Bittersweet seraphim, p.23
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       Bittersweet Seraphim, p.23

           Debra Anastasia
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  She knew this firsthand. Giovanni had been in her arms and then just…gone. She watched, disheartened, as Lucifer stalked back to his hole. He hadn’t seemed joyful or triumphant when he killed Emma and Jack. And the magnificent dragon that had bravely fought for them was surely dead as well.

  Once Lucifer disappeared, the exits to Hell sealed. The ground repaired itself as if there’d never been great burrowed holes in the soil. It was oddly quiet. No noises from the wildlife, who were surely scared and far flung. Like the half-breeds. Like the angels.

  She looked to her left and saw Nero, the other minion so briefly reunited with his love. She sighed and he met her eyes. “Would you want her here again?” Violet’s voice was a whisper, but it seemed to jolt him.

  Finally Nero shook his head sadly. “Holding her was…” He tightened his mouth into a line.

  “I know.” She didn’t know what to do. She certainly didn’t want to go home.

  Nero and Violent stood separately, their hearts dreaming of people in Heaven.

  Part 3

  Earth, 2032

  Chapter 37

  Jason felt warm, inside and out, as he sat in his house with Kate and the rest of his family. He hadn’t asked her to marry him yet, but she was part of him. It was Christmas Eve, and he’d found yet another tree in the woods—this time not to cheer his siblings, but to celebrate love redeemed, love found.

  Trimming the tree was a riot of laughter and music. Mine had finally learned to navigate furniture, rather than plowing right over it, and after copying Seriana’s movements for so long, he had almost a feminine walk, which Dean and Jason loved to tease him about on occasion—such as now when he pranced back and forth carrying ornaments. Rebecca, finally healthy again, glowed in the center of her children’s joy. She seemed to soak it all up. It wasn’t until they unwrapped the angel for the top of the tree that the room got quiet.

  In that instant, the news that Emma was gone punched them all again. It had been twenty years since Violent and Nero tracked them down to tell them: Jack and Emma had perished. But at least they had answers to their questions. They’d searched for them to no avail until the minions came to their door.

  Kate’s father was going to stop by again tomorrow. He made regular appearances to be part of Kate’s life, sometimes with Violent, sometimes without, and they’d mourned the loss of Jenny again and again. Jason often wondered if the glimpse of their loved one had been more of a punishment. But Kate told him it gave her peace to know her mother wasn’t in Hell and her father had finally stopped shoveling. Nero and Violent wouldn’t speak about what they did between visits, or where they stayed. They certainly didn’t act like a couple.

  Tonight as the silvery decoration angel topped the tree, Jason felt thankful he didn’t remember his relationship with Emma. Just the loss of what he’d come to know of her was deeply sad. She’d brought all of them together so many years ago. In a way, they owed her everything.

  Nero could never stop wanting Jenny, but he and Violent had forged a partnership after the big battle. They were in a similar position: their loved ones were angels, although Nero rejoiced that he still had Kate to visit, and Violent saw Dean occasionally. She referred to him as her “walking photograph” of Giovanni, but he didn’t really ease her loss, and she’d thankfully stopped trying to make him Giovanni’s replacement. Nero and Violent had made their home base her house, telling no one where to find them. They didn’t converse much, but he’d been happy to help her in her gardens with anything but shoveling. It had taken about a year to decide what to do.

  A comment from Kate had sparked Nero’s first semblance of a plan. “Dad, you’re an angel to me, even if you don’t have history on your side,” she’d said one night as she hugged him. He’d believed she was right. Yet when he mentioned his idea to Violent, she thought for weeks before responding.

  Finally, one clear night, Violent nodded after spending quite some time petting a tree. “Yes,” she said. “We need to make more history so the balance will tilt in an angelic direction.”

  Nero had cleared his throat. “That could take a very long time, at least for me.”

  “For me as well,” she said. “I’ve corrupted a whole species. But we have a very long time either way. Even if it’s delusional, it’s better than the alternative.” She knelt and brushed her hand over the grass.

