We nodded, our face rubbing along his hand.
He took his hand, gently, out from under us. "You are frightened," he said, and his face was soft with wonder.
"Then why leave her?"
"Because I could not stay, not and be hated by them both."
"Both?" We could not hide the tears, except by turning our faces away. Augustine came down on the floor with us. He held us while we cried. "It is not Belle that has broken your heart, it is Asher."
We wept for the first time in months. Wept into his arms, and he kissed our tears away and we sought comfort in the only arms that we trusted. Our only friend.
The earlier memory returned of them in the sheets. But it wasn't shocking this time. I was ready for it, knew what to expect. And I knew that this Jean-Claude had been the one who spent over twenty years as a happy couple with Asher and Julianna. This Jean-Claude had lost Julianna, and Asher--Julianna burned as a witch, and Asher consumed by hatred at Jean-Claude for not getting there in time to save her. This Jean-Claude still blamed himself. Jean-Claude had taken the wounded Asher back to Belle Morte's court to save his life, and the bargain for that salvation was that Jean-Claude was her whipping boy for a hundred years. The Jean-Claude in Augustine's bed had lost everything and everyone he'd ever loved. He took the only comfort he could find, and I couldn't begrudge him that.
The memory faded round the edges, because it wasn't the sex that was important to me, or Jean-Claude, or even Augustine. It was the emotion of it. I came back gasping, pulse in my throat. "If that's a memory, then why does it almost hurt to come out of it?"
"I do not know, ma petite, but we have not much time. I could not stop the memory, but I was able to direct it. I wanted you to understand what happened between us, because I cannot stop what is about to happen. We have fought her to give me time to soften the blow."
"We?" I looked up at Augustine, and his eyes held sorrow the way Jean-Claude's could hold lust.
"We'll hold it as long as we can, Jean-Claude, but hurry, whatever you are going to do, hurry." Asher's voice, but it held sorrow to match Auggie's eyes. I looked at Asher, and found his face traced with the faintly reddish lines of vampire tears. I realized then that everyone in the room had shared the memory.
"I am sorry, Anita," Auggie said, and he looked across me at Jean-Claude. "Sorry to you both."
"Sorry about what exactly?" I asked.
"This," he said, softly, and it was as if they'd both been holding their breaths, and suddenly they let go. They dropped their shields, their wills broke together, and the ardeur was suddenly there, smothering us all.
I thought I heard laughter, dim and echoing, Belle's laughter somewhere deep inside my head.
THE ARDEUR CAME and the clothes went. The custom-made leather knife sheath ripped away with all the rest. We fell to the carpet naked, all hands and mouths. The heavy metal and glass coffee table got shoved to one side as if it weighed nothing.
I pressed Auggie's muscled body onto the carpet, lay on top of him naked, feeling that he was already hard and ready, but I wanted to start at the other end. We kissed, and his lips were as full and ripe as they'd looked. He kissed delicately, though I knew the ardeur rode him and what he wanted to do was anything but delicate. I licked and kissed along his neck, his upper chest. I came to his ni**les, pale and hard in the muscled swell of his chest. I'd never been with anyone who was such a serious weight lifter. It was as if his skin fit tighter over all those muscles, so that it was harder to get a grip with my teeth, but worth the effort.
Sucking on his nipple raised his upper body off the floor, tore a yell from him. His eyes were wide, surprised, his hands reaching for something to hold on to. Someone grabbed one of those reaching hands, and I knew who it was, before Auggie drew him into my line of sight. Auggie drew Jean-Claude in to him, drew him down, as he lay back against the floor, and I worked lower on his body. I licked and bit along his stomach, as he drew Jean-Claude down for a kiss. Something I did raised Auggie up off the ground as their mouths touched, so that I had a good view of it. I had never seen two men kiss, not like that. Not with lips, and tongue. In the months that Asher had been in our bed they had moved toward each other a time or two, but stopped. I had never asked whose sensibilities they were saving, mine or theirs. Now, watching Jean-Claude cradling Auggie in his arms and kissing him so thoroughly... it tightened my body so hard and fast that it was like a mini-orgasm. I'd been told by a very smart friend that to keep saying that I didn't like to be in bed with two men at once was a little silly. A case of the lady protesting too much. My body reacted for me; the sight of them kissing just flat did it for me. I've been told that it's how a lot of men feel about seeing two women kiss. Why should I be any different?
I worked my way down Auggie's body, eyes rolled upward so I could watch them. I came to the long, hard, curve of Auggie's body. Not straight, but truly curved, so that the grace of that hard flesh curled in against his own body. He was hard enough that the head was na**d above the silky foreskin. I rolled my mouth over that head, then shoved as much of him into my mouth as I could, as fast and hard as I could. It made me come up choking, but it also tore him away from Jean-Claude's mouth. Made Auggie stare down at me with wild eyes. I went down on him again, slower, lingering over the feel of him in my mouth, so ripe, so thick, and how the hard line of that curve felt going down my throat. I watched them both watch me as I did it. Auggie's eyes wild with sensation; Jean-Claude's face full of pleasure, yes, but also pride. His own vampire marks were open enough for me to know that he was thinking how long and how hard he had worked to get to this point. He started to close the marks as much as the ardeur would let him, but I rose up from Auggie's body and said, "Don't, don't close down. Let's do this. Do it all. He started this fight, not us, let's finish it."
"Do you know what you are asking, ma petite?"
I nodded, then shook my head, my hand still wrapped around the base of Auggie's body. "I don't know, but I won't blame you later."
"Please," Auggie said, his voice full of such pleading, "please, don't stop. God, don't stop."
Jean-Claude and I looked at each other. We had a moment where he weighed me with his eyes. Then he gave a small nod, and said, "As you like, ma petite. For you are correct, he overstepped the bounds of hospitality." He looked down at Auggie. "Bad Augustine, to force the ardeur on ma petite.'"
Auggie nodded, his hand gripping Jean-Claude's arm. "It's been so long, Jean-Claude, so long, and there is no going back to her."
"We must feed on you, Augustine, in such a way that no other visiting master will dare this."
He nodded, though I wasn't certain he really understood what Jean-Claude had meant. Jean-Claude was holding the ardeur back, just enough. Enough so we could think, a little. When he let it go, it would sweep us away, and there would be no second-chance decisions.
"He has to be our message to the other visitors, Jean-Claude, or we won't survive this little gathering. These are your friends, and they nearly rolled us." I looked at him, and I felt the part of me that allowed me to kill, to do what was necessary. This was, in its odd way, a business decision. A political decision, a survival decision. I knew we could roll Auggie; he was more powerful than Jean-Claude, but I could feel it. Feel that we could feed on him in such a way that it wouldn't matter. Not kill him, but take him, make him ours in a way that I couldn't even explain in words.
Jean-Claude spoke as if he'd read my mind, which he probably had. "I feel it also, ma petite, but..."
"No buts," I said, "we can take him, I can feel it."
"Perhaps Belle Morte is too much in your mind still."
It was Asher's voice, strangled with effort. It drew our eyes to him. His hands trembled in the air as if he were holding some great weight. "Hurry, Jean-Claude, hurry. We cannot hold the circle much longer."
"He began this fight," Requiem said, "let us finish it." His hands weren't shaking, but there was a thread of strain in his voice.
Jean-Claude looked down at Auggie. "Understand this, Augustine, we have never fed like this. I do not entirely know what will happen. Are you content with such a gamble, for it is you who will suffer if it goes badly?"
I slid my mouth over him, playing my tongue along the foreskin. He shivered, and simply said, "Yes."