Hit list, p.24
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       Hit List, p.24

         Part #20 of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton
Chapter Twenty-Four

  THEY GAVE ME a local directly into my arm, and then Dr. Fields cut open the scar. Apparently he'd attended the same seminar as Matt, the EMT, so it was Dr. Fields's first time seeing if the theory worked in practice. He was very honest about it. "I'm not a hundred percent certain it will leave you scar free, but it will probably make the muscle and tendon issue better. "

  "So we could do all this and I could still scar and still have some mobility loss," I said.

  "Yes. "

  I think I started to get off the examining table, but Edward was there, and he put his hand on my shoulder. He just shook his head. Damn it. Edward made me lie back down and held my hand like he said he would. Double damn it. An hour later, I was cut open, and the local had worked for that. It wasn't pleasant, and the shots were a bitch, and I really hated feeling my skin part under the scalpel, but it was nothing to feeling my skin being tugged into place with a needle and stitches. That was always a creepy feeling even if it didn't exactly hurt. Matt, the EMT, had forgone sleep to watch, and so had a lot of other doctors and interns. No one had seen the practical application of the theory and they wanted to, though everyone was in face shields and full gear just in case blood spread. It was technically contagious, though my variety seemed not to be up to this point. I was medical miracle enough to excite the med students all to hell.

  Fields and I had already discussed that it needed to be the kind of stitches that dissolved, just in case my body tried to grow over the stitches. "You heal that well?" he'd asked.

  "I've seen other people with lycanthropy do it. I'd rather not risk your having to operate on me to remove stitches below my skin. "

  He'd just agreed.

  We were about halfway through the stitches when the local began to wear off. "Painkiller is wearing off," I said.

  "We'd have to wait for the shots to take effect again, and you're healing, Ms. Blake. I might have to cut more of the wound again and start over, or I can stitch ahead of the healing. "

  Edward said, "Anita, look at me. "

  I turned and he was on the side opposite the doctor. He gave me calm eyes and I nodded. "Do it," I said.

  I held on to Edward's hand, gave him some of the best eye contact I'd given anyone in a while, and Dr. Fields tried to stitch me up ahead of my body's healing. Even with the ardeur days from being fed I was healing too fast for normal medical help. Fuck.

  Edward talked low to me. He whispered about the case, tried to get me to think about work. It worked for a while, and then the painkiller was all gone and I was still being stitched up. I couldn't think about work. He talked about his family, about what Donna was doing with her metaphysical shop, about Peter in school and in martial arts. He was working on his second black belt. Becca and her musical theater, and the fact that he was still taking her to dance class twice a week, that amused me enough for me to say, "I want to see you sitting with all the suburban moms in the waiting area. "

  He'd smiled Ted's smile for me. "Come visit us and you can help me pick Becca up from class. "

  "Deal," I said, and then I just concentrated on not screaming.

  "It's okay to yell," Dr. Fields said.

  I shook my head.

  Edward answered for me. "If she screams once, she'll keep screaming; best not to start. "

  Fields looked at Edward for a blink or two, and then went back to racing my skin up the cut. He had to tell me that he was finished. My arm was one mass of pain. It was on fire, or . . . I had no words for it. It fucking hurt from the start of the wound to the bottom, and past to my fingertips. I was nauseated with it all. I had only two goals: not to scream, and not to throw up.

  Fields gave us some pills. "This should put her out for a little bit, let her body catch up with the damage. "

  "How long?" Edward asked.

  "An hour - two, if we're lucky. "

  "Thanks, doc," he said. He took the pills, but I didn't see what he did with them. The world had narrowed down to the piece of floor I was staring at. I was concentrating on my breathing, on just being and trying to ride the pain, or at least endure it.

  "We'll get a chair to take her to the door," someone said.

  I didn't say I didn't need one; I was afraid if I opened my mouth I'd lose the food I hadn't eaten today. When I didn't argue, neither did Edward. So I left the hospital in a wheelchair, pushed by one of the many medical personnel who had watched my treatment. It turned out to be a male nurse who tried to be chatty, and turned out to have all sorts of questions about lycanthropy. I didn't have any answers, not right then.

  Edward made me take one of the pills before he put me in the SUV. I didn't argue. I couldn't remember what Dr. Fields had said the pills were, but whatever they were they were strong, because the last thing I heard before I fell asleep, or passed out, was the purr of the engine, and Edward at the wheel.

