“You’re certain this is the right thing to do?” Beelzebub, former general of the armies of heaven, paced before the doors of the throne room, eyeing the fallen bodies of the twain. They clung to each other still, even in death. How very touching. But then, Micah and Ariel never could bear to be parted, not even for an instant. The shining white floor was also littered with the twisted black bodies of vanquished demon warriors, those who could not withstand the combined fury of the angel twain before they themselves had fallen. Beelzebub shrugged. It was a necessary sacrifice and one that had paid off handsomely.
“Of course I’m certain.” Lucifer, former prince of the seraphim, lounged indolently against a snow-white pillar, as though the holy fire of this most sacred spot didn’t burn him. Indeed, maybe it did not. Before staging his revolt against the Almighty, Lucifer had been in the presence of the one true God daily. Previously as glorious as the morning star, he retained his beauty, though it was tinged with darkness now, shadowed by the evil his soul had absorbed when he’d fallen from grace.
“But to put them in the same place on earth — the same family even…” Beelzebub fretfully rubbed the short, sharp horns that sprouted from his mottled gray temples. He had not kept any measure of the heavenly magnificence he’d once taken for granted. Unlike the graceful Lucifer, he was as ugly as…well, as ugly as sin. And rightfully so, because sin was his business now. Now and forever.
“It’s all part of my plan.” Lucifer nodded at the burning sword that hung from the other demon’s belt. The reever had been forged in the pits of hell, its black blade tempered with the blood and tears of the damned who burned forever therein. “As long as you did your part, we should be fine.”
“I did.” Beelzebub patted the dull, red-covered blade. Its evil comforted him in the alien environment. “Micah fell first, so he’ll be ahead of her by several years down there. He tried to defend Ariel, but the reever bested him.”
“Certainly it did,” Lucifer drawled. “I saw to its forging myself. No heavenly blade can match it — not even Gabriel’s.”
“Let us hope we don’t have to put that to the test — not today,” Beelzebub said tightly. “Gabriel still leads a powerful host.”
“And so do we,” Lucifer reminded him. “The demons under your command have not forgotten what it is like to tread the streets of gold. Remember, my friend, every one of them was an angel, just as you and I were. We all long to return home, but I intend to do so in victory, not as a sniveling supplicant.”
“And so you shall,” Beelzebub said grimly, indicating the silent seraph. “As long as these two can be kept away from their celestial bodies for long enough. You and I are behind enemy lines here, and a siege takes time.”
“We have time — an entire human lifetime. That’s seventy earth years minimum — maybe more. Plenty of time for your little siege to succeed.”
“Forgive me, but…” Beelzebub began pacing again.
Lucifer frowned. “What is it? Speak up.”
“I just don’t see how putting them together will keep them apart,” Beelzebub burst out. “Now, if you’d placed the souls in two bodies that lived halfway around the world from each other –”
“They would have found each other in less time than it takes to tell,” Lucifer interrupted. “Listen, you fool, don’t you see? The angel twain is unique in all of heaven, a pairing so strong, almost nothing can come between them. Even if I’d placed Micah’s soul in the body of a Shiite Muslim and Ariel’s in the body of an Orthodox Jew, they still would have found a way to unite.”
“But then how –”
“Only one thing can keep them apart.” Lucifer held up a finger; his eyes narrowed. “A taboo so deeply ingrained in the entire human race, that every society from the most civilized to the most savage upholds it. That is why I put them in the same family. Made them brother and sister.”
“But they’re not related by blood. Pardon me, my lord, but even you are not able to overcome the laws the Almighty has set in place for soul transference.”
“They won’t know that.” Lucifer smirked. “I’ve made certain of that. The adoption will be a seamless process, and the human parents will take it to their graves. Neither Micah nor Ariel will ever know anything about it. As far as they are going to know, they’re kith and kin — true brother and sister. I’ve even made certain that they’ll look alike.”
“And you think that will keep them apart?” Beelzebub fingered the reever nervously.
“I know it will.” Lucifer’s burning black eyes glittered dangerously. “And not only that, it will make them suffer. Especially that self-righteous Micah.”
“You truly hate him, don’t you?”
“I offered him a place at my right hand.” Lucifer stretched out a dark, long-fingered hand in illustration. Beneath his smooth obsidian skin, his flesh seemed to glow with an inner hellish light. “I gave him a chance at glory, and do you know what he said? He said he pitied me. Pitied the mistake I was making in exiling myself from the light of God.”
“He never was a risk taker,” Beelzebub pointed out. “Always a conformist, doing whatever the Almighty said without question.”
“Exactly.” Lucifer laughed, a sound that was beautiful and horrible at the same time — tarnished silver bells ringing in a ruined pit. “Do you have any idea how much pain this will cause him? His one true mate, the other half of the angel twain, inhabiting the body of the one person on earth he must never touch?”
“But won’t he just take her?” Beelzebub asked.
“That’s what you or I would do and taboos be damned. But not Micah. His innate goodness and desire to follow the rules will clash with his instinctive desire to join with his true mate. The inner conflict will drive him mad. I tell you, Beelzy, it will be torture greater than anything we could devise in hell.”
“But you’re sure he won’t give in to temptation?” Beelzebub reflected that it was a strange thing to be concerned about. After all, he was in the business of making sure people did give in to temptation. Which was one thing that bothered him about Lucifer’s plan — everything was turned on its head. Instead of tempting the former seraph to sin, they were hoping he could withstand the lure of the forbidden. It seemed…wrong on the most fundamental level.
