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Dancing (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22.5) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:55:58

If it had been a female stripper recognized by men it would have been much more covert, because a bunch of men standing there gazing at a woman gets creepy pretty fast, but doing it in reverse the women didn’t see themselves as predatory. It never occurred to them that Nathaniel might be just as uncomfortable as a female dancer would be with the treatment. He was a man, men liked attention from women, or that was the thought. Actually, men can get just as embarrassed as women, and be made to feel just as bad about themselves, they’re just not allowed to admit it.

“He’s your . . .” the elegant Elise said, and she let the sentence trail off as if she wanted me to fill in the blank.

“Boyfriend,” I said. “We’ve been living together for three years.” I added that last part to make it clear it wasn’t just hot sex and breathtaking kisses. Duration in a relationship counts for most people, and makes them take it more seriously.

“A hello kiss like that after three years together, that’s impressive,” Elise said. Her tone held a certain disdain, nothing I could call her on, but it was there.

“How long have you been with your husband?” I asked.

“Congratulations,” I said, though I wondered why only five years. She had to be over forty and the hair made me want to say fifty, but some people turn gray early, the face certainly didn’t look fifty.

She gave a small smile. “Thank you, Anita; it is Anita Blake, correct?”

“It’s nice to finally meet you, after hearing so much about you.”

“I hope it was all good things,” I said, smiling, because I was almost sure it wouldn’t be. My reputation for being the bad girl, or even the cop that shot first and asked questions later, didn’t endear me to everyone with a badge.

“What else would it be?” she said.

“Food’s up,” Katie said, voice too bright.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” Elise said and glided out of the kitchen, tall and graceful. The other women trailed behind her.

“What was all that about?” I asked.

“It was terrible, they were so rude,” Katie said, and she went to hug Zerbrowski.

“Some of the wives just came in for a quick peek at Nathaniel, and that was all right, but others . . . If it had been men looking at me like that I’d have felt dirty.” She shivered.

Zerbrowski stroked her hair, as he held her. “You should have called me in sooner.”

“We should have had Anita come in and kiss him sooner,” she said.

“You have this effect on women often?” Zerbrowski asked.

Katie raised her head from his chest and said, “Nathaniel was a perfect gentleman. He didn’t do anything to start this.”

“Actually, I did, Katie, just not today,” Nathaniel said.

They looked at him. I just raised my head and looked up at him while still in his arms. “What do you mean?”

“They’ve seen me strip. Most people have trouble treating dancers like real people once they’ve seen them take their clothes off.”

“Seeing you on stage shouldn’t have made them be so rude at our party,” Katie said.

Nathaniel shifted in my arms and I knew there was more. “What is it, Nathaniel?”

“I worked a bachelorette party for one of the wives.” He very carefully didn’t say which wife. He would keep his customers secrets even if they didn’t keep his.

“Why does that matter? It’s still your job and this was my home. It’s disrespectful to us, as well as you.”

Nathaniel looked down and met my eyes. It was a mute appeal. “I take it that it was a very lucrative party for you?” I said.

“They got their money’s worth, I take it?”

“I don’t understand,” Katie said.

I glanced at Zerbrowski. “You ever go to any private bachelor parties that had strippers?”

Katie frowned at him. “You always tell me, don’t tease Anita right now.”

“If you’d gotten a lap dance from a stripper and then she showed up as the girlfriend of one of the cops you knew, how would you react?”

“That’d be nice,” I said.

“I’d wonder if the cop knew that his girlfriend used to strip.”

“Some cops date strippers,” I said.

“Yeah, but they don’t usually bring them to family-friendly parties.”

“You can date strippers, but you don’t bring them home to meet the family,” Nathaniel said. He sounded sad.

I hugged him tight. “You are my family.”

He rewarded me with that brilliant smile of his, the real one, not the practiced one that the customers thought was the real deal. If he could have looked at them like that on cue he’d have gotten more hundred-dollar tips than he already did.

