Maybe I shouldn’t have loved my mother so much, but it was kind of hard not to, considering she was never ashamed of my face.

No, she just had this no-nonsense attitude and would say things like “God was probably hungover and forgot a piece.” And in spite of the fact that we had barely enough to pay the electric bill, she did her best to find a doctor who could fix me. The results were better than having a giant split in my upper lip, but the scars made me into someone other people avoided even if it meant crossing to the other side of the street. My mother never allowed me to dwell on my defect. Most of all, she never showed me pity.

Mom was so good at convincing me I was normal—by not telling me all the ways that I was—that the for the longest time I didn’t even know there was really anything wrong with the way I looked. That is, until I started school.

Even when the taunting left me crumpled in tears and the bruises from the bullies covered me from head to toe, she never said stupid shit like “You’re just as handsome as anyone else.” No, she said things like “Kick their ass at whatever they’re doing and prove them wrong.”

So I did.

One time I was offered a job doing cleanup in a mechanic shop by a guy in the neighborhood who felt sorry for me. I wanted the job because I saw it as a road to things other kids had: Nintendo, and Nike shoes, and jeans that didn’t come from the Goodwill or, worse, from the Walmart sales rack. Mom, of course, refused because she felt my schooling was too important. Then she took a double shift on Saturdays just so I could have my Nintendo and Nike shoes. My blue jeans still came from Goodwill. By the time I’d figured out she’d taken tags from the fancy stores and strung them to the hip so they looked like they’d come from the mall, things like that didn’t matter to me anymore.

Shortly after Mom met Richard, Chris was born. Then my new stepdad got mean and Mom made him leave. Mom still saw him, though. She called it “keeping the peace.” The truth was she was whoring herself out to him. It took me less time to figure that out than the stunt with the jeans. She told me as long as she took his calls, met him on the side, he kept the child support rolling in. I guess I understood, I mean, doing that it made it so Mom only had to pull double shifts on the weekend.

So even when my second brother came into the world, we never went without. Mom would never have allowed it.

I still get mad at myself, though, because on occasions she had bruises when she came home and I was too chickenshit to ask where they came from. I feel bad about that now. Even today, sometimes I wish I’d just asked. More than that, I wish I’d done something about it.

I was twelve when Mom had a brain aneurism while sitting on the couch, remote in one hand, her preferred brand of cancer stick in the other. I sat at the other end of the couch, working through my algebra. Every so often I would glance up at the Seinfeld rerun she was grinning at.

For no reason at all, she said, “Liam, baby, did you take the Jell-O out of the oven?”

I looked at her because I thought she was joking with me. Sometimes she’d do things like that. She always said it was to keep me on my toes.

I tried to smile but never finished.

The light in our small living room was kind of sickly, even sitting so close to the lamp. But it was bright enough that when she blinked, I noticed her eyes looked funny and her lips were sort of crooked. I remember telling myself it was the beer she’d had at dinner, but she’d only had one.

I have no idea if my mother saw a white light or heard a voice, but I think she knew she was about to die. It was the way she looked at me, all worried, apologetic, concerned.

My mom took a drag on her Marlboro, smashed it out in the ashtray balanced on the arm, and said, “Baby, you know I love you, right?”

“I love you too,” I told her.

She lifted her right hand like she wanted to touch my cheek, maybe pat me on the head, ruffle my hair—something silly and embarrassing, something only a mother could get away with—but then she seemed to remember I was at the other end of the couch, and too far away. Her hand dropped back into her lap.

Momma shook her head. “Don’t cry, baby.”

I started to tell her I wasn’t crying; then something wet hit my hand.

That was it. She slumped over like she’d fallen asleep, head lolling back, her cheek hitting the ashtray and knocking it into the floor. I didn’t even hear it land, but when it hit, the butts and ashes scattered across the nappy puke-colored carpet. My first impulse was to get the vacuum and clean up the mess, but it would have woken up my brothers.

I stared at her for the longest time, waiting for her to wake up. I even tried to convince myself she was just tired and she’d fallen asleep, but she never took another breath.

