CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Magic Under the Witching Moon
Adrian Moore stared at the two large bags that contained most of what he owned. Who knew his life would fit in such a small space? On one hand, it made things easier when he broke up with his girlfriend of four years. On the other hand, he probably should have more to show for those four years than this.
Then again, he had brought only some photos and clothes with him when he followed Nora to England, and he hadn’t really settled into their life in London during the past seven months. The apartment—or flat as they called it here—was owned by Nora’s employer, and it had come fully furnished. He hadn’t needed to buy anything.
He was a cop. What did he understand of furniture and décor anyway?
Nora had always found his lack of sophistication a bit of an embarrassment, especially when they were with their—her—cultured friends. But nobody really learned to talk about Shakespeare or whatever growing up in the rougher end of Queens. Or how to dress up properly. The one brown suit he wore to work was at least five years old but he liked it. The suit that Nora had made him buy—so that he would look more the thing among the bankers and lawyers of her firm—was fine and fit him well, but he couldn’t wear it to work; he would’ve got the living crap beaten out of him for showing off. So he never did.
Nora took that as a deliberate insult. It probably was—what did he know? Yet he hadn’t taken the suit with him when he left.
In hindsight, he should have called it quits when Nora told him she was transferred to London, should have stayed in New York. But his partner of two years in the NYPD had died in a drug raid and he had needed a change. Moving to England with her had seemed like an honourable choice. It wasn’t running away, it was relocating and getting to know the British way of policing.
And there was a lot to learn, from the basics up. Firearms were only carried by a special branch here, which had been a bit of a shock to him. But he had adjusted. As he had adjusted to cases that had supernatural elements in them, like domestic disturbances with tiger-shifters, or murders by black magic. Domestic cases weren’t usually handled by Major Investigation Teams—homicide in US parlance—but his partner was special, so they got their share of those too.
His decision to join the Metropolitan Police Service was, ironically, the main reason for their breakup. Nora was ashamed of having a DS as a partner when all her colleagues dated lawyers and bankers. She had hoped he would seek more respected employment when in England. “Couldn’t they at least have made you a DI? You were a lieutenant there,” was one of her favourite gripes.
Couldn’t they at least have given you a human partner? was another.
The past few months he had spent longer hours at the station than necessary, ‘polishing up his paperwork’, and ‘familiarising himself with British law and policing customs’. More often than not, Nora hadn’t been home when he finally came there, having gone out with her more ‘posh’ friends.
The breakup had been a long time coming. They had been drifting apart even before they moved to London. These last seven months had simply been the inevitable swansong. Though it still surprised him how little it troubled him. He felt light-hearted even. Content.
Hefting the not-so-heavy bags on his shoulder, he wondered where he should head next. Despite all the signs, the final decision to move out had been a spontaneous act after a stupid, pointless fight, and he didn’t have a place to stay. With no better plan, he headed to the closest subway—tube - station. He would go to work. There was an extra bed in the back room at the station. He could stay there for a couple of nights while he figured out what to do next.
“You’re looking rumpled.”
DI Philippa Audley was studying him with a critical eye. She was a tiny, attractive woman with blond pixie-cut hair and a no-nonsense attitude. Her tailor-made suit was always perfectly pressed, and her shirt clean.
When he was first assigned to work with her, he had been sure that a woman that young and small couldn’t possibly survive long in the Serious Crime Command. He had wanted to ask for another partner; he had lost the previous one to bullets and wasn’t looking forward to losing another.
He was glad he hadn’t spoken up. Turned out she was almost a two-hundred-year-old vampire and had survived as a cop for almost a century of that, and all that without firearms. She didn’t need any. She had magic. Literally.
Not that she needed to resort to that all that often either. She might be small, but she had more than her share of gravitas. People responded to her with respect.
Coming from the States, he’d had no experience with vampires—or shifters for that matter. Of the three two-natured species, they only had sentients over there, and they were almost ordinary humans. He’d had no idea what to expect, but the learning curve had been steep and fast. Their first night together had included enraged shifters, overbearing vampires, and a murder through black magic.
By the end of their first month together, she had survived the death of her previous partner and being used as a sacrifice in a black magic ritual. He couldn’t have done that. In short order he had learned to respect her, and he was happy to work with her.
Pippa was another issue that had come between him and Nora. Nora hated her and what she represented. “Vampires … they should all be killed,” had been her most PC-rated opinion. He had his own past as a bigot and a bully, but he had grown up and over such behaviour. He had little sympathy for her opinions.
