an Ever After by Diane Alberts
Rebecca’s life sucked before she became an angel. Crappy apartment, awful jobs, abusive boyfriends–it was no wonder she jumped at the chance to escape it all and become a real live angel. The problem is Rebecca’s not very angelic, and she’ll have to do more to earn her wings than end her love affair with the word f—er, frick.
Especially when she’s assigned to save single father Tony Weis, whose less-than-pure thoughts wreak hell on a telepathic angel’s nerves. It’s all Rebecca can do to keep her hands off him…but when she loses her memory injuring herself to save Tony’s daughter, now it’s Tony’s turn to be her angel and care for her. But will Tony’s devotion tempt her from her angelic path, even if it means being human again?
© 2012 Diane Alberts
Angel Rule #1: Never lie to your assignment.
From the moment Rebecca set out to become an angel, she’d known she wasn’t the ideal candidate. She cursed. She coveted. She thought highly uncharitable thoughts—and those uncharitable thoughts often led to losing her temper.
Just like she had this morning.
It wasn’t her fault. The assistant kitchen angel wouldn’t give her any apple pie. Rebecca would swear until she turned blue in the face that the wench deliberately skipped over her—and Rebecca really, really liked apple pie. But she’d made herself cool off, and even apologize…until the brat had stuck her tongue out.
That was when the hair-pulling had started.
Like that wretch would ever earn her wings, either. Hmph.
Rebecca rubbed at the bite-mark the stupid brat had left on her forearm, and leaned against a telephone pole. Across the street, a U-Haul truck sat before a modestly sized house. Boxes strewed across the sidewalk. A little girl sat on the steps, clutching a doll in her arms. Her eyes were grave, and her chestnut hair gleamed in the sunlight. She was beautiful, Rebecca thought. As beautiful as the child Rebecca would never have.
She pushed those thoughts away. Her training—a strenuous ten-hour daily lecture combined with good old hands-on experience—warned her against dwelling on her mortal life, or the personal sacrifices she’d made to answer a higher calling. She’d tried, especially after the Archangel of New Recruit Training, Her Holiness and Eminence Miss Sally of the Disapproving Stare, had held her back an extra year.
Most aspiring angels were allowed contact with humans after the mandatory twelve-month training program. It had taken Rebecca two and a half years of endless book studies and lectures on why slouching was bad for her shoulders before Sally even considered letting her accept a case on Earth—and now here she was.
She believed she just might be stalling.
No, there was no “might” about it. Rebecca tore herself from her pensive thoughts and looked away from the child. She wasn’t here for the girl.
She was here for one Anthony Richard Weis, single father of four-year-old Miranda and a man sorely in danger of losing his soul.
A gruff voice rumbled from inside the U-Haul, echoing throughout the cavernous space. Well. He had a mouth on him, didn’t he? The tips of Rebecca’s ears heated, but she lifted her chin, wiped her sweaty hands on her skirt, and crossed the street to the truck.
She could do this. All she had to do was make sure Anthony remained on sound moral footing. In the course of three years, Anthony had lost his job, his house, and the mother of his child—and would soon commit a murder. Her job consisted of stepping into his life and persuading him to take the higher ground. Or in this case, not to kill anyone.
Easy enough, right?
Except that Rebecca had never really succeeded at much in life, unless there was an award for sucking the most. Her life before Sally had been a miserable failure. She couldn’t fail again. She had this situation under control, and she would succeed.
Why, then, was she so nervous?
Maybe because her entire life depended on this mission. Her future as an angel. A purpose that would finally make her life mean something.
She couldn’t panic now.
She’d been chosen by God as one of the elite few humans given the opportunity to become an angel. A real, honest-to-goodness, ever-serene angel.
She just had to get Tony to believe in God, and in her. And work on that serenity thing. Then, maybe she’d be the person she’d always wanted to be. Maybe she’d no longer be a failure. Maybe she’d no longer be alone.
Maybe, just maybe…she’d finally be whole.