  “I can’t go back to Hell, and living here is full of wanting anyway.” He made fists out of his hands.

  “At least we’ll have something to live for.” Violent stood and held out her hand.

  Nero had gripped it firmly, and they shook.

  Since their pact that evening, they’d gone out every night looking to better the world. Her focus was, of course, nature. She tried to sniff out toxins and eliminate whatever polluted the natural world she loved.

  Nero had focused on people. He found the evil ones and used his strength to intimidate them into a better life, hoping they’d seek good and continue down a better road on their own. He’d stopped muggings, robberies, and rapes. The saved victims’ gratitude felt worthy of his Jenny. He wore his scrap of her nightgown around his throat and lifted it to his lips after each night.

  Violent and Nero wanted no less than to become angels one day.

  With the tree finally decorated, Kate watched as Jason and Dean played cards with their mother. Jason was amazing. He was devoted to her and so kind, so generous. All her time waiting in the cabin had been lonely. Her mother had set such a solid example of being in love with mostly a memory, Kate often thought she’d be broken when it came to connecting with a partner. She hadn’t been herself for a long time after freeing her father, so it had taken some work to get here, but finding this little unconventional family was everything she wished for. And Jason was so patient. All these years later, they were still just dating. He liked to take her to the movies and bring her flowers. She saved the stubs from the tickets and pressed at least one bloom from every bouquet. She was almost positive their love would make it. They’d be fine.

  Kate smiled and left them to their game, going into the backyard for some fresh air. In the dark she turned over her palm. Its glow was subdued now. She’d told herself over and over again that she’d done what she had to to free her father, but on this side of Hell, having a tiny bit of Lucifer inside her body was alarming. It seemed to have slowed her aging—the years were liquid now—but she sometimes felt it had exacerbated her quick temper, which she was always working to control.

  The screen door squeaked behind her, and she smiled as Jason came out to visit.

  “Hello, gorgeous. Have any plans tonight?” He slipped his arms around her.

  Kate tilted his palm up and compared their glows. His was diminishing more quickly.

  “You know, maybe it clears out of my system faster,” he said, as if he’d read her mind.

  “Mmm…” Her fears were a little too real.

  “That doesn’t sound encouraging. Tell me what’s going on up here.” He kissed the top of her head.

  “If it stays in me longer, does that mean I’m a better host?” She leaned back against his chest, looking up through the leaves to see the stars.

  “I’d stay inside you as long as I could.” He leaned down and nibbled her ear.

  She squirmed away and rolled her eyes. “You’re so comforting.”

  He spun her around and tilted her chin with his finger so she was forced to look at him. “We’re going to get through this. I know we will. Together. I’d take all that glow if I could. I know it bothers you.”

  “I know. I wish I wasn’t such a baby about it. Those first few years…” She trailed off thinking about the dreadful arguments she’d had with Jason. She’d said things she’d regretted. Jason had too.

  Nero had pointed out their trouble one evening. “You’ve brought Hell to Earth in your hands,” he said. “To stay here, you must fight against the seven deadly sins. For they will always try to gain hold.”

  Kate still d
idn’t really see a correlation with the seven deadly sins, but these days when she was being a bitch, she tried to step outside herself and calm down.

  Jason hugged her close. “You know that was Lucifer and posttraumatic stress all rolled up together. We’re both doing better now.”

  She shrugged and sighed. When he took to his knee and turned over her hand, Kate had thought he was just getting a better look at her palm.

  “I had a romantic plan—you know me—but you look so sad, and this thing is burning a hole in my pocket so…” Jason reached in and pulled out a pretty little box.

  “What?” Kate’s mouth dropped open.

  Jason looked nervous then, but he soldiered on. “Kate, would you do me the tremendous honor of becoming my wife?”

  He used his leg to help him pop open the box. Inside, a gorgeous diamond sat in the center of black velvet, looking a whole lot like the stars in the sky she’d just been looking at.

