"You are all blood of my blood, Anita. I can do many things to that which is mine."
Hands on me, cloth tearing, my body jerking with the force of it. The coolness of air on my back. Jean-Claude's chest and stomach pressed against my back, the lace of his white shirt only a frame for our flesh. But the moment that much of his skin touched mine, the memory turned black and Belle was back on the edge of her big bed in the flickering light of candles. Her anger filled her eyes with dark honey flame. She had never known that Jean-Claude gave Auggie a choice, all these long years ago.
Jean-Claude's bare arms wrapped around my nearly na**d upper body. He wrapped his arms around me, cradled me as close to his body as the gun and knife at my back would allow.
Augustine's hands were still in mine, as if he couldn't, or wouldn't, let me go. But it was Jean-Claude's body that chased her back. That shut down the memory.
"Your body can stop me, but I leave you two parting gifts, Jean-Claude and Augustine. The first is the ardeur that will claim the three of you, and if I push hard enough will spread through the room to all that are left. I feel Asher and..." She closed her eyes, licked her lips. "Mmm, Requiem is there, as well. They will try to hold it back when it happens. Perhaps they will succeed, perhaps not." Then she looked directly at us, and it was as if she could see us, truly see us. Such concentration in those eyes. "My second is a question to you and a gift for Anita. Have you realized one of her talents, Jean-Claude, that she can borrow the abilities that are used against her? My ability to make living memories, I give to her now, just this once. I want her to have it to use, and I will not fight her magic's ability to take it. I will let her take this power to her mind, and I leave her with this question: Do you really believe that Augustine and Jean-Claude only had sex this one time, or were there more?"
Cloth tore, and more of Jean-Claude pressed against me. "I close this door to you, Belle, for she is mine, not yours."
"I'm going, I'm going, enjoy my gifts." But I was still tied close enough to her mind to know that she had no choice. She pretended she did, but Jean-Claude had chased her out. The last thing I felt from her was regret. Regret for the men she left me with, that I had them and she did not.
I came up gasping as if I'd been underwater. I was down to nothing but bra and panties, the skirt suit ripped away. My gun with its holster had vanished with the skirt. Jean-Claude's clothes were mostly gone, as well.
"Is there anything your bloodline does that doesn't involve getting naked?"
He laughed, that wonderful, touchable laugh. And I wasn't the only one who reacted to it. Auggie shivered as he gripped my hands. He was still in his expensive suit, even his tie tight in place. He'd behaved himself admirably.
I looked around the room and found it empty except for Asher on the side near the outer door and Requiem on the side near the hallway that led farther into the underground. Asher with his golden hair that hid the scars the Church had given him when they tried to burn the devil out of him with holy water. Requiem tall and pale, with hair almost as dark as mine and Jean-Claude's. His face was graced by a mustache and a small trimmed beard. Though tonight he looked like something big had hit him on the side of the face. They both held their arms up and out from their bodies. I could feel power radiating from them. I realized they'd thrown up the vampiric equivalent of a power circle to try to hold in the ardeur, and the memories. To stop it from spreading.
I relaxed in Jean-Claude's arms, squeezed Augustine's hands. There was a whisper in my mind, "Were there other times?" Was it my thought, or hers? I didn't know, and it didn't matter, because the question came, and the thought was enough.
I was thrown into the middle of a memory that had me clawing for air. Auggie on top, pressing Jean-Claude's body into a bed.
"Non, ma petite, non." His body pressed against me, all that lovely nakedness, but it wasn't enough. This wasn't Belle's power imposed on me. She'd figured out what I'd only discovered recently myself, that I could borrow powers from vamps if they used those powers on me first. Some powers were more permanent than others, some didn't take at all, but this one was taking. This one was taking, and I couldn't stop it.
I screamed, and Auggie's arms were bare under my hands. But it didn't help. It didn't help.
"Then have all the memory, Anita," Auggie said, "see it all."
We were in a room, small but elegant. Auggie sat in a chair. Jean-Claude was down on one knee before him, hat in hand, head bowed.
This Auggie's yellow hair was down to his shoulders. He wore blue and silver gray with too much lace for my taste. "So the rumors are true--you have left her voluntarily."
Jean-Claude nodded, and looked up. "I have."
Auggie laughed. "You leave heaven voluntarily when I cry in hell for one last glimpse of it." He shook his head, sighed, the humor vanishing from his face. "But if you are strong enough to leave heaven I will get you to the coast. I know a ship and a captain that I trust."
"What is the destination of the ship?"
"The English colonies. The United States of America, they are called now. But honestly, Jean-Claude, does it matter where it goes as long as you are off the continent, and far from her?"
Jean-Claude bowed his head again as if whatever was in his eyes, he didn't wish to share. "I cannot pay you, Augustine, I have left with nothing."
"It is a gift in honor of your bravery at leaving paradise, not once, but twice. Twice, when I would give everything I have to go back."
Jean-Claude raised his face, beautiful and empty, his face when he was hiding what he was thinking. "Is it Belle you miss, or the ardeur?"
"I cannot give you Belle, but the ardeur is mine to share."
Such eagerness on Augustine's face for an instant. A need so raw it filled his eyes with fire like lightning's glow behind gray clouds. Then his face stilled, all that hunger hiding away, but we had seen it. For in that instant, I was no longer seeing the room like some floating phantom. I was inside Jean-Claude's head as I had been inside him and Belle in the earlier memory.
Augustine's voice was as empty as his face when he said, "It is a gift, Jean-Claude. I would be your friend. Friends do not count the costs of favors."
We were surprised, and had been too long with Belle Morte to trust it. "I would have bargained my body to gain what you offer so freely, Augustine."
"And that is why I offer it freely. Yes, I long to be with her again. I will love her until the end of the world, but I did not always like her, or what she forced us to do." His face darkened with memories, but he waved them away, and smiled. "I would have stayed with her forever, doing her bidding, her willing slave, even though I knew her to be evil. I was too"--he seemed to search for a word--"immersed in her to ever wish to save myself, or save all those she wished me to enslave for her. If she had not cast me out, I would never have been strong enough to go."
"You refused direct orders from her. Some at her court still speak of it."
He nodded. "Even someone as weak as I am has things he will not do." Such sorrow on his face, such loss.
We laid our cheek against his hand where it lay on the chair arm. We rolled our eyes upward, so we could watch his face. His hand was very still under our cheek, as if he'd stopped breathing. "Let me share the one gift I have with my only friend."
He fought to keep the eagerness off his face, but only half succeeded. "You do not have to do this, Jean-Claude. I meant what I said. It is my gift to you." There was a tension in his hand where it lay, as if his body fought to be still but his hand betrayed him.
"I know your preference is for women."
"As is yours," Auggie said.
"Yes, but Belle does not share her personal men with other women."
Auggie smiled, and the smile was friendly but nothing more; it didn't match the growing tension in the hand that lay under our cheek. His voice was mild as he said, "Unless it is a woman she wished for us to seduce."
We smiled, too. "For money, or land, or politics, oui." We shared a smile made up of centuries in her bed, pawns in her great plans. "I am the only one of her line to have inherited the full power of the ardeur, Augustine, and there are none of our blood in this new America."
"So my last opportunity to taste the ardeur and yours to be with another master of Belle Morte's line is tonight."