Guild Hunter Free Short Stories
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Go here for free short stories from the Psy/Changeling series.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Guild Hunter series, this story features Galen, Weaponsmaster to the Archangel Raphael, and Jessamy, Historian of the angelic race and teacher of their young.
For Guild Hunter fans, this story takes place during Archangel’s Kiss, after Galen has just completed a training session with Elena.
Jessamy followed Galen into the weapons salle after he dismissed Elena for the day. The hunter had walked away from the training ring with more than a few bruises, her wingtips dragging along the earth like one of Jessamy’s young charges—but not before she’d drawn some of Galen’s blood.
“Let me look at the wound,” Jessamy said, closing the door of the weapons salle behind her, her simple gown a whisper of delicate blue around her ankles. When she turned back to the huge space used for indoor training, it was to see Galen putting the training swords on a scarred wooden table, a cleaning cloth already in his hand and a scowl on his face.
“It’s nothing, a scratch.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The scowl didn’t disappear but her big, heavily muscled lover stood in place, wings folded neatly to his back, as she used a clean handkerchief to wipe away the blood and saw that he was right. The wound was already close to healed, a silent symbol of Galen’s strength. “You were very hard on Elena.” As an angel new-Made, Raphael’s consort would be wearing her bruises for far longer.
Galen returned to the swords, and to the cleaning process he always completed, no matter how tired he was after a session. She knew today hadn’t strained him at all, Elena a novice with long blades—not to mention her lack of experience fighting with the winged body that was now her own.
“She could get Raphael killed,” Galen said, running the cloth along the first blade.
It was an irrefutable truth. Elena was now Raphael’s greatest weakness, a living, breathing piece of his heart, but with none of the brutal strength at the archangel’s own command.
However, that was wasn’t the only truth. “She is good for him.” Jessamy welcomed the subtle changes in Raphael. Before Elena, she had watched him become harder, colder, more remote as the centuries passed—until she could barely see the young archangel who had once told her there would always be room at his Tower for her. “She makes him happy.”
Galen snorted, saying nothing, but she’d been with her barbarian lover for over four hundred years, wasn’t so easily put off. Ducking under his arm to force him to stop the cleaning process, she said, “Just like I make you happy,” his naked upper body warm against her. “And I’m not exactly the strongest person in the Refuge.”
“There is no comparison,” was Galen’s growling response, eyebrows drawn together over eyes of a stunning pale green she found ever more beautiful as the years passed. “You are Teacher and Historian, an integral and irreplaceable part of our people. She is a mortal with wings—what does she contribute?”
Jessamy poked him in the hard ridges of his abdomen. To hear him speak, you’d think he had no heart, when she knew her Galen had the biggest heart in the world—and the most loyal. “You,” she said when he winced, “were once a babe who wobbled when he flew—”
“No,” he interrupted with a thoughtful frown, “I do not think so. According to the weaponsmaster with whom I trained, I came out of the womb with a knife in one hand and a crossbow in the other.”
Lips twitching, Jessamy ran her fingers over the silken inner surface of his right wing, the caress one she knew he’d allow no other. “You must give her a chance to grow, to become who she is meant to be. You know Raphael would not take a weak woman as his consort.”
“Simply because she was a skilled hunter does not make her ready for life at an archangel’s side.”
Galen did not lightly use the word “skilled”. Realization dawning in her veins, Jessamy leaned back against his arm so she could look into his face. “You think she has real potential. That’s why you’re being so tough on her.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “In fact, I think you might even like her a little.”
Another scowl, strong hands on her waist as he set her bodily aside to pick up the sword he hadn’t finished cleaning. “She shot Raphael.”
“I once threw an inkwell at your head.”
Sword cleaned, he slid it away in its bracket on the wall, then did the same with the other weapons on the table. “You missed.”
“So if I had hit you, you would still be carrying a grudge?” she asked, watching his body flex and move as he put the weapons in place.
“Do you believe I am not?”
Laughing, she cupped his face to draw him down into a sweet kiss that rapidly turned wild and hot as Galen took control, his big hands pressing her against his aroused body, his mouth demanding she open her own.
“If that is how you carry a grudge against me,” she said, chest heaving when he finally set her free, “I will have to remind you of the inkwell incident more often.”
His smile was quiet, the glint in his eye very Galen. “Let’s go dancing.”
She knew exactly what he was talking about, and it had nothing to do with the kind of dancing one did on the earth. “I have less than an hour,” she murmured, rising on tiptoe to kiss the hard line of his jaw.
