Sunshine pulled back, startled by Talon's frankness. But more than that, she was stunned by how much she she wanted the same thing from him, a man she barely knew at all. And yet there was no denying how much she wanted to make love to him.

How much she ached to caress every inch of that divinely powerful masculine body.

Her lust didn't seem wrong to her. It seemed oddly right and only natural. In a strange way it felt as if she did know him. As if they were supposed to be much more intimate than just strangers who had collided by happenstance out on a dark street.

She wanted him on a level she didn't comprehend.

"You don't beat around the bush, do you?" she asked flippantly.

"No," he said, his jet-black eyes burning her with their heated potency. "I don't."

The power of his desire rolled over her, captivating her. He was so intense, so mesmerizing. And she found herself inexplicably drawn to him.

He reached out and touched a lock of her hair. Desire coiled through her veins, making her throb.

Nowhere else did their bodies touch and yet she swore she could feel him with every single cell of her body.

She quivered with need.

With heat.

With desire.

He bent down and whispered in her ear, his breath tickling her skin. "I've always been a firm believer in seizing the moment. In taking what I want when I want it. And right now, Sunshine, I want you. I want to taste every inch of your body. To feel your breath on my neck while I make love to you. To take my tongue and explore every part of you until you beg me to stop."

She shivered at the way he said that. "Life is short, I suppose."

He gave a short laugh at that as he nuzzled her cheek with his lips. His whiskered skin teased hers and she shivered at the manly feel of him. "More so for some than for others."

Sunshine drew in a deep breath as seriousness settled back over them both. The mood of the room wasn't just serious, the air between them was rife with salacity.

With sexual electricity.

Talon moved his mouth dangerously close to hers.



Time was suspended as she waited for his lips to claim hers. As she waited to taste his passion again.

Then, he took her into his arms and kissed her so possessively that it made her breathless.

Sunshine moaned as she tasted him with her lips and with her heart. He invaded every sense she possessed. His muscles bunched and flexed under her hands as his tongue swept against hers. She heard him growl low and deep in his throat like some uncaged beast.

She shivered again.

She brushed her fingertips against the warm nape of his neck, playing with the soft, tender skin there before she ran her fingers upward, through the golden strands of his hair, letting them wrap around her flesh.

How she liked the way this man felt in her arms. The scent of leather and Talon invaded her head and made it reel. He surrounded her with the strong hardness of his body.

She felt his desire for her as his erection pressed against her stomach, and it ignited her own, making her ache for his body, his touch. She wanted him inside her so desperately it stunned her. Never in her life had she wanted a man like this.

He lifted her up in his arms, supporting her weight as he deepened his kiss. Effortlessly, his strong hands held her bottom against his hips so that his bulge pressed against her core. She moaned at the intimate contact with leather and man.

Kissing him back as hard as she could, she wrapped her legs around his waist.

She felt his satisfied laugh rumble out of his body. It made his stomach caress her between her legs, his chest brush against hers, enflaming her even more.

Oh, hon, what are you doing?

Sunshine heard her reasonable voice in her head. She hadn't had a one-night, or in this case one-day, stand since college. The one time she'd done it, she'd felt so sleazy afterward that she had sworn she'd never do it again.

And here she was on the verge of repeating that fiasco.

Good grief, she knew nothing about this man.

Not even his last name.

But for some reason, none of that mattered. The only thing she could focus on was how good he felt as she held him. How wonderful he'd looked in her bed, and the fact that she really liked him. More than she should. More than what made sense.

Right or wrong, she wanted to share her body with him.

No, she needed this. It was what she wanted deep down in her heart. And she'd always followed her heart-wherever it led her.

There would be no regrets about this. No second-guessing.

He slid the hem of her dress back, over her thighs. She shivered at the feel of the cool material crawling up her skin, followed by the heat of his hands. He glided his palms up the backs of her thighs until he cupped her bare bottom. He growled in pleasure, the sound deep and primal.


"I like the way you feel, little Sunshine," he breathed against her lips.

Sunshine couldn't think straight with his large, strong hands on her naked skin. He dipped his head to her neck where his lips burned her. His teeth scraped her skin as he nipped it tenderly.

She was about to comment on how sharp his teeth were when he delivered a hot, shivery lick to her skin.

Her thoughts scattered.

The man was simply too delectable; she couldn't let him leave without sampling that lean, hard body. She pulled his T-shirt over his head and ran her hands over his chest and tattoo. Oh yeah, she wanted this!

She wanted him.

Talon gave her a tight-lipped smile as he saw the raw hunger in her dark brown eyes. He was going to savor this woman.

Every last tiny inch of her.

What with her passion and zest for living, he could only imagine how good a lover she would prove.

It had been a long time since he had found a woman who fascinated him. As a Dark-Hunter, he had chosen his lovers randomly, knowing he'd never see them again.

For centuries, he'd contented himself with one-night stands. With wanton women who wanted nothing more from him than the few hours of pleasure he could give them.

He had met them all in the dark of night.

Never in the light of day.

After minimal conversation to placate them, he had screwed them wildly, and in the end, they had gone their separate ways. Most of the time, he hadn't even bothered asking their names.

But in the back of his mind, he knew something was different today.

Something was different about Sunshine.

He couldn't count how many centuries had passed since he had last shared a real laugh with a lover.

And this woman made him laugh. She made him crazy.

Best of all, she made him burn.

Sunshine had stumbled into his world and turned it upside down. She'd touched the emotions he'd buried long ago. Made him feel strangely alive again, which for a man who had died fifteen hundred years ago was quite a feat.

She gave him feelings he didn't understand. He felt like a kid on Christmas morning, overloaded with sights and smells. His senses were overwhelming him with need.

With desire for her.

Licking his lips in anticipation, he ran his hand over her silken thigh, up to her hips. This woman had the finest ass he'd ever caressed. He pushed her dress up to her waist while she locked her ankles behind his back.

His head spun at the feel of her wrapped around him like this. The heat of her inner thighs burned his waist as he felt her wetness against his stomach.

Returning to her lips, he carried her to the bed and laid her down on the mattress. Without breaking his hold, he lay down on top of her and kissed her fully, deeply, as he ground his swollen groin against the part of her he couldn't wait to bury himself into. He sampled the warmth of her mouth and listened to her moans of pleasure.

Closing his eyes, he inhaled her unique scent and let it wash over him.

