Lover's Bite Chapter 12

"Lock them up," Reynold ordered. And as the other vampires who'd been lurking about the place surrounded the three fallen strangers without a question or a pause, he took Crisa by the hand.

"Come, little one. We have to go."

"Where are we going, Rey-Rey?" She grinned broadly as she asked the question. "Are we going to Bella? Are we going to see Bella?"

"Yes, child."

She clapped her hands and bounced excitedly. Then she raced behind the bar and returned to his side, a blindfold in her hands, which she immediately tied around her own face. "I remember the rules. See?"

"I do see. You're a very good girl, Crisa."

"I am good," she assured him.

Smiling, Reynold took the innocent by one arm and led her out of the establishment, his haven and theirs, and into the night. They had one vehicle, which they shared. A hybrid they'd pooled their resources to buy. He put Crisa into the passenger seat and fastened her safety belt, then he got behind the wheel and drove.

She didn't fuss about the blindfold, didn't fight, or try to peek or cheat or take it off. A normal vampire would, he thought, be able to find the place again by sensing it, by feeling the way the car moved and memorizing the directions, or by recognizing the sounds, both of the road and the air around them, and the smells and the feel of the place. But Crisa wasn't a normal vampire. She was impaired in some way. He didn't know whether she'd been that way in life, or whether something had happened since she'd been brought over, or perhaps during the transformation process. She had never told him. He wasn't sure how to ask, much less whether she would understand what it was he was asking. He wasn't even sure if she knew why she was the way she was. Sometimes he didn't think she was even aware of her own differences.

So he left it be. It didn't matter how she'd gotten to be this way-she was, that was all. It couldn't be changed by picking it apart or analyzing it. And he loved her as much for her innocence as for anything else.

He drove over the winding back roads, one and then another, until he should have been hopelessly lost. He wasn't, though. He knew this place. Knew it well.

Finally he stopped alongside a rambling fence in the middle of nowhere, got out and moved a pile of deadfall aside, revealing the gate it had hidden. He opened the gate, drove the car through, then stopped to get out again, close the gate and hide it once more.

Back behind the wheel, he took the winding path-like road to the miniature castle that was home to the legendary Mirabella DuFrane. He pulled the car, a boxy hatchback, to a halt in front of the stone structure. "You can take the blindfold off now, Crisa," he said.

She did, and, as always, she gazed in ever-new wonder at Mirabella's home. It was truly one of a kind, this place. It looked like a castle but was no larger than an ordinary house. Its exterior was composed of hand-hewn stone, imported from a real castle in Europe. It boasted a pair of towers, one on either side of a square, two-story center structure.

Reynold didn't make use of the giant brass lion's head knocker on the arch-topped front door. Instead, he turned to the tiny keypad tucked to one side, hidden by the leaves of a potted fern, and went to punch in the pass numbers. But he hesitated, fingers poised, free hand pushing fronds aside, as he noted the green light, glowing steadily. It was supposed to be red.

The door was already unlocked, the system disarmed.

"Bella?" he asked. A shiver worked its way down his spine as he moved closer to the door, closed his hand around the knob and pushed it open.

"Where is she?" Crisa asked, her innocent voice devoid of any hint of concern.

"I don't know, love." He stepped into the foyer, which spread wide, with curving staircases at either side leading up to the bedrooms, one in each tower, and one along the hallway in between. "Bella?"

"That's not right," Crisa whispered. She rubbed her arms as if she were chilled and stared off to the right.

Reynold followed her gaze and noticed then that a small table was cockeyed, the embroidered doily dangling off one side, and the lamp balanced precariously on a corner, ready to tip off at the least instigation.

He frowned and moved farther inside, straightening the lamp on his way, his eyes scanning now, as were his senses.

"Something happened here!" Crisa cried, just as Reynold's senses began telling him the same thing. "The air here is angry. Can't you feel it?"

He could. There had been a surge of emotions. Fear, anger, resistance, rage. There had been violence. As he walked the length of the place, he found more signs of struggle, a clear path of it from the front entry through the long hallways to the back door. Paintings hanging crookedly on the walls; a broken vase, with water and fresh flowers, had been dashed to the floor; an umbrella stand was tipped over; and the back door was standing wide open, with the doormat half in and half out. And as he inspected the damage, he could visualize what had happened here. In his mind, he saw Bella being held, dragged, forced, clinging to everything she passed in an effort to keep from being taken. The portraits. The umbrella stand. Her feet dragged the doormat half out with her, and there, in the paint, were the marks of her fingernails in the wall and in the woodwork around the back door.

