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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

anita blake 22 affliction

AFFLICTION
Laurell K. Hamilton
An Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Novel

Copyright © 2013 Laurell K. Hamilton

The right of Laurell K. Hamilton to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

First published in the United States of America in 2013 by the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
A BERKLY BOOK

First published as an Ebook by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP in 2013

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

eISBN: 978 0 7553 8905 6

HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP

An Hachette UK Company

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH

www.headline.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

About the Book

About the Author

Also By

Praise

Guilty Pleasures 1993–2013 Affliction

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

About the Book

Sunday Times
and
New York Times
bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton returns with another exciting, thrilling and addictive adventure for her vampire hunting heroine Anita Blake.

Had everyone bitten tonight caught this? The other bites had not looked like vampire bites. They’d been zombie, or human looking. Was this infection something that vampires and shapeshifters could catch? If it was, then it was something new.  Some zombies are raised. Others must be put down. Just ask me, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter.

Before now, I figured I could handle them. Before now, I had never heard of any of them causing human beings to perish in agony. But that’s all changed. Micah’s estranged father lies dying, rotting away inside from some strange ailment that has his doctor’s whispering about ‘zombie disease’.

I make my living from zombies – but these aren’t the kind I know so well. These creatures hunt in daylight, and are as fast and strong as vampires. If they bite you, you become just like them. And round and round it goes … Where will it stop? Even I don’t know.

About the Author

Laurell K. Hamilton is the bestselling author of the acclaimed Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Novels. She lives near St Louis with her husband, her daughter, two dogs and an ever-fluctuating number of fish.

She invites you to visit her website at
www.laurellkhamilton.org
.

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Novels

GUILTY PLEASURES

THE LAUGHING CORPSE

CIRCUS OF THE DAMNED

THE LUNATIC CAFE

BLOODY BONES

THE KILLING DANCE

BURNT OFFERINGS

BLUE MOON

OBSIDIAN BUTTERFLY

NARCISSUS IN CHAINS

CERULEAN SINS

INCUBUS DREAMS

MICAH and STRANGE CANDY

DANSE MACABRE

THE HARLEQUIN

BLOOD NOIR

SKIN TRADE

FLIRT

BULLET

HIT LIST

KISS THE DEAD

AFFLICTION

eSpecials

BEAUTY

Praise for Laurell K. Hamilton’s bestselling novels:

‘A hardcore guilty pleasure’

The Times

‘Anita Blake is one of the most fascinating fictional heroines since Scarlett O’Hara’

Publishers Weekly

‘What
The Da Vinci Code
did for the religious thriller, the Anita Blake series has done for the vampire novel’

USA Today

‘Hamilton remains one of the most inventive and exciting writers in the paranormal field’

Charlaine Harris

G
UILTY
P
LEASURES
1993–2013 A
FFLICTION

This one’s for Anita and me. Here’s to another twenty years of facing our fears, solving mysteries, catching bad guys, and finding love.

Artists and their art, mirror and reflection, yin and yang, the push and the pull, separate but joined, in the end it becomes an act of co-creation, because to truly create art the artists themselves are re-created.

Acknowledgments

We’re taught Lord Acton’s axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don’t believe it’s always true anymore. Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.

Robert Caro

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.

John F. Kennedy

1

My gun was digging into my back, so I shifted forward in my office chair. That was better; now it was just the comforting pressure of the inner-skirt holster, tucked away underneath my short royal blue suit jacket. I’d stopped wearing my shoulder holster except when I was on an active warrant as a U.S. Marshal. When I was working at Animators Inc. and seeing clients, the behind-the-back holster was less likely to flash and make them nervous. You’d think if someone was asking me to raise the dead for them that they’d have better nerves, but guns seemed to scare them a lot more than talking about zombies. It was different once the zombie was raised and they were looking at the walking dead; then suddenly the guns didn’t bother them nearly as much, but until that Halloweenesque moment I tried to keep the weapons out of sight. There was a knock on my office door and Mary, our daytime receptionist, opened it without my saying
Come in
, which she’d never done in the six years we’d been working together, so I wasn’t grumpy about the interruption. I just looked up from double-checking my client meetings to make sure there wouldn’t be any overlap issues and knew something was up, and knowing Mary it would be important. She was like that.