“I can be quick.” He dragged her out of the weapons salle by the hand. “I’ll take care of you tonight. Really, really slowly.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck as, one muscular arm tight around her waist, he rose into the air with a single beat of his powerful wings. “You are a terrible man,” she said, kissing the temptation of his throat as soon as they were high enough up to be private. “You know what it does to me when you say things like that.” Earthy and raw, he had the ability to curl her toes and make her feel a sensual temptress both.
Galen’s responding laugh was wicked, the dive he plunged them into breathtaking. Screaming with the wild pleasure of it, Jessamy tumbled with him into the gorge that cut through the Refuge, rose back up. They passed a flash of distinctive blue on the updraft that had to be Illium…and then they were falling in another steep dive, Galen peeling off into a small fissure that was a fracture emanating from the main gorge, before winging his way to the sky once more, the Refuge lost in the distance.
Her hair whipping across her face and her skirts tangled around her legs as he flew with a power and a confidence that had her holding on with only one arm, certain of her safety, Jessamy ran the knuckles of her free hand down his abdomen. “Where will we dance?” Privacy wasn’t hard to find in these mountains, the behemoths that surrounded the Refuge often shrouded in curtains of thick mist. Below, there was nothing, no sign of civilization, no villages, the mountainous land having belonged to angelkind for an eon.
“Right here,” he said, and they dropped without warning into a massive gorge so dark and deep that no light penetrated in the place where they danced.
Each touch was magnified in the darkness, each whisper a rough caress. Galen was as fast as he’d promised—but he took very good care of her. He always did, her lover who knew her body as well as any weapon in his arsenal. As she knew his.
“Admit it,” she said afterward as they lay in the dark at the very bottom of the gorge, the softest sand beneath their bodies and the nearby sound of water over rocks a quiet music.
One arm wrapped around her as she lay half-on, half-off his body, her left wing brushing his chest , Galen said, “What?”
When he began to caress her wing, she just snuggled in deeper into him. Once, at the dawn of their courtship, she’d been shy of such a touch when it came to her twisted wing, but it was impossible to be shy about anything with Galen; he made no bones about loving her exactly as she was. After four centuries, centuries that had passed in a heartbeat, she knew she could come to him broken in every way, and be certain of his love. Though he would no doubt also yell at her for getting herself hurt.
“That you see potential in Elena,” she said with a smile. It was his protectiveness that had sent that inkwell sailing at his head. Not that the lesson had had any effect.
“She didn’t crumble today. She’s not pathetic,” was the harsh response. “I may be able to beat her into shape as a passable fighter.”
Coming from Galen, that was high praise indeed. “I should warn you, I think Elena and I are going to become friends.”
“Don’t ask me to go easy on her.”
“I won’t.” She understood what so many didn’t, what Elena herself might not yet understand—that Raphael’s consort needed to realize her potential as quickly as she could to survive in the immortal world into which she’d been thrust. “I know you can give her tools that’ll help her live long enough to become who she’s meant to be.”
Sitting up after another caress, and taking her with him, Galen said, “Let me get you back to the aerie so you can change before your class.”
As they landed on the stone pavings in front of their clifftop home, the edges overflowing with flower pots rife with color and scent, he said, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten you missed your defensive training class yesterday. We’ll be doing it tonight.”
Kissing him until his hands slid down to squeeze her lower curves, she murmured, “Let’s skip the lesson tonight.” He was as tough on her as he was on any one of his students; the only difference being that their lessons were always held in private—and she could sometimes distract the weaponsmaster in ways unavailable to others.
“Jess,” he murmured, eyes gleaming, “we’ve been training together for many years. When was the last time you talked me out of a lesson?”
“A decade ago,” she said immediately, “after I met you at the door wearing nothing but one of your feathers on a tie around my neck.”
His body responded to the reminder, but his eyes narrowed. “Don’t even think about it. I want you to keep your skills fresh—the world has always been a dangerous place, but it’s becoming even more so.”
Jessamy, too, had felt the gathering shift. It had been heralded by an angel with a mortal heart and where it would go, no one knew. The only thing of which Jessamy was certain was that whatever the future held, she’d walk into it with her weaponsmaster by her side—and, since he’d made sure she was an expert in it—a crossbow in her hand.
Spoiler Warning: This short story is set after Archangel’s Legion (Guild Hunter #6), and contains spoilers for that book, so if you haven’t yet read it, save this story to read afterward.
“Zoe’s Workshop” is part of my ongoing series of shorts about the everyday lives of my characters, away from the darkness and intensity of the main storylines. I love visiting with them, and I hope you do, too. 🙂
Characters: Sara (former hunter, now Guild Director), Deacon (formerly a hunter charged with bringing down rogue hunters, now weapons-maker to mortals and immortals both), Zoe Elena (Sara and Deacon’s daughter).
