Tonight, today, whatever time it is where you are, I bring you vampires. Not just any vampires. I bring you the everyday, normal sort of vampires that don't get the spotlight with the Guardians around. Tonight I bring you the story of Greg and Trey. I hope you like it. I think you will. I even made a little cover for this story. It's simple, but I dig it. It's very me. :) So read it and enjoy, then leave me a comment and tell me what you thought or what you think will happen. Two weeks from today I'll post part 2. You can find out if you were right then.
I hope everyone is doing well. If not, I hope this story will bring you a little joy. Until next time...
Shelter Me: Part 1
The vampires called it the Second City, but it wasn’t. Not really. It was more of an underground integration into New York City. It was a community that allowed the born Royal vampires, human-turned vampires, and their families to come together and rebuild themselves as citizens, so as not to be seen as objects of glamour or poverty. But like all societies, blending the two factions was hard.
Change was hard.
However, the vampires, Royal and not still worked together. They had family residences, schools, a church, doctors, shelters, counselors, and even insurance. They were trying to play human when they could never be. Nonetheless, they were good at hiding that fact. They walked the streets like any other citizen of NYC. Only they could tell each apart. To the humans they were merely mortal.
The Prince of Blood had given his people new hope, making the transition bearable by giving them a purpose and restoring their love of life. They had to watch over the humans, even if they never received a speck of gratitude for it. They had the Original and his brothers, the Guardians, as their sentinels against the Dealers and Assassins. But on the other side of cozy and domestic was a seriously dark underbelly to the city.
Rush—a drug cooked with vampire blood—now ran through dealers’ hands like smoke. Every territory had their own concoction of the highly addictive substance they sold to humans; some vials cheap and some rather expensive. Once a human consumed a vial of Rush, they were sent on a physical trip they never wanted to end. Although the high waned after a few hours, those humans craved another taste.
Those humans who tried to rehabilitate themselves of Rush failed. A Rush addiction was a thirst they couldn’t get rid of. The dealers were more than okay with that, and so were their bosses. Money was made. Crime rose to an all-time high in the city. The cops couldn’t keep up. For years they’d been baffled by the mysterious Rush. No forensic scientist understood what they were looking at. The blood-like component within the drug would evaporate before the police could test it; leaving them with the usual, uncut narcotics that’d been running the streets for decades.
To most of New York City, Rush was becoming a nightmare; even more so for the vampires now that their food source was tainted. Those who weren’t mated to their destined beloved were subjected to the harsh reality of poisoned, human blood. Once a human had tasted Rush, it laid dormant in their system. When a vampire fed from an exposed human, he or she would become feral after a short comatose state wherein they appeared dead. When they woke up, their violence was at full capacity; whether they killed a human or another vampire just for their blood, the vampire victim could not help themselves.
The effects could last for hours. They could last for days. Their feral state could be permanent, depending on the potency of the Rush. The only cure, aside from waiting for a cheap Rush high to end or death, was to feed from their true mate’s blood. To the vampire community, that was like asking feral victims to find a needle in a haystack before they lost awareness. It was a pretty much impossible situation by any sane person’s standards. Only five percent of vampires who’d consumed rush in a human’s blood had been documented as successfully being drawn to their mate under dire circumstances.
The others were put behind solid steel bars or killed by the Royal Guards, and sometimes the Guardians themselves. With every fallen vampire—no matter who they were or where they came from—they were mourned. They were mourned even if they were the enemy, because their death meant another notch in the belt of evil wrapping around the city.
The Royals and their human-turned followers cherished their close-knit community. During such dark times they needed to feel a part of something positive. A collective relief came when the Nick was introduced to the vampires. The Royal Doctor had developed the Nick as a small blood testing device used on humans. Before every feeding, an unmated vamp was to swipe their human donor into a state of tranquility and Nick them to test for traces of Rush.
A green light meant go. A red light meant run away.
Unless a vampire had acquired a trusted and willing human as his or her permanent blood donor, then a Nick was completely necessary. Then again, those with a permanent blood donor were unlawful by the Queen’s decree. Entrapping a human within one’s household for the purpose of blood slavery was punishable by death. Those vampires who chose to go against the Queen kept their slaves in secret. Those who played by the rules, the ones who used a Nick and fed properly were free of worry. They were the ones who treasured mortal life and watched over mankind.
That is where the Second City came into play. The structure provided all vampires with a safe means of living if they were willing to follow the rules. There was the NYC manager, Oliver Caldwell, who ran the business end of things in the city. He was the head honcho, right under the Guardians and then the Queen and the Prince. He kept things in line with the other managers, one for each borough of the city and other managers to both east and south of NYC.
Each manager was tasked with keeping their territory running smoothly, much like the alpha of a pack. Trickling down the line, there were also middle-of-the-road employees such as nurses and doctors, teachers and everyday-Joes. Among other facilities, each territory had as many as three clinics for emergency wounds, blood loss, and the simple distribution of Nicks. But the most important work of all, the most overlooked position within the city, was that of the shelter worker.
Shelters popped up all over NYC due to a growing need to house human-turned vampires who walked the streets confused and alone. More importantly it kept the newly turned out of trouble. Random turnings happened on a regular basis now; for the Royal’s enemy’s entertainment or to turn a minion, to maybe someone pretty they wanted to rough up and keep around. Turnings had become increasingly popular. So much so the shelters were required.
A homeless vampire was a person the Royals had never imagined would exist in all their long years on earth. They were more than willing to contribute monetary gifts to the needy, but most of them feared associating with those men and women who had been forced into a life of immortality; those who were poor and couldn’t hold jobs with humans because they would never age and people would begin to ask questions. Those who couldn’t control their hungry urges because they hadn’t been raised to know what to expect, and those who had terrible pasts and wanted to change but didn’t have the help they needed. The posh Royals were afraid to set foot near the homeless.
