THE ROOM WAS almost identical to ours except for the dcor. It was all white and golden-tan, much cleaner lines, less fuss than our room. It was much airier and through the windows which were still open to the night I saw a balcony railing. The two groups of sofas and chairs were empty. There were presents on the glass dining table still in their sparkling wrappers. Apparently it was a combination bachelorette party and bridal shower. Either that or theyd changed the rules for bachelorette parties and now you got presents.

Where were Jason and the girls? Then I heard a giggle. It came from around the corner where, if it had been our room, the bedroom lay. Of course, it did.

Shad stopped me with a hand motion. I hadnt even realized Id made a movement forward. He called out, Price, Sanchez?

A man came around the corner. He was the first non-WASP that Id seen in this town. Well, unless you counted Jasons dad and his sisters. They, at least, werent blond. But Sanchez was nicely dark; other than skin tone he looked like all the other guards. They all had this stamped-out-of-the-same-mill feel to them. Rowe was the closest to his own person, but everyone else smelled of a system that trained large groups of men to fight other large groups of men. They came out of the military straight into another kind of unit, which had not helped them lose their cohesiveness.

He talked as he moved in front of the minibar to stand beside us. They wanted to show the man the wedding dresses, Sanchez said.

I looked at Shad. May I?

He nodded.

I stepped forward and offered a hand to Sanchez. He looked a little startled, buTHE gave me a good handshake. He had small hands for his size, or at least for the shoulders that were straining his suit. It looked like hed hit the gym a lot recently, and hadnt bought the next size up suit. It made his gun show very stark at his hip under the jacket.

Rowe said, Sanchez, you gotta get a bigger jacket, man. Your gun shows bad.

Sanchez shrugged the big shoulders, though he was only about five foot six, the shortest guard Id seen among Petersons people. Maybe thats why hed hit the gym so hard; compensation.

His eyes were so brown they were almost black, darker even than my own. He flicked the eyes to Rowe with a frown, then said, Not in front of

The mark, I said, the job, what do you call the people you babysit?

He gave me a speculative look out of those very dark eyes. Youre from out of town. He made it a statement.

I smiled. You have no idea.

He actually grinned, before Shadwell said, If theyre changing clothes you and Price can stay outside the room.

Sanchez shook his head, frowning again. They arent changing, but our orders were explicit. Until further notice we do not lose sight of ourhe glanced at me, then finished withcharges. He said the last softly, as if it wasnt quite the word he would have used if one of the charges hadnt been standing in front of him.

I smiled at him, and something about the smile made him shift, or maybe the gun was digging into his side.

Your jacket fits nice, but its harder to hide a shoulder holster, he said.

Oh, hed noticed the gun. It was my turn to shrug. I got used to wearing it.

Shadwell said, Shes a federal marshal, and the girlfriend of the man.

Sanchezs eyes went a little wide. He dont act like he has a girlfriend.

I smiled, and this time it was a happy one. Are his clothes still on? I asked.

Sanchez tried not to look startled, but failed a little around the edges. Last I checked.

I smiled wider. Then Jason hasnt gotten too carried away yet.

He take his clothes off in front of groups of women a lot? Sanchez asked.

I nodded. All the time, I said. I didnt explain what Jasons job was; I was enjoying Sanchezs reaction too much. It was helping me delay going into the next room, which was pretty much my goal.

Hes a stripper, Shadwell said, a little disgusted.

I gave him a dirty look. Ill thank you to keep a civil tone about my boyfriends job, thanks.

Shadwells eyes flashed at me from behind his glasses, showing that there was a little blue to all that gray in his eyes. No offense.

Sure, I said.

He the entertainment? Sanchez asked.

No, Shadwell said, and he didnt explain either.

Great, we were just going to play need-to-know until we were all confused.

It was Rowe who moved around so he could look me in the face. His eyes had seemed very brown, until I had Sanchezs to look into; now they seemed pale.

Youre delaying so you dont have to go into the other room.

I gave him an unfriendly look. You dont know me well enough to make that guess.

Its not a guess, he said.

