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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:56

We'd had time to see the great room - living room/dining room with the kitchen off to one side, with just half-walls and bar stools around two sides - when a young woman stepped in through the open doorway of a distant hallway. Her curly, dark auburn hair fell around her shoulders. She was maybe five foot four, slender, and dainty except for one part. She had breasts the way Micah had more manly attributes, as if nature had decided to make up for their looking so delicate. But at least Micah could hide his under clothes; Beth, and this had to be Beth, would have more trouble hiding hers.

She walked across the room, face already starting to crumble into tears. Micah went to meet her halfway. She half-fell against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and started to sob. He held her, patting her back, trying to soothe her.

I heard her saying, 'I knew you'd come. Jerry said you wouldn't, but I knew you would.'

A small voice called, 'Bethy, are you all right?'

Beth pulled away, wiping at her eyes furiously, trying to hide the tears, as she turned around for the little boy in the hallway. He had a halo of golden curls that spilled out around his head and that perfect skin tone that certain mix-and-match genetics can give you. His eyes were huge and shaped like Jerry's and their mother's, but the color was a pale brown, much lighter than the dark brown of Beth's eyes.

'I'm fine, Fen, just happy that my big brother is home.' She half-laughed as she said it, still wiping tears away.

'But you don't cry when you're happy, Bethy.' He said her name like he couldn't quite pronounce Beth, and wasn't exactly saying Betty, but something in between. He walked farther into the room in his footed pajamas trailing a stuffed toy in one hand, like a modern version of Christopher Robin, except it wasn't Pooh Bear in his hand. I couldn't tell what it was, but it wasn't a bear.

Beth went and picked him up, cocking her hip to one side so he sat better, as she carried him back to us. 'Fen, this is my big brother, Mike. Remember I told you about him?'

The little boy gave solemn eyes to Micah. 'Are you my big brother, too?'

Before Micah could answer, there was a shrill little-girl scream from the hallway. We all looked up and the screamer raced toward us in a Disney Princess nightgown, long, dark gold braid flying straight out behind as she ran shrieking toward us. An older boy with short brown hair was running after her, yelling, 'I am going to kill you!'

Bea said, 'Hawthorne!'

Hawthorne? Oh, right, I remembered. Second husband was a literature professor. Poor kid.

The little girl flung herself into her mother's arms as Ty Morgan said, 'Hawthorne, that is not how we talk to each other in this house.'

'She spilled Kool-Aid all over my backpack! She's not even supposed to be in our room!'

'I did not!' the girl said, with her little arms around her mother's neck and her face buried in Bea's hair.

'Liar, I saw you. If I hadn't had to save my homework, I'd have caught you before you hid behind Mom!' His face was flushed with that peculiar rage you reserve for siblings. He looked like he had a light permanent tan, and his hair was cut very short and old-fashioned, like a 1950s boy cut. He looked about eleven or twelve years old. His bright blue eyes glittered with his anger. He was seriously pissed. I wondered if he had a bad temper normally or if it was special for what was happening at the hospital. Then I realized that Rush wasn't his daddy. His dad, Ty, was standing there, all good as ever.

Micah's mom was stroking the girl's long gold braid. 'It's okay, Frost. Did you spill Kool-Aid on Hawthorne's backpack? Tell the truth; no one will be angry.'

Frost raised her face and looked behind at her brother. All we could see was the back of her head. 'Hawthorne is mad now.'

I thought she had a point.

'You know you're not allowed to drink or eat in the bedrooms,' Bea said.

Frost hung her head. 'I'm sorry, Mommy, I forgot.'

'Apologize to Hawthorne,' Ty said.

She mumbled her apology.

'That's it?' the boy demanded. 'She spills shit all over my school backpack and some of my homework and gets off with an apology?'

'Don't use vulgarisms,' Ty said automatically. 'Frost is going to help you clean off the backpack, and we'll think of something else suitable to remind her she's not allowed to take food back to the bedrooms.'

