Is it better to risk it all… or never know what could have been?
After surviving an abusive childhood, Vulcan remade himself upon arriving in Los Angeles, California. He became a blacksmith for the paranormal community and strives to earn the respect of the vampire covens and werewolf packs that call LA home. He also prevents the pain of loss by keeping everyone at arm’s length.
But he never planned on meeting a former Roman soldier by the name of Marcus Cassius Vespillo. Something sparks between them and turns into a friendship he never considered possible. He can’t deny his intense attraction to the intelligent, courteous, ancient vampire. And it scares him.
Though Vulcan is wary of seeking more with Cassius, an attack leaves him at death’s door and forces him to reexamine his priorities. But Cassius has his own secret, one that promises tragedy and loss. And if that wasn’t enough, a slayer arrives in the States, one with a bloody connection to Cassius... and Vulcan himself.
Note to Readers: Second edition with revised and updated text.
- 1 To Be Read list
Halloween snuck up on me. It was the duchess’s favorite holiday and La Rose would be packed, and not just with paranormals, but with college kids enrolled at the university. Fresh blood. She invited me personally and let me know that Cassius would be joining in the festivities. Great. Now I felt obligated to go. But what should I go as? No one would be admitted without a costume.
What would Cassius be?
It’s a surprise, he’d texted me one night when I’d asked him. I think you’ll appreciate it.READ MORE
I was dusting the nightstand in Dain’s old room when I got inspired. I picked up the one and only picture we had together. We’d gone to Disneyland, of all places, and there we were, both wearing sunglasses, me with a cocky smile and holding a thick wad of cotton candy. Dain didn’t smile, and he looked brutish and so-serious. Yet he’d been the one to insist on the picture and had taken it himself. Our faces were close together, and I remembered the weight of his arm when he’d wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling me close. In the background was Cinderella’s castle.
“I miss you,” I whispered. I set the picture down and finished dusting before I left, shutting the door behind me.
Dain hadn’t been his real name. He’d chosen it from Old Norse mythology. He was always partial to the dwarves. And that’s what I would be. I was going to be a dwarf. I hurried to my phone and rang Nicole.
“Shields and Steel, this is Nicole, how my I help you?”
“I need a costume, stat. Can you help me?”
Silence. Then, “How much you willing to pay?”
“How much you wanting to charge me?”
She snorted. “Come on by, you idiot.”
I grinned and hung up.
There would be a scavenger hunt, candy galore, special drinks, and dutifully cheesy décor. I was armed and ready. Literally. I brought my biggest forging hammer and everything. I had to remove my beard for the bouncer to confirm my identity before he’d let me in. The place was packed. As expected, most costumes were of the “barely-there” type… sexy nurses and teachers and doctors, of all genders. I hadn’t gone to one of these in a few years, and I’d apparently forgotten the amount of flesh that would be on display. I might have been considered out of place with my fully-covering costume but I didn’t care.
I made my way to the bar, keeping an eye out for Cassius and the duchess. I squinted at her VIP alcove that was cordoned off on its own. I noted a few thralls but no duchess.
“Jesse!” I shouted and held up two fingers.
He took one look at me and laughed, nodding in approval. I grinned and casually swung my hammer, easily avoiding hitting anyone. I pushed to the bar, past two risqué zombies that looked way too hot to be rotting corpses, and snatched the drinks.
“You seen Cassius?” I asked.
Jesse nodded toward the end of the bar.
I took my drinks and made my way past a dizzying amount of people. The low light didn’t allow me to notice the details of many of the costumes—though everyone I bumped into had certainly put creativity and effort in their appearances. Apparently the bouncers had been told to keep out the lazy folks.
A shoving match ensued right next to me, and one of the idiots shoved into me. I couldn’t catch myself in time and ended up slamming into someone’s back and spilling both of my drinks. At least I didn’t drop my hammer on anyone’s foot.
“Fucking idiots.” I pushed away from the person’s back that felt weirdly like armor. I steadied myself. “Sorry, I—”
I stopped. I stared.
