Dancing (anita blake)Laurell K. Hamilton
( Anita Blake )
Laurell K. Hamilton
For most people, summer barbecues are nothing to be afraid of. But Anita isn’t exactly plain vanilla—and neither is her love life. So it takes a special kind of courage to attend a barbecue thrown by her friend Sergeant Zerbrowski. Walking into a backyard full of cops and their families with wereleopards Micah and Nathaniel both looking gorgeous on her arm won’t be easy, even with almost-four-year-old Matthew Vespucci to break the ice…
Anita is determined to have a good time with her family, just like everyone else. But it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise among the adults and kids. And Anita will learn that gossip and innuendo can be just as dangerous as anything the undead can throw at her…
Includes a preview of Affliction, the new Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novel.
Anita Blake Novella ~ Book 22.5
Laurell K. Hamilton
Sergeant Zerbrowski of the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, RPIT, and his lovely wife Katie held an annual barbecue at their house for all the cops who could come. They timed it for when the worst of the summer heat was past, but it was still shorts and tank top weather. This year was unseasonably cool, so late August was the date. It was the earliest they’d ever been able to do it. The cookout was family friendly, so light drinking at best, and if you wanted to get drunk, Katie Zerbrowski would hand you your head in a verbal basket before she kicked your ass out the door. Since she was a few inches smaller than my own five foot three, and more delicate looking; it was always fun to see her take on a big, tough, drunk cop and win, but I’d stopped going a few years back. Far too many small children, not my favorite thing, and too much family stuff. When I’d been the only single female at the thing the wives had either tried to fix me up, or the single guys had tried to hit on me, or . . . my social skills hadn’t been up to it, but that had been before Micah Callahan and Nathaniel Graison.
They’d been to dinner at the Zerbrowskis’ house before, both to a cop cookout and a dinner party, but those had been much smaller events. Katie and Zerbrowski had handpicked the guest list for people who would deal better with the fact that I came with two men, and would have married both if it had been legal.
I hadn’t intended to brave the big event. I wasn’t a fan of crowds, and I didn’t want to have to alienate cops I’d have to work with later by defending my lifestyle to them, but Nathaniel was Facebook friends with Katie, and she’d been mentioning how much work it was finishing up her second master’s degree along with planning for the big party, so my wonderful domestic boyfriend had offered to help, and just like that we were committed.
Nathaniel had been cooking for days, mostly sides like potato salad, macaroni salad, and coleslaw, which he’d all managed to make with less mayonnaise, or lite mayonnaise, or something that made it healthier but still yummy. He’d also baked a frosted layer cake and a batch of homemade rolls. If it had been left to Micah and me, it would have all been store-bought, and much less healthy, though eyeing the chocolate layer cake, I was wondering what he’d done to it to make it “healthier.” I was really hoping nothing. I liked chocolate cake.
I wasn’t the only one. Matthew, who was four, asked from his child safety seat in the back, “When can we have cake?”
“After meat and veggies,” Nathaniel said automatically from the backseat. We’d been babysitting Matthew a lot in the last two years.
I was driving, so I could only glance back at Matthew and Nathaniel. He was holding the cake in his lap, because iced cakes and cars are always chancy. This was the first time that any of the other cops’ wives had really treated Nathaniel like another wife, and he was a little nervous about it. It was cute, and so was he. Okay, he was gorgeous, his face model-handsome where it showed around the sunglasses. They hid the lavender eyes, not blue, but the color of spring lilacs. The blue tank top he was wearing would make his eyes lean closer to blue, but they weren’t. I’d never met anyone else with lavender eyes, but they were just the cherry on the too-pretty-to-be-mine cupcake that was Nathaniel, because the tank top also showed off the muscles in his shoulders and arms, a hint of chest. The shirt was a little loose as it fell around his upper body, because a tank that clung to his body would just be unfair to the other men at the party.
