CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
“Wake up, sleepyhead!” The cheerful command was followed by the swift removal of Jasper’s duvet, leaving him feeling cold and exposed in his nakedness. That didn’t stop him from shooting out of the bed and punching Jeremy in the shoulder.
“Fuck off, Jem, you twat!” Jasper sat back down and rubbed his face to banish the last remains of his sleep.
“Now, now, Jas, is that any way to address your little brother?” Jeremy asked good-naturedly, not even massaging his shoulder, the show-off. Jasper had given it a good punch, but the idiot had deserved it. You didn’t wake a sleeping vampire and not pay for it. “It’s your night off, remember. You can’t spend it sleeping.”
“I can do what I bloody well want,” Jas growled, still annoyed at the interrupted sleep. “I’m over three and a half centuries old. I need my constitutional.”
Jem snorted. “Well, Papa Bear—or should I say bare,” he added with a grin, shooting a meaningful glance down at Jas’s naked torso, “those of us who aren’t quite that old are heading to Sudden Death, and you are coming with us.”
Jas would have punched harder if he had known Jem was here on such a blasted errand. “Like hell I am.” Sudden Death was the most popular night club in London among the two-natured kind, vampires and shifters alike, but Jas was yet to see the appeal. Most warriors of the Crimson Circle went there regularly, but Jas had been there maybe twice during its existence, and hadn’t frequented any of the other joints that had enjoyed the warriors’ patronage before that club either. He didn’t get the attraction of loud music, overcrowded dance floors and rubbing shoulders with shifter pups and vampires barely out of their fulfilment. Now, get him into a pub—a proper English affair such as he remembered from his youth—with a pint of whatever was on tap, and he was happy.
“Can’t we go to the Crown instead?”
“Nope. Zach feels like dancing tonight,” Jem said, going to Jas’s wardrobe and pulling it open. While he rummaged through the contents—and good luck with that—Jas resigned himself to his fate. Zacharias Hamilton, the Second Son of Alexander Hamilton, Lord Foley, the leader of the Crimson Circle, loved Sudden Death, its atmosphere, its music, the dancing and the booze. But most of all, he loved the women and there were plenty of those to be had there. And they all loved him back. He was a force of nature when it came to partying so Jas might as well head to the shower.
“There’s nothing in your wardrobe but leather and jeans,” Jem complained.
“If I can’t go in jeans and a tee, I’m not going,” Jas said emphatically, closing the bathroom door behind him, but to no avail. Before he turned on the shower, he heard Jem say something about finding clothes from his own closet.
* * *
“Are you done primping yet?” Jeremy’s voice called through the bathroom door ten minutes later. With a grunt to the affirmative, Jasper finished drying himself. He shot a glance to the mirror to make sure his face was clean, the sum total of his preparations for the night. His gaze fell on the tattoo circling his right bicep, a thorn wreath inked in deep red, the mark of a full-fledged Circle warrior. He was proud of it. He had other tattoos too—his left shoulder and upper arm were covered in black tribal swirls—but on his right arm there was only this one.
Hanging the towel to dry, he turned his back to the mirror. He didn’t have to worry about shaving or having his hair fashionably coiffed. He kept stubble shadowing his chin and shaved his hair so short it was almost impossible to tell its colour. He scarcely remembered it himself, but it had to be dark brown, if his eyebrows and the hair that covered his body were any indicators. He had looked the same for centuries, long before it became fashionable among human males to shave their heads more diligently than their faces when they wanted to conceal their receding hairlines or look tough. He saw no reason to change.
Jasper wasn’t exactly balding—he was a vampire after all—but his hairline had begun to recede before his promise was fulfilled when he was twenty-nine. Using Might, the energy surrounding all living that only the two-natured races were able to access, he had been able to correct some minor details. He had reset his nose he had broken as a lad and again as a soldier for the king, but it hadn’t seemed important to make his hair grow back. Just as he hadn’t seen a point in removing the thick scar that ran horizontally across the right side of his head above the ear. It was a memento from the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 when a Highlander had tried to take the top of his head off with his claymore.