Sunshine wanted to weep at how good he felt on top of her. The leather of his pants caressed her intimately as his lips tormented hers. His braids tickled her neck with every movement he made. And his hands felt wickedly wonderful as he ran them over her body, seeking out every part of her.

She almost whimpered in protest when he moved away.

He pulled her dress from her and tossed it to the floor.

She felt more than just physically naked in front of him. For some reason she felt spiritually bare as well. It was as if he could see deep inside her somehow, as if he knew things about her no one else knew.

As if they were connected on a level that transcended their physical bonding.

At least she thought so until he returned to lie on top of her. Then her thoughts scattered again and she became one with the moment. It was strange, really, this sensation of him.

Sunshine hissed at how wonderful he tasted. All that lush, tawny skin made prickly by his masculine whiskers. She so loved the taste of a man's jaw.

No man had ever tasted more perfect.

She brought her hands around his waist, to his fly. His bulge was huge. Pulling back slightly, she watched his face as she opened his pants and touched him for the first time.

He closed his eyes and growled deep in his throat as he rocked himself gently against her hands. Oh, she liked the feel of him there. He was so hard and ready for her.

She laced her fingers through his short curls, moving her hand lower until she could cup the soft heat of him in her palm.

Talon moaned in pleasure. It felt so incredibly good to have her holding him like that. He'd had sex more times than he could count and yet there was something new about this experience.

Something fresh.

She pulled his pants down lower so that she could tuck her toes into them and pull them off. It wasn't until she frowned that they both remembered he still wore his boots.

"Oops," she said with a smile.

Talon chuckled, kissed her deeply, then rolled over to remove his boots. She rose up on her knees and leaned her naked body against his bare back, making him tremble from the feel of her breasts against his spine.

"I just love this tattoo," she said as she slowly traced it down his back with her tongue.

"I love when you do that," he said, tossing his boots and pants into the corner. He gripped the edge of the bed as she explored his back with her mouth.

"Does it have any special meaning?"

He closed his eyes as she returned to tracing the marks with her tongue. "They're Celtic symbols for protection, power, and longevity." Talon clenched his teeth at the irony. His uncle had had no idea what was awaiting his nephew when he had placed those markings on his skin. Just how long his life would be.

She gave one long, warm lick, then pulled back. "I can't believe your uncle did this. My father had a cow when he saw mine."

Talon looked at her over his shoulder. "You have a tattoo?"

She wrapped her left leg around his waist and showed him her inner ankle. It was a very small, stylized Celtic sun with the jagged symbol for creativity.

Smiling, he ran his hand over it. "Very nice."

"Yes, but it hurt for days. I can't imagine how much worse yours must have been."

She had no idea. Especially since his had been performed long before the days of sterilized needles and machinery. His uncle had meticulously tapped the design into his body over a three-month period. Some of it had gotten infected and only Nynia's herbal abilities had spared his life.

"It wasn't so bad."

"Ooo," she said teasingly, wrinkling her nose. "Mr. Tough Guy."

"Would you rather I say it hurt?"

"It never hurts to admit that you feel pain."

"Baby," he said gently. "I don't feel pain. Ever."

She looked at him in surprise. "Really? Not even a little?"

He shook his head as he clamped his emotions down. He didn't dare allow himself to feel the pain of all he'd lost. Even after all these centuries, it would destroy him.

"It's a waste of time and energy. It also drains the mind and makes it weary."

"But without pain, you can't have joy. It's the balance that makes us appreciate the extremes."

Now that was a deep concept. Very deep, considering they were sitting bare-assed on her bed. "Do you always philosophize while you're naked with a man?"

She nipped his shoulder impishly with her teeth. "It's rather hard to find a man who's willing to do that."

He dropped his gaze down to her breasts. "I imagine it would be a lot easier if you didn't look so damned good without your clothes on."

She moaned as he dipped his head and took one of her breasts into his mouth. She lay back on the bed, drawing him with her.

Talon sighed at the feel of her puckered areola under his tongue. He brushed his hand down the curve of her hip, over her soft thigh, and through the moist tangle of curls until he could touch the part of her he craved the most.

She groaned and shivered as he carefully separated the tender folds until he could tease her cleft.

Oh yeah, he wanted this part of her. Wanted to see her head thrown back against the pillows and hear her scream out loud while she came for him.

Sunshine clutched his head to her breast as she opened her legs wider, giving him access to her body. She ached and throbbed at the feel of his hand stroking her. And when he plunged his fingers inside, she cried out.

Her body burned for his in a most unbelievable way. It was hot and fierce and made her tremble with need. She'd never wanted a man as much as she wanted this one. She wanted to pull him close to her. Closer and closer until they truly melted into one being.

Unable to wait any longer, she reached down between their bodies so that she could guide him deep inside her.

They groaned in unison.

Sunshine arched her back, drawing him in even deeper.

He was so hard and hot, so full. She'd never felt anything better than him filling her.

He sat back on his legs and pulled her hips so that he could slide into her, slowly, deeply. It was a rolling rhythm that made her writhe from the intense pleasure of his intimate strokes.

She stared at him as he watched her with a tender look on his face.

"You are beautiful," he breathed, rolling his hips against hers and thrusting himself even deeper and harder inside her.

"You too," she said as she clutched at his knees.

His eyes darkened as he watched her and he gave himself over to their union. She'd never had a man make love to her like this. It was as if he were nothing but sex. As if he could feel nothing but her body.

He had such a way with his hips as he slid himself in and out, hard and deep. He teased her with his hands, his fingers stroking her in time to his thrusts. The pleasure of his touch permeated every fiber of her being.

And when she came, the orgasm was so intense that she screamed.

Talon growled at the sound of her ecstasy as her body clutched his. Crying out, she reached up and pulled him down on top of her.

Then, she did the strangest thing of all... she nuzzled his neck and face, raining kisses all over his cheek and shoulder.

Talon froze.

Her arms held him tight against her as she wrapped her entire body around his. The tenderness of her touch and actions pricked him, breaking through the chokehold he kept on his emotions.

It was as if she really cared for him. As if he meant something to her. As if she were making love with him.

Only one woman had ever held him like this...

He could barely breathe. For the first time in fifteen hundred years he actually felt as if he were making love to a woman, not just satisfying a primitive urge.

No, this wasn't meaningless sex.

He felt her. Felt connected to her. Felt as if they were something more than strangers with no ties to each other.

