The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 9

9

It was 4:40 in the morning when Richard carried the still unconscious Stephen into his bedroom. Blood had dried the back of Richard's shirt to his skin. "Go to bed, Anita. I'll take care of Stephen."

"I need to look at your wounds," I said.

"I'm all right."

"Richard..."

He looked at me, half of his face covered in dried blood, his eyes almost wild. "No, Anita, I don't want your help. I don't need it."

I took in a deep breath through my nose and let it out. "Okay, have it your way."

I expected him to apologize for snapping at me, but he didn't. He just walked into the other room and closed the door. I stood there in the living room for a minute, not sure what to do. I'd hurt his feelings, maybe even offended his sense of male honor. Fuck it. If he couldn't take the truth, fuck him. People's lives were at stake. I couldn't give Richard comforting lies when it could get people killed.

I went into the guest room, locked the door, and went to bed. I put on an oversized T-shirt with a caricature of Arthur Conan Doyle on it. I'd packed something a little sexier. Yes, I admit it. I could have saved myself the trouble. The Firestar was lumpy under the pillow. The machine gun went under the bed within reach. I laid an extra clip beside it. Never thought I'd need that much firepower, but between assassination attempts and packs of werewolves, I was beginning to feel a little insecure.

When I shoved the silver knives half under the mattress so I could get to them if I had to, I realized just how insecure I was feeling. But I left the knives out. Better insecure and paranoid than dead.

I got my stuffed toy penguin, Sigmund, out of the suitcase and cuddled under the covers. I'd had some vague idea that spending the night at Richard's house might be romantic. Shows how much I knew. We'd had three fights in one night, a record even for me. It probably wasn't a good sign for the longevity of the relationship. That last thought made my chest tight, but what was I supposed to do? Go into the other room and apologize? Tell him he was right when he wasn't? Tell him it was okay to get himself killed and take the rest of us down with him? It wasn't okay. It wasn't even close to okay. I hugged Sigmund until he was nearly squeezed in two. I refused to cry. Question: Why was I more worried about losing Richard than about the assassins? Answer: Killing didn't bother me; losing Richard did. I fell asleep holding my penguin and wondering if Richard and I were still dating. Who would keep him alive if I wasn't around?

Something woke me. I blinked up into the dark and reached under my pillow for the Firestar. When it was secure in my hand, I listened. A knock, someone was knocking at the locked bedroom door. Soft, hesitant. Was it Richard come to apologize? That would be too convenient.

I threw back the covers, spilling Sigmund to the floor. I put him back in the suitcase, lowering the lid without closing it, and padded barefoot to the door. I stood to one side of it, and said, "Who is it?"

"It's Stephen."

I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I crossed to the other side of the door, gun still ready, and unlocked the door. I opened it slowly, looking, listening, trying to make sure it was just Stephen.

He stood outside the door wearing a pair of Richard's cut-off sweat pants. The shorts hung nearly to his ankles. A borrowed T-shirt covered his knees. His long yellow hair was tousled, like he'd been asleep.

"What's wrong?" I lowered the gun to my side, and he watched me do it.

"Richard went out, and I'm afraid to be alone." His eyes wouldn't quite meet mine when he said the last, flinching like he was afraid of what he'd see on my face.

"What do you mean he went out? Where to?"

"The woods. He said he'd keep watch for assassins. Does he mean Raina?" He did look up then, amazing blue eyes wide, the beginnings of panic sliding across his face.

I touched his arm, not sure it was the right thing to do. Some people don't want to be touched after a sexual molestation. It seemed to comfort Stephen. But he glanced behind him at the empty living room, rubbing his hands along his bare arms.

"Richard told me to stay in the house. He said I needed to rest." He wouldn't meet my eyes again. "I'm afraid to be alone, Anita. I..." He hung his head, long yellow hair spilling like a curtain to hide his face. "I can't get to sleep. I keep hearing noises."

I put a finger under his chin and lifted his face gently. "Are you asking to sleep in here with me?"

His eyes stared at me, wide and pain-filled. "Richard said I could."

