Lee Colgin © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Admiring the quaint architecture along each side of the narrow street, Rudy strolled through the small town he would call home. He’d chosen Stonesburg to be near his friends from university, but he couldn’t fathom why they’d picked it. The old mill town rose and fell with the textile industry. When the mills closed, humans abandoned the place and supernaturals moved in. The rolling hills of a nearby mountain range held some appeal, but Rudy found the nightlife lacking.
He wandered downtown in search of the Eternal Knight Club, where he’d meet the other coyote shifters for drinks. Crisp night air chilled his nose and flushed his cheeks. Spying two ornately carved doors that stood out from the other entryways with their whimsy, Rudy found the place. He pulled open the massive mahogany door and stepped into a spacious, dimly lit interior hazy with cigar smoke. Spotting his rowdy group holding down a corner booth, he headed their way until a fleeting glance toward the bar revealed a sight that stopped Rudy in his tracks.
Who is that?
An exquisite being perched elegantly on a stool, smoking a pipe, his attention on the bartender. Rudy couldn’t help but gawk. Black shining hair, dark as charcoal, fell in waves past his shoulders. He leaned toward his companion with his spine straight, shoulders squared, and one leg crossed neatly over the other. As if he knew someone stared at him, his brown eyes flashed upward and homed in on Rudy. The stranger’s face went from neutral to annoyed in a flash. Rudy knew he should look away, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the vision before him.
And the vision before him was clearly irritated.
Unable to resist, Rudy drew close.
The man’s glare darkened.
Rudy turned his hands out, palms up in an “I mean no harm” gesture. He glanced at the fellow in the next seat and to the bartender, who both watched his approach, then focused his gaze back to the pretty… Hmm, what was he? Vampire? He had that otherworldly stillness older vampires possessed.
Desperate to make a good impression, Rudy meant to say something clever, but words tumbled out before his brain caught up. “Who are you?”
The man glanced over his shoulder to the bartender. “Mabel, is he talking to me?”
“I’m afraid so,” she replied.
“Can’t you make him leave?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Be nice.”
With an exasperated sigh, the man turned back to Rudy, lips pressed in a hard line, one ebony eyebrow raised. “Well? Let’s have it. What do you want?”
Rudy found him more striking up close, his dark features a beautiful contrast against skin so pale he nearly glowed. “You’re the most handsome person I’ve ever seen.” That was true enough, but it wasn’t only his looks drawing Rudy in. There was something else tugging on his insides, fueling his need to be close to this stranger.
The man rolled his eyes. “You must get out more. Or on second thought, don’t.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” Rudy asked, hopeful.
The gorgeous creature opened his mouth and drew back his upper lip, revealing fangs. He all but hissed, threatening. The sight only enthralled Rudy further. Definitely a vampire.
“No drink, then. How about a smoke?” Rudy offered instead.
The man narrowed his gaze and lifted the cigar he already had. If you could say “duh” with a facial expression, he’d done it.
“Right. Dance with me?” Rudy extended a hand in one last bid to keep his attention.
“I think not.” The vampire turned back to the man sitting next to him, who radiated amusement with the whole situation.
Realization dawned, and an unwelcome tension invaded Rudy’s chest. Perhaps this vampire was here with the other man. “Oh, I’m sorry! You’re here together?” His hands fluttered between them. “I didn’t mean to… Well, I’m sorry.”
The other man grinned. “No, no, he’s all yours.” Laughter filled his voice. “Single and ready to mingle. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”
The raven-haired vampire stared daggers at his friend. “Benjamin, really?” he chided before shifting his attention back to Rudy. “Listen, pup, since you don’t seem to pick up on much, I’ll speak plainly. I’m not interested. Fuck off.”
Rudy’s face fell. “You don’t have to be mean.” He couldn’t hide his disappointment. The desire to be near this vampire didn’t diminish even after the rejection. “If you change your mind, I’ll be over there.” Rudy motioned to the table of coyote shifters in the corner. “I’d love to dance with you.”
