New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh returns to her world of angelic rulers, vampiric servants, and the woman thrust into their darkly seductive world…
Vampire hunter Elena Deveraux wakes from a year-long coma to find herself changed—an angel with wings the colors of midnight and dawn—but her fragile body needs time to heal before she can take flight. Her lover, the stunningly dangerous archangel Raphael, is used to being in control—even when it comes to the woman he considers his own. But Elena has never done well with authority…
They’ve barely begun to understand each other when Raphael receives an invitation to a ball from the archangel Lijuan. To refuse would be a sign of fatal weakness, so Raphael must ready Elena for the flight to Beijing—and to the nightmare that awaits them there. Ancient and without conscience, Lijuan holds a power that lies with the dead. And she has organized the most perfect and most vicious of welcomes for Elena…
Elena gripped the balcony railing and stared down at the gorge that fell away with jagged promise beneath. From here, the rocks looked like sharp teeth, ready to bite and tear and rip. She tightened her hold as the icy wind threatened to tumble her into their unforgiving jaws. “A year ago,” she murmured, “I didn’t know the Refuge existed, and today, here I stand.”
A sprawling city of marble and glass spread out in every direction, its elegant lines exquisite under the razor-sharp burn of the sun. Dark-leafed trees provided soothing patches of green on both sides of the gorge that cut a massive divide through the city, while snow-capped mountains ruled the skyline. There were no roads, no high-rises, nothing to disturb the otherworldly grace of it.
Yet, for all its beauty, there was something alien about this place, a vague sense that darkness lurked beneath the gilded surface. Drawing in a breath laced with the biting freshness of the mountain winds, she looked up . . . at the angels. So many angels. Their wings filled the skies above this city that seemed to have grown out of the rock itself.
The angelstruck, those mortals who were literally enthralled by the sight of angelic wings, would weep to be in this place filled with the beings they worshipped. But Elena had seen an archangel laugh as he plucked the eyes out of a vampire’s skull, as he pretended to eat, then crush the pulpy mass. This, she thought with a shiver, was not her idea of heaven.
A rustle of wings from behind her, a squeeze from the powerful hands on her hips. “You’re tiring, Elena. Come inside.”
She held her position, though the feel of him—strong, dangerous, uncompromisingly masculine—against the sensitive surface of her wings made her want to shudder in ecstasy. “Do you think you have the right to give me orders now?”
The Archangel of New York, a creature so lethal that part of her feared him even now, lifted the hair off her nape, brushed his lips across her skin. “Of course. You are mine.” No hint of humor, nothing but stark possession.
“I don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of this true love thing.” He’d fed ambrosia into her mouth, changed her from mortal to immortal, given her wings—wings!—all because of love. For her, a hunter, a mortal . . . no longer mortal.
“Be that as it may, it’s time you return to bed.”
And then she was in his arms, though she had no memory of having released the railing—but she must have, because her hands were filling with blood again, her skin tight. It hurt. Even as she tried to ride out the slow, hot burn, Raphael carried her through the sliding doors and into the magnificent glass room that sat atop a fortress of marble and quartz, as solid and immoveable as the mountains around them.
Fury arced through her bloodstream. “Out of my mind, Raphael!”
“Because, as I’ve told you more than once, I’m not your puppet.” She grit her teeth as he laid her on the cloud-soft bedding, the pillows lush. But the mattress held firm under her palms when she pulled herself up into a sitting position.
“A lover”—God, she could still barely believe she’d gone and fallen for an archangel—“should be a partner, not a toy to manipulate.”
Cobalt eyes in a face that turned humans into slaves, that sweep of night dark hair framing a face of perfect grace . . . and more than a little cruelty. “You’ve been awake exactly three days after spending a year in a coma,” he told her. “I’ve lived for more than a thousand years. You’re no more my equal now than you were before I Made you immortal.”
Anger was a wall of white noise in her ears. She wanted to shoot him as she’d done once before. Her mind cascaded with a waterfall of images on the heels of that thought—the wetly crimson spray of blood, a torn wing, Raphael’s eyes glazed with shock. No . . . she wouldn’t shoot him again, but he drove her to violence. “Then what am I?”
Was it wrong that sparks sizzled along her spine at hearing that, at seeing the utter possession in his voice, the dark passion on his face? Probably. But she didn’t care. The only thing she cared about was the fact that she was now tied to an archangel who thought the ground rules had changed. “Yes,” she agreed. “My heart is yours.”
A flash of satisfaction in his eyes.
