Midnight Before Christmas

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Midnight Shifters, Book 5

Renee George

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-944003-09-8

Copyright © 2016, Renee George.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

His black hair, cut short on the sides and messy long on top, highlighted his unusually bright eyes. Over six feet tall and built like a linebacker, he’d have stood out in any room. When he shed his winter coat and placed it over his stool, Rachel Campbell’s stomach performed a double axel followed by a camel spin into a death spiral, moves she was all too familiar with. After all, she was the featured figure skater for the Super Celebrities of Ice tour. The tour had ended mid-December, which meant she’d had zero excuses for not going home for Christmas. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t get drunk with her best friend first.

“Here you go, Rachel,” said Dawson Lars, the owner of Lars’ Bar. He handed her two Silver Lake Ice Teas, a local version of the classic cocktail.

“Thanks, Daws.”

“It’s good to have you back.” He smiled, his hazel eyes crinkling at the edges.

He was a pleasant man in his early forties. Tall, thin, with blond hair like many of the men in Silver Lake, Minnesota, a town predominantly settled by Norwegians.

Rachel smiled at him politely. “Thanks.”

She took a long, deep sip of the lemony drink, maneuvered her way through the local crowd, and back to her table.

“Oh my God, Ray-ray. Do you see that hunka-hunka at the bar with the dark hair, the chiseled jaw, and gorgeous eyes? He is divine.” Her best friend Callie smoothed her voluminous blonde hair then nudged Rachel’s shoulder. “I’d totally hit that.”

Instead of screaming, “Mine!” Rachel forced her expression to stay neutral and passed Callie the second drink. Friends since middle school, Callie had always been a bit of a horn-dog. It had nothing to do with desperation. She was one of the most beautiful women Rachel had ever seen, models and actresses included. Callie just liked men… of all shapes, ages, and variety.

In the past, Rachel focused on training and winning championships, so she’d never fought with Callie for the attention of any guy. Callie, who looked like a tall, warrior princess with big boobs had tried figure skating, but she’d never had the same passion for it as Rachel did.

At times, Rachel envied Callie’s Amazonian beauty. Unlike her friend, Rachel had been saddled with thick thighs, wide hips, short legs, and a small chest. But her build made her powerful and gave her a low center of gravity. Perfect for explosive jumps on the ice, not so perfect for attracting men.

“He’s cute,” Rachel said with a shrug. No way was she going to let her friend know how he made her heart race. Callie might not have been competitive about figure skating, but she was certainly competitive when it came to men.

“Do you know who he is?”

Rachel shrugged. “I just got back, girl. How am I supposed to know? Have you seen him around before?”

“First time.”

The man turned toward the center of the barroom and swept his gaze over the tables and booths. His eyes connected with Rachel’s for an instant and her insides went slushy. Oh, man. He could thaw an iceberg. She smiled, trying for cool confidence. He quirked a brow, then swiveled back around in his seat and sipped his beer.

“Are you okay?” Callie asked.

“Uh…yes,” Rachel said. “Why do you ask?”

“You were smiling like a constipated baby.” Callie tilted her head sideways at Rachel. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. Jeezus.” Great. She’d tried to look confident, but had only managed to appear gassy. No wonder he’d looked away. “I need another drink.”

Callie laughed. “Especially if you’re going to explain to your parents why you’ve been back in town for two days and you haven’t been home.”

Rachel sighed. “I can’t take Mom criticizing my failures at the World Championships last year. I’m too old for competition.”

“So old. Twenty-six. You’re practically a dinosaur.”

“In the skating world, you betcha.” She smiled as her Minnesota accent crept in. You could take the girl out of the north, but you couldn’t take the north out of the girl.

“If you hadn’t tried to land that quadruple toe, triple lutz, and double salchow.”

“I landed that with one foot.”

“That’s not what the judges said.”

“The judges were assholes.”

Callie smiled. “You really should have won.”

“Hellz yes.” They clinked glasses and drank up.

“Look, Ray,” her friend said, exchanging one painful subject to another. “I can understand freezing your mom out, but what about your dad?”

“He lets Mom walk all over me. I think that bugs me even more than her behavior.”

“Well, tomorrow you deal with them. Tonight, we drink!” She raised her hand and gestured to the waitress lifted her glass and showed two fingers.

The first drinks they’d had earlier had been strong, and the second one was already making Rachel feel fuzzy and warm. A third would probably put her under the table. She didn’t protest, though. If she were going to face the parents in the morning, she’d need some liquid courage tonight.

