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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(18) by Nalini Singh

Ashwini got out of the incredible car Janvier had driven up in after calling to offer her a ride. Still wrestling with what she had to tell him, she should’ve said no, but she’d missed him. Plus, they had to talk. The fingerprints had been a bust, as had her attempt to track down witnesses and/or surveillance tapes. She’d also spoken to a professor Honor had said could be trusted, his specialty mummification.
The white-haired male had read the interim autopsy report, then stared at the attached photos for considerable time, before saying conclusively, “Not natural. Not only is the severe cell-level damage incompatible with that, and with the ordinary process of mummification, the appearance of the corpse is all wrong in the context of its probable age, the fragile bones and teeth even more so.”
Janvier had been busy, too. He’d spent his time touching base with the “day” vampire community, and while he’d picked up a jumpy vibe, he thought that had more to do with the aftermath of the battle than their victim. “Let’s enjoy this dinner,” he’d said after the two of them swapped information. “The clubs won’t hit their stride till around eleven, and I can’t think of any other way to move forward at this point.”
Neither could Ashwini.
Now, she stroked her hand down the paintwork of his car, the black holding a faint shimmer that made the car appear a living shadow. “I can’t believe you had this all the time.”
He’d told her it had been garaged in Louisiana, that he’d hired a special truck to drop it off in New York. “Nobody,” he’d said, “drives her but me.”
Ashwini could understand his covetous air. This was one sexy machine. “How much did it cost?” She’d never thought of Janvier as rich, but he had to be—he was very, very smart, and the smart vamps always ended up wealthy.
“Don’t worry, cher.” A lazy drawl that licked over her like a full-body kiss. “I can keep you in the style to which I intend you’ll become accustomed.”
“Such dreams you have, sugar.” She patted his cheek, to his grin, before reaching inside the car and to the footwell where she’d stored the gift Naasir had bought Elena. She couldn’t wait to see the look on her fellow hunter’s face. “Here,” she said, careful to keep her body in the way of the windows as she passed it over to the vampire.
His hands touched hers as he took the present, but her ability only reacted with a bemused shrug. It didn’t know what to make of Naasir, which was fine with her. The lack permitted her to be friends with him without worry.
Looking at him, she shook her head.
Even though he’d been riding on top of the car—the maniac—the heavy silver silk of his hair had fallen back around his face in straight strands cut with a choppiness that suited him, and he looked far more civilized than she’d expected. He’d dressed in black pants and a black shirt, with an ankle-length black coat, the stark shade throwing his hair and eyes into sharp focus.
Janvier, by contrast, was in jeans and a thin, oat-colored sweater below his battered leather jacket. She could see the edge of a white T-shirt beneath the sweater. Around his neck was a burgundy scarf knit with a wool-angora blend. She’d sent it to him after the Atlanta operation, and this wasn’t the first time she’d seen it around his neck—if he wore a scarf, it was this one.
As she wore the sapphire pendant he’d given her. Right against her skin.
“You better go first,” Janvier said to Naasir. “Montgomery’s opening the door.”
Cradling his gift protectively in his arms, Naasir walked up to the door. “Hello, Montgomery.”
“It is a pleasure to have you here, sir.” The butler’s plummy accent held real affection.
“I promise not to claw up the furniture.”
“That would be most welcome,” Montgomery responded, without a hitch in his butlerish tone. “Sir, Guild Hunter.”
Nodding a greeting, Ashwini stepped inside to find Elena and Raphael heading toward them. She continued to have trouble comprehending how Elena could trust herself to someone that deadly and ruthless. Eyes of an excruciatingly pure blue and hair of a black darker than midnight, the Archangel of New York was in no way human, the power that pulsed off him a violent storm.
A touch on her lower back, Janvier’s hand anchoring her in the present when she would’ve been sucked into the vortex that was Raphael’s more than thousand years of life, her ability stretching out toward him like a child afraid of fire but wanting to touch it all the same. Drawing in a breath that was jagged inside her, she didn’t tell Janvier to break contact, the heat of his body a talisman against her own out-of-control mind.