She’d finally let her hair go gray, but it was still in the same obviously artificial hairdo that it had always been. She’d let herself get a little plump as she neared sixty and had finally embraced glasses full time. The combination of it all had aged her about ten years, but she seemed happy with it, saying, ‘I’m a grandma; I’m okay with looking like one.’ The look on her face was sad and set in sympathetic lines. It was the face she used to deal with grieving families who wanted their loved ones raised from the dead. Having that face aimed at me sped my pulse and tightened my stomach.

I made myself take a deep breath and let it out slow as Mary closed the door behind her and started walking toward my desk. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t want to tell you over the phone with all the clients listening,’ she said.

‘Tell me what?’ I asked, and fought the urge not to raise my voice. She was about one more uninformative answer away from getting yelled at.

‘There’s a woman on line two; she says she’s your future mother-in-law. I told her you weren’t engaged to my knowledge, and she said that she didn’t know what to call herself since you were just living with her son.’

I was actually living with several men, but most of them didn’t have families to use words like
son
. ‘Name, Mary, what’s her name?’ My voice was rising a little.

‘Morgan, Beatrice Morgan.’

I frowned at her. ‘I’m not living with anyone named Morgan. I’ve never even dated anyone with that last name.’

‘I didn’t recognize it from your boyfriends, but she said that the father is hurt, maybe dying, and she thought he’d want to know about his dad before it was too late. The emotion is real, Anita. I’m sorry, maybe she’s crazy, but sometimes people don’t think clearly when their husband is hurt. I didn’t want to just write her off as crazy; I mean, I don’t know the last names of everyone you’re dating.’

I started to tell her to ignore the call, but looking into Mary’s face I couldn’t do it. I’d trusted her to screen callers for years. She had a good feel for distraught versus crazy. ‘She give a first name for her son?’

‘Mike.’

I shook my head. ‘I’ve never dated a Mike Morgan. I don’t know why she called here, but she’s got the wrong Anita Blake.’

Mary nodded, but her expression looked unhappy. ‘I’ll tell her that you don’t know a Mike Morgan.’

‘Do that. She’s either got the wrong Anita Blake, or she’s crazy.’

‘She doesn’t sound crazy, just upset.’

‘You know that crazy doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real, Mary. Sometimes the delusion is so real they believe it all.’

Mary nodded again and went out to tell Beatrice Morgan she had the wrong number. I went back to checking the last of my client meetings. I wanted to make sure that no matter how long it took to raise each zombie, I wouldn’t be too late for the next cemetery. Clients tended to get spooked if you left them hanging out in graveyards too long by themselves. At least most of the meetings were historical societies and lawyers checking wills, with the families of the deceased either long dead or not allowed near the zombie until after the will was settled in case just seeing the loved ones influenced the zombie to change its mind about the last will and testament. I wasn’t sure it was possible to sway a zombie that way, but I approved of the new court ruling that families couldn’t see the deceased until after all court matters were cleared up, just in case. Have one billionaire inheritance overturned because of undue influence on a zombie and everybody got all weird about it.

Mary came through the door without knocking. ‘Micah. Mike was his nickname as a kid. Morgan is her name from her second marriage. It was Callahan. Micah Callahan’s mother is on line two, and his dad is in the hospital.’

‘Shit!’ I said, picking up the phone and hitting the button to put the call through. ‘Mrs Callahan, I mean, Mrs Morgan, this is Anita Blake.’

‘Oh, thank God, I’m so sorry. I just forgot about the names. I’ve been Beatrice Morgan for eighteen years, since Micah was twelve, and he was Mike to us. He didn’t like
Micah
when he was a little boy. He thought
Mike
was more grown up.’ She was crying softly, I could hear it in her voice, but her words were clear, well enunciated. It made me wonder what she did for a living, but I didn’t ask. It could wait; it was just one of the thoughts you have when you’re trying not to get caught up in the emotions of a situation. Think, don’t feel, just think.

