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Chapter 8


I DREAMED I was running, being chased through the woods at night. I could hear them coming closer, closer, and I knew that what chased me wasn't human. Then I fell to the ground and I was running on four feet. I chased the pale thing that fled before me. The soft thing that had no claws, no teeth, and smelled wonderfully of fear. It fell, and its scream was shrill, it hurt my ears, and excited me. My fangs sank into flesh and did not stop until they tore meat. Blood poured scalding hot down my throat, and the dream faded.

I was in Narcissus's bedroom on the black bed. Jean-Claude was tied, standing between the posts at the end of the bed. His chest was bare, covered in claw marks, blood running down his skin. I crawled across the bed towards him, and I wasn't afraid, because all I could smell was the sweet copper scent of blood. He stared at me with eyes gone solid, drowning blue. "Kiss me, ma petite."

I rose on my knees, my mouth hovering over his lips. He moved towards me, but I stayed out of reach of those kissable lips. I moved my mouth lower, until it was just above his chest and the fresh wounds that decorated his skin. "Yes, ma petite, yes," he sighed.

I pressed my mouth to his chest and drank. I woke, eyes staring, heart thudding. It was Richard above me. He still had the leather collar on. I tried to raise my arms, to hold him, but my left arm was taped to a board. There was an I.V. in my arm. I looked at the darkened room and knew I wasn't in a hospital. I raised my right arm to touch his face, but it was heavy, too heavy to lift. Darkness spilled over my eyes like warm water rushing in, as my fingertips brushed his skin.

I heard his voice. "Rest, Anita, rest." I think he kissed me, gentry, then there was nothing.

I was wading in water to my waist, clear, icy water. I knew I had to get out of the water or I'd die, the cold would steal me away. I could see the shore, dead trees, and snow. I ran for those distant trees, struggling in the icy water. Then my feet went out from under me, and I fell into a deep hole. The water closed over my face, and the shock of the cold hit me like a giant fist. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe. The light faded through the clear, shining water. I began to drift down, down into the cold dark water. I should have been scared, I wasn't. I was so tired, so tired.

Pale hands reached for me, coming from the light. The sleeve of the white shirt billowed around his arm, and I moved my hand towards him. Jean-Claude's hand wrapped around mine, and he pulled me towards the light.

I was back in the dark room, but my skin was wet, and I was cold, so cold. Jean-Claude was cradling me in his lap. He was still wearing the vinyl outfit. Then I remembered the fight. I'd been hurt. Jean-Claude leaned over and kissed my forehead, laying his face against mine. His skin was as cold as I felt -- like ice pressed against me. The shivering was worse; my body danced in small involuntary movements.

"Cold," I said.

"I know, ma petite, we are both cold."

I frowned at him, because I didn't understand. He was looking at someone else in the room. "I have brought her back, but I cannot give her the warmth she needs to survive."

I managed to turn my head enough to look around the room. Richard was standing there with Jamil and Shang-Da and Gregory. Richard came to the bed; his hand touched my face. It was hot against my skin. It was too much, and I tried to move away from his hand.

"Anita, can you hear me?"

My teeth were chattering so hard, I could hardly get it out, but finally I said, "Yes."

"You've got a high fever, a very high fever. They put you in a shallow ice bath to bring it down. But your body reacted like a shapeshifter's. The low temperature while so much damage was healing almost killed you."

I frowned at him and finally managed to say, "Don't understand." The involuntary jerks were getting stronger, strong enough that it hurt the wounds. I was waking up enough to feel how very hurt I was. Things hurt that I didn't remember getting injured. My muscles ached.

"You need the high temperature to heal, just like we do."

I didn't understand who the "we" was. "Who ..." and a spasm shook my body, tore a scream from my mouth. My body fell into convulsions and pain smashed through me. If I could have breathed, I'd have screamed more. My vision began to disappear in large gray patches.

"Get the doctor!" Richard's voice.

"You know what must be done, mon ami."

"If this works, then I've lost her."

My vision cleared for a few seconds. Richard was stripping out of the tight pants. It was the last thing I saw before the gray swept up over my eyes and sucked me down.




Chapter 9


I THOUGHT I dreamed, but I wasn't sure. There were faces in the dark, some of them I knew, some of them I didn't. Cherry with her short blond hair, her face free of makeup, making her look years younger than either of us were. Gregory touching my face. Jamil resting beside me, curled like a dark dream. I drifted in and out, from face to face, body to body, because I could feel their bodies pressed against mine. Naked skin against naked skin. It wasn't sexual, or not overtly so. I woke, if I woke, enough to know it was Richard's arms wrapped around me, my body fitting like a spoon against his, his thick hair spilled across my eyes. I slept, knowing I was safe.