"Someone has taken her," he muttered. Then he moved through the back door and down two steps to the ground below, where he saw tire tracks. He opened himself up to feelings, impressions, and knew it had been a while since everyone had left. "They're gone," he told Crisa. "They've been gone more than an hour, maybe close to two."

"But who would do that? Who would take our Bella?"

"I don't know. But I have a good idea." His anger built, and he gripped Crisa by the arm, then led her back through the house and out the front door to where they had left the car. "Come on, love. We need to ask a few questions of our guests."

Casa Crisa was abandoned. Empty. Jack sensed it before he even pulled to a stop beside Seth's illgained and much beloved classic Mustang. He dove out of the car, his mind scanning the surroundings, his senses probing deep, his gut calling out for Topaz.

But there was no reply.

"Jesus, they're gone! All three of them. Gone!" Arms out at his sides, he turned in a slow circle, stopping when he faced Reaper.

The Grim One's face was a study in concentration. He almost seemed to be sniffing the very air for clues.

"What the hell do we do now?" Jack asked.

"What we don't do is panic." Reaper's tone was calm and cold, and he looked at the ground, then walked a few steps and stared off into the distance. "There are tire tracks here. Lots of them, but they mostly head off in the same direction."


"If we can get our hands on anyone who was here tonight, I can make them tell us what they know. I guarantee you that much," Reaper said. "If the CIA taught me anything, it was how to extract information."

Jack suppressed a shiver, because Reaper's tone made it pretty clear this was the kind of thing he'd had to do before-something he knew he could do well. And that was chilling.

And yet, Jack knew he wouldn't hesitate to resort to torture if it meant getting Topaz back alive. Torture, hell. He wouldn't balk at murder. Or worse. God only knew what was happening to her right now. He remembered her time in Gregor's hands, the torture she'd withstood, before he'd managed to intervene. What if...?

Reaper clapped him on the shoulder. "Stop imagining the worst. It isn't going to help matters."

Jack nodded. "If they hurt her-"

"If they hurt her, or Seth or Vixen, they're going to die slow. We agree on that, Jack."


"Let's go inside, see if we can find any clues." Reaper glanced at the sky. "We have six hours till sunrise. Let's make use of them."

"They've been gone an awfully long time," Roxy said.

She was lounging in a chair on the wide deck of the bungalow, facing the ocean, watching the waves roll in beneath the night sky. The sea breeze blew over her face, and she could taste the salt with every breath.

"Do you think they're in some kind of trouble?" Ilyana asked.

"I don't know. I've opened my mind as much as I know how, even called out to them. But I'm no vampire. My skills in that area aren't anywhere near what theirs are."

Ilyana, who sat in another chair, lounging just as Roxy was doing, was dressed in one of Roxy's gorgeous saris. They'd each chosen one from the collection Roxy had brought along. Both were silk, straight from India, and handmade. Roxy wore ruby and black; Ilyana was in multitoned green. They resembled, Roxy thought, royalty.

"We could ask her," Ilyana said with a glance back toward the house.

Roxy followed her gaze upward to the second-story window of Briar's bedroom. Beyond it, the dark vampiress moped. She was moody, lethargic, all but silent, and as isolated from the rest of the group as she could manage to be while still being with them. It was as if she'd walled herself off in every imaginable way.

"She's not as bad as you think she is, you know," Roxy said.

"No one could be as bad as I think she is."

Roxy closed her eyes and deliberated before speaking. "She was tortured. Brutally. By the man she believed loved her."

Ilyana sat silent for a long moment. So long, in fact, that Roxy didn't think she was going to respond at all. But then, at last, she did. She said, "So was I. By the man who fathered my son."

"Fathered your-You have a son? With Gregor?"

Ilyana met Roxy's eyes. "He's like us. One of...the Chosen."

"And where is he now?"

"Gregor has him. That's why I need to find him, and why I'm so frustrated by this delay. And if you tell any of them about this, Roxy, I swear-"

"But, Ilyana, they might know something. Jack, Vixen-God, Briar was there, with Gregor, in that mansion of his. Surely if there were a child there, one of them would have seen him."

Ilyana met her eyes. "I was there with him. They never saw me."