In front of them, Naasir bowed his head. “Sire, Consort.”
•   •   •
Elena sighed in silent relief when she realized Naasir was holding nothing more dangerous than a potted plant, the pot wrapped in pretty foil paper. “It’s nice to see you, Naasir,” she said, touching Raphael’s mind with her own at the same time. The others will be disappointed. I think they were expecting something outrageous.
“This is for you.” Naasir handed her the plant. “I thank you for the gracious invitation to your home.”
The hairs rose on the back of her neck at the pristine civility of the words, the tiger-on-the-hunt scent of him at odds with the sophisticated vampire who stood in front of her. “Thank you,” she managed to say, wondering if she’d offended him somehow. Instinct told her Naasir was this polite only to people he didn’t like.
“If Jessamy asks, tell her I followed the rules.” A feral grin.
Oh. “I will.” Glancing down, she focused on the plant in her arms. It was unusual, the red heart of the open pods lined with what appeared to be tiny barbs. Intrigued, she touched a careful finger to the red . . . and it tried to eat her.
Naasir laughed when she jumped, but it wasn’t a mean laugh. Coming up beside her, he said, “It took me hours and hours to find one in your city.” Pride in every word, he ran his finger over another open pod.
When the flower snapped its teeth at him, he snapped his own back. “It only eats small things.”
Elena was beyond fascinated. “Like insects?”
His eyes lighting up at her obvious interest, Naasir nodded. “If you put it in your greenhouse, it’ll eat any insects that bother your other plants.”
Elena wasn’t sure she had any insects in her greenhouse. Raphael, where do we get food for this plant? She’d never had a carnivorous greenhouse guest before.
It is your gift, hunter mine.
Thanks a lot. But she remained fascinated by the plant as unique as the vampire who’d given it to her. “Should we go put it in the greenhouse now, so it’s warm?”
Naasir nodded. “It’s like me; it doesn’t enjoy the cold.”
First, though, Elena took it inside to show the others. The gift was a hit.
Heading outside afterward, past an unflustered Montgomery, Elena didn’t bother to put on her coat. It was freezing out, but the greenhouse wasn’t far. Naasir prowled beside her, his nostrils flaring at the cold scents, the bitter night air. “Caliane is lonely,” he said without warning.
Elena almost stumbled. Righting herself, she carried on along the lamplit pathway toward the greenhouse, the grow lamps within giving it a welcoming glow. “Lonely?”
The silver strands of Naasir’s hair moved like liquid mercury when he nodded. “When she lived in the world before, Raphael was nearby. Now he is far from her, across an ocean, and the time she had with him at the ball did not ease her need.”
If there was one thing about Caliane that Elena had never doubted, it was the Ancient’s love for her son. “Can she leave her territory right now?” Amanat was a heartbeat away from Lijuan’s homeland in angelic terms.
“It may be the best time. Lijuan’s people are looking inward—they’ve put up defenses and are hunkered down behind them.”
“I’ll speak to Raphael.” The idea of having her Ancient mother-in-law over for a visit didn’t exactly make her want to jump for joy, but Caliane had appeared to be thawing toward her during their last meeting, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe. “Thank you for telling me.”
Naasir pressed his nose against the glass of the greenhouse before following her inside. She settled the carnivorous plant away from the others, not sure it wouldn’t decide to change diets, and turned to find the vampire standing in the aisle with a worried frown on his face. “Are you sure you’ll have enough insects?”
“Yes. I’ll take care of it, I promise.” A plant was a plant, even if this one had a slightly different diet. “I like plants.” And plants liked her back . . . more and more these days. She’d managed to baby an incredibly delicate fern back to life after it collapsed into limp brown strands as a result of her abandonment during the battle.
