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object of desire

This is the sequel to "Lissette's Vampire".  With Jean-Claude now in his charge, Asher finds himself as heartsick in love as he is consumed by desire.
Rated R
Disclaimer: All characters are property of Laurell K. Hamilton.  I am making no money off this: it is for entertainment purposes only.
Please note: this story does contain slash

In the Council's Grand Reception Hall, across the room from where Asher and Belle Morte sat, and nearly backed up against the far wall, the vampire Lissette appeared to be guarding her prize.

She stood in front of Jean-Claude, keeping a watchful, wary eye on each being who came forward to greet her, shifting her petite body when necessary as if to shield Jean-Claude from their blatantly lascivious stares or audacious advances.

On the other hand, Jean-Claude seemed unaffected by the stir his presence was causing among the courtiers and council members. He stood silently behind his mistress, his upper body draped languidly over her back, arms encircling her chest. The only outward sign of interest he gave his would-be suitors was a quick glance upwards before returning his eyes to the floor in front of Lissette's slippered feet. Occasionally, his glances lingered or strayed from the vampires' faces to travel the length of a particular body he found intriguing, but that was all.

Watching Jean-Claude now made Asher smile. He wondered what had provoked such good behavior from him. Asher was acutely aware of Jean-Claude's typical conduct. According to Lissette, the young vampire normally flirted lecherously with anyone who paid him even the slightest attention.

If Jean-Claude managed to garner this kind of attention by simply standing around looking bored, Asher could sympathize with Lissette's previous plight. He could only imagine what the poor woman went through when Jean-Claude actually flaunted himself.

Asher's attention was drawn away from the young vampire when Belle Morte emitted a contented-sounding sigh beside him. He turned to face her and smiled.

"Pleased?" he guessed, leaning towards the raven-haired beauty to nuzzle her cheek affectionately.

"Quite," she exhaled, as if she'd been holding her breath. She dragged her gaze away from Jean-Claude long enough to glance at the tall, handsome vampire to her left. "We'll have to acquire him new clothes," she went on. "Fit him with a wardrobe more suitable to his form." She paused momentarily, pursing her lips in thought, or perhaps imagining Jean-Claude donning attire more in line with her preferences. "And you mentioned something awhile back about his obscure parentage? But you say he's not the least bit uncouth?"

Asher shook his head. "No, Mistress. True. He was born a peasant, but he grew up in an atmosphere of refined aristocracy. He's well-mannered and I understand he was privately tutored as a boy in many arts and sciences."

"Oh?" Belle Morte commented, raising one delicately arched eyebrow. "In what, particularly?"

Taking a deep breath, Asher struggled to recall all Lissette had told him regarding the young vampire's acquired skills.

"If I remember correctly, he can read and speak four languages fluently. He is a competent equestrian. He can dance--anything and everything. And duel. He can use a rapier and broadsword both with a considerable degree of proficiency." Here Asher paused, and smiled to himself, as another of Jean-Claude's acquired skills came to mind. "And he can make love as artistically and skillfully as he performs any of his other impressive abilities. To this, I can personally attest."

Belle Morte faced Asher again and smiled broadly. "Ah, my little Lissette chose wisely, did she not? Only one thing remains to be dealt with."

"His ardeur?" Asher questioned, tensing somewhat. Seeing Jean-Claude as he was now made the young vampire's periodical struggles with madness seem distant and vague.

"Yes," Belle reluctantly agreed. "He will not be entirely acceptable until he learns to control it and feed it without physically engaging himself every time. If he can be taught to feed his ardeur the way he feeds his power, from a distance, he will have mastered his control and it will cease to plague him the way it does now."

Asher blinked back at his mistress in surprise. "You sound as if you have a plan."

Belle smiled again. "I do," she admitted. "He may not like it at first, but in time, it will empower him."

Licking his lips, Asher grimaced. "He shouldn't object too terribly then," he noted duly.

"After hearing his repertoire of accomplishments, I am confident my tutorial shall grant him one more," Belle added slyly, rising to her feet.

Asher rose with her and crossed his arms over his chest. He fixed his gaze on the comely young vampire and his pretty little mistress across the Grand Hall. He fought to keep the memory of his first encounter with Jean-Claude from surfacing but the images readily flooded his mind. When Asher had first laid eyes on Jean-Claude, his beauty was barely discernible through all the blood and bruises. He was his own victim, driven to insanity by the cruelty of his master as much as the ardeur's intensity.

Asher hoped with all his heart Belle's plan would work. He never wanted to see Jean-Claude like that again. Now it would destroy him as much as it would destroy Jean-Claude.

"Asher," Belle Morte said quietly, interrupting his sullen reverie. "Go to Lissette now and tell her I wish to speak with her privately in my chambers."

"Just Lissette? Not Jean-Claude?"

Belle sighed somewhat wistfully. "As anxious as I am to meet him, I need to first confer with his mistress alone. I want you to stay with him, Asher. Make him comfortable and keep him occupied. Show him around if you like. I will send for you within the hour."

Asher bowed in acknowledgement. "Yes Mistress." As Belle Morte turned away from him to leave, Asher stepped forward, shouldering his way into the midst of the milling courtiers.

Jean-Claude looked up as Asher approached and flashed a smile that made Asher's heart start beating a little faster. The young vampire unwrapped himself from Lissette and stepped around her to greet him.

"Asher. It is good to see you again, mon ami," Jean-Claude said, reaching out to cradle Asher's face in his large, slender hands. He kissed him with an intimacy that hinted more than friendship and earned Asher quite a few jealous glares and averted eyes.

As soon as Jean-Claude touched him, Asher felt his insides warm with desire. He placed his hands on Jean-Claude's shoulders, pressing his body closer and moaned softly into the young vampire's mouth. As gratifying as gazing upon Jean-Claude had been, kissing and holding him now, and having him
willingly mold his sinewy form against Asher was a thousand times more so.

It wasn't until Asher felt a delicate hand on his arm that he reluctantly pulled away from Jean-Claude's embrace and peered down. Lissette stood beside him, beaming up at him happily.

"It does my heart good seeing you display such affection for Jean-Claude, Monsieur," Lissette began. She stretched up on her toes and planted a quick kiss on Asher's cheek. "I know you will look after him for me."

"I will do my best to keep him out of trouble, Mademoiselle," Asher responded congenially, glancing over at Jean-Claude. "Though shepherding one such as this may prove rather challenging. The wolves are already circling and have the scent of new blood in their noses. Should my young charge choose to stray, I cannot guarantee I will be able to keep these wolves at bay." He looked around him at the vampires casually passing by and recognized the hunger and the intrigue in their eyes and had to fight the urge to snarl at them. He didn't want any of them near Jean-Claude, and the thought of one of them ever having him, filled Asher with his own kind of jealousy.

Jean-Claude snorted indignantly. "You both speak of me as though I were a child, or worse, a sheep," he muttered. "I can assure you, I am neither."

Lissette and Asher exchanged amused glances.

"Of course, mon ami," Asher began. "But you are my responsibility now. It is my duty to keep you out of mischief. I only ask that you patronize me, and let me look out for your best interest for awhile."

Jean-Claude put his hands on his svelte hips, striking a petulant pose. "You do not trust me to behave on my own," he stated flatly, then faced Lissette accusingly.

Asher smiled slowly. "My trust and good faith in you is something you will have to earn. Truth be told, I scarcely know you." He reached up and stroked the side of the young vampire's face. "But I would very much like to get to know you better."

Jean-Claude smiled back at Asher seductively. He ran his hand slowly over Asher's arm and sidled up to him, tilting his head and parting his lips invitingly. "Do you really want to get to know me better, Asher?" he whispered breathily.

Asher could feel the pull of the young vampire's smoldering expression and drew him closer, bending his head to meet Jean-Claude's succulent mouth. "Yes," he whispered back, mesmerized by the anticipation of kissing the young vampire again.

"Then you will have to get in line behind the fifty or so other vampires in this room who told me exactly the same thing earlier," Jean-Claude said, abruptly straightening and pulling out of Asher's arms. He smiled at Asher's stunned expression and crossed his arms over his chest smugly.

Asher reluctantly quashed his flaring passion and told himself to breathe. "That kind of teasing will only get you in trouble, my young friend," he growled and shook his finger at Jean-Claude in a mild rebuke. "And it only makes me more determined to keep a watchful eye on you."

"I only sought to impress you with my ability to resist you," Jean-Claude replied with a casual shrug. "After all, you are the most dangerous and tempting creature I've encountered thus far," he added with a
mischievous grin.

Asher felt a deepening heat washing over him once more. He licked his lips and smiled slowly. "Then I can only hope you reconsider such deprivation if it is only to merit my respect."

Jean-Claude laughed lightly and shook his head. "But I sense it is your own deprivation which concerns you, not mine."

Lissette went to her vampire and slipped her arm possessively around his waist. She looked up at him reproachfully before turning her gaze towards Asher in sympathy.

"Do you see what I have had to put up with all these years? The problem is he knows he is beautiful and he knows no one can resist him," she said, somewhat despondently.

"But I can resist them," Jean-Claude addressed Asher, his voice deepening, his expression sobering. "These wolves you speak of would prostrate themselves at my feet with nothing more than a beckoning gaze. The temptation such awareness brings nearly overwhelms me, yet I thwart it not only to maintain Lissette's honor, but to please you. Clearly, my efforts are in vain."

Asher's face brightened. He gazed back at the young vampire fondly and shook his head. "No, mon ami. I can assure you, anything you think to do in order to please me will not be in vain. In fact, I find it immensely flattering you seek my favor and hope the promise of possessing it will inspire you to trust my guidance and heed my advice. I will not steer you wrong and I certainly do not wish to see you come to any harm. After all, I truly...care for you."

At that Jean-Claude smiled. He blinked slowly, long black lashes sweeping over eyes that glittered like faceted sapphires beneath the room's opulent jeweled chandeliers.

"The feeling is mutual, Asher," the young vampire replied softly. "I apologize for teasing you. I will listen to any words of wisdom you choose to impart, not just to please you, but also because it is the practical thing to do." He paused and looked down at Lissette. "I will need you after my fair mistress departs. I will not know what to do with no one to fret over me. I will be left friendless and alone." Jean-Claude tenderly cupped Lissette's chin in his hand and raised her face to his. He sweetly kissed her and sighed wistfully. "I will be unloved."

