"Maybe I like a little modesty, too," Auggie said.
Nathaniel moved his muscular arms to cover himself, let the hair spill over one shoulder, so that more of him was hidden. He peeked coyly around his own body and hair, gave innocent eyes, let his face be as young as it was in years. I was never sure how he did it, but he could play the innocent down to his toes. He could hide those jaded eyes, and play the ing?ue.
Auggie laughed, that bright, happy laugh. "He's good." He turned to Jean-Claude. "Where did you find so many beautiful men?"
"I didn't," he said.
He looked past Nathaniel to me. "Anita, you have a true eye for talent."
"They aren't talent to me. They're people I care about, and I don't like games."
He motioned to Nathaniel. "This one plays games, and very well, I think."
I nodded. "Nathaniel likes games better than I do, better than Micah does, but he doesn't play them with us."
Auggie gave me a look that seemed to imply I was being naive. "Once a hustler, always a hustler, Anita."
"Was that meant to be mean?" I asked.
"I thought you liked honesty," he said.
"It was meant to be mean," Micah said.
"I know whore when I see it, because I was one. So was Jean-Claude, and Asher, and Requiem, and London. Mustn't leave out the ladies: Elinore, Cardinal, anyone who was ever Belle's line was a whore. We're created to be whores."
"Nathaniel is not a whore," I said, and reached for him. He pulled away from the touch, and gave me eyes full of loss. "I was."
"You researched us, before you came here," Micah said.
"You bet," Auggie said.
I touched Nathaniel's face, and tried to put into my eyes how much he meant to me. Whatever he saw in my face made him smile, a little. He pressed his hand over mine, pressing my hand against the curve of his jaw.
Micah stepped in front of us both. "You knew looking at me like that would be an insult. Nathaniel stepped up, took the attention, because it wouldn't bother him. Something about him protecting me bothered you. Why?"
Jean-Claude raised his head, curled his legs over each other in a way that let you know just how flexible he was, but still managed to be "ladylike," for lack of a better word. "I know why."
I put one arm across Nathaniel's back, and asked, "Why?"
Jean-Claude and Auggie exchanged a look. "If you think you can read me that well, go ahead," Auggie said.
Jean-Claude gave a small nod, then looked at us. "Augustine prefers women to men, but one would have to be very, very heterosexual indeed to ignore the beauty of both of you. In his defense, you did fall into his lap. He behaved himself admirably. There are vampires among our own kiss who would not have shown his restraint. He offered such a small insult, and you took it as a large one. Anita and I are not falling over each other to profess our love for him, and that irks him. It puzzles him. Then you, who are animal, thus lesser in the eyes of most vampires, insult him, too. But I think it is more than that." He looked at Auggie. "I think he watched Nathaniel use the only gift he had to protect Micah. Did it bring back old memories, Augustine? Bad memories?" He leaned in toward the other man.
Auggie stood up, abruptly, and wouldn't look at him. "My memories are my own." Then he realized what he'd said, and gave a bitter laugh. "For now, at least, until she dictates otherwise." He wasn't referring to me.
Jean-Claude lay back on the couch, spreading his hair over the arm of it, one arm carelessly above his head, the other across his stomach. One bare foot trailed over the carpet; the other was tucked up on the couch, his knee leaning against the back of the white couch. He looked fetching, and he knew it. But it was the way Auggie watched him that made the show. There was real anguish in his eyes. It hurt me to see his face like that.
"You give me another taste of heaven, and now I am in purgatory again. You, and she"--and he pointed at me--"can bring me into heaven at a whim, and cast me into hell if it is your will." He closed his eyes, his face etched with pain. "I remembered you as gentler than this, Jean-Claude. I remembered you as my friend."
"Friends do not use their powers against each other. You woke ma petite's ardeur, deliberately. You meant to have her. The fact that we both had you was an accident of power. You remembered me gentler, and less powerful. You underestimated me, and you have mistaken ma petite."
Auggie opened his eyes, and stared at the other vampire. "I don't understand what you mean by that."
"Ask our Nathaniel how he won her heart."
"I see his body; I know how he won her heart."
"You see nothing, know nothing," Jean-Claude said. "Mon minet, tell him how you won her heart."
"You call him 'my pu**ycat' and I'm wrong about him?" Auggie said.
Nathaniel leaned a little harder against the hand I had on his na**d back. "I didn't hustle Anita," Nathaniel said.
"But you tried." Auggie made it a statement.
Nathaniel nodded. "I wanted her to want me. I didn't know any other way to do that."
"It worked," Auggie said.
Nathaniel glanced back at me, gave me a smile, then turned back to Auggie. "No, it didn't."
He motioned at us all. "Of course it worked."
"Only when I stopped trying to hustle her, and just tried to learn how to love her."
"Learn how to love her, you make it sound like a class, or a degree. You simply love people."
Nathaniel laughed. Jean-Claude made a noise like he was trying not to laugh. I looked at Micah. "Aren't you going to laugh, too?"
Micah shook his head. "I know better." Though there was the edge of a smile on his lips.
I scowled at them all. "Fine, laugh it up."
"I don't get the joke either," Auggie said.
"You will," Micah said, and it sounded like a threat.
"Is it really that hard to date me?"
This time Claudia and some of the other bodyguards laughed. I was just amusing the hell out of everyone.
"TELL ME THE joke, I could use the laugh." Travis's voice came from the far hallway. His face was tight and pinched with pain. Noel hovered beside him like he was waiting to catch him if he stumbled. They both still looked too young to drive. Was it just age that had made Joseph pick them for my feedings, or was there some other reason? I mean, there's submissive and then there's cannon fodder. Everyone he'd offered for my selection, even the jocks, had that new-car smell, like they hadn't been driven around the block enough. There had to be a reason he'd offered me lambs when what I needed was lions.
"Why haven't you shifted?" Micah asked. He was already moving across the living room toward them, walking past Auggie. The vampire reached out, tried to grab his arm. Micah moved so fast that I didn't really see Auggie try to grab him, and miss. I saw the vampire reach out, and Micah just wasn't where he was reaching. So fast, it was like magic. Micah went to the werelions, and started talking to them in a low voice. He ignored the vampire.
Auggie looked angry, and something else, something that was almost pain. "You've made your point, Jean-Claude."
"Micah does not like to be grabbed, that is all the point that has been made," Jean-Claude said, voice mild. He was still lounging decoratively on the couch. "Do you envy me my cats, Augustine?"
"I don't envy anyone."
Even I could taste the lie.
Micah started leading the werelions toward the love seat. He stopped well out of reach, and looked at Auggie. "I really don't want to play games, Augustine. I just want to get Travis sitting down."
"If you were in my territory, I'd have to make a lesson of it, of you, but you aren't my kitty-cat. Sit down, I won't bother you."
Micah walked wide round the vampire, but gave him his back. His eyes flicked to me, and I realized he was trusting my reaction to let him know what Auggie was doing. I nodded, like, it's okay. Micah led the two lions to the love seat.
"Petty games do not become you, Augustine. You are master of a powerful territory. You could have your own collection of lovers, to rival mine." He left the implication that we were all his lovers, and we let it slide. I was his lover, and neither of the other men was bothered by the rumors.
"I'm not just Master of the City of Chicago, Jean-Claude, I'm a mob boss. The mob allows you a family with a wife and kids, a mistress, whores, but nothing else."