PURPLE PASSIONS

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asher's kiss

A sanctioned execution has been decreed by order of the courts.  Now Anita struggles to save the vampires she once hunted.  (Takes place after NIC)
 
Rated R
 
Disclaimer:  All characters, universe, situations belong to author Laurell K. Hamilton.  No profits will be made from this fic.  It's just a twisted hobby of mine.

ASHER'S KISS  

For Regina and Kira, who help feed the ardeur

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PART ONE~

Strange, the things you think of sometimes, or remember, for no apparent reason.

I had just finished my last animating job of the night. It had started to drizzle during the ceremony, so the relatives of the dearly-departed I had raised, their lawyer, and the insurance company's lawyer had left the cemetery as soon as I'd finished, to reconvene in some plush, dry office somewhere. Probably to discuss new terms for a settlement in light of the information they had received tonight.

I loaded my animating kit back in the trunk of my car, and was now busy cleaning my hands with the pre-moistened aloe vera wipes I kept in my glove box for just such occasions.

It was only misting now, but the night sky was black with rain clouds. The moon was new and it was dark enough in the remote cemetery that I was forced to use the light from my open trunk to see what I was doing and make sure I didn't leave any blood under my fingernails.

Suddenly, I remembered standing under a streetlight beside a bridge. The streetlight was an oil lamp--the kind some poor sot had to manually turn out before the break of dawn each morning. The broken cobblestones beneath my feet were wet and shiny. Puddles of standing water lay just off the curbside. It had rained earlier that night and was still misting enough to keep everything glossy and slick.

Asher was standing under that light as well, a few paces away from me, looking so ethereally beautiful, at first I thought he was a vision. But then he stretched out his hands and beckoned to me. I threw myself so mightily into his arms, I nearly sent us both crashing to the sidewalk. His body was a column of strength however; his sheltering embrace so soothing to me, I remembered wishing I could crawl inside him and hide forever. He held me tightly as if he'd never let me go, and I leaned into him, letting his arms support me because suddenly my legs could not.

I remembered how warm he was and how cold and wet I was. As he murmured tender words over and over again in my ear, his hand gently stroked the hair from my eyes. He kissed them with feather-like caresses, lifting away the raindrops and tears that had wet them. I wrapped my arms tighter around his neck and pressed my face against his. I wanted every part of my body touching every part of his. In that instant, he was everything I needed, all I really wanted, but I couldn't seem to get close enough to him to stop my trembling.

Asher pulled the cloak off his shoulders and threw it around me. I sighed and touched my lips to that luxuriantly soft skin just below his ear in gratitude. He moaned softly and I felt his arms flex around my back. Still whispering endearments in my ear, he rubbed his cheek against mine like an affectionate cat, slowly and sensuously. It stirred something deep and fierce inside me. I dragged my mouth over his skin and scraped my teeth along his jawline. Sliding my hand up the side of his face, I buried my fingers deep in his hair, turning his head to face me. I looked up into eyes the color of melting ice and felt my breath catch in my throat.

"Mon chardonneret," I murmured, my lips brushing his as I spoke.

He tilted his head and pressed his lips against mine, cautiously at first, knowing they were bruised; but I tightened my fist in his hair encouragingly and boldly slid my mouth over his until I felt his hesitation dissipate. His passion ignited like a fire flaring to life inside him, and then he kissed me--really kissed me, like I had never been kissed before. I had been kissed with desire for my body countless times, but never with the sweetness and intimacy of love that Asher conveyed to me that night. It made my knees weaken, my loins constrict, and my heart ache.

"Anita."

I suddenly realized two things. One: that memory actually belonged to Jean-Claude, and two: Asher actually was standing beside me, ten feet or so away, smoking a cigarette, just outside the circle of light. He was the only vampire I knew who smoked. He took one last long drag from it before flicking it into the shadows, then he locked his eyes on mine, and took a tentative step forward. As usual, half his face was hidden in darkness. His long blonde hair billowing around his shoulders was sparkling from the night mist, and looked like a golden fire whipping around his head in the breeze.

Asher took another step closer. Despite the lack of light, I could still see him clearly. He was wearing a light gray Armani suit, white shirt and a pastel blue tie which, considering his coloring, looked unbelievably dashing on him. I made a mental note to tell him so. Later.

He was breathtaking to behold, but I was suddenly too angry to appreciate it. I was too busy soundly cursing myself for letting my defenses down. I took several cleansing breaths and then slammed the trunk down as hard as I could.

"Damn it! Don't sneak up on me like that!" I snapped, stomping around to the side of the car. I jerked open the door and grabbed my shoulder holster. "If I'd been armed, you'd be blown to bits by now."

The faintest smile played on his lips. "I don't think so," he told me. "I was watching you from over there." He made an abstract gesture into the shadows with his hand. "You were so submerged in thought, I could have disemboweled you before you realized what had hit you."

"Yeah, well, that doesn't happen very often," I pointed out.

He walked up to me slowly. "I know." He paused, thinking, his startlingly pale eyes narrowing. "Which makes me wonder what could have possibly occupied your mind so thoroughly that you did not sense my approach."

Now I slammed the car door. "None of your business, Asher." I was more angry at myself than him, but his unexpected appearance made him a convenient focal for my temper. I tugged off the jacket of the suit I was wearing and roughly strapped on the holster.

Beside me, Asher stood very still. I don't even think he blinked. Then he took a long deep breath and released it hissingly through his teeth. "I think it is my business," he said at last. Then: "What were you remembering this time?"

I closed my eyes and shook my head. "Can't you just let it go for once?" Jean-Claude and I sometimes got our mental wiring crossed and shared each other's memories as if they were our own. Asher was aware of this, but he didn't particularly like it. Jean-Claude's memories of Asher were often intimate and painfully personal, so I couldn't say I blamed him for being put off by it, but I wasn't about to apologize for something I truly had no control over.

The combative spark seemed to leave Asher as quickly as it came and he turned around and leaned his hips against the back fender. His long hair spilled forward as he bowed his head as if to study the eroded patch of ground in front of him.

"I was merely curious," he admitted quietly. "Even if it was just a distant memory, Anita, the fact that thoughts of me had consumed your attention so completely, genuinely intrigues me." He looked up then, his very long bangs covering the ravaged side of his face. "I keep hoping you'll want to start your own stockpile of memories of me...of us, sometime. Someday, maybe."

I stared up into his still lovely face and felt my anger fizzle away. I reached up and pushed the hair obscuring his scars back behind his ear and leaned towards him.

"It was a kiss. That's all. I was remembering a kiss."

Asher lowered his head again until his forehead was touching mine. "Just a kiss?" he whispered.

"Well, a kiss that obviously left a lasting impression on Jean-Claude if he still remembers it so vividly." I ran my fingers absently through his hair. I still remembered it vividly. I could still feel the weight of Asher's full, petal-soft lips sliding over mine, his jaw moving against my chin, the heat of his tongue stroking the inside of my mouth...or actually Jean-Claude's. I sighed somewhat wistfully.

Asher laughed lightly. Just like Jean-Claude's, Asher's laugh could make my skin tingle. "Apparently it left a lasting impression on you as well, ma cherie," he murmured. He placed his elegant hands on either side of my neck and tilted my head back.

"Yeah, it did," I confessed and realized how much I was hoping he'd kiss me like that right now. I found myself staring up into his icy blue eyes and tried to lean my body against his, but he held me away from him.

Asher often adopted a very sexually aggressive persona. He flirted, hinted at things suggestively, and liked to touch me a lot, but Asher could also be excruciatingly inhibited when he wanted to be.

This seemed to be one of those times and I couldn't help but feel a little cheated by it.

"Why are you going all self-conscious on me now?" I toyed with the idea of encouraging him and began massaging his temples with my thumbs, then stopped. I forced myself to untangle my fingers from his thick tresses and took a step back. "Wait a minute, what are you doing here, Asher? You didn't come all the way out here just to tease me, did you?"

He frowned deeply. "Non, cherie. Jean-Claude sent me to find you."

"He sent you?" I bit my lower lip and pointed an accusatory finger at Asher's chest. "You know, you two have a history together. I know you swore an oath of allegiance to him, but for crying out loud, Asher, don't let him order you around like one of his flunkies."

"Anita, calm down," Asher soothed. "He asked someone to find you. I offered. It was something I could do for him." He shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets and looked away from me with a heavy sigh. "He wanted to come to you himself, but we wouldn't let him. He's not in the best frame of mind tonight and besides that, the media follow his every move anymore."

I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously. "All right, what's going on?"

"I am not at liberty to say," Asher said softly. "You need to just come back with me. Can you?"

My stomach was churning fitfully as my mind began conjuring up all sorts of heart-wrenching scenarios. I nodded, but asked, "Is he all right? Is everyone else all right? Can you answer me that much?"

"No one is hurt," Asher assured me. "Jean-Claude is...upset about something. Very upset."

"Upset?"

"He needs you. I cannot console him. I tried. We all did."

"We? Who's we?"

"Micah, Jason, Gretchen, and myself."

My throat felt tight, all of a sudden. "Get in the car."

Without hesitation, Asher straightened and stalked around the car to the passenger side as I slid into the driver's seat.

"Is he at the Circus?"

Asher nodded.

I took a slow, deep breath and started the car. "So, what's wrong with him?"

Angling himself in his seat to face me better, Asher shrugged casually. "He wouldn't tell me, but I have my suspicions. He doesn't want to talk to anyone but you."

I spared a glance in his direction as I did a hairpin U-turn to get the car facing the direction I needed to go. "You think it has something to do with me?"

Again, Asher shrugged.

I bit my lower lip in frustration, my tension increasing two-fold. "Why are you being so blasť about this?" I looked over at him again and caught the remnants of a frown.

"I'm not being blasť in the least," he retorted, sounding insulted. "There's just not much I can tell you at the moment."

My hands tightened on the steering wheel. "I don't believe you for a second. You must know what's happened! You know everything that goes on around there."

Asher was looking at me now so intensely, I could feel the weight of his gaze pressing down on me. I was having a hard time keeping my eyes on the road, but forced myself to in order to get us both there in one piece.

"Precisely," he said finally, struggling with his voice to keep it even. "Which means nothing has happened. If something had, especially something significant, I would be one of the first in the kiss to know."

Now it was my turn to frown. He was right. As Jean-Claude's second-in-command, Asher often knew the details of any given event even before Jean-Claude did. Of the two, he was considered the more accessible and approachable. Everyone tried to go to him first if possible.

I swallowed down the knot forming in my throat. Once again, my frustration and anger were misplaced and by volunteering to come find me, poor Asher was having to endure the brunt of it.

"Look. I'm sorry," I told him and reached over to clasp his hand in mine. "I'm a little on edge at the moment."

Asher drew my hand to his lips and kissed it softly. "You're not the only one, ma cherie. Because when Jean-Claude is unhappy, everyone is unhappy. He makes sure of it."

********

The rest of the drive to the Circus of the Damned was spent in a tense silence. The only sound in the car was the steady whump and squeak of the windshield wipers, but at least that was better than nothing.

As soon as I parked, I got out and started off towards the underground entrance. Asher followed, but his stride definitely lacked the sense of urgency I had in mine. I kept glancing back at him to make sure he was still following me. Whatever was going on, he didn't seemed particularly concerned about it.

Jason was waiting for us at the bottom of the steps. He smiled when he saw me and pushed open the door, leaning over to plant a kiss on my cheek as I hurried past him.

"What's wrong with Jean-Claude?" I asked him, as he sealed the door behind Asher. I figured if I asked enough people, maybe I'd get lucky and find someone who actually knew something.

Jason shrugged. No such luck. "I think he just wants to talk to you," he offered.

I frowned. "Asher said he was upset about something," I prompted, sparing a glance up at the silent vampire beside me.

The expression on Jason's face told me he was clueless. I shook my head and didn't bother waiting for him to say anymore.

********

Striding anxiously into Jean-Claude's living room, I half expected him to be pacing the plushly carpeted floor in a hot tantrum, but saw only Gretchen. She was stretched languidly out on Jean-Claude's black leather couch, reading a book as if she didn't have a care in the world. If Jean-Claude was as unhappy as Asher had implied, she didn't seem particularly put off by it. But then if this was solely about me, or our relationship, why would she? She was probably enjoying the fact that something was wrong.

Damn. Gretchen was the last person I wanted to talk to. As it was, she looked up from her book just long enough to glare at me as I walked by. Thankfully Asher came to my rescue and spoke to her for me.

"Do you know where Jean-Claude is?"

Gretchen's expression changed from hateful bitch to subservient wench in the blink of an eye as she looked up at Asher.

"He's in the bedroom," she told him in a quiet, almost reverent voice. "With the leopard."

Asher turned to me and gestured towards the bedroom, before dropping into the nearest chair. "Bon chance, ma cherie," he said and sighed.

I glared at him and then tromped over to the bedroom door. I knocked on it forcefully before turning the knob and then quickly slipped inside.

Merle was sitting in the chair beside the foot of the bed, his arms crossed casually over his chest. He nodded at me respectfully as I walked into the room. I nodded back, then focused my attention on the two figures at the head of the bed. What I saw wasn't what Gretchen had implied.

Jean-Claude was sitting on the far corner wearing nothing but a pair of black pants. His legs were drawn up to his chest and his arms were wrapped around his knees. His waist-length hair covered his bare torso like a glossy black cloak and his body was curled up so tightly, he was able to rest his chin on his left kneecap. You wouldn't think he'd be that flexible if you didn't know him the way I did.

I stepped closer. Jean-Claude didn't even look up as I approached him and gave no outward sign of even knowing I was there. His eyes were fixed on a folded document of some sort laying on the bed in front of his bare feet. His beautiful face was completely void of any expression and I knew from experience he usually adopted that false look of serenity when he was most distraught.

I couldn't pick up any emotion inside him either, and realized his metaphysical shields were locked down against me. He looked so isolated from his surroundings, I started to wonder if I would even be able to get through to him while he was in such a state of withdrawal. Asher and Jason had both told me Jean-Claude wanted to speak to me however. But why wouldn't he even acknowledge me?

I sighed heavily and focused my attention on Micah who was lying on the bed, curled around Jean-Claude's hips. His dark brown hair spilled down his shoulders onto the red comforter beneath him in a harsh clash of color. His hands cradled his deeply tanned face in quiet repose, and at first glance I thought he was sleeping. Then I noticed his large yellowish-green eyes were wide open.

"You look comfortable," I muttered to him. At least he acknowledged me.

"Very," he rumbled quietly. Then he smiled, somewhat sadly, stretched gracefully, and slipped off the side of the bed to greet me. He grasped my hands and drew me closer to him, away from Jean-Claude. He kissed me lingeringly and nuzzled my cheek affectionately.

I noticed he was almost as dressed up as Asher was tonight. His suit jacket was thrown over the foot of the bed close to where Merle sat and he wasn't wearing a tie, but the dark green silk shirt he was in was pleated in the front and had gold-colored buttons. His black pants were French-cut, but expertly tailored and very form-fitting. Casual chic.

I looked past his shoulder at Jean-Claude and frowned. For once he was the most under-dressed among us. That in itself spoke volumes. I turned my attention back on Micah.

"What's wrong with him?"

Micah glanced over his shoulder, then back to me. "I promised him I would leave once you got here," he whispered, avoiding my question altogether. "He needs to speak with you alone."

I sighed. "So I've been told." I opened my mouth to demand immediate enlightenment, but Micah leaned forward and kissed me again before I could.

"Just be careful," he continued, undaunted by my glare. "He hasn't fed yet."

My eyes widened and I drew back from him to look at Jean-Claude. Now that Micah had mentioned it, Jean-Claude did look pale to the point of actually being white. It was well into the night. He had to be considerably weakened by now. I faced Micah. He shrugged as if in answer to a question I had yet to ask.

"I'm sorry, Anita," he apologized. "I tried. He wasn't interested." He lifted my hand in both of his and squeezed it. "I'll be at home if you need me. For anything." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Merle stand up as if on cue.

"Wait, don't go," I told Micah, clutching his hand tightly to keep him with me. "He obviously talked to you. You obviously know what all this is about. Can't you explain anything to me?"

He shook his head and patted my hand encouragingly. "No. It's best that he does." He inclined his head towards Jean-Claude.

The master vampire was still huddled on the corner of the bed and had yet to move. It was as if someone had replaced the real Jean-Claude with a porcelain replica. Still beautiful, still perfect, but made of cold lifeless stone. It twisted my heart seeing him like that.

Micah gently pulled from my grasp, gathered his jacket off the bed, then walked over to Jean-Claude. He whispered something in Jean-Claude's ear, then passed his hand over the vampire's head down the length of his hair in an affectionate, comforting manner, taking his leave.

Suddenly I was alone. Practically alone. I might as well have been alone. I reluctantly turned to face Jean-Claude.

"Well, I'm here, so you better start talking," I grumbled.

Jean-Claude's eyes shot up to mine so quickly it made me gasp. He gracefully unfurled his body and stood up. Just like that, he was alive again. It happened so fast, it was unnerving. Especially since Micah and I had been discussing him as if he wasn't even there.

He walked up to me, past me, around me, past me again. I had to keep turning in circles to keep my eyes on him.

"I almost hoped you would not come tonight," he began, his voice so soft and breathy I could barely hear it. He continued stalking listlessly around the room, practically wringing his hands in agitation. "Then I would not have had to tell you anything. For one more night at least."

He passed by me again and I grabbed hold of him to make him stop. His skin was so cold I immediately let go of him again and stepped back.

"Tell me what?" I demanded. My nerves couldn't take much more of this.

Jean-Claude looked away from me and sighed. "I'm almost afraid to tell you. Afraid this could drive you from me for good. You've forgiven me transgressions in the past, but this...This will be different. I'll lose you this time."

He sounded so broken, my heart went out to him. I reached for him again and cradled his face in my hands. He gazed down at me, his expression still blank, but his eyes were glassy-looking, like he was on the verge of tears.

"Please tell me, Jean-Claude. Please. You're making me crazy!"

What he did next startled me. He submissively dropped to his knees in front of me and bowed his head.

"I love you, Anita," he suddenly declared, wrapping his hands around my wrists. He turned his head and kissed my palms, then sank back on his heels, clutching my hands to his chest, and closing his eyes.

I suddenly felt sick and wanted to shake him, but managed to quash the urge before I did. Being hysterical never accomplished anything worthwhile.

"You love me," I confirmed, struggling to keep my voice calm. "But...?"

He opened his eyes, looked up at me and laughed. It was the most hollow-sounding laugh I had ever heard from him. It still gave me chills, but not the usual tingly kind. He released my hands suddenly and took a deep breath. The first I'd noticed he took since I had arrived. My nausea was getting decidedly worse.

"You know me too well, ma petite."

"Shit," I swore. This could only mean one thing. I backed away from him, unable to keep the horror off my face. "What have you done, Jean-Claude?"

He pursed his full lips and placed his hands on the tops of his thighs, staring up at me unblinkingly. "I've done nothing...yet."

