Born to Bite / Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen


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"So did you learn anything from Agnes?"

Eshe gave a start of surprise at that question from Bricker as she stepped out of the pickup. Anders and Bricker had led the way home in the SUV, with them following in the pickup, and she'd spent the ride silent, her mind replaying that moment in her head when Armand had said he loved her in front of everyone. She'd quite forgotten all about Agnes and their conversation.

"Let's talk inside," Armand said quietly, coming around the truck to take her arm and urge her toward the house.

Eshe noticed the way the men suddenly nodded and glanced warily around and realized they were worried that whoever had controlled Mrs. Ramsey that morning might be there somewhere watching them. She allowed herself to be ushered into the house, her curious gaze sliding repeatedly to Armand as they went. He'd been silent on the ride home as well, and she now found herself wondering what he'd been thinking. It was hard to tell from his expression. He appeared to be in a solemn mood now.

"Should I put coffee on?" Bricker asked as they entered the kitchen. "And maybe some coffee cake or something? I think I saw some in the refrigerator after your shopping expedition."

"I didn't know whether it needed refrigerating or not," Armand explained as he ushered Eshe to the table, and then he added, "It looked good. I'll have some."

"Me too," Eshe murmured, settling in a chair at the table.

"None for me," Anders said drolly, and Bricker snorted and said, "Like I couldn't guess that."

Eshe smiled faintly. Most immortals stopped eating around one hundred and fifty or two hundred years old. Bricker was still young enough that he ate, but Anders was much older and no longer bothered. He stuck with bagged blood as most unmated mortals did. As she had before coming here and meeting Armand.

"So?" Armand said quietly as he settled on the chair next to hers. "Did you learn anything useful?"

Eshe considered the question and wasn't sure how to answer, but finally said, "I learned a lot. I just don't think any of it helps much with the case."

"Tell," Bricker said as he stuck the coffeepot under the sink to fill it with water. "We'll sort out if it's useful after."

"Well," she said slowly. "We didn't get a chance to discuss Susanna's death at all, or any of the deaths really. But she did say Althea was...er...well, you were right, she was having affairs on you and Agnes knew it."

Armand merely nodded, neither surprised nor upset, so Eshe continued, "That and the fact that Althea wanted nothing to do with Agnes and John and apparently made that plain to them is the real reason why they went to Europe."

That did upset him, she noticed. He frowned with displeasure at the knowledge that Althea might have driven John and Agnes from his home, from their home.

"What about Rosamund?" Bricker asked, finished with the coffee and now retrieving plates and forks for the coffee cake. "Did she say anything about her?"

"Just that she was nice enough but nosy," Eshe recalled.

"I wouldn't say Rosamund was nosy," Armand said slowly. "She liked to talk a lot and was inquisitive, but..." He shrugged.

"Did you ask about Annie?" Anders asked.

Eshe scowled as she nodded. "Yes. Nicholas brought Annie down three times; once before the wedding and twice after. I guess they spent the weekend the last time and it was a lovely visit. Agnes said they played games and talked till the wee hours."

"But Annie never came down herself?" Bricker asked, and then added, "I doubt she would have been asking about the deaths of Armand's wives in front of Nicholas. He had no idea what she was wanting to tell him."

"No, I gather Agnes only met her the three times. And," she added grimly, turning narrowed eyes on Armand, "why the hell has no one told her that Annie is dead and Nicholas is on the run?"

"What?" he asked with surprise.

Eshe nodded. "Agnes has no idea. She thinks Nicholas has just abandoned her or something and is completely bewildered as to why he wouldn't bring Annie back and visit again when they had such a nice time the last time they were down."

Armand stared at her with what appeared to be honest amazement, and then said, "John told me not to bring it up around Agnes, that it was an upsetting subject to her. He said not to even mention Nicholas or Annie to her."

"Well, John has apparently told her nothing," she said grimly. "He's just said they are probably busy to explain why they haven't been around for fifty years."

Armand cursed under his breath and shook his head. "Agnes loves that boy like a son. She'd understand his not visiting if she knew he couldn't because he was on the run, but leaving her to think he just can't be bothered..." He shook his head again. "I don't know what the hell John is thinking of."

"Probably his next bag of High Times," Eshe said dryly, bringing startled looks from all three men. "I suspect that's the real reason John 'wasn't feeling well' and wanted to 'rest.' The refrigerator there is full from top to bottom with Wino Reds, High Times, and various other intoxicating bloods. Agnes showed me but asked me not to tell you. She said you're happy now and would just worry, and to let you be happy. She's apparently tried to get him to stop but he won't listen." She clucked with disgust. "No doubt he's cuddled up with a couple of bags right now, sucking them back and getting high in that soundproofed basement of his."

