blushing would stop if I wasn't meeting his eyes.

He touched my face, the barest tips of his fingers on my chin. "After everything I've seen you do with all the other men, you're blushing because I'm looking too hard at you." His voice was softer now.

"You think I can't be embarrassed, because I'm a whore."

"Not true." He tried to turn my face up to his. I stepped back from him so he couldn't touch my face.

"Isn't it?" I asked, and this time the face I gave him held the beginnings of anger.

"I see you with the other men and I want you - why is that wrong? I've watched you have sex with multiple men while I'm in the room. What am I supposed to think?"

"Oh, Graham." This from Clay. He'd stayed on the far side of the room, out of it, but those two words let me know that Clay got it. Clay understood the mistake that Graham had just made.

"I can fix that, Graham."

"Fix what?"

"Fix it so you're not conflicted anymore about me."

"What are you talking about?" The fact that he hadn't realized where I was going was also a point against him. He wasn't a quick thinker.

"You're off my detail."

He clutched the clothes to his oh-so-broad chest. "What do you mean?"

"I can't guarantee that the ardeur won't get out of hand and I'll lose control enough to fuck in front of my guards again. Since it bothers you so much, Graham, I can fix it so you never have to watch again."

"I don't..." The first hint of unhappiness came over him. He finally saw where we were going.

"You are off my detail. Put my clothes in the bathroom on the edge of the sink and go find Remus or Claudia. Tell them that you need to be replaced. I'm sure that there are places you can guard that will be far enough away from me."

"Anita, I didn't mean it the way..."

"The way it sounded," I finished for him. "Yeah, you did."

"Please, Anita, please, I..."

"Put the clothes in the bathroom and go tell someone that you need to be replaced. Do it now."

He looked behind him at Clay. Clay put his hands up in a push-away gesture, as if to say, Don't look at me.

"This isn't fair," Graham said.

"What are you, five? Fair, fuck fair. You just said out loud that watching me fuck other men makes you want to fuck me. I can fix that. You don't have to watch anymore."

"Do you really think any man who's watched you fuck someone didn't want to be that man? All of us think the same thing. I'm just honest about it."

I looked across the room at Clay. "That true, Clay?"

"Oh, please, do not drag me into this."

I gave him a hard look.

He sighed. "No, actually, that's not how all of us feel. For myself, I'm scared shitless of your idea of sex. The ardeur scares me."

"How can you say that?" Graham asked. He turned toward the other man with my clothes still clutched in his big arms.

"Because it's the truth, Graham, and if you would think with something higher than your belt buckle you'd be scared, too."

"Scared of what?" Graham said. "It's the most mind-blowing sex that any vampire line can give a mortal. I've had more of a taste of it than you have. Trust me, Clay, if she'd ever fed off you, even a little, you'd want more."

"That's exactly what scares me," Clay said.

I had a thought, a bad one. I had fed on Graham in small ways when the ardeur was new. I'd given him the smallest taste of it that I could. We had never been naked together. We had never touched each other in any area that was considered sexual. But just because I thought it hadn't been enough contact to addict him to the ardeur didn't mean I was right. The ardeur could act like a drug, and I'd learned through some of the vampires that how easily addicted to it you were varied from person to person. Had I addicted Graham to the ardeur without meaning to? Was his reaction to me my fault? Shit.

Graham turned back to me with my clothes crushed against his chest. He looked panic stricken. "Please, Anita, please, don't do this. I'm sorry, okay, I'm sorry." His eyes glittered through the fringe of his hair. I think he was on the verge of tears. I was reminded that he was under twenty-five by a few years. He was so physically big that sometimes you forgot how young he was. We were only about four or five years apart, but his eyes showed that he was younger than I had been at the same age. I wanted to touch his arm, comfort him, apologize to him. Tell him I hadn't meant this to happen. But I was afraid to touch him. I was afraid I'd make things worse somehow.

"Graham," and my voice sounded gentle, a voice for soothing frightened children and ledge jumpers, "I need you to find Remus or Claudia and bring them to me, okay? I need to talk to them about some of the things that happened last night. Can you do that for me? Can you find one of them and bring them to me?"

He swallowed hard enough that it sounded painful. "You won't kick me off your detail?"

"No," I said.

He nodded too fast, too often, over and over. He actually started for the door with my clothes still in his hands. It was Clay who took the clothes from him. When the door closed behind him, Clay turned to me. We stared at each other.

"He's addicted, isn't he?" Clay asked.

I nodded. "I think so."

"You didn't know either?"

I shook my head.

"You look pale," he said.

"You, too," I said.

"You haven't fed that much from him, right? I mean, you didn't even get naked together, right?"

"No, we didn't."

"I thought it took more than that to addict someone to it."

"So did I," I said.

Clay seemed to shake himself, like a dog coming out of water. "I'll put your clothes in the bathroom for you. I'll call Claudia and tell her we need a new red shirt."

"I think once she sees Graham she'll figure it out."

"He hid it pretty well, Anita. I think by the time he finds them, he'll have his shit together. It may not show."

I nodded. "You're right."

"I mean, he has a radio on him, too. He didn't think to use it."

"The radios are new," I said.

"The wererats have been handing the radio setups to some of the guards. When they found all the high-tech listening devices, I think they decided that we needed to go higher-tech ourselves."

"Sounds reasonable," I said. I felt Jean-Claude wake. Felt it like a hand caressing my body. It caught my breath in my throat.

"What's wrong?" Clay asked.

"Jean-Claude's awake."

"Good."

I nodded. Good was right. I let Jean-Claude feel how much I wanted him to be with me. I wanted him to hold me and tell me it was all going to be all right. In that moment, I wanted him to comfort me, even if it was all lies. Graham's face had been all the truth I wanted for a little while.

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