I’m excited for this release. It’s been a year and a half since the last book in this series, which is a decade in indie publishing. But after the second book, I wasn’t sure what to think of this series. Was it worth it to keep going? Could I do the series justice? Would anyone want to read it? But Demon Fire renewed my fire (pun sort of intended). I’m already writing the next book in this series and the characters are talking to me again. I’ve shared the first two chapters right here 🙂
If the world were fair, Boone Reamer wouldn’t be squirreled away in the Montana mountains, miles away from nosy people and their “Are you doing okay?” questions. If the world were fair, there wouldn’t be a snowstorm barreling down on his little cabin, keeping him isolated just the way he wanted, but also the way he hated. If the world were fair, he wouldn’t be staring down at a rumpled, bleeding woman who for all intents and purposes seemed to have been dropped in the middle of nowhere.
And if his luck weren’t shit, he wouldn’t have decided to check his snares before the bad weather bore down and dumped its load of heavy, wet snow on him and he wouldn’t have found this . . . person.
“Hey. You alive?” It wasn’t a stupid question, but he felt foolish asking it. He strapped his rifle over his back and adjusted the strap over his puffy winter parka. He leaned over her. There was no way she was alive. All that blood? No.
Was he hoping she was dead?
Either way, he’d have law enforcement crawling up his ass. Someone might google him and figure out who he was. Then he’d get those looks. The ones full of pity. The offers of help that he didn’t want or need.
If this woman was alive, he could drive her far enough to meet up with EMS, be nothing more than a Good Samaritan, and be on his way. He’d be quickly forgotten. The sooner he could be left the hell alone in his cabin, the better.
Alive was better. Alive was also better because he wasn’t a heartless bastard. He hadn’t dedicated his life to protecting the innocent only to lose his damn soul in the middle of Montana.
“Hey,” he tried again.
The woman didn’t twitch. Her slight body was crumpled in the snow, her back a bloodied mess, like someone had carved their initials on either side of her spine, tossed a burlap sack over her shoulders, and poofed her here. He couldn’t see her face, but she had a short mass of dirty-blond hair that looked dirtier against the pristine snow. She was on the petite side, but most women seemed small to his six foot two. Her bare legs were pale but that could be due to the cold. Any longer and they’d probably turn blue.
He squatted, his keen gaze searching the area around her. Large tracks were in the snow, but only by her body. They didn’t extend out. The guy—and from the size of the footprints, it had to be a guy—hadn’t dragged her. He hadn’t carried her. He hadn’t walked any fucking where but stood in this spot and left.
How had the mystery man pulled that off?
Boone adjusted his stocking hat and puffed out a breath. Condensation fogged up from his mouth. He was done with police work. This wasn’t his problem. Getting her to safety was. The cops could deal with the rest.
“Hey, lady,” he called louder.
Reaching out, he paused with his hand over the woman’s shoulder. For over two years, he’d been away from civilization, doing nothing more than grabbing a few groceries every other week. This moment loomed over him, more momentous than it had a right to be.
For fuck’s sake. She was dying and he was taking his time?
He tapped the stiff, cold shoulder. “Hey. Lady.”
She let out a low moan.
He blew out a hard breath and ran his hand over his black stocking hat. She was alive, then. He should check for a pulse or something. How quickly he’d lost those instincts, but it wasn’t like he’d had to use them recently.
“Can you walk?” His voice grated from disuse and he cleared his throat. The few times he’d gone into town, he’d said nothing more than “Yes, please” and “No, thanks.”
The woman shifted, a move as weak as the sun behind the thick clouds overhead.
He’d have to carry her. Good thing he traveled light otherwise. He had his rifle, and under his snow pants, he had two knives strapped to his hip. His parka pockets were loaded with trail mix and a cell phone—because as much as he didn’t want to deal with people, he also didn’t want to hurt himself and become wolf kibble in the mountains.
“I’m going to pick you up.” He said it so loud it startled a bird out of the trees to his left. The caws died in the wind and snow drifted down from the disrupted branches to land soundlessly on the ground.
The woman didn’t respond.
He considered the best way to transport her. He did not think about how he’d have to bring her back to his place. His sanctuary. No one else had been there since he’d moved in, since he’d put his suitcase down and tucked away his tormented memories as he stepped over the threshold.
But his pickup was as cold as the dirt in his driveway. The woman needed to warm up. He’d call for help from his cabin.
It’d been a long time since he’d been in a position to save someone. He’d constructed a new life, one in which he wasn’t responsible for anyone or anything. He didn’t even have a fucking dog—a stupid idea in a place where bears got a little too comfortable around humans.
Damn. He’d rather save a dog than this lady. He didn’t want her to die, he just didn’t want her to be his problem.
She needed to get out of the snow. Shrugging his rifle strap over his head, he set the weapon down, away from the woman, and took his coat off. The cold barely touched him through his red flannel shirt. He draped the coat over her body and put the rifle back over his head against his back. He steeled himself and wedged his arms under her, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pick her up without jostling her wounded back. A sharp gasp emanated from the mystery woman and she stiffened. She jerked her head around, her eyes wide, frantic.
He opened his mouth to tell her to calm the fuck down. He had to get her out of here before a nasty storm covered her in two feet of snow, but—
Her ethereal eyes were the loveliest shade of blue he’d ever seen. Tiny flecks of yellow deep in her irises sparkled like a thousand city lights under the cloud-covered sky.