Standing before his boss now, Adrian checked his clothes. The brown suit was clean enough, but perhaps he could have changed his shirt. He brushed his chin in a self-conscious gesture and felt the stubble there. Perhaps he should have shaved better too.
“What’s going on? You’re usually neat like a pin, the Navy shining off you.”
“Marines, actually. And nothing important.” But Pippa gave him her well-honed death-glare he was unable to withstand. He sighed. “Nora and I broke up. I don’t have a place to stay so I’ve been crashing in the backroom for a couple of … eight … days now.” Had it really been so long already? No wonder he looked rumpled.
Pippa’s glare softened to almost sympathetic. She wasn’t one for expressing finer emotions. “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you holding up?”
“Yeah. I’m not heartbroken or any such shit. I’m more inconvenienced. The apartment belongs to her employer, so naturally I was the one who moved out. But I’ve been too busy to look for a new place.” One that he could afford. He couldn’t exactly live in Chelsea anymore on a cop’s salary, but the rest of London wasn’t cheap either.
“I have a place you can stay.”
He felt uneasy. “I don’t want any charity.”
Mary Moore’s son stood on his own two feet. Or tried to anyway, but Pippa’s death-glare returned, nearly making him quake in his pants—trousers. You got funny looks from people if you called them pants here.
He had survived the Marines and a stint in Iraq with some really nasty commanding officers, but none of them had managed to draw quite the same reaction from him as Pippa when she glared.
“It’s not charity. It’s a practical solution for a genuine problem. You need a place and I have one.”
“As long as you let me pay the rent.”
She sneered. “Of course you’ll pay. Vampires haven’t become insanely wealthy by letting their chums live at their expense.”
He wasn’t entirely convinced she meant it, but that evening he followed her to the apartment she owned. “Bring your bags,” she ordered him when they were leaving. “One way or another, you won’t be sleeping here anymore.”
He grumbled but obeyed. It was difficult not to obey her, and she didn’t even need to use vampire charm that made humans do whatever vampires demanded of them. She had assured him she never would use it on him and he believed her.
Estelle Road was two miles to north from the Kentish Town police station where they worked, and not far from Hampstead Heath, a huge green area right at the edge of the city. It was an affluent-looking neighbourhood with three-storey brown-brick row-houses—terraces as they were called here—with bay windows and white trimmings, tiny front yards, and slightly larger backyards. He wasn’t familiar with the age-layers of London, but what he had learned was that most houses were old.
“Isn’t this a bit expensive for me?” he asked when Pippa led him into a foyer with just enough room for narrow stairs leading up. She opened the door to the ground floor apartment—flat. He should really adopt the lingo if he was going to stay.
He startled, a funny feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t realised he was thinking of staying in London. Of course he wouldn’t stay, now that he didn’t have Nora keeping him here. New York was home. His family was there, as were those friends who wouldn’t have forgotten him by the time his year-long contract here ended.
But until then he needed a place to live, and this was as good as any. It wasn’t a large flat, a front room towards the street and a kitchen and a bedroom at the back, with a narrow corridor connecting them, along which there was a bathroom and some closets. But everything was clean and looked fairly new – including the furniture. He wouldn’t have to get that.
“I got this place for myself back when I believed Mother would let me move on my own. I’ve occasionally come here just to get some peace and quiet.”
He winced in sympathy. Two hundred years was no picnic when one had to live with one’s mother. He loved his dearly, but if he hadn’t left to the Marines at the first chance he got, he would have lost his mind.
“Don’t you want it for you and Jas?”
She snorted, amused. “He wouldn’t fit in here.”
He acknowledged this with an understanding nod. Her spouse-to-be—mate, as she called him vampire-style—was a huge scary-looking SOB vampire warrior. He needed much more space.
But Adrian was finding the place just to his liking, if a bit too British—and feminine—with flower-patterned upholstery, throw pillows, and rose-coloured wallpaper. Who knew his boss had that streak in her. He made a couple of token protests, but in the end he carried his bags in and settled down. Just like Pippa had said he would. She managed not to look smug about it—almost.
He didn’t waste time unpacking, and felt instantly more comfortable with his few possessions around. He had a TV, and a brief trip to the nearest grocery store on the street corner filled his fridge. Even the rain that had started while he was in the store didn’t mar his mood. He had a roof over his head where he could stay the rest of his time in London, and no one to nag about his selection of food.
