“You’re really not mad about it?”
I licked my lips, and tried to think how to word it. “I’m not mad. It’s just weird and I’m not sure how to act around the women.”
“It is weird, and me either,” he said.
I smiled at him. “Okay then, we’ll figure it out together, but we should tell Micah when we get outside.”
Nathaniel agreed, and hugged me, smiling. “Then help me set the food on the table. I’ll check on the ziti in the oven.”
“Baked ziti, why is it that no party in St. Louis can skip the baked ziti, or baked mostaccioli?” I asked.
He grinned at me. “I don’t know, but I’m not going to let it burn.” He was already turning to the stove. I started to grab one of the dishes off the kitchen island, but felt the heat in time. I grabbed two potholders lying on the island and carried the dish of baked beans into the other room. I was going to have to remember that a lot of things were too hot to touch without cover. How did I feel about the fact that there were other women here who had seen my love naked? That wasn’t the right question. Nathaniel was like most wereanimals; he didn’t see anything wrong with nudity, so a lot of people had seen him nude. How did I feel knowing there was at least one woman here who’d had a naked lap dance from my sweetie? Nope, still not the right question. I knew that Nathaniel had been far from virgin when we first met. Hell, the first time we met he’d still been working as a high-class call boy, though it beat being a street prostitute, which was where he’d started before someone saw his potential and moved him up. There’d been more than one reason that it had taken a few years for Nathaniel to convince me to date him.
No, what bothered me was that people had told intimate details about my lover while he was nude and being all sexy. That bothered me, and I knew it was stupid, because lots of his customers talked about him. Hell, there was a blog that encouraged women to wax eloquent about him as his stage name, Brandon, and about other dancers at Guilty Pleasures, to help drum up business. “See what a good time we had with Brandon at Guilty Pleasures”—but that had been distant. I didn’t read the comments, because he was my boyfriend. I’d learned not to take the customers at the club too seriously if I visited on nights that he was working. I’d even been out on a date with him in the past when he’d been recognized by customers, so why did this bother me?
I didn’t have a good answer, so I acknowledged that it did bother me and put it away. I’d think about it until we had some privacy to talk about it. I think my request was no more cops’ wives. Was that a reasonable request? I didn’t know, so I kept my mouth shut and helped put food out on the table while Nathaniel moved easily and happily around Katie’s kitchen.
We finally got outside on the deck and were standing hand in hand when we spotted Micah moving his way through the crowd. We waved and he smiled when he saw us, but suddenly our view was blocked by a large man. He was six feet, broad shouldered, and just a big guy. Large hands were already clenching into fists over and over, almost the way that Nathaniel had been kneading my back, and in a way the hand thing was a way of showing nerves, a fight for control, just like the kneading had been. But this guy wasn’t a wereleopard, he was just that angry.
I heard a woman’s voice behind him. “Clint, don’t, please don’t.”
The man was so broad that I couldn’t see around him to the woman, he just blocked out everything standing too close. I moved Nathaniel slightly behind me and he let me do it. I appreciated the men in my life who weren’t fighters, and who would let me step up for them.
“Jefferson, right?” I said.
“Get out of the way, Blake, I got no beef with you.”
“If you’re threatening my boyfriend, then we got beef.”
Zerbrowski was beside us. “My house, my rules, Clint, no fighting.” His voice was light, almost cheerful, a tone to calm things down.
Clint’s voice growled out from between his teeth, his rage was nearly touchable. “He fucked my wife; I’m going to fuck him up.”
“I didn’t,” Nathaniel said.
I kept my eyes front on Clint’s very big center of body. Before an arm, a hand, a leg, anything could move, his center had to move, so that’s what I watched. I was already in a subtle fighting stance, which meant I was set to go, but trying not to look like I was ready.
“You calling my wife a liar?”
“She may have been too drunk to remember everything, but I swear that we didn’t have sex.”
Zerbrowski stepped in, not exactly between us, but close, and spoke low. “Clint, I was at your bachelor party, I know what you did with your stripper.”
Clint frowned and looked at Zerbrowski. It was like watching a small mountain turn. Zerbrowski was five foot seven, but he looked frail standing next to Clint. I must have looked minuscule.