Her lips scorched his skin as she continued to nuzzle his neck and thrust herself against him. He held her tight and closed his eyes. His senses and emotions reeled from the pleasure of the moment.

When he came in her arms, he shivered to the core of his battered and weary heart.

He lay there, vulnerable and panicked.

No, he couldn't have felt that. He couldn't have felt her. It wasn't possible.

He was mistaken. What they had was sex. Incredibly great sex, but nothing more than that.





And he was going to prove it to himself one way or another...

Sunshine lay in complete satisfied bliss, breathing raggedly, drifting slowly back into herself. That was the most incredible orgasm she'd ever experienced. She couldn't believe the way he'd felt, the way he'd touched her.

She held his head close to her heart and felt his ragged breath falling against her breast. She cradled him with her entire body and just soaked up the warm masculine weight of him.

Used to men who quickly dosed off after they came, she was completely unprepared when he rolled over onto his back and pulled her to lie across his chest.

"You didn't think I was through with you, did you?" he asked in her ear.

"Well, yeah."

He laughed. "Lady Sunshine, I've only just started."

To her delight and awe, he proved those words well over the course of the next few hours.

They made love on her bed, on the floor, on her sofa. He took her in so many different positions that she felt as if he were reenacting the entire Kama Sutra.

Finally, they ended up in the kitchen where he set her up on the counter and then made slow, tender love to her.

Oh heaven, the man felt incredible! He had more stamina than an entire team of athletes and was completely shameless when it came to making love to her. She'd never been with a man and felt so at ease with her body and his expectations.

A man like this was all too hard to come by.

After they had finished with the counter, which she would never be able to look at again without blushing, Talon stood naked, looking into her refrigerator with his two braids tucked behind his ear as he searched for food.

He was still breathing heavily from their last go-round and Sunshine wondered idly if she'd gone bow-legged at some point from this afternoon's marathon.

Still, he looked scrumptious as he moved containers around in his quest for nourishment. His bare backside was a feast for the eyes and when he bent over to look into her bottom drawer, she couldn't resist running her hand up his muscular thigh, between his legs, to cup and fondle him.

He sucked his breath in sharply between his teeth and straightened.

Sunshine gave him a mischievous grin that garnered her a quick kiss before he returned to searching her fridge.

"My lady, do you own anything made of meat?"

Sunshine ran her hand across his back, smoothing down the red marks where she'd sunk her nails in during her last orgasm. "I have soy burgers, and I did pick up some granola bars, wheat germ, and oatmeal while I was out."

He actually whimpered.

"Sorry. I'm a strict vegetarian."

He sighed. "And I'm a strict carnivore."

She licked her lips and smiled as she remembered his playful nips and bites on her flesh. "I noticed."

He turned toward her and gathered her naked body against his. He kissed her lips as if he were still able to savor her even after all they had done this afternoon. Then, he pulled back. "As much as I want you again, I have got to have something more to nourish me than your hot, lush body."

He grabbed her soy cheese from the top shelf and the whole wheat crackers she had on the counter.

Sunshine started to warn him about the cheese, but thought better of it. He did need something other than her to nibble on, though to be honest, she liked being his chew toy.

The man was insatiable, and best of all, he was the champion at what he did.

She watched curiously as he grabbed his Snoopy Pez dispenser from her counter, then went back to the living room.

Sunshine picked up their glasses of water and followed him to the Art Deco coffee table.

Talon sat down before it and sliced the cheese, then placed it on the crackers. He fed her one. "So tell me, if I wasn't here, what would you be doing today?"

She laughed. "I'm sure I would probably be sitting more comfortably, for one thing."

His face amused, he dipped his head to nuzzle at her neck. "Can I rub anything to make it feel better?"

She hissed at his deep, sensuous voice. "Your rubbing it is what got me into trouble."

He ran his tongue over her collarbone, then he pulled back and ate a cracker.

He choked.

Sunshine handed him the water.

Talon drank it down fast and scowled at her. "How old is this stuff?" He checked the expiration date on the cheese and his scowl deepened. "Soy?" he said as he finally recognized the package. "You let me eat soy cheese?"

"It's good for you."

"It's nasty."

"Oh," she said, as if she were talking to a child. "You poor baby. I'm so sorry."

"No you're not."

"Not true. I am sorry I don't have anything a big he-man like you can stand."

Talon sat back and shook his head at her. He should have had Kyrian bring him a burger along with his clothes. Even so, he had thoroughly enjoyed the day with her.

Even if it did mean eating things that should be classified as toxic waste products.

Cringing, he reached for another cracker, more prepared this time for the disgusting taste of it. By sheer force of will, he downed six crackers with cheese, though they barely took the edge off his hunger.

Thank the gods he had his Pez. Grabbing Snoopy, he quickly popped three Pez cubes into his mouth to kill the taste.

"How can you eat that?" she asked. "It's nothing but flavored sugar."

"Yes, but it's good sugar."

She wrinkled her nose at him.

Talon gave her a wicked grin. "You know the best way to eat these, don't you?"

She shook her head.

He pulled Snoopy's head back and took the small square out with his fingers. He held it up to her lips. "Bite down gently on it and hold it between your teeth."

She hesitated, then obeyed.

For a full second, Talon watched her sitting there naked with the cube between her teeth. Then, he leaned forward and used his tongue to pry it loose.

Sunshine moaned at the taste of him combined with the sugar. Opening her mouth, she gave him a long, hot kiss. "Now, that was nice."

"Worth polluting your system for?"

"Umm-hmm," she breathed, running her fingertip along his jaw.

Once all the Pez were gone, she picked up the Snoopy dispenser and looked at it. "This seems so out of character for you, Mr. Tough Man. I find it hard to believe a guy who can fight off six criminals single-handedly would haul around a Peanuts Pez."

He brushed her black hair back from her shoulder and let his hand linger in the strands. "Actually, I collect the dispensers. This one is a vintage 1969 one."


He nodded.

She looked at it again. "Is it worth much?"

"A couple hundred dollars."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding."

"Wow. And I almost fed it to the washing machine."

He laughed at that. "I'm glad you didn't. Me and Snoopy go way back."

He took Snoopy from her hands and set it on the coffee table. When he turned back to face her, the gleam in his eye was one she'd become quite familiar with.

"Are you really sore?" he asked.

All things considered, she should be, but his touch was so gentle that she wasn't. "I'm not. You?"

