Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries

 

Crimson Warrior

Chapter One          Chapter Two

 

Chapter One

Gabriel Hamilton leaned deeper into the shadows of the portico that was shielding him from the rain. Getting wet wasn’t an issue; being detected was. It was mid-morning in central London after all, even if this was one of its more quiet corners. Fifty metres from his hiding place was an elegant dark green door. It led to a lawyer’s chambers where his target had entered into moments earlier.

He was on Clerkenwell Close, a winding one-lane street with low yellow-brick buildings on each side that gave it Old London charm despite some of them being new. The businesses here were lawyers, architects, and PR agencies that didn’t generate much traffic. It wasn’t often that he went out among the general population during the daylight hours, and he felt odd out of his fighting leathers, unshielded by the darkness. The well-loved black jeans he was wearing didn’t have quite the same feel, nor did the black trench coat over his black T-shirt. He didn’t need the coat for warmth, even though it was November, and not a very balmy November at that. He wore it to hide the long knife at the small of his back he never left home without. Just because he didn’t anticipate trouble didn’t mean he wouldn’t prepare for it.

It wasn’t the woman he had followed here that worried him; it was who might be after her. Renegades. Demon vampires. Gabe almost spat when the name brought a foul taste of rotten eggs to his mouth.

He called up a bit of magic to create a camouflage around him and blended into the background. He didn’t sense any renegades nearby, but there was no need to scare the few passers-by with his presence either. He was large and frightening—even to humans who couldn’t sense his immense impact in Might—and he was so by birth and by design. He was a vampire warrior of the Crimson Circle, and the First Son of their leader, Alexander Hamilton. He had a legacy to live up to, and he did it well. He’d had over five centuries of practice.

Renegades were a fairly new enemy in the long history of their organisation, but they had proven difficult to conquer. Not impossible though, and the Crimson Circle were determined to put an end to their practice of turning humans with promise, the vampire gene, to their unnatural kind.

The enemy had become overly ambitious lately, and that would be their downfall. They had targeted one Ryan Warner, a member of a high-ranking vampire family, and made him one of their own. The warriors had meticulously tracked all Ryan’s contacts, humans and two-natured alike, and had kept an eye on them even after the bastard had been killed. Then they’d built a round-the-clock operation around the most promising target, Beau Emery.

The Emeries were an old and respected vampire family, if diminished in power during the past century. The current generation in charge was young, the older generations having died during the Blitz. They were still well connected, but without its strongest and oldest members they were more vulnerable, and therefore could be more susceptible to renegades’ lures.

There were three siblings. The eldest was Allegra Emery. At two centuries old, she had already won the sun when her parents perished, and she had taken charge of her two younger siblings, Adeline and Beaumont. Of the two, Adeline’s promise had been fulfilled a couple of decades before the parents died, and at a hundred and eighteen she should emerge within a decade if she was strong, maybe another century if she wasn’t. But Beaumont—Beau, as he was called—had been only a child during the war and still human. He was now into the sixtieth year of his fulfilment, and would live in the night for at least another four decades more.

Young in vampire terms, he’d formed a friendship with Ryan Warner. And it was this friendship that worried the warriors. Though Ryan was gone now, the seeds of their friendship might have a lasting impact. One lure that the renegades had for enticing vampires was the ability to face the sun right away. What if Beau was tired of waiting and wanted a fast way out? Ryan had.

But it wasn’t Beau that Gabe was after today. After all, the man couldn’t leave his house during the day, if he was even awake. It was Allegra. She wasn’t their main target, because renegades generally left women alone, but she had been behaving strangely lately, slipping out of her place of work at odd hours, visiting the chambers of a lawyer who didn’t handle her family’s affairs—a human lawyer, as far as they’d been able to determine.

“Maybe she’s having an affair with the lawyer?” Marcus Hamilton, Gabe’s right hand man and cousin, had suggested when Gabe brought her behaviour up during a meeting with him and Zach, his younger brother, earlier that week. “The world’s changed and vampires and humans are pairing up.”

