Born to Bite / Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen


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It was full dark by the time Eshe reached the Maunsell house. As usual the lights were all off, and Eshe's heart sank at the sight. Not sure what else to do, she pulled into the driveway anyway, glad she had when she spotted Agnes just opening the driver's side door of the little yellow car parked by the house. The woman paused and glanced toward the SUV with curiosity, unable to see who was driving through the tinted windows.

Eshe parked and slid out to move around the SUV toward Agnes, managing a weak smile in response to the broad one that graced Agnes's face when she recognized her.

"Eshe," Agnes greeted happily, getting out to meet and hug her. "What a lovely surprise. How are you?"

"Fine," she murmured, automatically hugging the smaller woman back as she glanced around. There was no sign of the van or Armand's pickup and all the barn doors were closed. Forcing a smile, as Agnes stepped back she asked, "Where are John and Armand?"

Agnes's eyebrows rose in surprise. "I imagine John's visiting one of the other farms but I have no idea where Armand is. Was he coming here?"

"Yes, John called and asked him to come take a look at a new dairy cow he's just got. He thought she was ailing."

Agnes frowned. "We don't have any cows. Johnny says they're stupid and useless. We only do agriculture."

"He said he just got it. Perhaps it's at one of the other farms," Eshe suggested, but her heart was sinking again as Agnes shook her head.

"Armand must have misunderstood. The farms are all jointly owned. We both have to sign the checks for purchases and we definitely haven't purchased a cow."

Eshe closed her eyes, just knowing she'd been right...which meant Armand was in trouble. Forcing herself to breathe slowly, she tried to calm down and think. After a moment, she said, "Agnes, I need to know if Johnny has someplace he goes alone at times. Somewhere no one else would know to find him."

Agnes tilted her head and asked quietly, "What's happening, Eshe?"

She met her gaze and then asked abruptly, "Were you in Europe when Althea died or here in Canada?"

"We went to Europe after Althea and Armand married," Agnes said evasively. "I told you that."

"Yes, but were you still there at the time of the fire in the hotel?" Eshe asked insistently.

Agnes frowned. "Why are you asking me this?"

"You were here, weren't you?" Eshe said, sure it was true, and then cursed and paced away a few steps before whirling back. "John called and told Armand he had a sick cow he needed help with. If there's no cow, then he's lured him out for another reason, and I think that reason is so he can kill him."

Agnes appeared taken aback by the words and began to shake her head at once. "John wouldn't hurt Armand. He gave us a home for centuries even though Susanna was dead. He treated us like family. He is family." She shook her head firmly. "He'd never hurt Armand."

"Well, someone has tried to kill us three times. They locked both Armand and me in the shed and set it on fire and then controlled the housekeeper and had her attack me, and then last night the house was set on fire while we slept. Someone is trying to kill us and I think it's John."

"Why would Johnny-"

"Because we were looking into all the accidents and deaths that have happened around Armand, starting with Susanna's death," she interrupted, knowing it was urgent they get moving quickly.

"Oh dear," Agnes breathed, and then asked almost plaintively, "Why would you do that?"

"To save Nicholas," she answered at once.

"Nicholas?" Agnes blanched. "What's happened to Nicholas?"

Eshe shifted impatiently; they really didn't have time for this. "I need to find Armand, Agnes. Please, think, is there anywhere-"

"Tell me what's happened to Nicholas first," she snapped, showing an unexpected temper.

Eshe paused, but then said, "Annie was murdered fifty years ago and Nicholas was framed for the murder of a mortal. He's been on the run ever since. That's why they haven't been back to visit you."

"Annie murdered?" she whispered with dismay. "But why?"

"Because she was looking into the deaths of Armand's wives."

"Why would she do that?" Agnes cried unhappily.

Eshe shrugged. "I guess she was hoping to find out what had happened in the hopes of getting Armand back in the family for Nicholas's sake. She loved him."

"Of course she did...Poor Nicholas, he loved little Annie dearly," she said on a sigh and then asked, "And you say Nicholas was framed for murder?"

Eshe nodded. "We think it was to prevent his looking into what Annie was investigating. He would have been executed if he'd been caught," she pointed out. "Instead, he ran and has been rogue for fifty years. That's why he never visited again and you couldn't reach him." She allowed her a minute to take that in, and then added, "I was sent to see if I could find out what had happened...If I can't, they'll execute Nicholas," she added grimly even though she didn't think that was true anymore. After everything they'd learned and all that had gone on here, she didn't really think Lucian would execute Nicholas for a murder they were almost positive he hadn't committed, but she wanted to motivate Agnes.

