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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:04

Two protein bars, bottles of water for all three of us, and an X-ray later, we knew the break was completely healed. My phone started ringing as we got off the elevator on our floor. Nicky dug it out of the backpack and handed it to me. It was Edward.

'Vampires alive, or dead?' I asked.

'I've got the execution delayed but can't convince them that the vamps were mind-fucked themselves. You were right that the vampires are two of the missing. They were hikers that came up here about a month ago, so you called that, too.'

'I'm good with the dead,' I said.

'What's that supposed to mean?' I asked. It wasn't like him to make snide remarks.

'Some of the locals seem less happy the more right you are.'

'Since you and I rely on each other to be right, I can't explain why, only that it's happening. My guess is professional jealousy. Marshal Hatfield has a serious hard-on to prove herself, and she seems to feel that your reputation hurts all women everywhere who wear a badge.'

'I take it you don't mean my reputation as a kickass law enforcement officer.'

'No, the other reputation.'

'Oh, that I'm a cold-blooded killer who shoots first and asks questions later?'

He gave a small chuckle. 'Nope, the other one.'

'You mean that I'm one of the monsters and that's what gives me a leg up in the job?' I asked.

He laughed. 'No, the other-other reputation.'

'You mean that I'm dating too many men?' I asked.

'Something like that,' he said, his voice soft again.

'She's right there, isn't she?' I asked.

'Yes,' he said in a normal voice.

'Have you defended my honor to her yet?' I asked.

He lowered his voice again. 'It's hard to defend your honor when everyone believes that I'm one of your conquests.'

I rolled my eyes. 'I'd forgotten that rumor.'

'I hadn't.' There was a tone in his voice.

'Do you get that much grief from the other cops about me?'

'They're just jealous,' he said.

'Of my success rate at the job,' I said.

'Or that I'm doing you?' I asked.

He did that male chuckle again that he almost never did unless he was playing Ted. 'Some.'

'I'll be there as soon as I can to question the vamps.'

'It's Hatfield's warrant. You have to persuade her.'

'And she already hates me,' I said.

Nicky held the door while Dr Cross pushed the chair through.

'Make sure you eat before you get here,' Edward said.

'I've had a couple of protein bars,' I said.

'I think you need to eat something beefier than that,' he said.

Dr Cross said, 'I hate to interrupt police business, especially when you're trying to save fellow vampires, but we need this room for sick people. You can go save the day, er, night.'

'Hold on, Ted,' and I turned to the doctor. 'Thanks, doc. About Nathaniel Graison - is he being released, too?'

'Yes, Mr Graison can leave when you do, though I would advise all of you to drink copious amounts of water to keep from having a relapse of elevation sickness. Don't look at me that way, Marshal, it contributed to both of your illnesses.'

'How much water do we need to drink?' Dev asked.

'You know that recommended eight glasses of water a day?'

'Double that, doctor's orders.'

'We'll never have time for that,' I said.

He shrugged. 'Then you or Mr Graison may both suffer ill effects again.'

I opened my mouth and closed it, not sure what to say.

Dr Cross said, 'I know he is one of your animals to call and that you drained energy from him to heal yourself.'

I tried not to look surprised.

'There is a reason they assigned a vampire as doctor on this floor. Sometimes it takes a preternatural citizen to understand another one.'

I nodded. 'So you knew what was wrong the whole time?'

'Not at first, but I'm absolutely serious that the elevation sickness contributed to both of you being hospitalized. It puts extra strain on your bodies.'

'They'll drink the water,' Nicky said.

'I want both of you well,' he said.

And just like that, Nicky won. 'All right,' I said.

'I'll go sign your paperwork. You can shower and get dressed,' Dr Cross said.

'I'm not sure I have time to shower,' I said.

Edward said on the phone, 'You have time and it will probably be your best bet to get your protein needs met.'

'I told you I had two bars.'

'I think you need some beefcake to go with those protein bars.'

'Are you hinting that I need to feed the ardeur before I get there?'

'I didn't think I was hinting, but yes.' He lowered his voice again and said, 'I have now made Hatfield walk off in disgust. I believe she thinks the beefcake comment was us flirting.'

'That would be bad flirting,' I said.

'You're much smoother than that,' I said.

'Thanks, but feed, Anita. You don't want to lose your shit here.'

'Agreed,' I said, but sighed as I said it.

'Are Nicky and Dev still with you?' he asked.

'You know there are a lot of women who wouldn't see either of them as a hardship.'

'It's not that; it's the fact that I have to have sex before I can go fight crime.'

'And you healed a broken pelvis and a bullet wound in a little over twenty-four hours, so you have to have sex more often than most for that kind of healing ability. It's not a bad trade.'

I thought about that and then said, 'Good point.'

'You'd be out of this investigation for good if you didn't heal better than anyone I know.'

'But make it a quickie; you do need to question the vampires before dawn.'

'First you damn near order me to have sex, and now you're putting limits on how much time I have to do it. Geez.'

