Sink your teeth the dark side with these two delicious paranormal romances by USA Today Bestseller Lauren Smith.
The Bite of Winter:
Zoey Blake is about as far down on her luck as she can get. A car crash took her parents, leaving her destitute and on the street. When she’s attacked by another homeless person, her lifeblood drains away as her fading vision is filled with the face of a handsome stranger.
Ian Kennedy, a century old Irish vampire, never could resist rescuing a stray. As a few drops of his blood heals Zoey’s wounds, he realizes she’s a sweet, tempting, flesh-and-blood woman. But there’s one problem. Connor, who made Ian promise decades ago: no more mortal lovers.
After another vampire murdered his soulmate, Connor O’Shea swore never to let a mortal woman pay the price for loving him. Until he feels Zoey’s skin and tastes her lips. She makes him want to break that vow.
Zoey finds herself caught in their web of seduction. But as Christmas draws near and her grief deepens, happiness seems far out of reach. And Ian and Connor join forces to prove their love is sacred, special…and forever.
His Little Vixen:
Sadie Harris doesn’t like immortals. After vampires leave her an orphan, she’s raised by her grandmother at the edge of a werewolf pack’s territory. As a fox shifter, she knows the rules about werewolves: Stay clear of the boundaries, never go out after dark during the full moon and take a vacation far, far away when she goes into her shifter mating heat or else she’ll attract literal “big bad wolves.” But when her flight gets cancelled and her mating heat is coming - so are the wolves. The last thing she expects is to get rescued by a tall, dark and gorgeous man…er…vampire. What’s a vixen to do?
Seamus Gallagher might be immortal but his life is full of mortal problems: he’s been framed for the murder of the woman his two best friends loved; he's on a mission to find and kill his sire; and, he has no idea what to do with the feisty red-headed vixen he just rescued from a vicious werewolf pack. He doesn't have time to babysit a skittish shifter who hates vampires, but when he looks at her, Seamus sees trouble. Sexy, sweet, and irresistible trouble. The last thing this vamp needs is to fall in love.
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The Bite of Winter
His Little Vixen
About the Author
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.
The Bite of Winter Copyright © 2017 by Lauren Smith
His Little Vixen Copyright © 2020 by Lauren Smith
Cover Design by Erin Dameron-Hill
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.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
ISBN: 978-1-947206-83-0 (e-book edition)
ISBN: 978-1-947206-84-7 (print edition)
So hungry. God, I’d kill to eat.
Zoey Blake gazed longingly through the diner window. Families were nestled in red leather booths, plates of burgers and fries spread out like a feast. The light from the diner beckoned to her, promising warmth and comfort. It was everything she wanted, and everything she couldn’t have.
The harsh December wind cut through her thin flannel shirt and whipped her hair hard enough to sting her face. Hunger swelled up inside her like an empty balloon. A moan escaped her lips as she tried and failed to ignore the pain.
A little boy in one of the booths reached with chubby hands to grab his mother’s milkshake. He sucked for a long moment on the straw before pulling back, a grin of delight on his face. Zoey could imagine the thick creamy ice cream and the sweet tangy taste of a maraschino cherry.
One of the cooks left the grill and walked toward the entrance, wiping his hands on his greasy apron. When the door swung open, Christmas music exploded into the street. The happy sounds reminded Zoey that Christmas was only a few weeks away. She used to love Christmas: the songs, the presents, the food…her family. She shuddered and buried the painful memories deep inside her.
The cook glanced down the empty street outside the diner and caught sight of her.
“You coming in?” His gruff voice momentarily distracted her from the greasy smell of food.
Zoey gulped and took an instinctive step back, her hands clutching the only real possession she had left in the world. A black leather portfolio. She’d tucked it safely against her chest, the leather barely holding warmth to her body.
“Sorry, I…I can’t…” She couldn’t say the words. Can’t afford it.
Even after a year of living on the streets, shame still heated her cheeks. This time, she welcomed it. She was cold all the time, even in the summer. Her jacket had been stolen the winter before, leaving her painfully exposed.
The cook’s eyes hardened.
“Then get going. You’re scaring off paying customers.”
Of course she had to leave. Heaven forbid he toss her some of the burnt burgers or even some moldy buns. She’d have gladly taken them. Far worse food had ended up in her stomach when she’d been desperate.
With a shaky nod, Zoey backed away from the diner and eased into the shadows where the restaurant’s light couldn’t penetrate. She just wanted to disappear. No one would miss her. No one would care. Everyone she had a connection with was gone. And it was all her fault.
Unshed tears formed at the corners of her eyes, and a shiver from the cold rattled her spine so hard it hurt. Self-pity was not something she could indulge in. But it was hard to ignore her circumstances when she’d spent the last month calling a ragged sleeping bag under a highway overpass home. Food was harder to come by than a decent place to sleep. The homeless shelter was half a mile away and always filled up so fast they had to turn away most of the people who showed up. They served only two meals a day with small portions since their food bank supplies remained low.
Her stomach rumbled a protest. She had to stop thinking about food.
“Damn it.” She put her fist in her mouth, stumbling back into the alleyway next to the diner. The ache inside bent her over, and she wrapped her arms around her waist, hugging herself as she prayed the pain would begin to dull. Finally, it abated, briefly, and she leaned back against the brick wall of the alley, breathing slowly.
A soft scuffling was her only warning.
Zoey’s eyes flew open. A man in rags and a heavy overcoat lurched toward her. A knife glinted in one hand, the blade flashing when it caught the glow from the diner.
