Cerulean Sins (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #11)

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05.03.2019

40

Jason leaned his head back against the passenger seat of the Jeep. His eyes were closed, and he looked weary. There were hollows under his eyes even with them closed. Jason was fair-skinned, not pale. He didn't tan dark, but nicely golden. Today he looked vampire pale, and his skin gave the illusion that it was too thin, as if some great hand had been rubbing around his eyes and across his face, rubbing him down like you'd worry a pebble in your hand.

"You look like shit," I said.

He smiled, without opening his eyes. "You sweet-talker."

"No, I mean it, you look terrible. Are you going to be okay about tonight, the banquet, and everything?"

He opened his eyes enough to slide his gaze towards me. "Do I have a choice? Do any of us really have a choice?"

Put that way . . . "No, I guess not." My voice suddenly sounded tired, too.

He smiled again, his head still back against the seat, eyes almost closed. "If the Lieutenant hadn't popped a major gasket, would I be on my way to a secured facility, right now?"

I buckled myself into the driver's seat and started the Jeep.

"You didn't answer me," he said, voice low but insistent.

I put the Jeep in gear. "Maybe, I don't know. If Dolph hadn't been popping a major gasket, as you put it, then he'd never have even thought of putting you in a facility." I eased out of the parking area. "But he might have called you in for questioning. You are pretty scratched up, and you are a werewolf." I shrugged.

He stretched his arms up over his head, arching his body against the seat, stretching all the way to his toes. It was an oddly graceful gesture. The movement flashed the cuts on his arms, making his T-shirt sleeves ride up, and he added a writhing movement, like a shudder, or a wave that flowed from the tip of his fingers, down his arms, his chest, the arch of his neck, his waist, the ripeness of his hips, down the muscles of his thighs, to his calves, to his toes.

A loud honking and the screech of brakes brought me back to the road, and the fact that I was driving. I managed not to hit anyone, but it was close. I threaded my way through a forest of rude gestures and Jason's laughter.

"I feel better now," he said, laughter still thick in his voice.

I glanced at him, frowning. His blue eyes were sparkling, his face suddenly glowing with glee. I struggled, but finally had to smile back. Jason had always been able to do that to me, make me smile when I didn't want to.

"What is so damned funny?" I said, but there was an edge of laughter in my voice that I couldn't quite swallow.

"I was trying to flirt, and it worked. You've never reacted to my body before, not even when I was naked."

I concentrated on the road, really hard, while the blush burned my face.

He chortled. "You're blushing for me. Oh, God, yes!"

"Keep it up and you are going to piss me off." I turned onto Clark, and headed for the Circus.

"You don't get it, do you?" He looked at me, and I couldn't read the look on his face. Puzzlement, delight, and something else.

"Get what?" I asked.

"I'm not invisible on your guy-radar anymore."

"What?"

"You notice men, Anita, but you'd never noticed me. I was beginning to feel like the court eunuch."

I gave him a quick frown before turning back to the road. I did not want to risk another near miss. I'd had my adrenaline rush for the day.

"Come on, you know what I mean."

I sighed. "Maybe."

"Maybe it's because you don't do casual sex, but it means more to you than just fucking, even with the ardeuron."

If I'd been standing I would have shuffled my feet. I had to settle for concentrating really hard on my driving. "If you've got a point to make, Jason, make it."

"Don't get all grumpy, Anita. My point is that even if we never touch each other again, I'm on your radar screen now. You see me. You really see me." He looked deeply content.

I was confused. When I'm confused I usually try and concentrate on work. "Do you think the lycanthrope that's raping and killing these women is local?"

"I know he's not," Jason said.

I looked at him, because he sounded so positive. "How can you be that sure?"

"It was a werewolf, it wasn't one of our pack. There are no werewolves in the St. Louis area that are not part of the Thronnos Rokke Clan."

"How do you know it was a werewolf? It could have been any of a dozen types of half-men predators."

"It smelled like wolf." He frowned at me. "Didn't you smell it in the house?"

"Mostly all I smelled was blood, Jason."

"Sometimes I forget you're not one of us, yet."

"Is that a compliment or a complaint?"

He grinned. "Neither."

"How can you be so sure it wasn't one of our werewolves?"

"It didn't smell like pack."

"Forget that I am human, and my nose isn't four hundred times more sensitive and scent discriminating, and explain it to me simply."