‘You told our receptionist that Micah’s dad was hurt.’

‘Yes, Rush, that’s my ex, his father, was attacked by something. His deputy said it was a zombie, but the bite isn’t human, and it’s like he’s infected with something from it.’

‘Zombies rarely attack people.’

‘I know that!’ She yelled it. I heard her taking deep breaths, drawing in her calm. I heard the effort over the phone, could almost feel her gathering herself back. ‘I’m sorry. When Mike left us he was so horrible, but Rush said he’d found out that Mike did it to protect all of us and that some of the people had their families hurt by these people.’

‘What people?’ I asked.

‘Rush wouldn’t tell me details, said it was a police matter. He was always doing that when we were married, drove me nuts, but he said that he’d found out enough to know that other wereanimals in that group had their families killed, and Mike had to convince them he hated us, or they would have hurt us. Do you know if that’s true? Does Mike want to see his father? Does he want to see any of us?’ She was crying again, and just stopped trying to talk. She hadn’t been married to the man for nearly twenty years, and she was still this upset. Crap.

I was remembering that Micah’s dad was a sheriff of some flavor, and now his mom was telling me that somehow the dad had found out more about Micah and his animal group than I thought anyone with a badge, besides me, knew. I’d had to kill people to rescue Micah and his group, and I hadn’t had a warrant of execution, so it was murder. I was a little leery that Sheriff Callahan apparently knew more about it all than I’d thought. I knew that Micah hadn’t talked to his family in years, so how had his dad found out, and how much did he know?

It was my turn to take a deep breath and make myself stop being so damn paranoid and deal with the crying woman on the other end of the phone. ‘Mrs Morgan, Mrs Morgan, how did you know to call here? Who gave you this number?’ Maybe if I made her think about something more ordinary she’d calm down.

She sniffled and then said, in a voice that was hiccupy, as she tried to swallow past the emotion, ‘We saw Mike in the news as the head of the Coalition.’

‘The Coalition for Better Understanding between humans and shapeshifters,’ I said.

‘Yes’ – and the word was calmer – ‘yes, and you were mentioned in several stories as living with him.’

I wondered if the stories had talked about Nathaniel, the guy who lived with us, or the fact that I was also ‘dating’ Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St Louis? I almost never watched the news, so I didn’t always know what was being said in the media about any of us.

‘Why didn’t you call the Coalition number and ask for Micah directly?’

‘He said really awful things to me last time we spoke, Ms Blake. I think I’d fall completely apart if he said that again to me with Rush hurt like this. Can you please tell him, and then if Mike wants to see us, to see Rush, before … in time … I mean … Oh, God, I’m usually better than this, but it’s so terrible what’s happening to Rush, so hard to watch.’

‘Happening? What do you mean?’

‘He’s rotting … he’s rotting alive and aware and the doctors can’t stop it. They have drugs that can slow it, but nothing slows it down much.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You mean that something preternatural attacked Mr Callahan and now he’s got some disease?’

‘Yes,’ she said, almost a breath rather than a word.

‘But they’ve seen it before, this disease?’

‘Yes, they say it’s the first case outside the East Coast, but they’ve learned enough to slow it down. There’s no cure, though. I overheard a nurse call it the zombie disease, but she got in trouble for saying it. The older nurse said, “Don’t give it a name that the media will love.” I heard doctors whispering that it’s just a matter of time before it hits the news.’

‘Why do they call it the zombie disease?’ I asked, partly to just give myself time to think.

‘You rot from the outside in, so you’re aware the whole time. Apparently it’s incredibly quick, and they’ve only managed to prolong the life of one other person.’ Her breath came out in a shudder.

‘Mrs Morgan, there are questions I want to ask, but I’m afraid they’ll upset you more.’

‘Ask, just ask,’ she said.

I took in a deep breath, let it out slow, and finally said, ‘You said prolong. For how long?’

‘Five days.’

Shit
, I thought. Out loud I said, ‘Give me an address, phone numbers, and I’ll tell Micah.’ I started to promise we’d be there, but I couldn’t promise for him. He’d been estranged from his family for about ten years. Just because I’d have gotten on a plane for my semi-estranged family didn’t mean he’d do the same. I took down all the information as if I were sure of his answer.

