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“I don’t give a damn if they throw me down into the deepest, slimiest pit for eternity. I belong here and no one is going to make me leave. No one!”
Tabitha Devereaux took a deep breath and struggled not to argue as she tried to pick the lock on the handcuffs that her sister Selena had used to fasten herself to the wrought-iron gate that surrounded the famed Jackson Square. Selena had hidden the key in her bra and Tabitha had no desire to search there for it.
No doubt that would get them both arrested, even in New Orleans.
Luckily there wasn’t a big crowd on the street in the middle of October, right at dusk, but what people were there all stared at them as they passed by. Not that Tabitha cared. She was more than used to people looking at her and thinking her strange. Even insane.
She prided herself on both. She also prided herself on being available to her friends and family in a crisis. And right now, her big sister was in an emotional turmoil second only to the time when Selena’s husband Bill had been in a car wreck that had almost killed him.
Tabitha fumbled with the lock. The last thing she wanted was to have her sister arrested.
Selena tried to push her away, but Tabitha refused to budge, so Selena bit her.
Tabitha jumped back with a yelp as she shook her hand in an effort to relieve the pain. Completely unremorseful about it, Selena sprawled on the cobbled steps that led into the Square in a pair of ripped jeans and a large navy sweater that obviously belonged to Bill. Her long, curly brown hair was braided and oddly sedate. No one would recognize Madame Selene, as she was known to the tourists, except for the big sign she was holding that said, “Psychics have rights, too.”
Ever since they had passed that stupid, asinine law that psychics couldn’t read cards in the Square for tourists anymore, Selena had been fighting it. Earlier, the police had forced her out of the federal building for protesting—so Selena had headed over here to chain herself to the gate not far from where she had once set up her card table for reading other people’s futures.
Too bad she couldn’t see her own fate as clearly as Tabitha could. If Selena didn’t unhook herself from this blessed fence, she was going to be spending the night in jail.
Overwrought and angry, Selena kept waving her sign. There was no reasoning with her. But then, Tabitha was used to that, too. High emotions, obstinacy, and insanity ran deep in their Cajun-Romanian family.
“C’mon, Selena,” she said, trying yet again to soothe her. “It’s already dark. You don’t want to be Daimon bait out here, do you?”
“I don’t care!” Selena sniffed and pouted. “The Daimons won’t eat my soul anyway since I have no friggin’ will to live. I just want my home back. This is my spot and I’m not leaving.” She punctuated each of the last words with a pounding of her sign against the stones.
“Fine.” Sighing in disgust, Tabitha sat down near her, but not so close that Selena could bite her again. She wasn’t about to leave her older sister out here alone. Especially since Selena was so upset.
If the Daimons didn’t get her, a mugger would.
And so here the two of them sat like two immovable bumps on a log: Tabitha dressed all in black with her dark auburn hair pulled back into a silver barrette and Selena waving her sign at anyone who came near them on the pedestrian mall, urging them to sign her petition to change the law.
“Hey, Tabby. What’s up?”
It was a rhetorical question. Tabitha waved at Bradley Gambieri, one of the docents who led vampire tours around the Quarter, as he headed toward the tourist center to drop off more brochures. He didn’t even pause as he passed by. But he did frown at Selena, who called him an imaginative name because he didn’t sign her petition.
Good thing he knew them or he really might be offended.
Tabitha and her sister knew most of the locals who frequented the Quarter. They had grown up here and had haunted the area around the Square since they had been young teenagers.
Of course, things had changed over the years. A few of the shops had come and gone. The Quarter was a good deal safer these days than it had been in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties. However, some things were the same. The bakery, Café Pontalba, Café Du Monde, and Corner Café were in the same place. The tourists still gathered in the Square to ogle the cathedral and the colorful natives who passed by … and the vampires and muggers still stalked the streets looking for easy victims.
The hair on the back of her neck rose.
Tabitha moved her hand instinctively to the hidden sheath in her boot that concealed a three-inch stiletto as she scanned the thinning October crowd around her.
For the last thirteen years, Tabitha had been a self-styled vampire slayer. She was also one of the few humans in New Orleans who actually knew what went on in this town after dark. She was scarred inside and out from her battles with the damned. And she had sworn her life to making sure that none of them ever hurt anyone else on her watch.
