Falling Angel

Falling Angel

Anne Stuart

November 2019 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-959-9

Next stop: Hell. Unless . . .

 
Our PriceUS$14.95
Code978-1-61194-959-9
 
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Next stop: Hell. Unless . . .

He was a driven, heartless businessman, trampling anyone who got in his way, until one night when his grinchy-heart exploded. Now, he’s back on earth with a second chance to avoid his fate. His task? To right three of his wrongs. Fail, and he’s not going to like how his story ends.

All her fault . . .

Carrie Alexander lives a quiet life in a tiny town in Minnesota, recovering from a broken heart and her guilt. She’d been fool enough to fall in love with her heartless boss, and she’d not only been kicked to the curb, she’d brought down the whole town with her. She’s doing everything she can to make up for the disaster she wrought, and she has no time for the stranger who appears at her door on a wintry Thanksgiving night—no matter how angelically beautiful he is.

He’s going to need a miracle . . .

Healing the town is a relatively simple matter. Fixing lost souls will be a piece of cake. But how the hell can Gabriel heal the woman he’s fallen in love with, knowing he’s going to abandon her once again?


About the Author: Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the NYTimes, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.






RITA Award Winning Title!

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Chapter One

HE SQUINTED AT the swirling white light in front of him, trying to orient himself. He was cold, his feet, his hands, even the tip of his nose was cold. It took him a moment to realize the bright, fuzzy light in front of him was the headlights of the vehicle he was driving. It was snowing, heavily, and the light barely penetrated the thick darkness.

"Damn,” he said out loud, he wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe he wanted to hear the sound of his own voice, to prove he was alive.

Except that he wasn’t alive. He’d been dead from a massive heart attack for almost two years now. And it wasn’t the sound of his own voice coming from his throat.

He dropped his gaze, from the storm beyond his windshield, to his hands clutching the steering wheel. They weren’t his hands. His hands were on the small side, neat, perfectly manicured, slightly soft. The hands in front of him were big hands, with long, slender fingers, short nails, calluses and scars marring the skin. They were the hands of a working man. Not the hands of a man who’d never done anything more strenuous than use the carefully padded equipment at his upscale health club.

"Damn,” he said again, testing the sound. Lower than his voice. With a slight huskiness in it. No discernible accent. That was something at least. What the hell had Augusta done to him?

He glanced up in the rearview mirror, but all he could see was the swirling darkness behind him. He shifted it, angling his head to get a look at his face. And promptly drove off the snow-slick road into a ditch, banging his head against the windshield.

The engine stalled, the headlight spearing into the darkness. He hadn’t been wearing a seat belt. How strange. He always wore a seat belt. Of course, in New York, where he’d lived, it had been the law, and he’d been a very law-abiding citizen. But he’d been wearing seat belts since he’d first ridden in a car. And what use had they done him? he thought bitterly. Seat belts weren’t much good against a heart attack.

He jerked the mirror down, almost ripping it from its mooring in the battered roof of the pickup truck he’d been driving, and stared down. It was no wonder he’d driven off the road. A total stranger stared back at him.

Emerson Wyatt MacVey III had been a compact, good-looking yuppie, with perfectly styled sandy blond hair, even features, clear-framed glasses and carefully orthodontured teeth. He’d had icy blue eyes, and a faintly supercilious expression on his naturally pale face.

The man who stared back at him was his exact opposite in every way. Dark brown, almost black, eyes, long, curling black hair that obviously hadn’t been cut in months, a high forehead, high cheekbones, a large, sensual-looking mouth, and a strong Roman nose all composed a face that didn’t belong in his world.

He glanced down at the long, jeans-clad legs, the faded flannel shirt beneath the down vest, the big, strong hands that had first startled him. Whatever he had become, it was as different from Emerson MacVey as night and day.

Enough of his ingrained nature remained that he carefully turned off the truck lights, pulled the key from the ignition and locked the truck when he climbed out into the mini-blizzard. A stray thought hit him—who would steal an old truck from a ditch in the middle of a blinding snowstorm?—but he ignored that. Emerson was a man who locked his car. Even if he was currently possessed of an old pickup that looked as if it belonged in a junkyard, it was still his car, his possession, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else make off with it. Who knew what else this stranger possessed?

He could see lights in the distance, through the swirl of snow. He shivered as a mantle of snow covered him, and he stared down at his feet. Way down, and the feet were big, like his hands. And wearing only sneakers to wade through the drifts.