Armand sat back with another curse, his hands clenching as he growled, "He always was a damned fool."

Eshe didn't comment. She didn't know what to think of John Maunsell. He'd seemed a sad but mostly nice guy when she and Bricker had talked to him. However, what she'd learned tonight had been disturbing.

"There was one other thing Agnes said that bothered me," she announced abruptly.

"What's that?" Armand asked at once.

"I said something about her finding a life mate someday and having children, but she said she was quite sure that would never happen. She said, and I'm quoting here, 'John would never allow that.'"

"John would never allow it?" Armand repeated with disbelief. "What the hell does that mean?"

Eshe shrugged. "It threw me too, but I didn't get the chance to ask. You guys came back before I could."

They were all silent for a moment, the only sound the hum of the microwave as Bricker warmed the coffee cake. When the humming stopped and a little ding sounded, Armand shifted in his seat and said wearily, "I see what you mean about learning a lot but nothing pertaining to the case."

Anders commented, "This information casts John in a more unfavorable light."

"But it doesn't change the fact that he wouldn't have killed Susanna and couldn't have killed Althea."

"I suppose," he admitted with a frown, and then his lips twisted with irritation. "Which leaves us again at square one."

"Which leaves us with Mary Harcourt," Eshe corrected. "Annie had to have talked to someone."

Armand grimaced, obviously displeased with the idea of bothering the woman on an anniversary trip, but said, "Very well. I guess we'll have to talk to her."

Eshe nodded and glanced to Bricker. "Which hotel did she say they were staying in?"

Bricker stiffened, his back to them as he cut the cake, but then he turned slowly, dismay on his face.

"You didn't get the hotel they were staying in," Eshe guessed grimly.

"I'll find out," Bricker said at once. As Anders began to chuckle, and Eshe dropped her head in her hands with disgust, he vowed, "I'll call every hotel in Montreal until I find the one they're at...In the meantime, I have cake for you," he added, hurrying over to slip a plate with a large slice of coffee cake between her elbows where they rested on the table.

Eshe opened her eyes and peered through her fingers at the cake suddenly beneath her nose. It smelled good. It looked good too, she acknowledged, but she wasn't quite ready to forgive Bricker until Armand slid his hand over her back and pointed out, "They probably aren't in right now anyway. They're probably out taking in plays or dancing or something. Bricker will find out what hotel they are staying in and we can call closer to dawn when they're likely to be in."

Eshe lifted her head and accepted the fork Bricker held out to her with a sigh. "Right. Cake now. Call later."

"And coffee," Bricker said, spinning around to rush back and begin pouring three cups.

"Okay then," Anders said, standing up. "If you guys are going to stuff your faces again, I'm going to go see if there are any old Lassie reruns on television."

Bricker watched him go as he carried a tray with coffees and more cake on it to the table and then commented, "He's missing Jo's dog."

"Jo's dog?" Armand asked uncertainly.

"Nicholas's new life mate Jo has a German shepherd named Charlie," Eshe murmured. "The dog was with them when they were first on the run."

"We caught up to them at one point and managed to catch Charlie, but Jo and Nicholas got away," Bricker added. "We took Charlie back to the enforcer house with us and he took a shining to Anders, started following him everywhere, so he's been looking after him. But Anders had to leave him with his housekeeper when he came down here." Bricker shrugged. "I think he's got attached to the mutt and is missing him."

"He can't be all bad if he likes dogs," Armand commented. Accepting a slice of cake and a coffee from Bricker, he murmured, "Thank you."

"Do you like dogs?" Eshe asked curiously.

"Oh yeah," Armand said, and smiled. "I've had several of them. My last one died about two years ago. I've been meaning to get another, but..." He shrugged, and then asked, "Do you like dogs?"

"Yes, but I can't have them in my apartment," Eshe said with a grimace.

"Then we'll have to live somewhere else," Armand said with a shrug.

Eshe stilled and peered at him. It was the first time he'd spoken of a future together beyond the two weeks she'd originally been slated to stay.

"What?" he asked, cutting into his cake with his fork. "You thought I was letting you get away after this is over?"

"Before Lucian left you were trying to send me away," she pointed out.

