This story breaks off after The Killing Dance, but there are a few differences. Pretend that Jean-Claude and Anita never made it onto the evening news at the opening of Danse Macabre. Neither the cops, nor Anita’s family know that she was dating Jean-Claude.
Maybe it really would be all right. I wanted so desperately to believe that, but I couldn’t lie to myself. Not about something like this. I watched Monica coo and cuddle her son as if she were a real live caring mother and not some manipulative bitch that almost got my best friend killed. I didn’t care if she was someone’s mother now, or a grieving widow. I wasn’t cutting her any slack. She was reckless and most of the time, that’s more dangerous than being malicious.
Jean-Claude watched her as well, his face its usual inscrutable mask. He looked amused, but then again he always looked amused. He did that when he didn’t want you to know what he was thinking. It worked. I had no idea what he saw when he looked at Monica and Robert’s child.
Watching Monica should have calmed me down, at least I think that’s what she wanted. Maybe she wasn’t such a monster, or maybe she just didn’t mean to be. I hadn’t wanted her to come over, but she insisted. She thought she could cheer me up. I held her hand once, when she went into premature labor right after Robert’s murder. Suddenly, we were friends in her twisted mind. I still had the crescent shaped scars from her fingernails.
Who the hell would bring an eight month old child to The Circus? Leave it to her. She came over with Derek in tow and was welcomed with open arms. Of course. Jean-Claude still felt guilty about Robert’s death. He made sure Monica and Derek never wanted for anything. She pretty much had free rein around the city, waited on hand and foot by Jean-Claude’s fanged flunkies. I thought maybe this was what she always wanted. Bully for her.
I shifted, trying to get comfortable, but it was no use. I hadn’t been comfortable for months. I wouldn’t be comfortable for a good while to come. Monica gave me a sympathetic look and patted my hand. It took everything I had not to pull away in disgust. Jean-Claude distracted her, asking about her financial situation. Monica would take any excuse to talk about money, she released my hand and turned to face him. I felt relief wash over me. Sometimes it scared me how well Jean-Claude knew me.
Derek looked at me from his mother’s arms. It wasn’t a happy look, just quizzical. I wondered if he could really see me. The lighting was dim and I wasn’t too close. Babies don’t have the best eyesight – see I did read a few of those books Jason kept leaving in my room. His eyes were a muddled blue green, still thick with the otherworldly luminescence all babies’ eyes have. Ten fingers, ten toes, normal reflexes. Monica got lucky. Real lucky. Vlad syndrome was the highest growing birth defect in the world. It was a nasty side effect of human women sleeping with male vampires. It could get ugly. Derek was a miracle child. He shouldn’t have been possible. Robert was over a century old. Usually, only the newly dead were capable of getting a woman pregnant. Derek should have been born blind, retarded, or even stillborn. More appropriately, he never should have been conceived in the first place. But here he was, happy and healthy.
Robert was a century old. Jean-Claude was at least four times that.
Underneath the table, Jean-Claude brushed his fingers against the back of my hand. I stiffened and gave him a dirty look. He backed off immediately.
“Monica,” he said and I felt his voice inside my head like velvet, “ma petite tires easily these days. It is time for us to retire.”
Monica frowned. She enjoyed Jean-Claude’s company, just like every other female in a hundred mile radius. I was the only one to ever tell him 'no'. Of course, I was sitting there swollen with his child, so take that with a grain of salt.
I pushed my chair back and stood up carefully. Jean-Claude was close by, watching. He didn’t offer to help and I was thankful for that. I wasn’t in the mood to be touched at that moment, especially by him. He let me lead the way to his private offices and down the stairs to his rooms, deep beneath The Circus. The stairway was wide, at least eight feet across and long, so long. Jean-Claude walked in front, never looking back, but I knew he was paying attention to me. He had good reason to, these stairs got a little more difficult every day.
Some women look wonderful when they’re pregnant, glowing and beautiful. I wasn’t one of them. When you’re five foot three, an extra thirty pounds makes a hell of a difference. I looked like Veruca from that book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The part where she eats the candy and blows up like a giant blueberry. That was me. My roundness didn’t seem to bother Jean-Claude, but it bothered me. The extra weight, the change in my center of balance. All of it made me a stranger in my own body. I didn’t know myself anymore. I was always tired or sick or achy. I couldn’t trust my body. I felt helpless and I hated that. I absolutely fucking hated that.
It hadn’t been my idea to move to The Circus. I would have been content in my new house in the middle of nowhere, pretending none of this was happening, but I fell down in the shower last week and couldn’t get up. Ronnie found me when she stopped by for our usual Thursday morning get together. It used to be a workout but about two months ago, that stopped. I got tired of her humoring me while I tried to waddle after her as she ran. We still got together, there just wasn't any exercise involved anymore. Anyway, Ronnie was the one who called Jean-Claude. I think it killed her a little to have to do that. Up until that point, I think she still had hopes for me and Richard. I let go of that one a long time ago, it was just as well that she did too.
So now I stayed at The Circus of the Damned, or rather below it, in Jean-Claude’s private rooms. He didn’t pressure me the way he once would have. He slept in his coffin, away from me, leaving Jason to look after me while the sun was up. Some disgustingly hopeful part of me wanted to think he did it solely because he understood that I needed space, but part of me knew he was trying to guard himself. He didn’t want to get attached anymore than I did.
