"We must understand these new powers, and quickly, ma petite. We must experiment with a master we trust before I allow you to go to the party tomorrow. We must know what we are dealing with, if we can."
Raised voices on the other side of the door. Claudia yelling, "You can't just go in there!"
Richard's voice, angry. "Watch me."
Jean-Claude sighed, and I settled lower in the water. I did not want to fight with Richard tonight. But from the feel of him through the door, we weren't going to have a choice.
Jean-Claude called, "Let him in, Claudia."
The door opened, but Claudia came first, as if she didn't trust Richard in there with us. His power rode through the door like the heat edge of a forest fire, something that should have choked and killed anything in its path. We'd raised his power level along with ours, and we were about to find out how sorry that was going to make us.
CLAUDIA STOOD BETWEEN him and the tub, and because she was about five inches taller, she blocked our view of him. Of some of him. She was the more serious bodybuilder, but he had broader shoulders. His shoulders and what I could glimpse of his lower body let me know he was wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. There was a herd of black in the door, where the other guards waited to figure out what to do. Some of them were werewolves and he was their Ulfric; you don't stand in the way of your king, not and survive.
His power swirled through the room like invisible fire, as if the water should have boiled with it. Then I realized, it wasn't just Richard's power. Claudia had been my bodyguard off and on for months, maybe a year, but until this moment I hadn't really understood how much power was in that tall, muscular body. It was her power, too, burning down the room. She wasn't just physical muscle. The air was hard to breathe, as if it were too hot to pass over my lips, like coffee that you want to blow on before you drink it. I don't know what Richard had done outside, but it had made Claudia drop all her pretenses and show her power, like a preview, or a warning.
Her voice echoed in the room. "No farther, until you prove you've got your shit under control." Her legs bent, her body going into that partial crouch, legs moving in the space she had between the raised tub and him. It was a fighting stance. Jesus.
"Move!" Richard shouted it, in a voice gone bass with growling. Not good.
Jean-Claude and I exchanged looks. He gave a small shrug. I tried. "Richard." I had to raise my voice, and say his name three times, before he answered.
"Tell her to move, Anita," he growled.
"What will you do if she moves?" I asked.
I felt some of that burning power hesitate, grow weaker. His voice was still growly, but less sure of itself. "I don't know." He said it as if he hadn't thought beyond getting to us. That wasn't like Richard, to have no idea what he planned to do.
"Are you going to try to hurt us?" I asked, sitting up in the water enough to peer around Claudia's body. I caught a glimpse of his face. His hair was a foamy mass of waves, all brown and gold. In sunlight there would be more gold to his brown, and strands of coppery red. His hair was brown, but as if it could never quite decide if it might be blond, or auburn instead. It had finally grown back to brush the tops of his broad shoulders. The bright crimson T-shirt strained around his upper arms, because he was holding his hands in tight, tight fists. It looked as if the seams of the shirt weren't going to hold the muscles' strain. His summer tan was dark against the red of the shirt. He looked at me then, the full force of his eyes, and the shock of it thrilled down my spine. His eyes were wolf eyes: amber, gold, and no longer human. It was the beginning of the change. No wonder Claudia was on alert.
The dimple in his chin usually softened the sharp perfection of his cheekbones, and the utterly masculine beauty of his face. He, more than almost any other man in my life, was handsome, not pretty. Nothing would ever make you mistake Richard for a girl, not even from the back, not even with the hair. The body was too masculine to be anything else. Tonight the dimple didn't soften anything, because the anger in his face was too raw. Had the anger fed his power, or the other way around? Who knew; who cared? Dangerous either way.
"Control yourself, Ulfric," Claudia said.
He turned those golden-amber eyes to her. "If I don't, what then?" For the first time since I'd known him I realized he was spoiling for a fight. It wasn't like him. It was like me.
Jean-Claude and I both started to climb out of the tub at the same moment. He went for one of the huge fluffy white towels, wrapping it around his waist as he cleared the water. Shapeshifters aren't usually bothered by nudity, but tonight he might be, at least by Jean-Claude. Richard was a touch homophobic; what he'd felt us do tonight wouldn't help that.
I left the knife and the gun on the edge of the tub. I wouldn't kill him, and he knew it. One, there was a chance that if one of us died, the vampire marks would kill us all; two, most of the time I loved him too much to want him dead. Right at that moment was not one of those times. That moment was one of those times when I wished he had fewer hang-ups, and had had more therapy. He was in therapy, but not enough therapy for what he'd felt Jean-Claude and me do tonight. He was the last third of our triumvirate. Of all the ones we'd shared power with, Richard would have gotten more sensations, more real physical feedback of what we were doing. He was the one who would hate it the most and he got the most complete ride. Unfair, but true.
Jean-Claude stayed near the back wall with its mirror. It was the largest place to stand. He handed me a towel but I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I stood there, framed by the black marble, nude, water dripping down my body, glistening in the light. My hair plastered to my face, leaving my eyes huge and dark in the paleness of my face. I could almost never resist any of my men fresh from the tub or shower. There was something about water streaming down na**d skin that was just yummy. Here was hoping that Richard felt the same way.
"I won't ask you again, move!"
"She is doing her job, mon ami."
"Shut up," he screamed, "shut up, I don't want to hear you right now."
Oh, boy. I moved around the narrow edge between tub and wall on the closest side to the door. I stopped on the raised platform so I was totally framed by the cool black marble with its white and silver streaks. My pulse was in my throat, because even a few inches closer made their power hotter, like moving closer to that open flame when your skin is crying out, Hot, hot, don't touch.
"Richard." I whispered it, but he heard me.
He looked at me with that rage-filled face, and the moment he saw me, his eyes filled with such pain, as if the sight of me like that was a knife blow straight through his heart. I was sorry for the pain, but happy about the reaction. Almost any emotion is better for a shapeshifter than anger. Anger feeds their beasts quicker. We needed to slow things down.
"How could you do that? How could you do that with him?" I thought he meant Auggie, until he pointed a finger at Jean-Claude.
"I'm not sure what you mean by 'that,' Richard."
"Don't play me, Anita," and this was a yell. He covered his face with his hands, and staggered back a step. He screamed, wordless, and so full of pain. He dropped to his knees, and screamed again. His power filled the room as if we'd all been plunged into boiling water. It felt as if my skin were being cooked. I'd felt Richard's power before, but nothing like this. How much power had he gained from our feed on Auggie?
Claudia stayed in a fighting stance, and I didn't blame her. Graham was just inside the door, rubbing his bare arms, looking conflicted. He owed Richard his allegiance, but he was paid to keep us safe. He also knew that Richard would never forgive any of the wolves that allowed him to hurt me. Jean-Claude I wasn't so sure about, but me, he'd regret it later, and his regret had a way of raining all over everybody. Lisandro was in the room too, near the sinks. There was no conflict on his dark face. He was tall, dark, and handsome, with the longest hair of any of the male wererats. If Claudia said jump, he'd do it.
Clay was in the doorway, as tormented as Graham. We needed fewer wolves in here, and more wererats, or werehyenas, anything but people who would hesitate.
Richard lowered his hands, and his eyes were pure chocolate brown. He'd swallowed some of that awful, burning power. "You helped him rape the Master of Chicago." He wasn't yelling now, and I almost wished he had. It would have been easier to hear than the anguish in his voice.