Born to Bite
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Eshe stretched sleepily and turned on her side, freezing when she spotted the tuft of hair sticking out from under the bundle of blankets beside her. A slow smile curved her lips. Already knowing that neither of the women was available last night, they'd merely called the Maunsell house and then the Harcourts and left messages asking each of the women to call and make arrangements to meet with them. They had then sat around chatting and waiting for phone calls that hadn't come.
Finally, at around three A.M., Armand had feigned a yawn and said that since they probably weren't going to be able to meet with the women until the next night at that point, he thought he might retire and rest. He was sure he was still recovering from their adventure in the shed and worn out after everything that had happened. He was retiring early and felt Eshe should as well.
She had agreed with such alacrity it had left Bricker and Anders chuckling as Armand had led her from the room. Eshe hadn't much cared if they were amused. Her mind had been on being alone with Armand, safely in the house where they had backup and were unlikely to be attacked.
The door had barely closed behind them before they were in each other's arms and dancing blindly toward the bed in a sideways scuttle that had probably made them look like a huge, misshapen, multicolored crab. They had slept, though...eventually, and no doubt long before the men had come up to bed. She supposed that was probably why she was awake now while the sun was still trying to peek around the blackout curtains...Which meant they had time before they had to get up and set about their day talking to the women, Eshe thought, smiling as she took in Armand's position.
He'd cocooned himself in the blankets with just a handful of hair strands poking out of the small opening at the top. His face and his body, all the way down to his feet, were hidden and enwrapped in the fluffy comforter...leaving none for her. It was fortunate she didn't like heavy blankets and preferred to just draw a sheet over herself, she supposed.
Shaking her head slightly, Eshe reached for the blankets, intending to unwrap the gorgeous man who had given her such pleasure that night, but paused when she opened her mouth to speak and a croak of sound came out. Dang, she was as dry as the desert and in some serious need of hydration...and food, Eshe acknowledged as her stomach made the most atrocious sound. Really, now that it had enjoyed the experience of having food in it again, her tummy appeared to have become demanding...and the rest of her was demanding blood, she realized on a sigh as she became aware of the cramping taking place in her body.
Retracting the hand that had been reaching for Armand, Eshe slid from the bed. She started toward the bathroom, tripped over the shirt Armand had been wearing earlier, and paused to pick it up before continuing on her way.
Five minutes later she came out of the bathroom dressed in only Armand's shirt, her hair finger-brushed and her mouth minty fresh, to slip silently from the room and make her way downstairs.
The house was dead quiet; no vacuum cleaners roaring away, no clank of dishes being washed, and Eshe glanced around curiously, wondering where Mrs. Ramsey was. This was Wednesday, after all, and the woman usually worked Wednesdays. Surely Lucian hadn't put it in her head not to come in all week?
Eshe frowned at the possibility. She was rather hoping the woman would make her something to eat. Although she supposed she could make herself a sandwich or something. She'd watched Bricker do that the day before and was pretty sure she could replicate the actions he'd taken to prepare it.
Eshe was trying to recall all the items Bricker had put on the very delicious sandwiches the day before when she stepped into the kitchen and spotted Mrs. Ramsey's round figure standing at the counter facing the coffeepot. It was definitely a happy sight for her.
"Good morning, Mrs. Ramsey," Eshe said cheerfully as she crossed the kitchen to her side. "How are you this morning?"
The last word had barely left Eshe's mouth when Mrs. Ramsey suddenly whirled from the counter, a carving knife flashing toward Eshe's throat. The sight was so unexpected, and frankly just so improbable, that she almost didn't get out of the way in time, but at the last moment her reflexes kicked in and Eshe leaped backward, feeling the breeze of the passing knife as it barely missed the tender skin of her throat.
"Okay. Not in a good mood today," Eshe muttered, backing away and noting that Mrs. Ramsey's face was as blank as a sheet of empty paper. Not in control of herself, then, she deduced. Realizing the woman was under control of someone else, Eshe instinctively started to glance around, but caught movement out of the corner of her eye and shot her gaze back to Mrs. Ramsey just in time to avoid another lunge by the grandmotherly woman.
"Whoa. You really don't want to do that," Eshe said, continuing to move away from her now. She then rolled her eyes at her own words. Mrs. Ramsey probably didn't want to do it, but couldn't prevent whoever was controlling her from making her do it. And that was going to make her have to hurt the woman to defend herself.
