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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(12) by Nalini Singh

11
 
Inside the restaurant, father and son were cleaning up, the scent of baking in the air.
 
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Coby asked.
 
“No, thank you,” Ashwini said to the sad-eyed teenager and reached out in unspoken sympathy—to close her hand over his where it lay on the counter. She saw Janvier start to move toward her, shot him a look that told him to back off. His expression became flat, shoulders unyielding, but he didn’t interrupt, though his gaze remained locked on her face.
 
Coby was too young for her to sense anything accidentally. It would’ve been different had he been a friend or family. That painful quirk was why she’d known things as a child no girl should know—like the fact that her divorced aunt picked up strange men in bars every Friday and that her grandfather mourned the death of the unsuitable girl he hadn’t been permitted to marry.
 
Tonight, she consciously focused her ability as she did only in rare circumstances, and all of Coby slammed into her: na**d pain and heartache, love for a girl and for his family, the horror and pity he’d felt at seeing the body, worry for his father . . . so many pieces of the teenager’s soul.
 
Ashwini didn’t like drowning in another’s life, was afraid one day she’d go under and not find her way out. But she didn’t want Coby to be hurt, didn’t want Janvier to become a monster to the boy and his father. So she ignored the fear, found what she needed in relation to both, the boy’s memories of his father enough to reinforce her gut feeling about the man.
 
Breaking contact, she said, “Thank you for what you did today.”
 
Eyes shining, the teenager looked away, while his father allowed his tears to fall.
 
“Please don’t mention the details of what you saw to anyone.”
 
“I don’t ever want to put that nightmare in anyone else’s head,” Tony said to his son’s jerky nod.
 
Janvier held his silence until they were outside and far enough away from the patrol officers that they wouldn’t be overheard. When he spoke, his voice vibrated with fury. “You opened yourself up to everything in the boy’s head.”
 
“Yes, I did.” It had been a violation, but she told her conscience that she’d saved Coby from a far bigger violation. Should the Tower even think Coby or his father had—or would—disseminate any information, the reprisal would be icily cold, darkly terrifying.
 
“I’ve survived far worse than the memories of a sweet boy and his father.” An angel had once gripped her wrist, twisted it in an effort to haul her close so he could “taste” her. She’d thrust a heavy-duty hunting knife into his eye, because there really was no way to escape an angel that old except with surprise and speed and smarts.
 
She’d done so by the skin of her teeth—and with so much of the creep’s life stuffed into her head that she’d thrown up the instant she was in a hideout. “You might have lived more than two hundred years,” she said to Janvier, “but I don’t think you know the depth of cruelty and horror some immortals are capable of.”
 
Jaw working, Janvier lifted his hands as if to grab her upper arms but dropped them halfway. “You infuriate me.” She had no care for herself. He’d seen her in agony after unavoidable contact with an immortal old and twisted—never in public, of course, never where anyone could see the weakness.
 
Janvier had simply happened to be there and he knew her well enough to pick up the signs of pain she was so good at concealing. So he’d engineered their exit, gotten her into a room where she could collapse, her hands clutched to her stomach. He’d never felt as helpless as when he’d had to watch her suffer without being able to do a f**king thing about it.
 
Now, she planted her feet in a combative stance, hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, you’re infuriating me right back.”
 
The two of them went silent as the morgue van pulled in, the body loaded into it with care, the doors shut. The crime scene techs continued to work, but it was obvious they weren’t getting much.
 
However, that wasn’t Janvier’s priority right now. “You took a dangerous risk.”
 
“He’s a boy. There was no horror in him, only sorrow.”
 
Janvier knew she hadn’t given him the right, but he took it anyway, reaching out to grip the side of her neck with his hand, shift his body close to hers. “You didn’t know that when you touched him.” He was so angry at her for putting herself in that position. “You didn’t know what would rush into your head, sorcière.”
 
“I told you”—her eyes burned into him, full of a thousand secrets—“witches were burned at the stake. I’m just a woman.”
 
A woman who saw through the veil people put between themselves and the world, who could strip away lies to reveal the heart of darkness that lived within mortal and immortal both . . . and for whom immortals were the enemy of her sanity. He ran his thumb over her pulse, but she wasn’t there any longer, having escaped his grip with hunter slickness.
 
Walking to the techs, she hunkered down to talk to them, clearly hoping to find something, though she had to know the chance was low. Criminals could be stupid, but Janvier didn’t think this was one of those times. There was something very cold about throwing a human being in the garbage. It took a soul of ice to do that and walk away, and someone that devoid of feeling would cover his or her tracks with the same calculated coldness.
 
Again, he thought of Lijuan and of how the Archangel of China had fed from her troops. Naasir had run through brutal fighting to get word to Raphael about the enemy archangel’s ability to regenerate using the life force of others, had ended up with his back all but sliced open. Still behind enemy lines, Ashwini and Janvier had worked to slow down the hostile forces any way they could.
 
“Is she yours?”
 
Naasir’s question, silver eyes gleaming against the rich brown of his skin.
 
“Touch her and find out.”
 
“You better hurry, Cajun.”
 
Janvier was going as fast as he dared, but he feared it wasn’t fast enough. Ashwini was a hunter; hazard pay was a standard part of hunter contracts for a reason. And if—when—war came to the city again, she’d fight the enemy right beside him. The diagonal slice through her torso in the final hours of this battle had come within a hairsbreadth of nicking her heart and perforating other internal organs. Death could’ve stolen her from him had the vampire who’d attacked her shifted position a single inch before he struck.
 
Furious defiance burned under his skin.
 
He’d watched everyone he ever loved die of old age. They had wanted to go, having lived happy, contented lives, and he hadn’t tried to force them to hold on, to apply for a chance at vampirism and near-immortal life. He was too selfish to be that understanding when it came to Ashwini; he would not watch her star go out.
 
Not her.