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

6
 
Skin prickling, she waited to see what they’d do.
 
Nothing.
 
Her eyes fell on the empty terra-cotta pots she’d lined up at the back of her bench. Inspired, she gave each fighter one, curious to see their response. “Could you fill these with soil for me? The bag’s over there.”
 
They moved to the bag as one and began to scoop out the rich potting soil using their hands. About to tell them to stop, put on gloves, she realized it would make no difference to the two. When asked, the Primary said the Legion were “of the earth, of life.” Now, as they dug their hands into the soil, she saw an unexpected easing in the shoulders of both males, their lashes lowering and chests expanding.
 
Raphael.
 
Do you need a rescue?
 
No. Seeing her fighter had filled his pot, she said, “Why don’t you transfer one of these seedlings?” She indicated the flat, shallow tray in which she’d nurtured several different plants to life.
 
As she watched, he removed one with care, placed it into the pot after scooping out a hole, then gently patted in the soil around it.
 
I think we need to create gardens in the Legion building. Part of the roof, some of the larger planned balconies, areas under a skylight, all of them will work.
 
Raphael’s response was immediate. They are of the earth, must be nourished by it in some way while they’re active. It is why they are so often in Central Park.
 
That’s what I think, she said, seeing the second fighter join the first and, after a glance at her for permission, reach into the seedling tray.
 
Are you able to take on the task of organizing the gardens?
 
Yes. It would be a fascinating project, and perhaps one in which she could involve some of the injured who weren’t yet ready for full duties.
 
“It is done.”
 
Taking in the beautifully potted plants the fighters set in front of her, she said, “Want to do more?”
 
It was an hour later that she returned to the house, having left the two men in the greenhouse, after assuring them they could stay as long as they liked. She’d seen movement through the glass from the outside, their silhouetted hands touching the leaves of the overhanging ferns.
 
Heading upstairs, she changed, then tracked Raphael down in his study. After having come so close to never again feeling his touch, she didn’t deny her need to be close to her archangel. Life was unpredictable—they might not have a quiet night together for another week or month if things went to shit again.
 
“Dinner will be a while,” she said, sliding her arms around his waist. “I’ve decided to seduce you for my entrée.”
 
The erotic, exotic taste of angel dust on her lips, on her skin, Raphael’s silent response making her shiver. He was dipping his head toward her when a chime interrupted the silence. It came from the large video screen built into the wall to Elena’s left. There were very few people who had the direct code, but that included his mother and the entire Cadre.
 
“It is Titus,” Raphael said after glancing at the incoming caller ID.
 
Elena frantically brushed the incriminating shimmer of angel dust off his lips and face, then tried to wipe her own using the bottom of her T-shirt, while her body continued to throb with sexual heat. “Well?”
 
Rubbing his thumb over the side of her mouth, Raphael fed her the bone-melting taste. “We should stay in the shadows.”
 
Elena groaned but pulled the curtains shut to block out the last of the sunset, throwing the study into a mild gloom. “Okay, go.”
 
She didn’t always stay beside him when he answered such calls—she didn’t have the kind of power to be involved at that political level and, frankly, she didn’t want it. Her priority was on doing what was necessary to support Raphael. Titus, however, might be responding to the message she’d sent him in her role as Raphael’s consort.
 
“Titus,” Raphael said when the other archangel appeared on-screen.
 
Titus was dressed like the warrior he was, his breastplate shining gold against skin of jet. Elena knew the armor was unlikely to be actual gold but rather a tougher material coated in a thin layer of the precious metal. Because Titus wasn’t a play warrior; he was the real deal. Built along the same lines as Galen, his features were rough-hewn, his presence forceful.
 
“Raphael.” Eyes of impenetrable onyx shifted to Elena, his tone quieter than she would’ve expected from a man of his size and strength, the resonant tone compelling her attention. “Consort.”
 
