“SO, YOU’RE ENGAGED,” Special Agent Brenda Manning said. She wore a black pantsuit with a heavy belt that could wrap around her waist and hold the gun at her side. She was FBI and didn’t have to worry about concealed carry, so the fact that her gun flashed when her suit jacket flared out, which was every time she moved, wasn’t an issue. The gun looked very stark against her white button-down shirt.
“Yep,” I said. My own gun was at the small of my back, underneath a suit jacket made to hide the gun from the clients at my other job. I’d also started getting belt loops added to my skirts so I could wear a belt that could stand up to the weight of a gun and holster. I’d come straight from Animators Inc., where the motto was “Where the Living Raise the Dead for a Killing.” Bert, our business manager, didn’t believe in hiding the fact that raising the dead was a rare talent, and you paid for talent. But lately my job as a U.S. Marshal for the Preternatural Branch had been taking more and more of my time. Like today.
The other very special agent, Mark Brent, tall, thin, and looking barely old enough to be out of college, was bent over the portable computer they’d brought with them, which was sitting on the room’s only desk. He was dressed in a suit almost identical to Manning’s except his was brown to match his holster, but his gun was still a black bump, stark against his white shirt. We were in the office of our head honcho, Lieutenant Rudolph Storr. Dolph was currently somewhere else, which left me alone with the FBI and Sergeant Zerbrowski. I wasn’t sure which was more dangerous to my peace of mind, but I knew Zerbrowski would mouth off more. He was my partner, my friend; he was entitled. I’d just met Special Agent Manning, and I didn’t owe her my life story.
“The article I read made the proposal sound amazing, like something out of a fairy tale,” Manning said. She smoothed her shoulder-length hair back behind one ear and it stayed put, because it was straight as a board. My own curls would never have behaved that well.
I fought the urge to sigh. If you’re a cop and a woman, never date a celebrity; it ruins your reputation for being a hardass. I was a U.S. Marshal, but ever since we’d gone public with our engagement I’d become Jean-Claude’s fiancée, not Marshal Blake, to most of the women I met, and a lot of the men. I’d really had hopes that the FBI would be above such things in the middle of crime-fighting, but apparently not.
The real problem for me was that the story we told publicly was both true and a lie. Jean-Claude had done the big gesture, but only after he’d proposed in the middle of shower sex. It had been spontaneous and wonderful and messy, and very real. I’d said yes, which had surprised him, and me. I’d figured I just wasn’t the marrying kind of girl. He’d told me then that we’d need to do something to live up to his reputation for the media and the other vampires. They expected their king/president to have a certain flair, and the real proposal was too mundane. I hadn’t understood that flair would include a horse-drawn carriage—yeah, you heard me; he’d actually picked me up in a freaking horse-drawn carriage. If I hadn’t already said yes, and loved him to pieces, I’d have told him not only no, but hell no. Only true love had gotten me to play along with a proposal so grand that trying to imagine a wedding that topped it sort of scared me.
“Oh, yeah, Anita is all into that princess stuff, aren’t you, Anita?” Zerbrowski called from the chair he was half-tipping against the wall. He looked like he’d slept in his suit, complete with a stain on his crooked tie. I knew he’d left his home freshly washed and tidy, but he was like Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic: Dirt and mess just seemed to be attracted to him within minutes of his walking out of his house. His salt-and-pepper hair was getting more salt and less pepper, and had grown out enough to be all messy curls, which he kept running his hands through. Only his silver-framed glasses were clean, square and gleaming around his brown eyes.
“Yeah, I’m all about that princess shit, Zerbrowski,” I said.
Agent Manning frowned at both of us. “I’m getting the idea that I stepped in something. I was just trying to be friendly.”
“No, you were wanting the princess to talk about how wonderful the prince is, and how he swept her off her feet,” Zerbrowski said, “but Anita is going to disappoint you like she’s disappointed the last dozen women to ask questions about the big romantic gesture.”
I wanted to say, it wasn’t a big romantic gesture, it was a freaking epic romantic gesture and I had hated it. Jean-Claude had loved being able to finally pull out all the stops and just do what, apparently, he’d wanted to do for years while we dated—the whole princely sweep-you-off-your-feet shit. I liked to keep my feet firmly on the ground unless sex was involved, and you can’t really have sex in a horse-drawn carriage; it scares the horses. No, we didn’t try, because we were on freaking camera the whole time. Apparently, there are now engagement coordinators just like there are wedding coordinators, so of course we had a videographer. It had been all I could do to keep from scowling through all of it, so I’d smiled for the camera so I wouldn’t hurt Jean-Claude’s feelings, but it’s not my real smile, and my eyes in a few frames have that “wait until we’re alone, mister, we are so talking about this” look.
I decided to appeal to Manning’s sisterhood of the badge and said, “Sorry, Agent Manning, but ever since the story went live I’m getting treated more like Jean-Claude’s girlfriend than a marshal, and it’s really beginning to bug me.”