Lover's Bite Chapter 14

Briar hit him.

Jack hadn't been expecting it, hadn't been ready for it, and didn't even sense it coming. But when it did, he sure as hell knew it. She delivered a powerful uppercut to his jaw that snapped his head back, lifted him off the floor and sent him down again flat on his back. It hurt like hell, and surprised him even more than it hurt him.

He sat up slowly, shaking the stars from his eyes and glancing up to ask her just what the hell her problem was, but the words died on his lips when he saw the way she was struggling to get free of Reaper, who stood behind her with a solid grip around her waist.

"Dammit, let go of me!" she shouted.

Reaper stood calmly and showed no intention of complying with her demand. "You don't know the whole story."

"I know all I need to know. That asshole's been ratting us out to the feds this whole time."

"Ratting me out, Briar. And while I appreciate you getting this angry on my behalf-even while I fail to understand it-it's not necessary. I promise you that."

She calmed marginally. "On your behalf, my ass. I was on the run with you, don't forget. Dodging spooks, seeing them show up almost before we caught a minute's rest anywhere we went. Your behalf? Shit. I don't act on anyone's behalf but my own."

"I've known what Jack was doing the entire time," Reaper said.

Briar went stone silent and stopped struggling. Reaper loosened his grip on her, and she turned to face him, her eyes widening. Jack pushed himself slowly up off the floor, sensing it was safe now. Behind him, Seth and Vixen were coming slowly forward, both of them looking every bit as stunned as Briar apparently was by Reaper's unanticipated revelation.

"At first I thought Jack was putting me at risk by keeping the agents informed of my whereabouts in exchange for money. I later realized he was giving them information, but he was giving it to them late. Keeping them a step or two behind me." He glanced at Briar. "Us," he corrected. "Still later I learned he wasn't doing it for money at all, but in exchange for information that might help him track down Topaz's mother. It was a closely guarded secret, what really became of her."

"I thought they found that out on their own," Vixen said. "When Topaz got that letter her mother left for her and compared it with the one her creator wrote."

Roxy gathered Crisa off the bed. "Argue amongst yourselves. I'm taking this one to the van. We need to get her somewhere safe, feed her something, or she's not going to make it." She carried Crisa out of the room, Ilyana rushing ahead of her to open the door.

Jack was straightening now, brushing off the back of his jeans. "Unfortunately," he said, "these agents are as good at running a game as I am. Maybe better. They gave me information damn near as useless as what I'd been feeding them. Until we got here, at least. Once they knew we'd learned the truth about Mirabella on our own, they threatened to harm her unless I drugged Reaper and turned him over to them."

Reaper nodded. "And he told me all about it," he said to the others. "Jack hasn't done anything behind my back. Well, at first, but even then, no harm was intended."

"Unfortunately, good intentions or not," Seth snapped, "those bastards have Topaz and Mirabella now."

"So what the hell do we do now?" Briar asked.

Seth sighed heavily, still battling the slowly fading effects of the drug. "You guys keeping shit from the rest of us is totally responsible for all of this. You both realize that, right?" He was shifting his angry gaze from Jack to Reaper and back again. "The only thing we can do now is find out where these agents are holding Topaz and Mirabella, bust in, kick ass and rescue them."

"Won't work. They know how to secure a house and block mental communication, just like Gregor did." Jack stood with his head lowered, his stomach in knots. The thought of Topaz in danger...the fear of the thoughts that might be running through her head right now. What she might be thinking. What those agents might have told her. She undoubtedly believed the same thing Briar had. What must she be going through right now?

Dammit, he should have told her the truth.

"Then what the hell do you suggest we do?" Seth barked.

A familiar "owwwwuuugaaa" sounded from outside. Shirley's distinctive horn. "I suggest," Jack said, "that you all go out and take care of Crisa, and leave me to take care of the problem my actions created."

"It's not your problem, Jack." Reaper met his eyes. "I'm the one they're after. I'm the one who let all of you hook up with me, putting every one of you at risk."

"And I'm the one who chose to deal with the devil to get what I wanted," Jack said.