"The poor boy," Agnes moaned, and then whispered, "Oh, Johnny, what have you done?"

"He's murdered four immortal women, one mortal woman, framed the nephew who is like a son to you, and tried to kill Armand and me repeatedly," Eshe snapped impatiently. "Now he has Armand somewhere, and if we don't find him, he might very well kill him too. So where could he take him, Agnes? Please, think."

Agnes looked torn for a moment, and then sighed and turned to move back to her car.

"Get in," she ordered as she slid behind the wheel.

Eshe didn't hesitate but hurried around the car to the passenger's side and slid in. Judging by the surprise on Agnes's face, the woman hadn't really expected her to obey her order, but Eshe would have walked into hell to drag Armand out. She loved the man, he was her life mate, and she would go wherever the woman said if it would take her to him.

"You have an idea where they might be?" she asked.

"Yes," Agnes said quietly as she started the car and sent it shooting up the driveway. "We haven't purchased a cow, but did buy a new farm a couple months ago. We only got possession last week. Johnny has been interviewing managers for it, but hasn't hired anyone yet. It's the perfect place. No one would be there."

Eshe nodded. That sounded like a likely place to kill someone.

"Why did Armand never tell me about Nicholas and Annie?" Agnes asked, anger in her voice.

"He thought you knew," Eshe told her. "John said not to bring up the subject around you because it upset you. Armand only found out you didn't know when I told him after our visit the other night." She paused and then admitted, "I wanted to tell you then, but I thought I should talk to Armand first. I didn't know if there was a good reason you hadn't been told."

"Oh, there was a good reason," Agnes said grimly. "Johnny knew I'd never forgive him if I'd found out about Annie and Nicholas." Her mouth tight, she added, "Rosamund was one thing. She was nosy and wasn't a life mate to Armand anyway, but Annie was Nicholas's life mate. She was family and such a sweet girl. And Nicholas..." She shook her head grimly. "He never should have hurt Nicholas."

"You knew he killed Rosamund?" Eshe asked carefully.

"Yes. He told me, of course. It gave him something to hold over my head. 'I killed Rosamund for you, blah blah blah,'" she said with disgust, and then cast a dry glance at Eshe. "You don't know how many times he's hammered me over the head with that. He uses it every time we have an argument. I ask him to do something for me he doesn't want to do, and it's 'Haven't I done enough already? I killed Rosamund for you.' I try to get him to stop drinking, and he blames it on me and trying to forget killing Rosamund for me."

"Why would his killing Rosamund be for you?" Eshe asked slowly, afraid she already knew the answer.

Agnes shook her head and heaved out a long sigh, then glanced to her with regret. "Please don't think less of me for this, but John killed Rosamund because she was apparently snooping around about Susanna and Althea's deaths and he was afraid she'd figure out that I killed them."

Armand opened his eyes slowly, at first only aware of the agony in his head and the cramping in his body. He'd sustained a bad head injury and his nanos had used up a lot of blood repairing what damage they could, but he obviously needed more blood for them to finish the job properly or his head wouldn't hurt. The cramping was an indication that he needed that blood for more than just repairing his head.

He came to that conclusion and then became aware of other things. That he was in a brightly lit room with a cement floor. That he was seated on some sort of crate, and that his hands were tied behind his back, which wouldn't be a problem were he at normal strength. Armand could have snapped the ropes with just a quick jerking apart of his wrists then, but he definitely wasn't at normal strength.

He lifted his head to peer around at exactly where he was and paused as he spotted the man lounging on his own crate across the narrow room from him.

"Johnny." The name was a disappointed sigh on his lips.

"I've been waiting here for quite a while for you to wake up," John said quietly.

Armand eyed him silently. John sat with his legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, his upper body leaning back against the wall with arms folded over his chest. His pose suggested he had indeed been waiting a while, but he unfolded his arms and reached down to pick up a bottle of water, and then stood and unscrewed the cap as he brought it to him.

Armand drank when he pressed the bottle to his lips. It was warm, but it was wet and eased the dryness in his mouth. What Armand really needed was blood, but he was pretty sure at that point that Johnny wouldn't bring that to him.

"Why wait?" he asked when Johnny took the bottle away. "Why didn't you just kill me right away?"

Shrugging, John set the bottle down beside him and walked back to his crate. "I wanted to apologize and explain before I kill you. So you'd understand."

