"Perhaps it is love," Jean-Claude said.
Auggie looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Perhaps what ma petite needs is not strength of arms and will alone. Perhaps there are other needs to be met."
Auggie smiled, and for a minute he was the friendly guy who had first stepped into our living room. "You are a romantic at heart, Jean-Claude. It was always your weakness."
"And my strength," Jean-Claude said.
Auggie shook his head. "I gave up such things long ago."
"How sad for you."
The two vampires stared at each other. It was a long, long look. It was Auggie who turned away, and put his gaze on me. "You come off as hard, but you're a romantic, too, Anita. I don't think you have it in you to bind yourself to someone just for power and safety. That's what we did, Jean-Claude and me. We chose our servants, and our animals, for power. There are dozens, hundreds that come up on the radar over the centuries, but you wait. You wait until you are either desperate enough for the choice to be forced, or you find just the right one to make you powerful." He motioned at all the men. "Since you don't choose, your power chooses for you. I must say, it's got high standards. Since you don't know how to force your power to choose the one you want it to choose, I don't think you have the ability to force your power to choose."
I couldn't keep my nervousness down. My pulse rate sped up, just a little, and I had to swallow. Auggie would notice it. He would know that his little talk had hit home. He was right. I'd never been able to force the ardeur to choose, or not to choose.
"She forced the ardeur to free me," Requiem said, from his chair.
"She fought her beast not to choose Haven," Micah said.
"I think ma petite is finding her footing with her powers, Augustine."
"Do you truly wish to waste such a powerful alliance with someone who does not rule a pride?"
"Justin is part of Joseph's male coalition," I said. "They rule the pride together."
"But he is still not the dominant to match your wolf or your leopard king, Anita. It seems a shame to settle for a prince when you've only bedded kings."
I didn't know what to say to that. Because he was right, in one way; Justin didn't do it for me, or he hadn't before this. Maybe my lioness would like him better than I would? Part of me was hoping yes, and part of me didn't want to have to choose at all. If I was a master vampire then I should be able to choose, or not choose. If my power was more vampire than lycanthrope, then I had choices. If my power was more fuzzy than dead, then I was screwed.
WE GOT DRESSED in record time. I just gave myself over to the makeup and the primping. There wasn't time for me to argue. The outfit looked totally impractical, but the corset top was a dancer's corset. It meant it couldn't be laced as tight as Jean-Claude might like it, never tight enough to impede breathing, or movement. Jean-Claude told me I'd see similar corsets on the dancers tonight. The shoes had been dyed to match the shiny black of the dress, but they, too, were dancers' high heels. Made for ballroom dancing, actually, not ballet. When I'd seen the open-toed sandals I'd protested, hell no. There was no way to dance in them, I'd said, but damn me, Jean-Claude had been right. The shoes were actually comfortable.
The corset's piping was made of tiny diamonds, honest-to-God diamonds. The necklace he put around my neck was platinum and more diamonds. I'd almost asked how much money I was wearing, but decided that I really didn't want to know. It would have just made me more nervous, and that I did not need.
Jean-Claude's opera coat flowed like an elegant black cloak, but much more modern, with a short raised collar to frame his face, and the gleaming white of his shirt collar. The cravat at his neck was pierced by a platinum and diamond stickpin to match my necklace. His vest fit him like a glove because it was laced up the back; a corset vest. When he first suggested a corset top for me, I'd made the mistake of saying, "I'll wear a corset when you do." You'd think I'd know better by now. He'd just smiled and said yes. In fact he'd commissioned vests of various styles for all the men who would wear one. Impeccably tailored black slacks and gleaming black dress shoes completed his outfit. Oh, and a scattering of diamonds across the vest like stars tossed across a night sky. When I'd asked him why not make his vest have the same diamond pattern as my corset, he'd replied, "It is not a prom, ma petite."
All the other men were in black tuxes, some with tails, some just tailored.
The only difference was the color of the vests or jewelry accessories. It was damned subdued for one of Jean-Claude's parties.
The stretch limo had dropped us at the door, all eight of us. Which was why we needed the stretch. We'd done the gauntlet of flashing lights, cameras, microphones. They could call it a red carpet. It always felt like a gauntlet to me. Something to be endured, except instead of running as fast as you could, you had to smile and answer questions.
Jean-Claude always fielded the yelled questions and photo opportunities like a pro. I'd gotten better at clinging to his arm, and not glaring at the cameras. Occasionally you'd even catch me smiling. Everyone else was treated like entourage. You didn't yell questions at the entourage.
Normally, I enjoyed the Fox Theatre. It had been built in the 1920s as a movie theatre, but no movie theatre I knew had Chinese Foo dogs with glowing eyes at the bottom of a sweep of marble staircase. The interior was lush and gilt, full of carved Hindu gods, and animals from anywhere that qualified as exotic. Normally, I loved gazing at it all. Tonight, it was shelter from the storm.
We entered at the side entrance, the Fox club entrance. It was private, with valet parking, and a nice restaurant if you made reservations. People and corporations paid thousands of dollars a year to have a reserved box at the theatre. To my knowledge Jean-Claude didn't have a permanent box, but for tonight he had two reserved. The Fox club box seats actually ran out of room before they ran out of VIPs to seat. Jean-Claude had said that some of the visiting masters were actually on the floor with the peons, but in a special reserved front row section, along with many local celebrities.
The media frenzy might have been less if one of the Masters of the City coming hadn't been the Master of Hollywood, and his entourage. Hollywood likes Hollywood, and they had followed him out here. Someone had said that his newest girlfriend was some hot young star, in a new hit series I'd never heard of. When you work an average of sixty to a hundred hours a week, you don't watch much television. Funny, that. Apparently, the media was here as much for her as for anyone else. She must have been a very hot property indeed.
There were too many vampires in the VIP section to have dinner beforehand. It raised too many questions about what everyone would eat. Jean-Claude had avoided the problem by simply saying the restaurant was closed for that night. The management of the Fox was happy with that. Yeah, vamps were legal, but St. Louis is still part of the Bible Belt. No one was sure how people would take it if someone got pictures of vampires feasting on humans in the Fox club theatre. Just better to avoid the problem. Once we got to Danse Macabre, all bets would be off, but then people expected decadence at a vampire-run dance club. Not only expected it--were disappointed if they didn't see at least some salacious activities. I knew for a fact that some of the "naughty" impromptu scenes at Danse Macabre were very planned. The trick was to give the customers a thrill, not scare them to death, or make them run for a cop.
We finally got to our seats, Jean-Claude and I on one side of the little table in the middle, and Damian and Micah on the other side. Asher, Nathaniel, Jason, and Requiem took the box next to ours. Claudia and Lisandro, both in the bodyguards' black-on-black tuxes, stood near the boxes. Wicked and Truth were in the hallway leading into the box area. We had other bodyguards scattered throughout, because we'd refused to let the visiting masters bring more than two guards per, which meant we had to make certain they were safe. There were uniformed cops everywhere outside, as there usually were when you had a big event at the Fox. But it was more tonight; no one in St. Louis wanted some right-wing crazy to kill one of the master vamps in front of a television crew. No one wanted anyone to die period, but let's be honest, no one wanted that much bad publicity. Us, either, so there were wererats, werehyenas, werewolves, scattered throughout the building. The main difference was that the police were watching for hatemongers trying to kill the monsters, and our guards knew that the other job was to make sure none of the visiting monsters got out of hand. Jean-Claude was pretty sure they'd behave, but none of us was betting someone's life on it. Nor was he willing to risk ruining all this amazingly good publicity for vampires by some incident now at the last performance. Best behavior tonight, or else.