Born to Bite / Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen


Eshe raised an eyebrow in question when Armand left the firemen gathered in front of his still-smoldering house and headed over to rejoin them by the SUV. It was after four. They'd been sitting in the SUV for most of the afternoon, unable to leave with the fire trucks blocking their vehicle.

"They say it was arson," Armand said dryly as he paused at her side.

"Big surprise," Bricker muttered with disgust.

Armand nodded. "There's nothing more we can do around here, though, and they said we could go."

"Go where?" Anders asked wryly. "Not that rundown motel by the diner? None of us has money."

"I have other farms," Armand said, ushering Eshe toward his pickup. "Follow me in the SUV."

"Do you have keys to the pickup?" Eshe asked with concern as he opened the passenger door for her. It wasn't locked, but then she'd noticed Armand didn't seem to bother much about locks out here. She watched as he paused and felt in his back pocket, and smiled wryly when he pulled out his keys.

"I forgot to take them out last night before you yanked my clothes off and had your way with me," he teased lightly.

"Ha ha," Eshe muttered, climbing up into the pickup. She heard Armand chuckle as he pushed the door closed, and then he hurried around to his side. As he got in, she asked, "Where are we going?"

Armand hesitated. "I considered seeing if we could stay with Agnes and John, their place is bigger, but they'll be sleeping and wouldn't hear the doorbell, so we'll go stay with Cedrick until I figure something else out. I don't like pulling him into it, but it's better than involving one of my mortal managers."

Eshe nodded. She'd liked Cedrick, and he looked like a guy who could handle himself. Besides, at least they'd know he couldn't be controlled and made to attack one of them.

They were silent on the drive over, both of them tired and no doubt fretting over this latest attack. At least Eshe was. It seemed to her that the culprit was getting desperate and desperate meant more dangerous, but it hadn't gotten them any closer to figuring out who he was.

Once they got to the farm Cedrick was managing, Armand made her and the boys wait in the vehicles to avoid standing out in the sun while he went and rousted Cedrick from his bed. The door must have been unlocked, because while he knocked, he also then simply opened the door and entered. He was gone a good ten minutes or more, and Eshe supposed he was explaining everything to Cedrick, which only seemed fair. She wouldn't have had him dragged into the situation blind. It was a hot day, though, and stifling in the pickup. Eshe was relieved when Armand appeared at the front door and waved at them to come in.

"This place reminds me of Armand's," Bricker commented as they met at the front of the vehicles to start toward the house.

"It is Armand's," Anders pointed out. "Cedrick just runs it for him."

"You know what I mean," Bricker said with irritation. "It's an old Victorian like his and got the trees around it and everything. It's got heart."

Eshe knew what he meant. John and Agnes had a lovely home, but she preferred the trees and gabled houses. Armand obviously did too.

Armand was waiting to greet them in the entry with a concerned-looking Cedrick at his side. Everyone murmured greetings, and then Cedrick led them upstairs to the bedrooms. This house was laid out much the same as Armand's, but as he'd said, smaller. There were only three bedrooms; Cedrick's room and two guest rooms, which meant Eshe and Armand would share one, and the boys had to bunk together in the other. After showing them the guest bedrooms, Cedrick turned to them and grimaced apologetically as he took in what clothes they'd managed to escape in and the soot covering their faces as well as whatever skin was on display.

"You men can borrow joggers or something from me," he announced, and then glanced to Eshe and said, "My housekeeper is live-in. She has an apartment over the garage. She probably has something you can wear, Eshe. It'll do until you can buy something else. But we only have the one bathroom here in the house itself and you'll have to take turns." He paused and glanced around the group again and then announced, "Ladies first, of course. You boys can fight over who goes next. Follow me, Eshe, and I'll show you where things are."

When Bricker and Anders groaned at being left sooty for a while longer, Eshe found her first smile since waking up to a house on fire and flashed it at the two of them as she followed Cedrick past them. Sometimes it paid to be the only girl.

"The towels and washcloths are in the cupboard under the sink," Cedrick said pausing to the side of the door to the bathroom so that she could slip past him. "There's soap and shampoo on the tub, you're welcome to it."

"Thank you," she murmured, entering the room decorated in pale blue.

"I'll go see if my housekeeper has anything she can let you wear. I'll set it on the floor outside the door here for you to find," he finished, and then pulled the door closed before she could thank him again.

Sighing, Eshe turned to peer at the room, pausing when she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her hair was standing on end as if she'd been electrified; there were dark streaks on her face, throat, and legs from the fire; and the white shirt she wore was done up crookedly, one button off, making it look not only ridiculous but even more risque than it would have been if done up properly. Basically, she was a mess.

