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Alexandra Jarvis lifted her forehead from the hand supporting it and peered over the jumble of files strewn across her desk. Fellow detective Raymond Joly stood in the doorway leading to the hallway and the elevators beyond, his enormous handlebar mustache covering the better part of his lower face. Was it just her, or did that thing keep getting bigger?
“You got company.” Joly jabbed his thumb toward the woman beside him before strolling away, coffee cup in hand.
Even before Alex’s gaze settled on her sister, she remembered. And winced. After three weeks of hedging, she’d finally given in and promised to meet Jen for an early lunch at—she shot a look at the clock above Jen’s head—half an hour ago. Great. The entire morning had dragged by in thirty-second increments, and somehow she’d still managed to lose track of time, giving her older sibling yet one more lecture topic.
Heaving a sigh, she climbed to her feet, grimacing at the stiffness of a body unaccustomed to week after week of desk duty. Three files slid off the pile, heading for the floor. Alex grabbed, missed, and with another sigh, stooped to retrieve the waterfall of paper.
Her sister arrived desk-side as she dropped the wayward files on top of the others.
“I think you’re losing.”
“I think I lost before I even started,” Alex replied. She’d known this lunch date was a bad idea. She and Jen had so little to say to one another these days, with both of them skirting the issue of what had happened. What might have happened. What Alex knew to be true and Jen preferred not to know at all.
Jen waved at the files. “What do they have you doing?”
“Cold cases. Making calls to see if anything new has turned up. Some of these go back thirty years, so you can imagine my success rate so far.” Alex grimaced. She paused, then added, “And you can see how far behind I am.”
“Are you trying to get out of lunch, by any chance?”
“I wouldn’t if I didn’t have so much—” She met her sister’s brown eyes and stopped. She couldn’t lie. Not to Jen. Not after what she’d put her sister through. And her niece. She swallowed. “I just don’t want to get into anything with you, that’s all.”
Jen lifted her chin. “And I don’t want to start anything, but you have to know I’m worried about you, Alex.” She crossed her arms and looked away, biting at her lip. “You haven’t been over to the house, you never call Nina…”
“I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy with the insurance and the repairs and—” Again the lies stuck in Alex’s throat. Aware of far too many ears in the vicinity, she jerked her head toward the conference room. “Let’s go somewhere quieter.”
She led the way into the windowed room and closed the door behind them, then pasted a smile onto her face and turned to Jen. “So how is Nina, anyway?”
“You could call her yourself and ask.”
Her sister sighed. “She’s okay. We found a great therapist and Nina seems to like her. She still won’t sleep alone, but the nightmares aren’t as frequent.”
“That’s good. I’m glad.”
It was good—and nothing short of miraculous, given that Nina had witnessed the mass murder of twenty-one people, seen a Fallen Angel in his demonic form, very nearly been driven to suicide by the experience, and then narrowly escaped the Fallen One’s clutches when he’d come after Alex. A shudder rippled through Alex at the stir of memories. She crossed her arms over herself and perched on the edge of the conference table. Not going there, Jarvis. Not now. Not with Jen watching.
“The real question is, how are you?” Jen asked, her gaze moving to the scar at Alex’s throat, then dropping to the three additional ridges slashed across her chest.
Alex tightened her arms against the urge to pull her blouse closed over the remains of the gashes that had so nearly ended her life. “Surviving.”
“Are you still seeing the department psychologist?”
“Not by choice”—Alex grimaced—“but yes. It’s force policy. Roberts tried to pull some strings, but he didn’t get far.”
Her staff inspector had been amazing, in fact, doing everything he could to have the usual post-traumatic-event evaluation waived for her. Roberts might not know exactly what had happened in Alex’s house the night she’d almost died, but the careful way he didn’t ask too much told Alex that he had his suspicions. And that, like Jen, he would rather not know.
Not about the reality of Heaven and Hell, or angels and demons, or the impending war between them. A war almost certain to wipe out humanity.
