I WAS DREAMING. Something confusing about bodies and running and a ringing noise that made the crowd run faster. Ringing noise? I woke up enough to feel Nathaniel move beside me. He groped over the side of the bed and came up with my cell phone from my pile of clothes. He handed the ringing phone to me. "It's for you."
Jason mumbled, "God, what time is it?"
I flipped the phone open and put it to my ear before anyone answered his question. "Yeah, it's me." I was only half awake.
"Yes, who is this?"
That made me sit up. Rafael was the wererat king. Their equivalent of an Ulfric. He was also Richard's ally. "I'm here, what's up?"
"First, my condolences. I hear you may be Nimir-Ra in truth next full moon."
"Gee, news does travel fast," I said, trying not to sound bitter, but failing.
"Second, I know the pack has one of your leopards, and that you must try and win him back from them tonight. You are allowed to bring allies with you, and I would be honored if you would allow the wererats to accompany you."
"I appreciate the gesture, Rafael, you don't know how much I appreciate it, but I'm not lupa anymore. Your treaty is with the pack, and I'm not pack anymore."
"True, but you risked yourself once to save me from torture, and possible death. I told you then that the wererats would not forget what you had done for us."
"What about your treaty with Richard?"
"It's with Richard, not the pack."
"Showing up at my back tonight is still a conflict of interests, don't you think?"
"I don't think so. I think it will make the point that if Richard is no longer Ulfric, the wererats will not be the werewolves' allies."
"You'll show up with me tonight to make it clear that your treaty is with Richard and not the pack?"
Jason sat up in the bed.
"Yes," Rafael said.
"So you don't like Jacob either?"
Jason moved closer to me, as if he could hear Rafael's side of the conversation. Maybe he could.
"No," Rafael said.
"So I will meet you at your home tonight before we drive to the lupanar."
"Just you?" I made it a question.
"Oh, no, we will be there in force so the point is not lost on Jacob's supporters."
"I like the way you think," I said.
"I wish Richard did," Rafael said.
"Have you tried to get him to execute Jacob, too?" I asked.
"I knew you would understand both the problem and the needed solution, Anita."
"Oh, I understand. I just wish Richard did."
"Yes," Rafael said, "yes. Jacob is not the man Richard is, but he has some qualities that I would wish on Richard if I could."
"I'll meet you tonight at your house at full dark."
"I'll be there. And Rafael …"
"No thanks are necessary. The rats owe you a debt. We pay our debts."
"And it allows you to make a threat to Jacob and his supporters without doing anything that could start a war," I said.
"As I said, Anita, you understand things that Richard does not. Until tonight."
"Until tonight," I said. He hung up. I hung up, flipping the phone closed. Jason was practically leaning over my shoulder.
"Did I just hear that Rafael and the wererats are going with you tonight to the lupanar?"
"You going to tattle to Richard?" I asked, staring at his face from inches away, his back touching my shoulder.
My eyes widened.
"Unless Richard specifically asks, 'Is Rafael going to be there tonight as Anita's ally?' then I don't have to answer. And I'm not volunteering the information."
"That's cutting your oath of obedience pretty close, isn't it?"
"My loyalty is to Richard. And having the rats with you tonight will help Richard, not hurt him."
I nodded. "Sometimes you have to keep things from Richard to help him."
"Unfortunately," Jason said.
I handed the phone to Nathaniel, who put it back on the floor with my clothes. I checked my watch. It was ten o'clock; we'd had a little over six hours of sleep. Time to start the day. Yippee! It was still hours before I could expect Jean-Claude to be awake.
I snuggled down into the covers on my back. Nathaniel rolled onto his side, hand going across my stomach, one leg entwined over my legs. His second favorite sleeping position, though one I often had to move him out of before I could go to sleep. But I wasn't sleeping, I was thinking, so it was okay.
He rubbed his cheek against my shoulder, and a small movement of his lower body pressed him against me. He was hard and firm under the silky shorts. It as morning, he was male, it was normal. Normally, I could ignore it, just one of those things that you pretended didn't happen, but today … Today the feel of him pressed against me made things low in my body clench tight. The need rode through my body like fire spilling through me, over me, inside me.
Nathaniel went very still beside me.
Jason was sitting up, rubbing his bare arms. "What was that?"
I tried not to move, not to breathe, to just be as still as Nathaniel. I tried to think of something besides the warmth of his body pressed against the length of mine. Tried not to feel the press of him hard and ready through the satin of the jogging shorts. I grabbed the sheet and jerked it off of us in one violent movement. I gazed down the length of his body, of our bodies, pressed together. The shorts clung like a second skin to the back of him. The ardeur rushed through me again like a new pulse I'd never felt before, and my beast rose up through the depths with it. It was as if they were tied together. I hungered, and my beast woke, rolling inside me like a lazy cat, stretching, eyeing the mouse. Except what this cat wanted to do to the mouse was not only against the laws of nature, but physically impossible. The trouble was this mouse smelled of vanilla and fur, and he was warm and full against me. I wanted to roll him over on his back and tear off the shorts and see what I was feeling. I wanted to lick down his chest, down his stomach, and … The visual was so strong that I had to close my eyes against the sight of him lying there. But sight wasn't my only problem. The smell of his skin was suddenly overwhelming, sweet. And I had a desire to roll my body on top of his, not for sex exactly, but to paint his scent on my body, to wear it like a dress.
"Anita," it was Jason. "What's happening?"
I opened my eyes to find him bending over me, propped on one elbow, and the ardeur widened to include him. It did not discriminate. I touched his face, ran my fingers down the edge of his cheek, traced the fullness of his lower lip with my thumb.
He moved his mouth back just enough to speak. "Jean-Claude said you'd inherited his need, his incubus. I don't think I believed him …" My hand traced down his face, his neck, his chest. "… until now," he whispered.
My hand stopped over his heart. It beat against my hand, and I could suddenly feel my pulse in my palm beating against his skin, as if my heart had spilled down my arm to cup against his body.
