Free Read

This is an old story that was part of an anthology my publisher released back when vampires were cool (does that date me a bit?). It will probably never be re-published, but it will live here as a free read through the Halloween season.
P.S. Please ignore any formatting errors, this story didn’t transfer formats as nicely as I would have liked.

Marked

The streets of Middleton were quiet and rightly so for a Tuesday night—until a black and red sports car sped down the street, engines roaring, subs pounding, and passengers shouting.

Jake drove fast and wild; he was pumped and ready to kick ass and take names. Pittsburgh thought he could screw him over? He’d show him. He was Jake fucking Komorowski; his name meant something in this town. His tires squealed when he came to a sudden stop in the driveway of Pittsburgh’s house.

He and the three members of his crew paused to be sure no one was home, but of course no one was. On Tuesday nights, Pittsburgh visited his mother across town. She rambled about the good days, and he brought her tasters. She was probably halfway gone by that point, in a drug-induced haze.

His sister, Jessie, jumped out of the car first. She was always eager to prove that she could run with them as well as any man, and she cocked her handgun. “What are you guys waiting for?”

Tyler scrambled out after her, the little pleaser; he was a worthless piece of shit, still half in love with Jessie and more trouble than he was worth, but he owed Jake money, so he kept him around to do odd jobs. It was better than losing all that money—well, he was pretty sure it was. Some days, he had his doubts.

He and Eddie, his best friend since his human days, bumped fists and got out of the front seat.

Tyler eagerly strode up to the door and tried—and failed—to kick it in. Jake had his doubts that Tyler could kick in a human-made door, much less one built for vamp strength. Eddie rolled his eyes, and Jake shoved Tyler to the side. He broke the door in with one hard kick and strutted into the house; Eddie and Jessie pushed past Tyler to follow.

“And that’s how it’s done, bitch,” Eddie taunted Tyler, who grumbled and took up their six.

They moved through the house, breaking and smashing whatever they felt like. Jessie dragged her arm across a shelf, smashing all of Pittsburgh’s stupid little trophies from his victims. Tyler shredded a couch with his razor-sharp nails.

Jake set on the far wall next to the TV, knocking off pictures and paintings and other pieces of stupid shit, then took the can of spray paint out of his back pocket, shook it up, and painted his personal symbol across the wall and most of the sixty-five-inch TV.

From another room, Eddie called out to him. “Hey, Jake, check this shit out!”

Jake made his way to the back room, smashing a few more things on the way. When he got there, Jessie was standing off to one side, playing with the red ends of her long dark hair as she watched Eddie finish breaking into a safe. And when he got in—

“Fuck yeah, baby.” Eddie grinned up at Jake and stepped back, revealing the wad of cash inside.

“Fuck yeah is right!” Jake took handfuls and stuffed them into his pockets. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

“Celebration time?” Jessie asked, popping a hip and readjusting the grip on her gun.

“Hell yeah, baby doll,” Jake drawled, his smile so wide his eyeteeth showed.

 

*~*~*

 

They chilled and drank celebratory beers at Billy’s Bar, their local haunt, but it was a hollow victory—for Jake, at least. Something didn’t feel right. The four of them were alone; the three other patrons were drinking alone at the bar. When they’d got there, the small crowd had thinned fast. No one wanted to drink with vamps around. Some party … four people drinking beers together, beers that were barely giving him a buzz. He felt restless, like his skin was crawling and itching; he needed to break something or bite someone.

He turned to Tyler to half-jokingly ask if Tyler wanted to suck his dick—he wasn’t sure what he’d do if Tyler said yes; he just wanted to see him squirm a little—but Tyler was glaring daggers, and when Jake followed his gaze, he saw that Jessie was in Eddie’s lap, fucking grinding on him, the pair of them dancing a tango with their tongues. Jake took a long drink of his beer and then growled, “Eddie, I tolerate you fuckin’ my lil’ sister ’cause you’re my boy. Don’t push me.”

Eddie grinned at him, his shit-eating grin with too much teeth, a grin Jake had seen a million times when it came to Eddie and his conquests. He tried not to think of the fact that his little sister was the latest of said conquests.

“Sorry, Jake.” He didn’t sound the least bit sorry.

They stopped kissing but didn’t pull apart. Jake didn’t look too closely, as there were things in his baby sister’s life he didn’t want to see, but he was pretty sure she was still rubbing off in Eddie’s lap. He rolled his eyes. “Jessie, get off him.”

Jessie grinned at him impishly, her dark red eyes twinkling, but she did get off Eddie’s lap and sit in her own chair. “Sure thing, boss.”

Jake drained the rest of his beer—sisters, honestly— and slammed it down on the table. He snapped his fingers in the direction of the waiter. “Hey, baby, c’mere!”

The waiter, a slight, sandy-haired young man, rolled his baby-blue eyes but walked over anyway. “Yes?”

“Me ‘n my boys are ready for another round.”

The waiter’s—why not just call him what he was?—the twink’s gaze slid over his small group. Jessie laughed before his attention returned to Jake.

“Are ‘you and your boys‘ planning to pay for all this?”

Jake dug into his pocket, pulled out a wad of bills, and waved them in the twink’s direction before thumping them on the table. “Sure am, baby.” He didn’t have to. He was a vamp; he could do what he wanted. But he’d pay anyway.

The twink’s gaze grew harder, as did his jaw; Jake was really getting under his skin. Strangely enough, the itch beneath Jake’s skin felt scratched. And not like a mosquito bite where scratching only made it worse. Jake actually felt better, lest restless, more in control of his mind.

“Look, my name isn’t ‘baby.'”

“Yeah?” Jake grabbed his wrist and pulled him onto his lap; he heard his boys laugh. “Why don’t you sit down and tell me about it?” Jake could feel a strong pulse beneath his fingers. Not the raging pulse of fear, but a steady heartbeat. It calmed him down, gave his world focus. Focus on a pulse that he wasn’t thirsting to taste.

The twink wrenched his arm out of Jake’s grip, bringing Jake’s focus away from his wrist; Jake let him so he didn’t accidentally break his own arm. “Look, I am not—”

“Komorowski!”

Everyone spun around at the sound of Pittsburgh’s shout. Built, with shaggy brown hair and facial features too strong for good looks, he strutted across the bar, flanked by Bruce and Steel, his boys of choice. Jake shoved the twink off his lap and got to his feet, ready to stand his ground.

“New toy to go with your new cash?” Pittsburgh taunted.

“If it’s on the news tonight, you won’t be watchin’ it, Pittsburgh, if you get my meaning,” Jake replied, matching the authority in Pittsburgh’s voice.

“That was outta line, what you did.”

“You weighted my supply,” Jake accused. Was it an accusation if everyone knew it was true? “It didn’t weigh half what I paid for.”

“And?”

“And?” Pittsburgh’s calm ‘I-don’t-give-a-shit, this world-owes-me’ attitude dug under Jake’s skin like a hot knife. “I had to bite the bill, you motherfuckin’ fool! I got a lotta people shittin’ on me.”

Pittsburgh shrugged, his dark gaze boring into Jake despite his casual demeanor. “You should check your product before you resell.”

Jake took one step toward Pittsburgh, and everyone moved. Steel and Bruce reached into their jackets; Jessie and Eddie jumped to their feet. And Tyler, the little dumbass, moved to Jake’s side. A lot of good that little shit would do at his back. Jake pushed him aside, and the heavy tension dissipated slightly, returning to its original boil.

“It won’t happen again, Pittsburgh.” Jake’s voice was hard and threatening; he put every bit of his years of authority behind it, even if Pittsburgh was decades older and much more powerful.

Pittsburgh wasn’t fazed. He leaned closer. “If you ever set foot in my house again without my permission, you’re gonna wish I’d let you die all those years ago. I gave you a life, and I can take it right back.”

Jake clenched his fists. More than anything, he wanted to punch the smug look off Pittsburgh’s face, but Pittsburgh was right and they both knew it. He took a step back.

His work done, Pittsburgh turned to leave, but he paused to give instructions to Bruce and Steel. “His new toy looks interesting. No weapons.”

“No!”

As Bruce and Steel moved toward the twink, Jessie and Eddie jumped in front of them, ready to fight. The few other customers and wait staff ran screaming, and Jessie shouted, “Jake, go!”

Jake grabbed the twink’s arm and pulled him away. Instinct demanded that he rescue the twink if it was the last thing he did, but he had no reason why and no time to deliberate it. He was a man—vamp—of action and reaction, not thought and deliberation, anyway.

“What are you—?”

“Shut up and run!” Jake ordered.

For once the twink didn’t argue, and Jake pulled him out the door to the nearly empty parking lot.

He climbed into his car and shouted for the twink to do the same.

“Why?”

“Just get in!”

He turned the key—once, twice, three times—but nothing happened. “Fuckin’ Christ!” He slapped the steering wheel; Pittsburgh had cut his engine.

With no time to waste and needing to get the twink out of there—he really did need to learn the guy’s name— he headed for a pick-up, which he hot-wired in a few seconds. The twink got in beside him.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving your life!” Just then, the engine roared to life, and he shifted gears to take them out onto the road.

 

*~*~*

 

The Vamp Ass—as Benji had been calling him in his head all night—ran every light on the way home, and within minutes he was pulling shut all his curtains while Benji stood in the middle of his living room, wondering if he should make a run for it. When the vamp pulled out a phone and hit a button the speed dial, Benji finally got his voice back. “What are you doing?”

“Calling for clean-up.” The other person must have picked up then, because the vamp said, “Stella, it’s Jake,” and wandered into another room.

And Benji was left alone in a vamp’s house—a house worth more than Benji would probably make in his entire life. He looked around for a minute, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and then reminded himself that the affairs of dealers weren’t his problem. He wasn’t getting mixed up in their stupid shit. He headed for the door, intent on leaving before The Vamp Ass—Jake—got back.

“I wouldn’t go out there, unless you want to die.”

Benji spun around. Jake was standing casually in the opposite doorway, leaning against the doorjamb, all pale skin and smooth muscles. In spite of his ridiculous gelspiked hair, his dark red eyes were just that:  dark and moody and hard. Benji felt a tingle, but not one of fear. It couldn’t possibly be … attraction? To a vamp? Definitely not. Absolutely not. No way. Not possible.

“Are you threatening me?” Benji asked. Whatever he was feeling, it sure as hell wasn’t going to make him a puppet for anyone, much less some vamp.

I’m not the one set on Marking you.”

“Marking me?” Benji felt his heart skip a beat and then race to make up for it.

“Making you sport. If they Mark you, they’ll hunt you until you die or until you kill the one who Marked you.”

Benji quickly sat down on the couch; the talk of Marking made him weak-kneed but not weak-minded. “I know what it means!” he snapped. “Who’s ‘they?'”

Jake began emptying the cash from his pockets. “Pittsburgh. You met two of his boys tonight, Bruce and Steel.”

“Why?”

Jake didn’t answer, and Benji narrowed his eyes.

“‘Cause of you?”

“Listen, baby—”

“No, you listen! My name’s not ‘baby,’ it’s Benji, Benji Dorough.” He hesitated. “Who are you?”

“Jake. Komorowski.” It was utterly ridiculous, the way he introduced himself, as if his first name and his last name were so important that they each deserved their own sentence.

Benji lifted an eyebrow at Jake, pause, Komorowski’s tone. “Is that name supposed to mean something to me?”

Jake deflated slightly, as if Benji had taken a pin to the balloon that was his oversized ego, and he scowled. “Apparently not. Whatever, Benny, just—”

Benji,” he corrected immediately, a hard edge to his voice. “Don’t call me Benny. Ever.”

Jake raised an eyebrow at him, then shrugged, not pressing the issue. “Whatever you say babe—Benji.”

They both jumped at the knock on the door. Benji’s heart raced at the thought of who could be on the other side of it—very possibly a vamp ready to suck him dry.

“Stay here,” Jake hissed, carefully making his way to the door.

“Jake, open up!” a female voice called from outside.

Suddenly more at ease, Jake opened the door and ushered in the three people he had been with at the bar. The scrawny one’s nose was bleeding, but the other two looked untouched.

Jake noticed the bloody nose after relocking the door. “Man, Tyler, do not get blood on the carpet!”

Wow. A man who cared more about his carpet than his friend’s nose. What a guy. Benji hadn’t expected much, though, not from a vamp—and especially not from a dealer.

Tyler pinched his nose, and the girl got him a towel.

“What the hell happened to him?” Jake demanded, gesturing towards Tyler.

The other boy rolled his eyes. “Fool walked right into Steel’s fist. He’s lucky he ain’t dead.”

“You take care of Pittsburgh’s boys?” Benji frowned. The name sounded familiar.

“We handled them,” the girl said, then looked at Benji. “The minute he walks outta here, Pittsburgh’ll have him Marked.”

Woah, Benji thought, his eyes unwillingly widening at the connection between the term ‘Marked’ and his name. Hell no, he was not going to be Marked. The vamps mentioning a risk of being Marked, fine. He could deal with that. But a guarantee? No way. Unless they were just yanking his chain, watching a human squirm at their expense. That sounded like something a vamp would do.

“He’s not leaving,” Jake replied flatly.

“What?” Benji demanded, finally breaking the silence he’d maintained since Jake’s friends had arrived. He might not know enough to put in his two cents’ worth when it came to Pittsburgh or Steel, but when it came to his own well-being? He had the final say there. “What am I, your hostage?” Like hell he was.

“You leave and you’re dead. You’re staying ’til I figure this shit out.”

“You think Pittsburgh won’t come here?” The girl wasn’t arguing; she seemed not to know just what

Pittsburgh would do in the current situation.

“He doesn’t have the balls, not over some human twink.”

Benji bristled at the hated term, even more hated when Jake used it to describe him, but before he could say anything, the other boy started in again.

“You’re pissin’ him off bad. He wants him Marked.”

“Yeah, I know.” Strangely, Jake actually seemed to give a shit about Benji being Marked. Benji couldn’t remember the last time he’d known a vamp to care about anyone but himself—and maybe his mate. Maybe.

“So what’re you gonna do?”

“I don’t know!” Jake ran his hands through his hair, spiking it up even more in fluffy tufts. “You guys jack a car to get here?”

The girl shook her head. “You call Stella?”

Jake nodded. “She’ll be here in a few hours.”

The dark boy nudged her. “C’mon. Let’s go home.”

The girl turned to Benji. “Good luck. Hope you don’t get Marked.” Oddly enough, it felt like she actually cared, what with the way she held his eyes for an extra moment.

Jake and the boy did the whole fist-bump-shoulder-hug thing, and then Jake turned to Tyler. “You’re not spending the night. Get out.”

When Tyler slumped out after them, Benji and Jake were alone.

Honestly, Benji didn’t have the greatest grasp on what was happening. He understood the concept of being Marked—being branded, turned into a vamp, and Hunted for sport—but the rest? Stella, Pittsburgh, grand theft auto … It was all a bit overwhelming, and as much as he hated to admit it, a fair amount of it was going over his head.

“Stella’ll be here for clean-up soon,” Jake informed him shortly. “I’m gonna get some sleep.”

“What about me?” He didn’t need to be taken care of, but he wanted to know where the hell he fit into the whole mess.

“You can do what you want. You should know that if you step out that door before I get a chance to fix this, you’ll be dead before you realize what’s going down. As for tonight … you’re welcome to come to bed with me.”

Benji crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. He didn’t care how sexy vamps were—not that he was admitting any attraction to Jake—but he wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping with a leech. “I don’t think so.”

Jake shrugged. “Your loss.” He disappeared into his room and shut the door.

Benji hesitated, but, having no other option, he eventually lay down on the couch and stared up at the ceiling.

He’d never been in a vampire’s house before. He avoided the vampires, just like everyone else did; well, everyone who wasn’t sucking up to them—or being sucked by them—trying to get in on the immortality bit. Vampires thought they were better than humans because they were “super evolved”:  immortal, incredibly strong, with heightened senses. They thought that because they were predators, they were suddenly at the top of the food chain and above the law. And the drug-dealing vamps? They were the worst of both worlds.

Benji couldn’t wait to get out.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake slept like shit. First he couldn’t get to sleep, too many thoughts running through his head like cars on a racetrack. Thoughts that focused on itches, restlessness, blue eyes, a heartbeat, and how they all somehow met and meant something, something he couldn’t figure out. And when he finally fell asleep, he woke up what felt like ten minutes later to the sounds of banging metal. He pulled on a pair of jeans over his boxers but didn’t bother with a shirt before heading outside.

Stella had the hood up on his car and was bent over the engine, the small of her back arching and drawing attention to her fine ass. He knew better than to treat her like something to fuck, because she could knock him out with two good punches. He’d seen her do it to other poor fools who’d messed with her.

“Hey, Stella.”

She wiped her hand on her the rag hanging from her pocket and slapped his hand before bumping fists.

“So, what’s the diagnosis, doc?”

Stella slammed the hood. “Nothing I couldn’t fix. I put in a new quart of oil too, saved you a trip to the garage.”

Jake jerked his head toward the truck. “And that one?”

“Takin’ a trip down to the junkyard.”

“Thanks, Stella.”

“Don’t mention it.”

She climbed into the already running pick-up and drove off. By the time the sun was fully up, that truck would be long gone. Jake headed back inside. Maybe he could steal another hour or two of sleep. If he could get those stubborn blue eyes out of his head. Or if he could find an explanation for the sudden feeling of purpose and, even stranger, home.

 

*~*~*

 

Benji woke up from a poor night’s sleep at the sound of engines running and people talking. By the time Jake came back in, he was sitting up on the couch and waiting for him. “Was that Stella?”

“Yeah.” Jake was a truly loquacious man.

“Who is she?” Even as he interrogated Jake, Benji was distracted by his bare skin—and all the tattoos across it. Crosses, dates, skulls, roses, wolves …

Jake headed toward his room. “Best mechanic I know.” Benji followed. There was no way he was going to fall back to sleep, and he wanted answers.

“She handles clean-up for me,” Jake continued. “Auto clean-up, anyway.” He dug in his dresser and pulled on a Tshirt, covering up the tattoos Benji had barely gotten a good look at.

Benji made a face. Were all vamps the same? They were proving themselves to be. “Do you steal a lot of cars?”

Jake sat on the bed to pull on socks and boots that cost far more than they were worth. “Only when some prick cuts the engine on mine.” He was testy already. Or maybe he hadn’t slept the night before either?

“Does that happen a lot?”

“You know, you complaining isn’t really thanks for me saving your life.”

Benji narrowed his eyes. Saved his life? Jake was the one who had put it in danger in the first place.

“Better,” Jake said in response to Benji’s silence.

God, he was so arrogant!

Before he could muster up a scathing reply, there was a knock on the door, followed by the sound of keys in the lock and then the door opening. Wanting to be in on whatever was going on, Benji followed Jake out to the living room.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake sat talking with Jessie and Eddie; Benji was off to one side, not included. He didn’t know anything about the situation, so his opinion wasn’t worth shit.

“He’s not gonna give up his claim on him just ’cause you ask,” Jessie said.

“What are you gonna do, stake him?” Eddie’s voice was dry and angry. “‘Cause then we’ll have all his boys breathin’ down our necks.”

“I’m not gonna stake him!”

“Good, ’cause that’d get us all killed.” Jessie sat back with her arms crossed.

“Maybe I can make a deal.”

She raised her eyebrow skeptically. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re not Pittsburgh’s favorite person at the moment.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” As Jake sat back, his cell chirped an incoming text. He read it quickly, then looked up at the two waiting faces, Benji all but forgotten.

“Well?” Jessie asked expectantly.

“I’m gonna give it a shot. Eddie, let’s go.”

Without question, Eddie got to his feet. That was why Jake loved him and trusted him with his life. Eddie didn’t ask questions when there was work to be done.

Sometimes Jessie wondered if Jake really trusted her, or if her position was solely based on the fact that they were siblings.

Jessie got to her feet. “Jake—”

“No. You stay with Benji.”

“You said no one would try the house.”

“I’m taking Eddie and that’s it.”

“Fine. Whatever.” She didn’t bother waiting until they’d left before throwing herself on the couch in frustration. She never got to go anywhere, conveniently ignoring the fact that Jake gave her a lot more trust and purpose that most women in the drug world. It was never easy being the female in a male world.

 

*~*~*

 

Benji eyed the girl. She was different than most of the girls who ran in the drug world. Mostly it was that she didn’t look like a cheap whore. Her clothes were feminine and fashionable but practical; black skinny jeans, red hightops, a red tank top, and a black jacket. He noticed that the red in her hair matched the red in her shoes and on her short fingernails. She didn’t wear a lot of makeup on her pale face, maybe a little mascara, nothing like the other girls who looked like tramps—or coked-out, lazy bitches that didn’t give a shit.

“He won’t let you go ’cause you’re a girl?”

She looked over at him like she’d forgotten he was there. Great. “No. It’s ’cause I’m his sister.”

Benji hadn’t seen that one coming, though her hair— the natural portion of it—was the same dark shade as Jake’s. Their eyes were the same, too, but that was a vamp thing. “You’re his sister?”

“Jessie Komorowski.”

“Benji Dorough.”

Jessie frowned in thought. “You deal? Or have a brother who does?”

Benji shook his head. “No.” He was definitely not mixed up in the drug world. “Why?”

“Your name sounds familiar … Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” Jessie sighed and began to play with the red ends of her ombre hair. “It’s hard that I run with him. He’s always torn between protecting me as his sister and letting me work as one of his boys. It’s difficult for him. He knows I can take care of myself, but …”

“He needs to be in control.” Benji had known guys like that all his life. Guys who couldn’t stand to let anyone share power or get too close, too afraid of losing even an iota of the control they threw over everything and everyone around them like a blanket.

Jessie shook her head. “No. He needs to take care of me.”

“But he lets that other guy go with him?”

“Eddie Morris? He and Jake have been boys since before Jake got turned. He’s his right-hand man. They’d die for each other. Not that I wouldn’t. But they’re different.

Jake and I are blood, and Eddie and I are …” “Together?” Benji guessed.

