Predator, Book 4
“He’s been pacing outside the door for over an hour.”
Lydia’s voice broke Molly’s concentration. She lifted her head to peer toward the young woman who ran the small café inside the bookstore. She knew Lydia was accustomed to the blank stare that customarily went along with the interruption of whatever Molly was absorbed in—in this case it was sorting through the endless pile of past due bills.
“There’s this guy outside, hot as hell, and he’s been pacing for seventy-three minutes.”
“You’ve been timing him? You really are bored. Don’t you have something to clean?” Molly’s question came out sharper than she intended.
Lydia arched a skeptical brow. “I’ve already scrubbed the entire café, ordered supplies I don’t need, and inventoried the sweeteners, all five kinds. Did you know that the boxes of Sugar in the Raw really aren’t sorted by number, but by weight? Yeah, my box of 500 only had 497 in it.”
Molly stared, blinked and then stared some more. God, was business really that slow? “Right…so we’re stalking the poor guy on the sidewalk whose lunch date probably didn’t show up.” She craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the man that Lydia was stalking through the window.
“No man who looks like him would wait over an hour in the rain for a lunch date. Look at him. He’s gorgeous.”
“I can’t see his face.” Molly rose from her stool and rounded the counter to join Lydia at the paned window, peering toward the man through the waves in the leaded glass. When she realized what she was doing, she scoffed. “I’m getting to be as bad as you.” Resolutely she turned back for the counter only to have Lydia shriek and suck her right back in.
“He’s coming this way! Look, look!”
Molly, despite her better judgment and the master’s degree in English she held, did look. And dear God, Lydia was right. “Holy shit.” No man had a right to be so good-looking. It simply wasn’t humanly possible. And he was coming toward the door. And then he paused in front of it, reached for the handle, and then shook his head, talking to himself as if he were debating something, and spun right back around, moving in the opposite direction. “He’s been doing that for over an hour, you say?”
“Yep.” Lydia released an audible sigh of disappointment that Mr. Hunk wasn’t coming in. “This time though, he actually made it to the door. That’s closer than he’s made it so far. At this rate, he might pluck up the courage to come inside before we close.”
Molly snorted and turned to make her way back to the counter, leaving Lydia to her gawking, stalking…whatever that was all about. However, less than a minute later, there was a tinkling of the bell. This time, Molly’s words were intentionally sharp. “Leave the poor guy alone, Lydia…he obviously doesn’t want to come inside or he wouldn’t be pacing like a moron.”
Lydia’s gasp was audible and in horror Molly slowly raised her hand. Standing in the doorway, the rain still pounding outside, was the very drenched moron in question. And by the look on his face, she’d just dashed whatever courage he’d spent over an hour looking for. She quickly raised her hands, flailing wildly. “Oh. Shit. Oh God. I’m so sorry. Not you…I’d never call…” She was losing the battle. He merely lifted a brow, his eerily blue eyes were so light they were almost silver. He stepped closer, letting the door close behind him, remaining silent as he seemed to give her a chance to redeem herself. Molly drew in a breath and plastered on a bright smile. “Right. Welcome to Pages…how can I help you?”
“Smooth. Really smooth.” Lydia’s voice was dry as she moved off toward the café and quickly filled a cup with steaming, strong black coffee.
“Shut up, Lydia,” Molly hissed at her and watched as the younger woman brought the hideously expensive cup of coffee and extended it to the man.
Lydia spoke gently toward him. “Here, have this. On the house. You deserve it for your courage and that handsome face.”
The stranger looked even more confused now, almost startled by the pair of them. Molly watched him as he took the coffee and nodded his head in thanks. She took the chance to study him all the more closely. He was taller than average, and though slender he was well built. The suit he wore was obviously expensive, and obviously borrowed. The jacket didn’t quite reach the right spot and the white shirt with the red tie still had the fresh-from-the-package stiffness, a stiffness so stiff, that even the soaking rain couldn’t undo it. The slacks were a shade off from the jacket, and though he was well dressed it was, on some level, obvious that the man was in a state of discomfort that went beyond their theory of a broken lunch date. “I’m Molly.”
He held the coffee and inclined his head in a way she’d never seen anyone else do, and as he did, she realized that the dark hair on top of his head was not truly black, but so dark a brown that she suddenly found herself craving dark chocolate.
“Yuri.” He gave the name softly and stepped forward. “And it’s okay. I suppose it was a bit of a stupid thing to do, pace outside in the rain for so long. It’s just that I’ve never…done this.” He shifted uncomfortably and took a sip of the coffee.
Molly lifted a brow. “Never done what?” She was sucked in already. His lips, perfect for kissing, now formed a thin line of discomfort.
He seemed to realize what he did an instant later and he forced a smile. “Job hunting?”
