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The Christmas Dragon's Love (Christmas Valley Shifters Book 3) by Zoe Chant (1)

Chapter One: Angel

“Diego! Diego, where are you?”

Angel Harris raised her hands to her mouth to call out again. All around her, snow continued to fall.

It hadn’t looked like more snow when she’d left the Mitchell's house ten minutes ago. But if house- and dog-sitting the mansion of a famous pair of producers had taught her anything, it was that you couldn’t trust the weather.

And that you could never, ever trust a poodle.

“Diego, damn it!” she shouted again. “This isn’t funny!”

She reached into her pocket to rattle the little bag of dog treats, but the snow seemed to swallow all sounds.

Only Lola, the aging spaniel by her side, immediately sat up attentively. When no treats were forthcoming, she raised a paw and whined.

With a sigh Angel shook her paw, then gave her a treat.

When she looked up again, the snow was falling more heavily.

And there was still no sign of the black poodle who’d been held safely on his leash five minutes ago.

“Diego!” she shouted again. “Heel!”

There was no answer.

Gritting her teeth, she clenched her fingers around Lola’s leash and then grimly began to walk onward.

There was nothing out here for Diego to run to. The mansion was far away from the closest town. There was some sort of Christmas resort somewhere on the other side of the mountain, but Angel didn’t trust the icy roads. So far, she’d only made the safer trek down into the valley to pick up groceries.

“Diego!”

There wasn’t the smallest woof in answer.

What if he fell into a ravine somewhere? Or what if he found a bear?

Angel realized all of a sudden that she had no idea what sort of wild animals lived on a mountain like this. Bears, probably... But didn’t those hibernate in winter?

In fact, she hadn’t seen any animals so far, except for the occasional bird coming for the feeder the Mitchells kept on their porch, and which she dutifully restocked.

Clara and Mona Mitchell had a lovely house—but their Hollywood fame meant that they didn’t spend much time up here. As their fame grew, they’d started to travel more and more.

Not that Angel usually kept up to date on Hollywood gossip, but her old college roommate had landed a glitzy Hollywood job. And when the famous producer couple needed a dog-sitter while they were off doing a world tour promoting their latest superhero blockbuster, her friend had remembered that Angel had been forced to move back in with her parents.

At least this job got her out of there for a month. A month, Angel had promised herself, that she would use to get herself out of the rut of disappointment her life had fallen into.

So what if she hadn’t been able to get the museum job she’d been hoping for?

Everyone said that IT was where the money was at these days. And as long as it got her out of her old childhood bedroom and away from her mother’s constant disappointed looks, a career spent in some basement office hacking away at a keyboard wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to her.

Everyone was looking for programmers, after all. So all she had to do was to use her month here to get through a super-intensive online course. And she’d make enough money dog-sitting here that back at home, she could sign up for another intensive programming bootcamp.

Because apparently that was how people got those coveted high-paid IT jobs these days.

Her advisor had even reassured her that there were lots of nerdy black geek girls taking part in the bootcamps.

Which wasn’t as reassuring as he’d probably meant it, because Angel doubted that she counted as a real geek.

She loved superhero movies, and she’d seen all of the Millennium Woman films. But what Angel loved even more were boring, dusty museums. And the way that she could transform boring, dusty exhibits into exciting stories about adventures that made children’s eyes light up.

“Diego!” she shouted again, her heart sinking when there was still no sign of the black poodle.

Maybe the Mitchells would sue her instead.

He was probably some sort of special poodle with a pedigree longer than her college essays and worth more than she made in a month. There was no way she could pay.

Maybe I’ll end up in jail for negligence. So much for the nerdy black geek girl dream.

Lola whined again, her tail between her legs. Snow had settled on her fur.

“I know, I know,” Angel sighed. “You’re tired and want to go home. But we have to find Diego first.”

A moment later, there was a sound that came from somewhere in front of her.

It wasn’t the barking of a dog. It sounded like nothing she’d ever heard, actually.

But a moment later, lazy old Lola began pulling at the leash, eager to go and explore.

