For a moment time stood still.
She sensed something gathering other than the wind, but she was an expert at ignoring her feelings, particularly the shivery ones Grandma called premonitions.
Disillusionment shaded the afternoon darker gray. She turned away from her reflection in a storefront window and sighed. It was just another day, like every other day she’d wasted on hope and dreams. At the corner of Sunset and Vine, Monica Joye gave up on the City of Angels. She opened her hand and gazed at an AT&T calling card. It really sucked when a famous actress couldn't pay her cell phone bill.
E.T. phone home. Everyone back home thought Ellen Tracy—the name on the card and on her birth certificate—looked like Marilyn Monroe. Somehow Hollywood had failed to catch the resemblance. Tomorrow, Ellen would be on an east-bound plane. Goodbye tears glided down her cheeks.
"Not going to cry," she gritted out, pouted her lips and tossed her hair.
Today, her last in L.A., she'd be Monica Joye.
"Why are you crying?" His voice was as compelling as a half-remembered song, comforting as Sunday dinner. It was music and sunlight.
Smiling, Ellen whirled to see who'd dared to break the Stranger's Code of Silence that Hollywood obeyed. Her eyes widened, jaw dropping. Massive wings arched behind the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. Rich russet hair spilled over broad shoulders and naked chest. The silky garment wrapping slim hips invited the gaze to muscled calves and even his feet, bare to a wintry chill, were beautiful. Snow-white feathers trailed the dirty sidewalk.
She must look like a star struck fool. Embarrassment flamed in her cheeks. Astonishment paralyzed her. Monica would never gape at a hunk, regardless how hot he was. Taking her Marilyn stance, she pouted her lips. Electric shocks zinged through her as if her veins were conduits and he a transmitter. His smile knocked the breath out of her.
Ellen wanted to sink into the sidewalk but Monica propped a hand on her denim hip. "What the Hell are you dressed up for anyway?"
His smile vanished, his eyes darkening. "Armageddon."
She laughed. "Catchy title but it's been done before. Where's the shoot?"
"Here." Folding his wings near his sides, he tilted his head to study the sky as if he were consulting a heavenly timepiece. "In approximately ten minutes."
"How'd you make the wings move?" Eyes narrowed, she leaned closer to look for wires or some other contraption. "Nowadays, I thought special effects were all computer-generated."
Black clouds roiled across the sky. A stray beam of sunshine spotlighted him, making the white wings gleam. A tremor of fear shook her. God, he looked like the Biblical angel—the angel of vengeance.
"Ellen Tracy." His voice seemed part of the first roll of thunder. "Your mother would be disappointed that you don’t believe in angels."
"Okay," she gestured, not feeling as sure as she thought she looked, "I'll bite. How did you know my name?"
Shadows chased light across a face sculpted by God. "I know the name of each one," he made an offhand gesture, "of them, too."
The lemmings rushed to their fate, taking no notice of Marilyn Monroe conversing with an angel. L.A. was one big masked ball. In two years, the only angel she'd met was as fake as movie-town. But the casting director had chosen well for the angel's part. Tall, elegantly muscled but slender, ethereal blue eyes and hair of rich auburn. The wings did look real, and feathers rustled when he flexed the grand sweep drawn up tight behind his shoulders.
Monica deserted Ellen in homesickness. "Too bad those wings won’t really work. You could fly me home to North Carolina. I've enjoyed about all I can stand of L.A."
"Los Angeles isn't so bad. That disappointment haunts every corner is inherent to the type person L.A. attracts not the city itself. I see a lot of good in this world but—" he trailed off, the unspoken shivering in the rising wind.
Another of those darkling feelings crept down Ellen's spine. "But what?"
"Not everyone agrees with me." He stared into her eyes but seemed to be staring through her to some distant and unhappy place.
A wave of dizziness struck her. Visions formed in the prisms of his eyes. Like a Dore illustration from Paradise Lost, hordes of angels soared aloft. The shadow of wings turned day to night. The world cowered, each man, woman and child weeping. Swords flashed. Spears forged of light pierced immortal flesh. Red blood splattered white feathers. The shrieks of dying angels choked the corridors of Heaven. Terror boiled Ellen down to a shaking mass of flesh. She clamped her hands to her ears, her screams swallowed in the din of the angels' cries.
