Born to Bite / Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen


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"I'm thinking Agnes and John won't be expecting Anders and Bricker to be with us," Eshe said quietly, looking in the side mirror on the passenger side of the pickup to glance at the SUV following them. It was eight forty-five and they were on the way to their appointed visit to speak to Agnes. Eshe had suggested it might be better if Anders and Bricker waited at the house, but Armand had insisted they accompany them.

Now he shrugged and said, "They won't mind. I'll just say Anders and Bricker are guests at the house, which they are, and that I would have felt rude leaving them behind."

She saw him glance into the rearview mirror to peer at the SUV and then his gaze shifted back to the road as he added, "I feel better having them to watch our backs on the way there and home. I'm not taking a chance you'll be attacked again...or me," he added as an afterthought.

Eshe smiled with amusement, knowing he'd only added the "or me" to keep from angering her, and she teased him, "I'm glad you added the last part. I'd hate to think you didn't trust me to be able to look after myself."

"I'm sure you're very capable," Armand said a bit stiffly, and she wondered if that was a tell with him, if he got all stiff and proper when he told a lie.

"I am very capable," she assured him solemnly. "I have been training in battle since I was thirty. That's a long time. I can take care of myself."

Armand didn't bother to hide his surprise at this news as he glanced at her. "You have?"

"Yes."

He turned back to the road, his expression disgruntled. "How did Orion handle that?"

"I'm sure he was fine with it," Eshe said with amusement. "Especially since he's the one who insisted I learn to fend for myself and taught me how."

"Orion did?" Armand asked carefully.

"Yes." Eshe smiled faintly to herself at the memories that flooded over her. He'd taught her how to fight with spear, knife, sword and every other weapon as it had appeared in history before his death. Eshe's favorite lessons had been hand-to-hand, though. Those had always ended up with hot and sweaty lovemaking sessions. A fine way for life mates to end lessons.

Sighing, Eshe pushed those memories away, feeling almost guilty for having enjoyed them when she had a new life mate. Blowing her breath out, she said, "Orion was a warrior. He was away a lot. He didn't want to have to worry about me being home alone and defenseless when he was away earning money...or worry about possibly coming home to a dead life mate."

"Smart man," Armand murmured wryly. "I wish I'd been half as smart and taught Susanna, Althea, and Rosamund a thing or two."

Eshe shrugged. "Different times, different places, different people. It's useless to regret things you didn't think of at the time. Everyone has a path and that wasn't theirs."

Armand cast her a curious glance. "Do you really think so?"

Eshe peered at him with surprise. "Don't you?"

Armand turned his attention back to the road and shook his head. "Life has seemed to be mostly painful chaos to me for a long time."

"Then perhaps you aren't looking clearly," she said quietly. "You're still inside the fishbowl looking out rather than standing beside it looking in."

"What do you mean?" he asked with obvious confusion.

Eshe shrugged. "When my first son died in battle, I thought it was the worst thing in the world that could happen and I would never be happy again. I felt the same when my second son died."

"He died in battle too?" Armand asked.

Eshe nodded, not surprised he'd guessed. There were few enough ways an immortal could die and most immortal males had died in battle through the ages, especially when the weapons of choice had been swords.

"Anyway," she murmured now, "with each son I thought the worst had come...and then my life mate, Orion, died. I knew that day that that was truly the worst thing in the world that could happen to me and I'd never be happy again. I'd never love again." Eshe sighed as she recalled those overwhelming feelings. For a while she'd wanted to die herself.

"I'm sorry," Armand murmured, reaching over to squeeze her hand. "I felt much the same when Susanna died."

She squeezed his hand back, and then as he retrieved it to return it to the steering wheel said, "I was in the fishbowl at that time. But with a little time, I began to see that if Orion had to die, the timing was the best I could ask for."

"Oh?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," she assured him solemnly. "I still had one daughter at home to comfort me, and my second son had just found his life mate and brought her home, so they were there as well...And Lucian brought Orion home."

"Lucian?" Armand gasped, tearing his eyes from the road. "He was there?"

