2014 RITA® Finalist for best Paranormal Romance!
“Norse mythology with an intriguing twist and characters that make me giddy. I am so loving this world!”—Reading the Paranormal
“I loved the romance between Fen and Raquel; they are torn between tradition and duty, love and friendship. The story itself is exciting, and the world Stone is creating is complex and wonderful.”—Book Chick City
Raquel Lindgren knows what her future holds. An arranged marriage. A new home in Ragnarok, Iowa, with another clan of refugees from Asgard. She should be happy. But there’s a mental block preventing her from tapping in to her true abilities as a witch. And she’s more attracted to the best man than she is to the groom…
Fen can’t believe he’s falling for his best friend’s future wife. As a hound, a wolf shifter, his duty lies with the pack. He’s seen too many hounds destroyed by love, and he’s sworn never to take a mate, never to have children of his own. He can’t deny his desire for Raquel, but she deserves more than he can offer her.
Raquel’s been raised to trust in magic, her clan and her destiny. But when a vengeful demon threatens to break out of Asgard and destroy the clan, Raquel learns she must trust in love if she is to take the future into her own hands.
Standing in the backyard of her childhood home with her family gathered around her, Raquel tried to ignore the doubts swirling inside her head. Relief, excitement, hope and fear all blending into a toxic concoction that made her stomach churn and her palms sweat. This is the reason the elders consider it taboo for the partners in a contracted marriage to meet prematurely.
No time to plot an escape.
Her father, the clan Odin, rested a hand upon her shoulder as Kathy, their witch, made her final preparations to open the portal. Raquel shoved her bare hands into the pockets of her wool coat as the first caress of magic brushed against her senses. It started out as a light sensation like fine mist, but soon surrounded them, saturating the air.
The tide passing through the nearby ley lines still ran high from the new moon, making it dangerous to open the portal directly above the fault. Too easy to swamp the wards. Even here, several miles away, Kathy’s slender body trembled as she struggled to contain all that wild energy.
Kathy stretched out her arms, drawing power into herself, forcing it down into the earth to serve as an anchor. The mountains here were old and very strong. Raquel could feel the exact moment they latched onto the power to pull it deeper. Kathy extended her right hand in front of her, fingers splayed as she drew the next thread, braiding it through the anchor and then forcing it out, piercing the fabric of space and reaching toward the witch on the other side.
Within seconds, that small tear expanded from the size of a quarter to the size of a bowling ball. Not much to look at really—a shimmer in the air, a distortion that warped light so subtly it couldn’t be detected unless viewed from exactly the right angle. On an overcast day like this, it was even more difficult to see. Visible or not, any Æsir would know it was there. The unmistakable charge to the air, a vibration, lower than the human ear could detect, that bypassed consciousness and spoke directly to the part of the brain that governed instinct. For a witch like Raquel, the effect was stronger, calling to her like a siren’s song, making her skin feel hot, itchy and tight.
Her father squeezed her shoulder. He wasn’t a particularly demonstrative man, and the reflexive movement caused her eyes to prick with tears. Clearing his throat, he bent his head. “Raquel?” She tore her gaze from the nearly stable portal to look into his concerned eyes. “He’s a fine man. It’s a good match. You’ve nothing to worry about.”
Trust in family, in the clan magic, in the gods. She’d built her life upon those tenets. And she’d been looking forward to this moment for years. These were just…last-minute jitters.
“I’m ready for you,” Kathy called over her shoulder.
“Hurry up, sweetheart.” Her mother bounced on the balls of her feet. “She can’t hold it forever.”
Her father lifted her off the ground, squeezing the breath from her lungs in a bear hug before dropping her back to her feet. “Two weeks and I’ll be there. Call if you need me sooner.” His big hand on her back steadied her as he turned her to face the portal. “Good crossing, then.”
Right. Get this over and done with and on with the rest of her life. Her throat constricted, but she forced herself to take the first step and then another. The closer she got, the steadier the pressure against her mind.
Her mother and sister stood aside, allowing her to pass first. Raquel and Audrey looked a lot alike, though Audrey was two years younger and three inches taller. They both had the same blond hair and pointed chin, the same blue eyes. Wouldn’t do for the groom to mistake the bride, would it?
Refusing to look back, Raquel blew out an unsteady breath and stepped into the portal. As soon as she touched it, the magic enveloped her, coating her skin like an icy film before sinking into her pores. Even though this portal was only a pinprick compared to the huge rips in the fabric of space that allowed passage between worlds, it was still disorienting. Like falling out of a fifty-story window but instead of crashing to the pavement, you landed inside your own body.