Frowning at the idea of hurting this dear woman, Eshe tried to push her way into the housekeeper's thoughts to make her stop as she moved toward her again, but whoever was controlling her had a firm grip on the woman's mind. She couldn't get in to free her, and instead had to leap back several feet as the carving knife came stabbing at her again.
Eshe bit her lip on a curse as she slammed up painfully against the opposite counter from where she'd first found the woman, and then dove to the side to get out of the way as Mrs. Ramsey kept coming. It didn't give her much respite. Mrs. Ramsey merely followed, but Eshe was getting tired of this game, and when the woman swung the knife again, instead of backing away or moving, she shot her hand out to catch her wrist, wincing but not letting go when the knife sliced into the skin of her arm.
"What the hell?" Armand was suddenly there beside her, taking over restraining the woman. He was shirtless and his face was like thunder as he asked, "What the hell is going on?"
"She's being controlled. Hold her," Eshe snapped and clasped her hand over her cut arm as she hurried past him. There were two windows in the kitchen, one over the sink looking out across the backyard, the other by the table overlooking the side yard, but the window by the kitchen sink was better positioned to see more of the kitchen, and when Eshe slammed out the back door onto the porch, she really expected to find the culprit who had been controlling Mrs. Ramsey there. She didn't, however, and cursed as she ran down the steps to hurry around the house, knowing that whoever it was would have seen her head outside and taken off right away.
As Eshe expected, when she turned the corner there was no one in the side yard, but the bushes at the edge of the woods were still moving from his passage through them. Eshe started forward at once, intent on chasing the culprit, but she'd barely taken a couple of steps into the woods before she realized how foolish that would be. Coming to a halt, she peered around. The trees were old here and tall, their leafy branches blocking out the sunlight so that it was dark and there was no ground cover. All there was before her were dirt and tree trunks and an expectant silence that had the hair crawling on the back of her neck.
He was there somewhere, Eshe knew it, waiting, either behind one of the wide tree trunks or even up a tree in the branches overhead. Probably hoping she'd keep coming, maybe even holding his breath in expectation, and most definitely armed. Eshe just wasn't stupid enough to go traipsing where he wanted when she was injured, unarmed, and barely even dressed.
That shout from behind made her glance back the way she'd come. It was Armand, and it sounded like he was outside now. She hesitated, glanced forward again, but saw nothing, and when Armand shouted her name again, sounding closer, she began to move quickly backward for several feet before turning to hurry back out of the woods. Eshe was glad she had when she saw that he had hurried after her as barefoot as she in just his jeans and without even thinking to grab a weapon.
"Are you all right?" he asked worriedly, rushing toward her. "You're bleeding."
Eshe opened her mouth to assure him she was fine and then paused and turned her head to the side to listen as she heard a vehicle engine start up somewhere on the other side of the woods. She briefly considered running up to the road to try to see it, but knew she'd never get there in time and turned back to Armand with a sigh. "I'm fine. Let's get inside and out of the sun."
Armand nodded, his gaze moving over the woods behind her and then to the road, but then he slid his arm protectively around her and hurried her across the yard, but heading for the front of the house rather than the back.
"What did you do with Mrs. Ramsey?" she asked as he opened the door for her to precede him into the house.
"She just suddenly collapsed. I left her in the kitchen," Armand muttered, ushering her up the hall and back into that room. He barely spared a glance for the woman on the floor as he urged Eshe toward the table. "Sit down. I'll get the first aid kit and some blood."
Eshe grimaced and removed her hand from her wound so she could get a look at it. There was a lot of blood running in trails away from the deep cut, but it was already stopping, the nanos repairing and healing her now.
"Don't bother with a first aid kit. A towel and blood will do," she said on a sigh. It would just be a waste of good bandages. It wouldn't take long for her arm to heal. Her gaze slid to Mrs. Ramsey and she sighed again as she took in her slack face. The woman would be confused and distraught when she woke, very distraught if whoever had controlled her had left her aware while doing it. It would mean she'd have to be wiped and sent away. But she was going to have to be sent away temporarily anyway, as would the new manager, if their culprit was going to start using them to do his handiwork.
"What's going on?"
