But what he said made no sense to me. "It wasn't rape, Richard. You know that. You felt some of what Auggie was feeling. Hell, Richard, Auggie started the ball rolling. He raised my ardeur on purpose, picked a fight with me."
Richard looked at me, and I watched him want to believe me, but be afraid to. "Do you really think I'd rape someone?"
He shook his head. "No, but he would." He pointed toward Jean-Claude, who was standing very still behind me.
His voice came neutral, as empty as he could make it. "I have done many things over the centuries, Richard, but rape has never been to my taste."
I remembered Jean-Claude's memories with Auggie. Belle had wanted him to rape Auggie, and Jean-Claude had changed it to something gentler, or as gentle as he could make it with Belle watching. I opened my mouth to say something, but knew somehow that telling about the other two times that Jean-Claude and Auggie had had sex wouldn't help us.
"See, Anita, you can't defend him either."
"I do defend him. Jean-Claude has a lot of faults; rape isn't one of them."
"That wasn't what you started to say a second ago." He was still kneeling on the floor, but he was calming, swallowing that choking power. He was showing the control that had helped make him Ulfric of the Thronnos Rokke Clan.
Claudia moved to one side, so she could see him as she glanced at me. I gave her a small nod, but added, "I think Clay and Graham have something else they need to be doing."
She nodded, and ordered them out, and replaced them with two guards who wouldn't feel conflicted. She'd understood what I'd meant. If Richard understood what I'd done, he didn't show it, not even by a flicker of his eyes.
"I'm trying to decide what I can say that won't piss you off, Richard. That's all."
He took in a breath so deep it made his shoulders shake. "Fair enough." His voice sounded like his own now, not all growling deep. "Did the other master really pick a fight with you?"
I nodded. We'd leave the whole theory as to why he might have picked it until we were alone. "You felt his power, Richard--if it had come down to a fight, a true fight, vampire on vampire, would we have won?"
He looked down at his hands where they lay still and open on his thighs. "I don't think so."
"He raised the ardeur. If I feed off him, then he loses."
Richard nodded. "Food can't be dominant. I know." He looked past me to Jean-Claude. "Why would he raise the ardeur? Why would he pick the one way that he could lose?"
"I do not believe he wished to win," Jean-Claude said.
"That makes no sense," Richard said.
"He is already master of one territory. It is against our laws to rule a second that does not touch your own. There are lands in between our territories, so defeating me would win him nothing. But losing to the ardeur would give him..."
"A woman of Belle Morte's line who holds the ardeur, oui."
"I thought you said he was your friend," Richard said.
"I believe he is." Jean-Claude sighed and said, "We need privacy for this discussion, Claudia, if you would leave us?"
She looked at me, not at the men. I liked Claudia. "It's okay."
She sighed. "We'll be right outside the door, but if the power level rises again, we are back in here."
"No arguments," I said.
"I'll control myself," Richard said.
"Sure," she said, and went for the door. Lisandro stared back at us as the door closed, and it wasn't a bodyguard look. It was a man's look at a na**d woman that he'd never seen na**d before. Until that moment I hadn't even thought about any of the other men in the room. Richard had been all I thought of; the rest of them might as well have been eunuchs as far as I'd been concerned. But with that one look Lisandro broke two rules. First, shapeshifters didn't notice nudity; they did it too much. It would be like your cat thinking about not wearing pants. Second, it was against the bodyguard code to let clients see that you thought about them in any way other than as a target to keep safe. You did not let a female client see that you lusted after her, even if she paraded naked. That was her problem, not yours. You do not f**k those you guard, because you can't guard them while you're f**king. I guess there are exceptions to the above rules, but Lisandro hadn't earned those exceptions.
I gave him a look that let him know I'd seen his look. He just smiled, not a smidge of regret. Great, just great.
The door closed behind the guard, and we were alone. None of us moved, as if now that it was just us, we weren't certain what to do.
Richard spoke into the sudden heavy silence. "I need you to put on a towel, at least, Anita, please." He added the please like it hurt him to ask politely. I guess he was still angry. But he had swallowed all that rage the way he'd learned to swallow his beast. Part of me was beginning to wonder if there would come a day when he couldn't swallow all the rage, and what would happen when that day came. Once I'd thought Richard would never hurt me; now I knew better. He wouldn't hurt me on purpose, but purpose wasn't always what drove him.
Jean-Claude handed me a towel. His face was empty as he did it, nothing to help me, or give me a hint, but nothing on his face for Richard to take offense at either. I guess we were both being as careful of him as we could.
It was a big towel. I ended up covered from armpits to nearly my ankles. I tucked the end of the towel securely under and over, and voilà, I was dressed.
"Thank you," Richard said.
"You're welcome," I said, and sat down on the edge of the marble, smoothing the towel under me. Marble can be very cold to sit on bare.
Jean-Claude handed me another slightly smaller towel. I took it, and watched as he began to wrap an identical towel around his wet hair. He was right; if I didn't dry my hair well, it would be a mess tomorrow.
"How can the two of you do that?" he asked.
I looked at him from underneath the towel, while I wrapped it around my head. "What are we doing now?"
"Taking care of your hair like nothing's wrong."
I got the towel fixed in place and turned to meet Jean-Claude's look. He took the hint. "If we let our hair dry badly, it will not change what has happened, Richard. The practicalities of life do not cease needing to be done just because other things are going wrong."
Richard moved so he was sitting on the floor, rather than kneeling. He hugged his knees to him, and it was something that Nathaniel might have done, not my dominant Richard. Whatever he had experienced with us tonight, it had shaken him.
Jean-Claude came to sit beside me on the edge of the marble tub. He was careful not to touch me, only the faintest edge of our h*ps touching through the towels. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me, but he was probably right. Richard didn't always like to see us cuddle.
"You wanted privacy for this talk, so talk," he said. One of the side effects of the vampire marks was that we seemed to be sharing bits of our personalities. He seemed to have inherited some of my impatience and lack of anger management. A bad combination for a werewolf. But we didn't get to pick and choose what we got.
"Ma petite, if you will tell him, and me, what happened before I arrived."
I told the shortest complete version I could of all that had happened before Jean-Claude showed up. Somewhere during the talk, I leaned in against Jean-Claude's body. It just seemed wrong to be this close and not touch. He put his arm along my shoulder.
Richard didn't seem to notice. "I thought this Samuel and Augustine were your friends?" he said.
Then Richard said what I'd thought earlier. "If these are your friends, Jean-Claude, what are the other masters going to be like?"
"I'd thought of that, too," I said. "I mean, if these are your friends, your enemies are going to kill us."
"One of the reasons for tonight's little meeting was to see how ma petite reacted to other Masters of the City."
"Badly," Richard said.
"Not necessarily," Jean-Claude said. He leaned forward, curving me more into his arm to keep from knocking me off the edge. Jean-Claude started to tell his part in tonight's little drama, but Richard stopped him.
"I felt most of what happened after you touched Anita. I don't need a reminder."
"As you like," Jean-Claude said, "but the point is we may have rolled Augustine as thoroughly as Belle Morte could have done."