SHB11 was worth the risk of failure.

Failure was only certain when you didn’t try.

As Sage was patting one of the guy’s shoulders on the way out and trying to make his failure to hook the set inconspicuous to observers, Prime was telling HB7.5 that he’d needed to go say hi to a friend and was making his own departure.

As Prime made his own approach he passed by Sage. He smiled at his friend and gave him a quick high-five.

“Impossible set, man,” said Sage.

“Nothing’s impossible,” said Prime.

“Then show me how it’s done, Professor Prime.”

Prime just grinned at him and moved toward the fireplace.

He didn’t bother to open the set properly, the way Sage had done. Prime just bulled his way through to the fireplace and said, “Excuse me,” as he squeezed in to sit down on the bricks between SHB11 and one of her friends. “This fire looks awesome.”

It wasn’t exactly textbook. As an approach, he deserved points for placing himself next to his target, but that was about it. He had no doubt that Sage had tried three variations on textbook approaches and had failed with all of them, so why not?

“Chilly out there tonight,” he said, leaning back toward the fire.

There was an awkward moment as they evaluated him. He’d just invaded their space with a barely plausible excuse and they were trying to figure out if they were cool with that or not.

Prime gave them the moment, soaking in the heat. It was a little chilly outside tonight, that was the truth, and he felt no shame in taking the seat he had now.

He was a bold man who broke the rules and rarely felt fear, but at that moment, suddenly and surprisingly, despite the heat, the hairs on the back of his neck rose up. He felt . . . vulnerable.

That was odd. He’d set aside his approach anxiety years ago and just didn’t give a crap anymore how anyone received him.

There was something different about this group.

SHB11 leaned in his direction, a little, tilting her head down. His heart picked up its pace as she surreptitiously sniffed him.

Well, that was different. He didn’t move and held his position.

Everything relaxed then and his hairs settled back into place.

“I like your T-shirt, man,” said one of the guys in the group. Prime pegged him as the alpha member of the group. He was the oldest and the biggest guy there, and it seemed that he had now won the AMOG over without much effort. How had he done that? His shirt?

What shirt had he thrown on today? Oh, yeah. The one that said Meat is murder . . . tasty, tasty murder. It was Gaucho Grill day.

“Thanks,” Prime said automatically, using it to launch into one of his set stories. He raised his voice and engaged the whole group. “Tonight I hit my favorite restaurant, a Brazilian churrascaria. When the Brazilians barbeque they don’t slather on that goopy sauce like they do in the midwest. It’s just salt and meat, you know? Natural and honest, and tasty as hell. My place here is awesome, and they have everything. Every cut of beef all served on swords, pork, sausage, sometimes even ostrich. Oh, and chicken hearts, done the way I used to enjoy them in Rio.”

“You were in Rio? What were you doing there?” SHB11 asked.

“Yeah. I was there studying jujitsu, but I probably spent more time on the beach.” He went on about the views from Copacabana Beach, and the time used his martial arts training to rescue cute Israeli tourists from a mugger. It wasn’t his best story, not by a long shot, but it let him drop some interesting displays of higher value without too much bragging, and he could feel out a group with this stuff. Sometimes he turned off the hippy types, way too common in San Francisco, but pick-up wasn’t about scoring with every girl you met. It was about finding out who you were and what you wanted and being able to get it when you found it. Hippy chicks were not for him, SHB11 or not. Sage could take those.

“Chicken hearts?” SHB11 said, licking her lips. “Love them.”

A show of interest. Excellent. Prime smiled and gave her a quick hug. “You’re my kind of girl, aren’t you. Wait a second,” he said, pushing her away, “can you cook?”

“No,” she answered, giggling. “But I can eat.”

Hook point. He was in.