"Nice," Armand said bitterly, and then arched an eyebrow. "So, I'm guessing you killed Susanna, Althea, Rosamund, and Annie, as well as framed Nicholas for that mortal's murder?"

"No."

Armand blinked in surprise. "No?"

"I only killed Rosamund and Annie, and framed Nicholas," he explained.

Armand considered that and then asked, "Why?"

Johnny sighed and grimaced. "To protect Agnes."

"From wh-" Eyes widened with realization. "She killed Susanna and Althea?"

He nodded solemnly.

Armand stared at him blankly for a minute, finding that hard to believe, and then said, "I know she didn't like Althea, but why would she have killed Susanna? Susanna was her sire."

"Basically, that's why," Johnny said wryly and then rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Really it was all my fault."

Armand sank back in his seat as Johnny told him what had happened all those years ago.

"Susanna was your sire, Agnes. She was your sister, she loved you. Why would you have killed her?"

Agnes heaved out a deep breath and shook her head before admitting, "I was pretty screwed up back then."

Eshe sank back in her seat with disbelief. "That's your answer? You were pretty screwed up?"

"Well, it's the truth," she said helplessly, and then shook her head and said, "You have to understand, I was a nun, Eshe. A bride of God. I was very religious."

Eshe recalled Cedrick saying that Johnny's betrothed had been very religious and it had made her unable to accept what Johnny had become. She'd thought him demon spawn and would have run off to tell her father and have him appear with an army of soldiers bearing stakes and torches. She supposed being a nun, Agnes would have been even more religious than Johnny's betrothed, and that might have made it hard to accept what she'd become. But then why had she allowed Susanna to turn her?

"I didn't allow it," Agnes said grimly, obviously reading her thoughts. "I was happy at the convent, I was born to it. No one cared there that my face was pockmarked from a childhood illness, no one cared that I was a little clumsy. They accepted me as I was. I blossomed as a nun."

"And then you got sick," Eshe said quietly.

Agnes nodded, and admitted wryly, "I felt horrible every day, worse and worse. But that was okay too. I was going to be with my God. And the sisters all wept for me and prayed by my bed for me to get better, and everyone fussed and tried to cheer me, and they gave me the choicest bits of meat to try to build my strength." She let her breath out on a little sigh. "But then Susanna arrived, beautiful Susanna with her big smiles and easy charm and her fairy-tale romance with Armand. Everyone fussed over her then. They all whispered to her in the corner, telling her how ill I was. And then she sent them all away and came to me and started to tell me the most fantastical tale. Armand was an immortal. He had made her one and she could make me one too and save me."

Agnes's mouth twisted bitterly. "I didn't believe her at first, but then she showed me her fangs and I was terrified. I told her no, to let me be, I was going to be with my God, but Susanna always did what she wanted and just went ahead and did it anyway," she said with irritation. "She ripped open her own arm with her fangs and pressed it to my mouth, and when I refused to swallow, she pinched my nose closed so that I had no choice."

"I'm sorry, Agnes," Eshe said quietly, and meant it. "Susanna shouldn't have done that. We are never supposed to turn one who does not wish it."

Agnes didn't acknowledge hearing her by word or deed, but simply continued. "And then the pain started. It was like I was being burned up and eaten alive at the same time. And the nightmares..." She shuddered even now at the memories. "I thought I'd died and gone to hell."

Eshe peered away out the window and silently cursed Susanna. There had been no drugs back then to ease the turn, and to inflict it on someone who did not wish it was just cruel.

"And then I woke up to find my teeth sunk into the abbess's neck," Agnes continued quietly. "And Susanna was there cooing soothing words and running her fingers through my hair as I drained the poor woman's life away."

"She let you feed on the abbess unto death?" Eshe asked with horror. It had always been frowned on to feed on any sort of religious figure, but feeding on any mortal until he died just wasn't allowed anywhere anytime.

"No," Agnes said on a sigh. "But I didn't know it at the time. When the abbess began to sag, I released her and Susanna brought another nun for me to feed on and then another. I didn't want to bite them, but I was in so much pain, I couldn't resist...I thought I killed all of them until we left and Susanna assured me I hadn't." She ground her teeth together and added, "I will never forgive her for making me feed on them. They were nuns, my sisters, blessed virgin brides of God."

Eshe sighed. From what she could tell, while Susanna's heart had been in the right place and she'd only wanted to save her sister, she'd done absolutely everything the wrong way.

"When I next opened my eyes it was like waking from a nightmare into a perfect dream," Agnes said quietly, much of the anger gone from her voice.

"How so?" Eshe asked curiously.

