CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
A Wolf of Her Own
Slop bucket emptied into a trough in a forceful sweep. The slushy feed recoiled and splashed over the brim, landing on Gemma’s boots.
“Fudge!” The boots didn’t bother her; they were old Wellies she’d kept for the sole purpose of feeding the pigs. Why, when she had sworn never to feed a darn pig in her life again, she had no idea.
“That’s not true, is it?” she asked the pigs. “I kept them because I knew I’d end up back here.” No matter how far she went, she could never completely leave the farm.
Frustration was followed by anger she instantly stifled, the act so well practiced it happened without effort. Remember, Gemma, she could still hear her mother tell her, a vampire never loses her temper. That only leads to death.
Mother had been right.
The pigs didn’t care about her mood. They rushed in to eat, happily spreading the food everywhere, both in the same spot though there was plenty of room around the trough. Gemma couldn’t stay angry watching the pair, not even when more slop spattered on her. It wasn’t their fault she was here.
That blame she would land on her brother.
“What sort of an idiot decides to get married and go on a honeymoon right before the lambing season, leaving me in charge?”
The pigs remained unimpressed.
She sighed. Of course she would help Tom, she was the only family he had—well, had been. He was married now. “Do you think I’m angry because I’m jealous?” One of the pigs shot her a look that clearly said ‘duh’ and she nodded. “I’m jealous.”
She had all but fled the farm the moment she was able, leaving her brother alone, yet expecting him to be there for her whenever she came back home. “He’s found someone to share his life with and won’t have room for me anymore. Do you think he loves her?”
She didn’t find the question odd—or that she was asking it to the pigs. She had done that all her life, the farm animals her confidants. “Of course he does. A whirlwind love of such passion he had to elope in all haste without telling me…” The stab of pain in her heart had another cause than just jealousy though. Envy. She wasn’t strong enough to feel deep emotions like love. Not if she didn’t want to lose control of the beast within her.
What if she was never strong enough? She would spend her long life alone.
Resentment so profound it made her insides clench swept through her. She stood still, her hands squeezed into fists, breathing steadily until the emotion eased. Slowly, she relaxed her muscles. She was in the clear; the Rider hadn’t stirred.
She should have said no to Tom when he’d asked for her help. The farm and all the memories it evoked put too great a strain on her control over the Rider. But he so seldom asked her for anything she hadn’t been able to refuse. He could consider this as a wedding gift.
He wasn’t getting anything else until he actually brought his bride home and introduced her to his sister.
At least it wasn’t quite the lambing season yet—if things went as planned. Despite modern advances in many areas of farming, they still weren’t able to control the exact date the ewes gave birth. If the multitude scheduled to deliver during the first couple of weeks of April decided to pop early, she’d be screwed.
The ewes had better stick to the appointed schedule, because she had no idea who to turn to for help otherwise. Most farmers around these parts had quit ages ago, and she couldn’t go for help to their closest neighbour, the Greenwood manor. Wolf-shifters weren’t exactly who one wanted around lambing sheep.
With little lonely girls, however…
She exited the pigsty briskly, her childhood friend another memory her return home had evoked that she didn’t want to dwell on. But she wasn’t in so much of a hurry that she didn’t remember to close the gate carefully. She had better things to do than chase after escaped pigs. They wouldn’t go far, but once one started chasing them, they got very excited and put on a good show before returning to their pen on their own.
Next up, the horse. Amanda’s stable opened to a corral, so Gemma only needed to feed her and open the door for her to come and go as she pleased. That was easier said than done. The huge draught horse hated her and tried her best to trample her every time she got close enough, which was every time she entered the stall to feed her.
“It’s only a horse. You can do it.” Fear, like anger, was a bad emotion for her. She tried to stem it with steady breathing, but her heart was beating erratically as she opened the door to Amanda’s dusky lair.
A snort greeted her. It came from left of the door, which was good, as the manger was on the right. Leaving the escape route open, Gemma slipped in.