"Ask me why Jean-Claude insisted I stay in here today."
I just looked at him. I couldn't think, couldn't speak. I could feel his heart, almost caress it. His heart sped, beating faster. My heart sped to catch it, until our hearts were beating together, and it was hard to tell where one pulse stopped and the other began. I could taste his heartbeat in my mouth as if it pulsed inside me already, caressing the roof of my mouth as if I had already taken a bite of him.
I closed my eyes and tried to distance myself from the ebb and flow of his body, his warmth, his need.
"Jean-Claude was afraid you'd try to feed on Nathaniel. I'm supposed to keep that from happening." His voice was breathy.
I raised up, and Nathaniel's arms curled around my waist, pressing his face into my side. I sat up beside Jason with Nathaniel like a tempting weight wrapped around my body. My hand stayed on Jason's chest, cupping his heart. He should have moved away, but he didn't. I could feel his desire, feel the need in him. It was a pure desire, not for power, or anything else, just simply for me. It wasn't love, but it was purity of a sort. He simply wanted me. I stared into his blue eyes, and there was no deceit, no agenda. Jason didn't want to secure his power base, or gain mystical energy, he just wanted to have sex with me, to hold me in his arms.
I'd always treated Jason as lesser than a friend, young and amusing, not serious. Jean-Claude's ardeur let me see into his heart, and I found it the most pure of any that I'd looked into in a long time.
I stared down at Nathaniel where he lay clinging to me. I knew his heart, too. He wanted me physically, but more, he wanted me to want him. He wanted to belong to me in every way. He longed for safety, a home, someone to take care of him, and to take care of. He saw in me all the things that he'd lost over the years. But he didn't really see me; he saw an ideal of me that he wanted.
I ran my hand down his arm, and he snuggled against me. I looked back at Jason and let my other hand drop away from him, but it was like I pulled something out of him as it moved; his heart still beat inside my body. We didn't have to touch for that.
The fact that Jason wanted me just for me with no ulterior motives made me want to reward him. Made me love him just a little. It overrode the hunger, stilled my beast, helped me think.
"Get out, both of you, get out."
"Anita, is that you?"
"Go, Jason, take him with you, and go."
"I don't want to go," Nathaniel said.
I grabbed a handful of that thick hair and raised him to his knees with it. I expected to see fear in his eyes, or betrayal, but what I saw was eagerness. I used his hair as a handle and drew him to me until our faces almost touched. I felt his heart thudding, the thrill through his body as I drew him into me. Nathaniel would never tell me no.
If someone can't tell you no, it's rape, or something like it. The ardeur poured through me, taking my breath in a long shuddering line. I wanted to kiss Nathaniel, to fill his mouth with my tongue. And I knew if I did, it would be too late.
My voice came out strangled. "You will go when I tell you to go, now get out!" I released my hold on him so suddenly that he fell back against the bed.
Jason was on the other side of the bed, pulling Nathaniel away from me, pushing him towards the door. Watching them go made me want to cry, or scream. They were perfect for feeding. The room was thick with mutual desire, and I was sending them away. I could still feel their heartbeats like candy in my mouth, like a double echo of my own heart.
I covered my eyes with my hands and screamed, wordless, pain-filled. It was as if the hunger finally realized that I was truly going to let them go. It raged through me, tearing one ragged scream from my mouth after another, as fast as I could draw breath. I lay on the bed in the silk sheets, writhing, screaming. I had a sudden memory, and it wasn't mine, of this need denied, locked away in the dark where no hand could touch you, where no skin could melt into yours. I felt the faintest edge of Jean-Claude's madness after that particular punishment. He'd healed, but the memory was still raw.
Hands on me, holding me down. I opened my eyes to find Nathaniel and Jason holding me down. They each had a hand on one wrist and one leg. They could bench press small elephants, but as my body writhed against the bed, I raised them up, made them struggle to hold me.
"Anita, you're hurting yourself," Jason said.
I looked down my body and found bloody scratches on my arms and legs. I had to have done it, but I didn't remember doing it. The sight of those bloody scratches calmed me, made me lie still under their hands.
"I'm going to get something to tie you down with just until Jean-Claude rises," Jason said.
I nodded, afraid to speak, afraid of what I'd say.
He told Nathaniel to hold me, but the only way one person could do that was to hold my wrists while pressing against me with his lower body. It wasn't perfect control, but it kept me from hurting myself.
Nathaniel's hair fell around our bodies with a dry rushing sound, until I saw the world through a curtain of his hair. The scent of him was like some warm pressure between his upraised chest and mine. I could smell the fresh scent of blood, too. And my beast wanted to lick the wounds, wanted to feed on my own skin, or better yet, open wounds on Nathaniel and feed off of him. Just the thought tightened my body, made me writhe underneath him, until I'd freed my legs and he slid against me, only our clothing separating us. He made a small sound, half-protest, half-something else.
I raised my wrists off the bed, pushing against his grip on me. I felt his arms strain against me, forcing me back against the bed. It shouldn't have been a struggle for him to hold me here like this. I was gaining other things besides hunger through the marks, or the beast. Nathaniel was still stronger than I was, I could feel that. But there are things besides strength that count when you're struggling. I raised my arms from the bed again, only a few inches, and he forced me down again. But when I had enough room, I rotated my right wrist against his thumb, and my hand was free.
I raised up enough to kiss his chest, and he went very still above me. I knew in that instant that he wouldn't try and regain control of my arm. I bit him gently, and his breath went out in a soft, sharp sound. I licked my way up his chest, with him still holding my left arm, his lower body still pinning mine. I ran my tongue over his nipple and felt his breathing quicken. I locked my mouth around his nipple and bit into the skin, the flesh underneath. He shuddered above me, his body jerking enough that I had to be careful not to break the skin. But I held on as he moaned above me, and when I drew back, I saw that I had left a near perfect imprint of my teeth behind.