“I didn’t mean it that way, Nathaniel. I know you’re Anita’s family,” Zerbrowski said.

Nathaniel wasted some of the smile in his direction. “Thanks.”

Then Katie got a strange look on her face, and she paled.

“What’s wrong?” Zerbrowski asked.

“Ages ago, they tried to tell me about a bachelorette party that a bunch of the wives went to when Rosetti was about to marry. They told me some details and . . . I told them to stop, I didn’t want to hear it.” She looked at Nathaniel.

He was very still against me. I looked up at him. His face was guarded, as if he were waiting for something bad to happen.

“That was you they were talking about?” Katie asked.

“Probably,” he said, softly.

She blinked at him, brown eyes very wide. “But they said . . . you . . .” She blushed from neck to the roots of her hair. She finally hid her face against Zerbrowski.

“Whatever they said, I did not have sex with anyone at the party.”

She raised her head from Zerbrowski’s chest and blinked at him. The look was enough to say that was exactly what she’d been told.

“The stories grow in the telling sometimes, but whatever they’ve decided to tell people, sex did not happen. Now, here I am in person, and every woman who heard the story will be wondering if it was true; some were drunk enough they may believe what they were told happened, and whoever lied the most will be freaking out that I’m here.”

Katie mastered herself enough to say, “I just need a minute. If you could set the rest of the food on the table and watch the pasta in the oven, I’ll be right back.” Katie went out the door with a bemused Zerbrowski trailing after her.

I looked up at Nathaniel. “If you say you didn’t have sex, I believe you, but what did you do at the party that was so share-worthy?”

“I knew that, silly you.”

He smiled. “You never think less of me, do you?”

“It doesn’t bother you to know that at least five women here have seen me naked.”

In my head I thought, since you did a few pornographic movies before we met, there might be a lot more people who have seen you naked, but I didn’t say that out loud. If I brought that up, we’d fight, or he’d get his feelings more hurt than they already were, and that wasn’t what I wanted.

“You don’t take your G-string off in the club,” I said.

“For enough money I do at private parties.”

I hadn’t known that, and fought to keep my face from showing it. Then I thought of something else. “Did the lap dances start before or after your thong came off?”

“Most before, but the bride got one after.”

“That must have been tricky.”

“Lap dances without clothes are always tricky,” he said.

I honestly wasn’t sure, but the only answer I had was, “Not really.”

“You don’t look completely happy,” he said.

“Okay, how long ago was this party?”

“A year ago, maybe a little longer.” His face was very careful as he said it, watching my face for anger. He watched sometimes like that, waiting for me or Micah to get mad at him. He’d been physically abused as a child, and by age seven he’d had to run away after witnessing his older brother’s murder. He’d asked me once if there was a time limit on how long someone could be convicted for murder. I’d told him, no, a person could always been charged for murder, unlike rape, or child abuse, which does have to be reported as a crime within a set number of years. Nathaniel had nodded, and filed the thought away. I didn’t push. His therapist said that Nathaniel had blocked out most of his early childhood in order to survive. What he did remember was so terrible it worried me; I mean, how bad could the rest be? Fresh on the streets at age seven, Nathaniel had been found by a man who liked little boys; he’d fed him, clothed him, taken care of him, and before the age of ten he had pimped him out. Saying Nathaniel had a hard childhood was like saying World War II was a small border dispute. Becoming a headliner at Guilty Pleasures had been such a climb up the social ladder that it seemed wrong to bitch about a little nudity. If things had gone differently and he’d never been found by the local wereleopards, Nathaniel would probably have died of a drug overdose before he ever reached seventeen. The wereleopards had insisted he be drug-free before they made him one of them. I was very glad that he’d lived for us to meet, and that he was in my life.

“So the bachelorette party was after we were living together?”

“Yes,” he said, face, voice, body language very careful.

I nodded. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s weird that the bride and her friends are here, but it’s okay. It’s your job. You’ve been a good sport about me being shot, stabbed, and nearly dying at my job, so I need to man-up and be a good sport about your stuff.”