Fox shifter Sadie Harris knows she’s in trouble as soon as she lays eyes on vampire Seamus Gallagher, and not just because he makes her weak in the knees. Years ago, vampires slaughtered her family and left her an orphan. But there are greater dangers than vampires.
When Sadie goes into mating heat, she attracts a pack of literal big bad wolves—werewolves—and Seamus intervenes moments from the wolves descending on her. Now the only one standing between her and being a toy for all sorts of evil things is the one person who makes her shake for a different reason.
Her grandmother warned her not to trust vampires. They always end up hurting you. But as afraid as Sadie is that Seamus is destined to hurt her, she’s more afraid of a deeper truth: maybe she wants him to.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2020 by Lauren Smith
Cover Design by Erin Dameron-Hill
The Bite of Winter excerpt Copyright © by Lauren Smith
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
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ISBN: 978-1-947206-81-6 (e-book edition)
ISBN: 978-1-947206-82-3 (print edition)
About the Author
Seamus Gallagher leaned weakly against the wood frame of the narrow bed where his little sister lay, trying to convince her to take a piece of bread.
“Take it, little one.”
She was only twelve, and the sight of her starving was breaking his heart. The farmhouse around them was eerily silent; the once boisterous sounds of their other family members were no more.
“No… Seamus…,” Kayleigh protested. Her soft, birdlike voice, the voice of a child, now matched her emaciated body. He brushed back the reddish-gold hair from her forehead, now dewed with sweat as her small body fought its losing battle for life.
“Yes. You need it more than I do. Please.” He pressed the loaf of bread into her tiny hands. He couldn’t lose her to the famine. Kayleigh was all he had left. He could survive anything if he could only get her to eat.
Her eyes were half-closed as she pushed the bread away.
“No… Kayleigh, you must eat.” His vision was blurring, and he blinked as he tried to clear it. Breaking off a bit of bread, he lifted it to the child’s lips. She chewed on the bread, but there was so little light left in her blue eyes.
Seamus’s cracked lips stung as he attempted to swallowed. Kayleigh needed water, and he had none to fill her aching, empty belly. He had no strength to walk outside to the well anymore. His own stomach burned with hunger, but he ignored it as best he could. Kayleigh was all that mattered. He could… He could…
The thoughts seemed to drift on an empty breeze. His head lolled against the bed, his fingers loosely curled around Kayleigh’s small wrist.
The door opened, and moonlight slowly filled the tiny room of his family’s little cottage.
“Well now, my dear one…” The silken voice crept in from the darkness, growing like gloom upon his mind. It was the angel of death, come to take them both away.
Seamus resigned himself to the coming darkness. He only hoped Kayleigh’s suffering ceased before his.
“Help…,” he whispered to the voice. “Help her, please.” He tried to glimpse the face that accompanied such a beautiful voice, but the shadows collected like vast cobwebs in the dark corners of the bedroom, making it impossible to see.
“The child?” The voice turned almost sweet. “You want the child to be saved. Not you?”
“Yes… Anything for Kayleigh.” He struggled to squint in the dimness to see who had come into his home. Out of the darkness, the speaker emerged, and his heart skittered in his chest.
A tall raven-haired woman peered down at him. She wore a bell-shaped gown of watered silk, the color of a frost-covered lake. Her bodice glinted with jewels that dazzled his weary eyes. He’d never seen such a lovely woman or such a lovely gown in all his life. He’d worked the land, slept many a night amidst the sheep and cattle. Wherever this woman came from, it was a world he’d never belong to.
She came closer. Her white-gloved hands lifted her skirts, and Seamus caught a glimpse of her dainty black boots and a slender pair of ankles. But it was her face that stole his breath away.
“You are an angel,” he gasped. There was no other explanation. The beautiful winged brows, violet eyes, and the flushed red Cupid’s bow lips were any man’s dream of a perfect woman.
