The Master Gene

CHAPTER ONE

Dante

Three…

Two…

One…

A terrified scream split the air, causing the small hairs to stand on end all over my fucking body. It made me shiver in a way that I reveled in but also despised. That sensation could get me killed, because getting distracted on the job was a death sentence.

I ground my teeth together, drew in a deep breath through my nose, and jumped. The roof was only three stories high. Too high for a human to jump from without breaking at least their ankles. I’m not human even though I look like one. I’m a warden, so I only made a soft thump. My soft rubber soles, great for gripping slippery roof tiles and corrugated sheets of metal, cushioned my fall as I instinctively bent my knees into a deep squat, steadying myself with one hand on the pavement, right behind the woman who, irritatingly, was still shrieking her full head off.

Pushing up, I wrapped my hand around her face to muffle the sound and growled next to her ear, “Shut up.” She went rock still, and I relaxed my hand slightly. “I am Warden Dante Giordano, Senior Vanguard. When I let you go, run. Don’t look back. Head across the street.”

Her jerky nod barely moved my hand, but I released her, wrinkling my nose with distaste as soft strands of her fine hair threaded through the whiskers on my unshaven chin and jaw as she bolted across the silent street.

It was almost three in the morning on a Sunday, and the silence almost felt oppressive. At least yesterday there were a few drunks around to make some comfortable racket. There should have been more tonight, since it was still the weekend, but I couldn’t care. Just wished there was more noise, more commotion to keep me hidden from the vampire’s superior hearing, not that he really seemed to care, since he didn’t even look up when the woman started bellowing.

Sighing, I glanced back to the shadows, to the tableau that had caused the woman to shriek like someone had killed her favorite pet. That was my real problem.

Guess I was too late, I mused as I watched the vampire—too far gone in the bloodlust to even care about a Warden’s sudden appearance—drain the last dregs of life from the dead-eyed male clutched obscenely to his chest. Since he’d already killed the guy, I stood aside to let the shit finish his meal. I wasn’t stupid or bored enough to waste my own precious blood in a pointless fight, not when the beast was still ravenous.

I waited. The sounds of sucking and gulping slowed and finally stopped. Twitching the sleeve of my coat, I was rewarded with the stake I kept hidden along the underside of my upper arm sliding down into my fist.

“Hey.”

The vampire froze at the sound of my quiet voice, his wide eyes turned toward me. He stood, and every bit of sudden coiled tension that hadn’t been there before exploded through my muscles. I crossed the distance almost as fast as a vampire could, slamming the hawthorn stake home into the blood sucker’s chest. His heart stuttered and stopped, no longer sending panic-throb pulses along the wood and into my hand. Then his knees buckled, and he crumpled to the sidewalk in a boneless heap, subdued and inert, only capable of soft speech and maybe a few twitches of his fingers.

Perfect.

The whisper of steel against leather sounded obscenely loud as I unsheathed my sword. The metal rang clear and bright. It echoed off the buildings that lined either side of the street as I dropped the tip to the pavement, the laser sharpened edge resting over my captive’s throat. Seeing the line of blood form under the cutting edge made me smile. Information first, then cut off the idiot’s head to rid the world of yet another corrupt vampire. My job did have its occasional moments of joy.

But then the stupid shit started to cry, looking up at me with a doleful expression through the emerald bubbles of his unshed tears before they started leaking down his pale face.

What?

Soft sobs accompanied a torrent of tears that leaked into the vampire’s grimy, matted hair and ears, and all I could do was stare. Rogue vampires didn’t cry. They hissed and fought and cursed you before you decapitated them. They didn’t weep like children.

Children.

Fuck.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” came his miserable whimper.

“No.” My irritation grew and I let out a deep sigh to calm myself. “How long have you been a vampire?”

Honest confusion clouded his eyes as his lower lip wobbled. “I don’t know.”

“Days? Weeks? Months? Years?”

A small shiver wound its way through him. “Weeks, I think…”

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Where is your Master?”

More tears, fatter than the ones before, welled in his eyes, and he looked up at me with the most earnest expression I had ever seen on a blood sucker. “Killed.”

“By who?”

“I—I don’t know…”

“Why?”

“I don’t know!”

Sighing, I lifted and sheathed my sword. I couldn’t kill a newborn, no matter how much I wanted to. Especially not one without a Master. The Vampire Council would have a shit-fit. And, I admitted to myself, it’s kind of morally reprehensible, and not even I’m that bad. …Often.

“When did they kill your Master?”

The blood sucker sucked in as deep a breath as the stake in his chest would allow and sniffled. “I… don’t know. What day is it?”

“Christ. Really?” Another sigh left me. “It’s Sunday, June tenth.”

The vampire’s lower lip did that wobbly shit again. “Seven… maybe eight days ago, I think. It’s hard to remember.”

“It’s hard to remember because you’re a newborn without a fucking Master, and have been on a fucking blood frenzy, killing shitheads on the street and evading every goddamned Warden who’s been trying to track your ass down for the last two weeks.”

Give me a break. So I wasn’t in the best of moods. Seeing a vampire crying and snotting everywhere was weird, okay? And I wasn’t prepared for a babysitting job.

“I… I didn’t mean to…” The kid whimpered, and I nearly lost my entire shit.

“Fuck, don’t start crying again. Jesus.” I took a deep breath to calm myself. My bad mood was his fault, but I shouldn’t have been taking it out on him, because it really wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t like he’d committed an actual crime. Newborn vampires without a Master weren’t capable of thinking much past their base instincts—hunt, feed, shelter, repeat. It was their Master’s job to keep their bloodlust under control and help them retain their humanity until the vampire matured enough to be able to do it themselves. A “few weeks” wasn’t anywhere near enough time. It took more like a few decades.

The worst part was, there wasn’t a Vampire Council headquarters in this city. It was located about four-hundred and fifty miles away, because, of course, they only housed their headquarters in major cities. Not in mid-grade cities like Winter’s Cross. There were five in the United States: New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston. Winter’s Cross, of course, was in northern Nevada.

Basically, I had nowhere to take this little shit unless I wanted to take him home.

I really didn’t want to take him home.

I also didn’t trust him with any other Wardens, because I was one of the nicer ones. I at least asked questions before I beheaded the shits. This meant I had a cleaner record, and was how I managed to snag a Senior Vanguard position within the official order.

Blowing a breath through my nose, I gripped the stake in the guy’s chest and winced. “This is gonna hurt.”

“What?”

I yanked it out, and the poor fuck screamed so loud my eardrums nearly exploded. With the stake out, he could finally move and curled into a tight ball of misery at my feet.

A tight ball that I had to somehow untangle so I could get at the wound. If I didn’t heal it, he’d go into another blood frenzy within fifteen or so minutes, and I’d have to stake his ass again. Vicious cycles weren’t my thing, so I jerked on his leg.

“Lay flat, idiot.”

“Why?” he asked miserably.

“Because I need to fix the hole in your chest.”

“But you put it there!”

“Because you were in blood frenzy.”

“But—”

“Just lay flat, kid. Jesus, you’re giving me a migraine.”

His body stayed rigid, but he managed to lay flat again, wincing and moaning from pain, but at least he did as I asked. Okay, demanded, but whatever.

Let me set something straight: Wardens didn’t feed vampires. There are a ton of reasons. We just don’t. But, I wasn’t one to always play by the rules, so I slit my palm open and let the blood run into the gaping hole in his chest, watching as his muscle and skin soaked it up like a desperate sponge and started knitting back together without even a scar to prove I’d nailed him.

Then, while he was still docile, I shoved my still-bleeding hand against his mouth, muffling his squeak of surprise. “Drink.”

“But—” he mumbled against my palm, “But…”

“Don’t question free blood. Just don’t bite me, got it?”

I got a muffled “M’kay” in response before the kid started nursing at my wound.

It didn’t feel awful. But, it didn’t feel good, either. Having a vampire suck on a wound was a weird mix of orgasmic and agonizing. Their saliva was made to both keep the wound open and bleeding, and make the poor fuck they bit feel insanely good so they wouldn’t scream and fight. Basically, their saliva was designed by whatever deity to make it so they could leisurely enjoy their food with willing, or forced-willing victims.

I hated it.

I also kinda liked it.

And I hated myself because I kinda liked it.

And because I don’t do well with hating myself or self-reflection, I had to distract myself, so I asked, “What’s your name?”

He stopped sucking long enough to mumble, “Shane Hall.”

Such an ordinary name for a guy who didn’t look at all ordinary. Now that I had time, and nothing else to do while he nursed my hand, I got a good look at him. Shane had huge, vibrant green doe eyes that glowed in the dim street light—well, as much light as actually made it to us from where we were twenty or so feet away. His hair might be red, or a darker auburn, but it was hard to tell since it was caked with dirt and dried blood. Poor bastard must not have spent any time trying to find a shower between his bouts of blood frenzy. The guy’s skin was pale as cream, which pushed me more toward a full ginger than auburn for his hair, and chiseled features that made me want to suck on his sharp cheekbones at the same time I wanted to bruise his perfect fucking skin.

