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Long ago, the Old Man gathered together his four favored archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Azrael. He pointed to four stars in the sky that shone brighter than the others. He told the archangels that he wished to reward them for their loyalty and had created for them soul mates. Four perfect female beings—archesses.
However, before the archangels could claim their mates, the four archesses were lost to them and scattered to the wind, beyond their realm and reach. The archangels made the choice to leave their world, journey to Earth, and seek out their mates.
For thousands of years, the archangels have searched. But they have not searched alone. For they are not the only entities to leave their realm and come to Earth to hunt for the archesses. They were followed by another. . . .
* * *
Juliette sidled back on the massive four-poster bed, a remotely hesitant part of her still wanting to get away. But the angel smiled a rakish smile and moved over her like a massive cat, graceful and deadly, and she didn’t get far. He skillfully caught her wrists in firm grips and had her pinned before she could blink.
Juliette lay there, her breathing quick and sharp, and stared up at the taut muscles of his arms, chest, and torso. Her gaze boldly trailed across the tanned expanse of toned flesh . . . to where the rest of his body was hidden beyond the unbuttoned waistband of his blue jeans.
Her mouth felt both wet and dry; her heart hammered; her hands flexed beneath the viselike grips he had on her delicate wrists. The castle around them loomed in her periphery, empty yet protective. It felt both ancient and brand-new; its walls were crumbling, enshrouded by the echoes of the tapestries and torch sconces they once held.
The master’s chamber was warmed by the crackling of the flames in the giant stone hearth. And it was chilled by the North Sea wind that ripped through the timeworn windows and raced through the empty, ruined room.
The castle was a skeleton and a ghost, broken down to its barest bones and draped in the memory of what it once was.
The angel, though—he was warm. He was not a ghost. His body was hard and insistent and very, very real above her. He lowered his head to slide his gaze down the length of her slim body, and as he shifted, she once more caught sight of the massive black and silver wings at his back. Their feathers shimmered, iridescent in the shafts of moonlight that speared the empty windows and lit the stage of their clandestine play.
So beautiful, she thought absently.
He looked up and met her gaze, and she found herself at once lost in the strange glowing silver of his eyes.
They’re glowing, she thought in awe.
He pinned her to the bed beneath him with that look; it claimed her, possessed her, and she was certain that no man in the world had ever looked at her—not really—until the angel had.
Juliette knew she was blushing. Her cheeks were hot, and her chest was flushed. Her breasts felt warm and heavy, even as her nipples hardened to painful nubs that scraped the inside of her shirt. Breathing was hard. She wanted to arch beneath him, close the gap he held above her. She wanted to touch him as she’d never wanted anything before.
He stared down at her forever, watching her, taking her in. He was eating her with his eyes and her chest felt tight. She couldn’t take it. His control over her body was absolute. It was as if he willed it and wetness gathered between her legs. As if he knew it was there, he chuckled. The sound rushed over her skin like a caress, deep and deliciously wicked. She shuddered and closed her eyes, fighting the urge to writhe beneath him. She almost broke then. She almost begged him to take her.
What’s wrong with me?she thought. This wasn’t like her. She never gave in easily. She was stubborn to the core. What was happening? How had she let this angel get her into bed? Hadn’t she just met him?
I don’t even know his name. . . .
Her eyes flew open when she felt the butterfly softness of his lips brushing against hers. Teasingly, he pulled back and once more locked her in his inhuman gaze. He said not a word, but smiled that faintly cruel smile of his, flashing teeth both straight and white. In the frame of his too-handsome face, it was nothing short of predatory. And then he put both of her slender wrists in one of his strong hands and used the other to grab the front of her button-up shirt.
The material pulled taut in his grip, scraping her tender nipples and ripping a gasp from her lips. Slowly, almost menacingly, he popped the buttons on the shirt, one after another. And then he let the material slide across her rib cage, opening her body to his stark, hungry gaze.
Now she did moan. The wind rushed across her exposed skin, licking at it hungrily, tightening her nipples beneath him to a painful degree.
He’s going to devour me, she thought. And she didn’t care.
