CHUCK CAME THROUGH the door, scowling. I wondered who had gotten his panties in a twist. Then I got a glimpse of the man behind him. He was tall, tanned to a nice even brown, with medium-brown hair cut so short on the sides that you got a glimpse of paler skin underneath. His eyes were gray, and looked almost white in the dark of his face. He was around six feet, built slender but with the bulk that a weight room will give you to cover a build that might have been willowy otherwise. He was wearing a white tux that gleamed against his tan and made everything darker and lighter, at the same time.
Two uniformed guards came next, carrying a large trunk between them. Jason tensed beside me, and a second later I felt it, too. A prickle of energy breathed into the room. A second later, the reason for it glided through the door.
He was as tall as the first stripper, but with short curls that fell around his ears, so blond his hair was white. His eyes were blue with an edge of some other color dancing in them. Id have to be closer to know what that second shade was, and I didnt plan on getting closer. Not if I could help it.
Then I felt another kind of energy. A cooler energy.
A second set of guards came through with another trunk, and the last dancer was the cherry on top of this bad idea. He was the same height as the other two, like theyd been chosen for it like a matched trio of horses. His brunette hair was almost black, but I had mine and Sanchezs to compare it to, so it was only brunette. It fell in soft waves to his shoulders, framing a face that was more handsome than pretty, but it was a nice face. There was even a dimple in the chin, and another at the corner of his mouth when he smiled at the room. He smiled delicately, so as not to flash fangs.
No vampire strippers, huh? I said.
Jason put his arms around my waist and drew me against his body. My mistake.
Jason breathed against my ear, rather than whispered, trying not to be heard by the other preternaturals who had just strolled into the room. Ive seen his pictures. This is the vampire that pretends to be Jean-Claude in Vegas.
What Jason meant was that this was the lead performer in a vampire strip revue in Las Vegas. The master of their city, MaximillianMax for shorthad petitioned Jean-Claude to allow him to do a Vegas show that was based on some of the acts at Guilty Pleasures. Some negotiations later and we had our first spin-off show.
Since they couldnt have Jean-Claude, they found a vampire that looked like him. To me, it was a superficial resemblance, but from a seat in the audience it might do.
Jasons arms tightened on my waist, and he breathed against my ear, He calls himself Lucian.
I whispered, Calls himself?
He kissed the side of my neck, and whispered, Stage name.
Ah. Part of me wanted to leave, but part of me was curious. And, at least, the men getting groped by the women wouldnt be any of my sweeties. Which meant I wouldnt have to work at the whole jealousy issue while the show was going on. Thatd be almost relaxing.
I settled my back more securely against the front of Jasons body. He snuggled the side of my face and said, Busmans holiday for me.
I turned so I could see his face. You want to go?
He smiled at me. Just surprised you want to stay.
I shrugged. I dont want to stay, or not want to stay.
He kissed me from behind, pressing my face backward so it was a good, rough kiss. A good enough kiss that it left me a little breathless. We go to our room and we can do this for real.
I smiled at him. You offering me a private dance?
The absolute most private I give. He smiled when he said it, and it was a good smile. A smile that left only one answer.
Keith, the vampire said, coming over to us, I didnt know youd be here, and with another brunette. Lucian glanced behind at the couch and the still-unconscious bride. Wont her friends tell?
Hes not Keith, the white-haired dancer said. He looks like Keith, buTHE doesnt smell like Keith. The dancer glided over to us and started trying to circle us, but Shadwell and Rowe moved up so the movement was aborted.
The dancer smiled at them, and us, and backed up a little. You vampires, always relying on your eyes. Cant you feel it? Hes one of us, and so is she.
Weretigers? Lucian made it a question.
No, the dancer said, and moved close enough to invade our personal space. He sniffed the air in front of us. Wolf, and something He moved a little closer, inches closer. I could feel his energy like heat rising off his skin.
Back up, I said.
He sniffed just above my face. The energy jump was bigger, harsher, like electric bugs biting along my skin. I dont know what you are, he whispered.
She said to back off. Rowe moved in front of me and forced the weretiger back. I was glad of the help. Because there was a stirring of energy inside me in that dark place where my beasts hid. I breathed through it, concentrated. I could do this. Id been practicing. I could control my beasts, all of them, most of them. Oh, hell, tiger was the newest and new always means a learning curve.
