Born to Bite
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Armand woke to Eshe cuddled warm against him again, and his first thought was that she was the hottest woman he'd ever met. And not just in a sexy way. She was burning up this time, almost feverish, he thought, roasting him with her body temperature. That roused concern in him and brought him fully awake to find that it wasn't Eshe that was so hot. They were both roasting. The shed was on fire.
Cursing, he shook Eshe, but she didn't even stir. He recalled biting her then and cursed himself as he shook her again, more violently, but she was completely out of it still in the dead faint that had followed their passion. It seemed it was up to him to get them out of there. Cursing himself now, he shifted out from beneath her and set her to lie on the couch as he got to his feet and glanced around to take in the situation. It didn't take more than a glance to realize they were in serious trouble. The shed was fully alight, the walls and ceiling nothing but waterfalls of flame. By his guess they had only moments before the whole building collapsed on top of them and then they would be toast.
Turning back to the couch, he picked up Eshe, hefting her over his shoulder with little effort. He hurried to the door with her and pushed at it, wincing as the flames bit into his arm. He forgot the pain, however, when the door didn't give. They were locked inside. Armand stared at the door blankly at that realization. He hadn't locked it. It didn't even have a lock as far as he knew. But it wasn't opening.
He was distracted from trying to sort that out by the realization that his skin was beginning to bubble in the heat. They didn't have much time. The nanos made immortals incredibly flammable. Any minute now he and Eshe would burst into flame and-
Cursing, he backed up a step and threw himself at the door, turning sideways at the last moment to protect Eshe as much as he could. Much to his relief they crashed through the flimsy door and fell out onto the damp ground. Armand instinctively rolled several times, taking Eshe with him to be sure neither of them had caught flame, and then simply lay still with her head on his chest, his heart thudding madly. He stared at the sky overhead for a moment and then turned his head to the side to peer at the shed as a crash sounded. The roof had caved in, the shed was collapsing in on itself.
Sighing, he turned weakly to glance down at Eshe. Her skin was blackened, as was his own. They'd been burned badly and needed blood. He had to get them to the house.
It was the last thought Armand had before unconsciousness claimed him again.
Armand woke to whistling. The tune was one he recognized from his wedding to Rosamund. It was one of the songs that had played at the celebrations afterward. It had been very popular at the time.
"Yeah. My mom used to hum it a lot when I was a kid. For some reason it's been in my head the last day or so."
Armand blinked his eyes open and glanced in the direction the voice had come from to see Bricker removing an empty blood bag from an IV beside the bed to replace it with a fresh one. He watched him with a slight frown, his mind slow to sort out why he was in bed and why an IV would be necessary.
"Think fire," Bricker said dryly, apparently reading his confusion.
The words had the desired effect. Armand's memory came rushing back to him at once, and he was immediately trying to sit up. Unfortunately, he didn't appear to have the strength for it.
"Don't waste your energy," Bricker admonished. Finished with the bag, he turned to face the bed and peered down at him. "You took a lot of damage. The nanos are still doing their work. Let them."
Armand slumped back on the pillows with a grunt. The healing obviously had a way to go; that little exercise had left him panting and exhausted. His thoughts were clearing by the minute though.
"Eshe?" The word was little more than a gasp, but Bricker understood.
"In her room. Hooked up to an IV like you." Bricker grimaced. "She was in worse shape than you. Her back was a ruin. It looked like she'd been broiled."
Armand closed his eyes, knowing her position straddling him on the couch had saved him being in the same shape. The fire above and around them had been cooking her, but he'd passed out with his face tucked into her shoulder and her body covering his.
"It probably saved you both," Bricker commented quietly, unapologetic about reading his mind again. He settled himself in the chair next to the bed, and said, "If you'd been in the same shape as her, you never would have got yourself out, let alone her." He grimaced. "I always thought this passing out after sex business was like a faint. A good slap or a little splash of water in the face and you'd wake up, but it must be complete unconsciousness for her to have slept through what that fire did to her."