Reaper sighed. "Let's get out to the cars. We'll head back to the cabins, take care of Crisa, and try to figure a way out of this mess."

As they retraced their steps out through the front hall, Jack noticed a cell phone sitting suspiciously in plain sight on the floor just to the right of the door. Something told him it wasn't there by accident, so he picked it up and slipped it in his pocket, wondering just when and how this particular chicken was going to come home to roost.

Crisa was, Briar thought as she opened the van's sliding door and climbed in, exactly what this band of misfits needed. Something about her wasn't right. And not in the same fish-out-of-water way Vixen had been a little off. This one was mental.

Crisa lay across the rear seat, eyes closed, shivering visibly. Ilyana, the unreadable skinny blonde, knelt on the floor, holding her hands, palms down, on either side of the wound in Crisa's arm, head bowed, eyes closed. Roxy was behind the wheel, and the engine was running.

Briar took everything in with one swift gaze, then went to the middle seat and sat down sideways, arm resting on the seat's back, eyes focused on the nut job, though her words were for the blonde. "You get the bleeding stopped?"

Without looking up, Ilyana said, "Between the patch-up job, Roxy's witchcraft and my Reiki healing, we've got it mostly stanched. But not completely."

"She's not gonna make it without blood," Roxy said. "And I'm not convinced that cold mortal shit in the plastic bags is going to be potent enough to save her."

Briar looked forward at the image of Roxy's eyes in the rearview mirror, and Roxy looked back at her, even though she couldn't possibly see her, since Briar cast no reflection.

Still, the look Roxy sent her told her exactly what she was suggesting.

Briar glanced out the van's windows, only to see Seth and Vixen pulling away in the Mustang, following Jack and Reaper in the Carrera. She should never have surrendered the Mustang to Seth, and agreed to ride back in the van with the damned mortals and the wounded loon. But it was too late now. They were in a mad fucking rush to get back to their base-and if there was a more unlikely headquarters for a band of night walkers than a pair of beachfront cottages, she couldn't think of one-none of them aware the little nut wasn't going to last long enough to get there.

Briar didn't doubt Roxy's intuition on that score.

She focused on Reaper as the van bounded along the barely paved road. Roxy says the whack job isn't going to make it back without a shot of vampire blood, pal. You'd best pull over and switch vehicles.

His reply was quick and firm. Why would I waste time on that when you're right there with her already?

Because I'm not doing it.

There was a pause. Then, We have to get to shelter before sunrise. We're already going to have to do eighty or better all the way to make it. No. We can't stop. You'll have to take care of it.

I'm not fucking doing it.

She felt his frustration. Then she's going to die. Your call, Briar.

Briar stared at the screwed-up woman on the backseat. And even as she did, the girl's eyes opened and met hers head-on. They were unfocused and rather dopey, although Briar suspected that their usual state wasn't much different.

"Is Rey-Rey in one of the other cars?" Crisa asked in that childlike way she had that set Briar's teeth on edge.

"Would he be the skinny one who was with you at that hospital from hell?"

Crisa nodded, eyes drooping, then widening again. "I don't know why I feel so cold. I never feel cold."

"You never feel cold because you're a vampire," Briar told her. "We don't feel it the way mortals do. Didn't your precious Rey-Rey ever explain that to you?"

She shook her head. "So why do I feel it now?"

"Because you're dying."

Ilyana gasped and sent Briar a look. Briar ignored it, got up, moved into the rear of the van and nudged Ilyana. "Give me some space, okay?"

Ilyana didn't need to be asked twice. She was still petrified of Briar. As well she should be, Briar thought, since she would just as soon eat the other woman as look at her.

Briar knelt on the floor beside Crisa. "Your friend Rey-Rey is already dead. If you'd prefer to go with him, I totally get it. Been close to suicide myself a few times, and I'll tell you right now, my only regret is that I didn't do it. Life stinks on ice, as far as I can see, and I'll probably off myself sooner or later. Would have by now, I imagine, except I'm kind of curious to see how this mess turns out. So if you wanna die, I'll let you. Go with my blessings. But if you don't, I can take care of that, too. It's really no skin off my nose either way. Totally your call. So what do you say?"