"My nose in human form isn't as good as my nose in wolf form. The world is so alive. Scenting is almost like sight. If you've never experienced it, it's hard to explain, but in human form touch is probably secondary to sight. In wolf form scent is secondary to sight, or in some cases, ahead of it."

"Okay, say that's so, what does that mean for this investigation?"

"It means that I know the killer is a werewolf, and I know he's not one of ours."

"Your opinion won't fly in court," I said.

"I didn't think it would. Honest, I would have mentioned what I'd smelled in the house sooner if I hadn't assumed you smelled it, too." He looked worried now, and suddenly younger because of it, all schoolboy charm.

What he'd said got me thinking.

"Most breeds of scent hounds won't track a werewolf, or any wereanimal for that matter. They go all shit-face, howling and whining and freaking out. They basically tell the hunters, you're on your own," I said.

"I knew dogs didn't like us, but I didn't know they didn't like us that much."

"Depends on the breed of dog, but most dogs don't want to mess with you guys. I can't say I blame them."

"So I guess going down to the pound and picking out a dog is out then."

"You'd set the place on its ear."

"Okay, did you have a point?" he asked, and grinned again.

"Yes, could a werewolf in wolf form track this killer?"

Jason thought about that, face all serious again. "Probably, but I don't think the police will go for it. They don't like us much, either."

"Probably they won't, but I'll float it by Zerbrowski when he calls."

"You're sure he's going to call?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because we've got two dead women, and it's probably all over the media."

"If you watched television, read a newspaper occasionally, or even listened to the radio, you might know these things," Jason said.

"Probably true, but there's heat to solve this case, and more innocent lives at risk. Zerbrowski will call, because they're grasping at straws or they wouldn't have brought you in. If Dolph had a more promising lead, even out of his head like he is, he wouldn't have been busting your chops, or mine."

"You're sure of that?"

"He's a cop, above all else. If he had anything else to chase, he'd have been out chasing it, not wasting time with you."

"I don't know, Anita, I didn't see much of the cop left today. He seems like a man who's let his personal problems eat everything else."

I would have argued if I could have, but I couldn't. "I'll mention the idea to Zerbrowski, if they get desperate enough they may go for it."

"How desperate would they have to be?"

I turned the Jeep into the parking lot of the Circus. "Maybe two more bodies, maybe three. Using a werewolf to track a werewolf might appeal to Zerbrowski's sense of humor, but getting the upper brass to agree would be the problem."

"Two more women, maybe three, Jesus, Anita, why not try the desperate measures before things get so damned bad?"

"The police are like most people, Jason, they don't like thinking outside the box. Using a werewolf in animal form as a sort of preternatural scent hound is way outside the freaking box."

"Maybe," he said, "but I smelled what was upstairs, Anita. So much blood, so much meat. A human being shouldn't be reduced to meat and blood."

"Aren't we all just food on the hoof?" I tried to make a joke of it, but Jason looked offended.

"You of all people should know better than that."

"Maybe," I said, feeling my own smile slide away from my face. "Okay, I'm sorry, no offense meant, but I've had too many shape-shifters threaten me to have any illusions about where I am on the food chain. And there are an awful lot of shapeshifters that still believe they are at the top."

"I don't buy that radical crap about us being the top of the evolutionary ladder," Jason said, "if we were really the perfection of evolution, why have we been around for thousands of years, but yet, you poor humans outnumber us, and usually outkill us?"

I parked near the back door and turned off the engine. Jason opened his door, but said, over his shoulder as he was getting out, "Don't fool yourself, Anita, plain old humans kill more of us than we ever will of them." He smiled, but not like it was funny, "They even kill more of each other than we kill of them." Then he was striding across the parking lot. He never looked back.

I had offended Jason. Until that moment I hadn't been sure it was possible to offend him. Either he was growing up, or I was getting less diplomatic. Since I couldn't possibly get less diplomatic than usual, Jason must have been growing up. For the first time in a while, I wondered if he would always be content to be Jean-Claude's lap wolf and appetizer. And stripper, too. But you can't strip and feed the vampires forever, can you?

41

Bobby Lee met me at the door. Tall, light-haired, and almost shiny compared to the dim storeroom behind him. But his mood was not shiny. "The police should have let me stay with you."

"I don't think they believed my story about making you all deputies."

"You should have just said that we were your bodyguards."

