He’s done fighting his attraction to the sexy vampire…
To say former firefighter Colin Zhang is struggling to accept his new life would be a vast understatement. He’s bound to a vampire he didn’t choose, living in a house filled with creatures better left to the imagination—there’s a lot to resent. As much as he tries, he doesn’t resent Evan—far from it. But he needs to know that what he feels is real and that requires breaking their bond. No matter the cost.
Vampire private investigator Evan Fournier is more than willing to explore his connection with Colin, but the crisis at hand keeps getting in the way. Their bond makes it dangerous for them to be apart, so he’s forced to put the other man at risk while he investigates the latest in a series of murders. If he doesn’t find the killer soon, the paranormal community will seek retribution on all humans, not just the guilty ones.
As the tensions escalate, Evan and Colin find solace in each other and their growing attraction. But if their bond is broken, attraction—even love—might not be enough to keep them safe.
The Ashes & Dust Series
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Read on for a sneak peek at the first chapter…
Two vampires, a shifter, a witch, a phoenix, and a god sit down to dinner with a human who knows nothing of the paranormal world.
It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke—hell, it was a bad joke. But it was also our new reality.
I scooped up a forkful of spaghetti and thanked the gods—not Wes—that vampires still had to eat human food. Keeping up a façade of normalcy for Hudson’s human brother would have been that much more difficult if Hudson and I had to pretend to eat. Beside me, Colin chatted with Sam about a video game. Lexi and Wes leaned close together, giggling, which told me they’d either been into the wine or were sharing a joke. But the real show was watching Hudson and his brother, Lance, dance around each other. Metaphorically, of course.
About a week ago, Hudson and Wes had returned from overseas with Lance in tow, after Lance had had a medical episode that put him into the hospital. The brothers hadn’t seen each other in years and were more strangers than anything else. But Lance needed help, and Hudson hadn’t hesitated, because that’s just who he was.
But damn, it was hard on all of us who lived here.
Lance cleared his throat. “Did your phone call go okay?”
Hudson tossed a quick smile at his brother but it didn’t reach his warm, golden-brown eyes. “Oh. Yeah. Thanks for asking. It’s all good. How’s the spaghetti?”
“It’s good.” Lance hadn’t eaten a lot of his serving, but maybe we’d put too much on his plate. It was hard to remember portion sizes for non-paranormals. It could also be that his appetite wasn’t back to what it once was. It was tough to tell with humans.
The brothers shared enough characteristics that, side-by-side, you could tell they were related. If I’d met Lance on the street, though, I wouldn’t have guessed he was related to Hudson. His hair and beard were a dull steel gray, and his skin was more a pale tan than Hudson’s vibrant bronze tone. He was ten years younger than Hudson—so, in his early fifties—but Hudson, of course, looked younger, since he’d stopped aging when he was turned into a vampire in his late thirties. Lance, though…with the lines etched in his face and his broad body largely turned to fat, Lance looked like he was closer to Hudson’s chronological age of sixty-three. Time had not treated him well.
“So, I thought maybe we could play a board game or something after dinner.” The words rushed out of Lance’s mouth as though he were afraid Hudson would cut him off before he got the full request out.
“Oh, I, uh…” Hudson dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “I can’t. I have a thing.”
“A meeting. With a new client.”
I tried not to frown at Hudson, but it was difficult. Normally he shared when he was meeting a new client—not only to keep me and Wes in the loop, but to get our opinions on whatever the case was. But I hadn’t heard anything about this meeting.
“Could I come with you?” Lance asked hopefully. “I could wait in the car. It’d be great to get out of the house.”
“Uh…” Hudson looked at Wes, then at me. “I’m not sure if…um, the area’s not the best.”
Lance rolled his eyes and smiled crookedly. “This is Canada. I doubt the area’s that bad.”
Lance’s crooked smile wavered. “It’s just…I’m finally feeling a tad better. I’ve got some energy today, you know? Thought it’d be fun to spend some time together.” He shrugged and a pink tinge swept across his cheeks as he poked at his food. “But hey, if you’re busy, you’re busy. My fault for springing it on you.”