I wanted to fuck him, and also fuck him up. But, I also wanted to protect the little fucker. The worst thing was, I didn’t know why, and it was freaking me right out. I didn’t fuck vampires. I killed them, or turned them over to the vampire police force to deal with. What the fuck was wrong with my asshole libido? Had it been that long since I’d gotten laid?

Actually…

I took a moment while Shane licked my palm like a whore to think on that. How long had it been? Six months? Eight?

Fuck.

I wobbled, and I never wobbled. I was always rock steady, but I fucking wobbled. Snatching my hand back from Shane’s eager tongue, I wrapped it in the handkerchief I kept in my back pocket to wipe away fingerprints (because human police were assholes and inconvenient), and took a few deep breaths to get my head back on straight. Now that he’d damn-near bled me dry, I was lightheaded and needed food. But, I also had to get the little shit somewhere safe so I could figure out a long-term plan for him, or at least figure out where he could stay until he found a surrogate Master.

He was not staying with me. No chance in hell. Not a single one.

“Call Sofia.”

“Calling Sofia,” said my phone through the wireless receiver that clung to my left ear. As it rang, I reached down and lifted the boy, cradling him to my chest and started walking.

“Where are you taking me?” Shane demanded. “Put me down. I can walk!”

Seemed he actually had a spine when he wasn’t impaled with hawthorn. And, not one to do extra work if I didn’t have to, I put the shit down and watched his knees crumple under him and his hands skid along the sidewalk as he fell forward.

“Still think you can walk?”

He glowered at me, but didn’t argue this time when I picked his ass up and started carrying him again. He may be fed, and he may be a vampire, but he’d gone through some tough shit, and was still suffering from some of the longer-term effects of having a piece of hawthorn shoved through one of his most important muscles, so he was basically weaker than a kitten… unless he got hungry again.

The line finally connected, and a woman’s brisk voice answered, “Sofia.”

“I got a problem.”

“You always have a problem. It’s called your attitude.”

“Ha-fucking-ha.” I blew out a breath through my nose so she wouldn’t hear me sigh. “I caught the serial killer.”

“…What do you mean ‘caught?’ You mean ‘decapitated,’ right?”

“No,” I growled. “Caught. He’s a newborn. I’d say about four weeks old. His Master’s been killed. So, I have actual work to do, and I need somewhere to keep the little shit until I can find him a surrogate Master.”

“Why didn’t you just kill him?” She made a weird back-of-the-throat noise and it sounded like she shifted the phone to her other ear. “One baby vamp isn’t worth all that work, or the paperwork, or the fucking resources. Lop his head off and get back to your beat.”

I looked down into those giant green, terrified eyes and pressed my lips into a tense line. “I need somewhere to keep him.”

“Good luck with that.”

The beep told me the line went dead, and I let out a filthy string of Italian curses that would have made my entire family blush. And when I looked up to realize my feet were taking me toward my apartment building, I started using more elaborate curses, grumbling louder—at him, at myself, at the world.

“Where are you taking me?” Shane whispered.

I sighed. Fuck my life. “My apartment.”

He sucked in a sharp breath. “What? No!”

The kid started struggling like a pissed off feral cat that got his tail caught in a gate, twisting his body and clawing at my face and shoulders until I dropped his ass to the pavement. He thrashed another moment until I planted my boot on his sternum.

“Let’s get something straight, Shane. I’m the only one willing to help you, got it?” His eyes widened and I lifted an unimpressed brow. “My superior just told me to lop your head off and return to my beat, in those exact words. Because you’re too much work, too much effort, and I’m needed elsewhere, because I’m the fastest and most capable Vanguard within a hundred miles. But, I’m taking home a stray, because it’s not your goddamned fault that your Master was killed. So, you either stop being a fucking diva and be good so I can get you safe and find you a surrogate Master, or you fucking die. What’s your choice?”

“What’s a Vanguard?”

…I really, really wanted to punch him. But, I held onto the last threads of my unraveling sanity and said, “Basically really fast and lethal Wardens. In hunting terms, we’d be called scouts or trackers. In spy terms, we’d be called assassins. We’re silent, fast, deadly, and cut through our enemies efficiently, leaving any stragglers to the slower Aegis, or warrior class and the other, general Wardens.”

His face screwed up in confusion and he asked as he raised his hands to be picked up. “What’s a Warden?”

I groaned, but I picked his ass up and carried him toward my apartment building. “There are three races: humans, vampires and wardens. Wardens and vampires share similar abilities such as speed, agility, superior senses and that kind of shit. We’re close to humans because we have the same diet and expulsion systems.”

I shrugged as much as I could while carrying a hundred and ninety pound lump of vampire. “The vampires have their own police force, like the humans do. But, Wardens are tasked with cleaning up mistakes left by the vampire police, taking care of larger vampire crime syndicates and the most aggressive serial killers. We’re more or less like the FBI and CIA combined—maybe the other alphabet agencies, too—for the vampire world. If there are rogues that the vampire police force can’t or won’t deal with, we eliminate them. We’re essentially the last line of defense for humanity against vampires.”

The kid looked up at me with what looked like wonder, and it made my very empty stomach curdle. “Quit looking at me like I’m a fucking hero, kid.”

“You’re going to avenge Master… You are a hero.”

I snorted, and embarrassingly, it turned into a hacking cough. My throat was dry and felt like I’d swallowed a cactus, and I was starting to get weak from blood loss. But, I wasn’t about to tell the kid that, so I kept my trap shut and picked up the pace as fast as I could without sending us both sprawling on the street.

We barely made it to my building before my entire body turned to jelly. Thank fuck my building had an elevator, because I lived in the ninety-fourth floor penthouse, and fuck those stairs. It was bad enough I tripped up the four stairs leading to the main door to the building. I’d have killed one or both of us if I’d had to climb ninety-four flights of stairs.

I had to set Shane down to unlock and open my door, a hard task since one hand had to keep him upright while the other had to fumble with thirty keys, and somehow get the correct one into the lock, then get my paw on the sensor pad for a print scan. By the time we made it inside and to the nearest couch, I left all pretense of strength in my foyer and unceremoniously dropped him onto the cushions. The sudden loss of his weight made me feel like I was flying, which, of course, made me fucking dizzy enough that I didn’t even collapse into the armchair, I tripped, did a weird pirouette and almost missed the fucking thing.

“You okay?” asked Shane.

I grunted. It was really all I was capable of at that moment. I sagged, boneless and half-dead, my ass almost on the floor because of my near-miss, and wanted nothing more than to drink every drop of water in Winter’s Cross. But, I couldn’t, because I didn’t have the strength to get my ass back off the floor now that I was down.

This kid was going to be the death of me, one way or another.

But, at least he was safe. And, at least I had solved one mystery. The “serial killer” was now in my possession, and I could easily keep an eye on him, and my blood should keep him satisfied for … hopefully a couple of days so I could find a good blood bank to keep him topped off.

What the fuck had I gotten myself into?

Fuck.

And before I realized what was happening, I was out cold.

CHAPTER TWO

Shane

I couldn’t help but watch him sleep. This man—and I didn’t even know his name—had carried me like a bride for about thirty blocks, and now he looked half-dead where he sat just a few feet away. Now that my strength was returning, thanks to him, I could at least sit up without my arms wobbling like a newborn colt trying to stand. He didn’t even stir when I did, as if he completely trusted me, or just couldn’t help it.

But, God was he gorgeous. He had raven black hair that brushed his shoulders in loose waves, and it looked soft as hell. His beard was neatly trimmed, and framed full lips, a strong, square jaw, and made him look rugged and virile, instead of scruffy. His ice blue eyes, though, were killer. Hard as steel, but I caught them softening on occasion when he looked at me. It was those times I had felt safe enough to ask a few questions.

The dim lights of the house made his skin look gray, and that worried me. People weren’t supposed to be that color—not healthy people, anyway. Had I done that to him? Had I drained him too much?

Of course I had. Groaning, I forced myself to my feet and glanced around. His place looked like nothing I’d imagined when I saw him. I thought he’d live in a tiny one-bedroom somewhere in the impoverished areas, but this place was immaculately clean, huge, and had a stunning view of the city below. The furniture was a creamy white leather with cherry wood accents and sapphire throw pillows. Real dark hardwood floors stretched throughout the house with red jewel-toned oriental rugs placed strategically about to make walking comfortable.

It floored me, because this man didn’t look like he had any kind of decorating taste, let alone the money to pull it off. He looked like a vagabond, other than the fact his clothes looked and smelled clean, and his beard was so meticulously groomed.

But, that rich vagabond was getting grayer by the second, and I didn’t know what to do for him. What… Orange juice! Food. Sugar. He needed fluids and glucose. I hadn’t been a vampire that long, I still remembered what humans needed. Really, I did.

It only took a few minutes of snooping around in his kitchen to get a sandwich made, get a tall glass of orange juice poured, and cut up a rather questionable apple. It still crunched, but it was on its last legs. Too bad for me it was all unappetizing, because if human food could still sustain me, my host’s problems would at least be cut in half. Actually, I wouldn’t even be his problem at all. Ugh.

A bit more snooping rewarded me with a tray to set everything on, and I was back in the living room to set it on the coffee table. I didn’t know this man, so I had no idea how he’d wake. I shook his ankle just in case he was one of those who woke up with his fists flying.

