I COVERED MYSELF in towels and Jason and I went out there and lied. He was right, it was easy. I was still damn near in shock. Even I couldnt tell what I was feeling from moment to moment.
In a way it was the first time Id ever met the red tiger. I wondered if he felt the same way about me, or if he had more memories of the last two days than I did. Part of me wanted to ask, and part of me never wanted to know.
Knowing how tall everyone else was, I could estimate his height at around five-ten. His hair was the deep red of his tiger fur. It looked like a good dye job, if you were into shades of red that didnt occur in human hair. I think he understood that, because the cut was short and designed, I think, to look spiky on top. If your hair doesnt conform, you might as well get a haircut that doesnt conform either.
Hed found the other white robe. I think his clothes were part of the mess on the floor, well, except for the jacket Id borrowed.
His eyes were the deep, rich golden yellow with an edge of deep red-orange that I remembered from mydream. But it hadnt been a dream. It was a memory. A memory that Marmee Noir had fucked with. If I hadnt had Richard to tell me, and too much evidence to the contrary, would I have been like any other human? Would I have simply thought it was a dream? If I had woken up with the weretigers not in the room with us, would I have just thought it was a funky nightmare and the claw marks were Jasons? Maybe, no, yes. That thought scared me a lot, because if she could do this, what else could she do to me?
Anita, Jamil said, Anita, did you hear that?
I blinked and looked up into the solid brown of his eyes. No, Im sorry, but no. Can you repeat it?
Shes in shock. This from the man in the robe. This fromAlex.
I studied his face, tried to see him, but it was as if I was only getting pieces of what I was seeing. What I saw was crystal-edged clear, but what I wasnt seeing was fuzzed and indistinct. His eyes seemed to distract me from the rest of his face. You had contacts, brown contacts, I said, and even my voice sounded disconnected, flat.
He nodded. You made me take them out.
I wouldnt let you touch me until I saw your tiger eyes, I said, voice soft. Why?
Crispin answered, Your tiger acts like a true-blood queen. Most of the time they wont mate with anyone who doesnt have the eyes.
Why not? I turned to him, and found thaTHE was still nude. Unselfconsciously so. Strangely, I had no trouble keeping eye contact. In fact, I seemed unduly fascinated with the pale blue jewel color of his eyes.
The eyes mark us both as natural-born, and they prove our bloodline is closer to pure, Crispin said.
I dont know what that means, I said, in that strange, unemotional voice.
The clans have started to try to intermarry with other bloodlines in the last few years, the other tiger said.
Why? I asked, but again my voice made it sound as if I didnt really care about the answer.
Our queens are having trouble getting pregnant, and the rate of birth defects was going up, Alex said.
My queen has forbidden our clan to talk about it, Crispin said.
Im so high on my queens shit list, it doesnt matter for me. Let me be very clear, Anita. He smiled and shook his head, and only then could I really notice thaTHE was handsome. It was the smile, the turn of the head, a flash of personality that helped me see his whole face and not just the eyes. I feel like we need to be introduced before I use your first name. Seems weird when you may be He stopped in midsentence, suddenly looking uncomfortable.
I finished for him. Weird when I may be pregnant with your child. Just saying it out loud made me feel colder.
He nodded, and he looked very unhappy. I dont know exactly what happened here, but I am sorry about my part of it. I thought when the call went out that my clan had found me and found a queen strong enough that I couldnt not come to her. I thought they were going to try to trap me into a pregnancy so Id be forced back into the clan. But you look less happy about this than I am; you didnt want this either.
No, I said, voice almost too low to be out loud.
He held out his hand to me. Im Alex Pinn, and I dont even know what else to say.
I almost smiled, which I guess was a good thing. Im Anita Blake. We shook hands, like civilized people.
His hand was large enough thaTHE had to work to shake mine, buTHE did it. He didnt make it awkward just because my hand was small in his. I liked that.
I cant do this. It was Richard. Of course, it was Richard.