His heart thumping wildly inside his chest, Asher gnawed his lower lip to keep from verbally contradicting the young vampire's sorrowful musing.

"Tis bittersweet, this parting, no?" Lissette whispered to Jean-Claude as a single tear trickled from her eye. "We need to remember it is truly the best course for both of us."

"Yes," Jean-Claude answered. He brushed the tear from her cheek with his fingertips before wrapping his arms around her in a fierce hug. "I am sorry, Lissette," he continued. "I know I have tried your patience as well as your love time and time again. Soon I will be losing you and as with most treasures, one does not appreciate their full worth until they are lost. The thought of losing you now truly frightens me."

Lissette pulled free of Jean-Claude's arms and sniffed delicately.

"Just promise me you will let Asher look after you," she said. "He will take care of you. There is no need to be afraid. You will be serving one of the most powerful vampires I know. You will not regret this separation and neither will I."

Jean-Claude shook his head. "No. I won't regret it, but I will still miss you terribly."

Lissette smiled and reached up to cradle her vampire's face in her small hands. She drew his face towards her and kissed the tip of his nose.

"I do love you so," she told him, her expression brightening as he smiled back at her.

Watching them together made Asher uncomfortable. He felt put off by the love and history he knew they shared. Lissette clearly meant more to Jean-Claude than Asher ever hoped to, and even though such a thing was expected, the knowledge of it made Asher absurdly jealous. He cleared his throat tactfully to garner the lovers' attention.

"Ah, Belle wishes to speak with you, Lissette, in her chambers," he announced. "Most likely to finalize the ownership agreement and discuss any matters of concern."

Jean-Claude frowned over at him. "Now I do feel like a sheep."

Asher shrugged. "You may not be livestock, but you are her property now," he stated, a little harsher than he had actually meant to because the reality of that fact bothered him. He quickly turned to face Lissette to avoid Jean-Claude's expression. "I realize you know the way, but I will be happy to escort you to Belle's chamber, Mademoiselle."

Lissette nodded, picking up on Asher's unease. "Thank you. I suppose we should not keep her waiting any longer."

Asher gestured towards the room's towering double doors. "After you." He wanted to hold back, and try to smooth out the sudden tension he'd unintentionally created between himself and Jean-Claude, but Lissette held out her hand to the young vampire before starting off, and Jean-Claude readily took it, leaving Asher alone to bring up the rear.

Looking after them longingly, Asher swore at himself. He knew he could not allow himself to feel so possessive of Jean-Claude, but he could not seem to stop himself either. He wanted to be the one Jean-Claude went to when he felt frightened or alone. He wanted to hold his hand and take him in his arms and reassure him everything would be all right. But the young vampire was not his and never would be. Asher's only hope would be to win Jean-Claude's heart as he had the non-platonic offerings of his body. It pained Asher because he did not have the slightest clue how to achieve such aspirations and he clearly wasn't off to a good start.

Standing outside Belle Morte's chambers was a werejaguar. He was as tall as Asher, had straight, fine brown hair and a rather ruddy complexion. His yellow eyes widened at the sight of Jean-Claude and he stepped towards him to introduce himself.

"I am Louis," he began, walking around the young vampire to look him over. "I am one of Belle Morte's seven pomme de sangs. You must be the vampire she spoke to me about."

Jean-Claude bowed his head respectfully. "My name is Jean-Claude. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance though I am not certain if I am the one you anticipate."

"He is," Asher spoke up, coming to stand beside Lissette. He knew why Louis had been told about Jean-Claude.

At that Louis smiled. "Then, I am at your service, Monsieur. Belle has granted me permission to offer you my blood. You will not need to hunt while you are here...unless of course, you choose to do so."

Jean-Claude's eyes focused on the werejaguar's neck and the visibly throbbing pulse within. He licked his lips subconsciously and swallowed down the excessive saliva pooling in his mouth.

"A shapeshifter's blood," he murmured savoringly, as if hoping to taste the mere words. "I am honored indeed."

Louis bowed before Jean-Claude. "I shall meet up with you inside your quarters, Monsieur. But first, I am to announce the lady Lissette to Mademoiselle. It will only take a moment."

"By all means," Jean-Claude conceded. "Come at your leisure. I have yet to discover the whereabouts of such quarters anyway."

Asher put his hand on Jean-Claude's shoulder, but kept his eyes firmly on the floor, not trusting what they would reflect. "I will take you there shortly."

Jean-Claude appeared perplexed suddenly. "Am I not to meet Belle Morte with Lissette?"

Asher shook his head. "No, she only wishes to see your mistress at this time, mon ami. I was instructed to show you around and to make you comfortable. Come with me now. You will be reunited with Lissette

"Go," Lissette encouraged him. "Do not be anxious, my love. This is just a formality." She turned away from him as Louis knocked soundly on the heavy door before opening it.

Jean-Claude sighed, but nodded. He leaned over and kissed Lissette's cheek then murmured something in her ear which made her smile and bat her eyes. She glanced back at him just before following Louis inside.

Placing his hands on his hips, Jean-Claude turned to face Asher. "Where to now?"

Asher pursed his lips momentarily, thinking. "I suppose I could introduce you to Belle's personal seamstress."

"Seamstress?" Jean-Claude echoed. He clearly hadn't been expecting Asher to say that. "But why?"

Asher let his eyes drift down the length of the young vampire. "Do not take this wrong, you look impeccable this evening, but your mistress-to-be believes your present attire fails to do you true justice." He gestured forward and started walking down the corridor opposite the one they had just
emerged from.

Jean-Claude drew up beside Asher. "And what kind of garment, pray tell, does Belle Morte believe will do me justice?" He clasped his hands behind his back and kept his gaze on the floor ahead of him, looking thoughtful but resigned.

Asher grinned. "To begin with, something more luxuriant, more form-fitting, and definitely sexier." He turned up another corridor which was bustling with activity, a sharp contrast to the ones they'd passed through earlier.

"Sexier?" Jean-Claude repeated, glancing up at Asher, and catching the roving eyes of two vampires they passed. The two women nearly walked into two others as they craned their necks around to stare after him.

"Mmm, yes," Asher replied, looking around warily. They were definitely turning heads, but thankfully Jean-Claude seemed oblivious to the blossoming interest he provoked in that peculiar way only the very attractive people were.

"And what do you believe will make me look...sexier?" Jean-Claude asked, somewhat hesitantly.

Asher peered over at him and smiled, genuinely pleased Jean-Claude wanted his opinion and more so that it even mattered to him.

"Black," he answered. "Sleek and tight, to offset your complexion and play up your form. And white, to accentuate your hair and eyes. Something soft and rich. Anything else on you, my young friend, is overkill. Let your looks speak for themselves."

Jean-Claude fought a smile. "Would Belle agree with you?"

Asher shrugged. "Yes, I think so. But there is only one way to find out. Wear it for her and if she does not like it, she will rip it off of you--which isn't all that unpleasant, if you play your cards right."

At that Jean-Claude laughed--a rich, sensual laugh that made Asher's insides clench and prompted another passing vampire to approach him.

"Why, good evening, Asher," she said quietly, keeping her eyes determinedly fixed on Jean-Claude.

Asher stepped towards her and fought the urge to block her view of Jean-Claude the way Lissette had in the reception hall earlier.

"Good evening, Yvette," Asher half-growled. Yvette was not one of his favorite people and he hoped the look he was giving her would send her on her way. It didn't.

Yvette's grey eyes sparkled and her pale lips curved up into a lascivious smile. "Do introduce me to your handsome companion," she all but demanded. Her hand went to smooth the white-blonde hair piled in layered curls on top of her head.

Asher sighed. "Yvette, may I present Jean-Claude. He will be joining Belle's kiss. Jean-Claude, this is Yvette." He left it at that, not wanting to familiarize them with each other beyond the basics.

Jean-Claude seemed to sense Asher's distaste of the woman, and when she offered him her hand, he took it hesitantly.

"Good evening," Jean-Claude murmured. He bowed over her hand before releasing it, but Yvette caught his wrist before he could lower his hand completely and boldly sidled up to him.

"Jean-Claude, well, well," she purred, gazing up into his eyes. "Why you're lovely, my pet, deliciously lovely. Promise me you will let me personally welcome you to court before the night has passed." She placed her hand on his chest and slid it audaciously down his abdomen.

Jean-Claude pulled away from her before she was able to move her hand any lower and gave her an amused, but condescending smile. "I cannot promise my time tonight, Mademoiselle. My plate is rather full as it is."

"I can only imagine," she breathed, undauntedly pressing her body against him and holding him to her this time to keep him from backing away. "Perhaps another night then."

"Perhaps," the young vampire agreed. He took hold of her hand and pried it off his arm forcefully, but kissed her knuckles somewhat apologetically. "Anticipation yields its own rewards."

"Ah, until then...." Yvette released him and pretended to pout. "I will savor the anticipation, though I get the feeling you are not as submissive as I normally prefer my lovers to be."

Jean-Claude locked his eyes on hers and licked his lips. He leaned towards her and nuzzled her cheek. "I can be," he whispered in her ear seductively.

Yvette grinned and leered at him eagerly. "Oh yes?" She rubbed her hands together and inhaled deeply through her teeth. Then she abruptly turned to face Asher accusingly. "And how long were you planning on hiding this morsel from me, dear Asher?"

Casting aside any pretense of congeniality now, Asher snarled at Yvette, and stepped between her and Jean-Claude. "As long as I possibly could," he snapped. "And if I have anything to say about it, the likes of you will never taste this morsel, no matter how mutually consentual it may be."

Yvette's jaw fell open in outraged shock. Her expression hardened and she pointed a long white finger reproachfully under Asher's nose. "We shall see about that! I need only to speak with Belle and she will grant me whatever I wish."

"She will only give him to you if she wishes to punish him," Asher shot back. "For the time being, he's done nothing to merit such contemptuous disgrace. Until then...."

Yvette hissed at Asher and turned on her heel in a flurry of silk skirts. She stalked away without another word.

Asher watched her go, struggling to rein in his temper. He heard Jean-Claude laughing heartily behind him and turned around.

"Trust me, mon ami," Asher began angrily, but quickly warmed to the sound of the young vampire's amusement. "You want nothing to do with her. She's a hag."

"Yes, I could smell it on her," Jean-Claude confessed, "but her lust was so exquisite and intense, I could not help myself."