Just as quickly as it had happened, her eyelids slid closed and she went limp once again.
He still didn’t move, afraid to cause her more pain, afraid she’d pierce him with those cornflower beauties that came too damn close to making him wish for things he had no business thinking about.
A gust of wind kicked up, stirring the loose top layer of snow and swirling it around him and the woman.
He’d be slow as it was carrying another human being. Delaying any longer just because she had really pretty eyes wasn’t helping either of them out. It’d be a race to make it back to his cabin before the weather made it too difficult for an ambulance to make it out to him.
As he carefully gathered her into his arms, he adjusted his coat and searched the rest of her body for obvious signs of injuries. Nowhere else was bloody, not like her back. He turned her over his shoulder to keep the pressure off her back and took one last look at the ground where she’d been lying. Nothing that’d give him a clue about who she was and how she’d ended up in the middle of the forest with nothing more than a sack to cover her.
Where had this angel come from?
Sierra struggled against the sweet lure of consciousness. Memories settled in place like a losing game of Tetris, showing her that she hadn’t been good enough to win at life. She’d played a hard game, tried to fit in, but the secrets had piled up too fast until she’d lost. She wasn’t ready to face the dismal circumstances of her new life. The closer she crawled out of the depths of nothing, the more she hurt.
Pain seared her back like out-of-control lightning up and down her body. She deserved it. Deserved all of it.
Especially losing her wings. Having them carved out of her was just the tip of what she was owed.
A male had lost his legs because of her. His position in society. His purpose.
They were angels, as immortal as a being could get. Yet she’d cost an immortal his limbs, thanks to angel fire and the intel she had given the enemies of her realm.
A product of my birth.
She’d tried so hard to be what her father had wanted her to be.
The memory of a tall shadow prowling around from behind her, boots crunching in the gravel, rose in her mind. Winger—aptly named, as he was the one responsible for physically cutting her downy, dark gray wings off. He was also the one responsible for wherever the hell she’d ended up.
“As per our laws, I’ve dumped you somewhere on Earth. A place where you have no friends, no family, no connections. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that as a fallen, you can have no contact with any angel from Numen. You can’t talk to them, and if they talk to you, they risk becoming like you—alone, pathetic, and bleeding in a heap.”
She hadn’t had the energy to look around. Light had pained her eyes, the agony in her back making everything hurt. The cold blunted it. Winger had abandoned her in some winter hell, as if he’d known she used to sit outside and soak up the rays, thankful for each day she had the opportunity to do so.
A sardonic laugh had rasped from her cracked lips after Winger had finished his declaration. Ow. Another part of her body in agony. Another memory that was crystal clear. She’d gnawed her lips raw trying to remain strong as her connection to the only home she’d ever known was sawed away.
Brutality and pain. It was inevitable. She caused it; she reaped it.
“Find something funny?” Winger’s voice had dripped with hate. A male she once used to joke around with had showed her no friendliness—and no mercy.
Wouldn’t he like to know what she found tragically humorous? Wouldn’t the whole realm of Numen like to know? But a stubborn part of her had held out. She should’ve learned her lesson and done whatever she could to protect her home, the place she’d sworn to protect as a warrior. But she’d held back. Letting her realm—her former realm—learn her deep, dark secrets would do her no good.
So she hadn’t answered and he’d left with a disgusted snarl, ascending back to Numen, a home she could never return to. She no longer had the ability, even should she wish to. And she didn’t wish to. Not at all.
Maybe if she weren’t such a shitty liar, she wouldn’t have found herself in this dire situation.
Something crackled. Her senses started firing and the smell of smoke tickled her nose. Her fingers were no longer blissfully numb. They ached, along with the rest of her body, but she wasn’t cold.
That didn’t make sense. She’d been outside in the snow. Now she wasn’t and it wasn’t due to any effort of her own.
She kept her eyes closed as she took in her surroundings, learning as much as she could while playing dead.
Crackling, interspersed with pops. A fire. She kept her breathing steady. The smoky smell was fresh, seeped into the very fibers of her surroundings. She didn’t get to experience a real fire too often. Over the years, she’d traveled and experienced the pleasantness of a hearth fire. But there was no need at home—
Her heart wrenched. Not home.
She took another measured breath, refraining from a deep inhale. Other than the campfire smell, there were hints of pine and soap and not much else.
Where was she?
“You can pretend you’re still sleeping,” a deep voice rumbled, making her jerk, then hiss as pain flared through her back. She winced as her dry lips cracked. “Or you can open your eyes and help us both get some answers.”
His voice, whomever it belonged to, held no hint of humor. As serious as a gravestone, he spoke evenly, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that he was hiding an exorbitant amount of emotion. So much that it was smothering him.
Maybe she was just imprinting her own feelings onto him.
She opened her eyes and blinked. The place wasn’t bright. The only light came from the fire crackling on the other side of the room. The walls of her new shelter were made of large brown logs. One wall was two feet from her and there was no furniture, not even a small end table. Just enough room for someone to walk around the bed and slide in. The owner of the voice had propped her on her side, leaving her back blissfully free of pressure.
The bed itself was nice. Soft and cozy, made more so by the plush blankets piled on top of her. Between the fire and how close the man sounded, she was either in the bedroom of a cabin, or the cabin was one room in its entirety. She suspected the latter.
“Who are you?” Her voice cracked. Her mouth was dry and her tongue woolly. How long had she been out?
