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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:57

"Don't back out now," Nathaniel said.

"Another girl would be nice for the other guys."

I turned in the circle of his arm and looked at Nicky. "But not for you?"

"I told you my reasoning, Anita."

"There are women in town who like sex as rough as or rougher than Anita does," Nathaniel said.

Nicky gave him a look like, Prove it.

Nathaniel looked at me. "If you really wanted another play partner for Nicky, I could find him someone."

I looked at Nicky. "Do you want another woman to dominate?"

"It depends on how much work it is. I like to do rough sex; I don't want to do the whole dominant with you all day twenty-four seven. Once we leave the bedroom, or the dungeon, I don't want to be in charge of your ass, or any other part of you."

I smiled. "Good to know."

Nathaniel frowned. "I know some women you could play with for a night, but you couldn't do a relationship with them because they would want more domination than just rough sex."

"And that is why I'm happy with Anita; she bottoms hard, but once we're done she doesn't need the upkeep. True submissives are fucking exhausting."

"To the right dominant they're energizing," Nathaniel said.

"I'm not the dominant they're looking for."

"Me, either," I said.

Nathaniel grinned at me. "That's right, Nicky missed all that time I was trying to get you to be my dominant in every way."

"It was exhausting," I said.

Nathaniel laughed. "And I found out that I'm not that kind of submissive, I'd just been trained up that way."

"Let's take our happy dominant, submissive, and switches asses inside and shop for weretigers," I said.

"Girl weretigers?" Nathaniel said.

I smiled at the look on his face; I couldn't help it. "Yes, some girl weretigers, too. Who knows, maybe we'll meet the woman of all our dreams."

"Not possible," Nicky said.

He leaned over and kissed me. "Because we've already found her."

It took me a minute to realize he meant me, and then I wanted to protest, but in the end I just took the compliment like I was supposed to. I wasn't sure I'd ever believe I was the woman of anyone's dreams. I was good, and I tried, but dream women/men were perfect and I would never be that.

DINO HAD PARKED the truck and trailer, then waited near the back door for us, far enough away to give us some privacy, but not so far away he couldn't still do his job as bodyguard, so the four of us walked through the back door into what had been a storage room. Now it was more like a mini-guard post complete with a coffeemaker and a mini-fridge. There were almost always two guards in the room to keep track of the back door, the door that led out into the public area of the Circus, and the door to the underground that had the living quarters.

It was usually newer guards here, so we did a quick greeting and kept moving. If they'd been slacking on duty then it would have taken longer, but since it was either Claudia or Fredo who interviewed people for the job we didn't get a lot of that. We went through the far door and were on the stairs leading down. There was no elevator to the underground; you had to physically take a half-mile of stone steps leading up and down. It was like the best glute workout ever, and it meant that if you were bad guys you had to come down a very long expanse of steps, which took time, and only had one turn the whole way, so we could sit at the angle and shoot up at you, and at the door and shoot down at you. Guards at top and bottom could take turns firing volleys into anyone we didn't want coming down the stairs. It was the first defense for the Master of St. Louis's lair, and a damned fine one.

Nicky, Nathaniel, and I walked three abreast with Dino bringing up the rear. He said in a voice that was a little winded, because cardio was never his strong suit, "What's with these stairs?"

I glanced back at him, forcing Nathaniel to pause as we stepped down. Nicky and I weren't holding hands on the stairs, because our height difference or maybe inseam difference made the stairs harder.

He took the opportunity to stop walking, which may have been why he said something at all. "I thought at first the steps were carved by someone who was taller, had a really long stride, you know."

We all nodded at him.

"But it's not that, is it?"

"It's like the stairs weren't made to fit anyone's stride."

"I think maybe that's part of the point," Nathaniel said.

"What do you mean?" Dino asked, leaning against the wall just a little.

"It's more of a challenge to go up and down them, because there's no natural rhythm to the steps."

"So it's even more of a deterrent to try to break into the underground," I said.

"Have you tried coming down the steps in leopard form?" Nicky asked.

Nathaniel shook his head.

"I've done it in lion form and the steps work better."

"What does that mean?" Dino asked.

"I think whoever made the steps didn't make them for anything bipedal."

"Bipedal," Dino said. "Bipedal? Who uses that as a word?"

"It means exactly what I wanted to say," Nicky said.

Dino was looking at him with a puzzled frown.

"Or did you just think I wasn't smart enough to know the word?"

"No, that, no, I mean . . . it's just a little, I don't know, college professor for . . ."

"No, just no." Dino was shaking his head as he pushed away from the wall.

"Does everyone think I'm not that bright?"

"I did not say that." Dino was nervous.

"You worried that Nicky will hold a grudge next time on the practice mat?" I asked.

Nicky grinned and started walking again. "Let's do double time down the rest of the steps."

"Aww, don't be like that," Dino said.

Nathaniel and I grinned and followed Nicky down the steps like we were in the gym. There'd been a reason I kept my hiking shoes on and had the high heels in my bag along with the plastic-wrapped coveralls. There was always laundry to do after a zombie raising.

Dino called after us, "Come on, don't do this."

"Catch up, Dino," Nicky called back.

He muttered something, but he started down the last long steps. The three of us were all waiting beside the last big door by the time he lumbered/ran down to us. "Hate you all," he panted as he leaned against the wall.

"You really do need to hit the cardio harder, Dino," Nicky said.

Nathaniel's text tone went off and he checked it. "It's Sin, he wants me to help him dress for the party tonight."

I wondered if that was really what the message said, or if it was more like "Why is Anita looking at other tigers when I'm already here," but I didn't press. I'd have to deal with Cynric soon enough; I wasn't jumping the gun early, and besides I had other things to worry about.

Watching one of our bodyguards pant that hard after coming down stairs that hadn't winded the three of us, I decided that maybe I should talk to Claudia about Dino's fitness level. He was great in a fight, but if he had to dash for cover or keep up with the other guards at a run, could he? Being in good shape wasn't just for fitting into skinny jeans, if your job depended on you being in fighting shape. On a heavy bag Dino was one of the hardest-hitting we had, but I was going to need to have him sparring with the other guards, because speed counted when you were almost always fighting shapeshifters and vampires.

I looked at Nicky trying to decide if he'd teased Dino just to tease, or if he'd wanted me to see the problem. Dino was half bent over, still breathing hard. Was this a problem that affected Dino's job? Nicky made eye contact with me and that was enough; he'd wanted me to see it, because a demonstration like this spoke louder than just bringing it up to me. I gave a small nod; Nicky gave one

back and moved to the big dungeon-worthy door. He knocked hard twice. Short of serious explosives the door was proof against almost anything, so we'd taken to locking it and using it as the barrier it was supposed to be. But locked meant that there had to be guards always posted on the other side to let you in. We had the manpower for it, but I didn't like the new security measure. It slowed things down, and that usually made me antsy.