  Her palm illuminated his knee as he slipped the ring on her forsaken hand. She lifted it to her face. “Maybe we can put this on my other hand?”

  He shook his head. “No, your hand reminds me of our first kiss. I’m proud of it.”

  She curled her bejeweled hand into a fist.

  “Is that a yes? I’m kind of dying here.” His eyes were wide, and his smile tentative.

  “Of course. Of course.” Kate pulled him into a deep kiss. She hated the dread that settled into her chest as she agreed to marry Jason. She hadn’t yet told him she thought she was pregnant.

  “I expected a bit more happiness. I mean, I’m not too bad, am I?”

  He knew her so well. She put more effort into the smile. But with her fairly pure linage, she feared the twentieth generation might actually be what the old coot had wanted. She hugged Jason hard, maybe a little too hard because she was afraid of what kind of life they would bring into the world.

  Chapter 38

  Emma petted her horse, Feisty, in the barn. It was shimmery cold out, so she slipped into the stall to adjust the horse’s blanket and make sure her window was locked tight. Feisty nuzzled her and almost knocked her over.

  “Silly.” She laughed as the horse lipped her pocket, looking for treats.

  She loved this animal so much. Her foster parents had bought her the pony years ago, giving in to her constant pining. She’d worn horse T-shirts as a child and plastered her walls with pictures of bay-colored ones, in particular.

  The birthday she’d woken up to find a saddle at the end of her bed was her happiest childhood memory. She’d discovered a corresponding horse, named Feisty, in the barn. The name stuck, as did the excitement. Together they’d won ribbons at all the county fairs, and Feisty had listened to Emma’s deepest fears and most horrible dreams. Nightmares of a torturous hallway woke her up in a cold sweat so many nights. But she’d make her way to Feisty in the dark and cuddle with her until her heart stopped pounding.

  Emma’s cell phone vibrated in her jacket pocket. She smiled, knowing her friends were on their way to pick her up. Tonight, Christmas Eve, was her twenty-third birthday. She’d spent the day with her parents, and they’d given her a silver angel pendant. She smoothed her fingers over it and smiled. Soon she heard honking outside the barn, and Shannon and Karen started right in when she got in the passenger side.

  “You old whore!” Karen greeted her.

  “Finally time you caught up to our asses,” Shannon added.

  Emma gave them the finger.

  They cranked the radio as they headed to the only bar in town. At school, they had a selection of drinking joints, but here, when the girls converged for the holidays in their hometown, they had to settle for Hades.

  At least they were all legal now, and Karen had agreed to be the designated driver, but the bar was going to be lame and sad on Christmas Eve. They’d taken bets on how many actual people would be there. None of the guesses topped out over ten. Nevertheless, Emma wore the gift she’d received in the mail yesterday: a soft white sweater with silver wings threaded in the back. There’d been no card, which was odd, but the top was a perfect fit.

  They spilled into the bar, laughing as they decided to use their fake stripper names tonight. An online quiz had revealed Shannon to be Lola, Karen to be Marilyn, and Emma to be Butch. A glitch in the test had mistaken her for a man, which doubled them over giggling all over again. When they stopped laughing long enough to find seats, Emma realized the bar contained more than ten people, which was shocking. Most looked liked regulars, and some were townies they recognized. The music was anything but Christmassy, and it was loud.

  The girls screamed back and forth, insulting each other and cracking up. Emma was to be treated to drinks, but she insisted on buying the first round. She headed for the bar and turned back to give her friends the finger when they loudly suggested she was wearing her lucky granny panties. “Well, I borrowed them from your extensive collection, Shannon—I mean Lola!” she screeched. Shannon/Lola stuck her tongue out in return.

  Smoke covered her shoulders like a shawl from behind her. A low, sexy voice sent shivers of recognition across her skin. “Nice sweater.”

  She whirled to stare at the bartender’s chest, taking in a leather jacket before reaching his long brown hair, high cheekbones, and smirky white smile. By the time she found out his eyes were deep brown, she had the distinct feeling she knew him, but from where? Suddenly she remembered her manners. “Thanks.”

