"This can't be happening. Please tell me this can't be happening."
Trees zipped by at a fast clip, and Anne Jenkins rode low over her horse's neck to avoid being struck in the face by the leafy branches. Of course the animal didn't answer, but he was spooked enough to lengthen his powerful stride, nearly unseating her from the old-fashioned sidesaddle.
Risking a glance between the horse's white ears, Anne's heart lodged in her throat to see the sharp drop of a ravine looming in the distance. At the rate Sampson moved, they'd both be dumped over the side, never to be heard from again. Anne screamed and dropped the reins. In her panic, she wound her fingers tight through the coarse hair of the horse's mane.
Who would have thought a turkey vulture who ventured too close to the staging area would frighten the rental horse? Life in southern Indiana is much different than the city.
The sound of Sampson's hooves beat a pattern and rang in her ears. The jarring movement scrambled her brain. Anne wondered how much it would hurt if she were to jump off right now. Probably much less than the death plunge, but terror held her paralyzed to the animal's back. Never a great equestrian, she fought the urge to throw up as death loomed closer. Sweat ran down her back, making the thin cotton of her nineteenth century gown stick to her skin. Crap! I'm going to die, looking like a cheap knock-off of some obscure Gothic romance heroine. Not my best day, but not my worst either.
"Whoever's out there in the universe, and if you're really listening, I'll do anything if you can just save me from what will probably be a very messy, painful death." Anne didn't want to die a thirty-something single woman who hadn't been laid for longer than she cared to admit. Chances were, her friends would be smarmy enough to put that very thing on her tombstone.
Life did indeed flash before the eyes of a soon-to-be-dead person, Anne reflected, as images from the past three decades glided through like a movie on steroids. Failed romantic relationships, a string of dead-end jobs, toxic friendships, co-dependant familial issues. At the end of the film, she knew for certain. Her life had been nothing but a series of stupid decisions.
Perfect. A spectacular end to a flash-in-the-pan life.
She never made a difference. Never left her mark. Now, she'd leave behind a bloody carbon footprint. How unfair that the only excitement she'd known came right before she met her maker? Fear tightened her chest, and a rivulet of sweat eased down one temple to blend with the few tears.
At some point, Anne's sunglasses had bounced off her head, and now the midday September sun glared so that she had to squint in order to watch her death unfold. She stopped short of closing her eyes fully because curiosity about what things would look like on the fall down the side of the limestone drop took precedence. Southern Indiana in the early autumn always made her breathless. Leaves, barely beginning their change from green to the reds and golds of fall decorated the forest at every glance. She wondered if she'd feel the same way seconds before she expired.
The powerful rev of a motorcycle warred with the frantic pounding of the hooves, yanking her out of thoughts of death. Out of place in the benign forest setting, she twisted in the saddle to peer behind her. Sure enough, a motorcycle and rider approached, whizzing toward her and the runaway horse. Vision blurry from the free-form gallop, Anne watched as the distance between them narrowed. When the rider edged close enough, she let go of the mane to give the stranger a crazy wave then gripped the pommel of the saddle.
As if the helmeted rider understood her, he gave her a one-hand gloved salute then leaned forward. The bike increased in speed until seconds later it rocketed past Anne and her out of control horse. In a bold move, the motorcyclist cut wide across the horse's path. Sampson, already freaked out, skidded to an abrupt halt, reared up, and let loose a terrified whinny. Anne, not prepared for such a violent end to the impromptu action, slid from the saddle. Branches tore at her hair and smacked her face as she landed in a flurry of lacy skirts and jumbled limbs on the grassy forest floor.
Her heart raced. Her stomach churned. Unfortunately, Sampson, apparently glad to be rid of his inexperienced rider and not liking the noise, took off for parts unknown and soon vanished into the thick tree line.
Anne stood on shaky legs to thank her rescuer and see about retrieving the horse. The rider revved his engine. The sound echoed through the previously quiet area.
"Damn it." She planted her hands on her hips, frowning as the motorcyclist brought the mechanical beast to a stop four feet in front of her. When it appeared he hadn't heard her, she cleared her throat and repeated her statement at the same time he shut off the engine. The curse rang in the sudden silence.
"Why the hell did you do that? Now, if I can't find the stupid horse, I'll have to pay for it. Do you know how much a rental horse probably costs?"
"Normally, a thank you would be the appropriate response," came his initial reply in a husky voice that conjured images of Hollywood bedroom scenes.
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. Thanks."
"Better." The rider nudged the kickstand with the toe of a thick boot and dismounted from the sleek, black bike. Anne read the orange flame-style lettering of the words The Auditor on the gas tank.
The handsome stranger removed a shiny helmet and set it on the cushioned seat. "Do you?" He slowly drew leather gloves off his fingers then slapped them against his thigh, also encased in black leather that clung to his legs and outlined their lean power.
"Do I what?" Anne's throat went dry when her unexpected rescuer unzipped a matching leather jacket. A white T-shirt, slightly damp with sweat, hugged a chest she'd bet money showcased awesome abdominal muscles. She couldn't remember exactly what they'd been talking about with such a feast for her eyes.
