Bitten by Cupid (Argeneau #13)

Chapter 3

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Tiny was considering Marguerite's suggestion that he might be a life mate to Mirabeau. Now that he'd met the woman in question, he found the possibility a fascinating one. He was trying to recall all the reasons he shouldn't feel that way when Stephanie suddenly stopped in front of him. His nerves immediately on the alert for a possible threat, he glanced to Mirabeau to find she'd stopped and was walking back toward him. Tiny relaxed when he saw her expression. She looked neither grim nor urgent with warning. In fact, Mirabeau's expression was almost pained, and her words stilted as she said, "I was thinking…perhaps it would be better if you lead the way after all. It is very dark in here, and you have the flashlight."

Tiny glanced down at the flashlight in his hand, then back to Mirabeau. He had no doubt she was lying about the reason for wanting him in the front. He had spent enough time around immortals to know his weak little beam wasn't needed by them to see. Hell, he thought, it was probably as bright as daylight in there to the two females. He just didn't understand why she suddenly wanted him in the lead.

"She's worried you'll get yourself killed at the back of the pack, and Marguerite would never forgive her. She's spooked herself with visions of you being attacked from behind and beheaded or something," Stephanie said with a teenager's amusement, answering the question he hadn't asked. "She's just crap at coming up with a lie to get you at the front of the group."

Mirabeau scowled at the girl, then glanced to Tiny. "It did occur to me that I would have a better chance of hearing if we were approached from behind, and since that's where the trouble is most likely to come from-"

"Enough said," Tiny interrupted, managing not to visibly wince at the reality behind her words. Despite her efforts to ease the blow, his ego had taken a hit. At six-seven and two hundred eighty pounds of pure muscle, he wasn't used to being considered the weak member of the herd. In fact, it was only recently that he'd been forced to face the fact that he was…at least among immortals. For ten years, Tiny's partner had been a female who was mortal like him. Jackie had been a tiny little thing, and while he'd always known and respected that she could handle herself, he'd still been the brawn in the partnership. But when Jackie had met Vincent and gone off to be his life mate, Tiny had found himself partnered with Marguerite Argeneau for a European case, and his vision of himself had been altered with a vengeance. That little lady, nearly a foot shorter and less than half his weight was beautiful, sweet, and could tuck him under her arm and run down the road as if he weighed no more than a child. And Tiny didn't doubt for a minute that either of the two delicate flowers of womanhood before him could do the same thing.

He was still big and brawny, but Tiny was the fragile one who needed looking after. How depressing was that? Tiny pondered the question as he started to ease around Stephanie to get to Mirabeau's side, but quickly forgot it when Mirabeau suddenly gave a choked cry of surprise.

He instinctively jerked his flashlight upward at the sound, flashing the beam in her face and blinding her briefly. Tiny saw her eyes squeeze shut against the light and instinctively started to lower the beam but paused as he glimpsed the figure behind her. It was a man, shorter than Mirabeau, just the top of his head and squinting eyes showing over her shoulder. They were not an immortal's eyes. The man was a mortal like Tiny, but much dirtier, he noted, taking in the scruffy, unwashed hair and dirt smudged across the man's forehead. A homeless guy, then, he deduced, probably someone who lived in and wandered the sewers, not much of a threat to Mirabeau. Or at least, he shouldn't have been, but the guy was presently holding Mirabeau by the hair that had been swept up on the back of her head in a bun and tugging her head back at what looked to be an uncomfortable angle.

Tiny hesitated, expecting Mirabeau simply to take control of the man's mind and make him release her, but instead, she reacted in what he suspected was a purely instinctive move and raised her knee to shoot her foot back at the man in a blow that probably would have taken out his kneecap if she'd finished it. Unfortunately, Mirabeau's long gown got in the way, caught her up, and made her lose her balance and her footing. Her eyes and mouth shot open with surprise as she began to fall. Tiny tried to get around Stephanie to save her, but arrived just in time almost to be knocked to the ground by her flailing legs as she crashed to her bottom in the tunnel.

Tiny managed to save himself by grabbing at the wall beside him. Then he started to reach for Mirabeau, but paused and raised the flashlight beam at a groan from the mouth of the tunnel. The circle of light lit up the man, revealing his dirty clothes and matted hair, as well as the fact that he now held what appeared to be half of Mirabeau's hair in his hand. For one moment, Tiny thought the fellow had scalped her, but then recalled Marguerite saying they had done something to cover the fuchsia tints in Mirabeau's hair and realized this was what it had been. They must have put extensions or something on, he thought, as he quickly flashed the beam toward Mirabeau to see that while the sides, freed from the bun, now hung down over her shoulders in a pure, dark color, there were pink tips sticking out in every direction on the back of her head.

Her attacker didn't seem to realize he'd merely removed some of her extensions. The man was gaping at the clump of hair he held with horror, but the moment the flashlight beam hit him, the fellow squinted and turned his attention from the hair he held to the source of the beam. When he did, Tiny shifted the flashlight so that the circle of light included his large frame and simply murmured, "Boo."

That was all it took. As usual-at least among mortals-his size alone made an impact and persuaded the man that he didn't want to mess with him after all. Releasing a startled squeak of alarm, the fellow dropped the hair, quickly shuffled backward, and turned to hurry away, almost immediately disappearing into the darkness.

Tiny waited until the sounds of the man's departure grew faint, then moved to help Mirabeau. She was floundering around in the water, trying to regain her feet, but was hampered by her gown, which was thoroughly soaked. It kept tripping her up and unceremoniously sending her back to sit in the sludge. Stephanie, he noted, was simply watching it all, her mouth agape and eyes full of horror. He supposed it was what Mirabeau was floundering around in that had caused the reaction. He tried hard not to think of that himself as he murmured, "Here," and handed Stephanie the flashlight.