It was an oath she took seriously. She would kill anyone or anything she had to.
But as her gaze found the tall, exotically erotic man sporting a black backpack coming around the corner of the Presbytere building, she relaxed.
It’d been a couple of months since he’d last been in town. In truth, she’d missed him a lot more than she should have.
Against her will and common sense, she’d let Acheron Parthenopaeus worm his way into her guarded heart. But then, Ash was a hard man not to adore.
His long, sensuous gait was impossible to ignore and every female in the Square, except for the distraught Selena, was held transfixed by his presence. They all paused to watch him walk by as if compelled by some unseen force. He was sexy in a way very few men were.
He held an aura that was dangerous and wild. And by his slow, languorous moves, it was obvious that he would be incredible in bed. It was something you just knew intrinsically when you saw him and it rippled through your body like hot, seductive chocolate.
At six feet eight, Ash always stood out in a crowd. Like her, he was dressed all in black.
His Godsmack T-shirt was untucked and a bit large, but even so it didn’t detract from that fact that Ash was seriously ripped. And his custom-made leather pants cupped a butt so prime, it begged for a groping.
Not that she ever would. An undefinable air about him warned people to keep their hands to themselves if they wanted to keep breathing.
She smiled as she noted his boots. Ash had a thing for German Goth clothing. Tonight he had on a pair of black biker boots that had nine vampire-bat buckles going up the length of them.
He wore his long black hair loose and flowing around his shoulders. It was a perfect drape for a face that was eerily pretty and yet wholly masculine. Flawless. There was something about Ash that made every hormone in her body stand up and pant for more.
Yet for all his sexual attractiveness, there was also an aura so dark and deadly that it kept her from ever thinking of him as anything more than a friend.
And he’d been a friend ever since she had met him at her twin sister Amanda’s wedding three years ago. Since then, they had crossed paths repeatedly as he visited New Orleans and helped her keep watch against the city’s predators.
Now he was a regular part of her family, especially since he often stayed at her twin’s house and was, in fact, the godfather for Amanda’s daughter.
He stopped beside her and cocked his head. With his dark sunglasses on, Tabitha couldn’t tell if he was looking at her or Selena. But it was obvious he was bemused by the two of them.
“Hey, gorgeous babe,” Tabitha said. She smiled as she realized his T-shirt paid tribute to the Godsmack song “Vampires.” How strangely apropos since Ash was an immortal who came equipped with his own set of fangs. “Nice shirt.”
Ignoring her compliment, he pulled the black backpack off his shoulder and flipped his sunglasses up to show eerie, swirling silver eyes that seemed to flash in the darkness. “How long has Selena been handcuffed to the fence?”
“About half an hour. I figured I’d hang out with her and keep her from becoming a Daimon-kabob.”
“I wish,” Selena muttered. She raised her voice and slung her arms wide. “Here I am, vampires, come and end my misery!”
Tabitha and Ash exchanged a half-amused, half-irritated look at her dramatics.
Ash moved to sit down beside Selena. “Hi, Lanie,” he said quietly as he kept the backpack at his feet.
“Go away, Ash. I’m not leaving here until they repeal their law. I belong in this Square. I was raised here.”
Ash nodded in understanding. “Where’s Bill?”
“He’s a traitor!” Selena snarled.
Tabitha answered the question. “He’s probably at the courthouse holding ice to a private area after Selena racked him and accused him of being ‘the man who is holding her down.’”
Ash’s face softened as if the thought amused him.
“He deserved it,” Selena said defensively. “He told me that the law is the law and that I had to obey it. Screw that. I’m not going anywhere until they change it.”
“Guess I’ll be here for awhile,” Tabitha said wistfully.
“You can make them repeal the law,” Selena said, turning toward Ash. “Can’t you?”
Ash leaned back against the fence without commenting.
“Don’t get too close to her, Ash,” Tabitha warned. “She’s been known to bite.”
“That makes two of us,” he said with a hint of humor in his voice as his fangs flashed. “But I somehow think my bite might hurt a little more.”
“You’re not funny,” Selena said sullenly.
