When my vision cleared, Caleb's eyes were unfocused, his lips half-parted. Through me, it was almost as if Belle herself touched him, and her touch spread lust, lust of every kind.
I was in my own head, my own skin, but Belle's hunger was inside me, too, and I couldn't push it out. She was right; the blood hunger was not death.
I tore my arms through Caleb's shirt, popping the buttons loose, baring his upper body. When I channeled Jean-Claude's blood lust, I was always attracted to neck, wrist, bend of the arm, sometimes the inside of the groin, all nice major arteries or veins, but Belle didn't look high, or low. She gazed at Caleb's chest like it was a prime piece of steak, cooked just right.
My own logic tried to argue. There were other places where there was more blood, much closer to the surface. The sheer surprise of not going for someplace more usual helped me push her back.
Caleb's voice came heavy, "Why did you stop?"
"I don't think it's sex she's wanting," Nathaniel said, voice quiet.
His voice turned my gaze to him. If what was driving me had been the ardeur,it might have been enough to have me crawl to him. But Nathaniel was right, this wasn't about sex, this was about food, and Nathaniel wasn't food. Did that mean that Caleb was food? Not a pretty thought.
"What do you mean?" Caleb asked.
I gazed up at Caleb's bare chest, that young, half-finished face. He looked so puzzled. I said it out loud, though I wasn't talking to anyone in the car. "He doesn't understand."
Belle's whisper, "He will soon enough."
"It looks like it's your turn to take one for the team," Jason's voice from the front.
"You're going to get munched on," Jason said.
The combination of my own moral dilemma with the fact that Belle had picked an odd spot for taking blood, one that just didn't make sense to me, was helping me swim to the surface. I knelt back in the floorboard, pulling a little free of Caleb's body.
"No," I said out loud, and none of the men answered me, as if they'd all caught up to the fact that I wasn't really talking to any of them.
Belle's voice in my head. "I have been gentle until now, ma petite."
"I am not your ma petite,so stop f**king calling me that."
"If you will not take kindness from me, then I will cease to offer it."
"If this is your idea of kindness, then I'd hate to see . . ." I never finished the thought, because Belle showed me that indeed she had been kind.
She didn't roll over me, she crashed into me, in a mind-numbing, breath-stealing, heart-stopping, swat of power. For an instant, or for an eternity, I hung suspended. The Jeep was gone, Caleb was gone, I couldn't see, or feel, or be. It was neither light, nor dark, nor up, nor down. I'd had near-death experiences, I'd fainted before, passed out, but that moment when Belle's power fell through me, that was the closest to true nothingness that I'd ever experienced.
Into that nothingness, that void, Belle's voice fell, "Jean-Claude has begun the dance, but he has left it unfinished between you, the wolf, and himself. He has allowed sentiment to cloud his judgment. It makes me question how well I taught him."
I tried to speak but couldn't remember where my mouth was, or how to draw a breath. I couldn't remember how to answer her.
"I discovered this with the wolf, but could not mend it, for he is not my animal to call. I do not understand dogs, and a wolf is very much a dog." Her voice whispered through me, low and lower, trembling through my body, but for her voice to dance through my body, I had to have a body for her to use. I fell back into my body as if falling from a great height. I was left gasping on the floorboards, eyes staring up at Caleb's startled face and Nathaniel's worried one.
Belle's voice glided through my body like a knowledgeable hand. I suddenly knew who had trained Jean-Claude to use his voice as a tool of seduction. "But you, ma petite,I understand you."
I drew a deep, quaking breath and it hurt all the way to my chest, as if I'd gone a long time without breathing. My voice came hoarse, "What are you talking about?"
"The fourth mark, ma petite,without the fourth mark, you are not truly Jean-Claude's. It is like the difference between engagement and marriage; one is permanent, the other not necessarily so."
I understood what she meant a second before I saw two dancing honey-colored flames appear in the air over me. I knew it was the second mark because I'd had the second mark three times before; twice from Jean-Claude, and once from a vampire I'd killed. I'd never been able to protect myself from it before. I knew from experience that nothing physical would save me. It wasn't something you could hit, or shoot. I hated things you couldn't hit or shoot. But I had other skills now that weren't exactly physical.
I reached down that long metaphysical cord to Jean-Claude. Belle's voice floated over me, she was delaying her moment, drawing out her pleasure and my fear. "Jean-Claude is hours dead, he cannot help you."
The dark flames of her eyes began to descend, like some evil angel coming to eat my soul. I did the only thing I could think to do. I reached down the other half of our metaphysical cord. I reached out to a place that hadn't helped me for months. I reached out to Richard.
I had an image of Richard in the hot bath water, cradled in Jamil's arms. Richard looked up as if he could see me. He whispered my name, but either he was too weak to push me away, or he didn't try. For a moment, it was as if it was meant to be, then I was yanked back, shoved into my own head, my own body again. Richard hadn't cast me out this time. Dark honey flames hovered over my face, and there was a vague outline, a ghost of long dark hair, the mist of a face.
Caleb was yelling, "What's in the car with us? I can't see anything, but I can feel it. What the f**k is it?"
Nathaniel's voice came hushed, and strangely loud, "Belle Morte."
I had no time to look up, to see the others, because those phantom lips were speaking. "I will not allow you to gain strength from your wolf. I have given you the first mark and you did not even know it. I will give you the second mark here and now, and tonight with Musette as my proxy I will give you the third. When Jean-Claude and I are equal within you, three for three, then you will come to me, ma petite.You will travel the world if I ask it, do anything, simply to taste my sweet blood."
That phantom mouth lowered towards mine. I knew somehow that if she laid a ghostly kiss on me that I would be hers. I did what I always did, I tried to hit at that face, and there was nothing to touch. I screamed wordlessly, and sent out a metaphysical cry, "Help me!"
Suddenly, I could smell forest, trees, fresh-turned earth, wet leaves underfoot, and the sweet musk of wolf.
Belle could stop me from reaching out to Richard, but she couldn't keep him from reaching out to me.
Richard's power rose like a sweet-scented cloud above me, pushing back those glowing eyes, that phantom mouth.
She laughed, and it slid over my body, made me shudder, my breath catch in my throat. It felt so good, so good, even while my head screamed that it was bad.
"Did you hear someone laugh?" Caleb asked it.
Jason said no. Nathaniel said yes.
Belle whispered along my skin, and even Richard's power breathing against my body couldn't keep her voice out. "With the touch of your wolf's flesh, you might keep me at bay, but not from a distance. The closer the flesh, the closer the ties, and the more powerful. You are already mine, ma petite,you cannot win free of me." Those eyes began to float lower again. Richard's power rose above me like a soft shield. Belle's power floated on the surface of that energy like a leaf on a pond, then she began to push into it, through it.
"Help me!" I screamed it out loud to everyone, anyone, and no one. I felt Nathaniel's hand on mine, and that phantom kiss did hesitate, did turn and look at Nathaniel. I felt her call him, like a deep thrumming down my bones. Leopard had been her first animal to call. If she owned me, she'd own my pard.
Nathaniel reached out his free hand as if he could see her.
"No!" I jerked free of him and the moment I broke physical contact it was as if Nathaniel was less real to her. She turned those dark-honey eyes back to me.
"I will have them all, ma petite,eventually."
"No," I said it, but my voice was soft, because I believed she was right.
"You will give them to me, all of them."
Fear poured through me as if I'd been plunged into ice water. The thought of what Belle would do to my pard, my friends. No, I could not let this happen.