‘Thank you, thank you so much. I knew it was the right thing to do to call another woman. We manage the men so much more than they think, don’t we?’

‘Actually Micah manages me more than the other way around.’

‘Oh, is it because you’re police like Rush? Is it more about the badge than being a man?’

‘I think so,’ I said.

‘You’ll bring Micah?’

I didn’t want to lie to her, but I wasn’t sure the absolute truth was anything she could handle; she needed something to hang on to, to look forward to while she sat and watched her ex-husband rot while still alive. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just thinking it was terrible. I couldn’t leave her to watch it with no hope, so I lied.

‘Of course,’ I said.

‘See, I’m right, you just say you’ll bring him. You manage him more than you think.’

‘Maybe so, Mrs Morgan, maybe so.’

She sounded calmer as she said, ‘Beatrice, Bea, to my friends. Bring my son home, Anita, please.’

What could I say? ‘I will … Bea.’

I hung up, hoping I hadn’t lied to her.

2

Under other circumstances I would have softened the news, maybe even had Nathaniel with me to help ease Micah into the family disaster, but there wasn’t time to be gentle. I had to tell him like jerking off a bandage, because the one thing I didn’t want to have happen was his father dying before Micah could say good-bye because I had delayed. So I had to not think too much about what effect it would have on the man I loved and the life we’d built together. Like so often in my life, I just had to do it.

I used my cell phone instead of going through the business lines. He’d see it was me, and he’d pick up without my going through his front office people. My stomach was in a hard knot, and only years of practice kept my breathing even, and because I controlled my breathing I controlled my pulse, which wanted to speed up. I so didn’t want to be the one to tell him this news, and yet I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have done it. Some things you wish you could delegate, and simultaneously know you wouldn’t, even if you could.

‘How did you know I was just thinking about you?’ he asked, not even a hello, just his voice warm and happy that it was me. I could picture him sitting at his desk, his suit tailored down to his slender, athletic body. He was my height, five foot three, but with wide shoulders leading down to a slender waist. He was built like a swimmer, though running was his exercise of choice. His curly, deep brown hair was just past his shoulders now, because we’d carefully negotiated both of us cutting a few inches off our hair, without breaking our deal, which was if one of us cut our hair, the other one got to cut theirs.

I should have said something romantic back to him, but I was too scared, too full of the bad news that I had to tell him. I had to just do it, no hesitation, no games, no words of comfort, because anything but just saying it was only going to make it worse, like I was lying to him, or putting sugar in the poison. I wrapped the sound of his happy, loving voice around me like a warm, safe blanket, and then I said, ‘Your mom just called me.’

The silence on the other end of the phone was loud, because I could hear my blood rushing through my ears. My breathing sped up as Micah’s stopped, my pulse thundering while his paused, as if his whole body had taken that breath just before you launch yourself over the cliff.

I couldn’t stand the silence. I said, ‘Micah, did you hear me?’

‘I heard you.’ There was no happy warmth to his voice now. His voice was as empty as he could make it; if there was any emotion it was a cold anger. I’d never heard him like that. It scared me, and that made me angry, because it was stupid to be scared, but it was that emotional scared – when you acknowledge how important someone is to you and your world and yet know that they are a separate person capable of fucking everything up with a few bad decisions. I trusted Micah not to do that, but I also hated being that dependent on anyone emotionally. I allowed myself to love, but part of me was still afraid of it. That part of me tried to make me angry at him in a sort of knee-jerk reaction, a preemptive strike. If I lashed out first it wouldn’t hurt so much, or that had been the idea I’d lived with in my subconscious for years. Now I knew better, but the old habit was still in me. I just had to ignore it and be reasonable. But none of me liked the fact that he was this emotional with just the news that his mother had called me; I hadn’t even gotten to the part about his dad. It didn’t bode well for how he’d take it.

‘What did she want?’ he asked, still in that strange, cold voice.

