Riley Blackthorne’s tears were no more. She’d cried herself dry, yet she still lingered in the arms of a dead man. If given the chance, she would remain in her father’s arms for the rest of her life.
When she looked up, sad brown eyes gazed back. Master Trapper Paul Blackthorne was a reanimated corpse now, summoned from his grave by none other than the Prince of Hell. Like the day he’d been buried, he wore his best suit and favorite red tie, the one she’d given him as a Christmas present.
On the run from the Vatican’s team of Demon Hunters, Riley had taken refuge in the home of Mortimer Alexander, a summoner of the dead. She had not expected to find her father waiting for her. Now, as they huddled together, she laid her head on his chest, seeking solace in his embrace.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered.
“I’ve missed you too, Pumpkin.”
This isn’t right. We’re just borrowing time.
Her dad should be in his grave. Then he would never know that Riley wasn’t his innocent little girl any longer, that she’d given up her virginity the night before.
I was a fool. Why did I let Ori do that?
She’d spent that night in the arms of someone who had said he would protect her. Who had claimed she was special and that he cherished her because she reminded him of Heaven. Morning brought the bitter truth—Ori’s protection came with a big price tag. Her lover, the Fallen angel, would watch over her only if she consigned her soul to Hell. Then Lucifer, the Prince, had arrived and turned Ori into a statue for failing to follow his orders.
Riley wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead. Her body felt like a war zone, some unknown fire burning inside her now.
What if I’m pregnant? She shuddered at the thought. Ori had said that wasn’t possible but that could have been a clever lie. Is that why the Demon Hunters wanted her? What would the child of a Fallen and a mortal be like? Normal? Evil? Somewhere in between?
What would the Church do to me and the baby?
When she shivered, her father broke the embrace.
“Come with me,” he said, taking her hand and slowly rising to his feet. “I need to feel the sunlight again.” He stopped in the kitchen and poured her a tall glass of apple juice, then they entered a walled garden, where cardinals and raucous blue jays flitted around a well-stocked bird feeder. Water cascaded from the fingers of a nude stone nymph perched in the center of a broad fountain. They settled on a stone bench still covered with frost, and Riley’s behind immediately reacted to the cold. Her father didn’t seem to notice it.
He handed her the juice. “Drink. You look awful.”
It wasn’t a good sign when a dead guy said you looked bad.
Riley took a long sip. It was cold and it tasted good. Clutching the glass in her hands, she gave in to the questions that careened around inside her.
“What’s it like to be … dead?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“You can’t tell me, can you?”
“No. Not like I thought,” he murmured.
The next question was harder. “Did you see Mom?”
He shook his head as his eyes clouded with sadness. “No.”
Riley’s heart fractured into smaller pieces. “Lucifer told me what you did. How you gave up your soul for me.”
Her dad’s eyes widened. “You spoke with the Prince?”
“He was in the graveyard this morning after…” Riley paused, biting down on her lip. No, can’t go there. Maybe someday she’d have the courage to admit what she’d done, but not now. “Lucifer said you pledged your soul to him so that Archfiend wouldn’t kill you. So you could take care of me.”
Her dad issued a resigned nod. “Your mother understood why I did it.”
“Mom knew?” she blurted. “Why didn’t you guys tell me?”
“You were too young.”
“That’s crap, and you know it,” she retorted. “I was old enough. What else haven’t you told me, Dad? What else is going to fall on my head when I’m not looking?”
He didn’t reply, his eyes not meeting hers. Which meant there was more.
It was so unfair. Her father was supposed to remain alive until she had become a master trapper.
“Lucifer didn’t keep his bargain,” she complained. “Your soul should be yours.”
“He said he wouldn’t release it, that I owed him a debt, but he wouldn’t say what.”
“So you’re stuck in Hell until he decides you’re not?”
Her father winced. “Don’t be angry. I did what was best. My soul isn’t important.”
He’s wrong. It was so important that Lucifer wasn’t willing to give it up even when her dad had died before his time.
“Does Mort know who summoned you?” There was a faint nod. “And he’s okay with that?” she asked, surprised.
“He was shocked, but he hasn’t thrown me to the wolves yet.”
“What about Beck?”
Her father shook his head. “I don’t look forward to the day he learns the truth. It’s going to tear him apart.”
Denver Beck, her dad’s trapping partner, had considered Paul Blackthorne a mentor. To learn he was aligned with Hell would be as devastating as when Beck had found out she’d slept with a Fallen.
Her father touched her arm. “I’ll see if our host has someplace for you to sleep. You need rest.”