Even as he turned, I knew who it was, and I recognized his costume. How could I not? Cassius grinned upon seeing me. I swept my gaze from head to foot, admiring not only the replica Centurion armor but the way it fit him. Clearly tailored to fit his frame, he looked every bit the soldier and appeared even taller and broader. Truly an intimidating sight, even off the battlefield. The segmented armored breastplate and shoulder plates gleamed under the colored lights and the red stood out starkly against his pale skin. His firm legs were on full display and he even wore the open leather boots. There was the sword I’d made him at his side, along with a dagger, and his extravagate helmet sat on the bar, the plumage along the top as red as his tunic and cloak.
I tried not to swallow my tongue.
He took a step back and put on the helmet, the cheek and neck guards obscuring most of his face, before setting one hand on the hilt of his sword.
“What do you think?” he asked.
My mouth was dry. I tried to clear my throat and push out sound. “You’re supposed to come as you’re not.”
He grinned wider. “You disapprove?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Thank God my voice was steady. And thank God my costume was a bit bulky to give me fake heft and covered any obvious erection from sight. “You didn’t cut your hair.”
He chuckled. “I’m not that devoted to the performance.” He took off the helmet and set it back on the bar. “I admire your costume. You’re a dwarf, yes?”
I forced myself to smile and tried not to ogle. “Yep. I’m Brokkr, the dwarf that made Thor’s Hammer.”
Cassius smiled. “I thought that was Eitri.”
“Brokkr did all the work.”
He chuckled. “I know the tale well. I met a few Vikings in my younger years.”
I sighed heavily. “I hate it when you say things like that.”
He laughed. “You love it.”
I snorted and bent down to grab the empty shot glasses, mourning the waste. And the sticky floor. Well, stickier. I set the glasses on the bar. At least they weren’t broken.
“Let me get you replacements.”
“It’s all right.”
“I insist.” Cassius flagged down Jesse.
All right then. “How long you been here?”
“Only a few minutes. I arrived with the duchess and at least half the coven. The rest will arrive later tonight.”
Just then the volume of the music lowered until the relentless drumbeat faded all together. The confusion of the crowd replaced it. I looked at the stage and smiled. Then frowned.
“Is… is Her Grace dressed as Marie Antoinette?”
Cassius stepped beside me and nodded. “Indeed, she is. I have always appreciated her sense of humor. If you get close enough to her, you’ll see fake stitches along her neck.”
“I bid you all a good night,” Her Grace said from the stage, her towering hair and overly-frilled dress giving her petite frame a sense of largeness it didn’t have. She looked like a frosted pastry. And she had to be wearing a wig, she was definitely no blonde.
“To my witches and wizards, zombies and monsters, to the dead and undead among us, be welcome this Samhain night. Feast, revel, and indulge in your delights my children, for this is the night to quench your passions and to embrace the lustful darkness inside your souls.”
Cheers and applause. I raised an eyebrow as Cassius and I clapped. She was clearly speaking to vampires and any werewolves that were brave enough to enter. Interesting. Was she giving the true creatures of the night free rein until sunrise?
Cassius must have thought the same thing because he leaned down. “Perhaps it would be wise if you stayed beside me tonight.”
“Perhaps it would,” I said. I had mixed feelings about Her Grace’s intent. She was a predator and had to be a ruthless yet fair leader to keep her position. But how many vamps would think she’d given them permission to kill? While I knew humans were basically cattle to most night creatures, I didn’t like seeing us treated as such firsthand.
The duchess disappeared and the music started again.
“I really think I should skip the booze tonight,” I said.
“Yes, I agree. I will as well.”
I glanced at his face. “Her Grace insisted that I come.”
He frowned and patted my shoulder. Like with his previous touches, I felt it all the way to my toes.
I jumped and muttered a curse before turning to Her Grace. She stood right behind us and smiled as she gazed at my costume. I’d probably made it more Gimli from The Lord of the Rings movies with Nicole adding a few flourishes and details that only we’d notice. I also had on a dark wig and fake beard to complete the classic dwarven look. Her eyes twinkled with amusement and the corner of her mouth ticked up.
“Dance with me,” she said.
It was then I noticed the current song was slower than usual. I bowed to her.
