CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE / HANNAH KANE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
The Wolf’s Call
It was surprisingly quiet in the vast open office of Latimer & Holby Solicitors considering that six lawyers were doing their best there to keep the firm at the top of their game. Only the occasional shuffling of papers, clicking of keyboards, and quiet murmur of a low male voice having a phone conversation at the other end of the room broke the silence.
The unobtrusive atmosphere sprang partly out of respect and partly from a clever office design that made a traditional City chamber out of a modern Canary Wharf business hotel. The workstations had enough space between them to make each of them a small island, three on both sides of an aisle that cut through the office from the front door to the back. Freestanding hardwood bookcases and filing cabinets surrounded each islet on three sides; on the fourth, large potted plants covered the view to the aisle.
The only potential source of noise was a huge flat-screen TV mounted on the wall by a sofa group near the door, high enough for everyone to see what was on. Today, a twenty-four-hour BBC news channel broadcasted live from the House of Commons, where a heated debate seemed to be going on. The sound was muted, however, so the exact content was unknown to the people in the office.
Charlotte Thornton, Charly to herself, didn’t need to hear the discussion to know what it was about. The debate on whether or not the two-natured races—vampires, shifters, and sentients—were eligible to stand for elections had been going on for days. The same debate sprang up every now and then in the Parliament, usually after some other country took up the issue.
The arguments for and against remained the same too. Vampires and shifters weren’t human, so humans couldn’t allow them to decide on national issues; however, they were allowed to vote so they should be allowed to stand too. It would be dangerous to let vampires in the Parliament because they could influence humans unfairly with their magic. On the other hand, vampires had influenced politics and politicians for millennia as grey eminences anyway and it was high time they were made to do it openly. Shifters were violent brutes unable to grasp the finer points of politics; yet shifters were perfectly capable of getting PhDs so they could handle politics just fine.
Some clever person had even argued that if vampires and shifters got a say in human matters, humans should get a vote in vampire courts and shifter clans. This was countered with the traditional argument about taxes: the two-natureds paid human taxes so they should get to decide where the money went. Of course, if humans didn’t want their money…. Since everyone knew vampires were rich beyond imagination, the argument usually died right there.
All six lawyers in the office knew that the debate wouldn’t lead to a positive conclusion for the two-natureds this time either—it would be a political suicide for any MP to vote for them—but in deference to their profession they kept the TV on. Who knew, perhaps something new would happen this time round?
Already, one MP had suggested that sentients, a breed that was almost absent from the UK, should be invited in the Parliament to monitor the other two races, but that had been met with fierce opposition from vampires and shifters alike. They had a living memory of the last time sentients had colluded with humans to control shifters and vampires. It had led to a reign of terror during which sentients ousted what was essentially their own kind for execution. A devastating war between the two-natured people had followed that only ended when vampires banished sentients to the Americas in 1827. To humans that was ancient history and, in their opinion, wounds should have healed by now. But it wasn’t so for the long-living two-natureds. So the debate went on.
Charly had stopped paying attention to the debate a while ago. Secretly, she thought that most two-natureds didn’t even want to become openly involved with human politics and that they were only arguing for the argument’s sake. But she also believed that times had changed and vampires and shifters couldn’t hide behind the scenes anymore, as if they didn’t exist. In a world of instant information, with a press that tended to dig out every little detail about their leaders, a known association with vampires could topple a politician. It would serve everyone better if things were done openly.
Then again, she didn’t really know what those with a second nature thought of the human-ruled world around them. Her father had made sure that she went to an all-human school, joined humans-only clubs in Oxford, and didn’t take any courses in two-natured law there or during her pupillage in Lincoln’s Inn prior to being called to the Bar. If there had been non-humans around her, she hadn’t been privy to it, let alone to their way of thinking.
To top it all, her father had recently made the chambers in which she had been practicing terminate her tenancy when he learned that the QC there allowed them to take cases that involved non-humans. She still didn’t know how Wilfred Thornton had managed to pull that off, but it infuriated her to no end.
In an act of defiance, only one of many during her thirty-two-years’ war with her father, she hadn’t accepted the position he had arranged for her as a lawyer in one of the bigger banking firms in the City, but had chosen Latimer & Holby Solicitors instead. It lacked the excitement of criminal law, but at least she was fairly sure her father had no influence here—for the moment anyway—so she was trying to enjoy it for as long as she could.
