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New York City. Wednesday, March 19th, 7:30 AM EDT
“Heal me,” he whispered.
Cara ignored the man with the V-shaped scar on his cheek pressed up against her side in the fast-moving subway car. With her face half-hidden behind a curtain of auburn waves, she continued to scroll through the email on her work phone. Taking half a step away, she tried to create some distance between them.
The car banked hard to the left, a metallic squeal of brakes echoed off the tunnel walls as the train barreled around a turn. Cara swayed under the weight of the briefcase slung over her shoulder and shifted back into the man.
“Sorry,” Cara mumbled without looking up. Readjusting her grip on the overhead bar, she widened her stance to gain better balance in her high heels. She’d debated wearing her birthday splurge, a pair of Christian Louboutins, but decided if she had to spend another day at her miserable job she could at least be miserable in style.
She crinkled her nose at the man’s overpowering cologne. She glimpsed at him and shivered. Even though he was well-dressed, something about the hardness of his black eyes and his long, slicked-back hair made her skin crawl. She made another attempt to shift away, but realized it was impossible to put any more distance between her and the man without rudely pushing her way through the jammed car. But it might be worth it.
Standing just shy of six feet tall in her shoes, her eyes surfed over the top of the crowd. She spotted a clearing further down. Everyone appeared to be packed together in her half of the train, giving wide berth to a muscled hulk of a guy dressed in black with a dark blonde ponytail hanging just below his shoulders. Not that she understood why, he didn’t look particularly dangerous. Granted, he was built like a linebacker. Had he not been slouched over as he stared intently at something inside his massive palm, he would’ve stood taller than everyone else on the train, somewhere between six and seven feet tall. Her eyes traveled over his chiseled profile, and concluded that, at least from the side, he was handsome in a gladiator sort of way.
As if sensing her eyes on him, he glanced at her. His intense, crystal blue eyes locked on hers for a split second before he turned around and gave her his back.
A surge of heat coursed through her and her cheeks reddened. Make that a Greek god. A big, gorgeous, intimidating one, she thought, abandoning her plan to move. Too bad he was the kind of guy who’d never look at her twice—or even once, it appeared, for that matter.
Taking a deep breath, she shook her head and turned her attention back to her smartphone. She opened her next email and began to read. Her stomach lurched and she paled as her eyes darted over the paragraph-long rant from one of her best clients: “…incompetent… scheming… pulling my assets… illegal trade…”
Trade? What trade? Her pulse raced. She hadn’t made a trade for this client yesterday or even this week. Her bastard boss, Rick, must be screwing with her portfolio again. He was setting her up to get fired. She nervously fingered the diamond solitaire she wore around her neck—her touchstone in times of distress.
Cara’s chest grew heavy and an impending sense of doom gripped her like a riptide about to pull her underwater. It was the calling card of a long-buried and half-forgotten specter rearing its ugly head.
No, not now! Not again after all this time. Her eyes widened in panic and her breaths came in short bursts. She needed out. The space in the train was suddenly way too small.
Her rusty coping mechanisms churned inside of her, trying to kick into gear. She knew there wasn’t much time before the panic attack escalated and took over.
Only a few more seconds, she thought. Her foot twitched unconsciously tapping her shoe. Chambers Street was the next stop. Instead of changing trains at Wall Street, she’d get to work another way. If she made it to work, rather than voluntarily ending up in the emergency room at New York Downtown Hospital.
Her heartbeat picked up steam and her chest constricted until her vision narrowed into pinpricks and she viewed her world from deep inside of a tunnel.
I won’t suffocate, I won’t suffocate… She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to readjust her vision as her hand gravitated to the Xanax inside of the emergency kit in her handbag. Panting in shallow breaths, crazy health stats from years ago came rushing back: six to nine minutes of oxygen deprivation caused irreversible brain damage. Chances were good she wouldn’t black out before she made it safely above ground. But if things got worse, she knew the Metropolitan Transit Authority had access to oxygen.
“Heal me.” This time the stranger whispered directly into her ear with warm, fetid breath, ripping her out of her thoughts. His voice sent a tremor along her spine.
Consumed by the anxiety attack blooming inside of her, Cara barely managed to mumble, “Leave me alone.”
The car came to a sudden halt and the doors flew open.
