Historical Paranormal Romance
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…
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The Wolves of Hadon Moor
C. A. Nicks
Copyright © 2013 C. A. Nicks
All rights reserved
Copy edited by Judicious Revisions LLC
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… 55,000 words. Please note, I use UK English spelling.
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 hands 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 had little experience 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, in her social circle, 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. 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.
This was madness, of course. Inviting her here, into his bedroom, onto his bed. What in hell’s name was he thinking? He couldn’t even blame the wolf. The shift had almost worn off, the man all but returned.
Having her here broke every code of honour he lived by. But then, he’d realised that the moment he’d agreed to bring her back with him.
Her gentle touch, unnerved him. They’d held hands on several occasions during the rescue and flight, but this was different. The care and feeling she put into so simple a gesture spoke of a solidarity and understanding that went straight to his heart.
Now she was an outcast, like him. Unfit for polite society and seeking reassurance that she might still make a life for herself, despite her ruin.
Twisting his hand, he enclosed hers and gave back in kind. Rowena returned a tentative smile, further forging the connection they’d made in so short a time.
He was a fool of the greatest order to read anything other than pity into that.
He withdrew his hand. Too comfortable sitting here holding hands with this beguiling woman. Even if she did appear to understand him more than most humans.
“Don’t what?” Her eyes clouded with confusion at his abrupt tone, her fingers curled defensively. “I’m not feeling sorry for you, if that’s what you think.”
“No?” He raised both palms in a gesture of peace. The shift back to human always left him a little dazed. Along with the nightmare that came with grim regularity after a rescue, his judgement wasn’t at its best.
“You wanted to know about Amelia? She was my sister.” He stood and then crossed the room to the mahogany chest of drawers. In the top drawer, wrapped in a muslin square, lay his most prized possession.
“She was younger than me by two years. This was painted just before we lost her.”
Rowena’s expression softened. “Oh, I’m so sorry. She died?”
He fingered the miniature, remembering how they’d both been made to sit for the painter and threatened with a beating if they so much as moved a hair.
“No, she disappeared.”
“May I see?”
Rowena had withdrawn a little. But, from what he’d seen of her, it was to regroup and plan her strategy. When he dropped the miniature into her hand, her fingers brushed his, deliberately.
“She’s very pretty.”
He propped himself on the bed, as far away from Rowena as the tester bed would allow, one shoulder leaning against the carved oak headboard. He liked the way she spoke of Amelia in the present, as if she were still alive. He desperately wanted to believe that.
“She was twelve and I was fourteen years of age. One of the servants told her stories about the great Christmas tree outside the Manchester town hall and from then on it was all she could think about.” He smiled at the memory. “She pestered Father so much to take her there, he banished her to her room. Christmas is a human festival. Father never let us forget that.”
“She ran away?”
He gave a humourless laugh. “Worse than that. I decided to give my sister the Christmas of her dreams. One afternoon, we sneaked out and took the train from the nearest town into Manchester. Barely moments after we arrived, I lost her. We were making our way to Albert Square. I looked around and she was gone.”
He paused, swallowing down the familiar anguish, the frustration that always accompanied thoughts of that day. “Father employed the best detectives to find her, to no avail. We haven’t seen her since.”
“Christopher, I’m so sorry.”
Heeding his earlier warning, Rowena stayed in place at the end of the bed, the quilt pulled over her legs. He had no idea why he suddenly needed to unburden this whole sorry tale to a stranger he’d known but a few hours. Perhaps it was that look of genuine concern in her eyes? The way she leaned forward, asking him without words to continue?
Rowena glanced at the window and the howling storm beyond, as if to tell him that only she would hear what he had to say. Who else would dare come up here on a night like this?
“Father beat me until I couldn’t stand and Mother never spoke to me again. I was sent here, to the dower house to live with my grandmother. She left me the house.”
“And you dream of her? Of Amelia?”
His mouth set in a grim line. “Yes, I dream of her.”
Irritation prickled his skin. He’d thought to feel somehow lighter after telling his tale, but if anything, the agitation only increased. If only he’d kept hold of his sister’s hand. Closed his ears to her insistent pleading. If only.
Thoughts like that would drive a creature mad.
“Now, don’t be cross with me, Christopher.” Rowena rose to her knees, letting the quilt slide away. “But I’m going to hold your hand again.”
“Why?” Crossing his arms over his chest, he made a barrier between them because one of them needed to exert some willpower. Rowena seemed to have no idea of the effect a half-clad woman had on man and beast.
“It’s no good you hiding them.” She made a beckoning movement with her fingers. “I wish to offer comfort and sympathy. And don’t say you don’t need it when plainly you do.”
He kept his hands resolutely in place, knowing he should order her back to her room and tell her to lock the door. And then the dressing gown somehow slipped from her shoulders and he caught a tantalising glimpse of cleavage, the soft mounds of her breasts, her nipples clearly outlined by the fine cotton shift and his body reacted as any man’s would.
He felt himself hardening, hot and heavy, pushing against the fabric of his trousers. Would she notice?
The mood shifted abruptly. He sniffed, catching the faint scent of arousal. She was treading dangerous ground and didn’t know it. Or did she?
If he took her hand, there would be consequences and he would hate himself more than he already did.
She reached out, carefully and slowly, as if her actions might scare him away. The thought amused and terrified him in equal measure. He wanted to run as fast and as far away from her as possible, while at the same time wanting to grab her hand and yank her towards him and kiss her until she couldn’t breathe.
That kind of thing happened when a man invited a woman into his bed.
“Well, if you won’t come to me, I will just have to come to you.” She moved before he could stop her, wrapping her arms about his neck, pressing her soft curves into his hard, uncompromising chest, whispering so close it raised the fine hairs on his nape.
“What you tried to do for your sister was a beautiful thing. And what you do for women like me is very noble. Blame whoever took her, not yourself. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should have said no. Should have told my father.” His hands moved of their own accord, resting lightly on Rowena’s hips. His chest heaved in an effort to steady his breathing. He did need the comfort, but wasn’t about to admit that to her.
If she’d noticed his predicament, she gave no indication.
“Go back to your bed, Rowena. My wolf is still up. It can’t be trusted.”
She leaned back slightly, gazing into his eyes as if she’d forgotten she was holding a beast. A beast on the verge of ravaging her at the slightest encouragement.
“You would never hurt me, Christopher.”
This close he could see every tiny blemish on her skin, every fleck of colour in her hazel eyes. Every pore, every hair.
“Hurting you is the last thing on my mind.” He let out a long breath. “What you’re feeling is a combination of the fear, the disorientation, the fact that you’re here, cut off from the world. It plays with the mind. Makes a person do things they might later regret. And you will look back and regret this, Rowena. Believe me, you will.”
He couldn’t make it any plainer to her. With his hands on her shoulders, he pushed her gently away from him.
“Your father paid me to save your reputation. Not add to it.”
“I think I may be beyond saving.” She picked up a lock of her hair, inspecting the tangled strands. “Mama would expire on the spot if she could see me now. I look a fright.”
“You do.” He tried to inject a little humour into his tone. No point in telling her the dishevelled appearance only added to her allure. “I’m sure your mother will understand.”
A sad smile curved her lips. “She will try, and fail miserably. I should be looking forward to going back. But the thought fills me with dread.”
“And yet, you must go.” He wanted to reach out, stroke her cheek. Give her the comfort she’d offered him. Would it be so wrong? Rowena seemed very much to be her own woman, capable of making her own decisions. There would be no taking advantage.
“I must.” She spoke without conviction, staring at the quilt, tracing the outline of one of the embroidered flowers with a finger. “I shall have need of friends, Christopher. Friends who understand. Would you allow me to be your friend?”
He shrugged, a little thrown by her request. Friends were a somewhat alien concept to a mercenary, Lone Wolf.
“I could call on you, perhaps? Here at Hadon House?”
His bark of laughter made her jump, visibly. She lifted her chin in response, some of her earlier spirit returning. “I’m twenty-one years of age, I’ll have you know. Quite old enough to manage my own visiting schedule. Granted, before all this, I would never have contemplated visiting one of the Different, but I am no longer that woman.”
“What, because you met me?”
“Yes, because I met you. You’ve shown me that not all creatures of the night are the same.”
“How very good of you to notice.” He shouldn’t be angry at her condescending tone, the glib words that sounded charitable but meant very little.
Dipping his head so he was level with hers, he caught her gaze. “Easy to say that when I look like this. But just because I’m back to what you’d call normal, it’s still there. Take a good look. It will always be there. What? Will you send a card? Come calling with your mother for afternoon tea? I’m a Lone Wolf, Rowena. I don’t have friends.”
She listened more patiently than he deserved to his tirade. Damn, but having her here filled a gap in his life. Whether she stayed or left, things would never be the same again.
He had been about to shift again. To fend her off by inducing revulsion that would have her running from the room. To remind her once again of what he was because she seemed determined not to see it. Before he could, she’d moved, closing the distance between them. Soft lips pressed against his cheek and when she spoke, close to his ear, he actually trembled.
Christopher Hadon never trembled.
“Forgive me if the words came out wrong. Just know that they were sincerely meant and that you do have a friend, Christopher. You have me.”
* * * *
She’d kissed him. A chaste kiss, yes, but now she wanted to do it again. She wanted his hands on her hips, his hair soft on her cheek. Cheeks that were heating at the wicked thoughts coursing through her mind. A small movement and her lips would be on his. Would he taste of the wine they’d taken earlier? Would he think her a brazen hussy for being so forward?
If someone asked her to account for her present feelings, Rowena knew she would be hard pressed to give them an answer they would understand. She didn’t know herself why this man or should she call him creature, drew her to him like no other.
All of his arguments made perfect sense. Alone and trapped here by the storm, bonded by the rescue and escape, she’d unsurprisingly formed an attachment to him. Invested him with virtues and come to rely on him.
And still she wanted to kiss him again.
Perhaps she was even hoping that a kiss would be enough for him to want to keep her here so she never had to return home. What a terrible thought. She chastised herself. Opinionated and domineering he might be, but Papa loved her and would have paid any sum to have her found. Of that she had no doubt. He merely had a strange way of showing his love.
Once home she would never again experience the exhilaration of racing across snow-covered moors in the dark and cold in the arms of a wolf-man.
That made these last few hours of freedom all the more precious.
Christopher stiffened all over when she slid her lips to his and pressed lightly. He tasted not of wine, but of something completely indefinable, which she supposed was simply him. She tried again, feeling his lips move ever so slightly under hers.
Groping for his hand, she placed it on her hip, since he seemed to have fallen into shock at her bold move. The wind outside had reached a deafening crescendo, further increasing the sense that here, she could do or be anything she wanted to be. Even if only for a short time.
“Are you sure, Rowena?” Christopher found his voice at last, grasping her elbows with his strong grip. “I’m giving you one last chance. Dammit, you’re still recovering from the abduction. You should go back to your room. If you stay, this doesn’t end with a kiss.”
“I know.” So breathless, the words were barely there. In truth, she hadn’t had any plans beyond that kiss or the need to show Christopher he was a being worthy of a place in this world. But now her heart was threatening to burst from her chest. A pleasant ache had started, low down in her secret place and her skin had surely caught fire.
“I’m no innocent, Christopher. I want to do this.”
He responded with an agonised groan and before she could determine whether that was a yes, or a no, he’d sealed his lips to her in a kiss that was almost brutal in its intensity. Like a dam bursting, she thought dimly and clung to him lest the torrent wash her clean away.
Nothing like the polite seduction of the older man who’d taken her innocence.
She’d hated him after the event, but now she wanted to thank him for freeing her.
Freeing her to have the courage to do this.
Sliding her arms around his neck, she pulled Christopher closer, if that were possible, his body flush with hers. She knew enough that while she softened for him, he would become hard, ready to take her. A tiny ripple of anxiety trickled through the growing excitement. Would it be like the last time? Painful but with a hint that there could be so much more? Did it only hurt the first time, or did that happen every time a man and woman were intimate?
“What happens in this room must stay in this room.” Christopher murmured the words frantically against her cheek. “No one must ever know.”
For the first time she realised that his reputation was as much at stake as hers. No one would trust their daughters to a man who whisked them to his lair and then seduced them, without the added problem of him being Different.
Which meant that for Christopher’s sake she should do as he urged and return to her own room and splash her face with cold water. Go back to sleep and forget this ever happened.
“No one will ever know.” She wanted to be wild, like him. To feel what it was like to truly abandon herself to pleasure.
The room spun and then she was beneath him, pinned by his weight, the anticipation of what they were about to do building in her to an almost fever pitch. And did she just hear him growl? The sound went right through her, making her arch her hips in a question she didn’t dare put into words.
She didn’t care that he seemed to have forgotten how strong he was, or that his weight was squashing the air from her lungs. When he dipped his mouth to her shoulder, she arched her neck to give him better access. If he shifted now, he could tear her apart with those wolf-teeth of his.
She’d known him barely a day and already she trusted that he wouldn’t.
Trust. She owed him that in return for saving her.
“Tell me if I get too rough.” He kissed her shoulder, the curve of her neck, the sensitive spot under her ear. “This time of the moon it’s hard to hold back.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“If I do, just cry beast and I’ll stop.”
“I want you to feel safe with me, Rowena.”
“I do, Christopher. Don’t stop.”
Groping for him in the dim light, she threaded her fingers through his soft hair, holding him in place in case he had another fit of conscience. She absolutely could not bear it if he left her now. He was still in his shirt and trousers, she in her combinations. How would it feel to lie naked with him? To feel his skin against hers? Her seducer had required the removal of only enough garments to do the deed. Thinking back on it now made her want to curl up with embarrassment.
“Do you want me to undress?” Simply saying the words made her blush. “Will you take off your shirt?”
“Yes.” He growled the words, amber eyes flashing. “But stay as you are. I think you’ll feel more comfortable.”
She nodded, touched by his consideration and amazed at how natural it felt to speak so intimately with him. She remedied the shirt situation herself, shaping her hands to his powerful shoulders, untwisting buttons, sliding it down while he lifted each arm in turn so she could divest him of it completely.
He reached between them, unbuttoning his trousers with one hand, shoving them down a little over his hips. And then he was feeling for the split in her drawers, touching her most intimate place, stroking and making her slick and wet.
Making her feel so terribly wicked that she arched into his hand, urging him to continue. Tipping back her head, she let out a breathy moan and wondered vaguely if she ought to be doing something for him. Women, so she’d been told, were required to lie inert while a man did the business, but that surely couldn’t be right when all she wanted to do was touch Christopher as he was touching her. He was hot and hard against her thigh. How would it feel to take him in her hand?
“Rowena, exactly how experienced are you? I want this to be good for you.”
“Once.” She gasped out the word, lost in a flood of pleasure when his hot mouth latched onto one of her breasts, gently suckling, his tongue swirling about her nipple through the barrier of her cotton lawn camisole.
“I’ve only done this once.” Oddly, her seducer had lost all interest after the first time. Or had he come to his senses? “I thought it best to exaggerate my experience a little to the vampire.”
Christopher gave a low chuckle. “You judged it well. I want to spend the whole night touching you, kissing you. Finding secret places you didn’t know existed.” Briefly, he closed his eyes, face contorted in a grimace of pain. “But my control is about to snap. I’ll be as careful as I can. Tell me if you feel discomfort.”
How had she ever thought him a beast? Tenderly, she cupped his cheek while he trembled above her, waiting for her final consent. He was more of a gentleman than any of her father’s business associates with their starched collars and their society manners.
“Let me show you what to do,” he said and, taking her hand, he curled her fingers around his smooth, hard flesh. “It won’t hurt like the first time, I promise. Help guide me in.”
Her seducer had covered himself with a protective sheath. Christopher had taken no such precaution. She paused, wondering how she would explain arriving home with child, should she be so unfortunate.
“I won’t get you with child.” He thrust forward, carefully seeking entrance. “A wolf can’t breed with a human.”
“Oh.” The sound was both reply and gasp of surprise that this felt no different from the first time. Christopher withdrew and then thrust home a little more while she gritted her teeth to stop herself crying out. It only hurt a little, but it was nothing like the spontaneous passion or wild abandon she’d imagined.
“Is it always like this?” She felt him filling her, holding himself rigid above her while trying not to hurt her more than he needed to. It couldn’t always be like this. How did women bear it?
“No, I promise. You just need more experience.” He held himself very still as if struggling for that elusive control he’d spoken of. “Hold onto me. I’ll make it good for you. Do you trust me to do that?”
“I trust you.” Something was happening. Every time he moved, she softened and found it easier to accommodate him until quite suddenly discomfort tipped over into a stab of such sharp, intense pleasure, she thought they had surely heard her cry of surprise down in the village.
Christopher cursed softly under his breath, taking it as a cue to let go and seek his own pleasure, almost oblivious to her. Despite his fears of hurting her, he’d been so achingly careful in bringing her to this point, almost frustratingly so. But now came the passion that had only been hinted at. He thrust so hard and fast, they slid across the bed until she was in danger of dangling over the edge.
She didn’t care. The scent of their intimacy filled the air, an astounding heat radiated from his sweat-slicked skin. His breath came out in harsh, guttural growls as he worked relentlessly for his release. And goodness, there was that pleasurable feeling again, throbbing low down, building until she was biting her lip and letting it all out in one, long contented sigh.
With a low moan, Christopher collapsed onto her, squashing the breath from her lungs, pinning her so thoroughly beneath him, she thought she might never move again. He gave two more weak thrusts and then rolled from her and onto his back.
For a moment, they both lay still, contemplating the ornate plaster ceiling, filling their lungs with much needed air. So this was it? The great secret revealed? Intimacy could be as pleasurable for women as for men?
Her thighs were sticky, her skin glowing in a most unladylike manner, her combinations damp and clinging, yet she’d never felt so comfortable or at ease.
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and try as she might, she couldn’t stop it widening into a grin. When she turned to look at Christopher, he was smiling, too and shaking his head, almost in disbelief.
“Tell me that really happened.” He turned to her, his amber eyes lit with amusement. “Tell me I didn’t dream all that.”
“It happened.” She shivered, feeling the goose-bumps rising as her skin cooled. “It was no dream.”
“Then I must thank you.” He rolled onto his side, propping his head on one elbow. He gazed down at her, using his other hand to push away the damp strands of hair plastered to her face. Then he bent his head and touched his lips to her forehead.
“You didn’t cry beast.”
“I didn’t have to.”
“Do you know how good that makes me feel?” He lifted a strand of her hair. Sniffed it and let it drop. His expression sobered. “No, of course you don’t. Why should you?”
“No, I don’t,” she said. “I can only guess. But I want to understand. You do know that?”
Real life was already replacing the euphoria. She wanted to stay here, forever locked in that perfect moment when they’d exchanged those knowing smiles. How right the world had felt just then.
She guessed they might have to pay dearly for those moments.
“You’re cold.” Christopher sat up and slid from the bed, leaving her a little bereft. He handed her the dressing gown. “Put that on. I’ll get a cloth so you can freshen yourself.”
He crossed the room to the marble washstand and then poured water from the jug onto a towel. Moved back to the bed and offered it to her. It all seemed a little mundane after what they’d done. Well, she supposed, slipping on the dressing gown. If you climbed to such heights, logic demanded you come down to earth again. Christopher tactfully conducted his own toilette with his back to her, staying in place for a good few moments before buttoning his trousers and turning around.
Before her stood a man. Tall and broad, a scattering of dark hair shading his chest, mussed hair falling into his eyes. Eyes she would never forget. How wicked to hide such beauty from the world. A beauty most humans would never learn to appreciate.
This time last week, she’d been one of them.
“I wish it could be different, Rowena.” He shoved the hair from his face and then reached for his discarded shirt. “I like you.” He gave a small laugh, as if at some joke only he was privy to.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he took her hand, stroking her palm with his thumb. “Up here, your offer of friendship, well we might believe it could happen. Out there in the world…”
“You don’t have to say it, Christopher.” She sighed, knowing that after this first initiation, the intimacy between them could only get better. She might dream of visiting him here at Hadon House, of stolen afternoons where she’d find out how good it could be between them. “I know it will never happen. My family, your family, they would never allow it.”
“It’s for the best.”
He kissed her cheek, touching her lightly with his tongue, sending a frisson of excitement chasing over her skin. She arched an eyebrow, thinking that one of them should lighten the moment to make it easier for both of them.
“That is not helping the situation, Christopher Hadon.”
“It wasn’t meant to.” He picked up her cue, favouring her with a wink and a wolfish grin. Then he slid an arm about her back, pulling her to him and she went willingly. With her head on his shoulder, they sat in companionable silence, cocooned in the paraffin-lamp’s pool of light, each lost in their own thoughts.
She noticed with alarm that the storm was dying down, the noise of the wind not so shrill. The clouds were breaking up revealing patches of dark blue sky. Come morning, there would be no excuse for her to stay.
She blinked back the threatening tears.
Perhaps it was for the best. She would forget this interlude, soon enough.
It had stopped snowing.
Almost without thinking, Christopher rose from the bed and crossed the room. Here, the curtains were never closed. The night never shut out like an unwelcome visitor. Clouds raced across the sky, chased by the wind, taking with it the storm. Revealing the sky beyond, lit by the bright halo of the moon.
His fickle mistress. With his palms to the glass, he searched for the connection, still faint at this time of the cycle, but come next week the pull would be a physical thing, a need he would be unable to resist. He looked forward to it with anticipation and dread. At full moon, he was a beast, powerful and sure. So full of energy, he could run at full speed for miles and never tire.
“Come.” Extending a hand to Rowena, he called her to him. “Let me show you something.”
Huddled in the oversized dressing gown, she fit neatly under his arm. He pulled her close, savouring the scent of their intimacy, clinging to her like the most exquisite of perfumes. A scent that said she was his, if even for a short time.
“Next week she will be full.”
Rowena leaned her head against his shoulder, lifting enquiring eyes to his. “Wolf-men are governed by the moon, are they not?”