“Angel? No, I am far from an angel, but you are sweet to think so.” The woman sat on the edge of Kayleigh’s bed, and Seamus was struck with the guilt that such a clean, fancy woman would be sitting in the dusty, filthy home he had been too tired to clean while searching for food for his sister.
“How old are you?” the woman asked him. She cupped a gloved hand under his chin.
“Twenty-five, my lady,” he whispered. His vision was blurring again, and he feared he would not be able to stay awake much longer.
“And your name?” She smoothed a hand down her skirts, studying him as though they might be sharing tea on a fine afternoon rather than in the ruins of his family home just after midnight.
“Seamus… I have a bargain to make with you.”
He dared not speak—he was too afraid this was all some starvation-borne delusion. Perhaps he lay dead on the floor already.
“Give yourself to me—heart, body, and soul—and your little sister’s life will be returned to her.”
He looked from the woman to the child dying in his bed. “I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, but you will soon enough. Now…” The woman’s sweet tone turned even more soft. Each word was coated in the sweetest of sugar. “Now, do you agree? You, in exchange for the child?”
There was no hesitation. He would do anything for Kayleigh.
“Yes. Me for her.” The words rasped from his parched lips.
The woman’s violet eyes darkened. Her pupils expanded, and the purple irises began to churn into a deep ruby red. She removed one of her gloves and then put her wrist to her lips. He watched in horror as she sank sharp little teeth into her own flesh. Blood dripped down her wrist as she then pressed her arm to Kayleigh’s mouth.
“Drink, child, but only a little taste,” the angelic voice crooned. Kayleigh’s eyes were closed, but one of her small hands twitched and then lifted to grip the woman’s wrist. The hushed, sucking sounds made Seamus’s stomach roil. His sister was drinking blood.
“What are you doing to her? Stop.” He tried to drag the woman’s arm away. Without looking, she grabbed him by his throat, holding him still while Kayleigh continued to drink.
“That’s enough now.” She removed her wrist from Kayleigh’s lips, then handed her the forgotten loaf of bread. Only then did the woman release her hold on Seamus’s throat.
Seamus exhaled, and the aching in his ribs robbed him of much of his remaining strength. “She won’t eat.”
“She will now.” The woman pointed a delicate finger at his sister. “Watch.”
He looked to his sister’s form and gasped. The light of life was bright again in the child’s eyes, and her pale cheeks blossomed with fresh color. The darkened circles under her eyes vanished. Kayleigh raised the bread to her lips and nibbled on it.
“Kayleigh.” Seamus’s heart burst with relief. “Are you all right?”
Kayleigh nodded, her eyes drifting between him and the woman.
“As you see, the child is better. Now, you must give me what I promised.”
Seamus lifted his head, tearing his focus away from his sister.
“I…” He swallowed, dust gathering in his dry throat. “Do what you will.” He could not find the energy to care about himself, not any longer.
The woman slid off the bed to kneel in front of him, not caring whether her skirts became dirty on the floor.
She removed her other glove and cupped his face in her cold hands.
“You are quite beautiful, even so close to death. How beautiful will you be once I have given you immortality?”
Her eyes swept over his face, boldly assessing him. He had felt handsome once, before the crops failed and the famine set in. But that was over a year ago. Now he felt ancient and bone-weary. A second later, his mind registered what she’d said about immortality.
She smiled, her Cupid’s bow lips parting as she leaned in to kiss him. He closed his eyes, now firmly convinced that he was dreaming or dying. But she didn’t kiss him. Her mouth brushed against his throat, and her slender hands, so cool to the touch, parted the neckcloth he wore and tore his shirt open. Her nails dug into his chest as she pushed him flat on the floor.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She crawled up his body, her skirts pooling around her and the crinoline petticoats bending against his body. “I’m taking what’s mine,” she purred. She rubbed herself against him like a contented cat. Then, without warning, she sank her teeth into his throat.