“Just a guy living in the middle of nowhere who found an unconscious woman in the middle of nowhere.”
Explaining that would be tricky. If he was human—which was likely—he would have her committed if she told him the truth. Or if he believed her at all, then he’d despise her as much as she despised herself. If he wasn’t human and had saved her, then he was probably Numen and she’d risk his standing in Numen society if she told him she was fallen. If he wasn’t human, then he was from Daemon and she had bigger problems than how to explain herself.
Her heart rate kicked up as her mind whirled over how she could defend herself. Her breath eked out of her. Would she defend herself? For what? She had nothing but her body and she couldn’t summon enough energy to care about it. Those weeks spent imprisoned in her realm, when she hadn’t talked to anyone, had given her time to think. Time to reflect on what little she’d contributed in her forty-eight years. Young for an angel, but she’d been a warrior.
And now she wasn’t.
Curiosity propelled her next question. Winger would’ve ensured she’d been put nowhere anyone could help her. “Does this ‘just a guy’ have a name?”
“Boone,” she rasped, testing the name out. It told her nothing about the type of male he was. “First or last name?”
“Does it matter?”
She chuffed out a breath and fire laced down her spine, seizing the air in her throat.
“You’re in pain.” Not a question. He must’ve seen the damage.
“Stings a bit.”
She got the impression he nodded, but he was sitting out of her line of sight, likely on purpose. Maybe he thought it gave him an advantage. Maybe he feared her, though from his steady voice, she doubted it. Maybe he didn’t want to scare her.
He could’ve left her, but he hadn’t. He might be some sadistic asshole who wanted to use her in terrible ways. She tried to summon some fear.
She was unsuccessful. Did she even care what happened to her?
“Your name?” he asked.
Her lips twitched, but she paused. He didn’t know who she was, and she doubted he had any idea what she was. She was no longer Numen. No longer a warrior. She was fallen. Fallen didn’t last long on Earth. Except for Jameson, though he was dead now too.
The thought of Jameson was the shiny cherry topping her mountain of shame. How could she have done what she had with him?
Duh. Because she was no better than him.
Maybe a little better. He’d fallen and turned more thoughtless and awful than he’d been in Numen. She wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t do anything. That way, she couldn’t hurt anyone else.
This could be a new start.
She shoved that traitorous thought away. She was who she was and she wouldn’t forget what she’d done, or whoshe’d done when she was at her lowest point in life.
“Sierra. My name is Sierra.” Would he want her last name? He wouldn’t find any information on her if he searched.
But all he said was “Your memory’s intact, then. How’d you get out here?”
“Where is here?”
He swore softly.
“I didn’t lose my memory,” she clarified, her voice getting stronger. The part of her that enjoyed some conversation, no matter the subject, was embarrassing. This was her punishment. She wasn’t on Earth to make friends. “I just don’t know where I am.”
“How could you not know?” His tone remained even. They could be talking about how the sun rose and set every day.
Chewing over what she was going to say, she squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t sense malice. If he’d rescued her, he should get some answers. Starting her new life on a pile of lies wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t like she’d thought about what was going to happen once she was dumped on Earth. She’d done everything not to think about it. It’d been her problem.
It wasn’t just her right now. It was Boone. “I don’t recall the attack or how I got here, wherever here is.”
Guilt churned in her stomach until nausea threatened to make her gag. When was the last time she’d eaten? She’d been fed regularly in her cell, awaiting her punishment, but the stress had made it hard to eat.
“The attack,” he murmured as if testing her lie for himself. Perhaps he wasn’t human if he doubted her story when she was in a mutilated heap. “But you know you were attacked.”
“Wasn’t I?” She wanted to tell him she’d been punished and he could take her back to wherever he’d found her. I betrayed my realm, got angels hurt, and got kicked out. Leave me alone. Please. But the words stuck in her throat.
“Who are you and where are you from?”
Why did lying feel like a long, treacherous trip down a road that had no turnoffs? “Sierra. From Vegas, but I was planning to move.” There. She was sticking close to the truth. She had been sort of living in Las Vegas. She’d often set up her technical headquarters wherever her team’s missions took them.
“Move to where?”
Was he fishing to see if she knew where this log cabin was located? “Anywhere. I was . . . I am homeless.” The lies rolled out easier. “Had a fight with my boyfriend and he’d been controlling everything for so long that I just left with nothing. I caught a ride with anyone who looked like they wouldn’t rape me and . . . well . . .”
“Were you raped?” Even tone, steady voice. The guy could be a robot. A robot that smelled like the forest and had the most pleasing growl she’d ever heard.
“No.” She’d been oh-so-willing. She wished her memories had been taken with her wings.
“What?” She tried to turn her head, but winced. It wasn’t her back. She was stiff and sore in a way she’d never experienced.
Right. Because she no longer had her normal healing abilities. She would mend slower, like a human.
“You’re in Montana. There’s a storm and you’re nowhere near an interstate.” Of the few emotions he allowed in his voice, accusation rang loudest through the cabin.
Irritation flashed through her. She’d had a day and she couldn’t even fall and be alone and miserable. Sure, he was apparently responsible for her life and the roof over her head, but her tolerance for male crap was extremely low at the moment.
“This might surprise you, but I really don’t care if you don’t believe me. I don’t know what happened, okay? I just know my back hurts and I’m stiff and sore.”
He was quiet for a beat. “The only liberties I took were to cut open your top and try to clean your wounds. A few of them go pretty deep, but nothing major was cut.”
