CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
A Warrior For a Wolf
Zach Hamilton descended the main staircase of the Crimson Manor at a brisk pace. The wooden stairs had suffered the daily use of dozens of warriors of the Crimson Circle over the past four centuries, but his heavy step didn’t make them sway. A team of carpenters showed up every decade or so to maintain them, summoned by a command invisible to him, and for a while the varnish would shine and the stairs wouldn’t squeak.
He wondered fleetingly who was responsible for taking care of it. The housekeeper? The butler? Or his father? He wouldn’t put it past Alexander to take personal interest in everything that happened in the manor. Well, as long as he didn’t have to worry about it…
He reached the dark and opulent foyer that had been made in Elizabethan style when it was the fashion du jour, half a century before his birth. It was a large space with dark panelling, gilded leather tapestry, and a limestone floor that had been worn smooth and shiny. While the rest of the manor had changed over the centuries, the foyer was exactly like it had been in his childhood. He wasn’t one to oppose change, but he had to admit he liked the entrance hall the way it was.
First to arrive, he crossed the foyer to the huge fireplace opposite the stairs to wait for the others. It was September and not terribly cold, but a fire was roaring there, keeping the damp away. It was a welcome home signal for weary warriors returning from their nightly patrols, and a place to gather around when preparing to head out for one, like tonight.
He threw himself onto a sturdy leather armchair—one of the few concessions to modernity in the hall—and stretched his long legs before him. His boots were still serviceable, he marked, although he could have cleaned them better after the previous night’s rain. Mud clung to the black shoelaces in clumps, colouring them grey. At least his leather jeans were clean, which was the best he could say about them. He didn’t much like modern leather trousers; they were uncomfortable and difficult to run in, made for show or riding bikes. By the time they were worn soft enough to be usable, they had to be replaced.
Proper leather was one of the few things he missed from the old days—the seventeenth century in his case. The leather jerkin that covered him to mid-thigh was from that era—or at least the model of the sleeveless double-breasted vest was. Present day jerkins the vampire warriors of the Crimson Circle used were lined with Kevlar for maximum protection. Vampire shields weren’t much use against high speed projectiles; they were more meant against invisible threats, like magic.
One by one, his fellow warriors on duty that night arrived to the foyer. Every night, five patrols of four men would head to London and the City at the heart of it to hunt renegades, or demon vampires, as the warriors called them. Tonight was no exception. Excited talk and boasting soon filled the room. Maybe tonight something big would happen.
It was a couple of weeks already since their latest major victory that had destroyed a renegade cell targeting human women with promise. Things had been quiet since then, but Zach and the warriors knew it was only a matter of time before something happened again.
Everyone was present when Zach felt his brother approach, his impact in Might as familiar to him as his own. Gabriel was his senior by a century and half, and they had different mothers, but thanks to their father they looked a lot alike, with dark colours and classical features—though Gabe’s defined jaw and straight nose were stronger than Alexander’s, and his dark brows were starker, accentuated by his habit of wearing his long black hair in a tight cue at his back. In Zach, those features were more refined, his cheeks lean and the line of his jaw and nose slightly lighter. From his mother, Zach had inherited sleekly curling hair that fell around his face in a mess, and deep dimples that gave him an angelic look—or diabolic, depending on his mood.
They were both large men, around 6 feet 5, but Gabe was the more muscular of them, while Zach was leaner like Alexander. In fighting leathers, Gabe was a sight to behold, as Zach once again noted as he emerged from the hallway that led deeper into the middle wing of the E-shaped manor. Zack rose up with the rest of the warriors. They might be brothers, but as First Son Gabe outranked him, and he respected his brother.
His movement drew Gabe’s attention. What the hell are you doing here, Zach?
Heading out on a patrol.
But it’s your night off.
So? Zach grinned as his brother’s brows shot up. It wasn’t often that one witnessed Gabe being taken aback.
So wouldn’t you rather go clubbing?
Gabe blinked a couple of times. Okay then.
Gabe didn’t ask more questions, but Zach knew he wasn’t done. His brother would want to know why, contrary to a habit of a lifetime, Zach wasn’t unwinding in his usual manner with clubbing and womanising.
