PROVIDENCE: A NOVEL
Providence trilogy, Book One
Self-published November 2010
What people are saying
A Short Synopsis
Struggling with her father's death, Nina meets Jared Ryel, presumably by chance. However it soon becomes clear that he knows more about her than even close friends. When her father's former associates begin following her in the dark, Nina learns that her father was not the man she thought he was, but a thief who stole from demons. In searching for the truth behind her father's death, she stumbles upon something she never expected, and something Hell wants, that only she holds the key for. Jared risks everything to keep the women he was born to save, by sharing the secret he was sworn to protect.
Loss and Found
The average daughter respects her father. She might regard him as her hero, or she may place him so high on a pedestal that no object of her affection could ever compare. To me, my father deserved more than respect, or loyalty, or even love. I had a reverence for him. He was more than Superman; he was God.
One of my earliest memories was of two men cowering in my father’s office as he spoke words I didn’t understand. His verdict was always final and never argued with. Not even death could touch him.
When I answered my phone on December 14th, that reality came to an end.
“Nina,” my mother sighed, “he doesn’t have much time. You should come now.”
I set the phone beside me on the bed, careful to keep my hands from trembling so much that it tumbled to the floor. The past few weeks had been an alternate universe for me, as I had been faced with one horrible call after another. The first was from a nurse at the hospital informing me of my father’s car accident. My number was the most recently dialed on his cell phone, leaving me with the horrifying task of being the one to break the news to my mother. In his last days, when reports of no improvement were replaced with gentle suggestions to prepare for the inevitable, I was thankful to be at the receiving end of the phone calls.
It felt strange to walk across the room and grab my coat and keys. The tasks seemed too mundane to begin the journey to say goodbye to my father. I lamented the ordinary life that seemed so long ago as I walked out to my car and turned the ignition.
My father had risen to the top of the shipping industry ruling with an iron fist, but I knew the gentle side of him. The man that left important meetings to take my trivial phone calls, kissed my scrapes, and rewrote fairytales so that the princess always saved the prince. Now he lay helpless in his bed, fading away in the vast bedroom he shared with my mother.
Our housekeeper, Agatha, greeted me at the front door. “Your mother’s expecting you, Love. You best get upstairs.”
Agatha took my coat, and then I climbed the stairs, feeling the bile rise higher in my throat with every step.
His private nurse brushed past me as I entered the room, and I winced at the sight of him. His face was sallow with a thin sheen of perspiration, and his usually clean shaven jaw was darkened with whiskers that crowded his parched lips. My mother spoke soft, comforting words to him as his chest heaved with every labored breath. The muted beeps and humming of the pumps and monitors were the background music to my worst nightmare.
Like the other times I’d visited my father since his accident, my legs transformed into deep-seeded roots that tunneled through my shoes and plunged into the wooden floor. I couldn’t go forward or retreat.
My mother looked up with weary heartbreak in her eyes. “Nina,” she called. “Come, dear.”
Her hand lifted to summon me forward but my feet wouldn’t move. She sighed in understanding and walked toward me, her arm still reaching out in front of her. I couldn’t take my eyes off of my father’s feeble attempts to breathe as she cupped her fingers around each of my shoulders and eased me forward. After a few reluctant steps, I stopped again.
“I know,” she whispered.
Peeling my shoes from the floor, I let her guide me to his bedside. My first instinct was to help him, but the only thing left to do was to wait for his suffering to end.
“Jack, darling,” my mother said in a soothing tone. “Nina’s here.”
After watching him struggle for sufficient breath, I leaned down to whisper in his ear. “I’m here, Daddy.”
His breath skipped a bit and he mumbled inaudibly.
“Don’t try to talk. Just rest.” My shaking fingers reached out to his hand. “I’m going to stay with you.”
“Cynthia?” My father’s attorney and friend, Thomas Rosen, called to my mother from the back corner of the room. With a pained expression she glanced at my father, clutched me to her chest for a moment, and then quietly walked to Thomas’ side. Their voices became a stream of humming no louder than the machines attached to my father.
He sucked in another breath while I tenderly swept his salt and pepper hair away from his moist brow. “Neen…,” he swallowed, “Nina.”
My eyes wandered to my mother, who was in silent conversation, searching her face one last time for a sign of hope. Seeing the sorrow in her eyes, I looked back to my father and prepared to say goodbye.
“Daddy,” I began, but words failed me. My eyes closed as the urge to ease his suffering grew insistent. A faltering breath escaped from my chest and I started again. “I should tell you that it’s okay…that you don’t have to stay for me, but I can’t.”
His breathing slowed. He was listening to me.
“I don’t want be the one to let you go, Daddy. I want you to get better, but I know that you’re tired. So if you want to sleep…I’ll be okay.” The corners of his mouth shook as they attempted to turn up.
My mouth smiled as my face crumpled around it. “I’ll miss you, Daddy. I’m going to miss you so much.” I sucked in another breath and he did the same, but his was different this time. He had no more fight left in him.
I glanced back to my mother, who watched me with heavy, wet eyes. He took in another deep breath and slowly exhaled. His life slipped away as the last bit of oxygen left his lungs. The sound reminded me of a tire losing air, slow and level until there was nothing left. His body relaxed, and his eyes became vacant and unfocused.
The nurse silenced the solid tone of the heart monitor while I scanned his peaceful face. The realization that my father was gone washed over me in waves. My insides wrenched, and my arms and legs felt foreign, as if they no longer belonged to me. I nodded and smiled, ignoring the tears that spilled over my cheeks. He trusted my words, and so he let go.
Thomas touched my shoulder and moved to the head of the bed. He reached over to place his hands over my father’s eyes and whispered something beautiful in Hebrew. I leaned over my father’s chest and hugged him. For the first time in my life, he didn’t hug me back.
Looking down into my hands, I scanned the obituary from the funeral. Separated by a dash, the dates of my father’s birth and death were displayed in elegant font on the front cover. I grimaced with the recognition that such a short line of ink was meant to signify his life.
The paper fit snugly in the inside pocket of my coat just as the wet sloshing of bus tires approached, slowing to a stop in front of me.
The door opened, but I didn’t look up. The sounds of commuters stepping out onto the sidewalk never came. My neighbors had little need for public transportation, specifically so late in the evening. Those that used it at all were the hired service that worked in the colossal residences nearby.
The bus driver cleared his throat to get my attention, and when I failed to acknowledge him, the door swept shut. The air breaks released, and the bus slowly pulled away from the curb. I tried not to think about the day that had just taken place, but my memory became saturated with it.
Just as I did in childhood, I rocked back and forth to comfort myself. The warm peach hue had long since left my fingers, reminding me of my father’s folded hands as he lay in his coffin.
A frigid breath of air flooded my lungs and my chest heaved, giving way to the sob that had been clawing its way to the surface. I had thought moments before that my eyes couldn’t cry anymore, and I wondered how much more I would have to endure before my body would finally be too exhausted to continue.
“Cold night, huh?”
I sniffed and shot an annoyed glance to the man settling into the space next to me. I hadn’t heard him approach. He breathed on his hands, rubbed them together and then offered a reassuring grin.
“I guess,” I answered.
He looked down at his watch and sighed. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath. “Guess we missed the last bus.”
He pulled a cell phone from the pocket of his black motorcycle jacket and dialed. He greeted someone and then requested a taxi.
“Did you want to share a cab?” he asked.
I peered over at him, immediately suspicious. His blue-grey eyes narrowed as he raised one eyebrow at my expression. I must have looked like a maniac, and he was reconsidering his offer.
I folded my arms, suddenly feeling the discomfort of winter breaking through my coat, seeping into my skin, piercing through to my bones. I had to get back to school; I still had a paper to write.
“Yes. Thank you,” I said with a shaky voice.
After an awkward moment of silence, the man spoke again. “You work around here?”
“No.” I hesitated to continue the conversation but found myself curious. “You?”
How odd. He didn’t look like hired help. I glanced at his watch out of the corner of my eye. Definitely not help.
“What do you do?”
He didn’t answer right away. “I’m…involved in the home security sector,” he nodded, seeming to agree with himself.
“I’m a student,” I offered, trying to clear the ridiculous quivering in my voice.
He stared at me with an expression I couldn’t quite decipher, and then looked forward again. He was older than I, though not by more than five or six years. I wondered if he knew who I was. There was a glimmer of familiarity in his eyes, though I couldn’t quite place it.
His cell phone vibrated, and he opened it to read a text message. He attempted to hide an emotion and then snapped the phone closed without replying, and didn’t speak again until the cab arrived.
He opened the door for me, and I scooted over to the farthest end of the seat while he slid in behind the driver.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked in a throaty voice.
“Brown University,” I instructed. “Please.”
“Uh-huh. One stop?”
“No,” my unanticipated companion said.
I noted that he was careful not to mention his address, and that struck me as odd. Maybe it wasn’t odd at all; maybe I was more curious about him than I would have liked to admit. I was surprised that I had noticed anything at the moment, and found myself grateful to this stranger for the diversion he’d inadvertently created for me.
“I’m Jared by the way,” he grinned, holding his hand out to take mine.
“Wow, your hands are freezing!” he said, clasping his other hand over mine.
I pulled my hand away, noting his exceptionally warm grip. I watched him for a moment, listening to any inner voices that might have sensed danger, but the only feeling that stood out was curiosity.