I shook my head. He looked far too innocent--far too tragic. This had to be an act. "Then tell me what this is all about!" I snarled. "Tell me something...besides the fact that you love me. And it had better be some absolutely monumental revelation too, that's all I can say."

Jean-Claude bowed his head again as if he knew he couldn't maintain his neutral expression anymore, and didn't want me to see the emotions he was feeling reflected on his face. "Yes, I love you, but..." he continued, flatly. "I am being forced to do something that I know will deeply hurt you. Something you may never be able to forgive me for." He seemed overcome by the thought and paused to collect himself before continuing. "I can only hope, you will try to understand its necessity, and not hold it against me...forever."

That was it. I couldn't stand all this hedging around anymore. I'd had it. Now I did scream at him. I seized a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back until his eyes met mine.

"Damn it, look at me!" I seethed. "Cut the histrionics, Jean-Claude, and tell me what the fuck you're talking about!"

For a brief moment, I knew I had startled him. Then Jean-Claude's expression hardened. With one forceful toss of his head, he jerked free of my grasp and caught my wrist in mid air with a lightening fast strike of his hand. He squeezed it hard enough to make me wince.

"No mercy for me, ma petite?" he whispered tightly, releasing me with a slight shove. "Surely you must feel how terribly hard this is for me to tell you."

Actually, I did, and that scared me more than anything. My heart started pounding in my ears and my mouth went completely dry. I started massaging my throbbing wrist and noticed the long black strands of hair clenched between my fingers that I had torn from his head as he pulled away from me.

I lowered my hand to my side and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Jean-Claude," I whispered. "But you're really starting to scare me now." I was almost ready to get on my knees myself. "Just tell me, please."

Jean-Claude's face became unreadable again. He stared up at me passively a moment longer before turning his eyes slowly towards the bed and the document lying there.

"What is that?" I asked, forcing myself to walk past Jean-Claude to the head of the bed.

"An edict for a sanctioned execution," he replied, almost casually and rose to his feet, keeping his back to me.

I froze momentarily, feeling a stab of panic seize me. I licked my dry lips and forced myself to reach for the letter. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I didn't really want to pick it up.

Sometimes, the government sent these decrees to the master vampire of a city if they knew who they were and where they could be reached. It was a kind of polite way to notify the Master of the City that one of his vampires had misbehaved and request that he please do the unsavory business of seeing the offending vamp properly disposed of. Edicts relied heavily on a master vampire's willingness to maintain amiable human/vampire relations.

Just a few years ago, the human populace was kept blissfully unaware of who the ruling vampires were. Since Jean-Claude was something of a quasi-celebrity here in St. Louis, everyone knew who and what he was. I never liked the fact that he was such a public figure, but the Vampire Council had ordered him a year or so ago to be their representative to the media. His image was the type they wanted to project. After all, he was intelligent, articulate, charming, for the most part congenial, and his beauty was to die for. Literally.

Reluctantly, I picked the document up, but suddenly couldn't bring myself to read it. I closed my eyes and clutched the paper to my chest. "Who's it for?" I asked, my voice strained and small.

I could barely even bring myself to ask. I didn't really want to know. Jean-Claude was being ordered to kill someone who was special to me. Someone who's death he believed I would never forgive him for. I was beginning to comprehend why Jean-Claude had been so hesitant to come right out and tell me.

I hadn't received an order for a vampire execution in a long time. This particular termination must have been assigned to someone else. Then, it was common knowledge that I was heavily involved with the Master of the City. Maybe the courts had decided assigning this execution to me would be a conflict of interest.

I heard Jean-Claude sigh and looked over at him. His back was still to me. All I could see of him was that veil of hair.

"Of course you know what it says without even reading it, don't you, Anita?" he said with a hint of accusation in his tone. He walked across the length of the bedroom as if putting as much distance between us as he could. "They want me to give them the heart of one of my vampires."

Feeling my lungs begin to burn, I realized I had been holding my breath and released it forcefully. "Who is it, Jean-Claude?"

"Sit down first."

I shook my head, my grip tightening on the edict. All I needed to do was look down and read it, but that one simple act seemed impossible all of a sudden. I tried to get Jean-Claude to tell me one more time. "Why can't you just answer my fucking question?"

Jean-Claude turned around and glared at me. "I said it was one of my vampires, but forgive me, ma petite. I misspoke," he told me, his voice low and ominously calm. "It is, in fact, your vampire. Not mine."

I gasped. The world suddenly stopped spinning and I felt like my body was still caught up in its momentum, or the room I was standing in had started spinning. Either way, I felt the blood drain from my face in a heated rush. I was so light-headed now, I believed I was actually about to pass out.

Jean-Claude was beside me again in the blink of an eye, his arms around me, supporting me. He eased me over to the side of the bed and forced me to sit down.

"I knew you would react this way," he growled, sitting beside me and stroking my hair. "I reacted in much the same way when I found out. That's why I wanted to try to prepare you a little. But you're so infuriatingly impatient at times, ma petite. It makes me spiteful. Truly I had no right to blurt it out to you the way I did. Can you forgive me that little indiscretion at least?"

He stopped ranting long enough for me to find my voice.

"Damian?" I breathed. "But why?"

Jean-Claude sighed. "Have you forgotten what happened while you were in New Mexico, ma petite? The two people he tore apart in their car?"

I shook my head. I had tried, almost to the point of success, to push that bit of knowledge into the darkest, farthest recesses of my mind, never to be remembered again. But I hadn't forgotten. Not really.

"But he was sick...."

"It does not matter," Jean-Claude said and gazed down at me with soft, sympathetic eyes. "I am so sorry. More than you know."

Ignoring my vertigo, I shot to my feet. "Don't you dare be sorry! Don't even think about it! You're not going to do anything to be sorry for!"

With a long drawn out moan, Jean-Claude leaned away from me and covered his eyes with his hand. "I am not above the law, ma petite."

"No!" I snapped and fitfully shredded the edict under his nose and flung the tattered pieces on the floor. "You can't kill him! I won't let you!"

Suddenly, I couldn't breathe. I had to get out of that room, away from Jean-Claude. He was the enemy now. He wanted to kill someone I loved. I whirled around and made a dash for the door.

Jean-Claude sprang after me and grabbed my arm, hauling me back around to face him.

"Do I mean so little to you, you would have me suffer the consequences of disobeying your laws? Either I kill him or I turn him over to an executioner. Those are my choices. It sickens me, Anita, but my hands have been effectively tied in this matter!"

I struggled to break free, but he had me in a vice-like grip. I'm sure I'd have lovely multi-colored bruises to show for it in the morning. In that instant I hated him. Truly hated him and wanted to spit in his face, scratch his eyes out, or slug him, but I knew better than to get into a wrestling match with a master vampire. However, there were other, more effective ways, I could punish him.

"You sonofabitch! Asher was right!" I screamed, trying harder to jerk my arm from his grasp. The pain he was causing me was only fueling my anger. "You'd do anything to ensure your own survival! Even if it cost the lives of those close to you! You don't give a damn who's blood you step in, do you? You don't care about anybody but yourself! You're such a liar, Jean-Claude. And everyone knows it!"

For a moment, Jean-Claude froze, clearly stunned. Then he blinked slowly and stared back at me inquisitively as if searching for some sign that I actually believed what I had just said. In that instant, I realized just how much that had hurt him, but I was too blinded by my outrage to really care.

Jean-Claude released my arm finally and turned away from me to go sit on the edge of the bed. He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and lowered his head into his hands. His hair flowed over his shoulders like a curtain of black silk and he dragged his hands through it, pushing it back from his face a few times. Then he simply buried his fingers in it, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes.

He had zoned out on me again. He became very still and for the longest time, I couldn't tell if he was breathing or not. I considered just leaving--I doubted he would try to stop me now, but what would leaving accomplish? I needed Jean-Claude on my side. I couldn't go anywhere until we had worked something out.

I called his name, but he didn't respond. I stood in the middle of the room, feeling very frightened and alone all of a sudden. And more than a little abused by circumstances. How could so many things go wrong in such a short span of time? I wondered. I walked over to the chair Merle had been sitting in and threw myself into it. Not really knowing what else to do at the moment, I waited.

In the ensuing silence, I could hear my pulse banging in my ears and suddenly remembered Micah telling me Jean-Claude hadn't fed all night. I suppose vampires could lose their appetites every once in awhile, just like humans could when they were upset. And Jean-Claude had been as upset as I had ever seen him tonight. He was so afraid he'd lose me over this. Now that I knew what his fears had been based on, he had every right to worry about losing me. This could change everything between us. Nothing would ever make it right.

I realized then, that I didn't want that to happen. I had to do everything in my power to ensure it didn't. I was bound to Jean-Claude by more than just my feelings for him. I was his human servant. The marks I bore had been married. I'd never truly be able to separate myself from him because of that.

As I continued to gaze at Jean-Claude, I felt the first twinge of remorse nudge my conscience. I knew that whole sorry mess with Julianna and Asher still haunted Jean-Claude and it was truly malicious of me to throw it in his face the way I did. I wanted to apologize to him for being so nasty, but resisted the urge for the time being. I could not cave in to this, no matter how much I hurt him. Damian's life was on the line and there was no room for remorse.

"Promise me you are not going to betray Damian," I said, softly.

Jean-Claude looked up. I wasn't expecting him to and it startled me.

"I have not betrayed him, ma petite," he replied, his voice raw and thick with emotion. "But someone within my kiss has. If I can do anything for him now, it will be to find the one responsible for this and exact a justifiable revenge. Damian's and my own."

I sat forward in my chair. "Damian needs your protection right now, not your revenge," I grumbled.

Rising fluidly to his feet, Jean-Claude massaged his eyes wearily. "You'd have me disregard their proclamation, jeopardize the safety of all my vampires, my freedom, my lands, all my allies, to satisfy this...tres galant, but rather distorted sense of devotion you feel for him? He is one vampire! You may feel responsible for him, but I am responsible for hundreds of others!"

I shook my head. I didn't want to hear his reasoning, no matter how viable it was. "You're right, Jean-Claude. I am the one responsible for him and I'm not about to let anything happen to him."

Jean-Claude's despair was giving way to anger now. He wasn't shielding me from his emotions anymore and I could feel the change in him through our bond as his power flared and bristled in the air between us. I was not about to let him intimidate me however.

I pointed my finger at him. "If you go through with this, Jean-Claude," I warned, rising from the chair and walking towards him. "I will never forgive you. You can count on that."

Jean-Claude began stalking around me so slowly and fluidly, he reminded me of a predator moving in for the kill. Then, he actually was a predator. Was I the kill? I raised my chin defiantly, daring him to do anything rash. But instead of rash, he chose to do what I had done to him. He went straight for my heart.

"How ironic all this is, ma petite," he whispered, leaning his head over my shoulder. I could feel the coolness of his breath against my face and it sent goosebumps rippling down my spine. "Once upon a time, you would have received the order to execute Damian. You would have hunted him down, shot him through the heart, and cut off his head without a second thought. Just as ruthlessly as you have done countless times before."

I turned my head and looked up into Jean-Claude's eyes. I could feel my chest tighten and hot, heavy tears slide down my cheeks, unstoppable. Yeah, the truth hurts.

Jean-Claude raised his hand to my face and scooped up one of my tears on his index finger. He carried it to his lips, then licked it off slowly, as if savoring its taste, keeping his eyes fastened to mine.

"Maybe I didn't feel anything for the vampires I executed, but then I didn't know them the way I know Damian." I wiped the remaining tears off my face with the heel of my hands and sniffed loudly.

Jean-Claude's expression softened and I felt his anger ebb away like a lunar tide. He realized he had succeeded in hurting the one he loved, but unlike me, he had no stomach for it. He placed his hands on my arms and kneaded them soothingly.

"What makes him so special to you, ma petite?" he asked quietly. "Why am I led to believe you would do anything to protect him? Are you so in love with him?"

I shook my head. "I'm not in love with him. I love him...but you're the only one I'm in love with."

A slow, sad smile tugged at the corners of Jean-Claude's mouth. "You say that so very sweetly, but if it's true, why don't I warrant such devotion from you? Why do you prefer to sacrifice me to save him?"

I gazed up at him and bit my lower lip. I didn't know what to say.

He turned his face away from me then and wrapped his arms around his chest, bowing his head so that his chin rested on his right wrist. His long hair cloaked his left side in a mass of tangled curls that spiraled down to his navel. The blackness of his hair contrasted sharply with the whiteness of his skin. He looked like some exquisite porcelain figurine standing there like that. The kind you saw only in the windows of the most exclusive curio shops in Paris or Milan. So poignantly beautiful and fragile, but at the same time, begging to be touched.

I couldn't help myself. I stepped up behind him and slipped my arms around his waist. I leaned into his back and rested my cheek between his shoulder blades. My hands slid across the flat plane of his abdomen, then down the front of his pants. Jean-Claude unfurled his arms and covered my hands with his. I heard him sigh faintly and felt his body mold against me. Holding him like this, feeling him under my hands, made my mind cloudy with desire. All I wanted to do right now was forget everything. Lose myself in him, touch him, and let his body move over mine.

Jean-Claude took hold of my left hand and brought my wrist to his mouth. I tensed slightly, but he only kissed it. Then he carefully and delicately grazed my skin with his teeth and a low whimper escaped his throat. Well aware of the fact Jean-Claude had yet to feed tonight, his gesture startled me and I gently pulled my hand away from him and re-wrapped it around his waist. He sighed heavily.

"Forgive me. I can smell the heat in your blood, ma petite," he murmured thickly. "But I should know better than to touch you so suggestively. You won't give yourself to me in that way. To even offer is unthinkable, isn't it?" His voice was getting breathier, softer, and harder to hear. He paused and languidly stroked the length of my arms. It felt good and eased some of the tension in my body, if not my conscience. "Yet, when I feel your desire like I do now, I happily offer you everything I am."

I was not about to feel guilty for depriving him of my blood. "I'm sorry, Jean-Claude. But you know the rules."

"Yes," he said and nodded slowly. What he said next surprised me. "I think I'm beginning to understand. This is the first time tonight you have wanted to hold me. As much as your embrace pleases me now, I know you approached me out of lust, not love." He laughed lightly but there wasn't any joy or humor to it. It was actually rather sad-sounding. He continued. "Since I am such a wicked liar, perhaps after all this time, I have lied even to myself. I had convinced myself that you truly loved me, but maybe in reality, I am only to you what I have been to countless others throughout the years--merely something pretty you come to for gratification. Something to use and then cast aside. I need to feel loved right now, ma petite, but all you offer me is lust."

I did feel a little guilty about that. His words were too close for comfort. I immediately stopped groping him and slipped around in front of him. I looked up at him with all the intention of quipping off a sharp rebuttal--after all, if he was feeling like a sex object, it was his own damn fault, not mine. But the shadow of doubt I saw lingering in the dark blue depths of his eyes stirred my heart with unexpected compassion.

Was Jean-Claude really doubting my love for him? He was so insecure sometimes. I could never understand that, but I guess I had given him just cause to doubt me tonight. So what could I possibly do to reassure him? Anything sexual would be just that. Then I remembered the way Asher had kissed him, all those years ago.

The memory of it was still vivid in my mind. Tentatively, I raised my hand and placed it against Jean-Claude's cheek, then I leaned forward and brushed my lips over his. I opened my mouth encouragingly and slipped my tongue between his teeth. Slowly, passionately, I moved my jaw against his. I kissed him with everything I had.

It took a couple of heartbeats before Jean-Claude allowed himself to believe the sincerity behind my tenderness enough to kiss me back, but when he did, the room dissolved around us and the hour-glass of time began spinning towards the past. Back to that same cobblestone road, on that same cold, rainy night under that same street lamp by the bridge.

I didn't let up until I heard Jean-Claude groan softly and deeply in his throat. When I drew away from him and looked up into his eyes now, he was gazing down at me with the most endearingly perplexed expression.

"Don't ever doubt me again, Jean-Claude," I murmured.

It took him a couple of tries to find his voice. "Does this mean you will forgive me after all?" he inquired somewhat breathlessly and with newfound hope.

I furrowed my brow. Damn. We were back to that again. I shook my head slowly.

"....No. But since I'm not going to let you kill Damian...or hand him over to an executioner, the whole matter of me forgiving you is null and void."

Jean-Claude groaned now in exasperation. He turned away from me and started pacing the length of the room.

"Why am I unable to make you understand?" he growled, more to himself than to me, I think.

"No one is killing Damian," I declared. There. End of discussion.

"Oh really?" Jean-Claude asked, feigning shock. "And just how do you propose to keep him alive? If wishes were horses, ma petite...."

I glared at him. "Just give me some time, Jean-Claude. I'll think of something."

"We don't have the luxury of time," he stated flatly. He stopped pacing and stood regarding me a little sympathetically. "When are you going to realize you cannot always save us? Why do you continue to try? It takes so much out of you every time you do, soon, there'll be nothing left of you to give. We will all suffer then."

A wave of emotion suddenly hit me and I wasn't sure if it was mine or Jean-Claude's. I felt a lump tightening my throat, however.

"I have to try, Jean-Claude," I whispered. "I'll never forgive myself if I don't try."

********

No one was in the living room when Jean-Claude and I emerged from the bedroom with our uneasy truce. He would give me all the time he possibly could before replying to the edict, and I would forgive him if it came to that, simply because I had to. I loved him. Jean-Claude and I would have to think of some way to save Damian before it came to that however. The courts had given us a whopping forty-eight hours to comply to their wishes before they organized a hunt. That's right, failure was not an option.

We were alone in this too. Jean-Claude warned me not to discuss the edict with anyone. He was serious about finding out who had betrayed Damian and didn't want to tip anyone off concerning our plans.

"No one?" I asked, my heart sinking.

Jean-Claude shook his head. "No one."

"Not even Asher?"

"No."

"But we're going to need help. Asher could help us."

"He will help us without knowing why."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You really think Asher would be capable of betraying Damian?....Not to mention you and me?"

Jean-Claude didn't even have to think about it. "He was capable of much worse things in the past. He has the perfect motive, ma petite. You are all that stands between the two of us being lovers again. If he did this, he did it to drive you away from me."

I shook my head adamantly. "Capable of such things in the past maybe, but not now!" I protested. "Jean-Claude, if you keep him out of something like this, it might do irreparable damage to your friendship."

Jean-Claude took my hand and squeezed it tightly, almost threateningly. "It may already be too late," he stated, then looked past me suddenly.

I didn't have time to wonder about that bit of prophetic gloom. Asher was walking slowly towards us. He looked from Jean-Claude to me, then back to Jean-Claude. "Is everything...all right now?" he questioned carefully, stopping in the middle of the living room.

I took a deep breath. "Sure. Everything's just peachy."

Jean-Claude squeezed my hand again and stepped away from me. In retaliation, I pinched his arm discreetly, but hard enough to make him twitch. He shot me a censured look before focusing his attention on Asher.

"We have reconciled our differences for the time being," he lied. Well, it was mostly the truth.

