Loving and loathing vegas

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Loving and Loathing Vegas

 

 

By Lex Chase

 

Jackson has loved Vegas since God created Man—literally. As demonic incubi hailing from the Seventh Circle of Hell, Jackson and Vegas have never been anything more than roommates. Now living amonghumans, they run Eaven, a TripAdvisor-recommended detour-worthydiner famous for its devilishly decadent pies. Business is dead on the holidays, and Jackson will gleefully stab himself with a spatula if he has to clean spotless pots and pans one more time.

For fun—or torture—Vegas makes him a bet that should Jackson win, they take a much-needed vacation. Should he lose, he’s doomed to clean out grease traps for all eternity. When the challenge is to fall in love with other people by Christmas, it proves Vegas isn’t the least bit interested. But when they find an abandoned baby in the trash, she could be the Christmas miracle to warm Jackson’s cynical heart.

Chapter One

 

JACKSONWIPEDdown the lunch counter for the thousandth time. He’d counted. Of course he’d counted. Like he counted the notches on his bedpost.

He sighed. Why couldn’t they close Eaven for Thanksgiving? It’s not like there were any patrons within a ninety-mile radius. Tezcatlipoca, New Mexico was a sleepy, one-stoplight town that not even Google Maps could find with both hands feeling for assholes. And Eaven was one of the two eateries. At least they were the more popular of the two. Or that is, when there were actualcustomers.

Did anyone even cook turkeys here? Jackson had considered the same deeply philosophical question every year. The nearest supermarket was in Santa Fe, ninety miles to the north.

One thousand and one, he counted as he made another pass across the counter. The aluminum edging gleamed bright enough to be a lighthouse’s Fresnel lens. Maybe it would light the way for starving customers? Ones who took a wrong turn on the interstate and ended up in an odd little town like Tez?

Come, he prayed.Come try the pie!

Jesus, fuck. Someone show up. And dear God, bring enough money so we can finally fix the neon sign.Eaven had ended up sticking as a name, since theHhad long burned out.

One thousand and two.

“I don’t see any tickets on my cook line,” Vegas called from the kitchen.

Jackson gave a dirty look into the pass-through from the counter to the kitchen. “I’m sorry. All the imaginary customers can’t decide.” He threw the rag down in a huff. “Why do you insist on keeping the damned diner open on Thanksgiving? The whole town is shut down for the holiday but us. There’s much better things we can do with our time than wiping down spotless counters and washing unused pots.”

“It’s Sisyphus,” Vegas said with a pleased grin.

Jackson groaned and tossed up his hands. “Again with the Sisyphus bullshit.”

Vegas nodded. “Once a year we must remind ourselves that humanity is torture and hopeless.”

Jackson fell back on the counter like a spoiled child. “And whose bright idea was it to decide to move out of the Seventh Circle? The condo was nice and out of the way of all of that nightmarish traffic coming off the Phlegethon River.” He rubbed his temples as he slumped off the counter. “My God, I can still hear the shrieking when we had to make a grocery run.”

Vegas shrugged. “The rent’s cheaper here. And I didn’t have to make a Faustian deal to get a business license. Can you imagine what would have happened to us when it came time to collect?” He snorted. “No thanks.”

“And now you get to freely serve your sinfully delicious pies to silly humans who take a wrong turn.”

Vegas furrowed his thin blond brows. “Is that sarcasm? I’ll have you know my pies are damned good.”

“Fuck yeah, they are,” Jackson agreed with a nod.

“I didn’t earn that TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence on my megawatt smile alone, you know.” He pointed to the aged, peeling window cling on the scratched-up glass door. “How’s the counter coming?”

Jackson wilted. He could feel his spiritual energy leaving his body in sickly coils. “I am Sisyphus,” he muttered and picked up the rag. “Doomed to this hell.”

“Don’t insult home like that,” Vegas warned him.

Jackson wiped down the counter again.

One thousand and three.

Vegas chuckled behind him. “You have any better ideas of what to do for the holidays?”

Jackson snorted. “Yeah, genius. Fucking. Fucking. And”—he turned, giving Vegas a lecherous grin—“morefucking.”

Vegas scowled. “You know the rules. While we’re among mortals, our powers are sealed.”

Dammit. If he wasn’t so adorable, Jackson would have gladly pushed Vegas off that damned cliff epochs ago. “We’re incubi,” Jackson spat. “You know what that means.” He slapped a hand to his chest. “We fuck. A lot. We do it to live. We do it to give our partners a good time. Arealgood time. We’re damned healers!”

Vegas pursed his lips as he peered at Jackson. “You got that last bit from that Channing Tatum movie.”

“Vegas! Work with me,” Jackson snapped. “Do you even feel what it’s like walking around as living Viagra?”

“Of course I do.” He fixed Jackson with a dour look. “Because. Duh.”

Jackson slowly rocked his hips in the customary motion. “Don’t you want your own holiday feast? We couldeatour way through Santa Fe in singles looking for a good time for the holidays.”

Vegas crossed his arms. “Grindr is not a damned menu. They’re humans. You need to respect them.”

Jackson threw up his hands. “Why are you so impossible?”

“How’s the counter looking?”

Jackson made an overdramatic sigh and made another pass on the immaculate counter.

One thousand and four.

Pots and pans clattered, and the stream of water hissed from the kitchen—Vegas starting yet another round of washing already clean pans.

One thousand and five, Jackson counted. He looked over his shoulder, watching Vegas in the pass-through. His face heating at how Vegas’s shoulders flexed under his tight shirt. His jeans low on his hips and frayed at the pockets, the denim dappled with stains from an array of grease, ingredients, or whatever else missed his chef’s apron. It baffled him how Vegas could get so damned dirty, yet look flawless, as if he meant to do that.

The human world had softened Vegas. He’d adapted better than Jackson had. He fell in love with the quaint, quiet charm of Tezcatlipoca, and Jackson didn’t argue. Their super in the Seventh Circlewasa bit of a prick.

Jackson had picked up on Vegas having a thing for the bubbly redheaded guy who ran The Charms of Zephyr, a hokey New Age charms and crystals place. Over a Fourth of July bar-b-que, the guy revealed he was truly an alien from an ancient galaxy. And that was their cue to pass on the wine coolers and fireworks and make for the quickest exit.

