Wolf Christmas, my new release is out now in ebook form. It’s a paranormal historical, set in 1889. The story starts in the dirt and grime of industrial, Victorian Manchester and then moves to the beautiful and remote Lancashire moors. I can see those moors from my house. They make the perfect location for the Hadon Moor Wolf-Pack who, in the story, were originally given the land by the restored King Charles ll in return for rallying the werewolves to the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. Christopher Hadon is one of the late Victorian Hadons and during this period the family are rich and powerful mill-owners who employ humans and Different species alike. That’s a rare thing in this world, where humans and the Different only mix in the underworld of society. There’s scope for more in the series, starting with the Hadon brothers taking over the moor in the seventeenth century (where one rescues a woman accused of witchcraft and the other see a wife for sale and buys her out of pity) and following the family right up to the present day where of course, they’d all be billionaires (LOL). This is a long preview of Christopher and Rowena’s story.
Wolf Christmas by CA Nicks
Historical Paranormal Romance Format: eBook Length: 55,000 words/Novel Released: Nov 2013
December 1889. Werewolf Christopher Hadon rescues young women kidnapped to work the brothels of industrial Victorian Manchester. But when he meets Rowena Rothwell, he might just have found the first woman he doesn’t want to give back. Rowena knows she must return home, but she needs a little time to come to terms with her ordeal. When she begs Christopher to wait a few days before sending her home, at a time dangerously close to the full moon, her life will never be the same again.
Neither of them have known the joy of a real Christmas, but secluded from the world, at Christopher’s remote, moor-top home, that might be about to change…
Read An Excerpt
Manchester, England. December 1889
Christopher Hadon was fast coming to the conclusion that some women simply did not wish to be saved.
The black-haired beauty brandishing the chamber pot eyed him warily, matching him step for step on the threadbare carpet as he attempted to close the distance between them. So far, no amount of reassurance had managed to convince her that he wasn’t here to take her virginity, as he’d implied to the brothel-madam in the downstairs receiving-room. Neither was he intent on whisking her away to sell her on for profit.
“Your father sent me to rescue you. I’m here to take you home.” He put out a hand, willing her to take it. To a creature like him her fear was an almost tangible thing, coming off her in waves, even as she straightened her spine and faced him down.
He had to admire her for that.
“I don’t believe you.” More than a hint of anguish tempered the bravado in her voice. “I heard them plotting to sell me on. Get away from me or I’ll…”
She glanced at the chamber-pot and then at him, as if weighing up her chances of a successful assault. Slender fingers clutched at her lacy peignoir, desperately trying to hold it closed while fending him off. A riot of dark curls fell in an unruly mass about her shoulders. Hazel eyes flashed in outrage.
She wasn’t going down without a fight.
“Or you’ll what?” Christopher backed off. Did she realise how vulnerable her position was? Abducted for her fragile innocence, no doubt, but once they’d spent her virginity an establishment like this would sell her on to one of the many less salubrious brothels in the slums of Manchester. This time next year she’d be just another worn-out whore working the street corners of Angel Meadows.
Not if he had anything to do with it.
“Or you’ll what?” he repeated. “Scream perhaps? Try it and see how many come running to your aid. Do you not realise I purchased your screams along with everything else?”
A pause while she digested the horror of his words. The fingers on the chamber pot tightened.
“Rowena,” he said gentling his voice. “Where are your clothes? We have to leave, now.”
The dingy room held little more than the tools of the trade. A bed. A washstand and a chamber pot. A faded quilt covered a sheet soiled with the stains of previous encounters. Atop the marble-washstand sat a chipped jug and a small paraffin-lamp that barely lit the room.
Christopher pushed his darkened eye-glasses back into place, grateful for the gloom permeating the room. The girl didn’t need further panic by realising what he was. His sensitive senses picked up the lingering echoes of other girls who’d been taken from their families, brought to this hell-hole and had their innocence stripped from them.
Is this where his sister ended up? Briefly, he closed his eyes, swallowing the rage that had refused to dissipate over the years. A question he still had no answer to.
He’d failed her, but it would never happen again. That he vowed.
“In the attic. They had me disrobe up there.” Rowena’s voice dragged him back to the present. To this room in this whorehouse, where yet another young woman stood in need of rescue from the low-lives who would use them up and spit them into the street when done.
They usually came more quietly than this.
“I’m removing my coat.” Carefully, he eased an arm from the black wool frockcoat, sliding it from his shoulders. “Cover yourself and we’ll go. I’m not leaving without you.”
“My father. What does he look like? Prove to me you’ve seen him.”
Christopher almost smiled at the demand in her voice. An intelligent creature, despite her appearance. Terrified, yet no swooning maiden. He offered the coat.
“Tall and thin of hair. A florid mark on his cheek. A scar on his jaw.”
“You might have learned that information from those vile creatures downstairs.”
“Yes, I might have. You have a dog. Benji. He misses you.”
“Benji?” Rowena’s hand flew to her mouth. She blinked and the fight left her so suddenly, he thought she might fall.
A few more moments. All he could give her to decide whether to trust him or force him to take the decision out of her hands. Unconscious, at least she couldn’t argue with him. In this dark corner of industrial Manchester, no one would question a man of his stature and species carrying the inert body of a young woman through the back alleys.
The filmy robe fell open, giving him a flash of white thigh, pink ribbon and delicate lace. She smelled clean and fresh. A hint of lavender and lilac clung to the cotton and silk and to her skin. A pampered daughter, no doubt. Her father had come to him, despite his obvious disdain for his kind, begging him to find his daughter no matter what the cost.
The jolt from her well-heeled, cosy life to a place where even the sun struggled to shine must have been immense. Two days into her ordeal, she would still be in denial. Would still believe she had a choice in all this.
“All right, I believe you,” she said at last. Her gaze flicked to the door. “How will we do this?”
Christopher breathed an inward sigh of relief. Though he would have done it without hesitation, the thought of knocking a woman cold did not sit well with him.
“You’ll have to trust me completely. Can you do that?”
Rowena swallowed and nodded.
“Say it. These are dangerous streets and I need your complete compliance.”
“I trust you.” Carefully, she placed the chamber pot on the bed. “Give me the coat. How will we get past the people downstairs?”
“We’re not using the stairs.” He draped the coat about her shoulders. Far too long for her, but the best he could do in the absence of her own clothes.
“You don’t mean to go out that way?” She followed his gaze to the tall sash window. “We are four floors up. Far too high to jump.”
“You promised to trust me.” He pulled off the eye-glasses, folded them and pushed the into his waistcoat pocket. “Come. We don’t have much time.”
Slim fingers folded about his, the grip steady and sure. The woman had courage, no denying that. He gave her a reassuring smile.
“You’re a brave girl. I can see that. This time tomorrow you’ll be back with your family, sleeping in your own bed again. Keep that in mind and this ordeal will soon be nothing more than a nightmare you once had.”
He steadied her when she tripped over the long coat, feeling her stiffen at the contact. Dubiously, she peered from the window to the alleyway below. “It’s too high. We must find another way.”
“There is no other way.” He slid open the window. “We’ll jump together.”
“This is your idea of a rescue?” Rowena backed hastily away, stumbling over the hem of the coat. “We’ll be killed, or at the very least break a bone.”
“Believe me, we won’t.” Before she could further protest, he swung her into his arms and pulled her close. “The lord of this sector owes me a favour. That should give us safe passage. But once down there you must be prepared to run if I give the signal. You may not see them, but there are eyes everywhere. This area is riddled with underground tunnels, which will be crammed with people and creatures alike.”
She was staring at him, now, directly into his eyes. Transfixed by the sight of him absent the eye-glasses.
“You’re one of them?” She barely had a voice to speak the words. “You’re a wolf-man?”
“I’m your saviour, Rowena. That’s all you need to know.” He hooked a leg over the sill. “And you would do well to remember that.”
He hadn’t expected her to welcome him as a brother. Of course not. Where she’d lain compliantly in his arms, now she was stiff and unyielding. Straining away from the creature he was. Wolf and man, he was both in equal measure, but humans saw only the amber eyes of the creature he kept inside. To them, he was little more than a mercenary, willing to do the dirty work they were not.
As long as they paid him well, the arrangement suited him just fine. He needed neither their validation, nor their approval.
The contempt in Rowena’s eyes didn’t bother him at all.
“Try not to make a noise,” he said curtly. Without further warning, he jumped, landing easily on the cobbles below. Hemmed in by the tall tenement buildings and the red brick of a factory wall, the alley looked deserted. Christopher stilled and listened, already hearing the rustling and whispering of the poor souls living in every nook and cranny.
The stench of creature and man living in such close proximity, the sulphurous rain from the factories and mills, was almost unbearable.
From farther along the alley, he heard the scrape of a metal grate being lifted. A dark shape rose from the ground, followed by another. A city within a city, the underground tunnels teemed with life, housing wolves and bloodsuckers, warlocks and demons, along with the dregs of humanity who had no place in decent society.