Strong hands grasped her arms, a melodic voice guiding her from the nightmare. “Ellen, look at me.”
Thunder rocketed across the sky. Black clouds coagulated on the horizon—the blood of angels spilt on Heaven's floor. Her eyes snapped open to total blackness so that she thought she'd been struck blind. She felt a touch on her forehead and her vision cleared.
"What did I see?” The question escaped on a breathless rush.
"Heaven is a gory battleground. This world," he gestured at the squalor, the splendor, "the mistake over which the conflict rages."
Horror riveted her to the cracked sidewalk. In his eyes, she'd glimpsed Heaven—and it looked like Hell. No longer did Ellen doubt that this was it, the total destruction of the Earth. The wind howled. Baseball-sized hail pummeled the ground. People ran for cover. There was nowhere to hide. Fingers of lightning split the darkness, exploding buildings and streets. The chaos reeked of melting asphalt. Man this scene made 911 look small. Yet the angel and Ellen stood in a bubble of stillness and safety, the end of the world a black-and-white silent movie.
"This is it?" Her voice rose to a squeak. "The End of Days."
Realization knocked the breath from her lungs. When Ellen staggered, a hand shot out to steady her. The barrage of sights and sounds shocked her to the roots of her hair. Shuddering uncontrollably, she chanced a glance at the angel, wishing she'd paid attention in Bible School.
"Not the end." He lifted his hands, palms-up, and on an abrupt cymbal crash, the storm died. He looked regal, threatening but his sigh echoed sadness. “A new beginning. Time to start over. Too much pain in this world, and no love or understanding."
As a building imploded and screams rent the air, he glanced over her shoulder. "I'm afraid Mankind is a failed experiment."
She'd jumped a step closer to him but retreated on a huff. The experiment remark was a slap in the face. Like hot water, humiliation oozed over her, instantly cooled into outrage. Monica/Ellen gave her light blonde hair a sexy toss and fired from the hip. "How arrogant. Failed experiment?"
His Angelic Self nodded, slow-blinked.
"When I was little and Sunday school teachers talked about angels, I'd cry. You want to know why?" He nodded and she continued, "Angels have to be the most terrible creatures imaginable. God's henchmen sing at the Throne." The jig was up, why mince words? “Help little old ladies across the street then destroy the world—all in a day’s work.”
Dark amusement glittered in his eyes. "Boy scouts help little old ladies across the street."
"Don't patronize me." Ellen stomped her foot, stiffened, thought better of tempting him to turn her to a pillar of salt, but in the end couldn't control her temper. "Angels are supposed to love, guard and guide mankind. Don't you care that all these people are going to die? Do you have any feelings?"
He blinked at her as if someone had hit the Mute button and Ellen had only mouthed the last question. Hopelessness overcame her. She struck one fine blow for mankind, ripping a feather from the angel's opulent plumage.
He winced, stifled a cry. Angry blue eyes focused heat on her and she could not look away. "Men were given Souls. Angels have Heaven."
The inflection made Heaven sound like Hell.
“Why did you show me those horrible images of angels dying? Why do I have to watch the world ending?” She clamped her hand to her mouth, said between her fingers, "Oh. You're my guardian angel."
Finely chiseled nostrils flared as if he smelled garbage. "I'm of the Order of Thrones."
She shrugged. "I don't know much about angels."
"Suffice to say," lordly toss of his auburn mane, "I am not a guardian. The beings you refer to as guardians are of the Lowest Triad, farther from the Thought, thus, nearer to the Flesh."
"Well, I'll be damned. Class structure among the Heavenly Host.” When his eyebrows darted up in surprise, she laughed. “Isn't pride the worst sin an angel can commit?"
He shook his head. "You shouldn't attack me."
Ellen inhaled a gasp as the feather in her hand radiated a wonderful sense of happiness and well-being. She felt secure but guilty. Blood stained the tip of the quill she'd torn from his flesh. Her eyes lifted to celestial blue and the ghost of a smile.
She swallowed hard, offered him his feather. "I'm sorry. That must have hurt…bad."