For Jackson, the guy was a big bucket ofnope. But he knew Vegas was still sweet on him.

They stayed friends. Awkwardly and pretending they’d never heard about his xenomorph heritage. But friends all the same.

Vegas absolutely spent more time in the shop than he should have. Always special-ordering shit that was nowhere near authentic. Like wine coolers made with the tears of angels. Fuck if humans knew where to get genuine seraphic anguish. It was probably fucking tap water from Wisconsin.

Jackson polished the aluminum edging on the counter.

One thousand andsix.

He really was Sisyphus. Doomed to a worthless cause.

He watched Vegas happily clean the pots, rinse them, and then clean them again.

Dammit. Why did he have to be so gorgeous?

Tall, blond, piercing green eyes in that “Top 10 Sexiest Chefs in the World” way, and a megawatt smile that could light up the Vegas Strip. Which was why he chose the name for himself when they arrived. Vegas looked the part of a high-roller and dripped with himbos when he took the casino for all it was worth. He showed everyone a good time.

Arealgood time.

But Jackson wasn’t prepared for when Vegas made a vow of celibacy.

An incubus.

Made.

A vow.

Of celibacy.

And he decided to move them out to the middle of nowhere to make goddamn pie.

Jackson went along with it, hoping that one day, justoneday, Vegas would finally notice his incubi roomie wanted to be way more than just a roomie.

Jackson had no idea what sex between two incubi would even be like. Would the world explode? Wouldheexplode?

But he’d seen what Vegas was capable of in the sack.

And what a way to go.

One thousand andseven.

“Okay,” Vegas said, his voice gentle but sudden enough to startle Jackson out of his illicit thoughts. “I’ll make you a bet.”

“Yeah?” Jackson grinned. When they had done their whirlwind casino tour, bets with Vegas were always good. In many, many ways.

Vegas slipped out of the kitchen, seeming to contemplate the parameters of his wager. He stepped to the corner booth and looked outside the windows.

Tez was a dark-sky town, not that it mattered much—even the streetlights only had the power of a sixty-watt bulb at most. And Eaven’s lights poured out over the empty streets like a soft golden nightlight.

He nodded to Jackson. “If you win, we close Eaven for every holiday and go on vacation.”

“Every holiday?” Jackson asked. “Even the bullshit ones like President’s Day?”

Vegas nodded, grinning confidently. “Even Arbor Day.”

“Shit,” Jackson hissed, brightening. “That’s some pretty high stakes.”

Vegas shrugged. “It’s a high-stakes gamble. It’s how I roll.”

Jackson crossed his arms and frowned. “And you always win. Deal’s off.”

“That’s because I cheat,” Vegas said firmly. “No cheating this time. Fair and square.”

Jackson scratched his chin. There was a certain sincerity to Vegas’s tone. Did he really mean business?

“And if I win—”

“Here we go…,” Jackson groaned.

Vegas batted him on the back of the head in retaliation. “If I win, we close Eaveneveryholiday, including the bullshit ones like President’s Day and Arbor Day, and keep paying penance.”

Jackson scowled. “How the hell is that a win for you? We still close the diner.”

Vegas hooked a thumb toward the kitchen. “Because you’re going to clean the grease traps.”

Nausea hit Jackson like a tsunami of stomach acid in the throat. He gagged under psychological suggestion. “How can you even enjoy the spoils of your prize?” Jackson asked. Surely Vegas had an underhanded plan.

Vegas frowned, his eyebrows drawing together in that sexy, authoritative way. “Because you need to be taught a lesson in humility.”

Jackson’s rag hit the floor as his jaw dropped open. Who did he have to hit with a bus to be taught humility by the dirtiest incubus to waltz out of the Seventh Circle? Vegas couldn’t really mean grease traps. He more likely meant trussing up Jackson like a Thanksgiving turkey and beating his ass as red as a red velvet cake.

“Hey!” Vegas snapped his fingers in front of Jackson’s face. “Are you here right now?”

Jackson stammered and shook his head. The fight to dismiss his delicious fantasies failed when Vegas made a pointed glance at Jackson’s half arousal filling his jeans.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Jackson grumbled. “We’re living Viagra, you know.”

Vegas snorted a chuckle, dismissing the awkwardness. Walking around with hard dicks in plain view was never an issue for either of them. Seventh Circle had always been “clothing optional.”

“Fine,” Jackson spat. “What’s the bet?”

Vegas remained silent for irritatingly dramatic effect. His grin widened with amusement, and Jackson’s cock wilted with annoyance.

“Well?” Jackson asked, gesturing for Vegas to spit it out.

Vegas put up a finger between Jackson’s eyes. “Wait.”

Jackson blinked, going cross-eyed at the digit. The diner clock ticked off thirty more seconds. The neon signage flickered outside. Jackson chomped on his lower lip.

Vegas smirked, his green eyes sharp and dangerous. “We have to fall in love.”

The last thing Jackson remembered was the heavy thump on the back of his head from hitting the lunch counter, and his world went dark.

“Hey,” Vegas’s voice drifted through the darkness.

Jackson felt a rhythmic poking of flat metal at his chest. He groaned and swatted weakly. His fingers brushed against Vegas’s hand.

“Jackie? Did you die?” Vegas asked in a baby-talk tone before poking again.

Jackson snapped awake, jerking into a ramrod-straight sitting position. He snatched the offending metal thing out of Vegas’s hand. A spatula. He glared at Vegas. “I’m alive,” he said, and it almost came out as a condemnation. “Regrettably.”


Page 2

Vegas patted Jackson’s hair like a kitten. “But I’d miss you,” he said, pouting his lips.

Jackson peeled himself off the pristine checkerboard tile floors. He pointed a finger, nearly touching the tip of Vegas’s nose. “You know that isn’t the slightest bit attractive.” Jackson scowled and scuffed his feet on the floor. His black Crocs looked just as spotless as the empty diner. “So. About falling in love… with each other?” Jackson asked shyly. Timidity wasn’t in incubi nature, but where Vegas was concerned, Jackson couldn’t help going weak in the knees.

“No, no, of course not.” Vegas laughed.

A shot of anguish hit Jackson directly in the heart. He shivered as Vegas thoughtlessly destroyed any chance they had at love.

“With others.” Vegas smiled. “You need a date and I need a date, by Christmas.”