Marginalised for being different. Useful only for the dirty work gentler folk shied away from.
Though he lived as a gentleman, Christopher knew all about that.
* * * *
Rowena stifled the scream threatening to pierce the quiet of the night. They’d landed, not in a broken heap as expected but still in one piece. Although how long they would remain that way, she didn’t know.
Lurid tales of monsters who inhabited the tunnels and sewers of the great cities danced through her mind, causing her to push against her saviour’s tight hold. He stood rigid and still, amber eyes focussed on the far end of the alley. Too dark for her to make out anything other than moving shapes that grew and multiplied.
“What’s that horrible smell?” Surely these tunnels were the entrance to hell itself? Her stomach rolled in protest.
“It’s the smell of progress. Now keep still,” the man ordered, in a voice inviting no argument. A tone that would normally have had her lifting her chin and glaring defiantly back. Given their situation and that she had no idea how much of a man her abductor actually was, she decided that on this occasion it would not hurt her to defer.
They were hemmed in on both sides, by the back of houses to the right and what looked like a tall wall to the left. And alarmingly, by bodies materialising from the shadows in all directions to stare insolently at the unwelcome intruders.
“I’m trying.” Rowena took in a breath and released it slowly. She’d imagined herself brave, a veritable Joan of Arc standing firm, sword of righteousness held aloft.
How disconcerting to find herself actually quaking in terror. When the brothel keepers bundled her kicking and struggling into a waiting cab at Manchester Central station, she’d been scared but determined to fight them with everything she had. Had she been able to attract attention, then people, or even perhaps a policeman, would have come to her aid.
Here, was a different world. In the gloom, she could hardly make out the beasts from the men. Here, as her abductor had so nicely put it, they would relish her screams.
“How will we ever escape them? They look ready to eat us alive.”
“It’s you they’re looking at, not me. I’m one of them, remember? You, on the other hand look like an extremely tasty morsel.”
In outward appearance, her saviour could pass for a gentleman with his waistcoat of fine brocade and polished boots. The clean fingernails, neatly clipped. He smelled a good deal better than the brothel-keeper’s bullies. And than the air in the dank alley. But he was right to remind her that appearances often lied.
“If you’d rather I set you down, Rowena, just say the word.”
Was that a hint of amusement in his voice? Rowena stiffened her spine. How dare he jest when almost certain, hideous death awaited them.
“I’m perfectly fine where I am, thank you.” Her predisposition for reckless bravado did not involve getting herself unnecessarily killed. “I trust you have a plan?”
“I know the lord of this sector. Stay still and let me do the talking. A wolf rules these streets. A very ancient wolf who owes me more than a few favours. I’ll call one in and we can be on our way. Does that meet with your approval?”
Had they been in some salon, she’d have welcomed the verbal sparring. Few men took the trouble to talk to her in a manner that actually required her to return a considered answer. And even if they did, they were usually smiling indulgently before she’d uttered half a sentence of her counter-argument. Now, she thought perhaps acquiescence to be the better option.
“Since you are the expert, sir. I will leave it up to you.”
The slight tightening of his hold reassured her. She had no option but to trust him.
Above them, something large and scaly landed on a parapet, morphed into the form of an old crone and then leaped to the ground before them.
The crone lifted a wrinkled hand. “She be one of Greg’s girls.” The crone shoved at a small lad with her boot. “Fetch ‘im and tell ‘im it were me what found ‘er. Me what gets the reward.”
The lad took off as if the demons of hell were after him, metal-tipped clogs rattling on the slimy cobblestones. Within moments, the brothel-keeper and his cronies would be out here demanding the return of his property. And be prepared to use deadly force to retrieve it.
“Don’t let them take me.” Rowena tightened the hold on her saviour’s neck, shrinking into his embrace as the crowd edged forward, already grinning at the thought of some sport. The gangs who ruled the city slums were legendary, living only for the chance to fight, if the stories were to be believed.
The man holding her felt solid and unwavering, but he was one against many. Whatever creature he kept inside would be no match for the sheer number blocking their escape.
“Where is he? Where’s your wolf-friend? Do you see him?”
“Not yet. Hold your nerve.”
“A light,” someone in the crowd called out. “Fetch a light.”
“Here,” another voice called. A tall figure pushed through, a lamp held aloft. He thrust it at them, illuminating them briefly in its weak light.
Her saviour’s wolf-eyes flashed a warning. The man fell back. She’d been told a wolf-man’s eyes flashed red as blood. The tattle-tales and penny novels had lied. Her saviour’s eyes were a rich amber flecked with burnished gold, reminding her of an ancient jewel she’d once seen in a museum.
Beautiful. An unlikely thought in the midst of such mayhem.
“Can I count on you, Rowena?”
She nodded. “You can, sir. You can.”
* * * *
Christopher already knew he couldn’t take them all. Not with a woman in tow.
But he knew how things worked.
“Any moment now, this Greg, the bully who took you, and his cronies will come barrelling through that door demanding the return of their property.” He glanced at the steps leading to the back door of the brothel. “But, Rowena, everything belongs to the overlord, first. He’s the one we have to convince. Scum though they are, honour is sacrosanct among wolves. Stop worrying.”
Keeping a tight hold on Rowena, Christopher rose to his full height, appraising the crowd with a cool eye. Any sign of weakness could get them both killed.
“Red. Your lord. Where is he?” he called out. “Tell him someone wants to see him.”
He circled slowly studying the huddled crowd. Haunted, hungry eyes stared back, taking in the cut of his clothes, his bearing. Wondering at his audacity, or was that respect he saw? A show of strength was always guaranteed to impress.
A dim street-light flickered at one end of the alley, illuminating the damp cobbles in a halo of orange light. No sign of Red’s diminutive figure, or his deputy.
“Met with a bit of an accident, so he did.”
Christopher’s wolf edged forward without summons, searching out the owner of the deceptively soft Scottish burr. He warned the wolf back. He couldn’t be weakened by a shift, now.
“All right, Rowena. It appears we have a bit of a problem.”
“A bit? Sir, you have a wonderful capacity for understatement.”
Rowena seemed to have gone beyond surprise, although the determination in her steady gaze heartened him. A combined show of strength might yet get them out of this alive.
“Not what I’d hoped for, but the new lord is a vampire. And they’re notoriously possessive. Hold your nerve.”
“Where? How do you know? Where is he? I don’t see him.”
“Somewhere in the tunnels, still. Wolf hearing, remember? We’ll have to brazen this out.”
“Tell him I belong to you. Make it a matter of honour. Isn’t that how these things work?” A hint of a blush coloured her cheeks. “I read that in a novel.”
He couldn’t help a wry smile at that. Any woman who could make him smile while facing the possibility of a gory death certainly went up in his estimation.
“We’re good for a bit of entertainment, if nothing else,” he muttered, dryly. “A vampire’s idea of honour is something else entirely. There. There he is.”
Cloaked and flanked by his retinue. Striding forward with all the confidence of the conqueror he was, a creature who’d fought his way to the top and meant to stay there powered his way towards them.
Christopher bowed his head in greeting. The vampire returned the gesture. A gentleman, then, despite his dirty, ragged clothes.
At the same time, the back door to the brothel slammed against the wall. Greg appeared, silhouetted against the light, cudgel in hand. Face like a storm about to break.
“I’ll kill ‘im. Where is–”
His threat ended on a gurgled croak. Vainly, Greg flailed at the vampire lord’s hand squeezing at his windpipe. Legs flapping, he babbled his apologies.
“What’s mine is yours, first. I were bringing ‘er to you. Honest I were.” Greg fell to the cobbles, hands clutching at his throat. “I meant no disrespect.”
The vampire lord flapped him away as if he were nothing more than a troublesome fly.
“So,” he said with deceptive calm. “Other than someone attempting to bypass their lord’s tribute, what have we here?”
“The woman is mine.” Christopher faced him down. The only option given this turn of events. “Stolen from me by this buffoon. I’m merely retrieving my property and with your leave, I’ll be on my way.”
He didn’t expect to be allowed to walk out unmolested. The vampire shot out an arm, barring his way. A wolf could move fast, but a vampire moved like lightning itself.
“Well, I’m thinking we might be having a little problem with that.”
“I know the protocol.” Christopher shoved at the arm, knowing he was walking a fine line. Any hint of insult, or show of weakness could see them set upon and ripped to shreds. “What do you want?”
“If she’s yours, then take her.” The vampire’s eyes glowed crimson in the dim light. Papery skin stretched over sharp cheekbones. Ancient, older even than Red who’d stood as a legend for his age. He waved them by with a gentlemanly bow. Rowena heaved a sigh of relief. Christopher wasn’t fooled.
No creature got to be this age by being stupid.
And no creature reduced to this would let the chance for profit walk casually by them.