His wings lowered gracefully over the edges of the bed, their silver and raven feathers blocking her from the wind. Then he lowered his head and she felt his hot breath, in stark contrast to the cold, across the hypersensitive flesh of her right breast. She tensed in his grasp, pulling hard against the hold he had on her arms. He held her easily, though, and his tongue flicked out to brush across the tip of her nipple. She jumped in his grasp, crying out at the sensation, but again he held her tight, and again his chuckle rumbled across her skin like silken thunder.
“Please,” she gasped. She didn’t even know what she was begging for. This was just too much. Too strange and perfect. Too much. Angels weren’t supposed to torture people, were they?
With that, the angel lowered himself closer. She felt the tips of her erect nipples brush the hardness of his chest and nearly jumped again. But he distracted her when he used his free hand to shove her tiered miniskirt up her slender thigh. She groaned once more in longing as his hand then roamed across the taut cheeks of her bottom. No underwear . . .
She felt his breath at her ear, cascading goose bumps over her skin. “My pleasure,” he whispered. His hand sank lower.
“. . . tray tables stowed and seat backs in an upright position . . .”
Juliette jolted awake in her seat as the pilot made the announcement that they were coming in for a landing.
The man seated beside her gave her a knowing sideways glance. Juliette blushed, swallowing a groan of embarrassment, and turned to steadfastly stare out the window. Her reflection stared back at her: long, rich brown waves, big hazel eyes that were mostly green at the moment, and flushed cheeks and lips—remnants of her dream.
It wasn’t the first time she’d dreamed of crumbling castles and ghostlike figures. Some nights, she was walking through a Scottish kirkyard, ancient, worn, and collapsing, yet filled with fresh graves and newly chiseled headstones. Other nights she made her way through castles, as she had in this dream. They were ruins and yet they weren’t—she saw the images of what they had once been draped over them like the cloying memories of glory days.
She’d always had dreams like this. Dreams of the past and the present, intermingling and poignant. It was one of the reasons she’d decided to become an anthropologist. The past and its stories intrigued her. It was more than that, even. . . . Theycalledto her.
But this was the first time her dream had included a man. Or an angel.
Her reflection blinked, long lashes brushing against the tops of her cheeks.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking,” the intercom sliced through the air, back to life once more, the static cutting through the dialogue and musical scores of every movie playing in the plane. Juliette glanced around and watched as people’s heads jerked under the volume before they quickly yanked the headsets off their ears. “We’re about six hours and thirty-eight minutes into our flying time now and twenty-three minutes outside of Edinburgh. It’s a brisk March day, forty-one degrees Fahrenheit or four degrees Celsius; wind coming out of the northwest at fifteen miles per hour. . . .”
Juliette let the pilot’s voice drift to the back of her consciousness and continued to gaze out the window at the green and black landscape below. She’d been traveling a lot lately. In the last year, she’d studied in Australia through an overseas program, visited New Zealand, and flown to both coasts of the US, and now she was about to land in Scotland and would be there for several weeks. She was a PhD student in anthropology and was working on her thesis; the travel was mostly for research, and it was her fellowship at Carnegie Mellon that paid for it all.
But Scotland was different for two reasons. For one thing, Juliette had wanted to visit Scotland since she was a little girl. Her parents were Scottish; her mother was a MacDonald and her father was an Anderson. It was in her blood.
The other reason Scotland was different was due to a fairly new development. Juliette had planned on going anyway in order to do ethnological research on the Outer Hebrides islands, where her father’s side of the family originated. And then Juliette’s adviser had contacted her with news: Samuel Lambent, the wealthy and prominent media mogul, had offered Juliette a deal. He would pay her a hefty royalty and foot the bill for the remainder of her research if he could use the information she gleaned for a television miniseries about the legend and lore of Scotland’s more remote areas.
Juliette was so mind-blown by the offer, she hadn’t even thought to ask why Lambent had chosen her, specifically, when there were other students in the world who either were currently studying Scotland or were already well versed in its history. She, of course, jumped on the opportunity.
Obviously there were stipulations. She had to make certain to thoroughly research the kinds of material that would “sell” to a television audience. She also had to meet with one of Lambent’s representatives in person once a week to assure him that enough progress was being made.