It had been a killing blow, and the only reason Jas was alive today was Foley. He had found Jas after the battle, lying bloodied and dying on the field, and had saved his life with his ability to heal. Then he had moved Jas to his own camp, the vampire division of the troops fighting for William of Orange.
Saving his human life hadn’t been the only thing Foley had done for him. He had told Jas that he had promise in him—the vampire variation of the two-natured gene, as modern science called it—and had offered to fulfil it—trigger it so that Jas would become vampire instead of remaining human. Jas hadn’t hesitated. There may not have been any vampires in the village where he grew up, and he hadn’t encountered many during his career as a soldier either, but the near-death experience had convinced him that there were great advantages to being a vampire. He had even asked Foley to test Jem for the promise. Together, the brothers had been made vampires and they had pledged their allegiance to Foley and the Crimson Circle.
With their newly acquired vampire handicap of being unable to operate in daylight for the first century or two, they couldn’t have continued as soldiers for the Crown anyway. But the Circle more than made up for the loss of profession, offering them plenty of chances to fight during the night. Moreover, the brothers had proven to be strong in Might despite being human-born. It had taken them less than a century to win the sun, opening a way for them to become full-fledged Circle warriors.
Jas exited the bathroom in his birthday suit and shot a disgusted glance at Jem who was standing right outside. “What’s the rush, little brother?” Jasper was three years older than Jeremy and he liked to bring it up every now and then. Or, you know, like every day.
Jas actually liked having Jem around, even on evenings when he was being more annoying than normal. He was the only family he had left, including the progeny of their human siblings; the last one of those had died about a century ago. They had their warrior brothers of course, but it wasn’t the same as having one’s blood relations around.
That didn’t mean they always had to be nice to each other though.
Jas’s glowering made Jem only grin wider. The bastard was enjoying this. He was holding a black silk shirt from a hanger and he pushed it towards Jas. “You can wear this.”
The shirt wasn’t much different from those which men had worn in Jas’s youth, but times had changed. “No way am I wearing that. I’ll look like a sad, clueless rocker, especially if I wear it with leather jeans.”
“So wear denim instead. Or, you know, proper trousers. I’m sure there’s a pair somewhere in your wardrobe.” Jem himself was wearing black suit trousers and a white dress shirt with its top buttons open and sleeves rolled up to the elbows so that some chest hair and muscular, sinewy arms were showing. He was even wearing shiny leather shoes.
They looked much alike, but Jeremy had always taken greater interest in his looks. His full, dark brown hair didn’t show signs of receding, and he had shaved carefully so that his strong angular jaw, much like Jas’s own, was perfectly visible instead of hiding behind the stubble. Prominent nose—magically mended like Jas’s—stark brows and puppy brown eyes that always regarded the world with enjoyment made him look if not handsome then manly. Jas wasn’t sure the same could be said about him. And the only thing he truly enjoyed was fighting.
Grumpy old bear, Jem always called him, and he was probably right.
Since Jas had already pulled the leather jeans on, he wasn’t about to change. “Jeans don’t go so well with kickers.”
Jem rolled his eyes. “Then put on trainers.”
Jas wasn’t sure what was considered appropriate footwear for a nightclub and he didn’t really care. “Just give me the bloody shirt.”
He snatched the shirt from Jeremy and put it on. At least it wasn’t one of those pseudo-historical shirts with ruffles and billowing sleeves and only strings with which to tie it closed at the throat that were so popular among human men who pretended to be vampires. What was with that shit anyway? They never got it right.
The shirt was rather close fitted and it didn’t hang all the way to his knees like the shirts of his youth; in modern eyes, it would have made the shirt look like a dress. It didn’t look half bad, actually. Of course, tight as it was, he wouldn’t be able to flex his biceps for fear of tearing the fabric. Or lift his arms up even.