“Yeah.”

“And Jake’s okay with that?”

Jessie just laughed. It didn’t seem like she was laughing at Benji for his remark; more like she was laughing at herself for the being in her situation.

As odd as it was, Benji felt comfortable around her. As comfortable as one could feel around a stranger and a vamp, he supposed.

 

*~*~*

 

Bruce wrenched the door open almost before Jake had finished knocking. He was big and muscular, and while he was by no means a rocket scientist, he wasn’t just a dumb brute.

“You brought your boy with you?” Bruce demanded in his guttural voice.

“It’s my right.”

Bruce glowered but held the door open.

As soon as they walked inside, Jake and Eddie were slammed against the wall and patted down.

“Hey, watch what you’re grabbin,'” Eddie huffed. “My girl doesn’t like me foolin’ around.”

Jake grinned. “Satisfied? I don’t really have time for anything more right now.”

Bruce didn’t say anything, but he let them go and silently led the way into Pittsburgh’s private room.

In all honesty, Pittsburgh’s new house wasn’t too different from the old one. There were a half-dozen of his guys moving throughout the house, reorganizing things to Pittsburgh’s specifications. Still, Jake knew he had made an impact on him. Pittsburgh might have been able to fool those around him into thinking he was unaffected, but having Jake trash his house would have seriously pissed him off.

Even so, Pittsburgh burst out laughing when Jake made his offer. “You want me to do what?”

“I want you to let Benji go. Don’t Mark him.” The confusing urge to protect Benji was consuming, and it made it hard to focus on anything else, which wasn’t like the norm for Jake. At all.

“Benji? You and the human are on a first name basis? You bite him?” Pittsburgh’s eyes and voice were laughing at him.

“He’s not my boy. He’s not even mine. Leave him out of this.”

“Maybe this will prove my point. You don’t go up against me.” He lightly fingered the tattoo on his neck; a cobra coiled around the letter ‘P,’ fangs ready, all against a bed of flames. It was his personal emblem, just like the matching insignia on his ring.

“I know that—”

“No, I don’t think you do.” Pittsburgh leaned closer, his voice hard. “I have half my boys trying to fix what you did to my house. I had to move headquarters here until they’re done. This has been extremely inconvenient.”

“I know—”

“You do? It doesn’t seem like it.”

Jake glared. “I know.”

“You want that human’s freedom? Buy it. Make me an offer.”

Jake exchanged a look with Eddie. It wasn’t as if he’d seen the meeting going any other way, but this was far from what he wanted. He took the pen and paper in front of him and scribbled down a number.

Pittsburgh laughed when he read it. “That won’t even make a dent in my repair costs.”

Clenching his jaw, Jake wrote down a new number.

“Try again, Jakey.”

After his next offer, Pittsburgh ripped the paper in half and wrote his own number before passing it back.

He gaped at it, too shocked to care that his mouth was open. “What? That’s bullshit!”

“That’s the cost of your mistake, Komorowski. That, or

I Mark your boy. Take it or leave it.”

“Fine,” Jake seethed. “You’ll get it.”

Eddie cast him a sideways glance. He didn’t say anything out loud—he wouldn’t question Jake that way in front of Pittsburgh—but his look said it all. Said things like, ‘What the fuck?’ and, ‘Why are you willing to shell out that much dough for a dude you don’t even know?’ Jake was glad Eddie didn’t ask out loud, because he wasn’t sure he had the answers. Not answers he could put into words, anyway.

“You’ve got twenty-four hours,” Pittsburgh said, and then it was too late for Eddie’s questioning glances to change anything.

 

*~*~*

 

Tyler strutted into Jake’s house like he owned the place. Even though his face was fully healed from his broken nose, there was still a look in his eyes—unwilling inferiority. “Where’s Jake? I’m going with him to

Pittsburgh’s.”

“He’s already gone,” Jessie replied shortly.

“Who’d he take?”

“Eddie.” Her tone clearly said ‘duh’ even if her words didn’t.

“Eddie? He took that cock-su—”

In the blink of an eye, Jessie was up in Tyler’s face, long fingers wrapped around his slender throat. “Shut your mouth, Tyler. Jake trusts Eddie with his life. I wouldn’t trust you with my laundry.”

“You can trust me, babe—” he gasped against her hold.

“Get the hell outta here, Tyler. Jake may put up with your shit, but I won’t.”

“You can’t tell me—”

“Get out!”

Tyler skulked out, slamming the door behind him.

Benji turned to Jessie with raised eyebrows. “What’s with him?”

Jessie sat back down, brooding. “He owes Jake money and can’t pay it, so Jake keeps him around doing pathetic jobs no one else wants.”

“And he gets away with calling you babe?”

“Only when Eddie’s not around.” There was a dark pride and possessiveness in her voice that made Benji’s skin prickle. It was primal, whatever she had with her vamp lover.

The door opened again, but before Jessie could yell at Tyler to get lost, Jake and Eddie came in.  “Well?”

Jake looked at Benji. “You’re free to go.”

“Are you serious?” Less than twenty-four hours before, his life was in danger of being ended by a big-time vamp. And now all of a sudden, that death threat was lifted? He couldn’t imagine what Jake had done make that happen, or why. He had no idea what Jake’s angle was or what he was getting out of it, because of course he was getting something out of it. Vamps didn’t do anything without it benefiting themselves. Benji frowned, reminding himself that he didn’t care how Jake cleaned up his messes as long as Benji wasn’t roped into them any longer. He wasn’t fully convinced.

Jake only nodded.

Benji got to his feet, but then realized something. He hated to ask anyone, much less vamps, for anything, but …

“Umm … how do I get home from here?” “I’ll take you,” Eddie offered.

Benji hesitated for a moment, then nodded. He wasn’t exactly keen on riding with a vamp, but he also wasn’t keen on walking across town, even if Jake said he was free to go. Who knew what psycho vamps might not have gotten the memo? Vamps had a habit of biting first and asking questions later.

After a short and quiet drive, Eddie pulled up outside Benji’s apartment. It was a small apartment, nothing fancy, just somewhere to live. The area was poor and shabby but not particularly dangerous. It was temporary; that was what he constantly told himself. For a brief moment, he considered the fact that he didn’t want any vamps to know his exact whereabouts, but then thought better of it. Vamps had connections; they could find anything—or anyone—they wanted. There were no secrets to be kept from them, only by them.

“Try to keep a low profile for a while, okay?” Eddie said.

“Why?”

“It’s gonna take Jake some time to get everything clear.”

“You said I was free to go.” Case in point: Jake had some kind of angle going on. That, or he was flat-out lying and some vamp was lying in wait to smite Benji where he stood.

“You are. Just don’t go shooting your mouth off or nothing. Jake won’t always be there to save your neck.”

Benji got out of the car and gave him a cool look. “Jake is the reason I got in this mess. And trust me—I don’t run with vamps. I’m not that kind of guy.” He slammed the door and walked away, hoping to forget the past twentyfour hours and go back to getting the hell out of this town.

 

*~*~*

 

Benji focused on moving on from Jake and the mess he’d gotten Benji into. He worked at the bar every night, taking all the hours he could get and saving every dime of it. He kept himself busy, as always; he had to work for a living, unlike those dealers, who sold a few bags of this and that once a week and were set for the month. Or would have been, if they didn’t spend money out the ass and need to sell again the next week. It was a life Benji couldn’t understand and didn’t want to. He just wanted to get away from it.

He certainly wouldn’t admit it, even if there was anyone to admit it to, but he couldn’t sleep at first. Every little bump in the night was a vamp out to nab him and Mark him. He hadn’t been that jittery since he was a little boy, scared and naïve. After the years had hardened him and he’d hardened himself further still, he spent his time focused on getting out, on getting away. It was strange to be back in that vulnerable position, knowing the vamps ruled the world they lived in. There were no laws to govern them; they did what they wanted, when they wanted, to whomever they wanted.

It passed, thankfully. Eventually even the hairs on the back of his neck relaxed, and he could hear a shout or cry and assume it was just his alcoholic neighbors fighting and not a vamp raid.

And as for Jake? Benji owed him nothing. Jake might have saved his life, but he’d been cleaning up his own mess to begin with. Benji never would have been in any danger if Jake hadn’t interfered in his life. To say that he forgot Jake, however, was a completely different story, and as much as he tried to put any and all thoughts of him safely in the past, they found ways to resurface when he least wanted them. Like when he was in that precarious place of half-awake and half-asleep, and sometimes more than half-hard, or in the shower. Once it got to that point, he’d double his efforts to escape the memory of him.

But it wasn’t possible. He felt like there was a compass in his chest continually trying to point him toward Jake, like the soundtrack of his thoughts had Jake on repeat. He couldn’t get away from the thoughts of him, and, even worse, he didn’t want to.

 

*~*~*

 

Apparently he couldn’t escape Jake completely; the town, maybe even the world, was too small. Benji was posed on top of a car, a nice car he didn’t know the name of, a car he had borrowed from a local dealership to take on a “test drive” but instead was using for a photo shoot. An old friend from high school, currently more of an acquaintance, was a salesman and had let Benji test drive the car, without anyone from the dealership accompanying him, as an under-the-table favor. His friend Sam was taking pictures, trying to build up his portfolio as a photographer and Benji’s as a model; they were going to get out of town, and that was how they were going to do it. That was when the wolf-whistle and sultry “hey, baby” came from across the street.

Benji didn’t even need the sideways glance that told him it was Jake. He recognized the voice, as well as a new feeling:  a magnetic pull. He rolled his eyes and moved into a new pose, stretching out his leg to give him more height and a different angle. He tried very hard to ignore the tingling in his belly, or the quickened beating of his heart. “My name is—”

“Benji, not Benny, I remember. It’s not a name I’m going to forget.”

He didn’t leave. Instead, he meandered closer, watching. Something in Benji’s belly tingled again, enjoying the attention, but it was distracting.

Benji sighed. “Give me a minute?”

Sam nodded and lowered the camera, more than happy to get away from the vamp. Sam hated vamps, and for good reason. Filthy bloodsucking predators. Humans were people, not food.

Benji scooted off the car. “What are you doing here?”

“That’s what I was gonna ask you.”

“I asked first.”

Jake barely paused. “I came to see you.”

Benji was surprised—so surprised that he didn’t hide it.

“How did you find me?”

“I know people.”

Of course he did—duh. It wasn’t a big secret what Benji was up to, and even if it was, who would lie to a vamp?

“It’s my turn. Are you going to answer my question?”

Benji gave him a look. “I’m modeling.”

“What for?”

“I want to be a model.”

“You?”

Benji glared. Who was Jake to tell him what he could and couldn’t do? And how dare a vamp pass judgment that he wasn’t good-looking enough? Excuse me if I’m not immortally gorgeous, he thought but didn’t say; he didn’t want Jake to take it as a compliment. “I can be a model.”

“But why?”

“‘Cause I’m not going to spend my whole life in this shithole, that’s why! I’m getting out of here. Unlike you, I’m not going to get stuck here forever.”

“You’re going to get out of here? There is no ‘out of here.’ It’s like this everywhere. This is life. At least here, the rules don’t change.”

Benji glared at him. What did Jake know anyway? He was a vamp; he had the world in the palm of his hand. “You’re wrong.”

He stalked away, climbed back onto the hood of the car, and ignored Jake until he went away—hopefully for good. He didn’t fail to notice that, to his disapproval, Jake lingered across the street, watching him, before he finally left.

 

What the hell did Jake want with him? Somehow he got the feeling that this wasn’t the end of it. He also got the feeling that he didn’t completely and wholly hate the idea of that, but he tamped down hard on that feeling. He was not a snack or a groupie. What other life was there for a human and a vamp? What other life did he want there to be for a human and a vamp?

 

*~*~*

 

A week later, Benji walked out of the bar after his shift, rolling his stiff shoulders.

“Hey, Benji!”

And of course there was Jake, sitting on the hood of his car, waiting for him.

“Something you forgot to tell me before?” Benji demanded. Vamp or not, he wasn’t going to beat around the bush with Jake, especially since he hadn’t shown any desire to turn Benji into a meal.

“Yeah. Will you come for a ride with me?”

Benji watched him for a minute, thinking about it, wondering what the catch was. He didn’t trust Jake, he had no reason to, but he got in the car anyway. Maybe it was to prove that he wasn’t afraid of him, wasn’t going to put up with his crap. Maybe he was just doing what Jake wanted so he’d go away. “Fine,” he said finally, still eying Jake a little warily as he pulled away from the curb. “If I go for a quick ride, will you let me go home and get some sleep?”

It was a cover, really. He didn’t want to go home and sleep. He wanted to be around Jake. Sure, he was an overbearing vamp, and annoying as hell when he kept interrupting Benji’s life, but he enjoyed the little interruptions. It made him feel special. And as much as he hated to admit it, being around Jake made him feel … more accountable, less alone, and entirely at battle with himself. He liked the feeling, as contradictory as it was.

They parked at a well-lit local park and sat on the swings to talk. “I grew up down the road from here,” Jake said. “I used to play here all the time.”

Back before you were turned, Benji wanted to point out but didn’t. Instead he imagined a younger Jake running around with other kids:  laughing, smiling, happy. Human. Maybe he and Benji would’ve played together, even. It was strange to think about, and he frowned, trying to put it out of his head.

Benji waited, and when the silence grew uncomfortable, he replied. “I’m from the other side of town.”

“You aren’t happy there either?”

Benji sighed. “I just want to get out of here.”

“As a model?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, that you’re not good-lookin’ enough or anything. But … I just can’t see why you want people to judge you like that.”

“People judge everywhere.”

“Yeah, but out there, they live to pick boys like you apart.”

“Boys like me?” Benji gave him a look. What exactly did Jake think he was like? Innocent? Cute? A fool?

“At least here, we judge you based on what you do, not how you look.”

“You judge me based on the fact that I have human blood running through my veins.”

“No, I don’t.” Jake reached out and trailed his fingers down Benji’s cheek, but Benji’s pulled back. He wasn’t doing that, not with Jake. He was a vampire, for fuck’s sake, and he cursed himself for allowing himself to turn a blind eye to it. His mother was probably rolling over in her grave.

“Don’t.” He stood up, putting even more distance between them, but it wasn’t enough. He could still feel Jake’s presence like a magnet in his gut. But he had to try. “I don’t get involved with vamps like you. It’s not safe—in more ways than one.”

There wasn’t much more to say after that. Sure, Benji had a million questions—the biggest being ‘what the hell is happening here?’—but he wasn’t going to make himself so vulnerable as to ask. With vamps, there were three things to life:  sex, blood, and drugs. Benji wasn’t into the drug scene, and he wasn’t about to become a vampire groupie, despite his undeniable and equally unexplainable draw to Jake. That same draw that kept him from walking away whenever Jake showed up and found Jake popping into Benji’s thoughts at random moments.

He didn’t know what Jake’s angle was, being all sweet and acting like a boyfriend. Or why he kept showing up. Was he trying to win Benji over, to change his mind about being a vamp groupie? It seemed to be the only logical explanation, and it brought down Benji’s spirits.

It was ridiculous to be disappointed that Jake wasn’t interested in him in that way, that human, loving way. It was time to get a little distance.

He got to his feet, purposely not looking at Jake. “I think you should take me home now.”

Jake hesitated for a moment, and silently Benji willed him not to try another sneaky wooing tactic. He didn’t have the heart to fight it, to force himself to turn it down.

It seemed that Jake caught his vibe, because he nodded and then drove Benji home without further discussion.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake and Jessie were sitting on the couch playing video games for the third hour in a row when Jessie finally spoke. “So, you went to see him?”

Jake gave her a surprised look, but he quickly turned back to the screen in time to dodge a compression

grenade. “How’d you know?”

“I’m your sister. I can tell. And Eddie told me.”

“So what?”

“You know it’s dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Then what are you doing? You’re putting him in danger just by being around him.”

“We were just talking,” Jake said defensively.

“But—”

“That’s enough, Jessie! It’s done.”

Jessie looked like she wanted to say more, and Jake was pretty sure he knew every word she wanted to say. That he was a fool. That he was putting Benji in danger. That he was just going to set himself up to be let down. That it couldn’t be. But he didn’t want to hear it. He was so fucking restless; it felt like his skin was crawling. He hadn’t known this feeling before, not for so long or so intensely. He couldn’t explain why being around Benji was like taking off a cast and freeing himself to the air, but Benji made the restlessness stop. It was like he could breathe around him.

“Fine.”

Eddie walked in the front door and tossed his keys on the table. He didn’t miss the tenseness, or Jessie’s sudden desperation to annihilate Jake’s soldier on the screen. “Did I miss something?”

“No.” Jake knew his shortness was uncalled for, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to turn himself inside out to make the restless crawling sensation stop.

“Okay.” Eddie obviously didn’t believe it for a second, but he let it go. “Kara wanted two Gs; I guess she’s got a new boyfriend and wanted to play. But I only sold her one.”

“Sure, okay, whatever.”

 

*~*~*

 

Benji sat on the swings at the local park as Sam snapped pictures. The park itself was pretty shitty; chipped wood, peeling paint, rusting metal. The chains of the ladder were turning Benji’s hands a rusty orange, but he didn’t really care. The pictures would probably be processed in black and white anyway; everything looked more beautiful in black and white.

He shook his head, knocking his loose hair even further into his face. It made him look young, innocent, neglected. All three elements would make for beautiful images on film and create an emotional connection with an audience.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman watching from the other side of the park. She was dressed to a T in fitted slacks and a low-cut top, her face elegantly made up and her hair professionally styled. She appeared to be in her forties, maybe, and she didn’t give off the vamp vibe.

Sam noticed her and grew nervous. It only got worse when she made her way over to them. Benji saw Sam inch his way closer to his backpack, where he kept a bottle of pepper spray.

“That’s pretty impressive,” the woman said approvingly. She had a low voice, deep like a man’s, but warm and firm. “You have excellent control of your body. You know what the camera’s looking for.”

“Thank you,” Benji replied. He was flattered, but a little apprehensive. She had to be a former model; between her striking appearance and her knowledge of technique, he had no doubt.

“My name’s Sonia. I’m a talent scout with B Management,” she replied, answering his unasked question and handing him her business card. Her nails were claw-like and painted blood-red. “Call me. I’ll see what I can do for you—if you’re interested in getting out of the small town newspapers, that is.”

Benji stared down at the card. It was simple, heavy white paper with stark black ink. Simple and professional. “Thank you.” He looked up, but Sonia was already walking away.

He grinned at Sam, who had the can of pepper spray in his hand, ready and waiting. “This is it! I can’t believe I just got discovered.”

“I don’t think people are discovered like that, Benji.” Sam sounded apprehensive, but Benji shrugged it off. He was far too excited to have this moment ruined by Sam’s nerves.

“How many runway models were discovered working as waitresses or while shopping at the mall? This is how real talent is discovered, the people who don’t buy their way in.”

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. She seemed kind of … weird.”

“Come on, Sam!” Benji couldn’t believe him. What was it that people said? Some people didn’t know what to do with success when they no longer had to work hard for it? That must have been what Sam was feeling, not knowing what to do with himself now that they’d experienced success. “This is what we’ve been working for. And I’m finally gonna get it. I’m finally gonna get out of here!”

Sam didn’t say anything, but he gave a small smile. Benji counted it as a victory.

“C’mon, let’s go through my old proofs and build up my portfolio. We’re finally gonna have someone to show it to!”

 

*~*~*

 

It was late at night as Jake walked down a dark stretch of street. At least two or three streetlights had burned out, and no one had bothered to replace them. It was a shitty town, and some days, it seemed to be getting shittier by the minute.

He kicked at a piece of trash that turned out to be a worn-out shoe, but it didn’t make him feel any better. That restless, antsy feeling was back—literally. It felt like there were ants inside his skin; he could feel their little feet traipsing around. Well, maybe not that literally.

Maybe it was time to get the hell out of Middleton. Sure, plenty of vamps set up a domain and stayed there for centuries; he knew Pittsburgh had been running Middleton’s market for the better part of three decades. It was certainly longer than most human drug lords ruled, that was for sure.

There were just as many vamps who roamed the world, seeing everything, taking it all in. He could be one of those wanderers, like the retired couples who rented an RV and left everything else behind. Just without the RV, of course. He had the money and resources to be able to see the world in style.

He could get his own community to run. There were plenty of seedy cities out there with dark underground markets just waiting for a vamp to sweep in and sweep up. He could be everything Pittsburgh wasn’t and rule his world with an iron fist, but not be a complete and total iron-fist-up-the-ass about it.

Maybe he should find a new business. Law? Medicine? Gravedigger? He figured people would get a kick out of the last one, an immortal vamp digging the final resting place for the mortals of the world. He’d pass on that one; he wanted to keep his distance from mortality. People said mortality was wonderful, that humans lived fuller lives because any moment could be their last. But to Jake, mortality was just too fragile, too temporary. He needed something more lasting.

“Hey! Komorowski!”

A dark figure stepped out from behind a tree and stood beneath yet another burnt-out street light, but Jake’s heightened senses pulled from the minimal amount of light cast by the crescent moon above him and revealed the dark figure to be none other than Steel, one of Pittsburgh’s favorite thugs.

“What do you want, Steel?” He sneered and rephrased. “What does Pittsburgh want?”

“You owe the boss money.” Steel stopped ten feet away, but his voice carried easily in the quiet night air.

With their impressive hearing, it sounded like they were right beside each other. He held himself casually but with an air of purpose that came from being Pittsburgh’s favorite dog to sic on people; he might have seemed like he could play nice, but he was absolutely lethal and feral when he wanted to be.

“I paid him in full. He gave me twenty-four fuckin’ hours, but I paid.”

Steel gave a steely laugh; maybe that was where he’d gotten his name. Jake doubted it, though; he was confident that Steel’s name came from his sinewy strength.

“I don’t mean buying that bleeder. I mean every other dollar you owe him.”