A foul taste had risen to Gabe’s mouth at the suggestion, and he had shaken his head. “She doesn’t look like a woman in love.”

“What do you know about women in love?” Zach had sneered, amused. And while Gabe would be the first to admit that his brother had the greater experience in women—in love or out—he hadn’t budged. He had kept an eye on her for days already, and had come to recognise her moods.

“She’s not smiling when she goes to meet him, like she’d be happy to see her lover. And … I don’t know, there’s no spring in her step. She looks worried and drawn. Reluctant to see him.” She had been quiet and drawn in general, but the meetings with the lawyer truly upset her.

“Maybe she’s having financial trouble she doesn’t want to tell her own lawyer.”

Gabe nodded. “That’s possible. But what if we’re wrong and she’s been targeted by renegades?”

“Why would renegades target her?” Marcus had asked in his reasonable manner. “She’s a woman. They can’t turn her, not without killing her.” They’d all grimaced, remembering the series of dead women that had been left in the wake of renegades’ experiments the previous spring. “Besides, the lawyer’s a human.”

“For now he is. He could be an unwitting accomplish to renegades.”

Zach lifted a quizzical brow. “We’re already keeping an eye on Beau. Why are you so hung up on Allegra?”

Gabe hadn’t been able to explain his need to keep an eye on her, or his uneasiness when he saw her so troubled. “What better way for renegades to hide than behind a respectable vampire woman?”

That argument had finally won his brothers over to his way of thinking, and they had let him handle this any way he saw fit: by himself. He would follow Allegra and he would find answers. If it turned out to be a lover, he’d leave her be; if it was financial trouble, well, he was here to help, wasn’t he. But if it turned out his worst fears were confirmed, he would act, swiftly.

His eyes trained at the lawyer’s door, secure in his knowledge that he was well hidden, he was outwardly relaxed. But he never let his guard down; wasn’t even sure he knew how. After centuries of keeping a constant eye on the enemy, it was as natural as breathing for him to be aware of his surroundings at all times. He knew well in advance when someone was about to walk past his hiding place, even though humans barely made an impact in Might, his vampire senses fine-tuned to even the slightest change in the energy surrounding all living beings.

Or, rather, his rider was always vigilant.

Most vampires barely acknowledged their second nature, the entity inside them that gave them all their abilities, once they grew strong enough to keep it in rein. And he couldn’t really blame them. The rider was difficult to live with even in optimal conditions. Suppressing it was the best most vampires could achieve. That it made them weaker in magic as a result was no concern of his, although it made it imperative that the Crimson Circle watched over them and kept them safe.

But his rider was as essential to him as a shifter’s animal nature was to a shifter, the two of them working in tandem. It was never off duty, always there to provide him with a constant feed of what was beyond his already superior senses. Not even his fellow warriors relied on their riders as much as he did. He had come to an agreement with his second nature ages ago. Together they were stronger, better.

There was no stronger vampire in the country, bar his father, but then again, Alexander Hamilton, Lord Foley, was in a league of his own. Physically, Gabe could overtake his father if needed—though he couldn’t imagine such need emerging—but when it came to the ability to wield magic, he didn’t come even close.

Gabe preferred it that way. As the leader of the Crimson Circle, Alexander was supposed to be above them all. As his First Son and heir to the centuries-old organisation, it was Gabe’s duty to make sure his father didn’t have to bother himself with the day-to-day operations anymore. And he did it well, he was proud to say—even if he was currently allowing a surveillance operation to take most of his time.

The door Gabe had been watching opened and he perked when he saw Allegra exit. Like all vampires, she looked sort of ageless, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. She was tall and slender, with the kind of dainty bone structure that made Gabe fear he would break her if he so much as stood too close to her. She was too thin and he studied her with a critical eye, like a fellow warrior. The knee high boots she was wearing had space in them even with the jeans tucked in, and the well-cut mackintosh seemed at least half a size too large. Had she lost weight? Exactly how bad was her situation?

