The night was young, as they say, and I was hungry. My band, Blood Money, had finished a set a few blocks away not long ago. Rather than feed on patrons there, we’d chosen to take our business—and our nearly insatiable appetites—to a specific gay bar farther downtown. I scanned the room looking for my next meal, before settling on a paunchy, balding forty-something man staring at me with a lewd grin on his face. The man licked his lips and pushed himself off of the table he’d been half-seated on, heading my way.
The truth was I could’ve had nearly anyone in that bar—between my youthful good looks, my status as a rock star, and, well, mind control, any number of the mortals in the room would’ve followed me to the bathroom, the alley, or just about anywhere I took them. After all, what’s the fun of being a vampire if you can’t get just about anything you want?
Regardless, this one looked like an easy target—eager and forgettable. If I went too far and killed him, I doubted anyone would miss him.
I plastered a smile on my face and curled a finger at him before turning to push through the crowd towards the men’s room. I didn’t bother to look behind to see if he followed. I was sure he would.
The men’s room was empty, a small, dark space with a single toilet, a stained sink, and a cracked mirror. The overhead light flickered weakly, and the room stank of urine and disinfectant, with an undercurrent of stale alcohol, and water trickled audibly from the single sink.
There was a quick, soft double tap on the door before it opened slowly. The man peeked in, the smile on his face widening as he did, and he stood straighter as he entered.
I leaned against the sink and grinned, sincerely this time, as my stomach twisted and ached with the desire to feed, and I clenched my jaw to keep my fangs from descending too soon, as they did when I was sexually aroused or ready to feed, then relaxed when I felt the pressure in my fangs ease. “Well, hello there.”
The man’s heart was pounding loudly, thrumming in my ears, and I smelled the adrenaline pumping through him. Another hunger pang roiled through me as I took a step closer to him.
“Holy shit, you’re really Eli Steele.”
“So I am.”
I held up a hand to quiet him. The only thought racing through my mind was the thick red liquid flowing through his veins, and I didn’t have the patience to deal with the conversation that was about to happen. “Shh. Come here.” I did my best to look interested in what he was interested in, casting a glance at his raging erection and biting my lower lip coyly. I reached out and gripped his waistband, tugging his body close and inhaling deeply. He smelled good enough, and I was ravenous. I looked him directly in the eye for a beat without blinking, easily pulling him under my mental control, and murmured, “I’m going to kiss you now.”
He nodded and leaned forward, but I dipped to the side, let my fangs slide into place, and ran my tongue along the tips. I eased closer and pressed my mouth to his pulse point, relishing the thud beneath the skin before I sank my teeth into his throat. They met little resistance as they punctured his skin. His knees went slack, and I wrapped an arm around him to hold him steady.
Blood spilled and coursed onto my tongue, and I exhaled sharply through my nose as my mouth began to fill. After several satisfying swallows, the ache in my gut began to subside. I wanted more to eat, but frankly, his blood wasn’t as refreshing as I’d hoped for. It was bitter with the tang of drugs and alcohol, not the clean, unaltered flavor I preferred, and flat without emotion. I wanted something more, and it had been a long time since I’d had it. It seemed everywhere we went, every human we encountered was the same.
The last time I’d had what I was looking for was when I’d been with Thomas, the only time I’d taken a human lover since I’d been turned. I could still remember the way his pale eyes fixed on me as the life drained from his body while I held him, unable to do anything to save him, knowing he’d never forgive me if I’d turned him.
I retracted my fangs and dragged my tongue across the wounds, sealing them.
The man shook his head as I pulled away and released him from my trance. He palmed my cock, which was hardening now that my hunger had been tended to, and I groaned and rocked my hips forward.
He laughed lightly and squeezed my erection. “Turn around and I’ll fuck you.”
I snorted inelegantly. “Hardly. I don’t… no. Get on the ground and suck me.”
The man’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head again. “I can’t. Bad knees.”
“Well then,” I began, my irritation rising, “I suppose we’re done here.” He wasn’t Thomas. He was never going to be Thomas, nor would he fill the void left behind. My chest ached, though not with hunger this time. I exhaled sharply and closed my eyes for a brief second, trying to wipe away the memory that haunted me.
“Hey—” he murmured and leaned forward to kiss me, but I turned my head away.
“No. Goodnight.” I stepped smoothly out of his embrace and left the man standing there as I crossed to the door. It occurred to me that he’d notice the marks on his neck sooner or later, but honestly, I just didn’t care. He wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was… something else. Something different. I was tired of the lifestyle we lived, tired of always chasing after things I’d never have. I was done.
Back in the bar, I returned to my band. The three of them greeted me at the table with raucous cheering.
“Could you not?” I hissed. “Try to be less conspicuous, would you? The last thing I need is dozens of fans rushing me right now.”
“Relax, lover-boy. That’s easily your seventy-fifth victim this month. Did you get what you needed this time?” Drew rubbed his angular, smooth jaw and guffawed. He pushed his short, inky black hair away from his forehead and elbowed Rudy, who grinned and nodded. Rudy also had dark hair, but it fell in his face as he laughed, obscuring his deep brown eyes for a moment.
I plopped into the empty chair and narrowed my eyes at them. I was hungry and horny and had hardly anything to show for that quick trip to the bathroom. “It hasn’t been that many. It’s been more like… twenty or thirty. And leave me alone. I’m tired.”
“Tired? It’s not even close to dawn! Was it—” Drew lowered his voice. “Was he low in iron?”