"I'll do that next time, Bobby Lee." I filled him in on what I'd learned at the police department while we walked down the nearly endless steps that led from the storeroom to the lower parts of the Circus of the Damned. The stairs were wide enough for four people to walk abreast, but the steps themselves were oddly spaced, as if whatever they were originally carved for wasn't very human. They definitely had not been made for bipeds.

"I don't know the name Heinrick," he said.

I looked at him, so suddenly, that I stumbled, and he caught my arm. I realized in that moment that I didn't know that much about Bobby Lee, not really. "You work for Rafael, you can't be a white supremacist."

He let go of my arm when he was sure I was solidly on one of the odd wide steps. "Honey-child, I know white supremacists that specialize in hating people a little darker than Rafael."

"Real Southerners don't say honey-child."

He grinned at me. "They do if you Northern bastards expect it."

"We're in Missouri, that ain't exactly north."

"It is from where I came from."

"And that was?"

His smiled widened. "When we're not in the middle of an emergency we can sit down and share personal time over a beer, or coffee. Right now, concentrate, honey-child, cause we are neck-deep and sinkin'."

"If you don't know Heinrick, how do you know we're sinking?"

"I was a mercenary before Rafael's people recruited me. I know people likeHeinrick."

"What would somebody like that want with me?"

"They were watching you for a reason, Anita, you probably know what that reason is, ya' just got to think of it."

I shook my head. "You sound like a friend of mine. He's always telling me that when the shit hits the fan that I should know why the bad guys are after me."

"He's right."

"Not always, Bobby Lee, not always." But the conversation did make me think of Edward. He'd started his professional life as a hit man, then killing humans became too easy, so he switched to monsters. Monsters covered a lot of ground for Edward. No, among the vampires and shape-shifters, he'd include serial killers, snuff film actors, anyone and anything that caught his fancy. Though the price had to be right. Edward didn't work for free. Well, not often. Sometimes he'd work simply for the thrill of chasing something that scared the rest of us mere mortals to death.

"Does anyone in Rafael's operation have contacts in nongovernmental channels? I don't want anyone owing anyone a favor for this. I don't want anyone getting in trouble. I just want to know what the regular government channels either don't know, or aren't sharing with the St. Louis police department."

"We have some ex-military, special forces, things like that. I'll ask around."

I nodded. "Good." And I'd call Edward, see if he knew Heinrick. I started walking down the steps again. Bobby Lee fell in beside me, though since he was six feet and I so wasn't, it was probably an awkward stride for him. He didn't complain, and I didn't offer to speed up. I wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing Jean-Claude or Asher again. I still didn't know what to say.

We were within sight of the big heavy door that led into the underground areas. It was partially ajar, waiting for us. "By the way, Jean-Claude and Asher request your presence in Jean-Claude's room."

I sighed, and my unhappiness must have shown on my face, because he touched my arm. "Don't look so glum, honey, they said something about owing you an apology."

My eyebrows went up at that. An apology, them owing me. I liked the sound of that. I liked the sound of that a lot.

42

It wasn't the apology I was expecting, but under the circumstances, any apology was better than none. Especially if I wasn't having to give it. Of course, it took them nearly five minutes to get me to hear the apology, because once I got a good look at the two of them in their banquet finery, I was rendered speechless, deaf, and damn near blind to anything else.

I don't think it was magic or vampire trickery. They just looked fine.Asher wore a jacket of pale gold with darker gold embroidery, and an edge of true metallic gold thread shot through the embroidery itself. There was a touch more gold at collar, lapels, wide cuffs. Just enough extra sparkle to mingle with the gold of his hair as it cascaded over his shoulders and add emphasis to the gestures of his hands. His shirt was a foam of white frills at chest and wrist, like a tamed cloud. I knew from rifling through Jean-Claude's closet that the shirt wasn't nearly as soft as it appeared. The pants were the same pale gold as the jacket with a line of embroidery down either side of his leg. Boots the color of oyster shells graced his legs, their tops folded down just above the knees, tied with pale brown leather belts and small gold buckles, which could be glimpsed as he moved.

I noticed Asher first, maybe because of his powers, or maybe because he was all shiny and gold and eye-catching. It was like noticing the sun. You couldn't help but see it, to turn to face the heat of it, to bask in the glory of it. But often when the sun is high in the sky, the moon is up there, too. A dim memory of what she will be in the night, but there, nonetheless, dim and misty, hard and white. At night, there is only the moon, the sun is nowhere to be seen. There are no distractions when the moon rules the night sky.

