"Fuck you, f**k you, Belle, and the horse you rode in on." My anger, my fear, seemed to feed Richard's power. The sweet, nose-wrinkling musk of wolf was so thick it was like being wrapped in invisible fur.
The Jeep slewed to one side. The angry honking of horns and squealing brakes followed it. Jason had given up on finding a safe place and just stopped against the concrete median. Nathaniel and Caleb were thrown across the seat and into the passenger side doors. I didn't have time to worry about the fact that no one seemed to be wearing their damn seat belts.
Belle's eyes pushed through Richard's power. It wasn't effortless. He made her work for every inch, but those burning eyes, that ghostly outline got closer, closer . . . until I held my breath as if afraid, if I breathed in too hard it would bring her against my mouth.
I caught movement from the corner of my eye. Jason was between the seats. He'd stopped the Jeep, thrown off his seat belt. He shoved his hand through the ghost thing above me, as if he couldn't see it. He grabbed my shoulder and the moment he touched me, Richard's beast welled up inside me. I'd always thought it was my beast that moved through me, but this, whatever this was, was Richard, not me.
His wolf poured into me like scalding water rushing into a cup, filling me to the brim, emptying my skin of leopard or death, until my spine bowed, my hands flailed, my mouth opened in a soundless scream. I could feel fur rubbing inside my body, strong nails, digging. The wolf was struggling to find some way out of my body.
Belle hissed at me like some great ghostly cat. The eyes retreated, hovering in the air near the Jeep roof, as Jason pulled me into the front seat and cradled me against his body. His closeness seemed to quiet the wolf, so that I felt it sit, panting, eager-eyed, staring up at the shape by the ceiling with hungry, arrogant eyes. Jason's eyes were his wolf's eyes, and today they seemed perfect for his face. But it was Richard's power, the power of the Thronnos Rokke clan that wrapped around both of us. I had never felt Richard's beast so thick inside me. It was as if I was a purse, a bag, holding his beast, feeling it pace inside me as if my flesh were a cage it could not escape from.
Belle's voice floated down upon us, and this time it stung, hot with her anger. "You can ride all day in the arms of your wolf, but there is still the banquet tonight. Musette will be there, and through her, ma petite,I will be there."
My voice came out with a low edge of growl, "I am not your ma petite."
"You will be," she said, and the eyes slowly faded, until only the lingering scent of roses remained to remind me that we'd won this round, but there would be others. Jean-Claude's memories knew Belle too well to think otherwise. She would never give up, not once she decided to own something, or someone. Belle Morte had decided that I would be hers. Jean-Claude had never known her to change her mind about something like that. That was so unfair, wasn't it a lady's prerogative to change her mind? Of course, Belle wasn't exactly a lady.
She was a two-thousand-year-old vampire, and they weren't known for changing their minds, their habits, or their goals. The last time a Master Vamp had come to town and tried to steal me from Jean-Claude, I'd ended up in a coma for a week. Richard had gotten his throat torn out, and Jean-Claude had nearly died for real. Vampires were always either trying to kill me, or own me. God I hated being popular.
Nathaniel had gotten one of the extra crosses out of the glove compartment. I always carried spare crosses, just like spare ammo; when you hunt vampires, running out of either one is really bad. It was sheer stupidity on my part to have put crosses around the Circus of the Damned, but not on me. Some days I'm just slow.
I was back in the front seat, but I was shaking. No, that didn't quite cover it. There was a fine tremble in my hands; small muscles in my body kept twitching at odd moments. I was cold, and it was one of those glorious end of summer days, sun-warmed, sparkling, bright, and soft at the same time. We drove through a wash of blue sky, and sunshine, and I was cold--a cold that no amount of blankets was really going to help.
Nathaniel was curled over my lower body like a living blanket, wedged between my legs and the floorboard. I'd bitched about how dangerous it was, but I hadn't complained too much. I didn't have any real blankets in the car. I was spending so much time in shock lately, I'd have to remedy that. The trees along 44 had given way to houses and an occasional old school being rehabbed into apartments, churches, buildings of no discernible use, but old, tired. OK, maybe that last was just me.
I stroked my hand over Nathaniel's head, over and over, on the warm silk of his hair. His head in my lap, his arms wrapped around my waist, his body wedged between my legs. Sometimes Nathaniel made me think about sex, but sometimes, like now it was just comfort. Just closeness. You can't have that with most people, because they're busy thinking about sex. I think that's why dogs are so damn popular. You can cuddle a dog as much as you like and the dog never thinks about sex, or pushing your social boundaries in any way, unless you happen to be eating. Dogs will invade your social boundaries for table scraps, unless trained to do otherwise. But hey, it's a dog, not a person in a fur suit. Right now, what I needed was a pet, not a person. Nathaniel could be both. An uncomfortable, but truthful fact.
Jason drove. Caleb had the backseat to himself. No one spoke. I don't think anyone knew what to say. I wanted Jean-Claude awake. I wanted to tell him what Belle had done. I wanted him to tell me there was a way to keep her from doing anything else, short of giving me the fourth mark. The fourth mark would make me ageless and immortal as long as Jean-Claude didn't die. Theoretically, he could live forever, and with the fourth mark, so could I. So why had I refused it so far? One, it scared me. I wasn't sure as a Christian how I felt about living forever. I mean, what happened to heaven, and God, and the judgment thing? Theologically, what would it mean? On a more mundane level, how much closer would it bind me to Jean-Claude? He could already invade my dreams, what would it mean if I took that last step? Or was refusing the fourth mark just another way to not give myself completely to anyone? Maybe. But if the only way to keep Belle from taking me was to let Jean-Claude have me, I knew which choice I was making. I wondered, if I called my priest now, could he get back to me on the theological implications of the fourth mark before full dark tonight? Father Mike had answered questions equally as weird for me over the years.
"Anita," Jason said, and his voice held a note of anxiety.
I glanced at him and realized he'd probably been trying to get my attention for a while. "Sorry, thinking too hard."
"I think we're being followed."
That raised my eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"When I nearly caused the four-car pileup so I could touch you, I caught a glimpse of a car in the rearview. It was close, like tailgating close. It was one of the cars that nearly hit us when I slammed on the brakes."
"So, we're in heavy traffic, a lot of people tailgate."
"Yeah, but everyone else that was close to us when I stopped got away from us as fast as they could. This car is still behind us."
I glanced in the side mirror, and saw a dark blue Jeep. "Are you sure it's the same car?"
"I didn't get a number, but it's the same make, same color, and there are two men in it, one dark-haired, one blond with glasses."
I studied the Jeep that seemed to be following our Jeep. Two men, one dark, one light; it could have been a coincidence. Of course, maybe it wasn't.
"Let's go on the theory that it is following us," I said.
"What?" Jason said, "I lose them?"
"No," I said, "cut across traffic and take the first exit as long as it doesn't take us to the Circus. I don't want to lead them to Jean-Claude."
"Almost every monster in St. Louis knows that the Master of the City's lair is under the Circus of the Damned," Jason said, but he changed lanes, moving us a little closer to the exit row.
"But the guys behind us don't know that that's where we're headed."
He shrugged and moved over two more lanes, setting up for the exit. The blue Jeep waited until we were actually exiting with two cars between us before it crossed over. If we hadn't been watching for it, or there had been a taller car between our Jeep and theirs, I wouldn't have seen them exit. But I was, and there wasn't, and I did.
"Shit," I said, but I was feeling warmer. Nothing like action to ground and center a person.