I woke slowly, in a cocoon of body heat and that prickling rush of lycanthrope energy. I tried to roll over and found the press of flesh kept me pinned on my side. I opened my eyes. The room was dark, with a small light near the wall like a child's night-light. My night vision was good enough to be able to see color by it. A man I didn't know was curled against the front of my body. His face was pressed into my shoulder just above my breasts, his breath hot against my skin. Normally, it would have been my cue to panic and run for the hills, but I just didn't feel like panicking. I felt warm and safe, and more ... right than I'd felt in a long time, as if I were wearing a favorite pair of flannel jammies, wrapped in my favorite quilt. It was that kind of comfort, that kind of peacefulness. Even the sight of the arm around my waist from behind didn't disturb me. Maybe Dr. Lillian had slipped me some medicine that made everything feel okay. All I know was that I didn't want to move. It was like when you first wake in the morning and there's nowhere you have to be, nothing you have to do, and you can float in that half-awake, half-asleep, warm-nest-of-blankets feeling.

The arm around my waist was muscled, definitely masculine, but small, not just the hand, but the whole arm. The skin was tanned and looked darker than it should have against the paleness of my skin. I relaxed against the warm bulk of the body, where it lay spooned against mine. The fact that I was okay sleeping in a three-way naked sandwich, with me in the middle, told me beyond a doubt that I was on some kind of drug. I'd woken up wearing a lot more clothes, and been a whole lot more embarrassed.

I assumed they were both werewolves. It was a big pack, and I didn't know everyone on sight. I was bathed in their energy, as if hot invisible water flowed around the three of us. I remembered being hurt, the claws digging under my sternum. My gaze traveled down my own body and found a ragged circle of pinkish scar tissue where the snake had dug for my heart. There was a dull ache, but the scar was already pink and shiny, flat to my skin. How long had I been out?

I kept waiting for the panic to wash over me, the embarrassment. When it didn't, I looked at the first man, truly looking at him this time. He had rich brown curls cut short in the back, but long on top, so the curls tickled my skin as he made a small movement in his sleep. He was tanned so darkly that his skin almost matched his hair. The one eyebrow I could see had a tiny ring piercing it. One of his knees pinned my lower leg, one hand lay limply on my bare thigh. I think it was his leg being raised and a turn of his hips that saved me from seeing the whole show. What little modesty I had left was grateful. Whatever had kept me comfortable was beginning to wear off. Maybe I was simply waking up.

The rest of his front was pressed so close to me I couldn't see any details. The line of his back and buttocks was smooth, flawless. No tan lines. Nude sunbathing? The body looked young--early twenties--if that. He was taller than me--who wasn't?--but not by much. Five seven, maybe less. He stirred, the hand on my thigh flexing as if he dreamed, then suddenly I knew he was awake. A tension ran through his body that hadn't been there seconds before. I was suddenly wide awake, my heart thudding. I had about two seconds to wonder what the hell you say to someone you've never met when you wake up naked in bed beside him. He opened the eye I could see and moved his face enough to blink two solid brown eyes at me.

He gave a slow lazy smile, still half asleep. "I've never seen you awake before."

I said the only thing that came to mind. "I don't remember seeing you at all before. Who are you?"

"Caleb. I'm Caleb."

I nodded and started to sit up. I was getting out of this bed. The comforting warmth was still there, but my embarrassment was stronger. I just wasn't cool enough to keep talking to a strange, naked man, while I was naked, too. Nope, just not sophisticated enough for this one.

The arm around my waist tightened, holding me against the second man, and the bed. Caleb's knee on my leg got heavier, sliding farther between mine. I could suddenly feel parts of his body that I couldn't see. I think I'd have rather seen the whole show than had it pressed against my very upper thigh. Alright, groin, just not the right part to make me start hurting him, not yet. The hand that had been lying on my thigh was suddenly gripping it. It made my pulse speed up. It was too close to being trapped.

"Everybody be calm," I said, "but I need to get up and out of this bed now."

The body behind me moved. Even though I wasn't able to see it, I knew he was propped on one elbow, and the arm around my waist tightened. I was suddenly pressed very firmly against his body, and I knew several things. One, he was about my height, because he spooned perfectly against me; two, he was slender, muscular, and very happy to be pressed to my body. Eeek! I turned towards him like I was looking back at a noise in the dark at a horror movie-- slowly, half-dreading. His face rose over my shoulder, long hair spilling to one side of his face in a thick mass that was so sleep-tousled I couldn't tell if it was waves or curls, only that it was a dark rich brown, darker than the first man's, almost brunette. His face was too triangular, almost too delicate, crossing that line into androgyny, the nose perky, a little less than perfect, his mouth wide, bottom lip thick and pouting. It was a sensual face. But it was the eyes that made the face, or ruined it. My first thought was that his eyes were yellow. But there was a thick ring of gray green around the pupil; the overall effect was a deep golden yellow-green set in a tanned face. They weren't human eyes, and don't ask me how I knew, but they weren't wolf eyes either.

I scrambled out from between them. My left arm protested the use, but it didn't hurt enough to outweigh my embarrassment. It wasn't a graceful exit, but at least I was standing at the foot of the bed staring down at the two men instead of sandwiched between them. Screw graceful, I wanted some clothes.

"Don't be afraid, Anita. We don't mean you any harm," the second man said.

