Lover's Bite Chapter 9

"Topaz needs you."

Reaper recognized the voice on the other end of the cell phone. It was the voice of a man he didn't trust. Topaz was in love with the jerk, though. Reaper knew the signs. Jack Heart was the biggest mistake Topaz had ever made in her life. He was no good for her, and what was worse, she knew it. And yet she loved him. Who could figure women out?

"Reaper? Are you there?" Jack asked.

"Yes. I'm here. What's going on? Is Topaz all right?" He had no doubt in his mind that Jack was somehow to blame for the CIA knowing his location. They'd been just two steps behind him, no matter where he'd gone in the past week.

"She's a mess," Jack said.

"I have no doubt, if you've been out there with her all this time. If she's a mess, Jack, just who do you think is responsible for that?"

Reaper felt the hesitation on the other end of the line but could read nothing more. Jack's mind was closed to him.

"Not that it's any of your business, Reaper, but I know I messed her up. A lot. More than I ever realized, but that's in the past. I've been trying to make up for it. But that's not what's bothering her right now. Or maybe it's part of it, I don't know."

"Yes, you do. It's a part of everything for her."

Jack's sigh was soft but audible. "Yeah. I guess I do."

Reaper nodded at the phone. At least the bastard could admit it.

"Despite that, there's more now," Jack told him. "Her mother-her mother was the actress, Mirabella DuFrane. Have you heard of her?"

"Not really."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Just get to the point, Jack." Reaper wasn't entirely comfortable engaging in long telephone conversations, particularly with this guy. For all he knew, one of Jack's sleazy contacts could be tracing the signal.

"Her mother was murdered when Topaz was an infant," Jack said. "Her body was stolen from the morgue, never to be found. It was a big Hollywood mystery, the stuff of legend. Only it turns out Mirabella DuFrane never really died at all. We're pretty sure she was the vampiress who transformed Topaz ten years ago in Mexico. We're heading there now to try to track her down."

Reaper blinked. "Are you saying Topaz's mother faked her own death and walked out on her when she was an infant? Deliberately?"

"It looks that way."

No wonder Topaz was a mess, Reaper thought. He had a million questions racing through his mind, and he tried to sort them logically, ask them in order of importance. "Is she in any danger?" he asked.

"Depends on how badly her mother wants to avoid being found," Jack said. "My instinct is that she's only in danger of having her heart broken again. And I don't think she could handle it this time. She's got this notion that she's...unlovable. That no one's ever cared for her, only for her money."

"Gee, I wonder where she could have gotten that idea?" Reaper said, his tone as cruel as he could make it.

Jack paused before going on. "I probably deserved that, Reaper, but I'm not going to take a lot more from you, deserved or not. So could you put a sock in it and focus on Topaz for a minute here?"

"She's all I'm focusing on."

"Me, too," Jack told him. "Whether you believe it or not. She's hurting right now, and I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better. She used to believe that at least her mother, out of all the people in her life, had truly loved her. Now, though, knowing the woman has been more or less alive all this time and basically abandoned her...even that belief has been shattered."

Reaper understood that. "There had to be extenuating circumstances...The woman must have felt she had no choice."

"Yeah, sure, you and I know that, but all Topaz can feel right now is hurt and rejection. I've never seen her like this, Reaper. If it goes badly, I don't know what she might-I'm freaking terrified of what she might do."

Those words hit Reaper on a level far deeper than anything he'd felt in a long time. Many a vampire had given in to despair and ended it all by simply lying down for the day sleep in an open field or walking into the sunrise. He'd seen it happen too many times. He'd seen it happen when he hadn't believed it could. He'd seen it happen to someone he'd loved.

"She needs to be with people she trusts, people who care about her, if she's going to get through this," Jack went on.

"And that's not you, right, Jack?"

"What I feel for Topaz is between the two of us. But we both know she doesn't trust me."

"Do you blame her?"

"Look, enough already. Will you gather the others and join us in Mexico or not?"

Reaper searched his gut but found no guidance. This could very well be a trap, set up by Jack. The lifelong con man might simply be trying to trick him into walking into a well-baited snare, so he could collect a hefty payoff from the CIA. Or from Gregor-Reaper's sworn enemy and Jack's former partner.

"I need to talk to her," Reaper said at length.

"If she finds out I called you, she'll be madder than ever."

Reaper sighed. "If this is some kind of a game you're playing, Jack..."

"It's not a game. Or a con."

Narrowing his eyes, Reaper said, "The CIA's been on my ass all week, Jack. They always seem to know where to find me."

"Interesting that they never quite find you soon enough to do you any harm, though, isn't it?"

Reaper frowned. "What are you saying?"

"Only that I've known where you were all week. If I wanted to tip them off, help them catch you, I would have done it by now, don't you think?"

