WoundedLaurell K. Hamilton
Also by Laurell K. Hamilton
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Novels GUILTY PLEASURES
THE LAUGHING CORPSE
CIRCUS OF THE DAMNED
THE LUNATIC CAFE
THE KILLING DANCE
NARCISSUS IN CHAINS
KISS THE DEAD
Merry Gentry Novels A SHIVER OF LIGHT
Laurell K. Hamilton
Published by Berkley
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright (c) 2016 by Laurell K. Hamilton.
Excerpt from Crimson Death copyright (c) 2016 by Laurell K. Hamilton.
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"Wounded" originally appeared in Dead Ice, published by Jove InterMix eBook edition / December 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Also by Laurell K. Hamilton
Excerpt from Crimson Death
About the Author
FROM THE AUTHOR
First off, if you have not read my novel Dead Ice, this story is full of spoilers. Seriously, if you read this before you've read the novel, some of the mystery will be ruined. Hell, just reading this introduction to the story has spoilers in it, now that I think about it. Please, stop reading now if you have not read Dead Ice! Are you still reading? If so, I'm going to have to assume you have read Dead Ice and nothing I write from this point on will spoil the plot for you. If you have not read the novel and you've read all these spoiler alerts but you are still reading this, then that is all on you. You have been warned! Second, Wounded is not a complete story; it's more an outtake scene from Dead Ice or maybe an extended epilogue. I finished writing the novel and there just wasn't room to see the wedding on screen or to go into more detail about what happens to Tomas and Connie after the book ends. A lot of fans contacted me online to say that they were wondering the same thing and really wanted to see at least a little of the wedding. So I decided that if we all wanted to see more of the story, maybe I could make that happen. Here, because you guys wanted to see it on stage and so did I, is Anita and the loves of her life at the wedding; and we get to see Jean-Claude dancing with Manny's wife, Rosita. He made her blush in a good, "part of me is still that teenage girl" way. It made me happy to write the scene, so I could read it. Seeing more of Manny's family on stage at last was fun, poignant, and reminded me how much I love all my characters. They say that there is no such thing as a small part, only small actors. I feel the same about my characters, which is why I wrote a novelette to share some of the minor-major characters that don't get enough screen time during the novels. If you guys love Wounded enough, then maybe I'll be able to do more stories like this one to show you events that never make it into the main novel, but that we'd all like to see somewhere.
THEY SAY WHEN your friends' kids start getting married, it makes you feel old, but since Consuela Rodriguez was only six years younger than me, I wasn't really worrying about it. It was the first wedding I'd gone to since I hit puberty where no one asked me when I thought I'd get married, because I was wearing an engagement ring on my finger big enough to signal airplanes from a deserted island. I actually didn't like wearing it in public; it made me feel like I was asking to get mugged. In a perfect world I should have been able to cover myself in diamonds from head to foot and walk anywhere alone, but the world wasn't perfect and it just seemed mean to wear something so tempting when I was usually armed with two guns and multiple knives, plus a badge that said U.S. Marshal on it.
Today I was only carrying one gun. I didn't think the wedding reception would get that out of hand. I almost never went anywhere unarmed, but I hadn't thought about dancing at the reception and whether the gun would stay concealed. I'd just been happy to find another dressy outfit that I could conceal any handgun on. The little Sig Sauer .380 fit nicely in the Galco Tuck-N-Go to one side of the short red skirt, with the red top that came down over the belt loops that I'd had tailored onto the skirt. The loops were wide enough for my gun belt to slide through and fasten around front tight enough that the Sig stayed put, so if I did have to draw the gun, my hand would find it from body memory and not have to go hunting around. I'd been carrying at the small of my back when I wanted to be ultraconcealed, until I'd done some training drills and discovered that if the gun wasn't at my side where I usually carried, it took me a few extra seconds to draw, aim, and fire. Those few seconds could cost me, or someone else, their life out in the field, so I started having belt loops put on my skirts, and the very unfeminine belt slide through all of the waists, because that was what it took to hold the gun, any gun, in place. I could change my holster, my gun, but the gun needed to be at my side for my hand to find it automatically. I was just glad I'd found out in training and not in the field. In training you could fix it; in the field you got dead.
Nathaniel Graison stood beside me in a gray tailored suit that showed off the broad shoulders, slender waist, and nice ass and slid over the swell of his thighs like a polite glove: tight enough to show off, but not so tight it was obvious. The lavender dress shirt was buttoned up to the smooth line of his neck and gave his skin just a little color and the hint that he'd probably tan if he ever tried, but he didn't bother. The shirt also deepened the color of his eyes so they were more intense than the shirt, like violets to the shirt's paler lilac. His driver's license said his eyes were blue because they wouldn't let him put purple down as a choice. His tie was silver with a tie bar that looked silver but was actually platinum because it wouldn't make his skin react, since like most shapeshifters he was allergic to silver. His almost ankle-length auburn hair was back in a tight braid so he didn't trip me when we danced. His hair never seemed to get in his way when he moved--maybe it was practice; he was an exotic dancer, and the hair was often loose while he worked.
