He came from nowhere, executed a neat forward roll and landed prone, on his back, beneath the front wheels of Rachel’s car.
There was no way she could have missed hitting him. She was too preoccupied with the news she and fifty of her work colleagues had had that morning, when the threat of their losing their jobs had finally become a reality. Christmas had evaporated in a haze of gloom, even though it was barely two weeks away.
By the end of the following week, the new CEO of her software company would make his decision as to who should stay and who should go. They had not even met him. He had been making decisions about their future from a plush office in Manhattan. They would only see him for the first time when he dealt the killer blow to their careers.
As weeks went, she could safely say it was one of the worst she could remember. The previous evening, the date she had been looking forward to for weeks had cancelled at the last moment, citing a sudden attack of boils. Boils? She would have been more sympathetic if he had just said he wasn’t interested.
The one before that had confessed over dessert that he was married. And the one before him was transsexual. All respect to him for saying so, but she would have appreciated him telling her before she had spent £200 on new lingerie.
So, she had a Damocles Sword of imminent unemployment hanging over her head, no prospect of any sex or even a staid goodnight kiss by the front door for the foreseeable future, and her finances were nonexistent. Not surprising then, that when the perfect man had stumbled in front of her car, she had not even seen him.
‘Oh my God, no!’ Her hands flew to her mouth as she saw the feet sticking out beyond her hood. The man behind beeped impatiently in the narrow, parked-up street they had been driving in. She ignored him and scrambled out of the car to assess the damage.
By the time she knelt beside him, he was attempting to sit up. He gazed at her with eyes as brilliant as crystal-cut emeralds.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she gasped, holding back useless tears. ‘I’ll call an ambulance!’
‘No!’ He seemed alarmed. Unbelievably, he was pulling away from her. ‘I am… okay.’ He spoke as if he was unused to the language, yet she could not ascertain any accent. He straightened to his full height, which was considerable now he was standing up, brushed road dust off his black suit jacket and adjusted his white cuffs. ‘I am fine.’ He closed his eyes for a moment and put his hand on her shoulder to steady himself, and in that instant, not knowing why, Rachel believed him.
She also felt compelled to invite him back to her flat, although one of her golden rules was not to. Guilt did not come into it. It just seemed to be the right thing to do, under the circumstances. She felt she owed him a cup of coffee at the very least.
He was the most attractive man that had ever sat in her car, with pale skin and slender lips, curved in a secret smile. His hair was black as ravens’ feathers, contrasting sharply with his white silk shirt. She concentrated on driving with an effort, and subtly eased her short black skirt down towards her knees, aware of the direction of his gaze. There was no more conversation, but he stared frankly at her legs for the remainder of the journey.
‘You haven’t told me your name,’ she said as they entered her apartment. The small Tesco Christmas tree she had felt obliged to buy stood gloomily in the corner, its black synthetic branches perfectly representing her state of mind when she had bought it.
‘That’s … unusual. What does it mean?’ She asked, mentally rolling the name around inside her head. It was not like anything she had ever heard before.
He slipped his jacket off and draped it on the chair. Something about the way he did it made her chest tighten. He seemed very at home already.
‘I don’t know. It was just the name I was given,’ he said. When his emerald eyes met with hers, any more questions seemed unnecessary. Slightly flustered, she turned to put the tree lights on, but she had obviously already done it. They flickered softly, casting the room in a soft glow. She could have sworn they weren’t on when they went in, and she could not remember them looking that good anyway. She stared at the tree, then back at him, but he was watching her innocently, having made himself comfortable on her sofa.
He refused tea, coffee and any form of alcohol. Instead he sipped at water, but he seemed in no hurry to leave. After a while, Rachel realised she was talking to him as if she had known him all her life. Her desperate job situation, the divorce, the hazardous dating game, all of it was laid out as a smorgasbord of delights for him to pick over. And all the while, he ventured nothing about himself, even when pressed.
‘You’re like the man who wasn’t there,’ she said mischievously, after he dodged yet another question. By that time, she was halfway through her second glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and feeling more content than she had for weeks.
He smiled at her from his prone position on the sofa. He had taken off his tie and his elegant feet were bare. ‘I’m working on a company takeover.’
