He would have called for Lysander, but the elite warrior angel was currently living in the heavens with Bianka and if there was a way to reach him, Aeron hadn’t been told what it was. Besides, Lysander didn’t like him and wasn’t the type to willingly offer information about his race.
“You want to be the responsible one, fine. But admit it.” Paris tossed him another grin. “You’re staking a claim on her.”
“No. I’m not.” He didn’t have even the smallest desire to do so. It was just that she was injured and couldn’t take care of herself, and was therefore in no position to be anyone’s bedmate. And that’s all Paris would want her for. Sex. No matter what the warrior claimed.
Besides, she’d called for Aeron. Screamed Aeron’s name.
Undeterred, Paris continued, “An angel isn’t technically human, you know. An angel is something more.”
Aeron popped his jaw. Of all the things for the man to remember from their earlier conversation. “I said I’m not staking a claim.”
Paris laughed. “Whatever you say, compadre. Enjoy your female.”
Aeron’s hands curled into fists, his friend’s laughter not so welcome now. “Go and tell Lucien everything we’ve discussed, but under no circumstances are you to inform the women that there’s a wounded angel here. They’ll raid my room wanting to meet her and now is not the time for that.”
“Why? Do you plan to make out with her?”
His teeth ground with so much force he feared they would soon be nothing but a fond memory. “I plan to question her.”
“Ah. So that’s what the kids are calling it these days. Well, have fun.” With that, a still-grinning Paris strolled from the room.
Alone once more with his charge, Aeron gazed down at her. Her silent sobbing ended, at least, and she faced him again.
“What are you doing here, Olivia?” Saying her name shouldn’t have affected him—he’d said it before, after all—but it did. His blood heated another degree. It must be those eyes of hers…piercing him…
A shuddering breath escaped her. “I knew the consequences, knew I was giving up my wings, my abilities, my immortality, but I did it anyway. It’s just…my job changed. Joy was no longer mine to give. Only death. And I hated what they wanted me to do. I couldn’t do it, Aeron. I just couldn’t.”
His name on her lips, uttered with such familiarity, affected him, too, and he sucked in a breath. What was wrong with him? Toughen up. Be the cold, hard warrior I know you can be.
“I watched you,” she continued, “as well as those around you, and I…ached. I wanted you, and I wanted what they had—freedom and love and fun. I wanted to play. I wanted to kiss and to touch. I wanted joy of my own.” Her gaze met his, bleak, broken. “In the end, I had a choice. Fall…or kill you. I decided to fall. So here I am. Yours.”
YOURS. SHE SHOULDN’T have said that.
Olivia froze in horror, one thought blasting through her mind louder than any other: she’d just ruined everything.She should have eased Aeron into the truth. After all, every time she’d approached him these past few weeks, he’d threatened her with agony and death. That she’d been invisible hadn’t mattered. He’d known she was nearby. How, she still hadn’t figured out. She should have been imperceptible, as insubstantial as a phantom of the night. And now that she was here, in the flesh and spilling her secrets, he probably viewed her as even more of a threat. He probably viewed her as an enemy.
Probably? She laughed without humor. He did. His questions had lashed at her, cutting deep. Yep. She’d ruined. He’d want nothing to do with her now. Well, except to bestow that agony and death upon her.
You didn’t fight your way from the depths of hell to be slaughtered in this fortress. She’d fought her way out of hell for a chance with Aeron. Despite the chance of failure.
You can do this. Having surreptitiously watched him time and time again, she felt she knew him pretty well. He was disciplined, distanced and brutally honest. He trusted no one but his friends. Weakness was not a trait he tolerated. And yet, to those he loved, he was kind, nurturing and solicitous. He placed their well-being above his own. I want to be loved like that.
If only he could have seen her before she’d been kicked out of the only home she’d ever known. If only he’d seen her before her ability to fly had been taken away. Before her newfound skill of creating weapons from air had been obliterated. Before her capacity to shield herself from this world’s evil had been removed.
She was weaker than a human. Having relied on her wings rather than her legs for the whole of her centuries-long existence, she didn’t even know how to walk properly. What if she couldn’t do this?
A sob escaped her. She’d given up her home and friends for pain, humiliation and helplessness. If Aeron kicked her out, too, she’d have nowhere to go.