“What do you want, vampire?” If it came to hand to hand combat, he might be able to take the bloodsucker. Vampires were fast, but wolves stronger. Neither of them would come out of it standing, though. He would be of no use to Rowena badly injured.
The vampire arched a brow. “Apart from your woman? Let me see. Tell me sir, are you a betting man?”
“I could be.”
“Then put the woman down and take three steps back.”
It wasn’t a request. Two of the vampire’s retinue had already circled behind, pushing away the eager crowd. Christopher felt rather than saw them. Still on the ground, Greg sent him a glare that said there would be a reckoning if ever he showed his face in these quarters again.
No time to whisper Rowena words of reassurance. She flashed an enquiring glance as he lowered her to the cobbles. He returned a small nod, squeezing her hand before letting go. She looked altogether too small in the oversized coat, a little bewildered, now by the rising noise of the crowd, but she was standing. Which was more than most women in her position would be.
With a snap of his fingers, the vampire silenced the crowd. A few flakes of snow had managed to pierce the smog, whirling and glistening in the slice of light afforded by the open brothel door.
“So, what’s the wager?” Christopher squared his stance, eyes never leaving Rowena. He could blink and she’d be gone. A vampire could move that fast.
Staying in place, while the vampire lifted a lock of Rowena’s hair to his nose for a deep appreciative sniff, took all of his reserves. Inside, Christopher’s wolf howled and begged for release. Satisfied that he’d imprinted Rowena’s scent, the vampire returned to the business in hand.
“She’s been yours for how long?” Hooking his fingers in his belt, the vampire mirrored his stance. “How long have you had her?”
“Since mid-summer.” Rowena chose that moment to find her voice. “I’ve been his since mid-summer.”
Stupid girl. Christopher’s fingers bunched into fists, ready for the inevitable fight. Hadn’t she realised what was coming next? He forced his rigid muscles to relax, redirecting his anger to the creature standing before him. No use in contradicting her claim now she’d spoken.
In a blur of movement, the vampire grasped Rowena’s chin. “Ahh, then he’s had you, how many times?” He shook her, gesturing to the crowd with a flick of his head. “Speak up, girl. Everyone wants to hear.”
“So you’re no longer a virgin?”
“No, sir. I am not.”
Lowering his face to hers, so close Christopher almost felt the touch of the creature’s lips on Rowena’s soft skin, the vampire whispered.
“Then I will wager that you still are and this is all a ruse.” He gestured to one of his thugs. “Fetch Mother O’Malley. Tell her we have need of her skills.”
“Will this wolf accept the challenge, do you think?” He was no longer addressing Rowena. A cheer broke out from the crowd, taunts, jibes, laughter.
“Such a man would surely not be keeping a woman six months and leave her a virgin? What kind of man would that be making him?”
More laughter. Someone had already opened a book, the betting begun.
Hell’s teeth, they were sunk whichever way this went. Christopher eyed the open brothel door. Their best means of escape. If he could get them both in there and somehow jam it closed, they might be able to make it to the front door before the crowd forced their way in or scaled the building to cut them off.
“Wager accepted.” Christopher’s wolf crept to the fore. A partial shift would lend him maximum strength and dexterity, as well as scare Rowena half to death. The thought of appearing as a monster before her troubled him more than it should.
Now was not the time for vanity.
A stout woman broke through the crowd, already pushing back dirty sleeves over muscled forearms. With no sign of fear for the bloodsucker, she held out a palm. Someone dropped in a coin. The woman rattled it between her teeth then shoved it into her cleavage.
“Is it ‘er what wants testing?” she said without preamble. “You want me to do it, ‘ere?”
Before Christopher could move, the vampire grasped the lapels of the coat, hauling Rowena from the ground. Legs dangling, she flailed in vain at the hand holding her.
“Look at me, girl. That’s right, into my eyes. Keep on looking.”
Thrall. The bastard was using thrall. Christopher held his ground. No bad thing given the ordeal Rowena was about to undergo. Better that she remembered nothing of this once home.
“Yes,” the vampire said to the expectant crowd. “Let’s do it here. Then at least there can be no accusations of cheating.”
Faster than a heartbeat, he whirled, pressing Rowena onto the step. With the toe of his boot, he shoved her feet apart.
“I’ll be having that ring,” he said pointing to Christopher’s right hand. “What will you take as your bond?”
Entirely the wrong thing to say, but his wolf-blood was up and things couldn’t get much worse. Rowena head lolled to the side, eyes glazed. Her chest moved quickly, as if she were struggling to breathe. She was shaking, probably from fear and cold. He didn’t dare reach out to let her know he had her back and she would survive this
From what he’d seen of her, she would endure. She was going home.
They’d taken his sister, but they weren’t having her.
The vampire’s long, straggly locks hit the ground at his feet. The creature’s fangs descended with a hiss. Vampires had elevated the sin of vanity to a fine art, but his bald pate lent him an edge, a hardness that only added to the menace. The crowd shuffled back in awe.
In return, Christopher pulled off his ring and then tossed it across.
“Not here,” he said. “At least give her some privacy.”
“Why should you care?” The vampire inspected the ring before slipping it into his pocket. “She’s just a human. Surely you don’t harbour feelings for the lass?”
“I merely want my property back. All right, stop talking and get it done.”
More snow, swirling and dancing. Turning the air white. Tiny ice crystals sparkled on the dark material of his coat, on the vampire’s cloak. Snow on the moors could close the road, leaving them stranded in town. Most of the better hotels roomed humans only. Any hint of a shift and he’d never be able to pass for one.
“That wig says she’s a virgin. This ring says she’s not.” The vampire made two fists, bumping them together twice. “The wager is set.”
No going back, now. Christopher glanced at the slice of sky visible between the tall buildings. Dark and too cloudy to see the moon, but the phases were a part of him, imprinted on his brain. A half-moon tonight. Another week until the full-moon, so he should be no danger to Rowena when he shifted.
Get her off the step and into the house. Jam the door and then escape through the front, as planned. His trusted man and a carriage were waiting at the Flags, the graveyard that served the notorious Angel Meadows district, and before dawn, they’d be back on Hadon Moor.
Rowena would be on her way home, safe and sound, as he’d promised her father. And he would return to his moor-top sanctuary, Hadon House.
“Don’t even think of it.” The vampire flicked a finger. A lackey on the steps kicked the brothel door closed. “If you try anything, she’ll be the first to die.”
“And you’ll be the second, make no mistake about that.” Christopher sent back the message, knowing the moment he shifted, the alley would erupt into a melee of no-holds-barred violence. Once shifted, he’d have to stay that way until they were safely out of harm’s reach. The man, post-shift, would be too weak to defend her.
The O’Malley woman fell to her knees, one arm disappearing under the coat, fumbling with Rowena’s undergarments. Rowena’s eyes squeezed closed, a small gasp of surprise her only concession to the intimate intrusion.
Mother O’Malley’s features twisted in concentration. She grunted.
“She’s no virgin. That’s for sure.”
“You lie.” The vampire had the woman by the face before she could move, crushing her cheeks with his fingers. Intently, he studied her bulging eyes, teeth bared and then, with a curse, shoved her away.
“Something’s not right here.”
Christopher took advantage of the distraction to manoeuvre himself in front of Rowena. Giving her his hand, he pulled her up behind him.
“What’s your word worth, sir?” He caught and held the vampire’s gaze. A creature of honour? Or had this wager been a game the vampire didn’t intend to lose?
The bloodsucker hissed. “Oh, if you won this fair and square, I’ll be keeping my word. Don’t you be worrying about that. But something’s off, here.”
The vampire widened his bloodshot eyes, probing for Christopher’s mind. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he shrugged. “So, you’re a wolf. I already knew that. But something’s missing. A connection between the two of you. She’s no virgin, granted. But then we are standing outside of a brothel so no surprise there.” He stopped to soak up the laughter from the crowd, quietening them with a flick of his hand.
“If this woman is yours there should be a bond between you. But there ‘aint. What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is that I won the wager and now I’m taking back my property and leaving.” Christopher gave a small laugh, tilting his chin at the stricken Greg, still lying on the cobbles. “By rights, I should have his head. But I’m willing to let this lie. If you don’t mind, we’re leaving.”
He hadn’t missed Rowena’s sharp intake of breath as she broke from the thrall. Or was it because of his threat to rip Greg’s head from his body? Better that she never discovered that side of him.
What he needed now was for her to follow his lead without question. Once in the carriage, they were safe. Up till then, anything could happen.
“Don’t let me stop you.” The vampire indicated the north exit from the alley. Christopher was more than happy to return the concession. Face-saving was involved on both sides. If it got them out alive, he’d allow the vampire to salvage a little pride.
“Your honour does you justice,” he said, heartened by Rowena’s steady grip of his hand and the forbearance she’d shown during the examination. He’d never forgive himself for having allowed the brothel to use her, but she would survive this ordeal. He was sure of that.
