"You don't want to do that."
Jared's on the edge of the bridge, already on the other side of the railing, ready to drop into space and maybe hit the water or the rocks hard enough to black out. It doesn't really matter. All he can think about right now is stopping the pain.
But suddenly there's this guy, standing on the bridge a couple of feet away, and it throws Jared off because this bridge was deserted when he got here. It's closed for fucking repairs, for God's sake, and it's out in the middle of nowhere and Jared's been here for almost an hour with nobody else so much as driving by and nothing but the sound of the wind and water crashing against the rocks below...
"What?" he turns his head, catches a glimpse of the guy. He's wearing jeans and work-boots, a simple black jacket over a collared shirt – working man's costume.
But even in the dark, his face is – well, it's glowing, for fuck's sake. The man is pale, with vivid green eyes and perfect features and Jared can see every freckle, plain as day.
Jared glances down at the water, then back at the guy again because he can't look away, he has to see that face again because – it must be a trick of the moonlight. Except when Jared glances up at the sky, it's full of clouds. No moon.
"I said, you don't want to do that."
The man has a deep, soothing voice with a hint of gravel, a touch of honey, and Jared definitely wants to hear him speak again, could almost give up his plan just to listen to the guy's voice.
But no. No way is he letting some gorgeous stranger with a purring voice distract him from what he needs. Jared needs the darkness, the silence, he needs an end to the agony. This is what he wants. He's planned this, picked this place weeks ago, and now spent an hour working himself up to it, making his brain work through the problem. It's the only way.
"There's always another way," the stranger says, and Jared shoots another look at him.
He really is beautiful. If Jared had met him a month ago...
"How do you know?" Jared knows he should ignore the man, get on with his plan, although he's feeling a twinge of guilt now because this guy is going to watch as Jared does what he has to do, and that's not something Jared would wish on his worst enemies.
"Because," the man shrugs. "There always is. This is never the answer."
"You really shouldn't be here," Jared says.
"Oh, I think I should," the man says, taking a step closer.
Jared puts a hand up, starts to lose his balance and grabs hold of the railing instead.
"No, you really shouldn't," he insists, and now there are tears in his eyes, damn it. He thought he was done with that. "You shouldn't have to watch this. It's – it's not your fault. It's got nothing to do with you."
"That's where you're wrong," the man says, taking another step. "It's got everything to do with me. That's why I'm here."
"Don't come any closer!" Jared warns. "You can't stop me! This is what I want!"
"I'm sorry, Jared," the man says softly, and Jared looks up sharply, momentarily thrown by the man's use of his name. "I'm afraid it isn't. At all."
"How do you – "
And that's all it takes. Jared slips, scrambles to grab hold of the railing in a last-ditch effort to catch himself, but it's no use.
I meant to do this on my own terms, damn it! he screams inside his head at the man and at the world as he's suddenly falling, flailing wildly as his body struggles for survival even as his mind knows it's all over.
There's nothing left but the rocks and the cold, dark water, rushing up to meet him as he falls faster and faster, wind rushing past his ears, making his eyes tear. All he can hope for is that he'll lose consciousness before impact.
The last thing Jared sees is the beautiful man standing on the edge of the bridge, staring down at him with his jaw clenched in an expression at once determined and sorrowful, like he's the one who's just decided to end his life as he knows it.
And the weird thing is, Jared could have sworn he saw the shadow of massive feathered wings rise up behind the man, as if he's about to take flight.
Then Jared feels a jolt as he lands hard and the world goes dark.
Six Months Ago:
When he thinks back on it, Jared can pinpoint the exact moment his life began to fall apart. On September 13, 2005 he was a twenty-three-year-old college senior finishing up a liberal arts degree with short-term plans to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He'd agreed to his parents' terms to give it two years, after which he promised to get a master's degree in teaching and follow his mother into the classroom.
He'd already given the acting bug a chance with a year away from school before college, which was why he was a year older than most of his classmates, and the experience had toughened him and given him confidence. He knew that making it as an actor was a crapshoot at best, but he'd been in love with the stage since he was four years old, and he was lucky enough to have parents who believed their children should pursue their dreams, up to a reasonable limit, so Jared was pumped to get started.