With that revelation, Asher grinned. He put his hands on his hips. "You were only feeding off her, weren't you?"

Jean-Claude nodded, sobering. "Of course. Please do not think I would willingly subject myself to the likes of that." He suddenly looked remorseful. "I thought you had realized."

Asher felt immediately better. He sighed with relief, but shook his head and tried to mask his pleasure with a censured look.

"Just be cautious, Jean-Claude. If I had not chased her off, I wouldn't have put it past her to badger you until you gave into her. And there are others who would simply take you. No consent from you required."

The young vampire shook his head. "You are as pontificate as Lissette," he told Asher, his voice deepening. "I told you before I am not a child, Asher. I am quite capable of resisting even the most persistent of my suitors if I choose to do so. My control only wanes when the attraction is...reciprocated."

Asher lowered his eyes. "I see," he murmured, disturbed. Jean-Claude had shown exemplary control where Asher was concerned as well, and it left him wondering if the young vampire harbored no real interest in him.

"Or should the ardeur come over me," Jean-Claude added reluctantly. It seemed to shame him just mentioning it.

Raising his eyes, Asher stepped closer to him, still very aware of the interest the young vampire was generating in the well-traveled corridor.

"When did you feed it last?" he questioned.

Jean-Claude looked away from him, his brow furrowing. "Shortly after I woke, with Lissette's maid. I spent a good hour with her. I can only hope it was satiated enough to keep it from rising again tonight." He paused and sighed despondently. "I exist in a state of perpetual anxiety because of it."

An hour? Asher marveled to himself. The man was a veritable machine. Asher reached over and smoothed back a strand of Jean-Claude's hair that had fallen over his eyes. "Can't you merely defy it?" he asked, twisting his index finger around another strand spiraling down the length of the young vampire's neck.

Jean-Claude looked down at Asher's hand entwining around his hair. "No. To do so...only intensifies it," he murmured distractedly. "But if I feed it as soon as it arises and am able to be in control as I feed, the
intensity decreases."

"Belle believes control is the answer," Asher continued, stroking Jean-Claude's throat with the back of his hand, reveling in the sensation of its silken coolness. He could feel his own desire stirring just touching the young vampire again. He slid his hand languidly down Jean-Claude's chest, along the edge of his partially open shirt.

Jean-Claude had all but stopped breathing and kept his gaze fixed on Asher's hand as if he didn't dare look into his eyes.

Growing bolder with passion, Asher slipped his arm around Jean-Claude's waist and pulled him up against him. He placed his other hand on the side of the young vampire's face and tilted his head back.

Hesitantly, Jean-Claude raised his eyes to Asher's and released a faint sigh. "Asher...."

"There is something I have been meaning to tell you, Jean-Claude," Asher whispered, feeling romantic and emotional. He nuzzled the young vampire's cheek and stroked his hair. The temptation to kiss him was overwhelming, but Asher steadfastly pushed it away, determined to speak his mind. "You do
not belong to me. You never will, but I want you to know...I..." He paused, suddenly unsure of just how to voice what he had wanted to say. He swallowed down the lump forming in his throat and tried again. "I think I am..." He smiled self-consciously. "I know I am..." This time he made the mistake of looking into Jean-Claude's deep blue eyes. He was so beautiful, so desirable, so fascinating. Oh, to hell with it, Asher thought and swiftly covered the young vampire's mouth with his.

He heard Jean-Claude moan softly and felt his hands slide up his chest, wedging in between their bodies.

Encouraged, Asher wrapped his arms around the young vampire's shoulders in a sheltering embrace, locking his body against him, and pinning Jean-Claude's hands to his chest.

Jean-Claude tried to say something, but Asher deepened the kiss, smothering any words he would have spoken. He opened his mouth and tranquilly sunk his lips into the soft fullness of Jean-Claude's.The young vampire tensed, however, and tried to push Asher away.

Perhaps he was taken aback by Asher's aggression, or maybe he was feeling a little self-conscious for some reason. Whatever Jean-Claude was feeling, Asher was simply too intoxicated with passion to try to reason through why. He refused to release him on such baseless grounds, and couldn't stop kissing him, even if he had wanted to. Jean-Claude was his, and he wanted every vampire in Paris to know it.

But it was becoming uncomfortably clear to Asher, Jean-Claude was not responding in kind. After indulging his desire a few moments more, Asher wrenched his mouth off of Jean-Claude's to let him speak, but continued kissing the curve of his jaw.

"What is the matter?" Asher whispered, breathlessly. He dragged his lips caressingly down the side of Jean-Claude's neck, over his smooth white skin, before attempting to capture his mouth once again.

"Stop it," Jean-Claude said in a sharp, exhaled breath, turning his face evasively to the side.

Struck by the young vampire's unexpected command, Asher ceased his amorous advances and blinked down at Jean-Claude in confusion.

The young vampire freed himself from Asher's arms and backed away as fast as he could to the opposite side of the hall.

He looked more unsettled than anything, which perplexed Asher even more. Asher took a tentative step towards him, but that only earned him a glare and made Jean-Claude move farther away until he was backed up against the wall.

Asher swore under his breath and dragged his hand roughly through his hair. He wondered if Jean-Claude was angry at him for succeeding in what he had set out to do or failing. "I am no good at this sort of thing," he began. "Was I being presumptuous? Was I overstepping my bounds?" He frowned and
shook his head. "I do not understand. Why do you shun me now? I thought with the way you have been looking at me all night, and the way you greeted me--"

"That's all it was, Asher," Jean-Claude quipped. "A greeting."

Asher stared back at him, stunned, hurt, and angry all at the same time. "You're lying. You practically shoved your tongue down my throat, Jean-Claude. Please do not tell me you greet everyone that way. It will truly taint my perception of you."

Jean-Claude dropped his gaze to the floor in front of him, his brow furrowing with irritation. "I was trying to be decorous for your sake, but I was happy to see you, so perhaps my kiss was a little too sincere."

Asher walked right up to Jean-Claude and seized his chin, forcing the young vampire to look up at him.

"Don't waste what little decorum you have on me, mon ami," Asher grumbled, but felt his anger melting away under Jean-Claude's heated gaze. "I loved the fact you kissed me so provocatively in front of them all and sent them slithering away glaring green daggers at me." His grip on the young vampire's jaw loosened and turned into a caress. "Don't torment me like this."

Jean-Claude took hold of Asher's wrist and pulled his hand from his face. "Torment you?" he growled. "How dare you insinuate such a thing when you are the one who sadistically taunts me? After what I just told, you set out to undermine my control." The young vampire pushed himself off the wall,
moving away from Asher. "Do not touch me again," he added and purposefully strode down the hall, moving against the flow of bodies making their way deeper into the building.

He might as well have told Asher to tear out his own heart because his words shriveled it with despair. The fact that Jean-Claude did not wish to be intimate with him again was almost too unbearable to accept. For a moment, Asher was too stunned to move, then he turned and faced the direction the young vampire had gone and started after him.

He caught up with him again just before he reached the doors leading out of the hall and into one of the spacious courtyards bordering the main council chamber.

"Where are you going?" he questioned, reaching out to take hold of the young vampire's arm to stop him, but the look Jean-Claude shot him made him lower his hand.

"I don't know," Jean-Claude snapped, frustrated. He looked as though he wanted to scream, but his voice was flat and emotionless. "Just...away."

Asher licked his lips apprehensively. "From me?"

Jean-Claude's expression softened. "Yes," he murmured and pushed through the doors into the open courtyard.

Asher followed him determinedly. "But why?" he inquired, his tone pleading. "Tell me, Jean-Claude. I really do want to understand."

Closing his eyes, Jean-Claude threw his head back and inhaled the warm night air deeply. He covered his face with his hands and dragged his fingers through his hair.

Asher noticed Jean-Claude's hands were shaking. He tried again as something else occurred to him. "You've no need to be concerned about Belle, if that's what this is all about. She is entirely aware of how I feel about you and is pleased that I want you for my lover." His loins fairly ached with need at the thought of loving Jean-Claude again, but the object of his heart's desire was apparently unable to even withstand Asher's touch.

Jean-Claude lowered his hands and regarded Asher coolly. "You don't understand, do you?" He sighed heavily and shook his head. "It is not Belle's displeasure I fear," he began, his expression gradually smoothing into passivity as he spoke. "It is this accursed ardeur. I can feel it brimming just beneath the surface of my inhibition. I can only hope you merely underestimate the sway your caress possesses and that you were not trying to betray me with your kiss." He lowered his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest.

Understanding at last, Asher looked back at Jean-Claude and felt ashamed. "I can honestly say, my kiss was not meant to harm you." Thoroughly discouraged now, he sighed and bit his lower lip hard enough to make it bleed. "I told you I was no good at this sort of thing."

Jean-Claude moved a little closer to him. "Your kiss did harm me. It nearly destroyed me. I do not want to lose my hard won control, but it made me want to lose control." He paused and swallowed thickly. "I cannot lose control, Asher."

Asher found it somewhat reassuring that he actually tempted Jean-Claude instead of repulsed him, but the fact remained, the young vampire still did not want Asher to touch him.

"Would it be so terrible to lose control with me? Should you need me, I am willing."

Jean-Claude's eyes flashed in anger, his hair dancing around his face like a living entity in the night breeze. "There, among all those people? In the hall? You would have let me take you? Have you as little regard for your own dignity as you have of mine, Asher?" The young vampire shook his head forcefully. "I will not be humiliated as a freakish sideshow for anyone's amusement again. I will not."

Of course, Asher thought. How could he have not realized before? Asher took a deep steadying breath. He could feel Jean-Claude's fear now. It crawled over him, poised and hungry, ready to devour him if given the slightest opportunity.

"I would never humiliate you, mon ami," Asher said soothingly. "I won't take advantage of you, and I will never abuse you. I promised Lissette I would care for you, Jean-Claude, and I meant it."

Jean-Claude peered back at Asher as if he had said the most curious thing he had ever heard. "Truly?"

Asher was stunned by his doubt, but knew it stemmed from years of such abuse. He quickly nodded his head. "I swear it."

Jean-Claude sighed heavily as if a great weight had just been taken off his shoulders. He walked up to Asher and leaned into him, slipping his arms around Asher's back, placing his head on his shoulder.

Relieved as well, Asher folded his arms around the young vampire and tenderly kissed his hair. He leaned his head against the downy softness of Jean-Claude's baby-fine tresses and hugged him tightly.

