Born to Bite / Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve


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"I want to be paired with Eshe," Armand announced the moment he'd closed the office door shutting him and Lucian inside.

"No."

"She's my life mate, Lucian," Armand said grimly.

"Which is precisely why I said no," Lucian responded just as grimly. "You'd be distracted. I need you both to have your heads on straight so you don't miss anything, and to be alert in case there's another attempt to kill one of you."

Armand blinked in surprise. "One of us? You mean Eshe. It's always my life mate or wife who has died."

"Usually after marrying you and giving birth to your child, or in Annie's case, marrying your son and being pregnant," Lucian said and then pointed out dryly, "Eshe hasn't married or, I presume, got pregnant, and this time you were present and would have died too so something has changed."

"I suppose," Armand muttered, wondering what that could be. His life had gone along in the same pattern for so long the days had begun to blend into one another...until Eshe's arrival in it. In fact, her appearance in his life was the only change there'd been. But while the murders had all only ever included his wives before this, and his son's wife, Annie, he would have died in that fire with Eshe had he not woken when he had. An interesting development.

"Why didn't you come to me with your suspicions after Rosamund died?" Lucian asked abruptly, distracting him from his thoughts.

Armand scowled briefly, but then shook his head and sighed. "Because all I had were suspicions."

"Strong enough suspicions to make you withdraw from the family...I presume to protect them?"

"Yes," Armand admitted with a sigh. "But they were still just suspicions, and when I looked into it myself, that's all I ended up with. I didn't even pick up on the earring thing with Althea. William never mentioned that to me."

"He probably didn't want to upset you with such gruesome detail," Lucian said thoughtfully.

"Probably," Armand agreed, and then said what had been bothering him since he'd learned that Annie's death was probably related to all this as well. "But if I'd gone to you anyway Nicholas's Annie might still be alive."

"Yes," Lucian agreed bluntly, and then added, "But then if she had come to me with whatever suspicions led her to investigate, then she might still be alive despite your silence. You both did the same thing." He shrugged. "It worked out for the best anyway. Nicholas has a new life mate and isn't now having to choose between his dead Annie and his very living Jo. That would have been a pickle."

"God, you're a heartless prick at times," Armand said with amazed disgust and then asked curiously, "His life mate's name is Jo?"

Lucian nodded. "Josephine Willan. Her sister is Sam, Mortimer's life mate."

Armand nodded; he'd met Mortimer a time or two. Nicholas had sometimes stopped to drop off photos of Jeanne Louise on his way through town en route to handle a case. Sometimes other enforcers had been with him. Mortimer had been one of them.

"Where is Jo while Nicholas is locked up at the enforcer house?" he asked, a bit concerned that if she was alone and unprotected she might join the growing ranks of dead women in his immediate family.

"I had her locked up with him."

"Why?" Armand asked with amazement.

"Marguerite thought it would help Nicholas pass the time. Besides, it keeps her from getting herself in trouble trying to break him out," he added with amusement. He raised an eyebrow at Armand. "Are we done now?"

Armand nodded silently. While he didn't like the fact that Lucian was pairing Eshe with Bricker rather than him, he understood the reason. They did get distracted when together. Besides, his being nearly killed was a new development, and it was possible he had been the target rather than Eshe since she'd only questioned William. If so, perhaps whoever was behind the attack would come after him again. He'd rather Eshe was safely away with Bricker if that happened.

"John and Agnes Maunsell," Bricker murmured. "If they aren't really suspects, what are we hoping to learn from them?"

"Anything we can," Eshe said dryly, glancing out the passenger side window of the SUV as they turned onto the road the Maunsell farm was on. It was the vehicle Anders had driven down in. He and Armand had gone to see Cedrick in Armand's pickup, so Anders had suggested they use the SUV rather than their motorcycles. Of course, Bricker had insisted on driving. Eshe hadn't minded, though, so had merely shrugged and climbed in the passenger side.

"If they're in," Bricker commented dryly, and then a moment later as the dark farm came into view, added, "which it doesn't appear like they are. Again."

