Chapter One

“Let’s all raise our glasses and drink to Lacy. If you’re up there listening, Lacy, we miss you more than words can say.” The young, tawny-haired woman standing on a portable dais in front of the massive stone fireplace sniffled and hoisted her wine glass in the air.

Before she tipped the glass to her lips, Cleo’s gaze found mine over the heads of the other mourners, and her eyes flashed the startling bright amber of a jungle cat’s. A heartbeat later, they returned to the golden hazel she presented to most of the world.

By most of the world, I meant the humans. As a lynx shifter, my friend Cleo belonged to a supernatural community that was supposed to remain hidden from anyone who didn’t possess their own magic. The woman whose life I was here at the Green Huntress Lodge to celebrate—Lacy—had possessed the ability to switch from human to lynx form too.

Cleo descended from the podium and handed the mic to a man in a black suit. He began speaking about a woman named Sheila, another casualty of the recent horror show known as Winterball.

I sipped my chardonnay while a sense of déjà vu swept over me. My heart swelled with sorrow. Aunt Sylvie’s funeral felt like yesterday… Now, here I was, mourning another woman. Two funerals in as many weeks wasn’t an experience I’d recommend. Hopefully, the universe would recognize I was over my quota and cut me some slack for, say, the next fifty years.

Step one in my master plan to avoid more untimely deaths was getting the hell out of Silvery Pines, Colorado.

As soon as the thought of leaving entered my mind and dwelled for longer than a few seconds, an invisible iron fist squeezed my ribs. I gritted my teeth until the pain subsided. Dammit. I’d started experiencing these episodes my very first night in Silvery Pines, whenever I resolved to get out of town.

If I didn’t dwell on the thought too long, I was usually okay. I figured the pain was either a weird psychosomatic disorder, or some magical entity didn’t want me to leave. Didn’t matter which. Courtesy of my stubborn nature, the fact that something was attempting to force me to stay made me even more determined to go.

Ten days. That’s how long I’d spent in the picturesque mountain town. Apparently that was plenty long enough for my life to get weird.

My aunt Sylvie had died, and after dropping my daughter off at the University of Georgia following winter break, I road-tripped it to Colorado to pack up Sylvie’s stuff. Only, upon Sylvie’s death, I’d learned that my beloved aunt was actually my biological mother. Sylvie had handed me off as an infant to her sister, the woman I’d called Mama for the last four decades.

Oh, and in case that family secret wasn’t big enough, Aunt Sylvie wasn’t even Mama’s biological sister. She’d been adopted too. That part made sense, as I’d never felt the connection to my parents or most of the family that others seemed to share with their blood relatives. I really was the odd gal out, right down to my DNA.

As if all that wasn’t fuel enough for a lifetime of therapy bills, within twenty-four hours of my arrival to this picturesque mountain town, I discovered that magic was real. Silvery Pines was practically crawling with vampires and other otherworldly creatures.

And if that wasn’t enough—I can’t make this shit up—I discovered that apparently, I, along with Aunt Sylvie, fell under the category of nonhuman.

I traced my index finger around the glass’s rim. Some people turned forty and got a radical new haircut or splurged on a dream vacation to Fiji. Me? I got a secret new ability enabling me to peel back the masks that disguised supernatural beings as humans and see the fangs and claws hiding beneath the surface. I would’ve preferred Fiji, but nobody asked for my opinion.

A bitter flavor saturated my mouth. If it weren’t for vampires, both Aunt Sylvie and Lacy would still be alive.

Cleo weaved through the mourners crowding the lobby.

Once she reached me, I pulled her into an embrace. “You did good.”

Still sniffling, Cleo clung to me, tightening the squeeze into a bear hug with her supernatural strength. “There was so much more I wanted to say.”

I patted her shoulder. Though I’d only known Lacy a short time, she’d treated me as one of her own. Cleo and Lacy, on the other hand, had been friends forever. Through their ability to transform into large winter cats, they’d shared a tight bond. One that I would never fully appreciate.