Her delicate face was drawn and there was a deep crease between her brows. If the lawyer was her lover, they were going through a breakup. If it was about money, the news hadn’t been good. She didn’t register the light drizzle, not even to lift the collar of her mackintosh up, and in mere moments her shoulder-length chestnut hair, usually so neatly combed, began to fizz and curl.

To all appearances, she was oblivious to her surroundings, but Gabe wasn’t taking any risks that she’d notice him as she walked past his hiding place. He diminished his impact on Might to almost nothing. It was a neat trick Alexander had taught him that allowed him to pass as human, though the drawback was that it forced his rider to become inoperative, cocooned in Might. It wasn’t easy to make his second nature stop and lie low, the reason why only vampires as strong as his father—and him—were able to pull the trick off, but his rider understood the necessity of it. He let Allegra disappear behind the corner of the lawyer’s building. Then he went after her.

She was halfway down the gravel path through St James’s Church Garden, and he had to walk on the lawn to prevent making noise. The park was empty, but he kept a vigilant eye on the shadows, needing to rely on his sight, smell, and hearing now that he couldn’t reveal his presence by scanning the area. She didn’t look left or right, and he didn’t sense her scan her surroundings at all, but he couldn’t say if it was because she was so absorbed by her worries or because it wasn’t her habit in general. Civilian vampires probably weren’t constantly vigilant.

There were more people on the street on the other side of the park, but Jerusalem Passage, a pedestrian street to the south, was empty, forcing him to keep his distance. She appeared to be heading back to her place of work, a private institute conducting research on genetic diseases, located at the edge of the enclosed Charterhouse area, so he didn’t have to stay close.

But instead of taking Clerkenwell Road east, which would have taken her straight there, she continued south down St John’s Square. She didn’t once look back to indicate she suspected she was being followed, and her steps were steady. Was she not paying attention to where she was going? Or was she heading home?

That wasn’t far either; she lived on the south-side of the Charterhouse area, in a Georgian house her family had owned since it was built in the eighteenth century. Warriors were keeping an eye on it and Gabe wouldn’t be needed once she was at home. She would be safe there, but he found himself hoping she wasn’t headed home. She was his to look after.

He shook his head, baffled. Where did that thought come from? She was a target in an important operation, nothing more.

Past St John’s Gate, an imposing remnant of the Tudor era that arched over St John’s Lane, she dove into Passing Alley. It wasn’t an entirely logical choice, as there was no access to the enclosed Charterhouse area from St John’s Street, where it led.

Gabe didn’t like it. The alley was little more than a low, dark tunnel running through the houses, and so narrow that two people couldn’t pass without turning sideways; at least, they couldn’t if they were his size. Not only was it a perfect place for an ambush, should renegades be targeting her, it would be difficult for him to follow her unnoticed. His steps would echo, perceptible to vampire hearing no matter how silently he tried to tread, on top of which everyone coming towards them would certainly pause when they saw him approach, giving his presence away.

Gritting his teeth in frustration, he allowed her to walk deep into the alley before entering himself, making sure his steps remained as silent as possible. The tunnel was dark and empty, and he couldn’t detect her now that his rider wasn’t helping. Had she run through the alley? It was an eerie place and a lone woman would probably find it scary. Cursing, he hastened his steps.

Through the first house, the alley opened into a small garden, squared in by the tall buildings on all four sides and closed off from passers-by with a tall stone fence. His eyes trained at the tunnel opposite, he hurried past the fence, taking care not to run so as not to alarm her. As he passed the closed iron gate that led into the garden, he glanced there, more out of habit than curiosity—and paused, stupefied.

Allegra Emery was standing in front of the gate, leaning her shoulder against its stone post, facing him squarely. And she looked royally pissed.