“Thank you.” Something pretty damn major was cut, just not life threatening. Losing her wings was life changing.
There was movement, soft footsteps. On her side, she couldn’t see all of him. Dark blue jeans covered thick thighs and a flannel plaid shirt was tucked into them at a trim waist. Whoever he was, he kept in shape.
She shifted enough to look up. A mountain of a man towered over her. From his brawny shoulders to his bushy beard, he was everything intimidating to a hurt female. Given the dimness of the room and the way shadows clung to him like a second skin, she should be terrified. But she wasn’t. His gaze was as steady as his voice, but he couldn’t mask the wariness in his brown eyes like he could with his tone.
He didn’t trust her, and he didn’t want her in this cabin. From the way he was dressed, it was winter and the storm must’ve been full of snow. He hadn’t wanted to rescue her, just like she hadn’t wanted to be rescued. Yet here they were, stuck together.
From what little she’d witnessed, he was a good man.
And relief seeped in as she realized she’d been granted some time to adjust to her surroundings, to not have to deal with anyone or anything besides one grumpy human.
Nice to see she continued to be a coward no matter what realm she was in.
She hadn’t been strong enough to reveal her secrets and face the consequences, choosing blackmail instead. She hadn’t been strong enough to keep from sleeping with the enemy. She wasn’t strong enough to look at her new world and see its bleak expression as it looked back.
His hands clenched and unclenched but there was no aggression in the move. He was uncomfortable around her. “Do you think you’re injured anywhere else?”
Putting him at ease was the least she could do. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on the rest of her body that wasn’t her aching back. “No,” she said, opening her eyes once again.
He drew back. He might’ve taken a step but the wall was right there. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
“No,” she said quickly without thinking. Hiding in bed was just fine for now.
“Are you sure?” One of his brows cocked so subtly she might’ve missed it, but her gaze was glued to his face. A mess of dark hair covered his brow and the tips of his ears, but neither that nor his beard could hide the harsh angles of his face. They did a shit job at softening them. “Sierra? Are you sure?”
Her breath gusted out. Still a crap liar and now she was staring. “No, but I don’t want to get up.”
“Moving around will help the healing if you’re careful.”
She nodded, her hair bunching around her cheek. She hadn’t had a shower since the day before her trial. “How long have I been here?”
“I carried you back yesterday.” His barrel chest expanded as he drew in a heavy breath, and he rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze sweeping the room she hadn’t seen yet. “It snowed. And it’s winter in the mountains. We’re not leaving for a while.”
Since she was in no shape to leave, she didn’t care.
“You should get up and move.” He said it softer this time. Yep. A good man.
“What time is it?” She was stalling. Boone was trying to help despite obviously not wanting her around.
“Two in the morning.”
Her brows popped. “And you’re still up?”
“You were passed out. I needed to be awake when you woke.” His look spoke volumes. He didn’t know who she was and he wasn’t closing one eyelid until he had answers. She’d only given him more questions.
“I appreciate it.” She hated that she did, that after weeks alone in a cell with no visitors, she took more comfort than she deserved, knowing that someone was capable of caring about her. But he didn’t know her, and that was the only reason he was concerned about her. None of that mattered at the moment as she faced a stark reality. “I don’t want to move to use the bathroom.”
“You need to.” His brows drew in as if he knew just how bad getting up would hurt, that first shock of letting gravity weigh on her injuries.
Fatigue swamped her. She wanted to sink into the mattress and melt away. Her pain gone. Out of her misery. But then Boone would be left to deal with the mess her short existence in this realm had caused.
As she groaned and rolled to a sitting position, agony traced up and down her spine, spreading over her body as evenly as if she’d been doused in angel fire. The pain sparked an awareness deep inside of her. She was afraid to look any closer at that feeling.
Anger. Roiling and toxic. Her people had turned on her. Some had tried to use her. They’d all used her. When they’d gotten what they wanted, she’d been disposed of. Loss welled up. A yawning hole of nothing. Her team hadn’t been there in the end. She’d told them she’d deal with her punishment, she’d take it, and they . . . they had let her. Without even a goodbye.
And Papa. A warrior who’d given up his identity for her. And this was how she’d repaid him.
She slammed a lid on the festering emotions. They did her no good. She’d let fear lead her before, and this was where she’d ended up. At least she couldn’t hurt anyone else.
A gong rang through the manor. Millie Richter put her stitching down and stood. Her mate, Leo, was asleep on the bed, his back turned to her. He was always asleep, managing to face away from her. She wasn’t worried the noise would wake him up—she hoped it would since she wasn’t ornery enough to do it.
She straightened her pristine white robe and tiptoed from the bedroom, closing the door to keep from making a sound. She trotted down the stairs, running her hand along the hand-carved railing. So much opulence. So much emptiness.
Before Leo’s injuries, she’d worked in the field. As a chaperone, she’d escorted souls to the pearly whites. She’d experienced their last moments on Earth with them and stood by them in their first moments of eternity. It’d been rewarding, rescuing her from the quiet manor while Leo worked long hours.
Now this manor was her prison. Leo was her warden. She’d synced herself to him, their souls entwined. The injuries were awful, but the way he’d shut down afterward was worse. She couldn’t bring herself to leave him. The thought that they would leave the manor—together—kept her going. But each day that went by, her high hopes lowered a little more.