I lay back against the bed and stared at the bite mark on his chest, with his nipple in the center of it, and a thrill went through me, a wave of pleasure at the sight of it, and a feeling of … possession. I'd marked him.
I drew my left wrist out of his hand, and he didn't fight me. He stayed propped above me on his arms, his hips pressed against me, his hair in a cascade around us. He stared down at me, and his face was raw with need. I didn't need anything else to tell me how much he wanted me to finish what I'd begun.
I raised up enough to kiss him, and his lips trembled against mine. The kiss was long and full, and a sound came low in his throat, and he suddenly collapsed against me, his full body weight pinning me to the bed, our mouths, our arms, our bodies locked together in a warm, vanilla-scented nest of his hair, like being rolled in warm satin. Nathaniel kissed me as if he would climb inside me through my mouth, and I opened for him, let him explore me, taste me, touch me. It wasn't his hand underneath my top, kneading my breast, that brought me to my senses. It was my hands down the back of his shorts, cupping the smooth curve of his buttocks. It helped me swim back into control, to fight down the desire, the hunger. Where the hell was Jason? I stopped kissing Nathaniel, stopped touching him, while his hands, his mouth, explored my body. His need was so strong, so strong. I could not leave the bed. I could not walk away. I was not that strong.
His mouth was on my breast through the satin of the top. He didn't seem to hear me.
"Nathaniel, stop!" I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled him away from me. The front of the top was wet where his mouth had been. His eyes didn't seem to focus on me. It was as if he didn't see me at all.
"Nathaniel, can you hear me?"
He finally nodded. "Yes." Anyone else would have protested being stopped, but he simply looked at me, eyes beginning to focus. There was no resentment on his face, no anger. He simply did what I told him to do and waited for me to say more. I didn't understand Nathaniel; even knowing his heart's desires gave me no real understanding of him. We were too different, but today that difference might help us.
I would not, could not have sex with Nathaniel. But I couldn't stop completely either. I had to feed. I had to sink my teeth into his flesh, had to bathe in his lust, had to. "Get off me."
He rolled onto his back, gazing up at me, lying in a pool of his hair, like a shining auburn frame around his body. I wanted to see all of him framed against his hair, and all I had to do was drag his shorts down the curve of his hips. The image was so strong I had to close my eyes, take deep breaths. The need to touch him lashed through me, almost painful, as if the ardeur could force me to do it. And maybe it could. But I would control how I touched him. I would control at least that much.
I opened my eyes and found him gazing up at me with those impossible lilac eyes. "Roll over onto your stomach," I said, my voice hoarse.
He rolled over without a single question, and I was reminded how absolutely helpless he was with a dominant. He would do what he was told, whatever he was told. It helped steady me, to know that I had to be in charge. I had to have some control, because he would have none.
I picked up handfuls of that thick hair and pushed it to one side like a piled beast. I bared his back, in a clean smooth line. He turned his head to the side and gazed at me through the film of his hair. There was no fear in him, only a vast patience, an eagerness, and need.
I rose on all fours over him, straddling his body, and lowered my mouth to his skin. I licked across his shoulders, but it wasn't enough. I bit him, gently, and he made a small movement underneath me. I bit harder, and a tiny sound escaped his lips. I bit him hard enough that I felt his flesh fill my mouth, felt the grip of him, the meat of him. I wanted to tear at his flesh, to literally feed from him. The desire was almost overwhelming. I collapsed on top of him, my cheek against his back, until I could control myself. But the scent of his flesh, the smoothness of it under my cheek, the rise and fall of his breathing under my body, it was too much. I would not eat him literally, but I had to feed.
I bit the flesh of his back, drew him into my mouth, and this time I did not stop until I tasted the sweet metallic taste of blood. It was the beast that wanted to finish, blood was not enough. But I raised from the wound and moved on. I marked Nathaniel's back with near perfect imprints of my teeth, and more and more of them held blood. It was as if the longer I did it, the harder it was to control.
The scent of fresh blood tightened my body, filled me with heat and longings that had to do more with food than sex. I sat straddling his body looking down at his back, at my handy work. Blood ran in tiny drops from some of the wounds, but mostly it looked like tiny mouths pressed into his flesh. And it wasn't enough.
I slid my hands down the back of his shorts, drawing my nails delicately along his flesh. He writhed under the touch, started to rise from the bed, and I pushed him back down. "No, no," I said, and he went still under my hands.
I slid his shorts down his body until he lay nude underneath me. I spread his legs so I could kneel between them, lowered my mouth to that smooth, untouched skin, and marked him. There was more flesh to hold in my mouth here, tight, but more plentiful. I filled my mouth with him, drew blood in red, hot circles, until I heard him making small helpless noises. And I knew they weren't pain noises.
I rose on my knees above him, gazed down at the wounds I'd laid on his body, and I wanted more.
I slid my satin top off and wiggled out of the shorts. I laid my naked body on his and rolled along his back, his buttocks, rubbing the blood from the wounds on my body. Nathaniel was saying, "please, please, please," over and over under his breath. His need was like a pressing weight, a thick cloud that hovered over us. It was chokingly close, so overwhelming. He wanted this so badly. This, not sex, this. He'd waited so very long for me to dominate him, to take him.
Micah had wanted me, but his had been the want of a relative stranger. A man wanting an attractive and powerful mate. But with Nathaniel it was different. His desire had built over years, over a thousand intimacies, a thousand denials. It had built until it was a great weight in his body, in his mind. It was a thing that burdened him down, filled him up, and he could not be free of it. I understood why Jean-Claude had said that we would feed off those we were already attracted to. There was so much more to feed from with Nathaniel. Our history together made it not just a feeding, but a feast.
