I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for Richard to come back into the room. My skin was jumping from Jean-Claude's parting gift. Only a kiss, and Richard had nearly torn into Jean-Claude and me. What would Richard have done if he'd caught us doing something truly lascivious? It was better not to find out.
Richard set my suitcase and both bags inside the door. He went out and came back with his small overnight bag.
He stood there, just inside the door, staring at me. I stared back. Blood still trickled down his throat from where I'd cut him. Neither of us seemed to know what to say. The silence grew until it was so thick it began to have weight.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," he said. "I've never lost control like that before." He took a step into the room. "But seeing you with him…" He held out his hands, then let them fall to his sides, helplessly.
"It was only a kiss, Richard. That's all."
"It's never only a kiss with Jean-Claude."
I couldn't argue that.
"I wanted to kill him," Richard said.
"You're sure you're all right?"
"How's your neck?" I asked.
He touched the wound and came away with fresh blood. "Silver blade, it won't heal immediately." He came to stand in front of me, looking down, so close that the legs of his jeans nearly brushed my knees. It was almost too close. The lingering brush of Jean-Claude's power made my skin ache. Richard's nearness made it worse.
If I stood up, our bodies would touch, he was that close. I stayed sitting, trying to swallow the last bits of Jean-Claude's kiss. I wasn't sure what would happen if I touched Richard now. It felt almost like whatever Jean-Claude had done reacted to Richard's body. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I was becoming that needy. Maybe my body was tired of saying no.
"Would you really have killed me?" Richard asked. "Could you have plunged that blade home?"
I stared up at him and wanted to lie to the sincerity in his eyes, but I didn't. Whatever we were doing with each other, whatever we meant to each other, it couldn't be based on lies. "Yes."
"Just like that," he said.
I nodded. "Just like that."
"I saw it in your eyes. Cold, dispassionate, like someone else was looking out. If I was sure I could kill coldly, it wouldn't scare me so much."
"I wish I could promise you that you wouldn't enjoy it, but I can't."
"I know that." He stared at me. "I couldn't kill you. Not for any reason."
"It would destroy something in me to lose you, Richard, but my first reaction is to protect myself at all costs. So, if we ever have another misunderstanding like we did tonight, don't help me up, don't come close to me, until I'm sure you're not going to eat me. Okay?"
He nodded. "Okay."
The energy rush that Jean-Claude had given me was fading, calming. I stood up, and Richard's body touched mine. I felt an instant rush of warm energy that had nothing to do with the vampire. Richard's aura enveloped me like a breath of warm air. His arms slid behind my back. I slid my hands around his waist and laid my cheek against his chest. I listened to the deep throbbing of his heart, running my hands over the softness of the flannel shirt. There was a measure of comfort in Richard's arms that simply wasn't there when Jean-Claude held me.
He ran his hands through my hair, putting one on either side of my face. He pulled me back until he could see my face. He bent towards me, lips parted. I stretched on tiptoe to meet him.
A voice said, "Master."
Richard turned with me still in his arms, so we could see the door. Jason crawled across the white carpet, dripping crimson drops as he moved.
"My God, what happened to you?" I asked.
"I happened to him," Richard said. He walked over to the crawling man.
"What do you mean, you happened to him?"
Jason abased himself at Richard's feet, face pressed to the carpet. "I'm sorry."
Richard knelt and raised Jason to a sitting position. Blood ran down his face from a cut above his eyes. It was deep and would need stitches.
"You threw him into a wall?" I asked.
"He tried to stop me from reaching you."
"I can't believe you did this."
Richard looked up at me. "You want me to be pack leader. You want me to be alpha. Well, this is what it takes." He shook his head. "You should see your face. You look so damned outraged. How can you want me to kill another human being and be upset by a little rough and tumble?"
I didn't know what to say. "Jean-Claude said that killing Marcus wouldn't be enough. That you'd have to be willing to terrorize the pack to rule it."
"He's right." Richard wiped the blood off Jason's face. The cut was already beginning to close. He put his bloody fingers into his mouth and licked them clean.
I stood there, frozen, staring, like an unwilling witness to a car crash.
