SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t read books one and two, this chapter will give some things away. Just FYI. Read at your own risk.
This is a sneak peek into the third book in the BALANCE KEEPER series! I hope you enjoy it! Leave a comment and let me know, or better yet, preorder today and email me copy of your receipt in order to be entered to receive a free first or second book in the series.
Chance Meeting – James on Mission
James curled his fists, the muscles in his arms bunching with unreleased tension. He needed to punch something. Callie’s laugh ate away at his sanity like screeching nails on a chalkboard. He was in a packed car, but even after six months, he still resisted the comfort of belonging to a team, to this team especially. Not after all he’d done. He’d almost destroyed each of them; their open forgiveness was beyond him. They may trust him, but he didn’t. And he shouldn’t be given trust so freely. They forgot too quickly, forgave too easily, loved too fully. He shook his head and speared a tree with his glare.
Again, she laughed at Eli, throwing her straight black hair back, brushing against James’s shoulder in the cramped Hummer. His full six feet, four inches barely fit into the back seat alongside the two. A burst of irritation raced through him, but he wasn’t the punching kind of guy anymore. Instead, he grimaced and returned to staring at the bright, spring green of the trees passing. Why couldn’t he just regrow new, fresh, perfectly green.
Evie’s vanilla scent wafted back as the air conditioner kicked in, blowing her soft brown curls in its wake. James shook his head, his black hair, now too long, falling over his eyes. He tried to hold his breath. Why did she have to sit right in front of him?
The last six months vanished as if he’d never lived them, never grown, never got even the slightest bit better, and his heart was thrown back into winning her, into becoming the conqueror and amassing all the power. He shoved the feeling down and shook his head, refocusing. What his heart had held for her wasn’t love. It was obsession. Self-centeredness. Evil. Twisted codependency. He swiped a hand down his face, then let his hand fall to the leather interior of the SUV, his tight grip threatening to tear the upholstery apart. He was a mess!
But no matter what, he wasn’t going to be the guy who fell back into Hell. Clenching his jaw, he renewed his will, refusing to be deceived ever again.
Evie laughed at whatever inane ‘did you know’ question Caleb must have just whispered. James cut his gaze to her in the rearview. Joy rippled across her features, filling her eyes and lips with a happy beauty. Freedom and peace reigned in the micro expressions traced in her features.
Caleb turned and smiled at her. They were promised. Soulmates. Evie was the heart of their team, the leader, and Caleb was her heart. And though she was the woman James loved and had lost. He was happy for them both.
He craved the laughter of another, to give joy like Caleb gave Evie, to have the promise of life with another, a soulmate. But he was such a mess, such a disastrous mess. Too much of one to bring anyone else into his world. He uncurled his fists and wiped them on his jeans.
Callie glanced down at the movement. “You okay?”
He frowned and nodded. With an enormous struggle he’d never admit to, he finally pulled off a forced smile.
“You sure? You can tell me, you know.” Callie gave him time to answer, meeting his eyes and not breaking contact. Callie was trustworthy and kind, a calming presence that was nice to have around.
He took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll let you know if I’m . . . you know.” Gonna set the car on fire, lose my head and send lava flowing into the small space, choose the dark side again. How did his friends trust him enough to ride in such a small space? He’d done . . . so many things to them, and yet they still laughed, included him, and didn’t flinch when he failed. And he was failing all the time these days. “If I feel like I’m going to lose it, I’ll let you know.”
She nodded and turned back to Eli. They were really hitting it off this year, and boy was it making him a fifth wheel.
He turned his gaze back to the brilliant spring scenery blazing by.
“James,” Eli leaned around Callie, “Everything we go through, there’s a reason for it.”
James grimaced. “I know.” Everything about Eli was perfect. His hair fell flawlessly in his church boy haircut, his khaki pants and button-down shirt were probably pressed. He was absolutely devoted to Callie. They deserved each other.
Eli shoved his glasses up his nose. “Well, it’s just a matter of figuring out what that is, and then you’ll know your purpose. You’ll have a place.”
Evie twisted in her seat. Her beautiful blue eyes locked onto James’s. “He has a place. He’s with us, on our team.” Her words healed a tiny piece of his heart.
Eli nodded and turned a pensive gaze to the window, letting Evie misinterpret his words. But James knew. He studied Eli who stared out the window, deep in thought.
“You’ll heal. It just might take time.” Evie turned, and Caleb grinned with pride.
They were going to make James sick. They couldn’t get to the coffee shop soon enough.
James huffed, misting the windowpane. The back of his neck grew hot. Sure enough, Callie’s reflection in the window was studying him. He ignored her.