It was a valid point. Unless Jack had been playing with him like a cat with a mouse. But that wasn't Jack's M.O. He was out for the payoff-always. He wouldn't waste time in collecting it or take a chance on it slipping away. And the agents had been lagging behind him. Always a day late and a dollar short, so to speak.

Maybe he'd misjudged the bastard. Hard to be objective, when he'd felt Topaz's heartache firsthand. Briefly, but he'd felt it. This guy had damn near destroyed her. And Reaper hated him for that. Because in spite of himself, he cared about Topaz. He cared about them all.

In the end, that was what made the decision for him. "I'll contact the others. We'll meet you there. Give me a location."

Jack seemed more attentive, Topaz thought, than he had ever been. His worry and concern for her were a little too convincing, a little too believable. She didn't want to fall into the deadly trap of trusting him again. She knew herself too well.

And yet, she was already halfway there. The ground beneath her feet was crumbling, and she sensed herself getting perilously close to a fall.

She was nearly done for, wasn't she? Her body still craved his touch, still responded to him in a way it never had to any other man. Her heart still cried out for him, still ached for his love, still wept with the knowledge that he was incapable of giving it. And now her mind was following the other parts of her. She was actually beginning to trust him again.

She must be a complete idiot.

They'd been on the road for hours, had taken turns driving. They'd spent the previous day in an abandoned barn, and Topaz had made sure they'd stopped close enough to dawn to avoid any opportunity for sex. Sheer, desperate self-preservation had been her motivation, painful self-denial the result. She wanted him more than she wanted to see another moonrise.

It was 3:00 a.m. They were following the coastline along the midnight sapphire waves of the Gulf, and she distracted herself by staring out the window at the passing waters. They were as dark and deep and every bit as fathomless as her own feelings, and just as unsettled.

"This is it, isn't it?" Jack asked, breaking into her thoughts. Then again, she thought, he was never very far away from her thoughts, was he?

She drew her attention away from the water, focused ahead and saw the entrance to the posh resort, Corona, where she'd booked them a private cottage-one private cottage for them to share, because she was a fool-on the beach. "Yes, that's it. Pull up by the front. I'll run in, sign the register and get our keys."

"I'll come al-"

"No, really. Just wait here."

He frowned, puzzled. But she'd been in such close proximity to him for so long now that she honestly needed a break. To sit there in that car beside him, remembering with every mile that passed the way it felt to touch him, to be touched by him. Longing to slide closer, to cover his hand with her own, to stroke his neck and lay her head on his shoulder.

Her throat tightened with emotion, and she quickly got out of the car.

The resort was a sprawling complex, the hotel an adobe mansion that hadn't changed a lot since she'd been here last. Ocean prints hung on the walls, and a vaulted ceiling towered high with a cactus-shaped chandelier in the center. The night clerk at the front desk greeted her warmly, her smile broadening when Topaz gave her name-Tanya DuFrane. She saw no need to hide her identity any longer. It was all over the press that she was alive and well and seeking to solve her mother's murder. She would have a hell of a time disappearing again when this was all over.

"Senorita DuFrane!" The desk clerk clapped her hands together. "It is an honor to have you with us. It has been years, no?"

The girl couldn't possibly remember her. She would have been a child the last time Topaz was here. But Topaz assumed someone had recognized her name when she'd phoned to book the reservation and had done a bit of homework.

"I am a huge fan of your mother's work," the clerk went on. "So tragic that the world lost her so soon. And for you, more so, yes?"

"Thank you. Is my bungalow ready?"

"Si, ready and waiting. It is Numero Tres. Follow the road that curves to the right. You'll see a row of cottages along the beach. It's the off-season, so very few are occupied. Just one other, in fact. You should have all the privacy you could desire."

"Thank you. I'll need two keys."

"Of course." The girl handed them to her. Not modern plastic key cards, but actual keys hanging from tags with numbers on them. "You'll find the number to call when you want to arrange housekeeping service, a schedule of events, a listing of restaurants and another of all our vendors waiting in your cottage. We have boat rentals, Jet Skis, surfing, snorkeling-"

"Yes, thank you. I'm just too tired right now to even think about all that."

The girl smiled and nodded. "Of course. Buenas noches, then, senorita."

"Good night."

Taking the keys, Topaz went back to Jack's car and got in. He didn't take off right away, just looked at her. "Are you okay, Topaz?"

She glanced at him and nodded. Even knowing it was a lie. She'd never been less okay. She hadn't been okay since he'd walked out on her. And sometimes she wondered if she ever would be again.

Aloud though, she only said, "That way. Cabin Three."

He looked at her for a long moment, then finally nodded and put the car into motion again. It was only as they pulled up in front of the cabin that Topaz felt the presence of the others. Other vampires lingering nearby in the night. Several of them. She tensed and quickly opened her mind. She'd been trying so hard to block out her feelings for Jack that she'd failed to scan the area.