Sara stretched awake cocooned in luxuriant warmth. Stretching out her hand toward Deacon’s side of the bed, she found the sheets cold. Her heart skipped a beat, her mind jerking to full consciousness as her lashes snapped open. For a single, terrible second, fear tried to grab hold of her in its ravenous teeth, but she fought the darkness with the practice that came with two weeks of doing the same.
The war was over. Her family was safe, happy, back together in their home.
Heart rate slowing, she took a deep breath…and felt her smile reappear, little bubbles of starlight in her veins. She could smell the bitter, delicious promise of coffee in the air. Below it lingered the buttery scent of the waffles Zoe loved, waffles that Deacon alone could make to Zoe’s satisfaction. Sara had tried once, received a terrible review. Laughing at the memory of their little girl’s face as she took her first bite, Sara pushed off the feather comforter Deacon must’ve pulled over her when he left to take care of Zoe.
Otherwise, the munchkin would’ve jumped on the bed to wake them both.
Sara’s smile widened at the thought of how their baby would often squirm between them for a snuggle, happy to play with her treasured doll while her parents dozed for a few more minutes.
Grabbing the kimono-style robe that Deacon had bought her for their wedding anniversary, she pulled it on over her pajama pants and tank top. The red silk fabric, patterned with cherry blossoms in black, was so liquid soft that she couldn’t resist running her hand over it as she padded into the attached bathroom.
A few minutes later, she walked out of their bedroom and down the stairs.
The wide open space of the lower floor was drenched in the snow-reflected sunlight of early morning, the windows dazzling in their clarity. Running her fingers through her hair, she yawned and kept an ear open for the sounds of Deacon’s and Zoe’s voices. The soundproofing in Deacon’s basement workshop was top notch, but he’d left the door open as he always did in the morning if he woke before her and needed to get some work done.
She smiled at the faint sound of Zoe’s rapid-fire childish patter. Deacon usually only spoke one word to their baby’s hundred, and they both seemed content with that. Pouring herself a cup of coffee from the pot Deacon had left perking, she took a sip as she made her way to the workshop through the internal staircase. She had the day off today, her deputy, Abel, in charge—though of course, she remained on call.
Being Guild Director wasn’t only a position, it was a promise to every hunter under her command.
Zoe’s excited voice grew louder as Sara descended the steps into the well lit space that included the basement areas of the two brownstones they’d merged into one. That lighting was a mix of sunlight—thanks to a number of narrow windows along the top—and the softer overhead bulbs Deacon had put in for when he didn’t need the bright work lights he had directly over his workbench.
He was at that workbench now, dressed in a pair of disreputable jeans with a tear partway down his left thigh and frayed cuffs, the well-washed denim hugging his butt. Sara loved those jeans. On top, he wore an old black T-shirt with Zoe’s handprints in front. Back when Sara and Deacon had been painting their living room after first merging the brownstones, their smart, fast daughter had decided to do some painting of her own.
Sara could still hear Zoe’s mischievous giggles as she ran from them on chubby baby legs, the paint-covered hands that proclaimed her guilt held out in front. She’d run right into her daddy’s ambush, her tiny palms connecting with Deacon’s T-shirt. He’d worn that tee so much in the interim that it was getting to be as disreputable as his jeans, but Sara knew neither one of them would ever throw it out. When the fabric became so thin it threatened to tear, Sara planned to have it framed for him.
The artist behind the treasured piece of clothing was currently hard at work at the miniature workbench that Deacon had built for her at one end of the workshop. Beside her sat their big black dog, Slayer. He woofed a greeting at Sara before going back to his adoration of his favorite human being in the whole wide world.
Banging her small pink toy hammer on a piece of wood Deacon must’ve given her, Zoe said, “Mommy! Look!”
Sara went over and admired the abused piece of wood. “Wow, baby.”
“Yeah, Mommy, wow!” Happy, Zoe went back to her hammering.
Overcome by love, Sara put down her coffee and grabbed Zoe into a snuggle. Her daughter kissed her cheek, then pushed away. “Busy, Mommy. Zoe, busy.”
“In that case,” Sara said, her heart overflowing, “I better go bother your daddy.”
Deacon raised an arm as she reached him. “Hello, sleepyhead.”
Held against the warm, solid strength of him, she sighed, every cell in her body at peace. She was a blooded hunter, could handle any weapon in this workshop, had walked into trouble right by Deacon’s side, but her husband made her feel so safe. It had nothing to do with skill or size, and everything to do with trust. She knew no matter what, Deacon would always be there.
