Born to Bite
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"Armand's on his way back," Eshe told Cedrick as she stepped out of the SUV to find him already out of his pickup and there to hold the door for her. They'd been bouncing around so much on the gravel lanes on the way back that she'd punched in Anders's number wrong twice before finally getting it right and getting ahold of the men.
As she'd feared, they were sitting in Armand's pickup waiting for Cedrick to return. She'd explained that they'd run into him at the Maunsell farm and were bringing him back to Armand's farm to speak with him. Armand had said they'd head right over.
Eshe had barely finished talking to him and ended the call before Bricker was pulling into the driveway at Armand's farm. By her guess, they were fifteen or twenty minutes away. She murmured a thank-you as Cedrick closed the door for her, and then started toward the porch.
"Would you like something to drink while we wait? Coffee, tea...blood?" Eshe added the last with a wry twist of her lips. Saying the first two had made her feel like Little Suzy Homemaker, but offering the blood had made her feel better. Besides, no one had ever mentioned if the man was mated or not. If not, he probably didn't drink anything but blood.
"Blood," Cedrick murmured as he followed her up the porch steps. He then added, "I'm unmated still...and beginning to think I'll never find my life mate."
The last was said on a weary note that made Eshe frown slightly. It was hard being alone, she knew. Life started to just blend together into one seamless skein of never-ending nights. And John Maunsell was alone too, reduced to a game junkie who sat alone in a soundproofed and windowless room night after night playing endless video games. After they resolved all this, it seemed to her she and Armand should throw a big party and invite a ton of females, mortal and immortal alike, to introduce to the two men. They both seemed nice enough to her and deserved life mates. Of course, she'd only had one short conversation with John, and from the few brief sentences she'd exchanged with Cedrick, it seemed he didn't think much of John.
"What did you mean by John is John?" she asked curiously as they entered the kitchen and she moved to the refrigerator to retrieve three bags of blood.
"Maybe I should move that up to Armand's room before we forget," Bricker muttered as he took the bag she offered him. "Mrs. Ramsey will be here tomorrow."
Eshe nodded absently, her questioning gaze on Cedrick as she offered him a bag.
"Thank you." He accepted the blood, but didn't pop it to his teeth right away, instead considering her question. Finally he sighed and said bluntly, "John was a drunken idiot as a mortal."
Eshe's eyes widened at this news. He'd mentioned he'd liked to drink as a mortal, but she hadn't taken that to mean he was a drunk. Of course, he wasn't likely to tell her that. She glanced to Bricker to see that he appeared just as surprised. He also stopped pulling bags of blood from the refrigerator, plopped the two he'd already removed back inside, closed the door, and straightened to listen.
Eshe glanced back to Cedrick, and then carried her bag of blood with her to the table and sat down as she asked, "What drove him to drink?"
"Nothing," Cedrick said dryly as he and Bricker joined her at the table. "He was just a second son with no responsibilities, no prospects, and a like for drink."
"Oh," Eshe murmured, turning her bag absently in her hand.
"He was also betrothed to the daughter of a neighboring baron," Cedrick said on a sigh. "The girl could have done better, but she and John were crazy about each other and her original betrothed had died when she was a child, so the father agreed to their marriage. The wedding date was about three months away when John came to the castle to find out why Agnes was no longer at the convent. And then of course he went on the night hunt where he broke his neck."
Cedrick's mouth tightened. "He was sober when we started out, but had a wineskin full of whiskey in his saddlebag. I caught him drinking a time or two and suggested it wasn't wise to drink on a hunt. He just laughed and said it was to keep him warm." Cedrick blew his breath out with disgust. "I guarantee you the idiot was past drunk when he took the tumble from his mount and broke his fool neck."
"And Agnes turned him," Eshe murmured.
"Yes. The little fool. I thought it a waste of a good turn at the time."
"And now?" Eshe asked curiously.
