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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:53

J.J. was tall, slender, her body honed down to a work of art by years of being a professional ballerina. She was with one of the most prestigious dance companies in the country, which happened to be all the way in New York. Jason, Nathaniel's best friend and my werewolf to call, had started spending more and more time with her there; he was there this week, visiting. There was serious talk about him getting a tryout with her dance company someday. If he made it, then he would be the first shapeshifter to ever become a member of a human company. There were all-shapeshifter dance troupes, all-vampire ones, and even mixed ones that were just all preternaturals, but humans didn't like trying to compete with people who were faster, stronger, and just physically better by virtue of a disease they'd caught like lycanthropy, that no amount of human practice or gym work could compete with. Jean-Claude and I weren't sure we could do without him since he was the assistant manager at Guilty Pleasures and one of the headline dancers, but we both wanted him to be happy. He and J.J. were stupid happy with each other. She was also my second-ever female lover, and I liked her better than the one who was pushing me to put a ring on her finger.

"I can't argue that, and if J.J. were a weretiger I'd consider it, but she's human; awesome, but it doesn't help us find a tiger that we all like well enough to commit to."

"We all like Cynric enough."

Unless Micah had told him, Nathaniel didn't know about my revelation about my feelings for Cynric, so I wasn't sure what to say. Either he knew and was pushing, or he didn't know and it was just an honest remark. I couldn't ask without having to share the trauma, and I wasn't ready to talk about it, not so soon, not even with Nathaniel. I agreed to look at more tigers, because it would stop him from asking about Cynric; probably not one of my smarter ideas, but sometimes you do the stupid thing to avoid the traumatic one.

I said, "True, but you said it yourself: neither you nor Micah has sex with him, it's just another lover for me. You're right; I should at least look at some of the other weretigers."

"You mean the female weretigers?"

"And some of the male ones; who knows, maybe one of them will work better than Dev or Cynric, but yes, I'll look at some of the women, too."

"Really?" he asked, and he suddenly looked and seemed even younger than he was.

"Yes, really, and you just drove past the cemetery entrance."

He slammed on the brakes and only my seat belt kept me from hitting the dashboard. "Sorry, really sorry," he said.

I swallowed past my heart as it tried to climb out my mouth. My mother had died in a car accident; it made me less than thrilled about moments like this. "Maybe I'll drive home," I said, in a breathy voice.

"At least it's a country road and there's no traffic," he said, the car still skewed across most of the road, headlights aimed at the low stone wall, but not at an entrance.

"Yeah, there's that; now just back up slowly, carefully, and go like five miles an hour once we get into the cemetery. The roads are gravel and very narrow."

"I'm really sorry, Anita."

"Nathaniel, get us out of the middle of a dark road at night before someone comes over the hill and hits us."

He stopped arguing and just backed up, slowly, carefully, and eased the nose of my SUV gingerly through the narrow opening in the wall. I wondered how Nicky and Dino had gotten a truck and the trailer complete with cow through the opening. It must have been a damn narrow fit, but they'd made it or Nicky would have called me by now. I trusted Nicky, and he was the only other man I was actually in love with, but that didn't help any of the men in my life feel the same about him. Why did we have to have a weretiger? Because I'd killed the Father of Tigers, also known as the Father of the Dawn, and I'd killed the Mother of All Darkness, just like the weretigers' prophecy had said the next vampire that could control all the tigers would do. Funny thing about prophecy: After a few thousand years, if it seems to come true it gains strength, belief, power. The fact that Jean-Claude's human servant (me), his queen (again me), had killed two such powers didn't mean I had killed them; the vampires counted both kills as belonging to my master, to Jean-Claude, so we had to include a weretiger in our ceremony, because the rest of the prophecy was all confusing about marrying the tiger to the king and queen. The metaphysical community had decided that meant that if we married one weretiger, the prophecy would be fulfilled and that would put the final nail in the coffin of the Mother of All Darkness, but if we didn't marry a weretiger there was a loophole in the prophecy that allowed her to come back from the grave. Funny how there's always a loophole when it comes to the really scary shit. I'd swallowed her essence while she tried to take over my body; the immovable object met the unstoppable force and I won, but all the good little vampires and wereanimals believed that for the victory to be complete, Jean-Claude and I had to "marry" one of the tigers who'd helped us kill Mommie Darkest. It wasn't the hurt feelings of our lovers, current or ex, that made us agree to add a weretiger; it was the belief of an entire country that wanted Jean-Claude to be their triumphant king. Even being the one who had slain the metaphorical dragon, I was still relegated to queen. I was still the one who got picked up in the carriage and swept off my feet by the prince, even if it was me holding the bloody sword in one hand and the head of the Gorgon in the other. To the vampires, especially the really old ones, I was the princess, and the princess didn't get to rescue herself, let alone rescue everyone else. They so had me confused with someone else.

