"I promise," Nathaniel said, and they started for the door.
I turned to Asher. "Are you mad at me?"
"No one likes to be taken for granted, Anita."
"I don't take you for granted."
"You do, and so does Jean-Claude."
I didn't know what to say to that so I said that part out loud. "I don't know what to say to that."
He shook his head. "We do not have time to tend my emotional wounds. Forgive me."
The door closed behind us, Nathaniel and Damian were outside trying to find a place to wait while I fed enough to keep us all alive.
I reached for Asher's hand. He took it, but he wouldn't look at me. What little of his face he gave was that perfect profile, with the scars hidden behind the glory of his hair. I'd asked for sex and he was hiding from me. Not good.
"What is wrong?" I asked.
"Do you realize that this will be the first time we have ever had sex alone together?"
I started to argue with him but stopped myself. I could remember his body so intimately. So many nights and afternoons of his body against mine. Had there always been someone else with us? Had we never had a moment that was just us, just ours?
I touched his face, tried to get him to look at me, but he wouldn't do it. "It's not just Jean-Claude that you haven't gotten enough personal attention from, is it?"
He smiled then, but not like he was happy. "I spent centuries being desired by all that I touched, or wanted. Then I spent centuries being despised, ridiculed. Sex was a mercy or done as a torment to the ones Belle wished to punish."
I tried to hug him, and he kept me away, just holding my hand while he talked. I said the only thing I could think to say. "I'm sorry."
He finally looked at me with the perfect side of his face. He let me see the drowning beauty that had made people give up their fortunes, their honor, their virtue, for but one more night staring into this face. "You have healed some of my hurts. Being with you and Jean-Claude. I thought it would be enough."
I slid my hand underneath his hair, so I could touch the scarred side of his face. I cupped that which he hid, while I stared up into the face he let me see. "But you don't get enough attention from either of us."
"It sounds childish when you say it out loud, but it does not feel childish inside here." He touched his chest. "It feels like I am starving to death in the midst of a feast. But it is a feast that I share with too many. Neither of you watches only me. There is always someone else more beautiful, more desirable."
"There is no one more beautiful than you, Asher."
He jerked back, and exposed the scars on his face. "How can you say that to me?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"I want to be the center of someone's life again, Anita. Jean-Claude's center is you. Yours is beginning to be Nathaniel and Micah." He grabbed my arms and closed his eyes tight. "I am no one's darling, and I cannot bear it." He laughed, but when he opened his eyes there was a shine of unshed tears. "How stupid and childish. How selfish."
"It's not about being with men, or women, is it?" I said, "It's because none of the men I'm picking will ever put you at the center of their world."
"I want to be loved, Anita, as I once was."
"Julianna," I said, softly.
He nodded. "Once it was Jean-Claude, but he could never truly love another man the way he loves a woman. Belle's tastes and demands sent many of us to the arms of other men, but Jean-Claude could never be content with just men in his bed. He is a lover of women above all else."
"And you?" I asked, because he seemed to want me to ask.
"I think if it were the right man, I could be in love, and content, but I think the same of a woman. It is love I seek, Anita, not the package around it. I have always been needier of attention than Jean-Claude. I sought a woman for my human servant when I realized that Jean-Claude would never be content with just men, with just me."
I didn't know what to say to the pain in his voice. An emotional burden he'd carried for two or three hundred years, and I was supposed to fix it, or at least make it better, how? How was I going to do that?
I felt Damian reach out for me. It made me stagger against Asher. He had to catch me. "I'm draining Damian."
"Then I must stop being an enfant terrible, and let you feed."
"I do want you, Asher. I do love you. But right now, I don't have time to..."
"To heal my wounds," he finished for me.
"To make love to you the way I want to."
He gave me a look, like he didn't believe me.
"We have to feed and get back to the party, but you are not just emergency food to me. You are not just someone I share with Jean-Claude. You are special to me, Asher, you, just you. I don't have time to make you believe me tonight, but I'll try to do better later."
He drew me in against his body, held me close, whispered into my hair, "Later you will have to feed upon someone else, for I will have had my turn."
I drew back enough to see his face, and said, "Remember one thing, that I didn't make love to you that first time because I had to feed the ardeur. I made love to you because I wanted to, because Jean-Claude and I wanted to."
"You did it to protect me from Belle Morte's agents."
"Yeah, we did it so that Belle couldn't call you home, so you'd belong to us by her rules, but you're still the only new man in my life that I had sex with because I wanted to take care of you, not because you were food."
"Take care of me?"
I nodded. "It's what you do when you love someone."
He smiled then, and it was that rare smile. The smile that made him look terribly young, and not at all like himself, as if that smile was all that was left of what he might have been centuries ago. "You can't possibly love all the men in your life, Anita."
"No," I agreed, "but I love you. I love Jean-Claude."
"And Micah, and Nathaniel," he said.
"And London, and Requiem," he said.
I shook my head. "No, not them."
"Why not love them? They are beautiful and perfect."
I grinned. "Not perfect; handsome, but not perfect. Requiem's too damn moody by half. London, I'm a little embarrassed about him."
"Not sure, maybe because I'm not sure I even like him, and I had sex with him." I felt Damian slumping at the table where he sat. Nathaniel caught his arm, kept him in the chair. Asher had to catch me or I might have fallen.
"You need to feed," he said.
"Then we have talked enough. Tonight I will take care of you, because that is what you do when you love someone."
Heat rose up in my face, and I wasn't sure why.
He laughed, not a magical vampire laugh, but a very masculine laugh. That laugh that lets you know you've pleased them in some very guy sort of way.
"What?" I asked, and wouldn't look at him, because I knew that would make the blush worse.
"You blushed because I said I loved you."
I nodded, and tried to sound churlish, as I said, "So?"
"So, I know you love me."
That made me look up at him. "Just because I blushed?"
"I blush a lot."
He drew me into the circle of his arms. "Yes, but this one was for me." He laid a kiss upon my forehead. "I would like to feed while you feed."
"Haven't you fed yet?"
"No, the blood hunger did not rise."
"Isn't that unusual?"
"Then feed." I thought about it. "Though I'm sort of running out of spots for fresh fang marks."
He touched the side of my neck where Requiem's bite lay. He traced his hand over the mound of my breast, dipping a little lower than the corset top until he caressed London's bite. He dipped his fingers lower, so that he touched my nipple. Just that brought my breath in a gasp.
He laughed again, that pleased sound. His hand slid up my thigh, forced me to move my legs apart so he could find Jean-Claude's bite in my very inner thigh.
My voice came breathy, "How did you know it was there?"
"I smelled it," he whispered. "Are you ready for me?"
I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice.
"Then look at me, Anita, look into my eyes."