It’s darkest before the dawn . . . and that can be very dark indeed.
Twelve years have passed since Hope Carmichael helped fulfill the ancient prophecy that permitted the Fallen Angels to return, forgiven, to Heaven. Now a lawyer at twenty-eight, Hope—along with a resurrected Michael, the archangel who loves her—has been presented by Heaven with a choice: one that could either result in Hope never seeing her family again, or the world losing its greatest angelic protector. At the same time, Hope’s young sister Aurora struggles to help a school friend resolve her dark personal issues, all while being observed by a sinister adversary from Hope’s past, working on a plan for revenge that may soon plunge the entire extended Carmichael family into tragedy.
The culmination of the saga begun in Dark Hope and continued in Dark Rising, Dark Before Dawn returns to the world of the Archangel Prophecies, telling one final story of adventure, moral urgency, and the ultimate choice Hope and Michael make between the human and the divine.
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Dark Before Dawn
Book Three of the Archangel Prophecies
By Monica McGurk
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2016 Monica McGurk
All rights reserved.
Even though we'd moved to the mansion in Buckhead in time for my junior year of high school, I'd never really felt at home in it. I could rationalize why we'd made the move — for safety, Mom had reasoned, after the mysterious murder of my father. His death may have been part of the general mayhem of rioting that had swept the world only a few years ago, or it may have been a targeted killing in retaliation for my disruption of a human trafficking ring.
But whichever it was, I knew there was another reason for us all to be kept behind lock and key, one of which my mother was unaware: I had interfered with the Fallen Angels in their fight to regain Heaven. No doubt, they hadn't forgiven me, and there was an ever-present risk that they might hunt me down for revenge.
Never mind that many of them had reentered Heaven peacefully because of what I had done. What Michael — the archangel I'd fallen in love with — had done. Our search for the Key to Heaven had ended with us realizing that his death was the sacrifice that would earn forgiveness for all the Fallen Angels, allowing any of them to return to Heaven and to a relationship with God.
A wave of loneliness engulfed me as I continued to pack my workout bag for Krav Maga class that evening. I'd only recently removed the layers of newspaper articles and Internet printouts that had papered over my bedroom walls, the detritus of my search for evidence that Michael had been resurrected after all and was back to his earthly work defending the people of God. But I had really never stopped searching for proof. And though the papers were gone, their faint outlines, bleached into the wall by the sun, reminded me every day of what I had forfeited.
Over the past two years, however, I had gradually accepted that he was lost to me. My search, now, was one of habit. My loneliness was an ever-present friend, something comfortable and familiar that I now recognized as an immutable fact of life, just as real and unchanging as the stars in the sky or the chill of a December evening. I came to welcome, even seek out, my solitude, like the cold underside of a pillow when I lay in bed, gripped by fever and insomnia. It was as much a part of me as the Mark etched across the back of my neck, delicate as lace, branding me as the Bearer of the Key in the ancient prophecy that I had played a part in. Only my family and the few people who knew the story of my disappearance — even if they didn't know the full truth of the time I had spent on the run with Michael — were let into my circle.
Nobody was surprised that I had struggled to adjust after everything that had happened to me. They couldn't exactly relate to the vicissitudes of my emotions — caution swinging to confidence, frenzied activity ceding to paralysis, the desire for isolation giving way to a yearning for connection — or to what provoked them. But my tiny makeshift family — my mother and Arthur, the family friend who'd moved into our carriage house, who'd woven himself into the fabric of our family over the past two years — had recognized that while academically I would manage just fine, socially I was not quite ready to be plunged into the teeming cauldron of campus life. My mother had swiftly agreed to my request for a gap year, and so I found myself living at home, staring at the shadow- and sun-dappled walls of my bedroom in early evening, alone again.
A knock at the front door interrupted my reminiscing. I hadn't heard anyone buzzed up to the house from the gate — Arthur was usually a stickler for following the rules, careful about our privacy and safety. I glanced at the clock: it was getting late. My mother wouldn't be home for another hour, bringing Rorie from her music class. I could feel the frown knotting my face into a map of worry as I worked my way downstairs to the front door, dragging my gear behind me.
I swung it open wide, peering out to see just exactly who it was that Arthur had cleared to come up the drive.
I heard his voice — a rich, throaty, familiar growl — before I saw him.
His lean body was wrapped in a gray tank top, a chambray shirt, and worn desert fatigue cargo pants that clung to every muscle. His golden skin glowed, the aftermath of time spent in some exotic location, or perhaps evidence of the heavenly fire that lit him from within. My eyes raced over the length of him, years of worry and fear driving me to confirm, now that he stood before me, that he was whole, that he was indeed real.
His blue eyes flashed with amusement as I stared at him.
"Aren't you going to say something?" he asked, as if it were perfectly natural that after over two years of nothing — no communication, no sightings, nothing at all — he just turned up on my doorstep unannounced. A shiver of fear, a frisson of doubt, crept up my spine.