“Hands up!” The man’s rotten teeth barely showed behind his thick brown beard.
Terror seized Zoey, squeezing her lungs until she couldn’t breathe. Her hands shot into the air.
“Wha…what do you want?”
“Your purse. Hand it over!” he rasped, taking one step closer.
Fear hammered against her ribs until she felt nausea and bile push their way up her throat. “I—I don’t have one.” She still clutched her portfolio in one hand, her fingers stinging in the cold air.
“Give me your fucking money!” His black eyes gleamed in the dim light. He could have been any of the men she’d seen at the shelter earlier today, only they were sad and broken. This man was something else. Something evil lurked in his gaze and mirrored the spark of his blade inches from her face.
“I don’t have any. I have nothing…I’m sorry.” Her hands shook as she took a tiny step to the side, inching away from him. Her stomach, once so desperate for food, now clenched as she struggled to control her terror.
“Don’t lie to me! Give me what you’re holding!” Flecks of spittle shot from his chapped lips as he lunged for her portfolio.
“No!” She stepped back, dropping her hands to use the portfolio as a shield.
The man held his blade with one hand and snatched at the black leather book with the other. With a cry of panic, Zoey lost her grip and the portfolio fell to the ground. Pages and photographs scattered across the snow.
“You stupid bitch!” The man snarled and dived at her.
Zoey tried to shut her eyes, but instinct kept her lids wide open. Everything slowed down. The knife slipped between her ribs inch by painful inch. He pulled the blade back out, the cold metal sharp against her flesh as he thrust it in again. Her strangled scream was drowned out by a passing bus.
Her soul seemed to coil up tight before shooting out like a firecracker, leaving her body behind. All the work, the pain, the loss of the last two years was over. Every second she’d cried, every second she’d picked herself back up, none of it mattered anymore. Her attacker pulled the blade back out and cursed before he fled into the street.
Zoey crumpled to the ground, one hand over her side. All around her the pieces of her life, the bits she’d held on to were soaking into the soil along with her blood. Hot liquid oozed through her fingers, warming them. Pain lanced through her chest with every breath. The world spun as she slid onto her back. The night sky above was lit with a smattering of faint stars, like a handful of diamonds strewn over black velvet. Her eyes burned with tears. Blood continued to pump between her loosening fingertips as she grew too weak to keep any pressure on her wounds. A tear welled up, thick and heavy, and eased down the side of her face. The trail of moisture chilled beneath the passing breeze.
Ice dug into her shoulder blades, cold and unforgiving. Invisible rocks dropped onto her chest, and a rattling noise escaped her as she fought to breathe. Her toes were numb and her arms too heavy to move. Muted laughter from people passing on the street seemed so far away. Would they see her? Did they hear her scream? Would they save her? The chill stealing over her warned her it was too late.
Too late for everything she’d never had a chance to do. A life unlived, a heart unloved, a soul alone.
Suddenly, the world around her darkened as a shape blotted out the winking stars. Glowing eyes, the color a wintery green, met her own. They pulled at her with the power of a sorcerer’s spell. The sound of her favorite winter song, the “Carol of the Bells”, began to echo in the air around them.
“Damn.” His voice was rich and dark, a luscious baritone that made even her dying body tingle with lethargic awareness. He held one of her sketches, the white paper looked so sharp against the black sky. His eyes moved from her to the paper, some strange emotion she couldn’t read flashing in his gaze.
The man looking down at her had the face of an angel, all angles and lines. His strong jaw, proud nose and bewitching eyes were framed with a halo of black hair from his head as he bent over more to look at her. The epitome of beauty. So handsome that she shivered. She truly was dying, and an angel had come for her soul.
He knelt down next to her. “I can save you. I only need you to trust me. Can you trust me?”
She tried to speak, and although her lips moved, no sound came out. Finally, she managed a jerky nod. Something deep inside her responded to his eyes. They emanated with warmth and the promise of safety shone from their depths. She trusted him.
Her angel did something unexpected. He raised his wrist to his mouth, bit into it and then put it against her mouth. She tasted blood and jerked away from his bleeding skin. A heavy scowl pulled his dark brows down.
“Poor sweetheart, just drink.” The Irish lilt to his voice made her feel warm, despite the pain and the chill that threatened to consume her. Something about him, being so close…everything inside her seemed to stir to life in a way she hadn’t realized she could.
A hand cupped the back of her head and held her captive while his wrist pressed deeper between her parted lips. Zoey gasped as the blood poured into her mouth and she was forced to swallow. The hand behind her head lightly massaged her scalp, the sensation wonderful and soothing. She relaxed into his gentle touch.
The tang of blood still coated the insides of her mouth when he pulled his wrist away.
“Easy, love, easy. You’ll be okay now. I won’t let any harm come to you.” He cupped her face with his hands, his eyes fixed on hers, capturing her attention. “You will have no memory of tasting my blood. Only that you are safe, you are protected.”
“Safe,” she whispered. She had no memory to explain the oddly metallic taste in her mouth.
The man stroked her cheeks and nodded to himself before speaking again. “Would you let me take you home and care for you?” His earnest expression was so sharp that Zoey believed it. He wanted to help her.
“Y—yes.” It was the only word she got out before she lost control of her body. Her lashes started to fan up and down and then fresh pain hit her like a freight train. She was barely aware of the man picking her up in his arms.
The sky above whirled, and the lights from the stars formed silver circles, like a cosmic Spirograph. She clamped her eyes shut as the man who held her leapt forward. The wind rushed around them, and her long hair whipped around her face but Zoey was lost in the aches surging through her body in tidal waves.