She lifted her pale wings before she opened the door. She didn’t have to ask who it was. Bryant Vale stopped by every day he was able. Bryant and Leo were close, but she tried to hide how stark her and Leo’s existence had become.
“Bryant, come in.”
His stern gaze bored into her like she could hide nothing. Why did she even try? He’d seen for himself how despondent Leo was. His mate, Odessa, wasn’t with him today. Millie missed her talks with the director’s wife. Odessa’s youthful enthusiasm was a dose of sunshine in a house that had become a tomb.
“How is he today?” Bryant kept his voice low. Leo would hate that Bryant checked on him with her first.
Defeat hung on Millie’s wings. Hate would be welcome. Anger. Righteousness. Any emotion beyond the nothingness that consumed her mate would be welcome.
“Right. Odessa picked these up.” Bryant held out three brochures. Prosthetics.
Millie gave him a sad smile. “I’ve looked at them all, but I haven’t brought it up.” Bryant had made the comment to Leo that humans survived amputation and learned to adapt. But Leo had ignored him, and to her he’d pointed out that humans’ lives were poetically short.
She had wanted to say that to humans, life felt inexorably long, but definitively short. They were innovative and their prosthetics would continue to improve. But Leo had retreated into his mind and she didn’t have the heart to speak up. He’d been kicked while he was down enough.
Her mate had loved his job. He’d lived to serve his people. His work had defined him. When he’d lost his legs, he’d lost his position. She often wondered if she should tell Bryant that his visits might be harder on Leo. But the person responsible for the incident had been on Bryant’s team. His own guilt drove him to visit, and if she said something, would it hurt how he did his job? They needed a strong director now more than ever.
She wished it could be Leo again. She wished Leo would be something again. Like a male who didn’t have to be coaxed to eat. Or a male who did more than stare at the bedroom wall. A mate who let her back into his bed.
“He’ll come around.” Bryant had been saying that for months. Would he be saying it for years?
“I wish I could get through to him.”
Bryant’s brows pinched, and if Millie didn’t know him so well, she’d be terrified. He was a harsh-looking male. “Listen, Millie. I know he doesn’t get news if I don’t tell him.” Leo’s only visitor was Bryant. Her mate had scared all others off or they’d given up. “But there’s change coming.”
Bryant often filled them in on what was happening outside of the manor. She clung to news, to the gossip Odessa whispered to her, jealous of how the realm moved on while the inside of her manor was in stasis. But how could she live her life when her soul mate wanted to give up on his own?
Heaviness weighed down Bryant’s steely wings and his whiskey eyes were grim. She feathered her fingers against her chest. He had bad news. Bryant was like a brother to Leo. He’d become family to her and she knew that look.
“Oh? What sort of change?”
“We’re going to push some topics with the senate.”
She shivered, like a cold wind licked across her neck. “That sounds ominous.” And futile.
“It’s about the fallen.”
Her inhale was sharp. Emotions roiled inside of her, pushing the needle higher until she didn’t know when she’d explode. The fallen. One in particular was the reason why her mate was all but lifeless in the bed they used to make sweet love in. Her mate who’d doted on her every chance he got to make up for the long hours he spent at the warriors’ barracks.
The fallen who hadn’t told anyone why she’d done what she’d done but had willingly paid the price. Falling was supposed to be a fate worse than death.
Millie hoped so.
“What about them?” She managed to keep her voice steady. It was getting hard not to shout. To yell. To holler at the world and demand to know why she’d lost her mate. Wasn’t it enough to have tried for years to have a child and be without, now she had to lose her mate too? He avoided looking at her. Any thoughts of a family had evaporated with his legs.
“Jameson Haddock showed us how ignorant we are of them. He showed us that they may not be as powerless as we think when we take their wings. If we know that, others do too.”
She had to think a moment. “Demons?”
“Yes, so we can’t just forget about the fallen. After what Jameson did, the underworld is going to wonder what other knowledge and delights fallen are hiding.” Bryant took a step, then paused. His gaze traveled up the stairs. “Do you think it’ll bother him? That we’re requesting the ability to conduct surveillance on . . . Sierra.”
“Likely not.” Her mate had done the equivalent of crawling into his shell to die. Except he was an immortal angel, not a crustacean. “If he cared about anything, it’d be a miracle.”
She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Ignoring it made it easier to continue to ignore. But she’d spoken it out loud. And she was tired. Her wings ached from resting on the floor while she sat on her ass and stitched all day. She looked at her hands. Her fingertips were roughened. She stitched too much for them to heal. She stitched for hours. She hated stitching, but she couldn’t concentrate enough to read. The manor was pristine, and she hated cleaning. What else could she do?
“I’m losing hope, Bryant.” The words rushed out. “I’ve tried to get him to talk. I’ve tried to get him to just let me lie beside him. He’ll barely look at me. Can a male lose his mind after staring at a wall too long?”
She pressed her cool fingertips to her forehead. A dam was breaking down inside of her. She couldn’t hold it together for much longer.
“Take the gloves off, Millie.” He lowered his voice. The cavernous echo in the marble manor hadn’t been so noticeable when there’d been more noise, when Leo had actually talked to her and she hadn’t had to hide discussions about him from him. “Don’t go easy on him anymore. Hit him where it hurts. You love him, that much is obvious. But he needs tough love, or he’ll never come back to us.”
“And how would I do that?” Leo washed himself when she brought him the basin, but he only exerted the effort so she wouldn’t have to. He ate to avoid being spoon-fed by her. He did only enough to keep her at a distance.
