Heaven should be the end-all-be-all, most epic finale of your life. At least that’s what Evelyn Bowden had assumed.
Evelyn, with her favorite jeans and green T-shirt, rushed across the heavens. She looked like a mall-walker trying to keep up the pace during peak Christmas Eve shopping hours. Inspecting the fluffy clouds she traversed was tempting, but she wouldn’t allow her curiosity to distract her. She had appeared in the heavens once before but was still bewildered by the transparency of the somehow solid air beneath her feet. Clouds weren’t easy to trust, but she was coming to terms with being more than a mere mortal, with being a Cupid.
Flexing her supernatural powers, Evelyn’s gold tattoo glinted along the inside of her forearm. The arrow had appeared on her skin after she had marked her first couple, but it looked different than her mentor’s tattoo. She didn’t know why her tattoo was so much more embellished. Her brilliant arrow donned delicate vines like a maypole wrapped in ribbons.
Around her, Cupids paraded through the gleaming city set on air. Some armed themselves with their bow and arrows as if on a mission. Others strolled along the sidewalks, enjoying the perfect weather. One man passed by her in a pinstriped three-piece suit, leaving Evelyn wondering if she should turn around and change. Her nineteen-year-old college student attire didn’t seem to measure up to the heavenly dress code.
Evelyn had a meeting with the Elders. She didn’t know if the invitation required a more formal Cupid look, so she summoned her bow and quiver full of arrows with a simple thought. Her weapons appeared strapped across her torso. Evelyn grinned, pleased with herself.
“You can put those away. And you can also slow down. The Elders are not going anywhere,” Andel suggested. He’d been following her. As her mentor, he should have been leading the way, but Evelyn’s nervous energy had her bouncing ahead. Her feet stuttered, but Evelyn found herself distracted by the different buildings and Cupids they passed. Each one resembled a different era that Evelyn recognized.
Andel stopped in his tracks, but she kept walking just a few paces more before fully processing what he was saying. “Remember, they called us in for the meeting.”
“Should I be wearing something else?” Evelyn asked with the hint of a Southern accent. She took in Andel’s six-foot-and-change frame. He wore jeans, but they were tailored to fit him perfectly. His boots and belt matched, and his white T-shirt was somehow classic and trendy the way he had the hem tucked in at his hip.
“Of course not. I’m practically wearing the same thing. Our appearance is usually determined by our assignment, but while we are in the heavens, you should feel comfortable being yourself. We are heavenly warriors, not supermodels.” Andel’s constant voice of reason grated on her nerves. Technically they both sported jeans and a T-shirt, but Andel looked like he could grace the cover of GQ magazine.
“Thanks.” Evelyn rolled her eyes.
“What I meant—”
“It’s okay,” Evelyn waved off Andel’s backpedaling. She knew she wasn’t a Kardashi-whoever, and she also knew Andel didn’t really mean anything by it. As her mentor, he had always been focused on the job at hand. He’d welcomed Evelyn when she first woke up in this afterlife and he had never left her side.
She had died. It was still hard to believe.
And while taking a deathly blow for her boyfriend had seemed like a good idea at the time, Evelyn had lingered in the second stage of loss: anger. She spent the first few months of her immortality fighting Andel, even though his job was to teach her how to fight. Andel had trained and encouraged her during the process of becoming a Cupid, despite her lack of enthusiasm. Every person chosen to be a Cupid died for someone they loved, and those chosen always had a choice: move on or commit to being a Cupid. The promise of immortality could only be sealed with a perfect shot through two hearts. The only problem was Evelyn had marked an immortal unknowingly, and in the process, found out she had a power distinctly different than any other Cupid.
“You need to keep up,” Evelyn said over her shoulder to Andel. She continued to walk as fast as her legs would take her in the direction of the Elder’s headquarters. Evelyn’s face was new to the meandering Cupids around them, so some staggered and stared like she had two heads. She caught a white-haired Cupid with a combover double take in her direction and didn’t know if she should be more surprised that he wouldn’t need a neck brace or that she’d gotten used to the feeling of shocking others. Unaffected, she hurried right on by the Armory building; its medieval turrets and brick outer walls looked a lot like Dover Castle. And as she passed the Placement Office, she noted it resembled the Parthenon.