I let go of Alexs hand and turned to find him leaning against the far wall. Id avoided looking at him while Jason and I lied. One, it was a lie. Two, I did not want to see his face while he thought it was the truth. His face didnt disappoint me.
Hed undone his hair and put it back in a tight ponytail that left that painfully handsome face naked for the eye. All the men in his family had the kind of cheekbones and jaw that other men went to plastic surgeons for, perfect bone structure. If you were into that utterly masculine handsome look.
He leaned against the wall, his hands pressed behind him. He was flexing his hands behind his back, because I could see it in the muscles of his shoulders and the glimpse of upper arm. Flexing his hands over and over, which he did sometimes when he was angry. Angry, and fighting himself not to be.
Something about the lack of lamps in the hotel room had put his eyes in shadow so they looked even darker than the brown I knew they were. The shadows took the gold from his hair and made it seem simply chestnut brown.
Shang-Da was standing beside him. He was the only person in the room taller than Richard. Shang-Da glanced at Richard, then back to the room. There was a moment when Shang-Das eyes met mine. Was it just shock, or had he, for a split second, felt sorry for me? Surely not.
Richard repeated, I cant do this.
Cant do what, Ulfric? Jamil asked.
I cant watch her take another man to her bed. I cant do it. His voice was calm, no anger, not even any of that otherworldly energy coming off him. Only the tensing and untensing of his muscles in his upper body showed the emotional turmoil under all that calm.
Im not planning to do anything with either of them again, I said, and there was the tiniest hint of some emotion in my voice.
You never plan it, Anita. I know that. Its weirdly never your fault. If you just cheated on me and couldnt keep it in your pants, I think I could deal with it, or walk away, but you, honestly, dont do it on purpose. He pushed himself away from the wall. Shang-Da took up his post just behind him.
What do you want me to say, Richard? There, a little more emotion. I knew the emotion now: anger. I should have fought it. Anger is bad when you carry beasts inside you. But I didnt fight it, I welcomed it. I fed it sweet words and coaxed it hotter. Anger was so much better than the other emotions running through meemotions so awful I didnt want to look at them, let alone feel them.
I want to see you recoil from his touch, but you didnt.
He was mind-fucked, too, Richard, you know that.
He nodded. His big hands were in plain sight now, flexing and unflexing. You could see the muscles work all the way from his hands to his upper chest now. I know. I cant even hate him. I want to, but youre right. He didnt mean tohave sex with you for two days. He didnt mean to make you forget to take your pill. He seems as horrified as the rest of us. He took another step into the room, and the first warm prickle of energy tiptoed through the room.
Dont you understand, Anita? You steal my self-righteousness away. You make me have to swallow so much, because if I react like a guy, Im a bastard. But I am not saint enough for this. Im just not. Im sorry, but Im not. His energy swirled out through the room like being too close to an oven.
Something stirred inside me, in that dark place. No, not this soon, not again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. I let it out slow, counting as I went.
Jamils voice came. Ulfric, please, youll bring her beast again.
Ill bring her wolf, you mean. I cant bring all her beasts, just like I cant be all she needs anywhere else in her life. For a moment the pain on his face was so raw, it hurt my heart to see it. Then he mastered himself, but the effort was visible. That made me feel bad, too.
He waved a hand at me. Dont, Anita, dont even try. Its not good, or bad, its just the truth. He looked at me then, gave me the full force of those perfectly brown eyes. Only they showed the pain that had a moment ago decorated his entire face. Only his eyes showed how much he hurt. How much I had hurt him. I never meant to cut him up like that, just as he never meant to hurt me. We just seemed to keep doing it, by accident.
I came here to check on you. Ive done that. Our master sent me on one more task. He held out his hand to me. But we need privacy for it.
I hesitated staring at that offered hand. If it has anything to do with sex, Richard
He let his hand fall away. Youre rejecting me? His power slapped against my skin like the opening of an oven door, set far too high to do anything but burn.
