No, it hadn’t been a year since Iliana was born, since Sloan nearly died bringing her safely into the world, or since Warren Parish vacated the stratosphere. That shitstorm only happened seven-and-a-half months ago.
Today marked a year since I’d had sex with anyone other than myself.
A whole damn year.
I should win a medal.
Or be nominated for sainthood.
I had friends on “the other side” now, so that might be a real possibility. I should check into that.
Being a good guy blows. And not in a good way.
The first half of the year wasn’t so hard. (Take that pun any way you like.) With the exception of the few months Warren was off gallivanting around the Middle East, my mind stayed on all our supernatural drama and off his fiancé, for the most part. But the last six months?
It had been half a year of either really long showers or really cold ones because of moments like this:
Sloan Jordan was currently stretched across the sofa, her head resting on the pillow in my lap, sound asleep after depleting a half a box of tissues and my entire stash of Reese’s Pieces.
Come watch a movie with me, she’d said.
It has Gerard Butler, she’d said.
I like Gerard Butler. He’s a man’s man, you know? Machine Gun Preacher. Law Abiding Citizen. 300. But let me tell you, I could’ve punched Gerardo right in all his manliness tonight.
That movie, P.S. I Love You—are you kidding me? Not only is it a chick flick, but it’s depressing as hell. Gerard Butler’s character is dead through the whole movie and has arranged notes to be sent to his brokenhearted wife after he’s gone.
Oh. My. God.
Here’s a little Guy 101: none of us willingly sign up for a rom-com or a tear-jerker unless it carries the potential of getting laid afterward. Now, let’s throw in a dash of common sense with that; nobody should watch that shit with a girl who’s just lived through it.
Of course, Warren wasn’t dead—well, technically, he was, I guess—but no matter the status of his mortality, he was gone into the light just the same. He’d even left her a note. A note she still kept folded in the jewelry box on her nightstand.
She admitted she, too, had no idea what the movie was about before choosing it. Which, honestly, gave me a flicker of hope. A movie called P.S. I Love You, with one of my favorite actors to boot? Got to be a good sign, right?
And we’d been making so much progress lately. Last month was Iliana’s first Halloween. Sloan dressed her as (you guessed it) an angel, and I drove them and her dad to Adrianne’s parents’ neighborhood for trick-or-treating. Sure, we had her best friend, her father, and an armed guard in tow, but we almost felt like a family.
Then, two nights ago, I brought over Mexican, and when I left, her goodbye hug was a full-on body press, and she lingered in the doorway to watch me walk all the way to my truck.
But the dead giveaway that we were finally on the right track was her invitation tonight. A late-night movie while her dad was out of town. She specifically told me to come by after the baby was put to bed. I poured two glasses of wine. We snuggled on the couch…
Enter Gerard Butler and his epistles of agony.
Thirty minutes in and it was clear: ixnay on taking things to the next level. Or hell, the first level. The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen—the girl I’d been literally dying to be with for over a year—was reduced to a puddle of snot and tears, sobbing in my lap. Over my best friend.
Yep, I said it. Warren Parish is? was? my best friend. And, no, that wasn’t going to stop me from doing my dead-level best to step into his gigantic shoes with Sloan. After all, I’d found her first.
Like a channel-surfing ninja, I ended the movie and found the fastest way back to a laugh: Super Troopers. Thank God for movies on demand. But there was no hope of reeling the night back in. Sloan had stared, glassy-eyed and occasionally sniffling, at the television screen until she dozed off.
I was sure that damn movie set her back—set us back—a solid month, at least.
When she was safely unconscious, I will admit (and if you tell anyone, I’ll deny the shit out of it), I flipped back to P.S. I Love You. Aside from wrecking my already derailed love life, it was pretty good.
When it was over, I finished Super Troopers and watched two episodes of COPS. Why? Because even with the possibility of fooling around completely off the table, there was no other place in the world I’d rather be than right there with her.
It was almost midnight. Definitely time to go home. I touched Sloan’s shoulder. “Sloan,” I said quietly.
“Time for bed.”
Still asleep, she slid her arm under the pillow—her hand right up my thigh.
Yep. Prepare to celebrate St. Nate’s Day, my friends.
I shook her shoulder this time. “Sloan, I’ve got to go.” Did I ever.