“Hey… wake up.”

He groaned and mumbled something in what may have been Italian that sounded like a string of curses. Moving to his shoulder, I shook him again… and was suddenly on my back, on the floor, with a throbbing head. “Ow…”

Frigid, hard, ice blue eyes stared down at me with startling clarity that made my insides knot up. Those eyes promised death, and all I wanted was to find somewhere dark to hide. That is, until my libido sat up and took notice, saying that his “You’re going to die now” stare was hot as fuck.

It wasn’t. Getting that stare from someone who had already staked my ass once and threatened to cut my head off was not hot. It wasn’t, damn it!

I shuddered as he squeezed my throat. His hand reached for something out of my sight, but then clarity seemed to come to him. He cursed again in that guttural way, his voice like gravel, and let me up. Though, he didn’t make it very far. He ended up sitting on the floor beside me.

“What?” he managed to slur. God, was this really the same man who’d had a sword at my throat and a stake in my chest? He seemed so… weak. It didn’t fit him, didn’t fit his image.

“You need to eat.” I got to my knees and fetched the tray from the coffee table, setting it on his cross-legged lap. “I took too much from you. I’m sorry.”

He made a strange face, somewhere between a grimace and a flat, unimpressed look before actually looking at the contents of the tray. Then his entire face morphed with surprise, his eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline. “Well, damn. Thanks, kid.”

“Well, damn. He has manners,” I teased.

His snort made me laugh and I finally relaxed with him. “What’s your name?”

“Dante,” he said around a bite of apple.

“That doesn’t sound Italian…”

He snorted. He seemed to do that often. “My mother fell in love with the name from an American romance novel, but it’s not that uncommon.” He glanced at me curiously. “How did you know I was Italian?”

Really? I gave him my best “You’re an idiot” brow. “Your accent, for one, and the strings of Italian curses were even more of a dead giveaway.”

Dante grimaced and bit into his sandwich, chewing slow as though buying time to figure something out. When he finally swallowed, he shrugged. “My accent is thicker when I’m pissed or injured for some reason. Usually it’s barely there.” He shrugged again. “Half Italian, half Sicilian. My family often goes off in a mix of bastardized Italian and Spanglish.”

He said “For some reason” like that reason should be obvious. Maybe to him, it was. For me, I just stared at him like he’d grown another head. Of course, he ignored me. I hadn’t expected much else. He seemed the type—closed off, gruff, profane, and emotionally stunted. Maybe I was wrong, but I didn’t think so. But, maybe it was the blood loss. I truly didn’t know this guy. And part of me didn’t want to.

But, part of me did.

Instead of doing as he was told by that Sofia chick and ridding me of my head, he’d used his own blood to heal me, carried me for dozens of blocks through blood loss so severe that the moment he was safe in his own home, he fainted, and he’d all-but promised to help me.

Part of me liked that enough to not care much about being ignored, or his gruffness.

I looked over as he started draining the orange juice with greedy gulps. He didn’t stop until the glass was empty, and I knew he’d need more. Hell, what I’d made him was little more than a snack, and that wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to replenish what I’d taken from him. But, it would at least help keep him upright until I could make him a proper meal.

Standing up, I turned toward the kitchen, only to have his hand around my wrist, stopping me. “Where are you going?” he asked.

I gave him another unimpressed quirk of my eyebrow. “To get you some water, and make you an actual meal. That’ll keep you from fainting again, but you need proper food and more water.”

He made another weird, surprised face, but released my wrist with a small nod. Apparently, I was good at surprising the asshole.

And thankfully, his kitchen was well stocked. In his fridge, I found a pack of steaks and pork chops. I had to do the sniff test, because shouldn’t raw meat be repackaged and put in the freezer? Was he the kind to waste money on food by not keeping it properly?

With a glance around his apartment, I gathered that yes, he didn’t care enough about money to care how he kept his food. But, at least the sniff test gave me a whiff of not-so-bad blood. Not good enough for me to want any, but good enough it wouldn’t kill him if I cooked it and he ate it. That was good enough for me.

But, since I was in there, I repackaged three of the four steaks, and the six boneless pork chops, and stuffed them into his freezer like a normal human being with an ounce of money-sense. …Even though I wasn’t a human being anymore… and apparently he never was. But, whatever.

Next, I pulled out heads of broccoli and cauliflower, a bag of cheese, and went around his kitchen pulling out pasta (for the carbs he spent carrying me across the city) and other ingredients to make a well-rounded meal of medium rare steak, pasta, and steamed broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce.

When I was human, I had loved to cook. I had thought that after becoming a vampire, my sense of smell and taste would change so drastically that I’d not be able to cook anymore, but as I got into the rhythm, I realized that even though I no longer found the food appetizing, it still smelled good, and I could still taste well enough to tell if I was getting the ingredients right, and in the right amounts.

I paused once I had the pan heating for Dante’s steak to take him a bottle of water. But once I got there, I found him still on the floor, still with the now-empty tray on his lap. His head leaned back against the seat cushion of the chair he used as a backrest, and the poor guy was snoring brokenly like he had sleep apnea. I assumed it was from the awkward angle his neck was cranked at, so I shook him awake again.

At least this time I didn’t end up on my back with a concussion. Progress.

Even more progressive, he let me help him up and into the chair, rather than stubbornly staying on the floor as I had expected of him. Apparently he was good at surprising me, too. And the way he chugged down the entire bottle of water in one go let me know that I was at least being useful to my new host.

I got him another bottle before I did anything else. At least his fridge was well-stocked with an entire case, even if the excess of plastic was wasteful. And by the time I came back from that task, his steak was ready to flip. Another fifteen minutes or so later, I had his dinner ready and took it to his dining table.

“You need help getting over here?”

He gave me the evil eye, but grunted as he tried and failed to get up. “…Maybe.”

His moodiness made me want to chuckle, but I swallowed the reaction down long enough to half-carry him to his seat and get him up to the table.

“This doesn’t look half bad,” he mused.

“I was still human a few weeks ago…”

He did that weird so-so nod thing that people did when they didn’t want to admit to something, sort of tilting his head to one side, nodding, then tilting it to the other side for another nod. Why did people do that? It was weird.

What was also weird, was the way he studied me while he cut his steak into tiny bite-size pieces. “What?”

“You cooked for me…”

“And?”

“What do you want?”

I laughed, which seemed to piss him off, which made me laugh some more. “Really? I also put your meat in the freezer so it wouldn’t spoil.”

He nodded again. “What do you want?”

“Uh… to say thank you for not killing me like you were told to? For giving me half your blood? For carrying my not-so-light ass across half the city? … Do you want me to keep going?”

He turned his attention back to his plate and grumbled, “Not sure if I like you, or still want to kill you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” I deadpanned.

He huffed a laugh and shoved a forkful of meat and pasta into his mouth. It really was a very nice mouth with those plump—albeit pale from blood loss— lips surrounded by that midnight scruff, and I caught myself staring long enough that my face and ears flushed and I bolted out of the chair. “Got to clean up the kitchen before it becomes impossible to scrub that pan.”

I was the father of excuses. But, it was true. Don’t immediately wash a skillet, and it becomes a bitch to clean. I wasn’t lying, just avoiding him before I started drooling like a kid with his first crush.

When I was done and had brought him another bottle of water (after cooling my molten face in his freezer), I sat down at the spot to his right and took a look at his plate. He’d actually used what looked like his finger to lap up all the sauce and meat juice after demolishing the entire meal. Well… at least I knew he liked my cooking.

“Was everything okay?”

“Good enough,” he said, and my Lord, when he was fed and sleepy, his voice became thick and warm like honey.

Without thinking, I rested my hand on his arm and gave it a slight squeeze. “Go on to bed. You sound as exhausted as you look.”

Those ice-blues laser focused on me until I squirmed. “Rules first.”

“I can do rules.”

He smirked and glanced at the door. “I have a security system. Before I head to bed, I will arm it, which means you won’t be able to leave.”

His almost angry tone made me shudder, but what made my stomach clench was the fact he just told me I was his prisoner. “But—” And fuck, why did my voice sound so very small, and why did my voice have to crack like that?

However I sounded, it made his entire face soften for just a fraction of a second before he winced. “It’s for your own good, damn it. With your Master dead, I have to keep you here. You need to be kept safe and fed until I can find you a fucking surrogate Master. That’s why you went on a binge-feeding frenzy for the last two weeks. You need a Master to regulate your hunger and keep you supplied in fresh blood and donors until you’re weaned.”

Weaned?” I squawked. “I’m not a puppy!”

The bastard snorted, amusement dancing in his eyes. “No, you’re not a fucking puppy. But, you need a Master to regulate your hunger until you learn how to do it yourself. That’s weaning, basically weaning you off your Master. It takes about 5 decades or so.” He shrugged. “The alternative, is I let you leave, you go into another blood frenzy. That leads to two outcomes: I catch you, stake you again, and drag you back here for round two, or some other Warden catches you, and they don’t even bother with the stake. They lop off your fucking head while you’re still feeding, because that’s when you’re most vulnerable.”

I sagged in my chair with a groan. “I think I’ll stay here, thanks.”

“Thought you’d see it my way.”