“I don’t know. You’re the only one who knows him well enough.” Bryant went to the base of the stairs. Before he stepped on the first one, he said, “But you’ll have to hit him where it hurts, in a way that makes him want to get better for himself, not for us.”
Take the gloves off. Hit him where it hurts.
Her logical brain rebelled, but that part of her had been steering since Leo was hurt. It was time to let her emotions take the wheel.
Boone kept an eye on his odd guest. Sierra was sleeping, this time on her left side. Smart choice to switch it up.
She didn’t seem like an idiot, but those brilliant eyes of hers were dull, their dimness cutting straight through him. She was evasive, and he’d bet the pension he’d walked away from that she was lying her ass off. But that didn’t bother him as much as it should.
Two weeks had passed and she’d done little more than go to the bathroom, eat a few bites when he was extra persistent about food, and sleep.
Depression was understandable, but this was . . . different.
Her wounds had scabbed over and were well on their way to the next stage of healing. She should be moving, slowly stretching out her arm and back muscles, keeping the scar tissue healthy and reducing any limitations they could cause.
He pestered her about it. She half-assed some exercises if only to placate him, then tucked into his bed and ignored the world.
Admittedly, there wasn’t much world here to ignore.
He perched on the edge of the couch and scanned his bare-bones cabin. Books were the only items adorning the shelving he’d put up when he’d thought this would be a hunting retreat for him and—
He rubbed the center of his chest. Air disappeared from his lungs and he wasn’t confident he could draw in another breath. Grief was an insidious beast like that. One moment, he was fine. Then he thought of the life he’d had and everything he’d lost, and the gravity of it crushed him as completely as if it were a physical force.
If Sierra cared to notice her surroundings, she’d never guess a thing about his old life. There were no certificates. No medals. No knickknacks. And definitely no pictures.
He’d come here to forget.
The storm had passed. He’d shoveled the roof clear of the heavy snowfall. Cleared out the drive all the way to the highway, which wasn’t far. He hadn’t exactly lied to Sierra about that. They weren’t close to an interstate. But the cabin wasn’t far off the highway.
There was no good goddamn reason Sierra was still here, but there she was. In his bed.
She might be healing, but her mind was shut down. He couldn’t shuffle her off to be someone else’s problem until she had a snowball’s chance in hell of caring for herself.
Anger gnawed at him. Why couldn’t he be a heartless prick?
Call the police. Get her the hell out of his house. He’d be done.
With her gone, he wouldn’t look around his cabin and see a whole lot of nothing. His whole life boiled down to a secluded cabin where he didn’t bother to talk to his shadow, much less help another person.
He wasn’t a hero anymore. He’d learned too late that he’d never been a hero.
He let his gaze roam over Sierra’s face, the only part of her sticking out of the blankets. She hadn’t outright showered, but she’d summoned enough energy to clean herself up and give herself a sink bath. He’d ripped up an old T-shirt so it wouldn’t cling to her back, and she’d tied it off behind her so it wouldn’t gape open and bare her front. She also wore a pair of his boxers. She’d gotten them to stay up and he hated that he was curious to know how.
He hated that he was curious at all. Controlling boyfriend? Something about that story had soured his mood. It would fit why she didn’t have a single possession and was nowhere near where she claimed home was. But it wasn’t right. She’d lied.
Was it something about him that attracted women who couldn’t tell the truth to save their life?
What was it about him that thought he could help these women? He of all people knew how badly it would end.
Sierra’s eyes fluttered open. He didn’t bother to look away. She knew by now that he wasn’t a creep, unless she considered the way he pestered her to drink some water as a sign of perversion.
“You should get up.” He said it at least once a day and he meant it more each time. At first, it was because the sooner she was mobile, the faster he could get her out. Each day that went by, a different sense of urgency mounted.
He had plenty on his conscience. He wasn’t going to add letting a woman he’d rescued succumb to whatever demons haunted her.
“I know. You’ll get stronger the more you move.”
Her pink lips turned down. His gaze landed on those a moment too long. She was attractive in a rumpled way, and he should fear the thought of her actually taking a shower and wearing decent clothing. He’d been able to keep himself from imagining how sexy she probably was. Good thing she didn’t have decent clothing. He didn’t trust her enough to leave the cabin and go buy some in town. The movement would irritate her back, but he might find her camped on the curb, unwilling to go through the effort. He could take her. She’d have to come with him, and then once they were in town and she was in actual women’s wear, there was nothing stopping him from putting her on a bus and waving as it departed the station.
That scenario loomed far off. Sierra didn’t twitch. “I’m tired.” Her eyelids drifted shut.
A thread of his patience snapped. “For God’s sake, get up and do something.” Dammit. He shoved his hands through his hair. He needed a trim. Same with his beard. He was the poster child for a mountain man and he’d just raised his voice to a petite, defenseless woman.
He turned away and paced the small living space of his one-room cabin. If he wanted to expand his path, he could veer into the kitchen and make a lap around the line of counters that functioned as an island, a table, and bookshelves. “Do you think you’re the only one who’s been through some shit? Do you think you’re the only one who’s wanted to waste into nothingness? Do you think you’re the only one—”
His chest heaved. Truth was, he’d run out of shit to say. He didn’t know anything about her. After her lame attempt at a backstory, he’d left it alone. He didn’t need to know the truth to rehab her and move her along.
But two weeks had passed and other than scabs that dwindled in size and severity, there was no progress. At all.