“I would be honored.”
She giggled like a girl and slipped her arm around mine. I looked at my hammer and before I could debate what to do with it, Cassius plucked it from my hand. I glanced at him wordlessly before leading her to the dancefloor. Once again I internally thanked Dain for his insistence on training, this time on dance lessons. I’d never known the point until after he was gone and the duchess started to invite me to social engagements. Engagements he’d attended when I’d still been his apprentice.
I led her into a waltz and mentally counted the steps as we rotated around the dancefloor. Everyone gave us a wide berth, which relieved me. She pulled me in tighter and pressed her cool cheek to mine, her lips brushing my ear. I swallowed hard. Her teeth were a bit too close to my neck for comfort.
“Do not worry for yourself or your fellow humans, mon cher. They will be treated like kings and queens this night. I take great pride in having my patrons leave happy.”
Some of the tension in my neck eased.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
She kissed my cheek and loosened her hold, putting space between us.
“You look radiant, by the way,” I said.
She fluttered her eyelashes. “I knew dear Marie ages ago. She deserved the guillotine.”
I winced. The duchess rarely gave personal information about her past and all the little tidbits I’d learned over the years were enough to let me know that despite being an aristocrat, she’d been the darling of the common people. Yet only becoming a vampire had saved her from a beheading.
“Our dear centurion looks quite fetching this night, does he not?”
I couldn’t stop the smile. “Can’t deny it. Um, Madame, about the ghouls in La Rose weeks ago… I’ve been hearing some rumblings.”
“There is internal struggle with the beasts,” she said and wrinkled her nose. Cutely. “It spilled into my club. I haven’t thanked you personally for assisting in subduing the beasts.”
“Cassius and your bouncers did most of the work.”
“Do not underestimate your contribution, mon cher.”
“I’ll try not to.”
The song ended. I bowed and she curtsied, elegantly despite the hair. I was honestly waiting for her to topple over from the weight. She seemed to barely acknowledge it. As I straightened, I suddenly realized why she’d asked me to dance. Despite her reassurances to my safety, she’d visibly put me under her protection, alerting every fiend in the club that I was off limits.
Something of my realization must have shown on my face because she smirked and winked before sauntering off.
I was about to leave the dancefloor when a steely arm I knew well slipped around my waist and pulled me against an armored chest. I snorted and slapped a hand to Cassius’s chest even as my heart fluttered and my dick pulsed with interest.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He grinned. “My turn.”
Another slow song had followed the first, and Cassius led me smoothly into a slow dance. It wasn’t a waltz but close enough that I followed without too much stumbling.
What was happening between us? Why was I allowing it?
“What did you do with my hammer?” I asked.
“It’s with my helmet behind the bar.”
“Who made your armor?”
Cassius chuckled. “I’ll get you her number. She lives in Romania.”
He nodded, his expression soft, his smile gentle.
I couldn’t look at his face anymore. I scanned the dancefloor, heart beating a bit too fast. He was too intimate and open, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Well, I knew how I wanted to handle it but that was out of the question.
He was a vampire.
And a good man.
And my friend.
I glanced at his face again, his expression still eerily open and fixed on me. I quickly lowered my gaze to his chest. Dain forgive me, but I wanted to know what it would feel like, just for a moment. I swallowed hard and moved closer. My heart pounded as I set my cheek on the cool metal plates on his chest. A second later his arm tightened around my waist, pulling me even closer. He slowed his steps even further until we were merely swaying to the song. I closed my eyes and felt… loved.
Despite the wig, I felt it when he kissed the top of my head. Jesus Christ. Was I leading this guy on? Was there anything to lead on?
The song ended, the spell was broken, and I pulled away. He let me go, now frowning. Before I could think to say anything, the duchess got on the microphone again.
“Anyone here like prizes?” she asked.
The crowd roared.
“Then prepare to work for them!”
We clapped along with the rest of the patrons. For the rest of the night I pretended like nothing had happened. So did Cassius. I had the sneaking suspicion, however, that he acted that way because I did. Or was I delusional?
Only Dain knew.COLLAPSE