"Never better."

He leaned back on the floor and pulled her across him. Sunshine straddled him and moaned at how good his steely abs felt against her.

To her amazement, he was already hard again. "You don't ever wear out, do you?"

He cupped her face in his hands and gave her a dark, serious stare. "It's you, love. Definitely you. With anyone else, I would have been curled up and sleeping hours ago."

"You mean that?"

He led her hand to his swollen shaft. "What do you think?"

"I think I should have taken more vitamins this morning."

"And I'm thinking there are still several positions we haven't tried."

Talon woke up in Sunshine's bed just as the sun set. He smiled in sleepy pleasure as he smelled the scent of turpentine and patchouli on his skin.


She was still nestled in his arms, sound asleep. To his amazement, he felt his body starting to harden again.

After this afternoon, he should be sated for at least a day or two, if not for a full week.

For that matter, he shouldn't be able to move.

Yet he wanted to take her again. Right now. He wanted to feel her arms and legs wrapped around him, holding him close as he lost himself to the sensation of her flesh sliding against his.

Only Nynia had ever made him feel like this. He had been completely insatiable with her. To look at her was to burn for her.

He'd never thought to find another woman so appealing. And yet all he wanted to do was spend the rest of the night inside Sunshine. To feel her breath against his neck as he buried himself in her moist heat over and over again.

But he couldn't. He was supposed to meet Acheron at Jackson Square.

Not to mention that there were Daimons on the street ready to kill, and he had innocent people to protect.


Inwardly, he cringed at the sound of her sleepy voice. He'd hoped to make a quiet exit while she slept.

How he hated messy exits.

"Evening, love," he murmured, kissing her brow.

She smiled a smile that dazzled him. "Are you leaving?"

"Yeah, I have to go meet someone."

"Okay," she said.

She got up from the bed, and wrapped a sheet around herself. "It was really great meeting you, Talon. Thanks for a wonderful day."

She left him alone then.

Talon frowned. This was normally the part where his lovers begged him to stay, at least for a little while longer. Where they told him he was the best lover they had ever known and then cried at the thought of never having him again.

But Sunshine seemed completely fine with his leaving. She didn't seem to be the tiniest bit sad.

What was this?

He scooted out of bed and left the room to find her in the kitchen, holding a rice cake between her teeth while she poured herself a cup of pink juice.

"Sunshine, are you okay?"

She took the rice cake out of her mouth and looked at him. "I'm fine."

Her face paled a degree. "Oh Lord, you're not going to get possessive or weird on me now, are you? Please tell me you're not one of those guys Trina told me about who gets a little sex from a woman and then thinks he owns her."

A little sex?

A little sex!

Talon was dumbstruck. He was used to leaving his lovers, but this had to be the easiest time he'd ever experienced, and he found it strangely disconcerting.



Especially given the way the two of them had carried on. This had been the best marathon of sex he'd ever had. She had met his passion and stamina in a way that was unbelievable.

Now she was fine with him just walking out the door?

"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked again.

"Look, it's cool, okay? I knew when I agreed to this that you wouldn't be hanging around afterward. I'm not stupid, you know. I'm a big girl. You're a really big guy and I'm sure you have a life to get back to." Panic drifted through her eyes. "Oh God, you're not married, are you?"

"No, I'm not married."

She let out a relieved breath. "Then, no harm, no foul."

She crossed the short distance to her fridge to return the juice jug.


She paused to give him a peeved stare. "What, Talon? You're not having separation anxiety, are you? Today was fun and it was worth it, but I've got to get back to work. I have a ton of stuff that I need to do tonight."

"Yeah, but..." He didn't finish the sentence. He refused to.


He clamped his jaw shut. Fine, if she wanted him gone, he was gone.

He shouldn't have spent the day with her anyway.

This close to Mardi Gras, he couldn't afford any distractions. Never mind one that came in the form of a dark-haired temptress.

"Nothing," he said.

She looked relieved. "Since you have to meet someone, you go ahead and shower and I'll make us some dinner."

Talon took her up on the shower, but when he was finished, he declined eating her tofu salad and soy steaks.

"Thanks again, Sunshine," he said as he shrugged his leather jacket on over his T-shirt. "I had a really good day."

"Me too," she said with a smile while she nibbled her salad and flipped through an art magazine.

He still couldn't believe how well she was taking his leaving her. Damn.

A part of him continued to expect her to at least beg him to call her.

Ask for his e-mail.


But she didn't.

Man, how he hated the twenty-first century.

She looked up as he headed for the door. "You take care of yourself, Talon. And in the future, please try and stay out of the way of runaway Mardi Gras floats, okay?"

Talon lifted both brows in stunned shock. "Excuse me?"

"Don't you remember last night when you got mowed down?"

Talon nodded hesitantly, unable to believe that that was what had slammed into him. "I was hit by a Mardi Gras float?"

"Yeah, it was Bacchus."

Now that was adding insult to injury. Jeez. He only hoped Nick didn't find out about it. Ever.

Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier had come into this world with not a lot of prospects. Born the bastard son of a career felon and a teenage Bourbon Street stripper, he wasn't exactly the most law-abiding of folks. In fact, his junior high guidance counselor had once voted him Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty.

But one night when Nick had made a stand against the gang he ran with, fate had changed his life and sent in a Dark-Hunter guardian angel who had taken a smart-mouthed kid, cleaned him up, and given him a real future.

Now, nine years later, he was a pre-law student, and instead of playing penal roulette like his father, he was almost a respectable citizen. Almost being the operative word.

All thanks to Kyrian of Thrace and Acheron Parthenopaeus.

There was nothing he wouldn't do for them and that was why he was sitting in his car, parked in a vacant field just after sunset, instead of being off with his latest girlfriend, putting a really big smile on her face.

Even with the car running, it was cold out here. That damp, frigid cold that could go deep into the bones and make them ache. His thermos of coffee all gone, Nick just wanted to get back home and thaw out.

Instead, he was waiting for Talon's Mardi Gras reinforcement to be delivered, because Zarek, having spent the last nine hundred years in Alaska, had no idea how to drive a car. Apparently, cars weren't the transportation of choice for snowbound Dark-Hunters.

Yee-freakin'-haw. This was one event he could have waited his lifetime for.

"Nick, you there?"

"Yeah," he said into the portable radio he had in the passenger seat of his Jaguar that kept him in touch with the incoming helicopter. "What's your ETA?"