“I . . .” A furrow formed between her brows and he stopped, hanging on her words, hoping for something that’d explain why she acted the way she did. “I don’t want to move. I don’t want to get better. You should’ve left me in the snow.”
Acid ate at his gut. He’d thought of doing just that. For the briefest of moments, but he hadn’t. He wasn’t a hero, but he wasn’t a monster. And she didn’t care.
She had no idea what she did to him. His physical wounds were healed, but the emotional ones had gaped open as soon as he’d spotted her.
“But I didn’t,” he bit out. His volume increased with each word. “I didn’t let you die. I live in this place so I don’t have to care about any goddamn thing anymore, yet here you are. I had the balls to give a shit and all I’m asking is for you to do the same.”
He hadn’t yelled at a woman, at anyone, for two years. Memories assaulted him. The tormented face of his wife. The wicked gleam in her assailant’s eyes. The tearing in his chest that had nothing to do with the gunshot in his side.
“You don’t know what you being here does to me,” he croaked, trying to stomp those memories out like they were nothing more than a harmless campfire. But he might as well use a water gun on a forest fire. “The least you could do is take a damn shower.”
He spun and stormed out of the cabin. He had his boots on. A coat wasn’t necessary. Anger burned through him so hot that near-zero temps weren’t going to touch him.
He didn’t know where he was going, or what he was going to do now that he was stamping through the snow. He didn’t have a plan. Just like he hadn’t planned to be alone in a cabin with a beautiful woman who made him care about life again.
There was a lot to unpack in what Boone had said, but the overall message was simple: he’d been hurt, he didn’t want to be hurt again, and she was hurting him.
He cared about her and he didn’t want to. He cared about her because she was a living creature in his care. He cared because it was the right thing to do and he couldn’t help it.
She stared at the log wall. By now, she had memorized the long, elegant grains of the wood. Where the knots were. The bumps in the seams between the logs. She’d watched them like she was bingeing on Netflix.
She was pathetic and he was going to hate her for it.
That . . . bothered her.
The last thing she’d wanted to do was fall and have someone care about her right away. But her inaction when Winger had left was Boone’s punishment. He was stuck with her.
The least she could do was shower.
She pushed herself into a sitting position. The cabin was empty. The bathroom door gaped open like it was inviting her. She wasn’t filthy. She’d cleaned up. Boone regularly changed the bedding whenever she was in the bathroom and she hadn’t wanted to climb in and make a mess. Though her hair hung limp. No number of cat baths would be as good as a thorough shampooing.
Boone was a simple guy. The only toiletries he kept were shampoo, a bar of soap, and a can of shaving cream. The medicine cabinet held supplies for each when they ran out, and his toothbrush and toothpaste. He’d had an extra toothbrush. She even used it.
As much as she wanted to shrink away from the world, she’d been doing the bare minimum to care for herself. Not exactly the actions of a woman who gave up.
Time to be brave and do something a normal human would do. It all started with a shower.
Running the water, soaping her hair, washing off were entirely familiar and utterly foreign at the same time. It felt more like ten years had lapsed since she’d done this instead of five or so weeks.
Coming out of the bathroom, dabbing at her damp hair, she scanned the small living area. Boone was still gone. His coat hung on the rack by the door. Same with his snow pants.
She frowned. He was still outside?
She bypassed the bed. Her back tightened up, pulling at the scabs that remained. She ached with the effort not to crawl beneath the covers and try to forget who she was and what she’d done.
At the chest of drawers, she found a new shirt of his and a pair of sweats she’d swim in. With enough rolling and tucking and tying, she got them to stay on. Her heart hammered from the effort, but she didn’t dare sit on the bed. She had to keep going.
She made it to the kitchen, which was a trek measured in feet, not yards or meters. Her stomach rumbled. Between the fatigue, the mental fog, and her constant nausea, she’d rarely experienced true hunger since her fall.
She was starving.
Searching the few cupboards on either side of the oven, she found the oats that Boone was so fond of. A little brown sugar would make all the difference, but the cupboards were like the rest of the cabin. Plain and uncluttered.
Other than the oats, she found baking supplies like flour, along with staples like rice and pasta. Jars of tomato sauce and cans of vegetables. The freezer wasn’t any more exciting, but he had some meat packaged in white butcher paper. Since she found rolls of butcher paper in a cupboard, she assumed the meat was from Boone’s hunting efforts and not a grocery store.
In Numen, she got food from the market. Angels who had assumed servile roles in the realm procured all the items they needed, mostly fruit and vegetables, some grains, and the occasional chicken breast. They either grew it or transported it from the human realm. Food broke up the days, brought loved ones together.
Sierra had often eaten on Earth, preferring the variety. And the isolation. In the home base her team would help her make, she had stared at screens all day. She’d learned to cook during the longer missions.
Skills that were more useful to her now than knowing ten ways to kill a demon.
She dug out meat labeled pheasant and wished for a little internet. A pheasant might be a bird, but did she treat it like chicken?
It was getting treated like chicken. Thankfully, Boone had used scant counter space for a microwave. While she thawed the bird, she came up with a side of pasta and tomato sauce. In between thaw cycles, she wandered to the windows.
Where was he?
Her back ached and sleepiness weighed down her eyelids. Her stamina had turned to shit. She shook herself and stretched her arms to the side, then over her head. The pleasure-pain the slow moves caused was worth it.