My new talents ran more toward the chilly side of nature. Somehow, I’d inherited the ability to coax snow to do my bidding. My power had come in handy more than once during my stay in Silvery Pines but wouldn’t get much use when I returned home to Jacksonville, Florida. Not unless I planned to hole up in a walk-in freezer somewhere, honing my skills on bags of ice.

Cleo finally stepped back. “It’s nice that the lodge hosted the memorials, don’t you think?”

I made a noncommittal noise. As far as I was concerned, hosting the grieving throngs was the least they could do, given all the people we were mourning had been murdered on-site.

The Green Huntress Lodge might be the picture of rustic elegance, with its wooden beams strewn across high ceilings, wrought iron chandeliers, and stuffed buck’s head keeping vigil over a stone fireplace big enough to roast a cow on a spit. I no longer cared. No amount of luxury was enough to wipe away the memory of the events that transpired here a few short days ago.

“I hate how we can’t talk about what really happened.”

“Shh!” Cleo gave a pointed glance at the nearby crowd before leading me to a more secluded spot close to the bar.

I took the hint. Letting it slip that the creatures that graced the pages of fantasy and horror novels surrounded us was more than just taboo. People had a tendency to act irrationally when faced with the unknown. If word got out that a group of rogue vampires calling themselves the Vampire Liberation Front had turned a fancy ball into a buffet line, chaos and terror would ensue.

Once we were out of earshot, Cleo settled into a chair and let out a deep sigh. “You and I remember. That’s how we honor her memory.”

As I sat, grief knotted in my throat. “I’ll never forget the way she leapt into action.”

A picture of Lacy’s bloodstained fur reared up in my mind. If not for her heroic effort to bring down Caleb Von, the vampire who’d led the attack, I might not be alive today. My daughter, Shay, might not be either, as she was next on his list. Lacy had stopped Caleb from carrying out his threat to kill Shay and me, just like he’d murdered Sylvie, and she’d paid the ultimate price.

Tears glistened on Cleo’s eyelashes, but her smile was bright. “Hey. Lacy knew the risks and did it anyway, because that’s who she was. Besides, you deserve props too. You protected all those people. What do I call you now? Ice Lady?”

I managed a shaky laugh. “You’re speaking to a mature woman here. Show some respect. It’s Ice Queen or Her Royal Iciness to you.”

My joking worked as intended, wiping the haunted expression from Cleo’s eyes. The knot in my throat loosened.

Cleo put her finger to her lips and jerked her head to the side. “Bobbi’s heading back this way.”

Sure enough, I spotted Bobbi’s strawberry-blond curls bouncing around her face as she barreled toward us clutching a fresh glass of wine. Even her typically effortless smile appeared strained. Unlike Lacy, Cleo, or me for that matter, Bobbi was one-hundred-percent human. I met her at the lodge on my first night in Silvery Pines, at the Green Huntress bar where she’d so boldly egged me on to flirt with world’s sexiest bartender, Roman. The wealthy Texan might appear intimidating in her expensive fur boots and vest with the perfectly made-up face, but Bobbi was all heart.

Thanks to a compulsion spell performed en masse on the human Winterball guests, Bobbi retained no memory of Cleo wrestling her away from a vampire. Like all the other humans in town, she believed the story of a psychopath armed to the teeth taking his aggression out on rich tourists.

I envied her ignorance.

Cleo patted the space next to her for Bobbi to take a seat. “How you holding up?”

Bobbi collapsed into the chair before waving off Cleo’s question. “Don’t worry about me. How are you two doing?”

Her question sent a fresh round of tears welling in Cleo’s eyes. “Shitty. I keep pulling out my phone to call per usual, and then I remember she’s not here.” 

I sank my chin into my palm and nodded. “I hear you. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about texting Sylvie.”

After a short silence, Cleo turned to me. “Still making your escape in a couple of days? No way I can persuade you to stay a little longer and work remotely from here?”

My job writing articles for women’s magazines allowed me to set up shop wherever my laptop was. The problem was, my laptop and I had no interest in sticking around. My laptop didn’t appreciate the town’s iffy internet reception any more than I enjoyed imagining the townsfolk turning me into their latest happy hour special. “Remember, I came out here originally to pack up the cabin. I’ve already stayed longer than intended.”