“We are. I can already feel her calling to me.” He couldn’t keep the longing from his voice “Sometimes I think she’ll drive me insane.”
“The lunacy? I’ve heard my father speak of that. He believes there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for it.”
Christopher gave a sceptical laugh. “I’d like to hear it. It’s hard to explain. At full moon I feel so alive, so invincible and yet at the same time there’s a terrible sorrow that comes from a place I can’t reach. That’s the real madness. Sometimes I feel as if I could tear out my own heart to stop the pain.”
“That’s so terribly sad.” She pressed closer. “Is there no help for you? Can I do anything?”
“Can you turn into a she-wolf?” He gazed down at her, imagining her dark eyes bright and golden, the pupils elongated. It would certainly solve one of his problems.
Did she know the answer to his question? The thoughts running through his mind? If she did, she wouldn’t be standing so trusting with him.
“They say that wolf-kin can be made as well as born of wolf parents. Is it true?”
Her answer surprised him. More for her matter-of-fact tone than for her knowledge of wolf-lore.
“One bite,” he said, his mouth already watering, his canines tingling. “That’s all it takes.”
“Does it happen immediately?”
“No, the change is gradual. Over the course of one moon cycle. What? Are you planning to write a thesis on me?”
He’d said it in jest, but he didn’t miss the guilty blush creeping across her cheeks. The thought of humans standing earnestly around discussing things they would never understand, amused him. They would dissect and explain and come to conclusions, but they would never begin to know the reality of what he kept inside.
“It would make a fascinating subject of study,” she said, tracing the outline of the moon on the glass with a finger. “Do you not wish humans to understand you better?”
“About as much as I wish to understand them. Rowena, all you need know about me is that in the next few days I won’t be able to vouch for my actions. He nodded at the window. “You need to be gone before she takes control.”
“But as yet, you still have control?”
He couldn’t help laughing at that. “If I had, you wouldn’t be here. But I’m no danger to you.”
Rowena continued drawing patterns on the misted pane, her weight soft against his side. One little bite and his mating problems would be done for good. This monthly torment eased.
Bad thoughts with Rowena investing him with such trust. And his father would be within his rights to kill them both for defying Pack order.
“Then these last few hours are all we have?”
The dressing gown had fallen open, the ribbons lacing her camisole loosened. He wanted to see her naked. To have her again before the breaking dawn brought them to their senses and separated them for good.
“Don’t send me back to my room, Christopher. Let me spend them with you.” She turned to him, lips slightly parted, a sure certainty in her eyes. “Give me a night to remember you by.”
He caught her hand when she tried to touch his face. “I don’t want you to remember me. I want you to go back to your life, marry and have children. I want you to forget the trauma of the past few days ever happened.”
“And I will. All the more reason to make the most of this night.”
A gentle kiss to his knuckles was all it took to secure her release. Undaunted, she rose on tiptoe and placed another on his lips, then another until he responded by grasping her shoulders and kissing her back, his tongue thrusting into her mouth as if he couldn’t get enough of her. She gave back in kind, making small, needy sounds. He’d never kissed, nor been kissed with such frantic desperation. Never tasted desire as sweet as this.
Damn, but any talk of control was useless in the face of her determination to seal the memory of this night so deeply, neither of them would ever forget it.
Lifting her, he walked them the few steps to the bed. Instinctively, she wrapped her legs around his hips, holding him in place while they both struggled to breathe and kiss at the same time.
When he finally let her go she lay back on the quilt, legs still around his waist, chest heaving.
“Are you sure you don’t have the power of thrall?” He traced the smooth line of her thighs, shaping her hips and narrow waist.
He could well believe she’d put some kind of spell on him. This was pure and utter madness.
His question made her laugh, lighting her features with a mischief that only added to her allure.
She writhed under his questioning fingers, opening her mouth in a silent cry when he found the slit in her drawers and touched her intimately. Hot and wet, as ready for him, as he was for her.
“Undress,” he said, twisting open his trouser-buttons. “I want to lie naked with you.”
“Help me, then.”
Her eyes had grown progressively wider at the sight of his full, heavy cock. Kicking away his pants, he pulled her upright and then hooked a finger under each of her camisole straps, sliding them over her shoulders while she pulled at the ribbons cinching in the waist. The sight of her breasts, the darker tips of her nipples made him growl, low in his throat. The undergarment slid away in one, smooth movement, leaving her clad in nothing but her magnificent hair.
He wanted to be gentle, but she was yet another mistress destined to drive him insane. Grasping her thighs, he lifted her, fitting his body to hers. Her gasp as he thrust home lasted but moments and he was only vaguely aware of her fisting the quilt, calling him by name over and over. He climaxed hard and fast, thrusting deliberately until he had nothing left to give.
Falling to his knees, he rested his head on her thigh and felt her fingers sifting through his hair. Over the thud of his heart and the surge of blood singing in his ears, he heard her sigh.
The second mistake of the night. A mistake he knew he’d make again before the pink light of dawn edged its way across the freshly fallen snow.
* * * *
No need of a fire with a man this warm beside you. Rowena snuggled closer grateful for the sanctuary made by his arms as well as the heat. In his bed, his shoulder her pillow, the vast expanse of the moors cushioning them from the rest of the world, she’d never felt so safe.
His soft hair tickled her face and if she screwed up her eyes, she could bring his thick lashes into focus and pick out the pinpricks of stubble on his cheeks and chin. When his lips touched her forehead in a lingering kiss, she thought that perhaps she’d died back there on the streets of Manchester and ascended to heaven.
Paradise, it must be.
Christopher had turned down the wick and extinguished the oil-lamp, leaving the room lit only by the eerie glow of the moon reflecting off the newly fallen snow. No trace remained of the storm that had trapped her here. The dark clouds had fled, leaving her in no doubt that tomorrow she would be going home.
As if she’d spoken the thought out loud, Christopher threaded his fingers into her tangled hair and held her for a tender kiss. She felt his reluctance to let go but also his determination that he would fulfil his part of the bargain he’d made with her father.
“Josh and Mary will be in soon. Mary will find you a gown to wear and after breakfast Josh will take you down to the village on the sleigh. Margaret, my agent, will organise your journey home.”
“I know I must go.” When Christopher untangled himself from her to sit up, Rowena followed his lead, pulling the quilt over her bare breasts. A little shy suddenly. He gave her a nod of understanding and slipped naked from the bed. Completely unconcerned by his lack of clothing, he gathered her discarded undergarments and dressing gown and laid them on the bed for her.
He’d accused her before of staring, but who wouldn’t want to stare at such rough-hewn beauty? She wanted to remember every dip, every curve, the hard strength of his stomach and chest. The arms that could crush her in an instant but instead had held her as if she were the most precious thing. Those lips that had taken hers in passion and then in understanding.
He stood for her scrutiny, letting her look. Glancing ruefully down at his erect shaft, he muttered something she couldn’t hear. Her body had been listening, though, responding with a tingle and a sweet ache low down. Squeezing her legs together in an effort to quell the feeling only made it more intense. Christopher’s eyes narrowed.
“Better that Mary finds you in your own bed.”
“Yes.” The room had grown cold and Christopher along with it. She wasn’t a sensitive person, but irrational tears pricked at her eyes at the dismissal. Her seducer had used her and then told her to leave before they were caught and now Christopher was doing the same.
Rowena took a deep breath and reached for her combinations. No, for both their sakes, Christopher was merely being practical. She’d known from the start she couldn’t stay, and yet try as she might, the rejection still hurt.
She tried to ignore him pulling on his trousers in agitated, jerky movements. Splashing water from the jug into the wash-bowl, dunking his face into the water and then throwing back his head, scattering bright droplets into the air.
She should be grateful he wasn’t drawing out the moment with sentiments and promises he would never be able to keep.
Rubbing at his face and chest with a towel, he returned to stand beside the bed, watching her fumble into her own clothes. Before she could reach for the ribbons he’d found them and then pulled them gently tight, tying them with a bow. She should be feeling the need to bathe, but was oddly reluctant to wash away his scent. The scent of what they’d done together.
“I can’t keep you here, Rowena.” With a finger under her chin, he tilted her face to make sure she heard him. “You belong with your family, do you understand that?”
Would you if you could? She didn’t have the courage to speak the thought aloud. Not a seemly question to ask a man she’d known barely a day.
How odd that if felt so much longer.
“I understand.” She sighed. “I really do. I need to go back to my life of polite conversation and failed attempts to make my father realise that a woman is as capable of intellectual argument as any man. For a scientist, he has a particularly closed mind on that subject.”
“A woman’s mind is as sharp as a man’s.” Christopher traced the line of her cheek with his thumb. “In the Pack, no-one would dare call a she-wolf inferior. Not if he valued his manly parts.”
She found a smile for him. “And one day we must hope it will be so for human females.”
They continued dressing in silence. When he sat to lace up his boots, she remembered the pair he’d ruined during the shift. Did he have to undress every time he brought forward his wolf? How many garments had he ruined over the years? So many questions she’d never get answers to.
“I wish to replace the ring you lost to the vampire.” Although he’d dismissed its loss as insignificant, she guessed it must have had meaning for him to be wearing it. A family signet ring perhaps?
“I have a few items of jewellery you could have melted down and made into another ring. May I send them to you?”
“There’s no need.” He finished lacing and stood up, buttoning his brocade waistcoat. “I don’t lack for gold with which to replace it.”
“Was it a family ring?”
“The family crest, yes. I’ll have another made.” His wolf eyes flashed. “Rowena, you need to go.”
She resisted the urge to finger-comb the hair from his eyes. To feel the soft strands sifting through her fingers for one last time. “I will go,” she said listening out for sounds of Josh and Mary arriving to start the new day. “But before I do, I have a request.”
“And what might that be?” He’d moved to the gilt-framed mirror hanging on the wall and was casually arranging his hair. She caught his reflection in the mirror. Casual but with every sense alert.
“Would you celebrate Christmas for me? Put up a tree in your hall and decorate it with candles. Bring in some evergreens to hang on your mantelpiece. If not for me, then do it for Amelia.”
The fingers in his hair stilled. “I told you, I have no reason to celebrate the season. It’s not a good time for me.”
“I think she would have wanted you to.” She’d overstepped the bounds, she could see that in the way his shoulders tensed and the light fled from his eyes to be replaced by a grim darkness. But once started, she could only go on.
“On Christmas day, while I’m listening to old men lecturing, I will think of you and how pretty the hall will look. You must have a goose, too and stuff it with pork and raisins. I’ve heard that’s very tasty.”
“Would you like me to walk through the village knocking on doors and singing carols, too?” He spun around on his heels, eyes blazing, now. “Or perhaps dress up as Saint Nick and distribute largesse to the poor?”
“I would like you to stop blaming yourself for your sister’s disappearance.” His bluster didn’t scare her as much as the thought he might bear that crushing sorrow for the rest of his life.
“I am to blame, and I bear the consequence. Let that be an end to it. Mary and Josh are in the house. You should go.”
If he hadn’t been so big, she would have taken him by the shoulders and shaken some sense into him. Still, she refused to leave until he’d made some concession. She crossed the room, standing before him, arms folded in challenge, relieved to see his eyes soften in reluctant respect. Not many women would choose to stare down a wolf.
“One little thing.” Lightly, she touched his arm. “If not a celebration, then promise me you’ll do one little thing. Light a candle on Christmas Eve, and I will do the same. And I will think of you, Christopher. Whether you wish me to or not, I will think of you.”
“Damn you, woman.”
She was in his arms, held so tight she could hardly draw breath. “Say yes, Christopher. I’m not leaving until you promise.”
“All right, you’ll get your candle. But leave me my guilt. It’s all I have.”
She managed to free her arms, to hold him back because he’d never admit he needed the comfort more than she. His sensitive hearing had picked up the sounds of activity in the house and they had mere seconds in which to say goodbye.
Desperately, she buried her nose in his waistcoat and tried to print his scent on her memory. She felt his face pressing into her hair, heard him sniff deeply. And then she stepped away because she wanted his last memory of her to be one of a strong woman who did the right thing without protest.
“Keep your guilt then, Christopher Hadon. But know that too will pass, with time. I like to think we’ll meet again one day.”
He made no move to stop her leaving. “I like to think it, but it will never happen. Do you regret what we did?”
She shook her head. “No. And I never will. Put the candle on a Christmas tree one day. When you’re mated and have children. Don’t let them be the ones watching the festivities from afar, like we had to. Do it for them.”
She couldn’t fathom the emotion on his face. Better not to ask. Resolutely, she turned and crossed the room to the bedroom door, opened it and walked out of his life. If Mary was a wolf like Josh, she’d know what had transpired between them. Hopefully it wouldn’t involve a lecture. That privilege awaited her at home in Papa’s study where she would rightly receive the dressing down of her life for worrying them so.
They must know who’d taken her and for what purpose. How would she ever look Mama and Papa in the eye again?
Mary was already waiting in the guestroom, the fire lit, water warmed for washing. With pursed lips and something of a resigned sigh, the woman indicated the dark-green gown laid out on the bed. A black wool cloak lay draped over a chair.
“There’s no corset, and the gown might be a mite long, but it’s the best we have.”
“I’m grateful for it, Mary.”
“So, he didn’t listen to me, then?” Mary’s wolf eyes flashed out in challenge. “Please tell me you haven’t been filling his head with nonsense.”
She gestured Rowena to the bed, threading her arms expertly through the skirt of the dress, ready to slip it over her head. “You can bathe at Mrs. Hilliard’s house. She’s the lady who chaperones the rescues back to their families. He should have taken you straight there.”
Rowena held up her arms, allowing the gown to slide over her head. Mary wanted her out of the house at the earliest opportunity.
“If by nonsense, you mean telling Christopher he has a worthy life to lead, then yes, I have been filling his head with nonsense. Why does he hide here? Why does he not try to reconcile with his family? Surely a man can’t be made to bear guilt for the rest of his life?”
Mary stood behind her, straightening out the folds, starting on the buttons. “You’re meddling with things you don’t understand. It’s his destiny to be Lone Wolf. Sir Christopher disinherited him and that’s all there is to it. His younger brother is already mated with two fine heirs. He will be Alpha when Sir Christopher passes on. We each have our role to play and none of us question.”
Buttons fastened, Mary stomped round to inspect her charge. “Sit at the dressing table. I’ll brush out and dress your hair. Let’s at least send you looking civilised back to your world.”
“He seems so terribly lonely, Mary. And he grieves the loss of his sister. How can his father and mother be so cruel as to cast him out at a time when he must have needed their comfort?”
Mary paused, hairbrush in hand, as if the idea of cruelty had never crossed her mind. “That’s an odd word to use, if I may say so. We’re Different and we like it that way. Don’t go getting any fancy ideas. Humans and wolves don’t mix.”
Mary attacked her hair with the brush, almost challenging her to cry out when she hit the snags and tangles with much more vigour than they deserved. Rowena endured it without protest. She could argue all she liked with Mary; the woman would never see another point of view. And really, it wasn’t her place to come into this household and tell them how to run their lives.
Except that she could never keep quiet in the face of injustice.
“He blames himself for his sister’s disappearance. Help him to see it wasn’t his fault.”
“But it was his fault. Taking her into Manchester like that. What was he thinking?”
Mary’s set face invited no argument. She continued hacking at the knots until satisfied she’d subdued the waist-length locks. When done, she swiftly plaited it into two braids and twisted them about Rowena’s head, securing them with pins. Stooping, she gazed into the mirror to check her work.
“You’ll do. Storm’s passed. Come down to the kitchen for a bite of breakfast and then Josh will take you down into the village.”
No mention of any formal goodbyes and neither did Christopher appear to offer any. Tomorrow she would be home and some semblance of her old life would resume. From the soot and grime of the Manchester slums, the desperately poor and the other-worldly creatures who lived in hovels beneath the city, to the peace and beauty of the snow-shrouded moors and the man who’d made her see the world with entirely different eyes, she’d travelled a long way in so short a time.
And she’d changed so much.
She followed Mary to the kitchen with a fluttering in her stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. Going home should have been the most welcome words, but they filled her with dread. Would her experience, what she’d done with Christopher, show in her face? Would polite society ever speak to her again once word got out where she’d spent the past few days?
Barely half an hour later, she was standing at the open front door, draped in the cloak, listening to the grandfather clock behind her chiming out the hour. A fire crackled in the hearth, competing with the sharp sting of the winter morning. Raising a hand, she shielded her eyes from the bright glare of sun shining on snow and waited for Josh to come round with the sleigh.
She wouldn’t look back. The only way now was forward with her life. If Christopher watched her leave, she didn’t know it. Now flying down the long drive, a blanket over her legs, the only sounds the whoosh of the runners cutting grooves in the ice and the muffled thump of the horse’s hooves, she silently said goodbye to Hadon House and the most intriguing man she’d ever met.
Had she helped ease the burden he carried of his sister, or merely added to it? She would never know. Neither would she know if he ever lit that candle for her on Christmas Eve.
A single night that would bequeath a lifetime of memories. At least she had that.
The best Christmas present a woman could hope for.
The peace and isolation had been welcome friends in the years following his banishment. So high up on the moors, Christopher had become accustomed to the whine of the wind, the clatter of rain on the stone and glass of Hadon House. Occasionally, birds sang or croaked as they wheeled and dived high in the sky. It all played out in the background of his life.
What he’d never noticed so keenly was the silence. Days like today, with the moors muffled by snow, no sound of the wind, everything calm and so still, it felt as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for something.
Too quiet. Eerily so.
Rowena’s request went round and round in his head, refusing to leave him alone. He gazed down at his sister’s miniature portrait, wondering if she still lived and if so where and how. He sometimes thought that if he stood on the High Tor and howled loud enough, she’d hear him wherever she was. At other times, he knew in his heart that if she’d been able, Amelia would have found her way home. Or his father’s detectives would have tracked her down. He’d spared no expense, employed the best in the business, every kind of species, to find her.
Too many years had passed for any hope to remain.
He’d be lighting candles, putting up trees for ghosts.
Rowena wasn’t a ghost. He could do it for her, despite feeling foolish every time he contemplated the idea of sitting alone on Christmas Eve, under a tree no one but he, Josh and Mary would see. Holding a candle that would burn down and eventually leave him in darkness once more.
Watching the sleigh become smaller and smaller, taking Rowena home to her life, was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Stopping himself from chasing it and demanding she return to the house with him had been even harder, but he’d have been chasing a dream. Finding a mate hadn’t been part of this particular plan.
Mary had made her displeasure at his actions more than plain. Josh, with his male wolf solidarity, he could rely on. Mary was another matter completely. A stickler for Pack protocol, she stuck to the old ways, regarding the Pack as separate and humans as outsiders. She’d been nurse to him and then housekeeper when his grandmother and her old retainers died and she had no truck with the modern world and its smoke and industry and dubious mingling of workers and gentry.
In her eyes, everyone had their place, and their role to play. He’d been lucky not to be dubbed Omega; she told him that often enough. At least as Lone Wolf he had autonomy to live his own life. The Pack left him alone.
Alone. A wolf could only stand that for so many years before the craving for a little comfort became a physical thing.
It was the season, he decided, reaching for his overcoat. Unwelcome memories of Christmas past, along with the time of the moon, which always messed with his spirits. A brisk walk in the snow would blow away the melancholy and reset his mood.
With a deep breath of the crisp, cold air, he slammed the door behind him and strode out onto the icy driveway. Josh had shovelled back the snow, but the sleigh tracks were still clearly visible. Rowena had lain so snug in his arms in that first mad dash through the snowstorm, fitting as if made to be there. God’s teeth, was he now to be reminded of her every time he moved?
He set off for the High Tor, a circle of stones some said dated from the times creatures like him lived in caves and ate their meat raw. Half-way there he found himself turning for the village track, looking down on the snowy rooftops of the huddle of houses that formed Little-Hadon village. Farther down the road was the larger village of Great-Hadon, almost a small town now that boasted three cotton mills, all owned by the Hadon dynasty. Everyone in the villages owed their livings to Sir Christopher, wolves and humans alike.
At times the track was so steep that steps had been cut into the stone. The great hunting forests that had once covered the lower slopes were now mostly felled to make way for progress. His keen eyes made out the red brick of the Hadon Mills, their tall chimneys belching smoke into the flawless sky. The dark satanic mills of Blake’s poem, which Christopher had always secretly thought had a majesty of their own.
With his collar turned up and hands in his pockets, he made his way along the cobbled street that was Little-Hadon, acknowledging the tugged forelocks and bobbed curtseys with a curt nod of his head. He’d never worked out whether the villagers were showing him deference or mockery. In the square outside the civic hall stood a fir tree garlanded with paper streamers and painted fir-cones. Candles lit the leaded panes of the small village stores.
He’d sneaked out with his brother once, to marvel at the sight, leaving Amelia crying at her bedroom window because she’d been too scared to jump down. She’d always seemed more human than wolf.
He should have brought Rowena down to look before she left. Her Christmas Day sounded about as exciting as his own.
There were candles a-plenty in Hadon House, which Mary kept a careful eye on. She’d know if so much as one went astray without her say-so. He stopped at Mr. Henshaw’s Emporium, mildly amused by the way the elderly man adjusted his spectacles in surprise when he opened the door, the swinging bell announcing his arrival.
Christopher Hadon never shopped in the village.
“Candles,” Christopher said in what he hoped was a genial tone. And then when it was plain Mr. Henshaw had become even deafer since he’d last seen him, he repeated his request in a loud bellow that brought Mrs, Henshaw scuttling in from out the back. She bobbed a curtsey and poked Mr. Henshaw so hard he nearly fell over.
“Begging your pardon, sir. Deaf as a post, he’s become. Candles was it?”
“Yes.” Christopher fished in his pocket for coins. What on earth did candles cost these days? He shopped in the city of Manchester and the surrounding mill-towns, at stores that served his kind. Most did when they saw his money and the cut of his coat. But it must be fifteen years since he’d set foot in the lavishly-named Emporium to spend his allowance on liquorish and candy-canes.