I was trying to keep an eye on them and still search the dimly lit room for clothes. I didn't see any. The only cloth in the room seemed to be the sheet, and they were lying on that. I had a horrible urge to cover myself, but two hands weren't going to get the job done, and standing there with my hands cupped over my groin seemed somehow more embarrassing than just standing there. I suddenly didn't know what to do with my hands. My left arm ached in a line from my shoulder nearly to my wrist, a tracery of pink, flat scars down my flesh. "Who are you?" My voice came out a little breathy.

"I'm Micah Callahan." His voice was calm, ordinary, as he lay on his side completely naked. No one does comfortable nudity like a shapeshifter. His shoulders were narrow, everything about him slender, almost feminine. But muscles showed under his skin even at rest, lean muscle, not bulk. You knew at a glance he was strong, but if he were wearing clothes, you might not see it. There were other things you wouldn't see if he had his clothes on. And although the rest of him was slender, small, graceful in a way that women are graceful, parts of him were definitely not small, not slender. It seemed incongruous with the rest of him. As if mother nature had tried to make up for the feminine appearance by overcompensating in other areas. Noticing just how overcompensated he was brought heat in a rush up my face, and I glanced away, tried to both keep an eye on them in case they got off the bed and not look at them at the same time. It's hard to look and not to look, but I managed.

"This is Caleb," he said.

Caleb rolled onto his back and stretched like a big cat, making sure that, if I hadn't noticed already, he was naked, too. I had noticed. What looked like a tiny silver dumbbell pierced his belly button. That I hadn't seen. "We already introduced ourselves," Caleb said, that one innocent sentence sounding anything but innocent. Something in the tone he used, an inflection, while he rolled around on his back and waved himself at me, made the words obscene. I was willing to bet I wasn't going to like Caleb.

"Great, nice to meet you both." I still couldn't figure out what to do with my hands. "What are you doing here?"

"Sleeping with you," Caleb said.

The blush that had been almost gone flamed back to life. He laughed. Micah didn't. Point for him.

In fact, Micah sat up, bending a knee to cover himself, which earned him even more points. Caleb stayed on his back, flaunting himself. "There's a robe in the corner there," Micah said.

I glanced back where he was looking, and sure enough there was a robe. It was my robe, a deep, rich burgundy, with satin edgings, very masculine, like a long Victorian smoking jacket. When I lifted it up, there was a weight in one deep pocket. I had to fight the urge to turn my back to slip the robe on. They'd already seen the whole show. It wasn't like I could express my modesty now. When I had the robe belted in place, I slipped my hands into the pockets and my right hand closed around my derringer. Or at least I assumed it was mine; it was my robe. The only person I knew who'd think to leave a gun for me was Edward, and he, as far as I knew, was out of state. But someone had thought of it, and I was very glad. I had clothes and a weapon, life was good.

"Hi, Micah Callahan, nice to meet you. But the name doesn't tell me who you are."

"I am Nimir-Raj for the Maneater Clan," Micah said.

I blinked at him, trying to digest that little tidbit. I wasn't embarrassed anymore. Surprised, working on angry, maybe. "I am Nimir-Ra of the Blood-drinkers Clan, and I don't remember inviting you into my territory, Mr. Callahan."

"You didn't."

"Then what the hell are you doing here without my permission?" The first edge of anger threaded through my voice, and I was happy to hear it. Being angry made everything else easier to handle, even talking to two naked strangers.

"Elizabeth invited me," he said.

The anger rushed through me like a warm wind, and it touched that edge of beast that I'd thought was Richard's. I'd learned at the club however many nights ago it was that it was a permanent resident inside me now. Richard's beast, or mine, it flared through my body and raised above my skin like a sheen of invisible sweat. The men reacted to the power. Caleb sat up, his gaze suddenly intent on me, no teasing now. Micah sniffed at the air, nostril's flaring, his tongue running around the edge of his lips as if he could taste it against his skin.

Strong emotions always make the power worse, and I was so angry. I already owed Elizabeth for abandoning Nathaniel at the club. But now ... she'd finally done something that I could not let slide.

Part of me was almost relieved, because things would be easier with Elizabeth dead. A tiny part of me was hoping not to have to kill her, but I just couldn't see how to avoid it anymore.

It must have shown on my face, because Callahan said, "I didn't know that her pard had a Nimir-Ra when I came here. She was their old alpha's second. It was within her rights to audition a new alpha for her pard."

"She just forgot to mention that the pard already had a Nimir-Ra, is that it?" I asked.

"That's it," he said.

"Really," I said, making sure the sarcasm was thick.

He stood beside the bed. I managed to keep the eye contact pure, but it was harder than it should have been. "I did not know until three nights ago when Cherry knocked on Elizabeth's door and asked her to come help heal you that you even existed."

"Bullshit," I said.

"I swear it," he said.

My hand closed around the derringer, felt its comforting weight. I had a moment to wonder what ammo it was loaded with; .38 or .22. I hoped it was .38, it had more stopping power. My left arm gave a twinge like the muscle was trying to jump apart. Tension, or had I permanently injured myself? I'd worry about it later, when I wasn't staring at two wereleopards that might, or might not, be my buddies. "You say you really didn't know about me before you hit town. Great, but why are you still here?"