Ash draped an arm over Selena’s shoulder. “C’mon, Lane. You know it’s not going to change anything for you to stay here. Sooner or later a cop will come by—”
“And I’ll assault him.”
Ash tightened his hold on her. “You can’t assault them for doing their job.”
“Yes, I can!”
Still he managed to remain calm while dealing with the Queen of Hysteria. “Is that really what you want to do?”
“No. I want my stand back,” Selena said, her voice breaking from her grief and pain.
Tabitha’s own chest was tight in sympathetic agony for her.
“I wasn’t hurting anyone by having a table here. This is my space. I’ve had my stand right here in this spot since 1986! It’s so not fair for them to make me leave because those stupid artists are jealous. Who wants one of their crappy paintings of the Quarter, anyway? They’re stupid. What’s New Orleans without her psychics? Just another boring, run-down tourist town, that’s what!”
Ash held her sympathetically. “Times change, Selena. Believe me, I know, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it except to let it go. No matter how much you want to stop time, it has to go forward and move on to something else.”
Tabitha heard the sadness in his voice as he spoke comfortingly to her sister. Ash had been alive for more than eleven thousand years. He remembered New Orleans back in the days when it had barely qualified as a town. For that matter, he probably remembered New Orleans before any kind of civilization had claimed it.
If anyone knew about change, it was Acheron Parthenopaeus.
Ash wiped the tears from Selena’s face and angled her chin so that she was staring at the building across the street from them. “You know, that building is up for sale. ‘Madame Selene’s Tarot Reading and Mystical Boutique.’ Can you imagine it?”
Selena snorted at that. “Yeah, right. Like I can afford it. Have you any idea what the real estate here goes for?”
Ash shrugged. “Money’s not a problem for me. Say the word and it’s yours.”
Selena blinked at him as if she couldn’t believe what he was offering her. “Really?”
He nodded. “You could put a sign up right here that points people to your brand-new store where you can read cards to your heart’s content.”
Finally seeing a solution to her sister’s temporary dementia and grateful to Ash for it, Tabitha sat forward so that she could look at Selena. “You’ve always said you’d like to be someplace where it can’t rain you out.”
Selena cleared her throat as she considered it. “It would be nice to look out from a building instead of into it.”
“Yeah,” Tabitha said. “You’d no longer freeze in the winter or blister in the summer. Climate control all year long. No more wheeling your cart up here and setting up the table and chairs. You could even have a La-Z-Boy in the back room and carry all sorts of tarot card decks. Tia would be jealous as all get-out since she’s been wanting a shop closer to the Square. Think about it.”
“You want it?” Ash asked.
Selena nodded enthusiastically.
Ash pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. “Hey, Bob,” he said after a brief pause. “This is Ash Parthenopaeus. There’s a building for sale on St. Anne’s in Jackson Square … yeah, that one. I want it.” He offered a close-lipped smile to Selena. “No, I don’t need to see it. Just have the keys out here in the morning.” He pulled the phone aside. “What time can you meet him here, Selena?”
He repeated it into the phone. “Yeah, and make the deed out to Selena Laurens. I’ll swing by tomorrow afternoon and handle the payment. All right. Have a good one.” Ash hung up the phone and returned it to his pocket.
Selena smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” The instant he stood up, the handcuff fell free of the gate and Selena’s arm.
Jeez, that man had some fearsome powers. Tabitha just wasn’t sure which was more impressive. The one that broke the handcuff off Selena without a scratch or the one that allowed him to drop a couple of million dollars without blinking.
He held his hand out to Selena and helped her to her feet. “Just make sure you carry a lot of bright, shiny things for Simi to buy whenever we’re here.”
Tabitha laughed at the mention of Ash’s demon … something … Tabitha still didn’t know if Simi was Ash’s girlfriend or what. The two of them had a very odd relationship.
Simi demanded and Ash gave without hesitation.
Unless it involved Simi killing and eating someone. Those were the only times she’d ever seen Ash put his foot down with the demon he kept secret from most of his Dark-Hunters. The only reason Tabitha even knew about Simi was that the demon often joined them for movies.
