The tales of the mansion near Nika’s remote Russian village say that its lord drinks blood to live and that the guards are dead men walking, but that doesn’t stop Nika from falling for one of them—a man who seemingly hasn’t changed in twenty years, a man she wishes would be hers. One snowy spring night, her world and his collide when she is attacked by wolves and he rides in on a black horse to rescue her. But her knight in shining armour is far from saintly. He is a vampire, and she is becoming a werewolf, and love between such species is forbidden—the penalty death.
Winter is a commander of the Validus, the most powerful vampire bloodline in Europe. Faithful to his family and his lord since his turning one thousand years ago, he follows the law to the letter and places duty above all else, but his resolve is about to be tested in the most painful way and his world shaken beyond salvation. The girl he watched grow into a woman, a woman who has stolen his heart, is now a werewolf and his dream of making her his has been shattered. Only vengeance can be his now or the Law Keepers will hunt him down and kill both him and Nika.
But Winter’s plan to take Nika home to her family only leads to her witnessing the destruction of her village and the death of her father at the hands of the werewolf trying to claim her, and Winter finds that he can’t leave her. His heart demands that he protects Nika from the werewolf, Willem, by killing him and that he finds her a new home, somewhere she will be safe without him, for he must even protect her from himself. But Nika tempts him more than he can bear and it isn’t long before he finds himself treading the knife’s edge between upholding the law and succumbing to desire.
Nika does everything in her power to convince Winter to stay with her, to go against the laws and risk death, but in the end will she have done enough? When they reach the last bastion of the werewolves, will Winter leave her with her kin? Will the nights they spend together change his heart and his mind, or will she spend eternity dreaming of Winter’s kiss?
THE VAMPIRES REALM STORIES ALL STAND ALONE AND DO NOT NEED TO BE READ IN ORDER. THEY ARE LINKED ONLY BY THE WORLD IN WHICH THEY ARE SET. IF YOU ENJOY THIS STORY, BE SURE TO READ THE OTHERS TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS DARK AND PASSIONATE WORLD.
Purchase Winter's Kiss by F E Heaton
A scream rent the still night air.
Winter raised his head. The brush in his right hand paused against his horse’s sleek black flank. He frowned, calculating the distance from where he stood in the stable courtyard to the person who had shrieked. The human female voice could carry for miles on nights as calm as tonight. If she screamed again, he would be able to pinpoint her location to within one hundred metres.
A Watchman of the Validus bloodline, Winter had spent years honing his skills in tracking, hunting and killing to the highest echelon of perfection. They gave him the ability to ascertain that whoever the victim was, she was over three miles away.
He returned to his work, lovingly stroking the huge beast’s glossy coat and murmuring soothing words to him. It had been too long since he’d had the chance to ride. The rotation of duties within the household and Hyperion’s plan to spread their empire wider across Europe had left him with longer shifts at the gate. It was an honour to protect his lord, but long nights spent braced against the freezing winds that scathed the landscape in this part of Russia were tiring and left him little time before dawn to ride. His eyes closed. Honour wasn’t the only good thing to come of standing guard from sunset to sunrise.
He saw her more often.
An image of her flashed across Winter’s mind. Pale blonde hair hanging in waves down her back. Sparkling green eyes that glittered under the moonlight. A cherub’s rosy lips that promised sweet kisses and an imp’s smile that spoke of mischief. That image had branded itself on his mind the first night he had seen her as an adult. Every night that she passed and looked at him out of the corner of her eye, she burned her face a little deeper into his heart.
His horse kicked impatiently at the floor, scratching the scattered hay away from the dirt and leaving a long groove.
Winter patted Midnight tenderly on the neck and placed the brush down. Gathering the large black saddle, he positioned it on the horse’s high back and let his thoughts wander while he buckled the straps.
They instantly roamed back to her. Many years had passed since Winter had first seen her. She had been a little girl then. Now she had become a beautiful woman. Perhaps soon she would find the courage to speak to him for longer. She had stopped a few times, always singling him out even though his black armour covered him from head to toe, leaving only the section across his eyes exposed. She had spoken to him tonight, asking him why he wore armour and guarded the mansion. He hadn’t answered her. He had no place talking to humans when he was on duty.