"Never mind that now." Like any man, he brushed the feather and her feelings away. Impatience edged his voice. "I don't have time to argue the finer points of theology."
Loneliness, she'd forgotten the ache. For two years, she’d managed to avoid the casting couch by carrying a dream in her heart. The faded photograph of perfection had come to life and stood before her—except that he had big white wings and no equipment. Damn wasn't that an irony. She wanted it; he didn't have it. He did have a to-die-for body. Looking at the Angel of Destruction, Old Satan himself might weep for envy.
"Come Ellen." He opened his arms, wings an umbrella to shield her.
That instant, the heavens opened up and a torrent of rain bombarded them. Shrieks penetrated the salvos of water. Wrapped in his wings they staggered together, outrunning the legions of angels landing to fight on the streets. In the park, without a word, he bent and scooped her into an embrace. Chaos crashed around them but Ellen felt safe in his arms. Serenity enveloped her. Twice, he drove his massive wings down hard and they were aloft. The rain stung her face, hands and arms. The higher they climbed the colder it got. When she shivered, he held her close but said nothing.
They must have gained the altitude he desired, above the rain. He held her closer. "Sorry about the cold. If I drop any, we'll be in the rain."
"No problem," she grinned, her teeth chattering, "You're the pilot. I'll just sit down now and you can send the stewardess with my cocktail."
He laughed. The musical sound was at odds with the end of the world and her idea that angels were serious, frightening beings. She rested her face in the crook of his shoulder. Muscles rippled beneath her cheek to the cadence of flight, the gentle beat of wings lulling Ellen to sleep.
She awoke with a start as the angel spiraled into a dizzying free fall, banked sharply left and flipped on his back to ride the furious winds like a leaf on a river. Ellen cried out, clinging frantically, though she lay safely on top of him.
"I won't drop you," he breathed against her ear. He pointed at the angry clouds.
Lightning arced from his fingertip. Thunder rattled her soul. The sky splintered into a million black shards. Miles above the doomed planet, Ellen heard a great tearing, the horrible clatter as monuments to Mankind's progress disintegrated, and California surrendered to the Pacific. A geyser of air funneled the angel and his mortal passenger down toward destruction. Ellen screamed, threw her arms around her guardian angel's—Order of the Thrones—neck. He smelled of light and harmony. Mighty wings lashing the dark tide of night, he righted, and with Ellen clasped securely in a bridal embrace, winged to the east.
"It's okay. We were never in real danger." His lips whispered over her hair.
"You could have fooled me." She nuzzled her face against his shoulder, felt him stiffen, heard him miss a wing beat, and her heart throbbed to a halt.
She was going to die anyway. If she kept her eyes shut, she wouldn't see the last part of the story of Man. Hours passed. In the arms of an angel, Ellen Tracy fell asleep again. She dreamed of endless seas, arks, animals two-by-two and her old cat at home. When the steady wing beats slowed, she blinked awake. The angel alighted, shifting his weight from his wings to his heels. No struggle to balance her weight.
"Practiced at rescuing damsels in distress, are you?” she mumbled.
"Good morning." He laid her down in a bed of lavender flowers.
"Where are we?" She rubbed sleep from her eyes.
"Smoky Mountains." The angel stretched, his wings blotting out the sun.
"How do you manage those huge wings?" She propped on one elbow staring at him in amazement. "They must be sixty feet wingspan."
He smiled. "I take that as a compliment since, amongst Man, size does matter."
She was still recovering from shock when his winged shadow fell on her bed of lavender, the crushed flowers perfuming the morning. Had he intended to make a joke? He was so serious but she had caught a gleam in his eyes. Whatever. She couldn't believe the Angel of Destruction had ever laughed aloud.
He turned and morning sun blinded her. "You're almost home."
"Thanks for taking a break from Judgment Day to give me a lift." She sat up, shoving tangled hair back from her face. "What's your name?"
Shock roared in her head. "Iofiel threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden."
Jewel-like eyes refracted light as he nodded solemnly. "I am Iofiel, who must now destroy this spoiled Eden."
"You said there was good in the world."
"I don't make the decisions. I merely obey."
"Obey?" She shaded her eyes to glare at him. "Without question?"