Asher forced a smile. "Ah, bon. Tres bon." He reached up and brushed Jean-Claude's cheek lightly with his knuckles before looking over at me. "See, cherie, I knew his heartache had something to do with you."

I nodded reluctantly and stepped towards him. "That it did." At least that was the truth.

"Anita needs to find Damian, mon ami," Jean-Claude continued, addressing Asher. "And I need to feed. If you would be so kind as to escort her to Danse Macabre for me?"

Asher looked at me and offered me a little bow. "I'd be happy to."

Jean-Claude leaned over, as if to kiss my cheek, but whispered in my ear instead. "Let me know what you decide to do as soon as possible," he told me. "If there's anything you need, anything that you believe may help, contact me." Then he actually did kiss my cheek.

I was starting to feel daunted again. I really had no clue as to how to pull this rescue off. But first things first, I had to tell Damian he'd been put on the government's hit list. I turned to Asher.

"Let's get out of here."

Asher looked from me to Jean-Claude with a quizzical expression. It was obvious he suspected something wasn't quite right. It made me want to stomp my feet and demand Jean-Claude tell him everything this instant.

I just couldn't believe Asher would betray us. If anything, Asher had more common sense than to concoct a scheme like this just to get me away from Jean-Claude. He would have to realize if Jean-Claude ever found out he was the one responsible for this, not only would his plan backfire and turn Jean-Claude against him, Jean-Claude would most likely kill him.

I looked up into Asher's eyes and suddenly felt my own watering excessively. And what about me? I had always believed Asher loved me in his own way. Why would he want to hurt me so badly? No, I just couldn't believe it.

"Ma petite, are you all right?" Jean-Claude asked, pulling me out of my reverie.

I nodded quickly and tried to sniff quietly. Jean-Claude sighed softly and wrapped his arm around my shoulders encouragingly. He kissed the top of my head and murmured something to me in French that I didn't understand, but found comforting anyway. I turned and leaned against Jean-Claude's chest, snuggling closer to cool my flushed skin with his.

Asher sidled up behind me and put his hands on my upper arms. His body was warm and firm. He lowered his head until it was resting on my shoulder, his smooth left cheek pressed against mine.

"Cherie, don't cry," he whispered.

Being sandwiched between the two vampires the way I was had an almost mind-numbing effect on me. I allowed myself a brief respite sheltered between their contrasting bodies before wiggling free.

"I am not crying," I sniffed again and swiped my wrist across my eyes.

Asher put his hands on his hips and cocked his head dubiously. "Love's a bitch, isn't it?" he said so unexpectedly, it made me laugh. He gave Jean-Claude a contemplative look before turning to me. Then he smiled devilishly and stretched out his hand. "Come. Let us go find fair Damian, shall we?"

I went to him and clasped his hand in mine. "Yes, let's," I replied.

Asher glanced over his shoulder at Jean-Claude. "Don't wait up," he quipped.

Jean-Claude emitted a soft snort of a laugh and placed his hand on Asher's shoulder.

"Go," he said and all but pushed us both out the door. "You haven't much time."

There was something ominous in the way he'd said that. Of course I knew he was speaking of more than the coming dawn.

********

It had stopped raining finally. I turned off the windshield wipers and opened my window a crack. The air was heavy with the ionic scent of mist and the temperature had dropped a few degrees.

The drive to Danse Macabre was spent in a welcomed, soothing silence. Asher seemed to sense my need to ponder my place in the universe and left me to my thoughts. He sat beside me, staring out the window as quiet and still as I had ever seen him.

There was an air of seclusion surrounding him tonight, but along with that was a sense of resignation. He seemed to know he was being excluded again and there was nothing left for him to do but accept it.

I parked as far away from the club as I could, beyond the glare of the lights. I looked at Asher expectantly before getting out of the car. However, he wasn't looking at me, he was eyeing the club with a mixture of intrigue and acute trepidation. He seemed to feel the weight of my stare and turned to face me. I raised my brow and gestured with my head for him to get out.

He frowned, but indulged me and got out of the car. I took a deep breath, opened the door and was surprised to find him already standing in front of me as I did. I nudged him in the ribs. It was time to talk.

"You're very quiet, Asher. But I can practically hear the wheels of your mind spinning," I teased, purposefully keeping my tone light and cheerful.

He looked down at me slowly and offered me a graceful shrug. "I could say the same about you."

I sighed. He was too sullen, too brooding all of a sudden. I leaned into him then and slipped my arm around his waist. "What's wrong, Asher?"

He smiled at me, but it wasn't from mirth. "What isn't wrong, Anita?" he answered sharply, then dropped his eyes from mine and a look of regret passed over his face. "I'm sorry. I just...I hate it when he hurts you."

I blinked up at him in confusion for a moment before I realized what he was talking about. I shook my head. "I shot as many arrows at Jean-Claude tonight as he shot at me." I couldn't tell him why I was really upset. It was best to let him believe the lover's spat theory for now. But then I didn't want him upset with Jean-Claude. "I know he still loves me, Asher."

Asher shot me a rather suspicious look. "He tells me he loves me too. You can see how far it has gotten me with him," he replied bitterly.

For the first time, I considered the possibility that he could have been the one to betray us. Frowning, I turned away from him, and determinedly pushed the notion back out of my mind.

"What do you want me to say?"

Flashing his fangs in a snarl of frustration, Asher dragged his hand roughly through his thick hair, sweeping it away from his face momentarily.

"You can tell me the truth," he began tightly. "I won't think any less of him, if you do. Remember, I know Jean-Claude even better than you do. I know what an evil sonofabitch he can be when the mood hits him."

I let my arm fall from Asher's waist back to my side. "Yeah, well, you're wrong about him. You've been wrong about him before, but don't feel bad. He's wrong about you too."

"Is he?" Asher said, looking down at me. His expression morphing into a precise blend of amusement and awe. "And love is deaf and dumb as well as blind, isn't it?" He shook his head, his hair falling back over the right side of his face. "We're both pitiful. We should both tell him to go to hell." He paused and fished inside his jacket pocket for a cigarette. "Go on. Get Damian. And I'll be waiting right here for you when you decide you want me."

Catching his innuendo, I glanced away from him, feeling a blush creeping up my neck and warming my cheeks. I knew a double entendre when I heard one.

"You're such a devil."

He merely smiled.

I gnawed my lower lip, debating. Then I found myself speaking before I had even decided to.

"Asher, would you really have sex with me if I asked you to?"

That seemed to startle him because he almost dropped the cigarette he was attempting to light. He leaned away from me slightly and locked his widened eyes on mine, clearly trying to decide if I was serious or not. He must have come to the conclusion that I wasn't.

"Ma cherie, you play with fire asking me questions like that. I don't appreciate it."

I wasn't about to back down however. "Well, would you? If I asked?"

Finally Asher nodded. "In a heartbeat," he said in an exhaled breath, his voice slightly thicker than it was before.

Now it was my turn to show him doubt. "But what about your secret? All would be revealed."

This caught him off guard as well. He gave up on the cigarette and stashed it back in his pocket. His eyes roved my face, searchingly.

"It would be worth it...I think."

I decided it was time for a little encouragement. Stepping around in front of him, I purposefully pressed my thighs against his. I felt him tense and the look on his face now was uncertain.

"If you're as ruined as you seem to like everyone to think you are, you wouldn't be so quick to accept my offer, now would you?"

Asher was breathing slowly and deeply now. "Maybe I get aroused by revulsion," he whispered, then bent his head towards me until his face was mere inches from mine and placed his hands lightly on my hips. "We wouldn't have to have intercourse. In fact, there are...many...other ways to please a woman, Anita."

The blush on my face was spreading through my body now, settling deep down inside the cradle of my hips. I slid my hands up his chest, under his jacket. I could feel his nipples harden beneath my palms through his silk shirt. His eyes looked like smoke, hot and suffocating, but at the same time, full of beauty and grace.

"Do you love me, Asher?" I questioned him earnestly, my voice barely audible. I had to know. Looking up at him, I tried to let him know how desirable and handsome I thought he was. According to Asher, I was the only one besides Jean-Claude who looked at him that way.

Asher stared back at me, momentarily stunned, then he trembled slightly and seemed to melt against me with a long, languid sigh.

"I adore you," he breathed and abruptly bridged the distance separating our lips. He captured my mouth with his with such a devouring intensity, I felt myself starting to swoon.

My lips were already tingling exquisitely. I felt the careful press of his fangs and opened my mouth to deepen the kiss. Then I felt the hot slickness of his tongue tangling with mine, tasted the unnatural coppery sweetness of his saliva, and felt the pressure of his jaw moving over mine.

Asher's power surged, pouring the emotions of his heart into mine and filling me with an amplified sensation of being loved. I had been kissed before by people who loved me, but never like this. Through his kiss, I felt Asher's love for me, just like Jean-Claude had felt Asher's love for him over a hundred years ago.

I moaned long and low, ready to surrender myself entirely to my passion and felt my ardeur suddenly brimming to the surface inside me, threatening to spill its scalding effects over us and take us both beyond the point of no return. I started sliding the jacket off Asher's shoulders and pushing him bodily towards the backseat of my car. I hadn't fed it in hours and knew I was treading in dangerous waters now. Shit. I knew Jean-Claude would be all right with me taking Asher as my lover to feed the ardeur, but this was neither the time nor the place.

Asher's arms encircled my back and he crushed me against his chest. His kiss became all consuming, more demanding, but then just as abruptly as he had taken me, he stopped, suddenly unsure.

"I can feel your hesitation," he whispered into my ear, his voice sensuously low and provocative.

With more willpower than I thought I possessed, I reluctantly pried myself free from his grasp and took a few steps away from him to try to clear my head. I hoped with all my heart he wouldn't misinterpret this the wrong way, but I truly did not have time to indulge myself with him in the backseat of my car right now.

I looked up at him, trying to remember how to breathe while simultaneously tamping down the ardeur. I knew it wouldn't be so forgiving the next time it rose. I'd have to feed it no matter what.

"We can't do this right now," I gasped. "Not like this. Not here."

Asher glanced around the parking lot and frowned deeply. Thankfully, he seemed to agree with me.

At least I knew without the slightest doubt now that Asher had not been the one who had betrayed Damian to the authorities. He loved me. He loved Jean-Claude. There was just no way he was the one. I swore hotly under my breath and shook my head.

"Oh...fuck Jean-Claude!" I spat, coming to a monumental executive decision.

Asher's jaw slackened and dropped. "....What?"

I groaned. "Oh, no, I didn't mean that literally. It was just an expression." I should know by now never to use expressions that could be taking literally.

"Of course," Asher said and then sighed. "I understand." He passed his hand over his face, struggling momentarily with his composure. I guess I had caught him by surprise once too often tonight.

I suddenly stepped forward and took his hands in mine.

"Asher...I need your help."

 

 

PART TWO~

I told Asher about the edict. He seemed more put off by the fact that Jean-Claude didn't want to tell him, than the fact Jean-Claude actually suspected him of being responsible for it.

"Look," I argued. "You can have it out with him later. Right now, I need your help."

Asher glared up at the bright red sign above the entrance to Danse Macabre. "And I agreed to help you, but I'm not going in there with you."

I had managed to get him all the way to the nightclub's entrance before he balked on me. Public places often made him self-conscious. It was infuriating to me, because I had a habit of looking past his ravaged face almost to the point of not even seeing his scars. So I couldn't understand how anyone could look upon him with disgust or horror. To me he was strikingly handsome. According to Asher, I was one of only two people on the face of the earth who thought so.

"But I may need you," I pushed. "Listen. It'll be dark in there. People will be too busy dancing, or too drunk to even notice you." I picked up his hand and squeezed it encouragingly. He didn't squeeze back.

"Being with you, I become complacent," he responded. There was the slightest hint of desperation in his voice. "I let myself forget for awhile what I really look like. Even I start seeing myself through your eyes." He shook his head, his hair automatically falling forward, obscuring the right side of his face. "Can't you let me wallow in ignorance a little while longer?"

For a moment, I actually considered letting him stay outside, but if I gave into him this time, it would seem as if I agreed with him. And I didn't. He didn't need to hide. I took a deep calming breath and decided to try a different approach.

"Jean-Claude told you to escort me tonight. He won't be very pleased with you if you let me go in there alone. Every sleezebag in the joint will think I'm fair game and make a play for me. And with my ardeur acting up, the shit could hit the fan in there."

Asher closed his eyes, threw his head back and growled in frustration. "Say no more! I'll go with you, but not to please Jean-Claude. I'm not exactly thrilled with him right now. But I understand your anxiety. I get the gist of it anyway." He peered down at me unhappily and sighed with resignation.

I fought a smile. Since he spoke English so fluently--his syntax was even better than Jean-Claude's--I kept forgetting Asher hadn't been in this country all that long. I rose up on my toes and kissed his cheek.

"As a reward, I'll mention to Jean-Claude that he needs to help you brush up on American slang."

Asher flashed a reluctant smile, but it disappeared the moment I pulled him through the door.

********

Danse Macabre's claim to fame was that it let the more daring of the general public rub shoulders, and other body parts, with real "live" vampires. There were eight vampires employed there who worked the crowds each night, usually four a night, one male, one female, and two sort of understudies for backup.

Damian was one of the vampires working the floor tonight. It was his job to dance one on one with the patrons and make sure they not only had a good time, but got to experience the presence of a vampire up close and personal. The tourists ate it up, so to speak.

It was crowded tonight but not overly packed, but then it was a weeknight. I was still having a hard time crossing the dance floor without bumping into people however. It was times like these I wished protocol would allow me to just draw the Browning and fire a couple of rounds into the ceiling to clear the place out. I had important things to do--these people were just here to get plastered and laid.

I felt more secure knowing Asher was at my back, but being surrounded by so much noise, erratic movement, and intoxicated bodies was making me slightly claustrophobic.

As if sensing my unease, Asher slipped his hand in mine. It wasn't until he pressed himself against my side like a frightened child on the first day of school that I realized he was sticking close to me more for his benefit than mine.

I turned to face him and suddenly caught sight of Damian. My mouth fell open and stayed that way until I felt it drying out and quickly snapped it shut. I suddenly felt like the unsuspecting parent who had stumbled into the sleazy strip club just to use the phone and noticed the slut on the stage was actually his honor roll student. I had always known Damian worked here--I'd met him here in fact, but knowing about his job and seeing him perform it, were two entirely different things.

I don't know how I could have possibly not noticed Damian before this, because first of all, he was in a red spotlight. He was wearing a ratty-looking sleeveless jean jacket edged with gold studs and accented with gold chains. Underneath all that was a plain black tee-shirt, torn diagonally across his chest to expose a tantalizing swatch of his translucently white skin. His arms were bare except for the gold slave bracelets he wore on each bicep. His tight, tight faded jeans were also ripped, over his knees and just below the curve of his ass across the backs of both thighs. Gold chains were wrapped around his slim waist and draped provocatively over his hips. His long and dark red hair was wildly tousled. He looked like an advertisement for Bad Boys R Us. And he was acting like one too.

I finally recovered enough to nudge Asher and gesture off to our left. Asher turned, his eyes immediately zeroing in on Damian.

"Merde," he muttered and shook his head. "How are we going to get him away from them?"

I shrugged. The "them" Asher was referring to were no less than a dozen fascinated young women, forming a little semi-circle around my vampire, anxiously awaiting their turn to dance with him. Their eager bodies shifted and swayed in time to the music as if they were keeping themselves warmed up in anticipation of his summon and might have to spring into action.

To be honest, I had always considered Damian attractive, sexy even, but watching him now was getting me really hot and bothered. Some study done by a university somewhere with an excessive research budget had shown the way a man tended to move was one of the biggest turn ons for women. Taking this to heart, I came to the conclusion my acute arousal had more to do with the way Damian was moving with these women than the way he looked. Even though he did look undeniably hot.

The lucky little lady he was currently dancing with looked like she was working on her third orgasm. Despite the fact they were both fully clothed, the way they were dancing with each other looked like they were actually having sex. I had heard of dirty dancing before, but this...this was wicked.

I had to smile. I suddenly wondered if that's where Jean-Claude had gotten his euphemism. Wicked dancing--same as having sex. Did he teach his dancers this? If he danced this way, no wonder he was always trying to get me to dance with him. The scoundrel.

Damian had the woman's back against his chest. His right hand stroked the exposed bare skin between her breasts while his left hand--firmly splayed just above her pelvic bone--kept her hips aligned with his. He rhythmically bumped and rubbed himself against her, in time to the pounding beat.

I noticed the woman's head was tilted all the way back so it lay on Damian's shoulder, the long line of her bared neck stretched temptingly within reach of his mouth. He caressed her throat a couple of times with the back of his hand, but other than that, paid no attention to it. I had to wonder if the woman realized how hard it had to be for him not to sink his teeth into her. The fact he didn't, showed how admirable his control was.

Within a few minutes however, Damian released her, and turned to pluck another pretty girl from the circle of hopefuls. He eased her up against his body first, whispered something into her ear that made her smile, then began his seduction all over again until she was more or less satiated. Then he abandoned her and chose another.

I realized while watching him, he never once looked into their eyes. He wasn't using any magic on them besides the power of his natural sex-appeal. I also noticed he never once smiled, even though he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Or at least his body was. Or maybe he was just reveling in the power he wielded over these women: the fact that he could use them sexually and dominate them so simply, in ways he had never been able to before. For over five hundred years, he had been the dominated one. He had been the sexual slave of a master so brutal, the Vampire Council and Jean-Claude had actually intervened on his behalf.

After enduring that, you'd think Damian wouldn't even like being with women. But he did and he liked pleasing them. Maybe it was obvious and that was why the number of women waiting to dance with him kept increasing. Unless this song ended soon--it was one of those that went on and on--and by some unforeseen miracle it was time for his break afterwards, I wasn't going to get anywhere near him anytime soon.

To make matters worse, the ardeur was back with a vengeance. No surprise there, having watched Damian semi-copulate with no less than four women in the space of three minutes.

I turned away from that spectacle and faced Asher. But he looked so hot just standing there I almost threw myself at him. I wanted to knock him down to the floor, rip off his clothes and sink my teeth into his ruined flesh. Damn. Damn. Damn.

"I've got to get out of here," I exhaled. "I'm going to have to just call Damian to me."

Asher shook his head. "They will follow him. And he'll probably attract more. We need to do this as discreetly as possible." He glanced at me, did a quick double-take, then gazed down at me sympathetically. "Is it the ardeur?"

I nodded and tried to fan myself with my hand. I suddenly felt like screaming and tearing my clothes off. Or his clothes off. Either way I'm sure we'd both end up naked. I reached for Asher and slid my hands up his chest under his jacket. I tugged at the collar of his shirt, loosening his tie.

Asher stilled my hand with his and turned me back around to face Damian. "No. Go to him, ma cherie," he advised sagely. "Don't fight it this time. He can take care of you and maybe it will discourage his would-be suitors as well."

