Born to Bite
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Armand watched Eshe go with a frown, unsure whether he should follow and stand guard outside the ladies' room or not. This was a busy mall with lots of people around, but that wouldn't stop Leonius Livius if he was around. And aside from having promised Lucian to keep her safe while she was here, Armand himself didn't want to risk anything happening to her either. He'd already lost one life mate and two wives and wasn't willing to add to the number.
He was about to pick up their drinks and the bags she'd left behind and follow her when Eshe suddenly turned into a hall and disappeared from sight. Noting the sign hanging at the entrance to the hall with the international male and female figures that denoted the washrooms, Armand decided he could watch from there and sat down to drink his drink. It was really very good, cold and tasty, hitting the spot after their shopping. Armand normally didn't like shopping, but had enjoyed his time with Eshe today. She was an intelligent woman, and naughty as hell. The perfect combination and hard to resist, he acknowledged.
That thought made him sigh and sit back in his seat. She was hard to resist, but then that wasn't unusual for a life mate. It was bad luck for him, though, and made it difficult to even consider returning her to Lucian with the order to send her somewhere else.
That would be the smart thing to do, he acknowledged to himself. Women who got involved with him tended to end up dead. Armand had thought it tragically bad luck when his first wife and life mate Susanna had died. The blow had been crushing and it had taken him a while to recover from the loss, but he'd never even considered it might be anything but a terribly tragic accident. He had pretty much felt the same way when Althea had died; not the grief, while he had mourned her passing, it hadn't been nearly as bad as losing Susanna. But he had thought her death another case of terribly bad luck. However, when his third wife, Rosamund, had died, Armand's thinking had changed. Not at first. At first he'd been too upset to think clearly and had cursed God and the fates for taking yet another woman he cared about from him. For a while he'd been bitter and angry, wondering why he was so cursed, or what he had done to deserve it. It was so unlikely for one man to lose three wives as he had...especially when they were immortal women. Immortals weren't as fragile as mortals. They were incredibly hard to kill, and that fact was what had finally kicked him out of his anger and depression.
Armand had started to look into his wives' deaths then, quietly and as inconspicuously as possible, but centuries had passed since Susanna's death, and another century had come and gone between Althea and Rosamund, and as far as he could tell all three deaths appeared to be simple bad luck on the surface.
Still, a part of him had trouble accepting that and suspected there was something else at play, someone who was causing this bad luck. The problem was that as far as he could tell there wasn't anyone who had been present during all three deaths who could be responsible. He had no one to point a finger at. Even so, Armand had done what he could to protect those still left in his life that he cared about. He'd basically withdrawn from their lives and society as a whole, staying on his farms and refusing to see and show that he cared for his children or anyone else in the family for fear that they might suddenly become a target.
While he couldn't keep Lucian from coming to see him, and had visited with Nicholas at first, his visits with his son had always been furtive little stints when he snuck away from the farm to meet with him and get updates on Thomas and Jeanne Louise and the rest of the family. When Nicholas had gone on the run fifty years ago, Thomas had taken his place, meeting him in diners two towns over to pass him the latest photos of Jeanne Louise and himself and tell Armand how things were going.
Armand knew Thomas didn't understand why he was doing what he was. He also knew his son thought he was a coldhearted and half-crazy bastard for not seeing Jeanne Louise, but he couldn't explain. How foolish would it have sounded had he said that he just had this "feeling" that his wives' accidents hadn't been accidents at all, and that he was afraid in the absence of a life mate or wife, anyone he cared for might suddenly begin suffering accidents? If he'd said as much to Nicholas or Thomas, he suspected one or both of them would have ignored his wishes and sprung Jeanne Louise on him as a surprise at one of their visits.
To be honest, Armand would have liked that. His heart hurt over the fact that he'd never even spoken to his daughter, but since it was the women he cared about in his life who seemed to die, he was damned if he would take even a hint of risk with the girl's life.