The vampire’s arm shot out, once again blocking their way.
“If I ever catch wind of you in this quarter again, I will have your hide as a rug for my floor.”
“And I’ll be only too happy to return the favour.” Christopher waited for the arm to drop. “You can keep the wig. I don’t think it will suit me.”
The vampire’s arm remained in place. “You be looking after your lady, there. Rather careless you were, to lose her like that. It could so easily happen again.”
Nothing veiled about the threat. The vampire grimaced, showing needle-like fangs that could slice through a vein in a heartbeat. Deliberately, he bit into the soft tissue of his lip. Blood trickled from the wound to puddle in the hollow of his chin.
No. Christopher’s wolf beat at its restraints. The threats, the scent of blood sending it into a frenzy. Time to leave. Tightening his grip on Rowena, he shoved at the vampire’s arm, launching himself forward. Breaking into a run, he dragged her behind him.
“The coat,” she gasped. “I can’t run in this coat.”
“They’re coming.” He glanced over his shoulder. Bastard vampire was grinning widely now, giving them a head start to add to the sport.
“Rowena, don’t be afraid. I’m going to shift. It’s the only way to outwit them.”
“I can’t keep up with a wolf-man.”
“I’ll carry you and I won’t bring it all the way. Don’t be afraid.”
It was more a plea than a command. Whether at full or at half-shift, he was little more than a monster from which humans recoiled in horror.
“I’m made of sterner stuff than that, Mr…?” She tripped, picked up the coat, regained her step and continued running. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.”
“Hadon. Christopher Hadon. You’ll excuse me if I don’t bow.”
“Miss Rothwell. Rowena Rothwell. Delighted to make your acquaintance. Please feel free to shift any moment, now.”
“Why thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll…” The last few words came out on a snarl of pain as the wolf burst through. Grimly, he held on, allowing only the lengthening of bones and enough thickening of muscle to endow him with the strength to outrun their pursuers. Although, considering vampires were involved, that looked more unlikely by the second.
Flinging Rowena over his shoulder, he was dimly aware of creatures scaling buildings, swarming over rooftops, flying overhead.
Red’s territory had extended to a few streets and a warren of underground tunnels. Ahead of them, a metal grating lifted, a head poked out. Christopher kicked at the creature hauling himself from the ground, sending him sprawling. The momentum sent them skidding over the icy cobbles.
He shifted a little more, gaining purchase, feeling his cheeks and forehead twist into a grotesque parody of humanity. Any further into his beast and he could no longer be called a man.
“Hold on, we’re nearly through.” Keeping to the shadows until the noise of the jeers and the taunts died down, he continued to pound the pavement, taking great, loping strides. Hating the figure he presented when he was like this, but revelling in the power lent by the beast he kept inside.
With luck, the vampire meant only to warn him off and not start a gang war over a wager he’d lost in a fair contest.
Sunday and the tap-rooms and pubs were as crammed full of merrymakers and drunks as during any weekday. He slowed to a halt and then lowered Rowena to the ground, steadying her when she swayed.
Shoving the tangle of hair out of her eyes, she placed a hand to her chest and caught her breath. The coat fell open. Hastily, she fastened two of the buttons.
“Thank you, Mr. Hadon.”
“Think nothing of it.” He turned his face from her, wishing he could bring back the man as easily as he unleashed the wolf. It would take a few hours, perhaps a day to properly return to human form. For his monster’s voice to lose its dark, guttural edge.
“I’m not afraid of you, Mr. Hadon.”
Soft fingers touched his bristled cheek. A fleeting, enquiring gesture, catching him off-guard.
For the man it was more reward than the considerable sum of money her father had paid for his daughter’s safe return. For this moment of acceptance, he’d happily go in there and do it all again.
His wolf was having none of it.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” he muttered, and removed her hand. Soot from the grubby step stained her soft palm. A dark imprint of the vampire’s fingers marred her cheek. She belonged somewhere clean, not in this filthy place.
Her acceptance, like her touch would be no more than a fleeting thing. Lasting only until she stepped back into her life and forgot that creatures like him existed.
“Can you change back?” She flicked an anxious glance at the brawling drunks spilling from the public house on the corner of the street. “It would be better to walk as two humans, would it not?”
“I can’t. Not for a while, anyway.” Since she had his coat, the best he could do was pull up his neck-scarf to cover his canine teeth. The size of him might put off any fool drunk enough to think they could take him. They were back in human territory, judging by the shape of the folks happily ignoring God’s day of rest. Only a short walk to the Flags, the graveyard where hopefully his man and the carriage would still be waiting.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“I said don’t be.” He looped his arm through hers, tucking her into his side and out of the way of a staggering group of cackling women, all so inebriated they could hardly stand upright. “Don’t patronise me. I enjoy being a wolf. My carriage is waiting. Let’s get away from here.”
“I meant no offence,” she snapped back at him, swiping away snow crystals from her cheeks. “It’s just that I’ve never met a wolf-man before. I have no idea of the protocol. I’m a believer in equal rights for the Different, you know. There’s really no need to be so prickly or so rude.”
“Prickly?” The corners of his mouth twitched. He’d been called some things in his time, but prickly?
Glancing down at her slight, bedraggled figure, he realised she was barefoot, the soles of her feet bleeding. And yet, not one word of complaint.
The feel of her fingers on his face still lingered. Never mind his wolf, the man wanted her to do it again. Dangerous thoughts for such an ill-fated creature as he.
Distracting thoughts he didn’t need right now. They could still be challenged. He could still lose her.
He needed to get her out of the gathering storm before she took ill from the cold, take her home and back to her waiting family.
“Forgive me,” he said. “You’re right. There’s no need to be rude.”
Sweeping her into his arms, he made his way swiftly to the waiting carriage.
Every part of her shook. Now safely in the carriage with the wolf-man and racing through the icy streets, all her courage had left her in a rush.
Already, the abduction, the shock of the rescue, felt like a dream so bizarre Rowena half expected to close her eyes and open them again to find herself in her own bed with its pink silk quilt. In her own bedroom with its lilac wallpaper and Persian rug. Benji the dog sleeping in his basket.
She’d faced down an evil vampire and for some reason, lived to tell the tale.
That reason sat opposite, cradling her icy feet on his lap, his fingers vigorously rubbing them back to life with no thought for propriety.
He’d seen her in her undergarments. Knew she was no longer pure. Rowena let out a silent breath. How much more humiliating could it get?
Needle-sharp pain shot through her feet as he warmed them in his large hands. Hands now lightly dusted with dark fur, the nails yellow and curved over the tips.
She clamped her mouth closed to stop her teeth rattling, wondering where this Christopher Hadon was taking her. She couldn’t go directly home. Not dressed like this.
Christopher Hadon. The name sounded vaguely familiar.
A wolf in gentleman’s clothing. Few minority creatures made the leap to polite society. Humans still harboured far too many prejudices against the Different, as they called them. So much easier to relegate them to the slums and underworld and pretend they simply did not exist.
Her father had been good at that. What a rude awakening it must have been for him to have to beg a wolf-man to rescue his daughter.
A wolf-man who had a name. How strange that despite her liberal ideas on equality, she’d never thought of them in terms of creatures who had names.
And she’d never for the life of her imagined the feel of a wolf-man’s hand would be this good.
“You lost your ring. I’m sorry for that,” she said. Had it been of value? If not monetary, then perhaps sentimental? How could she ever make that up to him?
“A lump of gold, nothing more. I can have another made.” Satisfied that her feet were once again functioning, Christopher leaned back into his seat. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to you in time.”
It took a moment to understand his meaning. Heat warmed her cheeks, but he should know the truth. He deserved that for all he’d done for her.
“Oh, but you did, Mr. Hadon. And I thank you for it.”
Like the gentleman he undoubtedly was, he only nodded, accepting her thanks without asking her to explain. Still, she felt strangely compelled to tell him the truth.
“It didn’t happen at the brothel. I had a…previous encounter. With a man. When I was nineteen.”
“You were taken advantage of?”
“Yes.” She spoke with confidence. In the past two years, she’d convinced herself of being the innocent party, wronged by an older man who should have known better.
Then why did she only remember the wicked pleasure of that sun-filled afternoon. The desperate craving to do it again?
Christopher rubbed a hand over his distorted features, not at all scandalised by her admission. “It served us well when we most needed it. You were very brave tonight, Rowena. Be proud of yourself.”
“I don’t remember bravery being involved.” She thought about it. “Just the gut-wrenching terror and the feeling that I would do anything required to escape.”
“That’s how it is when your life is at stake. And now you’re going back into the real world. It might feel a little odd after all this.”
He couldn’t have said it better. Back there, in the brothel, the dirty alley surrounded by the hideous, forgotten ones, she might have happily stripped naked for all to see if it meant safe passage home. Now, sitting on the plush carriage seat, speeding through one of the gentler areas where lights shone in windows, railings gleamed and doorknobs were polished daily by servants, she could hardly contemplate saying the scandalous words she’d uttered with such conviction.
