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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(10) by Nalini Singh

Unable to bear the na**d emotion in his eyes, because it was a mirror of her own, she used her Guild training to break his hold. The fact that she’d waited until now was another danger sign, another warning. “I didn’t fit,” she said, and it was all she could say right then without breaking completely.
Moving to the very edge of the cliff, the snow crunching beneath her boots, she turned the conversation back to what she could handle. “My brother is a neurosurgeon.” One of the most revered in the profession. “Dr. Arvan Taj does not do house calls, not for anyone. And he definitely doesn’t treat cattle.”
“Giorgio was once a renowned physician.” Janvier’s boots broke through the ice crust over the snow as he came to join her. “He was responsible for a number of significant breakthroughs in his time and remains respected in medical circles. Perhaps because it is only in the past four decades that he has chosen to abandon his vocation for the pursuit of a selfish pleasure that does not care who it hurts.”
Catching something unexpected in his tone, she frowned. “He called you mon ami. You were friends?”
“No, but there was a time when that address would’ve made me proud.” Pushing a hand through his hair, he said, “I spent a month in his château in the Alps a long time ago. He was having a salon featuring a select number of the world’s best minds and I stumbled into it when I was tasked with delivering an important letter.” Eyes distant, he shook his head. “For some reason, he invited me to remain, though I was an ignorant courier with barely half a century of vampirism behind him.”
“You’ve always been smart.” It was a flame in him, the desire to grasp at life with both hands, absorbing knowledge in a thousand different fragments.
“I am happy to know you think so, cher, for your mind seduced me long ago.” The faint hint of a smile lay on his lips, Janvier a man who was never dark for long. “But I was out of my league there, the others around the fire scientists and artists, philosophers and explorers.” A sigh, his throat arched as he looked up at a night sky become hazy with clouds. “It could be those great men and women decided they needed an audience. It doesn’t matter—I drank in the knowledge they shared as if it were rain and my soul a thirsty plain.”
It was an image that tugged at her soul, made her want to lock herself in a room with him for days, weeks, months, just so she could hear of the roads he’d traveled, the places he’d been, the people he’d met. Time was running out from between her clenched fists, and she had so many things she didn’t yet know about him.
“Did Giorgio have cattle then?” she asked through the ache of need.
“Yes, and he has always had an eye for nubile beauty, but such is true of many men, mortal or immortal, non?”
Ashwini nodded, thinking of the septuagenarian who lived in her building, his companion a foxy redhead in her thirties.
“But back then,” Janvier continued, “Giorgio treated the older of his cattle with love and respect even after their youth faded—during my time in the château, I met one who was in her sixth decade. To her, Giorgio was family, and the feeling was reciprocated.”
Ashwini couldn’t get her head around the idea that the vampire they’d just left had once been such a different man, a sudden fear choking off her breath. “Don’t let immortality do that to you,” she whispered. “Don’t let it steal your soul.”
Moss green eyes held her own. “It is, others tell me, far easier to stay human if you split your heart in two and give one part to another to keep.”
Give it to me, she wanted to say. I’ll protect it with my life . . . and I’ll give you my heart in return. Folding her arms against the urge that would ultimately cause him pain so terrible it permanently scarred, she broke the searing intimacy of the eye contact to stare out toward the dazzle of Manhattan. “I guess Arvi might do a favor for a friend. He and Giorgio probably met at a charity gala or some other black-tie affair, became acquainted.”
Her brother was at home at such events, the perfect, urbane date. Because though Arvi was a man born to be the head of a family, the mantle sitting on his shoulders as if he’d been made to wear it, he had never married. A decade back, Ashwini had thought that was about to change, but the gifted female surgeon whom she was dead certain Arvi loved passionately had gone on to become another man’s bride. Since then, Arvi had played the field. It didn’t suit him, but she understood why he did it.
“You’ve never mentioned your brother before.” Janvier stroked strands of her hair between his fingertips.
The tiny tugs on her scalp reaching deep inside her, Ashwini looked up at a wash of wind to see a squadron of angels passing overhead on a low flight path. They dipped their wings as a unit as they passed, and she knew Janvier had been spotted. He raised his free hand in acknowledgment right as a fresh gust of wind blew his hair back from his face.
That face could never be called beautiful. It had too many rough edges. But sexy? Yes, Janvier was sexy in every way a man could be sexy. The curve of his lips, the dark shadow of scruff on his jaw that said he didn’t fuss about being pretty, the glint of sinful knowledge in his eyes, the lazy way he moved, it added up to a package a woman would have to exercise incredible willpower to repudiate.
