AND AFTER all of that, the bitch still insisted on coming with us to the damned vampire bar. It’s a good thing I’d had a few hours to cool off, or I might have killed her—literally and for good and forever—just for suggesting it.

But I did have a few hours to cool off, and good hours at that.

After our boat picked us up—precariously balanced with far too many people on it, but we didn’t care—we puttered around until we found a deep inlet, one with a narrow neck so none of the passing boats could see us. Lambent asked permission and then set a geas on it, a sort of “vague feeling” or repelling spell to keep the other campers away. Everybody stripped naked—Renny and Lambent, mostly—or shape-shifted, or did a combination of both, and either jumped in the water or took turns sunning on the boat, and generally we hung out as a big, rowdy, happy group. Bracken had brought an iPod and a speaker jack, and we plugged it into the boat and played that puppy as loud as we wanted. I sat in the shade and knitted with Katy and Renny, pleased that my waterproof bag had kept the water out during its little adventure. The fact that the yarn was double bagged in a ziplock helped too.

Green visited my mind as I sat—he’d been there when the water closed over my head, his presence keeping me from panicking completely—and although we did little more than bump telepathic noses, that soothed me too.

When it got too hot, I put the knitting down and Bracken came to my side and helped me in the water. No judgments were passed as I took deep breaths and clung to his hand, and the splashing and horseplay toned down even when I sighted a spot on land and took off in determined strokes to a place where I could feel, however fleetingly, slippery mud under my toes. Bracken evenly kept pace beside me, and every now and then he would go upright and extend his feet or go under to tell me how much farther I had to go.

I felt accomplished—absurd, because I’d been swimming in lakes since I was very small—but the feeling stayed with me nonetheless. I’d conquered a fucking fear, no matter how irrational. Go me!

When we returned to the boat, it was time to go back to the cabins and rest, then rehearse. The iPod jack came in handy then too. I practiced matching my voice, my pacing, and my blocking to the music, positioning people randomly and then moving seductively around the men to strip off their breakaway clothing and reveal their marks.

I could do it when the music was on—but when Bracken killed the sound to tell us to take a break for crap’s sake, I was right in the middle of tiptoeing my fingers up Jacky’s chest and crooning the throaty opening line. As the music died, we looked at each other blankly, and then personal space reasserted itself and we almost killed ourselves trying to get away. We heard a bizarre snorking sound, and together we looked down to see Teague, sitting on his ass in the dust, cracking up as though he’d never laughed before.

I blinked.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him laugh like that,” I said. Jack and Katy looked at me in complete bemusement.

“Man, it must be that random thing,” Katy said, “’cause I ain’t never seen it either.”

“Two years,” Jack said, shaking his head with affection as another round of laughter shook his beloved. “Maybe chaos isn’t such a horrible thing after all.”

That made me laugh, and then Annette walked up and shit all over our mood.

“You all practicing for a show or something?” she asked brightly, ignoring the wall of icy hostility radiating at her from the eleven of us.

“Go back to your cabin, Annette,” Nicky said seriously. She tried another sunshine-and-sugar smile.

“Now you aren’t going to hold that against me today? It was a joke—you know, like the way you were laughing just now?”

I turned toward her with a hint of laughter in my own eyes—the nasty, corrosive kind of laughter that reminds you that everyone can be fucking evil.

“Yeah, Annette, it was hella funny watching you skim across that lake. Did you want another demo? Because I think if I tried that here, you’d have some serious road rash before you hit the water.”

She blanched, and I amped that evil smile up a little, willing her to go away. Instead she tried a game smile and ignored me.

“I was just thinking,” she said, trying to make eye contact with Max and Jack, “that maybe I could come with you tonight when you go to meet the vampires. It sounds like fun.” Max bent down and scratched Renny behind the ears, and Jack deliberately helped Teague up—and then hauled that bandy little Irish body into his own long embrace, just to squick her out.

Teague went, though. I wondered if he’d been afraid of the force of his own laughter, because there was that almost shivering air around his body that spoke of a man who needed comfort. The two of them became their own island, a bubble in time, as Jack whispered in his ear, and I turned back to our enemy, daring her to say anything.

“You can’t even look at our vampires!” I was stunned—not just by her boldness, but by her stupidity.

“Well, if I’m going to be a part of Nicky’s life, maybe I should.”

I blinked at her slowly, and Nicky started to laugh—loud and long and as violently as Teague had. He walked up to her slowly, still chuckling, and bent a tender head toward her while she watched with enchanted eyes. He didn’t touch her, just leaned into her space, and she smiled sunnily up at him as though he was about to answer all her maidenly prayers.

“I’d sooner fuck a garbage pit,” he said succinctly. She took a step backward.

“You don’t mean that,” she said stubbornly. He nodded, looking at me with sincere exasperation.

“You can bet your bubble ass I do,” he said and then walked past her, meaningfully headed for his parent’s cabin.

I looked at her as she stood alone, her face a study in naked hurt, and I tried not to let any of my pity leak through. I loved Nicky, but that had been harsh. I shook my head. Forget my pride. I’d pulled back—I could have hurt her, really hurt her, but I hadn’t. Those were the boundaries on Green’s hill, but they weren’t the boundaries here, and they certainly weren’t the boundaries in a kiss of vampires that was sheltering a predator.

“You’re so mean,” she said, sounding like a lost second grader. “He can’t like you better when you’re plain and mean. You’ll see. If we could only get someplace with normal people, he’d see you’re not much at all.”

“Vampires,” I said carefully, talking to the child she apparently was, “aren’t normal people. What I did to you was playing. It was nothing. It was swatting at a fly. What the people we’re going to see will do to you will be for real. I can’t offer you protection.” I looked around at the people I cared for, the people who had “handled” me all afternoon to make me happy because they knew I’d put it on the line for them, and my face and voice hardened and my power leaked into it.

“I will not offer you protection. I can’t stop you from following us tonight, but you can’t ride with us. When you walk into that bar, it’s going to be naked and alone. Nobody here will look out for you. You’ve been protected here. You’ve been associated with Nicky—but you are no longer a part of his family. He’s made that clear. My people will not put themselves out to keep you alive. We have real business here, and we can’t afford to let you fuck it up.”

When I stopped speaking, an honest-to-Goddess chill breeze swept over us, and I realized my power had leaked into my words. Oh, crap—it was a binding. I’d lost control of my power, and it had become a binding. I looked around with almost wild eyes, and my people—all of them—were looking back with bemused, besotted expressions on their faces.

They wouldn’t help Annette pick up her fork, much less look sideways at her to save her life. I had actually bound them from any action to help her.

I looked at Bracken, who was squinting through the binding with a pained look, and I knew I was right. “Oh, shit.”