Tony threw the box into the stack in the back of the truck. It tumbled back down. The packing tape, which he’d only haphazardly slapped on in the first place, snapped. Mismatched dishware spilled across the floor. Two plates shattered. Tony snarled, swore, and climbed into the truck to pick up the pieces. He was in no mood for this.
He was rarely in the mood for anything except Miranda—but these days, no one would be surprised by that. Jane had walked out on him. She hadn’t even stuck around for the divorce. Instead she’d left him with overwhelming daycare expenses, a never-ending stream of diapers, and the stress that came with finding affordable housing on a single father’s income. A plumber’s paycheck only went so far, especially when he missed out on doubling his hourly rate for those lucrative on-call jobs.
He’d only become a plumber when his father passed away. He’d been an accountant before. Lucrative, but with brutal hours. But when Mike Weis left him the family business, it was either sell off a company his father had spent a lifetime building, or take over his legacy. Jane had said she was on board. She’d obviously lied. Once they’d moved into the suburbs to be closer to his father’s established client base, she’d acted like every minute there was torture. Who knew a white picket fence and a homeowner’s association were the equivalent of waterboarding at Guantanamo.
Once she left him, the three a.m. house calls were no longer an option, unless it was a wake-up call to feed a fussy baby. Late night feedings had turned into late night nightmares and under-the-bed monster inspections, but it didn’t change that Miranda still needed him. Then again, he needed his baby girl, too.
She was the only good thing he had left.
Tony sighed, set the fragments of porcelain down, and ran his fingers through his hair. He really should be able to let this go. It had been over three years now, and Miranda was still a joy, no matter the difficulties of raising her alone. It was too hot to be stressing himself out, anyway. He was practically giving off heat waves like molten blacktop, and sweat was a gritty extra layer between his shirt and his skin. He needed an ice cream break—or a beer.
Ice cream. Miranda loved ice cream, and right now he needed to watch her face brighten and her eyes light up. Needed her laughter, and those tiny arms around his neck to remind him why he worked so hard. He climbed out of the truck and started toward the porch.
He only made it two steps.
Two steps, before he stopped and stared at the woman at the foot of the ramp.
She cocked her head to the side and watched him with eyes as blue as the summer sky above. Her shockingly bright red hair cascaded to her hips, and clung to the damp film on ivory shoulders just beginning to dew with sweat. The faint sheen of perspiration made her seem to glow in the sun. A small splotch of freckles splayed across her nose.
She was impossibly beautiful.
Which meant he had sunstroke, and this was a hallucination.
Tony ground his fists against his eyes—but when he looked again, she was still there. She was real. Very real, and watching him as if waiting for him to say something.
He cleared his throat. “Can I help you?”
She smiled. The ironic little twist of her lips roused an answering twist in his gut, tight and hot. He shoved it down with zero remorse. Women like her were nothing but trouble. They used their looks to get what they wanted, then abandoned men after they’d used them up and sucked them dry. Heartless, every last one of them.
The woman faltered, looking at him strangely, before her smile returned. “I’m looking for Anthony Weis. Are you him, by any chance?”
Tony shrugged. She probably needed a plumber. She was a bit late. “Yeah, but I’m out of business. You’ll have to find someone else. I’m moving.”
He swung himself down the ramp to the asphalt and pushed past the woman without another glance. As he strode up the walk, Miranda looked at him with those wide, solemn eyes that made him ache. No one so young should have eyes so old.
“Hey, darling,” he murmured, and sat on the steps. Miranda smiled and rested her tiny hand on his knee. His heart lurched, and he swallowed hard. She still trusted him so much, even though he’d not only failed to keep his father’s business afloat, but failed to provide for her. He’d failed her, and it was his fault they were now forced to move into a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Dallas.
“You hot, Daddy?” she asked.
“Mmhm. Very.” He smiled and leaned closer. She tipped her adorable face up to his. “I wish we could find something to help us cool off.” He tilted his head, thinking. “Something cold, I think. Something…chocolaty. Maybe with sprinkles. If only I could think of the name…”
She raised a hand and grinned, practically bouncing. “Oh! I know! I know!”
He arched a brow. “Know what?”