The vampire’s exasperated expression burned into Rudy’s memory with an unpleasant flush of heat. Discouraged, he slunk to his friends, all of whom had watched the exchange and were in various states of laughter and confusion.
“Did you seriously hit on that vampire, Rudy?” asked Emerson. “What were you thinking? You’re lucky he didn’t squash you like a bug, because it looked like he wanted to.”
“Slide over, Em.” Rudy nudged his way into the booth. “He’s cute is all.” He shrugged, downplaying the inexplicable attraction, meanwhile glancing over his shoulder to make sure the vampire hadn’t left.
“You’re crazy,” said Morris from across the table. “That’s a good way to get yourself killed. You go pissing off vampires for fun nowadays?”
Carlotta elbowed her boyfriend and gave Rudy a sympathetic smile. “He seemed kind of rude.”
“Rude?” Morris scoffed. “Murderous would be more accurate.”
“Can we drop it?” Rudy squirmed in his seat. “It didn’t work anyway.”
“What didn’t work? What were you hoping to achieve?” Emerson asked.
Rudy’s shoulders lifted. “Wanted to dance is all. He said no. End of story.”
Mabel came to collect drink orders with humor twinkling in her eyes. “Sorry, champ. You picked an impossible target. What can I get for you folks?”
His friends requested refills, and Rudy asked for a beer and hoped the conversation would veer to something less embarrassing. It did, thanks to Carlotta, who mercifully changed the subject.
“How do you like Stonesburg?”
“It’s great!” he lied with enthusiasm. The town wasn’t all that impressive, but he’d needed a change, and Stonesburg was as good a place as any. “I mean, there’s you guys and the mountains, so I’m sure I’ll love it soon enough.”
“Wait until you get settled,” Morris encouraged. “We’ll shift and take you for a run in the forest.”
“Sounds great.” Rudy grinned. “It’s past time I stretch my legs.”
Mabel set an ice-cold beer in front of him and placed the other drinks around the table. They thanked her, and Rudy took a big gulp. Delicious. His eyes drifted back to the grumpy vampire at the bar.
Mabel noticed and laughed under her breath. “Wasting your time on that one, babyface. He doesn’t date, not in the time I’ve known him,” she said, not unkindly, but Rudy didn’t care for her message nonetheless.
She shrugged. “Don’t know. And I wouldn’t ask if I were you. You don’t want to get on his bad side. He’s dangerous.”
Rudy tucked into his beer as she left, letting the conversation happen around him. It was nice being with friends again. He’d been sad and lonely at home with his family.
Risking another glance to the bar, he caught the vampire staring back at him.
Mabel didn’t have to tell him his admirer still watched, though she did. She and Ben found the situation entertaining, to his growing displeasure. Samuel felt the shifter’s eyes on him. The intensity of the stare prickled the hairs on the back of his neck. Curiosity won despite his reluctance, and he risked a glance to the pup’s table.
Their eyes locked, and the shifter grinned like an idiot.
Handsome enough, maybe, but dismally pathetic.
The were-creature was a mongrel of some kind, not a wolf—he’d recognize that scent—something less common in the canine family. Sandy-brown hair, almost blond, and striking blue eyes focused intently on Samuel despite his own death glare. Even though the pup had a muscled build with sturdy broad shoulders, he still managed to look like an overgrown boy. His enthusiasm only enforced the image. He was taller than Samuel, but everyone was taller than Samuel. Attractive, in an athletic sort of way, but clearly eager to die young if he insisted on this pursuit.
“You’re encouraging him,” his friend, Doctor Benjamin Arleth, remarked bravely. “You’re either into him or you’re leading him on. Which is it?”
“Neither,” Samuel informed him. “The creature is…interesting, I’ll grant it, but I am not interested. I assure you.”
“Why not? He’s cute enough and clearly hot for you.” Ben leaned in. “You were always telling me I needed to meet someone before I found Nathan. What about you?”
