"What am I going to do?" I asked. "I cannot take my boyfriend on a federal case."
"You aren't going as a federal marshal, not really," Micah said. "It's your skills as an animator that they want, so say that I'm your assistant. They won't know any different."
"Why do you get to go?" Nathaniel asked. He lay back on the pillows, the sheets just barely covering his nakedness.
"Because she fed on you last," Micah said. He moved enough to touch Nathaniel's shoulder. "I can feed her more often than you can without passing out or getting sick."
"Because you're the Nimir-Raj and I'm just a regular wereleopard." There was a moment of sullenness in his voice, and then he sighed. "I don't mean to be a problem, but I've never stayed here with both of you gone."
Micah and I looked at each other and had one of those moments. We'd all been living together for about six months. But he and Nathaniel had both moved in at the same time. I'd never dated either of them alone, not really. I mean I'd gone out with them individually, and sex wasn't always a group activity, but the sleeping arrangements were.
Micah and I both had a certain need for personal time, alone time, but Nathaniel didn't. He didn't much like being alone.
"Do you want to stay at Jean-Claude's place while we're gone?" I asked.
"Will he want me there without you?" Nathaniel asked.
I knew what he meant, but... "Jean-Claude likes you."
"He won't mind," Micah said, "and Asher won't mind at all."
There was something about the way he said that last that made me look at him. Asher was Jean-Claude's second in command. They'd been friends, enemies, lovers, enemies, and shared a woman that they both loved for a few decades of happiness in centuries of unhappiness.
"Why'd you say it like that?" I asked.
"Asher likes men more than Jean-Claude does," Micah said.
I frowned at him. "Are you saying that he made a pass at you or Nathaniel?"
Micah laughed. "No, in fact, Asher is always very, very careful around us. Considering that we've both been naked in a bed with Asher, Jean-Claude, and you more than once, I'd say that Asher's been a perfect gentleman."
"So why the comment about Asher liking men more than Jean-Claude?" I asked.
"It's the way Asher watches Nathaniel when you aren't looking."
I looked at the other man in my bed. He appeared utterly at home half-naked in my sheets. "Does Asher bother you?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Have you noticed him looking at you the way Micah just said?"
"Yes," Nathaniel said, face still peaceful.
"And that doesn't bother you?"
He smiled. "I'm a stripper, Anita. I get a lot of people looking at me like that."
"But you don't sleep naked in a bed with them."
"I don't sleep naked in a bed with Asher either. He takes blood from me so he can f**k you. It may be sensual, but it's not about sex; it's about blood."
I frowned, trying to think my way through the tangle that had become my love life. "But Micah's implying that Asher sees you as more than food."
"I'm not implying," Micah said. "I'm stating that if Asher didn't think you and Jean-Claude would be pissed, he'd have already asked Nathaniel to be more than friends."
I stared from one to the other of them. "He would?"
They both nodded in unison, as if they'd practiced.
"And you both knew this?"
They nodded again.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because you, or I, were always there to protect Nathaniel," Micah said. "Now we won't be."
"I'll be okay," Nathaniel said. "If I'm really that worried about my virtue, I'll bunk in with Jason." He smiled even wider.
"What's so funny?" I asked. I sounded angry, because I had totally missed the whole Asher-liking-Nathaniel thing. Sometimes I felt slow, and sometimes I felt totally unprepared for dealing with the men in my life.
"The look on your face, so worried, so surprised." He bounced up off the bed, leaving the sheet behind him. He crawled toward me, naked and beautiful. I was at the end of the bed and had nowhere to go. But he came at me so fast that I tried to back up and ended up falling off the bed. I sat naked on the floor, trying to decide if I had any dignity left to save.
Nathaniel leaned over the bed and grinned at me. "If I tell you that was really cute, will you be mad at me?"
"Yes," I said, but I was fighting not to smile.
He leaned his upper body off the bed, toward me. "Then I won't say it," he said. "I love you, Anita." He leaned down, but if we were going to kiss I'd have to come to my knees and meet him halfway.
I moved into the kiss he was offering and whispered against his lips, "I love you, too."
"Tell me what city we're flying to," Micah said from the bed, "and I'll see about flights."
I broke the kiss enough to mumble, "Philadelphia."
Nathaniel leaned in to me again, one hand holding on to the bedpost to keep him in place. The muscles of his arm flexed effortlessly as he used the other hand to smooth hair away from my face. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," I said, and I realized that I meant it. But one "assistant" I might be able to explain to the FBI, not two. Two and they'd begin to wonder who they were and exactly what they were assisting me with. Or that's what I told myself. Staring into the startling lavender of Nathaniel's eyes, I wondered if I cared what the FBI thought of me enough to leave him behind. Almost not. Almost.
We picked up Larry's files on the way to the airport. Micah drove so I could find a phone number to call and let everyone in Philly know that there'd been a change of cast. The business card read, Special Agent Chester Fox.
He answered on the second ring. "Fox." Not even a hello. What was it about police work that made you have bad phone manners?
"This is Federal Marshal Anita Blake. You're expecting Marshal Kirkland this morning?"
"He's not coming," Fox guessed.
"No, but I am."
"What happened to Kirkland?"
"His wife is in the hospital." I wondered how much I owed him on the phone. I decided not much.
"I hope she's going to be all right." His voice had lost some of its edge. He sounded almost friendly. It made me think better of him.
"She probably will, but they're not sure about the baby."
Silence for a moment. I'd probably over-shared. That girlness again. Harder to be terse.
"I didn't know. I'm sorry that Marshal Kirkland couldn't make it and even sorrier for the reason. I hope things work out for them."
"Me, too. So I'm filling in."
"I know who you are, Marshal Blake." He was back to not sounding entirely happy. "Your reputation precedes you." That last was definitely not happy.
"Are we going to have a problem here, Agent Fox?"
"Special Agent Fox," he said.
"Fine, are we going to have a problem here, Special Agent Fox?"
"Are you aware that you have the highest kill count of any legal vampire executioner in this country?"
"Yeah, actually, I am aware of that."
"You're coming here to raise the dead, Marshal, not execute anyone. Is that clear?"
Now I was getting pissed. "I don't kill people for the hell of it, Special Agent Fox."
"That's not what I've heard." His voice was quiet.
"Don't believe all the rumors you hear, Fox."
"If I believed them all, I wouldn't let you step foot in my city, Blake."
Micah touched my leg, just to be comforting, while he drove one-handed. We were already on 70, which meant we'd be at the airport in moments.
"You know, Fox, if you're this unhappy with me, we can turn around and not come. Raise your own damn zombie."
"I'm bringing an assistant," I said, voice angry.
"And exactly what does he assist you with?" And his voice was full of that tone, that tone that men have been using against women for centuries. That tone that manages to imply we're sluts without ever saying so.
"I'm going to be very clear here, Special Agent Fox." My voice held that calm, cold anger that I used in place of screaming. Micah's hand tightened on my thigh. "Your attitude makes me think we won't be able to work together. That you've listened to so many rumors that you wouldn't know truth if it bit you on the ass."