“Ma petite?” Jean-Claude stood at the bottom of the stairs, holding open the door that lead to his living room.
“I’m fine,” I said, walking under his arm to get through the doorway. It wasn’t hard. He wasn’t overly tall, five-ten, but he was still a lot taller than me. Only a couple of months ago, he would have taken the opportunity to brush against me, or flirt. But he didn’t do any of that, not now. When we found out I was pregnant, I don’t think either of us thought it was real. We pretended it wasn’t happening. We still had sex, and it was still amazing, but one night we were lying in his bed pressed together enjoying the afterglow, and the baby kicked. Neither of us moved. I’m not even sure we were breathing. I slept alone ever since.
“Monica wants to put your mind at rest,” Jean-Claude said. His voice was just a voice when he spoke, not the sensual assault it could have been. It was almost like the whole situation with our unborn child defeated him. I tried not to let it bother me. I was staring at the painting over the fireplace, the one Asher sent him before they reconciled, but I turned to face him. He wasn’t looking at me, but rather at his feet, his expression slightly forlorn. Funny that. He wasn’t the one who might have to give birth to a dead baby, or worse.
“I would rather not see Monica again,” I said. “Not until ... after.”
Jean-Claude looked up at me, his eyes a perfect midnight blue, his face framed by his long, curly, black hair. He nodded. His beauty was breathtaking, but it was still just a human beauty. He wasn’t using any of his power to make himself appear otherworldly. I wasn’t sure if that was comforting or disheartening.
I looked back at the painting again. Jean-Claude’s visage stared blankly back at me. He was already a vampire when it was painted, but it was still during what would have been his mortal life. His mother was still alive at the time.
I wondered what this child might mean to him. I hadn’t wanted to get pregnant. I thought we were careful. I never wanted children. But not wanting children, and having them not even be a possibility are not the same thing. What did Jean-Claude think of his impending fatherhood? After four centuries of hedonism, was he ready to be a parent? He was surrounded by vampires he made, so he was already a parent of sorts. Would he treat the child as he treated them, or was it a completely different relationship? The latter, I hoped. I had seen how he tortured his “children”.
“It is late,” he said. “Perhaps you should turn in.”
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him to fuck off, that I didn’t need a babysitter, but he was right. I was bone tired. I wasn’t sure if I was more mad at him, or myself. I lead the way down the hallway to his room. The first time I saw it, it was made for sensual abandon. It was still beautiful, but gone were the blood red silk sheets and the mountains of pillows. Now it was cotton and functional. On the plain white bedspread, Sigmund, my stuffed penguin, waited for me. If Jean-Claude minded, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t even smirk in amusement. Sometimes I thought carrying his child might have been a hell of a perk. He wasn’t nearly so much of a pain in the ass now that he thought he might be a father to a monster.
He kissed me lightly on the forehead and left. He wouldn’t be going to his coffin yet. It was too early. Months ago I might have been jealous, thought that he might be going to another lover. Now I didn’t worry. It seemed that my pregnancy had turned sex into some sort of horror for him. Until this child was born, dead, alive or other, he would live like a monk. Of course, I would too, so I didn’t pity him in the least.
“Stop it,” I snapped, in no mood for his sulking.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jason smarted off, goading me with his ever present smile.
Jason wasn’t happy with me. Jean-Claude left strict orders that I was not to leave The Circus without his protection. Too bad. I had to get out of there, if only for a little while and Jean-Claude was literally dead to the world at the moment. If I had been almost anyone else, Jason would have obeyed Jean-Claude’s orders and left them stranded in The Circus. But I wasn’t just anyone. Jason was lukoi, a werewolf. He was Jean-Claude’s wolf, but he was also pack. It just so happened that I was his lupa, his pack leader’s chosen mate. It didn’t matter that Richard and I were no longer speaking, much less dating. Richard hadn’t picked anyone else to fill the position yet, so technically I was still lupa. Jason was a pain in the ass, but he was submissive to me. He’d pushed the issue a few times in the past, and each time I had won. I was dominant. He had to obey me. He and I both knew Jean-Claude would punish him later for his disobedience. There was no way around that. I didn’t make up the rules, but I sure as hell exploited them to my best advantage.
Jason was silent as he drove me to my little house in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t wanted to move. I wasn’t big on suburban life, but there were too many people looking to kill me. It bothered me a lot when my neighbors got shot up on my account.
As we pulled into the driveway, Jason and I let out a collective groan. Richard’s Mustang was parked in the drive. When I opened the door and gracelessly heaved myself out of my Jeep I could smell the freshly cut grass. Damn it. Richard was still trying to take care of me, even though he wasn’t speaking to me.
“Wait here,” I said to Jason. He grinned. It was pointless and I knew it. Jason loved to be in the middle of any sort of drama and this was way too much temptation for him. It was like locking a drug addict overnight in a pharmacy and expecting him to behave. Some things are just not possible.
I walked around the back of the house and Richard was putting the lawn mower into the little shed. I knew I didn’t have a lawn mower and I cursed under my breath. On a junior high teacher’s salary, he couldn’t afford to be buying me things like that.