A row of boxes appeared on the oak counter, all of them bearing bundled candles of various sizes and colour. What colour was a Christmas candle? White, red? Green?
“It’s usually Mary that does the shopping. I hope she’s not taken ill.” Mrs. Henshaw laid out a selection of candles for his perusal with the dexterity of a circus magician. “Were you wanting paraffin or beeswax?”
“She’s quite well, thank you.” He decided on beeswax, a bundle of each colour. Rowena would get her candles, if not her tree. Mary would think him truly gone mad if he started dragging fir trees into the house.
For Rowena and Amelia. He dropped the required number of pennies onto the counter and strode purposefully from the shop before the Henshaws attempted to engage him in further conversation. The walk had only served to accentuate his lonely state. He walked amongst the villagers, but he would never be a part of them. Nor was he particularly welcome despite the deference and false smiles.
On his way back to the moor-path, he passed the small church with its stained-glass windows and neatly tended graveyard. From inside, drifted the strains of the church-choir, no doubt practising their carols for the Christmas service. The Hadons had always allowed freedom of worship in their domain. A good thing given all the different species and denominations residing here.
He walked until the sky darkened and the moon rose in the sky, arriving back at Hadon House with his mood even more soured, if that were possible. Mary met him at the door with a complaint about the well, to which he said something unspeakably rude, and then he stomped off to the library to warm up.
She knew better than to goad him at this time of the moon. He threw his coat over the arm of a chair, pulled at his cravat, and then at his collar, his skin prickling at the sight of the pale, almost full disc hanging in the sky. Safely mated, Mary and Josh would spend the next week bickering and sulking, but their torment would be mild compared to his.
The restless energy was already building, filling him with terrible needs and desires. His wolf begged for release and he would heed its call, as always while the villagers locked their doors to shut out the howling and other-worldly sounds echoing around the moor.
With no mate to anchor him down, he was a liability they could well do without.
“Josh says to ask if you want locking up this moon-tide.”
Mary stood at the library door, a mug of hot ale and what looked like a pie on a tray. “What with it being Christmas and all.”
“No.” He turned and watched her cross the room. “I won’t need locking up. I have control.”
She eyed him sceptically. “You’re sure? I can still smell her on you.”
“Dammit, woman. Know your place!” He barked out the words, snatching the tray from her hands. “What I do and who I do it with is none of your concern.”
Hands on hips, she faced him down, her voice gentling. “You’re dreaming, Christopher. Of things you can never have.”
He could always count on Mary to feed him the truth. Rowena had been a small glimpse of heaven, but that vision would fade with time. Normal life would resume, soon enough.
Completely ridiculous to get so het up over a woman.
He wondered if she was thinking of him.
* * * *
At first it seemed that few had noticed her absence. Rowena shook her head. Why would they? She’d been absent only a few days. Life resumed its boring monotony, while the image of Christopher’s face, which she’d vowed never to forget, was fading with alarming speed.
She’d endured Papa’s lecture and her mother’s over-bright smiles and endeavoured to act as if nothing had happened. Plainly what they wanted, despite her desperate need to talk of her experience.
Rowena nodded at the man regaling her with the benefits of plumbing in the modern home, trying to remember what he’d said so she could formulate a suitable answer. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of one of the terrible gossips who attended her mama’s Bridge parties. The woman was deep in covert talk with one of the neighbours, a hand covering her mouth as if imparting some terrible secret.
Rowena knew exactly what they were talking about.
Everything had been normal for the first three days, upon which the upstairs maid had let slip that Cook had heard a rumour regarding the true nature of her absence. No one believed it, of course. Sadly, it didn’t stop them telling everyone who might be interested.
And now Rowena found herself the talk of the town, for all the wrong reasons.
The only one truly pleased to see her back was Benji the dog.
On the other side of the room, Mama fanned herself vigorously, a stricken look on her face. Rowena excused herself politely and quickly crossed the room.
“Would you like me to fetch the Sal Volatole?”
Mama’s fan closed with a snap. “No, I do not want smelling salts. Request our coats, Rowena. We are leaving.”
“Leaving?” Rowena glanced around, wondering what could have happened to bring on such a fit. “But won’t Mrs. Hughes think us terribly rude?”
“It was Mrs. Hughes who suggested we leave. And she’s withdrawn her invitation to her Tuesday luncheon. Apparently there has been gossip and talk.”
“Oh, Mama. I’m so sorry.”
“Could you not have had a thought, Rowena? Wandering away in that terrible city. And now we are social outcasts.”
Rowena turned to smile at the two matrons, taking altogether too much of an interest in her mother’s tirade. She didn’t miss their raised eyebrows, the knowing glances. They were enjoying this.
“Mama, if they cannot show a little charity for my plight, then do we wish them as friends?”
“They know where you’ve been, Rowena. There is nothing for it but we shall have to move away. Fetch the coats.”
Rowena did so, passing through the crowded room as if in a dream. Let them talk. What did she care? They should be celebrating her survival, not talking in scandalised whispers of a woman no longer fit for decent society.
They took her to a brothel. Imagine that!
They say she was rescued by a wolf-man.
Their comments only made her straighten her spine and lift her chin a little higher. With her parents’ support she should have been able to get through this, but they’d wavered and now were on the verge of capitulating to the pressures of polite society. She couldn’t blame them entirely. They’d lost a daughter, acted desperately in asking Christopher to rescue her and been returned a stranger they no longer recognised. Their social standing had been compromised and the family name dragged through the mud.
And while the women gossiped, the men now thought her easy prey. Rowena knew their blatantly hungry looks upset her parents more than anything.
And all because she’d wanted a glimpse of Christmas.
She stopped suddenly, her attention drawn to a shadow in the garden.
You be looking after your lady, there. Rather careless you were to lose her so easily. It could so easily happen again.
The vampire’s words echoed in her head.
Staring at the window pane, she saw only bushes and trees, the fence separating this property from the next. No vampire lords come to drag her back to hell. Steadying her breathing, she hurried to fetch the coats. An idle threat, nothing more. Vampires never came to this part of town.
She remembered the pistol Christopher had wielded so casually in his carriage on their flight from Manchester. Did they make them small enough for a woman’s hand? Would a bullet kill a vampire?
She no longer felt safe.
Not like she had lying in Christopher’s arms. She might have trouble recalling his face, but that wonderful feeling would never leave her.
On the carriage ride home, she saw shop windows adorned with paper garlands and children’s toys. A nativity scene complete with stable outside the Catholic church. Holly wreaths hanging from front doors.
One week until Christmas.
Had Christopher brought in a tree? Decorated it as she’d asked? With the moon growing in power, would he remember he’d promised her a candle on Christmas Eve?
She would light one for him. Light one and hope that somehow he would know.
The sight of the moon, almost-full in the sky, washing the snow-covered garden in silver, made her shiver. Was he out there, on the moors, transformed into his beast? Howling out his anguish to his fickle mistress?
Mama didn’t speak a word to her on the way home and then she repaired straight to her room on arrival. Rowena handed her hat to the waiting maid, desperate to pull the pins from her elaborately coiffed hair. To feel Christopher’s fingers combing back the long, black strands just once more.
How could a man she’d known for so short a time have left such a mark on her? Had she merely built a fantasy around their brief time together? Somehow convinced herself it had been so much more than it actually was?
That she wouldn’t know unless she saw him again. How could she spend the rest of her life wondering what might have been?
In her bedroom, she sat while the maid brushed out her hair, hardly recognising the woman reflected in the dressing-table mirror. Benji lay on her lap, sighing contentedly, ecstatically pleased to have her back.
This was where she belonged. In this elegant town-house with its fine furniture and neatly-ordered household. Not up there on the rugged moors, where the wind stole your breath and wolves ran free.
Wolves and humans didn’t mix. Mary, in her little lace cap and old fashioned clothes had been right. To think otherwise was madness.
“Oh, Miss Rowena, you’ve hurt yourself” The maid lifted her hair, inspecting the nape of her neck where it curved into her shoulder. “Only a little scratch, don’t worry. Would you like me to trim your fingernails?”
“No.” Rowena touched the back of her neck, feeling the short, bumpy line of healing skin. When had she scratched herself? She couldn’t remember. During the rescue, perhaps? Or their mad flight through the streets of Manchester?
“I’m tired, Milly.” She nodded at the maid in the mirror. “You may go.”
Milly scuttled from the room, leaving her staring in the mirror. Lifting her hair, Rowena twisted, trying to see the mark. Had Christopher done that? In half-shift he’d acquired a set of wicked-looking claws.
One bite, that’s all it takes.
He’d kissed her there, she remembered that much. Kissed her as a man with a hint of wolf. Had he unwittingly broken the skin with a tooth?
She swallowed, trying to breathe away the panic. There was a book in her father’s study depicting the various creatures of the night. Tomorrow she would take it down and find out what this could mean.
She managed a nervous laugh. Tomorrow she would wake up and remember she’d scratched herself with a hair-pin and all this panic was for nothing.
Before getting into bed, she opened the curtains, flooding the room with moonlight. So beautiful tonight.
Christopher’s moon. What better reminder of a man she never wanted to forget?
* * * *
On the top of the moors, he felt as if the whole world was at his feet. So clear that his keen eyes could pick out the rounded Cumbrian Fells, the jagged peaks of the Welsh Mountains. Out in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man.
Three hours of running, of pushing himself to extremes in the hope of expending some of this relentless energy and still his body quivered, tight and tense, like an over-wound spring about to snap.
He could still smell her scent. The trail she’d left both to and from Hadon House. Not unusual in itself. Wolves could pick up trails long gone cold to man. He’d heard of wolves returning to old hunting grounds years later and falling easily in step with those who had gone before.
Christopher sniffed the air, separating the subtle notes of fear and regret, the aftermath of their passion from something he did not immediately recognise. Faint but new. And whatever it was, it called to him in a way nothing ever had.
He watched the sun sink over the horizon, melting into the snow. Pinpricks of light appeared in the villages strewn along the valley below. He should know this feeling. It felt as if…he closed his eyes, struggling to pinpoint the sensation.
As if a part of him was missing and he’d never be whole again until he found it.
Had his brief interlude with Rowena only added to his torment? He glared accusingly at the moon, hanging serene in the dark blue sky, a queen among her court of stars. Cold and beautiful, she didn’t care that he suffered as long as he did it for her.
Shoving his hands into his pockets, Christopher turned his back on her smiling face. For the first time, finding the strength to do so. Whatever this feeling was, it had an equal claim on his heart.
Somewhere, out there, in the more genteel suburbs of Manchester, he suspected was his salvation.
And he wouldn’t rest until he’d found it.
* * * *
“Goodness, Rowena. Are you coming down with the pink-eye?” Mama stopped her as they entered the dining room. “Should I send for Doctor Chadwick?”
“Am I?” Rowena touched a finger to her eyes, not missing Mama’s exasperated tone. All her mama asked was that things return to normal with all haste and that no one ever mentioned her daughter’s abduction again. Rowena turned to the hall mirror, wishing it could be so. Then, at least Mama would calm down and stop grating on her nerves. Anyone would think she’d had herself abducted for the sole purpose of irritating her parents.
Her escapade had left a restlessness inside she was having difficulty containing. The house, where she’d been born and raised, felt suddenly too small, the gently mannered atmosphere too stifling.
Her eyes did look a little red. Unsurprising, given the trauma of the past few days, the lack of sleep and the dirty air of the Manchester slums. Tilting her head, she inspected her smiling reflection. The woman looking back had a confidence she’d never seen before. The smile a little secretive, her skin glowing like it would after a bracing walk in the cold.
“No need of Doctor Chadwick, Mama. I’ll ask Cook for some tincture. There is no soreness or pain. Do not concern yourself.”
“Well, you certainly cannot come to the Anderson’s looking like that. You know we are invited for afternoon tea and invitations are becoming so rare. Now I will have to make excuses for your absence yet again.” Her mother paused for breath, shoulders heaving. “I was hoping to make a show of it, Rowena. To let them know everything is as it was.”
Rowena bit back the retort, secretly pleased at having been excused the engagement. She had the unexpected urge to take a walk, preferably somewhere high and remote. And when her parents were safely out of sight, she would do just that, although where she would find a hill in this flat part of Manchester, she had no clue.
She picked at her luncheon, further adding to Mama’s distress. How could she concentrate on food with this feeling swelling inside of her? This pull calling her to a place she had no idea how to find. She only knew that if she didn’t take some time alone and out of the house, she would go mad.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” The words nearly choked her since she wasn’t sorry at all. And that made her feel so terribly guilty. “My experience changed me that’s true. But I will endeavour to be the daughter I once was.”
“Really, Rowena.” Mama’s spectacles slid down her nose. She pushed them back in a habitual gesture. “There’s no need to be vulgar.”
Be quiet and pretend it didn’t happen. Why didn’t Mama just say it out loud? Rowena wanted to scream out her frustration. It did happen, but no one wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to help her get over it.
“Mama.” She put out a hand, heartened when her mother’s eyes softened momentarily. A slight squeeze and a tight nod and Mama swept away to take her afternoon nap.
Rowena watched her go, feeling her life crumbling around her. She hadn’t been away that long. Nothing so very dire had happened to her. She shouldn’t be feeling so different.
Different? Oh, dear lord in his heaven, not that. Touching the scratch, she turned back to the mirror, almost too afraid to look, relieved that her reflection had not changed. No terrible transformations, no hideous yellow teeth and hairy cheeks.
Just the pink-rimmed eyes through which the world had become strangely sharper in focus, the colours more vibrant.
Coming down with a fever, that’s all it was. Little wonder after being forced to mix with such unsavoury characters.
She waved the hovering Milly away, telling her to take the rest of the day off and visit her mother. She would comb out her own hair and put herself to bed. With Milly safely out of sight, Rowena went swiftly to her father’s study at the back of the house and stood listening carefully at the door. At this time of the day he would be at the lecture hall with his students, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
She could hardly march in and announce she needed a reference tome concerning wolf-men because she feared she might be becoming one.
No answer, so she cautiously cracked open the door, peeking inside. The book was an ancient volume, bought on his grand tour of Europe as a young man. With it tucked carefully under her arm, she quickly mounted the stairs to her bedroom. Seated on her bed, she thumbed through the volume with shaking fingers until she reached the chapter on Lycanthropy.
What she read only increased her anxiety. One bite was indeed all it took. One bite that introduced a potent but as yet unknown substance to the recipient’s blood.
The book dropped from her fingers. She almost flew across the room, ripping two buttons from her gown in her effort to look at the scratch. No puncture marks, just a neat little line of scabs which could have happened at any time during her abduction. She had put up rather a fight when they’d ordered her to undress.
She should be relieved, but through the panic and fear that she had been about to wake up a wolf, trickled a small thread of disappointment that grew with every breath. This was altogether too confusing to fathom. Who would want to become such a creature when one had the good fortune to be born human?
Pulling at the pins holding her hair, she shook it out, leaving it hanging in wild tangles about her face. As a wolf, she would be free of all these petty human constraints. Free of this sterile life, devoid of real feeling, empty of sincere emotion.
Free to be with Christopher.
She dropped her head to her hands.
I’m your Saviour, Rowena. That’s all you need to know.
Christopher had made it sound so simple, and her fertile imagination had elevated it to something it was not. He hadn’t saved her at all. Only freed her from one prison to send her back to another.
With a sigh, she let go her fancy hopes and dreams, knowing that fighting her destiny would only bring more pain. She would do everything in her power to please Mama and Papa. Marry and have children with human eyes. Grow old the way all humans did.
Methodically, she brushed out her hair and re-pinned it. Splashed her flushed cheeks with rose-water. A brisk walk in the fresh air would clear her mind of all these silly ideas. She was turning into a wolf? What nonsense.
The shops on the Cranwell Road were all adorned with Christmas finery. A decorated tree stood outside the town hall and she was damned-well going to look her fill. She would purchase the candles she’d promised Christopher and make sure she kept her side of the bargain.
She didn’t ask a maid to accompany her. The outside was infinitely less scary than suffocating inside this house. Wearing her sturdy walking boots and the cloak she’d borrowed from Hadon House, Rowena let herself out onto the icy pavement.
How could he have been so dim? Since she’d left, his every thought had been of her. Her voice calling in his dreams, her image taunting him at every turn.
The missing part was Rowena.
And he still had no idea how it had happened. Was it because of the shift? The time of the moon? He’d been so careful and yet here he was, feeling her loss like a physical thing.
Somehow he’d infected her. And now she was his and a decision had to be made.
In two days’ time he would be pure wolf-man. A beast, his human side relegated to onlooker. With no control over the shift, he was likely to do something stupid like claiming her in front of her family.
And if she didn’t want to go with him? He inspected his hands, the knuckles already starting to twist, the hair growing coarse. He didn’t have to look in the mirror to see the sharpened angles of his cheeks, the wicked canines distorting his mouth. The man would ask her what she wanted and listen to her answer. The beast wouldn’t give her a choice.
This gentler shifting, over a period of days, was easier on the body than a forced shift. This time of the moon he slipped naturally into his wolf, living its pain, revelling in the freedom and power of the beast. And as the moon started to wane, so would the man return.
Such was the lot of an unmated wolf. How much worse would it be for a mated wolf with an unclaimed mate?
“Mary, I’m going out.” He passed her in the hall, swiping at cobwebs with her feather duster. “Don’t wait up for me.”
He shrugged into his coat and wound a woollen scarf about his face. In the pocket were the darkened eyeglasses he used to hide his eyes from polite society. There were no laws against walking around as wolf, but where Rowena lived, that sort of thing wasn’t done.
“And where might you be going with the moon this full?” Mary’s tone held more than a note of censure, her voice a little gruffer than usual. Being mated, she and Josh coped with the full moon far better than he.
“Josh, talk some sense into him.”
With an exaggerated sigh, she turned back to her dusting, leaving Josh, who’d appeared bearing an armful of logs, to carry on where she’d left off. A man of few words, he dropped the logs onto the hearth and proceeded to stack them neatly.
“Be better if you stayed in, Master. What with the moon and all.”
“I know what I’m doing. I have to go.” He caught Mary’s exasperated glance at Josh as he swung open the heavy oak front door. Knew they worried about him for good reason. But in this state he was no danger to anyone but himself.
If he didn’t at least try to claim his mate, he would go insane.
And he should do it now, in civilised fashion and before it became inevitable and caused a scandal from which neither of them would ever recover.
How could this not cause a scandal? Minimising the extent of it was the best they could hope for.
The strength lent by his wolf never ceased to amaze him. By the time he reached the moor-path, he was running flat out, his breath leaving misty trails in the frosty air. Down past Hadon Hall to Great-Hadon Village where workers toiled in the largest of the Hadon cotton mills dotting the valley.
He slowed to a walk as he passed the smoking chimneys, not wishing to attract attention to himself. The workers within would be toiling until well into dark. By unspoken consent, the Hadon Pack stayed close to home at full moon. If Sir Christopher knew he was out in the world, he’d have his overseers drag him home by force.
Josh and Mary were good to him, but ultimately, Pack loyalty belonged to the Alpha. If called on, they would betray him without question.
A left turn and he was on the Old Bury Road and racing south towards the garden suburbs of the great city of Manchester. His lack of decorum earned him a few indignant retorts as he pushed his way through a group of matrons exiting one of the elegant, terraced residences off the main road. Compared to the slums of Salford and Angel Meadows, the outlying suburbs to the north of the city were a genteel haven for those wishing to escape, or merely turn a blind eye to the social deprivation of the crowded city centre.
Stopping to catch his breath, Christopher sniffed the air, going as much on instinct as his wolf senses. An increasing anxiety gnawed at his gut. Rowena was out there, in the world, without his protection. His only task now, was to provide for her and protect her with his life.
A wolf could track its mate over the length and breadth of the country. Pick out the trail from millions of other beings. Once mated, there was no hiding.
She’d walked this street, and recently. Any one of the sets of footprints in the snow could be hers. He stilled and pulled down the scarf covering his mouth, chin high, body quivering, earning him a curious glance from a child walking hand in hand with its mother. Hastily, he covered his teeth. The last thing he needed was the police on his tail for frightening innocents.
He was no danger to them. Unless they threatened his mate.
The thought had his wolf straining at its restraints. Holding it back took energy he didn’t have to waste. She was close, very close and he wanted only to be with her, to hold her and reassure himself she was all right. He crossed the street, dodging in front of a carriage emerging from under an archway, drawing attention to himself when he needed to be discreet.
And then he saw her, a small, cloaked figure gazing up at the decorated tree in front of the town hall. He paused, for a moment, breathing so hard he had trouble drawing air into his lungs. The words he’d rehearsed over and over on the journey here, suddenly stuck in his throat.
He couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
This could turn out to be the best or the worst day of his life. He wouldn’t know that until she turned around.
* * * *
Only when the cosy glow of lamplight started lighting up windows did Rowena realise the day was starting to fade and she really should be getting home before they noticed her absence.
With one last, defiant look at the Christmas tree, she pulled up her hood, remembering she had candles to purchase before making her way home. Perhaps she would do that tomorrow. She really should be getting back or she and Mama would be exchanging more words. Words they would both regret.
Frost sparkled on the pavement, and the iron railings fronting the houses. Stars were appearing, like crystals in the darkening sky. And there was the moon, full and heavy. Breathtakingly beautiful.
How had she never noticed its beauty before meeting with Christopher? Now if she stared hard enough she could see the ridges of what looked like mountains and craters, forming intricate patterns of shadow and light. How near she seemed. She could almost put out a hand and touch her.
A shiver prickled her skin and she found herself sliding her tongue over her teeth, putting fingers to her face and wondering if she still resembled the woman who’d left the house but a few hours ago. She must do, otherwise the children and their nanny, who’d stopped to admire the tree with her, would have run screaming. Wolves were not welcome in this part of town.
