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The familiar sound of clicking heels echoed through the entry, down the hal , and into the dining room.

“Oh, Nina, dear!” Cynthia said, her arms outstretched.

I stood, a bit startled when she took me into her arms. “Hel o, Mother.”

Cynthia relaxed her grip and held me at arm’s length. “I heard what happened. I trust you’re all right?” I nodded and she continued, “And the baby?” I nodded again, and she pul ed me against her once more. “That’s very good news. Good news, indeed.”

It felt a bit strange to have her at our dinner table, listening to the chaos and wreckage Claire and Bex described. She didn’t seem affected, however.

After Bex served dessert, I realized it would be our last time for several months to see Lil ian, and Cynthia, and that we were all trying very hard to pretend it wasn’t. The Ryels were a practiced family at this sort of thing, but I struggled to keep the sadness away. I caught Cynthia more than once glancing in my direction. I wasn’t sure if it was my bel y that held her curiosity or the fact that she wanted to memorize my face in case we never saw each other again.

After a proper amount of post-dinner socializing, Cynthia excused herself, citing a previous engagement. I walked her outside, and watched with a smile as Robert got out of the car and opened the back door for Cynthia.

Cynthia looked down at her expensive shoes, and then laughed once. “I could’ve been a better mother, Nina, dear.”

Her words caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure how to reply, but even if I had been, she didn’t give me the chance.

“It’s always been hard for me. I was never what one might cal a natural-born mother. These instincts that people talk about...wel , I never had them. Your father was always so good at hugs and kisses. I suppose I envied him for that.” She dabbed her nose with a tissue, and then looked up at me. “I do love you. If you’ve ever questioned that, please accept my sincerest apology.”

I grabbed her hand and offered a smile. I could feel my eyes threatening to tear. “I love you, too. I’ll see you soon.”

Cynthia took me in her arms, and beyond her thin shoulder and the porch light, I saw Robert’s shocked expression. She let me go, and without looking back, she left, her heels clicking against the pavement until she disappeared into the car.

I wasn’t ready to meet the curious stares of the others. I walked around to the back of the house, and leaned against a beam of the back porch.

Murmuring caught my attention, and I saw Ryan and Claire sitting on the porch swing, looking up at the sky.

She was giggling, and he nonchalantly rested his arm on the back of the swing behind her. She didn’t lean away, and I smiled at the scene.

“I had fun today,” Ryan said, watching for Claire’s reaction.

“I couldn’t tel .” She rol ed her eyes, but couldn’t hide her smile.

“My favorite part was when we traded places in the car.”

“I bet it was.”

They exchanged stories about the battle with the shel s, and laughed as they teased each other. Every time Claire was in Ryan’s line of sight, his eyes lit up, and his grin was so innocent and animated, it was infectious.

Ryan pushed back against the swing, and again they sat quietly, with just a few residual giggles interrupting the stil night. Claire held her feet out in front, her tan legs a perfect accessory to her cut off jean shorts and casual pink tank top. The black combat boots just made her outfit more ‘Claire’.

Ryan rubbed the back of his head, trying to seem casual. “I gotta tel ya. I’m a little nervous about the trip.”

Claire turned to him, squaring her shoulders. “Are you scared, little girl?”

Ryan huffed, playing off her taunt. “Scared. Psh. I can handle it. I’m nervous about how it’s going to turn out. What if something bad happens?”

Claire’s playful smile melted, and she faced forward. “It won’t.”

“But, what if it does?”

“Then I’ll fix it. I always do.”

“What if something happens and you can’t fix it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s only happened once.”

Ryan squared his shoulders, facing her completely. “You mean your dad?”

She only nodded.

“Have you ever been up against something like this?”

Claire paused for a long time. I wished that I could see her expression. I wasn’t sure if she was annoyed at his line of questioning, or she was afraid of the answer.