He shivered again, grimaced, and then struck out toward the lights. He felt a little dizzy, and he realized there was a throbbing where he’d smashed his head against the windshield. He touched it gingerly, and beneath the melting snow he could feel a respectable lump. Maybe that could explain away some of his confusion when he asked for help from whoever lived nearby. Because he sure as hell felt confused.

As he drew nearer, he saw it was an old farmhouse, in about as good condition as the truck he’d been driving. The front porch sagged, the windows had sheets of plastic stapled around them, rather than decent triple-track storm windows, and ripped tar paper had been tacked around the bottom of the house. He imagined that the roof was in equally shoddy condition beneath the thick blanket of snow. He could smell the rich, aromatic scent of wood smoke, and he stopped still. In his endless, timeless sojourn at the Waystation he’d been able to see and hear and even feel things. But there hadn’t been anything to smell.

He took another deep sniff. Turkey. Roast turkey, and the faint trace of cinnamon and apples. And he remembered with a start what Augusta had told him. He was coming back on Thanksgiving, leaving on Christmas Eve. It was Thanksgiving, and someone was just sitting down to dinner.

And he was standing outside in a blowing snowstorm, freezing to death. He shook himself, running a hand through his long, thick hair in a gesture that was both foreign and automatic. And he stepped up to the ancient, scarred door and rapped.

In a moment the door was flung open, letting out a flood of warmth and light and noise. Someone was standing there, silhouetted against the brightness, and he could make out the slender shape of a woman. Beyond her were others, various shapes and sizes, friendly, nosy, he thought, swaying slightly.

"My truck’s gone off the road,” he said, then fell silent, shocked once more at the unfamiliar sound of his new voice. Deeper than his old one. Slower. "Can I use your phone?”

She moved toward him, reaching for him, hands touching his snow-covered sleeve, and he realized he hadn’t been touched. Not since all those technicians had labored over him. And even then he hadn’t felt it. He’d been a few steps back, watching them as they tried to save him.

"You must be frozen,” she said in a voice that was light, musical, oddly charming. "Come in out of the storm and we’ll warm you up. It won’t do you any good to call anyone at this hour. Steve runs the only garage in town, and he’s gone to his mother’s for Thanksgiving. But there are a bunch of us here; we’ll get you out.”

He let her pull him into the kitchen, into the noise and warmth and hubbub, even as he wanted to pull back. It hurt in there. The bright light hurt his eyes, accustomed to the darkness. The friendly conversation hit his ears, accustomed to silence. The heat hurt his skin, which had grown so cold, so very cold. It was life, he realized. For the first time in months, no, years, he was no longer dead, no longer in a cool, sullen cocoon, and the shock of it was intensely painful.

He turned to look at his hostess, the woman who’d pulled him into the kitchen, and got his second shock of the night. This time it wasn’t a stranger’s eyes he stared into. It was the warm blue-eyed gaze of a woman who’d once spent three thankless months as his incompetent secretary. It was Carrie Alexander, one of the people he’d come to save.

She looked the same, and yet different, somehow. She’d always been thin, a dancer, be thought he remembered. But now she was even leaner, almost skinny, and there were faint shadows behind her smiling eyes. And then she was no longer smiling, as a frown washed over her face, and he wondered for a moment whether she’d recognized him.

"You’ve been hurt,” she said, reaching up, way up, to push his hair away from his face. He tried to jerk back, but she wouldn’t let him, and her fingers on his chilled skin were warm and incredibly gentle. "You must have hit your head when you went off the road. Let me do something about that while Maggie gets you a cup of coffee to warm you up.”

"Please...” he said, and wondered where that word came from. He’d never considered it an essential part of his vocabulary. "I just need to get my truck out of the ditch.”

"Jeffie and I will help you.”

A man stepped forward, a huge, lumbering bear of a man, except that for some reason his eyes weren’t quite on a level with Emerson’s. Once again he felt that dizzy, disoriented feeling, trapped in a strange body that was so unlike his own.

"I’m Lars Swensen, and this is my wife, Maggie.” A plain, careworn- looking woman flashed him a friendly smile as she handed him a mug of coffee.

Emerson hated coffee. He drank Earl Grey tea exclusively. It must be the cold that made the coffee smell so good. He took a tentative sip, and his entire body vibrated with pleasure.