I worked my way back down his body, biting along his flesh, not drawing blood now. I lay with my cheek pressed against the curve of his buttocks, fighting with myself not to reach my hand around to the front of him. Fighting the growing need. I would not touch him, not like that. When I could trust myself, I spread his legs as far as they would go, and bit down, marking areas untouched, getting ever closer, until I could see him pressed between his body and the bed. I wanted to lick him there, roll his testicles in my mouth. But I didn't trust myself. I'd laid his back and buttocks bloody, I didn't trust myself, couldn't guarantee what I would do. I moved my mouth back without touching him, and the pressure of his lust and mine rode like summer lightning, almost there, almost there. I ran my tongue on the small ridge of skin just in back of his testicles, and Nathaniel cried out.
I sucked the skin, drew it into my mouth in a long line, working it with tongue and teeth, and the pressure broke over us like a storm released in one long thunderous burst. He called my name, and I raked his thighs with my nails and fought with two different hungers not to bite that delicate bit of skin away from his body. When it was over, I drew back from him just enough to see that I hadn't marked him, not even the mark of my teeth. I lay on the bed, between his legs, one arm on his thigh, the other folded beneath me, listening to the pounding of my heart.
He lay quiet except for his still frantic breathing. A sound raised me up to gaze over Nathaniel's leg, propping myself up on the smooth wounded flesh of his butt.
Jason was standing in the middle of the room with what looked like shackles in his arms. His eyes were wide, his own breathing a little too fast.
I should have been embarrassed, but the ardeur was sated, and my beast lay curled inside me like a contented cat. I was too well-pleased with myself to be embarrassed. "How long have you been watching?" Even my voice sounded lazy, content.
He had to clear his throat twice before he could say, "Long enough."
I climbed back up Nathaniel's body, until I was pressed against the length of him. I laid my cheek against his face, and whispered, "Are you alright?"
"Yes." It was a whisper.
"I didn't hurt you?"
"It was … wonderful. Oh, God, it was … better than I'd imagined it."
I raised up, stroking his hair, turning back to look at Jason, still standing in the middle of the floor. "Why didn't you try and stop me?"
"Jean-Claude was afraid you'd tear out Nathaniel's throat or something messy like that." Jason's voice was returning to normal, only the slightest edge of uncertainty in it. "But I watched you. Every time I thought I'd have to intervene, you drew back. Every time I thought you were going to lose control, you didn't. You rode the hunger, you tamed it."
I felt Jean-Claude waken, felt him take his first breath of the day. He sensed me, too, felt me still lying naked on Nathaniel's body, smelled the scent of fresh blood, felt that I had fed, and fed well. I felt him coming towards me, hurrying towards me, attracted to the scent of blood, and warm flesh, and sex, and me.
"JEAN-CLAUDE'S COMING," JASON said.
"I know," I said.
Jason walked to the foot of the bed and gazed down at us, at me. His eyes lingered on me. Most of my body was hidden beside Nathaniel, but he looked at what was revealed. If I hadn't had that glimpse into his heart, I'd have been mad, or told him to stop, but I didn't know what to say now. He wanted me, Just me for me, not forever, but just for a night, a day, a week, just for sometimes. Jason's feelings for me might be the most uncomplicated of all the men m my life. Uncomplicated had its attractions, even with the ardeur gone. The moment I thought gone, I realized that wasn't true. The hunger was just below the surface; like something simmering in a pot, you have to keep the heat low, or it boils over. I'd had enough heat for one day.
Jason and I looked at each other. I don't know what we would have said, but just then the door opened. It was Asher. His room was closer than the coffin room, but I hadn't expected him. His golden hair lay in perfect waves around the shoulders of his robe. Vampires didn't move in their "sleep" so no morning hair problems. The robe was a rich, deep brown, open over matching pajama bottoms. His chest was bare, and the robe flared around him like a cape as he strode into the room.
He came to stand beside the bed, but his gaze went to Nathaniel's body, to the blood. "I felt …" He raised his eyes to my face, and I peered at him over Nathaniel's body. "I felt the call."
"I didn't call you," I said.
"The power did." He dropped to his knees beside the bed. "You did this?"
He reached out towards me, as if to touch my face, then jerked back. It was like he'd touched something in the air in front of me that had startled him. He raised his hand to his face and sniffed it, then licked it, as though there was something there to taste.
"May I taste your pomme de sang?" It was French for apple of blood, and it was a nickname for a person that was a regular donor to a particular vampire. Part of me wanted to argue with the phrase, but I had fed off of Nathaniel, even tasted his blood. To demand a different phrase was splitting hairs a little too finely for my conscience. We'd call a spade a spade.
"Define taste." I said.
"Lick the wounds."
The suggestion should have bothered me, but it didn't. I lowered my face enough to see Nathaniel's eyes. "Is it okay with you, Nathaniel?"
He nodded, face still pressed to the bed.
Asher lowered his mouth to Nathaniel's back, to a wound just above his waist. He kept those ice blue eyes rolled up towards me, the way you would watch someone on a judo mat–afraid that if you look away, they'll hurt you. It reminded me of watching lions drink from pools, with their eyes rolled up, watching for danger while they drank.
Nathaniel made a small sound as Asher licked the wound. It had stopped bleeding, but as the vampire traced the wound with his tongue, I saw blood well to the surface again. Vampires have an anticoagulant in their saliva, but I'd never seen its use demonstrated quite so well before.
It made me wonder. I curled closer to Nathaniel's body, one leg entwining over his. I didn't ask permission, because he was mine, and I knew him well enough to know he would not only not mind, but he would welcome it. I lowered my mouth to another of the wounds that had nearly stopped bleeding and licked. There was the sweet copper taste of blood, and the thick, rich taste of his skin, and a taste of … meat. As if I could tell what he would taste like if I ate him one bite at a time.
The beast flared over my skin like something trembling and alive. Nathaniel's beast responded to it, flaring, rolling, as if I could see it just below his skin, just below his ribs, as if I could feel where it lay in the heart of his body. In that moment I knew I could call his beast, could coax him to change when the moon was far from full. I was his Nimir-Ra, and that meant so much more than merely being his dominant.
