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Twenty years later
"Angel. Angel, you're here!" Bliss Mackay jumped up from the large towel she was lying on and ran to the young woman making her way along the grassy bank from the marina store.
She carried a pizza box and a cooler full of drinks toward Bliss and the teenagers. Beyond Angel, through the large glass window of the store, Bliss could see her parents, Chaya and Natches, watching. And Bliss could see the frown on her mother's face and the confusion on her father's.
Behind her, her cousins Annie, Laken, and Erin stood up from their own towels, all of them hurrying to meet the young woman at the wooden picnic table beneath the shade of a large dogwood tree.
"I have arrived," Angel agreed, the smile that lit up her face much different than the one she always gave the adults.
It wasn't the pizza that caused Bliss and her cousins to greet Angel so enthusiastically, though. It was Angel herself. She liked to talk about girly stuff, even though she wasn't the least bit girly. But she could talk about fixing cars and motorcycles and show the girls how to protect themselves and fend off the sometimes too-excited boys that decided they wanted more than just a kiss.
She knew cool stuff. Like what a desert wind felt like, or the scent of a jungle and how the smell of the different blooms would only tease and make a person want to smell it more. She had been places and seen things Bliss only dreamed of going and seeing.
As Angel placed the food and drinks on the table and turned to them, Bliss threw her arms around her in a tight hug, knowing the pizza must mean Angel would be leaving, if not today then the next morning. And she couldn't help but hold on tighter for a moment as she made herself hold back all the things she wanted to say.
"I'm going to miss you so much," Angel whispered a second before she pulled back. She hugged the other girls and said the same thing.
Even though she said the same thing to her cousins, Bliss knew Angel meant the words more for her than the others. She knew it and couldn't say anything because she was never certain why. It was just a truth that was there, like she and Angel were best friends all their lives, despite their eight-year age difference.
"I'm starting to hate pizza," the youngest girl, Erin, sighed as they all sat at the table. "It always means you're going to leave."
"Yeah, we hate it when you leave, Angel," Annie, older than Bliss by a few weeks, agreed as she glanced away for a moment.
"It won't be for long," Angel promised, but Bliss saw the sadness in her eyes. "I'll be back."
That didn't mean they'd get to see her. Bliss had overheard her mother telling her father how she didn't trust Angel. She thought Angel was hiding too many secrets.
She might be, Bliss thought at the time, but her mom didn't have to know everything about everyone. Sometimes people liked to keep their secrets.
Bliss was silent as she ate a slice of the pizza and sipped at the iced tea Angel had brought.
"Angel, you should talk to Dad and get hired on with the police," Erin stated as they finished their pizza. "I heard Sam Bryce telling Dad he should ask you about it."
Bliss saw Angel's surprise before she gave a roll of her eyes.
"Sam probably just wants to flirt with her." Annie giggled. "She told Aunt Zoey that Angel was hot."
"Good God," Angel muttered, frowning a little as she brushed back the front of her hair in the same way Bliss often saw her mom do when she was really nervous. "That woman scares even me."
Bliss laughed at the comment. Sam was really attractive, and Bliss had overheard several of Aunt Zoey's friends talking about how "tempting" she could be.
Bliss had overheard another conversation, too. One where her mom had told Erin's dad, the chief of police, that someone needed to find out what Angel was hiding.
There was no way Uncle Alex would hire Angel, even if she wanted to work there.
"I'd get arrested if I tried to work with Sam Bryce," Angel assured them all. "I'd end up shooting her just because she can be so irritating."
It was a friendly threat, but one that assured Bliss that Angel had no intentions of working on the police force.
"Sam's fun," Laken assured her. "She told Dad to suck her dick the other day and made him blush all the way to the roots of his hair. Mom was laughing so hard I thought she was going to bust a gut or something."
They were all laughing then. They had all heard the comment, watched Uncle Dawg rub at the back of his neck, mutter something about damned smart-assed women, then stalk away. Even Bliss's mom and dad had laughed at it.
