He couldn’t respond. His face was already turning purple, his eyes bulging.
"Simi," Tabitha said, trying to pull the demon’s hand away from the man’s throat. "You’ll kill him. Let go."
The demon’s brown eyes flashed red a second before Simi released him. Bending double, he coughed and wheezed as he struggled to breathe again.
"You better never insult another lady, you stupid human," she said. "The Simi means that, too."
Without another word or thought about the matter, Simi swung her purse over her shoulder and sashayed down the street as if she hadn’t almost killed someone.
Tabitha’s heart was still pounding. What would have happened had she not been there to stop Simi?
"So, Tabitha, do you have any more of them yummy mints that you gave to the Simi when we went to the movies?"
"Sorry, Simi," she said, trying to regain some composure as she watched the poor guy stumble down the street. No doubt it would be quite awhile before he tried to pick up another woman he didn’t know. "I didn’t bring them with me."
"Oh poo, I really liked them. I especially liked that green tin. It was very nice. The Simi needs to make akri buy her some."
Yeah, and Tabitha needed to make sure Ash didn’t let his demon loose unattended anymore. Simi wasn’t evil, she just didn’t understand right or wrong. In the demon’s world, there wasn’t such a concept.
Simi only understood Ash’s orders and she carried them out to the letter.
But at least they were headed somewhere where most of the people knew and understood Simi. Sanctuary was a biker bar at 688 Ursulines Avenue that was owned by a family of Were-Hunters. Unlike the Dark-Hunters, the Were-Hunters were cousins of the cursed Apollites and Daimons with one profound difference: They were also half-animal.
Aeons ago, the Were-Hunters had originally been half-Apollite, half-human. In an effort to save his sons from dying at twenty-seven as the Apollites did, their creator had magically spliced animal essence with his sons’ bodies.
The result had created two sons who possessed human hearts and two who held animal hearts. Those who were human were called Arcadians and those who were animals were called Katagaria. The Arcadians spent most of their lives as humans who could take animal form, whereas the Katagaria were animals who could take human form.
Even though they were related, the two groups warred against each other because the Arcadians thought their animal cousins were lesser beings and the animals fought because that was their nature.
It was a Katagaria bear pack who owned the bar. Inside the walls of Sanctuary, anyone was welcomed. Human, Apollite, Daimon, god, Arcadian, or Katagaria. There was only one rule: You don’t bite me and I won’t bite you. Sanctuary was one of the few sacred areas on this planet where no paranormal being could attack another. And the bears would gladly keep Simi occupied until Ash was able to rejoin her.
Simi chattered endlessly until they reached the saloon-style doors of the bar.
"Are you coming inside?" she asked Tabitha.
Before she could answer, Tabitha saw Nick Gautier I headed toward them. Since Nick’s mother worked at the bar, he was an almost constant visitor there.
"Ladies," he said with a charming smile as he joined them.
"Nick," Tabitha said in greeting. Simi smiled warmly. "Hi, Nick," she said, twisting a strand of hair around her finger. "You going into Sanctuary, too?"
"I was planning on it. What about you two?"
Tabitha’s phone rang. "Hang on," she said to Nick and Simi before she answered it. It was Marla in hysterics.
"What?" Tabitha asked, trying to understand Marla’s words that came out in staccato between her sobs.
She glanced at Nick, who was watching her with a frown, "How about Nick Gautier-"
The question was cut off by Marla’s scream of terror. "Okay, okay," Tabitha said, realizing immediately why Marla was upset. Nick was wearing one of his heinous Hawaiian shirts along with ragged blue jeans and a pair of tennis shoes that looked as if they’d been fed to a garbage disposal. "Stop crying and get dressed. I’ll get someone, I promise."
Marla sniffed. "You swear?"
"Cross my heart."
"Thank you, Tabby. You’re a goddess!"
Tabitha had serious doubts about that as she hung up. "Nick, can you entertain Simi for a little while? I have to go prevent a disaster."
Nick grinned. "Sure, cher. I’ll be more than happy to keep Simi company if she doesn’t mind."
Simi shook her head. "You know, I really like them blue-eyed people," she said to Tabitha. "They’s all quality."
"You two have a good time," Tabitha said as she left them and rushed for Chartres Street.
Valerius was blow-drying his hair when he heard a commotion in his bedroom. It sounded like Gilbert and…
Turning off the dryer, he left the bathroom to find Gilbert trying to pull Tabitha out of his bedroom.
"Forgive me, my lord," Gilbert said as he released Tabitha. "I was coming to let you know you had a visitor when she followed me into your rooms."
Valerius couldn’t breathe as he saw the impossible. Tabitha back in his home.
An unexpected happiness consumed him, but he refused to even smile.
"It’s all right, Gilbert," he said, amazed at how even his tone was when all he really wanted to do was grin like an imbecile at her. "You may leave us."
Gilbert inclined his head before he obeyed.
Tabitha swallowed at the amazing sight of Valerius wearing nothing but a damp burgundy towel wrapped around his lean hips. It seemed completely incongruous to find him like that. With his imperious air, she would have thought him to have a collection of silk bathrobes or something.
His dark hair was damp and loose, framing a face that was chiseled to perfection.
Wow, he looked good like that. He’d probably look even better nak*d like he’d been when he jumped out of her bed…
She squelched that thought before it got her into trouble.
"To what do I owe this honor?" he asked.
She smiled. Oh yeah, he was perfect for what she needed… and she didn’t even want to contemplate that double entendre.
"I need you dressed." Tabitha paused at the thought. Yeah, right, there was something seriously wrong with a woman who said that to a man this finely made.
"Hurry and dress, then meet me downstairs." She shooed him toward the bed where he had a suit laid out. "Fretta! Fretta!"
