Gavin spun his wedding band with his thumb and clasped Matthew’s hand. The Valentine’s Day crush at the restaurant had been worth the effort to bask in the wide smile Matthew beamed at him now.
The cold, February night air chilled his cheeks, but it would be only a short walk home. Plenty of people—couples—were out and about, so Gavin had no sense of foreboding before the strange, naked man appeared yards in front of them in a brilliant flash that split the night.
Matthew stumbled to a stop, and Gavin pulled him close. People who’d been behind them hastily detoured around them, giving a hard nudge with their shoulders. “Outa the way, dumbasses.”
Did they seriously not see the hairy, naked guy? Matthew clearly did. He stared like a deer caught in the…well…the glow of a shimmering…cupid?
“What the hell?” Gavin gasped as whatever-it-was pulled a bow and arrow from behind his back and pointed it straight at Matthew.
More walkers on the street jostled them into the entry alcove of the storefront they’d stopped in front of. There was nowhere to run to as the creature took aim. Gavin shoved Matthew behind him, and the bizarre cherub commanded in a booming voice, “Move!”
“No!” Gavin yelled. He stared at the shimmering being, but his peripheral vision caught the turning heads of passersby as they gave him a wide berth.
Matthew struggled, muttering, “You’re not made of armor.” Meaning, if the thing wanted to shoot Matthew, Gavin didn’t need to go down with him.
“No!” Gavin repeated, and the arrow loosed.
He felt nothing, but some corner of Gavin’s mind realized it had gone through him…and Matthew, pinning them to the building. His legs buckled, unfeeling, beneath him. The arrow had hit him dead center, severing his spine.
A gut-wrenching gurgling noise erupted behind him as Matthew’s upper body slumped forward.
* * * *
Bryan snorted a laugh and petted Felix, who lay curled beside Victor’s keyboard. “If you’re writing these wacky death scenes to get me to stop reading over your shoulder, you should know that they’re having the opposite effect.”
“I know.” Victor smirked and pushed back his chair. “Who knew you had such a sick sense of humor?” And it wasn’t as if Bryan didn’t know Victor would rewrite the scene to something more befitting the romance/mystery novel it was a part of. Victor glanced at his watch. “Time to leave?”
“Unless we want to lose our reservations.”
Victor stood and pulled on the heavy coat Bryan handed him. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Love.”
Matthew and Gavin pushed through the theater’s outer doors into the chilly night along with the rest of the holiday revelers. Matthew made a contented purring hum that typically earned him a quirk of a smile from his husband. A quick glance confirmed his success.
They’d come out to watch the cinema’s annual double feature of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. Gavin was a such a sweetheart indulging Matthew’s delight in those movies when he’d much rather watch Bad Santa. But, to be fair, Matthew never complained, either, when they went with Gavin’s preferences.
The air was brisk and fresh, but their steps were light and buoyant as if lifted by their good cheer. Beside Matthew, Gavin pulled in a deep lungful as he placed a hand lightly on Matthew’s back. Above them, 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. Gavin’s granny would have called it “Christmas snow,” large wet flakes drifting gently from the clouds high above. Often in the past, Matthew had seen Gavin turn his face to the sky and open his mouth to catch a flake or two on his tongue. That playfulness was of the many reasons he’d fallen for the man who otherwise seemed so solid and dependable.
Scattered flakes adorned Gavin’s short, wavy, black hair, hinting at the sexy silver fox he’d become some day in the happy future stretching out before them. No doubt snowflakes landed on his own chin-length, floppy brown hair and short, tidy beard. He wasn’t sure what the visual effect was, but Gavin had an approving glint in his eye as he took it in.
“Let’s walk home.” Matthew clasped Gavin’s hand and flashed his eyebrows.
“I don’t know.” Gavin’s hand was warm through their gloves as he gave Matthew’s hand a firm squeeze. “It’s pretty late.”
Which was true enough, but a growing number of people were hailing taxis, so most likely he and Gavin would be waiting a while if they held out for one. Besides… “It’ll be fine. I don’t want to risk a stinky cab messing up the beauty of this night.”
Gavin’s cheek twitched, and Matthew could practically see the wheel’s turning as the man’s military mind assessed the risk. “Okay.” Gavin lifted Matthew’s gloved hand to his lips for a brief kiss, and his eyes softened in the glow of the twinkling lights around the movie posters they passed. Romantic gestures like that always brought a smile to Matthew’s lips, a lesson Gavin had learned and exploited since their earliest days together.
The thud of their steady steps, sounding heavy with their solid thick-soled boots, blended with the general clamor of footsteps and cars buzzing by. A quick glance at Gavin confirmed that the man was on “high alert,” attentively listening to the noises around them as the surrounding traffic—both foot and vehicular—thinned.
