CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE / HANNAH KANE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Her Warrior for Eternity
A hand squeezed Corynn’s buttock as she weaved around the tables with her tray, the act as intrusive the hundredth time as it had been the first. She froze for a heartbeat, just so she wouldn’t wheel around and plant her fist into the idiot’s face. It would get her fired—this time.
Maybe she could accidentally tip the tray and spill the drinks on the fucker. She could claim she had been pushed in the throng. It was a perfectly plausible explanation, filled to the brim as the Nightingale Club was tonight.
But she controlled herself heroically and walked on as if she hadn’t noticed anything. She could hear the man boast about his deed, as if it took great courage to grope a woman in a crowded nightclub.
This is just a temp job, she sang in her mind, not terribly enthusiastically and badly out of tune. She couldn’t sing even in her own thoughts.
She could persist for a couple of months, until the end of her last term. She couldn’t quit until she had found a proper job. London was an insanely expensive city to live in, and it was about to become more so when she couldn’t live in the university hall anymore.
Knowing she needed extra income had made her quit a nice job at a pub, lured by her friend Lisa to become a cocktail waitress in a high-end club. “You can make in a month in tips alone what you make the whole year at that pub. The guys at the club are loaded, and someone with your body will def be paid well. And who knows, maybe one of the guys will take a fancy to you.”
Corynn had rolled her eyes, not believing for a moment that the customers would date the waitresses. But she had applied for a job there nonetheless. A week later, she was already regretting it.
There had to be a better way to spend her last Easter holiday as a student than demeaning herself for money. No one had groped her at the pub, and when someone tried, the bouncer had barred the twats. Here, the bouncers only existed to make sure the staff didn’t prevent the customers from having fun.
Her order delivered, she returned to the bar to pick and deliver the next one. And the next. And the next.
The night seemed endless. Her feet were aching in the high heels she was required to wear, her muscles sore from trying to keep her balance in them while carrying loaded trays through the revellers. Since she was new, she had to serve the masses: the wannabes—women hoping to get noticed by some rich bloke at the VIP area—and the floor traders and investment bankers who still thought they were the best thing to happen to women since the birth control pill, despite the economy proving otherwise. Drunk and high on wealth and imagined power, they were the worst kind of gropers.
There was another achy muscle: her bottom.
“Okay, Cora. Here’s your chance,” the floor manager said as she intercepted her at the bar. “Nellie sprained her ankle and had to go home.” She made it sound like a personal offence. “We’re already a girl short upstairs, so you’ll have to fill in. I wouldn’t have chosen you, but you’ll fit in the uniform. Make sure you’re worth the opportunity I’m giving you.”
Corynn’s stomach fluttered, in excitement or in fear, she couldn’t quite tell. She gave her last order to the bartender, asked Sally, her co-sufferer in waiting tables, to deliver it, and headed to the staff area.
The long and narrow corridor that served as a changing room was made cramped by rows of lockers. Lisa was waiting for her there, impatient to be back at work. She had the old world pin-up curves that the uniform emphasised nicely, blond curls, blue eyes and ruby-red lips; perfect for the club.
They had been roommates their first year in college, before Corynn managed to get a coveted single room and Lisa moved out of the hall to share a flat with a couple of girls. They had never been close, but they kept in touch—mostly through social media. This was the first time they were working together.
“Here, put this on.” Lisa pushed a dress to Corynn, who accepted it automatically. It felt warm, as if Nellie had only a moment ago been wearing it—most likely the case. “Report to Ennio at the bar. And for God’s sake, Cora, don’t mess this up.”
It miffed Corynn that Lisa, too, thought she couldn’t handle working at the VIP area. She rather believed it would be easier upstairs, as there were fewer customers to serve. They wouldn’t bother to demean the waitresses either, too important to notice their existence.
Corynn slipped out of her downstairs uniform—a tight black tee and micro shorts—and into the new. The sleek red satin dress didn’t leave much room for large movements, like breathing, but it fit her lean body. Closing the zipper at the back required acrobatics, but she managed the deed without dislocating anything.
Let’s hear it for yoga!
The mirror revealed that the dress brought out her modest breasts nicely and made the most of her toned arms and legs, but she would have to avoid bending over. Perhaps she should have left the shorts on. Or not. Like this, the dress would probably be the key to those extravagant tips Lisa had promised. She tried to summon enthusiasm for the thought.