She’d let the whole world know she was a fallen woman.
Or so it felt.
“Christopher. Call me Christopher.”
Along with his features, his voice had changed. No longer cultured and well-spoken, now his words were guttural, with a dark edge that made her shiver from something other than the cold.
“Yes, it does already feel odd.” She glanced from the window. Fewer lights, meaning they were leaving the city behind. Still snowing, from what she could make out. “I was only taken yesterday and it somehow feels as if I’ve been away for a lifetime.”
“The shock of it all. It will pass.”
Christopher lifted the curtain to check where they were. For the first time, she noticed the tears in his shirt, the ripped trouser seams. The flesh beneath straining at the cloth. The toes of his boots had burst open, revealing the same sharp talons he sported on his hands. Light brown hair that had barely curled over his collar, now hung past his shoulders in thick, glossy hanks.
“You’re staring,” he said with more than a hint of irony. While she blushed and stammered out an apology, he checked the pistol that had been resting on the carriage seat. Satisfied it was properly loaded, he placed it back on the seat and scratched his hairy cheek.
“I’m stuck like this for a few hours. Does it bother you?”
“It should.” She ought to be honest with him. Although she’d never met any of the underworld creatures, she did know that some managed to live a semblance of a genteel life amongst decent folk. There was talk that one even sat in the House of Lords. Although few believed that tale, who knew what magical means they employed to wheedle their way into society? As it was, where she lived, such creatures were ignored or studied with scientific interest.
“But it doesn’t,” she added hastily. Not wishing him to think her ungrateful. “How was Papa?”
“Outraged, upset. He very much wants you back.”
“We were in Central Station waiting for the Buxton train. There was a decorated Christmas tree, so pretty. I only wandered away for a moment.”
“That’s all it takes. Don’t blame yourself, Rowena. This happens to young women every day.”
The light had faded too much to make out his amber wolf-eyes. Was this why she didn’t fear the creature before her? Despite the change, his eyes had remained the same. Kind, determined eyes.
She was staring at a wolf-man and feeling safer that she ever had.
“Was he angry with me?” The shame she’d surely brought upon her family would not be without consequence. There would be blame, and she would shoulder it.
Christopher shrugged. “He paid me to get you back. We didn’t make small talk. Why,” he said, narrowing his eyes in question. “Why should he be angry with you? It was hardly your fault.”
In the dark of the carriage, it was easy to talk of such things. Once home, after a few terse words of censure, no one would ever speak of this again. Life would resume its monotonous march from one day to the next and her harrowing experience would be brushed under the rug. She’d be married off with indecent haste to some paid suitor who wouldn’t ask questions about her past.
“I know my father. Christopher, I can’t go home looking like this.”
“I know.” Christopher’s voice gentled. “I told him it would be a few days, at least before I tracked you down. There’s a woman in the village who’ll give you lodgings and clothing and time to recover yourself. A kind of sanctuary house. You’ll be home for Christmas, though, don’t worry.”
“Christmas? We were on our way to Buxton, to visit a maiden aunt. A group of matrons were singing carols, collecting for the poor. The air was sweet with the smell of roasted chestnuts. In all of this, I somehow forgot that in a few weeks’ time it will be Christmas.”
“Do you make a big thing of it?”
“Of Christmas? No, sadly. Father is a Senior at the College of Scientific Atheists, so not a believer. He disapproves greatly of all the frippery. To make their point, the College put on a day of special lectures instead of festivities where the guest speakers all outdo themselves trying to prove the nativity could never have taken place. It is always so… edifying.”
Her remark elicited a snort of laughter, which Christopher hastily covered with a cough.
“Do wolves, I mean do you celebrate the Christmas season, Mr. Hadon?”
“Not really. I’ve never bothered with it, myself. It’s just another day to me.”
“Perhaps one day, you will?”
He gave another dry laugh. “Unlikely.”
She felt it was perhaps time to change the subject. They’d said all there was to say about Christmas.
“Where are we going?” Now, only blackness showed where the curtains did not cover the carriage windows. She knew from her studies that to the south of the great industrial city of Manchester lay the great, flat Cheshire Plain. To the north were the Lancashire moors, bleak and desolate at this time of the year. Romantic, even, if the poets were to be believed. Drawing up her legs, she tucked her feet under her on the seat, feeling the cold seeping back in.
Or was that to avoid contact with Christopher’s long limbs? A monster sat opposite her and yet he fascinated her. She’d felt the pull of the vampire’s thrall when he’d taken and held her gaze. Did wolves also have that power? With Christopher, she felt safe. But what did she know of him, really?
He’d been paid to do a job and she should let go all thoughts of knights in gleaming armour rescuing maidens in distress. That only happened in the cheap, penny novels she secretly acquired from the downstairs maid. Her gentleman rescuer had turned from man to beast in the blink of an eye. And that made him dangerous to everyone. Including her.
Too easy to forget that.
No answer to her question. Perhaps he was as exhausted as she? For the first time in her life, she wished she’d taken the trouble to learn more of the creatures with which humans shared the earth. How did a man transform so effortlessly into a beast? Or had Christopher merely made it seem easy? Had the shift taken a physical toll from which he must now recover? Did it hurt?
Questions it seemed impertinent to ask.
Feeling safe, for now, she closed her eyes and let herself drift.
* * * *
Christopher’s wolf-gaze pierced the wall of whirling white. Up here, on the narrow moor road, the snow had already covered the track leading to Little-Hadon village. Built on the high ground to avoid the flooding of the valley-bottom, the village paid the price when winter came. In heavy snowfall, the only way in and out was on foot.
Leaning from the window, he called to the coachman.
“Do you think we can still get through?”
“Risky. Might be able to get t’village. But getting out again?”
“Shift,” Christopher ordered him. “Too cold to be sitting up front as a human.”
He slid back into his seat, contemplating the sleeping woman. Propriety said he should take her on into the village, to his agent, even at the risk of having to leave the coach there and go on to Hadon House on foot. Her family could spin some tale about her having been to stay with relatives to explain her absence from the family home. They didn’t need the added bonus of rumours that she’d spent time with one of the Different.
No hardship for him, of course. In this state he hardly felt the cold. For a wolf, a snowdrift was a bed cosy as a drift of heather.
The coach lurched and slid alarmingly to the left. Rowena’s eyes snapped open and for a moment she regarded him blankly. She sat up, pushing back her hair.
“Where are we?”
She’d asked their destination before falling asleep. Was there any harm in letting her know where he lived?
“On Hadon Moor,” he said. “A few miles south of Little-Hadon village.”
“Where your agent lives?”
“It’s where I take the rescued girls, yes. I’m not sure we can get through, though.”
“Do you live in the village?” Grimacing, she unfolded her limbs. A shudder wracked her body.
“No I have a house on the moor. Come over here,” he said giving her a hand. “I’ve enough body heat for the both of us and you look and feel freezing.”
“No one will know,” he said when she hesitated. “You won’t realise how cold you’re getting. Let me warm you.”
“Yes. I am cold.” She let him pull her over and into his arms. He couldn’t help noticing how nicely she fit there.
“Can we reach your house?”
“Yes, but we might have to abandon the carriage. I’d rather get you through to the village.
“Christopher.” She swallowed and gazed up at him. “Don’t leave me with another stranger.”
He understood the plea in her eyes. Or was that just wishful thinking? He couldn’t take her home with him. Not with the full moon approaching. He couldn’t be around her at full moon.
“Tuck the blanket over your legs. I’m going to talk with the coachman. What the hell?”
The carriage lurched to an abrupt halt, almost flinging them both from the seat. He heard a curse and then the thump of the coachman’s feet hitting the snow.
“Wait here. I’ll see what’s happened.” She didn’t need to see Josh’s ugly wolf at half-shift. One wolf was enough for this night.
“I’m unhitching the horses.” Josh was already unhooking the trace. “Best walk them home from here.”
The carriage had skidded into a snow- bank and stuck fast, the horses starting to panic. Christopher immediately set about helping to release them from the shafts. No need to question Josh’s decision. It would be madness to have them attempt to haul the carriage up the steep track leading to Hadon House.
“Josh, if you can’t get through, then stable them at the Hall.” Not an option he favoured, given his relations with his father. How long now since he’d stepped foot in the stately Hadon Hall?
“Will you take her into the village on foot?”
Josh crouched, inspecting each of the horse shoes in turn, scraping out the compacted snow with his claws.
“It would be for the best. I can get her through.”
Josh positioned himself in between the horses, a set of reins in each hand.
Christopher surveyed the blanketed landscape illuminated by the coach-lamps. Few trees this high on the moor, but it had a bleak, rugged beauty that called to him. This was Hadon land, granted to them at the restoration of the monarchy after the English Civil War. Where he belonged, even if he had been exiled from his Pack.
