"And you're one of the wolves that will be stopping by?" I couldn't keep the irony and the unhappiness out of my voice.
"I don't mean it to be casual, Anita. I mean, be our lupa. Bring the leopards with you, and they can hunt with us on the full moon."
"I'll be your lupa, which means, what? What changes?"
"We're a couple within the lycanthrope community. You'll have more contact with my wolves outside of just crisis situations. Micah has really been working his tail off helping everybody out. We need at least one other person full time on the hotline. He's running himself ragged."
"I didn't know you were keeping track."
"I'm trying to pay attention, Anita. I'm trying to see what's there, not what I want to be there. I couldn't share you the way Micah shares you with Nathaniel, not every day, every night. I don't think I could tolerate you dating Jean-Claude and Asher. I certainly wouldn't be able to play blood donor on as regular a basis as Micah and Nathaniel do."
I just blinked at him, because this was a talk I never thought I'd have with Richard. It was way too logical. "I agree with everything you said in that last bit. But it doesn't change anything, does it?"
"I felt the power of your triumvirate with Damian and Nathaniel. Damian's not a master, and Nathaniel is no Nimir-Raj, but the three of you together are an amazing amount of power. What would we be, the three of us, if we did this right? If we did this the way it was meant to be done?"
"That so doesn't sound like you," I said.
"Tell me you haven't thought about it since you did the other triumvirate?"
I couldn't in all honesty, so I didn't try. "I felt what Jean-Claude and I could do at his club when Primo got out of control. I felt what Jean-Claude could do when I let him feed the ardeur in a way that was closer to a full feeding with other women. So, yeah, I thought about it, sort of."
"You said it yourself, Anita, we don't have enough soldiers. We need to look strong and not just for the vampires that might want this territory. Our pack has a bad rep, thanks to me, and Raina and Marcus before me. My reputation is shit among the other Ulfrics. They think I'm weak, and I've had some scouts from other territories that have too many dominants and not enough land. So far our pack is so screwed up that they leave without a challenge. No one wants the mess I've made of it. But as I get a better handle on my wolves, that may change. If we all joined together the way you and Jean-Claude did last night, if we were really a triumvirate of power, no one would touch us, Anita, no one would dare."
It was almost a direct quote from something I'd thought earlier. I looked past him to Jean-Claude. "We're parroting what you've been thinking for months, aren't we?"
He shrugged those lovely bare shoulders. "Oui, but I did not put the thoughts there, ma petite. I believe that both of you have come to the same conclusion at the same time. Is that so hard to believe?"
"I don't know," I said, and I was tired. Tired of the games, tired of hurting, tired of being scared.
Richard lay back on the bed, one knee up, the other down, so that he looked winsome as hell against the red sheets. "I'm scared again, Anita. I don't want everything we're building to go down in flames, because we're mad at each other. Let Jean-Claude take the edge off my fear. It felt great."
I looked past him to the vampire who was still draped against the pillows. "Did you pull back from his mind?"
"Non, ma petite, he simply fought, a little, and I was cast out. Both of you have the power to thwart me if you wish to."
"I don't wish to," Richard said, and that smile came back. It was lazy, and sleepy, and filled his eyes with that knowledgeable innocence again. I realized in that moment that it wasn't Jean-Claude's look, it was Richard if he wasn't afraid, or angry, or conflicted. It was what he might be if he didn't get in his own way all the time.
"Ma petite." Jean-Claude raised his hand toward me. "Join us."
I was shaking my head.
Richard reached out toward me, too. "You want to, you know you want to."
"My life is as close to working as it ever has been, I don't want that to go to wrack and ruin, either."
"I'm not offering to go back to what we had, Anita. I understand that that won't work for us. You are harder and more ruthless than I will ever be, and I can let you be that, but not if you're my only sweetie. I need a little distance from the worst of it, so I can pretend a little. Not much, but just enough so I don't lose my mind." He snuggled back until his head was resting against Jean-Claude's side. Jean-Claude was all black fur and velvet against white skin. His hair spilled around his na**d upper body like a dark dream. He turned his head so he could look at Richard lying there. Richard was all tan and jeans, and seemed to burn with how very alive he was. They looked like they'd stepped out of two very different p**n o movies.