Eshe glanced around to see Bricker and Anders rushing into the room, both of them in only jeans, sleep still evident in their eyes. However, while Bricker was suffering a serious case of bed head, Anders's hair apparently didn't dare present itself so. Every short strand was in place. It figured, she thought, and then glanced to a half-naked Armand as he hurried to her side with a towel and several bags of blood. Here she was surrounded by beefcake and she simply wasn't in the mood to appreciate it. Didn't that just figure?
"What happened to Mrs. Ramsey?" Bricker asked with dismay as he spotted the woman on the floor and moved to check on her. It was Anders who first noticed Eshe's arm and asked, "What happened? I heard Armand shout."
"I'm not sure," Armand admitted when Eshe remained silent. He dropped the bags of blood on the table and began to wrap the towel around her arm as he said, "I woke up to find Eshe gone, came to find her, and Mrs. Ramsey was-" He shook his head, either not sure what the woman had been doing, or unable to even say it.
"I came down to get something to eat and someone controlled Mrs. Ramsey and had her trying to slit my throat," Eshe said dryly when Anders glanced her way.
"What?" Bricker looked at her askance.
Eshe nodded her head, but when she opened her mouth to speak again, Armand brought one of the bags of blood into view, her fangs slid out, and he popped the bag on, silencing her.
"Feed now. Explanations after," he growled when she glared at him. Ignoring her then, he turned to glance at Mrs. Ramsey and told them, "Mrs. Ramsey had a knife, Eshe was cut and holding her wrist to keep her from stabbing at her again when I came into the room. I grabbed Mrs. Ramsey, and Eshe immediately rushed outside, probably to chase after whoever was doing the controlling. Mrs. Ramsey collapsed and I hurried outside after Eshe."
Anders spun on his heel, heading outside no doubt, but paused when Bricker said, "Don't bother. He's gone. She heard him drive away."
Eshe glanced his way with a start and then rolled her eyes when she saw he was concentrating on her face. He was reading her, of course, and probably enjoying being able to, she thought with annoyance, and mentally called him a little pissant when her thoughts made him smile. That just made him laugh, however, and Eshe sighed and shook her head, then glanced to Mrs. Ramsey when the woman gave a little moan and began to stir. Bricker had raised her upper body to rest against his chest rather than the floor and the woman took that in with surprise as she returned to consciousness.
"What happened?" she asked weakly.
"She doesn't remember a thing," Anders murmured quietly. "She was thinking of making coffee and then woke up on the floor or, as she's thinking, in this handsome young man's arms," he added with amusement.
"I'll take care of her," Bricker said quietly, helping the woman up. He led her from the room, his concentration on Mrs. Ramsey, no doubt calming her and rearranging her memories as they went.
Eshe watched them go, then tugged the finally empty bag from her teeth and murmured, "She can't come back until this is resolved. He might use her again."
When Anders raised his eyebrows and glanced in Armand's direction, he sighed wearily and nodded. "It's for the best. We'll have to send my new manager, Jim, away until this is over too."
"We'll handle it," Anders assured him, and slid from the room.
Armand handed Eshe another bag and sank onto the seat next to her. His face was troubled as he watched her pop the bag to her mouth and then he said, "They controlled Mrs. Ramsey because they didn't want to be recognized themselves."
Unable to speak, Eshe nodded. It was what she'd been thinking too.
"So it's someone I know," he continued, following the thought.
Eshe nodded again. She wasn't terribly surprised by this possibility. After all, strangers didn't usually fixate on a person for so many centuries without knowing them, but it seemed obvious that either Armand really hadn't thought that could be possible, or he'd just not wanted it to be and convinced himself it couldn't be, because he appeared to be staggered by the possibility and struggling to accept it.
"Who?" he asked finally, and there was a combination of pain and anger in his eyes as he peered at her.
Eshe pulled the now-empty second bag from her teeth and said, "We'll find them."
"When?" he asked, the anger and frustration in his eyes creeping into his voice.
"As soon as the boys come back we'll all get dressed and head over to John and Agnes's house," Eshe said quietly. "We'll break the door down if we have to, but we'll get in and talk to Agnes, then go to the Harcourts and do the same."
"What if talking to them doesn't get us any further than talking to the men did?" he asked quietly.
"Then we bait a trap," Eshe said quietly.
Armand's eyes narrowed. "What is the bait?"
When she merely stared at him silently, he shook his head.