A second, an hour, a month, she wasn’t sure when they stopped until she felt them grind to a halt. The pain faded, leaving her sore and bruised. She surrendered to exhaustion, hearing the man speak one last time as she let go.
“I want to keep you, little one. Keep you and never let you go.”
Ian Kennedy stared down at the little woman in his arms as he reached his home. She was so light and he knew she should weigh more than she did. A wee waif of a body in ragged clothes. Pity stirred in his chest like a feeble bird with injured wings.
The night was quiet in the small neighborhood where he lived. No one was watching as he slipped the key into the lock of his home and entered. A gray tabby cat lounged on the couch, watching him with silver eyes.
“Lizzy,” he greeted softly. The cat let out a soft purr, her tail twitching. She was one of three strays he’d rescued in recent years, much to the frustration of his friend Connor O’Shea.
Carrying the unconscious woman into his bedroom, he eased her down onto the comforter and placed a pillow beneath her head. He grit his teeth when he leaned too close to her and the irresistible scent of blood filled his senses.
But there was more than that. Even dirty and unwashed, the scent of living on the streets didn’t repel his senses as they usually did when he crossed paths with the homeless while he searched for hosts to feed from at night. A tingling ache filled his mouth, and with a low curse, he tried to stop the inevitable from happening. But he failed. Twin canine teeth extended down, ready to sink into the flesh of his prey. The flesh of the woman he’d just rescued.
Ian took a reluctant step back. Space, he needed some space or else he might give into his temptation to feed on her. She’d be out for a few hours still. He’d used his innate ability to affect her body’s responses to him and gently put her to sleep. It was one of the few benefits of being a vampire.
Vampire. The word still made him cringe, but there was no point in denying what he was. He’d been alive for a hundred and ninety-five years and the older he got, the stronger his abilities seemed to become. Not only could he sway the will of most humans, he also possessed a potent ability to draw his prey to him.
This seemed to be common to all his kind. The glamour, as he liked to call it, was something every vampire possessed to some degree. Something like a pheromone, it drew human prey to them, made their victims susceptible to suggestion, to desire. And with him, it created a false sense of adoration in women. Ian rarely left the house until much later in the night to avoid being around crowds. The glamour often resulted in chaos and strange behavior.
The hollow pit in his stomach reminded him he’d been on the hunt when he’d encountered the young woman being attacked. Feeding was a priority if he was to be around her without succumbing to temptation.
It was obvious she was malnourished and needed care. And more than anything, he wanted to care for her. Too many years had passed since he’d looked upon mortals as something other than…
Shutting his eyes a brief moment, he saw flashing dark eyes, heard a woman’s laugh. He’d known great love for a mortal once. Lara. His body had never felt so…human since he’d been turned. But when she’d been taken from him, he’d lost that sense of life and turned back into the predator he was.
Which is why it was so puzzling that in only an instant of seeing that woman attacked tonight, he’d needed to protect her. It was as though in her moments of terror and her dying breaths, she’d called to him—much as Lara had when he’d first met her.
With a regretful sigh at leaving the woman alone, Ian headed back outside, taking only one normal step before his body leapt into motion. The high speed of his travel, yet another one of his abilities, moved almost too fast for human sight to track. Within a minute he was in an alleyway across town, outside the diner where the woman had been wounded. The alley was empty but littered with papers. The papers from a leather portfolio lay inches from a pool of blood.
Ian knelt and began to gather the papers. Each was either a sketch or a photograph, each was captivating. He stood as he collected the binder and the last sketch. It was one of an old man, his face wrinkled, his hands gnarled as old oak tree roots clutching at a blanket as he sat on a park bench. Sadness, regret, loss of memory, all of these were locked deep into the old man’s eyes. Whoever had drawn this had captured that, emotions Ian had felt every day since he’d been turned into a monster.
Something inside his chest stung and he gasped. That was odd. He’d never needed to breath before, still didn’t, but his body had reacted as though it had. And the little prick of pain in his chest felt familiar, but he couldn’t be sure what it was. He thumbed through the other sketches and photographs before he tucked them safely into the black binder.
“We never intervene except to feed,” Connor’s voice from years ago came back to him. “The mortals must live out their lives and we cannot intercede.”
But Ian had done just that. Saved the woman from certain death. Why? He’d been moved before in the many years he’d existed like this, but there was something about her, the way she’d protected these pieces of paper as though they were her very life. The way she saw things, the details she evoked, had been a shock to his system. Jerking him out of the seemingly endless night and forcing him beneath a sun, one that didn’t burn. There was only warmth here, a craving for something he lost over a hundred years ago.
A woman that made him feel like that? After so long? That was a woman he had to save, even if only to understand why she affected him like this.
“Connor will bloody kill me when he finds out,” Ian muttered to himself. He glanced around. A skinny blonde-haired waitress suddenly exited the diner’s backdoor in the alley to throw a large black trash bag into the dumpster. She stilled when she saw him, her eyes first widening, then slowly turning almost slumberous.
The damnable glamour was already at work. He might as well feed while the opportunity presented itself.
“Hello,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron and taking a few steps toward him.
Ian tucked the portfolio into his coat and zipped it up to keep the book in place before he started toward the woman.
“Hey there, lassie,” he chuckled, hiding the hint of his fangs as they slid out. A wee bite was all he needed.
The river ran black, like water over obsidian, rushing away endlessly. Connor O’Shea leaned against the bridge railing watching the water. His fingertips clung to the stone, digging in hard enough that it would have ripped his skin apart if he’d been mortal. But he wasn’t mortal, hadn’t been for almost two centuries. Hunger beat at his insides, hunger for blood. It never ended, the urge to track and feed, to prey on humans, a constant reminder of what he no longer was.