Cedrick shrugged. "Turning made John stop drinking. The alcohol had no effect on him anymore and Armand ordered everyone not to tell him about how drinking a drunk's blood affected us. I'm sure he's learned since then, but as far as I can tell he hasn't drunk since Susanna's death." He pursed his lips and said, "Guilt, I imagine. If he hadn't been down at the inn in the village, he would have been there when the fire started and Susanna might be alive."
Eshe nodded, and Bricker asked, "What happened to his betrothed?"
"Oh." Cedrick clucked with disgust. "Armand warned him to wait until he had gained the skill to read minds before he married her, to be sure she could be a life mate to him, but he was still in love with the girl and would have gone right ahead and married her if she'd been willing."
"She wasn't, I take it," Eshe said quietly.
"Hell no. He went to her the minute he left the castle and blabbed to her about what he was now. The girl was very religious, most folks were back then, and she about had a heart attack when he told her. As far as she was concerned, he was now the devil's spawn and she couldn't get away from him quick enough. If I hadn't been there, she'd have run and told her father and we'd have had an army at the castle gate with stakes and torches in hand."
"You were there?" Eshe asked with surprise.
Cedrick nodded. "Armand's no idiot. John had promised to delay the wedding and not to tell until he could read and control mortals as well as wipe memories in case she reacted exactly as she did. But Armand didn't trust him not to and sent me to follow him just to be sure. I wiped her memory, put false memories of a terrible fight with John into her mind, and sent her on her way thinking she never wanted to see him again. Then I brought John back to the castle."
Cedrick sat back in his seat and shook his head. "He was a bitter and angry little bastard for a while after that, unpleasant to everyone but worst with Agnes. John blamed her for turning him into what his betrothed saw as a monster, you see," he added dryly. "Never mind that if she hadn't he'd be dead and still wouldn't have her, but wouldn't have life either.
"That was hard as hell on the girl. Fortunately, Susanna's death seemed to knock at least some sense into the boy. He's treated her better since then, very protective of her...which is good since she always doted on him," he added quietly, and then asked, "Have you met Agnes yet?"
Eshe shook her head. "She was at the movies tonight when we arrived."
Cedrick smiled faintly. "Agnes loves the movies. She's a sweet little thing. I believe she's almost ten years older than Susanna was. She and an older brother had a different mother than Susanna and John, who were born to their father's second wife. Agnes's mother must have been a wee thing. The girl's short and slim and looks younger than most immortals despite her more than five hundred years. She had already taken the veil and become a nun when Susanna turned her, but of course she gave that up after the turn. It's hard enough biting friends and neighbors, and they aren't virginal brides of God," he said with a grimace.
"I've met a couple of rogues who would have thought that a delicacy," Bricker said.
"Yes, well, Agnes wouldn't have," Cedrick assured him, and then let them know he'd had enough questions for now by slapping the bag of blood Eshe had given him to his teeth.
She and Bricker did likewise and they were all silent as the bags emptied. Eshe was just tearing her empty bag from her teeth when they heard the rusty creak of the screen door opening at the front of the house and then the clack as it slammed shut. Eshe wasn't surprised when Armand led Anders into the kitchen a moment later.
Cedrick nodded in greeting and removed his own empty bag to greet Armand with "I heard tell in town that you have a new manager."
"I do," Armand agreed, slapping the other man on the shoulder in passing on his way to the chair beside Eshe. "I'll give you his name and particulars for the books before you leave."
Cedrick nodded and then glanced curiously to Anders as he moved to the fridge to grab a couple of bags of blood.
"That's Anders," Armand answered the unasked question, and when Cedrick raised an eyebrow, added, "I'm sorry, I don't know his first name."
"Few people do," Anders said mildly as he joined them at the table and handed one of the bags he'd collected to Armand. As he settled in the chair between Armand and Bricker, he added, "Speaking of your new manager, he thinks you and Eshe were away the last couple of days. So does your housekeeper. Lucian's work," he added when Armand glanced at him with surprise. "He didn't want them anywhere near the house while you two were healing so put it in their heads that you were away and your manager should stay in his house with the television on loud except when he had chores to do, and your housekeeper should go home for a paid day off. She'll be back tomorrow though, I gather."