The TV show went off, something else came on, and I still stared.

It was morning before I called 911, and I probably would have sat there all day if Chris hadn’t wandered in wanting a bowl of cereal and the remote so he could watch Saturday morning cartoons.

At least it was Saturday and I didn’t have to be at school.

That was my mother, always thinking about us, even in death.

Richard showed up at the funeral to claim Chris and Kevin. Or, more precisely, he showed up to claim Mom’s small insurance policy and then took it upon himself to alleviate us of the burden of spending it. It wasn’t a lot, but it was made even less because he promptly drank, smoked, and snorted every last cent.

Living with that self-absorbed, egotistical son of a bitch wasn’t easy, but we managed. Usually Richard just ignored us. He was always too busy with the stream of women coming in and out of the house, his poker games, and his drug buddies. Everything was okay till the money ran out and he only had the monthly check to be paid out to my brothers and me. It might have still been okay if Richard hadn’t run up some debt with a few of those scary people he liked to hang out with. One night they roughed him up. All the noise woke Kevin up, and he walked out of the bedroom while Richard was in the kitchen spitting up his teeth. I heard him ask Richard why he was crying, and I rounded the corner just in time to see the SOB backhand Kevin.

That one open-handed blow put my youngest brother in the hospital. He was never right after that. He went from being a chatty three-year-old to a boy who made noises and rocked in place. Sometimes he’d wiggle his fingers in front of his nose, which he would do for hours. Other times he’d just whimper and suck his thumb.

I told Richard if he ever touched either one of my brothers again I’d kill him.

He beat me for threatening him. That was also the first time he raped me.

So that became our arrangement. Instead of hurting Chris or Kevin when he got pissed, he took it out on me and I wouldn’t go to the cops or fight back. He was quick to figure out he could loan me to his friends to help support his habits. I think maybe it was some sort of novelty for them.

To, you know, fuck the freak.

Eventually one of his deals went south, some cop I think, or maybe it was a guy who just liked to play police, who knows, but we moved out of that dump in Florida and headed north to Atlanta, Georgia, otherwise known as the city of dragons. It was there that everything would change for us.

It was there I would become.

 

Chapter One

A BAR might not be the best place to bring your little brothers, but it was safer than leaving them at home with their father. Besides, Chris was good at hustling pool, and we needed the extra money to pay the Clinic for the rest of the tests they wanted to run on Kevin and the therapy they promised to get him into.

We’d been in Atlanta almost a year when I discovered the low-cost Clinic near the Dens. They didn’t have Clinics in the Gray Zone in Florida, but then again, they didn’t let Kin outside the Wall or allow their less than purebred cousins to walk the streets. I wasn’t exactly keen on taking my youngest brother anywhere near the wyrms—Kin—but the receptionist promised me he would be fine.

She said the Clinic was one of those places dragons respected, mostly because they had medicine to care for their Human companions and their Lesser-Bred cousins. Kevin being only nine was a bonus. I didn’t really understand it when the woman on the other end of the line tried to explain it all. At least not much beyond how Kin don’t believe in killing the unborn, how they are never children, and how Humans don’t smell like sex until we reach a certain age.

It still made my stomach clench.

I think it was the fact she mentioned the word sex and my kid brother in the same sentence. It did something to my insides. Specifically, it made me feel the need to puke thumbtacks.

It took the doctors a couple of days, but they were pretty sure Kevin was autistic. They told me it was unlikely the head trauma he suffered around the age of three was the cause of it. I had a hard time believing them, especially since he had gone from normal to abnormal after Richard hit him. Kevin’s next appointment was with the specialist, Dr. Meyer. She wanted to run even more tests. An entire alphabet of them.

The tests sounded important, if not a little bit scary. So of course I said sure.