“Christmas?” Jackson asked after pulling himself together and sweeping up the crumbs of what remained of his shattered heart. He clenched his jaw. “Why Christmas? Are you aware it’s Thanksgiving? That’s only a month. And are you missing somethingsuperimportant?” Jackson gestured furiously to Vegas and then to himself, specifically to their crotches.

Vegas pulled a frown and narrowed his eyes. “Yes. We’re demons. We can still celebrate.” He smiled brightly. “It’s romantic, don’t you think?”

Jackson had no idea what flavor Kool-Aid Vegas had drunk today, but it sure as hell wasn’t the “angel tears” wine coolers.

“One condition,” Jackson commanded.

“Uh-oh. Here comes the angry face.” Vegas shrugged. “Lay it on me.”

“You don’t seduce the New Age guy.” Jackson wasn’t jealous. Nope. Nuh-uh.

Vegas pressed his lips in a thin line. “He has a name.”

“Moonbeam Rainbow-whatsit,” Jackson mumbled out of the side of his mouth.

“That’s not his name.” Vegas crossed his arms.

Jackson groaned in frustration. “That’s my condition. We need to level the playing field. You’ve been flirting with the guy.”

Vegas’s eyes widened. “I have not. He’s just nice!”

“And weird.”

“Jackson!”

“Well,” Jackson muttered. “He is.”

Vegas smirked. “Jealous.”

Jackson felt himself flush head to toe with embarrassment. “No, I’m not!”

Taking a step back, Vegas smiled softly. “Cool your jets. It’s okay. I get it.”

“You do?” Jackson asked, uncertain. There was no way Vegas could have. He cleared his throat, faking confidence. “Of course.”

“You haven’t been seeing anyone. So it’ll make it even.”

Jackson wasn’t going to question Vegas agreeing. His fake confidence grew into true confidence. “Yes. It’s a bet.”

“You have to fall in love by Christmas,” Vegas said, extending a hand.

“Deal.” Jackson planted a high five in Vegas’s palm, and they exchanged a series of claps and gestures, concluding in a fist bump.

They watched each other for a moment, and Jackson arched a brow. Vegas was on the verge of saying something. His eyes lit up in just a way that suggested so. Instead, he yawned wide and stretched with an overdone arch of his back.

Jackson’s mouth ran dry at the flex of Vegas’s spine. His libido pinged in the back of his mind. It was a blessing that he could at least control it and hide his body’s attempt to betray him. He couldn’t hide it for long, though, and his closest chance to get relief was the public restroom. In the off chance a customer miraculously walked in, Jackson would never hear the end of it for shirking his responsibilities.

“Anyway,” Vegas said, cutting through Jackson’s sensuous thoughts. “I’m gunna take out the trash, and we’ll close up for the night.”

“Thank fuck,” Jackson said, pumping his fist victoriously.

Vegas turned to head back into the kitchen. “Get the floors mopped and count the till.”

“But the floors are perfect and we haven’t had a single sale.” Jackson sighed.

Vegas winked at him over his shoulder. “Sisyphus.”

Instead of arguing, Jackson headed for the custodial closet. “I’m so over this human-suffering bullshit.”

“Then win the bet,” Vegas called from the kitchen.

Jackson nodded as he pulled out the mop and bucket. He hefted the bucket to the sink and turned the faucet, watching the water pool in the dingy, stained container. He’d show Vegas.

He started mentally planning their vacations. Tahiti first. Then Thailand. Then Tasmania. He would work them through all the T’s first. Just because Tahiti came first in his top vacation lists.

The back door opened and then slammed. Jackson listened to Vegas’s shuffling around the dumpster. Scaring away the stray cats, as usual. Or feeding them. Jackson had seen bowls of chicken out there more than once.

Vegas had seriously gone soft among the humans. He turned into a baby-talking goober around newborn bunnies. Where was that hot, hard demon lover in the sack? The one who could put the Conqueror bent on conquest to shame?

“Jackson!” Vegas hollered from outside. “Jackson! I need you!”

And damn didn’t Jackson need Vegas.

“Hurry up!”

The panic in his tone had Jackson out the door in less than five seconds.

Vegas stood over a pile of trash bags, staring wide-eyed. He hesitantly put his hand to his mouth and then pulled it away again when he realized he’d been touching trash. “Oh my God…,” he whispered.

Jackson swallowed. It couldn’t be good. When Vegas panicked, it was never good. “Did one of the cats die?” It was a terrible question, but he had to ask.

“Nonono,” Vegas said and pointed to the mound of bags.

Finally, Jackson came to Vegas’s side, took Vegas’s hand, and squeezed tight in reassurance.

Vegas blinked at the gesture. “No. I’m really fine.” He pointed down. “It’s that.”

Jackson squinted into the darkness and peered into the piles of bags. Something wiggled, and he smiled. “The cats had kittens, didn’t they?” He wasn’t totally heartless about Vegas and his cats.

He moved another bag as he listed to the sound of mewls and gurgles.

“We’ll get them something to eat and a place to sleep,” Jackson comforted Vegas.

He moved the last bag and fell back.

It wasn’t a litter of kittens.

“It’s a… I-It’s a…,” he stammered.

Laying in the trash, swaddled in a fuzzy pink blanket, the baby cooed.

Chapter Two

 

JACKSONCHOKEDand fell back on his butt. “It’s a b-b-baby.” Jackson pointed a trembling finger. “Where the fuck did it come from?”

Vegas bent slightly forward, his hair falling over one shoulder as he inspected the child. He smirked. “Do you want the clinical explanation?”

Jackson glowered at him. “Now you’re just being an ass.”

The baby wiggled her tiny hands and babbled.

Vegas stepped closer, and the baby’s eyes widened. “Do you think it’s human?”

Jackson shifted to his feet and then took a step back. He shook his head. What kind of question was that? He rubbed his chin. Well, thereweretwo incubi and a crazy guy who insisted he was an alien. It was a valid question after all. “You check,” Jackson said, shooing Vegas closer to the baby. “I’m not good with tiny living things.”

Vegas shook his head. “Check?” He snorted and bent forward to scoop the baby from the trash. He cradled her close, bouncing her in his grasp. “She doesn’t seem to have three heads. I guess she’s human enough.” He tickled at her chin, and the baby burst into tears.

Jackson skipped back, and Vegas had a panicked look in his eye.

The baby shrieked and her face turned flaming red with her wails.