“I’m delighted to speak to you,” Elena said, thankful for the instructions Jessamy had given her in how to interact with an archangel who was an ally but not yet a friend. The last thing she wanted to do was put her foot in it, when the alliances they made now could help save the world during the war to come. It was a certainty that the Archangel of China was going to rise from her regenerative sleep in a bad, bad mood.
 
“I thank you for your invitation,” Titus said in reply to her words. “I will join you during your celebrations.”
 
Well, crap. Elena had extended the invitation sure that Titus wouldn’t accept. It had been more along the lines of fostering goodwill. The other archangels she’d invited had already sent their regrets, including Hannah and Elijah, who Elena would’ve been happy to see—but like Elena and Raphael, the other couple needed to be with their people right now.
 
As for Favashi and Astaad, both had scheduled private visits after the block party.
 
Knowing how Neha felt about Raphael, but also aware that to not invite her would be seen as an insult, Elena had sent the Queen of Snakes, of Poisons, a personal invitation. The response had been icily polite, but it had been handwritten by Neha herself, which Elena figured had to be better than dead silence.
 
Michaela was permanently off any guest list Elena made, as was Lijuan’s buddy, Charisemnon.
 
“I look forward to making your acquaintance in truth,” she said to Titus now, dredging up more of Jessamy’s lessons. The historian and librarian of the angelic race had the patience of a saint, even when her pupil pretended to collapse and die from the mind-numbing complexity of angelic protocol.
 
“I, too, will be glad to see you, Titus,” Raphael said, his wing sliding over her own. “You have contained the situation with Charisemnon?”
 
That situation was the reason Elena had expected Titus to stick close to his territory. He shared a land border with Charisemnon and the two archangels had never had a cordial relationship. Their constant back-and-forth had turned into all-out aggression when Charisemnon sided with Lijuan during the hostilities; not only had Charisemnon used his new ability to create disease to attack New York, he’d begun to send disease carriers over the border into Titus’s lands.
 
“I have had confirmed reports that Charisemnon is sick.”
 
“His mind?” Raphael had seen his own parents go mad with age, but Charisemnon was young in immortal terms.
 
“No. He is physically ill. My spies tell me he is bedridden, his body covered in sores.”
 
“Archangels do not get ill.” An immutable fact throughout angelic history.
 
“It appears Charisemnon is changing the rules.” Titus put his hands on his waist, biceps bulging. “I have spoken to my healer and Keir both about the possible cause—they believe he overextended his ability and it turned on him.”
 
Raphael considered that. “If we remove Lijuan from the picture, Charisemnon appeared to have the strongest Cascade-instigated gift.”
 
The other archangel had taken down hundreds of Raphael’s angels in a cowardly strike, leaving five dead and many so brutally injured they’d been little more than bleeding torsos. It would take months of excruciating pain before the youngest would recover, the crime of the Falling one Raphael would never forget. Vengeance among immortals was often a long and deadly process, and Raphael had learned the value of patience long ago.
 
“Yes.” Titus’s expression held grim pleasure. “The pestilent fool acted too fast, was too arrogant. Now he pays the price.”
 
“There’s another possibility.”
 
Titus frowned at Elena’s words, but made it clear she had his attention. Raphael knew that wasn’t the African archangel’s usual approach to women who were mated, married, or otherwise tied to a powerful male. It wasn’t misogyny—Titus had a strong contingent of women in his army, including Galen’s mother, Tanae.
 
It was that, in Titus’s mind, there were two kinds of women—the warriors, and all the rest. The latter were to be cosseted and protected and indulged, but not taken seriously. It had, Raphael knew, taken Titus time to accept that Elena didn’t fit into the second category.
 
Despite that, she remained young in angelic terms and wouldn’t have had the power to hold the attention of an archangel of Titus’s age had Titus not heard of her courage and loyalty during the final battle against Lijuan, when his hunter had chosen to die with him if it would save their people.
 
“She is a true consort,” the other archangel had said to Raphael when the two of them spoke not long after Raphael’s troops forced Lijuan’s into retreat. “You are a blessed man.”
 
An absolute truth.
 