Seamus shouted in pain and tried to pry her off him, but he was too weak, and she was far too strong. His head spun as she sucked on his neck. He kicked his legs and clawed at her tiny shoulders, but she didn’t move. A few minutes later, he was gasping for breath, struggling to stay awake.
“Almost there, my dear one,” she whispered in his ear. Then he felt her skin against his mouth and warm, salty blood slipping between his lips. He tried to resist and spit the blood back up.
“Drink,” she ordered.
Seamus’s eyes burned with tears as he gave in. He couldn’t fight anymore. He stared up at her, helpless, watching his own blood drip from her mouth down to her chin. Her eyes were red, glowing with a feral, animal hunger. She was beautiful and deadly, and she was killing him. He felt his body dying around him. Dying and changing, like a rocky shore being eroded by the ocean over centuries.
As the seconds stretched into minutes, the acidic taste changed and it turned almost sweet, like rich wine. A hunger he’d never had before in all his life took hold of him, demanding he drink, that he satisfy his needs. He was strengthened by the taste and clutched her wrist to his mouth, drawing on her vein.
“Just a little more,” she cautioned, then struck him hard when he refused to release her arm. “Enough.”
He relaxed back on the ground, and then it happened. A moment later, his breathing just stopped. It felt like he was holding his breath underwater. There was pain, so much pain. The woman slid off him, licking her lips. He saw blood, his blood, still coating her petal-soft mouth.
“You taste divine, my darling Seamus.” A gleam of primal joy lit her face in a way that should have frightened him, only he had nothing left to be frightened of.
Seamus closed his eyes. His lungs felt as though they had turned to ash, and that was when he knew he was well and truly dead.
Several eternal minutes later, his body began to pound as waves of heat and cold moved through him. Then he heard it. The slow build of sounds—Kayleigh’s breathing, a distant cry of a fox deep in the wood, and the silence where his own heart should have been beating—filled his ears.
“Open your eyes,” the woman said. “Open your eyes and see me, Seamus.”
He did as the woman commanded. It was impossible not to obey. The compulsion was so strong that his eyes bolted open and he gasped, though not from any need to breathe. As he looked about, everything was sharper, clearer, deeper. He could see the very motes of dust dancing in the moonlight.
“What did you do to me?” Seamus asked. His voice was his, yet it wasn’t. There was an added silkiness to it, even richer than his voice from before the famine, before the starvation had begun a slow ravage of his body.
“What did I do?” The woman’s voice drew his focus from the changing world around him. She looked even more beautiful than before, and her voice sounded like a choir of angels.
“Yes, what did you do?”
“I gave you what all men dream of, Seamus. I gave you immortality.” She rose gracefully and held out her hand to him. “But immortality has a price. You belong to me now. You’re mine, now and forever.”
He placed his hand in hers as he got to his feet. But his body moved too fast, and he collided with her. She caught him, laughing, the sound like bells.
“Come with me. Let me show you the world. It all belongs to you now.” She tried to drag him toward the door. He nearly went with her, but the slow, steady sound of a beating heart drew his focus back to the bed. Kayleigh was still there, needing him to take care of her. How could he have forgotten? His death and now rebirth had almost robbed him of his only family, burying his memories of who and what he once was in a bath of blood. But he dug deep, seeking those memories out, protecting them.
“Wait. My sister…” He stepped toward the bed. “She has no one else.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Bring the child if you wish.”
Seamus lifted Kayleigh into his arms and carried her outside the cottage and into the night, following their mysterious savior.
“Everything is going to be all right now, love,” he whispered in his sister’s ear. She stirred and snuggled into his chest. She smelled beyond tempting, and the beating of her heart was a loud but comforting sound that kept the strange new thirst inside him at bay.
Whatever happened now, he would protect Kayleigh and care for her. Even if that meant obeying the beautiful angel.
And though she had mastery over his body and soul, he knew she held no power over his heart.
Sadie Harris groaned as the flight information on the big screen in the airport gate area changed from Delayed to Canceled.