Jean-Claude's coat was a black velvet so soft and fine that it shown like fur. It was opera length, flowing down to his ankles. There was embroidery on the lapels and wide cuffs, a deep royal blue. The embroidery on the coat matched that on the black vest, but the shirt that showed in all that black and royal was the same shade of blue of the silk sheets on the bed. Cerulean blue, a color caught between the skies of day and night. It brought out the blue of his eyes so that they were like living jewels set amid the black of his hair, the near pure whiteness of his skin.

The silk was mounded into soft ruffles at his chest, and tucked into the vest. A gold and sapphire stickpin pierced the ruffles at his chest. The stone was almost as large as one of his blue eyes. Cuff links winked as he gestured, gold, with sapphires almost as large as the one on his chest. The sapphires were that cornflower blue, like a drop of Caribbean Sea water made solid.

His hair was a mass of black curls. It was almost as if he'd done less to it than normal, letting it tousle around his face and shoulders. The black of his hair blended into the black of his coat, so that the hair was like a living accessory.

For a moment I thought he was wearing leather pants, until I realized the black boots ran up the entire length of his leg. He waswearing black pants but they were barely visible. I got just a flash of the back of the boots when he moved. The entire length of the boot from ankle to ass was tied with a blue cord that matched the startling blue of his shirt.

I was caught between going yippy-skippy I get to play with them both, and running like hell. I managed to simply stand there in the middle of the room and not run, or fall at their feet like a groupie. Though that last part took more determination than I'd ever admit out loud.

"Ma petite,have you heard a word that we have said?"

I remembered that their mouths had been moving while I gazed at all that masculine splendor, but for the life of me I couldn't repeat a word of it. I blushed as I admitted, "Not really."

He looked exasperated, hands on hips, spreading the coat backwards, flashing more of the blue cord as he paced towards me. "It is as I feared, Asher. She is besotted with you. If we cannot," he made a waffling motion with his hands and I saw the sapphire ring for the first time, winking at me in the candlelight, "tone this effect down, she will be useless tonight."

"If I had dreamt that she could be so totally affected I would have held back."

Jean-Claude turned and faced Asher. I could see that there was blue embroidery on the back of the coat. It made a pattern or picture, but I couldn't figure it out through the spill of hair. "Would you, mon ami,would you truly have withheld such pleasure? Could you have resisted?"

"If I had known this, oui.I would not have weakened us with Musette and her people here, not for any pleasure."

I frowned and shook my head. "Hold it guys." They turned and looked at me. They both looked surprised, I think because I sounded so normal. "This can't be Asher's powers, not unless his fascination extends to Jean-Claude, because you both seem equally nifty. I feel like jumping up and down and saying yippee, I get to play with them both." I blinked and fought not to blush. "I'm sorry, did I just say that out loud?"

The two men exchanged glances, then Jean-Claude turned back to me, and Asher directed that pale blue gaze on me. "What are you saying, ma petite?I have never seen you stand so speechless and insensible before me."

I looked at the two of them and shook my head. "Fine, you need a reminder, I can do that." I walked past them to the full-length mirror that sat on the opposite side of the room. I motioned them both over. "Come on, come on, we don't have all night."

They finally drifted over to me, looking puzzled. I got a little distracted watching them glide towards me in all that silk and leather and sparkly stuff. But finally, I had them standing in front of the mirror, though they weren't looking at the mirror, they were looking at me, still puzzled.

I finally had to touch each of them lightly on the arm and maneuver them so that the golden cream of Asher's coat spilled against the black velvet of Jean-Claude's. So that black curls intermingled with golden waves. I pushed them together until the startling blue of Jean-Claude's shirt and the sapphire pin brought out the blue of both of their eyes.

"Look at yourselves, and tell me that any mere mortal isn't going to stand there and say wow, for a few minutes."

They looked into the mirror, they looked at each other, and finally Jean-Claude smiled. Asher didn't.

"If it were merely Asher's powers then, you are correct, ma petite,it would not extend to me." He turned to face me, still smiling. "But I have never seen you this besotted."

"You just haven't noticed."

He shook his head. "Non, ma petite,I would have noticed such a phenomenon before."

I shrugged. "Maybe I've never seen you both dressed to kill before. The double impact is a little overwhelming."

He moved away enough to turn in a graceful circle, arms out, showing off the outfit. "You think it is too much?"

I smiled, almost laughed. "No, not even close, but I'm allowed to stand dumbfounded in the presence of such beauty."

