Chimera had been their old pard leader, in a way he'd been like the Godfather of lycanthrope groups. But he was dead now, and we'd divided his people up among ours. Most of them thought it was an improvement because Chimera had been a sexual sadist, a serial killer, and an all-round very bad man. But a few, who had enjoyed helping him mete out his little blood fantasies, seemed to miss Chimera. Since Chimera had been one of the scarier things I'd ever run into in a list that included would-be gods, and millennia-old vampires, I didn't trust any of his people that were nostalgic for the good ol' days. Caleb was one of those.
"Great, fine, glad you're beginning to take orders like a good soldier. Tell Micah when he comes back that I'll be at the Circus of the Damned."
"I'll go with you." He was already getting to his feet. He was barefoot. But of course, because it was Caleb, he was wearing a toe ring.
I shook my head. "No, you are staying here, give my message to Micah."
"Merle was pretty explicit. I am to stay near you today, all day."
I frowned. I had the beginnings of an awful idea. "You're positive that neither Micah nor Merle told you why they wanted you to be glued to my side today?"
He shook his head, but he looked worried. I wondered for the first time if Merle had done more than just "talk" to him.
"What did Merle say would happen if you didn't stay close to me?"
"He said he'd cut all my piercings with a knife, especially the newest one." His voice didn't sound the least bit like teasing. He sounded tired.
"Newest one? The ni**les?" I said, and made it half question.
"No." He shook his head.
His hands went to the top of his jeans and the already partially unbuttoned line. He undid a second button.
I held up my hand. "Stop, that's plenty. I get the idea. You've pierced something . . . there."
"I thought, why not, I'll heal in a matter of days instead of weeks, or months for a human."
I wanted to ask, Didn't it really hurt?But since silver burned a lycanthrope's skin, you had to be masochistic to get anything pierced. I'd asked one of the other leopards that was pierced, why not use gold? Answer: their bodies grew over the gold, healing over the wound. But they didn't heal over silver.
"Thanks for over-sharing there, Caleb."
There was a shadow of his usual smile, but mostly his eyes looked worried, almost scared. "I'm trying to do what I was told to do, that's all."
I sighed. One thing I hadn't expected was to feel sorry for Caleb. Damn it I didn't need another person to take care of right now. I was having enough trouble taking care of myself. "Fine, but Nathaniel and I are taking Jason back to the Circus so he'll be there in time for Jean-Claude to wake up."
"I'll go with you."
I just looked at him.
The worry bloomed to outright fear. "Anita, please, I know I've been a pain in the ass, but I'll be good. I won't cause any trouble."
Had Micah really sent Caleb here in case the ardeurrose early? I disliked Caleb, intensely; did Micah really think I'd use him like that? Of course, the first time I'd met Micah I'd fed off of him. It had also been the very first time the ardeurrose, and my control had been nonexistent. I was better now, but what I'd done with Jason proved not that much better.
I'd complain to Micah about his choice of baby-sitters later, and he'd probably argue, if not Caleb, then who? For that, I didn't have a good answer. Hell, I didn't even have a bad answer.
When more wolves arrived from Richard's pack, and the screams started, I left. He had a half dozen baby-sitters. He did not need me. Hell, he didn't even want me.
I didn't know what to do for Richard anymore. I could help the pack as a whole, but helping Richard seemed beyond me. He needed healing, and I didn't know how to do that. If you needed someone killed, or threatened, or even hurt, I was your girl. I did self-defense, murder wasn't beyond me in a good cause, but suicide, I did not do that. Richard had let himself grow cold, his energy sucked away, and he hadn't called for help. That was suicide, passive suicide maybe, but the intent was the same.