Oh, lord. Watching these two was painful. “I can take the meeting.”
Hudson’s eyes widened a fraction. “No, Ev, I—”
Lance perked up. “Can you?”
“Meeting?” Colin nudged my shoulder. No doubt I’d interrupted the plans he’d been making with Sam to duke it out on Call of Mayhem or whatever the hell the game was called. I held back a grimace of regret. Colin would have no choice but to come with me, since our messed-up magical bond didn’t allow us to be parted for any distance.
I shot him a quick glance that I hoped conveyed sorry. “Yeah, I can do it. I don’t mind. Hudson, send me the details and I’ll be there.”
“You sure?” I didn’t know what Hudson was doing with his eyebrows, wagging them up and down like he was trying to land a plane on his face. “It’s, uh, not the usual.”
“Sure.” I gave him a confident grin. “I’ll handle it.”
How bad could it be?
Hudson’s directions took us out of town, to a grand estate northwest of Toronto. At least, at first glance I assumed it was a grand estate—the driveway was adorned with two eight-foot-tall stone pillars, topped with a pair of carved lion heads, and a formidable gate between them. A miniature forest obscured all view of the house, but the tall black steel fence that stretched out on both sides from the gate suggested that whoever lived here was serious about their privacy.
I eyed the gate and its conveniently placed intercom with no little bit of trepidation. “If I volunteer for something again without getting all the details up front, smack me, will you?”
Colin snorted. “As if it would stop you.”
“Hey, it might.”
I pressed the button on the intercom. “Evan Fournier and Colin Chan for Hudson Rojas.”
There was no verbal response, but the gate began to open, so I guessed that was response enough.
The driveway wound through the forest in gentle curves, much longer than any driveway had a right to be. I let my trusty Toyota crawl along without touching the gas, despite the nerves begging me to go faster, to find an end to this suspense. I didn’t know what we were going to find at the end of the drive—friendlies, probably…maybe—and I was trying not to dwell on it.
Hudson had taken me aside after dinner to explain, in hushed whispers, that the meeting wasn’t a meeting at all—at least, not one with a client. No, this was a vampire thing. A duel, if you could believe it. A member of our band had pissed someone off, and so Hudson was expected to be present. Except, because I’d opened my big mouth, it was now Colin and me here in Hudson’s place.
By the way Colin was tapping his fingers on his knee, he wasn’t immune to the tension, either. He kept his eyes on the trees and brush, as though he thought something might jump out at us. Great minds and all that. “Think they’ll be pissed a phoenix is crashing their vampire party?”
“If they are, they’ll have to get over it.”
Because of the crappy way our bond had formed, Colin and I couldn’t be apart more than a handful of kilometers. I could run to the store without him, but not to the Ass-End of Nowhere, Ontario. If I tried, agony would seize the both of us. I’m talking full-body, full-blown pain, the likes of which I’d never experienced before—and I hoped would never experience again. So yeah, the vampires we were about to meet would have to deal with his presence, because I couldn’t be here without him.
“Maybe I’ll wait in the car.”
“I’d—”—rather you didn’t. I bit my lip to prevent the words from spilling out. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t pressure Colin to move faster in this relationship than he was comfortable with. He wasn’t only dealing with the loss of the life he thought he would have, but the loss of his fiancée. And the fact that despite knowing he was bisexual since he was a kid, what we had going on between us was his first same-sex thing. So yeah. No pressure. “If you want.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn toward me, but he said nothing.
Finally the driveway spit us out into a clearing that was dominated by a huge stone house that matched the gate’s pillars in construction and intimidation factor. It was built like a miniature castle—and I used the word miniature only because the castles I’d seen in pictures usually had wings upon wings and twenty or thirty bedrooms. This place probably only had ten. Aboveground, at least; who knew how many more vampire-friendly quarters were in the basement. It was three stories, and a turret capped either end. Ivy crawled up each round wall, emerging from well-kept gardens that surrounded the perimeter of the house. The aroma of the blooms lingered in the air, and I imagined that in the full heat of the summer sun, the fragrance would be incredible.