“Oh God, oh God, take the baby,” Vegas whispered urgently as he stepped to Jackson’s side. “Take the baby. Take the baby.”

Jackson recoiled and held up his hands to fend him off. “Can’t you calm it down or something? If you give it to me, it’ll just scream louder.”

Vegas grimaced at the baby’s shrill cries. “Please. Take. The. Baby.”

“No way,” Jackson insisted. “No, no, no, no—”

Vegas cut him off as he laid the baby in Jackson’s arms.

Jackson screwed his eyes shut, horrified for what terrors awaited him.

The baby giggled.

“Would you look at that?” Vegas said softly, and reached to tickle the baby’s chin.

The baby screamed!

Vegas jerked back, shocked.

The baby giggled and cooed at Jackson.

“This is not happening,” Jackson muttered helplessly.

Vegas smirked. “I’d say you have a way with children, after all.” He hooked a thumb toward the diner. “She probably needs food. I’ll boil some pears while you contact the sheriff. Her mother has to be out there somewhere.”

Jackson looked down at the baby, and she cackled when they made eye contact. Was he funny-looking? Well. Maybe to a baby. He had no idea on how to properly hold a newborn, but he had seen it enough times on movies to make an educated guess.

Following Vegas into the diner, Jackson stood by as Vegas headed for the walk-in cooler. He remained silent when Vegas emerged with a couple of pears and an apple.

All while the baby murmured on his shoulder.

Jackson gnawed on his bottom lip as Vegas set about chopping the fruit. “Am I doing this right?” Jackson asked, gesturing with his chin to the baby. “I never held one before.”

Vegas looked up, his eyes narrowing into merry crescents. “You’re doing fine. She seems to like you.”

Jackson wrinkled his nose. “Yeah. But she seemed to have missed the memo that I detest little wiggling things.”

The baby giggled and Jackson blinked.

“Does she understand me? Can babies do that?” He’d have to limit his cussing for sure. Which would prove next to impossible since “fuck” was an incredibly versatile word.

Vegas poured water into a saucepan and clicked on the burner. “I heard once it’s not that they don’t speak like an adult, but we just don’t speak their language.” He pointed to the manager’s office they shared. “Get the sheriff on the phone. Surely someone’s gotta know about an abandoned baby.”

Jackson nodded, heading for the office. He took another guess and tried bouncing the baby as he walked. She continued to murmur, so he took it as approval. Okay, good sign. When he had worked in the Four Horsemen Stables as a summer job, he had caring for the foals down. If he could keep a baby horse of death alive, he could totally keep a human baby alive until they got her to the right people.

He tried to coordinate the cordless phone while holding the baby, which was about as graceful as juggling three watermelons. Punching in the number for the Tez PD, Jackson listened as it rang.

And rang.

And rang.

And then disconnected.

He furrowed his brows. In the kitchen, he heard the immersion blender buzzing away as Vegas prepared the baby’s first Vegas Special.

Jackson punched the number in again, and the baby squeaked.

Were babies supposed to squeak? It was a normal baby thing, right?

“It’s okay… It’s okay…,” he said as the phone rang over and over until static and then nothing. “Shit.” Jackson spat and then slapped his hand over his mouth. “Shoot,” he corrected himself. “Shoot.” He made a crooked smile at the baby. “You say shoot, okay? I say the other thing.”

The baby responded with a spit bubble.

“Oh God. This thing is gross,” Jackson groaned. He stepped out into the kitchen as Vegas poured the fruit puree into the blast chiller. Jackson arched a brow. “You know you could have just blended it with ice and called it good.”

Vegas turned, wiping his hands on a towel. “I changed my mind midstream. I think maybe a custard kind of thing might work texture-wise.”

“It’s a baby?” Jackson said, incredulous. “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care.”

The baby grunted.

Vegas and Jackson glanced at each other in question.

“Did she just disagree?” Vegas asked.

“Fuck if I know—shit!” Jackson bit his lip. “Fudgeif I know.Shoot.”

The baby giggled.

Vegas crossed his arms and gave Jackson an appraising once-over, and Jackson’s face flushed with his inspection. “I think the little lady is going to make an honest man out of you,” Vegas purred.

“It’s just for a few hours,” Jackson said, scowling. “The phone’s on the fritz, and I couldn’t get through to the sheriff’s office. We’ll have to go ourselves.”

Vegas rubbed his chin. “Why does anyone have phones in this town? The reception is sh—”

“Hey.” Jackson snapped his fingers and pointed to the baby.

“Shoot,” Vegas corrected himself.

“Okay. We got this. We can do this,” Jackson said with a nod. He adjusted his grip on the baby and shifted his weight. “She’s killing my back. Take her for a second.”

Vegas stepped forward with outstretched arms.

The baby shrieked and Vegas danced back.

Jackson rocked with her and she quieted again. Jackson blinked at Vegas. “She doesn’t bite. I swear. She hasn’t bitten me yet, at least. Take her.”

Vegas reached out again, and the baby burst into demonic howls that would rival the Phlegethon rush-hour traffic.

“She hates me,” Vegas said, crestfallen.

Jackson scowled. “She can’t hate you. Everyone loves you. Baby bunnies freaking flock to you.”

“Watch,” Vegas said as he took a step forward.

Instantly, the baby screamed a shrill, ear-piercing note. Both men grunted from the terrible sound.

Vegas stepped away again, and immediately the baby burbled in happy coos at Jackson.

“See?” Vegas said and dread washed over Jackson. “She hates me.”

“This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening,” Jackson croaked. “We need to get her to the sheriff’s office stat. The sooner we get her into safe hands, the sooner I can win the bet.”

Vegas blinked. “The bet? You’re still concerned about the bet? We found a baby. I think the bet should be the least of your concern right now.” He checked the clock and turned back to the blast chiller. “I think the custard is good to go,” he said as he pulled out the bowl. He dipped his pinky into the custard and held it out to Jackson. “Try it. Make sure the flavors are there.”


Page 3

Jackson puffed out his cheeks. “She’s a baby. I don’t think she cares. I hear they eat strained peas. If they can stomach that, I don’t think your gourmet baby food matters.”

Vegas came closer, holding out his pinky.

