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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:57

'Mom, Ty, what is going on?'

Ty stood there straight and tall with an almost defiant look on his face. Bea clung to his hand and looked beseechingly at her son. 'It just sort of happened,' she said.

'Frost isn't Ty's, is she?' he asked.

'She is my daughter,' Ty said, 'but biologically probably not.'

'What do you mean, biologically?' he asked.

'Mike, please, don't be mad. I thought you'd be better than Jerry about it, because you have two people, too.' Her voice sounded apologetic and not sure of itself at all.

The doorbell sounded. Bea went for the door, as if happy to have an excuse to be away from Micah. Bram shadowed her to the door without anyone telling him to; you never left a door totally unguarded, especially if it was about to open. Micah was still trying to deal with the last few minutes. His father hadn't been the heartbroken abandoned spouse but had been at least sleeping with his ex-wife part time. There was an implication of much more.

Nathaniel and I had moved up beside Micah, but I honestly wasn't sure what to say. The look on his face said that part of his family history had just imploded. Nathaniel touched his arm. Micah didn't seem to notice.

It was Jerry at the door. 'You guys never lock the door until bedtime. What's up?'

'I didn't lock it,' Bea said.

Jerry looked up at the taller man. 'Why?'

'A locked door gives us a few more seconds to react,' Bram said.

'React to what?' Jerry asked.

Jerry shook his head and looked past everyone to Micah, who was looking at his brother now. 'The look on your face; you met Frost?'

'Yes,' Micah said in a voice that was almost strangled with tension.

'Surprise!' Jerry said, arms wide in a ta-da motion.

'You could have warned me.'

Jerry shook his head. 'Oh, no, wouldn't dream of it. This isn't my explanation to give, I wouldn't even try.'

'Be nice, Jerry,' Bea said.

'Why? I didn't know until Frost was three. I can't believe I was so stupid.'

'Jerry ...' Bea began.

'No, Mom, just explain to Mike. I'm still working my own issues on this one.' He moved until he was in front of Micah. 'We both felt so sorry for Dad, remember. We were so mad at Mom for leaving him for the professor here, and all the time they were still seeing each other, still a couple.'

'That's not true,' Bea said. 'At first it was everything you thought it was. I loved Rush, but I couldn't live with him anymore. I met Ty while we were separated. Rush could have dated, too, but he chose not to.'

'He was waiting for you to come to your senses and come home, or let him come back home,' Micah said, and that edge of old resentment was suddenly very clear in his voice. Some issues stay fresh every time you open them up. It's like evil magical Tupperware - it stays fresh forever.

'You are thirty years old, Micah David Callahan, too old to believe I can fix something that broke when you were twelve.'

Micah looked a little embarrassed but said, 'So did you cheat on Ty with Dad, or what?'

She looked back at Ty, and he moved up to take her hand again. 'She never stopped loving Rush, and by the time you left for good he was spending more time over here with us and the boys.'

'I remember Twain's fourth birthday party. I was so proud of all of you for being grown-up enough to give the younger kids such a family occasion.'

'Yeah,' Jerry said, 'but what you and I didn't know was that Dad was sleeping over.'

'That long ago?' Micah asked.

'You want to tell this story?' Bea asked Jerry.

'Nope,' he said, and flopped down on the nearest couch.

'Then stop interrupting,' she said.

He spread his hands wide, as if to say, Sure, go ahead, I'm out of it.

She turned back to Micah and the rest of us. 'I didn't think I'd have quite this big an audience for the story.'

Bram said, 'We can wait in the kitchen if you like.'

'Thank you,' she said.

He and Ares went for the bar stools around the kitchen. Nicky and Dev looked at me. I nodded, and they went to join them. I didn't have the heart to tell Bea that with their more-than-human senses they'd hear everything she said anyway. Sometimes illusion is all the comfort you get for stories like this.