Cars already filled the large courtyard in front of the house. It took me a minute to find a spot. I stepped out, kind of shocked as Colin did too. The gesture, though small, wasn’t lost on me, and I appreciated it. A white man in a suit appeared in the doorway of the house and walked down the impressive front steps to greet us. Gas lamps flickered on each side of the door—not a lot of light, but enough for me to easily see by in the deepening twilight.
“Mr. Fournier? We were told to expect you in Mr. Rojas’s place. I am McNally.” He didn’t hold out his hand for a shake, and I didn’t offer. A lot of paranormals—or, I amended as I scented the air, humans in paranormal circles—didn’t go for the whole handshake thing. “And you stated at the gate that you had a guest?”
“This is Colin Chan, my bonded phoenix.” It was getting easier to remember Colin’s new name, though I liked his true last name, Zhang, better.
McNally blinked, the only indication that he was surprised. “Of course, sir. If you’ll come with me?”
We followed him up the stairs and into the interior of the house, which proved as magnificent and awe-inspiring as the exterior. Marble floors, classic wainscoting, priceless works of art, multiple crystal chandeliers—it looked like it belonged in a magazine, and it was definitely not the sort of place I was accustomed to. I mean, I thought our home in the Bridle Path was pretty swank, but this was something else.
“Would the gentlemen care for a beverage?”
It took me a second to realize McNally was referring to us. “Uh, no, I’m good, thanks. Colin?”
“Same.” The look on his face captured all the awe and awkwardness I was feeling.
McNally continued through the house, past a kitchen, a dining room, a den, a living room, a games room, another room I couldn’t even figure out a purpose for, until finally we were at the rear of the building. He opened a pair of French doors with a flourish, and stepped aside with a gesture for us to precede him onto the back patio.
It was as grand as the rest of the mansion, but what drew my attention was the group of twenty vampires who all turned to look at us, their low conversations stuttering to a stop as they realized I wasn’t Hudson.
“Evan Fournier and Colin Chan for the Vampire King of Toronto, Hudson Rojas.”
Oh, Hudson hated that title.
The vampires continued to stare, silent, and I cleared my throat nervously. “Hi, yeah, uh, Hudson sends his regards. He couldn’t make it.” As the quiet stretched, I added, “Sorry.”
There was an unimpressed hmph from somewhere in the crowd, and the conversations started up again. McNally bowed his head to us and retreated into the house, closing the doors behind him.
“Do you know anyone?” Colin leaned close to ask the question, close enough that his breath feathered over my ear.
I held back a shiver and shook my head. “I don’t even see Parker.” The vampire who was the cause of all of this. But the ones in attendance were…old. Older than me, that was for sure, which was probably why the party had already gotten started. The older the vampire, the less the sun bothered them. Vampires over a hundred years old could withstand daylight completely.
I hovered with Colin on the edge of the crowd, feeling a bit like a wallflower at a high school prom. Finally someone detached themselves from the group and approached—but from the scowl on his face, I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to ask me to dance. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, which meant nothing with this bunch. Hell, he could be older than the founding of Canada, for all I knew. His brown hair was untouched by gray, and his tan skin showed no significant signs of age, merely a gentle line or two at the corners of his amber eyes. He wore a suit—a charcoal gray with a subtle pattern—with a sage green shirt unbuttoned at the neck. It was probably as casual as he got, given how comfortable he looked in the outfit. Kind of like he’d been born in it.
His scowl only deepened as he took me in from head to toe—and not in an appreciative sort of way. More like he was appraising me and finding me lacking. I wasn’t wearing a suit—because I rarely did—and instead had opted for my version of business casual: a pair of nice dark jeans, a burgundy T-shirt with an artsy abstract design, and a brown corduroy sport jacket. As usual, my hair had defied all attempts to tame it, and poofed out into a sort of light brown, curly halo.
“You’re Hudson’s second?”
The slight emphasis on the first word leant a tone of disbelief that made my hackles rise. “That’s right. As I said, he was unable to attend.”
