"Meng Die threw both Requiem and Asher around like dolls in front of humans. We will be lucky if your police do not come calling and asking questions. She tried to kill Requiem, ma petite, not wound him. She did not care that there was an audience, but Requiem and Asher did not want to kill her in front of an audience. I had the same problem when I arrived on the scene." He was angry now, the first thread of it filling his eyes with light. "She is even now locked in a cross-wrapped coffin. But it is a temporary measure. I must let her out tomorrow night, or kill her. She will see one night as a fit punishment, but beyond that it will be an insult, and she is too powerful to eat such an insult." He fixed those brilliant eyes on me. "So, I ask again, what will you tell Requiem when he tells you that he is free of Meng Die? What excuse will you give?"
"I'm dating three men, living with two more, and having occasional sex with two others. That's seven men. I'm like a p**n ographic Snow White. I think seven is plenty."
"But it is not, ma petite. Emotionally it may be too many, but metaphysically, and for the sake of our power base, seven is not enough. You must add a lover who is not metaphysically connected to you, and you must pick a new Pomme de sang now that Nathaniel is your animal to call."
"I thought this was optional--you're making it sound like it's almost an emergency. And wait, did you say add a lover and a pomme de sang? I thought I was adding just one, if I added anybody."
"I tasted your power tonight, ma petite; it needs to be fed and fed well. You are like one of those dieting women that thinks she can survive on lettuce leaves and water. It may feel like food, but your body dies anyway."
"I'm not dying," I said.
"No, but your power is seeking a new pomme de sang. Don't you understand what is happening, ma petite? The ardeur is seeking for you."
"Okay, I'm confused now."
"It is not like Augustine to lose control. He is over two thousand years old, ma petite; one of the first vampires Belle made. You do not thrive for so long if you make such mistakes as he did this night."
"Belle messed with him, and with me."
He shook his head. "He raised your ardeur first, before she appeared, did he not?"
"Yeah, he said now he could do what he'd wanted to do all along, and no one could be mad at him."
Jean-Claude laughed, and it was just humor this time. He could control his laugh if he worked at it. "He doesn't know you very well yet. But when I said Augustine is my friend, I meant it. He would not have overstepped his bounds as my guest, not without something being wrong."
"And what's wrong?"
"The ardeur needs more food, ma petite, and like any predator it is seeking prey."
"It's just a metaphysical ability, Jean-Claude, not its own entity."
He gave me a look, and it was eloquent. "You know exactly what the ardeur is, ma petite. You know that it has a mind of its own, similar to the beasts you carry. But I believe that the ardeur can do something your beasts cannot. It is, I believe, putting out the welcome mat."
He sighed, and slid down in the water until his chin touched it. "You may not like Meng Die, but she is... proficient in bed. I find it inexplicable that Requiem would leave her body, on only the chance that he might be your lover. As I find it inexplicable that Augustine would purposefully insult me by raising the ardeur in you. He, in effect, attacked you, and through you, me."
"He told me to feed from him, because then I'd win the fight, and once you got into the room he said you'd lose."
Jean-Claude sat up so abruptly that he sloshed water in my face. I brushed my eyes clear, while he said, "He said that?"
I blinked at him, still trying to keep water out of my eyes. "Yes."
"Then it is as I have feared. The ardeur is seeking what it needs."
"Are you saying that the ardeur is putting out, what, pheromones?"
"I do not know this word."
"Pheromones, it's a chemical or hormone that some animals give out. The scent attracts mates. I think it was first discovered in moths."
"Yes, pheromones then, yes."
"I'm not agreeing with you, but say it is true; why does it only seem to work on certain people? I mean, it doesn't work on Clay, and I think Graham just wants to f**k. Why Requiem and Auggie?"
"What do they have in common?" he asked.
"They're both vamps of Belle's bloodline, and they're both masters. But thanks to all our imports from London, there are a couple more vampires in town who qualify. They aren't buzzing around me."
"But they do not approach the power level of Augustine and Requiem."
"Are you saying the ardeur is shopping for powerful food?"
"I offer it as an idea."
I thought about it, but finally looked at him. "If this is what's happening, and I'm not saying it is, then is it only vamps from Belle's line, or any master vampire of a certain power level?"
"I do not know."
"Then we need to know before tomorrow's big party," I said. "If there is even the faintest chance that the ardeur is going to do some funky shit with every master vampire above a certain power level, then no way can I go to the party tomorrow. We're going to be neck-deep in Masters of the City. It would be bad if they all decided they wanted to be my sweetie."
He nodded. "There is one other thing they both have in common, ma petite."
"And that would be?"
"They have both been with vampires who held the ardeur."
"You said vampires, plural. You don't mean just Belle, do you?"
"Requiem had a lover who meant as much to him as Julianna did to Asher and me. Her name was Ligeia."
"He told me that Belle killed her out of jealousy."
"Oui. Ligeia was the only woman of her line to acquire the ardeur. It wasn't the full ardeur that Belle, you, and I carry, but there is more: Requiem refused Belle's bed for her."
"And she killed her for that."
"You have been inside Belle Morte's head, ma petite, how can you sound surprised?"
He had a point. "It still seems pretty petty for a vampire who's over two thousand years old," I said.
He nodded. "Oui, but many of the old ones can be extremely petty." He held his hand out to me.
I stared at that hand for a heartbeat, then I took it. I let him draw me through the water and in against his body. Let him press me to the front of his body, wrap his arms around me. "You're afraid," I said, my cheek pressed to the firmness of his chest.
"Oui, I am afraid."
"There are others here who have tasted the ardeur and are masters. We need to test our theory, ma petite, but I fear we run the risk of having you tied permanently to someone, or they to you."
"Auggie isn't tied to me."
"He did not want to leave our side, ma petite. If he does not recover, then he will be as Belle made her victims, hungering for us forever, willing to do anything to be back between us."
"You sound sad."
"He was my friend; I did not mean to enslave him as Belle would. I saw her victims give up everything, betray every vow, every trust, for the sake of her body." He held me tight against him. "It is not a power I ever wished to possess."
"You hold the ardeur."
"Oui, but this is a level of the ardeur that only she possesses. We all believed that only Belle Morte could wield it at such a level."
"You don't want it."
"I want to be so powerful that no one dares challenge me or our people. But I am afraid of this, and what it will mean."
His heart was beating too fast against my ear. Had it been beating all along, or had it just started? "Mean, how?"
"There are those in Europe who already fear my growing power. Knowledge that I wielded the ardeur at the same level as Belle Morte might tip the scales in the council's voting. They might vote to kill us all rather than risk me making a power base in America, as strong as Belle once possessed in Europe. Or the other American masters might collude to kill us, for fear that we would become like the tyrants of the European council."
"How likely is all this?" I asked.
"How possible?" I asked, suddenly realizing that an accidental pregnancy might not be the worst disaster we could have.