“Job hunting?” Her brows couldn’t go any higher. “I’m sorry, but we’re not hiring. It doesn’t take even the two of us to run this place.” Not to mention she was barely staying above water. She was, quite literally, robbing Peter the plumber to pay Paul the plasterer, since she’d never have needed either of them if Peter’s plumbing job hadn’t caused the wall behind the history section to weaken and then shatter all over the biographies of great dictators of the twentieth century. Fuck Peter.
He was instantly crestfallen. “Ah. Right. I didn’t…think of that.”
He appeared well and truly lost, and in the next moment she made a snap decision, just the sort of thing she, as a rule, never did. “Yuri…was it? Got a last name, Yuri?” She kept her voice level.
Hope crept into his features and it changed his entire visage. She had judged him to be at least ten years older than her, but with the hope that dawned in his eyes, he looked more to be in his early thirties. But still, certainly a man that age had a profession, or at least had at some point. He didn’t apply to a crappy bookshop that dealt in books no one really ever wanted.
“Elliot. Yuri Elliot.”
“Well, Yuri Elliot…my name is Molly Carter and the insolent pup behind you is Lydia Marshall. What kind of experience do you have?” It was the first of a few routine questions she asked any applicant, at least when there was business enough to justify another worker. She herself had already sold her home and moved into the third floor to save on costs. The second remained vacant and virtually unlivable. She’d been thrilled when she’d bought the shop from the previous owner, to find she had room to expand. She’d wondered, at the time, why Mr. Swanson had snorted and wished her luck. Now, she knew she’d fallen for a bad deal. But it didn’t change a thing. She loved her job, her shop, and even if she was down to eating ramen, she was happy…mostly.
He seemed ready for the question. “I worked for the Museum of Natural Sciences in the Antique Document Archives. I catalogued and maintained the documentation.”
Impressive. “And why would you leave that job to come make barely above minimum wage here?”
He paled and then cleared his throat. “It was decided by mutual agreement that it was time to move on to other endeavors.”
“You got fired.” Lydia giggled.
He glanced back at her and flushed. “I suppose you could say that.” His voice was firm, threaded with steel, showing the first bit of spine. “I don’t care to discuss why, the reference won’t be good if you call them, but suffice to say…I’d rather starve and have my integrity.”
She could tell he meant every word of it too. “All right.” Molly went with her gut. “The job is only part-time. If even that. And what I say goes. You can be my muscle.” He lifted a brow. Molly smirked and continued. “I pay ten cents above minimum wage and you do absolutely everything I say. You also don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making overtime.”
His eyes lit up and in that moment she felt a pulse down her spine. The look he gave her was one of such intensity that she knew he felt it to. The air sizzled and yet he didn’t press it, instead as it registered on his face, that zing of chemistry, he appeared almost confused. “Absolutely, whatever it takes.”
“Good. You start tomorrow. Wear something nice, but not dressy. We’re pretty laid back. Just don’t show up in shorts and Birkenstocks and you’ll be fine. Bring your driver’s license and your social security card, or passport for the paperwork. Be here at eight a.m.” She had no idea where she was going to get the money to pay another worker. Lydia barely broke even in the café. Lydia who was even now smiling at her in that obnoxious way of hers.
His smile however was nothing short of heart-tugging as he lifted the coffee cup in a toast. “I’ll be here at eight, Boss. And thanks for the coffee…Lydia.”
As he turned and moved back out into the rain, Lydia chortled in outright glee. “You hired him because you insulted him! Wow. If I’d known you were that much of a softie, I’d have just made sure I gave you my life story. You’d have taken me in and bought me a puppy.”
“Shut up.” Molly tossed a wadded-up invoice toward Lydia, who ducked it smoothly. “Just thank me for hiring the hottie so you can drool all day. Who knows…he’s handsome enough that business might pick up when the bored stay-at-home moms get a whiff of what we’re holding.”
“Mercenary as ever.” Lydia shot back.
Molly smirked and reached for the calculator once more. “I prefer business minded.”
* * * *
Uriel stepped into the house, still holding the empty coffee cup the girl had given him at the bookshop. He was soaking wet, his hair plastered to his forehead, and the blazer he’d borrowed from Mishael was most likely ruined by his own cowardice. Zazu’s head appeared from around the corner. It was hard to believe that only three months earlier he’d been trying to kill her. They now treated him as if he were one of the family, a strange, fucked-up little family. Predators and a fallen archangel. It had the makings of the worst sitcom ever. Zazu’s smile however, eased the knot in his chest.
“How did it go? Any luck?”
He bit back a sharp reply and nodded, toeing off the wingtips that were a new addition to his meager wardrobe. “I got a job.” He spoke quietly.
Zazu stepped fully into the front hall, moving forward. “That’s wonderful, Uriel! Tell me about it.”
He peeled off the jacket and stared at it. “This is a lost cause I think. I’m sorry.”
She waved it off with the nonchalance of a person who’d only ever lived a life of privilege. She truly was a good soul. Guilt hit him anew and she read it in his eyes. She slugged him in the bicep. Hard. “You should be celebrating. You got a job. You’re joining the human race.”