"Turn in anyway. We can at least knock to be sure," Eshe said with a sigh, but didn't really think they were likely to find anyone at home. The house didn't have a single light on anywhere, and both the van and car they'd noticed here their first time out were notably absent. Eshe feared they'd missed them again until she spotted the man who had come to a halt in the yard halfway between the barn and the house.

"Do you think that's him?" Bricker asked as he brought the van to a stop in front of the house.

Eshe shrugged. She hadn't a clue. She'd never met the couple before, but said, "If not, he can at least tell us where John and Agnes are and when we can find them in."

"True," Bricker murmured as he turned off the engine.

Eshe opened her door and slid out, her eyes immediately seeking the man in the yard. He still stood exactly where she'd first seen him, but after a brief hesitation, he continued across the yard toward them, eyeing them speculatively as he came. Eshe looked him over in return and as he drew nearer decided this was definitely John Maunsell. He had similar features to one of the women in the miniature portraits in Armand's desk. It must have been Susanna.

Like his sister, John Maunsell was fair-haired. He was also tall, with the bulk of the warrior he must have been when he was turned. But it was his face that held her attention longest. The man had silver-green eyes and the face of an angel. Seriously, God had been in a good mood the day he'd fashioned this fellow, she decided. He had fairy-tale good looks and she wouldn't have been surprised to find him gracing the pages of a fashion magazine or used as the model for the prince in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. It made her feel sorry for the local girls in this community. They probably fell all over themselves to try to get his attention. Actually, she realized, it was probably hell for him.

"It is."

Eshe blinked at that comment from the man as he paused before them, and he grimaced apologetically.

"Sorry. You weren't guarding your thoughts."

Eshe forced a smile as she realized that he had read her thoughts about his looks. While it was somewhat rude of him to comment on them, it was a good reminder to her to keep her guards up so that her thoughts remained private. It was something that was more difficult to do when you'd found a life mate, though no one really knew why.

"John Maunsell?" Bricker asked, moving around the SUV to join Eshe.

"Yes." He nodded and accepted Bricker's hand as the younger enforcer introduced himself. John then turned to Eshe. Before she could speak, however, he said, "And you're Armand's new life mate, Eshe d'Aureus."

When she winced, he smiled faintly and said, "I'm afraid your presence and name have been making the rounds on the tongue of every gossip between here and Armand's farm." He tilted his head and eyed her briefly before deciding, "Although I'd say you are even more lovely than Cedrick said they are claiming."

Eshe smiled wryly at the compliment. She wasn't especially lovely. She was just statuesque and not ugly and had learned how best to showcase herself over the centuries. Still, the compliment was nice and she smiled and said, "Silver-tongued as well as silver-eyed, I see."

It was Bricker who asked, "Cedrick told you about Eshe?"

"Yes. He was delighted to have heard the gossip first," John said wryly, and then asked, "Isn't Armand with you?"

"No." Eshe glanced to Bricker and then back before saying, "We actually came alone. We had some questions we hoped you could answer for us about your sister Susanna."

He nodded, not seeming terribly surprised, and she suspected he assumed her questions were based in the fact that she was Armand's new life mate, with an understandable curiosity about his first mate.

"Shall we go inside then?" John suggested, gesturing toward the house. "Agnes has gone into the city for a movie, but I'll answer whatever questions I can."

"Thank you," Eshe murmured, allowing him to usher them toward the house.

"Would either of you like something to drink?" John asked as he led them inside and began flicking on lights.

"Not for me, thanks," Eshe murmured as they were shown into a living room on the left. The room was decorated in modern furniture in neutral shades of brown. Eshe glanced around and then settled onto the leather sofa and sank into its soft cushions.

"Me neither. We just ate not long ago. A big breakfast," Bricker explained, dropping onto the other end of the couch.

Host duties out of the way, John nodded and settled in the closest chair and then raised his eyebrows in question as he glanced from her to Bricker and back. "So what is it you wanted to ask about my sister Susanna?"

"Actually, it isn't really about Susanna so much as about how and when she died," Eshe murmured, sitting forward.

"Oh." John sighed. He glanced away, was silent for a minute, and then peered back at her and said, "May I ask why?"

Eshe exchanged a glance with Bricker, her mind working quickly, and then simply said, "It's got to do with Council business."

