PURPLE PASSIONS

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the lieutenants

Asher and Jean-Claude are on assignment for Belle Morte, but for once, their seductive allure is more a hindrance than a help.
 
Rated PG-13
 
Disclaimer:  This fic was written for entertainment purposes only.  No profit will be made from it now or ever.

The Lieutenants

For M&M, my devoted betas

**************************************************

Gathering her cloak around her shoulders to ward off the chill of the evening, the wereleopard, Jacqueline Ramorelle stepped lightly down the stone pathway leading towards the grand gardens of the De Maquette chateau.

Her sharp hearing detected the urgent footfalls of a man heading to the eastern side of the ivy maze, and her keen sense of smell told her it was the man she'd been waiting for, a one Michel Chaponte. Though he, in turn, knew nothing of Jacqueline, Michel's purpose here tonight was the very reason she was stalking about the frigid gardens instead of celebrating inside the chateau's opulent ballroom with the rest of the invited guests.

A favor had been granted to Jacqueline's mistress, and now her debt was to be paid. A contract was drawn and an embarrassing situation for the powerful and wealthy Pierre De Maquette was about to be discreetly resolved with no loopholes and no loose ends. The hunt was on.

Spying Michel Chaponte enter the maze, Jacqueline made a discreet summoning gesture with her hand towards the hedges flanking the maze. She quickened her pace, sniffing the air to keep track of her quarry as he disappeared behind a leafy hedge. Soon, another figure emerged from the thinning fall foliage, and drew up beside Jacqueline.

Shrouded in a black cloak, and blessed with a luxuriant crown of long, glossy black curls, for a moment, Jacqueline's new companion seemed nothing more than a shadowy apparition. Then he turned his handsome face towards the light of the moon, and flashed the wereleopard a telling smile attesting to his flesh and blood reality.

He was a vampire--and an unusually comely one at that, who went by the name of Jean-Claude. Then, he belonged to the very powerful sourdre de sang, Belle Morte. In the short time Jean-Claude had been with Belle, he had gained enough power and influence within her kiss of vampires to be included in her esteemed inner circle, and had become one of her highly-coveted lieutenants.

Jean-Claude was also one of Belle Morte's favorite paramours, with quite a reputation of prowess between the sheets, which prompted many--both women and men, to attempt to win his favor.

Jacqueline had long desired a taste of Jean-Claude's carnal expertise for herself. Presently, however, the handsome young vampire claimed to be in love, and was making an attempt to temper his appetites. But Jacqueline knew Jean-Claude had a roving eye, and a scorching ardeur on top of that. She always believed if she played her cards just right, it would only be a matter of time before Jean-Claude turned his lovely roving eyes on her. This was the third assignment she had accompanied him on, and Jacqueline could tell his interest in her had grown beyond that of a mere accomplice.

Even now, when he spoke, despite the bland nature of his words, his voice was singly seductive, making Jacqueline's already pounding heart speed up even more.

"Are you absolutely sure it is him?" Jean-Claude asked in a rich, silky whisper.

Trying to concentrate once more on their objective, Jacqueline nodded, gliding on through the twisting maze with the inhuman grace of her kind.

"I've smelled him before, Jean-Claude," she murmured over her shoulder at the vampire a few steps behind her. "Quickly, this way, or we'll just miss him."

"Non, non, non," Jean-Claude told the wereleopard with a hint of levity in his voice. "We can't have that."

"He's moving fast," she commented. "For a human."

"He's feeling desperate, no doubt," the vampire added, knowingly. "His apprehension is spurring him on." Jean-Claude reached into the folds of his cloak and withdrew a jeweled dagger. "Let's slow him down, shall we? I'd rather not chase him through here all night."

Well aware of just what the vampire had in mind, Jacqueline flashed a toothy grin. She and Jean-Claude had resorted to this ploy before. Its shock value often caught their unsuspecting prey off guard, and vanquished any suspicions of the supernatural being involved by making their crimes seem more common.

Jacqueline released a startling scream--just loud enough to echo through the tangled paths of the maze. She tore open the front of her bodice and leaned forward, letting the vampire drag the tip of his knife across her round, ample breasts. She gasped at the pain, but then giggled self-consciously, watching the blood well up from the wound and spill down her chest. Catching a heavy droplet on her fingertip, Jacqueline held up her hand in the moonlight.

Jean-Claude raised his brow, and licked his full lips, eyeing the trickling blood as it flowed slowly over the curves of the wereleopard's exposed bosom. Jacqueline smiled seductively, and crooked her bloody finger at the vampire.

"Care for a taste?"

Jean-Claude released a small growl of lust and stepped closer to her. "Only a taste, ma belle?"

Jacqueline cocked her head to the side. "For you, Jean-Claude, I would offer it all. You are hungry tonight, oui? For blood and...something more? Has your lover been neglecting you?"

With growing intrigue, the vampire reached out and trailed the back of his hand down the wereleopard's neck, his eyes locking on hers. As if drawn to her by the pull of her smoky gaze, he leaned forward to kiss her, opening his mouth and turning his head, but then stopped himself, and roughly shoved Jacqueline away.

"Go!" he commanded her. "We do not have time for this now."

Undeterred, Jacqueline laughed merrily, skipping down the leaf-strewn path, teasingly licking her sticky fingers.

"Maybe later, mon cheri?" she cooed, pleased by the fact he'd been more tempted to take advantage of her just now than he had ever been before.

To her delight, Jean-Claude readily nodded and smiled.

"Oui. Later," he agreed. He raised the dagger and delicately ran his tongue over the side of the blade, as if contenting himself with tasting the stain of her blood on the edge.

"You promise?"

"I promise. Now go!"

Satisfied, Jacqueline turned and screamed again. She bolted ahead of the vampire, moving deeper into the maze after Michel Chaponte.

********

From what the wereleopard could hear, Michel Chaponte was doubling back. Clearly, he had heard Jacqueline's terrified screams, and apparently, despite the urgency of his own situation, was too much of a gentleman to let a lady's distressed calls go unattended.

As soon as he rounded the corner hedge, Jacqueline all but plowed into him, knocking him off his feet, and encompassing him in her arms. Sobbing hysterically, the wereleopard started blubbering about being attacked.

"Mademoiselle, slow down! What has happened to you?" Michel questioned, looking about wildly. His nervous gaze fell on the blood covering Jacqueline's breasts and his eyes grew wide with shock.

"There is a fiend after me!" Jacqueline screeched, purposefully clutching Michel's arms to keep him from drawing any weapons he might be carrying. She knew right away he was wearing a rapier. The hilt was sticking into Jacqueline's side, but other than that, Michel seemed unarmed. "He means to kill me!"

Michel tried to right himself, but the wereleopard held him fast. "Mademoiselle, you must release me! Let me stand so I can draw my sword!"

Jacqueline only encumbered the young man more. She knew she had him and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Burying her face in the crook of Michel's neck, the wereleopard started shaking, but not from fear as she was sure Michel supposed, but mirth. Her hysterical sobs abruptly broke into peals of laughter, and she pinned Michel Chaponte helplessly to the ground to await Jean-Claude's arrival.

********

Following the fresh scent of Jacqueline's blood, Jean-Claude used it to guide him through the ivy maze's corners and paths to where the wereleopard had detained the hapless Michel Chaponte.

To his surprise, not only had Jacqueline detained him, she had rendered him conveniently defenseless and was lying on top of him, licking his face with long, languid strokes of her feline tongue.

"What is this, Jacqueline? You didn't even allow me the chance to perform my mad rapist act," Jean-Claude told her, disappointment tingeing his tone. "I was in the mood for a little swordplay tonight too."

Jacqueline looked up at him apologetically. "Forgive me, cheri, I couldn't help myself. It was just all so easy." She paused and shot Michel an acute look of disdain. "He is pathetically gullible." She withdrew the rapier from the young man's belt and handed it to the vampire who stashed it away beneath his cloak.

"Well done, as always, ma jolie chatte," the vampire said with a shrug, and knelt on the ground beside Michel. "Get off of him now. I will take it from here."

Somewhat reluctantly, Jacqueline rose off Michel Chaponte, and walked to the edge of the path, out of the way.

Once freed, Michel immediately scooted over to the opposite side of the eroded path, away from the vampire, but was still too overcome with shock to find his feet and stand.

"You two are cohorts? What is going on here? I demand to know this instant!"

In one inhumanly swift and effortless motion, Jean-Claude seized Michel's coat, hauled him to his feet, and spun him around. He encircled the young man's torso crushingly with his arm, pressing Michel's back to his chest, and drew his dagger once more.

Michel craned his neck around to try to face the vampire, and Jean-Claude got his first good look at the young man.

Before, whenever Michel Chaponte had been mentioned to him, Jean-Claude had gotten an image in his head of a callow, lanky boy just barely out of puberty, with straw-colored hair, a cherubic face, and oil stains on his hands--for Michel Chaponte was, supposedly, an artist.

However, the young man in his arms was everything to the contrary. The real Michel Chaponte was slightly shorter than Jean-Claude, and no more than twenty, but he had a lithe, strong body and a fine, handsome face with large, lovely brown eyes that reminded the vampire of a red stag's, and long tawny hair to match. His generous mouth was perfectly formed, and his ruddy complexion was smooth and fair, with a youthful dusting of a dark blonde beard. It was easy to see how he could have captured the heart of a refined young maid well beyond his social standings.

Jean-Claude sighed in appreciation in spite of himself, and couldn't help feeling a little remorseful at having to waste such beauty as this.

Michel suddenly struggled, and the wereleopard behind him growled in warning, jolting the vampire out of the appreciative reverie he was giving the young man. He promptly jabbed the point of the dagger into the side of Michel's exposed throat, pricking it.

Michel yelped--probably more from surprise than pain, and struggled even more fitfully in the vampire's grasp.

"Do not fight me, Monsieur," Jean-Claude whispered in Michel's ear, using the power of his voice to quiet the young man. "It is futile of you."

"I do not understand this," Michel said raggedly. "What is it you want with me?"

"Ooo, much," the vampire cooed and nuzzled Michel's cheek. He couldn't resist the enticing smell of his heated blood any longer, and indulgently kissed the wound on the young man's neck to taste him. "Mmm. Allow me a mere moment of your time, and I will explain everything to you before I kill you."

Michel struggled again, and cried out. "Let me go! I have no time to spare for you!"

Jean-Claude sighed, and pressed the tip of the dagger harder against Michel's throat, drawing more blood and bringing the young man's struggles to an abrupt end.

"Hush!" the vampire admonished him. "Your ruse is up! Your plans to elope with Pierre De Maquette's fiancÚ, the lady Analise Lanoue, have been revealed, and I, being of some acquaintance with someone who has taken a vested interest in the De Maquettes' affairs, have been dispatched to put an end to your foolishness once and for all."

Michel whimpered pathetically and turned his face away, exposing more of his bleeding neck to the vampire. Jean-Claude grinned appreciatively, and once more kissed Michel's throat to re-wet his lips.

"Please, let me go," Michel begged, growing hysterical. "I must go to her! She cannot marry Pierre De Maquette! Analise! Analise!"

Jean-Claude seized the young man's jaw and wrenched his face around, forcing him to look at him.

"The matter is done! The wedding will take place in three days as planned! Your fair lover will go to the altar on the arm of another. She will not wait for you, for now she believes you have betrayed her, and have run off to Allemagne with another woman."

"What?!" Michel screamed, thrashing wildly against the vampire's arm. "What have you done? What did you tell her?"

Jean-Claude sighed. "It was not I, but a very dear friend of mine. He is with your lover now, convincing her of your cruel misdeeds."

"No! No! Analise! My love!" Michel began crying, great, shuddering sobs. "If your intent is to kill me, Monsieur, spare me this misery, and do so now! For my life will be unbearable without my Analise!"

