He picked her up and sat her in his lap. She cuddled against him. He was blinking out at the room, frowning. His face looked almost like he was in pain.
"Shit," I said softly. She had rolled him, rolled him with her eyes.
Jean-Claude said, "Valentina, he is our guest."
Samuel raised a hand up. "I run my kiss in the old way. He is my son, my eldest; if he cannot win free of a vampire who is not even a master..." He left the sentence unfinished.
"You make him earn his place constantly," Jean-Claude said.
I'd never even heard of the rule he was talking about. I said so. "I don't even know this rule."
"It is a version of survival of the fittest, ma petite. If Sampson is not strong enough to break free, or avoid Valentina's trickery, then he is a little less worthy in his master's eyes. It is a way that some Masters of the City separate the weak from the strong. Those who fail these tests often are demoted, traded to other lands, or killed." His voice was matter-of-fact, but I knew him well enough to taste the faint disapproval. "Very few American masters run their lands with this rule."
"I am older than most of the American masters," Samuel said.
I looked at Jean-Claude and he met my look. "But she's our vampire, and we don't live by this rule."
Richard hugged me, one-armed, as if he were afraid of what I'd do, or say.
"If his father decrees that Sampson must break free of her gaze by himself, then it is so, but we will make it very clear to all our vampires that this gaze is illegal in our country. It is seen as coercion." He stared at Valentina as he said it.
She pouted her lower lip out at him, and snuggled in tighter to Sampson. He put his arms around her, as if in response to the cuddling, or maybe she'd used mind tricks. If she'd rolled him enough not to need words to boss him around, we were in deeper trouble than I'd thought. Because once vampires roll you that much, they own you. They can reclaim their victims at any time. They can stand under their windows and call them out into the night. Hell, some of them can call their victims across town like sleepwalkers. If Valentina had rolled him that badly, he'd give her blood anytime she asked. He'd have no choice.
I don't know what I would have done, but suddenly there was new energy in the room. The air smelled fresher, faintly of salt and sea. Sampson's eyes cleared, that confused, bemused look fading. His eyes changed from the hazel of his father's to the flat black of his mother's. He stared down at the vampire in his lap, and his face had a look that I'd seen before. It was a look that said his seemingly youthful face held wisdom decades beyond the outside packaging. He gazed down at Valentina with a face that showed he had lived every day of seventy years. That he was no more his twenty-something, nice-guy-next-door package than Valentina was a child.
He tried to lift her out of his lap, but she clung to him, playing the child for all she was worth. "Don't you like me, Sampson?"
He shook his head. "No," he said, "I do not like you."
She pouted at him, even managing to feign tears, as if he'd hurt her feelings. Maybe he had. Valentina was hard to figure.
He drew her away from his body, and set her firmly on the ground. "You will not be able to trick me again, for I felt your mind. You are not a child, Valentina. You do not think as a child." He shivered, rubbing his hands up and down his arms as if to cleanse them from the feel of holding her. "I saw what you wanted to do to me. What you tried to persuade me I wanted to do." He shivered again. "Your mind has begun to want things beyond your body's years. Pain is your substitute for sex."
She put her hands on her hips, and stomped her little foot. "I don't know what you are talking about. Perhaps it is you that desires such things." Then she turned to Jean-Claude. "Master, can you not find one among all the visitors who would let me hurt him? I miss it." She said it as if there were no contradiction in telling Sampson he was the pervert, and then asking to do what he'd accused her of wanting to do.
Jean-Claude sighed. "Asher, if you would take her back to Bartolome."
Asher pushed himself up from the chair where he'd gone nearly motionless during all the hoopla. But Nathaniel said, "I'll take her."
We all looked at him.
He smiled. "You need to talk vampire business with Samuel. Asher will be more useful for that than I will." He walked toward us to say good night, and Micah moved out of the way, so he could lean in toward me. Richard's arm was still holding me close to his body. He tensed, and moved as if he'd take me out of Nathaniel's reach.
Nathaniel touched his arm, and Richard froze. His power lashed out like lightning scoring along my skin.
"Ouch, Richard, that f**king hurt."
Nathaniel shivered. "That really did hurt." But his voice didn't sound like a complaint.
"Back up," Richard said, his voice holding an edge of growl. He was controlling his power enough so it didn't actively hurt me, but it was like cuddling next to a stove that you just knew was going to get too hot to touch soon.
Nathaniel smiled and pushed in against us both, pressing his chest against Richard's arm. Richard moved away, but he tried to take me with him, and frankly, I just didn't want to be in the middle of it. So I stopped moving, but Nathaniel was so close I couldn't step forward either. Richard had choices: pick me up, or hurt me to move me, or let me go, or move away without me, or stay where he was, with Nathaniel touching him.
Richard tried to move back, while I tried not to move, and Nathaniel just watched us, from an inch away. Richard wasn't willing to move without me, or leave me alone with Nathaniel. The symbolism was too raw for words.
Nathaniel spoke low and soft, his lavender eyes raised to the taller man's face, his chest almost pinning Richard's arm between us. "You're like a dog marking your territory. Maybe you should piss on her, so we'll all know she's yours."
I froze between them, because this was going to be bad.
Richard growled low and deep, the sound of it vibrating over my skin, and into Nathaniel's body. We both shivered, but I don't think it was for the same reasons.
"Stop it, both of you," I said.
"She's not a bone, that only one of us can have," Nathaniel said.
Richard growled again and this time Richard's power rippled along my skin like little slaps of electricity. Nathaniel and I spoke at the same time. I said, "That hurts"; Nathaniel said, "Yummy."
"You are such a freak," Richard said, almost a yell.
"Maybe, but this freak is willing to do for the woman he loves and his baby what you won't do."
Richard jerked away so suddenly, it made me stumble. Nathaniel caught me. But Richard backed up. Nathaniel backed him down not with power, but with truth.
Nathaniel held me, and I let him, because if I'd pulled away now, the whole show would have been wasted. I'd hung around the lycanthropes long enough to understand what was happening. Nathaniel, my submissive Nathaniel, was stepping up to bat. He was showing the most dominant person in my bed that he was a force to be reckoned with. Why tonight? Why did Nathaniel have to draw his line in the sand tonight? The baby, of course, the baby. Something about the whole baby question had made Nathaniel feel like he had to be more dominant. Or maybe he, like me, was just tired of watching Richard say he was the dominant sweetie in my life, but acting like he was my f**k buddy. Nothing wrong with a f**k buddy, but you can't be the love of someone's life and a f**k buddy. They are mutually exclusive.
Nathaniel held me, and I wrapped my arms around him, hiding my face against his chest, because I wasn't sure what expression was on my face. Nathaniel had stood up to Richard and won. What else was going to change just because of the possibility of a baby?
"I'll take Valentina. You guys stay and talk business."
"You're part of the business," Micah said from behind us.
"But you can fill me in later, and I'm not really going to have an opinion on the vampire stuff." He grinned. "I'm also the least likely to object to anyone Anita is willing to take as a pomme, or a lover." He kissed me on the forehead, and whispered, "Besides, Valentina doesn't bother me."
I looked up at him. "And that bothers me a little, that you're not creeped."
The grin softened to a smile. "I know." He kissed me on the mouth, soft, gentle. He pulled away, and I let him go, still not sure what had changed in him.