Im sore, Richard. I hurt. Anyone would be getting a turndown for a little while.
You like it rough, he said.
And just like that, my pity was gone. The tenderness wiped away with that one oversharing comment in front of strangers. Yes, Id had sex with them, but not while any of us were in our right minds. They were still strangers to me and my body.
And there you go, Richard, there you go.
What? he said.
You dont get it. None of us remember what happened except in snatches. What I like and what I dont is still something they dont know, unless you want to continue to overshare.
He took a deep breath in, then let it out slow. His shoulders hunched as if hed taken a blow, and then he straightened up, shoulders back.
Im sorry, youre right. But you cant blame me for thinking that these two are just like the other lovers in your bed. That they know you in every way.
Most of the lovers in my bed dont know me in every way, Richard. We have sex; thats not a relationship.
He shook his head. I need to do what Jean-Claude wanted me to do, and then I can go back to St. Louis.
Youre leaving, Jason said.
I cant be here with this much media. You both know that.
I nodded. I thought the same thing when you showed up.
What did Jean-Claude want you to do? Jason asked.
Richard pointed a finger at him. No, I dont need to hear from you right now. You are one of my lesser wolves, and you may have gotten my lupa pregnant. Thats a killing offense in most packs.
We had no choice, Richard, I said.
He shook his head, sending the ponytail sweeping over his shoulders. I dont mean what happened here. I mean in St. Louis. I mean making love because you wanted to, not because you fed the ardeur. He glared at us both, anger enough to burn in his eyes. Dont try to tell me that you take Jason to your bed only because hes food. I bought that at first, Anita, but it happens too often.
You sound like youve been listening to Perdy, I said.
Perdita and I have had a few talks. She thought a little tit-for-tat might be interesting.
What does that mean? I asked.
It means, Jason said, that Perdy offered to have sex with him so they could have their revenge on us for cheating with each other. Jasons voice was empty when he said it, as if it hurt too much to share it even by tone of voice.
I hadnt had sex with Jason in months, Richard, not even for food. I took him off the roster when I realized it made Perdy so uncomfortable.
He gave a harsh laugh, and again there was that slap of power, worse this time, like biting insects along my skin. He swallowed the power back, then said, Uncomfortable? You broke her heart, the two of you.
Jason and I exchanged a look. He shrugged. Oh good, he didnt know what to say either. Why would I lie to you about how often Ive been sleeping with Jason, Richard? I have no reason to lie to you. We arent monogamous.
Thank you so much for reminding me of that. His voice was harsh when he said it.
Youre no more monogamous than I am, Richard. Dont try to pretend you are.
I would be, if you would only
Shang-Da went down on one knee in front of Richard, sweeping his long black coat out, so that you got glimpses of some of the armament underneath. He held one big hand up toward Richard. Most of the animal groups had a version of this. It was a request for attention, and a show of subservience.
Richard looked down at him. What is it, Shang-Da?
Perhaps now is not the time to air our personal matters in front of strangers from other animal groups and vampire kisses. His voice was as empty as he could make it, but there was an edge of anger to it. That anger carried a thread of warmth thaTHE couldnt quite swallow.
Jamil had moved closer to both of them, but it was clear he wasnt sure what to do, or how our Ulfric would take the interruption. The very uncertainty of Jamil in that moment let me know that I needed to pay more attention to my duties as lupa. They were afraid of Richard. That had never happened before. Id urged him to be a stronger king, but seeing it now, like this, made me regret. So much about Richard made me regret.
The phone rang. I jumped. God, who could it be?
Jason said, It might be the hospital about my dad. He looked at Richard, as if for permission.
Richard nodded. It made me feel a little bit hopeful. He was still Richard, somewhere in there.
Jason picked up the phone and said hello, then, Just a minute, Ill see if shes available. He held the phone against his chest. Its Peterson. He says hell answer your questions now. Do you know whaTHE means?
Yeah. I went for the phone.