"Oh mon dieu," the vampire muttered and glanced back at Jacqueline in consternation.

The wereleopard merely rolled her eyes and grinned.

Jean-Claude turned his attention back on his unhappy prisoner. "Ssshhh," the vampire urged him, sheathing his knife, and easing his grip around his chest. "Must you carry on so?"

Michel Chaponte slumped against Jean-Claude's chest in anguish and utter defeat, forcing the vampire to have to resort to holding him in order to keep him on his feet.

"I am a cursed man!" Michel declared, wiping away the last of his tears.

Jean-Claude clucked his tongue at him admonishingly, and absently stroked the length of bared skin on Michel's chest with his fingertips as he spoke.

"You are not cursed, my young monsieur," the vampire consoled. "Just...unfortunate. And perhaps a little thick in the head." Jean-Claude gathered Michel closer to him and caressingly pressed his mouth against the young man's bleeding neck. "It is too late to grieve over this now. If you had only realized, your Analise was but one girl. As fine and strapping as you are, Michel, it would have only been a matter of time before you bagged yourself another--even fairer. You should have forgotten Analise Lanoue when she became betrothed. Why you insisted on fettering yourself to one lover when you could have had a dozen or more, is well beyond me. Such narrow-mindedness is what leads you to your doom tonight, not I."

Growing still in the vampire's arms, Michel sniffed softly, and placed his hand over Jean-Claude's.

"Why do you so curiously embrace me, Monsieur? Like Judas Iscariot with Christ the night of the last supper, do you send me to my doom with a kiss?"

Startled by Michel's question, Jean-Claude froze. He discreetly removed his lips from Michel's skin, licked them clean, and then repositioned his mouth next to the young man's ear.

"And like Saint Peter, you know the truth, yet you deny it again and again," the vampire countered, pouring his power into his voice and bringing it to bear down on the young man in his arms. "Can you honestly profess to be unaware of your appeal, mon jeune homme? My strange advances should not surprise you."

Michel turned his head and looked deeply into Jean-Claude's eyes. "You find me appealing?" he said thickly, his mind readily succumbing to the vampire's mesmerizing gaze.

"I do," Jean-Claude admitted.

Michel sighed. Slowly, he shifted around to face his captor, and tentatively raised his hand to touch Jean-Claude's lips. Staring back at the vampire through heavy-lidded eyes, Michel smiled slightly and leaned forward.

"I find you fair as well," he murmured, and with that, he covered Jean-Claude's mouth with his in a lush, lingering kiss.

Caught off guard by his victim's embrace, Jean-Claude's eyes widened with shock before gradually fluttering shut. Entwining his fingers through Michel's thick locks, Jean-Claude opened his mouth to deepen the kiss and molded his body tightly against Michel's sinewy form.

From across the pathway, Jacqueline cleared her throat loudly.

"Have a care, Jean-Claude," she warned. "His death was not to be attributed in anyway to a preternatural being."

Moaning, Jean-Claude eased away from the enchanted Michel, and dragged his mouth down the length of his offered throat. He reached up and swept aside the long hair veiling the back of Michel's neck.

"I won't kill him," the vampire whispered, kissing his way along Michel's jaw to the base of his skull. "I just want a taste."

Jacqueline put her hands on her hips, jealousy clearly burning beneath her gray-green eyes.

"Funny, you told me we were short on time, yet you eagerly indulge your hungers with him! Just cut the boy's throat and let's go home. Enough of this cat and mouse game! Besides," she hissed, lowering her voice and looking around. "Asher will be here any minute now."

Jean-Claude laughed lightly. "Asher will just have to wait his turn," he purred, rubbing his cheek over Michel's silky hair as the young man dotted the vampire's neck with heated kisses.

Closing his eyes, Jean-Claude released a long, ragged breath of arousal. He gathered Michel up in his arms once more, and lowered his mouth to the back of his neck and bit down hard.

Michel Chaponte groaned deeply and reached up to cradle the vampire's head with his hands.

Jacqueline huffed angrily and plopped on the ground to wait, curling against one of the moss-covered vines. She plucked a leaf from its branch and threw it on the ground, fixing her eyes upon it to avoid watching the vampire feed.

The breeze suddenly shifted, catching the little leaf up in a tiny whirlwind at her feet. Jacqueline looked around warily, sniffing the air. Then she smiled knowingly and turned her attention back on Jean-Claude.

"What was that you were saying about Asher, cheri?" she asked him loudly and looked up.

A moment later, the vampire Asher descended from above the rustling foliage and landed neatly a few paces in front of Jean-Claude and Michel Chaponte.

Like Jean-Claude, Asher was one of Belle Morte's esteemed lieutenants. He was an older vampire, but had died relatively close to the age Jean-Claude had. And like Jean-Claude, and all the vampires of Belle Morte's line, Asher was stunning to behold.

Throughout his years as a vampire, Asher had kept company with many, but nothing had ever become of such liaisons until he met Jean-Claude. Circumstances had brought the two of them together and a fast friendship soon forged between them which quickly developed into a prolonged intimacy. Now they were practically inseparable, and more often than not, they worked in tandem on many of Belle Morte's assignments.

Asher stood regarding Jean-Claude with anything but love in his eyes now. He stepped towards him in a swirl of cloak, his long golden hair dancing about his face in the wind of his anger.

"Jean-Claude! What do you think you are doing?!" Asher seethed.

Jean-Claude's eyes flew open and he all but dropped Michel Chaponte, who landed heavily on the ground at his feet in an erotically sedated heap.

The younger vampire quickly wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and offered his lover a pleasant smile.

"Asher, mon cheri! Finished with the petite mademoiselle already?" he asked innocently.

Asher's expression hardened. He locked his eyes on Jean-Claude, shaking his forefinger at him in warning.

"It won't work, mon amour. I can smell your desire," he grumbled. "We are not under any orders to seduce anyone this time, but you just couldn't resist him, could you?" Asher paused and peered down at the dazed young man on the ground. He raised his brow and pursed his full lips in an attractive pout for a moment, then took a deep breath. "He is quite fetching." Asher looked up at Jean-Claude once more. "At the very least, that had better be Michel Chaponte and not just some beguiling piece of tail you took a fancy to."

"Of course it is Chaponte," Jean-Claude declared. "He was beside himself when I told him about Analise Lanoue, so I merely thought to console him."

Asher tossed his long cloak over one shoulder and reached out to cup Jean-Claude's chin in his gloved hand.  "I see you managed to make him forget all about Analise. And then some."

Jean-Claude blinked back at him sheepishly. "I put him under my power, but I think I got a little carried away. He couldn't seem to keep his hands off of me."

"Or his lips," Asher shot back with an irritated growl, wiping at a trace of saliva on the younger vampire's cheek with his thumb.

Jean-Claude jerked his face away from him. "I had to do something! The way he was fussing, he would have alerted the entire household as to our whereabouts." A thought suddenly occurred to him. He struck an indignant pose, placing his hands on his svelte hips, and looked Asher squarely in the eyes. "You have no cause for outrage, mon ami. As I am more than a little certain the fair Analise Lanoue required considerable comforting after you broke the news to her of her lover's betrayal." He gestured absently at Michel Chaponte.

Straightening to his full impressive height, Asher's expression turned passive, but his eyes, slipped to the ground.

"Well, the poor girl was justifiably devastated," he admitted. "Then, she accepted what I had to say without the slightest doubt considering I was the man whose lover was stolen by her lover. Dear Analise and I shared the pain of such a betrayal by our loves. Together we stood on that singular ground. Oh, it was a heart wrenching scene....And one of my better performances. Being the gentleman I am, I felt it only fitting to offer the girl what comfort I could." Here Asher paused and sighed wistfully. "I took her in my arms and pressed a soft kiss to her brow, but still, she needed more. Before I had realized, one thing soon led to another and...well, let's just say, De Maquette's blushing bride-to-be has a little less blush to her now."

Jean-Claude angrily narrowed his eyes at Asher. "You deflowered her? How dare you come to me, sputtering with incensed jealousy, after having done something of such ill-repute as stealing the virginity of an unsuspecting child!"

Before he had finished speaking, Asher had started to laugh. He gathered his vexed lover in his arms and dropped a quick kiss on his brow.

"There now, mon cheri, calm yourself!" he chided. "I swear to you, I never even touched the girl! I am only teasing you because I love it when you are furious. You get a certain fire in your eyes that simply drives me mad with desire for you. I could not resist the temptation you presented me. Do you forgive me?" He gave Jean-Claude a soft kiss as a token offering.

Jean-Claude smiled. "I forgive you," he breathed, and pulled Asher's face back down to his for another, more lingering kiss.

"Analise," Michel Chaponte suddenly groaned from the ground. He rolled to his side and tried to sit up, clutching at the wispy strands of gray grass beneath his hands as if for support. "My love....Let me go to her. I need...to speak with her."

Asher and Jean-Claude parted and peered down at him, then exchanged looks.

Jacqueline crawled over to where the young man lay and jabbed at him with her finger.

"Didn't you hear what they said? Your Analise thinks you changed your mind about her." She jerked her thumb in Asher's direction. "She believes you ran off with his lover. But it is better she believe that, than know the truth, oui?"

Michel forced himself to look up at her, and blinked several times like he was trying to focus his vision.   "Truth? What truth?"

Jacqueline smiled. "That you are dead."

Michel slowly shook his head. "But I'm not dead."

"Ah, but you soon will be," Jacqueline told him with a sharp laugh.

Michel turned away from her and peered up at the two vampires standing over him.

"Don't fret, mon jeune monsieur," Asher said quietly. "It will all be over for you soon."

Michel struggled to his feet. "Let me go. I beg you."

Jean-Claude grasped his arm to help him stand. "So sorry, mon ami, but your continued interest in Mademoiselle Lanoue is something of an embarrassment to the De Maquette family. If you two were going to debauch so frivolously, you should have practiced more discretion. Discretion is the better part of valor." The vampire paused and reached into the folds of his cloak and drew out his dagger once more. "I will be quick about it. You will feel nothing."

"Non, s`il vous plait!" Michel pleaded, staring wide-eyed at the dagger glinting in the moonlight. "It is only that I love her. I truly love her."

"She does not believe that now," Asher pointed out and smiled wickedly.

Michel's eyes flicked to him. "How could you, Monsieur? Have you no compassion in your soul?"

Asher laughed outright and shook his head. "I can honestly say 'no' to both accounts. No compassion. No soul."

Jean-Claude seized Michel, turned him around and raised the dagger to his throat, angling the blade horizontally to slice it open.

"Au revoir, mon jeune beau," he whispered in Michel's ear.

"Jean-Claude, you are only delaying the inevitable," Asher commented, narrowing his eyes and scowling. "Just kill him."

"No, wait!" Jacqueline suddenly cried out, shoving her way in between Asher and Jean-Claude. "There is no need to kill him."

Both vampires simultaneously turned their eyes on the wereleopard.

"There is really no need to let him live," Jean-Claude pointed out, but lowered the knife.

Michel crumpled to the ground and buried his face in his hands, weeping pitifully. "Oh, please, Monsieur, I want to live...to love again."

Asher consulted Jean-Claude's opinion with a dubious look. Jean-Claude noncommittally shrugged one shoulder. Turning back to face Jacqueline, Asher put his hands on his hips, and stared at the wereleopard expectantly.

Jacqueline cleared her throat and quickly explained.  "Look at him. Young and handsome. And about to be murdered. His only crime was falling in love with the wrong maid. Once she is married off, what harm can he cause? You will have carried out our lady's orders to see Pierre De Maquette married to Analise Lanoue, and you will have still spared this young man's life. You see, we need only detain him until after the wedding. Then we can release him." She paused and studied the vampires' expressions closely. "You say you are in love. You know what it is like. How can you deprive him of ever knowing this? Will you send him to his grave with no lover at his side to mourn his passing? In the name of your love, spare his life."