"Run that by me again," I said.

"I told him I couldn't stand to be alone. He said, Anita's here, she'll protect you. Go sleep with her." He looked at me, his face awkward. Something must have shown on my face. "You're mad now. I don't blame you. I'm sorry... I'll..." He started to turn away, and I caught his arm.

"It's okay, Stephen. I'm not mad at you. Richard and I had a... disagreement, that's all." I didn't want him to sleep in here with me. The bed was too small for two people, and if I was going to share it with anyone, I'd have preferred Richard, but that wasn't going to happen. Maybe not ever at the rate we were going.

"You can stay in here." I didn't add, keep your hands to yourself. His face was raw with a need that had nothing to do with sex. He needed to be held, to be told the monster under the bed wasn't really there. I couldn't help him on the last. The monsters were real. But the first, I might manage that. Cold-blooded killer that I am, maybe I could share my toy penguin with him.

"Could you get an extra pillow from Richard's room?" I asked.

He nodded and fetched it. He clutched it to his chest like he'd have rather slept with it than on it. Maybe the penguin wasn't such a bad idea.

I locked the door behind us. I could have moved into Richard's room. It was a bigger bed, but it also had a picture window with a deck and bird feeders. The guest room only had one small window. Easier to defend. Unless I wanted to go out a window, they were both traps, so we stayed in the more secure room. Besides, I'd have had to move all the weapons and it would have been dawn before I finished.

I pulled the covers back and said, "You first." If something came through the door, I wanted to be the first to greet it, but I didn't say that out loud. Stephen was jumpy enough.

He climbed into bed with his pillow, pressing it against the wall, because there really wasn't room for two full-sized pillows. He lay on his back, staring up at me, his curling yellow hair falling around his face and bare shoulders like Sleeping Beauty. You didn't see many men with hair longer than mine. He was one of those men who was pretty rather than handsome, lovely as a doll. Staring up at me with his blue eyes, he looked about twelve. The look on his face was what did it, like he was expecting me to kick him, and he'd let me because he couldn't stop me. I understood in that moment what Raina had meant about him being anyone's meat. There was nothing dominant about Stephen, and it made me wonder about his background. Abused children will sometimes have that raw look to their eyes. And they'll take abuse, because it's normal.

"What's wrong?" Stephen said.

I'd been staring. "Nothing, just thinking." Tonight was not the night to ask if his father had beat him. I thought about throwing on a pair of jeans, but it would have been uncomfortable, not to mention hot. It was late spring, the heat hadn't set in. It was only seventy degrees, but it wasn't cool enough to wear jeans, especially if you had someone else in bed with you. Besides, I wasn't sure how Stephen would take me getting dressed to lie down beside him. Maybe he'd be insulted. It was too complicated for me. I turned off the light and climbed into bed beside him. If either of us had been much bigger, we'd have never fit. Stephen had to roll onto his side as it was.

He curled against my back, spooning his body against mine, one arm flung across my

waist, like I was the stuffed toy. I stiffened, but Stephen didn't seem to notice. He buried his face into my back, and let his breath out in a sigh. I lay there in the dark and couldn't sleep. Two months ago after I'd nearly ended up a vampire, I'd had trouble sleeping. Close brushes with death, I could handle. Close brushes with becoming the undead, that scared me. But I got over it. I was sleeping just fine, thank you very much, until now. I pushed the button on my watch that made it glow. It was only 5:30. I'd had about an hour's sleep. Great.

Stephen's breathing deepened, and his body relaxed against me a muscle at a time. He whimpered softly in his sleep, arm convulsing around me, then the dream passed and he lay still and warm.

I drifted off to sleep, cuddling Stephen's arm around my body. He was almost as good as a stuffed toy, though he did have a tendency to move at the odd moment.

Daylight spilled through the thin white drapes, and at first I thought the light had awakened me. I woke stiff, in the same position that I'd fallen asleep in, as if I hadn't moved at all during the night. Stephen was still curled around me, a leg over my legs along with one arm like he was trying to get as close to me as he could, even in his sleep.