His shopping unpacked, he was about to move to the living room to spend the evening in front of TV when he heard a noise from the backyard. He flipped on the lights, but the yard was empty. He made to leave, but a small sound of distress made him glance down. There, on the back steps, sat a cat, drenched and miserable, demanding to be let in.
Raven didn’t know how long she had wandered, or how far. Time lost all meaning when she was a cat. Longer than a day, but the distance she was able to cover in this form was short, and she had moved in a roundabout way. What mattered was when she had last had a meal.
She tried to remember. Those people had fed them right before she fled, but the food had been awful and she hadn’t eaten much. Her sisters who’d had to stay behind needed it more. Besides, she had thought she could soon shift back to human again.
She had been wrong.
When the evening fell, she was hungry and miserable, and no closer to finding a safe place to stay. Then it started to rain, cold, persistent October rain that soon had her fur soaked. She tried to hide under a bush but it offered no cover. She didn’t know if she could get the flu in this form, but she wasn’t willing to find out. She needed to get indoors.
Despite her misery, she hesitated. She was on the run and being pursued. Those people wouldn’t hesitate to hurt anyone who dared offer her shelter. Besides, who would take in a naked woman rambling about black magic and kidnappers? She would end up in an asylum. Or worse, back in captivity. Those people could track her when she was in human form.
Then again … who said she had to shift to human? She could go as a cat just for one night. Or at least until the rain stopped. People loved cats, in general. Someone would surely take her in.
A large tomcat approaching her, his tail held low as he prepared to aggressively defend his territory, helped her make up her mind. She slid under the closest fence and made her way to the backyard of the long terrace.
She ran the length of the terrace, slipping through holes in the fences between the backyards that were just big enough for her, looking for a friendly house. But all lights were off in the ground floor flats. It must be later than she thought—or earlier and no one was home yet; the rain just made the evening darker. She was about to continue to the next street when lights came on in one flat, and she hurried there.
She scratched the back door to catch the attention of the people inside, but nothing happened. She meowed. Nothing. The rain was falling heavier now and she was getting desperate. She looked around and saw an empty flowerpot on the lower step and promptly pushed it down with her front paws. It didn’t break, but it made enough noise that lights came on in the yard and through the glass door she saw the tall form of a man. Well, she saw a stretch of long legs. Cat perspective wasn’t really good for close-ups.
But the man didn’t look down, so she meowed, rather pitifully, and that finally caught his attention. He opened the door.
“Look at you, you little thing, all drenched,” the man cooed. “Do you live in this building? Let’s get you out of the rain.” And before she could react, he had picked her up and pressed her against his chest.
She wasn’t usually carried around in cat form and the experience was distracting. Her cat body felt strange held like this, more real and catlike. But she wasn’t merely a cat; her thought processes were thoroughly human. The scent of his aftershave hit her, too strong for her cat nose but utterly delicious for the woman she was. His warm body made her purr, pleased—an unprecedented reaction—and his steady heartbeat calmed the cat even as his closeness unsettled the woman.
Unaware of the turmoil he had caused, he took out a towel and started drying her with it. He kept talking to her, the small nonsensical things people say to cats, but she wasn’t really listening. All too soon he abandoned the towel and put her on the floor.
“I wonder if I have anything for you to eat.”
Since she was hungry, she followed him to the fridge and watched him rummage through it. “I don’t think anything here is suitable for cats,” he said, shaking his head. She could have told him she could eat anything humans could, but she couldn’t exactly speak in this form. “I tell you what … I’ll pop down to the corner store and fetch you something nice.”
He didn’t waste time. He put on a coat, and turning his collar up against the rain, headed out of the door, without an umbrella even.
The moment the door closed, she shifted back to human. She located the bathroom and had the water running in a heartbeat. She would take the quickest shower—the first proper one in ages—and be back in feline form before the man was back.
She made it, but only just. The hot water running over her sore, exhausted body had felt so blissful she hadn’t wanted to stop. She was drying herself with the same towel the man had dried her earlier when she heard the front door open. With a groan, she shifted back into a cat and was grooming her fur when the man entered the kitchen.
“There you are. I brought you proper food.” He opened and closed the doors of the cupboards, as if he didn’t know what was in them, until he found a plate. On it, he upended a small container of fancier cat food, and then placed it on the floor.