The only reason her father hadn’t meddled yet was because her new employer didn’t have any known associations with the two-natureds. How he could always tell, she had no idea, because the one-natureds had no means for detecting those with the second nature around them.
Charly sensed someone pause by her desk. Annoyed for the interruption, she looked up from an intricate contract she had been perusing the whole morning to see her boss. She was on a tight schedule so she hoped Mr Latimer, a stocky and autocratic man in his early sixties, would state his business quickly.
Then his aftershave hit her senses and a sharp pain stabbed her behind the eyes, a prelude to one of her migraines. She was oversensitive to scents, something she had suffered from all her life, to her mother’s great displeasure, because it had prevented her mother from wearing her favourite perfume while Charly still lived at home.
She had only been with the firm for a month, so her colleagues hadn’t gotten used to her requirements yet, and the onslaught of various scents hit her every morning when she came to work. It had forced her to adopt a schedule where she arrived before everyone else and was the last to leave at the end of the day, the idea being that the air-conditioning would clear the air before she had to walk through the office again. For a further measure, she had a small air-cleanser by her desk that kept her immediate workspace scent-free.
Struggling to contain the growing pain, it took her a moment to understand what Mr Latimer was saying to her. “There’s a new client coming over in ten minutes and I need you to make us some coffee.”
If ever a mere sentence could end a budding migraine, this one was it. “I’m sorry. What?” She might be the newest lawyer with the firm, but she wasn’t a pupil. She didn’t take photocopies for others, run errands, or make coffee on command.
“You heard me. Mrs Jones is at a dentist’s and there is no one else. So hurry up, there’s a good girl.”
Charly looked around the vast open office the six younger lawyers shared. Even if she hadn’t already known they were all present, she was able to see with one glance that she wasn’t the only person in the room. Then the last word Mr Latimer had used registered and she knew the difference between herself and the other five lawyers. She was a girl as opposed to men, judging by his patronizing tone.
Her always-ready temper flared. She would have none of that. All her life she had struggled against her father’s old-fashioned ideas about women and their place in society, and as her life as a working woman—instead of a housewife her father wanted her to be—testified, she had won. Mr Latimer, while undoubtedly formidable, had nothing on her father as an opponent. He would learn personally why he had hired her in the first place.
She straightened her spine, glad that she was closer to six feet tall and that her mother had insisted on modelling classes when she was a teenager, thus ensuring that she was never ashamed of her height. Sitting down, she cut a commanding presence; standing up, she was hard to dismiss, something she used to her full advantage in courtrooms.
“No,” she said calmly, looking at him squarely. Inside, she was far from composed. She had a quick and furious temper that had manifested in uncontrollable rages when she had been a child, but she had been taught to control herself to an extent that outwardly no one would be able to tell how angry she truly was. By now, the techniques she employed were automatic and she was able to concentrate on her boss’s reaction.
The grey bushes Mr Latimer had for eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?” His affronted expression was a poor imitation of that of her father’s and she had no trouble facing him. She just cocked a brow of her own, black and well groomed.
“I’m busy. Ask someone else to make it.”
Her boss was genuinely taken aback, as if it hadn’t even occurred to him that she might refuse. “But it’ll only take five minutes.”
“Then you’ll have time to make it yourself.”
She would not back down. She was the only woman in the office apart from Mrs Jones, the secretary. If she didn’t stand her ground she would be reduced to being a woman instead of an equal, let alone the superior she one day intended to be. She had experienced this before; luckily, she had backbone to deal with it. She waited for her boss’s reaction, and wasn’t disappointed.
“I’m ordering you to make the coffee, Miss Thornton.”
“I’m afraid you can’t do that, sir.” She kept her tone dry and official. “You can only ask politely and then turn to someone else after I tell you I haven’t got time for a task unrelated to my job description.” She nodded towards her colleagues.
“But they’re…” he paused, realising the slippery slope he was on. But she wasn’t about to let him off easy.
“They’re what, sir?” This time she let some of the steel inside her come through in her voice.
“Busy too,” he finished feebly.
Charly glanced at the men who were all suddenly trying to pretend they hadn’t been listening to the argument with great interest. This wouldn’t make her popular with them, but she was used to that too. Men didn’t like women who were stronger-willed than them and who weren’t afraid to show it. That she had a stronger will than these men, they had established already during her first two weeks with the firm, much to the men’s dismay.