“Oh God, you can’t be serious.”
The word Canceled flashed in red over and over, as if taunting her. A pit formed in her stomach as she glanced around at the other few passengers in the tiny regional airport, sitting in those dark-green thin leather chairs of the waiting area, watching for their plane to arrive. Now they began to realize it was never going to come.
“Shit, shit, shit…” She grabbed her carry-on luggage and her purse, following the other beleaguered passengers, who all headed for the gate desk. The female attendant stationed there offered a wan smile that didn’t promise any help as the passengers all jockeyed for a place in line. By some miracle, Sadie was first in line and stepped up to speak to the attendant.
“Hi, I just saw flight 208 is canceled. Can I get rebooked on the next available flight to Galveston?”
“Let me check.” The attendant pursed her lips as she clicked through screen after screen, and then she shook her head. “Looks like it will be a week before we have a seat open.”
“A week?” Sadie’s heart plummeted, and the pit in her stomach grew bigger. She didn’t have a week. Her heat cycle was a day away, maybe less.
Sadie was a shifter, a fox shifter specifically, and when her heat cycles came, she had to get out of town fast. Her scent would become irresistible to any other shifters nearby, and if the Yampa Valley werewolves caught her at home during a heat cycle… She shuddered at the horrific thought.
“I’m so sorry. Do you still want to book a flight?” the attendant asked.
“No, thanks.” She turned away from the desk and headed for the exit. Once outside, she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up over her head and shuffled past the other few cars parked in the airport parking lot. Dammit. What the hell was she going to do now?
When she got to her car in the parking lot, she called home. She and her grandmother Vera shared a cozy stone cottage at the edge of the Yampa Valley pack’s territory. For as long as Sadie could remember, she had lived in that house. She’d been only two when a nest of vampires had killed her parents. Sadie had spent the day with her grandmother, and when night fell and they hadn’t returned, they soon figured out what had happened. Ever since, her grandmother had raised Sadie with a set of rules to survive as a shifter. And the most important rule? When your heat comes on, leave town.
Vera finally answered the phone. “Sadie? Is your flight on time?”
“They canceled my flight, and the next one isn’t for a week.” She held her breath, wondering how upset her grandmother would be and trying to figure out what to do.
“What? Oh God, Sadie. Don’t come home. Just drive to Denver, you understand? Get to the city and rent a high-rise hotel room. Stay there until the heat passes.”
“Okay, I can do that.” Sadie drew in a deep breath, trying to ignore the slow building of heat beneath her skin. In a day or so, the need to mate would be so strong that she would jump the first male she saw. But a human was better than a werewolf. No werewolf would be sweet and gentle. They would use and abuse her and probably kill her when they were done. She had seen the body of another shifter once, a female who hadn’t been lucky enough to escape the wide-ranging Yampa pack’s territory when her heat cycle hit.
Years ago, Vera had brokered an uneasy peace with the pack. It was amazing what holding a shotgun to the balls of an alpha werewolf could accomplish in the way of diplomacy. One thing the pack had agreed on was staying away from Sadie, but when the heat came on, the scent was irresistible, and the pack couldn’t be expected to steer clear of her. Her grandmother’s age had protected her, but at twenty-four, Sadie was a prime target when the scent of her need was thick in the air. She and Vera both knew the werewolf pack risk the peace settlement to come after her.
“Call me when you get to Denver, sweetie. Be safe.” Her grandmother’s normally tranquil voice was tremulous.
“I will. I promise.” She started the engine and ended the call before she left the parking lot. She had a lot of ground to cover if she was going to reach Denver. She could get a hotel room, slap on a “Do Not Disturb” sign, shift into her fox form, and wait out the heat if she didn’t find a human male she liked. But if the heat got to her before then…
Don’t think about it, she reminded herself. Just drive.
