A Taste of Crimson - Book 2 in the Crimson City Series
Crimson City is a paranormal action romance series matching fabulous kick-ass heroines with the sexiest, toughest heroes from the five sentient species on Earth. It’s passionate, intense, action-packed, apocalyptic, totally out-of-the-box, and yet still, at heart, deeply—and darkly—romantic. Crimson City’s got it all—vampires, humans, werewolves, mechs, and demons, making for one of the biggest, baddest paranormal show-downs the romance genre has ever seen.
The Man was around, which meant that Keeli had to slip out of Butchies through the back, leaving Shelly in the weeds with five tables, one of which had been screaming for their fries just before that familiar starched white shirt ghosted through the front doors.
“H.I. Bob is here,” Shelly whispered, and just like that, Keeli had to drop everything and dodge. Health Inspector Bob, aka The Man.
A man who had a distinct disliking for werewolves. He had already fined Jim Butchie three hundred dollars for keeping Keeli on as a waitress. Not that werewolves were the reason cited, but it didn’t have to be. The Man had a reputation, and every other restaurant in the city – the ones that didn’t discriminate – had suffered from his twitchy fingers and high fines.
Blame it on a new law from the Feds, which now required the Food and Health industry to screen all its prospective employees for lycanthropy and other “aggressive” diseases. Employers weren’t supposed to discriminate based on blood-test results – that, at least, was still illegal – but enforcement was a joke. Humans were running scared nowadays. Or at least, a little nervous.
Keeli was lucky – she still had a job. Even the most progressive restaurants fired their non-humans servers after a run-in with the Man. Of course, most restaurants weren’t owned and run by Jim Butchie, an ex-trucker who embodied the two most sacred words in Keeli’s vocabulary: fuck you.
Butchies was a greasy hole situated in the armpit of east downtown, the round and smelly fringe of the city. Good cheap food, and open twenty-four hours a day. Jim lived above his restaurant and could always be counted on to poke his nose into everyone’s business, at every hour of the day. Jim didn’t seem to need much sleep. One of the busboys had probably gone up to his apartment by now and told him about H.I. Bob.
Keeli crouched beside the dumpster on the other side of Butchies’s back door. The smell was overwhelming, but she didn’t move. She listened to the dishwashers in the pit. Young men, new to the country, chattering in a patois of Spanish, Chinese, and English that had become common in the lower classes. Keeli spoke it fluently.
She cleaned her fingernails to kill time, scraping out bits of food from beneath her long nails. She hated the feel of grease on her skin, her odor after a night on the job. The scent of wolf, drowned out by the scent of fries and hamburgers.
It could be worse. At least you have a job. You work in a place where the people like you.
Yes. She had nothing to complain about. Not like the rest of her clan, especially the men, many of whom were finding it difficult to land even grunt work. Everyone in this part of town knew each other’s business – especially if you were fang or fur. And no one was hiring fur.
Stupid vampires. Word gets out on the street that they’re lined up for shit, and suddenly life becomes difficult for all of us.
And it was only going to get worse. Everyone in the underground knew about the human attack on the vampires. Rumor called it a rogue element, but that was shit, just some lame excuse. Keeli didn’t imagine for one instant the humans would stop at just the vampires. The only surprise was that the werewolves hadn’t been targeted first. When it came to pure visceral reaction, wolves usually got the boot up the ass before the fangs.
We just aren’t sexy enough. Keeli glanced down at her striped stockings, her scuffed Doc Martins. Her torn black T-shirt barely covered her lean midriff, and her spiked hair had been dyed a fresh shade of pink just that morning. Yeah, she radiated sex appeal.
Not. Of course, that was the way she wanted it. She was sick of expectations.
She heard Jim’s voice over the clanging pots and running water. Good, he was up. A moment later, H.I. Bob said something nasal, irritating. Hackles raised, Keeli edged deeper into the shadow cast by the dumpster. The alley was poorly lit, but she always had trouble judging what humans could see or hear, and she never underestimated others.
A dangerous thing, her grandmother had taught her. Arrogance leaves you vulnerable.
Vulnerable. Something Keeli had vowed to never let herself be.
She shifted, stretching cramped muscles. She did not like sitting still for long periods of time – it was the wolf in her, the need to run, to feel the ground beneath her feet, the rush of air in her hair, against her skin, drawing out each breath like it was her last living moment in the world –
Keeli sagged against the wall, savoring the cool damp brick. Her fingernails felt too sharp. The wolf rolled within her chest, close to the surface. Too close.
Jim’s voice got loud and then receded, followed quickly by H.I. Bob. Kitchen inspection was over, which meant Keeli’s retreat was near an end. She’d have to go back in soon. She had responsibilities, tables waiting. Shelly needed help.