Inside the pocket of his coat, his cell phone buzzed. He let out a low growl. It was probably Ian. The man never seemed to know when to leave him alone. Once, long ago, they’d been inseparable, as close as brothers. But they hadn’t been that way for many years. Something was missing. He knew it. Ever since they’d lost their beloved Lara more than eighty years ago, he’d felt his body, his cursed soul, reverting to its monster state. He was on that slippery slope toward darker urges and he dreaded to contemplate what would happen to him, or worse what he’d do, once he stopped caring about life entirely. The words of Nietzsche regarding staring into the abyss came to mind.
If only I could jump, let the water consume me and swallow me in its depths.
But it wouldn’t end things; he’d only wash up on shore somewhere and be that much hungrier.
He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the dark thoughts. In the distance, the city lights twinkled, heightened by a hint of merriness he sensed even from the many miles he was from home. Christmas time. A season he used to love. Now it filled him only with regret, with sorrow and longing…so much longing for a life he’d been robbed of. Being immortal was a curse. Time was frozen, like an old broken clock on a mantelpiece. The tiny metal arms never moved, never let time pass another second forward, and always reminded you that you did not work as you should. You did not belong.
I only want to move forward. So simple a wish, yet he knew it would not be a Christmas wish he’d ever be granted.
Santa doesn’t visit vampires. He chuckled, but it was a far from merry sound. If I saw Santa Claus, I’d likely take a bite out of the jolly old man.
His phone vibrated again and he pulled it out. Voicemail. He hated cell phones. The damn things were such a nuisance. All the chiming, the alerts, the notifications. He hit play and put it to his ear. The message was from Ian, garbled and cut out, but the main part of the message was clear. Ian had brought home a woman for Connor to feed on, but for some reason, Ian said the woman liked to be frightened as part of the excitement. Role-play. Bah. It didn’t sit well with Connor, but if the woman needed it to enjoy being fed on, well, he’d oblige her.
He stepped away from the bridge and turned his attention toward the city. Time to feed.
Zoey was warm. So warm. When was the last time she hadn’t woken up to her own shivers? Weariness bled out of her, leaving only a pleasant sense of quiet, and she wondered if she was dead. There wasn’t any other way to explain the sudden change in her physical surroundings. She wasn’t in a hospital.
Forcing her eyelids open, it took her some time to adjust. She was lying on a massive, and incredibly soft, feather bed with a thick blanket wrapped warm and snug around her body. Like a human burrito. The thought made her giggle. She had to be dead. This had to be heaven. The last thing she remembered was the bright lights of the diner. Christmas bells ringing. The flash of a knife. Snarled words. Pain. Her heart pounded at an unsteady rhythm, and her breath quickened.
Breath? How was she breathing? And then it all came back. The man with the face of an angel and the voice of a sinner, the one who could tempt her to sell her soul for just one caress. Had he saved her? How?
Zoey’s hands started to shake as she remembered blood oozing from the wounds in her chest. Fearful, she tugged the blanket down and lifted her blood-stained shirt up. The skin was clear except for two small pink slashes between her ribs. Zoey pressed her fingertips down on the marks, testing them. They were sore, but they felt like an old injury, not something that would have killed her the night before.
Suddenly remembering she was in a strange place, she looked about the room, half hoping to find the man who’d brought her here. The bed was huge, its frame a dark wood, almost black. Despite the dimness, she could see the walls had lovely black and white photos of Paris and a few other places she thought she recognized. The crisp contrast of the photos was stunning and made her strangely homesick.
Before her life had fallen apart, she’d been studying photography. It had been her dream to live her life behind the lens, capturing moments for people. Weddings, baby showers, children’s sporting matches. She wanted to capture life in vibrant colors and a contrast of grays. Nothing would have made her happier than to take photos of the events that marked the milestones in people’s lives.
But that was gone, all gone. Her camera was likely still in some pawnshop collecting dust. Food and rent had been a priority, not her future. How long ago had that been? Zoey didn’t want to count, but it had to be somewhere around eight months.
She sat up, pushing her hair out of her eyes, and the memories out of her head. Had the handsome guy with the Irish accent brought her here? His whispered words came back to her, the promise to keep her safe and take care of her. She vaguely recalled him asking if he could bring her home, and she’d agreed. She didn’t think of herself as a weak person, but after everything she’d been through it was such a relief to think she might have help for the first time in forever.
She did feel safe. Wherever he’d taken her, she knew he wouldn’t let harm come to her. It was stupid to trust a stranger, but her gut had told her to, and she’d never ignored her instincts before.
The man who’d helped her had held her tenderly, gently, as though he’d treasured her. Maybe he was like a Good Samaritan, a handsome man who stopped to save a complete stranger. If not that, he surely pitied her, enough to show her some compassion.
She didn’t want anyone’s pity, but it was better than apathy. She wanted to believe there were still good people out there. After everything that had happened in the last year, she was afraid to hope. But it was almost Christmas. The holidays brought the best out in people. Usually.
If only she could stay in this bed forever, wrapped in the blanket with the peaceful quiet all around her. Too many nights at the underpass had left her nervous and tense while she caught a few hours of sleep. Zoey glanced around the room, checking for a clock, but there wasn’t one. The sky was gray through the blinds of the large window next to the bed. It could be evening or early morning, she couldn’t tell.