Then again, the plant’s recovery had probably been sheer luck.
It sat healthy and happy and green to the right, next to a cheerful pansy that had attracted Naasir. The vampire touched his fingers to the soft purple petals of the flower, stroking as if he liked the velvety texture.
“Here,” she said, showing him another plant. “You can eat it.” Breaking off a flower, she gave it to him.
He bit carefully, chewed. “I don’t understand why people eat plants,” was his succinct response, but he finished off the flower as they headed back. “We will spar?”
“I’ve been looking forward to it.” Fast and unorthodox, he’d be an excellent opponent from whom to learn. “Though we’ll have to have ground rules.”
He scowled. “You said cheating was okay.”
“It is—for me. Raphael’s an archangel. You’re a centuries-old vampire.” Elena wasn’t sure of Naasir’s exact age, but she had the feeling it had to be around the six- or seven-hundred mark. “I’m not as strong as you.” Raphael had told her she had to be blunt with Naasir.
He is highly intelligent, but he becomes frustrated with too much subtlety. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of understanding it—but that he gets annoyed with people who force such subtleties on him.
Tonight, Naasir looked at her with the silver eyes that held such wildness her senses kept telling her he was nothing known, nothing understood. “I could break your neck without effort,” he said, as if simply stating a fact. “The sire would not like that.”
“Neither would I.” Her dry response made him grin, fangs flashing. “I say we do a couple of practice runs so you can gauge your strength against mine.” Elena liked sparring with those stronger than her; it was the only way to get better. Their enemies sure as hell didn’t go easy on her because she was significantly weaker than the average adult angel.
But, she had to be smart about it. No use being too proud and ending up dead because Naasir didn’t realize he wasn’t dealing with a warrior angel his own age. “How about tomorrow?”
“I will ask Janvier if he and his hunter need help with their hunt.”
Elena felt her body tense again at the horror of what had been done to the Little Italy victim, at the idea that Lijuan might somehow have left a taint in their city. “I really wish the wicked witch would take a dive straight into hell.”
“Did Raphael tell you I once tried to bite her?”
“No.” Eyes wide, she turned to face him. “What happened?”
“I was a child. She laughed because she thought I was joking.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t—I wanted to kill her because she smelled like bad meat. Wrong.”
“In that case,” Elena said, “we’ll soon be best friends.”
Naasir wrapped his arm around her neck, his very sharp teeth close to her ear as he said, “You smell good, Ellie.” A tiny bite, playful rather than serious. “Do you think Janvier smells his hunter?”
Elena smiled at the whisper and decided to set aside thoughts of Lijuan and the death the insane archangel left in her wake. Tonight it was about loyalty, about friendship, and about the ties that bound them all to one another, angel, vampire, and mortal. “I hope so.”
•   •   •
Janvier watched Ashwini perch on the arm of the chair where Honor had taken a seat, Ash’s long, long legs clad in black jeans and her eyes bright as she listened to something Mahiya was saying to them both. His hunter appeared in good spirits despite her lack of success at unearthing a clue, but he’d felt the screaming tension in her when they’d first walked into the house. Others might’ve identified her response as fear at the proximity to an archangel but he knew different.
It was the history Raphael carried in his bones. At a thousand five hundred years old—give or take a decade or two—Raphael was young in relation to the other archangels. Lijuan was rumored to be ten thousand years old, while no one knew Caliane’s true age; Janvier had heard guesses that went from two hundred and fifty thousand years old to double that. He couldn’t imagine living that long—it made him better understand why older angels chose to Sleep for eons and why some vampires settled on a peaceful goodnight.
“You look at her as a man only looks at one woman in his lifetime, be he mortal or immortal.”
Janvier met the archangel’s gaze, the power in it staggering. “There has never been, nor ever will be, anyone like her.”
“Such gifts don’t often appear,” Raphael said, his attention on Ash. “In my lifetime, I’ve met three others like her: mortals who needed time beyond a human life span to allow their gifts to grow to their full potential.”