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Chapter Two

Allegra studied the wall of muscle and menace down her nose, hiding the fear that constricted her insides behind bravado. The steps following her had sounded so soft that she hadn’t expected him. Had she known she was being trailed by such a frightening specimen of a man, she would’ve chosen another spot for confronting him, but she had hoped to keep her actions hidden. Charming humans was illegal, after all. But while she was adept in planting suggestions in human minds, she would need more than a bit of vampire magic to best this man.

Like maybe a sledgehammer, or a tranq gun, with a dose large enough to sedate an elephant.

His size was only part of it—although an important part. His height alone was impressive; he was easily the tallest man she had ever met, a head taller than her, and she was five foot nine. And he was more than built to his size. His shoulders were so wide she wouldn’t be able to reach her arms halfway around them—not that she would be willing to try. The mere thought of getting that close to him made her spine tighten in fear.

He hadn’t bothered to close his coat against the rain and his damp T-shirt clung to his torso, emphasising a chest and abdomen so sculpted they seemed a caricature. But the muscles weren’t for show; they were purposeful, effective. His legs seemed to go on forever, and even sheathed in worn jeans she could easily imagine their strength from the way he held himself, like he was ready to spring to action. Violent action. Standing in front of her, he seemed to darken the sky, and she had to tilt her head quite a bit to look him straight in the face.

And what a face.

She blinked. Twice. And even then she was certain her enhanced vision was playing tricks on her mind. A man that scary should not be so handsome, so … beautiful. The word seemed wrong and yet it didn’t do his face justice. Her breath caught, and it wasn’t fear causing it anymore. It was … awareness.

He had the classical features of Greek statues: clean, straight lines, but stronger. Severe, as if he seldom smiled. It wasn’t an androgynist ideal of an ancient god, it was the god himself come to flesh with all the living strength a marble couldn’t capture: a jawline that was all angles, lean cheeks with clear cheekbones, a prominent, straight nose, and a determined mouth currently slightly open in surprise. His black brows were straight above dark eyes, and his long black hair was pulled tightly back into a thick braid, leaving his face bare and emphasising the stark beauty of his features.

But it wasn’t even his physical strength that made the greatest impact on her. It was the will behind it. The gaze he levelled at her was so powerful it made her knees quake, and she was grateful she was leaning against the sturdy post. If she hadn’t had a clear reading of the impact he made in Might, barely that of a human’s, she would’ve thought he was one of her kind. As it was, she could only come to one conclusion: he was the most impressive human she had ever known to exist.

“Why are you following me?”

It took an effort to get the question out, but her voice was steady, as was her gaze she kept directed at his eyes. Gathering Might, she prepared to charm him if necessary, allowing it to show in her eyes, but he didn’t notice.

Humans never noticed when vampires were about to do magic around them.

He cocked one of his strong brows slightly. “Who says I’m following you? It’s a popular shortcut.” His voice was low and so rumbling it seemed to make her body resonate, not an altogether unpleasant sensation.

“Then why did you stop when you saw me here?”

“I didn’t expect you. I was startled.”

Allegra sneered. “You’ve never been startled in your life.”

“Why, because I’m large?” He sounded offended, and she had to stifle her automatic reaction to apologise. Damn her pesky Victorian manners.

“No, because you’re so … aware.” As she said it, she realised that that was why he was so impressive. She had never met a human who was like him. “Nothing will ever surprise you.”

“Well, you standing there did.”

She got a funny feeling he actually meant it. “So what are you, a sniper? Assassin?” She made it sound like a challenge, wondering if it was the last thing she would ever say.

He frowned, puzzled. “Why are those two your only options?”

She shrugged. “They seem like professions where being aware is paramount. You humans just aren’t ordinarily so tuned to your surroundings.”

“What do you mean, you humans?”

As if he’d never given a thought that there might be beings other than his kind in the world. She fought not to blush. She was not ashamed of being two-natured, even if Victorians had done their best to shame her kind. That was a century and a half ago already. “I’m not a human.”