Jake hesitated for a moment. Just how much did he owe Pittsburgh? He frowned, considering the years of moneys borrowed and business deals made. Then the mental receipts began to add up, and his eyes widened against his will. “What?” His voice was barely more than a whisper.

Steel grinned. “That’s right. Everything you owe is due. Now.”

“But—why? I paid him—”

“It’s nothing personal. Pittsburgh’s calling in all his loans. And it looks like yours is due …” Steel looked down at his watch.

Jake should have seen it coming—heard it at the very least. The ‘it’ being Bruce stepping out of the darkness behind him to finish Steel’s sentence. “Now.”

But like the shocked idiot that he was, he completely missed it, not even having time to fully react before Steel took advantage of his distraction and punched him in the gut—knocking all the air he didn’t need, but enjoyed having, out of his lungs. It was like a wrecking ball had hit his chest. Then he hissed, fangs descending, and fought back. He was an animal, and no animal gave up without a fight.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake stumbled back into his house a few hours later, leaning against the wall to keep himself upright. The lights were out when Jessie walked in from a side room, and he was glad it was too dark for her to get a good look at him.

“Jake? Pittsburgh’s calling in all his loans—”

“I know.” He groaned unwillingly when a too-deep breath jostled his bruised ribs. He heard footsteps; Eddie and Tyler must have still been there.

“Why are we standing in the dark?” Eddie flipped on the lights, and Jessie gasped.

Jake could only guess that he looked a mess. His mouth and nose were bleeding; he could taste the blood, and it was nowhere as satisfying as drinking Benji’s would be … Where had that come from?

He gripped his nose and swore in the process. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but there was no way he was getting blood on his carpet. He made his way to the couch and dropped down heavily onto it. He hissed out a breath at the pain, but the sudden stab of it was better than the constant ache he would have felt sitting down slowly.

“Fuck, Jake.” Jessie’s face was twisted with worry.

“Did—”

“Steel and Bruce jumped me on the way here.”

“Fuck.”

“C’mon, let’s clean you up.” Eddie made to go, but Jake grabbed his arm.

Jake was scared. It didn’t happen a lot, and when it did he didn’t let it show. This was his crew; his job was to have shit under control, not to let them get caught up taking care of his responsibilities. But he couldn’t do this alone. Hell, he didn’t know if he could do this, period. “We gotta talk.”

Eddie paused, weighing his words, and he nodded, not questioning him. Jake felt a surge of relief. That was why he loved Eddie; he always had Jake’s back. Always.

“Let me get you a towel first, and a drink. I want us to be able to talk without you covering your face.”

It felt good to clean himself up with the wet rag, but even better once the blood hit his throat. He could feel the refreshing cool feel of it slipping through him, just as he could feel his body jumpstart into the healing process. He’d be his regular self by morning; he’d just be as sore as an as asshole fucked for the first time until then.

Jessie, Eddie, and Tyler were all sitting around him, watching and waiting. They were his crew; that was what they did. Awaited his orders. But these were orders he didn’t want to give, not by a long shot.

Fuck, he was scared! He hated the feeling, hated the ice in the pit of his stomach, the tightness in his throat, the heat in his skin. He hated the racing in his head.

“I can’t pay him back.” Damn it! He could hear the fear in his voice. “I barely had enough to pay for Benji. I don’t have the money.” He only had money as long as Pittsburgh was willing to keep lending it to him, or was willing to continue letting him work it off and pay it back in small increments. His comfy lifestyle depended on that. With that security net ripped away, he had less than nothing. He had a lot of red in his ledger.

Looks were exchanged. Jake knew what they had to do; he was sure everyone else did, too, but no one wanted to be the one to say it. No one wanted to be the one to suggest they kill Jesus, even if it had to happen. No one wanted to be Judas. Eventually they started ignoring each other’s glances, daring each other to be the one to say it first.

Eddie was the one with enough balls to finally say it.

“You gotta call in your loans.”

“That makes me no better than Pittsburgh.” “Well, it’s gotta be done,” Tyler said flatly.

“Where else are you gonna get the money?” Eddie asked rhetorically. “This is our only option.”

“Jessie?” Jake wasn’t really sure what he was asking for—her permission? A great idea he hadn’t thought of? He just knew he had to ask.

She shook her head. “We all know there’s no other way.”

Jake rubbed his face, being careful of his still-smarting nose. He hated this. It sucked, and not in the good way. But if it had to be done, it had to be done. He wasn’t going to let his crew take the fall. “Fine. Tomorrow we call in the loans.”

 

*~*~*

 

Benji was nervous, walking down the street and continuously glancing down at the scribbled directions on the sheet of notebook paper in his hand. He had spent the better part of the morning trying to decide what to wear, ironing it to perfection, and then fighting with his hair to make it look sexy and casual. And then he’d ridden a city bus for two hours to get to the right neighborhood.

The building was plain, with no signs or logos of any kind. He double-checked the address twice; this was it. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door.

Inside, the lobby was pristine and fairly empty. Clearly people didn’t spend time waiting there. He liked that.

Sonia got straight to business instead of keeping her clients waiting. He’d like that too.

The receptionist snapped her gum and twirled her bleach-blonde hair around a manicured finger. When Benji walked up to the desk, she signaled for him to wait while she finished her phone call.

“The six page spread just isn’t acceptable. You agreed that Elle would be in the spread and on the cover, and Sonia won’t settle for anything else.” She paused, giving the person on the other line time to respond. “That’s right. You fix it, then.”

She hung up without warning and smiled at Benji. “Can

I help you?”

“Umm, yes, I’m Benji—”

“Ah, yes, Sonia’s ten o’clock. I’ll let her know you’re here. You can wait over there.” She gestured to a small waiting area—three chairs, a coffee table, and a plant— and then picked up the phone, quietly engaging in a punctuated discussion, presumably with Sonia, before reporting back to Benji. “She’s finishing up with a client.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

He sat awkwardly in one of the straight-backed chairs. There was nothing to do—no magazines or newspapers to read, no photos to look at. It was strictly business. He swallowed against his nervously dry throat, rubbing his suddenly sweating palms on his jeans. His entire career hung on this interview; what if he fucked it up? What if she changed her mind? What if she’d discovered someone more impressive since she’d last seen him?

He forced himself to breathe, taking in deep calming breaths. Being a nervous wreck wouldn’t help him. Models were cool and collected; they were like actors in any given situation. He could do this. He had to. He wasn’t letting this opportunity pass him by.

Eventually, Sonia’s door opened, and an impeccably dressed woman walked out, stopping at the front desk before leaving. “We closed the deal,” she said in clipped, no-nonsense tones. “A one hundred thousand dollar contract with Miss Neveau. I’ll send the paperwork this afternoon.”

“Excellent. It was lovely seeing you again.”

The woman nodded and made her way out of the building, throwing Benji a small smile as she went.

“Sonia will see you now,” the receptionist announced.

Benji tried to calm his nerves, tried to urge his racing heart to get out of his throat so he could breathe. He wiped sweaty palms on his jeans again and walked inside.

Sonia’s office was elegant but simple; most of the walls were taken up by photo upon photo of many styles and subjects. He thought he recognized some of the faces, even from a distance.

Sonia looked up from the papers she was signing and smiled. “Benjamin?” Benji nodded.

“Well, come in.” She got to her feet as Benji came to the opposite side of her desk and held out her hand. “I’m Sonia Bree, talent manager at B.”

Benji shook her hand. It was soft, and he could feel the gentle scrape of her long nails on his skin. “Benji Dorough.”

Sonia took a seat and Benji followed. She leaned back, intertwining her long fingers in front of her. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

“Umm … I’ve been living on my own, working as a waiter, for a couple years now. I want to get out of here. I’ve been doing some solo gigs, trying to get my name out there. Mostly online.”

“And how’s that going?”

“Not well,” Benji admitted, partly sheepish and partly disappointed.

“I’ve lived in L.A. I wanted to model, but I wasn’t the type they wanted. I didn’t have it. But what I did have was something much more valuable:  the ability to find people who do have it. And you, my dear, are one of them.” She smiled and leaned forward. “I can help you. It’s what I do, help young talent like yourself get noticed. You may not be tall, but a new line of modeling is beginning, a line of models who look just like you. I can help you take the photos you need, get your face out there, and represent you when the agencies begin scouting you.”

She paused, surveying him like she was measuring him up, before continuing. “I need you to be dedicated enough to put in the work. If you are, I’ll take care of everything else. You just need to take care of that pretty body of yours. And before you know it, we’ll have it in magazines all over the country—and then the world.” Sonia sat back, smiling, waiting for Benji’s answer.

Benji could feel his heart racing. Was she offering him a contract? All she’d had to do was take one look at him, and she’d seen what she was looking for? And soon, other people would see it too, and then the sky was the limit— and this town would be in the rearview mirror.

“Yes!” He grinned. “This is exactly what I want.”

Sonia smiled, sitting back in her chair and pushing him a thin stack of papers. “Excellent. Now, here’s a basic contract for you to sign. Take all the time you need with it. And as soon as you do, I’ll have you out on a photo shoot.

“Oh, and there’s one more thing I want to ask. When they start showing interest in you, we’ll have to be able to move fast, heading out to New York with only a night’s notice if they ask for it. Do you have anyone here, close family or—?”

“No one I wouldn’t leave in a heartbeat.”

Sonia’s smile widened. “Excellent.”

Benji bit his lower lip as he paged through the contract. He didn’t understand legal jargon, not by a long shot, but phrases jumped out at him, particularly ones like “ownership is maintained by the artist,” and that he could terminate the contract “at his discretion, with no explanation or warning.” That was pretty rare, but he figured that with smaller modeling houses that couldn’t promise a high opening salary, the tradeoff was that they promised more creative control. He liked that. He especially liked the numbers and percentages mentioned, as well as the promise of renegotiation as things progressed. True, there could have been some fine print that he was missing, but the high points seemed to outweigh any theoretical risk.

As an act of faith—and mostly because he was so damn excited—Benji signed it on the spot.

This was it; he could feel it. He was going to get the hell out of this town and never look back.

 

*~*~*

 

Eddie and Jessie waited on the front porch steps of a worn-down house. Most of the humans in Middleton lived in wrecks, and Britney—the hooker they were meeting— was no different. It was early morning, and she was due to arrive via walk-of-shame any minute.

The early morning light was pale and the air slightly chilled. It didn’t make much difference to Jessie; her senses registered the temperature, but it didn’t bother her. It wasn’t like she could die of cold.

She leaned her head on Eddie’s shoulder, feeling the comfort of his strength as he traced patterns on the inside of her forearm draped across his lap. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something about the entire situation made her feel uneasy and unsafe; only Eddie could make her feel secure and protected.

“Right from the start, I knew you were the one,” he said softly, as if he could read her mind and her mood. “I woulda killed Tyler if I didn’t think you woulda hated me.”

Jessie smiled, glancing down. She loved the way Eddie knew her. “I might not have hated you …”

Eddie snorted. “Please. You turned him.”

“Don’t remind me. That was a mistake.”

“But you loved him.”

“I loved who I thought he was. I didn’t see how twofaced he was until after I made him one of us.”

“How do you know I’m not like that?” Eddie leaned in closer to her, his blood-colored eyes soft and serious, probing.

“I know you.”

“You drank his blood. You could’ve seen what he was.”

Jessie shook her head. “I saw what I wanted to see. I didn’t want to see the lies, the deceit. I didn’t look for it.”

“Have you looked for it in me?”

“No.” Jessie’s voice was firm, and she met Eddie’s eyes steadfastly. “I know you. I’ve known you all my second life, and plenty of my first. I trust you with my eternity.”

Eddie leaned in carefully, threading the fingers of his left hand into her dark hair and smoothing his lips over hers in a kiss that was more loving and promising than lustful or desiring. “I feel the same,” he whispered, and she could feel the words on her lips.

“How do you know?” she whispered back, their foreheads touching. She knew with every fiber of her being that Eddie was the one. She would spend the rest of eternity with him; she would follow him to the grave. She couldn’t explain how she knew; it was carnal, primal knowledge. It was written in her bones, in her soul. “How do you know I’m the one for you? You’ve had so many other girls before me …”

Eddie shook his head gently. “They meant nothing in comparison to what I feel for you. You’re my soul mate.”

“But how do you know?”

“I can taste it in your blood. I tasted it from the very start, the night Jake needed me to help turn you. I tasted myself in you, and I knew.”

With Eddie’s words, everything fell into place. Of course. It wasn’t written in her bones, but in her blood. That was how she knew. The blood connecting her to Eddie was more powerful than any other bond she could have possibly imagined.

Eddie took her wrist gently and sunk his teeth into her pulse point. Jessie let her head fall back, let her breath slip out in a soft sigh. She could feel the pressure as her blood flowed into Eddie’s mouth, and every so often, halfformed thoughts and images danced in her mind. Laughing as a child. Losing her virginity. Seeing Eddie for the first time. Being turned.

She forced her eyes open, forced herself to watch Eddie, and saw that he was watching her too, his eyes open and intense. Not breaking the connection between them, he offered her his own wrist, which she took.

The images of Eddie were stronger than hers as his hot blood slipped over her tongue. Driving fast in the dark. Fighting with his father. A number of girls, sometimes more than one at a time. Opening his eyes for the first time in his second life. Tasting human blood for the first time. Seeing her for the first time. Tasting her blood.  “Saying goodbye?”

They broke apart faster than they would have liked, gasping simultaneously, and looked up to see Britney standing in front of them. She was a human, bleachblonde and with a fake tan, wearing tall boots and a short dress.

She gave Eddie a seductive smile, not even glancing at Jessie. It was an effort on her part; vamps drew the eye and the senses. “Hello, Eddie. Can’t stay away, can you?”

Jessie cleared her throat, narrowing her eyes. Britney was accustomed to being the center of men’s attention, but Jessie was Eddie’s woman and a vamp, and she would not be held to that standard.

Britney turned to take her in as well. “I see you’ve brought your day-girl with you. I charge extra if you supply your own. She’s not my taste.”

Jessie snorted. “Please. I’d rather fuck Pittsburgh than you.”

Britney narrowed her heavily lined eyes. “Go ahead. I’ll get Eddie off for a few hours. Off your hands, of course.” The way she said it clearly suggested she had a much more devious and sexual plan in mind for her time with Eddie. The thought made Jessie want to pound her into the ground.

Jessie rose to her feet, and the two women glared at each other, both attempting to stake a claim. As much as she knew she was the only one entitled to such a claim, Jessie knew that Britney and Eddie had shared a past— even if she was just a live drink.

“Actually, we came here for a reason.” Eddie got to his feet, trying to diffuse the tension and get the unpleasantness over with.

“And what was that?” Britney demanded haughtily.

“You owe Jake money,” Jessie informed her.

Britney glanced between the two of them, not comprehending their meaning. “So do a lot of people.

What’s your point?”

“You need to pay him—now.”

For the first time since her arrival, Britney’s cocky attitude faltered. Jessie gave a smug smile filled with pride.

Britney shook her head. “That’s going to take time.”

“You don’t have time,” Eddie said. “He needs it now.”

Britney shook her head again, half in denial, half in thought. “I—I need … three days to come up with the money.”

“You’ve got two.”

“That’s a lot of … work … in forty-eight hours.”

Jessie gave a dismissive shrug. “Then you better get started.” The ‘bitch’ was implied, if not said out loud.

Britney glared before morphing the glare into a sultry half-smile. Then she turned all her charms and attention on Eddie, thrusting out her chest as she leaned back against the porch railing and running the heel of her boot up the inside of his thigh. “How ’bout it, baby? You ready to come apart?”

Eyes flashing brightly, Jessie grabbed Britney’s ankle and twisted, flipping her onto the ground. In the blink of an eye, she had her foot planted on Britney’s heaving chest. “How ’bout I take you apart?”

Britney was quite the pro; Jessie had to give her that. She was back in some semblance of control almost immediately. “For the right price.” She shoved at Jessie’s foot.

There was no way she could move it, and they both knew it. Jessie let her struggle for a moment, then let her up.

“Don’t damage the goods, darling.”

“You’re damaged enough.” Jesse turned to Eddie. “C’mon, Eddie. I think she’s got the message.” Her last view of Britney was of her reapplying her lipstick in preparation before she even got off the ground.

They walked in silence for a while before Eddie prodded, “What’s on your mind?”

Jessie hesitated. “You and Britney.” She hated to admit to her own self-doubt and insecurities about their relationship, but she needed confirmation.

“What about us?” Eddie’s eyebrows drew together when he looked at her, frowning. “You know she’s old news.”

“Still. You guys were an ‘us.'”

“It’s not like we dated or something. You know that. You’ve seen it in my blood.”

“I see a lot of her in your blood. What’s the appeal to you?”

Eddie shrugged. “For a while, she was what I was looking for. It was before you. I could drink her blood; I could be rough with her. She worshipped the ground I walked on.”

“You can drink my blood. You can be a million times rougher with me. And you know I adore you.”

“I know.” Eddie’s voice was calm and assured; it was almost infuriating how simple everything seemed to Eddie when just that one phrase put more questions in Jessie’s head than they answered.

“Then why? Why is she still in your head?” Why am I not the only one in your blood? It might not have been possible, but she wished it were true.

“I haven’t been with her in years, Jessie. Not since I realized you wanted me too. You know we can’t forget our past, even if we want to. I can’t go back and make it so she never happened. Maybe I wish I could, for you, but I can’t.”

“But—”

“She was my past. You are my future.”

 

*~*~*

 

Jake stood outside Benji’s apartment, watching. His car was parked, and he’d made it across the street before hesitating again. It had taken him the better part of the day to talk himself out of talking himself out of coming to see Benji. Logic said he shouldn’t; he was just drawing unwanted attention to Benji. Social norms said he shouldn’t either, since Benji was neither his pet nor his beverage.

But the itch under his skin felt like red ants painting pictures with feathers. It was like some kind of drug that made him restless and eager for some fulfillment he didn’t understand, but he wasn’t on any drugs with side effects remotely like that. He’d taken a fair few to try to get rid of the feelings, but none that would have caused them.

And when the drugs had failed to cure him, he’d finally given in to the thing eating at him—Benji.

An upstairs window opened suddenly, and Benji stuck his head out. “If you want to make me feel like your prey, you’re doing an awesome job.” He slammed the window shut, but before Jake could berate himself properly, Benji exited the apartment, pulling on his jacket.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“A while.”

“I saw you twenty minutes ago.”

“Longer than that.”

“You’re kind of a stalker, you know that?”

Jake grinned, amused by the comment. He’d been called worse.

Benji seemed to hesitate. “How are you, Jake?”

For a moment, Jake allowed himself to wonder if Benji felt the same thing he did, the same knowledge that they shouldn’t be around each other but couldn’t stay away. He pushed it from his mind. Benji hated vamps, and any attraction was to Jake’s charismatic vamp powers— powers he couldn’t control. “Been better.” He hesitated, then pushed forward. He’d come all the way out there, after all. “You wanna go for a drive?”

Benji thought about it for a moment, his eyes unreadable, then he shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

The drive was short as Jake took the back roads out of town. Benji talked a little bit about his fixer-upper apartment and his work, and Jake just listened. It was a little ridiculous, when he thought about it. He, a vamp, sitting silently engrossed by a human talking about waiting tables. It was always the other way around, with humans caught on his every word.

It was a nice change.

He parked the car at a dead end with a sudden dropoff, and they sat on the hood, looking out at the tree-filled valley.

“My dad ran off before I was born,” Jake said suddenly, interrupting the silence that had fallen between them. “And my mom was a drunk. We were always broke, ’cause she couldn’t keep a job, always moving around. When I was fifteen, she went to jail for robbing a gas station. It was just me ‘n Jessie. We were those kids that fall through the cracks in the system, and no one tried to find us.

“So I ended up on the street, trying to fend for myself and take care of us both. You know this town; the drugs are the only real money. So I started dealing—to humans, obviously. I got in with some real lowlifes, ended up owing them more than my life was worth. They came to collect, were going to beat me to death, when Pittsburgh showed up. He paid my debt, basically bought my life. He gave me everything I have right now, including my life.”

“He turned you?” Benji asked quietly, and Jake couldn’t understand the tone of his voice, couldn’t figure out what he was thinking.

He shook his head. “Not that night. He had me work for him; Eddie was my handler. Even when I was still human and he was a vamp, we were cool. Pittsburgh turned me after I’d proved myself, proved that I could work for him and do it well. Becoming a vamp … You go from being a nobody to a somebody just because of the blood in your veins. It’s like becoming royalty overnight.

“Pittsburgh’s an ass. Don’t get me wrong. He’s greedy and selfish, and he’s running the world the way he wants with himself on top of the sundae. But I didn’t have any other choice. This town is Pittsburgh’s. It was join him or die.”

“Did you make the right choice?”

Jake blinked, surprised. Both by Benji’s question and the fact that he had the balls to ask it. “Of course.”

Benji shook his head slowly. “I can’t see that.”

“What do you mean? Because I joined Pittsburgh? Or became a vamp?”

“Both.”

“You really hate us, don’t you?” He didn’t really want to know if the answer was yes, but he had to ask. He had to know if this was all just a waste of his time, if he truly was setting himself up for failure. Yet part of him said that no matter what Benji’s answer, Jake wasn’t going to give up without a fight. “Yes.”

Benji’s blatant honesty was like a slap in the face. “It’s not my fault I’m genetically—”

“If you tell me how you’re genetically superior and that gives you the right to control me—”

“It’s nature, hunter and prey,” he defended.

“So we’re just animals?”

“Of course. Humans, vamps. Just ’cause we’re

intelligent doesn’t change that.”

Benji snorted in dry amusement and hopped off the hood of the car. “I’ll tell you, some of us are more animal than man. I think a little humanity would go a long way with you lot.”

Jake cocked an eyebrow at that, amused. What aspects of humanity did Benji want him to have? The vulnerable, insecure helplessness humans had? Not in a million years would he go back to being the prey, not once he knew what it felt like to be the predator, the top of the food chain. Or pretty close to it, anyway.