Something about him made me want to be petulant and stick my damned tongue out at him. Just barely refraining, I stood and pushed my chair back in. “Anyway. Need help getting to bed?”

He made a face before pushing himself up. The poor guy swayed on his feet, putting his hands on the table to steady himself. “No. I think I got it.”

“Alright. Head on to bed. I’ll wash up your dishes.”

I didn’t wait for him to reply. Just started gathering up his dishes. But, when I glanced up at him on my way to the kitchen, Dante had an odd look on his face and studied me like I was either a fascinating specimen, or a problem he couldn’t solve. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” What did he expect me to do? Be bored? Leave his dirty dishes out to start stinking when I have a nose more powerful than the best dog breed’s? Ugh.

Still grumbling silently in my own mind, I carried his dishes in to the sink and started running water, only to hear a loud thud and muffled Italian curses come from the hallway. The smirk that lit my face was hardly my fault. I’d asked him, after all. Not my fault at all that he couldn’t man up and accept my help.

But, like the good person I was, I shut the water off, loped down the hall and picked him up off the floor. “Which bedroom is yours.”

He growled at me, but nodded to the only open door. “First on the right.”

Thank God my body absorbed and processed the blood I drank faster than humans—and apparently wardens—could restore their strength through food and water, otherwise we would have been quite the pair, and both of us probably wouldn’t have made it out of the dining area. I could just see us both trying to help each other combat crawl over the floors, rucking up the jewel-tone carpets under our writhing bodies, leaving bedlam in our wake.

The thought made me giggle, which made Dante look at me like I’d shed my skin to reveal an alien underneath. “What’s so funny, smartass?”

“Nothing.” I cleared my throat and said as primly as I could, “Combat crawling wouldn’t suit me a single bit.”

The way his face scrunched up nearly made me lose my mind. My cheek suffered for it as I bit it hard to keep more laughter at bay. “Comba—What?”

“Never mind.” I dumped him unceremoniously on his bed and knelt to start unlacing his military-style boots only to realize they were definitely not military-type boots. These were some kind of special made things with super thick soles, straps everywhere, and so many knives sticking through leather sheathes, I wondered if he had a blade fetish. Knives? For vampires? Really?

“The knives are for human idiots,” he muttered when he realized I was staring. “For fuck’s sake, don’t cut yourself. Move.”

He reached down to do the job himself, but nearly fell face-first off the bed in the process. Barely managing to catch him before he was sprawled over my back, I pushed him back into a seated position and actually went about unbuckling and unlacing his damned boots before he tried something else equally as stupid. “You know, while I get these done, you could at least get out of the jacket and your shirts, unless you expect to sleep fully clothed and get your trench coat tangled around your throat and legs.”

Dante let out this long, grumbling, half-sigh, half-growl that went straight to my dick and made my skin feel too tight. I didn’t dare look up at him, especially when I felt him move around to comply with my demands. By the time I finally pulled both his boots off and looked up, he was bare-chested and looked half-dead. He also looked gorgeous as sin. This man had a body to die for with cut, defined abs, thick pecs that I wanted to bite, and beautifully rounded, broad-as-hell shoulders. Those shoulders made me think of a jungle gym, because I wanted nothing more than to climb all over him, but… that would be inadvisable, and I knew it. Just because he was being sorta nice didn’t excuse the fact that he acted like an asshole, and I’d had enough of assholes when I was human. That had been one of the reasons I’d let Master convince me to let him turn me into a vampire.

But, still. Those broad-ass shoulders led down to a narrow, compact waist, all which had been hidden rather spectacularly by his damned heavy coat, and now it was all I could do not to fall all over myself while he was trying not to nod off.

Ugh. Sometimes I hated myself and my weak will in the face of tall, dark, and broody men. I did everything else robotically, trying to peel him out of his tight-ass leather pants and get him tucked in bed before my own dick burst free of my pants, which had been loose about thirty minutes ago and now felt tighter than his were.

And as I shut his door and made my way down the hall, I smirked to myself.

He’d been so tired, he had forgotten to set his alarm. I wasn’t a prisoner. I could leave at any time, and he wouldn’t know until it was too late.

Staring down at my still half-hard dick bulging the front of my jeans, I knew if I didn’t get out of there soon, I’d either end up on my knees, back, or all fours, begging him for anything he’d give me. It’s who I was, what I was. I wasn’t a whore, or anything quite so risqué.

No. I was needy. I knew it. I hated it. But knowing both those things didn’t change the fact that I liked being taken care of, that I loved having a strong man protecting me one moment and petting me, saying everything would be okay the next. I loved feeling cherished. And I knew, even though Dante couldn’t be that guy, if I stuck around for any length of time, I’d still end up begging for anything he could or would give me.

He didn’t deserve that. Neither did I.

I just hoped I was strong enough to do what had to be done.

CHAPTER THREE

Dante

I woke with a start, cursing under my breath as my head screamed at me for being stupid. Both stupid for feeding the little shit, and stupid for making such a quick move. Laying back down didn’t help, and neither did rubbing my temples. It felt like I had a goddamned hangover. No, wait. This felt worse than any hangover I’d ever had. Rubbing my face, I groaned to realize my hands were shaking, too.

Was it just dehydration? The kid had made me drink a glass of orange juice and several bottles of water. That plus the meal should have kept me from feeling like this much shit. So, what was wrong with my fucking body that it was being this much of an asshole?

My mind kept going around that track as I hauled my weak ass out of bed, slipped into the first pair of lounge pants I could find, and stumbled to my en suite bathroom to piss. It only dawned on me after my bladder was empty and I was drying my hands after washing them that the house was eerily quiet.

Where the fuck was Shane? It was still early yet. The sun hadn’t risen, so he was safe from the windows.

My blood started to boil as I stalked through my penthouse. He wasn’t in any of the guest bedrooms. I checked the bathrooms. The kitchen, dining room, and living spaces were all devoid of his presence. I was about to go throw on my hunting gear when I went out onto the three balconies and still found no sign of him.

I was going to kill the little bastard.

Kill him.

Not just stake him through the heart. Oh, no. I was going to lop his fool head off.

In a last-ditch attempt, I threw open my front door and nearly stepped on the little shit. He looked up at me with those huge green eyes, tear tracks drying on his face, and offered me a timid grin. The kid had been sitting with his back against the door, but for how long?

The tension that had kept my body hostage as I’d searched the penthouse started to fade, leaving me with a small case of the shakes as my adrenaline stopped spiking. I glared down at him, and his timid grin became a grimace. “I didn’t know it would automatically lock…”

I grunted like a fucking caveman. “How far did you get?”

He shrugged and nodded toward the end of the hall. “To the elevator. How’s your hand?”

It ached like a bitch and needed stitches, but I wasn’t about to let the little fucker deflect the shit he was in. “Get in the house.”

“But, the sun—”

“Hasn’t risen yet. Get inside. Now.”

I wasn’t a complete asshole, okay? I offered my uninjured hand down to help him up, but the shit smacked it away and got up on his own. It was kind of amusing. He had fire for as scared as he was. Though, I noticed he hadn’t made use of the shower. The stink of filth and blood wafted off him as he stood close and I wrinkled my nose.

“Shower first, then bed for you.”

“Yes, Master Grump.” He offered me a cheeky smile as he brushed past me to get inside. “Which bathroom do you want me to use?”

I grumbled, none-too-nicely, about being called Master, let alone Grump. Shane, however, did little more than grin at me like he’d won some sort of fucking prize. To get his ass out of my hair, I showed him to his room and pointed at his en suite bathroom. “Towels and shit are in the cabinet. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are already in the shower.”

For the first time since he entered the house, he seemed unsure and fidgeted with the hem of his shirt. “Clothes?”

Fuck. I’d forgotten. He was slighter than I was, toned and muscular, but not as bulky. My clothes would fall right off him. But, he needed something, so I left him standing there and headed into my own room to root through my drawers. I knew I had something with a drawstring. I did, didn’t I? Surely I did. Maybe…

Fuck it. I had sleep pants. I had safety pins. I grabbed one of each and turned to head back to what I now thought of as his room, only to find him standing in my doorway.

“You don’t have to do that…”

I shrugged. “You have to wear something until I can wash your clothes.”

He nodded, but kept fidgeting. “I’m sorry I’m such a nuisance.”

My sigh finally made him look up at me, and God help me, but I couldn’t help but scowl as much as I wanted to be comforting, or as comforting as someone like me could be. “You’re no more a nuisance than a stray cat.”

First, he looked offended, his already huge eyes widening and his mouth ajar in a comical fashion. Then he stuck his finger out at me and wagged it like a scolding parent. “I am not an animal.”

I snorted and gave him a lopsided grin. “Same difference to me.”

He got that offended, fly-catching expression again and scoffed at me. “Asshole!”

“Yep.” Why deny it?

“I am not a puppy!” Shane reminded me.

“Didn’t say you were.”

“I’m not a damned cat, either.” He harrumphed, turned on his heel, and stormed into his bathroom. Yep. Definitely a true redhead. I followed him into his room and left my pants and the safety pin on his dresser, and as soon as I heard the shower start, I waited for a few minutes. Then, I went in and stole his nasty clothes. If I was going to buy his happy ass more, I needed to know his sizes, and the fucking things reeked. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to wash them a dozen times, or burn the damned things.

