© Dawn Thompson
All Rights Reserved
No portion may be used without written permission
Cumberland, England, summer, 1811
Jon stripped naked in the woad field. There wasn’t a minute to spare, Cassandra would be waiting at the crypt in the kirkyard. He would have been there an hour ago if he hadn’t stopped to feed…so he wouldn’t be tempted to feed upon her. He glanced about. There wasn’t a soul to be seen, just the tall swaying woad, its strong-smelling yellow blossoms tinted green by the velvet blue of pending darkness. The tall stalks swayed, dancing in the breeze, whispering their secrets, keeping his, just as they always did. They would be gone soon. Midsummer’s Eve, the harvesting would begin. Then he would have to take shelter in the forest when he roamed his land in the north.
In a blink and a blur, he sailed through the air and hit the ground running on four sturdy corded legs, his thick footpads trampling the woad, bending the stalks, his tall, muscular, barrel-chested body grown taller, thicker, covered with a shaggy coat of silver-tipped black fur. He could make better time as canis dirus, the dire wolf, beating a path through the woad on all fours, than he could standing upright, though that was always an option; better time than he could in his normal incarnation, come to that. Normal. The word didn’t even signify. He would never be normal again.
His vision had narrowed now, just as it always did when he shifted into the shape of the great wolf, and his facial features transformed into an elongated snout. It wasn’t because of the darkness. He was possessed of keen night vision in both incarnations. Small consolation, that, he thought bitterly, swallowing hard in a vain attempt to break up the lump in his throat. His bared canines were dripping blood carried over from his other self and the feeding that had just taken place. It slid down his long pink tongue, splattering his forefeet with foam and spittle as he ran. But still, the thick metallic taste laced with salt clotted at the back of his palate. Its rich toothsome flavor piquant and mysterious would stay with him until it was time to feed again.
Maybe she wouldn’t come tonight. Maybe all this haste was for naught. It was a pleasant fiction. He loosed a bestial canine whine. If she wasn’t there, he would agonize over her whereabouts until he set eyes upon her again, just like he was doing now, running his heart out, burning his lungs dry gulping the cool night air. If only he hadn’t needed to feed. If only he trusted himself in her presence when the hunger the feeding frenzy was upon him once the sun sank below the horizon each night. Streaking through the woad, he cursed Sebastian, the vampire who had infected him, and nearly made her. Sebastian would stalk her until he finished what he’d started, until he’d made her his slave like the others. Over Jon’s dead body.
Would she have sense enough to climb the tor to Whitebriar Abbey, his inherited manor, when she didn’t find him at the crypt? Would Bates, his faithful servant, admit her? Why hadn’t he told her to meet him at the Abbey in the first place? He was counting upon the sacred ground in the kirkyard keeping Sebastian at bay. According to legend, full-fledged vampires could not bear crosses or consecrated places or anything sacred, come to that. How Jon himself still could was a mystery, though holy water boiled when he touched it. But this wasn’t legend; this was real. Perhaps these things came about gradually in the newly-made. Whatever the cause, he was glad of the effect.
He was out in the open now. He had left the woad behind, though its pungent scent still filled his flared nostrils. Was it something remembered from his childhood, when he’d played in these fields and knew every inch of them, or something related to the here and now? More likely the latter. His sense of smell was always heightened in wolf form. It was almost painful when he needed to feed, stabbing pains shooting through his sinuses until he’d tracked down his prey. At least he didn’t have to suffer that now; he wouldn’t need to feed again tonight. It was safe to be with Cassandra, to hold her in his arms; to comfort her. He dared not take it beyond that, though he longed to live in that exquisite body, to succumb to the lure of an innocence that had bewitched him from the moment they’d met at Almack’s in London that Season. Sebastian might have taken her first blood, but he, St. John Hyde-White, second son of the Earl of Breckenridge, who’d had noble aspirations of becoming a vicar, and had answered the call to Holy Orders before it all began, was to blame—as surely as if he’d been the one who’d plunged his fangs into that sweet flesh that smelled hauntingly of meadowsweet and lilies of the valley.