"I felt wonderful," she said simply, and then added, "I felt strong and healthy again, and my skin was perfect. The pocks that had always marked me were gone. My hair shone in the hand mirror Susanna held before me," She smiled slightly at the memory and admitted, "I didn't even mind when Susanna said I'd have to leave the convent. She gave me one of her dresses to wear. It was a little large, but the most beautiful thing I'd ever worn and I felt pretty in it. We rode out the moment the sun had set."

"The next month was wonderful. Armand welcomed me and assured me I would always be welcome in his home, and Susanna threw balls and invited anyone close enough to come. She taught me to hunt and to feed and..." Agnes gave a little sigh. "I did miss the sunlight some, but the night was ours, and I was no longer ever afraid to go anywhere without a man to protect me. I felt free."

"What changed that?" Eshe asked quietly.

"Johnny came," she said, her smile fading. "The family had heard that I'd left the convent and Father sent Johnny to find out why. Armand handled him mostly. I realize now he controlled his mind and calmed him, and it was a nice visit until the night he fell off his horse."

"Cedrick said you turned Johnny to save him."

"Yes," Agnes admitted. "I wasn't sure I should. He was unconscious and I couldn't ask him if he wished it, but Susanna kept badgering me to do it, to save him as she'd saved me. And Johnny had always been my favorite. In the end, I did it...and everything changed," she added bitterly.

"Oh, it was all right at first. He was pleased to be alive and well when he woke, and the three of us ran the night and laughed so much while he was there. But then he went to see his Elizabeth. He had to have his Elizabeth."

"His betrothed?" Eshe asked. Cedrick had never mentioned the woman's name. When Agnes nodded, she murmured, "Cedrick said she didn't take it well."

"No, she didn't," Agnes agreed. "She spurned him and said some awful things. Johnny was devastated. He was miserable and surly with everyone, but mostly with me. And he kept going down to the village and drinking gallons of ale trying to drink himself to oblivion. Armand had told him it wouldn't work anymore, but he tried...and tried...and tried," she added wryly and shook her head. "I knew he blamed me for turning him but he never said as much and I tried to be patient and simply wait, hoping it would pass. But months went by and he got no better. I felt like I was forever walking on eggshells waiting for his next outburst of temper. Armand tried to cheer him, but nothing worked. I started regretting turning him, and wishing I'd just let him die. And then I started wishing Susanna had let me die. Then he would never have come, never have broken his neck...I'd have been with God, and he with his Elizabeth."

Eshe could hear the despair and depression in her voice and knew it must have been a hundred times worse at the time.

"And then Susanna had little Nicholas," Agnes said, cheering a little. "Everyone was happy. Johnny even stopped going down to the village to drink, and smiled once or twice. Nicholas was such a beautiful baby. Armand rode off to court and the three of us fussed over the baby. It was almost like it had been right after Johnny was turned...and then Marguerite and Jean Claude arrived."

When she paused briefly, Eshe glanced at her curiously, wondering why that visit would have put an end to what had sounded like healing to her.

"It was one little comment," she explained quietly. "A compliment, in fact. As she was saying her good-byes, Marguerite beamed at both Johnny and me, took one of our hands in each of hers, and said, 'You are both wonderful with Nicholas. Susanna is lucky to have you. You'll both make wonderful parents when you have children of your own.'"

Agnes pressed her lips together, her eyes on the road ahead. "I just laughed and said thank you. I didn't realize what effect it had had on Johnny until they were gone and Susanna had gone back inside with Nicholas. I turned to comment to Johnny on how nice the visit had been, and he snarled that he was heading to the village. I had kept my peace on that subject for months, but it had been such a lovely week since Nicholas was born, I just couldn't do it that time. I followed him to the stables, begging him not to go to the village, to come help with Nicholas, it would make him feel better."

"Why, he snapped. So he could see what he would never have? And then he just exploded on me. He had lost his love. He would never have the children they were meant to have. There would never be a life mate for him. We were all soulless devils. I'd fed on nuns, for God's sake. I was the devil's minion and had made him one too. He hated me for it and would never forgive me. Just seeing me made him sick." She paused and turned to arch an eyebrow at Eshe. "You get the idea."