“Ice cream, Daddy.” She giggled, covering her mouth. “It’s called ice cream.”
He slapped his forehead and rolled his eyes. “Now, however did I forget that? I love ice cream more than anyone else.”
“No you don’t, Daddy. I do!” She squeezed his hand, her eyes wide and earnest. “We go?”
“You have to pay the Daddy tax, first.” He pointed to his cheek and waited. She laughed and planted a big, wet—very wet—kiss on his jaw. Tony smiled and took her hand. “Paid in full. Okay, let’s go.”
The excitement in Miranda’s eyes reminded Tony so much of her mother, before things had gone sour. He swallowed back on his bitterness, and the shame that came with it. Shame would inevitably lead to hatred, and he wouldn’t ruin Miranda’s happiness with his ugly mood.
It wasn’t her fault, anyway. Wasn’t her fault that her laughter reminded him how badly her mother had broken his heart. Jane was the primary reason he didn’t trust women. In his opinion, men and women were better off if they stuck to satisfying their mutual needs now and then, and left each other alone the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year. None of this bullshit about relationships.
None of this bullshit about love.
Miranda was the only love he needed, and she looked at him right now, nearly squirming with eagerness.
“Sure,” he said, and stood with her little hand curled in his. “Off we go.”
Miranda hopped to her feet. Patches of sweat darkened her dress, which stirred sluggishly in the subtle breeze. Tony picked up her wide-brimmed sun hat and plopped it onto her head. She giggled, tipped the hat up, and looked down the walk.
“Daddy, who is she? Is she coming, too?”
Tony jerked and tore his eyes away from his daughter. The woman was still there, standing on the sidewalk and watching them with that same wry smile. Why the hell was she even hanging around, let alone eavesdropping on a private conversation with his daughter?
He clenched his jaw and forced each word out clearly and slowly. “Look, lady, I told you I’m closed. I’m a little busy now, so I’d like you to leave.”
The woman ignored him, sat down on the porch step, and offered her hand to Miranda. “Hi there.”
Miranda looked between Tony and the woman, her eyes wide and confused. Tony drew a deep breath and clenched his fists. This was getting out of hand—and the moment she went near his daughter, she turned from a minor irritation into a potential threat. Who did she think she was?
She caught his eye. “You can yell at me if you want, but it won’t do any good. I’m not leaving. I’m here on a mission.”
Tony stared at the woman, raising a brow. A mission. Seriously? A— No. He didn’t want to know. He drew his daughter away from the woman’s outstretched hand and urged her up the steps. “Miranda, honey, go inside and find your baby dolls. Bring them out so we can put them in the truck.” The entire time, he watched the woman warily. She said nothing, only dropping her hand to her lap.
Miranda pouted. “But we can’t pack them, Daddy. They’ll get scared.”
“Of course not, pumpkin. I’d never want to scare them. You know that. Put them on the swing. In the sun.” Tony kept his voice mild for his daughter’s sake, but the moment Miranda scurried inside, he turned to the woman and bit off, “You need to leave. Now.”
If she didn’t, he’d call the cops. Maybe he was overreacting, but he didn’t play when it came to Miranda’s safety. He’d rather let the cops deal with the woman than tangle with her himself, and run the risk of hurting her.
“Call the cops if it makes you feel better.” She shrugged. “But I won’t leave. I’m here under the power of a higher authority, and you won’t get rid of me until I’m done.”
Tony frowned. He was fairly certain he hadn’t spoken out loud. Maybe that sunstroke was worse than he’d thought.
She chuckled. “You don’t have sunstroke. Before you ask—” She raised a hand. “Yes, I heard you think that. The grace of God does funny things. My freckles aren’t that dark, by the way.” Her smile faded and she stood, regarding him with a somber gaze. “I’m here to save your soul, Anthony Weis.”
Tony choked on an incredulous laugh. “This is the part where you strip, right? And sing some stupid little jingle? Who put you up to this?” Anger burned through his veins. “And in front of Miranda, you—”
His mouth dried. His thoughts filled with the image of the woman—undulating around him, lithe and curved, naked except for a few strategically placed scarves. In his mind’s eye, her pale skin shone through the misty fabric, and her mouth was a luscious, ripe temptation, glistening red.