Jean-Claude raised his brow, intrigued, but looked at Jacqueline suspiciously.  "Mercy from you, ma belle? Why the sudden change in heart? Why do I sense your motive is not quite what it seems?"

"Why, indeed, Jean-Claude?" Asher unexpectedly asked.

The young vampire's eyes shot to Asher's. "Well...don't you find such a request coming from the likes of her somewhat peculiar?"

Asher smiled slowly. "No, because, truth be known, she is right. There really is no need to kill young Chaponte. Murdering him may yield some unforeseen consequences which could adversely affect our genuine intent. Murder is always risky. Besides, I know he appeals to you."

Jean-Claude frowned. "This...'genuine intent' you speak of," he began, gesturing towards the De Maquette chateau with an elegant wave of his hand, "wouldn't, by chance, go by the name of Analise Lanoue? For surely her feelings for the boy are behind this sudden benevolence of yours far more than mine."

Asher had the grace to look abashed. "Analise Lanoue is a rather charming lady. It is hard not to be moved by her. If I can do this one small thing for her, I will. Then, what Jacqueline said simply made me think, Jean-Claude. Why kill him if we don't have to? Let him live to love again. I'm certain if Michel is a resourceful sort, he will find a way to be with his love despite her marriage. Knowing Pierre De Maquette, I am almost certain he expects his young bride to have a lover or two on the sly. His only interest in her is to boost his social standing, and give his fetid scandal-riddled household some fresh credibility."

Jean-Claude's expression softened. He smiled gently, and nodded his head.

"Then by all means. Never let it be said I do not support love."

"The only problem is, what shall we do with him in the meantime?" Asher considered.

Jacqueline tore the sash from her gown and set about binding Michel's wrists together. She stuffed a gag of cloth into his mouth and fastened it behind his head.

"I'll look after him," she announced. "I'll guard him at the inn until after the wedding. You two won't have to do another thing with him."

"You will need to sleep sometime," Jean-Claude replied distractedly as his gaze was drawn to Michel's face. He licked his lips subconsciously. "I would be willing to watch him for you one night."

Frowning, Asher reached out and sharply tugged a lock of Jean-Claude's hair, forcing him to face him.

"I see that look in your eyes, Jean," he growled, "and I am regretting my benevolence already."

Jean-Claude stared back at Asher coolly, and pretended to pout. "You do not trust me with the boy?"

Scowling now, Asher turned away from Jean-Claude. "No. I don't."

Quickly, Jean-Claude grabbed Asher's arm and pulled him back around to face him. Seductively, he nuzzled Asher's cheek and wrapped his arms around his neck.

"...Jealous, cheri?"

Asher opened his mouth to speak, but Jean-Claude leaned forward and brushed his lips lightly across his chin, then pecked his way to Asher's mouth. He languidly dragged his tongue over Asher's bottom lip before drawing it between his teeth and sucking it awhile.

"You're incorrigible," Asher murmured against his lover's mouth and sighed heavily.

Jean-Claude kissed him deeply, then leaned back to look into his eyes.  "You are ravishing when you are angry, cheri. The temptation to bait you is hard to resist."

Asher laughed lightly, and kissed Jean-Claude again, running his hands savoringly over his lover's body a few times before tugging impatiently at his clothing to gain access to his skin.

Facetiously, Jacqueline pretended to choke, apparently aware of the fact she and Chaponte had suddenly ceased to exist to the two vampires clearly intending to make love in the middle of the maze.

Purposefully turning her attention away from them to Michel, the wereleopard hauled him to his feet, and pushed him around the corner hedge, leaning closer to him to whisper in his ear.

"They are like an old married couple half the time, and the other half of the time, they are like newlyweds," she grumbled to Michel. "But things are about to change, because you, mon ami, owe me. Don't forget. I just saved your miserable life. You do my bidding, and I will see you set free before the wedding, do you understand?"

Wide-eyed, Michel Chaponte nodded, and glanced back over his shoulder the way they had just come.

Jacqueline smiled, hearing a faint throaty groan echo through the night air. "Enjoy it while you can, amour," she whispered and laughed. Jean-Claude had been right. Her motive had not been at all what it had seemed.

********

The following evening, Asher waited outside in the foyer as he was announced to Analise Lanoue by one of the De Maquette servants. He rose quickly to his feet as her handmaiden approached him and beckoned him to follow.

In his mind, he reviewed the strange turn of events which had brought him back to her apartment suites within the De Maquette chateau, and tried to re-word what tale he would be relaying to her this time to make it sound more plausible.

Asher entered and found Analise sitting in the parlor. He would have liked to have sat beside her, but her skirts were covering most of the settee she was on, so Asher moved towards the chair closest to her.

"Bonsoir, Mademoiselle," he greeted her, offering her an elegant, sweeping bow, and then waited for her to motion him to sit before he did.

As Asher had told Jean-Claude, Analise Lanoue was a lovely girl. Young, but of a suitably marriageable age, she still possessed that vibrant, youthful glow and vitality, coupled with a rare, natural beauty and fine womanly attributes. That combination was dangerous to a man's heart. Being near her, Asher simultaneously felt the overwhelming need to protect her in an almost paternal sense, and also the strong desire to bed her.

Tonight, Asher couldn't help but notice Analise's sweet, heart-shaped face was pinkish and blotchy as if she'd been crying, and in her lap, she clutched a lace-edged handkerchief which she occasionally dabbed her puffy, reddened blue eyes with.

Asher knew he was the one responsible for the broken heart which made her weep and felt a tinge of remorse. He hated seeing one so innocent injured by his actions, and hoped his news tonight might cheer her.

"Bonsoir, Asher. Forgive my receiving you in such a wretched state," she began in her soft, breathy voice. "I haven't been well today." She peered into the vampire's pale eyes momentarily before shyly looking away. "I know you are aware of why." She paused to delicately dot her cheeks with her handkerchief. "I was under the impression our farewells last night were final."

Asher cleared his throat. "If you could find it in your graces to excuse this belated intrusion, Mademoiselle," he quickly apologized.

Analise smiled back at him and twisted her handkerchief apprehensively. "Please, call me Analise. I must confess, I am pleased to see you again, Asher. I couldn't stop thinking about you in fact."

Asher smiled at Analise warmly. "I thought about you too, Analise....Especially since early this morning when I received news of my lady, and of your lost love, Monsieur Chaponte. I thought I should share it with you, in case you had not received anything in kind."

Analise lowered her gaze to her lap and waved her handkerchief feebly.

"Oh? And what, pray tell, is it this time? Was it not enough for Michel to abandon me so shamefully on the night we were to be wed for the attentions of another maid? Without a thought for my fate, he left me to be the bride of Pierre De Maquette." She hiccupped a sob and wiped at her watering eyes again. "What worse news could you possibly bring me than that?"

"Mademoiselle...Analise, please," Asher consoled. "This news is good. Apparently, Michel has had another change of heart. He has left my love, Jacqueline, and even now, returns to be with you from Allemagne. Jacqueline told me this in her latest letter, begging me to take her back. He told Jacqueline he simply could not expel you from his heart and was still too in love with you to be with her." Asher winced subconsciously, hoping he wasn't making Michel out to be even more of a cad than he already had.

Strangely, Analise seemed unaffected by the news of her love's return to her. Fidgeting in her seat, she frowned and wadded her handkerchief in her hands anxiously.

"So...Michel is returning to me? I suppose I should be heartened by this news, but I cannot help but selfishly think his devotion will do me no good. He will not arrive in time to...save me as we had originally planned. It will take him the span of a week to reach me from so far away. By then I will be married to Pierre." With that, Analise buried her face in her small hands and started to cry.

Feeling like a real villain, Asher rose and went to her side, kneeling in front of her on the floor. He placed his hands over hers and gently lowered them, forcing her to look at him.

"Please do not despair so, ma cherie. All is not lost."

Analise squeezed Asher's hands and shook her head, sniffing softly. "You are too kind, Asher. But what hope can you offer me now? Michel returns to me, but I will not be able to be with him now. It is all for naught."

Asher shrugged and tried to sound blasÚ. "Perhaps not. You will be married, but there is a way you can still be with your Michel."

Analise stared back at him in confusion. Obviously the girl had no idea how such a thing could be possible.

Asher smiled at her gently and continued. "Pierre will be your husband, but keep Michel as your lover."

Analise gasped. "But...but..."

"It happens all the time," the vampire informed her casually. "Let us examine the facts of your situation. Your husband-to-be is a businessman. He must travel frequently to attend to his wealth. There will be many nights, weeks, months perhaps, when you are left alone." Asher paused and leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Be De Maquette's dutiful wife. Bear his children, put up with his boorish ways when he is around, but keep your real lover close, and I guarantee, you will have an enviable life of prosperity and happiness."

For a few moments, Analise neither moved, nor spoke. She stared back at Asher blankly, but slowly appeared to be giving the idea consideration. Finally, the hint of a smile turned up the corners of her mouth and she laughed lightly.

"Oh, Asher! Do you really think such a thing is possible?"

Reaching up to wipe away the last of her tears with his fingertips, Asher nodded. He was glad he and Jean-Claude had decided to spare Michel Chaponte's life after all and return him to Analise.

"I do, cherie," he told her. "You could have it all. You could have anything your heart desires." Standing, Asher raised Analise's hand to his lips and kissed it softly. "I must leave you now, but more happily than before, having returned the smile to your sweet face. Au revoir, Analise." He bowed gracefully and turned to go, but Analise called out to him.

"Asher, wait," she exclaimed, rising to her feet. She gathered her skirts in her hands and hurried over to where he stood.

The vampire gazed down at her curiously, taking note of the way she placed her hand on his arm.

"What will you do now?" Analise asked him.

"Do?"

"About your lady love, Jacqueline."

"Oh," Asher recalled and shrugged. "Her. Well...I have not yet decided. She betrayed me once, what is to prevent her from betraying me again? I love her, but I cannot wholly trust her. Not now. I am sure you understand."

Analise looked back at him, a strange expression shadowing her face. "Oh. I see," she half-whispered, her brow furrowing with thought.

Asher took a deep breath. "Most likely, I will not have her back. I will never believe her intentions are true to me. She--" Asher abruptly stopped himself, realizing just what he had been saying to Analise. Cursing himself, he grasped her hands in his and shook his head. "Pay me no mind, ma petite belle. I am just a ranting, bitter man, not at all generous and forgiving like yourself."

Analise blinked up at him, then down at their joined hands. She slowly laced her fingers through his, and pressed his knuckles against her warm bosom.

"You will never convince me of that, dear Asher," she began quietly. "I know from a first-hand account that you are compassionate and caring. Your heart has been broken, just like mine. Don't turn your back on love though, for it is only through love that your heart will mend."

Asher nodded and tried to tactfully inch towards the doors. She was standing too close to him now, and the warmth of her skin beneath his hand, and the delicate aroma of her perfume mingling with the sweet scent of her pulse was a potently intoxicating bouquet for the vampire. Inside his body, the lust for her flesh was competing savagely with the lust for her blood.

"Ah. Oui. Only time will tell," he stammered as Analise slid their laced fingers down to the velvety cleft between the white mounds of her breasts. She was looking at him now in a way Asher would have only attributed to a much older, experienced woman. Perhaps his innocent little Analise was not as innocent as she first seemed.

"Asher?"

"Yes?" he quickly answered as if someone had snapped their fingers in front of his eyes.

"Do you think you could visit me again...before the wedding?"

Asher inhaled deeply through his nose and tried to adopt what he hoped was a noncommittal expression.  "I...truly cannot say."

"Oh please!" Analise begged. "There is something I would have you do for me." She paused and raised his hand to her lips. "You have been so very nice to me. It has meant a great deal to me to have found a friend like you." She kissed the back of his hand and closed her eyes as if to savor the sensation.