It was up to the generosity of the shelter workers to reach deep into their hearts, overlook the pasts of those who had been wronged or had suffered, and give them hope and a safe place to thrive. The shelter worker was a different breed of Royal. They were the younger generation who questioned the older generation’s standards and opposed their laziness.
They were vampires who wanted to get their hands dirty and make a difference, and not with their pocketbooks. They wanted to better their world and make the older vamps see the need of the world. The older generation, the ones who hid behind their riches and fancy Guards didn’t understand why their young would put themselves in danger every single day. Not to say every Royal of a certain age and privilege ignored the need, but most had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, a lifestyle that didn’t include hard work.
The younger generation was growing, both Royal and not, and there was nothing the world could do to stop them from lending a helping hand. They were the new warriors and teachers. They were the ones who changed lives. They were the ones who fought for a new day. And when one of them found their true mate… it was fate’s way of saying job well done. No one deserved love more than those who loved without asking for anything in return.
Greg Courtenay was one of those people. He resisted hiding behind his family’s money and power. He turned down the chance to work with his father, the manager of Soho and Tribeca, to work where he was needed most.
Greg was a shelter worker, one of the best. His life revolved around helping others, and most of the time he forgot his own needs in the process. He wasn’t perfect. Most would think he was an asshole who needed a dose of happiness to cure his grumpy demeanor. Most wouldn’t know where his heart was. Not even his family knew he liked to surround himself with work because he was lonely for his other half; that he hungered to help because work made him happy. Maybe he would never jump for joy or start randomly hugging people when a down-on-their-luck soul made it to his shelter, but he was happy on the inside. Where it counted.
Greg never smiled like he meant it. He didn’t have a reason to. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Greg knew who he was. He knew what he wanted. The only problem was he was having one hell of a time finding the guy who made him smile. Not forcibly. But because he was so happy to see his mate, the one who completed his life, that he couldn’t help it. Until he did find his one and only Greg was content to make others smile. It was what he did. Greg helped. He was patient.
Greg lumbered down Broadway into downtown SoHo. His scuffed, mahogany Doc Martens pounded wet pavement, courtesy of some passing rain around midnight. Listening to his headphones, Greg dodged people coming at him from all directions. He scowled at a man waving sunglasses in his face; some two for twenty deal with a brand name like Kersace.
After years of walking the Soho streets, especially on Broadway, Greg had learned to ignore the street vendors set up outside of the high end anchor stores. No one cared they were there except for tourists and the artsy types who wanted to keep up appearances without spending designer prices. Even if the cops told the vendors to hit the road, after annoying the shit out of the high end shops, they’d just pop up two blocks away. The vendors had to make money just like everyone else. Greg understood their need for bread and butter. But he didn’t take kindly to having merchandise shoved in his face as if he was about to be robbed at gunpoint.
He ducked the guy’s arm, growling under his breath, and carried on towards the metal scaffolding walkway outside of a big ticket shoe store. He stopped at the crosswalk, bouncing on his toes to the music from his headphones. The wide, painted white lines over the street didn’t mean much to the steady stream of traffic made of cars and pedestrians. Everyone followed a different flow in New York City. A flow Greg loved.
He didn’t care about an angry honk from a cabbie as he jogged over the crosswalk without waiting for the useless signal. Nor did he give a shit about the middle finger he got from a guy whizzing around the corner on a shiny Vespa. Greg returned the gesture much like he would wave hello; full of love and a hint of animosity. Adjusting his backpack, Greg pushed up the sleeves of his favorite flannel shirt and welcomed the sight of Dean and Deluca. One of the standard favorites on Broadway, Dean and Deluca had been around since the seventies, nearly sixty years now, and was still growing from the small time hole in the wall it once was.
Greg pulled open the door, inhaling the aroma of freshly baked bread and just brewed coffee. The new layout had boggled him for a few years. Upon entering the storefront there were now two doors, one leading to the café that had moved upstairs and one to the main floor shop. Eventually he’d learned to go for the right door, the one that would lead him to a world of gourmet heaven. Bins and shelves were filled with the finest ingredients any home chef would salivate over. Greg bypassed the glass counter of to-go pastries, breads, and other foods for the coffee bins.
They were out of beans in the shelter break room. Greg would be damned if he let Jaska or
Lizzy buy that cheap shit from the corner store ever again. He could still taste the bitter remnants of the last shitty cup on his tongue. Greg cringed at the thought of tasting another. Luckily, he hadn’t mentioned they were out, so he could ensure they never consumed Jaska’s idea of coffee in the future.
Lizzy buy that cheap shit from the corner store ever again. He could still taste the bitter remnants of the last shitty cup on his tongue. Greg cringed at the thought of tasting another. Luckily, he hadn’t mentioned they were out, so he could ensure they never consumed Jaska’s idea of coffee in the future.
Fresh carafes of coffee for sampling sat on a table near the bins. Greg took his time tasting from tiny paper cups while tapping his foot to one of his favorite jams streaming in through his ear buds. He settled on the Manhattan Blend, then scooped some beans into a sealable bag.
Approaching the counter was always dangerous. Black and white cookies, mini meatloaves, and warm Naan bread made his mouth water. He always hated to bring stuff like that into the shelter where the less fortunate could see.
Unless he had enough cash on him to feed the entire lot, Greg refrained from woofing down upscale treats around the kids. Just thinking about the amount of kids they had at the shelter made him sulk at the cookies sitting on the other side of the glass. He put his bag of beans on the counter and held up a finger to the cashier. The man nodded, going back to help another customer while Greg checked his funds on his phone.
