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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(4) by Nalini Singh

3
 
Straddling the hot red of his motorcycle, parked illegally in front of her building and gilded by the rays of dense orange that shot out of the winter sky, Janvier lifted up the helmet he’d left hooked on the handlebar and held it out to her.
 
“You realize this is Manhattan?” she asked with a pointed look at the foot traffic, not sure it was a good idea to get that close to him. The fact was, Ashwini didn’t trust herself around Janvier. Not anymore. Not when the angry part of her wanted to steal time with him any way it could.
 
Strangling the voice that said it’d be much more fun to ride him and not the bike, she folded her arms. “Did you leave the key in the ignition, too?”
 
He shrugged, lips curving but eyes sharp, watchful. “This bike doesn’t need a key, my khoobsurat Ash. Hop on and I’ll show you my darling’s fancy electronics.”
 
His use of the language she’d learned at her grandmother’s knee didn’t surprise her; he had served out his hundred-year Contract in Neha’s court, after all. “Chaque hibou aime son bébé,” she said in return, having discovered the quirky saying online while trying to figure out something he’d said to her.
 
A sinful grin that lit up his eyes and made her stomach somersault. “I protest at being labeled an owl—I haven’t eaten any mice lately. But I do love this beast. Come, let me give you a ride.”
 
Accepting the helmet despite her reservations, she put it on, scowled when he remained bareheaded. “Vampirism doesn’t protect against no-brain syndrome.” She rapped her knuckles lightly against the back of his head. “You better have another helmet.”
 
“Just checking if you still care.” He retrieved a second helmet from where he’d apparently left it hooked somewhere on the part of the bike not in her line of sight. The man really wanted to get his stuff stolen. Then again, she thought, her eyes landing on the small set of black wings on the glossy red paintwork of the side panel, it’d be a stupid thief who took property marked as belonging to the Tower.
 
“Junkies don’t care,” she said, pointing at the emblem. “Their wiring is too scrambled.”
 
“That’s why I asked the doorman to keep an eye on it.” He winked at her for having jerked her chain this long, his lashes thick and curling slightly at the ends. “Where do you want to go? I am but your loyal steed today.”
 
Swinging over behind him, she put one gloved hand on his shoulder and told him the address of the veterinary clinic. He smelled even more delicious up close, the dangerous bite of him layered with an earthy undertone that echoed his personality: Janvier could pull off sophisticated, of that she had no doubt, but his real skin was full of sexily rough edges.
 
The motorbike came to life with a throaty roar that vibrated between her legs. Sucking in a breath, she grabbed his wrist when he would’ve reached back to stroke her thigh. “Hands and eyes front.”
 
Chuckling, he put his hands back where they should be after tugging on his gloves. “Hold on.”
 
Ashwini controlled her position with her thighs as he slipped into the heavy traffic, keeping just the one hand on his shoulder to balance herself. His beaten-up leather jacket did nothing to insulate her from the intimacy of feeling his body move, muscle and tendon and bone shifting under her touch as he maneuvered the bike through the sea of cars.
 
When an angel swept down to skim over the vehicles, the distinctive blue of his wings causing motorists to slow down in a wonder that never faded, Janvier raised a hand in casual acknowledgment. Rather than returning the salute, Illium pointed to the curb and Janvier immediately slid the bike out of the flow of traffic and to another illegal parking spot in front of a fire hydrant.
 
Illium landed on the sidewalk at almost the same instant, folding in his wings in a susurrous whisper of sound. Golden eyed with ink black hair dipped in blue and flawless bone structure, he was one of the most astonishingly beautiful angels Ashwini had ever seen. Yet he did nothing for her, might as well have been a marble sculpture created by a master.
 
It was only Janvier who’d penetrated the wary steel of her defenses, made himself at home. As he had on her couch two and a half weeks back, his arm wrapped around her while they stretched out to watch an old black-and-white movie. When she’d started to fall asleep, her body not yet at full strength, he’d tucked her in with a kiss on the forehead she could feel even now.
 
“Ash,” Illium said, a distinct glint in the gold. “I thought for certain I’d be organizing Janvier’s funeral when he said he was planning to beard you in your den. I even called an undertaker.”
 
She pushed up the visor of her helmet. “Keep the number. It might be useful one of these days.”
 
“How you keep wounding me.” Janvier slapped a hand dramatically over his heart before flipping up the visor of his own helmet. “Why did you pull us aside, sweet Bluebell? Can you not see that I’m acting as my Ashblade’s chauffeur?”
 
Illium thrust a hand through his hair, pushing back the overlong strands that had fallen across his face. “Give me one of your blades,” he demanded. “I need to cut this before it blinds me.”
 