Richard didn’t react to my presence, but I knew he knew I was there. Slowly, he stood up, brushing his hands off on his faded jeans and turned to face me. It was painful to look at him. He’s beautiful in an utterly masculine way, complete with dimple and skin so flawless it just begs you to lick it. We were standing at least thirty feet apart and I could already smell him. It made something inside of me ache. The look on his face was one of abject misery and more than a little rage. I was bound to Richard just as I was bound to Jean-Claude, and as they were bound to each other. I knew Richard was blocking me, keeping me from feeling his emotions and I was intensely grateful.
“Come inside,” I said. “I’ll get you something to drink.”
He nodded and followed me inside. I hadn’t been home in a few days, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I had to offer him. I rooted around in the refrigerator and handed him a Coke. He took it without saying anything, but he didn’t open it.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said, motioning to the lawn.
“I know,” he said, his voice a near whisper. “I just figured that in your ... condition, that you wouldn’t be able to.”
I nodded. He was right, but I still wasn’t his problem. In my “condition” I couldn’t even tie my own damn shoes. I’d taken to wearing Berkenstocks. I’m good at finding alternative ways to get things done. If I had thought about it, I would have tethered some of the goats I use for animating out in the yard. They would have taken care of the grass.
We both turned our heads as Jason swaggered into the room. How anybody could get used to wearing that much leather day after day is beyond me. “Where’s the stuff you wanted picked up?” he asked with a mischievous gleam in his eye. He was loving this way too much. Sometimes I understood exactly why he was Jean-Claude’s wolf. They both have a flair for the dramatic. Of course, Jean-Claude would not have been amused to find Richard in my house. Differing perspectives, I guess.
“The office,” I said. “I’ll show you.”
My house wasn’t huge, but it was too big for just me. There were two bedrooms and an office. I led Jason into the room and Richard followed uninvited.
“There,” I said, pointing to a large box sitting on the floor. It was full of case files that Bert had sent home with me while I was off on medical leave. I would have thought it was awfully generous of him to give me four months of paid leave, but everything Bert does is self-serving. For some reason, he thought it might bother the clients to have their zombies raised by a woman who looked like she was going to give birth at any moment. He was probably right, and it pissed me off, but I wasn’t going to argue with four months of paid vacation.
Jason grabbed the box and turned around, staring at Richard and me. “You can take it out to the Jeep,” I said very pointedly. Jason frowned, but left without a word. There’s a first time for everything.
I turned to face Richard and found him looking around the room with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “Don’t like the new office?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light.
He raised his head and looked at me. It was a feral expression. He knocked down the barrier he had built between us and his pain and rage and betrayal rushed over me so violently that I staggered backwards until I was leaning against the wall.
“How could you?” he demanded in more of a growl than a true voice.
I stared at him for a long moment, waiting to see if he was going to attack. I didn’t have the Browning. I quit carrying my guns when I realized I didn’t trust my body. You look real stupid when you accidentally shoot yourself. Right now, I would have risked it.
Richard stood his ground, but his emotions were still raining down on me, making me want to vomit. I had never tasted so much unadulterated rage. I had wounded him in a way that would never heal.
“We didn’t plan this,” I said, fighting to stand on my own. It was hard, but I managed it. I met his eyes. I wasn’t backing down for anyone.
His vision raked down my body to my distended stomach. It wasn’t like I could hide it. I was due in three weeks. I was huge. I stood there and let him size me up like a piece of meat. My hands ached for the Browning.
Something inside Richard seemed to back off and he looked at me, his expression arrogant and hateful. “You had options,” he sneered, his implications startlingly clear.
“Killing, you mean,” I said, my voice now shaking with rage. The irony was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Richard was the biggest Boy Scout I had ever met and he had just suggested that I should have had an abortion. One of our biggest differences was that he valued the sanctity of life and I had a quick trigger finger. Now he wanted me to kill.
He smiled and it was not pretty. I looked at him and felt some of my own rage bleed away. It was my fault that he was like this. Irving, my friend and one of his wolves, had warned me months ago that Richard was on edge, but some part of me had refused to believe it was this bad. Of course, it wasn’t just that I was sleeping with Jean-Claude, it was the fact that I was carrying his child. I was Richard’s lupa, his chosen mate, and I had let another male knock me up. It didn’t reflect well on Richard, and it didn’t do anything to help secure his position as Ulfric. But it could have been worse, and we all knew that. Wolves were Jean-Claude’s animal to call. If Richard was Ulfric, the king of the werewolves, then Jean-Claude was their God. If anyone was going to get the Ulfric’s bitch pregnant and live to tell the tale, it was the Master of the City.
“Would you really want me to kill an innocent child just because Jean-Claude is his father?” I asked and my voice sounded almost thready. I hated that, but there was nothing I could do about it.
“You’re afraid, Anita,” Richard growled. “You don’t know what it is. It might be a monster. Killing it would have been the merciful thing to do. I know you’ve seen children with Vlad syndrome. Tell me they wouldn’t have been better off dead.”
“Him,” I choked out in protest.
Richard cocked his head, not understanding.
“This child is not an ‘it’,” I said through clenched teeth. “I am carrying a little boy. My child is a ‘him’, not an ‘it’.”
