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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(9) by Nalini Singh

When Marie returned, it was with four others: a gorgeous black woman as dewy skinned and soft as Marie, whom Ashwini pegged as Leisel, two leggy brunettes apt to be Penelope and Laura, and a handsome auburn-haired woman in her late twenties with a small bandage on the pale skin of her right cheek. Brooke, unless she was mistaken.
All the women were dressed in a style Ashwini had termed “vamp couture.” Leisel’s dress was heavy aqua silk bordered with lace of the same shade, the lush fabric and simple style throwing the rich hue of her skin into sharp relief. A thin bracelet circled her wrist, its cost probably equal to Ashwini’s pay from a difficult hunt.
One of the brunettes wore tight black pants with a cherry red top, the tails tucked into her waistband and the sleeves slashed to expose the delicate gold of her skin. Around her neck was an intricate gold choker with a small padlock in front. Her fellow brunette wore an identical outfit, except that her top was emerald green and the choker silver.
A matched pair. Cute. Or stomach churning.
Brooke, meanwhile, was in a tailored gown that hugged her curves, the fabric a pale peach striped with vertical lines of raspberry. No lace on the gown, but she’d sheathed her hands in fine lace gloves that exactly matched the peach of the gown, her hair twisted up into a chignon anchored by jeweled combs.
“Ah, we must have drinks for our guests!” The words came from the vampire who’d followed the women into the room. Against the royal blue of his fitted velvet coat, his skin glowed a white as true as the fall of lace at his throat and wrists, his eyes a brilliant topaz and the thick golden waves of his hair shining in the light thrown from the crystal chandelier above. Giorgio was a living, breathing advertisement of the beauty that could come with vampirism.
It made Ashwini think of what Janvier would look like in another five hundred years. She didn’t think he’d ever be this glossy, this uncomfortably perfect—as with Dmitri, his rough edges were internal and part of what made him Janvier. Never did she want him to lose the heart of the bayou-born boy he’d once been.
Melancholy threatened on the heels of that thought, because no matter what, she’d be long dead before he ever reached Giorgio’s age, which she estimated to be around six or seven hundred.
“Janvier.” Giorgio extended both hands, the lace frothing over what looked to be a diamond-studded identity bracelet on one wrist, a platinum watch on the other. Another diamond winked in his left ear. “It has been too long, mon ami.”
Used to Janvier’s charm and tendency to never make enemies when he could as easily make friends, Ashwini was surprised when he didn’t return the gesture, instead saying, “Drinks aren’t necessary, Giorgio. I simply need to talk to Brooke and your other women. Alone.”
Smile not dimming a fraction, Giorgio put his arm around Brooke. “Of course.” Kissing her uninjured cheek, to the possessive stroke of her hand over his chest, he left the room.
“Ash,” Janvier said, “will you wait with Marie and the others while I speak to Brooke?”
“No problem.”
•   •   •
The instant he was alone with Brooke, Janvier focused on the butterfly bandage high on her right cheek. “You’ve been hurt.”
“I did it myself,” Brooke answered without hesitation, heat under the pale cream of her skin. “It was foolish and done in a moment of pique. I’m so very sorry to have brought you out here for nothing.” Twisting her hands in front of her, she hunched her shoulders inward. “Giorgio is a wonderful master and I am ashamed of my actions.”
Stepping closer to her, Janvier lowered his tone to the same gentleness he’d used on Marie. “No one will do you harm.” As far as Janvier was concerned, the abuse of women was an unforgivable crime. “You have my protection. Speak the truth.”
Brooke’s eyes shone wet, her lower lip trembling. Raising her hands, she placed them against Janvier’s chest. “I am,” she rasped. “From the bottom of my heart, I am. If there is to be punishment for wasting the Tower’s time, I will take it.” She inhaled a shaky breath, her smile piercing. “My Giorgio is innocent of all but loving me even when I am foolish.” A single tear hit Janvier’s hand where he cupped Brooke’s cheek, her other cheek holding a trail of wet.
She couldn’t have appeared more romantically tragic if she’d tried.
Janvier spoke to Brooke for another ten minutes, but the most senior of Giorgio’s cattle stood firm in her assertions. Releasing her, he talked to Marie, Leisel, Laura, and Penelope one at a time. All backed up Brooke’s statement that she’d done the injury to herself and that Giorgio didn’t mistreat his women.
The five held hands when united again, unanimous in their declaration that Giorgio was a good and fair “master.”
