DELPHIC BEACH, MAINE PRESENT DAY
PATCH WAS STANDING BEHIND ME, HIS HANDS on my hips, his body relaxed. He stood two inches over six feet tall and had a lean, athletic build that even loose-fit jeans and a T-shirt couldn't conceal. The color of his hair gave midnight a run for its money, with eyes to match. His smile was sexy and warned of trouble, but I'd made up my mind that not all trouble was bad.
Overhead, fireworks lit up the night sky, raining streams of color into the Atlantic. The crowd oohed and aahed. It was late June, and Maine was jumping into summer with both feet, celebrating the beginning of two months of sun, sand, and tourists with deep pockets. I was celebrating two months of sun, sand, and plenty of exclusive time with Patch. I'd enrolled in one summer school course--chemistry--and had every intention of letting Patch monopolize the rest of my free time.
The fire department was setting off the fireworks on a dock that couldn't have been more than two hundred yards down the beach from where we stood, and I felt the boom of each one vibrate in the sand under my feet. Waves crashed into the beach just down the hill, and carnival music tinkled at top volume. The smell of cotton candy, popcorn, and sizzling meat hung thick in the air, and my stomach reminded me I hadn't eaten since lunch.
"I'm going to grab a cheeseburger," I told Patch. "Want anything?"
"Nothing on the menu."
I smiled. "Why, Patch, are you flirting with me?"
He kissed the crown of my head. "Not yet. I'll grab your cheeseburger. Enjoy the last of the fireworks."
I snagged one of his belt loops to stop him. "Thanks, but I'm ordering. I can't take the guilt."
He raised his eyebrows in inquiry.
"When was the last time the girl at the hamburger stand let you pay for food?"
"It's been a while."
"It's been never. Stay here. If she sees you, I'll spend the rest of the night with a guilty conscience."
Patch opened his wallet and pulled out a twenty. "Leave her a nice tip."
It was my turn to raise my eyebrows. "Trying to redeem yourself for all those times you took free food?"
"Last time I paid, she chased me down and shoved the money in my pocket. I'm trying to avoid another groping."
It sounded made up, but knowing Patch, it was probably true.
I hunted down the end of a long line that wrapped around the hamburger stand, finding it near the entrance to the indoor carousel. Judging by the size of the line, I estimated a fifteen-minute wait just to place my order. One hamburger stand on the entire beach. It felt un-American.
After a few minutes of restless waiting, I was taking what must have been my tenth bored look around when I spotted Marcie Millar standing two spots back. Marcie and I had gone to school together since kindergarten, and in the eleven years since, I'd seen more of her than I cared to remember. Because of her, the whole school had seen more of my underwear than necessary. In junior high, Marcie's usual MO was stealing my bra from my gym locker and pinning it to the bulletin board outside the main offices, but occasionally she got creative and used it as a centerpiece in the cafeteria--both my A cups filled with vanilla pudding and topped with maraschino cherries. Classy, I know. Marcie's skirts were two sizes too small and five inches too short. Her hair was strawberry blond, and she had the shape of a Popsicle stick--turn her sideways and she practically disappeared. If there was a scoreboard keeping track of wins and losses between us, I was pretty sure Marcie had double my score.
"Hey," I said, unintentionally catching her eye and not seeing any way around a bare-minimum greeting.
"Hey," she returned in what scraped by as a civil tone.
Seeing Marcie at Delphic Beach tonight was like playing What's Wrong with This Picture? Marcie's dad owned the Toyota dealership in Coldwater, her family lived in an upscale hillside neighborhood, and the Millars took pride in being the only citizens of Coldwater welcomed into the prestigious Harraseeket Yacht Club. At this very minute, Marcie's parents were probably in Freeport, racing sailboats and ordering salmon.
By contrast, Delphic was a slum beach. The thought of a yacht club was laughable. The sole restaurant came in the form of a whitewashed hamburger stand with your choice of ketchup or mustard. On a good day, fries were offered in the mix. The entertainment slanted toward loud arcades and bumper cars, and after dark, the parking lot was known to sell more drugs than a pharmacy.
Not the kind of atmosphere Mr. and Mrs. Millar would have their daughter polluting herself in.
"Could we move any slower, people?" Marcie called up the line. "Some of us are starving to death back here."
"There's only one person working the counter," I told her.
"So? They should hire more people. Supply and demand."