* * * *

Max Gray sipped his beer, unconcerned by most of the crowd. He’d been sent by his father to Silver Lake, Minnesota to investigate an anonymous tip that the Children of Caledon, a fanatical terrorist group had formed a faction in the small town. His cousin Benie and her husbands, the Triune of Caledon, were the rightful rulers. Yet, supporters of King Garrick continued to cause trouble. The man was dead, and still he made life hell for everyone.

Max knew well the cruelty of Garrick. When Max was barely seventeen, he’d been captured and tortured. Frustrated by Max’s silent refusal to give up his family, the barbaric king removed Max’s tongue so that he would never talk again. Luckily, one of Benie’s husbands, Ian Arent, a mad scientist of sorts, had figured out a way to give Max back his tongue.

Yet, he still had to beg Father for this solo assignment. Max needed to prove once and for all that he was just as tough, just as capable, and just as good a shadow warrior as his brothers. He needed his father to see that he was equal to Destan and Eustan.

When his gaze landed on the beautiful and familiar-looking brunette with dark brown eyes, he didn’t linger. He felt a strong pull of desire toward her, and that confused him. No matter. He was here to discover who or what in this town was working against the crown. His father had instructed him explicitly not to engage with the targets. Observe and report. No matter how much Max wanted to be in the thick of the action, he wouldn’t disobey or disappoint Father. Not again.

He’d heard rumors of strange activity at the bar and in the nearby area, but in the two nights he’d been here, he’d neither witnessed nor sensed any abnormalities. He wondered if the tip had been real or if someone had called it in just to throw the Shadow Warriors off the scent. His gaze wandered to the curvy, petite brunette with hips that could explode a volcano and eyes that pierced his soul.

His cock grew hard just thinking about her.

Fuck, he was in trouble.

* * * *

A man stumbled over to their table. Oh, God. Not him. Thomas “Tommy” Ritter was broadly built across the shoulders with narrow hips and long legs. She’d known him since elementary school, and he’d been a jerk since day one.

“Hey, Cals.” He leaned over and gave Callie a kiss on the cheek then spared a glance for Rachel. “What are you doing back in town? I thought you doing some big time show.”

“I’m back for Christmas with the folks.”

He leered at her. “While you’re here, I’d love to show you some real moves on the ice.”

Tommy was the star of the town’s amateur hockey league. There were some who thought he’d go pro after high school, but he hadn’t had the guts to escape small town life.

Sometimes Rachel felt sorry for him, but not tonight. He peeked down Callie’s blouse and then raked his gaze over Rachel’s hips. He was so damned skeevy.

“Go away,” she said.

The smile slid from his face. “You’re still a bitch, Rachel.”

“Come on, Tommy.” Callie’s voice was strained. “Leave her alone. She’s not in the mood.”

A salacious grin returned to his face. “I can help your mood, baby.”

“You sure can,” she said sweetly. “By disappearing.”

“Rachel,” Callie warned.

She ignored Callie and made a shooing motion. “Buh-bye.”

Tommy grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her to her feet.

“Hey!” She tried to kick him, but he held her so tight she could barely move. Cold fear zipped up her spine. For a split second his eyes seemed to change color from green to red then back to green. “Get your paws off me, creep!”

“Watch your mouth ice princess.”

“Tommy!” Callie smacked his shoulder. “Put her down!”

“Shut up, Cals. This ain’t about you.”

“Is there a problem?” growled a low male voice.

Rachel, wide-eyed and trembling, turned her head. Tall, dark, and brooding from the bar stood close enough that she could feel the heat from his skin against her shoulder. Up close, his eyes were the lightest shade of gray she’d ever seen. The man’s intimidating gaze pinned Tommy’s.

“Release her.”

Tommy let go of her and the momentum sent her careening into Callie. Her friend grabbed her and steadied them both.

He winked at Rachel. “I’ll catch you later.”

The ominous way he said “catch” made Rachel shiver. Tommy had always been cocky, but now he was downright scary. She rubbed her arms to alleviate goose bumps.

“Are you all right?” the dark-haired man asked.

“Yes, fine.” She watched Tommy stop to talk to a man she didn’t recognize, and then leave. That douchebag was just one more reason on a long list of reasons she hated visiting home.

Callie thrust her hand out to the new guy. “I’m Callista Waithe.” She leaned forward to give him a nice view down her low cut blouse. “My friends call me Callie. You want to be my friend?”