Tears had been pooling in the dying woman's eyes ever since the first sentence of Briar's little diatribe, and now they spilled over, running down her cheeks and sinking into the cloth seat, making dark blotches in the fabric.

"Rey-Rey is dead?" she rasped.

"Yeah. Sorry, kid. It's a tough break."

"B-but he's a v-vampire."

"And vampires can die. Though I don't imagine he explained that to you either, did he? Yeah, we can die. Just like you're going to in another couple of minutes."

"He took care of me." A full-body shudder worked through her. Or maybe it was some kind of spasm. One of those death throes you heard about, Briar thought. Crisa jerked all over, and then she stopped, her body limp, her eyes closed.

For a second Briar thought she was dead.

But then the girl pried those crazy eyes of hers open a little bit and said, "I'm too young to die."

"I was afraid you'd say something like that." Briar shook her head, but at the same time she rolled back her sleeve. She tripped the trigger in her ring that made the tiny blade flash out of its center and jabbed it into her left wrist. Then she held the cut to Crisa's lips. "Drink, then."

Jack answered the cell phone on the first ring, even though he was driving. He'd told Reaper about finding the phone, and they'd both been expecting the call. He didn't say "Hello." He didn't say his name. He said only, "If you hurt her, you'll die. If you even raise your voice in her general direction, you'll die. And it'll be slow."

"Wow," the man on the other end said. "So it's safe to say she's mistaken in her assumption that you wouldn't-how did she put that again? Oh, yeah, 'cross the street to save her life.'"

"Why would she think that?"

"Probably hit her around the same time she learned you've been working for us."

"You bastards."

"Hell, Jack, it's not our job to fix your love life. You can take care of that yourself as soon as you get her back. Then you can start worrying about mother-in-law problems, just like the rest of us."

Jack met Reaper's eyes, took the phone away from his ear long enough to hit the speaker button, then laid it on the seat between them. He was fairly certain Reaper could have overheard the conversation anyway, but he did it as a gesture. He needed Reaper to know that he'd told him the truth. "You've got me over a barrel, Magnarelli. Just tell me how you want to do this."

"I'll tell you exactly how I want to do it. And you're going to do it that way. No changes. No adlibbing. No deals. This is a take-it-or-leave-it offer, Jack. You say yes to every term, or they both die. All right?"

"Depends on what you have to say."

"I want Rivera. I want him delivered in broad daylight."

"And just how the hell do you suggest I do that without both of us becoming toast?"

"Tranq him before sunrise. Stuff him in a body bag-I've left one for you in a strategic location. It's sun-proof."

"Can you guarantee that?"

"It's been tested."

Jack felt a chill go up his spine. "How many body bags failed the test before you found one that passed?"

"Sixteen. And yes, we used live subjects. You have a problem with that, Jack?"

Jack didn't bother to answer. His gut was churning as he glanced at Reaper and saw a similar reaction. Raw fury.

"So I drug him, put him into a body bag, and...?"

"And leave him where I tell you. I have a nice spot in the desert picked out. Once the sun comes up, so I know he can't go off on me or try anything, and the rest of you can't ambush me, I'll pick him up. You'll find your women waiting in the same spot, in the same type of bag. You leave him and take them, and we're done. By the time your so-called Reaper wakes up, he'll be in CIA custody."

"You've really covered every base, haven't you?"

"I like to think so. So that's how it's going to be. Naturally, there's not enough time tonight for you to retrieve the body bag, drug Rivera and drop him in the desert, and it'll take a solid hour to get out there. The sun will be up in fifteen minutes. But I'll tell you what. I'll keep your women safe and comfy with me while they lie around completely oblivious and utterly defenseless all day. And I'll call you right after sundown, and let you know where to find the body bag and where to leave Rivera. How's that sound?"

"If you touch them while they sleep, they will wake, Magnarelli. And they will wake in a rage that makes the one you people managed to plant in Reaper's mind look like a child's game."