Given her GPA, Marcie was the last person who should be spouting economics.
Ten minutes later, I'd made progress, and stood close enough to the hamburger stand to read the word MUSTARD scribbled in black Magic Marker on the communal yellow squirt bottle. Behind me, Marcie did the whole shifting-weight-between-hips-and-sighing thing.
"Starving with a capital S," she complained.
The guy in line ahead of me paid and carried off his food.
"A cheeseburger and a Coke," I told the girl working the stand.
While she stood over the grill making my order, I turned back to Marcie. "So. Who are you here with?" I didn't particularly care who she'd come with, especially since we didn't share any of the same friends, but my sense of courtesy got the better of me. Besides, Marcie hadn't done anything overtly rude to me in weeks. And we'd stood in relative peace the past fifteen minutes. Maybe it was the beginning of a truce. Bygones and all that.
She yawned, as if talking to me was more boring than waiting in line and staring at the backs of people's heads. "No offense, but I'm not in a chatty mood. I've been in line for what feels like five hours, waiting on an incompetent girl who obviously can't cook two hamburgers at once."
The girl behind the counter had her head ducked low, concentrating on peeling premade hamburger patties from the wax paper, but I knew she'd heard. She probably hated her job. She probably secretly spat on the hamburger patties when she turned her back. I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of her shift, she went out to her car and wept.
"Doesn't your dad mind that you're hanging out at Delphic Beach?" I asked Marcie, narrowing my eyes ever so slightly. "Might tarnish the estimable Millar family reputation. Especially now that your dad's been accepted into the Harraseeket Yacht Club."
Marcie's expression cooled. "I'm surprised your dad doesn't mind you're here. Oh, wait. That's right. He's dead."
My initial reaction was shock. My second was indignation at her cruelty. A knot of anger swelled in my throat.
"What?" she argued with a one-shoulder shrug. "He's dead. It's a fact. Do you want me to lie about the facts?"
"What did I ever do to you?"
"You were born."
Her complete lack of sensitivity yanked me inside out--so much so that I didn't even have a comeback. I snatched my cheeseburger and Coke off the counter, leaving the twenty in its place. I wanted badly to hurry back to Patch, but this was between me and Marcie. If I showed up now, one look at my face would tell Patch something was wrong. I didn't need to drag him into the middle. Taking a moment alone to collect myself, I found a bench within sight of the hamburger stand and sat down as gracefully as I could, not wanting to give Marcie the power to ruin my night. The only thing that could make this moment worse was knowing she was watching, satisfied she'd stuffed me into a little black hole of self-pity. I took a bite of cheeseburger, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. All I could think of was dead meat. Dead cows. My own dead father.
I threw the cheeseburger into the trash and kept walking, feeling tears slip down the back of my throat.
Hugging my arms tightly at the elbows, I hurried toward the shack of bathrooms at the edge of the parking lot, hoping to make it behind a stall door before the tears started falling. There was a steady line trickling out of the women's room, but I edged my way through the doorway and positioned myself in front of one of the grime-coated mirrors. Even under the low-watt bulb, I could tell my eyes were red and glassy. I wet a paper towel and pressed it to my eyes. What was Marcie's problem? What had I ever done to her that was cruel enough to deserve this?
Drawing a few stabilizing breaths, I squared my shoulders and constructed a brick wall in my mind, placing Marcie on the far side of it. What did I care what she said? I didn't even like her. Her opinion meant nothing. She was rude and self-centered and attacked below the belt. She didn't know me, and she definitely didn't know my dad. Crying over a single word that fell from her mouth was a waste.
Get over it, I told myself.
I waited until the red rimming my eyes faded before leaving the restroom. I roamed the crowd, looking for Patch, and found him at one of the ball toss games, his back to me. Rixon was at his side, probably wagering money on Patch's inability to knock over a single weighted bowling pin. Rixon was a fallen angel who had a long history with Patch, and their ties ran deep to the point of brotherhood. Patch didn't let many people into his life, and trusted even fewer, but if there was one person who knew all his secrets, it was Rixon.
Up until two months ago, Patch had also been a fallen angel. Then he saved my life, earned his wings back, and became my guardian angel. He was supposed to play for the good guys now, but I secretly sensed that his connection to Rixon, and the world of fallen angels, meant more to him. And even though I didn't want to admit it, I sensed that he regretted the archangels' decision to make him my guardian. After all, it wasn't what he wanted.