Thank God! Cara shoved past the man. Clawing her way by a girl with blue streaks in her hair and guy in a Brooks Brothers suit, Cara propelled herself through the door and into the flow of people on the subway platform.
The man with the slicked-back hair and V-shaped scar sunk his fingers into her shoulder in a painful grip and spun her around to face him. Panic rose inside of Cara in a violent wave. An odd heat warmed her shoulder as his black eyes bore into her. She could have sworn she saw light flashing around them. Just as she was about to scream, the man let her go, wearing a condescending smile.
Cara turned away from him and blindly bolted through the crowd, her lungs struggling for air.
On the other side of the train, Chamuel’s blood raced as he silently cursed the lack of service on his cell phone.
What in hell is Achanelech doing here? The bastard had gotten on at the last stop. Chamuel needed to let Isaac, his friend and the leader of the Tri-State Guardians, know ASAP that a Dark One lieutenant had just swung into town from the West Coast unannounced. Worse, the archdemon was sniffing around Chamuel’s new charge.
Chamuel cursed again when he glanced over and saw Cara Collins staring straight at him through the crush of people on the train. He abruptly turned his back on her. Under better circumstances he wouldn’t have minded gazing into her lovely green eyes, but he didn’t want her to notice him tracking the demonic energy of the man standing next to her. The train car was too full to allow Chamuel to effectively cloak behind a veil of invisibility. The best he’d been able to do was shield his energy from detection which was good enough. Achanelech’s attention seemed fixated on Cara.
Chamuel sensed her discomfort and desire to get away from the archdemon.
Smart woman, he thought. When he suspected she was no longer staring in his direction, he turned back to survey the scene. Had she known the truth about the being standing next to her, he would have understood the sudden panic that consumed her.
Instead, he frowned, puzzled by her sudden reaction. It wasn’t the archdemon, but something else that drove her fear. He didn’t expect Achanelech to break the rules and make any sudden moves, but either way, Chamuel was ready.
The train screeched to a halt at Chambers Street, and Cara scrambled her way to the door. Chamuel blended into the flow of bodies, hanging back to follow her.
Achanelech grabbed her shoulder through the crowd, and she stumbled to a stop. Chamuel growled in his throat and reached for a blade underneath his duster. Cara’s eyes were wild and fear rolled off her hitting him straight in the gut.
No one in the crowd noticed the sudden burst of light that flashed from the archdemon’s hand before he let her go. After flashing Cara a mocking smile, Achanelech melted into the crowd. She took off toward the nearest exit like a woman running for her life. Without thinking twice, Chamuel tore off through the crowd after her.
People made way for him as he took the stairs two a time until he was on the street. His new charge was fast on her feet even wearing high heels. He watched her long auburn hair swing from side to side ahead of him as she ran, cutting through the horde of pedestrians on the sidewalk along Church Street.
He drew closer, and without warning, she took a ninety-degree turn into a fast food restaurant. Walking in through the glass door behind her, he watched her run down a narrow hallway toward the back of the building alongside the long counter manned by uniformed workers buzzing around fulfilling breakfast orders. Stopping before the end, she disappeared into a door on the right.
Chamuel followed her. The moment he entered the hallway, he glanced back. Ensuring he was out of view, he breathed a sigh of relief and cloaked. His strength flagged for a moment as he disappeared behind a cloak of invisibility. He wished he had eaten more. Cloaking soaked up energy that he preferred not to expend, but even on a good day, his striking appearance made it difficult to blend into a crowd. Twice on the streets of New York he’d been mistaken for a well-known NFL player who also stood at six foot seven, shared the same square jaw, blue eyes, and wore his blonde hair in a ponytail. Wrap that package in a black duster to conceal his weapons, and Chamuel screamed anything but inconspicuous. And since Cara had already seen him, he didn’t have a choice.
He reached the door. She’d disappeared into the Ladies Room. For a nanosecond he thought about ducking inside, but wisely rejected the idea. Instead, he posted himself outside and took out his phone. He tapped in his text to Isaac: Achanelech in nyc. wtf? check it out. Tailing new charge. call you ASAP. He hit send and pocketed his cell. Until Cara was safely at work, he wouldn’t be going anywhere or talking to anyone.
Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he leaned up against the wall and waited. His mind drifted back her lovely green eyes, and something long forgotten stirred inside of him. She was more attractive than he’d expected, not that it should matter. Poor girl didn’t know what was about to hit her.
He shook his head. His assignment as her Trinity Guardian didn’t officially start until this evening. Together with an Angelorum Messenger, the three of them would, in some way or another, influence the balance of power between good and evil. It was only on a whim that he’d decided to do some early reconnaissance and follow Cara this morning. But he knew better than anyone… There are no coincidences.
Then he let out a snide laugh. He could almost hear the whispers of the Trinity Stones fucking with his fate.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He slipped it out to read the text.
New York City. Perry Street Apartment. Wednesday, March 19th, 10:00 PM EDT
Cara’s mind kept looping through the encounter with the crone, but she didn’t understand it any better now than when it first happened. What stayed with her most was the warmth and brilliance from the light. Even the creepy guy with the V-shaped scar and the panic attack paled in comparison to the old woman on the street. After regaining her composure, Cara had managed to unwind the trade her boss had made behind her back and smooth everything over with her client.
A static-filled buzz jarred Cara out of her sullen contemplation of the day’s events. She pressed the release for the outer door of her West Village apartment to let her visitor inside. Her best friend had insisted on stopping by on her way home from work.
Cara waited patiently for Sienna to make her way to the fourth floor, as her Whippet, Chloe, scampered off with the clatter of doggie toenails across the wood floor to fetch a toy from her basket behind the sofa. The dog was entirely black and brown with the exception of the kiss of white on the back of her neck in the shape of a heart and the end of her tail, which looked like it had been dipped in a bucket of white paint.
Moments later, the elevator dinged and Cara opened the door. Keeping the chain in place, she peeked out into the gray-walled hallway.
“Senny, is that you?”
A voice came echoing down the hall. “Of course, it’s me. Who were you expecting, Prince Charming?”
Sienna came teetering into view in sky-high heels and a designer handbag dangling off of her arm. She carried a huge box wrapped in colorful paper and an oversized bow. Only the silken black hair on the top half of Sienna’s head was visible along with her sky-blue eyes peeking over the edge of the package. Cara unchained the door to let her in.
“Let me help you with that. You look like you might tip over.”
Chloe came rushing over to help, toy bone in her mouth.
Sienna turned and gave Cara a peck on the cheek, then transferred the box to her. “Happy Birthday, Carissima,” she said, using the nickname she coined for Cara back when they were sixteen.
Cara looked at the box and smiled for the first time that day. “Thanks, Senny.”
Walking past her, Sienna smirked. “I would have brought you a cake with twenty-seven candles, but I didn’t want to set the place on fire.”
“Gee, thanks. Don’t forget, you’ll always be older than me,” Cara said, balancing the package and relocking the door behind them.
Sienna batted her eyelashes at her. “Older by only three months, and don’t forget ‘wiser.’”
That remains to be seen, Cara thought with a chuckle.
“And here’s something for you too, my princess.” Reaching into her purse, Sienna pulled out a stuffed squirrel and held it out to Chloe. The dog’s soulful brown eyes lit up and she dropped her bone.
Giving the toy a quick squeak, Sienna tossed it deep into the living room. Chloe raced after the squirrel as quickly as her greyhound-like body would take her and pounced on it. Picking it up, she trotted around the apartment squeaking her new toy with relentless zeal.
Cara rolled her eyes. “Okay, now that’s going to be annoying.”
“Oh, lighten up. Smile for fuck’s sake. It’s your birthday.” Sienna headed for the overstuffed sofa.
Cara followed, putting the massive box down on the coffee table. “You’d make a sailor blush with that mouth, and how the heck can you walk in those shoes?”
Sienna shot her a look. “Who walks? That’s what cabs are for.” Then she winked and gave Cara a wicked smile. “And for the record, blushing is not all I’d make a sailor do.”
Cara shook her head and chuckled. The dark cloud she’d been under all day started to lift.
Sienna worked as a fashion designer for up-and-coming Italian designer Nicolas Alda. Wearing crazy platform shoes could easily have been part of Sienna’s job description. A fashionista since high school, it was more likely Sienna’s fashion choices were instinctual.
