"ANITA, ARE YOU all right?"
I jumped, tripping over the hem of the dress and jerking the top of the dress hard enough that one breast popped out. I did manage not to drop my phone, though.
Donna, the bride-to-be, laughed and then looked away quickly as I fumbled to try to cover the breast that had escaped. There were enough laugh lines in her face to let me know she did it often. As her face relaxed, she looked younger--dare I say glowing? She just looked happy, and nothing makes someone as beautiful as happiness and being in love. No makeup or youth serum can come close to that beauty secret. "I've never seen you startle like that," she said with an edge of laughter still in her voice. "You and Ted are usually so hyperaware of your surroundings that I didn't think it was possible for me to sneak up on either of you."
"I'm fine, just a little jumpy apparently," I said, but I was mentally cursing myself because she was right. I was in a public place and I'd had to hand over my gun and knives to our bodyguard, Nicky, because there was no way to have any weapons while we tailored the dress. If I'd been thinking, I would have brought a thigh holster and my Sig Sauer .380. Thigh holster was one of my least favorite ways to carry, but at least I could have kept one weapon on me. A belt holster on a formal dress had nowhere to hang, so I'd handed my weapons to Nicky. We had two more bodyguards outside the doors to the bridal shop, so I was safe, but I still didn't like that Donna had been able to sneak up on me. Micah had talked to Nathaniel before he'd asked for privacy and just me. Whatever he'd said to Nathaniel had left our shared boyfriend smiling, so Micah's doubts had only come to me--lucky me. I think I meant it on the lucky part; one of the three of us should be enjoying themselves today.
"Whatever you were thinking about just now isn't fine," Donna said, raising a hand as if to smooth her hair back behind her ear. But the new hairdo was all soft, short curls that didn't encroach on the smooth curve of her ears, which bore two delicate stud earrings. Her hair had been brown, but now it was almost blond, with just hints of her underlying brown, as if the sun had bleached it golden, but I'd been told she'd gone to a great hair stylist.
"You said it yourself, Donna. I let you sneak up on me in a public place. I could have been flashing a stranger."
She chuckled. "The halter dress looks great on Denny, but you . . ." She waved vaguely at me and shook her head, still smiling. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about how different you and Denny are built when I asked for you to match her dress."
"Denny's inseam must be seven inches longer than mine, Donna. Plus, she's a serious runner and does triathlons, so she's built long and lean. I'll never be either of those things."
Donna hugged me, which was a little more awkward than normal, because I could only use one arm to hug her back unless I was willing to do a lot more than flash one breast. The thought of pressing my bare breasts against Donna in a close hug made me wildly uncomfortable. If I hadn't been dating women, would it have bothered me as much? I think so. It wasn't the girl-on-girl thing; it was the Donna thing.
"I forgot how much shorter you were than Denny; you always seem to fill up more space than that, just like Ted does." She drew back and I was happy the hugging was over, so I could try to rearrange the halter top as best I could.
"I forget that he's only five-eight sometimes, too," I said.
"He seems like he must be at least six feet tall, doesn't he?" she said.
I smiled and agreed because she was right. Nathaniel was actually an inch taller than Edward, but I always forgot that until they were standing next to each other for comparison. Part of the reason was that Nathaniel had only been five foot six when we met, so sometimes I remembered him as shorter than his full height.
"Thank you again, Anita, for flying to New Mexico this close to the wedding. I know how you hate to fly, and now you'll have to fly home and then fly to Florida, so three flights instead of just one."
"Only your tailor here in New Mexico was going to be willing to make time in their schedule this close to the wedding, so I had to come to you."
"You didn't have to come; you could have told me to go to hell and you were wearing a tux like we planned."
I smiled. "I could have, but I'd rather not have a fight with you and Ted this close to your wedding. I'm his best man; I have to act like the better man, or better person, or whatever."
Donna's eyes narrowed, small frown lines appearing between her eyes. She reached out toward me and for a second I thought it was the beginning of another hug, but her hand sort of hovered near my left shoulder. "I've never seen that one before. I guess your usual shirts cover it."
It took me another second to realize she meant the scar on my collarbone.
"How did it happen?" she asked, voice soft.
"A vampire did it," I said.
"It doesn't look like a vampire bite."
"He wasn't trying to drink my blood. He bit me so he could tear me up; he bit through my collarbone and just kept worrying at me like a dog with a bone."
Her face started to show horror, but she got control of herself until when she asked the next question she looked neutral. I knew she didn't feel that way, but I gave her points for the control.
"What about the bend of your arm?"
I looked down at my left arm with its mound of scar tissue. "Same vampire."
"God, he just wanted to hurt you, didn't he?"