He didn’t pay rent or a mortgage. He owned the building he lived in, which was the only monetary support he’d allowed from his family. And he’d only accepted their help after drawing up a strict contract, certifying him as the exclusive owner of the building, without any dealings from his parents in the future. He made money by renting out the four floors below his to people who had completed their training programs at the shelter.
He owned his car, a respectable, two year old Acura he’d bought straight from the dealer. The only other things he paid for were food, utilities, and normal expenses. Sounded great until he remembered he was a landlord of a historical building. Owning an older building meant a lot of money down the drain for repairs and renovations, especially in a place deemed historical by the city. Being a landlord was a headache in itself. Always having inspectors nosing around to keep things historically accurate and up to code, human city employees in particular. Greg didn’t want them getting too friendly. He didn’t exactly age and always changing his appearance to throw them off was a hassle.
The damn bills they always left behind were like a knife in the back. The permit to make Greg’s two first floor apartments into four was costing him way more than he’d intended. Then there was the cost of the fussy contractor, who was the best at historical renovations in the city. He charged more than Greg’s soul was worth. All in all, Greg was skating thin with his budget. The numbers on his phone didn’t make him feel any better.
He stared at the screen for a good five minutes before he sighed. Greg knew money couldn’t buy happiness for him. On the other hand, he could share what he had and buy a few smiles for those kids. He waved over the cashier.
“Do you have three dozen of the black and whites? They look picked over.”
The cashier turned to the baking staff wearing white kitchen smocks and hats. He spoke in Spanish. The answer the cashier received made him smile. “We can do that.”
“Cool. I’ll take those and this.” He pushed his pricey coffee over the counter, wondering if he should put it back. Thirty-five dollars was hell of a lot for coffee. He closed his eyes and nodded once. Nope. The coffee was worth it. He would not drink tar ever again.
Minutes later Greg was loaded down with two boxes of cookies and a full backpack of coffee. His day to day stuff was crammed at the bottom of his backpack, cutting into the small of his back. He awkwardly pushed the front door open with his shoulder, stepping out onto Broadway. The sun beamed down, welcoming the morning in Soho. Consistent chatter and yelling were muted by the ear buds he popped back into place. Cars inched between pedestrians. An older man promoted a sample sale, wearing a large sign hanging from his shoulders. He smiled at Greg.
Greg smiled back out of habit. He put up a polite hand to tell the guy to save his speech for someone else. Greg wasn’t very happy. He knew he couldn’t carry his boxes through traffic like this, especially on a Saturday morning when everyone and their mother were out for the day. His only option was to step to the curb, maneuver the boxes into the crook of his arm, and stick his hand out for a cab.
Greg hated cabs. The way they smelled. The cabbies themselves. Fuck. No.
Dollar signs danced through his head. With the gas hike in the past few months, he’d avoided taking his car anywhere unless it was farther than he was willing to walk. Or only if he needed to be Jaska’s backup at the clinic. Gas hikes also meant pricey cab rides; a ride he was about to take and drain his wallet for a simple trip two streets over. Now he understood why half the cabbies in the city had converted to the green vehicles, those electric ones that put a heavy profit in their pockets.
A cab pulled up. Of course it was an electric car; a Kelly green colored, compact four-door with a black and white checkered pattern around the sides. Greg was convinced the driver was new judging by how glossy the vehicle appeared. No dents from traffic. Not a scratch on the paint. The windows were spotless. He’d never seen a cab so clean in all his life. It was as if the driver had just attained his license and daddy let him drive it off the lot with two miles in the bank.
Greg’s suspicions were confirmed when the guy got out, looking fresh from nursery school with his rosy pink cheeks and bright blue eyes. The driver was pretty, young, and way too eager. No driver in the city would dare get out of their car unless someone needed the trunk popped for luggage. These were dangerous times, even in broad daylight, armed within the safety of the shopping district.
Almost knocking the boxes from Greg’s hands, the driver hustled to open the door for Greg. “There you go.”
“You a chauffeur? I’m not looking to pay those prices.” Greg eyed the kid’s suave, blond pompadour. He looked like a part-time model. Hell, everyone was a model these days, or aspiring to be. Pretty kids did well. Greg wouldn’t be surprised if this kid was into after hour activities with his clients. Yep, he thought, definitely one of those chauffeurs, aka a part-time prostitute.
“No. I swear. Just a cabbie, but I do take calls from regulars if that’s what you mean.”
“Regulars? You aren’t old enough to have regulars.” Greg snorted and slipped into the back seat. He was surprised to see even the Plexiglas separating him from the front was free of fingerprints, smears, or anything else he didn’t want to know about. The leather backseat smelled clean and was actually comfortable. Soft music played up front as he took his ear buds out completely and settled in. Okay, maybe the guy was just really clean, not a prostitute driver after all, Greg concluded, and rubbed his face. What the hell was he thinking? A prostitute driver? Ugh. Coffee.
The driver got in, then turned around. “I’m Fletcher.”
“And I’m your customer.” Greg waited. He wasn’t giving out his name.
“Okey dokey.” Fletcher shrugged, not put off in the least. “Where to? God I love saying that.” He bounced a little.
Greg wanted to slap himself. “Greene Street, the SCS complex.”
“The SCS?” Fletcher almost licked the glass with excitement. “Do you work there? What is it, exactly? There’s more security there than at the White House. Is it like a government thing? No one knows what the heck it is, and weirdly, no one seems to care. How can they not care? There’s this huge building that takes up half a city block and no one knows about it? Weird, right?”
