Authors: Shauna Allen
She sat up and grabbed the shot glass. “Thanks.” She chugged the contents in one smooth swallow. “Aaahhh.” She plunked her glass on the tabletop and relaxed back. After a moment, she eyed his still full glass. “You gonna drink that, or absorb it by osmosis?”
He offered it to her. “Looks like you need it more than I do.”
She didn’t take her eyes off him as she swallowed. God, he wanted to swallow her.
Her gaze dipped momentarily to his lips. “You keep looking at me like that and I’ll be tempted to forget that strictly friends rule you imposed, Mr. Oh-So-
.” She reached out and traced the open V at the top of his shirt.
Where were those alarm bells that were supposed to be warning him away from her? Why did her touch feel like home? How did a lost man like him even know what home felt like?
He opened his eyes to her gentle call. He startled and shrank back when he realized he had practically wrapped himself around her like a horny teenager. “Shit. I’m so sorry.”
. Where the hell was his mind?
She caressed the back of his hand. “Don’t be sorry. I didn’t want you to stop. I just wanted you to be . . . present. Seemed like you’d zoned out.”
He jumped off the couch. This was getting way out of hand. “That’s not why I brought you over here.”
Her brows furrowed and hurt clouded her eyes. She leaned forward and slammed the second shot glass down next to the first. “Why
you bring me over? Another reading lesson?”
He paced away, running impatient fingers through his hair. “No! Damn it.” He spun back toward her. “I wanted to get you out of the house because I could tell you were upset.”
Her face went blank.
She wasn’t gonna give it up easily. He took a deep breath and moved back to her. “I’m trying to be a friend here, Sweet Cheeks. Tell me what’s bothering you.” He tilted his head when she started sputtering. “And don’t give me some bullshit ‘nothing’ answer.”
She was silent for several moments as she stared down into her lap. He didn’t think she was going to answer. But finally, she whispered in a soft voice, “You’re gonna think it’s dumb.”
She peered up at him from under her lashes. “Do you want kids one day, Noble?”
“Hadn’t really given it any thought to be honest. I’ve been a loner most of my life and I haven’t figured it’d ever be much different. Why?”
“Not when it’s all you know.”
She bit her bottom lip and sighed. “Well, I do want more kids. Or, maybe I should say
. The older I get and the older Tristan gets, the louder my biological clock ticks. And with no male prospects on the horizon, it’s pretty freakin’ sad to me that my ovaries will shrivel up and die before they’ve been used more than once.”
He held up a hand as tears started to leak from the corners of her eyes. So that’s what this was all about? Jed and Kyle having a baby? And why did the thought of her having a baby with some other guy nearly gut him? “Whoa, now. You’re nowhere near old. You have plenty of time to have more babies.” He nearly choked on the strangest thing he’d ever said to comfort a woman, but he soldiered on. “Don’t give up hope.”
She hiccupped. “I’m not so sure, but thank you for saying so.” She swiped at the tears on her cheeks. “See, I told you you’d think it was silly.”
“No. It’s not silly.” Just had to be a chick thing.
She offered him her first genuine smile of the night and stood. “Thank you. I should get home. I still have company. Did you want to come back over?”
He shook his head. “Nah. Think I’ll hang home if you don’t mind. Game’s on.”
“I understand. It’s a loner thing, right?” Her grin widened.
He followed her toward the door, but she paused by the entry table. She picked up the unopened letter from his grandfather and turned toward him, a million questions in her eyes. A lame excuse about not having time to read it came to his lips, but he couldn’t get the lie out. He settled on a shrug. Ever since the night of the storm, he’d carefully avoided talking much about his grandfather with her. Their relationship was sticky enough without adding tar to the mix.
“Everything all right?”
He nodded. “Sure. Just haven’t gotten around to reading it.” That wasn’t exactly a lie. He’d just let it sit there for a while. A good long while.
She didn’t seem convinced. “Oh. Well, we haven’t had a reading lesson in a while. You wanna read it now? Maybe it’s important.”
He swallowed his knee-jerk retort. “Nah.”
She smiled softly and handed him the letter. “Okay. I’ll see you later.” She stretched up and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
He stood motionless and watched her go. Needing to breathe, he slid down the wall to the floor and studied the letter in his hand.
