Wren doesn’t expect Ginger to stay by his side once she discovers his ability to drain life with a mere touch, yet she lingers. When an unusual talent of her own reveals the location of Wren’s father, Wren’s isolated world implodes. With the help of the demon protectors he’s sworn never to trust again, Wren risks everything to rescue his father, confront the demon who stalks his and Ginger’s every step, and claim his eternity with the most courageous woman he’s ever known.
© 2011 Sarah Gilman
The tattoo of a bloody knife and scattered feathers caught Ginger Magellan’s attention. Her stomach curdled at the sight of the archangel poachers’ insignia. The bearer of the gruesome illustration ordered an espresso from the petite girl behind the bar.
“There isn’t a fallen archangel around here, is there?” The barista’s voice rose.
“Not for much longer, there won’t be.” He turned away and pulled out his cell phone.
From where she sat in the café, Ginger wrapped her hands around her coffee and stared into the dark brew, eavesdropping on the poacher’s conversation.
“The house has been abandoned for years, but it’s the right place. I saw him fly in the fog this morning. Devil has a balcony entrance on the third floor.”
Devil. Ginger hid a snort of disgust under a fake cough.
The poacher continued after a moment. “Yeah, white wings, black markings. It’s Wren, for certain. And not a Guardian in sight. He’s all ours.”
Ginger tensed. No Guardians? Why would an archangel be without his demon bodyguards?
“Meet you there in thirty? He’ll be back before the fog clears.” The poacher accepted his drink from the barista with a charming grin. She refused his payment and wished him luck. He blew her a kiss and left the café.
Clenching her teeth, Ginger tucked a twenty under her coffee and rushed for the exit without waiting for change. She stepped into the foggy autumn morning, shivered, and buried her hands in her pockets. Two police officers chatted next to their cruiser, but she turned and hurried in the other direction. Archangel poaching, though technically illegal, was applauded and encouraged by most of the human population. She couldn’t trust the police.
She’d warn this “Wren” herself.
Ginger couldn’t let the poachers hunt and kill Wren like an animal. Neither the demons nor the fallen archangels were the Lucifer-like monsters most humans feared them to be—even though she’d never seen an archangel, they were so rare after centuries of poaching. A demon had raised her as his own and remained her best friend as much as her “father,” twenty-eight years later. She needed to call him; he’d know what to do.
Ginger jumped into her little Chevy, shut the door, and pulled out her cell phone. Why would an archangel be living around here? And without Guardians? Even Vermont was too populated for a being with a twenty-foot wingspan to hide. Was this archangel out of his damned mind?
Her father answered on the second ring, despite the predawn hour in Alaska.
“Hi, honey,” he said, his voice alert.
“Devin, I just ran into a poacher in town.”
He growled, a sound that reminded Ginger of a cougar. “Just stay away from him, Ginny. Like all the other tourists, he’ll move on soon.”
“No, Dev, he and at least one other are hunting an archangel in the area.”
A beat of silence passed. “They’re going to be disappointed, because there are no archangels in Vermont.”
As a Guardian, he would know; that’s why she’d called him. But her instincts churned in protest.
“Are you sure? They’ve seen him. White wings with black markings. His name is Wren. They said he has no Guardians.”
The silence stretched out so long Ginger checked her signal. “Dev?”
“Raphael’s son.” Devin’s voice sounded thin.
Raphael. Recognition and surprise forced the air from her lungs. The last of the original fallen archangels had been killed when Ginger was a child, along with his human mate. Most of humanity had hailed the death as a step forward in cleansing the earth of the demon and fallen archangel menace. Ginger cringed at the memory.
“Wren has refused our protection since his parents’ deaths,” Devin said. “A Guardian betrayed and murdered his family. It’s been years since we’ve had any news of Wren.”
Heartache burned Ginger’s chest. “I’m going to warn him.”
“Ginny.” Devin’s voice deepened. “Out of the question. The poachers—”
“I wouldn’t be your daughter if I sat by and did nothing, Dev.”
