"Protecting me from what?" Dixie yelled, trying to push past Donna.
"What?" Dixie stopped pushing and looked at Donna like she was crazy. "She's five inches shorter than I am. She's tiny."
"Size isn't everything," I said, voice quiet, because I realized I would enjoy an excuse to hurt Dixie. I wouldn't hurt her much, because I wouldn't need to, but she was getting on my nerves and we hadn't even flown to the destination for the destination wedding yet. It did not bode well for Dixie and me.
She tried to push past Donna again, and this time Donna let her, moving just enough to one side so that Dixie's pushing carried her forward, stumbling. Dixie had made the rookie mistake of getting stuck on pushing against someone: Just stop holding them up and they'll usually fall. Donna used small, fast hand movements to help Dixie to the floor, using one arm as a lever, or maybe a leash; it depended on what you wanted to do next. Dislocate her elbow, face-plant her on the ground, so many options.
Dixie cried out in surprise. She looked and sounded as surprised as I was that Donna had done it. When I met Donna she'd been useless in a crisis and she would never have done anything this physical, this soon. Yay, Donna!
"If I can do this to you, Dixie, Anita would destroy you." She let go of her friend and stepped back out of reach, just in case. You never know how someone is going to take an object lesson that includes physical force. Major brownie points to her for treating her best friend like anyone else you've forced to the ground.
Dixie knelt on the ground cradling her arm like it hurt. I knew it didn't hurt. Donna hadn't done anything to hurt her, yet. It had been very controlled. Violence and control had been two things Donna didn't have when Edward first introduced us. I hadn't known until this moment that he'd been teaching her how to fight. Since I was insisting that everyone close to me learn at least the basics of self-defense, I approved.
Dixie started to cry, softly, as she knelt on the floor, still cradling her arm. "You heartless bitch, you deserve to be cheated on." Maybe Dixie just called everyone insulting pet names. If I'd known that, I might have let the whore and slut comments go.
Donna was clear-eyed, calm, and determined as she said, "Anita, go find Nathaniel and help him pick out a new dress for you. Dixie and I are going to stay here and talk things over."
"You could have broken my arm, you bitch!"
"Go on, Anita. I've got this," Donna said in a voice so sure of itself that I could almost hear the echo of Edward in it. Or maybe I was doing her a disservice; maybe this surety had always been inside her and Edward had just helped her find it. Either way, I honored that strength in her and did what she asked without questioning if she could handle the situation. She'd proved she could handle herself and Dixie. So I left her to handle things and went to find Nathaniel and get out of that dress.
NATHANIEL FOUND ME before I could start wandering the store in search of him, which was just as well since I'd tripped again. The only thing that saved me from flashing again was that I had so much of the skirt in my hands that it hid my chest, which begged the question of what I had tripped on: I thought I had all the damn skirt in my arms.
"You are adorable," Nathaniel said. His arms were full of black and teal cloth, presumably more dresses.
I glared at him as I tried to get my one high heel free of the single edge of hem I'd managed not to pick up. "It is not adorable that this dress is trying to kill me."
His face was shining with suppressed laughter. His eyes had darkened from lilac to lavender with the effort not to laugh at me. His driver's license said his eyes were blue, but they weren't; they were shades of purple like flower petals. Strangers asked if they were colored contacts, but they weren't. The eyes sat in the middle of a face that was more beautiful than handsome, but I preferred my men on the pretty side of masculine, so it worked for us. He'd pulled his thick auburn hair back into a ponytail, but it wasn't quite long enough, so strands of it escaped and trailed around his face. Once his hair had been down to his ankles, and it had been midcalf length when some very bad vampires chained him up and cut it off. They'd done it with me tied up and forced to watch. They'd planned to torture and mutilate him to get to me, and it would have worked, except that we escaped and killed them first. His hair was growing back, but it was a constant visual reminder of what we had almost lost.
There were reasons for the two bodyguards, Millington and Custer, who were hanging near the front of the store, one outside and one inside near the door. Millie's white-blond hair was still cut high and tight, as if he'd never stopped being a Navy SEAL, but Custer, nickname Pud, had let his brown hair grow out enough that it almost touched the tops of his ears. Millie was starting to tease him about being a hippie. I trusted them to make sure that no one who was a threat to us entered the shop. But it was Nicky Murdock, who came down the aisle behind Nathaniel like a blond mountain, whom I trusted the most. I would never risk Nathaniel like that again, not if I could avoid it, and I knew that Nicky understood that. He was our main bodyguard for that and a lot of other reasons. His shoulders barely fit between the clothes racks on either side of the aisle. He was a fraction of an inch shorter than six feet. Millie was taller at six feet plus, but though the ex-Navy SEAL was in great shape, he looked almost fragile when he stood beside Nicky. Pud was a little bit shorter than either of them, and slightly broader through the shoulders than Millie, but nothing close to Nicky. We had plenty of bodyguards who were taller than Nicky, but almost none of them were as broad through the shoulders. He'd been a big guy to begin with, but a devotion to weights and the natural genetics to bulk had made him huge. He was like a smiling blond colossus trailing behind Nathaniel, and I knew that he was even more dangerous than he looked.
