Ash ground his teeth as Artemis ran her hands through his long, blond hair. He shuttered his eyes as he watched her draw a lock of it between her fingers and flick the curl back and forth with her fingertip.

"I have to go," he said.

She pouted seductively, running her graceful hand down his bare chest, her fingernails gently scraping his skin. "I don't want you to go."

"Release me, Artie. I have to find Styxx before he hurts anyone else. He almost killed Zarek last night."

"Who cares? Zarek is better off dead."

"That can be said for most of us."

She painfully raked her nails down his arms, which were secured to her bedposts by a pair of soft golden cords. "I hate when you talk like that. You're so ungrateful after all I have done for you."

Oh yeah, she had done so much for him. More like to him and very little of it had been kind or enjoyable.

"Don't make me break your restraints, Artie." If he used his powers to untie her "special" cords, it would send a signal through Olympus alerting the other gods of his presence in her temple. Anytime he "visited" her, his powers were seriously restricted. He could do paltry parlor-type tricks such as open doors or dress and undress, but anything more than that would be picked up by the Olympian gods and would cause them to investigate the unknown source of power.

That was the only thing Artemis feared.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? To have Zeus or one of the others find you in my bed?"

"Then let me go."

The golden cords unwrapped themselves from his wrists. Ash sighed as he moved his arms for the first time since dawn and let the circulation travel back into his hands.

A wave of exhaustion hit him, but he shook it off.

As usual, Artemis hadn't let him sleep at all while he'd been with her, and he'd now been awake for two days straight.

He was so tired, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.

"Oh, guess what I found out for you," Artemis said. "My worthless brother, Dion, has hooked up with yours and with the Gaulic war god, Camulus, in a bid for power. Is that a goof or what?"

Acheron froze. "What did you say?"

"Dion and Cam think they can retake their godhoods and they're using your brother as their ringleader. Can you say, rockball's chance?" She laughed. "Just imagine, a forgotten Gaulic war god, my brother, whose only claim to fame is sucking down wine and getting laid, and your brother, whose only good mark is he happens to look like you. And they think the cabbage can lead them to glory." She snorted, then laughed again. "I can't wait to see what these losers have planned."

Acheron stared at her. She might underestimate their abilities, but he had a sneaking suspicion of what they intended to do.

On Mardi Gras, the barrier between this world and the one where the Atlantean Destroyer was held would be thin.

There could be only one reason for them to have Styxx in on their plans...

They wanted to release the Destroyer and the only way to do that would be by killing Ash.

One way or another, Ash was going to make sure it didn't happen.

Come Mardi Gras, they all had a big surprise coming.

They had no idea who and what they were dealing with. The Destroyer was far beyond their ability to command or control. Once unleashed, she was the most merciless ancient god imaginable. One who had slain every member of her own family. Afterward, she would have destroyed the entire earth had she not been stopped and imprisoned.

If Camulus and Dionysus thought to bargain with her after they killed him, they were pathetically mistaken.

He almost smiled at the thought of them trying to reason with her. Mardi Gras night would be interesting, no doubt.

"By the way," Artemis said as she reclined naked on the bed and ran her bare foot up his spine in a long, cool caress, "your children have been very bad while you were here."

Ash stopped rubbing his wrist and looked at her. "What do you mean?"

"In direct disobedience to your orders, Zarek was out and about earlier this evening, and he and Talon got into a fight in the French Quarter."

Anger rushed through him. "What? When?"

"About two hours ago."

"Dammit, Artemis," he snarled. "Why didn't you tell me?"

She shrugged and ran her hand over her naked breasts in an effort to draw his attention to her. "I liked you where you were and I knew if I told you, you'd leave."

Ash glared at her. Her selfishness knew no bounds. Angry at her, he snapped his fingers and returned his clothes to his body. He made his hair black and grabbed his backpack up from the floor.

"I hate that hair color on you," she said petulantly, zapping his hair back to blond.

He stiffened. "Yeah, well, the only color I hate more than blond is auburn." He made his hair black again, then zapped hers to a matching shade.

Her furious shriek echoed through the temple as Ash mentally commanded himself back to New Orleans.

Sunshine felt an adrenaline rush as they approached the biker bar at 688 Ursulines Avenue. It was the best place in town to come meet friends, eat good food, and find all kinds of fun things to do.

"You didn't tell me we were going to Sanctuary."

Talon frowned. "You know about Sanctuary?"

"Honey, there's not a single woman in this town who doesn't know about Sanctuary, Land of the Bodacious Gods. Heck, me and my girlfriends want to get together and vote Mama Lo an award for her policy against hiring any man not seriously buff."

She noted the offended grimace on his face and couldn't help laughing. "Not that you're not buff. You can certainly hold your own against the Sanctuary Hotties. But face it, haven't you ever noticed that this place is like Hooters for women?"

"No. I can honestly say that I've never noticed how good-looking the men at Sanctuary are. Nor have I ever cared."

The outside of the club was a typical New Orleans building that had been constructed in 1801. The brick was a rust color and a huge sign swung over the old-fashioned saloon-type doors. It showed a full moon rising over a hill where a motorcycle was parked and proudly proclaimed this place as Sanctuary, Home of the Howlers-the Howlers being the house band for the club, and a mighty fine-looking group of men they were too.

