“I had just as much money as a mortal man and a lot more…” He let his voice trail off as he realized he’d almost said friends. That wasn’t really true, but at least back then people who openly disdained him, with the exception of his family, generally kept it to themselves.
It wasn’t something he liked to think or talk about.
“Lot more what?” she asked when he didn’t finish his sentence.
Valerius directed her to his house on Third Street down in the Garden District.
Tabitha let out a low whistle as they neared it. She pulled into the drive, which was shielded by a variety of greenery and stopped before the large, wrought-iron gate. She lowered her window and pressed the button on the security box.
He leaned forward and spoke loudly. “It’s Valerius, Gilbert. Open the gate.”
The gates opened a few seconds later.
“Nice,” Tabitha said as she drove down his circular drive and parked before the front door, right behind what appeared to be a run-down primer and red Chevy IROC that must belong to one of Valerius’s employees. She couldn’t imagine Val being caught dead in it and since he was dead…
“I take it that isn’t yours, or did your brother just get really pissed off one day and nail it?”
Valerius didn’t comment.
Tabitha paused to stare at the fountain in the bend of the drive that had blue lights at night. It was a tribute to the goddess Minerva and had been one of the reasons Valerius had chosen this as his home.
“Does Artemis know about that statue?”
“Since I’m still breathing, I rather doubt it,” he said quietly.
He led her up the old stone steps. As soon as they reached the door, Gilbert opened it.
“Good evening, my lord.” His butler didn’t comment on the fact that Valerius was coming home wet.
There was something about the rigid, older Englishman that reminded Tabitha of Alfred from Batman.
“Evening, Gilbert.” He stood aside to let the older man see Tabitha. “This is Ms. Devereaux.”
“Very good, sir.” Gilbert inclined his head stiffly to Tabitha. “Charmed, madam.” Then he looked back at Valerius. “Would your lordship and madame care for something to drink or eat?”
Valerius looked at her.
“No, thank you, Gilbert.”
The butler inclined his head to them, then headed toward the back of the house.
Valerius led her toward the left. “If you would, please wait in the library and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Where are you going?” she asked, wondering at his suddenly somber mood.
“I need to change into something dry.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
He headed up the stairs.
Tabitha wandered through the arched doorway into a dark room that was covered from floor to ceiling with books. She was in a corner skimming titles when she felt someone come into the room behind her.
She turned to find a handsome man around her own age staring at her.
“Amanda? What the hell brought you here?”
“I’m not Amanda,” she said, crossing the room so that he could see her scarred face. “I’m her sister Tabitha. And you are?”
“Ah,” she said in understanding. “Val’s Squire.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me.”
She didn’t need her empathy to feel his rancor. “Why do you serve someone you hate?”
“Like I have a choice. The council sent me here, so here I am, locked in hell.”
“Bud, I don’t know where you hail from, but I take exception to people who hate my town.”
He scoffed at that. “I got no problem with New Orleans. I love this town. It’s Count Penicula that I take issue with. Have you met him?”
“The dick who lives here. Valerius. You know, old ‘Don’t breathe in my presence, you prole.'”
This had to be the strangest man Tabitha had ever met-and given the odd crew of friends she had, that said a lot. “Prole as in proletariat?”
He looked relieved that she got it. “Oh, thank God you have a brain.”
She wasn’t sure if she should feel complimented or not. “I’m still confused. Why did the Squire’s Council send you here? Don’t they know how you feel about him?”
“Since my father happens to be one of the board members, yes, they know. Unfortunately, no one else will take this post. And since Lord Valerius demanded someone who could speak Italian and Latin there weren’t that many of us to choose from. Pompous windbag.”
“What’s so pompous about wanting someone who speaks your native tongue? I noticed Talon has taught Sunshine Gaelic; and every time Julian and Kyrian get around Selena, they immediately break into ancient Greek.”
“Yeah, but they don’t demand that their Squires know it. Notice Nick ain’t real swift in Greek.”
Tabitha snorted. “Nick’s not real swift in English most of the time.”
“Hey now, don’t insult my friend.”
“Nick happens to be one of my friends too and I love him like a brother, but that doesn’t make it open season on Valerius.”
“Yeah, right. Hon, you should invest in a textbook and read up on what Valerius Magnus did in his lifetime.”
She folded her arms over her chest and cocked her head. “Excuse me, Mr. Carvalletti, I’ll have you know I hold a master’s in Ancient Civ. Do you?”
“No, I hold a doctorate from Princeton.”
She was impressed in spite of herself. Princeton didn’t let in stupid people. “In Ancient Civ?”
“No. Film Studies,” he said in a low tone.
“Pardon?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Did you say film?” She was aghast at that. “You majored in movies? Oh, and I was almost impressed.”
“Hey,” he said defensively, “I’ll have you know I worked my ass off for that degree, thank you very much.”
“Oh, yeah, right. I was a Fulbright Scholar. Did you ever attend a school where Daddy didn’t put up a building?”
“My father didn’t put up a building there…” He paused before adding, “My great-grandfather did.”
Tabitha snorted. “I’m sorry, but I had to learn four languages to get my degree. What about you?”
“None. I grew up speaking twelve.”
“Well aren’t you Mr. Fancy Pants? Ooo, and you have the nerve to crack on Val? At least he doesn’t walk around flaunting his superior intellect.”
“No, he just flaunts his superior breeding. Bow down before me, all you plebeian scum.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t act that way if all of you weren’t damned nasty to him all the time.”
“I’m nasty to him! Lady, you don’t even know me.”