Her name was Anastasia, and she was not only a hot girl, she was a cool girl. Her group was . . . odd. The AMOG, it turned out, was her father, Yuri, and her mother was there, too, Elena. The others were an aunt and uncle and her older sister and husband. Not your usual clubbing set, but when you found a SHB11, you didn’t question the circumstances. Many of the hottest girls didn’t go out to bars at all and you had to find them at supermarkets or the gym.

And if they went out with their family and that was how he found them, that was how he would game them. Romancing a girl in front of her parents was not something he was afraid to attempt.

Prime chatted them all up and everyone was smiling and feeling good and comfortable with him. Time to isolate and escalate, or he’d just be that friendly guy they met that time. He also realized that he felt a bit strange. Not drunk—he didn’t drink when he was working or sarging—but warm and light headed, and the air was pregnant with a musky scent.

“I was cold when I came over, but now I’m more on the toasty side,” he said, standing up. He held his hand out to Anastasia. “Catch some air with me.”

She glanced away from him, a nonverbal check with the parents, and then took his hand and let him lead her out.

They got looks not only from Sage and the boot camp students, but quite a few other envious guys in there.

It didn’t bother Prime one bit.

Outside there were a few clusters of smokers lingering about, which gave Prime a bit of an excuse to maneuver them into even a bit more isolation.

“I like it that you don’t smoke,” he said. “Makes a woman’s mouth taste like an ashtray.”

“I could never,” she said, smiling. Her green eyes glinted in the moonlight. “Hurts your sense of smell.”

“You smell good,” said Prime. He leaned in, brushed her hair aside, and sniffed her slowly from shoulder to ear. “Mmmmm, really good.”

She smiled and made no effort to stop him.

“Smokers or not, so many people have lost their sense of smell in this modern world,” he said. “We’re so artificial now, like machines, not the animals we really are. Animals, you’ll notice before they mate, will always smell each other. We’re hardwired by evolution to respond to certain, fundamental things, in the nose and in the gut. Our noses know, so to speak, and tell us things we need to know about the world.”

“That’s so true,” she said. She started to say something else, but stopped as his hand slid up the back of the neck into her hair.

“There are a lot of things like that that we humans have forgotten. You’ll notice how lions, when they mate, bite and pull and claw at each other. Here,” he said, pulling her hair downward so her face was tilted up toward his. “Like this.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“The best, most sensitive places on the body are hidden places, like the nape of the neck where your hair starts, and like the inside of the elbow, the back of the knee . . . ”

Prime traced his fingers along some of those places as he spoke. “Places like those have millions of little nerve endings, sensitive little guys, all signaling for the release of endorphins when properly stimulated.”

Anastasia seemed entranced, giving him what the community called doggy dinner bowl eyes, just the way she was supposed to be at this stage in the game.

He took her arm, bent it a little, and erotically bit Anastasia on the inside of her elbow, slowly closing his mouth and bringing his teeth together.

She shivered.


“Yes,” she said. “You understand very well.”

“But do you know what I love best?” Prime asked. He pointed at the side of his neck. “A bite right here. This is where the jugular vein is most exposed, and since so many sexual fantasies involve submission and vulnerability, it just floods the brain with endorphins.”

He waited. About half the time the girls didn’t do anything and he would have to instigate. The other half of the time they were game, but usually the first attempt was lame and he would insist on showing them how it was done.

In either case, a passionate make-out usually ensued with minimal effort.

Anastasia reacted more positively than most.

She jumped him, wrapping her legs around his waist, grabbing his hair, and devouring his lips and neck with her hungry mouth.

Prime staggered back a step against the brick wall, pleasantly overwhelmed.

And then there was no thought, only lust and passion.

Eventually Prime realized that they weren’t kissing or biting each other any more, that he was thinking again. At least a little. In the cool night air their breath formed little wisps of mist around their faces. Hell, Anastasia’s upper chest was flat out steaming.

“Anastasia!” came a voice calling from the front door of the Den. Her family was leaving.

It took Prime a moment to process that something was going on, so lost in the moment he had been.