I CAME HOME to find two men sitting at my kitchen table. One of them was my live-in sweetie. The other was one of our best friends. One of them was a wereleopard; the other was a werewolf; both of them were strippers. At least once a month they took off more than just their clothes on stage. They changed shape on stage in front of a live audience. Those nights the club was standing room only. I mean, you can go to other clubs to see men take their clothes off, but their entire skin and bodywell, that was unique.

Nathaniel came to greet me with a kiss and a hug. I let my hands play in the long, thick auburn hair that trailed down his broad shoulders, the curve of his waist, the tightness of his ass, and the long muscular legs. He was five-seven now, an inch taller than when Id met him. In my three-inch heels I was still an inch shorter than him. At twenty-one he was finally growing into the promise of those shoulders. His face was less soft than it had been, and more masculine. He would always be beautiful rather than handsome, but the bone structure had changed minutely so he just suddenly looked his age, instead of like jailbait.

He blinked down at me with the soft lilac of his eyes. On his drivers license it said his eyes were blue, because they wouldnt let him put lavender, or purple. His eyes were different shades of color, depending on his mood, or whaTHE wore, but blue was never the color of his eyes.

His hands slid underneath the jacket of my suit, and a little lower to trace the top of my skirt. His hands hesitated a little at the Browning BDM in its shoulder holster. Guns do get in the way of cuddling.

I wrapped my arms around the bareness of his upper body, breathed in the scent of his skin. He was wearing whaTHE usually wore in his off time in the summer, little bitty jogging shorts. Most of the wereanimals would go around nude if you let them. I wasnt quite comfy with that, so he wore the shorts to save my delicate sensibilities. There were some who thought I didnt have any of those left, but they would be wrong, and they would be jealous.

Holding him, breathing in the warmth and sweet vanilla of his skin, I understood the jealousy. Though frankly, not all of it was about sex or even having found love at last. It was about power and them wanting it, and me and mine having it. It was about me being the human servant of Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis. It was about body count, and me having the highest kill count among the vampire executioners in the good ol U. S. of A.

I would give a less favored body part to have a woman greet me at the end of the day like that, Jasons voice said.

I had to peer around Nathaniels body to see Jason. He was still at the kitchen table nursing a coffee mug. It even smelled like coffee, buTHE huddled over it, as if it were something harder and more intoxicating.

Jason was two years older than Nathaniel, which made him twenty-three now. Strangely, Id met them both when they were nineteen. Jason was my height, give or take a half inch or so. His hair was that shade of yellow blond that movie stars are fond of, but his was real, and didnt have to come from a good salon. His hair was cut businessman short. I liked long hair, but I had to admit that Jasons face looked cleaner, better, more handsome even, without the hair to distract. He was wearing a blue T-shirt that made his eyes even bluer than they were. The color not of spring, but of summer skies, before the heat has gotten too hot, but you know its not May anymore.

The clothes hid what I knew, thaTHE looked even better out of them. It wasnt for lack of cuteness and desirability that Jason wasnt my sweetie. He was my friend, and I was his.

What about Perdita, Perdy? You and she are going steady, right?

He grinned at me. Going steady, youre so cute.

I frowned at him. What else do you call it?

Nathaniel kissed me on the forehead. You really are cute.

I moved away from him and scowled at them both. Im serious, what else do you call it? You arent just fuck buddies. She isnt a one-night stand. Shes a serious girlfriend. If its not going steady, what do you call it?

You make it sound like I gave her my class ring, Anita. Perdy and I were lovers, and she wanted it to be exclusive.

I thought you were exclusive.

Except for you, I was.

Wait, youre talking past tense. Are you saying you and Perdy broke up?

She gave him an ultimatum, Nathaniel said. He trailed his hand down my arm as he moved away. Ill get you coffee.

I went to the table and took the seat that Nathaniel had started in. What kind of ultimatum? I asked.