Greg growled. He kept his fangs in check. He wanted to duct tape the kid to his steering wheel and get the heck out of dodge. “It’s a non-profit. That’s all you need to know. Now are you going to get going or do I need to get another cab?”
“Oh, right, I’m sorry. I know I talk a lot. It’s why I love this job. I meet people from all over and I hear the most interesting things. My dad drives for another company. He got me into this. I used to go to NYU. I wanted to be a movie producer. That flopped. Turns out college is a lot harder than high school.”
“And that was, what, last year?” Greg rolled his eyes.
“Three years ago,” Fletcher chirped. “So, where are you from?”
Greg stared at the rearview mirror, wishing he could swipe Fletcher into silence with his vampire, Jedi mind tricks, but that was forbidden and the guy was now driving down Broadway. Probably a bad idea to swipe Fletcher while he was operating a moving vehicle, Greg thought.
“Mysterious and silent, I like it,” Fletcher continued. “I used to be shy, too, back in the day.” He giggled.
“When you were in diapers and couldn’t form words, that kind of back in the day?” Greg put his hand to the window when Fletcher made a sharp left onto Spring Street headed towards Mercer. “Jesus, kid, easy does it. I’d like to get there alive if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about a thing. I passed my test with flying colors. Sit back and relax.” Fletcher bobbed his head to the music, grooving along to some remix of The Spencer Davis Group. His seat-bound dance moves were worthy of a few dollars and his jovial smile probably lit up a room…or a cab when his customer was enjoying themself. Greg was not.
Greg flopped against the seat, holding a hand on his boxes next to him. He rolled his eyes for the hundredth time. His mouth sprung open when Fletcher jerked to the right to avoid a group of fashionable, artist groupies moving boxes into a newly opened gallery across the street. “Will you just—oh my god!”
The cab swerved again, dodging an oncoming delivery truck and a bike messenger holding onto the truck’s back handle. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Fletcher drummed his hands on the wheel at the stop light. He flicked his eyes to the mirror. “About what? I didn’t say anything. And I’m not great with jokes, either, if that’s what you’re doing. I’m lucky if I understand those stupid ones on the back of Laffy Taffy wrappers.”
Greg gaped. His heart hammered while he caught his breath. “I didn’t…I just—are you mental?”
Fletcher’s brows screwed up. “You’re weird, you know that? At first I thought you were a little stressed, but you’re just weird, aren’t you?”
“I’m the weird one?” Greg blinked. He contemplated making a run for it. His plans were dashed as the light turned green and Greg zipped back into the traffic. “Yeah. Right. Can we just not talk anymore? That would be great.”
“Whatever you say, whatever your name is. How about Steven? That’s a nice, respectable name. You look like a Steven, although I’m not sure I’ve ever known a redhead named Steven. There’s always a first time for everything.” Fletcher slowed for a pair of elderly ladies holding armfuls of flowers. He waved at them as they crossed Spring Street from a flower stand right in front of Greg’s building.
“I’m amazed you didn’t just run them over, and for future reference I hate the name Steven. It’s Greg. I mean, I’m Greg, and I thought I told you I didn’t want to chat anymore.”
The cabbie’s eyes went right to Greg’s building, the historic 101 Spring Street address. It was the last original cast iron building left in SoHo, and his parents had paid a pretty penny to buy it from an art foundation. The man who’d owned it had been a preservationist and an artist. He’d left it to a foundation upon his death, and when they couldn’t afford the upkeep, being a non-profit, they’d put it up for private sale.
Greg and his family had pounced on the buy. 101 was the most beautiful building Greg had ever seen. He cringed at the thought of this lunatic ever knowing where he lived. He was lucky Fletcher would never ruin his secret haven, with its beautiful geometric windows, wide, open floor plans, and rooftop garden he’d installed a few years back. As confident as Greg felt with that knowledge, he was disturbed to find Fletcher still parked in the lane, staring at his building.
“I applied to the owner for an apartment here one time. I’d heard he offered low income plans and I’d always been drawn to this place because of its history and how perfect it is.” Fletcher wistfully exhaled and shifted into drive after a few honks urged him on.
Greg squirmed. “Oh yeah? What happened?”
“I received a call the same day, after I’d dropped the app in the mail slot. Said he wasn’t interested and to stop bothering him, and that’s putting it nicely for you. He wondered how I got an application in the first place. He called me a dumbass then told me I was probably a crazy person on crack.” Fletcher shrugged. “I mean, I made the application on my computer. I got a bit desperate when I couldn’t find anything online. Wasn’t meant to be I guess. A studio apartment was. God, it’s like living in a closet sometimes.”
A twinge of guilt grabbed Greg. Had he really been so mean to the poor human? He hated having a conscience sometimes. “Maybe he was having a rough day. Or maybe he just didn’t want a bunch of people hounding him for apartments all the time. It is a private residence after all. That was kind of silly of you to push him an application if he wasn’t advertising.”
“Yeah,” Fletcher sobered. “You’re right. It was pretty stupid.”
He stared out the windshield, keeping his eyes on the recently laid cobblestone street; it was part of the SoHo Renovation Project. They’d been restoring bits and pieces of the area for the past year. Colorful, cast-iron facades, all smashed together, lined either side of Spring Street. Someone like Fletcher would take notice of the artistry in their Corinthian columns and pediments, and the network of fire escapes, but Fletcher seemed shut down. Greg felt like an absolute shit for killing his sunny smile.
“Look, you should put your application in at the CityTwo high rise in the village. They haven’t opened yet, but a friend of mine is managing the rental of those condos to…” Humans. “He’s renting to low income applicants. They haven’t spread the word yet. You should stop by and tell Arnie Greg sent you.”