“But nothing else.” She locked gazes with him, refusing to back down. “So, I’m a baby immortal. Fine—but I’m also still a hunter. One good enough that you hired me.”
Annoyance replaced the passion. “You’re an angel.”
“With magic angel money?”
“Money is no object.”
“Of course not—you’re richer than Midas himself,” she muttered. “But I’m not going to be your little chew-toy—”
“Chew-toy?” A gleam of amusement.
She ignored him. “Sara says I can walk back into the job anytime I want.”
“Your loyalty to the angels now overwhelms your loyalty to the Hunters Guild.”
“Michaela, Sara, Michaela, Sara,” she murmured in a mock-thoughtful voice. “Bitch Goddess angel versus my best friend, gee, which side do you think I’ll choose?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” He raised an eyebrow.
She had the feeling he knew something she didn’t. “Why not?”
“You can’t put any of your plans in action until you can fly.”
That shut her up. Glaring at him, she slumped back against the pillows, her wings spread out on the sheets in a slow sweep of midnight shading to indigo and darkest blue before falling into dawn and finally, a brilliant white-gold. Her attempt at a sulk lasted approximately two seconds. Elena and sulking had never gone well together. Even Jeffrey Deveraux, who despised everything about his “abomination” of a daughter, had been unable to lay that sin at her feet.
“Then teach me,” she said, straightening. “I’m ready.” The ache to fly was a fist in her throat, a ravaging need in her soul.
Raphael’s expression didn’t change. “You can’t even walk to the balcony without help. You’re weaker than the fledglings.”
She’d seen the smaller wings, smaller bodies, watched over by bigger ones. Not many, but enough.
“The Refuge,” she asked, “is it a place of safety for your young?”
“It’s everything we need it to be.” Those eyes of purest sin shifted toward the door. “Dmitri comes.”
She sucked in a breath as she felt the temptation of Dmitri’s scent wrap around her in a glide of fur and sex and wanton indulgence. Unfortunately, she hadn’t gained immunity to that particular vampiric trick with her transformation. The flip side was also true. “One thing you can’t argue with—I can still track vampires by scent.” And that made her hunter-born.
“You have the potential to be of real use to us, Elena.”
She wondered if Raphael even knew how arrogant he sounded. She didn’t think so. Being invincible for more years than she could imagine had made that arrogance part of his nature . . . But no, she thought. He could be hurt. When hell broke and an Angel of Blood tried to destroy New York, Raphael had chosen to die with Elena rather than abandon her broken body on that ledge high above Manhattan.
Her memories were cloudy, but she remembered shredded wings, a bleeding face, hands that had held her protectively tight as they descended to the adamantine hardness of the city streets below. Her heart clenched. “Tell me something, Raphael?”
He was already turning, heading to the door. “What is it you’d like to know, Guild Hunter?”
She hid her smile at his slip. “What do I call you? Husband? Mate? Boyfriend?”
Stopping with his hand on the doorknob, he shot her an inscrutable look. “You can call me ‘Master.’”
Elena stared at the closed door, wondering if he’d been playing with her. She couldn’t tell, didn’t know him well enough to read his moods, his truths and lies. They’d come together in an agony of pain and fear, pushed by the specter of death into a union that might have been years in the making had Uram not decided to turn bloodborn and tear a murderous path through the world.
Raphael had told her that according to legend, only true love allowed ambrosia to bloom on an archangel’s tongue, to turn human to angel, but perhaps her metamorphosis owed nothing to the deepest of emotions, and everything to a very rare biological symbiosis? After all, vampires were Made by angels, and biological compatibility paid an integral part in that transformation.
“Damn it.” She rubbed the heel of one hand over her heart, trying to wipe away the sudden twist of pain.
“You intrigue me.”
He’d said that at the start. So perhaps, there was a component of fascination. “Be honest, Elena,” she whispered, running her fingers over the magnificent wings that were his gift to her, “you’re the one who fell into fascination.”
But she would not fall into slavery.
“Master, my ass.” She stared at the foreign sky outside the balcony doors and felt her resolve turn iron-hard—no more waiting. Unlike if she’d still been human, the coma hadn’t wasted away her muscles. But those muscles had gone through a transformation she couldn’t imagine—everything felt weak, new. So while she didn’t need rehab, she did need exercise.
Especially when it came to her wings. “No time like the present.” Lifting herself up into a proper sitting position, she took a deep, calming breath . . . and spread out her wings.