The man took Callie’s hand and gave it a brief shake. “I’m Max. Nice to meet you.” He hit her best friend with a beaming smile that created deep dimples in his cheeks. After, he turned the full force and charm of that handsome face on Rachel. She damn near swooned. “And you are?”

“Rachel Campbell.”

“Ooo!” Callie said. “Drinkies!”

Her bestie took drinks from the barmaid’s tray. She handed one of the tall glasses to Rachel.

“Here you go, Ray-ray.” She clinked their glasses. “To being home.”

Rachel turned toward Max, but the gorgeous man had simply vanished. She swept her gaze around the room. Gone. Damn it.

She slumped back into her chair and mumbled, “To being home,” before taking a long sip of the tartly sweet drink. Without enthusiasm, she added, “Yay me.”

Chapter 2

By Gods, the short beauty was gutsy. The way she’d stood up to the bully named Tommy had been oddly sexy. He was supposed to be keeping a low profile. But when the man grabbed her, Max couldn’t stop himself from intervening. His father wouldn’t have approved of him stepping in on a bar fight, but something about the lovely brunette had been so familiar, important. When he’d gotten close enough to touch her, it had taken all his willpower to keep his hands to himself.

Then he’d remembered her.

The woman was none other than “Frosty” Rachel Campbell, a silver medalist in the last two World Winter Games and a three-time world champion figure skater. She had a reputation for being cool on and off the ice.

Danger, the crazy kind, rolled off Tommy in waves. He was a predator. But was he an other worlder? A Child of Caledon? Maybe.

Thinking of the mission, Max followed him out of the bar.

The earlier snow flurries had turned into a freaking blizzard. Max pulled his coat up around his ears. He ducked behind an old truck and observed Tommy join a group of men huddled near a luxury SUV. The huge flakes of falling snow made it impossible to get a good look at any of them. When they disbanded to different areas of the parking lot but didn’t get into any vehicles, Max went on high alert.

For the longest time, nothing happened. He couldn’t keep his mind off a certain feisty woman. It had been a long time since Max had held such a beauty in his arms. Too long. Another pained memory surfaced. His first and last real crush had led him into a deadly trap. His father killed her for it, and Max never forgot the lesson. Don’t trust your dick, he told himself. He shook his head. With Rachel, it was more than lust. She had an indescribable allure.

Was she other? Would she know about his kind?

After another thirty minutes passed, the storm finally died down to a light dusting. The tiny flakes reflected moonlight as they sifted to the ground. The front door of the bar opened, and Rachel, pale and sweating, stumbled out into the parking lot. When Tommy jogged toward her, Max resisted the urge to intervene. Unless she were in real danger, he couldn’t risk blowing the assignment. His father had named his group of agents “shadow warriors,” not “in-your-face warriors,” and if Max didn’t get this right, he might be an “out-of-a-job warrior.”

* * * *

Rachel swayed as the cold air blew across her hot, hot face. The third cocktail had slammed her really hard after just a few sips. She’d started to feel light-headed, and the inside of the bar had taken on a dream-like appearance. Callie had gone off to flirt with some young stud in a dime-store cowboy hat, so Rachel was on her own. She needed fresh air. She inhaled deeply, smiling as the snowflakes melted on her face. The snow was the one thing, other than Callie, that she really missed about Silver Lake. The freezing temperatures invigorated her. They always had. Her head cleared a little as her core temp lowered, but she still couldn’t seem to concentrate. So, when someone took her arm and led her further out into the parking lot, Rachel didn’t fight.

Her tongue felt thick against her teeth. “I don’t feel well.”

“You’ll be fine. Just fine,” a voice said, but it sounded wrong, almost metallic.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Devil’s Breath,” was whispered in her ear. “It’s a sweet little drug that makes stuck-up girls like you more compliant.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand.”

“You humiliated me, bitch.” The person holding Rachel turned her until she could make out a face. Tommy.

He laughed as he turned her in a circle, reminding her of a children’s party game. When he stopped, nausea came with the dizziness. She managed to steady herself and saw at least twelve other men surrounding her. The drug made it impossible to see any of them clearly. Her legs gave out, and she sank to her knees. The snow seeped through her jeans, but she barely felt its biting cold.

He paced around her. “You think you’re some kind of star, Rachel. But not here. In Silver Lake, you’re nothing.”