I sat at one of the tables near the back of the bar with a couple of guys from work I didn’t know very well, Mark and James, and two I did, Larry and Ben, keeping an eye on Chris while he prepared to take the two truck drivers at the pool table for everything they had. They were on their second round, and he was still playing the wide-eyed innocent routine, spouting off things like “Is this how I hold the cue?” and “Wow, do you think with a little more practice I can make a shot like that?” They were eating it up, too, jacking up their pants, filling up their flannel shirts with the swell of their chests. It’s a game Chris was really good at, especially with his big brown eyes and a crop of pretty blond curls. No doubt he was going to be a heartbreaker when he grew up. To make matters worse, I was pretty sure Kevin would look just like him in a few years.

Lucky for them, the baby-making gods ran out of ugly to rain down after I was born.

The man with the buzz cut Chris had been playing against dropped a beer in front of him. I excused myself from the company of my buddies, wandered up to the pool table, and promptly confiscated the longneck.

Chris made a face. “Hey, Liam, I was gonna drink that.”

“You’re underage.”

“Yeah, and this is the Zone, bro. They don’t card here.”

I gave him the eye. The one that said “That shit won’t fly.” Playing pool was bad enough, but I drew the line at letting him drink. Living with one drunk was bad enough, and I wasn’t about to let Chris start down the road to alcoholism on my watch.

Besides, I knew the beer was about more than getting an underaged drunk, and so did the guy who bought it for him. Believe it or not, my fifteen-year-old brother could be pretty naïve about things, and I planned on keeping it that way. It was why I never went to any other bar to hustle pool. This place was way outside the Dens, on the last arch of the Fringe, right next to a goddamned Catholic church. Granted, the church was vacant, but there were no private booths in this place, and the only time you’d get a whiff of sex was if you ventured near the bathrooms. Not the public ones, but the one marked “Employees Only.”

While I tossed back the Bud, I held Buzz Cut’s gaze, hoping to send a mental warning through the air between us.

If it had been words, it might have said something like “Off limits. Touch him, and I’ll rip out your liver.” But it was just a look.

He dropped his eyes, so I figured he got the message.

My buddies from the truck depot used to tell me I have a scary gaze when I’m pissed. I had no idea whether it was true or not. See, me and mirrors, we don’t get along.

It’s the cleft lip.

When I walked back over to the table, Larry grinned.

I said, “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, obviously it’s something, because you look like a goddamned Cheshire Cat.” I half expected to see a blonde in a blue dress chasing a rabbit appear by his side, but the only person who stepped up to him was our waitress. Who, by the way, was named Alice. But she was a redhead.

She smiled at Larry, then Ben, and did her best to avoid looking at me. I couldn’t blame her. Hell, people put a bag over my head to fuck me.

I drained the beer and nodded when Larry asked me if I wanted another one. I added my dead soldier to the others gathered in the center of the table.

When Alice walked away, Ben leaned in close. “I think she likes you.”

Ben, my boss, was always saying stupid shit. I think he was convinced if he could find a chick to kiss me I’d be magically transformed into a prince. Or at least quit being an ogre. Personally, I think he’s watched too many Disney movies with his kids.

I sighed. “She doesn’t like me, Ben.”

“Sure she does,” he said, grinning. “She watches you when you aren’t looking.”

“Because she’s afraid of me. I scare her. That’s what people do when they’re scared of something.” I turned away and made like I was watching the game my brother was playing when I was actually glancing out the front window, where my nearly rusted-out Ford Explorer sat taking up the handicapped parking spot. I parked there because the light was good and I could keep an eye on Kevin while he sat in the back. As long as he had his PSP in his hands, he wouldn’t know if he was on Mars or in his bedroom.

I know, I know. Here I am bitching about my kid brother getting a beer and I leave the other one in the parking lot in front of the bar, but I was watching him. Besides, this was the Gray Zone. There could have been a million in cash sitting in the backseat and the doors unlocked and it would have been okay.

See, there’s only one rule Kin and Lesser-Breds live by: do not take what isn’t yours. The people living in the Zone didn’t break the rule, either. Not unless they wanted to lose their hands. Not just lose them, but have them bitten off.

My eyes drifted back over to the pool table, where a new game was starting up. That was when I caught sight of the Lesser-Bred standing by the door.

