Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries

 

Crimson Warrior

Chapter One          Chapter Two

 

Chapter One

[Please note, that this is a very early, unedited draft and subject to change.]

Gabriel Hamilton leaned deeper into the shadows of the portico that was shielding him from rain, eyes fixed on his target, a discreet dark green door across the street. He was on a high street in Clerkenwell in central London, a mile north from the City, and the door led to a lawyer’s offices.

Had it been night, he wouldn’t have been here alone—the rules he demanded from his men and himself were strict about it—but now he had decided to risk it. And had it been night, his dark clothes and black hair would’ve hidden him perfectly, but now he called a bit of magic to create a camouflage around him, blending with the background. No need to scare the passers-by with his presence. 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.

Because it was day, he wasn’t dressed in his fighting leathers, but ordinary, slightly worn black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black jacket that hid his long knife at the small of his back. Just because he didn’t anticipate trouble didn’t mean he wouldn’t prepare for it. He didn’t need the extra warmth the jacket offered, even though it was November—and not a very balmy November at that—but his bare arms would’ve been too easy to spot when he wasn’t camouflaging himself. Not to mention earn him a few puzzled looks from the Londoners wrapped in their raincoats. Telling them he could keep warm with magic wouldn’t have made things easier with humans.

He shook his head baffled. In a world divided genetically to one and two-natured—ordinary humans and enhanced—vampires had never been a secret, even if they were secretive, and modern times had brought them pretty much out into open. He would’ve thought that one-natured were accustomed to the special features of the two-natured around them, but it was as if they deliberately kept themselves ignorant.

Then again, he usually kept himself apart from humans. But during a day, on a busy London street, it was pretty much impossible, even in this weather. Humans outnumbered the two-natured after all. And since he couldn’t rely on his magic when he was tracking his two-natured prey, he had to blend in with his clothing. Well, as well as it was possible for a six-foot-six, heavily-muscled warrior to blend in.

He settled down to wait, eyes trained at the door through which his target had disappeared earlier, secure in his knowledge that he was well hidden. 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.

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 reign. He couldn’t really blame them. The rider was difficult to live with in the optimal conditions and supressing it was the best that 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 side was to a shifter, the two of them working in tandem. It was almost never off duty, was almost never not 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. But he had come to 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 metaphysically 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 the 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. Everything ran smoothly, and the warriors currently had an upper hand in their centuries old war against renegades.

Demon vampires. Gabe almost spat when the name brought a foul taste of rotten eggs to his mouth. For a long time, he’d been content with killing them; it was either him or them, and he wouldn’t allow them to target civilian vampires. But lately that had stopped being satisfying. He needed to rid the world of the renegades for good. And for the first time, they had a true chance for it to happen.

The enemy had made a mistake. They’d become overly ambitious. Instead of settling with low-born humans with promise to turn to their kind, they had targeted a member of a high-ranking vampire family and made him one of their own. Ryan Warner, the renegade in question, had been too noticeable through his engagement to a daughter of a powerful Townsend family. He hadn’t even tried to hide what he was, and the warriors had found him. They had meticulously tracked all his contacts, humans and two-natured alike, and had kept an eye on them even after the bastard had died.

And it would pay off.

Ryan’s contacts had led the warriors to Emery family, an old and respected vampire family close to the Townsends, if diminished in power during the past century. The current generation in charge was young, the previous generation having died during the Blitz. They were still well connected, but without its strongest and oldest members they might be more vulnerable, more susceptible to renegades’ lures.

There were three siblings left of the family. The eldest was Allegra Emery. At almost two centuries old, she had already won the sun when her parents perished and 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 she should emerge within a decade if she was strong, though it might take another century if she wasn’t. But Beaumont—Beau, as he was called—had been only a child back then and still human. He was now into the sixtieth year of his fulfilment, and would live in the night at least another four decades more.

Young in vampire terms, he’d formed a friendship with Ryan. 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 the vampires was the promise of sun. What if Beau was tired of waiting and wanted a fast way out? Ryan had. The warriors’ main operation concentrated around Beau and they would step in the moment it looked like he might be in danger of siding with the enemy.

But it wasn’t Beau that Gabe was after today; the man couldn’t leave his house during the day, after all, 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. She’d slipped out of her place of work at odd hours, visiting the offices of a lawyer that 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. “The world’s changed and vampires and humans are pairing up.”

But Gabe didn’t buy it. “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 greatest experience of women—in love or out—he hadn’t budged.

“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 steps. She looks worried and drawn. Reluctant to see him.”

“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’ experimenting the previous spring. “Besides, the lawyer’s a human.”

“For now he is. And he could be an unwitting accomplish to renegades. With Townsends, they already noticed the benefits of infiltrating a high-ranking family. Townsends were too strong, too important, and proved too much for them to turn, but Emeries might be weaker.”

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

But Gabe hadn’t been able to explain his uneasiness. “What better way to hide than behind a respectable vampire woman?”

This was why Gabe was here in person. He would follow her, and he would find answers. If it turned out to be a lover, he’d leave her be; and 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.

The door Gabe had been watching opened and Allegra exited. Like all vampires, she looked sort of ageless, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. She was very tall and slender, with not much curves to talk about and the kind of dainty bone structure that made Gabe fear he would break her if he so much as stood close to her. She was too thin to his tastes; the knee high leather 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 recently? That might support Zach’s theory of financial trouble.

Her delicate face was drawn and there was a crease of worry between her brows. If the lawyer was her lover, they were going through a breakup. 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. He gave her a half a block of head start. Then he diminished his impact on Might to almost nothing—a neat trick Alexander had taught him that allowed him to pass as a human—and went after her.