"Yes, I do," Eshe said quietly. Johnny had vomited all his disappointment and frustration on Agnes and no doubt made her feel awful in turn. Eshe seriously disliked people who did that. It was her experience that there were different kinds of people in the world; those who got kicked by life and kicked back, those who were kicked and turned to kick someone else, and those who were kicked and kicked themselves for it. She admired those who kicked back, and could live with those who kicked themselves, but Eshe had no time for those who were kicked and turned around and kicked someone else. It was abuse, and they were abusers, and Johnny had abused Agnes that day in the stables. Unfortunately, already knowing the story, she knew that Agnes had then turned and taken Johnny's abuse of her out on Susanna, and in a much more deadly fashion.

"Yes, I did," she admitted with regret, reading her thoughts again. "When Johnny stormed out I just collapsed in a corner of the stables and wept. I was convinced I was a monster. That I'd ruined his life, and my own was ruined too. We had knives then that served as both weapons and eating utensils that we wore in a scabbard from our belt."

"I remember," Eshe murmured.

"Yes, I suppose you do," Agnes said. "Anyway, I had taken mine out and slit my wrists, but much to my consternation the wounds simply began to close up. It seemed I couldn't even kill myself...which infuriated me. Unfortunately, that's when Susanna found me in the stables. She came rushing to kneel beside me, asking what was wrong, and...I just exploded. I slashed out at her with the knife and struck her across the throat. She didn't even grab for the wound, she just stared at me, stricken, her blood gushing everywhere, and then I was suddenly on her, stabbing over and over until it stopped hurting."

Eshe assumed Agnes meant until she herself stopped hurting emotionally and not until Susanna stopped hurting. She doubted stabbing someone over and over made their pain stop. Well, when they died it would, she supposed.

"And then I just sat there beside her for a minute, horrified by what I'd done," Agnes continued, not bothering to comment on her thoughts this time. "And then of course I panicked as I realized that Armand would hate me, I'd probably be burned alive for my sins...and that's when I thought of fire. It's cleansing. It would hide my sins."

"And you set the stables on fire," she said quietly.

Agnes nodded.

They were both silent for a minute, and then Eshe asked, "And Althea?"

"Oh, Althea." Saying the very name made her mouth twist with disgust. "I don't feel the least bad about killing her. She really was a horrid woman. A spoiled rotten little brat with no thought for anyone but herself and what she wanted."

"Did you ever go to Europe?" Eshe asked.

"Oh yes. We went through France, and Germany and Spain and then finally to England. I thought we could handle it, but that brought back a lot of bad memories. The convent was nothing but a pile of rock when we went there, and Johnny wept for days after visiting Elizabeth's old home and seeing her tomb."

"Why on earth would you go to either place?" Eshe asked with dismay. "You must both be masochists."

"I wondered that myself afterward, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It just depressed us, though, and made us both long to be back in Canada. So we took a boat back and arrived in Toronto and tried to decide what to do. Should we buy a farm near Armand, or farther away to avoid Althea? That was the big question. We'd been in Toronto about a week when a carriage went riding past us and I glanced up and found myself staring at Althea. She'd seen me too, of course, and I turned to find Johnny but he had stepped into a bar." Her mouth tightened. "He'd learned by then that while drinking the alcohol yourself does not work for us, biting a mortal who had would, and he had begun buying mortals drinks, purely with the intention of then drinking from them.

"I left him to it and followed the carriage to the hotel they booked into, and then waited around out front for Althea to slip away." She glanced to Eshe and said dryly, "I knew she wouldn't be able to resist slipping away to find some man to screw or bite. It was the big city and she was a hedonist."

Agnes turned her gaze back to the road. "I didn't have long to wait. I had positioned myself at the front corner of the hotel so I could watch the front, but also see the alley behind the hotel should she slip out that way, and she did. I followed her, watched her stop to chat up one man, lead him to an alley, and bite him as he screwed her up against the wall. I thought she'd head back then, but she was apparently still hungry. She did the same with three more men before returning to the hotel." Agnes paused and frowned. "Now that I think about it, I think she definitely had a problem. What do they call it? Nymphomania?"

"I believe so," Eshe murmured, thinking Agnes might be right. Biting four men in a night wasn't surprising, but having sex with each one was a bit much.

"Anyway, I followed her back to the hotel when she finally returned there and then trailed her inside and up to her room. I really simply wanted to try to make peace with her. Johnny and I both missed Armand. He was the only family we had, and we wanted to remain family with him. And we wanted it to be easier for Nicholas to visit as well, which was always uncomfortable around Althea. I thought if I explained that to her, perhaps we could come to some sort of agreement where we were at least civil with each other."

"She wasn't amenable?" Eshe suggested dryly. Althea wasn't sounding like someone who cared about other peoples' needs much.