I licked my lips half in anticipation, half in anxiety. "Yeah. Maybe you're right."

Asher offered me a thin smile. "Maybe."

I took a deep breath and started stalking forward, my eyes locking on Damian with an almost tangible intensity. I must have looked like a woman on the edge, because the crowd on the dance floor actually parted to make room for me the way they do in all the movies.

Damian noticed me when I was about ten feet from him. He immediately lost all interest in the woman he was currently "doing", and stepped away from her. Fastening his emerald-colored eyes on mine, Damian held out his hand to me in invitation. Yeah, it was my turn now.

The music had stopped for the moment. I came to a stop just out of his reach to first devour him with my eyes.

"You look good enough to eat," I growled. I didn't recognize my own voice, it was so husky with desire.

He came closer to me and offered me an indisputably hungry expression of his own. "So do you," he breathed and held out his hand again.

This time I took it, and as soon as I felt his skin touch mine, the power of our unusual bond flared, igniting the ardeur into something primitive and all-consuming. I pulled him roughly against me and buried my face in his hair.

"Satisfy me," I ordered him as my hands roved the curves of his body with the open rawness of my need.

Damian released a breath I hadn't known he was holding and nodded in acknowledgment. His hands slid down my sides and rested on my waist as he scissored his legs between mine.

Another song began. Just a mesmerizing quiet beat at first, but it cut into me like the lash of a whip. I recognized it as "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. The symbolism of this song wasn't lost on me either with lyrics like: "You make me violate you. You make me desecrate you. You make me penetrate you...." * Too perfect.

I could feel the hard muscle of Damian's thigh pressing against my crotch and slithered my hips eagerly down the length of his leg. My hands grasped the firm roundness of his ass and squeezed it savoringly. God, I wanted to do him right there on the floor.

"Easy," Damian whispered. He pulled me back up and shifted his hands to my lower back to keep my body immobile for the time being. "Try to relax," he told me breathlessly. He gently pressed his hips into mine, then started moving, slowly and seductively, keeping careful time with the music. As the song's tempo increased, so did ours. Damian gyrated forward and bent me backwards over his thigh a few times, intermittently increasing the pressure between my legs. Heat spread through my body like a wildfire.

Straddling him completely now, I grasped his shoulders to steady myself as he cradled my buttocks in his large hands to keep us locked at the hips. I willingly surrendered myself to his rhythmic manipulations, letting him move me however he wanted. I knew he wouldn't hurt or humiliate me. He had been ordered to satisfy me and that's exactly what he was doing. Closing my eyes, I could feel the steady beat of the music pulsing inside me now as I let my body melt into his and become like an extension of him.

Now, when he moved, I moved with him. I suddenly realized we were dancing, but it felt much more like making love. He was very hard, and pressed so close me, it almost felt like he was inside me. The only difference I could see between this and actual sex was the fact we were fully clothed, and rubbing and shifting and grinding our bodies over each other in time to music, therefore, all perfectly coordinated and much more gracefully executed.

My mind was starting to blank out conscious thought and center on the rippling sensations of pleasure that were coursing through me with increasing frequency. It made me want him even closer--just like the song said, and feel his bare skin on mine. I tore his already slashed shirt down the front, nearly ripping it off him, raking his chest savagely with my nails in the process. He gasped, and immediately blood welled up from the wounds so dark against the whiteness of his skin it looked black. It was a tantalizing sight. I pressed my mouth over the scratches and laved them with my tongue until they stopped bleeding. I palmed his pale nipples and then started sucking on them. He groaned languidly.

The coolness of his body did little to quell the fires rampaging inside me now. In fact, it only made me more aware of him and more aware of everything he did to me.

Before long, the ripples became waves, washing over every part of my body until something like a tsunami crashed into my mind. It sent me spiraling down into murky blackness and for one luscious moment, I swear my heart stopped. I couldn't breathe or feel or hear. It was like I had ceased to exist. Then suddenly I was alive again and screaming like I was being tortured. In a way I was, the ecstasy was so intense it was very nearly painful.

Then I felt Damian gather me up in his arms and hold me, stroking my hair and nuzzling my cheek until my body stopped convulsing.

"Are you all right, Anita?"

I thought that was a funny question and laughed, but then realized I was actually laughing because I felt so damn good. Damian tried to release me, but I tightened my grip on him with something close to panic.

"No, no," I gasped finally. "Just hold me for a minute. Just a minute." People were regarding us curiously, but for some reason it didn't really bother me. I just wanted him to stay close to me.

Damian obliged me, wrapping his arms around my shoulders, and rocked me gently. He laid his cheek against my hair.

"I can't believe you're here," he said suddenly and brushed his lips against my temple. He emitted a short sharp laugh of surprise. "I can't believe you wanted that."

Placing my hands on his chest, I looked up at him and focused on his smoldering eyes. I sighed contentedly, then snuggled myself deeper into his embrace.

"How are you feeling?" This came from Asher, who almost magically appeared at my side. "All satiated and softly throbbing?"

"I'm fine," I murmured and eyed him suspiciously. There was just a hint of bitterness in his tone.

Asher glanced around uneasily. "Then we must leave, Anita." He addressed Damian. "Let her go."

I glared up at him. I didn't give a damn about his discomfort at the moment. "Oh, fuck off, Asher."

He glared at me, then focused his attention back on Damian. "We need to talk to you. Someplace private."

I froze. It was as if I had forgotten why we were even here. Realization suddenly hit me and the weight of Asher's words felt suffocating and nauseating. My stomach sunk, quickly banishing my euphoria. No time for basking in the afterglow.

"Shit," I said, wiggling out of Damian's arms. "He's right. We came here to talk to you."

Damian looked back and forth between Asher and me. Then he nodded. "All right. I'll meet you in the alley behind the club in about ten minutes. I need to find someone to cover for me while I'm gone." He started moving off the dance floor. Asher and I followed.

With another flip of my stomach, I realized once we told him about the edict, he wasn't going to be able to come back here. I took a deep breath. This wasn't going to be easy. "Damian, why don't you just call it a night," I suggested, pushing people aside to catch up to him. I looked back at Asher. He nodded in agreement.

Damian stopped walking. "Then give me at least fifteen minutes. I'll join you as soon as I can." He peered down at me and quickly searched my expression for some clue as to what this was all about. Then a flicker of concern skidded across his face. His eyes darkened a shade and he frowned deeply.

"Have I done something wrong, Anita? You seem a little apprehensive all of a sudden," he asked.

I shook my head. "Just hurry, okay?"

Damian continued to stare at me in frustration. I knew exactly how he was feeling having undergone the same hide and seek game with Jean-Claude earlier.

"Why are you still standing there?" Asher pushed impatiently. "You heard her. Now go."

Turning slowly, Damian locked his eyes on Asher's. There was no emotion on either vampire's face, but the tension rising between them was as thick as pea soup. I was just about to intercede to clear the air, but then Damian suddenly whipped around on his heel and disappeared into the crowd.

I looked up at Asher and put my hands on my hips. "Stop it right now," I admonished him.

Ignoring me, Asher turned and began making his way towards the exit, parting the crowd before him like Moses and the Red Sea. I trotted after him.

It wasn't until we had reached the alley behind the club that I was able to get close enough to him to speak with him again.

"Asher?"

He stopped and leaned his hips against the railing surrounding a stairwell.

"What?" he replied quietly, lowering his eyes to the pavement below.

I stalked up to him, petulantly crossing my arms over my chest. I was short enough, and stood close enough to him, to look up at him as he looked down and capture his gaze. He didn't like that, and averted his eyes, turning his head to the side. I reached up and grabbed his chin, pulling his head back around until he was forced to look at me. He didn't resist; in fact he gazed rather longingly into my eyes.

I looked back at him with confusion. I didn't understand his current mood. His expression unexpectedly hardened and he glared at me rather menacingly. His power poured over me like a blast of cold air.

"Now you look at me with uncertainty. Before you looked at me with desire."

I released his chin with an exasperated sigh, and shook my head. "I don't have time for this, Asher," I muttered, opting to just walk away from him.

"Oh, by all means, ma cherie, please continue," Asher growled. "Damian has yet to join us. You have plenty of time to tell me how nefarious you think I am."

I stomped back over to him and pointed my finger at him accusingly. "No, because that's exactly what you want me to do and I'm not going to give you the satisfaction." I forced myself to step away again and hotly paced a short distance in front of him. "You want people to believe you're mean and nasty because then they don't get too close. You'd rather be alone and miserable because that's what you're used to. It hurts to care about people sometimes so when you start to, you do an about face and scuttle back into your warped comfort-zone as fast as you can and hide behind your scars." Well....shit.

Asher didn't reply. He merely stayed against the rail, watching me with a careful, blank expression. He reached inside his jacket and took out a cigarette, lit it, and took a long restorative drag off it.

I stopped pacing and faced him. I opened my arms entreatingly. "Why are you so angry at me all of a sudden?"

"I'm angry with myself," he said, bringing the cigarette back to his lips. He inhaled it slowly, then blew the smoke forcefully from his nose. "I should know by now to just take what I can get and be thankful for whatever crumbs come my way."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You."

"Me? I'm suddenly crumbs or something?" I still didn't understand.

Asher tossed the cigarette he'd been smoking to the ground and stepped on it to extinguish it. He fixed his eyes on mine and pursed his full lips, thinking. Then he shifted his weight and gracefully eased his hips up onto the stairwell railing to perch there, one leg stretched out touching the ground to balance himself.

"You offered me crumbs, but I wanted the main course. I thought I did. But now I know I should have taken what you first offered. I may not be offered anything again." Asher looked away then and frowned. "It was very hard for me, watching you with Damian, knowing I could have been the one to fulfill your desire tonight. But I didn't want you like that. I wanted...more than I am allowed to have."

Oh. Now I got it. Asher didn't just want to fuck me. He wanted to make love to me. The main course he spoke of included things like privacy, romance, foreplay...clean sheets on the bed. But Jean-Claude had made it clear to me that he wanted to be my only main course. I could feed my ardeur with any number of the studly males at my disposal, but I was not to pursue anything with them beyond that. I really couldn't argue with it too much. Jean-Claude was totally monogamous with me. I refused to even let him think about having sex with someone else.

I was just opening my mouth to reply to Asher, when the exit door opened, and Damian slipped through. He immediately locked his eyes on mine and walked over to me.

He hadn't taken the time to shower or change, but he did lose the tee-shirt I had destroyed and all the gold chains and slave bracelets had been discarded. He stood before me, bare-chested and rumpled, his expression one of tense readiness.

"So," he began. "What's this all about?"

"You've been slotted for execution, mon ami," Asher said, as casually as if he'd been commenting on the weather.

I cringed and glanced over at him. "Jesus, Asher. Can we at least try to break it to him gently?" I turned my attention back on Damian. Too late now.

Damian's lovely green eyes were wide with fear. He took a step back and licked his lips. "...When?"

I sighed and reached up to sweep the unruly hair from his brow. "We have a little less than two days now. If Jean-Claude does not kill you himself by then, the government will order a sanctioned hunt."

Damian stepped away from me further and wrapped his arms around himself as if he were suddenly cold. I wished there was some place he could sit down. He looked so shaky I almost told Asher to get off the stairwell railing and let him sit there.

"At least we know about it," I offered. "Before, they used to just send in the executioners. Now they're trying to be polite first. We have two days to think of something. We're not going to let you be killed."

Damian bowed his head. "Why not? I deserve to die," he mumbled. "I've always known I was living on borrowed time." He slowly raised his eyes to mine. "Are you going to do it?"

For a split second, I didn't realize what he had meant. Then my heart sunk and skipped a beat. I shook my head adamantly. "No! Of course not!"

Damian sighed rather wistfully. "I'd rather have you kill me, Anita," he replied calmly. "Then I know you won't torture me, you'll make it quick and painless and let me die with a little dignity at least."

"No! No!" I nearly screamed, covering my ears with my hands. I couldn't bare to hear him even say such things. "I'm not going to kill you! No one is going to kill you. It's my fault you went insane. It's my fault Jean-Claude lost his power over you. Now it's my responsibility to defend you. And I will, goddamnit, I swear I will." My eyes suddenly stung with tears. My throat was so tight I could scarcely draw a breath. Christ, they thought the executioners tortured them before they killed them. I guess in some cases we did.

Tentatively, Damian stepped up to me and took me in his arms as if to comfort me. I fought back the tears and pushed away from him. I was supposed to be the one comforting him, not the other way around.

Asher was beside us now. He regarded Damian thoughtfully. "No one yet knows who the executioner will be. But one thing is for certain, mon ami. You can't stay with Anita anymore. It will put her in danger as well. Is there somewhere you can go? Some other resting place?"

Damian shook his head with something close to panic in his eyes. "I can't leave Anita. She's my master. The only other place I could possibly go would be the Circus, but I wouldn't want to do that either. I don't want to bring an executioner down there." He looked over at me pleadingly. "Don't send me away. You might as well kill me if you do. I wouldn't be able to survive without you."

I reached forward and cradled his head in my hands. "I won't. You'll stay at my house as usual. The leopards are there and if need be, Micah and I can call more in to protect us. You've nearly gave your life for Nathaniel. They won't hesitate to help. We'll see this through, I promise."

Damian frowned. "But Asher's right. If you do that, you'll be putting them all in danger. You'll be sacrificing them for me."

"We'll work it out."

"How?"

That stopped me cold. I felt all my bravado abruptly deflate. I hadn't been able to think of just how I was going to pull this off yet. It seemed so impossible without a major blood bath ensuing, I didn't even really want to think about it. I turned and looked up at Asher, but he was looking at me with the same expectation in his eyes that Damian had.

"Shit," I grumbled and turned away from them both. If only we had more time. I could go before the courts, plead his case before the issuing judge. A vampire hunter's plea for clemency for a vampire ought to mean something. But that could take weeks, months even, depending on when I could get a hearing. First things first. We needed to buy time. I needed to make Damian hard to find. I needed to get him out of the city. I'd have to go with him, but that could be arranged painlessly enough.

"We could go to Tennessee," I suddenly announced. "There's no master vampire there to contend with. We'll use Jean-Claude's jet. I'll have Richard contact Verne. His pack can offer us sanctuary there until I can work something out with the court system here. All we need is a little more time. I can get a stay of execution issued with a little more time to play with."

"And if you can't?" Asher said, the ever-present voice of doom.

I narrowed my eyes at him. "One thing at a time, all right? I'll worry about that bridge when I cross it." There. Good God, this might actually work. I felt immensely better. My mind was off and running now, plotting everything down to what underwear I should bring with me.

********

It was still two hours before dawn. I pulled my car into my driveway with a sigh of relief. We all climbed out and crept up to the front door quietly so as not to wake anyone still sleeping inside. I turned to Asher as I slid the key in the lock.

"You don't have to go back," I told him. "You can stay here. I've got an extra coffin in the basement you can use." That sounded strange even to me.

Asher shook his head. "I've done what I was told to do. I must return."

I looked up at him longingly. "Please Asher. I would feel a lot better if you stayed." I would too. Partly because Asher was fast becoming my rock and I wanted him close, but then also, I did not want him confronting Jean-Claude without me there to act as referee. Well-armed if need be.

Clearly torn, Asher gazed back at me helplessly for a few moments, then he faced Damian. Damian gave him a knowing look in reply.

"I know. Even if she wasn't my master, I could never refuse her anything either," he informed the other vampire as if I wasn't even there.

I pushed open the door and moved to the side to let Damian in, then looked back at Asher expectantly.

He stayed where he was just beyond the threshold. "I have no change of clothes here," he pointed out.

I frowned and put my hand on my hip. "Now you're just making up excuses. You know as well as I do, there are enough men in this house. We'll find you something." I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to tell him how nice he looked tonight. "Actually I wouldn't mind if you want wear that suit again. You look very sexy and cosmopolitan in it. I meant to tell you that earlier but got a little distracted."

For a moment, Asher merely stared at me, his face void of expression. Then a coquettish smile slowly spread over his features. He sighed and stepped into the house. I triumphantly closed and locked the door behind him.

"I'm pleased you like it," Asher began. "But I don't think I'll wear it two days in a row. I'm going to have to sleep in it and it won't be salvageable after that."

I shrugged. "Whatever." Vampires tended to be so fastidious about their clothes. I noticed Damian coming up from the basement. I hadn't even realized he had gone down there. He had two pairs of silk pajama bottoms in his hands. He handed one to Asher.

"I knew you'd give in to her. And I'm glad you did. I feel better knowing you're here too." He paused and gestured at the pajama pants he'd given Asher. "Those should do for sleeping, I can't vouch for their propriety out in public however," he continued softly. "Anita will have to follow through with her promise."

"Merci," Asher replied. He threw his arm around Damian's neck and drew him up against him in a semi-embrace. He leaned his head close to Damian's ear and whispered something I could not hear. Damian nodded and smiled. He thumped Asher on the back affectionately before turning to face me.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a shower before I go downstairs."

I nodded. "Sure." Suddenly I wanted to hug him too. I couldn't help myself. I stepped up to him and wrapped my arms around his waist, placing my head on his shoulder. He squeezed me tightly, then stroked my back soothingly. I finally released him and stretched up on my toes to kiss his cheek. "Sleep tight," I whispered. He smiled down at me and then quickly brushed his lips over mine before turning towards the bathroom.

I was going to ask Asher what he had said to Damian, but Asher wasn't there anymore. I sighed and dragged my hand through my hair. Yeah, it was time for me to go to bed too.

I tossed my car keys on the closest end table and stalked off towards my bedroom, stripping off my jacket and shoulder holster on the way.

The sight that greeted my eyes as I entered the bedroom was welcoming indeed. Micah and Nathaniel both naked and curled up on opposite ends of the bed with a perfect-sized space left in between for me. I smiled, stripped down to my panties and crawled in, not even bothering to put on a night shirt. I was too hot anyway.

********

I fell asleep right away, due to sheer emotional exhaustion I'm sure, but woke again two hours later. I tried to fall back asleep, snuggling close to Micah's radiating warmth, but he was almost too warm and I couldn't get comfortable. My mind was already off and running anyway, trying to tally up everything I needed to do today. Resigned, I crawled out of bed, got dressed, and went to make coffee.

I knew I was going to be up all night again with the vampires and decided to try to catch a nap later this afternoon if at all possible. I started off making phone calls to the courthouse and the police station. I set up appointments, I arranged to have the paperwork started for a stay of execution. I tried to get them to tell me who the executioner was in this case but that was confidential. Then I called Animators Inc. and asked for a leave of absence. Of course, on such short notice, that went over well.

I called Richard and asked him to contact Verne and let him know I was coming up for a visit, just a little get-away kind of thing. I didn't want Richard to know what I was up to. It's not that I really believed he had been the one to betray Damian, but for some reason I really didn't want to tell him. Besides, I was already one person past my quota for spilling the beans. Unfortunately, Richard seemed to suspect I wasn't telling him everything and got pissed, but agreed to talk to Verne and get back to me with the arrangements.

