A WOMAN APPEARED in the corridor just ahead of the admin. The woman wore a soft pink suit and had short blond hair. She was about our height. She turned toward us, and the moment I saw her face I knew she had to be Jasons mom. The same eyes and hair; the face was different, thinner; a little more pointed chin, but the eyes were like looking into Jasons eyes. But just like the painting downstairs had filled those eyes with disapproval, her eyes were filled with worry.

She saw Jason, and her face lightened for a moment. Her eyes flicked to me, there was a moment of doubt in her face, and then she came toward us smiling, arms out, but her eyes never quite lost the thought, the clear thought, Is this a good idea? I hoped his mother never played poker, because she would have sucked at it.

He let go of my hand long enough to hug her. She wrapped her arms around him, her hand patting the back of his hair as she broke away from him. She tugged at his suit, putting it back in place as if shed mussed him.

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You look good, she said.

Jason nodded, and reached back for me. I came to his hand. This is Anita Blake. Anita, this is my mom, Iris.

I shook Iris Schuylers hand. It was about the same size as mine. Her handshake was a bare touch, then away, as if she didnt shake hands much.

Im being silly, she said, and she hugged me. I fought not to be stiff in the embrace. I dont like being touched by strangers. I also wondered if shed find the gun, but luckily she hugged like she shook hands: barely. It was a nice awkward hug on both sides. I did my best, and found the suit loose on her frame, as if shed lost a lot of weight recently.

Its nice to meet you, Mrs. Schuyler, I said, as I got to go back to Jason. Unlike his mom, I could lie with the best of them.

Iris, please, call me Iris.

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Then you have to call me Anita, I said.

Anita, she said, and she touched me again, on the arm.

I managed to keep my smile, but it was a little strained. God, was his family one of those touchy families? Richards family was like that. Id made peace with the fact that Richards mother would hug me, and touch me, but I never liked it. The men behaved better because of the whole sexual taboo thing. But Richards mother and his sister were both touchers. Eeeh.

Jason put his arm around my waist and drew me tight in against him. Either hed picked up my discomfort or his own had gotten worse. Either way, I was okay with it. Jason had permission to touch me.

Jasons mother took his free hand and led us toward the room shed come out of. I didnt like her leading him by the hand like a child. But I let it go; one, I wasnt really his girlfriend-girlfriend, and two, her husband was dying, so maybe shed earned the right to hold her sons hand.

A woman whose hair was almost as black as my own came out of the room. She was tall and broad-shouldered, but still gave the impression of delicacy of bone. She wore jeans and a T-shirt with some sort of slogan on it. She saw us and gave a glad cry of Jason!

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The next thing I knew, she and Jason were hugging. She damn near smothered him in a nice chest. The height difference was considerable, with her on the tall end.

Jason drew back enough to say, Anita, this is my sister Julia.

Sister? No one in my family hugged their brother like that. Then I got a Julia hug, and realized it wasnt the least bit sexual. She was just one of those enthusiastic huggers. I was the same height as Jason, so I had more proof than I wanted that she was about as well-endowed as I was. Dear God, even Richards family wasnt this touchy-feely.

Jason laughed and rescued me. Let her breathe, sis.

Julia backed off, but kept an arm around my shoulders. Its just so good to see you, little brother. And I dont think youd have brought a girl home if it wasnt serious. She hugged me again, a little less furiously, but still I was really wondering how to get away from her.

Her shirt said Browning and Schuyler Gardening Center with a few plants done in line art. The shirt was a shade of yellow that most people couldnt have worn, but it looked fine with her coloring, and great with her summer tan. It looked like shed tan almost as dark as Richards family, and they had American Indian in their background.

I wondered if Julia was a half-sister.

You run the gardening center? I asked, hoping to distract her from the hugging.

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Me and my hubby, Brian. Hes minding the store so I could come visit Dad. The sunshine faded a little from her big brown eyes. It was like watching a flower sag from lack of water; you just knew if some good news came soon shed perk back up.

LetAnitagosis. Jason said it laughing. He took my hand and drew me away from his sister.

She flashed him a grin. I knew that grin. It was a totally different face, but the grin, that was Jasons.

I slid an arm around Jasons familiar waist with a sense of relief. Strangers hugging me, aah.

Hello, Jason. A woman who looked too much like Julia not to be another sister stood in the doorway. She was wearing a navy business skirt suit with a white shell. Sort of a more conservative version of what I was wearing. I was betting she wasnt wearing a gun under hers, though.

Roberta, hi. This is Anita. He led me forward, and she moved to meet us. I tensed for another hug, but she offered a hand instead.

She had a firm, but not too firm handshake. It felt like she shook hands a lot. I gave her a smile, grateful she hadnt touched me more.

