"Don't . . . just don't," I said low, almost caressing. I felt very calm, very still inside; it was the place I went when I pulled the trigger. It was a quiet, strangely peaceful place where I went when I killed. Once it had been white and static filled, but lately it was just quiet. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't excited. I didn't feel bad about the woman I was about to shoot. I didn't want to shoot her, but the main thing that made me not want to shoot her was that Dino liked her enough to fuck her, and I liked Dino. When I realized that was my emotional math, I tried to feel bad about it, but I didn't. I didn't feel anything much in that moment, except that sense of waiting where the world slows down and you have forever to decide, will you pull the trigger or not?
Lita was very still underneath me, her head motionless against the gun. Her hands were still pressed to the floor in the middle of her effort to get up, but she'd frozen in an almost push-up. She was part of a street gang in L.A., which meant she'd been around violence all her life, and I'd finally done something she understood.
"Anita," Dino said, very quietly, "please."
I wasn't going to kill her, but that he bothered to say please meant he liked her. I didn't understand why, but . . . I eased the gun back from her head and pointed it ceilingward, finger off the trigger. I unhooked the strap on the AR and moved it to one side. I took the hide gun that was at the small of her back and put it by the AR. I took the knife that was in a sheath at her neck, hidden by all that long hair. I had a back sheath, too; a lot of people forgot to search there.
I heard the knock on the door but knew it was Jean-Claude just by the feel of his energy, so I didn't look up, or away from the woman underneath my knee and hand. He didn't interrupt when he came through the door. He'd wait and trust that I'd explain later.
"Have I made my point, Lita?" I asked, voice still low and careful.
She licked her lips and swallowed hard enough that it sounded painful. "You're the boss, I get it."
"Do you really, or are you just saying that because I pointed a gun at your head?"
"I pushed, you pushed back. You took me. You took me without trying hard and you aren't even a shapeshifter, or a vampire. How did you do that?"
"If you stop being a pain in my ass, I might show you on the practice mat."
"You won't send me to L.A.?"
"One more chance, but you do this shit again, and you get either a plane ticket home or dead, is that abundantly clear?"
"Kelly, you feel well enough to be in charge of her weapons?"
"Yes, ma'am." She got to her feet and came and took the weapons on the ground.
"Lita, I'm going to stand up now, and you are going to stay very still until I tell you to move, is that clear?"
"Yes . . . yes, ma'am."
I stood up carefully. As a marshal I'd have cuffed someone before a search; you had to be careful, because sometimes you eased up as you got up, and that was enough to let the bad guy, or girl, fight back.
"Very good," I said. I handed the gun to Kelly to add to the rest. "If you think she deserves them, give the handgun and knife back to her. The AR will have to be earned back; right now she doesn't get to carry anything bigger than a handgun."
"I'll tell Claudia and Fredo."
"Okay, you can get up now, Lita."
She did, slowly, carefully, as if she still didn't feel safe. Good. She licked her lips, and I noticed her red lipstick was smeared on one side, as if I'd forced her face into the floor at least once when I took her down. She looked at me; her eyes flicked behind me and I was pretty sure she was looking at Jean-Claude, but then her gaze came back to me. Better; before she'd have kept looking at the hot guy, and Jean-Claude was one of the hottest around.
"You're fast, really fast," she said, and her voice was still uncertain, almost afraid.
"And I'm trained, really trained," I said.
She nodded. "And you'll teach me?"
"If you start trying to be part of the team and not just a piece of ass with a gun, sure."
"I'm not a piece of ass," she said with a flare of her old sullenness.
I fought not to smile. "No, you're not, but you gotta stop flirting with all your male partners when you're on guard duty. It's a job and if you can't treat it that way, then we don't want you here."
"I'll try not to flirt, but it's . . . it's sort of what I do."
"Work on doing something else," I said.
"I'll try, I mean that, but I can't guarantee I won't forget sometimes. I'm not making an excuse, I'm just saying tell me to stop fucking around and I'll listen from now on, don't just kill me."
I looked into her face and saw the first real sincerity I'd seen in her. "Okay, but make sure that me just saying something is enough; don't ever make me have to put a gun to your head again, Lita."
"I won't, Anita, I swear."
"Good." I wanted to turn and see Jean-Claude, not just feel the presence of him, but there was something on the face of the younger woman that made me keep looking at her.
"The wererats call you Gatito Negro. I thought they were making fun of you, like you were a kitten they had to take care of, but that's not what it means at all, is it?"