“Lijuan,” Elena said now, “was”—a pause—“is known to share power with those close to her. We saw that with her generals during the battle. They could go for longer, heal faster than our men and women, but the boost only lasted as long as she was in play.”
 
“But to share power with one of the Cadre?” Titus’s scowl was thunder, his arms folded across his chest. “It is not possible.”
 
Raphael wasn’t so certain. “Charisemnon shouldn’t have been able to cause the Falling,” he reminded Titus. “He most assuredly should not have been able to negatively affect the older and more powerful of my people.”
 
“Yes.” Scowl even heavier, Titus gave a hard nod. “I will think on this. But as matters stand, Charisemnon has pulled his troops back tight to his own borders, and my army is stronger than his, since he cannibalized so many of his foot soldiers by using them as carriers of disease.” A dangerous smile. “It may be time I caused an earth tremor or two to remind the cur I do not need Lijuan to flex my ability.”
 
“I would be happy to see Charisemnon disappear into a bottomless cavern.”
 
Titus’s laugh boomed through the speakers, the sound huge and open. “I am not yet so strong, but soon.” Still grinning, he said, “Have you heard of Michaela’s most recent grab for territory?”
 
“I received her message an hour past,” Raphael said, and felt Elena’s immediate negative response, though her face gave nothing away. There is no cause for alarm, Guild Hunter. Michaela is simply slavering for Lijuan’s lands. Out loud, he said, “I plan to ignore her demand for a Cadre meeting to parcel out the land.” It was far too soon to declare Lijuan dead, especially when all indications pointed to the opposite conclusion.
 
“As will I.” Arms unfolding, Titus looked directly at Elena. “I am curious to experience a ‘block party.’ I have not heard of such.”
 
Guild Hunter, the floor is yours.
 
“It’ll be quite unlike an angelic ball,” she warned with a bluntness Raphael knew Titus would appreciate. “I’m sure that wherever Lijuan is, it’ll make her gasp in horror.”
 
Titus’s teeth flashed white against his skin. “That is no deterrent! I will be there unless the misbegotten son of an ass on my border manages to crawl out of his sickbed. Raphael. Consort.” The African archangel signed off.
 
Raphael’s hunter leaned forward to opaque the screen on their end before turning to glare at him. “You told me the invite was pro forma.”
 
“You will enjoy Titus, hbeebti. He is apt to ask you to spar with him as a sign of respect for your honor.” Seeing her begin to look interested, he added, “I would have to refuse on your behalf, of course, since Titus has no subtlety to him and will treat you like a blooded angelic warrior, tearing off your head and limbs in the process.”
 
Elena’s mouth snapped shut after having fallen open at the first part of his sentence. “You may possibly have a point.” Running her hands through the fall of hair she’d released from its tie, the shade akin to the white fire she’d seen on his wings, she sighed. “It’s not that I don’t like Titus. He seems okay from what I’ve seen of him, but I just want to celebrate our survival and victory with our city and our friends, not stress about doing the hostess deal.”
 
“Then I can put your mind at rest.” He closed his hand over the arch of her wing, stroked down.
 
Shivering, she pressed her hand to his chest, lashes falling.
 
Raphael repeated the intimate caress. The nerve endings in that part of an angel’s wings were highly sensitive, and Elena’s sensitivity had grown over the preceding months, until he could have her loose limbed and heavy lidded in bed with no touch but this. He’d summarily kill any other man who dared touch her there.
 
“Titus has no time for formality,” he told her as she sagged against him. “He will be the easiest archangelic guest you will ever host—especially as the city will be holding a celebration at the time.”
 
All but purring under his touch, it took her a half minute to respond. “Titus likes to party?”
 
Raphael laughed. “Yes. He will take pleasure in the energy of our city and seduce five or ten very willing women in the process.”
 
Elena’s lashes lifted, pupils hugely dilated against the gray of her irises, the rim of silver that announced her growing immortality dramatic in the dim light. “He doesn’t have a harem of concubines?”
 