The sharp sting in her cheek told her she’d been slapped, but she felt too sluggish to move.

“Take your clothes off, Rachel.”

Her mind screamed no, but her body wasn’t listening. Some other force controlled her. She took off her coat and drew her shirt over her head. She managed to cover her breasts.

The men surrounding her guffawed. “Don’t flatter yourself, Rachel. I’m not going to fuck you.” He leaned down. His eyes were the russet color of a sunset. His teeth were jagged and pointy. Rachel couldn’t comprehend what she was looking at. Tommy … but not Tommy. “I’m going to strip your flesh from your bones and feast on your carcass.”

Reflexively, Rachel’s head snapped back. The light airiness of the cold breeze surrounding her made her feel as if she were levitating. There was a crackling in her head like falling frozen tree limbs, then her mouth opened and a piercing shriek ripped from her throat.

“Damn it!” Tommy shouted, his hand flying to his ears as his knees buckled beneath him.

The rest of men in the circle dropped to the ground, too. Rachel felt drained. She tried to focus her fuzzy vision on Tommy as he rose to his feet and closed the gap between them.

He raised his fist. “Fucking bitch.” His hands were misshapen and clawed. Too surreal to be real.

A growl tore from his lips, and he shoved her. She slammed into something solid and two strong arms wrapped around her chest. She vaguely recognized the voice. Max. Her champion. It was two against a dozen.

“There’s too many,” she said. “Too many.”

“Don’t worry about them.” She heard ruffling as if someone shook out a sheet, and then Max said, “Hold on, Rachel.”

Before she could even wonder what he meant, the ground was ten feet below her and her feet dangled in the air. She looked down and saw twinkling Christmas lights, glittery mounds of snow, and itty bitty houses. Despite the odd view, she felt safe and protected.

That was her last thought before she passed out.

* * * *

Max cradled Rachel in his arms. When she’d screamed, the noise had nearly burst his eardrums and froze him in place. After he could move again, he’d bolted right into the thick of it to save her. Halfway to his rental cabin near the lake, she’d passed out.

Rachel needed his help.

But he’d believed his lover, his betrayer, Ashlan had needed his help, too. Stop it, Max. He wasn’t a teenager anymore, and Rachel wasn’t Ashlan. But he’d blown his cover. Even if he hadn’t jumped in the middle of them shouting, “Haha! I’m a shadow warrior,” his huge wings were a neon sign. Tommy was definitely other. He would know that Max was a dragon shifter. Max’s only hope was that the asshole hadn’t recognized him as one of the Gray triplets.

Rachel’s cry had nearly crippled him as well as her assailants. He’d never heard anything like what came from her mouth. It marked her as an other worlder, but Max had no idea what she could be. A harpy? A banshee?

“Dad is going to kill me,” he said to the unconscious woman in his arms. He noticed her lips were blue. He picked up airspeed. “Hang on, sweetheart. I’ll keep you safe,” he promised.

With more determination than he’d felt in a long time, Max knew he’d do whatever it took to keep his word. Even if it meant disappointing his dad.

* * * *

“You’re a goddamn idiot, Ritter.” The shadowed man sat at his desk, the small lamp in front of him illuminating his thin fingers.

The words stung Tommy like a slap in the face with a cold, wet towel. Rachel had called him an idiot as well. He was beginning to regret joining the ancient amphyr and the Children of Caledon. He was amphyr as well, but only half. His mother had been human. He’d brought several of his hockey buddies, others like himself, into the fold. The amphyr were nearly immortal, and they were the creatures legend and myth had deemed vampires. He liked to think of himself as the heroic, romantic version depicted on television and in the movies. But he had a craving for human flesh and blood so strong that it made intimacies impossible without killing his dates. The ancient one had promised him a new life. New power. And the freedom to take his rightful place at the top of the food chain.

But right now, being yelled at like a child, Tommy felt anything but powerful.

“What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that bitch deserved some payback.”

“That bitch is a legend around here. If something were to happen to her, it would draw all kinds of attention to us and not just locally. We’d be lucky if they didn’t pull in the feds to help investigate, and worse, it might bring shadow warriors down on our heads.”

“I didn’t think—”

“Damn right, you didn’t think!” his leader snapped.

“I thought she was human. I’ve known her since grade school. She’s never shown any signs of being other. That scream froze me in place.”

“I heard and felt it,” the man said. “A jotnar’s roar. I haven’t heard one of their calls in many, many years. I thought they were extinct.”