Zach rode the thirty miles from the far edges of Epsom to London with Gabe and Marcus, another Hamilton who could pass as their twin. His hair was cropped short in Roman style, but otherwise he looked exactly like the brothers. They called him cousin, as he was the same age as Gabe, but he was actually Alexander’s grandson a couple of times over.
Gabe spoke the moment he had the car running. What gives?
Zach shrugged. I feel abandoned and lonely. He meant it as a glib remark to brush off his brother, but as the words came out he realised they were true. Things had changed in the past months and he was feeling left out of the loop.
Jeremy Grayson, who was his patrol partner and best friend for centuries, and Jem’s brother Jasper, had found themselves mates and were busy settling down. More often than not, they opted for spending their free nights with their girlfriends, and had done so tonight. Nicholas Fortier, Jas’s patrol partner, had wanted to stay home tonight too, leaving Zach with no one to hang out with. Going out alone was no fun, but staying home hadn’t enticed him either. The only option was to join a patrol. So here he was.
Gabe wasn’t buying it. You? You have a different woman every week, and more lined up than you can possibly have any use for.
And I don’t care for any of them. I don’t even remember any of their names. He wasn’t sure he had always asked. They are not a remedy for what ails me.
My best friends are moving on to a life that I can’t follow into.
Marcus snorted from the back seat. Says who?
Me. They’re doing things as ‘couples’. He made sure the disdaining quotes were clear in his tone. Third wheels aren’t needed in that.
Marcus laughed. Is this about you not being the centre of everyone’s attention?
Hey! I don’t need to be the centre of the attention.
Uh-huh, his companions said in unison, and Zach grinned.
Well, not always… But he had to admit it played a great part in why he was feeling let-down.
There’s an easy solution to what ails you, Marcus said. There was a mischievous look on his face when Zach turned to look. Become a couple yourself.
Zach shuddered, and his brother and cousin roared in laughter. Leg-shackling myself to a female is hardly a solution. No, I have a better one. I shall find myself new friends to party with.
Is that why you’re here tonight? Gabe asked. It’s not like you haven’t known these men for centuries, in work and play.
But people change. Who knows, maybe there’s a party animal among them I know nothing about.
Or there’s a woman out there who could be your new best friend.
You can’t be friends with women.
Your best friends seem to think otherwise.
Zach spread his arms, brushing his brother’s words aside. Well, Pippa is obviously an exception, having benefited from my influence. And Jem just got plain lucky with Cora. But there aren’t exactly a plethora of women out there who can face me as an equal. And he should know, he had pretty much met them all.
Because you’re so special.
Zach felt his cheeks warm, not a common reaction to him. No, it’s just that I tend to scare women. They want to bed me, yes, but when it comes to actually hanging out with me they’re too intimidated to even speak. Vampire women barely dare breathe in my company lest they offend me. Human women aren’t similarly affected by me ‘cause they don’t react to Might, but I frighten them physically. And anyway, they die, so I won’t consider them.
There’s always shifters, Marcus suggested, and while Zach had bedded his fair share of those as well, he shook his head.
They’re too connected to their clans. He frowned. Anyway, you’re the ones to talk. You’re both much older than me and you’re both single.
I’m too busy to date, Gabe stated.
I bet Dad would love grandchildren, Zach teased his brother.
Hey! Marcus exclaimed from the back seat. Grandchild here.
Zach seldom gave a thought to how old his father was, but he had already lived many lives before Gabe was born, and even had children from a marriage to a human woman from the time before his promise had been fulfilled. None of them had been made into a vampire that Zach knew of, though Marcus was the progeny of one of those human children, born a century and half after the marriage.
He remembered something else too. And you were married once, weren’t you?
Marcus’s face, as stern and forbidding as Gabe’s, closed completely. I don’t want to talk about it.
Zach let the matter rest as they had arrived at the City. The place had quieted for the night, as much as a metropolis ever could. The City at the heart of London was the centre of the business world, and while some people lived there too, the area came truly alive only during the working hours. At night, it belonged to the warriors of the Crimson Circle and their prey.
They pulled over at the rendezvous spot, a different place every night, and got out of the car. Gabe assigned them to their patrol areas and they were off.