He wanted to become human.
My cell phone rang, jarring me from my thoughts. It was my best friend Vee's ringtone, but I let voice mail take her call. With a squeeze of guilt, I vaguely noted it was the second call of hers I'd avoided today. I justified my guilt with the thought that I'd see her first thing tomorrow. Patch, on the other hand, I wouldn't see again until tomorrow evening. I planned to enjoy every minute I had with him.
I watched him pitch the ball at a table neatly lined with six bowling pins, my stomach giving a little flutter when his T-shirt crept up in the back, revealing a stripe of skin. I knew from experience that every inch of him was hard, defined muscle. His back was smooth and perfect too, the scars from when he'd fallen once again replaced with wings--wings I, and every other human, couldn't see.
"Five dollars says you can't do it again," I said, coming up behind him.
Patch looked back and grinned. "I don't want your money, Angel."
"Hey now, kids, let's keep this discussion PG-rated," Rixon said.
"All three remaining pins," I challenged Patch.
"What kind of prize are we talking about?" he asked.
"Bloody hell," Rixon said. "Can't this wait until you're alone?"
Patch gave me a secret smile, then shifted his weight back, cradling the ball into his chest. He dropped his right shoulder, brought his arm around, and sent the ball flying forward as hard as he could. There was a loud crack! and the remaining three pins scattered off the table.
"Aye, now you're in trouble, lass," Rixon shouted at me over the commotion caused by a pocket of onlookers, who were clapping and whistling for Patch.
Patch leaned back against the booth and arched his eyebrows at me. The gesture said it all: Pay up.
"You got lucky," I said.
"I'm about to get lucky."
"Choose a prize," the old man running the booth barked at Patch, bending to pick up the fallen pins.
"The purple bear," Patch said, and accepted a hideous-looking teddy bear with matted purple fur. He held it out to me.
"For me?" I said, pressing a hand to my heart.
"You like the rejects. At the grocery store, you always take the dented cans. I've been paying attention." He hooked his finger in the waistband of my jeans and pulled me close. "Let's get out of here."
"What did you have in mind?" But I was all warm and fluttery inside, because I knew exactly what he had in mind.
I shook my head. "Not going to happen. My mom's home. We could go to your place," I hinted.
We'd been together two months, and I still didn't know where Patch lived. And not for lack of trying. Two weeks into a relationship seemed long enough to be invited over, especially since Patch lived alone. Two months felt like overkill. I was trying to be patient, but my curiosity kept getting in the way. I knew nothing about the private, intimate details of Patch's life, like the color of paint on his walls. If his can opener was electric or manual. The brand of soap he showered with. If his sheets were cotton or silk.
"Let me guess," I said. "You live in a secret compound buried in the underbelly of the city."
"Are there dishes in the sink? Dirty underwear on the floor? It's a lot more private than my place."
"True, but the answer's still no."
"Has Rixon seen your place?"
"Rixon is need-to-know."
"I'm not need-to-know?"
His mouth twitched. "There's a dark side to need-to-know."
"If you showed me, you'd have to kill me?" I guessed.
He wrapped his arms around me and kissed my forehead. "Close enough. What time's curfew?"
"Ten. Summer school starts tomorrow." That, and my mom had practically taken a part-time job finding opportunities to drop the knife between me and Patch. If I'd been out with Vee, I could say with absolute certainty that my curfew would have stretched to ten thirty. I couldn't blame my mom for not trusting Patch--there was a point in my life when I'd felt similarly--but it would have been extremely convenient if every now and then she relaxed her vigilance.
Like, say, tonight. Besides, nothing was going to happen. Not with my guardian angel standing inches away.
Patch looked at his watch. "Time to roll."
At 10:04, Patch flipped a U-turn in front of the farmhouse and parked by the mailbox. He cut the engine and the headlights, leaving us alone in the dark countryside. We sat that way for several moments before he said, "Why so quiet, Angel?"
I instantly snapped to attention. "Am I being quiet? Just lost in thought."
A barely-there smile curved Patch's mouth. "Liar. What's wrong?"
"You're good," I said.
His smile widened a fraction. "Really good."
