Lover's Bite Chapter 16

They piled into the van, all of them, their plan in place. Jack's one goal was to ensure that Topaz got out of this mess alive. His own safety didn't matter as much to him, though he would give ten years of his undead life for one more night holding her in his arms. He didn't know why the hell it had taken him so long to realize that his feelings for her were real and not just part of a con game too convincingly played. It reassured him to know that Reaper would tell her the truth, if worse came to worst. But he would much prefer to be able to do it himself. And not just tell her, but show her, convince her, love her until she could never doubt his feelings again.

The hell of it was, he might never get that chance. The suit-monkeys were going to be pretty pissed off once they realized they'd been played.

Roxy pulled the van to a stop on the shoulder of an abandoned stretch of desert and turned around in her seat. "This is it. The GPS says the drop's a mile, due east, straight into the desert."

Jack drew a breath. "Well, grab the body bag and let's go, then."

He gripped the side door, started to open it, but Reaper stopped him with a hand on his arm. "They could be watching and you're-I'm supposed to be drugged and inside the bag at this point. We don't want to tip them off too soon. Not until we get Topaz and her mother safely out of harm's way."

Sighing, Jack released his grip on the door. "So you're gonna haul my ass all the way out there in a body bag?"

"I have to stay out of sight. Seth, Rhiannon, you take him out there. It'll take both of you to bring the women back here. And the way they've set this up, there's barely time to do it and get home before sunrise, so you'll have to be fast."

It was far from a perfect plan, but they had precautions in place. Jack picked up the body bag and handed it to Seth. "Sorry about this, kid."

"It'll be worth it if it works." Seth opened the side door and took the body bag out, then unfolded it on the ground and unzipped it.

Jack sat down on the van's floor with his back to the door. Seth gripped him under the arms and tugged him out as Jack let his head fall forward, feigning unconsciousness. He let Seth do all the work, lifting him, positioning his body in the open bag and closing the zipper completely. He was careful, tugging it tight to be sure no sunlight could leak through.

Freaking cowards, afraid to face him by night, Jack thought. He felt frustrated and murderous. Every cell in his body rebelled against lying still, and in a far different way from anything he'd ever felt before. It must be part of the drug's effects.

He felt himself lifted, bag and all, then tossed over Seth's shoulder and carried into the desert to meet his fate.

A short while later, Seth lowered him to the desert floor. Jack listened to the conversation going on around him and fought with himself the entire time in his effort to remain perfectly still while everything in him was straining to move, to act, to fight.

"Where are they?" Rhiannon asked. "I don't see any other body bags lying here waiting, as promised."

Jack tensed, waiting, wanting to tear through the bag and find Topaz himself.

"There's a note," Seth said. "There, pinned to that cactus."

Jack heard the paper rattle and tear a bit as Seth read aloud. "You'll find your women three miles further, due east. Good luck beating the sun."

"Damn them for this," Rhiannon muttered. "If you're out there watching, you men should get your affairs in order-soon!"

Sorry, pal, but we've gotta run, Seth told Jack mentally.

Go. Just get them back safely. That's all that matters.

Reaper waited as the sun got closer to rising. He'd taken precautions of his own, precautions none of the others were aware of. He'd slipped that little black pouch of Rhiannon's into a pocket when no one was looking, and he had a syringe full of the drug prepared and ready. He did not intend to sleep through this while his friends risked their lives.

"They're taking longer than they should have," Roxy said. They had all gathered beside the van, except for Ilyana, who stayed in the front seat, and Reaper. He remained in the back, staring through the side window toward the paling sky above the desert.

"Roxy," he said, "open the hidden compartment in the back. We need to get everyone into shelter. We can't wait any longer, and we're clearly not going to make it back to the bungalows before dawn."

Roxy reached into the van and hit a button. The rear seat folded back as the floor slid open, revealing a comfortably padded bed hidden beneath it. As soon as it was open, Briar ran around to the rear and opened the back doors.

"Good," Reaper said from the front seat. "Briar, you, Crisa and Vixen get in."

"What about the rest of you?" Vixen asked. "There's not room for five of you to rest up there." She voiced her concern even as she obeyed Reaper's orders, climbing under the floor and crowding as far to one side of the hidden bed as she possibly could.

"We can fit. We won't be able to lie down, but we can fit."

