The priest was defiant, but Liah wasn’t entirely surprised by that. Apparently, he was also a guy who stated his opinion in blunt terms, but that wasn’t shocking, either. Considering what kind of man Archbishop Hallie had turned out to be, Father Angelli didn’t seem too far off the mark of what should be expected of his former vicar. Liah couldn’t, quite frankly, imagine the man before her in service to anyone less tolerant than the archbishop.
And tolerance was needed. Five minutes in and Liah was already irritated.
Father Anthony Angelli was rude, belligerent, had an annoying habit of clearing his throat, was less than graceful on his feet and looked like he’d stepped off the pages of some fitness magazine put together especially for women to ogle the hard bodies inside. His black curls, mismatched eyes and high cheekbones had to have caused problems throughout the parish. Dude was hawt. Even the ugly, Vatican-ordered haircut a certain breed of priest seemed to favor couldn’t detract from the man’s charms.
His green eye raked her body from head to toe. His brown eye did too, but the hue of the green was much more intense and caused a frisson of heat to sweep through her, so that’s the one Liah met when she cocked her brow. “Like what you see?”
Liah lifted her finger. The middle one, marked with the Mem all Garguiem wore as a reminder of who they were and what their purpose in life had become. The stain was barely darker than the surrounding skin, but the design was emblazoned on her soul, so she couldn’t fail to notice it. A small, rounded square, closed to represent God’s hidden truth, the symbol stood for water but had come to signify wisdom as well, because God’s wisdom flowed from divine founts.
So they said.
Liah flipped Father Anthony off as she asked, “You don’t like me because of this?”
His succulent lips pinched and his heavy brows lowered. He was still gorgeous, with a dimple in both cheeks and his chin, his nostrils flared and his golden-toned skin flushing slightly. His two-toned eyes suggested there was more to the man than what could be seen on the surface, but Liah couldn’t afford to think on that too hard. She was buzzing in his presence—her gift, her emotions and her lady parts were all atwitter, and she was sure she didn’t like it.
“Archbishop Hallie asked me to help you,” Father Anthony said. “I will do as he requires regardless of how I feel about your people.”
“Awesome.” Liah had to look away from the guy to get her bearings. Too much was going haywire inside her, and she wasn’t sure why. Tremors wracked her deepest muscles and liquid fire raced the length of her spine. It was not comfortable in the slightest, but she couldn’t afford to be hostile to her appointed assistant until she figured it all out. “So, let’s start with why you’re here, at Our Lady of the Trees.”
“I’m filling in for Father Russell. The monsignor can’t do it and I’m the only other ordained priest in Red Leaf City.”
“Ah.” Liah let her eyes wander. The building was less than hospitable from the outside, and wasn’t much better within. Cold, gray, drab and in desperate need of some TLC, it clearly wasn’t the heart of a thriving Catholic community—but with the cathedral four blocks away, that wasn’t wholly unusual. “Lot of people started going to St. Boniface after it was built, huh?”
“Yes. It’s a draw for many from the tri-county area.”
“Yeah, I know.” Liah took a short walk up the central aisle and looked over the altarpiece. As she did, her stomach cramped. She didn’t know why. “I made a brief tour of the Catholic churches in this whole region before I came to Red Leaf City. It wasn’t all that time-consuming.”
“This area is predominantly Methodist.”
“Yup, I noticed.” Liah took another step forward, but a searing pain in her lower belly stopped her progress. She turned from the altar and moved toward the wall. “There are one hundred and thirty two churches in this area. Only forty of them are Catholic. Of those, only three have a parish larger than one hundred people.”
“The Cathedral of St. Boniface typically serves twice that many at daily mass.”
Liah heard the note of pride in the priest’s voice and paused in her perusal of the symbols etched on the outside edge of each pew. “People would rather drive a fair distance to take their communion in opulence than go down the street to the clapboard chapel, is that right?”
“Is that what you think?”
Liah snorted. “I’ve seen the chapels, remember? They’re cute. Well maintained. Their parishioners use what they have and take pride in their worship space. Not like this one at all.”
“This is the oldest.”
“Ah. You know what else this is?”