Touching her fingers to his stubbled jaw, she said, “I love you.”
As he bent his head toward her, the dark, dark green of his eyes holding his heart, she felt her body ignite as passionately as it had during their first kiss. No, that was wrong, she thought before he scrambled her brain cells. Everything was deeper now, richer, even sexier.
Zoe’s voice penetrated the air. “Mwah, mwah,” she said, making the kissing noises with unhidden glee.
Sara smiled against Deacon’s mouth. “Where do you think she learned that?”
Her gorgeous, talented husband stroked his hand down to her butt, squeezed as he demanded another kiss. “Nursery school, I bet,” he said afterward. “It’s a hotbed of sin.”
Sara’s shoulders shook. Nibbling on his jaw, the scent of him hot and masculine and addictive, she said, “When do you think she’ll be ready to move on to real tools?” Sara was all for Zoe becoming a weapons-maker. It would keep her out of trouble—unlike if she followed her parents into the Guild.
“Couple of years at most,” Deacon said, both of them turning to look at their daughter. “But she also really likes to shoot her crossbow.”
Sara knew that. She’d been hit by multiple sponge-headed bolts the past week. At once proud of and terrified for her daughter, she slid her hand into one of Deacon’s back pockets. “You know what? I’m not going to worry about it until she’s a teenager at least.”
Deacon just gave her a look. Sara groaned and dropped her head against his chest. “Yeah, as if.”
Kissing the top of her head, Deacon massaged her nape. “At least she won’t have boyfriend troubles. Since I’ll decapitate anyone who lays a finger on her.”
Sara burst out laughing. “God, we’re a pair. Our poor baby.”
“Don’t worry.” Deacon’s eyes glinted. “I have a feeling Zoe Elena is going to grow up plenty tough enough to take on two overprotective parents.”
Zoe hammered once more, then put down her plastic hammer. “Daddy, finish!” Picking up her masterpiece, she brought it over for Deacon to scrutinize.
Sara watched as her big, muscular husband went down on his haunches in front of their tiny girl and took the piece of wood. Examining it seriously, he nodded. “Good work, Zoe.”
Zoe beamed and threw her arms around her daddy’s neck. Cradling her body in one arm, Deacon rose to his feet and walked over to place the piece of wood with Zoe’s other creations on the shelf Zoe and Sara had painted a hot orange and decorated with golden stars.
“You did such a good job, baby.” Sara helped Zoe choose the perfect space on the shelf.
“Waffles?” Deacon asked afterward, having snagged her forgotten coffee for himself.
“I’ll never say no to your waffles.” Taking Zoe when she stretched out her arms toward her, Sara smothered their daughter’s adorable face in kisses, then let her down so she could climb up the stairs in front of them. Deacon was right about Zoe’s strength—because cuddly and snuggly as she was, their baby was also showing signs of a strong independent streak. Hardly surprising, given her parentage.
Tail wagging, Slayer joined Zoe.
Sara went next, Deacon bringing up the rear.
His wolf whistle made her grin. The world might be in chaos, the archangels caught in a battle for supremacy and Manhattan still recovering from the recent violence, but here in this house, life was good and Sara wasn’t going to allow fear of the unknown future to steal the happiness of today. As she’d told Ellie, Zoe’s innocent zest for life had taught her to enjoy the now, to live every moment of the joy. And there was so much joy in her life.
Zoe jumped up the last step into the kitchen and scrambled into the chair that was hers, clearly ready for a second helping of waffles. On the chair next to her sat her doll, while Slayer sprawled hopeful and eager on the floor at her other side. “Mommy, Sley?”
Wise to their daughter’s love for her canine playmate, Sara looked to Deacon to check if he’d fed their pet. “Slayer’s already had his breakfast, Zoe,” he responded, the affection and love in his tone no less powerful for not being showy or ostentatious.
Zoe sighed and turned to solemnly shake her head at Slayer. “You can have half my waffle,” she whispered after ducking under the table.
Hiding a laugh behind her hand, Sara met Deacon’s eyes. The deep green was lit with the same humor. Walking over to wrap her arms around his waist, she rose on tiptoe and just smiled at him. He smiled back at her, as in the background, their daughter carried on an animated conversation with her doll and Slayer.
It was the perfect start to the day.
A Sip of Eternity
This short story began life as a scene in an early draft of Archangel’s Shadows. It focuses on Dmitri & Honor, so there are no spoilers for the Archangel’s Shadows storyline (however, if you haven’t yet read Archangel’s Blade (Honor and Dmitri’s story), then save this to read later). I hope you enjoy!
