In 1940s London, Sergeant Nathan Stephenson ignored his rank and the expectation that he’d wait for the war to be over and find a nice girl to settle down with, and took a lover. Not only was Cian Ambrose unashamed of his bisexuality, he was also proud to be a vampire. Back then, he was certain that his and Nathan’s relationship would last forever, refusing to take no for an answer.
One evening, Cian went too far in his attempts to persuade Nathan to become a vampire and left a mutual acquaintance, Jonathan Cutler, to deal with the aftermath. What Cian doesn’t know is that Nathan didn’t die—Jonathan brought him back to life, agreeing to keep Nathan’s continued existence a secret.
It’s now the twenty-first century and Jonathan’s back to call in the favor. Nathan’s an honorable man and can’t say no, but the trouble is, wherever Jonathan goes, Cian Ambrose can’t be far behind…
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I’m not even supposed to be here.
I don’t look too bad for a man who’s soon to hit three figures. Jet black hair without a drop of dye in it. Spine erect with no sign of the curvature that often comes with age, it still holds me to my full six feet in height. And not a line or wrinkle anywhere on my face.
But that’s probably got something to do with the fact I died seventy years ago.
“Ruby.” My voice is nothing more than a whisper across the restaurant table but despite the bustle around us I know I’ll get through to her.
Ruby turns her head, staring at me with eyes unfocused for a second. Then she sees me more clearly and the daydream that had shrouded her melts away. She smiles, which lights up her fever-paled face and warms me from the inside out with relief.
She’s been ill for some time. No fault of mine. I didn’t drink from her while she battled the illness that kept her bedbound for the past fortnight, although I visited. Brought her fruit baskets, fortified wine, books. Pretty ribbons for her dark, wavy hair, which throws her complexion into stark relief. Anything to make her smile again.
“You’re not fully with me tonight.”
“No need to apologise.” I wave a dismissive hand in mid-air between us, glad I don’t have to bother with setting down cutlery or a wineglass before doing so. Sometimes I eat or drink but as I don’t need to, such occasions are rare. A number of my undead brethren drink coffee and beer, eat steak – rare, never well-done, of course – and vegetables, just to be sociable. Me? I’m not as gregarious, choosing instead to stick to a small group of friends. No, associates. Ruby’s the only one I count as a friend, and she isn’t even one of us.
“You’ve been ill,” I continue, and nod at her plate. Smoked salmon with a green salad, something light but nutritious enough to aid her convalescence. “I want to see you eat, but don’t force yourself if you can’t manage it.”
She pushes a rocket leaf around the plate with her fork, while resting her jaw on the other, cupped, hand. A small sigh escapes her, near-silent and likely undetectable to those less attuned to her moods than I. The microscopic adjustment in her shoulders seems to me like a full-on slump.
“Okay.” I clasp my hands, rest them on the tablecloth to prevent fidgeting. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what?” Her dark eyes flicker with avoidance – a glance is all she can suffer before looking back down at her uneaten dinner.
“I know something’s wrong, Ruby.”
“My mother blames you for this,” she shoots back, surprising me with the speed of her reply. Judging by the way the blood – oh God, that blood – rushes to her cheeks, I’m not the only surprised one at the table.
“This?” I lift my eyebrows, already knowing the answer before it comes.
“Me. Being ill. She says… Oh, nothing.”
“She says…?” Perhaps it’s cruel to goad her into talking, but Ruby clearly has something on her mind and voicing her concerns can’t do too much harm.
“She says it’s my fault for getting mixed up with you.”
Oh. Ouch. I’m not human any more but still feel the stab of pain at the insult being passed along by someone for whom I care deeply. Some people think vampires can’t be hurt.
How wrong they are.
“And what do you say?” My words come out a little sharper than I intended and I hope Ruby realises it’s hurt speaking, not anger.
“I…” She gives up rearranging the components of her meal and sets her fork down. It tinkles against the side of her plate and I know my hypersensitive hearing is nothing supernatural. I’m on high alert. Concerned about her. “I told her she was wrong. I told her you were the one who’d diagnosed it.”
“Hardly.” I roll my shoulders in a gentle shrug, bashful rather than embarrassed by the compliment. “I’m not a doctor.”
“No, but still, you were able to tell there was something wrong.”
I drank from her one evening, only a few drops, before detecting something was wrong. A too-sweet aftertaste where there should have been a metallic tang. I advised Ruby to see a doctor and found someone else to drink from. She’s my one and only regular blood donor, but there are places I can go, people I can see in an emergency.