Father Anthony folded his arms over his chest. “I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“It’s a building.” She gifted him with a smile. “Just a regular, fucking building. Could be a goddamned Bingo hall, a dollar store, a bar, a hot dog stand…anything, really.”
Father Anthony’s expression never changed. Only his left eye—the brown one—twitched, giving evidence to his surprise. Liah fought to keep from showing her irritation as she wondered how it was that so many priests spent all their time in sacred spaces, and yet never learned how to feel the sanctity.
“Watch your language,” he said. “And what do you mean?”
She sighed. “This building isn’t consecrated.”
“I understood that part. Well…um…” Anthony’s throat worked as he thought things over. “Maybe it’s too old to have been properly blessed? Maybe it wore off when—”
“Wore off?” Liah blinked. “How long have you been a priest?”
“Nearly a decade.”
“And you think the consecration of a church can wear off? Have you ever been inside an ancient cathedral?” Liah shook her head. “Never been near the Vatican, have you? Or, you know, Italy in general, huh?”
“No, I avoid that part of the world.” The priest’s eyes flicked all over the dim church, sliding past Liah’s in a manner that could only be called furtive. Then he said, “But the altar isn’t terribly old. You have to consecrate the altar in order to bless the church, so I was thinking maybe when it was put in, the old dedications were disturbed and they, um, wore off.”
“Sanctity is a thing that sinks into the stones of a church. The foundation holds profound faith, sacrifice, duty, love. Reverence reaches to the tops of the spires and sends out a beacon of hope to any who are willing to see.” Liah glanced at the altar and again felt a twisting in her gut. She shook herself. “Otherwise, a church would be like any other building. Might as well meet in a strip joint, swing around a pole while you give your homily. Hell, you might even get a few converts, if you did that.”
Anthony closed his eyes. “Why is the blessing of this church important?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ve just never been inside a church that isn’t holy. Even the protestant churches are holy. Even the ones made out of converted grocery stores.” Liah waved a hand over her head. “Notice anything else?”
Anthony looked around. Up, down and at the altar, where his breath visibly caught and his green eye sheened with a passion Liah wasn’t comfortable witnessing. He ran his hand over the scarred pew and kicked at a frayed spot on the thin carpeting. “It looks like it always does.”
“There are one hundred and thirty two churches in this area, remember?” Liah waited for his nod before continuing. “Forty are Catholic. Of all the churches, chapels, cathedrals, and whatnot up here, forty four have gargoyles somewhere on their building.”
“That’s more than—”
“Three of the churches are Lutheran and two are Episcopalian. Kind of understandable, really.” Again Liah waved a hand over her head. “That means one Catholic church has no gargoyles. Guess which one?”
Anthony’s eyes made another circuit of Our Lady’s interior. “What does that matter?”
Liah sat down in the pew and took stock of the situation. She held her silence for quite a while, running through both her options and her suspicions, evaluating her feelings. Her fucking gift was kicking. She felt off, wrong in some ways and completely right in others, but the tingling, heated waves of discomfort cramping in her belly were making it hard to decipher much of anything at all.
What she did know, was that all too often good priests were duped by bad ones. She believed in Hallie, or at least wanted to in spite of his past alcohol addiction. Liah could not only empathize, thanks to her fucking gift, but she’d also been there, done that and had the scars to prove it. Like her, the bishop had been opened to corruption and had fought his way free, back into God’s grace. But Hallie’s success didn’t mean that there hadn’t been a corrupter nearby.
And who would be closer than the archbishop’s vicar? A man too sexy to be a priest, with bedroom eyes and pussy-eating lips. A man with muscles bulging under his simple, black shirt, and a tan that indicated a lot of time spent outdoors—but surely not in the cold, wintery weather found in that part of the world. A man who not only knew about the Garguiem, an ancient organization that only a handful of priests and cardinals had heard of, but also hated them enough to lay false crimes at her feet the moment Liah showed up in a church he didn’t even preach at. A church that wasn’t consecrated.
Suspicious, but she could deal with that. Liah knew she could tempt all but a saint into sin, so if Father Anthony Angelli was a part of the strange and questionable circumstances of the upstate orgies and demon possessions, she would find out.