For some reason, Ash really loved the cinema and Tabitha had been going to see movies with him for the last two years. His favorites were horror and action flicks. Meanwhile the Simi was a most unusual and discriminating being who made him sit through “girl” movies that often left Ash groaning.
“Where is the Simster tonight?” Tabitha asked.
Ash brushed his hand over the dragon tattoo on his forearm. “She’s hanging around. But it’s too early for her. She doesn’t like to be out and about until at least nine.” He slung the backpack over his shoulder.
Selena stood on her tiptoes and pulled Ash down so that she could hug him. “I’ll carry an entire line of Kirk’s Folly just for Simi.”
Smiling, he patted her on the back. “No more handcuffs, right?”
Selena pulled away. “Well, Bill did say that I could protest with him later in the bedroom and I do owe him for that kick I gave him, so…”
Ash laughed as Selena scooped up the cuffs from the street.
“And you wonder why I’m nuts,” Tabitha said as Selena tucked them into her back pocket.
Ash pulled his glasses back down to cover his eerie, swirling silver eyes. “At least she’s entertaining.”
“And you’re way too charitable.” But that was what Tabitha loved most about Ash. He always saw the good in everyone. “So what are you up to tonight?” she asked Ash while Selena folded up her handmade sign.
Before he could answer, a large black Harley came roaring down St. Anne. When it reached the turn that would have taken the rider down Royal Street, the bike stopped and was shut off.
Tabitha watched as the tall, lithe rider, who was decked out all in black biker leathers, held the bike upright between his thighs with ease and pulled the helmet off.
To her surprise, it was an African-American woman, and not a man, who set the helmet down before her on the bike’s gas tank and unzipped her jacket. Extremely gorgeous, she was slender but muscular, with medium brown skin and a flawless complexion. She wore her jet-black hair in braids that were pulled back into a ponytail.
“Acheron,” she said in a singsong Caribbean accent. “Where should I park me ride?”
Ash indicated Decatur Street behind him. “There’s a public lot on the other side of the Brewery. I’ll wait here until you get back.”
The woman’s gaze went to Tabitha, then Selena.
“They’re friends,” Ash said. “Tabitha Devereaux and Selena Laurens.”
“Sisters-in-law to Kyrian?”
“I am Janice Smith,” she said to them. “Nice to meet friends of the Hunters.”
Tabitha was sure that was a play on words that stemmed not so much from Kyrian’s last name as from his former occupation of being a Dark-Hunter—one of the immortal warriors like Janice and Ash who guarded the night against vampires, demons, and rogue gods.
Janice started her motorcycle and roared off.
“New Dark-Hunter?” Selena asked before Tabitha had a chance.
He nodded. “Artemis transferred her here from the Florida Keys to help Valerius and Jean-Luc. Tonight’s her first night so I thought I’d give her a tour of the city.”
“Need any help?” Tabitha asked.
“Nah. I got it. Just try not to stake Jean-Luc again if you meet up with him.”
Tabitha laughed at his reference to the night she had inadvertently met the pirate Dark-Hunter. It had been dark and Jean-Luc had grabbed her from behind in an alley while she was stalking after a group of Daimons. All she had seen were fangs and tallness, so she had struck.
Jean-Luc had yet to forgive her.
“I can’t help it. All you fanged people look alike in the dark.”
Ash grinned. “Yeah. I know what you mean. All you soul-full people look alike to us, too.”
Tabitha shook her head at him as she continued laughing. She wrapped her arm around Selena and started toward Decatur, where Selena had left her Jeep across the street.
It didn’t take long to get her sister home and situated with a very hesitant Bill, who wasn’t sure if Selena would rack him again or not. Once Tabitha was satisfied that Selena would be okay … and Bill, too … she headed back to the Quarter to patrol for Daimons.
It was a relatively quiet night out. She followed her usual habit of stopping in at the Café Pontalba and getting four plates of red beans and rice with Cokes to go, then taking the meals down to an alley off of Royal Street where many of the homeless were known to congregate. Since the city had decided to crack down on vagrants and the homeless, they weren’t nearly as prevalent as before. Now they, like the vampires she sought, kept to the shadows where they were forgotten.
But Tabitha knew they were there and she never let herself forget about them.