“Is it helping?” Jen asked. “Have you told him what happened?”
Alex snorted at the idea of confiding in the pompous, irritating Dr. Bell. He’d restricted her to desk duty just based on what little he did know. If she told him a fraction of what she carried around in her head these days, he’d slap her into a psych ward and throw away the key.
Well, you see, Doc, it turns out my soulmate is an angel and he’s been cast out of Heaven because he fell in love with me and killed his twin brother. That was the demon who tried to do me in, by the way, and the whole mess may well have triggered the Apocalypse, and…
Oh, yeah. She could just imagine how fast the department shrink would draw up those commitment papers. Alex squeezed her eyelids shut against the ache in her right temple, a dull throb that never quite went away. Another leftover from her near-fatal confrontation with Aramael’s twin.
Opening her eyes, she met her sister’s frown. “Bell isn’t the confiding type.”
“Then ask for someone else. You need to talk to someone, Alex. I wish it could be me, but—” Jen broke off and looked away, her lips tight and her eyes suspiciously shiny.
“Hey.” Alex reached out and clasped her sister’s shoulders. “Would you stop? You have enough to worry about with Nina. I’m a big girl. Let me deal with my own issues, will you?”
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You’re not dealing with your issues. You’re just pretending they’re not there.”
Alex let her arms drop and curled her fingers over the edge of the table on either side of her. Knuckles aching, she stared at the light switch on the wall.
“If you can’t work with this Dr. Bell,” Jen said, “ask him to refer you. Or let me give you some names. You need to keep looking until you find someone you’re comfortable with. Someone who can help.”
Alex almost laughed at the idea any human being could help her deal with the kind of evil she had faced, the kind of evil that might be unleashed on the world. Except it wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t care what Jen or Bell or anyone said. Even if she could talk about the secrets she had come to know, she wouldn’t. Because when it came right down to it, she didn’t want to relive it. Didn’t want to think about any of it.
Not about Aramael, lost to her forever; not about Caim or a broken pact between Heaven and Hell; not about Heaven’s contingency plan or the Apocalypse waiting for humanity if that contingency plan failed.
She slid off the table. “Look, Jen, I know you want to help, and I appreciate it. Really I do. But as much as you don’t want to talk about it, neither do I. Can we please just leave it at that?”
Jen stalked the length of the conference room. “No, Alex, we can’t just leave it at that, because you can’t continue like this. You’re stretched so thin right now I’m afraid you’ll fly apart if someone sneezes too close. And I can’t help!”
“Is that what’s bugging you? That you can’t fix me again?”
“I never fixed you in the first place,” Jen muttered.
“Because it was never your responsibility. What Mom did—what Mom was—” Alex swallowed and pressed on. “What happened was horrific, Jen, but it’s over. Done. We both survived. It’s time to stop trying to compensate for something that happened twenty-three years ago and wasn’t your fault to begin with.”
A tear slid down Jennifer’s cheek.
Alex sighed. She went to Jen and hugged her, crossed arms and all. “You’re not responsible,” she said softly.
“I know. I just don’t know what I’ll do if you—I can’t lose you, Alex.”
Alex leaned her forehead against her sister’s. “You won’t lose me. I’m not Mom and I’m not that easy to get rid of.”
Jen sniffed. “Promise?”
Perhaps some lies weren’t all bad. “Promise. Now I really do have to get back to work before I lose my desk under the mess. How about I come by for dinner on Saturday? I’ll bring a movie and ice cream.”
Levering himself off the filthy pavement, Aramael swiped the back of his hand across his bottom lip and spat out a mouthful of blood. He forced his spine straight against a spark of pain and glared at the Fallen One perched on the fire escape above him. He really needed to stop taking back-alley shortcuts.
His attacker grinned back. “I didn’t believe it when they told me you were here,” he said. “Thought I’d see for myself.”