Richard bent close to Jason's face. I thought I knew what he was going to do, but I had to see it to believe it. He licked the wound. He ran his tongue over the open wound like a dog will do.
I turned away. This couldn't be my Richard, my safe, comforting Richard.
"You can't stand to watch, can you?" he asked. "Did you think that killing was the only thing I had refused to do?"
His voice made me turn back.
There was a smudge of blood on his chin. "Watch it all, Anita. I want you to see what it takes to be alphic. Then you tell me if it's all worth it. If you can't stomach it, don't ever ask me to do it again." The look in his eyes made it a challenge.
I understood challenges. I sat on the edge of the bed. "Go to it. I'm all yours."
Richard brushed the hair on one side, exposing the wound on his neck. "I am alpha and I feed the pack. I spilled your blood, and now I give it back to you." The warm rush of his power spilled through the room.
Jason stared up at him, his eyes rolled almost to white. "Marcus doesn't do this."
"Because he can't," Richard said. "I can. Feed on my blood, on my apology, my power, and never stand against me again." The air was so thick with power it was hard to breathe.
Jason rose on his knees and put his mouth over the wound, tentatively at first, as if afraid he'd be turned away or hurt. When Richard didn't say anything, Jason pressed his mouth to the open wound and drank. His jaw muscles worked, his throat swallowed. One hand slipped behind Richard's back, one hand on his shoulder.
I walked around them until I could see Richard's face. His eyes were closed, his face peaceful. He must have felt me watching him, because he opened his eyes. There was anger there, anger at me, partly. It wasn't only about killing Marcus, it was about giving up pieces of his humanity. I hadn't understood that, not until now.
He touched Jason's shoulders. "Enough." Jason pressed himself harder against the wound, like a nursing puppy. Richard pulled him forcibly off of his neck. A hicky had already spread around the wound.
Jason lay back, half-cradled in Richard's arms. He licked the edges of his mouth, getting the last drops of blood. He giggled and rolled away from Richard, to kneel on the floor. He rubbed his face along Richard's leg. "I've never felt anything like that. Marcus can't share power like that. Does anybody else in the pack know you can share blood?"
"Tell them," Richard said. "Tell them all."
"You really are going to kill Marcus, aren't you?" Jason asked.
"If he gives me no other choice, yes. Now, go, Jason, your other master is waiting."
Jason stood, and almost fell. He righted himself, rubbing his hands down his legs and arms as if he was bathing in something I couldn't see. Maybe it was the warm, ruffling power that he tried to tie around himself. He laughed again. "If you'll feed me, you can hit me into a wall anytime."
"Get out," Richard said.
Jason got out.
Richard was still kneeling on the floor. He looked up at me. "Do you understand now why I didn't want to do this?"
"Yes," I said.
"Maybe if Marcus knows I can share blood, my power, he'll back down."
"You're still hoping not to kill him," I said.
"It's not only the killing, Anita. It's everything that goes with it. It's what I just did with Jason. A hundred things, none of them very human." He looked at me, and there was a sorrow in his brown eyes that I had never seen before.
I understood suddenly. "It isn't the killing exactly, is it? Once you take over the pack by blood and brute force, you have to keep the pack with blood and brute force."
"Exactly. If I could force Marcus out somehow, if I could make him back down, then I'd have room to do things differently." He came to stand in front of me, his face eager. "I've brought nearly half the pack either to my side or at least to be neutral. They aren't backing Marcus anymore. No one's ever divided a pack like this without deaths."
"Why can't you split into two packs?"
He shook his head. "Marcus would never allow it. The pack leader gets a tithe from every member. It would cut not just his power but his money."
"You getting money now?" I asked.
"Everyone's still tithing to Marcus. I don't want the money, and it's just one more fight. I think tithing should be abolished."
I watched the light in his face, the plans, the dreams. He was building a power base of fairness and boy scout virtues with creatures that could rip out your throat and eat you afterwards. He believed he could do it. Watching his handsome, eager face, I almost believed it, too.
"I thought you could kill Marcus and that would be it. But it won't be, will it?"
"Raina will see to it that I'm challenged. Unless I put the fear of me into them."