He had his ankle-length auburn hair back in a braid, but I realized that his hair was only a little more red auburn than Matthew’s browner auburn. How had I never noticed it before? Maybe it was that Matthew’s curls had finally grown long enough to trail over the collar of his blue T-shirt, because he’d persuaded his mother, Monica Vespucci, to let him grow his hair out like Uncle Nathaniel and Uncle Jean-Claude and Uncle Micah. Monica was away on a weeklong business conference. She was a successful lawyer, and the widow of one of Jean-Claude’s employees, Robert, who had been a vampire companion of his for over a hundred years. It made him feel responsible for the family. Monica had no family in town, so he felt we should step in to help her with Matthew. It was a noble thought, but since Jean-Claude was the head of the American Vampire Council, he was usually dead to the world when Matthew had to be picked up from preschool, or taken to dance class, he was unable to be on twenty-four-hour availability when Monica had a deposition out of state or a business conference. Since Monica’s deceased husband had been a vampire, too, it made me realize she’d have been almost in the same boat if he’d lived. Funny, the things you don’t think of when you date vampires.
Micah was beside me in the passenger seat. He’d chosen a green T-shirt that did cling, but he didn’t muscle up the way Nathaniel did, and he was five foot three to Nathaniel’s five foot nine, so a baggy T-shirt would have made him look even smaller and more delicate. His face was a soft triangle with only a little extra length through the jawline that made him look male and not like a beautiful, dainty woman. With the tighter shirt you could see the leanness of his body, the fine muscles that he got through running, lifting weights, and fighting practice. My muscles came from the same things, except I did weapons drills more than he did, but the regimen had put muscle on my delicate girl frame, too. I actually bulked up easier than he did, but I bulked up for a girl, so that between him not bulking much and me bulking more than most women, we could trade T-shirts, and some of our jeans. Though today he was in jean shorts that wouldn’t have been comfy over the curve of my thighs. Nathaniel and I were both in jogging shorts, because they fit over the more generous thighs we both had. Lush was a word you’d use for both of us, where Micah was lean. I’d never dated anyone before who was small enough to share my clothes. I kind of liked it.
We both had long curly hair to just past our shoulder blades, his dark chestnut brown that had been blond when he was a child, mine true black and always had been. Nathaniel had braided Micah’s hair, and braided the upper level of mine, so we’d be a little cooler in the heat. It wasn’t the usual August hot, but it still wasn’t as cool as most of the country. We were both wearing sunglasses against the St. Louis summer sun, but my eyes were just a nice solid brown like Matthew’s, except a little darker. Micah’s eyes were green around the pupil with a circle of yellow outside of it; depending on the light, his moods, his shirt color, they could look more yellow, or more green, but they were chartreuse, a mix of both colors, and not human. He was a wereleopard, and his eyes were the leopard eyes of his beast form, because a very bad man had forced him into leopard form for so long that when he came back to human, his eyes didn’t change back. He wore sunglasses most of the time, knowing how unusual his eyes looked, but surprisingly few people realized what they were looking at. They’d just say, “Pretty green eyes.” People see what they expect to see.
Cops don’t, but then everyone at the party knew that my two boyfriends were wereleopards. They even knew that Micah was head of the Coalition for Better Understanding Between Human and Lycanthrope communities. He’d become the public face for his minority group. Lycanthropy was a disease, but less than twenty years ago it had still been legal to kill someone on sight for having it. In some western states, even today, if you killed a wereanimal and the blood test proved it, it was deemed self-defense regardless of circumstances.
I was in the actual neighborhood where Zerbrowski lived now, driving past the three different styles of house in the development over and over, just different colors, different accessories, but it was an American suburb, which meant the houses were all vaguely alike. The Zerbrowski house was the one-story ranch style. Theirs had brick siding and a neatly trimmed lawn that was green enough to show they watered it. The shrubs were neat and trimmed low near the foundation with a small flower bed on either side of the sidewalk that led to the front door. The flowers were a brilliant splash of yellow, white, and red.