A snarling smile tugged at his lips and he leaned a hip against my desk. He crossed his arms over his chest. Only minutes ago, the gesture would have made me long to reach out and touch him. Richard played innocent, but he knew how to show his body off to the best advantage. But that was before he suggested killing my baby. Funny how a simple comment can change your perception of someone.
“When are you due, Anita?” he asked. “Two weeks?”
Richard nodded and looked around the room, the same smug expression on his face. Richard is beautiful, handsome. This was the first time I’d ever looked at his face and wanted to push it in.
“Where’s all the stuff?” he asked, fixing me with an expectant expression.
Now it was my turn to be confused. “Huh?” I’m so eloquent at times it’s scary.
“You’re going to give birth to Jean-Claude’s bastard monster in three weeks, and there is nothing in this house to reflect that. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m fairly sure that most people make some sort of preparations. They arrange a nursery, buy baby clothes, at the very least they have a few books laying around. I know you didn’t let Ronnie throw you a baby shower. You’re terrified of the child growing inside of you, Anita.”
The truth of his words hit me so hard that I staggered. My back connected with the wall and I slid down it until I was huddled on the floor with my arms wrapped protectively around my stomach. I was crying so violently that I doubted I would ever be able to stop. Harsh sobs tore their way out of my throat, leaving it raw. I don’t cry. I blamed the outburst on the hormones, and on Richard.
If it was my pain and fear that Richard wanted, I sure as hell gave it to him. The marks were a double edged sword. I could feel his emotions, but he could feel mine too. I don’t know how long I sat there sobbing before I realized that Richard had cradled me against his chest. I pushed him away, and he let me go. He didn’t have to, but he did.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he chanted over and over, trying to calm me.
I took a few gasping breaths, trying to calm myself. I know I looked awful. My eyes were puffy and swollen. My nose was running. Hell of a way to impress your ex.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said, his expression fearful. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes you did, Richard,” I said, my voice still thick with tears.
He hung his head in shame, because he had meant his earlier words. I hung my head for the same reason.
“It will be okay,” he said, laying a tentative hand over mine.
I looked up at him and laughed, a harsh hysterical sound. Once upon a time I cut someone using nothing but my voice. I was almost shocked when Richard didn’t start bleeding. “No it won’t. You were right, Richard,” I said. “I am so fucking terrified that my baby will be a monster, or just plain dead, that I can’t even think about it.”
Very cautiously, Richard moved his hand over my stomach. “He’s very much alive,” he said quietly.
“For now,” I said, my voice the barest whisper. “It’s fairly common for things to look like they’re progressing normally, and then the baby ends up stillborn. No one knows why.” I banged my head backwards against the wall in frustration. My amnio had come up clean every time they tested it, but until the baby was born, you just couldn’t be sure.
“Everything will be fine,” he said.
I didn’t argue with him. There was no point. I wasn’t going to be satisfied that this child was fine until he graduated from college. We sat there in silence for a long while, Richard’s hand resting on my stomach. Somehow we had reached a sort of truce. Very adult of us; one upping each other with our pain until we were forced to declare a draw.
Eventually, Richard looked up and I met his eyes. “How are you?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Tired,” I said. “Junior here hasn’t let me get a decent night’s sleep for the last two months. I just want this over. The anticipation and the discomfort are driving me insane.”
Richard nodded. His face tightened for just a moment and then he asked, “And Jean-Claude?”
I stared at him for several heartbeats and then laughed. That seemed to unsettle Richard quite a bit.
“I hear you moved into The Circus,” he said, confused.
“If I’m scared, Richard, then Jean-Claude is absolutely terrified,” I said.
Richard frowned. “I thought he would be elated,” he said. There was more than a twinge of bitterness to his voice. This baby was Jean-Claude’s decisive win in their battle for my affections. Giving birth to someone’s child is a hell of a way of saying you’re an item.
“The possibility that this child could be anything from a revenant to stillborn to normal and no one knows until he’s actually born tends to put a damper on things,” I said.
Richard sighed and seemed to collapse a little bit, as if his rage had been the only thing giving him substance. Somehow the fact that Jean-Claude was justifiably terrified appeased Richard’s rage. Maybe it was just empathy. If it had been Richard’s child I was carrying, he would have been terrified as well - terrified that I was going to give birth to a baby werewolf. Hereditary lycanthopy is rare, but it does exist. Richard abhors his beast. I didn’t think he could ever accept a child of his that shared his affliction.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, and I knew that he didn’t just mean for making me cry.
I touched his cheek lightly and made him meet my gaze. “I’ll always love you, Richard,” I said.
Tears glistened in his eyes and he leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss to my lips. We were bound together for eternity. I had thought we were bound to hurt each other. We were still in pain, but this was a definite improvement.
He took a deep breath and straightened up. “So, Ronnie is going to be with you when the baby is born?” he asked.
Ronnie, my best friend, was dating Louie, his best friend. I had no doubts where his information was coming from. “Yes.”
He looked at me somewhat quizzically.
“What?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I just thought that Jean-Claude, or maybe even Cherry would be with you.”
