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Alexandra Jarvis jolted awake, heart racing, lungs sucking for air. Bathed in sweat, she lay rigid, waiting for reality to replace the nightmare. Again. As she had every night since Lucifer had raped her.
Then, through the horror she’d begun to think she might never come to terms with, came the touch of a man’s gentle hand. She flinched, fighting back a shudder, and made herself relax.
“Again?” Seth’s deep voice asked quietly. She nodded. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t see her in the dark; after two weeks, he was as familiar with the nightmare as she was.
He tugged her close, and she let him slide an arm beneath her and curled into him, head resting on his chest. She focused on the steady tha-dump of his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his breath. Slowly her fingers uncurled. She matched her own breathing to his. Inhale, exhale, inhale.
His voice rumbled beneath her ear. “It’s not getting any better, Alex.”
She tensed anew, but his arm held firm. “I’m doing my best,” she muttered.
“I know. But I’ve been doing some reading”—his hold tightened against a second attempt to free herself—“and I think maybe you need help with this. I think it might be post–traumatic stress—”
She succeeded in pulling away, scowling down at him in the dark. “I know what it is, Seth. And you’re right. I probably should talk to someone, but who the hell do you suggest? Being raped by Lucifer himself isn’t something I can discuss with just anyone, for chrissakes. We mortals tend to medicate people who spout off about things like that. Especially people with my history.”
And you refuse to talk to me about any of it.
Seth stroked her hair. The faint tension in his hand told her he knew full well the words she’d bitten back, but once again he avoided the subject. “I know. And I know you’re trying. But you can’t go on like this. We can’t go on like this.”
Like this. Words too small to contain all that lay both behind and between them: the disappointment; the recriminations never stated but always underlying; the hurt she knew she inflicted whenever he reached for her and Lucifer loomed between them yet again. Lucifer in Seth’s form. Lucifer turning her into nothing more than another pawn in the cosmic mockery of a game he played with the One.
Reassurances gathered in her throat but refused to move farther. She couldn’t make herself say what she didn’t believe to be true, couldn’t promise that everything would be all right. Not anymore. Not knowing what she did of Heaven and Hell and the Nephilim and—
On the bedside table, her cell phone shrilled. She extricated herself from Seth’s hold and rolled over to grab it.
“I need you at a scene.”
Surprise made her fumble the phone. “Staff?”
“Does anyone else call you at three a.m. to attend a murder scene?” Staff Inspector Roberts growled.
Well, yes. Usually dispatch. She kept the observation to herself and reminded him instead, “I’m not cleared for active duty.”
Beside her, Seth switched on the lamp. She squinted against the glare.
“You are now. I’ll text you the address. You have twenty minutes to get your ass down here. Pick up coffee on your way.”
The phone went dead. Alex stared at it, trying to gather her muddled thoughts and sort through her myriad unanswered questions. How many victims? Why call her? Was everyone else tied up on other cases? She thought back to the mass murder wrought by Caim and shuddered. Please don’t let it be another like that…
Setting the phone down, she turned to find Seth propped up on one arm, his black eyes watchful.
“My supervisor wants me at a scene.”
“Did he say what it is?” Seth’s voice took on the hint of a growl, the way it did whenever they spoke of her job.
“Beyond a homicide? No.” Slipping out of bed, Alex stripped off her pajama bottoms and reached for the panties and slacks she’d hung on the back of the door in anticipation of her meeting with Roberts later that day. A meeting that was supposed to determine whether she could return to investigative duties.
She assumed it was canceled now.
“But you think it has to do with them,” Seth persisted.
Them. Angels, Fallen Ones, Heaven, Hell…
A whole other world paralleling her own, controlling it, threatening its very existence. Her fingers clamped onto the duvet. No. Michael had told her she was done with all that. He’d assured her the worst she would face would come from her own world, from humanity’s knee-jerk reaction to its own fear. Which, given what she’d come to expect of her fellow mortals, would be bad enough.
She shook off the creeping tentacles of doubt and continued dressing. “I’m sure it’s just an ordinary homicide,” she said. “Not that any homicide is ordinary, but—” She broke off. Sighed. “You know what I mean.”
“But what if it’s not? What if it is them? I want to come with you.”
“We’ve been over this.” She slipped into her blouse and then dropped onto the edge of the bed, reaching to stroke the hair, dark as his eyes, back from Seth’s forehead. “This is my job. It’s what I’m trained to do. Even if it is them, there’s nothing—”
She stopped, but not before Seth’s eyes hardened into obsidian.