Asher felt Analise's tender caress all the way up his arm and down to his loins. He wondered if she had any idea how enticing she was to him, or how easily he could make her his own.  To hell with Pierre and Michel and the hundred other suitors reputed to be clamoring at her threshold!

Analise's eyes fluttered open and she gazed up at Asher adoringly now. "Please, Asher," she whispered. "Come to me tomorrow night."

"Sweet Analise," the vampire said thickly. "I really must be going." He tried to free his hand from her grip, but looking into her eyes, he found himself bending towards her instead, drawn closer by her invitingly red, parted lips.

Fleetingly, as he moved to kiss her, he pondered his own feeble powers compared to those possessed by beautiful women, and when he surrendered himself to the succulent softness of Analise's mouth, Asher thought of Jean-Claude. How could he fault him for succumbing to Michel Chaponte's charms? Asher knew there was something to be said about the power of beautiful men too.

********

While waiting for Asher, Jean-Claude passed the time in the great hall of the chateau De Maquette, watching the servants hang garlands of ribbon and flowers from the ceilings. He particularly enjoyed the way the young maids hoisted their skirts to scale the ladders, and bent so provocatively over the tops to reach the flowers another maid on the floor was handing up to them.

Preparations for the wedding seemed to be progressing nicely. Day and night, the staff worked to ready the chateau's rooms for the reception to follow. Every public room was being transformed into a veritable garden of white blooms, silver ribbons, and pink silks. Trellises were being built around each doorway and bright carpets were being laid. Chandeliers were hoisted and candelabras were placed.

All this for one day, one hour-long ceremony, Jean-Claude mused.

Asher crossed the hall to where Jean-Claude sat and dropped heavily into the chair beside him. A servant appeared at his side at once with an offering of wine, but Asher waved him away.

Jean-Claude sighed wistfully, his eyes following after a rather buxom maid as she hurried past him with an armful of roses.

"So many women, so little time," he lamented.

Asher grinned at him and nodded in agreement.

"I would have liked to have had a wedding," Jean-Claude continued, his eyes still fixed on the activity of the servants. "Something like this--extravagant, but tastefully elegant. Opulent, with flowers and champagne and perhaps a new silk coat from Paris."

Laughing lightly, Asher reached out and brushed Jean-Claude's cheek with his knuckle.  "In order to have a wedding, cheri, one must get married. Keep that in mind."

Glancing at him, Jean-Claude frowned. "Which is precisely why I never indulged in one. I could not bear the idea of committing myself into that particular institution."

"Perhaps, if you were truly in love with the woman, it would not be too terrible," Asher surmised.

Jean-Claude shook his head. "I cannot imagine a love like that," he added. "Bound by law to forsake all others for the favor of just one...." He shuddered slightly at the thought.

Asher rose to his feet, grasping Jean-Claude's hand as he did, and pulled him up beside him.

"Well, that's the way a marriage is supposed to be anyway, but neither you nor I think that way," he stated knowingly. He opened Jean-Claude's hand and pressed a soft kiss on his palm. "Which is why I believe we are so suited for each other. We love, but...realistically. We make no such demands on each other."

Jean-Claude raised his brow. "To a point," he replied, suddenly wary.

Asher lowered his eyes to the floor.  "We are creatures who feed off sensation, Jean-Claude. Our powers manipulate the sensations of others. It would be unnatural, to insist on being exclusive to each other."

Jean-Claude promptly jerked his hand free of Asher's grasp and took a small step back from him.

"Let me guess. Analise?"

Asher peered up at Jean-Claude, and licked his full lips apprehensively. "Oui. I kissed her," he confessed.

Narrowing his eyes, Jean-Claude planted his hands on his hips and shook his head. "And you call me incorrigible."

"I simply could not help myself," Asher declared in his defense. "Oh, cheri, if you could only see her. She is as beautiful as an angel and as seductive as a demon. Her tears are like needles in my heart. Knowing that I am ultimately the cause of such pain, sickens me inside. Sometimes, I truly despise what we do. What business do we have ruining the chances for happiness of young, promising lives such as hers?"

"Belle Morte's business, for one," Jean-Claude said and pressed his lips firmly together to keep away the inappropriate smile that threatened to surface. He sidled up to Asher and bumped him with his shoulder. "Oh, do go on," he continued teasingly. "After all, it was that heart of pure gold which won you my love." He started to laugh lightly and shook his head at his lover admonishingly.

Asher glared back at him in exasperation, but then his expression softened, and he smiled at Jean-Claude affectionately.

"That was a little over the edge, wasn't it?"

"Oui. Just a little."

Asher sighed as his gaze trailed languidly over Jean-Claude's perfect face. "You are so beautiful, mon cheri," he murmured and slipped his hand discreetly beneath Jean-Claude's coat. "So beautiful in fact, I am having a difficult time keeping my hands to myself. Will you retire with me to one of the upper rooms to while away an hour or two?"

Jean-Claude grinned. "Are you propositioning me, Monsieur?"

Asher's hand slid suggestively down to the enticing curves of his lover's lower back. "Yes."

"Then, how can I resist?" Jean-Claude answered. "But the night is new. Why for just an hour or two?"

Asher sighed. "I still need to meet with De Maquette tonight. He needs to know everything is proceeding as planned. Well...proceeding, anyway."

"I suppose an hour is better than nothing," Jean-Claude reluctantly agreed. "Then I should go back to the inn and relieve our Jacqueline of guarding the prisoner for a time so she can sleep."

Motioning towards the trellis-canopied doors, Asher looked Jean-Claude in the eye. "Let us go then. The more time I have with you, the less likely you will feel the need to approach the fair Michel."

Jean-Claude smiled gently. "I never feel the 'need' with another, Asher, only the 'want'....I love you."

Returning his smile, Asher nodded, and took Jean-Claude's hand in his. "I love you," he breathed and slowly led him across the great hall.

********

Jacqueline Ramorelle removed the gag from Michel's mouth and handed him a cup of water.

"Do not cry out," she told him in a thick, whispery voice. "And if you try to escape when I release your hands, I will kill you."

Michel thirstily drank down the water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I won't try anything," he said, his voice raspy from lack of use. "I'm too intrigued by the mystery of my circumstances. Perhaps someone, sometime, will cue me into just what the devil this is all about. I've never laid eyes on a single one of you, yet for some reason, my private affairs matter a great deal to you." He handed her the cup. "More please. If you don't mind."

Jacqueline rose from the bed and poured Michel another cup of water. "We are mere agents to beings far more powerful. Anything we do to you is not out of personal malice. Don't take it to heart."

Michel finished his second cup and declined a third. He rubbed his eyes wearily. "You convinced the monsieurs to spare me. You said I owed you a favor for doing so. What is it you want from me?"

Jacqueline set about re-securing Michel's tethers around his wrists and tied them to the railings of the headboard.

"Don't sound so put out about it," she said and grinned. "I saw the way you looked at Jean-Claude, and the way he looked at you." She reached up and smoothed back a few disheveled strands of hair from Michel's eyes. "So, what I have in mind may actually appeal to you."

"And pray tell, what is that?"

"I want you to seduce Jean-Claude," Jacqueline announced and laughed at his wide-eyed reaction. "Oh, do not worry. It will not take much on your part. He already finds you more than a little distracting."

Michel licked his lips apprehensively. "But why have me seduce him?"

Jacqueline settled herself back on the bed beside Michel, making herself more comfortable as she explained.  "Because I want him for myself, but I must first free him of Asher. If you seduce Jean-Claude, he will succumb to you and then Asher will reject him."

Michel peered back at the wereleopard dubiously. "What makes you think that?"

Jacqueline smiled widely. "Asher is jealous of Jean-Claude's fascination for you and he grows impatient with his young lover's straying." She paused and passed her hand over the soft whirls of hair on Michel's chest, pushing aside his open tunic to reveal more. "Jean-Claude cannot help himself. He is drawn to even the slightest hint of desire. You need only show him your interest and he will reciprocate with his own."

"Then, why don't you simply seduce him?"

"Because of Asher!" the wereleopard snapped. "Jean-Claude keeps promising me, but so far, he has yet to follow through with his word. It is because of Asher. Once he is rid of him, he'll be free to indulge himself with whomever he should choose. And I intend to be at the very front of the line when he does." She withdrew her hand from Michel's chest and sat up.

"What's the matter? I thought you might like a piece of him for yourself. You've already gotten a taste of what he can do for you. I hear that is nothing compared to his lovemaking." Jacqueline paused and took a deep breath. "Do this for me and I will let you go to collect Analise. You'll be able to spirit her away before anyone realizes what has happened. Spend one night with Jean-Claude and you'll have the rest of your days to spend with Analise."

Leaning back against the railing, Michel frowned, a deep furrow creasing his brow. "You make it sound so simple...with a fairy tale ending. But while tethered to this bed, I've pondered my circumstance and come to some rather revolutionary conclusions. Things have become even more complicated for me. Everything's changed."

"Things? What things?" Jacqueline demanded impatiently.

Michel bowed his head. "My feelings, for one."

The wereleopard rolled her eyes. "It is not so complicated, mon ami. You do as I say and you live. You refuse me, and you die. Simple."

Michel looked up at Jacqueline, then hesitantly nodded. "Very well."

"Ah, good!" Jacqueline exclaimed, clapping her hands together with glee. "Jean-Claude has promised to take over my watch tonight. He should arrive here shortly. I will find Asher and detain him until the right time has come. Till one of you has come." At that, the wereleopard laughed wickedly and rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "Now, if you will excuse me. I am off to dress for the night's events." She climbed off the bed and bent down to kiss Michel's cheek. "I will return."

Michel watched as Jacqueline skipped merrily out of the room and closed the door securely behind her, locking it from the outside.

********

An hour passed before Michel heard the lock turn again. He stirred and opened his eyes to see Jean-Claude slip quietly into the room.

Michel watched as he took off his hat and cloak with one graceful sweep of his hand and laid both across a chair by the door. He tugged off his gloves and removed his waistcoat, clearly settling himself in for the remainder of the night.

Michel took a deep breath and sat up a little, squinting his eyes to see Jean-Claude more clearly in the darkness. He wondered why he did not light a lamp, but then figured his keeper must have believed him sleeping and had not struck a match out of consideration for him. Michel cleared his throat.

********

Jean-Claude thought the young man was sleeping and when he spoke, even as quietly as he did, it startled the vampire.

"It is all right," Michel said. "You can light a candle or one of the lamps. It won't bother me, so there's no need for you to sit in the dark."

Jean-Claude smiled. "Merci, but I assure you, I do not mind the dark. The darkness and I are well acquainted."

"I mind the dark," Michel told him. "Burn a small candle for me, if not for yourself." He paused and gnawed his lower lip fitfully for a moment, then added: "Please?"

With a shrug, the vampire obliged him, striking a match and lighting one of the room's oil lamps.

"Is that better?" he asked and blew out the match.

Michel nodded. "Yes. I prefer to look upon who I am speaking to."

Jean-Claude sighed. "Is that what we are doing? Speaking? Why aren't you asleep?"

Michel looked away from him. "I am bound to a bed in a dark room with strangers watching my every move, yet you think to ask that?"

The vampire raised his brow. "Sounds rather appealing to me," he teased. Taking a seat beside the bed, he folded his arms across his chest, and looked down at Michel expectantly. "Speak to me if you must. At the very least, whatever you have to go on about is bound to be somewhat entertaining."

"Well...I...If you could find it in your mercy, Monsieur," Michel began hesitantly, "could you loosen my bonds so that I may walk about the room a bit? My legs are getting cramped and my arms ache."

Jean-Claude pursed his lips and shook his head. "Ah, non. I do not think that would be wise."

"Please...Jean-Claude? What harm would it do? I cannot escape this room. The door is locked. There are no windows here. I only want to stretch. Just for a few moments, then you may bind me up again, and I will leave you in peace."