With the realization of his offense, he apologized with a small smile. I tucked my hair behind my ears and stared out the window. The wind whipped around outside, blowing the collecting flakes across the road like white snakes slithering ahead. I shivered at the image and pulled my coat tighter around me.
“Brown, huh?” Jared asked. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket and he flipped it open once again.
I nodded. “Brown.” He continued to look at me so I offered more. “Business major.”
The residual frustration from the unwanted caller melted away once our eyes met. It seemed as if he’d just noticed I’d been crying.
“Are you all right?”
I looked down, picking at my nails. “We buried my father today.” It occurred to me that I had no idea why I was sharing such personal information with a stranger.
“You were close,” Jared said. It was more of a statement than a question.
I waited for the expected pity in his eyes, but there was none. My relief caused me to smile which in turn made a grin turn up one side of his mouth. I noticed then that he had a nice face. It was more than nice, now that it had come to my attention. He was quite attractive, really….
“Where’s your place?” The cabbie squawked. I peeled my eyes from Jared and pointed in the direction of my dorm. “East Andrews Hall.”
The cab pulled in, and Jared automatically stepped out. As soon as his door had shut, mine opened.
“Thank you,” I said.
“It was nice to meet you, Nina.” There was an edge to his words. It went beyond politeness or even sincerity. He spoke the words with conviction.
I nodded and sidestepped toward my dorm. He paused before getting into the cab to smile at me once more, and for the first time in weeks I felt something other than hollow. I watched the cab pull away and then turned against the wind to walk toward Andrews.
Once inside my room, I noticed my appearance in the mirror and gasped. Good God, it was no wonder that Jared felt compelled to come to my aide! I looked like a homeless, desperate crack addict overdue for my next fix! My brush ripped through my blonde bob and I pulled my bangs straight back, pinning them away from my face. I went to the sink and scrubbed away the smeared mascara and streaky foundation.
With a frown, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and pressed the speed dial to call my mother.
“Nina?” she answered.
“Back in my room, Mom.”
She sighed. “Good. You know I don’t like for you to take the bus. Robert could have driven you. Take two of those pills I gave you today, all right? They’ll help you sleep.”
I rolled my eyes. My mother: the frequent flier of Providence drug stores.
“I’ll probably fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow.” Not the pure truth, but it would do to keep my personal pharmacist at bay.
“Okay, Darling. Sleep well.”
My dorm room seemed smaller. The white walls were pitifully empty on my side. Feeling I was being watched, I peeked across the room at my roommate. Her side of the room was covered in posters of teddy bears and team colors. My decor consisted of an ornamental frame on my night table displaying a picture of me and my parents at high school graduation just a few months before.
“How’s your mom?” Beth asked from under her baby pink comforter.
“How are you?”
“The same,” I sighed. My conclusive tone seemed to relax Beth, and while I changed into my pajamas I noticed her breathing even out.
I sat on my bed and pulled myself against the pillows. My thoughts effortlessly moved toward the last hour. Jared’s grin kept my mind occupied for a while, but before long my thoughts brought me back to the funeral. I rolled onto my side and curled into a ball, trying to cry quietly. Relief finally replaced the crushing grief as I slipped out of consciousness.
I turned to the side and blinked my eyes, noting the large, red numbers on the clock. Five A.M. had come quickly. My eyes felt swollen and scratchy. It was then that I realized my dreams had been cruel. There would be no miracles, and my father was still gone.
The finale of the worst experience of my life hadn’t ended with what was supposed to be my closure.
I clambered from my bed and opened my laptop, determined to finish my term paper by eight. The screen lit up, and I peered over at Beth, her head buried under her pillow. My fingers tapped out the next cross-reference and soon began a muted symphony of clicking against the keyboard.
The paragraphs formed swiftly and I finished by a quarter after seven. With a click of the mouse, the printer lurched and buzzed with its new task. I looked over at Beth, knowing a newspaper press wouldn’t wake her. I gathered my toiletries to make my daily commute down the hall to the showers.
Red-faced and sufficiently exfoliated, I tightened my robe and walked down the hall. While brushing my teeth over the quaint sink in our room, Beth sat up in bed and stretched out her arms. Her chin-length auburn hair was smashed in some places, and stuck out in others.
“Good morning,” she chirped. Then reality set in. “Oh … I mean ….”
“It’s okay, Beth. It is a nice morning.” Glancing out the window, I noticed the sky was looking bleaker from the onset, but I wasn’t going to mention that.
Beth smiled and began making her bed, setting her stuffed animals haphazardly in front of her frilly pillow.
“Are you going to the game Saturday?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
She usually invited me to go, and at times insisted I go, always in her cheery, pleasant voice. Beth hailed from the South. She worked hard and had been awarded numerous scholarships to make her escape from the small Oklahoma town she called home. Her side of the room was covered in trophies, sashes and crowns from the numerous pageants she’d entered and won. She wasn’t the typical beauty queen. Although beautiful, she seemed very introverted—a trait she was trying desperately to break away from. She explained to me the day we moved in that the pageants were a necessary evil for tuition.
“Well, I’ll give you a break this week if you decide to opt out. I’d understand with finals and…everything else,” she conceded without looking in my direction.
“I appreciate it.”
I pulled my hair back into a small burst of ponytail at the nape of my neck, looking like a bouquet of wheat shooting out from the back of my head. I sighed at my closet and gave myself a pep talk before dressing in the inevitable layers: one after another; bra, tank top, undershirt, sweater, socks, jeans, boots, coat—and not always in that order.
With my backpack bursting at the seams, I pulled up the handle and angled the bag onto its wheels.
“I’m going early for coffee.”
Beth smiled as she booted up her laptop. “Good luck getting that thing across the ice.”
I stepped out of the elevator into the hallway wondering if Beth was right about the weather. I held my breath and pushed the door open, waiting for the freezing temperature to sting my face. The wind blew the heavy glass door against me, working against the already pitiful pressure I had managed with one hand. Using my arm and shoulder, I forced the door open and gasped at the frigid burst of air burning my face.
I stumbled into the dining hall the student populace affectionately and appropriately dubbed “The Ratty”, and brushed off my coat. Shuffling across the muted tile floor, I made a beeline for the coffee pot. I filled my travel mug almost to the brim and mixed in my favorite hazelnut creamer and two packets of Splenda.
“That stuff is death in a package, you know,” Kim said from behind me.
“You sound like my mother,” I grumbled.
“I’m surprised you came today. Sucks that your dad died during finals.”
Kim was never one for holding back or mincing words. I usually found it very refreshing, but I hadn’t had time to brace myself before the words left her lips, and my ribs wrenched in response.
Kim watched me for a moment, and then shoved a blueberry corn muffin at my face.
I shook my head, uncrossing my eyes from looking at the muffin. “No, thanks. I need to get to class.”
“I’ll walk with you,” she said, pulling the muffin back.
Kim pulled a faded, red plaid hunter’s cap complete with ear covers over her short brown hair. If I thought I could laugh, I would have.
“Oh, Kim,” I said, attempting to make my voice sound cautious.
“What?” she asked, stopping in her tracks.
“Nothing,” I shook my head, deciding to leave it alone.
If any hat could be made for Kim, it was the ridiculous atrocity she’d placed on her head. Kim was above average in height, a head taller than my five feet, seven inches. Her short, caramel-colored hair framed her face in care free waves. Crazy and unpredictable as she was, people were drawn to her. I knew we would be friends the moment I met her in the hallway of Andrews; I couldn’t fathom having someone more interesting in my life.
Kim walked with me across campus to class, keeping my mind from more somber thoughts by regaling me with her most recent week of fantastic mishaps and blunders. She never failed to entertain me with her unbridled honesty and lack of brain-to-mouth filter.
Once in class, Kim leaned toward me and kept her voice low. “So, the funeral….”
I squirmed in my seat. “I...don’t really want to….”
“Oh, right. Yeah. So…it was yesterday?” Unlike Beth, Kim didn’t avoid unpleasantness. At times she seemed to slam face first into it with a smile on her face.
“Yes,” I sighed. “It was very nice.”
“Very nice,” Kim echoed, nodding. “I tried to call you last night. You didn’t answer.”
“I didn’t get in until late. I missed the last bus and ended up taking a cab.”
Kim eyed me with disbelief. “The last bus? I didn’t know public transportation had a curfew.” I considered that for a moment before she continued. “Why didn’t you drive? Your mother picked you up, didn’t she?”
“I ended up sharing a cab.”
“With your mom?”
“No, Kim. Not with my mom,” I deadpanned. “I met a man at the bus stop. We both missed the bus.” I didn’t confess that I’d had a momentary conscious black out and let the bus pull away.
“You shared a cab with some random guy at the bus stop? Interesting.”
“Not everyone’s stories end with a dramatic punch line like yours. We just shared a cab,” I said, trying to make my answer sound final.
“Was he old?”
I rolled my eyes. “No.”
“No, Kim. He was nice.”
“I didn’t ask if he was nice. So…he was cute, young…and?”
“Jack’s funeral was yesterday, Kim. I was a mess,” I said, feeling my eyebrows pull together.
“Why do you do that?”
“Do what?” I asked, exasperated.
“Call your dad ‘Jack’? I thought you were close?”