Zach joined one of the groups that looked most promising friend-wise. Kevin Pritchard, Jonathan Duff, Jory Kendrick, and Griffin Rains were about his age, and had been with the Crimson Circle for centuries. They were all single men, and most importantly, were a recently formed patrol group, not yet a tight-knit one, so he might fit in.
There wasn’t a warrior with whom Zach hadn’t been on patrol one time or another, and these men weren’t an exception. They didn’t need to communicate much as they headed to their sector at the northern edge of the City, around the Smithfield Market and St Bartholomew’s hospital. The patrols covered the entire square mile, but the hospital was especially important, as it hosted a two-natured wing. Newly fulfilled vampires and less powerful shifters who couldn’t heal themselves needed hospital services just like humans. It would be very easy for renegades to attack vampires there when they were vulnerable.
Despite his high hopes, Zach soon discovered that the four men couldn’t replace the friends he already had. Outside of work, he had nothing in common with them. The four of them seemed unnaturally interested in fishing, hunting, and hiking. The only thing Zach wanted to hunt was renegades, and the great outdoors was a concept best enjoyed on TV.
Is this an evaluation or something?
Zach gave a puzzled look at Kevin, who had asked the question.
I thought Gabe maybe made you check on how we were working together.
He may ask about it afterwards, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m bored.
What, you ran out of women?
The men laughed and Zach rolled his eyes. Something like that.
What you need is a wife, Jory stated with authority, and the other men nodded.
You’re the ones to talk. You’re all single. Hadn’t he had this conversation already tonight?
But we’re not bored.
It’s a funny reason to get married, boredom.
The evening wasn’t helping much to alleviate his. His company was not what he had hoped for and the enemy was a no-show. But there were hours left till dawn. Anything could happen.
They walked the length of Charterhouse Street at the northern edge of their perimeter. It was full of people this early in the evening, the bars, restaurants, and clubs there keeping the area busy till late at night. Normally that meant the enemy would avoid the area and the warriors wouldn’t have to worry about it. But there was an engagement party for two vampires in one of the bars tonight that just might lure the renegades in. So they would keep a close eye on the place.
Do we know who’s getting engaged? Zach asked his companions, not really caring about the answer.
Fearing one of your conquests is off the market?
Naturally. But the jibe annoyed him. He was more than a party-animal and womaniser. He was a great warrior and the second strongest healer they had after Alexander. Didn’t that count for anything?
The bride is the oldest Townsend daughter. Elsa, I think her name is, Jonathan said. Zach tried to conjure an image of the woman, but the only thing he could remember was that Townsend had three vampire daughters and one of them had been Pippa’s friend at one time—a couple of centuries ago. Women of good vampire families didn’t frequent the joints he did.
And who’s the groom?
No one knows. He’s a newly fulfilled human.
Zach startled. Well, that’s … magnanimous of Townsend.
The guy has to be from a good human family. Townsend wouldn’t consent to it otherwise.
They all nodded. Seymour Townsend was the head of a very old vampire family and only associated with his own kind. Having one of his daughters marry a vampire of no consequence was peculiar, to say the least.
I hope he’s not so newly fulfilled he’s not able to control his rider, Zach mused. It took at least a century before vampires were suitably in control of their second nature to be able to handle the emotional upheavals of a romantic relationship.
Perhaps we’d better keep an eye on the happy couple, just in case, Griffin suggested. Zach made a mental note to talk to his brother about it too. An out-of-control rider could wreak deadly havoc among humans and two-natureds alike.
They headed towards the hospital next. Barts didn’t have a human A&E, so it never became as busy on party nights as other hospitals. The grounds were emptying of humans already, and they kept their vampire senses open; it wouldn’t do to let their concentration slip just because things seemed calm.
But the night went on and nothing happened. On their third round around their perimeter, the party was in full swing in the restaurant and the hospital had quieted for the night. They made their way through its grounds, weaving around the buildings that had stood on the same spot for almost nine hundred years.
At the eastern edge of the hospital grounds stood a single six-storey building from the eighteenth century that housed the two-natured wing. Zach had never needed its services. Alexander was a strong healer and had been able to deal with the unavoidable accidents warriors met with, Zach’s included. These days, he was strong enough to heal his own injuries and seldom needed his father.