The Cupids moved with purpose. As their arms swung at their sides, Evelyn caught a glimpse of a few golden tattoos, but none of them looked like hers. Not even Andel’s incandescent arrow-ink looked similar to hers. In fact, they all looked as if they differed in one way or another. The only thing they all had in common was the point of the arrowhead touched their wrist and the end reached to the inside of everyone’s elbow. The feathers making up Andel’s fletching had hundreds of lines. The other tattoos she caught a glimpse of had fewer lines, but every tattoo was structured and streamlined. Evelyn’s feathers were more chaotic and looser, swirling as if they’d been caught in a breeze.
“The sooner we get there, the sooner I get answers,” Evelyn said, hoping the Elders could tell her why she was different. But she also wanted to get her next assignment, so she could get back to the mortal realm. The staring and glaring she’d gotten from every Cupid up here, excluding Andel, was worse than being the girl who dropped her tray of food in the cafeteria. She had experience being the new kid, even the new foster kid, but the wide berths the other Cupids gave her as they walked around her were starting to make her wonder if they were threatened by her.
“Evelyn, stop.” Andel used his entire six feet and four inches to catch up to his protégé. Grabbing hold of her elbow, Andel forced Evelyn to face him, super-soft cotton T-shirt first. She considered the awkwardness for a moment before being sidetracked by the muscles underneath. There was nothing soft about those.
“Excuse me, but”—Evelyn regained her composure, straightening her smooth, shoulder-length brown hair—“why?” She was fed up with not knowing the truth, and she wanted answers. She was different now. She’d accepted the terms of her immortality, but the agreement felt more like a compromise. Evelyn needed to know why she, of all Cupids, could pierce immortals with love.
“For one thing, I believe we will be better received if we arrive calmly. You are not calm,” Andel said through gritted teeth. He never lost his cool, but it didn’t stop Evelyn from trying to push his buttons.
“And by calm, you mean we should take our orders and be on our way? No fritter way!” Evelyn’s twang emphasized each word with an extra syllable.
Language was yet another change Evelyn was coping with. Evelyn’s fists clenched, sending her nails digging into her palms. You’d think after helping the Cupids out and saving the world, or whatever it was she’d done in her last stint, she’d be allowed to express herself more explicitly. The transformation she had undergone, from human to Cupid, however, required sacrifice. A whole lot of sacrifice. In this case, language. She couldn’t cuss! Ever. “Donut!”
“Thank you for considering my advice.” Andel placed his hands on his hips. “You have definitely captured calm.”
Evelyn tugged at one of her earlobes, trying to relax and keep herself from returning Andel’s sarcasm. She could have sworn it was a reflexology technique, but it didn’t seem to help. “Fine. I’ll channel my inner comatose state.”
“There is no way you could ever stay quiet long enough to be considered comatose. You even talk in your sleep.” Andel’s smile was a scarce addition to their banter, and it hinted that Andel was attempting to joke with her. Everything Andel did, he did perfectly. Evelyn thought everything about the Grecian archer was annoying when they had first met, but his attempt at humor had since been slowly making up for his weird way of speaking and impeccable posture.
A shrill soprano voice sang from behind Evelyn’s personal life-sized action figure. “Andel!”
Evelyn peeked around Andel and spotted a statuesque woman with long silky black curls approaching. The closer she came, the higher pitched her voice got. Her skin was the color of cinnamon, and she wore a red blouse with a sultry, black pencil skirt and stilettos.
“Wowzers,” Evelyn let slip. She wondered what kind of assignment this Cupid had in order to dress that way. After all, weren’t Cupids supposed to wear clothes to blend into their surroundings? But this woman would have stood out in any place she went.
