Twilight of the Gods Book Three
One year after his bride left him at the altar for his best man, Christian Jager is stuck in a rut. Working at the local co-op, dating the same handful of women he’s known since childhood, riding with the wild hunt twice a month to keep the jötnar who destroyed Asgard from invading earth.
He wants something more, but he’s not quite sure what it is until Jacey Morgan blows into his life like a breath of fresh air. A wildlife biologist who’s come to Ragnarok to investigate rumors of a strange predator in the area, she’s also a native Midgardian who can’t ever learn the truth about Christian or his clan. His job is to distract her and get her the Hel out of town as quickly as possible so the Æsir can take care of the problem themselves.
Jacey wants the case wrapped up quickly too, and she’s not about to get distracted by the sinfully sexy man who’s so unexpectedly determined to help. With a new degree and a plan to get out of Iowa, she’s ready to move on to bigger and better things… A dragon isn’t quite what she had in mind.
Available November 10, 2014
Christian nursed his beer and tried to ignore the woman at his side. McGuire’s was dead tonight. Yellow light reflected off the laminated menus and the tarnished chrome of the napkin dispensers. Jay, the owner, had stepped into the back, and Christian could hear the dull clink of dishware as he loaded the washer. The whole place was empty except for the table under the neon-lit window up front, a couple of guys playing pool in the back and Beth, leaning across the bar to pay her tab. Her full breasts pressed briefly to his arm as she slid onto the stool beside him.
“Friday night and no date?” Beth’s clear blue eyes fixed on him, and her ruby lips parted in a smile. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“I haven’t had a date in…” Gods, how long had it been? He shook his head. “You know, I can’t even remember.”
“Everyone hits a dry spell now and then, you know. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It’s not a dry spell if it’s by choice.”
“Abstinence?” She laughed, and the corner of his mouth edged up too, because…yeah. Taking a drink, he set the glass aside just as Beth reached out to squeeze his wrist. “I don’t think you’re really cut out for celibacy.”
“How is it Aiden puts it?” She deepened her voice in a fair imitation of the Odin’s. “We can’t afford to squander any of the gifts the gods have seen fit to bestow upon us.”
“That’s one of the more interesting pick-up lines I’ve heard. You use it on all the men?”
“Not all of them, no.”
No mistaking the invitation there. It was in the curve of her smile and the way her hand lingered on his arm. For a brief moment, he thought about taking her up on her offer. He knew Beth wasn’t looking for anything serious. She was a hunter like he was, charged with guarding the fault line between earth and Asgard, making sure none of the jötnar slipped through. Too busy trying to balance building a law practice with her obligation to the clan, she didn’t want a husband or family. Occasionally she wanted sex, no-strings-attached sex. In the past, he wouldn’t have hesitated.
Her eyes widened slightly and she laughed. “You need to ask? You, the man who can’t even remember when he had his last date? Look around.” She swept her gaze pointedly over the nearly empty room. “Who else do you suggest I proposition? Jay?”
“Iona would slit your throat.”
“And spoil all the beer. She’s of Ægir’s line, you know.”
“More likely she’s part troll.” Jay had only kept the bar open this late because he was avoiding his sharp-tongued wife.
Beth whacked him in the arm. “My point is this is a small town. There aren’t a lot of prospects, not without making things complicated. You’re over Raquel.”
She didn’t phrase it as a question, and he was grateful for that. Raquel was the reason everyone was tiptoeing around him. It was coming up on the anniversary of when his fiancée had thrown him over to marry his best friend.
“There was nothing to get over,” he said. “No matter what the rest of the clan thinks, I’m not angry or heartbroken or disappointed. Fen and Raquel were meant to be together. Anyone can see that.”
“Then what is this? You haven’t been yourself lately, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed.”
None of the full-blooded Æsir were shy about speaking their minds. They cared, and he loved them to death for it, but sometimes their concern was a pain in the ass. Everyone expected him to go back to the way he’d been before the broken betrothal, but he didn’t want to do that. For the first time, he knew what he wanted out of life—a family, a wife of his own choosing, kids. If Beth had been interested in more than a one-night stand, he might have said yes.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong with me other than the fact I have to be up at dawn on a Saturday. I’m not heading anywhere tonight but home to bed.”
Beth raised her brows.
“Alone.” He smiled to soften the rejection. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Not only did he consider her a friend, she was also damned quick with a blade. “You might want to do the same. Don’t think I’ll go easy on you if you show up hung over.”
