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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(19) by Nalini Singh
It took Elena a half hour into the dinner to realize that some of the wine at the table was blood red—as in real blood red, and that the shish kebabs Naasir was snacking on beside her were made up of cubes of seasoned but raw meat.
She could live with that. Feral as he was, there was something both innocent and wildly charming about Naasir. He truly was like a wild tiger; he might bite her hand, but only if she threatened him. At least now that he’d decided not to make a meal of her.
At that instant, he nudged his plate toward Ash, who was seated on his other side. Elena watched, wondering what the other hunter would do. Not blinking, Ash reached out and took a piece of cooked meat Naasir had ignored in favor of the raw cubes. Naasir smiled and continued to eat.
Ash clearly knew the vampire’s ways better than Elena did. Unsurprising, given that the team of three “shadows” had spent days behind enemy lines with only one another for company.
“Give me a clue,” she said when Naasir glanced at her.
“To what?” He bit off a chunk of meat, chewed with relish.
“To what you are,” she said, her curiosity as acute now as it had been the first instant she recognized he wasn’t a normal vampire in any sense. She had trouble thinking of him as a vampire at all; he might drink blood but, as his diet showed, it was hardly enough to sustain him.
Naasir grinned and took a sip of the rich red liquid in his wineglass. “You can ask me seven questions.”
Catching Ash’s grin on his other side, Elena considered how strongly he made her think of a big cat—an amused one right now—and decided to tie him down. “Will you answer?”
She wasn’t about to fall for that. “Will you answer truthfully?”
Naasir flashed his fangs at her. “I’ll give you at least two truthful answers.”
Elena decided that was better than nothing. “Are you the only one of your kind?” she asked, conscious of not only Ash but others around them listening in.
She examined his extraordinary eyes, his sly half smile, his body posture—and had absolutely no idea if he was lying or not. Damn it. “Were you born or Made?”
Angling her shoulders to face him as Illium’s shook with laughter across the table, she said, “Are you part of the tiger family?” His scent, it was so wild she could almost taste the jungle, almost see the long grasses where a striped predator might hide.
Naasir leaned in so close his nose brushed hers. “No,” he said with a playful snap of his teeth.
Elena wanted to strangle him. It was impossible to gauge his expression, separate truth from lie, but she wasn’t about to give up. “Are you a vampire?”
He drank deeply of the blood in his glass, the dark ruby of it swirling with secrets. “No.”
“I think I could be driven to bite you,” she muttered. “Hard.”
Naasir growled, but his eyes were laughing. “Enough?”
“No. I have three questions left.” Shooting a death glare at Dmitri when he asked her if she needed assistance, all false solicitousness, she turned her attention back to Naasir. “Do you truly eat people?”
“Only if I dislike them, or if I’m very hungry.” A solemn statement.
Remembering what he’d once told her about the angel who’d Made him—though she was certain he hadn’t been Made in any ordinary way—as well as what he’d said about Lijuan smelling like bad meat, she figured that was a truth.
“Do you have claws?” All vampires could extend their nails, some more than others. It was part of what allowed them to climb so well. But during the battle, when she’d bandaged up Naasir’s wounds, she’d thought she glimpsed a more dangerous ability out of the corner of her eye. “I don’t mean normal vampire claws. Actual claws.”
Putting down his glass, Naasir spread his hand between them. His fingers were long and strong, his skin that lush, rich brown with an undertone of gold . . . and where his nails had been, she suddenly saw wickedly curved claws as might appear on the paws of a tiger. They disappeared a heartbeat later, and she could almost imagine it had been an illusion.
“Truth,” she whispered, taking his hand to examine his nail beds when he didn’t seem to mind. She almost asked where his claws had gone, since there was no trace of them, but didn’t want to waste a question.
“Do this, Ellie,” Ash said from his other side, reaching out to playfully scratch the back of Naasir’s neck, his hair brushing over her skin.
He made a rumbling sound in the back of his throat, eyes closing.
Elena copied Ash’s action on his hand, got another rumble before he lifted the gorgeous, true silver of his lashes to say, “Last question.”
“Do you change shape?” Her words made Illium erupt in gales of laughter, but Elena wasn’t put off. Legends had to start somewhere. Why not with Naasir?
“Of course,” he answered, then turned his body to the right and curled his arm into his chest. “See, I have just changed shape.”
Making a strangling motion with her hands that had him throwing back his head and laughing in unhidden glee, Elena felt the clean kiss of the sea, of the rain in her mind. I see you and Naasir are becoming friends.
What did I tell you about this new sense of humor of yours? She took a bite of her dinner, which she’d ignored while questioning Naasir.
I was speaking only the truth. Naasir is currently playing with your hair.
He probably wants to scalp me and use my hair as a trophy.
Elena looked up, eyes narrowed at the far too amused archangel across the table. I am so going to get even with you for this. Tugs on her scalp at the same instant, as if Naasir were curling the strands around his finger, then letting go.
She turned, intending to tell him to knock it off, but then she saw his face. He looked . . . absorbed. Like a cat with a ball of yarn. She didn’t care if he’d said no to the tiger question—there was something distinctly feline about him. Especially since he’d apparently talked Ash into scratching his nape again while he played his game with Elena’s hair, his eyes heavy lidded in ecstasy.
She was going to unearth the truth of him, even if it took her the rest of eternity.
• • •
Janvier saw Ash run her nails affectionately over Naasir’s neck and remembered the first time she’d done that. It had been about thirty minutes after meeting Naasir. Where he was standoffish and distant with most new people, Naasir had already decided he liked “Janvier’s hunter,” having kept track of their interactions over the years.
As a result, he’d been his normal self.
Instead of being startled by Naasir’s behavior, Ash had taken to him from the start, making no effort to avoid the physical contact the other male liked to make. “He’s different,” she’d said with a mystified shrug when Janvier asked her about it. “It’s hard to explain, but what I sense from him isn’t anything that disturbs me. I’m not sure I understand most of it.”
A few minutes after that, while the three of them had been crouched in a hidden access tunnel they’d been scoping out in the run-up to the battle, she’d reached out and absently scratched the back of Naasir’s neck.
Janvier, having previously seen how ferociously Naasir could react to unwanted contact, had been ready to fight for her life, but the other man had bent his head for more. Ash’s startled expression as she realized what she was doing had faded into affectionate puzzlement—and Janvier realized she’d reacted to an unvoiced need in the other male.
Her friendship with Naasir was as open and free of shadows as Janvier’s relationship with her was not. So much lay unsaid between them, but saying it would fix nothing. Ash knew he loved her, would always love her. Anything she wanted, he’d give her . . . except for her mortality.
He’d waited more than two hundred years for her. How could she ask him to just let her go?
Her eyes were drenched in terror.
Raising a hand, the one-who-waited stroked her cheek as her throat worked, the scream swallowed up by the pungent miasma of her fear.
“Not tonight.” A rasp, its throat a ruin. “I have fed.” The hunger came often, but the one-who-waited had learned to discipline that voracious need, because without discipline it would become a slave to those urges rather than a master of them.
So it pressed its mouth to hers in a kiss that made her whimper, its lips cracked and papery against hers. Hers had been soft once, were no longer. A pity.
Releasing her jaw, the one-who-waited smiled and drew one last draft of fear-laced air before removing the temptation from view. “Soon,” it promised as the wood obscured her face. “Soon.”