Dark Mercy (Preternaturals #0)

Chapter 2

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Chapter

Like every priest initiated into the mysteries of the Catholic Church, he knew the score about demons. He knew they were out there, flesh and blood beings who could compel and work their dark magic. At times, as he looked out at the assembled congregants at the midnight service, wondering if there might be one hiding among the flock. But no, they couldn’t get inside a church—not standard demons anyway. Whatever else may lurk out there amongst the shadows, Hadrian wasn’t sure of the rules for them. He didn’t know where they could go or how they could hide, and felt ill-prepared to deal with realities he hadn’t been taught to handle.

Beyond exorcisms and the knowledge of reincarnation, dimensions, and the awareness he was in hell—literally—there wasn’t much else they were encouraged to explore or know a lot about. They’d been charged with keeping the flock in the dark about these matters and guiding them to do the best they could in life. Hadrian often wondered what other secrets were hidden in the higher levels of the Church. What did bishops and archbishops know? What did the Holy See know?

Hadrian blinked. The assembled were watching from their pews with rapt attention, waiting for him to close with the benediction and blessings of peace upon them. He hurried through the remainder of the service, then escaped to the back of the church to greet each individual as they left. He wasn’t surprised to see the dark angel at the back of the group. Of course temptation would only visit when all other distractions had exited the building. Life would be too easy otherwise.

He turned his attention back to the front of the line. A red-headed woman in her early twenties stood before him, a batch of freckles dancing along her cheeks, skipping her nose altogether. The innocence in her appearance was a deep deception.

“Mary, it’s good to see you. I’m glad you could make it tonight.”

The guilt was plain in her eyes. She danced for men in a club on the Strip. He hadn’t been there, of course, but he didn’t doubt some of the other late night parishioners had seen far more of Mary than he ever would.

“You know how it is,” was all she would offer him in return.

He nodded and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’d spoken to him in confession on many occasions, but still she repeated the same mistakes. It wasn’t charitable, but he wondered if she was worth saving at all. Would she forever remain trapped in this loop of confession and regression? Would she ever transcend it? Did she even want to?

She pulled her hand from his and made her way out the door. She’d be back in a few months maybe. He sighed and worked his way through the line, feeling increasing guilt over his pattern of thought this evening.

He greeted them all: Winos, prostitutes, drug runners, crime family members, until the line dwindled to nothing.

The heavy church door echoed as it shut, leaving Father Hadrian alone with the dark angel. He took her hand, overwhelmed by how cool it still was after being in the warm church so long.

“I’m glad you could join us tonight.”

“Thank you for having me,” she said, a brief bit of color coming into her cheeks. How could one woman seem so dark and so vulnerable all at once? He simultaneously wanted to hold her in an embrace and fling her out of the church with an admonition never to return. Finally, realizing he was still holding her hand, he let it drop.

“I didn’t catch your name earlier?” His voice rose at the end, hoping she’d acknowledge the question therein.

She smiled, the shyness leaving her all at once. “I didn’t throw it.”

Before his eyes she transformed from an uncertain, vulnerable creature into a femme fatale who could certainly be his undoing, given time. He pushed that thought away.

The woman laughed. “I’m Angeline.”

So his instincts had been correct on that one. Dark angel indeed.

“There is a pamphlet on the table beside the front door with our hours. If you ever need to come to confession or… ” He faltered. What was he even trying to say? “If you’d like to know about catechism classes or have any questions about the Church, I’d be happy to… ” I’d be happy to continue to stand here, grasping for vocabulary like a bumbling idiot.

Her finger pressed against his lips to stop his babbling. He swallowed. Danger. Danger. Danger. The inappropriate action ended as quickly as it had begun. She was no longer touching him, but he could still feel her finger there, pressed against his mouth.

For the briefest moment, he’d wanted to suck it between his lips to taste her skin. Suddenly an image of the dark angel sprawled across the altar with him on top of her bloomed in his mind. He took a physical step back to shake the thoughts free.

“I really must go,” she said after a beat. “You’re too much temptation.”