Until I figured it out, I took a mental note of his sizes for his shoes, underwear, pants, and shirt, and tossed the raunchy mess into a garbage bag. Hopefully the stench would stay inside. It took everything I had in me not to send the bag straight down the garbage chute. And I do mean every single ounce of my self-control.

I had checked his pockets and hadn’t found a phone, which could become problematic. Just another thing to add to the fucking list. This kid wouldn’t financially ruin me, but I still resented having to shell out money for an inconvenience that I didn’t bring upon myself.

Then I rethought that line of thinking. Technically, I had brought this inconvenience on myself, because I could have just lopped the kid’s head off like I was told to. But… the memory of his watery emerald eyes as I loomed over him with a stake in his chest stopped me cold. Even now, I couldn’t fathom killing him. It was a visceral reaction, much like anyone would have when it came to killing a child. You just didn’t do that shit.

I looked out the large, floor-to-ceiling windows and noted that dawn was beginning to lighten the sky. My need to protect the little shit in my guest bedroom’s en suite flared in my chest, and I stomped to his room to find him butt-naked as he stared at the safety pin in his one hand while the other loosely held the pants I’d left out for him. He had this grimace on his face as if he’d never seen a safety pin before.

Shane finally noticed me in what was now his personal space and his grimace turned into mortification, his entire face turning blood red, which on normal redheads wasn’t an attractive trait, but with his milky skin, he looked like an edible strawberry with a flaming top. Apparently he’d found the hair dryer under the sink and made use of it, and that gave testament to how good the soundproofing in my home was. I hadn’t heard the shower shut off, let alone the hair dryer running.

“What?” I asked.

He ducked his head and sighed as he held the safety pin out accusingly. “A safety pin? Really?”

“Sleep nude, then? I don’t care.”

While he gawped at me, I ignored him and activated his room’s functions. “Guest suite 2: Activate.”

The feminine-sounding AI chimed in pleasantly with, “Guest suite 2: Activated. What is your command?”

“Blinds: Down. Window opacity: One-hundred percent.”

“Command acknowledged.”

The blinds that resided between the thick panes of shatter-proof glass started their way down and locked into position when they made it to the floor level, then the glass darkened to pitch black, making me feel better about leaving Shane alone in the room. At least I no longer felt like my stomach was going to drop out of my dick.

“Command: Allow: Household functions. User: Shane Hall. Disallow: Alarm systems. User: Shane Hall.”

“Commands acknowledged. Shane Hall, please register your vocal pattern for command access.”

Shane looked at me with wide eyes and glanced up at the ceiling, trying to find the hidden speakers. “Uhh… what do I say? Is that an AI? You have an AI in your house? I mean, it’s a nice house, but… Damn, Dante…”

“Vocal pattern complete. Welcome, Shane Hall.”

I smirked at his continued gaping and patted him on his solid shoulder, trying not to notice how soft his skin was, or how warm it still was from the shower. “When you’re ready, you can say ‘List commands’ and she’ll tell you what you can do. For now, get your ass in bed and get some sleep. I have some paperwork to do, calls to make, and errands to run.”

“You’re leaving me here alone?”

I hated how high pitched with fear his voice came out. Damned if it didn’t peg every one of my protective instincts. I shoved them all back down as ruthlessly as I could manage and gave him a tight smile.

“Just for a little bit. Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he’d just have to deal with it. Once he was in bed, I shut his door and prayed he’d sleep like the dead. Contrary to ancient beliefs, vampires weren’t dead things. Instead, it was more like a spontaneous mutation or something. They still had heartbeats, they still had blood circulation, and after a few centuries or so, they could eventually walk around in the daylight if they lived long enough. The only major difference in biology was their diet. They could only get their nutrition from blood. But, just like with the sunlight, if they lived long enough, they could eat human food. They just usually chose not to, because one of the benefits to being a vampire was the lack of evacuation. Vampires, because their systems used everything they ingested, didn’t produce waste in the forms of piss and shit. All their waste was expelled just by breathing. So other than increased speed, agility, strength, and their senses, they were basically humans with a bit of an advantage.

Thankfully, wardens like myself had almost the same advantages. Well, except for the waste. We still had the inconvenience of having to piss and shit and cook like humans.

Another fucking inconvenience was the paperwork. I spent half the damned morning filling out forms online because how dare I spare the life of a newborn vampire instead of killing him? Then, I had calls to make. I spent hours calling every single vampire I personally knew to see if they’d take the kid in and become his surrogate, but so far, I hadn’t had any luck. Either they wanted him for a glorified sex slave, which was skeevy and I wasn’t about to allow happen, or they wanted him simply for the tax write off, or they just didn’t want him at all.

I wasn’t about to turn the kid loose into the hands of someone who would abuse him. It would have been kinder if I’d killed him.

With a gigantic sigh, I clicked off the last call and ran my hands through my hair, scraping my nails across my scalp to try and ease the tension. It was nearing three in the afternoon, and I needed to get the hell away from my desk before I broke something.

Speaking of breaking shit, I looked down at my sliced hand and frowned. It had already started to heal—another positive trait of being born a warden—and if I didn’t stitch it up soon, the damned thing would leave a scar a mile wide and make holding anything a bitch.

Ah, well. I had nothing better to do. So, I stopped by the bathroom, rooted around in the cabinet, and made my way into the kitchen. This would be a very bloody mess, so someone should get some enjoyment out of it, right? Right.

It only took a few minutes. I poured some heparin into a bowl to keep the blood from coagulating and started cutting. I had to cut away the healed flesh so that when I sewed my palm back together the edges would actually adhere to each other. After that, it took about half an hour to stitch up the sucker. And I’d dare anyone else to beat that time, sewing up their one hand with their non-dominant hand. I was ambidextrous. My parents had forced it on me and my nine siblings from infancy, making us do everything with both hands, from writing to feeding ourselves, to wiping our asses. But, I was still right-handed, and sewing with my left hand, no matter if I had the proper tools or not—which I did—was fucking hard.

But, it netted a nice huge bowl of fresh blood for my house guest. I’d say I couldn’t complain, but I bitched and moaned through the whole process, so that would have been a bald-faced lie.

And because I was being a good host, I even poured the blood into an empty water bottle and put the shit in the fridge for him, because I wasn’t wasting a single drop for anyone.

Then, about four in the afternoon, I figured I had just about enough time to go shopping to get the kid some clothes so he wouldn’t go walking around with his dick swinging at me all night. Not that I’d have minded. He had a nice dick and a great body. I wasn’t blind. Which was exactly why I had to get the shit some clothes.

Three hours later, I finally managed to drag my sorry ass back home, loaded with bags and bags of clothes, toiletries, and an assortment of other odds and ends that I probably shouldn’t have bothered with. But, it wasn’t like I was hurting for money, and I reasoned that the kid had gone through enough shit and he might find clothes and other things a comfort.

I’m not a nice guy. Shut up.

And while I was at it, I had gotten him a laptop. Because God knows I’m a boring person to be around unless I took him hunting. Since that was completely out of the question, he needed some form of entertainment other than the television and staring out the damned window. The more entertained I could keep him, I reasoned, the less likely he was going to try to escape, eat me, or tear my house to shreds.

Then I had to remind myself that he wasn’t a cat or a puppy. I cursed myself as I looked at the sea of bags about my feet after three trips up from the car and realized I had gone and bought damn near an entire department store for my new pet.

Fuck.

Okay, so I had it bad. I could handle this. I could, damn it.

Then I had the terrifying thought that the kid might get pissed at me or hate everything I bought him. I had to keep reminding myself that my penchant for calling him “kid” did not actually make him one. He was a grown man, and grown men usually liked to pick out their own shit.

Blowing out a breath, I headed into the kitchen and cracked open a beer. It was after five. I was allowed. Okay, so I was supposed to work that night, but it didn’t matter because I had caught the serial killer, and said serial killer was essentially in rehab. I could, in essence, take the night off. Especially because, after the night before and passing out when it wasn’t even daylight, I had royally fucked my sleep schedule.

Also, going hunting while exhausted was pure stupidity. It was either a hearty recipe for trouble—that I usually caused—or was classified as a suicide attempt. I rather liked living, thanks.

The sun started to set, and all I could do was wait for the bastard to wake up while I sat on the couch, tired out of my mind, and nurse a beer as I watched the sky catch fire in a huge blaze as the sun sank behind the sky scrapers of downtown Winter’s Cross. Oh, and fret. I did a lot of that, too. Because if he didn’t like what I bought him, I knew damned well I’d be out at the stores again, returning the shit and getting him things he wanted. I wasn’t too proud to admit that I liked pleasing certain people, especially if my dick liked them, and Dante Jr. perked up real quick when we saw Shane nude this morning. And just remembering it had him perking up again.

I could either go rub one out, or I could suffer. But with him getting up soon, I was afraid he’d hear me. And I’d be damned if I was going to explain to the kid that he got me hard just by giving me one of those shy smiles.

Living under the same roof as Shane Hall was going to kill me.

Or ruin me financially. One of the two.