He blinked, twice. Then he glanced at himself, as if checking that he was all there, or that he didn’t have food stains on his clothes. Then he looked back at her, taking her in from the top of her head to her boots. Was he making comparisons? Wondering what she was if not a human? The notion aggravated her and she straightened, managing to face his scrutiny and the force behind it squarely.

Whatever conclusions he made, he didn’t voice them. “I guess you could say I’m a soldier.”

An understatement if anything was, but she didn’t challenge him on it. “And why are you following me?” He was about to deny it, so she lifted her hands, cutting him off. “I know you were outside the lawyer’s office, and I sensed you come after me.”

He pulled back. “You did? How?”

So he was not denying being there. “I’m a vampire. I sense things.” She meant it as a threat, but of course he wouldn’t be intimidated by her. He looked genuinely curious.

“What did you sense?” Perhaps his professional pride was wounded that she’d made him. She gave it a thought and then frowned.

“I don’t actually know. It’s difficult to pinpoint it. I just knew someone was there.” But had she known what kind of someone, she would’ve run, and fast.

“Was it a smell? Sound?” he prodded sharply, like a leader of men demanding a report. If he knew to ask about the smell, he couldn’t be as ignorant about vampires as she had thought.

“No, it was more like a pressure on my skin.” She had been aware of it with every step she took.

“More than you would ordinarily sense when walking on an empty street and fearing that you’re being followed?”

She smiled. “I don’t usually fear that.” Then she paused, because it wasn’t exactly true.

Lately she had been feeling like she was constantly being watched, especially at home where she should be safest. It was an uneasy sensation at the back of her neck, as if someone was standing right behind her. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but when time after time no one was there when she turned to look, it was either that or to start suspecting she was losing her mind. Shaking her head to banish the sensation, she continued: “But yes, it was a strong awareness, not goosebumps caused by an empty house you think might be haunted.”

At least this time round when she had turned to look, she hadn’t been imagining things. And while this man was large and undoubtedly frightening, he wasn’t creepy. She hadn’t felt like she needed to flee from him, even knowing he was following her. For all points and purposes, he was perfectly normal. Safe.

She startled at the thought, but there was no denying it. He wasn’t threatening her in any way. At least not yet. Unlike Beau’s new friends.

It had started with a man named Ryan Warner, a newly fulfilled vampire, yet not quite … normal. He had emanated quiet threat, even during perfectly pleasant conversations. And occasionally it had seemed like he wasn’t even there. If she didn’t look at him directly, she couldn’t always sense him. He could sneak around the house unnoticed, appearing where she didn’t expect him to be.

With him had come men who all seemed wrong somehow, unnatural and foul. They were sniffing around the house like they were about to make a nest there, and they were determined to ruin Beau. They took him out every night to a private club where gambling was heavy and unregulated. He had won at first, of course, but that hadn’t lasted. Soon he’d owed the house such a large sum Allegra had no idea how they would be able to pay it. And still he wouldn’t quit.

Then a man, Greg Brennan, had shown up at their house, during the day when Beau was asleep. He had promised to pay the debt for a price: he wanted to marry Adeline.

Allegra still felt sick that she had entertained the possibility even for a moment. But while there was nothing outwardly wrong with Brennan, the opposite in fact, she couldn’t allow her beautiful little sister to be sold for their brother’s debts, and definitely not to someone who emanated even fouler sensations than Ryan had. So she had said no.

She had hoped Beau would come to his senses after that, but he had thought the marriage would’ve been a perfect solution. “She’s almost ready to face the sun. It’s time she started looking for a husband. And if it takes care of our troubles, even better.”

“This is the 21st century. Women actually have a say in who they marry—or not marry—even vampire women.” And she had meant the words at the time. “Besides, they’re your troubles. You’re the one who will have to sacrifice his life for them, not her.”