"Not you," he said grimly. "I'll be the bait. I'd actually like to be. I want to confront this bastard."
"We'll talk about it after we've talked to Agnes and Mary," she said quietly. "I still think we'll learn something from them."
"Why?" Armand asked with a frown.
"Because Annie learned something somewhere so I know there's something to learn. We just have to figure out where she learned it and go there too."
"You think she spoke to Mary or Agnes?" Armand asked with surprise.
Eshe shrugged. "Or William or John. We didn't think to ask them if she'd been around to see them fifty years ago. But someone talked to her, and they said something that made her think she had the answers. We'll find those answers too," she assured him firmly.
"You sound so sure," he said almost enviously.
Eshe shrugged. "I told you I've been most fortunate in my life. I don't intend to let that change now."
Armand stared at Eshe silently, her words ringing in his ears. She had told him she'd had good fortune in her life because she'd met her first life mate, Orion, while young and enjoyed eight lovely centuries with him. And if you looked at it that way she had been fortunate, but now he looked at her and recalled other things. That she'd lost Orion, as well as two out of eight of her children. She had lost people she loved as he had, but Eshe didn't focus on that. Armand knew as surely as he knew himself that she had dearly loved her life mate and the two children she'd lost, and suffered those losses deeply, but Eshe chose not to linger there. She literally counted her blessings and saw herself as lucky to have the other people in her life and the other things that she considered blessings.
It was a matter of perspective, Armand acknowledged, and understood exactly why the nanos had put them together. He could learn from this woman. He could be happy with her. He could even love this woman. In fact, he suspected he already did. Eshe was strong and smart and didn't flinch in the face of adversity, but rolled up her sleeves and charged ahead to confront it...even in nothing but one of his shirts, he thought wryly, noting what she was wearing.
Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead to hers and whispered, "Eshe, I want to spend my life with you."
"Good," she whispered back. "That was the plan."
Smiling, he kissed her, a soft, gentle brushing of lips, and then pulled back intending to tell her he loved her, but paused and released her, sitting back in his seat as Bricker entered the room.
"I sent Mrs. Ramsey off with the thought that you two are on an extended pre-honeymoon and she is on the same extended paid leave and shouldn't return until you call her," Bricker announced, moving to the fridge to grab a bag of blood. He then glanced to Armand and said, "I hope you don't mind, but she depends on her pay from here and I didn't think she should suffer just because someone's trying to kill you and the people you care about."
"No, that's fine," Armand said quietly. He could afford it, and it was better than having her here to be controlled again. Next time the woman might have been hurt in a struggle, or even killed. He had enough deaths on his conscience as it was. And that wasn't even considering what could have happened to Eshe if the housekeeper, or the person controlling her, had gotten in a lucky stab. Armand just didn't want to think about that and was glad not to have to when Anders returned to the room now as well, garnering his attention.
"I've taken care of your manager," the enforcer announced, pausing just inside the door.
"Paid leave until I call him?" Armand asked, knowing it wasn't safe to have the manager there either. It seemed a shame to send him home to his family, though, even for just a week or so. He'd been pretty hyped about having his own place.
However, Anders shook his head and moved to the table to take one of the bags of blood Eshe hadn't yet consumed and said, "A weeklong all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco."
"San Francisco?" Armand asked blankly.
"It's where he's always wanted to go," Anders said with a shrug, sitting down with the bag. "He's packing now. I called Lucian and he said he'd have to book the travel arrangements and charge it to you. He said he'd send a car for him within the hour."
"Right," Armand said with a shake of the head. "San Francisco."
"By the way," Anders added, tossing the gelatinous bag idly from one hand to the other and back, "he's the one who set the shed on fire."
"What?" Armand asked with shock.
Anders nodded. "He was controlled just like Mrs. Ramsey. The memories were veiled and hard to get to, but I found them."
Armand nodded. The memories wouldn't be readily available to Jim, though they might come to him in dreams. But since his mind had been controlled, all he would have were basically visual memories, like a movie he'd once seen. It was always harder to retrieve those than events the person had actually mindfully participated in.
"He blocked the door with a couple of shovels stuck into the ground," Anders announced. "Then he doused the shed with a can of gasoline and sparked a match. Whoosh." Anders grimaced. "It went up like kindling despite being a little damp still from the storm."
