We ended up in the bedroom but not for anything fun. I'd dried off and thrown on extra clothes that I kept at the Circus. I had to put the wet shoes back on though. My cross was safely underneath my shirt again. Once it went under the shirt, it stopped glowing, but there was still a pulsing warmth to it.
Jean-Claude had knotted the blue towel around his waist, where it draped nearly to his ankles. He'd put a smaller towel on his hair and the blue of the cloth brought out the blue of his eyes. Seeing his face free of all hair made him look more like a boy to me. It was the bones of his cheeks that saved his face from being utterly feminine. He was still beautiful, but an inch closer to handsome without that black veil of hair.
Asher was still clothed in nothing but the dried blood and the spill of all his own hair. He was pacing the room like some kind of caged beast.
Jean-Claude had simply sat down on the edge of the bed with the blue sheets still stained with blood and other fluids. He looked discouraged.
I stood as far from them as I could, arms clasped across my stomach. I'd left my shoulder holster off, so that I wouldn't stroke my gun while I argued. I was hoping to tone the hostility down, not ramp it up.
Jean-Claude laid his face in his hands, all pale skin and blue cloth, towels and sheets surrounding him. "Why did you do it, mon ami!If you had only behaved yourself we would even now be together as we were meant to be."
I wasn't sure I liked how sure Jean-Claude was of me, but I couldn't really argue without lying, so I let it go. Shutting the fuck up is seldom a bad move on my part.
Asher stopped pacing and said, "Anita has felt me feed. She knew that I could roll her mind completely. She did not say not to do it. She said for me to take her, to feed from her, so I did. I did what she told me to do, and she was aware of how I would do it, because she has fed me once before."
Jean-Claude raised his face from his hands like a drowning man, coming up for air. "I know that Anita fed you when you lay dying in Tennessee."
"She saved me," Asher said. He'd come to the end of the big four-poster bed.
I watched the two of them framed against the blue sheets, where so recently we'd had a very good time. I stood there wanting them both, and my arms clung to me, as if by holding on tight I could keep it from happening.
"Oui,she saved you, but you did not roll her mind completely then, because I would have felt your touch upon her mind and heart, and it was not there."
"I tried to roll her mind because it seems to me that every vampire that takes blood from her is in some way under her sway, her power. It is almost as if when a vampire feeds from her, it is she who controls them, not the other way around."
I stayed where I was, but this I couldn't let go. "Trust me, Asher, it doesn't work that way. I've had vamps bite me and have me under their sway before."
He looked at me, with those pale, pale eyes. "But how long ago was that? I think that your powers have grown since then."
My gaze kept sliding down his body, tracing the blood pattern on that pale, slightly golden tinged skin. I closed my eyes to say the next because I needed to stop watching them. "Do you feel like you have to do what I say?"
He hesitated, and I fought the urge to look at him, to watch him think. "No." His voice was soft.
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, opened my eyes, and fought like hell to stare at Asher's face and nothing else. "See, you're not in my power or anything."
He did a small frown. "Are you in my power then?"
"I can't stop watching the two of you. I can't stop thinking about what we did, what we could still do."
He gave a harsh laugh, and it hurt to hear it, as if it had struck a blow along my skin. "How can you not think about us, while we stand here in front of you like this?"
"Oh, you're not arrogant," I said, arms clinging to myself like it was the last safe place for them to be.
"Anita, I am thinking of you, too. The pale spill of your back, the curve of your hip, the mound of your ass, underneath me. The feel of me rubbing along the soft warmth of your skin."
"Stop," I said, and had to turn away because I was blushing and it was suddenly hard to breathe.
"Why stop? It's what we're all thinking."
"Ma petitedoes not like to be reminded of pleasure."
"Mon Dieu,why not?"
I looked in time to see Jean-Claude give that all-purpose Gallic shrug, which meant everything and nothing. Usually he made it look graceful, today it looked tired.
"Anita," Asher said.
I looked at him, and this time I could make eye contact, except that staring into those amazing eyes wasn't much safer than looking at his amazing body.
"You told me you wanted me inside you, as I remember. And when I bared your neck you said, 'Yes, Asher, yes.'"
"I remember what I said."
"Then how can you be angry at me for doing what you asked?" He took three strides closer to me, and I backed up. The movement stopped him. "How can you blame me for this?"
"I don't know, but I do. How that's unfair, or maybe not unfair, I don't know, but I do."
Jean-Claude spoke then, his voice like the sigh of the wind outside a lonely door. "If you had but restrained yourself, mon ami,we might even now be together in the bath."
"I don't know about that," I said. My voice sounded angry, and I was glad.
