"Happy birthday, Agrippina," Valerius said as he laid a single red rose at the feet of the marble statue that held a sacred place in his home.
It was nothing compared to the sacred place that the woman herself had held within his heart while she had lived. A place she still occupied-even after two thousand years.
Closing his eyes, he felt crippled by the pain of her loss. Crippled by the guilt that the last sounds he had heard as a mortal man had been her wrenching sobs as she called out for his help.
Unable to breathe, he reached up and touched her marble hand. The stone was hard. Cold. Unyielding. Things Agrippina had never been. In a life that was measured by brutal formality and harshness, she had been his only refuge.
And he loved her still for the quiet kindness she had given him.
He clasped her delicate hand in both of his, then laid his cheek against the cold stone palm.
If he could have one wish, it would be to remember the exact sound of her voice.
To feel the warmth of her fingers on his lips.
But time had robbed him of everything except the agony he had caused her. He would die ten thousand more deaths if only he could have saved her the pain of that one night.
Unfortunately, there was no way to turn back time. No way to force the Fates to undo their actions and give her the happiness she should have known.
Just as there was nothing that could fill the aching void inside him left by Agrippina’s death.
Grinding his teeth, Valerius pulled away and noted the eternal flame that burned by her side was sputtering.
"Don’t worry," he said to her image. "I won’t leave you in the dark. I promise."
It was a promise he had made to her during her lifetime, and even in death, he had never broken it. For more than two thousand years he had kept her in the light even while he was forced to live in the darkness that had terrified her.
Valerius crossed the sunroom to reach the large Roman-style buffet table that held the oil for her flame. He removed the oil from the center of the buffet and took it to her statue; then he stepped up onto the stone pedestal to pour the last of it into the lamp.
In this position, his head was even with hers. The sculptor he had commissioned centuries ago had captured every delicate curve and dimple of her precious face. Only Valerius’s memory supplied the honey color of her hair. The vivid green of her eyes. Agrippina had been flawless in her beauty.
Sighing, Valerius touched her cheek before he stepped down. There was no use in dwelling on the past. What was done was done.
He was sworn now to protect the innocent. To keep watch over humanity and make sure that no other man had to lose so valuable a light in his soul as Valerius had lost.
Assured the flame would last until tomorrow night, Valerius inclined his head respectfully to her statue. "Amo," he said to her, whispering Latin for "I love you."
It was something he wished to the gods that he’d had the courage to say aloud to her while she had lived.
"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, Cafe Pontalba, Cafe Du Monde, and Corner Cafe 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!"