After Janvier left, shutting the door behind himself, Honor turned into Dmitri’s arms, her eyes on his face. Though he was handling a grim incident, he didn’t look strained or stressed. “You like the challenge, don’t you?” she said.
“Eternity is a long time to be bored.” Warmth in his eyes, he tipped up her chin with a finger under her jaw. “That, however, is no longer an issue.”
Honor went to joke about him getting tired of her, but something made her stop. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the wound was still fresh. He’d lived a thousand years without her, and he had loved her through all of it. Rising on tiptoe, she claimed his lips, the kiss a luscious pleasure, the taste of him making her heart beat.
Hand curved around her throat, he nipped very lightly at her lower lip with his fangs.
Honor sucked in a breath.
“You need to feed,” he murmured, and nudged her toward his neck and the open collar of his white shirt.
“So do you.” She slipped another button out of its hole, luxuriated in the dark tan glow of his skin. “You are so beautiful.”
He wove his hand through her hair and drew her closer to the living beat of his pulse. “I don’t need to feed as often as you.” It was a purr against the side of her face.
Nipples tight, and skin hot, Honor rose on her toes and sucked the skin over his pulse. He shuddered, his fingers tightening on her skull. “Orange juice.”
She laughed softly. That was what he’d said the first time he’d coaxed her to feed after she woke as a vampire. She’d needed to do it, felt the pounding, erotic urge, but she’d hesitated. He’d told her it felt just like drinking orange juice. She’d laughed then, too, her nerves easing. And then she’d tasted him, the shock of ecstasy a hit to her system that had almost thrown her into unconsciousness.
“Wow,” she’d whispered when she could speak again. “Is it always like this?”
“It will be for you.” It had been a darkly sensual promise.
Honor had come to realize that he was so potent for two reasons. The first was that she loved him until she couldn’t breathe. The second was that he was a thousand years old and powerful with it. Even now, she only needed a sip to give her enough energy to last the entire day. Sometimes, she took more, but it left her a little drunk.
Piercing his skin, she took her sip, felt her head spin and her cells jumpstart, then forced herself to stop. “I want to drink,” she complained as she licked over the mark. He didn’t really need it, was more than strong enough that the fang bite would’ve closed over in a single minute or less, but she liked giving him that small pleasure to erase the erotic hurt. “I want to gulp you down.”
Hard as rock, he pressed against her. “It’ll take time,” he said, his voice rough. “The older you get, the more you’ll be able to drink without the power going to your head.”
Time, in the immortal sense, Honor had learned, didn’t mean years. It could be decades or centuries. “What a tough life I have,” she said, kissing his throat and the dip formed by his collarbones. “Sipping on you for eternity.” Another kiss, a suck of that sensitive spot above the pulse in his neck, her fingers brushing his neck.
Groaning, he lifted her up and put her on the desk, moving to stand between her legs. “I think a certain hunter is trying to seduce her husband.” He dropped his head to her throat and nipped sharply.
She hissed out a breath and gripped at his hair, but he didn’t sink his fangs into her. Dmitri was very careful with how much he allowed himself to take from her—young as she was, her body couldn’t replenish all of what he needed. Since she hated the idea of him feeding from anyone else, and he didn’t have any inclination to touch another as intimately, they had bottled blood in the fridge upstairs.
Curious, she’d tried it once, realized exactly how delicious Dmitri was; the bottled stuff was serviceable but flat. “Taste me,” she coaxed. “You haven’t for two days.” Stroking his hair, she ran her hands down over his shoulders and his chest. “Or maybe we can work out the tension another way.”
He gripped her wrists right before she would’ve reached her goal. “I have a meeting with Raphael in fifteen minutes.”
Waggling her eyebrows, she grinned. “Race you to the finish line.”
It was fast and hot and wild and it wrecked her. “You’re lethal,” she whispered, lying on her back on his desk, his papers and pens scattered on the carpet.
Pressing a kiss to her bare abdomen, her shirt gaping on either side of her, her dangerously sexy husband rose and zipped up his pants. God, the sound of the metal against metal. It made her toes curl. He had himself set to rights in about thirty seconds, while she lay there hotly ruined.
When he sat down in his chair and pulled her forward, she blushed, suddenly aware of how exposed she was to him. There was nothing she wouldn’t do with him, but sometimes, his carnality still sent a flush through her. Now, she held her breath as he rubbed his jaw against her thigh and finally gave in to his own blood hunger.
But not before he looked up, held her eyes, said, “It was always you. It will always be you.”
Her chest squeezed, her eyes burned, and her heart fell once more into the hands of the beautiful, deadly, and violently loyal man who was her eternity.
A Small Fairy Tale
For GH series readers, this story is set after Archangel’s Shadows and contains some spoilers for earlier books in the series.