It’s a very long story, but I’m the alpha for the local pack of wereleopards, their Nimir-Ra. Cherry is one of the leopards under my care, she’s also a nurse and a damn good one. Or at least she was until her employers found out she was a lycanthrope. She was the victim of prejudice in the guise of budget cuts.
I frowned. “There’s a lot of blood when a baby is born. Call me crazy, but I don’t really want a vampire or a wereleopard around.”
Richard smiled and it made my heart ache. It had been months since I’d seen him look at me like that. I watched as he stood up. He offered me a hand which I gratefully accepted. Once upon a time I would have insisted on doing it myself. That was thirty pounds ago.
“What?” I asked, glaring at Larry.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said, looking me up and down.
It was nine o’clock in the morning and the doctors wouldn’t let me have any caffeine because of the baby. It wasn’t a good time for him to get lippy with me. “Get off it, Larry. I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself.”
“It’s the big girl part that I’m worried about,” he said wryly.
For the second time in two days, my hands ached for the Browning. I’m not saying I would have shot Larry, but I really would have like to have had the option available.
“Dolph requested me specifically,” I said, grinding my teeth. Rudolph “Dolph” Storr was the head of RPIT, a police task force that I had assisted with a lot until recently. Due to my “delicate” condition, Larry had been filling in for me. Larry was good, but he wasn’t me. Something big was up and Dolph wanted my opinion. I wasn’t going to let him down.
Larry let out a long suffering sigh. I tend to have that affect on people. “I’m not trying to steal your job, Anita,” he said. “Dolph requested you, but he hasn’t seen you in two months. If he realized just how pregnant you are right now, I don’t think he would have asked.”
“Dolph’s married, Larry. He has three kids. He knows what a pregnant woman looks like.” Okay, so it wasn’t precisely true. Dolph tended to treat me like one of the guys most of the time. I would have bet the farm that he wouldn’t have let his wife anywhere near a crime scene when she was thirty-seven weeks pregnant.
Larry shrugged and I knew I had won. We walked over to my Jeep and I handed him the keys. We could have taken his car, but Larry drove a sporty little Mazda. I could have gotten in, but I wasn’t sure I could have gotten out again.
We drove to the crime scene in relative silence. Anybody else and I would have busted their chops for trying to keep me safe. With Larry I sort of had it coming. I’d done my best to protect him when he started working for Animators Inc. Turnabout was fair play. Also, Larry was one of the few people who knew my whole story without being a part of it. He knew about Richard and Jean-Claude. He knew about the Triumverate. He knew about the baby's paternity. Not many people did.
I wasn’t sure what Dolph, Zebrowski and the rest of the RPIT team thought of my pregnancy. I didn’t ask. I guessed that they thought the baby was Richard’s. They saw me with him enough times. They knew we were dating. They used to give me hell about it, even after I told them we had broken up. They stopped joking when I started showing. I guess they thought that Richard got me pregnant and dumped me. I felt sort of guilty letting him take the blame for that one. Richard really was an overgrown Boy Scout. He never would have deserted me. Of course, telling Dolph that the baby was Jean-Claude’s definitely wasn’t in the cards. Dolph was a by the book sort of guy. Sleeping with the walking dead, bearing their children, was not by the book. Not so long ago, I would have agreed with him completely. But Dolph was also unaware that Richard was a werewolf. Lycanthopy is a disease, vampirism is a lifestyle. Somehow I’m not sure Dolph would have seen much difference. A monster is a monster. I wasn’t sure our friendship could have survived a full disclosure about my love life.
Was I living a lie? Probably. My own family didn’t even know about my pregnancy. Pretty close family, huh? I hadn’t seen any of them in over a year. My father and Judith were devout Catholics. The Church ex-communicated all vampires, as well as animators. I had no doubts about where The Church stood on the subject of my baby. I just couldn’t see the wisdom in giving my father a heart attack until I found out if the baby was going to be all right. If my son was fine, then it was coronary city, but until then, I was keeping a low profile.
Dolph was waiting outside with Detective Reynolds when we arrived. Tammy Reynolds was a witch, the first one ever hired specifically for her preternatural abilities. She was quite the asset to the RPIT task force. She was also Larry’s girlfriend. I tried not to hold that against him.
Larry parked the Jeep in front of the anonymous suburban house. The look on Dolph’s face made me second guess my insistence on coming. Dolph had seen a lot and anything that could make him look that grim had to be bad. I crawled out of the Jeep as gracefully as possible, which wasn’t much. I caught his gaze as I walked up the driveway. Larry was right. If Dolph had realized just how close to delivering I was, he wouldn’t have called me in. Oh well, too late.
“You sure you’re up to this?” Dolph asked.
“How bad is it?” I countered.
“Bad,” he said. I knew that was all I was going to get out of him. Dolph hated to influence people’s perceptions. If I hadn’t looked the way I did, he probably would have let me walk in there completely cold.
“I can do it,” I said.
Dolph stepped aside and motioned for me to walk ahead of him. I did, but I wasn’t happy about it. I got the distinct impression I didn’t want to go inside that house.
I was usually the last person to view the scene. There were other cops milling around and EMTs waiting to dispose of the body once we were done. The sooner I took a look, the sooner everyone could go home. I took a deep breath and opened the front door.