But not all two-natured were as lucky or strong. Therefore, unlike the one-natured services, the two-natured wing had a trauma ward. The place was fully lit, and everything was quiet there too. Zach eyed the building in growing impatience. He liked patrolling, but if he was sacrificing his night off for it, something interesting had bloody well better happen.
Zach stumbled, and his companions laughed. A man your age should have learned to tie his shoelaces, Kevin snickered.
Grinning, Zach leaned over to tie the laces, but the jerkin hindered him, so he ripped the Velcro fastenings open to be able to bend down. The dried mud in his shoelaces made it difficult to tie them and he cursed his laziness for not cleaning his shoes properly.
His companions walked on, disappearing behind the corner at the other end of the square outside the hospital, and he intensified his scan of the surrounding area. It wouldn’t do to be surprised by their enemy when he was vulnerable. But there were no renegades nearby. His shoes laced, he straightened up and fastened his jerkin again. He hadn’t reached the ripe age of three and a half centuries by being stupid.
He was about to run after his team when a change in Might caught his attention. A wolf-shifter was approaching him from behind, and judging by the irritated impact he or she was making in Might, the wolf was angry.
He swivelled around and came face to face with one of the most impressive women he had ever seen in his long career of womanising—tall and fit, with legs that went on miles. She was dressed in leather biking gear, black and so form-hugging he didn’t have to guess how exceptional her curving body was. The jacket was open at the top, revealing the enticing cleavage of an ample bosom.
It took an effort to drag his gaze up to a face that turned out to be as impressive as her body, strong, beautiful and intelligent. Her eyes were the colour of whisky, and they flashed in amber when her wolf peeked out, a challenge that both intrigued and aroused him. He loved it when a woman showed that she wasn’t afraid of him. He was instantly energised like he hadn’t been in ages. To crown everything, she had long, luscious hair the colour of ripe wheat, the kind he could take a good hold of when he thrust—
Her wolf aura surged out, cutting his fantasising.
Harriet Green—Harry to everyone since she was a little girl—leaned tight against the column behind her to avoid the throng of people filling the restaurant. The mass of them pressing her from three sides was oppressive, and the cacophony of the voices hurt her delicate ears. A bunch of vampires shouldn’t need to speak so loudly.
To be fair, most of the loud voices belonged to humans attending the engagement party for two vampires. They couldn’t hear as well as the two-natureds and raised their voices accordingly. Vampires weren’t bothered by it, as they could shield their ears with the magic inherent to their kind, but she didn’t have the same option.
The presence of so many humans in a mostly vampire event wasn’t exactly common, but the groom had been a human until recently and had invited his friends. Human-vampire relations being what they were—always uneasy—the real surprise was that most of them had come.
Harry’s eyes sought the groom across the crowded room, where he was surrounded by his cronies, his fiancée glued to his side. Ryan Warner, QC. At thirty-nine, he was one of the youngest barristers to have taken silks, and he was worth the honour. Tall and handsome, even more so now that he’d had his vampire gene triggered and had been able to erase early signs of aging with magic. An up and coming politician, his ascension to the two-natured crowd wasn’t expected to hinder that. If the two-natured ever were allowed to stand for election, he would surely be among the first. And as a near immortal now, he could afford to wait.
He was also Harriet’s former fiancé.
It still made her heart ache, even though the engagement had ended two years ago already. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite get over him. They had been so good together. And now another woman would have him.
Perhaps that was the true cause of her heartache. She didn’t share well.
She forced her attention back to the man who had been trying to chat her up the past ten minutes, a human lawyer in his late thirties—passable looking, but he didn’t in any way interest her. But she smiled and nodded, as if she were having a good time. She would not let Ryan know she was upset by his engagement. The man smiled, delighted, and she sighed inwardly. She really shouldn’t lead him on.
Did he even know who she was? Or rather, what she was? For him she was probably just another tall, buxom blonde, the only difference being that she was a doctor, not some bimbo—not that he was interested in her mind; his gaze kept gliding to her cleavage. She toyed with the idea of allowing her wolf aura to peek out of her chest to see if he would react to it. But of course he wouldn’t. Humans couldn’t see shifter auras, whereas the vampires here would take it as a sign of aggression.