She had never eaten cat food—had never spent this long as a cat before. She wasn’t a shifter, she was a witch. Where her ability to change came from, she had no idea. She was the only witch she knew who could do it. But it gave her a definite edge among them. She was her own familiar, so to speak, even if the cat form didn’t help her in her spells and rituals.
But she was hungry, so she went to the plate and sniffed. It smelled disgusting and she pulled back with a sneeze. Did cats actually like this shit?
“Oh, come on. I went through the rain for it,” the man said, drying his short dark hair with the towel, but there was laughter in his voice, so she wasn’t worried.
Nothing about him worried her, which after the month she’d had was even more relaxing than the shower. He wasn’t magical in any way that she could determine, he wasn’t threatening, and though tall, he wasn’t scary. The way he held her and took care of her—or her as a cat—told her he was a good person. She had yet to get a good look at his face but his voice sounded nice. It was deep and a bit gravelly and had a New York accent she found rather delightful.
“Fine, have it your way. I’m off to watch TV.” He took a bottle of beer from the fridge—she could kill for a brew herself—and disappeared into the front room, where a TV blared to life a moment later.
She went back to the plate and sniffed it again. It didn’t smell any better, but she didn’t dare shift to human and check the fridge for something more palatable. So she resigned to her fate and, holding her breath, gulped down the food. The taste wasn’t as awful as the smell, but it wasn’t exactly gourmet. She envied the shifters who could eat anything in their animal form the natural animal would eat, be it carcasses or grass.
Finished, she walked to the front room on silent paws. The man was sitting on a sofa, his feet up on the coffee table, watching football. As a human, she wouldn’t have pushed in his company, but she was a cat now and she needed human contact. So she jumped up next to him and pressed against his thigh. He was warm and made her feel safe.
A large hand landed on her head and began to pet her. It was enjoyable, and without any conscious thought she began to purr again. It was a little embarrassing, but she couldn’t stop. The man found it perfectly natural.
“You’re a pretty little thing, aren’t you. Such a beautiful red coat you have. I wonder who owns you. Maybe I should put up posters on the street.”
She stiffened and pulled away. The last thing she wanted was to advertise where she was. She didn’t think the people after her would be looking for a cat, but she couldn’t risk it. She would have to leave.
Her heart dropped, the idea more upsetting than it should have been. She wouldn’t have stayed here no matter what he did or how nice he was. She had to get as far away as possible from those people so she could shift to human again.
Black magicians. She had thought they were a myth, bogeymen to scare the good little witches. She certainly had never heard anyone identify themselves as black witches or magicians, or announce they practiced black arts.
A year ago, a new coven had appeared in London that the white covens had instantly perceived as different. How different they hadn’t learned until this February, when the police had arrested some of its members for practicing black magic. But if her coven and other white covens in London had thought they were rid of the black witches for good, they had been badly mistaken.
The leaders of the black coven had gone undetected by the police and had been rebuilding their powerbase in secret ever since. Then they had come after the white witches.
Raven had no idea how she had ended up being captured by them. She had been returning home after the full moon rituals with her coven, waiting for a taxi with one of her coven sisters, and then … nothing. She had woken up in a bare room with no windows, surrounded by her sisters and witches from other covens.
The black practitioners had made them participate in their rituals that were so foul they still made her skin crawl, had drawn magical energy through them, rendering them too weak for performing any spells of their own, or to even contemplate escaping.
It would have been impossible to escape as a human. But not as a cat. At the first chance, having managed to evade being included in the latest ritual and so with enough magical energy to shift, she had changed form and escaped.
She was fairly sure no one had seen her. But she wasn’t clear yet; the black witches were now familiar with her magical signature and could lock on to it. Or they could be waiting for her at her home, so she couldn’t go there either. Staying in cat form would throw them off her track but it wasn’t ideal. She needed to get to the police and get them to help her sisters.
If only she could make them believe. Or remember clearly where the house was…
The man didn’t stay up late. “You can sleep at the foot of the bed,” he promised her as he prepared for the night. He took off his clothes and she fought not to blush—mentally, as the cat couldn’t blush—when she got an excellent look at his tight stomach with a clear six-pack … and more. Maybe it was the cat perspective that made him seem huge. All too soon he disappeared under the duvet. She jumped on the bed too and curled on his legs. She might as well sleep.
When she woke up, she was in human form.
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