I must have looked as confused as I felt, because she turned and tried to motion behind her, but all I could see was her very large human servant. "Angelito, move so she may see." Angelito? Somehow the name, "little angel" didn't fit him. He moved, and she finished the motion towards the fireplace.


It was only the fireplace with it's painting above it, then something about the painting caught my eye. It was supposed to be a painting of Jean-Claude, Asher, and Julianna in clothing a la the Three Musketeers, but it wasn't. If there hadn't been new and strange vampires in the room, I'm sure I would have noticed it sooner. Oh, yes, I would have noticed it sooner.

It was a picture of Cupid and Psyche, that traditional scene where Cupid asleep is finally revealed to the candle-wielding Psyche. Valentine's Day has robbed Cupid of what he was in the beginning. He was not a chubby sexless baby with wings. He was a god, a god of love.

I knew who had posed for Cupid, because no one else had ever had that golden hair, that long, flawless body. I had memories of what Asher had looked like before, but I'd never seen it, not me, myself. I walked towards the painting like a flower pulled towards the sun. It was irresistible.

Asher lay on his side in the painting, one hand curled against his stomach, the other hand flung outward, limp with sleep. His skin glowed golden in the candlelight, only a few shades lighter than the foam of hair that framed his face and shoulders.

He was nude, but that word didn't do him justice. The candlelight made his skin glow warm from the broadening of his shoulders to the curve of his feet. His ni**les were like dark halos against the swell of his chest, his stomach was flat to the grace of his belly button as if an angel had touched that flawless skin and left a delicate imprint, a line of hair dark gold, almost auburn, traced the edge of his stomach, and ran in a line down, down to curl around him, where he lay swollen, partially erect, caught forever between sleep and passion. The curve of his hip was the most perfect few inches of skin that I'd ever seen. That curve drew the eye down to the line of his thigh, the long sweep of his legs.

I remembered with Jean-Claude's memories what the curve of that hip had felt like under my fingertips. I remembered arguing about whose hip was the softest, the most perfect. Belle Morte had said that the lines of both their bodies were the closest to perfection she'd ever seen on a man. Jean-Claude had always believed that Asher was the more beautiful, and Asher had believed the same of Jean-Claude.

The artist had painted white wings on the sleeping figure, so detailed they looked as if they'd be soft if you could touch them. The wings were huge and reminded me of renaissance pictures of angels. They seemed out of place on that golden body.

Psyche was peering around the edge of one wing, so that it shielded her upper body, yetrevealed a shoulder, the edge of her body, down to that first curve of hip, but most of her was lost behind Cupid's body. I frowned up at the picture. I knew that shoulder, the curve of the ribs under that white skin. Though traced with golden candlelight, I knew the line of that body. I'd expected Psyche to be Belle Morte, I'd been wrong.

I looked past the long black curls that didn't so much hide the figure as decorate it, and the face peering around the candle's edge was Jean-Claude's. It took me a second to be sure, because he seemed more delicately beautiful than normal, until I realized that he was wearing makeup--that centuries-old version of it, anyway. Things had been done to soften the line of his face, make his lips more pouting. But the eyes, the eyes were unchanged, with their black lace of lashes and that drowning deep color.

The painting was too large for me to stand next to the fireplace and see it all, but there was something about the eyes of the Cupid figure. I had to move close to see that they were open a mere slit, enough to show the cold blue fire that I'd seen when the hunger was upon Asher.

Jean-Claude touched my face, and it made me jump. Damian had moved back, giving us space. Jean-Claude traced the tears on my cheeks. The look in his eyes said clearly that I was crying tears for both of us. He couldn't afford to appear weak in front of Musette. And I couldn't help it.

We both turned to Asher, but he was standing as far away as the room would allow. He had turned away, so that all you could see of his face was that golden fall of hair. His shoulders were slightly hunched, as if he'd been struck.

Musette came to stand on the other side of Jean-Claude. "Our mistress thought, since you are together again as of old, that you would enjoy this little reminder of days gone by."

The look I gave her around Jean-Claude's shoulder was not a friendly one. I saw the girl who was her pomme de sangon the other side of the couch. I hadn't even been aware she'd moved away from the fireplace. If the bad guys had wanted to take me out, they could have done it, because I had seen nothing for a few minutes but the painting.

"The painting is our guest gift to our host, but we have a more personal gift just for Asher."

Angelito moved up beside her like a dark mountain, a much smaller painting in his hands. There were remnants of the paper and twine that had covered it like a discarded skin on the floor. It was half the size of the other, but obviously in the same style, realistic, but in glowing colors, hyperrealistic, very Titian.

The only light in the painting was firelight, the glow of the forge. Asher's body was colored gold and crimson with the reflected firelight. He was nude again, the edge of the anvil hid his groin, but the right side of his body was bare to the light. Even his hair was tied back in a loose ponytail so that the right side of his face couldn't be hidden. His arms were still strong as they pretended to forge the blade that lay on the anvil, but the right side of his face, the right side of chest, his stomach, his thigh, were a melted ruin.

These were not the old white scars that I was used to seeing, these were raw, red, discolored, angry lines, like some monster had slashed and gouged at his body. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a memory that was not mine.

Asher lying on the floor of the torture room, freed of the silver chains, the men who had tormented him slaughtered around him, in an explosion of blood. He reached out to us, his face . . . his face . . .

I swooned, and Jean-Claude and I fell in a heap on the floor, because I was experiencing directly what he was remembering.

Damian and Jason moved up beside us, but Asher stayed well back. I didn't blame him in the least.

8

"Asher, come and see your gift," Musette called.

Damian was already on the ground beside me, his hands on my shoulders, fingers digging in. I think he was afraid of what I would do. He should have been.

Asher's voice came strained, but clear, "I have seen that particular gift before. I know it well."

"Do you wish us to return to Belle Morte and tell her you did not appreciate her gift?"

"You may tell Belle Morte, that I have gotten exactly what she wished me to get out of her gifts."

"And what is that?"

"I am reminded of what I was, and of what I am."

I got to my feet, Damian still with a death grip on my shoulders. Jean-Claude rose gracefully like a puppet pulled by invisible strings. I would never be that graceful, but tonight it didn't matter.

Musette turned back to Jean-Claude. "We have given our gift to you Jean-Claude, and to Asher. We await our guest gifts."

His voice was empty, so bland it was like listening to silence. "I have told you, Musette, our guest gifts are weeks away from completion."

"I'm sure you can find something to stand in their stead." She stared at me.

I found my voice, and it wasn't bland. "How dare you come here three months early, knowing we won't be prepared and make demands on us?" Damian was clinging to my back a little frantically, but I was polite, for me. After what she and Belle Morte had just done, I was downright kind. "Your rudeness will not be used as an excuse to force us to do anything we don't want to do."

Damian's arms slid over my shoulders so he was cradling me against his body. I didn't fight it, because without his presence I think I would probably have struck her, or shot her. Which sounded like such a good idea.

Jean-Claude tried to smooth things over, but Musette waved him aside. "Let your servant talk, if she has something to say."

I opened my mouth to call her a heartless bitch, but it wasn't what came out. "Did you believe that gifts worthy of such beauty could be hurried? Would you really take some poor substitute in the place of the magnificence we had commissioned?"

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