Now he had Eshe to worry about. He'd like to think she was safe enough, that he was the only one who even knew she was at the house, but he'd be lying to himself. Armand had no doubt that Mrs. Ramsey had probably been on the phone all morning telling everyone she knew that he had female company on the farm, and that was before she'd even seen Eshe. He was equally positive that before they'd even turned out of the driveway onto the road when they'd left the house, Mrs. Ramsey had been back on that selfsame phone describing Eshe in minute detail to all her cronies and repeating every word spoken. By now, Eshe's presence would be known to everyone in the small town and the news would still be traveling the gossip grapevine. He just hoped it hadn't spread far enough to put her in danger.
The question was whether he was willing to take that risk. His three wives had died after marrying him and giving birth to a child, which might mean she was safe enough for now so long as he didn't marry her and get her pregnant. But he hadn't been willing to take the chance that the pattern would continue when it came to his daughter, Jeanne Louise, and ultimately he decided he wasn't willing to take that chance with Eshe either. He already liked her...a lot, and he wanted her with the passion that only life mates could enjoy. He suspected too much more time in her company would push him over the brink into love, and then he wouldn't be able to make himself send her away, and if anything did happen to her...
Armand swallowed and reached for his phone. It was better to call Lucian now and get her removed before he actually experienced all he would enjoy as her life mate. He wasn't sure he'd be able to send her away once he'd tasted the paradise he was sure he could enjoy in her arms.
"Who are you calling?"
Armand snapped his phone closed with a start and glanced up to see that Eshe had returned. His mouth opened to offer the standard lie, "No one, I was just checking messages." But the lie never passed his lips. Instead, his mouth simply hung open as he stared at her. She had changed for their dinner at Moxie's. However, she still wore her leather pants and hadn't changed her T-shirt in for the dressier blouse they'd purchased earlier. Instead, she was now wearing the incredibly short, white satin baby doll as a top with the leather pants.
"I grabbed the wrong bag," Eshe said with a shrug as she claimed a chair across from him. "But once I got a look at it I thought, what the heck. It really just looks like a dressy summer top, and while it's fall, it's still pretty hot, so..." She shrugged again and picked up her drink to take a long pull of it.
Armand stared at her, his eyes traveling over the snowy white straps against her darker skin, before moving down to the satiny cups almost covering her breasts, and then his gaze slid to the other people in the food court. No one was pointing at her and squealing, "Eek! She's wearing a baby doll as a top." In fact, no one seemed to be noticing anything amiss at all, he acknowledged. Then again, as she'd said, it was an unseasonably warm day and there were a lot of women wearing very similar actual tops but in cotton and polyester rather than white satin...and probably not purchased from La Senza.
A husky chuckle drew his gaze back to Eshe to see that wicked smile back on her lips as she watched him, and then she leaned forward and whispered in a damned sexy growl, "I put on the matching panties too. All I need to do is shimmy out of my leathers and I'm ready for bed when we get home."
Armand's phone was back in his pocket and he was standing up and collecting the bags before the last word had left her lips.
"Oh," she said with a surprise he suspected was wholly feigned. "Are we leaving already?"
"You can drink that on the way to Moxie's. I'm hungry," Armand growled, urging her out of her seat.
"And I bet it's not just for food either," she taunted with a laugh as he herded her toward the mall exit.
God had definitely been laughing when he'd created Eshe for him, Armand decided as he hustled her out to his pickup, because she was going to be the death of him. It was surely going to kill him to have to call Lucian and have her taken away...tomorrow morning. He would give himself one night with her, but tomorrow morning before he retired he was calling Lucian and telling him to get her out of his home and somewhere safer, Armand promised himself. He'd make up spotting a suspicious character who might be one of Leonius's people if he had to, but he would not risk this woman who was so full of life and passion ending up dead because she was unlucky enough to be his life mate. He had decided.