Her clipped voice snapped him back to reality. “I’m not a stripper. I told you, I’m here on a mission. It doesn’t involve—” She flapped a hand with a huffy sound. Pink stained her cheeks. “—that.”
Tony cleared his throat and shrugged. “Look, this has been great. I needed a laugh. It’s been a crappy day. But I’m done. Get lost before I really do call the police.”
He turned away and headed down the walk, back to the truck. Frigging nutjob. Hot or not, she was the last thing he needed to cap off this already shitty day.
“I’m sorry you’re having a bad day,” she called after him. Her voice was musical, its cadence lyrical. “But I’m not a nutjob. I’m here to help you, whether you believe me or not.”
That was it. He’d end this game right here and now. Tony whirled to face her. “Okay, lady. If you can read my mind, answer this.”
How many times did Jane and I make love before she left me in the dirt?
He stared at her and waited. He’d expected a wild guess, or a challenging deflection. What he didn’t expect was the warmth in her eyes, or the sympathy. She studied him in silence. Her lips trembled, just for a moment. Her lashes swept down, and she looked away.
“Four hundred and seventy-two,” she said, each word soft with sorrow. “One hundred and twelve until you were gifted with Miranda. One last time, in anger and in hatred, before she left.”
The memories shot through him with every word. Every thought that had played through his mind over and over each time he’d asked himself why, when he’d thought…he’d thought they were so good together. He’d started counting after the very first time. Their picnic date had ended in a summer shower that left them drenched and scrambling for the car. They’d laughed all the way back to her place, until that laughter turned to kisses. Caresses. More. And he’d counted each time they’d made love since, so he’d never forget.
Even if now, he wished he could.
Tony sank down on the nearest box, legs numb, chest tight. He stared at the woman. “Who—what are you?”
She knelt before him and laid her slender hand atop his knee. Just like Miranda. He tensed. Her fingers were warm, even through his jeans, and shot a jolt of fire straight through him. He shoved her away and scooted out of reach. He didn’t need a strange woman’s touch. He’d had enough of that to last a lifetime.
“I’m an angel,” she said, “and I’m here to save you.”
Tony tried to speak, but the words lodged in his throat. If angels existed, they would look like this woman. But she couldn’t be an angel; he didn’t believe in angels. He’d have to believe in God for that, and he’d given up on faith a long time ago.
So what was she?
Her shoulders stiffened. Her brows furrowed, and she fixed him with a puzzled look. “You shouldn’t lose faith,” she recited mechanically. “It’s like losing air. You’ll die without it.”
“You don’t sound like you believe that.”
“I do.” She tossed her head with clear pride. Wasn’t that a cardinal sin? “I’m an angel. How could I not believe?”
Yet there was a hesitation in her voice, an emptiness. A lack of conviction that told him she was the last person to make him believe in God. She hadn’t convinced herself yet, so how did she plan on saving him?
He shook his head. “All you need to lose faith is to lose your reason to believe. And you sound like you’ve lost yours.”
She lifted her chin. Her jaw jutted out stubbornly. “Are you talking about me, or yourself?”
“Maybe both.” He watched her. Her mouth was tight. Her eyes were glassy. “I can still breathe without belief in a higher power. If you hold a pillow over my head, I’ll die. That’s fact. That’s truth. That’s what I believe. And I think that’s what you believe, too.”
“You don’t know what I believe.” The flash of anger in her eyes almost made him smile. So she wasn’t all sweetness and light. She had fire. “You can’t sit there and tell me I don’t have faith.”
“Maybe not, but I can tell you to give up.” Tony ran his hand over his jaw and pushed himself to his feet. “You’re wasting your time here. There’s nothing to save in this mess.”
She frowned and flicked an imperious hand at the stacks of boxes. “You’re surrounded by material possessions. You had the money to rent a truck. You lost your home, but you still have another one. A home that will keep Miranda sheltered and warm. A home that will keep Miranda safe. You have so much more than so many others. More than anything, you have the love of a little girl who needs you, when so many others would kill to be able to even have a child.”