"When I found out that Elizabeth had lied to me, I came here and tried to help, to make up for entering your territory without your permission. All my leopards took a turn in your bed, helping you heal."

"Bully for you."

He held his empty hands out towards me, palms up. A nice traditional gesture to show that you are unarmed and harmless. Yeah, right. "What can I do to make this right between us, Anita? I don't want war between our pards, and I have learned that you are interviewing alphas to take your place with your leopards. I'm a Nimir-Raj. Do you know how rare that is among the wereleopards? The best you're probably going to find elsewhere is a leopard lionne, a protector but not a true king."

"You applying for the job?"

He started walking towards me, and the room wasn't that big. "I'd be honored if you'd consider me for the job."

I tried to hold up my left hand, but the arm spasmed too badly to complete the gesture. But Micah got the idea; he stopped moving. "Let's start by you staying over there. I've had about as much up close and personal with the two of you as I can handle."

He just stood there, hands still in that open see-I-mean-no-harm position. "We caught you off guard, I understand."

I doubted he understood, but it was polite for him to pretend. I'd never met a shapeshifter that had a problem sleeping in a big naked pile, like puppies. Of course, I'd never met a brand-new one, yet. Surely, there was a learning curve for this sort of comfort level.

My left arm was twitching badly enough that I took my right hand off the gun, out of my pocket, and tried to calm the involuntary movements.

"You're hurt," he said.

Every jump of muscle sent sharp little pains through my arm. "Getting clawed up will do that to you."

"I can make it feel better."

I rolled eyes at him. "I bet you say that to all the girls."

He didn't even look embarrassed. "I told you, I am a Nimir-Raj. I can call flesh."

I must have looked as blank as I felt, because he explained. "I can heal wounds with my touch."

I just looked at him.

"What would it take to convince you that I'm telling the truth?" he asked.

"How about someone I know to vouch for you?"

"Easily done," he said, and a second later the door opened.

It was another stranger. The man was around six feet, broad shouldered, muscled, well built, and since he was nude, I knew for a fact that every inch of him was well proportioned. At least he wasn't erect. That was refreshing. He was pale, the first of the new ones without a tan. White hair with generous streaks of gray fell around his shoulders. He had a gray mustache and one of those tiny Vandyke beards. The hair was a clue that he was over fifty, probably. But what I could see of him didn't look old, or weak. He looked more like a lifer mercenary that would cut your heart out and take it back to someone in a box, for the right amount of money. A ragged scar nearly bisected his chest and stomach, curving in a vicious half-moon around his belly button and sinking towards his groin. The scar was white and looked old. Either he'd gotten the injury before he became a shapeshifter or--or I didn't know. Shapeshifters could scar, but it was rare; you almost had to do something wrong to the wound to get a scar that bad.

"I don't know him," I said.

"Anita Blake, this is Merle."

It was only after the introductions that Merle's eyes flicked to me. His eyes looked human, some pale gray color. His gaze went back to his Nimir-Raj's face almost immediately, like an obedient dog that wants to watch its master's face.

"Hi, Merle."

He nodded his head.

"Let her people in the room."

Merle shifted, and I knew instantly that he didn't want to do it. "Some, but not all?" he made it a question.

Micah looked at me.

"Why not all?" I asked.

Merle turned those pale eyes to me, and the look in them made me want to squirm. He stared at me as if he could see through to the other side and read everything in between. I knew it wasn't true, but it was a good stare. I managed not to flinch.

"Tell her," Micah said.

"Too many people in too small a room. I can't guarantee Micah's safety in a crowd of strangers."

"You must be his Skoll," I said.

His lips curled back in disgust--I think. "We are not wolves. We do not use their words."

"Fine, to my knowledge there's no equivalent word among the leopards, but you're still Micah's chief bodyguard, right?"

He stared at me, then gave a small nod.

"Okay. Do you really see my people as a threat to Micah?"

"It is my job to see them as a threat."

He had a point. "Fine. How many are you comfortable letting into the room?"

He blinked, that harsh gaze, shielded for a moment, his eyes uncertain. "You're not going to argue about it?" Again he made the statement into a question with the lilt of his voice.

"Why should I?"

"Most alphas will argue so they don't appear weak," he said.

I had to smile. "I'm not that insecure."

That made him smile. "Yes, those that hoard their power are often insecure."

"That's been my experience," I said.

He nodded again, face thoughtful. "Two."

"Fine."


"Do you have a preference who the two shall be?"

I shrugged. "Cherry and whoever else." I put Cherry in because she seemed to give the best after-action reports. Clearheaded was our Cherry, if not necessarily who you'd want at your back in a fight. But I needed information, not battle skills.

Merle gave me a slight bow, then his gaze flicked back to Micah, still standing by the bed. Micah waved him off. The big man opened the door and spoke quietly. Cherry was the first one through the door. She was tall and slender with well-formed breasts that led the eye to a very long waist, a swell of hips, and proof that she was indeed a natural blond. Wasn't anybody wearing clothes today?

Frankly, it was just nice to see another woman. Normally, I don't mind being the only girl, I do that a lot with the police, but nudity always makes me relieved to see another person without a penis.