Andel put a hand out to keep Evelyn tucked behind him. “Let me handle this,” he whispered.
“How have you been, Darling?” The Cupid asked Andel. “I’m glad to see you’re still standing after your last assignment. I heard it was…challenging.”
The woman patted Andel’s arm, either choosing to ignore Evelyn’s presence or being completely drawn in by Andel.
“The word ‘challenging’ does not begin to cover it,” Andel said with a grin. Evelyn poked a finger at Andel’s side, and he jumped, revealing his charge.
Evelyn smiled widely, while the woman’s face contorted. First, her eyebrows furrowed in thought, and she pressed her lips together, taking Evelyn in. Then, the corner of her mouth quirked up at one corner.
“Well, hello.” The Cupid stuck her hand out to shake Evelyn’s. “I’m Zora. I’m sure Andel’s mentioned me. We go way back.”
Evelyn slipped her hands into her pockets. “Hi.”
When Evelyn didn’t offer her own hand, Zora waved it off. “Evelyn, right?”
“So, is it true you pierced a witch during your induction?” Zora asked, getting right to the point. “I heard your arrows turn—”
“Zora, hold off,” Andel interrupted.
“Red, yes,” Evelyn finished, ignoring Andel’s interruption. “Yes, it’s true. If your friends really want something juicy, you can tell them I talk in my sleep. At least, that’s what Andel tells me.”
“So our gold arrows turn red when you point them at supernaturals?” Zora’s smirk tightened. “Interesting.”
Andel looked back and forth between the two women. Gossip tantalized Cupids the same way riddles tasted sweet on the lips of Faeries.
“What’s so interesting about me?” Evelyn asked.
Zora squinted as if searching Evelyn for the answer. “You’re young, new. A sparkly thing that will dull with time.”
“That’s enough, Zora.” Andel reached for Evelyn’s hand and pulled her in the direction of the Elders’ headquarters. “We’ll be late.”
Evelyn turned to look back at Zora, and her smirk had shifted into a grimace. Zora’s eyes honed in on Evelyn’s hand in Andel’s, and Evelyn debated how far she wanted to take the stunt. It only took a few more steps before she felt guilty. She pulled her hand out of Andel’s grip to create some space between them, but she still felt a pang of shame at being so petty.
“What was that all about?” Evelyn asked once she was sure Zora couldn’t overhear her.
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “That wasn’t nothing. Zora doesn’t like me, and I’ve never met her before. How’s that even possible?”
“It has nothing to do with disliking you. It is a fear of the unknown.” Andel’s straight forward approach to communicating with Evelyn left her hungry for more emotional explanations. It baffled her that a Cupid like Andel who felt every mortal emotion around him couldn’t express one sentiment verbally.
“That Cupid is jealous. Did you mentor her, too?”
“No, and there is no reason for her to be jealous.”
“Well, it’s not like I was going to shoot her with one of my arrows. And, even if I did, it wouldn’t do anything unless I caught another person in the crossfire.”
“But you are different, and the unknown evokes apprehension,” Andel’s voice grew serious.
“Did you read that off a fortune in a cookie?”
Andel tilted his head to the side, raising his eyebrows. “No, but it would make a good one. You know the fortune I would give you? Welcome the change coming into your life.”
“Whatever. Patience is a virtue unless it’s against a brick wall.”
Andel let out a laugh that caught the attention of a few Cupids passing them. “Speaking of brick walls—” Andel eyed Evelyn and pointed toward an ancient red-brick hall. It reminded Evelyn of places she wished she’d gotten a chance to visit while she was still alive. Growing up in Louisiana, there were some historical sites, but nothing like touring Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle.
Evelyn sighed. “The Elders could choose to send me out on my own.”
“They might.” Andel slowed his pace. “If they do, you are ready. But I think they will take your request for me to join you seriously.”
Evelyn let hope fill her lungs. “Oh, really?”