Jason stared into his coffee cup while he answered. She wanted me to stop having sex with Jean-Claude and Asher, and you.

Wait, you arent having sex with Jean-Claude and Asher, unless theres something I dont know.

He smiled at me. The look on your face, man. He raised his fingers in the Boy Scout salute. I am not now, nor have I ever been having sex with Jean-Claude or Asher.

Nathaniel set fresh coffee down in front of me and took a chair across the table on the other side of Jason, so wed both be able to look at him. It also meant we wouldnt be able to do more than hold hands, which was probably good; we tended to distract each other.

But she didnt believe you, I said.

Nope, she didnt. He took a sip of coffee.

Why wouldnt she believe you? I asked.

Im not sure.

If my feeding the ardeur off you through sex bugged your steady girl, you should have said something.

I am Jean-Claudes pomme de sang, his apple of blood. I am his blood donor, and I go where my master tells me to go. The ardeur is your version of a blood feed and youre his human servant. Jean-Claude shares me with Asher, his second-in-command, for blood and you for sex, and its his right to share me. I am his. I belong to him. Perdy knows that. She got kicked out of Cape Cod because she wanted to be more than just a blood donor to the master vampire there.

Samuel didnt say anything about that. In fact, his son, Sampson, said that Perdy was here to spy on him for his mother.

Yeah, but Sampson went home, and Perdy didnt.

Sampson had gone home because St. Louis got invaded by some of the scariest vampires in the world. Jean-Claude had thought it was a bad idea to risk getting the eldest son of his friend and ally killed. Besides, Sampson was a merman, and they arent big on offensive abilities, at least not this far inland. Perdy was a mermaid, too. Though Id never seen either of them turn all fishy. They just looked like people to me.

Perdy stayed for you, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. She wanted me to be hers. Shes very jealous, very possessive. Im just not into that.

So you have a woman who greets you like Anita greets me, but the rest doesnt work.

No, Nathaniel. She used to greet me sort of like that, but for weeks now its been, Where have you been? Who have you been with? You fucked the master again, didnt you? You fucked Asher, didnt you? You were with Anita again, werent you?

Ive put you on the back burner for feeding me, I said. I got the impression Perdy didnt want to share you that much, but I had no idea she thought you were doing more than just donating blood to the vampires.

Shes like crazy jealous, and she wont believe me when I tell her I havent been with anyone else. Its why I asked Jean-Claude to take me out of your feeding schedule for a while. I thought if I stopped having sex with the only other person I was really having sex with that Perdy would calm down.

Nathaniel and I exchanged glances across the table. He shrugged. I asked the question. Did it work?

No, he said. He took another drink of coffee, and it must have finished the cup because he got up and went for the French press beside the sink. He took the coffee cozy off of it, then put it back on without filling his cup. He set the cup in the sink.

I dont want more coffee.

You can never have too much coffee, I said.

He turned and smiled at me. You think so, but the rest of us get a little ODed on your level of caffeine.

What happened, Jason? I asked.

The smile slipped a little more. He was solemn when he turned to us. He leaned his back against the cabinets, crossed his arms across his chest, and again didnt quite meet our eyes.

She wanted me to marry her. Till death do us part and all that. Shes a mermaid, which means shell outlive me. She can live for hundreds of years, not immortal like a vampire, but close.

You didnt want to marry her, I said, softly.

He shook his head. Shes obsessed with me. She says she loves me, but it doesnt feel like love. It feels like Im smothering.

Shes not the right one, then.

He grinned, and it almost reached his eyes. Look whos talking about the right one. You cant pick just one either.

Thats different.

Why, because youre a living vampire who feeds off sex, so you have to have a bevy of lovers? The ardeur is like the perfect excuse to never have to say youre sorry.

Id change it if I could, you know that.