She adjusted her makeup quickly and redid her light brown hair that had come loose of its pins. Tips would likely be better if she let it flow down her shoulders, but she didn’t do sexy easily, so it was best she didn’t even try.
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves before taking the stairs at the back of the corridor to the next floor. It was quieter in the VIP area than downstairs. She found it odd, as it was open to the main floor where the music was blaring. She let her scientific mind work on that problem for a while, but couldn’t find an obvious explanation.
The VIP area was a large ledge that hung over the main floor at one end, closed in by a transparent railing that provided a good view down to the dance floor for those who wished to be seen. For those who didn’t prefer the tables by the railing, there were booths at the back. Every table was occupied. A bouncer stood next to the steps leading to the dance floor to make sure that unauthorised people weren’t allowed access.
The bar was right next to the staff entrance on one side. Ennio turned out to be a twenty-something Italian guy who told her that it was important for her to remember what all the regulars drank without asking.
“If you don’t recognise the patrons, tell me the table number and I’ll fix what’s needed,” he said, and Corynn nodded. She definitely wouldn’t recognise anyone. “Your job is to be seen and to be available, should the patrons need anything. So circulate the floor.”
Lisa, and a girl whose name Corynn couldn’t remember, a tiny curvy blond much like Lisa, were already doing that, so she followed suit. She tried to remember to smile, and not to think of her aching feet and how much she despised these people. She really was in the wrong place.
Little by little, she got the hang of what was expected of her and felt more comfortable. The tips were what Lisa had promised, too, so that helped. No one tried to grope her either, although a couple of parties had hinted at their willingness for more after her shift. She declined every advance politely, and to her relief the guys—and one girl—didn’t press it.
She felt she was doing well until Lisa intercepted her at the bar. “You shouldn’t reject them outright. Keep them guessing, give them some hope. You can’t imagine the tips the guys are willing to hand out if you do that.”
“I’m really not comfortable with that. I’m much better at sassy quips over the bar.”
“Try. You can start with table twelve.” Lisa nodded towards the back of the room, where the booth sat deep in shadows. Corynn had avoided it the whole night. Every time she approached the last booths, an odd, uncomfortable sensation froze her bones and she turned back.
She was a scientist, for crying out loud. A computer scientist, admittedly, but she did not let uneasy feelings rule her actions. She walked resolutely to the back of the room, a smile pasted on her face. The corner was as dark close up, as if there were fewer lights there, but it felt less ominous.
Four men and a woman occupied the table, all dressed in stylish and expensive clothes. The leader of the group was obvious. He sat at the back, his pose relaxed, but taking up more space than he needed, controlling the table. The woman belonged to him, her only role as a possession, and the rest of the men were a henchman and two backups.
“Is everything well here?” Her smile froze when the leader fixed his gaze on her. The uneasy sensation hit her with much greater force than earlier, and she had to swallow to keep the contents of her stomach down.
“Yes, exceptionally well.” The man’s voice was sophisticated and smooth, but it made shivers of fear run down Corynn’s spine. “In fact, we’re celebrating. What would be your best champagne?”
They didn’t look like a joyous group, but she didn’t let that stop her from suggesting the most expensive stuff they had. “We have Krug.” She knew better than to tell him how much it cost a bottle, which was about her monthly rent.
“Wonderful. We’ll have a bottle of that.”
Corynn all but fled, amazed that her legs carried her. The oppressing, foul feeling followed her to the bar. She picked up the champagne, five glasses, and a cooler with shaky hands. Then she seriously contemplated giving the tray to Lisa, but she couldn’t locate her fast enough.
Her entire body so tense she could barely walk, she returned to the table. The foul atmosphere had eased a little, so she managed to open the bottle, and didn’t spill the expensive drink as she poured it into the glasses. She handed the glasses to their recipients, leaving the leader last, physically bracing for it.
As he took the glass, he snatched a hold of her forearm with his free hand. She was so surprised she didn’t even protest when he pulled it to his face and took a long whiff of her wrist as if it was the finest perfume. He smiled. “That’s what I thought.”
Corynn’s entire body recoiled in disgust. She tried to pull away, but his grip only tightened, turning almost painful. “Please let go of my arm.” Her voice was strained, but clear. It had no effect.
“We have to make a better acquaintance, you and I.”
“Absolutely not.” Desperate to get free, she took the cooler and poured the ice on the man. He released her instantly and they stared at each other for a brief, pregnant moment. Then he sneered and it dawned on her that she was in deep trouble. And not because she was about to be fired.