“We are. We were. I don’t know…because that’s his name?” Kim stared at me, unimpressed with my answer. I began again, “It’s always felt weird calling him Dad to other people. Just like I wouldn’t call a boyfriend ‘honey’ to you. It’s just…personal.”
“That’s weird, Nina.”
“Well, you are the authority on weird.”
Kim nodded, unaffected by my insult. “So who was the mystery guy? Does he go here?”
“I don’t think so. His stop was after mine,” I murmured, rolling my pen between my fingers.
Because my stop was first, I was curious if he lived near the university, and if I might run into him again. I cringed at the thought of that prospect. What would I possibly say to him? “Hi, Jared. Remember me? The Alice Cooper look-alike that you shared an awkward cab ride with for twenty minutes?”
“What’s with the face?” Kim’s expression screwed in a way I could only assume mirrored my own.
“Nothing. I just…,” I shrugged, “he probably thought I was nuts.”
“That could possibly be the most boring story I’ve ever heard,” Kim said, deflated.
“I tried to spare you the non-details. He did have a cute smile, though,” I mused.
Kim looked up at me with renewed interest and opened her mouth to say something, but Professor Hunter walked in the room. I hadn’t noticed the numerous empty seats. Some of the students were tossing their papers on his desk and leaving the way they came instead of meandering to their seats as usual.
“What are you still doing here? Turn in your papers and get out. Your grades will be posted on the web site. Happy Holidays,” he said to those of us still peppered across the room.
As finals week came to an end, the nightly ritual of curling into a ball to cry seemed to be a permanent fixture in my life. The first week of break, I had a bit more control over the emptiness when it hit. After that, there were a few nights that I escaped the sadness all together. The grief found new strength Christmas night, but to my relief falling asleep without tears became a bit easier after the holidays came to a close.
I found it disconcerting that although time provided some relief, I was also further from when Jack was a part of my life. Each passing day was that much longer since I’d been able to call him or hear his voice. With time, relief and apprehension intertwined.
When the spring semester began, Jared had become a blurred image from a day I wanted to file away, so it was a surprise to see him standing a few feet away from me in line at the Urban Outfitters off campus. I wasn’t confident that it was him at first, but when he accepted his receipt from the sales person and turned, I stared at him long enough to be certain. He didn’t suffer from the same hesitation that I did.
I felt my eyebrows rise while I tried to think of something besides ‘yes’ to reply with. My mouth opened, but nothing came out.
He pointed at his chest like he was speaking to a deaf mute. “I’m Jared. We shared a cab?” He patiently waited for me to recall his face, and I realized I hadn’t forgotten an inch of it.
“I thought that was you,” I said, trying a polite smile. Something was wrong with my throat. It felt dry, and as if I was drowning in my own saliva at the same time. I swallowed hard and tried to remember how not to be a ridiculous teenaged undergrad.
Jared’s expression skipped from relief to elation as a broad smile appeared across his face. A warm feeling bubbled up from my chest into my face, and I felt the heat release from my cheeks.
Oh, God, don’t blush! I thought to myself. But it was too late. I had no idea how to recover. “You seem to be having a better day. Made it to the bus on time and all that?”
“Something like that,” I mumbled. “How is the security business?”
“Interesting.” A glimmer touched his eyes that I wasn’t quite sure how to translate.
Our attention was simultaneously drawn to the phone vibrating in his jacket pocket. He smiled apologetically before reaching down to silence the distraction.
“Did you have a pleasant Christmas?” I tried not to cringe once the words left my mouth. Ugh. So unimaginative, I thought.
“Something like that,” he quoted.
I smiled at his teasing. He seemed so comfortable around me. I wasn’t sure if it was confidence or that he was just one of those people that could carry on a conversation with anyone and make them feel he’d known them for years.
I raised the silver sweater tunic in my hands. “Birthday shopping for my mother.”
A man behind me cleared his throat, and I realized that we were holding up the line. Jared smiled and took a step backward toward the register. I realized our conversation wasn’t over, and I turned my attention to the red-haired girl behind the counter, trying to conceal my enthusiasm.
She handed me the receipt, and Jared accompanied me outside. He stared down into my eyes, warmly scanning my face. I didn’t remember him being quite so tall. He towered over me, at least six feet two inches. How had I not noticed the incredible color of his eyes? They seemed to glow as he watched me fidget.
“Are you from Providence?” I asked.
“I am,” he said, seeming amused by my awkwardness.
“Did you go to Brown?”
If his eyes weren’t so animated by the conversation, I would have guessed by his short answers that it was my cue to excuse myself with my tail tucked between my legs.
“Really? I’m trying to place you. It seems like we’ve met before.” Did I just issue him a pick up line? Fantastic, I’ve now sunk to the level of desperate teenage boys everywhere.
“I don’t think so. That’s not something I would forget,” he said. “I was just going to grab a bite to eat at the end of the block. Would you join me?”
I thought I had said yes, but he continued to stare at me expectantly.
“Yes? I mean yes. That would be great.” I tried to smile through my humiliation and wondered if I was always so articulately clumsy. I couldn’t imagine why he was still speaking to me.
We walked to the end of the block to cross the street at the light. Jared guided me forward with his hand on the small of my back, and looked all around us as we crossed. I stifled a giggle; he reminded me of the President’s security detail. The only thing missing was a communication device in his ear and standard issue black Ray-Bans.
Jared opened the door for me. I had seen the restaurant several times, with it being close to campus, but I’d never ventured in.
“You’ll like it,” he assured me. I paused in a thought wondering if I’d said anything out loud.
“Welcome to Blaze,” the hostess said, motioning to us that she could seat us immediately. The waitress appeared a few moments later, and Jared waited for me to order.
“I’ll have a Dr. Pepper.”
“Make that two,” Jared said, raising two fingers. His eyes didn’t stray from mine.
The waitress nodded and left us to each other. I was curious if he would have ordered a beer had he not asked a toddler to accompany him.
“I don’t think I thanked you for getting me home.”
“Actually, you did,” he said, putting his elbows on the table and crossing his arms.
“Oh. That night is sort of a blur,” I grimaced.
“I’m sorry you lost your dad, Nina. I’m glad I was there.”
I tucked my hair behind my ears. “I’m glad you were there, too.”
“It probably wasn’t the safest idea…sitting alone in the dark. Lots of crazies out there,” his tone was casual, but underneath I caught a hint of anxiousness.
“I grew up in that neighborhood. It’s safe, I assure you.”
He laughed and shook his head. “It’s always safe until something bad happens.”
The waitress brought our drinks and asked if we were ready to order. Once again, Jared waited for me to begin.
“I’ll have the Greek salad,” I said. I glanced over at Jared, who studied me with raised eyebrows and a wry smile. I wasn’t about to be one of those girls, “And the linguine.”
The waitress turned her attention to Jared. “For you?”
“I’ll have the house salad with blue cheese and the Shrimp Scampi. And would you bring us some of those sweet potato fries, please?” he said, handing the menu to the waitress. Once she left I looked around the restaurant and then peeked over at Jared, who still hadn’t taken his eyes off me.
I floundered for conversation under his stare. Jared’s eyes were an incredible blue-grey; they almost glowed against his lightly bronzed skin. His thick brown eyebrows sat atop his almond-shaped eyes and were just slightly darker than his strategically messy dark blonde hair. His natural highlights glimmered in the early afternoon sun that broke through the windows. He was clearly more than just attractive. I wondered again why he was still speaking to me.
“Sweet potato fries?” I asked.
“They’re famous. Well, they’re famous to me. You have to dip them in these little sauces they give you to fully appreciate them. It’s an experience.”
“Sweet potato fries,” I said, still unsure.
He smiled. “Trust me.” His cell phone vibrated, and he flipped it open. It was more than a text message this time; he masked an irritated look and pressed it to his ear.
“Ryel,” he answered.
Righ-el? I was fairly sure that was his last name, but I couldn’t be certain. He lowered his voice and tilted his head away from me. He was unhappy with the caller, but it was only the tone I could understand; he was speaking what I guessed to be Russian. He was devastatingly handsome, kind, and spoke a second language. If the sweet potato fries turned out to be all that he’d promised, I might have fallen out of my chair.
He became impatient with the person on the other end of the line and hung up the phone.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
I shook my head, fielding his apology. “No, it’s fine. I just inadvertently learned two new things about you.”
His eyes were still focused on mine, but they were a bit fogged over as if his attention was divided between me and the problem with the caller.
“Ryel?” I asked.
“My last name.”
“And was that….Russian you were speaking?” I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes,” he sighed. His shoulders relaxed as he exhaled. “Doesn’t everyone speak a second language these days?”
“You only speak two?” I said, feigning dissatisfaction.
He laughed, and a new twinge formed in my chest. I couldn’t get over his smile and how remarkable it was, as if he had come straight out of a magazine.
“I took French in high school. It didn’t stick,” I said, feeling inferior.
“My dad spoke fluently. I learned from him.”
“Oh, your family is from Russia?”
“Er…no,” Jared said, looking uncomfortable with the question.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “You’re very popular. Business must be fantastic.”
His eyes tightened as he studied my face. “Business is…,” his eyes softened and he leaned in a bit towards me, meeting my gaze, “better than it’s been in a long time.”