"But the sun-"

"Show her, Roxy."

Roxy hit another button, and a black barrier slid upward, separating the front seats from the rest of the van. Other screens slid upward, as well, blocking the side and rear windows. Then she got out of the van, walked around to the back and joined the others.

"You see?" she said with a smile. "Once we close these doors, the entire back of the van is completely safe. Everyone will be fine." Worriedly, she looked again at the sky and added, "If they hurry up and get their asses back here, that is."

"Leave the back doors open, Roxy." Mentally, Reaper called out to his friends. Seth, Rhiannon. Where the hell are you? The sun's about to rise!

They left the women farther away, Reap, Seth replied. We've got them, and we're running for all we're worth, man, but-

Are they all right? Reaper interrupted.

Drugged, I think. We didn't have time to check, had to grab them and run. I don't know if we're going to make it, Reap.

We'll make it, Rhiannon put in. Just have some damned shelter waiting when we get there.

Dive into the van. The back doors will be open and waiting. And hurry, dammit.

Thanks so much for that bit of wisdom, my friend. Rhiannon's tone dripped with sarcasm. And here I was thinking of taking my sweet time.

"The sun," Roxy said. She was pointing, and Reaper could see its orange rays beginning to paint the sky far on the eastern horizon.

"Briar, Crisa, get in there," he commanded. "There's no more time."

Briar climbed in, but Crisa backed away. "I'm afraid!"

Reaching for her hand, Briar said, "It'll be okay. You'll be right beside me. I promise, it'll be okay. We'll...we'll talk until the sleep takes us. Come on, Crisa. Trust me."

Reaper blinked, shocked at the warmth in her tone-something he'd never heard coming from Briar in the time he'd known her. He assumed it was false, put there to soothe Crisa so she didn't get them all killed. Then again, Briar had shared blood with the childlike vampiress. Perhaps the bond it had created had softened Briar's icy heart.

He pretended to pace away in worry, but in truth he only needed a private moment. Taking the needle from his pocket, he quickly injected himself, then pulled his sleeve down over the site and tossed the spent hypodermic into some desert sage before returning to the van.

Crisa took Briar's hand, then climbed in on the makeshift bed, sitting upright.

"Good," Briar said. "Now just lie back."

Roxy was already racing around to the front of the van, and the moment Briar said, "Close it up, Roxy," she hit the button and the floor slid slowly closed over the three women. He could hear Crisa sniffling as it did, and he could also hear Briar's voice, soothing and soft, as she tried to comfort her.

Then Roxy was beside him again. "Get in. Get as far toward the front as you can. I'll wait here and close the doors as soon as the others are inside."

"Not a minute before, Roxy," he said. "If they roast, I roast with them. Understood?"

She held his eyes.

"And if that happens," he went on, "remember that Topaz and Mirabella should still be safe, in those body bags. It'll be up to you and Ilyana to get them back to safety on your own."

"I understand," she told him.

He climbed in, but he didn't move away from the doors.

"Dammit," Roxy said, looking skyward again. "The sun is cresting the-"

"Faster, dammit!" Rhiannon's voice boomed.

And then she was there, hurling the heavy body bag from her shoulder into the back of the van. Reaper grabbed it and pulled it as far in as he could, then reached for Rhiannon's hand. But she was turning, racing back the other way.

Reaper sprang from the van and followed. Seth came into view then, running full bore, but he wasn't nearly as strong or as fast as Rhiannon and Reaper were. Rhiannon yanked the body bag off his shoulder as his hair began to smoulder. Reaper grabbed the younger man and jerked him right off his feet, and then they raced for the van as he felt his skin beginning to blister.

At last they were there, hurling their cargo into the blessed darkness and clambering in behind them.

Roxy slammed the van's rear doors closed. Reaper fought off the pain of being seared by the first and weakest rays of the slowly rising sun, and wished he could count on the day sleep to alleviate it and heal him. But the day sleep wasn't coming. Not for him.

He watched as Seth, his back against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest, fell into slumber. Rhiannon sat near Reaper himself, leaning against his shoulder, body relaxed, eyes closed. And Reaper stayed awake, becoming more so with each moment that passed.

As Roxy put the van into motion, he eased Rhiannon's weight from his shoulder, leaning her against the closed door, then moved on hands and knees to the two body bags that rested on the van's floor. He wanted to make sure the women were all right. He unzipped the first bag.