“We aren’t prisoners, Janni,” Marie said, eyes bright and naïve and fervent to Ashwini’s gaze. “Any one of us is free to do as she wishes. Laura’s leaving in a few days, aren’t you?”
The brunette nodded, her smile poignant. “I’ll miss Giorgio and the rest of my blood family desperately, but I’m homesick. The master bought me a first-class ticket home to Nebraska, and he says he’ll pay for me to return if I ever change my mind.”
“I’m thinking of joining her.” Penelope squeezed her friend’s hand, her fingernails decorated in gold polish with a tiny constellation of diamantés in the top left corners. “At least for a visit.” A sweet, affectionate kiss to Laura’s cheek. “Giorgio knows how close we are. He’s offered to pay for me to go to visit her.”
“He treasures us.” The words were Brooke’s but the sentiment was clearly shared by all five women.
The fatuous devotion on their faces made Ashwini’s skin crawl.
“Brooke and the others,” she said to Janvier when they left the town house five minutes later, “are as much junkies as those mainlining coke.” Not every vampire could give pleasure with his bite, but the thrill of having fangs at the jugular or the carotid was rush enough for many. “Add in Giorgio’s kind of beauty, and they mistake dependency for love. It’s like he has his own miniature cult.”
Janvier straddled the bike, passed her a helmet. “Let’s ride. I need to get the sickly devotion of it all out of my head.”
Initiating the throaty roar of the engine once she was on, he took them through Greenwich Village to Chelsea Piers, then hugged the edge of Manhattan until they reached the George Washington Bridge. Powering over it in the winter dark that had fallen while they’d been inside the town house, he drove to the cliffs of the Angel Enclave, his bike obviously well known enough that none of the angelic guards stopped him.
When he brought the bike to a halt, it was mere feet from a snowy cliff that overlooked the river they’d just crossed. Ashwini couldn’t see any houses, only towering trees on either side of this narrow clearing, so either this land was unclaimed or—more probably—on the far edge of an angel’s property line. Taking off her helmet as Janvier removed his, she swung off the bike, placed the helmet on the ground, and walked to the edge of the cliff. The lights of Manhattan sparkled on the other side of the water that moved slumberous and sullen tonight.
Drawing in deep drafts of the bitingly cold air, she tried to shake off the crawling sensation she’d felt inside Giorgio’s elegant town house. New as the house was, she’d picked up nothing from the walls, no embedded whispers of horror. Her response derived solely from, as Janvier had put it, “the sickly devotion of it all.”
Having remained on the bike, Janvier said, “Giorgio’s household has little to recommend it.”
Ashwini frowned, shifted on her heel so she could see his face. “You say that like the cattle-master relationship isn’t a bad idea full stop.”
“It’s not always about exploitation.” He leaned forward on the handlebars, leather jacket unzipped and hair a sexy mess. “I know vampires who have had the same cattle for decades. They truly treat the men and women as family, are more loyal to them than to other vampires, mourn each who passes. Some of the most haunting memorials I’ve seen in the graveyards of New Orleans are to blood family members.”
“Could be it’s just about keeping the food happy.”
“Food is not so difficult to find, cher.” A liquid shrug. “Vampirism gives the old ones astonishing physical beauty and many are also wealthy and powerful. Mortals are drawn to them like flies, yet it is the oldest of my kind who most often have cattle.
“Unlike Giorgio, the majority don’t view it as a sexual relationship or treat those in their blood family as trophies, the physical appearance of their cattle an unimportant consideration. Friendship, affection, respect, these are the keys. I once asked a six-hundred-year-old friend why he kept cattle, and he said he was tired of the constant round of meaningless seduction, wanted only the intimacy and comfort of family around him.”
Sitting back up, he played with a blade he must’ve slipped out from his boot. “You must remember that many of my kind were born in a time when to be a family was to live in a single home, several generations one on top of the other, newborns sharing rooms with grandparents, and warriors seated side by side with younger siblings, cousins, and fosters. That is what they seek to recreate, for the old ones often find loneliness the worst pain of all.”
His words stopped Ashwini; she’d never considered things from that angle and it made a heartrending kind of sense. “I grew up like that,” she found herself saying when most of the time, she did her best not to think of the past. “My paternal grandparents lived with us, as did an aunt before she got married, and another who’d been through a divorce.” It had never been quiet in the Taj household.
Janvier’s expression was intent. “So you understand.”
“The need to create a family? Yes.” Wasn’t that what she’d done with the Guild when her own broke into too many pieces to put back together? “But that’s not what we saw today.”