It was only a short drive to the restaurant called Moxie's. Even so, Eshe managed to finish off her fruit drink and even empty the bag of blood Armand had stopped to get for her before getting into the pickup. That had been an uncomfortable experience. She'd had to feed on the bag while bent forward with her head ducked below the dashboard to prevent anyone in the other cars on the road spotting her sucking on a bag of blood. While there were innumerable benefits to being an immortal, it could be a serious pain in the ass at times too, Eshe acknowledged as she disposed of the bag in a small garbage bag between the seats and sat up to glance around. It seemed her timing had been perfect. Armand was just steering them into a parking space in front of the restaurant.
It was actually late for dinner, but the restaurant was still quite busy. However, one of the half a dozen girls clad in skintight or scanty black outfits and stationed at the entrance to the restaurant showed them to a table along the back wall. It appeared to Eshe to be one of the better places to sit, being somewhat sheltered from the rest of the place by a curtained wall that offered some soundproofing, and she wondered if Armand had put a little suggestion in the girl's ear or they'd just gotten lucky.
Eshe slid into one side of the booth while Armand took the other, and they then accepted the menus the girl offered. They were subjected to a quick listing of the restaurant's specials before the woman left them alone to peruse the menus.
Eshe ordered wine and the peppercorn steak, rare, when a handsome young waiter also in all black arrived to take their orders. She hardly noticed the overfriendly smile on his lips or the way he kept looking her over as she gave her order. She did, however, notice how short Armand sounded when he gave his own order.
"I am the jealous type," he admitted grimly when she raised her eyebrows after the boy had left. "You obviously didn't read his mind."
"Why waste my time?" she asked lightly. "I've already found my life mate."
Armand relaxed somewhat at her words, but still grumbled, "Half the things he wanted to do to you were illegal."
"And the other half were things you plan to do to me yourself when we get home," she suggested with a grin.
Armand smiled reluctantly, but then breathed out, visibly letting go of his irritation as he did and relaxing completely. He reached for her hand and held it between them on the table as he admitted apologetically, "It's been a while since I've felt this way."
"For me too," Eshe acknowledged quietly, and then, cognizant of the job she was there to do, asked, "Were you jealous around Althea and Rosamund too, or just Susanna?"
Armand released her hand with a little sigh that suggested he'd rather she hadn't brought the conversation around to this subject again, but said, "No. Only with Susanna. Althea..." He glanced away and then back before admitting, "I'm pretty sure she had affairs after Thomas was born. I didn't blame her," he added quickly. "I was always busy back then, and by that time she'd realized that what we'd all told her was true and I wasn't her life mate. She was still young. But she was a good mother to Thomas, and a good wife to me, and I didn't begrudge her looking for her true life mate, or enjoying everything she could until she found him." He grimaced, and added, "She suffered a lot of guilt over it, though, and I didn't know how to help her with that without letting her know I knew, which I think would have just made her feel worse."
"She never came to be able to read your thoughts like you could read hers?" Eshe asked, realizing that was how he'd known about Althea's affairs.
"No. She may have been able to in time, but in the end didn't get the time." He sighed and then admitted, "I was considering sitting her down and telling her she could have her freedom. The only thing stopping me was missing Thomas if she took him to live with her, but then she died and I had to send him away anyway."
Eshe considered him silently for a moment but didn't see any subterfuge in his expression. What he was telling her appeared to be the truth. Sitting back, she asked, "And Rosamund? You weren't jealous of her either?"
Armand smiled faintly. "Rosamund was a different kettle of fish altogether. Like Althea, she was young in age for an immortal, but that's where any resemblance between the two ends. Rosamund was much more mature, wise beyond her years."
"Was she?" Eshe asked, and was surprised at the harsh sound of her own voice. It suggested a jealousy that was unexpected...and she wasn't the only one to notice. Armand raised a surprised eyebrow and peered at her in question, but she just shook her head. "Sorry, go on. Rosamund was wise beyond her years...How?"
He hesitated, but then apparently decided to continue and said, "Rosamund had a plan."
"And what was that? To get herself pregnant and make you marry her like Althea did?"
"Oh no. She didn't trick me into marrying her," he assured her. "First you should understand that we were friends for quite a while before we married and had Jeanne Louise. She was a smart girl, fun to talk to, always with an opinion on this or that, and as I say, she had a plan. She knew it could be centuries before she met a proper life mate and she had every intention of going out and finding one, but she didn't want to wait centuries to have a baby. She wanted one while she was young."