Ahead, at Gibbet Corner, the road split, one fork running parallel to the village, the other climbing steeply to Hadon Hall and then on to the smaller and more remote, Hadon House.
It would be easier to take Rowena on to the village where she could wait out the storm. When the snow iced over he’d send Josh out with the sleigh and have her delivered back to her father, properly chaperoned. Josh would collect the rest of the payment.
Then why did he hesitate?
Because then it would start all over again? Some other family, bereft at the loss of their daughter and willing to swallow their pride, would find his weakness and offer him anything as long as he saved her.
He couldn’t save them all. No matter how much he wanted to.
“All right. You go on with the horses. And have Mary waiting with a nice hot toddy.”
“Take the lass to the village, Christopher.” Josh shook his head. “Humans and wolves don’t mix. Not in that way.”
He didn’t need reminding of that. Nor a lecture from one of his oldest friends.
Josh heaved out an overly-dramatic sigh. “I’ll tell Mary to expect you both, then.”
“You’ll tell her no such thing. Do you hear?” He called after Josh in vain. Wolf and horses were fast-disappearing into the blizzard. “I’m taking her to the village as planned. I may overnight there. Expect me when you see me.”
Decision made, Christopher stomped back to the carriage, dashing the snow from his whiskers. Was it all starting to take a toll? Making him soft in the head? Perhaps he should let go his pride and beg his father to relieve him of the burden of Lone Wolf, the lowest order in the Pack. Beg his permission for a mating. It would solve so many problems.
With his father, with this constant battle with the moon.
“What can I do to help, Christopher? Despite being female, I can be quite practical when a dilemma looms.”
Rowena’s earnest eyes gazed up at him.
He hauled himself into the carriage, steadying himself against the tilt of the floor.
“Can you run barefoot in the snow?” Her naked feet peeping out from under his coat made his hackles rise. Couldn’t she have thought to put on a pair of shoes, at least?
“No, but you could carry me. And perhaps lend me your socks?”
“You wish to wear my socks?” He bit back the incredulous bark. If he started howling now, he wouldn’t stop.
“Since you have no need of them in your state, it would be a most practical solution, would it not?”
“All right, have my socks.” He’d ruined another pair of boots shifting without undressing first. How ridiculous he must look to her. “They’re not very clean,” he said peeling them off and throwing them onto the seat.
“And yes, I know. There’s no need to be rude about it.” She thought him a bad-tempered beast? She wouldn’t be far wrong. He tried not to watch her bend a shapely leg and proceed to slide one of his socks over her toes, smoothing them up her calf. She seemed oblivious to his scrutiny. Did she not realise the dark was no barrier to a wolf?
“There,” she said when done. She wriggled her toes and then pulled closed the coat. “Are we going on up to the house?”
“To the village. I can’t take you up to the house.”
“Because I wouldn’t be properly chaperoned?” Pressing her lips together, she stared from the window into the whirling storm. “I’m a fallen woman, Christopher. See how easily we talk in first name-terms? How I declared my state publicly for all to hear? I know I shall have to step back into society at some point, but grant me a few days. Please? To readjust. I promise to stay out of your way.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It feels so to me.”
He had her by the shoulders before she could move. “I’m a wolf, Rowena. And next week it will be full moon. Am I making things clearer?”
“Wolves only eat humans in fairy tales.” She stared defiantly back into his wolf-eyes. No hint of a tremble under his grip.
“Well of course I’m not going to eat you. That’s not what I meant.” He let her go, retiring to his own seat, his mind too clouded to think straight. The pull of the moon had been unusually strong this month. He should never have taken on this job so late in the cycle.
“But I might not do your reputation any more good. I’m an unmated wolf and that moon will only grow bigger. Do you understand my meaning?”
He could have her now, in the cold and the snow. A few lust-filled moments on that carriage seat and who but the two of them would know?
Her cheeks had turned a fiery red. Was she thinking the same, or was it merely the cold?
“But you’re also a gentleman, Christopher. A day or so. No more. And then you may take me to your agent. The world feels so strange right now.”
“If you come with me, it will get even stranger, I promise you.” She’d worn him down with a look, a simple plea. And they said women were the weaker sex?
“Is your agent expecting you today?”
“She expects me when she sees me.”
“Then give me sanctuary, Christopher. Until the storm passes.”
“There wasn’t supposed to be a storm.” A wolf should know these things. Josh had sniffed the air at sunrise and confidently predicted nothing more than a light frost. And he’d agreed.
But Old Mother Nature loved to surprise. And a wolf didn’t always get it right.
Rowena was safe enough, he decided. He was still in control and she would hardly be harbouring lustful thoughts about him in this state. He was surprised she could even bear to look at him.
She’d be gone before he became that lunatic of cautionary tales.
But look at him she did. Wide, hazel eyes caught and held him in place, filling his mind with impossible thoughts. Gently, he reached out to tease back a lock of hair that had fallen into her eyes, feeling her smooth, unblemished skin with his rough fingertips.
Too civilised for the likes of him. Wolves and humans never mixed business with pleasure.
He tried but failed to summon up any more excuses.
A place of sanctuary. Nothing more. A few days of respite from the world before Rowena rejoined her family.
“Here,” he said offering her the blanket. “Wrap it around your shoulders. It’s a good half an hour’s run from here at wolf speed. If I shift a little more, we can be faster.” He bent for his boots. Not strictly needed, but at half-shift and with such a long run ahead of them, his feet might start to feel the chill.
“No. Stay as you are.” Quickly, Rowena draped the blanket over her head, wrapping it about her neck like a scarf. “If you change further, it will take you longer to change back, will it not? How shall we do this?”
She’d asked a similar question back at the brothel. He gave her the same answer.
“You need to trust me, Rowena.” He tied up his laces and dipping his head, jumped down from the carriage. He held out his arm. “Come on. Josh and Mary will be waiting with brandy and a hot bath. They’ll be expecting you.”
He managed the last with only a small hint of irony.
Was this how freedom felt?
The flight through the Manchester streets had been too frantic, their goal only to put distance between themselves and the slum-dwellers. Now, despite the freezing chill, the driving snow and the need to be inside and in the warm, the flight into the silent darkness took on an almost magical air.
Pressed fast against Christopher’s chest, listening to the thump of his feet, his harsh, rasping breath as he cut his way through the storm she could well believe they were flying.
If there was a top of the world, this surely must be it.
“Nearly there.” He raised his voice against the screaming wind, never letting up the punishing pace he’d set himself. “We’re passing Hadon Hall. My house is another three miles further on. How are you feeling?”
“C-cold.” She couldn’t help stammering out the word. Her body simply would not cooperate. “But p-please don’t think I’m c-complaining.”
He put on a sudden burst of speed as they passed Hadon Hall. In truth all she could make out was a large, dark shape accented by a few wavering pin-pricks of light.
Hadon Hall? Suddenly it clicked into place. Sir Christopher Hadon. Her mother had spoken in scandalised tones of the upstart creatures who’d managed, no doubt through dubious means, to bag themselves a title. She’d made it more than clear they would never formally be received in her salon.
But Christopher said he lived at Hadon House. And he seemed in a mighty hurry to skirt the Hall.
A knight of the realm would not bother themselves with rescuing fallen women.
A little way past Hadon Hall, Christopher slowed his pace, shoulders heaving while he caught his breath. His heart beat so hard she could feel it thumping against her own chest. It would surely burst if he kept up this pace.
“Are you ready for the last leg?”
She adjusted her grip, or at least imagined she did. Her hands were so numb, she’d lost all feeling. After three attempts to pull the blanket back over her head, Christopher did it for her. The hair on his head had frozen into stiff strands that rattled when he moved. Hers felt the same.
She was on a dark, stormy moor, far from civilisation, lying in the arms of a wolf-man.
A wolf-man who’d asked for her trust and to whom she’d given it without question.
She was breathless by the time the lights of Hadon House came into view, almost unable to breathe with cold. A much smaller dwelling than the Hall, it nevertheless looked solid and welcoming.
She wouldn’t have cared if it had been the meanest of hovels as long as it took them out of the storm.
Lights glowed on either side of the solid-looking door and another in one of the downstairs windows. The door opened as they approached. A figure emerged holding aloft a lamp.
“Josh told me you’d be bringing her here. For the love of God, get her inside before she freezes to death.”
A woman’s voice. Sharp, exasperated.
“There’s a fire in the library along with some hot mulled wine and dry blankets. I’ll make you both a nice cup of tea.” The woman stood for a moment, hands on her ample hips, favouring Christopher with a steely, appraising glare.
“Thank you, Mary.” Christopher marched past her. “And you can spare me the lecture.”
“You might have told me to expect guests,” Mary shot back, not in the least disturbed by Christopher’s appearance. Or the size of him.