I spent the rest of the morning packing suitcases and doing laundry with Nathaniel's help. I sent Cherry and Zane and Gil to the Circus to get Asher some clothes for the trip as well as for tonight. As it turned out, none of my men were as tall or as broad-shouldered as Asher was. Zane was also going to contact Jason about letting Jean-Claude know I needed to see him tonight about using his private jet. Then I talked to Micah about meeting with his wereleopards to help the werewolves with security at the Circus until Damian and I could get out of town. I didn't really believe the executioner would senselessly slaughter the other vampires in pursuit of Damian, but I also didn't want to take any chances.

By noon I was running my errands like a chicken with its head cut off, and also running on empty as far as energy went. I was so exhausted, I never once felt the ardeur. A good thing. Knowing I needed sleep and didn't really have time for it was a very bad thing however.

I got home a little after four and called Richard again. He hadn't been able to reach Verne, but he promised me he would keep trying. We made tentative dinner plans at seven-thirty, supposedly to discuss my sudden need for a holiday. I think he was reading New Mexico into it all over again and was getting too worked up about it. Now I would have to try to convince him I really did want to just get away to the mountains for awhile. With my usual entourage and a couple of vampires thrown in for good measure. God, lying was becoming easier and easier for me out of sheer necessity. I think hanging around Jean-Claude had something to do with that.

I went into the bedroom to change out of my suit and into something more casual and comfortable for the night, but saw the bed all invitingly cozy and downy-soft-looking and that's all she wrote. I got my clothes off, letting them fall to the floor where they may. Just for a few minutes, I thought, and had no sooner sprawled out on the bed before I was fast asleep.

"Anita, you can't go to sleep now," Micah's deep voice rumbled through my hazy mind, waking me, minutes later. He turned on the lamp beside the bed.

I pried open my eyes and moaned. "I have to," I murmured. "Just for ten minutes...pleeeease?"

Micah laughed lightly, sympathetically. He knelt down next to me at the side of the bed and passed his hand over my back in a circular motion. "But the courthouse administration offices close at five. Didn't you say you needed to be back there before then to get your paperwork filed? And you're supposed to meet Richard at seven-thirty. If you fall asleep now, you're not going to want to wake up in ten minutes." He leaned over and nuzzled the side of my neck. "You can sleep tomorrow on the plane."

I knew I wouldn't sleep a wink on the plane. I hated flying. "Micah, would you take the paperwork in for me?" I half-begged, forcing myself up on my elbows to face him better. "Oh and before your meeting can you drop off the payment for the van I'm renting to take the coffins to the airport in?"

Micah sighed. "I can do all that, but what about Richard?" he asked, his hand trailing over my exposed breast. I pushed him away from me so I could think.

"Richard? Well, I guess I can still meet with him," I answered drowsily. "Just let me sleep for a few more minutes," I murmured, "then have Nathaniel or somebody wake me...and I'll go." I leaned forward just to kiss him good-bye, but his lips were so enticingly warm and satiny-soft against mine, my kiss became rather passionate. I couldn't help myself.

Micah pushed me back now, somewhat breathlessly. "Then stop kissing me like that and go back to sleep," he urged. He smiled sweetly and cradled my face in his hands, then kissed my eyes close. "I'll wake you later." He slid off the bed and I snuggled back into the downy comforter with a long, contented sigh. Ah, bliss.

********

I dreamt of making love with Micah on a tropical beach under the hot sun, his body gleaming and golden under the intensity of its rays. Sand was shimmering like tiny gemstones on his chest and in his dark brown hair.

And then black clouds began to roll in. They blocked the sun. Lightening started crackling all around us and the wind buffeted my face. The sand became rocks, pelting me mercilessly. I felt cold and Micah's body no longer warmed me. Thunder rumbled threateningly overhead and I knew I had to get away.

I looked up at Micah, but he was suddenly Damian. The wind was whipping through his red hair as he continued to love me through the rising storm. I felt the first tremors of his orgasm deep inside of me as his body locked against mine. He cried out, his voice carried away by the raging wind. Then I saw the lightening explode from the sky and strike Damian through the heart. He vanished from my embrace in a puff of black smoke.

********

I stirred, feeling agitated and groggy. Someone was on the bed with me, murmuring to me, encouraging me to wake up. At first, I thought it was Micah again. But the skin on this body was cool on the surface with a deep underlying warmth. It was also ridged and furrowed savagely on one side, curvey and smooth on the other. My eyes flew open with realization. I was wide awake now.

Asher was stretched out on his side next to me, propped up on his elbow. He was gazing down at me fondly, a slight smile playing on his lips. His long golden hair hung in a glossy veil of silk around my face. It effectively prevented me from seeing anything beyond him and I felt the intimacy of it clench my insides.

His slightly callused fingertips stroked the side of my face and traced the top of my ear. "Ma cherie, you were dreaming," he whispered, his cultured voice like velvet, all soft and sensuous.

"I know." I blinked up at him and swallowed dryly, acutely aware of the fact that I was totally naked beside him. At least he was partially clothed, still wearing the light blue silk pajama pants Damian had lent him. I tried to shift away from him, but his weight had formed a deep pocket in the mattress next to me. I couldn't move without rolling into him. I stayed put. "Asher, what are you doing here?"

His eyes seemed to dim a little and he drew back from me slightly. "You asked me to stay this morning, don't you remember?"

I grappled for the sheet next to me and pulled it up. Yeah, he had seen me nude before, but I could never get the knack of feeling entirely at ease holding a casual conversation while stark naked.

"Don't be facetious, Asher. You know what I mean," I clarified, my tone a little sharper than I had intended it to be. His proximity was unnerving me, making me feel things I wasn't sure I was completely ready to feel with him. Needless to say, I didn't bother telling him to get off the bed.

Asher looked away from me and pretended to study the contents of my bedroom. "Micah had asked me to wake you in time for your meeting with Richard, but Richard had called shortly after he left. He wanted me to let you know he regrets he cannot make the dinner tonight."

I sighed. "Figures." I glanced at my alarm clock. Seven-fifteen. Oh well.

"I looked in on you," Asher continued softly. "But you were in such a deep sleep, I decided not to wake you." Asher paused and turned to face me again. He suddenly looked embarrassed and more than a little apologetic. "I was going to leave, but then you started dreaming. You became so agitated, I came over to calm you." There must have been something in my eyes that told him he had done something taboo because he suddenly dropped his gaze and swallowed uneasily. "You pulled me onto the bed and into your arms. I should have tried harder to make you let go of me. But I didn't. I didn't try at all. I am sorry."

He rolled away from me, leaving the space he had occupied beside me conspicuously empty feeling. I watched him rise gracefully from the bed, the muscles of his back shifting fluidly beneath his skin. His back was untouched by the scars, his creamy skin was as smooth and perfect as it had always been.

I had a sudden vision of watching Asher's back bathed in moonlight, his naked body stretched over a black-haired woman lying beneath him. His muscles rippled with the rhythmic movement of his hips as he pleasured her. I saw her pale hands stroke his sides, slithering past his waist to the hard curve of his buttocks. Her long red nails dug deep and with one powerful upsweep of her hands, she ripped his skin suddenly, spewing blood. I gasped.

Asher half-turned to face me and cocked his head questioningly.

"Another memory," I whispered. "Not a very nice one." I closed my eyes and shook my head to clear the image away.

"I'm sorry you remembered it then," he offered.

"Don't apologize," I said. "It wasn't your fault." I meant that for more than just the memory and hoped he realized that. I looked up at him, taking in the sight of his sinewy torso--his skin as white as a cloud, his thick, wavy hair--gold like the rays of the sun, and the pale blue pajama bottoms he wore were the exact color of heaven. He looked like an autumn sky standing there in the soft yellow light of my bedside lamp.

Asher furrowed his brow. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he said quietly. He abruptly turned and started for the door, then stopped and faced me again. "Don't you realize how much harder it is becoming for me to walk away each time you do?" There was something very close to pain reflected in his eyes.

I shifted slightly in the bed and sat up, clutching the sheet to my chest. I had to pry my eyes off of from him. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I only do it because...you're so enchanting, I can't seem to stop myself. I'll try not to do it anymore, now that I know it actually bothers you."

Shaking his head, Asher moved back to the side of my bed. He sat down carefully. "No. No, I didn't mean that. Don't ever stop looking at me that way, Anita." He reached out and cupped my chin in his hand, raising my face to his. His eyes fixed on mine, boring holes right through to my soul. "It's all I have," he continued, his voice so soft and low I could barely hear him.

I leaned forward, letting the sheet slip from my grasp. Suddenly I wasn't so concerned about being naked. I reached up and slid my fingers over his temples and into his hair. "Kiss me," I breathed, drawing his face down to mine.

The pain in Asher's eyes and the tension in his body seemed to fade away. He eased his soft, cool lips over mine, his hands moving to cradle my head. I felt his mouth open encouragingly. I obliged him and he drew my lower lip carefully between his teeth, sucking it gently and stroking it with his tongue.

The pressure of his mouth on mine was intoxicating me. This time I didn't feel the same flow of supernatural power, but there was still definitely something about the way he kissed. All his love, his passion, his heartache and need poured into me and I drank it down like I was dying of thirst.

I whimpered, closing my eyes, and wrapped my arms around his neck. He deepened the kiss, easing me back down to my pillow, and shifted his weight over me, pressing the smooth left side of his body to mine. I felt the back of his hand move down my neck to my collar bone and pause. He delicately caressed my scars. I reciprocated and trailed my fingers over his ravaged cheek, then pulled my mouth from his to kiss him there.

He exhaled forcibly and began nibbling on my ear and down the side of my neck, before raising his head to capture my mouth once more. His hand continued on to my breast, covering my nipple, passing his palm over it until it hardened, then he grasped it between his fingers and squeezed it ever so gently. I felt the sensation of it sharply between my legs and in that instant I knew I wanted him to make love to me more than anything else in the world.

I was ready to pin the blame on the ardeur, but I realized my desire for him was just plain old-fashioned need. There was nothing magical about it. It was a liberating insight of sorts. As a subtle hint, I pressed my thigh against his hip and rubbed my heel over his firm butt.

"Asher," I breathed. It was hard to say anything beyond that. I tried again, but he kissed me again so passionately, I forgot what I was going to tell him. My lips were going numb and I couldn't speak anyway with his mouth devouring mine the way it was. I dragged my hands down his side and tugged at the knot fastening the waistband of those sky blue pajamas. A not-so-subtle hint.

He stopped kissing me and bent his head over my breast, his mouth hovering above it so close I could feel his cool breath on my skin. "What do you want, ma cherie?" he whispered, then dropped a quick kiss on my achingly taut nipple. "Tell me. Tell me now."

I actually had to stop and think. "Make love to me," I half-gasped as his tongue flicked out to lick my breast. "Please....God, please."

I expected him to immediately get up and either start stripping, or get up and walk out of the room, but instead, he sighed heavily and lay his head on my chest.

For a long moment, he neither said nor did anything. Finally: "Do you trust me?" he whispered suddenly.

I swallowed uneasily but nodded. "Yes."

He rose off me then and moved to kneel at the foot of the bed. "Lie back," he told me. "And relax. I won't hurt you, I swear it."

I laid flat on my back and tried to relax, but I was getting tenser by the minute. I began to wonder if he was going to bite me. I hadn't told him not to. Asher had bitten me once before. It didn't hurt. In fact, it nearly blew my mind with ecstasy.

I suddenly felt Asher's hands on my thighs and jumped slightly, raising my head off the pillow to watch what he was doing.

"No blood, Asher," I quickly warned.

He shook his head slowly. "I wouldn't think of it, cherie," he cooed at me and stroked my thighs with long languid caresses until he felt my tension fade. Then he spread my legs tentatively, and eased his body down on the bed, positioning his shoulders between my knees. He entwined his arms around them, holding my legs open. Slowly, he lowered his head, his full lips parting to bestow a kiss of a different kind.

I suddenly knew what he was about to do and the very thought of it made me squirm in anticipation. He misread it, hesitating, and looked up at me as if asking my permission to continue. His eyes were like ice in a fire, smoldering with need. At this point, I was powerless to stop him. I wanted this kind of intimacy with him. And I wanted the pleasure I knew he could give me. I couldn't resist that gaze anyway, even though there was nothing supernatural about it other than its ethereal seduction.

"Yes," I sighed. I was never so sure about anything in my life. "Yes."

His lips immediately descended down on me and with that first exquisite touch, my entire body quivered. Burying my fingers in his hair, I closed my eyes and settled my head back on the pillow in absolute surrender.

 

 

PART THREE~

I had just stepped out of the shower when someone knocked hesitantly on the bathroom door.

"Just a minute," I called and grabbed my robe, sliding into it before drying myself off.

"Anita?" It was Nathaniel.

I opened the door. I could tell by the look on his face something was up. "What is it?"

"A car just pulled in the driveway. I don't recognize it."

For a split second, panic seized my heart. Then I rationalized no executioner in their right mind would blithely pull into my driveway and expect to just waltz into my living room to blow my vampire to smithereens. I took a deep breath to try to settle my nerves. I grabbed a towel and started wrapping it around my hair.

"Whoever it is, don't let them in until I get out there," I told him. "I'll just be a minute." He nodded and turned to leave, but I grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Wait, where's Damian and Asher?"

"They're downstairs packing," Nathaniel replied. "Oh, here." He flipped his hair off his shoulder with a sweep of his hand and held my Browning out to me with the other.

"Ah, thanks," I said and stashed it in the deep pocket of my robe. "Listen, go tell them to stay there and to be very quiet. Just in case, okay?"

Nathaniel nodded slowly. I could tell he was upset. I sighed and placed my hand on his cheek reassuringly. "Don't go down there looking like that, you'll scare them," I tried to keep my tone light.

Leaning his head into my hand, Nathaniel closed his eyes. "I can't help it. I'm worried about Damian. I don't want anything to happen to him. He and Asher saved my life. Damian almost died because of it." He opened his eyes and locked them on mine. His expression was as solemn...and dangerous as I had ever seen it. "I want to help them, Anita. I'll do anything you need me to." His eyes flicked to the bulge of my gun in my robe pocket.

"I know," I said. He was getting quite good at shooting. He practiced with me often and could handle a gun quite well at this point. I silently prayed this wouldn't come to that. Especially tonight. "All right. Go get the Firestar and wait with them downstairs if it makes you feel better."

He almost looked relieved. "It would." With that he spun around and disappeared down the hall in one lithe gliding motion. Cats.

I retreated back into the bathroom, scrubbing at my hair with the towel. I belted the robe more securely, then decided to just get dressed. It wouldn't take me but a minute. I was just throwing on jeans and a polo shirt for the plane. I removed the Browning from the pocket.

There was another knock on the door. This time it was Cherry. "Anita, there's a woman by the name of Monica at the door for you. She says she's a friend of yours."

Monica? Since when were we friends? And what on earth did she want? My mood plummeted. Having to fend her off was all I needed tonight. "Cherry, tell her I'll be right out." I practically jumped into my jeans. "But don't let her in!"

I made it into my clothes and out of the bathroom in record time. My hair was still so wet it was plastered to my head, but I didn't care. It was only Monica. I peered through the glass at her before opening the door a crack.

"Hi, but this isn't a good time for me right now," I started in.

She looked confused. "But I came to get you," she replied.

Now it was my turn to be confused. "Get me? What are you talking about?"

She looked slightly embarrassed and rolled her eyes. "God, didn't he call you and let you know I was coming?" Trying to look stern, she crossed her arms over her chest, her car keys gripped firmly in her perfectly manicured hand. Her fingers sparkled with jewels--diamonds mostly. I noticed too her tailored suit and the crocodile-skin Italian pumps on her feet. Monica didn't lack for anything these days. Jean-Claude, good-as-his-word, saw to that.

"Who, Monica? For Christ's sake," I half-snarled. I had much better things to do than play twenty-questions with her.

Her good-humor faded. She narrowed her eyes at me and took a deep breath. "Jean-Claude was supposed to call you and tell you I was coming to get you. He sent me to bring you and the vampires to him."

With a resigned sigh, I threw open the door and ushered her in. The wereleopards draped around my living room all fixed their eyes on her in silent scrutiny. "It's all right," I announced to calm them. "Jean-Claude sent her over." The tension in the room eased just a tad. I turned to Zane, leaning towards him and lowered my voice. "Go get Asher." He nodded once and was gone. I focused my attention back on Monica, discreetly reaching behind me to adjust the position of the Browning. I had shoved it in my waistband with such haste, it was poking into me. "All right. Since Jean-Claude did not see fit to pick up the phone tonight, why don't you enlighten me?"

Monica glanced around the room. "He's got a plan," she began hesitantly. "He's waiting for you in a very remote location. He sent me to get you because I know the way there and you don't." She looked at me smugly. "I know what's going on. I offered to help."

"He told you?" I demanded, instantly infuriated. Why drag Monica--of all people--into this mess? I was going to wring Jean-Claude's gorgeous neck. In all fairness, he couldn't possibly get angry with me now for telling Asher. But then who said Jean-Claude was fair?

Tensing, Monica's eyes shifted past me and focused down the hall. I turned, following the direction of her gaze. Asher was walking towards us.

"Oh, it's all right, he knows too," I reassured her, with a little smugness of my own. "I told him."

Monica seemed to relax a little, but gave me a look of disapproval. "I see," she replied, quietly. "I don't believe Jean-Claude will be very happy about that however."

I pointed my finger in Monica's face. "Right now, I don't give a flying flip what Jean-Claude thinks about me telling Asher."

Asher walked up to us and stood beside me. Taking a deep calming breath, I glanced over at him, then did a quick double-take. He was dressed much more casually tonight in an oxford gray dress shirt and black pants, but he still looked very handsome.

"Comment ca va, Monica? You're looking well," Asher greeted, politely. Of course he would know her. Jean-Claude doted on her and her baby since the vampire who was her husband was ceremonially sacrificed on her bedroom floor. He felt responsible somehow. Jean-Claude didn't handle guilt very well.

"Hello Asher," she replied evenly. "How are you? I was just explaining to Anita that Jean-Claude is waiting for us. I'll take you to him if you'll all gather up some flashlights and a few blankets. Then we'll be on our way."

Asher turned to me with an inquiring expression. I shrugged.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Where are we going? How remote is this place?" Flashlights and blankets didn't make it sound very appealing.

Monica sighed. "It's hard to describe," she stated. "It's remote like 'out in the country' remote." She put her hands on her hips. "Jean-Claude is waiting...." she added as a reminder.

I held up my hands in resignation. "Fine." I turned to the leopards behind us. "Would you mind scrounging up some flashlights for us?" I faced Monica again as something just occurred to me. "You left Jean-Claude out in the middle of nowhere...alone?"

Monica looked over my shoulder at the wereleopards who were springing out of their seats to find flashlights. "And blankets!" she called after them before focusing her attention back on me. "It gets a little cold there at night this time of year. And no, Jean-Claude is not alone...his wolves are with him. But you know how he doesn't like to be kept waiting. We should probably get going." She turned back towards the door then and jingled her keys.