The bar was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and was owned by the Peltier family. The owner, Mama Lo, had eleven studly sons who again warranted the woman an award for beautifying the city.

Each one of them was a prime male specimen guaranteed to make a woman pant.

Dev Peltier was at the door as they entered. A regular bouncer, he was one in a set of identical quadruplets. Sunshine had never met a woman who didn't want to take one of the quads home. For that matter, they wanted to take them all home and use them as matching bookends in the bedroom. Only it wasn't books her friends wanted to sandwich between the quadruplets.

Dev had a pair of piercingly blue eyes and long, wavy blond hair that fell to the middle of his back. The only way she knew it was Dev as opposed to one of his brothers was the bow-and-arrow tattoo on his arm.

She paused as she realized it was identical to the brand on Talon's shoulder.

"Hey, man," Dev said in that shivery-hot, deep accent that was a cross between French and Cajun as he caught sight of Talon. The two of them did a high-five shake. "Where have you been?"

"Out and about. You?"

Dev gave him a wicked grin. "Mostly in and out."

Talon laughed. "I'm not going there."

Dev looked at her and winked. "Hey, little Sunshine, why you hanging out with this loser? You lose a bet or something?"

"Or something," she said with a smile.

"You know Dev?" Talon asked her, his body going rigid as if the thought made him jealous.

"Yeah," Dev answered before she could. "She comes in all the time. Her and Aimee play pool in the back."

"You come here alone?"

Sunshine shoved Talon playfully on the shoulder. "Would you stop? You're not my father and no one bothers me here thanks to Dev and his brothers."

"That's right, Talon, you know my policy. No one harasses a woman in Sanctuary unless she wants to be harassed."

"The exception being Aimee," Sunshine couldn't resist adding. The only daughter in the massive Peltier clan, Aimee couldn't get near a man without one of her brothers or her enormously tall, well-muscled father having a stroke.

"Double damn straight." Dev inclined his head to the coffin that was kept in the corner of the club right as you came in the door. "That's the last moron who asked my sister out."

Talon laughed again. "There's another place I don't want to go to. I'm looking for Eros, has he been in here yet?"

"Upstairs by the storeroom playing poker with Rudy, Justin, and Etienne."

"Thanks." Talon led her through the front half of the bar where tables and booths were set up for eating. The place was rather crowded tonight and the music from the Howlers was loud and thumping.

"Hey, Talon," Sunshine shouted in his ear. "Why do you and Dev have the same bow-and-arrow mark on your bodies?"

He glanced back to where Dev stood at the door. "Dev thinks it's funny that he bears the mark of a..." His voice trailed off, but she caught his unspoken meaning by the glint in his eyes.

The bow mark must be the signature sign of a Dark-Hunter. "Is he one too?"

"No, he's another breed entirely."

Understanding ripped through her. "A breed like Vane?"

He paused and lowered his head so that he could speak without being overheard. "Yes, and at the same time, no."

So he must be a were-beast of a different sort. "Does this mean his entire family is able to change..."-she shifted gears as a patron came too close-"their clothes to something entirely new?" she finished.

He nodded.

Wow! Who knew? An entire were-family ran one of the most popular places in town. Very chic.

Talon straightened and headed for the back where the pool tables were kept. There was an ornate pine staircase that led to the area above, where additional tables were set up for people to eat and watch the band as they played below.

Even the upstairs area was packed tonight.

Without stopping, Talon led her past the patrons and headed for the last table on the left, which was set in a corner.

Five people sat at it and four of them were playing poker. Etienne Peltier was leaner than his older brother Dev, but no less muscular. He had shoulder-length, straight blond hair and a face that could only be called angelic. But as Sunshine had learned on more than one occasion, the devil himself resided in that handsome body. No one wanted to cross Etienne.

Rudy St. Michel sat next to Etienne. Average in appearance, he looked like the typical New Orleans drifter with long black hair, and colorful tattoos covering every inch of visible flesh. He'd started working here about a year ago and was responsible for the arcade games downstairs.

Another bouncer, Justin Portakalian, had his back to the wall and one long, leather-encased leg stretched out over a wooden chair as he handed two cards over to Rudy. He was as gorgeous as any of the Peltiers, with medium-length, dark brown hair and hazel eyes that glittered with malice. At six feet six and with a bad attitude that redefined the term, he was someone Sunshine had always tried to avoid. He didn't talk much and had tossed her last boyfriend through the back door. Literally.

She'd also heard a rumor that Justin was fresh out of prison for murder, and something about his deadly demeanor added quite a bit of credibility to that speculation.

The other two people she didn't know. One was a blond biker who held a beautiful, barely dressed redhead on his lap. He looked up, saw Talon, and the smile faded from his lips. "What are you doing here, Celt?"

"I need to talk to you."

"Can't you see I'm winning?"

Talon looked at the poker chips by his elbow. "Yes, and I can also see that you're cheating."

"What?" The other men were suddenly animated.

"Talon, you dick!" The blond cleared his throat. "He's just kidding. Give me a minute, okay?"

Rudy snorted at Justin and Etienne as he adjusted the five cards in his hands. "I don't know why you guys are bitching. Both of you cheat too."

