If you don’t, the toxins will build up, and eventually you’ll die, just like your sister. They weren’t exactly calming, peaceful, joyous words, so he remained quiet.

“Wouldn’t you rather have me, I don’t know, grow a beard, get taller and play the part of Koldo in a little production called What You’re Asking Is Impossible? Because that I think I can do.”

Silly human. For the first time in his life, he wanted to smile. “No.”

Desperate, she said, “How about the number of the coffee shop girl? I could give you that, and we could call it even.”

Coffee shop girl? “Remember when I told you I could help you heal?”

“As if I could ever forget.”

A moment passed. A moment she spent blinking at him. “Calm, peace, joy,” she repeated. “Tell me my sister will live longer than a few weeks, and it’s done.”

As if he was in control of how long her sister survived. But she didn’t know that, and she was trying to buy more time. “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I gave you my top offer. There’s nothing more I can do on your sister’s behalf. Therefore, there will be no negotiating of my terms.”

“I figured, but I had to try.” She offered the same bright smile she’d given him in the elevator, and he had the foresight to capture a mental picture this time. One he would remember on the worst of nights, when the past threatened to rise up and swallow him. She was proof there was more in the world than darkness and pain.

“Do we have a deal?” he asked.

He nodded. “Very well. Don’t allow the doctors to take her off life support. I’ll return shortly.”

He left before she could finish her sentence. Right now, every moment counted.

He flashed to Thane, who paced in the hospital hallway, and told him where he was going. Then he flashed to Zacharel’s cloud in the lower level of the skies. He had no wings and couldn’t hover outside the entrance to await permission, which was why Zacharel had given him an open invitation to enter—as long as he remained in the foyer.

“Zacharel,” he called. Walls of swirling mist surrounded him, obscuring his vision of the rest of the home. But that’s the way clouds worked. They opened only as you moved through them.

His commander stepped through the haze, his black hair askew, his robe dirty, torn and speckled with blood. Solid gold wings arched from his back, patches of the feathers missing.

Zacharel’s dark head tilted to the side, his emerald eyes glassy, as if he’d...cried. “No aid is currently needed. You’ll find out what happened with the rest of the Sent Ones. A meeting will be called very soon, and every army will be there. Until then...what are you doing here, Koldo?” The last was said on a weary sigh.

Koldo liked and respected Zacharel. The warrior had taken responsibility of the most unruly army in the skies, and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty to help each and every one of his men out of trouble.

“I gave Annabelle a vial of the Water of Life and I need what remains.”

Zacharel stared at him for a long while before saying, “Why do you want it?”

“Is there any left?” he asked, refusing to state his reason when he wasn’t yet sure there was a prize to be had.

Ignoring his question, Zacharel turned and motioned for Koldo to follow.

After only a few steps, the cloud opened up, revealing a living room suited for the richest of humans, with a velvet-lined couch, one half of it backed and the other half open. It was ideal for any Sent One and human pairing. There was a matching recliner, an intricately carved coffee table made of crystals from all over the world. A tapestry hung on the far wall, the words Perfect Love Casts Out Fear scripted in Greek in the center.

Clearly Annabelle had decorated—Annabelle, who sat in front of the coffee table, poring through books, furiously writing passages down in a notebook.

“Hey, Koldo,” she said when she glanced up. She had a fall of straight, blue-black hair and rich amber eyes. Her Japanese mother and American father had certainly shared the perfect blend of DNA to create her, he thought, for there wasn’t a single flaw to her exquisite features. And yet, she couldn’t compare with Nicola. A fact that delighted him. Why?

He inclined his head in greeting.

Zacharel eased onto the couch behind her, enfolding her between his legs. Refusing to give precedence to the urgency inside him, Koldo claimed the recliner across from them. He had no wings, so the back of the chair offered no restriction to his movements.

“You asked if there was any left. There is,” Zacharel said.

“Oh, what are we talking about?” Annabelle asked, dropping her pen.