A pause. “I know. I’m sending Guardians from Sanctuary. Wait for them.”
She chewed her lip. Sanctuary, Vermont’s demon colony, was three hours away. Wren didn’t have three hours.
“Tell them to hurry. Love you.” She disconnected the call.
Ginger pulled the car into traffic and headed south out of town toward the only abandoned house in the area. After miles of dirt roads and thick forest, she drove by the crumbling remains of a Victorian. She continued past the forlorn structure and hid her car in thick vegetation, then ran back down the road and up the overgrown driveway on foot.
Ginger scanned the sky, patches of velvety morning blue visible through the fog. No archangel in sight. She stepped onto the rotting porch, happy to find the wood sturdier than it appeared, and tried the front door. The old mahogany opened an inch before it hit what appeared to be a heavy piece of furniture. Wren must have barricaded the entrance.
She pried a moss-covered plank away from a broken window and stuck her head inside. “Hello? Wren?”
Wary of the broken glass, she wiggled through the small opening and fell into the kitchen. Her butt went through a rotten floorboard. She cursed and got to her feet.
The air inside the house felt colder than the brisk morning outside. Stray beams of sunlight penetrated the boarded windows, but darkness obscured most of her surroundings. The smell of mold made Ginger cough. She stepped to the base of the stairs.
No answer. No surprise.
“If you’re hiding in here, you need to leave. Poachers will be here any minute!”
She climbed the stairs to the third level, testing each step before shifting her weight. At the top, she opened the first door on her right. No furniture occupied the large room, but blankets and a tattered pillow lay on the floor. Apples he must have snatched from the orchard and a pile of paperbacks sat nearby. A white down feather longer than her hand lay on the floorboards.
Curiosity took over, and she picked up the feather. She ran her fingers along the edge, the texture sublime enough to put silk to shame. Acid rose in her throat and she let the feather drift to the floor. The money people paid for archangel plumage kept the poachers in business. Religious hysteria gave the murderers a convenient smoke screen.
“Greed knows no boundaries,” she said to herself.
Ginger checked the other rooms, found nothing, and left the house. She hurried around to the back of the property and found a spot to sit where she could see the balcony, which had been stripped of railings. Cold dew on the grass soaked her jeans. Her heart pounded as she strained to see the sky through the lingering fog. What would he look like? If archangels were as breathtaking in person as they were in photos…
Three poachers emerged from the woods and crossed the lawn to the front porch, their gruesome tattoos covered by black jackets, an arsenal of guns and knives strapped to their hips. Ginger crouched lower in the grass, her palms sweating, her mouth dry and sticky. She was damned lucky they hadn’t seen her, that she hadn’t been trapped in the house.
Minutes passed and Ginger stayed still. The poachers didn’t come out. No sound carried from the house. After an agonizing eternity, the last remnants of the fog thinned, and movement drew her attention.
The archangel, moving swiftly, flew in low over the treetops. Wings blurred as he landed on the balcony. The resulting breeze fanned her skin.
Wren’s twenty-foot wingspan framed his body, more striking in person than in any of the pictures she’d seen. No wonder the balcony railings were gone. He found his footing and folded his white wings, the black markings forming a pleasing angular pattern reminiscent of a snowy owl. His flight feathers overlapped behind his legs.
Beautiful, yet purely masculine. Wren’s body was carved from long, elegant muscles that could only belong to someone who needed to lift his body weight in flight. He wore tattered black pants that set off both his feathers and the almond skin of his upper body.
He rolled his shoulders, ran a hand over his dark, spiky hair and reached for the door.
Ginger jumped to her feet, her heart pounding.
“No! Poachers! They’re inside!”
The archangel stared down at her, his eyebrows high in surprise, and spread his wings. He leapt off the balcony and ascended in a flurry of wing movement. Ginger trembled with relief. She watched him fly, mesmerized.
Wren circled high above the house, his wings fully extended as he soared. The sensation of his gaze on her made her breath hitch. Why wasn’t he leaving?
“You goddamned, meddling bitch!”