The vampire made a dismissive sound. “One would think he would make an exception for such a solemn occasion.”
Okay, yeah, this guy was definitely not from the twenty-first century—and probably not even the twentieth. “It was unavoidable. I’ll do whatever is needed in his stead.”
Please let that be only watching, please let that be only watching…
Another dismissive sound. “I am Nicklaus Bachmann, the host of this event.”
“Nice to meet you.” I decided throwing on some charm couldn’t hurt. “Your home is beautiful.”
There was a slight softening of his eyes that told me I’d been right. “Danke.”
“I’m here!” a familiar voice announced behind me. “We can get started.”
I turned, unsurprised to see Parker standing before the open French doors, McNally tucked unobtrusively to the side. Parker had his arms thrown wide, as though he were some returning prodigal son or a king waiting for his adoring subjects to worship him. He wore a deep purple three-piece suit with a bold yellow-patterned tie, and his golden-brown hair was artfully tousled to drape enticingly over one eye. His pale white skin looked a shade paler than usual, and I wondered if his appearance, his actions, were all a bluff.
Probably, but it didn’t really matter.
All the hardness came back to Nicklaus’s expression as he took in Parker’s appearance. I got the impression that as much as he disliked the fact that I was here instead of Hudson, he despised Parker’s pretentiousness that much more.
“Indeed,” he answered in a cold voice and turned to address the other vampires. “If you will all follow me, I’ll direct you to the duel grounds.”
Colin mouthed, Duel grounds? at me. I shrugged, as in the dark as he was.
Nicklaus led us across the patio and into the forest that surrounded the mansion. If you didn’t know there was a path, you’d never find it—or, well, I wouldn’t, but I was an urban sort of vampire. Me and the great outdoors didn’t get along. The forest around us grew silent and still as we progressed through it, our combined footsteps the only disturbance. Some of us louder than others.
By some of us, I meant me.
Eventually we reached a meadow—or something that was maybe once a meadow. It was a circular area bare of trees, but instead of soft, cushiony grasses, the ground was simply dirt. It looked as though it had been raked recently, to loosen the topsoil? Why, I had no idea. The vampires arranged themselves around the edges of the meadow, close to the trees, as Nicklaus waved Parker and another figure into the center of the dirt.
My eyes widened as I recognized Parker’s opponent—Bill O’Neal, the owner of Benders and the guy who’d called Hudson to let him know about the duel. Nice how he’d neglected to mention he was the one who was going to fight Parker. Bill was a grizzled old coot, a rarity in the vampire world. Rumor had it he’d been turned later in life, at a time when fifty-five was considered—and looked—old. His curly gray hair was cropped close to his skull, and his scruff looked like steel wool on his dark brown chin and cheeks. He was even more casually dressed than me and Colin, wearing jeans that looked older than I was and a faded heavy metal band T-shirt under a flannel button-down.
“Evan Fournier, step forward,” Nicklaus called.
Uh, why? I cast a nervous glance at Colin, who gave me a confused look back, which was less than reassuring. Taking a deep breath, I held it for a second before pushing my way through the ring of vampires to stand at the edge of the dirt.
“Before you are two opponents—Parker Gentry and Bill O’Neal. Mr. Gentry challenged Mr. O’Neal to a duel after Mr. O’Neal accused him of refusing to pay his bar tab.”
I blinked and before I could stop myself, shouted, “Seriously?”
A flush flooded Parker’s cheeks. “I didn’t refuse—I needed a couple more days to pay. And the whole bar heard him say I was worthless and good for nothing. He impugned my honor!”
Bill snorted. “If you were honorable, you wouldn’t have racked up a $500 bar bill.”
My eyebrows rose.
“If you were honorable, you wouldn’t have let me!”
Nicklaus held up his hands. “Enough! Mr. Fournier, do you submit to being the judge of this contest?”
Argh, of course I had to do more than watch. “Uh, could you expand on that?”