Finally, she stirred. Then she flinched. Obviously realizing where her hand rested, she jerked it out from under the pillow and sat straight up. Lines creased the pink side of her face, and her eyes were still puffy and red. Her hair had grown out past her shoulders, but it was tied in a now-lopsided knot on her head.
She rubbed her nose. “How long have I been asleep?”
I looked at my tactical watch. “Almost two hours.”
“Two hours? You’ve sat here that long?”
The neckline of her sweatshirt dipped off her right shoulder. God, those collar bones.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“I’m not.” And I wasn’t. Not one little bit. “But you’d probably better get back to sleep soon. Otherwise, this will just be a power nap that will keep you up all night.”
And if I was leaving, nobody wanted that.
“Have you heard the baby?”
“Not even a whimper. You go get ready for bed, and I’ll peek in and check on her.”
Her head fell to the side. “Nathan, why are you so good to me?”
I didn’t need to answer. We both knew the reason.
I pointed down the hall. “Bed.”
Her lips parted like she was about to speak again. Then they closed, with the side of her lower lip pinched between her teeth.
She wanted to say something.
“Go. Before you’re wide awake.”
And before one of us talked me into staying. Because as much as I wanted nothing more in this world than to climb into her bed, I didn’t want to do it on a day she’d shed tears over him.
Good guys be damned. I was thankful the pillow was still covering my lap.
Pushing herself up off the couch, she wobbled a little, and I caught the small of her back to steady her. She grinned over her shoulder, her eyes still heavy with sleep. “Thanks.”
She padded across the living room toward the hallway. Once she was out of sight, I dropped my head back against the couch and groaned quietly. Then I stood, adjusting my jeans before turning to pick up the baby monitor that was on the end table.
Its little green light was off.
I pushed the power button, and the sounds of baby babble flooded the quiet downstairs of the house. The screen lit up. Iliana was in her crib, kicking her feet and waving her hands. Her eyes were glowing green.
Logically, I knew it was the night vision of the camera reflecting in her retinas.
We knew long before she was born that Iliana would be different—very different—from other children. As the daughter of Warren, the Angel of Death, and Sloan, a former Angel of Life, Iliana was rumored to be the most powerful angel in all of history.
She still crapped green ooze that regularly smeared up her back.
All in all, Iliana was a shockingly average baby. Despite being born eight weeks early, she continued to surprise everyone with how little her early start at life affected her.
She was smarter than any baby I’d ever seen. (Don’t tell any of my nieces or nephews I said that.) At four months old, she recognized her own name and started to get really chatty. Of course, we couldn’t understand most of it—to me it sounded a hell of a lot like Katavukai, the language of the angels—but she picked up “Mama” and “Papa” pretty fast. I had a feeling “Dada” was coming any day now. Not that I was secretly coaching her or anything…
Iliana also had a very unique way of expressing her emotions. We figured out sometime during month two that whenever she cried—it rained.
That’d been a fun one to watch WKNC Weather trying to figure out. Mountains or no mountains, with her arrival, Asheville had become one giant flood plain.
Her size was the only thing “preemie” about her, and it limited how much you could tell she wanted to do. At seven-and-a-half months, she was still in four-to-six-month clothes, barely holding up a size-two diaper, and still traveling in her infant carrier.
But it didn’t hold her back too much.
She had recently turned rolling over into a mode of transportation, quickly figuring out that if she rolled enough, she could cover the entire room unless we stopped her. I joked about buying her one of those plastic puppy corrals. Sloan didn’t think it was funny.
And speaking of funny, her learning to sit up by herself was hysterical. She and I had practiced it a lot—all in the name of baby milestones, of course. I’d sit her up, and she’d hold it there for a second or two, but then she’d go sideways, leaning farther and farther until I caught her. Her face would say it all, like, “Oh shit, here I go again.”
These days she was trying to crawl without a lot of success. She mostly did a lot of squirming and sliding, like a legless zombie dragging its torso and clawing its way across the floor. Most of the time, she gave up and rolled instead.
“Ay nan ka. Ee gee dah na. Ke baba ah da ga ba ba dah. Gah da!” She squealed and completely kicked off her blanket. “Ay dah ka. Gah dab ah.”
That kid was talking to somebody. Or something.
Sloan’s loud whisper across the room made me look up. She was leaning out from the hallway and motioning me over.