"That's the first time I've heard that bit of vampire trivia. Are you sure you're not just making it up, Jack?"

"Are you sure I am? Go ahead. Risk it. If I don't hear from you tomorrow night, I'll know you're dead. Drained to a lifeless husk and left to rot somewhere. It's no less than you deserve."

Jack felt the fear rippling from the other man. Not a lot of it, and not for more than an instant. But it had been there, and it had been real. Jack met Reaper's eyes and saw him nod in silent approval of the blatant lie.

"I'll call you after sundown tomorrow," the CIA man snapped. "Be near the phone." And then he was gone.

Topaz and her mother sat staring at one another. They'd taken stock of the entire room. They'd sized up the men in the next room and decided they could take them, if they rushed them. But they were exceedingly low on time-sunrise was right around the corner. They might not have time to find shelter elsewhere, safe from any other agents who came calling, and even if they did, it would be so close at hand that they would probably be found in short order.

So for today, they would sleep here in the care of the CIA, not so much because they trusted these liars to keep them safe-they would be stupid to do that-but because they both realized that they had no viable choice but to stay and take their chances.

But at sundown? At sundown they would make their move.

They'd had their entire conversation mentally, without the men in the next room being any the wiser.

And then one of them entered. The blue-eyed one who'd carried Topaz after she'd been darted. "About time you two turned in," he said. "Sunup in five."

"Your concern is touching," Mirabella said.

"I'm going to rip out your jugular at sunset, you know," Topaz told him. "I tend to wake up ravenous and slightly cranky."

He blinked. Of the three, he seemed the only one with at least some semblance of a heart beating in his chest. The others were far less human. But she hated them all.

"You'll be happy to know that Jack has agreed to do as he's been told. You'll only have to be with us one more night."

"Why one more night? Why not make the exchange right after sundown, when we rise?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that with you. I just thought you'd want to know. Is there anything you need before" He glanced beyond her, and Topaz knew it was because he couldn't look her in the eye, even though he made it seem as if he were checking the room for anything that might be lacking.

"Your heart on a plate, with ketchup," Topaz said.

He shot her a look. "I'm being as nice as I can here."

"Yeah, I just love kidnappers with manners," she said.

He backed out of the room. "Good night." Then he closed the doors. She heard the lock turn, and she called, "If you think that mortal lock could keep us in here against our will, my friend, you are sadly mistaken. When we're ready to leave here, believe me, we'll-"

Tanya, stop!

The harsh tone of her mother's thoughts stunned her. And wounded her, too, though she told herself that was utterly stupid.

There's no point in giving away everything we've got. If they don't know we can beat that lock, for example, why tip them off? We could easily wake up to a new lock, one we can't break.

Hell, Topaz thought back at her. It's a miracle I ever survived without you, isn't it? These guys are experts on our kind. I'm not telling them anything they don't already know. Though I do appreciate the motherly advice.

Sarcasm isn't an attractive quality, Tanya.

It's Topaz. And I'll be as sarcastic as I want. You think I've been searching all over the country for you just so you could start mothering me now? Keep it, Mirabella. I don't fucking want it.

Her mother's face was stricken. She went to the bed where she'd slept earlier and sank onto it, her back to Topaz. "I'm sorry, you know. I'm sorry. I know it doesn't change how you feel, but it's true, and I'll keep saying it until you believe me. If I had thought I had any other choice, I would have taken it. I swear it on my soul."

"Even if you had no choice when it...happened, Mother, even if you couldn't see yourself raising a mortal child, there have been a lot of years in between. You could have contacted me once I was an adult. And you certainly could have stuck around and told me the truth the night you changed me over. You can make up all the reasons you want to for abandoning me as an infant, but there just aren't any excuses that explain why you did it all over again the night I was reborn as a vampire."

Mirabella was silent as she pulled back her covers and stripped off the gown she wore, revealing the black lacy slip beneath it. Then she lay down in the bed.

Topaz stripped off her jeans, removed her bra from beneath her shirt without taking the shirt off, and then she crawled into the other bed.