There had been a beautiful lack of fear about her. Not even the sight of the naginata that he and the other Watchman held bothered her. Perhaps one day he could turn her. He cursed under his breath and tightened the last strap on the saddle. Those were not thoughts that he should be entertaining. His loyalty was to his lord and his bloodline first and foremost. He had a debt to repay. Once he felt as though he was worthy of asking his lord for permission to court the girl, he would, but until then he had a duty to do.
And that duty came first.
No matter what his feelings for her were.
A ride would clear his head.
A wolf howl sliced through the night.
Winter tensed and instinctively brushed his long heavy black cloak aside and reached for the sword hanging at his side. His fingers closed around the hilt as he calculated the distance to the howl.
Was the wolf after the woman?
Another scream shattered the returning silence. This time, it was a word.
Winter’s eyes shot wide, an emotion rushing into his heart that he hadn’t felt in long years. Fear. The girl. He would know her voice anywhere.
With the preternatural speed and grace of his kind, Winter mounted the horse and bolted straight for the stable entrance. Midnight thundered forward, hooves pounding the dirt in a sure confident gallop. The gates barely had time to open as they approached. Winter tucked into the horse, bringing his feet up behind him along with the stirrups. The half-open wrought iron gates brushed his knees as they raced through, almost knocking the guards over.
Someone shouted something abusive in his direction.
He didn’t have time to slow down. The moment they had turned onto the road, he urged Midnight on, lowering his feet again but leaning forwards against its neck. It stretched forwards too, mimicking his move and galloping harder as though it had sensed his desperation.
The bottom of Winter’s chest armour dug into his hips as he rode. His long cloak streamed out behind him. The light flurry of snow became bitter darts of ice that cut into his eyes, forcing him to squint. He changed, his eyes turning purple to reveal his bloodline as his senses sharpened. The thundering hooves of his horse were the only sound in an otherwise still world. Winter snapped the reins. Midnight snorted and galloped faster, heading directly for the woods with no sign of slowing.
Winter willed the woman to make another noise, or the wolves to break their silence. He needed to get a fix on their location but it wasn’t only that driving him to beg the woman to shout or scream. He needed to know that she was still alive.
He hunkered down against his horse’s neck when they entered the thick forest of pines. Snow exploded from the branches as they crashed through them, heedless of the pain it caused them both. His armour would protect him from the whip-like branches of the trees, and his horse, Midnight, would go wherever he bid him to, regardless of whether it hurt.
A branch hit Winter directly across the black leather and metal mask covering his nose and mouth. It smacked the armour against his nose and forced a flinch from him as pain shot out in warm waves across his skull. He turned Midnight to his right and towards a more open area of forest. While the pain didn’t bother him, it would dampen his senses and he needed those as sharp as possible.
He pulled Midnight to a halt in a clearing and scanned the darkness, stretching out with his senses and searching for her. The wintry weather hadn’t managed to penetrate the dense trees and the ground was clear of snow, leaving him without a visible trail to follow. He breathed deep, catching a faint hint of her scent on the breeze. She had been here. He cursed. Where was she now?
Was she dead?
Had the wolves killed her already?
That thought made a dull ache settle in his chest. Winter refused to believe it. He wouldn’t believe it until he saw her body for himself. Another deep breath caught a stronger scent. A growl rumbled up through his chest.
His eyes narrowed into dark slits between his black helmet and facemask. He stared into the distance as one hand left the reins and closed around the hilt of his sword. Blood would spill tonight. Not only because werewolves had dared to enter Validus territory. If they had killed her, no, if they had even touched her, they would die by his hand.
A distant scream reached his ears.
He pulled on Midnight’s reins.
Midnight reared onto his hind legs, whinnied and then broke into a gallop. Winter sneered behind his facemask, his blood calling for violence.
* * * *
Nika walked the quiet winding path through the woods, wishing she had chosen to wear her thicker coat. Thick fake fur lined the long black coat she wore and it would have been warm enough under normal circumstances in late spring, but tonight was bitterly cold and the icy wind was searching, discovering cracks and places it could sneak into the coat and chill her to the bone. It was strange to have such wintry weather this side of spring. When she had left, the weather had been pleasant enough, and the snow had melted. Now it had come back with a vengeance. She had hoped the weather would be warm and sunny by the time she had returned from the city.