“Hello, old girl,” she said in her most soothing voice, heading resolutely to the feeder in the corner. Another snort, closer, followed by the stomping of a hoof. She had a vivid image of a cartoon bull preparing to charge and she glanced behind her. Amanda was calm, the stomping only her feet moving idly. With a heavy beast of burden like her, even such innocent exercise sounded threatening. Relieved, she emptied the bucket of grain into Amanda’s feeder and returned to the door. She would clean the stall later when the horse was out.
“I’ll leave this open for you, all right?” She exited the stable, but had taken only a couple of steps when she felt a huge head butt her in the back. The bucket flew in an arc to the other end of the closure as she fell on her face in the muddy floor of the corral.
She was back on her feet before she had properly registered what had happened, facing Amanda. The horse was standing in the doorway and she could swear the damnable beast was laughing at her. “I’ll get you one day,” she swore, as she backed slowly out of the corral, her eyes fixed on the horse. But they both knew it was idle boasting.
Outside the closure, the gate securely shut, she took a look at her clothes. She was drenched in mud. The front of her waxed jacket was plastered with it, wet sludge seeped through her jeans, a line of cold water dripping down the leg of her left boot. She emptied it and then wiped her hands on the backside of her jeans. It wasn’t as if the trousers could get any worse for it.
Not that it made her hands any cleaner either, she noticed as she tried to remove mud off her face. Already she could feel it beginning to dry. In a few more minutes she wouldn’t be able to move her face.
She debated changing her clothes before finishing her morning chores, but saw no point in it. She would have to take the four-wheeler to the back meadow to check the sheep in the pasture there. The roads and fields being in rough condition after a heavy rainfall the past couple of days, she was likely to get as muddy as she was now all over again.
She went to the tap at the side of the stable and ran some water over her hands. It was ice cold, but she washed her face with it too, for what good it did. She didn’t have anything to dry with, so she opened her coat and used the hem of her shirt. Judging by the greyish streaks it left on the previously white tee, her wash-up hadn’t been entirely successful.
Just the same. The sheep wouldn’t care what she looked like.
The ten minute drive to the meadow at the edge of Tom’s estate was bumpy and exactly as muddy as Gemma had predicted. She now had a new layer of mud on top of the earlier. She couldn’t wait to get back indoors and to a hot shower—or as hot as Tom’s old boiler could make the water.
Fantasising about the shower, it took her a moment to realise the sheep weren’t in the meadow. Shocked, she twitched, involuntarily opening the gas of her ATV. The vehicle shot forward, almost throwing her off. Releasing the throttle hastily, she regained her balance and managed to avoid hitting the ancient grey stone fence that surrounded the meadow.
Maybe her eyes were deceiving her. Or the entire flock was laying low in the grass. Sneaky bastards.
She cut the engine and climbed off the four-wheeler and onto the fence. It might be old, its top covered with moss, but Tom had maintained it well and the loosely piled stones didn’t sway under her weight. From her higher perch, she scanned the pasture, but it was still empty.
“What the fudge?” She couldn’t have lost the entire flock. Had she left a gate open? Sheep wouldn’t wander far. She glanced around, but they weren’t outside the fence either.
At the other end, the meadow sloped downwards to a stream that marked the eastern border of the estate. Across it, fields as old as theirs belonged to the Greenwood manor. The drop was deep enough that the sheep might remain out of sight if they were down there, drinking or grazing or whatever it was that sheep did. Baaaed.
With a self-suffering sigh, she dropped down inside the fence. She had better take a look. Sheep were an idiotic bunch. One could never know what they would get into their tiny heads to do.
The field didn’t look terribly large, but it was a good hike over squelching ground to where the terrain began to drop. She welcomed the exercise. The ride had made her feel cold in her wet clothing and the walk got her blood circulating again. Some of the dried mud stuck on her jeans flaked off in the process as well. A definite improvement, as the mud had made them stiff and uncomfortable.
The pasture descended gently down to the stream, the slope full of green goodness for the sheep to enjoy. But they weren’t grazing there. All fifty or so sheep were huddled in a tight group by the stream, unnaturally still.
Gemma had a notion that if she approached the four-legged mattresses too fast, she would cause them to stampede into the stream. And that would only end up in tragedy. So she stayed where she was, trying to locate what had scared the animals. They might be stupid, but as a flock they acted according to some logic. She assumed they were the farthest away from whatever they had fled from.
