THE FIRST THING we did after we got the crowd out was shower. The sex had been good enough that you needed a shower the way you do after a good workout. We tried to get Shadwell and Rowe to step out of the room while we cleaned up, but they wouldnt do it. So two strange, armed men whom Id just met got to sit out in the room while Jason and I took turns in the shower. Why turns? Because I didnt want two strange, armed men whom Id just met alone in our hotel room. Paranoid, who, me?

What do you wear to a bachelorette party for the future daughter-in-law of one of the richest men in a given state, who is also a presidential hopeful? Id brought nice businessy clothes and comfortable clothes, and a lot of weapons. The choices were limited in everything except armament.

They were Jasons friends, so I let him choose. I know, if the girl union ever hears that I asked my straight male friend to dress me for a party Ill get my union card yanked, but hey, left to my own devices Id have grabbed jeans, a T-shirt, my jogging shoes, and an extra gun. Maybe a couple of knives for added comfort.

Jason didnt think the bachelorette party would get that out of hand, but I remembered the last bachelorette party Id gone to. It had been my friend Catherines, and it had gotten so out of hand that what started that night almost got me killed.

Jason had said, There wont be vampire strippers at this party, Anita. I think you and I together can handle the normal humans.

He had a point, butwe compromised. I switched the Browning from its more hidden location at the small of my back to its normal shoulder holster rig. I put a nice black suit jacket over a perfectly red T-shirt and nice blue jeans. My badge went in the jacket pocket. The Nikes gave way to a pair of short boots. I added knife sheaths in two wrist sheaths under the jacket.

Jason had protested, but Id told him the truth. I wont be able to take off the jacket or Ill flash the gun, so I might as well have my knives.

Youre not wearing the big-ass knife that sits at your spine, are you?

No, I said, I left it at home, thank you. I didnt think your family was that dangerous.

Wed tried again to get Shadwell and Rowe to step out of the room, but they had said they couldnt disobey a direct order, and if they left their posts, they would lose their jobs. Fine, they had watched the negotiations. It had strained their professional bodyguard blankness to its limit, I think. At least Rowe had given me wide eyes a few times. Jason and I had to take turns changing clothes in the bathroom.

I was finally dressed, and armed, and sitting in one of the rooms many purple chairs waiting for Jason to finish changing. Id gotten my cross out of the bedside table, and it was pretty visible against the shirt. What wasnt visible was the charm under my shirt. I wore it almost all the time, too. But the cross was a religious symbol and protection against bad vampires. The ancient charm was protection against only one vampirethe Mother of All Vampires, whod taken an unhealthy interest in me a few months ago. The charm was made of metal so ancient it bent if I pressed against a hard surface. It bore magical symbols so old that I had found no human able to read it. But there were vampires who could, because that was who had given it to me. Theyd given it to me to keep Marmee Noir from using my necromancy to wake herself up and become their queen again.

Shad and Rowe tried to not look at me. It was sort of a very mild version of what the guards do outside Buckingham Palace. Duty first and foremost, nothing else exists. Once I would have left them alone, but first, I was a girl, and that meant I felt damn near compelled to talk to anyone in a silent room, and second, I just wanted to yank their chain. Maybe Id been hanging around with Jason too long.

How long have you been out of the military, Shadwell?

His body reacted, but not his face, a stiffening of the shoulders, the spine. Haircut? he said.

That and you just dont taste like a civilian.

He turned those pale eyes to me behind their wire frames. It was not a friendly look, or an unfriendly one, more neutral. Two years.

Rowe looked at me.

I fought not to smile. God, he was still so bright and shiny. I cant peg you, Rowe. You dont taste like military, or cop, but you taste like something that isnt civvie.

He grinned at me, eyes sparkling with pleasure. Yeah, I kicked ass at undercover.

So cop, or fed?

Wouldnt you like to know? he said.

Shad gave him a look, and a brief Dont.

Rowe stopped smiling, but his eyes still gleamed with some inner happiness. So Shadwell was senior man.