“Now,” Benji continued, zipping up his worn hoodie, “I need to go home. I have a photo shoot tomorrow.”

Jake didn’t argue, just drove him home, and he didn’t fail to notice that the itch was only held at bay when he had Benji with him.

 

*~*~*

 

Benji wanted to be a model. Really. That was what he wanted. One hundred percent.

His first professional shoot was outside, on top of a car. The location might have been a mirror of the shoot at which he was discovered, but that atmosphere could not have been more opposite. He was dressed in skintight pants and boots with a tiny vest, his hair flopping in his eyes as he washed the car with a bucket, sponge, and hose. He felt pretty sexy, too—until they dumped the fourth bucket of ice-cold water on him. It was a chilly day with a breeze, and while he was half-naked and soaked to the bone, the photographer, assistant, and makeup artist were all dressed warmly in jackets and hats.

So, yeah. The thrill of modeling was beginning to fall to the backburner as he clenched his chattering teeth. It was still there, of course; this was his fucking dream come true. He just hadn’t thought it would be so cold.

“Looking great, Benji!” the photographer called. “Try bending your knees a little more. And bring your arm with the sponge up by your head. Work those angles!”

Benji did. He’d been studying modeling for years; he knew the angles and shapes his body could make, he knew his good sides, he knew what poses made him look taller. He knew this. He could do this.

It was over within an hour. The photographer smiled at him as the assistant packed away the camera and the makeup artist helped Benji towel off. “Great work, Benji. I’ll send your proofs to Sonia. She’s going to love this.” Benji nodded, trying to keep his teeth from shattering. “Th-thank you.”

“Here you go, hon.” The makeup artist handed him the bag with his street clothes in it. “Let’s peel you out of these wet things …”

 

*~*~*

 

Benji blew his nose and pulled his jacket tighter, rocking back and forth on the park swing. He and Jake had been there for a few minutes only, but he was already feeling the chill. Jake had been waiting outside his apartment, and he hadn’t even hesitated before getting in his car when Jake asked. What happened to his head when Jake was around? He was a vamp and a dealer, for Christ’s sake!

“What happened to you?” Jake asked.

“Getting sick.” Ugh. He sounded all stuffed up. That was super sexy.

“I got that.”

Benji sighed and sniffed at his runny nose. “I was wet and outside for a while.” He noticed he was beating around the bush. But why? Why did he care if Jake knew? Shouldn’t he be bragging to him about his accomplishment?

“Why?”

“Photo shoot.”

“What? Why didn’t you just do it later?”

“I got signed, okay? To a modeling agency—B Management. I’m not just taking pictures with Sam anymore.”

“You got signed?” Jake sounded doubtful; his raised eyebrows matched in tone. What? He didn’t think Benji was talented enough? Good looking enough? Lucky enough? “When?”

“Couple days after I met you.” He was proud of it, but it didn’t sound like Jake was. That stung, but he tried to push the feeling down. Why would he care what anyone thought of him? Even if it was Jake. “Anyway, I had my first shoot a couple days ago, and they had me soaked and washing a car.”

“Are they crazy?” Jake reached over to feel Benji’s forehead. Benji flinched, but he didn’t know if it was from Jake’s touch or the coolness of his hand on Benji’s hot forehead.

“You’re lucky you didn’t catch pneumonia. What were you thinking, doing that?”

“Modeling is hard. You don’t complain about the work.”

Jake snorted. “I would.”

Benji gave him a look. Clearly Jake didn’t understand the responsibilities he had, the dedication modeling took, or how hard Benji was willing to work. He didn’t understand that this was Benji’s dream for his life. And why would he? He helped run the town; he wasn’t trying to escape it like Benji was. “I really want this to work out.”

“What is this B Management? I’ve never heard of them. They’re from here?”

Benji nodded. “City over, yeah. It’s part of their campaign to find small-town kids who can make it big.”

Jake gave him a look, his dark eyebrow cocked. He had really sexy eyebrows—wait. Where had that come from? Damn vamps and their emanating charm.

“Sounds like a scam,” Jake commented lightly but with a hint of superiority. Damn vamps again!

“It’s not.”

“Have you ever heard of the people’s they’ve worked with?”

“Sure! Elle, Katya, Sasha …”

“Ever talk to them?” Why the hell was Jake attacking him? Why did he have to beat him down?

“Well, no. But they’re busy. They’re working, like me. It’s not all parties and glamor.” One day, maybe. But he didn’t mind working to get there. Everyone had their dues to pay.

Jake shook his head. Benji could tell he had more to say but was holding back. Good. He was too sick to argue.

“What are you doing tonight?”

Benji shrugged. “Dunno.” He felt his heart beat a little faster. That line was generally a precursor to asking someone on a date … And he immediately stopped himself from even entertaining the thought. Clearly his sniffles were depriving his brain of much needed oxygen, the oxygen needed to not be completely and totally silly.

“You going out?”

“No.”

“What,” Jake teased with a smile, “your other friends all busy?”

“I don’t really have other friends.” Wow. That sounded completely pathetic. And also implied that Jake was his friend. When had he mentally moved Jake up from his previous classification of ‘stalking controlling vamp’ to ‘friend?’ How had he gotten in this deep?

“What?”

“The guys at the restaurant are nice and all, but I’m trying not to get tied down here.”

Jake nudged him with his shoulder. “You should come back to my place with me.”

Against his will, Benji’s heart thudded. “Yeah?”

“Sure. We’re just gonna sit around, getting high. Fun stuff.”

Fun stuff? Fuck no. Drugs were not ‘fun stuff,’ not for Benji. They were a waste of time, a dulling of the mind. They made people think they were having a good time, when in reality they were sitting on their asses and throwing their lives away. Why the hell would he want to do that with Jake and his friends?

“Okay, sure,” came out of his mouth before he could come up with a properly worded retort. What the hell? He was being betrayed by his own body. Clearly the logical part of his brain was not in control of the situation. He blamed it on all those feelings Jake stirred in him that he had no idea how to explain, much less what to do about.

Damn vamps.

 

*~*~*

 

True to his word, Jake and his friends spent the night sitting around getting high. They drank casually too. Well, they drank a lot, but it was casual for vamps. Benji knew they couldn’t get drunk from beer. He could, though, and since he refused their drugs—they had offered some of the stuff they sold humans—he drank. Just one, just enough to settle his nerves. It wasn’t that he needed to medicate himself around Jake, but in a room full of vamps? There was so much eau de predator-and-prey in the air, it was making his heart race. So yes, he was drinking, but only enough to stay calm, not enough to dull his senses should one of these vamps decide to make him a meal. Though that seemed pretty pointless, because A) he couldn’t escape if he wanted to, and B) they seemed too mellow to be concerned with a late night snack. Whatever drugs they were on didn’t seem to give them the munchies, luckily.

The mood was relaxed and seductive. At first, Benji pondered over that. There was nothing seductive about the sparse bachelor pad that was Jake’s home. Then he came to realize that it was the vamps themselves. They were exuding an aura of confident power, supreme control, and of course the usual hunter-prey vibe. Benji wasn’t quite sure what drugs they had taken, but he knew they were the vamp kind—and judging by the atmosphere, the good kind.

Vamp dealers sold two kinds of drugs:  the vamp kind and the human kind. For humans, it consisted of crystallized vamp blood. For vamps, it was human blood crystallized just before a human overdosed. Benji knew where both came from:  in the first case, from humans who were kidnapped, turned, and drained; in the second, humans who were kidnapped, pumped full of drugs, and drained.

The grease monkey finally introduced as Stella was off to one side talking with Tyler. He seemed totally into her, but she kept getting distracted. Jessie was straddling Eddie legs, and Benji couldn’t help but stare as Eddie stripped off her shirt and ran strong hands over her back. He found himself wondering what it would feel like to have someone touch him in that deliberate way. None of his past lovers had touched him like that, with self-assured desire.

His thoughts were interrupted by Tyler’s wolf-whistle. Jake rolled his eyes and threw a magazine, hitting Jessie in the back with a sharp thwap. She glanced at him over her shoulder, grinning impishly.

“Get a room!”

“Okay.” She took Eddie’s hand, and he grinned as she led him from the room.

Tyler and Stella both laughed, and Tyler pulled out another plastic baggie to split with her.

Jake grinned at Benji. “I’d like to go where they’re headed.” With a smooth vamp move, he pulled Benji onto his lap and began kissing his neck.

Heat radiated from Jake’s lips like a surging tide, breaking over Benji skin and leaving him flushed, but beneath that, he shivered. It wasn’t quite deliberation, but …

He was a little slow from the alcohol; he could tell. That was why he was sluggish to reply. “Knock it off.” It wasn’t because he enjoyed the feel of Jake’s lips on his skin.

Jake didn’t stop.  “Jake.”

He ran his hands over Benji’s body, and Benji shuddered. This was deliberate, but not in the way he had wanted.

“Stop it!” Benji pulled away, having to fight for the briefest moment before Jake released him. He stumbled a few feet away. “Why do you always have to go and ruin everything? Why can’t you get it through your head? I’m not one of those humans who fall at your feet, ready to worship and feed you. You fucking leech!”

“If you would fucking relax and stop being such a goddamn prude—”

“Find somebody else to fuck around with.” He stormed out of the room, and as he left, he heard Jake shout at Tyler to get out of his house.

 

*~*~*

 

Jessie was tied to a chair in a dark, dank basement. A single light bulb dangling from a chain gave off enough shitty illumination for her eyes to focus. Eddie was behind her; she could feel his bound hands against hers.

Bruce and Steel beat the shit out of them, again and again.

“Just tell me what I want to know,” Pittsburgh said. She wasn’t sure when he’d showed up; maybe he’d been there watching all along. “Just tell me, and it stops.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she gasped out, and the beating continued—that time, Bruce and Steel focusing on Eddie. She was completely helpless, and she began to tear up.

“Tell me!” 

“I don’t know! I don’t know!”

“Enough!” Pittsburgh pulled out a gun and held it to Eddie’s head. “Jessie, tell me what I want to know.”

“Don’t tell him anything, baby,” Eddie gasped out, his fingers wrapping around hers.

Pittsburgh cocked the gun, and Jessie started crying. “Tell me now, or I blow him away.”

Jessie screamed and sobbed. “I don’t know what you want!” He was going to kill Eddie, and there was nothing she could do. She was helpless, and when she’d been turned into a vampire, they’d promised she would never be helpless again. This was worse than human helplessness; Pittsburgh was about to rip away the reason for her existence. She was going to be alone. For eternity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I don’t know! I don’t know!”

Pittsburgh pulled the trigger, and—

Jessie sat up in bed, breathing hard, terrified. Her heart was racing, and there were tears on her cheeks. Beside her, Eddie lay still asleep—and alive. She lay back down, pulling his arms around her and burrowing into his chest, unable to shake the terror gripping her. Something bad was going to happen; she could feel it, and she didn’t know how to avoid it—or if she even could.

 

 

*~*~*

 

The photographer, getting all handsy while he urged Benji into different poses on the bar-top. 

Benji shook his head to get the thought out and focused on scrubbing his dishes. He was a little too aggressive; soap bubbles flopped onto the floor with a plop. He reached for the mop, and then he decided the whole floor needed to be mopped.

“Not so good today. You were tense and your poses looked forced, like you were uncomfortable with what you were doing. You need to learn to be more natural if you’re ever going to make it in this industry.”

Benji dropped the half-filled bucket onto the floor with a thud and shoved the mop into the suds. Fucking photographer. Shitty photo shoot. Crappy day. Fuck his life. He splashed water across the floor as he mopped more aggressively than his floor needed.

“Sonia thinks you have something, but I just don’t see it. And after she sees these pictures, I’m not sure she will either.”

Benji gave up, slamming the mop into the bucket and sending a small waterfall over the edge. But he didn’t care. He couldn’t take this anymore; he was going out.

It took an hour to walk to Jake’s. During that time, he relived the day’s photo shoot a dozen times, from the photographer’s greasy touches to his doubtful comments. What the hell did he know? He was shooting photos for a nameless kid stuck in a small town; clearly, if he were any good, he’d be in L.A. or New York or anywhere else.

It took him twenty minutes of walking to realize he was heading somewhere, not running away from his bad day, and another twenty to realize he was heading toward Jake. He couldn’t help it; it felt like a magnetic force, drawing him in. He didn’t want to help it. Being around Jake … it made him angry. It made him want Jake to understand him perfectly, want Jake to admire him. It made him comfortable, like he didn’t have to be pretend to be someone else, even if Jake wasn’t a hundred percent on board with his modeling. Even if Jake obviously wanted to take things to a level Benji couldn’t let himself agree to. It felt like the racing world slowed down and came into focus.

It was crazy, really. Sure, vamps had that natural charisma that was inherent to hunters. But it was more than that. He felt calm and relaxed around Jake; he felt like the rest of the world didn’t matter. And in that moment, that was exactly what he needed.

He banged on Jake’s door and fidgeted while he waited. Was he really going to see Jake, after what had happened? Would Jake even let him in?

 

He was surprised to see him, that was for sure. But when Benji asked to come in, Jake let him.

Jake brought beers when Benji flatly turned down his drugs. It seemed that Jake hadn’t taken any either, because his mood was nothing like it had been the other night, but Benji was too focused on his own issues to pay it much mind.

“The whole time, going on and on about how I’m not good enough,” Benji ranted. “What does he know? If he were good enough, he wouldn’t be shooting film for nobodies in the middle of nowhere, he’d been in New York or Paris or even Chicago.

“I’m just so sick of being judged all the time. Like he even knows me. God, what a fucking loser.” He took a fast swig of his beer. “But I can’t piss him off ’cause my whole career depends on these shoots. If I don’t take good pictures, I’m never gonna get discovered and I’m never gonna get to model. I’ll never get to see Paris or the runways, I’ll never get out of here. I’ll be stuck here my whole life—”

“Just shut up!”

Shocked, Benji did—or rather, he gaped openly. “Excuse me?”

“Just shut up. You think you have it so bad? You think your life is going to end if you don’t get this one modeling gig? You’re so closed-minded you don’t even know it. Do you know what I did today? I told a twenty-year-old mother that her loans were due. I’m in the middle of telling her and her daughter comes in, looking at me with these big eyes and playing with her pigtails.” Jake shoved himself up off the couch and began to pace.

“A little girl! She had a little fucking girl, and there I was telling her mother that she had to find a way to scarf up a couple thousand dollars. Like she can afford that! Three guesses how’s she’s gonna try and get it, and I can bet you that little girl isn’t gonna eat this week. I hate this!” He punched the wall for emphasis. “I fucking hate— hate—hate this!” He slammed his fist one last time and then slumped against the wall, his back to Benji.

Benji stared, two opposing forces warring within him. His first instinct was to punch Jake in the face—if Jake hadn’t been a vampire—which was saying something, as Benji wasn’t particularly prone to violence. He wanted to hurt Jake, to shout at him, to make him see that he was ruining people’s lives. That calling in his loans was going to destroy the homes of little children, the marriages of parents, the families of every person they were connected with. He desperately wanted to force Jake to understand what he was doing.

But Jake did, to some degree. He was beating himself up; he was distraught. If Benji didn’t know better, he’d think Jake really hated himself for what he was doing.

Maybe he did. It was a dawning realization for Benji. Jake wasn’t just another vamp. He had thoughts, he had feelings, he cared about people. Humans. He gave a shit about the humans he was putting pressure on because the higher-ups were putting pressure on him. Jake was just trying to fix the mess he found himself in the middle of.

In that moment, he wasn’t with a dealer or a vamp. He was with Jake, and Jake seemed so—human. His own father, flawed as he was, had been human too, and he had loved him. He didn’t have to judge Jake so harshly and shut him out; he didn’t want to. He wanted to help, he wanted to be around him, and he wanted to comfort him.

Comfort a vampire? A drug-dealing vamp? His conscience was taunting him, criticizing him. But it wouldn’t win. That incomprehensible feeling of magnetic attraction, that pull of polar opposites, was back and stronger than ever, and he wasn’t going to deny it. He wanted to comfort Jake; he was going to comfort Jake. It was simple as that. Conscience be damned.

He came up behind him, gingerly wrapping his arms around Jake’s waist so as not to startle him, and rested his cheek against Jake’s shoulder. “It’s all going to work out, Jake. Eventually, it’ll all work out.”

 

*~*~*

 

They led separate lives, but they always found their way back to each other. During the day, they did what they did. Jake handled things on the streets while Benji modeled. But when the day was over, they always found themselves together, reaching out for something in the other they couldn’t find in themselves.

It wasn’t that their disagreements were gone—far from it. But for once, their differences weren’t at the forefront. They had formed an unspoken, but strongly felt, bond. There was something incredibly comforting about being in each other’s presence, an overwhelming feeling of belonging.

If Jake’s friends thought their relationships was weird—a vamp and a human, looking for more than sex and food—they didn’t say anything. Not to Benji, at least. Sometimes he caught Jessie looking at him curiously, but then she’d smile disarmingly, and he couldn’t help but smile back. There was something about Jessie, something that put him at ease even though his relationship with Jake was far from easy.

They weren’t dating; Benji adamantly told himself that on a regular basis. What they had was something else, something more intimate than friendship but less romantic than dating, something all their own. Eventually Benji would figure it out. In the meantime, he would just muddle through as best he could.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake sat on the couch with Benji curled up beside him, his head almost in Jake’s lap while Jake finished telling him about his visit to Pittsburgh earlier.

“He just doesn’t get it. I tried to make him see, but he doesn’t care. He’s tearing the town apart. I went past two drive-bys just getting to his house. Two! In a span of ten minutes. I took safe roads, and they were all full of people waiting to jump me.

“Down here, everything’s carefully structured. Everybody’s in debt to somebody else; that’s what holds it all together. You start calling that stuff in, and everything falls apart. I told him that.”

“And what did he say?” Benji asked. Slowly but surely, he was beginning to get a grasp on Jake’s world. Understand it? Hell no. But he could understand the feelings, if not the rules.

Jake snorted. “That I’d have to find a way to put it all back together.”

“What an ass. And an idiot. Clearly his brain didn’t get as pumped up as his other senses.”

Jake cracked a smile, and Benji smiled back. “How about you? How was your day?” “Ugh.” Benji burrowed into the couch.

“That good, huh?”

“It was so awful. Ugly clothes, ugly makeup. It wasn’t high fashion; it was just terrible. And they kept pushing me around, pulling at my clothes and my hair … Ugh.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“‘Cause this is everything I’ve ever wanted.”

“You’ve always wanted to be miserable?” Jake’s voice was doubtful.

“It won’t always be like this.” He told himself that every day to get through photo shoot after photo shoot; one day, he was going to be on top of the world.

“How do you know?”

Benji didn’t say anything. He didn’t know. Maybe he’d never make it. Maybe he was going to be stuck doing half-assed photo shoots for the rest of his life and be the star of the town paper. Maybe there was nothing else in the cards for him. Maybe—

His thoughts were interrupted by sudden pounding on the door and an almost frantic male voice. “Jake? Jake! Open up!”

Jake was on his feet immediately, almost knocking Benji to the floor in his rush to open the door. Benji struggled to right himself as he caught his first glimpse of the roguish vamp in the doorway. He was pale-skinned with dark hair that fell around his face and nearly reached his shoulders; he was the first vamp Benji had seen around Jake that sported facial hair—in his case, a goatee. His coat was dark and long, giving him almost an old world vamp vibe.

“Nathan?”

The two vamps hugged quickly as a dark-skinned girl closed the door and locked it firmly behind her.

“Hey, man, what’s up? I haven’t seen you around in—” Benji coughed, waiting to be recognized. He wasn’t some pet, but sometimes Jake was oblivious to the exalted position Benji had, in comparison to the other humans in Jake’s life. Benji frowned at that thought. Were there other humans in Jake’s life? No, of course not. Still, Jake didn’t always realize that Benji expected to be treated like an equal, not a shadow.

“Oh! Benji, this is my boy Nathan and his girlfriend, Krista. I’ve been running with them for years. Nathan, Krista, this is my … this is Benji.”

They nodded at each other. Nathan gave him more that just a passing glance, an odd look that clearly wondered what kind of company Jake was currently keeping, and Krista stared openly. Then Nathan focused on Jake. “Can we talk?”

They all sat in the living room, Nathan and Krista perching on a loveseat, Jake across from them in an armchair, and Benji nearby on the arm of the sofa. Benji looked from Nathan to Krista. They were both worried— more than worried. Vamps didn’t get scared; they were at the top of the food chain, why would they? But those two, they were scared. He could tell. The confidence he had thought a permanent attribute of vamps was gone; they looked anxious and jumpy, both sitting at the edge of their seats, ready to leap up at any moment. Krista’s long fingers kept smoothing out the non existent wrinkles in her tight jeans. Maybe she was wiping sweat from her nervous palms.

And for some reason, their fear made his skin crawl. Clearly anything that could threaten a vamp could be world-ending for a human.

When they stayed silent for long moments, Jake prodded, “Nathan, what’s going on?”

Nathan looked to Krista, but she shook her head, staring only at Jake. “I need help.”

“Sure, man,” Jake said immediately, with no thought or hesitation. “Anything you need.”

Nathan shook his head. “I’m in real trouble, Jake. With Pittsburgh. I don’t know what happened, but somehow I pissed him off and now my loans are all due. I can’t pay, Jake. There’s no way I can pay.”

Jake pushed a hand through his hair. “It’s not just you, man. It’s all of us.”

Nathan’s eyes grew wide. “You mean …”

Jake nodded, looking grim. “Pittsburgh called in every loan he’s ever given out. Every single fucking one. For no reason, other than the fact that he fucking well can and there’s not shit we can do about it. Just to prove that he runs this show.”

“That’s why he’s so hostile? I got my car jacked two days ago, right outside my house, but I never guessed …”

“How long you been out of town?”

Nathan shrugged. “‘Bout a month.”

Jake shook his head. “You missed it all go down.”

“How’d this happen?” Nathan’s dark eyebrows drew together, and he frowned in confusion.

