"I don't know how much was Jean-Claude's memories at first, but whatever it began as, I do love you. Me, no one else."
"Yet you have not taken me to your bed."
"I love a lot of people that I don't sleep with. Okay, that I don't have sex with."
The expression in his eyes began to die. I realized what I'd said, "I want you to come to bed tonight, please, Asher, and not just for sleeping."
He put his hands on either side of mine. "Only to keep me safe from Musette."
I couldn't argue that, but . . . "That's true, but does that matter so very much? Does it matter that that's why?"
He smiled gently and moved my hands away from his face. "Yes, Anita, it does matter why. You will take me to your bed tonight, but tomorrow you will feel guilty and you will run away again."
I frowned at him. "You talk like I've done this before with you, and I haven't."
He patted my hands between his. "You took four men into that bed over there, four of us, yet you have sex with only Jean-Claude. You feed the ardeurfrom Nathaniel, but you have not f**ked him." He let go of my hands and shook his head, laughing. "Only you could have the strength of will to sleep night after night beside such beauty and not take all that Nathaniel had to offer. I have met saints and priests over the centuries that had not your will to resist temptation."
"I don't seem to be resisting all that much anymore," I said, hands on hips.
He laughed again, smile fading as he did it. "Jason you have put firmly back into the box, marked 'friend.' But what of me? I do not wish to join you in that bed again, if tomorrow I will be merely another friend. I cannot bear it."
I frowned up at him. I'd done my best to forget what happened when Belle Morte caused the ardeurto rise months ago. Thanks to her, I'd participated in the closest thing I hoped to ever get to an orgy. No intercourse, but a lot of hands and bodies touching where they shouldn't have been. Asher was right; I'd done my best to ignore the whole thing. Ignore it hard enough, and it never happened. But of course it had happened, and I'd not dealt with it.
"What do you want me to say? I'm sorry that I'm a little squeamish about having been in bed with four men at the same time. Yeah, it embarrassed me, so sue me."
"Tonight will embarrass you, too."
"A lot of things embarrass me, Asher, I can't help that."
"You cannot help but be who and what you are, Anita. I would not change you, but I also will not be just a night of charity in your bed. I tell you I could not bear being cast out again."
I knew in that instant that he didn't mean me casting him out from our bed after the ardeur.He meant what Belle had done to him all those centuries ago. She had thrown him away like a damaged toy. After all, you can always buy more toys.
I started to pace back and forth in front of him, not looking at either of them, but doing something, anything for the nervous energy that was building up. "What do you want from me, Asher? A guarantee?"
"Yes," he said, at last. "That is exactly what I want from you."
I stopped pacing and looked at him. "What kind of guarantee? That I won't freak out about this tomorrow?" I shook my head. "I'm sorry, I can't promise, because I don't know how I'll feel."
"What will Micah say, if he finds out you've been with me?"
"Micah is okay with it."
Asher looked at me.
"I know, I know, I keep waiting for him to pitch a fit about something. He's fine with sharing me with Jean-Claude, and Nathaniel, and, I quote, anyone else that you need to include,' unquote."
Asher widened eyes at me. "My, isn't he understanding."
"You have no idea," I said. "When he came into my life, he said he'd do anything to stay with me, anything to be my Nimir-Raj. So far he's meant it."
"He seems perfect for you," Asher said, voice full of a soft irony.
"I know, makes me wonder when the other shoe will drop and he'll turn on me."
Asher touched my face, which made me look at him. He was looking full at me now, those ice blue eyes so sincere. "I would never want to do anything that would damage what you have built in your life. If we do this and you run away, then Jean-Claude will have damaged his relationship with you, and I will leave."
I felt my eyes go wide. "What do you mean, you'll leave?"
"I mean if you take me to your bed tonight and cast me out tomorrow, I will leave. I will no longer watch Jean-Claude be in love with others while I wait. It will take time to find another Master who will want me, and probably not as a second. I know that I am weak for a master. I have no animal to call," he shook his head, "so many of my powers are useless except in intimate situations, and once," he almost touched the scarred side of his face, but let his hand fall away, "once this happened, no one would let me get close enough to use my powers on them."
He licked his lips, sighing at the same time, and that one gesture made me catch my breath. I did want him, I'd wanted him the way a woman wants a man for a long time. But lust alone had never been enough for me.
"You're saying that if we take you to our bed tonight, but I freak tomorrow, and it's only this one time, that you'll leave us?" I asked.
He nodded. He didn't even need to think about it.
"You're giving me an ultimatum, Asher, I'm not good at ultimatums."
"I know that, but I have to protect myself, Anita. I cannot live this close to heaven and not be allowed inside. I think it will drive me mad in the end." He leaned back against the door and looked past me to Jean-Claude. "I have been thinking for some months now that I should go. It is too hard on all of us. Know that it has healed some of the wounds to be with you as a friend again, Jean-Claude." He turned and smiled at me. "And seeing the way you watch me has helped, more than it's hurt, Anita." He turned, put his hand on the doorknob.
I put my hand flat on the door, holding it.
Asher looked at me. "Let me go, Anita, you know you don't want this."
"What am I supposed to say to that, Asher? That you're right? That if Musette hadn't come today that I wouldn't be making this offer now? You're right, I wouldn't be." I pressed myself against the side of the door. "But the thought of you leaving, of never seeing you again . . ." I shook my head, and damn it if I was going to cry again. "Don't go, please, don't go."
"I have to go, Anita." He touched my shoulder, tried to move me out of the way so he could open the door.
I shook my head. "No."
He frowned at me. "Ma cherie,you do not love me, not truly. If you do not love me, and you do not want me, then you must let me go."
"I do love you, and I do want you."
"You love me as a friend, you want me, but you want many men, yet you do not give yourself to them. I have all eternity, but my patience is not good enough to out wait you, ma cherie.You have defeated me. I would have tried to seduce you, but . . ." Again he almost touched the scarred side of his face, but his hand fell away, as if he could not bare to touch himself. "I have seen the men you have turned down. Such perfection, and you walk away without so much as a regret." He frowned as if he didn't understand it, but he knew it to be true. "What could I offer that they could not?"
He put his hands against my shoulder and gently tried to move me out of the way. I pressed my back into the doorframe, my hand on the doorknob. "No," was all I could think to say.
"Yes, ma cherie,yes. It is time."
I shook my head. "No." I pressed my back into the door so hard that I knew I'd be bruised in the morning. I couldn't let him go. I knew somehow that if he opened that door, we would never get another chance.
I prayed for words. I prayed to be able to speak my heart and not to be afraid. "I let Richard walk out on me. I think he'd have gone anyway, but I just sat on the floor and watched him go. I didn't stand in his way. I figured it was his choice, and you can't hold someone if they don't want to be held. If someone really wants to be free of you, you have to let them go. Well, f**k that, f**k that all to hell. Don't go, Asher, please, don't go. I love the way your hair shines in the light. I love the way you smile when you're not trying to hide or impress anyone. I love your laughter. I love the way your voice can hold sorrow like the taste of rain. I love the way you watch Jean-Claude when he moves through a room, when you don't think anyone's watching, because it's exactly the way I watch him. I love your eyes. I love your pain. I love you."