an excerpt

Chapter One

"This is where you wanted to take me? A New Orleans tattoo parlor?" A shiver of ingrained fear ran down Colin's slender back, a lifetime of avoiding sharp objects inducing an automatic, horrified response from him. He no longer had to fear bleeding to death from a simple laceration, not since becoming lover to a vampire who healed him, temporarily, of his genetic bleeding disorder, but twenty-five years of conditioning was hard to overcome. "One with needles? Dirty, sharp needles?"

"Right now there are other things that need be feared more than this." Rowland Campbell put a fraction more pressure on the small of Colin's back, urging him off the crowded square filled with rambunctious partygoers sampling the sights and sounds of the picturesque French Quarter.

Colin watched with mounting trepidation as the tall, burly vampire glanced up and down the street warily before he shut the door behind them, then turned the heavy lock, sealing the shop off from any new customers. "This needs to be done now."

Despite the massive degree of lingering devastation from Hurricane Katrina, this part of the city was untouched, still attracting the annual hordes of people for the string of weekly festivals and parties New Orleans was famous for. The sector was teeming with life and chaos. Colin found it exciting, but Rowland appeared distracted and on guard. If one as powerful and cautious as his lover was worried, Colin had reason to be terrified. Almost as terrified as being told he was going to spend the entire night being tattooed.

Outside the window, the homeless mingled with the drunken revelers, the smell of human sweat and grime mixed with the scent of spicy foods and flowing liquor. The uneven streets, dark corners, above-ground graveyards, and miles and miles of abandoned houses and businesses gave birth to a bevy of unwatched places to find shelter and a variety of senseless or impaired humans to feast on. This was an environment rich for the taking from a vampire's point of view. So why wasn't Rowland out looking for his evening meal instead of barricading doors and window to shut them out?

"Is something wrong? You're... tense."

"We're being followed." Rowland drew down the shade covering the glass panel in the door and pulled Colin deeper into the shadows of the candlelit storefront.

"Who? Why?" Edging closer to Rowland, Colin took comfort in his lover's solid presence.

"The remaining hunters who attacked me the first night we met. The why is obvious. They hunt vampires. They have been trailing us for several days. That's why we're here. This trip is necessary." Rowland ran both hands up Colin's arms to his shoulders, where he caressed Colin's breastbone with his callused thumbs, icy blue gaze bathing Colin in a reassuring glint of confidence and power. "You, my tiny pleasure, will always be safe. I will assure that."

Colin couldn't help but smile and nod, his expression mirroring the adoring look on Rowland's handsome, square-jawed face. He stepped closer until their bodies touched. The scent of the rich, strong European coffee Rowland liked to sip reached his senses and ignited a spark of arousal. He loved that heady scent - rich, masculine, and bold. His gaze flickered to the small scar on the vampire's chin, and Colin had to fight down the urge to taste the white line with his tongue. It was difficult to resist, but his lover's strong hands turned him around and propelled him forward a few more steps.

Rowland had been turned centuries ago, at the height of his physical prowess, a massive, burly leader of a ruthless, yet honorable, warrior clan from an age so long ago Colin had trouble imagining it existing. Like a mighty draft horse dwarfed a sleek thoroughbred, Rowland dwarfed most other men. Broad-shouldered, massively muscled arms, and legs like tree trunks attached to an iron hard torso sculpted out of a mountain of flesh and bone. Colin couldn't help but feel secure and protected at his lover's side, even with the idea of men hunting them.

A thin, dark-skinned man appeared suddenly from an alcove at the back of the tiny shop. The man had come from a doorway closed off by a blood red curtain, but the fabric hung limp and still, no sway or flutter showing any sign of the man having moved it aside to enter the cluttered room.

The man's half-lidded gaze instantly locked with Rowland's. The vampire's arm slipped around Colin's waist, drawing him nearer, surprising Colin.

Frowning slightly, Colin slid a hand under Rowland's suit jacket to twist his fingers into the silky gray shirt beneath. Colin's heart rate shot up and his throat tightened. Although Rowland wasn't one for casual displays of affection, and definitely not in public, he didn't push his hand away. Gooseflesh rose on Colin's arms, and the room grew stuffy, the air heavy with the smell of ink, and other things Colin didn't recognize.

Just as suddenly, an almost overwhelming wave of power rolled over Colin. Rowland's presence intensified in his mind and body until Colin knew it literally radiated from him as well as the vampire. He could feel Rowland in his limbs, taste him on his tongue. The vampire's scent filled Colin's lungs. Every breath he exhaled would tell the stranger he belonged to Rowland. He was cocooned in an invisible, protective blanket, a force field that embodied the aura of great power, and death. It would have been suffocating had Colin not been so unnerved by Rowland's show of power to this lone man.

Colin's grip on Rowland's shirt tightened, his knuckles pressing against the rock hard muscles of the vampire's side, the coolness of Rowland's flesh a comfort where it touched Colin's through the thin, fine fabric.

It was comforting, even if the lack of all movement under the shirt was noticeable to Colin. It bothered him that the gentle sway and dip of breathing wasn't there, was never there, when Colin touched his lover.

Oddly, this was the first time Rowland had let his full power wash through Colin. Colin found it possessive, sexy, and a disturbing display of ownership. Why was this stranger important to impress?