He came to me then, put his arms around my shoulders, and rested his cheek on the top of my head. I didnt mean to make you sad, Anita. God knows I didnt. Please, dont tell me youd change it if you could. You love Nathaniel, and Micah. They love you. You love Jean-Claude and Asher, and they love you. Youre still a little confused about what to do with Damian, but youll get there.

I shook my head and stood up, moving away from him. Dont forget Requiem, and London, and sometimes Richard. Oh, wait, and the swan king pops in now and then, no pun intended. It sounded angry and bitter, and I was glad.

I didnt mean to say the wrong thing. I didnt mean to make you feel bad, or to have another woman mad at me tonight. Please, Anita, please, dont be mad. Im upset. You have no idea how upset. Please, please, Im a bastard, but dont be mad.

He held his hand out to me. His face pleaded along with his words. Id never seen his eyes full of quite this kind of pain. The look in his eyes was more than just losing a girlfriend he didnt want anymore.

I held out my hand, but made him take the step to close our fingers around each other. His eyes glittered in the overhead lights.

I took his hand, held it. His breath came in a soft gasp, and I thought for a second he was going to cry, buTHE just looked at me. His eyes that had glistened a moment before were almost dead, as if whatever he was feeling hed locked away somewhere. In a way, to me, that was worse. I went to him, and he wrapped his arms around me as if he were at the edge of a cliff and I were his only handhold. That quiet holding on was somale. A woman would have cried, or talked more, but for a man, after a certain point this is their pain.

I held him back, tried to tell him it would be all right. I whispered it into his hair, against his cheek. Its all right, Jason. Its all right.

Nathaniel came up behind him and wrapped his arms around us both. He pressed his cheek against his friends hair and said, Were here, Jason. Were here for you.

Jason just held on wordless, motionless, the strength in his arms, shoulders, pressing against me, but it wasnt about sex. Id never been pressed so close to any man and thought only, God, whats wrong? Either he had loved Perdy and now he was regretting letting her go, or the other shoe hadnt dropped. What else could be wrong?

We ended up on the floor of the kitchen, simply sitting in a row with our backs to the kitchen island. He still hadnt said what else was wrong, or thaTHE was desperately in love with Perdy and how could he fix it? I kept waiting for him to share. If hed been a girl friend Id have asked by now, but guy friends are different. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them like some sort of wild animal, no wereanimal pun intended; all men are leery of their emotions, spook them and theyll shut down. If youre careful, quiet, not too eager, sometimes youll learn more. Of course, sometimes you have to club men over the head with some question to get any sense out of them, but they prefer to speak from a quiet place.

Jason had his head against Nathaniels shoulder, and a hand on my leg. At least he, like most of the men in my life, was cuddlier than most. I appreciated that.

Jasons voice came flat, empty, as if he were afraid to let his voice feel anything. My fathers dying of cancer. My mom called last night just after Perdy and I broke up.

I exchanged a glance with Nathaniel. His wide eyes let me know that it was news to him, too.

Jesus, Jason, Im sorry, I said.

We hate each other, of course, and now the cold bastards dying and I wont have time to forgive him before he dies.

What can we do? Nathaniel asked, softly.

He smiled, a little weak, a little watered down, buTHE managed it. I thought it was a good sign. I hoped it was. You really want to know?

Name it, I said.

He smiled again, but his eyes flinched, as if Id hit him instead of told him Id do anything he wanted if it would take the pain away.

Perdy isnt here to tell me dont, or to tell you dont. Im a free man again. He tried for a laugh, but it was a sound more like a sob.

I get it, Nathaniel said.

I frowned at him. Then explain it to me, because I dont.

He wants to have sex with you again.

What? I said.

Perdy cant tell him, or you, no anymore. You can be lovers again.

You mean now, like in right now?

Nathaniel gave a half-shrug. Jason moved his head off the other mans shoulder. He dropped his hand away from my leg.

Its okay, Anita, Ive fucked this up. I know this isnt the way to approach you. But my head is so ugly tonight; I just cant seem to think clearly.