I turned the look into a glare.

He laughed, and raised his hands ceilingward. Hey, dont give me that look just because Im right.

I shrugged, and tried not to be childish about it. I settled for sounding a little sulky, but I couldnt help that part. Youre smarter than you look, Rowe.

Now youre just being mean, he said.

Accurate, Sanchez said, with a smile.

You said if we had a problem tonight it wouldnt be you, Shadwell said.

I turned the remnants of the unfriendly look on him. But explaining might keep me in this room until they stopped looking at the wedding clothes. I am an unmarried woman who is dating a man seriously enough to drop everything and come home to meet his folks. We have no plans to marry, but if I go into the other room with the wedding dresses being ooh ed and aah ed over, the women are going to ask about our plans. Jason and I dont have any plans, and that will bug the women. I dont want to mess with it.

Why would you come home to meet someones family if you have no plans to marry? Shadwell asked.

Ill answer your question if youll answer one of mine first.

He looked suspicious, but I think they werent much more eager to go into the next room than I was. The sound of giggling was being punctuated by Jasons laugh. You can ask.

What caused the order to come down that you arent to let your charges out of your sight?

Shadwell shook his head. If Peterson gives us permission Ill be happy to tell you, but until then, I cant.

Orders, I said.

Chain of command, he said.

I nodded. What happens when Chuck comes back? Is he higher in the chain of command than you are?

They all exchanged glances. Shadwell actually rolled his lower lip under, which was the most nerves Id seen him show.

You dont know where he stands in the chain of command, do you?

Thats none of your business, Shadwell said.

Whatever you say, shall we go see if everyones still got all their clothes on?

We could just keep talking out here, Rowe said.

We could, but Ive delayed as long as my self-respect will allow. Time to brave the giggling horde.

All women giggle, Rowe said.

I dont, I said.

He gave me a look that was neither professional nor okay from a strange man. I bet I could make you giggle.

Rowe, Shadwell said, in a serious voice.

You just lost points in my book, Rowe, serious points.

He held up his hands in a push-away gesture. Sorry, that was out of line.

Yeah, I said, it was, and if you expect to be in the room with us while we sleep tonight, you are so very wrong.

Shadwell actually stepped between us to break the eye contact. We hope the orders will change by then.

Im sorry, Rowe said again, its just nice to talk to a woman that doesnt have that look in her eyes.

What look? I asked.

That how-fast-can-I-get-you-down-the-aisle look.

I laughed. I think thats your nerves projecting, Rowe.

This from the woman who didnt want to go into the next room because shes afraid theyll press you to marry your boyfriend.

You can tell how happy a couple is by how hard the women try to fix up their single friends, I said.

Some men do that, too, Sanchez said.

There was a loud thump from the next room, and near-hysterical laughter.

Shit, I said, and started for the room.

I thought you didnt want to go in there, Rowe called.

I dont, but I just realized Im actually nervous about it, which means Ive got to go in.

That makes no sense, Rowe said. Youre going to do it because you know youre afraid to do it?

I didnt correct his afraid to my nervous, because my pulse was up, my muscles tense. I was just meeting some of Jasons old girlfriends, for Gods sake. He and I werent even really an item.

Shes got to do it now, Shadwell said.

Why? Rowe asked.

That you gotta ask that question is why you had to leave the cops early.

What the hell does that mean? Rowe asked.

Shadwell had hurried his step to catch up with me, then slowed down because his stride was about twice mine. We didnt have to look at each other to understand. If something scares you, no matter how small, you gotta face it, because if you start failing on the small stuff, youll eventually fail on the big stuff. Shadwell got that; Rowe didnt. Shadwell and I didnt necessarily like each other, but hed go through into the bedroom with me. Sanchez was right behind us. Rowe trailed behind.

I could see a metal folding screen that hid most of the bedroom from view. Shadwell went past the screen first, and suddenly we could see in. There was a storm of giggling, and deep blue crinoline was everywhere. A pale blue dress came flying through the air to land at our feet. It was raining blue bridesmaid dresses.