“When someone says to see your doctor, it’s never good news,” Ruby said, worried.
“It’s probably nothing more than measles or something similar.” It was a shock to me that measles could be a nothing disease, easily repelled by a vaccination in childhood. If a grown woman came into contact with the contagion, it manifested nothing more deadly than temporary nausea and the need for bed rest. When I was a lad, it had been nothing short of a death sentence.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. If it was anything serious, it’d taste different.”
“And you wouldn’t lie to me?”
“No,” I lied.
“Not even to save my feelings?”
“Ruby.” I rolled my eyes, displaying a lot more exasperation than I truly felt. Unsettled, my nerve endings tingled with something akin to fear, but which I refused to name such. Vampires don’t feel fear.
Sergeant Nathan Stephenson doesn’t feel fear.
In the end it wasn’t measles. Chicken pox was beginning to show itself by the time Ruby got an appointment with her doctor, who was amazed that she knew something was up during the incubation period.
“I’m friends with a…uh, a vampire…”
“Ah.” The doctor’s face – I’m told – paled at the news. “I see. Well, that makes all the difference. Your…sire…?”
“No.” Ruby set him straight on matters, despite the spinning sensation in her head as the disease took hold. “No. I’m one hundred percent human. He drinks sometimes. He tasted it on me.”
“Hmm.” A rough clearing of the medic’s throat and he went on with more down-to-earth matters, rooted in the medical realm rather than that of the undead.
In a strange sort of way, doctors and my kind are mortal – immortal? – enemies. The Hippocratic oath states their duty is to “First, do no harm.” Not something vampires are famous for. After that, they’re morally bound “to preserve life.” Me, on the other hand? Yes, I’ve killed. Less frequently since I died. I discovered how it felt to take a life during the Second World War, then had my own life taken and everything changed. I became a killer of a different type. Not trained by His Majesty’s Armed Forces. Forced into it by something – someone – darker still.
Ruby’s consultation ended with her assuring Doctor Simmons that she was a friend to a vampire, that was all. She voluntarily gave blood from time to time and I never pressured her into turning. My role in the matter was nothing more than drinking as I often did – though not too often – and detecting something not quite right in her Type O veins. I’m no doctor, have not the discernment to drink from a willing human and diagnose, “Hmm, tastes like mumps.” All I know is when something doesn’t feel right.
Ruby lives on her own, but her mother visits frequently, especially during her illness. We’ve crossed paths on a number of occasions and she’s made her dislike obvious. I often wonder if she’d dislike me more or less if she knew her daughter isn’t my type. Is a gay vampire better or worse than one whom she suspects of keeping her daughter in sexual thrall, a hypnotic, submissive trance?
“I’ve told her several times.” Ruby’s words break into my thoughts and I plant myself firmly back in the room, back in the modern day. There’s no point thinking of things that happened decades before, of those actions that led me here, to this so-called life.
“But she still doesn’t like vampires,” I deadpan, and oh how that word makes me want to laugh. How ironic. Deadpan indeed.
“And this bothers you.”
“Of course it does.” She looks up, holding my gaze for once, upset making her emphatic.
“Because you want to defend your friend, or because you agree with her?”
“God.” Her shoulders definitely slump this time, and she shakes her head slowly. “Nathan.”
“I’m sorry, but you told me about your mother’s blame, and you must have done so for a reason.”
“I don’t know, I just…” Ruby rolls her neck, as if to rid it of a crick, but I guess she just feels uncomfortable. Scrutinised. I have no meal with which to occupy myself and observe other diners look our way occasionally. Yes, my skin is pale. Yes, there are some mortals who are good at recognising the undead if they cross paths with one of us in a public place. I don’t think I advertise my vampiric state, though. Nevertheless, there occurs some pointing, some whispering, some cupped hands against companions’ ears and no doubt, plenty of speculation about my true nature.
And about the true nature of my relationship with Ruby.
The bottom line is, she just isn’t my type. Oh, her blood type suits me, but she’ll always be safe from my sexual advances. I mean, if I were going to turn, it would be for her, but…no. I like men. A man. Liked one man in particular, but I turned my life upside-down for him and ended up losing it.
Anyway. I shrug myself back into the present, wondering why the hell tonight of all nights it’s all too easy for me to lose myself in the past.
Mind you, I think, there’s plenty of it in which to lose myself.
“I’m tired.” Ruby sighs.
“Oh. Okay. Let me pick up the bill and we can go-”
“No. I mean tired. Of this.”