Since she was more powerful vampire than him, he had succumbed—after a huge fight. But their problem had remained: he still owed a staggering sum. The men he owed it to had upped the pressure, forcing him to do all kinds of things to pay the debt. She knew some of it was criminal, but she didn’t have the nerve to confront him about it. Their language had become more threatening too, and they would show up at the house at all hours, frightening Adeline. Allegra even feared for her own life, so it was no wonder she thought she was constantly being followed. And now they’d sent this man. She would do well not to think that he was safe just because he didn’t feel like those awful men.

“Are you here to kill me?” she asked brusquely. He stiffened, as if affronted.

“Kill you? Why would I do that?”

“You can’t make me believe you’re here to protect me,” she huffed.

“Who says I’m here for you at all?”

She felt a flush rise up her chest, but she refused to show her embarrassment. “You just happened to be loitering outside my lawyer’s and then fell in step with me when I left?”

His lips quirked; a sign of amusement, if not an actual smile. “Maybe I took one look at you and fell madly in love with you, and simply had to see more of you.”

His words made her heart jump and she hated it. How nice it would be to have someone with whom to share her burdens and responsibilities. And they didn’t come any stronger than him. But a human wouldn’t do.

“Right… ‘Cause what woman wouldn’t fall in love with a stalker?”

He was undeterred by her sneering. “Coincidences do happen, you know.” She knew that, but she didn’t believe this was one. She shook her head and his gaze sharpened. “Why would you think you’re being followed in the first place?”

“Trying to deny the issue?”

“Just answer me.”

It was an order and she didn’t like it. She was a two hundred years-old vampire and had been the head of her family for over seventy years. She arched a brow and looked at him down her nose—not an easy feat considering he was so much taller. “Why?”

“So that I can take care of the matter.” He made it sound like a promise, and a part of her wanted to take him up on it. But he was a human and her problems were beyond his comprehension.

“You were the one following me.”

“You wouldn’t have noticed me if you weren’t expecting me to be there.”

Was that true? “You’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

He flashed a smile that transformed his face from severe to unearthly. “I can be if I want to.”

She struggled to get her brain back to order. It was a good thing he didn’t smile more often. “So why didn’t you?”

“I thought I was.”

“Ah-ha! So you were following me.” He just shrugged his powerful shoulders and her heart plummeted. Until now she hadn’t really believed he had, despite her accusations. “Why? What have I done?”

“You’ve done nothing as far as I know.”

“Then why—?” But the answer came to her instantly. “Beau.” His face hardened and her insides turned cold. “Is this about the illegal gambling house?”

He hesitated. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.”

But she knew she was right. “Are you a cop?” Her heart began to race. Had they found out whatever crimes Beau had been forced to commit?

“More a private operator.”

That sounded a little better. She wanted Beau free of those men, but she wasn’t willing to throw him into prison to achieve it. Human prisons weren’t suitable for vampires, and the vampire equivalent was a ghastly place. “I want to help.”

“What?” he exclaimed, thrown by her offer. Then his face turned into an unreadable mask, a look she had only seen on truly old vampires. “Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.”

She gave him a slow look, too annoyed by his attitude to be frightened. “I’m a two hundred years-old vampire. I think I can handle a few humans.”

“And what if they’re not humans?”

A tremor of dread ran down her spine. “Well, they’re not two-natured.”

“You have that part right.” He reconsidered, glancing around. “Let’s get out of this rain. Is there a place near here where we could talk?”

She blinked. “Is it raining?”

Her question made him laugh, a low, pleasant sound that made a different kind of shiver vibrate her body. “Well, I need a cup of tea. Will you join me?”

She should have said no. She only had his word that he wasn’t here to hurt her, but if he was, she would be safer in public than in this secluded space. “There’s a nice place on the next street.”

“Lead the way.”

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Crimson Warrior is published on March 3, 2019. You can preorder it on Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo and B&N.