"Your heart is beating like a drum," Jean-Claude murmured, pressing his body as close to Asher as he could. "I can feel it more strongly than I feel my own."

Asher laughed lightly. "Can you blame me?" he whispered in Jean-Claude's ear. "For a few agonizing moments, you had me convinced I would never hold you in my arms again."

Jean-Claude leaned back far enough to look into Asher's eyes. He reached up and passed his hand over the side of Asher's face. "Perhaps not in public, but my demands would have never extended to the privacy of your personal bed chamber."

Asher smiled. Despite the young vampire's reputation as a wanton, Jean-Claude had his own rules and expected a certain etiquette to be followed. He was no different from anyone else and by some's standards, he was better. Asher intended to learn that etiquette and subscribe to it wholly.

"Ah. Now you tell me," Asher rumbled, his smile turning seductive. He took Jean-Claude's hand and kissed it, sliding his tongue suggestively over the young vampire's wrist. "And what about a secluded, willow-shrouded courtyard?" he breathed, backing Jean-Claude away from the doors and deeper
into the shadows.

The young vampire reached up and brushed aside the thick golden hair covering Asher's neck. He touched his lips to Asher's ear and flicked it teasingly with his tongue. "That too," he said breathily, before nipping his earlobe. He bared his fangs and dragged them down Asher's neck provocatively.

Asher tilted his head encouragingly. Quivering in anticipation, he pressed his mouth against Jean-Claude's wrist and pierced it superficially at first, asking his permission. He did not want to breach any more boundaries at this point.

"Yes," Jean-Claude exhaled, and immediately sunk his teeth deeply into Asher's neck.

Asher's body spasmed at the sensation of being bitten. He cried out with a mixture of pleasure and pain, then he closed his mouth over Jean-Claude's wrist and bit down hard. Blood burst over his tongue, sweet and hot, and Asher closed his eyes and moaned in absolute ecstasy. His heart pounded inside the confines of his chest. He could feel the rush of blood and power moving through his veins as it poured into Jean-Claude and back into his own body through Jean-Claude's blood.

Still locked in each other's embrace, the vampires slowly descended to their knees as if by mutual agreement. Jean-Claude's free hand roved the taut curves of Asher's body. He moaned and growled, his mouth working meticulously over Asher's pulse, swallowing rhythmically as he fed.

As Asher fed, he kept a firm grip on Jean-Claude's arm and tightened his hold around the young vampire's back in anticipation. He didn't have to wait long. Jean-Claude came moments later, his fingers digging into Asher's skin convulsively as his body suddenly trembled and tensed in a potent orgasm. He tore his mouth from Asher's throat and threw his head back with a deep, ragged groan.

Asher released Jean-Claude's wrist and gathered him into his arms. As soon as Jean-Claude could breathe normally again, Asher kissed him. He could taste his own blood in Jean-Claude's mouth and felt an intimacy with him he rarely experienced with anyone else.
"Mon dieu," Jean-Claude gasped, collapsing against the feathery, cool grass of the courtyard as if unable to keep himself upright anymore. "I did not know such a thing was possible."

Asher smiled, settling himself down beside the young vampire. He rested his head in the curve of Jean-Claude's neck and nuzzled his flushed skin. "It is one of my gifts," he told him, trying to sound humble about it.

Jean-Claude laughed and turned his dazed eyes towards Asher's face. "Then you should pay apt homage to whomever bestowed you with such an ability," he said thickly. "That was...truly glorious."

"Glorious...was the sensuality of your mouth on my skin, your teeth in my vein, your body in my embrace," Asher whispered. "If I worship anyone...it will be you." He raised his head and touched his lips to Jean-Claude's brow.

The young vampire reached for Asher and guided his mouth eagerly over his. He kissed Asher searingly, pulling him over his body like a luxuriant quilt.

Asher wrapped himself around Jean-Claude, pressing his hips against him and rubbing him provocatively. "I want you," he suddenly breathed into his mouth and slid his hand down the length of the young vampire's side.

"Take me. I am yours," Jean-Claude whispered back.

Asher's heart swelled at the choice of words the young vampire uttered. He rose off of him, fighting to keep from tearing away his clothes, and took hold of Jean-Claude's hand. He pulled him back up to his knees, and drew him close for another kiss before tugging the shirt tails from the young vampire's pants. Trying to keep his hands from shaking, Asher slid them over Jean-Claude's svelte waist to the garment's fastenings beneath his navel, tugging them loose.

Jean-Claude slipped out of his shirt and tossed it aside. He stretched seductively, arching his back, and flexed his muscles, sensually. Then he tousled his long black hair with his hands and flashed a devilish

Asher smiled back and paused to drink in the sight of the young vampire's sinewy white torso gleaming in the silver moonlight. He sighed with enchantment. It wasn't until he felt the warm night air hitting his own bared skin, that he was able to snap out of his appreciative reverie. He hadn't even realized Jean-Claude was undressing him. He looked down when he felt the young vampire's hand slipping into the open front of his pants. Jean-Claude kept his eyes on Asher's face as his fingers delved gradually

Asher inhaled sharply and continued undressing Jean-Claude with the same sense of foreplay. He seized a fistful of the coarse fabric of Jean-Claude's waistband, and dragged it down to bare the young vampire's shapely hips. He kneaded the supple flesh beneath his hands while gnawing fervently on Jean-Claude's neck.

The young vampire's hands crept over Asher's abdomen and slipped around his back. Jean-Claude emitted a sultry, sexy moan and repeatedly kissed the side of Asher's face. Asher pulled back momentarily to gaze into his eyes.

"You're beautiful, Jean-Claude," he whispered, feeling spellbound with desire. His heart was pounding with the anticipation of finally being allowed to possess that beauty again.

Jean-Claude smiled. "So are you, Asher," he replied breathily. "More than you know."

They leaned towards each other as if by some unspoken cue and kissed again, their mutual passions flaring to the point of being totally oblivious to their surroundings.

Suddenly, Asher heard a soft, feminine laugh above them. He froze. Jean-Claude had heard it too. He looked at Asher, knowingly. Asher closed his eyes and swore under his breath.

"I am so happy to see the two of you are getting along so well," Belle Morte chuckled. She stepped closer and put her hands on her slim hips as she gazed down at Asher and Jean-Claude.

Asher moved away from Jean-Claude in slow motion, struggling to right his loosened, disheveled clothes as he did.

"Mistress," Asher said in an exhaled breath, wisely choosing to remain on his knees before her. He bowed his head and licked his lips. "I was unaware of your presence."

Belle Morte laughed again. "Would it have mattered if you were?" she muttered. "I sent for you, but no one could find you. I called to Louis, but he told me he had not seen either one of you for some time. Yvette came to me, however and happened to mention she encountered you in the south passage. I was in the mood for a little stroll anyway, so I set out to find you myself."

Asher frowned. "I apologize for the inconvenience, Belle. We should have made our whereabouts known."

Belle Morte smiled. "Oh? Why, when the alternative yields such rich rewards?" She shook her head at Asher reproachfully. "And what on earth did you say to poor Yvette? She told me you had insulted her so deeply, the only possible way to amend her pride would be for me to give her Jean-Claude for an unspecified amount of time."

Asher looked up at Belle uneasily. "Please tell me you did not agree to that."

Belle grinned at Asher's concern. "No, my love. I did not."

Asher breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you." That seemed an inadequate expression of his gratitude, but it would have to do for now. Asher was certain Belle had no idea how grateful he truly was, but he wasn't about to elaborate in front of Jean-Claude.

Picking up Jean-Claude's discarded shirt from the ground, Belle stalked around Asher to stand before the young vampire, who had also chosen to stay on his knees. He had managed to right the remainder of his clothing as well and was sitting back on his haunches, picking bits of leaves and grass from his hair. He peered up at her briefly before lowering his eyes again.

"Please find it in your graces to excuse my present state, Mademoiselle," he said quietly. "This is hardly how I envisioned our first meeting."

Belle smiled delightedly and reached down to cup Jean-Claude's chin in her hand. She tilted his head back, raising his eyes to hers. "What a lovely voice you have," she purred. "Asher rhapsodized on and on concerning your looks, but failed to say anything about your voice." She turned his head to
the side appraisingly. "I can see why though. You are breathtaking."

"Thank you, Mademoiselle."

Belle Morte released the young vampire's jaw and turned away from him. "Such formality, Jean-Claude, is not required from my lovers. Please, call me Belle." She walked in front of Asher and passed her hand over his hair caressingly. "I can only hope to inspire the kind of passion from you my beautiful Asher apparently does."

Jean-Claude's eyes swept over Belle Morte with unabashed intrigue. "I see no difficulty there," he murmured.

Belle Morte laughed again and crossed her arms over her chest. "How sweet you are," she said peering over at him. "I understand you are quite skillful with a woman and I eagerly anticipate a demonstration of such skills. However...I believe I can enhance your ability even more. I can teach you things you've never even imagined: show you pleasures beyond your wildest fantasies, and release your mind to dwell in new realms of uninhibited delights."

Jean-Claude glanced over at Asher and raised his brow. Asher grinned back at him.

"I can also help you," Belle went on. "I know about your ardeur. Combined with what Asher and Lissette have told me, I feel I have a fairly good understanding of what you experience with it." She drew up in front of the young vampire and gazed down at him sympathetically. "There is a way around it, however, but you must trust me. You must heed what I tell you and not give in to temptation."

Shifting his weight, Jean-Claude placed his hands on his thighs and cocked his head. "I am listening," he told her earnestly.

Belle nodded. "You are not the first vampire I have ever encountered with the ardeur and your case is not the most severe by far. I know of only one way to exist peacefully with it in all its extremes and that is to
control it."

"I know of only one way to control it," Jean-Claude replied softly. "And that is to feed it."

"And you will still feed it--more frequently and more satisfactorily than you are able to now," Belle went on eagerly. "From a distance. You will no longer need to experience the feeding physically. You can simply utilize your power, combined with mine, and fulfill the ardeur's need even before it comes over you."

"Madem--Belle, forgive me, but I have misgivings regarding my ability to do something of that extent," Jean-Claude admitted. "I am not very powerful and even less disciplined. I do not believe I will be able to quell my ardeur without...touching someone."