Wolf though he was, tears misted his eyes. Padding to a halt in the clearing, he threw back his head and howled into the darkness. The sound trailed off to a mournful wail, lonely and sad. No creature answered it—no woodland voice replied to the sound, though birds fled the trees at the edge of the copse that bearded the thicket in clouds. Across the moor, a light in the kirk at the foot of the tor beckoned, and he bolted toward it praying he wasn’t too late.
Nothing stirred in the kirkyard when he reached it. Surging into human form—if he could still be considered human; he wouldn’t dwell upon that now—Jon stood naked, clothed only in the mist that drifted amongst the crooked headstones like wraiths risen from the dead. The Hyde-White crypt loomed before him deserted, an upright vault covered in woodbine creepers, fitted with an iron-barred door. It would be open. Since the nightmare began, the vicar, Clive Snow, his mentor and confidant, had unlocked it every night at dusk, and locked it again once the first gray streamers of dawn chased the mist each morning. Just to be certain. In case he needed sanctuary from Sebastian, who only roamed the moor at night.
Jon tore open the wrought ironwork, then the door, and stepped inside. His heart sank. The crypt was empty. Cassandra wasn’t there waiting like he hoped she be—like he’d prayed she’d be. He wasn’t surprised. God heard him no longer. Why would God help one undead, and another destined to be? Had Clive Snow damned himself giving them aid as well—keeping him safe and giving her sanctuary? Was his friend and mentor another casualty of the nightmare? He shuddered to wonder.
Shaking those thoughts free, like a dog sheds water, he strode inside, the stone floor cold and hard beneath his bare feet. A change of clothes was neatly set out on a stone bench in the corner. He dressed himself hurriedly, tugging on his drawers and buckskin breeches, then the shirt, waistcoat, and chocolate brown superfine frock coat. He would go back for the clothes he’d left in the woad field, but not yet. Not until he’d found Cassandra—not until he knew she was safe.
He tugged on his turned-down top boots and stamped his feet to settle them inside the stiff, though malleable leather. They still felt like the large, padded feet of the dire wolf, and would for awhile. The wolf was his favorite part of the condition, as he referred to it. He loved roaming fleet-footed over the moors, with the Cumberland North wind whipping tears in his eyes, combing his silver-tipped fur.
His makeshift toilette complete, he stepped out into the misty darkness and closed the door of the vault. The light in the vicarage beckoned, and he parted the mist with long-legged strides, hoping Cassandra had taken refuge there, and banged the knocker impatiently—once—twice. He raised his hand to grip the knocker again, when the door came open in the vicar’s hand.
The elder clergyman pulled him inside. “Are you trying to rouse the dead?” he said, leading him toward his study.
Clive Snow seemed borne down as he trudged the narrow hallway, lit by candles in wall sconces. The flickering candlelight picked out the silver in his hair, and shone in his articulate eyes, the color of amber, that had always seemed to see into his soul. Jon couldn’t bear those penetrating amber eyes boring into him now. There was no time for a lecture, even less for explanations.
He dug in his heels. “Is she here?” he said.
“No. Is she supposed to be?”
“We were to meet at the crypt. She was supposed to arrive before sunset, and she isn’t there. She doesn’t realize the danger she is in, Clive. Sebastian will try again. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Jon, we must talk,” said the vicar, gripping his arm.
“Yes, but not now. I must find her before Sebastian does. He’s out there somewhere. I know it—I feel it! If he finishes what he’s begun, she will be his for all eternity. She will be lost to me forever.” He broke free. “I must go,” he said, sprinting down the narrow corridor.
“Jon!” the vicar called after him. “We must talk, I say! If we do not before the sun rises on another day, you will find the crypt locked when you reach it. I mean it!”
Jon didn’t answer. It was an empty threat. If Clive were to lock him out of the crypt while in wolf form he would have no togs to change into when he transformed back. Clive Snow knew that. He would hardly let him be caught in the altogether by some member of the parish visiting a loved one in the kirkyard. Only one thought moved him then. Where was Cassandra? He had to find her.
“Jon!” the vicar called after him. “Come back here!”
“I shall—later,” Jon said, slamming the rectory door a little too loudly as he fled, the vicar’s protests ringing in his ears. No. He most definitely wasn’t himself. How could so much have happened to change his otherwise ordered life in the mere space of a sennight?