He looked away. "Mankind has free will."
She remembered angels did not. Sadness cramped her heart as she gazed at an exquisite creature—without a soul, without free will, a powerful being—yet no more than a slave.
Given other circumstances, she would have been his slave, willingly surrendering to his beauty and the sweetness she sensed behind the mask he wore. Her body reacted to him in ways she'd forgotten how to feel or to manage.
"I wish you weren't an angel."
He smiled. "If I weren't an angel, you'd have drowned. Are you cold?" He flared a white wing, luminescent in the sunshine.
"Why did you save me?" She shivered. "Yes, I am cold."
He gave a slow, enigmatic smile, sat beside her and draped her in his wing. "I love you."
"Angels love everybody." She snuggled beneath soft feathers spread over flowers.
He cocked his head, narrowed his eyes. "That's not true."
She stiffened and he swept the wing over her face. In her luxurious bed, she didn't need to see. She was quite content to feel, and wriggled until her shoulder touched his knee. Sensations zapped her. This angel from The Order of the Thrones was an atomic power plant.
Dreamily she asked, "What happened to androgynous angels?"
His wing drifted down to cover her breasts, tucked there like a fine white blanket. "We never were androgens. When I'm in physical form, I have the accoutrements of a human male."
Including a cocky attitude. The something unspoken ached inside her. Humiliation, well worn for its overuse, flushed her cheeks. She bit Monica's lip before the actress could say, "Show and tell." In her tent of down, Ellen kept staring at him, memorizing detail. The guy/angel knocked her for six, did a number on her—but he was forbidden fruit. That pillar of salt flashed through her head.
She swept her hair back from her face. Never told anyone, wouldn't confess except it was Judgment Day. "I'm a virgin. Yep you heard me right. Don't you dare laugh. Twenty-two-years-old, ex-actress and a virgin." She shrugged. "Don't ask me how it happened--or didn't--as the case may be. You've probably heard lots of stupid confessions. And Ellen Lucinda Tracy, who was saving it for her dream man, will die a stupid virgin."
Lips parted, he studied her. After a moment, he swallowed hard and his gaze shifted to something over her shoulder. She didn't turn to find out what had caught his rapt interest. For that instant before fear had taken him away, she'd felt the heat in his gaze. The heat of passion not anger. Angels weren't supposed to want sex. Ellen did—in the worst way. Excitement beat beneath her pelvic bone. She kept studying him, letting him fill her eyes, her senses, her dreams.
"If you weren't an angel—" She slid across her fragrant bed.
His gaze snapped back to hers. He tensed but didn't retreat as she advanced. Celestial blue eyes escaped her gaze again. Looking at the treetops, he drew her into a fragile embrace that any slight movement might shatter. Bird song, the scent of crushed flowers, the freshness of a mountain morning perfumed a long, peaceful silence.
Finally, he leaned down and whispered in her ear. "We've known each other before."
She shot him a mischievous, sideways glance. "In the Biblical sense?"
"No." He made of the word a long, amused sigh.
"You can do it, can't you?"
He leaned back to frown at her. "You've never heard of the Nephilim? Giants spawned by angels on mortal women?"
"They don't teach that in Sex Ed." She slid an arm around him, shivering at the silken touch of skin and feathers. "Have you ever done it?"
He actually blushed, so charming she giggled and hugged him. She couldn't strip her willful eyes from his mouth as he said gruffly, "No more talk of this."
His body angled away, he folded his wing tighter around her. Had his hand brushed her breast by accident? Her whole body came alight from that mere touch. She shifted so that she could catch a silky curl, wind it around her finger and pulled his face down to hers. He looked worried, but seemed powerless to resist. When their lips touched, he lurched back, staring at her as if she'd burned him. The blue fire in his eyes was what she'd been looking for—passion.
"Do you really love me?" She traced the inside of his wing with a fingertip, and he shivered. Having a man with wings was definitely a turn-on. Nothing to lose, maybe nothing to gain, but Ellen was determined to fill the few precious moments remaining with as much living as possible. Regrets, she had few. She needed to make some more before she died. "Prove it."
"Ellen," he warned, lifting a protective hand.
"Don't you find me attractive?"