John stared at her for another moment as if expecting more, and then apparently realizing that was all they were willing to say, he nodded. "Right. Well...it was about a week after little Nicky was born." He paused and smiled wryly. "I guess he isn't little anymore."

"No," Eshe agreed quietly. Little Nicky Argeneau was now over five hundred years old. Armand's son had long ago grown up into the adult Nicholas.

"Has there been any word from him?" John asked suddenly, his eager glance sliding from her to Bricker and back again. "Any sightings even that would tell us if he's okay?"

"He's-" Bricker began, and she cut him off.

"No. I'm afraid not." It was a flat-out lie, of course. But it wouldn't make this man feel any better to know that Nicholas was presently locked up at the enforcer house waiting to see if he would be executed or not.

"Oh. I was hoping someone may have at least seen him." John looked away unhappily.

"I'm sorry," Eshe said quietly, and then prompted, "About Susanna's death?"

John nodded. "As I said, it was about a week after Nicky was born. Armand was away at court; he left the day after the birth. His brother Jean Claude and his wife, Marguerite, had been to visit for a couple days to see the baby, but they had left at nightfall to start their journey home. The moment they were out of the bailey, I mounted up and headed into the village for dinner." He paused to explain, "I still ate then, I hadn't been turned very long and I liked my tucker. Unfortunately, the cook at the castle wasn't very good and..." He paused and smiled apologetically. "Sorry, I was getting off topic."

"That's all right," Eshe assured him, and then brought him back to the topic by asking, "So Armand was away at court?"

"Yes. As I say, he left the day after Susanna gave birth. He should have left sooner. The king sent at least three orders for him to present himself, but he wouldn't leave Susanna until the baby was born." John grimaced. "Fortunately, she had Nicholas before the king got mad enough to send soldiers, but I imagine Armand had to do some fancy mind bending with the king to get back in his favor for not rushing to court at once when ordered."

Eshe nodded, unsurprised by this corroboration of Armand and Marguerite's stories. "So you went to the village for dinner?"

"Yes. I was probably there for a couple of hours...maybe as many as three or four. I liked to drink as a mortal and hadn't quite accepted that alcohol had no effect on me anymore," he admitted with a grimace, and then continued, "At any rate, it was late in the evening when I returned, probably after midnight. Most of the soldiers and servants were mortal and abed. Only the men from the wall were about and they were all in the bailey watching the stables burn."

"Just watching?" she asked with a frown.

"Yes." John nodded. "Apparently they'd tried forming a bucket brigade to the well to try to douse it, but by the time they'd noticed the stables were on fire, it was too late for a bucket brigade to help much. Of course, they'd been concentrating on watching for anyone approaching the wall, as was their job, and hadn't noticed that the stables in the bailey were on fire until it was fully ablaze."

Bricker asked, "Did you ever discover how the fire started?"

He appeared surprised by the question, but shook his head. "I suppose a torch was dropped in the hay, or a lantern knocked over." He shrugged. "We didn't exactly have forensics or anything back then, and as you know, fires were common."

Eshe nodded her head. She wasn't surprised he knew she was old enough to recall. She often could tell if an immortal was young or old. It seemed to be an instinct among them. As for fires, they had been very common back then. Dried rushes and hay were a very deadly combination when mixed with an open flame, which was all they'd had to use for light.

"How did they know Susanna was in there?" Bricker asked curiously, and Eshe found herself concentrating on John's thoughts as he answered, listening with both her mind and ears as he spoke.

"They didn't," John answered. "They only knew someone had been trapped inside. They said they could hear the shrieking as they approached. When they told me that I assumed-as most of them did-that it was one of the stable boys caught napping in the straw as they liked to do. But the fire was burning too hot when they told me that. No one would have survived running in there to try to get them out. At least that's what I thought at the time," he murmured, guilt lining his face. "I realize now that while I might have been badly burned, I probably would have survived long enough to get her out and enough blood would have seen both of us right again. But I was a new turn then. I didn't know, and I didn't know it was Susanna. I-"

His voice broke and he turned his head away briefly.

Eshe swallowed and withdrew from his thoughts. She'd been reading his mind as he'd spoken, verifying for herself that he was telling the truth. He was, and his guilt and loss were painful to experience with him.