Jason drove. He pointed out that I'd had weird physical reactions all day, and it would be bad to have one of the fainting spells behind the wheel of the car. I replied that I'd fixed the reason for the fainting spells by putting crosses at the Circus. He'd countered with the fact that we weren't one hundred percent sure that was the only reason I'd been fainting. Wouldn't caution be better? With that, I couldn't argue. My pride was not worth crashing the Jeep with three other people in it. If it had only been my skin at stake I'd have probably taken my chances. I was usually more cautious of other people's safety than my own.
The fact that all three were lycanthropes and would probably survive a wreck better than I would had nothing to do with it. If you throw the furry through a windshield, do they not still bleed?
We were on Highway 21 turning onto 270, when I smelled roses. "Do you smell that?" I asked.
Jason glanced at me, his hair still damp from the shower, his white T-shirt dark in spots from water as if he'd dried in a hurry and missed places. "What did you say?"
"Roses, I smell roses."
He glanced behind us at Nathaniel and Caleb. Nathaniel I'd invited. Caleb had nearly cried when I didn't want to bring him. Whatever Merle had said to him had well and truly scared him.
I could taste the sweet, cloying perfume on the back of my tongue. And no one could smell it but me. Shit.
Belle Morte's voice whispered through my head, "Did you truly believe you could escape me?"
"I did escape you."
"What?" Jason asked.
I shook my head, concentrating on the voice in my head, and the thickening scent of roses.
"You did not escape, you fed me, and you will feed me again, and again, until I am sated."
"Jean-Claude says you're never sated."
She laughed in my head, and it was like having the inside of my skull rubbed with fur, as if she could touch things with her voice that no one should have touched with their hands. That purring, contralto laugh rolled through my body, raising goosebumps along my skin.
I had an image, a memory in my head. There was a huge bed, and a mass of bodies on it. It was a jumble of arms, legs, chests, groins, all male. Then one man raised up, only his upper body, and I glimpsed Belle underneath him. He lowered his body and she vanished from view. It was like watching a nest of snakes, so much movement, disconnected in the candlelit dark, as if each limb were something separate and alive without the body. Belle's arm rose above the mass of bodies, then she swam her way to the top, peeled the men from her na**d body, until she stood in the midst of them, their hands reaching up to her, pleading with her. She had released the ardeurupon them, and fed, and fed, and fed, until she rose from the mass of flesh glowing with power, her eyes so bright with dark flames that they cast shadows as she half stepped, half floated from the bed. One man's body had fallen to the floor, forgotten. He lay very still as she stalked nude and ripe with curves, glowing with power. She walked over the body of the man who had given everything to satisfy her needs, while the other men reached for her, begged for her not to stop. The men began to rise to their knees, or fall off the bed in an effort to follow. At least two other bodies lay on the bed forever still, forever gone. Three of them dead, loved to death, and still the others begged her for more, still they tried to stand and follow her.
I knew it was Jean-Claude that she had tied to a chair and made watch. I knew it was him, and not me, that watched her with fearful, hungry eyes. But when she walked past him, without so much as a caress, I choked on his despair. Part of his punishment for daring to leave her.
"Anita, Anita," the voice seemed distant. Someone touched my shoulder, I gasped, and was brought back blinking, breath harsh in my throat. I was still seat-belted into the Jeep. We were still on 270, about to turn onto 44. I wasn't tied to a chair, I wasn't in Belle's lair, I was safe. But the sweet scent of roses clung to me like some kind of evil perfume.
Jason had been calling my name, but it was Nathaniel's hand on my shoulder. "Are you alright?" Jason asked.
I nodded, then shook my head. "Belle's messing with me."
Nathaniel squeezed my shoulder. I had opened my mouth to say, maybe you shouldn't be touching me right now,when the ardeurroared through me. The heat rushed over my skin in beads of sweat, brought my pulse pounding, rising like some ripe fruit to fill my throat, stop my breath, so for a moment I was drowning in the beat and pulse of my own body. I could hear my blood like a roaring flood. I could feel every pulse, every drop to the tingling tips of my fingers and toes. I had never been so aware of how very much blood was coursing through my veins as in that one heart-stopping moment.