"Trespoetic, ma petite."

"Looking at the two of you, I only wish I was a poet, because I can't do you justice. You look amazing, wondrous, specfuckingtacular."

Asher walked to stand at the far end of the room beside the false fireplace. It was hard to see in the dimness, but tonight someone had put two tapered candles on the mantel piece, each encased in crystal, so they glimmered like jewels. Asher's hair sparkled in the uncertain light. He put one hand on the mantel, his head down to stare at the cold hearth, as if the new fire screen Jean-Claude had added was tresfascinating. The fire screen was a huge antique fan encased in glass. The colors were vibrant reds, greens, a brilliant spray of flowers and delicate lace. It was pretty, but not that pretty.

I looked at Jean-Claude for some clue, and he merely motioned me to follow Asher across the room. When I just stood there, Jean-Claude took my hand and led me over to the other man.

Asher must have heard us coming, because he said, "I was very angry with you, Anita, very angry. So angry I did not think you might have just cause to be angry with me."

Jean-Claude squeezed my hand as if to tell me not to interrupt, but I seemed to be ahead on the discussion, so I hadn't planned to say a word. Never interrupt when you're winning.

"Jason told us how ill you were after I took blood from you. If you were as ill as he has reported then you would naturally fear my embrace." He looked up, suddenly, eyes wide and almost wild, lost in the glow of his hair and the flickering candlelight. "I would not have hurt you. It has never been so . . ." he seemed to be searching for a word, "terrible for any of my other," again he hesitated, "victims."

I wasn't sure what to say to that, because I agreed with part of what he'd said. I felt that he'd made me a victim of his powers, by not asking first. But whether I'd been aware of it, or not, somewhere in the back of my mind I must have been thinking about the problem all damn day, because I knew one thing for certain. I wasn't completely in the right, either. Damn it.

I let go of Jean-Claude's hand, because the feel of his skin against mine made it harder to concentrate right now.

"I can see where you might have gotten the idea that I understood what sharing blood with you would mean. I did ask you to bite me, I did offer to feed you, and you were right, I did know that your bite could overwhelm my natural defenses." It was my turn to look down at the pretty fire screen that would never know the touch of flame. "I just was so out of my head with," I almost couldn't say it, "desire that I wasn't thinking clearly. But that wasn't your fault. You could only go with what I said out loud."

I looked up, met those eyes. "Oh, hell, Asher, even if you could have read my mind at that moment I wanted you to take me, whatever that meant. There were no rules or stop signs in my head." I let out a long breath, and it shivered, because I was afraid of this, afraid of admitting it out loud, afraid of it all. I was afraid of being consumed by desire or love or whatever the hell you want to call it. "I wanted you to take me while Jean-Claude made love to me. I wanted us all to be together as of old."

"It is not of old for you, Anita," Asher said. He looked past me at Jean-Claude. "See, it is as we feared, she is besotted with me through your memories. It is not real what she feels for me. With my powers of fascination or without them, it is not real."

"That sounds like what I've been saying, Asher," I said. "That because you mind-fucked me I'll never know if what I feel for you is real. But I can tell you this, what I felt for you before, that was real. It isn't you before the holy water that I think of, it's you now, just as you are."

He shook his head and looked away, making his hair a barrier between us, so I couldn't see his face. "But I did use my powers to fascinate you, as a snake fascinates a bird. I captured your mind, and I meant to do it."

I touched his hair, and he jerked away from me, moved down the mantel out of reach. I didn't try and follow. I took in a lot of air and blew it slowly out. I'd have rather faced a dozen bad guys than this next bit of conversation.

"In your defense, I think we were naked and doing the nasty before you rolled my mind."

He looked up, face barely clear enough through the shadows and uncertain light for me to see he was puzzled. "Nasty?"

"Having sex," Jean-Claude said. "It is a quaint American slang term for it, to do the nasty."

"Ah," Asher said, though he didn't look any less puzzled.

I plowed on. I'm nothing if not determined once I've made up my mind. "My point is this, we were already having sex. You hadn't rolled my mind when I agreed to everybody taking their clothes off. You hadn't rolled my mind when we had foreplay. You hadn't rolled my mind when I was licking the back of your knees, and other things." I forced myself to meet his slowly calming eyes. "I volunteered for all that. If I could have figured out a way for you to be inside me that didn't include fangs I would have, but I wanted you both inside me."