“I know Micah. I’m certain of it,” Lucifer said decisively. “Put it out of your head and go back to planning strategy.”
“But if they give in — if they join…?”
“If the key fits into the lock, you mean?” Lucifer laughed crudely. “I told you, there’s no chance of that.”
“But if it does,” Beelzebub insisted. “If he takes her, fills her with his essence –”
“He won’t. Don’t worry.” Lucifer sauntered over and kicked the silent form of the fallen seraph. “Micah — or should I say Owen, as I believe his earth parents will name him after the adoption — will never cross that line. He won’t touch her, though it will kill him not to. And as long as the angel twain are absent from their celestial forms…”
“Heaven is ours for the taking,” Beelzebub finished. He laughed along with Lucifer this time, but he couldn’t help feeling apprehensive. Forbidden desire was one thing he understood very well indeed as a demon.
He only hoped the human Micah had become could withstand its lure long enough for Beelzebub’s forces to capture heaven.
* * * * *
Dr. Owen DeMarko sighed and ran a hand through his dark blond hair. The dim light of his study lamp danced over it, creating the brief illusion of a halo, which was ruined when he pushed it back down again, flat against his skull.
His hair had a perfect golden luster that was enough to make any woman alive jealous. On Owen it was natural, as were his large cerulean eyes, thickly fringed with dark lashes. The beauty of his face had attracted countless women — and quite a number of men as well — but Owen wasn’t interested in any of them. He liked to keep his mind on his work, and physical appearances — even his own — were unimportant to him.
To complement his face, he had the broad shoulders and muscular body of a natural athlete. He had competed in several sports in college, but not now. Now the only sport he participated in was surgery, and he had an important one coming up tomorrow.
So why couldn’t he concentrate?
“Pull it together,” he commanded himself and went back to studying the patient’s chart.
He had never wanted to be anything but a doctor. Healing came naturally to him — sometimes too naturally. Sometimes all he had to do was examine a patient — just touch them — to start the process. It was an unspoken phenomenon at Tampa General Hospital, where he operated. The triage nurses never mentioned it out loud. They seemed to look at Owen with a kind of superstitious wonder. It was as if they felt that if they said anything, the magic might abruptly stop. And the one time another doctor had tried to approach him about his abilities, Owen had shut the man down cold. He had no explanation to give — to himself or anyone else. So the staff of TGH kept quiet, though he was often requested for a surgical consult when the patient involved was elderly or a child or anyone who looked too frail for the OR. More than once, after Owen had laid his hands on the injured person, their X-ray or ultrasound had come back clear. It didn’t always work, but greenstick fractures and ruptured appendixes seemed to melt away under his fingers often enough that the ER staff regarded him with silent awe.
Owen wished they wouldn’t. It was a gift — one he’d always had. Even back when he and Leah were kids and she’d skinned her knee or had a sore throat — He cut off the line of thought abruptly. The chart. Read the damn chart.
Outside, the wind howled and rain poured. Tampa had two seasons — hot and wet — and they were both in effect tonight. The neighborhood he lived in was an old industrial area full of abandoned cigar factories that had been remolded into high-end lofts. It was just fifteen minutes from TGH, but also prone to flooding. Owen spared a moment to hope he wouldn’t have any trouble getting to the hospital the next day and then went doggedly back to work.
“Mrs. Simpkins,” he said aloud, reading from the forms in front of him, though he already knew most of the details by heart. “Sixty-year-old Caucasian female suffered a slip and fall, leading to an intracapsular femoral neck fracture …” He trailed off, unable to continue. Sixty. God. The same age his mother had been.
Owen put a hand over his eyes. “Damn,” he said thickly. Now was not the time for grief. But the funeral had been only two months ago, so when was the right time?
The cancer had spread so rapidly. Dead a single month after the initial diagnosis. Still can’t believe she’s gone… And then the thought he’d tried the hardest to suppress, the thought that tormented him at night as he lay in bed sleepless, rose before him. If only I’d been there. Maybe I could have saved her.
But how could he have gone to his mother’s side, even if he’d learned about her illness in time? How could he, knowing Leah was there too? He’d spent most of his adult life running away from —
Owen threw up another mental roadblock. Can’t think about that. Can’t think about her. Not now. Not ever.
Determinedly he turned back to the chart. But his mental defenses must have been crumbling, because all he could see in his mind’s eye was her.Leah, so beautiful, radiant even in black at the funeral. Her long golden hair, a few shades lighter than his, flowing over her slim shoulders, and her pale azure eyes shadowed by grief. Owen had wanted in the worst way to take her in his arms, to comfort her and take comfort from her. Their father had died three years before of a heart attack, and they had no other family. They were orphans now, with only each other in the whole world.
He had wanted to hold her, but he had turned away instead. He had seen the hurt in her eyes as she turned to bury her face in her fiancé’s shoulder, but he couldn’t risk it. Couldn’t risk getting that close. Especially when he wanted to get so much closer…
Owen put his head in his hands. God, can’t I stop for even a minute? Ever since the funeral, his mind had been fixed in this eternal loop of guilt and grief until he felt like he might tear himself apart from inside. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just let it go?
But he knew the answer to that. He was never going to be able to let the guilt about his mother’s death go. Because he was never going to be able to get over the reason he hadn’t been there with her in the first place.
As though the thought of her name had drawn her to him, he heard a sudden knock at the front door of his loft, and a soft, familiar voice called, “Owen? Are you there?”