Etienne smiled that charming devil-may-care smile while Justin passed a less than amused glare at Rudy.

The blond biker started away from the table, then hurried back and grabbed up his cards.

"Just in case," he said to the others.

As soon as the blond stepped back to them, Talon introduced them. "Sunshine, meet Eros and Psyche."

Sunshine looked at them curiously. "They just think those names are cute, right? They're not really Eros and Psyche."

Eros gave her a peeved stare. "Why is she talking to me?"

"Cupid," Talon said, a warning note in his voice. "Play nice." He turned to Psyche. "Would you please do me a favor, Psyche, and keep Sunshine occupied while I deal with your husband?"

"Sure, hon." Psyche draped her arm over Sunshine's shoulders. "Come on, let's go see what kind of trouble we can get into downstairs."

Sunshine followed Psyche to the ornate staircase that led to the floor below, not far from the stage. The whole area was crammed with dancers and people who wanted to hear the Howlers sing, and with women who wanted to ogle the gorgeous band members.

She and Psyche went over to a pool table where a guy named Nick Gautier was playing a game with Wren, one of the Sanctuary busboys. Wren was a quiet, shy type who had an aura around him that said he would rather be invisible. Still, there was something dangerous about him. Kind of like he would gladly fight anyone dumb enough to disturb his introverted space.

His dark blond hair was long, and he wore it in a style that wasn't quite dreadlocks, but something not far from that either. His eyes were so pale a gray that they looked almost colorless.

As for Nick Gautier, Sunshine had met him here a few times. His mother was one of the cooks and he often came in for dinner and to play a quick game of pool with Wren.

"Hi, ladies," Nick said with his light Cajun drawl.

Psyche took the cue from his hand. "Rack your balls, Nick. We want to play."

Nick laughed. "Psych, one thing a woman should never tell a man to do is rack his balls."

Ignoring him, Psyche looked over to Wren. "You don't mind, do you?"

Wren shook his head no and handed his cue to Sunshine. Without a word, he quickly vanished into the crowd.

"I didn't mean to disturb you guys," Sunshine said to Nick.

"Ah, don't worry about it. Wren and I play a lot. He needed to get back to the kitchen anyway. You ladies want something to drink?"

"Beer," Psyche said.

"Water."

He nodded and left.

Sunshine watched as Nick navigated the crowd. She turned back to Psyche. "So you and Eros come here a lot?"

She nodded. "I've even seen you here a few times. You usually hang out with Aimee and some black-haired chick."

"Trina."

"That's her."

Psyche grabbed the cue ball and lined it up. "Yes," she said as she took her shot, sending six of the balls into pockets. "I'm a goddess and Eros is a god."

"How did you know-"

"I'm a goddess. I can hear every thought in your head." She smiled at Sunshine while she chalked her tip.

"That's a really uncomfortable fact to know."

"Isn't it, though?" Psyche blew across the tip, set the chalk aside, then knocked three more balls into the pockets. "And because I know what you're thinking, the answer is yes."

"The answer to what?"

"Whether or not Talon loves you."

Sunshine grimaced as Psyche sank the rest of balls on the table. "I don't know. There are times when I get the feeling he can't tell me from Nynia. I think he loves her more than me."

Psyche racked the balls again. "No offense, but that's stupid. You and Talon are soulmates. He will always love you no matter who or what you are. You, my friend, could come back as a humpback whale and he would love you. He can't help it. The two of you are destined for each other."

"Yeah, but-"

"There are no buts, Sunshine." She moved to stand in front of her. "I am the goddess of souls and soulmates. Unlike the other Olympian gods, I know when I see two people who were created for each other. If both you and Talon died tonight and were later reborn at polar ends of the earth, sooner or later the two of you would reunite. That's the schtick with soulmates. Alone you can survive, hell, you can even be with other people, but neither of you will ever be complete without the other." She glanced upstairs where they had left the guys. "You two can fight this all you want. But all you're going to do is make yourselves miserable."

She patted Sunshine's shoulder. "I know you don't believe me. I know it'll take time before you accept it. And that being said, the problem with your relationship isn't whether or not he loves you. It's that he can't afford to even think that thought."

"Why?"

"Because the minute he does, Camulus will kill you. Talon knows that. He will not let himself love you for fear of your dying again."

Sunshine swallowed at her words. Everything kept coming back to that one irritable and irritating Celtic god. "Is there any way to get around Camulus?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe? That's the best you can do?"

"Hey, it's better than no."

True, but still she wanted more hope than that.

"And what about Artemis?" Sunshine asked. "Even if we get past Camulus, what about her?"

Psyche twisted her cue in her hands as she thought about that never-to-be-forgotten fact. "She's tricky. With her you have to negotiate very carefully."

"So it's possible I could talk to her?"

"It's possible."

Sunshine's mind whirled at the thought. Could there really be hope for them?

Talon led Eros into the storeroom and shut the door. Quinn Peltier had soundproofed the room a few decades back to ensure that the Peltiers and other select friends could have emergency privacy if they needed it.

Originally, the room had been planned as a holding place in the event one of them accidentally turned into a bear while the club was occupied, but over time it had come to serve as a convenient place for one of the brothers to take a willing woman should they have an itch that wouldn't wait.