The driveway was full, but there was only one car out in front, and I pulled in behind it. Last time I’d been here the entire street had been full of cars; this time we’d arrived early so that Nathaniel could help the other “wives” with the kitchen stuff. Meat would be grilled outside by Mr. Zerbrowski and any other men he let near his grill. The arrangement was all very traditional, but then most cops like traditional roles. Their jobs can be full of such weird shit I think it makes them cling to the normal stuff. I was a U.S. Marshal for the preternatural branch of the service, which meant I was only involved in crimes that had some preternatural element. When I wasn’t serving an active warrant for the Marshal service, my night job was raising zombies for Animators Incorporated. I’d been doing a lot of historical society jobs lately—you know, raise the dead and just ask them what happened at such and such battle on this date.
All my jobs were weird shit, so I should have been more conservative than the rest of the police, and once I had been, but that had been before Jean-Claude, master vampire of St. Louis, found me, before I’d started considering vampires friends and lovers instead of just evil walking corpses. Now here I was, showing up with two live-in lovers and a child, all without the benefit of a wedding band. Matthew was with us for a week; it was the longest he’d ever stayed with us and he was taking it as normal. One of the reasons we’d brought Matthew rather than leaving him home with one of his other “uncles” was because Nathaniel realized there’d be other kids. Nathaniel had pointed out that Matthew was pretty isolated from other children once he left preschool. Monica was a busy single parent, she didn’t have a lot of time to arrange playdates for him, so we brought Matthew so he could make friends. I knew there’d be some kids around his age, and lots of older and younger ones. It might be the most children Matthew had ever been around except at a dance recital. The thought was a little overwhelming for me, but a good one for the kid.
Once the car was stopped I undid my seat belt. That was the signal for everyone else to undo theirs. Matthew could undo his own child safety seat, which is what we called it, since he’d objected to “baby seat” as a term.
Nathaniel carried the cake. Micah and I divided up the various lite mayonnaise salads, then Matthew said, “What can I carry?”
Micah and I looked at each other. I don’t know what I would have said, because Nathaniel beat us to it. “The veggie and fruit tray,” he said, pointing at a large round hard plastic tray, covered with a hard plastic lid over all the individual compartments of carrot and celery sticks, little tomatoes, grapes, melon wedges, apple slices, and sweet colored bell peppers. I knew there were different dipping sauces somewhere, but they’d be put out around the tray later; right now the tray was nearly indestructible. Matthew could have rolled it on its side like a wheel into the house and everything would have stayed in place. It was brilliant, though huge, so that Matthew struggled to see over or around it. He looked cuter than normal with the huge tray, blue T-shirt, little jean shorts, and Spider-Man jogging shoes. It didn’t show from the back, but I knew that Spidey’s eyes blinked red from the front. Matthew’s very serious face let me know that telling him how cute he looked would not go over well. I had the same reaction sometimes, so I couldn’t really blame him.
I was a little distracted from the cute kid stuff by Nathaniel’s braid bobbing down the length of his body as he walked beside and a little ahead of Matthew. With sunlight on both of them, their hair color was even more similar, and I realized that Matthews’s shirt and Nathaniel’s tank top were almost the same shade of blue. I wondered if that had been accidental. Matthew looked up to Nathaniel and copied him sometimes, but my boyfriend also liked having Matthew around a lot. Nathaniel had even started hinting that he wanted a rug rat of our very own. I was okay if the kid wanted to dress like Uncle Natty, but less okay with Nathaniel wanting them to match. It would feel like just one more bit of pressure from my most domestic of partners.
“You’re frowning,” Micah said, leaning in so no one else would hear.
“Sorry, just thinking too hard, I guess.”
But Katie Zerbrowski opened the door and we had to hurry to catch up. I’d worry later about Nathaniel trying to punch my biological clock.