  When I woke I was in a bed, in another generic hotel room with Edward handing me another pill and water. I started to protest, and he said, "Take it," in that tone of voice that said I could take it voluntarily or he could make me take it. Of all the people I knew, I knew Edward would do exactly what he threatened, which would be undignified if I couldn't stop him from force-feeding me a pill, so I took it without an argument and sleep rolled over me before I could really feel how much my arm hurt, which was probably a good thing.

  I didn't so much wake as become aware that there was a man wrapped around me. For a moment, I cuddled his arm closer around my waist, wrapping him around me like a favorite coat, and then the extra closeness let me know he was nude, and since the only man I knew in the room when I went to sleep was Edward, that was a problem. My eyes were suddenly wide open, and my whole body tensed.

  The sleepy voice behind me mumbled, "You smell good. "

  I didn't recognize the voice. Good news, bad news; good news, Edward wasn't naked in bed with me, so that awkward moment had passed, but bad news, I had a naked stranger in bed with me. What the hell?

  I tried to scoot away, but the arm tightened, and he drew me into the bow of his body, his head bending over and nuzzling the top of my head. I propped myself up on my elbow, turning so I could see who was cuddling me. White-blond hair with a streak of deep, dark red, and then soft, gray eyes blinked up at me. As Ethan raised his face up, I could see more of the gray highlights in all that pale hair, and all of it was a mass of little curls in a sleepy disarray.

  He kept his eyes rolled upward so he could watch my face as he kissed my back. It reminded me of the way you never let your gaze leave your opponent in the fight ring, because they'll beat your ass if you do. He laid that well-shaped mouth, with its deep dimples above and below his lips, against my skin, and watched my face. It was as if he expected me to be angry at him.

  I frowned. "Where's Edward?"

  "He's off with the police. "

  I tensed, and again his arm tightened around me. "Was there another killing?"

  "He doesn't discuss ongoing police investigations with civilians. "

  "You're quoting him," I said.

  He nodded, and again he laid a soft kiss on my bare back. He kept his eyes upward, as if he really were afraid I'd hurt him. "What did you do that you feel guilty about?" I asked.

  He blinked at me, and moved his mouth far enough back so he could speak. "I don't feel guilty. "

  "You look it. "

  "You look and feel angry; I'm trying not to piss you off more. Tell me what expression you want on my face and I'll try to give it to you. "

  I smiled, a little, and sighed.

  "Well, at least you're not angry," he said.

  I realized I was propped up on my wounded arm. I looked down at it. The wound was a yellow and pink line of scabs. It looked days old. "How long have I slept?"

  "Not that long," he said.

  I sat up, and he just let me go so I could do it. I kept one hand on the sheet, so I covered my breasts at least a little bit. From
the way the wound looked, I knew we'd been sleeping naked for days, but I hadn't known we were naked and I hadn't been asked about it, so I preferred to be covered. It was just one of my little peculiarities, and I'd stopped fighting it.

  I held my arm out to him as he lay back against the bed. "This is really close to healed and I wasn't healing like normal. This is days of healing. "

  One of his arms was spread out behind me, so if I lay back I'd be able to cuddle in against him. I wasn't sure I was going to be cuddling anybody. I wanted answers. "It's been a day, just a day. Alex and I have been taking turns sleeping with you so that our energy helped you heal. "

  "If a wereanimal of the same flavor sleeps with any of us, we heal faster, yeah. " I frowned. "Wait, with a whole clan of weretigers, why is it just one of you at a time? I'd heal faster if I had two of you sharing your energy. "

  "The Red Queen will not risk more of her males with you. You've had only two of us near you and we're both smitten. "

  "Smitten?" I said.

  He smiled, and nodded. "Yes, smitten. " He rubbed the back of his head against the pillow, and the movement went down his spine, so that he writhed in pieces, as if someone were petting his back, until the writhing vanished under the sheet that was still pooled at his hips.

  I seemed strangely fascinated with the way the covers were angled across his hips. His legs trembled under the sheet as the writhing spilled out the last of his body. The movement pulled the sheet a little lower over his hips, so that one side of the covers showed almost all of his hip, but only on the one side. The covers were pinned under his other hip, so they were held in place.

  He gave a small deep chuckle. It made me look at his face and ask, "What?"

  "I love the way you look at me. "

  I frowned at him.

  "What did I say that was wrong?"

