Ann Gimpel is a USA Today bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in many webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients. Now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she's not writing, she's in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She's published over 85 books to date, with several more planned for 2020 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren, and wolf hybrids round out her family.

Harsh Line by Ann Gimpel

My very existence is under attack. I've kept a low profile, told myself the craziness sweeping the world would pass me by. Yeah, it was wishful thinking, actually an outright lie, but it's kept me sane.

I've been hiding out forever in one guise or another. Currently, I run a nightclub. Ascent is an "ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies" haven. For everybody. I'm a Vampire. Far be it from me to judge.

My closest ally is a shapeshifting dire wolf. I adopted him when he was a scrawny puppy, but I'm getting ahead of my tale.

The fragile détente between supernaturals and humans has crashed and burned. I can't avoid the truth any longer. Lucky for me, mortals don't know exactly what I am. When I moved to Seattle, some vampiric sixth sense urged me to play my cards close to my vest, but I'm done burying my secrets.

And my power.

It's past time for supernaturals to get over their stupid infighting. Meh. So what if Witches hate Druids? Or Fae never deal with Sorcerers? We have to pull together, or we'll have no chance at all.

Not that it's likely, but if any mortals see the light and sign up for our side, we'd damn well better welcome them.

I'm Ariana Hawke. No more skulking in the shadows for me.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Ann writes lush, kickass characters, bringing the lens in close. Her vampires feel like, well, vampires. They're not just people with a set of fangs tacked on. Ariana Hawke has been running from her past, vampire style, for centuries. Nickolas was once a master vampire. A scouting trip to add to his seethe goes horribly awry and strands him in a future he's ill-equipped to deal with. Add a shapeshifting wolf, who's not a shifter at all, to the mix, and the stage is set for a page-turning, midnight-oil-burning binge. – Michelle Fox

 

REVIEWS

  • "This is a fast paced story with all the wonderful things that come in one of Ann's books. She creates worlds that just pull you and keep you engrossed in the story till the last page."

    – Reader review
  • "The world building creates a sense of belonging at Ascent. I felt like I was in the story, hearing the words, visualizing the scenes, feeling the emotions."

    – Reader review
  • "This story was awesome It drew me in right from the beginning. The sexual tension between the main characters is scintillating! This is a bit of a different twist on vampires which I am enjoying! I am also really into the the main story line. In fact as soon as I finished this I had to start reading the next in the series!"

    – Reader review
  • "This is exactly what I needed right now. It's fun, funny, suspenseful, exciting, has amazing characters, is fast-paced, and left me wanting more."

    – Reader review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

"You shorted me again." Standing straight, I locked gazes with the liquor distributor for my nightclub.

"You've miscounted…ma'am." Defiance fairly dripped from the burly driver as he dared me to contradict him. Greasy black hair was stuffed beneath a dirty baseball cap. He had dark eyes, a million wrinkles, and a beer gut hanging over his too-tight jeans.

Ha! I could rip him limb from limb with one hand tied behind my back, but no reason to let him know that. "Shall we count them together?" I adopted my best dumb-female mien. Not easy because it was so not me.

"Maybe some other time." He thrust an invoice at me with a pen clipped to the board beneath it. "Running late."

"I'll just bet you are. Look, Roger. Either we count them, or you can take the whole mess back to your truck. And I'll find another distributor."

A shocked look bloomed on his beefy face. Red splotches marked both stubble-coated cheeks. About six feet two, he was the same height as me, but he outweighed me by a good hundred pounds. "I don't have time to do that, either," he sputtered. "You'd better sign off on the fucking shipment."

I waited, but he stopped shy of tacking "bitch" onto the end of his statement.

I glanced at the invoice, snatched up the pen, and scratched corrections onto the sheet. I wrote in a new total, signed it, and handed it back to him. "There you go, bud."

"But—but you can't just write down any amount you want."

I shrugged. "Just did." I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and shook strands of black hair out of my face. "Two choices, Rog. Accept my figures—and I did count the boxes as you carted them in here. Or take everything back to your truck."

"I didn't see you count nothing."

"Yeah well, I did. You shorted me the last two times, and I don't trust you."

He stared at me, mouth opening and closing like a gutted fish as his pea-sized brain absorbed he'd have to come up with the difference for the cases he'd clearly sold to some black market trader.