There were a bunch of uniformed cops standing around. They all straightened up the minute they saw Dolph. He had that affect on people. He was built like a pro-wrestler and he didn’t take shit from anybody.
“Down the hall, first room on the left,” Dolph said.
I swallowed hard enough for it to hurt, but I kept walking. I was wearing all black, a loose knit top and a pair of drawstring cotton pants. Usually when I worked a scene, I wore coveralls, but looking the way I did, I couldn’t find any coveralls that would fit. I’d just have to try and stay out of the blood. Sometimes that was a lot easier said than done.
The room was white, which didn’t help. White walls, white ceiling, white carpet. The bedding had all originally been white. There was blood everywhere, on the walls, the ceiling. The bedding was saturated. The smell made me nauseas, but I swallowed it back. I could do this.
The body, or what was left of it was still on the bed. It was tied spread eagle. Dolph handed me a handkerchief and I took it without comment, pressing it over my mouth. I tried to be professional about it. I needed to look for clues. I needed to figure out what had happened here. I needed to not vomit on the crime scene.
The body had been torn apart by something. The wounds were clean, like they’d been sliced by claws. I’d seen a body torn apart by bare hands before. It wasn’t anywhere near this neat. Never underestimate how much of a mess a flesh eating zombie can make. But zombies didn’t do this. Lycanthropes did. Something with big nasty claws. Most of them have those, although I met a wereswan once. He’d been the exception, rather than the rule, and he’d made up for his lack of physical prowess by being one twisted fuck – or duck. I had his skin framed and hanging in my living room. Richard hated it.
Lycanthrope attack, definitely, though it was impossible to tell what variety. A werewolf’s claw marks were indistinguishable from a weretiger’s, though werewolves were much more common. I worked my way up the body and I was doing fine until I made it to the face. The victim’s hair was obscuring most of his facial features. He was nude, so I already knew it was male. It was the hair that got me. At first I just though it had been saturated with blood, but I realized it was dry. The victim had hair like mahogany, rich and auburn that wrapped around his body, falling below his waist, hair women would kill for. There was only one person I knew with hair like that. I stepped back so fast I almost landed on my butt. Dolph grabbed my arm and steadied me.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. Mistake. Blood is bad enough by itself, but when you think it’s the blood of someone you know, it’s worse. “T-turn him over,” I stuttered.
Dolph gave me a look like he was considering throwing me out, but he didn’t. He motioned to the EMTs and they cut the ropes and rolled the victim onto his back. Lavender eyes stared blankly at the ceiling.
I lost it. I leaned forward, falling on my hands and knees. I vomited until my stomach was empty, and then I kept dry heaving. Dolph tried to help me to my feet, but I couldn’t stand by myself. I slumped back to the floor sobbing hysterically. This time it didn’t have anything to do with hormones. Nathaniel was my responsibility, mine to look after and protect. He was lying in a pool of his own blood, his body violated almost beyond comprehension. It was more than I could take. I started screaming and couldn’t stop. He was a baby, barely nineteen. I let this happen to him.
Dolph handed me over to the EMTs, they took me out to the ambulance. They tried to give me a sedative, but I refused. Any kind of drugs were bad for pregnancies like mine. I couldn’t stop shaking or crying. At least I wasn’t screaming anymore, but I couldn’t calm down. Nathaniel was a pet, even lower than an S&M slave. He couldn’t be trusted to take care of himself. He had to be looked after. I paid for his apartment. I looked after him. He was a wereleopard and I was his alpha, his Nimir-Ra, his animal mother. I failed him miserably.
I cried out soundlessly, as if screaming could somehow bring him back. Larry tried to comfort me and I pushed him away. A tightness spread across my lower back, dull and aching. I didn’t notice it at first, but it became stronger and stronger until it culminated in a sharp pain that seemed to encompass my entire body. I gasped, my body convulsing slightly. The EMTs ushered Larry out of the ambulance. I was going into labor. One of them got behind the wheel and switched on the siren, heading for Mercy hospital while the other hooked me up to a heart monitor. The one riding in back with me, a woman in her middle thirties, tried once again to administer a sedative. I shook my head vehemently. She tried to reason with me.
“I can’t,” I said firmly.
“It will help, I promise,” she said as I groaned in agony from another contraction.
“No,” I gasped, as soon as the pain passed. “It could be a Vlads baby.”
The woman looked at me, needle in hand. Her expression melted into one of pity and she put the needle down. “All right,” she said. “All right.”
Larry and Dolph were already at Mercy Hospital when we arrived. I didn’t ask them how they managed to beat us there. I really didn’t want to know. I was Larry’s mentor. I’d already failed Nathaniel today. I didn’t think I could stand the thought of Larry being hurt because of me.
They wheeled me into one of the birthing rooms on the isolation wing. I sent Larry to call Ronnie. Dolph sat there and held my hand. His expression was guarded, but I could feel the anger boiling underneath. Women in labor weren’t regularly sent to the isolation wing. He was a detective, and a damn good one. He knew something was up, but for now he was keeping quiet. I had a feeling once I was out of the hospital we’d have a real nice go-round about this.