He drew a long, shaky breath. "Of course. But."
"But what?" She stroked the soft underside of his wing near the arch.
His eyes widened. His breath caught. He shuddered then pushed her away.
"That didn’t hurt,” she said.
“No.” He shuddered deliciously. "It felt good. Too good. Thus, we mustn't—how do you say—go there."
"Why not? The world's ending. What've we got to lose?"
Frowning, he started to rise. "More than you can possibly know."
"Okay, okay." She grabbed his hands. "Don't run away. I'll be good. You said we'd met before. I would have remembered. I'm sure of that."
"Beyond." He nodded at the sky. "Many times. While you languish between lives, we talk. I guide you home. Always." A smile played with full mauve lips. "You won't remember, of course, but I promised to be with you when the end came." He gazed at her through long, luxurious lashes. Then his lips kissed her name, "Ellen."
Give me another day and I'll have Angel from the Order of the Thrones in bed. She grinned, inhaled as desire shafted through the core chakra.
"Does flying make these muscles tense?" She rose to kneel between the arches of his wings and the long white trail on dewy grass. Holding her breath, Ellen Tracy massaged the tautness in an angel's shoulders. At first, predictably, he resisted, then relaxed into the pressure. "Guess so, huh."
Eyes closing, he moaned, "Yes."
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“I am Iofiel.” He trained those big baby blues on her, robbing her of breath.
Looking at him thrilled every proton of every atom in her body. "I'll be reincarnated?"
"Not this time."
"Why is God going to destroy us?"
"Like creations that came before, Man has not pleased Him, but used free will and intelligence for greed and self-service, failing to learn the lessons."
"You tell great bedtime stories.” She wanted to cover her face and weep. "Tonight, when I can't sleep, I'll count continents sinking into the ocean."
"Fire not water this time." Matter-of-fact statement untouched by arrogance.
Resentment surfaced in Ellen. The gorgeous creature wasn't a man. He was a messenger of death and destruction. “Did you turn Lot's wife to salt? Destroy the Tower of Babylon?"
"No, Miss Tracy." Sarcasm curled his lips. "The Tower was Gabriel's assignment. Sodom and Gomorrah were mine."
She wrenched a handful of flowers. Dirt flew as she flung them in his face. "What's old Gabe up to tonight? Riding with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?"
"You've got a wicked tongue." In one swift, fluid motion, he rose, spilling Ellen amongst the uprooted flowers. He glared at her, the muscles in his jaw clenched.
Wings trailing, he paced to the edge of the glen, circled back, his silhouette blotting out the sun. "Ellen, I do what I am commanded to do."
And then he turned and strode into the forest, leaving her on the verge of tears and her apology unspoken. So this was it—adios Ellen Tracy? Her Order of the Thrones Guardian had just walked out the proverbial door.
A bitter wind rose, whipping the trees. Dry leaves crackled in a spiraling dance. A high-pitched sound hummed in the air. Iofiel reappeared as a golden angel touched down on the balls of his feet. The sunlight slanting through the pines paled in comparison to their visitor.
The golden one swept a low, mocking bow. "Good day, my Brother."
Wings unfurled to a majestic span, Iofiel stepped between Ellen and the other angel. She exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
"Greetings, HaSatan.” Iofiel offered a stiff, formal bow.
"I'm no longer HaSatan." The magnificent golden angel turned hot golden eyes on Ellen and explained, "Heaven's prosecuting attorney. Nevertheless, Mankind, understanding only part of anything, decided to call me Satan. So there you are, Little Virgin."
Iofiel whirled, lifted Ellen, one powerful wing wrapping her tight to his body. “What do you want?”
"Ah the joy of love." The golden voice sang mockery, but Ellen was listening to her own heart singing. "Don’t fear. I shan't steal your blessed virgin. I don’t value a maidenhead as much as some do. What news of our Father in Heaven?”
"You know the news of Heaven, Lucifer,” Iofiel said, and the name sent a primal chill down Ellen’s spine. “We are at war amongst ourselves. Your legions hover at the Gate, anticipating the spoils."
"Such rancor." The Devil laughed. “You hate this assignment. I sense your resentment. Iofiel, don’t do it.”