Nicky was good-looking, but in a much more masculine way than Nathaniel. He had squarer features, and just to set off the rugged look, he was missing his right eye. Where it would have been were slick white scars, in a harsh contrast to the blue eye on the other side. His yellow hair was long on top so that it fell forward toward his face, but the sides were almost shaved. The longer spill of hair almost seemed to be pointing at the missing eye so you wouldn't miss it; before he cut the hair, the yellow point had cascaded down over the scars, hiding them. It had been a sort of anime version of an eye patch. I wasn't sure if the haircut was a show of solidarity with Nathaniel, or if Nicky had simply been ready to face the world head-on with no hiding. He still got uncomfortable now and then, when people stared, but he stared back and they usually dropped their gaze and tried to pretend they hadn't been looking. He was one of only two lovers in my life who had more spectacular scars than I did.
He smiled as he said, "I thought for a second I'd have to save you from putting Dixie in the hospital."
I finally got my heel untangled from the hem. "I didn't think we were being that loud, and I wouldn't have hurt her that badly," I said.
"We're lycanthropes. We'd hear almost everything in a store this size," Nicky said.
"And Dixie is usually loud," Nathaniel said, and he looked unhappy.
"I take it you've about had it with her, too," I said.
He nodded. "I think even Donna is getting fed up."
"Donna just did my job for me and put her friend on the floor," Nicky said, smiling. "I don't think she's getting fed up; I think she's there."
"I didn't know Donna had it in her," I said.
"Me either," Nathaniel said.
"Edward's been teaching her some of his moves," Nicky said.
"Ted has been teaching her moves," I corrected.
"I know better than to make slips like that. Sorry."
"It's not my forgiveness you'll need if you do it in front of the wrong people, Nicky."
"I don't want to go one-on-one with . . . Ted."
"Even though he's straight human and nothing supernatural?" I asked, studying his face.
"Ted isn't like anyone else; you know that." Nicky's face was very serious as he said it
I nodded. "True. I just wasn't sure you'd think so. You outweigh him by at least eighty pounds of pure muscle, have longer reach, and preternatural strength and speed to his human-normal. I guess I just thought you wouldn't see any straight human as that big a problem."
"Like I said, Ted is different. He may not be a supernatural citizen, but I think calling him straight human may be stretching things," Nicky said.
"There's something scary about . . . Ted," Nathaniel said, voice soft and eyes sort of distant, as if he was remembering something grim. Was he remembering Ireland, where he'd lost his hair and almost his life? Edward had been there with us. He'd brought us in to help him hunt the vampires that had been threatening Dublin. One of our people had died there. Domino had died there. I made myself say the name, at least in my own head. My therapist said I felt guilty about his death. Damn straight I did.
Nathaniel touched my face, made me look at him and see the gentle smile on his face. "If you think happy thoughts, so will I."
I smiled at him because he made me want to smile. "So we can fly?"
His smile brightened. "No flying off to never-never land until after this wedding. I've still got a to-do list to go over with the bride. No one goes anywhere until we get them down the aisle."
"Isn't the maid of honor supposed to do that kind of stuff?" Nicky asked.
"Yes, but Denny isn't good at wedding stuff, and she's been training for triathlons through most of the wedding prep."
"So how did it become your job? You're like the third bridesmaid," Nicky said.
"Dixie had started doing it," Nathaniel said, looking back at the taller man.
"And how was that going?" I asked.
Nathaniel looked back to me. "Dixie is competent enough to do it all, but she's been pissed that Donna made Denny maid of honor over her. She was doing the duties of a maid of honor without the title, and she made sure we all knew that every time she talked to us. A few phone calls from her and I was so over it."
"I thought you volunteered to be Donna's bridal helpmate because you love weddings," I said.
He grinned. "That, too, but mostly to save Donna, Denny, and Dixie from having a fight that would have ended twenty years of friendship."
"Why didn't she just make Dixie the matron of honor in the first place? After knowing her that long, Donna had to know what a bitch Dixie would be about it if she didn't," Nicky said.
"I know this one," I said. "Dixie was her maid of honor for her first wedding and Donna was her matron of honor, but they both promised that if they married a second time that Denny would be their maid of honor. I think they were both sort of joking, because neither of them planned to marry again."
Nathaniel nodded. "And the irony is that I don't think Denny cared about being maid of honor; she just wanted to be in her best friends' weddings."
"Agreed. Denny is almost as uninterested in wedding stuff as I am."