She headed east towards her place of work a few blocks away. It was a private institute conducting research on genetic diseases, and was located in the enclosed Charterhouse area north of Smithfield market, just outside the traditional boundaries of the City. But instead of the direct route she had taken to the lawyer’s offices, she seemed to be choosing directions at random, as if she didn’t notice or care where she was headed. The narrow lanes winding between the buildings here gave her a chance to do just that, and while the drizzle had emptied the streets, making it more difficult for Gabe to remain unnoticed, she didn’t once look back to indicate she suspected she was being followed.

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 was a logical choice, as it would shorten her way, but Gabe didn’t like it. The alley was little more than a low, dark tunnel running between 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, it was difficult for him to follow her there 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 approaching, 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 even his rider couldn’t detect her anymore. Had she run through the alley? He wouldn’t wonder it; it was an eerie place and a lone woman would probably find it scary. Cursing, he hastened his steps.

Past the first houses, the alley opened into a small garden squared in by tall buildings on all four sides and closed from the passers-by with a tall stone fence. His eyes trained at the opposite tunnel, the ambient noises left to his rider to track, he hurried past the fence with steady steps, taking care not to run. As he reached 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, her eyes trained squarely at him. And she looked royally pissed.

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Chapter Two

Allegra studied the wall of muscle and menace in front of her, hiding the sudden fear that constricted her insides behind bravado. The steps following her had sounded so soft that she hadn’t expected him. Had she known that 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 from humans. Charming them was illegal, after all. But while she was adept in planting suggestions in human mind, something told her she would need more than a bit of vampire magic to best this man.

Like maybe a sledgehammer, or a tranq gun with large enough dose 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 unlike her—she had always been slender—he was more than built to his size. His shoulders were so wide she wouldn’t be able to reach her arms even halfway around them—not that she would be willing to try—and his chest and abdomen were so sculpted they seemed like a caricature as his wet T-shirt clung to them. But there was nothing funny about how they looked, quite the opposite. 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. He seemed to darken the sky, standing in front of her, 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 that her enhanced vision was playing tricks with her mind. A man that scary should not be so handsome, so … beautiful. The word seemed wrong and yet it didn’t even do his face justice. Her breath caught and it wasn’t fear causing it anymore.

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 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 braid, leaving his face bare and emphasising the starkness of his features.

But it wasn’t his physical strength that made the greatest impact on her. It was the will behind it that pushed that body into perfection. 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, she would’ve thought he was one of her kind, but 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 words out, but her voice was steady, as was her gaze she kept directed at his eyes. Gathering magic, she prepared to charm him if necessary, allowing it to show in her eyes, but as she had suspected, he didn’t notice.

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

She wasn’t the least bit surprised when 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 snorted. “You’ve never been startled in your life.”

“Why, because I’m large?” He managed to ask it like he was offended that she had made assumptions about him, and she had to stifle her automatic reaction to apologise.

“No, because you’re so … aware.” As she said it, she realised that was why he was so impressive. She had never met a human who could do that. “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 asked, wondering if it was the last thing she ever did.

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

“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. “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 say them aloud. “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, staggered. “You did? How?”

So he was not denying being there. “I’m a vampire. I sense things.” She meant it to be a threat, but 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, making it easy for her to imagine he was a leader of men demanding a report. And 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.”

“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 felt she was constantly being watched.

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—or at least she didn’t used to believe in them—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.

It had begun with a friend of her brother Beau’s, Ryan Warner. He’d been a newly fulfilled, human-born vampire, and at first Allegra had thought him a perfectly agreeable man, goal-driven and ambitious, but with enough chops to back his attitude. She had encouraged the friendship, as most of Beau’s friends were idlers and couldn’t be thought of as anything but a bad influence on him.

And then Ryan had changed. She couldn’t tell what it was exactly, but he had begun to make her feel unpleasant. His behaviour didn’t change; he changed. He emanated quiet threat, even during a perfectly pleasant conversation. And occasionally it 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 you didn’t expect him to be, and he took advantage of it. She had begun to dread his visits. They were simply too unpleasant.

Stifling the memory of Ryan with a shiver, she continued: “But yes, it was a strong awareness, not Goosebumps in an empty house you think might be haunted.”

If only the awful feeling had gone with Ryan. He had disappeared without a trace a month ago, but his friends that he had introduced to Beau had remained, sniffling around the house like they were about to make a nest there. And they all made her similarly uncomfortable.

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. He didn’t emanate foulness. 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 Ryan’s friends.

Ever since Ryan disappeared, those men had been 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 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 the man, she couldn’t allow her beautiful little sister to be sold for their brother’s debts. Not even if he’d been from a respectable vampire family, and definitely not to someone who had emanated even fouler sensation 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 the matter of 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.”

And since she was stronger than him, he had succumbed—after a huge fight. But their problem had remained: he still owed a staggering sum. And the men he owed it to had upped the pressure on him, 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 feared for her own life even, so was it a 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.

“So, are you here to kill me?” she asked brusquely, and he stiffened, affronted almost.

“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, 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 would it be to have a strong man fall in love with her, so that she wouldn’t have to bear her burdens and responsibilities alone anymore? And they didn’t come any stronger than him. But a human wouldn’t do.

“Right…”

He was undeterred by her dismissal. “Coincidences do happen, you know.” She knew that, but she didn’t believe this was one of those cases. So 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 an imperial brow. “Why?”

“So that I can take care of the matter.” He made it sound like a promise and part of her wanted to take him 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 smiled, a genuine smile that transformed his face from severe to unearthly, and her brain went briefly blank. “I can be if I want to.”

She struggled to get her brain back to order. “So why didn’t you?”

“I thought I was.”

“Ah-ha. So you were following me.” He just shrugged 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 she knew she was right. “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 over.”

“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.