“Hey,” Ryan said. When Claire ignored him, he tapped her shoulder. “Hey.” She looked at him, then. “I’ll be right behind you. And I don’t mean that you can’t take care of yourself, because we all know you can. I just mean if something happens, I’m not going anywhere. Whatever you need.”

Claire took a breath. “I just assumed you already knew, but now I realize you don’t. Jared is the last line of defense, so if we lose them, we won’t know it. Do you understand?”

After a pause, Ryan nodded.

Claire continued, “The baby she is carrying is the most important thing. We have to protect it until we can’t.”

“The baby is important,” Ryan agreed. “But you are the most important thing to me.”

Claire watched him, and then her eyes fel to his lips. Ryan’s eyes turned soft, and then he leaned in.

Watching them suddenly felt wrong. I turned, trying to find the best way to escape. The way I came seemed to be the best exit, and I took a step back.

Claire smiled. “You’ve watched this long, you might as wel stay and watch it play out.”

“I’m...I’m sorry,” I said. My face instantly flushed.

Jared appeared at the back door, holding it wide open. “Everything okay?”

Ryan laughed and shook his head. “It was.”

“Oh,” Jared said with an awkward look. He and I traded glances, and then he retreated into the house.

Claire giggled, and then punched Ryan in the thigh.


“Wait up!” she said, fol owing me to the front yard. She was at my side in less than a second, and hooked her elbow around mine. “I meant what I said you know.”

“Which part?”

Claire stopped, her face fel , and she lowered her chin so I could see directly into her eyes. “I don’t know how all this wil play out. Knowing Jared, he has a plan B, C, and D, but if something goes wrong, We’ll just figure something else out. The only other option isn’t an option.” I shook my head, and Claire pul ed me into her chest with a tight squeeze. “Piece of cake.”

Jared stood at the Escalade with keys in hand. “We should get going. We stil have to stop by the warehouse.”

I nodded, and then waved to Claire. Ryan walked up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. It was so natural to see them standing next to each other, I couldn’t remember what it was like when Ryan didn’t know the Ryel secret, and he and Claire didn’t spend every waking moment together.

“See you on the plane,” Ryan said with a contrived smile.

I paused. “I’d understand if you didn’t want to go.”

Ryan shook his head. “I’m a marine, Nigh. I live for this shit.”

Jared tugged on my hand. When we reached the Escalade, he sighed.

“You’re worried for them.”

“No,” he said, starting the engine. “I’m worried for us, and what We’ll have to put up with when they don’t have an impending war to keep them entertained.”

Chapter Fifteen


Jared drove across town, and then took the highway that would lead us to the warehouse. Once we exited the highway and hit a dirt road, I knew we were close. The night sky was clear, and every star in the universe seemed to be present to watch over us. No wind, not even the sound of crickets or cicadas played for us as we parked and walked down the gravel drive. Jared unlocked the large, rusted lock of the gate, and then I fol owed him to the side door. Jared pushed the button, and then waited.

Accustomed to waiting ten or twenty minutes, I settled in, but the door immediately clicked, and Jared pul ed me inside.

“Now, that’s service,” I said, smiling.

Jared smiled back. “He’s expecting us.”

“Isn’t he always?”

The ful moon let in the only light, casting large shadows across the vast cement floor. My sandals scraped against the dirt, and echoed throughout the building. Jared walked across the room, stopping in the middle.

This time was different from the visits we’d made before. This time, I could feel Eli. I could almost smel him. It seemed like he was closing in; that he was in the next room and making sounds to signal he was heading our way, but there was no sound. I could only feel it.

His energy grew stronger, and then he was standing in front of us. The same ensemble as usual, I smiled at his casual sandals. I withstood the urge to hug him. He had saved our hides the last time I’d seen him, but I didn’t know where we stood now.

Eli’s smile was immediate and sincere. “Hel o, Nina. You look positively radiant! Doesn’t she look radiant, Jared?”

“She does,” Jared said.