I forced myself to breathe. It felt unnatural when he looked at me like that. “So you enjoy what you do?”
“Some days more than others,” he shrugged.
He smiled again. Something was amusing him about our conversation, and I wasn’t in on the joke. “Today’s a good day.”
My attention was diverted to the waitress walking up behind him, bringing our sweet potato fries and salads. Jared looked down at the table and then to me with a calculating grin.
I leaned over to get a better look inside the woven bowl. “You’re making me awfully nervous over a basket of fries. These should be some earth shattering potatoes.”
“Truly, potatoes that deserve an introduction.” We both laughed. He picked up a few and dipped them in a cup of strange looking goo.
“No ketchup?” I asked, eyeing the misshapen spear in my hand.
Jared wrinkled his nose. “Ketchup is for those who don’t want to taste their food.”
“Ketchup is for suckers.” I concentrated on the basket, my eyebrows pressed together.
Laughter erupted from his throat, and I plunged my fry into the sauce. He took a bite and watched me raise my hand to my mouth. His expression grew playfully anxious as I chewed.
“Not...bad. Pretty good, actually,” I said, nodding as I swallowed.
His face was triumphant. We joked and laughed as we eliminated the remaining fries, and politely discussed the weather through our salads. After we finished our entrées, he eyed my empty plate and nodded his head in satisfaction.
“I like a girl with an appetite.”
“I have a feeling we’ll be good friends, then,” I laughed. “That’s the first non-Ratty meal I’ve eaten since I’ve been back to school. Thanks for bringing me here.”
Jared beamed. “It was absolutely my pleasure. I’m glad we ran into each other.”
The waitress brought the ticket and Jared scooped it up, placed his card in the pouch and handed it back to her. He looked as if he’d just won the lottery. I couldn’t believe that my enjoyment of some alternately flavored French fries had made him so cheerful.
He helped me with my coat. I wasn’t the type of girl to enjoy gallantry, but the casual way he went about it made me a tad giddy. I picked up my Urban Outfitters bag, and he followed me outside.
“You walked?” Jared asked.
“I walked.” I tucked my hair behind my ears and waited for him to be chivalrous again.
“It’s getting colder. Do you mind if I drive you?” he asked, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets.
The grin that swept across my face was uncontainable. “Do you remember where I live?”
“Andrews, right?” he said. I nodded, and he seemed pleased that he could give me the correct answer. “I’m this way,” he said, directing me down the street.
Jared parked beside the curb next to my dorm, and I subliminally willed him to ask for my number, for another date, anything. I didn’t want to have to wait so long this time before I saw him again.
“Thanks again,” I said, stalling.
He smiled, but it wasn’t as broad as it was during lunch. He seemed to be as disappointed as I was that our brief encounter was over.
“You’re welcome. Truly, the pleasure was mine.”
He stepped out and less than a second later, opened my door. I stood to face him and after a small pause, began making the walk to my dorm. A sense of urgency overcame my nervousness and I turned on my heels.
He hadn’t moved. Standing in front of his black Escalade, he looked exactly like a security guard. The glass was blacked out, and it looked more like a scene in the Middle East than on a quiet Providence street.
“Jared?” I pulled my cell phone from my purse to ask for his number, but the words left me. I gulped as his eyes pierced through mine. I didn’t know if the attraction was mutual, but on my end at least, it was intense.
“We’ll run into each other again,” he said, grinning. I started to argue, but what could I say? If I wondered aloud how soon that would be, I would sound more desperate than I wanted.
“It was good to see you again, Nina,” he said, before disappearing behind the dark tint of his windows.
I smiled and waved, then continued my trek to Andrews.
REQUIEM: A NOVEL
Providence Trilogy, Book Two
Self-published: June 10, 2011
Still healing from her last run-in with Hell, Nina struggles with not only her life as a Brown University student, but also as an intern at Titan Shipping, her father's company. Recurring nightmares about her father's violent death have become a nightly event, but being overwhelmed with guilt from Ryan's unexpected departure to the Armed Forces, and heart ache over Claire being across the ocean to protect him, Nina believes her sleepless nights are the least of her problems—but she's wrong.
Worried about Nina's declining health, Jared must steal back Shax's book for answers. Fighting new enemies, and with the help of new friends, Jared's worst fear comes to fruition. Desperate, he is faced with a choice: Fight Hell alone, or start a war with Heaven.
I was back. Surrounded by darkness, two blurry forms crouched before an open safe, hidden behind a large hinged bookcase. They breathed heavily, working at a feverish pace to find what they had searched for the past months. One of the men froze and all movement stopped. He leaned further into the safe, using both hands to pull out a thick leather-bound book.
“That’s it. Dear God, that’s it,” Jack whispered.
Every corner of the room held a warning. Lit only by the moonlight filtering through the blinds of a single window, antique swords and axes hung on the walls, bordering hand-painted landscapes of war and death. The air was stale, lacking human lungs to circulate it.
I had been there many times before, but my hands still trembled, knowing the panic would begin soon. It was coming, but I couldn’t stop it. It would play over and over as if I were stuck in time, in a bad dream, or in Hell.
Jack’s fingers ran over the branded seal in the center and looked to his friend.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Jack?”
“Are you sure it’s her, Gabe?” Jack replied. Gabe nodded slowly, and then Jack continued with a sigh, “Then you know the answer.”
Hearing what Jack’s human ears couldn’t, Gabe’s head jerked to the side. “It’s too late,” he said, his eyes twitching back and forth as he listened. “They’re here.”
They shoved the documents, artifacts, and jewels back into the safe, and the fair-haired man effortlessly pressed the heavy bookcase flat against the wall in an attempt to conceal any evidence of their presence.
“Don’t worry about that now, Gabe! Let’s go!” Jack growled.
“I’m trying to buy us some time!”
Their shadows glided over the wooden floor as the men fled the room, and I stepped aside, watching them in silence, knowing their fate.
Gabe ran ahead, gun in hand, accustomed to Jack falling behind. He waited at the end of the hall for his friend, calculating a way out.
“The roof,” I whispered in his ear. “You always use the roof.”
A large, warm hand reached out, and Jack was pushed against the wall.
“What are you . . .?” Jack began.
Gabe lifted his finger to his mouth, and then pointed to the upper floor. Jack nodded quickly, pushing his tired body from the wall. They bolted down a corridor, tightly rounded a corner, and then launched themselves up the stairs. Both men took two steps at a time, their hands gripping the banister to pull them along with each leap.
“The roof!” Gabe called as many voices echoed below them, none of them human.
Jack’s eyes widened when a terrifying shriek came from below. His stride grew longer as he streaked through another door, climbing a second stairway. He heaved a breath of relief. The narrow walls of crumbling concrete meant the roof was just a few steps away.
Already at the top of the stairway, Gabe shouldered through an outer door and ran across the roof to the edge. He looked down, four stories to the road below, and then at his friend. “We’ve still got two minutes, Jack. Are you sure?”
“Do I look ambivalent to you?” he shouted, tightly grasping the book to his chest. “I have to find a way to stop it!”
I frowned. In the past, I had begged my father to leave the book behind. Dozens of trips to this place taught me that Jack and Gabe’s plight would replay exactly the same. Each time I attempted to change the outcome, it just made the end harder to watch.
Gabe sighed in submission and then jerked his head to the north, gauging the distance of their escape. “Then it begins.”
The shrieking grew louder, and Jack closed his eyes. “I have to save her,” he said in a low, grieved voice.
Jack’s body jerked forward. His tie slapped against his neck, and the wind howled past his ears as he flew through the night sky. It seemed as if the second he took flight, he had landed on another roof, four buildings away. Jack lurched forward with the sudden stop, bending at the waist, making a loud grunting noise as the air was forced from him with the sudden impact. Gabe released him then.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Jack smiled, smoothing out his jacket and tie.
“I could have let you take the fire escape, brother, but with those beasts on your tail, only parts of you would have made it to the street,” Gabe said with a smirk. His grin quickly faded when he looked up. “They are drawn to it. We need more distance.”
Jack nodded. A door identical to the one they escaped from was a few yards away. He yanked open the door, and then Gabe followed him down the stairs. After three flights, Jack slowed his pace; his chest heaved.
“Come on!” Gabe growled.
“I’m coming!” Jack snapped, taking another deep breath before descending the last two flights.
Just as their exit came into view, the shrieking and snarling grew louder. Jack looked over his shoulder and saw that Gabe had stayed behind, his firearm held closely to his face.
“We’re not going to make it. They’re too close.” Gabe breathed.
“GABRIEL!” An animalistic hiss cried above them. It was one voice, but it was also many.
Gabe cocked his gun and narrowed his eyes. “Go, Jack. I’ll hold them off.”
“If you want to save your daughter, then go!” Gabe yelled.
Jack clutched the book to his chest and made his way outside. He burst from the door and then grasped his knees, unable to catch his breath. He leaned against the door and lifted his face to the heavens, closing his eyes.
“God help me,” he whispered.
The shrieking stopped momentarily before piercing the air again.
For the first time, Jack looked into my eyes. He was afraid, something I’d never seen before. It felt strange at first, as though he shouldn’t have been able to see me. I watched a familiar look of resolve paint his face. “I’m going to save you, Nina.”
As if he’d never spoken to me, Jack’s eyes darted in every direction to determine the best route of escape.