I had to close my eyes, because I suddenly had a visual so strong that it nearly made my knees buckle. With the visual came the wave of sensation. It didn't make me claw the air this time. But I was left with a death grip on the mantelpiece, and my breath coming in gasps.

"Ma petite,are you well?"

I shook my head. "Compared to the first time I flashed back on the orgasm, yeah, I'm peachy."

"Quelle?"Asher asked.

"She has experienced the pleasure of us earlier today."

Asher looked even less happy. "She has every symptom. I did not believe she would. I thought her necromancy would protect her."

"I should also tell you that I think Belle Morte had something to do with how sick I was. She was feeding on me and Richard through you two."

Jean-Claude leaned against the wall, arms crossed. "Jason had told us that ma petite.But I still believe that your power has struggled with Asher's power all day. It is the old question of what would happen if an irresistible force met an immovable object."

"Asher being the irresistible force and me the immovable object," I said.

"Oui."

I'd have liked to argue with the division of labor, but it was too damned appropriate. "So what does that mean for us being together as a menage a trois again?"

Jean-Claude had a moment of something showing on his face, then he went to his blankest of blank faces. It was Asher who spoke, "You would be willing to do this again?"

I started to let go of the mantelpiece, decided not to, just in case, and said, "Maybe." I looked at Jean-Claude, his careful beautiful face. "I think Jean-Claude has finally found something that he won't compromise on."

"Whatever do you mean, ma petite?"

"I mean if I cost you Asher, it will drive a wedge between us."

"So I am something that you will take to your bed to be with Jean-Claude!" He was suddenly enraged, eyes full of liquid blue fire. His humanity folded away before my eyes to leave him pale and still beautiful, but it was the beauty of carved rock and jewels, a hard, bright beauty with no life to it, no softness, nothing human. He stood before me with his golden hair moving around his face like a halo, blown by the wind of his own power. He was wondrous and horrible, a terrible beauty, like the angel of death come to find you.

I wasn't afraid of him. I knew Asher wouldn't hurt me, on purpose. I knew more that Jean-Claude wouldn't allow it. But I'd had enough. Enough of Asher and of me. In some perverse way Asher and I were well matched in a bad need-therapy sort of way. We both had so many issues about personal intimacy and so many hoops that people had to jump through, that even I was tired of it.

I unbuckled my belt and started sliding it through the loops, when it was far enough back; I slid the belt out of the loop on my shoulder holster.

Asher asked in a voice that echoed through the room, crawled down my spine, "What are you doing?"

I finished taking my belt off, then shrugged out of my shoulder holster. "I'm getting undressed. I assume that Jean-Claude's got some clothes around here somewhere for me, too. Though I am so not wearing an outfit that matches yours if it has like petticoats and stays and stuff. You can't move in that shit."

"Have no fear, ma petite,I have held your preferences in the forefront of my thoughts, as I chose the clothing." He held his hands out to the side and struck a lovely, if overly dramatic poise. "Even ourclothing is comfortable and easy to move about in."

We were both ignoring the vampire that was glowering at us. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails when you're trying to be scary like being ignored.

I started to take my shirt off, but stopped. I did not want to have to go through the glowing cross routine again. I did not want to mess with it. So I went for the bed, where I could take off my shoes in comfort.

"So Jason told you what else Belle did?"

"She has given you the first mark, oui."

"She knows, Jean-Claude, she knows that Richard and I don't have the fourth mark." I hopped up on the bed, laying my belt and shoulder holster beside me. I concentrated on untying my shoes, because I did not want to go where I feared the discussion would go.

"You will not look at me now, ma petite.Why, is it that you fear what I will say?"

"I know that if you gave me the fourth mark that she couldn't mark me again. I'd be safe from her."

"Non, ma petite,no lies between us. She could not mark you as hers, but you would not be safe. I could use this as an excuse to claim that last bit of you, but I will not, because I fear what Belle would do."

I looked up at him, one shoe in my hand. "What do you mean?"

"For now, she thinks she may be able to claim you as her human servant. She may be able to use you to increase her own power. If she finds you are beyond her reach in that way, she may decide that you are better off dead."

"If she can't have me, then nobody else gets me either, is that it?"

He gave a small nod, and an almost apologetic shrug. "She is a very practical woman."

"No, she's a very practical vampire. Trust me, Jean-Claude that is a whole new level of practicality."

He nodded. "Oui, oui,I would argue if I could, but it would be lies."