The scenery blew by in a blur of greens, spring and new love was in the air. Everything was just warming up outside. Sweaters and coats were left at home today since it was supposed to reach a balmy 67, almost 70 Evie had said.
Houses blurred past now. They were getting closer. He was grateful for the distraction of the reconnaissance mission. The sentinel angels tasked them with determining the current territorial growth trajectory of a new demonic cell. Its nearby location made it a good first trip out for James, or so the sentinel Theo had said. Anything under the enemy’s control sparked a shiver through James. He rubbed his hands together.
James scowled at the thought of darkness taking any territory as its own. If only they could crush the enemy, cut the head of the snake, and end its tyranny. He cracked his knuckles.
Callie leaned forward, pushing her head between Evie and Caleb. “Can we listen to some music?”
“Sure.” Caleb clicked on the radio, only to have the speakers blast out a drum solo at full volume.
The beat ricocheted through James’s bones. Thrown back to a time when the devil’s beast was hovered over him. He was in the blasted cave again. Sweat prickled along his skin. A flash of white-hot terror ripped down his spine.
A cool hand touched his arm. “It’s okay, James. It was just one of Caleb’s stupid rock songs – you know how he loves to blast the radio.”
He suspected he was pale and wide-eyed. Sucking in a cool gasp, he caught her gaze and locked on, begging with every ounce of his being she’d pull him from the darkness.
Callie’s hand fell to his where he gripped the headrest so hard his knuckles had turned white. “You need to let go. You’re pulling Evie’s hair.”
When did he grab that? Several strands of curly brown hair were trapped between his fingers and Evie’s head was at an odd angle against the rest, as if she was in pain.
“I’m so sorry!” He let go and forced his hands under his thighs. That was why he shouldn’t be allowed to go with them yet. He’d told the sentinels, but they weren’t listening to him. “I shouldn’t be on this mission.”
Caleb caught his eye in the rearview before focusing back on the road. “It’s fine. You’re going to have some bumps and bruises along the way. We all know that. The best thing to do is build a routine, get back in the swing of things, and start making those better choices, because one good choice turns into two, which turns into three. It’ll be fine. We’ve got you. We’re watching, and we’ll make sure everything’s okay.”
James sighed. “Yeah, you’ll make sure everything’s okay for me. But what about you guys? I’m a weak link. You know the saying….”
Evie twisted in her chair. “You aren’t a link. You’re a person, a child of God, and you are loved with a love that can heal anything. Even the worst of wounds.”
James rolled his eyes. “So you keep telling me.”
Caleb turned the SUV into the parking lot of Starbucks. “No good mission can start without a Starbucks run.”
Eli smiled as if she were the only person in the car. “Good idea.”
They all got out. James trailed along. Everything in him wanted to turn back, wait in the car, hide from trying and failing again. What sound would trigger him next? Would it be a smell? He was so tired of not trusting his own reactions. He should be finding a way to go home. He wasn’t ready for this. Who was he kidding? He wasn’t ready for the real world. Let alone a real battle.
He found his reflection in the glass door while the others focused on their caffeine fix. His half smile was a perfect expression for how he felt, half a man. He didn’t need coffee. He needed to know that working on this team was the right choice for him. That somehow, he’d become whole again if he just kept on forcing the smile, taking the next step, and moving through the aftermath of the darkness he’d suffered.
His half smile fell, an exact representation of the hollowed-out mess he was inside. He needed to splash some cold water on his face.
He flung the door open and nodded to the group. “I’m headed to the bathroom.”
Callie’s concerned expression lingered, but he passed without saying another word. What could he say? There weren’t words that made this better. Time might heal. Evie said love would heal, but the fact of the matter was that he wasn’t healed today, and everyone could tell.
He turned down a narrow hall and to his right found a board full of business cards, wanted ads, and hopeful pleas of every different kind, make, and model, all lined up on a simple corkboard. James sighed. Why couldn’t healing be so simple? Just pin his need to a corkboard and wait for someone to pull it down and call him with a fix. The door to the bathroom swung open and bumped his arm.
“Oh, sorry.” The most beautiful pixie-like face peered up at him. The girl’s luminescent brown eyes stared straight into his soul, communicating with him on another level, connecting them with invisible steel wire. Her long, straight, brunette hair slid across her slightly pink cheek, and he had to forcibly hold his hand at his side to keep from brushing it back behind her ear.
James caught the door and his breath. “No problem.” Lord! She’d stolen everything with one glance.
She gave a weak smile. Something she’d buried deep rose to the surface, stuttering to life, and as if she feared the potential of her own words. She bit her lip, but still, her eyes cried out: help me, help us.