Having said her piece, Mary followed them in and then disappeared through a door at the back of the square hall. A savoury smell lingered in the air, reminding Rowena that she hadn’t eaten since morning. A central staircase dominated the space, splitting to the left and the right as it climbed. A huge log crackled and blazed in the fireplace. Paintings in gilt frames covered the walls.
Rowena gazed about her in a daze, vaguely taking it in. She wanted only to sleep now that they were out of the cold.
The hall spun around and then they were in a corridor and then in what could only be the library. Dark wood shelves groaned under the weight of books of all shapes and sizes, haphazardly stacked as if taken down regularly and well-used.
“Take off the coat.” Christopher put her down and then set about pushing two of the leather armchairs up close to the fire. A jug of wine sat on the stone hearth.
Nothing worked any more. Not her hands, her voice or her legs. Slowly, she sank to her knees on the rug, frigid fingers locked onto the lapels of the coat. Christopher was behind her, stripping it away, replacing it with a soft, warmed blanket. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shrugging out of the waistcoat, pulling off his necktie.
She felt herself being lifted into the chair. The wet socks sliding from her feet. She heard the clink of glass and then tasted hot, spiced wine on her lips.
A feeling of hazy well-being stole over her. A woman could get used to this pampering. What need to think for one-self when you had an attentive wolf-man to do it for you?
Life seeped back into her cheeks and nose, her fingers and toes, making them throb and sting. Exhausted, she tipped back her head and closed her eyes, unable even to summon the energy to thank her saviour for granting her this period of respite.
This time last week she’d been dressed in Sunday-best and making polite small-talk with a college professor at the Welfare Society’s annual charity dinner. A man she suspected her father was lining up as prospective suitor. And in the ensuing week she’d been kidnapped by ruffians, sold on to a brothel, declared to a vampire gang-leader she was no longer a virgin and all but forced a wolf-man to take her home with him.
Oddly, the latter was starting to feel more normal than her previous life.
* * * *
Well, this was a temptation he didn’t want.
This was the part of the day when he should be contemplating a job well done. Another young woman in need returned to the bosom of her family. Collect payment and then wait for the next frantic plea, delivered through his network of agents, begging he fetch home their daughter.
Instead, he was pouring two brandies instead of one. Skulking awkwardly in the corner of his own library because here, back in relative civilisation, he was more acutely aware than ever of what a freak he must look to her.
Humans had a way of making him feel like that. A feeling he didn’t relish.
“Stay awake, Rowena.” Christopher took a calming breath and crossed the room. “Have some of Mary’s hot-pot and then Mary will show you to one of the guest rooms. You look done in.”
She’d stopped staring at least. And he’d forgotten she already had a glass of wine in progress. Instead of handing her a brandy, he placed both goblets on a side-table and threw himself into the leather armchair.
“You must take off that wet shirt.” Rowena dragged open her eyes. “Or you’ll catch a chill.”
He should, but he wasn’t about to. Not in half-shift, in front of her.
“Do you live here alone?”
The question caught him off guard. He’d been too busy contemplating the wild tangle of hair that made her look far too rumpled and appealing. As if she’d just tumbled from bed, making his thoughts race towards a place they definitely shouldn’t go.
Together with the knowledge of what she wore beneath that blanket and the blood singing in his veins from the run, he was having a hard time tamping down his lusty wolf.
“Josh and Mary live at the gatehouse, so I suppose that’s a yes.”
“And your family live at the Hall?”
He’d normally have been offended by such personal questions, particularly coming from a human. But her tone held no mockery or guile. She actually appeared interested in what he had to say.
“Pack. Wolves live in Packs. And yes, my father and mother live up at the Hall.”
“He’s Sir Christopher Hadon?”
He couldn’t help the dismissive snort. “That’s the man. And you say your father is a man of science? What exactly does he do?”
Better to change the subject since he couldn’t think of one single complimentary comment about his own father.
Rowena’s mouth turned up in a sleepy smile. She rubbed at her cheek with the heel of her hand. “He pontificates a lot.”
His bark of laughter made her physically jump and Mary tut loudly as she shouldered open the door bearing a tray laid with spoons, plates and a small tureen.
“Manners, Christopher. And don’t you go drinking this from the plate. Use the spoon. I don’t know what possessed you to shift in front of a lady.”
Rowena didn’t appear to have noticed the exchange, and if she did, she was far more polite than he and gave no indication of it. To add insult, his stomach gave an appreciative growl at the delicious scent of meat and potatoes in broth and he did indeed want to down the whole lot in one satisfying gulp. Never mind the plate, he was so hungry he could drink the whole tureen and would have had he been alone.
Humans begged favours of the man, but what they were really buying was this creature. His reflection in the over-mantle mirror said it all. He did what the police and the fancy private detectives wouldn’t. Went places they couldn’t go.
And his clients paid him well for it.
A mercenary wolf, who got the job done.
For all her bluster, Mary was a kind soul at heart. She’d pulled up one of the cherry-wood side tables so Rowena could eat in comfort. Readjusted the blanket when it slipped over Rowena’s shoulder to reveal a lacy camisole strap.
That gesture was probably more for his benefit than for hers.
In wolf form, even at half-shift his senses were painfully acute. He reeked of Rowena and she of him, although she wouldn’t be aware of that. If she disappeared into the storm, he’d find her. Wherever she went, he’d find her.
For some reason that thought gave him comfort.
“You’ll be needing me to stay in the house for the night?” Mary collected the wine-glasses and placed them on the empty tray, fussing around unnecessarily until he gave a soft, warning growl.
Mary didn’t break stride. “There’s no need to take that tone. You don’t care about your reputation, but what about hers? Will you think of that?”
He eyed his stew, knowing he should apologise for his bad temper.
Rowena was still studiously ignoring them both. Patting delicately at her mouth with the napkin. Taking small sips of her soup off the back of her spoon like well-bred people did.
She glanced up, took their measure and diplomatically resumed eating.
“No one need know. I’ll hand her over in the morning and Margaret will have her taken back to her family as arranged.”
“You make me sound like a parcel.” A thread of hysteria coloured Rowena’s words. “All I want is some time away from the world. Time to find myself again.”
Christopher waved Mary away, relieved when she took the hint and retreated. He’d seen this often enough. Everyone had their limit and Rowena sounded dangerously close to hers. Heck, most of the women fainted within five minutes of the rescue and would have had a fit of screaming hysterics had he appeared to them like this.
“I’ll be preparing the guest room, then?” Mary called from outside the door, determined, as usual, to have the last word.
The sound of her feet stomping across the stone-flagged hall told him she didn’t need an answer. Neither did he offer one. The thrum of a headache nagged at his temples, warning that a wolf had its limits, too. The shift back to man would sap what little energy he had left. He had none to spare for arguing with Mary.
“I didn’t mean to cause all this trouble.” Rowena pushed aside her plate, lips set in a bleak line. Her forlorn expression would have melted the coldest of hearts. It was certainly doing the strangest of things to his.
Things he’d never thought to feel again.
Defensively, he lifted the plate to his lips and took a long slurp. Anything but gaze back into those pleading eyes of hers. He had no answers for the question he saw there. He rescued bodies, not minds.
“It’s no trouble. We’ve more than enough bedrooms.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
He put down his plate and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, feeling the bristles sprinkling his cheek. The poor girl was feeling lost enough without having to contend with this new world of men who turned at will into the beasts of nightmares.
“If you’re asking how your family will cope with all this, I can’t tell you.”
“But you must know how it was for the other girls?” The blanket had slipped, revealing the curve of a shoulder, a lacy strap. “You must know something of that?”
He shrugged, trying to ignore the tantalising glimpse of thigh, the hint of cleavage. “I should imagine it’s different for everyone.”
“They won’t take it well.” Rowena turned to stare into the fire. “Things will never be the same.”
That much he could agree on, although he’d spare her those thoughts. A little distance from the life she must return to – he’d give her that. But return she must. And before the moon grew any larger.
With his wolf senses, he listened to the storm, hoping that dawn wouldn’t greet them with the sight of more roof tiles littering the path. Up here, he knew peace. Even more so when buffered from the world by the snow and snarling winds that dared anyone to try breaching his sanctuary.
Rowena cocked her head, listening, with him, to the rattling windows, the wind whistling through every crevice.
Was she feeling it too? The sense that up here nothing could touch them?
With a sigh, she sank into the worn leather chair, tipping back her head, exposing her throat.
Unwittingly calling to his wolf.
The human in him saw a woman who finally felt safe enough to relax. To the wolf an exposed throat meant only one thing. Submission to his will.
He didn’t want this temptation, but he was starting to think he might need it.
* * * *
Half in and out of a dream, Rowena dragged herself awake wondering why Johnson the butler wasn’t answering the insistent knocking on the front door.
Sitting up, she shoved her unbound hair out of her sleep-fogged eyes and took in the unfamiliar room.
Lit by a single lamp sitting on a side table, the room was larger than her own, the furnishings heavy and dark, the bed canopied and hung with side curtains.