Samuel scoffed. “That’s different, and this one’s a puppy. I’d ruin him. I leave the tail-chasing to you.”
Benjamin had fallen in love and settled down with a werewolf recently—an unlikely pair, but a good match. It pleased Samuel to see his friend happy, but it changed nothing of his own situation. He’d long ago given up romantic entanglements.
Before the night was over, the pup tried again. Of course he did. Samuel could feel him approaching. If he had hackles, they’d be raised. Samuel’s attempt to ignore him was thwarted when the young shifter had the audacity to touch his shoulder.
Very slowly, Samuel turned. “I recommend you take your hand off me if you intend to keep it.”
The hand fell away, but the persistent smile didn’t fade. “I can’t leave without giving you this.” He held out a bit of paper, his phone number scrawled across it. “I want to see you again.”
“That desire is not mutual,” Samuel growled, refusing the note.
Hand still extended, the pup resorted to begging. “Give me a chance?” He didn’t give up easily, leaning across Samuel, into his space, to set the note on the bar.
With mere inches between them, Samuel couldn’t help but notice his lovely scent, like the outdoors itself, pine trees and earth. He stole a deep whiff before irritation overcame him. Annoyed by the invasion of his space and by his own observation of the pup’s stupid smell, Samuel bared his fangs and hissed.
The pup didn’t flinch. Instead, he tilted his head, offering his neck in lieu of retreating.
Instinct, or a death wish? Samuel didn’t care. In an instant, and without thinking, he grabbed the pup by the hip and drew him in with a harsh tug. Delightfully pliant except for an arm clinging to Samuel’s back, the pup whimpered in his grasp.
Samuel’s own reaction was puzzling. He didn’t strike, though he wanted to. It would be nothing to rip this creature’s throat out with his teeth. He took a deep breath in, inhaling the captivating aroma even as he loathed the pup for ruining his night.
Mabel and Ben gaped at them.
The pup was scenting him too, his lids drooping as his nostrils flared, body lax in Samuel’s grip.
This had to stop.
At the same moment, Samuel spat an angry “Get out!” the mongrel whispered, “Mate.”
Samuel shoved him away so hard he stumbled. “I said get out!”
The scruffy pup looked ridiculous, standing there all docile and confused by the exchange. Of course they weren’t mates; that was absurd. Fated mates were rare and never interspecies. The pup was an idiot.
A cute idiot.
Samuel grew more furious by the minute. “What are you anyway?”
“What do you think?” The mutt cocked his head to the side, grinning, probably pleased with himself for piquing Samuel’s curiosity.
Samuel frowned. “I don’t know, or I wouldn’t have asked. And I won’t guess. What are you?”
“I’m Rudy.” The pup ignored the real question and posed his own. “Who are you?”
Samuel was still not inclined to answer. Rudy had to be some form of canine. His friends smelled like a pack of dogs. But Rudy’s own scent was not unpleasant; it was irritatingly pleasing. Samuel scrunched his nose in protest.
Rudy continued to smile.
Oh no, this would not do. Samuel climbed down from his barstool, took the pup by the ear, and dragged him bodily toward the exit. One of the larger shifters growled at him, and Samuel growled back. They were no match for him.
“Who am I?” Samuel spat out. “I’m not your mate, but I could be your executioner, that’s who. Now get out.” Samuel let the pup go and pushed him toward the door. He turned on his heel and strode back to his place at the bar. He didn’t have to look to know Rudy watched.
Mabel gave him a cross expression. Samuel supposed she’d rather he not escort a paying customer from her establishment. Oh well, it couldn’t be helped. He’d owe her.
Rudy’s friends shuffled him out while Samuel ignored Ben’s glare of disapproval.
At least the night wasn’t boring.
Eleven years old
Accustomed to playing by himself, Samuel had no brothers or sisters, no father that he knew of, and his mother cared none. Other children picked on him. Making friends didn’t come easy, so he’d created his own games. Games he could play alone in the woods, pretending to conquer the werewolves, beating them into submission until they did his bidding. His imaginary slaves became his companions, building forts fit for a king and serving him trays of his favorite cakes and candies. Samuel had a vivid imagination and a cast of subservients to play the stories through. He had lots of time to read and would write his own books in his mind since his mother wouldn’t provide paper or pencil.