We all sat down on the nearly perfect square of couches. Ty and Bea were on one couch. The three of us sat on the couch opposite them. Jerry moved to the love seat that sat between them both. When we looked at him, he said, 'I want to see everyone's faces.'

'Jerry, this is not a show for your entertainment,' Ty said.

'I just want to see one of my siblings learn about all of this the way I did, that's all.'

'Beth knew sooner?' Micah asked.

'She was only twelve ten years ago. She lived with Mom. When I asked her after I found out why she hadn't told me, do you know what she said?'

'She liked having Dad here in the mornings and everyone having coffee together. She said it felt like home. You and I lost everything we thought was safe, but little sister got a second bite at the apple.'

'I don't resent Beth and Dad being happy,' Micah said.

'It wasn't a lie,' Ty said.

'Well, it wasn't the truth either,' Jerry said.

Ty didn't have an answer for that.

Bea tried. 'You have Anita and Nathaniel in your life, and I have Ty and Rush in mine.'

'I only have one wife, not two,' Jerry said.

'You barely have enough social skills for one,' Beth said, as she walked in from the hallway. She looked at Bea. 'I've got Twain reading the kids a story.'

Beth sat down on the love seat beside Jerry, and though she wouldn't have said it out loud the way he had, I was betting she wanted a good view, too.

Micah laid a hand on both our thighs and we automatically covered his hands with ours. 'Yes, they are both in my life,' he said, 'but it was that way from the moment I met them. We've always been a threesome, sometimes more.' I wasn't sure if he added that last bit of truth to shock, because two of the extra people were listening, or so that later no one could accuse him of leaving stuff out. It didn't matter; they ignored it. Maybe they felt that explaining themselves was enough for one day. I was all for waiting to try to explain the entirety of our love lives. I wasn't ashamed of what we were doing, but it was a lot to explain. One long story at a time; we still had to get dinner before heading back to the hospital. We'd save our romantic epic for another night.

'I loved Rush, but we couldn't live together. I fell in love with Ty, but I missed Rush.' She wrapped both her smaller hands around his one larger hand and smiled up at him. It was a look of love, but I thought it might have been more a reassurance to the man at her side. Maybe that was just me overthinking.

Bea looked at me and said, 'I know you understand what I'm talking about.'

What I wanted to say was, Don't drag me into this, but Micah squeezed my hand, which let me know not to say the first thing that came to mind. Prospective in-laws needed gentler handling than my usual. 'It wasn't exactly like that with Micah and Nathaniel.' In my head, I thought that was more like Jean-Claude and Richard, back when the latter was more in our lives, but since that hadn't worked out well, I kept my mouth shut again.

'I told you that Nathaniel and I came together with Anita at almost the same time. She knew Nathaniel before me, but they weren't a couple.'

Nathaniel leaned into Micah, smiling. 'I think if Micah hadn't come along, Anita and I would never have been a couple.'

'Why not?' Bea asked.

He glanced past Micah at me. I just gave him raised eyebrows, because I had no idea what he was going to say. He smiled wider. 'We work as a threesome. I'm not sure either of us would work with Anita as a regular couple.'

'That's it exactly,' Bea said, and she sounded relieved. 'Rush and I alone weren't enough for each other, but with Ty' - she shrugged and gazed up at him - 'we were.'

'And you were okay with that?' Jerry asked.

Ty looked at him. 'Bea and I were beginning to have problems, and I knew we loved each other, but something was missing.' He turned back to look at Bea, and his face glowed, the picture of a man who was still dead-gone on his wife. 'Rush helped us find that missing piece.'

Micah's hand tensed in mine, and I glanced at him. He looked stricken, or shocked. I wanted to ask what was wrong but couldn't in front of the parents. But Micah saved me the trouble, because he said it out loud. 'I understand that.' He turned and looked at Nathaniel, and whatever look was on his face made Nathaniel glow. I smiled at them both, my two men.

'Oh, for the love of God,' Jerry said.

We all looked at him. 'What's got your panties in a twist?' I asked.