He was smiling and moving ever so slightly in time to the music. I had enough dancers in my life, from exotic to professional ballet, to know that they all moved, even when they thought they were standing still, as if their bodies couldn't help but make grace out of the noise of everyday life.
Manny had been standing next to his slender daughter, gazing up at her, because Connie had gotten about five inches of extra height from her mother'
s side of the genetics, but now he was dancing with his wife. Two of her brothers had been dragged onto the dance floor by their wives. Rosita's brothers towered over most of the other men in the room, not just tall but wide, like big, burly refrigerators who smiled often, bright smiles in dark faces. They hugged more as the afternoon reception wore on. At least two of them had gone to college on football scholarships, though I wasn't sure which of the six it had been. Another ran his own heating and cooling business, one was an accountant, and another did something about freight hauling. They'd been introduced to me in a mass as "These are my brothers." Rosita had rattled off their names and jobs too fast for me to follow all of it. I figured the names were more important to remember than jobs, so I concentrated on that. I could name four out of six. At one point she'd tried to fix me up on a blind date with one of them, back when she was convinced I'd end up an old maid at twenty-four. Lucky for me that I was engaged at thirty-one or Rosita would have been having fits.
Rosita was built like her brothers, though I'd seen pictures of her wedding to Manny and she'd been a tiny slip of a girl, but that's what can happen when you marry a girl before she's stopped growing taller. She'd been a couple inches below his five foot six once, but now she was five-eight or maybe five-nine, and three children plus several miscarriages had broadened the rest of her, but Manny gazed up at her as if she were still the delicate girl he'd fallen in love with as they danced, his head resting on her ample bosom. The drinks had been flowing enough that she didn't make him move his head now.
Connie, the bride, and Mercedes, her sister and maid of honor, were built like Manny's lean and wiry frame, but tall like models thanks to Rosita. They were talking excitedly across the room. Their brother, Tomas, sat in a corner across the room in the wheelchair that Connie had finally persuaded him to use. The crutches he'd used to walk up the aisle were leaning by the chair, his hand on them, so he'd know he could get back up. He was thirteen and had never been badly hurt before; the first time is an eye-opener. He'd used crutches to stand in church, proud to be on the groom's side, but by the time the ceremony was over he'd been pale and sweating. Getting shot will do that to you, even if it was a few weeks ago. He'd missed going to State with his track-and-field team because a bad guy had kidnapped Connie and him. I'd been part of the team that had stopped the bad guy and gotten them out, but not before he'd shot Tomas and left him for dead.
Tomas was trying to sit up straight, but he was in pain, hiding it, but hurting. He'd been almost as tall as Connie's six-foot groom, though still willowy, with big hands and feet as if he hadn't finished growing into himself. He was still pretty like his sisters, with heavy black hair spilling forward in a sort of bad-boy I-just-rolled-out-of-bed-like-this style, which I knew took a hell of a lot of hair product to pull off. Apparently, the men had gotten their hair done, along with the women; I liked that--even-handed worked for me.
Micah Callahan, our other sweetie, was standing beside Tomas, and since he was five-three, my height, he didn't have to bend much to talk to the young man. Micah looked elegant and dapper in his tailored black pinstripe suit. Nathaniel could have pulled off an American off-the-rack suit--it wouldn't have looked as good as the Italian cut, but it would have worked--but Micah was swallowed up in American suits, even tailored ones. This suit, however, showcased his athletic build and musculature. He had that upside-down triangle going, like a swimmer, though his sport of choice was running. He'd already started tanning again from running outside, even though it was only May. He tanned dark, and he never quite stopped being dark, as if it were a blush across the perfection of his skin tone, made richer by the forest-green dress shirt, with its black tie and gold tie bar. He couldn't wear silver for the same reason Nathaniel couldn't.
Micah leaned down a little farther, the movement spilling his dark brown braid over one shoulder. His black-lensed sunglasses hid his eyes completely and made his face look a little less sympathetic than I knew he was being as he got Tomas to talk. Micah was good at listening and helped a lot of people deal with trauma as the head of the Coalition for Better Understanding Between Human and Lycanthrope Communities, but he was also a survivor of the attack that made him a wereleopard. He had his own scary story to share with Tomas. Rosita had told me that she was worried that the boy wouldn't talk about it, that he wasn't eating right or sleeping well, and did I know anyone who could get him to talk. Connie was talking, why wouldn't Tomas? Manny and I had both told her, Because he's a boy, but that didn't satisfy her, so I'd talked to Micah. He'd said if the chance came he'd try to talk to Tomas, but he wouldn't force it at the wedding. Apparently, he'd found his chance.