CHAPTER FOUR

Shane

It looked like a shopping mall exploded in the sitting room. Not even kidding. And in the virtual epicenter of it all sat Dante with a beer in one hand and the other haphazardly bandaged hand hanging over the arm of the chair as if he’d used up every single last fuck he had and had no more to give. I could only describe his expression as “Thunderous Boredom.” He seemed pissed about something but either too bored or lethargic to do anything about it.

It was mildly hilarious.

I almost laughed, but I knew that wouldn’t be well received. And after waking up so groggy that I had to lie in bed for an hour before the confusion and residual tiredness left me, I was still a bit on edge, myself. Seeing the catastrophe in the sitting room, though, helped lighten my mood.

“You exploded.”

Dante’s head jerked up and he narrowed his eyes at me as he pointed the neck of his beer bottle in my direction. “You hush and go get your breakfast out of the fridge. It’s in a water bottle.”

“Breakfast?” I squeaked.

“I had to sew up my damned hand, so I figured I wouldn’t waste the blood. Warden blood is more nutritious to vampires, anyway, so go drink up, you shit.”

With a chuckle, I turned around and headed for the kitchen. I was never one for excess swearing, but I just couldn’t imagine Dante not emulating a pissed off sailor all the time. It was part of his personality, and in a weird way, I found it endearing. He was adorable when he was tired and grouchy. Mostly because I felt like he was all bark and very little bite. With me, at least. Yeah, he can kill without batting an eyelash if the staking incident last night was any indication, but he had been gentle with me ever since. Hell, I’d take it.

Once I retrieved the blood bottle and chugged it down, I rolled the residue around in my mouth with a scrunched up nose. It… wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. Sort of like unsweetened iced tea from when I was human. You either gave me sweet tea, or you gave me water. There was just no sense in drinking bitter water when there were alternatives. But, my alternative was a live donor, blood bags, or… these blood bottles, if I ever got anymore.

After I rinsed the bottle and tossed it in the recycle bin, I peeked around the corner and found Dante in the exact same position in his chair highlighted by the soft light coming in from the floor to ceiling windows behind him. Not enough sunlight to hurt me, but just enough to see by and make Dante look like an angry angel. If possible, he looked even more disgruntled than before, which was rather impressive.

“You okay?” I called as I rounded that corner.

He groaned. “Headache.”

“Probably from drinking a beer when you should be drinking water and juice, idiot. You lost a lot of blood last night and this afternoon.”

His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, setting his beer on a coaster on his coffee table. “Did you just call me an idiot?”

I instinctively curled in on myself and squeaked, “Maybe?”

He stood up and started gathering bags. “Fine. I’ll take all your shit back to the store then. You know. Since you don’t need it, and all.”

Gaping like a goldfish at a man wasn’t the most glamorous thing to do. Neither was the squawk I let out. “You—you… All that’s for me? Are you insane?”

“Insane, now, am I?”

My hands flapped as I tried to shove the last three minutes of words back into my mouth. “I take it back! I take it back! I promise!”

The bastard snorted and dropped the bags. “Come get the shit. If you don’t like something, you will tell me. Once you go through everything, you’re going to haul it all to your room and put it away.”

I just blinked at him for a long moment, then said quietly, “Okay.”

He got me things? He got me a lot of things. Jesus. Really? Why?

But, I needed clothes, and the soft thump the bags made when he’d dropped them told me a good lot of them were clothes. It took me forever to get the safety pin to work to hold the sleep pants he let me borrow up. And free-balling was just not my thing.

“Did… did you get me any underwear, by chance?” I hated asking, but he seemed like he wanted me to like what he bought, so it was a fair question. Was he seeking my approval? …Not likely.

“Yeah. I checked the sizes on your clothes before I tossed them, so everything should fit. If it doesn’t, tell me.”

I nodded and started sorting through the bags. One was heavier than I expected and I almost dropped it. When I looked inside, I gasped. “A laptop? And a phone?” My jaw dropped, and I held up the incriminating items.

He just nonchalantly shrugged as if it was nothing. “Don’t want you getting bored while I’m out or asleep. Phone is in case you have an emergency here and I’m out.”

“Are you serious?”

Dante gave me a lopsided grin. “Do I look like I’m ever not serious?”

“Touché.”

I studied the laptop box for a moment, then peered up at him. “This is a gaming laptop…”

The bastard smirked at me like I was being cute. “So? Didn’t want to assume. If you play games, it’ll handle them. If not, it’ll handle anything else.”

“Are you looking to get laid?” I grinned. “Because this is looking like a bribe. And I gotta say, this laptop might be all you need.”

Dante snorted but shifted in his seat. “You’re not a whore. Now start going through the other goddamned bags.”

With a salute, I started tearing through the other bags. There were clothes galore, toiletries. It was like he bought an entire store. So, I started singing one of my old friend’s favorite songs, “I got me a sugar daddaaaay!”

Dante snorted so hard he started choking on his beer and had a sexy rasp when he croaked, “Brat.”

“Yep.” Why deny it?

As I went through everything, folding clothes as I plowed through the bags, it amazed me that Dante had somehow sussed out my style and preferences from just the one single nasty outfit I had been wearing when he staked me. The toiletries were okay, but not my favorite scents. I’d tell him about that later, since he demanded I tell him if I disliked something. But, everything else was perfect. Not to mention higher quality than I was used to. Normally, I bought my stuff from those big box stores, but these came from—I checked the tags and gasped—wait. “Armani? Saint Laurent? VERSACE?! Dante! What the actual fuck?”

His face scrunched adorably. “You don’t like those brands?”

I gawped at him, holding the offending items clutched in my hands out at him as if that explained everything. Then I finally found my squeaky voice again, “This one bag of stuff is worth more than my entire college education!”

He shrugged and reached for his beer again. “Not quite. Needed to get you good quality shit so you wouldn’t itch yourself to death now that you’re not frenzied. The better quality textures will help keep you on an even keel.”

“You didn’t need to spend all that money! I would have been happy with three outfits from a dollar store or something!”

The look of abject disgust that Dante leveled me with shut me up. “I don’t do dollar or big box stores. Nothing against them, but I hate crowds. You want something from a store like that, you’ll go yourself when you’ve got a surrogate master.”

All my bluster deflated and I sagged, hugging the Saint Laurent boots to my chest and looking around at the clothes I still had yet to fold. Now I’d wished I’d taken more care with folding everything. Did everything need to be hung? Should I have folded any of it? What about…

I rooted through the bags until I came up with the underwear and nearly laughed myself into an asthma attack, if that were at all possible. He’d bought me Tommy John Second Skin trunks. My junk had never been in underwear that expensive. My usual go-to was five dollars for a pack of ten.

“Quit looking at the price tags, you little shit. Go get them put away.”

I tried to hold it back. I promise I did. But as I lovingly packed everything into the bags as quickly as I could, I heaved a hearty diva sigh that made Dante let out this warm, breathy chuckle that made me shiver. Jesus, his voice…

Instead of letting on how much that chuckle had affected me, I snarked at him. “Drop the beer and get yourself some water or juice. You lost more blood today, and I don’t want you fainting again.”

His snort made me look up at him, and he gave me that lopsided grin I was starting to love. “I made sure to eat a good meal while shopping, and have made sure to keep myself hydrated. But if it’ll make you feel better, you could always bring me a bottle of water…”

“You’re not subtle, jackass.” I got him the water, anyway and made him a sandwich while I was at it since I was already in the kitchen. If he was going to feed me his own blood, the least I could do was make sure he ate well. Who knew what kind of crap he ate while he was shopping. Probably pizza and something sugary and carbonated. Most likely nothing but junk. I knew, because when I was human and shopping, that was my usual go-to. That and burgers or tacos were the main food items in mall food courts. Or, at least the malls I had been able to afford to go to. Who knew what the food courts in the malls Dante went to held. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he didn’t eat nothing but junk. He seemed like the kind of man who ate well and kept his body in shape. Maybe that was required of a warden.

Hell, I had no idea about anything except how to cook and keep his food from going bad. At least I knew I could be useful to him while he helped me. Cleaning the kitchen wasn’t a hardship even though the chemicals burned the shit out of my nose and eyes, and it helped me keep my mind occupied. But, not occupied enough as bad memories started closing in, threatening to strangle me.

I knew better than to get used to the domestic bliss that I had cultivated in less than a day. Memories of my master plagued my mind, but while I was here, in Dante’s home, with his protection and now that he’d showed with copious expensive gifts that he didn’t mind me being here, I was able to distance myself from the horror those memories brought. I was able to breathe again. At least for a short while.

An hour later, all my new stuff was put away, and I was dressed, running my hands over the soft fabric of the new t-shirt that I would never have been able to afford on my own. I glanced down at the skinny jeans that made my legs look three miles long and let out a contented sigh. I didn’t want to get used to this, because I didn’t know if my new surrogate master would be as rich as Dante seemed to be. With my previous master, it was easier. We acted more like best friends than father/son like Dante seemed to think of Master/Fledgling pairs. But, maybe Master and I hadn’t been the norm.

Part of me wished Dante could be my surrogate master, but he wasn’t a vampire, and even if he got turned, he’d be a “newborn” just like me. And, God, I hated that term. Newborn. It made it sound like we were incapable of doing anything for ourselves. In reality, as far as I knew, all we needed help with was our control over our bloodlust. And since Dante had taken me in, I’d done well to stave it off. Dante’s blood kept me full, and I could keep him fed.