“A what-nar?”

“If she is what I think she is, we might be able to turn your blunder into an opportunity.” He tapped his nails against the desk. “A jotnar horn might be exactly what we need to turn the tides of this war.”

“What do you mean?”

“Track down Rachel Campbell and bring her to me. Take her whole family if you have to.”

“What about the dragon who rescued her?”

“If he interferes again, capture him as well. He has me curious.”

Tommy smiled. He would get his second chance for payback with Rachel Campbell.

“Thomas,” the man said. He leaned forward. His red eyes glowed as the lamplight illuminated them. His ashen skin marked him as a pure blood. His teeth were sharp and jagged as he worked his jaw side to side. “Don’t mess this up, and don’t kill the girl. Not yet.”

Chapter 3

Rachel’s head pounded with what had to be the mother of all hangovers. Why had she drank so much the night before? Her mouth tasted like sour glue. She rubbed her face and eyes and tried to sit up without her head exploding. She yanked up the animal print throw blanket when it slid from her upper body. She was naked, except for her bra and panties! Had she undressed herself? Had someone else?

Her state of undress kicked in her adrenaline. This wasn’t her room at Callie’s! The walls were wood paneled, the furniture was mildly musty and screamed 1980s country comfort. Big cushions covered in a pale blue velour covered the oversized couch. She knew two things: She had no clue where she was, and she had no idea how she got here.

“Good morning.”

The low sexy voice and the smell of black coffee snapped her attention. Max—the hunk from the bar. Had she been so drunk she didn’t remember going home with him?

He wore loose fitting sweats that hung low on his hips, and the lack of a shirt showed his taut abs and the defined V that dipped below the waistband of the pants. Rachel’s mouth started watering, which just made the sour taste worse. The grossness of her booze breath aside, she couldn’t believe he’d taken home a woman too drunk to consent?

He held out a mug. “Not a morning person, huh?”

“I’m more of a not-waking-up-in-a-strange-room person.” She glared at him. Did they have sex? She didn’t feel different. She’d always expected her first time would flip a magic switch in her body that would mean she was finally a woman. Finally her own person. But she felt the same. The same old Rachel.

“Oh God,” she groaned. “I’m gonna have to do the walk of shame.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.” He moved closer, still holding out the steaming cup. “Do you like coffee? I can add cream and sugar if you like.”

She sighed, and knew her breath was powerful enough to knock out a rhino. She looked around. “Where’s your bathroom?”

“Down the hall on the right.”

She rose to her feet, suddenly feeling woozy with the effort. Max grabbed her elbow, but she jerked away.

“I’m fine.”

She wobbled toward the hallway, bumping against the corner before staggering into the narrow corridor. She opened the first door she found, and inside the smallish room was a full-sized bed, the covers messy and half on the floor. Okay. If they had had sex, how come she’d ended up on the couch? Either Max was a gentleman and hadn’t touched her or the sex had been so bad, he’d banished her to the living room.

“The right door,” he called out.

She turned and entered the tiny bathroom. The cold porcelain of the sink soothed her hot palms. As she stared at her make-up streaked eyes in the mirror, she cursed herself for being so stupid. How could she leave with a stranger? And why the hell hadn’t Callie been watching her back?

She tried to rationalize that if Max Gray had wanted to harm her, he’d had all night to do it. So, after getting her racing pulse under control, she washed her face, finger combed her jacked-up hair, found a travel-sized bottle of mouthwash to finger brush her teeth, and then yelled at the door, “Where are my clothes?”

* * * *

Max searched his duffle bag for a shirt that didn’t have more than a couple days of wear. He’d packed light, only three pairs of jeans, sweat pants, and a three T-shirts. He pulled out the blue one. It reminded him of her eyes. He brought it to his nose and inhaled. Not too smelly. It would be huge on her, more a nightgown than a shirt, but it would work.

Rachel obviously didn’t remember the night before. Whatever Tommy had given her must have affected her memory. If that were the case, he could understand why she was so unsettled. He debated the merits of telling her the truth. Well, not the truth about him or his mission. Did she know she was an other worlder? Not every OW realized they weren’t human until adulthood. Had he fallen for a ruse? Maybe she was a Child of Caldron and only made him believe she was in trouble. Max sighed. Maybe he hadn’t been ready for a solo mission. He grabbed her pants off the chair in the living room, walked down the hall, and knocked on the bathroom door.

“I have some clothes for you.”