A cold, swift drop and then she was pushing through to the other side…Ragnarok, Iowa. The sunlight was blinding compared to the gloom of Colorado, and she blinked rapidly as her eyes struggled to adjust. A house—large and white with green shutters and porches front and back. A red barn set beside a larger metal outbuilding. Winter fertilized fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The Ragnarok witch stood a few feet away, all of her attention focused on the portal.
The man standing beside the witch began to move toward Raquel and she froze, staring. The sun was behind him, his face in shadow, but it had to be him. As she took a step in his direction, her heel caught on a stone and she stumbled. She’d have dropped at his feet if not for the firm hand that reached out to steady her. “Careful. Give yourself a moment.”
He had dark blond hair, wavy enough that it looked like he used some kind of gel to keep it in place. Sharp blue eyes and an easy smile. He was taller than she’d expected, broad through the shoulder and, wow, mindshatteringly hot, wasn’t he? Christian Jager. Huntsman of the Ragnarok clan of Æsir refugees. The man she would marry in three weeks’ time.
A sharp twinge of uncertainty passed through her. The picture she’d taped to her bathroom mirror as a teenager was of a much younger man. Still attractive, but in an innocuously boyish way. The man holding her arm was very definitely a grown man—strong, confident and so handsome she couldn’t decide whether to weep with panic or gratitude. He wore business slacks and a black wool coat far finer than hers. She could see the sheen from his silk tie through the collar. Blue as his eyes. Polished.
She felt very unpolished, gaping at him while the wind tossed her hair into her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Heat rose to her cheeks. “I’m Raquel.”
Christian smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners and a dimple indenting his right cheek. “I know who you are. It’s good to finally meet you. Here.” He took her arm to draw her aside. “I think they’re about to come through.”
As soon as he said it, she felt the magic swell at the back of her mind and turned to watch as the fabric of space shifted, outlining her mother’s body for a moment before sliding back to a more natural state. Like water sluicing from skin. Audrey was barely a step behind—just suddenly there—blinking in the sunlight in this farmyard in Iowa.
As the witch shut down the portal, Raquel introduced Christian to her mother and sister. Aiden, the clan Odin, and his wife, Grace, crossed the yard to join them. Aiden was a quiet, stern man in his forties. Raquel had met him years ago at one of the gatherings. He’d intimidated her then as much as he did now. Grace seemed nice though, with a riot of curly hair and one of the warmest smiles Raquel had ever encountered. There were a few members of the hunt present—insurance in case the portal jump caused any problems with the fault—but they remained back on the porch.
Not all strangers.
She saw Hallie there, Aiden’s daughter, sitting on the steps. As sunny of a disposition as her father’s was dark. Hallie had been only been five or six when Raquel met her, but the girl seemed to remember her. She waved and Raquel waved back.
Hoping for another friendly face, Raquel glanced at the man next to Hallie and her smile faltered. Something in the way he stared at her so intently raised the hair along her arms. Black hair, leather jacket, glittering eyes. She frowned and even from twenty feet away, she could see the way the corner of his mouth twitched, as if he’d caught her reaction and was amused by it.
Hallie said something to him, and he turned his head. When he smiled down at the girl, it changed his face, softening the edges. He tugged at Hallie’s ponytail, and she laughed at whatever he said.
“I didn’t want to overwhelm you right after the portal crossing,” Christian said, “but there’ll be a reception tonight in town to welcome you. I can introduce you to everyone there.”
“Okay.” Still sounded overwhelming to her, but okay.
Her mother was already heading toward the house, chatting amiably with the Odin. Audrey followed behind them, paired with Grace. And Raquel found herself suddenly alone with the man she would marry in a few short weeks. She felt a flash of uncertainty again. Christian of her dreams—bigger, more mature, more… everything than anything her mind had ever been able to concoct.
He held out his hand, and it seemed like a momentous thing. A first step, one of many, that would bind them together forever. There was a trace of challenge in his clear blue eyes as he spoke her name.
The challenge did it. The warmth in his eyes and the touch of uncertainty there, too. A smile tugged at her lips and she reached for his hand. He smiled back, and—gods—it made him even more gorgeous. As his strong fingers closed around hers, some of the butterflies in her stomach settled.
Trust in the gods, magic, family… This would work. It had to.
* * *
The reception was being held in the same building where the ceremony would take place. Modestly decorated, no glamour had been cast to disguise the fact that they were sitting in an old dance hall in need of renovation. But the food was good, laid out buffet-style on long folding tables near the kitchen. And the people were awfully friendly.
Her mother knew some of them from different gatherings over the years. As wife of the Odin, she often accompanied him when he visited the other clans. She’d dragged Audrey off to introduce her to friends, and Raquel sat next to Christian at the head table. It was their first moment alone since the crossing and she was nervous. Not because she thought he was the wrong man for her, but because she was beginning to think that he might be the right one. Already, her mother adored him and even Audrey seemed to approve. That was important. Raquel had always trusted Audrey’s opinion when it came to men.