“Leave the top buttons open,” Jeremy instructed him. “And don’t tuck it in.” Sighing in annoyance, Jas stopped what he was doing, leaving the shirt tails hanging loose.
“Let’s just go so we can get this over with.” And even though he wanted to put on his combat boots, he took out a pair of black trainers and wore them instead. Who cared whether they suited the outfit or not. He contemplated putting on a long leather coat too, to ward off the late February chill, but they were driving and the coat would be a nuisance inside the club. He was a vampire; he could handle a bit of cold.
They met the rest of their group in the grand hall of the Crimson Manor, a rambling Elizabethan building Foley had built at the end of the sixteenth century to replace the earlier medieval castle the Circle had called their home. The place was large, opulent, and thanks to modern refurbishing, very comfortable. Jas remembered when times were different.
The grand hall was made to impress anyone entering the place for the first time: it was huge, with dark oak wainscoting, a high painted ceiling, stone floor, and gilded leather tapestry. Long hallways led to three wings of the manor and a grand staircase to upper floors. In the enormous fireplace on one wall a fire was always lit and the warriors gathered around it when they were on their way out or returning home.
Of the two men waiting for the brothers, Zach Hamilton was more striking. He was over six and half feet tall with a body full of lean, well-defined muscles. He resembled his father in size and colours, and like him was also so handsome as to be beautiful. In addition, Zach had his mother’s curling hair, deep dimples and laughing blue eyes that made him look like a fallen angel, mischievous and deadly.
“Look who deigned to join us,” Zach hailed Jas with a grin when the brothers reached the fireplace. “I feared I’d have to come and fetch you myself.”
Jas greeted Jem’s patrol partner with a grunt, feeling that Zach’s comment didn’t deserve stronger acknowledgement. Zach was dressed in his usual party gear—something tight-fitting to emphasize his body, as if it mattered what he was wearing. He could dress in a Hessian sack and the ladies would still fall at his feet.
Not that Jas cared. He hadn’t tried to make ladies swoon in more years than he cared to count. Not since Gwendolyn.
“Do I have to go without breakfast?”
“Hey, if you’d gotten up with the rest of the house, you’d have had your breakfast,” Nicholas Fortier, Jas’s patrol partner and the fourth man in their group, pointed out. Nick was a century younger than Jas, but he was vampire-born and thus strong in Might. He was slightly bigger than Jas as a result of his purer blood, but not as huge as Alexander’s progeny. He had russet hair that was always cut in the latest fashion, and blue eyes that had retained their innocent look despite centuries of fighting for the Circle; the man himself was far from innocent. They got along well even though Nick was more sociable than Jas. They balanced each other out.
“It’s my night off!” Didn’t anybody bloody respect that anymore?
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. We’ll stop to buy you something on the way,” Zach promised.
By the door, the warriors on duty that night were preparing to head out, led by Gabriel Hamilton, Foley’s First Son. While not much bigger than the more leanly built Zach and Alexander, he was huge compared to most of the warriors, at least six foot eight tall and carrying over three hundred pounds of muscle and heavyset bones. Dressed in the customary fighting gear of the Circle warriors, a sleeveless leather jerkin—Kevlar-lined these days—soft leather jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and combat boots, he looked frightening, even with the Hamilton handicap of an overly handsome face. Gabe compensated for his looks with long black hair bound in a tight queue in the style of warriors past, and cold, black eyes.
Jas didn’t have the mass of his leader, who could claim vampire blood in his ancestry going back for generations. He was a shorter five foot eleven tall and weighed less than 250 pounds, but that had made him a huge man back when he was still human. Well, he hadn’t had that kind of bulk back then, not with the food they ate when he was growing up. Nowadays, with a solid protein intake and steady workout regimen, not to mention the benefits of having had his promise fulfilled, he didn’t look half bad. And he was a good warrior.
