"Richard's here," Nathaniel said, as if that explained it all.
I kept shaking my head, trying to run my hands through my wet hair. It was tangled. I hadn't used shampoo, let alone conditioner. It was going to be a mess when it dried. "Fuck!"
He touched my shoulder, and I jerked away. "No, no, don't be nice to me. If you're nice I'll cry."
"Do you want me to be cruel, would that make you feel better?"
It was such an odd question that it made me look at him. He was still wearing the jogging shorts he'd left the room in, but he'd unbraided his hair and brushed it into a shining auburn curtain. A stray bit of sunlight gleamed in his hair. I knew what all that hair felt like rushing over my body. It was so thick, so heavy, that it made a sound like dry water when it cascaded around me. I'd always denied myself everything that Nathaniel could offer. I'd always backed off from enjoying every part of him. Jason's words came back to haunt me. That I hadn't really given myself completely to anyone. That I held back something from everyone. I'd held back huge chunks of myself from Nathaniel. More than any of the other men in my life, he was the one that I'd held back from the most, because I didn't believe I was keeping him. Once I had the ardeurunder control I wouldn't need a pomme de sang everyday. Once I could feed the ardeurfrom a distance like Jean-Claude could, I'd stop using a pomme de sang.Wouldn't I?
He looked worried. "What's wrong, Anita?"
I shook my head.
He took a step towards me, and that small movement sent his hair swirling over one shoulder. He gave a negligible flip of his head, sending it sliding back behind him.
I had to close my eyes, and breathe, in and out, concentrate on just breathing. I would not cry. I would not f**king cry again. Every time I thought Richard had gotten the last tears he'd ever get from me, I always seemed to be wrong. Every time I thought there was no other way he could tear me up, he found a new way. Nothing turns to hate so bitter as what once was love.
I opened my eyes and found Nathaniel close enough to touch. I stared into those compassionate lilac eyes, that soft, caring face, and I hated him. I don't know why. But I hated him just a little. I hated him for not being someone else. I hated him for the hair that fell to his knees. I hated him because I didn't love him. Or maybe I hated him because I did. But it wasn't what I felt for Richard. I hated him, and I hated me. In that one instant I hated everyone in my life, everyone and everything, and me most of all.
"We are out of here," I said.
He frowned. "What?"
"You, me, Jason, we're out of here. I need to take Jason back to the Circus before Jean-Claude wakes up anyway. We'll pack a bag, and we'll give the house over to Richard."
Nathaniel widened his eyes. "You mean to leave this house until Richard is gone?"
I nodded, maybe a little too fast, maybe a little too often, but I had a plan, and I was sticking to it.
"What will Micah say?"
I shook my head. "He can join us at the Circus."
Nathaniel looked at me for a second, then he shrugged. "How long will we be there?"
"I don't know," I said, and looked away from him. He hadn't protested, hadn't accused me of cowardice. He just stuck to the facts. We were going. How long would we be gone?
"I'll pack for a couple of days, if we need other things, I'll come back for them."
"You do that," I said.
He moved towards the door, leaving me to stare around the room. "Your belt is at the foot of the bed."
That made me look at him. There was something in his eyes, something older than he was, something that made me want to squirm and look away, but I was already running from Richard, I couldn't run away from anything else. One act of extreme cowardice per day was about all my ego could handle.
"Thanks," I said, and my voice sounded too soft, too hoarse, too something.
"Do you want me to pack a bag for you, too?" His face had fallen back into neutral lines, as if he'd realized the look in his eyes was too raw for me, right now.
"I can pack," I said.
"I can pack for both of us, Anita, it's not a problem."
I started to argue, then stopped. I'd spent the last twenty minutes trying to find a belt that I'd probably walked over twice. If I packed in the state I was in, I'd probably forget to bring underwear. "Fine."
"What do you want me to tell Sergeant Zerbrowski?" he asked.
"I'll talk to him while you pack."
Nathaniel nodded. "Okay."
I took the time to tuck my shirt in, put my belt on, and thread my shoulder holster. I checked that the clip in my gun was full, automatically. I started to say something to Nathaniel and those old eyes in that young face, but I didn't have anything worth saying. We were fleeing the house until Richard was gone. With that decision, I didn't know what to say.
I left Nathaniel and went into the kitchen to get the phone, wondering if Zerbrowski would still be on the other end, or if his patience would have faded before my confusion had.
I entered the kitchen and found the phone on the hook, and Caleb sitting at the kitchen table. Caleb was my least favorite of the new leopards who had come in when Micah and I merged our pards. He was cute enough in a young, boy-hooker, MTV sort of way. Curly brown hair with the lower part shaved short, and the top a crown of thick curls that flopped over his eyes artfully. His tanned skin was dark, not quite as dark as his hair. The tan had faded a little in the few months he'd been in town. His eyes were a nice solid brown with a silver hoop piercing one eyebrow. His smooth upper body was na**d so I could see his belly button piercing. I also noted that he'd added two new piercings--both ni**les were pierced with tiny silver dumbbells. He routinely went around with the top button of his jeans unfastened, his explanation was that the waistband irritated the belly piercing. I didn't believe him, but since I had never even pierced my ears, I couldn't really call him a liar.
He kept one hand on the coffee cup, but the other one traced over his chest and rolled one of the little silver dumbbells between his fingers. "I had them done a couple weeks ago. Like them?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked, and I didn't care that it sounded hostile. I was having a hard day and having Caleb in my kitchen wasn't going to improve it.
"Taking messages for you." He hadn't risen to my grumpy bait. It wasn't like Caleb to miss an opportunity to bitch.
He held out a small sheet of paper to me. His face was as neutral as he could manage, only that faint gleam in his eyes that he never quite lost. That look that said, I'm thinking wicked thoughts, about you.
I took a breath, let it out slowly, and went over to him to get the paper. I recognized the notepaper; it was one of the sheets we kept near the phone. Caleb held on to it for a second too long, making me pull a little, but he let it go and didn't say anything irritating. That was almost a first.
I looked at the note. I didn't recognize the writing, which probably meant it was Caleb's. It was surprisingly neat, all block letters. "NO ONE'S DEAD. WHEN YOU HAVE TIME, CALL ME. DOLPH IS ON A TWO-WEEK LEAVE OF ABSENCE. LOVE ZERBROWSKI." I must have raised an eyebrow at the end part, because Caleb said, "I wrote down exactly what the policeman said. I didn't add anything."
"I believe you. Zerbrowski thinks he's a wit." I met Caleb's brown eyes. "Why are you here, Caleb?"
"Micah called me on his cell phone, told me to stay close to you today." He didn't look particularly happy about it.
"Did he mention why he wanted you to stay close to me today?"
Caleb frowned. "No."
"And you dropped everything you had planned today to come baby-sit me, out of the goodness of your heart."
He tried to keep frowning, then gradually that smile of his that matched the wicked light in his eyes emerged. It was an unpleasant smile, as if he was thinking unkind thoughts, and those thoughts amused him very, very much.
"Merle told me he'd hurt me if I failed Micah on this."
Merle was Micah's chief bodyguard, six foot of muscle, and attitude that would make a Hell's Angel think twice. Caleb was about five six and soft in ways that said he had nothing to do with muscles.
I had to smile. "Merle's threatened you before, and it hasn't impressed you much."
"That was before Chimera died. He liked me better than he liked Merle or Micah. I knew he'd protect me, no matter what Merle said."