Tabitha left the food on an old rusted barrel and turned to leave.
As soon as she reached the edge of the sidewalk, she heard people scurrying for the food.
“Hey, if you want a job—”
But they were gone before she could get anything more than that out.
Sighing, Tabitha headed down Royal. She couldn’t save the world, she knew that. But at least she could see to it that some of the hungry were fed.
With no real destination in mind, she wandered down the lonely streets and browsed in the jewelry shop windows.
“Hey, Tabby, killed any vampires lately?”
She looked up to see Richard Crenshaw coming toward her. A waiter at Mike Anderson’s Seafood, which was just a couple of doors down from her own store, had a bad habit of coming in whenever he got off work and hitting on the strippers who ordered custom-made costumes from her.
As usual, he was laughing at her. That was fine. Most people did. In fact, most people thought she was insane. Even her own family had laughed at her for years … until her twin had ended up married to a Dark-Hunter and had faced a vampire who had almost killed her.
Suddenly her family realized that her preternatural stories over the years weren’t total hallucinations or fabrications.
“Yeah,” she said to Richard, “I dusted one last night.”
He rolled his eyes and laughed at her as he walked on past.
“You’re welcome, Dick,” she said under her breath as he kept going. The Daimon she’d killed had been hovering around the back door of Mike Anderson’s, where Richard was known to take out the trash right before he got off work. If Tabitha hadn’t killed the Daimon, Richard would most likely be dead now.
Whatever. She didn’t really want thanks for what she did and she certainly didn’t expect it.
She kept walking down the street, feeling extremely lonely tonight. How she wished she could live her life blindly, never knowing what was out here.
But she wasn’t blind. She knew, and with that knowledge came the choice of either helping people or walking away. Never in her life had Tabitha been the kind of person who turned her back on someone in need. Her powers as an empath were too much for her sometimes. She felt the pain of others even more deeply than she felt her own.
It was what had drawn Ash to her in the beginning. Over the last three years, he had taught her several tricks to dampen down others’ emotions and to focus on her own. He’d been a godsend to her and had done more for her sanity than anyone else. Still, his tricks didn’t silence them totally.
At times it was all completely overwhelming. She was so bombarded by intense emotions that it set off hers and sometimes caused her to lash out verbally just from the stress of it.
So here she was, by herself, spending another lonely night walking the streets as she risked her life for people who mocked her.
Patrolling was certainly much more fun when she’d done it with a group of friends.
Tabitha forced herself not to remember Trish and Alex, who’d both died in the line of duty. But it was useless. Tears filled her eyes as she touched the jagged scar on her face that the Daimon Desiderius had given her. The worst sort of psycho, Desiderius had been out to kill her twin sister and brother-in-law. Luckily, Amanda and Kyrian had survived. Tabitha just wished she’d been killed that night instead of her friends. It wasn’t right for them to pay such a high price when Tabitha had been the one to talk them into helping her in the first place.
God, why couldn’t she have kept her mouth shut and just left them alone to live out their lives in ignorance and peace?
It was why she fought alone now. She would never again ask anyone to risk their life to do what she did.
They had a choice about this.
Tabitha slowed down as she got the familiar tickle down the center of her spine.
They were behind her.
Turning around, she knelt down and pretended to tie the laces on her boot. Meanwhile she was well aware of the six shadows that were closing in on her …
* * *
Valerius pulled at the edge of his right leather Coach glove to straighten it as he walked down the virtually abandoned street. As always, he was impeccably dressed in a long black cashmere coat, a black turtleneck, and black slacks. Unlike most Dark-Hunters, he wasn’t a leather-wearing barbarian. He was the epitome of sophistication. Breeding. Nobility. His family had been descended from one of the oldest and most respected noble families of Rome. As a former Roman general whose father had been a well-respected senator, Valerius would have gladly followed in the man’s footsteps had the Parcae, or Fates, not intervened.
But that was the past and Valerius refused to remember it. Agrippina was the only exception to that rule. She was the only thing he ever remembered from his human life.
She was the only thing worth remembering from his human life.
Valerius winced and focused his thoughts on other, much less painful things. There was a crispness in the air that announced winter would be here soon. Not that New Orleans had a winter, compared to what he’d been used to in D.C.