The pillows smelled vaguely of lavender and a faint odour of must and damp clung to the air.
She felt as if she’d awoken in another era.
And so cold. No fire blazed in the ornate fireplace. Pulling the sheet under her chin, she drew up her knees and glanced at the window, the source of the knocking. A branch, caught by the ever-present wind tapped on the glass like a spectre asking to be let in.
A house like this would surely have ghosts.
Scolding herself for such an overactive imagination, she pushed the unhelpful thought aside and concentrated on another sound now filtering into her consciousness. A voice calling out in what sounded like desperation.
She glanced again at the window. Too dark to see clearly but the tapping was definitely a branch, not a ghostly hand. The sound came from somewhere in the house.
She was still in her undergarments, so she hadn’t dreamed the abduction, the vampires. The rescue. Or Christopher, the charming, handsome man who’d turned so effortlessly into a beast.
He hadn’t wanted to bring her here and her insistence had compromised them both. Mary certainly seemed to think so.
Shivering, Rowena slid her legs from the bed to the small bedside rag-rug. How could she ignore sounds of such obvious anguish? Mindful of the fact that her curiosity had led her into trouble on more than one occasion, she decided to listen at the door, perhaps peek around and try to determine whether the sound might be a cry for help.
Mary had left a gentleman’s dressing gown on one of the bedroom chairs. Rowena draped it over her shoulders and glanced at the door.
Did wolf-men make random, odd noises at night? Her knowledge of the creatures with which humans shared the world extended only to hushed whispers at dinner parties and soirees. The Different, as they were known, were either nightmarish creatures to be feared and avoided, or sadly misguided monsters in gentlemen’s clothing.
With shame, she remembered one young man, who on the outside had looked so normal, being ejected with insult and force from one of her father’s political meetings for having the wrong blood. Her scandalised mother had covered her eyes and ordered her to look away, lest his very image contaminate their delicate sensibilities.
How dare they attempt to walk in decent society? Who do they think they are?
Little wonder Christopher and his family lived in so remote a place.
Rowena tiptoed across the bare floorboards to the door and paused. A few moments’ silence and then the shouting started again. Amelia? It sounded like someone calling out a woman’s name.
Was it any of her concern? Possibly not. But she was awake and up and it would surely not hurt to investigate a little further. If it were merely Christopher shifting back to man, she would scuttle back to bed and leave him be, for he would surely not wish an audience for that.
The door creaked alarmingly when she cracked it open to reveal a long corridor lined with windows at which the curtains had not been drawn. Still deep into night, judging by the gloom. Giving her eyes time to adjust to the dark, she listened, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound.
Christopher’s voice, if memory served her. His man-voice, not the guttural snarl he’d adopted as wolf. Her courage wilted at the thought of perhaps encountering him in even more of a wolf-state than before. What if he were shifting completely?
A ripple of pure terror gripped her. Her hand on the door-knob shook as she remembered the scientific sketches she’d seen in the Manchester Museum of Natural History. Creatures so horrific, women had fainted from simply viewing the drawings.
Courage Rowena. You looked a vampire in the eye. Took dinner with a wolf-man. Christopher would never hurt you.
Not Christopher the man, anyway.
Feeling for the wall, she took a tentative step. A cool draught rippled the long carpet as she made her way cautiously towards the sound, passing several doors she presumed to be more bedrooms. Which one was it? The sound was definitely emanating from one of them.
Her silent question was answered before she had time to act. The door directly in front of her flew open, to reveal the dark silhouette of a man. The scream stuck in her throat when a hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off the sound.
The dressing gown slithered to the floor. Her whole body froze in terror and she simply could not hold it.
With her heart banging painfully against her ribs, she raised her eyes, wondering what hideous creature she would encounter. How foolishly trusting she’d been. And perhaps, so had her father. Did this Christopher Hadon only pretend to rescue women in order to bring them here to his lair and…?”
“Rowena, it’s me. Christopher. What are you doing wandering about?”
Her head spun from lack of air; he had her mouth and nose covered fast. Hearing his voice, which sounded so normal, she beat at his arm with her hand, annoyed now that she’d taken such fright. Didn’t he realise he was suffocating her?
The hand dropped away. She gulped in a heaving breath and thought that Christopher perhaps looked more man than wolf this time. Hard to tell in the dark.
“I didn’t mean to pry.” She took a step away, wondering if he’d let her go. He did, rubbing away the last vestiges of sleep from his face while she composed herself as well as she could given that she was standing in her undergarments in a wolf-man’s house far from where anyone would hear her screams.
“I heard someone calling out. I thought they were in need of help.”
“What? What did you hear?”
He sounded almost sheepish. And only now did she realise he was naked to the waist and clad only in trousers which were still unbuttoned.
Mama would have a fit if she could see this. Mama would indeed never speak to her again had she any idea of what her daughter had experienced in the past few years.
Christopher bent for the dressing gown and then he was wrapping it about her shoulders with tender concern. “What did you hear, Rowena?”
“A woman’s name. Amelia. I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t ask, I know. My curiosity gets the better of me sometimes.” She gave a small, hysterical laugh. “Mama says it will be the death of me one day.”
Don’t stare at his chest.
She lowered her eyes, realising she’d been gawking at the poor man yet again.
“Storm’s still raging,” he murmured, glancing at the window. “We’ll be snowed in come morning. I suppose you want to know about Amelia?”
She swallowed. Although clipped, his voice held no anger. More like resignation. An unrequited love, perhaps? A wife who’d died? Did wolf-men take wives like human men?
“Only if you wish to tell me.” She shivered again as much from the cold as the anticipation of what she was about to learn. Christopher drew her into his bedroom, and she followed after only a brief hesitation. An act which in itself showed how much her life had changed in the past few days.
If caught, her reputation would be in shreds. But then, wasn’t it already?
“It’s hardly proper, I know.” Christopher stepped away, like a true gentleman, giving her the space to leave if she wished. “My agent, the woman in the village, is discreet. No one who matters will know you were here.”
His room was somehow cosier than hers. Warmer and with a more lived-in air.
He busied himself lighting a lamp, for her benefit she supposed since he seemed to have no problem seeing in the dark. The flare of the match lit his features, which she was relieved to see were now more man than wolf. He bore only the hint of canines and his hair was the light brown she remembered from his first appearance at the brothel. A scattering of coarse hair shaded his cheeks and chin, much like that of a man who’d neglected to shave.
In height and demeanour, though, nothing had changed. Still tall and broad of shoulder, rounded and sculpted by the orange glow of the lamp. He moved with a confident, easy grace, setting the lamp beside the bed, inviting her without words to sit and listen to his story.
And thankfully, he reached for his shirt and made himself decent. The sight of him half-naked had been doing strange things to her insides.
The cold didn’t seem to bother him. Sitting on the edge of the high, four-poster bed, he folded his arms over his chest and stared up at the plaster-moulded ceiling.
“Hop up,” he said eventually. “I don’t bite and it’s not as if we haven’t already been this close. You look frozen. Get under the quilt and warm yourself.”
“Hardly proper at all,” she said and couldn’t help smiling. “My parents will have informed everyone I decided to spend Christmas in Buxton with my maiden aunt.”
“And they will believe that?”
He gave her his hand to help her up onto the end of the bed. She wriggled her feet under the quilt. The feather mattress was a great deal more comfortable than the mattress on the guest bed. And it didn’t smell of goose-grease.
“No. They will feign polite surprise while assuming I’ve disappeared for the same reason all young women disappear from society.”
“They’ll think you were with child?”
“Most likely. So you see, it’s already too late to worry about my reputation. Will you tell me about Amelia?”
“If you’d like to hear it.” He gave a dry laugh. “As you can imagine, I get little opportunity for polite conversation. Hadon House doesn’t receive many calling cards.”
He had the most mesmerising eyes she’d ever seen. Glowing a soft amber in the lamplight, the pupils elongated like that of a cat. They caught her momentarily and held her in place but not because he wished to control her as the vampire had. The same anguish she’d heard in his voice, she now saw in his eyes. A brief flash of something she suspected he kept well hidden from the world.
All alone in this big house with no one to talk to but Josh and Mary. Whether by choice or force of destiny, he must be so terribly lonely.
Her chest constricted until she was almost unable to breathe. His eyes narrowed in question as she reached out, without thought for propriety, and covered his hand with hers.
It wasn’t pity. Did he think that? She knew only that she wanted to offer comfort and to apologise in some way for the uncharitable thoughts humans harboured about his kind. This man, for all his difference, stood head and shoulders above some of the braying asses society graced with the title of gentleman.
The human man who’d seduced her hadn’t cared a jot for her reputation.
“I would love to hear the story,” she said encouraging him to begin. “Perhaps telling someone will help?”
Christopher inspected their joined hands and nodded slowly.
“Yes. Perhaps it will,” he said quietly.
End of Excerpt…
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