"Oh, very well," the vampire replied and rose to untie the knots around Michel's wrists. "Walk about the room if you'd like."

As soon as Jean-Claude had freed one of Michel's hands, he reached out with it and stroked down the length of Jean-Claude's hair.

"The way your hair catches the light," Michel half-whispered, "it's extraordinary. I would've loved to have painted it--to capture its sheen. I am an artist, you know."

Jean-Claude leaned back having completed his task of untying the rope, tactfully pulling out of Michel's reach.

"Yes, I know," he stated flatly.

For a moment, Michel stared back at him nonplused. Then he lowered his hand and looked away.

"Of course. Then you seem to know everything about me personally. Whereas, I know nothing about you but your name. Would you care to enlighten me a little? Considering the close company we are keeping."

Jean-Claude frowned. "No, I do not care to enlighten you. The less you know about me, the better."

Michel rose off the bed and stretched rather distractedly. "You don't have to relate anything...incriminating. Tell me your favorite color. What sort of foods do you like? That sort of thing."

The vampire stared back at Michel and furrowed his brow. "Chatty, aren't we?"

"Fine. Say nothing, then," Michel grumbled and turned away from Jean-Claude. Flexing his back and stretching his arms over his head, Michel moaned softly, and paced around the room a few times, pretending to examine its meager contents, but also clearly keeping an eye on Jean-Claude.

"Are you finished?" the vampire asked and gestured at the bed.

"It's quite warm in here," Michel suddenly declared and unexpectedly pulled off his shirt. He tossed it casually aside, and turned to face Jean-Claude, sliding his hands slowly over his abdomen and up his chest, pretending to stretch again. "Don't you think so?"

Jean-Claude suddenly realized his mouth was open and quickly snapped it shut. His eyes drifted over Michel's well-formed torso and he shifted slightly in his chair.

"I hadn't noticed," he told him. He took a deep breath to clear his head, and tried to smile at the boy nonchalantly. "But, feel free to do whatever makes you comfortable."

Michel walked up to the vampire. "Why don't you make yourself comfortable as well? You seem a little tense tonight." He reached out and toyed with the lace ruffles feathering the front of Jean-Claude's shirt.

"I am not tense," Jean-Claude said with a smug grin as memories of the past hour he had just spent with Asher, flooded his mind. "Mmm. In fact, I am practically sedated." He removed Michel's hand from his chest and shoved it away. "Mon jeune homme, what are you up to?"

"Nothing," Michel said a little too quickly. "Merely noticing the patterns of your lace. And this stitching here," he tried again, brushing Jean-Claude's shoulder with his fingertips. "It's very well done. My compliments to your...tailor."

"Merci," the vampire murmured, following Michel's hand with his eyes as it slid slowly back and forth from his neck to his arm. Each pass of his hand was becoming more suggestive, dipping lower, straying down his chest, or too far up his neck to his skin. Soon, Jean-Claude's body was tingling with the sensation and before he could stop himself, he released a long, pent up sigh that sounded more like a breathy moan.

"Ah. See. You are tense," Michel practically whispered so as not to destroy the moment. He placed his other hand on the vampire's other shoulder and started to massage the base of his neck. "If you let me, I think I can make it better for you. Perhaps if you undressed and lied down."

Jean-Claude started to laugh, but allowed Michel to continue rubbing his shoulders.

"Michel. Michel. If you are trying to distract me with this clumsy seduction of yours, you are wasting your time."

Michel froze momentarily, then sighed heavily in apparent exasperation, and took his hands off of Jean-Claude.

"Clumsy, is it? It appeared to me as though you were rather aroused by my attention."

Jean-Claude clucked his tongue scoldingly at Michel. "So, you were attempting to distract me!"

Michel lowered his eyes, looking embarrassed and guilty, but surprisingly shook his head in denial.

"No. I was trying to seduce you. I am sorry it was clumsy. I've never seduced another man before." He rubbed the back of his neck absently and froze when he encountered the bite mark Jean-Claude had given him. He rubbed it again with more savor and closed his eyes and moaned. "Whatever you did to me last night, was incredible. I've never felt anything like it....I want you to do it to me again."

The vampire found himself suddenly engulfed with temptation now. He rose from his chair and took a small, discreet step away from Michel.

"You do not know what you are asking," Jean-Claude stated quietly. "Do not ask it again."

Before Jean-Claude could retreat from him farther, Michel seized his upper arms, and held him fast.

"But I want it," he whispered and nuzzled the side of the vampire's face. "I want you. I think you want me too."

Jean-Claude twisted out of Michel's grasp and took several more steps away from him.  "Monsieur, I must say, you are rather audacious with your assumptions."

Michel smiled and stepped forward. "Don't be coy, Jean-Claude."

For a moment, Jean-Claude blinked back at the young man in shock, then he laughed sharply and batted his eyes facetiously.

"I have been called many things before, but 'coy' has never been one of them."

Shaking his head, Michel stepped forward again. "I just do not know what has come over me," he confessed.

The vampire frowned. "I do. Trust me. It will pass in time." Apparently, the boy was still under some lingering influence of his power.

"There is something about you, Jean-Claude," Michel went on, "that has stirred feelings inside of me I never would have believed possible. I simply must have you."

Jean-Claude moved to dodge Michel's outstretched arms and unwittingly collided with a table and knocked the contents onto the floor, giving Michel the time he needed to catch him once again. This time he enfolded his arms around Jean-Claude, imprisoning him against his body.

Nose to nose with the vampire, Michel smiled slowly as if in triumph, and let his eyes rove Jean-Claude's face, drinking in his allure.

"You are so beautiful," Michel breathed, admiringly. "I wish I could paint you nude."

Jean-Claude licked his lips. "Paint me nude? Or you paint nude?"

"You," Michel said and smiled, chagrined.

Jean-Claude was beginning to feel more than a little weak in the knees crushed against Michel's muscular bare chest the way he was while being subjected to such blatant adoration. He found it flattering, scintillating, and incredibly outrageous.

"Let go of me," the vampire ordered, and quickly turned his face from Michel's descending mouth.

"One kiss. That's all I ask."

"I don't think so."

Undeterred, Michel nuzzled Jean-Claude's neck and pressed soft kisses over his throat. The sensation was admittedly arousing. Michel's lips were moist and warm and the exquisite weight of them against the vampire's cool skin made Jean-Claude loathe to push him away. Leaning into the circle of his arms, Jean-Claude closed his eyes indulgently for a moment and tried to stifle the groan rising in his throat.

"I truly desire you," Michel whispered into Jean-Claude's ear and nibbled its elegant curve.

Jean-Claude did moan then and placed his hands on Michel's shoulders. His long fingers played over Michel's soft, heated skin as the young man continued plying him with caresses.

"Oh...Monsieur. You really need to stop," Jean-Claude half-protested, then gasped and quivered and moaned again.

"Kiss me," Michel pleaded, tangling his hands in Jean-Claude's hair. "I am so in love."

At that, Jean-Claude froze, his flaring libido doused like a match submerged in water.

"In love?" he hissed, glaring into the boy's eyes.

Michel nodded, still mesmerized by the man in his arms. He brushed his lips over Jean-Claude's chin and sighed happily.

"I am in love with you."

"With me?" Jean-Claude exclaimed before demanding: "Since when?"

"Since...the moment I laid eyes on you. The moment you first spoke to me. The moment you touched your lips to mine," he murmured with apparently fond, albeit distorted, recollection.

Somewhat flustered, Jean-Claude pried himself free of Michel's grasp, and shoved him away from him.

"What about Analise Lanoue? What happened to her? She did not fall off the edge of the earth you know!"

Michel licked his lips in clear apprehension. "I'm just not sure about her anymore. All I know is, tonight, my heart longs for another, even fairer than she. What will it take to convince you? I have found someone else, just like you said."

Jean-Claude shook his head with disbelief. "Now is not the time to become a free spirit, jeune Michel," he advised. "Of course, had you turned your attentions to another long before now, this entire scenario could have ultimately been avoided."

Michel moved closer to the vampire. "But then I wouldn't have met you, Jean-Claude. I wouldn't have known loving another was possible. And I honestly believe I am in love with you. I was put up to seducing you tonight, but there was no need for me to pretend. I wanted to seduce you. I wanted to make you mine. I still do."

At first, Jean-Claude heard nothing but Michel prattling on about love and seduction, but then, just what Michel had admitted to struck him.

Slowly, the vampire stalked towards the young man, purposefully locking his eyes on Michel's and bringing his power to bear down on him.

"Did I hear you correctly, Monsieur? You were put up to all this?"

Michel stared back at him and blinked slowly. He started to nod, then paused, and frowned.  "Yes, but that wasn't the point I was trying to make."

Jean-Claude put his hands on his hips and struck a petulant pose. "But that was the only point of any interest to me," he growled. "Now. Do tell. Who, put you up to such a thing?"

"The woman, Jacqueline," Michel mumbled, his expression knotting with apprehension.

"Ah," the vampire said with a curt nod, then raised his brow inquiringly. "Jacqueline?"

"Oui," Michel confirmed in a small voice. He took a deep breath and reached out to slowly trail his fingers down Jean-Claude's chest. "She thought if you gave into me tonight, it would make your lover, Asher, jealous enough to leave you. Then she would have you to herself. She seems a ruthless woman, Jean-Claude. She is fair, but do not give into her. She is capable of considerable mischief and I don't want...to see anything untoward happen to you."

Jean-Claude's expression softened as he regarded his hapless admirer. He took Michel's hand in his and smiled at him, leaning forward to nuzzle his brow.

"I am sincerely flattered by the lengths some will go to bed me, and your favor is an edifying temptation, but believe me when I tell you, you are not in love with me. You are being influenced by something I cannot adequately explain to you. But I have seen its occurrence many times before and given time, these feelings you are experiencing do wane."

Cupping Michel's chin in his hand, Jean-Claude raised his face to his and kissed him gently.

Michel summoned a grateful smile and sighed softly.

Jean-Claude then gestured at the bed. "My sincerest apologies, Michel, but I must secure you to the bedrails once more. I need to go find Mademoiselle Jacqueline, as I am sure you understand."

"I understand," Michel said, and sat down on the side of the bed, crossing and extending his wrists towards the vampire.

Urging the young man to lay back on the mattress, Jean-Claude grinned, and positioned Michel's arms over his head. He lashed the rope tightly to the headboard, stuffed the gag back into his mouth, then stood up to appraise his handiwork.

"You never know," he began, lifting his coat from the chair. He slid into it and reached for his cloak. "We are all slaves to circumstances, however. Had we met another time, another place, this little scenario may have been played out in a considerably different way." With that, he winked at Michel, laughed in amusement, and turned to go.

The lock on the door turned and Jacqueline unexpectedly swept inside, her expression troubled. She made a quick survey of the room, and then peered at Jean-Claude curiously.

"Well, isn't this convenient," the vampire murmured to himself.

"I cannot find Asher anywhere!" Jacqueline declared.

Jean-Claude sighed. "He is meeting with Pierre De Maquette," he told her nonchalantly, fixing his eyes on her face as he approached her. "By chance, what do you want with Asher?"

Jacqueline blinked back at the vampire, looking somewhat startled. She spared a quick glance at Michel Chaponte, bound and gagged on the bed.

"Nothing, really," she said with a clearly tense shrug. She gestured at their prisoner. "Where are his clothes?"

"He was uncomfortably warm," Jean-Claude replied. "Do you think it is warm in here? Perhaps you wish to remove some of your clothes as well?"

"Not...especially," Jacqueline stammered, eyeing Jean-Claude warily.

The vampire laughed, pouring his power into it to make it sensual. "If you want to seduce me, that's a good way to start. And the quicker you undress, the quicker we can begin and the longer we will have to partake of each other's pleasures."