Turning around, she spied a copse of trees at the northern edge of the meadow, left there for the sheep to find some shelter in. It looked empty, but that didn’t mean it had been so earlier.
Crossing the field once more, she made her way to the grove. She might not want to be here, but she had never shied from her responsibilities.
She smelled the blood instantly when she entered the small woods and feared the worst. One of the ewes must have lambed and hadn’t made it. She halted, not wanting to witness it, but forced herself to move on. Maybe the ewe wasn’t dead yet and she could help her. Following her nose, she circled a couple of trees—and stopped in shock.
It wasn’t a site for birthing gone bad. It was carnage.
Three ewes had been killed and torn into, their bellies opened to access the young, their partially-eaten carcasses witness to what had happened to them.
Gemma dropped on her knees in the wet ground, all strength gone from her legs. She stared at the ghastly sight with unseeing eyes, a memory of past atrocity overriding the reality.
The revolting smell of the bloodbath made her Rider stir, reminding her why she had to control herself at all times. If she let her second side free, it would kill.
It might already have killed…
Sickening fear made her curl up. She held herself tightly until the spell passed and she could breathe normally again. She had not killed these sheep. She would remember. It had to be something else.
Collecting herself, she got up, her legs shaky but holding. She pulled the neck of her t-shirt up to cover her mouth and nose, but it didn’t block the smells. Taking shallow breaths, she studied the scene, trying to come up with an explanation other than her Rider for this.
There were huge paw marks around the dead sheep, clear and easy to recognise. Relief washed over her. It hadn’t been her, it had been wolves. But then she shook her head, rejecting what her eyes saw. There weren’t wolves in England. They had been extinct for centuries.
No, that wasn’t quite accurate, was it. Natural wolves were extinct, but the two-natured races had their own wolves. And a clan of wolf-shifters lived right here, their territory bordering Tom’s farm across the stream. The Greenwood clan.
She tensed, unwilling to accept what she was thinking. But the paw marks were there.
A surge of blinding anger came over her that she didn’t try to stem, even when her Rider pushed against its restraints, demanding to be freed. Nobody killed her sheep and went unpunished. Their neighbours weren’t an exception.
Shooting to action, she ran as fast as she could back to her four-wheeler. She would see the clan alpha instantly and demand retribution. And if he refused? She would hunt her some wolf.
As she sped on, she felt her fangs lengthen in anticipation.
Kieran moved around the trees on silent feet, wolf to the core, even in human form. He had done this a hundred times and knew the drill by heart: make it difficult, but not too difficult. The cubs tracking him had to work for it, but they needed to succeed in the end. He loved this part of his duties as clan tracker, teaching the young.
The forest floor was scattered with old leaves from the previous autumn, now a wet mattress after a rainy spring. It would be silent to walk on, but would leave a good trace to follow too.
He couldn’t have that.
He looked up and saw a heavy branch of an old oak tree low enough to reach. He jumped up to hang on it by his hands. Swinging his tall body back and forth a couple of times to build momentum, he then let go, landing nicely several feet from where he had started. It would give the cubs something to ponder when his tracks and scent suddenly disappeared.
He leaned over to move detritus to cover a dent on the ground where he had landed. It wouldn’t fool an experienced tracker, but the cubs might not notice it. He looked around to plan his course and then moved in long leaps towards a dried-up puddle. He would leave a nice footprint there.
Fifteen minutes later, Kieran was at an old redbrick wall—high enough that one couldn’t see over it—that marked the western edge of the Greenwood clan estate. Their territory had long ago expanded beyond the wall, but it was farmland and woods that didn’t need to be enclosed.
He considered his options. He could hide from the cubs either up in the trees or on the wall. This early in the spring, the leaves not properly open yet, both options were equally good—or bad, if he really had wanted to remain hidden.
Making his decision, he climbed on the wall. It was wide on the top and therefore more comfortable to sit on than a tree branch. The morning sun was shining, warming up his spot. He had at least fifteen minutes to wait so he lay down on his back on the wall and closed his eyes.
Ah, this was life. He might spend the morning here. He had planned to work at home instead of commuting to London, but no one would know if he started late. He was his own boss.