I lay there for a moment with his body wrapped around me and realized I'd never awakened with a man before. I'd had a fiance in college and I'd had sex with him, but I'd never spent the night. I'd never actually slept in the same bed with a man. It was kind of odd. I lay in the circle of warmth of Stephen's body and wished it was Richard.

I had a vague feeling that something had awakened me, but what? I eased out from the covers and Stephen's clinging body. He rolled over on his other side, sighing, making small protesting noises. I tucked the covers around him and took the Firestar out from under my pillow.

According to my watch, it was nearly 10:30. I'd had about five hours of sleep. I slipped on a pair of jeans, got my toothbrush and some clean undies and socks out of the suitcase. I folded everything in a clean polo shirt and unlocked the door. I kept the Firestar in my hand. I'd put it on the top of the toilet while I cleaned up. I'd have done the same thing at home.

Someone passed in front of the door, talking. Two voices, one of them female. I laid the clothes on the floor, unclicked the safety on the gun, and put my left hand on the doorknob.

"Was that the safety on a gun I heard?" a man's voice said from the other side of the door. I recognized the voice.

I clicked the safety back in place, put the gun down the front of my pants, and slipped the T-shirt over it. Armed, but not visibly, I opened the door. Jason stood there, grinning at me. He was about my height. His blond hair was straight and baby fine, and cut just above his shoulders. His eyes were the innocent blue of spring skies, but the look in them wasn't innocent. He peered around me at Stephen still curled up in the bed.

"Is it my turn next?" he asked.

I sighed, picked up my clothes, tucked them under my arm, and closed the door behind me. "What are you doing here, Jason?"

"You don't sound happy to see me." He was wearing a fishnet T-shirt. His jeans were faded and soft with one knee completely out. He was twenty and had been a college student before he'd joined the pack. Now he was Jean-Claude's wolf, and playing bodyguard and breakfast entree to the Master Vampire of the City seemed to be his only job.

"Isn't it a little early in the morning for fishnet?"

"Wait until you see what I'm wearing to tonight's gala opening of Jean-Claude's dance club."

"I may not be able to make it," I said.

He raised his eyebrows. "You spend one night under Richard's roof, and you break a date with Jean-Claude." He shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Look, neither of them own me, okay?"

Jason backed up, hands held up in mock surrender. "Hey, don't shoot the messenger. You know it will piss Jean-Claude off, and you know he'll think you slept with Richard."

"I didn't."

He glanced at the closed door. "I know that, and I am shocked, Anita, at your choice of bed partners."

"When you tell Jean-Claude that I slept with Stephen, you make absolutely sure he knows we just shared the bed and nothing else. If Jean-Claude gives Stephen a hard time because of your word games, I'll be angry. You don't want me angry, Jason."

He looked at me for a heartbeat or two. Something slid behind his eyes, his beast stirring to life, just a touch. Jason had a small streak of what Gabriel had a big streak of. A fascination with danger, pain, and simply being an all round pain in the ass. Jason was tolerable, not a bad guy, all in all; Gabriel was perverted; but it was still the same personality flaw done small. After what I'd seen last night, I wondered what Jason would have thought of the entertainment. I was almost sure he'd have disapproved, but not a hundred percent sure, which told you something about Jason.

"Did you really draw a machine gun on Raina and Gabriel last night?"

"Yeah, I did."

A woman stepped out of Richard's bedroom with an armful of towels. She was about five foot six, with short brown hair so curly it had to be natural. She wore navy slacks and a short-sleeved sweater. Open-toed sandals completed the outfit. She looked me up and down, sort of disapproving or maybe disappointed. "You must be Anita Blake."

"And you are?"

"Sylvie Barker." She offered a hand and I took it. The moment I touched her skin, I knew what she was. "Are you with the pack?" I asked.

She took her hand back and blinked at me. "How could you tell?"

"If you're trying to pass for human, don't touch someone who knows what they're looking for. Your power prickles down my skin."

