Kera Watson never expected to face death behind a Los Angeles coffee shop. Not after surviving two tours lugging an M16 around the Middle East. If it wasn't for her hot Viking customer showing up too late to help, nobody would even see her die.
In uncountable years of service to the Allfather Odin, Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom has never seen anyone kick ass with quite as much style as Kera. He knows one way to save her lifebut she might not like it. Signing up with the Crows will get Kera a new set of battle buddies: cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. With wings. So not the Marines.
But Vig can't give up on someone as special as Kera. With a storm of oh-crap magic speeding straight for L.A., survival will depend on combining their strengths: Kera's discipline, Vig's loyalty... and the Crows' sheer love of battle. Boy, are they in trouble.
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About the Author
Johanna Parker, an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, has earned an esteemed Audie Award and three Audie nominations. She has received high praise for her work in all genres, including her portrayal of Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series.
Read an Excerpt
By Shelly Laukenston
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Shelly Laurenston
All rights reserved.
She didn't know what woke her up.
The lightning and thunder crashing outside the bedroom window? A rare thing in the beginning of an L.A. summer; so maybe. Or the fact that she was in a strange bed? Or the fact that she was naked in a strange bed?
Or maybe it was the squeak of the bedroom door as it was eased open.
After more than a decade as a United States Marine, Kera didn't sleep deeply like she used to when she was a kid. She'd done her tours in the Middle East, and being prepared for anything had become a permanent part of her DNA. But it hadn't just been the enemy she'd had to watch out for. Sometimes, sadly, she'd been forced to protect herself from other Marines. Males who should have known better.
But she'd stupidly left all that behind more than eighteen months ago. Now she worked in a coffeehouse. She made overpriced coffee and sold overpriced baked goods to people who didn't think they could get through the day without their caffeine fix.
So then where the hell was she?
At the moment, Kera didn't know. She couldn't remember anything past taking out the trash from the coffeehouse because none of the wannabe actors and models and singers she worked with would get off their lazy asses and do it themselves. So Kera had done it. And then ... and then ...?
Someone leaned in close. Too close. It was a man. She didn't like men she didn't know being this close to her. It brought back uncomfortable memories. It made her muscles twitch and the hair on the back of her neck rise up in protest.
Kera could wait to see if he just went away, but "waiting to see" had never been one of her strong suits.
He didn't touch her, but he leaned in a little more. Like he was trying to see her face.
"Must be a new girl," he muttered.
"Snorri!" someone said from out in the hall. "Get moving! We're running out of time!"
Running out of time for what? And who the hell named their kid "Snorri"? Was this some kind of home invasion? And what home was Kera in? She tried to remember ... something. But her brain felt strangely hazy. Like a piece of cheesecloth was covering it, preventing her from seeing clearly.
That wasn't like her. She was known for her excellent memory and ability to quickly analyze and adjust accordingly.
God, how she missed the Marines. It hadn't been an easy life. Actually, it had been hard. Hard, but rewarding.
No, she wasn't. Kera wasn't dying.
You're on your last breath. So you have a choice to make.
Oh God. That's what she had said to Kera. The veiled woman standing by that big tree. She'd been tall and covered from head to foot in a sheer veil that still managed to hide everything. There'd been something about the woman, too. Something that radiated strength and intelligence ... and power.
God, who was that woman? What was her name? What was her—
My name is Skuld. And I'm offering you a chance at a second life. Will you take it? Will you join us?
And Kera's reply had been ... Under one condition.
Under one condition? What condition? What condition had Kera insisted upon? She couldn't remember. Why couldn't she remember?
The man glanced back at the partially opened door but whoever had spoken to him was gone.
"Demanding cow," he said, keeping his voice low. "Always ordering me around. I'll do what I want."
He turned back to Kera and that's when they both heard it. The low growl coming from beside Kera, the big body lifting off the bed and easing over her to viciously snarl at the man so close.
Kera couldn't say she physically recognized the animal giving the man a warning growl on Kera's behalf. But she still knew her. How could she not? They'd been together since the day Kera had rescued the creature. But she'd looked different then. A poor abused pit bull, missing part of her muzzle and most of her teeth. A fifty-pound female used for breeding and then left to rot tied to a truck motor near some warehouse in Kera's neighborhood.
But that wasn't the same dog now looming over Kera, and yet ... it was. It was Brodie. Kera's precious dog that she'd ... that she'd ...
"On one condition," she'd told the veiled woman. "I have to bring my dog."
Fathomless eyes had frowned at her over the veil. "What?"
"I'll take your offer ... but only if I can bring my dog. No dog, no deal."
"You're serious? You're willing to give up your chance at a second life for a dog?"
"I won't go without Brodie."
Folding her arms over her chest, the woman had held what looked like a watering can ... which seemed, to put it mildly, weird.
"You do know," the woman asked Kera, "that you're standing in front of me with a knife sticking out of your chest? Right? I send you back now, like this, and it's over. No second life. No feasting at Valhalla. No Ragnarok. You do understand that, right?"