I took in a breath and let it out slow, counting to help calm all the neurotic impulses I had around this much relationship emotion, and spoke, calmly, in a voice that came out ordinary and a little cold. I wouldn’t be angry as a first strike, but the old habit of preferring anger to being hurt was still a part of me. I was working on it, but something about the whole conversation had hit an issue of mine. I was better than this, damn it. I wasn’t the sad, angry girl he’d first met.

‘Your father is hurt, maybe dying. Probably dying,’ and my voice wasn’t angry now, or cold, but more apologetic. Shit, I so sucked at this.

‘Anita, what are you talking about?’

I started over and told him everything I knew, which seemed like damned little under the circumstances.

‘How bad is he hurt?’

‘I’ve told you what I know.’

‘He’s dying? My dad is dying?’

‘That’s what your mom said; she seemed pretty hysterical about it, actually.’

‘She was always pretty emotional. It kind of balanced Dad’s stoicism out. Anita, I can’t think. I feel stuck.’

‘You want to see your father, right?’

‘If you mean do I want to make peace with him before he dies, then yes.’

‘Okay, then we catch the first plane and get you to his bedside.’

‘Okay,’ he said. He sounded so unsure, so unlike himself.

‘You want company?’ I asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you want me to come with you?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Do you want Nathaniel to come?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’ll call him and let him know. I’ll call Jean-Claude and see if his private plane is available.’

‘Yes, good. Why can’t I think?’ he asked.

‘You’ve just learned your dad is in the hospital and you’re running out of time to make up with him. You’re having to make up with your whole family during a crisis of epic proportions. Give yourself a few minutes to process, Micah.’

‘Good points,’ he said, but he still sounded shell-shocked.

‘Do you need me to stay on the phone?’

‘You can’t call about the plane if you’re talking to me,’ he said. The words were reasonable; the tone was still stunned.

‘True, but you sound like you need me to keep talking to you.’

‘I do, but I need you to arrange the trip more. I’ll give myself a few minutes to process and then I’ll arrange for other people to take the business end here while I’m gone.’

‘I’ll do the same.’

‘I love you,’ he said.

‘I love you more,’ I said.

‘I love you most.’

‘I love you mostest.’

It was usually something that he, Nathaniel and I said to each other, but sometimes just two of us would do it. Sometimes you just needed it.

3

It was late enough in the day that the vampires had begun to rise in the underground beneath the Circus of the Damned, so when I called to see if we could borrow the private jet, Jean-Claude was awake enough to take the call himself. His voice held none of that sleepy edge because he didn’t really sleep; he died during the day, so when he woke it was abrupt and instant ‘awake.’ Vampires sleep more like a switch: on, awake; off, dead. His body would even cool over the hours, not as cold as a real corpse, and there was no color change, because the body wasn’t really ‘dead,’ and it wasn’t beginning to rot. If you were really dead, and human, the body began to rot as soon as the heart stopped. It’s like cutting a flower in your garden; you can put it into water, delay the process, but from the moment you pick it, it begins to die. The flower looks pretty for a long time, but it’s just a waiting game, the end is inevitable. Jean-Claude was a vampire, Master of the City of St Louis, and he’d been dead and beautiful for about six hundred years; his end was not inevitable. Theoretically, he could still be fresh as an unblemished rose five billion years from now when our sun finally gave up the ghost, expanded, and ate the planet. Of course, I’d killed enough vampires in my job as a legal vampire executioner to know that even being master of a territory and head of the newly formed American Vampire Council didn’t make him truly immortal, just fucking powerful. That was one of the reasons he was awake with the sun still shining in the sky. If he hadn’t been deep underground in what had begun as a natural cave system but had been carved out decades ago into luxurious rooms, even he would have still been dead to the world.

‘I can feel your anxiety,
ma petite
. What has happened?’

I told him.

‘I can arrange for you and Micah to go, but I will not be able to follow until I have reassured the master of that territory that we are not coming to take over his lands.’

‘It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d need to clear it with the local vamps to visit Micah’s dad in the hospital.’