She didn’t care. She had strength in abundance. It had put her through the Lincoln’s Inn when her father had refused to give her a place in the family firm after she’d finished her studies in Oxford. It may have wreaked havoc on her love life that she refused to submit to a man’s will simply by virtue of his gender, but one thing was certain: being only a woman would not be part of her repertoire. That included being asked to make coffee simply because she was the only person around with breasts.
“Oh, well. I guess you’ll have to make the coffee yourself after all.” She shrugged, as if it wasn’t such a big deal.
“I am not here for making coffee,” Mr Latimer practically growled, but she wasn’t impressed. She looked him straight in the eyes, letting him see her resolve.
“Neither am I, sir.”
Understanding flashed in his eyes, but he wouldn’t just give up and she actually respected him for it. “What would it take to get you make the coffee here?”
She had an answer ready. “Thousand pounds more a month and a contract where it states that making coffee is part of my responsibilities.”
Mr Latimer practically spurted in surprise. “Thousand pounds a month for making coffee?”
Charly smiled slowly. It was time for the coup de grâce. “No. I’ll make coffee for free. You pay five hundred pounds for assigning me a demeaning menial task even though I’m the best-educated and most experienced younger lawyer here. The rest is compensation for being forced to submit to out-dated gender stereotypes.”
Mr Latimer blinked a couple of times. Then his anger rose. “I could fire you.”
“And face the lawsuit that would follow?” She held her gaze steady. She was not afraid of being fired. She thrived on challenges like this. If she was given smaller clients for a while as punishment, it would only leave her with more time on her hands to set things straight around here.
Mr Latimer must have noticed the excited gleam in her eyes, because he harrumphed in anger and turned to the man across the aisle to her. “Mr Brooke. You make the coffee then, and be quick about it. Don’t think I didn’t notice the solitaire you hid when you saw me coming.” Gary Brooke shot up to fulfil the command and Mr Latimer disappeared into his office.
Charly stretched, satisfied. This new job might not be as exciting as being a barrister had been, but for the first time since starting, she’d had a chance to stretch her metaphysical claws. She needed a good battle every now and then or she became impossible to be around.
She took a deep breath and a new scent hit her senses, overriding the aftershaves the room was saturated with. Pure wilderness invaded her entire being, as if the scent had a physical presence. It was intriguing, commanding, and sexy as hell. For the first time ever the scent didn’t trigger a headache. Instead, an entirely different physical reaction swept over her, no less overwhelming in its pervasiveness. She got thoroughly aroused.
Raphael Green let his body sag heavily against the wall outside the door to Latimer & Holby Solicitors, his legs unable to support his weight anymore. He had been about to enter the premises of his would-be lawyers when he had overheard the battle of wills between Mr Latimer—judging by his voice—and her.
An emotion unlike anything he had felt before had taken control of his body from the first sound of her voice and he had simply frozen, just standing there holding the door-handle, unable to push the door properly open or let it close, mesmerised by her voice, impressed by her strength of will. With her voice gone, so was his bodily strength, as if drained by her. His listless hand fell from the handle and the door closed. It didn’t matter. He needed a moment to recover anyway.
When was the last time he’d had such a strong physical reaction to anything? His heart was beating erratically and his breathing was laboured, as if he had run up to the fifteenth floor instead of taking the lift. Hell, a marathon wouldn’t have left him this shaky. His clothes felt stifling all of a sudden and he pulled the tie off so that he could breathe. He had gone rock hard too, adding to his acute discomfort. It was as if he had been through a battle.
One thing was sure. He had to have her, and he didn’t mean as his lawyer. He needed to have her in his bed so that he could bury himself deep into her until that beautiful low voice like molten chocolate moaned his name in ecstasy. The image made his cock jerk and he inhaled slowly to gain control of himself. The need to see her was pulling him forward with an irresistable force of a locomotive before a freight train, but he was old enough not to let his instincts rule him.
This wasn’t the first time a woman had excited him during his hundred and thirty-four years, but for the first time he was aroused by a woman he hadn’t even seen. It was also a first that he was drawn to a woman so dominant. He tended to go after docile, submissive creatures that were fun for a while and then didn’t bother him after he was done with them.
Yet it was undoubtedly her strength that had got him so worked up. A dominant female with a strong alpha streak, who could have thought he would find one here? There were some dominant shifter women, but not all of them had the alpha quality that could raise them to clan leaders over physically stronger males.
To win such a female, a male had to be truly worthy. It was the notion of being worthy of her that had him so excited. It was a challenge.
Please, gods, let her be a wolf.