Before long, my obstetrician showed up and ushered Dolph and Larry out into the waiting room. According to her, things were progressing normally. She didn’t try to stop the contractions. She didn’t think the fact that I was a few weeks early was going to be a problem. I personally didn’t feel very reassured. Ronnie finally showed up and when she walked in, I got a glimpse of Richard hovering in the doorway. How nice, my ex-fiancé was in the waiting room. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, so there was no way Jean-Claude could be there. I was actually rather upset about that. They couldn’t give me drugs because of the baby. Normally I would have refused painkillers, but normally I’m not trying to push another human being out of my body. At the moment, drugs sounded like a really good idea. If Jean-Claude had been there, he could have helped. Usually, he can’t hold me with his eyes, vampire tricks don’t work on me now that I’m his human servant. But they can if I cooperate. I would have been so cooperative.
The doctor came in to check on me about every twenty minutes and said things were coming right along. Sure they were, bitch. If I could have gotten of that bed, I would have strangled her. I had never been in so much pain in my entire life, and for me that was saying something. Ronnie kept trying to get me to do my breathing, but mostly I just cursed and yelled.
Around one o’clock, the doctor said that I was fully dilated. They wanted me to push. I did. I pushed and pushed and pushed until all I could do was lay there and cry. Ronnie tried to be supportive, but I could see the fear on her face. The doctor hid hers better, but I could still tell. They told me to try and get a little rest, that they would be back in a while and we would try again. Were these people insane? Like I was going to take a little nap while my body was convulsing so hard it felt like I was going to snap in two?
I lay there and wondered if God was punishing me. I believe in God. I really do. I’m just not sure he believes in me. Was I being punished for failing Nathaniel? Had I been tested and found too lacking to be a parent? My mind ran through every horrible scenario possible. Tests showed that the baby was fine, but honestly we just didn’t know. Vlads was usually an all or nothing sort of birth defect, it didn’t afflict children in small ways. Blindness, deafness, stillbirth, these were ways Vlads manifested. The worst of all was a revenant birth, one where the child was born a vampire, little more than a mindless cannibal. To my knowledge, that had only happened once, born to a vampire mother. Still, I couldn’t deny the possibility that it could happen to me.
I didn’t sleep and I didn’t feel any more rested when they wanted me to try again. It was useless. The doctor looked so nervous that I almost started crying again. They were going to have to do an emergency cesarean, which meant I was finally going to get my drugs, but it also meant they had to hurry. Before I knew what was happening, the room was in chaos. They wheeled in a tray of really nasty looking implements. They gave me an epidural so I couldn’t feel anything and put this nice little curtain over my chest so I couldn’t see what they were doing. Call me cautious, but having the entire lower half of my body deadened by someone with a large knife and then being told I couldn’t look was not reassuring. Ronnie, however, was more trusting. She wouldn’t let me move the curtain.
I could feel pressure, but I didn’t really have any sense of what they were doing. When the doctor moved just right, I could see her face. Her expression was one of pure concentration and her white latex gloves were covered with my blood.
“Here we go,” she said and I felt his tremendous release of pressure.
The room was absolutely silent. I could almost hear my heart breaking. I turned and looked at Ronnie, but she was looking at the doctor. There were tears in her eyes. I opened my mouth to speak and the silence was split by a very loud, very unhappy wail.
“It’s a boy,” the doctor said. She held up this squirming, gory mass towards me so I could see him and he was the most beautiful thing in the world.
He was crying and I held my hands out and she set him on my chest. I didn’t care if he was bloody and slimy, I cuddled him next to me and kissed him. He stopped crying and looked at me. I started crying. Ronnie started crying. I think maybe even the doctor started crying. I ran my shaking hands over his little body. Ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, one nose, one mouth. I took inventory over and over again, but I couldn’t find anything wrong. I cried even harder.
“We need to clean him up and run some tests,” the doctor said, adding, “and we need to close.”
These were some good drugs. I had completely forgotten there was a gaping hole in my abdomen. More than a little reluctantly, I let the nurse take him. They put him on a little table under a big light and measured and weighed him. He cried when they pricked his little feet. They cleaned him off and wrapped him up in three layers of blankets. They put a little blue cap on his head and finally handed him back to me. The doctor was still stitching me up, but I held him. I wasn’t giving him up for anything.
Ronnie kissed me on the cheek and ran her finger over his brow. He had a mass of downy black hair and his eyes were midnight blue. All babies have blue eyes when they’re born, but I knew his would never change color.
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“Phillip,” I said, still crying. “Phillip Julian Blake.”
It was almost an hour later when they wheeled me into a private room, all stitched up and floating on a combination of a natural high and drugs. Phillip was clutched tightly against my chest sleeping. Ronnie stayed right with us. She was there when the doctor came back to see us.
“The tests are clear, he’s fine,” she said with a smile that couldn’t have been faked.
I couldn’t talk. I just leaned down and kissed his little head. Vlads could cause problems later, like learning disabilities, but that was very rare. For now, we were safe.
The doctor ran a finger over the back of his tiny hand and smiled again. “He had us all worried about the wrong thing,” she said lightly. “Our problem was just that he’s a big boy.”