"I won't waste time trying to pass then." Her power flooded over me, pouring like a blast of heat when you open an oven door.

"Impressive," I said, glad my voice was steady.

She gave a small smile. "That's quite a compliment, coming from you. Now, I've got to get these towels to the kitchen."

"What's happening?" I asked.

Sylvie and Jason exchanged glances. She shook her head. "You knew Richard was hurt?" She made it a question.

My stomach clenched tight. "He said he'd be all right."

"He will be," she said.

I felt my skin go pale. "Where is he?"

"Kitchen," Jason said.

I didn't run, it wasn't that far, but I wanted to. Richard sat at the kitchen table, shirtless, his back to me. His back was a mass of fresh claw marks. There was a bite mark in his left shoulder where a piece of flesh was missing.

Dr. Lillian was blotting blood off his back with a kitchen towel. She was a small woman in her mid-fifties with salt-and-pepper hair cut in a short, no-nonsense style. She'd treated my own wounds twice before, once when she was furry and looked like a giant man-rat.

"If you had called for medical attention last night, I wouldn't be having to do this, Richard. I do not enjoy causing my patients pain."

"Marcus was on call last night," Richard said. "Under the circumstances, I thought it best to go without."

"You could have let someone clean and bandage the wounds."

"Yes, Richard, you could have let me help you," I said.

He glanced back over his shoulder, his hair spilling around his face. There was a bandage on his forehead. "I'd had enough help for one night."

"Why? Because I'm a woman, or because you know I'm right?"

Lillian took a small silver knife to the lower half of a claw mark. She sliced the blade down the wound, reopening it. Richard took in a deep breath and let it out.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Lycanthropes heal, but sometimes without medical attention, we can scar. Most of the wounds will heal, but a few of them are deep enough that he really needs some stitching before the skin

starts to close, so I'm having to reopen some of the wounds and add a few stitches."

Sylvie handed Dr. Lillian the towels.

"Thank you, Sylvie."

"What are you two lovebirds fighting about?" Sylvie asked.

"Let Richard tell you, if he wants to."

"Anita agrees with you," Richard said. "She thinks I should start killing people."

I walked over to where he could see me without straining. I leaned against the cabinet island and tried to watch his face rather than Lillian's slicing knife. "I don't want you to start killing people indiscriminately, Richard. Just back your threat up. Kill one person and the rest will back down."

He glared up at me, outraged. "You mean make an example of one of them?"

Put that way, it sounded sort of cold-blooded, but truth was truth. "Yeah, that's what I mean."

"Oh, I like her," Sylvie said.

"I knew you would," Jason said. They exchanged a glance that I didn't quite get, but it seemed to amuse the hell out of them.

"Am I missing a joke here?"

They both shook their heads.

I let it go. Richard and I were still fighting, and I was beginning to think this fight had no end. He winced as the doctor sliced open another wound. She was only adding a stitch here and there, but it was still more than I'd have wanted in my flesh. I didn't like stitches.

"No painkillers?" I asked.

"Anesthesia doesn't work well on us. We metabolize it too quickly," Lillian said. She wiped the silver knife on one of the clean towels and said, "One of the claw marks drops below your jeans. Take them off so I can see."

I glanced at Sylvie. She smiled at me. "Don't mind me. I like girls."

"That's what you two were laughing about," I said to Jason.

He nodded, smiling happily.

I shook my head.

"The others will be here soon for the meeting. I don't want my ass hanging out as everyone comes in the door." Richard stood up. "Let's finish up in the bedroom." There were a ring of puncture wounds just below his collarbone. I remembered the man-wolf lifting with its claws last night.

"You could have been killed," I said.

He glanced at me. "But I wasn't. Isn't that what you always say?"

I hated having my own words fed back to me. "You could have killed Sebastian or Jamil and the rest wouldn't have jumped you."

"You've already decided who I should kill." His voice was thick with anger.

"Yeah," I said.

"She's actually making pretty good choices," Sylvie said.

Richard turned his dark, dark eyes to her. "You stay out of this."