Rowena. She heard her name, softly spoken, but when she whirled around the street was empty. But she had heard something. A sound, like someone whispering the word in her ear.
“Christopher?” Frantically, she scanned the street, wondering if she was hearing things that weren’t there. Weren’t wolves supposed to go mad this time of the moon? Was this further proof she was changing?
A faint crunch of footsteps on iced snow, coming from the north end of the street, where it joined the main road. She swallowed, waiting for the man to emerge from the gathering gloom. She knew it would be a man. And not just any man. Her spirits soared. Lifting her skirts, she broke into a run, unable to stop herself even if she’d wanted to. Uncaring of decorum or that she might be seen by someone she knew.
He’d found her. Somehow he’d found her and she needed to be with him.
His wolf was up, but that only made him more handsome. All the doubts she’d harboured, melted away the instant he began to run towards her. They collided, almost knocking each other to the icy pavement with their need to be as close as possible. With a swift glance around, he lifted her from her feet and into the shade of a carriage-arch, his lips already on hers.
She didn’t have to ask what he was doing here, or what he wanted. The kiss said it all.
“I’m not sorry.” Christopher managed to speak at last, his forehead pressing against hers. “I didn’t mean for this to happen, but I’m not sorry.”
“Then it’s true?”
“Can’t you feel it? You must be able to feel it?”
She nodded, lost for words now that he’d confirmed the truth. And now she was shaking with fear. With the thought of what she must endure to be with him.
“Christopher, I’m frightened.”
“I know.” Holding her head in his hands, he studied her face with his penetrating wolf-eyes. “I’ll help you through it. Rowena, say you want this. Say you’ll come with me.”
“You really want me?”
He growled, low in his throat, flashing a hint of canine teeth. “It’s more than want, Rowena. You’re a part of me, now.”
“But how?” She had to ask, though it spoiled the moment. “I have a scratch on my neck. Is that how it happened?”
“If I nicked you with my teeth, then yes. I tried to be careful, but I wasn’t careful enough, it seems.”
“And there is no going back?”
His amber eyes glowed softly. Deliberately, he placed a hand on either side of her head, flat against the wall, trapping her in place. Dark stubble shaded his cheek, giving him an almost villainous air. When he spoke, it was not of choices, but facts.
“There is no going back.”
He gave her a moment to digest the words, his hands still on the wall. She didn’t want to go back. She wanted to go with him now. But Mama, Papa? Whatever friction remained between them, she couldn’t disappear from their lives a second time.
“I have to tell them.” Gently, she pushed away Christopher’s arm. “Not the truth, but I have to tell them I’ll be safe. That they shouldn’t worry about me.”
“You think if you do, they won’t try to stop you?” He moved away, glancing almost accusingly at her. As if he hadn’t bargained on having to convince her to go with him.
“I won’t give them the chance. But it would be too cruel to leave without at least a note of explanation.”
“Wolves don’t need to explain.”
He’d retreated to the far side of the arch, pressing his back against the brick. They should move before the occupants of the dwelling returned. Wouldn’t do to find the two of them hiding here, un-chaperoned.
She gave a rueful smile. “This one does. Christopher, I have no idea how wolves behave. This time last week I knew only that wolf-men existed. I could never have dreamed of becoming one.”
“I’ve been dreaming of you all my life.”
He pushed off the wall. Lifted a hand to caress her face. She turned her cheek to the calloused palm, felt the press of his claws on her tender skin. “I’ve also been dreaming of something all my life.” She raised her eyes to his. “I had no idea that when the mists finally cleared, it would look like you.”
“It’s hard for me to let you go.” His voice had dropped a notch, deeper and with a dangerous edge. “You’re my sanity, Rowena. The end to my torment. Don’t leave me.”
“Only for a few hours.” She lifted her head, hearing the sound of carriage wheels muffled by snow. “Someone’s coming. We have to go. Follow me at a safe distance and watch my bedroom window. I’ll join you after dinner.”
“If you don’t, I’m coming up to get you.”
“I’ll be there.”
From somewhere she found the strength to walk swiftly away from the intense longing in his eyes. To be so wanted was unbearably exciting. How romantic it would be to let him sweep her up and carry her away. Now. This moment.
And how selfish.
Almost dark and she could see as if it were day. This was Christopher’s gift to her. This and a lifetime of devotion and companionship. The mating was a sacred thing, not easily undone. The book had been clear on that. Even at a distance, she could feel him. He would always be with her.
“Oh, Miss Rowena, where have you been? Your mama is beside herself.”
Milly dragged her through the door, taking the cloak before she could protest.
“Where did you get this tatty old thing?” Milly wrinkled her nose, holding it at a distance as if it might bite her. “And your eyes. You must at least let me bathe them if you don’t want the doctor. Or you’ll look like a vampire come morning.”
Milly’s prattling washed over her. Mama was indeed hysterical. Even without the benefit of wolf hearing Rowena would have still been able to pick out the ranting and weeping. And there was Papa’s voice, firm, a little exasperated, but not without an edge of anxiety. She must present herself before the whole neighbourhood heard the noise.
Knowing that Christopher was out there, watching over her, gave her the courage to straighten her spine and make her way to the drawing room. Still the dutiful daughter. Her parents had no idea what was happening to her. She didn’t either. Had it not been for the fact that she could hear Cook, complaining about her bad back, the kitchen cat meowing at the back door to be let in, the faint rustle of an owl, flying low over the garden, she might have imagined the past few hours.
“Mama, Papa, I’m so sorry. I forgot the time.”
“This is not well done, Rowena.” Papa stood in his usual place, in front of the hearth, fingers laced behind his back. She could only endure the lecture, biting her tongue for fear of saying something she might regret. It would after all, be her last. Tomorrow she would be far from here.
He stopped to draw breath at last, ordering her to her room to change for dinner. Such a silly ritual. What need of a different gown for every activity? Milly appeared to help with her toilette, tutting over the unkempt state of her hair, the rosy tint to her frost-kissed cheeks.
Rowena decided on a flowery Liberty gown in the aesthetic style, loose fitting with a sunflower print. Mama had nearly expired on the spot when she’d learned such gowns were worn for comfort and did not require a corset. Rowena studied her silhouette in the chevalier mirror. Much more practical than the bustle that gave women the hind quarters of a horse.
And much more practical for her escape.
Benji sat on the bed, watching her with solemn interest. She would take him with her along with Victoria, her childhood doll, several spare gowns, a selection of undergarments and her favourite books. And her modest jewellery collection. She owed Christopher a ring and he would have one.
With a pang, she realised she would be forced to leave most of her possessions behind. A single gown would fill her carpet bag and a trunk would require a carriage in which to transport it. She was running away, starting a new life. Better that she took no reminders of the old one.
Before going down, she stood at the window, searching the darkened garden for Christopher’s tall shape. She’d been parted from him for barely an hour and already she missed him and needed to see him. He was standing in the shade of a tree, at the bottom of the garden. Blending so easily with the night.
“Wait for me.” She pressed her fingers to the glass, surprised that she could almost feel him, despite the distance. Was this love or merely a fever brought about by the mating? He raised an arm, letting her know he’d seen her, sending her encouragement.
If not yet, love would surely come. Who could not love such a man?
A few more hours and she would be his, utterly and completely.
In all the excitement of meeting him again, she’d forgotten that she might also be sporting facial hair and teeth that might rival those of an animal in a zoo. Not such a welcome thought.
She stepped back, gripped by a wave of panic. Had it been in her hands, would she have chosen this? She honestly didn’t know. Who would voluntarily choose to become a beast?
Breathing deeply, she pictured Christopher, alone and in anguish, howling at the moon for something he thought never to have. She pictured herself, standing at his side, taking his hand and leading him home.
Would it be that easy? Only time would answer that question.
Before going downstairs, she muttered a small prayer of thanks that Fate had made this decision for her. And now there definitely was no going back.
* * * *
The moon was smiling at him. Or so it felt. The relief of having a channel for this relentless energy was immense, like a great boulder rolling from his shoulders. Christopher paced out another circuit of the copse of trees at the bottom of Rowena’s garden, checking his pocket-watch for what felt like the hundredth time, waiting for her to appear.
No longer alone and yearning for the one who would complete him. He’d found her, albeit by accident, and now his life had a purpose. If only she’d appear. The need to get her away and home with him grew by the moment. Never mind the myriad consequences that would result from their elopement. Do this and worry about all that later.
Mary, Sir Christopher, her father and the ensuing ruckus would probably be heard in the next county. Christopher closed his eyes. They could make all the noise they liked. No one was taking her from him.
If only she’d appear.
And then he felt her reaching out to him, her fledgling wolf calling to his. A newly-made wolf-being had little control over the growing beast inside. She would not have the benefit of years of training, of learning to control the thing. He vowed to be always there at her side, helping her learn to love what she was becoming.
Keeping in the shadow of the wall, he crept towards her window, wincing at the sharp creak of it being pushed open. Surely someone heard that? If challenged, he would have to fight for her and that would cause no end of a scandal.
Her voice, thank the heavens. Craning his neck, he saw her, leaning over the sill, a bundle in her hand.
“I’m here. Jump down, I’ll catch you.”
“It’s too high. Catch my things. I will sneak down the stairs and out of the front door.”
“Trust me, Rowena.” He held out his arms. “Jump. I will never, ever let you down.”
He didn’t blame her for hesitating or still thinking as a human. The mating was just the start. Trust would have to be learned and earned. He would teach her and do everything in his power to make himself worthy.
Though he wanted to scale the drainpipe and snatch her from the window, he kept his calm, willing her the courage to do this. Better that she came willingly and not because she had no choice.
“All right. Catch my bag.” She threw it down and then he saw her hefting another, smaller bundle onto the sill. “He must come with me, Christopher. I can’t leave him behind.”
A very surprised-looking dog hurtled towards him, legs scrabbling as it tried to gain purchase on thin air. With a muffled yap Benji fell short and for a moment lay panting in the middle of a lavender bush.
He had no time to retrieve the animal. Rowena was already straddling the sill, legs dangling.
With her dress and coat flying up around her legs, cloak billowing, dark hair flapping about her face, she dropped into his arms where she belonged. She flashed him a brief, conspiratorial smile and then looked around for her dog.
“You caught Benji?”
“I think he landed in the lavender bush. Rowena, we need to leave, before anyone discovers you’re gone.”
“I can’t go without Benji. He’ll pine for me. Where? Which bush? I can’t see him.” She was already wriggling out of his arms, craning her neck to peer into the dark. “He’s run off. Help me find him.”
“We’ll send for him.” He picked up her bag, wiping away the snow, hoping she realised the need to move quickly. If there must be a scandal, he would prefer it didn’t involve a stay in a prison cell for abduction.
Rowena disappeared into the darkness, whispering Benji’s name. Wretched creature; it was going to spoil everything. Christopher picked up her bag and followed, mindful that female wolves did not bow down to male superiority as humans did. He would be her lover, her companion, but never her master.
“Got him.” Rowena reappeared with an armful of wriggling dog, eyes flashing in the gloom. She would make a beautiful wolf, no doubt about that. Discreetly, he adjusted his pants, his thoughts straying to the other more practical benefits of having a mate. No more lonely, frustrated nights. She would warm his bed as well as his heart.
Briefly, he faltered. Too good to be true or merely a madness brought on by the moon?
“Come, Christopher, we must go.” Now it was her urging him on. “How long will it take to get back to Hadon House?”
“Three, perhaps four hours. I can’t carry you here. It would attract too much attention.”
“There’s no need. I feel so much stronger, now.” She took in a deep breath, cheeks glowing from the chill. “As if I could walk all night without tiring.”
“It will only get better.” Feet muffled by the snow, they crossed the garden to the lee of the wall. Rowena had worn sturdy boots, but the hem of her gown was already damp with snow. She would surely take a chill before they reached home. A small thread of anxiety twisted around his heart. Worry, it seemed, was also a part of this deal.
He helped her onto the wall, feeling like a naughty schoolboy sneaking out of lessons. The house backed onto a dark alley that would give cover to their flight, but he wouldn’t rest until they were safely up on the moors. Pulling the scarf over his mouth, he then slipped on his eyeglasses. A hat would have helped further disguise his state, but he’d neglected to wear one.
“I’m sorry to be like this,” he said, wishing the timing had been different. “I’ve little control over my appearance this time of the moon.”
“You will do nicely,” she reassured him. “I look forward to meeting your wolf.”
All clear at the end of the alleyway save for a carriage trundling in the direction of town and a man walking briskly, a satchel in his hand.
“Tomorrow you might meet him in full. You’re not afraid?”
“I think I’m more afraid of meeting my own. What will it be like? Will I walk on four legs? Will I look like a real wolf?”
“We’re wolf-men, not animals. Although humans will call us beasts. But don’t worry about that, now. I’ll help you. You won’t be alone.” He glanced behind. No one in pursuit. It was hard walking at a casual pace when he wanted to pick her up and run like the wind. They must endeavour to look to the world like any husband and wife walking to some evening engagement.
“And neither will you, Christopher.”
When she looped her arm in his, he slowed his pace to match hers, loving the weight of her at his side. By the time they reached the small mill-town of Bury, she was slowing, her frosty breath coming in short bursts. The hem of her skirt wet and dragging.
The parish church chimed out the hour. Ten o’clock on the night of an almost-full moon and here he was, still virtually a man and relatively sane. A thing unheard of. No one paid them any heed as they passed the Two-Tubs Pub to take the road north and out of town.
There, he did pick her up, despite her protests. Cradling her, and the sleeping dog, he picked up the pace, berating himself for letting her to get so cold. The needle-sharp frost had stiffened her hair, tinted her cheeks a rosy red. In less than an hour, they would be cosy in front of a roaring fire and he would be struggling to explain to an incredulous Mary that the house now had a mistress as well as a master.
By the time he turned into the driveway of Hadon House, he’d never been so pleased to see home.
Rowena blinked sleepy eyes and gave him a smile that said for now, everything was right with his world. Who cared if people disapproved? They could all go to hell.
He placed her carefully down on the step, wondering what she saw when she looked at him. The hand he extended to her was shaded by dark hair, the nails, sharp and yellowed. Why would she even want to touch such a creature? Few humans would.
When she took it without hesitation, he felt like the most fortunate creature alive.
Rowena kneeled before the library fire, warming her hands, steam rising from the wet hem of her skirt. Benji shivered on the hearth, shooting reproachful looks as if to ask why he’d been dragged from his warm bed, halfway across the county in the freezing snow.
Behind her, through the partially-open door, she heard heated whispers. Mary and Christopher exchanging sharp words. Mary had been nothing less than horrified at her sudden reappearance and her altered state. She’d picked up the wolf immediately.
Rowena inspected her palms, the back of her hands. At present she was swinging between disbelief and fear of what was to come. How would she ever turn into a beast? It didn’t seem possible. Despite the full moon, the red eyes and a few enhanced senses, she felt so normal.
Christopher had spoken of the madness of full moon, but as yet the only madness was this desperate flight into the night with her wolf-man lover.
“Feeling warmer?” Christopher joined her at the hearth, in shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, his cravat hanging loose. Barefoot, she noticed. His boots would have been wet through from such a journey.
“A little.” She’d slept on the last part of the journey, but now was wide awake, every sense alert.
“It’s the moon.” Christopher sat beside her, elbows resting on his knees. “She won’t let you sleep. Not when she’s like this. Take off your wet stockings. I don’t want you catching a chill.”
“I’ve never felt so alive.” Yes, she should take off her stockings, although the library was hardly the place. She couldn’t help noticing Christopher’s eyes narrowing, his stare focussing on the slow slide of her skirt as she pulled it up and over her knees. This was another kind of power. A kind, she suspected, that could bring a dangerous wolf-man to his knees.
“Do it for me,” she said in husky whisper, a voice that sounded nothing like her own. She lifted a leg, sliding her foot along his calf, feeling the muscle snapping tight at the touch. “Take off my garters and stockings.”
Lord in heaven, did he mean do it with his mouth? She tipped back her neck, letting out a sigh when he dipped his head to scrape his teeth along the tender skin of her thigh. She felt the tickle of his soft wolf hair, his warm, moist breath.
His dark rumbling laugh went right through her.
“Delighted to oblige,” he said, curving his palms around her knees, pushing them apart.
It didn’t seem possible to grow so close to someone so quickly and yet the need to be with him was more than merely a physical attraction or an escape from her former, restrictive life. He was a part of her now, as necessary as the air she breathed.
He was kissing her through the cotton of her combinations, pushing her long skirts above her hips and then crawling over her, a hand on either side of her head, arms rigid and looking down at her with a focus that took her breath away.
Peeling back her lips, she growled, low in her throat. In response, Christopher dipped his head to the curve of her shoulder and bit down lightly, not enough to break the skin, but a gesture of possession none the less. No longer defensive or hiding his altered state, but confident and sure.
He’d spoken of the madness of full moon and now he would not be alone. How strange that at home, in the world of men, the prospect of becoming a beast like him had terrified her. Here, in his arms and remote from the world, what was there to fear?
Christopher lifted his head, staring intently at her for a moment before sitting up and taking her with him. With his back to the leather armchair, he pulled her between his bent knees and rested his chin on her shoulder.
“You’re worried about what the future will bring?”
She tipped back her head, rubbing her cheek against the roughness of his unshaven wolf-beard. “You can feel that?”
“I can feel everything.” He placed a hand on her heart. “I didn’t mean for this to happen, but this beats inside of me now and it’s my job to protect it with my life.”
She turned, kneeling in front of him, hands on his shoulders. He let her look at him, only a glimmer of anxiety in his unwavering gaze.
“Rowena, tell me this is what you wanted.”
She smiled then, loving the intensity in his voice, the way he grasped her elbows in a grip that said he would never let her go.
“It is.” She gave in to the urge to kiss his mouth, letting him know without words how much she did want him. “But this was an accident. You must not feel trapped by me.”
Taking his head in her hands, she stilled the protest forming on his lips. If she didn’t say this now, it would remain forever unsaid.
“No, let me speak. You came for me because you had no choice, am I right?”
He removed her hands, kissing each of her knuckles before responding. “I had no choice, that’s true. This wasn’t meant to be, also true. But can you tell me this doesn’t feel right? That it doesn’t feel as if we could make something wonderful of this?”
“It feels so right that I’m having a hard time believing it.” Rowena sat back on her heels, lowering her gaze because when she looked at him the questions in her mind fled. And they needed asking.
“And that feeling will only get stronger. But Rowena, that’s merely the physical manifestation of the bonding process.” He laughed, leaning forward to kiss the end of her nose. “But Fate’s been rather kind to us. We actually appear to like each other, too. It’s not always so.”
“Really?” She settled once more, resting in his arms, sleep fast overtaking her now she was safe and warm. “You mean even wolf-men can mate without love?”
“It happens all the time.” He adjusted his position, relaxing against the arm of the chair. “In a family like mine children are mated for political alliance. My father would have chosen for me and I would have had no say.”
“Will he be angry with you?” She hadn’t thought much further than the need to get away from home, the compulsion to be with Christopher at any cost. The respite would not last. His family, her family, would all have something to say about this. And nothing good, she was sure of that.
Christopher shrugged. “He cut me off, but I don’t believe he’s ignorant of what goes on in this house. Mary spies for him. So far, he’s shown me his indifferent face. Allowed me to live the life I’ve chosen. All this freedom is merely an expression of his contempt.”
“But this will change all that?” She couldn’t help stiffening in his arms at the thought of Sir Christopher’s ire. She’d never met the man, but already he scared her. From what she’d read in her father’s book, the Alpha held the life of the Pack members in his hands. Her father might rant and lock her in her room for her transgressions. Sir Christopher might well demand her life for entering the Pack unbidden.
Christopher responded immediately to her fear, holding her a little tighter, surrounding her with his warmth. “He won’t touch you. You have my word on that. I won’t let him or his overseers anywhere near you.”
The fire crackled and popped, filling the room with dancing shadows. Outside, the ever-present wind buffeted the few trees that grew so high on the moors, endlessly circling the house, rattling the windows as if seeking entrance. Silver moonlight gilded the leaded panes, calling to her. A pull that would only get stronger.
“Do you feel it?” Christopher whispered close to her ear, sending shivers racing over her skin. “Tomorrow, we’ll be out there, together, singing her praises for all to hear.”
The thought both horrified and fascinated her. “I think not, Christopher Hadon. Becoming a wolf will not involve losing my decorum.”
His hand strayed to her breast, circling her nipple with his thumb, heating her with a different kind of warmth. “I defy you to resist her. Enough of this talking. Let me take you to bed. You belong in my bed.”
He made it sound so simple, so straightforward. And to her fledgling wolf, it was. In its mind, there was no doubt.
In Christopher’s arms as he strode confidently from the library to stairs, the woman in her knew she couldn’t selfishly run away from life. She’d left her parents a letter telling them not to worry, but of course, they would. She could not ignore this transformation, although it still felt too far-fetched to be true.
Pushing those worries aside, she concentrated on the feel of Christopher holding her, his hot breath on her nape, the endearments, whispered so quietly she knew only that he wanted her. The words didn’t matter.
She turned her cheek to Christopher’s chest to avoid Mary standing in the hall, arms folded, face set in a mask of disapproval.
“Sir Christopher will have to be told.” Mary didn’t mince her words, neither did she show any fear at Christopher’s warning growl. Despite being half his size, she stood, blocking the stairs, determined to have her say.
“You know I must. Pack protocol demands it.
“Pack protocol can go to hell.” Christopher sidestepped her neatly. “One night, Mary. All I ask is one night. Will you do that for me?”
Sighing deeply, Mary touched his hand. A tender gesture showing she understood, but was as tied as all of them to the rules of the Pack. “Yes, I can give you that. You shouldn’t have done it, but there’s no going back now.”
Christopher returned a curt nod and without further comment took the stairs, Benji at his heels, determined not to be left out.
