Page 80

Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:16

I didn't, but I know I was scowling with every morning greeting after a while. I felt squirmingly awkward, like one of those nightmares where you have to give a major speech and you've forgotten your clothes. Apparently embarrassment can tone down vampire powers; who knew?

I was relieved to finally get to the little locker area near medical. One, it was in a small cave-y alcove so I had a moment of privacy. Two, I could finally empty my hands into the locker, lock it, and keep the key, though I didn't have any pockets to put it in. I debated long and hard on whether to keep the smaller Sig Sauer with me, but again I had no way to carry it. I was surrounded by guards, our bodyguards; they were armed and paid to keep us all safe, so why did it bug me so much to shut the locker with all my guns inside it? Now I really did feel naked.

I finally gave in, reopened the locker, got out the Sig still in its holster, and just carried it all in my left hand. With my left hand, since I was right-handed, because if I really had to use it, I'd hold the holster with my left and draw the gun with my right. My left hand would do what the belt normally did: hold the holster tight so the Sig could come out with one hard, smooth pull. Maybe I was being paranoid keeping a gun with me, but hey, I left both of the Sig's spare magazines in the locker. See, not paranoid, just cautious, and if you think otherwise you haven't had enough people shoot at you.

Benito was standing just around the corner from the locker area. He wasn't exactly at the head of the medical area, but just inside it, so he wasn't easily visible but could just step out and surprise them like he had tried to do with me.

"Felt you," I said, and that was the closest I could come to explaining how I had known someone was in the shadows there. Then Bram stepped out of the shadows, and I knew it hadn't been Benito the wererat that I'd sensed; it had been the wereleopard. I was better at sensing all the wereanimals that were my flavor to call. Bram was Micah's main bodyguard. He was a few inches taller than Benito, but they were both built lean and I knew Bram was wicked fast. Benito didn't practice with us, because he wasn't one of our guards; he was all for Rafael. Bram's hair was cut very short on the sides, but with a little more left on top to style as he let go of the military haircut he'd come to us with; he was darker than Benito, and it wasn't just tan. He still looked unfinished to me without Ares standing at his side; they'd partnered each other as guards and as friends. Ares had been the blond physical counterpoint to Bram's oh-so-brunette. Ares was dead, and Bram was like a shadow with no light to balance him, or maybe that was just my guilt talking, since I'd been the one who had to kill him. A vampire had bespelled Ares and suddenly all that military skill and werehyena strength was turned against us. It was one thing to not be able to save someone, but to have to pull the trigger on them, that was something that stayed with you.

Benito grinned, eyes shining with some suppressed mirth.

"Leave it alone, Benito," Bram said.

It took me a second to realize that the wererat guard's eyes were looking lower than my face. I guess the fact that it took me even a few seconds to remember I was nude meant I was getting more comfortable with it than I'd thought.

"Your eyes better stay on my face, Benito, because one rule across all wereanimal cultures is that if someone is just nude and not trying to be sexy you're supposed to ignore it."

"My apologies, Anita," and he tried to keep his eyes on my face, but it was as if my breasts had a gravitational pull that he just couldn't resist. I refused to cover up, because he was the one being rude; I wouldn't let him embarrass me, damn it.

"I've never seen you on the practice mat, or in the gym working out, but I'd really credited you with more control than this," I said.

He looked at my face then, frowning. "What do you mean?"

"It's been my experience that a man who can't control himself in one way has poor control in others."

The frown turned to a scowl, but he was giving me great eye contact now. "My control is excellent, or I would not be trusted to guard our king."

"Good to know, and the eye contact is appreciated."

A look went through his eyes that I couldn't decipher, and then he smiled. "Very well done." He gave a few soft claps. "You manipulated me beautifully," and something about the way he said it was still not as friendly as normal.

"I just got you to behave professionally, that's all."

Bram said, "Micah and Rafael are in room three."

"Thanks," I said, and moved past them, though admittedly I walked on the far side of the hallway so that Bram was between me and Benito. I didn't think he'd hurt me, but there was something odd about the last few minutes of interaction with him, and until I understood it I'd err on the side of caution.

I had a moment of hesitation just outside the door to the room, because again I suddenly felt very naked. Maybe it was the weirdness with Benito, but I suddenly felt awkward again. Micah wasn't the problem; if he saw me nude and it made him think sex, and I wasn't rushing for work, then I was all for it. The problem was Rafael. Even though we were friends with benefits, showing up without clothes seemed a little abrupt for him and me. He was actually quite fond of silky lingerie with robes. The first time we'd had sex had been very slam, bam, thank you, ma'am, but either because of how he'd behaved the first time, or because it was his natural bent, there was always a bit of talking and just awkwardness as if he was never quite sure how to transition from good evening to hey, baby.

Me walking in naked would definitely not be the style to which Rafael and I had become accustomed. I started to wonder about looking for a robe, or something, or texting Micah . . . and I realized that I'd left my phone in the locker with the weaponry. Sigh.

The door opened and Micah was there. His eyes went a little wide as he saw me, and then he smiled. It was a good smile, and the look in his eyes said plainly that he appreciated the possibilities of the view.

"The shower took longer than I'd planned, and I didn't want to wake anyone in the bedrooms to get clothes."

He grinned at my obvious discomfort. "It's okay, Anita, you just surprised me, that's all. You usually don't like walking through the Circus without clothes."

"Yeah, way too many new guards to say good morning to for my comfort," I said, frowning.

He reached out to take my left hand like normal and found it full of gun. He switched to my right hand without missing a beat. "You don't have to explain, or apologize."

"It's just a little . . . brazen for me."

"Brazen?" Rafael said from inside the room, and followed it with a laugh.

"Laughing about this will not make me more comfortable, Rafael," I said.

"Then I am no gentleman to increase your discomfort; please come inside. We can give you one of the extra sheets, if you truly wish to cover yourself." See, very formal most of the time.

Micah led me into the dimly lit room. The lights were very low, because shapeshifters could be light sensitive when they were doing major healing. I didn't hide behind him, but I did sort of make certain I wasn't revealed completely in a sort of "ta-da" moment. I was engaged to Micah and had been having sex with Rafael for a year; I had no idea why I was this uncomfortable, but I let myself feel what I was feeling. Ignoring emotions doesn't make them go away; I'd learned that the hard way.

Rafael lay on his stomach, the sheets neatly folded where the body curved down into the ass, leaving the long expanse of his upper back bare. If he had been one of my main lovers it would have been inviting, but he and I weren't dating. He would never be my boyfriend, or anything I had a word for; we came together so I could feed the ardeur and he could gain a closer tie to the throne. It was like solving political problems by fucking, which on one hand sounded wrong, and on the other hand almost seemed a better system than normal politics.

"You are thinking very serious thoughts, Anita," he said; his eyes were so dark that only the glitter of them catching the light let me know for sure he was looking at me.

"Would you understand if I said politics makes strange bedfellows?"

He laughed then, hard enough that he winced, hands digging into the covers, as he fought not to writhe in pain, which apparently would hurt more. Seeing him in that much pain took away my discomfort and replaced it with worry.

I went forward, still holding Micah's hand. "I thought you'd be more healed by now."

"So did I," he said, in his deep voice, but there was more of an accent than normal, which meant either he was trying to play to his ethnicity, or he was stressed. He didn't have to play the big bad Mexican boss for us, so stress it was.

I knelt down beside the bed and had to let go of Micah's hand to lay my hand on Rafael's arm. I still had the Sig in my left, though I was beginning to wonder what I was going to do with it, when I needed both my hands. "The doctors cleaned the wound out, right?"