She smiled when she saw me, relief so large in her eyes, her face, that it was almost embarrassing. She hugged me, and I let her, but I pulled away first. She touched my face as if she couldn't really believe her eyes.

"How do you feel?"

I shrugged, and the small movement tightened the muscles in my left arm until I had to press it against my body to keep it from jumping around. I spoke through the pain, teeth gritted a little. "Arm's giving me trouble, but other than that, I'm okay."

Cherry touched the arm, running her hand lightly over the sleeve of the robe. "The muscles are tightening up from the rapid healing. It will be alright in a few days."

"Am I not going to have the use of my left arm for a few days?"

"The spasms will come and go. Massage helps. Hot compresses may help. There must have been some severe muscle damage for this much spasming." Did I mention that Cherry was a nurse when she wasn't turning furry?

"I can give you the use of your arm today," Micah said.

We both turned and looked at him. "How?" Cherry asked.

"I can call flesh," he said again.

The look on her face said she knew what that meant, and she was impressed. And a second later, she looked doubtful, suspicious. That was my girl. Though truthfully, Cherry had had a hard enough life before I met her that she'd come with an overly active suspicion. I really couldn't take credit for it.

I was trying to remember what "calling the flesh" meant, when Nathaniel stepped through the door. The last time I'd seen him he'd been pierced with blades, his flesh grown around the steel. Now he was perfect--not even a scar.

I must have looked as pleased, and as astonished, as I felt, because he grinned at me. He did a little turn so I could see that back and front he was healed. I touched his upper chest where I'd pulled out one of the blades. The skin was smooth as if I'd only dreamed the knife. "I know you guys heal almost anything, but I never get over the surprise."

"Eventually, you'll get used to it," Merle said. There was something in his voice that made me look at him. Cherry's and Nathaniel's smiles faded. They looked suddenly serious.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

Cherry and Nathaniel exchanged glances, but it was Micah who spoke. "May I fix your arm?"

I turned to tell him to go to hell until I knew what was happening, but my left arm chose that moment to curl up from fingertips to shoulder, one massive, painful, charley horse that bent my knees. Only Cherry catching me kept me standing. My hand looked like that of a strychnine victim, the fingers convulsed, clawlike. It felt like my arm was trying to tear itself apart from the inside out. Cherry was supporting almost all my weight as I tried not to scream.

"Let him fix your arm, Anita, if he can," she said.

The muscles in my arm relaxed by painful inches, until the urge to scream was only a small voice in my head. My voice came out breathy from the strain, but it was clear, no whimpering. "What is calling flesh again?" I was leaning so heavily on Cherry that it was only politeness that kept her from picking me up in her arms. She was holding all my weight.

Micah came to stand by us. Merle hovered behind him like an overly anxious nursemaid. "I can heal damage in my pard with my body," Micah said.

I glanced up at Cherry and saw Nathaniel standing beside her. They both nodded at the same time, as if they'd heard my unasked question. "I've never seen a Nimir-Raj that could call flesh, but I've heard of it," Cherry said. "It is possible."

"You don't sound like you believe him," I said.

She gave a faint smile that left her eyes tired. "I don't believe in much of anyone." She smiled then. "Except you."

I stood, still leaning on her arm, but almost standing on my own. I squeezed her arm with my right hand, trying to put into my eyes what I was feeling. "I'll always do my best for you, Cherry."

She smiled again, and her eyes lightened a little, though that edge of cynicism never quite left them. "I know that."

"We all know that," Nathaniel said.

I smiled at him. I said the prayer I'd been saying since I inherited the wereleopards: Dear God, don't let me fail them.

I kept a tight grip on Cherry's arm, but turned to Micah. "Why is my arm the only thing that's hurting?"

"You don't hurt anywhere else?" he asked.

I started to say no, then had to think about it. "I ache, but nothing like the arm. Nothing else hurts like it does."

He nodded as if that meant something to him. "Your body and our energy healed the life-threatening injuries first, and the smaller ones like the marks on your back."

"I didn't think healing energy could be that selective," I said.

"It can when directed," he said.

"Who directed it?"

His eyes locked with mine. "I did."

I glanced at Cherry, and she nodded. "He is a Nimir-Raj. He was the dominant for us all. Him and Merle."

I glanced at the big man. "Do I owe you guys a thank-you?"

Merle shook his head. "You owe us nothing."

"Nothing," Micah said. "We were the ones who entered your territory without your permission. It was our transgression, not yours."

I looked at them both. "Okay, now what?"

"Can you stand unaided?"

I wasn't really sure, so I let go of Cherry in stages and found that I could stand on my own. Great. "Yeah, I guess I can."

"I need to touch the injuries to heal them."

"I know, I know, bare skin is best for healing among lycanthropes."

He gave a small frown. "Yes, it is."

I used my right hand to slide the robe off my left shoulder. I realized that it didn't bare enough of my arm. I started to wiggle my left arm out of the sleeve, and another spasm hit me. It was Micah who caught me this time as my arm tried to tear itself off my body and my hand gripped something that I could neither see nor feel. It wasn't just that it hurt. It was unnerving, like I had lost total control of my arm.

