“I can protect you,” he said.

Hoping to tease him, she said, “Are we playing the Obvious Game? If so, guess what. I can run on a treadmill. I can wear my hair in a ponytail. I’m a girl.”

Laughing, he placed another kiss on her mouth. And then, for the second time that day, he flashed away. This time, she reeled. That laugh...it had been rusty, but hearty. Ragged, but gorgeous.

Would she ever get used to his magnetism?

Nicola snagged a glass of water before heading into her sister’s bedroom, where she found Laila pacing. Still.

“You didn’t come to the workout room,” she said.

Nicola opened her mouth to respond—but caught sight of two little monkey faces peeking over Laila’s shoulders. They spotted Nicola and grinned smugly.

She strode forward, but they ducked down. Laila seemed to have no idea. Nicola walked a circle around her, searching, but there was no longer any sign of the creatures.

A sense of urgency hit her. “Pick something to do, La La. Anything at all. I’ll do it with you. The constant anxiety has to end now.”

“I just... I need to think.”

“Everything! We’re so weak, Nicola. Both of us.”

“I’m stronger every day, and you could be, too. I mean, we’re on the winning team. We have warriors fighting for us. We have the power and protection of the Most High.”

“You say that, but....” Laila scrubbed at her face. “What if He doesn’t respond next time?”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I just know it, deep inside.” Somehow, Nicola maneuvered her sister into the bed and tucked the covers around her. “If you won’t do something with me, I want you to rest and give your mind a break. And if you insist on thinking about anything, think about everything I’ve said. It’s the truth.”

“Promise.” Laila closed her eyes, and Nicola stroked her face the way their mother used to do to them. At first, her sister’s expression was pinched, her body restless, unable to settle. But as one minute drifted into another, she settled down. When her breathing finally evened out, Nicola stood and strode to her own room.

She showered and dressed in a pink tee and jeans, wanting to look her best when Koldo returned—and give him a few new pieces of clothing to rip off her. But she waited...and waited...and he never showed up.

After a while, the rays of sunlight seeping from the windows lulled her into the backyard. The air was warm, perfect and scented with wildflowers, citrus and pine. She breathed deeply, savoring.

A muffled female voice rang out. Frowning, Nicola hurried to the little shack Koldo and Axel had built. There were no windows, and seemed to be no doorway.

There was the voice again, clearer this time—coming from inside the shack. Her tone was...pure. Strong. Enough to give Nicola chills. It was a purity she recognized, since both Axel and the one named Zacharel possessed it.

Was this female a Sent One? The lover Nicola had been so certain Koldo didn’t have?

“Who are you?” she called, palpating the walls for any kind of seam.

“Help me. Please! Let me out.”

Why had Koldo placed the woman in the shack? He wasn’t a cruel man. Was he?

Nicola stilled, her mind whirling. He was a man who had never hurt her—had even beat the man who had. He was a man who had despaired over the fact that he might not be able to protect her. He was a man who made her feel safe in his arms.

He was a man she trusted.

But she didn’t know or trust the woman.

Once again the woman ignored her question, saying, “Just let me out. All right? Yes?”

The desperation was warranted. The evasion was not. Could she be a serial killer? Or working with the demons?

“Let me out!” Fists banged into the wall. “Now!”

Nicola nibbled on her bottom lip...and backed away.

KOLDO WATCHED as Zacharel landed at the edge of Germanus’s cloud—no, Clerici was the owner now.

Golden wings tucked into the warrior’s back, and an unexpected pang of envy hit Koldo—as always. He had to stop feeling this way, but oh, what could have been. He wasn’t someone who believed everything happened for a reason. Bad things happened because people had free will.

Of course, he did believe something bad could be worked to a person’s good. The loss of his wings, however? He couldn’t imagine anything good ever coming from that.

And the loss of his ability to flash? No. Nothing good could have come from that, either. How would he have traveled? How would he have survived? He was grateful he had healed.