Armand grunted, concern sliding through him again but with guilt this time. Her unconsciousness probably wouldn't have been so deep had he not bitten her and taken some of her blood. Actually, doing that had probably prevented his waking sooner too. The extra nanos that had come with the blood would have left him weakened.
"She'll be all right," Bricker assured him. "She's already ten times better than she was when I found you both."
"How?" Armand didn't bother finishing the question out loud. His throat was bone dry and just speaking that word had hurt like a son of a bitch. As he expected, though, Bricker read the rest of the question and answered at once.
"When hours passed without Eshe returning, I just figured you two were...er...talking," he said dryly, making it obvious he'd thought they were doing exactly what they had been doing in the shed before passing out. "But when you two didn't come back by dawn I started to worry and thought I'd just pop out to the barn and be sure everything was all right. I didn't see you there, but I smelled smoke and followed my nose." His mouth twisted. "I'm sorry, Armand. I looked out the back window several times and didn't spot that shed on fire. The barns block it from view."
Armand gave a slight nod. Aside from the other barns blocking the view of it, the shed was far back on the property and to the side. The trees around the house would have helped block it too. Bricker would have had to come outside to see the fire lighting the sky.
"I'm surprised the shed burned at all with the storm we had last night, but it didn't last long. I suppose it did little more than dampen things," he muttered, and then said, "Anyway, I found you guys lying on the grass, the sun adding to the damage you'd already taken. I called Lucian at once, then carried Eshe in, and then you. It wasn't long after I got you both settled in your rooms that Anders arrived with blood. I was relieved to see him. I'd been trying to trickle blood down your throats when he arrived with the IVs. You were both so bad your fangs wouldn't come out for me even when I waved the blood under your nose."
"The insides of their noses were probably singed from breathing in the hot air in the fire."
Armand glanced toward the door at that comment to see a dark-skinned man entering the room. His eyes instinctively widened, and then he grimaced at the pain that brought about. It wasn't just his throat that was parched. His eyelids scratched across his eyeballs painfully, but he kept them open to examine the man as he wondered if this was one of Eshe's children. She'd said she'd had eight and six survived, but he'd never gotten around to asking their sex, or names. He was going to do that the very next time they spoke, he decided. Right before he sent her away with Lucian to a safer place. It seemed obvious Leonius had discovered her whereabouts. She needed to be taken somewhere safer.
"I'm not related to Eshe," Anders announced, apparently able to read his thoughts. "And don't worry about her safety. We're here now. We'll worry about that for you." He glanced to Bricker then and held out a phone Armand hadn't noticed he was carrying until then. "It's Lucian. For you."
Bricker stood and moved around the bed at once to take the cordless phone the man was holding out. He said hello, listened, and then grunted and walked out of the room still listening.
"Lucian has been delayed," the man named Anders explained as he moved around the bed toward the IV. His back was to Armand as he apparently checked the IV, and he added, "It will be evening before he gets here. He wants us to keep you quiet and comfortable until he does."
Armand didn't comment, but he doubted it was possible to keep him quiet and comfortable. His body hurt everywhere, from his scalp down to his toes, and he was too worried about Eshe and how she was faring to sleep. In fact, he was about to ask to be taken to her so that he could see for himself that she was all right when Anders turned from the IV with an empty syringe.
"Lucian said you'd want to do that," he said wryly, obviously reading his mind as Bricker had. "It's why he said to keep you sedated."
"Prick," Armand muttered with a combination of anger and dismay as he realized the man hadn't been checking the IV but shooting drugs into it. He'd meant Lucian was a prick for giving the order to do so, but Anders apparently thought he'd been directing the insult at him.
He smiled slightly and admitted, "I've been called that many times."
Armand opened his mouth to explain he hadn't meant him, but the words came out garbled and his eyes were already closing as the drug took effect.