She nodded. "It was one of his rare visits. He joined Orion for the battle, and when he was struck down, he hefted him over his shoulder and carried him home. He walked three nights to bring him to me. No one else would have done that. They would have burned his body with the rest of the fallen immortals and simply sent someone to tell me he was gone. But Lucian brought him home to me so that I could say good-bye and see to his cremation myself."

Armand was silent, and Eshe swallowed away the lump that had developed in her throat and forced a more cheerful tone as she said, "I made it through, though, and have enjoyed moments of happiness in the time since. And now I have you, another life mate to enjoy life with."

Armand took his hand from the steering wheel again, found hers and squeezed it gently, but then just as quickly had to replace it on the steering wheel as he turned into the Maunsells' driveway. Eshe immediately turned her attention to the house they were approaching.

Tonight was not like the other nights when Eshe had visited this farm. Tonight they were expected, and every light in the house appeared to be on, as well as several outside lights that lit up the grounds so that it almost seemed like daylight.

Eshe glanced over the house and yard as they drove up the driveway, and then to the car and van in evidence, and thought wryly that they should have called and made arrangements to meet with John and Agnes sooner. It would have saved them a lot of wasted trips out here.

Armand parked the pickup next to the van and then they both got out to wait as Anders pulled the SUV in next to them. They all then walked to the house in silence, Eshe squeezing Armand's hand when his bumped and then clasped hers.

This time there was no ringing the doorbell and waiting hopefully; John Maunsell had apparently been watching for them and opened the door before they'd even reached it.

"Hello," he greeted them, smiling, his gaze sliding over Eshe and Armand, and then moving on to Bricker and Anders with slight surprise. "You brought company, I see."

"It seemed kinder than leaving them alone at the farm to fend for themselves. That's no way to treat houseguests," Armand said with wry apology, and then added, "I hope you don't mind?"

"No, of course not. You're all welcome. Come in." John smiled again, but Eshe thought it looked a little uncertain this time, which made her curious. However, when he backed into the house gesturing for them to enter and Armand urged her forward, she stepped inside and slipped past him to make room for the others.

"Go on into the living room there, Eshe," John murmured, still manning the door for Anders and Bricker to enter. "Agnes is in there knitting."

Eshe nodded and moved into the room he'd taken them to the last time she and Bricker had been there, her eyes curiously searching for the elusive Agnes. She spotted her at once, a slim brunette in a white blouse and black pants, seated in a rocker, rocking gently as she knitted. The woman must have heard them enter, but was slow to glance up, giving Eshe the chance to look her over.

Cedrick had described Agnes as a little thing who looked younger than most immortals, and Eshe thought his description was right on. She was slender and fine-boned and her features were almost gamine, making her appear eighteen or nineteen rather than the twenty-six or twenty-seven that most immortals looked to be. The fact that she wore her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail only added to the youthful appearance.

"Oh, hello." Agnes glanced up and beamed a smile as the men followed Eshe into the room. She set her knitting aside on a table beside the rocker and stood, offering apologetically, "Sorry, I was trying to get the row done. Otherwise I lose my count."

Eshe had never been a knitter herself, so hadn't a clue what she was talking about, but it sounded a plausible excuse, so she smiled easily. "That's all right. It gave me a chance to give you the once-over without you noticing."

Agnes laughed as she crossed the room toward them. "You must be Eshe. You're beautiful. And such honesty. I like you already."

Eshe's smile widened as she took the hand the woman offered. "It's nice to meet you, Agnes."

"And you too," she said warmly, and then turned to the men. Spotting Armand, she moved to him first, offering him a warm hug in greeting.

Eshe watched curiously, noting the affection on his face as he hugged the slip of a woman back, and then Agnes pulled away to turn her attention to the other two newcomers, asking, "And who is this?"

"This is Justin Bricker and Anders," Armand said. "They're my houseguests at the moment and I didn't feel it right to leave them at home so brought them along."

"Of course you did," Agnes said staunchly. "As you should. Welcome, gentlemen."

She offered her hand to first one and then the other and then moved back to peer over the group. "Well, I suppose refreshments are in order."