“No.” He stared out toward the water. “Giorgio treats his women as pretty dolls. His to own, to dress, to bejewel. Marie May had such a fire in her when I first met her—that fire is now all focused on Giorgio. Soon she will forget her dreams.”
“And when she gets too old for him, he’ll nudge her out like he’s doing with Laura and Penelope.”
“Oui. What they see as kindness is simply Giorgio’s way of creating space for new playthings.”
Red in her vision at the memory of the smug bastard who, it was clear, would soon push poor, lovesick Brooke to the curb, she folded her arms. “Can you get the young ones out?”
“No.” Jaw tight, he said, “They are of age and the Tower cannot interfere in domestic arrangements without cause.” That fact clearly not sitting well with him, he swung his leg off the bike and came to stand beside her. “I’ll call Marie tomorrow and reiterate that she and the others can come to me at any time, but I can do nothing about their mental and emotional enslavement when they go into it with eyes wide open.”
“Five minutes alone with Brooke,” Ashwini said, “and I’d know for certain if she was telling the truth.” Memory echoes were the strongest in old ones like the angel Nazarach, but with a little more effort, Ashwini could pick them up from those under four hundred. The latter limitation was why she could continue to work as a hunter—it was extremely rare for the Guild to be contracted to hunt an older vamp. The angels usually took care of any problems at that level themselves.
Unfortunately, the limitation wasn’t set in stone. Janvier was opaque to her—had always been that way—but usually, the better she knew someone, the more chance she’d connect with them regardless of age. And every so often, even a young stranger would set off her senses, drag her under. It was why she was so careful about physical contact.
Janvier ran his knuckles down the line of her spine. “If you find darkness in Giorgio’s blood slave, it’ll live in you forever. No, I won’t permit this.”
“Since when do you have the right to ‘permit’ me anything?” she said, turning away.
He grabbed hold of one of her wrists, his grip gentle but unbreakable. “Who was he?”
Her response was instinctive, her mind shying away from the agony of it all. “None of your business.”
Hauling her to him, Janvier held her wrist against his chest, his heart pumping steady and strong under the thin barrier of the T-shirt, his body so warm she wanted to stretch out into it like a cat before a fire. “We are beyond that, and you know it. That’s why you’ve been running so hard from me.”
“I seem to recall hunting you,” she said, her traitorous fingers curling into the heat of him.
He tugged her closer, and his voice, it held so many layers when he spoke. “I see such pain in your eyes, such loss.” Breath shallow and shoulders rigid, he whispered, “Did you love him so much?”
At that instant, she knew she could strike a blow that would be a sledgehammer to the strange, nameless, precious thing between them, the connection that had formed the first day they came eye to eye. He’d grinned at her as she notched a crossbow bolt in place, then blown her a kiss and moved with the rapid grace she’d come to associate always and only with him. She’d almost smiled in return before remembering she was there to bring him in to face a very irate angel.
That angel had pulled the hunt order seventy-two hours later, after Janvier made nice. She’d walked into the angel’s residence to find him laughing with Janvier, while the damn Cajun who’d led her into a swamp, before escaping with a slickness she’d reluctantly admired, lay sprawled in a heavy green armchair, long legs kicked out. It was the first time he’d called her cher, asking her when they’d play again.
Et quand en va rejouer, cher?
“I have photos of all my family on my phone,” she whispered, unable to destroy their relationship with a lie that would forever alter the honesty at its core. “You just saw Arvi’s that day . . . my brother.”
Janvier released a harsh breath, a shudder rippling through his body. “He’s at least twenty years older than you.”
“Nineteen,” she said. “I was a late-in-life oops baby.” A mistake, a regret. “In many ways he was my father. That’s why he talks to me like that, assumes I’ll do what he says.”
“Your parents?”
“You didn’t already hack into a database and look it all up?” It was stupid to avoid the question, but she’d been doing it so long it was habit.
Thumb moving over her skin, Janvier waited until she met his eyes to say, “That would’ve been against the rules.”
Ashwini couldn’t pretend she didn’t know the rules. “My mother and father died when I was nine.”
“An accident?”
“Yes. That’s when we lost our sister, Tanu, too.” The words were a lie wrapped in a devastating truth but this one secret she couldn’t share. Not today. Not until she no longer had a choice. “After they were gone, Arvi stepped up, took charge of everything.” She’d thought he hung the moon, her smart, handsome brother.
“Love does not cause such shadows as I see in you, my fierce Ashblade.”