Whos Peterson? Richard asked.
The head security guy for the Summerlands, I said.
And youre going to take his call, now?
I need to know how much danger were all in. This call may tell us that.
And thats more important than this? Richard asked. His otherworldly energy grew a little hotter.
I kept walking for the phone; farther away from his power was better right now. I remembered another reason he and I had broken up. He never could understand that emotion, no matter how strong, shouldnt make you forget the bad guys. Just because the metaphysics has hit the fan, Richard, doesnt make the other problems go away.
How can you do that, Anita?
Do what? I was at Jasons side now. All I had to do was reach out and take the phone, but I was afraid of what Richard would do.
Concentrate on business, on bad guys, when you may be pregnant with someone elses child?
And why cant you concentrate on business in the middle of the crisis, Richard?
His handsome face went angry, sullen. Because Im not a coldhearted bitch.
That was it. I held out my hand to Jason. He gave me the phone, but his eyes stayed wary and focused on someone behind me. I was betting on who. As for me, I didnt want to see Richard right now.
This could lose me my job, Peterson said.
Then why tell me?
Because Schuyler seems like a better person than Keith. I dont want him dying for that little bastard.
Talk to me, Peterson.
Keith is hiding, even from us and his family. Last we heard he eloped to Vegas and married a vampire.
Shit, I said.
Yeah, but its not legal. He can still marry his fiance, and his family is determined he go through with it, if we can find him.
So far, its a scandal but it wont endanger Jason.
Ask me why its not legal.
Okay, why isnt it legal?
The vampire bride is already married. Shes married to a Master of the City.
I was quiet for a second, then said, Seriously?
Deadly serious, he said.
No master would take that kind of insult.
Jason looked at me, eyes a little wide; maybe it was my master comment, but truthfully he probably was picking up at least some of the other end of the conversation. He was standing that close, and his preternatural hearing was that good.
The Master of the City in question has put a bounty out on Keith. He wants his wife alive and Keith dead. Hes sent people to do the job; we just dont know who they are. Until you and Schuyler surfaced they were looking elsewhere for Keith, but if they think hes trying to hide in plain sighTHE let it trail off.
Theyll come for us, I said.
Is Keith this stupid?
Yes, but she pressured him. Its not an excuse, but she seemed to know him. Not him, but she seemed to know his great-great-whatever-grandfather, Jedediah. Something about him being the love of her life.
Didnt Jedediah die by vampire attack, something about him either trying to convert the vampires to his faith or seducing the wrong vampire lady?
Those are the two versions, Peterson said.
Are you saying that Keith has gotten himself mixed up with the same vampires that killed Jedediah Summerland?
Shit about covers it, he said.
What Master of the City is it, Peterson?
No, I wont tell you that.
I might be able to take care of both our problems.
No, we cant let this go public, Blake. It will sink the governors chances of the nomination. We have to find Keith, and get the wife back to her husband as quietly as possible.
You dont understand vampires; I do. The master wont back down. Theres no quietly fixing this, Peterson. If his hired people dont do the job, then he will. Your little bastard is a dead man.
No, Blake, my little bastard is too high-profile for the master to come after him personally.
He might not be thinking that clearly, Peterson.
Ive told you all I can. If something happens, now you know.
I really do appreciate it, but let me help you. Tell me the name, or the city. I can do things you cant.
Someones coming, Ive got to go. Be careful, Blake. He hung up.
I turned to look at Jason. His face was a little pale, as if hed heard just enough to understand how deep a hole Keith Summerland had dug for himself.
Did you catch all that?
Alex Pinn said, Keith Summerland is involved with vampires. Oh, man, this is too sweet.
Id sort of forgotten about Alexs job. I was told you were too deep in cover to risk a story about this.
About wereanimals, yeah, but not vampires. Im not one of those.
You cannot use this, Alex. Peterson risked his job warning me.
What are you talking about? Richard asked.