'You guys are all looking at each other in the same damned way. It's the way Dad ... it's, fuck.'

'Jerry,' Bea said, 'we don't use words like that.'

'The kids aren't here to hear me,' Jerry said, arms crossed across his chest, as he slumped lower into the couch.

'I think it's great,' Beth said. She was smiling at everybody.

'I wanted at least one person in the family who I give a damn about to be pissed like me.'

'You've got plenty of people in the family pissed, as you say,' Bea said, and her face looked suddenly older, strained.

Jerry sat up and reached out, as if to reach past Ty and touch his mother, but he let his hand fall back. 'I didn't mean that, Mom; I would never be as stupid as all of them are being.'

Bea said, 'You've met everybody from Rush's and my family who are coming to the hospital now. His parents will come, but only if Ty isn't there. They'll tolerate me, but not him.'

'What did Grandpa and Grandma get upset about now?' Micah asked.

'Until Rush got hurt, they could do a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" about our ... domestic arrangement, but we couldn't hide how upset we both were.'

'Have they met Frost?' Micah asked.

'Then they didn't want to know,' he said.

'Probably, but we also had to come back to this house to get Rush's things ... he lives here. He still owns the cabin, but he hasn't really lived there for almost six years.'

I shifted beside him.

Bea said, 'What is it, Anita? Talk to us, tell us what you think, please.'

I glanced at Micah, and he nodded, then shrugged. We were too far into places he hadn't expected to be able to guide me, I think.

'I think that if they didn't know their son was living here for six years when they live in town - They live in town, right?'

'Then they've been ignoring the elephant in the room for a long time. I don't think knowing his address would have made them look at the truth.'

Ty, Bea, and Beth exchanged a look.

Jerry sat up straighter. 'What happened?'

Ty answered, 'Your grandfather saw me holding Rush's hand and crying.'

'You did more than just hold his hand,' Micah said, and there was no condemnation in his voice, no anger. It was actually the calmest he'd sounded in the last few hours.

Ty nodded and wouldn't meet his eyes.

'It's okay,' Micah said. 'We understand.'

'I don't,' Jerry said.

Beth said, 'Just leave it, Jerry.'

'No,' he said, sitting on the very edge of the love seat and looking from his mom and Ty to Micah.

The other man looked at him.

Micah raised Nathaniel's hand in his and laid a gentle kiss on the back of the other man's hand.

Ty's eyes were shiny with unshed tears as he nodded. 'How did you know?'

'Because it was either that, or you kissed him - kissed him, and Grandpa saw you.'

'Have they disowned their son?' I asked.

Bea shook her head. 'No, they seem to think that Ty is the evil influence. If-' She stopped herself, took a shaky breath, and said, 'When Rush gets better I think they'll either give him a chance to move out of the house or kick Ty out.'

'He won't do that,' Beth said.

'No, he won't,' her mother said.

Micah turned to Nathaniel and me. 'My grandparents aren't as crazy religious as Aunt Bertie, but they are very serious about certain things. They finally accepted me as a shapeshifter because I couldn't do anything about it. It wasn't a choice. If I had chosen to become a monster, they would have disowned me.'

'Rush is their son,' Bea said, 'and he feels like he's outside God's grace now. He loves living here with all of us, but he still believes a lot of what he was raised to believe. It's really hurt him to love us all here.'

'It's made him happier than I've ever seen him, Mom,' Beth said. She got up and went to sit on the other side of her mother so that she and Ty each comforted Bea.

'That's true enough,' Jerry said. 'I've never seen Dad this happy.'

'He wasn't just keeping his home address at the cabin to get around his parents,' Ty said. 'It's also because as sheriff he has to live in the town to serve.'

I nodded. 'Yeah, if he lives in Boulder then he can't be sheriff.'

'He loves his job,' Jerry said.

'If the worst thing we have to worry about is that he has to change where he's protecting and serving, we'll be doing okay,' I said.

Bea nodded. 'You are so right, Anita, so right.'