Armand nodded and glanced to Eshe. "I suppose you've already asked him the questions?"
She shook her head, an amused smile curving her lips at his consternation at possibly missing out on gaining info. "No. Cedrick was just telling us about John and Agnes. We haven't asked about anything else."
"Oh." He smiled faintly, his eyes dropping to her lips. When Armand then swayed toward her, Eshe was sure he was about to kiss her, but he paused when Cedrick spoke.
"Sorry to interrupt, but what questions?"
Sighing, he smiled wryly at her, and then turned to Cedrick. "We're trying to figure out who killed my wives and daughter-in-law Annie."
Eshe winced at the words. While she knew Armand didn't believe Cedrick could be behind the tragedies in his life, and while she mostly agreed, it still would have been better to leave that little bit of info out for now, just in case they were wrong and he was.
She peered at Cedrick, noting the expression on his face and that while he was somewhat surprised, he didn't seem stunned at this news. She understood why when he said slowly, "I thought you just seemed to have a little too much bad luck with women."
"You should have said something," Armand said with surprise. "I thought the same thing."
Cedrick shrugged. "Well, you never talked about it, and I thought maybe I was just being paranoid."
"Yeah," Armand said dryly. "I know the feeling."
Cedrick stared at him silently for a moment, and then straightened in his seat and said, "Right. What can I do to help?"
Much to her surprise, Armand turned to peer at her and raised an eyebrow, silently deferring to her. Reaching for his hand where it rested on his leg, she squeezed it gently and then asked Cedrick, "I understand you were at court with Armand at the time of Susanna's death?"
He nodded. "We left the week before and returned apparently a week after she died."
"And when Althea died you were at the farm helping Armand?"
He nodded again. "I believe it was a foaling mare. Althea and her parents left while we were trying to turn the wee beast." He grimaced. "We lost the foal if I remember correctly?" He glanced to Armand, who gave a nod.
"Were you around when Rosamund died?" Eshe asked.
Cedrick grimaced at that. "I was around in the area, but I was at the farm I was managing at the time. I only heard about it the next night."
"We don't suspect you," Armand assured him solemnly. "We're just trying to sort it out. You're my alibi for both Susanna and Althea's deaths."
"They suspected you?" Cedrick asked with surprise and then glanced to Eshe, Bricker, and Anders and assured them, "I've known this man a long time. Armand wouldn't hurt anyone, let alone kill a life mate and two wives."
"Is there anyone you can think of who might?" Eshe asked at once.
The question seemed to set him aback, but he paused and considered it for several moments before shaking his head. "He's a good guy. I can't think of any reason someone would go after his women."
"Then is there anyone besides yourself, the Harcourts, and John and Agnes who have been around since Susanna's death?" she asked. "Perhaps not directly involved in his life even, but on the fringes maybe? Someone who keeps cropping up?"
Cedrick shrugged. "Just his family. They pop in and out of his life at times. Lucian...and Jean Claude and his wife, Marguerite."
Eshe slumped back in her seat with disappointment. She wasn't the only one. Bricker and Armand did as well. Only Anders seemed unmoved by the lack of information, but then he was new to the investigation and hardly knew Armand. It wouldn't bother him.
Cedrick offered an apologetic grimace. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not much help."
"You verified Armand's story," Eshe said, forcing a smile. "That was helpful."
He gave a short disbelieving laugh, and then glanced to Armand when he suddenly stood.
"Come to the office. I'll get you that information on Jim, my new manager here," Armand said quietly.
Cedrick nodded and stood, but paused to nod at Bricker and Anders, then smiled at Eshe. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I hope you sort all this out and enjoy a long happy life with Armand. He deserves it."
"Thank you," Eshe murmured. "It's nice meeting you too. And we will meet again."
Cedrick nodded and turned to follow Armand from the room.
"Well," Anders said as the sound of their footsteps faded away up the hall. "I hope you two had more luck with John and Agnes Maunsell?"