Talu couldn’t believe it when she saw the tiny metal fairy standing peering out of a small nook in the side wall of an old brownstone. She was wedged into a spot with a missing brick, as if someone had left her there for safekeeping… but there was no one around here and Talu saw no signs that anyone used this little space between two identical brownstones as a home.
The brownstones were both in a section of the street that had red “Demolition Zone” signs plastered on the houses as well as on the fence she’d climbed to get inside. The houses were all empty, with smashed windows and nothing of value left inside. She’d looked in each one, hopeful of finding a small forgotten something she could maybe sell to get food. But whoever had cleaned out those places had taken everything, even cables and wires from inside the walls and the lights from the ceilings.
Tired to the bone after her fruitless searching, she’d thought about squatting for the night in one of the brownstones but they didn’t look very stable… and they were so empty, so broken.
She’d decided she’d rather be outside, had been about to crawl into this protected little space between the two brownstones when she saw the fairy. Again, she looked around to make sure it didn’t belong to anyone. She wouldn’t take it if someone needed it—but again, all she saw was emptiness.
Rubbish lay along the entire space—crushed cans, yellowing newspapers, long petrified and moldy orange peels—along with piles of dead leaves and debris the wind must’ve blown in off the street.
How could someone have abandoned the fairy? She was so beautiful.
Talu had heard of the fairy tree up on the High Line, but it had been empty by the time she made it to the park. All the fairies had flown away in people’s hands, leaving only a tree with its dark branches stark against the snow. She’d gone back day after day, snuck in night after night, in the hope that someone would return a fairy, but no one had.
Winter had melted into a cool spring and finally, as the tree began to bud with green, she’d given up hope.
Her hand trembled as she reached out to pick up the fairy stuck inside the brick. She gasped when the last rays of the fading sun caught on the fairy, revealing that she wasn’t silver as Talu had assumed. No, she was brown. Like Talu. She even had masses of curly hair. And she was smiling with such a big mouth that her smile seemed to fill up her whole face.
It was as if the fairy had been modeled on Talu.
Crying, she used a clean part of her T-shirt, which she wore below a dirty camouflage jacket, to wipe away some dust that had become stuck to the fairy. “I’ll keep you safe,” she whispered and tucked the fairy inside her jacket, in a secret pocket where mostly no one thought to look when they tried to rob her and take her stuff.
And though she was so hungry her stomach felt as if it was gnawing on itself, she didn’t go out onto the street to find someone who’d buy the fairy. It was a keep-thing, one of the very few that she had. The other was a photo of her with her mom before the cancer took her mom away. She also had a beaded necklace that had been her mom’s, and a little diary in which she wrote her study notes.
Those were all the keep-things she had in the little backpack she carried. No one wanted the photo or the diary and she’d hidden her mom’s necklace in a pocket she’d sewn into the bottom of the backpack weeks before she ran away from her aunt’s house. She would’ve stayed if her aunt had just beat her, but her mother’s sister took drugs then allowed male vampires to feed from her, so the vamps could get high. The men had started to grab at Talu, too. Talu had overheard a thin one who liked to strangle her aunt when he fed, offering her money if she’d let him feed on Talu.
Her aunt had agreed but asked for money upfront, which the vampire had gone to get. Talu had run out through the fire escape before he returned, even though she had nowhere to go. She had no one now that her mom was gone.
“We’ll sleep here,” she whispered to her fairy, then tucked herself in that little spot between the two houses that were to be demolished. There was a cold wind that night but, tired, Talu pulled her jacket around herself and curled up tight and she slept.
Waking at the first crack of dawn, she rubbed at her face before getting up and running as fast as she could to the public restrooms she knew would be open and where no one would chase her out. She did her business, washed her face in the basin and tried to clean up as much as she could. Her mom would be so disappointed to see her so dirty, but it was hard to stay clean when sleeping on the streets. At least she had a clean T-shirt to change into; she put her used one in a plastic bag to wash later, then stuffed it in her pack.
Body as clean as it could get and T-shirt on, she wet her knotted up hair and used the old hair ties she had around her wrists to pull it into a kind of a bun that at least looked neat.
Hoping she didn’t smell, she triple checked that her fairy was still safely in her pocket, then ran all the way to the nearest junior high school. Her mom had always told her school was important. Even when she was working three jobs, Talu’s mom had made sure Talu got to school and that she had a bagged lunch.
Talu rubbed at her eyes to wipe away tears. “I’m going to school, Mom,” she promised.