Angel wasn’t particularly eager to walk deeper into the endlessly falling snow—but she was even less eager to try and explain to the Mitchells how she’d lost their dog.

“That’s it, Lola! Find Diego!” she encouraged her.

As she followed the old dog, tightly gripping the leash so that Lola wouldn’t escape as well, she was suddenly glad for the ugly old winter boots she’d found in a thrift shop before she set out for this mountain retreat.

She couldn’t even say when she’d last seen snow so heavy.

“Where did that damn dog get to?” she cursed softly when they’d made it all the way up a small hill.

On top of it, she stopped, panting a little. She blinked to dislodge a snowflake that had decided to settle on her lashes, then looked around.

Still nothing but white. Everywhere she looked, snow was falling. It was eerily silent.

It was always silent up here, which she assumed was why people bought houses in such a place.

And it was a lovely place to live—if you were good with silence and nothing but rocks and snow.

For Angel, the novelty had quickly worn off, because even with her IT crash course to keep her busy, it was just really, really lonely up here with only two dogs for company.

“Diego?” she tried again.

She hadn’t seen paw prints, but then, it was still snowing. His tracks were probably covered already.

“Where did you lead me, Lola? Can you sniff him out?”

She leaned down briefly to brush the snow from the old spaniel’s ears.

“Where’s Diego, Lola? Find Diego!”

Lola’s tongue came out to lap at her fingers.

“Diego?” she tried again, but Lola instead began to nose at the pocket where she kept the treats.

With a sigh, Angel straightened again.

And then, all of a sudden, she saw something in the white plain spreading before her. She couldn’t make it out exactly—all she’d seen was a dark shadow moving.

A small shadow. Just large enough for a dog...

“Just you wait,” she muttered as she clenched her fingers around the leash and began walking down the hill, the snow crunching beneath her boots. “You aren’t going to get any treats for at least a week, buddy.”

She could hear a sound now. It was strangely muffled, but it was rising and falling. A sad, lonely howl.

Just the sound a lost dog would make who felt sorry for himself.

Or a wolf.

She laughed softly at her own imagination, walking faster now. Diego was somewhere right before her. He hadn’t fallen into a ravine or disturbed a bear.

Which meant that in half an hour, they’d be back home, safe and sound, and the Mitchells would never need to know about Diego’s little adventure.

And tomorrow, I’ll tie his leash to my belt.

“Diego! Diego, I’m here, sweetheart! Mommy’s coming for you, little darling!”

Little Satan, she added silently.

While Lola was a sweet little dog, Diego had been nothing but trouble. At times he seemed to be entirely too smart for a dog.

From what the Mitchells had told her, he was a rescue who’d been parted from his mother and siblings too early, and still needed to learn how to properly socialize with other dogs.

Which was all very well. She’d been nothing but patient with Diego so far, even when he’d seemed to try and deliberately annoy her.

But running off into a snow storm really takes the cake.

Surprised by her own thought, she looked up.

The sky had grown darker. The snow was falling much more heavily now.

Hadn’t the sun gleamed on the snow not too long ago? Now it really looked like a snow storm was coming closer.

Unsettled, she tightened her scarf and pushed her curls out of her face again. She stopped for a moment to narrow her eyes at the twirling snow before her. The wind had picked up, driving the snowflakes straight into her face.

“Diego?” she called out once more.

And after a moment, there was that answering howl again.

She’d never heard him howl before. He had to be lost and frightened.

With new determination, she set out into the storm once more. With every step forward, the wind seemed to pick up in intensity.

She was no longer sure where the distant, howling sound came from. Was it Diego—or was it just the wind?

Cold was biting at every inch of exposed skin. She tugged her scarf up to cover the lower half of her face.

They hadn’t gone far. There was no way she was getting lost here when she was at most a short walk from home.

And then she saw a shadow again. For a moment, she started. The shadow seemed large—too large for a frightened dog.

But she hadn’t seen more than a split second of it moving through the falling snow. And the wind was driving the flakes into her eyes with such strength that it was hard to see anyway.

“Diego?” she called out weakly, the sound muffled through her scarf.