A dead man lay inside. Mortal, not vampire. A neat bullet hole marked the center of his forehead. His skin was blue-gray and cold to the touch. Swearing under his breath, Reaper yanked at the zipper of the second bag and found the very same thing. Another dead male mortal lay inside.

"Roxy!" he bellowed.

Ilyana released an alarmed squeak as the van veered wildly. Then brakes squealed, and the van came to a bumpy stop on the road's shoulder.

"Reaper?" Roxy called from the front seat. "What are you-how-hell, you used that drug of Rhiannon's on yourself, didn't you?"

"Of course he did," Rhiannon replied, the sound of her voice making Reaper jump. "As did I."

He stared at her, blinking in shock. She'd been feigning her sleep! "Rhiannon, why would you...?"

"Because I know you very, very well, Reaper. And I wasn't about to let you face all this alone."

He shook his head slowly, processing their new situation. "Roxy," he said, "there are bodies in these bags. Human bodies. Men, both of them. Looks as if they were killed execution style. Single shot to the head. The CIA didn't keep their end of the bargain."

"Why am I not surprised?" Roxy said. "So what the hell are we going to do now?"

"I'm damned if I know," Reaper said.

"Well, I do." Rhiannon closed the zippers on the two bags as she spoke. She probably didn't like looking at the dead men inside, he thought. "Turn the van around. Go back to the site by the desert. Find a place to park where we won't be readily seen," Rhiannon said. "We sit there, and we watch for those bastards to come for the body bag we left them. Then we follow them back to wherever it is they're holding Topaz and her mother."

"If it's not already too late," Reaper put in, even as Roxy turned the van around and floored it.

"It isn't," Rhiannon said. "The sun only just rose. They're too cowardly to risk facing you before daylight, in case you might not be tranquilized as promised. By daylight, as far as they know, there's no chance of you reviving and giving them what they so richly deserve. So they wouldn't have gone after you until dawn. And it'll take them a lot longer to walk that distance than it took us. They'll still be there." She tapped the barrier between the back and front of the van. "As soon as they leave, follow them. Carefully."

"You bet I will," Roxy promised.

An ambulance pulled up to the hospital just before dawn, and the attendants rolled two sheet-draped gurneys out the back and in through the automatic doors.

"Crying shame," one paramedic said, speaking in Spanish to his partner. "Even with their faces all busted up, you can tell they were beautiful, and so young. Sisters, it looks like. Why would they jump to their deaths like that?"

"No telling," his partner said. "I just wish we could've done...I don't know, something."

"You saw how broken they were," said the first. "Hell, they were already stone cold."

"I don't get that, either. The witnesses said they'd only seen 'em hit the ground a few minutes before we got there."

"It's a traumatic thing to witness. People get confused. Look, let's just get 'em inside. Shift was over ten minutes ago."


They rolled the gurneys into the building, then took an elevator down to the basement and the hospital morgue.

Jack managed to lie still, though keeping his body relaxed was an effort almost beyond endurance, the way he felt just then. Impatience clawed at his insides like a rat at a rotting wall, and the urge for action was impossible to ignore, so he simply fought to quiet it, to bide his time.

He felt the heat of the rising sun, and wondered whether Seth and Rhiannon had found Topaz yet, whether they'd made it back to Roxy's super-van in time. He prayed they had. If anything happened to Topaz-if he lost her now-God, he didn't think he could bear it. And then it occurred to him that this must have been exactly how she'd felt when he'd left her. She'd loved him. God, she'd loved him like no one else in his entire life had ever loved him or ever would. She'd poured her heart and soul out to him, and he'd repaid her by taking all she had to offer and walking away. She must have been feeling just the way he was right now. Facing the loss of the one you loved, certain you could never bear it.

How could he have hurt her that way? A woman who deserved it less than any he'd ever known?

Even as the heat from the rising sun made his situation nearly unbearable, making him feel as if he were being baked from the outside, he heard footsteps, sensed movement, heard an odd creaking sound. And then voices, one of which he recognized as belonging to that bastard Magnarelli.

"No dawdling. We just take him and go."

"How can we be sure it's Rivera in there?" a second agent asked. One of the two others Jack sensed out there. He had rarely, if ever, heard either of them utter a word. "How do we know they didn't pull the same-"

"It doesn't matter. If it's him, we're golden. If it's not, we still have all the leverage we need. For now, we just do what we came here to do." There was a pause, then, "There it is."