The door opened three inches, and a small hand reached out and snatched the shirt and jeans from him. She slammed the door again.

Max shook his head. “Do you need anything else?”

“Some privacy. Thank you.” There was a quick pause. “Unless you want to hear me pee and stuff.”

He threw up his hands. “I’ll be in the front room.” The cabin had one bedroom, one bathroom, open kitchen—living room combo floor plan. While dragon shifters didn’t have the kind of hearing some shifters did, the place was small enough he’d have heard her pee no matter where he was in the place.

The water in the sink ran for fifteen minutes. Max was glad he’d taken his morning shower before Rachel woke up. When she came out of the room, she had his blue T-shirt on and tied in a knot that rested at the waist of her jeans.

His heart skipped a beat as she looked him square in the eye with a glare that probably scared the crap out of her ice-skating competition. “Where’s my shirt?”

“I… uh…” In a situation like this, the facts, or at least a version of them, was the best course of action. “You left it at the bar.”

“What!”

The sharp tone made him wince. “You were pretty out of it.”

She slumped down on the couch. “I don’t remember.” She looked up at Max, her eyes almost pleading. “I don’t remember any of it.”

“Do you remember me?”

“Only when you were in the bar.” Her cheeks reddened with a deep blush as she tugged at the shirt. “I don’t remember anything after you left.”

Max studied her. “We didn’t sleep together.”

The relief was visible on her face.

Max raised a brow. “When we make love, Rachel Campbell, you’ll remember.”

“When?” She brushed her knees with her fingertips then looked up to meet his gaze. “You certainly are sure of yourself, Max Gray.”

“Very sure.” The moment he’d seen Rachel across the bar, he’d known he wanted her. This ice princess would be his, even if she didn’t realize it yet.

“I’m going to marry you,” Max said.

“What?”

Max smiled and shrugged as if he hadn’t said a word.

Rachel shook her head. She got up from the couch, strolled to the front window, and rubbed the chill from her upper arms as she stared at the snow-covered ground. “I don’t see your car. How’d you get me here?”

“I hitched us a ride on Santa’s sleigh.”

Rachel gave him a sharp look.

Max laughed. “’Tis the season and all.”

“Shoot. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m supposed to be at my parents this morning. All my clothes are at Callie’s house, and unless you can get another sleigh and ten flying reindeer out here, I’m screwed.”

“Not yet.”

Her mouth dropped open. “You’re an awful person.” But her smile and sudden laugh took the edge off her words. “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone flirt this hard with me before.”

“I’m not flirting.” Max smiled back. “Okay. Maybe a little. But I’m cute. Right?”

“There is that,” Rachel admitted. She laughed again and made her way back to the couch to sit. “Did my purse make it?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Do you at least have a phone?”

“That I do.”

“Good. I should probably call Callie and my parents and let them know I haven’t been kidnapped by a homicidal maniac.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re not a homicidal maniac are you?”

“Well, I’m not homicidal.”

Rachel laughed again.

Max felt a warm glow in his chest. Her laugh made him happy. Happier than he’d felt in a long time. He grabbed his phone from the charger and handed it to her.

“Well, damn,” she said. “No bars.”

“They were full last night.”

“The storm probably took out the cell tower.” She sighed and put the phone down on the coffee table. “I still don’t understand what happened last night. I mean, you seem like a good guy and all, but I have never gone home with a stranger. Never.” Her emphatic stare matched the insistence in her tone.

Max wasn’t sure how to explain why he’d brought her to his cabin. He didn’t have the practice his brothers did in making up plausible, mostly believable stories. Going so long without the ability to speak had turned him into a very bad liar. “I don’t know where to begin.”

“How about the beginning?” Her demure, uncertain smile, made him want to confess all to Rachel, and to feel like he could trust her so instinctively disturbed Max.

He decided to tell her the truth. The whole truth. When he got to the part about Tommy instructing her to take off her clothes, Rachel paled. “He—” She put her hand to her mouth and let out a gentle “oh.”

“No,” Max said. “It didn’t get that far. Your scream stopped him.”

Her face paled to bone-white, and her voice came as a whisper. “My what?”

“You know,” Max said. He tilted his head back and opened his mouth to mime her action.

“I don’t know, actually.” Her shoulders drew up near her ears.

“Are you a harpy?”

“Is that some kind of euphemism for bitch? Because I’ve been called worse.”