"Not really. I don't know what Valhalla and Ragnarok have to do with anything. What I do know is that I don't go anywhere without Brodie. I'm not leaving her. She comes with me or I don't go. It's that simple."
"You'd give up everything I'm offering you for a dog?"
"She was there for me when no one else was. I won't leave her."
The woman leaned back a bit. "Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating."
But the veiled woman must have agreed to Kera's terms, because here was Brodie—true, a brand-new Brodie, but still—fangs bared, body tense, ready to strike at any minute while her muzzle pressed in close to the man, disgusting dog slobber sliding down his cheek. Appalled, he pulled back, stepping away from the bed and wiping his face while he shuddered.
Kera got to her knees while Brodie watched the man closely, and Kera couldn't believe how she felt.
Strong. Powerful. Mean.
Very, very mean. Because who the fuck was this guy in her room, sniffing around her? How was that okay? It wasn't. She knew it wasn't. She didn't know how she knew, but she knew he wasn't supposed to be here. And no one with him was supposed to be here either.
Kera looked down at her hands, curled her fingers into fists. She took in a deep breath, let it out. She was no longer just human, was she? The veiled woman had given her something more than just a second chance at life. She'd promised her power. For some that meant money, cars, expensive shoes. But for Kera it meant how her body felt at this moment. Like it could handle anything. Absolutely anything.
She looked up at the man and even in the dark room, she saw him blanch. Knew in that instant that he feared her.
And Kera liked that. She liked that a lot.
Freida moved through the Bird House hallway, ordering her Clan to move faster. They didn't have a lot of time. In and out, that's what this was supposed to be. In and out.
She realized that Snorri was still in that room. She didn't like that. Snorri was kind of stupid and had a tendency to not do what she needed him to do, when she needed him to do it. Of course, he didn't take orders from women well at all.
He was Old School Viking as the Clans liked to call it.
Freida just called it Old School Stupid.
She turned around and headed back toward the bedroom she'd left him in, but stopped when the partially closed door slammed shut all the way seconds before Snorri came crashing through it.
A few seconds later, a medium-sized, brown-skinned woman followed behind him. She was naked, thick brown hair reaching just past strong shoulders and even more powerful legs. A tattoo on her bicep said "United States Marine" and another on her upper left shoulder said "Donnie."
Freida didn't understand. The house was supposed to be empty. They'd used the theft of a powerful old ring that once belonged to Skuld to lure all of the inhabitants out. Not just one or two strike teams but all the Crows, so the entire house was empty. Then who the fuck was this Crow? Why was she here?
The Crow looked around, saw the rest of Freida's Clan.
She faced Freida and that's when Freida saw it. The just-healed wound right in the center of the woman's chest.
This one had been stabbed to death. Freida knew a stab wound when she saw one. Stabbed to death and then brought back by the goddess Skuld to fight as one of her Crows.
This was a new girl. Probably just died a few hours or even a few minutes ago.
That's why this woman was left here by the other Crows. It was too soon to take her out for battle.
Good, then she should be easy enough to—
Anders had crept up behind the woman from a room on the opposite side of the hall and swung his hammer at her head. While still staring at Freida, the woman had dropped into a crouch so Anders's hammer collided with the wall. Where it stuck.
While he tried to pry it loose, the Crow stood and grabbed Anders by his hair, yanked him down while bringing her knee up. She shattered his nose and his cheekbones with one move, then dragged him one way and the other until she planted him face-first into the wall.
Freida rolled her eyes. That's when the Crow grabbed Anders's hammer and with one pull freed it.
No one took her Clan's hammers. They were sacred. Each one made specifically for each warrior in the image of Thor's hammer, Mjolnir.
"You idiots!" Freida raged. "Stop the bitch!"
Her Clan poured from the other bedrooms and charged the new girl. The Crow hefted the hammer once ... then started swinging.
Disgusted, Freida went to handle the woman herself, but a hundred-pound pit bull walked out of the bedroom and bared its fangs at her.
This night was just getting better and better.
Kera really liked this hammer.
Of course, she didn't know people still used hammers for anything but rebuilding a house. At least not since the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But a weapon was a weapon as far as she was concerned. Besides, the hammer reminded her of playing softball in junior high and high school. She was a pretty good player back then ... and she was still a good player now, tossing these really big guys and gals around.
The men were all bare-chested with big brands burned directly into their chests. A circle with some kind of symbol in the middle. Maybe a letter. She didn't really know. It looked like a fucked-up P. The women wore tank tops, but they all had the same brand above their breasts and on part of their necks.
So a cult maybe? Kera didn't know. All that mattered at the moment was that she was being attacked and she had a hammer. The rest was pretty much instinct.
She swung the hammer again and slammed someone into the wall. She turned and swung it again, putting someone else through a door.
God, she felt strong. Her whole body seemed to be vibrating with newfound strength. It was amazing!