He laughed. 'Just do what you need to do and get over here before dawn.' He hung up, his voice already talking to someone at his end of the world.

'Well, you heard the man; I need to feed and then we go question the vampires.'

'Which one of us?' Nicky asked.

We both looked at him.

He smiled and held up his hands as if to say, Unarmed. 'The last time you did a major feed on Nicky you almost killed him, remember?'

'I know not to have sex with him twice in a row,' I said.

'He's your Bride, which means he can't shut off his energy when you feed the ardeur. We don't want his heart stopping again because of that, right?'

Then a look came over Dev's face that I couldn't quite read. I just knew it wasn't a happy look. 'Is it such a hardship to have sex with me instead of Nicky?'

I realized what the look was now. He was feeling bad about himself, worried that I preferred Nicky to him. I did, actually, but it wasn't because Dev wasn't wonderful on his own; he'd just gotten to me too late. I was full up for main men by the time our Devil arrived. When he'd first come to us, he'd been so confident he was cocky. It made me sad that I'd made him doubt himself, though I knew that Asher had done a lot to undermine the Devil's confidence in himself, too.

I went to Dev, touched his arm, and studied his face. 'You are handsome and yummy, and I've never said otherwise.'

'You mean that, but it doesn't change the fact that you'd rather fuck Nicky than me.'

'You're prettier than me,' Nicky said.

Dev grinned. 'Thanks, but Anita has a lot of pretty in her life.' His face sobered. 'She needs more than just a pretty face and great sex.'

'I may need more than that, but it's not a bad place to start,' I said. I went up on tiptoe to try and kiss him, but at six foot three, if he didn't bend down to me I wasn't reaching his mouth.

He bent down and let me kiss him, but his blue-brown eyes stayed serious. 'It's not a bad place to start, but I know what it's like to be in love now and to have someone in love with me. I miss it.'

'You miss Asher,' I said.

'If he could stop throwing jealous rages, I'd miss him more, too,' I said.

'I don't like that part of him either, but I love all of him, and he loved me.'

'Have you heard from him?' I asked.

'He told me to go find a girl and settle down with her, that he'd found a boy who liked just boys. He didn't have to be second to the next pussy that came along.'

I dropped back to stand flat-footed. I wondered if he'd given the same talk to Jean-Claude; if so, my main squeeze hadn't shared. 'Yeah, that sounds like Asher when he's being shitty.'

'But the thought that he found another man to replace me really bothered me, Anita. I thought I couldn't live without more people, especially women, but now I don't know.'

'Would you give up women for him?' Nicky asked.

Dev looked at the other man. 'I think I might. It would be hard, but for him I might. I didn't expect to miss him this much.'

'Have you ever missed anyone before?' I asked.

Dev shook his head. It made me remember that he was younger than me and had certainly had a more sheltered life than a lot of the other men in my life. I touched his arm again.

He smiled at me, but it was a sad smile.

'I miss him, too,' I said.

'I miss the bondage with him topping Nathaniel and me more than anything else, but I'm learning that it can be just as hard to find someone to dominate you in the bedroom as to date outside it.'

'Will you talk to Jean-Claude about bringing him home?'

'I was going to talk to him about it when I got home anyway.'

'Jean-Claude is wasted as the ringmaster at Circus of the Damned. Businesswise we need him back at Guilty Pleasures, which means we need Asher back to manage and be ringmaster at the Circus.'

'Who talked to you about the business side of things?' Nicky asked.

'Jason told me that he can manage Guilty Pleasures, but he doesn't have Jean-Claude's magically seductive voice, and Jean-Claude had some seriously loyal customers who are missing him.'

'Jean-Claude may like women best, but he's missing Asher, too,' Dev said.

'They've been in love with each other for a few hundred years,' I said.

'And Micah doesn't like being introduced as "our Micah" in meetings with other preternatural leaders,' Nicky said.

'He hasn't mentioned it to me,' I said.

'There's a level of intimacy that Jean-Claude is addressing toward Micah just in the last month or so that hints that Micah is more than just your lover.'

'Jean-Claude hasn't mentioned wanting to make Micah more than a blood donor,' I said.

'If Jean-Claude wants another male lover, why hasn't he asked me?' Dev said.

'You'd say yes?' I asked.

He grinned. 'I wouldn't say no.'

'I think Jean-Claude is avoiding Dev because he thinks it would piss Asher off to have his two men fucking each other without him involved,' Nicky said.

I gave him wide eyes.

He shrugged. 'Asher isn't really good at the polyamory. He doesn't like to share unless he's the main focus.'

'And he wasn't the main focus with anyone but me,' Dev said, 'and then I had to try to add a woman who wasn't Anita, and Asher couldn't deal with it.'

'You wish you hadn't done it,' I said.

'Sometimes, but if I hadn't asked for what I thought I wanted, then I wouldn't have realized that I could miss someone like this. I wouldn't have known what Asher meant to me.'

'I don't think any of you would have realized how much he meant if you hadn't had a chance to miss him,' Nicky said.