“I still don’t know.”

“Did you start this?”

For a moment, fury flashed on Jake’s face, but then it was gone. Benji was surprised; Nathan must be close to him. The only people he knew who could say something like to Jake without getting punched were Eddie and Jessie, his best friend and his sister. He could only assume Nathan was a close friend as well.

“I don’t know,” Jake said simply.

Nathan nodded. Benji wasn’t sure if he was more surprised that Jake could control his rage or that Nathan didn’t judge him for what could have been perceived as a weak spot.

“I’m telling you, Jake, I’m in trouble. And it’s not just about the money.”

“What else?”

Benji didn’t understand what Jake had to be afraid of in regard to Nathan’s lack of cash, but there was fear in Jake’s voice too. Fear that made Benji cold and clammy and nauseous.

Krista pushed a lock of black hair out of her face. “You know I used to be Pittsburgh’s girl.”

Jake looked horrified. “No.”

Nathan looked away for a moment, and when he looked back, his jaw was tight and his eyes were hard. “He wants to Mark her. And if I don’t pay him …”

Krista took his hand, lacing their fingers together. Benji found his eyes drawn to their interlocking fingers; they reminded him of piano keys.

“I need to come up with some way to find the money.” Nathan peered at Jake. “You have loans out, I know you do. How did you … ?”

Jake rubbed his face, not answering.

“Jake?”

Jake didn’t meet Nathan’s eyes as he spoke. “I called in my loans.” Jake was obviously ashamed of himself. He played it off so well around Jessie and Eddie, but no longer. Benji could see that it was eating at him, what he’d done.

“But … is that what everyone’s doing?”

Jake half shrugged helplessly. “We don’t have a choice.”

“But you can’t do that! If everyone calls in their loans, everything will fall apart. If Pittsburgh knew that—” “He knows.”

“You told him?”

Jake gave a bark of hollow laughter. “I told him. But he already knew. He just didn’t care. He just wants his money, whatever it takes.”

Nathan got to his feet. “I’m going to talk to him.” “Nathan!” Krista protested, grabbing his hand.

“It won’t do you any good,” Jake advised regretfully. “Only thing it did for me was get me a threat on my sister’s head.”

Nathan shook his head. “I’ve got to do something. I won’t sit here and let him pull everything apart. I won’t let him Mark Krista. I won’t. I’m going to fix this.”

“There’s got to be something else.” Jake didn’t sound too convinced by his own words.

“You can’t help me, Jake. You said it yourself; you don’t have the money.”

Jake looked down, evidently defeated. His normally cocky posture was replaced by one much more downtrodden.

“I’ve got to fight for myself now. For me and Krista.” As they left, Krista shot Benji a knowing look, a look that was part warning, part concern, and a little something else Benji didn’t understand.

Jake rubbed his face with a rough hand. “Fuck!” He lashed out suddenly, kicking the nearest thing to him. The coffee table snapped into splinters.

Benji jumped, his heart pounding in his chest. That was part of being a vamp, the uncontrollable rage. Maybe this moment was when he’d pay for spending so much time around unpredictable creatures.

But Jake slumped to the couch, pressing his palms to his forehead.

Benji sat behind him, close enough that they were touching. He didn’t know why or how, but he wanted to ease Jake’s pain. He, a human, wanted to make life easier for a vampire.

It was remarkable how drastically his life had changed in just a few weeks. Before his encounter with Jake, Benji had assumed that all vamps were egotistical control freaks. After a few weeks together, most vamps still fit that description, but Jake wasn’t one of them. Jake was incredibly … human, if that was the right term. He had thoughts, he had feelings. And they didn’t all relate to drugs or power. He honestly cared about other people.

It was such a complete one-eighty from Benji’s life. He honestly enjoyed Jake’s company, something he’d never dreamed was possible. He felt safe in his presence and felt a companionable camaraderie he’d never felt with another human, much less a vamp.

He was friends with a vamp. He’d wince at the thought of his mother rolling in her grave, but then realized that she’d probably never met a vamp like Jake. Benji never had before, but he was glad that he’d met Jake. Jake was turning his world on end, but in a good way.

It was mind-blowing.

 

*~*~*

 

Two days later, Benji bounded up Jake’s steps and pounded on the door. He bounced from foot to foot, unable to contain himself. He felt like a child at Christmas.

“C’mon, Jake, hurry up!”

As soon as the door opened, Benji grinned. “Hi!”

“Hi,” Jake said slowly, eyeing him. “What’s up?”

“Can I come in?” Benji wasn’t even fazed by Jake’s less than enthusiastic greeting. Then again, Jake didn’t have the good news that Benji did.  “Course.”

In Jake’s living room, the bubbly enthusiasm made him feel like a can of soda someone had shaken. “Guess what? I got my first paycheck!” Grinning, he hugged Jake hard and rocked them slightly from side to side. “I’m so excited, I can barely hold still!”

Jake laughed, and the sound set off more tingling in Benji’s stomach and widened his smile. “I see that. You want something to drink?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Benji tossed his folder of his prints onto the coffee table and was seated on the couch when Jake came back with two beers, clinking his against Jake’s before taking a long drink.

“So,” Jake asked, sitting down beside him. “Did you get traded or something?”

Benji shook his head. “No. Sonia sold my pictures to a magazine.”

“Tight.”

“I know, right?” He laughed. “I feel so amazing right now. Everything is going so well.”

“I know something that would make it even better,”

Jake said, his gaze a little bit teasing.

“Yeah?”

Jake grinned, and Benji’s stomach tingled. “Yeah.” He took their bottles and set them aside, then pulled Benji onto his lap, running his hands over his back and ribs.

Benji laughed, lost in the high of his sudden career success, but in the pit of his stomach, a warning tingled slightly. “That tickles.”

Jake smiled. “Yeah?” He kissed Benji’s stomach, and Benji actually giggled, squirming in his lap.

“Cut it out! I thought you said you were gonna make everything better, not be silly.”

Jake gave him a look, his red eyes suddenly darker than blood. The pit of Benji’s stomach dropped out, and he felt himself go hot and then cold all over. He didn’t like that he liked it, and when Jake flipped Benji beneath him, the logical part of his brain won.

“Knock it off, Jake,” he demanded. It didn’t matter what his body wanted. Jake was a vamp, and he was a human. This couldn’t work for them.

“Shh …” Jake kissed Benji’s neck, but Benji twisted away, his veins rushing with blood that felt suddenly icy.

“Get off me.” Being friends with a vamp was one thing, but lovers was another. No vamp ever had a human lover; they had groupies or blood-buddies. Benji was not going to fall at Jake’s feet or let him feed off him, ever. So he was putting a stop to this before it got out of hand. Before Jake ruined everything.

Jake’s voice was soft. Was that a touch of vamp charisma in there? “C’mon, baby. Just relax and enjoy it. Enjoy me.”

“I said, get the fuck off me!” Benji shoved at Jake, aware that Jake didn’t have to let him up, that he could hold him down with one finger and do whatever he wanted to him. He was a vampire, after all.

But Jake did let him up, and Benji jumped to his feet, running his fingers through his hair. That was another problem. Jake didn’t realize his own strength. Maybe he couldn’t understand when Benji’s nos really meant no; maybe he could tell when Benji was really fighting or being playful. He knew Jake would never take him against his will—he told himself regularly, Jake was not like other vamps—but that didn’t mean accidents didn’t happen, or that Jake wouldn’t try to push. Maybe push too far.

“Why do you have to be like that?” Jake demanded, eyes blazing. “Every time we’re having a good time, and you do that.” Jake gestured to him angrily.

You were having a good time. I told you, I don’t get involved with vamps.”

“Why not? You’ve been ‘involved’ with me since day one, and you keep coming back. We were just having a good time.”

“‘Cause your idea of a good time killed my family!”

That shut Jake up, and he stared at Benji. It was too late to back out now that he’d spit out his secret, so Benji kept going. “My dad used to run around, just like you and your ‘boys.’ He got in deep with the big vamps, sucking up to them, doing what they told him. He worshipped them and was waiting for the day when they’d turn him too, turn all of us. And then one day, they did exactly what you’re doing; they called in their loans.”

He shook his head, looking away. Those vamps weren’t like Jake; he was sure they hadn’t had a second thought about calling in their loans and ruining his life. But he was sick of constantly needed to defend himself from Jake, and Jake getting angry when he didn’t understand why Benji needed to protect himself. He was going to lay his past bare, so that Jake would understand, once and for all, and maybe get off his back.

“And when he couldn’t pay, they killed my mother in front of him after raping her senseless, and then they killed him too. I got shipped off to my aunt and uncle, who were filthy addicts half out of their minds from your fucking vamp blood drugs. And you wonder why I don’t want to be involved in this world,” he finished bitterly.

Benji turned away. He could feel the tears in his eyes and tried to hide them. He never thought about his past if he could help it, and he certainly never talked about it. But it was the right thing to do. He couldn’t have Jake continue misreading him; it was exhausting. He hated being snippy with Jake just when he thought their friendship was progressing, and then having to start from square one again. Something inside told him that Jake would understand.

“I’m sorry.”

Benji shook his head, not turning around. “It’s not your fault.” It was those other vamps, the rest of the vamp community, all the ones that fit into his neat and tidy stereotype. But not Jake. Jake was different, somehow. He just was. It was all so confusing!

“I’m still sorry.”

Benji turned around to face him. “Me too.” Jake wrapped his arms around him, and Benji rested his head on Jake’s shoulder.

He wanted it to feel right. He wanted to feel comforted, and part of him did. He wanted Jake to prove to him that not all vamps were the filthy animals that had destroyed his family. But as it was, he mostly felt uncomfortable. True, underneath that was a calm feeling of safety, but he felt vulnerable and insecure. Clearly there was a difference between physical safety, of knowing Jake would protect him from enemies, and the emotional safety of knowing Jake wouldn’t hurt him himself. Overall it was a bit awkward, but he wanted so badly for the moment to fit, to feel right.

The moment was broken by a loud banging on the door. Benji opened his eyes, relieved, as Jake tilted his head back, sighing in annoyance. Hmm. Perhaps Jake had wanted it to feel right as well. Still, he made his way to the door. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Nathan!”

Jake pulled the door open, and a distraught and disheveled Nathan stumbled in. He clung to Jake like he could hardly stand, like Jake was his only life preserver.

“Jake, please, you’ve gotta help me!”

“Nathan, what—?”

“He took Krista! I knew I shouldn’t have let her out of my sight!” Nathan dropped down onto the couch, his head in his heads. “I made her stop going to work; I stayed

home with her. She was never alone, until …” “Until?” Benji asked gently.

Nathan closed his eyes against the painful memory; Benji recognized it as the same thing he did when he visited the painful memories of what had happened to his family.

“Until she took a shower. Something so small, so basic, so simple … She wasn’t in there for twenty minutes, but— but they were watching, and they took her.” He stared hard, straight ahead. “Pittsburgh has her. He’s Marked her.” He looked up at Jake, hopelessness in his eyes. “It’s my fault, I know it. I should never have gotten her involved in this, but I couldn’t live without her.”

He got up, moving close to Jake. “Jake, please, I’m begging you. I’ll do anything, anything you ask of me. But I can’t live without her.” He collapsed against Jake again, who held him tightly.

Jake met Benji’s eyes over Nathan’s shoulder, and Benji had to look away. There was too much emotion in Jake’s eyes, too many promises and grand statements that Benji wasn’t sure he could believe and knew he wasn’t ready to hear, even if it wasn’t his loved one who was in danger.

Things moved quickly after that, but not fast enough. Jake and his boys split up on the search; when Benji offered to join them, Jake took him along. It seemed that his desire to keep Benji safe made him completely unwilling to leave Benji alone, and Benji had to agree. His physical safety was apparently a priority of Jake’s. They drove      through           town,   down   alleys   and      through neighborhoods Benji had always stayed clear of.

His mind was reeling. One minute he was baring his soul to Jake; the next, he was speeding through town searching for one of Jake’s friends, a vamp. It was one thing after the next, with no time to process what was happening. How the hell was he supposed to know what he was feeling or what to do next when he barely had time to breathe after one encounter before he was driving headfirst into the next?

When Jake’s phone rang, Benji answered with only a moment’s hesitation when Jake directed him. “Jessie? Any luck?”

“None. You?”

“Nothing. She’s been out there for almost twelve hours with Pittsburgh’s Mark on her. I don’t think—”

“Don’t say that,” Jake ordered, able to hear her as well.

There was silence on the other line, then, “Eddie, stop the car!” They could hear the car screech to a stop. “Jake, you better get Nathan here now.”

Benji closed his eyes, feeling the butterflies in his stomach take flight. He didn’t need to relay the information to Jake, but he turned to gauge his reaction. Jake didn’t look much better than Benji felt, his knuckles white where they gripped the steering wheel, eyes had on the road, jaw tic working ever so slightly.

Jessie texted them the address, and they sped in her direction, texting the information to Nathan and Tyler as well.

The warehouse was dark when they got there, abandoned and worn down. Eddie and Jessie were sitting on the hood of his car outside, and Eddie’s arm was tight around Jessie’s shoulders.

Eddie turned as they approached, his eyes dull, but Jessie didn’t meet his gaze.

“Where’s—?”

Jessie gestured toward the loading bay. “She’s over there.”

Jake and Benji approached hesitantly. Benji had to expect the worst. It was the most likely scenario; even though Krista was a vamp herself, she didn’t stand a chance against the truly evil vamps of the world. His stomach felt like a knot. Still, there was a glimmer of hope. Maybe she was all right. She wasn’t helpless like a human, like he would have been in her position.

But if she was all right, a little voice whispered, why weren’t Jessie and Eddie with her? And why was Jessie clutching Eddie like she needed to feel his touch to know he was still there with her?

“Oh my God,” Benji said immediately, covering his mouth sight of Krista’s body. She was laying facedown, her body covered with bruises and cuts. Clearly she hadn’t gone down without a fight. Beneath the locks of hair, a burn was partly visible behind her ear, and a deep puncture wound was in her neck. Crouching down to get a closer look but still keeping his distance, he got a better look at the Mark:  a snake coiled around the letter ‘P,’ poised and ready to strike.

“He drained her,” Jake said tonelessly.

“He’s gonna make money off her.” Benji’s voice was dark and flat as he moved away from her body. “Sell her blood to humans.”

“That’s Pittsburgh.” Jake rolled her over, closed her eyes, and arranged her in a more dignified position.

Another car pulled to a stop, and Nathan came running. “Krista? Krista!” His voice was raw and desperate, as were his eyes.

“Nathan, wait—” Jessie protested, but Nathan didn’t stop. He stumbled over, falling to his knees beside Krista.

“Oh, God, Krista, baby …” There were tears in his eyes; Benji didn’t know vampires could cry.

“Nathan, I’m so sorry,” Jake said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Nathan shook his head. “This is my fault. I promised her I would protect her, but I didn’t. I said I’d always be there for her, but I wasn’t. So many promises, all broken.” He wiped roughly at his face, his blood-red eyes turning hard and determined. “But there is one promise I can still keep. I said we’d be together forever. And we will be.”

“No!” Before Jake could stop him, Nathan pulled out a gun, cocked it, and pulled the trigger, collapsing on top of Krista as the bullet killed him instantly. It had to have been silver, Benji realized; it was the only type of bullet that could truly hurt or kill a vampire.

Benji leaped back, gasping, staring in horror. Vamps were immortal; they were invincible. They were cold and unfeeling, aloof and untouchable. Yet here was one, killing himself out of guilt to be with the woman he loved. It didn’t make sense. How could someone so insensitive to the needs of other love someone so completely? Nathan’s actions were so human. Benji couldn’t make sense of anything, his mind turning slippery and making it hard to focus his thoughts into logic.

He heard Jessie cry out, but it was distant, distorted, like a slow-motion movie scene. He saw Jessie bury her face in Eddie’s chest. He saw Jake began to shake, his fists clutched in a helpless gesture. He saw the helplessness wounded look in Jake’s eyes, and that brought everything back to the present.

He wrapped his arms around Jake, one hand pressing against the back of Jake’s head until he leaned down against Benji’s shoulder, accepting the comfort Benji tried to project.

Tyler stood apart from them, forgotten. But Benji saw him reach down and pick up Nathan’s gun.

 

*~*~*

 

Hours later, they sat together in Jake’s living room. Eddie and Jessie sat side by side, Jessie tucked against his chest and practically curled up on his lap, his arm around her. She’d been crying since before they’d even arrived.

Tyler was sitting in an armchair, playing with silver bullets. His gaze was hard, the walls up in his eyes, as he rolled the bullets in his open palm, flipping them over each other and clinking them against each other. It was the only sound in a quiet room.

Jake sat on the floor against the wall, his knees drawn up, his gaze and jaw hard. He’d shed a tear or two, to Benji’s surprise, but had since steeled himself against his emotions. Benji sat beside him, running his fingers through Jake’s hair, trying to comfort him somehow. The gesture was strangely intimate, but he tamped down on the nerves it set off inside him.

“I just … I can’t believe he’s gone,” Jake said. “I can’t believe they killed Krista. I can’t believe everything’s gone to hell the way it has.”

There was silence across the room. Really, there was nothing to say, nothing that hadn’t already been said time and again. In Benji’s experience, something new was always going wrong, and it had been that way from the beginning of his interaction with Jake. He’d never known Jake’s life to be anything but this, though at sometime it must have been. This was the reality of their situation.

“We could leave it all behind, you know,” Tyler said out of the blue.

“We belong here,” Eddie retorted immediately.

“We could belong somewhere else.”

“Maybe you could,” Jessie said. “Somewhere else where people run as soon as things get rough.”

Jake gave a hollow, lifeless laugh. “Get rough? They can’t get much worse.”

“I don’t like the idea of running,” Jessie replied.

“What, you wanna end up like Krista?”

“Don’t say shit like that,” Eddie growled, tightening his grip on Jessie.

“She’s gotta realize how this could turn out,” Jake argued.

Jessie pulled out of Eddie’s arms, sitting up straight and glaring at her brother. “You think I don’t? I fucking get it, Jake. You think I’m this stupid little girl; well, I’m not. I’m sick of being treated like I am.”

“You are a—”

Jessie jumped to her feet. “If you say that I’m a little girl, I swear to God—”

Jake got to his feet as well, and Benji scrambled aside, afraid their fight would turn physical.

“You need to be protected!”

“By you? I don’t need to be protected by anyone; I can take care of myself! I’m a vampire; you turned me yourself. I’m not a liability.”

“Guys,” Eddie cautioned warily, “chill out. You don’t mean what you’re saying.”

“You think I don’t understand the risks I’m taking? You think I don’t understand how dangerous it is to be with you, especially now? Well, I do, okay? I understand, and I’m still here!”

“How dangerous it is to be with me?” Jake repeated. “You’re laying this all on me?”

“I never said—”

“Maybe you should. Maybe you should just take it as truth. It’s my fault Pittsburgh called in the loans, my fault Nathan couldn’t pay, my fault Krista’s dead, my fault Nathan offed himself—”

“That was Nathan’s choice,” Benji said. “Because he couldn’t live without her.”

Jake spun around, like he had forgotten Benji was there until he’d spoken up.

“You think you have to be so strong; you think you have to protect everyone,” Benji continued. “Sometimes, you just can’t. And everyone in this room understands the risk of being with you. But you don’t see them running. They’ve made the choice they can live with; now you have to live with yours.”

Benji had had enough of Jake’s bouncing between blaming other and blaming himself. It was time for him just to live with the hand he’d been dealt, to get a taste of the ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ philosophy. It was only as he was speaking that Benji realized the role he was playing. He was actively choosing to be with Jake, day after day. No one would blame him if he decided to run for the hills, but he didn’t. He was continually being drawn back, and he could no longer blame it on something indescribable and foreign. He was making the choice to act on his desire to be around Jake. It was a bit of a revelation, honestly.

Jake shook his head, his jaw quivering. “I just don’t know if I can live with the guilt.”

Benji wrapped his arms around Jake without thinking, and Jake buried his head in Benji’s shoulder, clinging to him. A vampire, clinging to a human for comfort.

 

*~*~*

 

“I—I don’t understand.”

Benji was sitting across the desk from Sonia, who looked stern. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“A typical high fashion model is six-foot one and a hundred and twenty pounds. Obviously, we can’t expect that from you.”

“I thought you said that new models were my size.” Benji felt like the pit of his stomach had dropped out. Was he about to get fired? Had Sonia changed her mind about him?

“Not high fashion. To be honest, you’re a little big even for the kind of modeling I had in mind for you. But you wanted to try high fashion, so I gave in.”

“Big?” At five-foot nine, he’d never once imagined he’d ever be called ‘big,’ not in the fashion industry.

Sonia pulled out a manila folder and handed Benji a picture. “Right now, we have to stretch your pictures to drop your weight, since there’s nothing we can do for your height.”

Benji took the photo with trembling fingers. The background was so distorted, but he looked … good. He looked tall and thin, like a model. The second picture Sonia handed him made him look short and squat.

“That’s what you looked like before we stretched it.

“You want to do high fashion; you want to walk runways in Paris. I find that to be incredibly out of your league. But if it’s what you really want, we can give it another try later on. Right now, I’m trying to sell you, and I can’t sell this.” She gestured to the fat picture, to what Benji looked like without editing.

He told himself firmly that he wasn’t going to cry, but his bottom lip shook.

“You aren’t pulling your weight. I am putting my time and effort into you, and I am getting nothing in return. If you want to continue with my management, you need to lose twenty pounds.”

“Twenty?” Benji whispered. That was crazy; if he lost twenty pounds, there’d barely be anything left of him. Then again, all those models he’d seen on TV … they all looked like twigs next to ‘normal’ size people. Was it possible that he’d made such a major oversight? He’d thought he’d at least had the right idea of what he was getting himself into.  Was he really that naïve about the industry?

“And I want to see abs too. Try not to eat so much. And try some exercise.”