She folded her arms across her chest, trying to keep a little heat in. Her coat and dress reached the floor, both grazing the leaf litter and twigs that covered the path. The wind found its way into there too and blew upwards, snaking around her legs and sending her shivering. Her honey hair blew across her face as she turned and she clawed it away, thankful she’d had the good sense to take two long strands from beside her temples and plait them before tying them at the back of her head. It kept the bulk of her hair in place but left the long strands from that point downwards to dance in the breeze.
At least the snow couldn’t make it through the trees.
Nika hummed quietly to herself while she walked, thinking about how nice it would be to arrive home and sit down in front of the fire. The thought of that warm blaze made the cold feel distant. She wasn’t far from the village now. Soon she would be safe in her family’s home, out of the frigid night and bleak woods. It felt like months rather than weeks since she had gone away to St. Petersburg. A smile touched her lips when she recalled walking past the mansion. He had been on guard duty again, silent and sentinel outside the gate with another man. She knew it was him. Those beautiful dark eyes had spoken to her as they always did, telling her words that her heart loved to listen to. He never looked at her, but there was always a strange emotion in his eyes when she stopped in front of him. The cold emptiness that used to fill them disappeared, leaving what her heart interpreted as warmth behind.
She didn’t know who he was, or even what he looked like beneath his armour, but she knew one thing. She wanted no other man in this world.
Her heart lightened as memories of him came back, always protecting the gates of the large mansion. On the few occasions that she had plucked up the courage to speak to him, he had never uttered a word back at her. He hadn’t even spoken tonight when she had mentioned the tales about the man he guarded. Terrible tales they were. Stories of demons and death, of bloodshed and violence. Her whole village whispered of them. They were right in a way. There was something different about the men there. In all the years that she had passed those gates, that man had never changed. Not when she was a child and not now that she was an adult. It was the same man. He hadn’t aged one year in the twenty she had seen him. She was sure of it.
Through the trees, pinpricks of light flickered in the darkness. The village. She doubled her pace, thinking only of the warm fire and seeing her father again.
A howl sliced the night in two.
Nika froze to the spot, ears pricked and heart thundering.
Perhaps it had been the wind.
Low growls made her head snap around. Seven large dark shapes slinked out of the shadows. Their fur spiked in a line down their backs, wriggling like a snake when they shook themselves and growled at her. They stepped onto the path between her and the village. These were no ordinary wolves. She remembered them from her childhood. They had killed half of the village.
The one in front lowered its head and stared at her with bright amber eyes that promised a painful death. It snarled to reveal huge canines.
Before it could attack, she turned, dropped her bag and ran. She grabbed the front of her coat and skirt, lifting them so she could sprint unhindered, and headed through the woods in the direction of the mansion.
It wasn’t long before her legs were beginning to tire. Their muscles strained under the pressure of running over the uneven ground and seized up as the fear broke into her mind, sending panicked thoughts pounding through her skull.
She was going to die.
The voice at the back of her mind told her to give up, but she wouldn’t. She wasn’t ready to die. It was something that happened to someone else, not to her or the people she loved. If she could make it to the mansion, she would be safe. The men there would fend off the wolves. The man would protect her.
Nika shrieked again as she tripped on a branch hidden beneath the frozen leaf litter and hit the ground hard. She immediately scrabbled to her feet and ran blindly into the forest, desperate to escape the wolves. Behind her came their thundering feet and heavy panting. They were closing in.
In the blink of an eye, it was over. The full weight of one of the wolves hit her in the back, sending her tumbling to the floor. Another howled. She turned and wrestled the wolf off her, scrambling across the dirt away from it. One of them grabbed her ankle, the thick leather of her boot the only thing protecting the delicate joint. It growled. Nika screwed her eyes shut and brought her hands up in front of her face as the others leapt at her.
Nika kicked the wolf off her ankle, eliciting a whimper from it, and pushed against the others. Breaking free, she got to her feet and ran again. Moonlight broke through a gap in the trees some distance ahead of her, illuminating a small shack.