Boone had been right. This needed to be done.
She dug out the flour. Fried pheasant might taste like crap, but that was what they were having. If Boone complained, he should’ve come back.
It took less than an hour to cook the small bird and make her pasta. She didn’t feel right eating without Boone. He’d done so much for her and this was the first time she’d done anything in return.
Where was he?
She left the food and went to the coat rack. His parka was long enough to fall to her knees. His spare pair of boots would be enough to keep her warm as she searched for him. Light was fading fast and she was no longer immortal. If she was going to look for him, it had to be now.
Outside, she sucked in a breath. Damn, it was cold. Air wicked across her face, stealing all heat. Her breath puffed out around her. The world was still, like all life had frozen. So quiet, she could either forget everything that had happened, or do nothing but remember it.
She worked on forgetting as she slogged around the cabin in boots that were too big. Snow had been meticulously cleared from the door and windows, all the way down the drive that disappeared between towering evergreens. They weren’t as close as she expected, not having bothered to look out the windows. They were massive and spread out, kind of like Montana itself.
“Boone?” Behind the cabin was a shed. No wonder he’d cleared such a wide path around the cabin.
The shed was actually a garage. Was he in there?
A muffled thump caught her ear. Instead of calling for him, she shuffled toward the noise. The sound wasn’t rhythmic. It sounded more like he was stacking something.
She rounded the back of the garage. A massive wood pile was haphazardly stacked against the back wall of the garage. Boone’s back was to her. He bent to grab a couple chunks of wood and she bit her lower lip.
She had no right—no right—to ogle his ass. But he had a fine one. It wasn’t hard to look at, unlike his eyes. Eyes that hinted at a well of emotion she could drown in. Eyes that were concerned for her.
But his ass was safe to look at.
Her face heated. She’d been down the road of unthinking desire and she couldn’t go down it again. Boone didn’t deserve it.
He stiffened, his head cutting to the side, but not quite looking over his shoulder. Frost covered his beard and the hair closest to his face.
“I made supper.” She shifted her weight to her other foot. “And I showered.”
That made him turn around, his lips tugging down. “Is your head wet?”
“It’s dry. You’ve been gone awhile.” She pointed her finger straight up. “It’s almost dark.”
He cocked a brow. “Really?”
She caught the dry sarcasm and her small chuckle surprised her. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to talk to people.”
The corner of his mouth tipped up. “Me too.”
They stared at each other. Other than his red cheeks and the red tip of his nose, he didn’t act like the cold affected him. The gloves he wore must’ve been an extra pair in the garage. Without them, he would’ve been frostbitten by now, or worse.
She didn’t want him to get hurt because of her.
He dropped the hunk of wood. “You cooked?”
“I guess it’s time to enter the land of the living.”
His lack of a reply unnerved her. She hadn’t asked to be rescued, but she felt like she owed him something.
“I can’t tell you what happened.” He wouldn’t believe her anyway. “I tried my entire life to be a good person, to protect others. I tried my whole life to make my father proud, but in the end, I did something that got someone I admire hurt.”
Her whole team could’ve been killed.
Again, Boone didn’t reply right away.
“I knew someone like that. She tried to be a good person. In the end, it wasn’t enough.” Hurt resonated in his voice.
He didn’t like the person he spoke of. Would he hate her too?
“I like to think that if she got a second chance, she’d do better. What about you, Sierra? Are you going to do better?”
She didn’t answer right away. He might think that type of question should have an immediate answer, but he’d also had to yell at her to shower. “I want to. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how.” Her worries spilled out, the real reason she’d been afraid to do more than stare at a wall. “I have no money. I have no home. No clothes. I should probably change my name.”
No one should want to find her, but her sensible side, the trained warrior side, told her that to protect those around her, she should ditch everything about her old life.
“I don’t have any documents,” she continued. “No papers to prove who I am and who I’m not. I don’t know how to apply for a job, or how I’ll get paid. I don’t know anything, Boone. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She hated how frantic her voice got the more she spoke. But her situation was dire. Other fallen had managed to drag themselves out of the gutter. But more had succumbed to their circumstances for the very reasons she’d named.
She’d tried succumbing, but Boone hadn’t let her. He hadn’t let her be a coward. She couldn’t backtrack now.
“There’s more snow on the way.”
She looked at the cloudy sky. The air smelled like pine and snow, but she was surrounded by both. Did he have an innate sense about the weather or better cell service than she’d thought?
“I don’t want to risk getting stranded in town, but when the weather passes and the roads clear, we can deal with the clothing issue.”
“I can’t let you—”
“I couldn’t help my wife. Let me help you.” His jaw flexed so hard she wouldn’t be shocked if teeth cracked. The person who’d failed him had been his wife. Was she alive?
Sierra didn’t think so. “I want to be able to say no, but I don’t even have a pair of underwear to call my own.”
“It’s just money.”
He said it as if throwing money at the problem—her—was fine as long as he didn’t get invested in any other way.
“We’ll get you on your feet, Sierra. As long as you’re trying, I’ll help.” He pushed a hand through his hair and it stayed exactly where he’d pushed it, the sweat freezing it in place. It gave him an adorable, approachable feel that she was better off not noticing.
“I’m afraid I’ll fail.” She was fallen. She wasn’t supposed to matter anymore. But she couldn’t escape the sense that something had a hold of her and wasn’t done yet.
Boone leveled her with a solemn gaze. “Then don’t.”
Available on April 12th