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Death Angel (Chapter Twenty-seven)

ONCE SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN ECSTATIC AT THAT GRUDGING admission of some sort of feelings for her, but all she could think was, Why now? Why had he shown up now, when she finally had her decisions made and her goals set. Neither the decisions nor the goals in any way included having a man in her life, especially this man, and in fact she didn't know if anything like that was being offered. He had simply made a statement, in more ways than one. There was no place in his life for a woman, at least not on a permanent basis, and if she ever did find a time and space for a relationship again, if she lived through what she'd decided to do, she wouldn't settle for anything less than permanency.

She'd gone without a man for months now, and she liked the solitude, the sense of self she was gradually regaining. She wasn't anyone's girlfriend, or arm candy, or companion; she belonged only to herself. The time when she would have unhesitatingly gone with Simon-she had to get used to that name-was past. Between them now was death and reawakening, and the knowledge that while she was still the same basic person she had been before, her outlook had changed. The happiness and security she wanted was within herself, not something he or anyone else could give her.

Suddenly she realized that he'd been there when she died, the knowledge jolting her into abruptly snapping her head up to stare at him. She remembered seeing him, his normally impassive expression for once unguarded, and stark with…what? Something she couldn't grasp. He'd said something, but the memory of what he'd said was lost in the much larger memory of that pure, white light, and wasn't important anyway. What was important was that he knew what had happened to her. He knew she'd died. He'd taken her things and left her there-so why had he come back? After what he'd seen, why would he have even considered the possibility that she might have survived?

"I died," she said flatly.

His eyebrows lifted just a little, as if he were mildly surprised by the sudden change of subject. "I know."

"Then what made you check on me? Most dead people get buried, and that's that. You should never have known I'm still alive."

"I had my reasons."

Reasons he wasn't going to tell her, that was clear enough. Agitated, she pushed both hands into her hair, scooping it back from her face and tugging, as if the pressure on her scalp would pull her thoughts into order. The slight narrowing of his eyes told her he wanted her to drop the subject, just let it go, but she couldn't.

"You knew I was dead. No mistake. You don't make mistakes like that. So aren't you even a little bit curious about how I'm sitting here right now? I know I'm a lot curious about why you're here, if it isn't to kill me, because I'm not buying that I was suddenly important to you. Once was enough, remember?"

"I don't do relationships," he replied, his tone completely unruffled. "In that context, once was enough. That doesn't mean I wasn't attracted. I stayed hard for four hours, remember?"

Oh, yes, she remembered, every detail and every sensation, so intense and detailed that it was like being back in the moment. She felt her face getting warm. "That was just sex. It has nothing to do with what I'm talking about."

"Usually not," he agreed, giving her another of those little almost-smiles that, on anyone else, would have been a full-out laugh.

Her face got even hotter. Exasperated because she was trying to find out something and he was distracting her with sex, she slapped her hand down on the table, the sound like a small shot. "Stay on subject. Why did you look for me again? What tipped you off?"

"I did an Internet check of the newspapers to see if you'd been identified. Instead, I found out you'd survived."

"What difference did it make, whether I'd been identified or not?"

"It was for my own curiosity."

That was definitely an unrewarding answer, if she'd been expecting anything heartwarming. She should always, always remember that he didn't operate on the same level as most other humans. "But you didn't tell Rafael."

"Why would I? You survived, and he was permanently in the dark, so I left it that way."

"Why did you bother tracking me? You paid the hospital bill, that was more than enough for you to do. Why not go your merry way after that and let me get on with my life?" She shot the question at him, determined to get an answer if she had to shake it out of him, though she bet that would be something to see if she attempted it.

"I did an occasional check to make sure you were all right. If you hadn't seen me tonight, I wouldn't be sitting here now, but you did and I had to let you know that you don't have any reason to run."

"What difference did it make to you whether or not I'm all right? I'm well, I have-had-a job, I have money. You could have checked once, and let it go." She should let it go, instead of gnawing at the subject, but she couldn't. On the surface his answers were satisfactory, but she had an uneasy feeling there was more behind what he'd been doing. He wasn't just anyone; he was a man who answered only to himself, who lived outside the law and wasn't subject to the usual human emotions. Maybe the reason he'd kept a check on her was for the exact reason he'd said, but maybe there was another reason, one she should fear.