  I frowned a little harder, and then just shook my head. I made myself look away from him, pulling my knees to my chest, so the front of me was covered, though it left the back of my body completely bare, but nothing was perfect.

  "May I touch your back?"

  I almost said no automatically, and then made myself be reasonable. I was going to have to feed the ardeur. I couldn't afford to be this hurt again. The Harlequin were in town. I needed all the metaphysical help I could get. If Alex wasn't here, then Ethan was going to have to be food. But I so didn't want to add a new person to my life. Yes, hopefully he wouldn't be coming home with me, but still . . .

  "Oh," he said, "your friend left this for you. " He stretched out one arm, and the nightstand between the two beds in yet another generic hotel room was so close he didn't have to move his body at all, just his arm. He handed me a folded piece of white paper.

  I unfolded the paper and recognized Edward's precise printing. He almost always printed. The message was short and direct. "No more fast food. Eat a good meal. I need you at my back, Ted. " The "Ted" was an actual signature, small and strangely sloppy. When he signed "Edward" it was neater; his two personas had different signatures as if they were each real people.

  I reread the note. Edward acted like I just needed a good steak dinner as opposed to fast-food burgers. It wasn't like that; it wasn't like that at all. But Edward was out there without me. He was out there hunting the Harlequin without me at his back. What would I say to Donna and the kids if he died because I wasn't there? What would I say to myself? Fuck.

  "Was it bad news?" Ethan asked.

  I glanced at him. "You didn't peek at the note?"

  "It's not my note," he said.

  "It wasn't sealed, just folded over, and you didn't peek?"

  He frowned and said, "No, it's not my note. "

  I looked at him. I'd been attracted to him from the moment I met him, or my tigers had, or hell, I didn't know anymore, maybe it was all me. Maybe the beasts just opened up things that were already there? Who the hell knew? Sex with this man wasn't a fate worse than death. Was it sex with a stranger that bothered me, or just sex in general, or both? I was betting both. I looked away from Ethan, stared at the pale wall with its copy-of-a-copy painting beside the dresser and its TV. I'd try it, and if it felt too weird, I'd say stop, and wait for Alex; at least I'd already slept with him.

  "Yes, you can touch my back," I said, but couldn't make my voice sound completely happy about it.

  But Ethan took me at my word, not my tone. His fingers trailed down my back and kept going until he was tracing the edge of my butt.

  "That is not my back," I said.

  He drew his hand away from me. "I'm sorry," he said, softly.

  "No, it's not you, it's me. I always have a problem with having to have sex. "

  He sat up, drawing the covers over his lap so he stayed covered. It meant I had to hold on to the covers to stay as covered as I was, but I appreciated the attempt at modesty on his part. "I can call Alex. He's working, but you can ask him how soon he could be here. "

  I looked at his face, so careful, so . . . hurt. I remembered then, a little late, that he'd spent his life not being wanted by the women of his clan. Shit. I sighed, and said, "I can't explain all my issues right now, but just give me a minute. I do want you. I am attracted to you. I just didn't expect to wake up beside you before we'd even had sex. I didn't expect to miss out on the crime fighting while I had to heal. "

  I hugged my knees to my chest. "I'd gotten used to the extra healing that I get with the metaphysics. I thought the super healing was because of the lycanthropy and the vampire marks; I didn't realize it was tied this much to the ardeur. "

  "And that bothers you?" he said.

  I nodded. "Yeah. "

  "Why?" he asked.

  "I can go days without feeding the ardeur now. I was so happy and it was going to make being a U. S. Marshal so much easier, but now I know the price of not feeding. When I'm hunting bad guys I need the extra healing, so that means I still have to feed regularly. Do you know how hard that is on an active warrant of execution out of state?"

  "No, but I can imagine. " I could feel some tension go out of him, so that he was just sitting on the bed, not waiting to get up and call Alex.

  "May I touch the back of your body?" he asked, "and did you hear the difference in what I asked?"

  I thought about it for a second, trying to work out why I was getting in my way so badly. Finally, I said, "Yes, and yes. "

  He touched my back again, but this time I tensed. "It really bothers you that you have to feed so often. "

  "Yes," I said, and hugged my knees a little tighter. "It's almost impossible to do the out-of-state warrants. "

  He laid his hand on my shoulder, not petting, more comforting. "But you can go days without feeding if you have to, and from what you're saying, that wasn't true before. "

  I thought about it. "No, I mean, you're right. "

  He scooted on the bed so he was sitting behind me. I fought the tension in my shoulders, not liking his being where I couldn't see him. I'd slept nude in a bed with him for hours. He'd already proven he was willing to risk his life to keep me safe. He'd trusted my ability with a gun enough to take a knife wound and throw himself on the mercy of a Harlequin. What more did I want from him?