But shit happens, as Jared learned on September 13, the day he was called out of class and met by a plain-clothed police detective who explained that his parents and little sister had all just died in a car accident. Was there someone Jared could go to?
"No, it's just us," Jared answered perfunctorily as the walls of his world came crashing down around him. Jared's older brother had died in a hunting accident as a teenager, the defining tragedy of his life up to this moment.
He gave his permission to some of his mother's friends to help plan the funerals, then left school the next day to go home for the last time. The next few weeks were a blur of donated casseroles, lawyers, life insurance settlements and real-estate brokers. After clearing out and selling his parents' house there was barely enough left for Jared to put a deposit down on an apartment. So Jared took his dad's old Ford pick-up truck, luckily all paid for, and drove away from San Antonio for the last time, headed to Los Angeles to pursue his dream.
It was what his mother would want, he told himself as he drove, hours alone in his Dad's pick-up truck giving him plenty of time to think. He couldn't go back to school even if he could afford the tuition payments on his own. There were too many concerned friends there, and he needed a clean break. Time to put the past behind him and look forward to a new future, a new life.
Within a month he'd run out of money. Within two months he was on the street, cashing in on the few friendships he'd made standing around at auditions, making enough money as a dish-washer and busboy to eat once in a while. He'd lost weight, which made him look younger, so he tried out for anything that came up, losing days away from work being an extra on various TV shows just for the meager earnings and hot meals.
He got close sometimes, rushing into call-back auditions with a pounding heart and renewed hope only to be rejected, passed over yet again by some young, fresh-faced kid with more experience working in TV or film. It was a constant catch-22, Jared's lack of experience of the kind producers and agents wanted. He couldn't get jobs because he hadn't done those kinds of jobs, didn't have his Equity card because he couldn't get cast in an Equity production.
The day he accepted an offer from a producer of adult TV programming was not a good day.
Jared told himself it was work. It was just work. It put food on the table and allowed him to collect enough for a down-payment on an apartment. He would do it for six months, he told himself, enough to get back on his feet and save enough so he could start auditioning for legit parts again.
The irony that the adult film industry wanted him for roles he couldn't get in non-adult programming was not lost on Jared. He played high-school jocks, pizza-delivery boys, a college kid going door-to-door to demonstrate vacuum cleaners to lonely housewives. Okay, those last two were total cliches, but. The writing was terrible, of course, but he was working with some of the hottest names in adult films, and he couldn't say he really minded having sex with such beautiful women as Genevieve Cortese and Danneel Harris. Getting paid to do it was only the icing on the cake. Sure, it was humiliating once in a while, and sometimes it was just plain boring. But these people were professionals. They knew what they were doing and they did it well. After a month or so Jared decided that becoming a porn stud wasn't the worst decision he'd ever made after all.
Then came the day that Sebastian Roché, the producer and director, sold Jared's contract to another filmmaker.
"It's the way this business works, Jared," Sebastian explained when he took Jared aside. It was the middle of a long day of filming, and Jared was nearly naked, had gotten used to walking around with just a pair of boxers or a towel around his waist between scenes while he waited. The women were even bolder. They undressed as soon as they got to work and stayed nude all day, just letting it hang out between costume changes, which weren't very frequent.
Jared wasn't quite there yet. He still maintained a modicum of modesty, plus it was damned uncomfortable to let his unusually-sized dick hang free between scenes. He was too aware of the eyes of the crew and male cast members, and although he was doing fine in front of the camera, somehow being watched off-camera was still a little disconcerting, still made him a little self-conscious.
"Mark just wants to borrow you for a few months," Sebastian went on. "He's watched you perform, and he thinks you'd be perfect for some of his projects."
"Mark Pellegrino?" Jared was surprised. "Doesn't be make gay porn?"
Sebastian smiled, and that look alone should have tipped Jared off that something about this wasn't quite right.