It was Bricker who asked, "So you don't really know if Susanna was in there? No one actually saw her enter the stables or-?"

"No," John interrupted, his voice harsh with a combination of grief and what sounded like anger. "No one saw, but it was her. We realized that when Agnes came running out of the castle crying that she couldn't find Susanna anywhere. She wasn't with the baby, or in her room." He sighed and shook his head. "Of course, I didn't want to believe she could have been in there. I wanted to believe it was someone else, but the next night she was still nowhere to be found. The fire had gone out by then and the embers had cooled, so I got several men together and we sifted through the ashes." His expression was bleak as he told them, "I found her wedding ring and the amulet Armand had given her before leaving for court as well as a couple of burned and stained patches of the gown she'd been wearing to see Marguerite and Jean Claude off. That was it, though. I gather the nanos make us burn so hot that it was amazing that those bits of cloth had survived and that the metal hadn't melted."

They were all silent for a moment, and then John added, "I was the one who had to tell Armand when he returned home from court a week later." He shook his head sadly. "The man was happy as hell to be home and couldn't wait to see Susanna. You'd have thought they'd been apart a decade instead of just two weeks. He rode into the bailey at speed, bounded off his mount, and raced up the stairs, laughing and yelling for Susanna. When I tried to stop him at the top of the steps, he laughed and said, 'Where's your sister? I got her a gift while at court,' and tried to move around me until I finally just blurted, 'She's dead.'"

John shook his head. "I loved my sister, and her passing was painful as hell for me, but sometimes I think it would have been kinder just to have staked Armand in the heart. I've never before or since seen a man so stricken."

Eshe swallowed away the lump suddenly in her throat. She'd slipped into his thoughts again as he'd recalled Armand's return and seen first Armand's laughter as he'd returned home to his life mate, and then the way he'd paled and swayed as he learned his life mate was dead. It had been difficult to witness even secondhand through an old memory. Clearing her throat, she said quietly, "Thank you. I'm sorry we made you relive such sad memories. I only have one more question."

He nodded, his expression expectant.

"You said Marguerite and Jean Claude were there earlier in the evening but had left, and I know Armand and Cedrick were at court...Were there any other immortals that you know of who were at the castle besides you and your sister when the fire started?"

John seemed startled by the question, but took a moment before answering. However, then he shook his head. "No. Just me and Agnes." He tilted his head curiously. "Why?"

Eshe let her breath out on a sigh. She'd been hoping for someone they could investigate, someone Armand hadn't thought or maybe even known of. Someone who had dropped by unexpectedly or...well, just anything. But life was never that simple, was it?

Shaking her head, she stood up. "It doesn't matter. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. We should go now."

They were all silent as he walked them to the door. Bricker murmured a thank-you as they slipped outside, but didn't speak again until they were in the SUV. Then he glanced at her and pointed out, "You didn't ask him about Althea or Rosamund's death."

Eshe stiffened in her seat, her seat belt drawn halfway across her body as she realized he was right. She'd found the tale of Susanna's death and Armand's pain so upsetting, she hadn't thought to ask about anything else. Biting her lip, she glanced toward the house and frowned. The door was closed now, John nowhere in sight. "Well, he wouldn't know anything useful about Althea. He and Agnes were in Europe. And from what Armand and Harcourt have told us, he wasn't at the house around the time of Rosamund's death either."

"True," Bricker agreed slowly. "But still, maybe we should at least ask."

Eshe hesitated, but then sighed and let her seat belt slide back into its holder. "You're right. Let's go."

They both got out of the SUV and walked back to the house. This time Eshe rang the doorbell. She then stood, silently cursing herself for not asking questions about the other women as they waited. And waited.

"He's not answering," Bricker pointed out. "He didn't slip out to the barns or something while we were walking to the SUV, did he?"

"No. We would have seen him," Eshe said with certainty and rang the doorbell again. She was about to ring it for a third time when the sound of a vehicle engine made her glance toward the driveway. A white four-by-four with tinted windows was slowing as it pulled in beside their SUV. Eshe and Bricker watched curiously as it came to a halt and the driver's side door opened. The man who got out was plain-faced and built like a bull, with a wide chest, muscular arms, and a thick neck. A thatch of pale brown hair was cut short on his head.