But that was another story.

Talon switched on the dim overhead light and faced Eros. "I need a favor."

"Favor, hell. Didn't you know that I'm supposed to vaporize any Dark-Hunter who gets near me?"

Talon looked at him drolly. "I'll remember that the next time you want to borrow poker money from me without Psyche knowing."

Eros smiled good-naturedly. "Good point. Okay, what can I do you to?"

Talon hesitated. Silently, he prayed Eros would give him an answer other than the one he feared.

"Do you know the Celtic god Camulus?"

Eros shrugged. "Not really. He runs with Ares, Kel, Ara, and those other war gods. Being the god of love and lust, I don't tend to associate with them. Why?"

"Because I was cursed by him and I wanted to know if there is any way for me to break the curse."

"Honestly?"

"Yes."

"Most likely not. War gods as a rule aren't real forgiving. It kind of comes with the whole mass-destruction mentality. But it depends on what you did and what he used as a curse."

"I killed his son and he has forbidden me to ever love a human. When I do, he kills them."

"Ooo," Eros breathed. "Sorry, man, but something like that, you can hang up an out clause. Vengeance runs deep in the bones of the war gods. Now, if you had the blood of a god in you, you might have some leverage. Do you?"

"No. I'm fully human, blood-wise anyway."

"Then you're totally screwed."

Talon clenched his teeth at the truth, even though he wasn't surprised by it. He hadn't realized until then that he had started to see a future for him and Sunshine.

That in the back of his mind there really had been hope.

But it was futile.

"There's no way to keep Sunshine."

He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud until Eros said, "If you love her, then I'm sure she'll pay for it."

Talon braced himself for what he had to do. Even though it tore his heart out and made him want to cry. He knew he had to do this.

It was the only way to protect her.

"Fine, then. I have one last request."

Eros gave him an understanding look. "You want me to shoot you guys with the lead arrow to kill your love."

He nodded.

Eros pulled his bow necklace from around his neck and made it larger.

Talon grabbed his hand as he aimed it at him. "Not yet. Okay? I just want a little more time with her. Can you wait until midnight?"

Shrinking the bow back to necklace size, Eros nodded and patted Talon on the shoulder. "Love bites, man. Believe me, I know."

Talon thought about Psyche and he felt a twinge of jealousy. "Yeah, but you got to keep your love."

"True. I'm damn lucky in that department." Eros shifted as if something had made him uncomfortable. "Where do you want me to shoot you?"

"Someplace that won't hurt."

Eros rolled his eyes.

Talon answered seriously. "The club Runningwolf's. I'll have her there at midnight."

Nodding, Eros took two steps away. "I'll see you at midnight."

"Thanks, Eros. I owe you."

"Yes, you do."

Talon inclined his head in mutual understanding. Now he was indebted to Vane and Eros. At the rate he was going, he was likely to lose a whole lot more than his soul before all was said and done.

He just prayed that in the end, Sunshine didn't lose her life.

But he wouldn't think about that now. All he had was a few more hours to spend with the woman he loved.

He wanted to enjoy what little time they had before she learned to hate him.

Talon left the room and stopped as he caught sight of Sunshine downstairs playing pool with Psyche.

She was so beautiful there. The stage lights played off her midnight-black hair. And her lush, sweet body... It was perfection.

Sunshine was everything to him.

Talon's thoughts scattered when he realized that a thin man of average height was talking to Sunshine and she didn't look happy about it.

Suddenly, their conversation escalated into a verbal fight. Sunshine was animated as she poked the man with her finger and pushed him back.

Psyche put her cue down and stepped between them.

Talon saw red.

Without thinking about the patrons or anything other than Sunshine, he placed his hand on the banister and swung his legs over and dropped to the floor below.

The people downstairs gasped and scattered.

Pain shot up his leg and worsened as he took a step. Talon didn't care. The only thing he saw was Sunshine's distressed face. The only sound he heard was her angry voice.

"How could you do this, Jerry, you snake!"

"I told you before, Sunny, everything's fair in business."

"But he was my client. I sat out there all day today waiting on him to show."

"Yeah, well, you snooze, you lose."

"Here's another saying," Talon said, grabbing the guy and turning him to face him. "No one messes with my girl."

Sunshine froze at the look on Talon's face. It was truly scary. He stared at Jerry as if he were one inch away from making Jerry fillet.

"It's all right, Talon," she said, not wanting him to get into trouble or, worse, arrested for beating the slug.

She could tell by Jerry's expression that he was dying to say something snide, but the sheer size and ferocity of Talon kept his lips sealed.

She took Talon's arm. "C'mon, babe, let's go."

Talon really wanted to tear the guy apart. How dare he steal Sunshine's client from her? He knew how much it meant to her.

His anger snapped and hissed, straining against the control he was using to keep it leashed.

"Who is this dick?" Talon asked Sunshine.

"I used to be her husband, what about you?"

Talon's eyes flared. "Ditto."

Jerry couldn't have looked more shocked had Talon actually hit him.

Talon looked at Sunshine. A part of him felt extremely betrayed that she had dared marry someone else. It didn't matter that she'd had no idea about their past life together.