Jacqueline's eyes grew wide. Again, she spared a confused glance at Michel before turning her attention fully on Jean-Claude.

"This...wouldn't have anything to do with that little promise you made me, would it?"

Jean-Claude dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. "It is not because I promised, per se. If I kept every promise I made, I'd spend the next century on a mattress. This is just for you, Jacqueline. Asher is conveniently indisposed. We are...relatively alone, in a warm room, with a warm bed." He paused and gestured at Michel. "We can always move him to the floor."

Jacqueline peered up at the vampire and tentatively placed her hand on his shoulder. "All right," she breathed shallowly. "I am not particular. I'll take from you what I can get." She leaned against Jean-Claude and wrapped her arms around his waist.

Jean-Claude smiled seductively, and turned Jacqueline's head to the side, pressing his lips against her throat. He tugged aside the bodice of her gown to bare her shoulder, and slid his mouth wetly down her neck to her arm, then kissed his way back up to her jaw, cupping her breast with the palm of his hand.

"Ah, cheri," the wereleopard sighed. "Je te veux!"

The vampire nipped her skin. "I want you too, ma jolie chatte. I am...hungry for you." He kissed along her jawline and back down to her extended neck. He tightened his hold on her, pushing himself against the cradle of her hips.

"Oh yes!" Jacqueline urged, sliding her hands over his buttocks. She squeezed him with relish and moaned. "Take me!"

"Very well, little chatte," the vampire replied with a low diabolical laugh. "This is from me, and Asher." With that, he jabbed the points of his fangs into her neck and bit her, embedding his teeth deeply into her throat and tore her flesh with a wet, popping sound.

Jacqueline's eyes flew open. She released one startled, gurgled gasp before being rendered speechless. Blood poured from her wound in a swift current of pulsing crimson.

Jean-Claude drew back, licking his lips with savor. He released his hold on the wereleopard, and she immediately sunk to the floor, twitching spasmodically. Flashing a smug grin, the vampire turned to face Michel, who was staring at him with blatant, wide-eyed terror.

"Oh, do not be concerned for her, mon jeune homme," he told him. "She'll soon be up and about, good as new. By morning this will all seem like nothing more than a disturbing dream."

He reached out and patted the young man's cheek reassuringly, then collected his gloves and his hat and left.

********

"I thought you were playing the sentinel tonight," Asher began as Jean-Claude approached him outside the grand gardens of the chateau.

"I think it would be best if I stayed away from Michel Chaponte from now on," the other vampire duly informed. He kissed Asher distractedly on the lips in greeting, then flung himself melodramatically upon the nearest marble bench.

Curious, Asher followed him and sat carefully beside him. "What has happened?" he questioned in a low voice.

Jean-Claude raised his dark eyes to Asher's face and sighed heavily. "He has fallen in love with me."

Asher's expression remained unchanged, but the corners of his mouth twitched as he fought not to smile.

Chagrined, Jean-Claude clasped his hands together in his lap, and dropped his gaze to the ground.

"At first, I did not pay it much heed," he elaborated. "I thought it merely some odd lingering effect of my power, but the more I dwelled on it, the more I realized what he is feeling just may be genuine." Jean-Claude paused and licked his lips self-consciously. "Let's face it, my powers are not that impressive. They are not like yours. They rarely influence anyone beyond the course of a single hour."

Asher resorted to biting his lower lip now, but still showed no other sign of emotion at what his lover was relaying to him.

"Oh Jean-Claude. News such as this fails to surprise me anymore," he stated flatly.

Jean-Claude looked up at him in exasperation. "Then perhaps this bit of news will," he continued indignantly. "Our lovely feline companion took advantage of young Michel's affection for me and put him up to seducing me tonight to make you jealous enough to drive you away."

Asher raised his brow. "To what purpose?"

Jean-Claude leaned forward. "To have me all to herself."

Now Asher started to laugh. "Then, what did our lovelorn prisoner hope to obtain out of such an arrangement?"

Jean-Claude considered this. "Me...I suppose."

Asher's laughter quickly faded. "Non, mon cheri. If what you have told me is factual, Jacqueline would not have allowed jeune Chaponte to share your favor had her plotting been successful. She offered him something else."

"Perhaps she merely lied to the boy. Believing he would be possessing my favor for a time surely would have been motivation enough for him. He was, after all, quite convincing."

Asher growled low in his throat. "Oh really? And just what did it take to convince you, mon ami?"

Jean-Claude glanced at Asher and opened his mouth to speak, but caught himself before actually saying anything. He looked away again and shook his head.  "Never mind, Asher."

"For one moment, can you put aside your vanity and look at the facts, Jean-Claude?" Asher grumbled, then took a deep breath. "Michel Chaponte is in love with Analise Lanoue. Yes, you are lovely, and oh-so-enticing, but why would the young man forget his true love, and trundle after a villain who accosted him, ruined his opportunity for love and happiness, and very nearly murdered him last night? Mon cheri, that is hardly the stuff of a fairy tale romance."

Jean-Claude frowned, looking somewhat disappointed. "Well, when you put it that way, I can see your point."

Asher smiled warmly at him and leaned over to kiss his cheek.  "You still have me."

Jean-Claude smiled back at him and reached over to squeeze his hands. "For which I am eternally grateful. But if you are correct, we might have a much bigger problem on our hands."

"Jacqueline?"

"Oui."

Asher sighed. "We need to get to the bottom of this before we are forced to retire for the day."

Jean-Claude lowered his eyes. "Unfortunately, in the state Jacqueline is in now, she won't be forthcoming with the answers to our questions anytime soon."

Asher reared back from the other vampire, pulling his hands from his grasp.  "Mon dieu, what did you do?"

Jean-Claude peered up at him sheepishly. "I became a little impulsive and...tore her throat out."

Shooting to his feet, Asher stared back at him, aghast. "Sacre bleu, Jean-Claude! What were you thinking?!"

"I wasn't thinking!" Jean-Claude snapped back. "I was angry."

"Well you only made things worse!" Asher rumbled. "Not only have you scorned her, you've probably really pissed her off now too!"

Jean-Claude stood up. "I sincerely apologize, Asher. Now please refrain from any further rebukes until we figure this mess out."

Asher slapped his hand on his thigh in frustration as he tried to rein in his temper. He closed his eyes tightly and then took a deep, steadying breath.

"We will have to take Jacqueline prisoner now as well. Secure her away before she can do anything rash." He started across the lawns at a determined pace, shaking his head. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Jean-Claude strode after him, then stopped. "Mon cheri?"

Asher glanced back at Jean-Claude over his shoulder. "What is it, Jean?"

"I am truly sorry."

Asher stopped walking and turned around. His pale eyes swept over Jean-Claude, then lighted on his handsome face. He looked decidedly unhappy. His full, curvy mouth was pursed in an attractive pout, and his lovely feathery-lashed eyes were downcast with remorse.

Asher sighed in spite of himself and reached out to stroke one of Jean-Claude's downy black curls.

"It is all right," he whispered. He bent forward and softly kissed Jean-Claude's brow. "Come, amant, we haven't much time."

********

Michel opened his eyes as the gag in his mouth was forcefully removed. He went to scream, but a small hand clapped over his mouth, stifling him.

"No! Do not cry out!" Jacqueline told him. She shifted her position on the bed and worked to untie Michel's wrists.

"He killed you!" Michel declared excitedly. "I saw it! You were mortally wounded!"

"Hush!" the wereleopard scolded him impatiently. "It was but a dream! Jean-Claude told me you were restless with nightmares in your sleep. As you can see, I am neither dead, nor wounded."

Michel looked about the room wildly.

"But...but..."

"Be quiet! You need to move fast! I am setting you free, Monsieur, and you will be with your love soon, but you must do as I say."

Once freed of his bonds, Michel sprung from the bed. He massaged his sore wrists and stared at the wereleopard in confusion.

"My mind's in a muddle," he groaned. "I don't know which way is up anymore. I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go."

"Listen," Jacqueline growled, unceremoniously shoving the boy's shirt at him. "You need to get away now. Hide yourself until morning. Then you will not be pursued."

Michel stumbled towards the door.

"Why are you doing this? I could not seduce Jean-Claude for you. Nothing went as planned."

Jacqueline summoned a reassuring smile. "You tried, oui? No hard feelings. Now go!"

Deep furrows formed on Michel's brow. He stared at Jacqueline, apparently still trying to make some sense of the fact she was alive and well, and standing before him in a crisp, clean gown with not a spec of blood upon it.

"Uh...merci, Mademoiselle." He turned and pulled open the door. "Au revoir."

"Au revoir," Jacqueline replied with a dismissing wave, stifling a laugh in her throat. She stroked the healed wound and took a deep breath, then leapt onto the bed and curled up beside the headboard and the now empty coil of rope, to await her companions arrival.

********

The vampires were well aware of the fact Michel was gone long before entering the room at the inn.

Jean-Claude pushed open the door, his eyes immediately fixing on the wereleopard reclining seductively on the bed.

"Jacqueline," he growled through his teeth. "What have you done with Michel Chaponte?"

The wereleopard smacked her jaws together and licked her lips. "I ate him!" she said and flashed a toothy smile.

Asher swept into the room behind Jean-Claude, looking anything but amused.

"You do look as though you have put on some weight since I last saw you," he sneered.

Jacqueline simply sneered back at him.

Jean-Claude grabbed a fistful of her hair and hauled her off the bed, and threw her down to the floor at his feet.

"We could have you drawn and quartered for this," he told her. "Even worse, this sort of behavior will not garner my favor for you anytime soon, ma cherie."

Jacqueline glared at him. "Oh, and I suppose that little love-bite of yours was supposed to endear you to me?"

Jean-Claude frowned. "It was rather impetuous, I admit, but I simply do not appreciate being undermined by an accomplice for her own selfish gains."

Climbing to her feet, the wereleopard dusted off her hands. "There now, Jean-Claude," she started evenly. "You know as well as I do, you secretly love the fact I plotted so. Your ego is too big to nurture this feeble outrage, instead of gleaning the flattery it brings. It would have worked had I not been betrayed by the boy."

"No, ma cherie, it would not have worked," Jean-Claude announced. "Aside from the fact I maintain only a passing interest in the young man, Asher and I have reached an understanding of each other's natures. I need not worry my extracurricular activities will offend him, and I have agreed to be equally indulgent of his."

Jacqueline put her hands on her hips. "Now you tell me."

"Chaponte, Jacqueline," Asher cut in. "Where is he? Tell us, and perhaps we will think twice before ripping your throat out again."

The wereleopard glanced over at the tall, blonde vampire and sighed. "I set him free. I was angry at you both, so I decided to give you both an equal chance. No doubt he will head straight for the chateau to collect his love so you will be able to find him there. But then you haven't much time; the sun will rise soon. If you cannot apprehend him by then, he shall be free."

"Freedom, is that what you promised him?" Asher asked.

"Oui," Jacqueline nodded. "He is hopelessly in love." Her gaze flicked from Asher to Jean-Claude, then back to Asher again. "Love is such a waste of time."

Keeping his eyes on Jacqueline, Asher grinned deviously, and pulled Jean-Claude over to him, then planted a deep, hard kiss on his lips, bending the young vampire over his arm and making him groan with pleasure.

The wereleopard scowled back at Asher and crossed her arms over her chest angrily.

When Asher finally released Jean-Claude, he laughed at Jacqueline's expression.

"On the contrary, ma belle cherie," he stated cheerfully. "Love yields its own rewards. Great sex with him is one of them."

"I hate you!" Jacqueline hissed. "I hate you both! Do you know what it is like for me to have to work with you two? You're both gorgeous! Lords of manacled sex! And what do I get out of it? Nothing, but teased, and tempted, and tormented. I'm supposed to just hang back and watch, as you two couple with just about everything that moves. My admiration and devotion go unrewarded, time after time. I can't even merit one night with either of you. You are cruel and heartless, the both of you."

