Edward/Ted said, "We figured that all you wimminfolk would be upset if we challenged them to an impromptu fight club. Besides, swimming is the only thing that almost negates a lycanthrope's supernatural strength and speed." He started with a thick accent, or he wouldn't have used the word wimminfolk, but by the time he finished he had no trace of any accent, just that perfect middle-of-nowhere-America voice that was either natural or training. He didn't usually forget his Ted accent in public like this. I'd noticed he was slipping more in New Mexico, too.
"Does it really?" Micah asked.
Edward gave him a long look out of his pale blue eyes. "Your tone says you know different, pardner." Just like that, Ted's thick, vaguely Texas, or somewhere southwestern, accent was back. Why did he keep slipping in and out of character? It wasn't like him.
"Extra speed and strength seem to be across the board for most of us," Micah said.
"You also have to know how to swim better than the man racing you," Edward said, and again he sounded like himself, not Ted. Then the accent returned with a vengeance as he said, "And none of your fellow shapeshifters have ever been much for swimming, or so they said." It wasn't like him to keep losing the accent in public. I might have tried to get Edward off to one side for a whispered question or two, but Micah said, "Look." I looked where he gestured and suddenly forgot all about Edward's Batman dilemma.
A bevy of bikini-clad women parted like a curtain and Nathaniel and a blond man I didn't know were suddenly revealed, laughing and flirting with the women. Nathaniel flirted almost unconsciously, but he didn't usually turn it up this high unless he was onstage. The two men stalked to the far end of the pool, having to peel a brunette, a blond, and a redhead off of them like towels. I finally recognized the blond man; it was Ru. Out of his clothes he seemed taller, almost as tall as Nathaniel's five feet nine. In clothes he'd looked thin, delicate even; out of them he looked lean and muscular. He didn't bulk as nicely as Nathaniel did, but within the limits of his body type he was muscled everywhere that I could see. He was narrower through the hips than Nathaniel, but then Nathaniel was built like the male version of an old-fashioned pinup. Ru was built like a long-distance runner who hit the weight room. The leaner body type with its naturally lower body fat gave him one advantage; he had not a six-pack, but an eight-pack. No amount of exercise or diet will give you more than a six, but if you have the genetics for it, you can get an eight-pack. I'm told a ten-pack is possible, but I've never seen one in person. Nathaniel lost too much of his ass when he leaned down even for a six. He looked fabulous as he was. I didn't need to be able to trace my finger between the connective tissue of his abs to appreciate that he was beautiful. The gaggle of flirting women behind them was admiring both views pretty damn hard. I had time to be happy that Nathaniel was mine, and admit that Ru looked awesome, both of them in their body-hugging Speedos, purple and blue, respectively, and then they dived into the water and began to swim under the surface. I went to the edge of the pool with Micah's hand still in mine, so I had a better view. The flirting women did the same thing, but I couldn't really blame them. Who wouldn't want a better view?
They were suspended in the water side by side, Nathaniel's hair flared out around his head like an auburn halo. Ru's short hair was thick enough, or long enough on top, to move slightly in the shining blue pool. They both came up out of the water at the same time, breaking the pool's surface in bright flashes of light where the sun hit the water. I heard their breaths gasp in, and then they were swimming side by side, and I realized they were racing. Nathaniel wasn't that competitive, and Ru hadn't seemed that competitive. Of course, Ru hadn't seemed flirtatious or even that social until now.
The women trailed along the pool edge, some calling out Ru's alias, Wyatt, and others calling for Nathaniel. Micah gave a small frown and looked at me. I knew the look. If you left Nathaniel alone long enough, he usually picked up an admirer, and he didn't always discourage it, but this seemed more than usual. I wondered if it was the addition of Ru; maybe he was more of a flirt than we'd realized.
A tall, lean man with skin the color of black coffee, wearing a slightly larger swimming suit, was standing at the end of the pool watching the two of them intently. His skin was so dark it was harder to see the muscle development, but it was there. He wasn't mine. Lieutenant Colonel Muhamad (Frankie) Franklin was one of Edward's oldest friends, though he knew him only as Ted Forrester, which was Edward's legal name and the one he'd entered the military with. You don't start out as Batman. So, oldest friend, but not that close; the close ones knew the secret.
