With an inward sigh, Stephen cleaned the red leather barber’s chair he’d installed in the center of his vintage Airstream. In his free time, he’d converted the old camper trailer into a chic, retro mobile shop. Complete with beautiful red wood floors, black cabinetry, sleek black granite counters and burgundy paint, the Airstream was a shock to the senses for those venturing inside. Its aluminum exterior gleamed and his consulting desk sat on the artificial turf beyond the door, but the interior was eerily dark when the lights were down and reminiscent of his favorite British library when fully lit.
Not that it was a library—not his and unlike any of the libraries in his master’s lairs. It was, however, the finest tattoo parlor he’d ever built, and that was saying a lot, since he’d been inking canvases since the 1200s.
The art and the creature comforts to engage in his passion had changed significantly since the days of Celtic crosses, sailors’ anchors and gypsy markings. In the modern world, that meant inking bright red hearts, watercolor rainbows and Hello Kitty on giggling girls barely old enough to be out of sight of a guardian, as well as the occasional Celtic symbolism. In truth, that was why he still engaged in these fruitless weekends at festivals and fairs. While he had no fascination for the mindless, half-drunk ninnies, he still enjoyed their warm blood, and he still hunted for his own vamp.
Swearing softly, Stephen tossed the disinfectant cloth into the trash. He’d stayed faithful to the prophecy that his Lord Valiant had made centuries ago, but it was hard to remain staunch after eight hundred years of hunting. Some—with less advice from their ruler—had hunted even longer and others more successfully, but Stephen could quietly admit he was tired. Lord Valiant had prophesied that Stephen would find his vamp via his treasured art form, but perhaps it was time to put this version of the Airstream in storage and take on the task of inspecting every shop between New Orleans and Toronto.
Or, he could leave the service of his Lord Valiant’s heir, Master Valor, and take up hunting for his vamp full-time.
The thought teased, but he shook it off quickly. Master Valor would someday be his lord, and he was well-disposed to Stephen, as was Oghman, the Dannan cousin who ran the master’s affairs.
Stephen shook his head, mentally freeing himself of the morose mood.
“I don’t know why you don’t consign that man’s file to the trash bin and refuse to treat those poor creatures anymore.”
The disgruntled voice reached him from beyond the door. Stephen stilled and lifted his head. The fair was over, the revelers gone by midnight the night before, and Stephen remained only to pack up the items still sitting beyond his trailer. What confrontation was about to take place on his doorstep? He’d heard no other, and it was still early morning, barely past dawn.
“Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur,” returned a musical voice, disembodied. Stephen blinked, his heart faltering for a moment before picking up a new rhythm. ‘Even a god finds it hard to love and be wise at the same time.’ How true that was, he thought. His hands shook involuntarily as the sweetness continued, “I love those pathetic beasts. They did not choose their master.”
The man snorted. “Your attitude is so obvious that you might as well have it inked on your forehead. I see the tattoo artist hasn’t left yet. Perhaps he’d do it for you.”
With studied casualness, Stephen strode to the front of the trailer, with nothing more urgent in his mind than getting a glance at the creature he would worship forever-after. His heightened senses could easily hear her heart beating at the same rhythm of his, a telling sign that their lifebloods—their Vitam—were one.
She replied before he could tug open the metal door, her voice full of mirth. “Papa, I’d be happy to tattoo it on me somewhere other than my forehead, but you always told me such things were for the foolish.”
“You are being foolish,” the man scolded, though Stephen could hear the affection in his tone. “And you’ll be bankrupt soon, too. You know very well he won’t pay you, and I’ll have to send the entire bill to collection.” Uncharacteristically, Stephen fumbled the lock then hauled open the door, desperate to see the pair.
The sight before him was one for the ages. The poor female standing in the fairground street, hands on hips, immediately beyond his artificial turf front yard and waiting room, looked more like a drowned lemur than a woman. Her brown hair was plastered over her forehead and ears, and she wore safety glasses the size of goggles that were splattered with spots of brown. He glanced lower, but her clothing was in no better condition. She wore an old set of scrubs with a ragged lab coat over them. These garments were the opposite of charming, or even pristine—the faded pink scrubs stained with wide brown spots washed-out by laundering, the lab coat ruined and marked by fresh muck of indeterminable origin in a grotesque caricature of a Jackson Pollock painting. Her feet were garbed in the scruffiest pair of Converse tennis shoes he’d seen since the 1950s, and it was impossible to tell what their original color had been. All of her was drenched, as though a full barrel of water had been dumped over her head and left to drain, unencumbered, to the ground below her. Slowly, he followed the water dripping from her down the street, where she’d left a trail of wet footprints behind.
She must have come from the barns.