Still, the longer he was here the more his blood was thinning, and the cool night air was a bit chilly to him.
Valerius paused as his Dark-Hunter senses detected the presence of a Daimon. Tilting his head, he listened with his heightened hearing.
He heard a group of men laughing at their victim.
And then he heard the strangest thing of all …
“Laugh it up, asshole. But she who laughs last, laughs longest and I intend to belly roll tonight.”
A fight broke out.
Valerius whirled on his heel and headed back the direction he’d come from.
He drifted through the darkness until he found an ajar gate that led to a courtyard.
There in the back were six Daimons fighting a tall human woman.
Valerius was mesmerized by the macabre beauty of the battle. One Daimon came at the woman’s back. She flipped him over her shoulder and in one graceful motion stabbed him in the chest with a long, black dagger. The Daimon burst into a golden dust.
She twirled as she rose up to face another one. She tossed the dagger from one hand to the other and held it like a woman well used to defending herself from the undead.
Two Daimons rushed her. She actually did a cartwheel away from them, but the other Daimon had anticipated her action. He grabbed her.
Without panicking, the woman surrendered her weight by picking both of her legs up to her chest. It brought the Daimon to his knees. The woman sprang to her feet and whirled to stab the Daimon in his back.
Normally the remaining Daimons would flee. The last four didn’t. Instead they spoke to each other in a language he hadn’t heard in a long time. Ancient Greek.
“Little chickie la la, isn’t dumb enough to fall for that, guys,” the woman answered back in flawless Greek.
Valerius was so stunned he couldn’t move. In over two thousand years, he’d never seen or heard of anything like this. Not even the Amazons had ever produced a better fighter than the woman who now confronted the Daimons.
Suddenly a light appeared behind the woman. It flashed bright and swirling. A chill, cold wind swept through the courtyard before six more Daimons stepped out.
Valerius went rigid at something even rarer than the warrior-woman fighting the Daimons.
* * *
Tabitha turned slowly to see the group of new Daimons. Holy shit. She’d only seen this one other time.
The new batch of Daimons looked at her and laughed. “Pitiful human.”
“Pitiful this,” she said as tossed her dagger at his chest.
He moved his hand and deflected the dagger before it reached him. Then he slung his arm toward her. Something invisible and painful slashed through her chest as she went flying head over heels.
Dazed and scared, Tabitha lay on the ground.
Horrible memories ripped through her of the night when her friends had died. The way the warrior Spathi Daimons had torn through them …
No, no, no.
They were dead. Kyrian had killed them all.
Her panic tripled as she struggled to right herself.
She was dizzy, her vision blurry as she pushed herself to her feet.
* * *
Valerius was across the alley in microseconds as he saw the woman fall.
The tallest Daimon, who stood even in height to Valerius, laughed. “How nice of Acheron to send us a playmate.”
Valerius pulled his two retractable swords from his coat and extended the blades. “Play is for children and dogs. Now that you have identified which category you fall into, I’ll show you what Romans do to rabid dogs.”
One of the Daimons smiled. “Romans? My father always told me that all Romans die squealing like pigs.”
The Daimon attacked.
Valerius sidestepped and brought his sword down. The Daimon pulled a sword out of nothing and parried his attack with a skill that bespoke a man with years of training.
The other Daimons struck at once.
Valerius dropped his swords and swung out with his arms, releasing the grappling hooks and cords that were attached to his wrists. The hooks went straight into the chest of the tallest Daimon and the one he was fighting.
Unlike most Daimons, they didn’t disintegrate instantly. They stared at him with hollow eyes before they burst apart.
But while he was distracted by them, another Daimon retrieved his sword and cut him across his back. Valerius hissed in pain before he turned and elbowed the Daimon in the face.
The woman was back on her feet. She killed two more Daimons while he killed the one who had wounded him.
Valerius wasn’t sure what had happened to the others. In truth, he was having a bit of trouble moving because of the vicious pain of his back.
“Die, Daimon snot!” the woman snarled at him an instant before she, too, stabbed him straight in the chest.
She pulled the dagger out instantly.
