Her hand fluttered to her neck. “Where I’m from, flashing means exposing your naked body to someone.”
He wouldn’t touch that statement. Not after everything she’d been through today. “But we aren’t from the same place, are we?”
He’d been here before, but still he looked around, taking in details he’d previously ignored. The house was small and on the verge of collapse, but it was clean. The walls were yellowed with age and peeling, but scraped. Where the carpet had been ripped out, the floor was stained to blend.
The dwelling would never be worthy of her.
He should move her into one of his homes.
Yes, he thought. He’d never invited anyone to one of his homes, though some of the warriors had invited themselves, yet he suddenly longed to flash Nicola to the beach house or the ranch by the volcano, to surround her with velvets, silks and luxuries of every kind.
If she protested, he could remind her of their bargain. For however long he deemed necessary, she was to do what he said, when he said it, with no argument. But...
Was the squeak a sign of relief? Or disappointment?
“I’m staying.” Just try to get rid of me. See what happens.
He didn’t like how pale and shaky she was, and though he hated to walk away from her, even for a second, he did just that. In the kitchen, he searched until he found the required items. She had one pot, one pan and two of everything else. There were a few boxed dinners, a few cans of soup, but very little else. How long had she been living like this?
He had to fix the pilot light in order to boil the water, but soon had a steaming cup of chamomile tea in her hands. She rested on the couch, her legs tucked under her and a blanket draped around her shoulders. Some of the color had already returned to her cheeks, and the more forceful of her trembles had subsided.
“Thank you,” she said, proper and polite and so adorable his chest ached.
“You’re welcome. Drink while I check on Laila.”
“I checked on her before I sat down,” she admitted.
He should have guessed. “And how is she?”
“Well. She’s sleeping.” After blowing on the surface of the liquid, Nicola sipped from the cup. “In fact, that’s all she’s been doing lately. Is that normal?”
“Yes.” Her body was playing catch-up with her spirit. “Don’t worry. She won’t spend all of her remaining time in bed.”
Nicola flinched at the reference to the ever-ticking clock. “But if she’s better now, why can’t she stay that way?”
He heard the longing in her tone and knew this was the perfect time to introduce her to the spirit world around her.
Koldo crouched in front of her. Several curling locks of hair had escaped the confinement of her ponytail and now tumbled at her temples, framing her face. Dark bruises marred the tender flesh under her eyes, and her lips were swollen. Had she chewed them in fear? Or had she been struck?
Calm. “You’ll cease working for the grocery store. Understand?” It wasn’t what he’d planned to say, but the words escaped anyway.
“Well, duh. I already quit.” The waspish statement failed to hide the flood of vulnerability and humiliation suddenly consuming her features. “I’ll need to find another job as soon as possible, though.”
“No.” He wanted the first fruits of her time and energy, not what was leftover.
He cut her off, saying, “Recover. Yes.”
Nicola’s gaze lowered. “I shouldn’t have to recover. I knew better than to go back there with him. I had a feeling I should run.”
Her spirit had picked up on things the mind could not and had tried to warn her. “Why did you disregard the feeling?”
“I convinced myself he only meant to fire me, and I wanted a chance to talk him out of it.”
“Why did this happen to me?” she asked softly.
Because she’d gotten a taste of hope and happiness, the demons had sought to squash the beautiful emotions before they could bloom into spiritual weapons. “The world is populated by beings with free will, and free will allows for absolute good...and absolute evil.”
She nodded as he spoke. “Evil. Yes. There was a demon in the room. The other warrior said so.”
“Because they despise the Most High, and He loves you. They cannot strike at Him any other way, so they destroy what He wants kept safe.”
“Why?” she asked again, then blushed. “Sorry. I sound like a four-year-old child. Who is the Most High? Why does He want me—us—kept safe?”
Rather than answer her just yet, he said, “Have you figured out what I am?”
She peeked at him through the thick shield of her lashes. “Well, I know your friend is an angel.”
She had meant no insult. He knew that. She had merely stated a fact. He knew that, too. And yet still a razor seemed to scrape against his chest. “I’m going to remove the top portion of my robe. Not to harm you, or tempt you—” if such a thing were even possible “—but to prove what I am. All right?”
He stood and, suddenly trembling, tugged the robe from his shoulders, then turned to reveal the scars and tattoos on his back.
No, not disgust. Wonder.
How could that be? Wings were prized, not pale imitations. Yet still he’d spent six days having the back of his body inked, all but his spine colored by images of feathers and down.
By the time he’d had it done, his regenerative powers had been activated, and ambrosia had had to be added to the ink to ensure the colors remained vibrant. Ambrosia, what his mother used to add to her wine. Ambrosia, the flowers he’d picked for her.
Cornelia had hated her life with her unwanted son so much she’d drugged herself to endure it.
“You were injured,” Nicola said, seeing the scars beneath the tattoos. “How?”
He wasn’t sure how to reply. He only knew he longed for her to stand, to reach out, to ghost her fingertips over the raised tissue.
But she didn’t. And that was probably for the best.
Probably? No. Definitely. He was unsure of his reaction.
She said, “You’re an angel, too, then?”
He shrugged back into his robe and slowly turned to face her. She’d set the teacup on the table beside her, the steam rising, curling around her, creating a dreamlike haze.
Must be near her.
Any other time, he might have fought the urge. But after what she’d just been through, he allowed himself to return to the couch and crouch between her legs. “I’m like the angels in many ways, yes, but I’m not an angel. I’m a Sent One.”
“A Sent One,” she parroted. “What does that mean?”
“I’ll explain as best I can, but I must start from the beginning.”
Here goes. He hoped she was ready. “Long ago, the most beautiful of all the cherubim was Lucifer, and he was given charge over one-third of the Most High’s angels. One day, he entertained a glimmer of pride...then another...and another and another, until he was nursing his self-importance as a babe at a mother’s breast.”
“I know that word. Cherubim,” she said, her brow furrowed. “Cherub is the singular version, right? An actual kind of angel. And the Most High is your leader, I’m guessing.”
“But I thought cherubs were small, like toddlers. And okay, I’m just going to say it—don’t they wear diapers?”
“Lucifer is taller than I am, but I do like the image of him in a diaper.”
Her jaw dropped, but she managed to breathe out, “Wow. Anyone taller than you must be... I mean...uh, I like your height. It’s just right.”
A wonderful recovery, he thought as he continued his story. “Ultimately, Lucifer became so convinced of his own power that he decided to exalt his throne above the Most High’s. He gathered the angels under his charge, convincing them they would have a better life under his reign. Together, they attacked. The Most High defeated and denounced the treacherous angels, tossing them out of the heavens.”
She reached out, as if she meant to toy with the beads in his beard. Just before contact, she froze. Her hand dropped to her lap. “Were you part of the battle, helping the Most High?”
He hated that she’d changed her mind about touching him—and hated that he hated. “No. I wasn’t yet born.”
“But... Oh, I remember,” she said with the half grin he so admired. “You aren’t an angel.”
She was beginning to understand.
“So, what happened after the bad guys got spanked?”
“Back then, the earth was different than the place you know it to be, and home to another race of beings. And no, they weren’t human. Lucifer was so angry with the Most High, he infected these beings with his evil. They became so vile, the earth was destroyed—but the beings survived in the core, in hell, because nothing of the spirit can die. Not in the sense you know the word, at least.”
Her eyes widened as he spoke.
“Time passed. The Most High re-created and repopulated the world, this time with humans, and it was a veritable paradise. And to answer your earlier question, He loves your people and wants you kept safe because He created you. He created you because He longed for fellowship. You were to be His beloved children, to rule the earth as kings.”