He should have called her on her forwardness, but he couldn’t bring himself to take the light out of her eyes. Her confidence was mesmerizing; watching it crumble in shame at her behavior wasn’t something he could bring himself to do. Not after observing how timid she’d seemed upon entering the church. It was as if her brief visit had breathed new life into her even though she’d remained an observer.

“I hope you can stand a new regular,” she said, “because I’ll be here every week indefinitely.”

God help me. Perhaps another of Our Lady of Mercy’s priests could take over the midnight Mass—someone of stronger constitution. Hadrian found his eyes raking over her cleavage, pushed up by an old-fashioned evening gown of sorts. A heavy antique pendant nestled there between her breasts, drawing his eye. He imagined the heavy weight pressing there against her chest and wished that weight was his hand, or his mouth.

When he collected himself and looked up, her eyes were sharp. Her perception seemed clear and precise, as if she could read each thought as it tumbled from his mind even before he could line them up into sentences, ideas, and longings.

Her fingers ran along the edge of the pendant, the backs of them slowly dragging across her skin. Hadrian struggled for breath.

She sighed. “All right, I’ll stop tormenting you for now. You might need the full week to recover. Pick your jaw up off the floor like a good boy.”

She turned then, her skirts whispering around her as she glided out of the church, leaving Hadrian speechless, without even the ability to stop her or chastise her for her behavior.

Six Months Later

Hadrian stood tense with his back to the door; it was five minutes til midnight. His dark angel didn’t show up every week. Occasionally she’d skip one. On those nights when she was absent, he both missed her, and breathed a sigh of relief. When she was gone, he was more present for the Mass, his mind not constantly on her, his eyes not distracted by the milky-white skin on display over the top of her dress.

Hadrian turned suddenly, pulled by the unmistakable scent of Angeline’s perfume. He took a deep, steadying breath as she passed him with a knowing smile and made her way to her usual seat three rows from the front on the left. She’d been gone a few weeks now. He’d thought—maybe even hoped—she’d left for good.

The woman could turn an angel into a demon with just the glint in her eyes and the sultry downturn of her mouth. The temptation to do something stupid grew each time he saw her, the part of his anatomy that hadn’t consented to a vow of chastity nudging him to find fulfillment. He was only human, after all.

Remember your vows.

Angeline only attended church at night. Hadrian always found himself enthralled by her eerie, blue eyes that nearly glowed with their brightness, always-painted red lips, and dark brown hair that fell halfway down her back. She was usually dressed in slinky black, looking like she’d just left work in a Victorian brothel and had made a quick pit stop at a funeral on the way to Mass.

He knew nothing of her life or what she did. He could only guess at her sins. She’d never been to confession, not on his watch, at least. Our Lady of Mercy was a sizable church, practically a cathedral, with more than one priest available to hear confession on any given day. Father Hadrian suspected she never went to confession, that her sins had been mounting ever higher for quite some time now.

The tell-all was that she never came up for the Holy Eucharist. She merely sat on her usual bench, watching Hadrian, unnerving him with that potent stare. Sometimes they spoke briefly before or after Mass. Always small talk, always some innuendo or subtext she was throwing his way, which he always pretended not to notice. It was like she was feeling him out, planting a seed of something she intended to harvest later. If she didn’t make her move soon, the priest worried he’d actually succumb to her charms when she finally played her hand.

He tried to regain his focus as he gave the benediction, feeling guilty that he’d been obsessing about Angeline the entire service. The parishioners stated their rote response and got up to leave. A shuffling of hymnals, purses, and scuffling of shoes signaled the beginning of their next shift of regular life, where they’d no doubt do more impure things they’d have to confess before partaking in the ritual of bread and wine the following week.

Angeline took her time putting her hymnal away, searching through her purse for something that most likely didn’t exist, and then stood and smoothed her dress down. Hadrian tried not to watch her, instead working to keep his focus on the aging wino standing in front of him. The alcohol on the man’s breath wasn’t from the small amount he’d just partaken of. A stench that strong required dedication and commitment to the drink that wasn’t possible from a mere sip with a bit of bread.


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