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Crimson Death(Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #25)(8) by Laurell Kaye Hamilton

BOBBY LEE CAME back out minutes later with his still-wet hair combed in place. He was all in black, which was the unofficial uniform for the guards. Fully armed, he had on a black T-shirt, black tactical pants, a good leather belt with a black-on-black buckle, and matching boots laced up so that his pants were inside the tops of them. Most former military I knew wore their pants that way. Hell, I had all the same clothes and had started wearing them when I was out in the field serving a warrant of execution with the Marshals Service. I’d never been in the military but a lot of my friends had been, and a lot of the police I worked with had been, and I was always willing to learn from other people’s experience. I still wore jeans a lot, but more and more tactical pants were becoming my go-to. It was partially the extra pockets, so damn useful.
“How you doing, Bobby Lee?” I asked.
He gave me a look, and then he smiled; the smile lines around his eyes seemed deeper, but his brown eyes shone with humor. “Darlin’, you are covered in blood, holding a naked gun in one hand and a blood-soaked vampire in the other one, with your blood-covered boyfriend holding the vampire’s other hand. Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”
He had a point. I laughed. “I’ll stop throwing stones at your glass house until I get mine in order. I get it.”
His smile widened into a grin. “Thank you, sugar. Now, let’s get you to some showers that aren’t full of shapeshifters that think all this fresh blood makes you smell good enough to eat.”
I frowned at him, studying his face. Bobby Lee never flirted with me, so either the double entendre was unintentional, or it was just a statement of fact. Looking into his eyes, I thought the latter. “I’ve been around most of the guards with blood on me, or they’ve been around each other when they’ve been hurt in practice. Why is this more of a temptation?”
“Let’s walk and talk,” he said, still smiling, but now it didn’t reach his eyes. They looked tired suddenly, as if he couldn’t hide it all.
I narrowed my eyes a little, but said, “Okay.” I trusted him to explain later when we had more privacy.
He looked at Harris and Barry and nodded toward the hallway. “You need to report back to Claudia. She’s got another assignment for you.”
“Hey, we didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” Barry the Brunette said.
“Nobody said you did.” But something in the way that Bobby Lee looked at the other man made Barry flinch.
Harris touched his arm. “Come on, Barry, we’ve been ordered to report to Claudia, so that’s what we do.”
Barry glared at Bobby Lee, then visibly swallowed his anger and said, “Fine. Let’s go report to the Amazon.”
“That is not Claudia’s name,” I said.
Barry looked at me and he did that up-and-down look, not sexual, but disdainful. I was a short woman in a bloody nightie, holding another man’s hand. Even the gun in my hand couldn’t offset the rest, at least not for Barry.
“I know her name.”
“Then use it,” I said.
He sneered at me, raised his lip like he didn’t care if I saw. “Fine. We’ll go report to . . . Claudia for reassignment.”
“Ma’am, or sir,” I said.
“What?” he asked, frowning.
“Say yes, ma’am, or yes, sir, when you address me, Barry.”
“I don’t . . .”
Harris said, “Yes, ma’am, we will do so in the future. Come on, Barry, we gotta go.”
Barry still looked sullen, but Harris looked worried. It made me think better of Harris. He was smart enough to be afraid for his future here; Barry wasn’t. Barry needed to go, along with Ricky.
“You all the guard we need, Bobby Lee?” I asked.
“Compared to those two, I am an improvement.”
“I hear that,” I said.
“But no, I was going to include Kaazim.”
As if his name had conjured him, Kaazim spilled around the corner of the door behind us like liquid made solid and alive. He was one of the most graceful men I’d ever seen when he moved. I knew and dated dancers, dancers who were wereanimals, but none of them made me think of water poured from long-necked, widemouthed jars to spill and shape itself to everything, except for Kaazim.
He looked tall, dark, and slender until he stood beside Bobby Lee, and suddenly the illusion of height disappeared because you had Bobby Lee’s height to compare to. Kaazim was five-six, or a smidgen under. He and I had been paired together on the practice mat more than once, because of our sizes. Like I’d told Ricky, size matters in a fight. Especially if it’s a fight where we can’t maim, cripple, or kill our opponent quickly. When you’re equally well trained, the only hope a smaller person has is to end the fight as quickly and violently as possible. The rules that would keep Ricky from hurting me too badly in combat training also kept me from hurting him badly, and in a long fight, the bigger person usually wins.
“Kaazim,” I said, and smiled.
He gave that faint smile of his, almost lost in the blackness of his facial hair and dark skin. His hair was the exact same color as his beard and mustache, and his skin so dark; even his eyes were a brown so dark they looked black most of the time. He was all monotone so that your eyes had trouble seeing details, and he always dressed in black, which contributed to the lack of contrasts in his coloring. There were sections of the world where he would have vanished into any crowd, the perfect spy, perfect assassin, because they wouldn’t remember him. Here in St. Louis he stood out, because he was too far from the desert sands and the spired cities of his original homeland.