But her gas icon flashed a warning on her dashboard. Shit, she couldn’t make it to Denver without fuel. She pulled into a gas station and started it filling up. Then she went inside the convenience store to buy some water. As she walked along the aisles, she realized she wasn’t alone. A man stood right behind her; his face was reflected in the refrigerator glass. She tried to keep calm as she faced Cyrus, one of the werewolves of the Yampa pack.
“Hello, Sadie, where are you off to?” Cyrus asked, his voice always a little too smooth.
She’d had run-ins with the Yampa pack before, and they’d teased her a lot, usually in a mean-spirited way, but they didn’t generally scare her except when she went into heat.
“I’m headed to the airport, got a plane to catch. Traveling for work.”
“I thought you wrote online articles,” Cyrus said, one russet brow arching. He leaned against the wall fridge so she couldn’t get past him. Then he slowly inhaled. She winced.
“I’m…traveling for research on this one. Can’t write about something unless you visit it, you know?” She turned to walk away, hating to give him her back and feeling exposed, but she had to get out of there.
“You smell real good today. New perfume?” He sniffed her again, leaning in close, and this time she realized the clerk at the counter was watching them.
“Yeah, great herbal shampoo, actually. You should try it,” she lied. “Well, it was nice seeing you, Cyrus, but I have to go or I’ll miss my flight.” She all but sprinted to the counter, slapped down five bucks, and ran for her car. As she got in, she saw Cyrus standing just outside the store, watching her. Then he slowly pulled out his cell phone and made a call. Her stomach knotted in terror. Did he know she was close? Could he smell it?
Sadie floored the gas pedal once she hit the highway, trying to put the miles between her and Cyrus.
She was halfway to Denver when the heat rolled in like a tidal wave. She swerved into the nearest public rest stop and scrambled out of the car into the woods. Once she was far enough away not to be seen, she fell to her knees and welcomed the transformation. Her bones and muscles shifted and contorted, and her body shrank until she was a furry red bundle trapped beneath the weight of her jeans and sweatshirt. The vixen inside her was now on the outside. The creature was now in control.
Sadie clawed out from the pile of clothes and crouched low, sniffing the air. Her ears twitched this way and that as she listened to all the sounds around her. A mole was burrowing deep beneath the roots of a tree. Several rabbits stopped nibbling plants as they sensed a predator was among them.
The vixen was hungry, but the need for a mate was stronger. She threw back her head and let out a shrieking cry. The sound echoed off the trees around her, but the cry went unanswered. Male foxes, not shifters, refused to answer. They heard the slightly off pitch to her calls and knew she was not like them.
A hawk landed in the branches above her. Sadie’s keen eyes studied its sharp beak and dangerous talons. Her focus took in the micro movements of the hawk’s eyes as he tilted his head, studying her back. A moment of mutual respect passed between them. Both were predators, but neither would attack the other. Not today.
Sadie padded deeper into the woods on her glossy black paws. The vixen knew the woods well and headed straight for a stream, where she bent to lap up fresh cold water from its edge. Tiny fish shimmered just beneath the surface, catching her attention. She abandoned her other concerns for the moment and pounced on the minnows, batting them out of the water and onto the rocks, where she ate a light meal, filling the hole in her belly.
The skies began to darken above as a fall thunderstorm crested the nearest mountains. Sadie started to head back to the car, but the heat struck her again, more powerful this time, driving her deeper into the woods, once more calling for a mate that did not exist at least not here.
The low sound of a wolf’s howl echoed off the trees from several miles away. Her fur bristled, and panic sent shivers through her.
The Yampa werewolves had heard her. The hunt had begun.
Sadie dashed deeper into the woods, heart pounding as she struggled to take control over the vixen. As a shifter, she was both fully human and fully fox, two entities sharing one body that could change.
The Yampa pack were much the same, only wolves not foxes. And while they weren’t the hybrid man-animals that were depicted in movies, other bits of lore were right on the money. At the full moon, the wolf took over completely, making them far more animal and far more dangerous.