“I don’t know what you mean, Zerbrowski.”
“Yeah, you do, or were you so drunk that you don’t remember what happened that night?” His voice wasn’t cheerful anymore, but low and serious. His face matched his voice, and you could suddenly see the cop who had spent over a decade backing down bad guys.
“I remember,” Clint said, sullenly. His body was relaxing, the rage fading.
Zerbrowski was almost whispering now, I doubt that anyone but the four of us could hear. “Did you tell your wife what you did?”
Clint took a step back, his hands relaxed a little. “You threatening to tell her?”
“No, and you’re not going to start a fight at my house either, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, not here.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, and was debating if I had a threat that might keep him from getting in Nathaniel’s face at the club, but Nathaniel had something better—the truth.
“Your wife got a lap dance, she didn’t try for more, but she had a friend that did. The other woman got pissed that I wouldn’t sleep with her, not even for the money she was offering. Just by the way she acted in the kitchen I’m betting that she started the rumor, and must have terrified your wife into thinking she’d cheated. I swear to you that all I did was my job, and that doesn’t include actual sex with anyone.”
Clint was studying Nathaniel as if he’d not really looked at him before except as a handsome man who had crossed the line with his wife. Now, he saw him as something more, though he wasn’t sure exactly what. They were such different kinds of men.
A thin, petite blonde woman crept up beside Clint. Her makeup was smeared with tears, and her gray eyes were wide and frightened. She started to reach out to touch Clint’s arm, then let her hand fall back before she’d finished the gesture.
She looked at Nathaniel. “You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?”
“I swear to you: it was a hell of a lap dance, but it wasn’t that good a lap dance.”
She started to cry softly, and managed to say, “Why would Elise tell me that what I remembered had only been part of it? Why would she want me to think that we’d . . . That’d I’d been so drunk that I . . .” She put her hands over her face and just cried.
The elegant Elise from the kitchen had been the bride’s “friend.” She’d been creepy in the kitchen, apparently she was always creepy.
Clint put his arm around her thin shoulders, and he looked too massive for her, as if the weight of his hand should crush her. “Elise’s the one who told me that the stripper you’d fucked was here. I’m sorry, Crystal, I shouldn’t have believed that evil bitch.”
Crystal snuggled against him, still crying.
“Why would she lie?” Clint asked to no one in particular.
“Look at it this way,” Nathaniel said. “I was living with Anita when I was hired for your bride’s party. If she found out I was doing customers she wouldn’t forgive that. I wouldn’t risk her being that angry at me, not for anyone.”
Clint looked at me, then at Nathaniel. “Blake does have a reputation. I guess you wouldn’t want her mad at you.”
“Good to know,” I said, “but why would Elise want Crystal to think she cheated on you? Why would she want to start a fight here?”
“Some women like to stir the shit, Anita,” Zerbrowski said. “Elise’s always been one of those.”
“Have you known her long?” I asked.
“Long enough to know that Nathaniel isn’t the first guy she’s propositioned, but he may be one of the few who turned her down.”
“She’s beautiful,” I said.
“In that cold, wicked witch of the north sort of way,” he said.
“Yeah, she’s not my type either,” I said.
Crystal said, “She tortured me with the thought that I cheated on you. Why would she hate me like that?”
Clint went very still, and had a strange look on his face. Crystal couldn’t see it, probably just as well. I wondered if Clint was one of the men that Elise had propositioned. Somehow I wasn’t sure he’d turned her down, but it was so not my problem.
Zerbrowski had caught it, because he said, “Elise’s always been mean, even to her friends.”
“People like that don’t have friends, just victims they hang around with,” I said.
Zerbrowski nodded. “True.”
Clint and Crystal made up, and she walked away with her husband, relieved, with the tears still drying on her face. Micah walked onto the deck and joined us.
“I thought me joining the group might confuse things,” he said, and took my hand on the opposite side from Nathaniel.
“If you’d stepped into Clint at the wrong time, the fight would have been on,” Zerbrowski said.
I kissed Micah. “I like that you only ride to the rescue when you’re needed.”
He smiled. “You were all doing fine.”
“What was Matthew upset about?” I asked.