  He put his hands on my shoulders. "You're still tense. What can I do to help?"

  "Help me do years of therapy in the next five minutes," I said.

  "I don't understand," he said, and I didn't have to see his face; I could hear the puzzlement in his voice.

  I shook my head and hugged my knees harder. "Ignore me. "

  "I don't want to ignore you," he said, and his voice was moving closer. He moved my hair to one side, and I felt the heat of his body hesitate before he laid his lips against my back. When I didn't protest, he kissed me, and when I didn't complain about that he kissed me again, a little lower on my back. The bed moved as he kissed his way, ever so gently, down my back. I began to relax a little more with each kiss, my arms unclenching, lett
ing my spine straighten so that I was sitting up straight by the time he reached the end of my spine.

  He rolled his tongue in small circles at the base of my spine until I shivered for him, and then he plunged his tongue downward, tracing between my cheeks. It brought a surprised sound from me. He bit me, gently, on one cheek.

  I whispered, "God. "

  "I take it you liked that," he said, voice already growing deeper.

  What was I supposed to do, lie? "Yes," I said my voice a little shaky.

  He bit me again, a little harder, but still not hard. I half-rolled, half-fell onto my side. He bit farther down my cheek, harder yet. It made me shiver again, my breath catching in my throat. He touched my thigh, lifted, and I opened my legs for him. He set his teeth in the last bit of cheek, before he got to other things. He bit me this time, hard enough that it made me gasp and try to sit up, but his hands were on my thighs, and ass, and sitting up wasn't happening. I was suddenly staring down my body to find his face between my thighs, looking up at me.

  "Too hard?" he asked. The side of his face rested on my thigh, his other hand wrapped around my other thigh, holding my leg wide and up.

  "A little," I said, and my voice was breathy.

  "Do you like teeth everywhere?" He was strangely serious with his face on my thigh. But considering what his face was so close to, it was a serious question.

  "No, not everywhere. "

  He smiled, a quick flex of his mouth, making the dimples even deeper. "Then no more teeth. "

  Honestly, a little biting along the inner thighs was nice, and if it was done right a little teeth in more intimate places could work for me, but I didn't know Ethan that well. Erring on the side of caution seemed like a good idea for the first time.

  "No more teeth down there," I said.

  "Anything else you don't want me to do?"

  I thought about it. He stretched my leg out and let part of it rest lower down on his side, while he used my other thigh as a pillow. It was all strangely casual.

  "Let's try not to mark me where I'll have to explain it to the other cops. "

  "But I can mark you where they can't see?"

  "Depends on the mark, but if I'm in the right head space I like to come away with marks. "

  "What can I do to get you in the right head space?"

  "You like to leave marks?" I asked.

  "Only if you enjoy it. "

  "What do you enjoy?" I asked. The mood of sex and seduction was easing into something more normal.

  He smiled and it was almost shy. That seemed the wrong word when a man had his head resting on my thigh and was looking at the most intimate parts of my body, but it was still the truth.

  "Tell me," I said.

  He frowned up at me, and said, "You really want to know. "

  "Of course I do. "

  He rubbed his hand over the outside of my thigh, more petting it than anything. "Why 'of course'?"

  "I want you to enjoy yourself, too. "

  He grinned, wide and sudden, his gray eyes filling with something close to laughter. "Oh, I'll enjoy myself. I want to make sure you enjoy yourself. "

  "Why?" I said.

  "If you enjoy yourself, then there's a better chance you'll want to be with me again. "

  It was perfect boy logic. "But I still want to know what you enjoy, Ethan. "

  He looked perplexed. "I like sex with girls. "

  That made me smile. "I think we have that covered. "

  He grinned again, and then again that shy look came over his face. "I want to touch as much of you as you'll let me. I want as much of you on as much of me as I can get. I want to do as much as you'll let me do. " The shy look gave way to something much sadder.

  "Once I feed the ardeur we'll lose a lot of control. "

  "I don't want to lose control too soon," he said. "I want it to last. "

  I nodded. "I do need to feed and get back to crime solving, but . . . How long has it been for you?"