Jean-Claude gazed at me with those blue black eyes. "Are you saying that you could refuse such bounty, once having tasted it?"
I didn't blush this time, I paled. "Well, it's moot now isn't it, because he cheated." I pointed at Asher for dramatic emphasis.
He stared at me openmouthed. "How did I cheat?"
Jean-Claude was back to holding his head in his hands. "Ma petitedoes not allow vampire trickery to be played upon her." His voice came muffled but strangely clear.
Asher looked from one to the other of us. "Ever?"
Jean-Claude answered without moving, head still in his hands. "For the most, oui."
"Then she has never tasted you as you are meant to be tasted," Asher said, and his voice held a soft astonishment.
"That is her choice," Jean-Claude said, he raised his face up slowly, so I could meet that blue gaze, and there was something of anger in his eyes.
I didn't understand all of this conversation, and I wasn't sure I wanted to, so I ignored it. I've always been damn good at ignoring what makes me uncomfortable. "The point is that Asher used vampire wiles on me. He's done something to cloud the way I think about him. Now I won't know, won't ever know, if what I'm feeling is real, or a trick." There, I felt sure of moral high ground on this one, at least.
Jean-Claude did a sort of voila gesture with his hands, as if to say, see, I told you.
Asher's face began to lose its anger and work towards that blankness they both did so well. "So it was just a lie."
I looked at both of them. "What was a lie?"
"That you wanted me to be with you and Jean-Claude."
I frowned. "No, it wasn't a lie. I meant it."
"Then this faux pas changes nothing," he said.
"You've messed with my mind, I don't think that's just a faux pas. I think that's damn serious." My hands were on my hips, better than clinging to myself to keep from touching anybody. I embraced my anger, because it made them less beautiful. Of course, it made everything less beautiful.
"So you did lie," Asher said, his face almost empty of any expression.
I hated watching him shut himself away like this, but I didn't know what to do to stop it. "Damn it, no, I didn't lie. You're the one who changed the rules, Asher, not me."
"I changed nothing. You said we would be together. You offered me your bed. You begged me to be inside you. Jean-Claude said that your sweet ass was not to be touched, and the deep pleasure of your body was full, where was I supposed to go?"
I fought not to blush and failed. "It was the ardeurtalking, and you knew it."
He backed up until he came to the edge of the bed, and he half-collapsed on the blue sheets, grabbing the post to keep from sliding off the silk. His face was blank, but the rest of him acted as if I'd struck him, and I knew I'd said the wrong thing.
"I said that once the ardeurwas cooled you would find a way to reject me, to reject this," and he gestured at Jean-Claude at the far end of the bed, and the bed itself, "and you have done just as I said you would do." He pushed himself up from the bed, clinging to the wooden post for a moment, as if he wasn't sure his legs would hold him. He took a tentative step away from the bed, almost staggered, then another, and another. Each step was steadier than the last. He was going for the door.
"Wait a minute, you're not just going to walk out," I said.
He stopped walking, but didn't turn around as he answered, giving a clear view of the perfection of the back of his body. "I cannot leave until Musette is gone. I will give her no excuse to take me back to the courts with her. If I belong to no one, she will do it, and I will have no grounds to refuse." He rubbed his hands over his arms as if he were cold. "When Musette is gone, I will petition for another Master of the City. There are those who would take me in."
I walked towards him. "No, no, you have to give me some time to think about what you did. It's not fair to walk off like this." I was almost to him when he whirled around, and the rage on his face stopped me like I'd hit a wall.
"Fair! What is fair in being offered everything you ever wanted and thought never to have again, only to have it torn from your grasp? Torn from your grasp because you did exactly what you were told you could do, what was asked of you." He didn't yell, but his anger filled his voice, so every word was like a red-hot poker flung at my face.
I didn't know what to say in the face of that anger.
"I will not, cannot, stay and watch you and Jean-Claude. I would rather be without the sight of either of you then so very close, but cast from your bed, your arms, your affections." He covered his face with his hands and gave a low scream. "To be with us as our lover is to be seduced by our powers." He tore his hands away from his face and let me see his eyes drowning blue, his anger making up for the lack of blood. "I had never dreamed that Jean-Claude had not done so." He looked at the other man, still sitting on the edge of the bed. "How could you be with her for so long and resist the temptation?"
"She is most adamantly against such things," Jean-Claude said. "At least you have had her willing blood, I have never been so blessed."
Asher frowned, and it sat badly on that lovely face, like an angel frowning. "That astounds me still, though I knew that. But she has bestowed her charms upon you, and now I will never know them."
This was all happening way too fast for me. "Jean-Claude understands the rules, and we both live by them." Of course, I'd been just about ready to change the rules, but I didn't think Asher needed to know right now.
