Home > Archangel's Shadows
Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(3) by Nalini Singh
Three weeks after losing most of the blood in her body, Ashwini was considering painting one of her living room walls pink with purple polka dots when her phone began to buzz. Grabbing it from the exquisitely scarred wooden coffee table she’d restored the previous year, she answered to find Sara on the other end.
The Guild Director had a job for her. “Something weird’s been happening in the Vampire Quarter,” she said. “Dogs and cats disappearing. First report was postbattle, but it could’ve been going on for longer with the strays no one tracks.” Faint rustling sounds, pages being turned. “A canine body finally turned up in a sewer drain and reports are that it’s desiccated. ‘Like a mummy,’ according to the vet who called me. I want you to check it out.”
“You want me to investigate a mummified dog?” Ashwini loved animals, would have a big slobbering pup of her own if she didn’t live in an apartment in Manhattan, but this was hardly her area of expertise. “I’m no Egyptologist. I also don’t like sewers.”
“Dog’s not in the sewer anymore, so you’re safe,” Sara said without missing a beat. “Could be we have a crazy vampire feeding off pets. Just check it out.”
Narrowing her eyes, Ashwini glared at the view of the city’s cloud-piercing Archangel Tower through the reinforced glass of the living room wall opposite the one she’d been considering earlier, the oil-paint orange of the late afternoon sunlight brushing the angelic wings in her line of sight in shades of auburn and sienna. It was Ellie who’d told her about this building—the other hunter had had an apartment in a similar building next door before she fell in love with the bone-chillingly dangerous male who controlled North America from that Tower.
“Seriously, Sara,” she said, following the erratic flight path of an angel who appeared to be testing a lately injured wing, “you couldn’t find anything less dangerous? Like sending me to find a little old lady’s lost knitting needle?”
The Guild Director laughed, utterly unabashed. “Hey, you now hold the Guild record for the most stitches in one sitting—enjoy the time off.”
“I want a real hunt after this.” She scowled, but her hand was fisted as she silently urged on the unknown angel who was attempting to make a landing on a rooftop adjacent to the Tower. “Or I’m going to hunt Janvier on principle.” The damn vampire had been nice to her for weeks, ever since she got sliced up during the battle to hold New York against the invading force marshaled by the archangel Lijuan.
The angel who’d just made a good if shaky landing on that rooftop in the distance had no doubt been injured in the same battle.
“Excellent,” Sara said, as if Ashwini had just told her that unicorns not only existed but were currently granting wishes in Central Park. “Let me know when so I can buy tickets. Now go look at the canine mummy.”
“Grr.” She hung up after making the snarling sound she’d picked up from Naasir during the time she, Janvier, and Naasir had worked as a team behind enemy lines.
Walking into her bedroom, she pulled curtains of deep citrine across the sliding doors that led out onto her tiny balcony. That balcony was what had made Ellie recommend this apartment to her when she’d seen it go on the market—Ashwini had once told Ellie how much she liked the way Ellie’s balcony offered a sense of freedom even so high up in a skyscraper.
The block color of the curtains was vibrant against the crisp white walls Ashwini had left untouched, and a vivid contrast to the fuchsia pink of the throw pillows on her bed. The sheets were cream with fine pink stripes, the carpet a pale gold. A spiral sculpture of cerulean blue glass sat on a tall black wooden stool in one corner; she’d found the sculpture on the curb in Greenwich Village, after the previous owner threw it out just because the base was chipped. Their loss if they couldn’t see beauty in the fractured, the scarred.
The room might hold too much color for many, but after the genteel elegance of the place in which she’d spent five months of her fifteenth year of life, she couldn’t stand the stark or the minimalist. Texture, color, story, that was what she wanted around her, why she collected pieces others had discarded and gave them new life.
She, too, had once been considered too broken to be of any use.
Her fingers brushed the scar that diagonally bisected her chest as she pulled off her gray tee, the mark a reminder she’d almost been fatally broken. Opening up her closet door to reveal the tall mirror mounted on the other side, she took in the clean line that stated the skill of the vampire who’d wielded the sword. It was no longer raw and red, and it would eventually fade to the pale honey that was the shade of the other, smaller scars on her skin.
The memories, however, those would never fade.
“Don’t you go, Ash. Don’t you f**king go.”