  He shook his head, rubbing his cheek against my thigh. "I don't want to say, it makes me sound like mercy sex. "

  I rubbed my foot along his hip, and let him see in my face how amazing he looked cuddled down there. I still hadn't seen all of him bare of the covers, but if everything else was half as nice as what I had seen, it would be worth seeing. I let him see that I saw him. I saw him as beautiful. I saw him as desirable, and I realized that the ardeur wasn't just about sex anymore. It was more and more about giving people their heart's desire. Ethan wanted what a lot of people wanted: to be wanted. We all want to be desired. I did my best to let him see that I did.

  His face showed a soft wonder, as if no one had looked at him like that in a very long time. I held my hand out to him.

  "I thought I was doing this first," he said.

  "Trust me, I want you to go down on me, but first I want to kiss and cuddle. Once you do me orally I'm just going to want you to fuck me. "

  His eyes went wide, and he shivered.

  "What?" I asked.

  "The way you talk. "

  "Something wrong with the way I talk?"

  "No," he said, "it's great. It's just . . . perfect. " He went up on all fours to crawl up toward my head, and I was able to see him completely nude for the very first time. All the talk had made him soft again, so that that flat, ridged stomach was edged by the soft, dangling bits of him. It made me, as it usually did, want to go down on him while he was still soft and I could fit all of him in my mouth without working at it.

  His face was over mine when he said, "You watch my bits the way some men watch breasts. "

  I blushed, I couldn't help it. I glared up at him with his knees between my spread thighs, a hand on either side of my shoulders, both of us buck naked. I tried for dignity and promptly failed. He was smiling that big dimpled smile of his that I already knew was his really pleased smile.

  "I didn't expect you to blush. "

  I kept glaring at him while the blush faded. I tried to fold my arms across my chest but with bare breasts my cup size, it just didn't work.

  He lay down beside me, propped on his side, and watched my face. "I expected a lot of things from you, Anita, but not this. "

  "What? That I'd blush?"

  "That, and you're so . . . " He touched my hair where it lay on the bed, gently, as if he weren't sure I'd let him do it. When I didn't protest he touched my cheek. "Sweet," he said.

  "I am not sweet," I said.

  He smiled. "Endearing?"

  I frowned at him.

  He laughed.

  "You haven't known me long enough to be that amused. " But I was smiling slightly as I said it.

  "You're just not what I expected. "

  "What did you expect?"

  "Someone harder, harsher. " He looked down my body. "You are beautiful. "

  I shrugged.

  "You are," he said.

  "Thanks, you're not so bad yourself. "

  He grinned. "You are not your reputation. "

  "What does that mean?"

  "It means that rumors say you're this great seductress. That you eat little weretigers for breakfast and possess their bodies first and then their hearts. "

  "I told you that feeding the ardeur could make me own you lock, stock, and heart. "

  "You did. "

  "I wasn't lying, Ethan," I said, and I searched his face, tried to see if he really understood what could happen to him. He was so lonely. He so wanted to be wanted and to belong to someone. The ardeur would give him what he wanted, but the price of belonging to someone was that you belonged to them.

  "I have almost a dozen lovers at home, Ethan. If the ardeur binds you to me then you get in line, and Jean-Claude, Nathaniel, Micah, some of the others are always at the head of the line. "

  "How often do you make love to the men who aren't at the top of the list?"

  I touched his chest, running my hand over
the muscled swell of his pectoral. He was so lean that all the muscles showed. He was almost too lean, but not quite; it just looked like his body type.

  He pressed his hand over mine, holding it still against his chest. "How often?"

  "I don't keep count. "


  "Three days a week, I guess. "

  He laughed a surprised sound. It made me look at his face. "That's a lot better than I'm getting now. "

  "That's if you're okay with being in the bed with other men and me. Since there's so many we do a lot of group scenes. It helps everyone get more turns. "

  "And you're the only girl for all of them?"

  I thought about that. "No, a couple of them have other lovers. "

  "And you're all right with that?"

  It was my turn to look surprised at him. "Are you kidding? There's only so much time in the day, so a helping hand is great, especially for the men that I'm not in love with. "

  He nodded. "So, I could have a girlfriend if I found someone who would have me?"

  "I'd encourage it. "

  "Because you wouldn't be in love with me. "

  "But you might be in love with me, do you understand that?"

  His face was solemn again. "I do. "

  "And you still want to feed me?"