I hung back in the doorway.
"How do I know it's really you?" I whispered.
He gripped his tank top, yanking it down to bare his chest. There, over his heart, was the imprint of a hand. My hand. It was a scar I'd left one windswept morning on a faraway Irish isle, when we'd finally opened up to each other, proof that by absorbing his energy and breaking down his defenses, I could mark him as my own, just as he had claimed me.
I shook my head, refusing to believe. "Anybody could do that. Any angel could disguise himself as you."
He cocked his head, fixing me with an appraising look. "Could any angel do this?"
He held out his hand, palm outstretched, waiting for me to take it. Cautiously, I reached out to touch him. The surge of heat between us was familiar, something I'd dreamt about for hundreds of nights since Michael had been lost to me. I closed my eyes as he wound his fingers around mine.
"Here," he whispered, pulling me closer. I opened my eyes to watch as he unwound our fingers and placed my splayed hand over his heart, my hand perfectly matching the imprint burned on his skin.
A rush of memories and thoughts came coursing to me, unbidden. I felt the anger and frustration, his fear that I was hiding something from him while we waited in Ireland, searching together for the Key. Over and over again — under a star-washed sky in Istanbul, in the cramped Irish lighthouse, in the spare hotel room in France — the memories of his longing for me washed over me. I felt his sadness and disappointment when he realized I'd distrusted him so much that I'd unwittingly betrayed him to my own Guardian Angel — putting him on a collision course with the Fallen who were hunting him down. I felt the shock of pain as the rock — the same rock that had felled Abel — crushed his skull, wielded by Lucas, the leader of the Fallen. I felt the cold stones under his shoulder blades as he lay on the floor of the chapel in France, the life ebbing out of him.
I jerked my hand away, unable to relive the despair and helplessness that had engulfed me as I had watched him die before my eyes. But now the thing I'd hoped for, had waited for — the thing I'd finally given up on — had happened.
Michael had come back to me.
I stared at him, tongue-tied, my face flushed under his watchful gaze. Underneath the shock, a cold, hard pit was forming in my stomach.
"Oh," he said. "Before I forget, there's someone I want you to meet. Well, not exactly meet. You'll see." He whistled, and I heard a joyous bark. A large yellow dog came streaking across the yard. It leaped up the steps to sit obediently at Michael's feet. The dog's long tongue lolled outside his mouth, the look on his face almost a grin. He barked again, looking at me expectantly.
I stooped to my knees. "Is this —?"
Michael laughed. "The very same. We went back to Istanbul and found your stray. Only he's not a stray now. Hope, say hello to Ollie."
I held out my hand, and Ollie wiggled up to me, demanding to be petted. I scratched behind his ears, dumbfounded. My dog. Michael. It was too much to take in. Reluctantly, I stood up, leaving Ollie to wait for more attention.
"How'd you get in here?" I finally managed to spit out, forcing my heart to shutter itself before any of the joy, or the pain, could leak through to the surface. "No, wait, forget I asked that. Of course, I'm being stupid. You're an archangel. You can get in here however and whenever you want."
And then my nostrils flared as I let one emotion filter itself to the top of the queue: anger. "You just chose to not do so for over two years."
He flinched, ever so slightly. "I checked in at the gate, just like anybody else. Arthur let me in."
"Why would Arthur let you in?" I said, my confusion momentarily overriding my anger. "He doesn't know who you are. There's no way he'd let a total stranger wander unescorted up the drive. Wait a minute — how do you even know who Arthur is?"
Michael shuffled uncomfortably under my withering glare. "I may have met him before."
I stared at him in disbelief.
"Are you telling me what I think you're telling me? Is he one of you?"
He nodded. "We, um. We go way back. He's been watching over you for me while I've been gone."
"While you've been gone? That's what you call it? You planted one of your angel goons to keep tabs on me so you could go off and do whatever the hell it is you've been doing? That's great, Michael. Just great."
I let my anger have its way, drawing strength from the intensity of it. I realized, of course, that there would have been no way for me to know Arthur was an angel — no way for anybody to ever detect an angel in their midst — unless he wanted me to know. But still, it stung to know that the friendship Arthur exhibited toward us all — indeed, his place within our odd, broken family — had been a part of Michael's plan. I could feel hot tears threatening to brim over.
I pushed past him. "I have to go to my exercise class," I shot over my shoulder, picking up the pace as he trailed behind me.
"Hope, please, you don't understand. Give me a chance to explain."
His strong hand clamped down on my arm. A burst of warmth shot through me, my body betraying me to the thrill of his touch. Angry with my body, angry with him, I let my instincts take over and jabbed him hard in the solar plexus with one of my Krav Maga moves. I felt the hard muscles pop as I connected with my elbow, heard the sharp intake of his breath. He let go of my arm and dropped to the pavement.
Without another glance back, I threw open the door of the SUV and tossed in my bag, climbing up behind it into the driver's seat. Without another glance, I turned the key and floored it to back out of the driveway, my only object to get as far away from him as possible.