A deep need to protect her leapt to life, pounding in his heart as he stared into those eyes. He was familiar with terror – it lived in his nightmares, and his body responded viscerally.
She looked away, her cheeks turning pinker.
It was unseasonably warm, but the sleeves of an oversized jersey covered her arms all the way to her knuckles. Long pants and Converse hid the rest of her, but James was certain her skin wore the mottled markings of old and new bruises that matched the scars in the depths of those eyes.
James narrowed his eyes, and she stepped back. He followed, unable to resist her pull.
“Could you get out of my way?” Her gaze remained locked on the floor, but her voice tore through him like a knife.
He didn’t expect such a cynical tone with a razor edge from someone so delightfully beautiful. “Oh, sure. I just wanted to hold the door open for you. Mission accomplished.”
“I have places to be.” She peeked up through her hair, then stepped around him so another girl could follow. She grabbed her friend, and her shoulders drew upward, as if the simple contact infused her with courage.
“Do you guys need some help? I could . . .” He reached out but drew back when she recoiled.
Her brown eyes remained locked on his, but her friend kept glancing at the front door. She suddenly stiffened.
Maybe they really did need him to intervene.
“We’re fine,” the brunette said, but her eyes disagreed with her words. “We’ll be . . . We’ll be just fine.”
“I’m sorry, is there a problem over here?” A man around James’s age walked up. His clean-cut hair, long nose, and sharp features made him strikingly handsome. He bumped into James, knocking the door out of his grip. It closed with a snick. “If there’s a problem, I’m good at handling those.”
The guy puffed up his chest, as if to say, I’ll beat you down if you get in my way. Both girls’ shoulders caved, and without another word, they slumped toward the front door.
The man stood there a moment longer. His gaze locked and loaded on James as the girls stood by the exit. Once the guy was satisfied with the standoff, he took off after them. His big stomping steps were the only outward expression of a fury barely hidden under his facade. He grabbed the brunette’s arm and tore her out of Starbucks as if she’d done something wrong by using the bathroom. Her friend followed with a sad glance in James’s direction.
James stood there. Frozen. What in the . . .? Why did he let him do that? Why didn’t he crush that guy and help those girls?
Everything inside of him flared to life, as if for the first time, his heart beat again. The hollowed-out version of himself he’d become, suddenly filled with spring colors and new life. He shuddered. Those begging eyes had started this. He should have rescued her, even though every word out of her mouth was contrary. James shook his head, still needing that splash of cold water. He opened the restroom door and stepped inside.
The bathroom felt off, like a darkness lingered. Like an emptiness had been carved into the space. And now the molecules themselves were wrong. He shook his head again. Man, was he losing it? He took care of business, then walked to the sink to splash cold water on his face. It dripped down his chin and onto his shirt.
His heart pounded against his ribs. He grabbed a paper towel and wiped his face. Dark brown eyes stared back at him in the mirror. “Stop acting crazy. You have a second chance, and second chances aren’t easy. They aren’t free either. You’re a lucky man. Pull it together and stop looking for trouble where there isn’t any. Get it together.”
A soft knock came at the door. “Everything okay in there?”
James bit back a ‘no’ with a grimace. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She better not have heard him talking to himself.
Those brown eyes crept into his mind though, and glared at his heart, accusing him, begging him.
“Okay. Just wanted to check on you. Let us know if you need anything.”
“Anything?” What was she going to do? Help him pee? He swallowed. At least he had people. Honestly. It meant something. People cared about him, surrounded him with their love. Did the brunette and her friend have people? Was anyone looking out for them? Did they have someone to save them from the darkness?
It didn’t matter. He zipped up his pants. He couldn’t help her. He could hardly help himself. He had things to fix before he could think about a woman. Anyone really. And they had a mission to do. He needed to choose his place – to find the place meant for him, the one he was designed to fulfill. Then and only then would he be ready to take on others.
The memory of those eyes rose unbidden to the forefront of his mind. He tried to wipe it away, but for some reason, the harder he tried, the more convinced he was he should chase after her. Before this trip was over, he was going to need an ice bath just to clear his head. God, help me please.
In the end, he couldn’t allow her, or anyone else, to drag him down. Not again. Never again. James was a good guy, fighting for the side of the light now, and he had to focus on remaining with his team.
The girls were a distraction at best, a temptation at worst. And if by any chance, she was walking on the side of darkness, well, he’d found out the hard way that opposite sides could never be together. Someone would get hurt. He and Evie had already demonstrated that.
Before anyone else could knock on the door, he decided to go get his coffee. It was time to go on his first mission, and that was what he was going to focus on.