Her heart willed her to make it there. It was her only chance.
She screamed again when one of the wolves snapped at her, trying to grab her arm. She punched it across the face and kept running, desperate to survive.
A thundering sound joined the cacophony of wolf growls and snarls and her rough breathing. Nika looked ahead of her to see the shack and then a large black horse with rider. She reached out to him, a silent plea for him to help her, and then fell when the wolves pounced on her. Pain erupted in her leg. Her heart missed beats as claws and teeth tore through her clothes.
Her last hope left her when she found herself face to face with the largest wolf. Hot breath washed her face, stealing her own. She sent a prayer to God and stared into the wolf’s yellow eyes, into the eyes of death.
The thundering hooves stopped. Above her the horse’s legs appeared, kicking out as the huge black beast whinnied and snorted. The wolves scattered, leaving her pressed into the dirt and frozen leaf litter, petrified and in too much pain to move.
The horse snorted again as it came down onto all four feet beside her and the rider appeared in her tear-blurred view.
“Hand,” he said in a muffled Russian voice and extended his towards her.
Nika feebly raised hers towards him. She wanted to take hold of that black gloved hand and escape this nightmare. He shook his impatiently. She struggled to move faster, weak from the white-hot pain burning inside every inch of her body. He bent forward on the saddle, caught her hand, and pulled her up into the air as though she weighed nothing. He settled her on the saddle in front of him. Pain shot up her leg and lanced her stomach. It stole her senses, filling them until she knew nothing but the warm pulsing throb. She was vaguely aware of his arm against her back and his hand on her waist, and the wolves closing in.
He turned the horse. Nika gritted her teeth and leaned into him. Each step of the horse’s gallop jostled her on the saddle. The pain was unbearable, wracking her to the depths of her bones with each movement, but the alternative made her cling to consciousness and life. The wolves growled, closer now. The horse suddenly stopped and the man lowered her to the ground. Her legs buckled beneath her. He caught her before she could collapse and held her close to his hard chest.
“Run!” he said and she hazily wondered if he was talking to her. She didn’t think that she could run. The pain in her leg was too intense, blinding. The horse whinnied. Was he talking to it?
Her heart beat faster, each pulse sending stabbing needles sweeping around her body. Darkness encroached at the edges of her mind, sending her thoughts fuzzy and her body numb. The man carried her into somewhere and set her down on something soft but lumpy. The sound of wood scraping and heavy objects slamming made her open her eyes. She frowned, vaguely aware that they were in the small shack she had seen and that he was barricading the door.
A wolf howl sounded just outside.
She flinched in pain when she curled up, the wounds on her body stinging. Her left leg burned as though it was on fire. She couldn’t move it. She left it lying limp in front of her. The man looked at her and then around the small hut.
“Do not be frightened,” he said, as though those four words could erase all her fear.
It crushed her chest and stole her breath. She struggled to suck in air, panic closing her throat and pain making the slightest thing too hard. Her leg was wet. She could feel the steady slide of blood down her arms. Oh God. She was going to die.
Her panic only increased when the dreadful sound of claws against wood filled the small shack. Snarls came in under the door and growls made her skin crawl. She tried to back away but the sound surrounded her, leaving her nowhere to go. The man stood at the door, his tall figure a black shadow in the low light. He didn’t move. He stood sentinel with his hand on the hilt of the sword at his side.
The blade of which gleamed when he began to draw it.
The wolves scrabbled faster at the door and walls, as though they were trying to dig their way through. Nika reached out to the man, numb and petrified. He stepped towards the door and her heart slammed against her chest.
The two small windows on either side of the door exploded, showering her and the man in glass. The wolves leapt high, paws scrambling for purchase on the windowsill. They disappeared again only to attempt another go at getting into the building.
The man fully drew his sword.
She extended her hand further towards him. “You can’t fight. There’s too many!”
A terrible scream made them both jump. She had never heard such a horrifying and inhuman sound. A chill swept over her back and down her arms. The scream came again amidst a discordant symphony of growls and snarls. She closed her eyes and used the last of her strength to cover her ears, not wanting to hear the horse as it died.
Dreadful silence fell.