Keeli swallowed hard. It would be so easy to walk away from all this. But if she did, all her work – the slow process of proving her self-control to the clan and her grandmother – would be worth nothing. She could not allow that. She was finally making her own way, defying expectation. Nothing was worth losing that independence.
At the end of the alley, she heard a sudden burst of laughter. Men, drunk. Keeli’s lip curled. There were a lot of bars in east downtown, with patrons of the human and werewolf variety. The only difference was that werewolves rarely drank enough to become intoxicated. Too much risk. Control over the wolf could be a tenuous thing – for some wolves more than others.
And let’s face it – no one likes a drunk, wolf or not.
Especially when they sounded like these guys. Keeli edged around the dumpster, peering at the alley mouth. Butchies’s back door was close to the main drag, so Keeli had a fine view of the sidewalk. She heard the men coming, sounding four strong. A stumbling walk, alternating pace from fast to slow. A pause; the sound of a zipper. Piss. More laughter.
I’ll have to remind myself not to walk that way after my shift. I have to deal with enough awful smells.
From the other direction, a new sound. Soft soles. A light quick tread. Woman.
What shitty timing. Keeli’s stomach tightened as the woman drew near. She would have seen the men by now, who were still motionless, loudly comparing the size of their dicks.
“Turn around,” Keeli breathed. “Come on, lady. Common sense.”
Keeli listened hard, heard a shift in the woman’s gait. It faded slightly, but not enough. Not enough.
She crossed the street.
The laughter stopped.
“Shit,” Keeli muttered. She glimpsed the woman on the other side of the street, walking quickly, almost stumbling over her feet. A short bulky figure wrapped in a long coat. Curls, blond and bouncing.
Still, silence. Keeli held her breath. Maybe these guys weren’t shit, maybe they would let her go. Maybe –
The whistles began. Even as Keeli stepped away from the shadows, moving toward the alley mouth, she heard more laughter, low and hard. A growl rose up in her throat.
“Sweet,” said one man, and another murmured, “Come on.”
Keeli burst from the alley just in time to see the men take off after the woman. Drunk, but quick: they crossed the street in seconds and ran down the woman. A circle of arms, rough hands; she screamed.
And then Keeli was there and the wolf was high in her throat, clawing at her skin, roping muscle, bone; a terrible strength, and the fury was worse, rage seething under the shadow of righteousness, hunger. She burst into the circle of men, breaking them apart with sharp kicks, biting nails into flesh. Close up, they smelled like the docks; fish and machine grease, mixed with alcohol. Big men, taller than her by a foot, with shoulders thick and broad.
Keeli slammed her foot into a kneecap – savored the sharp crack, the scream torn from the man’s throat. Hands wrapped around her waist. Keeli grabbed meaty fingers and yanked back; they snapped and she tightened her grip, twisting, grinding broken bone. Her assailant’s screams made her eardrums vibrate. He tried to wrench free, hauling Keeli off her feet. She tucked her knees to her chest and refused to let go. When he whirled near one of his wide-eyed friends, she kicked out, landing a boot heel into the man’s chin.
Fur pressed though her skin, sleek as her rage, consuming her body as she sank deeper into fire. Yes, she thought. Yes. This is what I have been pushing away.
The man trapped against her screamed even louder. Keeli released him and fell to her feet. Her claws scraped concrete. The men ran – this time, away – but in two quick steps Keeli captured a straggler. Strong – the wolf in her was strong – and she slammed him into the ground, wrenching his left arm behind his back. Canines slid gentle against her lip, jaw narrowing, jutting sharp. Keeli lowered her head.
She felt a presence, then, at her side. Strong hands grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked hard. Keeli did not think; she whirled, snarling, and sank her teeth into flesh.
Blood filled her mouth, hot and bitter. It tasted good.
And then – oh, oh, fucking shit what have I done – the blood turned sour and she ripped her head away, gasping.
Gone too far, too far. She had bitten a human – and oh, if not one then how about another, because she had wanted it – in that moment she had wanted blood – and there was still a man beneath her, the man she had been going to kill – and the old rage felt so damn good –
Keeli leaned over and vomited. Again, she felt hands in her hair, gentler this time.
“It’s all right,” whispered a man, in a voice so dark, Keeli shuddered. Her gaze slid sideways and slowly, slowly, up.
Sagging leather boots filled her vision, and then black silk robes – reminiscent of old Asia – belted tight around a narrow waist, hugging a lean chest and bony shoulders. A pale striking face, with more bone than flesh, framed by loose black hair threaded with braids. His right cheek glittered.