Asher and Jean-Claude exchanged knowing glances. Jean-Claude stepped towards Jacqueline and held out his hand. Hesitantly, she took it and he drew her closer.

"Now, Jacqueline," he cooed. "You know we adore you. There is no need for this tantrum. Granted, you have put Asher and I in a difficult spot, but if you agree to behave from now on, and help us apprehend young Chaponte before he causes a commotion, there will be a little reward for you from us in the end."

Jacqueline raised her brow. "Reward? From you both?"

Amused, Asher reached out and raised her chin with his hand and looked into her eyes. "Can you handle us both?"

The wereleopard nodded, then smiled slowly. "Question is, can you two handle me?"

********

With only a few hours left before dawn, and Michel Chaponte still at large, Asher flew ahead to the De Maquette chateau, to Analise Lanoue's apartments. He landed neatly on the stone balcony outside her bed chamber and peered through the doors leading inside.

All seemed well; Analise was still tucked tightly in her bed with a mound of silk coverlets over her small still form. Her fair, pale brow peeking out from underneath, was awash with moonlight, giving her skin a luminescent, spectral glow.

Asher tried the door latch and found it unlocked. Stepping inside the room, he took care to close it quietly behind him and made his was over to the occupied bed.

Analise stirred and whimpered softly in her sleep.

Curious, Asher bent over her to study her troubled expression more closely. He placed his hand on her forehead, and smoothed back her hair, cooing to her as he did.

"Ssshh, ma belle," he whispered, pouring his power into her through his voice to calm her. "All is well, cherie. They are only dreams."

Analise mumbled something, and snuggled deeper down under the blankets.

Asher withdrew his hand from her forehead and closed his fist to preserve her warmth lingering on his skin. He sighed and carefully seated himself beside her on the bed.

"My apologies regarding the fate of your Michel, ma cherie," he began softly. "We did not mean to lose control of the situation as we have. Now we are right back to square one--hunting him down to keep him from you, ready to take his life to ensure the success of our mandate. The only thing that matters. To hell with love."

"Mmm. Asher," Analise murmured softly and rolled from her side to her back. Her small hands moved beneath her coverlet, pushing it aside as her palms skimmed over the crepe-covered mounds of her breasts. "Oh...yes, yes."

Intrigued, Asher raised his brow and leaned closer, wondering just what direction Analise's dream had taken. His eyes followed a path from her bowed, parted lips down the length of her neck, to her shallow cleavage. He watched her chest gently rise and fall as she slept on, his fingers itching to explore the dainty feminine features beneath her diaphanous nightgown.

Determinedly, Asher folded his arms and tucked his hands under his elbows. He forced his gaze back up to Analise's cherubic face, and contented himself with chastely admiring her.

Whatever she was dreaming now had smoothed the lines of worry from her brow, and turned up the corners of her mouth in the smallest of smiles. She writhed on top of the mattress and moaned softly in a rather provocative display that was making it harder and harder for Asher to ignore.

"Analise?" he whispered, reaching down to replace her discarded blankets over her shoulders. "Mademoiselle?"

The girl stirred and shifted slightly, opening her eyes and blinking them slowly. She peered up at the vampire sitting beside her for a long while before extending her hand to lightly touch his face.

"Asher," she breathed quietly. "You really are here."

Asher took her hand in his and kissed it tenderly. "I am here," he said. "I grew concerned for you. So I came back to you to reassure myself everything was all right."

Analise smiled and sat up. She squeezed his hand and drew him closer. "I was hoping you would come back to me. Just now, I was dreaming of you."

"Of me?"

"Oui," Analise said with a solemn nod. "Oh, Asher. It must seem strange to you, but it is true. From the moment you first introduced yourself to me, I haven't been able to put you out of my mind. Your kindness moved me. It touched my heart." She paused and stared a moment at his face. "Your beauty touched my soul. I feel enchanted by you. I think of you constantly, and at night, I dream about you too."

"How interesting," the vampire replied earnestly.

Analise nodded again in ready agreement. "And now you are here in my chambers. My dream come true."

"Ah...and what dream would that be, cherie?" Asher asked, resisting the temptation to lie down beside her.

Fluttering her thick eyelashes nervously, Analise reached up and played distractedly with a lock of Asher's long, golden hair.

"Oh, but you will think I am a wanton creature if I tell you what is in my heart," she said softly. "But it is something I desire more than anything now, and since you are here, it seems right, as if, that is the way things are meant to be." She paused and licked her lips. "I've given your wise counsel considerable thought, and have come to the conclusion, I simply cannot marry Pierre De Maquette. His wealth means nothing to me. But love does. And I will not be party to a loveless union. I want passion, Asher. I want true love."

Asher's heart stilled in his chest and dropped to his knees with Analise's declaration. He took a deep, startled breath, and expelled it through his teeth.

"Such emotional foolishness was not my counsel! Ma cherie, I cannot believe, having reached such a conclusion, that you have truly given this matter appropriate consideration. Since when does love have anything to do with marriage? Marriage is an alliance, Analise. Something of mutual benefit to all parties involved. You are young, and frivolous now, but when you have reached middle-age, you will cherish the wisdom of such a union. Loveless or not."

Analise seemed taken aback by Asher's rebuke. She stared up at him wordlessly, her big, blue eyes glossing with unshed tears.

"But I am in love. I cannot forsake that love simply to form an alliance. I'm not a country or a territory."

Asher moaned despondently, and cursed Michel Chaponte under his breath.

"Analise, listen to me," he began evenly, struggling to concoct a new tale to tell her in order to explain why her lover would not be coming back after all. "I have heard from Jacqueline once more--as she apparently writes me every hour. From what she tells me, I do not believe Michel is ever coming back. He realized just before he left Allemagne, that he has nothing to offer someone like you. Being a poor artist, he cannot properly support a wife of your integrity. So...he has gone to Italy, to peddle his work on the streets of Milan."

Analise sniffed delicately, and lowered her eyes. "I must confess, my passion for Michel has waned in his absence. His betrayal was simply too much for my heart to bear. I know you understand, because you feel the same way about your Jacqueline. So, I do not think upon him anymore." Slowly she raised her eyes to Asher's and summoned a small smile. "It is you my heart is consumed with now. It is you that I love."

"Me?" Asher exclaimed, not bothering to conceal the horror in his eyes, for this whole mess was fast becoming a nightmare. Now, not only was Analise refusing to marry, she was blaming Asher for her decision, and even claiming to have fallen in love with him. None of which would sit well with Pierre De Maquette or Belle Morte.

Analise simply nodded in confirmation. "Oui! It is you I want now. And I swear I will truly love you and make you a fine wife. I will never betray your heart like your cruel Jacqueline. Take me away with you tonight, Asher! I will be yours, and you will be mine, and none will be the wiser."

"Non, non, non, non," Asher groaned. "This is not happening."

Frowning, Analise reached for the vampire's hand and held it tightly between both of hers.  "Why will no one have me but Pierre De Maquette? The one man, I do not wish to marry!"

"I cannot...spirit you away with me!" Asher declared, shaking his head so forcefully, his long hair danced wildly about his shoulders. "You are betrothed to another!"

"Then I shall be doomed to a loveless, passionless, pointless existence!" Analise lamented as heavy tears spilled down her cheeks. "Oh, Asher, how could you sentence me to something like that?"

"It is no sentence, Mademoiselle," Asher muttered, guiltily. "It is merely circumstance." He bowed his head and peered down at the girl's small hands. Tentatively, he lifted them to his lips and kissed them tenderly. "I am truly sorry. You are a young, impetuous girl and I--"

Analise abruptly leaned forward, seized Asher's head in her hands, and covered his mouth in a surprisingly passionate kiss. She lay back against her pillows, drawing the vampire down with her, and molded her body around him, holding him captive over hers.

Asher felt as if his mouth were melting with the heat of Analise's embrace. The girl was simply too lovely, too invitingly warm and moist, soft and sensual. The desire for her Asher felt deep inside his body, pushed aside any previous resistance he had felt, and willingly, he descended down to the bed pillows with her.

"I am not a girl," Analise whispered into the vampire's mouth and wriggled rather suggestively beneath him. "I...I am a woman...and I am ready to be with a man. A real man. Not Pierre De Maquette."

Asher raised his head momentarily to study Analise's expression. Apparently, she was serious, and apparently, she had her eye on him to take on the task of making a real woman of her.

"Please," she quickly added, and raised her head to kiss the vampire again. "I turn to you in Michel's stead because I am bound to my fate, but I cannot bear the thought of Pierre De Maquette being the one to bring me into full womanhood. I do not find him the least bit appealing. He is old, and fat, and balding." Here she paused to run her fingers through Asher's luxuriant locks. "Whatever Pierre intends to do to me on our wedding night will be my only impression of what it is like to make love. Please Asher. Do not leave me to that."

Asher dragged his mouth over Analise's cheek, down to her throat. He kissed her jaw and nipped her chin, then drew a wet line with his tongue down to her throbbing pulse, deeply breathing in the delicious scent of her skin. He pressed his lips against the warm hollow between her nubile, young breasts.

"If I do this for you, you must promise me one thing."

"Anything," Analise said and gasped, shuddering with anticipation and sensation.

"Marry De Maquette."

Before she could protest, Asher tugged down the bodice of her nightgown to expose one pert little nipple. He flicked it taut with his tongue, then wetly slid his mouth over it, and suckled it deeply.

Analise's whole body quivered, and she cried out so loudly, Asher clapped his hand over her mouth to quiet her.

"Sssshhh, Mademoiselle. If we are going to do this, we must be discreet," he warned, thinking of the entire De Maquette household just outside her doors. He slowly withdrew his hand.

"Don't stop! I beg of you! I want this from you more than anything!" Analise proclaimed.

"Then promise me," Asher continued, pealing away her gown to expose her other breast to him as well.

Analise tried to sit up some. "But..."

"Non, cherie. Promise me now."

Asher placed both hands over her breasts and squeezed them caressingly, rubbing his palms over her pebble-like nipples. He truly had no intentions of going anywhere at this point, but he was not about to clue her into that until he got out of her what he needed.

Analise delved her hands into Asher's hair and took a deep breath, but said nothing.

Asher stopped caressing her as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "Marry...and I will be your lover on the sly."

"Yes! Yes!" Analise practically shouted. "I will marry him."

"Then my passion will be yours," the vampire breathed against her skin with a sigh of relief.

Analise lifted her head far enough to kiss Asher's hair.

"You speak of love as a trivial thing, but I can see it in your eyes. It matters to you more than you'd have me believe. I understand why you do not want me, for you are in love with another, and though you seek your pleasure with me tonight, it is to this one, your heart remains true."

Asher smiled at Analise gently. "You are wise beyond your years, Mademoiselle. Oui, I am in love. You are too. But not with me. It is with Michel." Asher settled himself carefully on top of her again and delicately dotted her throat with light kisses as he spoke. "You are angry with him for what he did, but you cannot replace your feelings of love for him with your infatuation with me."

"Tis true," Analise confessed quietly. "But what am I to do? He is lost to me and I cannot languish in his absence." She looked into Asher's eyes. "At least you are here for me."

"And truly honored to be," Asher whispered. "I accept the gift of your purity with due reverence and an abiding respect for your wishes." He paused and kissed her deeply, stoking the fires of her arousal before continuing. "I cannot stay long as there remains a certain matter of importance I must yet attend to before the night is through, but I will take my time with you and take care. You will feel some...discomfort, at first, but I will not let you hurt, and I assure you the discomfort will turn into the most exquisite sensation. Trust me, chere. You have never felt anything like it."

With that, the vampire poured his power over her, and stretched out beside her to undress.

********

You really are pathetic," Jean-Claude snarled into Michel Chaponte's ear as he snagged his shirt collar from behind the rose trellis where he was hiding. He hauled the young man up against him and encircled his neck with his arm. "I will have to kill you now, you realize. By coming back to this place, you have sealed your fate."

