Nathaniel moved closer so he could look over Micah's shoulder as he found the pictures he'd texted me. Jamie tried to look, too, but Nicky moved to block his view. It meant that Nicky would be able to see, but Micah didn't tell him to move, so apparently he really was going to share information as he saw fit, instead of asking for permission constantly. Rodina tried to peek, but Micah told her no. Ru took the hint and just stayed staring around the room looking for dangers. Bram did the same, but then he'd been one of the only people allowed into the meetings with Micah, so he didn't need to look at the pictures; he'd seen the real thing.
I realized that we hadn't really prepared Nathaniel for seeing them, because we hadn't been planning on bringing him to see Melanie until he suggested it. I had a moment of regret that Nathaniel was going to get dragged into the bad side of our jobs again. I wanted to protect him, but it seemed like no matter what I did lately, he ended up involved in the bad stuff.
His face was somber as he looked at the pictures. Nicky's face showed nothing, but then he truly was a sociopath, so he didn't have the depths of feeling that Nathaniel did. I was Nicky's conscience, his Jiminy Cricket, he'd called me once. Nathaniel didn't need me to help him feel empathy.
The people were being ushered out by one of the security guards near Melanie. We were next and there wasn't time to see how the pictures had affected Nathaniel. We'd talk later. Right now, we could see the lamia, because that's what I thought of first: not Melanie, but lamia. Her skin was darker than I remembered it, as if she was getting a summer tan. I guess when you belong to an ancient vampire you don't get out in the sunlight much, but now she belonged to herself and she could tan if she wanted to. Her hair was still long and thick and black. Her upper body was covered by a short silk robe that looked more Oriental than Arabian, but since she was already a Greek myth, we weren't really going for authenticity. The robe hid where her human body met serpent, so that it was like watching an attractive woman standing there, except where her legs should have been were the coils of a giant snake flexing and moving against the bright carpet and scattering of pillows. She turned with a wide, professional smile; then she saw me, and the smile vanished. Her golden eyes with their slit pupils looked even more exotic with tasteful but dramatic makeup around them, though it was hard to get more dramatic than snake eyes in a human face. She gave me a look that seemed to hold actual hatred in it. I didn't like her because she was dangerous and had tried to kill me, but I didn't hate her, so what had I done to make her hate me?
Nathaniel let go of my hand and flashed her one of the smiles that made customers at Guilty Pleasures rain money on the stage. Her glare at me shifted to something softer. He walked toward her with his hand out toward her. Rodina and Ru started forward to flank him like good bodyguards, but he told them to stay back.
They stopped moving, but they looked at me for confirmation. I just nodded. I don't know if Nathaniel noticed the exchange, but Melanie did. She smiled even more warmly at him and reached out toward his offered hand. Nathaniel said, "How do you get to be more beautiful every time I see you?" his voice holding that edge of teasing that had never worked on me, no matter who used the tone.
She smiled at him, taking his hand in hers and drawing him in for a hug. "Maybe you prefer your women darker-skinned," she said, looking at me. I was pasty white compared to her tan or Micah's or even Nathaniel's own skin tone. Nothing I could do would ever make me tan; burn, but not tan.
"You look amazing with or without the tan," Nathaniel said, trying to draw back from the hug. Melanie held on, pressing her breasts against his chest, making way more of the innocent hug than was polite. She looked directly at me while she did it. Something personal was going on that I had no clue about, and then I got a clue as I watched her hands explore Nathaniel's body. He had to move her hands off his ass, laughing and kissing her cheek as he did it, so that she didn't take offense at it. Was she jealous of Nathaniel? Did she see him as having left her for me? Just because he thought of them as fuck buddies didn't mean that's how she'd seen it. Great, just what we needed: a jealous lamia.
Nathaniel turned with her hand in his, smiling, as if he hadn't just had to move her hands off his ass. I was used to shit like that at his job, but outside of it, it pissed me off. That probably showed on my face, because Micah drew me in against him, which made me look at him instead of them, or maybe it bothered him, too.
I looked at him, and he gave the smallest shake of his head, which could have meant a lot of things. I'd ask later. Melanie couldn't make me jealous because there was no reason to be jealous of her and Nathaniel. There just wasn't. He was here to help Micah get information out of Melanie, and that was all.
Micah said, "Melanie, I'm sorry to barge in here like this. I know you only have a short break before your next group of fans."
"Nathaniel texted that you needed my expertise about some Coalition matter, though I cannot imagine what expertise I might possess that would aid you." She was calmer than I'd expected, or remembered. Of course, when I'd first met her, she'd spent centuries enslaved and controlled by an ancient vampire; maybe that would make anyone cranky.
"You should drink something while we talk to you. You still have quite a crowd waiting to see you," Nathaniel said.
She looked at him, smiling, and again her face softened more than I thought it should have. I was pretty certain that Melanie thought of him as an ex, not just a fuck buddy she stopped fucking. I wondered if the concept of fuck buddies had existed in ancient Greece.
Nathaniel led her over to the couch, and I was fascinated by watching the muscles in her tail move. She moved just like a snake, strong and muscular, except the top part of her was held aloft more like a snaky centaur, or maybe it was just Nathaniel holding her hand so that the human part of her seemed more human. When I'd seen her in this form years before, she'd moved forward much more like a serpent that just happened to have human parts. Tonight, she moved like a person with a snake's tail. I wasn't sure I could hav
e explained the difference out loud, but it was there.
One of the security guards pushed back a wall hanging to reveal a small refrigerator. He pulled out a bottle of sparkling water and had it opened and ready for Melanie by the time Nathaniel got her settled on the couch. He tried to let go of her hand and join us, but she pulled him down beside her on the couch. He sat beside her as if that was dandy with him.
"Ask your questions, Callahan; as Nathaniel said, I have a lot of fans still to see."
Micah came forward with his phone, and Bram trailed him like a shadow. Micah didn't tell him to stay back--I'm not sure it occurred to him to tell his tall, dark, right-hand man to stay behind. Bram went with him almost everywhere, even if it was just a few yards across a room.
Micah did make the security guard who had handed her the water and was now standing beside the couch back up. He didn't even try to explain why, just called the pictures up on his phone screen and tried to show them to her, but she ignored the phone to look at his hand. She set the water bottle on the floor and touched Micah's hand to turn it, and I realized she was looking at his engagement ring. Nathaniel had proposed to Micah, but he hadn't done it with a ring in hand. He'd waited until Micah accepted the proposal and then he'd surprised him with a thin gold band channel set with yellow and green sapphires all the way around. It was originally designed as a woman's anniversary band, something a couple added to the woman's original wedding set at ten years, or twenty, depending. The wedding bands were being custom made in mokume-gane, which was a Japanese metal technique originally designed for swords. Their rings would look like wood grain with no wood involved.
Melanie looked at the ring the way that women who wanted one on their own finger looked at them on other people's hands: part admiration, but mostly jealousy. "So it's true; Nathaniel proposed to you."
"Yes," Micah said.
"We found a ring in purple sapphires for me, but my hand is bigger, so we either have to have it sized up, which isn't easy with a ring that has stones all the way around, or we find me a different engagement band and just match the wedding bands."