Don’t miss the conclusion to this riveting and romantic spin-off series from Jenn Burke, author of Not Dead Yet.
Some bonds weren’t meant to be broken.
Vampire PI Evan Fournier has dealt with his fair share of danger and heartache, but nothing prepares him for the pain of a broken bond with his mate—especially when his mate is the one who severed it. Bond or no, he still loves Colin—fiercely. Trust, however, is harder to come by. And when a demon starts terrorizing paranormals in Toronto, trust in one another is exactly what they’ll need.
Former firefighter turned crime-fighting phoenix Colin Zhang knows who Evan was—is—to him, but he doesn’t know if he can give him what he wants. He just needs a little time to figure things out. Unfortunately, bringing down a demon bent on mass murder leaves little time for anything else.
The only way they’ll destroy the demon is by teaming up with an unlikely partner to infiltrate a gang of terrorists. But the only way they’ll save themselves is by finding a path back into each other’s arms—and hearts—once again.
The Ashes & Dust Series
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Read on for a sneak peek at the first chapter…
As we pulled up to one of my favorite places in the world, I cast a glance at the stranger beside me. The man I loved.
Yeah, I still hadn’t quite gotten my head around that one, but hiding from it wasn’t going to make it less true. And especially not when he’d told me to fight for us. It was a one-sided war, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad one. At least he wasn’t actively working against me?
I just didn’t know if he was working with me.
“We’ve been here before.” Colin arched his neck so he could get a better view of the sign as I pulled into a parking spot. “Alleys. Bar and bowling, right?”
I nodded but didn’t let the annoying sprout of hope take root. Thing was, following a very fuzzy day after breaking the bond between us, Colin remembered nearly everything of the past few weeks—how we’d become bonded after he’d tried to kill me while under the influence of an asshole witch, how we’d worked together to end said witch, and how we’d negated the threat of videos trying to expose the paranormal community in Toronto.
He remembered sleeping beside me, having sex with me…me confessing that I loved him.
But all the emotions that had been attached to those memories? Gone. Which meant those memories seemed like they happened to someone else, not him, and he had no connection to any of them. Or to me.
I mean, at least we weren’t working from a blank slate, but damn, it was hard to look into his dark brown eyes and see nothing there but politeness.
“Right. You said once you wanted to come here on a date.” I put the car into Park and shifted to look directly at him. His black hair, as usual, hung in a red-tipped curtain over his hooded eyes, and he brushed it aside, an automatic gesture I didn’t think he was even aware of. I’d told him there was no need to dress up, so he wore dark gray cargo shorts and a faded red T-shirt with some sort of outdoorsy graphic on it. We’d picked up some sandals along with the new clothes, and he looked very summer casual. I was a fan.
“Is that what this is? A date?” There was no derision in his tone or his eyes—only simple curiosity. Like I was nothing more to him than a puzzle to figure out.
“If you’re okay with that.” I said the words lightly, as though my whole ability to breathe didn’t hinge on his answer.
He looked at the front of the bar, then back at me. “I’ve never dated a guy before.”
I knew that. Though Colin had long known he was bisexual, he’d come of age in an era of AIDS and bigotry towards people on the LGBTQA+ rainbow—not that those things weren’t still a concern. He’d been engaged to a woman and loved her desperately, before a witch decided to somehow make him into a phoenix, subvert his personality, and use his magic-siphoning abilities for his own gain.
Sometimes I wanted to kill Bo Anders all over again.
I summoned up a smile, one I hoped was confident-ish and not as shaky as I felt. “That’s not a no.”
“You’re right. It’s not.”
“Right. Good. So, it’s a date.” I resisted the urge to scrub my palms over my thighs to get rid of their clammy sweatiness.
I popped open the door and got out, but Colin didn’t do the same. I waited a second, but when he made no move to exit the car, I wondered if I’d totally misread him. It was completely possible I had—he was the same guy, but he wasn’t. I opened the door and leaned in. “Are you coming?”
Colin let out a fake gasp. “It’s only the first date!”
My head drooped. “Shit, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Colin agreed with a chuckle.
“So what’s up?”
“Well…” He drew out the word. “If this is a date, you should open my door, right?”
I stared at him for a second. “No.”
His laughter chased me across the parking lot, and my lips twitched into a smile. As weird as everything was, it felt good to make Colin laugh. He didn’t do it often enough. Mind you, I didn’t these days, either.
When we’d discovered Alleys years ago, it had been a shifter bar. Well, shifter and humans, since humans didn’t know to look for the clan symbol in the sign above the door. But Don Kugusak, the bar’s owner, had allowed us to use the place as a meeting site more than once, and as a result it had become more welcoming to all sorts of paranormals.
