"Yeah," I said.
"Who do you want to tell first?"
I shook my head and leaned back against the cabinets. "No one."
She gave me a look.
"I can't call them in one at a time; Richard will get pissed, or someone else will. I have to go out to them."
She gazed around the room. "They'd all fit in here, barely."
I tucked my knees up tight and held on. "Jesus, Claudia. Jesus."
She knelt beside me. Her face was so sympathetic that I had to look away. My eyes were starting to burn, my throat to tighten. "Help me do this before I start to cry."
"What can I do to help?" she asked.
"Help me stand."
She took my offered hand and raised me effortlessly to my feet. She kept a hand on my elbow to steady me, as if she knew I needed it. I didn't argue. We made it to the door that way, then I took my arm back, and opened the door.
I thought I had my face under control, but I must have been wrong, because they all reacted to it. Only Jean-Claude and Asher showed nothing, but their lack of reaction was reaction enough.
Micah and Richard reached me first, at almost the same time. They looked at each other, and Micah bowed out, let the other man touch me first. It was good of him, but I'd have preferred to hug him, since I was almost certain Richard would say something to make me feel worse.
He half-hugged me, so he could hold me, and still see my face. "It's a yes?"
I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice. My throat was so tight it hurt, as if I were choking.
He hugged me, and picked me up, and spun me around. When I could move my face back enough to see his, he was beaming at me. Beaming at me. He was happy! Happy about it!
"Don't you dare be happy about this," I said.
His smile began to fade around the edges.
Jean-Claude said, "Would you prefer he was unhappy about it?"
Richard put me down, while I looked at the other man. I glanced back up at Richard, who didn't look happy now at all. What would I have done if he had been angry, or sad, about me being pregnant?
I hung my head, resting the top of my head against Richard's chest. "I'm sorry, Richard, I'm sorry. I'm glad someone is happy about it."
He touched my face, raised it so I had to look at him. "I can't be unhappy about this, Anita. I can't. If we made a baby..." He shrugged, and his eyes were full of happiness, worry, so many emotions.
"What do you want us to say, ma petite? If we are not to be happy, then what do you wish?"
I pulled away from Richard. I just couldn't be happy and his being happy bugged me. "I don't know, just be what you feel, I guess."
Micah touched my arm. "I'm sorry you're unhappy about it."
I smiled at him, and the fact that I could smile at anything was probably a good sign. "How do you feel about it?"
He smiled. "I love you. How could I not love a little piece of you running around?"
I shook my head. "Don't you feel cheated? I mean, it can't be yours."
He shrugged. "I knew I gave up children of my own when I had the vasectomy."
"Why did you have yourself fixed?" Richard asked. "You're not thirty yet, why would you do that to yourself?"
Micah wrapped his arms around me, held me close. "My old alpha, Chimera, liked pregnant shapeshifters. If one of the women came up pregnant by someone else, someone she cared for, Chimera would take her until she lost the baby. He got off on taking her from her lover, from f**king her while she was pregnant with someone else's child, and from her losing it."
I held him tight, held him and listened to his heartbeat speed. His voice never showed how awful it had been, but his pulse did. I had heard the story before, but Richard had not; his face showed revulsion, and something else, anger, I think.
I'd never heard a story about Chimera that made me unhappy that I'd killed him. No, that was one death I had absolutely no regrets about.
Nathaniel came up behind me, and wrapped himself against my back, holding me between the two of them. It felt so safe. Even now, even with Micah's story still horrible and fresh, even with the news about the baby, I still felt safe. That had to be a good sign, didn't it?
Jean-Claude came to our side. We all raised our heads from the various shoulders we were on, and looked at him.
He touched my face, ever so gently, and smiled. "Whatever happens, ma petite, we will not desert you."
Asher walked around to the other side so I stood in a box of the four of them.
"I'm not really included, am I?" Richard said, and his voice held more sadness than anger.
Micah said, "You could be if you wanted to be, Richard. No one excludes you, but you." He held his hand out toward Richard.
Richard stared at that hand, then looked at all the men. "I can't, Anita. I can't be part of this."
"A part of what, mon ami?" Jean-Claude asked.
"All of you together," Richard said.
Micah let his hand fall. "We're not asking you to have sex with everyone, Richard. We're just comforting Anita, and ourselves. You're a shapeshifter; you understand the need for touch when you're worried or scared."
Richard shook his head. "It's always about sex with him." He pointed at Jean-Claude. "Don't let him fool you, Micah. He's enjoying touching you." It seemed he'd decided that of the other men, Micah was the one most likely to understand his unease.
Micah slid his arm around Jean-Claude's waist, pulled him in a little tighter against him and me. It forced Jean-Claude to put more of his arm across Micah's shoulders, put the line of their bodies against each other from hip to chest. Micah kept his gaze on Richard while he got cozy.
"If he were another shapeshifter, they'd enjoy the touch, too. We've all had a shock. We're all feeling insecure, Richard. We're all wondering how much our lives must change to accommodate a baby. We're scared, aren't you?"
"You're Nimir-Raj, are you saying you can't smell when someone's afraid?" There was derision in his voice.
"I thought you'd get angry if I told you that you smelled of fear."
Richard's hands made fists. His face darkening with anger, he fought for control of himself, visibly. It was almost painful to watch him fight his anger, and since his power never once warmed the room, he was controlling so much more than just his anger.
He started walking toward us, jerkily, as if his feet didn't want to move. He moved like some reluctant robot, until he came to the edge of the knot of men. Then he stopped. He just stood there beside us, as if he didn't know what to do next.
Jean-Claude moved, making a hole between himself and Nathaniel. It was an invitation to join the circle. Richard just stood there, eyes on the ground, hands limp at his sides. It was Nathaniel who moved even farther out, letting go of me, and only keeping Asher's hand. Nathaniel moved so that the circle became almost half a circle. Jean-Claude took his cue from Nathaniel, and moved farther away from me, his arm still around Micah. I stood alone with the men like a backdrop.
Richard stood there, unmoved, as if he hadn't noticed. I took a step forward, and touched fingertips to the fringe of his hair where it hid the edge of his face. He flinched, and raised his eyes to me. The pain in those brown eyes made my throat tight. Maybe I was just having an emotional night. Or maybe, if you love someone, you can never see that much pain in his eyes without wanting to fix it.
I had to go up on tiptoe to touch his face, one hand resting against his arm to steady myself. I rested my hand against the side of his face, just at the swell of his cheekbone, feeling the strength of that curve under my hand. His face was like him, strong, and outwardly perfect. Inside that nearly perfect male package there was a storm raging. It showed in his eyes, all that pain, that anger. His arm flexed under my hand. The smooth swell of muscle molding itself against the curve of my hand. I wasn't sure if he'd done it to remind me how strong he was, or if it was the only sign that he was still flinching. From the look in his eyes, I was betting on flinching.
He began to lean in toward me, as I stretched upward to meet him. Our lips met, but it was more a touch than a kiss. His lips moved against mine, the gentlest of kisses. I kissed him back, a soft caress of lips. Then his mouth pressed against mine, and there was nothing gentle about it. He broke from the kiss with a sound that was half sob and half sigh. He fell to his knees, dragging me with him, clinging to me as if I were the last solid thing in the universe.