Authors: Sara York
Alexandria shouted out a prayer. “Damn it, whoever is listening up there, save me!”
Her fingers were losing traction, and every movement of her legs made her slip farther into the crevasse. “I'm running out of time here!”
She shut her eyes, knowing her next view would be her last. Her head span and her bowels clenched. She opened her eyes for one final glimpse at her beautiful Montana. Shock coursed through her when she saw a man standing above her, wearing a red jumpsuit and a white ski cap.
“Grab my arm,” he said.
She reached up tentatively to take his hand, but her body slipped farther into the gap. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Trust me, reach up.” Confidence poured forth from him. He was tall, and his muscles were evident even under the winter gear. Alexandria didn’t doubt for a moment that this man had the ability to pick her up and toss her over his shoulder like a ragdoll.
Her ragged breath shook her body. Could she trust him? But how could she not? Why hadn’t he set up a Z-pulley? She’d made a mistake sending her crew ahead, and now this bonehead was trying to rescue her by grabbing her arm. This was crazy.
Death had her in its grasp again. The guy’s gaze bored into hers as she searched for a sign. All she had was this last chance to live.
“I trust you. Here goes.” She lifted her right arm and he grabbed hold, hauling her out of the icy deathtrap to safety. He backed away from the frozen fracture, rescuing her from certain demise. When he placed her on the outcropping of rocks close by, her knees gave way and she tumbled forward. The man caught her, keeping her upright.
“Whoa, you doing okay?”
“I don’t know.” Her head still span and her heart hammered in her chest. “Maybe I’m a little shell-shocked. I’m not sure if I can stand.”
“Then don’t.” He picked her up and cradled her in his lap as he sat on the rock.
“My team, where are they?”
“Over there.” His face seemed to glow as he smiled.
Alexandria looked out across the flow of ice, spotting her unit of climbers and scientists about five hundred yards away. They’d made their way to safety and were totally oblivious to her plight. There was no way for her to rejoin her team. The trench had opened up even more, encircling her and her rescuer, separating her from the people she relied on when climbing.
“Do you have a phone or radio?” she asked.
“No, and it’s impossible for us to meet up with your group. The ice is being rather beastly right now. We need to get off the mountain before something else happens.” He held her tight, almost crushing her to him.
The urge to get away from this man blossomed, then was replaced by the desire to stay. Her brain fuzzed and her stomach turned queasy.
“What do you think will happen to them?”
“It’s okay. Look, they’re heading to safety over those rocks.”
Alexandria watched the ice crumble between her and her friends. They glanced back once more, but it was like they couldn’t even see her. For a moment she thought Tom, her best scientist, was going to try to do something foolhardy and come to her, but the others forced him to follow them. The ice proved to be too unstable as more of it cracked and opened up, exposing an ancient frozen layer.
They would call for a rescue team. She turned back to the man holding on to her. “Who are you? And where is your crew? Your friends?” No one went up on the mountain alone unless they had a strong death wish. It was one of those rules all climbers knew.
“No crew. I work alone. I’m Rafe, by the way. Rafe Jackson.”
“You're an idiot if you’re up here alone.”
“Hmmm, so you’ve known me for only a few minutes, I’ve saved your life and you’re calling me an idiot. Interesting.”
She ducked her head as her cheeks flamed hot. “I’m sorry. You’re right. That was wrong. I’m Alexandria Lee. Thanks for saving me. So how the hell are we getting out of here?”
Rafe glanced at the sky. “We’ll fly.”
“Ha, that’ll take a miracle. I don’t suppose you have a radio or something? Wait, didn’t I already ask you that?”
“You’re probably experiencing a little shock. No radio, but maybe I am the miracle you’ve been looking for.”
Alexandria burst out laughing and made a rather unladylike snort. Her head felt light, her stomach nauseated. “Oh, God, that was awful. You may have saved me, but I don’t think you’re a miracle. I don’t believe in miracles.”
“Well, what do you call that helicopter a few miles out? I bet it’s on its way to save us.”
Alexandria tried to focus on the horizon, where Rafe was pointing. She saw nothing. The sky had turned too blue and the sun had come out to play, and now it was excessively bright. She closed her eyes and leaned against Rafe’s chest.