He wished he was heading out on a patrol too. Five teams of four warriors were heading to London, namely to the City, the square mile at the heart of the town with its swarming businesses that kept the country running during the day. During the night, something else did the running.
Renegade vampires had begun to show up some three centuries ago, targeting proper vampires, but the Sentient War raging among the two-natured races had prevented the Circle from tackling the issue in its infancy. It had allowed the dissidence to grow, and renegades were a menace now.
Jas didn’t know why their enemy chose to hang out in the City. London was a huge place—had been larger than the City’s walls already three centuries ago—yet the square mile of the City was where the Circle warriors patrolled and with good results too. It was as if renegades were tethered to the place.
As the last of the warriors disappeared through the door, Jas sighed. “Let’s go then. I’m driving.” The faster they got to the club, the faster he could get home.
The coffee mug smashed into the wall and dropped to the floor with a loud clang. It didn’t break satisfyingly into a million tiny pieces, but Philippa had known it wouldn’t. It was enamel and presented to her by her colleagues because incidents like this were rather common.
“Something bugging you?” DI Simon Jones asked from the other side of their joined desks with an amused smirk. It made deep laugh lines appear around his eyes, furrowed there by over sixty years of constant smiling. Thirty years ago, when they had been made partners, his detective sergeant to her detective inspector, his face had been smooth. Hers still was.
“The blasted database crashed again,” Philippa growled, staring furiously at her computer screen to avoid looking at him. “If they can’t create a database that can handle the nightshift using it at the same time, how do they expect it to handle the entire Metropolitan Police Service?”
“Mm-hmm,” Simon nodded sagely. “The database.” He knew as well as she did that the reason for her bad mood was the farewell party they had held for him earlier that evening to honour his retirement.
The two of them were the oldest DI’s at the Kentish Town police station in the borough of Camden; older and more experienced than most of their superiors, having resolutely refused promotions to desk jobs all these years. They worked well together, which was why they had transferred together to Camden some twenty years ago from the New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the MPS. They weren’t so new anymore, though, as the Scotland Yard had moved to its current location already in 1890, but Philippa hadn’t been allowed to work there back then. Women’s liberation hadn’t kicked in yet among humans even, let alone in vampire society.
Sometimes it seemed it still hadn’t started in the latter.
That was especially true when it came to the Crimson Circle. It hadn’t stopped her from trying though. She had written the Circle a beautiful letter, expressing her wish to start training to become a warrior like her father, but they had refused to even consider a possibility of a female warrior.
Of course, that had been over a century ago so things might have changed, but there still weren’t any women in the Circle. Philippa doubted many vampire women had even considered joining; not if they were like her mother who had been scandalised when Philippa first told her of her wish. Then again, Mother had forbidden her all contact with the Circle after Father died, so that might account for some of her resistance.
Whatever the reason, there weren’t many vampire women with lives as interesting as Philippa’s. After winning the sun around her first century mark, she had instantly embarked on a career that decidedly differed from that of her friends. She wouldn’t settle on marriage. Instead, she had volunteered for the Red Cross and had ended up working in field hospitals in both great wars of the twentieth century. When vampires had finally been accepted to the female police corps after the Second World War, she had been the first to join, and when women had been incorporated in to the police force as equals forty years ago, she had become a DI. It hadn’t been an easy career path, but struggling with human prejudice beat trying to change the minds of vampire warriors.
All in all, Philippa had almost a century as a working woman to her name, almost seventy of it as a cop. Simon had worked here for forty-five years, a good stretch for a human. This was his last night in service. He had already emptied his desk and was just playing solitaire on his computer, pretending it didn’t bother him that he had to retire.
Philippa felt for him, because it so clearly upset her long-time colleague and friend that he was being forced to admit that age had finally caught up with him. Aging wasn’t a worry for her so she couldn’t really understand how he felt. And she didn’t have to retire anytime soon. Her career was a mere moment in a life of someone who would turn two hundred later this year.