"Oh, I'm sure they won't be staying that long," John said, and Eshe's sharp eyes moved over him narrowly. The man appeared tense and nervous, his expression pained. He cleared his throat and then explained apologetically, "We don't have any mortal food here, Armand. We-"

"That's fine," Armand interrupted soothingly. "We ate before leaving the house anyway."

Eshe slid closer to him, catching his hand in hers and squeezing it hard to remind him of what he was supposed to do. She heard him release a little sigh, but then he forced a smile and said, "Actually, I'd be more interested in seeing the new John Deere you bought than refreshments. Cedrick mentioned it was delivered last week and I'm thinking of buying a new tractor myself so wouldn't mind a look at it."

"Oh." John looked nonplussed, his worried gaze moving to Agnes. "I-Maybe another time. The girls would be bored without us. I-"

"Don't be silly," Agnes trilled with a laugh. "Take them out and show them the tractor, John. Eshe and I can amuse ourselves on our own." She chuckled and added, "We'll just sit here and talk about you men. It's what women do, isn't it, Eshe?"

"A lot of the time, yes," she agreed with amusement, though she wasn't sure that was true. She and her usual partner, Mirabeau, often had better things to discuss when working together, but then as enforcers they weren't perhaps your average females, even for immortals.

"See?" Agnes turned back to John. "Go on. You boys go play with your new toy, and Eshe and I will wait here chatting."

John hesitated, but with everyone looking at him expectantly, he didn't have much choice. Mouth tightening, he nodded and turned to lead the men out of the house, leaving a vacuum of silence for a moment after the door clicked shut in the hall.

"Well," Agnes said after that moment passed. Giving a half laugh, she turned from watching the archway to the hall to meet Eshe's curious gaze and admitted, "I half expected him to come rushing back and insist we accompany them. John can be terribly protective. We're all each other has."

"You have Armand too," Eshe said quietly. "He seems to care about the two of you a great deal."

That made Agnes beam. "Yes, he does," she admitted, and then worry crowded into her features and she added, "I hope that doesn't bother you? I know it might be a little uncomfortable for you since we are Susanna's brother and sister."

"Not at all," Eshe assured her. "You're family, and I hope you'll come to think of me as family someday too."

Agnes let her breath out on a happy sigh and moved forward to clasp Eshe in a quick hug. "Oh, I just knew I would like you," she said happily, and then shifted to hug Eshe's arm as she urged her across the room toward another door and confided, "You're much nicer than Althea was. She wanted nothing to do with us."

"Is that why you and John went to Europe when they married?" Eshe asked curiously, glancing over the room Agnes was leading her into. It was a kitchen that looked as new as the house. Despite the fact that they didn't eat or drink mortal food, the room had been fitted with all the most modern conveniences. Eshe admired it briefly and then glanced curiously to Agnes as she answered the question.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. She wanted us gone. That's all right, though, I couldn't stand being around the girl," she admitted with open dislike, and then said, "You know she tricked Armand into getting her pregnant and pretty much forced him to marry her?"

"He did explain how the marriage came about," Eshe said carefully. "But he said he didn't mind."

"Of course he would say that," Agnes said, waving that away as unimportant. "He's far too polite to tell the truth about such things." She paused then, her grasp on Eshe easing as she added thoughtfully, "Of course he did get Thomas from the union and so I suppose it was worth it in the end." Shrugging, she let go of Eshe and asked, "Would you like something to drink?"

Agnes moved to the refrigerator as she asked the question, and opened the door to peruse its contents. "I know you and Armand are probably eating and drinking mortal food now that you've found each other, but as John mentioned, I'm afraid we don't have any of that ourselves." She clucked her tongue with irritation and added, "I suppose I should have run to town and bought some when I got up tonight, but I didn't think of it." Sighing, she bent to peer into the refrigerator and said, "But we do have a wide variety of bloods, if you'd like to choose one?"