Max snorted. “No. I really don’t know what you are. I’ve never heard the kind of scream that came out of your mouth last night. It probably woke the entire town.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Did she really not know she wasn’t human? Or at least not all human? She’d used the call as if born to it, but watching her now, Max believed she was ignorant of her actions and of her OW status.

She tilted her chin and met his gaze. “You rescued me?”

“Yes.”

Her clear blue eyes mesmerized Max. This brave beauty, a woman he shouldn’t have concerned himself with, had become all he could think about.

“Thank you.”

She didn’t ask him how he’d managed to get her away from Tommy and his gang of thugs, and a part of him was disappointed. He wanted to tell Rachel what and who he was. He wanted her to know everything about him, about his world, and he knew to his core that if she asked, he wouldn’t hold anything back.

“I think I’d like to go home now.”

He wasn’t sure if it was safe for her to head back to town. Tommy might’ve made an impulsive decision, one he regretted and would not repeat. Max had busted out the dragon wings and flew her to safety. Maybe the man would shift his interest to Max and away from Rachel.

He weighed his concerns, but he figured she would be safe with her family. He finally said, “I have a snowmobile out back, but we’ll have to get you bundled up for the trip.”

Rachel nodded. “Thank you again.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” If Ritter and his goons decided to fixate on Rachel, Max alone might not be able to stop them.

* * * *

They’d stopped by Callie’s apartment first so Rachel could change clothes and make herself presentable, but her best friend hadn’t been home. She’d probably hooked up with the cowboy and ended up at his place. It left Rachel only one option. One she dreaded. Max parked the snowmobile in front of her childhood home. Reluctantly, she let him go.

She wore his parka, three sizes too big for her, even though she wasn’t cold. Max had insisted she put it on. It smelled like him, so she didn’t complain too much. She dismounted the snowmobile after Max. She craned her neck back to look up at his chiseled face. When he tipped his head to meet her gaze, her knees wobbled beneath her. His steel-gray eyes tantalized her like a cold soda on a scorching hot day, and she had to fight the impulse to climb up him to take a very big drink.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, effectively breaking the spell.

“Yes,” Rachel answered. “Will I see you again?” God, she wanted to see him again. And again.

Max’s wide mouth turned up at the corners, and uff-da, that smile made her pulse race and her sexy parts clench.

“I’d like to.”

Rachel gulped. “I’d like that too. You know, under better conditions.”

“You’re cold.” He reached out and rubbed her arms, and even through the thick down of the parka, she melted at his touch. “You should get inside.”

Inside. Ugh. With the parents. The exact opposite of what she wanted to do. “I’d almost rather freeze to death.”

“That bad?”

“Issues.”

“I understand.”

“Your parents are overbearing control freaks who think they know what’s best for you without even considering what you want?”

Max laughed. It was a low and rich tone that made Rachel smile. “You have no idea.”

Impulsively, Rachel grasped his shoulders and pulled him down as she rose onto her tiptoes and kissed the corner of his mouth.

He looked startled for a moment, but when she didn’t let him go, he cupped her cheek and leaned down even further to press his lips to hers. The kiss was soft and warm with just the right amount of insistence, and when he finally pulled back the look in his eyes, the heat of his yearning passion made her want to drop her panties in the snow.

She moved closer until their bodies were pressed together. Max opened his mouth as if to say something, but a loud shriek from her parents’ front porch shattered the mood. Rachel closed her eyes and groaned.

“Ray-ray!” Callie shouted, and Rachel could hear the joy in her best friend’s tone. “You dog!” She bounded to Rachel and Max, and when the two of them separated, Callie bumped her shoulder against shoulder. She leveled her gaze on Max, her expression weirdly serious. “Hello, friend.”

“Hello, Callie,” Max said.

“Cool.” The smile returned to her face. “You remembered my name. I like that in a man.” She gently slapped Rachel’s arm. “And you! I was freaking worried about you, and here you are, all sexed up. No wonder you’ve been incommunicado. When you didn’t come back into the bar last night to get your purse, and Jesus H. Christ, there was that gawd-awful scream, and then I’d found your jacket and shirt out near the parking lot, I thought I’d find you in a ditch somewhere. The storm was awful, which made searching for you damned near impossible. Though your mom stayed out all night.” Callie’s eyes widened. “She just got back a little while ago, and I’m damn sure glad I’m not you, girl. You are in trouble.” She warbled the word “trouble.” She looked Max up and down from head to toe. “Please tell me he was worth it.”

