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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(8) by Nalini Singh

The sky was a smudgy gray with only the faintest tinge of orange by the time Ashwini and Janvier arrived at their next destination, located in neighboring Soho—though the area bore that name only until sunset. Then it became the Vampire Quarter. That was when the swanky shops and chichi cafés shut their doors, to be replaced by blood cafés and vampire clubs filled with the cruel and the beautiful.
Hmm . . .
Removing her helmet after Janvier parked down the street from a freestanding dual-level town house on the edge of the Quarter, she said, “The dog, it might be a vamp who’s lost it.”
He took off his own helmet and the silky mahogany of his hair tumbled out. She couldn’t help it; she reached out and scraped her nails lightly from the front to the back of his scalp, the strands cool and the texture exquisite. Leaning his back against her chest, he made a sound deep in his throat.
Her breath caught, her br**sts swelling against her bra.
She wanted to wrap her arms around his shoulders, nuzzle her face into the warm line of his throat, and lick him up. Clenching her fist so tight her nails dug into her palms, she got off the bike and hooked the helmet over a handlebar. Doing the same with his own, Janvier swung off the powerful machine with a lazy grace that always caught her attention—and that of any other female in the vicinity.
“Could be,” he said, as if their conversation had never been interrupted by a caress she shouldn’t have permitted herself to make. “You know some vamps don’t do well after three hundred years or so.”
The remembered feel of him burning against her palm, Ashwini unzipped her jacket to give her hands something to do. “What would drinking animal blood do to a vamp?”
Janvier leaned back against the bike after unzipping his own jacket to reveal the thin white T-shirt beneath. He wasn’t, however, wearing the twin blades that were his weapons of choice. Pressed up against him on the bike, she’d felt nothing but Janvier, no sign of the crisscrossing holster he’d normally wear on his back, over the tee.
While he hadn’t utilized the blades during their mission in Atlanta, she’d become used to seeing them on him since he came to New York. “Where are your kukris?” she asked before he could answer her question about animal blood.
He rubbed the back of his neck, a flush on his cheekbones. “The holster snapped this morning.”
Ashwini bit the inside of her cheek in an effort to fight her smile. She’d told him to get the worn leather replaced after seeing the state of it while he’d been staying at her place. While the scabbards were metal, to prevent the razor-sharp blades from cutting through, the holster built around them had to be soft and flexible enough not to limit his range of movement. “That’s too bad.”
Shooting her a look of open suspicion at the bland response, he shrugged. “It’ll take a specialist artisan a week to make a replacement once I send him the old holster. I have no hope of getting myself on Deacon’s schedule for at least a year.”
At that instant, he looked both sulky and irritated with himself. Knowing how na**d she felt without her favorite weapons, she couldn’t keep the secret any longer. “Or,” she said, “you could use the holster Deacon dropped off at my apartment yesterday.”
Janvier straightened. “For me?”
Folding her arms against the impact of the fierce delight in his voice, she nodded. “He used your old holster to make a blueprint for the new one while you were out getting me cake that day.” She’d sent him to a specific and distant bakery for just that reason. “The scabbards should slide right in.” Deacon did not make mistakes.
“But how? Deacon is booked years in advance.”
“He always has time for hunters.” Sara’s husband had once been a hunter himself.
Janvier’s smile was slow, deep, and so painfully real, it caught her heart and refused to let go. “I’m not a hunter.”
But you’re mine. Biting back the words she could never say, not if she cared for him in any way, she scowled. “Don’t make a big deal about it or I’ll dump it into the Hudson.”
Cheeks creased and the sunlight in the bayou green of his eyes blinding, he shook his head. “I cannot help it, cher.”
Ashwini broke the eye contact; she couldn’t resist him when he smiled that way. “You were telling me about what happens to vamps who drink animal blood.”
“The blood of animals is too weak to provide nourishment,” he said, his voice liquid warmth that seeped into every cell of her body. “I remember hearing of a vampire who fed on animals for two months after becoming lost in the mountains. Moitié fou Billy, they called him. But since he was so weak, he wasn’t dangerous.”
Ashwini had picked up enough Cajun French from being around Janvier to know he’d just indicated the vamp had gone half-crazy. “So our hypothetical animal-blood drinker might already be out for the count.”
A nod. “But there is the desiccation—it’s unnatural, unless the pup died in an environment that would produce that result.”
Ashwini’s phone beeped at that instant. Glancing at the screen, she saw a note from the vet. “Dr. Shamar decided to have another look at the dog before she left for the night, discovered he had a chip embedded under his skin. Kind of thing pet owners put in so cats and dogs can be ID’d if animal control picks them up.” The doctor had missed it during her initial examination because the chip had slipped between two ridges of bone.