"Tis not mine to question,” Iofiel said.
"Tis but to do or die," the Devil mocked. "I'm living proof you can gainsay Him and survive. Join me. We can end this tyranny."
"And live without Grace? I can only guess your sorrow, your angst—"
"Angst." Fists clenched, Lucifer paced, wings dragging. "To think I was cast down for the sin of Pride. I refused to kneel to Adam and lost Heaven. Now, on a whim, He destroys his Children of Clay. Like the other toys of which he tired. Where is the justice in that?"
"Go home, Lucifer." Iofiel spoke the other's name with love, tenderness and deep sadness. "The war will soon come to you."
Lucifer arched his wings in a subtle threat, drew his regal and handsome body up to a full seven feet of gilt splendor. "Beware, Iofiel, for I, Lucifer, intend to do everything in my power to thwart your mission."
Iofiel stood calm and composed. "Anent, I stand warned. Godspeed, my Brother."
"Good Day, Little Virgin." The Devil offered Ellen an irresistible smile and a strange warning. "Beware of the casting couch."
"Shouldn't you be collecting lost souls or something?" Her voice was remarkably steady.
The Devil laughed. “Very clever.”
In a blaze of glory, Lucifer soared into the morning sun. Laughter, golden notes, showered down on them. The Morning Star, wasn't he called that before the Fall?
"Dare the Devil, Ellen?" Eyes aglow with admiration, Iofiel turned her into a loose embrace of arms and white feathers where she desired nothing.
She was complete.
The brush of a tentative fingertip on her cheek shocked through her. When he reached up to pluck a leaf from her hair, she caught his hand. He stiffened, gazing into the distance, listening. Then she heard the weeping, the screams. Their eyes met. Again, she saw the destruction of Heaven.
"We must go. It is time."
As she watched, ugly clouds devoured the morning. "Time for you to go back to work." A tear slid down her cheek. She hated the tears, the helplessness. "Why don't you just kill me? Why make me suffer?"
Tenderly, he wiped away her tears. "Trust me."
She threw her arms around his waist, lifted her face, brown eyes pleading. He literally stopped breathing. Something flitted in the blue depths of his eyes. Heart thudding, Ellen lifted to tip-toe to press her mouth to his.
He caught her face between his hands. "Please, Ellen, don't."
In the shadow of death, she was unable to say, "I want you."
More than I've ever wanted any man. Though you arch your wings and roll your shoulders so much like a man who is tired, you are not a man. And I'm making a capital-FOOL out of myself.
On a mountaintop in North Carolina, for the second time in two days, Ellen Tracy gave up. She wouldn't fight anymore. When her time came, she knew he would be gentle with her. After death, where would she go? The Pearly Gates had lost their appeal. Were her parents already in the new nightmare paradise? At the thought, pain lanced her heart.
Iofiel spread his wings above them in a spectacular fan. Ellen gasped as a second set of wings wrapped her in velvet glory. He laughed, unfurling the large pair, then the smaller ones.
"Seraphs," he said with a wicked smile and an arched brow, "have four wings. Some as many as six which you'd know if you'd read the Book of Enoch."
"Show-off." Ellen could no longer resist. She reached up, and before he could protest, ran her hands through his hair.
Lips parted, he gazed into her eyes. His reaction started a fire at the very center of her body and soul. She felt time, like a swift river, flow past them. Without warning, he bounced her into his arms, laughing delightedly when she squeaked.
Iofiel wrapped her in the smaller wings, arched the outer wings, ran a few strides and soared as if she weighed nothing. Destruction paced their flight as if it could devour the angel and his cargo. Sometimes Ellen thought she heard wing beats behind. Were they being chased? She didn't know because she had given up and given her trust to Iofiel.
Behind desolation lay; ahead the unknown.
"It's going to be crowded at the Pearly Gates." Ellen shivered in her feather cocoon. "Take a number, get in line." She didn't hear, merely felt him laugh.
Gold flashed in the corner of her eye. From above, Lucifer struck. The impact knocked the breath from Ellen and broke Iofiel's hold on her. Wind ripped away her screams as she plummeted through freezing darkness. She saw the golden eagle, for so Lucifer appeared, bank and engage Iofiel in hand-to-hand combat. A spray of red stained alabaster feathers. The sounds of struggle followed her nightmare plunge. She closed her eyes, wondering if there was an angel of death and if he'd catch her.