And if she discovered that he had a part in forcing women into his iniquity, then she’d kill the fucker and let God decide if there should be mercy for his soul.
She smiled up at him and patted the pew next to her. “Once upon a time, there was a war in Heaven.”
Anthony visibly went on high alert. His body stiffened, which made it highly entertaining to watch him bend awkwardly to sit in the pew. He left a half foot between his body and Liah’s. “I know,” he said. “Of course I know. I’m a priest.”
“Uh-huh. Well, while the war was going on, really in the early stages to my way of thinking, some angels refused to pick a side. God cast them out, but they weren’t exactly fallen. Removed from God’s presence and made mortal, but still able to earn their way back into Heaven through sacrifice. We flush out evil and destroy it.”
Anthony threw an unreadable, yet eminently hostile, glance her way. “I know that too.”
Liah held tight to her smile as she listened to what the priest hadn’t said. He hadn’t blustered about Catholic dogma, hadn’t argued about the stubborn belief of the Church concerning angels picking sides in the Heavenly war. Supposedly, no angel had remained neutral—all either backed God or Lucifer—but most people didn’t know about the Garguiem.
Anthony knew, all right. Liah scooted closer to him. “We hunted evil, foul things for centuries. Loosely connected into families and communities, we’ve practiced every religion known to man, but then in the Middle Ages, St. Romanus ran up against Gargouille.”
“Yes, all right.” The priest wriggled his shoulders, his impatience broadcasting through Liah with a harsh jangle before she could stop it. “The water-breathing dragon that terrorized Rouen was really a man descended from the Watchers that had been cast out of Heaven and ordered to fight demons. Doesn’t surprise me, of course. Garguiem slay first and ponder later, so I can imagine your forefather ransacking the ancient city quite easily.”
“You do know your history, don’t you?”
Maybe it was the tone of her voice, or maybe it was how she peeked at him from the corner of her eye, but, either way, Anthony’s stiff posture grew more tortured. Liah winced in sympathy as his spine pulled upright, his shoulders thrown back. His chin jutted forward and his brown eye rolled as if he were searching for something to say.
“Archbishop Hallie told me.”
“Ah.” Liah neglected to set Anthony straight. Hallie hardly knew half the story, though eventually he’d have to be told. Probably. For the time being, it was enough that he knew the Garguiem to be an ancient order springing from St. Romanus’ time as Archbishop of Rouen, put in place to investigate corruption within the Church. “Then you know we keep God’s law.”
“I think you believe that.”
“I know it.” Liah slid a little closer on the pew. “I also know that God’s law isn’t the same as the Church’s law. Father Anthony…may I call you Tony?”
His eyes went wild again. “Many people do, but I don’t think you should—”
“Tony,” Liah purred. She moved closer again, putting her thigh against his, resting her hand high on his leg, leaning toward him in a way that pushed her breast against his arm. He was hot and tingly—and vastly uncomfortable, considering the way his whole body turned to stone. “There are things I could do to you that would make you hear angels sing. Things I could do to your beautiful mouth, things I could do with mine. And not a single one is against God’s law.”
He shuddered and turned toward her like a marionette. “Um…”
“Should I show you?” Liah tilted her face up, breathed over his lips. She watched his pupils dilate, his cheeks flush. Heat streaked through her, surprising her with a hot detour toward her clit. Inner muscles low and deep squeezed hard and her pussy dampened. “Let me, let me—”
He leaned closer, his breath came faster. His green blazed like an emerald. And then he was up, on his feet and halfway across the church before Liah even knew he moved. Too fast. Again.
The man had secrets.
He cleared his throat. “I have to get back to the monsignor. I’m sure he’s wondering where I’ve been. Should I lock up now or let you do it?”
For a moment, Liah simply processed her regret and ignored the temptation still lingering in her soul. Her opportunity for provocation was lost. She felt Tony’s resistance zinging through her body and knew he wouldn’t get close to her again any time soon.
She sighed and held out her hand. “Give me the keys, Tony. I’ll make sure Our Lady’s doors are secured for the night.”