"You'll be great," Sebastian assured him. "Perfect, in fact, for what he has in mind."
And that really should have creeped Jared way the hell out.
The next day when Jared reported to work, Mark was there with a new crew and two muscled, tattooed dudes who sized Jared up like he was a fine cut of beef. The rest of the crew had cleared the set except for a lone cameraman who Jared didn't recognize.
"This is Buck," Mark introduced one of the men, then gestured to the other. "And this is Irv. They work together."
"Always," agreed Buck. Irv smiled and cracked his knuckles, and Jared felt his stomach sink. None of this looked good. At all.
"So for this first piece, we need you to play a virgin college student," Mark explained. "Buck and Irv have picked you up in a bar and brought you back here, to this motel. You've never had gay sex before."
Jared stared at him, horrified. "No, I haven't," he agreed as panic rushed through his veins and sweat dampened his palms and the back of his neck. "I really never have. For real."
"Ah," Mark nodded, folding one arm in front of his chest and resting his chin on his other hand. "Then you won't even have to act, will you?"
Jared's mouth fell open, but no sound came out. Irv and Buck were watching him with smiles that were almost feral, and Jared was reminded of hungry wolves.
"You can't – You can't be serious," he stammered as Buck and Irv moved toward him, circling. "I can't do that. I'm not – I don't swing that way.. I'm not gay."
"No," Mark agreed. "You're bi. You just don't know it yet. Any more questions?"
Jared finally found his voice, pulled himself up to his full height as he put his hands up in front of himself in the universal gesture to stop and back off.
"Wait," he demanded. "This is crazy. I can't do this."
"Why?" Mark shook his head. "What's the problem? Do you need drugs? A fluffer or two?"
"No!" Jared snorted out a laugh of disbelief. "I can't do this because I just can't, okay? This is a no-go for me. I'm drawing the line here."
"Why?" Mark seemed genuinely surprised, although the smirk on his face gave him away. "Is it because there's two of them? Would it be easier if there was just one to start?"
"No!" Jared exploded, angry now because Mark seemed to be taunting him. "I'm not doing this. It isn't what I signed up for!"
"Oh, see, that's where you're wrong, Jared," Mark smiled, but his eyes were cold. "I paid for you. You're mine now. You'll do what I say because you owe me money, and I always collect my debts. Always."
Jared could feel the ground shifting under his feet. He could feel his chest rise and fall as he started to hyperventilate. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be real.
"I'll go to the police," he gasped out. "You can't make me do this."
"You're a porn actor, Jared," Mark reminded him. "That's as good as a prostitute to them. Scum of the earth. You think they're going to take your word over mine? I'm a respected businessman. Pillar of the community. I give money to charity."
Mark took a step closer, and Jared physically recoiled. Every bone in his body rebelled against the things Mark was saying, even while he knew they were true. Jared had done this to himself. He'd gone down this road of his own volition, and this was where it had led him. He was trapped.
"Hey, it's not that bad," Mark purred. He seemed to read the defeat in Jared's face. "The pay's good. The market for this stuff is growing, especially among single straight women. You'd be surprised at the number of women who subscribe to our channels. You get good at this, you'll be a star in no time."
Jared felt tears smarting at the backs of his eyes. He was certain he would never get used to this. Ever.
"Look, we want you to enjoy it, obviously," Mark seemed to soften now that he was sure of Jared's cooperation. "Why don't we start with something a little more romantic, huh? Nice quiet dinner, maybe some dancing, a little walk in the moonlight? Sound better?"
Jared blinked back tears as Mark pulled out his phone to make a call, and within minutes Buck and Irv had been replaced by a clean-cut young man in jeans and a tee-shirt, a casual jacket hanging off his broad shoulders.
"Jared, meet Eric," Mark introduced the young man. "Your date. A blind date, set up by your girlfriend at the office where you intern because she wants you to be happy. She's a good friend, and she sees that you're probably gay, even if you haven't admitted it to yourself yet. Eric's going to take you to dinner, then back to his apartment. Okay? Are we good? Everybody having fun now?"