He pushed to his feet and started for the doorway.

I opened my mouth to say dont go, and yes. I closed it without saying any of it out loud, and looked at Nathaniel. I frowned at him. He was more than just my sweetie. The ardeur made me a sort of living vampire who fed off sex, but with the downsides came some interesting upsides. Nathaniel was my animal to call, which meanTHE was like my familiar. We shared emotions, power, and sometimes thoughts. Youre projecting inside my head, arent you?

You can shut me out if you want, he said.

Jason hesitated just short of the doorway. He frowned at us both. Im missing something.

I looked into the face of a man that I loved. Is this really what you want?

Hes my friend.

You know, most guys dont want their girlfriends to sleep with their friends.

If youd never slept with Jason, that would be different, but you have. Why is it wrong to sleep with him tonight?

I opened my mouth to say something reasonable, then closed it, because for the life of me, I couldnt come up with a clearheaded answer. Why was it wrong to sleep with Jason tonight? Because I hadnt planned on it? Because it felt slutty? Were any of those reasons good reasons?

Jason stopped in the doorway, caught between the light of the kitchen and the darkness of the living room beyond. Ive made you feel sorry for me. Im not sure I want that to be your motivation for taking me to bed.

Once upon a time, you wouldnt have cared why you got to sleep with me.

I was a slut, I know.

I didnt mean that, Jason.

Stay here tonight, Nathaniel said.

He half-turned so he could see us, but his face was still mostly in shadow. Why? Why do you want me to stay?

I shrugged at Nathaniel, with a this-was-your-idea expression.

Because youre our friend. Because we care about you.

And you, Anita, whats your motivation?

I looked up at him. There was something defiant about the set of his shoulders, as if he expected me to hurt him. I tried very hard not to do that. It just seems wrong for you to walk out the door right now. Stay, if the sex is an issue, then just stay for a big puppy pile. We can actually just sleep.

He shook his head. You never want to make me just sleep, Anita.

That made me uncomfortable. I dont know what to say to that, Jason.

Say you want me.

I started to say something, but Nathaniel touched my hand. He needs the truth, Anita.

And what is the truth? I asked, taking my hand away from his.

Tell him how you feel, really feel about him.

I took a deep breath and thought about the truth; what was the truth? You are one of the best friends I have, Jason, and you shouldnt be alone tonight.

Jean-Claude would let me sleep with him.

But you wouldnt let him hold you while you feel miserable.

How do you know I wouldnt?

Call it a hunch.

He stood frozen in the doorway as if he couldnt decide, or as if part of him wanted to and part of him didnt. Id made him come to me to hold his hand. Now I went to him.

I wrapped my arms around him. He stayed stiff and unyielding. I pressed my head to his shoulder. Stay with us tonight, Jason, please.

He whispered against my hair, Why?

Because you want to.

Not good enough, he whispered.

Because I can feel how much it would hurt Nathaniel to see you leave tonight, and know that you didnt have anyone to hold you while you slept.

Its not sleep I want, Anita. Im afraid to sleep. Im afraid Ill dream. Last night wasbad.

I lifted my face up to look at him. You found all this out last night?

He nodded.

Bad dreams? I made it a question.

The worst; something about the news about my dad just raked a lot of shit up.

Nathaniels need pushed at me, almost staggering in his desire to have Jason stay. I tried to shield against him, but realized that one of the reasons I couldnt shield was that I agreed with him. A large part of me felt Jason should stay. Nathaniel was right; Jason was already on my list of lovers. Why was it wrong for me to admit that it was fun to sleep with Jason? Why was it always wrong for me to admit that I simply wanted to be with someone? Not because I had no choice, but because for once, I did?

He kissed my forehead. Ill go home.

I hugged him tighter, kept him in the doorway. It would be lovely if you stayed.

He looked startled. You sound like you mean that.

I nodded. I do.

He smiled, and it was a shadow of his usual one. Somewhere in there did you actually say please?