Cleo nudged me with her elbow. “Still planning to sell?”

Bobbi tilted her head as she regarded Cleo. “What will you do when the cabin sells?”

Cleo lifted a shoulder. “Nomad, remember? I’ll manage. I only crashed there when I came through town.”

“So…” Bobbi cleared her throat. “We still have you for a few more days, right?”

“Um, about that…” Now that I’d attended Lacy’s official memorial, I was ready to bolt. If that made me a coward for running away from my magical heritage, then slap some feathers on my back and call me a chicken. At least I’d still be alive to cluck.

I suppressed a shudder as memories flitted through my head. Screams. Women in ball gowns impaled on sculptures. Guests getting their throats ripped out by vampires as they ran for cover.

“No. I’ve got to get home. If all goes well with the packing, I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow.”

Bobbi wiggled her eyebrows. “Sure you don’t want to stick around just a little longer and try out the spa? Serenity gave me free access for the rest of my vacation.”

“No thanks.” Maybe my house wasn’t as swanky as the lodge’s spa, but the fact that it was a vampire-free zone raised its appeal exponentially. “You two knock yourselves out. Think of me while you’re sipping cucumber water and slathering your bodies in mud.”

Across the room, a familiar masculine profile caught my eye. My heart fluttered.

As if he’d sensed the weight of my stare, Roman turned. Our gazes connected, and for a breath, his magnetic eyes held me captive.

The Green Huntress’s resident bartender was objectively stunning, with beautiful bone structure, dark hair that fell in lush waves, and a muscular yet lean body that he moved with a dancer’s grace.

For a hot second after everything went down at Winterball, I’d considered extending my stay in Silvery Pines to get to know Roman better. I thought we’d shared a connection. As it turned out, the chemistry must have been one-sided. Ever since our brief interaction at the café the day after the massacre, Roman hadn’t said two words to me.

A transient emotion glimmered within the molten silver depths of his eyes. A flash of something, but quick enough to be a trick of the light. He took a single step in our direction, and my pulse accelerated. Then, he turned away, leaving me with a stellar view of his broad shoulders and a case of emotional whiplash.

Absently, I touched my cheek, remembering the way his fingertips grazed my skin. There one moment, gone the next. Much like Roman himself.

Too bad. After all, it wasn’t every day a girl met a mysterious creature of unknown fae origins who saved her from certain death. Especially not one who made a killer Moscow mule. Lurking beneath that gorgeous face was a tragic story waiting to be discovered. But I was too old to waste my time trying to pry open a book after the owner had glued its pages shut.

At this stage in my life, I’d come to terms with the fact that some mysteries were meant to go unsolved.

And on that note…

“Would you hate me if I cut out a little early?”

Bobbi jumped up from her seat. “Group hug first.”

I skirted the table and gave Bobbi and Cleo a big squeeze before slipping away to escape to the parking lot.

Outside, ice crunched beneath my boots. Mutinous clouds blotted out the setting sun and turned the sky a dreary gray, but they had yet to drop a fresh layer of snow. 

Old Reliable, my ancient white hatchback, sat waiting for me. I patted her hood. “Looks like it’s just you and me again.”

After I hopped in and turned the key, she roared to life, sounding almost as eager to escape the lodge as I was. Her headlights cast a glow over two shadowy figures crouching near the edge of the road.

I couldn’t make out their faces, but the glamour shimmering around them clued me in to their supernatural nature. I shifted the car into gear, and a chill rushed through me. The night of Winterball massacre, there’d been no way to distinguish the good vampires from the bad ones…apart from maybe offering up your throat and waiting to see who latched on, which was a strategy I wouldn’t recommend. A few of the killer vamps had likely fled into the woods and escaped. Could the shadowy figures be part of that group?

I tried to reassure myself as I reversed Old Reliable out of the parking spot. With their leader gone and so many of their posse dead, I doubted the rogue movement would be ready to hatch another murder plot anytime soon.