Nicklaus’s jaw clenched for a second. “You will observe the battle and, assuming the two combatants are still standing at the end of thirty minutes, will judge who performed most admirably.”
I decided to skip over the “still standing” bit, because neither Parker nor Bill would actually kill or seriously wound the other. Right? Right. God, I hoped I was right. “Yes. I mean, I so submit.”
Nicklaus gave me the barest of nods and gestured for me to take my place on a raised platform on the other side of the meadow. It was so covered in ivy I’d missed it at first, but a few low-level lamps flickered to life at the base, guiding me forward. I walked across the dirt, aware that Parker was watching my every step, but I refused to look at him. I didn’t know if he was looking for reassurance, or maybe he wanted to intimidate me. Either way, I wasn’t going to acknowledge him. All of this nonsense over a bar bill, even a $500 one, was ridiculous.
“Here are the terms of the melee,” Nicklaus continued once I was in place. “Your only weapons are to be your claws and fangs. Should you use anything else, you shall forfeit the match. Should you kill your opponent, even by accident, you shall forfeit your life. The duel shall continue until one of the combatants yields.” He looked between the opponents to ensure they understood what he said. After they both nodded, he continued. “Should Mr. Gentry win, his bill will be considered null and void, and Mr. O’Neal will provide a public apology for, ahem, impugning his honor.” Nicklaus said it with a straight face and in the same somber tone, but everyone knew he was mocking Parker. “Should Mr. O’Neal win, Mr. Gentry will be required to pay his bill twice over and will no longer be welcome at Benders. Are all in agreement?”
“Yea,” Parker and Bill said together.
“Yea,” the crowd echoed.
Nicklaus turned to me.
I shrugged. “Uh, yea?”
“So say we all.” Nicklaus gripped Parker’s wrist and Bill’s, and tugged them together so their wrists crossed. “You may begin,” he intoned, and stepped back with vampire speed to get out of the way.
Bill smirked. “Okay, kid. Let’s go.”
Quick as lightning, he grabbed Parker’s wrist and yanked. Parker flew off his feet with a yelp and landed in the dirt, messing up his pretty suit. Bill swiped down, his claws extended, but caught nothing other than purple fabric. Parker rolled away and back to his feet, his jacket flowing in tatters around his hips. He faced Bill, his fangs fully descended, and both hands bearing razor-sharp claws.
In contrast, Bill’s claws had retreated and his teeth were human-normal. Only the glow of his eyes, startlingly bright yellow against his dark skin, indicated that this was something more serious than a walk in the woods. He raised a brow, his smirk still in place. “You think that’s going to intimidate me, boy?”
Parker darted forward, claws slashing, but Bill wasn’t there anymore. He’d moved so quickly I couldn’t follow. It took me a second to spot him again, but Parker was quicker than I was. He sprinted at Bill once more, but this time, deked him out. Bill grunted as they connected, and the acrid, coppery scent of blood drifted to my nose.
Bill might have had the first successful strike, but Parker was the first to draw blood. This match might be more equal than I thought it would be.
The next twenty minutes seemed to span three hours. I could only imagine what it felt like for Parker and Bill. Every time Bill connected, Parker retaliated, and vice versa. Bill had lost his flannel shirt about five minutes in, and his old band T-shirt was torn and wet with blood. Parker’s suit was faring no better—the jacket had been shredded and lay in the dirt, and his button-down was more red than lavender now. His tie was long gone, and dirt smeared one pale cheek. I honestly couldn’t say who was doing better, but I suspected it was Parker. He was quicker than Bill, which allowed him to dart into range and back out again, striking and retreating before Bill could react.
That meant he was expending more energy, too, and it was starting to show. Parker moved in for a strike, missed, and lost his footing. The crowd let out a subdued gasp as Parker went down hard on his back. Bill flashed his fangs and dove in for the metaphorical (I hoped) kill.
Parker grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it at Bill’s face, blinding him. In the next instant, he had his clawed hand wrapped around Bill’s neck, blood oozing from where his talons dug in. All he needed to do was tighten his grip and pull, and everything would be over. Permanently.