Ryan had been able to see auras, despite having been human when they met, a sign that he carried the two-natured gene. He had never thought it meant anything, having grown up among humans, but he had seized the opportunity to have himself tested. When he turned out to be carrying the vampire variation of the two-natured gene, she had been upset. But these were modern times and it wasn’t that odd anymore for partners to be from different sides of the two-natured spectrum. For his part, Ryan had been thrilled, and had his gene triggered to become a vampire. Harry had been happy for him—and for herself too, as she wouldn’t have to watch him grow old and die while she lived on for centuries.
But things hadn’t gone according to their plans. It had taken over a year for him to be sufficiently in control of his vampire nature. It had kept them apart, because he’d had to reside with the vampire family that had handled his transformation. When she finally could see him again, he had changed—more than the obvious. His priorities were different—vampires above other races—and there hadn’t been room for her in his life anymore. So they had broken their engagement.
That was two years ago and she should be over him. She didn’t love him anymore, but she was still hurt. It didn’t help that he and Elsa, the daughter of the family he had lived with, had become an item almost immediately after they had broken up, indicating he had been involved with the woman already before that. That betrayal hurt the most.
Harry shot a glance towards her, a vampire of more advanced years than her appearances gave to understand. She looked about thirty but was closer to two hundred years old. Harry, too, looked younger than she was, but she was only thirty-six, almost the same age as Ryan. Shifters aged more than vampires did, but it would take a couple of centuries before she looked the age she was now.
But perhaps it wasn’t the fact that Elsa was a vampire that had made Ryan choose her. She was a small and delicate-looking brunette who could pull off the weaker sex routine perfectly. Ryan enjoyed being made to feel strong and in charge, a trait that had annoyed Harry excessively when they were together. She was a strong, capable woman who didn’t need a man to take care of her or complete her. Her wolf-shifter clan believed in equality of the sexes, but vampires still clung to the old ideas. Elsa would be perfect for him.
Harry wouldn’t pretend to be weaker for anyone, least of all for a man who was supposed to be an equal companion. Her strength had seen her through the medical training among the humans who reacted to the budding alpha strength in her with meanness and endless hazing. She had survived the specialising to a surgeon, enduring the sexist atmosphere still ripe in the operating theatres. Her youthful looks had made her an especially delicious target. She could have told the good ol’ boys that she was older than the twenty she had looked during most of the training, but humans didn’t react well to two-natured doctors. A wolf-shifter at the A&E was especially an anomaly. They feared that a predator couldn’t stay in charge of her true nature when surrounded by blood.
She made a mental eye roll. She was the daughter of one of the strongest alphas in the country and had inherited her father’s strength. She could handle her wolf in any circumstances. At least now that she was working exclusively among her kind at the two-natured wing of St Bartholomew’s hospital, she didn’t have to worry about the attitudes of her colleagues anymore. Well, not often, anyway. A non-predatory shifter might occasionally be intimidated by her.
So it’s settled then?
The eager look on her companion’s face made Harriet concentrate on him again. What had she agreed to? With reservations, I’m afraid. My job is a bit irregular.
Sure, sure. He shook his head, amazed. I can’t believe a hot chick like you is a doctor.
She stiffened and a cold look spread on her face. Are you weak-minded, perhaps?
Hey, no offence. He backed up, slightly bewildered by her sudden mood swing. Most women know how to take a compliment.
Most men know how to compliment a woman without insulting her.
How was that insulting?
So you are weak-minded.
He frowned, and she braced for the inevitable diatribe about her bitchiness. Why were men so weak that they instantly reacted with hostility if a woman asked for a little respect?
She didn’t have energy for that right now. She let her wolf show in her eyes, causing them to change from whisky to amber, and the man paled.
I don’t think you’re quite man enough for me. Why don’t you scurry along and find a nice little human to play with.
She smelled his fear, pungent and—quite frankly—intoxicating in her angered state. To his credit, he didn’t flee instantly. But he was stupid enough to attack.
You should have told me you’re not human.
You’re at a vampire party and it didn’t occur to you? She shook her head, tired all of a sudden, and made her wolf retreat again. Humans.
Ryan appeared by her side and she turned to look, glad for the distraction, even if she didn’t really want to spend any more time with him than necessary. If she weren’t so bent on making him believe he hadn’t hurt her, she wouldn’t have attended the party in the first place.