Sonia seemed to deflate then with a sigh; she looked much more human and much more concerned. Her eyes were sympathetic.  “I know it’s hard. Believe me. Do you know how long I tried to be a model?” She gave a small laugh, full of remorse. “Benji, this life sucks. You’re going to be hungry. You’re going to hurt. You’re going to be tired. Photographers are going to ask you to do things that are embarrassing or uncomfortable or downright stupid. You’re going to feel out of place, like they want something that you just can’t seem to grasp, no matter what you do.

“But then you’ll take a great photo. It’ll be tucked away in a reel of a hundred shitty photos that the photographer wouldn’t wipe his ass with, but that one photo will make his eyes light up and make you feel like you’re on top of the world. In that moment, you’re going to feel powerful and beautiful and magnificent.

“That feeling will come and go. Some days you’ll feel like a king; others you’ll feel like a slave. Some days you’re going to hate your life and the choice you’ve made. But that’s just it, Benji. It’s your choice. If you want it, if you want to have that moment where you feel perfect, I can help you get there. But if not, I need to know now and we’ll back out.

“So what is it, Benji? Do you want this?”

Benji nodded furiously, tightening his jaw and willing the burning in his eyes to go away. He could do this. This was his dream. He had to do it.

 

*~*~*

 

“You’re eating ice, baby.”

Benji glared at Jake, with his teasing smile and teasing voice. He crunched the ice in his mouth, swallowing it down to his frozen belly. “Shut up.”

Jake grinned, sprawling out on the couch. There were music videos playing on TV, some vamp singer with so much sex appeal seeping out of her that sometimes Benji found it hard to focus. Jake, however, was only focused on him.

“I’m trying to lose weight,” Benji grumbled. “Maybe then that photographer will keep his hands off me.” He wasn’t going to say anything, but the hunger and the embarrassment of his meeting with Sonia had gotten to him. Honestly, he’d meant to ignore it. It was part of the industry. Actors slept with their agents; models slept with their photographers. But not Benji, no matter how interested his photographer seemed.

Jake’s smile was gone at once. “What?” His voice was dangerously soft.

Benji just shook his head, trying to stave off Jake’s anger. “The photographer keeps getting all handsy with me.”

“Did you tell your boss?”

“It’s not a big deal.” He didn’t want to get into this with Jake, not really. He didn’t want Jake to know he was having doubts, that his fantasy-turned-reality wasn’t everything he’d dreamed it would be. He didn’t want Jake to be right, that he wasn’t cut out for this life.

“Clearly it is.”

“He works for her, so everything he does is okay by her. I’m just going to handle it on my own.” He hadn’t realized there was going to be this shady side of the industry, a side where he was going to be stripped naked by the eyes of his photographer. He should’ve, he supposed. Weren’t models famous for using sex to get what they wanted? Clearly that extended to their photographers as well. He wasn’t going to sleep his way to the top, but he wasn’t going to give up. He just had to work through it. Once he made it big, all the negative things would just be stories to tell.

“Just like you handled the dirty photos you’re selling?”

“What?”

Jake reached beside the couch and tossed a folder in Benji’s lap; he recognized it immediately as the prints he’d forgotten at Jake’s days and days before.

“It’s not porn, Jake. Modeling is art. It’s sexy; it’s—”

“No, that is porn, Benji. Look at those pictures.”

Jake opened the folder and spread the photos out over his coffee table. “What are you selling here, hmm? Not the clothes you’re barely wearing, not the car you’re spread out on, not the kitchen utensils you’re practically jacking off. You’re selling porn. It’s not sex; it’s dirty and cheap.” Benji shook his head. “No …” It wasn’t possible. He was selling sex and art, not porn. He would have known. Wouldn’t he? Looking down at the pictures, he wasn’t so sure, but he couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t. This was his chance.

Everyone said that models sold sex. That was how other people justified their own insecurities, the fact that they weren’t willing to strip bare in front of a camera to make art. People just didn’t understand. No one said that naked mothers cradling their newborns on the cover of magazines were selling sex, but anyone young? They were willing to label them in a moment.

Benji knew better. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he was going to get there. If he’d wanted to be a porn star, he would have done that. But he wanted to be a model, and models played their target audiences. Young people liked sex, therefore Benji was using sex to sell himself and his work. It wasn’t porn, it was a business plan. Jake just couldn’t see it, and that hurt. He would have liked Jake’s support; he would have more than liked it, actually. He almost felt like he needed it, so he wasn’t quite so alone.

“Believe what you want.” Jake dumped the folder in Benji’s lap and stalked away. So much for support.

 

*~*~*

 

They were in an empty parking lot. The sky was bright and clear, and a street light shone above them. Jessie didn’t need any of that to see, though. She was on one side of the parking lot, restrained by Bruce and Steel while Tyler held a silver knife to her throat. That wasn’t what shocked her, however. It was that Eddie and Jake were circling each other, knives drawn.

“I said, ‘fight!'” Tyler demanded. “Fight, or she dies!”

“No!” Jessie screamed, but it was too late. Both of them would die sooner than let anyone hurt her; they would kill for her. And so they lunged at each other, colliding in a tangle of limbs, striking and stabbing at each other, fighting to the death as Jessie screamed and cried. 

It was over within minutes, both of them lying on the ground, bleeding to death from their wounds, locking eyes with her as their lights went out.

In the safety of her room—which didn’t feel safe in the slightest—Jessie cried silently, not moving at all so that she didn’t wake Eddie. Why did she feel like everything was her fault?

 

*~*~*

 

Benji posed on a king-sized bed amid mussed white sheets and a large white blanket. He was shirtless and barefoot, wearing only a pair of Marked jeans—the ironic name of which didn’t escape his notice.

And he felt good.

The photographer was eating it up, praising him, complimenting him, and encouraging his every move. Finally, finally, he was doing something right. Sonia was going to love this; whoever she was selling the photos to at Marked were going to love them too. He was going to make it; he could feel it.

It was dirty; he knew that. It was obvious that he was modeling sex appeal. But it wasn’t porn. He wasn’t naked with his cock in hand. Far from it. He was selling desire and anticipation, and that was classy.

And then the photographer handcuffed him to the bed.

He didn’t like to be tied down; he didn’t like to be controlled. But it was sexy, and he couldn’t deny that. He could imagine in his head how sexy he looked, how vulnerable and trusting, cuffed to the bed and spread wide. He could see the photos in his mind, and he knew that people would love him. He could be selling hair products, cologne, sheets. Hell, he could be selling condoms with these photos. This had a widespread audience, and the possibilities were limitless.

“Okay. Cut, cut. Stop.”

Benji frowned, looking at the photographer from underneath the hair in front of his eyes. Everything had been going so well. “What’s wrong?”

The photographer sighed. “Nothing’s wrong. I just …” “What?”

“There’s something I’d like to try, if you’re interested. It’s pushing the edge a little, so I don’t know if you—”

“I want to do it.” He didn’t care how ‘pushing the envelope’ the scene was; he could do it. Besides, he was supposed to be selling the pair of jeans. It wasn’t like the photographer was going to ask him to strip naked. What could be worse than that?

“Really?”

“Absolutely.” Benji’s voice was sure. He could do anything. He would do anything to make this work.

The photographer grinned. “We’re gonna take this to a whole new level.” He turned to the makeup artist and assistant. “Would you step outside? I want Benji to be able to really lose his inhibitions. Actually … you know what? We’ll just try this for a little while. We’ll clean up; you can call it a day.”

Oh no. He’d secretly been dreading this day. This was the moment when his photographer was going to offer the model-photographer arrangement, he could feel it. This was when his photographer would promise to advance his career if Benji would have sex with him. Damn it. He’d hoped to avoid this for as long as possible. How the hell did he say no without ruining his career? Because he sure wasn’t going to agree to it. He gave his handcuffs a hard jerk, attempted to pop open the cheap lock, which didn’t budge.

“Sure thing,” the assistant said, grinning as he packed up his things. “See you tomorrow, Ray.”

“Later, Benji,” the makeup artist said, and then they were gone, locking the door behind them.

“Did they—did they just lock the door?” Benji’s stomach was tingling with nerves. What was going on? He felt cold and clammy. This didn’t feel right. More than that—it felt wrong. This was wrong. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

The photographer rolled his eyes. “They’re just messing around. I’ve got a key, don’t worry.” He slowly approached the bed.

The unsure feeling didn’t go away at the photographer’s attempt at reassurance; if anything, they intensified. Something wasn’t right here. Something—

The photographer crawled into the bed, and Benji recoiled. “What are you doing?” He was well aware what the photographer was doing; he was going to offer a trade of sex versus career.

The photographer grinned hard, like a wolf, like a predator. Like everything Benji had always known vamps

to be. But this was a man, just a man …

And this was not an offer of sex. This was rape.

“Stop it!” He had backed up as far as he could go; he was pressed against the headboard. There was nowhere for him to go, nowhere for him to escape …

The photographer climbed on top of him, kissing his neck, running his hands down Benji’s side.

Benji struggled, but he was no match for the photographer. He was cuffed to the bed, and he was a scrawny, slight thing. There was no way he could do anything. He was helpless. Sheer terror rolled through him like waves, setting of little explosions of panic. His brain wasn’t working; he could think properly. He couldn’t let this happen, but he couldn’t stop it. Why the fuck couldn’t he move? Why was he frozen? Why wasn’t his brain telling his body how to get away? The photographer was completely in control as he hitched Benji’s leg around his waist.

Benji screamed, the only thing he could do.

“Benji!”

Jake? Was it really possible? Could it possibly be—? Sudden hope bloomed in his chest, and he struggled with all his might.

The door exploded. Benji felt rather than saw Jake rip the photographer off him and throw him against the wall. He hit him again and again, then slammed him around some more. Benji stared, eyes wide. Everything seemed so unreal, from the situation he was in to the fact that Jake was the one saving him. A knight in shining armor. How could this be real? But he couldn’t deny, the moment he heard Jake’s voice, that he knew he was safe. He knew in his gut that Jake would never let anyone hurt him. Jake would save him.

The photographer didn’t stand a chance, not against a vamp.

A human was being saved by a vamp.

Jake paused, gripping the man’s belt tightly. His voice was low and threatening. “How ’bout I do to you what you were going to do to him?”

The photographer’s eyes widened in terror, and Jake curled his lip. “Lucky for you, I’m not like you.”

With a final jerk of Jake’s arm, the photographer fell unconscious as his head hit the wall.

A moment later, Jake was on the bed, prying the cuffs open and off. Benji was free, but the first thing he did was throw himself into Jake’s arms. He was trembling from head to foot, his breath coming in little relieved gasps.

“I went to see you,” Jake said softly by way of an explanation, or maybe just because he needed to fill the silence. “I went to the agency, and I heard your boss lady talking on the phone, saying she was going to have ‘twink rape footage’ for sale. She didn’t know I was there, but I could hear her from two rooms away. I forced her to tell me where you were. I had to get here before … before it was too late.” Jake’s voice cracked, and he whispered. “The whole way here, I was terrified that I was going to be too late.”

Jake tightened his embrace, resting his chin on Benji’s head. “Oh Benji … ”

Benji closed his eyes against tears that started to well in his eyes. Tears of relief, tears of belated fear, and—dare he say it—possibly tears of love.

In Jake’s arms, he was safe. Jake would protect him; Jake would never let anything happen to him. And for the first time, Benji didn’t ask questions. He didn’t protest Jake’s lifestyle or his choice; he didn’t argue the human-vamp dynamic. He simply let himself be held and feel safe.

 

*~*~*

 

Jessie ran down the street. She was battered and bleeding; every inch of her was sore. She was being followed, she thought, but whenever she turned to look behind her, there was no one there.

She ran hard until she got to Jake’s. She’d be safe there; he’d protect her. Of course he would. Nothing bad could happen to her when she was with Jake. 

She ran inside, slamming the door behind her and locking it before sagging against it, breathing hard. 

But when she turned around, Jake and Eddie lay slumped on the couch, covered in blood. Dead.

Jessie woke up to Eddie shaking her, a horrible sound piercing the air. It took her a moment to realize she was screaming.

Eddie wrapped his arms around her, running his fingers soothingly through her hair. “Baby, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Jessie just shook her head, barely able to breathe.

“Jessie?”

She gasped for air for a moment, then whispered, “I’m so scared.”

 

*~*~*

 

The air was cool outside as Benji and Jake walked out of the bar side by side. Jake had been waiting for the last half hour for Benji to finish his shift, and Benji was grateful for the security.

“Thanks again for coming to get me,” Benji said, pulling his jacket tighter. Looking up, he could see clouds moving quickly over the star-covered sky and the sliver of moon. “I don’t really want to be alone lately.”

“I get that. I didn’t have anything else planned for tonight anyway.”

They came around to the employee-parking section of the lot. A dark figure was leaning against Jake’s car. Benji felt his heart speed up and his skin flush with heat.

“Hey, do you mind?” Jake demanded. “We’re trying to leave.”

The figure remained silent and unmoving, and Benji could feel his pulse in his throat.

“Yo! Can you hear me?”

So fast that Benji couldn’t see it happen, the figure drew a gun and started shooting. Jake knocked Benji to the ground, then flipped up to tackle the shooter.

“Get in the car!” he shouted, and Benji stumbled to obey without question. A moment later, Jake was beside him, gunning the engine and peeling away into the night.

“What—what’s going on?” he gasped, his eyes wide. His heart was pounding in his chest, but it wasn’t fear so much as surprise and adrenaline. “Who was that?”

“Fuck.”

“What?”

Jake’s eyes flicked to Benji and past him to the shadow running alongside the car. “He’s following us. Get down.”

Benji bent double and Jake fired off a few rounds out the window, shattering the glass and, presumably, hitting his target. Benji screamed, partially in surprise at the loud gunshots and also at the glass showering his head.

Something launched itself at the car, which swerved sharply from the impact like it had been hit by a wrecking ball. The tires screeched as Jake swung in a three-sixty and sped on.

Moments later, they came to a sudden stop. Before Benji could open his door, Jake was there, pulling him out of the car and pushing him down behind it. “Stay down!” Benji did, covering his head and letting out a short, terrified scream.

Then Jake was gone. Shots rang out, as did the sounds of hissing and a collision.

And then everything was quiet.

“C’mon.”

Even though Jake’s voice was quiet, Benji nearly jumped out of his skin as he came around the car. Jake offered him a hand up and led him into the house, even though he was limping and staggering as he went. Benji helped hold him up as much as he was able.

In Jake’s room, with the door firmly bolted, Benji dropped down onto the edge of the bed, his heart still pounding and his mind racing. He still didn’t fully understand what had happened, just that he had nearly died. It had to have been a vamp that attacked them. It explained the wrecking ball to the car and the collision sounds. No human would have been able to stand up to Jake. No human would have been able to hurt him.

“Jake?” He hadn’t come out of the bathroom, so Benji followed him in, pushing the door wider.

He gasped.

Jake’s chest was smeared with blood from two bullet holes in his abdomen. His eyes were dark and flat, and he gripped the sink with white knuckles.

“Jake? What—are you—what do you need? Are you okay?”

Jake nodded weakly. “I’ll be fine. It’ll heal.”

“What do you need?”

“Blood.”

“Okay, I’ll—”

“In the fridge. Bring me some.”

“Here.” Benji didn’t think, just offered his wrist, catching even himself by surprise.

Jake shook his head, backing away. “No. No, Benji. Don’t offer me—I won’t be able to turn you down—”

“It’s okay.” Benji stepped closer. “You need it. I know fresh blood is the strongest.” He’d heard enough stories to be pretty sure that was true.

Jake hesitated; Benji knew that meant he was right.

“I can’t lose you,” Benji whispered, coming forward until they were chest to chest. “Please. Take it.”

That time when he offered his wrist, Jake took it. He hesitated, clearly torn and doing battle with himself, but his need won. “Don’t hate me,” he whispered.

And then he bit.

Benji gasped. It wasn’t pain, not really. There had been a second of sharpness as Jake’s teeth broke his skin, then the anesthetic set in, and all he could feel was a steady sucking pressure that reached all the way down to his groin. He could feel that push-pull throughout his entire body, consuming him, racing through him like poison in his veins. He shuddered in pleasure, arching closer to Jake. This was primal; this was carnal. This was more than anything he had ever known.

And then came the snapshots, little glimpses of memories flashing by like an old film. Baking in the kitchen with his mother. Helping his dad wash the car. His mother screaming. His father’s body, broken on the floor. Alone in his room while his aunt and uncle fought. Being yelled at. Drugs, everywhere.

His first love. His first kiss. His first fuck. His first heartbreak. And his second. And his third.

Jake released him, and Benji stepped back, gasping again. He glanced down, unable to look at Jake just then. The two bullets that had been in Jake were lying on the floor; Jake’s chest was healed. When he was finally able to drag his gaze to Jake’s face, Jake was watching him with blood-red eyes, an unreadable emotion in them and across his face.

“You have glass in your hair.” Jake reached to brush it out, but Benji stepped back. He felt naked, vulnerable, exposed. He wasn’t sure he could be around Jake in that moment.

Jake nodded. He seemed like he understood how Benji was feeling. “You can shower, if you want. I’ll use the other bathroom.” And then he was gone, shutting the door behind him.

Benji could breathe again without feeling like Jake was peering into his soul. He took a few deep breaths, sitting down on the toilet seat and rubbing his face. He pushed a hand through his hair and shards of glass slipped out.

Okay. This was good. Something to do, something he could focus on. He paid meticulous attention to the glass in his hair, making sure to get every piece. He stripped out of his clothes, cleaning them out as well, and then got in the shower.

The hot water felt amazing, washing away the fear and panic and adrenaline that had covered him with sweat. He tilted his head back, letting the water spray over his face, neck, and chest.

But there was nothing to focus on in the shower, nothing but what had happened between him and Jake.

Jake had seen him, had exposed him more than anyone ever had. He had never let anyone that close to him, no one, ever, but Jake had slipped under his skin and seen him, felt him, known him. He’d let a vampire—

No. It was time to stop the human-vampire dynamic, stop the comparisons, the double standard. He and Jake had both been born human; they were both people. They were more alike than he could ever have imagined. It didn’t matter that Jake was a vampire.

What mattered was that Benji wanted Jake to bite him again. He wanted him; he wanted to connect with him. He wanted to see and be seen; he wanted to be vulnerable, with Jake. He trusted him. He wanted him. He— Loved him? Did he love Jake?

No, not love. But something else. There was definitely something else, something that ran deep beneath the surface, beneath his skin. His heart could feel it even if his brain didn’t know the words for it. Something bone deep— blood deep—that kept bringing them together like magnetic opposites.

Benji turned off the water before it could turn cold and ruin the warmth running throughout his body. He considered putting his clothes back on, but he didn’t want to risk a stray glass shard, so he wrapped himself in a towel and went to Jake’s room to search for clothes.

Jake wasn’t there—Benji wasn’t sure whether his sigh was in relief or in disappointment—so he dug in his dresser for a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. He dropped his towel to pull them on.

Jake was frozen in the doorway. “I’m sorry.”

Benji started, surprised, but the warm sensation intensified, and he gave a small smile at the feeling. “I’m not.”

The next thing he knew, Jake was kissing him, his mouth firm and demanding. Benji opened up to him, wrapping his arms around his neck and kissing him deeply.

The kiss went on and on; it was give and take as they explored each other, hands moving freely and purposely, feeling everything they’d never imagined they’d feel.

It wasn’t the lure of the forbidden that spurred Benji on. It wasn’t the vamp-prey dynamic or any of the hundred reasons why he shouldn’t allow himself to do this. It was the reason why he should have:  because he wanted Jake. He wanted the safety, the exhilaration, the desire, the thrill, the strength, the everything that Jake was. He wanted all of him.

And, as they tumbled onto Jake’s bed, he got it.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake sat in bed beside Benji, watching him sleep. Benji was curled up on his side, facing him, one hand resting on Jake’s leg as if to reassure himself that Jake was still there.

Like Jake was going anywhere.

Every so often, moments from the night before came to mind. The way Benji’s mouth opened silently as Jake slid inside him. Benji’s eyes as Jake moved. The way he clutched to Jake, like he was trying to meld them into one. The memories he’d seen when he’d bitten Benji’s shoulder.

But his favorite was Benji whispering his name over and over, like prayer, like a sigh, like everything he’d never known before.

He’d never imagined it could be like this, with anyone, in any way, ever.

But with Benji, it was everything and more.

A frantic knock on the door sent him flying out of bed, the gun from his nightstand in hand. He heard Jessie yell his name before he got to the door, and he tore it open without hesitation, letting her, Eddie, and Tyler inside.

“Fuck!” Eddie swore, leaning against the wall.

“What are they doing here?” Jessie pushed her long hair out of her eyes, eyes that were piercing into Jake, demanding answers.

“You guys all right?” Jake asked instead of answering. Even when they all made sounds of agreement, he looked from Eddie to Jessie to make sure. They sat down in the living room, Jessie going to get drinks, and Benji came in wearing one of Jake’s T-shirts and a pair of boxers.

“What’s going on?” Benji asked.

“They’re outside, waiting for us,” Jessie announced. Jake shook his head in frustration. “Fuck!”

“What are we gonna do?” Eddie asked, expecting Jake to have all the answers like usual.

“We’re gonna have to wait it out and hope they leave.”

Jessie sat down then and handed over bottles of blood laced with alcohol. The vampires all drank deeply. It was more as reassurance and a calming of nerves than a pumping up for whatever was about to come. For Jake, it worked—to a point. He realized Benji didn’t have that option, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. Benji didn’t really need to be pumped for anything; Jake would protect him if it cost him his life, afterlife, whatever the fuck his existence was.

“What do you have for weapons?” Jake asked finally, half his bottle gone.

“On me?” Eddie replied. “Nothing. Got an arsenal in the truck, though.”

“I got a knife,” Tyler offered, but he was ignored.

“Why?” Jessie asked. “Are you suggesting we fight them?”

“Fuck no. But we’ll need them if they come any closer.”