Beside her on the bed lay her black portfolio. She snatched it up, wincing when her sore muscles complained. The sketches and photos were all out of order, but neatly placed back inside. She barely remembered dropping it when the man had attacked her. Her rescuer must have gone back and collected all of the pages. More than a few were dried and wrinkled in places where snow had seeped through. Hugging the portfolio to her chest a moment longer, she set it back down on the bed.
She jumped when someone knocked at the bedroom door.
“Excuse me, love. May I come in?” That beautiful, whisky rough voice. Definitely Irish.
Her hands curled into the blanket and she raised it up to her chin. She felt oddly exposed as the man eased the door open and slid inside. Zoey craned her neck to look up at him. He had to be at least six-three, with black hair long enough to touch the collar of his shirt and a thin layer of stubble. He looked like a pirate off the cover of a romance novel. His white shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal muscled forearms, and the two top buttons were undone below his throat. She was struck by how large he was. His shoulders alone were massive. She had the sudden urge to touch them, feel the strength of the muscles beneath her palm. Her mouth ran dry as a quickening in her blood made her feel light-headed. He was a stranger; why did she want to suddenly kiss him? It made no sense at all.
“How are you doing?” He came to the bed and raised a hand to her forehead. His skin was cold, shockingly so, and she flinched from the contact. The man’s face paled and he pulled back. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. Just…cold.” Even though she didn’t want to be cold again, she’d suffer it just to have his hand back on her forehead. The whisper of a secret thrill skated along her skin, and already she missed his touch.
The man turned away and flicked on the lamp on her nightstand. The wash of gold light illuminated her mysterious rescuer. His face was just as beautiful as she’d remembered. Sharp angles and masculine perfection highlighted by dark brows above piercing winter green eyes. Faint lines bracketed his mouth as though he smiled often.
She met his gaze with a shy smile. Men like him never glanced her way, not even out of pity. Ever since she’d lost her home, she’d become almost invisible to the world. Especially men. A blush flooded her cheeks when she realized how she must look to him. Hair unwashed in thick oily strands, blood staining her flannel shirt and mud-stained jeans.
“Oh God, I must have ruined your bed!” She struggled to get free of the blanket and flopped like a fish over the edge. She braced herself for impact, but his arms shot out and caught her. She was pulled up and trapped against his upper body in a gentle embrace.
“Careful, love.” His eyes glittered with mischief. “Now, about your stomach. It’s been grumbling for the last several hours. How about I fix it for you?”
Zoey blinked, unsure of what he meant.
He smiled. “I could go out and get something for you to eat?”
“That’s really not necessary. I…I should go.” But she really wanted him to let her stay. At least for another hour. Long enough for her to preserve some warmth before facing the cold again.
He shook his head. “No. You’re not leaving.” His voice brooked no argument.
Zoey clamped her lips shut, happy not to argue. It was probably unwise to stay with a stranger, even a handsome one. But she needed a day, at least one day away from the cold. But she couldn’t forget his promise—she was safe with him. And as silly as it was, she believed it.
He strode to the door with her still tucked firmly in his arms. “Let me get you settled on the couch. Unless you’d like to wash first?”
Zoey must have made a noise, something to indicate how desperately she wanted a hot shower, because his chest shook with silent laughter.
“A shower it is, then.” He changed directions and headed down another hallway. He released her legs, letting her stand while he opened the bathroom door. A large glass shower stall was in the corner, and an even larger whirlpool tub was next to it.
She started to walk to the tub. “Oh, wow.” Maybe she wanted a bath first—a good long soak would be better.
“What’s your name?” The man’s question distracted her. She spun on her heel, shocked to find him shutting the door, sealing them both in the bathroom.
“Zo…” She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. “Zoey Blake.”
He extended his hand and she placed her palm in his. “A pleasure to meet you, Zoey. I’m Ian Kennedy. I live here with my friend Connor O’Shea and three cats, Titus, Cleo and Lizzy.”
Three cats? And a roommate? Maybe her fallen angel wasn’t into women. That would be just her luck. To be rescued by a god among men and find he was more interested in his roommate.
“Thank you for bringing me here, Ian.” She hesitated before finally asking what had been nagging at the back of her mind. “I was attacked by a man in that alley. I know I was hurt pretty badly. What happened? I remember you helping me…but…” She needed him to explain how she’d magically healed from something that should have killed her. The details of that were still fuzzy. The only thing she remembered was her lips on his wrist and feeling safe with him.
“That’s an interesting story,” he began, but her stomach interrupted. “I’ll tell you after you’ve cleaned up and gotten some food in you.” He winked at her.
Ian placed a finger over her lips, a quick smile flitting past his face, giving him a boyish charm. It also made her insides hum to life.
“Shower, food, and then we’ll talk. Deal?”
She agreed, albeit reluctantly.
“Good.” Ian reached for the top button of her shirt. Before she could stop them, her hands shot up, fingers curling around his wrists. She looked up at him from beneath her lashes. Even though his fingers were cold, whenever they brushed her skin an electric shock jolted her more awake. She wanted that jolt, that kick to her system more than she wanted to shower or eat. The blood in her body pumped through her wild and hard enough to rush against her ear drums.
Ian undid the first button of her shirt. Slow and methodical, he proceeded to undo the others.
“I…” His voice was hoarse. “I’ll get you something to wear. Go ahead and hop in the shower.” He released the edges of her shirt and turned away, exiting the bathroom. He didn’t shut the door behind him.