She turned on her heels and fled to the staff area as if the devil were at her heels instead of the floor manager. “You’re fired, do you hear me! And don’t expect to be paid!”
Corynn paused so fast the woman almost ran into her. She stared down at her, anger making her braver than she was. “You will pay me every penny you owe me, or you’ll meet me in court.”
She didn’t wait for an answer and fled down the stairs. She wanted to rush out immediately, but forced herself to pause at her locker and pull on her regular clothes and trainers, sighing in relief when she got the heels off. She took her bag and was on the street a moment later.
It was late and the tube and busses weren’t running anymore. She contemplated taking a cab, but she couldn’t afford one, even if one were to be had. She usually commuted with a co-worker, but that wasn’t an option today.
Her feet were killing her, but she was so angry she didn’t care. She just started running. Running always calmed her down, but the five miles through the City from Whitechapel to Holborn might not be long enough for it this time.
She wasn’t afraid to run alone at that time of night. The City would be empty, as it came alive only during the day when the business people swarmed there. The streets were wide and well-lit. She shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
It wasn’t as if she had a choice anyway.
She soon got into the flow of running, her mind emptying of all other thoughts, but she was halfway through the City before she began to calm down. Then worry began to replace the anger. She had lost the job she had counted on to see her through the third term. She knew she would get an IT job somewhere—anywhere—even at a time like this, once she graduated, but a good temp job would be much more difficult to find.
Maybe she could try at the pub she had worked in before. It didn’t tempt her, as one of the reasons she had quit in the first place was that it had taken too much time to commute. She even contemplated asking her parents to see her through the last term. It wasn’t an ideal option, and it would disappoint her father, the vicar, which she didn’t want to do.
As her worry grew, she became more aware of the deserted streets. Every sound, however distant, seemed ominous. An occasional car would drive by, but she was the only person on foot. The tall buildings on both sides of the street started to feel oppressive. Anything could loom in their shadows.
She quickened her pace. Wide though the Newgate Street was, it felt small in the darkness. St Sepulchre’s Church with its gothic appearance seemed like something out of a horror movie.
She shouldn’t have thought that.
A pub in the corner was still open, and she didn’t hesitate to cross the street there, her eyes fixed at the front door and the safety it offered. It was almost within her reach when a man rounding the corner rammed into her with such force that they both fell down, she at the bottom and he on top of her.
Air escaped her lungs and she was stunned for a few heartbeats. She shook her head, trying to clear it, when the same foul sensation she had felt at the club filled the air, clogging her mind again. The man smiled and it wasn’t beautiful. “What have we here?”
Fear jolted her to action. She struggled, trying to get up, but the man wouldn’t move. Terrified, she tried to scream, but couldn’t get enough oxygen to manage more than a tiny squeak.
It was enough.
He was yanked off her in one swift move by a big man in a black leather outfit, her release so sudden she had trouble understanding what her eyes witnessed. Struggling to breathe, she could only watch as her saviour pulled out a large knife and sank it into her assailant’s chest. The deed done, he dropped the man, pulled out the knife, and holstered it, all in one swift motion.
Horrified, she stared at the body, trying to summon enough energy to go to his help. But before she could move, the felled man morphed into a thick liquid—clothes and all—that smelt like rotten eggs. It was human shaped at first, then a tar-like puddle that soon disappeared. A moment later there was no evidence the man had ever existed.
Without a word, Corynn turned to her side and promptly threw up.
Jeremy Grayson had been on a trail of a renegade for over an hour, going up and down the square mile that was the City, the self-governing hub of business in the heart of London. He was always tenacious when he tracked the enemy of the vampires, but this time he had even stronger incentive to catch the bastard.
Mutilated bodies of human women had been found all over the City during the past month. The human police thought they had a serial killer on their hands, but were at a loss for what connected the victims. The press believed Jack the Ripper had reincarnated, stirring panic among the citizens.
The vampire warriors of the Crimson Circle knew the truth. The killings weren’t random. The women had had promise, the vampire variation of the two-natured gene. And they had all been killed by the renegades with black magic.
“What can they possibly want with these women?” Jeremy exclaimed, frustrated, when their tracking didn’t yield results fast enough. They didn’t even know if they were following the actual killer. As far as the warriors had been able to determine, renegades operated in cells, so catching one for interrogation might be a dead-end if he belonged to the wrong cell. “Are they trying to prevent humans from becoming vampires, or passing on the gene?”