Eddie glanced toward the curtained window, maybe imagining how close Pittsburgh’s guys were. “I don’t think it’s safe to try to get ’em. We’ll have to use yours.”

Jake nodded and went to the closet, pulling handguns off of shelves and passing them out. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Benji blinking, clearly surprised. It wasn’t quite a Hollywood arsenal of bombs and machetes, but there were several guns. Definitely more than the zero he assumed that Benji owned. Jake frowned, distracted for a moment. Benji didn’t own any kind of weapons, did he? He didn’t like the idea of Benji putting himself in danger like that.

“What about me?” Benji asked.

“You don’t get one.” Jake’s voice was flat and final. Like hell he was going to give Benji a gun and invite him further into harm’s way.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant, what do I do?”

“Just make yourself comfortable. That’s all any of us can do. Just wait.”

“We’re gonna need a better plan than this, Jake,”

Jessie said. “Who knows how many of them will show up.” “What do you suggest?” he asked impatiently.

“I don’t—”

“You don’t know?” Jake snapped, frustrated. “Don’t suggest things if you don’t have a better idea.”

Eddie stepped up beside Jessie, settling a hand on her arm, but Jake couldn’t tell if it was to comfort or restrain her. If she had been anyone else, he would have told Eddie to get his bitch in line. But no matter how far Jessie dug under his skin, he could never talk about her like that.

“Maybe we could get a hold of Pittsburgh, make a deal.”

“A deal? He won’t deal with us.”

“Stop shooting everything down!” Jessie shouted. “No matter what we do, we’ll lose.”

“We won’t; we can beat them.” Truthfully, he had no confidence in his statement, but he’d learned there were two important facts about being a leader. The first was to do anything to protect his crew. The second was never to let them see his doubts. They looked to him for reassurance; it was his job to give it to them, even if he didn’t have any himself.

“Jake, there’s four of us. The only way we even have a chance is if—”

“Fuck, you two need to get a hold of yourselves.”

Jake turned to Eddie, blinking at him in surprise. Once upon a time, Eddie had always been on his side, always, even if he was wrong. But then Jessie had entered the picture, and Eddie was in a ‘rock and a hard place’ situation more and more often lately. Jake could respect his loyalty to his girlfriend, just as he respected moments like this when Eddie tried to remain honestly neutral. He wasn’t going to back down, though. Jessie was the one in the wrong.

“I need another drink.” Jessie stalked out of the room.

Benji sat on the couch, tugging on Jake’s hand until he sat down as well. “There’s got to be something we can do,” Benji suggested softly.

Jake looked over at him and shook his head. Benji was still hopeful and optimistic, however naïve that was, but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t understand Jake’s world. It was kind of nice, actually. It was refreshing to see someone who wasn’t as entangled in the cutthroat world he’d found himself in, someone with a little innocence. He wanted that for Benji, even if it was too late for himself. “There isn’t. I can’t pay the money.”

“I have some saved up. Take it.”

Jake knew how much Benji was sacrificing; his savings were to get him out of Middleton—his life’s dream. He didn’t know what to say. Benji was making a huge gesture toward him, one that rendered him momentarily speechless. In another world, maybe Benji’s gesture would have been enough to make things right, but he had to face reality. In his world, it wasn’t. “It’s not enough. I have a huge debt and I can’t pay it.”

“Maybe we could use it,” Tyler suggested, and Jake immediately rounded on him.

“I’m not taking his money,” he insisted fiercely. “I’m not asking someone else to bail me out of this mess. And it’s not even close to the amount I need.”

“At least we’d have something.”

“If it would help—”

“It wouldn’t.” Jake’s voice softened. “Thank you, but it’s not enough.” He rubbed at his face again, then raked his fingers through his hair. It did nothing to ease the tension eating at him, the helplessness seeping throughout his veins. “This is all so fucked up!” “I know,” Eddie assured him quietly.

“You’re all in danger, and it’s my fucking fault.”

“I wanted to be here. I don’t know about Eddie, though. He was assigned to you.”

“That’s shit and you know it,” Eddie spat with a glare. “We all made the decision to stick things out with you. We knew it would be dangerous. We wanted to be here.”

“But I never should have let you. Especially Jess.”

Eddie looked past Jake, and when he turned, Benji saw that Jessie had come back into the room. “You did the right thing, Jake. She’d be in even more danger if she wasn’t with us, if she was still human.”

“Yeah.” Jake wasn’t really convinced. Maybe Jessie could have had Benji’s innocence too, if he hadn’t brought her into all of this.

“There has to be something we can do,” Eddie prodded.

Jake glared at the wall. This was his job. He was the leader; he’d gotten them into this mess. It was his job to get them out. They were his responsibility. If only he had some trick up his sleeve, some brilliant scheme Pittsburgh’s guys would never see coming.

And then it dawned on him. Maybe tricks and schemes weren’t what he needed after all.

“We’ll leave at midnight.” He turned back to Eddie. “Where’d you park your truck?”

 

*~*~*

 

Midnight came much sooner than Benji could have hoped. He’d changed back into his own clothes and waited nervously as the clock ticked closer and closer. He wasn’t so sure about this plan; it seemed too simple. Jake assured him that that was what made it brilliant, but it was still dangerous. Jake would cause a distraction, the rest of them would make a getaway, and Jake would catch up with them. Benji wasn’t so sure Pittsburgh’s guys would be fooled.

“All right, it’s time. Get ready, on my go.”

Jake started to head toward the back of the house, but Benji caught his arm and kissed him passionately. Maybe he was being overdramatic, maybe he was looking for luck and reassurance, but kissing Jake calmed him down. It was far easier to try to pour his heart out through his actions than to try to find the words. He could only hope Jake understood what he couldn’t say.

Jake smiled at him, leaning in to press their foreheads together. He seemed to feel similarly. Benji hoped so,

anyway. “You’re gonna be fine, Benji. Trust me.”

“I do.”

There was a flash of surprise in Jake’s eyes, then he quickly kissed him and headed out.

A moment later, gunfire erupted in the back yard.

“Go, go, go!” Jessie ordered, already running out the front door and dragging Benji behind her. His heart was in his throat. They weren’t going to make it; they were going to be gunned down, or bled dry, or—

He pushed the thoughts out of his head, trying to stop his imagination from taking over.

The vamps were nowhere to be seen, at least to Benji’s eyes as Jessie lifted him with one hand and tossed him into the truck like he weighed nothing more than a jacket. And then the engine was gunning and they were off, much faster than any pickup Benji had ever been in. He gripped the dashboard, and Eddie grinned, his teeth brilliant in his dark face.

“I mighta done a little work on her.”

“A little? What kind of engine did you put in here?”

“How much do you know about engines?” Eddie asked, glancing over at him.

“Nothing,” Benji admitted. He’d never been into cars or sports. He was the artsy type, something he tried not to admit after years of high school when he was constantly the butt of jokes.

Eddie laughed. “I put in a big one. A fast one.” Benji was grateful Eddie didn’t try giving him specs and numbers that would have made absolutely no sense to him.

“Fair enough.” Then he screamed as something crashed in the bed of the truck.

“It’s all right; it’s just Jake,” Jessie soothed, holding his shoulder with one hand and opening the rear window with the other. A moment later, Jake slithered in through the small opening and dropped down beside him.

The truck was cramped, but as it roared away, Benji felt like they’d actually pulled this off.

 

*~*~*

 

“What is this place?” Benji asked as Jessie ushered him into a seemingly rundown house on the other side of town—a house that proved to be far from rundown once they got inside.

“Safe house,” Eddie answered, checking the security system. “Believe it or not, Jake’s not the first person who’s pissed off Pittsburgh and needed somewhere to hide.” “Asshole,” Jake retorted good-naturedly.

Eddie grinned. “All right, make yourselves comfortable. We should be safe here for the night.”

“Benji and I’ll take off in the morning,” Jake said, taking Benji’s hand and laying down on the couch with him.

Jessie reached for Eddie’s hand and led him toward the bedroom, where they tumbled into bed, their mouths and bodies fused together. Jessie couldn’t explain it, but the horrible feeling was growing worse, even after they seemed to be safe. She needed Eddie to make it go away.

 

*~*~*

 

The town was burning. It was like one of those old vampire movies where they burned the villagers’ town to the ground as vampires ran through, biting anyone left alive. 

Except it wasn’t just the town that was burning. Vamps were burning too. Everywhere she ran, Jessie saw vamps she recognized:  chained to light poles, surrounding by broken chairs or crates, screaming as they were burned alive.

She ran. The heat from the fire burned, searing her cold blood and icy skin. She wasn’t sure what she was running from or toward, but something was driving her. Something was wrong. 

Eddie. It was Eddie. Where was he? What was happening to him? Why weren’t they together?

“Eddie!” she screamed, searching through the crowds of running people. “Eddie!”

And then she saw him, chained to a pole, screaming as he burned.

“Eddie!”

Arms like steel held her tight, not letting her move an inch. “Let me go! Let me go!” She struggled against the vice-like grip, desperate to reach Eddie, who continued to scream.

“No, Jessie.” It was Tyler holding her. “I’m never letting you go.”

“Eddie!”

“Jessie!”

“It’s your choice,” Tyler continued. “Leave him, come back to me, and I’ll let him live. He doesn’t have to die, Jessie. We can be together, just you and me like we used to be. Just say the words. Just tell me you love me.”

“But I love him!”

“Wrong choice.”

 

*~*~*

 

Jessie looked like a zombie when Jake joined them in the kitchen the next morning. Her lips were red from the blood she was drinking, but her eyes were hollow and hard, staring at the wall. She barely even reacted when Eddie rubbed her back reassuringly. She scared him when she was like this, when she looked like the undead that she technically was. She looked like a foreshadowing of worse—much worse—things to come.

“I’m heading out,” Tyler said, pulling on his jacket. “I got some stuff to take care of.”

Jake jerked his chin at him, barely noticing as he left.

“We’re gonna leave too.”

“I’ll drive you,” Eddie offered. He sounded tired.

“Just drop us off at the diner.”

The drive to the diner was quiet. Jessie stayed behind; Eddie instructed her not to sleep, of all things, until he got back. Jake didn’t understand that. If anything, it looked like a couple hours of sleep would do her good. But he wasn’t going to argue with Eddie, not when it came to Jessie.

“Let me pick up my check,” Benji said, “and then we can go. Thanks for the ride, Eddie.” He hopped out of the car and waved to Eddie before heading into the diner.

“I’m gonna make sure Benji gets something to eat,” Jake said, leaning against the side of the car to talk to

Eddie through the open window. “We can walk.”

“Are you sure?”

Jake nodded. “Yeah.” He hurried to catch up with Benji, who already had his check in hand. “Eat quick and then we’ll head off.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You sure? We’re already here.”

“I’m fine. I just can’t eat right now.”

Jake bit back an argument; he’d make sure Benji ate later. “All right,” he agreed, and they started walking toward Benji’s apartment.

Within moments, the hairs on the back of Jake’s neck were standing on end; he felt a cold tingle at the base of his spine. His phone chimed in his pocket, but he ignored it.

They were being followed.

He put his hand on the small of Benji’s back where he could easily manipulate him if need be. “Don’t make any sudden movements,” he whispered.

Benji tensed, startled, but didn’t say anything. “There’s three behind us.”

Benji took a deep breath and did as Jake said, but as soon as a shot rang out, Jake shouted. “Run!”

They took off running, almost to Benji’s apartment. Jake wasn’t sure what good an apartment would do against a bunch of vamps, but it was the only option they had. Better to get out of the open, anyway.

Then he saw Tyler waiting for him, and for the first time in years, he was glad to see him. “Tyler! Let’s do this!” He pulled out his own gun, about to do a one-eighty, but then Tyler was pointing his gun at him.

“Tyler?” The pit dropped out of his stomach; he was at a loss for words. He’d never been stabbed in the back, not like this. “What the fuck?”

“Jessie is a bitch.” He nodded to the vamps that had caught up to them, and at his signal, they left.

“What? What are you doing?” He had his suspicions, all right, but he wanted to hear from Tyler. Years of letting Tyler run with him, of watching his back, of providing for him. And this was how Tyler repaid him?

“What I shoulda done a long time ago,” Tyler said.

“What’s going on?”

“You didn’t need me, but Pittsburgh did.”

Jake couldn’t believe this. “What are you saying?”

“I went to Pittsburgh and told him you were planning on taking everything he owned. Turns out he didn’t like that very much.”

“You turned me in?” The little shit was stabbing him in the back to side with his enemy?

“Yup.” There was a smug little smile on Tyler’s pale face, and Jake had a sudden urge to break it—the smug smile and Tyler’s face. Maybe Tyler’s entire body. Beat him senseless. Tear him apart. But Tyler had a gun pointed at him, a gun with silver bullets no doubt, and Tyler could shoot him before Jake could even get his hands around Tyler’s scrawny neck. So he had no choice but to play negotiator.

“You don’t want this. Pittsburgh’s just using you. Once I’m dead, he’s gonna throw you out on the street.”

“No!” Tyler’s arm shook, but he kept the gun pointed at Jake’s chest. “You’re not the only one who matters around here. Now I’m more important than you are. This is it for you. And after you, I’ll kill Benji and Eddie. I’ll save

Jessie for last so she can see Eddie die ’cause of you.”

“You’re wrong. She’ll know it was you,” he said, trying to buy time; Jake nearly couldn’t believe his eyes, but Eddie and Jessie were walking up behind Tyler. He felt a flutter of hope in his belly.

“I don’t think so.”

“What happens when you’re done with us? He gonna give you a spot with him?”

“He already has.”

Eddie and Jessie had disappeared; Jake need to keep Tyler talking. That was the only way they were going to get out of this.

“Why are you doing this?”

“You don’t get it, do you? I need to do this. All that time I was with you, doing all that shit, I kept thinking you were using me, but I looked the other way. I kept telling myself I was your boy, that you’d never use me like that. But you did. You didn’t want me. You never needed me. You’re such a fucking bastard! And now you can all burn in hell where you belong.”

Jessie crashed into Tyler as a gunshot rang out. Jake fell to the ground, clutching his side. His abdomen erupted in pain so strong he couldn’t tell if it was fire or ice infiltrating his body. Benji dropped to his knees beside him.

And Eddie held his gun to Tyler’s face, about to end everything. Until Jessie screamed “no!” and Tyler ran.

Jessie pulled out her own gun and attempted to shoot him as he ran, but she missed each time. And then he was gone. “Damn it!” she screamed, stomping her foot and then turning back toward Jake.

Jake couldn’t stop staring at the wound, at his entire side covered in blood. He was cold everywhere; his head was swimming. It was hard to focus. He’d never been shot by silver before. He wondered if this was what dying felt like.

“Give me your shirt,” Jessie ordered Eddie, and he obeyed without question. She balled it up and pressed it to Jake’s side; Benji, who was whispering things to him that he couldn’t focus on enough to understand, held it in place as Jessie tied her belt around it. “Hold on, Jake. Almost done.” She tightened the belt, making Jake wince, but it held. “Okay. Just keep pressure on it ’til we get back. Let’s get you to the truck.”

She and Benji half-carried him to it, both keeping pressure on his bandages, then helped him into his bed in his apartment. There was no safe place anymore; Tyler knew all their secrets, and now Pittsburgh did too. The thought crossed his mind as his coherency returned. With the silver out of his body, his mind was no longer swimming, and the pain was giving him a sharp focus.

Jessie and Benji sat beside him on the bed, fluttering over him. Eddie lurked in the doorway. It was like he really was dying.

“We should get a doctor,” Jessie insisted.

“It’s not—” Jake winced as she adjusted the makeshift bandages. “It’s not that bad.” He didn’t trust anyone just then, except the people in the room. No way he was going to let any doctor near him in his current state.

“You’re scaring me, Jake,” she said, and he could see it in her eyes.

“I’m fine.” His tone urged her to drop it, but as usual, she didn’t listen. Jessie never listened.

“No, you’re not!”

Jake glared at her. “You’re right, I’m not. Thanks to you and Tyler.” It was easy to bitch Jessie out when the pain was getting to him, let her bear the brunt of his temper.

Jessie gaped. “What? He wasn’t my responsibility.”

“No? You were the one who brought him here.”

“No, I didn’t! He owed you money. It was your idea!”

“To let him run with us, yeah, and only because he was fucking you! You were the one who turned him, ’cause you couldn’t live without him. Now he’s gonna get us killed!” At that moment, he didn’t care that ice was spreading through his veins; he didn’t care that they’d all, miraculously, managed to survive. The only thing he could see was the reason they were in their predicament:  because he had brought Jessie into this world, and she’d thought that some little piece of stab-his-friends-in-theback trash was the love of her life.

“Stop!” Eddie ordered. “We don’t have time for this.” Jake squeezed his eyes shut tight for a moment.

“Can you give us a minute?” Benji asked. He appeared to have realized or decided something important, judging by his sudden take-charge attitude, but Jake was cautious as to what it was. It seemed Eddie and Jessie noticed it too, because they didn’t argue.

Benji inched closer to Jake, smoothing Jake’s hair away from his eyes in little jerky motions, like he didn’t know what else to do with his hands. “There was silver in that bullet, wasn’t there? That’s why you dug it out so fast, and why you’re like this still.”

Jake clenched his jaw tighter and nodded briefly, eyes still squeezed shut. Benji pressed his bare wrist to Jake’s lips, the marks still there from the last time. “Here.” Jake didn’t even hesitate.

Instantly, they were both swept away by the emotions, by the physical reactions, by the sensory overload. They were too taken in to react when the bedroom window was smashed in and a vamp dragged Benji away, a knife to his throat.

“Jake!” he screamed.

“Let him go!”

“I can’t do that,” the vamp said. “See, Tyler has a grudge with you and wants this human. Make a move, and I cut out his throat. You know how good his blood will taste?”

A gunshot rang out; the vamp dropped to the floor. Jake looked up to see Eddie in the doorway, gun out, and Benji quickly crawled away from the body.

“In your own house?” Jessie cried. “What are they playing at? Do the rules suddenly not exist?” She conveniently ignored the fact that they’d broken the rules by trashing Pittsburgh’s house to get revenge. It was all a vicious cycle as they attempted to make honor amongst thieves, and Jake could see that his world was falling down around him.

“Get out,” he ordered quietly. She gaped at him, disbelieving, and he repeated the order.

“Fine,” she said, clearly furious with him. “Whatever, Jake.” She and Eddie left, and Benji put his head against Jake’s shoulder, breathing hard. Jake tensed, and Benji pulled back.

“Jake? It’s all going to be okay. We can run away if we have to.”

Jake shook his head but didn’t say anything. Finally … “You were right, Benji. This won’t work.”

Benji froze. He stared like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, like he hadn’t seen this coming since day one. Jake had to fight not to flinch from the hurt in Benji’s eyes. “What?”

“This is too dangerous. Everyone coming after you, it’s only ’cause you’re with me. I won’t put you in danger.” It hurt, to say those words. It was like ripping out his own heart to push Benji away, to cut him out of his life. But letting Benji fall victim would hurt more, he told himself. He would never be able to live with himself if Benji paid the price for his lifestyle.

“I chose this, Jake. I knew the risks. I chose to be with you.”

“You didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. All this time, when you said humans and vamps shouldn’t be together …”

He pulled away when Benji tried to hold him.

“Jake, I trust you. I love you. That’s all that matters. Not this, or the human-vamp dynamic. As long as you love me …” He waited. And waited. But Jake didn’t finish the statement. “Jake?”

He looked away.

Benji’s heart was racing; Jake could hear it. He tried not to focus on what that meant, on what Benji must have been feeling. This was like a bandage; best to rip it off quickly and be done.

“Jake? You love me, right?”

Jake hung his head. “Benji …”

“I don’t believe this.” Benji was hyperventilating; it wasn’t just his heart racing, but also his breathing. For a moment, Jake was scared that he was literally going to break Benji’s heart. He felt sick, disgusted with himself.

How had he let it get to this point? What the fuck was wrong with him? Why was he such an idiot? Why was he so selfish?

“I don’t believe you. I know you love me. You fucked me; you bit me. You fed off me.”

Fucked him, bit him, fed off him. Not made love, not shared blood. The way Benji put it, Jake had treated him like a groupie. He hadn’t, had he? No. He’d loved Benji. He still did. That was why he had to do this. He stood his ground, not giving in to the urge to reach out to him, hyperaware of the feet of space between them, of the way Benji was curling in on himself.

“All those things you were saying … They were true, okay? Vamps only ever want humans to fuck and feed off of.” Lies, all lies! “You’re drugs and playthings, that’s it. You don’t fall in love with something, even if you’re addicted to it.” More lies! He was addicted to Benji like the worst heroin addict, but in the best way. Well, it would have been the best way, if things had been different. Another time, another place. Another life.

Benji stared, his eyes welling. He was silent for long moments, and Jake didn’t know how to make him leave, how to make him get the hell away from him before Jake gave in to the urge within him screaming to never let Benji out of his sight, much less force him out of his life.

He needn’t have worried. Benji did it for him.

“Go to hell.” Jake had never heard three words spoken with more venom, more hatred, more betrayal.

He ran out of Jake’s apartment, not listening when Jessie tried to stop him, seeming not to care if there was anyone out there who might still want to hurt him.

Jake stood, staring at the door, feeling empty. The pain was back; he wanted to feed, or fuck. But Benji was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. It was all Jake’s fault. And as much as he knew he’d made the right decision, he’d never hated himself more.

 

*~*~*

 

Jessie came for him the moment he got to his apartment; he assumed she’d followed him home. She helped him carry his bags to her car and load them inside, all without talking.

“Thanks for doing this, Jess,” Benji said after several minutes of silent driving. After Jake had stabbed him in the back, he didn’t think he could ever trust anyone again, much less a vamp. But he needed to get out, and he’d use whatever option he could find. If Jessie felt guilty for her brother’s actions, all the more better for Benji. He’d use her before she could use him.

She shook her head. “Whatever happened between you and Jake is between you and Jake, not you and me. And it’s really no trouble to drive you.”