Couldn’t I? Couldn’t we keep each other fed?

Shit. I knew I couldn’t feed from him alone, but the thought of going out to find donors or apply at blood banks for bagged blood nearly had my heart trying to break its way out of my rib cage. I gasped against the sensation, clutching my chest. Suddenly my entire body felt like it was on fire. I stumbled into my bathroom, gripped the edge of the counter and hung my head low, trying to take deep breaths to calm myself down.

Fuck. Something was really wrong. I couldn’t breathe. My lungs felt like they were full of lead and lava. My head started to pound while the world spun. My fangs ached like nothing I had ever felt before, and my entire body started to shake so violently I could barely stand.

I’d never felt so weak. I wasn’t even hungry, so why was I so weak? More stumbling, and I ended up on my bed, but I couldn’t stay there for long. I needed to get to Dante, let him know what was happening, but when I opened my mouth to shout at him, my throat closed up and it felt like I had a mouthful of sandy cotton.

All I could do for long minutes was wallow around on my bed in agony. Sweat poured from my skin, soaking my new clothes, plastering my hair to my face and neck, soaking my bedding. I tried laying still, but the sweat kept pouring off me and my stomach kept cramping like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. I opened my mouth to call for Dante again, but all that came out was a soft sob, and I almost gave up.

I didn’t know what would happen if I stayed, but I wasn’t willing to risk it, so I forced myself to roll until my body hit the floor. Normally, that wouldn’t hurt, even when I was human, but this time it felt like I had hit cement after a six story drop. I groaned as I crawled, using my fingers digging into the thick carpeting that lined the floor of my room to pull me toward the door, but I had closed it. My door was shut, and as I looked up at it, my heart seized in my chest, and I thought that was my last moment. I was going to die. Something was fundamentally wrong with me, and a closed door was all that kept me from living, from reaching Dante so he could make everything better again.

And how had it become such a dichotomy? I was a vampire, and felt like my sole savior was a mortal—at least I assumed wardens were mortal. I was a vampire, and we weren’t supposed to die of natural causes, but now I was terrified that somehow, I was dying, and my savior couldn’t save me because of a closed door. A door that, had I been healthy, I could have broken through like it was made of little more than tissue paper.

I don’t know how I found the strength, but one moment, I was crawling over the floor, and the next, I was using the wall to stand. My palms were so slick that it took a few tries to open the door, even after repeatedly wiping my hand on my pants. It became hard to think, harder to get my feet to do what I wanted them to. Once I managed to get the door open, several things happened at once. The first, was I almost knocked myself over with the door. The second, I smelled blood, and my fangs ached, extending until they pierced the inside of my bottom lip. The third, I started walking, or more like a zombie shuffle, toward that smell.

After that, just keeping hold of my sanity became a chore. Dante was in the penthouse somewhere. I just had to find him. He would make everything okay again. He seemed to be great at that.

But as I made my way down the hall toward the living room, my vision started narrowing down to a pinprick. My thoughts started scrambling until I could do little more than scent blood and feel. My heart started racing as adrenaline spiked my blood, making everything come into sharp focus, my vision blowing out and becoming almost better than 3D.

Without thinking to do it, I found myself walking on the balls of my feet, stalking down the hall with more strength than I had had just a few breaths before. Mind a sluggish mess, I kept to the side of the wall, my nose in the air and my hands twitching at my sides as if I were readying myself for an attack. Suddenly nothing made sense, but I didn’t need it to. Nothing mattered except feeding the hunger that had saliva flooding my mouth and running like a raging river down my throat, forcing me to swallow repeatedly or choke.

Rounding the corner, I tensed. With an ease I didn’t know existed, I could hear Dante’s heartbeat like my ear was pressed against his chest. His warm, broad chest, where I felt safe and wanted.

My fangs ached, but something inside me hurt at the thought of Dante being my prey. That pain warred with my instinct to hunt until I dithered in the hallway, my body demanding I stalk and hunt and drain, while something else inside me begged me to lock myself up somewhere so I couldn’t reach the heartbeat singing to me like the sweetest lullaby.

My body won, and I stalked out of the hall, head high, breathing through my mouth to catch his taste. A soft growl vibrated my chest as I slipped farther into the hunt.

CHAPTER FIVE

Dante

I knew something was wrong the moment every little hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end. Then I heard the growl, and sighed because I wasn’t fucking ready for this shit. What the fuck had set him off? He’d eaten today. I know he had, because I’d sent him into the kitchen to drink the blood I’d collected from when I stitched up my hand. And why now? He’d only been putting his shit away.

I stayed still, keeping myself calm, but the moment I saw him, something in me clicked over and I stood. The moment I held my arms out, he was on me, trying to get at my neck, but somehow I was stronger. Shane tore at my clothes, his hands resembling claws and nails just as sharp. His eyes were wild, emerald rings around blown-out pupils that were glazed with his frenzy.

Then, as fast as he was on me, he was across the room making this pitiful high-pitched noise between hisses of panted breath around extended fangs. His crouched, poised posture screamed “hunting vampire,” but that whine said he still had some semblance of his sanity left. How he still had sanity left gave me a ton of pause, but I squatted down to be on his level where he crouched down in the far corner like a snake about to strike and did a slow, shuffling version of the duck walk to get myself closer. He tracked my progress with narrowed eyes, but when I widened my arms and reached for him, even though we weren’t anywhere near close enough to touch, he leaned forward as if he wanted what I offered but couldn’t make himself move to accept it.

“Shane, it’s okay.” Shane’s posture stiffened, but I figured it was more from the force of holding himself back than from aggression, so I kept talking. “Just listen to my voice, okay? We’ll get through this. You can do it. I know you can. Just stay with me.”

Shane’s Adam’s apple bobbed hard, and I knew he was still with me. “I’m going to make a phone call. Just keep fighting. Keep listening to the sound of my voice. I promise, kid, I won’t hurt you. This is not your fault. Do you understand?”

He didn’t acknowledge me except to go even more still, inhumanely still. I took that as his acceptance and pressed the button on my ear piece to connect it to my phone. “Call Giancarlo.”

“Calling Giancarlo,” came the feminine reply in my ear, and a moment later, the call connected. “Dante.”

“G.C., I need you at my penthouse. Bring a cooler of blood units.”

“Time frame?”

“Faster than humanely possible. Five minutes is too late.”

“It will take twenty minutes just to get to your place, asshole.”

“Speed, brother. I don’t care if you have to hold up the blood bank at gunpoint. I need you to bring as many blood units here as possible, and I need them now. Blood type doesn’t matter.”

“What’s going on, little brother?”

I sighed, looking into Shane’s shiny eyes, hoping like fuck those weren’t gathering tears I saw lining his lower lid. “I have a newborn vampire fighting frenzy in my living room. Get here. Now. Please.”

“Fuck.” Giancarlo’s sigh sounded loud through the speaker. “You never say please. What the fuck, Dante? Is he that important?”

I kept staring into those imploring emerald eyes and nodded. “He is. He’s very important. And he’s suffering, ‘Carlo.”

Another long, deep sigh preceded the line going dead, and I let my ear piece go offline on its own as I crept toward Shane. “Help is coming. Can you come here?”

Shane’s lower lip wobbled once before he firmed his mouth in a feral hiss. Honestly, I’d never seen a newborn with this amount of frenzy control before. Either my blood was helping him out in this small way, or there was something about him that made him strong, and if that was the case, he could become an exceptional vampire, someone I wouldn’t mind letting loose on the world, because it was there, written all over his agonized face, that he didn’t want to become a monster. He hadn’t signed up for that.

We stayed like that, me speaking in soft, encouraging tones while Shane vibrated with tension. Neither of us were really aware of any time passing, not with the tension this high. It was almost like a gunshot going off when the alarm disengaged and my brother threw the door open.

Several things happened at once. Giancarlo dropped the cooler he was carrying, making another loud, obnoxious noise. I jumped, because I had been so focused on keeping Shane calm. And Shane exploded into motion so fast he was a blur aimed for my eldest brother’s chest. I barely had the reflexes, but managed to snag one of Shane’s ankles and jerk him down to the floor, pinning him beneath me.

I just had Shane’s arms pinned behind his back when Giancarlo flew into motion and reached for the stake at his back.

Groaning, I knelt on Shane’s back, keeping his arms pinned, which took all my strength, and glared up at Giancarlo. “Do you mind not making this worse, you asshole? Put the stake away and fucking help me, you fuck.”

Giancarlo smirked as he put his stake back in its holster and stared at me. “Could you squeeze more fucks into that sentence, Mr. Degenerate?”

“I fucking will if you don’t get the fuck down here and fucking help me instead of being a fucking noisy, useless fucking statue.”

“That was a little extreme, even for you.” The idiot snorted, a habit so much like my own that we both grinned before the expression slipped off our faces and it became all business. He took a deep breath, forced himself to relax, and set his shoulders. “What do you want me to do?”

I frowned down at the red head I had pressed against the floor. “He’s fighting it. Calm your voice, move slow, and be kind.”