"What's it going to be?" I pressed. "I'm a busy woman. A while back, you said you didn't have time to count the cases, so presumably you have a schedule as well."

He turned on his heel and stalked out of my back room. It opens onto an alley, and I pulled the heavy, wooden door shut, dropping an aluminum bar into place to secure it.

Breath hissed from between my clenched teeth. I'd stayed out of the slice of daylight cutting through my open door, but my skin still had a burned feeling. I'm a Vampire. One of the old ones, so daylight isn't the scourge for me it is for the newer batch, but it's still not pleasant.

I can go outside during the daytime, but I view it as a last resort.

Being my usual, methodical self, I recounted the cases of booze. I'd been right on with my tallies. Five hundred and twenty-three bucks of my order was missing. Either the bastard driver was skimming off the top, or the liquor distributing company was purposefully shorting me. Regardless, I'd give the distributor—Northwest Spirits—a call to alert them.

My money was on Roger, not the huge distributor. Northwest Spirits had a reputation to uphold.

A low growl wafted from the corner of the stockroom where I parked my Harley. Except it only looked like a motorcycle. I covered the distance from the door to the corner and asked, "What do you think?"

"Ripping his fat throat out is too good for him."

I tossed a leg over the bike and settled onto the plush leather seat. "It may come to that," I muttered.

Beneath me, the motorcycle illusion shimmered and shifted until I was astride Conan, a shapeshifting dire wolf I've been hanging around with for the past 500 years or so. He snarled, but I didn't take him seriously. I did dismount, though. He's good with me on his back when he's masquerading as a bike, or at least he tolerates me.

It's the only time, though.

I walked around until I faced him and buried my fingers in his lush black-and-silver pelt. Amber eyes regarded me with their usual inscrutable lupine expression. As if I were prey. Or could be.

Back in the day, we used to hunt together. I got the blood. He got everything else. Not that we'd given up hunting, but we had to be far more discreet. He laid his muzzle on my shoulder; I scratched his ears.

"We should leave." Capable of speech in wolf form, his words came out garbled, but understandable.

"Where would we go?" He and I had had this conversation before. Many times.

A frustrated growl rumbled from his throat. I let go of him, walked to a chest freezer, and pull out a cow's leg bone with a good bit of meat still clinging to it.

"Buying me off?" Bitterness lined Conan's question, but he snatched up the treat and proceeded to annihilate it. Powerful jaws crunched through bone as if it were made of cardboard.

I left him to it and trotted out of the storage room and into the huge main section of Ascent, a nightclub I own. Buying it might not have been one of my better ideas, but it was my baby. Win, lose, or draw. Unlike some bars, we didn't open until seven in the evening. I had zero interest in pandering to stone-cold alkies, the ones who substituted booze for breakfast.

Besides, being open when it was light out held obvious problems for me.

I went to work tumbling chairs back onto the floor from where the cleaning crew had balanced them on tables and thought about Conan. By virtue of a rare genetic mishap—and intervention from a gifted mage—he'd become an extraordinary type of shapeshifter, capable of any form he wanted to adopt.

The genetic part was supposition on my part, mostly because Conan was one of a kind. I've lived a long time, and I've never seen another supernatural creature anything like him.

I came across the wolf when he was a gangly puppy. Hiding at the bottom of a shallow well in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains, he'd been in bad shape. My heart had gone out to the scrawny pup. Vampires don't keep pets, except as a blood source, but something about Conan drew me. Magic ran strong in him, and I couldn't walk away from his plight.

For the first few months, his survival had been nip and tuck. I'd had to keep all the other Vamps away from him, for one thing. And then, I'd had to locate a Sorcerer who understood the small wolf's brand of power. The Sorcerer hadn't wanted to work with me, but I can be persistent.

Vampires are gifted with persuasion, or we'd have faded out of sight long ago. I gave the Sorcerer my word I wouldn't harm him, and I didn't. Long story short, the wolf and I have been together ever since. Not because of magic, but because of loyalty to each other.

Saving someone's life creates a solemn bond, especially for me since ending lives is more my style. Or it used to be. Now I sneak blood from slaughterhouses—and the occasional morgue. It's not any more appealing to me than that frozen bone was to Conan, but we have one another to bitch to.