Eshe opened her eyes and peered blearily at Armand. His face was right above hers, a blurry wash of pale skin with silver-blue eyes. Smiling sleepily, she tried to raise her hand to caress his face, but found herself too weary, so murmured, "Armand. So sweet. Kiss me."
"I'm not Armand. I'm not sweet. And I'm not kissing you."
Eshe blinked, managing to sweep away some of the sleep or whatever scum was coating her eyes, and found herself staring at Lucian Argeneau's grim face. She wouldn't have bothered to prevent the scowl that immediately covered her face if she could have, and she didn't bother to try to stop the "God! What a face to wake up to" that slipped from her lips either.
"You have always been a charmer," Lucian said, sounding amused rather than insulted.
Eshe grunted at the words and snapped, "What are you doing in my room?"
"Perhaps you should be asking yourself why you are in your room," Lucian countered, watching her carefully.
Eshe sought her mind briefly, flushing as the memories of what she and Armand had done in the shed came to her. Obviously the man had carried her into the house while she still slept and put her to bed. Now she'd been caught slacking on the job. If Lucian was here, it must be nighttime and she should be up working.
"She doesn't remember."
Eshe opened her eyes again and raised her gaze to the brunette woman she could just see standing behind Lucian. Leigh, his life mate. Eshe had met her only a couple of times in passing since the woman had come into Lucian's life, but she figured anyone who could put up with his grumpy mug day in and day out had to be a saint, so she smiled at the woman and said, "Hi, Leigh. What are you doing here?"
"She is a saint," Lucian assured her, obviously having read her thoughts and having absolutely no compunction about letting her know that he had. He could be such a rude bugger.
"I told you the drugs would still be affecting her," Bricker said, making his presence known. Eshe glanced his way on the other side of the bed, eyebrows rising when she spotted Anders at his side.
"Jeez. What is this, Grand Central Station? Why is everyone in my room? And why does my throat hurt? And what is that smell?" she asked with disgust as she slowly became aware of the different sensations afflicting her.
"What smell is that?" Lucian asked patiently.
"Like burning pork," she muttered wrinkling her nose.
"That would be you, then," he said dryly.
"Lucian," Leigh chided, poking and prodding at him to get him out of the way. The brunette took his place sitting on the edge of her bed, and smiled into Eshe's confused eyes as she asked, "Do you remember anything at all after you and Armand had your picnic and then...er...napped in the shed?"
Eshe stared at her silently, not really seeing her as she searched her mind, but the very last thing she remembered was passing out on Armand's lap.
"No," she said finally, and then with mounting concern, "Did something happen? Where is Armand?"
"He's fine. He's sleeping," Leigh assured her quickly and then hesitated before asking, "You don't remember the fire?"
"What fire?" she asked blankly.
"She slept right through it all," Leigh marveled, glancing to Lucian with amazement.
"She was unconscious. They'd just had sex," he pointed out dryly.
"Yes, but I didn't realize we were completely knocked out afterward. I always thought it was just a faint or something."
"So did I," Bricker said quietly, and then shook his head and muttered. "God, they're lucky Armand woke up."
Lucian grunted, and glanced to Eshe. She peered back silently, waiting. Her mind was a mass of questions but she didn't ask any of them. She'd been asking questions since opening her eyes and they hadn't answered any of them yet. She'd learned more by simply listening to them talk to each other than from anything they'd actually said to her. She was apparently under the influence of drugs at the moment and there had been a fire, she thought, in the shed where she and Armand had taken shelter from the storm. From what they'd said, Armand had woken and gotten them out, but guessing by the fact that she was flat on her back in bed and he was apparently in his own bed, no doubt in the same state, they'd both been injured and were healing.
"That's about the long and short of it," Lucian said, still rooting around inside her head. "He got you out, but then apparently passed out again. Bricker went looking for the two of you at dawn and found you lying out in the sunshine. He called me, brought you both inside, and I couldn't get away right away so sent Anders down with IVs, blood, and drugs to keep you both under until I could get here."
"Which was a good thing since Armand woke up right after Anders got here and we got the IVs in place," Bricker muttered.