"Yes," Bricker answered even as Eshe said, "No."
Anders quirked one eyebrow. "Which is it?"
Eshe peered at Bricker. "All he really did was verify Armand's story."
"Aha!" Bricker said with triumph. "This time I caught details you didn't."
Eshe grimaced. "So tell. What did you notice?"
Bricker shook his head and stood up. "I'm moving the blood. I'll explain when Armand gets back. That way I'll have a witness to my redeeming myself and not looking an idiot like I did last time."
Eshe considered telling him he hadn't looked an idiot, but then merely shrugged and stood to cross to the cupboards and begin opening and closing them until she found the ones that held food rather than dishes.
"What are you looking for?" Bricker asked with a frown.
"Something to eat," she said absently.
"Already?" he asked with dismay. "We only had breakfast a couple hours ago before Lucian and Leigh left."
"Three hours ago," she corrected, and then added defensively, "And that breakfast was the only thing I'd eaten since the picnic Sunday. I'm hungry again."
Heaving a sigh, Bricker set back the blood he'd picked up and closed the fridge door. "All right. What do you want? I'll make it."
"I can make myself something," she said at once.
"Right," he said with open disbelief. "When's the last time you cooked?"
Eshe frowned and hesitated, but finally admitted, "Never."
"Never?" he echoed with disbelief. "Like really never?"
Eshe heaved a sigh and turned back to the cupboard of boxes and cans with a grimace. "My family was wealthy. And Orion was an amazing warrior. He was wealthy too. We had servants to do that stuff. It didn't look that hard though. I'm sure I can figure it out."
She picked out an attractive-looking container on the shelf and peered at the pretty image of wheat and fruit on the front. "This looks good."
"That's Metamucil," Bricker said with disgust, snatching it from her hand.
"So?" She turned to scowl at him. "What's wrong with Metamucil?"
"It's-" He glanced at the container and read, "A dietary supplement."
"That sounds healthy," she said, trying to grab it back.
"Eshe," he said, his disgust giving way to amusement. "It's what old mortals take to get regular."
"To get regular what?" she asked, and then poked him in the stomach, hard. The moment Bricker bent over with an "oomph," she snatched the container back and repeated, "Regular what?"
"Crap," he gasped, clutching his stomach.
"I didn't hit you that hard," she said with some disgust of her own.
"No." He sighed, straightening. "I meant that's what they get regulated. Crap."
Eshe dropped the can with dismay. "They buy crap?"
"Not the-It's a-Oh. For cripes sake," Bricker muttered, bending to pick it up. Shaking it in her face, he then said, "It's fiber. Psyllium seeds or chaff or something. It regulates their bowel movements for those who don't eat enough fiber in their diet."
"Oh." She peered at the container. "That doesn't sound very good. It's very attractive though."
"Yeah, well, so are some cat foods but I wouldn't suggest trying them either," he muttered, setting the container back in the cupboard. "In fact, I suggest you let me take you grocery shopping your first time out just to make sure you don't try to make a meal out of toilet cakes or feminine hygiene products."
"Ha ha, I do know what feminine hygiene products are," she said dryly.
"Do you?" he asked doubtfully, and Eshe rolled her eyes.
"I am a female, Bricker," she pointed out.
"Oh, right, I forgot," he said dryly, surveying the contents of the cupboard now himself. "I just think of you as an enforcer. A really old enforcer."
Eshe was narrowing her eyes and considering plowing him one when she became aware of Anders's soft laughter from the table. Turning, she glared at him, but he merely shrugged.
"I believe he just got you back for your earlier comments about not thinking of him as a man," the man said with amusement.
Realizing he was right, Eshe sighed and decided not to hit Bricker. Moving to the table, she muttered ungraciously, "Fine. You can cook for me."
"Gee, thanks," Bricker said dryly, and Anders laughed harder.
"What's so funny?" Armand asked, coming into the room then. Eshe glanced his way to see that he was alone and supposed Cedrick had headed back to the farm he was running.