Riley blinked to hold back the tears. “In a little bit,” she said, not wanting to be separated from him. Closing her eyes, she leaned against him, inhaling the confusing scents of oranges and cedar chips that seemed to be her father now. Desperate to find some good in all this disaster, she took his hand and squeezed it, remembering what it had been like before he died. When his hands were warm and his heart beating. When there had been all the time in the world.
* * *
The spare bedroom in Mort’s house was bright, decorated with cream walls and peach accents. It looked like a girl’s room, which made Riley wonder if he had a sister or a niece. She yawned, then pulled the curtains closed to reduce the light. As she pulled off her shirt, her long brown hair fell over her face. With it came the unmistakable scent of crisp night air. Ori’s scent.
“Damn you,” she swore, flinging her clothes in all directions, as if that might reverse the dark echoes of the angel’s touch. She fled into the shower stall, adjusting the temperature as cold as she could stand to combat the inferno inside her veins. As the water cascaded, she scrubbed her skin until it turned red. The memories refused to be washed away.
When Riley finally climbed into the bed, she curled into a fetal position, sleep tugging at her. She wasn’t the first to give up her virginity to a guy who said he’d always care for her. Riley had heard other girls admit the same mistake during whispered confessions in school restrooms. From this point on, she would always divide her life into Before and After the Angel. Statue or not, Ori would be inside her heart, affecting every chance at love for the rest of her days.
Just like Beck.
* * *
To Denver Beck, there were many ways to welcome a new day—spread-eagled on his own lawn, wrists secured by flex-cuffs wasn’t the best of them.
“What the hell is goin’ on?” he bellowed into the dirt.
The response was the sound of combat boots tromping around inside his house as their owners’ voices called out to each other in Italian. When there was a sharp shatter of glass, he swore. Beck closed his eyes to keep the dirt out of them and forced himself to relax. If he fought back, the Demon Hunter behind him might feel the need to make this his last day on earth.
I’ll be damned if I die like this.
His only choice was to remain here until the Vatican’s elite team finished its search. Which, from all the commotion, involved tearing his house apart.
When he heard a name in the midst of the voices flowing around him, he sighed into the dirt. They were searching for Riley Blackthorne, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Beck’s dead trapper buddy, Paul.
The day had sucked even before the paramilitary-style raid, one Beck was sure his neighbors were enjoying with their morning coffee. Right after dawn, Riley had arrived on his doorstep, weeping and shell-shocked. Through tears and sobs, she’d admitted her blackest sin: She’d spent the night with one of Lucifer’s own.
Beck had known this Ori guy was bad news from the first moment he’d seen him with Riley, but he’d never expected the bastard to be a Fallen angel.
Why him? Even now, he could see her huddled on the couch, weeping, as he’d shouted that very question at her. After all Beck had done for her, she’d taken up with that thing.
When he’d spat insults at Paul’s daughter, she’d responded in kind. Fearing how bad it might get between them, Beck had bolted from the house. When he’d returned a short time later he’d found his front door wide open and the Vatican’s team on the prowl.
More rapid-fire conversation bounced around him: Beck didn’t need to speak the language to hear the frustration. Since Riley wasn’t lying in the dirt beside him, the raid made the hunters look bad. They would need a scapegoat, and Beck would do just fine. A new voice cut in—one he recognized—it was the hunters’ captain. Apparently he’d finally decided to join the party.
Without warning, Beck was hauled roughly to his knees. Once he was up, he tried to wipe his mouth on a shoulder; it proved impossible with the flex-cuffs in place. The Demon Hunter with the rifle circled around to the side, the weapon pointed at Beck’s chest.
The captain of the unit squatted in front of him, his dark eyes flinty. Elias Salvatore was thirty-two, a decade older than Beck. He had a Mediterranean complexion, black hair, and a goatee, coupled with an athletic build. His navy turtleneck sported epaulettes and the Demon Hunters’ emblem—St. George slaying the dragon. Crisply pleated trousers were tucked neatly into polished combat boots.
“Mr. Beck,” he said evenly.
“Captain Salvatore. What the hell is goin’ on?”
“We were informed that Riley Blackthorne was here.”
Who told ya that?
“She was here a while ago. Must have left.”
The man’s eyes narrowed farther. “Where is she?”
“No idea.” It was a safe bet one of the neighbors had heard them shouting at each other, so he went with the truth in case the hunters bothered to check. “We had words.”
“That’s none of yer business,” Beck said. A second later, he was facedown in the dirt, a heavy boot pressing on his back.
