Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Link: Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Caleb’s first night at his new job may well be his last. First, his boss’ daughter, Ophelia, doesn’t like him. Then, Caleb has a small emotional breakdown in front of his new boss, who he can’t help making eyes at. Then, he ends up in the middle of an altercation between Vincent, who gives off strong serial killer vibes, and his three equally serial killer-esque — bodyguards? posse? — while trying to save his ex-bully, who is bruised, battered, and bitten at Vincent’s feet, only to have to be rescued by his boss. Who Caleb then kisses.
And yet, somehow, Caleb manages to make it to the next day with his job intact. The only thing still bothering him — well, okay, all of it still bothers him — is the fact that his boss returned the kiss. And now, Ophelia is telling Caleb it’s fine with her if she makes eyes at Marcus, so long as he makes up his mind and either runs away or gets it on, because she doesn’t want to put up with the puppy eyes and mooning sighs.
So he does. Or rather, they do. Marcus asks Caleb on a date and he, of course, agrees. Their good night kiss is interrupted when someone shoots Marcus with a crossbow. A good, old-fashioned crossbow. And then there’s a guy with a knife, one with a lead pipe and a woman with a bat all trying to kill Marcus, and Caleb, too. Why? Because Marcus is a vampire.
Surface Scratch is the first book in the Neon Scars series and introduces a wold of vampires and vampire hunters that seems to balance between conventional tropes and unique world building. There are the vampires on one side, some good, some not so good, all of whom need to feed on blood. Some use blood banks, some use volunteers, some use trials — humans who have chosen, or been chosen, to stay beside their vampire patron, offering up their blood and devotion — and others simply feed on whomever they like. Hunters are on the other side, some good hearted, rescuing the victims of vampires and offering vengeance and justice to victims, while others want to erase any taint of vampires from the world.
Marcus, a 200-year old, half-Japanese vampire has seen a great deal of humanity, the good and the bad. His adopted daughter’s parents were cruel and unfeeling, so now she belongs to him. Hunters in the past have sought to destroy his found family of vampires and humans, going so far as to burn a human child in front of its father for the crime of loving a vampire. Even so, Marcus still looks for the best in people. When Caleb’s difficulties are presented to him — why he needs the job, how badly he needs the job — Marcus helps. Because it’s the right thing to do. When Caleb confesses he’s not sure he can get in a car, Marcus takes him to a restaurant within walking distance.
A few years ago, Caleb and his family were in a life-altering car accident. Caleb and his brother were trapped, unable to escape as the car caught fire. Caleb’s brother’s leg was nearly destroyed; Caleb endured surgery after surgery and skin grafts that have left him self-conscious of his scars. Their mother had to have much of her skull put back together, and spent her remaining days bedridden and mentally impaired. For years, Caleb has been alone, struggling beneath the weight of medical bills, rent, food, and utilities. He had to drop out of high school, and it’s hard to get a job with no education. Because of all of this, Marcus makes an effort to give Caleb choices. To say yes or no, to allow or decline gifts or offers of support.
Marcus is also endlessly aware of the disparity in their ages, their financial situations, and in the power dynamics of boss and employee. At every stage he’s giving Caleb the chance to back out, to slow down, to walk away:
“I want you, Caleb Walsh, more than I’ve wanted anyone in a very, very long time,” Marcus said bluntly, not breaking eye contact. “I can’t promise I’ll be good for you. In fact, I can almost guarantee that I won’t be. But if this is what you want… If I’m what you want, I’ll do anything I can to keep you safe. If you’ll have me.”
Even in the bedroom, Marcus has to fight his nature to claim and protect Caleb, to dominate and own, with his desire to have it be Caleb’s choice. Being a vampire means Marcus’ emotional control has been forever affected. When he feels, he feels strongly. When he’s angry, he’s a raging volcano; when he’s aroused, he’s a possessive monster, and he tries too hard to be human for Caleb.
“It’s been a while since I’ve done this and the beast wants out.”
“What?” Marcus asked, lifting his face from the comforter. His face had reddened and was beaded with sweat, his jaw tight. “You don’t want that. I could break you.”
For the first time, he realized what it would be like to be fully consumed by someone else’s power and passion. He wanted to be taken over by it, to be subsumed in it until all that remained was him and Marcus together in a single entity of pure pleasure. Caleb wanted him. All of him. Even the beast that he only truly glimpsed a few times.
“Do it,” Caleb whispered. “Break me. Just put me back together when you’re done.”
Caleb and Marcus, together, are as gooey as marshmallow fluff. They’re tooth-rottingly cute in a dark, dangerous, and often awful world, and I found it an interesting balance to have such a romantic pair with such a romantic streak between them navigating kidnapping, torture, hunters, and psychopaths, while still having eyes only for each other.
The writing was strong, the pace was a little on the fast side (or maybe I just like to linger), but the story still had time to breathe. The characterization was strong and the world building was a study pillar supporting the story. I honestly had fun with this one, finishing it one night. If you like vampires, happy romances with some dark sprinkles for contrast, and couples who both care for and communicate with each other, I hope you give this book a try. The author promises future books with the side characters, and I’m all in.