The girl managed to gather herself enough to take it from him, and the moment she had, he shifted carefully around Mirabeau, managing to avoid her flailing legs, and get behind her. Tiny then simply hooked his hands under her arms and hefted her quickly to her feet.

"Thank you," Mirabeau muttered, the sound a sort of breathless growl as she got her feet under her. Tiny waited to be sure she had her footing, but then let his hands drop and took a quick step away from her. He didn't mean to offend, but couldn't help himself. The smell down here was bad enough when just walking through it, but Mirabeau had stirred it up with her struggle, and the odor seemed to have intensified and attached itself to her at a concentrated level. The woman he had spent a good portion of the walk lusting after smelled like a backed-up toilet. It tended to dampen his ardor a bit. Probably a good thing, he decided. After all, they had a job to do.

Retrieving the flashlight from Stephanie, Tiny flashed it over Mirabeau and winced at the state of her dress. If he hadn't seen her in the wedding party back at the church, he would have thought it was a peach top paired with a long brownish black skirt rather than a peach dress. The gown was definitely ruined. He wasn't the only one to notice. Mirabeau was gaping down at herself with a horror that surpassed Stephanie's. She glanced around furiously, and growled, "Where is he?"

"He's gone," Tiny said, thinking it was probably lucky for the guy that he was. "It was just some homeless guy. He took off when he got a look at me."

He wasn't surprised when, rather than look relieved, Mirabeau appeared disappointed by this news. He suspected she'd wanted to throttle the man for grabbing her and causing the state she now found herself in. He simply waited patiently as she stared at him with impotent fury, wondering if she would take out her rage and frustration on him…and if he would let her. In the end, she merely cursed and looked at her mud-covered hands with disgust. Tiny was about to offer to sacrifice his suit jacket for her to wipe her hands on when she managed to find a small patch on the front of her skirt that had escaped the soaking. He watched in silence as she wiped her hands on it, then forced an encouraging smile when she again glanced his way.

The sight of it made her sigh, and say, "I guess we should get moving."

"Yes, I guess," he agreed quietly.

Mirabeau nodded, then moved toward the tunnel entrance on his left, only to pause as the skirt of the gown wrapped itself around her legs. She nearly lost her balance again, and Tiny immediately reached to steady her, but she waved him off and managed to keep her balance on her own. She then glanced down at the gown with distaste.

"You might as well," Stephanie said quietly. "It's ruined anyway."

Tiny knew the kid was reading Mirabeau's mind again, but wasn't sure what she was suggesting until Mirabeau suddenly bent, grabbed up the hem of her dress, found one side seam and began to rip it apart. She split it all the way up, well past her knees, then quickly tore sideways, ripping away the bottom three-quarters of the skirt all the way around. Once finished, Mirabeau was wearing a dress that only covered her to midthigh.

"It's a little short," she judged as she straightened and tossed the detached material aside. She then added wryly, "But I can move more easily, and I won't be restricted if I need to fight."

"Yes," Tiny agreed absently, barely aware of growling the word as he took in her stockinged legs. The skirt now started where the tops of her stocking seams ended. Every time she shifted, it flashed a tantalizing hint of flesh. The stockings themselves were black net and covered what appeared to him at that moment to be nearly a mile of leg.

Jesus, the woman is all leg, he thought. And fine legs they were too, muscular, but still slender and feminine, tapering down to tiny little ankles.

"It's my own fault," Mirabeau commented with self-disgust as she peered down at herself. "I should have checked that the offshoot was empty before turning my back to it."

"Didn't you hear him approach?"

Stephanie asked the question in an innocent voice, but Tiny suspected she was taunting Mirabeau. It made him frown at the teenager. The girl obviously had a chip on her shoulder, but then he supposed she had earned it. She'd been through a great deal this last year. Fortunately, Mirabeau didn't seem to suspect the question was a jab at her. She merely frowned toward the offshoot and shook her head.

"Come to think of it, no I didn't." She moved to the mouth of the tunnel on his right and peered into the darkness. "He must have already been standing here just inside the entrance to the tunnel and simply waited when he saw us approaching. He would have seen the flashlight from a good distance."

"Waited for what purpose?" Stephanie asked curiously. "What did he want? Besides your hair?"

The last was added on a burble of amusement, but Mirabeau just shrugged and swung back toward them. "Who knows? He wasn't right in the head…which is why I couldn't control him when he grabbed me, but I caught enough of his chaotic thoughts to know that he thought we were rats."

"Rats?" Tiny asked with amazement, finally managing to tear his eyes from her legs.

Mirabeau nodded silently in the beam of light he lifted to her face.

"Talking, human-sized rats?" Stephanie asked doubtfully.

"He couldn't see us in the dark, just the flashlight beam," Mirabeau pointed out, then added, "And from what I got from his thoughts, he's always suspected there were mutant human-sized rats down here. In his mind even the little rats talk to him."

"Oh," Stephanie murmured, and Tiny echoed her comment in his head, as his gaze shifted past Mirabeau to the tunnel the little madman had disappeared down. He kind of felt bad now for scaring the poor bastard. The guy needed help.

"Well…I guess we should keep going," Mirabeau murmured suddenly, but she didn't move except to glance the way they'd come, then back down the tunnel she stood in front of. Knowing she was no longer sure where he would be safest, at the front of the party or the back, Tiny made up her mind for her and slid past her. He shined the flashlight down the tunnel and followed the beam, moving slowly at first until he was sure Stephanie and Mirabeau were following him.

Mirabeau might be concerned about someone's following them, but so far there had been no sign of that. He was more concerned about running into more underground crazies wandering the sewers. While Tiny felt bad for them, he didn't feel so bad that he was willing to risk one of the girls getting hurt.

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