The polite interruption didn’t sound comical, even though it was uttered by a nine-year-old. What it sounded like was smug. Kieran looked down at his nephew, Vincent, barely able to hide his amazement.
“How did you get here already?”
Vincent grinned with the width of his small face, showing a row of permanent teeth that were still a bit too large for him; he would grow into them. His dark orange hair was in disarray and his face was spattered with speckles and mud spots in equal proportions. His clothes hadn’t fared much better and rather looked like he had crawled in a ditch. The cub aura on his chest was jumping joyously, pleased by their success.
“I was here before you!”
Now that was impressive. “I didn’t smell you at all.”
Vincent rolled his eyes, like only a nine-year-old could. “Of course you didn’t. I’m not a baby anymore, you know. I rolled in the leaves and some mud and then hid downwind.”
“Very clever,” Kieran said dryly, though he was actually impressed with his nephew’s cunning. Aidan should be proud of his son. “But that doesn’t explain how you got here before me.”
“Well, Dad said you’d either head here or the big oak tree by the pond. After five minutes of tracking it was obvious you were coming here. So I cut ahead.”
Had he become that predictable? “So, in other words, you cheated.”
Vince looked offended. “No I didn’t. I utilised intelligence information to anticipate your move in order to prepare for the outcome.” He pronounced every word carefully, as if he had memorised the sentence.
Kieran burst laughing. “That you did. But you still cheated. The purpose of this exercise was to learn how to track.”
The boy looked pensive. “I guess.” Then his face cleared. “But I still won. Can I climb up there with you?”
“Sure.” Kieran knew better than to offer his help, and in no time at all Vince was up, sitting astride on the wall, swinging his skinny legs back and forth.
Watching Vince, it felt like a return to his childhood, as he looked so much like his father at the same age. It had been their brother Colm watching over the pair of them then, fifty years older yet never acting like his baby brothers were a nuisance—which they had been. He had really loved children. Pity he’d never had a chance to have any of his own.
Old pain was pushed aside by the new generation. “Wow! I can see everywhere from here. Can I stand up?”
Kieran wanted to say no, but he had been climbing on this same wall at Vince’s age and had come to no harm. So he just nodded and watched in equal parts of admiration and worry as the boy got nimbly on his feet.
“I bet I could see to London from here,” Vince gushed.
“To Epsom, then.”
“That’s not gonna happen either.”
“Because it’s to the north from here and the wall is facing west.”
The boy accepted this good-naturedly and continued his study of the surrounding countryside. It took almost ten minutes before the first of those cubs who had actually tracked Kieran arrived. They looked amazed when they saw that Vince was already there.
“I won!” he declared to his friends.
“No you didn’t,” Kieran reminded him, and he sighed.
“Fine, but I’ll get the award for cleverness.”
Kieran grinned. “That you do. Okay, you all did very well. Off you go.”
“Aren’t you coming too?”
His nephew looked upset, but Kieran shook his head. “I’ll check the perimeter now that I’m here.” He wasn’t in the regular security rota, his architect firm keeping him busy enough, but he took the safety of his clan seriously.
“I’ll come with you,” Vince stated, but Kieran wouldn’t accept the offer.
“No, you’ll head to school.”
Vince made a face. “Yuck, school. I’d rather be here with you.”
“Nevertheless, school it is.” Kieran had fought his way through Eton at Vince’s age when the prestigious school had opened for the two-natured for the first time. He had been grateful for the chance to attend, even though it had meant facing prejudice he had been too young to comprehend. He was stronger for surviving it. Vince’s generation had things so much easier that he should have nothing to complain.
The boy looked like he would protest, but a frown sent him on his way with his friends. Kieran wouldn’t put it past his nephew to disobey and show up on his path later, but he would deal with it if and when it happened.
He got up and was about to drop down from the wall when movement caught his eye. A four-wheeler was driving fast over the closest field, heedless of the uneven ground, making the vehicle jump. Those things weren’t easy to control in the best of terrains, let alone on a pasture made treacherous by rain.
The vehicle made a beeline to a gate on that side of the wall, a seldom-used side access. It had to be one of their people driving it then; no one else would know about it. He dropped down from the wall and headed to the gate.