"I ran into Marcie Millar at the hamburger stand," I admitted. So much for keeping my troubles to myself. Obviously they were still smoldering under the surface. On the other hand, if I couldn't talk to Patch, who could I talk to? Two months ago our relationship involved a lot of spontaneous kissing inside our cars, outside our cars, under the bleachers, and on top of the kitchen table. It also involved a lot of wandering hands, tousled hair, and smudged lip gloss. But it was so much more than that now. I felt connected to Patch emotionally. His friendship meant more to me than a hundred casual acquaintances. When my dad died, he'd left a huge hollowness inside me that threatened to eat me from the inside out. The emptiness was still there, but the ache didn't cut half as deep. I didn't see the point in staying frozen in the past, when I had everything I wanted right now. And I had Patch to thank for that. "She was thoughtful enough to remind me my dad is dead."
"Want me to talk to her?"
"That sounds a bit The Godfather."
"What started the war between the two of you?"
"That's the thing. I don't even know. It used to be over who got the last chocolate milk in the lunch crate. Then one day in junior high, Marcie marched into school and spray-painted ‘whore' on my locker. She didn't even try to be sneaky about it. The whole school was looking on."
"She went postal just like that? No reason?"
"Yup." No reason I was aware of, anyway.
He tucked one of my curls behind my ear. "Who's winning the war?"
"Marcie, but not by much."
His smile grew. "Go get her, Tiger."
"And here's another thing. Whore? In junior high, I hadn't even kissed anyone. Marcie should have spray-painted her own locker."
"Starting to sound like you've got a hang-up, Angel." He slid his finger under the strap of my tank top, his touch sending electricity humming along my skin. "I bet I can take your mind off Marcie."
A few lights were burning in the upper level of the farmhouse, but since I didn't see my mom's face pressed up against any of the windows, I figured we had some time. I unlatched my seat belt and bent across the console, finding Patch's mouth in the darkness. I kissed him slowly, savoring the taste of sea salt on his skin. He'd shaved this morning, but now his stubble rasped my chin. His mouth skimmed my throat and I felt a touch of tongue, causing my heart to bump against my ribs.
His kiss moved to my bare shoulder. He nudged the strap of my tank top down and brushed his mouth lower along my arm. Right then, I wanted to be as close to him as I could. I never wanted him to go. I needed him in my life right now, and tomorrow, and the day after. I needed him like I'd never needed anyone.
I crawled over the console, straddling his lap. I slid my hands up his chest, grasped him behind the neck, and pulled him in. His arms circled my waist, locking me against him, and I snuggled in deeper.
Caught up in the moment, I ran my hands under his shirt, thinking only of how I loved the feel of his body heat spreading into my hands. As soon as my fingers brushed the place on his back where his wing scars used to be, a distant light exploded at the back of my mind. Perfect darkness, ruptured by one burst of blinding light. It was like watching a cosmic phenomenon in space from millions of miles away. I felt my mind being sucked inside Patch's, into all the thousands of private memories stored there, when suddenly he took my hand and slid it lower, away from the place where his wings joined with his back, and everything spun sharply back to normal.
"Nice try," he murmured, his lips brushing mine as he spoke.
I nibbled his lower lip. "If you could see into my past just by touching my back, you'd have a hard time resisting the temptation too."
"I have a hard time keeping my hands off you without that added bonus."
I laughed, but my expression quickly turned serious. Even with considerable concentration, I could hardly remember what life had been like without Patch. At night, when I lay in bed, I could remember with perfect clarity the low timbre of his laugh, the way his smile curved slightly higher on the right, the touch of his hands--hot, smooth, and delicious on my skin. But it was only with serious effort that I could pick up memories from the previous sixteen years. Maybe because those memories paled in comparison to Patch. Or maybe because there was nothing good there at all.
"Don't ever leave me," I told Patch, hooking a finger in the collar of his shirt and pulling him close.
"You're mine, Angel," he murmured, brushing the words across my jawbone as I arched my neck higher, inviting him to kiss everywhere. "You have me forever."
"Show me you mean it," I said solemnly.
He studied me a moment, then reached behind his neck and unclasped the plain silver chain he'd worn since the day I met him. I had no idea where the chain had come from, or the significance behind it, but I sensed it was important to him. It was the only piece of jewelry he wore, and he kept it tucked under his shirt, next to his skin. I'd never seen him take it off.
His hands slid to the nape of my neck, where he fastened the chain. The metal fell on my skin, still warm from him.
"I was given this when I was an archangel," he said. "To help me discern truth from deception."
I fingered it gently, in awe of its importance. "Does it still work?"