If I had a heartbeat, it would race now. “This?” I lower my voice, lean closer to her and hiss, “Us?”
“No.” Ruby frowns, appearing shocked that I made that allegation. “No.”
I nod. This was how it goes. A special human with whom I formed an intimate companionship, beginning to feel less comfortable than usual with our arrangement. That discomfort eventually expands into a need to call a halt to things. It’s like being ‘dumped’, to use modern parlance. Like that, but somehow worse. She’ll be depriving me of a regular, freely surrendered blood supply but there are other losses to be considered too. In life, I was never a fan of the ‘can we still be friends’ philosophy of post-relationship conduct. Likewise with humans from whom I regularly drink – I don’t believe it’s possible to remain friends after the breach of such intimacy. Perhaps it’s a mistake to have one human ‘friend’ at a time. Putting all my emotional eggs in one basket.
With Ruby, all that post-’relationship’ nonsense will be too…too…
I don’t know what. But I spend enough time living in the past. I won’t do it with her. Can’t allow myself. I’ve always been a fan of clean breaks. Walking away…
She may have looked shocked, may have denied that she was tired of ‘us’, but the possibility has been mooted and I just want this evening to be over with. That is to say, the part of the evening I am to spend with her.
I call for the bill and a waiter flashes a glance at Ruby’s plate, noting her food is all but untouched.
“Was everything all right with your meal?” he begins, his speech slowing as, I suspect, enlightenment tickles at the back of his mind. When his eyes meet mine again, he gulps. My pallor, my own lack of meal in front of me, will give the game away. If he was the same waiter who served us earlier, he’d already know. But he’s just a member of staff I signalled to as he passed, and is yet to familiarise himself with Ruby’s eating habits and my drinking preferences.
“Yes, it was fine. My companion has just been ill recently and we’ve decided to go home.”
“Oh…” Panic flares in the waiter’s widened eyes.
Nothing to do with food poisoning, I want to say. No need to fear a lawsuit. “Sorry to cut the meal short, but if we could just have the bill…?”
“Of course.” He nods and scurries off with a readiness to please that positively screams fear of what he just figured out I am, and a determination that he not be my next victim.
Honestly. Some people think a gay man will try to fuck every other bloke given half the chance. Similarly, some idiots think a vampire will try to drink from every human they meet. If that was the case, I’d end up sprawled in a gutter somewhere, stomach roiling and distended with the proceeds of my overindulgence.
I have some self-control.
Unlike certain others I could mention.
Hell, maybe he’s just being solicitous because he wants a big tip, I reason.
“Are you all right?” Ruby asks as we leave the restaurant.
I slip my arm around her waist and laugh quietly to myself. “You’re asking me that?”
“Yeah. You look pale. Was it what I said about Mum?”
“Of course I’m pale. I’ve been dead for decades.”
“You know what I mean.” She zips up her jacket, reminding me of how cold a human would find the evening. I feel the light wind but no temperature registers, only the sensation of air moving. “Okay, maybe not pale exactly, but…frowny. As if there’s something on your mind.”
“I’ve been worried about you, that’s all. A few times tonight, you were miles away.”
“Likewise,” she retorts, looking up at me as we walk, before linking her arm through mine. Her heels click on the near-deserted street’s pavement. Everyone else is indoors tonight.
“Ruby, you’re the convalescent.”
“True enough, but you looked lost in your thoughts on a number of occasions.” Her sideways glance, the one-sided smile, make her look teasing rather than scolding. “Wanna tell me what that was all about?”
“No.” I roll my shoulders in a slow shrug. “Nothing. It was nothing.”
“Hmm.” She bites her lip and for a moment I wonder if she’s going to pursue it. She obviously doesn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me. “Oh well.”
The shrug Ruby uses to mirror my own sets my mind at rest. If she presses me and I try to articulate my thoughts to her, I’ll mess up, not have a clue how to express whatever’s on my mind. Truth be told, I don’t know where it came from, this ease with which I keep falling into the past.
“Hey.” She nudges me, and as if choreographed, we draw to a stop near the street corner. “Do you want to…you know…?”
It takes a split second for me to realise what she’s suggesting. Offering. “Oh.” If I was the sort of man to get nervous, if I hadn’t been inured against fear long since, this is the point at which I’d gulp back a throatful of adrenaline. “Oh, that.”
“And earlier you thought I was the one who was getting tired of us?”
I want to shrug again but it would make me look uncomfortable, and I’m the one who’s supposed to be setting Ruby at ease. I’m the one who’s supposed to look after her. We’re friends, yes, look out for each other, but I’m decades older, in theory a lot more worldly wise. “No, I just… Maybe I was mistaken, but… No.” I shake my head. “Not tonight.”