The man smelt fantastic, like a tropical breeze, all warm and fresh. His stubble scratched at her forehead, but she found the rough whiskers comforting. The image of the two of them on a private island filled her thoughts. They laughed at something, then Rafe pulled her into a crushing hug and he kissed her, sucking the air from her lungs. The kiss totally drained her body, leaving her lungs screaming for oxygen. She held up her hands, alarmed when they turned purple. The pressure in her eyes blinded her. She touched her face, surprised to find wrinkled skin…
Alexandria sat up and screamed. She glanced around wildly. Her breath came in gasps as she clawed at the oxygen mask on her face. Equipment beeped and a tube hung from her arm.
What the hell?
“Hold on there, honey.” A petite woman in blue scrubs pressed Alexandria’s arms to her sides, her strength surprising.
Again? It couldn’t be happening again. Four months had passed since that fateful day when a bee had stung her and almost ended her life. She’d overcome so much, and now she was back in a hospital again. Her heart had stopped in that ambulance, but somehow she’d survived the allergic reaction and she would survive this.
Alexandria relented and fell back on the bed, staring up at the florescent lights above.
Another hospital. Damn it.
The kiss with Rafe must have been a dream. The air hadn’t been sucked out of her lungs and her face wasn’t wrinkled. Somehow she’d confused the doctor’s help with a bizarre kiss that had left her close to mummified.
“Where’s Rafe?” Her voice sounded like a frog. Damn, what had happened up on that mountain?
“Pardon? Who’d you ask for?”
“Rafe, the guy who saved me.”
The nurse checked her chart, her eyes sympathetic. “Hmm, I’m not sure who Rafe is. The guys on the chopper said you were alone. Sounds like you were one lucky girl.”
“Guys on the chopper? Which one of them was Rafe?”
“No Rafe. Let’s see, Lash dropped down in the basket and pulled you out. Christopher was the pilot and Scott was the other EMT on board.”
“Lash? And Scott?”
“Yep, Lash Baddon. He’s the best from what they say.”
Alexandria closed her eyes, thinking about her rescue from Gunsight Mountain. Rafe had been there. She reached up and touched her forehead. The skin was sensitive where Rafe had rubbed his whiskers against her. The man had been there, in flesh and blood. She could have sworn he had.
“I’ll be back later to draw some blood. I’ll tell the doctor you’re awake.”
The nurse left the room and tears stung Alexandria’s eyes. What was happening? She would have remembered seeing Scott. The man had been her best friend for years.
Shit, she hadn’t asked about her team members. Had they made it off the mountain too? For a moment she thought about calling the nurse back in, but she didn’t want to deal with the pain if she’d lost a member of her work group. Later, when the doctor came in, she would ask if everyone had survived.
“You caused her to fall.” Lash ran at Rafe, knocking him to the ground.
They crashed to the forest floor, banging into trees and uprooting bushes. Fists flew and Lash made contact at least once, praying that he’d left behind a mark. A tree fell as Rafe kicked at Lash, missing him and taking out the poor oak. The noise rose to a deafening level as they warred. Lash tried to extend his wings, then realised that he wasn’t in his true form and that angel wings wouldn’t spread behind him, giving him the lift he needed to dive at Rafe.
“You bastard. I’m going to rip your head off,” Lash screamed before Rafe sucker-punched him.
“Enough.” Michael hovered above Lash and Rafe. The fire in his eyes and the sour pinch to his mouth left no doubt about his anger. “Stand.”
Lash shook off Rafe’s hold and crawled to his knees, then his feet, swiping at the dirt and leaves that clung to his shirt. He had a small cut over his eyebrow and Rafe had a few scrapes. They hadn’t done any real damage to each other and, since a small part of his angel DNA remained intact in both bodies, he and Rafe could both heal quickly. But if Rafe did something really stupid, he would never get his body back.
Rafe popped up off the ground, sporting a huge smile. The bastard was enjoying this switch of bodies. Of course he would—the Deceiver was, after all, a deceiver. If Lash actually killed Rafe right now then he would never be able to claim his old body or his old life. He would be forever Lash the Interferer. Lash the Deceiver. Lash the… Hell, his life sucked.
“You can’t hurt her. Damn it, it’s in the rules.” Lash adjusted his shirt, unaccustomed to the scrawny muscles. “Don’t destroy my body, either.”