Part of Juliette felt like this was a dream. It was too good to be true. She’d never had much money. Though both of her parents were professors, as she would be one day, their fields fell on the poorer side of the financial spectrum of academia. Plus Juliette had what an accountant would no doubt call a “nasty habit” of giving away most of her money. She was just too sensitive. She hated to see people suffer, and whenever she could possibly give something to someone that could alleviate even a little bit of that suffering, she did so.
As a result, she lived modestly.
However, now Juliette could afford just about anything she wanted. Of course, she couldn’t buy a mansion in Beverly Hills, but she didn’t want a mansion in Beverly Hills. And if the miniseries took off, even that mansion might find a place on her list of possibilities if she decided she ever wanted it.
It really was like a dream. The offer had come at a time when Jules was beginning to doubt herself and her sanity. She’d been nearly destitute for so long and grossly overworked between her thesis and her volunteer jobs. She thought she might be reaching a breaking point, because something strange happened during her stay in Australia.
She had been on the beach alone, enjoying a few rare minutes to herself. She’d been staring out over the waves when she saw a surfer go down and not come back up. Somehow, despite her diminutive size, she’d managed to drag his unconscious body out of the water and onto the beach. She could see the head injury and knew he was in bad shape, and then—and then, she did something she could not explain. She put her hand to his chest and imagined that she’d healed him.
In retrospect, Juliette thought she understood what had happened. She must have been hallucinating. It was the logical explanation. The jet lag, the pressure of her studies, and the responsibilities she’d taken on as a volunteer at the local children’s home—it all must have come to a head. Most likely, the man survived only because Juliette got up after her imagined “healing” and ran to the nearest lifeguard station to alert the authorities to the surfer’s accident.
For days and nights, Juliette had thought on those strange, surrealistic minutes and wondered what the hell was happening to her. What kind of a breakdown was it that made a person imagine she was healing someone? She’d thought of dropping out of the program and quitting her volunteer positions. She’d considered telling her parents that she just couldn’t handle it all anymore.
And then Samuel Lambent came along, a saving grace and guardian angel, and he’d offered her this deal. When the contract arrived via FedEx, she’d opened it, grabbed her pen, and signed it after barely reading it. Almost immediately after scrawling her name on the black line, she’d felt her stress levels drop. It was as if a massive weight had been lifted from her shoulders and chest—a dark veil pulled from her mind.
She could kiss Lambent.
Juliette couldn’t wait to get started. Her best friend, Sophie Bryce, was watering her garden for her and had agreed to stay at her rental home, as it was preferable to Sophie’s tiny apartment anyway. Jules was well aware of how lucky she was to have a friend like Soph. The girl had a hard life of her own, yet she had never even blinked before agreeing to help Jules out while she flew around the world to do this research. If Soph was jealous, she didn’t show it.
Juliette smiled and made a promise to herself to buy something special for Sophie in Edinburgh. Or maybe Glasgow. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to renting a car and learning to drive on the wrong side of the road, but everything else about her life in that moment sounded just about perfect.
Och, not again. “Bloody hell,” Gabriel muttered under his breath. He couldn’t believe it was already happening again. He’d only been in Rodel, Scotland, for a few months!
“Get the nuts!” someone in the pub yelled. A few of his mates laughed. “Stoke the bloody fire!” another shouted.
Gabriel ran his hand over his face and tried to look properly embarrassed. It was hard, though. He was more frustrated and angry than embarrassed. He really hadn’t meant for things to go so far this time. Whereas he’d always been admittedly a touch proud in the past when this happened, now it seemed a weary practice, both pointless and painful.
“Ye’ve gone tae far on this one, Black.” Stuart leaned over and spoke softly across the table. “Dougal’s got it in for yae. I dinnae like tae think what will happen if those fecking nuts don’ meet this time.” His accent was thick, as was normal for one who had lived on the islands all his life.
“They won’ meet, Stuart. They never do,” Gabriel replied just as quietly.
Stuart Burns was in his seventies and built hard as nails. He’d never done anything but fish in his life, and fishing on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland didn’t make for an easy existence. It either killed you or made you stronger, and in Stuart’s case, it had done a little of both. In fact, that was how he and Gabriel had met. Gabriel had pulled him out of the icy waters of the North Sea during a fishing accident in Stuart’s youth.