Jared wasn't, actually. But Eric Johnson was a pro. Once he realized it was Jared's first time having sex on camera with a guy, he convinced Mark to let them take a break, get to know each other first. Build the trust that Jared would need to allow this to happen.
"Okay, but I need you both back here tomorrow morning, nine a.m. sharp." Mark admonished. "And Jared needs to be ready to film that first time like it's the real thing."
Eric had a nice car. He wore nice clothes, and he knew where to take Jared to eat and walk on the beach. He had an easy, comfortable way about him that put Jared at ease, and even though he knew what was coming, Jared was almost able to forget about his contract with Mark Pellegrino. He could almost believe he hadn't backed himself into a corner and couldn't get out.
But he had. Eric had a nice apartment, and when he assured Jared that he was welcome to stay the night, Jared understood this was all the training he could expect. Even though Eric took things slow that night, explained gay sex as patiently as possible as he guided Jared through the mechanics with lots of lube and encouragement, it was still painful and humiliating. He did his best to imagine it was Genevieve or Danneel sucking his dick, penetrating him with a dildo.
But of course it wasn't. And no matter how Eric kissed and caressed and whispered soothing words, Jared couldn't shake the feeling of being used. He understood that if he did this job well, he could end up with nice things, like Eric had. And if he thought about this as another acting job, as just a role or a series of roles in which he had to pretend he was into guys, he could make himself do it, even if it never felt as comfortable as having sex with women.
But when he lay in bed with Eric's arm draped over his hip later that night, Jared's body was flooded with a despair deeper than any he'd ever known. He yearned for his parents, his sister, his friends back home in San Antonio. He was filled with homesickness and gut-wrenching loneliness. He was sure this path led nowhere good. He could see himself taking drugs now, something he'd avoided up to this point but which he now knew he would need if he was to survive this. And starting down the road to addiction was something he had promised himself he would never do. It was the line in his mind that he had drawn from the day his family died.
Heavy-limbed and bone-weary, Jared pulled himself out of bed and into the bathroom, turning on the shower as hot as it would go, leaving the lights off so he wouldn't wake Eric. He scrubbed until his skin was raw, then toweled off and wrapped the towel around his waist, standing in front of the mirror in the moonlight, just trying to center himself. He was still thinner than his usual self, still looked younger than his twenty-three years. There was a vulnerability about him, despite his height, and he could see why Pellegrino had wanted him. The gangly boy he had been was being replaced by something older and harder. Jared could almost see the outline of the muscular body he would have in a few months, after the work-out schedule Mark had planned for him. His face would lose its baby-fat and harden. His chiseled cheek-bones would become sharper and higher, giving his slanted eyes a calculating shrewdness that bordered on malevolent.
Jared saw himself a year from now, almost as if he were having a vision of his own future, glaring back at him from the mirror, strong jaw tensed in anger, body a wound-tight killing machine. Deadly.
Within a year, Jared would be luring younger men into Pellegrino's business. He would be seducing and conditioning them, just as Eric was doing for Jared.
"Oh no," Jared breathed, feeling his knees weakening. "Oh God, no. Please, no."
Jared grabbed the edge of the counter, just to keep from falling, as the truth of his insight whirled around him, the horror of his situation crashing down in the tiny bathroom. Pellegrino owned him now, and Jared had no doubt the man would send thugs after him if he tried to escape, would beat Jared into submission if he had to. Or worse.
He wasn't sure why he fell to his knees on the little soft rug in the bathroom that night. He wasn't even sure he knew what he was doing when he whispered to a God he didn't believe in. Praying hadn't worked for him before, all those years ago when his brother had died and Jared begged God to bring him back, to take Jared instead.
Praying hadn't worked before, and Jared didn't expect it to work this time. It was more an expression of his utter desperation than any real plea for celestial intervention. Jared understood now that his life was cursed, that every decision he had made over the past few months had been leading him deeper and deeper into Hell.
He was beginning to think there was only one thing he could do to stop it.