Asher's eyes had drowned in pale blue fire, so he looked blind as he licked at the wound. He gazed into my face, directly across Nathaniel's body, our eyes at the same level as we tasted the wounds. My wound bled a little bit more, but not as much as Asher's did. I was not truly a blood drinker — I fed on other things — and staring across Nathaniel's body, feeling his breathing quicken as the two of us touched him, I knew that those other things were here for the taking.
Asher's hand slid over Nathaniel's body, until he touched my thigh where it curved over Nathaniel's leg. The moment he touched me something rushed between us. It was as if the ardeur recognized him, as if it had touched him before.
It made me raise up from the wound, drew me back into myself, a little. Something on my face made Asher take his hand back.
Jean-Claude entered then. He was wearing a black robe with black fur at collar, lapel, and sleeves. His black hair melted into the fur, so you couldn't tell where one blackness stopped and the other began. The last time I'd seen him in the robe, I'd told him there better be something under the robe besides skin. Now, I hoped there wasn't.
Seeing him brought the ardeur boiling over me again. It made me catch my breath, things lower than my stomach clenching tight enough to draw a sound from my throat.
"She holds your incubus," Asher said, and his voice tore my gaze from Jean-Claude to him.
"Oui. " Jean-Claude glided around the room to the opposite side of the bed from where Asher knelt.
"She tastes of you, and of Belle Morte."
"Oui, " Jean-Claude said. He walked around the bed to the other side, and I rolled away from Nathaniel so I could see Jean-Claude move. The movement exposed the front of my body, and I had enough of myself left to roll onto my stomach.
Jason said, "Awww."
I ignored him.
Jean-Claude lifted the robe so he could crawl onto the bed. The movement revealed a long, pale line of skin from his shoulders to his stomach. The glimpse of that white flesh caught between the blackness of the fur made me want to untie the sash and expose his entire body. But I stayed where I was, half-leaning against Nathaniel, because I was afraid to move. Afraid to go to Jean-Claude, because I didn't trust myself.
There was just enough of me left not to want to make love to Jean-Claude in front of the other men. But it was a razor-thin part, something that glittered in the darkness but didn't quite believe itself anymore.
"The hunger recognizes Asher. Is it because it's yours, or because it's hers?" I asked.
"Hers?" he asked.
"I do not know," he said. And he was close enough now that the edge of the robe brushed my body. I could see a thin line of pale skin below the waist where the robe gaped. A thin, thin line of white, but it was enough to let me know that there was nothing under the robe but Jean-Claude.
I wanted to open the robe, to see all of him. I said it without thinking, as if I hadn't meant to say it out loud. "Open the robe." It startled me as if I didn't know my own voice.
I closed my eyes, tried to think.
"It is alright, ma petite. Once taken, blood fills your stomach, but lust …" Fur brushed in a teasing line down my arm. "Lust is always there, never vanquished completely, never satisfied." He brushed the edge of his furred cuff down my waist, my hip, my thigh, my calf. When he brushed it along my foot, he started back up, but this time on the back of my body, so that the teasing brush touched my buttocks, my back, my shoulder.
I lay wordless, breathless, under his touch. When he curved the fur around my face, I grabbed the edge of the robe and held him away from me. "Make everyone leave." My voice was barely above a whisper.
"I can do nothing until I have fed, ma petite, you know that."
"I know. Blood pressure." I was having a hard time thinking. "Then do it, but …"
"Hurry," he said softly.
He drew his sleeve out of my grip and looked down the bed to Jason, who was still standing there, watching the show. "Come, pomme de sang, come and enjoy the rewards of your sacrifice."
The phrase was oddly formal, and I'd never heard it put that way before. I expected Jason to go around the bed to the same side as Jean-Claude, but he didn't. He rolled over the foot of the bed in a movement so liquid it was like watching water flow, as if his skin barely contained some elemental energy that had nothing to do with the flesh and bone body I was seeing. He ended on his knees on the opposite side from Jean-Claude. I could taste the movement of his body in my mouth, not just his heart, but as if every throb and beat of him was trying to slide over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel his eagerness, not for me, but for what Jean-Claude had to offer. He came eagerly to the vampire, in that breathless rush that you usually save for sex. They mirrored each other, both on their knees, gazing at each other across my body.
"I will leave you alone with your pomme de sangs and each other." Asher was standing next to the bed, belting the sash at his waist, securing the robe around him. He stood very straight with that perfect posture that all the old nobles seemed to have, but still he huddled inside the robe.
I rolled onto my stomach, gazing at him, trying to read his face, his body. The discomfort I could read, and even pain. And it must have shown on my face, because Asher dropped his gaze, that wonderful golden hair sliding over the scarred side of his face, so that when he looked up, you could see nothing but the perfect half of him, that one ice-blue eye.
I had a sudden memory of lying in a different bed in a huge dark room surrounded by dozens of candles until the shadows moved and rippled with every small breath of air, every movement of a pale arm. I lay in that trembling golden darkness in the embrace of a pale, dark-haired woman. I gazed up at her, and her face was like something carved of alabaster, with lips red and perfect, hair like the darkness of night made into furred silk, falling around her nude perfection like a veil. Her eyes were pale brown, like dark honey. I knew it was Belle Morte, as if I'd always known her face.
The door opened, and Asher entered, wearing a robe more elaborate, heavier than the one he wore now. But still he huddled in it, held it around his body, afraid. I saw the scars on his face–fresh, raw–and it was … painful. My chest went tight with the sight of his ruin. I went to my knees, reaching out to him, moving a body that I'd never been inside. Jean-Claude reaching out to Asher all those centuries ago. But she lay there nude and perfect showing every curve, every secret place to the candlelight, and turned him away. I couldn't remember the words she used, only the look on her face, the utter arrogance, the distaste. The look on Asher's face as he turned from her to Jean-Claude, to me. The look of pain, and he let that glorious hair fall forward, hiding his face, and it was the first time we'd seen him do that, hide from us.