There was only a trace of disappointment in Beth’s expression, which confirmed that he’d made the right decision.
“You never go easy on us. It’s what’s kept us alive these past couple of years.” She glanced at his beer. “Do you need a ride home?”
He touched the rim of his glass. “Jay charmed this one. Once I finish it off, I’ll be fine.”
Behind him, the door opened and a gust of cold air blew in, lifting the corners of his napkin and raising goose bumps on his neck. Beth glanced over her shoulder to see who it was, and her smile faded. Christian checked the mirror above the bar. From this angle, he had a clear view of the entrance so he could see any new threat that might walk through the door.
In this case, threat was an overstatement of epic proportions. The woman standing across the room was tiny and shivering like a stray puppy. Her wispy red hair stuck out from beneath an orange knit cap, and her ugly brown coat was at least two sizes too big.
He nudged Beth’s arm. “Why don’t you go back to your friends? I’ll take care of this one.”
“You sure you can manage it on your own? I wouldn’t want it to keep you up past bedtime.” He gave her a withering look, but she only smiled. “Seriously, I can get her out of here. She’s probably just lost.”
The woman looked lost and sweetly vulnerable in a way that triggered his protective instincts. McGuire’s sat at on a barren corner between the road leading to Ragnarok and a two-lane highway twisting in either direction through miles of farm country. All corn and soy fields, currently covered with frost. They didn’t get many strangers during the summer, let alone in the dead of winter with a storm blowing in.
“I’ll handle it,” he said. “Go. Have fun.”
Accepting that with a nod, Beth left to rejoin her group, and Christian returned his attention to the mirror above the bar. The stranger stomped her boots on the mat to clear them of snow and then tugged off her mittens. She took a tentative step forward, and her gaze swept the room. The expression on her face could only be described as unimpressed. Of course, McGuire’s was unimpressive on purpose. The whole town was. They wanted it to look like every other remote little farming community in the Midwest. One main street. No traffic lights. A diner, gas station, tiny little grocery store, library and post office. Nothing that would encourage visitors to linger. Nothing to suggest that Ragnarok sat on a crossroads between worlds. It worked better than a glamour to keep the curious away.
Lifting his drink and wincing at the taste of warm beer, Christian felt more than heard the woman approach. Like all huntsmen, he had a heightened awareness of movement around him. Perfect sight and hearing. His sense of smell wasn’t as sharp as a hound’s, but it was far keener than the average human’s. As the woman walked up behind him, he could scent the wind and snow on her, feel the chill that clung to her skin.
When she reached the bar, he turned his head. She was prettier up close and without the hat. Static made her red hair stick up oddly and cling to her pale cheeks. Wide gray eyes, finely arched brows and a wry twist to her lips that suggested a smile. When she shrugged free of her ugly coat, he couldn’t help but notice the way her cream-colored sweater clung to the gentle swells of her breasts.
“This seat taken?”
He raised an eyebrow and looked down the empty bar. “It’s all yours.”
“Thanks.” She settled her coat on the high-backed seat of the stool and sat down. “Cold night out there. Are they closing up early?”
“No one wants to get stuck on the road. The owner will close as soon as he’s done in back. If you’re having car trouble, I have the number for the local shop. There’s not a tow ban quite yet. You might still be able to get them out.”
“My phone…well, the service is spotty, but that’s not my problem. I’m actually looking for a place to stay the night, and I haven’t seen a hotel since I got off the main highway an hour back. I thought it might be best to stop and ask for directions before I do actually get lost.”
Jay must have heard her come in, because he stepped from the back, wiping his hands dry on a towel. The woman rested her elbows on the bar to order a coffee. When she had the steaming mug in her hands, Jay moved away and she turned back to Christian.
She looked at him hopefully. “If you could point me toward the nearest hotel, I’d really appreciate it.”
“You can backtrack to the highway for the nearest chain hotel,” he told her. “Or you can keep going about a half-hour and there’s a small family-owned motel off this road. Otherwise, you’ll have to go all the way to Decorah.”
“That’s almost an hour away, isn’t it?”
When the roads were clear. He nodded, and her expression fell.
“A bed and breakfast, maybe?”
He tipped his head to the east. “In Elkader. But they won’t be taking calls this late. You could try, I suppose. But there’s a lot of county road between here and there, unlikely to have been cleared of snow. The motel is older, but the couple who run it are nice. Not fancy, but it’s clean.”
