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Shutdown (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22.6) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:56:06

Have you ever had to have lunch with your lover’s fiancé? It was a first for me, too. There were four of us at lunch, but only one of us was new to half the table. Dr. Ellen Radborne was about my height, 5' 3" with thick shoulder length brunette hair that I might have thought was black, but my hair was black, so I knew hers was really just dark brown. Her eyes were brown, like mine, though again mine were a little darker. She had a pale summer tan, to my nearly white skin, but then my skin never tanned, it just burned, and then went back to being pale. She was curvy, maybe not as curvy through the chest as me, but no man who liked breasts would complain that she lacked. She was in shape, though not as fit as I, but then I doubt she needed to hit the weights and cardio as hard for her job as I did for mine.

We’d chatted through ordering food, eating food, and finally ordered coffee and tea, and still they hadn’t brought up anything serious, or anything to do with the reason for this meeting. I hadn't had to endure this much small talk in years. We’d learned a lot about each other, but unless we were looking to date, I didn’t see the point.

She taught college level biology, and continued to do research field work in the summers. She reminded me of the last two serious girlfriends he’s had. He certainly had a type, as if only the names changed for his short, dark haired women. He’d sleep with a variety, but for serious dating it was always women like us. She liked camping, bird watching, hiking, caving, climbing, and all sorts of outdoor stuff. I had, at one time, enjoyed all of that, but my job as a U. S. Marshal for the preternatural branch didn’t leave me much room for hobbies.

My gym time was more serious, because my life could depend on how fast I could run, how hard I could hit, and just how tough I could be. Dr. Radborne probably didn’t have to worry about any of that. It meant I could have out arm wrestled her, but she probably had a more reasonable work schedule.

We sat across from each other smiling, but her eyes were a little uncertain, and I was trying very hard not to make my eyes look empty. Most women took eyes that were too neutral as unfriendly. Men understood that sometimes you didn’t want to smile, but you weren’t mad either, while women expect other women to be pleasant, and if you’re not they think you don’t like them. There are so many reasons that most of my friends are men.

The only saving grace to this Saturday lunch fiasco was that we weren’t alone, though in some ways that also made it more awkward. I was still happy to have a hand to hold on my side of the table while she hung on the arm of her fiancé across the table from us.

The us was Micah Callahan, who was the same height as the good doctor and me. He was the only man I’d ever dated who matched my height. Micah was wearing a forest green t-shirt that was actually made of silk, which always seemed wrong for a t-shirt, but since it also made it petably soft and looked fabulous on him I didn’t complain. It made the rim of green around his irises more vibrant, and the circle of yellow on the outside of them more gold, so that his eyes were even more beautiful set in the delicate triangle of his dark skinned face. He still had his summer tan that he got every year from jogging in nothing but shorts, so he was dark and his eyes were jewel-like in the almost feminine beauty of his face. The shirt also fit every curve of his upper body, showing just how much muscle was under there. He had broad shoulders for his size, and a nice chest that went down to a waist so slender we could share some of our jeans, but in too many clothes he just looked delicate, because he fought for every ounce of muscle he got in the gym, or on the track, which was not true for the man sitting beside Dr. Ellen Radborne.

Richard Zeeman was 6' 1" and had always muscled easily, and it showed in his broad shoulders, impressive chest, and the swell of his arms against his own cotton t-shirt, which was also forest green. It hadn’t occurred to me to coordinate what the boys were wearing. Dr. Ellen had asked Richard to ask what I was wearing, so that I’d had to think about it ahead of time more than I normally would for a Saturday. I’d told her jeans and a t-shirt with boots, because it was fall. I was wearing skinny black jeans tucked into some really nice boots, and a silk t-shirt that matched Micah’s except for color -- mine was red, which matched my lipstick, and brought out the flame pattern in my boots. The boots were fun, and I figured I’d need some fun for the lunch. I’d been right, but Ellen had worn more ordinary blue jeans tucked into dressy brown cowboy boots, and a button up dress shirt in a blue that complimented the jeans more than her skin tone, or at least, that was my opinion, which I kept to myself. But it was unfortunate that the men were wearing nearly identical t-shirts, and that they both had their summer tans and looked fabulous in them. Micah looked better in his, but it was the eyes. Richard’s eyes were a deep, even, milk chocolate brown, lovely eyes, but they couldn’t compete with Micah’s leopard eyes. They were both wearing jeans, Micah in black, Richard in blue, so again we each coordinated with our other half. Micah was wearing black cordovan leather designer shoes so that with my three inch heels I was actually taller than he was, but he never cared, he was secure in all sorts of ways. Richard was wearing brown hiking boots, which was one of his favorite types of shoes on the weekends.