"I was being self-sacrificing," Armand said wryly. "But you win. I'm going to be selfish as hell and hold on to you now."

Eshe grinned. "I think I like you when you're selfish as hell."

"You'll like me better naked and selfish as hell," he assured her roughly, reaching out to draw her nearer so he could kiss her. Before their lips could meet, however, a forkful of cake appeared between them. Eshe and Armand turned as one to peer at Bricker.

"Food now. Crazy monkey sex after," he admonished. "I went to a lot of trouble to warm this up and make coffee. You are not letting it go to waste."

Eshe chuckled at his words and turned her attention to the cake and coffee, but her toes were curled inside her boots and she was very aware of Armand beside her. She couldn't help but think it would be nice when all this was over and they could just be together without worrying about murder and saving Nicholas. But they had time for that, she assured herself. A very long time if they were lucky.

Eshe woke to the sound of someone hammering on the door and shouting for them to wake up. Rolling over in bed with a groan, she glared at the clock on the bedside table, her bleary eyes widening with disbelief when she saw that it was only nine A.M.

"For God's sake," she muttered, turning her glare to the door, and then frowned and sniffed as she smelled something cooking. Not cooking, she realized. Burning. It was at about that time she made out that Bricker was yelling, "Fire! Wake up!"

Before she could react, he gave up pounding and burst into the room. Eshe blinked at the sight of Bricker in just a pair of boxers, and then glanced to Armand as he stirred beside her.

"Aren't you listening?" Bricker roared with frustration. "The house is on fire. Get up!"

Armand was apparently much faster at becoming awake and alert. While she was just starting to look around for something to put on, he was already rolling out of bed.

"Where's Anders?" he barked, tossing Eshe his shirt and then snatching up his jeans to yank them on.

Eshe glanced to Bricker as he whirled and hurried out of the room to wake the other man and then quickly slid the shirt up her arms and got out of bed as she did it up. The shirt was short, stopping just below her butt cheeks, and Eshe picked up her own jeans then, intending to pull them on, but Armand came around the bed and caught her hand, dragging her toward the door before she could.

Eshe clutched the jeans to her chest and scampered to keep up as they hurried out of the room. They met Anders and Bricker in the hall. Like Armand, Anders had pulled on jeans, and now led the way toward the stairs, but came to an abrupt halt once he got there. Armand moved up beside him, pulling Eshe with him as he peered down into the inferno that was the first floor.

"Christ," he muttered, and then whirled and began to drag her back toward his room.

"Bricker, grab some blood from the closet while I get this window open," he ordered, moving straight to the window beside the bed.

"Blood?" Bricker asked blankly, running a hand through his disheveled hair.

"In case one of us twists or breaks an ankle jumping off the porch," Armand explained patiently as he raised the window and set to work on the screen. "Houses don't burn this quickly. The fire must have been set. If the culprit is still out there I don't want anyone injured and unable to defend themselves for any longer than necessary."

"Right." Bricker turned and hurried into the walk-in closet.

Eshe shifted her bare feet on the hardwood floor. "The floor is hot."

Armand nodded as he got the screen free and pitched it away from the house. He peered out, but then paused and cursed.

"What is it?" Eshe asked, squeezing up next to him to peer out. She saw at once what the problem was.

"The back porch is ablaze," he growled. "We can't go this way."

Eshe glanced over the burning porch roof and sighed, knowing he was right. It could collapse beneath them and leave them in an inferno of flames.

"The front porch probably will be too," Anders muttered as Armand turned away from the window. "The window in my room looks out on the side yard, though. It might be our best bet."

Armand nodded and ushered Eshe ahead of him toward the door to the hall.

"Where are we going?" Bricker asked. Arms cuddling several bags of blood to his chest as he came out of the closet, he hurried to meet them at the door.

"The porch is on fire. We're going to try Anders's room," Eshe explained, taking a couple of bags from him so he wouldn't drop them.

Nodding, Bricker slid out of the room and led the way up the hall to Anders's door. The smoke in the hall was thick now, smothering, and they were all coughing by the time they reached it. The heat was beginning to be unbearable as well.

"This'll do," Armand decided after tugging the blackout curtain open and peering outside. He yanked the curtains right off their rod and tossed them across the room, and then shoved the window up, and pretty much just punched the screen out this time, sending it flying outward. The moment that was done, he glanced her way and said, "Eshe, come here."

She moved forward at once, still holding her jeans and the blood, but he took them from her and urged her to the window.