Chuckling softly, she turned from the mirror and moved to the tub to open the shower curtain and reach the taps. Within seconds she had a nice steady stream of water coming from the showerhead. Eshe was just undoing Armand's shirt when someone knocked at the door.

Eyebrows rising, she moved to open it and found Armand on the other side, a bundle of clothes in hand with a pair of sandals on top.

"I brought these up for you," he explained, holding them out. "The housekeeper's about your size, believe it or not, so they should fit."

Eshe smiled wryly at his words as she took the bundle of clothes. She was tall for a woman, and lean. It was rare to find someone her size.

"Thank you," she murmured, turning to cross to the counter and set them down. She heard the door close as she did, and assumed Armand had left, so took a moment to examine the booty he'd brought her. A pair of ratty old jeans, faded and with holes in them, and a T-shirt with the dubious logo "Save a tractor, ride a farmer" on it.

"Cute," she said dryly.

"What's that?" Armand said, and Eshe nearly jumped out of her skin with surprise. Whirling, she found he'd entered before closing the door and was now stripped down to just his soot stains.

She let her gaze slide lazily over all that revealed skin and then arched an eyebrow and asked, "Trying to jump the line?"

"It would conserve water if we showered together," he pointed out with a grin, and when she merely stared at him, added, "I could scrub your back for you."

Eshe set down the T-shirt, whipped off his borrowed shirt, and stepped over the lip of the tub and under the spray. When he immediately followed, she warned, "You're only touching my back. I am so not waking up tangled with you in the bottom of this tub with Bricker and Anders pounding at the door."

"Party pooper," he teased, picking up the soap.

Armand behaved himself and was done and out before her. Eshe took a little more time, washing and rinsing her hair before following to find him already dried and dressed. He kissed her as she stepped out of the shower, and then moved to the door, saying, "I'll go see if there's any coffee on."

Eshe nodded and quickly dried and dressed herself, surprised to find that the clothes fit all right. The jeans were a little tight, but a pretty good fit considering they were borrowed. She'd expected Anders and Bricker to be waiting impatiently, but there was no one waiting in the hall when she opened the bathroom door.

Shrugging, she headed downstairs and found Anders and Bricker there. "Where are Armand and Cedrick?" she asked as she moved to the coffeepot to pour herself a cup.

"Cedrick left right after getting some clothes for all of us. He had to go check on one of the other farms or something," Anders said with a shrug.

Bricker then added, "And Armand went over to John's. He called just as Armand came downstairs and asked if he'd come help him with a new cow that seems to be ailing."

"And he went?" she asked with a frown.

Bricker shrugged. "John and Agnes were in Europe when Althea died. It should be safe enough. I offered to go with him, but he said he wanted to talk to John about his drinking and it would be better if he was alone."

"Right," Eshe muttered, thinking that was probably true. Noting the way Bricker was suddenly digging in his pocket, she watched curiously as he pulled out a set of keys and set them on the counter beside Anders.

"The keys to the SUV," he explained, and then moving toward the door, he said, "I'm going for my shower."

"You won the coin toss for who gets to shower first, huh?" Eshe asked lightly, bringing him to a halt.

"Nah. Cedrick's housekeeper is taking me into town to do some shopping after, so Anders said I could go first. I'm picking up clothes and whatever personal stuff everyone wants. You can come too, or just write your clothing size and what you want on that sheet of paper on the table and we'll pick up what we can."

Eshe glanced toward the sheet of paper as he continued out of the room, noting the items already listed beside Anders's and Armand's names. It was written in the same hand; Bricker's, she'd guess. She sat down with her coffee, picked up the pen, and scrawled her clothing sizes and a couple of items, and then glanced around wondering if there was anything to eat.

"The housekeeper, Jean is her name by the way, said there were some scones under that plate cover thing there," Anders told her as she stood up. "She said there was butter on the table, I'm guessing in that glass cow."

Eshe glanced back to the table, smiling faintly when she saw the cow butter dish.

"So what's our next move going to be?" Anders asked as she found a plate in the cupboard and lifted the cover off the plate on the counter to retrieve a scone.

"I'm going to call Mary Harcourt in Montreal," Eshe said quietly, and turned from the counter in time to see him nod. She was glad he didn't protest, but hadn't expected him to. Anders wasn't all that sentimental, and things had gone far enough that the possibility of upsetting Mary on her anniversary didn't seem that important. Besides, she'd approach the subject as carefully as she could. Eshe wouldn't intentionally upset the woman.