Belle sighed and reached out to stroke the side of Jean-Claude's face with her hand. "You will because I will not allow you to feed it any other way. I am giving you Louis. But aside from him, you are not to touch another being, Jean-Claude. Not me, not Asher, not even yourself until you learn

Something close to panic flashed in the young vampire's eyes. "Mistress, I beg of you, do not impose such a restriction on me."

Aghast at what he was hearing, Asher nearly rose to his feet, but told himself to stay on his knees. Once again, Asher was being forbidden to touch Jean-Claude, but this went far beyond any social stipulations on Jean-Claude's part. "Belle, you cannot expect him to learn control by denying him this way. I have seen him denied, and it is truly heartwrenching to behold."

Belle waved off both their concerns and straightened, gazing towards Asher critically. "Do you believe me to be entirely heartless, Asher?" She shook her head and clucked her tongue at him. "Discipline and power. That is what he needs above all and I intend to supply him with both. Lissette has indulged him far too long, but I must insist he curb his desires. He will have Louis. And he will learn to satisfy himself with just Louis." She turned and faced Jean-Claude. "He is to be your constant companion. Do you

Jean-Claude dropped his eyes from hers and nodded slowly.

"Having only the one lover will be the first step towards learning discipline. You may use Louis in any means necessary to fulfill yourself. But with anyone else, you are only allowed to use your power, your imagination, or your senses."

Asher closed his eyes and swore softly under his breath. "What about me?" he implored. Denying Jean-Claude access to him was also going to deny him access to Jean-Claude.

"What about you?" Belle said, turning on her heel to face him again.

"Why can't I be the one he feeds from?"

Belle shook her head. "Because he loves you and would be pleased to have you as his sole companion. Why bother learning control? By using Louis, someone he neither cares for emotionally nor feels any attraction to, it gives him incentive. When he has mastered his control, he may take you as
his lover again."

Asher swallowed uncomfortably. "He doesn't love me," he told her. "And he happens to show exemplary control as far as I am concerned." As unfortunate as it was, Asher hoped by relaying this fact to Belle, it would sway her conviction. He noticed Jean-Claude looking up at him out of the corner of his eye, but could not meet the young vampire's gaze.

Belle only laughed. "Why are you feeling so deprived, Asher? It is not as if any of this pertains to you. You may continue to indulge yourself with whomever you choose. Just not him."

Asher didn't want Jean-Claude thinking he would simply take another lover if he could not have him. He opened his mouth to protest Belle's implication that he readily would, but she glowered at him in warning, as if suspecting as much. Asher bowed his head in defeat.

"Yes, Mistress," he responded flatly.

Belle Morte addressed Jean-Claude once more. "Asher will take you to your new quarters. You can freshen up there and rest for a couple hours. Then I want you before me to begin our first tutorial." Jean-Claude nodded but said nothing. Belle sighed heavily. "Don't look so glum, Jean-Claude. You underestimate your power. You will master your ardeur much sooner than you think. Then you may have your precious Asher again. As well as me."

Jean-Claude furrowed his brow. "And what if I should fail?"

Belle Morte put her hands on her hips. "If I discover you have disobeyed me in any way, you will quickly learn that touch is not necessarily a desirable thing. In fact it can be quite painful and repulsive. I do not wish to subject you to such punishment, so do not force my hand, Jean-Claude."

"No, Belle," he replied thickly. "I will not."

Belle smiled, pleased. "You may both stand up." She looked at Jean-Claude, frowned at his expression, then turned towards Asher. "Kiss me. I am feeling distinctly unloved at the moment."

Asher rose to his feet and leaned towards her. He knew she wanted something lingerly passionate, but he chose to merely peck her on the cheek, then turned away from her to leave.His lackluster embrace caught Belle momentarily off guard. She blinked up at him in surprise, then reached out and seized the front of his shirt and hauled him back to her.

"You will come to me later and make amends for that, do you understand?" she whispered. Then she smiled slowly, drinking Asher in with her eyes. "I know when you are angry with me, you make love a little more...intensely than you normally do. I just so happen to be in the mood for a bit of
roughness, so stay angry with me. Keep your hands off of him or he will be punished for your indiscretion as well."

Asher smiled back at her condescendingly. "I will come to you, Belle," he growled in her ear. "And I will give you exactly what you desire."

Belle released Asher and laughed heartily. Her laughter still rang in Asher's ears as he headed out of the courtyard.

Jean-Claude got to his feet and started after him, but Belle called him back. He and Asher both stopped where they were and turned to face her.

Belle walked up to Jean-Claude, handed him his shirt, then stalked around him slowly, her eyes savoring every inch of him in a languid, lustful scrutiny. She extended her hand to place it on his chest, but he shied away from her.

"Oh, yes, of course," Belle muttered, quickly lowering her hand. "Damn. How thoughtless of me. I do apologize. I wasn't testing you, believe me. I just couldn't seem to resist." She offered him a thin smile. "See. I am just as bound by my decree as you are, my friend."

Jean-Claude nodded, his expression softening. He began walking around Belle in much the same way she had walked around him, letting his smoldering gaze caress her curves and kiss her skin. He stopped behind her and moved as close to her as he could get without touching her, leaning his head over her shoulder to whisper in her ear.

"I am bound indeed, my mistress," he murmured thickly.

Belle quivered. She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. "Oh, that voice is exquisite," she noted with a tortured-sounding sigh. She turned her head to face him, but he had left her to go to Asher's side. Belle stomped her foot in frustration. "Damn," she muttered under her breath.

Jean-Claude followed Asher out of the courtyard without looking back.

Asher was sore now. His back stung from where Belle had scored him with her nails and his aching loins felt bruised and raw. His lips were tender and slightly swollen and he passed his tongue gingerly over them to moisten them. He lay beside Belle on his stomach and pressed his face into the silk
pillow case to blot up the perspiration on his brow.

Depression had settled over him once his anger had been spent. At the very least, the sex had satiated his frustration for the time being. He wondered if Jean-Claude had turned to Louis after Asher had taken him to his quarters and left him there. Asher had not wanted to leave Jean-Claude, but it was good for them to be apart for awhile. The sexual tension between them had increased two-fold, now that they had been forbidden to even touch one another. So he couldn't blame Jean-Claude if he had taken Louis into his bed, but Asher couldn't quell the jealousy it aroused in him either.

Asher rolled over on his side and sighed heavily, then felt Belle's hand light upon his hip.

"My beautiful, tempermental Asher," she whispered, kissing the back of his neck. "I do not want you to be angry with me anymore."

Asher smiled sadly and covered her hand with his. "I'm not."

"But you are still upset. I can tell."

Asher shifted carefully to his other side to face her. She was gazing over at him sympathetically, and reached out to smooth back the damp tendrils of golden hair that had fallen over his face.

"You are very much in love with him, aren't you?" Belle asked.

Asher lowered his eyes. "Yes," he admitted and felt a stab of pain inside his chest. "Not only has he captured my desire, he has also stolen my heart. He is as tragic as he is beautiful...sentimental and kind. I can sense a vulnerability underneath all that aggressive sex appeal. I know in truth, he feels frightened and alone, and needs to know he is loved. I was reckless with him at first, and made some mistakes, so as of yet, I have not found the courage to speak my mind. I want to make love to him, not only to claim his body for myself, but to show him how I feel. I believe it is the only hope I have of winning his heart. But now...."

Belle smiled. "Now your mistress has forbidden you such an expression of love." She shifted her weight and snuggled closer to Asher, putting her arms around his neck. "Try to be patient, my love. He did very well during my instruction. He learns quickly and is more powerful than he gives himself credit for. It won't be long until he is back in your arms, reaping the rewards of your devotion."

Taking a deep breath, Asher raised his eyes and tried to smile, but failed. "I fear by the time I am allowed to have him again, he will neither need nor want me anymore. By that time, perhaps he will have fallen for another. Here, he can gorge his appetite on the countless feasts of flesh laid at his feet. He shall have you, Belle. And you will be so pleased with him, you will want to share him with everybody and pass him around, like you do me. Why would he seek out the shelter of my embrace at that point? At least, for the moment, I am all he wants. If I could have him now, he'd be just mine, for a little while at least."

Belle Morte laughed easily. "Oh Asher. My, how you underestimate your charms. You paint yourself as something to be tolerated or settled for. You are a superb lover. You are handsome to perfection and virile and seductive. Jean-Claude will not shun you just because others approach him. And if he does, I will simply order him to submit himself to you."

Asher stared back at his mistress, mortified. "Taking him by force would only win me his contempt, Belle. I want his love as much as I want his sex."

"Do not despair," Belle whispered, amused by Asher's outrage. "I am quite certain I will never need to resort to such measures. It is clear, he is just as smitten with you as you are of him."

Asher began to shake his head, but Belle leaned forward and kissed him to stop him.

"Yes," she confirmed. "I can feel it like a pulse throbbing inside him. He looks at you and his heart swells. He craves your approval and aspires to win your love."

Asher still didn't believe her. "No. He lusts after me. He does not love me. I believe he only allows me to embrace him because I am the only one he feels comfortable with for the time being." Asher paused, considering the possibility. He knew for a fact Jean-Claude loved Lissette. He readily recalled their earlier exchanges of sentiment back in the Grand Reception Hall. Jean-Claude had never spoken to him like that. "No," Asher confirmed. "He would have told me by now if he had fallen in love with me....He is romantic that way."

Belle smiled. "Perhaps, like you, he is hesitant to declare it. Perhaps, like you, he prefers to demonstrate his love."

Asher reached out and traced Belle's lips with his fingertips. "Then I beg you, please make an exception for me. I long to know his love is real and not some phantom of hope in my mind."

"I am sorry, my love," Belle consoled. "To do so would undermine my good intentions. What better discipline is there for him than to be denied the very object of his desire? I have denied him me as well, but he has not developed any feelings for me yet. Whereas his feelings for you, make you his primary motivation." She drew Asher's fingers into her mouth and sucked on them provocatively, her hands sliding over his chest.

Pulling her against him, Asher nuzzled her brow and dotted her forehead with soft kisses. "But you deny me as well," he murmured, brushing his lips over her eyes. Asher slipped his wet fingers from her mouth and placed his hand over her breast, teasing her nipple taunt with the saliva on his skin. The warmth of her moist body beckoned to him, igniting his passion. He kissed her and leaned into her, urging her on her back. "Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?"

"No, Asher," Belle whispered. "I will not change my mind."

