Chapter 1: To Walk or Not To Walk?
Gavin and Matthew pushed through the theater’s outer doors into the chilly night along with the rest of the holiday revelers. Matthew made that purring hum that landed somewhere between a sigh and a soft laugh on the scale of sounds Gavin used to read his husband’s moods. That particular noise meant Matthew was contented.
They’d come out to watch the cinema’s annual double feature of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. Personally, Gavin would rather have watched Bad Santa, but the sappy movies were well worth sitting through, because Matthew was so easygoing and never complained when they went with Gavin’s preferences. Besides, a contented Matthew invariably morphed into a cuddly Matthew. And that was never a bad thing.
Gavin stepped nimbly, warmed despite the brisk, fresh air. He pulled in a deep lungful. The mostly full moon lay hidden behind a sky full of clouds. None but the brightest stars would have been discernable anyway due to the ambient big-city lights.
A light snow was falling. Granny would have called it “Christmas snow,” large, wet flakes drifting gently from the clouds high above. The kind that made one want to turn their face to the sky and open their mouth to catch a flake or two on their tongue. “Snowman snow,” if enough of the stuff fell to the ground. Scattered flakes adorned Matthew’s chin-length, floppy brown hair and short, tidy beard like he’d had glitter tossed on him.
No doubt snowflakes landed on his own head, but Gavin figured they probably looked more like dandruff on his short, wavy, black hair.
“Let’s walk home.” Matthew clasped Gavin’s hand and flashed his eyebrows.
“I don’t know.” Gavin gave that hand—warm even through their gloves—a firm squeeze. “It’s pretty late.” Although, a growing number of people were hailing taxis, so most likely he and Matthew would be waiting a while if they held out for one.
“It’ll be fine.” The light from the streetlamp reflected off Matthew’s dark chocolate-brown eyes, making them shine, and Gavin’s heart melt. “I don’t want to risk a stinky cab messing up the beauty of this night.”
Getting mugged on the walk home would screw it up even more, but Gavin glanced down the street. With plenty of people still out and about, that outcome was unlikely, and he kept that pessimistic thought to himself. He needed to stop letting his military background affect everyday decisions here in the real world.
“Okay.” Gavin lifted Matthew’s gloved hand to his lips for a brief kiss. Matthew’s eyes glimmered merrily from the twinkling lights around the movie posters they passed. Romantic gestures like that always brought a smile to Matthews’s lips, and Gavin loved nothing better than to make the love of his life smile.
The thud of their steady steps, sounding heavy with their solid thick-soled boots, blended with the general background clamor of footsteps and cars buzzing by. None stood out until they’d traveled several blocks, and the traffic—both foot and vehicular—thinned.
Even then, none of the noises stood out as exceptional or disquieting in any way, only now Gavin could distinguish the individual sounds. He listened out of habit rather than because he felt any undue concern.
Matthew’s movements remained buoyant even with the solidity of his strides. A pair of footsteps behind them took a right turn, and others replaced them, merging from a side street to join the handful of others still there.
Halfway home, foot traffic dropped to a trickle, and a streetlamp ahead of them winked out. The alley behind it lay pitch black.
Likely, the timing was coincidental. Lights went out, and odds were someone would be around to see it when it happened. Just because Gavin and Matthew were the people to see this one shine its last lumen didn’t mean there was anything nefarious about the timing.
Nonetheless, no sense in inviting trouble when there were easy options to avoid it. Gavin slowed and checked over his shoulder to make sure the street was clear, then steered Matthew across the expanse of pavement. They would pass an alley on that side, too, but the streetlamp at its end shone brightly, and nothing—or rather nobody—was visible from their vantage point.
“You know”—Matthew sounded droll—“if somebody with the ability to turn off a single streetlamp at will is after us, they’re going to get us eventually anyway.”
Gavin wasn’t that paranoid. Nobody was after them in particular. Why would they be? Well, gay-bashers might single them out, but not to the point of planning ahead and lying in wait. It was possible someone with that kind of technology might target random passersby, though. Most likely it was a legit blown light, but even then, someone who happened to be lurking in the alley might take advantage of it.