When Agnes glanced her way in question, Eshe moved up beside her to peer into the refrigerator as well. Her eyes widened incredulously as she saw the marked specialty blood in the fridge. Most of it was blood she'd only ever seen in immortal nightclubs. There were a great deal of Wino Reds, but also Sweet Ecstasies, Bloody Marys, High Times, and all sorts that were concocted from blood taken from mortal alcoholics and drug users to allow the immortals to feel the buzz they couldn't through normal means. There was a small fortune's worth of it too. Such bloods were damned expensive. It seemed despite the fact that Armand had ordered that no one tell him, John had figured out how immortals could get intoxicated. Cedrick was obviously wrong, John was definitely drinking again, and she wondered if this was why John had been reluctant to leave them alone, if he'd feared Agnes revealing his secret...as she had.

"John buys them," Agnes said sadly. "I have tried to get him to stop but he won't. He takes several bags and sits in his room night after night just drinking himself into oblivion. It's no way to live really."

"Perhaps Armand can help him with that," Eshe murmured as she straightened, and in the next moment wondered how he could possibly do that. There were no rehab places for immortals. Yet, she thought dryly.

"Oh no, you mustn't tell Armand," Agnes said quickly. "He'd just worry and feel bad. He's happy now. Let him be happy." She turned back to the fridge. "We have some normal blood too, if you like? But I won't tell if you would rather a Wino Red."

"No. Thank you," Eshe murmured. "I don't usually drink such things. I don't care for the sensations they cause."

Agnes closed the door and turned from the fridge to beam at her. "I'm glad. Althea liked to bite drunks whenever she went to town. Life was one big party to her. You seem much more suited to Armand." She breathed in happily and let her breath out on a gust, and added, "I'm so happy for Armand, I can't tell you. He's been so lonely for so long. I'm glad he's found you."

"Thank you," Eshe murmured, and then cognizant of her reason for being there, said, "But it hasn't been that long, a century perhaps."

"A century?" Agnes peered at her with wide eyes. "Why, Susanna died over five hundred years ago."

"Yes, but then he had Althea and then Rosamund," she pointed out.

"Oh, them." Agnes waved her hand with disgust. "As I said, Althea wasn't suitable for him. She was nothing but a sneaky whore, and Rosa-"

"Whore?" Eshe interrupted with surprise.

Agnes grimaced. "I suppose you're surprised to hear me use the word. Armand probably told you I was a nun before the turn, and I know I really shouldn't use such vulgarities, but it's what she was. Althea had scads of affairs on Armand, you know."

Eshe did know, at least Armand had told her he suspected as much, but she merely raised her eyebrows in question to encourage Agnes to continue.

"She did," Agnes assured her. "While he was out working so hard tilling the soil, she would ride into London and pick up a man and then either go to his place or even sometimes bring him back to the farm and have sex with him. She was no better than an animal," Agnes said with disgust, and then added staunchly, "Armand deserved better. I wasn't sorry when she died."

"And Rosamund?" Eshe asked.

Agnes shrugged and said reluctantly, "She was all right, I suppose. But she was always nosing in everyone's business. Besides, neither of them were true life mates to Armand. They were just..." She shrugged again and said, "His way to pass the time, I guess. He wanted children, you see. Armand was always a good father."

Eshe raised her eyebrows. "I understood he only raised Nicholas, and sent Thomas and Jeanne Louise to Marguerite to raise."

"He didn't want to do that," Agnes assured her. "But he was a man alone and working the fields." She shook her head sadly. "You don't know how often I wish we'd been here so he wouldn't have sent Thomas away. But I know he visited Thomas as often as he could. He used to stop in and tell us all about it on his way home."

"I understand you helped raise Nicholas," Eshe said quietly. "Armand said he didn't know what he'd have done if you hadn't been there. He said you were wonderful with him."

"Yes." She smiled, pleased. "I did help him raise Nicholas. Nicky was a good boy. He always did what he was told and never fussed about eating his vegetables. And he was a fast learner too. He was walking by one, talking in sentences by two, and feeding on his own by the time he was four. He was a brilliant baby."