"Are you absolutely sure?" Asher said seductively, well aware he could often make women offer him the moon and the stars in the throes of passion. Easing himself against the cradle of Belle's hips, Asher spread her legs with his thigh and gently penetrated her. She moaned softly, but her body tensed beneath him.

"Is this how you intend to persuade me?" she said breathily. "By resorting to tenderness?"

"My tenderness is meant to please you," he whispered back and kissed her amorously. He felt her legs wrap around his lower back and her hands slide up his arms. Encouraged, he began thrusting into her, gathering her up against him. He gnawed her neck and trailed his hand down her side to stroke her thigh. Bending her knee, Asher grasped her ankle and pressed himself deeper inside her, carefully keeping his rhythm slow and sensual.

"I am not complaining," Belle gasped, digging her nails into Asher's biceps, her body writhing under him. "You are supposed to want to make love to me simply to please me, but you may beg me all you want, if this is how you intend to do it."

Struck by her choice of words, Asher stopped moving and lay still against her. "Why do you imply my effort is in vain? Do the feelings I show you mean so little to you?" Knowing he could love her so sweetly and discovering it was nothing beyond a physical stimulation for her, hurt Asher more than he would have liked to admit.

"Do not stop. I implied no such thing," Belle sighed, this time in exasperation. "It is only that I am well aware you hope to coerce me to give in to your wishes." Her expression hardened and her grip on Asher's arms tightened. "Believe me, if you were not so good at what you do, Asher, I would not put up with your treachery."

Asher closed his eyes momentarily and took a deep steadying breath. "Treachery?" he seethed. "I merely ask you to take pleasure in me and reward my devotion, yet you accuse me of treachery? I am your adjunct, your companion, your servant, and your whore. Everything I am, and everything I do is to please you. To you, my own pleasure is not even worth my consideration."

Belle stared up at him coolly. "You take pleasure in me, do not try to deny it."

Asher laughed humorlessly. "Since I cannot have what I truly want, I must pacify my libido somehow," he shot back, then immediately regretted it. He knew he had most likely crossed the line this time. He tensed, waiting for her reaction.

Smiling slowly as if merely amused by what Asher had just said, Belle reached up and stroked his cheek. Asher peered down at her, confused, but calming some as she continued to caress him. Perhaps she hadn't grasped his insult, he thought hopefully, but he wasn't taking any chances. He turned his face into her palm and kissed it softly. He opened his mouth to apologize, when without warning, she savagely raked her nails across his jaw.

Asher jerked back and swore, clamping his hand over the bleeding welts. He rose up on his knees and glared at Belle angrily.

She returned his heated gaze, gesturing at the chamber door."Get out," she growled. "And do not come back unless you are willing to crawl to me to beg my forgiveness."

For a long while, Asher did not move. He felt too stunned and overwhelmed with emotion, and wasn't really sure what he was expected to do. Belle continued glowering up at him, her amber eyes boring holes through Asher's heart. Finally, Asher nodded once and silently turned his face away from Belle, not trusting himself to say anything of merit at the moment. He rose off the bed, swept his clothes into his arms, and stalked out.

Asher knocked softly on the heavy wooden door and waited. He raised his hand to knock once more, but the door suddenly opened and Jean-Claude peered out.

The young vampire opened the door wider, stepping aside. "Asher. Would you like to come in?"

Asher bit his lower lip. "No, actually, I came to see if you might want to come out with me." Asher smiled hopefully and felt the stinging pull of the knitting wounds on his jaw. He winced slightly.

Jean-Claude noticed the scratches on Asher's face and his eyes widened a little. He leaned back against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Did you enjoy yourself, mon ami?" he questioned slyly.

Asher shook his head slowly. "This wasn't done in the throes of passion, I can assure you," he replied with a heavy sigh. "Belle is not exactly pleased with me right now."

Jean-Claude blinked back at Asher sympathetically. "I am sorry to hear that."

Asher shrugged. "I deserved it. I all but told her I was only using her to appease my desire for you."

Now Jean-Claude winced. "Asher, do not risk her displeasure on account of me."

Asher grinned crookedly. "Do not flatter yourself, Jean-Claude. My motives were entirely selfish."

Jean-Claude laughed lightly, then he sighed heavily. "I am happy you came to see me. I was feeling rather lonesome these past few hours."

Asher looked past the young vampire into the vacant room beyond. "Where is Lissette?"

"She and Gisele have gone home," Jean-Claude relayed sadly. "She was aware of Belle's instruction and thought it best not to stay with me any longer. She left...and would not even kiss me farewell." He frowned and bowed his head.

"Try not to brood about it, Jean-Claude," Asher offered, saddened by the fact Jean-Claude continued to refer to wherever Lissette resided as 'home'. "You will see her again soon." Something else occurred to Asher which made him lean into the room and look around more closely. "Jean-Claude, where is

The young vampire looked up at Asher and frowned. "I sent him away," he said in a barely audible voice, like a child confessing misbehavior to a parent.

Asher gave Jean-Claude a reproachful look. "Now who is risking Belle's displeasure? She expressly told you to keep Louis with you. He is the only one you are allowed to...feed off of."

Jean-Claude waved off Asher's concern. "My ardeur has been more than satiated tonight. I will not need him until after I wake tomorrow." He leaned a little closer to Asher and lowered his voice even more. "He followed me everywhere and never took his eyes off of me. I do not believe he was assigned to me solely as my companion. I think he has been instructed to watch me and report back to Belle."

Asher considered this. "That is entirely possible. Which makes the fact you sent him away even more disconcerting. He will inform Belle and given the mood she is in now, it won't fair well for you." He straightened and looked around the dark, empty hall. "I would think, being so instructed, he
may have left you, but he probably has not gone far."

Jean-Claude joined Asher in his perusal of the hall. "You mentioned something about going out?" he prompted.

"Oh, yes, are you game for a little fresh air?"

The young vampire flashed a toothy grin. "Absolutely. Where are we going?" He stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him.

"Sight-seeing," Asher grinned back and immediately started up the hall. "But we must hurry, it is getting late."

"Late? It is not yet midnight," Jean-Claude noted, following Asher closely.

Asher only increased his pace. "Exactly, which is why we must hurry."

Jean-Claude matched his stride, drawing up beside him. "Must you be so cryptic? You are making me wary."

"Don't be wary, my young friend. For I am about to share something with you I have not shared with anyone before. A true feast for the eyes."

Jean-Claude grinned. "I am honored."

Asher looked over at the young vampire and nodded. "Come then."

He led Jean-Claude down several passages and out of the dark, imposing building which housed the Vampire Council Chambers, away from the heart of the city, to a hamlet nestled in the foothills beyond.

They came to a grove of young trees beside a stream. The wind was raining leaves down on the two vampires, bending the tops of the small trees in a graceful, swaying dance. The moon overhead was bright and three-quarters full. It cast a silver hue over the water, making it sparkle like tiny diamonds.

Asher turned and pressed his index finger to his lips to keep Jean-Claude from speaking too loudly. He crept to the edge of the grove like a cat stalking its prey and motioned the young vampire to follow him. He settled himself into the shadows, gesturing out across the water.

It was then Jean-Claude saw the nude young woman in the water, her skin glistening wet and luminescent beneath the light of the moon. At first, he blinked several times as if convinced he was only seeing a spectral vision. Then his jaw fell open with awe and his eyes bled to a solid, glassy blue.

She was bathing in the stream, standing in water just past the tops of her thighs. She was shapely, but svelte and well-muscled from daily labor. Her face was angelicly alluring. She had large eyes framed with arched amber brows. Her mouth was delicate and small, but her lips were full and bowed.
Her long brown hair was piled high on top of her head, tied up with strips of white rags. Several tendrils had fallen loose and spiraled down the length of her back.

Jean-Claude sighed softly and Asher smiled, glancing over at him.

"Isn't she glorious?" Asher whispered in his ear.

The young vampire nodded, still somewhat dazed, his eyes locked on the unsuspecting young woman. "Who is she?"

Asher shrugged. "I honestly do not know. I discovered her habit of bathing here at midnight while out hunting a month ago."

Jean-Claude spared a glance at him. "Is she yours?"

Asher shook his head slowly. "No. She is entirely unaware I even exist."

"Why don't you just take her?" the young vampire asked, incredulously.

Asher only shook his head harder. "No...I cannot bring myself to do such a thing to her."

Jean-Claude raised his brow, as if he had never heard of anything so quaint. "She is a human. If you take her by force once, then you could call to her and she would come to you whenever you so desired."

"No. I don't want to enslave her to me against her will," Asher murmured, his expression hardening somewhat. He turned his eyes back on the mahogany-haired girl and licked his lips apprehensively, watching her drizzle the cold water over her small, firm breasts. "It is tempting, but having a submissive, cowering shell of a true woman, no matter how lovely the package, holds little appeal for me. Yet if I can get her to come willingly to my hand, then I will have truly fulfilled my ideal of what a human servant should be."

Jean-Claude flashed a smile. "I was unaware you harbored such lofty aspirations, Asher. But for now, having her against her will would surely be better than not having her at all...."

"Perhaps," Asher admitted, then sighed heavily. "I meant to take her when I first came upon her, but she was so enchanting, all I could do was watch her. I followed her home one evening and found she resides in the dalebeneath that hill." He paused to indicate which one. "I go there some evenings and stand in the shadows waiting for her to appear at the windows or come out into the yard. Soon I will step out of the shadows and introduce myself to her, but the time must be right. I do not wish to frighten her in any way. I have been thinking it through, and if I am to have any chance with her at all, she must not discover what I am until she begins to feel something for me."

Jean-Claude laughed lightly. "You are as romantic as a poet, mon ami. If I were you, I would have introduced myself to her long before now, and certainly not with the same propriety that you intend." He leaned forward as if hoping to get a closer look at her, his eyes sweeping over her body with a fixed and hungry gleam. "I commend you, Asher. You certainly have an eye for beauty."

Asher's gaze drifted from the girl in the water to the young vampire at his side. "Yes," he breathed, his eyes taking in the sight of Jean-Claude beneath the trees, the moonlight dappling his porcelain-like skin, his hair waving gently around his face in the steady breeze. Asher swallowed uncomfortably. "If only I knew how to make her fall in love with me," he continued, not really speaking of the girl at all anymore. His voice was distant and soft as his gaze devoured Jean-Claude. "But the only love my heart has ever known is unrequited love." Asher sighed, his dreamy expression softening into one of sadness. "I am pathetic when it comes to making people fall in love with me."

