Serpentine (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 26) - Page 62

I nodded. "I know. What has that got to do with anything that happened today?"

"You knew?" Rufous asked.

"The first time I ever saw Nathaniel, he was in a hospital bed recovering from an attack by one of his customers."

"And you dated him knowing that he had been a whore?" Olaf asked.

I turned on him and gave him the look the word deserved. "First, never use that word in connection with Nathaniel again. Second, yes, I knew he was a high-end and very specialized escort when I met him."

"He was more than that, Blake," Rufous said.

I looked at him. "You ran Nathaniel's name through the system, didn't you?"

"When he came to New Mexico to help with the wedding the first time, he was spending a lot of private time with Peter, and Becca was all over him calling him uncle, so, yeah, I ran him. He may have been a high-end escort when you met him, but his record is for streetwalking and drugs. One of the conditions of the plea was that he go to rehab."

"He went," I said, "and he's been clean ever since."

"He's still got a very colorful past, Blake. I talked to Ted about what I found and was reassured that he knew all about it, and that Graison was one of the rarities, someone who truly turned their life around. I was happy to hear it."

"What does Nathaniel's past have to do with the police questioning him about Peter and Dixie's . . . altercation?"

"They're not questioning him about that," Rufous said.

"Then what are they questioning him about?"

"The missing girl, Bettina Gonzalez."

"What?" I asked, and it was loud enough that a few people looked our way. I lowered my voice and said, "What are you talking about, Rufous?"

Rufous answered, "You have a badge, but you've never been a regular cop. You don't understand how we see certain things."

"Then enlighten me," I said, and I'd stepped closer to him, my hands already starting to make fists.

He didn't tell me to calm down; he just did what I asked. "A young woman flirts with a few young men; then she goes missing after having sex with one of them. The lover is in the clear through witnesses, but one of the other men has a record for prostitution and drugs, and Graison got pulled in by a cop the first time when he was, like, ten, so that's child prostitution."

"He was the victim," I said.

"Yeah, but it's still going to be a hell of a background for someone to overcome. You know that abusers usually start out as victims, Blake."

"I know that's the prevailing theory."

"I've seen it happen, and if Rankin has been on the job long enough to make detective, he's seen it, too."

"So because Nathaniel was everyone's damn victim, the police are going to victimize him again?"

"The missing girl was hanging all over him and Erwin here." He pointed at Ru. "Then she goes and sleeps with someone else. The cops are going to wonder if Graison is the jealous type."

I laughed. I couldn't help it. "He's one of the least jealous people I've ever met."

"Nathaniel likes to share," Nicky said.

"But the police here don't know Nathaniel like the two of you do. To them he's a man who was flirting with the missing woman, then lost out to another man, and then his record pops with all kinds of bad shit. They are going to look at him hard for this. They'd look at anyone connected to the girl whose name popped in the database."

It was so unfair. I had to count slowly to ten, and forced myself to unfold my hands one stiff finger at a time. "Fine, fine, but they have no reason to hold him."

"Blake, he's a shapeshifter."

"How is that relevant?"

"How would they know what he was?" Olaf asked.

"You Google his name and he comes up under his stage name at Guilty Pleasures. There are pictures of him in his leopard form on the website," Rufous said.

"But I'll say again: How is that relevant?"

"Blake, come on. Shapeshifters may have legal rights and Florida is a more forward-thinking state than some of the Western ones, but people are still afraid."

"It's the big, bad wolf syndrome," Rodina said, "or in this case big, bad leopard."

"Come on, Blake. You hunt rogue lycanthropes. You know what they're capable of," Rufous said.

I tried to be reasonable. I tried to think like a cop and not Nathaniel's fiancee, but I was having serious trouble separating the two in that moment. "I know you're right, Rufous. I know I sound like every other girlfriend in the world who says, But my boyfriend would never hurt anyone."

"I've had women and men say it to me with their faces covered in bruises from the boyfriend who would never harm anyone," Rufous said.

"I know, I really do, but it doesn't matter, because it's Nathaniel."

"And he's your boo."

I smiled. "Yeah, he is."

"One of them," Olaf said.

I looked at him, fighting not to frown. "Yeah, he's one of my boos."

"You do have more serious boyfriends than anyone I've ever met," Rufous said.

"I'm poly; it kind of goes with the sexual orientation."

"I thought it was a lifestyle choice," Rufous said.

I shook my head. "Not for me."

Rufous shook his head. "Marisol is enough for me. Normally, I'd say if you find the right one, all the rest just sort of fade into the woodwork, but I've seen you with your fellas, Blake, and it seems to be the real deal."