"Wait!" Michel gasped. "It is not what you think!"

"It is exactly what I think!" the vampire countered, tightening his grip on Michel's throat and cutting off his air. "Your presence here attests to your intent. You've come to take Analise Lanoue away with you, haven't you?"

Unable to speak, Michel tried to shake his head, but couldn't do that either.

"I must commend your performance earlier this evening," Jean-Claude went on indignantly. "You should consider the theater stage instead of the artist's palette. In fact, for awhile, I was wholly convinced of your sincerity." He paused to tighten his grip even more. "You certainly made a fool of me."

Waiting until Michel was practically blue with lack of oxygen, the vampire then shifted his arm, wrapping it around Michel's chest now. He grasped his head with his other hand and yanked it roughly to the side, extending a choice expanse of throbbing veins before him.

"Please..." Michel rasped.

"No. You are the fool," Jean-Claude growled menacingly. "Loving a girl out of your league and long betrothed to a man of influence with powerful acquaintances. I told you this before, and I will tell you it again. You could have had anyone, cheri. Any woman would have thrown herself at your feet for a taste of what you have to offer, but you insisted on pursuing one unobtainable maiden in the name of love. For which, you will now die for."

"But I love you!" Michel cried, struggling.

"Try again," the vampire hissed and bared his fangs, touching the sharp tips to Michel's throat.

"You say you do not believe me, yet I know my feelings have affected you," Michel went on, growing still in Jean-Claude's grasp. "Why else would you seek to pleasure me now?"

Jean-Claude jerked his head back. "It is my pleasure I seek! After all the trouble you've caused, this is but a small compensation."

Michel leaned back against the vampire's chest. "Then as compensation, accept my body as a token of my love for you." He reached up and began stroking Jean-Claude's arm around him. "For I wish to pleasure you."

Jean-Claude lowered his head to Michel's neck once more, but instead of biting him, the vampire brushed his lips against his throat, and passed his tongue over his pounding pulse. The boy's skin tasted both salty and sweet and the warm sensation of it was too arousing to ignore.

"Oh...yes," Michel breathed, moving his hand to Jean-Claude's head. He buried his fingers in the vampire's hair and leaned his head upon his shoulder.

Jean-Claude slid his hand down Michel's taut abdomen and over the flat span of his hips. He pressed himself against Michel's shapely buttocks and rubbed his hardening erection over him.

"What are you thinking, my young monsieur? When I hold your body so close to mine and kiss what is bared to me so intimately?"

Michel sighed. "I am thinking if I must die tonight, let me die first knowing this new passion I crave. I urge you to take me as you desire, send me to hell if you must, but first, let me know love. I am in love with you, Jean-Claude. But believe as you wish." Having said that, the young man turned his head and drew Jean-Claude's closer, then tenderly touched his lips to the vampire's mouth.

Jean-Claude pulled away from him, struck by the sincerity he sensed behind Michel's declaration, and wondered about it.

"You truly are, aren't you?"

Michel re-positioned himself in Jean-Claude's arms to face him. He nodded solemnly, wrapped his arms around Jean-Claude's neck, then raised his face to capture the vampire's mouth with his once more.

Jean-Claude folded his arms around Michel's shoulders and indulgently returned his embrace. Finally the two parted and stood staring deeply into each other's eyes.

"Yes, I love you," Michel breathed and smiled.

Jean-Claude smiled back. "I told Asher so, but he didn't believe me," he half-muttered. "As if the notion were so preposterous."

"I only left the inn to find you. I didn't want to stay there with that woman," Michel explained. "There is something about her which rubs me the wrong way. Something...unnatural."

Amused, Jean-Claude nodded in agreement.

"I knew I had not convinced you of my true feelings and I feared what you might do," Michel added. "I worried for Analise. I know, somehow, you and your companions have involved her in all this, and I still care enough about her. I didn't want to see her hurt."

"Care about her? Is that all?" the vampire inquired as a thought suddenly occurred to him.

Michel hesitated. "What is left of her for me? She hates me now and would ultimately reject me. I have lost her, so, I am simply attempting to pick up the pieces of my heart and...move on, so to speak."

Jean-Claude shook his head, knowingly. "Ah, mon ami, you are so young, so innocent. Let me tell you something about true love," he started, throwing his arm around Michel's shoulders with an amiable air. "Often times, when a heart is so broken, it desperately and misguidedly, seeks to be restored to the state in which it once thrived, and that, is in the throes of new love. Believing one love lost, the heart pursues whomever comes along next and shows it even the slightest hint of possibility."

Michel stared back at the vampire, intrigued. "You mean, my feelings are misplaced?"

"Oui," Jean-Claude acknowledged. "Your true feelings being your abiding love for the fair Analise." He grinned and nuzzled the young man's cheek. "Kiss me again, and tell me you are not thinking of her as you do."

At that, Michel smiled rather seductively, and gathered Jean-Claude closer to him. He parted his lips and covered the vampire's mouth in a deep, devouring kiss, running his hands up and down his firm, svelte body before settling them on the taut curve of Jean-Claude's butt.

Thoroughly aroused, the vampire groaned into Michel's mouth, and promptly forgot what point he was trying to make by all this. When Michel dropped to his knees in front of him and tugged apart the lacings of his breeches, Jean-Claude's mind completely zoned-out with desire.

In the moments which followed, all cognizant thought became a thing of the past. Jean-Claude's body became consumed with sensation, and it wasn't long before the first tremoring waves of satisfaction washed over him. He rode it out, delving his hands deeply into the thickness of Michel's honey-colored hair, then nearly collapsed to the ground in ecstasy when he finally drew away from him.

Michel sat back on his heels and peered thoughtfully up at the slightly dazed vampire.

"You were right," he announced breathlessly.

Jean-Claude looked down at him as he worked to restore his disheveled clothing.

"What?"

"You were right," Michel repeated. "About Analise. I did think of her, even while I was loving you."

The vampire stared back at him incredulously, hardly able to believe such a thing was possible.  "You did?"

Michel nodded. "Oui." He paused and dragged his hands through his already considerably tousled hair. "It is hopeless. I will be forever shackled to her heart." He struggled to his feet gracelessly. "I must go to her. I must try to explain all this and win her love once more." He gazed at Jean-Claude and took a small step back. "Don't try to stop me...or I'll be forced to resort to violence against you."

Jean-Claude blinked back at him, not sure he had heard him correctly at first. "Are you serious?"

"Oui! Why don't you ever believe me?"

Amused, the vampire laughed lightly. "Calm down, Michel. You are not going anywhere. If you try to escape me, I will stop you, and I will kill you--if you put up too much of a fuss. Do you understand me?"

"No, you will not kill him!" Asher suddenly called, gliding out from the moon-cast shadows of a weeping willow tree. He walked over to where Jean-Claude stood. "There is no need now."

Jean-Claude eyed Asher curiously. "But he still loves her. He wants to go to her."

Asher turned to look at Michel. "And he shall, but not until after the wedding," he stated, still addressing Jean-Claude. "If he can show a little patience, I've arranged a meeting with Analise a mere fortnight from now on the rue du Chatlaine at the hotel Denvoir. But, our young friend here, shall go in my stead. For it is he, she truly wants. There he will surprise her, and together they will share a night of their true love's expression, unparalleled in the realms of humankind." The vampire slowly turned his eyes back on Jean-Claude and smiled smugly.

Jean-Claude put his hands on his hips, striking a tolerant pose. "Well, if we are going to detain him again, I'd suggest you be the one to guard him. I've had my fill of him, and poor Jacqueline hasn't had a full night of sleep in three days."

"Done," Asher agreed. He stalked over to Michel. "Once again, your life has been spared in the name of love. Now promise me, you will not dishonor that love by trying anything stupid. Jean-Claude finds you appealing, and he is still willing to kill you. I don't find you the least bit appealing, so I will only kill you that much faster. Comprendre, mon ami?"

Michel readily shook his head. "Oh oui, Monsieur. I can wait a fortnight knowing Analise will once more be mine. I won't risk losing her again." He studied the tall, blonde vampire a moment, then frowned as something new occurred to him. "Monsieur, if you don't mind my asking. How is it Analise arranged a rendezvous with you?"

Asher froze momentarily. He glanced at Jean-Claude, but he was regarding him with the same curious and suspicious expression that Michel Chaponte now was.

Somewhat apprehensively, Asher licked his lips.  "She, ah, believed she was in love with me, and sought to replace you with me as her lover."

While Michel stared back at the vampire aghast, Jean-Claude started to laugh. He stepped over to him and pat Michel congenially on the back.

"Well, look at him!" he said, gesturing at Asher. "Can you blame the girl?" He sidled up to the other vampire, and put his arms possessively around his shoulders.

"You are fetching Michel, but Asher is...glorious." He leaned forward and nuzzled his lover's cheek affectionately, but then he frowned, and sniffed Asher's hair. "What have you been up to, mon amour?"

Asher raised his chin defiantly. "Ensuring the success of our mission, mon amour. What about you?" He pressed his nose against Jean-Claude's neck and inhaled deeply. "You are practically wearing his scent. What have you been up to?"

Jean-Claude cocked his head to the side and frowned. "Proving a point."

Michel tactfully cleared his throat to get the vampires' attention.

"None of us can cast a finger of accusation at the other," he stated. "Apparently, all four of us, me, you, Analise, and Jean-Claude have all been...up to something."

Asher and Jean-Claude looked at each other.

"He is right," Jean-Claude replied. "We are being petty."

"Oui," Asher said, and pressed a soft kiss on Jean-Claude's cheek. "We do what we have to in order to carry out our mistress' wishes. Is it so terribly wrong to take pleasure in the very thing we are so skilled at?"

"Not at all," Jean-Claude agreed with a sly smile. He settled his mouth on Asher's and proceeded to kiss him indulgently.

Jacqueline appeared through the chateau's tall iron gate. She spied the two passionately entwined vampires and started towards them with an admonishing shake of her head.

"Mon dieu, you two!" she scolded. "Is anyone even bothering to watch the prisoner here?"

Asher and Jean-Claude parted and turned to look at her.

Asher dismissed her misgivings with a graceful wave of his hand. "Oh, he is not going anywhere."

Jean-Claude peered up at Asher and frowned. "We probably should get him safely back to the inn, mon cheri. Before the dawn. We will have time alone together soon. Only another day or so."

Reaching up to stroke the back of his hand down his lover's face, Asher sighed wistfully and stepped away from him.

"Oui, you are right," he said in resignation, turning his eyes on Jacqueline. "I will take charge of young Chaponte this time. I will forsake my lover's companionship and spend the rest of my waking hours cold and alone. As the sun rises, I will go to sleep with an aching need and empty arms. I will--"

"Oh all right!" Jacqueline interrupted him. She reached out and took hold of Michel's arm. "Go on! I'll watch him for the rest of the night for you, but you will owe me twice my reward if I do."

Asher flashed a brilliant smile of triumph and leaned over to kiss Jacqueline's cheek. "Merci, cherie! You shall have twice your reward!"

"Double the time?" she inquired.

"Double the pleasure," Jean-Claude agreed.

Jacqueline smiled. "Then...I suppose my friend and I shall be going. Enjoy the night."

"Au revoir, cherie," Asher told her, turning his eyes back on Jean-Claude with an enticing smile. "If you'll excuse us, Jean-Claude and I are off to bed."

Michel stepped up to them. "Au revoir, Monsieurs. And merci beaucoup. For everything."

The vampires turned to look at him.

"Au revoir, Michel," Jean-Claude said.  "Our best wishes."

Jacqueline smiled and pulled the boy away. "Come along."

As soon as she and Chaponte were out of sight, Asher wrapped his arms around Jean-Claude, kissed him tenderly, and took flight.

END

 

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