"It's okay," Jack said, reaching over to pat her hand as if she were a frightened child. "It's just the gang."

Frowning, Topaz opened her door, and even as she got out of the car, they came walking from the cabin right beside hers. Reaper, Roxy, Vixen and Seth. She couldn't move for a moment, she was so surprised to see them there. And then, as they closed in around her, and as Roxy wrapped her in a warm embrace, Topaz burst into tears, in spite of her best efforts to hold them back.

Jack felt a little bit unwanted, like an outsider, an interloper. The others were like a family as they embraced her and all talked at once. He was unreasonably relieved when he heard someone say that Ilyana and Briar were inside. They were outsiders, too. And in fact, of them all, he thought he would be happiest to see Briar again. So he headed into the cabin marked with the green 2 in search of her, and left the little group to catch up in their sappy way without him.

The cabins were made of adobe, forty by forty or so, with two stories each. They all looked pretty much the same; full front porch, big windows on either side of a red door, clay pottery overflowing with exotic-looking plants, and rattan lawn furniture on each porch.

Jack opened the red door and stepped into the large living-dining area, and looked around. He didn't see anyone, but he could feel them. Ilyana, the newcomer to the group, was mortal. One of the Chosen. Her energy was impatient, frustrated, a little bit afraid. She was nervous around vampires. She had every reason to be, having served as Gregor's bedtime snack for God only knew how long. She was presently in one of the rooms off to the right of this one. A kitchen, he thought.

Briar's energy, on the other hand, didn't even feel like her. It was dull, and had a sickly element to it. It was contained, reserved, quiet, withdrawn. None of it was Briar. At least, not the Briar he remembered.

He followed his sense of her energy all the same, up the stairs to the second floor and along a hall with four doors, stopping at the third. The door wasn't locked, and he didn't bother to knock. He had let her feel his approach, so she knew he was coming.

He opened the door and let his gaze sweep over the small bedroom. She sat on the bed, knees drawn to her chest, eyes on him. "What do you want?"

Jack lifted his brows and went inside, leaving the door open. "Nice to see you, too, Briar. I've been fine, thanks. How about you?"

She didn't react, aside from the slight flaring of her nostrils as she exhaled.

"I can see you haven't been fine at all," he said.

"What is there to be fine about?"

He shrugged, crossing the room. "I don't know. We're alive. Eternally strong and young and powerful."

She turned her head slightly toward the window, and he followed her gaze to the small group gathered on the lawn. "What good is it? This world isn't worth living in. There's nothing good about it."

"Never knew you were so into goodness."

She shot him a look. "What good is strength if you aren't allowed to prey on the weak? What good is eternal life, when it's only filled with people who'd just as happily kill you as look at you?"

He sighed. "You trusted the wrong guy, Briar." And it occurred to him that he could say the same words to Topaz, and they would be just as true. "He turned on you. But it was Gregor, for God's sake. What did you expect? He's evil."

"So am I. So are you."

"I'm not evil. Selfish, maybe, but not evil. And I don't think you are, either."

"No? What am I, then?"

He shrugged, opened his senses to hers, then lowered his head. "You're in pain. And it's intense. Excruciating. You need to let it go, Briar, or you're not going to last. No one can hold up under that kind of anguish."

"And how do you suggest I let go?"

"I don't know. Stop focusing on it. Find something else, something you can get a little pleasure out of, a little joy. Focus on that, and the pain will start to die. It can't live if you aren't feeding it. It'll starve without your attention."

"So you've turned from a heartless con man into some kind of philosopher now?"

"Not really. It's just the best suggestion I can come up with on short notice."

"Yeah, well, it's a lousy one."


"Because if there were anything in this world capable of giving me joy or pleasure, I would have at least caught a glimpse of it by now."

He sent a meaningful look toward the window. "I think maybe you have. You're just too busy wallowing in misery to let yourself see it."

"I should get off this bed and hit you."

"But you can't even work up the enthusiasm to do that, can you, Briar? And that should tell you something."

"What, pray tell? What gem of wisdom is my lack of enthusiasm supposed to impart?"

He met her eyes, saw the pain in them, felt it. "Only that what you've been doing up to now isn't working for you. So you might as well try something else. What have you got to lose?"

"Self-respect. Dignity. Pride. My mind...Should I go on?"

He shook his head. "Why are you still with Reaper? I'd have expected you to run away again by now. Particularly if you're so miserable."

She lowered her head, focused on her hands where they were clasped around her knees. "Sooner or later, he's going to get back on Gregor's trail," she said. "Reaper's good. I don't have any doubt that he'll find him. And when he does, I intend to be there."