“She was able to scan it, look up the dog in the system. Apparently it went missing a couple of days after the end of the fighting.” Dr. Shamar had added a note that she’d made no notification to the owners and wouldn’t do so until advised otherwise. After thanking the other woman, Ashwini looked at Janvier. “Is that enough time for natural mummification, even in an optimum environment?”
Janvier spread his hands. “We shall have to ask a scientist.”
“Honor might know someone.” Her best friend was an expert in ancient languages and history and had a wide range of contacts. “I’ll give her a call tomorrow.” Sliding away her phone, she braced herself against a sudden, chilling wind that tasted of snow. “It’s possible Lijuan shared her ability to suck the life out of people with someone else.”
Janvier closed the distance between them, his body heat a caress. “It was her ace in the hole. I can’t see her giving that away, can you, cher?”
“No.” It was Naasir who’d told them the Archangel of China could share strength with her generals, but it wasn’t a permanent transfer. As soon as Lijuan was out of the equation, those generals had crumpled.
Hands on her hips, she chewed on another possibility. “Lijuan’s creations tend to be infectious.” The archangel’s horrific reborn had been a plague. “Only”—Ashwini frowned—“she wasn’t creating when she fed. The sacrifices ended up shells, so I guess we’re back to square one on that.”
Janvier shifted to take the brunt of a fresh gust of wind. “I’ll report our theories to Raphael nonetheless. He must be alerted to the possibility that Lijuan may have left a lingering taint in the city.”
Ashwini raised both eyebrows. “Back in Atlanta, you said you’d never met him, and now you’re on a first-name basis?”
“I hadn’t met him then,” he said, that sneakily seductive sunlight still in his eyes. “Vampires my age do not usually ever have personal contact with the archangel to whom we give our allegiance.”
“And the sire”—Janvier cupped her cheek—“treats his assets well.”
Not wanting to understand the implicit message, she broke the contact to focus on a car in the distance, its brake lights glowing rubies in the gray light of dusk. “I’ll do some research in the Guild Archives, see if I can find any similar cases.”
Janvier began to walk toward the town house that was his objective, his expression telling her he saw too much. “I’ll let you know if Dmitri has any insights.” Metal creaked as he pushed open the decorative wrought-iron gate that fronted the short pathway to the town house. “Let us see to the health of these cattle first.”
Ashwini took in the town house as they walked, grasping at the distraction from the need that was a wrenching tug low in her belly. The building appeared new; the walls gleamed a stylish black, but the door was painted the same glossy orange-red as the gate, as was the trim. “Nice place.” If you had a million or ten lying around.
“Want one?” said the vampire by her side. “I can buy it, allow you to live rent free on the premises.”
“Yeah?” she said, playing along because she only had so much self-control when it came to Janvier, and she wasn’t about to use it to handle his flirting . . . didn’t want to shut that down. “On what condition?”
“I would have a key, of course. To make sure you are keeping my property in good repair.” His innocent look had probably spelled the downfall of at least a hundred virgins in his lifetime.
“Such a conscientious landlord. Would you fix the plumbing, too?”
“If you let me put my pipe in your sprocket.” Pure wickedness in his smile at her groan, he ignored the door knocker shaped like a snarling lion to rap his knuckles directly against the gleaming paint.
She wanted so badly to kiss him that the craving was a ferocious beast inside her. Smile fading as his pupils dilated, Janvier went to angle his body toward her when the door opened to bring her face-to-face with the last person she’d expected to see here. “Arvi?” She stared incredulously at the tall man with aquiline features, silver-dusted black hair, and skin the exact shade as her own.
Her brother stared at her. “What are you doing here?”
“She’s with me.” No charm in Janvier’s expression now, only a cool, deadly intensity that had never been directed at Ashwini. “You aren’t one of the cattle.”
Arvi flinched. “Certainly not. I was called here to provide medical assistance.”
“I wasn’t aware you did house calls,” Ashwini said, her brain running on automatic.
“It was a favor for a friend.” He pinned her with the near black of his eyes. “I’ll expect you for dinner in the next week.”
Ashwini stared after him as he strode past her and down the pathway on that command. She hadn’t seen him for two months, but though the silver in his hair might be a touch more apparent, his face remained unlined. Arvan Taj was a man who’d age into handsome elegance. And his smile? It could devastate; she knew that despite having seen it only once since she was nine.
“He’s the one, isn’t he?” Janvier asked, voice rough and expression dark. “The boy whose photo you carry in your phone, the one who hurt you.”