Rachel felt the heat of a blush rising in her cheeks. “Uhm.”

“I should go,” Max said. He pointed to the porch where a very stern-looking man and woman stood, arms crossed, and obvious disapproval written all over their faces. “You should get inside.”

Her dad, a first generation Norwegian-American, was tall and stocky. He dressed in his standard blue jeans and a button down shirt. He had neat, short blond hair and dark blue eyes. A sharp contrast to her mom, who was short and curvy in both hips and breasts. She wore her dark brown hair tied up in a loose bun, and even without makeup, she was beautiful.

The wind chill had to be ten below zero, but her mother’s stare was colder, and Rachel didn’t want to say goodbye to her handsome hero. “Maybe I could go with you.”

Max chuckled. “Parents first. Family’s important. Even when they’re overbearing.”

Rachel sighed. “Okay.”

He climbed on the snowmobile and started the engine, his broad shoulders as wide as the machine. With a short glance back, he nodded once then cranked the handle and buzzed off over the snow.

Callie tugged her arm. “Come on, you little vixen.”

Rachel allowed her BFF to drag her toward the house as she stared down the street after Max. She rarely let herself regret, but already she regretted not taking full advantage of alone time with such a sexy man. She regretted not being the vixen Callie thought she’d been. What if she never saw him again?

Her mother gave her a quick, perfunctory embrace when she stepped up on the porch.

“Callista brought your bags over this morning.” Her lips were stretched in a tight smile and her light blue eyes, the same as Rachel’s, were hard. “They’re up in your room. I hope you remember the way.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. She wanted to say, “Why don’t you draw me a map,” but instead, she simply nodded her head. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Rachel,” her father said when she got to the door. “It’s good to have you safe at home.”

* * * *

Max drove until he was just out of Rachel’s sight. She had tasted of coffee and brown sugar. Since she’d only had black coffee, the sweetness had surprised him. He wanted more. Max’s phone rang—apparently, the cell towers were working again—and he pulled it from his coat pocket. He looked down at the number and shook his head.

It was Destan, the oldest of the triplets. Eustan had been born second and Max last. Because of birth order, they sometimes treated him like “the baby” instead of a man who arrived mere minutes after them.

Max sighed. He slid his thumb across the screen and put the phone to his ear. “Hey, Desty.”

“You got anything, Bro? Grayman wants the lowdown.”

Grayman was another name their father used. Mythology had turned Myron Gray into the boogey man of the fae world, and he’d found the reputation useful when he’d led the rebels against King Garrick, the murderer of Max’s aunt.

“Tell Dad I’m fine. Nothing to report right now, but I have a lead to follow. I’ll check in later if anything pans out.”

“Check in even if it doesn’t.”

“Aww. You’re worried about me.”

“Me? No way. If anything happens to you, I become Mom’s favorite.”

Max laughed. It was a running joke between the three brothers. Their mother, a lodai or noble among draganos, was passionate about their father, but she wasn’t always the picture of motherly love.

“I’ll check in.”

“Everything okay, Max?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Fine.”

“You want me to come?”

“No. I got this.”

“I could grab Eustan, no prob. He’s sitting on a mound of royal paperwork right now. I’m sure he’d love a chance to get away for a few days. We haven’t got to play Wonder Triplets in a while. Could be fun.”

“I’m good.” Max didn’t want Destan to think he wasn’t capable, and he’d be damned if he’d admit he wanted his brothers by his side. They were the two people in the world he trusted above all others to have his back. As a trio, they had the ability to communicate via telepathy when they were within a mile or two of each other. Max’s head felt almost empty without them. They had been the only people he could “talk” to for years after what Garrick had done to him.

Max sighed. Now that he had a new concern, Rachel’s safety, the back-up would have taken some of the pressure off. But he’d told his father he could handle this mission on his own. He needed to put Rachel out of his mind, but he couldn’t. She made him want to roar fire and carry her off to his cave.

“Max,” he heard Destan say. “You still there?”

“Yep.” A red SUV passed him. A driver and four passengers. He recognized the man in the front passenger seat as Thomas Ritter. Another truck, this one with three men in front and eight men carrying rifles in the back bed, followed. Both trucks were heading toward Rachel’s home. “Shit. I have to go.”

“Max,” his brother said. But Max hit the end button and pocketed the phone. When it rang again, he ignored the call, started the snowmobile’s engine, and took off after the vehicles.

End of Extended Sample

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