Asher was walking towards us now. His eyes were still glowing that drowning blue as if a winter's sky had filled his skull, but for the rest, he looked as ordinary as he ever did. Which was extraordinary. But at least he wasn't raising a small wind of his own otherworldly power or levitating a few inches off the floor.

"You are both weakened by not sharing the fourth mark. Neither of you is as powerful without it. You know that, Jean-Claude."

"I do, but I also know Belle. She destroys that which she cannot use."

"Or casts it aside," Asher said, voice soft, holding sorrow enough to make my throat tight.

I had my shoes off, my jogging socks tucked into them on the floor. "Casting you aside did destroy you," I said. I meant it to be soft, but it came out pretty much like I usually sound.

He glared at me, his pupils swimming up through the blue fire like an island reborn from the sea.

"What I mean, Asher, is that she chose what would hurt you worse than death. To be cast out from her affections, from Jean-Claude's bed, since his bed was hers."

"She would not kill me because she promised Jean-Claude she would not."

I glanced at Jean-Claude.

"I came back to her for a hundred years, if she could save Asher's life. If he died, I was free of her."

"So she worked to keep me alive," Asher said, and his voice was bitter enough to choke on. "There were nights when I cursed you for my life, Jean-Claude."

"I know, mon ami.Belle Morte often pointed out that if only I would allow you to die, you could be spared such humiliation."

"I did not know that she gave you that choice."

Jean-Claude looked away, not meeting the other man's eyes. "It was selfish on my part. I would rather you alive and hating me, than dead and past all hope." He looked up then, and his face was raw with emotion, so unlike his usual polite blankness. "Was I wrong, Asher? Would you rather have died all those years ago?"

I sat on the bed, watching them, waiting for the answer. In a way I was an audience, in a way I wasn't there at all.

"There were moments when I longed for death."

Jean-Claude turned away. Asher touched his arm, fingertips on the velvet. That small touch seemed to freeze Jean-Claude. If he was breathing, I couldn't see it. "Last night was not one of those moments."

They stared at each other. Asher's fingertips barely touching Jean-Claude's arm. There was so much between them, centuries of pain and love and hate. It was as if all of it boiled in the air, almost visible in the flickering light. I wanted to say kiss and make up, but I knew they wouldn't. I don't know what issues they had about each other, but they seemed unable to do things like that without their Julianna. She'd been the bridge between them. The thing that allowed them to love each other. Without her, they stood on the brink of the abyss and gazed at each other, separated by a chasm that neither knew how to cross.

I could never be Julianna. I had too many memories of her. For God's sake she'd done embroidery. She'd been gentle and kind and everything I didn't think I was. But there was one thing I might be able to do.

I slid off the bed, and went first to Asher, because I didn't want to set him off again. I went on tiptoe, and he had to bend down a little for me to kiss him, but he didn't fight me. I held his face in my hands like it was a cup carved of some delicate stone, something that would shatter if you abused it. I kissed him softly, drinking from that cup as the sacred gift it was. I went to Jean-Claude with the taste of Asher still on my lips. I cupped his face as I had held Asher's, and I kissed him. He barely moved under my mouth.

I stood back from the two of them. "Now, we've kissed and made up. We need to get me dressed, and we need to talk before the banquet."

Jean-Claude's voice came out low and hoarse, as if he wasn't breathing well. "Talk of what, ma petite?"

"The Mother of All Darkness."

"Jason spoke of her, too, but I hoped he was misunderstanding."

"It cannot be the Sweet Mother," Asher said, "she has not woken in a millennium."

"She's not awake, Asher, but she's moving around like a restless sleeper."

The two men looked at each other. It was Asher who said, "I would put aside petty differences until we are at the bottom of this most grave mystery."

"What petty differences?" I asked.

"Whether we are to be a menage a trois, or no."

I shook my head. "I adore you, Asher, but I don't have enough energy left to shovel this much emotional shit. Do you realize that you have more hang-ups about personal intimacy than I do?"

He opened his mouth, closed it, then gave that Gallic shrug.

"We're actually well-matched in a I-haven't-beaten-you-to-death-yet, sort of way. But for now, let's both try to put our personal mess aside. Okay, please."

He gave a graceful bow. "As my lady commands, so shall I obey."

"For as long as it suits you," I said.

He laughed then, and it was a good laugh, a sound that glided down my skin and jerked at things low in my body. It brought a sigh from my lips. "Now, where are my clothes for this little disaster tonight?"