Ashwini’s willpower was at an all-time low.
As if he sensed that, Janvier slid his hand down her back to hook one thumb into her back right pocket. It was pushing at her boundaries and it was what he always did. If he ever stopped flirting with her, a part of her would die. “Do you have to report in to Illium in person?” she asked, ignoring his implied question about her brother, unable to go there, to talk about the agony that both divided and united her and Arvi; she couldn’t forget his betrayal, and Arvi couldn’t forgive what he saw as hers.
“I can call in the information.” Janvier’s gaze was acute, but his words easy. “You?”
“I’ll do the same.”
Separating to opposite ends of the cliff, she rang Sara while he contacted Illium.
Ashwini updated the Guild Director on the details, then said, “My instincts are screaming that the dog is a harbinger of worse to come.” The feeling had nothing to do with her more unusual abilities; it was pure hunter instinct. “I’m going to keep an eye on the area, work my contacts to see if I can shake anything loose.”
“I’m not putting you on an active hunt for another two weeks at least,” Sara replied, “so take the time and keep me in the loop. No heroics.” It was a command. “I damn well don’t intend to watch the undertakers put another one of my people in the ground.”
There had been far too many funerals after the battle that had thundered in the air, on the rooftops, and along the streets of Manhattan. Hunters, vampires, angels . . . the wave of death had been indiscriminate, the grief left in its wake a heavy shadow that colored Sara’s order tonight. “Noted,” Ashwini said to the other woman before hanging up.
Then she turned, looked at the man who walked toward her, his hair wind-tumbled and his smile an invitation, and knew she was about ten seconds away from making what might be the worst mistake of both their lives.
•   •   •
Janvier wanted Ashwini. He’d wanted her since their first meeting in the luxuriant green humidity of a cypress swamp, her skin beaded with sweat and dragonflies buzzing in the air. It had taken everything he had not to attempt to seduce her then and there, the desire to lick up the salt-laced tang of her as he drove his c*ck into her body a sudden, violent craving.
The fact that she had a crossbow aimed at his gut hadn’t dampened his lust, just heightened it, but the lust had only been the start. Each time they tangled, he’d learned a little more about his Ashblade, until having her body would no longer be enough. Janvier wanted all of the gifted, complicated, skilled woman in front of him.
Including her trust.
Today, the rich brown eyes he’d seen laughing, infuriated, amused, were sad and brittle. A small push and he knew she’d permit the seduction, allow him to use his body to make her forget the pain that lived in her, that huge thing too terrible for a mortal to possess. He could kiss her, taste her in an effort to assuage the need inside him, even thrust his c*ck so deep into her that she cried out. And when it was over, he’d have destroyed the most beautiful thing he’d encountered, that he’d felt, in all eternity.
“It’s a great night for a long ride,” he said before she could speak. “No real wind, and I can handle any snow that falls. You game?”
A pregnant pause, those mysterious eyes locked on his face.
His nerves stretched taut; Janvier didn’t know if he had the strength to refuse her if she made him a different offer, even knowing it would be a devastating mistake. She was his Achilles’ heel, his personal, luminous madness.
“Yes,” she said at last. “Let’s go.”
Grabbing the helmet he’d bought especially for her and that he never lent to anyone else, he put it on her with his own hands, flipping down the fog-resistant visor to protect her face. Then, zipping up his jacket after a glance at Ash to make sure hers was secure, he put on his helmet and straddled the bike. She hesitated for a second before swinging up behind him, long and sleek and the most complex, fascinating creature he’d ever met.
Not interrupting the silence that had fallen between them, he drove down the narrow cliff access road with care; he might have a daredevil streak, but despite her grit and determination, Ash was mortal. If he totaled the bike, she could die. His gut tightened, his spine locking.
Only a few more decades. Then it’ll be time for a new hunter to chase you.
She’d said that to him the first time she ever asked him for help. They’d gone into Nazarach’s territory, survived the sadistic angel, shared a decadent promise of a kiss on a train platform before she left him, his wild windstorm of a lover. Because she was very much his lover, even if they’d never been skin to skin. The idea of being with any other woman after he met her had simply been out of the question.
He would not—could not—let her die. Not the tempestuous storm that was her.
The light would go out of the world if she was gone.
The only impediment to her becoming near-immortal was Ash’s own resistance to the idea. Raphael had been aware of Ash since long before Janvier’s fateful meeting with her in that swamp; the archangel would be more than happy to have a woman with her abilities in his Tower. Somehow, Janvier had to make Ash see that living hundreds, perhaps thousands of years wouldn’t be the nightmare she imagined.