And his eyes…
Keeli stared for one precious moment, lost in the velvet underground of that deep-set gaze. And then a click – the recognition of Something Not Quite Right, and she realized what he was, and what she had bitten. Relief made her weak, as did humiliation, but she fought for composure, stamping down another fresh swell of inexplicable rage.
“Vampire,” she growled, embarrassed at how her voice broke on that one word. “Get the hell away from me.”
“No,” he said, so calm, quiet. As though the warmth dripping on her hand, the blood from his torn arm, meant nothing. Her bite, meaningless. “Not until you release the human.”
The man beneath her trembled. She smelled piss, sour sweat. His friends were long gone. He was all she had left, and the wolf still wanted him dead. One bite, a break in his neck. He would never hurt anyone again.
Never again. No one’s ever going to get hurt again.
“You must calm yourself,” whispered the vampire, as though he could read her thoughts. He bent so close they brushed noses. Keeli froze. “Please. Control the wolf. You have witnesses.”
It was the ‘please’ that finally dulled her anger – that, and the urgency in his voice. Her gaze darted sideways.
Jim, Shelly, and a handful of strangers stood a short distance away. Everyone but Jim stared at her with eyes that seemed too full of shock, numb horror, to ever fade away into a forgivable memory. Shelly had her arms wrapped around the victim of the attempted rape, her straight red bob pressed against blond curls. Jim stood over them both. He looked worried.
Shame burned away the rest of Keeli’s rage, sending the wolf on swift retreat. Everything she had worked for – trying so hard to fit in – to be, for once, more woman than wolf—
“This is not how you wish humans to remember your kind,” whispered the vampire, still close. His cheek shimmered; round lines, etched in gold. For the first time, Keeli noticed his scent. Dry, with a hint of wild grass, horse hair. The taint of age. “This is not how you wish them to remember you.”
Keeli looked at her hands, still holding down the shivering man. She was fully human again. Pink skin, clear nails. She let go of her captive and slid off his back. He continued to lie there, his eyes squeezed shut. She almost touched him – to comfort, reassure – and then memory resurfaced.
“He deserved it,” she said. “Deserved to be scared, for what he was going to do to that woman.”
“Maybe,” said the vampire. “But you would have given up your own life to do it. He’s not worth that.”
Keeli looked at the vampire; really looked, hard, and saw nothing but calm acceptance. No anger. She glanced down at his arm.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and it was one more shock to add to her collection: apologizing to a vampire. “Will you be all right?”
His mouth twitched. “I’ve had worse.” He stood and held out his hand. Keeli refused to touch him.
Awful, disgusting. Vampires are monsters.
Monsters beneath a veneer of refinement, big money. Hypocrites and fakes. Pretending to be better, more human than everyone else.
Maybe this one is different.
Yeah, and maybe she hadn’t just lost herself to the wolf.
Keeli pushed away from him, scrambling to her feet. She heard sirens and found herself saying, “You should go. The cops will be here soon. They might have a mech with them.”
The vampire hesitated. He glanced at Jim and the others, still hanging back, watching. “What of you? I can carry the both of us.”
Keeli shook her head. “I don’t run. Ever.”
The vampire’s eyes narrowed. “And will you think I’m a coward if I leave you?”
Why the hell am I having this conversation?
“You’re a vampire,” Keeli said. “I already think you’re a coward. Amongst other things.”
Again, that odd twitch around the vampire’s mouth. “Good-bye, wolf.”
“The name is Keeli, fang-boy.”
“Michael. And I’m not the only one with fangs.” He reached out, a blur, and brushed Keeli’s lips with cool fingertips. She was too surprised to say a word – surprised at the gentleness of his touch, surprised at her reaction to it. She saw blood on his fingers; he had wiped her mouth.
“When they ask, you did not bite anyone,” he said quietly, and then leapt into the air – up and up – a shadow passing into shadow, into the night, until he was gone. Not even an outline against the dim stars.
“Thanks for helping me,” she murmured. The sirens were loud now, eardrum-shattering. She looked at Jim and Shelly; the weeping woman, her weeping attacker.
Keeli squared her shoulders and prepared herself for a long and difficult night.
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Praise for A Taste of Crimson - Book 2 in the Crimson City Series
“Passionate, intense and gritty, this paranormal thriller is a truly enthralling read.”—RTBOOKClub “Top Pick!”
“[A TASTE OF CRIMSON] delivers a high-tension plot and protagonists so appealing that you might be tempted to invite them over for dinner—despite one being a werewolf and the other a vampire…Liu has a knack for making far-fetched circumstances seem feasible, and she draws characters with such precision—down to their dialect and mannerisms—that they practically step off the page.”—Publishers Weekly