‘Ah, so you’re one of the enemy,’ she said agreeably.
He gracefully inclined his head. ‘It isn’t something I boast about.’
‘Good.’ She poured a generous amount of red into her glass and picked it up. ‘The last time I’ll be able to afford decent wine for a while. Might as well make the most of it.’ She toasted him with her glass and he watched her, it seemed, as if he were waiting for the right moment. Still she was not alarmed.
Throughout the evening, she had been aware of a persistent heaviness in her breasts. But she had just finished her cycle, so it was not that. She subtly massaged the top of one of them, trying to ease the pressure.
‘What’s the matter?’ Thedriel asked. He was watching her curiously.
‘I’m not sure.’ She glanced down, and to her horror, a small patch of moisture had begun to darken the stretched cerise silk of her blouse. She hid it with her hand and tried to scramble to her feet, intending to escape to the bedroom to change. What the hell was happening to her? She was reminded of a friend who had given birth a few months previously. She had been complaining about her leaky breasts and constant smell of milk. But that wasn’t possible, was it?
The wine she had drunk had made her clumsy, far clumsier than she usually was after a glass and a half of decent wine. The bathroom door seemed a long way away, too far to reach. She stumbled towards it, tripping over her shoes and sprawling to the floor.
Before she hit the ground, Thedriel had caught her. He scooped her up and carried her easily back to the sofa. He smelled of freshly cut hay, a scent that filled Rachel’s senses and instantly relaxed her.
‘It’s all right,’ he murmured, stroking her hair away from her face. ‘Let’s see what the problem is.’
Rachel was beyond humiliated. She tried to push his hand away as it delicately toyed with the top button of her blouse, but he had anticipated the move, neatly capturing her hand and holding it away.
‘Stop it,’ she whispered, wondering why she did not feel more scared. He had obviously put something in the wine, yet his touch filled her with such an inner calm as she had never felt before.
Her blouse was stretched tight over her breasts, which felt swollen and tender. Each button was dealt with efficiently and with minimal fuss, gradually exposing the aubergine lace brassiere which had inexplicably become two cup sizes smaller, or so it seemed.
‘They’re very sore,’ she said, as his fingers drifted over the tops of her breasts.
‘I know. I’m sorry,’ he soothed her, and bent his head to press a kiss to the nearest one. Instantly, it seemed, the feeling subsided a little, leaving a spreading patch of warmth that threatened to engulf her whole body. ‘I think I’ll have that drink now.’
He peeled the blouse away and slipped the strap of her brassiere away from her shoulder. Her head fell back as she decided to just let him do what he wanted, as he pressed tiny kisses slowly, inexorably down towards her nipple, which she knew was distended and red as a raspberry. She tensed as his lips closed over it, anticipating the exquisite pain in those over-wrought nerve endings, and felt him tug gently at the hard little nub. The feeling was so exquisite, it transferred directly down her body, tiny arrows of pleasure pulsing over and over in time with the gentle pulling of her lips. Her back arched towards his mouth as her legs fell open, and soft little “oh” sounds dripped from her lips as he suckled from her.
She had no idea how long it lasted. Eventually he moved to the other breast, testing its weight in his hand before lifting it to his lips. The unbelievable knowledge that he was drinking from her was totally irrelevant. She wanted him too much, wanted him to fill her up until she was overflowing. She ached to touch herself, to relieve that overpowering tension, but he was not letting her, holding her hand firmly out of reach. She could not stand it any more and twisted away from him, intent on pushing him back onto the sofa and ….
She woke up alone. It was dark, and she was in bed, naked. She sat up and felt the mattress next to her. Cold cotton, unslept in. She felt her breasts which were slightly tender, but otherwise normal. Had she dreamed everything about the previous night? The illuminated dial on her bedside clock said 2.04 am. Unwilling to turn on the light, she groped for her silk robe and put it on, then padded out into the living room. It was empty. The wine she had drunk the evening before was still on the coffee table, and his glass of water, but he was not there. It was almost as if she had imagined him.