“When will your mother arrive?”
His father was deceased, and his mother had remarried a man in the Ozark clan. He glanced over at her and set aside his fork. “The day before the wedding, along with my sister. They thought it best to give us as much space as possible to get to know each other. But if you’d rather meet them sooner, that can be arranged.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s fine. I only wondered when they’d get here. I’ve already met both of them.”
Something flickered behind Christian’s gaze. “I’d forgotten. You wanted me to come along on that visit.”
“I wanted to know what I was getting myself into. Weren’t you nervous about today?” She searched his face. “Aren’t you still?”
He didn’t look nervous. He looked cool and elegant, as if nothing ever ruffled his feathers.
“Don’t you think it was better that we were free to live our own lives before the binding?” When she raised her brows, he shrugged. “I’ve seen couples trapped in limbo until the contract is up and they can finally be together. Your whole life on pause until the date of the ceremony rolls around. I didn’t want that for me…or for you.”
“Now we start a new life, together.” Something caught his attention from across the room and he winced. “Will you excuse me for a minute? I need to speak to Aiden while I can catch him alone.”
He rose from his chair and touched her shoulder as he passed behind her. “I’ll be right back.”
The feel of that brief touch lingered as she watched him cross the room, skirting the edge of the buffet. He was a very fine-looking man. The body of a swimmer. The face of a model. If she’d met him at home, she would have considered him out of her league. He didn’t seem particularly proud though, or disappointed in her appearance. She’d seen him looking at her once or twice with a speculative look that had kicked up her pulse. But he was respectful, too, of the fact they’d just met. He seemed content to let that develop slowly. Why not? They had a lifetime to explore the attraction.
Tossing her napkin onto the table, she rose. She was sitting at the head table alone now and didn’t like the feeling of being on display. She’d use the restroom and then track down Audrey, maybe start to get to know the people of her new clan. She felt a little buzzed though she hadn’t had more than a few sips of wine. Relief was a heady thing.
Oh, there were still obstacles to overcome, but for tonight, she would just be happy that the first hurdle was out of the way.
Smiling at her mother as she passed, she walked down the corridor to the ladies’ room. It was quiet down here—the hum of conversation muffled and distant. The exit light above the fire door flickered once, then steadied. She heard the murmur of masculine voices coming from the men’s room a few feet away.
The ladies’ room was empty. Raquel latched the door to the last stall and nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard Christian’s voice. Slightly muffled with a tinny quality to it, but definitely Christian. She froze for a second in indecision before shrugging and going about her business.
She wasn’t doing anything wrong. It wasn’t her fault that she could hear Christian’s and then Aiden’s voice even more clearly through the vents in here. Doing her best to block out the sound, she froze with her hand on the latch when she heard her name. Until then, they’d been speaking about Lois, their clan witch, and something to do with checking the wards.
But what rooted her feet to the tile was when Aiden asked, “Why aren’t you with your bride?”
“She’s fine. She’s at the table, eating.”
“Alone?” Even muffled, she could hear the disapproval in the Odin’s tone. He was definitely the Odin now, rebuking one of the members of his hunt. She half wanted to stand on the toilet and rap her knuckles against the vent to defend Christian.
At least, she did until Christian said, “Back off, Aiden. You know how I feel about this.”
“I know you wanted out of the contract, but—”
“But you need your witch,” Christian finished for him. “Regardless of my feelings about the contract, I will honor it. I’ve told you that.”
“Honor it how?”
“By binding myself to a girl I met less than three hours ago.”
“I saw the way she looked at you when she came through the portal. She’s half in love with you already.”
“She’s in love with an idea and a face. She doesn’t know me.”
Raquel winced and stared at the brown-and-tan pattern on the tile as Aiden continued. “She had as little choice in this as you, remember that. It’s up to both of you to make this work.”
“I know my duty,” Christian said. There was a twist to the last word that made her heart ache. “You sure as hell don’t need to remind me of that.”
There was a pause and Raquel could hear water pass through the pipes behind the wall that separated them. Aiden’s voice dropped low enough that she couldn’t hear his next words, but Christian’s response was crystal clear.
“Look, the clan needs a witch and I’m giving you a witch. I won’t hurt her feelings if I can help it. Raquel, her family, the rest of the town can dress this up in satin and roses, but when it comes down to it, it’s about a contract I never signed. It’s about duty. Let’s not pretend any differently.”
Feeling light-headed, Raquel was aware she was holding her breath but couldn’t seem to force her lungs to draw air. The door opened and swung closed. She listened to Christian’s footsteps pass down the corridor and then Aiden’s.
“Damn,” she whispered, dropping her fist to the cool metal door and resting her forehead against it. “Damn.”