"Not for me." He interlaced our fingers and turned my hand over to kiss my knuckles. "Your turn."
I twisted a small copper ring off the middle finger of my left hand and held it out to him. A heart was hand-carved into the smooth underside of the ring.
Patch held the ring between his fingers, silently examining it.
"My dad gave it to me the week before he was killed," I said.
Patch's eyes flicked up. "I can't take this."
"It's the most important thing in the world to me. I want you to have it." I bent his fingers, folding them around the ring.
"Nora." He hesitated. "I can't take this."
"Promise me you'll keep it. Promise me nothing will ever come between us." I held his eyes, refusing to let him turn away. "I don't want to be without you. I don't want this to ever end."
Patch's eyes were slate black, darker than a million secrets stacked on top of each other. He dropped his gaze to the ring in his hand, turning it over slowly.
"Swear you'll never stop loving me," I whispered.
Ever so slightly, he nodded.
I gripped his collar and pulled him against me, kissing him more fervently, sealing the promise between us. I locked my fingers between his, the sharp edge of the ring biting into our palms. Nothing I did seemed to bring me close enough to him, no amount of him was enough. The ring ground deeper into my hand, until I was certain it had broken skin. A blood promise.
When I thought my chest might collapse without air, I pulled away, resting my forehead against his. My eyes were shut, my breathing causing my shoulders to rise and fall. "I love you," I murmured. "More than I think I should."
I waited for him to answer, but instead his hold on me tightened, almost protectively. He turned his head toward the woods across the road.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I heard something."
"That was me saying I love you," I said, smiling as I traced his mouth with my finger.
I expected him to return the smile, but his eyes were still fixed on the trees, which cast shifting shadows as their branches nodded in the breeze.
"What's out there?" I asked, following his gaze. "A coyote?"
"Something isn't right."
My blood chilled, and I slid off his lap. "You're starting to scare me. Is it a bear?" We hadn't seen bears in years, but the farmhouse was pushed out on the very edge of town, and bears were known to wander closer to town after hibernation, when they were hungry and searching for food.
"Turn the headlights on and honk the horn," I said. Training my eyes on the woods, I watched for movement. My heart edged up a little, remembering the time my parents and I had watched from the farmhouse windows as a bear rocked our car, smelling food inside.
Behind me, the porch lights flashed. I didn't need to turn back to know my mom was standing in the doorway, frowning and tapping her foot.
"What is it?" I asked Patch once more. "My mom's coming out. Is she safe?"
He turned on the engine and put the Jeep in drive. "Go inside. There's something I need to do."
"Go inside? Are you kidding? What's going on?"
"Nora!" my mom called, coming down the steps, her tone aggravated. She stopped five feet from the Jeep and motioned for me to lower the window.
"Patch?" I tried again.
"I'll call you later."
My mom hauled the door open. "Patch," she acknowledged curtly.
"Blythe." He gave a distracted nod.
She turned to me. "You're four minutes late."
"I was four minutes early yesterday."
"Rollover minutes don't work with curfews. Inside. Now."
Not wanting to leave until Patch answered me, but not seeing much of a choice, I told him, "Call me."
He nodded once, but the singular focus to his eyes told me his thoughts were elsewhere. As soon as I was out of the car and on solid ground, the Jeep revved forward, not wasting time accelerating. Wherever Patch was going, it was in a hurry.
"When I give you a curfew, I expect you to keep it," Mom said.
"Four minutes late," I said, my tone suggesting she might be overreacting.
That earned me a stare that had disapproval stamped all over it. "Last year your dad was killed. A couple months ago, you had your own brush with death. I think I've earned the right to be over-protective." She walked stiffly back to the house, arms clamped over her chest.
Okay, I was an unfeeling, insensitive daughter. Point taken.
I turned my attention to the row of trees at the edge of the road opposite. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. I waited for a chill to warn me there was something back there, something I couldn't see, but nothing felt off. A warm summer breeze rustled past, the sound of cicadas filling the air. If anything, the woods looked peaceful under the silver glow of moonlight.
Patch hadn't seen anything in the woods. He'd turned away because I'd said three very big, very stupid words, which had gushed out before I could stop them. What had I been thinking? No. What was Patch thinking now? Had he driven off to escape responding? I was pretty sure I knew the answer. And I was pretty sure it explained why I was left staring at the back of his Jeep.
© 2010 Becca Fitzpatrick