“Could be. Or maybe they’re trying to breed,” Zacharias Hamilton, Jeremy’s patrol partner, suggested. He was a huge vampire-born warrior, well over six feet tall and built accordingly, with wide shoulders and steely muscles. They were the same age, but Zach came from a stronger bloodline and was a much more powerful vampire for it.
As if to compensate for the masculine power, his face was classically handsome, almost beautiful. He was popular among women and he loved them back. He took it as a personal insult that someone would harm them. “There are no renegade women that we know of. Maybe they need the two-natured gene in their offspring.”
“But why do they kill them?”
Zach gave the matter some thought. “Perhaps they’ve already served their purpose.”
Jeremy shuddered. A breeding programme for homicidal devils, that’s what they needed. “So why humans and not vampire women?”
“You know how protected our women are. The older families especially are into that crap.”
“I don’t know if it’s crap. I kind of like the idea of protecting my woman.”
“You don’t have a woman,” Zach pointed out.
That was true. Like Zach, Jeremy had always been more of a free spirit when it came to women. A warrior’s lifestyle didn’t make family life easy, so he hadn’t even tried. An endless string of girlfriends and one night stands was the best he could hope.
It hadn’t bothered him before, but now Jasper, his brother and constant companion for the past three and half centuries, had found love in Philippa, making Jeremy’s life seem empty.
“Perhaps it’s time I got one.”
Zach snorted. “You’re more like me than you’d like to admit. Too interested in sampling to settle down.”
“Perhaps I’ve grown past that.” But Zach just laughed.
Not offended, Jeremy returned to their original topic. “So do you think there are baby renegades being born somewhere?” They both shuddered, thinking what a baby that evil would be like. How could a mother care for them?
“Maybe they’re born like two-natureds, with a gene that activates later or needs to be triggered.” It was a more comforting thought, provided that the child was given a say in the matter when the time came to become evil.
No one really knew where renegades came from. Circle warriors called them demon vampires, because they drank blood like vampires, but like demons they were evil, emanated foulness around them, and changed into tar-like goo that smelt of brimstone when they were killed. The goo then evaporated, which was handy when it came to cleaning up after the kills, but spooky as hell.
Renegades had first appeared in the early seventeenth century. They had gone largely unnoticed, mainly because the Sentient War had raged among the two-natureds, vampires and shifters against the sentients, who had been outing their own kind to humans. By the time the war ended at the beginning of the nineteenth century, renegades had grown large in numbers.
Warriors also didn’t know why renegades hated vampires. They had never managed to keep a captive alive for long enough to ask, because the bastards self-destructed when caught. They didn’t much care for why’s anyway. Renegades killed civilian vampires, so it was the warriors’ duty to rid the world of them.
Hunting renegades occupied the Crimson Circle full time, yet their numbers seemed to be on the rise. So where did they come from?
“Maybe they recruit?”
Zach considered it. “Nah. Who’d want to be a being of evil?”
“Maybe it comes with great benefits.”
“What, year-round central heating, courtesy of the down below?” They both laughed.
“Well, it’s not like people haven’t joined the evil side for centuries, voluntarily.”
“But don’t they get something for it, a sense of superiority or a reward in the afterlife?”
“Maybe renegades lure in humans by telling them they’ll become vampires?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
That was where they were, four centuries on. Guessing. “At least we know how to kill the fuckers.”
“It’s become too easy lately. There’s no fun in killing someone barely able to fight.”
Renegades’ inability to put up a decent fight told the warriors that most of them were new recruits, so warriors’ efforts in culling their numbers were futile. Two new ones replaced every one they removed. It didn’t stop the Circle from patrolling the nightly streets of the City. Renegades showed up there night after night, as if tethered to the place. Warriors didn’t bother trying to find their lairs elsewhere when they only had to wait and patrol there.
“If only we knew what drew them here. It would be much easier to find them.”
“What would we do if we erased them all? I don’t think there’s returning to granddad’s days.”
Zach was the Second Son of the Circle’s leader, Alexander Hamilton, Lord Foley, the son of their founder. Originally, the Crimson Circle had protected all two-natureds against humans, but while prejudice was still rife, warriors couldn’t exactly go around killing humans for it.
Jeremy was firmly rank and file. Human-born, he had joined the Circle after the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 where he and Jas had been fighting for William of Orange against the Jacobites. Jas had been fatally wounded, but Alexander had saved his life and told him that he had the promise and could become a vampire if it was fulfilled, triggered with vampire magic. Jeremy had born the same gene, and together they had been made vampires, and warriors too. It was rare, but Alexander had been impressed with their skills on the battlefield.