"Thanks, Rufous, I appreciate that."

"Now, go help your boo."

Olaf tried to go with us, but I didn't have to interfere, because Rufous did it for me. "I need to talk to Jeffries for a minute. You go on."

I wanted and needed to go to Nathaniel, but I didn't want Rufous alone with Olaf until I understood why he was being protective of me. "Rufous, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Jeffries and I will be fine."

"I don't doubt that Otto will be dandy, but I need to ask you something before we all go our separate ways."

He didn't like it, but he came off to one side of the lobby with Nicky and me. Rodina and Ru stayed with Olaf. I heard Rodina say, "So you're Plague."

"Yes," Olaf said, and then we were out of my hearing range.

"Why are you suddenly treating me like a girl, Rufous?"

"You are a girl, Blake," he said with a smile.

"But you've always treated me like one of the guys until just a few minutes ago. Why do you suddenly feel protective toward me?"

"I'd feel protective of most of the men I know if they were going up against Jeffries."

"How did you know he was even here?" I asked, and then I realized. "Ted called you."

"He couldn't leave the hospital, but he told me that Jeffries has damn near been stalking you and he didn't want you to be alone with him. Don't worry, he swore me to secrecy. I know you don't want the other marshals to see you as needing to be rescued, but, Jesus, Blake, most men would need rescuing if Jeffries put a target on them. There's no shame in saying you're outmatched with someone like that. He's a freaking giant."

Like all great lies, it was almost the truth. I nodded. "I've worked too long and hard to be one of the guys to want to be shoved back in the girl box, Rufous."

"I understand that."

"What talk do you want to have with Otto?"

"I'll just tell him to back off."

"It's not your job to have that talk with him," Nicky said.

"Ted told me that he's let people think he's a couple with Anita to keep Jeffries off of her at work."

"I'm her bodyguard. I'll talk to Otto," Nicky said.

"Nicky . . ." I started to say.

"No, Anita, it's better coming from me than from Rufous."

I couldn't argue that, but I really didn't want either of them alone with Olaf. He scared me in a way that very few people did.

Nicky, letting the bodyguard stoicism slip, smiled. "I've got this. You go help Nathaniel."

"You can't scare Otto off," I said. "He doesn't scare."

&nb

sp; "I'll remind him of how I got my job as your bodyguard," Nicky said.

Nicky was saying that he would threaten Olaf with me making him a Bride, which would mean I would own him, control him, the way I did Nicky. It was Nicky's fate as my lion Bride that had made Olaf stay away from me in the first place. He'd even written a note to me saying he didn't want to end up like Nicky.

I glanced back to find Rodina invading Olaf's personal space, but her body language wasn't threatening; it was seductive. Did she think he was handsome, or was she throwing herself on the landmine? I hoped she wasn't. I might not like Rodina, but she didn't deserve to be served up to Olaf.

"I'll be with him, Blake. Jeffries won't try anything against both of us, and one of us with a badge."

I didn't argue with him, but I knew that if Olaf thought he needed to kill both of them, he would, or he'd die trying. Nicky might have a chance of killing him first, but Rufous would just die. I didn't want to widow Marisol.

"Let's do this, Murdock," Rufous said. He sounded a little eager, as if he was hoping for a fight, or at least a little excitement. Had he been wanting to try his luck with Olaf, or was it just the typical cop love of action?

"I haven't agreed to either of you handling this for me," I said. Nicky frowned at something, which made me look. Ru was smiling and walking toward us as if he didn't have a care in the world. He looked slender and almost fragile compared to Rufous, Nicky, and Olaf, and he played to it, doing his best to radiate harmlessness and what I supposed was meant to be sex appeal. What the hell was he doing?

I glanced across the lobby to Olaf, who was watching us all as if he'd memorize us down to the buttons on our jeans. Maybe his being a stalker wasn't so far from the truth after all. Ru put his arm around my shoulders in an overly familiar way. I tensed up as he leaned in and whispered, "You flirted with me at the pool, in front of witnesses. Do you want to explain to the police why we're not flirting now?"

And, see, that was the problem with lies and pretending. Once you started, it was hard to stop. I put a smile on my face and slid my left arm around his waist, being careful that my hand slid high enough to avoid the gun at his waist. Cuddling was always harder with weapons, but with Olaf showing up unexpectedly and the police trying to pin a woman's disappearance on us, we'd work around the weapons.

Olaf started walking toward us, with Rodina trailing behind, a smile on her lips. She looked entirely too pleased with herself.

"What have the two of you been telling Otto?"

Ru kissed my cheek, touching the side of his face to mine.


Tags: Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Horror
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