I made a fist, flexing my arm. There was a lot more muscle on the arm than there had been when I got the injury. A doctor had told me I'd lose partial use of my arm if I didn't do my physical therapy and start lifting weights. It had been the first thing that got me into the gym seriously. Keeping the use of my arm was a much better motivator than fitting into a smaller size of jeans. Both scars were white and slick now, but the scars in the bend of my arm would always be raised and feel like there was something under the skin, because so much scar tissue had formed at the wound as it healed. The vampire hadn't even broken my arm, but the scar was worse all the same. The scar between my shoulder and neck was flat to my skin except for the one area over my collarbone that would always be raised. It wasn't rougher, exactly, but it was as if I could still feel the broken edges of the bone sticking up underneath my skin, though it was just scar tissue, not bone. Both injuries had healed years ago, but when it got damp or cold, or if I ever laid off the weight lifting for the arm for too long, they would ache. I realized with a shock that they didn't ache like that anymore, or very rarely. I had too much magic in my veins now, too much power. It made me more, or less, than pure human, depending on whom you asked. Micah wasn't the only one who got casual death threats from hate groups.
Donna misunderstood the look on my face, because her eyes got shiny and her voice had a catch in it when she said, "Anita, I am so sorry that I tried to make you wear a dress that shows all your . . . job-related injuries. I know how many Ted has, and I should have known that you'd have them, too. If you had said something, I would have understood."
I looked at myself in a way that I didn't normally. The scars were just a part of me. The cross-shaped burn mark on my left forearm I'd gotten from the same attack as the other two injuries. It had been the first time Edward and I worked together on a case. It sort of set the tone for our working relationship. The burn had been from the vampire's servants branding me so I'd look like a vampire who had had a holy object burn her. It had amused them while we waited for darkness to fall and their master to rise. It had amused them right up to the moment when Edward burned the house down around them and nearly around both of us. I'd never liked him using the flamethrower after that. Hell, I didn't like flamethrowers in general after that, but he was the only vampire executioner I'd ever known who would actually use it in the field.
Donna's hand hesitated above my arm, as if she was going to touch the claw marks just below the burn. The scars from the shapeshifted witch made the cross a little crooked. Edward hadn't been there for that wound. I'd been working with the police on
my own that time, before I had a badge and was officially on the job myself, back when I'd just been a vampire executioner, consulting with the police. Edward had just been Edward, cold-blooded assassin who specialized in killing monsters, both human and otherwise. I hadn't even known he had a legal identity as Ted Forrester, bounty hunter. Now we were both U.S. Marshals with the Preternatural Branch. We did the same job legally and, for Edward, for far less money.
She pointed vaguely at the small slick scar on the side of my arm, and then the thin, almost dainty scar on my right arm that was barely noticeable. "I know that's a bullet graze and that's a knife wound, because Ted has similar ones." She looked at me, her brown eyes going large in her tanned face. She looked suddenly younger, or more innocent, as if I got a glimpse of what she might have looked like at fifteen. "I stopped asking about where the other scars came from, because Ted told me the truth and they were almost all stories like the werewolf attack that killed my first husband, except that Ted goes out hunting the monsters. The monster that killed Frank broke into our house. It was a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy, but Ted and you go out looking for it."
"We hunt rogue vampires and lycanthropes that have murdered people. We keep people safe by killing the things that kill them."
She nodded, biting her lower lip, the frown lines deep between her eyes. There was real fear in them. Maybe she was remembering the death of her first husband, and that was probably in the mix of terror, but I thought it was more anticipating future tragedy than dwelling on the past. I looked into Donna's eyes and saw the fear that every time the man she loved left for work, he might not come back. I could tell her that he was more likely to die in a car crash, or from a dozen innocent household accidents, than be eaten by monsters, but it wouldn't help the emotions I saw in her eyes.
"I know you and Ted save lives. I know you keep other families safe from the monsters. I know that."
I reached out and touched her arm. "You know that Ted is the best, the absolute best at this job."
She nodded again, a little too fast and a little too often. "He says the same about you." She grabbed my hand where it touched her arm and held on. "I always feel better when you're with him, because he says you're the best, next to him."
"He helped train me, so he's still complimenting himself." I smiled when I said it and got a weak smile in return.
"I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to him," she said. She started tearing up. I hugged her because I didn't know what else to do, but apparently it was the wrong thing, because she started crying harder, clinging to me like she was really going to start sobbing. Fuck, what did I do now? How could I make her feel better about one of the truths of our job?
She went very still in my arms, and the crying slowed. She pushed away with her face still wet with tears and asked, "What's on your back?"
"Nothing," I said.
"I felt it."
I half turned and she touched the edge of the place where a vampire servant had tried to drive one of my own wooden stakes into my back. It was low on my back, and they'd just tried to shove the stake in without using a mallet. It doesn't work that way in real life, not if you're only human-strong, anyway. Lucky for me it had just been a human in league with the vampire I'd been hunting, and not a vampire.
"That's one of your own stakes driven into you, isn't it?" she asked. She wasn't crying anymore, so it was better, right?
"Yeah," I said.
"Ted has one like it; that's why I know what it is. You know, it's right there." She touched the side of my hip where bathing suits and underwear covered.
"I've never seen that one."