Agnes snorted. "The moment she opened the door, she started spewing the most vile things at me. We were leeches. Armand wasn't our family, he was hers. We should crawl back under the rock we'd come from, or better yet, crawl into Susanna's grave with her. Yada yada yada." She scowled out the windshield and added, "Basically she pissed me off royally."

"It always surprises me when you use such modern terms," Eshe said with wry amusement.

Agnes shrugged. "I watch television."

For some reason that made Eshe laugh, which brought a smile to Agnes's face, and then the other woman glanced to her with an expression that was almost sad and said, "I really do like you Eshe. It's a shame our friendship will be so short."

That gave Eshe pause, but then Agnes continued with her tale. "As I say, she pissed me off and I do have something of a temper when pushed too far. I didn't really think, I just whipped out my knife and had at her."

"You were still carrying a knife with you?" Eshe asked with surprise.

"I always have a knife with me," Agnes assured her. "You never know when it will come in handy."

"Right," Eshe murmured, thinking that might be Agnes's whole problem. A temper was one thing, but if she hadn't had a knife both times she'd lost hers, her life might have gone very differently. So might Armand's, she thought, and asked, "This time you actually removed Althea's head?"

"It offended me," Agnes said with a sniff.

For some reason that brought a startled laugh from Eshe. Her eyes widened in horror at the sound and she quickly covered her mouth in shock at her own response to what was really a horrific event, but Agnes began to chuckle.

"You see? We get on famously," Agnes said with a smile. "I do wish Armand had met you rather than Althea all those centuries ago. We could have been grand friends."

"Except for the part about me being an enforcer and you being a murderer, which makes you one of the rogues I would hunt," Eshe said quietly.

"Yes. Well, no friendship is perfect," Agnes said with a shrug.

Eshe snorted at that with amusement and then said, "So you hacked off Althea's head and started her room on fire."

"And then I went back to the rooms we'd let. Unfortunately, Johnny had returned by then, and while intoxicated when I first entered, seemed to sober up quite quickly when he saw my bloody state." She grimaced with disgust at the memory. "I confessed all, of course; to killing Susanna as well as Althea."

"He didn't know about Susanna by then?" Eshe asked with surprise.

"Did you think I'd tell him?" she asked with surprise of her own. "Good Lord, no. I thought he'd hate me."

"And did he? When you told him after killing Althea?"

Agnes considered that and then shook her head. "No. He mostly felt guilty, I think. My attack on Susanna had been a direct result of his attack on me. Not that he wasn't angry. I mean, he did stomp around shouting a bit, but then he just went out and found another drunk to bite and we never spoke of it again...until he killed Rosamund. And then it was all 'It's all your fault I had to do it. If you hadn't killed Susanna and Althea...'"

"Yada yada yada?" Eshe suggested when Agnes's voice trailed off.

Agnes gave a dry laugh. "Yes. Basically...We're here now," she added, turning into the driveway of a modern ranch farmhouse not dissimilar to the one they lived in.

Much to Eshe's relief, she spotted John's black van and Armand's pickup at once. They were at the right place.

"Stay behind me when we go in," Agnes instructed, shutting off the engine and reaching into the backseat for something. "I don't want you to get hurt. Enough people have been hurt by Johnny and me."

Eshe didn't remind her she was an enforcer and trained for battle, she simply eyed the huge purse Agnes pulled from the backseat, and then quickly scrambled out of the car when Agnes did.

"All right, so Agnes killed Susanna and Althea," Armand said slowly, "But why did you kill Rosamund? She welcomed you as family. She used to have the two of you over for dinner all the time. She was never mean to either of you."

"But she started asking questions about Susanna and Althea's deaths," Johnny said impatiently. "It only made me a little nervous at first. I felt sure there was nothing for her to discover, but then Rosamund came to the house one night asking when exactly we'd returned from Europe. Had it been before Althea's death?"

"Why would she ask that?" Armand asked with surprise. "Everyone thought you'd been in Europe until well after Althea's death."

"Yes, well, it seems Althea's mother told her that Althea thought she'd seen Agnes as they rode into Toronto that night, and it sent Rosamund's little mind churning." He scowled and said, "I had to kill her then. She was getting too close. I killed her on the spot, then loaded her in the wagon and drove to a point about halfway between your farm and town and tried to make it look an accident. Then I tried to set the wagon on fire, but it was pouring rain and wouldn't catch properly, so I had to leave it and hope that everyone would believe the metal slat had decapitated her...Fortunately, they did."