Benji gave a small smile. Once he got out of Middleton, he wouldn’t need anyone to look after him. He’d take care of himself, and he’d never get mixed up with vampires again.

“So, you really think L.A. is the right move for you?”

Benji nodded, turning away from the houses passing by to look at Jessie. “I need to get out. There’s nothing for me here.” His throat tightened for a moment, but he pushed it away. Jake had ripped out his heart and stepped on it? Fine. He’d show Jake. He’d get out of their shitty little town once and for all; he’d make it big. One day Jake would see Benji’s face on a magazine or a billboard, and he’d realize that Benji could be just fine without him, would be just fine without him. One day. “Jake was the only thing keeping me here, holding me back. He thought I was selling out. But this is my life, and I’m going to live it my way. I don’t give a fuck what he thinks anymore.”

Jessie nodded, not taking her eyes off the road. “I understand that. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I lost Eddie. I wouldn’t be able to stay here.”

So much for Jessie believing that he was only leaving to pursue his dreams.

“Fuck,” Jessie swore, tightening her grip on the wheel and turning suddenly onto a side road.

“What’s going on?”

“I fucking told Jake this would happen. There was no way I’d be able to get you out of here before they found out he wasn’t protecting you anymore.”

Benji turned to look out the window as a speeding car zoomed toward them, a large cloud of dust rising in its wake. “Shit!”

“Yeah, shit’s right.”

Jessie sped up, but her car was nothing compared to the one chasing her. The other car—with another of Pittsburgh’s vamps in the passenger seat—quickly caught up to them. If the other car hit them, Jessie might walk away, but there was no way Benji would. There was only one option.

Jessie hit the brakes hard, swerving suddenly and forcing the other care to turn around to come after her. Jessie pulled a gun out from beneath her seat and got out of the car.

“What do we do?” Benji asked, partially shielded by the car but still a target. His heart was pounding in his chest. How was Jessie going to fight off Pittsburgh’s vamps and protect Benji, all by herself? Benji felt like a huge liability—and also at a huge amount of risk. There was a good chance he wasn’t going to get out of this. Maybe— “Stay down!” she ordered him. “And if you get the chance, run.”

Steel and Bruce had already parked their car and were approaching on foot, guns drawn. Tyler waited a safe distance away, watching, but clearly not planning to get his hands dirty. Seemingly Steel and Bruce were his very own thugs now.

“Put the gun down, Jessie,” Steel called. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Wanna bet?” she said tersely.

“She won’t shoot you.” Tyler sneered. “She doesn’t have it in her.”

Jessie shot Bruce in the shoulder, and he dropped his gun with a cry, clutching his arm. “Fucking bitch!”

Simultaneously, Steel went for her right hand, bringing down a sharp blow on her forearm so that she dropped her gun. He elbowed her in the stomach, and as she doubled over, he brought his knee up to smash her nose sharply. A simple punch to the face knocked her to the ground, unconscious, and Benji shouted his frustration as Jessie went down for good. It was quick, almost too quick for Benij to follow, and then it was over. It was his turn now to defend himself, but if Jessie hadn’t been able to put up much of a fight, he didn’t stand a chance. He wasn’t going down without a fight, but he knew it was hopeless.

There was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“No!”

Within the blink of an eye, Steel had him by the hair and was dragging him away from the car. Benji clutched at Steel’s arm to keep him from pulling out his hair, struggling as hard as he could. But these were vamps, and there was nothing he could do. He was helpless.

“Let’s go,” Tyler ordered.

Bruce ignored him, kicking Jessie in the face.

“I said, let’s go. Now!”

Bruce spit on her unconscious body. “Bitch.”

Benji’s wrists were tied with jump ties and then he was shoved into the backseat of the car beside Tyler. Steel drove as Bruce doctored his bloody shoulder.

“You know why I did it, don’t you?” Tyler asked.

Benji glared. No, he didn’t know, and he certainly didn’t care. “I’d say it’s ’cause you’re a spineless worm.”

“No! I’m not weak. This is Jessie’s fault. We used to be a thing, me and Jessie. We knew each other when we were still human, and after she became a vamp, she got me in with Jake, and I started dealing with him. Everything was fine, great. She fucking turned me, saying she wanted to be with me forever and this was the only way. And it was great. I was on top of the food chain; it was everything I’d ever wanted. Then that bitch turned on me, threw me out, said my one mistake, the one time I slipped up and cheated, was unforgivable. And who was there to comfort her but that motherfucker Eddie.”

Benji restrained himself from showing his disgust. It sounded to him like Tyler wasn’t trying to justify his actions to Benji as much as to himself, to prove to himself that he was in the right. To validate his actions that maybe he had begun to doubt. But it was too late to go back, and he certainly didn’t seem remorseful.

“Of course it was preferable to Jake that his little sister be fucking his best boy,” Tyler continued. “And where did that leave me? I had to work for him to pay off all the debt I’d … acquired while I was with Jessie.

“She left me at the roadside and everything in my life fell apart. They treated me like I was nothing, more worthless than a human.”

Benji glared at him. “Clearly, they saw the real you. Because you are less than human.”

The sharp sound of a slap registered before the pain when Tyler backhanded him. Benji hissed and then tossed his bangs out of his eyes, flushing in pain and anger. “What happens to me now in this great plan of yours?”

Tyler grinned at him slowly, a cold, evil smile that made Benji’s stomach twist.

“You belong to Pittsburgh now.”

 

*~*~*

 

Jessie gingerly sat on Jake’s couch, her entire body swore. She was bruised, battered, and bleeding:  an absolute mess. Eddie was cleaning her up as best he could, but the glass of blood in her hand—her second so far— was what was really doing the trick.

“They’ve Marked him, by now,” she said finally, after long minutes of Jake silently staring at the wall.

“I know.” Jake’s voice was barely audible, but they all heard.

“You know what that means. He doesn’t have long.”

“I know!” In an instant, Jake threw the chair aside in frustration; it hit the wall and then fell to the floor in a shatter of splinters. Jessie flinched.

“How the fuck did he know?” Jake’s voice was broken, and when he turned to look at Jessie, his heart was breaking in his eyes. Her own heart hurt for him. “I was trying to protect him. I was trying to keep this from happening!”

“I know,” Jessie said softly. “Benji’s strong; he’ll be okay.”

She didn’t really believe that, and it was clear from his look that Jake didn’t either.

“I have to end him,” Jake said finally.

“What?” She knew what he’d said; she just didn’t want to believe it.

“Benji stays Marked as long as Pittsburgh is alive.” “You’re going to kill him?” Eddie asked in disbelief.

“I have to. It’s the only way.”

“If we kill Pittsburgh, that stops the Mark.”

“That,” Jessie added, “and everything else he’s been doing. All the debt stops.” Jake nodded.

“What’s the plan?”

“No idea. But whatever we do, we gotta do it fast.”

Someone pounded on the door, and Jake drew his gun as he made his way toward it.

“Jake, it’s Stella!”

He pulled open the door, and Stella hurried in, out of breath. “They Marked him!”

“I know.”

“How do you know?” Eddie asked her.

“They’re massing, down at the park. Getting all riled up while they wait for the Hunt to start. You don’t have long.

His head start is up in twenty minutes.”

“Shit.” Jake rubbed his face. “We gotta go.”

“I’m coming with,” Stella informed him immediately.

“Stella—”

“You can’t take them on by yourself. I’m coming with.”

They very well might need her, Jessie thought. It was a trap; it had to be. Or revenge. Pittsburgh was going to try to prove his authority once and for all. He knew Jake would come for Benji, had somehow known it since that first night. Pittsburgh was going to be ready for them.

“Fine.” He stuck his gun in the back of his jeans, and Stella grabbed his arm.

“You know the rules. No silver.”

“We’re breaking all the rules now. This ends tonight.” Jessie saw the finality in her brother’s eyes and took a deep breath. Win or lose, Jake was right. They couldn’t wait around any longer while Pittsburgh tried to squash them under his boot. They had to make a stand. Four of them, against all Pittsburgh’s crew.

They were in for a rough night. A very rough, uncertain, possibly—probably—life-ending night. Somehow, it felt like all her years as a vamp had been leading her to this moment, and while she wasn’t wholly at peace with the thought of her own possibly looming demise, she didn’t feel the urge to run away.  Jake was right. This was it.

 

*~*~*

 

Benji stumbled down a street he didn’t know.

It was dark, but he could see as clear as day. In fact, the rare street light was blinding. He could feel the cool breeze like individual molecules against his skin; he could hear sounds too far away to have been real.

Pittsburgh had turned him. He could still feel the vamp’s teeth on his neck, the steady sucking pressure as Pittsburgh drained him. He’d been too weak to fight it when Pittsburgh forced his own blood into Benji’s mouth.

When he woke up, he’d been alone on the street, hyper-aware of everything—including a burning behind his ear. He’d traced the burnt flesh with his fingers; Pittsburgh had burned his symbol into him, Marking him.

He knew what a Marking meant. He’d grown up in Middletown, under the vamp’s thumb—or fangs. When someone was Marked and turned into a vamp if they were still human, they ran until the Marker caught them—or until they killed the Marker. In all likeliness, he’d be dead by sun-up. Maybe by midnight.

But all of this paled in comparison to the knowledge that he was a vampire. All his years of hating them, of avoiding them, had all lead him to the moment where he became one.

He didn’t know what to do with himself. His heightened senses were making him sick; his hyperreactive body was acting of its own accord. He couldn’t control himself, when he’d always been a person in tight control.

He was going to die. There was no way he’d be able to outrun Pittsburgh, much less kill him. He had no hope at all, but he couldn’t just lie down and die. He couldn’t.

So, as scared and helpless as he felt, he ran.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake screeched his car to a stop at the park. Vamps— Pittsburgh’s crew—were massing there, drinking and talking around bonfires while they waited for the Hunt.

Jake, Stella, Jessie, and Eddie made their way through the crowd amid catcalls and jeers. Jake ignored them, keeping his chin high.

“Where’s Pittsburgh?” he asked when he saw Steel.

“Not here.”

“Then who’s in charge of this party?”

“I am.” The group parted to reveal Tyler, standing casually among them. Jake swore; he should’ve known.

“One of the perks of the new job.”

With a roar, Jake launched himself at Tyler, intent on strangling him. Tyler had been bad news since day one, first for Jessie, then himself, and now for Benji. And it was going to end. He got his hands around Tyler’s throat and squeezed, felt him struggle and choke. He could feel his life in his hands.

But Stella and Eddie pulled him back, and Tyler collapsed, gasping for air.

“Get out of here,” Jessie ordered. “Go find Benji, take care of Pittsburgh. We’ll handle these clowns.” Jake hesitated.

“Go!”

He ran and ignored the crowd as they laughed at him; even as he ran, he could hear Tyler talking to Jessie.

“Jake get scared?” Tyler taunted through a raspy throat, acting cocky even though Jake had nearly killed him.

“No,” Jessie replied. “But you should be.” Jake heard Tyler drop to the ground.

The war was on.

 

*~*~*

 

He felt like he’d been running for hours. Even though he was faster than he’d ever been before, he still wasn’t used to his new body. Sometimes he felt like he’d taken too many energy shots or some kind of upper.

Something snapped behind him; he half-turned while running—

—and smacked into Pittsburgh’s chest.

Pittsburgh laughed as Benji screamed and tried to struggle away. But Pittsburgh’s grip was like that of a grizzly around him.

“You won’t be going anywhere. In fact, you’re going to be watching from the front row.”

Like he was carrying a branch, he dragged Benji over to a porch and chained him there. Immediately Benji started to struggle. He was a vamp now; he knew mere chains couldn’t hold him.

But Pittsburgh laughed again. “I wouldn’t do that. Those chains are silver. It’ll only make you sick.”

Benji didn’t care; he struggled for all he was worth. But a few minutes later, when he felt like puking up his guts, he realized he was fucked. Well and truly fucked. He was going to die. Pittsburgh was going to kill Jake and everyone else, and then he was going to come for him.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake ran down the street, ears piqued for any sound, eyes frantically searching for Benji. Sure, he was a hunter, a predator who thrived on the hunt, but he was still scared as fuck that he might be too late.

And then there he was, hunched against a wrought iron porch post, cuffed in place.

“Benji!”

He ran to drop to his knees beside Benji, taking Benji’s face in his hands. “Are you okay? Did he—” One look at Benji’s wide, blood-red eyes answered his question. Pittsburgh had turned him. Jake felt sick with guilt. This was his fault; he’d brought Benji into his world, into danger. He turned Benji’s head, pushing his hair out of the way, and saw Pittsburgh’s Mark burned into Benji’s skin.

“Shit, Benji, I—”

“You need to get out of here!” he said, sounding desperate and ill.

“No, I—”

“You need to—”

“I came for—”

“Listen to me!” Benji nearly shouted. “Pittsburgh is here, waiting for you! You have to go, now!”

Jake didn’t hear Pittsburgh move out into the open, but he sensed it all the same.

“Why, thank you, Benji, for the lovely introduction.” Jake spun to face him, still on his knees beside Benji.

He had never hated anyone more than he hated Pittsburgh in that moment. He wanted nothing more than to end him, to end this, once and for all.

“Hello, Jakey,” Pittsburgh said, grinning at him like a predator watching its helpless prey. Jake was no one’s prey, especially not Pittsburg’s.

“You son of a bitch!”

“Now, is that any way to talk to the man who gave you your life?”

Jake got to his feet, glaring daggers. “You almost took it from me.”

Pittsburgh glanced over at Benji and laughed. Instinctively, he and Jake began to circle each other, halfcrouched, predators through and through.

“You think that dick is your life? Jakey, you have no idea what you’re doing. He’s not your life. He’s your bed. He’s your meal. He’s the pain in the ass you put up with until you find a better lay. You’re throwing everything away for that cocksucker?”

“Watch your mouth!”

“I’m doing this for your own good, Jakey. When you’ve been around as long as I have, then you’ll understand. The sooner you get your head on straight, get back to thinking the way you used to, the better. For everyone. It’s already too late for Nathan. Don’t throw your life away over some twink yanking your dick.”

“Don’t call him that!” Jake hated that word. How dare Pittsburgh use it to describe Benji, like he was a fuck-toy and nothing more? He pulled out his knife, flicking it open in one deliberate motion.

“Watcha got, Jakey?” Pittsburgh pulled out his own knife, a switchblade that gleamed in the faint alley light.

Jake lunged.

 

*~*~*

 

All across the park, vamps were fighting. It was Eddie, Jessie, and Stella against the world, but they weren’t backing down. They were fighting with everything they had.

Jessie ducked to avoid a spinning kick. They were like caged animals; they were animals, and they fought like it, biting and clawing at each other’s bodies. Maybe they’d lost their humanity when they’d been turned; maybe they’d gained a connection to their primal side. Either way, they were more animal than human, and she felt it.

She stabbed a vamp in the stomach with her silver knife, and he went down with a scream.

Another jumped her from behind, tackling her to the ground. She ducked and rolled, moving quickly out of his way before he could deliver a fatal blow. She jumped back to her feet in a fluid motion and dove at him, biting him everywhere she could reach as they fell and rolled down the hill.

At the bottom, she lay dazed for a moment, then hot pain laced up body; he had bitten her arm, teeth almost penetrating her artery. With a scream, she slit the vamp’s throat and shoved him aside, ready to take on the next one.

The next one was Tyler. Fury rose up inside of Jessie at the sight of his face.

He looked scared, his nose bleeding, and when he saw her, his eyes widened further. He turned to run, but she launched herself at him, knocking him to the ground. Their fight was on.

“Why wasn’t it enough for you?” Jessie cried, circling as Tyler circled her long minutes later. She was tired and out of breath, but there was something strong inside of her that kept driving her forward. “Jake gave you more than you ever deserved and kept you around when he could’ve killed you. Why was it not enough?”

“That’s just it,” Tyler cried. “He ‘kept me around.’ I was nothing to any of you, not even you. You never realized what I could be.”

Jessie shook her head. “You can’t be anything.”

“I did this!” Tyler was practically screaming in rage. “All this! I’m the reason you and your precious boyfriend are gonna die. The reason Jake is gonna get killed and his twink with him. Because of me!”

“Because you’re a coward!”

“I’m not a coward! I’m more than any of you. I’m getting revenge for everything you’ve ever done to me, for taking my life away from me.” He gave her a bloody grin.

“This is your fault.”

Jessie screamed and launched herself at him.

A flurry of strikes flew by, Jessie fighting purely on instinct like a berserker while Tyler desperately tried to find her off—not to win, just to keep her at bay. But it was pointless. Jessie was too strong, too skilled, and—most importantly—too driven. Tyler was the biggest mistake of her life, her biggest weakness, and she was going to put an end to all the pain and misery her mistake had caused.

A furious minute later, Tyler lay on the ground, gasping wetly through the blood running from his mouth and nose. He was half-curled into a ball trying to protect himself, and he looked up at Jessie, still managing to sneer at her.

“Go ahead and run. If they somehow manage to survive, Jake and Eddie won’t want you. You were always just the stupid girl getting in the way.”

She pulled out her gun, cocked it, and pointed it straight at his chest. Finally, panic filled his eyes.

“No, Jessie. You wouldn’t. Don’t, please, I didn’t mean to—”

“That’s right. Beg, bitch.” One gunshot later, he was dead.

She’d killed him. Tyler. He’d been the love of her life, once upon a time. Back when she was human. Back when she was a newborn vamp and stupid. Back when she’d thought he was her future, that he loved her and understood her. He’d been the one she’d laughed and cried with, the one she’d dreamed with.

But not anymore. He’d betrayed her, again and again.

And she’d found the true love of her life.

Eddie. Where was he?

She searched the park for him, and as soon as she saw him, a second shot rang out. Jessie spun around, watching in horror as Stella collapsed, blood pouring over her hands from a stomach wound. And then the vamp pointed his gun at Eddie.

“No!” She didn’t hesitate; she didn’t think. She just shot and the vamp dropped dead.

She ran to Stella’s side, but it was too late. Stella clutched her hand; she was covered in blood, coughing it up and choking on it. The light in her eyes was fading. She knew she was dying, and Jessie didn’t know what to do or say. And then her eyes went dull and her hand went limp.

“Stella,” Jessie whispered. She and Stella hadn’t been particularly close, not like Stella and Jake, but she had liked Stella. She’d been a good friend, loyal and trustworthy.

“Jessie.”

She turned around, looking up to see Eddie, battered and bleeding behind her. She got to her feet, looking around the park. Everyone was dead—everyone but her and Eddie. “We did it,” she whispered.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded, still slightly in shock. “Are you?”

In response, Eddie wrapped his arms around her, pressing their lips together, and she sighed as she melted into him.

 

*~*~*

 

Jake and Pittsburgh stood at arms-length in the predawn darkness, both heaving for breath and bleeding from various slices and stabs over their bodies. After all their fighting, none of their injuries were life threatening, and they had cast aside their knives for more permanent lifeending weapons—their guns, loaded with silver bullets. They were both aiming to kill, the only time when vamps dealt with silver. It was the ultimate symbol of distrust, to arm oneself with silver around another vamp.

“Now you’re gonna kill me?” Pittsburgh taunted.

“I have to.” It was that fucking simple. He had to. If he wanted to live himself, if he wanted to save Benji, if he wanted a chance to live, he had to end Pittsburg.

“After everything I did for you?”

“Yeah.” He shot Pittsburgh in the leg, the hand holding his gun trembling noticeably as Pittsburgh fell to his knees.

“You don’t have it in you, do you?” Pittsburgh smirked even as he gripped his leg.

He could run, Jake thought. He could take Benji, pick up Jessie and Eddie and Stella, and leave town. He could go to Detroit, what was left of it, or Chicago. He could go to Milwaukee or Minneapolis or any of a thousand cities where his talents could be put to good use.

But no. Pittsburgh could find him anywhere, and Middleton was his home. Middleton was where he belonged, and he had to set things right. He had to—and he wanted to.

He lashed out, kicking Pittsburgh in the face so that he fell back, barely breathing through his bloody nose and mouth, staring up at Jake. Jake wondered if in that moment he feared for his life, or if he just regretted turning Jake into a predator too.

Jake shot him in the head, the silver in his bullet making the wound fatal. Pittsburgh died instantly.

“It’s over,” he said, tossing his gun onto the ground beside Pittsburgh’s body, hardly able to believe it, that he’d truly killed Pittsburgh and put an end to the hell ruining his town.

He remembered Benji then, the reason he was there, and hurried over to him. The cuffs binding him were silver, but Jake didn’t care. With two deft snaps, he broke open the cuffs, dropping the hated silver to the ground as waves of nausea rolled over him and he nearly blacked out.

He held his hand out to Benji, and instead of insisting he could do it himself, Benji let Jake pull him to his feet.

“You came for me,” he whispered, staring up at Jake in awe.

Jake could only nod. “Always. I should never have left you in the first place.” He swallowed hard. How could Benji possibly forgive him? Benji hated vamps, hated them with every fiber of his being, and now he was one—because of Jake. He’d destroyed him. “Benji … I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not.” Benji looked up at him with eyes so pure and honest that for a moment Jake couldn’t breathe. “I love you.”

“Why?” Jake whispered, his voice hoarse.

Benji gave a small smile. “Because you’re the one. You’re all there is for me.”

Jake thought he was going to cry. Benji not only forgave him, but he loved him and wanted to be with him? It wasn’t possible. Benji should have loathed him, should have been furious, should have been desperate to escape him. There was no reason for Benji to want to be with him.

Except that he loved him. And when Jake thought about what Benji had said, he realized that it was the truth. No matter what happened, Benji was the only one for him.

“I love you too.”

Benji’s smile widened, and he threw his arms around Jake’s neck, kissing him single-mindedly as Jake held him tight.

As the sun began to rise in the sky and the town began to come to life again, a new day was starting, a day free of Pittsburgh’s selfish reign, a day where they were free. The people of the town didn’t know it yet, but Jake did and Benji did, and in that moment, that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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