'I'll talk to Jean-Claude when we get back,' I said.

'Thank you,' Dev said, and then he looked even sadder. 'If he's found someone to replace me and Jean-Claude, then I'm not sure I want him back in town. I don't think I could stand to see him with another man and know that I'd lost him.'

I didn't know what to say to that, so I did the only thing I could think of: I hugged him. He wrapped me in his arms, but there was no heat to it, only comfort. We sort of clung to each other in the debris of Asher's tantrums.

'This is very touching, but it's not going to lead to a quick feeding for the ardeur,' Nicky said.

We both turned and looked at him. My look wasn't friendly, and I expected Dev to be in the same frame of mind, but he said, 'Nicky's right. Sad is not an aphrodisiac.'

I pulled back enough to gaze up at Dev. 'What do you want to do?'

'Are you really turning down a chance to feed the ardeur?' Nicky asked.

'Just this one time. Would it be totally weird to say I have to call Asher and find out if he's just punishing me with the talk of another guy, or if he's serious that he doesn't want me in his life anymore?' Dev said.

'You want to know the answer before I talk to Jean-Claude about maybe bringing Asher back to town,' I said.

'Are you giving up Anita along with all the other women?' Nicky asked.

He thought about it and then shook his head. 'I'm her golden tiger to call, and I need to be free to be that in every way she needs. Because of the kind of vampire she is, that includes sex.'

'So, she's the one exception,' Nicky said.

'Wasn't one of the reasons you went to other women was that Anita had so many men in her bed that you weren't getting enough pussy?'

'Sorry, I forgot you don't like that word, but it's still a good question. It's what started the fight that got Asher exiled in the first place.'

'He's right, Anita, it is a good question.' Dev sighed.

'Okay,' I said, 'do you have a good answer?'

He grinned and then looked sad, like clouds passing over the sun on a summer's day. 'Not until I talk to Asher.'

'You really think talking to him will give you a good answer?' Nicky asked.

Dev smiled, but it was sad around the edges, and in his eyes. 'I'll have an answer; not sure if it will be good or bad.'

Nicky shook his head. 'I'd never have fallen in love with anyone if Anita hadn't mind-fucked me, because I think this is just stupid.'

'Love is stupid?' Dev asked.

'It makes you weak,' Nicky said.

Dev nodded. 'It can.'

I realized that Nicky had said, in a very backward way, that he was 'in love' with me, but since he hadn't made a big deal out of it, neither did I. I'd think about it and decide if we needed to talk about it later. I was voting no.

'Do you think he's learned his lesson?' I asked.

'Asher, you mean?' he asked.

'Me either,' I said. 'He'll be better for a while.'

'And yet we both want him back,' Dev said.

'Apparently we all do.'

'It makes no sense,' he said.

'No, it doesn't, but if it were logical, would it still be love?'

He seemed to think about that for a minute and then shook his head. 'No, I guess it wouldn't.' He smiled down at me. 'But I still think it's too dangerous for Nicky to feed you right now. We don't want another accident where you make his heart stop.'

I looked at Nicky. He looked back. His face was serious, almost unreadable, and I realized it had been even when he was talking about being in love. I went to him and wrapped my arms around his waist. He put his arms around me automatically. We were left staring at each other, me up, and him down.

'I won't risk Nicky like that again.'

A slow smile spread across his face, and he hugged me closer, pressing our bodies against each other. 'Good to know,' he said, voice low and soft.

'But Anita still needs to feed the ardeur,' Dev said.

'Who do you want to feed on?' Nicky asked.

'Who's available? Someone told me that we had fresh guards in town, didn't say who.'

'I'll go see who's in Nathaniel's room,' Dev said.

'Where is he?' I asked.

'Farther down the hall,' Dev said.

Nicky hugged me tighter, which made me look at him. 'He's fed you enough; you need fresh meat.'

'I wasn't thinking about feeding on Nathaniel, just seeing him.'

'You have to clean up, so start, and Dev will send someone in.'

I frowned at him. 'I'd like a choice.'

'We won't send in anyone who you haven't already fed on and had sex with, so does it really matter?' Nicky said.

He gave me a look, like I was being silly.

'How about it's a surprise,' Dev said, 'you in the shower and your lover strips off and joins you. It's romantic and spontaneous.'

Nicky turned me around to face the bathroom door. 'Your soap, shampoo, razors, everything is in there. Go get cleaned up, and before you're finished you'll have food.'

I frowned at him, too.

He gave me a little push toward the door. 'Go, Anita, go so you can question the vampires before dawn.'

'I'd forgotten,' I said.

'When you're really low on ardeur feeds, you forget important things. Clean up, we'll bring you takeout, and then we'll go catch bad guys.'

I didn't point out the irony of Nicky calling someone else a bad guy, with his background. I just went into the bathroom and started cleaning up. The fact that I'd gotten this distracted when we were on a time limit for questioning witnesses said just how low my reserves were. I needed a fast shower, fast food, and some fast answers from our vampire prisoners. It was all about quickies tonight.