‘If you and he were simply a couple, then no, but you are my human servant, one leg of the triumvirate of power that we share with my wolf to call, our reluctant Richard. If it was Richard, two of us heading into another’s territory, they would be certain we were coming to destroy them.’

‘We just need to get Micah to his dad’s bedside before it’s too late, that’s all. Surely they can just check and see that the man is in the hospital.’

‘It is never that simple to cross from one land to another for master vampires or for the leaders of wereanimal groups. Micah and you are the Nimir-Ra and Nimir-Raj, leopard queen and king, of our local pard. Are there wereleopards in Micah’s hometown?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘You need to know,’ he said, quietly.

‘Shit,’ I said, and put real feeling into it. ‘This is going to piss me off really soon.’

‘The new vampire council is very new,
ma petite
; we cannot afford to be seen as tyrants and bullies. If you enter other territories without at the very least alerting them, then it will be viewed as arrogance. It will seem as if you – we – feel that the entire country is ours to visit and use as we see fit. It will make the lesser leaders nervous and even be used by our enemies to stir up more rebellion against us.’

‘I thought we took out the last rebels, or do you know something I don’t?’

‘I do not know of rebels in our country, but I know with certainty that there is discontent, because there is always discontent. Never in any government of any form is everyone in an entire country happy with being ruled. It is the nature of the political beast to be hated.’

‘So you’re saying they hate us because we formed a council to keep them safe from all the rogue vampires?’

‘I’m saying that they ran to us for safety, but now that they feel safe, they will begin to look at the very power that enabled us to keep them safe, and they will begin to mistrust it, even fear it.’

‘Well, isn’t that just peachy. So, Micah, Nathaniel and I can’t go to see his father.’

‘Why Nathaniel?’

‘He’s our third. Micah wants him to come.’

‘Ah, I thought perhaps you were taking Nathaniel as your leopard to call, and Damian as well, as your vampire part of your own triumvirate of power.’ A super-powerful vampire could form a three-way power structure between their human servant and a wereanimal whose beast form was their normal animal to call, but I was the first human to be able to do my own equivalent of it. Jean-Claude thought that the fact that I was a necromancer and his human servant had enabled me to do the metaphysically impossible, but honestly, we didn’t know how I’d done it, just that I had.

‘I hadn’t planned on taking Damian. He’s part of my power base, but he’s not our sweetie.’

‘He is your lover on occasion.’

‘If I took everyone who was my lover on occasion, we’d need a bigger plane.’

He laughed, that wonderful, touchable sound that thrilled down my skin as if he were touching me over the phone. It made me shiver. His voice still held that deep edge of masculine laughter as he said, ‘Very true,
ma petite
, very true.’

I had to swallow past the pulse in my throat. He’d made me breathless with just his voice. ‘God, Jean-Claude, stop that. I can’t think when you do that.’

He laughed again, which didn’t help at all. I realized he was doing it very deliberately when I felt the weight deep inside my body like the promise of orgasm. ‘Don’t you dare!’

The power began to retreat. He’d never been able to make me do the full-blown orgasm over the phone with just his voice until he’d been made head of the new American version of the vampire council. I’d known that it meant that all the master vampires had to make a fealty oath to Jean-Claude as their leader, but I hadn’t understood that it came with a power bump, or what that might mean. We’d had no choice. It was us in charge or someone else, and I trusted us.

‘I am sorry,
ma petite
, this new power level is a heady thing. I can see why the other masters fear the head of the council, because to be head and take the oaths of their leaders means we have a little bit of all their power. It is a great deal of power.’

‘You’re saying if you weren’t a better person that power corrupts and this much power would corrupt you absolutely?’

‘I am not always certain that it is I who am the better person,
ma petite
, but together we are the better person.’

‘I don’t think I’m always the civilizing influence, Jean-Claude.’

‘Nor do I, but through all the metaphysics we have Richard’s conscience, Micah’s sense of fellowship, Nathaniel’s gentleness, Cynric’s sense of fair play, and Jade’s memories of the terrible use that her master made against her of his ultimate power. The people we have gathered and bound to us have helped make us powerful, but they also help me remember that I am not a monster and do not wish to be.’