When I lived in Florida, I used to think the militant attitude about them was out of fear. And maybe people shot the inhuman to protect themselves. After a few years in the hands of Richard’s friends, I decided people did it because they liked being able to destroy someone without having to pay the price for it.

Even in Atlanta it wasn’t illegal to kill them, but because Humans and Kin tried hard to get along, people usually left them alone. Especially here, inside the Zone. After all, you never know if one of them is kept by a Male.

The Lesser-Bred stared at me, and people just didn’t do that—unless, of course, it was to point me out to a friend. Even then, they rarely met my gaze. Maybe he knew what it felt like to be looked at with a hesitant, staring-while-not-staring-at-you gaze. After all, it wasn’t like he could hide what he was.

The mark on his face ran in a thin line of brilliant blue and gold up his left cheek and right across his eye, which was gold. His right one was something darker. From that distance, I couldn’t be sure if it was green or blue, but it was a Human color. The gold eye wasn’t. Nope, only dragons had eyes like that.

Like most of the Lesser-Breds we passed on the street, he was dressed in ratty jeans and nothing else.

Since the Lesser-Bred wasn’t shy about the staring, I stared back. It was no problem on my part—he was pretty. Really pretty. Shorter than me, wider, with a lot of muscle, he looked like someone who worked out. I don’t know if it’s something to do with being part dragon or everything to do with being able to run fast enough from things wanting to eat you, but all the Lesser-Breds I’d seen working the street corner looked like poster children for healthy eating and daily exercise. Not all of them were built like the one staring at me, but even the lithe ones had an unnatural perfection to their bodies that could only be made by metaphysics. Especially the ones who were marked up really bright. And this guy not only had color up the side of his cheek, but he was Stained on his chest and shoulders—big streaks of color in the shape of scales hovering under the skin. I’m willing to bet the best tattoo artist in the world couldn’t make ink that good. Even if there was such a thing as glow-in-the-dark holographic skin art.

The Lesser-Bred smiled at me, a slow, lazy pull of lips. His nostrils flared and his eyes fluttered; then his pink tongue flicked over his full lips, leaving them wet and glistening.

Beside me, Larry said something I missed. I glanced his way, but I didn’t want to take my eyes of the Lesser-Bred. I hated to admit it, but I wanted him, and it wasn’t the normal kind of want, either. You see, I didn’t fuck people. For me, sex was work. Fucking people was about keeping my brothers safe. It was like scrubbing toilets or flipping burgers—I met the needs of my customers with detachment. Trust me, with the kinds of things Richard’s people did to me, being into it wasn’t even an option.

Yet when I looked at this man, this Lesser-Bred, I felt it in my groin. Wanting him was lust, pure and simple, but it was as strong as the need for water in the desert.

And I was powerless against it.

His eyes came back open, and he tipped his head toward the door. Did he know what I was thinking, or was he just making an offer? Every Lesser-Bred I’d ever seen sold themselves; blood, flesh, or sex, it was available for a price.

“Liam?” Ben touched my arm, and it made me look at him. “Did you hear what Larry said?”

I shook my head. I don’t cut my hair above my shirt collar, so it has a tendency to slide across my face like a curtain. It was doing that now, and I was glad, because my gaze kept wandering back to the Lesser-Bred. His smile was more seductive now. I watched his hand trace a line down his stomach, over his navel, then the waistband of his jeans. Whether anyone else saw him stroke the bulge in his Levi’s, I don’t know. But I did, which was all that mattered.

“I need to go check on Kevin.” I shook Ben loose and tossed a look over at Chris. His concentration was on the angle of his cue and where he was going to plant his next shot on the fresh setup. He’d be a while. So I had time. Plenty of time. I left Ben and Larry nursing their beers and flirting with Alice while I chased after the shadow of the Lesser-Bred as he slipped out the door.

I walked out into the busted-up parking lot and caught a quick flash of tanned skin and a nice round ass in threadbare blue jeans ducking around the corner. As if to make sure I had seen where he went, the Lesser-Bred peeked back and jerked his head toward the shadows.