I felt her hands on our body as she turned back to us, as if Asher were no longer there, but we remembered the look on his face, the line of his body as he left that room. I blinked and was back in Jean-Claude's bedroom, watching Asher in his brown silk robe walking towards the door. And the line of his shoulders, the way he held himself, made my chest tight, closed my throat, made my eyes hot with things unsaid and unshed.
"Don't go." I heard myself say it, and I glanced up at Jean-Claude. His face was careful, unreadable, but for just a moment I saw his eyes, and the pain I was feeling was only an echo of what filled his eyes.
Asher stopped at the door and turned, his hair falling over his face, the robe covering everything else. He said nothing, just looked back at me, at us.
I repeated, "Don't go, Asher, don't go."
"Why not?" he asked, his voice as careful and neutral as he could make it.
I couldn't tell him about the shared memory. It would sound like pity, and it wasn't that–not exactly. I couldn't think of a good lie. But this wasn't really the time for lies, anyway. Only truth would heal this. "I can't stand to watch you walk away like this."
He moved his gaze from me to Jean-Claude, and there was anger in him now. "You had no right to share that memory with her."
"I do not choose what ma petite knows and what she does not."
"Very well," Asher said. "Now you know how she cast me out of her bed. How she cast me out of his bed."
"That was your choice," Jean-Claude said.
"How could you bear to touch me? I couldn't bear to touch me." He stayed near the door with his head turned to one side, so all you could see was a wave of golden hair. His voice held bitterness the way it could sometimes hold joy–a bitterness that was hard to swallow, like choking on broken glass. Asher's voice and laugh weren't as good as Jean-Claude's, but he seemed better at sharing sorrow and regret than Jean-Claude.
"Why?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
"Why did she cast you out?"
Jean-Claude moved beside me, and I realized two things. One, he was shielding from me, from all of us, so I couldn't sense him, and two, his body movement alone let me know he wasn't happy.
Asher grabbed his hair, forced it back from his face, showed the scars to the light. "This, this. Our mistress was a collector of beauty, and I am no longer beautiful. It pained her visibly to see me."
"You are beautiful, Asher. That she couldn't see that isn't your fault."
He let his hair fall back. It slid over the scars, hiding them. He had almost stopped doing that when he was here in the Circus. I'd forgotten how, when he first arrived in St. Louis, he had automatically hidden whenever you looked directly at him. He had used every shadow, every fall of light to hide the scars and highlight the beauty that remained untouched. He had stopped doing that around me.
It hurt my heart to see him hide. I tried to keep the sheet over me as I crawled towards the edge of the bed, but it was all tangled and trapped under Jason's and Jean-Claude's weight. Screw it, everyone here had seen the show. I wanted to wipe that hurt look from Asher's face more than I wanted to be modest.
Jason moved out of my way without uttering a single teasing comment. Unheard of! I crawled off the bed and walked towards Asher, and other memories spilled over me like cards thrown in the air. How many times had he watched Jean-Claude and Belle Morte and Julianna and so many others walk towards him nude and eager. Even Jean-Claude had failed him. There had been that shadow in his eyes formed of guilt. Guilt at failing to save Julianna, failing to save Asher. But Asher had assumed it was rejection and that Jean-Claude touched him only out of pity. It hadn't been pity–I had the memory of it– it had been pain. They had become constant reminders of how each had failed the other. A constant reminder of the woman they'd both loved, and lost. Until the pain was all they had left. Asher had turned it into hate, and Jean-Claude had simply turned away.
I walked through the memories like moving through cobwebs, things that brushed me, clung to me, but did not stop me. His hands were behind his back, his body leaning against the door, pinning them, and I knew why. Through Jean-Claude's "gift" I knew that Asher wanted to touch me and didn't trust himself enough to have his hands out in front of him. But it wasn't me he wanted to touch. In a way he was like Nathaniel; he saw in me what he needed to see, not exactly what was there.
I touched his hair where it hid his face. He flinched. I swept the hair back from his face, standing on tip-toe to reach him, putting one hand lightly on his chest for balance. He moved away from me, taking a step into the room. I grabbed his robe, but he stayed turned away as the robe pulled back from the perfect half of his chest. "Look at me, Asher, please."
He stayed turned away, and I finally had to walk those few steps to him. I was short enough that, standing right in front of him, I could look up underneath the hair into his face. He turned away again, and I stretched up, putting a hand on either side of his face, turning him to look at me. It put my body against his just for balance, and I felt the reluctance in his body, the need to move away. But he stayed immobile under my touch. He kept his hands behind his back, as if I'd tied them there.
The skin under one hand was so smooth, the other so rough. He could have fought me, but he didn't. He let me turn his face to me. I wrapped my hands in the thickness of his golden hair, holding it back from his face. I stared into his upturned face. The eyes, that impossible pale blue, were unreal, like the eyes of a husky. His lips were still full and kissable, his nose still a perfect profile. Even the scars that started far on the right side of his face were just another part of Asher–just another piece of him that I loved. I'd always assumed that any emotions I felt for Asher were from Jean-Claude's memories of him when they were lovers, companions for over twenty years. But staring at him now, I realized that that was only part of it.
I held memories of his body smooth and perfect. But that wasn't what I thought of when I thought of Asher. I pictured him as he was now, and I still loved him. It wasn't the way I felt about Jean-Claude, or Richard, but it was real, and it was mine. Maybe it wouldn't have existed if I hadn't had Jean-Claude's memories and emotions to build on, but whatever the foundation, I had feelings for Asher that were all mine, no one else's. I realized with something like a shock that it wasn't just everyone else's heart I could see into. I turned and looked back at Jean-Claude, tried to ask with my eyes what I was thinking.
"To know another's heart, you must first know your own, ma petite." His voice was soft, no reproach.
I turned back to Asher, and there was something in his eyes–half wonderment, half pain–as if he expected me to hurt him in some way. He was probably right. But if so, I wouldn't mean to do it. Sometimes the greatest wounds are the ones we try the hardest not to inflict.