"If it was just a lovers' quarrel, Richard, I would," she said. She went to stand in front of him. "But Anita's not saying anything that I haven't said. That most of us haven't begged you to do. For a few months, I was willing to try it your way. I hoped you were right, but it isn't working, Richard. Either you're alpha male or you're not."

"Is that a challenge?" he asked. His voice had grown very quiet. Power flowed through the room like a warm wind.

Sylvie backed up a step. "You know it's not."

"Do I?" he said. The power in the room built, growing like a flash of electricity. The hairs on my arms stood to attention.

Sylvie stopped backing up, hands in fists at her sides. "If I thought I could defeat Marcus, I'd do it. If I could protect us all, I would. But I can't do it, Richard. You're our only chance."

Richard loomed over her. It wasn't just physical size. His power flowed over her, filled the room, until it was almost chokingly close.

"I won't kill just because you think I should, Sylvie. No one is going to force me into it. No one."

He turned his gaze on me, and it took a lot to meet his eyes. There was a force to them, a burning weight. It wasn't a vampire's drowning power, but it was something. My skin shivered with his power, his energy, and I didn't turn away.

I stared at the wounds just below his neck and knew I'd come close to losing him. That was unacceptable.

I walked closer until I could have reached out and touched him. His otherworldly energy whirled over me until it was hard to draw a good breath. "We need to talk, Richard."

"I don't have time for this right now, Anita."

"Make time," I said.

He glared down at me. "Talk to me while Lillian finishes up. I've got people coming over for a meeting in about fifteen minutes."

"What meeting?" I asked.

"To discuss the Marcus situation," Sylvie said. "He scheduled the meeting before last night's adventure."

Richard stared at her, and it wasn't a friendly look. "If I'd wanted her to know about the meeting, I'd have told her."

"What else haven't you told me Richard?"

He turned those angry eyes to me. "What haven't you told me?"

I blinked at him, genuinely puzzled. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"A shotgun fires over your head twice and you don't know what I'm talking about."

Oh that. "I did the right thing, Richard."

"You're always right, aren't you?"

I looked at the floor and shook my head. When I looked back at him, he was still angry, but I was losing my anger. A first. This was going to be thefight. The one that ended it. I wasn't wrong. No amount of talking would change that. But if we were going to break up, we'd go down in flames. "Let's finish this, Richard. You wanted to go into the bedroom."

He stood up, body stiff with an anger that was deeper than I could comprehend. It was controlled rage, and I didn't understand where it was coming from. It was a bad sign. "You sure you can stand to see me naked?" His voice was utterly bitter, and I didn't know why.

"What's wrong, Richard? What did I do?"

He shook his head too vigorously, making him wince as his shoulder caught the movement. "Nothing, nothing." He walked out of the room. Lillian looked at me, but followed him. I sighed and joined them. I wasn't looking forward to the next few minutes, but I wasn't going to chicken out. We'd say all the ugly things and make it as nasty as possible. Trouble was, I didn't have any nasty things to say. It made the fight a lot less fun for me.

Jason whispered as I walked by, very softly, "Go, Anita, go, Anita."

It made me smile.

Sylvie watched me with cool eyes. "Good luck." It didn't sound completely sincere.

"Do you have a problem?" I'd have much rather fought with her than Richard.

"If he wasn't dating you, then he might choose a mate. It would help things."

"You want the job?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, "I do, but sex is integral and I'm not up for it."

"Then I'm not standing in your way," I said.

"Not in mine, no," she said. Which implied there were others, but I didn't give a shit, not today. I said, "It is too damn early in the morning for furball politics. If someone wants a piece of me, tell them to go to the back of the line."

She cocked her head to one side, like a curious dog. "Is it a long line?"

"Lately, yeah."

"I thought all your enemies were dead," Jason said.

"I keep making new ones," I said.

He smiled. "Fancy that."

I shook my head and walked towards the bedroom. I'd have rather faced Raina again than Richard. I almost hoped the assassin would jump out of the woodwork and give me something to shoot at. It would hurt less than breaking up with Richard.