A drop. That was enough for what Koldo planned. “I wish to purchase it from you.” The words seemed to be pushed through a tunnel of broken glass. He’d shed blood for this liquid. Had lost his hair for it. And now he had to give something else?

Annabelle had kept her end of the bargain, he reminded himself. She had kept Zacharel out of the heavens while Koldo searched for his mother. The Water was hers. Not his. So yes, he had to give something else.

“I hope to save a female.” At least for a little while.

He offered no more. That information wasn’t necessary.

He knew Koldo had a Sent One trapped somewhere because Koldo had rescued two females from hell, all those weeks ago. His mother, and one of Zacharel’s soldiers. That soldier had been lost to the pain of her injuries and should not have been aware of Koldo’s actions. But aware she had been. And she’d told Zacharel everything she’d witnessed.

Zacharel had no idea Cornelia was Koldo’s mother, and he had yet to demand Koldo free her. Maybe because he knew Koldo would simply hunt her down again. Instead, he’d kept him busy with all those missions and now the babysitter, hoping to restrain him from any further wrongdoing.

One day Zacharel might realize nothing could restrain Koldo.

“No,” he said. “Not the one I have locked away.” Again, he offered nothing more.

Zacharel popped his jaw, the very picture of a commander who’d had too much lip from his subordinate. “You’re supposed to be with Thane, watching him. What are you doing with a human female?”

So Koldo was to keep Thane from committing a crime, not the other way around? “I’ll return to Thane. You have my word. Now, will you sell the Water to me or not?”

Seemingly delicate shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Sorry, but I know better than to tango with Zachy when he’s gone stubborn.”

No, she didn’t. She tangoed with “Zachy” no matter his moods. Koldo had seen her—and he’d seen her win.

Teeth grinding, Koldo popped to his feet. “Very well.” He would try and purchase a drop of the Water from someone else. If he failed, if he had to approach the Heavenly High Council, he...would not, he thought. He could endure a whipping, no problem, but he still wasn’t sure what sacrifice they would next require.

Therefore, he had to find someone willing to sell him the Water. If he failed to return and keep his part of the bargain, Nicola would never trust him. And if she never trusted him, she would never listen to him. Never find comfort with him.

Never reap the joy that she needed so badly.

He marched out of the living room.

He stilled, his muscles knotting from strain. He’s your leader. Show him respect—even though you would enjoy ripping his head from his body. Slowly he turned and faced the warrior. “Yes?”

“I won’t sell it to you. I will, however, give it to you.” Zacharel reached into an air pocket and withdrew a clear vial. A single bead of Water rolled and glistened at the bottom. “The very day you gave Annabelle the vial, I poured a drop into a separate container and saved it for you, waiting for the day you would need it. I only pray you use it wisely. It’s a second chance...and I won’t be offering you a third.”

NICOLA WAS LIGHT-HEADED and close to fainting. Her nerves were frayed, her heart alternating between fluttering painfully and stopping as though squeezed by an iron-hard fist. Koldo had been gone sixteen minutes and thirty-two seconds. During that time the doctor had come back expecting to turn off Laila’s machines. Ending her. Forever.

How was Nicola to remain calm, embrace peace and sow joy like this?

She had asked for more time, and the doctor had tried to talk her into hurrying along.

She’s ready to go. Her body can’t endure on its own, and her mind is already gone.

She’ll never recover from this.

Finally, he had left the room. But he would be back. She knew he would be back.

If Koldo failed to return in time...

Laila will die today, she thought, and nearly vomited.

Her light-headedness increased, and she wasn’t sure she had the strength to remain lucid much longer. If she passed out cold...

If. If. If. How she hated the word! She—

Koldo stepped into view, as though he’d opened a doorway she couldn’t see.

Relief speared her, and she leaped to her feet. He was as big and strong as she remembered—maybe bigger, maybe stronger—and he was a warrior. In some kind of army, he’d said. As long as he was here, Laila would be safe.