  He raised my hand up and laid a gentle kiss on my palm. "You've already given me more physical contact than I've had from a woman in two years. "

  I couldn't keep the surprise and the near horror off my face. "Dear God, Ethan, not even sleeping in big naked kitty piles?"

  "I am an outcast, Anita, barely tolerated. I will be their muscle until the day something faster and stronger than I am kills me. It is my only use to the red clan. You don't cuddle at night with someone you're sure is basically a meat shield. "

  "That's harsh," I said.

  "It's my life. "

  In my head I thought, It's not much of a life. "If you come to St. Louis there will be plenty of people to cuddle with, as long as you don't insist on it all being weretigers. "

  He entwined his fingers with mine. "You have such small hands. "

  "They match the rest of me," I said.

  He smiled. "Not all of you is small. Your breasts are amazing. "

  "Yeah, yeah, my chest is all breasts. "

  "No, breasts, and muscle. You're in amazing shape. You hit the gym like a guard. "

  "I work out with our guards as often as I can. "

  He gave me wide eyes. "I've never heard of a royal that works out with the guards. "

  "I'm not big on the whole royalty thing," I said.

  "Our queen thinks you show a lack of respect. "

  "She's right," I said.

  "It's been wonderful sleeping next to a woman again. I hadn't realized how much I missed just holding someone in my arms. "

  I realized that Ethan wasn't dominant enough to push the sex forward. I was going to have to be bolder, or we'd be talking for another hour. Talking was good, I liked that I could talk to him, but I needed to feed the ardeur and find Edward. He needed me at his back.

  "Kiss me," I said.

  "What?" he asked.

  "Kiss me. "

  He looked uncertain then, nervous.

  "Has it been two years since you kissed a girl?"

  He nodded, and he wouldn't meet my eyes.

  I reached up with the hand he wasn't holding and touched his face, made him look at me. "Has it been two years since you've done anything with a girl?"

  "Yes. " He whispered it.

  I smiled at him, trying to make it gentle. "You're going to be good at it. "

  "How can you tell?"

  "You're a wereanimal, so that makes you a sensualist, and I've seen you fight. You know how to use your body; that translates to the bedroom. "

  "I've known fighters who weren't good in the bedroom. "

  "They had issues," I said.

  "How do you know that I don't have issues?"

  "Everyone has issues," I said, "but if the issues are too much I'll let the ardeur free and it takes away all the doubts. "

  "I didn't think I'd be this nervous," he said, and he let go of my hand and just looked at me.

  "It's okay to be nervous," I said.

  "Are you nervous?" he asked.

  I smiled at him. "I was, but I'm not now. "

  "Why not?" he asked.

  "Because you're more nervous than I am. "

  "That doesn't make any sense. Why shouldn't that make you more nervous? Why don't you think I'm a pussy for being nervous?"

  "You called me sweet earlier; I'll return the compliment. "

  "Sweet isn't what a woman wants from a man. "

  "Oh, I think you'll find that a lot of women rate sweetness in a man pretty damn high. "

  "Do you?"

  I smiled up at him. "Kiss me, Ethan, just kiss me, and we'll go from there. "

  "Why not feed the ardeur and take all the doubts?"

  "Because I'd like some of what we do to just be us, and not the metaphysics. "

  "Why?" he asked.

  "Because I'd rather ease you into your first sex in two years than pounce on you like a starving wolf. "

  "Pounce on me?" He gave me a look as if he didn't think I could pounce on him.

  "Oh, yeah," I said, "I could totally pounce on you. "

  He smiled, flashing those dimples. "Bet you couldn't. "

  "If you mean arm-wrestle you and win, you're right. I'd lose, but pouncing isn't about strength. "

  "What is it about?" he asked.

  "Sex," I said.

  He frowned at me. "I do not think pouncing means the same thing to you that it means to me, then. "

  I grinned at him. "Probably not, but you want me to have sex with you, right?"

  "Very much. "

  "Then I'll win, because you want to me to pounce on you. "

  He flashed those dimples again. "You're saying that I'll let you win. "

  I reached up, sliding my hands over his shoulders, drawing him down toward me. "I'm saying that it's a win-win. " My hands slid down his back as he came closer.

  His face was so close I couldn't focus on it, as he said, "I like to win. "

  "So do I," I said. I whispered it against his lips.