Just as he had made his decision to flee, the wood splintered behind him, and dozens of long clawed hands exploded through the door. Jack’s eyes widened in terror as demons grabbed at his chest, his legs, his neck, and face. The sharp nails shredded his shirt, and sunk into his skin; blood spilling from his open wounds.
“Nina!” he screamed. His flesh ripped under the pressure of the long talons grating across it.
His arms and legs were thrust forward, and then his body bent in half and disappeared, sucked into the hell that awaited him inside.
“Daddy!” I screamed into the darkness.
Hands held my outreached arms and I slapped them away. “No! No! Daddy!” I wailed, trying to get away. I wasn’t strong enough.
“Nina, stop! It’s me!”
As reality sank in, I stopped fighting. Jared sat next to me in our bed, holding my wrists against his chest.
“Nina?” he said, leaning over to flip on the lamp.
My eyes squeezed shut, rejecting the light. Sweat soaked my cotton gown, and damp hair matted against my forehead. With trembling fingers, I wiped the wet strands from my face. It always took a few moments to calm myself, but it wasn’t fear this time. I was angry.
“They’re getting worse,” Jared said, concerned.
I had to clear my throat. “They’re so real,” I whispered. I could still smell my father’s cologne, and the screeching still rang in my ears. Returning to the same place almost every night to watch my father die felt like torture. Resentment replaced the fear, and that was a good thing; I felt better equipped to handle rage than the overwhelming helplessness that normally woke me.
I licked the salt from my lips. “I’m okay.”
“That’s the third one this week. I don’t think you’re okay,” Jared said, his face tense. “Same one?”
Reluctantly, I nodded. Jared worried obsessively each time he had to wake me from a nightmare. He was tormented by the screaming, the trembling, and the inability to stop it. The frustration and concern he felt was only exacerbated by our unique link. Jared was half human and half angel. As a hybrid, he was sensitive to small changes in my body such as blood pressure, hormonal changes, and my pulse, and because I was his taleh—the human he was charged with protecting—he felt my feelings as if they were his own.
He watched me for a moment before pulling me onto his lap. “Maybe you should talk to someone.”
“I don’t need a shrink, Jared. They’re just dreams,” I said, more to myself than to him.
He pulled me with him, resting his back against the headboard. I worked to relax. My days without him the previous spring had been good practice when I didn’t want to bother him with my ridiculous human fears and feelings. But I struggled after the nightmares, even after months of perfecting my talent.
I tried to think of anything but the terrifying image of my father being torn to shreds so that I could settle down and fall asleep. Jared’s feverish chest against my cheek was comforting, and I breathed in his amazing scent. Any other time I would have instantly felt at ease, but after the three-peat of the worst nightmare I’d ever had, it didn’t work.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, abruptly peeling off the blankets tucked around me.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning, Nina. You have to get up in three hours anyway for work. Why don’t you just try to sleep?”
I scooted to the edge of the bed, and planted my feet on the floor with my back to Jared. “Have you slept?” I asked him.
After a short pause, he let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes.”
“Then there’s no reason for me to go back to sleep. I don’t want to sleep, anyway. It’s the same thing every time I close my eyes.” I waited a moment, and when Jared failed to argue, I pushed myself off the bed and walked into the bathroom.
The pipes whined when I turned the shower knobs, and I stood in front of the sink in quiet thought, waiting for the water to warm. Visions from my dream flashed in short, loud scenes—the screeching and the sound of my father’s shoes running up the stairs—it wouldn’t stop. I closed my eyes tightly, willing the memories away. Were they even memories if it was just a dream?
“Nina? Are you okay in there?” Jared called.
I leaned over, cupped my hands together under the running water of the sink, and then splashed my face. I let the drops of water fall from my nose and chin into the basin and watched as they followed each other in a trail down the drain. Concentrating on masking my emotions was easier when I focused on something trivial.
“I’m fine,” I said, righting myself to stare in the mirror. My features had changed from the time when Jared and I had first met. Spending much of the summer indoors while my leg healed had left my skin pale and lifeless, and I was sporting a matching pair of purple circles under my eyes.
Our near-death experience in the restaurant seemed like a lifetime away. Aside from the occasional news story about the police department’s finest meeting untimely ends in bizarre and unrelated accidents, our days went by as if Graham, Shax, and the book had never existed.
I let my nightgown drop to the floor and then stepped into the shower, sighing as the stream of water poured over my face.
Jared walked in and leaned against the sink, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
Jared shifted uncomfortably. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
“The fall semester is getting ready to start. I have extra classes, and with my internship, it’s probably just stress.”
“I don’t understand,” Jared said. “It’s been months since any of them have come around. This is the least I’ve seen of them in my entire life, and yet you’re . . .” Jared rubbed his neck. “It doesn’t make sense for you to be having these dreams now.”
“Jared, people have nightmares all the time without demons present. It doesn’t mean anything,” I said, scrubbing shampoo into my hair.
“That’s what you think.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on. You’re blowing this out of proportion. If I promise to quit having the dreams, will you promise to quit freaking out about them?”
“You’ll promise to quit having the dreams,” Jared repeated, his voice thick with sarcasm.
I poked my soapy head from the shower curtain, lather dripping down my face. “Okay, I can’t promise, but you’re giving me a complex. Unless you know something I don’t, they’re just dreams.”
Jared smiled and wiped the line of soap from my forehead, promptly kissing my lips. “Okay. They’re just dreams.”
I nodded in approval and then closed the curtain. “I have to stop by the office today. Do you mind?” I asked, knowing he would.
“You mean more than any other day?”
Escorting me to Titan Mercantile was just another day at work for Jared, but as often as I asked him to come in, it had become an inside joke between us. Every day I asked, and every day he politely declined. For years, Jared’s father, Gabe, walked the halls of Titan Mercantile. Jared didn’t talk about it, but I assumed his refusal to go in had to do with unresolved feelings concerning his father.
The hours before dawn crept by slowly, and after my shower, Jared and I spent the remaining moments of twilight at the breakfast table. When the morning sun finally poked through the blinds, I smiled at the glowing light painting rectangles against the walls. I had spent hours staring at those walls, waiting for my leg to heal. Beth visited infrequently, busy decorating her new apartment, Kim had taken her summer vacation on the road, and Claire was relentlessly eliminating any threat to us. Jared spent much of his time warding off loneliness and keeping me entertained. We had grown closer, and life had been more normal than ever. The only reminder of the night I almost died was the scar on my thigh.
Jared, working busily in the kitchen, caught my eye, and I listened to the pan pop and sizzle with our breakfast. He placed omelets on the table along with a small stack of mail.
“Anything interesting?” I asked as he thumbed through the envelopes.
Jared paused, eyes narrowing as he read over the handwritten address.
“It’s for you,” he said, sliding it toward me.
The top left corner explained Jared’s expression. It was from Ryan.
By Jared’s expression, I knew it wasn’t good news. “You already know, don’t you?” I said, pulling out a single sheet of notebook paper.
“I have an idea.”
“Something you should have told me by now,” I accused, scanning the letter quickly.
I wanted you to hear it from me, but didn’t know how to say it, so I’m just going to write it. I’m not coming back to Brown. I talked with an Army recruiter, and I feel that ’the Army’s the best place for me at this point. I know you better than you think I do, and right now, you’re feeling guilty. Well, don’t. You’re happy, and that’s all that matters to me. That’s the truth. I’m sorry you have to find out in this stupid letter, but everything happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to call. Take care of yourself, Nigh. I’ll think about you every day.
The letter slipped from my hands and fell to the floor, quietly and slowly. The numbness was unexpected but welcome; I knew guilt would soon wash over me and that it would be unbearable.
Jared touched my hand. “Claire called. He’s doing well.”
“Claire’s gone?” I wailed, standing up from my seat. Once again, although the swing of emotions startled me, anger was always preferable to pain. Jared took a step toward me, but I stepped away from him. “You didn’t even let me say good-bye to her! To either of them!”
Jared’s eyebrows moved inward, creating a deep crease. “He wanted to do this, Nina. You couldn’t have stopped him anyway.”
“But you knew it was happening,” I said softly. “You should have told me.” The lack of sleep was already wearing on me, and my body felt heavy. I didn’t have the energy to be angry. My eyes drifted to the letter on the floor. “This is my fault.”
I nodded. “I did this. I broke his heart, and he couldn’t stay here.” I shook my head. “I should have left him alone. He’s going to die out there.”
“Ryan made his choice,” Jared said.
His dry tone was hardly convincing. He had a right to be angry, watching his fiancée anguish over the man she was meant to be with. To Jared, Ryan being Claire’s taleh meant that I belonged to someone else, and I used that to drive Jared away when I thought being with him meant putting his family in danger. My brilliant plan had been enough to drive Ryan to join a war halfway across the world. No matter what Jared said or how much he hated to see me upset, he wasn’t sorry to see Ryan go.
As angry as I was, the only one to blame was me, and we both knew it.
I shook my head. “I have to get going. I have to get those documents faxed by eight.”
Jared sighed. “If I had told you, what would you have done besides worry?”
I pulled my purse over my shoulder. “I don’t know,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. I scrolled through the address book until I found Ryan’s number and then held the phone to my ear. As I expected, his voice mail immediately answered.
