Dr. Grace Evans felt an odd shiver snake down her spine as she bent over her supply cabinet — a beautiful antique that once held hymnals.
She dismissed it as a minor annoyance. After all, she had real problems to worry about. The hymnals were long gone, riddled with bullets and burned for what little heat they generated. Most of her supplies were gone, too, and with snipers lining the hills on three sides of town, she was unlikely to get more anytime soon. Unfortunately, she had no shortage of patients caught in the hostilities as Russia tried to take over parts of the Ukraine.
Then she felt it again, that distinctive, tingling sensation. As if she were being watched.
No ... more than that.
Her breath caught in her throat. Excitement, dread, intense curiosity rushed through her.
Was he back?
She straightened, her gaze sweeping the remains of the bombed-out church they’d been using as a makeshift clinic for the past seven weeks, since the Red Cross had pulled its people out of this troubled corner of the world and an International Relief Council medical team —consisting of Grace and her friends Jane and Allison — had moved in.
There was no electricity in the church, little in the entire town. Even if they’d had electricity, much of the ceiling was gone. No light fixtures were left, no bulbs. Not much of anything, except sick, injured, tired, hungry people with no place to go.
It was dusk, the town bathed in shadows, quiet save for the occasional burst of gunfire.
Grace had wished for a lot of things since she came here. An extra pair of hands. More antibiotics. More pain medication. A world where no one ever shot at anyone else.
Now she added one more thing to her list.
She wished for just a bit of it. So she could see him.
Working up her courage, Grace turned around. She could almost see him, just as she’d imagined, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, long-legged. Dressed all in black, he blended perfectly with the night, an air of mystery surrounding him, a slight smile Grace sensed more than saw on his lips.
It was him.
She couldn’t be sure, because he always came to her in the dark. That part puzzled her as much as anything else about him. Surely, if he were an angel, he’d come in the light.
He never stayed long, never let her get a good look at his face, and he seemed to be a different man each time he came to save them. Although, the fanciful part of her that still wanted to believe in some bit of magic liked the idea that he was indeed one entity.
She’d tried to convince herself it was something in his voice, maybe the faint but familiar scent that clung to his skin or the way he walked, but in truth it was nothing as concrete as that. It was a feeling. More than that — an unshakable certainty deep in her soul that recognized him. It was so much more than any of the physical characteristics he’d been so stingy in revealing.
Even though it made no sense, the feeling stubbornly remained — that she knew him.
Clearly, he didn’t want her to recognize him, was deliberately trying to confuse her.
The first time she’d seen him, he’d spoken in an impeccable, upper-class British accent, his tone clipped and a bit frosty, with the bite of authority that would not be denied when he issued orders.
Grace had been a medical student then. She hadn’t cared for taking orders from someone she didn’t know, someone who had no authority over her. But she’d had to admit he got them out of Pakistan in the nick of time. Conditions had worsened dramatically within hours of their departure, had become impossible within days.
Two years went by before she saw him again. She was in Afghanistan, and he was a voice in the darkness, speaking in an Irish brogue.
During her first visit to Syria, he’d sounded American and seemed even more imposing, as if he’d grown more powerful and more certain of himself in the intervening years. Of course, he was the stuff of legend by then.
Grace’s Guardian Angel.
Her friend Jane dubbed him that long ago, and it had stuck.
Late at night, when they had no more patients to see and nothing to do but talk, Jane — the medical corps’ unofficial historian and best storyteller — would launch into her tale of the mysterious man who watched over Grace and her team. The man who always appeared out of the shadows with a timely warning.
Grace had no idea who he was or where he came from. But it was as if he had a sixth sense about her, or watched over her and her staff, day and night, intent on keeping them safe.
As he moved smoothly and silently down the hallway of the ruined church, an unfamiliar rush of heat flooded her cheeks. Grace decided she very much liked watching him walk down the hallway of the church.
There was something about the way he moved, the sense of control, of purpose, of power. He seemed certain of where he was going, and she thought she could have stood there, watching him put one foot in front of the other, for days. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a minute to admire a good-looking man, didn’t remember the last time she’d been in the presence of such an attractive man.
Her angel paused in an arched doorway five feet away, his face still in shadows. He nodded his head formally and greeted her, Allison and Jane — who’d come up behind her — in perfectly accented French. “Mesdemoiselles.”
Grace was good with languages, but she’d never been able to distinguish the accents he adopted from a native’s speech.
It was him — her angel.
“A moment of your time, Doctor? Please?”
Behind her, two middle-aged, no-nonsense nurses giggled. Grace had to remind herself they were in the middle of a war zone. She was cold, tired and no doubt ragged-looking. He was no boy with a crush on her, and this was not a social occasion.
None of which did anything to lessen the nervous little flutters in her stomach.
She heard fevered whispers behind her. Jane, who’d been with Grace for years, explained to Allison, “Grace’s Guardian Angel.” Allison, whom they’d known only for a few months, added in her sultry Southern drawl, “That man is no angel.”
He heard them, too. Grace could have sworn she saw a hint of a smile cross his lips as he turned and walked past a thick pillar candle that served as the only light in the dim hallway.
She followed him. It never occurred to her not to. She would have followed him anywhere.
He led her to the back of the church and outside to the ragged stone terrace. It was surrounded by an ancient, low, fieldstone wall, still lined with a few plants and shrubs. The stars were out overhead and the night air was chilly and stung her cheeks. He kept to the shadows from the back wall, leaving frustratingly little of himself for her to see.
Until tonight, no one but Grace had ever seen him. At times she’d thought he was a figment of her imagination, a sixth sense complete with unusually pleasant hallucinations.
She was tempted to reach out to him, to make sure he was actually flesh and blood. But she settled for asking, in French not nearly as polished as his and with a voice weakened by awe and wonder, “Who are you?”
A faint smile stretched across his lips. “I’m just a man.”
“Of course.” She sighed. He would be as evasive as he was illusive.
Still smiling, he asked, “You’re disappointed?”
“No.” She was glad he was here. There was so much she wanted to ask him. But she doubted he was going to satisfy her curiosity.
“I’m afraid it’s time to go, Grace.”
Her eyes narrowed, surprise and a deep rush of pleasure overriding everything else. He’d never called her by name before. She blinked up at him, ridiculously happy over this one little thing. He knew her name.
“Grace?” he repeated. “I said you have to go.”
“Oh ... Tomorrow?”
“At first light,” he insisted. “Take the coast road. Don’t stop until you cross the border into Romania, and don’t come back.”
“You went back into Afghanistan six weeks after I told you to clear out.”
“Yes.” He’d known that, too? And it had annoyed him? Her chin came up. “I have a job to do.”
“Which you can’t do unless we manage to keep you alive, now, can you?” he said evenly.