Seconds later, he felt himself being lifted, one man holding either end of the body bag. And a little while later he was dropped onto a hard surface. He landed with a thud and bit his lip to keep from grunting at the impact.

"I don't know why we couldn't have rented a couple of ATVs or something. It's a mile back to the road, and that's hell in this heat." That was the third man entering the conversation.

"Because the noise would make it too easy for someone to notice us, maybe get curious, wonder what we're up to," Magnarelli said, his tone suggesting that his underling must be some kind of moron to even suggest what he had. "Do you really want to explain to a truckload of Federales why three CIA agents are dragging a body out of the Mexican desert, pal?"

Number three sighed. "I guess you're right."

"Damn straight, I'm right. We want to get him back across the border without a fuss, not cause an international incident."

"It's hotter than hell." That was underling number one again.

"It's the desert. It's supposed to be hot. And it's only a mile. So quit your whining and pull your weight."

Jack tried to relax as he was trundled across the desert on some sort of cart with two creaking wheels at the rear, near his head. The three men took turns pulling him along, and he bumped and bounced over the terrain. He almost smiled as he thought of how difficult it must be for the mortals to drag the cart through sand. And he hoped it was as hot and uncomfortable for them as it was for him, because he was utterly roasting and miserable despite Roxy's ice packs. With everything in him, he wanted to tear through the leather bag and attack the trio. But even a small opening in his prison would spell his death. And then he would never know for sure what had become of Topaz. Suddenly something one of the underling agents had said had every alarm bell in Jack's head going off, full volume. How do we know they didn't pull the same...

Pull the same what? Trick? Stunt? What the hell had the man meant?

He thought back and tried to reconstruct the conversation. The younger agent had been wondering if Reaper were really the one in the bag. Wondering if the vampires had pulled the same...something. And that had Jack worried as hell. Did these bastards still have Topaz and her mother in their brutal hands? Had they played some kind of trick by putting someone or something else in the body bags that were supposed to hold them? And would he, working on his own, be strong enough to save them?

Eventually his ride through the desert ended. He felt the ground beneath him change to something smooth. Then he heard a vehicle's doors opening, and he was unceremoniously lifted and dumped again. The sound of the trunk slamming closed was unmistakable.

"Let's crank the AC," one of the lesser agents said, and then the car doors closed and he was once again in motion.

"That has to be them," Roxy said, pulling the van to a stop. "It's a black Lincoln."

"That's them. Make sure they can't see you, Roxy," Reaper instructed.

"I'm not an idiot, you know." She waited, no motion, no words. Then, "Yes, there they are. They have Jack. They're putting him into the trunk. Damn!"

"What?" Reaper demanded.

"They tossed him in there like a bag of feed. That had to hurt."

"Jack's tough. He can take it."

"I'd hate to be those two when he comes out of that bag, though," Roxy said. "I think they just managed to piss him off even more than they already had, if that's even possible." She paused, then went on. "You should speak to him, Reaper. Tell him we're following."

"No," he replied instantly. "He'd want to know about Topaz, and I'd have a hard time lying to him about that. He'd sense it. And if he finds out, he won't wait to tear out of that bag."

"With that drug in his system, he'd tear them to bits," Rhiannon promised.

Roxy said, "No. He'd get himself killed trying, though." Then she started to drive, keeping a safe distance.

They followed the agents for better than an hour. Then the car stopped at a cantina, and the three cold-hearted operatives went inside for what must have been a hearty brunch, given the time it took them to come out again. The sun was at its zenith by the time they exited, rubbing their bellies and grunting about how good the food had been. One of them lit a cigarette and went to lean on the car as he smoked it, only to jerk his hand away from the scorching-hot metal.

Roxy reported everything to Reaper and Rhiannon as she observed it from a safe distance.

"Jack must be baking alive in that trunk," Rhiannon said. "Maybe this wasn't such a great plan after all, Reaper. We'll be lucky if he survives this much time in such extreme heat. I have no idea what effect that would have on one of our kind."