“Got a headache?” she teases, winking.
We start walking again, this resumption of movement like pressing the ‘play’ button on a video after a long pause. No, Nathan. DVDs. People watch DVDs these days. Move with the times, you damn dinosaur. “I don’t want to rush you. You’ve been ill.”
“I’m getting better.”
“You hardly ate a thing. That’s not the way to keep your strength up.”
“And you must need a drink.”
Fuck it. I gulp anyway. Slowly, with as much control as I can muster. I don’t need to breathe, so it’s not oxygen I take in, but the imaginary scent, the fantasy taste of thick, warm, vibrant blood. I know what Ruby’s tastes like but haven’t experienced it for a while, so the memory’s all I have to experience at this moment. Too, I have other people I could go see.
“No you don’t need a drink?”
“No I won’t be drinking from you just yet.”
“So you’re going to continue cheating on me.” She pouts, but can’t keep the smile out of her eyes.
“Only until you’re well again.” I try to sound scolding and fail miserably.
“Well you’d better go find someone then, hadn’t you, eh? I can get myself home from here.”
“I’ll see you home.”
“Come on, Nathan. I’m a big girl. I hit my quarter century on my last birthday.”
“When you reach three figures, then you can lecture me about age. You’re talking to a man who’s four times older than you, or near enough.”
“Yeah, and you look no more than five years older than me. Bastard.”
“Death becomes me, what more can I say?”
“Don’t get cheeky with me.”
“You know, you almost sound like you were telling me off, there. Look, Nathan. Sergeant Nathan Stephenson.” She knows of my rank during the Second World War. Not what I had to do to earn it. The things I’ve seen.
I’ve seen men get their legs blown off, heard dying men wailing for their mothers while bullets separated soul from flesh. It wasn’t all shiny brass buttons and ‘I say, isn’t this frightful war simply ghastly?’ Unless you were a fucking officer back home moving model soldiers around on a map while one’s butler fetched another bottle of port for the General. Okay, that’s closer to the prevailing attitude during the First World War, but my sentiments remain.
The Great War indeed. What was so bloody great about it, God alone knows. My own father was killed – slaughtered – during this so-called Great War. I have no memories of him and even photographs I once possessed became dog-eared and creased beyond all recognition.
Oh, books and television programmes glamorise it all, make soldiers returning home seem like conquering heroes. Downton Abbey has a lot to answer for. The poems of Wilfred Owen tell a story closer to the truth.
So the First World War killed off Major Reginald Stephenson and in a way, the Second did his son.
“Yes, Miss Northam? What is it now?” I outrank the uppity civilian but she still has a commanding air about her, a way of making me pay attention.
“I’m fine. Honestly. Don’t worry. I’m-”
“No. No. Don’t make me pull rank.”
“Is that your old service revolver in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”
“Not too ill to make terrible jokes, I see. Listen, Ruby. I won’t drink from you while you’re still recuperating. I won’t have your mother making accusations that I’m careless with her daughter.”
“I wish I hadn’t told you now.”
“You had to. It was obviously worrying you. I’ll escort you home then go find-”
“Escort? You’re terribly old-fashioned sometimes, Stephenson.”
“That’s Sergeant Stephenson to you.”
“Oh fuck off.”
“I could have you court-martialled for insubordination.”
“I’d like to see you try.” Again she winks. “Bloody waste if you ask me. Good-looking man insisting on seeing me home and he’s as bent as a nine-bob note.”
Unable to help myself, I tut. Sometimes it amazes me, this twenty-first century nonchalance about homosexuality. Something else besides measles that would have got me a death sentence way back when. Quietly, I laugh.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing, nothing.” Death sentence indeed. My propensity for the love that dare not speak its name did kill me in the end. Sort of. Oh the irony. “Let’s get you home. If you’re a good girl I might even tuck you into bed and read you a story.”
“Shut up, Nathan.”
“Much more of your cheek and I’ll sing you to sleep. That would really give you nightmares.”
“Idiot.” Ruby elbows me in the ribs, not standing a chance of hurting me even if that was her intention. “If you insist, you can walk me home, but no singing.”
“None. Then you can go out and do your thing.”
Do your thing. It sounds so modern, so civilised, so accepting. Very avant-garde and forward-thinking. So contemporary.
Which is a good thing, I try to tell myself. Living in the twenty-first century might go some way toward curing me of my addiction to the past.