It still hurt.

Her eyes apologized to him. "I was going to tell you."

"When, Sunshine?"

She turned and glanced at Jerry. "You're such a jerk. I can't believe I was ever stupid enough to marry you."

She started through the now silent crowd.

"Hey, Sunny," Jerry called after her. "Make sure you go to Fallini's sometime and admire my work. Remember when you look at it that the best artist won."

Talon saw the tears in her eyes.

His temper exploded.

Rotating his shoulders, he turned and slugged Jerry so hard that he was knocked off his feet. He landed with a solid thump on the pool table, sending billiard balls rolling and bouncing.

Several members of the bear clan cursed as cameras flashed.

"Way to keep a low profile, Celt," Justin said snidely from beside him.

Talon ignored the panther. He took Sunshine's hand and led her through the crowd.

Nick met him and Sunshine at the door. "Man, Ash is going to flip when he finds out about this. I can't believe you pulled something like this with a Mardi Gras crowd to witness it. You're worse than Zarek."

"Just make sure you clean it up."

"Clean it up, hell. Do you know how many cameras just caught your stunt-jump from upstairs? My mom now thinks you're on the drugs she suspects Kyrian sells. We're screwed. My life is toast. I'm about to get lectured about working for drug dealers... again. My mom, bless her heart, is so goofy, she doesn't even realize she works for bears. I'm so screwed."

"Don't worry about it," Dev said as he joined them. "We have your back, Celt. Cleaning up indiscretions is our specialty. No human here will remember it tomorrow and we'll make sure none of the electronics show anything either. Everyone will be ticked off that all they got for a picture was a big black blob."

"What about me?" Nick asked. "I don't want any of your mind-meld stuff."

"I said humans, Nicky."

Nick looked extremely offended.

"Thanks," Talon said to Dev.

"Any time. I'll see you tomorrow for Mardi Gras."

Talon inclined his head to the bear and led Sunshine outside even though his entire leg felt as if it had been broken by the jump.

Once they were on the street, he confronted her. "You were married?"

"It was seven years ago, Talon. I was young and stupid."

"You were married," he repeated. "To him."

Sunshine took a deep breath and sighed. "Yes."

"I can't believe this."

"Oh, c'mon, Talon, give me a break. Don't hold something against me when I had no idea you even existed. If anyone has a right to be mad, I think it should be me."

"Excuse me?"

"Selena told me about you and your rep, bud. How you've pretty much laid every woman in New Orleans. You want to tell me about that?"

"That was different."

"Why? Because I'm a woman? You knew I wasn't a virgin, Talon. What did you expect?"

Talon didn't know. But then, it didn't really matter.

After tonight, she'd hate him anyway. The last thing he wanted was to spend the evening fighting with her.

This was all the time they would ever have.

"Okay, Sunshine. You're right. I'm sorry."

Sunshine was stunned. This was the first time she'd ever known a guy to cave so easily. "Are you really?"

"Yes," he said, his eyes sincere. "I don't want to fight, okay? Let's just forget about him and go eat."

She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles. "Sounds good."

As they walked to a small cafe on Iberville, she noticed he had a slight limp. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I just twisted my leg when I jumped over the railing," he said. "Whenever I get mad, I tend to lose my Dark-Hunter powers, and without them, my body becomes human."

"Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. "As long as I stay calm, it should heal while we eat."

Talon kept her close to him the entire time it took them to reach the restaurant and be seated. He memorized everything about her. He would always remember her like this and those memories would live inside him right along with the ones of her as Nynia.

Or would he lose those memories when Eros shot him?

Would his mind somehow distort them so that he couldn't love her anymore?

His stomach knotted at the thought. What would it be like to not even have the comfort of his memories of Nynia and Sunshine?

To not remember the softness of her touch, the smell of her patchouli on his skin?

The way her eyes lit up every time she looked at him?

Grinding his teeth, he tried not to think about that, or to feel the pain in his heart.

This wasn't about him and what he stood to lose.

This was about her.

He had to do this for her.

She sat in the booth across from him, her head bent while she ate. The candlelight reflected the darkness of her hair, making her skin a creamy tan. A creamy tan that made his mouth water for a taste.

Talon watched the graceful gestures of her hands as she cut into her garbanzo bean salad and ate it. He loved those long, tapered fingers. Loved teasing them with his mouth, feeling them on his body.

"What made you want to be an artist?" he asked.

"I love working with my hands."

He reached across the table and took her left hand into his. He studied the delicate curve of it, the way it felt so dainty in his palm. "You have such beautiful hands."

She smiled and squeezed his with hers. "Thank you. They're the most valuable thing an artist can ever have. I used to have nightmares that something would happen to them, a severe scar or burn that would prevent me from ever using them for pottery or drawing again. Art is my life. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't create."

Talon closed his eyes as agony washed over him. His emotions swirled, but he forced them down. He had to.

The clock was ticking for them.

Sunshine fed him a bite of her salad and he did his best not to cringe.

"Why aren't your eyes amber anymore?" she asked.

He swallowed his bite and took a drink of wine. "Part of the whole Dark-Hunter package. We're turned into predators so that we can track down and kill Daimons. Our eyes become black and dilate a lot more than human eyes so that we can see in darkness."