“Do you yield?” he shouted in Bill’s face.
I cleared my throat and raised my hand. “Parker forfeits.”
He jerked his head to stare at me. “What?”
I gestured at Nicklaus, who echoed one of the rules from earlier. “Your only weapons are to be your claws and fangs. Should you use anything else, you shall forfeit the match.”
I crossed my arms. “You used dirt as a weapon. Therefore you forfeit.”
Parker gaped at me. “It wasn’t a weapon! It was a distraction!”
“You caused harm to your opponent with something other than your fangs and claws. It was a weapon.”
“This is bullshit!” Parker’s hand tightened on Bill’s throat, enough to make the older vampire gasp.
“Don’t,” I warned, my eyes flashing and my fangs poking my lips. “If you kill him, you’ll be killing yourself, and I’m not going to argue on your behalf.”
Parker shoved Bill away, and Bill fell to the ground, grimacing. When I asked if he was okay, he nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off Parker.
Parker stormed toward the judge’s platform. “I’m in your band! You’re supposed to stand up for me. To have my back.”
My eyes flared and my gums itched, fangs wanting to extend still farther. I was pissed at this whole scenario. “And I do—we do—up until you act like a five-year-old. This was all fucking ridiculous. You made a fool of yourself, and that reflects on the band.” I glanced at Bill. “He’ll be in touch about the tab.”
Bill regained his feet with Nicklaus’s help and rubbed his throat. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, his voice rough, “I’d as soon never see this whiny asshole again.”
Parker bristled at the insult, but I didn’t give a shit—the description was accurate. “Fair enough. I’ll talk it over with Hudson and we’ll figure it out.”
“Much obliged, Evan.”
I narrowed my eyes at Parker as Nicklaus helped Bill back into the woods toward the house. “You, take off. Not through the house.”
“Hudson’s going to hear about this.”
“You bet your ass he is. You’ll be lucky if you still have a band by the time you get back to Toronto.”
Parker glared at me, but like he could intimidate me. Dude, I lived with the Vampire King and a god. After a few seconds, he gave up with a huff and turned to make his way back to his car, trailing after the other vampires.
Colin moved to stand beside me, close enough that I could feel the heat emanating from his skin in the chilly night air. I had the sudden urge to lean into him, to sink into his arms, into his warmth, but I resisted it. No pressure, right? Space. I had to give him space.
This whole no pressure thing was going to kill me.
“You okay?” he asked softly.
The sounds of the night slowly came back to life around us—rustles in the bushes, the soft chirp of crickets, the gentle coos of birds as they settled in for sleeping. I let out a long breath. “Hudson owes me.”
“No argument here.” He chuckled. “Do you think he knew what you volunteered to do?”
I shook my head. Hudson had isolated himself from other vampires when he’d become one—partially by his own choice, since he hated what he’d become, and partially because the vampires of Toronto believed he’d killed his sire, and very few approved. As a result, he had based a lot of his vampire knowledge on pop culture, which was, of course, less than reliable. It was only in the past few years, since becoming king, that he’d learned more about himself and vampires in general. “Pretty sure he didn’t, or he would have insisted on coming himself. Still.”
“Still.” Colin grinned at me, a slight flush coloring his cheeks. “Seeing you lay down the law was pretty hot.”
He nudged me with his shoulder. “Yeah. I—”
I held up a hand, realizing that the forest had grown quiet again. I might not be a woodsy guy, but I was a predator, and I knew what that silence meant.
There was a threat in the woods.
“What?” Colin whispered.
I stretched out my senses—sight, hearing, smell—and tried to locate what the forest’s denizens had classified as a danger. Was it us? Our chatting? Because I couldn’t seem to find anything else. No scents, no movement, no sounds, nothing out of place.
Even so, I didn’t want to hang around any longer.
“Let’s go,” I said, putting a hand to Colin’s back instinctively to guide him away from the meadow.
The hairs at the nape of my neck rose as my instincts shouted that I was turning my back on a threat. I cast a glance over my shoulder, but only darkness greeted me. I shuddered and headed back to the house.