Colin caught up to me right before I reached the front door, and I held it open for him with a flourish. He smiled, dipped his head in acknowledgment, and strode through, with me right behind him. As usual, Alleys was busy but not packed. About two thirds of the lanes were full, and I caught the mixed scent of shifters, witches and vampires. No humans tonight. Good. Alleys was always a little more fun when we didn’t have to worry about hiding who we were.
But…wait. I took a deeper breath and, yep, those were scents I knew. I narrowed my eyes at the group in Lane 1—Hudson, Wes, and a few other, older vampires from our band who could stand the early evening sun. Lane 3—Lexi and Anika, our favorite witches, along with Sam and her new boyfriend, a shifter I hadn’t met in person yet. And right in between was the empty Lane 2, almost as if it had been left that way purposely.
They were all surreptitiously tossing looks our way. Like I wouldn’t notice the setup. I was a freaking private investigator.
“I guess we’re the night’s entertainment, huh?” Some of the amusement had faded from Colin’s expression, his smile dimming. He knew that we were a very inclusive group—no judging for who you loved—but all the same, it had to be uncomfortable to be the center of attention when you were still coming to terms with your sexuality. If my family messed this up…
“Why don’t we start off with a couple of beers? Maybe some nachos?” I gestured to the other side of the bar, where there were a few two-top tables…well out of the direct line of sight of any nosy bowlers.
Colin let out a long breath, and I pretended not to notice how unsteady it was. “Sounds good.”
I waved to Don as we passed the bar, my gaze automatically checking to see who was manning it with him. Not someone I recognized, and my stomach sank a little. Don waved us over, and I detoured.
“Hey, Evan, Colin.” The Inuk polar bear shifter looked like he always did—big, thick, intimidating, but with a friendly, welcoming smile for the people he liked. I was lucky to be counted among them. “What can I get you both?”
“I’ll take whatever craft lager you’ve got on tap,” I said. Colin echoed my request. “And a plate of nachos.”
As Don tapped the order into the computer system, I nodded my chin at his fellow bartender. “Who’s the new guy?”
“Erik. With a K.” Although Don’s tone stayed even, his expression didn’t, and I could tell Erik-with-a-K wasn’t likely to last the week. Just like the other bartenders he’d tried out recently. Don leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Any word from Priya?”
I sighed. “No.”
“Have you guys made any progress with finding out who killed her dad?”
“The police are investigating.”
Don snorted as he pulled our beers. “Uh-huh. And I’m sure Hudson is sitting back and letting them do all the work to find out who killed his brother.”
He had me there. “Kat’s feeding him what information she can, but there isn’t much.”
At the mention of his detective significant other, the tightness around Don’s lips softened. “Yeah, she’s a good friend to him.”
“A great friend.”
Detective Sergeant Katrina Li was, in fact, the only reason we had any leads at all for the murder of Hudson’s brother, Lance. A few weeks before, Lance had moved to Canada to stay with us after a health scare, not knowing that his daughter, Priya, had faked her death years before to protect him, and had been staying with us ever since. We’d done our best to let Priya (and Hudson) work up their courage to tell him the truth, but he’d discovered it before they were ready and retreated to a hotel. Days later, his body was discovered…sucked dry by a demon.
And the only person we knew of who had a demon on board—an incredibly rare thing—was Priya.
There’d been no usable video surveillance footage from the hotel—everything seemed to cut out at the most inconvenient times, like when Lance’s murder had happened. There was nothing to indicate if Priya or anyone else had been on Lance’s floor. The only reason we knew Priya had been there was that she’d admitted it.
No one wanted to believe that Priya had hurt her dad, but I was finding it tough to shove my first experience with a demon out of my mind. It had been a murderous thing, manipulating power-hungry witches to do what it wanted with the promise of infinite magic. I truly didn’t think Priya was like that…but would we know for sure, if she’d been manipulating us all along?
I shook off those thoughts. Too depressing for what was supposed to be a nice, laid-back night out. Colin and I grabbed our beers and headed for one of the tables, with Don promising to get our nachos to us ASAP.
I sipped my beer, racking my brain for something to talk about that wasn’t work, while Colin tapped his hand on the table to the beat of the 80s song barely audible over the thunder and crash of bowling balls and pins.
Was it awkward? It felt awkward.
“This is nice,” Colin said suddenly. “I like this place.”
“Good, I’m glad.” I took a breath. “Colin—”
We shared a fleeting smile, and I gestured for him to take the floor, so to speak. “Go ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking about the letter I wrote you.”