She knew Andel wouldn’t give anything away, even if he knew something. He respected the chain of command too much. “Yes, but we must show a united front…and arrive on time.” He had promised to help Evelyn find out if there were more Cupids with her ability to pierce immortals. She didn’t know how long it would take or if the Elders would allow either of them the time they needed.
“You know, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d prefer another partner.” Evelyn used her thumb to point back in Zora’s direction. “She looks like a less complicated candidate. I could even use one of my trusty red arrows to seal the deal.” Evelyn waggled her eyebrows.
“If you shoot her with your arrow, I will—”
“You’ll what?” Evelyn countered, narrowing her eyes.
Andel folded his arms across his chest, creating a barrier to block Evelyn’s implication. “You know Cupids do not technically work in pairs.” As Evelyn’s grin faltered, Andel moved forward. “I am strictly an advisor,” he clarified.
“Why is that? That chick over there is gorgeous. I could send an arrow flying, and you two could have supermodel Cupid-babies.”
Andel’s mouth drooped into a deep frown. “How about a deal?”
Evelyn nodded, curious.
“I will explain why Cupids avoid shooting and consorting with each other, but only after you keep your cool in this meeting.”
“Consorting?” Evelyn slowed down and wrinkled her nose as if the word smelled like souring milk. “Fine, but I want the lowdown on Zora, too.”
Andel moved past Evelyn and she fell into step behind him. Consumed with her thoughts and questions, she tripped over the front steps of the building. Andel caught hold of her shoulder before she bit the dust—or clouds. From afar, the set of structures had resembled those standing on a prestigious, ancient college campus: tall columns, intricate leaded windows, and oversized doors. But the scale was off. These columns made earthly structures look like Lego sets. The brick walls were held together with gold, and the doors were decorated with metallic arrows in a criss-cross pattern.
“I might have believed you sooner about being a Cupid if you’d brought me to see this place. It’s awesome,” Evelyn said. Her mouth fell open and her eyes grew wider as she took two steps at a time to catch up to Andel.
“That is exactly why I avoided bringing you here. You would have gotten the wrong idea. This is not Heaven. It is the heavens. There is a big difference.”
“Close enough for me, for now.” Evelyn didn’t wait for another lecture. Andel had explained when they first arrived that the heavens served as a realm for the Cupids before they eventually moved on to Heaven if they chose to.
She reached for the golden door handles, but the entrance opened before she could take hold. A cozy room, a library, revealed itself. Three walls were lined with dark wooden shelves, and each ledge was covered in leather-bound books. Four overstuffed chairs sat at the center of the room, surrounded by a few tables and chairs. But Evelyn couldn’t quite place the farthest wall. The shelves appeared to stretch infinitely.
It was her dream library.
“Whoa! This is definitely my kind of Heaven.”
“It is a magnificent feature, isn’t it?” A woman with a loose gray bun on top of her head stepped out from behind one of the never-ending bookshelves. Her smile pushed past heavy wrinkles and lit the room. “I do appreciate your idea of the perfect place. I’d like to spend time curled up here, reading each book. Is this room somewhere you’ve been or is it a conjured dream?”
“Wha—? Um…I think a mixture of both.” Evelyn twisted her lips, trying to remember. Time had started to erase some of the pain of letting go of her mortal existence, but it also endangered her most precious memories.
The elderly woman walked across the room with ease, grazing her fingers over the books and rich, stained shelves. Her simple gray dress fell to the floor and created the illusion that she floated over the area rug positioned under the chairs at the center of the room. She wore a blue cardigan that Evelyn envied as it appeared to be as cozy and inviting as the room. But then, the feeling may have been emanating from the woman herself.
Evelyn had never known her grandparents, and if this room created her perfect place, she wondered if it included the perfect grandmother.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Evelyn.” The older woman stopped a few feet shy of the doorway. “My name is Neomi. I’m one of the Elders you’ve been eager to interrogate.”