The sound of his voice made my insides wrench, but when the beep cued me to speak, my temper kicked in.
“I need you to call me. Call me right now. I mean it. I just got your letter and you can’t do this. You just can’t. You’ve got to call me so we can figure this out. Please.”
Jared took the phone from my hand and let it slowly close. “He’s not going to get that message, sweetheart.”
“I had to try,” I said, opening my purse for him to drop the phone inside. “Someone had to.”
Jared touched my arm. “He’s the safest enlisted man in the Army, Nina. He has Claire.”
“And how is that going to work, exactly? Has Claire joined the Army?”
Jared smiled. “No. We’ve talked about this. She’s keeps an eye on Ryan the same way we were allowed to train. We have connections.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I know,” Jared said, opening the door.
I didn’t kiss him when I passed through the door or when he opened the passenger side for me as he always did or before he left me for the driver’s seat. He didn’t attempt to apologize, which he only did when he felt he was right, knowing that infuriated me further.
“I’m sorry you’re angry,” he said.
I glared at him. “That’s lame and you know it. You didn’t tell me Ryan had enlisted in the first place! You didn’t let me say good-bye to Claire! Sorry I’m angry.” I muttered the last words and crossed my arms, settling into an unyielding foul mood. When Jared didn’t reply, I peeked at him from the corner of my eye. He was trying not to laugh.
“This is not funny, Jared!”
His mouth immediately flat-lined. “I didn’t say it was. You’re just,” he shook his head as he pulled to the curb of Titan Mercantile, “trying to be angry, with a series of annoyed expressions on your beautiful face; it’s amusing. I’m sorry.”
“Stop being sorry and start being—I don’t know—sorry!”
A corner of Jared’s mouth rebelled and turned up slightly before he straightened it again. “Have a good day.”
I slammed the door, beyond trying to have an argument with him. At times it was maddening how in love with me he was.
I took a few steps toward the building and then stopped. I returned to the Escalade and opened the door. “Are you coming in?” I asked sheepishly.
“Not today,” he smiled.
Jared had spent endless hours at Titan Mercantile as a child, and it was his least favorite place to go with his father. It didn’t help that the other employees stared at him as if he were a zoo animal. They couldn’t figure our relationship out; although, most of them knew that Jared was Gabe’s son and my security.
In the days when my father walked the halls, seeing Gabe was just another day at the office. From the first day of my internship, it was apparent that I also needed protection, and my appointed bodyguard also happened to be my fiancé. Those facts alone began more than one string of rumors about my family.
One of my fellow interns in particular had an immediate interest in Jared. Sasha wasted no time with the saccharine-laced pleasantries; on the contrary, she was downright hateful to me on the subject.
“So Jared,” she began as I walked into the office we shared. She eyed his Escalade from the window as she spoke.
“I have a lot to do, Sasha.”
“He protects you?” When I didn’t answer, she walked over to stand in front of my desk, tapping on it until I looked up. “From what?” she asked, dubiously.
I glared at her long nails clicking against the wood and then up at her. “I’m busy.”
“But he’s your boyfriend, right?”
“No?” she said, her voice an octave higher.
“Isn’t that, you know, a conflict of interest?”
“Not really,” I said, thumbing through a stack of papers.
“I just don’t get it. I mean,” she puffed an airy laugh, “I realize you’re the princess of Titan Mercantile, but don’t you feel a little ridiculous when you stand next to him? You’re such an odd couple.”
Recognizing what she meant, my head jerked up, and my eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
Sasha shrugged then, running her finger along the edge of my desk as she slithered around me. “Doesn’t it make you self-conscious? Women must be throwing themselves at him all the time.”
“Not really, no,” I snapped as she walked toward the door.
Sasha smirked, backing away from my glare. “Hmm. Very interesting.” Her long red ponytail flicked as she turned the corner, and I felt the heat radiate from my face.
On cue, my phone rang.
“Everything okay?” Jared asked on the other end of the line.
I covered my eyes with my hand, attempting to calm myself before I spoke. “Everything’s fine. It’s . . . Sasha was just here.”
“Oh. That explains it. Is she leaving her coffee mug on your papers, again?” Jared chuckled. For whatever reason, it amused him that the woman got under my skin in such a way that I couldn’t think straight.
I sighed. “No. She’s . . . I can’t say what I want to, so I just won’t.”
“You do own the company, you know. You don’t have to work with her.”
“Right now, I’m an intern, Jared. And,” I sighed again, watching her flirt with the human resources manager, “don’t tempt me.”
“Think you could slip away a bit early today?” Jared asked.
“It’s your first day back to Brown tomorrow. I thought we could get on the bike, head to the oak tree, and have some lunch.”
“The oak tree?”
“The one I’ve wanted to take you to: where my father took my mother.”
I smiled. “That sounds fantastic, but I have a meeting first.”
“Right,” Jared said, pretending he’d forgotten.
I straightened my skirt at the waist and then pressed the button for the third floor. My entire last day of freedom could have been spent with Jared, but Mr. Patocka asked that the interns come in for one last meeting before school began. Some of them were leaving, and he needed to redistribute responsibilities. I had looked forward to this meeting all week only because it was Sasha’s last day. That alone was cause to celebrate.
“Interns.” Mr. Patocka began looking through the papers in his hand. He always said “interns” as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Anna, Brad, and Evan will be leaving us, leaving Shannon, John, Nina, and Sasha with new responsibilities. I would like to say . . .”
Mr. Patocka’s words blurred together after I realized he’d put Sasha in the wrong category.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Patocka?”
“Yes, Miss Grey?” he said, obviously irritated. I was well aware that had any other intern interrupted him he or she would have been promptly asked to leave the meeting, but everyone knew, including Mr. Patocka, that I wasn’t just an intern.
“I think you’ve made a mistake. Sasha isn’t staying,” I said as professionally as I could manage.
“Still not paying attention to your briefs,” Sasha snapped. “I’m staying on through the school year.”
“What?” I said, my tone sounding more disgusted than I’d meant. I looked to Mr. Patocka, who nodded while looking incredibly bored with the turn the conversation had taken.
“I . . . She . . .” I stumbled over my words, trying to think of a way to save face after I’d made it so clear that I was shocked and dismayed at the news.
“It’s okay, Nina. We still get to be office mates,” Sasha purred. Her smile was that of a cat being polite to the bird just before she ate it.
“Moving on,” Mr. Patocka continued. “Sasha, you’ll be taking over Brad’s duties, Shannon, you’ll be taking over Anna’s duties, and John will be taking over Evan’s. I expect those departing to make sure those staying behind have exact instructions.”
“What about Nina?” Sasha said, glaring back at me over her shoulder.
Mr. Patocka sighed. “Nina will be training with Grant during the school year, Sasha. Try not to make me feel as though I’m babysitting more than I already do, please.”
“With Grant?” Sasha groused.
Grant was second in command at Titan. When Jack died, he assumed the management responsibilities until I was ready to take over. Working with him was not something I looked forward to; I had spent my teenage years watching Grant suck up to my father and, to Jack’s amusement, shamelessly flirt with me.
Jack saw something in Grant that I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see. Not only did he give Grant promotion after promotion he tirelessly tried to persuade me to go out with his up-and-coming, incredibly intelligent, star employee.
While being within five feet of Grant usually made me a bit nauseated, Sasha had been scheming to land a job as his assistant since her first day. Mr. Patocka’s decision to place me in the very position she’d been working for all summer would no doubt push her beyond any irritation she’d had for me before.
I smiled at the thought. This would mean an all-out war.
“Is there a problem, Sasha?” I asked, trying to preserve a bit of respect from my future employees.
“Problem? Not at all,” Sasha said with the sickeningly sweet laugh that liberated her from most awkward situations she’d created for herself. “I apologize, Nina. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive,” she smiled.
I looked to Mr. Patocka. “Are we finished here?”
“I’m finished with the meeting, but I need you to come to Grant’s office with me, Nina. He needs to brief you on a few things before you start back next week.”
The other interns filed out of the room, shaking hands and saying their good-byes. I nodded to each of them as they made a bee-line to the elevator, but not before meeting Sasha’s cheap grin with one of my own.
Mr. Patocka escorted me down the hall and into the elevator, punching the button for the fourth floor, where my father’s office still resided. Grant’s office was on the opposite side of the floor, parallel to Jack’s. Half of his walls were covered in degrees and pictures of polo ponies, and the other half allowed the sunshine to pour in from large windows that overlooked Fleet Rink.
Mr. Patocka knocked on Grant’s half-opened door. “Er, Mr. Bristol? Nina’s here to see you.”
“Bring her in.”
I walked into his office, sitting in a puffy green chair, feeling amiable for a change. Grant had worked for my father for ten years, and, like every clichéd rise-to-the-top story, Grant started at entry level. The only thing that would have made his story any more boring would be if he’d begun in the mail-sorting trenches, had we kept a mail room. But Grant didn’t begin his days at Titan as a mail boy.
He’d begun as an intern.
“Nina,” Grant greeted me over his thin square glasses.
“Grant,” I acknowledged with a nod.
Grant looked at Mr. Patocka and smiled politely. “Thank you, Eugene.”
Mr. Patocka ducked from the door and shut it behind him. Even though I saw Grant as somewhat of a weasel, the rest of the employees regarded him as their personal savior.