"It's my secret to keep, Roxy. Respect this. We're kin, you and I, in some way I don't fully understand. It's in our blood, our bond. You're the only person I've trusted with this information. Please don't betray me."

Roxy nodded slowly. "All right. I won't tell them. Or anyone. Even though I think you're making a mistake."

"Thank you." Ilyana sat up in the chair, put her feet on the floor. "If you think it will help speed things up, then I think we should go to Briar and ask for her assistance. If she rips out our jugulars for our trouble, well, I'll just hope she goes for yours first."

"Lucky for both of you, I've already eaten."

Both women gasped and turned sharply to see Briar standing in the pitch darkness of the bungalow's back door. They could barely make out her black silhouette. The screen door's hinges creaked as she pushed it open and stepped out onto the back porch.

"Don't look so shocked. You two have been calling out for Reaper and the others for an hour now. It's not like I could keep from hearing you. I just hope no unfriendly undead did the same. Now, what is it you want?"

Ilyana shot Roxy a look, and Roxy knew exactly what she was wondering. Just how much of Ilyana's secret had Briar heard?

Clearing her throat and facing Briar, trying to keep thoughts of Ilyana's son from her mind, Roxy said, "We're concerned about them. They've been gone longer than they should have been."

"They're fine."

"I would believe that if one group had made it back by now. But the fact that both groups are late seems to suggest that something's happened."

"You worry like a mortal, Roxy."

"I am a mortal, Briar."

The dark bitch closed her eyes briefly, as if exasperated. "Just what do you expect me to do about this, anyway? Jump on a white horse and go charging to the rescue? Have you got some armor you want me to put on? A sword you want me to swing? Do I look like fucking Joan of Arc to you?"

Roxy bit back the retort that leapt to her lips, took a deep breath and counted to three because she didn't have time to go all the way to ten. Then she spoke. "I want you to contact them mentally and find out what's gone wrong. Would you do that for me, Briar?"

Briar rolled her eyes, but she nodded. "Fine."

Then she turned to face the direction of the road and focused on the others. She was quiet for a long moment, and Roxy watched every expression that crossed her face. Her brows rose in surprise, then lowered in what looked a lot like worry, though they all knew Briar too well to suspect she would ever waste a moment's worry on anyone besides herself.

Finally Briar drew a breath and turned to face the two mortal women once more. Ilyana was tense as a cat. She was petrified of Briar, more so, even, than Vixen was.

"Well?" Roxy asked. "Did you reach them?"

Briar nodded. "Much as I hate to admit it, mortal, you were right. Seth, Vixen and Topaz have vanished from the establishment they went to check out-a place called Casa Crisa. In fact, there's no one there at all, though their car is still in the parking lot."

"Oh, no," Ilyana whispered.

"Reaper said a vampire named Rosa at some sort of vampire whorehouse-"

"Vampire whorehouse?" Ilyana repeated, interrupting, and earning her a glare from Briar, who went on without explaining or answering Ilyana's unasked but obvious question.

"This Rosa told Reaper that the vamps at Casa Crisa are Bella's protectors. Kind of a rogue gang of their own. And that people who show up asking questions about her generally disappear."

"He thinks this gang has taken them?" Roxy asked.

"Looks that way," Briar said, as if she really didn't care. "And now I suppose we're going to have to rescue them, or we'll never get back on Gregor's trail."

"You're right about that," Ilyana said.

Briar shot her a look that was slightly surprised. "Agreeing with me? Even though you think I might...How did you put that again? Rip out your jugular?"

Ilyana's jaw tightened. "I'm sorry about that."

"You shouldn't be," Briar said. "I might. Not tonight, though. Tonight I suppose we need to get to Casa Crisa to help search for the missing misfits."

"I'll get Shirley," Roxy said, running inside for the keys to her oddly-named, customized conversion van. "Meet me around front."

Reaper had been stunned to hear Briar calling out to him mentally. He and Seth were searching Casa Crisa and, so far, finding nothing of use, when he felt her summons.

Reaper. Answer me.

He'd paused in what he was doing and focused only on the sound of her voice, a voice that played up and down his nerve endings like a bow over taut violin strings. It made him hum and vibrate inside.

I'm surprised to hear from you, Briar. Is something wrong?

Your mortal bitches are worried about you. Asked me to make contact.

And you agreed? Interesting. She never did anything unless it benefited her.