“Nothing I can do?” he finished.
She bit back her denial. They both knew that’s what she’d been about to say. Just as they both knew it was the truth.
Silence stretched between them, thick with arguments already had and words scrupulously avoided. They’d been over this same territory at least once a day since their return from Vancouver a week ago, their ongoing disagreement adding to the tensions between them.
Seth was right. They couldn’t continue like this. She couldn’t continue like this.
She curled her fingers around his. “I know this is hard,” she said. “I’ll try to find someone I can talk to, all right? Just… give me time. I’ll get past this.”
Seth turned his hand palm up and linked his fingers with hers. For a long moment she let his love, his strength, seep into her. Then she rose, dropped a kiss on his lips, and left.
Aramael drew back from the rooftop edge as the door of the apartment building across the street opened. A woman stepped into the night, blond hair glinting briefly in the glow of the light above the door, and a tiny thread of awareness tugged deep inside him. Alexandra.
He didn’t need to see her features to be certain. He just…knew. The way he knew when she slept or woke. Or when she moved from one room to another in the apartment she shared with Seth Benjamin.
The thread inside him drew tight.
All things he wasn’t supposed to know anymore because he wasn’t supposed to care. He’d assured Mika’el that he didn’t, that any connection between him and Alex had been severed.
But here he was. Day after day, night after night, using his patrols of the earthly realm as an excuse to stay near, to check on her. To torture himself with the tiny, too intimate glimpses into her life without him. Her life with another. The life she’d chosen.
At first he’d told himself he only wanted to be sure she was all right. That she suffered no ill effects from her run-in with the second most powerful being in the universe. On his third night standing in this same spot on the sidewalk, however, he’d given up the pretense. For him, the soulmate connection remained. He knew now that it always would.
Mika’el would be furious if he found out.
So would Alex.
Flexing the massive black wings at his back, he wondered briefly if he would ever become accustomed to their weight, so much greater than that of the Power’s wings he’d once worn. Then, with a sigh, he saw Alex’s car pull out of the parking lot below and launched himself into the air above the city.
Seth watched Alex’s car roll out of the apartment parking lot and onto the night-emptied street eight stories below. Letting the curtain settle back across the window, he turned to face the apartment. Just him, the furniture, and who knew how many hours before her return. He flicked a glance in the direction of a soft tick, tick, tick.
Him, the furniture, and that damnable wall clock, ever so helpfully keeping count of those however many hours.
He lowered himself onto the sofa, elbows resting on knees, and traced a thumb across his bottom lip. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. None of it. Not after what they’d been through together, not after he’d brought her back from the brink of death—twice, and sure as Hell not after they’d chosen each other the way they had.
He’d given up all he had been, all he’d been destined to do. For her. For mortality.
He surveyed the room, lit by a single floor lamp standing alone in one corner. A rental property, it exuded not a hint of the woman he loved. Alex claimed she hadn’t had time to deal with rebuilding after Aramael and Caim’s battle had burned her former home to the ground, but Seth knew better. He saw in the hardness of her eyes that there was more to it. She might not have said so—might not have admitted it to herself—but the real reason she hadn’t rebuilt was because she didn’t see the point.
And he couldn’t argue with her.
Not with what he knew was coming.
It was bad enough that Lucifer and the One insisted on going to war, a war that would inevitably spill over into the mortal realm. But if Lucifer had been telling the truth about the eighty thousand Nephilim his followers had bred…
Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose. The human race didn’t stand a chance. It was just a matter of time until every mortal soul on the planet was wiped out, including Alex—and now that he’d given up his immortality, him.
Which was why none of this was how it was supposed to be. Alex trying to stem an unstoppable tide, him staring at a featureless beige wall, both apart for hours at a stretch instead of spending their time together, away from all of this. Away from her job, the constant threats, the relentless insanity gripping the universe. None of which he could do a bloody thing about.
Dissatisfaction gave a sinuous roll in his belly. Perhaps he’d been too quick to—
He opened his eyes, cutting his thoughts short. No. His former powers had no bearing here. He’d given them up because he didn’t want them, damn it. Because he’d wanted no more part in the endless battle between his parents. He’d chosen Alex over all of that. Had chosen… he stared at the featureless room again.
He’d chosen this. Of his own free will.
Now he’d have to make the best of it.