“Okay, what’s with all the formalities, Grant?” I said, crossing my arms.
“Give me a break, peanut,” he smiled.
He sat in his chair, leisurely crossing his ankles on top of his desk. I frowned at his ridiculous argyle socks. They resembled the very thing I hated about Grant Bristol. He was handsome in an annoying, maddening way. His light brown hair and clean-shaven baby face made most women at our office swoon. He was well dressed and well spoken, and I suppose he was even funny at times. All of which made me want to plant my fist straight into his square chin. He reminded me of the typical soap-opera star. His words were fake, his smile was fake, and his very presence affected me like nails on a chalkboard.
“Ugh! You know I hate it when you call me that. If we’re going to work together, you’re going to have to stop that, Grant. I mean it.”
“Anything you say.” He smiled with his too-straight, too-white teeth. “I want you here when you’re not in class. If I could do it, you can do it. No excuses.”
Attempting to keep my temper in check, I stood and offered a small grin. “See you tomorrow.”
“One more thing,” Grant said. I turned and waited. “Nice skirt, peanut.”
I stomped out of Grant’s office, trying not to kick anything on my way out. When I pushed through the front door, I saw Jared’s Escalade parked against the curb across the street as usual, only this time he stood against his door looking extremely uncomfortable while Sasha leaned against his car with her shoulder not six inches from him. I could see that he was trying to be polite as he kept his arms crossed, careful not to react to her flirtation, but my eyes zeroed in on Sasha giggling and touching his shirt, chest, and arms with every other word.
“Nina! Hi, Sweetheart,” Jared said, my interruption a relief. He pulled me into his arms and made a show of planting a kiss on my lips.
“Hey, Nina,” Sasha gushed. “I was just telling Jared that we should double date sometime.”
“No,” I snapped, my patience far beyond its limit. Jared walked me to the passenger side and opened the door. “I can get into the car on my own,” I said acerbically.
“Nina.” Jared smiled, amused at my mood.
“Don’t Nina me,” I said, looking straight ahead.
“Well,” Sasha called from the other side of the SUV, raising her eyebrows. “I guess I’ll see you on Monday. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk to you, Jared.”
Ignoring Sasha’s final attempt for his attention, Jared watched me for a moment, trying to decipher my emotions. Finally, he walked around to his side and slid in beside me. He watched Sasha trot across the street and then shook his head. “You don’t honestly think I was—”
“No. I don’t think you were flirting with her,” I grumbled.
Jared pulled away from the curb and nodded. “Good because that is completely ridiculous. Not only am I madly in love with you she’s . . .” Jared shook his head, making a series of disgusted faces as he tried to think of the correct description. “She’s something else.”
“That’s a word for it,” I said, crossing my arms.
“How was your meeting?” he asked.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I kept tabs, but it was difficult to get the details with Sasha two inches from my face. Is Grant still a jackass?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“What’s wrong?” Jared paused a moment and then his eyebrows shot up. “Oh.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I didn’t mean anything,” Jared said, trying not to smile.
I shook my head, watching the trees pass by the window. Eli had once told us that when we made a commitment in a physical way, Jared’s senses concerning me would be heightened. I still wasn’t sure what that entailed. Jared never let on that anything had changed, but when his former urgent curiosity about the motives behind my moods or feelings had all but disappeared, I knew something was different. I cornered him on more than one occasion to explain his new attunement, but he always seemed to maneuver his way out of the conversation with an efficient and irresistible diversion.
“Do we still have lunch plans?” My attention focused on the passing landscape outside the window.
“Absolutely. I have a surprise for you,” Jared said, taking my hand and pulling it to his mouth.
My mood quickly changed as the warmth from his lips shot up my arm. “I love surprises.”
“I know,” he said against my skin.
EDEN: A NOVEL
Providence Trilogy, Book Three
Self-published: April 3, 2012
What Others Are Saying:
A Short Synopsis
In the third and final installment of the Providence series, Nina Grey will marry the wrong man, carry the child that was never supposed to be born, and fight a war she can't win. Faced with the impossible task of protecting his new wife and unborn child against the throes of Hell, Jared Ryel is allowed no mistakes. Pressured to return the Naissance de Demoniac to Jerusalem, he revisits St. Ann's to learn the answers were in front of him all along. Together, they must survive long enough to let their child save them—and the world.
Happily Ever After. That was The End, right? The hard part was over. It was smooth sailing now. I lay in bed next to my handsome, celestial Prince Charming, the tropical breeze blowing through the window screens of our little Caribbean hut, waiting for the sun to rise so I could begin my wedding day.
Funny how Happily Ever After isn’t the end after all…at least, not when Hell is trying to kill you.
That trivial little fact was easy to ignore with the light rain tapping the tin roof, and the palm fronds brushing against our casita as the wind gently pushed its way through the trees. The first glimmers of sunlight danced along the ceiling as translucent dashes of warmth. Those shuddering, glowing dots above me were the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes. Jared Ryel was the second. He smiled, waiting for my eyes to focus.
“It’s tomorrow,” he whispered.
Splatters of pinks and purples had just breached the windows, and the rain had all but left us for the bigger island, reduced to droplets. The fading purple splotches on Jared’s forehead, cheek and chin stood out in the early light, and they brought back a flood of memories from the days before.
He and I had already survived the impossible—coming face to face with one of the most frightening beings in Hell and a few hundred of his minions, human and demon alike. Simply celebrating another day would have sufficed. That was the moment realization hit, and Jared’s eyes brightened with amusement as my sleepy expression perked.
“It’s today?” I said softly. I reached up to touch his skin, and the residual marks from his skirmish with Shax.
Jared pushed himself onto his elbows, and then leaned his head closer to my stomach. “Good morning, little Bean.”
“Bean?” I said, one eyebrow shooting up.
“Yes, she’s no bigger than a bean. That’s what the book says, anyway.”
Jared reached to the floor, pulling up a thick book, its cover dripping in hideous pastel colors and childish writing.
“I thought I should be prepared for anything that might come up.” Jared flipped through the pages, and then peered up at me, waiting for approval.
“Is there a chapter on balance-disrupting angel babies?” I said, grinning when Jared’s eyebrows pushed together.
He tossed the book to the floor and then playfully situated himself over me, nuzzling my neck.
“Jared!” I squealed, making a poor attempt to push him away. “Stop!”
“I’ll stop if you say it,” he said, his voice muffled against my skin.
“Say what?” I laughed, wiggling in vain.
Jared lifted his head to look me in the eyes. “Bean,” he said, his eyes a soft blue-gray.
I pressed my lips together, forming a hard line, but when he tickled me again, I caved. “Okay!” I pleaded. “Bean!”
A wide grin spread across his face. “I wish I’d known how well this tactic of persuasion works on you three years ago. Life would have been somewhat easier.”
I swatted at him, knowing he would duck. “Not fair.”
Jared kissed my lips, his warmth soaking into my skin. It didn’t seem as warm as usual, but I attributed it to the tropical heat raising my own temperature.
“You know what’s not fair? I don’t get to see you until this afternoon.” He left me alone on the bed, pulling a white T-shirt over his head.
“What do you mean?” I said, pushing up on my elbows.
“You’d better get dressed, sweetheart. We’re expecting company in five minutes.”
Jared tossed a tan summer dress to the bed, and I scrambled to put it on, knowing better than anyone that Jared wasn’t mistaken about things like time. I pulled my hair into a messy ponytail, and then stood awkwardly while Jared opened the tin door. A line of villagers made their way to our casita, led by a frazzled-looking Beth. She held a white garment bag, and when her eyes met mine, her smile widened to its limit.
“Beth!” I said, rushing down the steps. Mud squished between my bare toes as I ran to her, enveloping her in my arms. Her auburn hair was damp, plastered to her forehead and cheeks. She was sweaty and red-faced, trying to catch her breath as Chad pulled the garment bag from her fingers.
“She wouldn’t let anyone else carry it,” he said, shaking his head. He held the bag out for Jared, but Beth quickly grabbed it back, smacking his hand away.
“Jared can’t see it!” she said. She held the long bag up, away from the mud, but behind her to protect it from Jared’s hands.
Jared was amused. “I won’t look, Beth. I’m going to take Chad to the chapel now. You two have the whole day.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised—Jared could arrange anything—but I was speechless. Beth and Chad had arrived just eight hours after us.
“How did you…?” I began.
Jared’s smile widened. “We’ve taken care of everything. I didn’t want you stressed.”
“We…?” I frowned, more confused.
“Mom is waiting for me at the chapel. See you there.” He grinned from ear to ear. I’d never seen him so happy. He leaned down to kiss my cheek, and then gestured for Chad to follow.
“You’ve maneuvered a motorcycle before?”
Chad paused. “Yeah. Why?”
“It’s a bit of a drive.” Jared patted Chad on the shoulder, encouraging him along. Poor Chad seemed totally out of his element. Even though the men weren’t that close, I had full confidence in my husband-to-be to make Chad feel at ease. That responsibility would serve as double duty to soothe Jared’s nerves.
“Wait ‘til you see this dress!” Beth squealed, pulling me inside. She hooked the bag onto a wooden lip above the closet, and then rubbed her sore shoulder. “It was a long, muddy walk.”
“It is,” I nodded. “Would you like me to get some ice for your shoulder?”