Once out of the Enclave, he turned the bike in the direction of the Adirondacks. The night wind whistled past them and other vehicles overtook on the left because he kept the speed undemanding, the snow on the sides of the road glittering in the beam of his headlight when they passed out of the more populated areas, the trees clean silhouettes against the night.
Flicking on the microphone and speaker system embedded in his helmet with a tilt of his head, he said, “There’s something about going for a ride with a beautiful woman wrapped around me.”
It took her a couple of seconds to figure out the system on her end. “Since when is a hand on your shoulder ‘wrapped around you’?”
The old sadness and older hurt he’d sensed in her since the instant she came face-to-face with her brother was still there, but he could hear his Ash rising through it. “Ah, perhaps I am simply indulging in a fantasy. Foolish male that I am.”
A snort sounded from behind him . . . but then she slid her arms around his body, pressing her chest flush to his back, the strength of her grip making him feel possessed, owned. The contact eased the aged, potent need inside him enough that his chest no longer hurt, air filling his lungs again.
“So, I ask and I receive. You’re in a generous mood.”
“Don’t get too cocky, cuddlebunny.”
His grin was bright. “What’s a cuddlebunny?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“You, at the moment. Sexy, non?”
He loved it when she teased him. “Oui, if it makes you cuddle so close.”
Her laughter was husky, and it was all he needed to hear.
•   •   •
They rode for hours, taking a break now and then to stretch their legs or admire a view—or for Ashwini to get some hot coffee into her.
“I’m going to hit caffeine overload at this rate,” she pointed out the second time Janvier made a quick pit stop at a diner, the snow that had begun to fall soft and pretty and no challenge to Janvier’s skill at handling the bike.
“Humor me, cher. I don’t want you frozen.” A wicked smile. “I like your blood running hot.”
“Stop thinking about my blood.”
“Now you ask for the impossible from your cuddlebunny.”
With each mile that passed, each playful word from him, Ashwini felt more and more of the strain caused by the unexpected encounter with Arvi leaching away . . . and more and more of her heart falling into the hands of the man who’d seen the fractures in her and given her laughter to heal it.
What was she going to do about this, about them? It no longer seemed as simple as keeping a secret, keeping her distance. Because, as proven by her current position, the latter had proved a spectacular failure, and the former seemed a betrayal of everything they’d become to each other. “Naasir is right,” she said when Janvier brought the bike to a halt at a gas station on their way back to Manhattan, the air clear of snow once more.
Taking off his helmet, Janvier looked over his shoulder at her. “About what?”
“About people making things too complicated for—” A loud buzzing interrupted her words. “Hold on,” she said, her heart slamming into her ribs because the decision about what to tell Janvier might just have been made for her.
However, the late night call wasn’t from Banli House.
“It’s Sara.” Ashwini felt her blood go cold; the Guild Director wouldn’t be calling her at a quarter after eleven unless there was a serious problem. “Sara, what’s happened?”
“Cops just contacted me. They have a body they’ve tagged as Guild business. From the description, it’s in the same condition as the dog.”
Ashwini had steeled herself for bad news, but Sara’s words knocked the air out of her nonetheless. “Damn it.” Fisting her hand against Janvier’s shoulder, she closed her eyes for a second before flicking them open. “I’ll handle this.”
“You’re not in hunting condition, Ash. You know that.”
Janvier tapped her thigh and made a motion for her to cover the phone so they could speak.
“One second, Sara.”
“I couldn’t hear her clearly,” Janvier said as soon as she blocked the receiver, “but did she say a body connected to the dog?” At her nod, his face grew grim. “The city doesn’t need this right now, so soon after the battle. It’s barely begun to heal.”
“Are you offering Tower assistance?”
“No way around Tower involvement,” he pointed out. “Guild would have to report this to Dmitri sooner or later. Might as well work together from the start.”
Ashwini couldn’t argue with him—this was no normal Guild case. “I’ve got Tower assistance,” she said to Sara. Annoyed as she was about having to fight to do her job, she also knew the Guild Director was right; she wasn’t in the physical condition to handle this on her own. It’d be stupid not to have backup in case things turned to shit.
“Janvier?” Sara asked.
“Yes.” She passed on what he’d said about the city’s psychological state.
“He has a point.” A faint tapping sound came through the connection, Sara likely drumming her pen against her desk. “I assume Janvier will pass on the details to Dmitri?”
“All right. I’ll contact Dmitri in the morning, sort out our game plan, but for now, work under the assumption that the investigation needs to fly under the radar.”
“So the case is mine?”
“I’ll tell the cops to hold the scene for you.”