She realized he’d gotten the wrong idea, but the door filled with another body before she could correct him. The blonde’s stunning blue-green eyes were round with worry until they alighted on Janvier. “Janni!” She leaped into his arms.
Catching her, he chuckled, the grating emotion Ashwini had just heard in his tone no longer in evidence when he said, “Petite Marie May.”
Folding her arms, Ashwini leaned against the wall as the giggling girl tried to kiss Janvier on the mouth. He deflected it as smoothly as he did everything else, taking the kiss on his cheek before setting her down. “What are you doing here, Marie?” he asked with what Ashwini recognized as genuine concern. “Last I saw you, you were set on becoming a star of the silver screen, non?”
Marie beamed, her expression so earnest, it was scary. “I live with Giorgio.” She stroked her hands down her ankle-length gown of cream lace, the bodice modest and the sleeves long. “I serve him.”
“When did this happen?” A soft question. “You are barely out of pigtails.”
Marie’s curls bounced as she slapped Janvier playfully on the chest, clearly not realizing how angry he’d become. “Janni! I’m nineteen next month.” An antique amethyst ring sparkled on her index finger. “Giorgio and I met at the studios—he’s a producer, you know.”
“I see. He plans to share your talent with the world?”
“Not yet.” Marie made a face. “He says I’m too young for the piranha pit and should be twenty-one at least before I start. He got me into the most incredible acting master class, though”—a clap of her hands, the smile back on high beam—“so I’ll be ready when it’s time!”
Not sure what to think of this Giorgio, Ashwini held her silence while Janvier whispered in Marie’s ear, the rich brown strands of his hair sliding to touch the gold of hers. The sight should’ve made Ashwini jealous. It didn’t. Because Janvier’s capacity for loyalty was unrelenting and she had his unspoken promise . . . even though she’d done her hardest to give it back, regardless of her desire to hoard it close.
Smile washing away to a faded watercolor of its previous self, Marie bit down on her lower lip, her mouth a perfect pink bow, and glanced over her shoulder. “I shouldn’t say.” It was a whisper.
“Marie.” Janvier touched his finger to the creamy skin of her cheek, a coaxing smile on his face. “It is a complaint. You know I must investigate.”
Marie glanced over her shoulder again, then gestured him closer after shooting a wary look at Ashwini. “It’s not all of us, just Brooke.” Her nose scrunched up. “She’s been with Giorgio the longest and she was mad because she thought Giorgio was paying more attention to me and Leisel than to her, so she started telling people he was hurting her.”
Taking a breath, Marie continued. “Today she even cut herself! Now that Giorgio’s been so good to her with the doctor and everything, she’s sorry, but the rumors have already started.” The stamp of a small foot under the lace of the dress. “It’s so unfair.”
“I’ll need to talk to Brooke.”
“I’ll get her.” All the fury leaked out of her as quickly as it had built up. “Don’t be angry at her, okay?” Her eyes pleaded with Janvier. “She’s crazy about Giorgio. She thinks . . .”
“What, bébé?” Janvier tucked her hair behind her ear, his voice gentle.
Marie melted.
He was good at that, Ashwini thought, at making women trust him. Funny thing was, he never tried his tricks on her, except in play, both of them fully aware of his motives and desires. Quite unlike the innocent Marie May.
“Brooke thinks she’s getting old,” the girl whispered, blinking back tears. “Even though Giorgio loves her, she doesn’t believe him.”
There it was, one immutable reason why a relationship between a mortal and an immortal could never work long-term. The mortal would inevitably fade, and even if the love survived, it would leave the immortal broken when his lover died. Especially, she thought, her eyes lingering on Janvier, when the immortal was the kind of man who knew how to be loyal.
“Hush.” Janvier bent his legs to bring himself down to Marie’s height. “I will be kind.” He drew the girl into his arms. “You know I do not hurt women.”
A jerky nod, Marie’s throat moving as she drew back. “I’ll go find Brooke.”
“Is it only the three of you who serve as Giorgio’s blood family?”
Shaking her head, Marie said, “Penelope and Laura do, too.”
“Fetch them all, won’t you, Marie.”
“I will. You can wait in the parlor.” Leading them to the room, the girl left in a rush of sweet, floral perfume.
Ashwini and Janvier stood there in silence, tension a taut thread that tied them to one another. The expensive but cold décor—white walls, white sofas overflowing with black cushions, the paintwork on the wall a dripping canvas of darkest red—only intensified the silent, intimate thing that pulsed between them.
As if they had become lovers long ago.