Zoey stared at the open door for several seconds before she came back to herself. A shower! She wanted to strip off her clothes and rush in, but she took her time, enjoying this as much as possible. There was no telling when she’d have the chance to bathe in hot water again. She toed off her black Converse shoes, peeled off her socks, unzipped her ragged jeans and slipped out of her underwear.
Looking over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror, she flinched. Her body was covered in grime. Weeks of dirt and muck covered her skin. With a shiver of revulsion, she turned back to the shower and reached for the polished chrome knobs. She cranked them hard, hot as they could go and waited until steam curled up from the gray tile floor. She stepped inside, sliding the glass door closed behind her.
The water burned. It felt so good, like heaven. She let the scalding spray wash away the dirt, but she felt something deeper inside being cleaned. The chill in her bones gradually vanished as she rubbed the masculine-scented body wash over her limbs. She couldn’t help but think of Ian, rubbing his hands over her body. Once she was squeaky clean, she turned to her hair, lathering it with the shampoo and then the conditioner.
There was a single razor sitting on a shelf on the back wall of the shower. It was a large masculine thing but Zoey snatched it up anyway. She wanted to look her best for Ian and smooth legs and underarms would help. When she’d finished, she simply stood beneath the spray, soaking further in the heat.
And then she started to cry.
Sobs choked out of her, fat tears leaked out and she rubbed her fists against her closed eyelids, trying to banish them. Exhausted, she leaned forward, resting her head against the marble, eyes closed as she breathed in slow, ragged breaths.
Her body hurt. Her chest expanded as she sucked in air and a twinge of pain came back to her. She touched her smooth unmarred stomach and chest again, trying not to think too hard about how she’d been miraculously healed. The faint pink scars she’d seen a short while ago were only pale pink lines. Relief followed the tears as she regained control of herself. She was safe, warm and clean. It was something to be happy about, even if it didn’t last more than a day.
The shower door behind her slid open, a trickle of cold air teased her, making her turn around. Ian stood just outside the shower, his jaw clenched.
Zoey could barely breathe. His gaze raked over her. Heat flooded her face, and she looked away. It had been over a year since she’d been naked in front of a man. She was naturally a little shy, but there was something about the way he looked at her that made her feel vulnerable, a feeling she liked.
Everything about this situation should have freaked her out. Did he want to have sex with her? Did he expect her to sleep with him because he’d saved her and brought her home? If that was what he wanted…she was afraid to tell him no. He held all the power here. He’d given her shelter, a shower, had promised food. Was she going to barter her body for the comforts she’d been deprived of for so many months?
Take a deep breath, she told herself. I’m in a strange man’s house, and he is gazing at my naked body with heated interest. That should scare the hell out of her, and it did… but it was also exciting. She wanted more. She wanted his hungry gaze on her, his gentle hands exploring her. Someone to care about her, even just a little bit, even just for a little while. As long as he was gentle, kind, and made her feel alive and warm and excited then she wouldn’t feel forced.
“Zoey.” He caressed her name, yet she could read the concern in those eyes. “I heard crying. Are you okay?”
She slicked her wet hair back from her face, then dropped her arms to curl around her waist.
“I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry.” She didn’t know why she was apologizing. It didn’t seem to matter. He was gazing at her mouth, a look of starvation on his face, one she knew only too well. With slow, measured actions, he stripped out of his clothes until he wore nothing but black boxers.
“Ian?” she whispered, a little anxious as he stepped inside and slid the door closed again, sealing them together in the intimate, steamy confines of the shower. Even as her mind cautioned her that he was a stranger, her body stirred to life in anticipation in a way she hadn’t in a long time.
“Let me kiss you. Just one kiss. I want to remember… It’s been so long.” Ian dropped his head until his forehead rested against hers. His hands came up to cup her face, his thumbs pressed against her cheeks.
Passion built up inside her like a warm, dark cloud. One that fogged her mind with visions of twining limbs, whispered sighs and sated pleasures. She needed this one kiss too, more than Ian did.
He lifted her chin and put his mouth over hers. It was a spark to tinder, and she went up in flames. A wildfire raged between their lips. More. She had to have more. It was crazy, insane, but she gave in and arched her body into his. His hands moved from her face down to her waist, sliding over slick skin. His palms slid up her back then down to her butt. His thumbs pressed into the flare of the front of her hips, his fingers dug into her lower back, pulling her closer. He feathered his lips, soft and fleeting before she whimpered in frustration. This was no time for teasing. A breathless chuckle escaped Ian as he spun them around to pin her against the marble wall of the shower.
His mouth assaulted hers, taking everything she gave him and demanding still more. He moaned when his tongue slid between her parted lips, tangling in fierce play. The hot spray of the shower struck Ian’s shoulders, thick droplets formed over his skin and Zoey fought the desire to lean forward and lick them away.
At some point, her legs were lifted and parted. Ian’s hands grabbed the back of her thighs. He pulled her up until her breasts were level with his mouth. She gasped in shock as his lips settled over one peak, sucking hard on the tender, erect tip. Her legs wrapped around his waist as she clung to him. Zoey’s eyes fell shut as bliss began to pulse and throb between her legs, the almost forgotten rhythm wild and frantic. She rubbed herself against him and the massive erection barely hidden by his boxers.
She jerked in his arms when Ian’s teeth grazed over her other nipple, pricking the sensitive skin.
She squeaked when he nipped at the underside of her breast. The zing of pain only made her throb harder and her core filled with her wet arousal.
Ian growled. His tongue flitted over one nipple before his mouth moved back up her chest to her neck. He nuzzled the side of her throat, teeth scraping over skin. His soft inhalation of breath was an erotic whisper.