'Do the other kids know?' Micah asked.

'We had to sit down with Twain and explain why we all use the same room at night,' Ty said.

'He asked outright?' Micah said.

'You haven't met him yet,' Beth said. 'He's a very serious kid and he'll ask anything if he wants to know. He's like a walking social disaster.'

'He was a serious kid even at four when I saw him last.'

'Hawthorne knows we have one bedroom, but he won't ask outright. He'll just accept it and not ask any questions that he doesn't want to know the answer to,' Ty said.

'Were you all a couple back when Hawthorne and Twain were little?' Micah asked.

'We'd started working on that by the time Twain was four,' Ty said.

'So, while I was still around?'

Micah looked at Jerry. 'We both missed it.'

'Yeah, but at least you've been gone for ten years. This was all happening under my nose.'

Micah's hand tensed in mine. I think it was her calling him big brother. I wondered if that was a nickname she'd only used for him once? 'I'm sorry that you and Kelsey didn't work out.'

'You never liked her,' Jerry said.

'I wouldn't say never, but by the time you were in college, no. I didn't like her.'

'Why didn't you like her?' he asked.

Jerry looked down at his clasped hands, let out a long breath, and asked, 'Did she try to sleep with you?'

Micah's hand tensed in mine again, though nothing else showed his sudden tension. 'It was a long time ago.'

Jerry shook his head. 'Why didn't you tell me, Mike?'

'You were in love with her, and I didn't think she'd approach anyone else. She was a little drunk and it happens.'

'No,' Jerry said, 'even a little drunk, your fiancee does not proposition your brother.'

'I agree with Jerry,' I said.

'You asked me like I wasn't the only one she tried to sleep with; I honestly thought that she wouldn't try for anyone else.'

Micah hesitated. 'She had a particular ... interest, um ...'

'Fetish, you mean,' Jerry said.

Nathaniel and I must have looked puzzled, because Jerry said, 'Everyone else knows that Kelsey was a fur-fucker, beastlover, whatever.'

'She approached you after you became a wereleopard?' I said.

Micah nodded. 'I honestly thought it was just a onetime fantasy and when I said no, she'd let it go.'

'Nope,' Jerry said, 'she's actually living with the local werewolf pack and getting all the furry attention she wants.'

'I'm sorry, little brother,' Micah said.

Jerry nodded, staring at his hands. 'I can't compete with ... you know how it is better than I do. Kelsey said no human man could compare.'

'I'm surprised she didn't ask you to join the team,' I said.

'She did, but by that time I knew that even if I were a shapeshifter my attentions would never be enough. There's something broken inside her that isn't fixable.'

'I'm sorry,' Nathaniel said.

Jerry looked at him and at him holding hands with both of us. 'It really bothered me when I found out that Dad was a "couple" with Mom and Ty. I didn't like the idea of my dad sharing a bed with another man.'

'Jerry,' Bea said, as if he'd said something rude.

'Are you ashamed of it?' he asked.

'Then it bothered me when I realized you all shared a bed.' He looked at us again. 'How long have you three been ... together?'

'Almost three years,' Micah said.

'Mom, Dad, and Ty have been together for double that. I'm the only one who tried for traditional, and by two years in I knew it wasn't going to work. Maybe I need to find a nice couple to settle down with.'

'Janet is a good person,' Beth said.

'I thought Kelsey was a good person, too.'

'Kelsey always noticed other men at parties and stuff.'

'Why didn't you tell me?' Jerry asked.

'Because I was just a kid and I didn't understand what I was seeing. Now, I'd say something.'

'I'm sorry, it's just I feel stupid about Kelsey and about not seeing what was right in front of me with Dad and Mom and Ty.'

'I didn't know you had any doubts about marrying Janet,' Bea said.

'I don't, and then I think how oblivious I've been and I wonder what I'm missing this time.'

'I look forward to meeting Janet,' Micah said.