Eshe shrugged when Bricker glanced at her, and simply waited as the man approached the door where they were waiting.

He paused on the sidewalk in front of the stoop they were on, tall enough he managed to loom over her and Bricker despite being on lower ground, and eyed them both for a moment before turning his attention to Eshe. "You look to me to be Eshe d'Aureus."

Eshe's eyes widened slightly, but she accepted the hand he held out and nodded before asking, "And you are?"

"Cedrick Hanford," he introduced himself.

"Cedrick?" Bricker asked with surprise. "Armand and Anders were heading over to talk to you when we left the house."

"They would have missed me then. I've been running errands," he said and arched one querying eyebrow. "And who are you?"

"Justin Bricker," he said, offering his own hand in greeting. "I'm...er...a friend of Eshe's and now Armand's," he muttered finally.

Cedrick nodded and accepted his hand in a shake, then glanced past them to the door. "Not getting an answer?"

"No," Eshe admitted, frowning at the door herself. "We know John's home. We were talking to him a few minutes ago and then started to leave, but remembered something we forgot to ask him and came back, but now he's not answering."

Cedrick grunted, not seeming surprised. "He probably went down into that basement of his. If so, you're out of luck. The damned thing is soundproof. It's where they sleep and he had it built so they wouldn't hear the doorbell, phones, or anything down there. You could blow up your SUV out here and he wouldn't hear it if that's where he is."

"Surely he wouldn't go to bed this early?" Bricker said with a frown.

"Probably not," Cedrick agreed. "But he's got an office down there too with a computer that, I gather, has every computer game worth owning on it. He's down there most nights gaming until well past dawn. The best way to get ahold of him is to leave a message on the answering machine. He'll call back...eventually," he added with dry irritation.

"Well, I guess that's it for talking to him tonight," Bricker muttered.

Eshe nodded, and then stepped back out of the way as Cedrick murmured, "Excuse me," and squeezed between them on the stoop to get to the mailbox. As she watched curiously, he slid a CD from his back pocket and dropped it in the mailbox, then let the lid drop with a clang.

Turning back, he saw their expressions and explained, "An accounting program to help him with the books."

"I thought John owned this place, not Armand," Bricker said with surprise, speaking what she was thinking.

"He does, but Armand frets about the boy and asked me to help him out if I could. So I do a few things here and there. This program is so he can do his own accounting. Means he'll pester me less," he added dryly, moving between them again to step off the stoop.

"I'm getting the distinct impression you don't like John," Eshe murmured, stepping off the stoop to follow him when he started back toward his truck.

She saw his big shoulders shrug. "John's all right. He's just...well...John," he said wryly, stopping at his truck. He turned back to raise an eyebrow at them. "You say Armand was looking to talk to me?"

"Yes. He's probably been to your place and left by now," she added with a frown.

"Are you headed back to the farm?" he asked.

Eshe glanced back to the silent and still house behind them. They really needed to question John some more, but it looked like that wouldn't happen right now. They'd have to go home, get his number, and call to leave a message on his answering machine. A big pain in the ass, but it looked like there was nothing else to do. Sighing, she turned back to Cedrick. "Yes. We're heading back to the farm."

"Then I'll follow you and talk to Armand there,"

Cedrick decided, and got into his truck.

"Do you have your phone with you, Bricker?" Eshe asked as they hurried to their own vehicle.

"Yeah. Where's yours?" he asked with surprise.

"A pile of melted plastic in the shed," she said dryly.

"Oh. Right." He started reaching into his pocket.

"Give it to me in the truck," she suggested as she moved away to approach the passenger side of the vehicle.

They both got in and did up their seat belts, then Bricker handed her his phone and started the engine. "Who are you calling?"

"Armand," she answered absently as she punched in his cell phone number. "I just want to be sure he and Anders did head home when they found Cedrick wasn't there and aren't sitting out at the farm he runs waiting for him."

"So his phone survived the fire?" Bricker asked, starting the engine.

Eshe cursed and hit the end call button and started to dial Anders's phone number instead as Bricker started up the drive and Cedrick followed.

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