"No," I said, "it isn't."
Dino said, "She's small, but she eats rats, our Gatito Negro."
Lita nodded. "Yeah, and I don't want to be eaten."
"Do your job, stop trying to fuck everyone, hit the gym harder, and I'll see you in practice."
"Ma petite, you are having an interesting night."
"You have no idea," I said, and turned around to find that he'd changed clothes for the banquet already, and I was going to have to work hard if I was going to hold my own on his arm tonight.
HE WAS STANDING next to Nicky and I was almost startled to realize that Jean-Claude was inches taller. I knew that Nicky wasn't six feet tall, so Jean-Claude's six feet, one inch had to be taller, but Nicky was just so much bulkier that he seemed bigger when I stood next to him. Jean-Claude never made me feel small when I was near him; he was just tall. Seeing them side by side, I realized some of why Jean-Claude was well built; he even lifted enough weights to give definition to his muscles, but he lifted to be beautiful onstage, not to bulk, so that he looked almost willowy next to the other man.
He'd replaced the white shirt we'd stained earlier with one so red it was scarlet. It looked fabulous with the short black velvet jacket, leather pants, and boots. I loved him in red, maybe because he wore it so seldom. It made his skin seem translucently pale, like alabaster if it could blush with life, and his black curls gleam, and it strangely brought out the blue in his eyes so they were less midnight sky and more cobalt.
I wrapped my arms around his waist and found that the red shirt was silk, cool and caressing against my hands. The cloth was mounded as if it were one of his more typical white shirts with the mounded lace and collar, but silk was softer than any lace. I pressed my chin into it and found that he was wearing a platinum stickpin through the cloth to hold it in place. A diamond almost as big as the engagement ring he'd given me on the video rode in the tip of it with a circle of rubies as red as the silk, which meant they were probably antique. Pigeon-blood red was the old name for rubies that color and they were damned rare now, or they stayed in countries that weren't exporting to America. He hadn't put that on to get onstage at Guilty Pleasures. Apparently the meet and greet with the weretigers was going to be more formal than I'd thought. I'd have been less worried about what I'd have to wear if he hadn't looked so spiffy in his clothes.
I went up on tiptoes to meet his kiss. It was sof
t, but thorough; he knew how to kiss without smearing my lipstick over both of us, and I knew how to kiss a vampire without cutting my mouth. French kissing was harder, but we could manage that, too.
It made me turn and look at her, and I was pretty sure it wasn't a friendly look.
"I didn't mean to get that look from you again, Anita, it's just"--she motioned at us--"you guys are like some romance movie. It's just not real, it can't be real."
"Oh, it's real, all right," Kelly said. "Now let's call for our replacements, before you say something else stupid."
"I'm not stupid." She snapped it, and the words seemed to hold a lifetime of maybe being told exactly that. Lita wasn't stupid; emotionally she seemed stunted, but I thought that was environmental and she was capable of more.
Jean-Claude looked at her, and I had a moment to see a considering expression before his face was its more typical smiling, pleasant, unreadable beauty. He glided over to Kelly and Lita. They both lowered their eyes so they wouldn't accidentally make eye contact with him. It had been so long since I couldn't meet a vampire's gaze safely that it almost startled me when others did it, especially when they did it around Jean-Claude.
Kelly moved back from Lita when she realized that was who he was standing in front of, as if the werelion were abandoning the wererat to her fate. Kelly looked . . . scared. It made me wonder if I'd missed something else besides Magda being a shit. I'd ask Kelly later, or maybe I'd figure it out just watching Jean-Claude with the other women.
"I assure you, ma souris, that I am very real."
Lita stared at the floor. "I know you're real." She tried to sound tough, but it's hard when you're staring at someone's feet.
"But you just said we are not." His French accent was a little thicker, which usually meant he was fighting some emotion, though sometimes onstage he did it on purpose. American women really dug the accent.
She shook her head hard enough that her hair fanned around her face, but with the headband her hair couldn't spill forward enough to hide her face completely.
He touched his fingertips to her chin and raised her face upward. She had her eyes closed as he raised her face, and she looked scared.
"Please," she whispered, but I was close enough to hear it.
"Please, what?" he asked in that accented, teasing voice. Once he'd aimed that voice at me. I had a moment to wonder if Jean-Claude just liked women with long, curly, dark hair. I had a moment of jealousy, which I hadn't felt in a long time. I looked at the feeling and tried to figure out where it was coming from. I'd watched him have sex with other people and not been jealous, so why did this hit that button?