Tonight he didn’t feel much like playing. He was getting too old for children’s games. As he stood alone in the kitchen of the small house he shared with his mother, who couldn’t be bothered to prepare a meal for him, Samuel’s tummy rumbled. He scanned the bare counters, dragged a chair from the table, and climbed up to peer into the mostly empty cabinets. There was never any food.
His mother didn’t need food, couldn’t eat it if she wanted to. She was a Turned vampire and existed on blood. At only eleven years old and a Living vampire still, Samuel needed to eat. With a sigh, he headed for her room, knowing she’d be angry. His presence always made her angry, and he’d never understood why. It used to make him sad, but only numbness remained.
Samuel knocked softly and stepped inside without waiting for her reply. “Mother?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“What?” She didn’t bother to look up from her nest in the bed. At least she’d been awake, her stringy, brown hair clumped unevenly and stuck to the side of her face. He knew she’d fed recently, knew she’d have shot them up with opiates first, so she could get high when she drank.
She let out an exasperated sigh and got up, pushed past him, and began opening and shutting kitchen cabinets. To Samuel’s horror, she grabbed an old loaf of bread he’d thrown in the trash due to mold, pulled it out, and cut the nasty green fuzzy spots off with a knife. She then handed him the remaining chunk. “Here.”
Samuel took it, disappointed and more than a little mad. Was it too much to ask to be fed regularly? He didn’t want the stale, rotten bread. In an uncharacteristic fit of rebellion, he threw it back into the trash and glared.
“Fine, starve. I ain’t going to the market today.” She made to leave.
Before he could think better of it, Samuel screamed, “Why! Why do you hate me so?”
She whirled around, furious. “Do you really want to know?”
All he could do was nod, stunned that she’d offer a reply.
“This is all your fault.” She gestured wildly to the untidy house, the empty kitchen, the world in general. “I never wanted you! I don’t want you now. They made me keep you!”
As much as it stung to hear, Samuel already knew he wasn’t wanted, and it didn’t answer his question. “Who is ‘they’? Why could they make you do anything? Why have a child you didn’t want?”
The nasty expression on her face frightened Samuel, but it was too late to take it back, and he had to know. He’d never understood. Other mothers loved their children. Samuel’s barely tolerated him.
“The elders, the council, that bunch of snot rags, that’s who.”
“But why?” He was pushing it. But she was doling out answers now, piece by piece. That had never happened before, so he’d press his luck.
“I was caught with poppy, so they didn’t care about me. When I was raped, they didn’t care. When I turned up pregnant afterward, they didn’t care. They blamed me, wouldn’t help, made me have you then made me keep you. Said it would be good for me, to straighten me up. What do you think, Samuel, have you been good for me?” She laughed, turned her head, looked away. She could never hold Samuel’s gaze.
Samuel knew he wasn’t good for her. Some part of him knew that wasn’t supposed to be his job. He sorted through the information, picking out the most relevant bit. His father, who he’d never met, had raped her. His mother, who’d never loved him, had been forced to carry him. But what had Samuel done to deserve such a fate?
And he could do nothing to escape it.
“Stop staring at me,” she fumed. “You asked. I answered. Now get out. I don’t want to look at you.”
Samuel didn’t need to be told twice. He left the house for the forest where he spent so many hours alone with his mind or a book. If he could only be alone with some food. Samuel had many memories of being hungry. He was malnourished and, because of that, too small for his age. Hot tears collected in his eyes, and he blinked them back. Fuck all that rot. He hadn’t asked for a mother and he didn’t want her either, so that was that. They could hate each other.
He preferred hatred to despair.
Samuel curled up in a pile of leaves, his belly rumbling, and plotted his escape from this hellhole until sleep finally claimed him.