And then she realized that Lola was growling.

Startled, she looked down. Lola was pressed close to her leg, but the sweet old spaniel had completely transformed.

Her lips had pulled back to reveal her teeth. Every muscle in her body had tensed as she stared into the storm, fixing on something Angel couldn’t see.

Again she growled. The sound was low and deep, coming from her chest.

“Don’t be silly, sweetie,” Angel said, although she felt a shiver run through her. “It’s just Diego out there.”

For a moment, Angel could hear nothing but the wind and Lola’s constant growl of threat. Snow kept falling.

And then the curtain of white suddenly seemed to tear apart. Out of the blizzard, something large and terrifying came running straight at her.

With a cry of terror, Angel threw herself to the side—and the leash was torn from her hands as Lola fearlessly jumped forward.

Teeth. Fur. Yellow eyes gleaming with inhuman anger.

Without thinking, Angel began to run.

Instinct had taken over the moment the monster attacked. Her heart racing in her chest, Angel stumbled through the snow, panting for breath as she tried to escape the beast behind her.

She didn’t know what it was. She’d never seen anything like it before, except in movies and fairy tales.

It had looked like a wolf—but it was larger. Stronger.

And the eyes that had flashed golden had shown a terrible, human intelligence...

She couldn’t think. She didn’t dare to stop and search for Lola. The beast was still behind her—and for all she knew, Lola had only distracted him for a second.

Any moment, those sharp fangs could sink into her throat from behind, tearing her apart...

She could hear no sound but the pounding of her heart in her ears now. She struggled to breathe. Her legs burned from the effort of running through the snow.

Once or twice, she slipped and fell, scrambling with numb fingers at the ice beneath her to get up and keep running.

Teeth. A wolf’s teeth...

The howl of the wind was even louder now. She couldn’t feel her toes or her fingers anymore, but she didn’t dare to stop.

Was it the wind she was hearing—or was the terrible wolf still right behind her?

She couldn’t see where she was going. The storm had picked up. It felt as if she was running straight into a blizzard.

And then, all of a sudden, the ground gave way beneath her.

Slowly at first, then faster and faster, she felt herself slipping. She was sliding down a steep incline, and no matter how desperately she tried to reach out and hold on to something, she couldn’t find anything to slow her fall.

The howl of the wind was softer now.

She was still rapidly sliding down...but there was no more snow being blown into her eyes.

Instead, when she reached out, hoping to find a rock or a branch to cling to, all her fingers encountered was ice.

“Help!” she cried, terrified that she was falling right into a fissure in the glacier.

The sound echoed eerily. Almost as if she was inside a cave...

Little by little, her fall slowed.

After what felt like an eternity, she at last came to a halt.

Her entire body hurt. She’d lost her hat somewhere during her flight.

Not only her fingers and toes were numb now. She couldn’t feel her legs and arms anymore, and it hurt to keep her eyes open.

“Help,” she tried to call out again, but her voice didn’t carry.

Then something caught her attention.

Somewhere in front of her, light was reflected off a large structure of ice.

Her eyes didn’t want to focus. It felt as if her lids were frozen shut. As she struggled to raise herself up, she at last realized what it was that stretched right in front of her.

A dragon made of ice.

She’d never seen anything like it before.

The ice sculpture was life-sized, towering above her. The dragon was so detailed that it looked as if he would come alive any second. From the scales of his body to the tips of his wings, every small detail had been worked out of the ice in exquisite detail.

She wouldn’t have been surprised to see it breathe.

A part of her knew that she was still in terrible danger. She’d heard all about the dangers of falling asleep in the snow.

People who fall asleep in the snow never wake up again...

But at the same time, she was too numb to worry now. Every bone in her body ached with exhaustion.

Little by little, she crawled forward.

At last, she reached the space between the dragon’s front paws. It was just large enough for her to curl up in between.

It felt like being sheltered in a little cave. She didn’t even feel cold anymore.

In fact, she felt a strange warmth spreading through her at last.

As her eyes slid shut, the last thing she saw was a shiver running through one of the paws.

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