  Then he kissed me, tentative at first, as if he weren't quite sure what to do, and then a sound escaped his throat. A sound full of longing, eagerness, and he remembered how to kiss. He remembered how to kiss, and how to have eager hands run down my body while he did it. We kissed until we had to break just to catch our breath, and broke apart laughing.

  We laughed until he moved his hips just a little and I could feel that he was hard and eager now. It made me look down at him and there was nothing soft now. He was very hard, long and smooth, and wide. "You're beautiful," I said.

  "I've never had a woman say that to my penis before. "

  I looked at his face. "Then they were fools, and I like men. I like everything about them. "

  "Most women seem a little afraid of us. "

  I shook my head. "I'm not afraid. "

  "No," he said, and his voice was growing deeper, "you're not. " He drew out of my arms and slid lower on my body. "I want to taste you. I want to look up your body and watch your eyes roll back into your head, and then I want inside you. "

  Just staring down at him, watching that eager darkness fill his eyes, tightened things low in my body. I tried to get in my way; tried to keep myself from enjoying the moment, but the ardeur was just there behind my eyes, inside my head, my heart, my gut, and it wanted him. The beasts inside me seemed strangely sluggish. The weretigers in all their colors that had been so eager for him earlier flicked a tail tip at me, opened lazy eyes the color of fire, and three different shades of blue: pale sky blue, the gray-blue of a cloudy day, and blue with that golden edge of dawn to it. All three of the tigresses concerned with the man who wa
s kissing his way down my hip seemed almost sleepy, content, as if they'd already fed, or just woken from a nap. Apparently, the drugs they'd given me for pain really had worked. I'd remember to get the name of the drug so I could share it with the other wereanimals. Any painkiller that actually worked for lycanthropes would be a real godsend.

  The tigers were content to let the ardeur feed, while they watched like some huge version of sleepy housecats. Or maybe it had just been so long since I'd fed the ardeur that even the beasts inside me knew it had to come first. Maybe they hadn't liked the physical cage of my body being so badly injured either. How do you know what a tiger thinks?

  Ethan snuggled down between my legs, kissing slowly on the very inner edge of my thigh, each kiss getting him closer and closer to things that were so intimate. Again, I tried to get in my own way; what was I doing letting a stranger go down on me? But his mouth moved from my thigh to other things, and that one caress of lips and tongue bowed my spine, threw my head back against the pillow, made my hands grab onto the sheets.

  His mouth was so warm, his tongue licking around and over me, tracing the edges of every fold, exploring every part of me, so that it wasn't just about hunting for that magic button and the orgasm, but truly about exploring and tasting me. He'd told me exactly what he wanted, and now he was doing it. It wasn't just that it felt amazing, but the sheer joy he took in it. Some men, like some women, do oral sex like a duty, but some truly enjoy it. Take pleasure in every part of the act, enjoying, relishing every lick, every suck, every bit of writhing they can get from their partner. Ethan was one of those lovers. But then he'd had years to fantasize, and now that the fantasy was true, he was going to suck every bit of enjoyment out of it he could.

  He sucked on that one sweet spot, and drew me over the edge, spilling that heavy, delicious, weight between my legs up and over me. It bowed my spine so that my upper body half rose from the bed like someone was pulling me upward on a string like a puppet lost to pleasure. My body fell back against the bed, writhing and jerking like the strings had been cut and I could only dance brokenly, joyously on the bed. I was boneless, helpless with pleasure, eyes fluttered closed so that I was blind.

  The bed moved around me and I knew, vaguely, that he was crawling upward across my body, but it wasn't until I felt him long and hard, brushing against the delicate bits that he'd just finished sucking that I cried out again, my body writhing, eyes opening wide, staring up at him. He brushed the tip of him across that spot again; it made me writhe again and stare down between our bodies to find his hand around himself, using his own body as a toy to brush against me, and begin to roll the tip of him over and over on that spot.

  There were already little jerks of preorgasm coming as he rubbed himself against me. The question was, would I go before he did? I wanted him inside me before that happened. I wanted to feel him put what was brushing against the smallest bit of me deep inside me.

  I tried to find words to say that, to be able to articulate around the growing weight and warmth that was already building again between my legs.

  His voice came breathy with strain, "I can't hold out. I'm too close. "

  I managed to gasp, "Inside, inside me. "

  He looked at me, gray eyes a little too wide, and just nodded. He used his hand to guide himself lower, and I felt him begin to push inside me. "Gods, so tight, so wet, so warm. " I wanted to say that sometimes after oral sex I seemed to tighten, but I had no words outside my head as he pushed the head of himself inside me. It felt too good for words. It felt too good for thinking.