"Yes," Armand murmured, thinking of poor, sweet Rosamund. She had been inquisitive, and that had gotten her killed.

"And then almost fifty years later Nicholas's Annie came snooping around with the same damned questions. I hoped that killing her would put an end to it at last, but I stuck around to watch Nicholas for a while, and when I realized his grief was passing enough that he was starting to wonder what Annie had wanted to tell him...Well..." He shrugged. "I had to act. He was an enforcer. He would have hunted down every lead, every hint and clue, and Agnes and I both would have been staked and baked."

"How did you get Nicholas from the hospital parking lot to his house?" Armand asked grimly.

"Heavy-duty animal tranquilizers," Johnny answered. "I shot him in the neck from my truck. There was a mortal woman passing him at the time and she stopped to see if he was all right when he collapsed. I walked over to them, hefted him over my shoulder, took control of her, and took them both to his place to set it up so it looked like he'd killed her." His lips twisted unhappily, and he explained, "I didn't think another accident so soon would be believed. I thought it would be better if he was found guilty of murder and executed. I was trying to figure out how to get someone over there to discover Nicholas with the dead woman when Decker started pounding at the door. That was pure good luck for me," he added with a faint smile.

Armand stared at him with disbelief. "Nicholas is your nephew. He's Susanna's son. How could you so cold-bloodedly arrange for him to be thought a murderer and executed?"

"I felt bad about it," Johnny assured him solemnly. "But it was better him than me."

"And better me than you too? Right. And who else?" he asked bitterly. "How many more will you murder?"

"Mary Harcourt," Johnny answered at once, and then assured him, "She should be the last. If I'd killed her after Rosamund, Annie wouldn't have had to die. I just never thought that anyone else would come snooping, so I hadn't bothered."

"And why didn't you kill her after Annie?" Armand asked quietly, too weary and in too much pain to be angry anymore.

Johnny shrugged. "Annie's talking to her was purely accidental. It's not like she sought her out to question her. They met by accident on your doorstep. It seemed a fluke. Besides, I do dislike killing. It's unpleasant work with little reward."

"Except for saving your neck," Armand said dryly.

"There is that," Johnny agreed.

Armand scowled at him. "And the shed fire, Mrs. Ramsey attacking Eshe, and my house going up in flames today? You, I presume?"

Johnny nodded. "I was up the first time Bricker and Eshe came to the door. I didn't know who they were and was a bit taken aback when I looked out to see two people all in black with helmets on. I read them, or at least Eshe. As a new life mate she was the easier to read. Once I knew they were there to investigate the deaths I decided I definitely wasn't answering the door. And then I set about trying to get rid of her." He hesitated and then added apologetically, "I am sorry about including you in the two fires, but you two were always together when I came around, and then today when I set the fire I thought it couldn't hurt to get rid of the four of you together. Then there'd be no one to investigate."

"Of course there would," Armand said with disgust. "A whole ton of people know something is going on now and won't rest until they figure it out. Lucian certainly wouldn't, and he has an army of enforcers to sic on you," he pointed out, thinking Johnny was an idiot and that Agnes had definitely wasted a turn on him.

Thinking of Agnes reminded him of the fact that Johnny hadn't told Agnes about Annie and Nicholas and he asked, "If you told Agnes about Rosamund, why did you never tell her about killing Annie and framing Nicholas?"

Johnny looked at him with disbelief. "Are you kidding? I know she seems sweet and cuddly, but Agnes has one hell of a temper." He shook his head. "She loves Nicholas to death, and she took to Annie right away. She'd kill me if she ever found out what I did to them."

"You're damned right I would."

Armand looked toward the door at that grim comment, and then glanced to John, noting his surprise and horror when Agnes walked in. It about matched his own when Armand glanced back to the door and saw Eshe enter right behind her. His one hope as he'd listened to Johnny had been that at least Eshe was safely away at Cedrick's, but she was here, and now they were both going to die.

Eshe peered over Agnes's shoulder as she followed her into the back room of the basement, the one the voices had been coming from. Much to her relief she spotted Armand at once. He was still alive...not looking so hot, maybe, she acknowledged, taking in the dent in his head and the blood covering his face and upper chest. But he was upright, and his eyes were open.

Her eyes slid to John then, noting the antique sword leaning against the wall and the can of gasoline at his side. The plans he'd had for Armand seemed pretty obvious, but he was now staring at Agnes, his mouth working and nothing coming out.