Fletcher’s eyes came to life. He grinned wide enough to show his pearly whites. “It’s not SoHo, but CityTwo is classy. Thanks for the drop. I’ll, um—I’ll stop by.”
“Sure,” Greg muttered, scratching his prickly chin. “He’s there pretty late. You could probably catch him tonight.”
“Maybe I’ll do that after my plans this evening.”
“Plans?” Greg sniffed to hide his laugh. “Catching up on your DVR cartoons with some Laffy Taffy?”
Fletcher reddened. “I have a date.”
“Right.” Greg swallowed. He looked out the window. “Good luck, kid.”
The cab jerked to a stop in from of the SCS complex. Greg looked at his phone, bewildered at the time. “You made it here in five minutes. That’s a record somewhere.”
“I told you I’m good.” Fletcher winked.
“Uh huh, well…” Greg pulled his Smart Wallet up on his phone and put it to the small scanner on his side of the glass.
“No, no, no. First ride is free in my cab.” Fletcher slipped a business card through the slot in the glass. “Here’s a free punch too.”
“You’re giving me a punch card…in a cab?” Greg turned the thing over, noticing the heart punched out in the first of seven boxes.
“Mm hmm, the eighth ride is free. Call me whenever you like. I’m around pretty much all the time, except for tonight, of course.” Fletcher bit his lip. “I hope it works out. I’m tired of the dating scene.”
Still kind of caught up in the whole punch card deal, Greg nodded. “I feel you there, dating fucking sucks.”
Greg’s face fell. “No,” he lied.
Confusion ran though Fletcher’s eyes. He recovered quickly. “Call me anytime, cool?”
“I’ll hold onto this.” Greg pocketed the card, drawing out a twenty from behind his phone. He slid the tip through the slot. “Good luck on your date.”
Before Fletcher of Dazzling Cabs could dazzle him with another word, Greg hopped out of the cab and took his boxes with him. Nodding to Fletcher, Greg went to the locked gates of the complex and held up his phone. His information registered. The gates split down the middle, allowing him entry to the other side of the concrete security wall.
To humans the SCS complex looked like a hotel slash prison. Its ultra-modern exterior and graffiti sprayed security wall blended in with the vibe of Soho; a mix of new and vintage; a throwback to the eighties and eight hundreds with a slick splash of technology and chic. The first floor façade was wrapped in a sleek, light metal finish, bordering the otherwise white brick building. Tall windows gave residents and staff a great view of the manicured courtyard between the building and the security wall from the inside.
The front entrance required yet another employee check in. Greg flashed his phone over the scanner and waited for the green light.
Looking at the SCS complex was surreal to him, having come from the old building three blocks over not even two years ago. The first SoHo shelter, Oliver had given to his friend Jaska to run and then to Jaska’s girl Nanette once they were mated. After the couple’s wedding and a string of attacks on the shelter from local vampire gangs, Oliver, and Greg’s father Flynn, bought out half a city block on Greene Street to convert into the SCS complex. They wanted big. They wanted secure. They got it.
Greg had no idea the place would be this big, and he’d been involved in the design plans since day one. When Jaska had asked him to take the job of co-coordinator at SCS, Greg’s jaw had almost dropped. He’d be in charge of hundreds of homeless vamps. His responsibilities would be many. His life would be hectic. He’d accepted immediately. His heart was in this place. Greg wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, no matter where his father wished he would be; by his side as some kiss ass assistant until Flynn retired on a tropical coast, leaving Greg as the manager of SoHo.
No fucking way, Greg thought, walking into the synthetic cool of the SCS lobby. Lizzy looked up from the front desk with an unsure smile. “It’s your day off, isn’t it? Crap. Is it Friday? Did I miss a day? They all blur together. I swear.” Lizzy frowned at the touch controlled, smart-board calendar behind her. “No…it’s Saturday. What are you doing here?” She eyed the Dean and Deluca boxes. “Tell me that’s chocolate.”
Greg held the boxes away. “Only if you don’t tell Jaska I’m here. I need to check my schedule for next week and see if I can’t work in a one-on-one with that Henry kid. He’s trying to show his ass, but all he really wants is to be noticed. I thought if we could talk out something, maybe give him some part-time work around here, he would settle down.”
Lizzy’s russet colored brows waggled, accentuating her striking blue eyes and playful stack of tight blonde curls. She leaned over the counter, reaching for the boxes. “I don’t think Henry was trying to get your attention.”
“Oh, you’re the expert now?” Greg shifted the boxes away from her grabby hands. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I was a sixteen-year-old girl at one time. A very long time ago, sure, but I was.” She smiled longingly. Greg caught her zoning out and waved a hand in her face. Lizzy snapped back to attention. “Teenage girls like bad boys. Henry seems to have caught on to that fact, but he’s really lousy with his execution. You can’t exactly be bad when you’re an awkwardly cute, hormonal ball of nerves with a short temper.”
“A girl? He broke into the kitchen, stole half a dozen cupcakes, freaked out on the night watch when they caught him, and disappeared from the facility somehow for two days—because of a girl!” Greg set the boxes down, eyes narrowed. He’d come in on his day off to see about helping a wayward, teenage boy. He’d felt sorry for Henry. Now? Not so much.
“Her name is Ariel, and before you start pelting those delicious baked goods at Henry’s head, you should hear me out.” Lizzy walked around the desk, showing off her long legs and worn-in purple sneakers. “You know Henry is a runaway. He came from a pureblood family on the Upper East Side before his parents were killed by taking in a Rush-infected blood donor.”