He ripped it open and trudged his way through the words, immediately regretting that he’d let her leave as pain seared through him. His world would be forever altered again because some fucking parole board cared more about overcrowding and the pandering of some old man than the murder of an innocent woman.
No wonder he needed a breath. Between this sucker punch and Braelyn’s absence, all the oxygen had suddenly been hijacked from his world.
“Michael!” Gabriel snapped long fingers in his face. “Heaven to Michael. Brother, wake up.”
Michael zoned back in and realized the weekly AA meeting was long over and his angel brothers and sisters had mostly trickled out except for a few stragglers, Gabriel and Ariel. “Sorry, Gabriel. I guess I spaced out a little bit there.”
Gabriel sat down and shot a concerned glance to Ariel who was studying them both with wide, interested eyes. “Something on your mind?”
Michael shifted uncomfortably, once again reminded of the limitations of the girth of his human vessel. “Nothing to concern you. It’s just the same worries with my humans that I brought to you last time.”
“If it troubles you, it does concern me. What’s going on?”
Michael bit back his usual happy-go-lucky replies and told Gabriel the truth. “After spending Thanksgiving with them, I see the potential. I see what Father sees. But I also see that they’re not going to allow it to happen. Their free will is going to kill it before it’s had a chance to begin and it breaks my heart.”
He hung his head as he waited out Gabriel’s reply. As an angel, he’d witnessed human free will massacre love affairs over the millennia. Mostly due to selfish pride or ignorance. Anger. Vengeance. A multitude of reasons. But this was the first time he was truly stumped. Noble and Braelyn really appeared to care for each other. They had all the makings of the physical chemistry humans desired if the way they looked at each other was any indication. Tristan didn’t seem to have a problem with Noble.
Michael had done everything in his power to orchestrate things so they’d be together. All the ingredients were there. So what was the problem?
Gabriel reached over and clasped his shoulder. “Brother, have I ever told you about my most difficult assignment?”
Michael raised his head, startled. “You did casework?”
Gabriel smiled. “Of course. You don’t think I got to be leader of Love Detail with my good looks, did you?”
Michael was speechless. He couldn’t picture Gabriel walking the earth, doing the hands-on work with humans. Not that he’d ever indicated that he was too good for it. He was just so wise that Michael had always placed him on a bit of a pedestal. Man, if
had been doing this for centuries, Gabriel’s assignment had to have been . . . His jaw dropped as Gabriel started talking.
“Yeah, well, that Helen of Troy was no easy match. She had so many suitors, it was next to impossible. Well, it
impossible to match her with her one true love. Perhaps, if I’d been successful, the great war could’ve been avoided.” He glanced over with a wistful gleam in his wise eyes. “I felt guilty about that for centuries. Until I realized I’d done all I could. In the end, Odysseus
by his own free will to seek Penelope instead of Helen, and to assist in giving away his love in some silly contest. I’m convinced it’s why he wandered around aimlessly all those years. Mourning. But what do I know?”
Michael shook his head, confused. “But, Gabriel, I thought all of that was just myth.”
“Ah, some, perhaps. And history has embellished details, certainly. But, those people were as real as the humans we deal with today, and their need for love just as strong.” He glanced down to his lap as he toyed with his fingers. “I took that failure personally. Like my calling as an angel, Father’s faith in me, was misplaced.”
Michael swallowed as those words hit home. The air around them became still. “What did you do?” he whispered.
Gabriel glanced up, faith glowing in his eyes. “I prayed.”
Braelyn slogged through the sleety rain two weeks after Thanksgiving and up the steps into the nursing home. She wiped the icy remnants from her cheeks and stomped her feet on the rug, wishing she’d worn her good old snow boots. But they were still packed away, as was most of their snow gear from Indiana. She didn’t figure they’d need it down here in Texas. But, dang it, that was one nasty cold front!
Her very next thoughts were of Noble. She hadn’t seen him since she’d left his house after Thanksgiving dinner. She wondered if he thought she was an idiot for admitting how she felt about having another child. Good thing she’d stopped short of stupidly admitting she’d been dreaming of beautiful little black-haired babies. He would’ve kicked her out on her loony butt.
But she could only be honest with herself and admit she missed him like crazy. Plumb, friggin’ crazy.
She pushed all thoughts of her favorite sexy neighbor aside and followed the sounds of Christmas music to the dining area, which had been transformed into a winter wonderland. Ariel was busily flitting around the wheelchair bound residents plopping Santa hats on their heads as “Jingle Bell Rock” blared from the stereo in the corner.