Matthew shivered. Still, the cold was worth it to be able to enjoy a bracing walk with Gavin. They’d be home in their warm apartment soon enough, and he could turn on the gas fireplace to warm them. He smiled as he envisioned Gavin pulling him into his arms on the cozy sofa as they snuggled beneath the warm, homemade quilt that Gavin’s granny had given them as a wedding present.
Beside him, Gavin stiffened when a streetlamp ahead of them winked out. The alley behind it lay pitch black.
Predictably, Gavin slowed and peered over his shoulder to check traffic, then steered Matthew across the expanse of pavement. Matthew suppressed a smile. Surely Gavin understood the timing of the blown light was coincidental. Lights went out, and odds were someone would be around when it happened. Just because they were the people to see this one shine its last lumen didn’t mean there was anything nefarious looming in the alley waiting for them. They’d pass an alley on the other side of the street, too, but a functioning streetlamp cut through the darkness at that alley’s innocuous looking opening.
“You know—” Matthew’s tone was 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’s jaw tightened. He knew. But with his overprotective streak, he couldn’t help himself. “I know. Just humor me, darling.” Gavin’s favorite refrain was, “Better safe than sorry.” Matthew was surprised Gavin hadn’t tacked it onto his entreaty.
Matthew blinked when that second light went dark just as they passed under it, and the words Gavin had left unsaid reverberated through Matthew’s mind as he 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 Gavin hadn’t been paranoid enough passed through Matthew’s 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?
Beside him, Gavin gasped when the first light, now across the wide street, came back on, doing them only a little good at this distance. That was weird, but certainly—
Matthew’s thoughts—and breath—were cut off as an aberrantly strong hand wrapped around his neck and ripped him away from Gavin’s handhold and into the alley. Sharp fingernails dug into his neck, and he kicked and flailed, twisting as he tried to escape the iron grip. His eyes burned like they were bulging out of his head, yet he couldn’t see a thing in the pitch black surrounding them. A Dumpster echoed loudly when he managed to kick it.
His mind screamed Gavin! But whether it was for help or in warning, his oxygen deprived thoughts couldn’t decide. He was yanked away from the Dumpster, and fetid breath puffed along his neck. The body emitting that exhalation quivered much like that of a person silently laughing. But it was only when teeth—fangs!—scraped along his skin as if to taunt him, that his internal shriek was replaced by Run, Gavin, run!
His last coherent thought, as those dagger-sharp teeth bit down, was to hope that Gavin had gotten away, while at the same time knowing that Gavin would never abandon him, and was likewise doomed.
* * * *
“What on Earth?”
Victor jumped at Bryan’s words. He’d apparently been so absorbed in the gruesome scene he’d been writing that he hadn’t sensed Bryan reading over his shoulder. “Nothing.” Victor sat straighter as if that would nullify the guilty-as-hell tone oozing from that single word.
“You can’t do that!” Bryan continued to read over Victor’s 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 Victor with narrowed eyes. Much as he understood Victor’s annual struggle with the holiday blues, this was…wrong. “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 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’s mutter wasn’t particularly convincing. He’d been talking about ending the series, but there had to be a better way to handle that. Victor glanced at his watch and followed docilly as Bryan rushed to the living room.
“I wonder which ornament bit the dust this time?” Bryan faced Victor, and he couldn’t stop the reflective grin as he pictured how their new kitten had probably stalked and pounced on the shiny temptations hanging on the Christmas tree as if they’d been placed there solely for his pleasure.
Funny how the destruction of yet another ornament seemed to rate less concern than Victor killing off fictional characters, but that was just the surface of the issue. It was Victor’s blues that worried Bryan. Besides, he knew darned well that Victor would rewrite that damned scene.
Not that it really mattered. Although they were still breakable, they’d put only cheap baubles on the tree this year along with some more meaningful, but more durable ornaments. They’d had enough sense to do the math—one new kitten plus one unforgiving floor equaled two men with enough sense to hold back the treasured fragile ornaments.
Bryan stooped to pick up the broken pieces of a basic metallic ball. “You know those interlocking foam floor tiles they make for kids’ rooms? We should get some to put under the tree. Nothing has a chance when it hits this granite flooring.”
“Good idea.” Victor gently pried Felix from where he’d hunkered down about two-thirds up the tree. When Victor turned back to him, Bryan turned on his best puppy dog eyes, and Victor, who truly was soft-hearted—all current protestations by Gavin and Matthew notwithstanding—quirked his mouth into a reassuring smile. “I’m not really planning to kill them off like that.”
