He’d liked the sound of her laughter. Sweet, free.

“Help … me …” Her broken voice.

Keenan squared his shoulders. What did she see when she looked at him? A monster just like the vamp? Or a savior?

“No one f**kin’ cares about you …” The vamp yanked the glass out of his neck. More blood sprayed on Nicole. “You’ll die alone, and no one will even notice you’re gone.”

I will notice. Because she wouldn’t be there for him to watch anymore. She’d be far beyond Keenan’s reach. He didn’t know paradise, only death.

She tried to push off the ground, but couldn’t move. The blood loss had gotten to her and made her the perfect prey.

The vampire smiled at her. “I’m gonna start with that pretty face.”

Nicole shook her head and swiped out with the glass. The wounds didn’t stop the vampire. Nothing was going to stop him. No one. Nicole would scream and suffer and then finally—die.

And Keenan would watch. Every moment.

No.

His hand lifted, rising in that last, final touch. His touch could steal life and rip the soul right of a body.

He reached out—and locked his fingers around the vampire’s shoulder.

The vampire jerked and shuddered as if an electric charge had blasted through him. Keenan didn’t try to soften his power. He wanted the vampire to hurt. Wanted him to suffer.

And that was wrong. Angels of Death weren’t supposed to want vengeance. They weren’t supposed to get angry. They weren’t supposed to care.

Killing the vampire was wrong. Against orders. But …

She will hurt no more.

The vamp would not slash her pale skin. He wouldn’t carve open her chest or defile her body.

He’d just die.

The vamp fell to the ground, his body as hard as the stones beneath him.

Keenan didn’t worry about the creature’s soul. Those headed to the pit needed no courier. But Nicole …

Her breath rasped out as her chest heaved. She was still alive, but barely. His hands lifted to her savaged throat, the move an instinctual gesture.

Stop the blood.

But he didn’t touch her. Couldn’t. Because, this time, he didn’t want to kill.

“Help …” Her desperate whisper made his chest ache.

His wings beat against the air. No humans were close enough to save her.

She was suffering, but she’d keep living. Until he touched her, she wouldn’t die, no matter how bad her wounds were.

Help. Right then, killing her would be kinder than the nightmare she faced as she fought for every breath.

“L-live …”

But she didn’t want to let go. He’d met a soldier like her once, lifetimes ago. A man who fought on, determined to hold back the cold touch of death. The soldier had been gutted, but he’d fought, desperate to stay alive, despite the pain.

Keenan hadn’t expected to find that same fierce spirit in the schoolteacher. He should have remembered the lesson humans had taught him before: Appearances could be deceiving.

Her lashes began to flicker, yet her heart still beat. He could hear the too-fast rhythm.

End this. Death would be kinder than this pain.

But he couldn’t touch her.

His hands clenched and he tossed back his head as he yelled into the night.

That was when the wind hit him with the force of an avalanche, slamming into his body, lifting him up, and tossing him in the air, higher, higher. The wind took him away from the woman who fought so valiantly below.

The night sky whipped past him as the whisper of a thousand voices filled his ears. A dim light appeared, growing brighter, brighter—beckoning him upward, then blinding him when he got too close.

Darkness.

Keenan blinked and found himself on his knees. He’d been tossed onto a gleaming marble floor. Keenan knew who would stand before him even before he allowed his gaze to lift.

Azrael. The leader of the angels of death.

“What have you done?” Azrael—Az—demanded.

Keenan closed his eyes and saw a woman bleeding out in an empty alley. Shivering with cold. “She still lives.” He rose to his feet, letting his wings spread behind his back.

Az shook his head. “No.”

Fear gripped him. “What? I didn’t touch her, I didn’t—”

“You confess to disobeying your orders.” Az’s face tensed. “You disobey—”

She was dead? Determined to get back to Nicole, Keenan spun away from Az. No one else would take her over, not after what he’d risked.

“You knew the penalty for such an act.” Az’s words froze him.

Yes, he knew he had to answer for taking the vampire’s soul, but—

“I’m sorry, Keenan. You … you were a good angel.”

Wait. Keenan whirled back around to face the blond angel. “I didn’t—”

“No, you did not. That’s the problem.” And there was sadness cloaking the words, when there was never any emotion in the angel’s voice. Never much emotion in any of them.

No love. No fear. No hate. Only duty. That was the way it should have been.

Except when I looked at her, I … felt.

“Temptation can destroy us all.” Az’s all-seeing bright blue gaze raked him. “You had the chance to obey. You knew when the moment of her death was at hand, but you killed one not on your list.”

“He was a vampire!” The rage was new—something that had developed only when he saw the pain Nicole suffered. “He was torturing, killing, he deserved—”

“We all get what we deserve.” Az’s chin lifted. “Beware, my friend, this will hurt.”

What?

“I’ve heard it’s the fire that makes you scream the loudest.”

There was no fire—

The wind hit Keenan again, wrapping around him, but this time, its grasp felt like the edge of a hundred blades.

Az watched him with a hard stare. No more emotion. Maybe it had never been there. “Did you think we did not know the lust you held in your heart?”

What would angels know of lust? What would they know of anything but following orders, protecting the weak, living in that vast, blank world of nothing?

“Why do you think she was given to you?” Az asked.

And he finally understood. A test. One he’d failed because he hadn’t been able to watch Nicole slip away.

“You broke our rules. You took a life not yours to extinguish.” Az’s cold voice floated to him. “And you failed in your duty.”

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