  I cried out for him, "God!"

  "I'm not in yet," he said, "try not to move that much, please. " The please was strangled, his voice deeper, eager, as if more of his body wanted inside than just the part that was sliding inside me.

  I tried to do what he asked. I tried not to move, but parts of me were moving that were even more involuntary than the rest of me. "Gods, you're spasming around me. "

  "Inside, just shove inside me," I managed to say.

  "I don't want to hurt you. "

  "You won't, I promise. "

  He shook his head and tried to stay with his careful push, but I'd had enough, or the ardeur had, or both. I unleashed that passion, that tidal wave of want and need. One moment he was being careful, the next his eyes went so wide I could see the whites of his eyes, and then he shoved himself inside me in one long push of his hips. It made me scream his name to the ceiling, and when he started to shove himself in and out of me, finding a nearly desperate rhythm as he fought his body, my body, and the ardeur so that it would last, my body writhed so that I screamed his name to the wall behind me.

  "Ethan!" My nails dug into the bed, because I needed something to anchor me, to anchor us, as he rode above me, and I felt him fill up every inch of me.

  "Gods!" He yelled it, in a voice gone low and growling.

  I looked up at him and watched his gray eyes shift above me. They'd been tiger eyes, but now they were tiger eyes the color of amber and morning sky. I knew that color.

  His hips thrust one more time so deep that it did dance that line between overwhelming pleasure and almost pain, but it brought me, too, so that we rode the orgasm together, and I fed. I fed on his body between my legs; I fed on him spilling himself inside me; I fed on my nails raking down his arms, as he stayed propped above me, and then his body convulsed again, thrusting deep, tearing screams from both our throats, and with the second release his body gave. The human body above me spilled outward in an rain of thick, hot liquid, and the body between my legs was golden furred with stripes of dark amber framing that face with its hazel-blue eyes.

  He growled my name. "Anita, what have you done to me?"

  I ran my hands down the light, dry fur of his arms; it was unbelievably soft. "Brought you home," I said.

  He collapsed on top of me, and I had to push at the last minute so this larger, heavier upper body didn't press me into the bed. He was still deep inside me, bigger there in this form, too. It made me turn my body, so that we were on our sides, one of my legs over his thigh. I couldn't move well enough to wrap myself around his hips yet.

  I think he tried to pull out of me, but he wasn't used to the new size, and he'd just had sex, and just done a violent shapeshift that had left him exhausted. He blinked at me. "This isn't me. "

  "I smelled gold on you the first time we met," I said, and my voice was hoarse.

  "Impossible. " He managed to put one furred hand on my side so he could see the golden fur against my skin. He was growing softer with the wonder of it all, or the exhaustion, or the shock, and was able to spill out of me. The movement made us both writhe. When we could talk again, he said, "No one has four forms. "

  "You do," I said, and laid my hand against the swell of his pectorals. They'd been nice in human form, but everything got bigger in the beast-man form. He looked like a bodybuilder in this body. It made me wonder what some of the other wereanimals at home who were serious bodybuilders must look like in beast-man form. It was unusual to have sex in half-form, so I didn't usually get this close.

  "What are you thinking?" he asked.

  I moved my gaze from his chest to his face, that strangely attractive mix of human and cat. I said the only thing that I could say in that moment. "That you are beautiful. "

  It made him do that cat grin, drawing back to flash teeth that could have torn me to bits. He drew me into his arms, his fur the driest thing in the bed. I'd never understood why the liquid from the shapeshift gets everything else wet and leaves the fur dry. "I'll get you all messy," I said.

  "It's my mess," he whispered, and he drew me into the warm, dry, circle of his body, while I was still covered in the thick, cooling liquid. He hugged me to him, and I had to snuggle down to find that point where I could rest under his arm, against his chest, against his stomach, and vaguely against the rest of him, but it wasn't about sex now, it was about comfort. He held me to him, hel
d me close, and began to shake. It took me a moment to realize Ethan was crying.

  I petted the fur and muscle of him, so tall now, so strong, able to tear me limb from limb without a thought, but all that big body clung to me. He clung to me and cried and I held him, my hands petting him, soothing him. I didn't ask why he was crying; it didn't matter what sorrow he was weeping out against my body, against the damp sheets, it only mattered that I held him and told him that it would be all right.

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