The sun was rising. Topaz felt it, the weight of it, the tug of sleep-of death, really-pulling at her.

"You're right," her mother said at last. "There is no excuse. I was ashamed. I was afraid to face you. I was afraid of the very condemnation you've now delivered. I didn't want to feel your anger, much less your hatred. But I'm sorry, Topaz. I'm so sorry."

I never hated you, Topaz thought, even as she drifted into sleep. And it's Tanya.

"I have an idea. A germ of an idea," Reaper said as Jack drove. And then he focused his mind, leaving it open to Jack's, to keep him in the loop.

Rhiannon. Can you hear me? Rhiannon. It's Reaper, and it's urgent.

Moments ticked past. Moments during which Jack was unsure Reaper would receive an answer. "Where is this Rhiannon you're trying to reach?" he asked.

"In the States. I'm not sure exactly where."

Jack gaped at him, then clamped his jaw closed when he realized what he was doing. "Surely even your mind isn't powerful enough to reach that far," he said.

"She's my maker. And one of the most powerful vampires alive. She'll hear me."

And she did, Jack realized with awe when she finally replied.

For the love of the gods, darling, if I wanted to be bothered, I would have called you. What is it?

Reaper smiled, something Jack had seen rarely enough to notice it with a touch of surprise. Your friend Eric Marquand, the vampire scientist...

Yes, yes, my dear Roland's best friend. What about him?

I heard a rumor that he created a formula several years back that would allow a vampire to remain awake by day. Is it true?

Jack snapped to attention, surprise echoing in his mind. Not only had he never heard of such a formula, he could feel the vampiress's reaction, and it wasn't a good one.

It's true. But Roland nearly killed me when he tried it. It makes us violent, Reaper. It's dangerously flawed.

That's a chance I'm going to have to take. Can you get it for me-and get it to me-before tomorrow night is out?

Why? Why would you need something so volatile?

Lives are at risk. I can't go into detail, though I'll tell you the rest when I see you. Trust me when I tell you it's vital. Can you do this for me?

I can.

In time?

I have a private jet.

Will you?

There was a pause, and then, finally, Yes. I will. Tell me where you are.

By the time they arrived back at the bungalows, Reaper and Jack had a plan worked out. They still hadn't agreed on which of them was going to be taking up space in that body bag twenty-four hours from now, but Jack thought he would win that argument in the end.

It wasn't foolproof, their plan. It was going to take the help of every last member of their gang. Even the mortal ones. But it could work.

Hell, it had to work. Jack had no intention of letting Topaz die thinking he had played her yet again. It was killing him to know she thought it now, even for a little while. He had to get to her. He had to tell her the truth. And then it occurred to him that he might die himself before he got the chance. This plan was risky at best. Suicidal at worst.

He put a hand on Reaper's arm as he pulled into the driveway that led to the beach houses.

Reaper looked at him.

"If anything happens to me..." Jack began.

"I'll tell her the truth," Reaper said. "Just like I told the rest of them. She'll know you weren't running a con this time, Jack. You have my word on that."

"She has to know something else, too," Jack said. "That I...that I..." He closed his mouth, unable to say the words that had always come so hard to him. "Just tell her it was real this time."

"Hell, Jack, are you just figuring that out? Roxy's known it from the day she met you."

Jack shot him a surprised look as he braked to a stop and cut the engine. Reaper only smiled at him, and then they jumped from their vehicle, just as Vixen and Seth got out of the Mustang. The four stood watching as Roxy's van bounded along the driveway and came to a stop in front of the first little beach house.

She opened the driver's door, got out and blinked at the eastern sky. "It's starting to pale. Come on, get inside, all of you. Hurry."

The van's side door slid open, and Briar stepped down, carrying Crisa in her arms. Reaper rushed toward her. "I'll take her," he said, reaching for the wounded girl.

But as Reaper tried to take her away, Crisa's arms snapped around Briar's neck, and she buried her face there, clinging.

Briar rolled her eyes, then met his. "Great. Now she thinks I'm her mommy. I hate you for making me do this, Reaper." Then she carried Crisa up the front steps and into the bungalow.

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