I sighed and looked up at Asher. His face was perfectly blank, his eyes were locked on Monica, but he put his hand on my back and leaned towards me.

"I'll go get Damian and Nathaniel," he said.

Monica turned around. "No, he just wants you three. No one else. The less people who know about this place, the better," she advised.

I shook my head. "I'm not going anywhere without at least one of my leopards." If Micah were home I'd take him, but it looked as though Nathaniel would have to do.

Monica stared at me, clearly torn as to what to do. I'm sure she could tell by my expression and the tone of my voice I was dead serious. "I can't fit all these people in my car," she protested.

"We'll follow you in my car," I said. "We're going to need room for all the suitcases anyway. We're going to have to go right to the airport after this."

Monica swallowed and scrunched up her pretty face. "About that...Jean-Claude got your message. There's a little problem with this whole Tennessee thing. That's why we're enacting Plan B, so to speak." There must have been something suddenly menacing reflected in my eyes because Monica took a small step away from me.

"What problem?" I growled, moving closer to her. "Why didn't anyone tell me there was a problem?"

Monica edged towards the door. "I'm sure Jean-Claude will explain everything when we get there."

I grabbed the lapels of Monica's expensive suit jacket and shoved her up against the door. "You seem to know a hell of a lot more about all this than I do, for some reason! I don't particularly like that. So you had better start explaining!"

I felt Asher's hands on my shoulders. He drew me away from Monica. I leaned back against him, and he wrapped his arm around me. I wasn't sure if it was to comfort me or hold me back.

"Don't shoot the messenger, Anita," he murmured into my ear.

"Yeah really," Monica huffed, smoothing out her jacket with her hand. "All I know is that Jean-Claude's jet has been put under surveillance. The police have got people watching his clubs too. And the Circus. They think they're being inconspicuous, but they all stick out like a sore thumb. They started showing up everywhere just after dusk." She looked up at Asher. "They want Damian off the streets. They want him bad."

My heart sunk. I closed my eyes and swore softly. "Where are they getting their information?" I asked no one in particular. I looked up at Asher.

"Whomever betrayed Damian is obviously acquainted enough with Jean-Claude to know the people he keeps close to him. I wouldn't be surprised if the authorities were made aware of the fact that Damian stays with you," Asher surmised.

I swore again. "They might be watching the house right this minute."

"That's why we need to get him out of here as soon as possible," Monica added. It was the first thing she had said tonight that didn't make me want to slug her. "That's why we need to take my car and as few people as possible."

I nodded. "Go get Damian...and Nathaniel," I told Asher. "Monica and I will load up the blankets and flashlights." I called to the leopards, gathering them back in the living room. Once they were assembled before me, I quickly filled them in. "I need you to search around the house and in the woods. I need to know if anyone is out there. If you find someone, bring them back here. I want to talk to them." I sent them off then and turned towards my bedroom. Besides flashlights, I wanted guns. And knives, and extra ammo. As much as I could carry.

********

As it turned out, the leopards didn't find anything. While the going was good, we readily piled into Monica's car and let her play chauffeur.

When Monica had said "remote" she wasn't kidding. I didn't know where the hell we were, but I kept thinking how much better a Jeep would be at negotiating these dirt trails than her Lexus. I think she must have hit every rut, tree root, and sinkhole she could find. By the time we stopped, we were far from any civilization that I could see. When Monica cut the headlights, we were all pitched into thick, black darkness.

I was sitting in the backseat between Asher and Damian. Nathaniel was in the front with Monica. For a brief moment, no one said anything. We all just sat there, wondering what to do next. Monica got out of the car first. The rest of us followed.

"Flashlights people," she ordered, moving among us to pass them out. I looked around for some sign of Jean-Claude or the werewolves, but I couldn't see anything but trees and rocks and grass.

"Where are we?" I asked Monica finally. I unzipped my jacket. Partly to have easier access to my gun, and partly because my heart was pounding and I was sweating despite the chill in the air. As it was, the wind was brisk and damp with rain. The leaves on the trees rustled above our heads and squished beneath our feet as we aimlessly walked around the car.

There was something about this place that spoke to me. The voices of the dead. Ancient almost. Forgotten. My power moved over the grounds towards the place where they lay. It was cold, mildewed, and desolate. I could feel the weathered stones of grave markers and monuments; madonnas, angels, and crosses all crumbling and broken with neglect.

Before Monica could answer my question, I answered it myself. "There's a cemetery here."

Monica's face suddenly appeared before me in a narrow beam of yellow light. "It's beyond that line of trees over there," she said matter-of-factly, turning her flashlight in the direction she had indicated. "There's a clearing on a hillside. An old Catholic graveyard." She paused and looked around. "Jean-Claude gave Robert and I this land for a wedding present. The crypt belonged to Jean-Claude long before he became Master of the City. I think he used to sleep here every once in awhile."

Or maybe he used it to hide from Nikolaos every once in awhile, I thought to myself. His own secret hiding place. I was slowly beginning to understand. An old, long-forgotten cemetery out in the middle of nowhere. An ancient secluded crypt. And now Jean-Claude was planning on hiding Damian here.

Monica went back to the car and sat on the edge of the driver's side seat to change her shoes. Damian and Nathaniel were talking together at the treeline. I walked over to Asher.

Neither one of us had bothered turning on the flashlights we had been given. Vampires could see excellently in the dark and my own eyes were already adjusting to the lack of light enough so I could distinguish things in front of me.

Asher was gazing into the woods, his long golden hair waving around his shoulders in the wind. Standing where I was, I could only see his unscarred left side. He was breathtakingly handsome. His skin was so pale it seemed luminescent and that perfect Barrymore profile of his, cut into the night sky like a silhouette in reverse. He must have felt the weight of my stare because he turned to face me.

"Jean-Claude never spoke of this place to me," he began. "All this time he has kept it truly secret."

I nodded. "I didn't know he had his own crypt either. But then if he gave it to Monica and Robert, it's not really his anymore. That's why he needed to contact her." I sighed heavily. "It may be secret, and it may be safe, but I don't want to have to leave Damian alone out here."

"Our time is almost up," Asher said solemnly. "If Jean-Claude does not reply to the edict by morning, they will come after Damian tomorrow while we are all asleep. We may be in more danger where we lie, than Damian will be sleeping here, ma cherie." He took a deep breath and gestured at the trees. "There are worse things than sleeping among rats and bones."

His words gave me chills that had nothing to do with the temperature. I wrapped my arms around myself and chewed my lower lip. "I know," I said flatly. I couldn't think of anything else to say.

Monica tromped by us, flashlight glaring in our eyes momentarily before she had the sense to lower it. With a heavy sigh, I started following her. Asher strode ahead of both of us to where Damian and Nathaniel were standing. He said something to them which made them fall in line after him. Monica quickened her pace to walk beside Asher. I brought up the end, glancing behind us occasionally, just to be sure. Together, we all walked silently into the woods.

********

The cemetery was just as I had imagined it. Small and obscure with headstones so weathered the names of the dead were practically unreadable. Blackened statues of angels with severed limbs and chipped faces watched over family plots. Crooked crosses and obelisks marked tiny overgrown mounds of rocky earth.

There was an emptiness to it all however. The spirits of the dead buried here had long since left. But their bones remained. I could feel them. In their individual graves, I could visualize who they were in my mind. A young boy was lying here. An old woman there. This one was just a baby. This one was a man.

At the far end of the cemetery stood the crypt. A huge stone monument of a tomb, compared to the humble plots just beyond it. It was white and ghostly-looking against the thick black woods on the other side.

Jean-Claude wasn't at the crypt, but it was bustling with activity nonetheless. Several of his werewolves were going in and out, carrying lanterns and blankets, trying to make the place a little more hospitable, I suppose. Others were clearing away the thorny thickets that had grown around the crumbling stairs hampering everyone's efforts. It was hard to tell who was who, but I immediately recognized Stephan and Jason. They were in the process of carrying a coffin inside. Just to the left of them was Jamil. Jamil?...and oh shit, there was Richard.

I stopped in my tracks so abruptly, Nathaniel actually ran into me. His hands grasped my upper arms to steady us. Then he drew me back against him.

"What's wrong?" he asked, over my shoulder.

I gestured limply in front of me. "What is he doing here?" I shot Monica an accusing look. Bitch could of told me. She shook her head and held up her hands as if to say she had nothing to do with it. Obviously Jean-Claude had told Richard as well as Monica. Now Richard knew I had outright lied to him about why I had wanted to go to Tennessee. That bothered me more than anything.

"Oh," Nathaniel replied all-knowingly. He squeezed my arms. Richard had never been very nice to Nathaniel and I had to wonder if Nathaniel was trying to encourage me or himself. I reached up and took his hand in mine.

"Well, shit. We might as well just get this out of the way," I muttered. Where the hell was Jean-Claude?

"Asher and I will be right beside you," Damian offered.

I sighed. "He has the right to be angry with me, okay? Don't go jumping the gun, so to speak, if he is," I ordered the vampires. They both gave me cool looks in reply. I stalked forward determinedly.

Looking quite virile and oh so gorgeous, Richard was leaning against the crypt's entrance with his arms crossed over his broad chest, one leg bent, resting his foot on a broken piece of stone. He looked over at me as I approached, and frowned.

I frowned back. "He called you?" Implying Jean-Claude. I really was going to throttle him now.

"I called him," Richard responded.

"But he told you everything?"

"Not everything," Richard clarified and straightened to his full imposing height. "Not at first anyway. But almost right after hearing from you out of the blue, Jean-Claude started calling the wolves to him. I wanted to know why, so I paid him a little visit." He paused to push his bangs out of his eyes that the wind kept whipping across his face. "I knew you were lying, Anita, the minute you started talking about taking a nice little last minute trip with your entourage. You go traveling with them, and I know something's come up. But as usual you just shut me out and don't even give me the chance to really help you when you need me to. Did you honestly think I would let you go to Tennessee to escape if I was the one who had set this execution up?"

For a moment I didn't really know what to say to that. I wasn't going to apologize for doing what Jean-Claude had originally told me to do.

"Look. I wasn't supposed to tell anyone," I retorted evenly. "This wasn't done just to get Damian killed. Jean-Claude thinks the ulterior motive was to hurt the two of us. This was done by someone who isn't very happy about my relationship with him. I couldn't tell you. You might have been a prime suspect. I mean, who better than our reluctant triumvirate third?" Damn, that didn't come out right. "But I know you wouldn't do such a thing," I added quickly. I think it was too late. Richard was looking at me like he wanted to violently shake some sense into me.

Asher drew up beside me to address Richard. "We are all suspects, mon ami," he said quietly. "It only makes sense that the one who went to the police is someone close to Jean-Claude."

Richard's eyes narrowed. "I'd say that puts you at the very top of the list, Asher," he half-growled. "I should have been out of the running at the start. I don't give a damn anymore about who...or what...Anita 'does' in her spare time."

I squeezed Nathaniel's hand tightly to help rein in my fury before I stepped closer to Richard. Damian beat me to him however, moving in front of me, cutting me off.

"You do, otherwise you wouldn't be so angry with her," he said, his rich, dulcet voice calm, but slightly menacing.

"Think whatever you like, Damian," Richard shot back. "But I did not do this!"

Damian looked startled. "I'm not accusing you of anything but caring about Anita," he replied softly. "You're not angry because she lied to you. You're angry because what she did hurt you."

"I'm angry with her because she should know me better," Richard replied and glanced over at me. Our eyes locked and his expression softened considerably. "I may not be your lover anymore, but I'm not your enemy either. Or Jean-Claude's. I still care about the two of you. And anything that hurts you, Anita, affects me too...in more ways than one."

I placed my hand on Damian's arm, and stepped around him, closer to Richard.

"You're right, you're absolutely right," I agreed. "I should have just told you. I never believed in my heart you could do such a thing. I want you to know that. I just couldn't tell you. I'm already going to be in trouble for telling Asher, but I just needed someone on my side."

Richard's eyes darkened. He looked up at Asher, then back to me. "You're the one who told him?"

"Well, yes," I admitted. A thick lump was forming all of a sudden in the middle of my throat. "I know without a doubt Asher loves me. He wouldn't do anything like this to hurt me. I told him about the edict because I wanted his help."

Taken aback, Richard put his hands on his hips. "Without a doubt," he repeated mockingly. "Even when we were engaged you were never that sure about my love for you, Anita. What makes him so special?" He gestured at Asher.

Asher stood motionless, watching Richard carefully, but I could feel the tension building in his power. I edged in between them and took a deep breath. Richard looked down at me as I spoke.

"Asher kissed me...and that's how I knew he loved me," I informed Richard. I realized how trite that sounded, but I was being honest. I struggled on, trying to explain a sensation that could only be experienced. "There's something about his kiss. It's incredible...and I'm not saying that just because he's a good kisser. He enhances it with emotion that manifests in his kiss." I stopped talking because Richard wasn't looking at me anymore, he was glaring at Asher.

Asher was giving Richard one of those mildly-amused, complacent smiles that was so similar to the one Jean-Claude teased Richard with, it was almost eerie.

I cleared my throat which got their attention off each other and back on me. "At any rate, Richard," I continued, "you made it clear to me time and time again that you don't care to be associated with me outside of the lukoi. I asked for the only help from you I thought you would be willing to give me." I paused to give him a long hard look. "I'm not sure why you are here now, after you found out I had lied to you, but I'm glad you still wanted to help."

Richard shook his head forcefully. "Obviously you still don't understand what I'm about do you? But don't feel bad, Anita. I don't understand you either." He glanced up at Asher again, a flicker of disapproval in his eyes. "I guess I never will." With that he abruptly shouldered past me and disappeared into the trees. Jamil trotted after him. I wondered if he was leaving or just going somewhere to cool off and come to terms with things.

I heard Nathaniel sigh heavily as if in relief. I looked around him, past the vampires. Seems we had an audience. Monica and the rest of the wolves had stopped what they were doing to watch the latest development in my soap opera life. I rolled my eyes.

"I'm going to find Jean-Claude," I announced dismissively, looking around the cemetery helplessly. I just wanted to get away really. Jason took pity on me and gestured south towards a gently sloping hillside.

"He's on that ridge," Jason said quietly. "You can tell him we're finished."

I nodded absently and turned around in the direction Jason had indicated. Jean-Claude's presence beckoned to me like a siren's song. I started up the hill without looking back.

********

Now there's a sight you don't see everyday. The great sex machine himself, standing on a hilltop, stars glittering all around him like diamonds, with a sleeping baby draped over his shoulder.

I stopped momentarily, a short distance from him, just to marvel at him. He was wearing a long black angora sweater coat over one of his typically frothy lace shirts, and had pulled one side of it over the baby to keep it warm. The child's face was pressed into Jean-Claude's neck; drooling blissfully on the master vampire's downy black tresses, little legs dangling limply in slumber. Jean-Claude held Monica's baby tightly against him and was rocking back and forth slowly with the comfort and easy rhythm of any seasoned father.

He heard me coming however and turned to face me, pressing his index finger to his lips to keep me from speaking too loud. I beamed up at him and quickened my pace to reach his side.

At first, we both stood motionless, gazing into each other's eyes lingeringly. Then I leaned towards him and he arched his neck to meet me. Our mouths locked together in a soft, sultry kiss that made my toes curl.

He drew away from me first and rewarded me with a breathtakingly sexy smile. He licked his lips savoringly and groaned.

"And what have I done to merit such sparkle in your eyes, ma petite?" he murmured, his gorgeous voice stroking my insides like a caressing hand.

I reached out and trailed my fingers down his angora-clad arm. "Maybe it has something to do with your little friend there," I whispered back. "You're the only one I know who can look so virtuously adorable and so sensually provocative at the same time."

Jean-Claude raised an eyebrow. "A time-honored talent, ma petite." His expression sobered somewhat and he gestured over the ridge in the direction I had just come from. "Have the wolves finished with the preparations?"

I nodded. "Yes. Jason told me to let you know." It was colder up on the hilltop than below in the cemetery. I huddled closer to Jean-Claude's fuzzy sweater and tried hard not to be jealous of the baby in his arms. "So, tell me about Plan B."

At that, Jean-Claude huffed. "Plan C or D would be more accurate," he stated with a slight frown. "We are running out of options. This was all I could think of with such little time left."

I swallowed uneasily. "Yeah, I heard about the surveillance." I closed my eyes and shook my head. "They must have a description of Damian if they're on the lookout for him. Someone must have told them you would try to get him away somehow. Who would know you'd risk so much to save him? It has to be someone who knows the influence I have over you. Someone who knows Damian is important to me."

"And someone who was aware of what Damian had done," Jean-Claude continued. "But I am no closer to finding out who this person could be than I was a day ago." He sighed wistfully.

"We need to know," I said, anger edging my voice. "It could even be someone with us tonight. All our caution could go right down the drain."

Jean-Claude shook his head carefully, ever aware of the dozing child he held. "No, I have eliminated all of the wolves. Most either did not know about Damian, or have no motive to want him killed or us apart. Including Richard." He paused then, gauging my reaction, but I didn't give him any so he continued. "I have also ruled out many of the vampires who were with Asher and I that night. They would have no motive. This list dwindles, but not fast enough."

I looked away from him then, and licked my lips apprehensively. "What about Asher?"

A truly tortured expression suddenly marred his perfect features. "I cannot say."

I took a deep breath. "It wasn't Asher, Jean-Claude. I know it wasn't."

He looked at me suspiciously and he must have tensed or done something subconsciously because the baby suddenly stirred. His attention was momentarily distracted as he reassured the child. It gave me a brief reprieve and I summoned up my courage to tell him what I had done.

"I told him," I blurted out. "I needed to tell him. I wanted his insight. I wanted someone on my side."

Anger flashed in Jean-Claude's eyes. "As opposed to me?" he countered, his voice dropping an octave or so. "I am on your side, Anita. Everything I'm risking this night to placate you, should tell you that much. Yet you go behind my back and possibly undermine it all." I knew the only reason he wasn't yelling was because of the baby. He sighed deeply and turned his face away from me momentarily as if struggling with his composure. When he faced me again, his expression was blank, but his eyes still glittered with anger.

"It was wrong not to tell him," I argued. "I know you believe he has the perfect motive and means, but you're just plain wrong. Asher loves us. He would not hurt us." Having to whisper didn't put the kind of emphasis on what I was saying as I would have liked but the alternative was a screaming toddler and neither one of us wanted that.

Jean-Claude closed his eyes and mumbled something under his breath that could have been a prayer for patience if vampires prayed. Then he gazed at me unblinkingly for the longest time, and shook his head.

"I tell you not to do something, ma petite, and that practically guarantees you will," he began evenly. He carefully shifted the baby to his other shoulder and rubbed its back soothingly.

I guess I couldn't argue with that. I admit it, I was getting jealous of the baby. I wanted Jean-Claude to hold me and comfort me like that. I was the one in emotional turmoil here. I bowed my head, but immediately felt Jean-Claude's fingers under my chin, raising my eyes to meet his. The lace spilling over his hand from the sleeve of his shirt tickled my skin. I took his hand away, but held it in both of mine and kissed his knuckles.

