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The road to hell begins when the reaper darkens her door.
A chance encounter with a dying stranger opens an empathic connection between down-on-her-luck caregiver Vivian Bedford and the world of spirits. Lazarus Darkmore, a grim reaper in a charming and seductive package, seeks to recruit her as a soul broker. Guardian spirit Ezra and his new apprentice Zeke offer protection from the reaper–so long as she works on their side of afterlife management. But these guardians are no angels, and their methods leave Vivian fearing the price of their protection.
Her ability to channel conscious energy from the living, something no guardian or reaper can do, could be a game changer. If she can control it, she can use this power as leverage. And she needs a bargaining chip, especially when she discovers that incapacitated living mortals can supply energy for the spirit realm, making her disabled sister Mae a prime target for guardian and reaper alike.
Can she move from pawn to major player in order to save Mae, and herself, from a horrific fate beyond the simple and fleeting terrors of death?
The sound of the crash struck her first.
Her tires screeched after she slammed on the brakes, barely missing the blue Sentra in front of her. It had one of those “Choose Life” stickers plastered on its left bumper, the smiling infant illuminated by the red of taillights.
The image still burned in her brain as she made a sharp left.
Her car fishtailed. She registered more squealing tires and the shriek of metal on metal signaling impact. Her heartbeat hammered above the clamor all around.
Breathe in, breathe out. The car stopped dead. But how?
Am I hit? Did I hit someone? Her airbag hadn’t deployed, but the pain in her left shoulder let her know her seatbelt had gotten a workout. Breathe, focus, look around! Darkness had already swallowed much of the summer evening twilight’s soft glow, but there was still enough light to make out her surroundings. I’m off the road and half in a ditch, but I think I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. God, what happened?
There had been an impact. She’d felt it, heard it, but what had she hit? The car in front of her?
With a deep breath, she leaned forward with caution and peered into the ditch. The Sentra had landed in the narrow end of the gorge several feet away from danger. Its driver wrestled with his door, wedged against the side of the trench. When it didn’t budge, he gave up, scooted over, and climbed out of the passenger door. Vivian’s car teetered over a deeper part of the ditch. She couldn’t see them, but knew jagged boulders lurked at the bottom below her front tires. She knew the road well.
It was close to home.
She managed to shift into park with a shaky hand, her right leg cramped from maintaining pressure on the brake. Get up! Get out! She turned off the ignition, wincing in pain, and shifted in her seat to remove her seatbelt. Unsure exactly how far her car lurched over the ditch’s edge, she moved slow and easy, exiting the vehicle and closing the door. She clicked the automatic door locks and put her keys into her pocket out of habit. Shock and the surreal quality of the unfolding events kept her running on autopilot. The urge to move, to act, forced her to her feet. If she could breathe, she could move. If she could move, she could function. If she could function, she’d be all right.
Judging from the commotion further up the road, someone else involved in the accident was far from all right.
Her feet carried her away from her car and toward the small but growing crowd. The acrid stench of smoke, gas, and burnt rubber assaulted her. The glare of headlights hurt her eyes. She walked forward, ignoring the other spectators who ignored her in turn. Their chatter remained distant—conversations and comfort, tears and terrified mutterings, men and women speaking all around to one another.
No one spoke to Vivian. She spoke to no one.
Sirens wailed in the distance. She walked along the periphery of the crowd, grateful to go unnoticed so she could concentrate and just keep moving. A low rumble of dread gnawed at her gut, warning her to stop, but her legs refused to obey.
Time seemed disjointed, slowing, then skipping like a damaged film reel. She looked back at her car and realized she’d been inches from oblivion. If I hadn’t stopped when I did…if the guy behind me hadn’t…. Any sooner, she’d have been rear-ended and launched full into the ditch. A moment later, her car would’ve been crumpled between the Sentra and the F-350 behind her. But she’d hit the Sentra, hadn’t she?
No, no damage to the rear of the vehicle, and her front bumper remained intact, as far as she could tell from the distance. How had she stopped? Shifting her gaze to the F-350, Vivian saw it from the side now, the black truck adorned with a custom flame job painted across the doors and bed. The brawny owner inspected the body for damage. Flecks of dried mud and grime rose from the undercarriage and dulled the flares above. The vehicle’s powerful bulk was adapted to rough terrain, like its owner. She and her sleek sedan were not. They’d all been going at least 35, maybe 40 miles an hour. She had to look away. Disaster had come so close.
I should’ve been knocked into that ditch. How did I miss it?
Shivering, she caught a flash of white in the periphery, but when she turned, it was gone, departing along with the warm breeze that swept in out of nowhere and chased the odd chill that surrounded her away. Infused with energy and a strange sense of urgency, she shook off the remnants of unease and continued.
She had to keep moving.
Another man lumbered across the street toward the crowd. He moved in the long shadows cast by the setting sun, looking from side to side and peering over his shoulder. He seemed as intent on his journey as Vivian was on hers, but unlike the other onlookers, he at least spared her a nod before moving along. Well, she thought he had. The dark green ball cap he wore shielded his eyes, and thus his intent, but he kept walking in the same direction. No one else paid him any mind.
When she turned back to face her destination, she saw what remained at ground zero of the evening’s terror. The poor soul in that twisted and crumpled wreckage before her hadn’t been so lucky. No one could walk away from this crash.
She took two steps closer. Smoke rose from the damaged engine, along with the occasional spark. Everyone around her stayed back. A man’s hand emerged from the driver’s side window, along with a soft groan. Another step closer and she heard his ragged breathing.