“I know where he came from. I know everything about him, Lizzy.” Greg started to pace. “His parents made a name for themselves after what they did, taking in a human blood donor like some fucking merry maid.”
“No. You don’t know if you don’t remember he went to school and had friends before he came here. That poor kid refuses to let Ariel’s parents take him in because he’s ashamed his parents broke the Queen’s law and took in a blood donor. That’s blood slavery, Greg.” She frowned. Her pouty blue eyes strayed towards the window. “And in a karmic twist of fate they both went feral and killed each other and the human. That’s rough on a boy, Greg. Ariel is the only one he’ll talk to. I know what he did in the kitchen was wrong, but he wanted to give her something for her birthday. He didn’t have any money and he was so embarrassed when he was caught that he got angry and took off. Anybody in his place would have hit the road. He was terrified. And when he realized he didn’t have anywhere else to go, he came stumbling back for help, hoping like hell he still had a place here.”
Greg’s heart clenched. The nurture part of his brain duked it out with the rules he knew he should enforce. Stealing was punishable by eviction from the shelter. However, in the case of a struggling teenage boy who’d found his parents ripped to pieces by their own hands, Greg had to wonder if the rules applied. “She come here?”
“She’s here right now.” Lizzy put her hands up. “Don’t wig out, okay? I told them she could visit for an hour in the common room before group sessions started. They have a guard with them.”
“No visitors from the outside until they’ve completed training, Lizzy,” Greg growled. “You know that.”
“He’s not one of them, Greg. He knows where he came from and how to behave. He hasn’t even turned, for crying out loud.” She pushed him from behind, urging him across the lobby. A resident ducked with a weak smile from behind a cleaning cart. The female continued to wash windows, one of her chores as part of her housing agreement. Everyone had to work together to make the SCS run. The work was also good to give the residents structure. They appreciated being helpful wherever they could.
Greg pitied her. He slipped a cookie onto a fresh square of paper towel on top of her cart. He put his finger to his lips, hushing her radiant, yet silent thank you. He winked, letting Lizzy push him into the first floor, common hall. The cafeteria was to the right through large picture windows; nothing special except a dozen long tables and bench seats. In front of him was a set of double doors leading into the gymnasium covered in resident graffiti. The artwork was part of the head therapist Quinton’s art therapy program. Residents seemed to get a kick out of it. Truthfully, so did Greg. It brought a bit of the street inside, taking away the clinical atmosphere of the place.
To the left was the open common room. Overstuffed armchairs, sofas, and loveseats in vibrant colors were mixed around the room, some even situated in front of built-in flat screen televisions. A wall of bookcases sat underneath one long window to let in adequate natural light. This was where residents held their group therapy sessions and chilled during designated free time.
At the moment it was being used for an unprecedented visitor get-together. Greg was trying to keep a smile for the girl’s sake. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Henry had. He was in for a talking-to-and-a-half later on. Greg approached the scrawny teenage boy and put the boxes down on the table between Henry and Ariel. The pair of them were like night and day. Henry was pale and lanky, with a stupid haircut and thick bangs like some skater boy. His coppery eyes stayed on the table like a guilty dog.
Ariel on the other hand was a beautiful girl. Her café au lait complexion was smooth and radiant. A bright blue headband tamed her naturally textured curls away from her face. Her chocolate mane spiraled out of control around her head. Her eyes were the same color as her skin, a dark honey so sweet Greg couldn’t help but smile. She was young and cute and Greg understood Henry’s situation immediately. If she was as nice and caring as she looked, Henry would probably do anything to keep her around. That was the way of boys, Greg thought.
“Hi.” Ariel stood up immediately and offered Greg her hand. “I’m Ariel Garhart, Henry’s best friend. You must be Greg.”
Greg shook her hand with a loose grip. “How do you know that?”
“Henry said to watch out for the angry redhead, but you look pretty harmless.” She smiled sweetly. “Trust me. My dad has angry on lock when I get in trouble. In fact, he’s pretty angry Henry here won’t agree to stay with us. We’re his family, too, you know.”
“Ari,” Henry hissed, hiding his face in his hands. “Stop.”
Greg enjoyed Ariel’s matter-of-fact attitude and confidence. He dropped his hand to open the cookie box. The white and black cookie couldn’t have been a more perfect choice, he thought, looking between the two teens. Kind of like fate, he added. “Hungry, Henry?”
“Are they poisoned?” Henry cut his eyes up, scowling.
“Yeah, that’s what we do here. We poison cookies for kids to eat so we can turn over beds to more unfortunate souls for slaughter,” Greg snapped back.
“Alrighty.” Lizzy clapped her hands. “I’m going to have one. Then we should all sit down and have Greg explain the volunteer program to you, Ariel.” She nudged Greg, simultaneously stealing a cookie from the box.
“Volunteer? Her? Oh no, I don’t think so. Not with his highness the King of Hormones over here.”
“Are you serious? Henry is my friend, not my boyfriend, and my dad would totally combust if he heard you say that. Maybe red is an asshole,” Ariel commented to Henry, seating herself again.
“Jesus, Ari. Why don’t you just punch me so he doesn’t have to? Look, just go home. I’m not coming with you. I don’t belong there anymore. The others wouldn’t like it.” Henry put his head down. His depression hit everyone in the room like a ton of bricks.
Ariel reached out, touching his arm. “Henry, please. Screw those douchebags. Mom said we could enroll you somewhere else. I’d go with you. I don’t care about those idiots enough to stay. I care about you, H. This isn’t your home. You don’t belong here.”