The pack alpha, Ulrich, was a cruel bastard. Sadie had met other werewolves over the years. Most were noble men and women. But not this pack, and definitely not Ulrich. She had begged her grandmother to move a hundred times, but Vera refused to abandon her family’s home, despite the danger the pack presented. She was there first, after all.
A fresh howl split the air, and Sadie picked up her pace, trying to make it back to her car. The vixen didn’t want to shift back to human form, because they both knew the danger. If the pack caught her as a woman, she would be violated over and over until it killed her. If they caught her as a fox, she would be ripped to pieces. But that was at least a quick death. Sadie caught the scent of humans and food on the breeze. The rest stop wasn’t far if she could just—
A howl came from somewhere ahead of her.
No, no, no. They had found her car. She couldn’t go back there now. She changed direction and ran, trying to leave the smallest tracks possible. It was going to be dark soon. The longer she was out here, the more likely they would run her to ground. Another series of howls came from all around. She sprinted harder, faster, away from the calls, knowing she wouldn’t make it far at this pace.
Sadie evaded them for almost half an hour, but her paws began to ache and her senses were overwhelmed with the mixture of scents all around her. Some were natural, some unnatural. She reached a field and skidded to a stop at the sight of an electric fence. Her ears pricked at the faint electrical humming that was too high for humans to hear. She turned to go back into the woods but froze. Wolves were on the wind. Their sharp, dark, musky scent was impossible to ignore, and it came from all around her…except the direction of the fence.
Her animal instincts kicked in. She lowered her body to the ground, ears laid flat as she crept along, hoping to find an opening in the fence. She crossed a fallen tree, leapt above the safety of the grass, exposing herself for a brief instant. In that moment, she saw the wolves.
Ulrich, the alpha, was pure black with yellow eyes. His reddish-brown beta, Cyrus, was headed in her direction, and the silver-gray omega, Dracen, was moving away slightly. They all froze when she leapt above the grass. Then they started to run as one, a trio of unholy howls chasing her down the fence line. She panted and clawed at the earth. It didn’t matter what tracks she left behind now.
The crush of underbrush behind her was her only warning. Dracen, the quickest of the pack, tackled her. His jaws clamped down on her neck as they rolled over and over until they came to a stop in a jumbled cluster of fur and limbs. Sadie scrambled, clawing at him in desperation, but he pinned her down by the throat. He didn’t do anything except keep her pinned, however. He was waiting for Ulrich. Ulrich was the real monster. Cyrus was just as vicious, but Dracen was less so. He was almost reasonable.
The vixen wanted to scream, to cry for help, but Sadie seized control. Any prey-like sound would only get her neck snapped that much faster. The other two came into view. Ulrich growled softly, his eyes glowing as he licked his snout in eagerness.
Dracen gave her throat a squeeze, his teeth sinking in as a warning that she should stay still. Sadie went limp, her body sagging as she tried to feign defeat. It took every ounce of her own willpower not to let even one muscle twitch because Dracen would feel it.
Ulrich and Cyrus returned to human form, standing before her and Dracen fully naked.
“Well, well, well, little Sadie didn’t get far enough away this time. A little vixen in heat. Can’t say we’ve ever had the pleasure of fucking one of those before.” Ulrich snickered. Cyrus nodded as they both eyed her hungrily. The vixen growled, wanting to sink her jaws deep into Ulrich’s flesh.
“Dracen, change back and we’ll take her to the compound.”
Ulrich stepped toward them as Dracen loosened his hold on her and started to change. Sadie acted fast. If there was one thing she had an advantage on over wolves, it was her agility. She jerked out of Dracen’s loosened grip and shot straight toward the barbed electric fence.
The barbs cut her, but it was the thousands of volts of electricity that she really felt. The breath rushed out of her, and she hit the ground a dozen feet from the fence. It felt like someone had punched her so hard that her heart had exploded.
“Get that bitch!” Ulrich bellowed.
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