Braelyn glanced around at the tinsel and lights that hung from every corner, as well as the red and green streamers that were lining each table like huge scalloped cakes.
Ariel turned and spotted her. “Oh! There you are! We were just about to have our hot chocolate and candy canes before we got started on the hand-painted ornaments for the tree.” She inclined her head toward the massive evergreen taking up an entire corner from floor to ceiling.
Braelyn stepped closer, amazed at how much had been done in so little time. “You did all this?”
Ariel grinned. “I did. I got here early so I just got started. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Not at all. This is fabulous.” She picked up a cup. “Is this eggnog?”
Ariel’s crystal blue eyes twinkled. “Yup. But don’t worry. It’s the alcohol-free kind.”
Darn. She took a sip. “What can I do to help? Looks like you’ve done all the work.” She glanced around as the first strains of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” started up.
“Not a thing. Let’s just pass out the stuff for the ornaments and get started.” She lowered her voice, “But I’d keep the hot glue gun far away from Mrs. Roth. She’s been hitting the eggnog pretty hard. Alcohol or no alcohol, it’s gone straight to her head.”
Braelyn couldn’t suppress the giggle. “Right.”
The women worked in tandem as they helped cut, glue, glitter and string popcorn until the huge Christmas tree was suitably decorated for at least two nursing homes. Braelyn hadn’t had this much fun in weeks. Maybe months. Especially when Ariel started telling her about some of the tattoo parlor’s more, um,
“Yeah,” Ariel said, “when she started talking about getting pierced
because she wanted to be permanently
I suggested she try to glue some rhinestones on or whatever. You know, to see how it all worked out first.” She scooted closer and put down her glittery ornament as her voice lowered in embarrassment. “Plus, I needed to Google the word. I mean, what the heck is
“Like bedazzle? Only in the girly parts?”
“Exactly! But I didn’t know it at the time. Where have I been? Whatever happened to nice belly button rings and tongue piercings? I mean seriously.”
Braelyn laughed until she cried.
As they cleaned up the ornament-making mess, Braelyn kept up the giggles as Ariel kept her entertained with tales of stranger and stranger clients. Did Noble really deal with these people every day?
Braelyn snapped the Tupperware container with all the craft supplies shut. “So, what’s been the hands-down strangest customer you’ve had lately?”
“Hmmm. Well, it might’ve been the pair of self-proclaimed demon experts who wanted matching tattoos and piercings. Real dark stuff.” She thought a moment. “But, no. You know, we get all kinds of interesting types and all kinds of requests. Some you’d probably find downright scary or freaky. But, the one that had us all staring at each other and going ‘
What the . . .?
’ was this big guy. I mean probably 6’8, 450 pounds. He had Michael by several inches and a good hundred pounds, a real bruiser.”
Braelyn sat and found herself leaning in to listen to what this guy could possibly have up on a couple of demon experts.
Ariel paused and waved to a few residents as they wheeled out of the dining room before continuing. “Anyway. He comes in and consults with Jed first. Then Jed calls in Noble. Then they call in Michael. So, whatever it is, I know it’s big because it’s gonna take all three tattoo artists, right?” She glanced at Braelyn. “They sketch it up; takes them an hour and a half. Then they took turns tattooing on him for
The design covered his entire back and one shoulder and part of an arm. It was humongous! I have no idea how he stood it for so long, either. Most customers do something like that in several sittings, but he refused to come back. Wanted it done all at once. And I’d hate to know what it cost him. But I have to say, it was very pretty when they were finished with it.”
“So? What’s the big deal?”
Ariel leaned in with a conspiratorial grin. “Those three big, strong,
men tattooed a flowered field, a rainbowed sky, and a prancing unicorn on that man’s back. And it was something to see, I have to tell you.”
Braelyn was momentarily speechless as it sank in. A
Ariel didn’t give her a chance to respond. She laughed. “I couldn’t believe it! I would’ve expected something big and intimidating like skulls and fire or dragons, which are Jed’s specialty. I mean, a unicorn. Really!”
The women dissolved into a fit of snorting laughter. “A unicorn? You’re serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
“Wow. How . . . manly.”