"And your fangs? Do you use them to suck blood?"

He shook his head. "No. Blood has never been to my taste. The fangs are just part of the package too."

"And do you like what you do?"

"There are times when it's fun and challenging and times when it's kind of boring. For the most part I don't mind."

She seemed to accept that.

She ate for a few minutes before she spoke again. "Talon, why did you give up your soul?"

He looked away. In his mind, he could see that day so clearly. He had been lying on the altar, his hands tied above his head, his chest bare and marked in blood with the sacrificial symbols. It had been a cool day, and every member of his clan had been there.

Dressed in black robes, the Druid priest had looked down upon him and smiled cruelly.

"Seize Ceara."

His cousin's words had rung in his head. It had taken a full minute before he understood what was going on. Horrified, Talon had watched his men grab his sister's arms.

"Speirr! Help me, brathair, please!"

He had fought against the ropes until his wrists had bled and stung. He had screamed out for them to release her.

Like a caged animal, he had tried to reach her.

Over and over, she called out to him.

"It's the will of the gods that you both die for what your mother did."

His cousin had sunk his dagger deep into Ceara's heart.

She had looked to Talon, her eyes terrified and tear-filled as she struggled to breathe.

Worst of all, he had seen the disappointment in her eyes.

She had believed in him, trusted him to protect her.

The men had released her and she had stumbled to the ground, landing on her hands and knees.

"Speirr?" Her voice had trembled as she reached a bloodied hand out toward him. "I don't want to be dead," she whispered, her voice that of a child.

Before his eyes, she had died.

Panting in fury, he had let his battle cry roll out and then he had cursed them all. He had called down the wrath of the Morrigan and she had ignored him.

It was Artemis who had answered his cry for vengeance.

The last thing he'd seen was the Druid holding his head back and then making the savage cut across his throat.

Talon breathed deeply in and out and he sought to bury those memories. That was the past and now he had Sunshine to watch out for.

"It was youthful fury," he said with a calmness he didn't feel. "I had lost so much in such a short time-my aunt, my uncle, you, and our son. After I lost you, I walked around cloaked in grief. I struggled to make it through every minute of every day. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that the clan and Ceara needed me.

"When the Druids came to me and said that I would have to give up my life to the gods to protect the clan, it was actually a relief. I didn't think twice about allowing them to place me on the sacrificial altar."

Talon ground his teeth as he saw his sister in his mind again. The way she had looked that day. "Ceara was weeping, but she was trying to be strong. Everything was going as it should, until Murrdyd turned on her and told my clansmen to seize her. He said we both had to die to appease the gods."

"Was that the truth?"

"No. He wanted to be king. He needed both Ceara and me out of the way since we were legitimate heirs. I can understand his wanting me killed, but he didn't have to kill Ceara. It was the injustice of it that I couldn't stand."

She placed her hand over his. "Baby, I am so sorry."

He squeezed her hand as he blinked against the agony he felt. The only comfort he had ever known in his life was the touch of this woman. "So were they in the end."

"What did you do?"

Talon cleared his throat as he tried to squelch the memories of that night. The regrets. He had been like a single-minded monster raging through his village.

The only thought on his mind had been reaching his cousin.

Making the bastard pay.

"I went through the village killing every man who came between me and the ones who had killed Ceara. The women and children fled while I fought my way to Murrdyd. After I took my vengeance on him, I burned the entire village to the ground."

"And you've been serving Artemis ever since?"

He nodded.

"Have you ever met her?"

"Just the one time when she came to bargain with me for my soul. She met me in the nether region where a soul gets trapped after it leaves this world, but has yet to travel to the next."

"You haven't seen her since?"

He shook his head. "We're not allowed to have contact with the gods. They see us as an abomination."

"But what about Eros?"

He took a deep breath and felt a twinge of humor at the thought of the fun-loving, irreverent god of love. "He's a little different. For some reason, he likes hanging out with us."

Sunshine considered his words as they finished dinner. Poor Talon. He had been through so much pain. So much grief.

To some extent it bothered her that he was still confusing her with Nynia. They might share a soul, but ultimately, they were two entirely different people.

Not that it really mattered. So long as he was bound to Artemis and cursed by Camulus, he could never be free. He could never have a future.

While she'd talked to Psyche, the goddess had told her how to summon Artemis.

Sunshine really wanted to have a nice chitchat with that goddess and see if maybe Talon could earn his freedom again. If she accomplished that, then maybe they could do something to stop Camulus as well.

After they paid for dinner, they left the restaurant and headed for her father's club.

Sunshine didn't know why Talon wanted to take her home, but she snuck them in unnoticed so that they could have a little more time alone.

Talon led her to the dance floor.

Sunshine had never realized before just how hot a man could be when he danced. Personally, she'd always thought most men looked rather goofy.

But not Talon. He was the sexiest thing she'd ever seen in her life.

When the song ended, Talon urged her to introduce him to her father and brother. They were sitting nearby, going over paperwork and accounting stats for the club while Wayne helped them.

"Hi, Daddy, Storm, and Wayne."

They looked up and smiled until they saw Talon behind her.

"Sunshine, are you all right?" her father asked.