“You smell so good, Zoey, love. I can feel your heat…” His words trailed off into a gruff curse when her stomach rumbled loudly. Ian sighed, resting his cheek against her collarbone.
Finally, he leaned back and let her slide down his body until her feet hit the floor.
Her body wanted to scream in frustration at being denied his touch, his kiss. “Why’d you stop?”
“I’m sorry, Zoey. I took advantage and it was wrong of me.” His hands seemed reluctant to part with her waist, but he turned his face away, eyes roving about the bathroom, as though determined to stay away from her. He was panting, apparently struggling to regain control.
His apparent desire to put distance between them, to take back what they’d done, hurt her more than countless days of hunger or cold. What he’d given her had been so wonderful. A glimpse of unbridled passion and a sensual exploration she’d never had the chance for until now. And he’d taken it all away with a well-intended apology.
“Please don’t say that. I…I liked it.” She couldn’t believe she felt comfortable enough admitting it. She followed her brave words with the cowardly action of wrapping her arms around her chest, hiding her breasts. His gaze moved back to her face and she was struck again by the lovely green of his eyes. She’d never seen such a pure color. She’d have happily stared into those eyes forever and never want anything more, except for another kiss. She’d sell her soul and bargain away her heart for a touch of those lips on hers.
“I know. But it was wrong. You don’t owe me anything. You’re free to stay here until…until we can get you back on your feet. I’ll leave something on the counter for you to wear. Don’t worry if I’m gone when you get out. Settle on the couch and rest up a bit.”
He cupped her chin and leaned down for a kiss, and it was anything but chaste. How could he pack so much erotic promise in one little kiss?
When he stepped back, her body screamed in protest, but she didn’t stop him as he slid open the shower door and stepped out. Water pooled around his large feet onto the small bath rug. He reached behind himself and closed the shower door, putting the fogged glass between them as he strode away.
The corners of her mouth pulled up in a smile. Ian. She liked him more than she should and she didn’t know him at all. Except that he could kiss like a dream and not just on her mouth. Her cheeks flamed and she stifled a breathless giggle as she remembered the way he’d fit his mouth to her breasts, sucking and tugging on each nipple with hungry insistence. Each pull on her breast sent a trail of fire straight to her clit. The memory had her aching all over again.
Frustrated, she washed between her legs, but it wasn’t much use; she stayed aroused as she stepped out of the shower. She toweled off and blinked in shock when she noticed the folded white shirt sitting on the counter. Surely, he brought something else to wear. Why hadn’t he brought pants?
Zoey buried her face in her hands, massaged her cheeks and sucked in a deep breath before blowing it out. She’d practically had sex with Ian in the shower. Maybe her reaction to him gave him the impression she was easy. She was mortified about how her inner moral compass seemed quite happy to ignore all this. Searching the drawers for a comb, she found a black brush instead, and quickly untangled her wet hair.
Clean. Finally clean. It felt so damn wonderful. This time, when she raised her eyes to the mirror, she saw herself. A plain Jane with chestnut hair and brown eyes. But at least it was her, not some homeless, grimy, smelly creature. No one really understood what it was like to lose themselves to a life on the streets. A person lost their identity when they lost their home, work, money, and family. All of it had vanished in a year and it had changed her forever. Yet now she could glimpse Zoey Blake again, even if her face was a little gaunt, her eyes a little sunken. She was still there somewhere.
Zoey picked up the white shirt left on the counter and slid her arms into the sleeves. It had to be one of Ian’s. It hung down to her mid-thighs and her hands vanished in the long sleeves. She rolled them up until she could find her wrists. Outside the bathroom, she heard a distant door slam.
“Ian!” Her heart leapt as she ran to the open the bathroom door. Her smile vanished when she stared up into another man’s face. Just as attractive, yet the opposite of Ian, with golden hair and dark eyes, looking more innocent. Yet Zoey could tell he was far from that. Something kicked her hard, raw animal desire for this complete stranger… It was just like when she’d first watched Ian cross the bedroom and come to her—an irresistible need to kiss him, to curl her arms around his neck and offer herself to him in every wicked way she desired. Vaguely she realized something was wrong with her, if she was reacting so irrationally to these two strangers.
The man’s lips parted, and he snarled, his canines long and menacing, like fangs.
“Such a succulent feast for dinner? Ian shouldn’t have…” The man licked his lips and reached for her.
Zoey couldn’t even summon a scream. The man was like some kind of Viking warrior with bronzed gold hair and honey brown eyes that promised wicked sins and wild abandon. His lips peeled back in a feral smile that reminded her of those old Bela Lugosi vampire movies. His massive shoulders blocked any exit from the bathroom and his dilated pupils forced her to step back. An unexpected wave of desire swept through her to run her hands up the length of his chest, digging her nails into him while she kissed a path up to his mouth.
“You’re not Ian,” managed to come out of her mouth, though barely above a croaked whisper.
“Sorry to disappoint. He brought you here for me. I promise once we get started you won’t miss him.” The man’s face, while handsome, was somehow cold and frightening. His eyes stilled her in place like a frightened hare coming face to face with a timber wolf. Even though she was afraid, she still had that ridiculous urge to jump into his arms and beg for a kiss.
What is wrong with me?
“Please don’t…” Zoey wasn’t sure what she was asking, but anything else she might have said was silenced when the man seized her and jerked her into him. She collided with his broad chest, feeling the hard muscles against her breasts through the thin protection of his shirt and hers.
“Let me kiss you, love. Just say no if you don’t want a taste.” He licked his lips.
She knew she should deny him, but she wanted that kiss, as stupid and illogical as it was.