He didn't answer immediately; instead he watched her with unnerving silence, his gaze hooded. Then he caught her gaze with his and she almost jumped, so unnerved was she by the intensity in his eyes. "I watched you die," he said softly. "There was nothing I could do to save you, no way I could help. You were so far gone I couldn't even tell you I was sorry, that I hadn't meant for any of that to happen. But I saw your face, saw your expression when you looked past me and saw…something else, something that had to be the most beautiful thing you'd ever seen. You whispered 'angel,' then you died."

"I remember your face," she murmured. "And the light behind you."

"I sat with you for a while. I touched your cheek. You had no pulse, no breath, and your skin was already going cold. I called 911, and I waited until I could hear the sirens before I left. We aren't talking about a few minutes, Drea-"

"Andie," she murmured. "I'm not her anymore."

"You'd been gone for at least half an hour, and you weren't submerged in an icy lake to slow all your systems and funnel oxygen to your brain. There was no way the medics could have revived you, and in fact they didn't. You started breathing on your own, almost a fucking hour after you died," he said grimly. "You don't have any brain damage. Any. Not even minimal. So now I have to believe in miracles, because you're a living, breathing, walking, talking miracle, and that means there's something else out there after all of this, isn't there?"

A luminous smile spread across her face. "Yes," she said simply.

"Then get used to it, sweetheart, because the miracle has a permanent bodyguard."

SHE CONTINUED TO sit at the kitchen table after he'd left. They had talked some more, and when he thought he had completely convinced her that she had nothing to fear from him ever again, he'd left. She had actually reached that conclusion way before he had, but he was naturally wary and untrusting.

So many different thoughts were roiling through her brain that she could barely sort them. Her very first thought was one of pure relief: Rafael thought she was dead. She didn't have to worry about him at all, ever again. He hadn't sent Simon after her; he wasn't still trying to have her killed. She was free.

Free! For the first time in her adult life, maybe in her entire life, she was truly free. She had thought she was free when she left Rafael, but now she knew the difference. Being free was about more than just eating what you wanted, or not having to play dumb anymore.

She was free to be happy.

She didn't think she'd ever been happy, not even as a child. Certainly she'd never been carefree. As a child she had enough food in her stomach and clothes to keep her warm, usually, but she had always climbed out of the school bus and reluctantly trudged up the driveway to wherever her family was currently living, because she never knew what awaited her there. Were her parents quarreling, too drunk to care if their kids heard them call each other whore and bastard? Would supper be anything more than what she could scrounge for herself? Would her dad lurch into her on his way to the bathroom and shove her down for being in his way?

And later, she'd had other worries. Would her mom's boyfriend of the moment try to shove his hand between her legs when her mom's back was turned? She'd tried, just once, telling her mother about it, only to be told that she was just like her fucking father and to stop lying. After that, she'd become an expert at avoiding her own home whenever any of the boyfriends were there, and to climb out her bedroom window in a flash if any of them showed up after she was already home. By the time she was twelve she was a master at evasion, at hiding, at getting away.

She'd gotten away, all right, but she'd never been free-until now.

The future stretched before her, not a future without worry or troubles, but a future undogged by Rafael and the fear that he'd found her. At first all she could focus on was the sense of freedom, the bone-deep relief that she wouldn't have to spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder or offering herself up as bait to set a trap for Rafael.

By the time she showered and dragged her weary body to bed it was after three, but she couldn't shut her mind off and go to sleep. Too much had happened in such a short length of time; she'd gone from the sheer terror and exhaustion of her struggle with Simon to bewilderment to lust to relief to joy, bouncing from point to point without enough time at any one reaction to even begin to absorb what each one meant to her life from now on.

She lay awake in the darkness, staring at the ceiling and reviewing everything that had happened from the time Simon first grabbed her. Other than her relief at being free of Rafael, Simon was uppermost on her mind.

He put her in a quandary, representing the most potent temptation that she could face. She would never be indifferent to him. If he crooked his finger at her and said "Come with me," she had no confidence that she wouldn't do exactly that-somehow she'd have to find the strength to resist him. He was a paid killer; hooking up with him wouldn't, by any definition, be keeping to the straight and narrow. The hooking up wasn't the problem, though she couldn't even think of sex now with anything other than caution, because she'd screwed up so bad in that department before. He was the problem. Who and what he was, everything about him, was the problem.