By the time I accelerated down the drive to the main road, the two figures had vanished into the trees. The uneasy sensation gnawing at my gut remained.

Not my problem. Come this time tomorrow, if I hustled, I’d be all packed up and on the road. Jacksonville might not be my favorite place, but at least there weren’t vampires skulking around every corner to remind me of my trauma. 

Chapter Two

Outside the Green Huntress Lodge, Desmond Bell followed Serenity as she cut a path through a thick grouping of evergreens. The dark clouds that gathered overhead blotted out the sun’s dying rays and brought the promise of snow. Despite the full parking lot, they were the only two out and about. The rest of the town was tucked away inside to mourn the recently deceased.

“You’ll find the main public access road along this same path we’re on.” Serenity slashed a sharpened nail to her right but continued walking straight. “The trees provide a natural border for anyone passing by car.”

“Got it.” Desmond had spent the better part of the afternoon in Serenity’s wake. Together, they’d traversed most of the lodge property, occasionally stopping so he could use his keen vampire vision to check the view for obstructions or weak spots. “Do we need to worry about unwanted visitors stumbling in during the games?”

“No. The Green Huntress is remote enough to ensure that only townies and those who’d planned to come out this way find us. The occasional cross-country skier who might wander too close can be dealt with easily enough…if they don’t freeze to death trying to reach us first.”

Desmond noted the dispassionate manner in which Serenity spoke of skiers freezing to death, as if humans meant no more to her than a trail of ants in her path. Good to know. Some of his former bosses cared more about the welfare of humans than others. Learning which side of the spectrum his new boss favored now would lead to fewer misunderstandings later.

They approached the trees where the Green Huntress drive exited onto the main public access road. Across the parking lot, the majestic log structure, the Green Huntress Lodge, welcomed them, promising warmth and fresh blood as soon as they returned.

“Are we finished with the tour?” After facing the lodge and taking two steps with no response, Desmond stopped and turned back toward Serenity.

Annoyance creased his new employer’s brow, and her silence screamed louder than any words she might have chosen.

He went still. Serenity had a reputation for being as dangerous as she was beautiful. And with her shiny raven hair gleaming with blue highlights, cupid’s bow mouth, and wide-set sapphire eyes, she was breathtaking. Desmond hadn’t worked directly beneath her in the past, but their paths had crossed enough for her to request him specifically for this role.

Accepting a position in Colorado in the middle of winter hadn’t been Desmond’s first choice, but the offer was too good to refuse. As with all things in life, the rewards were always greatest for those willing to perform the worst jobs

“Pardon me. I didn’t mean to offend. I’m still adjusting to the cold.” After giving Serenity a shallow bow, Desmond trained his gaze on the snow near her feet.

Luckily, he had plenty of experience in defusing tense situations.

Serenity wouldn’t be an easy boss to work for, but if he could make her—and by extension, her bosses—happy, Desmond would never want for anything again. Serenity was on the fast track to bigger and better things. He would benefit from her ascension…but only if he proved himself in this frozen tundra of no-man’s-land.

Without acknowledging his apology, Serenity started walking again. “We have two final stakes to plant.” She pointed a gold lacquered talon at a spot next to her boot, and then to the other side of the driveway. “One on each side, and make sure they’re parallel.”

“Of course.” Slipping the backpack from his shoulder, he slid a hand until his fingers grazed metal. As instructed, he planted one stake near their feet and crossed the mouth of the driveway, making sure the second stake lined up perfectly with the first before thrusting it into the frozen ground. “Are they ready to be activated?”

“Almost.” Serenity curled a finger at him. “There’s just one last thing I need before I can complete the spell.”

Headlights flashed from the parking lot, and for the first time since arriving in Colorado, Desmond succumbed to a moment of doubt. He wasn’t easily intimidated. Striking terror into the hearts of others often fell under his job description. Though, in truth, he favored the use of manipulation to procure his desired outcomes. But for a fraction of a second, as the car’s headlights washed out Serenity’s face, leaving only the bright blue of her eyes and the deep rouge of her lips in focus like some kind of malevolent apparition, the first hints of fear stirred in his gut.