The music changed to something slower, and Nathaniel took my hand. "Dance with me."
It bothered me to dance in public, I wasn't sure why, but it did. I used to refuse to do it, but all the men in my life seemed to love to dance, so what could I do? I let them practice with me in private and I got over it. "Sure," I said, smiling, and steeling myself for that initial nervousness.
He took my hand in his and led me onto the dance floor. I hung back a bit and was a little stiff as he tried to twirl me into his arms, but he got me into the circle of his arms, one hand in his, our other hands at the small of each other's back. All right, his was at the small of mine. I couldn't quite reach around and had to settle for the side of his lower back. It still meant we were closer than a lot of people on the dance floor, but not as close as the people who were doing the high school prom thing of pressing their bodies as close as possible and moving in little circles. We had daylight between us, because Nathaniel danced-danced. I watched his chest and shoulder area, not because the view was great, but for the same reason I might in a fight, because you have to move the core of the body before you can move the rest. I watched for the first movement, so I could move with his hands and arms, rather than be a step behind.
I'd learned to follow him on the dance floor and trust that he would lead me through the dance. If I just trusted his body, his hands, his arm as it tightened and guided, the brush of his leg, all would direct me as surely as he did sometimes in the bedroom. There, sometimes I liked to lead, and he was good with that, too, but on the dance floor he was the boss, because he was so damn good at it.
He glided around the dance floor, and if I didn't overthink it but just followed his lead, I glided, too. Of course, the minute I thought that I missed a step; he was patient and swept me around for another turn, so I could catch up and come back to the circle of his arms as if it had all been planned.
I finally gazed up into those amazing eyes of his and was able to just feel his body without having to stare at it. I could feel the sway of his body and go with it; a slight pressure of his hand and I knew where we were going. It was like magic to dance with Nathaniel; he could make almost anyone look good. He gazed down at me, smiling, face eager, his body so excited to move to the music. His enthusiasm was contagious--Nathaniel's happiness was one of my happy thoughts. I loved seeing his eyes shining, lips slightly parted as he half-laughed and sort of glowed down at me, because I was dancing with him, and because he knew what it had cost me to learn to do it with him.
He dipped me, which he'd finally gotten me to do without either making a surprised squeak, which I hated, or going stiff in his arms, which he hated. He'd thought the squeak was cute. We finished the dance, and a new song came on. People began to line up, so it was a line dance, no partner needed.
"Do you know the dance?" I asked.
"No, but . . ." He shrugged those great shoulders of his.
"Line dancing is still above my skill set," I said, laughing, "but you go dance."
He smiled at me, eyes shining. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"I'm sure." I gave him a little push toward the other people already starting to move, and he ran out to put himself in line. He maneuvered himself to be standing beside a woman who seemed to know the dance perfectly. He watched her move and moved with her; within two repetitions he was moving in perfect
time as if he'd known the dance forever. I'd seen him do it before, but it never ceased to impress me.
Micah had moved down to be closer to Tomas as the boy talked. Micah didn't kneel, but balanced on the balls of his glossy leather dress shoes so that Tomas was actually looking down at him from the chair. Being taller would make him feel more in charge, and apparently that was what Micah wanted. I trusted him to make the most of their quiet corner talk.
The groom's mother came over to me. She was tall, blond, though it was a little too blond to be natural. Nothing wrong with that, but I always wondered why people who dyed their hair chose colors just slightly off natural most of the time so that they fooled no one. The base she'd chosen made her skin look orange to me; maybe it was a spray tan, but surrounded by so many people who were actually Hispanic, the fake tan just looked fake. She'd also chosen blue eye shadow to make her eyes look bluer, but it didn't work. Even Elizabeth Taylor hadn't been able to pull off chalk-blue eye shadow, and if Liz Taylor couldn't do it, it couldn't be done.
"Are you wearing a gun, Ms. Blake?"
"Why do you ask?" I asked, smiling.
She did not smile back. "It was seen when your . . . boyfriend dipped you on the dance floor."
I didn't like the way she hesitated over the word boyfriend, but I forced myself to smile and be pleasant. Her son had gotten married today to my friend's daughter; I could be pleasant.
I fought the urge to smooth my top over the gun, because nothing attracts attention to a concealed carry like constantly touching it. "Well, then, Ms. Conroy, you know the answer to your question, don't you?"
"It's Mrs. Conroy; I have no desire to be a Ms. anything."
"I do prefer Ms., but have it your way, Mrs. Conroy."
"I'd like you to take the gun off and leave it with the coats, please."
I smiled a little harder, trying to keep it up in my eyes. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
"Can't, what do you mean you can't?"
"I can't hand over my firearm to a coat-check girl like it's a purse."