Jackson managed to hold back the urge to blush at Vegas’s devastating pretty-boy pout. He halfway turned with his back to Vegas, trying to protect the baby, but kept his head turned toward Vegas. Jackson parted his lips just before Vegas reached into his mouth and flicked the custard over Jackson’s tongue.

Jackson’s breath hitched in his throat and their eyes met. Vegas’s green gaze flickered in warning of the sultry incubus within. Jackson’s stomach clenched and his mind wandered at all the things Vegas could do to someone with the power of his stare.

But then he remembered he was tasting baby food, and there was a newborn in his arms.

He swallowed around Vegas’s finger and withdrew.

“And?” Vegas asked, as if he were expecting a fine dining critique.

Jackson licked his lips. “You know…. It’s got a light sweetness, with a punch of… lemon?”

Vegas nodded quickly. “I put lemon juice in with the apple and pears. Think she’ll like it?”

Jackson scowled. “She’s a baby.” Maybe if he reminded Vegas enough times, he’d get the hint. “But make it an icebox pie flavor and you have a hit.” At least Jackson could be encouraging. He reached for a spoon, and Vegas held out the bowl. “Okay. Let’s give this ‘feeding a baby’ thing a go.”

Ten minutes later, Jackson wore more of the custard than was in the baby’s mouth. Covered in white, creamy goo that was nowhere as near as exciting as it was in the old days of the Seventh Circle, Jackson glowered.

Vegas had busied himself across the kitchen with washing the pots and pans. Also, he remained spotless due to the baby’s utter hatred for him. “Ready to get to the sheriff’s office?” he asked as he hung a pot on the overhead rack.

“Remember what I said about this stuff making an awesome icebox pie?” Jackson spat a mouthful of the pear-and-apple baby food.

“Yeah?”

“I lied.”

 

 

JACKSONCOULDN’Tdecide what was more amazing. A completely abandoned diner on Thanksgiving, finding an abandoned baby on Thanksgiving, or standing in front of the abandoned Tez PD Sheriff’s Office.

“Sheriff Ikestanski went to Tampa for the holidays,” Vegas said as he read the handwritten note taped to the dingy glass door.

Jackson shifted his weight, counterbalancing against the grocery basket serving as an impromptu baby carrier. “What kind of law enforcement closes down the office for Thanksgiving? The nearest PD is Santa Fe,” he snapped.

“Not just Thanksgiving,” Vegas said, tapping the glass. “He won’t be back until after New Year’s.”

Jackson’s knees buckled. “Are you kidding me? What about the fire station?”

“That’s in Santa Fe too,” Vegas said as he thumbed his chin.

Jackson clenched his fists. “How has this town not descended into anarchy with no fire department or police department?” He brightened. “A church! We could leave the baby at a church. That’s legal, right?”

Vegas arched a brow as he sauntered down the PD steps. “You want to leave the baby… at a church. Please think about that a minute,” he said with a dubious frown.

“Why can’t we leave the baby at a church?”

“Why don’t you tell me why we can’t enter church grounds?”

Jackson paused. “Fu—Fudge.” He glanced at the baby to gauge her reaction to his near miss with cussing.

She babbled wordlessly.

“I never thought you of all people would forget what we are,” Vegas said, smirking. “Incinerating like a deep-fried Thanksgiving turkey upon stepping on hallowed ground is not in my best interests if I’m going to win the bet.”

Jackson furrowed his brows. “What? You said the bet shouldn’t be our concern right now.” He pointed to the basket. “How am I going to seduce a guy while I’m stuck with a baby?”

“I didn’t say seduce,” Vegas said, placing his hands on his hips. “I said fall in love. They’re two different things.”

“But.” Jackson gestured to the basket. “I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here.”

Vegas tossed his head back in laughter, and Jackson internally wilted. “There’s plenty of guys who love hot guys with kids. Think of her as your babe magnet.”

Jackson’s mouth went dry. He choked down a swallow. “I’m hot?” He cleared his throat before Vegas could answer. “Of course,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I’mdamnhot.”

“Ahem.” Vegas glanced at the baby.

Jackson winced. “Dang. I’mdanghot.”

The baby didn’t seem to mind, and had drifted to sleep.

“I guess she needs a name,” Vegas said. “So we know what to call her while she’s stuck with us.”

“Bob,” Jackson said. “She’s Bob.”

“She’s not a Bob.” Vegas smirked. “I was thinking, since she’s a holiday baby, we should call her Jes—”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Jackson growled. “This isn’t Bethlehem.”

“Jeshebet,” Vegas rumbled and narrowed his eyes. “After my aunt.”

Jackson blinked. “What does your aunt have to do with the holidays?”

Vegas tilted his head, smiling in an impish way. “You know the manger? Likethemanger?” He shrugged. “Who do you think mucked the stall before Mary and Jo showed up?”

“Jeshebet?” Jackson asked the sleeping baby. He rubbed his chin. “I guess it’ll have to do.”

“With that settled, the only thing we need to settle now is who’s going to fall in love,” Vegas said with a devious wink. “You have one month.”

“Baby or no baby, I’m not losing to you,” Jackson warned.

“Bring it on, sweetheart.”

Chapter Three

 

EAVENMAYhave been a ghost town on Thanksgiving, but on the days following, the place was booming with customers—hungry tourists passing through for a much-needed pit stop, or those finding them on Foodspotting.

In between bussing tables, Jackson took every minute he could scrounge into checking his Grindr choices on his smartphone. It was an exercise in frustration, with the 4G randomly dropping and the Wi-Fi conking out. He had bussed six tables by the time his phone would cooperate.

Jeshebet, Jackson’s new attachment, seemed to do well in the bustle of the diner. He had set up a temporary crib behind the counter by arranging giant cans of pickles into a walled rectangle and nesting her grocery basket baby carrier inside his creation.

Vegas had been too cheap to hire extra staff, but Moonbeam Rainbow-whatsit was more than happy to drop by to keep an eye on the baby.

It’s not that Jackson didn’t like him. He did like him. Kind of. At arm’s length. In that “exchanging as few words as possible before it got incredibly awkward” way. He wasn’t jealous of his friendship with Vegas, or so he insisted. The guy was just…weird.

Okay. Maybe a little jealous.

A lot jealous.

He had a name, Vegas had reminded him. Cillian. But it didn’t make it any less “weirdo alert” in Jackson’s head.