Greg took a seat from Lizzy and sat down. He wanted to rip the kid a new one, but Henry’s heartache was evidence enough to shut it down. To think of his own parents killing each other, leaving him to fend for himself in a world of snotty, aristocratic vampires was enough to make Greg want to puke.
Damn it, Henry, he thought, take your girl up on the offer. “Do you really want to stay at a shelter until you turn, Henry? This isn’t somewhere people come by choice, although, we try to make the best of it for them. You’re young. You have people who care about you. You’re smart. This isn’t the place for you, man. You should go home, get a fresh start, and start to live the way the rest of these vamps dream of. Don’t throw it away.”
“See? Even the asshole agrees, so he can’t be that big of an asshole.” Ariel smiled at Greg. “No offense.”
Lizzy stifled laughter behind her hand. “Oh, he can be an asshole. No offense taken. Just watch the language, young lady.”
Henry wasn’t so amused. He ignored Lizzy, targeting Ariel instead. “When your parents chew each other to death and you come home to find a human bloodbath in your living room, you come back and tell me I should feel great about myself. That I should be man enough to say fuck it and move along. My last name is a fucking joke, Ari. Even if I did come back with you and try to pretend everything’s great, it’d be a lie. I’d be miserable.”
“I’d make you miserable?” Ariel’s smile faded so abruptly it looked as if she’d been stabbed and was fighting shock.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.” Henry’s eyes widened. “Ari, I’m so sorry,”
“I’m not being selfish here, H. You are. You’re hiding from the rest of our race like some coward. You’re letting them continue to spread lies that you’re just like your parents. You are the one shaming your family by staying here. They made a terrible decision and they fucked you over. But my family has always loved you like their own and you know that. You know how much my parents miss you.
“They’re hurting. I’m hurting. And yet you continue to stay here and let it get worse. These people here seriously have nowhere to turn. They aren’t lucky like you to have a family waiting back at home. Their families were that human you found in your living room. They were the men and women and children who were forced into this life with violence and no instruction manual. These people need real help. You already have it, yet you basically tell me to fuck off.”
“Ariel, language,” Lizzy murmured.
“No. I don’t care. I’m sorry, but I don’t.” Ariel grabbed her backpack from the floor. “Hopefully I’ll still be around when you’re done doing whatever is more important than us. I hope you find whatever you’re looking for that isn’t me.” Her eyes misted over. Greg almost groaned, wanting to hug her tight. “Goodbye, H.”
“Ari, please don’t go.” Henry stood, knocking over his chair.
She sniffed, walking past him. “I can’t stay here. I’m just a visitor. I have to get home, where you should be.”
Greg could taste the salt of her tears in the air. Her shoulders shook a little as she escaped from the common room with Lizzy hot on her heels. To be mad or not to be, Greg pondered, looking at Henry. That was the question. Should he really cut the kid with some verbal bashing when Henry was still tender? Or should he take the safe approach and show Henry he gave a shit?
“What are you gonna say this time, Greg? You gonna tell me how worthless I am like last time? Trust me, I already know.” Henry ruffled his hair to situate his bangs over his leaking eyes. “I love her, man.”
“No shit, kid.” Greg rubbed his knees. “She pretty much loves you, too.”
“She shouldn’t. I don’t want her near me sometimes. I don’t want the others to see her with me and start hating her, too. She has really good friends. She’s popular and her dad runs the church. He’s a big deal. Her family shouldn’t have to deal with my problems and those stupid fucking haters. They don’t deserve that.”
Greg checked over his shoulder, glancing at the Guard trying his best to blend into the furniture across the room. Greg nudged his chin at the door. The Guard promptly retreated to give them some alone time.
“Sending him off so you can beat my ass?” Henry rubbed his face, desperate for Greg not to see his tears.
“I think you’ve beat yourself up enough.” Greg took to his knee next to Henry’s chair and hugged him. He poured every ounce of his heart into the embrace, reminding himself that people like Henry were the ones he’d dedicated his life to helping, homeless or not. “You’re not worthless or else that girl wouldn’t care so much about you. I wouldn’t let you stay here if I thought you couldn’t turn it around. What I do think is you need to do some soul searching. Who do you want to be when you grow up, Henry? Do you want to be the guy everyone thinks will be like his parents? Or do you want to be different and set an example for everyone else to live up to?”
Henry sobbed, clinging to Greg, who was pretty sure this was the first time a stranger had shown the boy any affection since his parents’ violent end. Greg rubbed Henry’s back, staying put. “I love my dad, but I don’t always agree with the things he does. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad person for making mistakes. It doesn’t mean I have to follow in his footsteps. I don’t have to be the same man because that’s what everyone else believes I’ll do. No one else can tell me who to be except for me. Do you understand, Henry?”
“I’m not like them,” Henry whispered. “I can’t hate them, though. They were my parents.”
“Exactly.” Greg squeezed him, then let Henry go. “You’re welcome here for as long as you like, but you need to get it together. This isn’t a place I’d want my kid to grow up.” Greg thumbed away a tear from Henry’s cheek. “Give her some time. Then you can call her from my office, cool?”
“She won’t talk to me again. She thinks I hate her and now she hates me.”
Greg shook his head, smirking. “Dude, she’s got it bad for you. She’s your best friend and although not an ideal situation to mess around with, she’s got your back no matter if you love her like that or not. I had no idea she was Pastor Garhart’s kid, but I do know Edwin, and he’s a good man. He and Sharlene would take you in no questions asked. They’d raise you like their own because they’re good people. Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks, Henry. Worry about yourself and let the rest fall into place.”
“You’re wrong. I—”
Greg put a hand over Henry’s mouth. “Right now you have to help me carry these boxes of cookies to the classrooms. We’ll save the rest of this chat for later when you’ve had some time to cool down. No pressure.” He pulled his hand back.