“Do they live?” Janvier asked, knowing the angels liked to make sure the unique and the gifted survived into eternity.
Janvier had once been sent on a mission to locate a reclusive composer who resided in a castle deep in the Caucasus Mountains. The commission had come during his years as a free agent and it had carried the seal of Astaad, Favashi, and, unexpectedly, Titus. All three archangels had loved the composer’s works with such passion, they’d offered to Make him without need for a hundred-year Contract. All he’d have to do was continue to create his symphonies, fill the world with music.
A remarkable offer, yet the composer had refused it. “My music,” he’d said, his eyes holding a spark Janvier had seen only in the gifted and the mad, “is precious because it is touched with my mortality. Should I become a man with eternal life, I will no longer be able to create that which brings the archangels such joy. I would become a shade, dead inside even as I lived forever.”
So he wasn’t surprised when Raphael said, “Two are gone, having chosen a mortal existence despite all the temptations laid at their feet. One resides in Nimra’s territory, in a peaceful part of the bayou.”
Janvier realized he knew exactly who Raphael meant. “Silvan.” Five hundred years old, the vampire had a level of power that often eluded those twice his age. Despite that, he preferred a life of solitude over any position more lucrative and influential. “Those of my family who live in the area say he can walk in dreams.”
“You’ll have to ask Silvan if you wish the truth.”
“Perhaps I will the next time we share chicory coffee on the dock off his home.”
Raphael’s lips curved. “It is true then, Cajun. You know everyone?”
“That’s my job.” To be the one no one feared and everyone welcomed. The task had once been Illium’s, but Bluebell was now a power, a fact no amount of charm could conceal.
“You’re very good at what you do.” The words of an archangel to one of his men. “As to your hunter, I think you know the odds are not in your favor. Those born with deeper senses often turn down the chance at immortality for reasons we cannot understand.”
Unfortunately, Janvier understood Ashwini’s reasons all too well. She’d become stronger over the past twelve months, her reactions more intense. Already she lived on the edge of “normal.” She feared what she’d become should she embrace immortality. Janvier knew she would be extraordinary then as she was extraordinary now, but she didn’t see it that way.
“The pathologist called us earlier,” he said, changing the subject to keep his mind from going around in circles. “He’s completed his deep tissue analysis”—or as much as was possible given the state of the remains—“and says the victim shows conclusive signs of being a long-term donor.”
If a vampire was careful, even an ongoing donor would carry no scars. Should Janvier ever taste Ash’s blood, he’d lick over the wound to make sure it healed cleanly—unless he wanted her to bear his mark. His breath caught at the idea of it, his abdomen clenching. To have her not only offer him her vein but consent to wear the sign of his possession, it was a dream so big, he knew it might never come true.
Not every vampire, however, was careful with his donor. It led to the formation of scar tissue beneath the skin at the most utilized sites. Not only was that bad for the donor but, over time, it made it more difficult for the vampire to feed. The Little Italy victim’s major fang sites had been so deeply scarred that the pathologist had noted it was possible she’d become useless as a donor. That could be the reason she’d been killed and thrown out with the garbage, but it still didn’t explain the desiccation.
“Ash and I,” he told Raphael, “are heading to the Quarter clubs after dinner to see if we can pin down the victim’s identity.” While there was no guarantee she’d patronized the clubs, it was a good starting point, given how many vamps first met their long-term donors in the Quarter. “It’ll also give me a chance to connect with those Made who prefer the night hours.”
“Stay in regular contact with Dmitri.” An order. “If Lijuan did leave a taint in our city, I don’t want either of you falling victim to it.”
Ash looked up then, the mysterious dark of her eyes going straight to Janvier. Her laughter faded, but the connection between them . . . it continued to pulse unabated.
“No,” Janvier said. “I won’t take any unnecessary risks.”