Jeshebet seemed to approve of Cillian’s company, which made Jackson’s hackles rise. It was silly. It wasn’t like she was Jackson’s flesh and blood, but he had become a mite possessive of her. The whole situation was temporary, and if he was going to take care of her, he wanted to make sure she wasn’t scarred for life. Not that she’d remember, anyhow.

Jackson nodded to Cillian as they both hung out behind the counter.

Cillian smiled in return. He had one of those smiles that rivaled the sun, and Jackson swore damned birds would tweet around his head if they could. Everything about him was nice. Impossibly nice. No wonder Vegas took a shine to him.

Jackson considered his Grindr choices. He was so out of his league when it came to the friendship Cillian and Vegas shared. He had declared Cillian off limits for the bet, but even as a creature only made for sex, Jackson understood the heart wants what it wants.

Jackson just had to try harder. Maybe Jeshebet would be his ace in the hole for getting a date. There must be some guy in this one-stoplight town who loved kids. But the list of available men whom Jackson was reasonably attracted to had one man on it.

He looked over his shoulder into the kitchen as Vegas manned the grill. He felt a little lightheaded as Vegas worked. Vegas’s timing was near superhuman when it came to the kitchen. He may have insisted their powers were sealed, but Jackson suspected Vegas still used a measure of them to give him an edge.

Jackson swallowed and then ran his tongue over his bottom lip.

Sweat soaked through Vegas’s thin tank top, clinging to the small of his back. His broad shoulders glistened under the kitchen lighting. He kept his hair tied back in a blue bandanna, the cloth lying flat like a classic housewife headscarf. Jackson’s throat tightened at the intense concentration on Vegas’s face as he flipped a row of burgers.

Only Vegas could make cooking hamburgers look obscene.

Not happening.Jackson cursed himself as his blood pressure rose and his supercharged hormones encouraged his body into inappropriate displays. He took a breath. What would have humiliated a human in a public scenario, incubi had a way of turning on and off at will. As the start of his hard-on dissipated, he looked up just at the right—or wrong—moment and caught Cillian glancing at Vegas too.

Fine, Jackson thought. This was how it was going to be. He could handle this. He’d just shake it off. It’s not like Vegas hadn’t had a billion lovers before. Andreally,he’d had a billion lovers. Surely Cillian was well on his way to making Vegas break his vow of celibacy.

Jackson returned to scrolling through his phone. Perhaps Craigslist? Someone had to be looking forcompanionshipfor the holidays. If that’s what they called it. His future vacations depended on it. Paris, Pompeii, and Sãn Paulo were his new additions to his “traveling through the alphabet” list.

“Order up!” Vegas called, hitting the pass-through bell.

Jackson startled and his phone slipped from his fingers. He launched forward across the counter and flailed to catch it. He hit the phone with his fingertips, propelling it away as it skittered across the counter.

“Nonono,” he bit out as the phone barreled down on a collision course with a customer’s biscuits and gravy.

“Nonono!” Jackson panicked.

The phone crashed into the edge of the customer’s plate but ricocheted away, going airborne in a graceful arc. Jackson tried to snatch it out of the air, but it was all for naught when the phone plunked into Cillian’s latte.

Jeshebet cackled and kicked her feet.

Jackson furrowed his brow at her and then glared at Cillian.

But Cillian offered the sweetest apologetic smile, one that rivaled a basket of kittens. It wasn’t his fault, and as much as Jackson wanted to blame someone, he only had himself. “I’ll see if I can fix it,” Cillian said kindly, absolutely clueless about how much Jackson was jealous of him.

“Order up!” Vegas hit the bell again. Jackson knew by his firm slap, Vegas was warning him about his behavior.

Jeshebet seemed to be amused. She giggled from her grocery basket.

Jackson’s irritation evaporated. He couldn’t be mad around her. He read babies picked up on that stuff, and didn’t want to corrupt her with hatred at such a critical developmental stage. She had been through enough already, with being cast away into the trash.

“Thank you,” Jackson said politely to Cillian. He then took the dishes from the pass-through and put on his best smile. He couldn’t think about how his Grindr strategy was officially toast.

Upon his arrival at the table of five hungry college boys, Jackson brightened. His perkiness became a Casanova on the prowl. All of them were clean-cut and some variation of blond. Jackson could do blonds. He fucking loved blonds. Especially the one who made sinfully good pies.

He shook his head, trying to clear his wandering thoughts of Vegas. “Where are you guys from?” he asked as he presented the dishes.

“We’re out in Cali,” said the tallest of the bunch.

“South, right? LA? San Diego?” Jackson asked, playing it polite and eager.

“North,” said the smaller blond next to the taller one, setting his hand on the taller one’s and lacing fingers with him.

Dammit. Taken. And he didn’t seem open to sharing. All they needed was the right…encouragement.

“San Fran? Thereabouts? I love when Cali boys… come,” Jackson purred as he made eye contact with each of them.

The guys collectively blushed.

Hmmm…. Maybe five dates? Jackson’s victory would crush Vegas’s bet. At least Jackson could share the spoils.

He bent over the table, arching his back in the perfect porn star curl of the spine. “I just love it when boys come all over,” he said, then dragged his teeth over his bottom lip for effect. “It’s just gets so hot.”

One of them choked on his drink, and Jackson caught the slight tenting in another’s shorts. Jackson’s victory was nigh. It tasted as sweet as Vegas’s strawberry pie.

Jackson chuckled. “It gets sohardworking such long hours—”

Across the diner, Jeshebet screeched!

Jackson shot ramrod straight as the baby wailed. Cillian looked at him in pure terror. The five college guys glanced at Jackson and then across the diner at the crying baby. Jackson sensed the awkwardness in their auras. College boys definitely had no interest in a guy with a baby.

Fuck ’em.

Shaking off the rejection, Jackson had more important things to deal with. He hurried to Cillian’s side.

Jeshebet wailed in that perfect pitch that could blow out eardrums.

Cillian watched Jackson in a panic. “She spit up a little and I went to wipe it away and she just started screaming.”

Jackson sighed in exasperation. He scooped up Jeshebet’s basket out of her makeshift bassinet, and she instantly giggled. He scowled at her. “I swear to God you’re doing this on purpose.”


Page 4

The baby clapped her hands.

Cillian smiled. “You really have a way with her.”

Jackson frowned. “I guess.”