I felt a thump and heard the sound of something hitting steel. I darted a panicked look at my rear view mirror.
"Hope, please," Michael begged, looming larger than life behind me. Irritation surged through my veins.
"Get in the car," I ordered. Without hesitating, he opened the door for Ollie, who clambered into the backseat, and then he climbed in beside me. He'd barely made it into the car before I hit the gas, screaming down the driveway.
We dropped Ollie off at the gatehouse, where I glared at Arthur. "Keep an eye on Ollie for me. Give him some cheese or something," I spat, daring him to say a word.
He let us out, and I drove without thinking, blinking away the angry tears that kept threatening to overwhelm me. A rush of questions attacked my fragile psyche, the defenses I'd so carefully constructed over the last two years crumbling under the assault. For how long had Michael been resurrected? Exactly when had he arranged for Arthur to guard my family and me? Why hadn't he told me he was alive? What was he doing on my front steps? And why? Why now, after two years, had he finally shown up?
But I couldn't bring myself to ask Michael any of these questions. I couldn't even stand to look at him in the seat next to me. Instead, my anger and fear — fear that he'd abandoned me because he had never really loved me — simmered and roiled inside me, making me sick to my stomach.
I pulled into a quiet parking lot. I looked up from where I was hunched over the steering wheel, crying, and realized I'd wound my way through the vaunted Atlanta traffic to the only real sanctuary I'd ever known: the quiet cemetery that held my father's grave.
Abandoning the car, I ran through the wrought iron gates and stumbled over the spotty grass, dotted with lumps of red Georgia clay and knotted with exposed tree roots, to seek his headstone. But Michael was waiting for me under the leafy expanse of a great oak tree. He'd used his angelic powers to beat me to the grave.
I took a deep breath and wiped my face with the back of my hand.
"Do you know what you did to me?" I challenged him, daring him to argue with me. "Do you know what happened after you left me here to fend for myself?"
Michael dropped his head in silent acknowledgment of my need to speak. Did he have any idea how much I had hurt? Was still hurting?
"I waited. You didn't come," I said. My voice had an angry edge to it, surprising even me. "I thought you would rise again. I escaped from the chapel where you died. I made my way back home. I waited for three days. Three days came and went. But you didn't come."
My voice was trembling, the pain feeling fresh.
"So then I counted for seven days, like the Creation. And then for forty days and nights, and just about any other biblical number I could come up with. But you didn't come back for me.
"My dad died. He was killed, Michael, because of what we did," I added, my voice breaking as I gestured at the cold granite headstone before us. "You knew that. You knew. And still you didn't come."
I stopped there, unable to say more, knowing the misery and accusation in my voice was clear enough.
He shoved his hands deep inside his pockets. But his sapphire eyes never looked away.
"I'm so sorry, Hope. So, so sorry about your father. I never intended, never thought, that anything like that would happen. My whole reason for disguising myself as him in Las Vegas was to protect him. You know that."
"It didn't work."
He nodded solemnly, letting my resentment wash over him, absorbing it with kindness.
"I'm sorry." His simple apology deflated my fury, leaving me to feel the emptiness that had been my constant companion for these long two years.
"I blamed myself, you know," I said. "And what was worse was that every day, I had to look my mother in the eye knowing that it was my fault my father had died, knowing that even if I didn't mean to do it, it was me who'd snuffed the light out of her eyes. The guilt was eating me alive. I nearly went crazy. I was obsessed with trying to find you — paranoid — the walls of my bedroom were plastered over with pages and pages of news stories that I'd searched again and again, just for some sign that you were out there. I waited and waited and waited for you. And now, just when I've taken everything down, just when I'd accepted that you were never coming back and put it all behind me; when I'd started to adjust to the idea of life without you, you choose to show up."
"I never left you. Not really. And I always ensured you were safe."
"This isn't about me being safe! I never cared about that."
"You should have."
"Stop telling me how I'm supposed to feel!"
I was on a roll now, barely able to register his contrition as I vented all the anger and shame I'd pent up.
"'Sorry' doesn't explain why you didn't come back. Tell me: if you were resurrected, why didn't you come back right away? Was I not good enough for you?" My voice rose, carrying through the tall pines and shady oaks, over the crumbling angels and crucifixes that dotted the graveyard. "Was I too plain, too common for the King of Heaven or whatever it is they call you now?"
He rubbed his hand over his face, unable to speak for a moment. I watched his Adam's apple bob in his throat, fixing my stare on it to avoid getting caught up in his blue eyes. Then I dropped my gaze to the clay beneath my feet. I needed to have a clear head to get the answers I deserved.
"It was you, wasn't it? Here, in the cemetery. On the day we buried my dad."
I looked up to see his answer. He nodded, eyeing me warily.
Excerpted from Dark Before Dawn by Monica McGurk. Copyright © 2016 Monica McGurk. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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