Jerry nodded. 'Let me know if she tries to sleep with you, okay?'

'It won't happen this time,' he said.

Jerry just looked at him.

'But I promise, I'll tell you if it does.'

Jerry looked at Nathaniel. 'You, too, pretty boy.'

Nathaniel smiled, and then looked uncomfortable and finally just said, 'I'll tell Micah and Anita.'

'We'll tell you,' I said.

'And I don't think I like you calling Nathaniel pretty boy,' Micah said. 'It sounds dismissive, and he's too important to me for that.'

Jerry spread his hands wide. 'Sorry, it's just he is pretty, and I'm having a moment of insecurity, okay?'

'My men, they do have that effect on people,' I said. I tried to make a joke of it.

Jerry wasn't really in the mood for jokes, apparently, because he said, 'I'd just make a blanket request that if Janet tries to hit on any of your guys, someone tells me.' He was looking behind me.

I looked back at the guards who were sitting at the counter. I tried to see them from Jerry's point of view. They were all taller, more muscled, and more obviously dangerous. He was as good-looking as Bram or Ares, but Dev and Nicky, not really. Nicky wasn't much ahead of them, but Dev, he was almost as beautiful as Nathaniel and Micah. The real difference was that Dev was a more masculine beauty and my main sweeties were closer to the androgynous and even feminine-beauty side.

'Don't feel bad, Jerry; sometimes it makes me feel insecure to date them.'

He frowned at me. 'Why?'

'I've broken the girl rule,' I said.

'Never date anyone prettier than you are.'

Jerry looked at me, still frowning. He glanced at Micah. 'Is she teasing me?'

Micah shook his head. 'No.'

'If you think my brother and even Lavender Eyes here are prettier than you are, then you are not looking in the same mirror that I am.'

It was my turn to frown.

'Just say it, Jerry; Anita won't get it any other way.'

'You are one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. The look on your face says you don't know that.'

'Don't believe it,' I said.

I shrugged. 'My childhood trauma can wait for another day. Didn't someone mention food?'

'You're changing the subject,' Jerry said. 'I've never met a woman who wanted to change the subject after you'd called her beautiful.'

'Anita isn't like any other woman I've ever met,' Micah said, and kissed my cheek. I turned so he could kiss me on the lips and so I could kiss him back.

Bea beamed at us. 'When can I expect grandchildren?'

'I can't have children,' Micah said. He didn't explain that he'd had himself fixed because Chimera had enjoyed getting the female shapeshifters pregnant and then watching them lose the babies when they shapeshifted. Without serious and hard-to-find help, no female wereanimal could carry beyond a couple of months. The change was too violent for the body to hold on to a fetus. Micah hadn't wanted to cause such pain and he'd never expected to be rescued from Chimera, not until he met me.

'I'm so sorry,' Bea said. She smiled gently at her son and then turned the smile on Nathaniel. 'Any children you have with Nathaniel and Anita would be yours just like all of our kids are both Ty's and Rush's. I still want grandchildren no matter who the bio-dad is,' she said.

Nathaniel looked startled, and then looked to Micah, who said, 'I agree with my mom.'

Nathaniel smiled and looked so happy, but ... 'I am not planning on getting pregnant,' I said.

'Career first,' Bea said. 'I understand.'

'No, my career isn't really the point. I'm just not the maternal type.'

'You don't want to have children?' Bea asked.

'If I were the girl, we'd already be pregnant,' Nathaniel said. 'I'm more domestic and I love kids.'

I gave him a dirty look.

Micah shook his head and smiled. 'Let's eat dinner before we have to go back to the hospital and before Anita gets too uncomfortable.'

'Okay,' Bea said, 'everyone's brought so much food we could feed a small army.' She got briskly to her feet, as if she had a plan. She was going to either drop the subject as asked, or make sure I was around as many small, cute children as possible, as if there were a pheromone in their tiny bodies that would turn on my biological clock. I'd seen Frost and Fen; they were cute, but they weren't that cute.