The conversation flowed around the table until several girls from school drew her cousins' attention and they excused themselves to go talk to them. Bliss stayed, staring down at the pizza she hadn't finished and wishing it didn't hurt so bad to tell Angel good-bye.
"Everything okay, Bliss?" Angel asked her, her voice softer and echoing with something Bliss just didn't understand.
"You're going to go fight again," Bliss muttered, shooting Angel an accusing look. "That's what you do, isn't it? You get paid to fight other people's wars."
Angel looked confused, hurt. "I didn't lie to you, Bliss. I get paid to rescue people. Sometimes those people are caught in other people's wars, but it's not the war I'm fighting."
Bliss clenched her teeth for a moment, feeling angry, sad, and fed up with how angry her mother always stayed with Angel.
"Why don't you just tell my mom whatever it is she wants to know so she'll stop being so worried about us being friends?" she demanded. "I don't make friends easy, Angel. I don't want to lose one."
That was her fear. That one day, Angel just wouldn't come back because Bliss's mom would forbid it.
Surprise flashed in Angel's eyes, the blue contacts she wore giving her gaze an oddly shattered appearance. Her mom was right; Angel hid too much of herself and who she was, even for Bliss's comfort.
"Telling your momma my secrets wouldn't do anything to help the situation, Bliss." Angel looked away and brushed back the front of her hair again, even though it hadn't yet fallen around her eyes.
Breathing out hard Angel drew the knife from the sheath at her belt and began cutting up the empty pizza box so it would fit easily in the mouth of the trash can.
It was the knife that silenced Bliss's protests.
All she could do was stare at it, her entire world centering on that knife. The bone handle, weathered with age and the many hands it had passed through. Silver capped the bone, untarnished and gleaming from the constant handling and careful polishing. It was the blade that had her heart racing in her chest, had her wanting to scream, to deny, to demand explanations.
Because as Angel paused, holding the knife against the cardboard, the inscription on the blade jumped out and seared her brain:
It was right there, a little darker in the grooves, easy to read, impossible to deny.
"My momma told me once that sometimes it was her job to worry and my job to let her do it." The words beat Bliss's brain when Angel uttered them.
"Sometimes, it's just my job to worry, Bliss, and your job to let me do it." Her mother's lips curved with a hint of sadness. "And every day I just pray that if I worry enough, I won't lose you, like I lost Beth. . . ."
A cold chill swept over her, almost causing her to shudder. It was even worse than the one she'd felt the other day when she'd seen her friend Bran getting yelled at by someone in another language, so angrily.
Angel was still talking. The knife was moving, but she couldn't take her eyes off it. Because she'd seen it before in pictures. She'd heard about it, been told the history of it, and she was certain it was the same knife her mother had given to her first daughter, Beth, before her mother had to leave Beth to go to Iraq so long ago.
The way Angel brushed her hair back when she was nervous . . . Bliss remembered the tears that fell from her mom's eyes when she told her about how Beth did that so much that she'd bought bows to pin back her hair.
The way Angel sometimes moved when an unfamiliar sound caught her attention . . .
The same way Bliss's mom moved when the same thing happened . . .
Angel always wore contacts, kept her hair colored. She was always angry whenever Mom would ask her about her parents. . . .
The scars Angel had on the back of one hand, so fine they were almost invisible. When Bliss asked about them, Angel told her she'd gotten them when she was three and her father and sister had been killed. . . .
Oh God, she didn't know what to do, didn't know what to say.
How was she supposed to keep this to herself?
"Bliss, are you okay?" Angel asked, pulling the knife back, pushing it into the sheath at her belt. "You aren't saying anything."
Concern filled Angel's voice.
Bliss could only shake her head. "You're my best friend," she whispered. "You should talk to Mom. . . ." She was screaming inside, so scared she was wrong, so certain she was right.
"We don't have anything to talk about, Bliss," Angel said then, but Bliss saw all the pain, and even anger, that filled her gaze. "My secrets aren't her business. But they don't endanger you. I'd never allow that."