"As long as Raina is alive, she'll be trouble."
"I don't know what to do about Raina."
"I could kill her," I said.
The look on his face was enough.
"Just kidding," I said. Sort of. Richard wouldn't agree with the ultimate practicality, but if he was going to be safe, Raina had to die. Cold-blooded, but true.
"What are you thinking, Anita?"
"That maybe you're right and the rest of us are wrong."
"Maybe you shouldn't kill Marcus."
Richard's eyes widened. "I thought you were angry with me for not killing Marcus."
"It's not killing Marcus. It's endangering everybody by not killing Marcus."
He shook his head. "I don't see the difference."
"The difference is that killing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I want you alive. Marcus gone. The pack members that follow you safe. I don't want you to have to torture the pack to keep your place. If we can accomplish all that without you having to kill anyone, I'm okay with that. I don't think there's an option that doesn't involve killing. But if you can come up with one, I'll support you."
He studied my face. "Are you telling me that you think I shouldn't kill now?"
He laughed, but it was with more irony than humor. "I don't know whether to yell at you or hug you."
"I affect a lot of people that way," I said. "Look, when we went to rescue Stephen, you should have called a few people. Gone into the situation from a position of strength, with three or four lieutenants at your back. There is a compromise between playing Sir Lancelot and being Vlad the Impaler."
He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Being able to feed power through my blood is a rare talent. It's impressive, but it won't be enough. I'd have to have some major scary stuff to get Marcus and Raina to back down. I'm powerful, Anita, really powerful." He said it like it was simply the truth, no ego, no pride. "But it's not that kind of powerful."
I sat down beside him. "I'll do anything I can, Richard. Just promise me you won't be careless."
He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I won't be careless if you'll kiss me."
We kissed. The taste of him was warm and sure, but underneath it was the sweet salt of blood, and Jason's aftershave. I drew away from him.
I shook my head. Telling him I could taste other people's blood in his mouth was not going to be helpful. We were going to work so he didn't have to do things like that. It wasn't his beast that would steal his humanity, it was a thousand smaller things.
"Change for me," I said.
"Change for me, here, now."
He stared at me, as if trying to read something in my face. "Why now?"
"Let me see all of you, Richard, the whole package."
"If you don't want Jean-Claude sharing the bed, you don't want a wolf in bed with you, either."
"You wouldn't you be trapped in wolf form until morning, you said so earlier."
"No, I wouldn't," he said softly.
"If you change tonight, and I can accept it, we can make love. We can start planning the wedding."
He laughed. "Can I kill Marcus before I have to kill Jean-Claude?"
"Jean-Claude promised not to hurt you," I said.
Richard went very still. "You've already talked to him about this?"
"Why wasn't he angry with me?"
"He said he'd step aside if he couldn't win me, so he's stepping aside." I didn't add the part about Jean-Claude loving me. Save it for later.
"Call your beast, Richard."
He shook his head. "It isn't just my beast, Anita. It's the lukoi, the pack. You have to see them, too."
"I've seen them."
He shook his head. "You haven't seen us at the lupanar. Our place of power. We're real there, no pretense, not even to ourselves."
"I've just told you that I want to marry you. Did you pick up on that?" I asked.
Richard stood. "I want to marry you, Anita, more than almost anything in the world. I want you so badly my body aches with it. I don't trust myself to be here tonight."
"We've managed to stay chaste so far," I said.
"By the skin of our teeth." He picked up his overnight case. "The lukoi call sex the killing dance."
"We use the same phrase for battles of succession."
"I still don't understand the problem."
He stared at me. "You will. God help us both. You will."
There was something so sad, so wistful about him suddenly, that I didn't want to let him go. Tomorrow he'd face Marcus, and just because he'd agreed to kill didn't mean he could. When the moment came, I didn't trust him not to flinch. I didn't want to lose him.
"Stay with me, Richard. Please."
"It wouldn't be fair to you."
"Don't be such a frigging boy scout."
He smiled and gave a very bad Popeye imitation, "I am what I am." He closed the door behind him. I didn't even get to kiss him good-bye.