"Eshe was going to eat Metamucil," Bricker announced, grinning with an amusement that only deepened when he saw Armand's blank expression. Shaking his head, he pulled down the canister of Metamucil and held it out. "Did you know what this was when you bought it?"
Armand eyed the container and shrugged. "No, but it looked good."
That just made Bricker laugh again. "Oh man. I'm going to have to give you two some shopping lessons before I go."
Shaking his head, he turned back to the cupboard, saying, "Sit down. We're going to talk while I make us something to eat."
"Good," Armand murmured, moving around the table to rejoin Eshe. "I'm hungry."
"Did Cedrick leave?" Anders asked as Armand settled in the chair next to Eshe.
"Yes. I didn't think he could be of any more help," Armand murmured, draping his arm around Eshe and drawing her against his side.
Anders nodded and then glanced to Bricker. "So, Armand's here...Tell us what you picked up at the Maunsells that Eshe didn't."
"Right," he murmured, grabbing lunchmeat, cheese, and various greens from the refrigerator. He set them on the counter and went back for an onion and tomato as he said, "Well, he told us pretty much what Armand said, but with a little more detail."
"Yes, but it wasn't really enough to figure out if her death was murder or accidental," Eshe said, watching him pull plates from the cupboard and begin slicing the tomatoes and onions.
"I disagree," Bricker said, and then pointed out, "He said the men apparently hadn't noticed the stable fire until it was well under way because they were watching outside the wall as was their job. And that they didn't realize Susanna was in there until Agnes came out upset that she couldn't find Susanna."
"Yeah," Eshe murmured, her mouth starting to water as she watched him build several sandwiches stacked high with lettuce, onion, tomato, cucumber, meat, and cheese.
He stopped what he was doing and turned to peer at where they sat at the table. "The first thing I did when I found you and Armand out beside the remains of the burned shed was call Lucian. I knew I'd need help; drugs and blood and-" Bricker shrugged, "Hell, just someone to help watch your backs while you healed." He let that sink in and then asked, "Don't you think if Susanna had gone into the bailey and seen that the stables were on fire, she would have yelled at the men on the wall to get help?" he asked pointedly. "There had to be more than one horse in there. She couldn't have thought she was going to rescue them all alone."
He shook his head and turned back to his sandwich making. "I think if the stables were on fire before she went in, she would have been shrieking at the top of her lungs for help and the men would have known before she ever went in."
"You're right, she would have," Armand said quietly.
"Which means she didn't run into a burning stable and have a beam or something else collapse on top of her and trap her as everyone assumed," Eshe said, following that reasoning.
"All the others have been decapitated," Anders pointed out. "Only Althea and Annie were burned like her. Rosamund wasn't but was decapitated."
"Yeah." Bricker frowned as he put the last slice of bread on each sandwich and then began to cut them into halves. "I thought of that, but she was apparently shrieking from inside the stables when the men finally noticed and ran toward it. She couldn't have been decapitated."
"She could have," Eshe murmured, drawing three pairs of doubting eyes her way. She took a minute to think it through and then said. "She was the first kill. The killer might not have been very confident yet. He might not have fully decapitated her, but just sliced her throat open or even halfway through. A wound like that would have incapacitated her, prevented her escaping, probably even knocked her unconscious for several minutes, long enough for the stables to be set on fire and be fully engorged in flames before she regained consciousness and could scream."
"But if her throat was sliced, she wouldn't have been able to scream," Bricker pointed out.
"Not right away," Eshe agreed. "But the nanos' first reaction would be to repair the damage to such a wound."
"Enough for her to scream?" Bricker said doubtfully, but then murmured, "It would make sense, though. I mean, you're right, killers often use the same method, so I'd be willing to believe that there had been an attempted decapitation. I mean it would fit. All the others were decapitated and then involved in fire except for Rosamund."
Eshe nodded, and then glanced to Armand to see his troubled expression. Thinking he doubted her theory, she said, "Or she may have sustained another wound, something that would prevent her being able to escape, but not to scream."