Gods, was it already this year? And was there any way she could prevent her mother making a fuss about it?
Her co-workers wouldn’t notice it. She looked about thirty—forty if she had to pull rank—so it never occurred to them she might be many times that age. They knew it in an intellectual sort of way, but since she didn’t age they just assumed she didn’t get older either.
Growling in answer to Simon, Philippa went to pick up the coffee mug. She ignored the jibes from the rest of the room about how she hadn’t even managed to dent the wall. She had tried to avoid it, actually; her superiors took it badly when she damaged Crown property. The mug hadn’t fared equally well; the enamel was cracking. It upset her more than it should.
Back at her desk, she found her most immediate boss, Detective Chief Inspector Patrick Walters, waiting for her. He was in his late forties, an elegantly greyed and impeccably dressed tall and thin man who had led their nook of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command for four years. Philippa could remember him as a Trainee Detective Constable. She hadn’t thought much of him back then, but he had grown into his role and she respected him.
“Phil, can I see you in my office for a minute,” he said, and then turned around and headed back into his room. She exchanged looks with Simon, who shrugged.
“Perhaps he’s assigning you a new partner,” he suggested.
“Already? Couldn’t we at least bury the corpse first?”
Simon took affront. “Hey! Very much a living corpse here.”
She grinned. “The way you’ve been moping around, you might as well be a corpse.”
“You’d be glum too, if you had to spend your days with my wife from now on,” he grumbled, but Phil was unsympathetic.
“Until you’ve lived two centuries with your mother, you are not allowed to complain.”
Simon shook his head in amazement. “Sometimes you make me so glad I’m human.”
Sometimes she wished she was human herself. At least human women were allowed to move out and live on their own. She was a frigging DI, a much respected member of the Metropolitan Police Service by the sheer virtue of being an excellent cop, yet she wasn’t allowed to have her own home. Not until she married would she be rid of her mother’s guardianship, and that wasn’t happening anytime soon—or considered an improvement.
Sighing, she followed Patrick to his office. She rapped the doorframe of the open door, entered without being asked, and turned to close the door.
While her back was turned to the desk, she made a quick scan of the third person in the room. Each living creature made a unique impact on Might that Vampires were able to study and deduce a lot from, an automatic habit of theirs when they met new people. Human male in his late twenties, healthy, tense but cocky; not an immediate threat.
The scan took all of two seconds maybe, but by the time she turned to face her boss, she knew all there was to know about the stranger. Still, for appearances’ sake, she allowed her brows to rise slightly, as if in surprise. It was easier for the onesies to relate to her if she pretended to be more like them. She wasn’t sure she always liked pretending, but it was the price she had to pay for having an independent career among humans.
The stranger in a cheap brown suit had stood when she entered so she got a good look at him. He was a little under six foot tall, lean and tight like a long distance runner—or a street-fighter. The latter notion suited his face too. He was kind of handsome, in a harsh way. His face was all angles and his nose had been broken at some point. His navy-short hair was dark brown with a hint of chestnut, and his eyes were blue and cold.
This couldn’t be her new partner.
More curious now, she turned to look at her boss again and he gave her a small nod. “Please, sit down.” The stranger waited until she had taken the only vacant chair before sitting down again. Men often did that with her, even in these modern days when old manners seemed to be otherwise deteriorating. She was so small that they couldn’t help it. Back when she was building her career it had bugged her to no end to be treated as a weak female. Sometimes it still did. At least her colleagues had learned that she could outmatch all of them in strength.
“First up, good work on the Morton case, Phil. Well done.” Philippa allowed herself a small satisfied nod for the kidnapping case she and Simon had closed only that morning, a crown to his long career. “How did you come to suspect the mother?”
She sneered. “Magic.” It was true too, but Patrick startled, as if he hadn’t thought of it. He collected himself immediately though.