“Should I say something, Christopher?” Rowena regarded him anxiously. She was the cause of all this impending family strife. It wasn’t in her nature to sit passive while Christopher reasoned with those who would tear them apart. “Perhaps if I explain it was an accident. That you didn’t mean to defy your father in this way?”
He placed her on the bed and then crossed the room to lock the door. Leaning against it, head tipped back, neck exposed, his chest rose and fell as he breathed and took stock.
When finally he looked at her, his amber eyes glowed with a fervour she’d never seen.
She was in safe hands, but at what cost?
Christopher pushed off the door. His waistcoat fell to the floor, the shirt followed. He started on his trouser buttons. “We have tonight and, for now, nothing else matters.” Spreading his arms, he stood before her, trousers hanging loose at his hips, powerful and strong, his wolf straining for release.
“Will you have me, Rowena? To you, I’m giving a choice. Say you’ll have me and I won’t ever let anything part us.”
Tears prickled her eyes. She dashed them away, humbled that Fate had seen fit to gift her such a man. “Then nothing ever will,” she said and held out her arms, drawing him to her.
“This is where I belong, now. And this is where I mean to stay.”
* * * *
She fit him so well that he couldn’t believe this hadn’t been in some way pre-destined. With one last groan, he spent himself inside her, thrusting weakly until he had nothing left to give. Desperately, he found her mouth, catching her cries of release, her panting breath in a kiss of gratitude and commitment. A kiss that said he would give his life for her if required.
With her fingers digging into his back, Rowena held him in place, returning the kiss with equal fervour, her tongue tangling with his, tasting, giving and taking.
He rolled from her, draping her across his chest, wanting her as close as two beings could get. The scent of her, of what they’d just done, the perfume she’d worn before her escape, filled the room. Along with that damned dog, curled up in his favourite fireside chair, the bedroom smelled so different. It felt different.
Stroking Rowena’s naked back, the skin soft against his finger-pads, he felt altogether too big and rough to be holding something so precious. Her silky hair spilled across his chest, the weight of her reassured him that she really existed and this was no dream from which he would wake come the morning light.
Morning. Rolling his head to the side, Christopher studied the sky, now tinged with the pale pink of dawn. Another bright, crisp day in prospect; he didn’t need a barometer to tell him that. The full moon would reign in all her glory tonight.
Rowena lifted her head, following his gaze and then pulled him back down to her, snuggling into him with a contented sigh.
“A few more moments before we face the day.” She kissed his shoulder, smoothing his wolf-hair from his brow. “Moments of peace, like this, are rare. We should savour them.”
“Amen to that.” For him there was no relaxing. It must be five of the clock, if not later. Josh and Mary would soon be about, tending to the hearths, making breakfast. Mary disapproved greatly of slug-a-beds.
He should get up and run over the Hadon Hall himself. Demand an audience with his father and tell him how it would be. A bad time to do that. With their wolves to the fore, the time of the moon, it would not be a pretty argument.
“Sleep,” he said, stroking Rowena’s head to help her on her way.
“You too,” she murmured.
Her breathing slowed and when he was sure she slept, he left the bed and found his clothes. Pulling on his crumpled shirt, he marvelled at how comfortable he felt in Rowena’s company. This time of the moon, he hid, and wallowed in the shame and pain of being Different. Indulged himself in resentment and pitying thoughts.
He should be out there, running wild and scaring sheep. Sending the villagers scurrying home to lock their doors while he roamed, vainly searching for the thing that would give him peace.
Had he found it at last? Covering Rowena’s bare shoulders with the quilt, he dared to hope.
“Where are you going?” She turned onto her back, wolf eyes gleaming. A beautiful sight that made his insides clench with desire, his heart thud painfully with the worry that he might not be able to hold on to this gift. That he might not be able to protect her.
“To ask Josh to heat water and fill a bath. You would like to bathe?”
“That would be most agreeable. Are you going to see your father?”
He ghosted a hand over her hair. “I should before Mary tells him. This is a breach of protocol to say the least.”
“What will he do?” Covering his hand, she held him, her expression asking for honesty. “I realise that none of this is as simple as it feels. We are both adults and yet convention binds us both. I will at some point have to explain all this to Mama and Papa. I might even be still in denial myself. Surely this can’t be happening?”
“Your eyes tell me it is.”
He didn’t miss her quick glance towards the mirror sitting on the chest of drawers. “And that worries you?”
He grasped her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. “I couldn’t be happier, but I fear we’ll have to pay for whatever happiness comes from this. What you’re feeling now, the relief, the freedom, comes with a price. You might hate me one day for what I’ve done to you.”
“Never. I will never resent what you did to me.”
She spoke so fervently, he laughed. “I will be sure to remind you of those words when you look in that mirror and see whiskers growing from your chin. Sleep, I need to talk to Mary.”
“Whiskers?” Her hands flew to her cheeks.
“I’m afraid so.” How to say it without alarming her? She still hadn’t fully realised what she was becoming. “But I’ll be here to help you through it. The first time is the worst. It becomes less painful with time.”
Her smile was stoical, but he’d come to expect nothing less from her. She was a dream come true that came with a price he may not be able to pay. This brief moment of happiness wasn’t worth her life. She was a part of the Hadon Pack now and the Pack Alpha would determine who lived and who died.
Before leaving her, he scooped up a surprised Benji and dumped him on the bed. If having the creature here gave her comfort, he’d put up with it. As long as it heeded his message about Pack hierarchy.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, he found Mary stirring a pot of porridge on the stove. Josh sat at the table, as solid as the weathered oak. Dependable, loyal. Between the two, Mary was definitely prime. Josh would always fall in with her wishes.
“Sit you down, Christopher. We’re less likely to say things we regret on a full stomach.” She lisped the words through her wolf teeth. Apart from enlarged canines and a little facial hair, she still looked human.
He slid onto the oak bench opposite Josh, who flashed him a swift look that said he could do nothing to stop his mate running to Sir Christopher if she so pleased.
“Mary, I need to talk to you about Rowena.” No point in putting off the moment. If nothing else, Mary appreciated straight talking.
Taking a dish from the dresser, she crossed to the stove and proceeded to fill it with porridge. “Are you mated?”
He nodded. “Yes, if this feeling is anything to go by. I’ll talk to my father. Tell him how and why it happened. I can’t imagine he’ll be interested either way.”
The bowl hit the table with a crack, splashing porridge onto the boards.
“You really believe your father doesn’t know everything that goes on here? That he doesn’t demand monthly reports of your behaviour? He will not be pleased.”
“I can’t help that.” Christopher picked up a spoon. He hadn’t eaten properly for days. “I don’t care what he thinks.”
“He’ll make you care.” Mary’s tone gentled as the implication sunk in. “Will you tell him or shall I? If he finds out without prior word, it will be the worse for us all.”
“He won’t let me within a hundred yards of the Hall, you know that.”
“Then I’ll go.” She glanced at Josh who was ploughing stoically through his own bowl of porridge. His only reaction to the unfolding drama, a non-committal grunt.
“Go then.” The words came out on a guttural growl, the tension allowing his wolf to break through. Feeling like this, he couldn’t hold it back.
“But grant me one thing before you do. Let me give Rowena a proper Christmas before hell pays us a visit. It’s about time Christmas came to this house. For Rowena, and Amelia. Will you do that for me?”
A low blow to mention Amelia. Mary had loved his sister and mourned her loss.
Feeling only vaguely guilty, he drove home his advantage. “A few days is all I ask. Then you can go do your duty to my noble father.”
“You wish to bring Christmas to this house?” Mary lifted her apron to pat surreptitiously at her eyes. She smoothed back a lock of grey hair that had fallen from her bun. “And how will we do that?”
He hadn’t thought it through further than lighting one of the candles Rowena had asked for. “Josh, will you find a fir tree for the hall? And purchase some ornaments, paper and ribbons, and walnuts to hang from the branches? And candles. I want the whole tree lit up with candles. Mary, I want you to procure a goose. Humans eat goose on Christmas Day, so I’ve heard.”
“And I suppose you’ll be asking the church choir to come and sing carols, too?” Mary shook her head, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. Was that relief he saw? She wouldn’t be looking forward to reporting this latest and most serious transgression of his.
“The church choir? Do you think they’d come?”
“Not a chance in hell.” She threw out the challenge and disappeared into the pantry, muttering about sauces and all the extra work this would entail. Josh continued to shovel porridge into his mouth, stopping every now and then to chuckle to himself.
“Dammit, Josh, I understand where her loyalty lies, but can I trust her to hold off?”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Josh said in a rare show of assertiveness. “How big d’ye want this tree?”
“Big enough to fill the hall.”
“Best you go to buy the fripperies. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Yes, I’ll go.” The suggestion had come out of the blue. Christopher wolfed down the rest of his porridge, anxious now to put his plan into action before word got out. Someone may have seen him and Rowena arriving together. Who knew what spies his father had posted?
His wolf hearing picked up muffled sniffling from the pantry. Shoving back the bench, he rose and then crossed the kitchen to stand at the door, one arm braced on the frame. Mary stood at the end of the long, marble-shelved room, a short figure in her habitual black gown, hair scraped back from her face, wolf eyes blurred with tears. Her shoulders shook.
Mary crying? Mary never cried.
“Happy or sad tears, Mary?” A question he’d often asked a child when adults behaved in perplexing ways. “Can you find it in your heart to be happy for me?”
Pursing her lips, smoothing down her skirts, she regained control. “Both kinds, Christopher. I can already see the good she’s done you. But knowing what he might do…”
“He will not touch her. If there’s a problem, we’ll leave this place. Start again somewhere else.”
Mary shook her head. “Do you not think he’ll find you? And what of her family? Will they not want her back? Did you at least ask leave of her father before you thought to turn their daughter into a wolf?”
He raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “The world will come knocking soon enough. Let’s at least have a few happy memories to look back on?”
Never in his life had he wanted to be human, until this moment. Rowena thought she’d won her freedom? That humans lives were too restricted by petty conventions? She had no idea what kind of life she’d fallen into. How rigid was Pack law. He should go upstairs and tell her to go, now.
He moved aside to let Mary pass, heartened by the brief squeeze of his hand. “I’d best find that goose,” she said. “We’ve little enough time. And don’t go into the village looking like that. I’ll see you get your ornaments.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
Out in the hall, he took a steadying breath. It was about time this gloomy old house saw a little laughter and light. A row of stuffed, mounted deer heads stared vacantly down at him. Funny how he’d never really noticed them before. If ever a place needed a young woman’s touch, it was here.
“I said I’d organise the ornaments.” Mary caught him emerging from the library where he’d abandoned his coat the night before. “You’ve too much of a wolf on you to be seen in public.”
“I’m not going into the village.” He shrugged into his overcoat, turning up the collar and then sliding the darkened eyeglasses from the pocket. Standing before the ornate hall mirror, he inspected his reflection. “Organise a bath for Rowena. I’ll use the water when I return. And don’t worry, I’m not about to scare the locals. But there is someone I need to go and see.”
“And who might that be?” The spring in his step seemed to have alarmed her more than the prospect of visiting his father. “If a body might ask?”
“The vicar, Mary. I’m going to see the vicar. The church needs a new roof and I need a choir to sing a few carols.”
“You think it will be that easy? You know the church’s stance on our kind.”
“The Hadons built that church. I’ll make him a donation he can’t refuse. Rowena will get her carols if I have to buy the whole bloody roof myself.”
* * * *
Rowena stood at the dressing table mirror, mesmerised by the change in her eyes. At home it had been such a frightening discovery. Here it felt so normal to see the pupils elongated, the rims tinted red. Opening her mouth, she was relieved to find only a slight sharpness to her canine teeth. And as yet no facial hair, thank the heavens.
She gave a small hysterical laugh. How could she be so calm? Inside of her lurked a beast that would grow in strength and one day take possession of her. She gripped the edge of the dressing table, the stark reality of what she would become making her heart race. Where was Christopher? She couldn’t do this without him.
At her feet, Benji whined and scrabbled at her skirt. Poor dog wanted his breakfast.
Cocking her head, she heard footfall on the stairs. A quick, light tread, not the heavy thud of a man’s footstep. She caught Mary’s scent before the woman entered the room and couldn’t help the blush that sprung to her cheeks when Mary glanced in turn at the rumpled bedcovers and then at her.
“We bathe in the scullery here. Nearer to the kitchen. It’s too far to lug water all the way up here. Does that suit you?”
“It will suit me.” She had to run to keep up with Mary’s swift stride, Benji panting beside her. “I’m quite willing to help about the place. I don’t mean to cause any disruption to the household, Mary.”
Mary gave a grating laugh. “Bit late for that. If you want the bath taken up to the dressing room, just ask.”
“No, it’s fine, really.”
“I expect you had a fancy bathroom in your own house?”
Rowena couldn’t shake off the feeling that the portraits lining the corridor and stairs were watching them with interest as they made their way down. Perhaps it was the wolf eyes that gave them such life? Long-dead members of the Hadon dynasty taking stock of the new mistress of Hadon House.
They didn’t look as if they approved.
“Yes, with piped water. And we had gaslight, too. Living in town has many advantages.”
“Well, the privy’s out back, here. Earth closet, it is. Water’s from the spring and there’s a well in the garden. You’ll just have to put up with our rough, country ways.”
The scullery was off the kitchen, a chilly, tiled room with a flagstone floor. Water steamed from a metal tub set on a small rug. Beside it stood a towel-horse bearing a stack of linen towels. Mary noticed her shiver.
“Once you grow into your wolf, you won’t notice the cold so much. Do you need help undressing?”
“No.” She’d slipped on her gown absent undergarments and hadn’t worn a corset. In truth it would be a relief not to have maids fussing over every little thing. “I understand that houses as old as this will not have the modern conveniences. You mustn’t think I miss them.”
“Will we be hearing from your father or one of his agents?” Mary stood behind her, deftly braiding her hair and then pinning it in place to keep it dry. “Better that we know in advance what trouble this will cause.”
“Mary, believe me, I did not ask for this to happen.” Biting her tongue lest she say anything more regrettable, Rowena stepped away. Outside the small scullery window, the sun had risen, gilding the drifting snow with a golden, sparkling glow.
“If you didn’t want this to happen, then why did you seduce him?” Mary spoke quietly, as if aware she was overstepping her bounds. Rowena glanced back over her shoulder, eyes wide with surprise. Is that how this looked?
Her shoulders slumped in weary resignation. If only it could be the two of them, with no interference from people who thought they knew better and insisted on silly rules that served no other purpose but making people unhappy.
“I’m sorry if it appears that way.” She twisted open the top buttons of her gown. Tears would not do. What purpose would they serve other than making her appear weak?
“I no longer know what to do to make people happy other than sit in a corner, smile and never utter another word. Have I not made Christopher as happy as he’s made me? Where is the sin in two people finding such happiness in each other?”
Mary had no answer for her other than a brief flash of sympathy followed by a flattening of her lips as if she too would have things different, but didn’t know where to start.
“I can see to myself,” Rowena said, pulling the gown from her shoulders. “Could you spare a bite to eat for my dog?”
“Aye.” Mary wrinkled her nose at Benji, who sat hopefully at her feet. “I can spare him some kitchen scraps.” She made no further move to help with the disrobing or washing. “Call me when you’re done and I’ll brush out your hair.”
“Thank you, Mary.” Despite her agitation at having been painted the villain, Rowena managed a smile. For Christopher’s sake she would endeavour to stay on Mary’s good side. Naked, she stepped into the tin tub, knees bent, ignoring Mary’s appraising stare. Let then think what they liked. Some people would not be convinced no matter how many words you wasted on them.
“Christopher is a good man,” she said as Mary turned to go. “He has chosen to stand by me in this and I will try very hard to make him happy. Do you not think he deserves a little happiness in his life?”
She raised her voice for the last, Mary having disappeared through the door, closing it behind her. Rowena tipped back her head, willing away the irritation. Did no one in this world wish to be happy? Such a simple thing and yet man and wolf alike insisted on complicating their lives to such a degree that their only contentment was in finding fault. Lathering herself vigorously, she vowed that from now on she would refuse to play their silly games.
Her mother could swoon all she liked at the thought her daughter was a wolf. Let her father bluster and glower disapprovingly. He would at least appreciate her honesty when she explained what had happened to her. They should be thanking Christopher for giving her sanctuary, but she knew they never would.
And Sir Christopher Hadon? Was he really the ogre everyone made out? She placed the soap on the stool beside the bath and sunk lower into the water, taking care not to wet her hair. Perhaps it was the wolf making her so bold. She could not bring herself to quake at the thought of him finding out about her.
She rose from the tub, stepping over the rim onto the rag rug. Would he receive her if she paid him a visit? With no card, she could perhaps send Josh over with a hand written note? She towelled off and then wriggled back into her dress. The thin cotton clung to her damp body and she wished for one of her more formal gowns that she might make a better show.
Or perhaps it might be better to approach Christopher’s mother? As a woman she might understand?
With no idea of wolf visiting-protocol, she could only walk over to Hadon Hall and politely request an audience with Lady Hadon. Her courage left her momentarily. No use in pretending they would applaud the news of this mating. She could only explain and apologise if required, for what had transpired.
No sign of Mary. Rowena slipped through the door and made her way to the library. To her dismay, her coat and boots were not where she’d discarded them the night before. Picking up her skirts, she raced up the stairs and to Christopher’s bedroom. There they were, the coat laid out over the fireside chair, the boots dry and on the tiled hearth.
Coated and booted, she stared at her image in dismay. A hank of hair coiled over one eye, Wisps of it hung about her shoulders. The rest was a tangled mess pinned haphazardly to her head. What impression would she give arriving looking like a scarecrow?
Let Mary brush and dress it for her and then she would sneak out and pay a visit to Hadon Hall. After that, write a letter to Papa and Mama explaining what had happened to her and asking that they understand. Both sets of parents must be made to understand.
All right, she had more chance of seeing a sheep fly past the window than receiving their blessing, but she must try. For her and Christopher’s future happiness, she must try.
Christopher managed to resist the urge to take the vicar by the collar and shake him until he agreed to his perfectly reasonable request.
“I’m asking only that the choir sing a few carols at Hadon House. Surely you can spare them for a few hours?” His thick wolf-growl of a voice, muffled by the scarf wasn’t helping. The vicar edged warily away.
“Mr. Hadon, I’m not sure this visit is entirely proper. What with the time of the moon, and all.” The vicar lifted his chin. “It’s not as if we see you at worship. And even if I approved, I don’t think the choir would agree. No one ventures onto the moors at full moon.”
“They would be in no danger. Of that you have my word. Come on, man, we may not worship here, but the Hadons built this church. All I need is the choir for a few hours.”
The vicar scratched his beard, genuinely puzzled. “Why, if I may ask, do you suddenly want to hear Christmas carols? I thought the Pack didn’t celebrate the season.”
Christopher felt his neck heating up. Swallowing down his anger, he tempered his voice, hating to have to beg and make concession. He slipped a hand inside his coat. “No, you may not ask. All right, how much will it cost me?”
The vicar’s eyes watched the hand emerge from the coat, widening at the fistful of bank-notes. He gave a nervous laugh. “Goodness, Mr. Hadon, you make me out to be quite the mercenary.”
“Nothing of the sort, I assure you. Allow me to make a contribution towards the roof repair fund.”
The vicar’s internal struggle was comical. “Oh dear, I couldn’t possibly.” He leaned forward, fingers twitching. “Well, perhaps they might be persuaded. ‘Tis the season of goodwill, after all.”
“Good man.” Christopher stuffed the handful of notes into the vicar’s palm, holding him in place when he strained away from his touch. The vicar slid the notes into his pocket, surreptitiously wiping his palm on his cassock. Who cared what the man thought as long as he got his choristers to Hadon House on cue.
“Shall we say four of the clock tomorrow afternoon?”
The vicar nodded, a forced smile on his lips. “I think that can be managed, although some of the elderly members may not make it given the state of the moor path.”
“I don’t care who you send as long as there’s singing.” Adjusting his scarf, Christopher strode from the church feeling in equal measure irritated by the vicar’s high-handed attitude and pleased that this part of his scheme had gone according to plan.
All the choir had to do now was actually turn up.
He garnered a few surprised glances from the workers making their way down to Hadon Mill. No one expected to see a Hadon abroad at full moon. Making his way past the row of weaver’s cottages with their long, mullioned windows, he took the moor path with some relief. An uncomfortable feeling having mothers hide their children’s eyes for fear they see the monster he must appear to be.
Once free of prying eyes, he took off the eye-glasses and slid away the scarf, standing for a moment on the curve of the path to drink in the beauty of the morning. Caught by a sudden feeling of elation, he wanted to howl out his joy for all to hear. Wisely, he continued on his way, smiling at the thought of Rowena’s expression when she saw the Christmas tree. It must be done tonight, when she slept so she would come down to it tomorrow morning.
And he must find her a gift. Something with which to seal their bond. Would she expect a formal human marriage, too? She would have it if that’s what she wanted. She could have anything as long as she stayed with him.
Taking the fork in the path that led on up the House, he remembered that all this could evaporate with one lift of his father’s hand. Neither man nor wolf could undo the mating, but if the Alpha disapproved he would pronounce sentence on them. Shunning, banishment or death. All were within Sir Christopher’s power.
Christopher stopped, eyes closed, chest heaving at the thought of leaving the land to which he was so bound. He’d do it. If forced to leave, they’d go and start a new Pack somewhere else.
He dragged his thoughts back to the Christmas surprise. A bit of calm before the inevitable storm. In the distance, on the lower slopes, a lone figure caught his eye. Josh, out looking for a suitable fir-tree? Adjusting his focus, he saw the long skirts dragging in the snow, Rowena’s dark head and determined stride.
Out for a walk? He smiled to himself, when she stopped, sniffed the air and then continued on her way. An enticing mixture of human and fledgling wolf. And all his. Somehow the Fates had conspired to be kind to him for a change, albeit with caveats.