"He'll survive it." Reaper sounded more confident than he felt. The truth was, he was worried about Jack. He'd started out hating and mistrusting the cocky young con artist, but he'd seen something in Jack Heart as all this unfolded. He'd seen courage, raw and reckless, but real courage all the same, and a deep feeling for Topaz that didn't even bear doubting. It was real. He was real. And decent, too, deep down, Reaper sensed. Vixen had been right about that, and he probably should have trusted her instincts. Jack was decent. He might not even know it himself, but he was.

"Okay, they're moving again," Roxy said.

"Keep following, Roxy," Reaper said.

And Rhiannon added, "Just don't let them see this monstrosity of a van. It's too loud not to be remembered, and if they see it a second time, they'll know we're tailing them."

"Shirley is not a monstrosity. In fact, her special features have kept you and the rest of the gang from being barbecued today. You should be on your knees thanking her."

"We'll all be on our knees thanking you if this works," Reaper said quickly, soothing her ruffled feathers.

"Well, that's an acceptable alternative," she said, sounding placated.

The van rolled into motion again, and silence reigned as Roxy negotiated the narrow, winding roads.

The agents made several more stops. Once for gas and cold drinks. Once for a bathroom break. That time they lingered outside the facility, with Magnarelli talking on his cell phone for a while. And then they got back into the Lincoln and drove some more.

"Have to stop here," Roxy said at length.


"They've turned into a gated drive. It winds up to a freaking hacienda like you've never seen. It's huge, Raphael. Gorgeous, too. Full-length veranda with columns, wide flagstone steps, tropical plants everywhere you look, giant windows everywhere. Hell, there's even a fountain."

"Someone important must live there," Ilyana said. She'd been oddly silent for most of the trip, so it startled Reaper to hear her quiet, serious tones. He'd nearly forgotten her presence. "Someone influential."

"You're right. It'll be either a government official or a drug lord," Reaper said. "Or both. The place will be well guarded. Do you see anyone standing around outside?"

"No," Roxy said. "But there's the gate. They stopped by it for a sec, and then it swung open. Someone must be operating it from somewhere."

"Or there's a code and they knew it." Reaper wished to God he could look around for himself. "Are there any other vehicles in sight?"

"No," Roxy said.

"There are outbuildings, though," Ilyana put in. "One of them has to be a garage."

Rhiannon whispered, "I sense only three mortals nearby, plus Jack." She frowned. "I don't pick up any sense of other vampires. Topaz and her mother aren't here."

Reaper frowned, not wanting to believe that. "Maybe the place is shielded. And they wouldn't be putting out much of an essence by day, Rhiannon. It could be that you just can't pick up on them while they're-"

She sent him a look so quelling that he stopped in midsentence. "Do you know how old I am? How powerful?"

"Of course I do, but-"

"I am Rhiannon, daughter of Pharaoh, princess of Egypt."

"I know, but-"

"Goddess incarnate, priestess of Isis, practitioner of the ancient arts."

"I know, Rhiannon."

"Desired by men, envied by women, both worshipped and feared by all who encounter me."

"Okay. Okay."

"I am more than three thousand years old, Reaper. I am the third most powerful vampire in existence, created by Dracula himself. He and the great Gilgamesh, the first of us all, Damian Namtar, are the only two older, or with blood more powerful than mine. Do not doubt my ability to detect a pair of relative fledglings, Reaper. Not awake or asleep. Not alive or dead. Not-"

"You didn't detect that they weren't in those body bags, though, did you, Princess?"

Rhiannon bit her lip. "I was too busy trying to keep from being toasted, thanks to your asinine plan! Had I bothered to sense for them, I would have known. And if, after all I've done for you, you would still doubt me-"

He held up a hand. "I would never doubt you. I trust you, Rhiannon. I just...I don't want you to be right this time. Because if Topaz and Mirabella weren't in those body bags, and they aren't in this hacienda, then-then, Jesus, where the hell are they?"

"We're not going to find out until after dark," Roxy said. "We can't get to that place for a closer look until then."

"We have to," Reaper said.

He heard Roxy's frustrated sigh, but it was Ilyana who picked up the argument. "We can't drive up. We'd be seen. And you two can't walk up before sunset without being roasted. Roxy and I could, but what chance would we have against three well-trained, well-armed agents? There are video cameras mounted all over the place. I can count five of them just from here."

"We're going to have to wait, Reaper," Roxy said again. "I'm sorry."

It was at that precise moment that Reaper heard Jack's agonized screams begin.

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