Either Sirena’s poison had faded on its own, or his joy at being with Nicola had helped him overcome it. Probably the latter. Every day he was tied a little more firmly to the delicate human. Needed her a little more fiercely.

Zacharel flowed into motion, saying, “Clerici wishes to meet you.”

Koldo kept pace with him, boots thudding against the cobbles that formed a path through the cloud to the temple’s dais. Flowers bloomed at each side, rivers as clear as crystals winding throughout. The sky was a bright blue, the sun throwing rays of gold and orange and twining them like ribbons.

“You knew I wanted Nicola before you assigned me to guard her,” he said.

“Yes. But you’ve known that for a while.”

“I have. What I haven’t been able to figure out is how you knew.”

Never one to reveal a sense of being uncomfortable, Zacharel shrugged as if he hadn’t a care. “The Most High opened my mind to a vision. I watched you return to the hospital. I listened to you speak to the girl in the elevator.”

Koldo didn’t mind having visions about others. But others having visions about him?

“I know.” But did he really believe it? After everything Koldo had done... “Is that why you placed Jamila at her office?”

“Yes. I wanted her well guarded while you were away. You were so unstable, Koldo. You know you were. You were a bomb too close to detonation, and everyone in your path would have felt the sting of your explosion. The girl has calmed you, and I’m glad for it.” Zacharel patted his shoulder.

“I’ll leave you to your meeting now,” Zacharel said.

“Very well. And thank you.” Koldo stalked inside the building, his footsteps echoing. The corridor was empty. Before, it had been lined with antique furniture, and always burst at the seams with Sent Ones, movement and chatter. The demons must have defiled the furniture, and the Sent Ones must be waiting for a summons.

A summons Germanus should have been the one to make.

Hands fisting, Koldo stalked down the hall. The doors to the throne room were guarded by another set of angels and were already pushed open. Koldo passed, silent, and entered, noting that the walls were now bare, the murals of the Most High’s realm of the heavens painted over.

Had they been defaced?

He should be out there, hunting the culprits. Instead, he was playing naughty cat and recovering mouse with his father.

The deep voice came from the right, and Koldo turned. Clerici perched on the middle step of the dais, polishing a sword. He wore a flowing white T-shirt and pants, just as Koldo preferred. There was dirt on his hands, as well as his middle and calves.

Where Germanus had appeared aged, Clerici appeared young, even for their kind. He looked to be a mere twenty years old, with brown hair, brown eyes and an unassuming face. Plain, to be honest. But there was something about him that arrested Koldo’s attention. A magnetism. A gleam of...love, perhaps, shining brightly in those dark depths.

And like Koldo, he was without wings.

“I’m not what you expected, I know,” Clerici said, running a rag over the length of a weapon.

“I hadn’t given you any thought.”

A nod of that dark head. “Brutal honesty. I like that.”

“You receive that from all of us.”

“Ah, but you aren’t bound by the ring of truth. You offer it willingly.”

A defect all Sent Ones could sense in him. “You have an assignment for me?”

Clerici set the blade aside and looked up. “Not currently, no.”

Confused, he said, “Why not?” He’d thought that was why he was here.

A lie, surely! “How do you know that?” he gritted out. He was a first-round pick, and that was that.

The new king of the Sent Ones offered a half smile and tapped the center of his chest. His heart. “I just do.”

And I’m now brewing a rage just for you. “I’m strong, capable.”

He popped his jaw. He wouldn’t discuss his mother. Not with this stranger. And he knew that’s where the male was headed. “Why did you summon me?”

“Perhaps I wished to welcome you to my fold.” Clerici’s head tilted to the side, and he perused Koldo with the same intensity he’d received. “Perhaps I wished to ask you if you miss your wings.”

More than anything else in the world, but all he said was, “Do you miss yours?”

“Who says I ever had a pair?” Clerici stood and closed the distance between them, and it was then that Koldo felt the power crackling from his skin, lightning strikes against his own, burning him from the outside in.

“Ah, but that information isn’t yours to collect, is it?”

Privacy. That, Koldo understood and respected. He shook his head.