  He bit his lip and seemed to be waiting for her to say more, make a connection.

  “Do I know you?” She had to sit on her hand on a barstool so she wouldn’t touch his face.

  He took a long, slow pull on his cigarette and exhaled in her direction, making a circle with the smoke.

  “Look, now the angel has a halo.” He gestured to the mirror behind him, and sure enough, for a split second the smoke ring hung above her head.

  “I guess I don’t know you. I don’t hang around with smokers.” She teased him as if they were old friends. His face danced just on the edge of her consciousness, frustrating her.

  “ID?” He took a defiant inhale of his drug.

  She had to think hard to remember how to show him her driver’s license. She pulled it out of her back pocket and handed it over. His finger brushed hers as he took the card. It was like touching a live wire to her lady business. He watched her instead of looking at the license, as if he knew what was happening to her body.

  “Heard your friends calling you Butch. That’s a Hell of a name.”

  “Butch is my stripper name.” The words were out before she could consider them, and now she wanted to throw herself under the bar. “Online. For a quiz. Oh, God, I’m not a male stripper.”

  He watched her trip over her words with an eyebrow raised. “Well, Butch, what can I get you?”

  Emma knew her cheeks were red. The bartender was so goddamn hot. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, her tongue felt like it was made of glue and cement, and she totally forgot what to order.

  “Um. Three Old Fashioneds?” She tried tucking her hands into her pants. She’d meant to order a pitcher of beer and three cups. Instead she’d selected her father’s favorite cocktail.

  “Old Fashioneds? Really? Did I miss the part where you turned into a fifty-five-year-old dude?” He flipped three glasses onto the bar.

  “We like them,” she insisted.

  He looked her over knowingly. “I don’t believe you, Butch.”

  She was backed into a corner now. “No, really. We guzzle them like cowboys.”

  One side of his mouth lifted in a smile. He put his cigarette in his mouth and began filling the glasses with a healthy dose of whiskey.

  “Okay, tell you what, you drink this glass in front of me right now and drinks for all you fine-looking ladies are on me.” He added the bitters.

  She futzed with her hair and glanced back at Karen and Shannon. They pretended to fan themselves and made obscene hand gestures. No help at all. “No problem. That’s
a bet you’ll lose.” How bad could it be? It had cherries. As he slapped a very full glass in front of her, Emma tried not to look alarmed.

  He set his elbows on the bar and smiled. “Bottoms up, Butch the stripper.”

  She tried to seem nonchalant as she lifted the glass to her lips, keeping her gaze on his. He exhaled his smoke and licked his lips distractingly.

  She took a healthy mouthful and pulled the glass away, covering her mouth and willing herself to swallow. The bartender smiled like the winner of the bet. She choked it down and idly wondered if her dad had any taste buds left at all. “Water.”

  He pulled out a hose attached to a nozzle. “Open up.”

  She stuck her tongue out as he gave her a mouthful. She was grateful as the burning and taste subsided. She opened her mouth again, leaning toward him. He paused for a split second, eyes turning carnal, before giving her another mouthful.

  “Thanks.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

  “You do love Old Fashioneds so much. Really amazing to watch you sling that back like a pro.” He hooked the hose back under the bar where it belonged.

  “I couldn’t get it down because you obviously suck at making them,” she countered, trying to save face. “That tasted like gasoline.”

  Karen and Shannon were rowdy behind her, scream-singing a porno-style theme song: “Bow-chicka-bow-wow.”

  She rolled her eyes at them without turning around.

  “Never mind. Just give me beer in bottles. That way you can’t screw them up.” She pushed the drink in his direction.

  The bartender stood looking at her for a moment before taking her glass and purposefully turning it to drink from the same side she did. He gulped the drink with effortless ease before sliding the other two drinks down in front of two lucky patrons at the bar. “How these taste to you, boys?”

  He walked back over to Emma and continued to smoke while the men sampled the drinks.

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