"About two minutes," Mike said.

Nick started scanning the dark sky for the black H-53E Sea Dragon Sikorsky helicopter. It was a long-range, custom-built military-class chopper that the Squires often used to transport Dark-Hunters. The helicopter was fast and versatile, and could be refueled while in flight.

Its back section was equipped with a steel passenger area that kept sunlight from touching the Dark-Hunters. The windows in the passenger compartment could be lightened with a flip of the switch to allow a Dark-Hunter to see outside after dark should he desire it.

A few Dark-Hunters such as Acheron owned their own helicopters and flew them when needed.

Tonight, though, Mike Callahan, who was a Dorean Squire (meaning he didn't have a particular Dark-Hunter he served) was bringing in Zarek from Alaska.

Nick had heard a lot of rumors through the on-line Squire bulletin boards about Zarek of Moesia being psychotic. He wasn't sure how accurate that information was, but in a few minutes he'd find out firsthand.

"Hey, Mike," he said, radioing the pilot. "How bad is he?"

Mike snorted. "Let me put it to you this way. If you have a gun, unload it."


"Because if you don't, you're going to shoot this asshole which will only piss him off more. For once, I actually pity the Daimons."

That didn't sound encouraging.

"What? He's worse than Acheron?"

"Nick, take my word for it. You ain't never seen anything like this one. I now know why Artemis and Ash locked him in Alaska. What I can't figure out is why on earth Artemis wanted him moved into a large population. My opinion, it's like tossing a grenade on a gas station."

Oh yeah, his gut was knotted now.

Nick waited as the helicopter landed on the private airstrip Acheron used when he visited. At one end of the field stood a building that appeared to be a dilapidated barn. In actuality, it was a modified modern hangar equipped with an alarm system and doors so thick it could double as a bomb shelter. That barn currently housed the twenty-eight-million-dollar MH-60K Sikorsky helicopter that Acheron used to transport himself and his custom-built Buell motorcycle.

Ash had arrived in style the day before.

Now Zarek.

Yup, Mardi Gras was starting to look scary.

Nick got out of the car and locked his radio in the trunk, then stood to the side of the field until Mike cut the motor and the blades stopped spinning.

When everything quit moving, the lean, middle-aged Squire got out of the helicopter and removed his helmet. Mike had never been overly friendly, but tonight he looked thoroughly disgusted and extremely irritable.

"I don't envy you this," Mike said as he tossed his helmet back into his seat.

"C'mon, stop messing with me, Mike. He can't be that bad."

Nick changed his mind as soon as Mike slid open the passenger door and he caught his first look at Zarek of Moesia.

Zarek emerged from the opening like Lucifer from his deepest pit, with a chip on his shoulder so large, Nick was amazed they had managed to get the helicopter off the ground.

Dressed all in black, Zarek wore jeans, Harley biker boots, and a long-sleeved T-shirt. He seemed completely oblivious to the cold damp air that made up a New Orleans winter night. He had a long silver sword earring in his left ear, with a hilt made of a skull and crossbones.

Zarek stepped out with a sneer that was made more sinister by his black goatee. His straight black hair brushed his shoulders and his jet-black eyes were filled with contempt and hatred. Nick was used to bad attitude; hell, he'd been weaned on it. But he'd never met a man who had one worse than Zarek.

He reminded Nick of the murderers his father had brought home. Cold. Unfeeling. Lethal. Whenever Zarek looked at you, you got the feeling he was measuring you for your coffin size.

Zarek braced his left hand against the side of the chopper, and leaned back in long enough to grab a large black duffel bag. Nick stared at Zarek's huge hand in awe. Each finger, including his thumb, was covered with a long, articulated silver claw and tipped with a point so sharp that Nick knew it must be Zarek's weapon of choice.

This man liked to get down and dirty with his kills.

Shit, for Zarek, being called psychotic would be a step up.

As he walked away from the chopper, Zarek hissed at Mike, baring his fangs.

For once, Mike didn't comment. That told Nick more than anything else just how vicious Zarek was. He'd never known Mike to take something like that and not make a smart-mouth comment.

"Well, if you're through taunting poor Mike, are you ready to go?"

Nick regretted those words as soon as Zarek looked at him. The glacial, hostile glare chilled him even more than the frigid winds. "You give me any lip, little boy, and there won't be enough left of you to run through a sieve."

Nick didn't scare easily, but those words were said with such growling sincerity that he actually took a step back, and for once kept his big mouth shut.

Without another word, Zarek walked with a predator's deadly grace toward the car, with his lips curled into a permanent snarl. He pitched his duffel bag onto the floorboard, then got in and slammed the car door shut.

In that moment, Nick seriously regretted buying a car with no backseat.

Then again, given Zarek's vicious, unpredictable nature, Nick would much rather have him beside him than behind him.

Mike let out a relieved breath and clapped him on the back. "May God take a liking to you, kid. I damn sure wouldn't want to be in your shoes tonight."

Nick had never been overly religious. But as he walked to his anthracite Jag, he found his religion all over again.

He got in and started the car, then headed toward the city. They were supposed to meet up with Talon, Valerius, and Acheron in about half an hour at Jackson Square. Damn, this was going to be the longest drive of his life.

He pushed the accelerator down even more-warp speed would suit him just fine.

As he drove, Nick couldn't keep his gaze from repeatedly wandering over to Zarek's left hand, covered with the silver claws, which was splayed out over his left knee.

The silence was deafening and stagnant, and was relieved only by Zarek flexing his claws against the black denim. After a time, the metallic scratching sound started to get on Nick's nerves. He turned on the radio.

"You like rock?" he asked.

The radio shut off immediately.

Nick swallowed as he realized one of Zarek's Dark-Hunter powers was telekinesis.

"Little boy, I'm not your friend. I'm not your Dark-Hunter and I'm not your friggin' date. You only speak to me when I ask you a question. Otherwise you keep your mouth shut, your eyes off me, and you might live long enough to get me to the French Quarter."

Nick gripped the wheel. Okay, now that pissed him off, but not to the point it made him suicidal. Only an absolute fool would tangle with a man this lethal.

Zarek flipped open his duffel bag and pulled out a credit-card-sized MP3 player and a pair of dark sunglasses. He put on his headphones and sunglasses, then leaned his head back against the seat. Nick heard Nazareth's Hair of the Dog playing in a whisper from the headphones. The true antisocial anthem. How incredibly apropos.