Asher shook his head, sending that foam of gold hair gliding over his shoulders. "Even if I understood the rules, Anita, I could not abide by them."
That made me frown. "What do you mean?"
"Anita, we aren't human, no matter how much some of us pretend. But not all of what we are is bad. You have entered our world, but you deny yourself the best of us, while only seeing the worst. But most horrible of all, you deny Jean-Claude the best of his own world."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"He is celibate save for you, but he does not pleasure himself fully with you, or anyone else." He made a gesture that I didn't understand. "I see that look upon your face, Anita, that American look. Sex is not just intercourse, or even just orgasm, and that is especially true for us."
"Why, because you're French?"
He gave me such a serious look that my attempt at humor died in my chest like a cold weight. "We are vampires, Anita. More than that, we are Master Vampires of Belle Morte's line. We can give you pleasure that no other can give, and we can take pleasure as no other can experience it. By agreeing to limit himself, Jean-Claude has denied himself a great deal of what makes this existence bearable, even enjoyable."
I looked at Jean-Claude. "How much have you been holding back?"
He wouldn't meet my gaze.
"How much, Jean-Claude?"
"I cannot make my bite true pleasure as Asher can. I cannot roll your mind completely as he can." He still wouldn't look at me.
"That's not what I asked."
He sighed. "There are things that I can do that you have not seen. I have tried to abide by your wishes in all things."
"Well, I will not," Asher said.
We both looked at him.
"Anita will always find some reason to keep her from openly taking both of us. She cannot even allow her one vampire lover to truly be vampire. How could she possibly endure the full touch of two of them?"
"Asher," I said, but didn't know what else to say, all I knew was that my chest hurt, and it was hard to breathe.
"No, you will always find something in your men that is not good enough, not pure enough. You come to us out of need, even out of love, but it is never enough. You will not allow us to be enough even for ourselves." He shook his head again, in a flurry of brightness that shattered the lights like golden mirrors. "My heart is too fragile to play these games, Anita. I love you, but I cannot live, let alone love, like this."
"I don't even get an hour to digest that you used vampire wiles on me."
He put a hand on either of my shoulders, and the weight of his hands made my skin run warm. "If it's not this, it will be something else. I have watched you with Richard, Jean-Claude, and now Micah. Micah wins his way through your maze by simply agreeing to everything you ask. Jean-Claude wins his place on the edges of your labyrinth by cutting himself off from unbelievable pleasure. Richard will not walk your maze, because he has his own, and only one person can be this confusing in a relationship at one time. Someone has to be willing to compromise, and neither you nor Richard will compromise enough."
He let me go, and the absence of his hands almost staggered me, as if he'd taken away a shelter, and I was lost in the storm.
He began to walk backwards towards the door. "I thought I would do anything to be with Jean-Claude and his new servant. I thought I would do anything to be back in the safety of the arms of two people who loved me. But I understand now that your love will always come with conditions and that no matter how good your intentions, something holds you back, Anita. Something will not allow you to give yourself completely to the moment, to that shining thing called love. You hold yourself back, and you hold back those who love you. I cannot live being offered your love one moment and denied it the next. I cannot live being punished for what I cannot change."
"It's not punishment," I said, and my voice sounded strange, strangled.
He gave a sad smile and flung his hair over the scarred side of his face, so he stared at me with nothing but that perfect profile showing. "To quote you, ma cherie,the hell it is not." He turned and strode for the door.
I called after him. "Asher, please . . ." But he didn't stop. The door closed behind him, and the room filled with a profound silence.
Jean-Claude spoke into that silence, and his soft voice made me jump. "Gather your things, Anita, and go."
I looked at him, then, and my pulse was in my throat, and I was afraid, really afraid. "Are you kicking me out?" My voice didn't even sound like me.
"Non,but at this moment I need to be alone."
"You haven't fed, yet."
"Are you saying you would willingly feed me, now?" He didn't look at me as he asked it. He was staring at the floor.
"Actually, I'm sort of not in the mood anymore," I said, and my voice was fighting to get back to normal. Jean-Claude wasn't kicking me out of his life, but I didn't like that he wouldn't look at me.
"I will feed, but it will be only for food, and you are not food. So, please, go."
"Jean-Claude . . ."
"Just go, Anita, go. I need you not to be here right now. I need to not have to look at you, right now." The first stirrings of anger had trickled into his voice, like a fuse freshly lit and running with fire, but not truly burning up, not yet.
"Would saying I'm sorry help?" My voice was small when I asked.