Her throat worked in a swallow. “You have so much worth saving. So much that shows everything you’ve worked for, and everything you love. But you can only see failure and despair. You’re lost. You’ve lost yourself. That’s why I’m here, Tony.”
Guilt took on a life of its own, and forced Tony to look away. Damn it, she was right. It only made him want her gone even more. That sweet face, those tormented, intense eyes, were the last things he needed haunting his life.
“Consider me chastised,” he muttered. “Now leave.”
He pointed down the street and waited, glaring. The tactic usually worked on one of Miranda’s tantrums, and would send her bolting to her room to take comfort in her dolls. This woman didn’t budge an inch. Her arms folded across ample breasts, and of their own accord, his eyes drifted down. If she was an angel, shouldn’t her tank top cover just a little bit more?
The angry tapping of her foot dragged him back up to meet a ferocious glower. This woman was no angel. Not with the temper making sparks dance against those blue eyes.
“I don’t have a temper,” she said through her teeth. “And you can stop trying to scare me into running. I’ve seen worse. Do you think you can just sulk me into leaving?”
Tony threw his hands up. “What more do you want?”
“To save your soul. Remember?”
She went still. Her eyes darkened, and her lips parted, then closed again. She dropped her arms to her side. That damned look was back. That look of sympathy that hit him like a shot to the stomach.
“Murder,” she said.
Murder? Tony felt sick, and he braced his hand against the truck for support. Was she saying he’d be murdered? For what? By whom? Who hated him enough to take his life?
Impossible. She was lying. No matter the sick sense of dread in his gut, she had to be lying.
He licked parched lips and whispered, “How will it happen? A robbery?”
She shook her head. “You aren’t the victim, Tony. You’re the murderer.”
It took a moment for the word to sink in. Murderer. It was as ugly and dark as his rage. How dare she? This—this wispy slip of a girl thought she could walk into his life and accuse him of some imaginary murder? She didn’t even know him. He could never do something so unthinking, so careless and cruel. He might have lost faith, but he hadn’t lost his mind. Tony Weis wasn’t a murderer. He was a lot of things—an asshole, a womanizer, sometimes a failure as a father—but he wasn’t a murderer.
Even if she just might drive him to it.
“You listen,” he said, and advanced on her. “I’d never do something like that. Maybe you think I don’t know the difference between right and wrong, but I do. What’s right is remembering Miranda. Remembering that if I did something that heartless, she’d be left alone. I’m all she has. Without me, she’ll end up in foster care. How dare you?”
The woman held her ground and met his gaze steadily. “You might think you’re not capable now, but you will be. You’ll be driven to murder, but I won’t allow you to fall so far.” She bit her lip. Her eyes were bright. “I promise you that.”
Those soft, liquid eyes sapped his fury. Damn it, he was a sucker for a pretty face…and already halfway to forgiving her. She was worse than Miranda. One look from his daughter and he’d do anything to please her, from fixing a broken baby doll to attempting to solve the world’s economy. Anything Miranda needed.
This woman looked at him like she needed him.
And, God or angels or whatever help him, like he needed her.
No. He didn’t need anyone else in his life. Not a woman, and especially not an angel.
He backed away from her. “It’s impossible.” He flung a hand out sharply. “I wouldn’t—I couldn’t do something like that!”
Tony turned his back on her and willed her to disappear. Willed her to get out of his life. He squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten.
When he opened them again, his neighbor, Mrs. Harrington, was just ducking out of her garage. She waved. “Tony!” she called. “I was hoping to catch you before you left.”
Tony swore under his breath and turned back to the woman. “You have to go n—”
She was gone.
The truck was empty, save for boxes packed so tight she couldn’t possibly hide among them. There was no one in the street save for Mrs. Harrington, her blue-washed head bobbing with every creaking step. There was no sign that his so-called “angel” had ever been there. No sign she’d existed at all. What the hell?
What the hell had just happened?