Micah whispered, "Scream, there's no shame in it."

I just shook my head, afraid to open my mouth, afraid I would scream. He lowered me to the floor. His hands going to the robe's sash. The spasm relaxed in stages again, leaving me gasping on the floor while he bared most of my left side. Once he'd revealed my left arm and shoulder, he pulled the robe back over me, covering everything I cared about, except for my left breast. I appreciated the gesture. Since I was now lying on the ground staring up at him, I also appreciated that he was no longer erect. That was somehow less threatening.

He was on his knees, tracing his fingers just above the skin of my arm. Except he wasn't touching my skin, he was touching that otherworldly energy that spilled off of my skin. His energy flowed from his hand and mingled with mine in a dance of electricity that sent goosebumps down my skin. For the first time I thought to ask, "Is this going to hurt?"

"No, it shouldn't."

I heard masculine laughter. I was looking up at all the men in the room except for one. I turned my head to see Caleb still sitting on the bed.

"Is there a joke I'm not getting?"

"Ignore him," Merle said.

I looked up at their so-serious eyes, while Caleb's laughter played background music. "Are you sure there isn't something you want to tell me about the calling of flesh?"

Micah shook his head, sending the tangle of curls sliding around his face. I realized that no one had turned on a light. We were still moving in the twilight of the night-light. "Can someone turn on a light?"

There was a flurry of eye flicks, one to the other, to the other, like they were playing hot potato with the glance. "What's wrong?"

"Why do you think anything is wrong?" Micah said.

"Don't fuck with me, I saw the glances. Why can't we turn on the lights?"

"You may be photosensitive because of the rapid healing," Cherry said.

I looked at her and could feel the suspicion on my face. "That's what all those looks were about?" I said.

"We're worried about how your body is ... reacting to the injuries." She knelt beside me on the side opposite Micah. She stroked my hair like you'd pet a dog to soothe it. "We're worried about you."

"I got that." It was hard to be suspicious with her vibrating sincerity at me. I finally had to smile. "I guess we can do without the lights until after he heals me."

She smiled, and this time it did reach her eyes. "Good."

"You might want to give us some room here," Micah said. "Otherwise the energy can spread."

Cherry gave me a last touch then stood and moved back, taking Nathaniel with her. Micah stared up at Merle. "You, too."

Merle frowned, but he moved across the room with the others. They all ended up by the bed with Caleb. Strangely, I'd come as far across the room as I could get from the bed without leaving the room. Totally unconscious on my part, honest.

Micah stayed kneeling, but leaned back on the balls of his feet, hands open on his thighs, eyes closed, and I felt him open himself. His energy swirled over me like a thread of hot air that closed my throat, made it hard to breathe. He opened those alien eyes and looked at me, face slack, as if he were meditating or dreaming.

I expected him to lay hands on me, but his hands stayed on his thighs. He leaned his upper body towards my shoulder.

I put my right hand on his arm, and the moment I touched him, his beast curled through me. It was almost as if some great invisible cat were sliding in and out of my body, the way they'll entwine themselves around your legs, except this cat went places that not even a lover should be touching. It froze my words in my throat, and from the look on Micah's face, I could tell he was feeling it too. He looked as shell-shocked as I felt. But he continued to lean into me. My hand stayed on his arm, but it didn't stop him, and I couldn't think well enough to question him. His lips brushed my neck where the scars began, and it brought my breath in a shaky sigh. He pressed his mouth to my neck and forced that swirling, living power into me. It made me squirm, but it didn't hurt. In fact it felt so good that I pushed him backwards.

My voice squeezed out, faint, almost a whisper. "Wait a minute. What's with the mouth? I thought you were going to lay hands on me?"

"I said I could heal with my body," he said. The power stretched between us like taffy pulled between the hot sticky fingers of children. It was like if we touched we would melt into each other.

I dragged my hand away from him, and it was like my hand was moving through something--something real and almost solid. My voice was steady, and even I was impressed. "I thought that meant hands."

"If I'd meant hands, I would have said so." He lowered his face towards me, moving through the power, and it felt like waves in water when someone swims towards you. I grabbed a handful of those tangled curls. "Define body for me."

He smiled, and it was at the same time gentle, condescending, and somehow sad. He stayed kneeling over me, his face close enough to kiss, my hand in his hair, the power pulsing around us, building into something large. "Mouth, tongue, some hands, but it is body, my hands alone won't be enough. I am told that you can heal with your body, as well."

I took my hand out of his hair and tried to get some distance between us, but he didn't move back, so it didn't really work. Truth was I could heal with sex, or something so close to it that you didn't want to do it in public.

"Sort of," I said. I looked across the room, past Micah's head and found Cherry. "Is calling flesh like what I do when I call munin?" Munin were sort of the ancestral memories of the werewolves. Except that they were actually more like ghosts, the spirits of the dead. You could gain their knowledge, their skills, and their bad habits if you had the ability to channel them. I was a necromancer--all the dead liked me. The munin that liked me best of all was Raina, the wolf pack's old lupa. I'd been the one who killed her--to keep her from killing me--and she delighted in the fact that she could take me over. I'd gained the power to control Raina when I accepted her, warts and all. When I called her, I didn't fight her anymore. We'd worked out a sort of truce. But calling munin for healing was almost always sexual for me, because it had been sexual for Raina.

