It was awesome that I could keep pace with Socrates, who was a werehyena, and none of the old aches and pains hurt, but I wondered what else had changed. What else had changed about my body that I hadn't realized? Which led to the thought, what if all the lycanthropy and vampire marks had affected more than just my physicality?
"What's wrong, Anita? You look too serious for a woman about to see a jeweler about rings."
I smiled at him, because I knew he was teasing me. I'd never been much for jewelry. I told him about my knees not hurting.
"That's a good thing, not a bad thing," he said.
I nodded. "But what else has changed that I didn't notice?"
He sighed. "You don't mean just the physical stuff."
We were outside the door now. "Someday we should sit down and I'll tell you everything I know about what I've noticed before and after I became a werehyena."
"You may not like it after you hear it all."
I shrugged. "That's okay, too. I'd rather know the truth than have to guess."
"Most people wouldn't," he said.
"I'm not most people."
"Well, now that is the truth." He smiled again.
I smiled back, because that's what you're supposed to do, but I didn't really feel all that smiley.
Socrates knocked on the door, then put his hand against the slight crack at the edge of the door. I could hear something sniffing on the other side. It was a new thing, but the wereanimal guards were using scent as their "password." You could find out passwords or secret knocks, but you couldn't change the scent of your body. Even if everyone was in human form it was still effective, though their sense of smell was heightened the closer to their animal shape they shifted.
Lisandro, tall, darkly Hispanic, and handsome, opened the door for us and ushered us into the front office. It held a desk and two chairs, and it was a nice, ordinary office, except for the vintage circus posters framed on the walls, which was really the only sign that this wasn't the office of any normal administrative assistant at any upper-crusty business in the United States. There really would be an admin after full dark tonight, when she finally woke for the day. Betty Lou wasn't a very powerful vampire, but she was a hell of an office assistant. He said, "That new hair product smells too sweet, how can you wear it?" Which meant he'd smelled it through the door; I hadn't smelled it much standing next to Socrates.
"Like I was telling Anita, neither of you has my fabulous curls, so you wouldn't understand."
Lisandro used one hand to flip his shoulder-length ponytail. "My hair is about as straight as it gets, so I don't have to worry about it."
"It's just that wererat nose of yours," Socrates said. "It means everything smells funny to you."
Lisandro grinned. "You're just jealous because rats have a better scenting capability than hyenas."
Socrates did a little head shake. "But we can eat through the side of a Buick with one bite, and you can't."
I rolled eyes at both of them. "Enough interspecies one-upmanship; take me to Jean-Claude."
"I would say you know the way, but we're being all formal because of the jeweler," Lisandro said.
I shook my head. "The daytime jeweler is the nighttime jeweler's human servant, and ancient vampires are all about the formalities," I said.
"Yeah, it's not every day you get to meet a human who can tell you that Helen of Troy had black hair," Lisandro said.
"She did not say that," Socrates said.
"She said, these rings would be worthy of Helen of Troy, another raven-haired beauty."
"Raven-haired means black hair," Lisandro said.
"Are you saying she compared me to Helen of Troy?"
The two men stopped bickering long enough to look at me. Then they looked at each other, and back to me. Lisandro said, "Any other woman I've ever met would be flattered, but you're going to get all weird about it, aren't you?"
I frowned at him. "I am not going to get all weird."
"But you won't take the compliment either," Socrates said.
I sighed, shrugged, touched my gun and shifted the holster just a little on its belt, and thought about it. "When you're spending this much money on rings, they flatter you, it's just part of the whole thing, but no, I don't believe she's sincere when she compares me to one of the great beauties of the ages. Sorry, but I just don't buy it."
They gave each other another look, which irritated me, because it meant they were being careful around my mood, or my issue, and I hated that. I hated being difficult about my appearance. Thanks to a lot of things from my childhood, and a very ex-fiance, I had trouble seeing myself as beautiful. People reacted to me as if I were beautiful, so I had to accept it, but I had trouble seeing it myself, so the jeweler's flattery, insincere or not, wasn't going to win points with me.
"Besides, rings don't go near the face, so what does hair color have to do with anything, it's just skin tone that counts," I said, and I sounded grumpy, but I'd managed not to criticize myself, and that was an improvement.
"Let's not keep the boss waiting," Socrates said.
It took me a second to realize he meant Jean-Claude, and then Lisandro was opening the door and ushering me inside to the larger and more richly furnished office that screamed upper-level executive, from the rich wood paneling to the desk big enough to slaughter an ox on; there was no hint that it was the manager's office for the Circus of the Damned. Nothing as garish as circus posters in here. I had a moment of wanting to ask one of the guards to stay with me, but they were bodyguards. They couldn't guard me from my sudden case of nerves, as I glanced at the jewels laid out on velvet cloths and samples of different metal wedding bands. The huge desk was covered in them as if a very proper pirate's treasure
had been given over to the accountants to catalog. A tiny, dark-haired woman stood beside it, thin hands clasped in front of her; she could have passed for an accountant, or a servant in an old movie, but the eagerness in her face was another issue. The jeweler was way too excited about all of this. I must have made an involuntary movement for the door, because Jean-Claude said, "Ma petite." Just that, nothing more, but it made me look at him.
Jean-Claude sat behind that huge desk and that gleaming display of matrimonial treasure, but none of it was as pretty as him. His black hair curled softly past his shoulders, mingling so perfectly with the velvet of his jacket that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. The shirt that peeked from the jacket was scarlet, a red that looked fabulous with the hair and that unearthly white skin of his, a perfect whiteness that no living skin could rival. He was very pale tonight, no blush of color to his face at all, which meant he hadn't fed yet. There was a time I couldn't have told, but I'd been studying his face and moods for years. Once I had refused to be food for any vampire, even him. Now the thought that he hadn't fed, and that it could be part of our foreplay, tightened things low in my body so hard and suddenly that I had to reach for the edge of the desk to steady myself, and I hadn't even gotten to his face.
I raised my head to finally look into that face, that near perfect curve of cheek, the kissable lips, and finally the coup de grace of eyes. They looked almost black in the overhead lights, but some gleam always seemed to show that swimming blue, like deep seawater where the monsters swim and there are wonders to behold. His dark eyelashes were actually double-rowed on top so they looked like he'd used mascara, but he never had to, and then the perfect arch of black eyebrow . . . He looked too beautiful, too perfect, like a work of art instead of a person. How did this man love me? But the smile on his face, the light in his eyes, said plainly that he saw something wonderful when he looked at me, too. I didn't know whether to be flattered, amazed, or ask, Why me? Why not a thousand more traditionally beautiful women out there? He could have had movie stars, or models, but he'd chosen me. Me, too short, curvy even with my gym workout, and scarred from my job, still struggling to heal all the issues life had saddled me with, and yet he smiled at me, held his hand out to me. I went around the desk to take his hand, but I didn't feel like the princess to his prince; I felt like a clumsy peasant to his very regal king.