“Don’t cry,” Aeron ground out.
“I can’t…help…it,” she replied between shuddering whimpers. Only once before had she shed tears—and those had sprung because of Aeron, as well, when she’d realized her feelings for him were completely overshadowing her sense of self-preservation.
The magnitude of what she’d done was now a screaming force inside her head. She was alone, trapped in a frail body she didn’t understand, and dependent on the mercy of a man who sometimes wreaked deathly havoc on an unsuspecting public. A public she, as a bringer of joy, had once been responsible for making happy.
“Try, damn you.”
“Can you…maybe…I don’t know…hold me?” she said between gasps of air.
“No.” He sounded horrified by the thought. “You will simply desist immediately.”
She cried all the harder. Had she been home her mentor, Lysander, would have gathered her close and cooed until she quieted. At least, she thought he would have done so, since the theory had never been tested.
Poor, sweet Lysander. Did he know she was gone? Did he know she could never return? He’d known she was fascinated with Aeron, spending every free moment in this plane to watch him in secret, unable to complete the terrible task she’d been given, but Lysander had never expected her to give up everything for the man.
To be honest, she hadn’t, either. Not really.
Perhaps she should have since her troubles had begun even before she’d first laid eyes on Aeron.
A few months ago, golden down appeared in her wings. But gold was the color of the warriors, and a warrior she had never longed to be. Even though it would have elevated her station.
Remembering her unhappiness, she sighed. There were three angelic castes. The Elite Seven, like Lysander, worked directly with the One True Deity. They had been selected at the beginning of time and never wavered in their duties to train other angels and monitor evil happenings. Next were the warriors. They destroyed the demons who managed to escape their fiery prisons. Last were the joy-bringers, as Olivia had once been.
Many of her brethren had experienced instant wing envy at the arrival of the golden down—nothing malicious, of course—but for the first time in her existence, she’d been uncertain of her path. Why had she been chosen for such a duty?
She’d loved the job she had. She’d loved whispering beautiful affirmations in human ears, bringing them confidence and pleasure. The thought of hurting another living being, even a deserving one… She shuddered.
That’s when she encountered those first thoughts about falling, about starting a new life. They’d been innocent thoughts, really. What if and maybe…And when she spied Aeron, those thoughts had intensified. What if they could be together? Maybe they could live happily ever after.
What would it be like to be human?
So by the time the Heavenly High Council, a daunting body composed of angels from each of the three factions, had called her into their tribunal chamber, she had expected to be chastised for her failure to destroy Aeron. Instead, she’d received an ultimatum.
She’d stood in the center of a spacious, white room, the ceiling domed, the walls forming a perfect circle. Columns had stretched all around, even the ivy climbing them a stark, pristine white. A throne sat between each of those columns, a regal form perched in every one.
Do you know why you are here, Olivia? a resonant voice had asked.
Yes. Though she trembled, her wings never ceased their graceful glide. They were long and majestic, the feathers a glorious white threaded with moonlit gold. To discuss Aeron of the Underworld.
We’ve been patient for weeks, Olivia. The emotionless voice had echoed like a war drum inside her head. We’ve given you countless opportunities to prove yourself. You failed each time.
I’m not meant to do this, she’d replied shakily.
You were. You are. There is no better way to spread joy than to save humans from evil. And that is what you will be doing with the completion of this task. This is your last chance. You will end Aeron’s life or we will end yours.
The councilor’s threat hadn’t been meant as a cruelty, she knew. That was simply the way of the heavens. A single drop of poison could ruin an ocean, and so every corrosive drop had to be wiped out before hitting the waves. Yet she’d protested anyway.
You cannot kill me without the True Deity’s blessing. And He would not give it. He was all that was tender and kind. He cared for his people, all of his people. Even wayward angels. Quite simply, He was love.
But we can send you away, ending life as you know it. The speaker had been female, but her voice was no less flat.
For a moment Olivia had had trouble catching her breath, and bright sparks of light had danced around her eyes. Lose her place? She’d just purchased a newer, bigger cloud. She’d promised to take over one of her friend’s joy-bringing shifts so that he could go on vacation—and she’d never before broken a promise. Still she’d persisted. Aeron isn’t evil. He doesn’t deserve to die.