Rafe had seldom uttered a prayer more sincere to the twin deities governing the spiritual wellbeing of the two-natured people. Another predatory shifter would do as well, but a wolf would be perfect.
Then he shook himself. He couldn’t stand outside the door all day, dreaming about her. But he couldn’t go to his meeting with Mr Latimer sporting a raging hard-on either, and so he forced his body under control with the ease of a truly strong alpha shifter. Only, he couldn’t control his heart, and it raced in anticipation as he pushed the door open and entered the office. He was sure she heard it, but he didn’t care. She should know he intended to have her. That was part of the chase too, the anticipation.
The office didn’t match the image he had gotten from the outside. The firm was located at the London’s newer business district of Canary Wharf, so he had expected chrome and glass and the energetic atmosphere of making money fast. Instead, it more resembled the traditional chambers around the Inns of Court, its décor like a copy of the firm he had dealt with since 1910. The family-run firm had recently ended its operations when there had been no one to continue it, putting him on the market for a new solicitor. The hardwood and antique leather furniture, heavy drapes, and oriental carpets the vast office was decorated with represented the unhurried excellence to which he was accustomed.
As he made his way along the aisle towards the back of the room, he took in the six groups of desks with their occupants, seeking the one he wanted. Air-conditioning was working against him so he couldn’t get a scent, but as five desks were occupied by men, his task was easy. His eyes shot to her and met a gaze exactly as strong as he had hoped.
To his utter relief, she was a gorgeous young woman. He had been half afraid that she was an older matron, her strength of will accumulated over a lifetime, but she looked about his age—the age he seemed to be anyway, somewhere between thirty and thirty-five.
He could tell by the long stretch of stocking-clad legs neatly folded under her chair that she was tall, but that she wasn’t ashamed of her height, judging by the way she held herself straight even when sitting down, and by the three inch heels of her black shoes. Standing in them, she would be close to his six foot five. He usually dated short women, but now he couldn’t understand why. Of course his woman would be tall.
Suddenly, an image of the two of them stretched naked on a bed flashed in his mind. He would be able to kiss her and thrust into her at the same time. The fantasy was incredibly vivid, transporting him to another place. He could practically smell the scents of their lovemaking and from a half a floor away he saw her nostrils flare too.
She clearly had the scent of his arousal. Good. Her nipples were growing hard in response, pressing against the fabric of her expensive white blouse. The blouse was deceptively modestly cut, but it couldn’t hide the shape of her nicely-rounded breasts that would more than fill his large hands.
The only thing missing from her perfect chest was the aura of her beast. The translucent, full-colour 3D image of her animal protruding out of her like a figurehead of a ship would have allowed him to see what kind of a shifter she was from afar, but he wasn’t surprised by its absence. She was a strong shifter and so able to hide the aura when needed. He had hidden his wolf too; it tended to dominate everyone.
Then again, judging by the onslaught of aftershaves that was clogging his delicate scent receptors, everyone else in the office was human, so hiding the aura was unnecessary—not to mention that it was illegal to discriminate against those with second natures; in theory anyway. However, sometimes the aura’s independent observations were distracting when one needed to concentrate, so perhaps she had asked it to retreat.
It didn’t matter. Only a couple of steps and he would be close enough to have her scent, unhindered by the artificial scents and ventilation. She simply had to be a wolf. It would be a crime if a woman so gorgeous were, say, a panther, like her dark colours suggested.
There was something feline about her though. For a woman so tall she was delicately built, and very feminine, with only enough muscle tone to prevent her from looking gangly. Sometimes taller women seemed to lose their curves, which was why he preferred the short ones. Her features were finely sculpted with refined cheekbones and a stubborn jaw, a straight nose, and arching black brows over dark brown eyes. Her cherry-lipped mouth was, in a word, generous. To top it all, she had a long black hair she had tied neatly in a bun at the back of her head. He yearned to see it flowing free.
Then he was within range of her scent and he drew it in deep, filling himself with it. She wasn’t wearing any perfume—no shifter would—so he got a lungful of pure her. Her scent was strong yet delicate like he had known it would be, with a heady mix of fresh, citrusy scents adding sweetness and sharpness to it. And she was…
His disappointment was so profound he couldn’t comprehend what his senses were telling him. Almost disgusted with her now for causing him such a blow, he walked past her desk, barely giving her a second glance in his stupor.
Mr Latimer, he presumed, as he was unable to pay attention, came to meet him and he shook his hand mechanically before following him to his office. Only one thing filled his mind. She could not be human. Gods could not be that cruel.
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