Jean-Claude looked up at me, and there was a pleading in his eyes. Without a word, he asked, "Please, ma petite, please do not spoil this."
"No fourth mark," I said.
"Agreed," Jean-Claude said.
"For now," Richard said.
I looked at him.
"Right now a lot of things seem like a good idea. No, don't frown, Anita, if a little vampire magic can take the edge off my anxiety, I'm all for it. It works better than the pills the doctor gave me."
"Lycanthropes' bodies work too fast for most medicines to stay in the body long enough to help," I said.
"I know," Richard said, and he raised his head up just enough that he was resting directly on Jean-Claude's bare back. It was probably just as well that he couldn't see Jean-Claude's face when that thick hair touched his skin. He probably wouldn't have liked any man looking like that because of him.
"Come, ma petite, let us be a true triumvirate at last. Be lupa in more than just name for Richard and his pack. Keep your living arrangements as they are, but allow Richard to visit."
"While he keeps searching for Ms. Right among the human population."
"You will have your men, and he will have his woman. It is fair, ma petite."
I wasn't sure how I felt about the fairness of it. "I don't know how I feel about all of this, some great, but others, I don't know if I'll be able to live like that."
"We can but try," Jean-Claude said.
Richard held his hand out to me. "Anita, please, please, if you leave, you know I won't stay. You were able to let Jean-Claude get closer without me being there to buffer it, but I need you to help me." He pushed up to his knees and held out his hand. "Please, Anita, I promise not to run, no matter how dark my fantasies get."
"Just feeding for Jean-Claude and some slap and tickle?" I asked, and couldn't help but sound suspicious.
Richard glanced back, and he and Jean-Claude had one of those rare guy moments. The looks they exchanged said plainly that that hadn't been what they had in mind. Jean-Claude said, voice mild, "If that is all you wish from us, we can restrain ourselves."
I closed my eyes. Was that all I wished from them? No. Was that all I could stand right now? Maybe. It was a wonderful offer. It seemed to fix most of the problems that we'd raised with the new power, so why was I still hesitant? "You know, finding a wife that would be okay with you sleeping with another woman isn't going to be easy."
"Nothing worth doing is easy," Richard said, "and maybe I'll find that the white picket fence isn't for me, after all. All I know is that right now, right this moment, I know what I want, and what I want is you."
A lot of women would have run to him, thrown their arms around him, and said something like, "Oh, Richard." But that just wasn't me. What I was thinking was that if Clair had been his little f**k-buddy, he wouldn't be here now. He wouldn't want me, now. I dropped the towel on the floor and was shaking my head. "I'm not sure this is a good idea."
Richard was still holding his hand out to me. "Neither am I."
"Then why are we doing it again?"
"Because we want to."
"Doesn't seem like a good enough reason." But I moved, slowly, toward the bed.
"Because when I'm near you, all I can think about is the smell of your skin, and the way your hair spreads like black foam on my pillows. Because when I'm near you, all I can remember is how your body feels against mine. I have to be a bastard to you, so that I don't fall down at your feet and beg you to take me back. Tell you that it wasn't you I hated. It was me, and I'm sorry that I took that out on you. Sorrier than I can say. That you had the courage to make a life that worked for you, regardless of how far that life was from where you wanted it to be. Help me have the courage to do the same, Anita. Help me be who I am." He moved his hands just a little closer to mine. His fingers brushed mine. I think I would have jerked away like you do when your skin brushes something so hot it will burn. But he grabbed my hands, wrapped them in the warmth of his hands. His hands that were so much bigger than mine, so that he could hide my hands in his, as if I were a child. I'd never really liked that about Richard. He was so much bigger than me, that sometimes I felt overwhelmed. Like now.