Jack sensed the feelings she still had for that sadist and rolled his eyes. "I'm the last person who should be saying this, but how stupid would you have to be to go back to that idiot after what he did to you?"

"You're right. You're the last person to be saying it. Your precious Topaz did the same thing, didn't she?"

"Not by a long shot. And all I did was take her money. Gregor tortured you, Briar."

"If you don't think what you did to Topaz was torture, you'd better think again," she said. "Women like her fall hard when they fall for a man. Thank God I never have and never will."

"Not even for Gregor?"

She snapped him with a look, like snapping someone with a rubber band. "It's not what you think. It was never...that way between Gregor and me."

"Not because he didn't want it to be."

She was quiet.

"And yet you want to get back with him," he said with a slow shake of his head as he lowered it.

"No. I want to get back at him. You're right, he tortured me. I owe him."

Jack snapped his head up, met her eyes, saw a dull glow of anger, of hatred, simmering in their almost black depths. He felt his lips lift at the corners. "Now that's the Briar I know and...know."

She held his gaze for a moment, then sighed and lowered her eyes.

"What about the others? Reaper and his pups?"

"What about them?" she asked.

"How do you feel about them?" he asked.

"I don't like them. I don't like him. I don't want to be friends, not with any of them. Not with you, either, for that matter. I never trusted anyone in my life, until Gregor. He taught me what a mistake that was. It's not one I'll ever make again."

He nodded slowly. "Not everyone is like him, you know."

"Yes," she said. "They are. And the ones who pretend otherwise are hypocrites."

Sighing, Jack got up from the bed.

"Why did you come in here, anyway?"

He shrugged. "Of all of them, we're the most alike. I just wanted to see how you were doing, that's all."

She frowned, as if puzzled. "What's happened to you, Jack? Have you gone soft?"

He shook his head, even as the question echoed in his mind and he found himself wondering about the answer. "Never happen."

"Are you working a con, then?"

"I was, but-" He broke off. "Doesn't matter. I'm not at the moment."

"Then what are you doing here? With them?"

He walked to the window and stared down at them, where they were still deep in conversation below. "I guess I'm trying to make up for some of the harm I've done in the past. Not sure it can be done. But I'm trying."

"You have gone soft. In the head, as well as everywhere else."

"Maybe I have."

As the group broke apart, Topaz saw Jack leave Cabin Two and head toward Three, with the key she'd given him in hand. Her eyes followed him, in spite of herself.

"We can split things up differently, you know," Seth said. "If you're not comfortable having him in your cabin."

She met his eyes. "No, it's fine."

Seth probed, and she guarded. That should have told him to mind his own business, but he never had been the sharpest tool in the box, she thought with an exasperated sigh when he spoke his question aloud.

"You're not falling for that jerk again, are you?"

"Of course not."

"Good, 'cuz I don't trust him as far as I can throw him, Tope. I never have, and I trust my gut on this."

Vixen put a hand on Seth's shoulder. "He's not all bad," she said.

"Maybe not. But he's not all good, either," Seth said. "Better to err on the side of caution where he's concerned."

"Hey, you don't have to convince me," Topaz told him. "I know better than anybody."

Seth nodded. Then he reached out and hugged her, and she was so surprised that she stiffened at first, then sighed and hugged him back. "He gives you any crap, you let me know, okay? I'll knock him into next week."

"My hero," she told him, loading a heavy amount of sarcasm into the phrase.

He grinned, and then he and Vixen turned and headed for the beach, arm in arm. Roxy came over and gave her a hug, too. "If you want advice about men and relationships, sweetie, you come to me. Don't waste your time listening to that young pup, Seth. He only wound up with Vixen by the skin of his teeth, through dumb luck and my help."

Topaz nodded, and then Roxy left her and headed for her cabin. Leaving Topaz alone with Reaper.

He studied her face for a long moment, his expression pensive.

She was almost afraid to ask the question, but she forced herself. "Did the CIA show up in Philly?"

"Not yet."

Relief nearly melted her muscles. She closed her eyes and felt it washing through her like a balm.

"That doesn't mean they won't, nor does it mean he's innocent of feeding them information prior to this."

She gnawed her lip. "Why are you so sure it was him?"

"I'm not," Reaper admitted. "I don't have a shred of evidence, let's be clear on that. I just think...I think you should be very, very careful where he's concerned."

She lowered her head. "Thank you. I will be."

He nodded. No hugs, not from him. He wasn't comfortable with casual physical contact. She'd learned that about him early on in their time together. "Let me know if you need anything, all right?"

"Yeah." She looked at the sky. "Thanks for coming, Reaper. It means a lot to me."

"That was Jack's doing," he said. "He called, told me you needed people you could trust around you for this." Sighing heavily, he shook his head. "I hope to God I'm wrong about him, Topaz."

He turned and walked back into the cabin as she whispered, "So do I."

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