The soft part of Stuart had died in that water. What was left was rigid and right and strong to an absolute fault. But he was a good man, deep down, and a dependable friend. Stuart was the only human alive who knew Gabriel’s secret. He was the only one in Scotland who was aware that Gabriel Black was not in fact the son of Duncan Black, as everyone else believed, but was actually Duncan Blackhimself, because every member of that particular Black family was actually the same man. Stuart was the only soul privy to the knowledge that there was really no such thing as Duncan Black or even Gabriel Black—there was onlyGabriel, the eminent Messenger Archangel and one of the four most celebrated archangels in existence.
Over the centuries, Gabriel had spent a lot of time in Scotland. Some of those times were less pleasant than others. Europe had gone through an Inquisition, a plague, and countless wars, and the tapestry of Scotland’s history was woven from thorny thread. Nonetheless, when she was a fair land, she was a beautiful land, and Gabriel fell in love with his bonnie Caledonia.
However, he could never stay for too long, as he didn’t age, and people would begin to wonder why a fifty- or sixty-year-old man still looked to be in his thirties. Gabriel always left before this could happen. And then, twenty or thirty years later, he would return and pass himself off as the son of the man whose name he had claimed the last time he was in Scotland.
Gabriel’s explanations were always generally the same. His “father” had eloped with a woman from another village or town or city—and Gabriel was the result. Again and again he did this, because not much could keep him away from Scotland. Not for long, anyway.
Gabriel had especially wanted to return this time around. Life had become surreal at the mansion he shared with his three brothers, and in the States, of late. Uriel, one of his brothers, had recently found his archess, and in her a taste of the true happiness so long desired by the archangels. For two thousand years, the former Angel of Vengeance had searched for the female archangel made solely for him by the Old Man. And a few months ago, he had finally come across her. Uriel was the first of his brothers to find his archess. The archesses were treasured, not only by their mates, the archangels—but by the Adarians, a separate and frighteningly powerful race of archangels. The Adarians wanted the archesses for their unique ability to heal. When Uriel located Eleanore, so did the Adarian leader. A series of battles ensued, both physical and mental, and the archangels won, more or less. Now Uriel and Eleanore were happily married in the US.
Gabriel was elated for his brother. Knowing that the feat was possible and that the treasured women they had all sought out for twenty centuries were in fact real filled Gabriel with a sense of promise after having nearly given up hope that he would ever find his own archess.
But at the same time, it was hard to see Uriel and Eleanore together and not wonder . . . would he have to wait a week for his own archess to come out of the woodwork? Or would it be another two thousand years? He wondered whether his brothers Michael, the Warrior Archangel, and Azrael, the Angel of Death, felt the same way.
The thought was too heavy to bear. So, he’d come back to Scotland, and he’d been welcomed by his homeland with open arms. Some arms more open than others.
Across the pub, the fire had been stoked and a metal grid tray had been placed across it as a makeshift grill. Gabriel stifled an inner groan when two large hazelnuts were extracted from the kitchen in the back and brought into the fray of Scotsmen out front.
“Christ,” he muttered. It was a long-standing tradition in the Western Isles of Scotland, though it was supposed to happen only during Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween. However, the people of the Isle of Harris had changed their custom for this particular occasion, on account of one Duncan Black, a treacherously handsome silver-eyed, black-haired man whose existence had called for quite a few hazelnuts in his time.
Tradition stated that two hazelnuts were to be thrown onto the fire, one for each member of a couple. When the nuts heated up, they would pop and “jump.” If they jumped together, the couple was deemed destined for a happy life together, and usually married shortly afterward. If, however, the nuts jumped apart, the couple had better break up. And soon.
Much to Gabriel’s regret now, the late Duncan Black had been popular with the lasses, to say the least. Gabriel knew for a fact that none of Duncan’s “nuts” had ever jumped together. Hell, if they’d even tried, he would have used telekinesis to keep them apart. He was a man with a man’s needs, but none of the women he’d been with were meant to become his bride.
He knew this better than nearly any other man alive. And he’d never been more certain of the truth than he was now that Uriel had found his archess. There was hope where there frankly hadn’t been for far too many years.
And so it was with very real chagrin that Gabriel realized he was right back in “Duncan” Black’s shoes after a mere few months of residing once more in his hometown. It seemed the Black family line was doomed to drive women crazy and men insane with jealousy no matter what.