“No.” Though women did live at Titus’s home, they were not his lovers, but rather those he had given safe harbor. “Titus does not have long liaisons. He spoils the woman he is with at the time, and then he moves on—yet his lovers appear to feel only affection for him.” Raphael had seen that firsthand when he’d been a half-grown stripling in Titus’s army, having signed on because he knew he could learn more from the archangel when it came to the skills of a warrior than he could from any other living angel.
 
Of honor, too, he had learned much while in Titus’s army. “In all the years that I have known him, never have I heard a woman he has taken to his bed disparage Titus.” And because he knew it would amuse his hunter, he added, “Mostly they just sigh at the sound of his name and lose their train of thought.”
 
Elena’s laughter was husky, her wing warm and strong under his touch. No one in angelkind had wings like Elena’s, the evocative midnight of her feathers flowing into deepest indigo that shaded into blue and the shimmering hue of dawn, her primaries white-gold. “The man’s clearly got game.” Moaning in the back of her throat when he increased the pressure of his caresses, she nuzzled into the curve of his neck. “That feels so good. Can you do it all night?”
 
“If you make it worth my while.” Reluctantly halting the touch that gave him as much pleasure as it did her, his body hard with arousal, he drew her out of the room. “Montgomery will soon be seeking us out for dinner. We should not shock him.”
 
“I think Montgomery is unshockable at this point.”
 
Raphael caught the butler’s eye as they left the study—the vampire had appeared in the hallway when Raphael opened the study door. It is a quiet evening, Montgomery. A gift after war and chaos. Perhaps you should invite Sivya to a walk along the cliffs.
 
Montgomery’s eyes reflected alarmed distress. Sire, I assure you, we have not—
 
I am an archangel, Montgomery. I know those who are mine. He began to climb the stairs with Elena. To have two of my trusted people become one, it is not something to disdain. Understanding the depth of Montgomery’s loyalty, he made his approbation even clearer. You have my sanction to court her, should you need it.
 
Halting at the landing, he glimpsed the nervous hope in Montgomery’s expression. It was odd to see the distinguished butler thus, but love had a way of making mortals of them all. Bowing deeply, Montgomery said, Sire.
 
“What was that about?” Elena asked the instant they were behind the closed doors to their bedroom. “I knew you two were talking.”
 
Watching her remove her weapons, he said, “Why are you so heavily armed in our own home?” She’d changed into a scoop-necked T-shirt in sky blue and soft black pants that hugged her form, her feet bare. Yet she’d somehow managed to secrete away at least three knives.
 
“Huh.” She stared at the knife she’d pulled from an ankle sheath. “Habit, I guess.” Placing the weapons neatly in a bedside drawer, she said, “So?”
 
“Montgomery is courting Sivya.”
 
“No! Really?”
 
“You must pretend not to notice,” he cautioned her. “They would be appalled to think they’d been so remiss in their duties as to make you aware of their personal lives.”
 
Elena pursed her lips, eyebrows drawn together, and began to tug off her T-shirt. “But you noticed.” The sound came out slightly muffled.
 
“I am their liege. I am meant to notice and make certain they do not sacrifice their joy in the mistaken belief that I would find their coupling discourteous.” He cupped her br**sts after she threw the T-shirt over the back of a chair, his need to claim her a pounding in his blood.
 
He had come to within a split-second of igniting them both on the battlefield in a final attempt to defeat Lijuan’s evil, come to within a split-second of never again holding Elena in his arms. The memory was yet raw. “As my consort,” he said, dipping his head to press his lips to the curve of her shoulder, “your job is to notice when they are a pair, so as to assure their duties don’t separate them any more than necessary.”
 
Her hands were in his hair, her lips warm and wet against the line of his jaw. “It’s weird to think of Montgomery and coupling in the same breath.” A small gasp when he tugged at one tightly furled nipple. “I’m convinced he sleeps in his suit.”
 
“Enough talk of others, hbeebti. It is time for our own coupling.” Each hour, every hour of peace was a treasure. War boiled black and violent on the horizon, and when it came, it would engulf the world.