‘Can you not be a monster just by deciding not to be one?’ I asked, and he knew me well enough to know that it wasn’t his impending monsterhood I was worried about.

‘You are not a monster,
ma petite
, and if we are both conscious of the possibility I believe we can avoid becoming such.’

‘So, what do we need to do before Micah, Nathaniel, and I show up at the hospital?’

‘Are you intending just the three of you to go?’

‘Well, us and the pilot, yes.’

‘You must have bodyguards with you,
ma petite
.’

‘If we take guards, won’t the locals be even more sure we’ve come to take them over?’

‘Some, perhaps, but if our enemies were to realize that my human servant, her leopard to call, and her King of Beasts were all alone and unguarded, I fear the temptation would be too great to see what would happen to the rest of us if the three of you died.’

‘Kill enough of our power structure and the rest die with us; yeah, I remember the theory.’

‘It is more than theory,
ma petite
. You have seen Nathaniel and Damian almost die when you drained them of energy. You have felt the loss when Richard and I were injured. Let us not test the theory of what would happen if three of us were injured simultaneously.’

‘Agreed, but it has to be minimal guards, Jean-Claude. We’re going to be seeing Micah’s family for the first time. Let’s not scare them too much.’

‘You feel confident that you can protect yourself and them with minimal guards?’

‘With the right ones, yeah, I do.’

‘So confident,
ma petite
. It is both admirable and a little frightening to me.’

‘Why frightening?’ I asked.

‘Just because you are dangerous, even deadly, and kill easily and well, does not make you bulletproof,
ma petite
.’

‘Or bombproof,’ I said. ‘I’m not Superman. I know I can be hurt, and I’ll have Nathaniel and Micah with me. Regardless of the metaphysical fallout, if they got hurt I don’t know what I’d do.’

‘And if it were I that were hurt?’

And there it was: This beautiful, amazing man could still feel insecure, still wonder if I loved him, or at least how much. Since we could all feel each others’ emotions when we weren’t shielding like sons of bitches, it was interesting that we could all still be insecure sometimes. In Jean-Claude, whom I’d once thought the ultimate ladies’ man, it was endearing and made me love him more.

‘I love you, Jean-Claude; I wouldn’t know what to do without you in my life, my bed, my heart.’

‘Very poetic for you,
ma petite
.’

‘I’ve been hanging out too much with Requiem, I guess.’

‘When this crisis is taken care of, we will need to decide if he should return to Philadelphia permanently.’

‘And become Evangeline’s second banana for good,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘You know, my dad used to breed beagles when I was little. I never wanted to give up any of the puppies, and when I got old enough I always worried the new owners wouldn’t take care of them the way we did.’

‘I did not know that,’ he said.

‘We’re giving away a hell of a lot more than puppies, Jean-Claude. These are our people, our lovers, our friends, and we’re sending them away. I don’t mind the ones who are going to rule their own territories as new masters, but the ones we’re giving over to other masters as second-in-command, that sort of bugs me.’

‘That is why we have a trial visit, or three, to make certain it is a good fit and that our people are being well treated.’

‘Requiem doesn’t love Evangeline,’ I said.

‘No, he loves you.’

I sighed. ‘I didn’t mean for him to fall in love with me.’

‘And I did not mean for you to acquire the power of my
ardeur
, my fire of lust, and become a living succubus to my incubus, but the damage is done. We are what we are, and now you know the power that you possess during sex when you feed the
ardeur
.’

‘Requiem is a master vampire, Jean-Claude, and he broke the initial unintentional binding.’

‘I believe he loves you,
ma petite
, not because of the
ardeur
, but because of you, and him. Love is never about the object of our love, but always says more about us than them.’

‘What does that even mean?’ I asked.

‘It means that Requiem needs to love someone. He has always been a hopeless romantic, and what is more hopeless than being in love with someone who is in love with others?’

‘You make it sound like he needs therapy.’

‘It would not hurt,’ he said.

I sighed. ‘You think he’d see a therapist?’

‘If we ordered him to do it, he would.’