I smiled at him. I think I did.

Ive never heard you ask a man to please stay with you.

I dont usually have to.

Stay with us tonight, Nathaniel said.

I nodded. Stay.

The bed will be a little crowded when Micah gets home.

Hes out of town, I said.

A new wereleopard wanted to join our pard. Hes off interviewing, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. I like Micah, you know that.

But hes not your best friend like Nathaniel is, and hes not a girl, I said.

Jason nodded again. Tonight, I dont really want an audience.

Damian is even sleeping over with his latest vampire lover, Nathaniel said. We have the house to ourselves.

Some tension I hadnt been aware of slid away from Jason. I love everybody, but sometimes the group thing gets a little old. It was one of the things I liked about Perdy, at first.

You dont want a group orgy every night, but you dont want to be monogamous either, Nathaniel said.

Jason nodded. I am so fucked.

Not yet, I said, hugging him, but we can fix that.

He grinned at me, and it reached his eyes. Bedroom, bathroom, living room, or kitchen?

The kitchen floor is hard and the tile is cold. Why not just go to the nice soft bed? I asked.

Jason looked at Nathaniel.

Nathaniel answered the question. Jason has made love in a bed and only a bed since he started being with Perdy.

I frowned, then looked at Jason, still in a loose hug with me. I understand no shower or bath sex. Mermaids have trouble retaining human form in water, but nothing but the bed?

He shook his head.

Standard positions, too? I made it a question.

He nodded.

My eyes widened. Oh, Jason, Im sorry, I didnt know. I hugged him tighter.

He moved back so he could see my face. With all the bad news Ive had today, and you look that stricken that my girlfriend would only do standard bed sex?

I tried to put into words what I was thinking, not always my best thing. You love sex. Youre good at it.

Why, gee, thanks. He grinned.

I gave him a look, but kept talking. I was going to finish this thought, damn it. Sex is one of the most personal things we do as people. To have someone who says she loves you limit how you express yourself in the bedroom is like a small death. It kills the soul.

The grin left his face, then his eyes. He stared at me, and there Jason was, that part of him thaTHE hid from most people. Heck, thaTHE hid most of the time. He let me see that there was a good mind and a deep thinker inside those usually smiling blue eyes. It made him look sad, and older, but I valued that look. I valued thaTHE let me see him all the way down.

How did you get to be so smart? he said, softly.

I have smart friends who give me good advice sometimes. I smiled. Sometimes I even take it.

He smiled back and ran his hands down my back. So, youd really let me pick where we make love?

I nodded.

Just because I havent had a choice in a while.


What if I want something too freaky?

Then Ill say no, and you can back it down a little.

His eyes had that solemn look again. He searched my face. You mean it.

I put my hands on either side of his face and nodded. I try not to say things I dont mean, Jason. I put a soft kiss at the end of the sentence.

He moved his hand lower on my back to press us closer together. Close enough that I could feel that his body was already happier than when we hugged last.

He closed his eyes and took a breath. He looked at Nathaniel. Do you have a preference?

Youre the guest.

Jason lifted me off the floor with a hug. We were both short enough that I was in no danger of hitting the doorjamb. I love you guys; you make me feel less weird about myself.

Why, because were weirder? I asked.

No, he said, laughing up at me, because your relationship works. It just flat works for you guys. You make me feel that out there somewhere is someone weird enough to make me happy.

Id rather not do the bathroom, Nathaniel said, it takes forever to dry my hair.

Jason let me down, so I was standing on the floor again. Im leaning toward the living room.

There are chairs, and the couch has a back and arms, Nathaniel said.

How sturdy is the coffee table?

Not that sturdy, Nathaniel said.

Id caught on. No, not sturdy enough to have sex on.

Start in the living room, move to the bedroom? Jason said, making it a question.

I looked at Nathaniel. He nodded, and gave a little shrug.

Deal, I said.