"Either way, it seems likely Susanna was murdered too," Armand murmured.
"Bricker brings up a good point," Anders said quietly. "All the rest involved fire except for Rosamund."
"There would have been no way to explain a fire with Rosamund's death," Eshe pointed out. "William said she was decapitated when the wagon she was driving overturned. Wagons didn't have engines to catch on fire."
"I don't know about wagons, but we had a Brougham carriage when I was a kid and it had a carriage lantern," Bricker said. "If the wagon had one, it could have easily started a fire when the wagon overturned. At least that's what everyone would have thought if the wagon had burned."
Eshe glanced to Armand. "Did your wagon have a lantern?"
"Actually, it did," he said quietly. "And there were signs that there had been a bit of a fire, but it was raining that night and it apparently couldn't catch hold and stay lit."
"Even with the fuel from the lantern?" Eshe asked with surprise. It had rained the night the shed had burned too, but that hadn't slowed it down much. Although Lucian had told her that he'd gone out to examine the shed and could smell gas in the grass by the fire and suspected it had been used as an accelerant to start the fire and make it grow fast and furious.
"Knowing Rosamund, she probably didn't refill the lantern before setting out that night. She was always forgetting," he added with fond exasperation. Armand shrugged. "There may not have been enough fuel in it to be of much help."
"So if it weren't for the rain, Rosamund would have burned up too," Anders said quietly and raised an eyebrow in Armand's direction. "Are any of your acquaintances what you would call firebugs? They like fire, use it to get rid of trash or such?"
Armand frowned but shook his head. "Not that I know of."
"It was worth a try," Anders said with a shrug.
"How exactly was Rosamund beheaded in the crash?" Eshe asked with a frown.
"The rails on the wagon were wood with metal top slats. It looked as if she'd been thrown from the wagon as it overturned, and then the metal slat had come down directly on her neck with the weight of the wagon behind it," he answered wearily. "It was a clean cut that a sword could have made, but the metal slat could have made it too."
They were all silent for a moment, and then Anders murmured, "So basically all we've learned is that all four women were probably murdered, which we suspected to begin with...and we've questioned everyone."
Eshe started to nod, but then stopped and shook her head instead. "We haven't questioned the women."
Armand glanced at her with surprise. "You're not suggesting Mary killed her own daughter?"
"No, of course not," she said at once to ease his upset, but then frowned as she realized just what she was saying and added, "Although there's no reason she might not have. I mean if William is a suspect, so is Mary. And the same is true of John and Agnes. A woman can kill just as well as a man."
"Mary was the one in the house talking to Rosamund before she supposedly rode off and had her supposed accident," Bricker pointed out.
"Mary would not have hurt a hair on Althea's head," Armand said firmly. "Dear God, she spoiled that girl rotten. In fact, she's the one to blame for Althea's willfulness. William at least made an effort to try to rein the girl in, but Mary was always hampering him." He shook his head. "She is not behind these deaths."
"All right, I'll take your word on it," Eshe said soothingly. "But we still haven't questioned either of the women, and one or both of them might know something that none of the men do. We have to question them."
Armand scowled, but then sighed and nodded reluctantly. "All right. But I want to be there when they're questioned."
"It would be faster if we-"
"I want to be there," he repeated firmly.
Eshe stared at him silently, instinct telling her it would probably be better if she spoke to the women alone. A woman would tell another woman things she'd never say in a man's presence. Then too, if Althea was having affairs as Armand believed, her mother might not want to speak of such things in front of him. Or anyone for that matter. Sighing, she caught his gaze with her own. "Don't you trust me?"
Armand blinked in surprise. "Of course, but-"
"Then let me talk to them," Eshe interrupted firmly, and when he opened his mouth, probably to protest, she added quickly, "You can be at the house with me. But I want you to keep William and John busy and let me talk to the women alone. They might say more without men there."
Armand let his breath out slowly and nodded. "All right."