"Bliss!" The sound of her mom's voice had Bliss jerking around to see her mother bearing down on them, her expression holding that "all business" look she could get. "Your father needs your help."
Bliss jumped to her feet and ran to her mother. She knew her mom, knew how she could get, how protective she was. She caught up with her before she could step to the grass, where Angel would hear what was said even if Bliss whispered.
"Mom." She stopped in front of her mother, seeing it now, how much Angel looked like her mother. The contacts and hair color fooled people. They stared at her eyes, not her face, Bliss realized. "If you really, really love me, Mom, you won't be mean to her. Please, Mom. Please. Not this time."
Her mother stared down at her then, her expression softening even as her lips thinned.
"Your dad needs help in the store, Bliss, before Uncle Rowdy and Aunt Kelly get here." Her voice lowered. "Tell your friend good-bye now and we'll both go help him."
A reprieve. It was just a reprieve and Bliss knew it, but it might give her time to figure this out, time to keep her mother from making a horrible mistake.
Turning, she saw Angel had risen, and she was staring back at Bliss's mother with that same determined expression, but in Angel's eyes Bliss saw the need and the anger. And she had no idea what to do.
Moving back to the picnic table and drawing Angel's attention once again, she saw the pain, the hope, and the fears that filled her eyes now more clearly than she ever had before.
"Don't leave," Bliss demanded, certain that if Angel left then she'd lose her nerve for sure.
"I'll be back, Bliss." She glanced over her shoulder, her expression flickering with regret.
Bliss knew Angel wouldn't be back soon, though, and there was no way to hold her there.
"I love you, Angel," she said, knowing now why she loved the other woman, but the shock, the fear that lit Angel's eyes broke her heart. "You're my best friend. Always. And I love you."
She threw her arms around Angel in a tight, fierce hug. She couldn't let her leave without telling her. Not now. Not now that she knew.
Angel returned the hug and in it, Bliss was terribly afraid she felt good-bye. If Angel left, she might never come back. . . .
Trudging back to her mother, Bliss avoided her eyes, but she couldn't avoid the truth. The truth that somehow, for some reason, someone had told her mother a terrible lie. The lie that her first daughter was dead. Because Beth Dane wasn't dead, she was Angel.
Parking the motorcycle in front of the marina less than twenty-four hours later, Angel forced herself to dismount slowly and wait as her foster brothers, Tracker and Chance, did the same.
It was nearly impossible when panic was searing her insides. The news that Bliss had nearly been abducted had shaken her to her core. Another hour and she would have been on the plane heading for Rio, away from the teenager. Away from her sister.
Bliss could have been taken, dead before Angel could get back to her.
Releasing her helmet and pulling it off, she looked around, matching the appearance of mild concern exhibited by her foster brothers, holding back her fear. It was the greatest test of her patience and training as she pushed back the instinctive need to run, to race, to hurry, and to make certain Bliss and her mother were safe.
Tracker led the way to the marina's store, then to the office where the Mackay family had gathered. Angel stepped inside, her gaze locking on Natches and Chaya Mackay where they stood across the room with their daughter, Bliss.
Anger and suspicion immediately flared in Chaya's already-hard expression and cold brown eyes as her husband merely stared back curiously, though his emerald gaze was flat.
Merciless. A Marine sniper's eyes.
"Angel!" a voice shrieked, still filled with adrenaline. The teenager that called out to her drew her gaze from the couple. It was Rowdy's daughter, Annie, who saw her first and announced her presence. "I thought you were leaving."
Bliss swung away from her parents at Annie's cry, her emerald green eyes widening with relief as she followed Annie and rushed to her.
"We were on our way to the plane when I heard the report that Bliss was in trouble, so I thought I'd come check on you first." As she spoke, Annie, Laken, Bliss, and Erin were throwing their arms around her in one of those group hugs they'd perfected and Angel so enjoyed.