There was a wide, eager smile on his face. How are you two doing here? Chas is a great guy, isn’t he? he gushed like a matchmaker.
She drew herself straighter. She was a tall woman, close to five foot ten without the heels she had on tonight. Ryan instantly pulled straighter too and she sneered. He was tall, even next to her, but he couldn’t help it. Maybe she should have paid attention to small tells like that when they were together.
You and I clearly have different definitions of great. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to work.
Already? But the party’s only started.
It can’t be helped, I’m afraid. I’ve already stayed longer than I had time for. But thank you for inviting me. I wish you much happiness for your centuries together with Elsa.
She headed towards the door, but not before she saw Ryan blanch. Clearly he hadn’t given a thought for what it meant to be marrying a vampire. While she wasn’t a fan of vampires, she had to admit that they knew how to commit to a marriage. Till death do us part got a whole new meaning when death might not happen at all.
Night air hit her the moment she stepped out of the restaurant. She didn’t feel cold, even though it was already September and she was dressed in a sleeveless cocktail dress and wore no jacket. She was a wolf-shifter, she could survive a little nip in the air. She paused to draw in a deep breath, banishing the heat and noise of the party. The ringing in her ears subsided slowly. Her upset was more difficult to banish.
She headed towards Barts, past Smithfield market. It was quiet at this time of night, and she didn’t expect anyone to emerge from the shadows to threaten her. If a thug thought she was easy prey, he would learn differently.
Her claws extended in anticipation and she forced them back. She had to calm down, otherwise her wolf would make her react with violence even when it wasn’t needed.
The hospital was right behind the market. It was a maze of old buildings, but she knew her way around, even in the dark. Not that anything was ever very dark with a wolf’s vision. She went through an old Tudor gatehouse at the southwest corner of the hospital area, past the church of St Bartholomew the Great to reach the two-natured wing of the hospital at the other end of the path.
She wasn’t actually headed to work. It was only a handy ruse she used whenever she needed to get out of an unpleasant situation. No one ever questioned a doctor’s need to be at work. But she had left her bike at the hospital car park, so she would go change into something more bike-friendly in the staff changing room and then be on her way.
Maybe she’d take a long route home—like a couple of times around London. That should cool her down.
Reaching her building, she went in through the staff entrance and headed straight to the changing room. She would avoid the A&E or she would end up working. The waiting room would be almost empty at this time of Saturday evening, but later the place would be filled with similar drunken accidents the human equivalents were. Mostly young people. Old vampires and shifters were for the most part capable of healing broken bones on their own, but recently turned human-born vampires needed almost as much help as humans did with all their ailments. And some vampire families preferred to bring their still-human offspring to the two-natured hospital rather than the human one, even though they were technically still human.
She didn’t waste time pulling on black leather jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt with a plunging neckline, and a tight leather jacket. Just because she wanted to be acknowledged for her mind didn’t mean she would hide her body. All wolves were sensual creatures that enjoyed their bodies, and hers was great—no reason to hide it. Switching her heels to boots, she was good to go.
Her bike was where she had left it and her body quickened in anticipation. There was nothing quite like having a powerful beast of an engine between her legs to get her in a great mood. She would drive to where her clan lived in Epsom for the night—let her bike roar on the motorway, and maybe break her own speed records.
She was about to pull on her helmet when the wind changed, bringing with it a scent that both intrigued and irritated her. A vampire. She felt around in Might and was hit with such power that the hackles of her wolf shot up. It snarled and her face echoed the expression.
She put the helmet down and headed towards the scent. She would see who emanated such power. It wouldn’t be any of the patients, and it definitely wasn’t anyone from the party. More to the point, it couldn’t be anyone safe to have around the hospital.
She rounded a corner into the square outside the hospital, a small cul-de-sac surrounded by four storey buildings and the church. A man was standing in the middle of the square, securing the fastenings of his jerkin. He was huge, much taller than her and built tight and powerful. The leather jerkin hugged his back, emphasising his masculine shape, and the leather trousers and combat boots made him look downright menacing.
He sensed her presence and began to turn, but she had already recognised him. Zacharias Hamilton, the Circle warrior every woman wanted to bang.
And she hadn’t been an exception.
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