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Danse Macabre (Vampire Hunter 14) - Page 43

I held him, stroked his hair, murmured his name, "Richard, Richard," over and over. He cried like his heart was breaking.

Jean-Claude knelt beside us. He put his hand on the back of Richard's head. When he didn't react to the touch, Jean-Claude put his arms around both of us. He laid his face against the side of Richard's head, and said something in French that I didn't catch. Whatever he said, it was low and comforting.

Nathaniel knelt on the other side opposite Jean-Claude. He touched my shoulder, but hesitated about touching Richard.

It was Clay who came and knelt at Richard's back. He gave me worried eyes, and pressed himself along Richard's back, his arms holding him tight. He said, "Smell the pack, and know that you are safe." It sounded like an old saying.

With Clay's body to protect Richard, Nathaniel hugged me and Clay, but we all hugged Richard. Clay had understood how much Richard needed the touch, but he'd also understood that he might not let leopards and vampires get that close. But another wolf of his own pack, that was safe. That one moment of understanding pushed Clay from bodyguard to friend in my book.

Micah came in at my back, hugging us close. Asher finally knelt, more by Nathaniel and me than Richard, but his hand touched Richard's hair. We all gave what we could.

The crying began to ease, then stop. I felt the tension in his arms, his body, ease. His breath went out in a long, heavy sigh. I felt him settle into the warmth and the touch. I felt all that care and worry drift away in the press of bodies, and caring.

Then he drew in a deep, full breath, and rose up higher on his knees. It was like a man rising from deep water, except that this water was hands and bodies. He rose to his knees, then started struggling to his feet. We all moved back to let him stand.

He smiled down at me, at all of us. "Thank you, all of you. I needed it. I didn't know how much..." He started to move out of the kneeling circle of us. Jean-Claude and Clay moved back so he could walk out.

He stopped at the foot of the bed, and took a breath so deep his body shuddered with it.

Jean-Claude stood, and helped me to my feet. I didn't protest the help; I felt shaky. Richard wasn't the only one who needed to be held tonight.

Everyone got to their feet, in ones and twos. We waited for Richard to say something, or for one of us to think of something worth saying.

He turned back and gave us a smile. It was his old smile, his Boy Scout smile, I used to call it. He looked more relaxed than I'd seen him in a while.

"I'll bunk in Jason's room tonight."

"You don't have to leave," I said.

The smile slipped a little, letting some sadness through. "I can't sleep here, Anita, not with all of them."

"I don't think everyone is staying," I said.

He shrugged. "I don't want to share you, Anita. Especially tonight. But I saw your face when Nathaniel and Micah held you. You never look that peaceful with me anymore."

I opened my mouth, to say something comforting, but he held up a hand and stopped me. "Don't deny it, Anita. I'm not angry, just..." He shook his head. "I don't know what to do, but I know I can't share you tonight. It will be dawn soon, and you won't want Jean-Claude with us. He's the only one I could stand to share you with tonight." He shrugged again. "But you'll want something warmer." His face struggled to look cheerful, and almost succeeded. "It's better if I just go. I'll say, or do, something to upset Anita tonight. I know I will." His frown turned into something bitter for a second. "I appreciate the comfort, I needed it, but part of me still wishes you were all gone." With that, he turned on his heel and went for the door.

"Clay," I said, "go with him."

Clay didn't argue, and when he followed him out, Richard didn't protest. I took it as a good sign. I hoped so, anyway.

19

JEAN-CLAUDE HUGGED ME in against his body. "I am sorry, ma petite."

Asher came and kissed me on the cheek. "I am not sorry he is gone."

"Be nice," I said.

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He cuddled in against me, his arm going around Jean-Claude's shoulders. "We all behaved ourselves admirably and your Ulfric still leaves in a huff."

Nathaniel came to stand in front of me. He pushed a lock of my hair back from my face. "Honestly, Anita, I'm not sorry he's staying somewhere else for the night. I want to hold you tonight, and Richard wouldn't let me in the bed."