The captain issued a crisp command and Beck was hauled up again. He gave a look over his shoulder and found that the boot belonged to Lieutenant Amundson, the captain’s second-in-command. He was a tall man, Nordic, and not known for his manners.
Beck spat dirt. “Get these damned cuffs off me.”
Salvatore gave a gesture. There was the snick of a knife, a stinging pain, then the cuffs fell away. Amundson had made sure to cut Beck’s palm in the process.
Beck wiped his hands on his jeans, then inspected the wound.
The captain delivered a penetrating look over the prisoner’s shoulder. He gestured for the lieutenant to move away. “I apologize.”
Beck clamped down on his fury. Throwing punches wouldn’t be a smart move at the moment.
Did the hunters know about Riley and the Fallen? They have to. Why else would they be lookin’ for her? Still, he didn’t dare make assumptions.
“What’s this all about?” Beck asked.
The captain rose. “Let’s go inside.”
Beck stood, dusted off his jeans, and retrieved his trapping bag from where it lay near the driveway. He felt the bottom of the canvas and was relieved to find it wasn’t wet, which meant none of the glass spheres inside had shattered when he’d been tackled by the hunters. He’d need those special magical globes to trap Hellspawn.
After ensuring they were alone, Salvatore closed the front door behind them. Beck had expected the place to have been turned inside out, but that wasn’t the case. The only damage appeared to be a glass that had been knocked off the counter. He ignored the mess on the floor and dropped onto the couch in the same place that Riley had occupied when she’d delivered her devastating news.
Where are ya girl? If she ran to her apartment, they’d find her there. If she was smart, she’d go to Angus Stewart, one of the two master trappers in the city. Stewart would watch over her.
The captain sat in a chair opposite him. He moved as if he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days. “We must find Riley Blackthorne as quickly as possible.”
“There’s a Fallen angel in Atlanta. His name is Ori. We believe he has targeted Paul Blackthorne’s daughter.”
Beck made sure he appeared shocked. It wasn’t hard. He still couldn’t believe that Riley had been with one of Lucifer’s allies.
“Why would one of those want her?”
“He is known for his seductions.”
Beck’s jaw tensed, but he didn’t reply.
“There is a strange pattern of events in this city, and that usually means there’s an epicenter, a focus to that activity.”
“If yer sayin’ that Riley’s the reason for all this—”
“What other conclusion can we draw?” Salvatore retorted. “Every demonic event in this city has centered on her: A Grade Five demon tried to kill her. The same fiend pressed its attack during the trappers’ meeting at the Tabernacle, and that ambush alone cost you a third of your Demon Trappers Guild.”
“I know the numbers, hunter,” Beck replied sullenly.
“If she is the nexus of this activity, we have to locate her and find a way to break that connection with Hell before more people die.”
Beck didn’t want to think about what “break that connection” meant. “Why a commando raid on my house? Ya could have knocked on the door like anyone else.”
“You weren’t home,” the captain observed. “Do you usually leave your house unlocked?”
Beck hesitated. “No. Why?”
“Both the front and back doors weren’t bolted, and your alarm wasn’t engaged. The back door was partially ajar, indicating a hasty departure, perhaps?” The captain leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Did you call Riley and warn her that we were coming?”
By now they’d have gone through his phone and know he’d called Riley after they’d quarreled, so he opted for the truth. “I didn’t know ya were comin’ here.”
“Yet you spoke to her.”
“Yeah. We argued about this Ori guy. He’d told her he was a freelance demon hunter, and I told her to stay away from. She wasn’t listenin’, so we had words. I called her to…” Why had he called her? Certainly not apologize, that was for sure.
“Where is she now?”
Beck shook his head. “I don’t know. Now I’m done talkin’ to ya unless the Guild’s lawyer is watchin’ my back.”
The captain sighed. “Look, I respect your loyalty to the girl’s father. Paul Blackthorne trained you, brought you up through the Guild. You were there when he died at the hands of the same demon that tried to kill his daughter. I know what you’re feeling, but we need your help.”
Salvatore scowled. “So be it.” He triggered a radio on his shoulder, and Italian filled the air. He’d barely finished giving the order when two hunters were through the front door.
The captain rose from, his face set. “Denver Beck, as representative of the Holy See, I arrest you for obstructing justice, additional charges to be filed at a later time. You are duly warned that if you are found to be aiding Hell in any manner, the ultimate penalty is death.”
“Go figure,” Beck muttered.
Copyright © 2012 by Jana Oliver