Crushed to a broad chest, she cried, “Iofiel.”
Her eyes flew open, gazing straight into Lucifer's magnetic golden eyes. He not Iofiel had rescued her. Where then was Iofiel? The spray of blood that had stained his feathers stained her memory. A shriek tore from her throat, rising to a long sustained note.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Stop screaming." Satan's laughter reverberated against the shell of night.
And Ellen could no longer make a sound of any kind. Moments tangled in the bullwhip rise and fall of enormous wings. Lucifer had recovered from the death-defying plunge, winging easily above the pit of darkness below.
"I hereby claim one lost little virgin." Lucifer brushed his lips to hers, his arms tightening about her.
A maelstrom of passion whipped through her. Not real. Something he's doing to me. He was causing her to feel aroused, to want him. If she didn’t react the way he wanted, would he drop her? Then again, Death might be better than being raped by the Devil, even though he was the most beautiful of the angelic host.
"That's right, Sweetheart." When he winked, gilded lashes swept his cheek. "Settle back, enjoy the ride. We're almost home."
They dove through a gauzy curtain into gray water. A whirling sense of disorientation seized her. A gong clanged in her head to the rhythm of his heart. For a second only, the discomfort lasted. Lucifer deposited her on her feet, steadying her with a light embrace. She opened her eyes and beheld a great gray landscape. A charcoal lake spread to the pale line of the horizon. The trees, grass, sand were varied shades of gray. Red sparks and black smoke belched from distant mountains.
Lucifer bent, pressed soft lips to her palm, causing her to shiver. "Welcome to my home."
"I'm in Hell?" She sounded small, frightened, but Monica lifted her chin in defiance. "You kidnapped me." Damn he was a handsome devil.
One corner of his mouth quirked in a wry grin. "You should thank me. I've saved you from a most dreary fate."
The dreaded tears stung her eyes. She spoke around the lump in her throat. "I wanted to see my Mother. In Heaven—"
"Heaven-Smeaven." The golden angel took her face between his hands. "Your darling Iofiel wasn't taking you to Heaven."
"He was taking me home?" All along, even knowing it was impossible, Ellen had cherished the hope that she'd see her parents once more but she saw the answer in the Devil's sardonic smile. "I wanted to see Mom and Dad."
"You are naïve. Now, listen to your Uncle Lucifer." He wrapped a comradely arm around her shoulders, steering her along the lakeshore. "First, lover-boy Ioffie destroyed your home. Comprende? Second, Heaven isn't one big room where everyone lives happily ever after. The angels live in one part. You Evolved Apes have your own zoo."
She drew back to glare at him. "How will you amuse yourself without us Evolved Apes? You'll have no one to tempt, no souls to steal. God won't talk to you. The angels shun you. You'll be all alone, Lucifer.”
Like colored lights, fury, hatred and mockery swirled in his eyes. Ellen froze, unable to move, to breathe or to think until the Devil broke eye contact. He smiled and his arm slid from her shoulder to circle her waist. When he tried to pull her close to him, she resisted.
"Stop," she said, frowning at the Devil.
Lucifer whispered a laugh and freed her, holding up his hands as if she'd come on to him. "You're quite amusing. I can't keep calling you Little Virgin. How does the Virgin Ellen sound? Like a clue?" He wriggled his fingers, coaxing her.
Ellen didn't know what to say. She drew a shaky breath. Damned if this cocky SOB, or was that SOG—Son of God—would see her cry.
"Ellen, dear, you don't wish to die a virgin. It would be my pleasure to remedy that sad condition. Whereupon," he pinched her cheek, "Iofiel will have no further use for you."
"Use for me? You're mistaken." A sick fear played in her stomach. "I tried to seduce Iofiel—"
"Timing is everything. Wrong time, wrong place. God and the almighty Iofiel have plans for you." His voice dropped to a confidential whisper. "I aim to foil those plans. This is Old Jehovah's last experiment. No more broken promises. No more temper tantrums. No more broken toys."