"It's not sexual," Cherry said. "Sensual, but not sexual."

I trusted Cherry's judgment on that. "Okay then, do it."

Micah looked at me, those strange yellow-green eyes so terribly close.

"Do it," I said.

He gave that wistful, sad, condescending smile again, like he was laughing at both of us, and crying for us, too. Unnerving, that smile. Then he lowered his mouth to my neck and the first of the scars. The first kiss was gentle against my throat; he breathed power against my skin, and it was suddenly hard to breathe. But the power hovered above my skin like cloth. Then the tip of his tongue slid along my skin, licking a hot, wet line down my neck. The power followed the line of that heat, sinking under my skin as he licked me. But it was when his mouth pressed over my skin, sealing him against me, sucking me into his mouth, between his teeth, that I felt the power shoved into me, forced into the scars. He literally breathed, bit, ate, the healing into me. I made small helpless movements. I couldn't help it. We all have our erogenous zones in addition to the normal ones, places where if we're touched our bodies react whether we want them to, or not. My neck and shoulders are two of my spots.

He leaned back, far enough from my neck to whisper, "Are you alright?" His breath was so hot against my skin.

I nodded, my face turned away from him.

He took me at my word, pressing his mouth back to my neck. There were no preliminaries this time; he bit me, hard enough that I gasped. My stomach knotted, twisting me onto my side, pulling me away from him.

"Anita, what's wrong?"

"My stomach," I said.

He slid the robe open, passing his hand over my stomach. "There was no wound here."

Another wave of pain tore through my gut, bending me over double, to writhe on the floor. The need tore through me like something alive trying to rip its way out from inside my body.

Micah was there, smoothing my hair back from my face, that power that was building between us rolling through my body like a cat wading through me. He bundled me into his arms, his lap, pressed my face against his chest. "Get the doctor."

His chest was smooth, warm. I could hear his heartbeat, feel it against my cheek. I could smell blood under his skin like some exotic candy that would melt on my tongue and glide down my throat. I worked my way up his body until I could see the big pulse in his neck. I watched that pulse like a man dying of thirst; my throat burned with the need, my lips dry, cracked from want of it. I had to feed. I knew in that instant that it wasn't my thought.

I stretched out that part of me that Jean-Claude claimed and found him. Found him sitting in a windowless cell. He looked up as if he could see me standing in front of him. He whispered, "Ma petite," and I knew where he was. I didn't know why, but I knew where. He was in the St. Louis city jail, in the rooms reserved for things that cannot stand the light of day. I stared into his eyes and watched them fill with blue fire, until they cast their own light in the dim cell.

He reached out towards me, as if we could touch, and it was Micah's power, Micah's beast rolling through my body that tore me away from Jean-Claude.

I opened my eyes to find my arms around Micah, my face pressed to his shoulder, my mouth very close to the long warmth of his neck. There was movement in the room, and I knew distantly that someone had run to get a doctor, but what I needed a doctor couldn't give me.

Micah's skin smelled clean, young. It was like I could tell just by scent how old he was. The blood was like icing spread just under the tenderness of his flesh; and the part of me that thought of Micah as meat wasn't Jean-Claude, it was Richard.

I didn't know how to put the need into words. Micah turned his face, looked into my eyes, and I felt something inside me open; some door that I hadn't even known existed swung wide. A wind blew through the door, a wind made of darkness and the stillness of the grave. A wind that held an edge of electric warmth like the rub of fur across bare skin. A wind that tasted of both my men. But I was the center, the thing that could hold both of them inside and not break. Life and death, lust and love.

"What are you?" Micah asked, his voice a surprised whisper.

I'd always thought that vampires took their victims--stole their will with their eyes and took them like magical rape. But in that instant I knew it was more complex than that, and more simple. I saw with Jean-Claude's eyes, his power. I stared into Micah's face from inches away, and I saw, felt, his own need. Lust was there, a horribly unsatisfied lust, and I knew it had been a long time for Micah. But underneath that was a greater need, a need for power and the shelter that power could provide. It was like I could smell his needs, roll them on my tongue. I stared into his yellow-green eyes in that so-human face, and Jean-Claude gave me the keys to Micah's soul.

"I am power, Nimir-Raj. Enough power to warm you on the coldest of nights." Power flowed off his skin like a scalding wind. That hot wind mingled with the power inside me, twisting together until it drove like a knife deep inside me. It tore a gasp from my throat, and Micah echoed it. The power turned into something gentler, something that caressed instead of stabbed, something that you would wait your whole life to have. I saw the sensation flow over Micah's face, knew that he felt it, too.

A wind stirred the edge of his hair. And the wind was moving between us like the point where cold and heat meet and form something larger than either can form alone, something huge and whirling, a wind so strong it can level houses and drive straw through telephone poles.

His arms tightened around me. "I am Nimir-Raj, mind games don't work on me."