Valerius hissed and staggered back as pain ripped through his heart. He clutched at his chest, unable to think past the agony of it.
Tabitha bit her lip in terror as she saw the man recoil and not explode into dust.
“Oh, shit,” she breathed, rushing to his side. “Please tell me you’re some screwed-up Dark-Hunter and that I didn’t just kill an accountant or lawyer.”
The man hit the street hard.
Tabitha rolled him over onto his back and checked his breathing. His eyes were partially opened, but he wasn’t speaking. He held his jaw clamped firmly shut as he groaned deep in his throat.
Terrified, she still wasn’t sure who she had mistakenly stabbed. Her heart hammering, she pulled up his turtleneck to see the nasty-looking stab wound in the center of his chest.
And then she saw what she had hoped for …
He had a bow and arrow brand above his right hipbone.
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed as relief poured through her. He was in fact a Dark-Hunter and not some unfortunate human.
She grabbed her phone and called Acheron to let him know one of his men had been hurt, but he didn’t answer.
So she started dialing her sister Amanda until her common sense returned. There were only four Dark-Hunters in this city. Ash who led them. Janice whom she had met earlier. The former pirate captain, Jean-Luc. And …
He was the only Dark-Hunter in New Orleans she didn’t know personally. And he was the mortal enemy of her brother-in-law.
She hit the cancel button on her phone. Kyrian would kill this man in a heartbeat and bring the wrath of Artemis down fully upon his head. In return, the goddess would kill Kyrian for it and that was the last thing Tabitha wanted. Her sister would die if anything happened to her husband.
Come to think of it, if half of what Kyrian said about this man and his family was true, she should just leave him here and let him die.
But then Ash would never forgive her if she did that to one of his men. Besides she couldn’t leave him here, not even she was that heartless. Like it or not, he had saved her life and she was honor-bound to return the favor.
Wincing, she realized she was going to have to get him to safety. And he was just a little too large for her to handle on her own. She dialed her phone again and waited for an answer that came in a slick, Cajun drawl.
“Hey, Nick, it’s Tabitha Devereaux. I’m in the old courtyard off Royal Street with a man down and I need help. Any chance you want to be my knight in shining armor tonight and lend a hand to a damsel in distress?”
Nick Gautier’s smooth laugh rippled in her ear. “Why, chèr, you know I live for such moments. I’ll be right there.”
“Thanks,” she said before she gave him precise directions and hung up.
A New Orleans native like herself, Nick had been an acquaintance of hers for years since the two of them frequented many of the same restaurants and clubs. Not to mention, Nick had brought a few of his girlfriends in to browse some of the racier outfits that Tabitha sold in her adult boutique, Pandora’s Box.
A charming rogue, Nick was about as handsome as any man she’d ever seen. He had dark brown hair that tended to stay in a pair of eyes that were so blue and seductive they really should be illegal.
And when it came to his smile …
Not even she was entirely immune to it.
She’d been stunned to learn at her sister’s wedding three years ago that Nick actually worked for the undead. Rumors on the street had always abounded on what Nick did for a living. Every native who haunted the Quarter knew the man had a ton of cash and no real job that anyone could discern. When he’d shown up as best man for Kyrian, she’d been completely shocked.
But since that night, she and Nick had forged an odd alliance as drinking buddies and partners-in-crime who lived to rankle the Dark-Hunters. It was really nice to have someone she could talk to who knew that the vampires were real and who understood the dangers she faced every night.
Tabitha sat down on the cobblestoned walk to wait on Nick. Valerius still wasn’t moving. She cocked her head to study Kyrian’s great Satan. According to her brother-in-law, Valerius and his Roman family had been the worst sort of bastards.
They had killed and raped any- and everything that came into their paths as they led bloody campaigns across the ancient world. She would have taken Kyrian’s aspersions with more grains of salt if it wasn’t for the fact that other Dark-Hunters concurred.
To her knowledge, no one liked Valerius.
But as she watched him breathing lightly, he didn’t look so ominous.
Probably because he’s practically dead.
Actually, he was all dead. But still breathing. The moonlight cast shadows over the handsome planes of his face and showed the tears in his clothing where he was bleeding. If he could bleed to death, she’d hold a compress to his chest wound, but since he couldn’t she stayed put.