It hadn’t been an easy first century for them, fighting both their new nature and old warriors who had felt superior in their purer bloodlines. But the brothers had proven strong in Might, mastering the energy that powered the two-natureds in record time, and winning the sun in less than a century—a great show of strength for any vampire.
It hadn’t made their path in the Circle any easier, but they hadn’t asked for easy. They had been brought from poverty and the hard life of a soldier to the opulence of the Circle Manor, given the chance for near-eternal life, and a purpose. They could take a little scorn at the side.
And here they were, three and a half centuries later, still going strong. Jeremy had made it to Zach’s patrol partner a while ago, a clear indication that he was trusted and respected. They were a good fit, both easy-going on their free time and sharp professionals at work.
More importantly, they could communicate mentally, which didn’t necessarily happen between two vampires who weren’t blood relations. It made patrolling easier, especially when they were in hot pursuit of the enemy.
They had a sudden visual of the guy they had been tracking, and the bastard took off at full speed, Jeremy at his heels while Zach ran off to round the block and intercept him.
Herd him towards Angel Street, Zach said in Jeremy’s mind. I’ll cut to St Martin’s and round ahead of him.
Taking out his piece, Jeremy shot at the renegade in warning, trying to guide the bastard where he wanted; a direct shot was out of the question, as he needed him alive. But his prey swerved to the opposite direction, towards St Bartholomew’s hospital, a maze of large buildings.
He headed to Bart’s.
Jeremy could feel Zach’s annoyance, but he had no time to pay attention to it. The young man was a good runner, whereas Jeremy was built for strength, not speed. But he wouldn’t let the renegade get out of his sight.
The chase wasn’t going his way, however, and he would have lost the bastard if the renegade had known the grounds as well as he did. The oldest hospital in Europe had stood on the spot since the twelfth century, and Jeremy had witnessed it grow and morph since the seventeenth. He knew it as well as he knew the rest of London.
The guy was heading to a dead end. Smiling, Jeremy sped up, but the fucker was fast and he managed to backtrack and head to the street behind the hospital before Jeremy caught him. He was close enough to shoot now, but Jeremy couldn’t. Not where they had witnesses. He kept running, hoping the idiot would turn back towards the City where Zach could intercept him.
His wish was granted. You’d better be on Newgate Street, because the bloke just turned there.
I’m on it. Just not very close to you yet.
Jeremy rounded the corner after his prey—and made a hasty stop so as not to trip. The renegade was lying on the ground, atop a woman with whom he had obviously collided. She was struggling to get up, but the fucker wouldn’t let her.
Jeremy’s anger rose. Capturing the renegade had merely been work before, but now it became a matter of honour. He didn’t pause to think about the consequences of having a human witness. He pulled the guy off the woman, took out his long knife and sank it into the bastard’s heart. The surprised look on his prey’s face satisfied him immensely. He dropped the cadaver and watched it morph and disappear. Job well done.
The sound of retching made him recall his surroundings. The woman was emptying the contents of her stomach over the curb.
He looked around, but they were alone. The pub in the corner was still open, however, so someone there could have witnessed everything. The police might be on their way.
“We can’t stay here. Let’s get you up.” He leaned over to help the woman stand, but she recoiled in horror.
“Don’t touch me.”
He checked himself, confused. “But I can’t leave you here. There might be more of them around.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“I won’t.” And with a tiny push of magic, he charmed her to sleep.
Zach arrived at full speed, not even a little out of breath after his sprint. “Where’s the fucker?”
“I got rid of him.” It occurred to him only then that he was supposed to capture the bastard alive for questioning, but it was too late now.
Zach didn’t mind. “Already? Is she a witness?”
“Yes, and there might be others in the pub.”
Zach disappeared inside without a word to take care of the matter. Jeremy bent down and lifted the woman in his arms. She was tall, but slender, and didn’t weigh much, even unconscious.
“All’s good inside,” Zach said. Then he noticed his burden. “What are you doing with her?”
“We can’t leave her here.”
“We can’t take her with us either.”
“I’ll give her a lift home.”
“Fine. But you’ll clear her mind afterwards.”
“Of course.” He was a vampire, after all. Clearing up human minds was daily bread to him. Literally.
As he walked towards his car, he pressed her closer to his chest. “You’re safe now.”
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