When the car radio unexpectedly flipped back on, Nick actually jumped.

Oh yeah, Zarek was one psychotic SOB and the sooner he got him out of his car and to Acheron, the happier Nick would be.

Talon was still thinking of Sunshine when he crossed the Pedestrian Mall to meet with Acheron. He glanced down the street to where he had met Sunshine the night before, and his gut wrenched.

How he missed her. And that was the craziest part of all. He barely knew her. She had swept into his life like a hurricane, wreaking total destruction and chaos, and still...

He sighed. She'd been a nice diversion. But he had business to attend to.

His excursion with her was over. He would never see her again.

That was that.

As of this moment, she no longer existed.

Yeah, right.

Talon ignored the derisive voice in his head. He had no choice but to forget her. He'd made a pact centuries ago and it was a pact he would honor for the rest of eternity. For him there would never be a home, a family, and most definitely not a girlfriend or a wife. Even if he hadn't taken Artemis's oath, those things would be forbidden to him.

Besides, he liked his life as it was. He had a lot of freedom. Time to do what he wanted and enough money to purchase anything that appealed to him.

Life as a Dark-Hunter was good.

Very good.

Entering the square, he caught sight of Acheron Parthenopaeus standing against the wall of a building with his arms folded over his chest. The tall Atlantean warrior stood apart from a crowd that was listening to a street performer sing his rendition of the Scooby-Doo theme.

Standing six feet eight with long metallic purple hair and wearing black wraparound sunglasses long after sundown, Acheron was a hard man to miss.

Talon usually referred to Acheron as T-Rex. The nickname stemmed more from the man's intimidating, carnivorous presence than from his ancient age.

There was something truly eerie about Acheron's lethal aura. It flowed out of him like a dangerous tsunami. The very air around the man seemed charged with mystical energy so powerful that it could make the skin on your arms or back of your neck crawl if you stood too close to him.

And judging by the berth the crowd had given T-Rex, Talon would say he wasn't the only one to feel it.

Then again, Talon amended, as he noted Acheron's black motorcycle jacket with silver chain mail draped over one sleeve and his leather pants that had laces instead of seams, maybe it was Acheron's eccentric, unorthodox looks that made people leave him alone.

Whatever it was, no one wanted to get in that man's way.

Acheron turned his head.

Even with the black wraparound sunglasses covering his eyes, Talon knew T-Rex was staring straight at him. Talon gave a short laugh as he noticed Acheron's new facial addition. A silver nose stud.

T-Rex had two very strange penchants: he was always finding new places to pierce his body, and his hair color changed faster than the unpredictable Louisiana weather.

T-Rex also had a strange scar of a hand print that came and went on his neck. No one was sure if the scar was real or if it was some weird trick to throw them off guard that Acheron used. His accent was the same way. There were times when Acheron's voice was heavy with an odd melodic accent Talon assumed to be his native one from Atlantis, and other times T-Rex sounded just like any other television-programmed American.

The ancient warrior seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in keeping people guessing about him. He was even more private than Talon and that was saying something.

Acheron retrieved his black suede backpack, which was decorated with an anarchy logo from the street. He slung it over his shoulder, then tossed a few bills into the musician's guitar case and headed over.

Several members of the crowd visibly tensed and recoiled as Acheron moved through them with the fluid long-legged gait of a dangerous predator. Those who dared to look at him quickly averted their gazes.

It was ironic, really, since Acheron was the last person on earth who would ever harm a mortal. He was the oldest protector mankind had.

For centuries he had fought the Daimons single-handedly.


Without friend or Squire.

Talon had heard rumors that Acheron had been trained to fight by Ares himself. Other rumors claimed Acheron was the son of a god and a legendary Atlantean hero.

But basically no one knew anything about Acheron other than he was tall, private, intimidating, and very, very strange.

As Acheron drew near, Talon inclined his head toward Acheron's purple hair with its four small braids that framed his face. "You know, I think I need to drop the T-Rex and start calling you Barney."

One corner of Acheron's mouth quirked up. "Don't start on me, Celt." He raked an amused look over Talon's leather pants, T-shirt, and jacket. "Nice to see you fully dressed for the occasion."

Talon winced at the underlying meaning of that comment. "Kyrian told on me, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. The pink towel bit was my favorite part."

Kyrian would pay for this. Even if Talon had to hunt him down. "I swear... Does Nick know?"

Acheron smiled a real smile that flashed a tiny bit of fang.

Damn, he was screwed now.

Oh, what the hell, it'd been worth it. Spending the afternoon with Sunshine had more than made up for any embarrassment.

T-Rex looked over his shoulder as if sensing something, and a corner of his leather jacket fell away from his throat to show the hand print was gone again.

Talon followed his line of vision to see Valerius approaching them. He'd only met the Roman general one other time when Valerius had first arrived to assume Kyrian's Dark-Hunter duties.

Valerius had taken one look at Talon's jacket and tore, and sneered the word Celt, thus letting Talon know friendship with this Dark-Hunter was about as likely as finding a parking space for a tank on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

And just think, he was doomed to spend eternity in New Orleans with this prick. As Nick would say, yee-freakin'-haw.

The Roman's black hair was pulled back into an impeccable queue. He wore black pleated pants, loafers, turtle-neck, and a long cashmere coat. If one didn't know better, he would appear to be an affluent attorney, not a Daimon executioner.

And it was all Talon could do not to laugh at how out of place Valerius looked standing next to him, and most especially Acheron, who was a poster boy for the goth movement. Right down to the silver stud in Acheron's nose and the silver buckles that decorated the side of his pointy-toed boots.

"How very punctual you are," Acheron said to Valerius as he looked at the cracked pocket watch he'd pulled out of his jacket pocket. The watch had suffered a mishap about a hundred years ago during a major Daimon uprising. The watch had survived, the Daimons hadn't.

Valerius's black eyes smoldered with resentment as he looked up at Acheron. "I might not like the fact that you are my commander, Greek, but as a soldier I will obey you regardless of my personal distaste for your company."

Talon smirked. "Gee, T-Rex, doesn't it make you all warm and fuzzy just to be near him?"

"Show respect to your betters, Celt," Valerius snarled, curling his upper lip. "Or I'll show you how we Romans dealt with your barbaric kind."