Eshe's head shifted on the pillow as she looked for the IV. Spotting it and seeing the steady but slow drip of blood seeping out of the bag into the IV tube, she grimaced. The nanos' ability to heal would be just as slow as the speed with which they were getting the blood they needed to make the repairs. It would have been faster had they slapped the bags to her fangs and let her body soak in what it needed. She'd probably be on her feet and walking around by now if they had.
"Your fangs wouldn't come down," Lucian informed her. "We think your nostrils were damaged breathing in the hot, smoky air. The smell of blood didn't bring on your fangs. The IV was the best Bricker could do until you awoke."
"I'm awake now," she muttered, and boy was she. Drugs didn't work long on immortals and hers were apparently starting to wear off. Her damaged nerve endings were coming back to life with a vengeance.
"Get her several bags," Lucian ordered at once. "Her fangs should produce themselves the moment she sees the blood now that her eyes are open."
When Anders nodded and headed for the door, Lucian glanced to Bricker. "Go check on Armand. He may be coming around now too if you gave them the drug at the same time."
"What do I tell him if he's awake?" Bricker asked, moving toward the door now as well.
Lucian's mouth tightened. "Nothing. Just put him under again. I want to talk to you and Eshe before I decide what to do about him."
"What do you mean, what to do about him?" Leigh asked with a frown, and Eshe nodded in her bed. She was wondering the same thing herself and relieved she didn't have to ask the question now that the drugs were wearing off.
Lucian scowled briefly. He did hate explaining himself, Eshe knew. But apparently would do so when Leigh asked a question because after a pause he ran a hand through his hair and said, "I've been trying to keep Armand from knowing what was going on here. About the investigation, I mean."
"Why?" Leigh asked with surprise, and Eshe could have kissed her for it. It saved her doing more damage to a throat she could now feel was in bad shape.
Besides, it was obvious the woman was actually the only one he'd bother to answer, Eshe decided as Lucian sat down in a chair beside the bed and actually began to speak, stringing words together to make whole sentences and sentences together to make what was from him a long speech as he said, "Armand was an active member of the family before Rosamund's death. He still kept to himself quite a bit, but he would visit the boys, and join family functions and so on. After Rosamund's death, however, he dumped Jeanne Louise on Marguerite's door and shut everyone out. I thought he just needed time to heal and left him alone. I would have eventually got around to kicking his ass and getting him back into the family given another century or so, but after Nicholas turned himself in and we learned that Annie had been looking into Armand's wives' deaths when she'd died herself, I began to wonder."
"If he'd killed them?" Eshe growled, and immediately regretted speaking. Damn, she must have been swallowing flames for her throat to be so sore, she thought with a sigh.
"Don't talk," Lucian snapped, and then turned to Leigh and said, "I didn't really think he would have killed his own life mate. Or Althea and Rosamund, for that matter, but it was a possibility that had to be investigated. What I really began to suspect was that he'd shut himself off from the family in an effort to keep everyone safe. That perhaps he himself suspected with Rosamund that it was just one accident too many, and something besides bad luck was behind the deaths of his wives."
"But it was only his wives who have died," Leigh pointed out. "Why would he think anyone else might be in peril?"
"If they were murdered, as it's looking, it could have been because they were his wives, but they were also the females in his life that he cared for. You have to remember that Althea and Rosamund weren't life mates, just females he held affection for."
"You think he was worried for Jeanne Louise," Leigh realized with dismay. "That he feared without a wife to concentrate on the killer might have harmed her."
"It was a possibility," Lucian murmured.
"Apparently a good possibility, since it's looking more and more like Annie, another female in his close family, was murdered as well," Leigh murmured, and then frowned and pointed out, "But he never met her, did he? I thought they said he refused to come to the wedding or allow them to visit."
"Yes," Lucian said dryly. "But if Annie was asking family members about the murders, I doubt she stopped there. Nicholas was away a lot working for me. She could have driven down here to speak to him."