She truly loved school, loved learning, but she couldn’t go like the other students anymore. She didn’t have papers and if she went and tried to enroll, they’d make her go back to her aunt—who could somehow fool everyone she was sober and a good guardian. Her meanness only came out on the drugs. Talu knew she was safer on the street.
But, she’d figured out that if she arrived at the school early enough, she could climb up into the ceiling through an opening the repair people must use to get at wires. You could hear everything the teachers said from up there and no one ever noticed her if she moved from class to class while the students were thundering through the hallways between lessons.
Finding her spot just in time, before the custodian did his morning rounds, she settled in to wait for lessons to begin. “Here.” Safe, she took out the fairy and stood her on a beam beside herself. “You should have a name.”
She thought about it, knew what it would be. “Sina,” she whispered, her eyes stinging. “Your name is Sina.”
Her mom had always said she’d watch over Talu from heaven. Having Sina with her would remind her of that every day. Swallowing her tears, she tried not to feel the hurt in her heart.
Her stomach hurt, too, but it didn’t growl. It was easier being hungry after a while. The body kind of forgot and mostly she forgot, too, especially when she was learning.
She liked English and History, but Algebra wasn’t too bad and Chemistry was amazing.
Listening hard to the teacher since she couldn’t see the blackboard, she finally stopped writing when he stopped speaking to hand out a pop quiz. The other students moaned but Talu wished she could do the quiz, could be down there with them. Since she couldn’t be, she decided she’d go to the library in the weekend.
She mostly couldn’t go on school days because she had to wait until all the corridors were empty before she could sneak out, and by then, she had to hunt for food. She tried not to beg because her mom would be so sad about that, but when she couldn’t find abandoned things in the dumpsters to sell, she sometimes had to. She still tried to give people something. She couldn’t sing but she’d found a book in the library about magic tricks and learned a few that people liked—a woman in a suit had given her five dollars once!
On the weekends, however, she didn’t do her magic tricks or search the dumpsters. She tried to go to the library as much as possible. No one minded if she went inside, since she stayed quiet and just read textbooks.
One of the librarians was nice and had given Talu two T-shirts a month ago. “They’re just extras from the recent charity drive,” she’d said. “I thought I’d offer them to my favorite bookworm before anyone else.”
“Thank you so much.” Talu had meant every word.
The T-shirts weren’t keep-things, things she’d fight to hold onto if attacked, but they were important because they let her have clean clothes. She’d wear the one she’d changed into this morning for two days. She could only wash in the weekends because she had to stay with her clothes while they dried.
She’d had more clothes when she first ran away, but back then, she hadn’t known how much people stole when they had nothing—or when they’d become so hard by being on the street that they didn’t know how to be a person anymore. A vampire had stolen her backpack the first night she’d been on the streets. She’d followed him for a week before he lowered his guard and she could steal it back. By then, he’d ripped apart most of her clothes.
He hadn’t found the photo or the necklace, though.
Talu couldn’t understand why there were vampires on the streets. Everyone knew if you signed up to be a vampire, you served your angel for a hundred years, then they gave you money to build a new life. Talu had thought about asking to become a vampire when she was old enough but she wanted to meet her mom again one day and vampires were nearly immortal.
But even though the ones on the street were at least a hundred years older than her, they weren’t very smart. Maybe they’d been like her aunt and spent all their angel money on drugs. She’d seen street vampires gambling, too, then having their limbs broken when they couldn’t pay up. She bet the vampires who worked in Archangel Tower weren’t stupid.
As she walked through the darkening streets after getting out of the school, she tilted back her head and kept the Tower in her line of sight. Right now, it was glowing red-orange from the sunset, but soon, it would be a blaze of white light, a beacon slicing up into the sky. So pure, so bright.
Talu always tried to find a spot to sleep from where she could see the Tower, but she didn’t always succeed. It depended who else was in the area. Some of the other street people weren’t bad, and she could sleep around them, but a lot were dangerous. Talu didn’t want to run drugs or walk the streets or shoplift—or do what her aunt did for the kind of vampires who wanted ugly things they had to pay for because even most vampire groupies wouldn’t agree to it.
Talu just wanted to finish school and get a proper job.
The others on the street laughed at her when she said that, but she was determined.
Wings passed overhead, close enough that she could almost reach out and touch them. Gasping, she froze and watched the angel with wings of white tipped by brown sweep up and toward the Tower.
This was why Talu could never leave New York. There was magic here; even if you were on the street and didn’t have anything, you could look up and see the most beautiful angels flying across the sky. Yesterday, she’d seen the pretty one with blue and silver wings and blue-tipped black hair. He’d flown so high.