Jean-Claude stared back at him, drawing Asher closer with the intensity of his eyes.

"Are you so certain of that, mon ami?" Jean-Claude whispered.

It wasn't until Asher felt the young vampire's cool breath upon his lips that he realized how very close he had just come to kissing Jean-Claude. It startled Asher out of his love-induced trance just in time to catch the implication behind Jean-Claude's question. Asher's eyes roved over the young vampire's beautiful face, searching his expression for any sign of confirmation, but Jean-Claude turned his face away from Asher and closed his eyes.

Asher moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. "Perhaps not as certain as I was a moment ago," he replied faintly, his heart thumping madly inside his chest. He reached out to turn Jean-Claude's face back towards him, but stopped himself. It was one of the hardest things he had ever forced himself to do. He dropped his hand heavily to his side with a sigh of frustration.

Jean-Claude opened his eyes and turned his head. He did not look at Asher, but focused his gaze past him into the deepening shadows of the trees.

"Thoughts of you occupy my mind constantly to the point where I cannot think of anything else. Your presence fills my heart with such a sense of contented joy, I find myself lacking nothing when you are near me." Jean-Claude looked over at Asher slowly and took a deep breath. "My body craves your touch beyond anything my ardeur ever demanded. I feel I will go insane if I cannot have you. Such need assures my rationality that any pain I may be subjected to for a taste of your passion will be entirely worthwhile and will not begin to compare to the torment I suffer now being denied you."

Asher's heart felt as if it were melting inside him. He was aware of the fact he had stopped breathing and upon hearing Jean-Claude's profession of love, Asher wasn't sure he'd be breathing again anytime soon.

"I want nothing more than to touch you right now," Asher began quietly, "but I will not have you punished because of me. I could not bear the thought of you being tortured, Jean-Claude."

Asher started to turn away, but Jean-Claude reached out and grabbed his arm. Asher was too stunned to do anything but stare back at him. Just the feeling of Jean-Claude's hand upon his arm was filling Asher with brimming desire.

"Please...do not turn away from me. I have fallen in love with you, Asher," the young vampire announced in a deep, breathy voice. "Say something, I beg you."

More than anything, Asher wanted to say he loved him too, but knew where such an exchange would inevitably lead.

"We cannot do this," Asher protested feebly, taking Jean-Claude's head in his hands to push him away, but delving his fingers into the young vampire's thick black tresses instead.

Jean-Claude shuddered beneath Asher's hands. "I have offered you my heart. It is all right if you do not offer me your heart in return, but does my love not inspire you to offer me even one...small kiss?" he murmured. He locked his eyes on Asher's face as his hands closed around Asher's wrists. Jean-Claude moved closer to Asher, brushing against his hips provocatively.

Feeling powerless from desire and dazed with overwhelming emotion, Asher let the young vampire take him in his arms.

"It will not stop with just a kiss and you know it," Asher breathed.

Jean-Claude pressed himself tightly against Asher's body, locking his arms around Asher's shoulders, holding him captive. "What would it matter?" the young vampire retorted. "There is no one for miles but the girl. And she is not even aware of our presence." He tilted his head and parted his lips enticingly, leaning forward. "Please kiss me," Jean-Claude added with a forceful sigh.

Asher could feel his resolve weakening. The young vampire was simply too beautiful, his body felt too ethereal, and his words were too seductive. They were alone. One small kiss, Asher reasoned. What would be the harm in that? He lowered his head hesitantly.

Jean-Claude quickly covered Asher's mouth with his in a suffocating embrace. He flexed his arms, holding Asher to him in a crushing grip, his hands sliding up to cradle the back of his head.

As soon as Jean-Claude's lips touched his, Asher knew there was no hope of limiting their contact to just one small, forbidden kiss. He enfolded the young vampire in his arms, eagerly devouring his mouth. He would have Jean-Claude at last and this time, there would be no one to stop him.

It seemed an eternity since they had last kissed and their mutual passions crashed and flared like a storm-wrought sea. The intensity of their desire made their fiery kiss brutal, and Asher felt Jean-Claude's teeth raze the soft flesh of his lips. He tasted his own blood and was overcome with the hunger. He pulled back sharply, gasping for breath before tearing aside Jean-Claude's shirt and plunging his fangs deeply into the young vampire's shoulder. Jean-Claude cried out, burying his hands in Asher's hair to press
his face against his bared skin.

Asher sucked down the sweet, intoxicating blood filling his mouth. He could feel Jean-Claude's body quiver with increasing ecstasy, but he did not want to give him release just yet. He tore his mouth free from the young vampire's flesh, watching the blood spill over his pale chest and down his back.

Jean-Claude stood shakily in front of Asher, grasping the taller vampire's shoulders as if to steady himself. He took several deep breaths before looking at Asher through heavy-lidded eyes.

"Do not stop. We have already passed the point of no return," he told Asher thickly. "It is not necessary to cling to anymore pretense of reserve."

Asher smiled seductively, removing Jean-Claude's hands from his shoulders and turning him around. He swept aside the downy black curls veiling the young vampire's neck and kissed him there lingeringly before tearing away the remainder of his already bloodied, tattered shirt.

"I have no intention of stopping now," he breathed against Jean-Claude's skin, slipping his hands around the young vampire's waist and drawing him back up against him. Jean-Claude trembled as Asher pressed his hips into the young vampire's enticingly firm curves. "Can you feel how much I want you?" he continued softly, passing his hand caressingly up Jean-Claude's chest. He bent his head and dragged his tongue over the still bleeding puncture wounds at the base of Jean-Claude's neck.

The young vampire moaned deeply and covered Asher's hands with his own. He guided them back down his abdomen and splayed them across the span of his hips.

"I want you as well, Asher," he murmured turning his head.

Asher raised his face and Jean-Claude captured his mouth, kissing him passionately, lapping languidly at the traces of blood on Asher's tongue.

The sound of water splashing rapidly drew the two vampire's apart. They turned as one to face the stream where the young woman had been bathing. The girl was on the banks of the stream now, hastily wrapping her long shawl around her willowy body. She looked around fearfully before dashing off down the footpath in the woods.

Asher swore hotly. "She must have heard us," he surmised. He turned to face Jean-Claude, but the young vampire had his eyes fixed on the opposite bank.

"Louis," he breathed, his voice barely audible.

Asher's heart skidded to a stop. His first thought was that the
was out hunting, and his first concern was the girl. "If he so much as touches her, I will kill him," Asher hissed between his teeth. He released Jean-Claude and sprinted towards the stream.

"No!" Jean-Claude called out, stopping Asher in his tracks. "He is not after her. He has come looking for me."

Asher turned around, suddenly filled with a new dread. He whipped his head around to glare at the shapeshifter standing on the bank, sniffing the air conspicuously. Louis turned then and seemed to look right at Asher, yellow eyes gleaming in the moonlight, the rippling water reflecting on his spotted
fur. The vampire and the werejaguar stood staring at each other knowingly for a few moments before Louis snorted through his nose and bounded off. Asher's heart sunk. Jean-Claude was right. Louis had been searching for him. Asher turned his gaze back to the young vampire.

Jean-Claude sighed heavily and passed his hand over his face. "I am star-crossed indeed," he muttered, his eyes glossing with unshed tears.

Asher went to him and took him in his arms, kissing his forehead and stroking his hair. "This was my fault," he began brokenly. "I should have known better. I will go to Belle and plead with her. I will offer myself in your place. I will not let her hurt you. I swear it." He hugged Jean-Claude tightly and rocked him soothingly.

"No," the young vampire protested, pushing Asher away from him. "I will take responsibility for my own actions. I was warned." He turned and started walking away, shaking his head.

Asher strode after him. "Belle is already angry with me. Let me take the brunt of her wrath. She will welcome the opportunity to punish me in your place."

Jean-Claude looked over at him and flashed his fangs. "She will not agree to such a thing. She loves you, Asher! She feels nothing for me...but lust." He stopped walking as if struck by what he had just said. He bowed his head and took a deep steadying breath. "No one loves me," he whispered hopelessly, before tentatively raising his eyes to meet Asher's. "Belle will not punish you for my indiscretion. She told you if you touched me, I would be the one punished. We touched each other. It is a price I willingly pay."

Panicking somewhat and feeling considerably stressed, Asher covered his face with his hands. Jean-Claude believed Asher only wanted to use him, like so many others wanted to use him--including Belle. It made Asher ashamed that he had not had the courage to tell him he loved him, when he had told him he
desired him time and time again. He could not let the young vampire think for another moment he was unloved.

"Jean-Claude, wait--" Asher started, lowering his hands.

But the young vampire had already disappeared.

Asher went directly to Belle's chambers. Two of her cats waited at her door acting as sentries. Asher recognized one as Georges and the other as Germaine. They were both werelions, and they were married, but Asher had been intimate with Germaine many times before her engagement. For that reason, Georges never liked him. Asher readily turned his attention to Germaine and gave her an inquiring look.

"Yes, she is expecting you, cheri," Germaine began, sidling up to him despite her husband's presence. "And she is fit to be tied. You must have been very naughty indeed."

Asher took a deep breath. "Is Jean-Claude with her?"

Germaine cocked her head. Obviously the name meant nothing to her.

"The new vampire with the long black hair?" Asher prompted.

"Oh, yes, he is inside with Louis, as well as Yvette," Germaine told him.

Asher's eyes widened. "Yvette?" He didn't bother waiting for the werelioness to confirm what she had said. He pushed past her and shoved the door forcefully open.

All heads turned as Asher strode inside. Shaking his head, Asher walked right up to Belle, glaring at Yvette, who was seated in the chair next to Louis, by the fireplace.

"No," he pronounced distinctly. He faced Belle, who was standing in front of Jean-Claude, and shook his head again. "You cannot do this."

Belle pursed her full lips and put her hands on her hips. "And you are in no position to demand anything of me tonight, Asher."

Asher seized her hand and dropped to his knees before her. "I will do anything...anything, only do not give him to her." He bowed his head and brushed her knuckles with his lips. "I am not demanding. I am
pleading with you."

Belle jerked her hand from Asher's desperate grasp and stepped away from him. "It is a done deal," she proclaimed. "Both of you left me little choice. I cannot let something this severe go undisciplined."

Asher sunk back on his heels and looked up at Jean-Claude longingly. The young vampire stood in the middle of the room, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, his hands joined behind his back. He did not appear particularly worried. In fact he looked submissive, but calm. Asher tried a different approach.