Janvier’s voice had been the last thing Ashwini heard before blacking out, and the first after she woke. “It’s bad manners to snarl at the nice doctor, Ashblade.”
In truth, she’d been too weak to snarl, but she’d made her dislike of the institutional setting clear. So Janvier had brought her home, tucked her into her own bed, and made her soup. From scratch! Who did that? No one else ever had for her and she didn’t know how to handle the strange, lost feeling the memory aroused in her. So she just shut the door on it, as she’d been doing for the two weeks since she’d kicked him out, and focused on the scar.
Early on, she’d worried the wound had caused muscle damage that would limit her range of motion. A visit with the Guild’s senior medic a week prior, in concert with her increasing mobility, had erased that concern. Since she planned on keeping her recovery on track, she picked up the bottle of special oil Saki had given her. “Rub it in twice a day after the stitches dissolve,” the veteran hunter had said. “It’ll help with deep-tissue healing.”
Given Saki’s impressive record of injuries, Ashwini wasn’t about to argue.
The sweet-smelling oil rubbed in, she wove her hair into a loose braid, then took off her yoga pants to change into winter-appropriate jeans, hunting boots, a mohair turtleneck in vibrant orange over a thin, long-sleeved tee designed to retain body heat, and a thermal-lined black leather jacket that hit her at the hip. She found her gloves stuffed into the pockets of the jacket, so that saved her from hunting for them.
Deciding to leave in the dangly hoop earrings she was wearing—if the poor dead dog managed to rise up and attack her, it deserved to rip off her earlobes—she began to slot in her weapons. Knives in arm sheaths as well as one in her left boot, plus a gun in a concealed shoulder holster and another in a visible thigh holster.
Grabbing her Guild ID, she slipped it into an easily accessible pocket. Most of the local cops knew the hunters who lived in the area, but there were always the rookies. Since it would suck to be shot dead by a trigger-happy hotshot, especially after surviving an immortal war, she’d make it painless for them to confirm her identity.
That done, she considered her crossbow. Though she adored it almost as much as the portable grenade launcher she stored in a weapons locker at Guild HQ, it seemed a tad extreme for a visit to a vet.
“God, Sara,” she muttered into the air at the reminder of her so-safe-it-was-a-joke assignment. “I’m almost convinced you’re punking me.”
However, even that was better than sitting around twiddling her thumbs—or destroying her apartment with boredom-induced decorating choices.
Before she spun the dial to lock the weapons safe hidden in the back of her closet, she slipped on the glossy black bangle Janvier had sent her in the mail a year before. Snap it apart to reveal the wire within, and you were holding a lethally effective garrote. The damn male knew her far too well. Which was why she couldn’t understand his behavior after her injury. The two of them had an understanding; they irritated and challenged one another, and yes, they flirted, but the rest . . . the kindness, the tenderness, it was crossing a line.
He’d cradled her against his chest when she had trouble sitting up, fed her soup spoonful by spoonful. It had felt warm and safe and terrifying and enraging. Because he was the one thing she could not have—and now he’d wrecked her hard-won equilibrium by showing her what she was missing.
Angrily hiding a few more knives on her body for good measure, she strode to the front door and yanked it open.
“There you are, sugar,” said the two-hundred-and-forty-seven-year-old vampire on her doorstep, his hair the rich shade of the chicory coffee he’d once made her, and his skin a burnished gold.
She bared her teeth at him in a way that couldn’t faintly be taken as a smile. “I thought I told you to go away.” Last time he’d “been in the neighborhood,” he’d brought her mint chocolate chip ice cream. Her favorite. She’d taken the ice cream and shut the door in his face in an effort to teach him a lesson. He’d laughed, the wild, unabashed sound penetrating the flimsy shield of the door to sink into her bones, make her soul ache.
“I did go away,” he pointed out in that voice accented with the unique cadence of his homeland, his shoulders moving beneath the butter-soft tan leather of his jacket as he folded his arms. “For an entire week.”
“In what version of going away does it mean you send takeout deliverymen to my doorstep?”
Eyes the shade of bayou moss, sunlight over shadow, scanned her head to toe. “How else was I to make sure you weren’t lying collapsed in the bathroom because you were too stubborn to call for help?”