"I'm fine. I just wanted you to meet Talon. Talon, my father, Daniel Runningwolf."

Talon offered his hand, but her father declined.

"I'm a shaman and can't touch you."

Talon nodded at him with a look that said he understood. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking." Wayne excused himself.

After he left, her father's dark brown eyes glittered harshly as he swept his gaze to Sunshine. "Starla didn't tell me your boyfriend was soulless, kitten."

"She probably thought you'd flip out. Are you?"

"Yes."

Sunshine quickly sought to change the subject. "How's Mom, by the way?"

"She's fine. What about you?"

"I'm fine, Daddy. Don't worry."

"I'm your father, Sunshine. Worrying about you is my full-time occupation."

She smiled at him. "And you do it very well."

Still, he looked less than appeased.

Talon stepped forward. "Daniel, could I have a word with you?"

Sunshine frowned at the ominous note in Talon's voice. Her father's eyes narrowed even more before he nodded subtly. "Sunshine, stay with Storm."

She watched as the two of them drifted off and a wave of terror crashed over her. Something was definitely wrong.

Talon led her father to another corner of the bar. He glanced over to Sunshine and his heart wrenched.

"What is it you want with me?" Daniel asked.

"Look, I know you don't like me."

"Don't like you? You're a soulless killer. Granted, you do it protectively, but it doesn't change the basic fact that you are no longer human."

"I know that. It's why we're here. I'm going to release Sunshine into your protection tonight. There are some people who are out to harm her and I would really appreciate it if you watched out for her. I'll be staying nearby, out of sight, until after tomorrow night just in case the thing after her tries to take her again."

"From what my wife tells me, Sunshine won't let you leave her voluntarily."

"In another four minutes, she won't ever want to lay eyes on me again. I promise you."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

Talon cleared his throat as he glanced to the large Budweiser clock on the wall over the bar.

Their time was almost up.

Damn you, Fates.

"Nothing," he said quietly. "Just take my word for it, your daughter is yours."

Daniel nodded.

As Talon walked back to Sunshine, his entire being ached. He couldn't stand the thought of what Eros was about to do. It cut him on a level so deep it was unfathomable.

But it had to be done.

They couldn't be together. It was foolish to think otherwise.

He had to do this to save her life.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Eros appearing in god-form. Invisible to humans, the god of love was easily discernible to Talon's Dark-Hunter senses.

"You sure?" Eros's voice echoed in his head.

Talon leaned over, kissed Sunshine gently on the lips, and then nodded.

He held her face in his hands, and stared at her brown eyes, waiting for the moment when they would turn dark with hatred. Waiting for her to stiffen and curse him.

Eros raised his bow up and shot it straight into Sunshine.

Talon swallowed as painful expectation tore through him.

Goodbye, my love.

She grimaced at him. "Ow! Talon, did you hit me?"

He shook his head and waited for the hatred to come into her eyes.

It didn't.

Seconds ticked by slowly as her frown deepened.

"I don't feel right." She rubbed her heart where Eros had shot her.

Then, amazingly, she looked up and focused her gaze on Eros. "Cupid?"

Eros looked around nervously. "You can see me?"

"Well, yeah," she said.

Eros shifted and looked a bit green.

Talon frowned as a bad feeling went through him. "What happened, Eros? Why doesn't she hate me?"

Eros looked even more uncomfortable. "You two wouldn't happen to be soulmates, would you?"

"Yes," Sunshine answered. "Psyche said we were."

Eros gave a sheepish grin. "Oops. I think I need to have a talk with my wife. Damn, she should have told me."

"Oops?" Talon repeated. "Eros, oops better not be in your vocabulary."

Eros cleared his throat. "No one told me you two were soulmates. See, this"-he held up his bow-"only works on lust and infatuation. Soulmates are a whole 'nother ball game. That kind of love, I can't kill. Nothing can."

Sunshine gaped as she understood what was going on. In that moment, she wanted to strangle Talon. "You tried to get him to make me hate you?"

Now Talon looked as sheepish as Eros. "Honey, I can explain."

She glared at him as rage rocked every particle of her body. "Oh, you're going to explain all right. How dare you try to monkey with my mind and heart? I don't appreciate your doing something so underhanded."

"Sunshine," her father said. "He's right. You can't have a future with him. He's not human."

"I don't care what he is. He and I have something together and I can't believe he'd do something like this."

"I forbid you to see him anymore." Her father's tone was stern.

She turned her anger toward her father. "And I'm not thirteen. I don't care what you forbid or not, Daddy. This is between me and him."

"I will not watch you die again," Talon said slowly, stressing each word.

"And I will not be manipulated. Nor will I just give you up."

Talon turned and stormed out of the club, his emotions churning. He couldn't do this. He couldn't.

He had to let her go.

It was for both their sakes.

Without looking back, he went to his motorcycle. He got on it, but before he could kick-start it, Sunshine grabbed his arm.

"You're not going to get rid of me like this."

He bared his fangs at her. "Do you not understand what I am?"

Sunshine swallowed. Suddenly everything Psyche had said made sense to her. He wasn't Speirr, the leader of his people. The frightened little boy who had turned his heart to stone in order to live. The man who had stolen Nynia's heart and then claimed her when no other would have.