Sienna’s brows furrowed, giving Cara an ultra-critical once over. “What’s that shmata you’re wearing?” she asked, her Jewish roots showing.
Cara bristled. But, then again, Sienna had that effect on people. Cara looked down at her oversized T-shirt and yoga pants. “Senny, I’m going to bed after this, not hitting the streets of New York.”
Next to Sienna, in her black skinny pants and matching tailored jacket belted at the waist, Cara agreed she looked plain. But even if they’d been dressed identically, Sienna would still attract most of the attention. There were no two ways about it. Sienna was a stunner with her long jet-black hair, blue eyes, and slender build. Cara had the same slender build but her milky Irish complexion, long auburn hair, and green eyes meant that in the summer, Sienna tanned while Cara just freckled and turned the color of dappled shrimp.
“So how was your trip back from Paris? Was Fashion Week amazing or what?”
Sienna shrugged and gave her a blasé look. “I popped a Xanax before takeoff. It made taking a red-eye bearable. As far as Fashion Week, if you call running around like a lunatic with a roll of duct tape and a sewing kit amazing, then I guess it was.”
“Well, you’re more awake than I expected,” Cara said.
“That’s what sheer will and five Venti Starbucks lattes will do for you.” Sienna kicked her platform shoes off, and tucked her long legs underneath her. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and looked down at the dog waiting to be invited onto the sofa, the new toy temporarily forgotten.
“Come sit next to Aunt Senny,” she said, patting the cushion next to her. Chloe jumped up and nestled her little body down next to her.
“Do you want a glass of wine?” Cara asked, rising from the sofa.
“Not until you tell me why you look like someone killed your cat,” she said and then kissed the top of the dog’s narrow head. “Sorry, girl. I know this is a canine household.”
Cara scowled at her. “I’m fine, really.” My life sucks. Who am I trying to kid? She felt pathetic.
Sienna frowned back at her and threw up her arms. “Lemme guess. Cara’s Misery for five-hundred dollars, the married loser, or Cara’s Misery for one-thousand dollars, the prick of a boss. Ding-ding-ding!”
Cara released an exasperated breath. She hated when Sienna was right.
“Red or white?”
“Wine. Red or white?”
“Come on, Carissima. Don’t be that way.”
Cara put her hands on her hips. “What do want me to say? Kai hasn’t called to wish me a happy birthday, or that asshole Rick purposely changed one of my client’s trades without my knowledge?” Or that I haven’t had sex in five years?
“Fuck the job. You can always find another one.” Sienna said with a cavalier wave of her hand and then her expression softened. “Listen, if there’s one thing that I wish for your birthday, it’s that you find a great guy. You need to let go of Kai. It’s time. It’s been ten years.”
“Nine,” Cara said. Nine since they’d broken up. Five since he’d married someone else. But Cara’s heart refused to let go or find satisfaction with someone else. No one she’d met could make her feel the way Kai had—and if she couldn’t have that, she’d rather be alone.
Sienna rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
Cara rubbed her hands over her face trying to erase the tortured look she wore. “Senny, I wish I could let go. I really do. I don’t know what holds me to Kai but something does. I can’t explain it.”
“But, honey, it’s so unhealthy. You need to move on.” Sienna said, then batted her black eyelashes at her. “Because there’s no one I know who needs a night of mind-blowing sex more than you do.”
“Thanks.” Cara’s mind flashed briefly to the huge guy with the blonde ponytail before she gave Sienna a sour look. “How about that glass of wine?”
She went to the kitchen without waiting for Sienna’s response. Cara knew her close friendship with Kai kept him too connected to her, but the thought of not having him in her life sucked the oxygen right out of her lungs.
“I’m not going to let this go,” Sienna yelled from the living room.
What a surprise, Cara thought. She loved Sienna and wished she could at least put on a more cheerful face. But the events of the last few months had beaten her down. She could deal with either her personal life or her professional life being crappy, but dealing with both at the same time drained the energy right out of her. She was convinced that caused the full-blown panic attack she had earlier today, and the niggling sense of impending doom still lurked in her psyche, waiting for her to let her guard down again.
Last year, she’d been a rising star at Cabot Investments. She’d interned during college, and then was hired full-time upon graduation—a highly unusual path for a kid out of college without a master’s degree. Turns out, she was a whiz when it came to derivatives. The senior partner had been her mentor and a close friend of the family, but when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-five—everything changed. Her new boss was a horse’s ass.