I got to my knees still in the circle of his arms, and pressed my body down the front of his. We were almost exactly the same height, the eye contact was terribly intimate. The power pressed around us like a giant hand squeezing us together. His body responded, and he was large again, so hard pressed to my groin and stomach. This was my cue to be embarrassed, to panic, but I didn't. I knew that Jean-Claude fed off of lust as well as blood, but I'd never really understood what that meant until that moment when Micah's flesh touched mine. It wasn't just the naked press of him, hard and firm against my body, that made me shudder against him, it was the need in his body. I felt his hunger quiver through his flesh, as if I could read parts of him that were too primitive for words, needs that had nothing to do with language, and everything to do with naked flesh.

He closed his eyes, and a soft moan escaped him.

"What I offer isn't illusion, Nimir-Raj, it's real."

He shook his head. "Sex isn't enough."

"I'm not offering sex, not now," Even as I said it, I pressed my body against his. His entire body shuddered against me, and a sound very like a whimper crawled out of his throat.

"I'm offering a taste of power, Nimir-Raj, a small taste of all I can offer you." In my head I knew it was a lie, but in my heart I knew it was true. I could offer him power and flesh, the two things he wanted, needed, above all else. It was perfect bait, and it was wrong. I started to back down, to try and cram the power down, but Jean-Claude fought me. He thrust his power into me like an echo of his body, riding me. It was too late for me to feed as humans feed and give him back his strength. He'd avoided me for nights, because I was weak. I had grown strong again, and he had grown weak, and we had enemies in town. We could not afford weakness. All this, I knew in a heartbeat, his mind to mine. And it was that seed of doubt--could we afford to be weak?--that made me unable to shut him out.

"What do you want in return?" Micah asked it in a whisper that held an edge of desperation, as if we both knew that whatever I asked, he would do it.

"I want to drink the warm rush of your body, to have you fill my mouth with that hot liquid that beats just below here," and I rubbed my lips across his neck. The scent of blood so near the surface made my stomach twist, but we were close, so close, mustn't rush it, mustn't scare him. We were like fishermen. We had our net, all we needed was for the fish to stop fighting us and lay still.

My lips hovered over his neck as he spoke. "Show me you have enough power to make it worth my while, and I'll give you any body fluid you want."

I swept his hair to one side, and it slid back. I balled my hand into a fist of his curls to keep it out of the way, and even that movement brought a sound from his throat. I bared the long smooth line of his neck. He moved his head to one side as if he knew what I wanted now. I could see the big pulse in his neck, beating against his skin like something small and separate from him, something alive that I had to make free.

I licked my tongue across that throbbing skin. I meant to be gentle, I meant many things, but his skin was slick and flawless against my mouth; the smell of him intoxicated me like the sweetest perfume. His pulse throbbed against my mouth, and I sank my teeth around that frantic movement. I ate at his skin, dug my teeth into the flesh underneath, and into his power, his beast.

I felt my beast rise through my body, like some great shape rising from the ocean depths, a leviathan that grew and grew, swelling up inside me until my skin couldn't hold it, then it touched his beast, and it stopped, hovering in black water, hovering in my body like some huge thing. The two powers floated in that dark water, brushing huge, sleek sides down the length of their bodies, our bodies. It was a sensation like velvet rubbing inside me, except this velvet had muscles, flesh, and was hard even where it was soft. The imagery that kept flowing through my mind was of some great cat rubbing itself inside me, rolling through me, but bigger than that. I'd seen Richard's beast move through his eyes like some great shape half-seen in water, and it felt that large, that overwhelming. I drank Micah's power down but not just through my mouth and down my throat. Everywhere I touched him, I fed. I could feel his heart beating against my naked breasts. I could feel the blood rushing through his body, feel every inch of him pressed against me. Feel his need, his desire, and I ate at him. I fed at his neck as if his pulse were the center of some filled cake, as if once I gnawed away the flesh I would have something unutterably sweet. I drew blood, and with the first touch of sweet metallic flavor in my mouth, all pretense, all prettiness was wiped away, drowned in the scent of fresh blood, the taste of torn flesh, the feel of meat and blood in my mouth. The feel of his hands pressing my body against his, my legs wrapped around his waist, riding him. I was aware like some distant call that he wasn't inside me, that he was still pressed between our bodies, so hard, so ready that he quivered against my stomach. His breath came fast and faster. Someone was making small animal noises, and it was me.

Micah's fingernails dug into my body, an instant before he poured over me in a scalding wave, noises too primitive for words, and not loud enough for screams coming from his mouth.

I felt Jean-Claude down that long metaphysical cord that bonded us together. I felt him grow quiet and well fed, sated. I drew my mouth away from Micah's torn throat, putting my cheek against his bare shoulder, my legs and arms still wrapped around him. His arms still holding me tight. I was covered in fluid, my breasts thick with it. It ran down my body in heavy liquid lines, curling over my stomach, tracing down to my thighs.

He knelt there supporting both our weights, while our breathing quieted, and the massive pulse of our bodies subsided into silence. And in that silence there was nothing but the feel of his flesh, the raw scent of sex, and in the distance, the satisfaction of the vampire.




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