“I think I got your phone to work, though,” Cillian said as he handed it over. “I think you got a message.”

Jackson couldn’t contain his glee. This was it. Finally, victory was in his grasp. He unlocked his phone and tapped on the Grindr message—only for the 4G to futz out. “C’mon, c’mon…,” he mumbled. “Load. Load, please, load.”

The baby grunted like an angry cow. The smell exploded into the diner.

“Oh fuck,” Jackson yelped and gagged, without considering his language. He spun on his heel and collided chest to chest with Cillian. The force made Jackson drop his phone, and the telltale crunch of a shattered screen as it bounced across the tiles distantly registered in his mind.

Tending to Jeshebet came first.

He scrambled to the employee restroom and set the basket on the sink. Jackson frantically searched the cabinets, but found nothing but toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies. His gut sank. The Huggies and baby wipes were in the back room.

Jeshebet continued to wail, obviously displeased with sitting in her own shit.

“Vegas,” Jackson howled out the door. “I need those diapers and baby wipes!”

“What?” Vegas called back over the noise of the kitchen.

Jackson poked his head out the door and held in his panic as he watched Vegas across the kitchen, tending to another order of burgers. “Diapers! Baby wipes! They’re in the back room!” Jackson roared. “Now!”

Vegas turned to him, just as much panic in his eyes as Jackson had seen in Cillian’s gaze. He dropped his spatula on the grill and then snatched it before it could clatter to the floor. He shook his hand, and Jackson frowned, knowing Vegas had burned it on the grease. He shoved the utensil in his apron pocket, then took off for the back room.

Jackson turned back to Jeshebet.

She screamed, her face redder than brimstone on a scorching summer day.

“I know,” Jackson whispered to her. “I know. It’s gross. You’re a little stink bomb, I hope you know.”

Vegas emerged into the bathroom, laden with a bright pink package of Huggies and a box of baby wipes. He coughed. “Oh God, that’s ripe.”

Jeshebet wiggled angrily in her basket.

“I think that’s my cue,” Vegas said, and shoved the diapers and baby wipes at Jackson before vanishing out the door.

Jackson had gotten the hang of changing Jeshebet over the last few days. But not all the YouTube tutorials in the world could have prepared him for this round.

“God, why have you forsaken me?”

He crossed himself and held his breath.

Chapter Four

 

ITWAStwo weeks to go before Christmas, and Jackson was no closer to finding a date. His latest round of Grindr dates had proved to be a disaster when the possible suitors revealed they were out in Santa Fe and unwilling to make the drive to “crappy Tez.” The town wasn’tthatcrappy. It had its certain, quiet charm. It wasn’t so bad for being not even a blip on the map. People could find Area 51 easier.

Jackson blinked, bleary-eyed, as he counted out the till. Jeshebet had taken it out of him with all her baby emergencies. It had been a blessing that Cillian stepped up, being able to wing it enough to take orders. He wasn’tsobad. He’d make a good employee, if Vegas was up for it. Cillian even did an awesome job decking the place out for the holidays. The happy green and red garland twinkled in the dim light, and the plastic ornaments reflected their surroundings. They still needed a tree, though. They’d have to head to Santa Fe to get it, and assure it would survive the trip back. It just didn’t seem feasible.

Jeshebet slept in her basket, dreaming away baby dreams. Jackson wondered if babies really did dream of fading past lives. His heart softened. At least Jeshebet got more sleep than either of them.

The sheriff would be back in town soon enough, and he’d be on the case to find her parents. Or at least pass her on to someone who could help.

In the kitchen, Vegas had gone quiet in his cleaning duties. He was probably organizing the back room and taking stock, getting ready to do it all over again before opening tomorrow. There was pie dough to prep before they could head home, and it was a two-person job that took another couple hours.

Jackson glanced down at Jeshebet and nodded as she dozed. He hoped she would sleep through the night. He headed back to the kitchen, stifling a yawn. Turning a corner to the back room, Jackson’s breath hitched in his throat.

Vegas stood with his back toward Jackson, furiously jacking off. He curled his fingers tight into the wire shelving, enough to bleach his knuckles as he worked out his passion.

Jackson slapped his hands over his mouth and ducked out of sight. He trembled, equal parts mortified and completely turned on. What had happened to Vegas’s vow of celibacy? When did he break it?

He listened to Vegas groan under his breath. Jackson tightened his thighs in response. Fuck, he wanted Vegas. He was right there, caught in this moment, and Jackson was the dirtiest of voyeurs. Apparently, Vegas understood that old habits died hard and, being pure embodiments of Viagra, needed release.

Jackson’s whole body ached, not just his cock. He gnashed his teeth and got bold enough to sneak another peek. Vegas had his head tilted back, hissing with each heated breath as he fucked his hand. Jackson’s lip quivered. How he wanted Vegas down his throat, creaming into his eager mouth. Vegas’s mouth dropped open as he took down large gulps of air. Jackson recognized the sign of the rise of his climax. He held his breath when Vegas spilled himself, his knees buckling with the release.

Vegas shook his head, seemed to mutter something to himself. Was he embarrassed? Jackson didn’t understand.

Jackson made a quick getaway to the manager’s office, trying to force away the heat and need in his body. He didn’t see anything. Jackson would remind himself of that. He was just tired, and his obsession to win the bet mixed with his feelings for Vegas were running together. That was all it was. Vegas was probably spanking off over Cillian, anyway.

That thought was worse than a cold shower. His erection fell in an instant. He could deal with this. Jackson shook as he worked through the Excel spreadsheets. He had to make peace with the fact that Vegas’s attraction to Cillian was something he couldn’t compete with. Even in all of their years in the Seventh Circle and learning about humans, Jackson would always be the snarky friend. Maybe Vegas had denied his thing with Cillian as a way of softening the blow to Jackson’s ego.

His eyes went blurry and he scrubbed his fingers over them. He sniffed away the stuffiness in his sinuses. Jackson wasn’t crying, or so he told himself, as he managed the work-hours spreadsheet.

“Hey,” Vegas said as he came around the doorway.

Jackson screamed, nearly toppling back in the office chair. He clutched his chest. “Fuck, you scared the piss out of me.”

“Sorry,” Vegas grinned, and Jackson noticed him wiping his hands. “Um…. What do you think of hiring Cillian?”

Jackson shot his attention back to his spreadsheet, then smeared the wetness from his face again. “Oh… um… sure,” he croaked.