Idiot! She cursed herself as she went back into the bedroom. No doubt she had collapsed into a drunken slumber and he had left her in disgust. It would not be the first time that had happened, though she had not made that mistake for ten years or more. She slumped back into bed and forced back tears. Women her age did not cry over strange men. They squared their chins and vowed to learn from their mistakes.
Yet she hugged her pillow and bit back the tears and rocked back and forth, trying to gain comfort from that simple motion.
The next night, she had the dream again, and woke as she had before, unnerved, aroused, with a slight tenderness around her breasts. The room was cool and smelled of summer meadows. It was his smell, the one she remembered from the night before.
Then she saw the balcony door was open. The night was cold and frosty, with a large moon hanging in the sky like a silver lantern. As she went to close the door, she saw him, standing on the balcony, staring out over the rooftops.
The stab of fear in her chest was instantly replaced by pity. His expression was bleak, as if all the world’s troubles were on his shoulders.
‘Hey,’ she said softly. ‘How did you get in here?’ There was no way he could have entered the flat unless he had climbed up the outside wall, and she was three storeys up. Why was she not more afraid?
He did not answer her, but smiled gently. ‘You’re so beautiful when you’re asleep.’
That reminded her of the night before. ‘Did you put something in my drink last night?’
‘No.’ He didn’t seem shocked at the accusation. ‘It’s … more complicated than that.’
She took a deep breath. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean … I hate having to lie to you.’
She had heard this before. Putting a brave smile on her face, she held out her hand.
‘Come inside and talk to me. It’s cold out here.’
He allowed her to lead him back into the warmth of the bedroom. ‘You won’t believe what I have to tell you.’
‘Trust me, I’ve heard it all before.’ She settled herself on the bed and pulled him down to sit next to her. His white shirt gleamed in the moonlight, but his eyes were as dark as chips of jet. Had they not been green in daylight? They seemed to change colour with his mood. She reached for the lamp but he stopped her.
‘Don’t. Please. I don’t want to see your face when you hear what I have to say.’
She turned on the lamp and he shied away from the light. She ignored his discomfort.
‘Out with it. If it’s that bad, then you deserve to see my face before I kick you out that door.’
‘Okay.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I’ve loved you for a long time, longer than you can even imagine.’
Great. He was a stalker. Now she had to think of some way to get him the hell out of her bedroom.
‘I’m not a stalker, but I have … engineered things to a degree, in the hope that you would eventually feel the same.’
Rachel blinked. ‘You’ve just read my mind.’
His mouth twisted in a smile. ‘I can’t help it. It happens even when I want to switch it off.’
‘Switch what off? And what do you mean by “engineering things?”’
‘You’ve been wondering why you’re so unlucky in love. The married man, the transsexual, the …’ His mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. ‘Boils. The seraph’s secret weapon.’
Rachel shut her mouth with an effort. This was getting too weird. ‘I don’t …’
‘Hush. The problem is, I went too far. The elder seraphs lost patience with me. They told me if I wanted a human being that desperately then I should damned well be one. Of course, they didn’t use the word “damned.”’ He looked down at his hands, a faint blush staining his ivory cheeks.
‘Seraphs? You mean, angels?’ She kept her voice gentle. He was obviously delusional, which made him dangerous.
He looked up at her again, his eyes sad. ‘I’m no danger to you, Rachel. Far from it. I have … powers that were left to me after I was shunned. My previous record was faultless, so they gave me that, at least. Throwing me under your car was a dirty trick, though. I can see from your face you’re confused. Maybe you think I’m totally mad. As a new mortal, I need to be weaned onto your food. In the meantime, my only source of strength is milk from the breasts of the woman I love. And …’
Her composure snapped. She slapped him hard and jumped to her feet, desperate to get away from him. ‘That’s enough! How stupid do you think I am? That’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever heard. If you really want to get laid, all it takes is dinner and stimulating conversation. It’s not that difficult!’
‘Rachel, I can’t make love to you. I’m not fully human yet.’
‘Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better. But you’re still leaving.’ She headed for the door. If he wasn’t going to leave, then she sure as hell was. Two short steps and she would be free…
A blur of white light passed her and there he was, blocking her way before she was halfway there.