Beth’s eyes lit up again. She pulled down the zipper of the garment bag, turning to me.
I blinked in disbelief. “That’s the…um…”
Beth’s eyes were wild with excitement. “The dress from the magazine that you picked out two years ago? Yes!”
“But...how is it here? How did he…?”
Beth couldn’t wait for me to spit out the words. “I have been hanging on to this thing forever! Can you believe it? Lillian brought it to the apartment. She said you had picked it out, and Jared bought it, and they made me bottle this up for two years! It was awful! Why do you think I hounded you about a wedding date all those times?”
Beth nodded. “I know, right? That’s what I said. His mom said he was excited; he wanted to surprise you, blah, blah, blah. I personally think he just wanted to torture me because it’s been hell.”
I couldn’t stop staring at the flowing, silky whiteness in front of me. I remembered sitting on our couch in the loft while I healed, thumbing through magazines with Lillian and pausing on a picture, unable to turn the page. It was just days after I was discharged from the hospital, the day Claire left to eliminate all the humans that threatened us. A dress identical to the one I showed a partisan interest in almost two years earlier dangled from a hanger just feet from me.
“Beth?” I said, still staring at the dress.
“You’re going to have to take it down a few notches. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.”
Beth’s head bobbed quickly, and then she took a seat in the corner. After a deep breath, she began again, “It’s beautiful.”
I almost asked Beth if she knew why Lillian didn’t keep the dress at her house, but it was a foolish question. Beth was safe. No one would blow up her apartment, or bust through her windows in the middle of the night—and it would give Jared an extra ally in vying for a wedding date.
“He’s brilliant,” I said, in awe.
Beth gripped her knees and bit her lip, struggling with every passing second. “Are you still overwhelmed?”
“I’m feeling better.”
She leaned forward in her seat, quickly losing the fight to remain composed. “I brought two bags overflowing with makeup, hairspray and curling irons. I think I have every size known to man. I can make big barrel curls, or little spiral curls. If you don’t want curls I brought a flat iron….”
“You take a Valium. I’ll take a shower...wait. Is it ridiculous that I don’t know what time my wedding starts?”
“One o’clock. We have plenty of time.”
I nodded, grabbing my robe and a towel. I couldn’t imagine how difficult the wait must have been for her. It was endearing and disturbing at the same time.
Under the warm stream of the casita’s humble shower, it wasn’t difficult to let go of any anxiety. Birds sang to each other from the branches of the palm trees, and the sounds of the ocean gave away its close proximity. Feeling stressed in paradise was wonderfully impossible.
“Did you want an up-do? I brought bobby pins just in case!” Beth called.
“Not listening!” I said, massaging shampoo into my hair. I wondered if she was curious about Jared’s fading bruises, or if she’d even noticed. Surely Chad would. If they spent the morning together, eventually he would see them. Jared would explain them away, but if Beth asked me about them and I told a different story, it would complicate things. It was easy to convince her that I needed a bodyguard—she’d witnessed my run-in with Mr. Dawson, after all. Unless it was due to training, Jared’s bruises were a telltale sign that I had been in danger. Two years of experience told me that Beth was too preoccupied with wedding details, so I put that worry to the back of the line.
Thinking of Jared’s bruises made the rest of his face form in my mind, and suddenly I couldn’t get out of the shower fast enough. It made me feel anxious to wait so long before I was allowed to see him again.
I rushed into the casita in my towel, my hair dripping wet, and slipped on the sleeves of my robe.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just going for a walk,” I said, slipping on a pair of sandals.
“Oh, no, you’re not. We have a day’s worth of primping to do in just a few hours! Get your backside in this chair, young lady!” Beth said.
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said, waving her away. I swung open the door of the casita to find Bex standing in my way.
“Morning,” he smiled. “Going somewhere?”
“Just for a walk,” I shrugged.
“Don’t you have some girly things to do? You’re getting married in a few hours.”
I frowned. “Are you here to keep me captive?”
Bex mirrored my expression. “No, paranoid schizo. Your guardian-slash-almost husband is across the island, and you and your unborn baby are two of Hell’s Most Wanted. I’m here to keep you safe. If you wanna leave, leave. I have to walk with you, though.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling silly. “Okay, then. I want to leave.”
Beth grabbed my wrist, a hair dryer in her other hand. “I jumped on a plane at a moment’s notice. I rode a boat across an unknown body of water—in the pouring rain. There is mud caked under my newly painted toenails, and I’m pretty sure a bird crapped in my hair on the walk here. I’ve endured all this to come here and help you get ready for a wedding that I’ve kept a secret for two years. You can give me a few hours!”
“Okay! You’re right, I’m sorry,” I said. I followed Beth back into the casita, sitting in the chair she’d placed in front of a makeshift salon counter.
“Whoa,” Bex said, sitting on the bed. “Girls are crazy.”
The counter was covered in wires that led to various hot irons, makeup, brushes, curlers, combs and hair products. The black wires were hooked into an orange extension cord that led outside to the solar-powered generator Jared had rigged outside. The mess of wires were an eyesore, but at least we had power without the annoying drone of a gas-powered generator. Beth brought several lamps to make up for the limited natural light filtering through the windows, and a manicure and pedicure kit. A large camera also sat among the clutter, beside two packages of fresh memory cards for her camera.
“Thank you, Beth,” I said. The planning alone had to have been time-consuming.
“That’s what best friends do.”
After hours of combing, scrubbing, powdering and polishing, I was finally ready to slip on my wedding dress.
“I’ll step outside,” Bex said. “I need some fresh air, anyway.”
“Good idea,” I smiled. “No telling what that much hairspray will do to a young man’s lungs.”
Beth waited for Bex to leave, and then sighed. “We have to wait to put on your dress,” she said, fidgeting.
“You’re joking,” I said. I took a step toward my dress, but Beth ran around me, holding her arms up and out, shielding the dress from my hands.
“I’m not! I’m not joking. We’re waiting.”
I frowned. “You’re losing it, Beth,” I said, sitting in the chair in a huff.
“You look beautiful,” she smiled.
“I’m used to being in the dark for the most part, but on my wedding day, I would like to be in the know.”
“I understand,” Beth said, thick with regret. “It’s just that….”
A small knock at the door immediately changed Beth’s demeanor. “Coming!” she said, relieved.
Cynthia stood in the doorway. As usual, her face was devoid of emotion. “Well?” she called behind her. “Put my things in the adjacent building. Thank you.” Her tone was opposite her words—also her usual.
“Mother,” I said, surprised.
She wore a champagne-colored sheath dress. Even after marching through a tropical rain shower and the mud in six-inch heels, her dress and matching shoes were immaculate. Her hair was pulled back into its usual tight French bun, making her eyes even more severe when she pulled of her sunglasses and huffed.
“I apologize for my lateness, Nina dear. I had several functions to reschedule, since my presence was demanded at such late notice.”
“Sorry,” Beth and I said at the same time.
“Well,” she sighed. “You are my only daughter. We do what we must.” I smiled, and Cynthia took the few steps to offer a cold embrace. The awkward gesture was the most she could offer; knowing that made me appreciate it more than others might have. She quickly let go, and offered a polite smile. “You look wonderful, dear.”
“Thank you. I was just about to step into my dress….”
“Oh. Well, then, I’ll just step out,” Cynthia said.
I fidgeted. “Would you mind helping?”
Cynthia hesitated. “Er … isn’t that why Beth is here?”
“No,” Beth smiled. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Cynthia’s eyes scanned my dress and its yards of white silk, and clouded with tears. “Oh, my,” she whispered, pulling a tissue from her purse.
I was taken aback. Cynthia rarely cried. In fact, she’d only found two occasions in my lifetime for it, and both had more to do with my father.
“It’s okay, Mother,” I said, hesitating to find an appropriate place to comfort her. I settled on her shoulder, patting awkwardly a few times.
She sniffed once, lifting her chin to ward off the uninvited emotion. “It’s just that Silk Charmeuse wrinkles so easily.”
I nodded. “I know.”
After one last dab at her eyes with the tissue, she turned. “Beth best assist you, darling. Call for me when you’re dressed.” She closed the door behind her, and I turned to Beth.
“I’m so sorry,” Beth whispered. “I thought…I waited for her because I thought she’d like to be involved. I should have known better. Now you both just feel awkward.”
“It was worth a try. One never knows with Cynthia. She might have been insulted if I hadn’t asked, so you did the right thing.”
I smiled. “You did. Now help me get this thing on, and let’s not let it wrinkle. I don’t want to upset my mother.”
Beth nodded, and carefully pulled the dress from its hanger. “Neither do I.”
SINS OF THE INNOCENT
A Providence Trilogy Novella
Self-published: June 28, 2015
In the horror show of gods and monsters, Eden Ryel was the star.
Conceived of her mother, a Merovingian--a direct descendant of Christ--and her father, the half-human son of a fallen angel, Eden's very existence had prompted The Great War. Prophesied to be the Keeper of the Balance, she struggles to realize her purpose.
Levi, the overconfident and charming half-human son of Lucifer takes nothing seriously. Not even when he finally meets the young woman who is destined to end his existence. A common bond is formed under the pressures they face from both sides, but their respective religious texts predict opposite outcomes. Either way, they must choose: war, death, or love.