"That you understand that you have something to apologize for is a beginning, but it is not enough, not today." He looked at me then, and his eyes glistened in the lights, not with power, but with unshed tears. "Besides, it is not me that you owe the apology to. Now go, before I say something that we will both regret."
I opened my mouth, drew a breath to reply, but he held up a hand and said, simply, "No."
I gathered my gun and shoulder holster from the bathroom. The wet clothes I left on the floor of the bathroom. I didn't look back, and I didn't try to kiss him good-bye. I think if I'd tried to touch him, he'd have hurt me. I don't mean struck me, but there are a thousand ways to hurt someone you love that have nothing to do with physical violence. There were words trapped in his eyes, a world of pain shining there. I didn't want to hear those words. I didn't want to feel that pain. I didn't want to see it, or touch it, or have it rubbed in the wounds in my own heart right that moment. I believed I was right, and a girl's got to have some standards. I don't let the vamps fuck with my mind, they just get my body. It had seemed a good rule an hour ago.
I shut the door behind me, leaned into it, and fought to take a breath that didn't shake. My world had been more solid an hour ago.
I was still leaning against the door, shaking, when Nathaniel came up to me. I didn't see him at first, even though he was standing right in front of me. I was staring at the floor, and I saw his jogging shoes, his legs, his shorts, before I looked slowly up and found his face. It felt like it took a long time to look up his body, and find that familiar face with those lilac eyes.
"Anita . . ." his voice was soft.
I held out a hand, because if anyone was nice to me, I was going to fall apart. I couldn't afford that right now. If Asher was up, then probably so was Musette. Normally, the thought would have been enough to let me check on a nearby vampire. Today, it was empty. I was empty. I was what Marianne, my psychic teacher, called head blind. It happens sometimes if you've had a shock; physical, emotional, whatever. I wouldn't be worth shit for metaphysical stuff until this wore off–if it wore off. Right that second it felt like the world should open up at my feet and swallow me down the great black hole that was eating through my heart.
"What is it, Nathaniel?" My voice was a bare whisper. I cleared my throat, sharply, to repeat it, but he'd heard.
"The two men that were following us in the blue Jeep are outside watching the back parking lot. They've got a different car, but it's still them."
I nodded, and the black hole at my feet began to close. I still hurt, and I was still head blind, but for this it didn't matter. Guns don't care if you're psychically gifted. Guns don't care about anything. They don't bitch at you about the rules in your personal life, either. Of course, neither does a dog, but I don't have to use a pooper-scooper after I'm through shooting my gun. Sometimes a body bag is needed, but that's not usually my job.
I was feeling better. Steadier. This I could do. "Find Bobby Lee, I want the best people he's got for car work."
"Car work?" Nathaniel made it a question.
"We're going to box them in and find out why they're following us."
"What if they don't want to tell us?" he asked.
I looked at him as I slipped into the shoulder holster and unthreaded my belt, so I could rethread the holster. I didn't say anything as I readied the gun, got it exactly where I wanted it. I had to carry the butt of the gun a little lower than I might have wanted for speed, but hitting your breast with the edge of the gun slows your fast draw even more. So a little lower angle, to avoid the chest. Legends say that the Amazons chopped off a breast to make them better at archery. I don't believe that. I think it's just another example of men thinking a woman can't be a great warrior without cutting away her womanhood, symbolically, or otherwise. We can be great warriors; we just got to pack the equipment a little differently.
Nathaniel was looking very solemn. "I didn't bring a gun."
"That's great, because you're not coming."
"Anita . . ."
"No, Nathaniel. I taught you about guns so you wouldn't hurt yourself, and so in an emergency you could defend yourself. This isn't an emergency. I want you to stay inside out of the line of fire."
Something flitted over his face, something that might have been stubbornness. It faded, but stubborn wasn't something that I'd ever seen on Nathaniel. I wanted him more independent, but not stubborn. He was about the only person in my life that did what I asked, when I asked. Right that second, I valued that.
I hugged him, and I think it caught us both by surprise. I whispered in his ear, against the sweet vanilla scent of his cheek, "Please, just do what I say."
He was quiet for a heartbeat, then his arms wrapped around me, and he whispered, "Yes."
I drew back from him, slowly, searching his face, wanting to ask him if he found my "rules" a burden, if I'd taken half the pleasure out of his life, too? I didn't ask, because I didn't really want to know. It wasn't that my courage failed me, it was more that my cowardice overwhelmed me. I'd had about all the truth I could stand for one day.
I kissed him on the cheek and left to find Bobby Lee. Him, I trusted to be in the line of fire. But it was more than that; I wasn't sleeping with Bobby Lee. I didn't love him. Sometimes love makes you selfish. Sometimes it makes you stupid. Sometimes it reminds you why you love your gun.