Exodus stepped from his cabin and climbed behind the wheel of his shiny black Jeep. He didn’t need the vehicle to get where he wanted to go, but he couldn’t simply appear out of thin air in the middle of Hazel’s Diner either.
He inserted the key in the ignition, loving the feel of the power vibrating beneath him as the engine sparked to life.
Humans were amazing creatures, with their cool inventions and mouth-watering foods, he thought, putting the Jeep in gear and easing out of his driveway. Yet, they weren’t immortal. Their lives were a mere blip on the radar of time…and then they died.
Of course, some of them were destined to have wings in the afterlife. Some…but not all.
If they had any idea an angel lived in their midst, there would be hell to pay for Exodus. Not everyone believed in angels, and the few that actually did would likely fear the unknown.
Exodus thought about the billions of humans walking the face of the Earth, with their thousands of different religions and beliefs. Most of them rarely prayed anymore, and when they did, it was usually when someone became sick.
“And where might you be going on this fine Saturday morning?”
Exodus didn’t need to look to know who had appeared in the seat next to him. He would recognize the voice of Leviticus anywhere. “Hello, Levi. You do realize you’re going to get caught one of these days, showing up here as you do? This is the third time you’ve been here this month.”
“Keeping count, are we?” The other angel lifted his hand to study his fingernails. “I only came to warn you of Delia’s presence in the area.”
Stepping on the brake, Exodus brought the Jeep to a stop and cranked his head in Levi’s direction. “Delia’s here in Helen?”
“Not in Helen, per se, but she is definitely on Earth. And I’d be willing to wager that she’ll be heading this way as soon as she has her ducks in a proverbial row.”
Exodus turned his head to stare at the mountains in the distance, his stomach tight with anger. “When was she released?”
“A little over a week ago.”
“Of course she would be released near the time I’m due to be judged.” Exodus kept his gaze on those mountains. “Well, if she shows up here, I’ll send her back to Hell without her pretty little head.”
Exodus had been forced to spend a thousand years on Earth for his sins— sins that Delia had tempted him into. She’d seduced him with her beauty and charm. And like an idiot, he’d fallen for her, taking her to his bed without a thought for the consequences.
Naturally, his fornication had been discovered soon thereafter, and he was cast from Heaven. He’d been sent to Earth for a thousand years, where he would then be judged to determine his eternal fate. He would either return to paradise completely forgiven, or he would spend eternity in Hell alongside Delia.
Delia, of course, had been ordered back to Hell from whence she’d come, to be chained there for a thousand years.
“Why has Delia been released?” Exodus met Levi’s gaze. “I mean, I have less than a month left until I am to be judged. She was sentenced the same amount of time as me.”
Leviticus shrugged. “My guess is she most likely bargained her way to freedom. Probably with the promise of bringing ole Lucy your soul. You are one heck of a prize, you realize.”
Exodus shook his head. “It makes no sense. Why now? Why not a year ago? She’s cuttin’ it kind of close, isn’t she? And Lucifer will never get my soul.”
“I hear you, but we are talking about Delia. If she can tempt you to fall while you are still on Earth, perhaps she feels that you would be sentenced to Hell and she would win her freedom by being the one to make that happen.”
“Hell,” Exodus repeated, his stomach clenching. “I have remained celibate for nearly a millennium. And in that time, I have seen more change than I care to remember. But I have yet to be tempted. No matter how beautiful they are or how alluring, no one has come close to crawling into my bed. Nor will they.”
Levi touched him on the shoulder. “Lust is a powerful emotion, X. Especially when fueled by the powers of Hell. Delia has had nearly a thousand years to plan your demise. Just be on your guard.”
Nausea rolled through Exodus. He couldn’t imagine what Delia had in store for him. She’d already caused him to fall from grace, to be cast out. “You’d better get back before you are missed, my friend. Else you might find yourself building a cabin next to mine on this mountain.”
“Not a chance.” Levi chuckled a second before he vanished from view.
Niki Stanton stared up in dismay at Randal Johnson, the main cook at Hazel’s Diner. “What do you mean the refrigerator is out?”
Randal shrugged a beefy shoulder. “I mean it ain’t workin’. As in, it’s tore up.”
“Customers are starting to come in.” Niki’s voice grew in volume with the panic that began to set in. “The refrigerator can’t be broken.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear first thing this mornin’, but it ain’t the end of the world. I put a call in to Carl up at Dover’s Appliances. He’ll be down here directly. He already knows what the problem is, seeing how he’s fixed it a bunch of times before. That fridge should have been replaced years ago.”