This was Talon, the Dark-Hunter who spent eternity, protecting strangers from the dark evil of the night.

She loved him even more.

He made her heart sing. Without him, she couldn't even imagine her future.

She didn't know how to conquer everything that stood between them, but he was worth fighting for.

"I know what you are, Talon. You are the man I was born to love. The only man I was born to love."

"I am not a man. Not anymore."

"You are mine and I will not let you go without a fight."

Talon didn't know what to do. The tone of her voice tore through him.

He wanted to crush her to him and hold on to her forever.

He wanted to push her away and curse. To make her hate him.

She stepped into his arms and kissed him deeply.

Talon groaned at the taste of her. Although he knew he shouldn't, he pulled her across his bike and started it, then headed off into traffic.

His love and anger roiling, he drove them out of the city, all the way to the edge of his swamp. The entire time the scent and feel of her permeated him, making his emotions even more volatile. Her body was pressed so close to him that it was all he could focus on.

Her warmth, her love.

He had to have her.

Unable to stand it, he pulled up into the woods and turned the engine off.

Sunshine was partially afraid of the feral look of him as he stared at her.

His eyes were blazing with fire and passion as he seized her and kissed her roughly.

His hunger tore through her, incited her. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders as he leaned her back over his gas tank.

She'd never seen him like this. It was as if all his emotions were out of control, as if he were living only to touch her. He kissed her neck and face as his hands loosened her blouse so that he could cup her breast in his hands.

He was wild and untamed and it seemed to her that he had more than two hands. It was as if he were touching her all over at once.

She wanted him desperately. Wanted him with the same need he had for her.

She kissed his lips, rubbing herself against his swollen groin as she pulled his T-shirt off, over his head. She ran her hands over the wide expanse of his chest, feeling his muscles bunch and flex.

He shoved her full skirt up over her hips.

"I need you, Talon," she whispered.

Talon wanted to possess her. Every part of him screamed out for it. He'd never in his entire life felt like this. He had to get inside her. Had to touch her. Had to feel her hands on his skin, her breath against his neck.

It was a need so powerful that it shook him.

She fumbled with his fly before she unzipped his pants, freeing his erection. He trembled as she sheathed him with her hands.

He choked at how wonderful her hands felt on him. "That's it, Sunshine," he breathed against her hair. "Bring me home."

She arched her back and gently guided him into the wet heat of her body. Talon growled ferociously at the feel of her.

Like an animal, he made love to her furiously.

Panting and weak from desire, Sunshine clutched him to her as he thrust himself against her until she was dizzy with pleasure. For the first time since they had met, he didn't hide his fangs from her. He let her see him as he really was.

Let her know the untamed beast that inhabited this man's body.

Their gazes locked, she watched the ecstasy on his face as he rocked himself between her thighs.

She cupped his face in her hands, mesmerized by the man and the predator he was.

All her life she'd heard tales of immortal beings, of vampires taking possession of their victims.

Tonight, she wanted to be his.

Talon was out of control with her. He knew it. His emotions surging, he couldn't think. He could only feel. She was his focal point. His everything.

Her scent permeated his head, covered his body, heightening his senses.

He heard the blood rushing through her veins, felt her heart pounding against his chest. The heat of her soft, feminine skin sliding against his.

Take her!

It was a feral command.

Primal.

Demanding.

Had he been in his right mind, he would have controlled himself. As it was, he couldn't.

Now, he was the beast that stalked the night. His only thought having her, he slid himself deep inside her and then he sank his fangs deep into her neck.

He felt her surprise for only an instant until complete sexual ecstasy tore through them both.

Their bodies and minds were united. Joined.

He felt every thought in her head. Every emotion. Every fear. Every joy.

He saw inside her heart down to her fear that he didn't love her as much as he loved Nynia. That he would never love her as much. He felt her hopelessness and her determination.

Most of all, he felt her love.

Growling fiercely, he let her essence wash over him. Let her seep into every corner of his being. There were no more secrets between them. No more places to hide.

She was as bare to him as he was to her.

And her love for him was the most incredible feeling he'd ever experienced.

Talon thrust himself in deep as his head and body exploded. Their orgasms were so fierce that he couldn't keep the motorcycle upright. Before he knew what had happened, they were lying on the ground, still entangled as his sense returned to him.

Sunshine stared up at him in the moonlight, her clothes disheveled and her face adoring.

In her mind, she could still hear his thoughts. His fear of losing her, his need to protect her.

She saw his guilt that he had allowed his sister to die. His need to right the wrong that had been done to Nynia.

The sadness and grief that lived inside him as constant companions.

Most of all, she saw his need to hold her. His need to not fail her.

She felt his power and strength, which were unlike anything she had imagined. He was a predator.

And he was the man she loved. One who loved her and one who was willing to do anything for her.

Even give up his own life.

"I love you, Talon," she breathed.

Talon couldn't believe what he had done as he brushed his hand against her neck and removed the telltale signs of blood. Her taste permeated his mind, his senses.

Zarek had been right, that was the most incredible high he'd ever known. And now that he'd seen inside her heart...

Gods, what had he done?

In one moment of careless passion, he had sown the seeds of both their destruction.



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