I licked suddenly dry lips and said, Rowe, Shadwell, escort us to the door.
My pleasure, Rowe said.
Shadwell moved up to join him. They moved the dancers back.
Why leave? the weretiger said. Stay and play.
You have plenty of women to play with, I said. You dont need me.
But theyre not as alive as you are, the weretiger said.
Chuck said, Youre being paid to entertain the bridal party, notour visitors.
They turned and looked at him. The vampire gave blank face. The weretiger gave him a speculative look, as if not quite sure what to do with him. But there was an implication in the eyes that eating him was a possibility. It was a very alien look out of a human face. But it wasnt a cat look. It was what you might get if a cat could think like a human but still have the morals of a cat. It opened up so very many possibilities.
I got a flash of something down deep inside me. A flash of orange and a flash of gold. Oh, shit. One of the reasons I was having problems with the tigers was that I held more than one. One was a strain of lycanthropy that Id gotten like you normally do by surviving an attack, but the other was a gift, or a warning, from Marmee Noirthe Mother of All Vampires.
Some said she was the oldest vampire in the world, the first of thembut having met one vampire that was an Australopithecus, I wasnt sure how that was possible. But whatever she was, she was ancient, and she was powerful, and she scared the hell out of me. She was still mostly asleep in her room in Europe, where shed been asleep for more than a thousand years. In her dreams, she terrified me, the other vampires, and anything she wanted to haunt. But her strain of vampirism was old enough that you could be both a vampire and a lycanthrope, which was not true of modern vampirism. The viruses killed each other off, so whatever you caught first, thats what you were.
She had visited my dreams and put a piece of her animal to call inside me. Why had she done it? Because she could.
Isnt she part of the wedding party? the vampire, Lucian, asked. His voice tried for that emptiness of the very old, but didnt make it. He was younger than he was trying to play. A lot of the younger vampires tried to play older. The more they tried to pretend to be older, the younger they were, usually. He also hadnt reacted to my cross being visible. That marked him as very young. Most of the vampires a century or more old reacted to holy objects as if they were always a danger. In truth, if the vampire didnt try to use powers on me, the cross might just sit there.
No, they arent part of the wedding party, Chuck said. The man is an old high school friend of the bride and this is his girlfriend.
I thought it was interesting thaTHE didnt give our names. That, in fact, he introduced us as blandly as possible. That was very interesting.
Just a friend of the brides? Lucian said, and let his voice hold his doubt.
Im a distant cousin of the Summerlands, Jason said.
You look like a close cousin, the weretiger said, and again he tried to move closer to us.
My tiger, tigers, reacted to it. They stalked through the darkness inside me like a glimmer of red-gold, and a swirl of palest yellow-gold. They, more than any of my other beasts, seemed to hide in the depths of that inner place. They used the shadows like trees and foliage to glide in and out of, so one moment there was a striped glimpse, then they were gone. Im told that real tigers are like that in the jungle. Invisible until they want to be seen.
Jason turned me in his arms so that my face was buried against his shoulder and neck. I breathed in the scent of his skin. He smelled like Jason, but underneath was the musk of wolf. It helped keep those glittering shapes away.
The scent of tiger comes and goes like a dream of wind in the desert, he said.
Poetic, Jason said, but were out of here. He started moving us across the floor. I turned my head enough to see where I was going. I caught a glimpse of blue eyes, but they werent human. The color was, but there was something about the shade, or shape, that wasnt human. The sight of those eyes clinched things low in my body, not sexually, but painfully. The tiger flexing its claws, letting me know that it resented being trapped in my human body with no way out.
My name is Crispin, the weretiger said.
Jason touched my face with the hand that wasnt around my waist. Dont look, he whispered.
I did whaTHE said. I kept my eyes forward. Rowe and Shadwell moved with us. I felt Crispin moving up behind us without needing to look behind.
Chuck said, Leave her alone.
I felt someone behind us, and it was Sanchez. Got your back, he said. I wasnt sure who he was saying it to, but my back, their back, our back, Id take it.
My stomach felt like there was something more solid in it than food, like the heaviness of a phantom pregnancy. Except it wasnt some ghostly baby inside me. It was something far more solid, and just like a real baby, it wanted out.