"Jump away from the house if you can, and roll when you land. The flames are licking the outside of the first floor and your shirt might catch fire."

Eshe nodded and started to climb onto the windowsill, but she'd barely gotten one leg over it when he caught her arm, saying, "Maybe Anders, Bricker, or I should go first."

Recalling that he'd wanted the blood in case the culprit was out there, she knew exactly why he suddenly wanted one of them to go first. Clucking with exasperation, Eshe reminded him, "I'm an enforcer. I'll be fine."

She then tugged her arm free, lifted her second leg over the windowsill, and pushed out with her hands, shoving herself away from the house as much as she could. She landed with a grunt, but without twisting or breaking an ankle, and then dropped and rolled just to be sure she hadn't caught fire. She heard a thud to her right on her third roll and knew it was one of the men following her. Stopping her roll, she got quickly to her feet and then jumped back out of the way as Bricker rolled toward her. Eshe then glanced up to the window in time to see Anders pushing himself out of the window.

Her gaze slid to Armand, a frown claiming her lips when she saw him framed in the window, the blood bags all now gathered to his chest.

"Bricker, keep an eye out for our firebug," she ordered, then stepped closer to the house and held out her hands. "Throw them to me and get out of there."

Armand tossed the first bag at once, the others quickly followed, and Eshe ended up letting some drop to the ground after catching them so that she could catch the next. She was relieved when he finished tossing the last one, until he suddenly disappeared from the window altogether.

"Armand?" she yelled uncertainly.

"Where the hell did he go?" Anders said, moving to her side. "The fire was licking through the floor when I jumped. He needs to get out of there."

Eshe just shook her head and watched helplessly. She had no idea where the big idiot had gone, but if he didn't return and climb out within the next moment, she was going in after him, she thought grimly, and then sighed with relief when he appeared again and finally climbed onto the windowsill and pushed himself off.

"There's no sign of our firebug," Bricker said quietly, moving to collect the bags she'd let drop.

Eshe merely nodded. She hadn't expected the coward to stick around. For all they knew, he'd taken control of someone and had them start the fire while he watched from a safe distance, she thought with disgust as she moved to help Armand to his feet and check to be sure he was okay.

He stood up easily, uninjured by the jump, and smiled at her crookedly before turning to look at his house.

Eshe sighed and turned to peer at it too, knowing it must be hard for him to watch all his personal possession going up in flames. She was already missing the few she had here; her pants, for instance. But Armand was losing much more, including those portraits and photo albums in his desk.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, slipping her hands into his.

"It's just a house. We can build another," he murmured, but he sounded weary.

She squeezed his hand and then said, "We should really get out of the sun. You have your choice of the SUV or the woods."

"The SUV," Armand murmured, and then turned away from the house to walk with her toward the vehicle.

"Problem," Anders announced, following. "It's locked and the keys are-"

"In my hand," Armand said, raising his hand and opening his fingers so that the set of keys dangled between his thumb and forefinger. "I saw them on the dresser and grabbed them before I climbed out."

That explained his brief disappearance, Eshe realized, and while it had given her a scary moment, she was glad he'd thought of snatching up those keys. She suspected it wouldn't have been comfortable sitting in the woods without pants on.

Armand handed Anders the keys and he immediately hit the unlock button. They piled into the SUV, Eshe and Armand in the back, Anders and Bricker in the front.

"It's a good thing you woke up, Bricker," Eshe murmured as they watched the fire devour the house.

"I didn't," he admitted grimly, and when she glanced at him with surprise, he explained. "I was up calling hotels until about an hour ago. By the way, they're at the Sofitel," he said, and then continued, "It was of course the last hotel I called. I went to bed after I found that out, but couldn't sleep. I was just dosing off when I smelled smoke."

Eshe smiled wryly and then glanced at Armand and murmured, "See what I mean about the fishbowl?" When he peered back blankly, she pointed out, "I was upset that he forgot to get the name of the hotel when I found out, but in the end it saved our lives."

Armand nodded slowly, his gaze sliding back to the fire.

"What do we do now?" Bricker asked.

Armand opened his mouth to answer and then paused and glanced out the window as the sound of a fire engine suddenly whooped in the distance. They couldn't see it through the trees, but he sighed and turned back. "I guess I should wait here for them," he said reluctantly. "But you three can-"

"I'm not leaving you alone here," Eshe interrupted firmly. "The firebug could still be around."

"We'll all stay," Anders decided.

Satisfied with that, Eshe sat back to wait for the firemen to arrive.

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