"She did, did she?" Eshe asked dryly. "And I gather you weren't averse to having a child either?"
Armand shrugged unapologetically. "It had been more than a century since Althea had died. Thomas was grown and always off exploring somewhere, and I missed having a family."
"So you married and had Jeanne Louise."
He nodded, a smile curving his lips. "Jeanne Louise was a beautiful baby."
"And Rosamund?" Eshe prompted.
Armand's smile faded. "Jeanne Louise was born in February. Five months later in July, Rosamund died."
"Fire?" she asked.
Armand shook his head. "She was decapitated when the wagon she was driving careened off the road and turned over in a ditch."
Several questions occurred to Eshe. The first was, "Was anyone with her?"
"Jeanne Louise, but she was thrown clear when the carriage rolled off the road and into the ditch. She wasn't even hurt. Apparently the blankets she was wrapped in cushioned her landing."
"Where was Rosamund headed?"
"Into town, I think." Armand frowned and then admitted, "She spent a lot of time away from the farm after Jeanne Louise was born. She'd pack the baby up and head out when I left for the barn. I didn't think much about it at the time. I was busy on the farm and we still had to hunt to feed, and I just assumed that was what she was doing, but after she died..."
"After she died...?" Eshe prompted.
Armand shook his head. "I found out that there were a lot of times when she didn't get back until just before I did at dawn. In fact, most nights she was gone the entire night."
"It wouldn't have taken that long to hunt up a meal," Eshe murmured thoughtfully. She considered his troubled expression and then asked, "Do you think she was having affairs like Althea?"
He appeared startled by the question. "Rosamund? No, I don't think so."
"You never read her mind?" Eshe asked with surprise.
Armand shook his head firmly. "I tried not to. Marriage is tough enough without intruding on each other's private thoughts so we had a deal to try not to do that."
Eshe nodded slowly, but pointed out, "So you can't be sure she too didn't have affairs."
He sighed wearily. "No, I can't, and I suppose that would explain what she might have been doing. I just wouldn't have thought she'd have felt she had to keep that from me. We had a solid agreement that it was all right if she wanted to."
Eshe considered his expression. He didn't appear hurt or angry at the idea that Rosamund might have been having affairs, merely somewhat startled at the possibility. He also hadn't appeared upset by Althea's affairs, but then they hadn't been life mates. She supposed that meant she could discount the possibility of his having killed his wives in a jealous rage. At least wives two and three.
"And Susanna?" she asked now, and when he glanced at her with confusion, asked, "How did she die exactly? I know it was a fire, but-"
"Oh," he said on a sigh. "It was a stable fire shortly after Nicholas was born. The family still lived in England then, and as a baron I had to make the occasional trip to court. I had put it off that year until after the birth, but the day after Nicholas came squalling into the world, I kissed Susanna and the baby and headed out. I returned as quickly as I could; still it was nearly two weeks before I rode back into the bailey. She had been dead a week by then."
Armand's expression was stark for a moment as he recalled the painful loss, and Eshe waited patiently. His expression convinced her he had loved his Susanna. She didn't begrudge him that. She had loved her Orion too and grieved his passing. It didn't mean they both didn't have enough love to welcome and embrace a new life mate.
Armand cleared his throat, the grief easing from his expression as he forced himself to continue more clinically. "It seems a fire started in the stable a week after I left. Susanna must have run in to try to save her mare. She loved that beast. It was a gift from me when we married. But the roof must have caved in while she was inside and a beam must have trapped her or...something," he finished wearily.
"Another accident," Eshe murmured.
"Yes," he said grimly.
"And then there's Annie," she pointed out.
Armand glanced at her with a start. "Annie?"
"Nicholas's wife. She was decapitated and then burned up in her car," Eshe pointed out.
"Yes, but that was an accident," Armand said at once.
Eshe raised an eyebrow. "So were your wives' deaths...weren't they?"