The words didn't elicit any emotion other than bored amusement, but Talon had never been the kind of man to let an insult pass without comment.

He was certainly too old now to change his ways.

"Ah, respect this," he said, flipping Valerius off.

Acheron barely caught Valerius as he lunged for Talon. He placed himself physically between them; not that Talon needed it, but judging by the fury in Valerius's eyes, the Roman certainly did.

"Children, don't make me separate you again." Acheron glared at Valerius and forced the Roman to take a step back. "Believe me, Val, I don't need you to fight my battles and I take no offense to Talon."

"My name is Valerius." Valerius straightened his coat with a regal, arrogant jerk. "And I do take offense to him."

Yeah, well, what was new? The man seemed to take offense at everything.

As usual, whenever two or more Dark-Hunters came together, Talon felt his powers weakening. It was a safeguard Artemis used to ensure her Dark-Hunters couldn't combine strengths and go after the gods or prey on mankind. The only exception to that was Acheron. As the designated trainer and the eldest of their breed, his presence didn't drain their powers, but everyone else's did.

They wouldn't be able to stay together much longer or they would be depleted for the night.

Talon glanced past Valerius's shoulder to see Nick and Zarek walking past the bakery on the corner and heading toward them. "Look unalive, men," he said to Acheron and Valerius, "here comes our reinforcement."

Valerius turned around and let out a vulgar curse that seemed at odds with his regal Roman air of refinement and good breeding.

"Back at you," Zarek snarled as he paused beside Acheron.

Disgust was evident on Valerius's face. "Not another friggin' Greek."

"What's the matter, Roman?" Talon asked. "Greeks bother you?"

His nostrils flared, Valerius raked a sneer over Zarek. "Trust me, had I been at Troy when they left the horse behind, there would have been roasted Greek on the beach that day."

Talon hissed in mock sympathy. "Damn, T-Rex, he really hates your ancestors."

Acheron gave him a droll stare. "No offense, Talon, I was around before they were."

"Oh yeah, sorry." Talon exchanged glances with Nick, who was much quieter than normal. The Squire looked a bit strained.

Hmm, that was interesting. He'd have to keep Zarek around if the man had that kind of suppression power. It was nice to know Nick had an off switch.

"Any problems with your flight?" Acheron asked Zarek.

"I didn't eat my pilot if that's what you mean. And little Nicky here is still breathing and not bleeding."

"Well," Acheron said, his tone flat. "I suppose that's an improvement over last time."

Talon wasn't sure if Acheron was joking or not, but knowing Zarek's reputation, he didn't really doubt it was true. Rumor had it that Zarek had cut up and eaten the last Squire Acheron had sent for him.

Talon swept a glance around the five of them.

Were they a motley bunch or what? The only thing they had in common was height. Collectively, they must look like refugees from the NBA since they ranged in height from Nick's six feet four to Acheron's six feet eight.

Nick was dressed in jeans, a dark green sweater, and bomber jacket-the perfect image of a rich college student. Talon looked like a biker who had just left Sanctuary, New Orleans's premier biker bar. Acheron looked like a refugee from the Dungeon-the local underground goth hangout. Valerius was the professional contingent, and Zarek...

Zarek just looked like he was ready to kill something.

"So why are we congregating?" Zarek asked.

The repugnant hatred in Valerius's eyes was searing. "Did anyone speak to you, slave?'

Acheron barely caught Zarek's hand before his claw sliced Valerius's vulnerable throat. Never before had Talon seen Acheron struggle so hard to hold someone back. It spoke a lot for Zarek's power.

And his temper.

"Cease!" Acheron ordered Zarek. "I know it's been a long time since you were around another Dark-Hunter, Z, but remember, whatever you do to him, you will feel it tenfold."

Zarek's face hardened. "Pain I can take, it's him I can't."

Valerius still had his lips curled. "I don't see why we need a whipping boy for the Daimons to play with. You know, he was so worthless in his lifetime that my father had to pay a slaver to take him off our hands."

Zarek let out the snarl of a wild beast. An instant later, Acheron was thrown clear of him and Zarek bolted at Valerius. He caught the Roman around the waist and the two of them hit the street. Hard.

Before Talon could pull him off Valerius, Zarek got in a number of solid punches and one last kick to the Roman's ribs as Talon hauled him up.

Just as Acheron had said, Zarek's face showed every blow he had given to Valerius. His nose and lips were bleeding profusely. Zarek didn't seem to notice and if he did, the satisfied gleam in his black eyes said the ex-Roman slave thought it well worth the cost.

Valerius was only slightly more subdued as he regained his feet. "You should be beaten for that."

Talon tightened his hold on Zarek.

Angrily, Zarek shoved him away. "Get your fucking hands off me, Celt." Then he turned back to Valerius. "Try beating me, you sorry piece of shit, and I'll force-feed you that black heart of yours."

"Enough!" Acheron roared. "Another word from either one of you, and I swear I'll rip both your hearts out."

Valerius wiped the blood from his lips.

Zarek raked his hand across his face, removing the blood, while he glared murderously at Valerius.

Acheron was a man of infinite patience and Talon had never seen Acheron exasperated before. But he saw it now.

Acheron glared at the Dark-Hunters. "Next time I'll just send the three of you e-mails. What was I thinking when I decided to have this meeting?"

Nick spoke up. "Oh, I know. That men who are a couple of thousand years old could actually behave like grownups?"

Zarek elbowed Nick in the stomach.

"Oops," Zarek said to Acheron. "Involuntary arm spasm."

Acheron cursed under his breath. "I swear, Daimons or not, if you don't behave, Z, I'm going to send you to Antarctica and leave you there to rot."

"Ooo," Zarek breathed in a bored tone. "I'm terrified. Those killer penguins and hairy seals are really scary."

Acheron growled a low warning at Zarek.

Talon felt for his frustrated leader. He knew why Acheron had set up this meeting. The Atlantean had wanted to know what would happen when the three of them crossed paths. Better to see how much hostility there was up front and be here to control it than to chance a random meeting where Zarek could beat the snot out of Valerius without someone there to break them up.

Now Acheron knew exactly what he was dealing with and how much space to put between them. Talon had to salute the Atlantean's wisdom. Acheron might be young in appearance, but he was truly ancient in his powers, knowledge, and ability to handle the rogue Dark-Hunters who answered to him.