"That’s it,” Carrie said in a soothing voice. "Just come into the bath­room and sit down and I’ll clean up that cut on your forehead. As soon as you have a nice hot meal inside you, you can deal with your truck.” For some reason he wasn’t in the mood to argue. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’d somehow managed to stumble onto one of the very people he was supposed to save, he’d be out of there before anyone realized what was happening. He didn’t like accepting the kindness of strangers, and it was only when he convinced himself that he had something important to gain that he gave in and followed Carrie Alexander’s slender figure out of the warm, crowded kitchen.

He had another startled glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror before she gently pushed him down onto the edge of the old claw- footed bathtub. He had plenty of opportunity to watch her as she rum­maged through the medicine cabinet, pulling out hydrogen peroxide, gauze bandages, swabs and pills. She’d gotten thinner, he was sure of it. He was a firm believer in the fact that no woman could ever be too thin or too rich. Carrie certainly had a problem with the latter. Anywhere he looked carefully, he could see signs of decay. The house was falling down around her ears, a fact she seemed cheerfully oblivious to.

And she was no thinner than Margot, the dancer from the Joffrey Ballet he’d been involved with for a few months. Carrie had been a dancer, too, hadn’t she? He recalled something of that sort. She certainly moved with the same sort of innate grace Margot had had, and some­thing more. The elegance of her movements in no way conveyed the sense of self-absorption Margot’s gestures had. Carrie simply seemed to be someone at ease with her slender, fluid body.

She turned back to him, and once again there was that startled expres­sion in her blue eyes. She began dabbing peroxide on his fore­head, pushing his ridiculously long hair out of the way, and she bit her lip as she concentrated.

"What’s wrong?” he found himself asking, wondering again whether she knew him.

She was eye level with him, and she managed a rueful smile. "It’s just that you’re so beautiful.”

She’d managed to startle him. "I beg your pardon?”

"Like a Renaissance sculpture. A Botticelli angel, maybe.” She shook her head, laughing at herself. "You must have heard that before.”

"Not recently,” he said, his voice dry.

Her fingers were cool now against his flushed skin. "Well, it can’t be a novel experience. You must have spent... what is it, thirty years... with that face. Surely you must be used to people’s reactions by now.”

"Not exactly.”

She glanced at him, startled, then obviously decided to drop it. She stood up, surveying her handiwork with satisfaction. "I think you’ll live,” she pronounced, and it was all he could do not to snort in derision.

"I’m Carrie Alexander, by the way. And you’re...”

Inspiration failed him. He reached for the first name he could think of, then shuddered when it came about. "Gabriel,” he said. He thought about that strange reflection in the mirror. "Gabriel Falconi,” he said, wondering why it sounded right.

Obviously she thought so, too. "It suits you. Come and meet the rest of my Thanksgiving guests. If we wait much longer my turkey will dry out.” She was out of the tiny bathroom, her long skirts swirling around her ankles, and he had no choice but to follow her, protesting.

"But my truck...”

"Your truck can wait. I’m not serving cold, dried-out turkey and congealed gravy to all these people. And you look like you’re in need of a good hot meal yourself. Come along. Someone will have set an extra place for you by now.”

"But...”

"Come along,” she repeated firmly, sounding like a cross between Augusta and Mary Poppins. She was six inches shorter than his new self, and if his age was still relevant, about four years younger, and she was acting like his mother. He didn’t like it.

He was, however, interested in having his first real meal in seven­teen months. If he could smell things he could probably taste them, too. And the thought of turkey and gravy, and what was almost definitely apple pie for dessert, was too much for him to resist. He didn’t even have to worry about cholesterol.

He was amazed that there were only eleven people at dinner. Twelve, if you counted the small scrap of humanity that slept peacefully in an old wicker basket in the corner. He’d met Lars and his wife, briefly, at least, and he was introduced to their other three children, Kirsten, with thick blond braids and an adolescent shyness, Nils, a sturdy boy in his teens, and Harald, who was just a little younger.

There were the Milsoms, a middle-aged couple who seemed clearly devoted to each other, Jeffie Baker, a sullen-looking teenager, and Gertrude Hansen, a bent-over, white-haired old lady with thick, impenetr­able glasses and a sweet, gentle manner. They all welcomed him like the prodigal son, and he found himself ensconced in the middle of the huge old table, surrounded by Hansens, Swensens and their ilk. And too far away from Carrie Alexander.

Without his asking, a plate arrived in front of him, piled high with turkey, rice, gravy and biscuits. His mug of coffee had appeared by his plate, refilled, and a glass of jug wine accompanied it He reached for his stainless steel fork, when a sudden silence fell over the chattering party.

"Would you ask the blessing, Lars?”Carrie asked, and Lars nodded.

