By the time Micah and I managed to find a way to be by ourselves for a few minutes my nerves were raw and I was sort of clinging to him. I’d forgotten how much I hated get-togethers like this; it was just too many people who were work friends at best, work acquaintances, or near strangers. Touching Micah helped, but it had been years since I’d been at a large party where I didn’t have more of my lovers with me, and those parties had also been vampire and wereanimal events, which meant it wasn’t the same kind of socializing, or they were already my friends. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on touching my lovers, having them help out with the small talk, or having someone to huddle in the corner with and hate the social together. Micah was better at it than I was, but he held me tight, too, his hands stroking my back.
“You okay?” he asked softly.
“I’d forgotten how bad I am at these things.”
He spoke with his face pressed into the line of my neck. “If it’s our people it’s refreshing.”
“Some of these are friends, but they aren’t our people,” I whispered against his hair.
Micah raised his head up, body tense with listening. “That’s Matthew.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s angry, yelling.”
I didn’t ask him how he heard that over the crowd noise. One of the benefits of being a lycanthrope was better hearing, and we’d discovered that the catweres could hear higher noises than the canines. Small children had high-pitched voices.
We started down the steps of the deck, going for the side yard and the kids, but Zerbrowski called after me. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“We were just going to check on Matthew.”
“I can do it,” Micah said, “you talk cop stuff.”
He came back to the steps and kissed me. “I’m sure.”
He started walking through the crowd, leaving me with a stupid grin on my face.
“Earth to Anita,” Zerbrowski said.
He grinned at me, and shook his head.
“You guys are good together, that’s all.”
The grin faded around the edges. “But I need you to see something in the kitchen.”
“Is Nathaniel all right?”
“Oh, he’s fine; a lot of the other wives think he’s just fine.” He drew the last “fine” out into that ghetto drawl.
I frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you noticed that we’re missing a lot of the wives?”
“Not this early in the day. Come see.” He motioned me to follow him, and I did, wondering what was going on.
The dining room was what you walked into from the back door, so I could see that the table was covered in food, waiting for Katie to give the “come and get it.” But I knew that the traffic jam of women spilling out into the dining room from the kitchen hadn’t helped cook, because if all of them had helped, or were helping, the kitchen wouldn’t have been big enough to hold them all. Usually, people ask if they can help and if told no, they go outside and visit, drink a few cold drinks from the cooler.
I heard Katie’s voice higher than normal, calling out, “Ladies, thanks for the offer, but Nathaniel and I have all the help we need.”
Three women turned and started walking away from the kitchen. They were laughing. A tall brunette said, “I’d love to help Nathaniel out.”
The shorter brunette woman beside her said, “If I wasn’t a married woman I’d help him out, all right.” She laughed half nervously.
The third woman, a blonde, said, “I’m married, not dead, I may still take a run at him.”
The short brunette gave her a play slap on the arm. “You wouldn’t cheat on Tom.”
“For that, I might.” Her voice had dropped to a low purr.
The tall brunette saw us standing there, and touched the other woman’s arm. They looked at us a little startled, probably wondering if we’d heard them.
“Hello, ladies, I’m just checking in with Katie and Anita wanted to check in with Nathaniel. See how our better halves are getting on with the food,” Zerbrowski said.
By him including his wife and Nathaniel together he made it clear that it was on equal par, wife and . . . partner. The women got it, because they suddenly looked uncomfortable. The blonde decided to tough it out, sticking her chin out definitely, “Nathaniel belong to you?”
“You make him sound like a puppy, but if you mean is he my boyfriend, yeah, he belongs to me.”
“Lucky you,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m a lucky girl,” I said, and fought not to have my eyes go hostile. Her attitude had already gotten on my nerves.
“You really are,” the short brunette said, taking the blonde’s arm and keeping them all moving.
Zerbrowski leaned in and whispered, “Stop glaring at them, just let it go.”
I turned around so I couldn’t keep looking at the women. “It’s just the attitude bugs me.”
“He’s a good-looking guy, Anita.”