Acheron passed a look to each of them. "If you can control yourselves for five minutes, we need to divide up the city. Since I'm the only one able to take the cemeteries, I'll grab those. Valerius, I want you in the garden and business districts, Zarek and Talon can take the Quarter. On Mardi Gras itself, we all need to be in the Vieux Carre no later than nine."

He turned to Nick. "You are on standby. In the event one of us goes down, I need you to mobilize quickly."

"Just one little problem."

"And that is?"

Nick indicated Valerius with his head. "If he goes down, he's on his own."

Zarek smiled. "I knew I liked this kid for a reason."

Nick shot him a disbelieving stare.

"Nick," Acheron said, his voice laced with warning, "your duty is to all of us. Valerius is a Dark-Hunter same as me, Talon, and Zarek."

"I know I swore my oath, but I swore it to protect Kyrian of Thrace and hell will freeze colder than Santa's iceberg before I ever lift even an eyebrow to help the man who tortured and crucified him."

Valerius's eyes blazed.

"That was his grandfather, not him."

Nick pointed a finger at Valerius. "He was there, too, watching it happen, and he did nothing to stop it. I refuse to render aid to someone who could do that." He looked back at Ash. "You, psycho-ass, and Talon, I'll cover, but not him."

"Psycho-ass?" Zarek repeated. "Hmm, I like that."

Acheron ignored Zarek. "Nick-"

"It's all right, Greek," Valerius interrupted. "I would rather die than have his plebeian help anyway."

"Make that three votes, then," Zarek said. "I would rather he died too. Now all together, let's vote this asshole off the island."

Talon hid his amusement and wondered how much longer it would be before Acheron splintered Zarek and Valerius into itty-bitty Dark-Hunter pieces.

Maybe he should tell Nick to get a dustpan ready. The look on Acheron's face said the wait wouldn't be much longer.

"Fine, then," Acheron said to Nick. "Call Eric St. James and have him resume Barnacle Squire status for Valerius should Valerius need anything."

Nick nodded. "Can I have him cover Zarek too? I still have school to worry about."

Before Acheron could answer, Valerius sneered, "I will not work with a slave as an equal nor will I share a servant with him."

Zarek's nostrils flared. "Trust me, boy, we're not equal. You're so far beneath me that I would sooner sit in shit than let you wipe my ass."

Talon caught Valerius before he reached Zarek.

He exchanged looks with Acheron. "This is going to be fun, isn't it? Constantly separating the two of them while fighting off the Daimons. Should we just forget the whole thing and hole up in our homes until it's over?"

But even more discouraging was the knowledge that if Kyrian found out Valerius was in the city, he would make Zarek's attack look like a loving embrace. And since Kyrian was no longer a Dark-Hunter, his powers wouldn't be dampened by Artemis's restriction. He would have free rein to kill the Roman.

Acheron sighed irritably. "I'm almost ready to agree with you." He turned to Valerius. "Go patrol your districts."

Valerius gave him a rather sarcastic Roman salute, then turned on his heel and left them.

The air between them warmed up considerably. Hell, Zarek even looked almost... tolerable. A noticeable amount of tension left the man's body.

"Am I staying with you and Kyrian or Nick?" Zarek asked.

Acheron fell quiet while he fished a key out of his jacket pocket. "We thought it best that you have your own place. I had Nick rent a townhouse for you over on Dauphin Street. He painted the windows black and made sure they were all blocked from daylight."

Zarek's face returned to stone and his black eyes blazed. For some reason, the man was furious as he snatched the key from Acheron's hand and turned to leave.

"I'll have Nick show you where it is," Acheron said.

"I don't need anyone to show me a damn thing," Zarek snarled. "I'll find it on my own."

After Zarek stalked off, Nick grimaced. "I know," he said to Acheron. " 'Nick, go after psycho-ass and show him where he lives.' But might I point out that in doing this, I should qualify for hazard pay?"

Acheron arched a brow. "Might I point out that staying here with me is far more hazardous to your health?"

Nick feigned surprise. "What? Am I still here? Oh no, sorry, thought I'd left ten minutes ago."

He sprinted off after Zarek.

Once they were alone, Talon raked a hand through his hair. "Some nights it's not worth getting up, is it?"

"You've no idea." Acheron let out a long, deep breath as if he were expelling all the tension in his body.

"So tell me, T-Rex, what did you do to Artemis to make her dump this on you?"

As expected, Acheron said nothing. To Talon's knowledge, he had never divulged anything personal about himself or the exact nature of his relationship with the goddess.

"Walk with me, Talon."

That didn't sound good, but Talon followed him.

Acheron remained silent as they left the Pedestrian Mall and headed down Pirate's Alley in the direction of Royal Street.

Just beside the St. Louis Cathedral, near the small garden behind it, Acheron stopped. Talon glanced about uneasily. Dark-Hunters didn't do well around holy places. Since they were men who had lost their souls, souls that had lost their bodies tended to want to take up residence with them. A strong Dark-Hunter could fight the souls off, but only Acheron was completely immune to possession.

It was the main reason Dark-Hunters lived only in new houses and why Nick had taken a psychic into Zarek's townhouse to ensure no ghosts were hanging out. A possessed Dark-Hunter was a scary thing.

"Tell me about the woman you spent the day with."

He started at Acheron's words. The man's powers had never ceased to amaze him. "Nothing to tell, really."

"Don't lie to me, Talon. Sunshine is still within you. I can feel her there. She's in your thoughts and your blood."

The man was truly eerie. "Look, I know where my duties lie. I made an oath to Artemis and I'm not trying to find a way to break it."

"That's not what concerns me."

"Then what is?" Talon asked.

"Do you remember what I told you the night you took vengeance against your clan?"

"Nothing comes without a price."

"Exactly. This woman is inside you, little brother. If you don't get her out, she will unlock those emotions I taught you to bury."

"Would that be so bad?"

Acheron removed his sunglasses and gave him a hard, serious stare with those ageless, timeless glowing eyes. "Yes, it would. You are the one Dark-Hunter I can depend on to have a clear, level head. I need you to stay focused, especially since we have Daimon Fest coming up and two Dark-Hunters in town who hate each other.

"Your emotions are the key to your powers, Talon. When you lose your control, you lose your Dark-Hunter immortality with it, and I don't want to see you dead because you can't control your libido."

"Don't worry. I'm under control."

"Good. Just make sure you stay that way because if you don't, you will get yourself killed."