Seven days ago, he knew who he was and where he was going. His future was charted—impeccably planned. He was to be Vicar of All Saints Parish, his deceased father’s living, which had passed to his elder brother who had emigrated to America with his bride. Clive Snow was retiring by dispensation from the bishop. It was all arranged. What’s more, Jon had met the girl of his dreams, and was about to press his suite, when Clive Snow’s missive arrived, asking him to try to locate a parishioner who had gone astray, and convince the man to return to his increasing wife post haste. He bitterly wished he’d never received that missive.
Half sprinting, half stumbling, he scaled the tor to the flattened summit, where Whitebriar Abbey, stood buffeted by the cruel north wind, no less scathing in spring and summer for all its mildness. His feet always betrayed him for awhile after he shapeshifted back from dire wolf to man. Top boots notwithstanding, he still had wolf’s paws, and would for awhile—at least in his mind.
Bursting into the abbey, he bellowed for Bates at the top of his voice.
The white-faced valet-cum butler-cum footman, since his condition reduced the staff, loped to the gallery balustrade above on his lame leg, his graying hair fanned out in dishabille about him, his stone-colored eyes flung wide.
“Oh, sir!” he cried. “Thank heavens! I am at the end of my tether. Please come!”
“What is that racket?” Jon said, scaling the broad carpeted stairs two at a stride. Only then was he aware of the din echoing through the mansion from above.
“’Tis Gideon,” said the servant. “I cannot do a thing with him. He’s run mad, I think!”
“The young lady’s come—”
“Thank God!” Jon cried, his posture collapsing in relief.
“I put her in the blue suite off the west gallery,” Bates went on, “and no sooner had I done, when Gideon come chargin’ up here goin’ at that door all out straight. See for yourself, it’s nearly in splinters.”
“Fetch his chain.”
The servant shot his hand out, the dog’s chain dangling from his fingers. Jon didn’t even realize that Bates was holding it all the while. He snatched it from him.
“Gideon, stay!” he commanded.
The mastiff’s head flashed toward him. Its jaws were dripping foam, flinging spittle, its dilated eyes glazed over with the iridescent luster of mindless aberration.
“Gideon, heel!” Jon charged.
The mastiff pranced in place—tail wagging, lips snarling—his head bobbing back and forth between the wounded door, and his master, a troop of desperate whines leaking from his throat between growls.
Jon rattled the chain, and the dog padded toward him warily, tail between his legs. Reluctance ruled the animal’s step, and still there was a silent showing of fangs, culminating in another guttural growl and a rousing bark that more closely resembled a snarl. What was wrong with the animal? Gideon had never snarled at him before.
Jon snapped the chain fast to the collar, and jerked the dog to a standstill, handing the chain to Bates. “Take him below,” he said, “—and keep him there.”
“Y-yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I cannot control him when he’s thus. You are the only one he heels to.”
No longer, Jon thought. He gripped the door handle and waited, his fingers working the gilded scrollwork impatiently, while the servant led Gideon down the stairs before he lifted the latch. Once they were out of sight, he burst into the room, calling Cassandra at the top of his voice. She didn’t answer, and he streaked through the sitting room, charged through the door to the bedchamber adjoining, and pulled up short. Cassandra was nowhere in sight, but her sprigged muslin frock lay in a heap on the floor under the antique Glastonbury chair in the corner.
Calling her name again, he spanned the distance to the dressing room in two strides, but she wasn’t there either, and he crossed back into the bedchamber, his eyes upon the daintily patterned frock underneath the chair in the corner. It was moving.
Approaching it with caution, Jon squatted down and seized the frock, suspecting rats. The shape of something small riggling inside it confirmed his suspicions, and he surged to his feet and raised his foot, set to crush the rodent beneath the heel of his top boot, when a mewing sound leaking from it stopped him.
Jon lowered his foot to the floor, and reached down toward the moving frock. Once—twice he drew his hand back before he finally seized it, exposing the head of a little black kitten, whose big green eyes stared up at him, like two sparkling emeralds in the candlelight. In fact it seemed all eyes the way they dominated that tiny face.