Now she was truly terrified. No earthly man could have moved that fast. She gasped as he grasped her shoulders. His eyes were glowing red but as she stared at them, they changed to amber, then green again.
‘I’ve handled this badly. I’m sorry.’
She was acutely aware of how tall he was. The top of her head barely came up to his shoulder. If he wanted to overpower her, he could very easily do it. Not for the first time since his unexpected appearance, she cursed her stupidity for trusting him in the first place.
He gently pushed her back until her knees brushed against the edge of the bed. ‘I really didn’t want to do this. Not so soon. I was hoping to get to know you better first. Sit down.’
Knowing she had little choice, she did so, edging back until she was against the wall, her knees drawn up against her chest. She hugged them, keeping him in sight.
He leapt lightly up onto the bed and she shrank away from him. There was no way of knowing what his intentions were. Silently, she waited as he undid his shirt and threw it across the room. His body was as pale as cream and masterfully sculpted as any Grecian statue, but he was psychotically crazy. There was no doubt about that. She could not believe she had not sensed it before.
The room was preternaturally quiet. He held her gaze, his eyes now glowing with an inner fire. Then he crossed his hands over his chest and placed his fingers on each shoulder.
‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said. ‘Please don’t be afraid.’
He bowed his head.
Nothing happened for a moment, and then pain ripped across his face and he gasped, his eyes closing for a second. There was a tearing sound, which gave way to what sounded like pigeons gathering on the balcony. She glanced over at it but there was nothing. When she looked back at Thedriel, she bit the back of her hand to stop herself screaming. What she was seeing could not possibly be happening. Shadows loomed on the opposite wall, and as they did so, she saw the silver glow of many feathers, some long as a peacock’s, soft and gleaming.
Thedriel spread the wings fully and ruffled them, glancing back at them with obvious pride, tempered by apprehension of what he could see on her face.
Rachel could not speak, torn between laughing with joy or crying with … despair? She had no idea. He was beautiful in every sense of the word, bare-chested but still wearing the suit trousers, and with these enormous great things framing him, cupping him in their feathered fingers.
‘So,’ she said when she could trust herself to speak. ‘You’re an angel.’
‘I prefer seraph,’ he corrected her gently. ‘And I was. I can’t go back, so I guess that makes me …’
‘A fallen angel.’ Rachel laughed delightedly, clapped her hands then pressed them to her lips. She felt almost hysterical with joy but couldn’t understand why. She could kiss goodbye to any earthly fun with him from then on. But then, fallen angels were by their very definition, half human. The possibilities were intriguing, but she could not think about that now. He was still standing on the bed. The length of his wings meant that he could not walk or stand on the ground. She stared up at him in ceaseless wonder, unable to tear her gaze away from him.
‘Do they work?’ She said eventually, at a loss for anything else to say.
He smiled almost shyly and held out his hand. ‘You want to find out?’
‘Seriously?’ She dared not move. From being frightened of him, she was now terrified that whatever magic had brought him into her room would dissipate, and she would be left with only a half-remembered dream.
‘Seriously.’ He looked solemn.
‘When I was a child, my favourite story was Peter Pan. I’ve always wanted to fly.’
‘You won’t be flying. I will. Do you trust me?’
His hand was still stretched out towards her.
‘Hell, yes!’ Rachel leapt to her feet and grabbed his hand. She didn’t care what the consequences were. No way would she pass up this terrifying, unreal opportunity.
Yet when they were poised on the balcony railing, her heart beat so hard she could hear it. She fervently hoped she wouldn’t be sick.
‘You won’t be,’ Thedriel murmured in her ear.
‘Could you stop doing that? Delving around in my private thoughts? It’s rude,’ she chided him gently, squeezing his hand so he knew she was too excited to be angry. The soft kiss on her neck calmed her wildly drumming heart, and he launched into the air.
Oh God, the freedom! Within moments she had lost her fear. With his large hands firmly around her waist, she spread out her arms and just revelled in the cool wind in her face, the rush and swoop as they flew around trees and building, soaring high up into the air. At one point they were flying alongside a 747 circling Heathrow. Rachel caught a glimpse of astonished faces before they fell away again, back down towards the Thames Estuary, chasing the seagulls and following the moon’s silver path towards the bright lights of London.