She whirled around and came face to face with the poacher from the café. Brown eyes wide with rage, he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her off her feet.
Wren dove, his wings angled for maximum speed. The woman below had saved his life. He couldn’t just leave her. The poachers would kill her for her interference.
The woman twisted within the poacher’s grasp and threw a punch. The human let go of her, raising both of his hands to his face. After a brief stumble, she took off full tilt toward the road. Excellent, maybe she’d make it on her own…
Two more poachers came out of the house and cut her off. Sunlight glinted off knives in their hands. The first poacher recovered and closed in behind her.
With practiced precision, Wren soared mere feet over the grass, aiming for the group. The men blocking the woman’s escape pivoted and threw themselves to the ground. Eyes wide, the woman’s jaw dropped and she tried to scramble out of Wren’s path.
Wren seized her jacket and hauled her into the air. Wren’s flight feathers missed the third poacher by inches. The human scum flailed and fell backward into the grass.
Wren beat his wings and carried the woman toward the road. She clung to his neck, her breath rapid and warm on his skin. Her hair hit him in the face and her heady, jasmine scent filled his lungs.
“Do you have a car?” he yelled over the noise of flight.
She nodded vigorously.
“Then go. Fast.” He landed on the dirt road at a run and let go of her. She stumbled and fell. Back on her feet a second later, she disappeared into the trees. Relieved, he ascended and banked to head north.
The first gunshot missed him, but a second pierced the muscular part of his wing. Air rushed out of his lungs in a strangled scream. He fought through the blinding pain, landed behind the abandoned house, and sank to his hands and knees in the tall grass. Warm blood streamed down his feathers.
The poachers closed in, their guns aimed in his direction. Wren braced himself and stood, dragging his injured wing. His body shook and cold sweat broke out over his skin from shock, but he faced the humans with his shoulders squared and his chin high.
Wren’s blood iced over as the poachers encroached. He had one weapon at his disposal, one chance left to walk away alive. He flexed his fingers, preparing to strike the moment they stepped too close.
But the poachers wore gloves, boots, jeans and leather jackets zipped up to their throats. Damn it. If he couldn’t touch their skin, he had no chance. His pain momentarily took a back seat to bone-deep fury.
“Lark sent you.” Who else but Lark would know to tell them to cover their skin, that Wren could leach their life away at will if he touched them? Fully aware of Wren’s macabre talent, the former Guardian had worn leather himself the night he’d murdered Wren’s parents, eighteen years ago.
“Yes.” The nearest poacher held Wren’s gaze, his mouth a thin line, his brown eyes narrow. He stood well out of Wren’s reach, gun aimed and steady.
Wren fisted his hands at his sides and braced himself.
The poacher lowered the gun an inch and cocked his head. “You look just like your old man.”
“You are not fit to speak of my father!”
“Would it interest you to know he’s still alive?”
Wren flicked his uninjured wing. What kind of sick joke is this? “Fuck you!”
The poacher lifted his shoulders. “You’ll see.”
Knots of pain formed in Wren’s chest. His father, Lark’s prisoner for nearly two decades? But alive? Or were these poachers just lying for the sick fun of it?
Another poacher, a short man with a black bandana around his head, holstered his semi-automatic and drew a tranquilizer gun. Wren dodged, but the blood loss left his legs cold and heavy. A dart struck him in the shoulder. His skin burned. He ripped the dart out and backed further away, but his vision blurred and his legs collapsed. With his face in the cold, wet grass, he fought to remain conscious.
The brown-eyed poacher came forward, knelt, and stroked Wren’s outstretched wing as if showing affection to a prized pet.
“Get your damned hands off me!” Wren struggled to speak, his lips as numb as the rest of his body. His vision grew blurry.
His form an indistinct smear against the blue sky, the poacher yanked a feather free and tucked it behind his ear. He fisted his leather-gloved hand and ground his knuckles into the gunshot wound.
Wren clenched his teeth and suppressed a scream. The agony pushed him over the edge, into oblivion.