Evelyn’s eyebrows lifted, anticipating a lecture. Andel was so good at them, she figured it was one of the Cupids’ supernatural powers. Neomi waved her in, and Evelyn caught Neomi nodding to Andel. Evelyn sank into one of the chairs and picked up a stack of books. Perusing the titles, she expected the other two Cupids to get comfortable as well.
“I’ll give you two some privacy.” Andel’s voice had softened in the presence of Neomi.
“Wait!” Evelyn popped up out of her seat as the books on her lap tumbled onto the floor. “Why are you leaving? We need to find out if they’re going to let you help me.”
Andel’s mouth flattened into a line and he dodged eye contact with Evelyn. “I will wait for you outside.”
Before Evelyn could reach him, Neomi placed a hand on her shoulder. Not exactly a Vulcan nerve pinch, but the Elder’s hand suspended Evelyn in place both emotionally and physically. Andel pulled the doors closed behind him. After the snick of the latch catching, Neomi let her hand fall to her side. She moved to the chair closest to Evelyn and sat down.
Evelyn remained standing in a stubborn display of her immortal youth.
“Dear girl, you can relay to Andel what you want after our discussion. Now, please, sit.” Neomi patted the chair Evelyn had vacated.
Evelyn complied and sat, crossing her legs. “Why won’t you tell us if you plan to let Andel keep mentoring me?”
“I have informed Andel, and I’ll be happy to let you know our decision if you will relax.”
“But how? When?”
Evelyn and Andel hadn’t spent much time apart since they’d arrived in the heavens, and at no point had Neomi addressed Andel or the topic at hand while he was still in the room. Evelyn hadn’t heard a whisper, even with her super-Cupid-hearing.
“I will explain if you’ll let me.” Neomi pushed herself back into the cushion of her chair while Evelyn leaned forward to pick up the books strewn on the floor in front of her.
“I’m listening,” Evelyn said.
“As Cupids, we’re able to communicate telepathically.” Neomi grinned as Evelyn attempted to comprehend her. “It is not mind reading, and the communication is allowed with permission.”
“Are you sure you’re not mind melding with me? Because I’m pretty sure you read my thoughts just then,” Evelyn pointed out, and Neomi’s smile grew. “So, why didn’t Andel teach me this earlier?”
“It’s not an ability that shows itself before the full acceptance and commitment of becoming a Cupid.”
“Oh.” It was all Evelyn could bring herself to utter.
Neomi nodded to Evelyn. “May I?”
Evelyn half-nodded, unsure of what to expect. She stilled the moment she felt Neomi’s soft voice tiptoe through her mind. Hello,Evelyn.
Evelyn smiled. The invading thoughts tickled. She thought, Hi, in response. Evelyn stared at Neomi as if her eyes could push the greeting.
Very good, but the more forcefully you press your thoughts, the louder they are in my head. Neomi turned away from Evelyn and walked over to a shelf lining the wall. She appeared to be reading the spines of a row of books. Try it more gently.
Which book is your favorite? Evelyn thumbed through one of the novels in her lap. Shakespeare’s sonnets filled the pages.
Better.Neomi thought. Hmm… It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a good story, but I always go back to War and Peace.
“Really?” Evelyn thought and said aloud with a frown. “But it’s so tragic. And the droning on and on about the war. I’m not too sure where the peace comes in.”
Neomi broke out into a bubbling laughter. The airy sound filled the room with joy that could practically be inhaled. “Good point. I hope that you’ve been able to get Andel to laugh like this.”
“Speaking of Andel—” Evelyn shifted in her chair. “Is he going to be able to help me on my next assignment?”
Yes.Neomi’s lips quirked to one side.
Evelyn had a feeling the Elder thought more but held her tongue. She ignored the curiosity bubbling up in her gut because she was flooded with relief at knowing Andel could continue working with her. She had hoped the Elders could also fill in a few blanks about her Cupid status. Was she a Cupid or something else? Evelyn wanted to find out if there was really another Cupid like her.
Someone cleared their throat behind one of the bookshelves, and a child revealed himself at the back of the room. He couldn’t be older than seven or eight years old. The boy wore a white kimono with a blue belt, and his black hair was cut close to his scalp.