“You do it here and there’ll be a stampede to get the discards,” Janvier pointed out. “Not to mention the distress such barbarity will cause in the tender hearts of all those who worship your fine form.”
 
Illium muttered something uncomplimentary about Cajuns who should be dropped off buildings that did nothing to dim Janvier’s amusement. His hair brushed his nape, too, but he was comfortable with that length, and Ashwini liked it on him. Too much. Running her fingers through the heavy silk of it was a bone-deep pleasure she’d indulged in only a rare few times, all too aware it could become an addiction.
 
“There’s a situation I need you to handle,” Illium said after pushing back his hair again. “Details have been sent to your phone.”
 
Ashwini met the angel’s gaze. “Shall I plug my ears?” Hunters had fought alongside immortals in the battle to hold their city, would do so again should the situation call for it, but when it came to everyday existence, getting involved in Tower business could be perilous to a mortal’s health. “Or I can jump on the subway,” she offered, taking her hand off Janvier’s shoulder.
 
“No,” he said, at the same time that Illium spoke the word. “There, cher,” Janvier added. “You would not break both our hearts, would you?”
 
“What’s the situation?” she asked Illium, trying to ignore the way Janvier’s voice wrapped around her, as sensual and luscious as caramel. Despite the fact that he’d been Made over two centuries before, he’d lost neither his bayou roots nor its music from his speech, though the rhythm of his words had altered over time.
 
“A vampire’s cattle are charging him with ill-treatment.”
 
Ashwini winced at the derogatory term—used to describe humans who volunteered to act as a particular vampire’s living food source—but couldn’t take Illium to task for using it. These people chose to be “kept” by vampires, chose to be seen as livestock, petted and cosseted though they might be. “I didn’t realize cattle had any rights.”
 
Janvier was the one to reply, his eyes on the screen of his phone as he scrolled through the information he’d been forwarded. “Not every vampire enjoys seducing his food anew each night, or relying on blood banks. It is bad for the vampiric population for such arrangements to turn abusive.”
 
Illium folded his arms, the clean line of his jaw set in a hard line. “If word spreads, mortals might become gun-shy.”
 
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Ashwini said, recalling the hundreds of thousands who petitioned to be Made every year, despite witnessing countless examples of the brutality and violence that might be their lot. Because near-immortality came at a price: a hundred years of service to the angels, after which eternity awaited.
 
If you survived the Contract period with your mind unbroken.
 
“There will always be self-destructive idiots in the world.” She squeezed Janvier’s shoulder in an unspoken coda. He was a vampire not because of a lust for endless life, but because he’d fallen in love with another vampire as a “callow youth.” His own words. She felt for the mortal man he’d been, because she knew in this way, she and Janvier were the same: when they loved, they loved desperately, holding on even when it threatened to destroy them.
 
“Is it urgent?” Janvier leaned back into her touch. “Ash is headed toward the same general part of the city, so we can deal with her task and go on to this.”
 
“It’s a relatively low-level rumor at present,” Illium said. “An hour or two won’t make any difference.” Spreading his wings to their full breadth, to the delight of the teenagers who’d gathered in the portico of the building behind him, he readied himself for flight. “I almost forgot—there’s to be a celebration in just over a month.”
 
Ashwini blinked. “Not an angelic ball?” As far as she knew, Elena had an avowed dislike of the “excruciatingly formal” events. She’d been heard to mutter that she’d rather stick a fork in her eye. Ashwini couldn’t see her fellow hunter changing her mind in the aftermath of a war. Even if she was hooked up with a scary-ass archangel.
 
Illium’s laughter lit up his eyes and sent a woman on the sidewalk into a swoon broken by the thick arms of a nearby cop. “Ellie has threatened to shoot anyone who even suggests such a travesty.”
 
“Thank God,” Ashwini said with a shudder. “I thought for a second that she’d lost her mind and we’d have to stage an intervention.”
 
“This is to be a ‘block party,’ as Ellie terms it, open to any and all citizens of the city. It’s to be held in the streets and on the rooftops around the Tower.”
 
“That’s a really great idea.” While crowds weren’t Ashwini’s thing, she wouldn’t mind ending up on one of the rooftops with a group of friends. Each and every one of them had mourned in the aftermath of the war, for the fighters, mortal and immortal, who’d lost their lives. Now it was time to lift a drink to their fallen comrades, and to fully reclaim their city from the shadows of war—while giving a giant finger to those who’d sought to cripple it.
 
Janvier revved the bike at that instant. “I’ll report back once I’ve checked out the abuse report.”
 
“I’ll be at the Tower.” Illium took off in a powerful beat of wild blue accented with silver.