"Do you know how much a horse would cost?" The biker's question caught her off guard.
His lips parted in a sensual grin that would tempt any woman under the age of ninety. Blue eyes glittered with mischief and mayhem. A jolt of pure need shot down her spine to tingle between her legs, effective as adrenaline. Thick, dark eyebrows angled downward to give way to a strong nose that looked as if it had been broken a few times. Shaggy brown waves of hair framed an even stronger jaw, shadowed by dark stubble.
"Because I'm fairly certain they cost as much as my ride, and I'm equally sure you didn't sign any sort of paperwork saying you'd be responsible for replacing the nag."
"It was a rhetorical question--mostly." Although, she hoped the horse-renting people wouldn't make her pay for the missing equine. She swallowed hard when he shrugged out of his jacket and slung it over the seat. The logo on the back of his T-shirt read Death or Taxes. Take your pick.
"Whatever." He waved one hand as if it didn't matter. "Chances are the horse will make his way back to the rental barn by supper, and you won't need to worry about financial disaster."
Ingrained manners kicked in. "Thanks, by the way. I appreciate it." Sweat trickled down her spine and dampened the back of her dress. In retrospect, wearing the long skirt and trailing, bell-shaped sleeved dress in a humidity-laden forest in late summer wasn't the best idea.
"Yeah, I could tell from your body language." Sarcasm dripped from his voice, prompting the return of Anne's ire.
"Jerk." She glared at her rescuer. "How could you even know about the horse, anyway? Do you work for the park's department or forest service?" Now that the adrenaline had worn off from her wild ride, the bumps and forming bruises made their presence known. Anne rubbed at a tender spot on her hip then happened to see the huge grass stain on the trailing skirt of her costume. "That's just great. The dress is also a rental."
"Well, which would be better? A dry cleaning bill or a painful death?" A tiny grin flirted with his lips. "What's with the get-up, anyway?"
"Uh, one of my friends is a romance author, and the other is a cover artist, so by default I got to be the model. You know, typical Gothic-type heroine."
"You're hardly a typical anything." The man stepped forward, close enough that his scent of gasoline, sweat, and the smoke of a campfire wafted around her brain. His eyes gleamed. "And no, I'm not a park ranger. I'm the guy who answered your request for salvation. Just FYI, you've got a beetle in your hair."
Panic seized her insides as she raked her fingers through her upswept coif, yanking it down to make sure nothing else crawled in the blonde length. "What the hell are you talking about?" As her common sense trickled back, she narrowed her eyes. He didn't look like a vagrant, but that didn't mean he wasn't crazy.
"Actually, you're not far from the mark. I know every zip code of Hell on an intimate basis." He stuck out a hand. "The name's Carter. Gregg Carter."
"Dude, you're so not an international super spy." No matter how hard she attempted to contain the chuckle, it escaped anyway.
"I never claimed I was." He cleared his throat. "Now, how about we get down to business before that twittering horde of what you call friends descends upon us in hysterical female fashion."
Anne shook his offered hand startled at the heat his touch produced. Low-grade shock waves traveled up her arm to bury themselves somewhere deep inside. She shivered and dropped his hand. "What do you mean you know about hell?" He was either crazy or deluded. There was no such thing as hell.
The man sighed as if her question wasn't the first he'd fielded about the subject. "Look, here's the deal. When you offered up that prayer to save your life, you didn't specify a recipient. No one ever does. It's a huge problem in the supernatural realm." He fumbled in one of the saddlebags on his bike and brought out a hard-sided briefcase. Releasing the catches, Gregg opened the case and withdrew a stack of papers. "Because of that oversight, I happened to be the only person available to handle your crisis."
"I still don't understand." Her throat scratched every time she swallowed. "Are you an angel or something?" She fanned herself with her hands, but the action did little to alleviate her meltdown.
"Not quite." He laughed a rich, hearty baritone that did wonderful things to her internal organs. Digging into the saddlebag once more, Gregg produced a bottle of designer water, ice-cold and inviting. "I think this is what you wanted?" He lifted a dark brow and wiggled the offering. "Come on. No charge."
"Thanks." She snagged the bottle from his fingers, cracked open the cap and took a deep pull. Anne regarded him, making sure her eyes stayed focused on his face instead of his chest. "If you're not an angel, then what? Surely, you can't be a demon. There's no such thing." She waved a hand in the air, not sure why she was having this sort of conversation. Angels and demons? It's finally happened. I've lost my mind. Anne frowned with annoyance. I thought I'd have more warning than that.
"Why is it you can easily assume I'd be an angel, but you scoff at the idea of my being a demon?" Blue ice stared at her, challenging the assumption.
"Well, I just thought..."
"Look, sweets, I am a demon, straight from the heated pits of Hell and at your disposal." He pulled an ink pen from a pocket of his jacket and spread the document on top of the now closed briefcase. "If you don't mind, I really need your signature here, for services rendered. We also need to discuss the matter of your soul."