“Just venting?” Bryan raised an eyebrow.
Victor nodded. He gave the kitten a scratch behind the ears and let him down.
“I hope you don’t continue a series just because you know I love it. You write in your free time because you enjoy that creative outlet, and if you aren’t having fun with it, it’s time to stop.”
“I still love writing.” Victor shrugged. “I’m on the fence whether or not to end the Gavin and Matthew series, but not writing overall. I just…I don’t know.”
“Yeah, I get it.” Bryan had been with Victor when the trigger had been pulled, unleashing his annual holiday season blues. This year, with a little help from his sister, Amelia, Bryan hoped to banish those blues once and for all.
Victor wobbled his head as if trying to literally shake off his mood, and pasted a smile on his face. “How about dinner out tonight?”
“You’re a mind reader. That’s why I went into the office…to suggest that.”
“Chinese?” There was a place they liked just five blocks away.
Bryan grinned and grabbed their coats. He pointed an index finger at Felix. “We’ll be gone only a couple hours. Behave yourself.” Not that he expected that caution to do any good. But it hadn’t really been for Felix’s benefit. A corner of Victor’s mouth quirked up, so yeah, the warning’s true purpose had been successful even though there would likely be another ornament down when they returned.
Out on the street, it was darker than expected. Clouds covered the full moon. Victor shivered and pulled up his collar against the chill.
Bryan nudged him. “Figure there are vampires lying in wait for us in one of the alleys?”
Victor snorted a laugh. “Doubtful.”
There were lots of not-quite-but-almost-last-minute shoppers milling about, laughing and chattering as they left one store and entered another. Jingle bells tinkled as each door opened to let people in or out.
Once upon a time, that used to bring an easy smile to Victor’s face. Now that smile always appeared more forced. Each December as the city came to life with holiday decorations and good cheer, Victor slid deeper into the gloomy shadows.
Why, oh, why couldn’t Bryan have foreseen how Victor’s family’s rejection when he’d come out to them that Christmas would infect the holiday season for years to come? From things Victor had said about his family, Bryan hadn’t been surprised by the rejection despite Victor’s high hopes that their response might be tempered by holiday spirit.
Victor sighed and took Bryan’s hand. Much as Victor was obviously wounded by the rejection, Bryan knew he’d never regretted the decision to come out and to commit to Bryan. He only regretted the timing. Bryan gave Victor’s hand a squeeze and softly hummed along with Mariah Carey as “All I Want for Christmas Is You” drifted out from one of the shops. Although Bryan would add that he wanted Victor’s happiness as well as the man himself.
Bryan added a jaunty little swing to their handhold, swaying their joined arms back and forth to the beat of the music. Until it stopped short—not the music, but the arm-rocking—when the streetlamp ahead of them winked out.
“O-kay.” Victor’s eyes widened as he steered them into a lighted doorway.
Bryan tittered a nervous laugh. “It’s just a weird coincidence.” He managed to cut off the, “right?” he wanted to tack on to the end of that comment.
“Yeah. Still freaking me out.” Even Victor’s voice shook. He darted a glance toward the darkened expanse ahead of them.
Bryan puffed out an uneasy breath. “Okay, generally speaking, crossing the street would be the smart move, especially since we eventually need to cross it to get to the restaurant anyway.”
“Right. This is stupid.” Victor glanced around the doorway in which they huddled and rolled his eyes. “Come on.”
Bryan winced at the tight grip Victor’d applied to their handhold, and they stepped onto the sidewalk.
Victor swiveled his head, checking traffic. “We’re going to have to backtrack a bit to cross at an intersection. Traffic’s too heavy for jaywalking.”
It took them only a couple minutes to get back to the same point, but across the street. Bryan wasn’t truly worried about crossing by the well-lit alley, so he kept an eye on Victor rather than the upcoming intersection. Victor kept peering up at the lamp over the alley. It remained steadily on, of course, illuminating the street, sidewalk, and into the passageway between the two buildings where it stood.
Bryan let Victor control their pace, which he slowed, clearly to time their crossing at the same time as another group coming toward them. Bryan did his best to suppress the bubbling laughter that threatened to escape as Victor steered them to the outer edge of the sidewalk, as far from the alleyway as they could get without stepping into the street, then sped up to pass the opening quickly as possible without looking too obviously paranoid. This was just so absurd. What was Victor thinking? No way he truly believed they were in any particular danger.
People on the opposite side of the street also continued through the dimmer section without incident. Because of course they did.
Bryan pressed his elbow into Victor’s side and grinned. “That’ll teach you to write such a horrific ending to beloved characters.”