Seemed the quickest way to shut them up. Has anything gone wrong?

He wanted to think that Briar, too, had been concerned. That Briar, too, wanted to make sure nothing had gone wrong. He wanted to see something in her that would justify his feelings toward her. Something that gave a hint she might have a shadow of a soul, or even a trace of a heart.

But what he wanted to see tended to shade what was truly there, at least where she was concerned. Reading between the lines with Briar was nothing more than an exercise in self-delusion. She was what she was. Evil. Selfish. Shallow. Cruel.

He told her what had happened, what he'd learned from the madam, Rosa, and that he and Jack had arrived to find their three friends missing. But her final message had surprised him.

Do you sense that they've been harmed? she asked.

Frowning, he bit back the sarcastic reply that sprang to his lips. The one that asked her if she would care. No. I don't sense any pain or fear. What worries me is that they haven't called out to us. If they were able to, they would.

Briar replied, Gregor found a way to block mental communications between the vampires inside his fortress and those beyond its walls. Perhaps these vampires have done the same.

He shook his head, though she couldn't see it. They don't strike me as geniuses, Briar. I haven't met them, of course, but the essence they left behind at this place suggests rather ordinary mental capacity. No hint of a brilliant mind.

There was a brief pause, and then Briar told him, I'm bringing the mortals. They'll only drive me insane if I don't. We'll be there to help you search as fast as that ludicrous van Roxy insists on calling Shirley can carry us.

There was no more.

"Reaper! Look at this!"

Reaper snapped back to the world, drawing his focus from Briar, and extending his attention instead to Jack and the matter at hand.

Jack held an envelope in one hand. It had been opened, but its contents remained. It appeared to be a utility bill-electricity, perhaps. Reaper frowned.

"An electric bill?"

"Yeah, but not for this address," Jack said. He handed the envelope over.

Reaper examined it. "We need to find this place," he said. "Are there any maps around here?"

"Yeah, top desk drawer. Over there." He pointed toward a small office opening off the east wall.

Together they went to the desk, unfolded the maps they found there and began searching for the address on the bill.

Topaz groaned as she opened her eyes. Whatever they'd used to knock her out, it hadn't been the tranquilizer with which she was familiar, the only one known to be effective against the undead. No, it must have been something far weaker, far more common. But an ordinary drug should only have been effective for a few minutes on a vampire. And surely more time than that had passed.

She looked around and tried to get her bearings. She was dizzy, her vision hazy, but even so, it was clear that she was no longer in Casa Crisa. She was in a white room. White ceiling. White walls. No windows. She was lying on a hard table of some kind, covered in a white sheet.

Beside her, there was an IV pole.

That, more than anything, sent a rush of adrenaline surging, and she sat up fast, only to sway and nearly tumble from the table.

A woman gripped her shoulders, brown hair as crazy as the look in her eyes. "Easy. It's okay. No one's gonna hurt you."

Topaz lowered her head and pressed the heel of one hand to her brow, remembering the girl. Crisa. The one who wasn't quite right. "What the hell did you people give me?"

"Just some Thorazine. Big dose." She nodded at the pole. "It wouldn't have kept you out long enough, but as soon as you went down, I put in the IV to keep you out until we had you settled in. And now it's okay for you to wake up."

Topaz lifted her head slowly, looking suspiciously at the woman-child. "You put in the IV?"

"I'm a nurse. Or I was."

And now you're a nutcase, Topaz thought. She heard a moan and turned to see Seth sitting up slowly on a gurney nearby, and kitty-corner from him, she saw Vixen, also beginning to stir.

"They're fine, too," Crisa said.

"Why are we here?"

"Because you asked about Bella. We don't like people asking about Bella." She looked around the place, smiling. "Do you like our clinic? We set it up to help injured vampires. It happens sometimes. You need a private place, lots of blood, and plenty of-"

"What the hell's going on?" Seth growled, sitting up, holding his head just as Topaz had, shocked by the throbbing, no doubt. "Aaaah, hell. Where are we? What did you give us? What's-"

Give me a minute here, Seth. I'm getting what I can from her.

He glanced toward Topaz as she sent her thoughts to him, then to Vixen, and Topaz knew the shifter had received the message, as well. Seth struggled to his feet, glancing down at the bandage on his forearm and the IV pole nearby. Shaking his head, he landed on the floor, and shuffled slowly and unsteadily over to Vixen.