“You okay?” Vegas asked.

“Allergies,” Jackson lied. He didn’t look up.

“It would be part-time, of course,” Vegas said. “He’d work with you. He seems really good at waiting on tables.”

Jackson dug his fingernails into the computer mouse. “Uh-huh.” He kept his tone neutral.

“He really likes you, you know.”

“He’s nice.” Jackson clicked through the different windows.

“See? He’s not at all weird.”

Jackson smirked.

Vegas went silent. Only the sound of Jackson clicking through the windows filled the space.

“Hey, um, I need to tell you something,” Vegas said, and Jackson didn’t mistake his flustered tone.

It was probably about him spanking off, but Jackson wasn’t going to call him out on it. And his impenetrable pride kept him from admitting his heartbreak. Merry fucking Christmas.

Jackson refreshed his e-mail window and blinked owlishly at a Craigslist message. “Holy shit…,” he whispered and clicked it open. A photo of a studious, somewhat surly blond man slowly loaded on the screen. The guy’s spiky hair wasn’t really his thing, but it would do in a pinch. His peculiar half-rimmed glasses were a bit charming.

And the guy was located in Tez.

Jackson grinned up at Vegas. “Eat it. I have a date for Christmas.”

But Vegas’s somewhat crestfallen expression hit him in an odd way. After a moment, Vegas smiled kindly, but it was tinged with sadness. “Yeah. Awesome,” he said. He snapped his fingers and pointed in the direction of the kitchen. “Anyway, I’m going to get the pie dough going.”

Chapter Five

 

TIMEWASof the essence to score a date by Christmas, and Jackson’s choices of available men in Tezcatlipoca had dwindled to next to nothing. He had to make this one count, and Christmas was only a week away. Things would have been easier if he could have made it out to Santa Fe. He’d have his pick of young available bucks in rutting season. His eager Grindr hookups missed out on his prime real estate when they rejected him because of a stupid thing like a ninety-mile drive to Nowheresville. But Vegas had stipulated they had to be in love. He didn’t exactly specify if the love had to be mutual.

Jackson sighed. The love definitely wasn’t mutual between him and the incubus of his dreams. He couldn’t think about that now. He was about to make someone’s dream come true of dating a hot stud… with a baby.

It would be an awkward date while carting a baby around. Jeshebet lost her mind around Vegas, and with her sobs that could shatter glass, it was clear that she had a strong dislike for him. Hate was a strong word. She was just a baby. And according to his Internet research, children are taught how to hate.

Vegas named her. Did she not like her name? Who knew how human babies worked? Jackson didn’t have a fucking clue.

Hopping up the creaky wooden steps to Gary’s Grub Shack, Jackson summoned his confidence. He’d have a date out of this rendezvous for sure. He adjusted his grip on Jeshebet’s basket, and she cooed at him.

“No crying, okay?” he murmured to her. “You really need to work with me here.”

She blew a spit bubble in response.

Guh. She was cute. But.Guh.

Jackson opened the café door, and the bell chimed overhead. Old Gary regarded him with his perpetual scowl and then resumed wiping out a coffee cup. Jackson gave him a thin-lipped smile, playing it cool while visiting Eaven’s competition. Old Gary gave Jackson a once-over, and Jackson swallowed. He stood a little straighter as Jeshebet giggled. It was no big deal. Just a guy with a baby. A baby who’s not his, but just suck it up about the assumptions.

Just as well that they didn’t exchange a single word. Jackson found his date sitting in a corner booth, his attention buried in a notebook. Okay. Intellectual type? He could work with this.

“So, you’re Ennis, right?” Jackson asked as he put on his best smile. Kindness and innocence should be the trick. He slid Jeshebet’s basket onto the plush seat next to him.

Ennis closed his notebook and sealed it with the elastic band. He nodded. “And you’re Jackson.” He smirked. “Is this the part I tell you that you look just like your picture?”

“Ooh, a sassy one. I like that,” Jackson purred. He had this. Maybe adjust the innocent act into sultry. “I could say the same thing about yours. That barcode tattoo is definitely a mystery.”

Jeshebet squealed a note that pierced through Jackson’s eardrum.

Ennis glanced pointedly from Jackson to the baby.

Jackson shriveled and then tried to smooth things over with an apologetic smile. He reached around in his messenger bag and pulled out a vinyl baby block for her to chew on. “Shh, shh, Jackson’s talking to his new friend, okay?” he told her as she gnawed on the block.

“This might seem like an odd question,” Ennis said.

“I can explain,” Jackson offered timidly.

“Why is she in a grocery basket?” Ennis asked.

Jackson relaxed and thanked the Almighty that Ennis didn’t make a big deal of how he failed to mention a kid in his profile. But he still had to come up with something. He chuckled, chagrined. “She loves the thing. Can’t stand her stroller for more than five minutes.”

He hoped Ennis wouldn’t pick up on his lie about a nonexistent stroller. But Ennis kept watching her, as if inspecting the baby like a bug. This date was going down faster than that time he and Vegas met that screenwriter in Los Angeles more than willing to do whatever it took to win an Oscar. Jackson lifted the menu to his face before Ennis could catch his expression. That screenwriter gave such shit blowjobs.

“So, you’re new in town?” Jackson asked, trying to turn on the charm. He lowered the menu and found Ennis still watching the baby. He tightened his grip on the laminated cardboard.

At this rate he’d lose the bet for sure.

Ennis nodded. He watched Jeshebet as she made a telltale grunt.

Fuck. Parenting, even temporarily, was a trial by fire. And Jackson knew a thing or two about fire trials. But he was quickly learning parenting was worse than what Dante had imagined.

“Shit, sorry.” Jackson slipped out of the booth and scooped up Jeshebet’s basket. Her baby block bounced over the floor, squeaking with each impact and landing on Ennis’s foot. “Seems the little miss needs a changing.” God, this was awkward. “Um, if you want to go… I’ll understand.”

Well, that was one date off the list. Now the available men in town had been rendered nil, and fuck it all if he’d seduce Old Gary. Though he seemed the family-man type. Jackson violently shook his head and slapped his face. No. No way. He couldn’t be that desperate.

Jackson’s stomach sank. He was Sisyphus after all, doomed to clean out grease traps for all eternity.

He gagged at the thought.

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