“Anita. Nathaniel. Damian.” Almost any other guard would have at least remarked on Damian and me covered in blood, but he wouldn’t ask. He was one of the least talkative people I’d ever been around, but his dark eyes seemed to see everything.
He was dressed in flowing robes, with loose, soft trousers underneath. It wasn’t what he wore on duty, and he must have noticed me noticing, because he said, “I can change if you wish.”
“One glance and you knew I was taking in the robes?”
He gave a small nod.
“As long as you can move and fight as well in the robes as you can in regular guard gear, I’m fine with it.”
“I fight well no matter what I am wearing.”
I grinned. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
He flashed me a smile almost big enough to be called a grin, one that left his dark eyes shining.
Damian drew me in against his side. “Please, Anita, I need to get clean.”
I looked up into those green eyes and saw the pain, so raw. Nathaniel and me touching him was helping him control it, but it was like water tension, and once that tension broke, the emotion was going to pour out; we needed to get cleaned up before that.
“Sorry, Damian. You’re right. We’ll use the shower in our room.” I meant the room I shared with Micah and Nathaniel. It was funny that even after dating Jean-Claude for seven years, I still thought of his bedroom as his, but I thought of bedrooms with the other two men as ours. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew it was true.
“There’s a shower in my room,” Damian said.
“Cardinale will be in there,” I said.
“But she won’t care, Anita. It’s after dawn, so she’ll be dead to the world.”
“She will so care when she wakes for the night,” I said.
Bobby Lee said, “Taking you three near Cardinale right now, like this, is against my job parameters.”
“Cardinale is unstable and dangerous,” Kaazim said, and for him to say anything at all let me know things were worse with Cardinale than even I knew.
“No, she won’t care when she wakes up, because when I told her I was sleeping with you and Jean-Claude last night, she left me.”
“What?” I said.
“You didn’t tell us that,” Nathaniel said.
“She said that if I wanted to sleep with other people she couldn’t be with me anymore. That I had to choose.”
“Did you tell her you were just sleeping, not having sex?” Nathaniel asked.
“What did she say to that?” I asked, because I had to ask.
“She didn’t believe me, and she told me that if I was buggering Jean-Claude and Nathaniel and fucking you, she hated me and never wanted to speak to me again.”
“That’s not what she said. I mean, not really.”
“No, but it’s the cleaned-up version.”
“If that’s the cleaned-up version, I’m okay not hearing the other,” I said.
“Are you sure Cardinale won’t be in the room?” Bobby Lee asked.
“Even if she is, it’s daylight. She’ll be passed out.”
“You aren’t,” Kaazim said.
“Neither is Jean-Claude,” Damian said.
“Yes, just you and he of all the vampires are awake now,” Kaazim said, and he was looking at Damian now, as if trying to see something in him that he’d missed.
I jiggled Damian’s hand in mine and said, “He’s with me, Kaazim.”
“Of course,” he said.
“Stop sizing him up for the kill, then.”
He blinked and looked very steadily at me with his dark eyes. “You are very observant.”
“Not as observant as you are.”
He gave a small self-deprecating smile. “I have had more practice at it.”
“Yeah, a few centuries more,” I said.
“By the grace of my vampire master, I have lived long past my expected time.”
“If we keep talking, we’re going to use up all our time,” Bobby Lee said. “Let’s get moving.”
It was unusually abrupt for him, but something about the way he gripped his AR and stood there in all his gear made me not argue with him. Whatever had happened on his last out-of-town assignment had been bad, because I’d never seen Bobby Lee like this when he got home.
“Let’s move,” I said.
Bobby Lee took point leading the way. Kaazim took rear guard. Damian, Nathaniel, and I stayed in the middle, where we belonged. I had my gun in my hand, but in that moment it didn’t matter. Armed or unarmed, I was their protectee, and that was that; with Bobby Lee this high-strung, my best move was to let him do his job. Besides, I only had one gun; he had several.
I could feel tension starting in Damian again. It telegraphed through his hand into mine.
“You okay?”
“If Cardinale is dead to the world in our bed, then we still have a chance, but if she’s not in there, then it’s over. I can’t live like this anymore.”
Nathaniel touched his head against the other man’s shoulder lightly as they moved. “I’m sorry, Damian.”
We were still holding hands, but somehow I felt like I needed to touch him more, so I put my arm around his waist. It took a second for all of us to adjust our walking together, but we managed. “I’m sorry, too, Damian.”
“So am I,” he said, and we followed Bobby Lee’s overly armored and armed back down the hallway. Bodyguards are great at saving your life, but they can’t help at all when someone is trying to break your heart.