“Right. I asked you here to introduce you to our newest addition. This is Adrian Moore. He is originally from the New York Police Department, where he worked as a homicide detective. He’s moved to London recently and has joined us.” He turned to the new fellow, who straightened attentively, but not servilely. Not someone who was prepared to lick boots, then.
“Philippa Audley is our most senior DI,” Patrick told him, and if Adrian thought it odd, considering they looked about the same age, he didn’t bat an eye. He offered his hand to her, completely unhesitant, so he was either ignorant or foolish; since he was American, it was probably the former. Philippa shook his hand and didn’t take advantage of him, not even when he held her hand like it was made of glass, annoying her. It would have been bad form. Not to mention illegal.
“DS Moore holds the rank of a Detective Sergeant for now.” Patrick continued. “It’s no use to make him a trainee with his experience, but I can’t just throw him out there as a DI without someone showing him the ropes first.”
Philippa’s face went carefully blank. “And you thought I would do that?”
“You’re the only one without a partner. Might as well be you. Besides, they don’t have as varied a supernatural society over in the United States and he needs to be acclimatised.”
Philippa didn’t like to be called supernatural, but it was no use protesting. And Patrick was right. Vampires were banned from the entire American continent as a result of a treaty that ended the Sentient War when she was a child. There were shifter clans in the States, but sentients, the third variety of two-natureds, ruled supreme there and it was in their interest to keep the one-natured ignorant about the two-natured world around them.
She turned to Adrian. “Are you native to New York?” She didn’t really care, but it was polite to ask. She had almost two centuries of polite manners to uphold.
He gave her a tight smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes. From Queens, to be more precise. Have you been there?” He had a neutral accent; American, but not that of someone from Queens. Educated, then.
Philippa shook her head in response, keeping her observations to herself. “No. I’m not allowed.”
This time his reaction was stronger. “Not allowed? Why the hell not?”
“Because, DS Moore, vampires are banned from the States.” She had the satisfaction of seeing him startle and she turned to Patrick. “You didn’t inform him?”
Patrick was unapologetic. “Didn’t see the point. He has to get used to it sooner rather than later. I’m not making this arrangement permanent, but you’ll be working together until further notice.” Philippa nodded, but she wasn’t happy. Couldn’t they for once assign a two-natured partner to her? One that wouldn’t grow old and die? She would take anything; even a non-predatory shifter would do; it might even be funny to have a deer-shifter to work with, or a bunny. The mere notion made her smile inwardly.
They got up and exited Patrick’s room and she led Adrian to her desk. “This is DI Simon Jones, my partner of the past thirty-odd years.” This time Adrian controlled his face better and just shook hands with Simon. “This is his last night in the office.”
“So, another human,” Simon noted, sizing the newcomer up. Philippa didn’t know how Simon did it, but over the years he had become very adept in recognising two-natureds. Humans usually didn’t have a clue who was what around them.
“Yep. And an American to boot.”
“Do you have something against Americans,” Moore enquired, politely enough, but she could sense he was a bit offended.
Philippa gave it a thought. “No. It has more to do with two-natured history than humans.” She was about to elaborate when the phone on her desk rang. She lifted the receiver and listened.
“Bugger,” she said emphatically when the call ended. “There’s a domestic disturbance involving a shifter and I’m the only one on duty they can spare.”
“You?” Her new partner sized her short figure in blatant disbelief.
Humans. They only recognised strength they could see. Just because she was small didn’t mean she wouldn’t be the best person for the job.
Philippa shot Adrian a disgusted glance. “Yes, me.”
“I’m coming with you,” Simon said, shooting eagerly up.
“Like hell you are!” Philippa was glad for the chance to vent her foul mood. “This is your last night at work. The last thing I need is for you to get killed by an enraged tiger-shifter.”
Simon grinned. “With you around? That’s not possible.”
“I’m coming too,” Adrian said, and Philippa only barely refrained from rolling her eyes.
“Like I could prevent you,” she growled. “Fine. You can both come, but if you are killed you can only blame yourselves. And I’m driving.”
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