Agnes wasn't having the same problem. Clutching her purse, she crossed the room to stand in front of him and glared straight up his nose as she barked, "How could you? I mean, seriously, John, killing Rosamund was one thing, but little Annie? And to frame Nicholas, your own nephew! What were you thinking? And I suppose you planned to kill Armand too, after all he's done for us!"

"I-You-It's all your fault!" Johnny snapped finally. "If you hadn't killed Susanna and Althea none of this would be necessary! You're the one to blame for this! You're the one who will bear this on your soul. Not me. I've only been trying to protect you. But you..."

Eshe's gaze shifted to Agnes as Johnny continued to rant. The other woman turned, a see-what-I-mean? expression on her face, and then turned back, and let her purse drop to reveal a very large and wicked-looking knife that she abruptly plunged into Johnny's chest. It brought an immediate end to his rant.

Eshe watched him peer in horror from the knife in his chest to his sister, shock and wonder on his face, and began to sidle toward Armand.

"It's time to take a little responsibility, John," Agnes said almost gently. "I made my choices and you made yours, but we can't keep hurting people this way."

Agnes withdrew the knife and Johnny sank to his knees, still looking rather stunned. Leaving him there, she moved to pick up the gas can. As she undid the lid, she said calmly, "You'd better get Armand out of here now, Eshe. I wouldn't want either of you to get hurt."

Eshe hesitated, but when Armand started to stand and then swayed weakly, she hurried to his side, snapped the rope binding his hands, and drew his arm over her shoulder for support. But then she paused to look at Agnes as she began to splash the gasoline around the room and over herself and Johnny.

"Agnes," she began, uncertain what she was going to say. But the other woman looked up and smiled.

"It's okay. Go on. Go tell them everything and get Nicholas his life back. Maybe he'll find another life mate someday and find it in his heart to forgive us."

"He already has found another life mate," Eshe told her.

That made Agnes pause. "Really?"

"Her name's Josephine Willan. She goes by Jo." She hesitated and then added, "She seems nice."

"Oh, I wish I could have met her." Agnes sagged briefly at the thought that she wouldn't, and then glanced to Johnny when he groaned and tried to get up. Sighing, she dropped the can, letting what was left of the liquid run out where it would and pulled out a Zippo lighter. Holding it in one hand, she then took up Johnny's sword before glancing to them again. "Get going now. And give Nicholas my love."

Eshe debated setting Armand down, knocking out Agnes and John, and taking them both in, but it seemed a ridiculous idea. While she found she actually liked Agnes, it didn't change the fact that she was a murderer, and the Council would simply order their execution anyway. Letting out a sad sigh, she turned Armand toward the door and half walked and half dragged him to it.

They'd barely slid through the door when a "whoosh" sounded behind them and heat radiated at their back. Eshe glanced back to see the brother and sister surrounded by a circle of flame that was running toward them, and then hurried Armand along a little faster.

They'd reached the stairs when Johnny began to scream. By the time they got to the top, he'd stopped, and Eshe recalled Agnes picking up the sword and suspected she'd beheaded him rather than make him suffer being burned alive. She couldn't behead herself, however, and yet there was not a sound from Agnes. Eshe couldn't help but admire her for that as she and Armand staggered from the house.

By the time Eshe and Armand stumbled over to lean against the pickup, flames were beginning to lick out of the first floor windows of the house. Eshe glanced back at it, but then leaned into the back of the pickup and opened the cooler there, relieved to find several bags inside. She grabbed all of them and gave them to Armand one at a time as they watched the house burn.

"Better?" she asked as he finished the last one.

"Sort of," he ground out, and she knew that while he would no longer be cramping from lack of blood, the healing would be taking place and he probably had one hell of a headache. She doubted he'd be on his feet long.

"Let's get you back to Cedrick's," she said, helping him to the passenger side of the truck. She got him inside and then moved around to the driver's side to get in, not surprised to see him slumped against the door, unconscious, by the time she slid behind the steering wheel. He'd probably be in and out of consciousness for the next twenty-four hours. More out than in, since she planned to keep the man drugged. There was no need for him to suffer the healing.

"I love you, Armand Argeneau," she whispered, and then gave a start when his eyes slid open.

"I love you too, Eshe," he growled and then his eyes closed again and he slid off the seat to rest crumpled in the small space between the seat and the dashboard.

Eshe started to move to lift him back up into the seat, but when she touched him, he moaned, and she decided to just leave him where he was and get him to Cedrick's.

Sighing, Eshe turned and glanced at the steering column, relieved to see his keys dangling there. She gave them a twist and started the engine, and then began to back away from the now fully aflame house.

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