Valerius jumped as she pinched his butt playfully. "Please don’t give them ideas."
She laughed at that.
They walked through a crowd of people who were in the process of applying makeup, wigs, and elaborate dresses. Marla sat in a back corner, wailing while another man flitted around her, complaining. Her bald head was covered by a pink net turban and her makeup was completely wrecked.
"You’re ruining all my hard work, honey. You have to stop crying or I’ll never get it fixed in time."
"What does it matter? I’m going to lose. Damn you, Anthony! All men are pigs. Pigs! I can’t believe he’d sell me out."
Valerius felt bad for Marla. It was obvious this pageant meant a lot to her.
"Hey, babe," Tabitha said. "Buck up. We got something a lot better than old Tone. In fact, both he and Mink will die when you step out with this by your side." She pushed Valerius forward.
"Hi, Marla," he said simply, feeling like a complete and utter jackass.
Marla’s jaw dropped. "You’re going to do this for me?"
He glanced over his shoulder to see Tabitha watching him closely. There was actually fear in her eyes that he might back out.
God knows, he truly wanted to.
He really, really didn’t want to go through with this. But Valerius Magnus was tougher than this. He had never run in his life and he would do this favor for Tabitha no matter how distasteful it might be to him.
Straightening himself, he turned back to Marla. "I would be honored to be your escort."
Marla let out an ear-piercing scream as she jumped up and grabbed him in a hug so hard that he feared his ribs might crack. She screamed even louder as she left him and grabbed Tabitha up into a hug that brought Tabitha’s feet off the floor.
"Oh, girlfriend, you are the best friend anyone ever had! Imagine Marla Divine going out there on the arm of the only straight man in the house. Girl, they will die of envy." She let go of Tabitha. "Carey, get over here and redo my makeup, pronto. I need to be fabulous! Fabulous!"
Carey was smiling at Marla’s dramatics. "Sit down, darling, and you will be."
While Carey worked on Marla, Valerius and Tabitha stood off to the side, out of the way.
"Thank you," Tabitha said. "Really."
Tabitha watched Valerius. Before she could stop herself, she wrapped her arms around him and smiled up at him and laid her head against his chest.
Valerius couldn’t breathe at the sensation of her hold. His heart thudded at the sight of her head lying against him, at the warmth of her body pressed against his. An unexpected tenderness swelled inside him.
He reached up and lightly stroked her hair while he hoped nothing went wrong with Marla because he was helping her.
The last time he had tried to help someone had been over a year ago when Acheron had asked him to help fight Daimons off a Katagaria wolf pack. He’d gone willingly but during the fight, Vane and Fang, the two wolves they’d been helping, had lost their sister to an ill-placed Daimon strike. She’d died in her brothers’ arms.
The sight haunted him to this day.
Valerius had told Vane that anytime he needed him, he’d gladly lend his sword arm to the wolf. Luckily, Vane had never needed him.
You’re being ridiculous.
Perhaps, but it wouldn’t bother him so much if he was the one who bore the brunt of it. The disaster always seemed to fall onto the ones he tried to help.
He put that thought away and focused on the woman with him. A woman unlike any other he’d ever met before.
She was truly special. Unique.
Time seemed to hold still as he stood there, just letting the warmth of Tabitha seep into him.
He was actually startled when Marla stood up and gestured for him to follow her.
"Dum-da-dum-dum… dum…" Tabitha hummed the theme song to Dragnet as if to portend his doom as they followed Marla back through the dressing room into a hallway that was crowded with drag queens.
Tabitha kissed Valerius’s cheek, then left him so that she could make room for others.
She headed out into the club and found Marla’s best friend, Yves, sitting at a table in front of the runway with a group of his pals.
"Hey, vampire slayer," Yves said as she pulled a chair up to the table. "Are you here to cheer Marla on?"
"Of course. Where else would I be?"
A cheer went up from the table while they bantered around and laid bets on who would win until the show finally started.
Tabitha was a nervous wreck until Marla and Valerius appeared. The crowd went wild the minute they saw Valerius, who walked as if he was completely comfortable in his role as escort. Only Tabitha could sense his discomfort and she had a feeling it stemmed more from his fear of causing Marla to be hurt than anything else.
When they reached the stairs that would lead them off the runway to where the rest of the earlier contestants were gathered, Valerius descended first and, like a true gentleman, reached up to help Marla down.
Tabitha wanted to weep at what a kind thing he was doing for someone he didn’t even know.
She couldn’t think of any other straight man who would do something this ridiculous to help out a woman he’d just met. A woman who had stabbed him no less.
As soon as the escorts were dismissed, she pushed through the crowd to find him. The instant she reached him, she threw herself into his arms and held him close.
Valerius was completely stunned by Tabitha’s exuberant reaction. She felt so good in his arms that it was all he could do not to crush her to him and kiss her until they both made a spectacle of themselves.
She squeezed him tight, then laid a gentle kiss on his lips. "You are the best!"
Shocked, he didn’t know what to say to that.
"If you want, we can leave now."
Valerius looked about. "No," he said honestly. "I’ve come this far and I didn’t kill Marla, so I think we should stay and see how she does."
The look on her face made his entire body burn. "Does Ash have any idea just what a sweetheart you are?"
"I shudder at the mere prospect."
She laughed, then took his hand and led him to a table near the stage.
A large group of men greeted them.
"You were great!" the one closest to them said.
Valerius inclined his head as Tabitha introduced all of them. They sat there for a little over an hour while the contestants held a talent and bathing suit competition. The latter of which made Valerius even more uncomfortable than being on stage.
"You okay?" Tabitha asked, leaning toward him. "You look a little green."