Oh, God, he thought, writhing. He was going to have to sit there and listen while they prayed, for heaven’s sake. He’d fallen into a bunch of religious fanatics.

Lars, however, was simple and to the point."Bless this food which you have given to us so abundantly. Bless our friends and family, and welcome the stranger to our midst. Amen.”

"Amen,” the others muttered, heads bowed, and Gabriel cast a wor­ried glance around at them. But then, the uncomfortable moment passed. People began digging into their food, and conversation was once again at fever pitch, interspersed with the occasional moment of silence as people paused to chew their food.

He kept his head down, concentrating on the meal with an almost religious fervor, hoping no one would decide to cross-examine him. Particularly when he wasn’t certain what his story would be. He’d come up with a name, thank God, though it was an absurd name. He was just lucky he hadn’t hit upon something worse, like Angelo. Gabriel was bad enough. A fallen angel, all right. He only wondered how much further he was going to fall before all this was through. Whether he’d be able to accomplish the overwhelming task Augusta had set before him. Or whether he’d end up in the other place.

He didn’t want to go there. Bottom line, he wanted heaven, eternal happiness, wings and all that crap. At least he had a head start. Carrie Alexander was only a few feet away. He wouldn’t have to hunt her down to solve whatever crisis his life had precipitated.

Though right now she didn’t look very troubled. If only Augusta had been more specific. The woman sitting at the head of the table didn’t look as if her life had been a series of disasters. She looked calm, happy, at peace with the world. What in the world could she want that he could possibly give her?

Three people, Augusta had said. Three people whose lives he’d destroyed. Carrie didn’t look destroyed, but looks could be deceiving. And where the hell was he going to find the other two? They couldn’t all be in this tiny little backwater....

He realized then that he didn’t even know where he was. It might be Upstate New York or Alaska or Siberia, for all he knew. Somewhere cold and snowy. The happy din had quieted somewhat, and he drained his cup of coffee with automatic appreciation and caught Lars’s eye.

"What’s the name of this town?” he asked, hoping he sounded natural. He didn’t dare ask what state he was in, besides the obvious state of confusion.

"Town?” Lars laughed. "I don’t know if I’d call Angel Falls a town, exactly. More a dot on the map.”

Gabriel’s empty mug slipped out of his hand. "Angel Falls?” he echoed, getting used to the faint roughness in his new voice. This time, at least, it was justified.

"High-flown kind of name for such an unpretentious little town, isn’t it?” murmured Milsom, the man next to him. "Named after the falls, of course, and they were named after the lake, and I think it was probably missionaries who named the lake some two, three hundred years ago. So we’re stuck with the name, and it’s gotten so most of us sort of like it.”

"Especially during the Christmas season,” Carrie said. She wasn’t eating much, Gabriel noticed. She hadn’t put much on her plate to begin with, and most of it was still there, just slightly rearranged.

"So what are you doing driving through this part of Minnesota during a snowstorm?” Lars asked. "Shouldn’t you be with your family on Thanksgiving?”

"Minnesota?” he echoed, momentarily shocked.

"Where’d you think you were? Hawaii?” Jeffie Baker spoke up, breaking the sullen silence he’d maintained through most of the meal. Gabriel wished he’d continued to shut up.

"Guess I must have crossed the border without realizing it,” Gabriel said.

"The border’s about two hours in any direction,” Lars pointed out, not unkindly. At least he let the question of family go. "What do you do for a living, Gabriel?”

"A living?”Instinctively he looked at his hands. Big hands, work worn. He hadn’t the faintest idea what they were used to doing.

"Don’t tell me,” Lars said, and Gabriel breathed a sigh of relief. "I can tell just by looking at your hands. You’re a carpenter, like me.”

"Am I?” he muttered. "I mean, of course.” He’d never touched a woodworking tool in his life, but at least he wouldn’t be forced to prove it.

Lars held up his own hands. They were squarer, broader, but they had the same look to them. "Takes one to know one. Were you looking for work around here? Because I have to tell you, there’s not much. We’re a poor community since the factory closed down, and it doesn’t look like things are about to improve.”

"I’m not planning to take any work away from you...” Gabriel said automatically, not even wondering why he’d say such an uncharacteristic thing. Emerson would take anything he could get in his quest for success.

"You’d be welcome to it if there were any,” Lars said flatly. "We’ve just been scraping by. There’s some logging work that might be opening up before long, but I don’t know if they need more than one.”

"I’m not looking for work.”






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