I felt movement, a second before hands touched me. The hands brushed my bare arms, and I felt calmer. I leaned back against Damian's body, let his arms enfold me. The fear, anger, confusion, just washed away. The iron control of his emotions that he had learned at the hands of his creator was what he shared with me. I leaned back into that peaceful control for a handful of seconds. The panic was still there, but I could ride it. I was still horrified, but it wasn't the only thought screaming through my brain.
I leaned my head back against his chest, and looked up at him. He'd tied all that bloodred hair back from his face. I stared into a face that my magic had actually made prettier, more perfect. He'd been handsome before; now he was beautiful. I looked up into those eyes, like looking into the perfect green of an emerald, if it could look back at you. If a jewel could burn with intelligence and need. "Hey, Damian," and my voice sounded almost drugged, I was so calm.
"Hey," he said, smiling down at me.
I blinked at him. "I feel so good. I don't remember you ever making me feel this calm, so fast."
"You love Micah, don't you?"
I frowned at him. "Yes."
"You love Nathaniel, don't you?"
I frowned harder. "Yes, but it's all a lie."
His hand swept up the line of my neck, as his face bent toward me. "Does it feel like a lie?"
"No," and my voice was small.
He whispered the last few words against my lips. "You all love each other, isn't that more important than how you fell in love?"
With Damian touching me, it was utterly reasonable to say, "Yes."
He kissed me. Those lips that my own magic had made fuller, more kissable, covered mine. He drew back enough to whisper, "Love is too precious to waste, Anita."
He was right, of course. He was right, but it wasn't like me to see logic this quickly. This wasn't like me, at all.
Damian lowered his mouth over mine, his hand kneading my throat, as he pressed my back against his body. Always before when he was helping me be reasonable, kissing him was a cold thing. Today, I gave myself to his kiss, to his hands, even as part of me knew this was just more vampire mind games. Damian was my vampire servant. He gained power as I gained power. It hadn't occurred to me that he might be able to use that power against me.
I BROKE THE kiss, pushed him away hard enough to make him stumble. His eyes were drowning emerald fire. "Didn't it feel good?" he asked.
I shook my head, not trusting my voice. But the moment he wasn't touching me the panic was back. The fear, and it was worse now. I was surrounded by vampire tricks. Surrounded even inside myself, and that was one person I couldn't run from.
Micah tried to hug me again, but I moved around him, toward the living room. Nathaniel brushed my arm, and I moved away. I was shaking my head, and wasn't sure why.
"This does not have to be a disaster, ma petite."
"Yes," I said, "it does."
"Anita," Micah said, "I don't care that it was vampire magic that brought us together. We're together, that's what matters." He held his hand out to me.
I shook my head. "No, because if you touch me, I'll give up. I won't fight. I can never win a fight when you touch me. The effect you have on my body overwhelms everything else."
"And that's a bad thing?" He made it a question, his hand still held out toward me.
"I wondered why your touching me always overwhelmed me, and now we know. It's vampire powers. It's mind tricks. It's an aftereffect of the ardeur, Micah."
He let his hand drop slowly. "I love the way your body reacts to mine, Anita." He closed his eyes, hugged his hands into fists in front of his chest. "I abso-fucking love that you react to me like I'm intoxicating." He opened his eyes and gave me the full stare out of those yellow-green kitty-cat eyes. "Don't you love it, too?"
I opened my mouth to say no, but it would have been a lie. The vampires could sense lies, but wereanimals could smell them. I told the truth. "Yes, I loved it."
He shook his head. "Not loved, not past tense. You love it. You love it so much, you're afraid to let me touch you now."
"Please, Micah, don't do this."
"Do what? Make you happy? Make us both happier than we've ever been for longer than we've ever been happy in our entire lives? We're both almost thirty, Anita; it doesn't get better than what we have. We've all tried other people, other ways of living. This works for us. Don't throw it away because it started with the ardeur." He took a step toward me. "We always knew that you and I began with the ardeur, Anita."
"Maybe, but not all of it. Not..." I turned away from him. I couldn't keep being this stubborn and look at the anguish on his face. But looking away put me looking at Nathaniel. It wasn't an improvement. First, he was nude, and any of the men I loved only had to take their clothes off to win most arguments with me. I might never admit that out loud, but it was the truth. Nathaniel nude was a treat, but what made it even harder was the look on his face. So hurt, so terribly hurt.
"Anita," he said, "would you really throw us away? Could you just walk away? Just like that?"
My throat was tight, but not with panic anymore. The panic had company now. Can you choke to death on unshed tears?
He stared at me; those lilac eyes sparkled through the fall of all that hair. I stared at his eyes, so bright, like firelit amethyst, as he tried not to cry. Then the first tear glittered down his cheek, and I was undone.
I went to him. I hugged him, and he collapsed so suddenly in my arms that it pulled us both to the floor. He clung to me, weeping, and I was left drowning in the vanilla warmth of his hair. Micah stood there, looking down at us.
Was it a lie? It didn't feel like a lie. The man in my arms felt real, and his tears were real. The thought that I could turn away from him because of something so... petty, had broken his heart, just a little. Micah had said it; we knew that the ardeur had been the beginning of us. Hadn't I always known it was the beginning of Nathaniel and me, too? If I hadn't needed to feed the ardeur, I would never have allowed him to move in with me. I would never have slept with him, clothed and strangely chaste, feeding by a kiss, a touch, but never with release for him. I would never have done all that without the ardeur to feed. I would never have fallen in love with him, if the ardeur hadn't kept him in my way.
I hugged Nathaniel, and held one hand out to Micah. He smiled, and came to me, to us. He dropped to his knees, and put his arms around us both. Nathaniel cried harder. I held them both as hard as I could. Micah kissed me, and I kissed him back. The taste of his mouth was the taste of sex to me. Just the kiss, and my body reacted to it. Nathaniel's hands spilled over my br**sts. Had I taught them that the only way to make up a fight was sex, or had the ardeur preordained that sex was our currency of healing? It was a chicken/egg sort of question. I let it go in the sensation of hands and mouths on my face and neck, and body.
We licked the tears off Nathaniel's face, and somewhere in all that closeness, I let go of my doubts. I could worry about it later. Right at that moment, nothing seemed more important than touching the two of them.
We both came up for air, to the smell of lion. Micah growled. It was Noel on hands and knees. He had his forehead pressed to the stone floor, one hand held out toward us. Travis collapsed to his knees behind him, cradling his broken arm. He leaned against the wall, heavily, and for the first time it occurred to me that maybe the broken arm wasn't the worst of his injuries. Wereanimals were tough bastards. I hadn't even asked if there were other things broken. I hadn't even asked exactly what the doc had said. They had just been another embarrassing problem. Another pint of blood to lay on the altar of the ardeur, and my beast.
I looked at Micah. "I agree with the lions. I don't want Haven."
I turned to Nathaniel. He smiled. "I agree with Micah. Though Jean-Claude, or someone, needs to help you not to bond with them completely."
"Agreed," I said.
I looked behind us, for Jean-Claude. "How do we do this?"
"I can help you not use the ardeur as deeply, but I do not know if I can control the lion within you."
"I can," and it was Auggie. He'd added a long black cloak. His shoulders were so wide that it made him look square, his head too small for all that body. The bottom of the cloak puddled on the floor, because any vampire here that the cloak could belong to was a foot taller. The cloak looked borrowed, and it was, but Octavius and Pierce were at his back, and they didn't look borrowed at all. They looked perfectly at home.