Valerius wasn’t sure what stunned him more, her wanting him dressed or her speaking Italian.
"Dress!" Without another word, she left his room.
Before he could move, she opened the door and stuck her head back in. "You know, you could have dropped that towel, slowpoke… oh, never mind that thought. Keep your hair down and make sure you wear something really elegant and expensive. Preferably Versace if you have it, but Armani will do, too. And make sure you wear a tie and bring your coat."
Completely baffled and yet oddly curious about her request, he exchanged the suit on his bed for a black Versace silk and wool blend with a black silk shirt and matching silk tie, then opened the door.
Tabitha turned as the door swung open and she felt her mouth go dry. Her jaw dropped.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t known he was gorgeous, but…
It was all she could do to breathe. She’d never seen a man wear a totally black suit before but it was haute couture of the first right. He looked debonair and regal.
Marla was going to die!
That is, if Tabitha didn’t die first of hormonal overload poisoning.
"You know, I’ve always heard people say it should be illegal to look that good, but in your case, it really is true."
He frowned at her.
Tabitha grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the stairs. "C’mon, there’s no time to waste."
"Where are you taking me?"
"I need a favor from you."
Valerius was oddly flattered by her request. It was extremely rare that anyone ever asked him for a favor. Those were things most people reserved for people they considered friends.
"What do you need?"
"Marla needs an escort for the Ms. Red Light pageant."
Valerius stopped immediately. "She what?"
Tabitha turned to face him. "Oh come on, please don’t be a prude here. You’re Roman, for heaven’s sake."
"Yes, but that doesn’t mean I have some innate qualification to be an escort for a transvestite. Tabitha, please."
She looked so disappointed that it actually made him feel guilty.
"Marla has been practicing for this for months now and her guy cancelled on her tonight. Her number-one competitor bribed him to escort her instead. If Marla loses, this will kill her."
"I have no desire to be paraded around a group of g*y men."
"It’s not a parade… exactly. All you need to do is walk her out in the very beginning when they introduce her. It’ll only take a few minutes and that’s it. C’mon, Val. She spent a year’s salary on this gorgeous Versace gown."
Tabitha looked up at him with the most pathetically heartfelt gaze he’d ever seen. It absolutely melted him.
"There’s no one else to call on such a short notice. She needs a really elegant man. Someone who’s first class and I don’t know anyone else who fits the bill. Please? For me? I swear I’ll make it up to you."
Personally, he’d rather be beaten and killed… again. And yet he couldn’t find it within himself to disappoint her.
"What if one of them gropes me-"
"They won’t. I promise, I’ll protect all your…" She arched a brow as she looked at his derriere. "Assets."
"And if anyone ever learns of this-"
"They won’t. I’ll take it to my grave."
Valerius let out a long breath. "You know, Tabitha, anytime in my life I have ever sought to help anyone, I’ve only made it worse for them. I have a bad feeling about this. Something will go wrong. Watch and see. Marla will fall off the stage and break her neck, or worse, her big wig will catch on fire."
She waved her hand dismissively. "You’re being paranoid."
No, he wasn’t. And as she led him toward the front door, every horrible memory of his life played through his mind… The time when he’d felt sorry for Zarek and had tried to soothe him after a beating. His father had then forced him to beat Zarek more. He’d pulled back the strokes, hoping they wouldn’t be as painful as the ones his father had given Zarek. Instead, he’d ended up blinding the poor slave.
Then when he’d tried to keep Zarek from being caught outside the confines of their villa, he’d caused his father to pay a slaver to take Zarek away from everything the boy had known.
As a first-time general, he’d had a young soldier under his command who was the last surviving son of his family. Hoping to keep the youth away from the battlefield, he had sent him as a messenger to another Roman camp.
The boy had died two days out from an attack by rogue Celts who had stumbled across him.
"I can’t do this, Tabitha."
Tabitha paused on the front steps to look at him. There was a catch in his voice that told her this wasn’t him being ridiculous.
She actually felt a wave of fear go through him.
"It’ll be okay. Five minutes. That’s it."
"And if I cause Marla to be hurt?"
"I’ll be right there. Nothing bad is going to happen. Trust me."
He nodded, but she felt his reluctance as she tugged him toward the taxi she’d left waiting for them. Getting in, she gave directions to the driver to the Cha Cha Club on Canal Street.
It barely took them fifteen minutes to get there. Tabitha paid for the cab while Valerius stood on the sidewalk looking like he was ready to bolt, especially since some of the club’s clientele had already taken notice of him.
"Don’t worry," Tabitha said as she joined him. "They really won’t bother you."
Valerius couldn’t believe he was doing this. He must have lost his mind.
Tabitha took his hand and led him through the bright pink double doors.
"Hey, Tabby," a bouncer at the door called. He was large and muscular, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. His dark brown hair was cut short and he had a Celtic band tattooed around his exposed biceps. At first glance he appeared intimidating, but his open, honest smile stole the ferocity from him.
Tabitha pulled out her wallet to pay their cover charge. "Hi, Sam. We’re here to help out Marla. Is she in the back?"
"Put that away," Sam said, pushing her wallet back toward her. "You know your money’s no good here. Yes, Marla’s in back and please go help her. My boyfriend’s about to lose his mind because she won’t stop crying."
Tabitha winked at him. "Don’t worry. The cavalry’s here."
Valerius took a deep breath as he followed Tabitha into what had to be the scariest place he’d ever been. Personally, he’d rather walk straight into a nest of Daimons who were armed with chainsaws and guillotines.
But by the time they reached the bright yellow door beside the stage, he felt a little better. Though many of the men in the club stopped to gawk at him, none of them made a move toward him.
"Don’t worry," Tabitha said as he walked past her. "I’ve got your flank covered."