"For the first time in a long time my personal life is as close as it's ever been to working. I don't want to screw that up."
"I guess, I want Asher safe, I want to chase that flinching out of his eyes, but in the real world we are just running this up the flagpole. If it works, great, but if it doesn't work, then what? Will Asher have to leave? Will you lose your second? Will it hurt you and Asher more? Will . . ."
He touched fingertips to my lips. "Shhh, ma petite.I have called Asher. He comes even now."
I felt my eyes go big, my breath freeze in my throat, while my pulse beat like a crazed thing. What had I done? Nothing yet. The ten thousand dollar question was, what was I about to do, and could I live with it later?
Asher came through the door, slowly, his face carefully hidden behind a fall of golden hair. He'd changed to a fresh, unbloodied shirt. It was white and the color did not suit him. "You called," he said. I froze, still hugging my knees, my pulse suddenly pounding in my throat. Yet my breath stopped for a second or two.
"We did," Jean-Claude said in that careful voice.
Asher looked up then, a glimpse of face through all that hair. I think it was the "we" that brought the reaction.
Jean-Claude had sat up very straight before Asher came to the door. He was elegant, poised, in his leather and silk.
I was still huddled on the rug at his feet, staring at Asher like he was the fox and I was the rabbit. Jean-Claude touched my shoulder, and I jumped.
I looked up at him, and he was staring down at me. "It must be your decision, ma petite."
"Why is everything always my decision?" I asked.
"Because you will not tolerate anything else."
Oh, I remembered now. "Great," I whispered.
He squeezed my shoulder gently. "Nothing has been said. We can go on as we are."
I shook my head. "No, I won't be the one responsible for tomorrow night if it goes all wrong. I won't risk him, because of my moral outrage."
"As you like, ma petite," he said, in that careful voice that said nothing.
"What has happened now?" Asher asked, and his voice wasn't quite empty, there was a thread of fear in it. With what was sleeping down the hall, I couldn't blame him.
I eased my arms from around my knees. They were stiff from holding on too tight. I tried to smooth my numb hands down my legs to touch my skirt and found only my hose. The navy skirt was too short for me to have been sitting the way I was. If there'd been anyone in the room to see, they'd have been able to tell my underwear matched it.
I got my knees under me, moving slowly, stiffly, my body tight with tension.
"What has happened?" Asher asked, and this time his voice was bland.
"Nothing, mon ami," Jean-Claude said, "or rather, nothing more."
"It's my fault," I said. I got to my feet, still moving slowly.
"What is your fault?" Asher was looking from one to the other of us, trying to read something from our faces.
I stepped off the fur, and my high heels made a sharp sound on the floor. "That you're in danger from Musette."
"You have done all you can to protect me, Anita, more than I had ever dreamt. No one challenges Musette for fear of Belle Morte. You have done what many council members would fear to do."
"Ignorance is bliss," I said.
He gave me a quick look through the shine of his hair. "What does that mean?"
I walked towards him, where he still stood just inside the door. "It means that maybe I can be brave because I don't know any better. I've never seen Belle in person. Don't get me wrong, she's impressive enough from a distance, but I've never met the real thing."
I was standing in front of him now. He had turned his face so that only the perfect half showed. He hadn't hidden himself from me this completely in months.
I reached up to touch the side of his face he'd turned away, and he flinched, jerking back hard enough to make the door rattle. "Non, non."
"I've touched you before," I said, and my voice was low, soft, the voice you'd use to talk to a skittish animal or a man on a ledge.
He turned his whole face away from me. "You saw the paintings. You saw what I once was, and you have seen now what I looked like when the . . . wounds were fresh." He turned his back, hands on the door, shaking his head. "You have seen what Belle Morte saw."
I shook my head, realized he couldn't see it, and touched his shoulder.
I glanced back at Jean-Claude, and his face was empty, only his eyes shown the barest glimpse of a pain so deep it had nearly destroyed three people.
I pressed my body against Asher's back, moved my arms up his sides, hugging him from behind. He froze under my touch, so still, folding himself away, going deep inside where it wouldn't hurt. I pressed my cheek against his back and held him while his body went quiet under my touch.
I swallowed past tears that I would not shed. My voice was steady, though. "I have seen you through Jean-Claude's memories long before tonight. I remember the glory of you under my hands, against my body." I molded my body against his, clung to him. "I needed no painting to show me your beauty."
A shudder ran through his body, and he tried to turn, to throw me off, but I held on, and he couldn't move away without hurting me. "Let me go, Anita, let me go."
"No," I said, "no, not tonight."
He made small struggling motions trapped against the door, like a man trying to pace a room that was only an inch wider than his own body.
"What do you want from me?" There was something close to tears in his voice.
"Join us tonight, that's what I want, join us."
He stopped his restless movements and went still again, but not like before. I could feel his heart beating against my cheek. I'd have sworn it hadn't been beating a second before.
"Join you how?" his voice was a strangled whisper.
I grabbed his shirt and used it to turn him around. He moved slowly, like trying to turn the earth against its axis. He pressed his back to the door and showed me only what remained of that perfect profile.
I pulled on the shirt, trying to lead him into the room, but he would not be moved this far. He looked past me to Jean-Claude. "I cannot do this." His voice held such pain.
"What do you think she is asking?" Jean-Claude's voice was still so carefully empty.
"She will do anything to keep her people safe, even take a cripple to her bed for one night."
I wadded the shirt in my hands and was forced to go to him, because he would not come to me. "I do want to keep you safe from Musette, and this will do it, but that's not why, not really."
He looked down at me, and there was a world in his eyes, a world of pain and need and horror, so big, so lonely. The first hot tear grazed my cheek. I spoke softly to him in French, and I understood some of what I said.
Asher grabbed my wrists and forced me away from him. "Non,Jean-Claude, not like this. It is either her desire, or it is not to be. I will not divide you from what remains of your triumvirate. I would rather spend a night in Musette's bed than weaken your power so. You must be strong while they are here, or we will all perish."
I took a deep breath, and it was as if something had pulled back from me, like a veil being lifted. I turned and glanced at the vampire behind me. "Did you do that on purpose?"
He hid his face in his hands and said, spoke, voice no longer empty, "I cannot help wanting what I want, ma petite,forgive me."
I turned back to Asher. "It isn't my desire you want, Asher. You know I'm attracted to you."
He tried to look away, but I touched his face, and this time he didn't flinch away. He let me turn him to face me again, my fingers on the edge of his chin. The skin was still smooth there, even though it was on the right side where most was ruined. It was almost as if the people that had done this to him couldn't bring themselves to ruin the perfect curve of his lips.
"It's not lust you want from me."
His gaze dropped. He almost closed his eyes, the expression on his face like a man bracing for a blow. He whispered, "No."
I went up on tiptoe, put my hands on either side of his face, one so smooth like satin and silk, but softer, the other rough, pitted, hardly feeling like skin at all. "I do love you, Asher."
His eyes opened, and they were so raw, so full of so many things that could be used to hurt.