‘We can order him to make appointments and talk to someone, but we can’t force him to actually do the work. You’ve got to be willing to work on your issues. You’ve got to be willing to face hard truths and fight to get better. That takes courage and force of will.’

‘He has courage, but I do not believe he wishes to recover from this sickness of love.’

‘I can’t help that he cares for me more than I care for him.’

‘No, you cannot.’

‘Back to the crisis at hand,’ I said.

‘You’ve had enough of this topic, I take it.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. I’d actually had more than enough of it, but … ‘One crisis per day, okay?’

‘As you like,’ he said.

‘This isn’t what I like, Jean-Claude. I didn’t know if I’d ever meet Micah’s family, but I didn’t want to meet them this way.’

‘No, of course not,
ma petite
. The plane is at your disposal. It only remains to choose the guards to accompany you.’

‘How many is minimum?’ I asked.

‘Six.’

‘Two apiece,’ I said.

‘Oui.’

‘Can you arrange for the plane while I do the guards?’ I asked.

‘Of course, and I would suggest that most of the guards be your lovers. You will need to feed the
ardeur
, and Micah’s grief may make his interest in such things less.’

I nodded, knew he couldn’t see it, and said, ‘Agreed.’

‘I have regretted in the past not being able to take you home to visit my family, because they are long dead, but moments like this remind me that there are worse things than having lost them long ago.’

‘Yeah, losing them here and now sucks a lot.’

He gave a small laugh. ‘Ah,
ma petite
, you do have a way with words.’

‘I am frowning at you right now, just so you know.’

‘But you do not mean it,’ he said.

I smiled. ‘No, I don’t.’

‘Je t’aime, ma petite.’

‘I love you, too, master.’

‘You always say that with such derision and usually an eye roll. You will never, ever, mean it.’

‘Do you really want me to mean it?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I want true partners, not slaves, or servants. I have learned that is why I chose you and Richard. I knew you would fight to remain free, to remain yourselves.’

‘Did you know just how hard we’d fight?’ I asked.

He laughed then, and it shivered over my body, making me shut my eyes and shudder at my desk. ‘Stop that,’ I breathed.

‘Do you truly wish me to never do that again?’

My breath came out in a shaking sigh. ‘No,’ I said, at last. ‘I’ll call Fredo and see whom he can spare from the guards I want, and if he agrees with the mix of skills.’

‘I trust you and our senior wererat to work out such details.’

‘Thank you. There would have been a time when you would have insisted on picking them yourself.’

‘There was a time when you were attracted to weaker men, but that has ceased to be true.’

‘Remember, I was attracted to you in my weaker-men days,’ I said.

‘You have made me a better man, Anita Blake, as you have all the men, and women, in your life now.’

‘I don’t know what to say to that. I feel like I should apologize or something.’

‘It is in the nature of some leaders to bring out the best in those around them.’

‘Hey, I’m not in charge of this little metaphysical bus; you are, remember?’

‘I am the political leader, but in an emergency most of our people will take your orders over mine.’

‘That’s not true,’ I said.

‘In a fight, they will.’

‘Okay, if it’s violence, then yeah, it’s what I’m good at. You’re much better at the politics and dinner party stuff.’

‘You have your moments in the political arena.’

‘And only a few of the Harlequin are better than you with a rapier.’ In fact, I’d been a little amazed at how good he was with his chosen weapon. He’d turned out to have been a famous duelist in his day, as a human and young vampire. He’d explained that his blade work had been what allowed him to survive; the masters of the day had challenged him, and he’d chosen his weapon and he’d killed them. I’d never known until he started practicing in the new gym where the other guards and I could see.

‘Are you salving my ego,
ma petite
?’

‘I think so.’

He laughed, and this time it was just humor. ‘I do not need it. I am king and you are both my queen and my general. One who leads the charge from the front and always will. You know our guards’ strengths and weaknesses better than I, because you practice and work out with them. You have quite shamed me and some of the older vampires into exercising more.’

‘Most vampires can’t gain muscle; the body at death is what it is, unchanging.’

‘But I can, and my vampires can.’

‘One of the rebel vampires said it’s because you take power from them.’