“Christ, that hurts!” Teeth gritted, tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes, she kept stretching the unused, unfamiliar muscles, folding her new-formed wings in slowly before expanding them outward. Three repetitions later and the tears had soaked into her lips until the salt of them was all she could taste, her skin covered by a layer of perspiration that shimmered in the sunlight streaming in through the glass.
That was when Raphael walked back in. She expected an explosion but he just took a seat in a chair opposite the bed, his eyes never leaving her. As she watched, wary, he hooked one ankle over a knee, and began to tap a heavy white envelope bordered with gilt against the top of his boot.
She held his gaze, did another two stretches. Her back felt like jelly, her stomach muscles so tight they hurt. “What’s”—a pause to draw breath—“in the envelope?”
Her wings snapped shut behind her and she found herself leaning against the headboard. It took her several seconds to realize what he’d done. Something cold unfurled within the core of her soul even as he got up and dropped a towel on the bed, then retook his seat. No fucking way was this going to keep happening.
However, in spite of the turbulent fury of her anger, she wiped off her face and kept her mouth shut. Because he was right—she wasn’t his equal, not by a long shot. And the coma had messed her up some. But as of now, she was going to work on those shields she’d started to develop back before becoming an angel. There was a chance that—given the changes in her—she could learn to hold them for longer.
Forcing her rigid shoulder muscles to loosen, she picked up a knife she’d left on the bedside table and began to clean the pristine blade with the edge of the towel. “Feeling better?”
“No.” His mouth firmed. “You need to listen to me, Elena. I won’t hurt you, but I can’t have you acting in ways that bring my control over you in question.”
What? “Exactly what kind of relationships do archangels have?” she asked, genuinely curious.
That made him pause for a minute. “I know of only one stable relationship now that Michaela and Uram’s is broken.”
“And the Bitch Goddess is another archangel, so they were equals.”
A nod of his head that was more thought than movement. He was so damn beautiful that it made thinking difficult, even when she knew he possessed a vein of ruthlessness that was sewn into the fabric of his very soul. That ruthlessness translated into a furious kind of control in bed, the kind that made a woman scream, her skin too tight across a body that knew only hunger.
“Who are the other two?” she asked, swallowing the spike of gut-deep need. He’d held her since she woke, his embrace strong, powerful, and at times, heartbreakingly tender. But today, her body craved a far darker touch.
“Elijah and Hannah.” His eyes glittered, turning to a shade she’d once seen in an artist’s studio. Prussian. That’s what it was called, Prussian blue. Rich. Exotic. Earthy in a way she’d never have believed an angel to be until she found herself taken by the Archangel of New York.
“You will heal, Elena. Then I will teach you how angels dance.”
Her mouth dried up at the slumbering heat in that outwardly calm statement. “Elijah?” she prompted, her voice husky, an invitation.
He continued to hold her gaze, his lips at once sensual and without pity. “He and Hannah have been together centuries. Though she’s grown in power over time, it is said that she’s content to be his helpmeet.”
She had to think for a while about that old-fashioned expression. “The wind beneath his wings?”
“If you like.” His face was suddenly all hard lines and angles—male beauty in its purest, most merciless form. “You will not fade.”
She didn’t know if that was an accusation or an order. “No I won’t.” Even as she spoke, she was vividly conscious that she’d have to use every ounce of her will to maintain her personality against the incredible strength of Raphael’s.
He began tapping that envelope again, the action precise, deliberate. “As of today, you’re on a deadline. You need to be on your feet and in the air in just over two months’ time.”
“Why?” she asked, even as delight bubbled through her bloodstream.
Prussian blue froze into black ice. “Lijuan is giving a ball in your honor.”
“We’re talking about Zhou Lijuan, the oldest of the archangels?” The bubbles went flat, lifeless. “She’s . . . different.”
“Yes. She has evolved.” A hint of midnight whispered through his tone, shadows so thick, they were almost corporeal. “She’s no longer wholly of this world.”
Her skin prickled, because for an immortal to say that . . . “Why would she hold a ball for me? She doesn’t know me from Adam.”
“On the contrary, Elena. The entire Cadre of Ten knows who you are—we hired you after all.”
The idea of the most powerful body in the world being interested in her made her break out in a cold sweat. It didn’t help that Raphael was one of them. She knew what he was capable of, the power he wielded, how easy it would be for him to cross the line into true evil. “Only nine now,” she said. “Uram’s dead. Unless you found a replacement while I was in a coma?”
“No. Human time means little to us.” The casual indifference of an immortal. “As for Lijuan, it’s about power—she wants to see my little pet, see my weakness.”
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