"Did he see who was controlling him at all?" Eshe asked.
Anders shook his head. "Just like Mrs. Ramsey, he didn't know what happened. His surface memory is watching television and then suddenly finding himself standing in his kitchen in muddy boots, not sure how they got muddy or why he was there."
"Like Nicholas," Bricker pointed out, making Armand's eyes slide sharply his way as he explained, "Nicholas's memories end with his crossing the parking lot, and then, bang, he was opening his eyes in his basement to find the dead mortal in his lap and blood everywhere."
"Nicholas couldn't have been controlled though," Anders pointed out. "That had to be due to his being drugged somehow."
"Hmm." Bricker nodded in agreement and then glanced to Armand and said, "You know, moving out Mrs. Ramsey and your manager doesn't stop whoever it is from grabbing someone in town, taking control, and making them do something."
Armand frowned at the suggestion, not having thought of it himself, but Eshe didn't seem surprised and said, "Which means we need to get this done and over with quickly before that can happen. I'm calling Mary and Agnes again. If I don't get an answer at the Maunsells', we head over anyway. We'll break the bloody door in if we have to, but we're definitely talking to them tonight."
"I'll call. You need more blood," Armand said firmly. He handed her another bag and then stood to move toward the house phone on the wall.
"Neither of you needs to call, they both called last night," Bricker announced.
"They did?" Armand asked with surprise, pausing halfway to the phone. He hadn't heard the phone ring, and glanced instinctively to Eshe in question, but she shook her head and admitted, "I didn't hear the phone."
"Well, you were probably...busy," Bricker said with amusement.
"Or in a post-busy faint," Anders suggested dryly, and then pointed out, "If fire burning you like broiled chicken doesn't wake you up, what makes you think a phone will?"
Armand noticed that Eshe didn't blush or look at all embarrassed. She merely shrugged and asked, "So when can we see them?"
"I took that call," Anders announced. "Agnes was available tonight. She said nine o'clock was best for her."
"What did you tell her we wanted to talk to her about?" Armand asked quietly.
"I just said you wanted to introduce her to your new life mate," Anders said. "I figured it was better not to give too much away until we get there."
Armand nodded and asked, "What about Mary Harcourt?"
Anders immediately turned a dry look to Bricker.
The younger immortal sighed and said, "I took that call. Mary was phoning from Montreal. It's their anniversary tomorrow and they apparently planned this trip well in advance. They arrived late last night and don't return until Saturday. She called home to check messages when they got into the hotel, though, and called here at once," Bricker explained, and then reluctantly admitted, "She asked that we wait until Sunday evening. She wanted a day to get settled back home. She's making Sunday dinner for all of us."
"Sunday dinner?" Eshe sounded stunned. "Bricker, we only have until next Tuesday to finish this."
"That gives us plenty of time then," he said quickly, and then added, "I considered telling her what it was about. That would have probably brought them right back; I mean their daughter was one of Armand's murdered wives and they would probably want to know she was murdered and gain justice too," he pointed out, and then grimaced and added apologetically, "But it seemed kind of crappy to ruin their special anniversary trip. She sounded really happy and excited about it. Besides, I wasn't sure either of you would approve. So I just thanked her and hung up," he admitted, and then when Eshe looked irritated added quickly, "I figured you could call the hotel in Montreal and try to convince her to come back sooner yourself if you wanted. Or even fly out there to talk to her in person if you felt we shouldn't wait."
Eshe glanced to him in question, and Armand sighed and scrubbed the short hairs on the back of his neck. The situation was critical, but he didn't really think they'd learn anything from Mary Harcourt. Armand was positive she would have mentioned if she knew anything about Althea's death that suggested it wasn't an accident or seemed even slightly off. In fact, he suspected she would have hunted down the culprit herself with a hatchet at the time. The woman had a mean streak when it came to anyone trying to hurt her children. He'd seen her in action when she thought anyone had just slighted her daughter when he and Althea had been married. Armand was positive she wouldn't have anything of use to tell them.
"Let's talk to Agnes first," he decided finally. "We can always call or go see Mary and William after if we have to."
Eshe nodded and slapped the bag of blood he'd given her earlier to her teeth. When her eyes then slid to the clock on the wall, his own followed, and Armand grimaced when he saw the time. It was barely three o'clock. They had hours to wait before they could go see Agnes.