Niki pushed her glasses up on her nose. “I’ll go turn the Closed sign on and let the customers that have recently arrived know we won’t be feeding them today.”
Randal’s eyes grew round in surprise. “There ain’t no need in doing all that, ma’am. The food is still cold. My guess is that the fridge went out about an hour before I got here. If Carl can get it up and running fairly soon, we probably won’t lose anything in it.”
A spark of hope flickered to life inside Niki. “I pray so, Randal. I really do.”
“I told your granny a few years ago that we needed a new fridge,” Randal confessed. “But she was bound and determined to hang on to this old thing.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the double-glass-door cooling unit. “I reckon she couldn’t really afford to get a new one.”
Niki could relate. She couldn’t afford a new one either. “Yes, well let me know when Carl arrives. I’m going to run upstairs for a few minutes and take my medications.”
Worry sparked to life in Randal’s eyes. “You okay, ma’am?”
“I’m fine,” Niki hedged, glancing away from the pity she saw swimming in his gaze.
Everyone that worked at Hazel’s seemed to be privy to Niki’s health problems. Hazel had never made it a secret that her only granddaughter suffered from a debilitating heart condition known as Atrial Septal Defect. Though it was fixable in some, Niki hadn’t had such luck.
Niki had never been allowed to play like other children, and she’d struggled through school due to the numerous days she missed after her open-heart surgery.
She’d suffered another heart surgery during her senior year in high school. The long pink scar down her chest was a constant reminder of how close she’d come to losing her life.
“All right,” Randal murmured, turning back to flip the sausage patties on the grill. “If you need anything, just give a holler. I’ll let you know when Carl gets here.”
Niki nodded her thanks and left the kitchen through the back door. She gripped the railing to the stairs that led to her apartment above the diner and slowly ascended them.
She found herself stopping about halfway up to catch her breath. Dizziness overtook her, and spots began to dance through her vision.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Niki leaned heavily against the railing, holding tightly to the weather-damaged wood.
“Are you all right, miss?”
The deep voice coming from the bottom of the stairs could barely be heard over the rapid pulse pounding in Niki’s ears.
She attempted to answer, but her mouth didn’t seem to work. Her knees grew weaker the longer she stood there fighting to breathe, until they eventually buckled beneath her.
Niki cried out as her hands slipped helplessly from the railing and her body began to topple over backward.
I’m going to die, she thought in panic, unable to stop the inevitable catastrophe.
Strong arms came around her, sweeping her off her feet and holding her tight.
“Easy there, little one. I’ve got you.”
That deep voice again. As much as Niki wanted to lift her head and thank the stranger for his quick intervention, she couldn’t seem to do so.
“Do you live up here?”
Niki nodded against his chest, unable to do much else. “I have…a…dog.”
Warmth and muscle moved beneath her cheek where she rested against his shoulder. Even in her weakened state, Niki couldn’t help but notice how clean the man smelled. “My…dog… He…”
“Shhhhh,” the man responded as if he weren’t the least bit concerned about the threat of a dog. “It’ll be okay.”
The sound of her apartment door creaking open reached her ears a moment before her savior stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him.
She could hear his shoes trailing across her hardwood floor, yet no barking from her dog ensued.
That’s odd, Niki thought, swallowing back a bout of nausea. Why wasn’t Lucky going berserk over the stranger in her home?
And then her body slowly descended until the soft mattress of her bed touched her back.
“Where is your phone? I’ll call 911.”
“No,” Niki moaned, nausea still rolling through her gut. “My pills…medicine cabinet…bathroom…”
Over the sound of her rapid heartbeat, she could hear the man hurrying across the room.
He was back in less than a minute. “I wasn’t sure which ones you needed, so I grabbed them all.” He eased his arm behind her neck and gently lifted her head from the pillow. “Here, have some water.”
The cool temperature of the water made some of Niki’s nausea ebb. She reached for her pills.
“I’ll get them,” the stranger rumbled, removing his arm and propping some pillows behind her head. “Tell me which ones.”
Niki swallowed, taking deep, calming breaths. Breathing techniques had always worked to hold back the blackouts.
She somehow managed to instruct the man on proper dosages, accepted the pills he handed her, and then washed them down with the water she held.
He took the glass from her fingers and placed it on the nightstand. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call an ambulance?”
Niki shook her head, forcing her eyes open a crack. There, sitting on the side of her bed was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her lifetime. And Lucky sat near his feet, calm and relaxed like he’d known the man all his life.
“No,” she croaked, instantly embarrassed to be caught in such a state by someone as perfect as the man perched next to her.
Not only was she sick and weak, but her hair was twisted on top of her head, and her forehead had broken out into a sweat with the presence of the nausea. “I just need a minute.”