It was hard to tell from where we were standing who touched the wall first, but when they came out of the water breathing heavy and laughing, it was Nathaniel whom Frankie pointed at as the winner.
"If you weren't taller than me, we'd have tied," Ru said.
Nathaniel just nodded, grinning. He swept his hands through his hair to smooth it back from his face. I watched his handsome face laughing in the pool, that body that he worked so hard to maintain come dripping out of the water, and I knew that I'd come close to losing some or all of that beauty, because that's what the vampire had threatened: not just death but disfigurement, torture. The helplessness of that moment haunted me, and I hated that it did, but I couldn't seem to let it go. I couldn't even stuff it to the back of my head, where I'd been shoving other bad memories for years. The memories from Ireland lived right in the front of my head, so that everything filtered through them.
Ru smoothed his hands through his own shorter hair, which seemed even brighter yellow wet. He was smiling and patting Nathaniel on the back, as if they were best buddies.
Micah whispered, "What is going on?"
I just shook my head and shrugged, because I had no idea.
I lost sight of them then as the bevy of bikinis closed around them. A few men came in and got their women out of the group, some with grace and smiles, others obviously upset that the women were flirting a little too much. None of the men who pulled them away were in the same ballpark of handsome as either Nathaniel or Ru. I was prejudiced about Nathaniel, maybe, but it wasn't sentimentality that made me think it of the other man.
Rodina came to stand next to us and spoke low. "Ru is very good at mirroring whomever he is with; it makes him a near perfect undercover spy. I told him to stay close to Nathaniel, and he has, but he's also imitated him a little too well. If one of you could claim Ru as well as Nathaniel as your lover, that would be most helpful. He's good at getting into these situations, but not at getting out of them."
"I'm not claiming Ru," Micah said.
She leaned toward me. "Before you refuse as well, Anita, let me add that if you don't play girlfriend for my brother, I'll be forced to do it."
I turned and stared at her.
"The look on your face, y
our feelings in my head: You find the thought of me playing his girlfriend almost as disturbing as I do; so happy neither of us finds incest fantasies enticing."
"What do you want from me, Rodina?"
"It's Morgan, and just help my brother, Wyatt, extract himself from his too-successful flirting. Morgan and Wyatt Erwin, because you wanted us old enough to teach undergrad, not be one, remember."
They came padding barefoot toward us, smiling and talking excitedly to each other, as if they really were best friends. The redhead was on Nathaniel's arm, one brunette on Ru's, but another brunette had put herself between the two men, an arm through each of their arms. Nathaniel's lavender eyes had darkened with the exertion or the excitement of the competition so that they were the color of violets. It usually took sex to make his eyes that dark. Ru's eyes couldn't get any darker, but they were shiny with laughter and a joie de vivre that I didn't think he had in him.
"Hi, pussycat. Hi, Wyatt," I said as they came up to us with the other women still in tow. I looked at Nathaniel's eyes a little closer and realized that they weren't darker from exercise; it was anger. He'd upped his flirting game with these strangers because he was pissed at us for abandoning him. I wasn't sure what to do to soothe the anger, extract him from the women, and make up for the fight that was threatening to happen, but Micah knew exactly what to do. He stepped forward and cupped his hands around the bottom of Nathaniel's face and kissed him like he meant it. Nathaniel extracted himself from the redhead like she didn't exist, putting his arm around Micah. He tried to extract himself from the brunette, but she seemed sort of frozen on his arm, as if she couldn't process the two men kissing. I always enjoyed seeing the men in my life kissing each other; the only thing better was when they were on either side of me in bed and kissed over me. The second brunette was staring openmouthed at them, too. She clung even harder to Ru's other arm. I wasn't sure if it was a possessive gesture or to steady her world. She'd thought she had a shot at one or both, and now half of the handsome duo was kissing another man. She didn't seem to have a fallback plan for this turn of events.