She had the sudden thought that she should turn him over to the cops, and dread immediately knotted her stomach. She didn't know if she could do that to him, even though it was the right thing to do. Then she realized that, not only did she not know any of the specifics and therefore couldn't tell the cops anything that would be of use, what little she did know had taken place outside the country. She didn't even know what country or countries he'd been in, though she supposed the authorities could find out just by looking at his passport, assuming he didn't have more than one passport, which she was fairly certain he did. After all, he made a living slipping undetected in and out of countries.

He'd bulletproofed himself, she realized, at least as far as law enforcement in this country went. He was safe from arrest because there was no known crime that could be laid at his feet. Even if she could provide specifics, the cops would likely find no evidence that he'd been out of the country at that particular time.

Turning him in would accomplish exactly nothing. Tears of relief stung her eyes when she realized that. She didn't want to turn him in; she didn't want him to spend the rest of his life in prison. Maybe she should, but she wasn't a saint, and she'd have to be to so totally ignore her own heart.

Further muddying the waters for her was the fact that, although murder was supposed to be the ultimate no-no, altogether he seemed like a far more decent human being than any of the scum her mother had dated. On the scale of badness, which weighed the heaviest, murder or abuse?

The law said murder. But, damn it, there were some people who didn't deserve to live, and it stood to reason that if a drug lord hired Simon to kill someone, that someone was likely a rival drug lord. How could that be a bad thing? Anything that depleted their numbers had to be good for humanity. Was it bad because Simon made the kills for money rather than out of any notion of bettering the world by lowering its scum-to-human ratio? Motivation couldn't be everything, because there were a lot of people who, with the best of intentions, did a world of harm.

This wasn't something she was going to figure out in an hour, and she was too tired to keep worrying at the details. The good news was that she didn't have to do anything right now. She didn't have to decide anything about Simon, and she didn't have to do anything about Rafael. She was free to-

Her thoughts hit a dead stop. Rafael.

So, just because she was safe, it was okay to let him continue as always, importing the drugs that wrecked people's lives, the drugs that addicted and killed, and getting monstrously rich in the process? Just because she was safe, she had no obligation to do what she could to put an end to Rafael's operation?

No. The answer in her gut was immediate and emphatic. She had more of an obligation than anyone else on earth, because she had lived off that money, benefited from it, and because she was in the unique position of not only knowing Rafael as well as she did, but she was the one person on earth whose presence would goad him into doing something stupid, something that could give the cops a solid charge to hang on him.

She had to do it. No matter what the risk, this was something she had to do.

Her thoughts circled back around to Simon. He now felt obligated to protect her, which could play hell with any plans she made to poke a figurative stick in Rafael's eye. She didn't want Simon involved in this; it was her debt, her obligation. How he would see the situation, however, was something else entirely.

Would he try to stop her? Beyond a doubt. Even worse, she suspected that he usually succeeded at whatever he set his mind to. She didn't have to stretch her imagination at all to see him holding her captive somewhere, or whisking her out of the country so she couldn't get to Rafael.

Same old song, different verse: she had to get away from him.

Reassured that she wouldn't run, he'd relax his guard, she thought. Maybe not right away; he was wily and suspicious, and he might watch her from a distance for the next couple of days. So she'd hang around, make a few preparations, lull his suspicions until he felt safe in leaving. She had no way of knowing exactly when that would be, but he was human; he might be tougher and smarter than most, but he was still human, and he still had to eat and sleep and pee just like everyone else. He had to occasionally let his guard down. With luck, even if he was still hanging around, she could be on a plane and gone long before he realized she wasn't there.

He'd be able to track her; so far, he'd seen through every move she made, every step she'd taken to change her appearance and identity. She had no hopes that he'd suddenly turn stupid and she'd suddenly turn into a talented escape artist, but all she needed was a couple of days' head start, maybe not even that long, and she would be in New York.

She would contact the FBI. Rafael had to be under almost constant surveillance, and surely the feds were frustrated by their inability to put together a solid case against him. Surely the agent in charge would jump at the opportunity to use her in some way.

Once she was in the FBI's hands, she would be beyond Simon's reach.

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