I let what I was feeling fill my eyes, my face. It was the only gift I had to give him. His expression softened, and what I saw in those lovely eyes was at the same time wonderful and painful. He dropped to his knees, one tear trailing down his smooth cheek. The look on his face was full of so many things. "The look in your eyes heals a part of my heart, ma cherie, and wounds another."
"Love is such a bitch," I said.
He laughed and hugged me around the waist, the roughness of his right cheek pressed into my belly, and I valued that more than anything else he could have done. I stroked his hair and held him against me. I looked across the room to Jean-Claude, and the look on his face was drowning deep, a longing so immense that there were no words to hold it. He wanted Asher and me. He wanted what he had had so many centuries ago. He'd once told Asher that he'd once almost been happy, and that had been when he was in Asher's and Julianna's arms. Before she died and Asher was saved but no longer Belle Morte's perfect golden boy. Jean-Claude had been forced to take Asher back to the vampire Council to have him healed. Jean-Claude had traded a hundred years of his own freedom to the Council for the favor of them saving Asher's life. Then Jean-Claude had fled, and Asher had stayed behind, blaming Jean-Claude for Julianna's death and for his ruin. Jean-Claude had gone from being in love and being loved by two people, to losing one lover and having the other one hate him.
We gazed at each other. The look in Jean-Claude's eyes was so raw, like a fresh wound that still bled. He wanted to secure his power base with the triumvirate. He did want that–needed it–but there were other things that he wanted, almost needed. And one of those was hugging my waist, pressing his face to my stomach.
Jean-Claude lowered his eyes as if he couldn't control what was in them. He was the master of blank, careful expression. The fact that what he felt was too strong to hide said more than anything else. He couldn't shield his emotions right now. They were too strong; they shattered all his careful control, and a part of me was glad.
In that moment I wanted to give him what he most desired. I wanted to do it because I loved him, but it was more than that. I suddenly realized that with Richard gone from our bed, other things were suddenly possible. I turned back to Asher, gazing down on the top of his head, and knew that to be held in the circle of both our arms would heal something inside him that might never heal any other way.
The ardeur flared through me, hot, so hot, as if my skin must feel feverish. Asher drew back from me, letting his arms drop slowly to his sides. He gazed up at me, and the look in his eyes was enough. I knew he felt the hunger, too.
"It feels hot," I said. "Always before your power has felt cool, or cold even. It's Richard's beast that holds the heat."
"Lust is warm, ma petite, even among the cold-blooded."
I turned towards the bed and was suddenly very aware that I was nude, I was really going to have to get a robe. It wasn't Jean-Claude's gaze that made me look away, it was Nathaniel and Jason. Everyone in this room responded to me, in different ways, for very different reasons. But it was all fodder for this … need inside me.
Asher made some small movement that drew my attention back to him. I started to reach for him, to push his robe from his shoulders, to watch it fall to the floor. I hugged my arms to me, as if I was cold, but I wasn't cold. It was my turn not to trust where my hands were. The temptation was so thick every where I looked that there seemed no place to walk in safety. I felt trapped. Trapped, not in the room, but in the desire.
When I was sure I could talk without sounding as confused as I felt, I asked "Is this thing permanent, or will it go away when we all adjust to the marks being married?"
"I do not know, ma petite. I wish I could tell you something more certain. If you were truly of my get, truly vampire, then I would say, yes, it is permanent. But you are my human servant. You have manifested powers in the past, and some have come and gone." He raised his hands. "There is no way to be sure."
"Is it always like this, never satisfied, never finished?"
"No, you can sate yourself, but it takes much to do it. Usually, one must be content with enough to keep the desire from overwhelming you."
"And you haven't fed like this in months, because you thought I would disapprove?"
"Years. And yes."
I stared at him across the room with Asher still kneeling in front of me. I'd always thought of Jean-Claude as the weaker-willed of the three of us–Richard, him, and me. Now I stood there afraid to move, afraid not to move, wanting to do things that were not me, not mine, not even Jean-Claude's. I'd known that the lycanthropes spoke of their animal half as something separate from them–their beast–but I'd never understood that some of the vampires' powers were the same way. Desires, hungers, so strong and overwhelming that they were like separate beings trapped inside your head, your body, your blood.
Asher made a small movement, and I turned to him. My hand reached out to stroke his hair before I'd turned completely to face him, as if my body had been moving without my eyes or my brain. His hair was thicker textured, more like mine, not the baby-fine curls of Jean-Claude or Jason, or the velvet silk of Nathaniel. I bundled my hands into Asher's hair as if I'd memorize the feel of it. Somewhere between mine and Richard's, somewhere in the middle, but not warm like Richard's was to the touch. Asher hadn't fed today, and he had no warmth to give. His skin was cool under my fingertips as I traced his cheek.
I spoke without looking at Jean-Claude. "How have you stood it? How could you fight the need all this time?"
"You are a fledgling, ma petite. Your control will never be weaker than now. I have had centuries to practice my control."
I made myself stop petting Asher. But he took my hand as I moved it back and laid a gentle kiss on my knuckles. Even that small touch made me catch my breath. My voice came out weak. "So you can go without feeding the desire."
"No, ma petite."
I turned and stared at him, and Asher rubbed his thumb in small circles on my hand. I remembered that small touch as precious, a habit he had no matter which of us he held hands with. "You said you hadn't fed like this."
"I have had no sex, nor touched anyone in such a complete manner as you have done with Nathaniel. But I must feed the desire, just as I must take blood."
"What happens if you don't?"
"You remember what happened to Sabin when he stopped taking human blood?"
I nodded. Asher's thumb continued its small circle on my hand, and it made things low in my body tighten. "Sabin started to rot while he was still alive." I stared into Jean-Claude's perfect face. "Is that what would happen to you?"
He sat back on the bed in his black robe. Jason had moved against the headboard as if watching a show, and Nathaniel still lay on his stomach where I'd left him, watching us with pale eyes. "There was a vampire of Belle's lineage who renounced the lust. He took only animals, as well, and I believe would have rotted as Sabin did, but he did not have the time. He began to age in a matter of days. When he was a wizened thing, Belle had him killed."