"Don't fall down," Crisa warned. "You won't be very steady for a little while yet. Another hour or so. Then you'll be fine." She turned back to Topaz and reached toward her.

Topaz pulled back instinctively, but the little thing was only trying to touch her hair. Her fingers made contact, ran along one strand, then retreated. "I love your hair," Crisa said. "I wish mine were long like that."

She was definitely a few nails short of a full coffin, this one, Topaz thought. "Thank you. yours, too."

Crisa smiled shyly. "I have to go get Rey-Rey. He said to tell him when you all woke up."

"In a minute," Topaz said. "I was dying to hear more about what you were saying. You don't like people asking questions about...who was it again? Bella? Do you mean Mirabella DuFrane?"

Crisa lowered her eyes to hide whatever was in them, but she was painfully easy to read. That was exactly who she meant.

"So she's alive, then?"

"I have to go get Rey-Rey."

"Crisa, wait. You don't understand. Mirabella is my mother. I've been searching for her. My friends have been trying to help me find her. She wouldn't want you to drug me and hold me captive this way. She would want you to tell her about me. Couldn't you just do that? Just tell her I've come, and see for yourself what she wants you to do."

Blinking rapidly, her eyes welling, Crisa said, "That's what we were going to do. But she was gone. And we don't know where."

Topaz felt something slam into her chest with the velocity of a wrecking ball. "Gone? What do you mean, gone?"

"Rey-Rey thinks someone took her."

Topaz closed her eyes and shouted mentally, knowing the message would be weak, even though she put everything she had into it. Jack! Jack, can you hear me? I need your help.

The door to the small room crashed open then, and three men, mortals, wearing suits that were nearly identical, surged inside, aimed their weapons and fired, even as Crisa spun around in surprise.

The tranq darts hissed. Crisa jerked as one hit her, smashing into a covered window, shattering the glass with one flailing arm, then sinking to her knees. Topaz scrambled off the far side of her gurney. She should have been faster. Would have been, at full strength, but there were narcotics poisoning her veins. She wasn't as fast as she normally would have been, and she wasn't certain her call to Jack had been heard. She only knew she was in trouble.

And these three mortal idiots were dead meat.

She saw a dart hit Seth as he launched himself at them, intent on attack. Then another hit Vixen as she ran to his aid, and Topaz felt one sink deeply into her own belly at the same moment.

As she sank to the floor, she saw beyond the men, through the open door and into the hallway, where Reynold lay unconscious. And then her line of sight was blocked by a dark-suited man with steely hair to match his eyes, a man she vowed would be dead before another night passed.

"Take this one," he called to his cohorts. "Leave the others. She's been dying to meet her mother anyway, right? We're doing her a favor."

"Jack did good after all, didn't he?" said the man who scooped her up and turned to carry her out of the room.

"Yeah, I guess he did."

Jack? No. No, please, God, not Jack, Topaz thought. He can't be responsible for this. Not this!

The pain that exploded in her heart then was so crippling, so intense, that it buckled her body. She bent forward on a sob that nearly broke her spine. And the man carrying her looked down in surprise as she jerked in his arms.

"Hey, I think this one's having some kind of reaction to the drug," he said.

The other one glanced her way. She was aware of his perusal even through the gray haze of her pain and the dulling impact of the tranquilizer.

"She's crying, that's all. Damn, she's really crying. Hang on to her. Don't drop her, for God's sake."

"Shit, she's damn near convulsing. You try holding her!" The man's arms tightened around her.

She closed her eyes and fought it, but the shakes continued, and the tears flowed freely.

"They really do feel things more than we do, don't they?" the third man said.

"Pretty thing, isn't she?" The one holding her bent his head close to her face. "It's okay, you'll be asleep in a minute. Just let it go. Let it go, okay?"

"Yeah, why don't you read her a bedtime story and tuck her in, asswipe? She's a vampire."

"Doesn't mean she doesn't have feelings."

"Get her the hell out of here. Now."

Her captor nodded, and carried her through the door and into the hallway. "You're gonna be okay," he told her. "I promise."

"Never. I'll never be okay again," she managed to whisper. She saw his eyes when they met hers. Blue, and even compassionate. And then they faded from her vision.

She was glad the tranquilizer finally kicked in and stole her consciousness away. She hoped, in that final moment, that she would never wake up again.

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