‘Can we go under Tower Bridge?’ She asked excitedly.
His indulgent laugh was rich as chocolate. ‘Anything for you.’ His wings flexed and they picked up speed again. In the distance, London lights shone like that of a magical kingdom. The Shard was lit up like a Christmas tree, a tall silver spear on the skyline.
Rachel felt like crying with elation as they swept under the grand old bridge. It was a dream come true. Nothing in her life would ever feel the same again. How could it possibly?
‘Are you hungry?’ Thedriel asked suddenly.
Actually, she was. Starving. Ravenous. She nodded. ‘But I’m in my PJ’s!’ She wailed.
‘Oh, that’s okay. I was thinking about a picnic.’ He turned and headed off towards the Houses of Parliament. ‘I know you like red meat.”
‘Definitely, but if you’re thinking of spit-roasting a politician….’
He laughed again. ‘Tempting, but no. I think we have something a bit more appetising than that.’
‘And you can forget about chowing on my boobs for a while,’ she said with mock terseness as they alighted on the top of Big Ben. Now they had stopped, she shivered. ‘It’s chilly up here.’
Thedriel had settled himself so his wings could hang over the side of the majestic clock. He held out his arms and she folded herself into them, sitting between his legs. Instantly, she felt a lot warmer. He reached over her for a brown paper bag. She didn’t ask where it had come from. He was an angel. It seemed quite normal for him to produce food out of nowhere.
As she smelled the seductive aroma of burgers and fries, her mouth fell open.
‘Are you serious? This is totally my secret guilty pleasure.’ She took the wrapped burger from him.
‘I know.’ He looked smug. She gave him a nudge.
‘Don’t assume you know everything about me.’
‘Of course not, but food is a good place to start.’
They looked out over London, content just to eat and enjoy the view. The Thames wound like a black silk ribbon, shot through with tiny reflections of abstract colour. It was achingly beautiful, but not as stunning as the angel holding her so closely. In his arms, Rachel felt a sense of completeness she had never experienced before, but with it came a profound sense of sadness.
‘We can only do this once, can’t we?’
She held him close, her head resting against his broad chest, his great wings curved protectively around them both. She felt his lips brush her hair. To him, flying was as natural as breathing. This was his gift to her, to apologise for the way he had engineered her life so far. She had been angry with him. The divorce, the painful dating rituals, the humiliation of rejection could all have been avoided had he made himself known to her sooner. But angels have duties. Angels cannot choose their destinies. He had to wait until the elders lost patience with his obsession with the human girl. Eventually they had, which was why he was there, taking her on the last flight he would ever make.
Nobody else has ever done this, Rachel thought, as they stood to take flight again. Dawn would break soon, a dull pink stain on the horizon. They had to be gone. One last time, they swooped over London and out over the sea, the dying throwing a sparkling path across the water to light their way. They flew beneath the looming shadow of the Seven Sisters, over dark fields and the ever-shifting ribbon of cars on the motorways. She did not want it to stop. She wanted to be safe in his arms for ever, to not go back to no job, no life, no romance. She cried a little, knowing she would never feel this way again, and he held her closer, as if realising the train of her thoughts.
‘No,’ she gasped, as he landed lightly on the black iron railings of her balcony and set her gently down. He crouched on the balcony, unable to stand on the ground.
‘You will be fine, Rachel,’ he said, stroking her wind-swept hair away from her face.
She let the tears run freely down her face. ‘Will I ever see you again?’
‘Yes, but not like this. I’ll come back for you, I promise.’
Rachel didn’t want to let him go, yet she did not want to behave as desperately as she felt.
‘I wish …,’ she began, but he stopped her.
‘Wishes are for children.’ He drew her into his arms and pressed a kiss to the top her head. ‘I love you. Just remember that.’
She woke alone the next morning, not remembering him leaving or the act of going to bed. She just remembered the most fantastic, amazing dream, but it had not been a dream. She really had been on the roof of Big Ben, and followed the moon’s path across the sea to the great cliffs of Dover. In the mirror, her reflection was that of a woman who had lived and loved and was content, but she was not content inside.