“I had a job. A good job. An easy job.” He pointed this out as he loosened the tie. “If I had turned a blind eye to the fact my boss was embezzling, I’d still have a job. But without Montrose’s pull, I have no other option.”
“You could always work for my dad at the gallery,” she began as she shook out the coat.
“Zazu, we’ve been over this. I can’t keep taking favors and charity. I fell. I’m supposed to suffer. That’s why it’s called punishment.” He pointed this out for what felt like the millionth time in the past few months.
She sighed and shook her head. “It’s not punishment. It’s just a mistake.”
“A mistake that clipped my wings and made me human, subject to everything within that condition, including judgment,” he retorted.
“Let’s not start this again.” Zazu spoke gently and steered him toward the stairs. “Go up and have a hot shower, then come down with your head out of your ass, and tell me about your new job. I’ll order the pizza. We’re celebrating.”
“Celebrating my minimum-wage job?” He paused halfway up the stairs, shooting her a puzzled glance.
She simply gave that happy smile he had come to notice she wore most of the time. “A step toward independence and a normal life. You have to start somewhere.”
“It’s at a bookstore. A little place that’s likely going out of business soon. And what’s worse is that I don’t have the skills to do anything else. Let’s face it…all I know how to do is punish and heal. And I can’t be a doctor since my healing skills are pretty much now limited to knowing where you keep the Band-Aids. Which you wouldn’t even have to buy if I weren’t a total klutz in this body.”
“Uriel.” Her voice held a tone of warning. “Brooding is not allowed in this house. No angst. No brooding. House rules. And on the subject of your frail human form…it’s been in the rain for hours. Go and warm it up. I’ll order the pizza.”
He did love pizza. Humanity did have its upshots, pepperoni and sausage pizza with extra cheese being one of them. Uriel knew when he was beaten, or in this case, beaten and bribed. He gave a terse nod and continued up the stairs. As he closed the door to the room that was his, he gazed around himself. The house was small, modest. Clearly a starter home. The room was not overly large, but it was comfortable. Zazu had even insisted on finding a bed that was long enough for him to stretch out comfortably, and that took up most of the room. The massive affair was directly across from the large window that overlooked the Sound. In front of the window, there was a wooden desk, with a single chair, his coffeepot and his stash of snacks lined up neatly beside the laptop he used for his classes. The French doors led onto a small roof deck over the kitchen. On clear nights, he found himself, at times, waking up perched on the railing, squatting as if he were preparing to soar into the sky and home again.
He’d fallen once. Since then, he’d taken to locking his door, simply to keep himself from wandering searching for the home he’d never be able to reach again. He stripped and tossed the ruined clothes into the hamper, reaching to turn on the shower. As he regarded himself in the mirror, what he saw never failed to puzzle him. Anatomically, save for the wings, all angels were mostly like humans. All the parts were there, but not all functioned in the ways mortals experienced. He’d never in all his eons of existence experienced anything like he had the first time he’d woken up with an erection. Painful and surprising and damn annoying. He’d not spoken of it but the experience had stubbornly refused to cease. Every single fucking morning he awoke with the damn thing. Only sheer willpower kept him from going off the deep end. Eventually it would abate on its own, but it made mornings an extremely awkward and unpleasant experience. Even now.
He knew the form he was in was purely a reflection of the state of humans at their peak. It was a template and one he had long ago grown comfortable with. Dark hair, a bit of rebellion against the endless legions of gold-haired harp-carrying celestial beings. Blue eyes, the color of the sky that he loved soaring through. God, he missed that. He closed his eyes a moment and turned from the mirror, stepping into the shower, letting the scalding water warm him. He hadn’t realized how cold he was until that moment. It was the first bit of warmth he’d felt since Molly’s eyes had met his.
He’d seen pretty women, plenty of them. However, it was the first time since he’d fallen that he’d had a reaction. The stirring of his body was worrisome, palpable desire, unmistakable and acute, had stirred at the base of his spine, uncurling and he’d become instantly aware of the tightening of his cock. He managed to tamp down on it and keep from embarrassing himself by reminding himself that it was temporary. Surely something to do with the coffee. The caffeine perhaps? It had nothing to do with the fact that the woman was attractive, absolutely nothing.
Her hair had been dark, not quite as dark as his own, and spilled over her shoulders loose, almost to the small of her back, in loose waves. Her eyes were the color of cinnamon and her flesh as porcelain pale as any Predator. She was perfectly and finely boned, deceptively frail and yet there had been steel in her voice. Certainly his body’s rebellion was not based on her. Though he knew he committed yet another sin, this one of lying, to himself, as his body tightened once more at the thought of her. He reached out for the knob and twisted it hard to cold. He would not indulge the intrigues of the flesh. He had other things to think of. Mentally he began to count backward from a hundred. By the time he reached negative twelve, his body was once more under control and he was, once again, freezing.