Anders settled at the table across from her and kept her company while he waited for the shower to be free. Eshe had finished, gotten herself a second coffee, and dialed the hotel where the Harcourts were staying in Montreal when Bricker came bounding down the stairs to announce the shower was free and grab the paper off the table. He gave her a nod and wave when he noted her on the phone, then turned and hurried back out of the room.

Anders followed, no doubt headed for the shower, and Eshe turned and glanced out the window as she heard Bricker talking to someone. She spotted the tall redhead walking with him toward a van and smiled faintly to herself, suspecting by the way the young woman was laughing that she was soon to be one of his conquests, but her smile faded as the phone was picked up on the other end of the line.

Getting her mind back on business, Eshe asked for the Harcourts' room and then waited, half expecting she wouldn't get any answer or that she'd be put through to a voice mail system. It was after five, but still early for their kind, and they were likely to be sleeping, which meant they'd probably have asked for their calls to be redirected. It was something of a surprise when the phone was picked up on the second ring by a female.

"Mary Harcourt?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes. Who's this?" the woman said cheerfully.

"This is Eshe d'Aureus. I'm..."

"You're Armand's life mate." The woman laughed when she hesitated about how to introduce herself. "I passed you on the way out the night you came and talked to William. He told me all about it. Did that fellow Justin tell you I've invited you all to Sunday dinner?"

"Yes, thank you," Eshe murmured, beginning to feel bad about having to make this call. But knowing it was necessary, she opened her mouth to ask the first question and then changed it to "Is William there?"

"Yes, but I'm afraid he's in the shower. We have an early reservation for a dinner. We're going to a play afterward. Is it important?"

"Actually, no, that's all right. Don't disturb him," she said quickly. She'd only asked that to be sure the woman was alone and would speak freely to her. "Mary, I really wanted to ask you a couple things."

"I see." Some of the good cheer left her voice, replaced with uncertainty.

Eshe hesitated, debating what to ask first, but finally decided to try to stay away from asking her about the night Althea died if she could. Hoping that talking about Annie would be less upsetting, she asked, "Did you ever meet Annie?"

"Nicholas's Annie?" Mary asked, sounding uncertain.

"Yes. We understand she was asking questions about Armand's wives before she died, and wondered if she'd approached you?" There was a long pause, long enough that Eshe was sure the answer was yes and the woman was debating telling the truth, so she murmured, "It's important."

A long sigh slid along the phone line. "Yes, I did meet her. It was accidental really. I was taking something over to Armand for my William and she was there knocking on the door. She introduced herself when I walked up to the porch and explained she was looking to meet her new father-in-law, and I told her he was probably back at the barn or out in the field."

Eshe frowned at this news. Armand had said he'd never met her. "Did she go looking for him?"

"No," Mary murmured, and then hesitated before admitting, "We got talking and then she suddenly rushed to her car, got in, and roared off."

Eshe stiffened, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. She just knew this was the puzzle piece that would make everything else make sense. "What did you say just before she rushed off, Mary?"

"I...I don't recall," she mumbled.

"It's important, Mary," she said firmly. When a stubborn silence reigned from the other end of the line, Eshe tsked with irritation and pulled out the big guns. "I'm a Council enforcer, Mary. I'm here on Council business, and whatever you told Annie pertains to that."

"I don't see how," Mary said, sounding more annoyed than impressed, but then a long sigh sounded down the phone and she said, "Annie was asking a lot of questions about Althea and Armand's other wives. But at the end, the conversation circled back to Althea and how she really disliked Agnes and John. Althea thought they were a pair of leeches taking advantage of Armand's good nature when their sister died. She thought they should have moved out centuries earlier, and her first order of business after they married was to convince Agnes and John to move out. She succeeded and they went to Europe, but she was always afraid they'd come back and pop up like a pair of bad pennies. Althea was becoming obsessed with the idea, to the point that the night we rode into Toronto, she actually thought she saw Agnes and was positive they'd returned and were going to spoil everything she'd managed to achieve."

"Althea saw Agnes?" Eshe asked sharply.

"No, of course she didn't," Mary said firmly. "Agnes and John were in Europe. Everyone knew that. I'm sure she just imagined it or saw someone who looked like her, but it managed to upset Althea enough that she said she couldn't sleep and was going to go for a walk before bed."

"Why didn't William tell me about this?" Eshe asked with a frown.