"Did you ask him?"
Lucian nodded. "He said he'd never met her and I can't read him so couldn't tell if that was true or not."
"You think he'd lie to you?" Leigh asked with surprise.
"Well, I only asked the question in passing. I couldn't very well tell him why I was asking or explain that it was important."
"Why not?" Leigh asked, and Eshe was grateful for being saved the bother herself.
"Because he can't know Nicholas is locked up in the enforcer house. He'd do something stupid. And then there's Eshe here. I only got her here under the pretext that I needed a safe house for her. I'm pretty sure he's thinking he will only give himself this short time with her and after the two weeks I told him she'd be here are up, he will send her away for her own safety. If he knew she was here actively looking for whoever was behind all these deaths, he'd have sent her away at once."
"He wouldn't send Eshe away," Leigh protested quickly, and Eshe was starting to think the woman was reading her mind and asking the questions and saying the things she wanted to say herself as Leigh added, "They're life mates. You don't send life mates away."
Lucian turned to Eshe and arched an eyebrow. "Has he spoken about a future with you, or what the two of you will do after the two weeks is up?"
Eshe's eyes slowly widened as she realized that no, he hadn't. In fact, she recalled the time he'd mentioned her leaving in two weeks, and her upset about it at the time. But she'd thought that was just a slip or something.
Lucian grunted and nodded as he read the answer from her. "That's why I wouldn't let you tell him the real reason you were here when you called me the other night; he'd have hustled you into his pickup and driven you straight to my doorstep in Toronto. No doubt he then would have bought a new farm and kept the address to himself so you couldn't find him again. Or maybe even moved to Europe or something to try to keep you safe. He's already lost one life mate. I guarantee he won't risk jeopardizing another."
Why, the dirty bastard, Eshe thought with dismay. Lucian was right. Armand thought he could send her away after the two weeks were up like some cheap vacation romance. Well, she thought grimly, that man had another think coming.
The bedroom door opened then and Eshe was relieved to see Anders returning with half a dozen bags of blood. While the IV bag hadn't done it when she'd spotted it, the sight of these bags that she knew were meant for her to drink were enough to bring on her teeth. She ground her teeth against the pain she was experiencing and managed to lift herself up somewhat, then simply opened her mouth. Lucian stepped out of the way as Anders approached, but it was Leigh who took one of the bags from him and turned to slap it to Eshe's mouth.
"Sorry," she murmured as Eshe winced at the sting of the bag against her damaged face, but Eshe couldn't respond to tell her it was all right, so hoped she read it from her mind as she let her teeth do their work.
"Are you all right?" Leigh asked once the bag was empty and she pulled it from her teeth for her.
Eshe merely grunted and gestured for her to bring on the next bag. It was Lucian who took another bag from Anders, handed it over, and said, "Don't stop. Feed them to her one right after another." He then took the other bags from Anders and said, "Go get the drugs I sent down with you. As soon as she's had the last bag, you'll need to put her out."
"Why?" Leigh asked with surprise as she slapped the second bag to Eshe's mouth.
"She's taken enough damage that this is going to be almost as bad as a turn," he explained grimly. "Better she doesn't stay awake for it."
Leigh looked horrified at the possibility, but Eshe wasn't surprised. She'd lived a long time. This was hardly the first time she'd been hurt. The worse the damage, the worse the healing was, and she could already feel her body beginning to buzz as the nanos set to work. Right now it felt like she was being stung by a million bees that had somehow gotten into her veins, but by the last bag she suspected it would feel like she was being eaten alive from the inside out. However, she needed to heal. She needed to get back on her feet and find whoever had set that shed on fire. She was not going to be pushed from Armand's life for her own good, and she wasn't risking his getting killed in an attempt on her life as had apparently almost happened with this fire. But she suspected she was going to have a fight on her hands when Armand woke up.
Eshe needed to heal quickly and regain her strength to win that battle. She was Armand's life mate, and he'd better get used to it because she wasn't going anywhere.