Cara leaned on the sink in the kitchen and took a breath, trying to take solace in her surroundings, which at this point, was the only thing she could control. Her small kitchen with blue painted walls was decorated in a warm, country style. Light-green enamel canisters sat on the counters, and a weathered old cupboard with a chicken-wire front was pushed up against the wall—both flea market finds. An avid collector, her things grounded her and provided a coping mechanism when her world threatened to blow apart. Her meticulously organized apartment was warm, chic, and eclectic—it made her happy even when the rest of her life couldn’t.
Cara grabbed a corkscrew from the bar in her kitchen and a nice Cabernet she’d been saving. She returned to the living room with wine in one hand and two glasses dangling from the other.
Sienna greeted her with a compassionate smile. “I’m sorry you had such a crummy day. Now, open your present.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cara removed the bow first and then the colorful paper. She opened the box and gasped. “It’s beautiful.”
She pulled out the red cashmere swing coat and slipped it on. Running her fingers down the sleeve, the soft fabric caressed her fingers. Grinning, she twirled in a circle for Sienna, the hem of the coat flared out around her as she spun.
Sienna wore a self-satisfied smile. “Straight from the runways of Paris.”
Truly touched by the gift, Cara walked over and gave Sienna a hug, catching the heady aroma of Sienna’s jasmine perfume. “Thanks, Senny.”
Even though Sienna stood the same height as Cara in flat feet at 5 feet 7 inches, Sienna felt like a delicate bird in Cara’s arms. For all of their differences, and as brash as Sienna could be, she took good care of her. Cara loved Sienna like a sister and appreciated the fact that she was always there when she needed her, and had been since high school when their bond was forged over their shared anxiety disorder. Cara never forgot hiding in the girl’s bathroom, breathing hard as she crouched over the toilet, and hearing similar sounds of anguish in the next stall.
Sienna hugged her harder. “Be happy.”
“I’ll try,” Cara whispered back and opted not to share what happened earlier. Mainly because she would have felt like a reformed alcoholic admitting to having a drink.
The doorbell buzzed and they both jumped.
“Who the hell is ringing your bell at ten thirty at night?” Sienna asked.
Cara gave her a wide-eyed look of surprise and shrugged. She walked over to the door and looked through the peephole before opening it, keeping the chain intact.
A courier stood at her door with a manila envelope.
Knitting her brow together, she asked, “Can I help you?”
He held out the package to her, slipping it through the door, and then handed her a clipboard. “Please sign here.”
She took the package and scribbled her signature onto the receipt and handed it back to him.
“Good night.” He smiled and walked back toward the elevator.
Cara stood dumbfounded, staring at the return address: Watson & Haskins, New York. She’d never heard of the firm before but immediately wondered if her creep of a boss had done something to get her sued or fired. The package lay frozen in her hands as she stared, afraid to open it.
“Well?” Sienna asked, impatient.
“Give me a second.” After Cara put her coat back in the box, she sat down and opened the manila envelope. She removed a letter-sized envelope with a note paper-clipped to it. The note was written in neat script on Watson & Haskins letterhead.
“It’s an appointment reminder for tomorrow at ten a.m.,” Cara said, puzzled.
“Clearly not one you made?”
Cara shook her head without answering and then tore open the envelope. Her hand froze when she saw the name at the top of the personalized stationary: Hannah Brunt-Collins.
Sienna’s eyes widened. “What’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Cara’s mouth moved but nothing came out. Her eyes darted over the contents of the handwritten letter.
“What?” Sienna pressed. “Don’t keep me hanging! What is it?”
Cara pressed a hand to her chest. “I… It’s…from my grandmother,” she whispered, brows furrowed as she tried to process the words.
“Huh? Which one?”
“My dad’s mother, Grandma Hannah.”
Sienna wrinkled her nose. “Wait a minute. Aren’t both of your grandmothers dead?”
“Yeah. She died twenty-three years ago.”
“Okaayyy… What’re you waiting for, Christmas? Read it to me!” Sienna leaned forward ready to rip the letter from Cara’s hand.
Cara nodded and cleared her throat.