It wasn’t far and Kieran was a fast runner so he reached it first. The gate was locked, but it wasn’t manned. The key was in a strongbox in a nearby tree in case someone needed to use the gate. He fetched it and was staring through the wrought-iron bars as the ATV paused outside and cut the engine.
Not a clan member after all, but a strange woman.
Kieran couldn’t tell much more about her than that. Was she one or two-natured? He tried to get her scent but the wind was against him. Her clothes were loose-fitting, hiding her body; a scarf covered her hair, and her face—as well as her clothes—was a grey mask of mud, which made it difficult to sense anything about her. Had she been in an accident? Did she need help?
He was about to act on the thought when she spoke. “Well, don’t just stand there. Open the gate!”
The command made him draw himself straighter. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me, wolf. I need to see your alpha. Now!”
Only two-natured were able to see the translucent manifestations of shifters’ animal forms, but his aura wasn’t out. It wasn’t much of a leap to assume he was a wolf, however, so she could as easily be a human making an educated guess.
He rejected the notion immediately. A human wouldn’t know about this gate. It was in the middle of shifter and vampire territory, private land accessible only to their people. And since she wasn’t one of his clan, it had to mean she came from the Byrd farm.
Vampire or human, she was a stranger and he wasn’t about to give in to her command. He shook his head, firmly. “No.”
She was taken aback. “What do you mean, no?”
“Nobody marches in here—or drives—and demands to see our alpha. State your business and I’ll call him to see if he’s available.”
She frowned, annoyed that he wouldn’t simply obey. They could argue forever, but two-natured had more subtle means of communicating. He increased the impact he had on Might, the energy all two-natured were dependent on. He could not let her pass and the changes in Might would tell her that. Her gaze remained steady on him, his dominance having no visible effect on her, but she nodded.
“Fine. A pack of wolves has eaten three of my pregnant ewes. I demand justice and I will see that your alpha delivers it.”
Kieran stared at the woman for a few slow heartbeats as his mind struggled to comprehend her accusation. His hands squeezed the iron bars, physically trying to repel her words. But they couldn’t be unheard.
Not this again. His fury surfaced so fast that only the gate prevented him from acting on it. His wolf surged out and growled, and he let the sound escape his mouth. “That is bloody rich of you, woman, coming here to accuse our clan of such crime.” He knew all too well where false accusations would lead. “Greenwood clan has been here for centuries, and I can assure you we have never touched a single sheep. Ever!” He shouted the last word, but the woman didn’t even flinch.
“I know what I saw,” she said angrily. “There aren’t other wolves here. It had to be you.”
“And I say you’re wrong. You’re seeing things.”
She moved so fast he barely registered it. One moment she was on her vehicle and on the next she was at the gate, her face pressing in through the bars. “Are you calling me a liar?”
She was of average height, five-six, tops, but it didn’t stop her from trying to look down at him. Her natural scent was covered with mud, pig and horse; not an attractive combination. He resisted an urge to snort like a wolf to clear his sinuses against the olfactory onslaught. Mud concealed her features, but her eyes were clear, shining almost golden with anger. And there was no mistaking the sharp long fangs, very unlike wolfs’, she had bared at him.
“So, you are a vampire!” As if there had been any doubt.
She rolled her eyes, much like Vincent had earlier. “Give the man a gold medal for being FUDGING OBVIOUS!”
Her sarcasm broke the tension. “Fudging? What sort of a vampire says fudging?”
She shot him a superior look before retreating from the gate and withdrawing her fangs. “One that has been brought up to know better.”
“From the Byrd farm?”
She gave him a slow look in return, his question not meriting an answer. Kieran thought quickly. This wasn’t the first time sheep had been killed on the Byrd farm, and it hadn’t been wolves back then either. Yet it had led to his brother’s death.
Pain for Colm surfaced anew and he squeezed the bars to push it down. Vampires hadn’t killed him. Humans had. She had no reason to lie that he knew of, and nothing could be achieved by blatant denial.
“I had better take a look at it myself.” And if he found out she had been lying after all, he would show her exactly what kind of wolf she was dealing with.
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