I held up the monitor as I walked toward her. “It was turned off somehow.”
When she was about four months old, we moved Iliana across the hall from Sloan’s bedroom. The space was a sewing room before Dr. Jordan and I converted it to a nursery. I slowly opened the door.
The room fell silent.
The hair on my arms stood on end.
Anxiety twisted in my chest, making everything in me want to toss up my hands and declare, “Nope. I’m out!” But Sloan dug her nails into my side.
Nothing was out of place in the room. No hovering figures. No lingering ectoplasm.
“Ma mam ma mm,” Iliana said, even though she couldn’t see us through the footboard of the crib. That was the other thing about her—she just knew things like that. Playing peek-a-boo was lost on that kid.
The plastic lining under her crib sheet rustled, and when we reached her, she’d rolled onto her stomach and was trying to push herself up. Her hand slipped forward and she face-planted on the mattress.
I laughed. Couldn’t help it.
The room felt normal again.
Sloan reached in to lift her out of the crib. “What was that, Nathan?”
“I’m hoping it was nothing more than just a little PTSD.” I took Iliana’s tiny little hand, and she immediately tried to pull my finger to her mouth. “Who were you talking to, shortcake?”
Sloan groaned. “Stop calling her shortcake. You’re going to give her a complex about being small.”
I smiled. “She’s not small, she’s fun sized.” I’d bought Iliana her very first morale patch that said just that. “You know, my brother referred to our sister Karen as ‘Tubs’ until she started first grade and Mom put a stop to it. That will give somebody a complex.”
“That’s terrible,” Sloan said, carrying the baby over to the changing table. “Maybe it’s not so bad that Iliana won’t ever have to worry about having a brother.”
My heart pulled. Watching her winning so hard at being a mother, it was easy to forget that Sloan couldn’t have any more children.
She changed Iliana’s diaper.
I walked over and put my hand on her waist. “Want me to stick around until you go to bed?”
“I’ll probably be up for a while now, but it’s OK. You can go home if you want. The team is just down the street if anything happens.”
I smiled. Facing mortality had toughened her up considerably. “All right, but you’ll call if you need me?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
I leaned down and kissed Iliana on the forehead first, then straightened and pressed a kiss to Sloan’s temple. I lingered there for a second, unable to pull away. If she’d thought her magnetism died with her angel spirit, she was wrong.
“I’ll make sure the house is secure, then I’ll lock up with my key.”
“Thank you, Nathan.”
“When does your dad come back?” I hated leaving her there alone.
“He’s flying in from Baltimore tomorrow evening at six o’clock.”
“Do you want me to pick him up?”
“No, I can do it, but we are still on for Thanksgiving, right?”
I smiled. “Of course. That’s our new yearly tradition, you know. Thursday lunch here and then head to Durham for the weekend. Besides, you know I wouldn’t miss you and your dad scorching another turkey for anything.”
“We’ve learned our cooking limitations, so Adrianne’s mom is planning to bring the turkey this year. No more fires.”
“I’ll bring dessert.” I kissed her head one more time, then went to the door.
She zipped Iliana’s pajamas and picked her up. “I’m sorry about the movie.”
“Don’t be.” I winked. “I’ll pick next time.”
Before leaving her father’s house, I checked the garage door, the back door, and locked the front door behind me. They’d given me a key shortly after Sloan moved in. For security purposes, of course.
Outside, stars speckled the cloudless sky, and the moon cast a silvery glow over the mountains on the horizon. I got in my truck and backed slowly out onto the quiet street.
I paused when I put the truck in drive, looking at the lone light on inside her bedroom. She’d be safe. Part of the most elite fighting force in the world was within running distance if she needed them. But damn, it was hard to leave.
My foot moved off the brake, and my truck started down the mountain. It was 12:17 in the morning.
By the time I reached the main highway at the bottom, the night sky had dimmed. Odd. And as I looked both ways before turning off the street, a heavy drop of water splattered across my windshield. Then another. And another.
I looked out the driver’s side window.
The sky was almost black and rolling with angry clouds.
My phone on the dashboard vibrated. Sloan.
Iliana was screaming in the background so loud I couldn’t understand what Sloan was trying to shout. But I didn’t need to hear Sloan’s words.
I knew what that cry meant.
Iliana wasn’t hungry or wet or even angry.
She was in pain.
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