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Jason (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 23) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:58:25

"Yep," I said. My own gun was at three o'clock on me too, but I'd had my suit jacket tailored so that it flared out enough to hide the gun from the clients at my other job. Civilians spooked so easily sometimes. I'd also started getting belt loops added to my skirts so I could wear a belt that would stand up to the weight of a gun and holster. I'd come straight from Animators Inc., where our motto was, "Where the Living Raise the Dead for a Killing." Bert, our business manager, didn't believe in hiding the fact that raising the dead was a rare talent, and you paid for talent. But lately my job as a U.S. Marshal for the Preternatural Branch had been taking more and more of my time. Like today.

The other very special agent, Mark Brent, was tall, thin, looking barely old enough to be out of college. He was bent over the portable computer they'd brought with them and set down on the room's only desk. He was dressed in a suit almost identical to Manning's, except his was brown to match his holster, but his gun was still a startling black bump against his white shirt. We were in the office of our head honcho, Lieutenant Rudolph Storr. Dolph was currently somewhere else, which left me alone with the FBI and Sergeant Zerbrowski. I wasn't sure which was more dangerous to my peace of mind, but I knew Zerbrowski would mouth off more. He was my partner and my friend, so he was entitled. I'd just met Special Agent Manning and I didn't owe her my life story.

"The article I read made the proposal sound amazing, like something out of a fairy tale," Manning said. She smoothed her shoulder-length hair back behind one ear and it stayed put, because it was straight as a board. My own curls would never have behaved that well.

I fought the urge to sigh. If you're a cop and a woman, never date a celebrity; it ruins your reputation for being a hardass. I was a U.S. Marshal, but ever since we'd gone public with our engagement, I'd become Jean-Claude's fiance, not Marshal Blake, to most of the women I met, and a lot of the men. I'd really had hopes that the FBI would be above such things in the middle of fighting crime, but apparently not.

The real problem for me was that the story we told publicly was both true and a lie. Jean-Claude had done the big gesture, but only after he'd proposed in the middle of shower sex. It had been spontaneous and wonderful and messy, and very real. I'd said yes, which had surprised him, and me. I'd figured I just wasn't the marrying kind of girl. He'd told me then that we'd need to do something to live up to his reputation, for the media and the other vampires. They expected their king/president to have a certain flair, and the real proposal had been too mundane. I hadn't understood that flair would include a horse-drawn carriage--yeah, you heard me, he actually picked me up in a freaking horse-drawn carriage. If I hadn't already said yes, and loved him to pieces, I'd have told him not only no, but hell no. Only true love had gotten me to play along with a proposal so grand that trying to imagine a wedding that topped it sort of scared me.

"Oh, yeah, Anita is all into that princess stuff, aren't you, Anita?" Zerbrowski called from the chair he was half tipping against the wall. He looked like he'd slept in his suit, complete with a stain on his crooked tie. I knew he'd left his home freshly washed and tidy, but he was like Pigpen from the Peanuts comic; dirt and mess just seemed to be attracted to him within minutes of his walking out of his house. His salt-and-pepper hair was getting more salt and less pepper, and had grown out enough to be all messy curls, which he kept running his hands through. Only his silver-framed glasses were square and gleaming clean around his brown eyes.

"Yeah, I'm all about that princess shit, Zerbrowski," I said.

Agent Manning frowned at both of us. "I'm getting the idea that I stepped in something. I was just trying to be friendly."

"No, you were wanting the princess to talk about how wonderful the prince is, and how he swept her off her feet," Zerbrowski said, "but Anita is going to disappoint you like she's disappointed the last dozen women to ask questions about the big romantic gesture."

I wanted to say it wasn't a big romantic gesture, it was a freaking epic romantic gesture and I had hated it. Jean-Claude had loved being able to finally pull out all the stops and just do what, apparently, he'd wanted to do for years while we dated--the whole princely "sweep you off your feet" shit. I liked to keep my feet firmly on the ground unless sex was involved, and you can't really have sex in a horse-drawn carriage; it scares the horses. No, we didn't try, because we were on freaking camera the whole time. Apparently, there are now engagement coordinators just like there are wedding coordinators, so of course we had a videographer. It had been all I could do to keep from scowling through all of it, so I'd smiled for the camera and so I wouldn't hurt Jean-Claude's feelings, but it's not my real smile and my eyes in a few frames have that wait-until-we're-alone-mister-we-are-so-talking-about-this look.

I decided to appeal to Manning's sisterhood of the badge, and said, "Sorry, Agent Manning, but ever since the story went live I'm getting treated more like Jean-Claude's girlfriend than a marshal, and it's really beginning to bug me."

Her face went serious. "I'm sorry, I hadn't thought about it like that. Years of being one of the guys and building your rep, and I ask you about your engagement first thing."

"I've never seen my partner be so girl about anything as meeting you today, Marshal Blake," Brent said as he unbent from hunching over the computer. He smiled and it made him look even younger. He seemed fresh faced and less jaded than the rest of us. Ah, to be bright and shiny again, when you thought you could actually win the fight against evil.

Manning actually looked embarrassed, which isn't something you see often in FBI agents, especially not when you've just met them.

"Knock it off, Brent," she said.

He grinned at all of us. "It's just that we've worked together for two years, and I've never seen you squee over anything."

"It's the horse-drawn carriage," Zerbrowski said. "Chicks dig that kind of shit."

"Not this chick," I said, quietly under my breath.

"What did you say?" Manning asked.

"Nothing. Is the video ready, Agent Brent?" I asked, hopeful we could actually do our jobs and leave my personal life out of it.

"Yes." Then his smile faded around the edges, and I saw the beginnings of the bright and shiny rubbing off. "Though after you see it, we may all be game to talk about carriages and pretty, pretty princesses."

It was another first, an FBI agent admitting that something bothered them. For him to admit it out loud, it had to be bad. I suddenly didn't want to see it. I didn't want to add another nightmare to the visuals I had in my head. I was a legal vampire executioner and raised zombies as my psychic talent. I had enough scary shit in my head that I so didn't need more, but I stayed in my chair. If Manning and Brent were tough enough to watch it multiple times, I could sit through it once. I couldn't let the other badges think that getting proposed to by the vampire of my dreams had made me one bit less tough. I couldn't let myself believe it either, though a part of me did. How could someone who let a man lead her into a Cinderella carriage carry a gun and execute bad guys? It made even my head hurt, thinking about it.

Zerbrowski said what I was thinking. "I thought the feds never admitted anything bothered them."

Agent Brent shook his head, and looked tired. Lines showed around his eyes that I hadn't seen before and made me add between three and five years to my estimate of his age. "I've worked in law enforcement for six years. I'd thought I'd seen it all, until this."

I did math in my head, and realized he had to be nearly thirty, which was how old I was, but I'd used up my shininess years ago.

"I thought this was just another big, bad preternatural citizen gone wrong," I said.

"Not exactly," he said.

"I don't like mysteries, Agent Brent. I'm only here with this little information out of courtesy to the FBI, and because Captain Storr requested it."

"We appreciate that, Marshal, and we wouldn't have had you walk into this blind if we didn't feel that the fewer people who know the details, the better off we're going to be," Brent said.

"Awesome," I said, "but the foreplay is getting a little tiresome. There's no one in the room but the four of us, so what is on the video?"

"Are you always this cranky?" Manning asked.

Zerbrowski laughed out loud, and didn't even try to hold it in. "Oh, Agent Manning, this isn't even close to cranky for my partner."