Changing direction to intercept her, his smile widened. There was his missing half. The part he’d despaired of ever finding. Full moon and his spirit felt almost at peace. Rowena stopped suddenly, turning and shading her eyes with a hand against the glare of the early morning winter sun. Her face creased into a frown.
She didn’t look terribly pleased to see him.
Was she leaving him? Not possible. The bond was for life. Strangely, the sight of him made her pick up her skirts and break into a run. In the direction of Hadon Hall, he realised.
“Rowena.” Jumping off the path, he slipped, righted himself and then took off after her. She looked back, increasing her pace although she was no match for his long stride and lack of voluminous clothing to drag him down. A lock of dark hair freed itself, flying behind her like a banner.
“Rowena, wait.” She must know she couldn’t outrun him. He overtook her easily, tumbling them both into a snowdrift when she tried to dodge past him. For a moment she lay panting beneath him, eyes flashing in defiance.
“If you dare scold me, I might well bite you, Christopher Hadon.” She gave a token struggle. “Let me up. My fur is getting wet and I cannot abide wet fur.”
He grinned, further irritating her. “You said fur.”
“I most certainly did not.”
His body couldn’t help responding to her wriggling beneath him. What a scandal it would cause to be found being intimate in the snow on a public part of the moor. Her body was also preparing itself for him. The subtle change in her scent giving her away.
“You most certainly did.” He levered himself from her and offered his hand to pull her up. Wiping briskly at her coat to remove the snow, she huffed out a breath.
“Before you ask, I was paying your mother a visit, although I cannot now go looking like this.”
“You were visiting my mother?” He slapped at his own coat, relieved he’d managed to thwart that reckless plan. “What on earth made you think that was a good idea? And at this time of the moon, too?”
Rowena’s cheeks turned an endearing shade of pink, making his heart melt when really he should be cross with her.
“I thought that we might speak woman to woman and that she might understand and plead with your father.”
He pushed back his wet hair, wondering how to explain the intricacies of Pack politics to such a novice.
“It doesn’t work like that. And especially not with my mother. She is Alpha wolf in every sense of the word. If anything, it will be Father convincing her, not the other way around.”
“I can’t believe that.” Rowena twisted the stray lock of hair, tucking it inside her bun. “My brother is married now with a family of his own, but my mother doted on him. No mother would stand by while their child suffered. I must try, Christopher.”
“No.” He caught her arm. “Believe me when I say marching to the Hall and demanding my parents suddenly change the habits of a lifetime would be the worst possible thing you could do.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I wasn’t marching anywhere. I would of course have employed the utmost tact and decorum.” She shook her arm, already showing the strength she would grow into. “Let me go.”
“No.” Hooking his arm in hers, he attempted to steer her in the direction of the path. Stubbornly, she stayed in place, teeth bared now in challenge. A true she-wolf in the making. A rather exciting thought, if it hadn’t involved such recklessness.
Unable to free herself, she used her teeth, clenching his wrist in a hold rather than a bite, growling in frustration. A plea he found himself helpless to resist.
Gently, he disentangled his coat from her grip, stepping carefully away, unsure of how to proceed. He was new to this, too. She stood before him, hair flapping wildly in the breeze, a trembling bundle of resentment, confusion clouding her eyes as she struggled with the changes inside of her. The pull of the moon making her feel invincible.
It was his task to help her with that.
“A few days of calm,” he said. “And then we will face the world together.”
He crooked his elbow, hoping she’d see sense. “I know this is very confusing for you. I’ll help you through, Rowena. With the moon as it is, you will not be your true self.”
“Perhaps this is the only time we can be our true selves.” She pursed her lips, glancing once in the direction of the Hall before taking his arm. “We speak of freedom and yet capitulate at the slightest obstacle.”
He patted her hand and then kissed the top of her head. “This time of the moon would usually see me on the Tops, on the Legion’s Rock, truly believing I could fly. I’ve broken a few bones attempting that, let me tell you. Times like that, I asked to be locked away until the madness passed.”
Setting a leisurely pace, he walked her back to the moor path. A little stiff on his arm, the rebellion quelled, but not over by any means.
“Will you lock me away?” Her tone was light with a slightly hysterical edge. “Am I going to be a danger to myself and everyone around me?”
“No.” He gave her a hand over the stile. “Mating has a calming effect. You just need to learn to control the force within you.”
On the lower slopes of the moor, a group of children frolicked in the snow, rolling and laughing.
“Look at that,” he said. “Humans on their way to a school built by wolf-men. Do you know how rare a thing that is in a world where creatures like us are usually the underclass? How important it is that we maintain and build on what the Hadon family have achieved here?”
He noted a softening in the mutinous set of her jaw, perhaps a flicker of understanding of her new role in this family. This was no longer a Sunday afternoon protest march for the rights of minorities. This was her life.
At the gates to Hadon House, she stopped, staring at the long drive as if it were the entrance to her prison. “We will make this work and I will learn to control my impetuousness. I thought that becoming Different would involve a little more freedom than this.”
For one, horrible moment he saw her indecision written so plainly that he had to stop himself from throwing her over his shoulder and marching her up to the house.
Had Josh found them a Christmas tree? Had Mary prepared the goose? The surprise was now starting to look suspiciously like a bribe to ensure Rowena stayed. More fool him for thinking Christmas could ever be anything other than a disaster.
“In answer to your other question, yes I would lock you up, should your safety require it. As you would do the same for me. Knowing that, will you still walk with me through those gates?”
She hesitated only a little before stepping forward and his heart remembered to beat again.
* * * *
“I’m not sulking.” Rowena sat curled in an armchair in the bedroom she’d occupied on the night of her rescue. A feeble protest to refuse Christopher’s room, but in any case, the upper classes maintained separate bedrooms as a matter of course. She was merely following protocol.
Benji didn’t look convinced. Even the dog knew she was behaving like a spoilt fool. When they’d come in, Mary had rolled her eyes and flashed Christopher a glance that said I told you so. Josh had left the hall, chuckling to himself. She had fled upstairs, to this room where she’d spent the night and the best part of the day. Food had been delivered and left outside, but no one seemed bothered enough to check that she hadn’t jumped from the window and run away from it all. Not that she would have got very far given their wolf senses.
They were surely all having a good laugh at her expense.
And to make matters worse, she’d sprouted a few wiry hairs on her chin that made her look like a circus freak. Her nails had yellowed and this thing inside of her was howling so loud her head hurt.
“All right, I am sulking,” she conceded. “But can you blame me? Being turned into a lunatic would send anyone into a sulk.”
What she needed in truth was some time alone. Apart from the fact that Christopher could not possibly desire a woman sprouting a beard and the teeth of a beast, she needed time to think and come to terms with this new life.
Ignoring the pull of the moon last night had been difficult. She’d resisted out of sheer stubbornness, watching covertly from the window as Christopher walked the length of the drive to disappear through the gates. Had he made his way to Legion’s Rock to see if he could fly? She’d never been so relieved to see him reappear. A quick glance at the window was his only acknowledgement before he’d trudged on to the front door.
If he’d come to her, she would have capitulated willingly.
Why didn’t he come?
“What is it, Benji?”
The dog’s ears pricked. An instant later, the sound of footsteps, soft but getting louder as someone climbed the stairs. Christopher’s scent. Unmistakeable, she would know him anywhere.
Rising from the chair, she smoothed down her crumpled gown. If she was to stay here, she must send for her wardrobe. Which would mean explaining one version of what had transpired to her parents. She could not hide in this room forever. Things must be faced.
To her dismay, the footsteps walked right on past her door. They stopped, started again. Through the thick oak, she heard the thump of Christopher’s heart, his quick, shallow breath. His hesitation was almost tangible.
Why not fling open the door and throw herself into his arms, pleading forgiveness for her childishness? Tentatively, she approached the door.
Because he would hold her, tell her everything was going to be all right. They would apologise to each other, fall into bed and find the passion they undoubtedly shared.
But they would not say the words that needed saying.
Placing her hands on the door, she listened with all of her heightened senses. He was doing the same. The door-knob turned.
“Rowena, may I come in?”
Stepping away from the door, she managed a reply. “Yes.”
His luminous eyes shone with an intensity she’d never seen. In his shirtsleeves, rolled back to reveal the powerful muscle of his forearms, hands twisted into claws, he seemed bigger than she remembered him. His face was at once the same and more of a beast than he’d shown her on the flight from Manchester. Brown hair shaded his cheeks and chin, sharp teeth glistened at his lips, hair fell in soft brown waves past his collar.
Magnificent. Beautiful. And so kind. She could not think of him any other way.
Fate hadn’t done so bad a job of it after all.
“I thought I’d give you a little time alone.” He rubbed his face and she noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “A mating is usually a little more organised than this. Ours has all been a little rushed, to say the least. I don’t blame you for your doubts.”
“I prefer the word spontaneous.”
“I like that word.”
Closing the gap between them, she reached up to straighten his collar. “As for doubts? I will admit to a certain amount of fear, concerns and expectations, even. But doubts? I don’t think what I’m feeling is doubt.”
His arms circled her, pressing into the warmth of his body. “Expectations? Now you have me worried. Rowena, we will make a go of this, I promise you.”
“Well of course we will. If there were any doubts, it was only because you were not here to allay them. Let’s not argue, Christopher. We will have problems enough without making them between the two of us.” Rising up on her tiptoes, she pulled him down to her, pressing a kiss to his lips. He responded with a low growl, sliding his mouth to the curve of her neck, nuzzling and biting down lightly.
When he lifted her from the ground, she wrapped her legs around his waist, her skirt above her knees, pressing against the hard ridge of his arousal. She couldn’t think of a better way of being shaken from a sulk than this.
“Rowena,” he said, a little breathless now. “I have an admission to make.”
“Later.” She pressed harder against him, sending a tingle through her belly and lower. “Lock the door. I missed you last night.”
“Me too.” He groaned, closing his eyes, his face a mask of bliss as she writhed against him. “But it’s nearly four of the clock. This will have to wait for later.”
A small part of her mind registered his words. “Four of the clock? What’s so special about four of the clock?”
“That’s what I came to tell you.” He let her slide down his body to stand on the carpet. “I’m here to admit that I’ve employed cynical and underhand means in order to get you to stay with me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You have?”
He took her hand, a little sheepish now. An odd expression given his wolfish demeanour. “I’m afraid so.” He shrugged. “You must find it in your heart to forgive me.”
Now he had her puzzled. Straightening her skirts, she thought she might have caught a fleeting grin, but couldn’t be sure. “Christopher Hadon, what on earth are you wittering on about?”
“Come downstairs and I’ll show you.”
Well, there was an offer she could not refuse. Benji ran alongside as they walked the long corridor encouraged on their way by portraits of Hadons long dead.
“Carry on,” he said when they reached the top of the stairs. “I just remembered something I need from my bedroom.”
“You’re not coming down?”
“Go on, I’ll join you shortly.”
His eyes positively glowed with mischief, now. And what was that smell? A sharp, new scent drifting up from the hall. Tentatively she placed a foot on the first step, scolding herself for the nerves tingling in her belly. The light outside was dimming as the afternoon turned to evening, but the hall glowed softly, as if lit by a hundred candles.
He’d remembered his promise to light a candle for her on Christmas Eve? Only it wasn’t yet Christmas Eve and candles didn’t smell of pine.
And then she saw it. A fir tree, almost the height of two men standing, a little lop-sided, in a large pot in the middle of the hall. Paper streamers hung from the branches along with nets holding sugared almonds, sweetmeats and nuts. Candles blazed from every branch, lighting the tree in a soft glow and sending spirals of smoke twisting towards the ceiling. A silver star hung from the top.
Transfixed, she stood on the step, unable to believe the sight before her. While she’d been sulking, Christopher had remembered her plea. He’d been toiling to give her the Christmas of her dreams. How had she come to deserve all this?
“Do you like it?”
He’d joined her on the stairs, standing beside her, watching her reaction with a mixture of amusement tinged with anxiety. “See the extent of my guile?” He leaned down, breathing the words close to her ear. “I’ll do anything to keep you here with me. And there’s more.”
“Oh, Christopher, you did it. How can there be more?”
When two tears tracked their way down her cheeks, Christopher wiped them away with his thumbs, pressing a kiss to her nose before leading her to the bottom of the stairs. Glancing at the grandfather clock, he counted down the seconds. Four sonorous chimes echoed around the hall.
“There certainly is. Come on.” She followed him to the front door, noticing for the first time Mary and Josh standing quietly against the far wall. Cups of something hot steamed on a tray. Christopher turned the key and then flung open the door with a flourish.
They stood for a moment, staring out at the empty steps. Rowena smiled pleasantly, still a little dazed by the spectacle of the tree. Christopher swore softly under his breath and then cocked his head, listening. He let out a breath that sounded suspiciously like a sigh of relief.
“Carols?” She could hear it now, and see the small group, lanterns aloft, making their way carefully along the icy drive. She was receiving her very own carol singers?
Christopher kissed the top of her head. “I’d better get my eyeglasses and scarf. It took enough persuading to get them here. Don’t want to scare them away, do we?”
How pretty it all looked, with the lantern-light reflecting in the snow. The silver moon rising in the winter sky. “Don’t be silly, Christopher. Who would be scared of you? Should we offer them some mulled wine, do you think?”
“It’s there if they want it. I can’t see them coming any closer, though.”
Should she step out to greet them? Stand politely by and listen? How did one receive carol singers?
Christopher returned, scarf and eyeglasses in place. “You think they’d sing up a bit for what I paid. What do they think I’m going to do? Eat them?”
“I think I should offer them some wine. Will Josh help me take it out to them?”
“At your service, miss.” Josh was already moving towards the tray bearing mugs and a jug of steaming wine. Together they stepped out into the night towards the slightly-alarmed singers, who stoically managed to hold their ground as two wolves served them hot drinks. Some even managed a wavering smile.
The curious glances told Rowena she would be the talk of the village on the morrow. Word would reach Sir Christopher before he could be formally informed of the change in his son’s circumstances.
She was still secretly of the opinion that it was not the best way for him to find out his son had taken a mate without permission but was far too happy to worry about that, now.
Happy she was turning into a wolf? On the way back to the house, she saw Christopher standing on the step, the expression on his face showing how much her reaction to his surprise meant to him. How often had he found cause to smile in his lonely life? She would make him smile, she vowed. Even if being with him involved sprouting inappropriate facial hair.
If she was still a little cross with him for thwarting her attempt to visit Lady Hadon, it would be far too churlish of her to mention it again tonight.
Christopher took the tray from her while Josh closed the door on the night and mumbled to Mary that things needed doing in the kitchen. Rowena warmed her hands in front of the fire, unable to tear her gaze from the spectacle of the tree. She’d begged Christopher for one, but had never dreamed she’d be here to see it. Christopher stood behind her, solid and strong. Her saviour in more ways than one.
“Is all this working? Am I forgiven?”
“For this, I would forgive you anything.” She leaned back, looking up at him. “Yes, your evil plan has succeeded. I never can stay cross for long. Imagine how Amelia would have loved all this.”
“She would have. This time of the year, I think of her often. Doing this for you and for her, it’s helped a little.”
They stood for a while in companionable silence, she at a loss for words. No good repeating that he should not blame himself for Amelia’s disappearance. She would have done the same.
If there existed such a thing as Christmas wishes, then Rowena made hers.
Let the years be kind to him and ease the burden on his heart. Let those who matter, show some understanding. And let me make him a good mate, for he deserves no less.
Rowena sat at the dressing table, wearing the old dressing gown, inspecting her reflection in the mirror. Entirely back to normal now the moon was on the wane. Christopher, too had virtually reverted back to the handsome gentleman who’d rescued her from the brothel. Light brown hair fell over his eyes, barely brushing his collar, now. The dark shading on his cheeks and chin were merely the start of a beard like any other man. Not until he opened his eyes would anyone guess his dark secret.
Before her, in a velvet case, lay Christopher’s Christmas gift. A suite of gems so breathtaking, she’d never seen the like. A necklace, bracelet and ring, set with polished rubies that glowed in the early morning light. Jewels handed down the family from the time of the Restoration. Heat spread through her body at the memory of wearing the gems and little else while Christopher gazed at her with hungry eyes.
From the glow on his face, the pleasure had been in the giving as well as the receiving.
How sad to condemn such a generous being to this lonely exile. Watching him, relaxed in sleep, a hint of a smile on his lips, her chest tightened. Her mate. A bond that would bind them for the rest of their lives.
If only they could solve the thorny problem of parental approval. Her parents might be prepared to turn a blind eye and pretend the problem simply didn’t exist. Dealing with the Pack alpha would be another matter entirely.
Something inside warned her to savour every moment of this surprising interlude.
Creeping, barefoot from the bedroom, she left him to sleep, Benji curled up on the pillow beside him. The poor man had hardly closed his eyes these past few days. She had a letter to write and no idea how to word it.
My dearest Papa and Mama, it’s seems I’m now a wolf, but please do not worry, Christopher Hadon (you must remember him, the wolf you sent to rescue me?) is taking very good care of me. I’m happy and I hope you will find it in your hearts to be happy for me, too.
Strangely, the thought of writing that last sentence worried her more than the announcement. She could do nothing about the wolf part, but choosing to be happy about it? They would never understand that.
In the study, she found a fountain pen, paper and envelopes on the neatly-arranged, leather-topped desk. Her parents must learn the truth, no matter how shocking they might find it. She could not leave them in a limbo of worry and wondering what had happened to her. She could not put them through that again.
“Are you writing to your parents?”
Christopher joined her, buttoning his shirt as he crossed the room. With his hands on her shoulders, he leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Thank you for such a wonderful evening. Now, I suppose, we must face reality.”
She squeezed his hand. “Word will no doubt reach Hadon Hall from the carollers. Or has Mary already taken care of that little detail?”
“No, I don’t think she’s gone over there, yet. If she promised us a few days, that’s what we’ll get.” He propped himself against the desk. “Would you like me to run out and post that? There’s a post office at Great-Hadon.”
“I don’t know what to tell them.” Half an hour of composing the letter in her head and the writing paper remained stubbornly blank. “How do I express it so they will understand?”
Christopher folded his arms. “Chances are they’ll never understand. Just say it. We have a duty to tell them. Their reaction to the news will be entirely their own. They will like it or not, regardless of what we think they should do.”
“Do you think perhaps that you should walk over to Hadon Hall to speak to your parents? Would it not be better coming from you?”
Christopher gave a derisive snort. “I wouldn’t get further than the front door. Mary spies for them. Let her tell them. Or let them hear gossip and wonder. I really don’t care what they think.”
His tone invited no argument. It was clear the rift between parent and son was now a mutual one.
“We’ll just have to start our own Pack.” It seemed a simple enough solution now she’d given it voice. “Can we do that?”
“Not on Hadon land. We’d have to leave, start again somewhere else.”
“You love this place too much to leave.” She watched a blot of ink fall from the pen’s nib. “I would never ask that of you.”
Straightening, Christopher made a show of stretching, pulling the shirt tight against his broad, square shoulders. Leaving the land he loved was too painful a subject to dwell on. They might be called upon to face that dilemma soon enough.
“Write your letter, Rowena. I need to visit my agent to see if there are any new commissions for me. I’ll take it with me.”
Dearest Papa and Mama. There, at least she’d started. Better to state it plainly.
“You intend to continue with your rescue work?”
“If you’ve no objection. My inheritance won’t keep us forever. We’ll need the income.”
“I’d like to help. Collect clothing for the girls, perhaps. Reassuring them.” The thought of having a purpose in life instead of going from dutiful daughter to obedient wife, stiffened her resolve. The letter would be gentle but firm. This new path, she would walk with confidence and head held high.
“I think we’ll have to keep you very quiet, if I’m to continue.” His smile was a little rueful. “Clients will need to know I’m not about to ravish and turn their daughters into beasts like me. They need to be able to trust me.”
Her spirits plummeted at the words, made worse by the fact that they made perfect sense. Was she merely a liability now to all around her? Forcing a smile to her own lips, she shrugged, as if being relegated yet again to the background didn’t bother her one bit.
“As you wish. Now, I need to finish this letter.” Bending over the desk, she applied herself to the task, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears pricking at her eyes. How perfectly ridiculous to crumble like this at each hurdle. It did not bode well for the inevitable meeting with his parents.
Emotions all awry. Who could blame her given the events of the past few days?
“Would you mind if I delivered it to the post office myself?” she continued. “I’m in need of the exercise and if there’s a hat with a veil in the house I can cover my face and remain anonymous.”
“As long as you’re not sulking because of what I said. Take some pennies from the drawer for the postage stamp. You’ll also find gummed envelopes there. And ask Josh to walk you down.” Christopher dipped his head to catch her eye, further irritating her with the laughter in his eyes. “Please understand that while the offer is appreciated, I can’t involve you directly in the rescue work. At least not until we know how much talk this will cause.”
“I understand perfectly.” She flapped him away. “Do you not have anything to occupy you this morning? I need to think. This letter will never be written unless I apply myself.”
He watched her for a few moments before withdrawing. Understanding why she couldn’t be directly involved in the rescues didn’t make the slight any easier for her to bear. It had obviously been forward of her to assume so much so soon.
Integration into this new life would not happen overnight and would require all her patience and a hefty dose of subtlety. A wise woman allowed a man the illusion that he was in command while carefully steering him towards the best course of action. Mama had been an expert on that score.
Taking in a calming breath Rowena applied pen to paper.
* * * *
Margaret, his agent, had one new request for him. Christopher skimmed the letter, hoping it was nothing that required immediate attention. He couldn’t leave Rowena unprotected now.
An elopement. Two young folk who’d taken off for Gretna Green. Given the number of days elapsed, the two were probably safely over the Scottish border and married by now.
He tossed the letter down onto a side table. “Good luck to them. I don’t think we need to be involved. Was there anything else?”