Richard’s hair fell in foaming waves of brown with golden highlights, and in strong enough sunlight I knew that there were threads of coppery red in it, so that saying he had brown hair never did it justice. Micah’s hair was curly, not wavy, and he normally wore it back in a pony tail, or a braid of some kind, but since this lunch was supposed to help Dr. Ellen understand that I had other yummy men in my life so I didn’t need to steal Richard from her, Micah had left the hair unbound around his shoulders so that it trailed deep brown chestnut curls to mid-back. My hair was the same length, and I realized, weirdly, that both Richard’s and Dr. Ellen’s hair was just past their shoulders. They say that after awhile couples begin to look alike.

She gave Richard’s arm a little extra squeeze where her arm was snaked through his, and then sat up more evenly in her own chair. “Well, this is more awkward than I thought it would be,” she said.

“It’s about as awkward as I thought it would be,” I said.

Micah squeezed my hand under the table, a silent bid for me to play nice. I smiled harder, and did my best to push it up into my eyes.

“I’m sorry, I did force this on all of us,” she said, and she looked genuinely uncomfortable.

I sighed. “I’m sorry, Ellen, I just meant that Miss Manners doesn’t cover this, and I don’t know what to say either.”

She smiled a little uncertainly at me, but nodded, and took Richard’s hand across the white table cloth. “Do you understand why I wanted to meet?”

I shrugged, because I couldn’t think of anything good to say. Richard’s agenda for the lunch meeting had been to reassure his recent fiancé that I had other men in my life, so I wouldn’t be trying to steal him back and keep him all to myself. Why did I feel we owed Richard this lunch? He wasn’t an ex-lover, but a current lover, and Ellen knew that, so socially awkward didn’t even begin to cover today’s little event.

I tried to take a sip of the coffee in front of me, but the smell alone made me put it back down. Weird, but it just smelled bitter. Micah hadn’t touched his either; maybe it wasn’t just me. Richard and Ellen had both ordered different kinds of hot tea, though they weren’t drinking either. I think we’d all ordered simply to have an excuse to stay at the table longer without the waiter bitching.

Micah said, “You wanted some reassurance.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling at him and looking relieved, then her glance went back to me, “though I’m not sure I’m going to end up reassured.”

I knew with that small eye flick that I looked too good, had dressed too well, and she had done that girl thing where you compare yourself to the ex, and she didn’t feel like she was winning. This was so not my problem; I hadn’t asked for the lunch, I’d told her what I was wearing. It wasn’t like I’d shown up in a designer outfit after telling her I was wearing jeans. It wasn’t my fault that I dressed my jeans up more than she did.

I looked at Richard across the table, and hoped he could read my expression, because I was fighting not to get angry. Micah started rubbing his thumb over the back of my hand where he held it on my thigh. He leaned in and laid a gentle kiss on my cheek. It made me let out the breath I’d been holding and try to ease the tension in my shoulders.

Richard hugged Ellen to him. “Ellen, honey, you can see that Anita and Micah are a couple. What more do you want to be reassured?”

“Honestly?” she asked.

“That would be nice,” I said.

Micah whispered, “Easy.”

Ellen gave me a not entirely friendly look and said, “For you not to sit there looking fabulously beautiful and making me feel like an ugly duckling to your swan.”

“I don’t know what to say to that,” I said, and looked first at Micah and then at Richard for a clue, a hint, something.

Richard turned that handsome face to her, and said, “You’re beautiful, Ellen, you know that.”

She shook her head. “I’m pretty, but I’m not . . .” she waved vaguely in my direction, “. . . this.”

I sighed and looked at Micah for some help. He spoke out loud what I was thinking, “She won’t believe you.”

“What won’t I believe?” Ellen asked.

“Go ahead,” he said, and moved his hand to my thigh, which was sometimes more calming for both of us than hand holding. He kept his other arm across my shoulders.

“I’m not prettier than you are,” I said.

She gave me a look of utter scorn. “From one woman to another, don’t bullshit me.”

“Ellen, she’s not lying,” Richard said.

“How can you say that?” she demanded, and moved away from his hand.

“How honest do you want me to be?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Micah said.