Eshe smiled faintly at the proud bragging. She'd done a bit of it herself at times in the past and Agnes was talking like a mother rather than an aunt, but then she'd raised the boy and was more a mother to him than anyone. "Did you ever meet Nicholas's Annie?"

"Oh yes." Agnes's smile began to fade and she turned to lead the way back into the living room. "He brought her down to meet me before they married and then a couple times after. She's a sweet girl." She paused at the rocker and sank unhappily into it before adding, "I don't know why but he hasn't brought her around in a while. It's been...why, it must be more than fifty years," Agnes complained, and then shook her head with bewilderment. "We had such a nice time the last time they stayed too. They were here for a weekend and we played games and talked till the wee hours. It was nice, like a real family."

Eshe had just seated herself on the sofa, but stiffened and stared at her blankly. "You don't know why he hasn't returned?"

Agnes shook her head. "I've tried calling but the line was disconnected and I can't find a new listing for them. John says they're probably busy, but surely Nicky could at least take a moment to call?" She bit her lip unhappily. "They always say it's better to have girls than boys, that boys abandon their mothers when they find a wife, and I guess it's true."

Eshe simply stared, unsure what to do. Part of her wanted to tell the woman exactly why Nicholas hadn't brought his Annie back around, why he hadn't been back himself even, but the fact that no one, including Armand, had apparently told her what had become of the couple made her hold her tongue. There must be a reason, and she intended to discover that reason as soon as they left here.

"Do you have any children, Eshe?" Agnes asked suddenly.

Eshe regathered her thoughts and nodded. "Yes. Six."

"Boys or girls or both?" Agnes asked.

"Three boys and three girls," Eshe answered automatically.

"You're lucky then. You have the girls to keep you company when the boys abandon you."

Eshe hesitated, but then said, "You'll meet a life mate someday, Agnes, and have children of your own."

"No. I'm quite sure I won't," Agnes said quietly. "John would never allow that."

Eshe frowned at her words, but before she could ask anything or comment, they heard the front door open and the sound of the men trooping back in. Eshe glanced to the door as John led the men into the living room. She couldn't help but notice he had an anxious look on his face until he spotted them seated there.

"Well, that was fast," Agnes commented lightly.

"John isn't feeling well and insisted on returning," Armand murmured, his gaze on Eshe in what she took to be a silent message that they'd done what they could to keep him away as long as possible.

She shifted her attention to John, one eyebrow arching dubiously. Immortals simply didn't feel unwell. They didn't get sick.

"I'm afraid I haven't been feeding as regularly as I should," John murmured, avoiding her gaze. "I guess I need to pay more attention to that and less playing on the computer. As for tonight, I think I'll just have a bag or two and retire early."

That brought even more of a dubious expression to her face. It was only nine-thirty; that wasn't retiring early, that was sleeping their version of a mortal day away. But she knew she wasn't likely to learn much more from Agnes with her brother there, so took John's not so subtle hint and stood. "Then we should be leaving."

"Oh no," Agnes almost moaned. "But I was enjoying our visit so much. And I thought we could all play cards or something."

"Next time," Eshe assured her sincerely, smiling at the woman. "We will have you and John over to the house and you can plan to stay the night. That way if John isn't feeling well he can simply go to his room to lie down and the rest of us can all play cards and visit as late as we like."

"Really?" Agnes asked, standing up, and when Eshe nodded, she crossed the room to give her a quick hug as she said, "Oh, I'd like that."

"So would I," Eshe said.

"Oh, Armand!" Agnes whirled away to embrace him now. "I do like her. You were ever so clever to find her."

Armand actually chuckled as he hugged her back. "I'm glad, Agnes. I like her too."

"Oh you!" Agnes pulled back to slap his chest playfully in reprimand. "Ever the man of understatement. You don't just like her, Armand. I can read your thoughts. You love her."

Eshe stilled at those words, a little startled by them, though she didn't know why. They were life mates; love came naturally and easily between life mates. However, she'd been preoccupied by other matters such as the case and the great sex life mates enjoyed and hadn't given a thought to love developing between them.

Her gaze slid to Armand to find his expression solemn as he met her gaze and said, "Yes, I do love her."

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