"I'm not the princess they're looking for," I said, and didn't realize I'd said it out loud until Nathaniel asked, "What did you say?"

"Nothing. There are the cars. Park and it's time for me to work some magic and earn a really obscene amount of money."

"More for you to spend to sweep me off my feet," he said, as he eased the car forward, trying to park without hitting one of the old graves that huddled near the road.

"You're really not going to let that go, are you?"

"Nope," he said, and parked.

I WAS SITTING half inside the dark open back of the SUV, changing out of the heels and into hiking boots. I'd changed the automatic car lights so that they needed to be switched on, because the light framed you like a target at night. It also spoiled your night vision, but it was mainly the "target" issue that had bothered me.

Nathaniel stood next to the open hatch, leaning one shoulder against the side of it. He'd already texted Micah the news that I was willing to look at more tigers as prospective lovers and more.

"You didn't have to text Micah. It could have waited until we got home," I said.

"You gave me your word that you'd look at more tigers, including females; did you mean it?"

"Yes, I meant it," I grumped at him.

He smiled. "Then why not tell Micah?"

I couldn't think of a response that didn't include me whining that now that Micah knew, I couldn't back out of my newfound willingness to shop for more tigers, but to say that would have meant admitting I hadn't meant it, and I did mean it. If I really wanted Cynric to go off somewhere and have a life without us, then I needed another tiger to take his place, or join our domestic arrangement as well as he had. Either way, I needed more tigers.

"Nicky is walking this way," Nathaniel said.

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"He's probably coming for a covert kiss; we made an agreement, no kissing and stuff in front of the clients."

"No kissing and stuff, really, and here I am and here he comes, and you can't kiss either one of us." He grinned suddenly, far beyond his usual come-hither smile.

"You are not going to tease from a distance and mess with my concentration."

"I'm not," he said, but he made it a question with uplift in his voice at the end of it, so that the statement was all question. His eyes might look gray by moonlight, but the shine of humor was clear enough.

I frowned at him. "You've been hanging around Jason too much. He's usually the one who can't leave well enough alone."

"He's my best friend, we're supposed

to hang out, but he would never be able to distract you from a distance as well as I can." He crossed his arms over his chest, flexing just a little, so that I wondered for a second if the fitted T-shirt would hold. It did, of course, but he'd had to stop lifting so much in the gym, because genetically he bulked more than his dancer's body needed. He'd started to lose some of his flexibility, and he had enough muscles for dancing onstage without trading away some of that amazing mobility. He was double-jointed, among other things.

He gave a small and very masculine laugh, and I realized I'd just been staring at him with the one hiking boot in my hand. Crap, he hadn't even begun to try to distract me, not really. I went back to concentrating on putting on my boot, but by that time Nicky came around the corner of the car, and I was suddenly sitting with one of them on either side of me. That shouldn't have been a problem, but Nicky bent his nearly six feet of muscled hunkitude toward me. His shoulders almost didn't fit inside the open hatch area, because he was just that big. His blond hair was cut short except for the triangular fall that covered most of the left side of his face. I put a hand on his chest as he leaned in; he wrapped one arm around me, drawing me in tight to all that hard, muscled upper body. If I'd thought Nathaniel was a threat to his shirt seams, it was always miraculous to me that Nicky didn't split his shirts every time he tried to pick up a bottle. I had taller men in my bed, but no one was as massive as Nicky. He was flexible where he needed to be for sex, and hand-to-hand fighting, but the rest was just muscle. He lifted to be stronger, he lifted because he liked it, and genetics made him bulk, but he didn't have a job where he needed to avoid it, so he didn't. All that muscle made him seem bigger than men who were actually taller, but height isn't everything when it comes to size. Men, and some women, seem to think it is, but just as obsession about length in other areas doesn't take into account what width can do for you, the same could be said for Nicky's upper body, and his thighs. He had to buy bigger jeans and then have them tailored through the narrowness of his waist, or he had to wear shorts and split the legs wider.