Vivian took one more step, close enough for her arm to brush the car’s cooling frame. She met his stare through the window.
Oh dear God, no.
Her gaze burned a path from his face down to his torso, and then she had to look away from what remained of his body below the waist. The mangled steering column and dashboard covered much of the damage, but not quite enough. He’ll never walk again. He’ll be paralyzed. If he took a blow to the head, he’ll be a vegetable.
Vivian’s pulse raced. Her hands and fingers went numb.
He’d be better off dead.
Fighting the wave of revulsion, she took one more step toward the car. Every nerve in her body screamed for her to run away, to leave this thing that used to be a man and never look back. This was his nightmare, not hers.
She had already lived one of her own.
With palpable effort, Vivian reached for him with one trembling arm and took his hand in hers, gasping when she felt his skin.
Jesus, he’s so cold!
The man’s grip was iron and it caught her off guard. She hadn’t anticipated the strength of it or the effect it would have on her. The bone-deep chill started where their hands joined and spread through her body. She flinched and tried to pull away.
The man squeezed her hand even tighter and tugged, pulling her closer. His brilliant green-eyed gaze was filled with fear, pain, and something she couldn’t quite define. Was it anger? He closed his eyes after a moment and a shocking burst of heat traveled through her from their joined hands. His touch chased away the chill, soothing her from ragged fingertips to her battered palm.
When he opened his eyes again, the man’s expression mirrored the sudden and inexplicable relief surging within her. No fear, no pain. These weren’t her emotions. They must be his. But how was she able to experience them as if they were her own? Then a singular emotion reflected in his gaze suddenly pierced her with vivid clarity.
Vivian swore she could see the gray light of this man’s regret emanating from his very pores as it coursed through her.
His expression pleaded, and he spoke to her in a harsh rasp. “I’m…sorry.”
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered, even though it wasn’t.
His chest heaved and his eyes dulled, rolling back as he gasped for air. Two more shallow breaths later, he stilled completely.
“No, please. You have to stay with me. Please, stay with me,” she pleaded, shaking his shoulder with one trembling hand even as she felt his grip slipping from her other.
“Oh no, oh dear God, someone help him!”
“Ma’am, I need you to step away from the vehicle,” a muffled male voice said from behind her.
“Where the hell did she come from?” asked another man.
“Easy, bro, she must’ve just wandered in before we put up the barricades.”
“No, she didn’t. She just popped up out of nowhere!”
Hands gripped her shoulders and tried to pull her away, but she struggled free, refusing to let go of the man in the car. He wasn’t blinking. He wasn’t moving. His pallor faded to ash even as she begged him to come back.
“Please, ma’am, let us help him.”
She yelped when a second set of hands grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the ground. She wailed in rage and agony when she lost contact with the man’s hand. She kicked and clawed at her captor until he dropped her, then she spun around and lifted her hands, ready to fight.
“Jesus, lady, calm down. We’re paramedics,” one of the uniformed men said. “We’re here to help. I’m Ed, and this is Abner.” He gestured to taller man beside him. They stood between her and the wreckage. Both began moving forward with outstretched hands as she backed away.
“Why don’t you come with us so we can check you for injuries?” Ed spoke in a soft voice, taking slow, measured steps toward her and holding out his hand.
“I’m not injured. I…I can’t leave him.”
“Were you in the car with him, ma’am?” Abner asked. His sharp tone carried a note of accusation, or perhaps suspicion.
No, not that. He was afraid of her.
“No,” she muttered, confused. She shook it off, focusing instead on the overwhelming urge to return to the man in the car.
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know him, I just—I saw the crash and I came over. And I need to get back to him. I—I need to help him. Let me go back to him.”
“Shh, it’s okay. Come on with us now.”
Ed lurched forward and grabbed her wrist. She tried to pull away but his scream caught her off guard. He dropped her arm and stumbled back, clutching his hand against his chest and groaning as if in terrible pain. Looking down, she swore she saw a red spark flash out of her fingertips, but by the time she blinked, it was gone.
“Ed? You okay?” Abner stepped away from Vivian and turned his attention to his colleague.
“Jesus Christ, my hand is on fire. What the hell did you do to me, lady?” Ed groaned, arm still clutched to his chest and eyes wide with shock and fear.
“Let me have a look.” Abner tugged on his buddy’s arm. After a quick exam he said, “I don’t see anything. Must’ve been static electricity or something.”
“Static electricity, my ass,” Ed muttered, wringing his hand and staring at Vivian like she’d sprouted a second head. He and Abner exchanged a few more hushed words before he turned his attention back to the mangled car and the man inside.
Abner spoke louder then, snapping Vivian back to attention. “As for you, you really should go over to the ambulance and let our team have a look at you. The police will want your statement too.”
He didn’t make any further attempt to touch her. Instead, he pointed to the ambulance parked behind the growing crowd of onlookers while inspecting her with a wary expression. What the hell just happened? Numb with shock and an inexplicable sense of loss, she willed her feet to carry her over to the ambulance, leaving the stranger to his fate.
She paused, glancing back over her shoulder. “Will he be okay?”
“We’ll do all we can, ma’am. You just go on now and take care of you.”
Hold on to your hats, because Vivian is about to enter the world of spirits, and not just the transparent kind or your garden variety poltergeists, these spirits are powerful.
And some are less than friendly…