Jean-Claude luxuriated against the couch arm. "You could never let any of them see you looking at me as you do right this moment."
Auggie shook his head. "If you were a whore or a hustler, I'd have to kill you if they saw me look at you this way."
"But your rivals cannot see you now. You can look at me any way you like."
"Fuck you, Jean-Claude, you're going to use this look on my face to punish me, and try to control me. It's just another kind of gun at my head."
"We are master vampires, we are all about control, but I do not intend to punish you, unless you punish us first."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, if you are cruel to us, we will be cruel in return. If you play nicely, then so will we."
"Define play nicely," I said.
"When you saw the look of pain on his face, did it not make your heart ache, ma petite?"
I wanted to lie, but... "Yeah."
The look of cynicism on Auggie's face flickered, as if he didn't know what look would help, or what look he dared give.
"But, so what? Thanks to his machinations, I don't want to see him hurting, so what?"
"Augustine could come and visit us. His mob connections could think he was trying to woo us for criminal activities, or just that he was solidifying his alliance with us, one master to another. Either way, he could visit us periodically without arousing suspicions. Since he is a known mob figure, it would explain why the visits would have to be out of the media's so-glaring eye."
Auggie watched the other vampire like a mouse that's had the cat tell him I won't eat you, today. Half hopeful, half afraid to hope. "What are you offering, Jean-Claude?"
"One, that you do not try to make things worse for ma petite. Do not try to raise her ardeur, or mine, against our will. Do not abuse my hospitality by using your powers on my people."
"I apologized for that," he said.
"You made a joke of your apology," Jean-Claude said. "I need to know if you are sincere."
Auggie nodded. "I am sorry, but..." He looked away, his hands in fists. "You don't understand what it's like to be on the receiving end of the ardeur. You gained the ardeur almost from the first moment. It awoke with your blood lust. You've never been its victim."
"Not true," Jean-Claude said. He sat up, suddenly, brisk and almost businesslike. "Ma petite can feed the ardeur from me, as I can feed my ardeur from her. We can be the victim of each other's ardeurs."
"I'm sorry, I know that. I know that you were as much enthralled by Belle as any. But still, you can feed the ardeur, and gain the rush of it. I have nothing unless I can find a partner who carries it. I had hoped that one, or both, of you would love me, truly love me, truly want me. I'd hoped to bargain love for the ardeur, and now I watch you both." Again, he looked away, as if he couldn't stand to look at either of us. "And you are not moved by me. You, Jean-Claude, you watch as Belle used to watch me. She"--he pointed at me--"she watches me like she hates me. So cold, so angry. I don't understand it. Did my power work on her, or only on me? I feel the draw of her body, but she doesn't seem to feel anything for me, except anger."
"Ma petite does not like to be in love. It always angers her, most especially in the beginning."
Auggie shook his head. "I don't understand that."
I shrugged. "Join the club." I went to the love seat. Nathaniel trailed me. "Why hasn't Travis shifted?"
Micah answered, "He's waiting for you."
"Waiting for me to do what?"
"Bring my beast," Travis said, and his face was almost gray with pain.
"What you do here on your little visits would be a secret from your so-conservative fellow criminals," Jean-Claude said.
"Just shift, Travis. Heal yourself."
He shook his head, huddling over his arm.
Auggie said, "And what would I be doing on these visits?"
"Perhaps we could even visit you in Chicago."
I was suddenly paying attention to their conversation. If we went to Chicago, oh, my God, the energy there would...
"No, no f**king way. You'd feed on all my people then. I felt what one feeding off me and the few people I had here did to your power level. No way."
"So you do not want to visit us again?"
Auggie forced himself to stand very straight, shoulders back, an echo of military something. "You know that I do, but I won't trade my people and all my power for it. I won't crawl for you, Jean-Claude."
"I don't want you to crawl, Augustine."
"What do you want?"
"You to stop trying to manipulate us. Accept that we hold the ardeur and you want it. Supply and demand, dear Augustine."
Jean-Claude was suddenly standing, so fast I hadn't seen it. Magic, again. "You abused my hospitality first. You manipulated my human servant so you could feed on the ardeur again. You opened the way for Belle Morte to possess ma petite. I am not the bastard here."
"Fine, I'm the rat bastard. You're right; saying that I didn't understand I was inviting Belle in doesn't fix it. Yeah, I want to take back one of the women of Belle's line, but no one but Anita carries the ardeur. She and you, so yeah, I came with the idea that if I had a chance at it, I'd raise the ardeur."
"You came here wanting the ardeur one more time; what do you want now, Augustine?"
"Don't make me say it, Jean-Claude."
"Ma petite is not a subtle woman. Unless you say it, she will not understand it."
Auggie looked at me, but his eyes flinched, like someone who was expecting to be hit. "I won't sell my people, or my power base, I won't humiliate myself, but short of that, I will do anything, anything, to have you and Jean-Claude feed on me again." The flinching gave way to fear. "Want someone killed, I'll do it. Money, drugs, designer anything, whatever you want, whatever you need, just don't tell me that I'll never be in your arms again." His face turned away, but not before I saw the shine of unshed tears.
"We do our own killing. We've got enough money. We are a drug-free zone; don't bring that shit here. If I want designer stuff, I'll buy it myself."
Auggie stood there, face averted, shoulders hunched, waiting for the blow to fall. "I have nothing to offer you then." His voice was thick when he said it.
"I am way past uncomfortable about what Jean-Claude and I did with you. It felt so f**king good to feed off you, and that terrifies me."
Auggie looked back at me. His eyes held the tears back by sheer willpower.
"But for better or worse, I look at you and my heart aches. I want to comfort you, and that pisses me off. I've had people I loved, really loved, use vampire powers on me. I cut them off at the knees for it. I've run from them for months, not seeing them, not even talking to them." I moved toward him as I spoke, a little closer with every sentence. "I just met you. You aren't my friend. You forced me to love you, but I don't know you."
He tried to give me angry eyes, but the unshed tears that hovered there ruined the effect. "I underestimated you, Anita."
"Most people do," I said.
"I thought you were just Jean-Claude's human servant. I felt your power as a necromancer. It should have been a warning, but I went ahead with my plan. I wanted the ardeur. I wanted it so badly." He smiled, but not like he was happy. "And I was arrogant. I am Master of the City of Chicago. I've been a mobster since the 1930s. I have been powerful, and a threat to anything in my path for centuries. The only thing that ever truly defeated me was Belle." The tears trembled, but still he held them back.
I stood there, staring at him, needing to look up only a little, because he wasn't that tall. Normally I liked that in a man, but now I was just pissed. I was going to hold on to that anger, because rage was the only thing that kept me from running my hands over his bare chest. My hands itched with the desire to touch him. It wasn't just love, it was more and less than that. It was a sort of magical compulsion. It felt like love, but it held elements of almost addiction. I realized that Auggie had rolled me, well and truly. His power had rolled me. I had fought free of some of it, and Jean-Claude had helped, but I wasn't free of what he'd done to me. But staring into his face, those angry, teary eyes, I realized he wasn't angry at me. He was angry at himself.