His new boss wasn’t the type of woman one crossed and lived to tell the tale.

“Quickly.” She motioned him to follow as she glided back into the trees, her focus glued to the old, white vehicle reversing out of a parking spot. “Let them pass, and then I’ll tell you what else I need.”

Following her lead, Desmond skulked back into the cover of the trees.

Neither of them wanted to be seen. They’d chosen this time specifically to set up the perimeter stakes, believing most of the locals and lodge guests would be occupied with the memorial.

What kind of monster dishonored the dead by leaving early?

As if reading his mind, Serenity wrinkled her nose as she watched the car turn and drive down the road. “Cassidy.” Her lips puckered around the name like she’d sucked on a lemon.

“Someone of interest?” Desmond tracked the hatchback’s progress as it drove away. “Should I follow?”

A satisfied note warmed her voice. “No need. I have something more important for you.”

She emerged from the shadows, and Desmond followed. From the depths of her gray winter coat, she withdrew a corked vial. A shimmering liquid swirled inside, pulsing with a deep, ruddy glow as if backlit by invisible fireflies. “I need your blood.”

The uneasiness in his belly returned. “May I ask what for?”

Very few people possessed the power or knowledge to dabble in blood magic anymore. In fact, until this moment, Desmond hadn’t been sure it still existed.

Serenity must be older than he thought.

Older, and more ominous.

In a blink, Serenity’s hand snaked out and latched onto Desmond’s wrist. “Did I bring you here to ask questions or to assist me in the games?”

Desmond stiffened before relaxing the arm she clutched in her powerful grip. “Of course, my apologies. Please take whatever is needed.”

Calm, focused, and compliant. Those were the traits he was known for…and in Serenity’s case, it seemed those were the qualities that would keep his head firmly attached to his shoulders.

She struck quick as a viper, her sharpened nail slashing through his skin.

Desmond clenched his jaw but remained stoic, standing still as blood dripped onto the snow. Now moving at a snail’s pace, his boss uncorked the vial beneath his cut wrist. She squeezed the wound, forcing the blood to drain faster, watching his expression the way a hawk watched a dove.

When he didn’t break, she capped off the vial, shook it to blend his blood with the rest of the liquid, and patted his head like he was a golden retriever. “Excellent. I believe I have everything I need now.”

Desmond swallowed. She was testing him. Nothing more. Probing for any cracks in his façade, determining how easily he could be provoked. He’d been told that she valued a cool head and an even cooler disposition, and he would deliver. Once Serenity recognized his value and rewarded him, the Atlanta vampires might finally quit jeering at him for being too meek.

One needn’t posture like some alpha wolf to be worthy of respect, and deference to authority figures didn’t equate to lack of a killer instinct. With this position, Desmond planned to show the vampires back home that there was more than one path to power.

Meeting her eyes, he offered a subservient nod. “I’m happy to do my part.”

“Good. For the Winterfest Games to be a success, we’re all required to make sacrifices and contributions. Investors, residents of the town, and yes, myself included.” Serenity inspected the vial’s colorful contents as they swirled from crimson to silvery white. Genuine delight crossed her face, and the change held Desmond mesmerized. “And now, with your contribution, we’re finally ready.”

Mumbling something in a language Desmond didn’t recognize, Serenity walked to the farthest stake and poured a drop of the glowing liquid on top. Continuing her chanting, she repeated the process on the second stake.

As the liquid met the metal, a flash of pure silver light erupted, temporarily blinding Desmond with its brilliance.

Shielding his eyes, he blinked to refocus.

The light arced through the sky, branching into gossamer beams that stretched across the clouds like shimmering silk before touching down where the other stakes had been planted. Encircling the lodge, the lake, and nearby mountain peaks, the blood magic wrapped them in its luminous net before vanishing into the dreary, overcast sky.

The hairs along Desmond’s arms and neck prickled as if with static electricity, proof that magical energy lingered in the atmosphere. With that dazzling smile still firmly in place, Serenity tucked the vial back into her coat. “The board is set. Let the fun begin.”

 

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