I closed my eyes briefly and pressed the fingers of one hand to the bridge of my nose. “No. That was fine. It’ll get me through a couple of days at least.”
“Was he bad at sex? Humans are so often dreadful at it. So unpracticed.” Rudy waved a dismissive hand in the air.
“No, no, no. That’s not what I mean. I’m tired. Of…” I waved my hand around, gesturing at the entire bar. “This. All of it.”
Zeke rubbed his shaved head and put his phone down as he turned towards me. “You want to go to a different bar? The bleeder bar, maybe?”
I wrinkled my nose. I hated bleeder bars. Every large city seemed to have at least one bar that was full of men and women who’d somehow learned the truth about vampires—namely, that we existed—and were desperate to be turned. But their blood was never fresh enough for me. Something about the eagerness to be turned made it sour, curdled with desperation. And there was always the need to be extra careful. Bleeders didn’t mind being fed from, to an extent, but most of them truly did want to be turned, and the last thing I wanted was to be responsible for turning someone. Not a chance. I was too young for that, not even three hundred. Newly turned vampires were a lot of work, and I wasn’t interested in being tethered to someone else for the rest of eternity.
“No. You’re not listening. What I’m saying is I’m tired of our lives. Let’s… let’s do it. Let’s finally do what we’ve been saying we’ll do.”
Drew laughed and shook his head, his black hair falling in his face. “We are not faking our deaths and going back underground. This life is too good.”
I sat back in my chair. “You’re being unreasonable. It’s been twenty-five years of this. Eli Steele is forty-three this year. I’m tired of singing what amounts to the same songs every day. I’m tired of keeping up the same boring charade. How long have we been doing this with nothing to show for it?” Not to mention I missed our privacy and wanted a break from the debauched lifestyle we lived. It was fine for a while, but I was ready to step away.
I had been the youngest of us to be turned, only nineteen when I’d died, though I was the oldest of us in true years—I’d reached my two hundred and sixty-third birthday that year. There was no way any of us passed for being in our forties without makeup. Soon, we’d need prosthetics to keep people from questioning us.
“Nothing to show for it? We have more money than God, and a good bit of it has come from this iteration of ourselves. That’s something to show for it,” Rudy said.
“Wait,” Drew said. He crossed his muscular arms in front of his body. “Maybe Eli is right.”
Zeke’s eyebrows shot up. “He is?”
“I am?” I didn’t believe him for one second. With Drew, there was always a catch.
Drew shrugged in an attempt to look casual, but I didn’t trust him, not at all. “Maybe. I mean, you guys were just reading reviews that said our lead singer here is clearly depressed and the pressure of the road must be taking its toll on him. We have been doing the Blood Money thing for a long time—at least, in human years. And we do tour nonstop—considering we have unlimited stamina. Maybe it’s time to take a break and reinvent ourselves.”
“Are you serious?” Zeke asked, voice raising in pitch.
I waited for the catch.
“Sure, why not? But I’m not just giving up a good thing so easily. I mean, look at what we have now. Hundreds of thousands of people adore us and will give us anything we want, including their blood.” Drew pointed at me, eyebrows raised.
“We could—” I started.
“Use mind control on humans until they give us what we want, yes, but where’s the fun in that? Doesn’t it taste so much sweeter when given willingly? So I’ll make you a deal, darling. We’ll do it. We’ll give up everything for you—”
“I won’t,” Rudy said, crossing his arms.
Drew held up one finger. “You will. But only if Eli here can meet our conditions.”
Ah-ha. There it was—the catch. “Conditions?” I asked.
“A wager, let’s call it. A bet. You prove to us that you’ve done all you can do in this version of our lives, and we’ll put Blood Money to rest and follow you underground for a decade or two.”
“And how am I going to prove that?” My eyebrows rose. I didn’t want to have to prove myself, but I would if that’s what it took to convince Drew to let me off the hook.
Drew grinned wickedly. “Love, darling. I want you to fall in love. You’ve been simply miserable to be around since, well, you know, and I do believe that if you’d just fall in love, you’d move past this melancholy.”
My stomach twisted sickeningly, and not from a lack of blood this time. It had been over a hundred years since I’d allowed myself to fall in love, and I was not eager to do it again anytime soon. “That’s absurd. I can’t force myself to fall in love. Besides, we travel so much. How can I possibly find the time to fall in love when we’re always on tour?”
Zeke held up a hand. “Not to be a wet blanket, but won’t having him fall in love with someone complicate our disappearance?”
Drew narrowed his eyes. “Well, let’s call it longevity, then. If Eli can be with someone, a mortal, for at least a year, we’ll call it good. At the end of the year, we can charm their memories away, or bleed them dry, or, hell, turn them and have them join us. I don’t care. But at the end of the year, we all disappear from the public eye, and you get what you want. Here’s the other thing—you have to do it all without mind control.”
“But—humans are terrible at longevity! They have short attention spans. This will never work.”
Drew shrugged again. “Not my problem, is it? What do you say, gentlemen?”
He turned to Rudy, who nodded. “That sounds fair.”
Zeke was grinning, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners. “Indeed it does.”
I sighed, a weight settling in my chest. A year. Practically no time at all. I could do that. Besides, the truth was, I was piercingly lonely. Perhaps investing some time in cultivating a partner would do me some good—not that it would help in a year, when I had to charm away his memories and move on like nothing had ever happened. “Fine. Do I at least get to pick the person?”
“Next one to walk through that door,” Rudy said with a smile.
The door swung open, and a muscular man with short, blond hair came into the bar. Nerves raced through me as I took in the human I was intended to fall for.