Hawthorne rolled his eyes. He looked up at us as if we'd just appeared before him. Anger will blind you to a lot, but seven strangers in your living room seemed like something you'd notice. Emotions flowed over his face, and he finally settled on arrogant defiance, but his eyes were wary, almost nervous. He'd looked us over and done a quick assessment of physical potential, which made me put his age up a bit, at least twelve, and he was in some sport that made him aware of physical potential. He'd done the math and knew that there were a lot of other males in the room who could kick his ass.

'What sport do you play?' I asked.

He looked startled at having to drag his attention away from the bodyguards who towered behind us. 'Football and jujitsu.'

I nodded. 'I figured some kind of martial arts.'

'Why?' he asked, blue eyes narrowing.

'The way you sized up the men.'

'You know what I mean,' I said.

He looked at me, and he saw me not as a woman, or a grown-up, but as a person. He was almost my height exactly. 'What martial art do you do?'

'I started out in judo, but now I do mixed martial arts.'

'You do MMA?' he asked, and couldn't keep the suspicion out of his voice.

He looked behind us at the other men again. 'What do they do?'

'Same thing,' I said.

'She trains with us,' Ares said.

Hawthorne looked suspicious again. 'Really?'

'Really,' Nicky, Dev, and I said at the same time.

Hawthorne looked at Micah next. 'You're Mike, aren't you?'

Hawthorne studied his face, then nodded. 'You look like Beth.'

'Do you work out with them?' Hawthorne asked.

'Because in my job my life doesn't depend on my fighting skills.'

Hawthorne looked back at me. 'What's your job?'

I moved my jacket so he could see the badge at my waist.

'U.S. Marshal. Are you here to help catch who hurt Rush?'

'I'm here with Micah, Mike. I'm his fiancee, but yeah, since I'm already here I thought I'd help out.'

He looked at Nathaniel. 'Who are you?'

'Hawthorne,' his mother said, as if he'd been rude.

'I'm Nathaniel,' he said, and offered his hand to the boy.

Hawthorne was obviously surprised, but he took his hand and they shook. 'Do you work out with them?'

'Same reason Micah gave.'

The boy looked him up and down as if trying to figure out what, or who, he was to everyone else. 'They don't all look like marshals,' he said.

'Hawthorne, why don't you take Frost and Fen back to clean up your backpack?' Ty said.

He gave a sullen look to his father. 'Fen is four. How is he going to help with anything?'

Fen rose up from Beth's shoulder and said, 'I can help.'

Hawthorne gave an exaggerated sigh, rolled his eyes again, and said, 'Fine, I'll take the little kids with me, but I know you just want me to stop asking questions and talk grown-up stuff.' He looked worried then, and it was real. 'Did something else happen to Rush?' He suddenly looked younger, the kid peeking through the almost-teenager.

'No, Hawthorne, nothing else has happened,' Ty said.

'I promise,' his father said.

Hawthorne nodded, flashed us another worried and speculating look, then held his hands out for the kids. 'Come on, brats, I'll supervise while you clean up the Kool-Aid.'

Bea set the little girl on the ground. Frost turned around to face us, hands on hips, elbows out defiantly, and gave us a clear view of her delicate triangular face. Her eyes were small, almost almond shaped, and a deep, solid brown. Except for the hair color she looked like Beth had cloned herself. I was looking at what Micah's daughter might have looked like.

'I am not a brat,' Frost said, stamping her foot.

'Are too,' Hawthorne said.

'Go with your brother and clean up the mess you made,' Ty said.

I looked at his bright blue eyes, and then at Bea's blue-gray ones. Micah had actually gone pale. How did two blue-eyed parents end up with brown-eyed children? Somehow Fen's golden-brown eyes hadn't seemed so obvious, but these were Micah's and Beth's eyes staring out of a face that didn't look like their mother or her new husband. What the hell was going on?

Beth said, 'I'll go with them and make sure they don't kill each other.' She gave a look to Micah that I think was sympathetic. 'I'm glad you're home,' she said, and carried Fen off after Hawthorne and Frost.

Fen called back over her shoulder, his arms wrapped around her neck, and asked his question a second time. 'Are you my big brother, too?'

Micah turned to look at his mother as he answered the little boy, 'Yes, I think I am.'

Bea Morgan reached for her husband's hand and looked guilty.