They were both right, so why did I feel like I should defend Richard's honor?

"Enough of this," Jean-Claude said, "Ma petite is tired. We will leave her with Micah and Nathaniel." He kissed my upturned face, gently, his face showing nothing. There were nights when he asked not to be sent away, but tonight he didn't even try for it.

He let me go, and started for the door, Asher at his side.

"It seems wrong to keep kicking you out of your own bed," Micah said.

Jean-Claude turned back, and said, "Ma petite is not comfortable when I die at dawn. We will respect her sensibilities in this tonight. She has had enough shocks for one night."

Asher slipped his arm through Jean-Claude's. "We'll be in my room." I'd seen them arm in arm a hundred times. I'd sent them off to bunk in Asher's room dozens of times. But for the first time, I wondered what they would do once they got there. Would they have sex? Would they do with each other what Jean-Claude and I did with Auggie? Did the thought bother me? I wasn't sure.

Micah looked at me. "Damian doesn't die at dawn if he's with you. Shouldn't we find out if the same applies to Jean-Claude?"

"Don't push me, Micah." I felt almost frantic with the need for some kind of normality tonight. My voice didn't sound frantic, it sounded angry.

"He can sleep on the other side of me, so if he dies at dawn, you won't be touching him."

I shook my head. "Why is this so important to you? Why tonight?"

"I do think we need to find out if Jean-Claude has gained some of the same powers Damian has, but truthfully, Belle Morte had a harder time controlling you once he touched you. I'd like to keep him close to you tonight, just in case."

I blinked at him, then sighed. "Practical as always," I said.

"Eminently practical," Asher said. He let go of Jean-Claude's arm. "I will go to my lonely bed."

"Asher," I said, "please, I can't deal with any more hurt feelings tonight."

He smiled at me, and came back to me. He hugged me, gently, and gave me an almost brotherly kiss on the forehead. "I will not cause either of you more distress tonight. But I would like a chance to test this theory of vampires in the day. If it works for our Jean-Claude, then perhaps it might work for me."

"It only works for Damian if Nathaniel is in the room. I think without Richard it won't work for Jean-Claude either."

Asher stepped back, gave that Gallic shrug, and went for the door. He waved at us lightly, but I had too many centuries' worth of memories of his body language, thanks to Jean-Claude's memories. Asher was bothered. I guess I couldn't blame him. He was the only one kicked out of the room. But I didn't call him back. I didn't really want to have one corpse in the bed, let alone two.

I turned back to the corpse in question. He stood there in his elegant robe. A triangle of his chest showed, so pale, surrounded by the black of the fur lapel. His hair was a foam of curls, softer than mine.

Tiredness came over me in a wave. No, it wasn't being pregnant, it was just everything. I had had all I could handle for one night.

Micah hugged me from behind. Nathaniel came to stare down at me. He lifted my chin and looked into my eyes. He gave me the gentlest of smiles, then said, "You're beat."

I nodded, his fingers still under my chin.

He kissed me on the mouth, still gentle, no demand to it. He took my hand and started leading me toward the bed. Micah let his arm fall away but kept my other hand, so that Nathaniel led us both to the bed.

The bed was draped in red tonight. Crimson, from the curtains that graced the four posts to the mounds of pillows. The sheets underneath the bedspread either would match the rest perfectly, or would be some high-contrast color. Once upon a time Jean-Claude's decoration had been exclusively black and white. I'd complained. I still remembered the first night I'd seen the bed draped in red. I'd stopped complaining about the monochrome color scheme after that, afraid of what he might do next.

Nathaniel had to let go of my hand to wiggle the coverlet out from under the mound of pillows. The sheets were black, like a splash of darkness in all that red. Some of the smaller pillows would get piled in the room's two chairs, beside the false fireplace. Thanks to modern technology it could actually make flames, but in all the time I'd been with Jean-Claude I'd never seen anything in the fireplace but an antique fan framed behind glass.

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