All at once, the mewing became sobs, the head expanded, and the soft ebony fur became a streak of molten silver surging toward him in a blurred rush of motion. Then she was in his arms. The scent of meadowsweet and lilies of the valley threaded through his nostril from her sun-painted hair, from her naked skin bared by the tangled frock twisted around her that showed him more of her exquisite body than he was prepared to view. His sex grew hard against her. The tightness began at his very core—the hunger—he could smell her blood. He could taste the salty sweetness of its thick nectar at the base of his tongue. He fought back the inevitable drool—the lubricant saliva that made the piercing easier. Anticipation quickened his heartbeat. He felt the painful pressure as fangs emerged from his canine teeth—long, sharp, hollow fangs—their manifestation an arousal. The feeding frenzy! How could it be? He had just fed.
As if it had a will of its own, his hand slid the length of her soft white throat feeling for the pulse beneath that smooth opalescent skin. Blood was racing through her veins—through the artery leaping there—her very life was palpitating beneath his trembling fingers inches from the deadly fangs hovering above it. It was there for the taking. He groaned and put her from him, tugging the twisted frock back up over the milk-white breasts trembling in rhythm with her sobs.
“What…do you think you’re…about, Cassandra?” he panted. Reeling away from her, he raked his hair with a trembling hand, taking deep, shuddering breaths, and did not face her again until the needle-sharp fangs had receded. After a moment, all evidence of the condition faded—all, that is, except the thick hard arousal challenging the seam in his buckskins.
He spun to face her. “What did I just see here, Cass?” he said, through clenched teeth, as if doing so would keep the fangs from emerging again.
Cassandra reached toward him, but he backed away. “Stay where you are!” he said. “Good God, come no nearer!” The throbbing in his sex thrumming through his body echoed in his ears like the thunder of a snare drum. He had to keep her at arms length.
Cassandra burst into fresh tears. “I…there was a rat,” she wailed. “I smelled its blood. It gave me such a hunger. I hate rats, Jon. What is happening to me?”
How he wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her—only that. How he longed to embrace that sweet flesh on any pretext. He dared not. He had to keep his distance. He would not finish what Sebastian had started. There was hope for her if he did not yield to temptation. But it was more than mere temptation, this—it was something dark and sinister and all-consuming that he could barely control. How long before he could no longer keep that control? How long before…No! He dared not give those thoughts substance with words—not even in his mind.
“Did you feed?” he murmured, his voice trembling and strained.
She shook her head that she had not. “All at once I had paws and claws and silky fur, and the rat was bigger than I was,” she sobbed. “I wasn’t me anymore…I was a kitten, and it bit me…see?” she said, holding out her hand.
Jon stared at the blood still oozing thick and red from the back of her delicate hand, trickling down her fingers. His own hands balled into white-knuckled fists at his sides. It came again, the tightening—the turgid pressure in the pit of his belly, like a fiddle bow string stretched to its limit of strain. The throbbing started at his temples. The terrible pounding commanding his sex until it throbbed to the same shuddering rhythm. He had to taste her or go mad—now, before the blood congealed and lost its flavor—now, while it was still fresh. He snatched the hand and raised it to his lips. If he did this, his hunger for her would be insatiable—his thirst for her sweet nectar as that of a wanderer in the desert in search of life-giving water. She was already in his blood, and had been since before the condition changed both their lives. Were he to lick the sticky blood from that hand—whether he were to take but a taste or suck it dry, she would be in his very soul, and nothing would slake that hunger save that he take her.
Unaware, for he hadn’t told her everything, Cassandra made the decision for him. She reclaimed her hand and raised it to her lips. Jon groaned. Seizing her wrist, he took her bloodied fingers into his mouth and sucked them clean—then the wound itself until he’d swallowed every drop. Afterward, ashamed, unable to meet the nonplussed expression on that lovely face, in those doe-like brown eyes he dropped her hands and turned away in disgust. She had no idea what he’d just done, but he knew all too well that he had sealed their fate. She was no longer safe in his company. He would have to fight the urge to finish her with every fiber of what was left of his being to keep himself from ravishing her body, and ravaging her soul.