She thought about that for a moment as she sipped at her coffee. Her lips were chapped, as were her cheeks. Cold tended to affect Midgardians more than Æsir, and it was a measly seven degrees out there tonight, with a bitter wind blowing from the north.
When she set the mug down on the wooden bar top, she threaded her fingers around the brown ceramic as if trying to hold on to the warmth.
“Where are you headed?”
She tipped him another smile. “A little place called Ragnarok. It’s supposed to be around here but I haven’t seen any signs. Of course, with all the snow I might just have missed it. Do you know where it is?”
“Down this road. Five miles west. They did roadwork this fall. I think we lost the sign.” They had a habit of losing signs. They seldom lasted longer than a week. “Why are you looking for Ragnarok?”
“I’m with the DNR. Wildlife management. We were called out to investigate a few strange reports in the area.” Some of his alarm must have shown on his face, because she waved her hand and said, “It’s nothing really. The local sheriff asked for help identifying an animal and I’m the only wildlife biologist without a…” She paused there. He saw a little flinch at the corners of her eyes, but she continued on lightly. “Well, I’m the only one who was available to come out here on short notice. I’m here to talk to the locals, but I don’t know where to start.”
Brushing a strand of flyaway hair from her face, she reached back into her coat pocket and handed him a business card. “It would really help me out a lot if you could tell me who I should contact when I come back in the morning. This place…”
“Is like an internet black hole.” He took the card from her and leaned back in his chair. The card was cheap, plain white stock. It had her name—Jacey Morgan—and cell phone on it, along with what he assumed was the number for the state office. “I’m from Ragnarok. If you tell me what you’re looking for, maybe I can point you in the right direction.”
“You’re sure you have the time?” She glanced toward the table where Beth was sitting with her friends. “I don’t want to bug you if you’re busy.”
“I was getting ready to head home, but I have a few minutes,” he said. “It’s no trouble.”
“Okay, then.” She pulled a folder from her bag and set it on the bar. “We have an unusual number of reports out of this area for missing animals. Pets mostly, but also…well, mostly pets. Frankly, I think it’s a wild goose chase, but the boss says check it out and here I am.”
“In a snowstorm.”
She wrinkled her nose. He almost resented how adorably sweet it looked, because it turned out that this woman, cute as she was, was most definitely a threat. “It wasn’t supposed to storm. All the reports said this would go north of us.”
That might have been Aiden’s doing. He wanted to train in the woods tomorrow morning, and with it being Saturday, he might have thought a snowstorm was the best way to encourage their neighbors to stay inside. “I haven’t heard anything but I would call the mayor first—Bill Vinter. He’ll be able to help you out. There’s no police department in town. We’re patrolled by the county sheriff.”
She leaned across the bar for a napkin, and he tried not to notice her sweetly rounded ass. It was a losing battle. He hadn’t slept with anyone in the last year while he straightened out his life. The warmth flooding his veins now at the sight of little Jacey Morgan wiggling to reach a napkin was damned inconvenient timing. He couldn’t have picked anyone more off limits if he’d tried.
Sitting back on the stool, she said, “The sheriff is the one who contacted us. He referred me to Mr. Vinter, who hasn’t called me back yet.”
Bill was an idiot who liked holding the title of mayor but not doing any of the work that came with it. He’d have to be talked to. “I’m surprised they’d send you all the way out here.”
“Like I said, it’s probably nothing.”
She wasn’t telling him the whole truth, and he decided to press just a little harder. “You said mostly pets. What else?”
“Anything can get a chicken,” he said. “Coyote, hawk, dog.”
She accepted that with a nod. “That’s what my supervisor told the sheriff when he called.”
“But the sheriff didn’t accept that?”
“Well…” She paused, gave him a look like she was weighing how much to say and then lowered her voice. “The thing is, a man was attacked three nights ago. He said it was an animal that shredded his leg, and I’m here to follow up on the missing animal reports to make sure it’s not all related. I interviewed him this morning and then checked out the site where he was found. Looked into several of the other reports before the weather turned. Now I need a place to stay so I can come back in the morning and ask the people around here if they’ve seen anything unusual.”
“What kind of animal did the man say attacked him?”