The older man with his drowned angel, presumably—hopefully—her father, cleared his throat. “Didn’t mean to wake you,” he said gruffly. “Just walking past. No need to be angry.”
Stephen stopped, blinked, looked down at himself and almost blushed. He wasn’t angry, but he hadn’t shaved and he knew his hair and beard must look scruffy and unkempt. He hadn’t even brushed his teeth, though, thankfully, he wasn’t close enough to the pair to inflict any sort of morning breath on her. He wore only a pair of running shorts that didn’t conceal anything of his form, and even his tattoo—etched around his navel piercing—was visible.
He didn’t normally show that to anyone.
Stephen raised his head again. The angel was staring at him, but she was also shaking. Awkwardly, he rubbed his forehead. “Let me get you a towel,” he blurted, trying to invest a bit of compulsion into his voice without sounding like an ass. “Heard you wanted a tattoo. Don’t leave.”
Turning, he rushed inside, praying that the pair didn’t flee. He’d be doubly damned if he had to chase them down. Using the preternatural speed he’d been granted at his rebirth, Stephen pulled a tight T-shirt over his head and zipped himself and his running shorts inside a pair of worn, but clean, jeans, then picked up a stack of towels and another of random clean clothing to rush to the door.
No doubt they’d notice that he had appeared much too quickly. But, no, both were now huddled together, the angel whispering frantically, her arms crossed over her abdomen, as though her trembling had degraded into outright shivering.
Without asking, without even considering his effect on her or his physical reaction to her, Stephen threw the towel over her shoulders. “You should go in and change. I have clothes you can wear.”
Slowly, she turned toward him, her blue eyes wide with shock. Stephen couldn’t stop his nose from twitching. This close to her, it was obvious what the smell portended. She hadn’t just been in the cattle barn. She’d been subjected to it.
A small, hapless smile from her shot a silly thrill through his middle. “I can’t possibly step inside your storefront,” she refused, gesturing at herself. “The hygiene implications for a tattoo parlor… Well, you’d have your license revoked.” She started to shrug off the towel, but Stephen settled a hand to her shoulder, keeping it in place. She stilled. “I can’t keep these towels!”
Stephen frowned, taking in the resignation on the older man’s face. He had argued with her, but he clearly knew the battle was hopeless. The man, at least, was susceptible to the suggestion in Stephen’s words. Stephen took another towel and wrapped it over her hair, invading her personal space without a qualm. She didn’t resist this time, but let him squeeze out the excess water and wrap the terrycloth around her curly locks.
Looking back at his angel, he introduced himself. “My name’s Stephen. I was just preparing to leave the fairgrounds and have breakfast. I’m in no hurry to head out of town. How about you keep these towels until you can change, and I’ll meet you after I eat to collect them?”
He raised an eyebrow at the older man, hoping to persuade him to Stephen’s cause. “She’ll freeze if she doesn’t have something warmer to walk in all the way to the parking lot.”
“I think so, too.” The gentleman held out his hand. “Name’s Dunharrow. My daughter here is Vienna Dunharrow. She’s the local veterinarian. I do my poor best to assist her now that I’ve retired, but the cattle that caused this are owned by a selfish prick of a man who stays rich off cheating her and others out of their due.”
Vienna. It was a lovely name.
“Papa!” she gasped, clearly appalled at this display of personal information.
“Well, m’dear,” he defended himself, “the man’s offering to help and being kind. I see no reason to refuse. He’s right. You are going to freeze if you keep standing here.”
Stephen sighed, focusing on Vienna. “Just tell me where to meet you. I’ll even wait breakfast for you—”
“Oh, no, I’ve no time for a meal,” she refused briskly, holding up a hand. Stephen eyed it cautiously, and Vienna smiled. She hadn’t expected him to want to take it. “I’ve a full day of appointments, but you can stop by my office and pick up the towels. They’ll be laundered for you, if you can delay leaving until ten.”
“She’ll be there by eight, even though I don’t have any appointments for her until nine,” Dunharrow supplied, pulling his wallet out and handing Stephen a card. “She’ll want to check over the animals in the kennel before the day starts.”
It was barely past six. “I’ll come,” Stephen agreed, deliberately not giving a time. He’d be there before eight, but there was no reason to be overly aggressive yet. Lightly, he pushed against Dunharrow’s mind, seeking the identity of the client who intended to stiff Vienna out of her well-earned fees. Before he went to the clinic, he needed to get the Airstream hooked up, then he had an asshole rancher to confront and feed from. After that, he’d have to shower.
Stephen wasn’t about to show up in his vamp’s place of business smelling like cow dung. It was a damn good thing he could imitate a fucking superhero when he wished, even if he was only a Vampire.