She nodded. “Yes.”
One large palm moved up to hold her by the back of her neck as he dropped his head, taking her mouth with his. His other moved down her back to shape the curve of her ass. He clenched it tight as he bit her bottom lip and invaded her mouth.
Her body went off like a pail full of Black Cat fireworks. She couldn’t contain the moan of pure drugged pleasure and the wild urge to let him do whatever he wished to her. His tongue dueled with hers for dominance, and she quickly, willingly surrendered. When he coaxed her to enter his mouth, her tongue flicked against his fangs.
The fog that flooded her brain when he’d started to kiss her was temporarily penetrated with a beam of clarity, like sunlight streaking through morning mist. He had fangs… She should be afraid that he was…was…what was he? Zoey fisted her hands now trapped against his chest and tried to push him back. She failed. He growled against her lips and then released her. His chest moved with rapid breaths and for some reason that eased her mind, if only for a second.
“You want to be scared? I can scare you.” His voice had lost its gruffness. He was all silk and seduction now.
She leaned one hand against the bathroom counter, trying to steady herself. Her legs insisted on buckling after that mind-numbing kiss. “What?”
“Run,” he snarled. “Run and hide or I’ll rip your pretty little throat out!”
Light gleamed against the stark white of his fangs and Zoey didn’t hesitate. She shoved past him and fled the bathroom. Her instincts finally took over and shook off the remnants of that insane arousal he’d spiked her body into moments before. She bolted down the hall toward the front door but he was suddenly there at the far end of the room, arms crossed, blocking the door.
“That’s not how this game works, pet. You run, I catch you. Then I feed and we fuck.”
Zoey stared at him from across the room as she tried to process his words.
“Feed and…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the other word. It was so coarse, so raw, so…primal. She was torn between fear of what his fangs suggested and desire for what he was offering. Sleeping with him would be beyond anything she’d ever experienced. The riotous shivers rippling through her weren’t from terror, but pure lust.
The man cocked one eyebrow and gestured for her to move. “Run. Now.”
She didn’t understand what was happening, or why he was doing this to her but she didn’t want to stick around and find out. It was obvious her body was ready to betray her and encourage her to sleep with both this man and Ian. However, that was not what her brain wanted her to do so she had to escape before he got too close again. That sexy mojo he seemed to ooze that made her unable to think past her libido.
There were other rooms, rooms that had windows. If she could just get to one and get outside, she’d find someone to call for help. Zoey picked the first door she came to and slammed it shut behind her. She flicked the lock into place. She darted over to the window and shoved up against the window sill. It didn’t budge. She hissed in frustration, fists smacking against the glass. There wasn’t time to bust through the window. Zoey whirled around, hastily scanning the room. Hiding under the bed? Not an option. The closet? Also not an option. She stared at the locked door and her heart leapt into her throat, lodging there as the knob jiggled.
“Come on, pet. Don’t make me break the door. It is my bedroom after all,” the man on the other side teased. He had an Irish accent as well. Was this Ian’s friend Connor? She hoped not. Otherwise she’d have to warn Ian his friend was…was a…
“Okay, I’m losing it,” she muttered. “He can’t be a vampire. That’s just ridiculous.” Her eyes zeroed in on the still jiggling doorknob.
The man chuckled low from the other side of the door. “Not as ridiculous as you think.”
Zoey gasped. The knob suddenly stopped moving, and the lock slowly twisted. She threw herself at the door, hands gripping the lock, fighting to keep it in place. It was a battle she knew she’d lose, even as her fingers screamed against the metal, biting into it as the door pushed inward.
“No!” She dug in her heels, using her body’s weight to keep the door shut, but the man simply knocked it open. Zoey stumbled backward and fell against the large bed. The man stood in the doorway, the light from the hall turning him into an ominous silhouette of strength and danger.
“Scared enough?” His question caught her off guard but when he advanced another step, she screamed.
She scrambled backward over the comforter, sinking deep into the downy softness, giving him all the time he needed to pounce. He gripped her ankles and tugged. She fell onto her back as he dragged her toward him. Ian’s large white shirt rode up to her hips and she thrashed, fighting for her life. She expected him to force her legs apart and mount her.
Instead, he drew her legs together, his touch tender but firm, winding one arm around her calves and holding her still as he climbed onto the bed next to her. Zoey pushed up on her elbows, breathing hard as he leaned over her. She wasn’t sure how long they stared at each other. The room was dark but his eyes seemed to channel what little light there was. The burnt sienna depths ensnared her, held her prisoner. His palm tightened on her calves and then after a moment loosened.
He slid his hand up her outer left thigh under the dress shirt. “I don’t like it when you’re afraid of me,” he whispered. “Ian said to scare you, but…I don’t care for it.” He seemed to be talking to himself more than her. “The last thing I want is to frighten you or take you against your will.” His words cut through the rising fear and instead brought back that insane arousal she didn’t understand.
“Tell me now, little one, do you not want me to touch you?”
The hand beneath her shirt moved in slow circles over her hip, then her belly, his fingers drifting closer to her mound. Her entire body surrendered to the violent shaking that rippled through her. The gentle sensuality of his touch thrilled her, and the fear that had mounted in her seemed to ebb away. He didn’t want to scare her. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt her either.
“I…I don’t not want you to touch me,” she admitted, unable to actually say she wanted him. It was close enough, and the way his eyes glittered, she knew he understood what she meant. She remembered something he’d said earlier. “Scare me? Why would Ian want to scare me?” Where she’d found the strength to speak, she didn’t know.
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