I closed the distance between us, wrapped my arms around him, pressed my cheek to his chest, dried tears on the silk of his shirt, and was still whispering, "I love you, I do love you," when he raised my face and kissed me, really kissed me, for the very first time.
We broke from that gentle kiss, and I led Asher to the bed by the hand. He pulled back, coming like a reluctant child.
Jean-Claude stood by the bed, his face as blank as he could make it. "There is one thing I must say before we begin. I am controlling ma petite's ardeur,but there will come a point in all this where I will lose control. I cannot guarantee what will happen when that control is lost."
Asher and I stood beside him, holding hands. He was clinging to my hand with a fierceness that was almost painful. His voice did not show the tension I felt in his body. "If I thought it was only the ardeurwhich made Anita want to take me to her bed, then I would say no, because when the ardeurhad cooled, she would cast me aside as she did before." He raised my hand to his lips and laid the softest touch across my knuckles. "I believe Anita wishes me in her bed. The ardeurmay rise, or fall, it is all the same to me now."
Jean-Claude looked at me. "Ma petite."
"I would rather do as much of this as possible before the ardeur,but I understand that it's going to be . . . hard on you." I shrugged. "I don't know. I know I'm committed to this, so I guess it's okay."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "You are never convincing when you lie, ma petite."
"Now that's just not true," I said, "I lie very well, thank you."
"Not to me."
I shrugged. "I'm doing the best I can here, Jean-Claude." I looked up at the ceiling as if I could see the sky through all the rock above us. "I know one thing, I want whatever we're doing done before dawn. I do not want you guys to fade in the middle."
"Ma petitestill finds it unnerving that we die at dawn," Jean-Claude said.
"What time is it?" Asher asked.
I looked at my watch. "We're down to about two and a half hours."
"Barely enough time," Asher said. And something about what he said, or the way he said it, made Jean-Claude do that masculine chuckle that only men do, and only about women, or sex. I wasn't sure I'd ever heard that sound from Jean-Claude.
I was suddenly very aware that I was the only girl, and they were both men. I know that sounds silly. I mean, I knew that already, but . . . I suddenly felt it. It was like walking into a bar and feeling all those eyes follow you as you walk, like lions watching gazelles.
If either of the men had turned that same look to me, I think I would have bolted, but they didn't. Jean-Claude crawled onto the bed, still fully clothed, and held out his hand to me. I stared at that long-fingered, pale hand, graceful even in that small movement. Asher's hand squeezed, more gently, on my other hand.
I realized in that moment that if I chickened out, that would be the end of it. There would be no pressure from either of them. But Asher would be gone, not tonight, but soon. I didn't want him to be gone.
I took Jean-Claude's hand, and he pulled me gently onto the silk bedspread. Silk is slippery when you're wearing hose. Their hands on mine kept me from slipping off the edge of the bed. They half pulled me onto the bed.
"Why is it," I said, "that younever slide off the bed when you're wearing silk?"
"Centuries of practice," Jean-Claude said.
"I recall when you weren't so practiced. Remember the Duchess Vicante?" said Asher.
Jean-Claude blushed, a faint hint of pink. I hadn't even known he could blush. "What happened?" I asked.
"I fell," he said, trying for dignity and failing, because he smiled.
"What he will not say is that he cut his chin on a silver mirror that he broke when he fell off the Duchess and her silk sheets. Blood everywhere, and the cuckold husband on the stairs."
I looked at Jean-Claude. He nodded, shrugged.
"What happened?" I asked.
"The duchess cut herself on one of the shards of glass and told her husband it was her own blood. She was a very enterprising woman, was the Duchess Vicante."
"So you both knew each other when you weren't perfectly suave."
Jean-Claude said, "No, Asher watched me learn my lessons, but he had five years with Belle before I came to court. If he had rough edges they were worn away by the time I arrived."
"I had them, mon ami," Asher said, and he smiled. I was overwhelmed with a flood of images of that smile. That smile when his hair was in long locks and the hat on his head graceful with feathers, that smile by candlelight, that smile while we played chess and Julianna sewed by the fire, that smile in a spill of clean sheets and Julianna's laughter.
It had been a long time since we'd seen that smile. We drew him to the bed, and the smile vanished. Jean-Claude swept the bedspread aside to reveal sheets a little bluer than Asher's eyes, blue as the daytime sky, cerulean blue. But Asher stayed on his knees, as if afraid to lay upon the bed. I could see his pulse thudding in his throat, and it had nothing to do with vampire or shape-shifter powers, only fear, I think.
Asher was afraid. I could taste his fear on the back of my tongue. I could swallow it, enjoy the bouquet of it, like a fine wine to whet the appetite.
The fear called to that piece of me that was Richard's beast. It roiled inside me like a cat stretching, exploring the space it was trapped in. A thin growl trickled from my lips.
"Control, ma petite,do not lose it so soon."
It was hard to think, let alone talk. I came to my knees and raised Asher's shirt, my fingers playing along his skin. I wanted to rip his shirt off and put my mouth to that tender skin. But it wasn't sex I was thinking of. Vampires may not feed off each other, but a werewolf will eat a vampire.
I closed my eyes, forced my hands away from his body. "I'm trying, but you know what happens if I push the ardeuroff too long."
"The other hungers rise, oui, ma petite.I have not forgotten."
"You can't help control Richard's beast." My voice sounded hoarse.
I looked into Asher's wide blue eyes, so afraid, so very afraid, and not of my beast. It helped steady me, but I knew it wouldn't last long, whatever we were going to do had to be done quickly.
"I want to see you nude for the first time without the ardeurriding me, Asher. But there isn't much time." I tried to draw him down onto the bed, but he wouldn't come.
Jean-Claude propped himself up on the pillows and held out his arms, almost the way you'd reach for a baby. He spoke softly in French, but I couldn't catch it all, most of it was a plea to hurry.
Asher crawled onto the bed completely, though every movement was slow, reluctant. He let himself be settled down against Jean-Claude's body, but they were both fully clothed, and the way they were sitting, they could have been in any club. It wasn't so much sexual as comforting.
I looked at the two of them and knew someone was going to have to take off some clothes. Fine. I stripped off my jacket and tossed it to the floor.
Jean-Claude raised eyebrows.
"If we keep going this carefully it'll be dawn and nothing will have changed." I had to slide off the bed to get the skirt off, and left it in a pile with my blouse. The panties and bra were a matched pair, a shiny navy satin. When I'd found them, they had reminded me of the color of Jean-Claude's eyes.
I expected to feel embarrassed standing there in my underwear, but I didn't. Maybe I'd spent too much time around the shape-shifters and their casual nudist policy. Or perhaps, it just didn't seem wrong to be undressed in front of Asher. I don't know, but I didn't question it. I climbed carefully back onto the cerulean silk, so that I didn't slide off again.
"You have truly decided to do this," Asher said, in a voice that was soft, uncertain.
I nodded, as I crawled in my thigh-high hose and high heels across the bed to them. I kept the heels because I knew Jean-Claude liked it, and he'd worn enough boots to bed for me. Turn about can be fair play.
I tapped Asher's ankles, and he opened his legs a little. I crawled between his legs, having to force my body up between his calves, his knees. Jean-Claude's legs on either side of his seemed to hold him tight against me. I was left to worm my way between his thighs, using my hips, my legs, and finally impatient, my hands, to spread him wide before me. It left me, finally, kneeling between his legs, my knees pressed up against him, which was actually a lot less erotic than it sounds, because he was still wearing his pants, and the angle was odd.