I laughed. Of all the things working against Phillip, no one had ever dreamed it would be his size. With a mother who had a tendency to have hits taken out on her life and a father who had been dead for four centuries, we had all been looking for the obvious problems. Even the doctors hadn’t been worried about his size. I’m small, five three and usually a hundred and six pounds. Jean-Claude is five ten and built like a cat, lean, slender and graceful. Phillip weighed in at ten pounds, two ounces. He was huge for a newborn, but not abnormally so – at least that’s what the doctors told me. Apparently it would have been nothing short of a miracle if I could have delivered him without a caesarian. I felt a little better.
Eventually, Ronnie left so I could have a different visitor. Richard was very cautious when he walked in, like he was afraid I was going to lash out. Between the surgery, the drugs and the baby, I wasn’t doing anything.
“Hi,” he said, taking the chair next to my bed that Ronnie recently vacated.
He fidgeted nervously and then laughed. “It’s a zoo out there if you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Everyone,” he replied, then corrected himself, “at least everyone who doesn’t have to wait until full dark to rise.”
I frowned, but let it go. I was happy enough to allow him a little pettiness. “Lukoi?”
He nodded. “Most of the pack is here. Of course Jason and all of the wereleopards. Monica is out there.”
I grimaced. Richard laughed. He leaned in closer and looked at Phillip. Babies are designed to be cute. Seriously. It’s a survival technique. Being cute encourages adults to protect them. Richard was a born protector and Phillip was cute as a bug. Richard used the tip of his finger to brush along Phillip’s little fist. The baby yawned and instinctively grabbed on to Richard’s finger.
“Can I?” Richard asked.
I took a deep breath, not wanting to say it out loud.
Richard nodded and gave me a knowing look. “After Jean-Claude sees him, can I hold him?”
I smiled. “Of course,” I said. And I meant it.
He kissed me on the forehead and stood up. “How many more visitors do you think you can stand?” he asked.
“Because Zane is driving everyone nuts.”
I sighed. Zane was one of my wereleopards. Imagine Tigger on crack and dressed for an S&M dungeon and you get some idea of what he was like. I really wasn’t in the mood, but Zane needed a lot of guidance and reassurance. After what happened with Nathaniel, I couldn’t turn him away.
“Send him in,” I said.
Zane was twitchier than usual, deeply upset about Nathaniel. I avoided reminding him about the time I’d had to shoot him to keep him from killing Nathaniel. I let him nuzzle into my hand and it seemed to help. Touch is very important to him. He kept trying to sniff Phillip, but I wasn’t having any of that. I was alpha and my word was law. I had my limits. Nobody was sniffing my baby.
Larry was next. He was much more sedate. No sniffing. I let him touch Phillip.
“Wow,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied. I wanted to be somewhat more suave than that, but I couldn’t. I kept wanting to say things like golly every time I looked at Phillip.
“Is Dolph ...?” I asked.
“Gone,” Larry said. “He got called away, so he missed the menagerie that’s in the waiting room right now.”
I sighed in relief and then grimaced.
“What’s wrong?” Larry asked.
“My pain medication is wearing off,” I replied.
Against my wishes, Larry went to find the nurse. I hate pain medication, but if any situation ever called for it, I would say this was it. Besides, if anything wanted to get me, they would have to go through my personal army of bodyguards to do it. I felt safe enough. Ronnie came back in and the nurse showed up with the drugs.
I didn’t remember dozing off, but apparently I did. I woke in terror. I reached for Phillip and he wasn’t there. I looked around the room frantically and felt relief like I have never known.
Jean-Claude looked at me, smiling so wide you could see fang. It took quite a bit to make him forget himself like that. I watched as he turned back to Phillip. Babies, especially newborns don’t open their eyes much, but he was there, blinking owlishly at his father, one long white finger clutched tightly in his little pink fist. Jean-Claude was grinning like an idiot.
“Merci, ma petite, Je t’aime.”
“I love you too,” I said. “You should have woken me.”
He frowned at me. “With my marks, you heal faster, but you still need your rest. Besides, I wanted to hold my son.”
I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t. I watched Jean-Claude hold our baby. Vampires are creatures built for inflicting pain. They can bench press Toyotas. But when they’re aware of their strength, they can be unbelievably gentle. Jean-Claude was holding his son like he was made of spun sugar.
“He looks just like you,” I said, somewhat miffed.
“Indeed,” Jean-Claude replied, grinning unabashedly.
I watched as he scooted his chair as close as possible to my bed. He put the baby down on my chest and we both lay there looking at our infant. Jean-Claude’s head rested on the pillow next to mine, our hands touching as we held our son.
“Did you name him, ma petite?”
I moved my head enough to look in his eyes. We were so close. How long had it been since we had been this close and this unguarded?
“Yes,” I said. “Phillip Julian Blake.”
Jean-Claude took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Named after our sins?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “He’s our second chance. I couldn’t protect Phillip and you couldn’t protect Julianna. This time we won’t fail.”
“No, ma petite. This time we will not fail.” The hard determination in his voice reassured me.
I moved, trying to get close to Jean-Claude and he quickly obliged me, wrapping his arms around me and Phillip. I did love him. I didn’t believe that love conquered all. I was still a vampire executioner who had a child from the local master vampire. The fact that we loved each other didn’t make that go away. But it did make it easier.
“Sleep, ma petite,” he said.
And I did.
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