Margaret appeared from her small kitchen, a tray laden with teapot and cups in her hands. Normally he enjoyed the hour or so they spent chatting and planning the current batch of rescues. Today he was anxious to be back at Hadon House. Judging by Rowena’s expression when he’d left, he had more making up to do.
“Have a cup and be on your way,” Margaret said, a knowing twinkle in her eye. “I can see you’re itching to leave.”
Word had it Margaret had once been married to a wolf, although she went by the title of widow these days. A tall, thin woman in her fifties. Impeccably groomed, who walked easily in both the human and Different worlds, she’d taken Rowena home for him and too many other girls to count.
“And I can see you’re itching to tell me something.” He accepted the tea and helped himself to a home-made ginger biscuit. “Are you about to say that boring old me is the subject of village gossip?” He injected a smile into the words, though judging by Margaret’s expression, she didn’t see anything to laugh at.
“I hardly know where to start. Bribing the vicar, receiving carol singers at Hadon House?” She took a ladylike sip of her tea, saving the best for last. “And word has it a dark-haired young lady served them mulled wine. Christopher, have you gone completely mad?”
“Quite probably.” He set down the tea and spent a moment dipping the biscuit to his satisfaction. Disapproval or concern? Margaret was notoriously difficult to read. “You’ve guessed who she is?”
Her eyebrows rose a fraction. “Miss Rowena, I presume? It’s not like you to be so indiscreet. You know it might compromise future projects?”
“It’s dawning on me, yes.” Neither disapproval nor concern, he realised. More like disappointment. The rescue work was Margaret’s passion.
“It wasn’t meant to happen, but I realised, after you took her back, that she’d been changed. She needed a place of refuge.”
How feeble an excuse that sounded. His cheeks coloured under Margaret’s scrutiny. “She couldn’t stay at home, not after this.”
“Oh, the poor girl. You got to her too late. And I sensed nothing.” Margaret took another more-robust sip of her tea. “Have you any idea who it was? Will they be making a claim on her?”
“Don’t worry, we’re not about to be involved in a gang war. There will be no outside claims.”
He owed her the truth, but the words were curiously stuck in his throat. Mercifully, after a few more sips of tea, a light dawned in her eyes.
“Christopher, not you? Really? I’ll ask again. Have you gone completely mad?”
“It wasn’t like that.” A prickle of irritation sharpened his tone. He’d finally found some contentment and now the whole world was queuing up to tell him what a scoundrel he was. “It was an accident and I’m standing by her. The truth is, she makes me happy, Margaret.”
He looked her full in the eye, daring her to contradict his right to a little happiness in his life. Shaking her head, she leaned across to press her hand to his.
“I can see that. The full moon only a day gone by and look at you. All but human again. I’m happy for you, but what do her parents have to say? And yours for that matter. I suppose Mary went running straight to the Hall?”
“They’ll know soon enough.” He downed the tea in one and waited politely for Margaret to finish hers before rising from the armchair. Telling someone who vaguely approved of the situation definitely helped lift some of the nagging anxiety nipping at the edges of his new-found happiness. “And they will know the truth. But if the villagers ask, Rowena is a wolf I met in Manchester. I don’t want this to compromise the peace we’ve built here.”
“It goes without saying that Sir Christopher will not be pleased.” Margaret walked him to the door, instinctively glancing from left to right before letting him out onto the cobbled path.
Donning his leather gloves, he could only agree. “Neither will her parents be. I only hope they don’t take it too hysterically. We Different folk have our uses, but it doesn’t involve making off with their daughters. She’s asked to help with the rescues.”
“You told her no?” It was more command than question. “If the truth gets out about her our cause will lose all credibility.”
“Yes, I told her no. She is though, rather a determined young lady. I’ve no doubt she’ll find a way to become involved.” He pulled up his collar, anxious to get back to the house before Rowena posted her letter. They must talk and agree on a story that might at least satisfy people if not please them.
“Having benefited from our organisation, Rowena will understand how delicate our work is.” A note of pride laced Margaret’s tone. “May we count on you, Christopher?”
Meaning what? The uncharitable rebuke was on the tip of his tongue. Hastily, he bit it back. Margaret was justly proud of her involvement with the rescued girls and a valuable asset to the cause. A cause which was obviously now bigger than his guilt over the loss of Amelia.
“Of course. Although with this new development, it might be as well for me to lie low for perhaps a few months. I’m sure you’ll have no problem carrying on without me.”
Damn, now it sounded as if he was sulking. What did it matter if Margaret and the rest of the volunteers appropriated his cause? They didn’t care about his guilt, only about the girls and women in need.
Exactly as it should be.
“It’s more to do with my needing a rest from it all than with Rowena’s arrival. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “We help a few, but so many go unfound. It’s disheartening. I’ll be here if you need me.”
“We’ll always need you.” Margaret’s pale eyes gentled in understanding. “Come back to us in the spring, when you’ve settled your personal affairs. Distracted, you will only put yourself in jeopardy. And Christopher, I know why you do this. Amelia may still be alive. Cling to that hope.”
On the three mile walk back to the house, the sun disappeared behind darkening clouds, perfectly matching his mood. He couldn’t help thinking that hope, along with guilt, were burdens he would be saddled with for the rest of his life.
Another storm blowing in, a few flakes of snow already dancing in the air, glistening on his dark coat. Rowena should let Josh run out with her letter. Or not send the thing at all. Why invite trouble when it would come knocking all too soon?
He leaped over the stile and started along the moor path, skirting the grey stones of Hadon Hall to his left, built on land given by King Charles the Second himself in thanks for rallying the wolves to the Royalist cause during the English Civil War.
Pushing his wind-blown hair from his eyes, Christopher diverted to a narrower path that wound around the steeper ridge of the moor, turning away from the place that would once have been his inheritance. A place alive with Pack members, where people talked and laughed and sometimes cried together.
A marked contrast to the stifling quiet of Hadon House.
Exactly the life the Alpha had decreed for him. A Lone Wolf didn’t mate. Never knew the comfort of family.
He swept his gaze over the landscape, looking for Rowena who, though she would grow into her strength, was still too vulnerable to weather the growing storm.
Rowena. After losing Amelia, she was his biggest transgression. He would no longer die a lonely old wolf. And for that, his father would never forgive him.
I regret that I met with an unfortunate accident in Manchester and can now never again live in normal society. I know you will understand my meaning when I say that Christopher Hadon has offered me sanctuary with his kind. In fact, he has even been so noble as to offer marriage so that I might avoid too much of a scandal.
Rowena blushed, glancing around the study for fear someone had seen the small white lie. Christopher was her saviour, not the instrument of her damnation, and would remain so in the eyes of her parents.
She scribbled her name at the bottom of the page and reached for the blotter. Get it posted before her courage failed and worry about the question of nuptials later.
She added a post-script asking that a trunk of gowns and necessaries might be prepared for collection. Or should she ask for them to be delivered to the local post office, perhaps? That would give away her whereabouts, but then it wouldn’t take her father long to determine the location of the Hadon Pack.
There was no correct way to do this. With the letter safely in the envelope, she donned her coat and boots and noticed with dismay that the morning sun had fled behind heavy, grey clouds. Throwing the cloak over her ensemble, she lifted the hood and then pulled on her kid-leather gloves.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Benji who stood hopefully at the open front door. “I can’t take you with me. I need to be back before the storm breaks.”
Or perhaps I won’t post this letter at all? No, she must tell them. Allay their fears.
“Does Christopher know you’re going out?” Mary appeared at the door to the kitchen-wing, sleeves rolled back, hands and arms white with flour and specks of bread-dough. “Weather’s taking a turn for the worse. He wouldn’t want you going out in this.”
“Nonsense, Mary.” Rowena quelled the urge to tell Mary to mind her own business rather than that of those around her. Josh chose that moment to come in from the wood-shed bearing an armful of logs, pointedly ignoring the two of them as he bent to stack them in the basket beside the fireplace.
“I’m hardly a prisoner here,” Rowena continued. “Christopher knows I intended to walk down to the village to post a letter. He doesn’t need a blow by blow account of the details.”
“Well, don’t walk near to the Hall, then.” Mary rubbed at her face, leaving a streak of flour on her chin. “They may still be ignorant about you. I promised Christopher a few days respite.”
“And for that, we thank you.”
The use of the word we, instead of he did not go unnoticed. Poor Mary. To suddenly have to accommodate another woman in the house. With pursed lips, Mary retreated to her domain, slamming the door behind her.
“Don’t mind her.” Josh straightened with a groan. “She was an Alpha back in her day. Old habits die hard.”
“You are her second mate?” Was that why Josh deferred to Mary’s dominance?
“We met later in life so you might say. The Hadon Pack took her in after her Pack died out. Why don’t you let me post your letter? She’s right about the storm.”
“That’s nice of you, Josh, but I need the exercise and some fresh air. I’m so restless these days.”
He nodded sympathetically. “Ye’ll learn to control it. I’ll post your letter and you take a few turns round the grounds? That way you get your exercise without getting lost on the moors.”
“I wasn’t intending to get lost.” Did they think her too stupid to keep to the path? And even if she did lose her way, her wolf nose would surely lead her back here.
“Moor’s a big place. And you just a fledgling.” He held out one of his large, hairy hands, crooking his fingers in a small beckoning movement. “Christopher would never forgive me if I let you go.”
The clouds did look rather threatening. A few flakes of snow were already floating to the icy path.
“All right. Thank you, Josh. I appreciate the gesture.”
Not a capitulation. Merely good sense and a diplomatic way of keeping the peace with Mary.
She smiled sweetly. “I’ll take a turn around the garden as you suggested. Come on, Benji. Walkies!”
Josh regarded her with altogether too much suspicion as she strode out onto the path. Once out of sight, she stopped to peek around the corner of the house, watching him ambling along the driveway and out of the gate. A gazebo stood at the far end of the sizeable rear garden. It would provide some shelter from the wind while she waited for Josh to be out of smelling distance.
It would be just like the man to lie in wait for her on the other side of the garden wall and catch her in the act of sneaking out. Her thoughts strayed to Christopher and whether she might meet him on the walk she was determined to take, even if only to prove that the new mistress of the house could walk as she pleased.
“Go back inside, Benji.” She shoved the reluctant dog through the front door. “I’ll take you out again tomorrow if the storm doesn’t settle in.”
If she didn’t get a move on, she would meet Christopher, who would expect her to follow him back into the house. Standing at the gate, she surveyed the anonymous landscape. A sea of white with few landmarks. Christopher and Josh had turned left for the village. With a last covert glance at the house, she turned right for the Tops.
The force of the wind was breathtaking and exhilarating. A constant companion this high up, grabbing at her hood, her hair, billowing the cloak behind her to flap like great bird wings. Running was quite impossible, the snow was too deep, her gown too unwieldy and her legs too short. After a few moments, she stopped, panting in deep breaths, her face aglow, spirits lifted considerably. How wonderful to simply be, without worrying about decorum and manners. This new-found freedom, she would guard with her life.
Higher up, she stood on a snow covered mound and looked out, astounded at how far she could now see. The combination of height and wolf sight allowed her a view of Manchester and beyond. In the middle distance the mill towns of Bury and Bolton, and below, the surrounding villages and the commanding presence of Hadon Hall.
She frowned. Hadn’t she’d walked away from the Hall? If memory served her, the Hall stood lower in the slopes than Hadon House so at some point she must have started to descend the path instead of continuing to climb.
Lifting her wet skirts, she remembered Josh’s warning. The falling snow would further obscure the path and dry-stone walls, rendering the landscape unreadable to all but those who’d lived here a lifetime.
If she became lost, she could easily die of exposure before being found. Her wolf, with its ability to sleep out in the snow without discomfort, was yet in its infancy.
Silly girl! Barely half an hour had passed since she’d ventured out. And besides, Christopher would find her, wherever she was.
She needed only to descend the slope towards the Hadon Hall then take a moment to recall if it had been on the left or the right on the night she’d begged Christopher to bring her home with him.
How long ago that seemed.
Closer to the Hall, she remembered with embarrassment, her attempt to storm the walls like some modern day warrior princess and deliver Sir Christopher a piece of her mind. A small part of her wished she had been successful. The greater part took in the scale of the place, the way it sat so easily in the landscape, as if meant to be there. The age and grandeur, speaking of times gone by. Of the association with kings.
Overwhelming to say the least.
Curiosity drew her nearer. A peek through the gates wouldn’t hurt. Had Christopher been happy here before his exile? She was not so naïve to believe that riches guaranteed contentment, but what a beautiful place to grow up in.
A split-second of awareness jolted her from the thought. The thump of feet on snow, the scent of warm flesh. Before she could turn to see the creature who’d crept up on her so effortlessly, strong fingers gripped her shoulder, a beefy arm banded her waist. Hot spicy breath blew across her cheek.
“Lady Hadon requests an audience,” a man’s voice said without preamble. And then he lifted her clean off her feet and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of coal.
* * * *
Rowena had decided early on in life to remain unimpressed by the trappings of wealth. She remembered that as she stood on the black and white marble-tiled floor in a room so vast, it seemed to go on forever. A picture gallery, she supposed, where in days gone by the ladies would walk after dinner while the men supped their brandy and smoked their cigars. Arched windows, easily the height of three men, lined the area on one side, while the other was covered in portraits, statues and busts on stands.
She hadn’t realised quite how elevated the Hadons of Hadon Hall were.
She stood, listening to the loud tick of the ornate mantle-clock, waiting nervously for Lady Hadon to appear. After ten minutes of waiting, she took a tentative step in the direction of an ornate, gilt-framed mirror, dreading the sight she must present to her future mother in law.
Did wolves have mothers in law? Alpha’s in law?
It was worse than she’d anticipated. Hanks of hair had escaped the pins and hung in rat-tails about her shoulders and face. Cheeks unfashionably pink from the cold, a wet tide creeping up the hem of her skirts and cloak. Boots soaked through.
Working swiftly, she re-pinned her hair as best she could and batted at her gown and cloak to remove the clinging clumps of ice and snow. Her abductor hadn’t offered to take her coat, or asked if she required refreshment. He’d merely dumped her here as unceremoniously as he’d grabbed her and muttered curtly that she was to stay put.
Stay put indeed! If Lady Hadon sought to terrorise her into submission, she had better think again. Rowena squared her shoulders, took in a deep breath and then let it out on an undignified shriek when a figure appeared in the mirror beside her.
A figure that could only be the dreaded Lady Hadon.
Christopher favoured her in looks; that was immediately apparent. The same light brown hair, but sprinkled with grey streaks here and there. Fine, even features that fitted the face perfectly.
And the unmistakeable eyes of a wolf.
Eyes that regarded her with an imperious disdain.
“So this is what all the fuss is about?” Lady Hadon circled her slowly, the silk of her gown rustling as she moved. The latest fashion. Everything about the woman impeccable and refined.
Rubies glittered at her ears. A choker of pearls circled her neck. Every finger bore a ring of gold and precious stones.
Rowena opened her mouth to answer only to find a finger pressed against her lips.
“It was a statement, not a question. When I require an answer, I’ll be sure to inform you.”
Rowena felt a strand of hair working its way free of the pins to slowly unravel and hang over one of her eyes. She didn’t dare move to pin it back in place. With a business-like efficiency, Lady Hadon twisted and pinned it for her while Rowena stood frozen in place. She had imagined berating the woman for treating her son so dreadfully. Standing proud and fearless while she defended her mate.
She was too frightened to form the words.
The steel in Lady Hadon’s eyes warned her that discretion might be the better course. Nothing would be gained by antagonising the woman who would still be shaking off the effects of the full moon. Who might hold the power of life or death over them all.
“That’s better.” Lady Hadon indicated that she follow, sweeping along the corridor-like room before giving her time to formulate an answer. She stopped at the largest of the portraits, adorned in an ornate gilt-frame. For a moment, she remained silent, allowing Rowena to take in the magnificent splendour of the long-haired man sitting atop a rampant horse.
“Do you know who this is?” Lady Hadon raised her eyebrows sceptically, as if not expecting an answer.
“King Charles the Second?” Finding that she actually had a voice with which to answer lent Rowena courage. The man in the portrait stared back, as he too was appraising her worth.
“His Majesty gifted the moor to the Hadon Pack as reward for rallying the wolves to the Royalist cause during the civil war. Land, respect and a title.”
Lady Hadon turned to her. “How many Wolf-Packs hold such prestige as ours?”
Rowena swallowed the dry knot in her throat. “I don’t know.”
“So few that you could count them on one hand.” Her gaze turned withering. “And you, Miss Rowena Rothwell. What claim would your family have to match ours?”
“None whatsoever.” Rowena glanced again at the portrait, attempting to keep her tone neutral. Lady Hadon would sniff out false flattery in an instant. “Few could match this.”
Lady Hadon fingered the ruby glowing at her throat. “And you presume to enter our Pack? To dilute our stock with your hybrid blood? How did you get him to do it? Christopher is a fool, but even he knows the rules.”
“How could you say such a thing?” Rowena took in a deep breath, finding courage in the defence of her mate. “Have you any idea how hard he’s worked to atone for the sins heaped upon him? How much remorse he’s spent on that day?”
Rowena waited, heart thumping, bracing for the anger simmering in Lady Hadon’s eyes to boil over. Surprisingly, the woman’s demeanour did not change. Instead, she whirled in a rustle of skirts and continued down the corridor, leaving Rowena no option but to follow.
“I suppose you know who this is?” Another portrait, this time of a young girl. Finely painted, a cat in her arms, the detail exquisite. A beauty in waiting smiled out of the frame.
“Amelia. Christopher told me the story.”
“He sent you to plead for him?”
“No. In fact he forbade me from coming here.” The woman wasn’t so frightening after all. Just a grief-stricken mother who desperately missed her daughter and needed someone to blame for her disappearance. “But if you could find it in your heart–“
Again the finger slapped against her lips, stopping her speech. Lady Hadon’s eyes glowed softly. She leaned in, whispering close to Rowena’s ear.
“He took her from us. Shall we take you from him?”
The finger pressed harder, forcing Rowena to step back until she was jammed against the wall.
The woman’s strength was evident. Everything about her screamed Alpha, although having no experience of Pack politics, Rowena had no idea how to respond to the obvious challenge. She opted to keep very still, hoping the woman was merely bluffing to scare her. She must know Christopher wouldn’t let any harm to her go unavenged.
The scent of Lady Hadon’s musky rose perfume made her head spin. Or it could simply be the terror. From somewhere deep inside a new voice whispered that she should make herself small. Defer in every way, expose her throat and beg the Alpha’s pardon for speaking out of turn. The human in her warned that subjugating herself now would put her forever in this woman’s power.
She managed a semblance of something in between, sliding a little down the wall while keeping her gaze steady. Lady Hadon could surely hear the desperate thump of her heart? A sharp nail traced the line of her neck.
“Well, child? What shall we do with you?”
Rowena’s knees wobbled dangerously.
“Let me go back to him.” A picture of the Christmas tree popped into her mind. The look of joy on Christopher’s face when he’d unveiled his surprise. “What will killing me achieve?”
“Killing?” Lady Hadon’s hand dropped abruptly. With a sharp laugh, she turned away, a hand pressed to her chest. “Goodness, child. We’re not barbarians. Whoever said anything about killing?”
“Lady Hadon, let me go back to him,” Rowena said again, taking a careful step towards the door. Her remark had obviously touched some raw nerve, but she had no intention of finding out why. To her left, the door through which they’d entered. Guarded now by a footman. To the right, another door that led who knew where?
How far would she get if she ran? Given the speed of the wolf, not very far.
The door slammed back noisily to reveal a small boy in a sailor-suit. He ran into the room, barrelling into Lady Hadon’s skirts, his arms hugging her knees.
“Grandmother, who’s that?” he said, tilting back his head to stare at Rowena.
Lady Hadon stroked the curly blond hair, an indulgent smile lighting her face.
“That is someone of no consequence whatsoever, Edward. She is no one.”
Edward giggled. “She must be someone.”
“My name is Rowena Rothwell.” Rowena risked a smile of her own. Was this a future heir to the Hadon fortune? “I’m a friend of your Uncle Christopher.”
Edward’s face creased in a frown. “Uncle Christopher? I don’t have an Uncle Christopher.”
Lady Hadon’s smile iced over. “Exactly so, my boy. And do you know why?”
Curls bobbing, Edward shook his head vigorously.
“Because your uncle Christopher is dead, that’s why.” Bending she whispered to the child as if divulging some long-held secret. “Dead to us all. Now come along, Nanny will be wondering where you are.”
Rowena watched them leave, not daring to move until they were out of sight. The cruel words made her heart weep.
A footman entered silently, beckoning her to follow him.
Had she been brave? She didn’t think so; her legs could hardly hold her upright. But hold her they must until she was back at Hadon House where she would appear completely normal. Christopher must never know she’d been here.
At the front door, the creature who’d abducted her escorted her gruffly to the ornate iron gate. It swung shut behind her with a determined clang, leaving her quite alone.
Rejected and alone. As Christopher had been these long years.
Her fate too, unless history could be changed.
She stood for a long time in the gathering storm, calming her frayed nerves, praying that Christopher would never hear of this encounter. Finally realising how much had changed and how things would never be the same again.
This was no game, or diversion to be played for a few hours of amusement. This was her life.
She’d always dreamed of a knight in shining armour who would whisk her away from her boring, mundane existence and show her something more. She never dreamed he would carry with him the power of a beast.
Glancing back at Hadon Hall, her vision sharpened and that same power surged through her veins. She raised the hood.
Pack politics, be damned. Christopher was her mate. Her new family and one she would guard with her life.
He was no longer alone.
She’d been to Hadon Hall. Even without the reek of the place, his mother’s scent all over her, he’d have known. A new fire lit Rowena’s eyes, blood coursed furiously through her veins. The slight tremor ghosting her skin told him something had frightened her badly. But the set of her jaw, the way she slapped at the snow clinging to the cloak, spoke of a woman who refused to be intimidated by bullies.
If she’d issued any sort of challenge to the Pack Alphas they were in deep trouble.