He seemed calm again. His temper perfectly in control. "If only I could aspire to your conviction," he went on. "I'm curious as to why you stubbornly continue to proclaim his innocence when the evidence is piled up against him. Surely, working with the police as you do, you must realize, for Asher, it does not look good."

"You know, Asher could have hurt Damian a long time ago to get back at me, if he wanted to," I informed. "He didn't have to wait until now. He could have turned Damian over to the police that night he found him wandering the streets covered in blood. You would have been given an edict then. Without me to intercede for him, you would have killed Damian. And I would have never forgiven you for it. If you remember, locking him in a coffin was bad enough. It took me a long time to forgive you for that." I squeezed Jean-Claude's hand entreatingly. "I know Asher loves me and I know he loves you even more. He wouldn't betray us. I swear to you, he wouldn't."

Jean-Claude gave me a knowing look all of a sudden. "He's kissed you, hasn't he?"

The question caught me a little off guard, but I nodded. "You know what his kiss is like. You know it lays his heart wide open for all the world to see. Or at least the person he's kissing. How long has it been since he kissed you?"

Pulling his hand away from me, Jean-Claude lowered his eyes. He started pacing slowly in a small circle. I wasn't sure if it was because he was agitated or if he just wanted to keep moving for the baby. "Yes, I know what his kiss is like, ma petite," he confessed finally, looking wistful and regretful at the same time. "So I believe you when you say you felt loved when he kissed you. That explains why you trust him implicitly and perhaps, why you took him into your bed this evening. At first, I thought it was only to feed your ardeur. Now I know it was something more profound than that."

I felt my throat tighten. I wanted desperately to know what he was feeling right now and stretched out with my power to brush his own, but he was shielding me, keeping me at bay. When all else fails, come right out and ask.

I stepped up to him, forcing him to stop pacing. His face was mere inches from mine, but he wouldn't meet my eyes. I sighed heavily.

"Are you all right with that?"

Jean-Claude slowly raised his eyes to mine, his face a carefully controlled mask still. He opened his mouth to reply, but the baby chose that exact moment to wake and start fussing. What Jean-Claude ended up saying wasn't what he was originally going to say, I was sure of it.

"Sssh, hush little one." His hand delicately stroked the baby's cheek. To me he simply said, "We should get back," and shifted the child again in his arms, pressing a soft kiss on its forehead. At least it stopped fussing.

I crossed my hands over my chest, ready to start demanding my own time, but Jean-Claude had already turned and started gliding down the hillside. What else could I do? I followed him.

********

The activity below had come to a complete stop. Everyone was standing around or sitting irreverently on headstones. They stood up, however, as Jean-Claude passed by, like courtiers in the presence of a king.

Monica came forward to claim her baby and Jean-Claude continued on to the entrance of the crypt, not bothering to acknowledge anybody. Richard and Jamil were back and looked as if they were planning on staying for awhile. There was camping gear at their feet beside the stone steps leading down into the ground. They must have gone to unload some unseen vehicle somewhere.

I trailed after Jean-Claude. He stopped at the top of the steps and turned to face Damian, conspicuously ignoring Asher, who was standing in the exact same spot I had left him. Nathaniel promptly took up his place by my side. Stephan and Jason were leaning against the side of the crypt where Richard had been earlier.

"Come, mon ami," Jean-Claude told Damian, holding his hand out towards him in invitation. Damian stepped forward and took it. Jean-Claude drew him down the steps into the blackness of the hollow tomb.

I turned to Nathaniel and ordered him to stay put for the time being, then snatched up one of the lanterns and took a deep steadying breath. Pitch black holes in the ground and me didn't get along very well, but I was determined to see the inside of the crypt myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Richard shaking his head in disbelief. He knew of this particular phobia of mine and obviously thought I was just being stubborn about it again.

Asher noticed my discomfort too, but he stepped forward. He descended the steps and held out his hand to me in much the same way Jean-Claude had done with Damian. "I'll go with you," he told me.

I offered him a grateful, somewhat tremulous smile and seized his hand. He stood gazing at me fondly for a moment just outside the entrance before I felt a gentle pull on my arm and watched him disappear into the blackness in front of me. I held up the lantern and scooted closer to him as we made our way down a short narrow passage that smelled musty and stale.

I could hear the squeak of rats and the scuttling of their feet, but I didn't see any, which was fine with me. Asher and I emerged into a wider passage, lined with recesses on each side. A burial chamber of sorts. Collapsed skeletons filled each hole, covered in moss, bits of vegetation, and tiny chunks of rock. Some long decayed pieces of clothing clung wetly to some of the bones, flashing color in this otherwise very black and gray world. I caught glimpses of jewelry, things like wedding bands and blackened rosaries with the crosses conspicuously missing, entwined in mildewed skeletal hands.

Surprisingly, the further we went into the crypt, the brighter it became. We filed through another short narrow passage and this time emerged into another chamber, which had been gutted. There were no bodies lining these walls, and the only coffin in the chamber was standing open and empty on a stone platform. It looked as if the floor had been swept off, the spiderwebs knocked down, and the walls cleaned--as well as a hole in the ground could be cleaned at least. Lanterns were placed in every corner and the shadows of Damian and Jean-Claude loomed and flickered on the damp glistening walls.

I could hear them speaking to each other softly, but I couldn't make out just what they were saying until Asher and I were practically on top of them, then they stopped talking and turned to face us. I glanced around again.

"I guess this won't be so bad," I addressed Damian.

He offered me an easy smile with a shake of his head. "No. I've been kept in much worse places than this." That gave me chills and I was glad he didn't elaborate. Instead, he looked back at Jean-Claude. "Seems I'm indebted to you once more, Jean-Claude."

"Thank Anita," Asher suddenly said. "Jean-Claude would have simply killed you if not for her."

Shit. I looked up at Asher, my eyes widening, and dug my nails into his hand in warning. He didn't seem to notice. He was too busy glaring at Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude merely smiled and shook his head.

"In this instance, yes," he replied. "But Anita knows I have put myself in harm's way for Damian before without her prompting me to do so."

I knew he was speaking of the ransom he had paid to Damian's former master and what that involved I could only imagine.

Asher moved a little closer to Jean-Claude. "Putting yourself in harm's way? Is that how you developed your masochistic proclivities?"

I swore under my breath and stepped in between the two master vampires, holding up my hands.

"We are so not doing this right now," I hissed. "Stop it, both of you."

Asher and Jean-Claude continued staring at each other however. Their combined powers were flaring along with their tempers, and the magic swirling about the tiny chamber was suffocating.

Jean-Claude was so close to me I could feel his breath on my skin. I didn't dare touch him. I didn't want him tapping into my power to lash out at Asher if that's what this was boiling down to. In fact I sidled away from them both and stood beside Damian.

"I tolerate pain during sex," Jean-Claude responded, his voice low and menacing. "I don't enjoy it."

Asher quipped off something to Jean-Claude in French that made Jean-Claude's hackles rise even more. He hissed something back at Asher in French. Obviously, neither one of them wanted me to know what this particular argument was about. My French was sad and I only recognized a word here or a phrase there. From what I could gather, however, Asher was berating Jean-Claude for trying to pit me against him, and Jean-Claude said something about Asher seducing me. Then the argument really got heated. I made out a 'how dare you?', 'friends', 'stealing', and something along the lines of 'go to hell.'

"Enough!" I screamed. My head was reeling.

I pushed Asher away from Jean-Claude. "Stop being so hateful!" I shrieked. "You're only pissed off at him because you're hurt by the fact he suspects you of betraying us and now apparently he's accused you of seducing me. Just let him know you are hurt! Why must you always turn your pain into hate?"

Before Asher could reply, I turned on Jean-Claude. "And you, stop accusing him of everything! He loves you, damn it! That's why he's so hurt. That's why he's angry. He loves you." I was taking my cues from the encounter with Richard I had had earlier. "Asher loves me too. He didn't betray us. And he didn't seduce me. I just wanted to have sex for myself for a change and not for the ardeur....I wanted to have sex with Asher."

Jean-Claude lowered his eyes and turned his face away from me. He placed his hand over his heart as if he was making sure it was still beating. "In a way, I am pleased to learn you welcomed him into your bed, but then, in a small way, it makes me very jealous and possessive." He raised his eyes and blinked slowly at me in an owlish kind of way. "I'm so very insecure when it comes to you, ma petite. But I know the more I tighten my grip on you, the faster you slip away. Then I fear if I let you free to do whatever you please, I will lose you while I'm not looking."

I sighed. I knew Jean-Claude's insecurity stemmed from the fact I was the only woman in the past three-hundred or so years who didn't find him perpetually irresistible. Of course, when he said things like this to me, even I wasn't immune. I stepped forward and cradled his face in my hands and gazed deeply into his eyes.

"Do you remember what I said back at the Circus the other night, just before I kissed you? I told you to never doubt me. And I meant it. Do I have to kiss you again?"

Jean-Claude's eyes brightened a little. "That would be nice," he murmured.

I leaned forward, then stopped myself. An idea came to me so brilliant and unexpected, that it was like one of those little cartoon light bulbs turning on in my head. I stepped back, much to Jean-Claude's dismay, and grabbed Asher's arm. I hauled him in front of Jean-Claude and gave him a slight shove forward.

"You kiss him."

Asher and Jean-Claude both gaped at me, clearly stunned.

"Go on," I urged Asher. "He needs to be convinced that you love him--that you wouldn't hurt him. It's the only way." I quickly dismissed any protests with a wave of my hand. "I'll have plenty of time to convince him later. You need to convince him now."

Asher turned to face Jean-Claude. For a long while, they simply stared into each other's eyes. Then Asher tentatively raised his hand, and placed it against Jean-Claude's cheek. Jean-Claude peered up at him, his dark eyes wide with apprehension. He seemed to melt a little when Asher touched him, and leaned forward slightly, encouragingly. Asher plunged his hand into Jean-Claude's hair and tilted his face upwards, his other hand lighting upon Jean-Claude's neck.

Ever so slowly, Asher lowered his face closer to Jean-Claude's. Jean-Claude closed his eyes and parted his full lips enticingly. Asher captured his mouth with an almost brutal intensity, and Jean-Claude gasped and tensed at first. Asher bent him back slightly and Jean-Claude grasped Asher's upper arms to steady himself. Then a passion ignited between them that seemed to spread heat throughout the cold, musty chamber. Their kiss became a searing of flesh, so erotic, so powerful, and full of uninhibited emotions.

Watching them together like that, I felt the slightest tinge of guilt. If I wasn't such a puritan at heart, I could deal with the idea of Jean-Claude and Asher being lovers. But I knew deep down inside I would never be able to accept it. Partly because, I was as worried about losing Jean-Claude to another lover as much as he was worried about losing me. I had to admit though, what I was witnessing now didn't make me as squeamish as I had always thought it would. There was nothing perverse about their kiss. In fact, it was rather beautiful, in a very sexually aggressive way.

It got to the point where I didn't think they'd ever stop, and tactfully cleared my throat. I spared a glance at Damian and he gave me an amused smile.

Asher released Jean-Claude finally, and I noticed Jean-Claude was breathing rather deeply.

"Mon Dieu, Asher," he whispered. "That was better than I remembered." Jean-Claude leaned forward again, and stole another kiss before they parted completely. Asher smiled, and slowly stroked the front of Jean-Claude's sweater with the back of his hand.

"You're so beautiful," he murmured. "I've missed you so much." He lowered his head then and took a deep breath. "I'm very pleased to be with you again, mon ami. I hope I have convinced you."

Jean-Claude laughed lightly, that deliciously sensuous laugh. "Oui," he said simply and as if on mutual cue, he and Asher stepped forward and hugged. Very brotherly this time.

Smiling, pleased that my idea had worked even better than I thought, I turned my attention back on Damian. "Now that that's settled, the only other thing I could hope for is that you and I won't have to stay here long." All eyes were on me now. I heard Jean-Claude exhale sharply through his teeth and felt Asher tense behind me.

"Ma petite, there is no reason for you to stay here with Damian," Jean-Claude quickly explained. "I'm leaving Stephan behind, as well as Richard and Jamil. They will tend to his every need, I can assure you."

I shook my head. "No. I'm staying with him." There. End of discussion.

Asher tried to appeal to my sense of reason. He turned me around to face him. "But you will need to leave to keep your appointments with the courts if you hope to follow through with the stay of execution you filed. Otherwise, how will you know its status?"

I gnawed my lip. Shit, I really didn't want to discuss this in front of Damian, but suddenly had no choice. "You don't understand. I put a rush on it, but it could take weeks, maybe months." If it ever goes through at all, I thought to myself despondently. "I've already put in a leave of absence at work. I'll send Nathaniel back and he and Micah can keep me abreast of things as they develop. They can come get me if I'm needed." Asher looked unconvinced. I frowned and tried again. "If they're watching Jean-Claude, they will be watching me as well. I can't keep coming and going from here. I'll lead them right to him."

Damian stepped up to me and pulled me towards him. "Anita, you can't stay here," he said softly, his beautiful emerald-green eyes locking onto mine. He grasped my hands and squeezed them. "You need to go home. You can help me more there, than staying and holding my hand here." He raised my hands to his lips and kissed my fingers. "I'll be fine. Honest. Go home. Let me do that much for you."

I frowned deeply. He was right. I could do more for him in the city than out here. I hated the idea of leaving him here, but I had to and he knew it. I leaned into him and drew him against me in a fierce hug. Our lips met and we kissed hungrily, lingeringly. He wrapped his arms tightly around my shoulders, pressing our bodies close. I devoured him with every last one of my senses, tasting his mouth, inhaling his scent, and touching his cool skin. I buried my fingers deep into his silky hair, never wanting to let him go.

When we finally parted, I nodded slowly, reluctantly. "All right," I murmured, my eyes burning. I think from the smoke from the lanterns. "I'll go. But I'm leaving Nathaniel, all right? He'll want to stay. I'm sure of it."

Damian's eyes flickered to Jean-Claude. The master vampire wisely nodded his consent.

Turning, I pointed a finger at Jean-Claude. "I don't care what you have to do to find who's responsible for this, but do it, and do it fast."

Jean-Claude's eyes widened slightly in surprise. "Are you giving me permission to resort to...extremes, if need be?"

I knew what he was implying and since it was the same thing I had implied, I nodded forcefully. "Yes."

Jean-Claude looked up at Asher. "I may need your assistance tonight then, mon ami," he told him quietly.

Asher nodded, but not before glancing at me. "Very well. I'll go with you."

I turned away from them all, but Jean-Claude reached out and stopped me, grabbing my arm. "I will need to reply to the edict before morning. I will tell them to send in the executioner. With Damian hidden, it may buy us some valuable time."

I lowered my eyes. Damn. If only I knew who was assigned to it. I would have to find out. I straightened somewhat and nodded resolutely. We all had things to do. It was time to leave.

"Let's go then," I suggested, and hurried out of the empty chamber into the narrow passage, without looking back. I felt sick passing through the musty burial chamber this time. God, I needed some air.

*******

In a house full of people, you still know when someone is missing. You feel their absence as strongly as their presence. It's like there's suddenly a hole, where there wasn't one before. As long as people come and go as usual, everything's fine. But if someone is gone outside the daily routine, you feel it.

Normally, at this time of day, Damian would be in the basement, literally dead to the world. I wouldn't be able to see him or touch him or talk to him, but I would know he was there. Now he wasn't.

I was feeling Damian's absence like a ball and chain. It dragged me down, made me feel mopey and listless. I had so much to do and didn't want to do anything. I tried to get some things done, but it got to the point I couldn't stand it in the house anymore.

I wanted to be with Damian. Or at least at the Circus with the other vampires. I wanted to sit and wait, armed and ready for the unseen threat about to descend on them. I was better at that than making phone calls. Being put on hold, having to listen to elevator music, and then having to conduct a polite, but useless conversation with a faceless, apathetic human-being just wasn't this girl's schtick. Finally, in complete exasperation, I drove to Animators Inc.

Being at work was a little better. I made more phone calls from my office. I tried to find out what was happening with the request for the stay of execution, tried to get my appointment with the issuing judge bumped up, and tried to no avail, to find out when the hunt would commence and who the executioner was. With no new information forthcoming, my mood quickly turned from sad to sour.

By noon, I'd had enough of bureaucrats, red tape, and Musak. I was going to arm myself to the teeth and go down to the Riverfront to the Circus of the Damned. Micah and his leopards were there. Jean-Claude's wolves were there. All watching and waiting for a possible showdown that could rival the O.K. Corral in the annals of history.

It dawned on me then, as it hadn't before, that Jean-Claude had been right. He was risking an awful lot to save one vampire. And in turn, I was risking him, Asher, Micah, and Richard, and everyone rallying to our defense out of allegiance or just plain loyalty.

It would only make sense for the executioner to go to the Circus first. That was where the majority of the city's vampires slept. Visions of shotguns and flamethrowers skidded across my mind. I knew from experience the vampires wouldn't be able to defend themselves at this time of day. It would be up to the leopards and the wolves to save them. Then if the shapeshifters crossed the executioner, he or she could call in backup. The police were armed with silver bullets now. Silver bullets could kill a shapeshifter. This one execution could quickly become a slaughter, if it hadn't already.

Realization hit me like a freight train. There was only one sure way to stop it all. I'd have to give them Damian. And fast.

My hand was shaking as I reached for the phone. I lifted the receiver and hesitated. I couldn't do this. I just couldn't.

"Are you all right, Anita? You look a little green."

Drifting in from the open door of my office, Larry's unexpected voice startled me. I jumped visibly, dropping the phone back on its cradle, and looked up. I knew my eyes were watering and my throat was so tight I could barely speak. Waving him off in dismissal, I tried to smile reassuringly, but failed miserably.

His congenial expression morphed into one of deep concern. He slipped into my office, closing the door behind him, and approached my desk.

"What's wrong?" He came up beside me, looking a little unsure. He didn't know how to comfort me, but I could tell he wanted to. He was a nice guy. "Do you want to talk about it?"

I shook my head. "Please, Larry, I really just want to be left alone right now," I tried to tell him as painlessly as I could.

"Oh, okay." He started backing away. "I was hoping you'd come in today so I could tell you my big news, but now I don't have any. I just got word, my hunt got called off." He was feeling a little more comfortable now and his boyish enthusiasm was coming through. "I was going to invite you along even, if you promised to let me do the actual execution. It was assigned to me, ME of all people, but I'll admit it, for a real vampire hunt, I would have liked you along."

I stared up at him incredulously. Slowly, his words sunk into my mind. It took me two tries before I could find my voice. "You were assigned a vampire execution?"