Misery loves company.

We do still hunt from time to time. Fresh animal blood beats dead human blood every time.

He's been bringing up leaving more and more often, but everywhere except maybe the north and south poles are war zones. I suppose we could get by in a frozen wasteland, but it would be lonely—and cold.

The wolf had dreamed up turning into a motorcycle as cover. When it looks like I'm riding it, I'm really riding him. He's damned fast, and creates realistic motor sounds. He's never admitted this, but I think he has fun with that illusion. It gets him out into the world with me.

Even though he could craft a human form, he never has.

I stood back and surveyed my club with its scarred wooden floor, round tables, and staunchly made chairs. After a few brawls where customers had broken cheaper seats, I'd spent the money for ones resistant to damage. Several large windows ran the length of the nightclub. A raised dais near the back hosted occasional live music.

Unlike many establishments, I served everyone. Ascent was a place no one talked about what they were. A spot where humans and magic-wielders established détente. I have very good ears—it's part of my Vampire magic. At the first hint of trouble, I make certain the parties take it outside.

A key slotted into the front door lock, and Ruby Brighton hustled inside, relocking the door behind her. "Hiya, boss," she called cheerily and headed for the bar.

"Hiya back." I waved.

Ruby's rainbow hair hung to shoulder level. Today it was red, blue, and violet. The violet matched her eyes. Ruby was Fae, and hundreds of years old. Like so many ancient beings, she looked about thirty-five. Today she was garbed in her usual black slacks, white shirt, and leather vest. She far preferred bare feet, but I insisted she wear shoes. Fae blood is…unpredictable, and the bar floor often has bits of broken glass.

If someone pissed her off, her blood might shape itself into a weapon. Shoes were a simple solution.

Everyone who works for me has some variety of magic. I've tried mortal employees, but they're too damned fragile. Always one excuse or another for why they can't do something.

"We're out of port and scotch. Did the shipment come?" Ruby quirked a black brow my way.

"Yeah. Fuckers shorted us again. This time, I spoke up."

"Really?" She blew out a noisy breath. "How'd that go?"

"Predictably. Roger played dumb. I scribbled in the number of crates he delivered, initialed it, and wrote in the amount I actually owe."

"Mmph. You planning to call the company?"

"I am, indeed."

"Who else is working tonight?" she asked.

I smothered a sigh. Immortals had their own set of challenges as employees. Some didn't get along very well with others. It made crafting the schedule an ongoing dilemma. Of course, most magical beings loath Vampires. Somehow, I'd managed to move past that with my staff. The ones who couldn't suck it up were long gone.

I rattled off a spate of names. Ascent is a big place. We can seat a couple hundred, and we're often full. Full enough to keep three bartenders, a few circulating waitresses, and a bouncer busy.

I'd just turned around, intent on helping Ruby haul liquor crates from the storeroom to behind the bar when the fine hairs on the back of my neck quivered. "Did you feel that?"

Ruby slitted her eyes. I both felt and saw power shimmer around her, turning the air a delicate silver. Fae magic smells like wildflowers soaked in Irish whiskey, alluring as hell.

"Crap," she cried, dove across the room, and threw her body over mine. We crashed to the floor the same moment as the biggest of half a dozen windows exploded, shattering and littering my freshly mopped floor with a million bits of glass.

Fuck. Please let this be a random event and not my bar specifically targeted because someone figured out what I am.

"Let me up." I struggled beneath Ruby, but she's as strong as I am.

"Not yet," she said.

"But we have to go after whoever did this."

She rolled off me. "You're not thinking. What were you planning? If you sink your fangs into someone's neck, they'll discover what you are."

She didn't have to say the rest. Ascent would be finished once it became public knowledge a Vampire owned it.

"All right, all right," I groused. "But I'll be damned if I cower on the floor like a ninny."

Conan loped in from the storeroom, huge jaws snapping. Saliva spooled from his jowls.

"Ooooh. You're so beautiful," Ruby cried and tried to hug him.

He shook her off and glared at the busted window. "Who?" he growled.

"We don't know, sweetie," Ruby told him.

"Erm. Maybe we do," I muttered. "I did a fine job pissing Roger off. Probably cost him a few hundred bucks. And maybe his job—once I'm done talking with his employer."