Kera swung the hammer again but it slammed into another hammer held by an older man. He had long white hair and a big beard. Like a biker ... or how she imagined Grizzly Adams would look in his sixties. Yet although his face suggested he was in his sixties, his body ... wow.
He locked their hammers together by the heads and yanked. He'd probably hoped that would take the hammer from Kera's hand, but she held on and let the man swing her.
First to one side, then another.
A little fed up, she dug her feet in and yanked back. She loved how the man's eyes popped wide when he was jerked forward several feet. Clearly he wasn't used to anyone being able to move him like that.
Kera jerked the hammer again, dragging the man down the hall. While she did, her dog, Brodie, had her back. Snapping and charging at anyone who got too close to Kera.
To this day, Kera couldn't tell what had possessed her to help the ugly little dog. Brodie had not been friendly. But Kera had just moved back to Los Angeles after leaving the Marines. She'd been feeling edgy, tense ... and angry. Getting work had been harder than she'd thought it would be. Her old friends from high school didn't know how to talk to her. They treated her like a freak, an outsider. At least that's the way it felt at the time. And that was perhaps what had attracted Kera to the dog. God knows, Brodie had looked like a freak, an outsider herself at that moment. In the end, it had turned out that ugly, mean little dog was willing to do anything, risk anything, to protect Kera.
And Brodies apparent reward for that loyalty? Well, now she was a tall, muscular, one hundred or so pound, beautiful pit bull with all her teeth and her muzzle undamaged. But Brodie was still willing to do anything, risk anything to protect Kera.
Still struggling for control over their hammers, Kera and the older cult member reached the end of the hall and made it to a circular area, a balcony, she guessed, that had more halls shooting from it, with more bedrooms. There were also two sets of stairs that went down at least three flights to the first floor, which she could easily see by looking over the banister. In the middle of all this was a giant crystal chandelier that probably cost more than Kera's parents' house.
Kera was in a mansion—and she was still unclear how she'd gotten here.
It was in that moment of shock that the older man made his move.
He lifted his hammer and, in the process, he lifted Kera.
Suddenly she was standing on the banister, her bare toes gripping the polished wood and her hold on that hammer the only thing keeping her from falling three flights.
Unable to unlock the heads of their weapons, the man started pushing the hammers toward Kera, which forced her back. She glanced behind her to see the unforgiving marble floor beneath her. She didn't want to fall, but the other cult members were coming at her again, swinging their hammers or just ramming them at her.
Fed up, Kera gripped her toes against the smooth wood as best she could, bent her knees, and with one good pull, yanked the old guy and his hammer over the side. He screamed as they fell, and Kera wrapped her legs around his bare chest and turned them both in the air so that when they landed ...
Freida looked over the banister and saw poor Pieter stretched out on the marble floor, blood starting to pool beneath his head. The new girl was on top of him, momentarily knocked out.
"Move!" Frieda ordered. "Now!"
They had to get out and they had to get out now.
She turned, gesturing to her people to go down one of the flights of stairs. As she started to follow, that damn dog came at her again. Frieda swung her hammer and the dog went flying into the wall all the way at the end of the hallway. It made that sound that dogs make when they're hurt, but before Frieda could reach the top of the closest set of stairs, the damn thing was already getting to its feet.
"Fuck," Frieda snarled before running down the stairs after her people.
"Out the back," she ordered. "Move!"
Frieda reached the last set of stairs in time to hear a grunt and she was not surprised to see the new girl was already getting to her feet, the hammer still in her hands.
With her legs braced on either side of Pieter, she swung the hammer at Lorens, who had been trying to get Pieter up.
Frieda hit the last step and let out a battle cry, charging the new Crow, her hammer raised.
The woman ducked as Frieda swung, and she ended up missing the Crow's head. She swung again and the woman caught Frieda's hammer with her own, the same way Pieter had caught the stolen hammer minutes before.
Great. A fast learner. Not what they needed right now.
Frieda yanked the woman, pulling her away from Pieter's body. Three of her people used that moment to pick Pieter up. He was still alive but bleeding badly and who knew what internal damage had been done. They needed a healer and they needed one soon.
Frieda yanked again and dragged the smaller woman over to her. With their weapons locked, Frieda leaned in and snarled. The smaller woman responded by head-butting her in the chin.
Frieda heard a crack and then, a second later, felt the pain as her jaw was dislocated. Not the first time that had happened, which was why she knew it had happened again.
Really pissed off now, Frieda charged forward, slamming the woman into the wall, pinning the Crow bitch there.
Barely able to swallow, Freida felt drool pour from between her clenched teeth, her mouth unable to open until she got it fixed. The sudden torrent of liquid might have disgusted the naked woman but it didn't stop her. Nothing seemed to stop her.
She shoved Frieda, the muscles in her arms bulging as she did so.
Excerpted from The Unleashing by Shelly Laukenston. Copyright © 2015 Shelly Laurenston. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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