I followed him away from the pools of light spilling out the front windows and wondered if the “do not touch what isn’t yours” law of the Gray Zone applied to mugging. I suppose it was a little late to worry about it now.

Between the buildings, the darkness was thick, staggered only by the reddish glow of the neon sign for the bar. Only the “E” was lit. Since the other letters were busted up, it was what we called the place.

Maybe if I didn’t wind up with a knife in my ribs, I’d make an effort to figure out what the bar was really called. And if I couldn’t tell, maybe I’d ask, though I sincerely doubted anyone would know the answer if I did. People just didn’t keep up with those kinds of things here in the Zone. Nostalgia was overrated and history was in the past. Here in the present, people were too busy trying to survive to bother with those kinds of trivialities.

“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to bail on me.” His voice, like the rest of him, was too pretty to be real. I turned to see the Lesser-Bred leaning against the brick wall, draped in shadows, and less than an arm’s length away. I never would have seen him if he hadn’t spoken. I guess it was a good thing he wasn’t looking to stab me and take my wallet.

“How much?” There was no need to beat around the bush. I was here for only one reason. Funny thing, though, I’d never done this before—this being on the receiving end, the buyer, the one in control. And I sure as hell never thought I’d do it with something not Human.

But here I was and so was he.

The Lesser-Bred stepped closer, moving in a way that suggested he wasn’t quite of this world. Even in the piss-poor light I could see his golden eye. I still didn’t know what color his other one was, and I was too entranced by the inhuman color to care. The closer he got, the more I wanted him. His hand touched my chest and I hissed. He smiled.

God, I hoped I had enough. I did a quick count. I really didn’t need to burn money like this, but if I came up short on anything, I’d put in some extra hours at the loading docks to make up for it.

The Lesser-Bred tipped his head, and his lips parted. I watched his throat work and listened to the sound of him swallowing down whatever it was he tasted on the air. At the same time, he moved forward until he was pressed against my body. His hand snaked up my neck, his fingers dug into the back of my head, and he tried to pull me down and force our lips together.

I turned my head away.

No one kissed me. Not ever. Who the hell would want to? With all the scars twisting up my lips?

The Lesser-Bred looked at me, and his eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead. I wanted to laugh because even the way they touched was beautiful. “I just want to taste.”

To taste? Whatever. It obviously required putting our mouths together, and there was only one answer for his request. “No.”

Disappointment darkened his golden eye, but he let it drop. “What’s your name?”

I didn’t want to tell him my name. Hell, I didn’t care if he didn’t speak at all, I just wanted to bend him over a trash can and fuck him.

And yet…. “Liam.”

“I’m Jericho.”

I rolled his name around in my head. As long as I didn’t say it out loud, I couldn’t ruin it with my voice. Unspoken, it could remain perfect, just like him. Jericho’s fingers played across my baggy T-shirt, tracing the shape of my narrow chest, my right nipple, then lower. “Price depends on what you want.” He stopped to fondle my navel. “Do you know what you want, Liam?”

He said my name like it was something to be savored, and that alone had my cock busting against the zipper of my jeans.

I couldn’t answer, so I pulled out a wad of cash from my front pocket and forced it into his hand. It was probably more than he’d ask me to pay for the full monty, but at the moment I didn’t care. I touched his cheek, his jaw, but when I ran my thumb over his mouth, I knew what I wanted—needed. “Suck me off.”

Jericho didn’t say yes or no, he just pushed me against the side of the building, his body against mine. God, he felt good. Warm. Incredibly warm. I’d heard Kin could create heat. It had something to do with them being made from the metaphysical and not physical, but this was the first time I’d felt it. Then again, I’d made it a point to never get this close to them until now.

Jericho’s hands moved down, pushing against my pockets like he was feeling me up, then slid toward my zipper. He was hard. I could feel his denim-covered erection against my hip. I wondered what he looked like. Cut, uncut, pierced? His tongue had a silver barbell through it, so maybe he had the twin somewhere else.