Tabitha backed off, especially since she felt his hurt. “You’re right, Otto, I don’t know you and I’m probably doing the same thing to you that you did to Val when you met him. I took one look at you, listened to three seconds of your conversation, and made some really harsh judgments that could be wrong just as easily as they could be right.”
She approached him with her hands clasped behind her back. “Case in point. Your hair, while attractive, is shaggy, but it’s that kind of shabby-chic that only comes from a really expensive beautician. You haven’t shaved in what? Two days?”
She ignored him. “You’re wearing a loud, obnoxiously bright red Hawaiian shirt that I know belongs to Nick because he only wears it whenever he wants to jerk Kyrian’s chain. He had to special-order it online for the mere tackiness of it alone. You’re barefoot and I saw the beater IROC outside, which, I assume now, is yours.”
He stiffened noticeably, which confirmed her suspicion.
She continued her summation. “At first glance, you look like one of those out-of-work party guys who come into my shop browsing the video closet that we keep in back because no self-respecting woman will go out with you. The kind of guy who buys all the nak*d boob and fornicating Mardi Gras beads to hang around his neck and then spends the entire week drunk and puking, screaming at women to show him their cans.”
He folded his arms and gave her a sullen glare.
“Now let’s contrast that with a few other facts I’ve noticed. You’re a Squire and from your own admission you’re a Blue Blood, which means you come from entire generations of Squires. Your family has had more money than God for a long time. You actually went to Princeton, and even with a laughable major, you went through the trouble of getting a doctorate. That tells me that status does mean something to you. Let me guess: That really cool, metallic black Jag that literally glistens in darkness that Nick has parked at his house and yet never drives is actually yours.”
She paused beside him and looked him up and down. “Not to mention you carry yourself like a man used to being respected, even while trying to pretend to be a tasteless slob. Anyone with even an ounce of perception isn’t fooled by the tough way you stand.”
She lifted his hand, where a spiderweb was tattooed. “Nice watch,” she said dryly. “Patek Philippe Grand Complications Chronographs. Let me guess: it’s the 5004P which sells for one hundred fifty thousand dollars.”
“How do you know that?”
“I come from a long line of store owners and my Aunt Zelda has a jewelry store.” She held her arm up to him. “Look, see my coffin watch? It retails for thirty-two dollars at Hot Topic and it has the same time yours does. It takes a Daimon licking and keeps on ticking.”
He rolled his eyes at her.
Tabitha continued her rant. “And you’re not just a regular Squire.” She tapped the spiderweb tattoo on the back of his hand that all Squires of his ilk were marked with. “You’re a Blood Rite. Why, Dr. Carvalletti, I do believe that in real life, you’re not too far away from being just like Val yourself. Tough, arrogant, and willing to do whatever is necessary to get your job done.”
She tilted her head. “I think what bothers you most is that if you were a Dark-Hunter, you’d be just like him. I think it kills you to know exactly how similar the two of you are. Where is your black Armani suit hanging? Nick’s house?”
“What are you? Friggin’ Sherlock Holmes?”
She smiled. “Pretty much, except it usually doesn’t take me as long to get to the truth.”
He looked at her stonily. “I don’t need you to teach me a moral lesson, babe. I know how the world works.”
“I’ve no doubt about that. But you have a lot to learn about people. What they say and what they feel are seldom the same. I know right now that you hate my guts. You would like nothing better than to toss my ass out of here and slam the door shut. But notice you haven’t done either one of those to me.”
“So what’s your point?”
“My point is this. Blood Rite Squires are the ones charged with keeping the dictates of the Council and keeping the lid on the Dark-Hunter world. That means they are willing to take whatever steps are necessary, including murder, to protect their secrets. I am sure somewhere in your past, you have had to do something distasteful to you in order to uphold your Squire’s oath and perform your duties. When you were reading that textbook about Valerius did you ever wonder how much of it he enjoyed? Or did he simply do what he did because it was his job?”
Otto cocked his head at her. “Anyone ever tell you you should be an attorney?”
“Only Bill when we argue. Besides, I like killing bloodsuckers too much to ever be one of them.” She held her hand out to him. “Tabitha Devereaux. Pleased to meet you.”
His confusion engulfed her. He hesitated before he shook her proffered hand.
“Don’t worry, Otto,” she said with a smile. “I’m an acquired taste. Most of my best friends had to know me for years before they could even stand my presence. I’m like mold, I usually grow on you very slowly.”
“You said it, not me.”
She patted his arm. “Do me a favor, be nice to Penicula. I think there’s a lot more to him than what we see.”
“You’re the only person I know who feels that way.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I feel like all of us misfits need to hang together. At least that way we don’t swing alone.”
He gave her a confused scowl, but before he could comment, his cell phone rang.
Tabitha stepped away from him to give him privacy with his call. She wandered toward the foyer to ogle the really impressive tile work on the floor.
It wasn’t until she stood in the doorway that she saw Valerius standing on the bottom stair. At first glance, he might pass for one of the statues that flanked the stairs, but unlike them he was flesh and blood.
Valerius stared at Tabitha as her words rang in his head. To his knowledge, no one had ever defended him.
Not once in all of his two thousand years of life and death.
Even if they had, he doubted they would have done so so eloquently. She was in the shadow of his doorway, her long auburn hair framing a face that was open and honest.
The face of a woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up to anyone or anything. He’d never known anyone more courageous.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
He gave a subtle nod.
“How much did you hear?”
She appeared uncomfortable with that. “You could have let us know you were here. It’s not nice to eavesdrop.”