“I thought we’d take luncheon in the library. I’ve had a fire made up.”
Moving behind her, he slid the cloak from her shoulders. He’d waited for her, staring anxiously from the window for the sight of her on the drive. A novel experience to suddenly have something to look forward to. He still couldn’t quite believe she was here with him.
His mate and his sanity. The woman who would ease his loneliness, warm his bed. Make him laugh and, if this was any indication, worry the hell out of him.
Rowena returned him a wan smile. Instinct warned him to tread carefully. She still had so much to learn about her new state.
“I’m not really hungry,” she said, taking a sudden interest in one of the tree decorations. “This was so thoughtful of you, Christopher. Why don’t they see it?”
“See what?” Should he wait for her to tell him where she’d been? Ask her? Scare her some more, for her own good? Dipping his face into the curve of her neck, he tasted skin touched by his mother, he was sure of that. No hint of his father, thank goodness.
Could he stand by silently and watch Rowena put herself in jeopardy?
“Your goodness and honour,” she said. “The way you’ve tried to atone. The way you stood by me when I needed you.”
“That last part was no hardship, believe me.”
Slipping his hand in hers, he walked her to the library, Benji at their heels, shutting the door after them. Mary didn’t need to hear everything that went on in the house.
Although they tolerated the cold, wolves appreciated the warmth of a roaring blaze. He’d slept many a night sprawled in the leather armchair, often too drunk to bother climbing the stairs to bed. Sometimes he’d lain awake, listening to the clock ticking away the minutes and hours of his empty life.
He so desperately wanted Rowena to stay.
“Did you enjoy your walk? I was a little worried when the storm blew in.”
“No need to worry. I didn’t go far.” Absently Rowena picked up a small statuette, inspected it and replaced it on the bureau. “Christopher, if my being here causes you trouble, I’m willing to leave. I don’t want to be the cause of more trouble between you and your family.”
“Did she command you to leave?” He couldn’t remain silent. Rowena resisted when he took her arm, straining away from him. “I know you went to the Hall. Tell me what happened.”
With a small laugh, Rowena stepped away to inspect a case full of leather-bound books. “What makes you think I went to the Hall? Didn’t you ask me not to?”
The wind had blown her hair into an endearing tangle of loose strands hanging about her shoulders and face. The contrast of black hair and pale skin gave her the look of a porcelain doll, an impression totally at odds with her true character. Practical and determined, she would always do what she thought right.
He would never fault her for that.
First a kiss, to show how much he already cared for her and desired her. She responded tentatively, as if unsure of her welcome now his mother had planted doubts in her mind. He pulled her to him, letting her know she was safe, and he had no intention of letting her go.
“You are the best thing that’s ever happened in my life.” Holding her firm, he allowed her no space to wriggle away. “Please don’t leave me.”
“You really wish me to stay?” She lifted her face to him, fists clutching his waistcoat, anchoring herself in place.
“With all my heart.” Taking her hand, he placed it on the centre of his chest. “It’s yours if you want it.”
Her smile heartened him. “Thank you. No one has ever given me a greater gift.”
Mirroring his gesture, she touched his fingers to the place where her heart beat, solid and strong. “I fear I will not be an obedient mate. Are you ready for that?”
“I would expect no less from you. Can you love me, Rowena? In time, do you think you could?”
To have someone truly care about him? That would be the greatest gift of all. She seemed to know it. This time she kissed him. A light touch of her lips on his that conveyed more than words ever could.
“I will love you and stand by you whatever the winds blow at us. Forget them, Christopher. We don’t need their approval.”
“What did my mother say?” He had to ask. “I can smell her on you, smell the Hall. Tell me what she said. And don’t lie to me. Please don’t lie to me.”
Rowena took a little too long to answer. A she-wolf would always protect her mate, whether from harm or the truth.
“She said you were lost to them.”
The words, though expected, hit him like a hammer-blow. After all these years, all his penance, he still hadn’t redeemed himself in their eyes? Now it was Rowena’s turn to hold onto him. To stop him from picking up the porcelain vase on the side table and hurling it at the wall.
“But, Christopher. I met your nephew. Saw how your mother was with him. Whatever she pretends, she is not without feeling.”
“But never for me?”
“Not yet.” Rowena fussed with his collar, threaded her fingers into the hair falling over his eyes to smooth it from his brow. “But who knows what the future will bring? With each new day there is hope that something will change for the better.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. But it’s a nice thought.”
Behind them, the door opened. Mary paid them only a fleeting glance as she slapped a tray of cold meat and bread onto the library table. “I’ll be back with a pot of tea,” she warned. Christopher didn’t have to ask to know how uncomfortable she was with all this drama. While Josh had grown mellower in his old age, Mary had turned ever more implacable.
She had better get used to it. More drama lurked on the horizon.
“You shouldn’t have gone to the Hall.” For Rowena’s own good, he had to spell out the rules of this new life. He dipped his head to make sure she was listening. “It could have been seen as a challenge to their authority as Alphas. And that would be a disaster. Do you understand?”
“Now I do.” Rowena gestured to the table. “Shall we sit down?”
If they ever miraculously acquired visitors, she would make such a gracious hostess. And he could play the gentleman, too when required, although he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten at the table.
With her here, that would change. Pulling out a chair, he invited her to sit and then he moved to the other side of the table to sit opposite her. Even bedraggled, in the gown she’d worn since arriving here, she looked beautiful. A man starved of company would find most women beautiful, but she spoke to him on a level he couldn’t quite fathom. When she looked at him her gaze touched his heart, making him want to grin foolishly and pick her up and dance across the room.
Was this the first tentative step towards love? If so, he wanted to keep walking this path until the day he died.
“Christopher, I didn’t mean to go to the Hall. It happened rather spontaneously.”
He lifted the plate of cold meat, offering it across. “Well, at least now they know. The question, I suppose, is what will they do next?”
“My impression is that they will do nothing.” She helped herself to a single slice of ham, staring at it as if it might poison her. “I don’t think they care enough to want to do anything. That seems almost more upsetting than having them come over here to threaten and rant.”
How perfectly she’d summed it up. Anger would at least show they cared one way or another.
“Welcome to my world,” he said and stabbed at a slice of beef. It had been unfair to beg her to stay. Only she could make that decision, free of emotional pressure from him.
“Rowena, if you wish to leave, I’ll understand. I can set you up in a cottage somewhere. Pay you an allowance. If you stay, you’ll be an outcast.”
“Tea?” Mary announced herself from the door, pushing it open with her hip. She took rather too long over the arranging of cups and pouring, glancing at each of them in turn while shaking her head and muttering. Rowena, he could see, was having a hard time containing the giggles, which seemed to annoy Mary further.
Alone again, he watched Rowena compose herself. Amusement, perhaps with a little hysteria sparkled in her eyes. Sliding back her chair, she rose, pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and then smoothed out her mud-stained gown.
His throat went suddenly dry. Was she leaving after all?
“It was I who insisted you brought me here.” To his relief, she walked around the table to stand behind his chair. Sliding her hands over his shoulders, she leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I do believe you are stuck with me, Christopher Hadon.”
He let go of the breath he’d been holding. Before she could react, he had her on his lap. Immediately, her hands circled his neck, her lips sought his with no thought that Mary might discover them at any moment.
“I do believe I am,” he whispered against the softness of her cheek. “And I mean to hold onto you for as long as life allows.”
She settled with a contented sigh, the fit of her body so right against his. Rather overwhelming if he thought too much about it. This unexpected woman was a gift without price.
There would be consequences, whether now or in the future. Defying the Alpha was a mortal sin and his mother’s indifference might well boil over to anger and spite. Rowena’s parents could turn up with a constable or two, accuse him of kidnapping and demand her return.
He could lose her as quickly as he’d found her. That made each moment together more precious than gold.
He hadn’t meant for this to happen, but he wouldn’t change it for anything.
* * * *
Archway Tunnels, Manchester East. November 1890
C H. The letters were ornate, intertwined. Carved into the flat face of the heavy gold ring. A family crest and one she knew well.
She thought to have moved beyond tears, but the familiar scent still lingered, the anguish he must surely have felt still haunted her.
“What is it, Mel?”
“A ring. The seller said it was taken from the hand of a dead vampire lord.”
No use in trying to hide her emotion. Caleb picked up on everything. Her mate dropped the jewelled necklace he was inspecting and rose from the table in one smooth movement. Strong arms circled her, his chin propped on her shoulder.
“Was he a client? Did you know him?”
“No. I never met him. And this wasn’t his ring.”
“C H? That means something to you?”
“Once it did.” How much pain her silence must have caused her brother? He’d been exiled from Hadon Hall. That was all she knew. His pain had been the price of her freedom.
“Perhaps it still does.”
As always, she found solace in Caleb’s arms. The friend turned lover who’d found her in London and purchased her bond from the brothel-bullies. Who’d taken her to York and given her back her life.
Gently, he traced the letters on the ring that had been part of the latest batch of gold and jewellery they acquired and sold on for profit.
“I would have let you go. When I bought your bond. If you’d asked, I wouldn’t have stopped you returning home.”
She gave his thigh a reassuring squeeze. “I was too ashamed to go home. And now I no longer wish to. It’s better that I stay lost.”
Caleb smoothed the hair from her neck, bending his head for a kiss. “Just as well, since I no longer have any intention of letting you go, Miss Amelia. We’ll return to York. Cleaner place and with better pickings there.”
Amelia turned the ring in her fingers then rubbed it over the tender skin of her wrists, Christopher’s image fresh in her mind. Not as he would be now but as a fourteen year old boy, intent on giving his sister a Christmas to remember.
Tears tracked down her cheeks. So many times since her rescue, she’d thought about contacting him. Of putting him out of his misery. And then she’d imagined her parents finding out and dragging her home. They would have shut her away for shame. Mated her to someone she didn’t love. A risk she’d never been prepared to take.
“Want me to sell it for you? Runcie’s coming over for the rest of the stash this evening.”
“No. I need to send this back to its owner. May I borrow Jem? I need him to go down to London for me.”
Caleb tensed, pulling her tighter into his embrace. “Only if you tell me there’s no risk involved.”
Tilting back her head, Amelia gazed up at his bright eyes. “There’s always a risk they’ll find me. But they will be living in misery, Caleb. All of them. And only I can put that right. I should have done this long ago.”
“I will kill anyone who tries to take you from me.”
“I know. As I would do the same for you. I just need them to know I’m alive.”
Caleb nodded his assent, loosening his grip. “And how will you do that without giving too much away?”
“In two words.” Two words she hoped would help to change Christopher’s life and perhaps bring a little closure to hers.
No snow this year, only days of fine drizzle that shrouded the moor in white mist and grey skies. Christopher stood on the Tops, panting hard from his run, breathing it in. By the fading light, he must have been out for the best part of an hour.
Time to get back to his mate and child.
Although some shadows remained, smiles came easily these days. Rowena had filled so many empty spaces in his life and this child was nothing short of a miracle. Young Christopher’s birth had finally convinced Rowena’s parents that a meeting was long overdue. On neutral ground, of course; they’d yet to be lured to Hadon House. But it was only a matter of time. Despite Mrs. Rothwell threatening a fit of the vapours every time he’d looked in her direction, Christopher had seen the magic a child could work on the hardest of human hearts.
A pity it didn’t have the same effect on wolf-men.
Jogging down the track, he wondered what it would take for his own parents to acknowledge their new grandson. The wall of silence from Hadon Hall was as impenetrable as ever.
Did they not see how wonderful this was? Did they not wish to share in the joy?
Movement on the distant path caught his eye. A trio of men walking the moor path that branched towards Hadon House. Instantly on alert, Christopher’s vision sharpened, bringing the men into focus. Burly, tall, the middle one all-too recognisable.
Sir Christopher, flanked by two of his henchmen. Walking with intent, faces set. Armed, if he remembered anything about his father.
For one horrible moment, Christopher froze, unable to move. They’d already swung open the gates and were now striding towards the front porch. No matter how fast he ran, he wouldn’t get there before them.
Terror almost choked him. Not a cull. Please, not that.
Forcing out his wolf in an agonised roar, he leaped from the path, taking a diagonal line down the slope, arms pumping, almost flying over the stony terrain. He was aware only of the painful rasp of his breath, the thump of his feet, the scrabble of loose stones racing with him down the slope.
If they harmed his family he’d kill his father himself, or die in the attempt.
It seemed to take forever before he was on the gravelled drive and hurtling towards the two henchmen, standing sentinel on either side of the front door. Lowering his head, he butted the first, and then swung a fist at the second.
“Where is he?” An iron forearm circled his neck, pressing on his windpipe, cutting off the words. Both of the henchmen were in partial shift, now, significantly decreasing his chances of winning the fight without shedding blood. The arm about his neck pressed harder, until he could no longer breathe. Spots danced before his eyes.
“Now then.” The henchman’s growl filtered through the fog. “Calm down, will you. For their sake, calm down.” The arm loosened its hold. The world came back into focus.
“If he’s hurt them, I’ll kill him.” Christopher brought his elbow back hard, driving it into the henchman’s stomach. His colleague lunged, missing Christopher by a hair. Christopher dodged and dived through the open door, following his father’s scent to the drawing room.
Rowena stood facing Sir Christopher, hands shaking, her expression a mixture of anger and anguish. About to spring if he’d read her right. In his arms, Sir Christopher held his namesake, who seemed to be the only calm creature in the room. The baby creased its brow, puzzled rather than alarmed by this new face.
“Rowena, no!” Christopher raised a hand to warn her back. If it came to a fight, it would be him against his father. Rowena would defend her child to the death, but he wasn’t giving her that option.
His father paid him only a fleeting glance before returning his attention to the child. “Cross the room and stand by your mate,” he said curtly. “And for heaven’s sake make less of the noise. You’ll frighten the child.”
The growl died in Christopher’s throat. Mary and Josh stood pressed against the wall, making themselves as small and unobtrusive as they could.
So far they were all still alive.
“Move,” Sir Christopher barked. “And remember, I’m the one holding the child.”
Little had changed. Hair more silver than brown these days, new lines creasing the man’s face, but the voice of command was the same voice that had sent his children running in terror from his wrath. An Alpha wolf knew little of softness.
“Give him back to his mother.” Christopher took a tentative step towards Rowena, eyes never leaving his father. The Alpha, to whom they all owed total obedience.
Theoretically. He owed his father nothing.
“All in good time.” Cradling the child in one crooked arm, Sir Christopher lowered his face to take the child’s scent, cupping the child’s head with one large hand. Baby Christopher flailed out an arm, batting his grandfather’s nose. A hint of what looked suspiciously like a smile lurked at the corners of Sir Christopher’s mouth.
Christopher squeezed Rowena’s shaking hand. She’d managed little more than a lengthening of canines before terror had stopped her shifting further. He slid an arm about her shoulders. With his father holding the baby, they could do little more than wait for him to declare his intent.
If they kept their nerve, they might yet survive this.
“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”
Sir Christopher raised his head, his expression neutral. “What? Can’t I visit my grandchild?”
“Visitors from the Hall are always welcome here.” Christopher forced down his wolf, ignoring the pain. His father’s demeanour was not that of a wolf out for a cull. He was still in human form. But then his father had supreme control over his wolf.
“I know.” Sir Christopher indicated the settle. “Sit down, woman before you fall down. The child is in no danger.”
“If you harm him, I’ll kill you myself.” Rowena remained upright, her voice surprisingly calm. Shaking not with fear but with anger. Sir Christopher’s only response was a quirked brow and a throaty chuckle.
“Your mama has spirit,” he said to the child. “But when the Alpha says sit, a wolf really should sit.”
Christopher nodded Rowena to comply. No option but to play his father’s game. Thankfully, she did, feeling behind her for the seat, eyes fixed on her son.
“You two.” Sir Christopher pointed a finger at Mary and Josh and then tossed his head in the direction of the door. “Out, now! I need to speak to my son.”
Christopher couldn’t help a cynical laugh. “All of a sudden I’m your son? What’s brought this about?”
Tucking the child into his side, Sir Christopher fished into his coat pocket. “Recognise this?”
His ring? The one he’d swapped for the vampire lord’s wig. It spun across the room. Christopher snatched it out of the air, his skin already tingling. He held it tentatively to his nose, spiralling back down the years to a railway carriage. Two excited youngsters off on the adventure of a lifetime.
The scent was unmistakeable.
“Where did you get this?”
“It arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. Postmarked from London.”
“Amelia is in London?” Christopher took another deep sniff of the ring, his heart threatening to burst.
“So she would have us believe.” The baby had Sir Christopher’s cravat, fast in its tiny fist. Taking the free end, he tickled the baby’s nose, earning himself a wide smile.
“She’s alive.” Christopher locked his knees to stop them buckling with the almost unbearable relief of knowing at last. “Have you found her? Did she include a letter?”
“Only a matter of time. And yes, there was a letter.”
For a brief second, their gazes met. Alpha and Lone Wolf. Father and son. Was that forgiveness he saw in his father’s deep, glowing eyes?
“What did she say?”
“Let it be enough that I’m here.” Sir Christopher held out the child. “The child is a Hadon. Teach him to wear the name with pride.”
Still reeling from the news of Amelia, Christopher let Rowena take the baby. He wouldn’t have beaten her to it anyway. She’d sprung from the settle the moment Sir Christopher gave word and was clutching the child fiercely to her chest, daring anyone to try taking him from her again.
So this was it? The child accepted? His exile ended?
Questions that would wait for another day. Christopher rubbed his face, anger giving way to exhaustion and the urge to laugh uncontrollably and never stop.
Through the open door he saw his father pause before the Christmas tree in the hall, his expression unreadable. The front door slammed, leaving them alone, the scent of fear and relief still heavy in the air.
Baby Christopher burped and lolled back sleepily, eyes closing. Would he remember this first meeting with the Alpha in years to come? Remember how brave he’d been?
“I would have given my life for him.”
“We both would have.” Rowena handed him the child, sensing he too needed to assure himself it still lived and breathed. “I’m glad it didn’t come to that.”
If the child had inherited even half of Rowena’s steel, it would do well. The thought comforted him.
Her arms circled his waist, the weight of her head nestled against his shoulder. The two most precious things in his world, which he would defend until his last breath.
“Do you think she’s ready to come home?”
“Amelia? I don’t know.” Mingled with the relief of knowing she still lived, he couldn’t help wondering why she’d left him in such misery all these years. “I only hope she’s found it somewhere in her heart to forgive me for failing her.”
“I’m sure she has.” Rowena cupped his cheek, turning his face to her. “And you must find a way to forgive her, too. Perhaps it was out of her hands, but there must have been a good reason for her silence.”
“At first, yes. But later…” He shook his head. What use in torturing himself? It hadn’t brought her back. “Perhaps one day we’ll know why.”
“Christopher, someone’s coming.” Rowena reached for the child, alarm clouding her features. “Is it him? Is he coming back?”
Feet crunching on gravel. A light, quick tread, not the heavy step of a man. Christopher crossed the room to the window overlooking the front of the house and peered into the gathering gloom. A small figure in breeches and boots, a tweed jacket, cap on head, made its way towards the front door.
The boy stopped once, tipping back his head to stare up at the façade before climbing the step.
“Just a boy.”
“At this time of day?” Rowena came to stand beside him, rocking the baby in her arms. “If Margaret sent him, it must be urgent.”
“I’m not leaving you alone. Not tonight. Stay here, I’ll see to it.”
Mary shot him an enquiring look as he entered the hall. She’d sensed it too. The visitor was wolf, not human. The boom of the door-knocker echoed round the hall.
“You want me to answer it?” The encounter with the Alpha had shaken her. Christopher motioned her back.
“It’s just a child. Take yourself off to the kitchen and tell Josh I need him to stand sentinel.”
With a grateful nod, she scuttled back to her sanctuary. Christopher threw back the bolts, unlocked the door and cracked it open.
“Letter for Mr. Christopher Hadon.” The child searched his jacket, and then drew out a small envelope. He held it carefully out of reach. “I come a long way. She said I were to get sixpence for’t trouble.”
“She?” In one swift movement, Christopher snatched the letter from the boy’s hand, silencing the child’s indignant cry with a warning finger. Christopher held the letter to his nose.
“Who gave you this?”
“A man.” The boy glared resentfully. “But I knows it come from ‘is lady, ‘cos I ‘eard her say I were to get sixpence for delivering it.”
“Pay the child,” he said to Josh who was lurking behind the Christmas tree. Closing his eyes, he sniffed the letter again. Unmistakeable.
A private letter for him? He walked into the drawing room in a daze.
Rowena drew him to the settle. Urged him to sit. She placed the sleeping baby in his cradle.
“Is it from her?”
He nodded, not daring to hope. “Her scent is on it. Will you open it and read it for me?” His fingers refused to obey. Perhaps this was the final goodbye and not the reunion he’d hoped for?
He clutched the envelope so tightly, Rowena had to peel his fingers away. How could such a small package cause such terror? He’d faced down the Alpha with no thought for his own safety, yet this letter had him squeezing his fingers into fists to stop them trembling.
Waiting while Rowena scanned the letter, took all of his willpower.
The growing smile on her face said it all.
“She wants to meet you. And she’s happy. Mated, too.” Rowena offered the letter, nodding encouragement. “It’s good news, Christopher. And look what else is in here.”
A small card edged with lace. A painting of a girl and boy, laughing and gazing up at a decorated tree. Stockings hanging at the fireplace.
The Christmas of Amelia’s dreams.
He smiled at last. So many lost years to make up for. So much to look forward to.
“I was going to give you your Christmas gift tonight.” Rowena leaned in to place a lingering kiss on his lips. “But it can wait until tomorrow.”
She understood him so well. After years of nothing, this was almost too much. Reconciled to the Pack. His sister alive and well. And most of all, he had the thing every wolf craved.
A life-mate and a child to carry his name.
No wolf could ask for more.
Copyright © 2013 C.A. Nicks
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