“Sit down, Cass,” he murmured. “No! Not on the bed…in the chair.” He waited while she did as he bade her and took a seat in the Glastonbury chair she’d so recently hidden beneath. He noticed her wary observation of it as she eased herself down with a cautious slither. “Vampires have the power to shapeshift,” he explained. “You have seen me change into the form a dire wolf. Each of us has our own creature—”
“Mine is a…a kitten?” she interrupted, “—a helpless kitten? Am I to be devoured by rats—or dogs? I heard your hound at the door. He would have torn me to shreds.”
“How am I to make her understand, when I do not?” Jon cried to the rafters. After a moment he sobered, as much as he could with the sweet taste of her life force lingering on his tongue—taunting him—obsessing him. Why had he tasted that sweet nectar? “You are not a full blooded vampire…yet,” he went on shakily. “You have the ability…but not the power—the strength— to take your creature’s proper form which, I presume would be some form of cat by this display. Did you have fair warning?”
“Fair warning?” she said, a frown spoiling her lovely face. “How do you mean?”
“Did you know before it…happened that something untoward was occurring inside you?”
“I did feel strange…as if my bones had turned to jelly, my head felt as light as air, and white pinpoints appeared before my eyes…”
He nodded. “When that occurs again, remove your clothes. You must be naked to transform. To shapeshift clothed, you court all manner of dangers just like this here now when you became tangled in your frock. It could mean your life to be hampered thus before a greater creature. If you were not entangled in the gown, you would have escaped the rat before it bit you.”
“Will it always be like this?” she said, her eyes pleading.
“I do not know,” he said, “but I think not in your case, unless…”
“…Unless someone were to finish your making,” he said. “I mean to see that such a thing does not occur, but you must do exactly as I say. You did not tonight, and look what happened. You were to meet me at dusk at the crypt—”
“But you weren’t there,” she cried, “and I was afraid.”
“I was…detained.” There was no need to go into detail. She didn’t need to know he’d all but drained a lightskirt in the town square. His conscience still nagged at him for feeding upon the slag, but better that than she who stood before him. No…he wouldn’t tell her that. “When I arrived there and you weren’t waiting for me, I nearly ran mad. You would have been safe in the kirkyard. Full-blooded vampires cannot tread consecrated ground, which is why I wanted you to come there before dark—before Sebastian was abroad to finish what he started with you.”
She hung her head. “I didn’t go gadding about,” she defended, “—I came here straightaway when you didn’t come.”
“Which was wise, but risky,” said Jon. “Sebastian is not barred from Whitebriar Abbey, though he cannot enter in unless it be by invitation. Still, he could have lain in wait anywhere between the kirk and here to pounce upon you. He needs no invitation in the open. You must do as I say. I cannot be about the business of putting things to rights worrying that you will blunder into danger. Bates is unaware of the true nature of our…situation, but he has been instructed never to admit anyone. How you charmed him, I will never know, but you can bet your blunt I will have it out of him before the night is done. Come here tomorrow before sunset. I will instruct Bates to let you in, and stay here until I join you.”
She started toward him, and he reeled out of her reach. “No!” he said. “Do not touch me! I want you to climb into that bed and sleep. You have that luxury in the night. I do not. I must be about my business under cover of darkness, when I have the strength I lose at dawn. Bates will let you out once the sun has risen…when you will be safe. You can still bear to be abroad in the daylight, can you not?”
She frowned. “I can,” she said, “though it makes my head ache, and my eyes! It’s like I’m seeing through a curtain of blood.”
“Yes. It is thus with me as well. If that symptom doesn’t worsen, I believe it will fade in time, please God. If it should change, however, you must tell me at once—at once, Cassandra. Is that clear?” He couldn’t bring himself to tell her that if Sebastian had his way with her and finished what he’d started, if she were a full-blooded vampire, daylight would likely kill her. Seven days ago, he wouldn’t have credited that there even was such a creature. He was still having difficulty accepting it, but he was no longer in denial. The loathsome manifestation was no figment of his imagination. The nightmare was real.
“Good!” he said, striding to the door. He gripped the gilded door handle. “I must pay a call upon Vicar Snow. Now lock this after me and go to sleep,” he said. “Let no one in until Bates knocks at dawn—not even me…especially not me…Good night, Cassandra.”
Book 1 – Blood Moon
Book 2 – The Brotherhood
Book 3 – The Ravening