Half of me had been expecting another blast until I looked around and saw the small boulder someone had chucked through the window. I got up and walked over to it. "Pretty low-tech," I mumbled.

"Sounding more and more like Roger," Ruby said. "The original low-tech dude."

A quick glance at the clock over the bar told me it was five thirty. "I'm going to call Northwest Sprits," I said, "and then I want to go for a little spin. You up for it?" I asked Conan.

"And if I'm not?" he growled.

"I'll take the car."

"With me in the back. You are not going alone." The wolf shook himself from head to tail tip.

"If you're coming anyway, I'd rather ride you." Licking my lips, I grinned at him. "Maybe we can do a little hunting."

"I hate mice," he informed me loftily.

"How about a nice, fat sheep?" Ruby squatted next to him.

"Don't," I snapped. "You'll get him all excited for nothing."

Him and me both. I was hungry. I hadn't fed for the last two days. Vampires don't have to eat often, but we do need food occasionally. Blood from living creatures was so much better than the horrid crap I pilfered from a nearby slaughterhouse. I had to do a whole lot of fantasizing to get morgue leavings down without heaving them back up.

Conan whined. My stomach growled.

To divert myself, I dug my cell phone out of a pocket, scrolled through contacts, and called Northwest Spirits. It was late enough, I didn't expect to do much more than leave a message, but the gal I usually order from picked up on the second ring.

We had a decent conversation. She at least sounded sympathetic. I offered to take pictures of today's delivery to verify my side of things, but she told me it wouldn't be necessary.

"Well?" Ruby asked after I hung up.

"I got the impression this wasn't the first complaint they've fielded about Roger," I told her.

"Interesting."

Conan trotted to the door. His brand of power made a whistling noise and smelled like rain-wet rocks. I wasn't surprised to see the Harley where the wolf had been. Silver and black, just like Conan, the bike glowed invitingly. Nothing like magic to dress something up.

"I'll get the door," Ruby offered. She patted the bike on her way past it. "Someday," she said, clearly angling for a ride.

"Tell her only you," the wolf said into my mind.

"I heard that, sweetie." Ruby grinned. It made her look about sixteen with her hanks of parti-colored hair. "Can't blame a gal for trying. I'll get a leg up on clearing all that glass away."

She raised her hands. Magic crackled from them, and the glass swirled upward, forming a column. Once it was all flowing the same direction, she cracked a portal, and the remains of the window vanished.

"Too bad replacing it isn't that simple." She made a wry face and cut the flow of magic still shimmering around her. "What do you want to do for tonight?"

"Plywood?"

"Works for me," she said. "I'll get the guys on it as soon as they come in."

"We should have enough in the back from last time," I told her.

Ruby let her glamour fade. For a moment, she looked ancient and furious with her red wings, pointed ears, and golden eyes with vertical pupils. "Mortals are scum." She spat the words.

"Not all of them." My words surprised me. Vampires don't usually stick up for humans.

She sidestepped my palliative observation. "I say we replace all the glass with something that doesn't break."

"Go for it."

"Really? Last time you said it would be too dark in here."

I shrugged. "I'm a Vampire. Dark is where I live."

I grabbed my full-face, metallic-blue helmet off its hook near the bar and straddled the Harley. Its faux engine was already purring. No keys for this bike. No fuel, either. Made it an ideal road companion. Nothing to lose, and no reason to stop. Ever.

"We'll be back by opening time," I told Ruby.

"No rush," she called above the escalating roar of the Harley's engine.

Like I said, Conan has a hell of a good time with his motorcycle imitation. He reminded me of a little boy going vroom-vroom-vroom as he slid a toy truck across the floor.

"Where are we going?" I switched to mind speech.

"Where else? Sheep hunting?"

Aw crap. "Um, Ruby was only kidding."

We skidded out the door and made a hard right into the never-ending flood of traffic on Mercy Street. Horns blared. I hunched my shoulders and ignored them. Like I could control Conan even if I tried. The sun was down. Soon it would be full dark. My fangs wanted to drop, but I held them back.

A wild, feral part of me longed for ascendency. I was sick of adapting to the modern world. Fuck all of it. For once—for tonight—it could adapt to me.

An enthusiastic woof deep in my mind told me my wolf was with me 100 percent of the way.