“Are you sure? You look awfully pale.”
A knock sounded on the door before Niki could form a response.
Her beautiful savior lifted his eyebrows in question. “Want me to get that?”
Niki wanted to tell him no, but she couldn’t. Randal had put in a call to Carl, and he was due to arrive at any moment. “Please,” was all she said.
The man got up, sauntered toward the door with Lucky tight on his heels, and opened the door.
Ellen Martin’s voice floated into the room, full of surprise and more than a little flirtation. “Well, hello, Mr. Brooks. What are you doing up here?”
Lucky growled low in his throat.
“Oh goodness,” Ellen gasped. “Does that thing bite?”
The deep voice of Niki’s savior reverberated throughout the room. “I’m not sure, Miss Martin. May I help you with something?”
It wasn’t lost on Niki that Ellen knew the tall man’s name or that he knew hers as well. Of course, it wasn’t surprising. Ellen was a beautiful girl, after all. A bit too flirtatious in Niki’s opinion, but beautiful nonetheless.
Where Niki had brown curly hair, green eyes, and a stick-thin body, Ellen had platinum-blonde hair, luminous blue eyes, and a figure any woman would envy.
On more than one occasion, Niki had heard the blonde bragging about being homecoming queen, prom queen, and winning several pageants, including Miss Helen two years in a row.
Niki had never even attended a prom. Not that she wouldn’t have loved to, but no one had asked her. She couldn’t blame them, really. She’d been sickly all through school and spent most of her senior year being tutored at home due to her second open-heart surgery.
Ellen cleared her throat, bringing Niki out of her musing. “I just came to let Miss Stanton know that Carl is here to fix the refrigerator. And he ain’t one for waiting.”
Niki took another drink of the water, then set the glass on her nightstand, eased her feet over the side of the bed, and glanced in Ellen’s direction. “Tell Carl that I’ll be right down.”
Ellen nodded, quickly dismissed Niki, and smiled up at Mr. Brooks. “Will you be eating with us this morning then?”
“We’ll see,” he murmured, closing the door without further explanation.
He then turned to face Niki. “Perhaps you shouldn’t get up so soon. You nearly took a spill down the stairs a few minutes ago.”
More than a little embarrassed that he’d witnessed her near-fall, Niki adjusted her glasses and pushed to her feet. “I’ll be fine in a moment. Dizzy spells are nothing new to me.”
Speaking of dizzy spells, another one washed over her just then, forcing her to grab on to the headboard for support.
Mr. Brooks was instantly at her side. “Easy there, Miss Stanton. Maybe you should lie back down. The refrigerator can wait.”
“It can’t wait. And please call me Niki.” Where had that come from?
His whiskey-colored gaze softened. “Okay, Niki. My name is Exodus, but my friends call me X.”
Niki blinked. “Exodus, as in the biblical Exodus?”
His lips twitched. “I get that a lot. Which is why I prefer to be called X.”
“Yeah, like that has less shock factor.”
His mouth broke into a full-on smile, nearly buckling Niki’s knees. If she thought him beautiful before, he was downright breathtaking when he smiled. And that wonderful scent she’d noticed when he’d carried her reached her nose once again. God, but he smelled good.
His dark brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the base of his neck. Even with the shades pulled in her apartment, Niki could see the auburn streaks running through its length.
Her gaze lowered to the black T-shirt stretched across his muscular chest and further still to his faded jeans and shit-kicker boots before returning to his whiskey-colored eyes. “Thank you for your help, X. I don’t know what I would’ve done had you not shown up when you did.”
Then a thought struck her. “What were you doing behind the diner?”
He shrugged a broad shoulder. “I normally park around back. It’s a lot less congested on that side of the building. Especially in the mornings.”
“Makes sense.” She could feel her heart rate slowing to normal as the medication began to kick in. “I appreciate your help, Mister—”
“Yes, well, I appreciate everything, X, but my medication is beginning to work. I can take it from here.”
His eyes twinkled. “Are you throwing me out?”
“I guess I am,” Niki returned with a nervous chuckle. “There’s only one man in town that can fix that refrigerator, and that’s Carl. If he leaves before I get down there, I’m up the creek without a paddle.”
X nodded and moved toward the door. “I don’t mind waiting. I feel like I should at least walk you down.”
If there was one thing Niki hated more than anything in the world, it was pity. She’d dealt with people feeling sorry for her her entire life. “I can manage,” she shot back a bit stiffer than she’d intended.
His head tilted slightly, and a strange look skated across his face. “If you’re sure.”
“Very well then.” He departed without another word.