“Sheng, I’m so glad you made it.” Neomi nodded to the boy, and they both made their way to two chairs across from Evelyn.
“Neomi.” Sheng dipped his head low in greeting and repeated the action in Evelyn’s direction. “Evelyn, at last, we meet. I would like to express my gratitude. Your selflessness in New Orleans, choosing to let go of your earthly life and serve in love, is an example Cupids will aspire to for centuries.”
“To be honest, there wasn’t much to choose from. Anyone would have done it.”
“Honestly. I don’t believe they would,” Neomi interjected. “You come from a culture that rivals the Golden Age in both material wealth and moral poverty.”
“Oh. Well, thank you.” Evelyn wasn’t quite sure how to respond, to Sheng or Neomi or the Elizabethan Era, but she hadn’t left her Southern manners back on Earth. A list of questions reeled through her brain, so she started with something simple. “Why did you ask me to meet you here if you could have just mind melded with me?”
“Our telepathic abilities have a tendency to unhinge new Cupids.” Neomi leaned forward and placed a hand over Evelyn’s. “We also realize your unique circumstances warrant some special attention.”
“I simply want some answers.” Evelyn slid her hand away from Neomi.
“What kind of answers?” Sheng asked.
Evelyn had to remind herself that this Elder was likely older than Andel. Her mentor looked 24, but he was actually a couple hundred years old.
“Hmmm… Let me think.” Evelyn rubbed her chin. “How about we start with why I’m different than every other Cupid in the heavens?”
“We are not sure,” Sheng replied.
“What?! Why don’t you know?” Evelyn fired back.
Sheng’s eyes darted to Neomi, and she fidgeted, crossing her legs toward the boy-Elder. Evelyn had taken a communications class in college and knew exactly what the two Elders’ nonverbal cues meant. She wouldn’t be getting anything out of them.
“This is baklava!” Evelyn attempted to cuss, but her sweet tooth got in the way. After piercing her first couple with an arrow full of love, Evelyn had transformed fully into a Cupid. Andel had explained their immortality and described their abilities. Cupids can poof anywhere on Earth, cloak themselves or glamour the way they look, and they had super speed, hearing, and sight. But not once had he mentioned that their human vices would bounce back and bite them in the ambrosia. “Good Lord! Just tell me why I’m here!”
Both Cupid Elders froze in their seats. Evelyn couldn’t tell if they were stunned by her use of Lord or by her outburst. One thing she was sure of was that they were having a telepathic conversation about her. The eerie silence threatened to push Evelyn over the edge.
“Since your transformation”—Neomi carefully began. She’d obviously lost a mental match of Rock, Paper, Scissors—“the Cupids have received several threats from other immortal races.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Evelyn threw her arms out in question.
“At first, many supernatural races requested your assistance.” Neomi winced at the words. “Then, as rumors spread about your ability, some Nox started bullying other Cupids for answers. They wanted to find out if the rumors were true—if you really gave a witch eternal love.”
Evelyn sat dumbfounded. She didn’t know which Nox were involved, but it couldn’t be good since Neomi looked like she swallowed a bag of Sour Patch Kids. “What kind of Nox?”
“Small factions of dark supernaturals are planning attacks. We understand the groups include Fairies, Witches, Shifters, and Vampires.” Sheng explained. “Even Lux, our allies, are threatening to withdraw from peace treaties.”
“And, what am I supposed to do about it? I don’t know why I am the way I am, and I don’t know what my crazed red arrows will do if I shoot again. What if I can only use them on certain immortals? Or what if I pierce a werewolf-couple and it kills them?”
“One step at a time, my dear.” Neomi’s soft voice had a calming effect on Evelyn’s racing heart. “We have an important assignment for you. Your mark will include a Gargoyle named Roscoe.”
Evelyn stood to her feet and placed her hands on her hips. “Wait a Ding Dong minute!”