My stomach lurched. “Yeah?”
“I remember writing it—like everything else. But like I dreamed it. It wasn’t me doing it, you know?”
Except it had been. When I showed him the letter a few days ago, once the physical side effects of breaking the bond had worn off completely, Colin hadn’t denied that the sharp, edgy writing belonged to him, or that he hadn’t been the one to write those two phrases that echoed in my heart every day.
Fight for us.
I love you.
“I just…” He sighed. “I’m messing this up.”
“No, it’s fine.” It so wasn’t fine, not from the apologetic look on his face. “Go on.”
“I like you, Evan, and you’re attractive—” He broke off for a second, as though he couldn’t believe he’d said that out loud, in public. “But—”
“Nachos!” Erik-with-a-K slipped the plate on the table between us with enough enthusiasm that it almost continued off the other side. “Whoops. All good. Can I get you lovebirds anything else?”
In that moment I understood why Don wasn’t impressed with Erik. Overfriendliness wasn’t Don’s thing, and incorrect assumptions… Well, there was a reason there was that saying about what happens when you assume. You make an ass out of u and me.
If Wes were sitting here, he might have put Erik in his place. I was tempted to…except my entire being was focused on that “but” Colin had left hanging.
“We’re good, thanks,” I said in a tight voice. Once Erik had fluttered off, back toward the bar, I prompted Colin, “But?”
He raised his gaze from the cheesy chips to me. “I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
His head fell back and he contemplated the ceiling for a moment. “I probably should’ve had this conversation with you before we left the house.”
The ceiling must’ve been really goddamned interesting, because he kept looking at it for long, drawn-out moments, before meeting my eyes. “I’m not sure this is what I want.”
Ouch. Direct hit. “And by this, you mean us.”
“Seeing Wes and Hudson, and Lexi and Anika, so easy with loving who they love… I’m not denying that I—that I’m bisexual.” He let out a breath. “I am. But that doesn’t mean that a relationship with another guy is what I want. Long term. I always thought I’d marry a woman, have kids, the whole nine yards. You know?”
Had Colin’s paranormal power switched from creating fire to frost? Because every one of his words was chilling. Like I’d suddenly been plunged into a deep freezer. Numbly, I shook my head. “You said to fight for us. That you loved me. You agreed this was a date.”
“I have to believe I did, to write it down. And…I didn’t disagree.” Semantics, and he knew it. His dark eyes were subdued, no sign of his phoenix flame. In fact, I hadn’t seen it since before he broke our bond. “Right now, though, I don’t feel much of anything.”
“For me?” I choked out.
“For anybody. Anything. The emotions just…aren’t there.”
“But…you were teasing me in the car. You were amused.”
“Like a spark seen through a fog.” Colin shook his head, then brushed his bangs out of his eyes. “I should have told you sooner.”
“Yeah.” My voice broke, and I swallowed. I’d known he didn’t remember the emotions attached to his memories; I’d had no idea he wasn’t experiencing much, if any, emotions at all. “Is it permanent?”
He shrugged. “Anika said it was due to the shock to my brain, and she thought it would resolve itself in a day or so, but it hasn’t.”
Anika, being a witch as well as a medical doctor, would have a better idea about that than anyone. My stomach lurched again, and I was glad I hadn’t tried any of the nachos yet. “So what you’re saying is that you have no feelings for me.”
“I like you. I enjoy your company.” His rosy lips pressed into a thin line. “But I don’t know if I’m capable of more than that. I—I don’t think I am.”
How many times could a heart break and still continue beating? Surely there had to be a limit. Even though I was a vampire, I wasn’t dead, and that achy organ still thumped behind my ribs, its rhythm not quite normal but still regular.
Fight for us.
I’m trying, you asshole.
Okay. Okay. I had to see past the hurt, be objective. Colin liked me. He enjoyed my company. He wasn’t denying his bisexuality anymore. Intellectually, these were all very good things. First steps on a path with a destination that (hopefully) we’d all be happy with. Of course one date wouldn’t magically make him love me again. But I could be his friend. I could be there for him. I could be patient.
It wasn’t as if either of us was going to die anytime soon.
“Right.” I slapped my palms on the table. “Let’s grab a lane.”
“What about the nachos?”
I pushed to my feet. “Bring them with us, I g—”
I barely registered a sound so loud I couldn’t describe it before something slammed into my back, sending me flying across the table and crashing into Colin. We both tumbled to the floor. I lay there, stunned, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. All around us, there was fog—no, smoke. The acrid stench of it burned my nose and throat. My eyes watered as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
Fire. Smoke. Debris. And passing through it all, a familiar face.