Gabe felt a little less at fault this time, however. He had had no idea that Edeen was Angus’s sister and he’d heard well enough about Angus Dougal’s reputation. Edeen had come on to Gabriel the first night he’d been back in Harris, when he was signing up for part-time work on Stuart’s boat. She’d told him she had “family” here, but was unattached. Gabriel, of course, was interested. After all, Edeen was a beauty with that shoulder-length flaxen hair and those green eyes. He’d done what any red-blooded man would do! He was innocent enough in that, wasn’t he?
Edeen Dougal was laughing. Gabriel could hear the light sound from across the room. She was seated with her friends at a round table near the window. When Gabe looked up and met her gaze, she offered him a teasing smile and a wink. It was a reassuring gesture to him, because it meant she thought this was funny. She wasn’t taking it seriously.
At least there was that. Now the only one who would be truly disappointed would be her brother, Angus. Gabriel lifted his head and turned slightly until he had Angus in his sights.
Angus gazed back. It was a cold, hard, green-eyed gaze in a face that many women found nearly as handsome as Gabriel’s. Gabe suspected that probably had something to do with the man’s ire. Of course, the rest of the ire came from the fact that Gabriel had bedded Angus’s sister. This was a very religious and superstitious community. People didn’t generally go sleeping around—especially with the sister of one of the most dangerous men in town.
Angus was tall and solid and as hard in his musculature as Stuart Burns was in the bones. And he had a chip on his shoulder; that much was easy for Gabriel to decipher. If the hazelnuts didn’t meet, he was going to try to prove something with Gabe.
And that wouldn’t end well. Because there wasn’t a human on earth who could best Gabriel in a fight—and at the same time, the last thing Gabe wanted to do was make real trouble by harming a clansman four months into his stay in Harris. Especially when that clansman also happened to be a cop.
“Get me out o’ this,” he whispered to Stuart, his own accent barely discernible when compared with the accent of the man beside him.
When Stuart laughed, it sounded like autumn leaves scratching across the ground in a gust of wind. “Yae got yerself into this, Black. Ye’ll get yerself out.”
Gabriel shot him a look and took a deep breath. He was about to stand up and make some sort of case for not using the hazelnuts as his father and grandfather—and great-grandfather—had done, when Edeen, herself, stood up and waved for everyone’s silence.
“Listen up!” She got on her chair and then, with the help of a few men around her, stood on the table next to her. “Ye’ve all had yer fun!” she said, putting her hands on her hips and eyeing the men dead on. “Now enough’s enough! This is tae be a Samhain tradition, not a March tradition, and I fer one don’t take kindly to yae suggestin’ I marry a man based on what a fecking nut decides tae do!”
There was laughter throughout the pub then, some of it nervous, as women didn’t generally swear a lot on the Outer Hebrides. But Edeen Dougal was a force unto herself and they knew enough to accept it when she did.
Angus Dougal pushed through the crowd and came to stand before her. On the table, Edeen stood a half foot above her brother’s mass of brown hair. She glared down at him, daring him to say something. He dared. “Edeen, get yerself down from there an’ don’t interfere—”
“Och, shut up, Angus. Ye’re no’ me da’.” She made a dismissive gesture toward her older brother and rolled her eyes. “Awa’ with ye an’ bile yer heid.” She jumped down from the table and sauntered toward the front door, tossing a lock of her blond hair over her shoulder as she did so. “I’ll no’ take part in this; I’ll have nothin’ of it.” She turned and addressed the patrons of the pub, in general. “Ye’re all a wee bit childish, don’t ye think?”
Her friends joined her at the front door a moment later, one pulling her jacket on over her sweater, the other adjusting the strap of her purse. Both looked highly amused and a touch embarrassed. But they were obviously used to Edeen’s shenanigans.
With one more farewell nod to the pub owner and bartender, who nodded back with a knowing smile, Edeen Dougal and her companions left the pub.
Gabriel could have wept with relief.
“Ye’re saved, Black.” Stuart grinned, shaking his head admonishingly. “And by a girl, no less.”
“Aye.” Gabriel raised his glass, a lopsided smile on his handsome face. “God bless the womenfolk.”