“Be kind? He’s hissing at me.”

God, give me strength. “He’s hissing at you, asshole, because you’re scaring him.”

“I—”

My patience for my second-favorite brother just died a miserable death and he realized it the moment his eyes met my glare. “Look.” I perked a brow, waiting for him to start arguing, but when he snapped his mouth shut, I nodded. “He’s a brand new vampire. Only a few weeks changed. He’s never met you. You came in here, loud and obnoxious, and scared him. But look at him, and look very carefully.”

Giancarlo surprised me by squatting down and taking in the kid beneath me. “The son-of-a-bitch is crying…”

“Yes. I don’t know how, but he’s still somewhat aware, and it’s scaring the fuck out of him. So, can you please be kind, just for today, and help me calm him down?”

My brother blew out a long breath, combing his fingers through his short-cropped brown hair and nodded. “Tell me what to do.”

“Just stay there. Stay on his level. He’s already starting to relax.”

Now that I was finally able to give Shane my full attention, I could more easily feel the tension leaving him in very small increments. With one hand, I held his arms behind his back, and with the other, I started carding fingers through his hair. “Shane, you’re all right. Is it safe for me to let you up now?”

He gave me an infinitesimal shake of his head, his hissing picking up as he started to pant. His eyes were wild, and something about that abject terror broke something deep within me, and I almost lost my entire shit. I hung on, but just barely.

“Listen to me,” I murmured as I leaned in to nudge his ear. “You’re scared. That means you’re in control. The fact you told me no, it’s not safe to let you up, proves you don’t want to hurt me, so you’re not fully gone into the frenzy.”

His entire body shook like he was suddenly freezing, and I rubbed the area between his shoulder blades, up along his spine to massage the back of his neck, then trailed my fingers up into his thick, wavy red hair. “It’s okay. We’ll get you sorted, but you have to trust yourself for a bit. You’re fighting so hard, and Giancarlo and I are both proud of you for that. But you need to fight harder before it passes.”

I shifted my weight to straddle his lower back, no longer driving my knee into his spine because he wasn’t resisting me anymore. “I’m going to let you up, and you’re going to relax and let me do everything, okay?”

It was hesitant, but he nodded. And then Giancarlo opened his fucking mouth and ruined it all. “You know he could be lying to you just to get you to let him up so he can try and kill both of us.”

Shane jerked like he’d been punched. The next moment, he bucked me off like I weighed nothing. He went to lunge. Just before he got his feet under him, I managed to grab his arm and jerk him back against me. He hissed, but as I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him to me, some of the tension left him. The shit turned and pressed his face into the curve of my neck. Normally, that shit wouldn’t faze me. But, with his fangs out, his every breath coming out as a feral hiss, my entire body started singing the Nope song while my panicked little hind brain asshole screamed “Danger, Will Robinson!”

“Fuck!” Giancarlo roared, and that was the last thing I needed. I held up a hand to keep him from coming closer.

“He’s not hurting me. He’s terrified. It’s just like Francesca does when she’s scared or needs comfort.”

“But our niece doesn’t have fangs,” Giancarlo argued, heat and urgency in his deep voice.

“Still the same principle.” I rubbed circles into Shane’s back, feeling him relax just a bit more.

“Shane?” He jerked and I held him tighter. “It’s going to be alright. Just don’t bite me, okay?” The nod against my neck did little to get my hind brain to stop shrieking, but it would have to do. “Giancarlo is my eldest brother. He won’t hurt you. He’s just not used to helping newborns, okay? He’s also a cynical bastard, just like me. But, he’s got a kind heart, and he’s going to help. Will you let him help you?”

Shane let out this soft whine that broke my entire heart. Nothing in my power could stop me from pressing a kiss to the top of his head, and that move made Giancarlo give me a quirked brow.

“You really care for this kid…”

“None of this is his fault, G.C. None of it. Would you rather someone do this for Francesca, or would you rather they hurt her and lock her in a room?”

“It’s not the same.”

I sighed as I rested my cheek against Shane’s head. “In a way, it’s exactly the same.”

My brother shook his head, but his eyes softened. “What do you need?”

“Get a blood bag out, snip off the corner, and hand it to me. Keep them coming as he drains each one.”

Nodding, Giancarlo stood and retrieved the cooler he’d brought with him, then detoured into my kitchen for a pair of scissors. When he returned, he held down a bag of blood, and the moment I took it, he sat cross-legged in front of me, just shy of touching Shane.

“What brought this on?”

I shrugged. “I won’t know that until he’s calm enough to talk. He’d gone to put his things away and change, and suddenly he was growling in the hall.”

“And if this had happened while you were asleep?”

Shit. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask that particular question. Unable to lie to him, I just shrugged as I pressed the blood bag’s cut corner to Shane’s lips. “I’ll sleep with my door locked. There’s really no other choice until I can find him a surrogate master. I’m not going to just lop his head off because his frenzies are an inconvenience. That’s like giving up on a toddler because of a temper tantrum they throw from being overtired or hungry.”

Shane made this grunting-whimper noise that made me chuckle. “I know you’re not a toddler or puppy. But the comparisons are still apt, you shit.”

“Had that conversation a time or two, have you?” Giancarlo asked, his tone so full of amusement I glanced up at him to see he wore one of his genuine smiles, the kind he reserved for family. “You already know his grunts?”

“Common sense, but yeah. We’ve had that convo a time or two.”

We lapsed into a comfortable silence the way only close brothers could. Every time Shane drained a bag, Giancarlo handed me another. Shane didn’t try to handle the bags, but let me dump the blood into his mouth as if he trusted me implicitly not to let any dribble down his chin, and as if he didn’t trust himself at all not to attack if he was allowed to move his fingers enough to take over the task, himself. Frankly, the latter broke my heart into millions of jagged pieces.

When Shane had emptied about half the cooler, he groaned and lightly pushed my hand away. Glancing down, I noted that his eyes looked better. His fangs weren’t as long, nor did they seem as sharp as they had not long ago. And when he looked up at me, his big green eyes were so full of trust and apologies that I couldn’t help but kiss his forehead, just as I would have done for any of my nieces or nephews.

Fuck, I had it bad.

“How do you feel?”

Shane whimpered and pressed his face back into the curve of my throat, but at least he’d stopped hissing with every breath. “Full…”

“Do you still feel crazy?”

He shook his head, his hand clutching at my shirt. “No… I don’t know. Not anywhere near as bad as I was.”

Giancarlo laid a hand on Shane’s shoulder, and the boy stiffened, shrinking against me as if he were trying to somehow burrow under my skin. My brother didn’t seem offended, but kept his hand where it was. “How did this start? Do you remember?”

Shane shrugged and rolled his shoulder, trying to get Giancarlo’s hand off, and my brother finally relented. “I think I was freaking out about everything that Dante bought me today. I’ve never had anything so nice, and there was so much, and it was all so expensive, and I think I started having a panic attack. The next thing I know, it felt like I was dying. I was crawling across the carpet, trying to get to Dante because I thought he could help me. Then, when I got to the hallway, I smelled blood, and things started going sideways. It was… it was awful and strange. I don’t remember ever going through that before.”

“Well, let’s get you off the floor,” Giancarlo said as he stood. He reached down and hooked his hands under Shane’s arms, hauling him up. Then he offered me a hand up, and the moment I was standing on my own two feet, Shane was in my arms again, shaking like he was standing naked in a meat locker.

“You okay, kid?” I asked.

“No…”

Sighing, I carded my fingers through his hair and rested my lips on the top of his head. “You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”

Shane didn’t answer me. When I glanced up at Giancarlo, he had this sad, pinched look on his face like one of our nephews just faceplanted on concrete and he couldn’t do anything because our sister was already on clean-up-and-coddle duty.

Just then, my security system disengaged and my front door opened. I hadn’t been expecting anyone else. My hackles raised. But, Giancarlo remained relaxed. When I glanced over, my youngest brother sauntered in, his gait strong and confident as if he owned the world.

“Sorry to barge in. Giancarlo called me for backup, but it seems you have everything under control.”

Shane burrowed against me, making me hold him even tighter so I had to nod against his head. “Nice to know none of you ever knock.”

Angelico shrugged. “We’re family. We’ve never knocked.”

This was true. But sometimes… sometimes I wished they had some semblance of courtesy. I could have my dreams.

My youngest brother seemed to see my thoughts scroll across my face and smirked unrepentantly. Then he came closer and brushed his fingertips across Shane’s shoulder.

“Turn around, please.”

Shane turned his huge eyes up to meet mine, and I shrugged.

“What do you want?” he asked.

Angelico gave him a small smile. “Among other things, I am a licensed physician. But, unlike most physicians, I’ve extensively studied wardens as well as vampires in addition to humans. I’d like to examine you to see if we can’t find a way to make your frenzies less common.

After a few moments of tense silence, I ran a hand down Shane’s back. “He won’t hurt you, and I think it’s a good idea.”

With a sigh, Shane gave a defeated nod against my shoulder and pulled away. “I don’t want to go through that again.”

“If it’s any consolation, it may be unpleasant, but it won’t hurt,” Angelico said. He patted Shane on the back and motioned to the hallway. “Let’s head to one of the spare bedrooms for privacy.”