With the flat of his palm, Jericho rubbed the bulge in my pants. I couldn’t stop my hips from popping forward or the pathetic sounds I made. His fingers flicked open the button of my jeans, then slipped down the fly, and his agile hands peeled my Levi’s apart. He pushed them down until they caught on my hips. The only reason they didn’t pool around my feet was because my legs were spread wide.

I did my best to slow down the push and pull of my lungs because breathing fast was making me feel lightheaded, but it only made my body more desperate for air. God, more desperate for him.

Jericho watched me from under his dark bangs, his gaze burning. I swear his gold eye swam in a different color now, but I couldn’t be too sure of the hue. The red from the neon ate up those kinds of details.

When he slid his hands inside my tighty-whities, I groaned and let my head fall back. The brick pulled at my hair, bit into my scalp, and picked at the back of my T-shirt like tiny claws. It was anything but pleasant, but at the moment nothing mattered but this. I couldn’t make Jericho stop staring at me, and made helpless, I couldn’t hide behind my curtain of hair, so I closed my eyes.

Being stared at didn’t bother me. It was the expression on his face that made me uncomfortable. I was used to the disgusted or frightened glances some threw my way, but Jericho didn’t look at me like that. His eyes were wide, his face open, and what I read from that was awe and….

Desire.

Chest to chest, chest to thigh, and then he was on his knees in front of me. A wet heat slipped over the tip of my cock. His mouth was like a furnace. Inhumanly hot. His tongue circled the tip, fondled the flared head, and slid along my length slow—way too slow. It wasn’t like what he was doing didn’t feel good, because it did. I just wanted him hard, fast, and violent, so I dug my fingers into his thick waves of dark hair, shoved myself deep, and fucked his mouth.

Jericho didn’t pull away, he didn’t protest, he just let me, opening wide, swallowing me down. His tongue worked and his throat convulsed, movements that drove me to the edge faster than ever before. Maybe it was metaphysics that let me take him like this without choking him. Or maybe he’d just had a lot of practice. After all, like me, there was only one thing he was good for.

About five seconds before I came, I wondered if I should pull out. Richard never used protection, and neither did the people who used me. For all I knew, I could be positive on everything, but by the time the thought coalesced in my frontal lobe, it was too late. I was coming and Jericho didn’t spit or back off.

I got what I wanted—fast, violent, and hard. The aftermath of it left me sagging against the wall with trembling limbs, my heart cartwheeling in my chest. I’d never come so hard before. Not only did it feel good, I was pretty sure it had been ripped out of my soul.

Jericho’s hands were on me again, this time tucking everything in and zipping me back up. When I looked at him, his eyes were dilated, his face flushed, his lips swollen.

His tongue slid over his bottom lip and picked at the corner of his mouth like he was savoring something sweet. The sense of need I’d experienced in the bar was still there, still strong. I was pretty sure if I wanted to, I could go again.

Jericho tipped his head. “Can I see you again, Liam?”

Could he see me again? What a strange thing to ask, considering. It wasn’t like we were on a date. No, I was just using him.

Like Richard used me.

The allover cold hit me hard and fast. I didn’t want to be there anymore, staring at this beautiful man I’d just mouth-fucked in an alley behind a bar. To make matters worse, one of my brothers was inside hustling pool and the other was waiting in the truck. I straightened my clothes, even though there was nothing out of place, and muttered an apology.

When I turned to leave, Jericho caught my hand. Touching him or, more precisely, having him touch me, made everything else seem insignificant. This feeling had to be why people paid to be with Lesser-Breds.

He opened my clenched fingers and rubbed my palm against his cheek, one side, then the other. I stood there looking stupid, ’cause I was, struck completely stupid with absolutely no explanation why.

“Will you?” Jericho’s words were warm against the palm of my hand. The wet heat of his tongue was followed by a caress from his lips.

“Will I what?”

“See me again?”

I should have said no. Instead I asked, “When?”

“Tomorrow.” He let me go.

I did a quick mental check of my work schedule and wondered whether I could get a friend to watch the boys. I nodded. “How about five o’clock?”

“I’ll be here.”