Dont what? I asked.

We are supposed to guard you, not fraternize.

Fraternize, I said, and laughed. Fraternize, havent heard that word in a while.

Shadwell frowned at me. Its an accurate word.

I nodded, and fought not to look more serious. It didnt help when I caught Rowes gaze. His eyes were practically shining with suppressed mirth. The edge of his mouth twitched and I had to look away, or Id have lost it.

Shadwell seemed to sense it, because he gave Rowe a hard look. Rowe had to have a coughing fit to cover the laughter that was almost spilling over.

What got you off undercover work, Rowe? I asked.

Still recovering from his coughing fit, he said, My sense of humor.

I looked at him, tried to see if he was serious. He was implying that hed been fired, or at least reassigned, because his sense of humor had gotten him in trouble.

Rowe, Shadwell said, she does not need to know your background.

Yes, sir. Rowe went back to attention by the door, but his eyes and a certain set to the mouth said he didnt really mean it. I was beginning to see how Rowe might have gotten in trouble with his superiors.

Shadwell gave us both a hard look, and it was a good look, a real look. Bad guys must have flinched under his gaze, but I wasnt a bad guy. I was just someone wondering why the guards were on our side of the door. It seemed a little excessive.

Fine, Shadwell, are you and Rowe here going to stand inside our room all night?


Then why are you standing here now?

Because we were told to, he said.

Rowes mouth twitched again. Someone with a sense of humor had partnered them with each other.

Isnt it kind of weird to be on this side of the door? I mean the danger is out there, not in here.

Shadwell frowned, then smoothed it out. Im following orders, Ms. Blake.

Marshal Blake, I said, because it just seemed good to remind rule-and-order Shadwell that I wasnt really a civvie either.

His eyes flickered to me, then back to staring into space. If youre a federal marshal, then youll appreciate that Im following orders.

That made me laugh. Nicely done, Shadwell. If Im a federal marshal. I assure you I am, badge and all, but Im not really real, am I? I mean I got grandfathered in, and didnt go through the training, so Im not really a marshal, right?

I did not say that.

You implied it, I said, and my voice was no longer pleasant.

Are you trying to pick a fight with Shadwell? Rowe asked, his face curious.

I shrugged, slumping back in the chair as much as the shoulder rig would comfortably let me. Maybe, and if I am, Im sorry. Im just a little bored, a little tense, and I really, really, dont want to go to this party.

Its a bad idea, Shadwell said.

The worst, I said.

He looked at me. Then why are you going?

Because Jason is going, and he wants me with him.

Shadwell nodded. My wifes the social one. I hate parties, too.

I tried to pretend that Shadwell hadnt just done exactly what hed yelled at Rowe for, which was overshare. Yeah, but I bet your wife doesnt drag you to parties where strange men will be taking off their clothes.

You dont think your friend in there will want to stay for that part of the party? Shadwell asked.

I shrugged, and sat up straighter. He may.

The two men exchanged glances. Even Rowe didnt seem to think it was funny. Then Rowe grinned as if he couldnt help it. The last time I saw male strippers I was getting a lap dance.

We both looked at him. He shrugged, and actually blushed, which you dont see in an ex-cop much. Wed had a rash of gay bashing that turned into serial murder. All the vics had frequented this one club. Then he grinned again. I was the only one on the undercover unit who was secure enough in my manhood to do the job.

With that revelation the door to the bathroom opened. Jason came out in a blue T-shirt that matched his eyes to perfection, so that his eyes were incredibly blue. The T-shirt also fit very well, so that all that muscle work showed. The blue jeans were date jeans, which meant they were tight and fit well. Hed added his own short boots and had a black suit jacket to throw over it all, so it looked somewhere between semiprofessional and club wear. BuTHE looked good, and he knew it. Hed dressed to be yummy. He might not be planning to date anyone at the party, buTHE wanted them to see him. Sigh. He was so going to flirt his ass off.