For the next two weeks, she had the dream she had experienced before, of him lying next to her, suckling from her, and the unfulfilled arousal that came with waking alone. As time passed she came to believe that what she had experienced was something precious but fleeting, a fantasy that for one brief moment in time had become real, and to wish for any more was foolish. Even so, she did not light the Christmas tree, as the softly sparkling white lights reminded her of him, and her preparations for Christmas Day were done automatically, without joy, as something obligatory that had to be tolerated for the sake of others. She intended to spend the day alone, with old movies and an M&S Chinese dinner, and pretend that she did not care that the fallen angel had abandoned her.
The Friday before Christmas Eve was her last day of employment. At the weekend, she would be unemployable and unattractive to anyone but a man who was not actually a man, but something unattainable.
‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself,’ she said crossly, turning impatiently away from the mirror. It was time to put the high heels on, the no-bullshit business suit, the silk stockings and war paint, and face whatever was coming with dignity.
In the office, the gloom was palpable. No-one had put up Christmas decorations. There was not even the sparse LED Christmas tree in the Reception area. The receptionist looked as if she had swallowed a bag of spanners, but one could not blame her. She was just as likely to lose her job as anyone else.
Two hours later, she sensed a frisson of tension in the air. Everyone had looked up from their workstations like wary meerkats, but apart from the hum of computers, nothing seemed to have changed.
‘He’s here,’ one of the men said on his way past Rachel’s desk.
She did not need to ask who. Leith Reid’s name was hated throughout the organisation. Everyone knew he was there to give them their marching orders. No doubt he would then dine at Claridges that evening, before catching the first plane back to New York, first class of course.
They clustered together, one of the women venturing that she had seen coffee and pastries being taken into the Boardroom. The wait was agonising.
‘I wish they’d just get on with it so we can all go home,’ someone said bitterly. He had three children to provide for. Rachel smiled sympathetically but did not speak. They were way past the pointless platitudes stage.
They were called in one by one. And one by one they came out, looking slightly stunned.
‘They’re keeping me on,’ the receptionist said, her face suddenly lit up with a relieved smile.
All morning it was the same. People would go in nervously, then come out smiling, but everyone who was left was in agony. Surely, they would not keep everybody? Rachel waited and waited. The mood lifted as everyone realised that their jobs were secure, and someone even sent out for party food. But still Rachel was not called in.
In the end, she was the last to be called, but she had learned from bitter experience not to take anything for granted. The pitying glances of her work colleagues were not lost on her. Smoothing her skirt and checking her hair, she walked the gauntlet, not acknowledging the murmured good wishes, and went into the Boardroom.
The CEO was on his own, sitting at the supertanker-sized table, writing with a heavy Mont Blanc fountain pen. He did not look up when she approached him. She sat down to wait, unwilling to hover like a recalcitrant pupil at the Headmaster’s desk. From what she could see, he was in his mid-forties, dark-haired and well-built, with an excellent taste in suits. She could just see one diamond-studded cufflink holding together a snow-white shirt cuff, and an understated Breitling watch on his slender wrist.
Whatever he was writing was far more important than her future, and she could feel her annoyance growing. In the end, her patience snapped.
‘Well, do you want me to work for you or not, you arrogant bastard?’
He looked up then, and her heart did a back flip.
‘I was looking more for a partnership,’ Leith Reid said, and smiled at her with familiar eyes, as green as brilliant-cut emeralds. ‘Hello Rachel. Are you ready to come fly with me?’
She didn’t return his smile. ‘Are you going to disappear again like you did last time?’
His eyes sparkled. ‘This time, I’m here to stay. If you want me.’
When she didn’t reply, his smile slipped somewhat. It was good to watch the self-doubt creeping in. She relaxed back in her chair.
‘I think a trial period is in order. I will kick you to the curb if you start reading my thoughts again. That’s annoying.’
The smile came back, full force. ’And I think I’m going to have my hands full with you.’
‘You’re damned right.’ In the blink of an eye, she was in his arms, and he was kissing her like a real man should, not an angel. Definitely not an angel.
Well, maybe a fallen one….
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