"They're so pretty," I said.
"Too small for much meat," Rodina said.
"Are you just trying to spoil the moment?" Nathaniel asked her.
"It's just the truth," she said.
"If you can't be positive, then just stop talking," he said to her.
She looked surprised that he'd spoken to her like that. Maybe she'd thought that his flirting with her had meant more than it had. Hell, I'd wondered about it myself, but his body posture, his whole attitude toward her, let me know that it was just his usual flirting. He'd probably started out as a flirt, but years of working at Guilty Pleasures had made flirting almost an automatic reflex. Rodina was learning that it hadn't meant anything to Nathaniel except a little fun.
"This is the first time the three of us have ever gone on a trip together. I know you're in mourning for your brother, and I really am sorry for that--I know what it means to lose a brother--but if you're going to rain all over Anita's happy moments, then we need to send you home and fly in someone else that can do their job without letting their feelings get in the way," Nathaniel said.
She stared at him for a second, openmouthed. Rodina had made the mistake that a lot of people did with Nathaniel: She'd just seen the flirtatious pretty boy, the stripper who managed to sleep his way to the top of the local food chain.
She closed her mouth and sank back into that blank face that all the really old ones could manage. "I can do my job."
"Great," he said, and that was that. He flashed me a smile and said, "We drove through the sanctuary on the way back to the airport and saw more of the deer. They came right up to the car, begging for treats."
"There are signs all over warning you not to feed the deer," Micah said.
"The deer came right up to the car windows, totally expecting that we'd give them something," Nathaniel said. His face was shining with the memory of it.
"I'd love to see more of the deer," I said.
"We'll come back, but no guarantees on seeing deer," Micah said.
"I understand, but, hey, at least I got to see two of them."
A sign let us know that we were leaving the Key deer area and we could go from forty-five miles per hour to whatever the actual speed limit was. I'd been so busy watching the scenery and gazing into my sweeties' faces that I hadn't kept track of it. I looked at the back of Nicky's head. He was working, and he was not my sweetie when he was on the job, but it was a little weird to be so up close and personal with Micah and Nathaniel and not touch Nicky at all.
I reached up to touch the back of his neck where his hair met the bare skin of his newly shortened haircut. He responded by turning and smiling at me but said, "It's okay, Anita, I don't feel left out."
"Okay, just checking."
He smiled a little wider. "And that is one of the reasons I'm okay with it."
If he had been closer I'd have kissed him, but since he was on the job he might not have allowed it, and nothing is quite as disheartening as offering someone a kiss and having it refused.
"We still need a cover story for R and R," Nicky said.
"Whatever story you want to use, think of it fast because we're about ten minutes away from the marina and the boat to the island," Bernardo said.
I voted for the truth, but I was outvoted. Jean-Claude and I were accused of wanting to be dictators. That wasn't our goal, but every once in a while a little dictatorship didn't sound so bad.
THE MARINA DIDN'T look that different from ones I'd seen with my family as a kid when we visited relatives on the Great Lakes, but the Great Lakes didn't have palm trees or the ocean spreading out to the horizon like a Caribbean island wet dream. The boat that would take us to the island was at the end of the row closest to the open ocean. We shouldered the bags like we had in the airport and headed down the wooden walkway with Bernardo leading the way. The walkway was wide enough for two of us to walk abreast, but no more, so Rodina and Ru had to walk in front and behind, one trailing Bram and the other following Nicky. The three of us were still in the middle of our bodyguard sandwich. A man's voice called out, "Hey, Bernardo, let me help with the bags."
I had so many taller people in front of me that I couldn't see the man who was being helpful until Bernardo and Rodina were on the boat, with Bram standing at the end of the wharf so he could keep an eye on us. The man who was helping stow the bags was under thirty with brown curls turned gold from the sun and a tan everywhere that I could see around his white T-shirt and khaki shorts. The T-shirt had a small logo over the pocket that matched the design on his white slip-on boat shoes. When he turned around there was a slogan on the back: Marry Me on Kirke Key, Florida.
Micah's phone rang as I was handing my first equipment bag to Bernardo on the boat. He let Nathaniel move ahead of him in the queue as he said, "Christy, what's wrong?"
I had no idea who Christy was, so I let Nicky hand over my other equipment bag and then took Bernardo's hand to step from wharf to boat. The uniformed man was named Roberto, though he looked more like a Chad, or maybe a Ken for Malibu Barbie, but Hispanic came in a lot more colors than most people realized.
"We're about to get on the boat for Kirke," Micah answered to the mystery woman on the phone. "Damn," he said.
The tone of voice made Nathaniel say, "No work--you promised."
"Hold on a minute, Christy." He hit the button that put her on hold and turned to Nathaniel.
I let Nicky help me out of the boat and back to stand beside them. "What's up, Micah?" I asked.
"Christy's husband is one of the pictures I showed you. He's drunk at a bar, too drunk to drive home safely, and he's fighting not to change."
"Stupid; drinking lowers your inhibitions," Nathaniel said.
"Christy says she's called everyone else that could go to him. She remembered that we were arriving today, so she called."
"No, Micah," Nathaniel said.
"He'll be outed if he shifts, Nathaniel."
"He shouldn't have gotten piss-faced drunk in a public place."
"I'm going to have to agree with Nathaniel on this one," I said.
"Christy is pregnant on full bed rest. It's why she can't go get hi
"You're afraid that she'll go get him, if we don't," I said.
"I've met her husband. Andy was drinking to self-medicate. It actually can help them not change form if you can keep the drunk to a certain level."
"It doesn't help our form of lycanthropy at all," Nathaniel said.
"It does seem to help them, but Andy has gone from being a functional alcoholic to being . . ."
"A drunk," Nathaniel finished for him.
"Yes," Micah said.
"No, Micah, just no. It's not your problem. It's not our problem."
"The snakes that his body changes into are venomous, and non-native to this country."
"Jesus," I said, "there won't be antivenom for it if they bite one of the people in the bar."
"People could die," Micah said.
"So, if I say, no, don't go, and his snakes bite someone and they die, somehow it's my fault for wanting to protect our time together."
"I didn't say that," Micah said.
"But you can save the day, and everyone will be safe," Nathaniel said.
"That's the hope."
"Damn it," Nathaniel said, "go save them."
Micah moved to kiss him, and Nathaniel actually turned away from him. Micah's face fell, and my stomach tightened into a hard knot. I did not want this fight, not now, not at the beginning of our trip together. Nathaniel's anger trickled along my skin and through my head, cracking our careful metaphysical distance. He was furious. I wasn't sure I'd ever felt him so angry at us.
He took a deep breath, let it out slow, and then hugged Micah. "I love you, damn it."
"I love you, too," Micah said, his face concerned as he pressed himself into the hug.
Nathaniel kissed him and then turned to me. "I love you both."
"We love you lots," I said, and for the first time I wasn't sure about moving in for a hug or a kiss.
He shook his head and then grabbed me, pulling me into an embrace. I let myself relax against his body, the strength of his arms, the solidness of his chest against mine. I buried my face against the side of his neck, breathing in the vanilla scent of him. A piece of his hair tickled along my cheek, and I felt that poignant sense of loss for his longer hair, and for just . . . for surety, for a surety that I could never have. You can say all the vows you want, but they mean that death does us part, and anger, misunderstandings, much smaller things than death, can part you from people. I leaned into his body, his strength, him, even though I could still feel the tension of his anger behind the shields that he'd put back in place hard and tight so we could touch and I wouldn't know how angry he still was at me.