Conservative but nice makeup brought out the brown eyes that dominated her face. It was her best feature. Where Julia had a delicacy to her height, Roberta was tall. The bones of her face were too square for beauty. Shed done well with the makeup to sort of carve out the face she wanted you to see. She was attractive, but it was an almost masculine beauty, for lack of a better word.

Where Julias hair had been carelessly cut just above her shoulders, Robertas was carefully styled past her shoulders.

Are you really his girlfriend? she asked me.

I let myself look startled. Why would you ask that?

Iris came up, touching Robertas arm. Youre being rude.

No, I dont want Dad upset. She turned those eyes back to me. Are you really Jasons girlfriend, or just someone he brought here because Mom panicked?

I looked at Jason. I was trying to figure out how to answer this question and not lie. I guess I simply hadnt expected anyone to be this bold about it. You in the habit of bringing girls home who arent your girlfriend?

I brought home a few fuck buddies, but other than that, no.

Jason, his mother said, in that tone that mothers have that lets you know youve been naughty.

Why are you being mean, Bobbi? Julia asked.

My name is Roberta, she said, as if she had to say it a lot, and Im not being mean. I just want to be clear. Dad will know if youre lying, Jason, and that will bother him more than the truth.

The admin shook some hands and made herself scarce, going for the elevator. Peterson and the suit took up posts in the hallway. The young suit looked like hed rather have taken the elevator with the admin. Peterson gave great blank face; all in a days work.

Robertas dark eyes glanced at the men, then back to Jason. You finally have your own guards, just like the rest of the Summerlands.

Roberta. Iris said it like she meant it. That one word cracked into the sudden silence with more force than I thought Mrs. Schuyler had in her. Under that delicate exterior there were tougher bits. Good to know.

Roberta gave her mother a look almost as angry as the one she was flashing at Jason. I was beginning to think Roberta just wanted to be pissed at someone, anyone. Sometimes grief will do that to you, make you attack random targets.

Tell Dad the truth, Jason, she said in a softer, but still tight voice.

And what is the truth, Roberta? he asked, and his voice was flat and unfriendly. I dont know if Id ever heard him sound quite like that. No love lost between him and this sister.

Youre gay, Jason.

He laughed, but not like it was funny. You and Dad have believed that since high school. I dont know why, but you have. Mom says come home; bring a girlfriend if youve got one, so your father can die in peace. Cant let him die thinking his only son is a faggot, can we?

Hed rather you just admit it.

I raised a hand. Can I say something here?

Jason said, Yes. She said, No.

Yes, Jason said more vehemently.

Im his very good friend, Roberta. Your mother called him yesterday. I dropped everything to get on a plane and come out here with Jason. I wouldnt do that if he wasnt important to me.

She gave me a look of damn near rage. I had no idea where this anger was coming from. He always had a lot of fag-hag girlfriends.

Iris and Julia both said, Roberta!

I stared at her openmouthed for a second.

Thanks, Bobbi, love you as much as you love me, Jason said.

She turned that rage-filled gaze to Jason. I know you slept with girls in high school, but you slept with boys, too. That makes you gay, Jason.

Technically, that would make me bisexual, Bobbi. Would you or Dad tell me why you are convinced I slept with guys in high school?

I saw you.

One night, you think you saw me, and you told Dad, who always thought I was gay anyway. I told you then and Ill tell you now, I wasnt there. I dont know what or who you think you saw, but I was with someone else.

Who? Just tell me who, and maybe Ill believe you.

I promised her no one would ever know, and I keep my word.

Isnt that convenient. I know what I saw.

Jasons hand started rubbing back and forth on my hip, gently. He was doing it to comfort himself, like all the lycanthropes do. The Browning at the small of my back forced him to put his hand low enough to touch my hip. My waist was used up with the hardware.

Touch her all you want in public, it doesnt change the truth.

Look, I said, I dont know what family problem Ive walked into, but Jason and I are lovers.

And how many men are you sharing him with?

None, I said.

She gave Jason a withering look. Youve got her fooled.

Julia got between them at that point. Bobbi, stop it. I know youre hurt about Dad, but hurting Jason wont save him.

Roberta looked away from us. She shook her head. Ive got to get out of here. She went, not for the elevator, but down the hallway. We watched her walk around the corner out of sight.

I am so sorry, Anita, Iris said.

Julia hugged Jason. I believe shes your girlfriend.

Thanks, but Im betting that Dad will agree with Bobbi.

Julia hugged him a little tighter, but her face showed the same thought. Julia, like her mother, Id have played poker with any day of the week. Roberta, I wasnt sure about yet.

A deep voice came from the open door. If youre going to fight, do it where I can see it.

Jason sighed and leaned in against me. He put his face against my neck. He breathed in the scent of my skin, the way you get a last breath of oxygen before diving into the depths.

Iris went ahead of us, saying, Frank, be nice.

I was betting that Bobbi took after her father. Fun, fun, fun.

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