"But you haven't aged, what have you been doing?" It wasn't accusatory. I simply wanted to know, because I could feel Asher on the end of my hand like something huge and … like something I couldn't live without. I'd wanted Nathaniel, I'd wanted Jason, I'd wanted Micah, but not like this. I think it was Jean-Claude's feelings that made this so much more.
"It is possible to feed from a distance without touching," Jean-Claude said.
"That's why a strip club was your first business. You were feeding off the lust."
"Oui, ma petite."
"Teach me to feed from a distance." Even as I said distance Asher drew my hand to his cheek and rubbed against it like a cat. I had to close my eyes for a second, but I didn't tell him to stop.
"Feeding from a distance is a poor substitute for a true feeding."
I opened my eyes and stared at him across the room, and now I could feel him. I could feel his need–for blood, sex, love, and the touch of our flesh against his. He wrapped his arms around his body, as if he were cold, or didn't trust himself not to leave the bed and come to us.
"Teach me anyway," I said.
"I cannot, not this soon. In a few nights I will instruct you, but your control is not … complete enough yet."
I started to say, "try me," but Asher drew my finger into his mouth in one long, wet line, and I suddenly couldn't think.
"Come to bed, ma petite," Jean-Claude said. "If you feed here, there is a chance you may be sated enough that you will not press our so-stubborn Richard."
The thought was enough to dim the desire for a moment or two. I drew my hand away from Asher, and he didn't protest. The sheer horror of what I'd be like around Richard with this inside me helped me think. Being around him normally made me want sex, but now … "My God, I'll be lucky if I don't just strip down and do him in the lupanar." I stared at Jean-Claude. "What do I do?"
"I say again, ma petite, if you feed now off of such rich fare, you may be too full to need to feed again so soon. It is all I can offer you for tonight. You could simply delay the meeting for a few nights."
I shook my head. "They'll kill Gregory. I have to get him out tonight."
"Then come and feed."
"Drink their lust," he said.
I looked at Jason and Nathaniel, and they weren't even trying for neutral. The looks on their faces brought heat in a rush up my face. I shook my head.
"You do not have to have intercourse to feed from them, as you have discovered."
"Aww," Jason said, but the look on his face didn't match the light teasing of his voice. They were responding to my need, the way I'd responded for so long to Jean-Claude's, drawn like a moth to a flame. You just couldn't help wanting to touch it, even when you knew it would burn.
Asher stood. "I will leave you alone. But with permission, I would feed on Nathaniel as my pomme de sang for the day."
"No," I said.
His eyes widened just a touch, face going neutral, eyes empty and cool as a spring sky. I felt him draw away from me. "As you wish." He turned for the door.
I grabbed his hand, slid my fingers between his. "Come to bed, Asher."
I'd thought his face was as blank and careful as it could get. I was wrong. His voice held nothing when he asked, "What do you mean?"
"I can't give you back what you had. I can't even give you …" I stopped and tried again. "But I can let you feed together again."
"If Nathaniel says it's okay, you can take blood from him, and Jean-Claude will take blood from Jason. You can feed together."
"Do you know how intimate a thing it is to feed together on your pomme de sang? A pomme de sang is not a casual feeding, it is intimate, to be shared only with intimate companions."
I entwined my fingers around his hand. "I know." I took a step towards the bed, drawing him with me. "Let us feed on your lust, Asher, as in days of old."
Asher stared past me at Jean-Claude. "The last time two fed from my desire, it was Belle and you."
"I remember," Jean-Claude said softly.
He held his hand out to Asher from across the room, and I was reminded of him reaching for Asher all those centuries ago. "Let it be again as it was before, but better this time. Anita loves you as you are now, not as some ideal thing like a butterfly on a pin to be tossed aside if a wing falls away. Come to us, Asher, come to us both."
Asher smiled, then took a step to be beside me. He offered me his arm in a very old-fashioned gesture. I wanted to take his arm, to have an excuse to rub my body against his as we walked, and that was why I asked, "How about the use of your robe, as well as your hand?"
He gave a low and perfect bow, so low that his hair almost swept the floor. "That you had to prompt me to offer you my robe proves I am not a gentleman." He slipped it off as he stood, and held it for me like a coat. Asher is six feet, so the sleeves hung over my hands and the hem pooled around my feet. I pushed the sleeves up and got the sash tied, but the only thing to do for the length was just to bundle it in one hand like you would an overly long dress But it covered almost every inch of me, and I felt better for it. The sweet scent of Asher's cologne clung to the robe, and that soft, masculine scent made me turn back to him. Made my eyes seek him out. Seeing Asher with no shirt on didn't make me feel better. I had the urge to caress his bare skin, to lick the scars. I never remembered being this orally fixated before, and wondered if it was the beast talking or the vampire. But to ask the question would be to admit the desire, and I didn't want to know that badly.
I laid my hand in Asher's, partially because he was holding his hand out to me, and partially because even that small touch was satisfying. I wanted to touch him, wanted to wrap myself around him and answer that question that Jean-Claude was so desperate to answer. Was all this beauty and heat ruined? Was Asher unable to function as a man now? I closed my eyes as he led me forward, because the visuals were just too strong. Through Jean-Claude I knew exactly what Asher had looked like nude, before the scars. I held memories of his body bathed in firelight as he lay rampant on a rug in a room in a country that I had never seen. I knew the play of moonlight on his back as I touched him.
I tripped on the hem of the robe, and he had to catch me to keep me from falling. I was suddenly pressed against his chest with the feel of his arms solid against my back. My face was suddenly uptilted, as if I were waiting for a kiss, and there was one of those moments when you become aware of each other– painfully and suddenly aware of the possibilities of the next few seconds. He picked me up in his arms, carrying me easily, smoothly forward. I'd have told him to put me down, but my heart had filled my throat, and I couldn't speak around it.READ MORE >>