Shock and fear numbed Ellen. She'd been kidnapped. Rape was imminent. Betrayal hurt most. Iofiel had lied to her. Oh, he must be dead! Her heart cramped. In the visions, she'd seen angels fighting angels, angels dying.
"On to more pleasant pursuits." The golden wings rose, eclipsing the gray landscape.
Ellen watched in horrified fascination as Lucifer ripped the shroud from his waist. At his groin, a gilt serpent reared its head. She screamed but there was no one to hear.
"Don't you dare," Iofiel's command rang clear.
Satan gave a mocking laugh as he turned to face the other angel. The mockery and the smile fled when he saw three angels: Michael with his blazing sword, Gabriel with his deadly trumpet and Iofiel with a spear crafted of lightning.
Lucifer shot a glance at Ellen. “I told you they had plans for you. The Big Guy is overly fond of unbroken hymens. Think about what He did to Mary. You may get an inkling what's in store for you."
Ellen's knees threatened to collapse as adrenaline and relief hit her.
Lucifer bowed to the Heavenly Delegation. “All for the love of a girl, Iofiel? Take her, by all means. Far be it from me to hinder progress."
Without a glance, Iofiel strode past Lucifer. In the presence of the most powerful of the angels, Ellen had eyes only for Iofiel. But, damn him, Lucifer had planted the seeds of distrust. Doubt mingled with the desire to rush to Iofiel. Wind, flavored with smoke, tossed his shining russet hair and played with the silky garment he wore with armor.
The self-proclaimed Seraph invaded her comfort zone, must have read her expression and gave her a wary smile. Probably he expected her to faint and fall into his arms. Ellen Tracy/Monica Joye had never fallen into any man’s arms, wasn't going to start now even if the Devil watched—no longer smiling.
Iofiel frowned at her hesitation. "Did he harm you?"
"If you mean am I still a virgin," the blow she aimed at the angel sliced her own heart, "I am."
Iofiel blushed. "I'm glad you're not harmed."
She ignored his outstretched arms. "Why did you save me?"
"Soon I shall tell you." He gave her a tender smile, his eyes alight. "Bear with me but a short time more, My Love."
Her heart gave a silly joyful leap at his use of love, but she held firm, glanced at Lucifer and in the corner of her eye saw Iofiel bristle.
“Do you want to stay here?” He aimed a caustic look at the golden angel.
When she shook her head, not trusting her voice, Iofiel bent and scooped her off Hell's sooty floor. This time, eyes open, Ellen witnessed her return across the Styx. Surging, gurgling charcoal waters parted. The chill fell away. There came the dizzying, twisting inside out, then she felt herself surrounded by warmth and light.
They stood beside a crystal stream whispering over mica rocks. A breeze scented with freshly mown grass played with her hair. Golden light washed through mammoth oaks.
"Iofiel, it's like a magic forest. I half-expect to see unicorns."
Iofiel's intense gaze made her heart to flutter. He took her hand, "Come, My Love," and led her across the stream, dancing from rock to rock, then up a hill dotted with wild flowers.
Ellen caught her breath. The Bible promised mansions in Heaven. The towering ivory house looked like a jewel set in the emerald field. White horses romped free across the unfenced stretches of lush grass. A fine stallion wheeled on his haunches, reared and trumpeted to the angel. Iofiel whistled and the horse galloped toward them.
"I wish I'd died sooner. Heaven's quite a place." She snuggled beneath the wing he offered. "This is beautiful. Oh yummy. Did I ever tell you that you smell like sunshine?"
Iofiel kissed the top of her head. "This isn't Heaven. This is our Eden. We’re alone. Have you forgiven me?"
"Yes, except for delaying our arrival." She slid her arms around his neck and trembled as she asked, "Is the world…is the whole world except this destroyed?"
He nodded. "I'm sorry, Ellen. Really I am, but I do as I’m told. The souls of those who died have returned to the Source. They are happy, Ellen, as we shall be happy."
"Kiss me," she breathed.
There was nothing chaste in her angel's kiss.
On the Eighth Day, God replenished the barren earth, making of it a Garden for his Children—sired by a Seraph, born of a virgin. This time He mated Devotion to Free Will.