“I didn’t get hit with the stupid stick anytime in the past couple of weeks.” And, despite the somber predictions of her father in childhood, she had friends. Honor had been by every couple of days, alternating with Ransom, Demarco, and Elena. Naasir had filled her freezer with meat before he left for Japan forty-eight hours after the battle.
“Protein will help you heal,” had been his succinct summation. “Eat it.”
A number of other hunters had dropped by to compare battle scars after they escaped hospital arrest. Saki had stayed for two nights, caught Ashwini up on her parents in Oregon. The older couple had once done Ashwini a great kindness, and while she’d been too damaged then to trust them enough to forge an emotional bond, never would she forget their generosity. As she couldn’t forget the way Janvier had held her in his lap in the old armchair by the window, his hand stroking her hair as snow fell over the city.
It was a moment she’d wanted to live in forever. But she couldn’t. “Out of the way,” she said, her anger at fate a cold, clawing thing inside her she’d never been able to tame despite her decision to live life full throttle. “I’m heading to a job.”
No more lazy grace, his expression grim. “You’re not fully recovered.”
Stepping out and locking the door behind her, she strode down the hallway. “The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.” Even if he hadn’t, Ashwini knew her body. It had been in hunter condition before the injury and she’d begun exercising as much as she could the instant there was no longer any danger she’d tear the wound open.
“Ash.” Janvier touched his hand to her lower back.
“No touching.” Gritting her teeth against the impact of him, she reached out to push the button to summon the elevator.
Janvier used his body to block her. “I’m coming with you.”
Her mind flashed back to the last time he’d said something similar, to the first mission they’d worked together. Back then, they’d been antagonists who’d declared a temporary truce, and the problem had been a clusterf**k in Atlanta. Now, he was openly attached to the Tower, which technically put them on the same side. They’d worked like a well-honed partnership in Atlanta, fallen back into the same flawless rhythm during the battle. As if they had always been meant to be a pair.
And that just sucked.
“Fine.” Refusing to face the awful, painful grief that lurked beneath her anger, she stepped into the elevator when it opened to disgorge one of her neighbors.
Janvier waited until after the other woman was out of earshot to say, “I don’t trust it when you cooperate.” Narrowed eyes.
“Don’t come, then.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily, cher.” Slamming out one hand to block the closing door, he got in.
The first time he’d called her cher, it had been a wicked flirt. Somehow, the term had become more in the years since, an endearment reserved for her. Never did she hear him use it with anyone else.
Today, he stood too close to her on the ride down, his scent a sexy, infuriating bite against her senses. A great big part of her wanted to haul him down to her mouth. She knew full well that seconds after she did, he’d have her slammed against the wall, her legs wrapped around his waist as he pounded his c*ck into her, their hands and mouths greedy to touch, to possess, to taste.
Her and Janvier’s chemistry had never been in question.
When he walked out the elevator in front of her, she couldn’t help but admire the sleek danger of him. Built long and lean, his muscles that of a runner or a swimmer, he moved with a sensual grace that fooled people into thinking he wasn’t a threat.
Ashwini knew different.
Just under a year prior, he’d sent in three decapitated heads to the Tower to signal the end of an execution order. Those heads had belonged to vampires who’d sliced Ashwini up after cornering her in a pack. She’d killed two of the cowards, wounded the others, and it was the others Janvier had delivered.
Of course, he’d never claimed responsibility for the act; most everyone thought the vampires had been executed by their angel. Ashwini knew the truth only because Sara had had it direct from Dmitri, second to the archangel Raphael and the most powerful vampire in the country.
One eyebrow raised, the Guild Director had repeated Dmitri’s response to her notice that the Guild was sending in a team to capture the rogue vamps. “No need. The Cajun’s taken care of it. The dead morons touched his hunter.”
That was when Ashwani had first tried to put distance between them, first tried to cut off the connection that could not be permitted to grow. Janvier had made that an impossible task. He’d tracked her down in remote corners of the world, aggravated her to the point where she’d once tied him up and emptied a large pot of honey on his head, before pretending to leave him for the insects.
He’d laughed in delight and cut himself free using a hidden blade, then chased her through the trees, threatening to make her lick every drop of the sweet, sticky stuff off his body. The interaction had left her feeling more alive than she had in all the weeks since she’d decided to walk away from him. And so she’d been selfish, continued to play with him without telling him their flirtation could never be anything permanent.
Her wishes didn’t matter. His didn’t, either. There was no choice.