“When I want to call her?” Henry looked at the table.
“I’ll have Lizzy let you use my phone. For now let’s get these boxes to the kids.”
Greg stood, waiting. He smiled at the nod he received, feeling a little better himself.
Greg stood, waiting. He smiled at the nod he received, feeling a little better himself.
Ten minutes later, Greg was gently fighting off two dozen children. He held the box above his head, addressing the group ranging from ages three to twelve. “Whoever doesn’t get into a line and be quiet doesn’t get a cookie.”
Henry put the other box down on a desk. He allowed the youngest boy in the room, three years old, to grab his hand. The small boy held on, patiently waiting for his cookie. He had finger paint on his cheek and nose and some on his basic white shirt given to him by the shelter. Greg took in the pair; his heart was about to spring free with one too many warm fuzzies.
“You got this?” Greg challenged Henry.
Henry looked down at the small boy. He seemed to fall in love with his eyes and crouched down. “Yeah, Greg, I got this.”
“Wrap it up before your appointment with Quinton at eleven, cool?”
“Sure, Greg.” The small boy wrapped his tiny arms around Henry’s neck. The tot didn’t say a word. He was content in Henry’s arms, drinking up any affection he could.
Greg grunted. He sniffed back his emotions, nodded at the teacher hovering nearby, and made his exit. Rascal, the little boy, was the son of a dead dealer. He’d been found in an alleyway dumpster not too far from the shelter. The kid never liked to be touched, even when he cried for no reason. He’d never willingly let an adult hold him like that before, nor had he said a single word since arriving at the shelter six months ago.
It was as if Rascal could sense a kindred pain in Henry. He was a little soul far too old for his age. And as Greg watched Rascal continue to hug Henry from the hallway, he thought the teen might have found his calling. Broken people had a strong voice and a need to fix the wrongs of the world. The only problem they had was healing themselves enough to grasp onto their purpose and never let go.
Henry didn’t want to make the same mistakes as his parents. He wanted to be someone better; someone who set an example. And Greg was pretty damn sure Rascal would play a major part in Henry’s journey to recovery. The smudgy faced tot was a heart jerker.
Satisfied all was running smoothly in his shelter, his good deed done for the day, Greg rejoined Lizzy at the front desk and collected his backpack just as the head therapist, Quinton, came out of the private therapy room from the other hallway.
Quinton was tall and graceful, slender, yet powerful as he walked up to the desk. He only ever wore black, from his crisp dress shirt down to his polished, Italian leather shoes. Even his inky hair set the tone of his wardrobe; dark, a little wavy, falling to his chin with a stray tendril or two. His coal black eyes would seem arrogant and plotting to some, but everyone who knew Quinton distinguished the difference between his outside appearance and the heart of gold he held on the inside.
Quinton relaxed against the front desk, holding his briefcase and jacket against his chest. “You weren’t supposed to be here today, Greg.” His smoky voice curled from between his lips, tempting anyone near to come closer; to listen; to open up about their darkest fears and desires. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. Everyone wanted to get a little bite from Quinton. “It’s unhealthy how much time you spend here. You have a home and a life outside of this shelter. I find it unfortunate how much you let slip away, when you know very well how capable the staff here is at managing things when you’re gone. Some would probably find your presence here on your day off offensive.”
“Hello to you, too, Quin.” Greg smirked. “I was just leaving before I offended someone.”
The therapist gave Greg a sly smile. “Mm hmm. Are you sure we won’t have to have security escort you away from the windows because you just can’t handle leaving for twenty-four hours? Or are you nervous about tonight?”
Lizzy perked up. “Ooh, do tell. What’s happening tonight?” Her eyes dazzled, looking between the men.
Quinton licked his lips, building up the anticipation while Greg threw him a glare. “Gregory has a date tonight.”
“A what?” Lizzy bounced behind the counter. “With who? Is it someone I know?”
“It’s a blind date actually.” Quinton sniggered. “He signed up with a dating service two weeks ago.”
“No.” Greg pointed his finger at Quinton. “You signed me up without telling me and gave me some psychobabble speech about how I was wasting my time with hookups that weren’t going anywhere. You made me feel like shit, so I agreed just to shut you up.”
“And now you have a date, don’t you? A proper date, with a nice guy, set up by the city’s finest vamp dating service, at one of those cozy little dives you like. Couldn’t have planned it better myself.”
“Greg is gonna go on a date with a boy,” Lizzy teased. “He’s gonna get lucky tonight. With a vamp,” she gushed.
Walking towards the front entrance, Quinton said, “Let’s hope so. Maybe someone can loosen his screws a bit.”
“Shut up, Quin. I thought I wasn’t supposed to hook up with anyone except my mate?” Greg pulled the coffee out of his bag and gave it to Lizzy. “How about you go grind some of this up for tomorrow and stop putting your nose in my love life, huh?”
“Touchy.” Lizzy giggled, taking the coffee. “Good luck, Greg. I hope he turns out to be the one.”
“We can only hope, Lizzy,” Quinton called. “I’ll be back in an hour for my appointment with Henry. Make sure Lucia gets the group session started before ten. We have a double session after lunch and I don’t want to throw off my schedule.”
“A double session?” Greg scowled. “You’re gonna start some shit, Quin.”
“I have to double up. I start going back and forth between here and the village this week. Deal with it, big guy. Call me later. I want all the details.” Quinton winked and stepped through the double doors with a swipe of his phone.
“That guy…” Greg narrowed his eyes.
“Is your bestest friend in the entire world.” Lizzy stuck out her tongue and left Greg stewing in the lobby.