She shook her head. “Didn’t get a good look at it. Apparently he was pretty drunk at the time. His leg was so badly damaged the doctor can’t even confirm it was a bite. A truck driver found him on the edge of the road but saw no sign of an animal. The man might have only stumbled into some barbed wire, but he reported an animal attack and the local paper called my boss yesterday with questions for a story she’s running. Missing chickens didn’t trigger an alarm, but this…” She held up her hands. “Here I am.”
“Here you are,” he echoed. “Like I said, I haven’t heard anything. But if it was only a few small animals…” He shrugged. “Animals die or go missing, especially this time of year with the turn we’ve had in the weather.”
“It’s not only the number. It’s also the fact that they’re all clustered in this area in a relatively short amount of time.”
“Where? I manage a co-op and talk to farmers all day. Word of an animal attack would have been all over town within a few hours.”
“That’s the funny thing. There haven’t been any reports out of Ragnarok. This town is like a bullseye with all the reports occurring in a circle around it, all of them within a ten-to twenty-mile radius.”
“Do you think someone might be stealing the animals?” It might explain the bullseye. The town was warded to keep out casual visitors. Nothing drastic, just a subtle touch of redirection. The wards wouldn’t keep out someone like Jacey, who was actively trying to get here, and they didn’t affect animals, but they would repel teenagers who were causing mischief.
“Don’t know yet. There aren’t many predators in this area, not big enough to attack a human. Although…” She opened the folder and rotated it so he could see. “There is a report here from a few years ago of a wolf in the area.”
He didn’t try to stifle his laugh. That one was Grace. When she’d first rolled into town, she’d run down a demon. She’d panicked and called the local sheriff, who hadn’t been able to see through the glamour as Grace had. Carl still thought Grace was a little loopy. “It wasn’t a wolf.”
Jacey looked up sharply, and since he couldn’t tell her that it had actually been a demon, a fire jötunn from Muspelheim by way of Asgard, he said, “German Shepherd. A woman who’d recently moved from the city ran into it on a gravel road. She’d never seen a dog that size before.”
“The sheriff said wolf.”
“It had been run over by a car a few times. When they examined it, the vet determined that it was actually a German Shepherd. Is that not in the report?”
She scowled at the piece of paper in her hands. “You’re sure about that?”
“I’m sure.” Her disappointment tugged at his heart, but he ignored the sensation. “Sorry. No wolves. They found a mountain lion in Des Moines last year, but they usually don’t make it this far east. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find tracks.”
“It’s not that.” She gave him a wry grin that brought out the dimple in her cheek. “Just one more thing I had to follow up on. What kind of predator leaves nothing behind?”
Not any kind she was likely to be familiar with. “You’re the wildlife biologist. What do you think it is?”
“I guess I’ll have to stick around until I figure that one out.”
“That’s not all bad,” he said, and then mentally cursed himself. Because it was bad. Really bad. They couldn’t have a Midgardian snooping around, not even one with dimples.
She blushed and looked down at her drink. “It’s inconvenient. Especially when there’s not a hotel nearby.”
He felt a fleeting temptation to offer her a bed, but he knew she’d never take him up on the offer. He didn’t really have any experience with normal Midgardian women, but he was pretty sure saying something like that would only make him sound like a creep. There was also the fact that Aiden would kill him for bringing an investigator into town because he was bored and lonely.
“We’re not much of a tourist destination. I would go back to the highway. Head south for about twenty miles and the motel will be on your right.”
She pushed her drink aside, still half full. “Well, I’d better get going then. Thanks for your help…”
“Christian.” She smiled fully, a sweet, guileless smile that felt like sunshine on his heart. “It was really nice to meet you.” She nodded at her card. “Call me if you hear anything, okay?”
He took the card and slipped it into his pocket. “Happy hunting.”
He watched her swing her ugly coat around her shoulders as she walked toward the door. She braced herself for the cold before pushing the door open. A gust of wind slipped inside as she left, sending a chill over his skin. A moment later, Beth rejoined him.
“You heard that?”
“Every word,” Beth said.
“Keep it to yourself for now. I’ll let Aiden know.”
Beth took a sip from her drink. “Can’t be a jötunn. Even if one slipped past us, it couldn’t survive that far away from the fault.”
Especially not since Raquel replaced the wards. He stood up and reached for his coat. Beth’s expression held all the worry he felt.
When he turned to leave, she put a hand on his arm. “What are we going to do about it?”
He forced his voice to remain steady. “We find whatever is out there before Ms. Morgan does, and then we kill it for her.”