Aramael spat again. A weapon would be nice right now—something to compensate for the things he could no longer do as a Heavenly outcast—but he didn’t dare look away from his enemy long enough to find one. Even without using their supernatural powers, Fallen Ones moved way faster than he did in his new reality. They hit harder, too.
“You’ve seen,” he retorted. “Now you can go.”
The Fallen One uncoiled, stretched, and dropped lightly to the ground beside him. He linked his fingers and cracked his knuckles. “I don’t think so, Power. Your kind has caused a great deal of suffering among us. It seems only fair one of you should pay for some of it.”
Aramael scowled at the leather-clad figure. Bloody hell, he was getting tired of this. The discovery of his presence had been inevitable, of course; he’d known he would become a target at some point. One of their nemeses, stripped of his angelic powers and cast from Heaven—what Fallen One wouldn’t want a shot at that? But word had spread, the attacks came with increasing frequency, and Aramael’s plans disintegrated further with each.
His path had seemed so clear at first. Find Alexandra Jarvis, the soulmate from whom Mittron had taken such care to separate him, and rekindle the connection between them. If Mittron was right about Alex having once inspired Aramael to abilities beyond what he should have had, perhaps she might do so again. Perhaps he might, through her, stretch beyond his current capacity and find a way to stop Mittron. To stop Armageddon.
With the Fallen Ones dogging his every step, however, it would take him an entire mortal lifetime just to reach Alex—and by then, with his memory of her fading a little more with each rise and fall of the sun despite his best efforts to hold onto it, there might be nothing left to salvage. Nothing he could do.
He eyed his present tormentor, now circling just out of arm’s reach. Despite what the Fallen One may have heard about Aramael’s vulnerability, thousands of years of caution apparently died hard. Aramael was, after all, one of the select few angels capable of imprisoning Fallen Ones in Limbo. Or had been one of those angels until Mittron orchestrated his downfall.
Now, however, he was wingless, powerless, reduced to the same physical strength as a mortal, and sentenced to an eternity of having the crap kicked out of him by his former prey. And, worse, to watching from the sidelines as Heaven and Hell went to war.
He gritted his teeth and rolled his shoulders to ease the tension building there. It wasn’t in his nature to lie down and play dead, so he’d fight back as best he could. He might even land a few hits of his own. But if the three previous encounters were anything to go by, he didn’t expect to remain standing for long.
The Fallen One stepped in with a jab. Aramael blocked him and struck a glancing blow on his shoulder—a blow that, even to him, felt feeble. The Fallen One smirked.
A feral cat, scrounging through a pile of garbage, slinked out of sight behind a row of battered cans. Aramael braced himself. His enemy could take him down in a heartbeat, but he knew from experience it wouldn’t happen that way. There would be pain involved first. A lot of pain.
The Fallen One’s knuckles connected with his cheekbone and a starburst exploded behind Aramael’s eyes. Reeling back, he staggered and shook his head, trying to locate his aggressor through flashes of light. Another hit, this one to the gut. He grunted and doubled over, staying on his feet through sheer willpower. He would not fall this easily. A fist drove into his kidney and agony sheared through him, obliterating his resolve. His lungs sucked for air as all sense of his enemy’s whereabouts disappeared. Forced to his hands and knees, he waited for the next blows. They came quickly. Kicks, now, from which no amount of curling up could protect him.
Lying in the alley’s grunge, he endured the punishment. Grimly, resolutely, and with growing bitterness. He might not be able to stop Mittron, but if it took him the rest of his existence, the Highest Seraph would somehow answer for this. For the pain and humiliation; for the loss of what Aramael had so briefly found with Alexandra Jarvis; and for the treason that had brought it all to bear.
A booted foot crashed into Aramael’s skull, sending a wash of red across his vision. Awareness receded down the same darkening tunnel into which sound faded and sensation died away.
Deep inside, the life spark of the weakened vessel he had become snuffed out yet again.