Ariel winked. “Yes. Very.” She stood up and Braelyn followed so they could put away the Styrofoam cups from the decidedly non-alcoholic beverages. “You know, I’ve been trying to talk Michael into getting a tattoo. I think it’s kinda strange that Jed is the only tattoo artist in the place with tattoos.”
Ariel flashed her a strange look. Crap. Simultaneous visions of Noble’s yummylicious tattooed back and her foot-in-mouth, disease-ridden self filled her brain.
“What do you mean he’s not?”
How much to divulge? She looked Ariel in the eye trying to discern her level of acquaintance versus friend. They’d been working together in the nursing home for several weeks now and she’d not said much about her relationship, or lack thereof, with Noble because she knew Ariel worked with him and she couldn’t be sure if anything she said would make its way back to the hottie in question. But she sure could use a girlfriend. Where would Ariel’s alliance lie? Wow. She was sounding pathetic—even to herself.
“Well,” Ariel prompted. “Michael and I have been good friends, like, forever, and I know he doesn’t have any tattoos. So, does that mean Noble does? Nothing shows. You’re sure?”
Oh, she was sure. Painfully so. “Yes.”
Ariel took her hand and tugged her to the corner and turned off the stereo just as “Winter Wonderland” was into its first chorus. “I hope you know you can trust me. We’re friends. Right?”
Braelyn studied her earnest blue eyes. “Sure.”
“Then spill it. I want details, sister. He has no ink showing, so what’s hidden and how, oh how, do you know about it?”
Braelyn felt herself blushing as she returned Ariel’s giddy smile. She wasn’t sure why, but all of a sudden she knew she could trust her. Girl talk would trump work alliances. And, man, she needed some girl talk. “He’s got some kind of tribal design on his back.”
“Oh.” Ariel’s brows furrowed. “Where on his back?”
Braelyn smiled saucily. “His
Ohhhhh . . .
” She started to say more, but they were interrupted by the bickering of two elderly women and the squeaking of wheelchair brakes. She and Ariel both glanced over guiltily, hoping their conversation hadn’t been overheard. A nurses’ aide intervened and scooted off the combatants with promises of reality television.
Ariel gripped her hand. “And? You can’t leave me hanging here, Bray.”
Braelyn felt her face flame a dozen deeper shades of crimson. “And, what?”
Ariel’s eyes just about popped out of her head as she yanked her into a chair and sat facing her. “Did you . . .? Are you . . .? Are you and Noble, you know?”
Braelyn waited a moment, her head cocked to the side. Then the meaning thundered down on her. Her hand flew to her lips. “Oh. No. Nothing like that. We’re just friends.” Not that she wouldn’t love more. Sometimes thought she
“Oh. Well, I’d thought . . . never mind.”
“No, tell me. What did you think? Cuz I only saw his tattoo when he changed shirts because he thought I wasn’t looking when he took me on a bike ride. It was totally innocent.”
Ariel nodded, seeming disproportionately disappointed. “You guys just seem to have amazing chemistry. I guess I’d thought, especially after you came in for your tattoo and seeing him over for Thanksgiving dinner, that you two must be an item. You’re beautiful together.”
Braelyn felt something deep in her heart tremble. What a tragically romantic notion. “Nope.”
“That’s too bad.”
Yes, it was.
Ariel popped up from her chair. “So, wanna swing by a couple rooms with me? There’s a few folks who couldn’t make it to the party who I’d like to say hi to.”
The change of subject nearly gave Braelyn whiplash. “Um, sure.” She stood and followed Ariel out of the dining area.
Their first stop was to Mrs. Foster’s room. Braelyn didn’t know her very well, but Ariel apparently did. The snappy woman was bed bound but alert and they chatted it up for a while over her stash of chocolate covered cherries and the newest episode of
Next were Mr. and Mrs. Frank. A sweet couple who’d been married for over sixty years and had neighboring rooms now, because Mr. Frank insisted on helping the workers with the care of his wife, who was comatose with dementia. Mr. Frank appeared content as he held his wife’s frail hand and talked to her as if she could hear and understand him.
The sight of unconditional love brought tears to Braelyn’s eyes. When they exited, she turned to Ariel. “I don’t know if I’m up for any more visits like that. It’s too sad.”
Ariel’s brows dipped. “Sad? Why?”
“Look at how he’s losing his wife like that. It’s horrible. How does he stand it?”