Katie was barely five feet tall, maybe an inch below. She made even Micah and me seem not so delicate, not so tiny. She had long wavy brown hair that was nearly to her waist, and had had it that long since college. Zerbrowski had told me that with a happy smile and a sparkle in his eye. They’d been married for close to twenty years and were still crazy for each other. They gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, love could last.
I was three years and counting with Micah and Nathaniel, and six of dating Jean-Claude, but that six had included a hell of a lot of breakups in our togetherness, and then Micah and Nathaniel had come into my life and something about them helped stabilize things. Funny how the right mix of people can change everything, but there was still a part of me that kept waiting for it all to go to hell. At least I’d stopped poking at it and trying to break it myself, that was a step up. Let’s hear it for therapy and smart friends who intervened when I fell back into old destructive habits.
Katie had put barrettes in her hair that held it neatly behind each ear, showing off the diamond earrings that Zerbrowski had bought her for their last anniversary. Her summer dress was a soft blue, and she looked as beautiful and fresh as the flowers by their door.
Zerbrowski called out behind her and walked toward us over the new hardwood floor they’d laid this year. The floor gleamed with polish, and looked as fresh and neat as the rest of the living room. Katie matched the airy spaciousness of the room. Zerbrowski was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a band T-shirt, much loved and faded. Katie tried to dress him neatly during the week for work, but on the weekends their bargain was that he could be comfortable. Her efforts to get him into nice suits and ties was really pretty wasted since he seemed to attract stains and have his freshly pressed shirts wrinkle as if by magic. Zerbrowski was like a more polite grownup version of Pigpen and Charlie Brown all mixed up together, and Katie was the unattainable little redheaded girl, except that this beautiful woman had seen past the wire-framed glasses and messy hair to find the love of her life, of their lives. Like I said, they made me believe in the whole true love thing.
They kissed each other automatically before Katie led the way toward the kitchen, and Zerbrowski asked, “There anything else that needs carrying in?”
“Nope, this is it,” I said.
We all set the food down on the big island in the neat-as-a-pin kitchen, except for Matthew, who had to go up on tiptoe to try and push the veggie tray onto the countertop. I gave it the little nudge it needed, and it was safe.
“All the food looks amazing, Nathaniel,” Katie said.
“Thanks, I appreciated the chance to help out, and I had help.” He put his hands on Matthew’s small sho
Katie smiled down at the little boy. “Did you help fix all this?”
He nodded. “Uncle Natty’s teaching me to cook so I’ll be able to help my girlfriend when I grow up.”
“I like the sound of that; maybe you can tell my son that women like a man who can cook.”
“I will,” Matthew said.
Zerbrowski laughed. “Well, thank you, Matthew and Nathaniel, for helping Katie out.”
“You know, Zerbrowski, you could have helped her cook stuff,” I said.
Katie laughed, and it matched the rest of her, airy and pretty, if a laugh could be pretty. “Oh, no, Anita, the only person less likely to be helpful in the kitchen than you is my husband. I swear, if there was a way to do it, he’d burn water.”
Zerbrowski pushed his glasses more firmly up his nose and grinned at her. “But you love me anyway.”
“If you hadn’t been a terrible cook we might never have dated,” she said.
“I don’t cook and it’s never helped me date—how’d it help you?” I asked.
They looked at each other, faces alight with a shared secret. He made a little gesture at her.
She said, “We met at college. Anita probably already knows that.”
I nodded that I did. He’d actually told me he had to get her drunk for her to agree to a date, but I was pretty sure he was kidding, though sometimes it was hard to tell with him.
Katie continued, “Zerbrowski says he knew who I was, because he used to sit behind me in American History and stare at my hair.”
“It’s really pretty hair,” he said, and went around the island so he could put his arm across her shoulders.
“Thank you, dear, but I didn’t know who he was until the night of the fire.”
“What fire?” I asked.
She snuggled in against him, tucked under his arm, hers around his waist, and said, “He set his dorm room on fire trying to make soup.”