I wanted to share with Richard, but one look at Alexs eager face and I knew that Id already overshared. I owed Peterson more than that. I cant say right now, Richard; later.
More secrets! More lies! And just like that, Richards power filled the room. My skin ran with heat, as if Id been thrown into a hot bath. It didnt hurt, but it was hard to get a full breath. So hot, so thick, so powerful; Richards power filled the room.
It called to all the wolves in the room. They could not help but answer their Ulfrics power with a little of their own. Jason was closest to me, so his power flowed along my skin first. It was like someone had turned on a second tap of hot water, to make warm water hotter. We didnt need hotter. We needed to cool down. The question was how to do that.
Shang-Das power and Jamils hit me almost at once, and I was suddenly drowning in the scent of wolf. That sweet musk and I could feel it, my wolf, inside me. Not see her, but feel her like the brush of fur against parts of me that nothing should have touched but a blade.
The sensation was so uncomfortable, so eerie, that I shivered. Richard mistook the shiver, because he said, You can protest all you want, Anita, but you enjoy the power. There are things that the wolves can do for you that the vampires cannot. You just keep fighting it.
The wolf inside me moved through my stomach, like a hand in places it should never go. Nausea rolled over me. I had to swallow hard.
She didnt shiver from pleasure, Richard, Jason said.
Now you know her better than I do, little wolf?
His power seemed to fill the room so there was no air left to breathe. My wolf didnt come running up that long tunnel inside me. No, the wolf was too close for that. I felt it move inside me, brush fur and claws against the inside of my body.
Richard, please, somethings wrong. Help me.
It was Crispin who came to me. Crispin who walked through the rising power. Still nude, still a stranger, but it was he who came to me.
Dont touch her, Richard growled.
Shang-Da, still on his knees said, Ulfric, please, you will bring her beast, and we will have yet one more problem to deal with. He looked up at Richard. Id never seen Shang-Da look so imploring.
Jamil came to the other side and went onto one knee, as well. Please, Ulfric, your power is choking us all. You will bring all our wolves.
Crispin stood in front of me now. He had stopped short of touching me, as Richard had asked. That got him an extra point. He was not making anything worse. In fact, looking up into his blue eyes, his tiger eyes, helped still that sense of fur gliding on the wrong inside-out of my skin.
Jason was closest to us, but I think he could sense my wolf so terribly close under the skin. He knew better than to add his touch to Richards power. Jason walked toward the other werewolves. He stayed out of Richards immediate reach, buTHE went down, not on one knee, but on all fours. He bowed his head and crawled toward the bigger man.
Id seen the gesture before, from Jason and other wolves. It was his attempt to apologize to Richard for any offense. Jason, too, was trying to make things better. Only Richard stood there filling the room with his warm, crawling power, and made it worse. Why was it always Richard, lately, who pushed things worse? Or me? Never forget me. I could screw things up too, but not tonight. I was too scared to fuck it up on purpose tonight.
Richard, I said, did you find the charm?
He turned and it was as if his power were some huge beast, as if his power turned with him and stared at me out of his wolf amber eyes. I dont know if it was the look, or the power, but it made that brush of fur whirl inside me. I stumbled, and only Crispins hand kept me from falling.
The momenTHE touched me, the wolf receded. I could breathe through Richards power. I clung to Crispins hand with both of my own, and it was like the world was a little more steady. I waited for the white tiger to rise inside me, but it didnt. I just felt better.
Richards power lashed out, coming with his voice, like something thick and touchable that slammed into me. I said, dont touch her!
Crispin staggered with me, as if whatever Richard had done was solid to him, too. But the weretiger kept us on our feet and drew me in against his body, shielding me from Richard. It was gallant, but if anything was guaranteed to make Richard more pissed, that was it.
He came for us, came for us in a blur of speed, and rage, and power, and I was still standing in a towel with only a gun in my hand, and a strange weretiger on my arm. If I wasnt willing to shoot Richard, I was about to run out of options.