“I know. Just humor me, darling.”
Better safe than sorry, that was Gavin’s motto. But when that second light went dark just as they passed under it, Gavin realized it was possible to be both—doing the seemingly safe thing, but still ending up sorry.
In the fraction of a second that he had to consider their situation, the thought that he hadn’t been paranoid enough passed through his mind. But surely the idea that someone could and would turn off one streetlamp to lure them across the street before turning off the second flirted with the edges of extreme conspiracy theories. Didn’t it?
Gavin gasped when the first light, now across the wide street, came back on, doing them only a little good at this distance. But further noise caught in his throat as Matthew was ripped away from him. Or rather, Gavin’s scream choked at his larynx, because a hand, far stronger than it should be, wrapped around his neck, squeezing relentlessly.
Someone yanked him effortlessly into the inky blackness of the alley. Something clattered against a Dumpster—sounds consistent with a man kicking, struggling for his life—much like Gavin was thrashing his legs, only without finding any purchase.
No vocalizations came from any of the alley’s occupants. Matthew was probably being held the same way as Gavin.
Gavin’s eyes widened as he struggled to see something, anything, that could be used to help. His arms flailed, hitting nothing. He had to get free…had to help Matthew. He couldn’t let his husband die like this, terrified and alone.
Matthew must have been hauled away from that Dumpster. The clanging stopped, replaced by erratic thumps of his boots on the hard surface pavement. Until it stopped, the same instant a viscous liquid, unnaturally warm in the cold winter air, spurted across Gavin’s face.
“Nooooo!” Gavin’s mind screamed the word unable to escape him, no matter how much he wanted to drown out the slurping sounds coming from that same direction.
He kicked out helplessly as a mouth with dagger-sharp and astonishingly long teeth opened in front of him. The faint glow of the distant streetlight reflected off those brilliantly white fangs…and the very human-looking eyes above them.
All Gavin could think was that Matthew was gone. He’d failed his love, the man who made life worth living. He’d fallen into the trap that these—vampires?—had set, and Matthew was dead, or about to be, because Gavin could do absolutely nothing to prevent it.
A chill that went far beyond the December night air penetrated to his bones. No tears ran down his cheeks. He was too dead inside to feel anymore. He didn’t flatter himself with the thought they’d been specifically targeted. No. They’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Gavin went limp as the fangs descended toward his neck. He didn’t even care.
* * * *
“What on Earth?”
Victor jumped at the unexpected words, not to mention the shocked tone embedded in them. He hadn’t heard Bryan approach. “Nothing.” Victor sat straighter and managed to say the single word without adding a questioning inflection, but it still sounded guilty. As hell.
“You can’t do that!” Bryan continued to read over his shoulder. “Can you? Seriously, you’re not going to kill off Gavin and Matthew, are you? I mean, that’s your most popular series.”
Victor sighed and shrugged but didn’t give a verbal reply.
Bryan squatted, then peered up at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s a romance, for goodness’ sake. Can you really just throw in a vampire death scene five books into a contemporary romance series? You’re not going to turn them into killer vampires, are you?”
A clatter of falling—something—came from the living room.
Bryan’s head turned toward the sound. “Shit,” he muttered, then glanced at Victor and groaned as he stood. “Felix must be climbing the tree again. Hold that thought. I mean, they’re your characters, you can do what you want, or what your publisher will let you do, I guess, but do you really want to do this to your readers? Even if you want to end the series, is this the best way to do it?”
“Probably not,” Victor muttered. Although thoroughly sick of writing the pair of characters, he recognized that he’d been only letting off steam as his fingers had flown across the keyboard typing. He glanced at his watch and followed meekly as Bryan rushed to the living room.
“I wonder which ornament bit the dust this time?” Bryan faced Victor. The concern lines on his forehead smoothed, and one side of his mouth twitched. Funny that the destruction of an ornament rated less concern than Victor killing off fictional characters.
Copyright 2018 Addison Albright