“How did you die?” she whispered. Kyrian didn’t know, and in all her readings about ancient Rome and Greece, Valerius’s name had seldom been mentioned. For all the brutality that Kyrian accused him of, Valerius Magnus wasn’t much more than a footnote in history.
“Hey, Tab, you in here?”
She breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of Nick’s deep Cajun drawl. Thank goodness he only lived three blocks away and knew how to hustle in a jam. “I’m over here.”
Dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt, Nick quickly joined her, then cursed the instant he saw who was lying on the ground.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he snarled after she asked him to help her get Valerius up. “I wouldn’t throw piss on that man if he were on fire.”
“Nick!” Tabitha said, shocked at his rancor. Normally Nick was the most laid-back of men. “That was uncalled-for.”
“Oh, yeah, right. I notice you didn’t call Kyrian for this. Why is that, Tabitha? ’Cause he’d kill you both?”
She stamped down her own temper, which would only set his off more if she started telling him how juvenile he was behaving. “C’mon, Nick. Don’t be like that. I don’t want to help him, either, but Ash won’t answer the phone and no one else seems to like him.”
“Damn straight. Everyone, but you, has a brain. Let him rot on the street.”
She stood up and faced him with her hands on her hips. “Fine. You explain to Ash why one of his Hunters was killed, then. You deal with his anger. I’m out of it.”
Nick narrowed his eyes on her. “You really suck, Tabby. Why didn’t you call Eric for this?”
“Because it’s awkward to ask your ex—who is happily married to someone else—for favors, okay? I somehow thought my friend Nick wouldn’t hassle me over this, but I can see now that I was wrong.”
He gave an exaggerated wince at that. “I really hate this man, Tabitha. I’ve known Kyrian too long and owe him too much to render aid to the man whose grandfather crucified him.”
“And we are not responsible for the actions of our family members, are we, Nick?”
His jaw ticced at that.
Nick’s father had been a convicted murderer who had died in a prison riot. It was well known by everyone that the man was a repeat felon who had spent the whole of Nick’s youth in and out of jail for all sorts of unsavory crimes. Nick himself had been well on his way to repeating his father’s fate when Kyrian had stepped in and saved him.
“That’s low, Tab, real low.”
“But it’s true. Now, please, forget that he’s a dickhead and help me get him home, okay?”
Nick growled at her before he came near them. “Do you know where he lives?”
“No, do you?”
“Somewhere over in the Garden District.” Nick pulled out his phone and dialed a number. After a minute, he cursed. “Otto, answer the phone.” He cursed again, then hung up and glared at her. “You know it’s bad when the guy’s own Squire won’t answer to save him.”
“Maybe Otto’s busy.”
“Maybe Otto’s psychic.”
Nick put his phone in his pocket, then bent over, tossed Valerius over his shoulder, and headed out of the courtyard to where his Jaguar was parked on the street. He dumped Valerius unceremoniously into the passenger seat.
“Watch his head, Nick!” she snapped as Nick banged it against the car.
“Not like I could kill him or anything. What happened to him, anyway?”
“I stabbed him.”
Nick blinked, then burst out laughing. “I knew I liked you for a reason. Oh man, I can’t wait to tell Kyrian. He’ll laugh his ass off.”
“Yeah, well, in the meantime, take Valerius back to my place and give me Otto’s number so that I can keep trying to call him.”
“And you want to tell me how I’m going to get him to your place since Bourbon Street is closed off to traffic after dark?”
She gave him a droll stare.
He growled at her. “Fine, but you owe me big-time.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get cracking, Squire.”
He mumbled something under his breath that she was sure was less than complimentary before he walked to the other side of his car and got in.
Since his car was a two-seater, Tabitha headed out on foot to rendezvous with him at her store. As she walked into the crowd on Bourbon Street, she felt something evil brush up against her psychically.
Spinning around, she scanned the crowd, but didn’t see anything.
Still, she felt it deep inside.
“Something wicked this way comes…” She breathed the title of her favorite Ray Bradbury book.
And something inside told her it was far more evil than anything she had faced before.
Copyright © 2005 by Sherrilyn Kenyon