Pain slashed down Lash’s back, bringing him to his knees. His skin burned and his bones felt as though someone were crushing them. The sound of Rafe’s laughter burned his ears. The threat of Puriel’s punishment kept him from claiming his old body. Every time he even thought of Rafe’s body as his, pain ripped through him. His old life and his old name were off limits. He was forced to think of himself as Lash and think of this human shell as his own.
“Temper, temper, Lash,” Rafe said, his chuckles echoing through the valley.
“Calm down, both of you. Lash—I mean, Rafe—what the hell kind of stunt was that?” Michael asked.
“I think Michael’s a bit upset.” Rafe swung up a tree to a low-hanging limb and perched on the branch, balancing on the balls of his feet. “I didn’t hurt the bitch. I actually saved her.”
Lash leaned against a sapling to help stabilise his shaky legs. He felt as though he’d been run over by a truck. With one hand against the tree to support himself, he shook his fist at Rafe, wishing he had his normal strength and wings. “You made the ice fail. She could have died.”
“But she didn’t die and the crack already existed. I can’t help it if the ice broke when I kicked it.”
Lash straightened up, accessing his full height as he thought about tackling Rafe out of the tree, but jumping him wouldn’t do any good. The body the demon occupied moved gracefully. This body that he’d been given moved like a snail. Sure, he had the strength to do his EMT job, and if his anger revved up he could knock down a small tree or two with multiple kicks, but it was nothing like his full strength in his old body.
Fuck it all.
The demon wasn’t a healer. No way would he gain redemption. Already Rafe had injured Alexandria. The bastard demon wanted nothing more than to torment Lash and force him to turn evil.
“As I was saying, you only have six more days to make this right.”
Lash stepped forward, his hand over his heart as though he were making a solemn vow. “I won’t fail.” He meant those words all the way from the top of his head to the tip of his toes.
“Ha, what a crock. You have no chance.” Rafe leaned over, almost falling off the branch but catching himself. The guy leered at Lash and winked. “You don’t even know what you’re here to do.”
Michael ignored Rafe’s antics, continuing with his instructions. “She must forgive her brother and set her life straight. This is your task, Lash, because you interfered.” Michael looked up at Rafe and shrugged. “Rafe—well, hell, if you can complete this task then I guess you will have proven your worth and you will be redeemed, but you also have to behave and live up to the goodness that is Raphael.”
The glowing angel focused on Lash again. “Now that God has reconsidered and allowed her to have a long life, she must be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” Lash asked.
“It’s not for you to know. But whatever you do, you must make this situation, this bitterness, right with her brother or her life on Earth will… Never mind, I’ve said too much. Since you interfered with her death last time and received this punishment, she’s been given a chance to make things right. She’s angry now, and bitter. She can’t go through life with this anger hanging over her, or it will ruin more than just her life. Don’t mess this up. Either of you.”
Rafe jumped down from his perch and strolled over. “Lash—and I do love calling you Lash—I have to thank you for giving me this opportunity to redeem myself. You see, I’m a good guy at heart. And in this body I can do amazing things. She’ll be drooling all over me and I will be the one to win her approval. Then, once she’s putty in my hands, I’ll have her forgive her family because she won’t be able to resist my charm. That will mean I win.”
Lash clenched his fists. He wanted to pummel the bastard. Perfection described Rafe’s body, gorgeous and beautiful to a fault. Choose a word that meant ‘stunning’, and it would fit the angelic form that was Lash’s old body. Lash didn’t have much to work with in the demon’s body. Rafe might get away with pretending to be good for a short while, but no angel in all of creation came close to matching the goodness at the core of Lash’s being.
Michael cleared his throat. “Six days and that’s it. If I have to come down here again to set things straight, you will both be taking a trip to meet with Puriel. He’s dying to cook up something special for you two. Do you both understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Lash said.
Rafe took off walking towards town, his gait cocky. The condescending jerk couldn’t win. Lash wanted his name and his body back. The goodness inside of him rebelled at being categorised as demonic.
“Rafe, do you understand?” Michael asked.
Rafe span around, bending at the waist in a stupid formal bow. “No problem, I gotcha covered. Next time you see me I’ll be back at God’s side, in my rightful place.”