"If that is so, merely giving him to Yvette is not a fit punishment for him," Asher declared, which earned him Belle's full attention and a heated look from Jean-Claude.

"What are you saying?" Belle pressed, her curiosity piqued. "You know of Yvette's peculiar sexual proclivities. Yet you say my punishment does not fit his crime?"

Asher shifted his body to face his mistress. "Does he look concerned to you? Is he on his knees, begging you to reconsider, as I am? He doesn't really understand what he is in for."

Yvette huffed and smiled humorlessly. "He will find out soon enough," she quipped, taking Louis' hand and pulling him into her lap. The werejaguar even shied away from her, struggling to free himself from her clutches.

Asher sneered at her, but continued to address Belle. "If I didn't know any better, Mistress, I would think Jean-Claude is actually anticipating his time with Yvette. Perhaps he enjoys...that sort of thing."

Asher noticed the outraged expression flaring in Jean-Claude's eyes. The young vampire opened his mouth to speak the contrary, but Asher snarled at him suddenly. "Shutup, Jean-Claude!"

He quickly turned back to Belle. "Whereas I am entirely revolted by the idea of submitting to Yvette. If you want to truly punish someone for what has happened, give me to Yvette. It was my fault anyway. I took him away for privacy and I seduced him."

Jean-Claude rolled his eyes. "Mon dieu. You are a pathetic liar," he growled.

Swearing under his breath, Asher rose to his feet and moved threateningly towards the young vampire.

Belle stepped in between them and held up her hands. "It is no use, Asher," she said. "Louis told me what he saw, and Jean-Claude has wisely confirmed it."

Asher took Belle's hand in both of his. This time she did not pull away. "Jean-Claude told me he loved me tonight," he stated breathlessly, knowing it would mean something to her after pouring his heart out to her earlier. "I could not help myself. Punish me." Asher gazed back at Belle entreatingly. "Please Mistress. You are unhappy with me anyway." He raised her hand to his lips and dotted kisses up the length of her arm. "I will understand if you want to replace me with Jean-Claude. He is more worthy of you than I. So do not mar the beginnings of your relationship with him this way. Try to understand, he is young and did not realize the significance of his disobedience. I was more than aware of how displeased you would be, but I blatantly misbehaved anyway. I will go with Yvette. I will stay with her until you forgive me. If you ever forgive me."

Belle squeezed her eyes closed as if unable to bear Asher's pleas. "Damn you," she sighed, exasperated.

"Enough Asher!" Jean-Claude hissed. He looked at Belle. "Please, do not listen to him."

"Belle," Asher went on, ignoring Jean-Claude and edging a little closer to his mistress. He reached up and tentatively touched her cheek. "I love him. For all the times I know I have pleased you in the past, and for all the times I will strive to please you in the future, can't you find it in your heart to forgive him this one indiscretion? For me?" Asher suddenly became aware of the weight of Jean-Claude's gaze on him and turned his head to face him.

The young vampire was clearly taken aback by what Asher had said. He stared at him searchingly, his eyes reflecting the myriad of emotions surfacing within him.

Asher offered him a sad smile. "Tis true, mon ami," he whispered. "I knew I was in love with you when I first gathered your bruised and broken body into my arms to carry you away from Julian's villa. You were mine then, and I have vowed ever since that time, to make you mine always. I love you, Jean-Claude."

The young vampire's expression brightened like the dawning of the sun. He smiled back at him. "And I love you, Asher."

"I swear I should just soundly thrash the two of you and be done with it!" Belle raved and turned to Jean-Claude. "I know you are aware of what a whiplash feels like. Perhaps that would put a little more apprehension in your eyes than a night in Yvette's boudoir. I would hate to think you were actually enjoying yourself when I need you punished."

Jean-Claude blinked at her slowly. "I am merely resigned to my fate, Mistress," he explained. "Forgive me for not cowering at your feet in anticipation of what you propose." He paused and glanced back at Yvette,
then gnawed his lower lip briefly. "I do not wish to be horsewhipped."

Belle laughed hollowly. "Mon dieu, Asher's right, isn't he?" She clapped her hands together as if delighted by this revelation. "What a prize you are."

Jean-Claude furrowed his brow in confusion. "I resent such an implication," he replied. He looked at Asher accusingly.

Asher walked up to him and leaned towards him, whispering in his ear. "Just...stand there and look pretty, my love." Purposefully ignoring the glare he earned from Jean-Claude, Asher continued on to where Yvette sat. Having finally subdued Louis enough to get him to sit at her feet, Yvette only pushed him aside as Asher approached her. She quickly stood up.

"My, my, Asher, this is a pleasant surprise, indeed," she stated, her eyes eagerly taking in the sight of him. "We shall have a lovely time together. A lovely time."

Taking a deep calming breath, Asher offered her his arm. She readily slipped her hand over the crook of his elbow and pressed herself into his side.

"Shall we then?" Asher asked quietly, already feeling nauseous and extremely penitent. He steered Yvette towards Belle and stopped in front of her. "May I beg a kiss from you to give me something to distract my mind from what I am about to be subjected to?"

Belle peeled Yvette's hand from Asher's arm and drew him away from her. "I did not consent that you should have Asher," she told her.

Yvette frowned. "He is offering himself to me freely, Mademoiselle," she argued. "You promised me Jean-Claude, but I will humbly and graciously accept Asher in his stead."

"He is only offering himself to you to spare his lover," Belle countered. "I do not want you to have Asher. And I am not even entirely sure I want to give Jean-Claude to you anymore either."

Yvette's face tensed with barely contained fury. "You...promised, Milady," Yvette stressed. "I was insulted. It is only fitting for me to be given someone with which to exact my amends."

Belle's eyes flicked to Louis. "What about him? You find him pleasing, don't you?"

Louis rose to his feet, shaking his head. "But I have done nothing!" he protested.

Belle sighed heavily. "Go with her for the rest of the night." She turned and faced Yvette, still talking to Louis. "She will not harm you in any way or subject you to her rot. And if she does, I will deal with her
severely." Belle went to Louis and kissed him. "I find myself in a bit of a quandry, my pet. Do this for me and I will see you well rewarded."

Louis nodded, albeit reluctantly and went to Yvette's side. Yvette seized his hand and dragged him off as if wanting to make her escape before Belle changed her mind again.

Belle watched her leave and waited until the door closed behind her. Then she put her hands on her hips and faced her men.

Jean-Claude and Asher exchanged puzzled looks, but neither one said anything. They both stood quietly where they had been placed and looked back at Belle expectantly.

She turned to Asher first and beckoned him closer. He readily went to her and bowed before her.

"Are you pleased?" she said with a hint of petulance.

Asher raised his brow and straightened slowly, trying to hide the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Mistress, I am overwhelmed."

Belle snorted delicately. "Remember this, Asher, next time you feel the urge to vex me. And know that you and Jean-Claude will be punished for disobeying me. I just haven't figured out a way to effectively discipline either of you yet." She reached up and touched Asher's hair, running her fingers through the silky length of it with a contented sigh. "But when I do punish you, you will not hold it against me, do you understand?"

Asher nodded. "I understand, Belle. I deserve whatever you see fit to subject me to. I have wronged you and I heartily apologize." He bent down to kiss her, then took her into his arms in a tight hug. "Thank you. You have given me more than you know this night. You have shown me you care for me, more than I had come to believe you did."

Belle smiled up at him. "My beautiful Asher," she said sweetly. "Always underestimating your worth." She stretched up on her toes and kissed Asher's brow.

With that, she walked over to Jean-Claude and tenderly traced the teeth marks on his shoulder. He looked down at her warily, but did not move away. When she began stroking his back, he closed his eyes and released a soft, ragged breath. Belle smiled, pleased, and continued passing her hands unabashedly over the young vampire's body, carefully noting his every reaction. Jean-Claude quivered and gasped and moaned under the influence of her expert ministrations. The ways in which she was touching him was
clearly arousing him.

"He is very sensual, isn't he?" she inquired, addressing Asher.

Feeling aroused himself just watching Belle with Jean-Claude, Asher nodded hesitantly. "He relishes touch, Mistress. It makes him very...responsive."

"Mmm, yes. I can see that," Belle went on. "I must agree with you, Asher. He is new to me and still somewhat reckless and young. I will devise another way to teach him control. Denying him the way I have cannot be considered...humane." She took Jean-Claude's chin in her hand and drew his face down to hers. She kissed him provocatively, leaving him slightly dazed and breathless. "Perhaps if I limit your restriction to just feeding your ardeur it will have the same effect as I originally intended. It is, your ardeur, after all, that must be addressed, not your normal sexual activity."

"That would be very gracious of you, Mistress," Jean-Claude murmured, finding his voice. He reached up tentatively and trailed his fingers down her arm. "I am very anxious to be called into your services."

Now Belle quivered. "Oh, what a fool I have been," she whispered. "Denying myself and fair Asher of your expertise. What was I thinking?"

Jean-Claude moved around behind Belle and put his hands on her shoulders. He nuzzled her ear and rubbed his face in her thick black hair. "You only had my best interests at heart. You were not being foolish. I will forever be indebted to you for caring enough to help me." He drew her head back and
kissed her hungrily until she finally pulled away.

"Was that kiss a hint of things to come?" she sighed, laying her head back on his shoulder and caressing the side of his face.

Jean-Claude laughed lightly. "My kiss was a promise of things to come."

"Oh," Belle exhaled, and trembled again in anticipation. "Tomorrow night...my black swan, I will hold you to it." She straightened and moved away from the young vampire to return to Asher's side. "For tonight, he is yours, Asher. Indulge your passions, indulge your newfound love. Take him away with you now before I begin to question my generosity."

Asher flashed a dazzling smile at her and all but ran to Jean-Claude. He seized him in his arms and captured his mouth with a searing, emotional embrace. Jean-Claude kissed him back, matching his fervor, his adoration, and his passion.

Asher had never felt so loved as he did in that moment: not only from the beautiful young vampire who was to be his at last, but from his seductive, alluring mistress who had been his companion for nearly a decade. Maybe, just maybe, he could win the heart of the beautiful mahogany-haired girl as well. Asher had never truly believed it was possible until now. For the present, his mind was at peace and his heart was quite full. His worse fears had been laid to rest. His love wasn't always unrequited after all.


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