“Time is so inconsistent between planes. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for you two. I trust the family is doing wel ?”

“So far,” I said.

Eli held one arm across his middle, and touched the other hand to his mouth as he feigned being lost in thought. “’re going on a trip, soon? Leaving this weekend?”

Jared nodded.

Eli’s eyes widened. “I heard. You real y aren’t going to make this easy for the dark side, are you?”

Jared took a breath. “You don’t seem concerned.”

Eli laughed once. “It’s hard to be concerned when nothing is a surprise. Just once I’d like to say, ‘Ohemgee!’ you know?”

I laughed, and Eli nodded, glad for my reaction.

Jared released my hand, and then rubbed the back of his neck. “This is no road trip. We need protection in the air.”

Eli pul ed his mouth to the side. “He’l remain neutral.”

Jared frowned. “How can I protect her if the plane goes down? This opens us up to any amount of obstacles. Power failure, engine failure...if we end up in the water, we could wind up in a storm with fifty-foot waves. That’s not balanced.”

Eli nodded. “True. I’ll put Samuel on it. Make sure things stay fair. Deal?”

“Good enough,” Jared nodded. “One more thing….”

“Oh, you’re ready, are you?” Eli said, his eyebrows shooting up.

I couldn’t help but smile. “That looks awful y close to surprise to me.”

Eli grinned from one ear to the other. “It feels like it, too. I should probably say, ‘Ohemgee’ to make it official, right? Ohemgee! You’re ready?”

Jared smiled and then looked down, nodding. “We’re ready.”

“For what?” I asked.

Eli’s expression softened. “The last question. The child is special, Jared. The first angel born to earth. As you already know, this child is capable of much, and has powers beyond your comprehension, but your wife is your only responsibility.”

Jared frowned, trying to understand what Eli was trying to tel him.

I gripped Jared’s arm. “But I thought once the baby is born, it’s protected. Isn’t that true?”

“Yes,” Eli said. “But Jared is not its protector. He is yours.”

Jared put his hand on mine. “Ask your question, Eli. Ask the only question left.”

“Can you trust her?” he said.

“Nina?” Jared said. He looked at me, confused.

I could see Eli staring at us. His words were soft and slow. “A mother’s love is everything, Jared. It is what brings a child into this world. It is what molds their entire being. When a mother sees her child in danger, she is literal y capable of anything. Mothers have lifted cars off of their children, and destroyed entire dynasties. A mother’s love is the strongest energy known to man. You must trust that love, and its power. Can you do that?”

Jared never took his eyes from mine. “Yes.”

Eli nodded. “Then have confidence to carry out your plans.”

I looked to Eli to tel him goodbye, but he had vanished. I took a deep breath, and threw my arms around my husband. “Do you feel better?”

“Not that I think you incapable, but I’m not practiced in the art of spectating.”

“He just told us we could go to Jerusalem and be safe! He just said everything wil be all right! Didn’t you hear him?”

Jared frowned. “I heard him tel me to hand you total control.”

I smiled. “And I heard you say you would.”

Jared nodded, clearly frustrated. “I know. I wil .” He took my hand and led me to the Escalade. I shot him a warning glare, and he winced. “I swear.”

“I don’t think he means that I should lead the operation. My love for our child wil keep it safe. I take that as a good thing, and it sounds very simple.”

“Too simple. I don’t want you thinking we’re going to land and take a taxi to the Sepulchre and everything work out as planned. It’s going to get messy, very fast.”

I squeezed his hand. “We can do it. We have to.”

Jared took my face in his hands and pressed his lips against mine. I grabbed his blue T-shirt in each of my fists and pul ed him closer. My stomach kept us farther apart than usual, but I was as close as I could get for the moment.

“Whoa!” Jared said, backing away.

I grabbed my stomach and laughed. “You felt that?”

“Of course I did. Think Bean’s trying to tel us something?”

“That we’re grossing him out?”