“Not in the way you mean,” I said.
“There’s only one kind of jealousy.”
I shook my head. “I’m not jealous as in seeing the women as competition, or being insecure. I know what I mean to Nathaniel, what we have.”
“If a group of strange men had talked about Katie in front of you the way they just talked about Nathaniel in front of me, how would you feel?”
He stopped walking and just stared into space for a second. He had an odd look on his face. He finally shook his head and said, “I’d have been pissed. I might have made a joke to pass it off, but I would have been pissed.”
“But you must be used to that at Guilty Pleasures when he dances.”
“Oh, that and worse, but that’s at his job. He’s trying to be sexy and lusted after, but not here.”
“How do you know he didn’t flirt with them?”
“First, he’s cooking. He can focus on that the way I do at the shooting range. Second, he wants to fit in here as one of the ‘wives.’” I made quote marks over the word. “Flirting won’t get him invited to more family-friendly get-togethers.”
“Katie called me in hoping that the women would be too embarrassed to flirt and loiter in front of another husband.”
“Did it help clear the women out?”
“Because Katie said to fetch you. She seems to feel that Nathaniel needs some reassurance.”
There were still too many women in the kitchen. There usually were, at parties like this, because they got tired of the boys club outside, but the energy was different from that. Katie and Nathaniel moved around the kitchen, but the five extra women in the room were in the way.
Katie said, “Elise, can you please move. I need to get something from that cabinet.”
Elise was a tall woman. She had let her hair go salt and pepper, but her makeup was flawless, and the bones of her face would make her beautiful when she was eighty, which she so wasn’t. She was either a young forty, or a very well-preserved fiftysomething. She moved out of Katie’s way, but only just enough, because two other women were also leaning against the cabinet and there wasn’t room to move without losing her view of Nathaniel washing dishes in the sink. Katie liked to clean as she cooked, and so he was helping do that, too.
I glanced from the three to the last two women who were near the door. What had Nathaniel done to get this reaction? Yes, he was gorgeous, but this was excessive. He saw me and the relief on his face was clear, at least to me. Something had happened; I didn’t know what, but something.
I went to him, and he wrapped himself around me, hugging me very tight, and just held on for a few seconds. It reminded me of my reaction outside with the crowd and the questions, when I’d clung to Micah, but Nathaniel was far more social than either of us. He raised back enough for us to kiss. I expected a good but chaste kiss, considering the audience we had. I was wrong.
He kissed me completely and thoroughly, his fingers digging and kneading into my back, the way a cat will treat a cushion just before the claws come out and it gets shredded. Micah could have brought just his claws out like that, but Nathaniel would have had to lose human form to do it, and I knew his control was better than that. For him to do anything this catlike here meant he was very nervous, the kiss meant nerves, and maybe a need to prove he belonged to me so the other women would back off.
I was a little stiff at first with the kiss, because it was way too much for me around the other police, or their wives, but his need and his nervousness made me force myself to relax into him. He’d explain later, and it would make sense. I believed that. I believed in him, and knew he’d have a reason for it.
He drew back and said, softly, “Missed you.” His eyes were uncertain.
“I noticed,” I said, and smiled at him.
Whatever he saw in my smile, my face, took the uncertainty out of his eyes, and replaced it with warmth, happiness, and that look we all get when we look at someone we’re in love with, as if a weight that we carried all our lives lifted when we looked into the face of our beloved.
“Wow, wish my husband greeted me at the door like that,” a woman with brown hair in two pigtails, halter top, and shorts said.
I glanced up to find several of the women looking appreciative, but the energy in the room had changed to something softer. I realized that the energy had been almost predatory, the way it can get at Guilty Pleasures sometimes. Women are more sexually aggressive at strip clubs than men, and their energy can be much angrier. I suddenly realized that one or more of the wives must have recognized Nathaniel from the club. It’s hard for most people to treat you like a real human being once they’ve seen you take your clothes off on stage. The wife, or wives, hadn’t been able to resist telling some of the other women and they’d wanted to see for themselves.