"I’m fine," he said, even though he was cringing at the thought of how a man could restrict himself so much in a bathing suit as to leave no trace of his gender.
Some things just didn’t bear thinking on.
After an hour, the judges had finally narrowed it down to three contestants.
Tabitha sat forward. She wrapped her arm around Valerius and perched her chin on his shoulder as she held her breath and prayed for Marla.
Valerius didn’t move, but the sensation of his hand on hers made her warm considerably. No matter the outcome, she was so grateful to him for bailing her out.
Neither Kyrian nor Ash would be caught dead here.
Tabitha caught Marla’s nervous gaze as they came down to the winner’s name.
She couldn’t breathe. Not until they announced…
Marla screamed and grabbed the contestant closest to her. They jumped up and down and cried as more contestants moved in for hugs and congrats.
Tabitha shot to her feet, screaming and whistling her support. "Go, Marla, go!"
She looked down to see Valerius staring at her in horror.
Huffing at him, she pulled him to his feet. "Let’s hear it, General," she said. "Shout out."
"I only shout when calling orders to troops and that was a long time ago."
Well, there was only so much loosening up a person could do in one night.
She blew him a raspberry, then continued yelling for her roommate.
The emcee placed the crown on Marla, and the sash, then handed her a dozen roses and directed her toward the runway.
Marla walked down it, crying and laughing as she blew kisses to the audience.
When it was all over, Tabitha and Valerius fought the crowd to her side. Marla hugged Tabitha first, then grabbed Valerius. "Thank you!"
Valerius nodded. "My pleasure. Congratulations on winning, Marla."
Marla smiled. "I owe the two of you. Don’t think I’m going to forget, now. Y’all go on and I’ll catch up to you later."
"All right," Tabitha said. "I’ll see you at home."
They made their way out of the club, to the busy Canal Street that bordered the French Quarter.
Tabitha checked her watch. It was almost ten. "I don’t know about you, but I’m famished. Want to go grab a bite?"
Valerius gave her an amused stare. "You have to be the only woman alive who would ask a man with fangs that question."
She laughed. "You’re probably right. So would you like to join me?"
"We don’t have reservations anywhere."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Hon, where I’m going we don’t need no stinking reservations."
"Where are we going?"
She headed down Royal Street, which connected Canal to Iberville. "The Antoine’s of seafood. Acme Oyster House."
"Acme? I’ve never eaten there."
And as soon as Tabitha reached the door of the place, Valerius knew why. It actually had plastic black-and-white checked tablecloths.
He hesitated in the doorway as he scanned the small restaurant. The place was tiny and the crowd thinning. It had a bar to his right that stretched along the wall, and tables set up to his left. The walls were a tawdry mixture of mirrors, pictures, and neon signs. It was loud and obnoxious.
Not to mention, Valerius had to quickly catch himself and mentally force his image into the mirrors before someone realized he didn’t cast a reflection.
Tabitha turned to look at him. She put her hands on her hips. "Would you stop looking like someone just scuffed your brand-new shoes? They have the best oysters on earth here."
"It’s so… neon."
"So put on your sunglasses."
"It doesn’t look sanitary," he said in a low tone.
"Oh please, you’re about to eat something that is the vacuum cleaner of the ocean. You do know how pearls are formed, right? All an oyster does is ingest trash. Besides, you’re immortal, what do you care?"
He looked past Tabitha to see Vane and Bride Kattalakis seated at the oyster bar, where two men behind the counter were shucking oysters for the handful of people who sat there. Valerius let out a relieved breath. Finally, someone he could relate to. A little, anyway since Vane was an Arcadian wolf and Bride his human mate.
Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, Vane was Valerius’s height and had long dark brown hair that he wore loose around his shoulders. Bride was a plump, beautiful woman whose long auburn hair was worn up in a messy bun. She had on a tan sweater over a brown dress with little white flowers.
Valerius crossed the floor to shake Vane’s hand. "Wolf," he said in greeting… it was always polite to refer to the Arcadians and Katagaria by their animal selves. "Nice seeing you again." He looked to Bride. "And you, my lady, always an honor."
Bride smiled at him, then looked at Tabitha. "What are the two of you doing here? Together?"
"Val was doing a favor for me," Tabitha said as she came up behind him. She turned to one of the men behind the counter, who was wiping his hands after shucking a plate of oysters. "Hey, Luther, two beers and a fork."
The tall African-American laughed at her. "Tabby, this is what, the fourth time this week you’ve been here? Don’t you have a home?"
"Yeah, but we don’t have oysters in it. At least not good ones. And I have to come here just to harass you. Imagine a whole day without Tabitha in it… What would you do?"
Valerius didn’t miss the strange look that passed between Vane and Bride before Luther handed Bride the plate of shucked oysters and went to get Tabitha the beers.
"Is there something I should know?" Valerius asked them.
The instant Vane opened his mouth to speak, Tabitha kicked his shin. Hard.
Vane yelped, then frowned at her.
"What was that?" Valerius asked. "Why did you kick him?"
"No reason," Tabitha said, reaching over the bar to pluck an oyster from the pile.
She looked angelic, which meant something truly evil was going on.
Valerius looked back at Vane. "What were you going to say?"
"Absolutely nothing," Vane said before he took a drink from his longneck.
Valerius had a bad feeling about this.
Luther returned with two bottles of beer and handed them to Tabitha, who in turn held one out for Valerius.
He stared at it blankly.
"Aren’t you thirsty?" Tabitha asked.
"Don’t we get glasses?"
"It’s beer, Val, not champagne. Take it. Really, it doesn’t bite."
"Tabby, be nice," Bride chided. "Valerius probably isn’t used to beer."
"I do drink it," Valerius said, taking the bottle reluctantly, "just not like this."