He smiled. "Yeah, my first hunt. I don't really know why it was assigned to me and not you, but maybe the courts figured you weren't into that sort of thing anymore...considering." He paused and sighed heavily. "But as I said, it was canceled. Apparently the Master of the City turned over a vampire's heart this morning, just before dawn with a written apology for the rogue's offenses and all." He had a distant, thoughtful look in his eyes. "Figures, huh? I was this close. This close." He held up his hand and measured an inch or two with his fingers.

So Larry had been assigned Damian's execution. As shocking as that was, I was even more stunned hearing about the surrendered heart. "Wait a minute," I breathed, holding up my hands. "Jean-Claude conceded?" The thought that he would go behind my back and kill Damian after all was just too much to swallow. He wouldn't do that to me. He wouldn't. But then who's heart had he surrendered? Who had he killed?

"Yeah," Larry confirmed. "It surprised me. I didn't think he'd do it, knowing Jean-Claude the way I do. But he swore in his statement that he was unaware of the murders the vampire had committed, and had he known, he would have turned the vamp over immediately."

Jean-Claude had outright lied, but I was never so grateful for the skillful ease with which he perjured himself as I was right now.

Larry continued dejectedly. "The courts are happy. The city is safe again. I feel gypped, but I guess all's well that ends well."

I got to my feet. I was suddenly angry at Larry, but I wasn't sure why. Maybe because I saw too much of myself in him. Was I ever that excited about hunting down a vampire? Did I ever have such little regard for who and what they were before I blasted holes through their ancient hearts? The answer was yes. I killed them because they were the monsters, and I never gave it a second thought.

"You know, Larry, suddenly I don't feel very good," I announced. "I'm going to go home and lie down."

"Yeah, you don't look so good, if you don't mind my saying," Larry confirmed. "You're not supposed to be here anyway, are you?"

"No. I'm on a leave of absence." I didn't say good-bye. I didn't bother gathering any papers or files. I just grabbed my car keys and left.

********

I didn't go home. I went to the Circus of the Damned to find Micah. I wondered if he even knew what had happened.

There were still quite a few lycanthropes roaming the grounds when I got there, but no more than usual. It appeared as if the majority of them had left. There wasn't any police either. I breathed a long, deep sigh of relief. Jean-Claude must have called off the extra security. Micah was probably at home.

As it was, I made it all the way to the extra-wide stairs leading underground before I came across anyone. And that was Jason.

He had just come through the large wooden door and was closing it behind him. He turned, slightly startled to see me at first, but then he smiled.

"Anita, I was just coming to find you," he said, turning up the collar of his leather jacket against the chill in the air. "I left messages at your house. I've been trying to reach you all morning but the line was busy and then when I did get through, Zane told me you had left to go to your office."

"Who was it? Who did he kill?" I asked outright.

Jason snorted inelegantly. "What, no 'oh hi Jason, my, you look fabulous today'?"

I frowned and put my hands on my hips. "Just tell me, all right? I'm in no mood to spar with you this afternoon. I've got way more important things on my mind at the moment and if you don't fucking tell me what I want to know, I swear I will tell Jean-Claude to beat you within every fucking molecule of your life, do you understand me?"

Jason laughed, but I could tell from the expression on his face he almost believed I would do it. "All right, just...calm down, Anita. I'll tell you everything I know." He paused and glanced at the door. "Would you like to go inside first and make yourself comfortable, at least?"

I took a steadying breath and forced a smile. "Yes, that would be peachy."

"Peachy keen," Jason replied and turned to open the door. He held it for me, which earned him a glare, but I couldn't maintain it, and smiled at him for real.

"I'm sorry, really," I confessed. "I've been in a stellar mood lately. I don't mean to take everything out on you."

"That time of the month?" he asked with mock sympathy.

I smacked him in the arm. "No, you male-chauvinist piglet!" I pointed a finger of warning under his nose. "Jean-Claude will do anything I ask him to, remember that."

Jason nodded and fought a smile. "I will."

We walked all the way down to Jean-Claude's opulent living-room before saying anything else. I threw myself onto the sofa and Jason took the chair across the coffee table from me.

"Who was it?" I repeated. No more playing around.

Jason licked his lips before answering. "Gretchen."

All the blood drained out of my head, and I think my heart skipped a beat. Gretchen. Of course. Why didn't we suspect her from the start? Then, maybe Jean-Claude had. Maybe he just didn't want to tell me until he knew for sure who had betrayed us. He must have believed I would have ripped her heart out myself if he'd told me he suspected her as much as Asher.

"Did she confess?" I mumbled thickly.

Jason nodded. He was completely solemn now. "Yes. It wasn't very pretty, but it was effective."

My stomach flip-flopped. Apparently, Jean-Claude and Asher had tortured her last night. I had told Jean-Claude to use whatever means necessary to find out who had sicced the police on Damian. I knew what I was telling him at the time, but being suddenly confronted with the reality of it was nauseating. I wanted to ask Jason how many other vampires Jean-Claude had tortured last night before he got to Gretchen, but I couldn't bring myself to it. I put my hand over my stomach to keep it from lurching. I felt completely numb and drained of emotion.

"Then...it was her heart he turned over to the police?"

Jason nodded again. He was looking at me with a concerned expression. "It's over, Anita," he pronounced quietly. "Damian is safe."

That bit of knowledge helped ease my conscience somewhat. "Damian," I said out loud and suddenly had the urge to go to him. I wanted to be with him when he woke. I wanted to tell him exactly what Jason had told me. It's over.

I practically jumped to my feet and looked around for the phone. Jean-Claude was forever rearranging things and redecorating, and it seemed as though the room changed every time I saw it. Today, the phone was on a black lacquered Shaker-style table against the wall. I strode over to it and grabbed the phone book from the drawer underneath. Monica. I had to call Monica.

********

Monica came right to the Circus to pick me up, but this time, I followed her out to the cemetery in my own car. We drove out to the crypt, taking the same rutted roads we had last night, but for some reason the trip seemed considerably longer. Once we had arrived, she drove off again with a friendly, cheerful wave. She still thought she was my friend. I guess now, in a way, she was.

The cemetery didn't seem quite as foreboding and desolate as it had late last night. In the waning daylight it reminded me of a lost child wandering the streets. Dirty, neglected, and sad, but at the same time innocent and longing for love.

As I drew closer to the crypt, I noticed there were sleeping bags rolled up and stashed at the entrance. A lantern was sitting on the bottom step, waiting for someone to re-light it and use it to negotiate the stairs once nightfall came. Not long now.

I used it now to light my way through the crypt to the back chamber where Damian was. I stepped through the entrance and found Jamil, Richard, Stephan, and Nathaniel all sitting on the floor around the coffin, looking up at me as if they were expecting me. I set the lantern down with a sigh.

"Some watchwolves you are," I teased. "I made it all the way back here without being challenged once."

"We smelled you," Jamil informed me, with just a touch of hostility in his voice.

Richard, Stephan, and Nathaniel got up however. Richard walked up to me and I could see the questions in his eyes.

"It's over," I announced. "The hunt's been called off. Damian is safe." I smiled, but I felt like sobbing suddenly. I think it showed because Richard took me in his arms and held me tight.

Now I was sobbing. Crying my eyes out and I wasn't even sure why. Relief, definitely. Happiness, oh sure. Disgust, nausea, remorse, you bet.

Richard didn't ask anymore. He just held me and stroked my hair until I was all cried out. It felt so good being in his arms again, I didn't pull away, even when I had recovered my composure. But then, the awkwardness set in and as if by mutual consent, we parted and stepped away from each other.

I tried explaining everything to them that I had just learned earlier. Just the facts with as little embellishment as I possibly could. Then I told Richard, Stephan, and Jamil to go home and get a good night's rest. I thanked them politely for their contributions to my cause and left it at that. They promptly departed. Only Stephan said good-bye.

Nathaniel was looking at me hopefully. I reached out to him. He came to me and embraced me, kissing my forehead. Together, we settled down on the damp, stone floor to wait.

********

I wasn't really sure when the sun had set, being deep inside the crypt, but something stirred around me, telling me it was time. A power was accumulating in the chamber that felt oddly familiar to me. It was very similar to the power I used for raising the dead--for animating the corpses. But this was stronger, more concentrated. It's focus was the corpse inside the coffin. Damian was about to rise.

I got to my feet, pulling Nathaniel up with me, and we stood facing the coffin expectantly.

The power in the chamber was being sucked into the coffin like a vacuum cleaner sucks in dust. I could almost feel it moving past me, flowing into the body of the vampire. Then suddenly, it was gone. The chamber seemed eerily still. Then the coffin opened. Damian pulled himself up and out of it with a dancer's natural grace and turned to look at Nathaniel and I with wide, green eyes.

"Anita, what are you doing back here?" he asked, his voice just this side of petulant.

It pissed me off that he wasn't happier to see me, but I was so overcome with the need to hold him, I let it slide, and threw myself bodily into his arms. He caught me, and I kissed him mightily and hugged him so tightly, if he were human, I think I would have cracked his ribs.

He was so startled at first, he tried to resist my advances, but then the tension in his body eased, and I heard him moan softly into my mouth. I took pity on him finally and pried myself off of him.

"It's over!" I exclaimed, holding him at arms length to watch his expression.

He stared back at me. "Over? What do you mean?"

"She means, as far as the courts are concerned, you're dead," Nathaniel put in.

Damian glanced over at him, then back at me with an endearingly perplexed expression.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

I tried to explain. I told him about Gretchen, Larry, Jean-Claude, Jason, and Gretchen's heart. I told him he'd never be hunted again. It was truly over.

Now that he understood, he was nearly overcome with relief and uninhibited joy. He seized me by the waist and swung me around a few times before lowering me against him and easing me down the length of his body. He held me close and gazed into my eyes, then leaned forward and kissed me. This kiss was just as fervent as our last, but a tad more sensual, a lot more provocative.

"I see you have already received the news," Asher's voice greeted from the entrance to the chamber.

Damian and I parted and turned as one to look at him. I smiled at him and pulled free from Damian's grasp.

"Didn't I tell you not to go around sneaking up on people?" I tried to smooth out my disheveled clothes and shot a mischievous look at Damian. "If you'd have walked in a few minutes later, you probably would have gotten an eyeful."

"No doubt," Asher huffed. He tried to look reproachful, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

I went to him and hugged him. "Thank you..." I murmured into his chest. "Thank you so much."

He held me away from him and peered down at me curiously. "For what, ma cherie?"

I bit my lip and lowered my eyes. "For loving me....For loving Jean-Claude too." I slowly raised my eyes to meet his. Asher's eyes were such a startlingly pale blue. Looking into them now nearly took my breath away. "Your love made all the difference. Your hate is so strong, it can be terrifying at times. But your love...is the most compelling and effective power you possess. Don't ever be afraid to use it, Asher. Love can move mountains, you know. Or so I've been told."

A faint shadow of sadness dimmed Asher's brilliant eyes. He reached up and brushed my face with his fingertips. "Love can move mountains maybe, but love isn't enough to change a woman's heart."

Now it was my turn to be confused. "My heart?"

"About Jean-Claude...and me." He looked away suddenly and took a deep breath. "I do love him, Anita. Even when I hated him, a small part of me still harbored that love. Kissing him again last night...was ethereal, but painful. I want him so badly. But I know I can't have him."

To hear him proclaim his love that way, wrenched the steadfast heart he spoke of. For one brief moment, I considered it. Then I shook my head. "I...can't, Asher. I can't give him to you," I whispered. "I know it's petty, and selfish, and totally unfair to you both, but that's the way it is."

Asher sighed heavily and took me in his arms. "I understand. I truly do." He tightened his embrace and rocked me soothingly. "I wasn't asking you to give up Jean-Claude. I was only taking your advice and letting you know how I feel. It's something new to me and perhaps I didn't do it very well." He leaned down and pressed a soft kiss on my brow. "You have given me more than I ever hoped for, Anita. You have given me your acceptance and your friendship. You gave me your body. You gave me your love."

I looked up. "I do love you, Asher," I told him sincerely. "Don't ever forget that. Don't ever doubt it."

Asher smiled slightly. "If I should, what will you do about it?"

Now I smiled, grateful for his lightened mood. I reached up and traced his lower lip with my index finger. "Then I guess, I'll just have to kiss you."

Asher bent towards me. "That would be nice," he whispered, borrowing Jean-Claude's hopeful phrase from the night before.

I stretched up on my toes, wrapping my arms around his neck, and pulled him down closer. Then I kissed him.

A tell-tale kiss that happened once a long time ago, under an oil street lamp on a broken cobblestone road.

********

EPILOGUE~

What better way to forget the sordid details of a emotionally nerve-fraying week than a night spent tangled in satin sheets with the Master of the City?

Jean-Claude seemed to sense my need for reprieve. He turned up the romance tonight, was extra-affectionate, and fervently passionate. He went out of his way to make me smile. He even did a little strip tease for me, which made me blush and laugh, and totally confirm my suspicions that he had, at one time, worked at Guilty Pleasures before he owned it.

We made love for hours. Now I was happy, but exhausted. I lay sprawled face down on the bed, my arms stretched out like I was crucified. Jean-Claude was sitting on my thighs, his knees pressed against my hips, leaning over me, giving me a backrub.

His hands were warm tonight. I felt him shift and push his weight against his palms as he kneaded my shoulders. Then he dragged the heels of his hands down my spine and worked his way up my ribs with a slow, circular motion. The soft ends of his waist-length hair brushed across my skin as he moved around above me and tickled my back. I wiggled and squirmed and he curled up over me and dropped several wet kisses on the back of my neck. Straightening, he repeated his pattern a couple of more times before changing it, reversing it, so different areas on my back got the benefit of his magical hands as well.

I moaned and sighed with complete contentment. Very satiated, very relaxed. But now that things were winding down, there was this little nagging question in the back of my mind that I couldn't ignore any longer. Something I just had to know, and suddenly found myself asking Jean-Claude before I had even decided to.

"How did Gretchen know about Damian?"

Jean-Claude sighed. He was working his way down my spine again. "Non, ma petite. Please. Don't make me speak of her. Not tonight." His usually melodious voice was slightly strained and hoarse now. Screaming repeatedly in ecstasy has a tendency to do that.

"Just tell me. I have to know. I can't let it go until I do, you should know that."

Jean-Claude made a noncommittal noise deep in his throat and stopped massaging me. I felt his body rise off me and I thought he was getting off the bed, but instead he draped himself over my back and pressed his cheek against my shoulder.

"Yes, I do know that, and that is the only reason I will tell you now," he muttered. I felt him take a deep breath, but he didn't say anything.

"Well?"

"Well...when Gretchen was released from her coffin, I took her away, if you remember, to the bath. She must have noticed the other coffin because she asked me about it, and asked who else we were releasing that night."

I turned my head, but couldn't see Jean-Claude's face. I could feel the sudden tension of his body on top of mine and I knew what he was going to say next.

"I told her," he continued softly. "I told her everything. It seemed to distract her, calm her, that I was talking to her." He paused, then rolled off of me and onto his back beside me. I looked over at him and he turned his head and met my eyes with a regretful sadness. "If only I had realized. I had always underestimated her hatred of you, ma petite." He closed his eyes then and took a deep breath.

I sat up slightly and stretched out my hand towards him. I placed it gently on his chest, over his cross-shaped scar. He opened his eyes and peered back at me as if he was expecting me to be angry with him.

"You couldn't have known she'd resort to something like that to get back at me," I reassured him. "Maybe you should have, but you didn't, and the whole thing is water under the bridge anyway. Things worked out."

Jean-Claude took my hand in his and brought it to his lips. He kissed it softly and squeezed it. "Things worked out this time. Perhaps next time, we won't be so lucky."

He was so solemn and sad now, I became angry at myself for even bringing the subject up and spoiling what had been a very enjoyable evening.

"Damn," I grumbled and edged away from him. "Why do you always give in to me so easily? Why do you let me get my way every time? You didn't want to talk about this tonight and you should have just refused to. Now you're depressed and upset. Next time, just tell me to shut up and kiss you."

Jean-Claude furrowed his brow and the beginnings of a smile played across his face. "Ma petite, I didn't realize. I only give in to you because it makes my life infinitely easier." He rolled onto his side and pulled me against him. "I will consider refusing you...next time."

He slid his long fingers into my hair and angled my face up so he could kiss me. I put my hand on his side and dragged it down over his hip, then around to the firm round muscle of his shapely behind.

"How are you feeling?" I breathed into his mouth.

He pulled back a little to look into my eyes. "Feeling?"

I squeezed the delicious flesh beneath my palms and flicked my tongue over his lower lip. "Energetic, maybe?"

He raised his brows in surprise and flashed a smile. "Why, ma petite. You are insatiable tonight. Just the way I like you to be." He wrapped his leg around mine and scooted me forward. "How do you want it this time?"

I shot him a dubious look. "Why are you asking me? Rumor has it, you have a rather impressive repertoire of fun and creative ideas."

Jean-Claude nuzzled my cheek. "I do," he purred. "I only meant, 'lady's choice'."

"Oh...I see," I breathed, and struggled to come up with something creative of my own.

"....Whatever you desire, ma petite," he urged, his hand fondling my breast, his hips pressing eagerly against mine.

I thought of something. "Anything?" I confirmed.

"Anything."

I kissed him extra-seductively before replying. "Jean-Claude....I know now, just how much you love me," I began. "And I don't think I ever really did before." Jean-Claude stopped caressing me and stared at me blankly with the slightest hint of apprehension. I smiled. "I know you'd do just about anything for me." I licked a wet line over his chin and along his jaw. That seemed to reassure him some. "Fill me with that love. Consume me with it. Love me in a way I've never been loved before." I turned my face away from him and pushed my hair from my neck to expose it, keeping my eyes locked on the vampire's face.

Jean-Claude swallowed visibly. Suddenly he knew what I wanted him to do. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes."

"Positively?" He dragged his lips down the length of my throat.

"Yes, damn it."

He took a long, slightly shaky breath. Then I felt him exhale it over my skin. He pressed a faint, tremulous kiss on my pulsing vein.

"But I cannot take your mind," he whispered. "It may hurt you, at first."

I felt the wet heat of his tongue laving the side of my neck savoringly. "But you can make it erotic after that, right?" I murmured.

"Yes," Jean-Claude sighed. "Very erotic. Very sensual." He nuzzled me encouragingly. "Do you want it?" He began scraping the tips of his fangs over my skin. "Tell me."

"Yes, I want it. I want...you."

Jean-Claude shuddered. Then he raised his head and opened his mouth. I caught just a glimpse of his long sharp fangs gleaming against the fullness of his lips. I closed my eyes, felt a sharp prick of pain before his power moved over me.

It didn't invade my mind, but I could feel it seep into my body. In a way, the sensation was everything I hoped it would be, and nothing like I was expecting. Like the caressing hand of a lover, it stroked me and soothed me, filled me with his love, and consumed me with his desire.

Through the murkiness of my pleasure-induced haze, I realized I had finally given myself completely over to him. He'd never feel insecure about my love again. I belonged to him. I was his possession...but he was mine, as well.

 

END

 

* Nine Inch Nails "Closer" lyrics by Trent Reznor

 

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