"Oh, William doesn't know. Althea didn't say anything until I went to collect Thomas from her room. Thomas preferred her to give him his bath, so after we checked in, she took him to her room to bathe him while William and I settled in our rooms, and then I went to collect him. When I arrived, Thomas was sitting in a tub of cold water while Althea paced the room like a caged tiger and kept glancing out the window raving about having seen Agnes as we rode in. I tried to tell her she was mistaken and reminded her that Agnes and John were in Europe, but she wouldn't listen. She never did once she got something in her head," Mary added with exasperation, and it made Eshe think of Althea's being positive that Armand was her life mate because she couldn't read him, and not believing anyone when they tried to tell her she couldn't read him because he was older than she was. It seemed obvious her mother had thought this was another similar case of Althea believing what she wanted to.

"Althea was a bit high-strung," Mary admitted reluctantly, and then rushed on, "It was always best to humor her when she got like that, so I let her have a good rant about it all, and then agreed with some relief that she should go for a walk before bed. Then I took Thomas to our room...Of course I've regretted that ever since. William didn't know this, but I know Althea sometimes bit drunken mortals. She said it was only when she was having trouble sleeping, but..." There was another unhappy sigh. "Ever since the fire, I've suspected she did so that night too and then went back to her room, and knocked over the lantern as she passed out on her bed."

"Thank you, Mary," Eshe said gently when she fell silent. "You've helped a great deal."

"How?" Mary asked almost plaintively. "Why was Annie so excited about this? And what are you investigating?"

Eshe hesitated, but then shook her head and said, "How about I tell you that at Sunday dinner? I might have more news for you then."

"All right," Mary agreed reluctantly.

"Have a lovely anniversary," Eshe said sincerely, and hung up to immediately begin pacing Cedrick's small kitchen.

While Mary was sure Althea had imagined seeing Agnes, Eshe didn't immediately take the same view. If she had seen Agnes, then it meant Agnes and John had returned from Europe earlier than everyone believed, or they'd never left...which eliminated their alibi and meant they'd been around for every death. They'd been at the castle when Susanna died, as well as in Toronto the night Althea died, and there had never been any question that they lived in the area when Rosamund and Annie died. And they were certainly here now, able to have caused the fire at the shed, and then the house burning. It was that being-in-Europe business that had taken them off the suspect list, but if Althea really had seen them, then it put them right back on it. Actually, it made them the only suspects, she acknowledged, and then stopped pacing as she realized that Armand was presently out there at John and Agnes's alone.

Eshe turned slowly and peered out the window, staring at the lowering sun. It wasn't nightfall yet. From what she knew about the pair they were never up and about this early and should have been tucked up in their soundproofed basement. She'd assumed John had a day manager as Armand did, and yet he was up today and Armand was out there helping with a sick cow. She hadn't seen any cows at the Maunsell farm.

Cursing, Eshe snatched up the SUV keys Bricker had set on the counter and hurried out of the house.

"I'm surprised you're starting into livestock," Armand commented as he got out of the pickup and walked to meet John in front of his van. His gaze slid over the farm John had led him to. It was quite a distance from the farm where John and Agnes presently lived, and it would have been less of a drive for Armand had John just told Armand to meet him there and given Armand the address. Instead, John had waited for Armand at the main farm and then led him there in his van.

Armand pursed his lips as he peered over the building, another modern ranch house with outbuildings. There were several barns, and he wondered which one held the ailing cow.

"I thought it was time to diversify," John muttered, heading for the house rather than the barns. "I just want to check on something before we go see the cow. Come take a look around."

Armand nodded and followed him to the house, waiting as John unlocked the door and then preceding him inside when John gestured him to.

"I need to check the size and kind of the breakers here. Some of the lights don't work. I think the breakers are burned out and need to know what kind I need to buy," John murmured, following him up the hall as Armand walked along peering into empty rooms. "The basement door is your next on the right."

Armand opened the door and flipped the switch, relieved when a light turned on. He didn't fancy trying to navigate an unknown set of stairs and a basement in pitch dark. Immortals had excellent night vision, but they needed at least a little light to work with and the basement had looked like a great black hole when he'd opened the door.

"Are you going to get any other animals?" Armand asked as he started down the stairs.

"No, just the cow for now," John answered. "I'm working into it gradually."

Armand nodded, and then sighed and brought up the subject he felt he should most approach while here. As he stepped off the last step, he said, "John, Agnes showed Eshe your blood collection when we were over the other night. I think we should talk about it."

There was a heavy sigh from behind him and Armand started to turn to face him, and then grunted with surprise as something slammed into his head. He felt himself falling and reached out instinctively to break his fall, coming to a halt on his hands and knees, but then gave a little moan and collapsed into the waiting darkness as he was hit again.

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