A feather drifted to her feet at that instant. Snatching it up before anyone else could, she felt her eyes widen. It sparkled like each filament was coated with crushed mirrors… or diamonds. Talu had never seen a feather so stunning, though she’d caught glimpses of an angel who seemed to be made of shattered light. This must be his feather.
She wished desperately that she could keep it, but she knew people who paid for feathers and this one was a very rare one. She could sell it for enough money to eat for two weeks if she was careful.
Tucking the feather in the same secret inner pocket as Sina, she began to make her way toward Hell’s Kitchen and the small restaurant run by the most avid collector she knew. A nice older homeless person had told her about the collector who always paid if he wanted a feather and who didn’t cheat on price. In return, Talu gave the other street person food when she sold a feather to that collector. Fair was fair.
Full darkness descended an hour later, but the streets remained busy with New Yorkers talking to each other, yelling on their phones, or just going about their business. Happy to be surrounded by so much life, Talu wasn’t paying as much attention as she should have—and when she was dragged off the street and into a narrow passage between two shops that housed their dumpsters, it was done so quickly that the people around her probably thought it was just two teens rough-housing.
“Let go!” she yelled… or tried to.
Throwing her against the opposite wall, her attacker knocked all the air out of her. Her cheek stung as if the flesh had been scraped off by the concrete and liquid dripped out of her nose. She tasted blood.
“Where’s the feather?” asked the man who’d taken her, the sound of a switchblade flicking open loud in the night darkness. “I’ll cut you if you scream. Give it to me.”
Talu had long ago figured out what was important and what wasn’t. The feather was precious, but she couldn’t eat if she wasn’t alive. And this man sounded strung out. He’d gut her without compunction if she so much as blinked wrong. “I’ll get it for you.” She kept her voice non-confrontational though she could feel blood continuing to drip out of her nose.
She hoped it wasn’t fractured.
Raising her hands really slowly, so as not to set him off, she said, “I have to reach inside my jacket.”
He jabbed at her hard enough that she felt the point of the blade penetrate her jacket and T-shirt to nick her back. “Don’t try anything,” he said, then pulled her backpack off and began to tear her jacket off her, his clawing hands hitting her hair and causing it to explode around her head.
Talu almost let it go… but without a jacket she’d freeze at night. Even then, it wasn’t worth her life. But Sina was. “No!” She screamed as loud as she could and kicked backward like she’d seen one of the guild hunters do when the lethal woman had taken down a rogue vampire in the street.
She caught her attacker in the knee hard enough to push him off balance. Spinning around as the skinny man with pasty skin and dishwater brown hair staggered back, she went to run but he grabbed her jacket. “Help!” she yelled, even though she had no hope of that help ever arriving. People didn’t like to get involved in fights between homeless junkies. That’s what they’d think this was if they even bothered to look.
Just two junkies fighting over a hit.
“No!” she yelled again and twisting, tried to punch her attacker. A blast of wind pushed her jacket against her back at that instant, making her hair halo out at the same time.
The junkie attacking her uttered an ugly sound and raised the hand holding the knife, clearly intending to stab her. She went to grab his hand, stop him… but she was too late. A crossbow bolt went through the palm of his hand, the force of it spinning him around and to the ground. Screaming, he writhed there, saying, “Get it off! Get it off!”
Talu swallowed and turned very carefully to face the angel who stood at the mouth of the narrow passage. She couldn’t see the angel’s face with the lights from the street behind the other woman, but that didn’t matter. She could see the black boots, the crossbow, the gleam of leather pants like those worn by hunters and some angelic fighters.
She raised her hands, palms up. “I didn’t steal it,” she said, because it seemed the safest thing to say.
“Come here, Curls.”
Talu had taken her chances against a knife-wielding junkie but she wasn’t about to take her chances against an angel with a crossbow. She made her way quickly to the woman… and immediately recognized that face with the silvery-gray eyes against skin of dark gold, the near-white hair that was pulled up into a tight ponytail.
Elena Deveraux, consort to the Archangel Raphael and the only angel in the Guild.
Elena gripped her chin, tilted her face to the light. Her eyes narrowed. “You have a spare cloth?”
Talu gestured to her backpack, lying just beyond the junkie.
“Come.” Stalking over to the mewling junkie, Elena stepped on his wrist with one booted foot. Talu quickly got her bag and returned to where she’d been, while Elena strapped her crossbow to her thigh, then pulled out the crossbow bolt embedded in the junkie’s hand.
Talu, her dirty T-shirt held to her nose to mop up the blood, winced as the junkie screamed.
“Be quiet. It’s not a killing wound,” Elena told the junkie before wiping the bolt clean on his pants. She slotted it away as she strode back to Talu. “How’s the nose?”
“I think the bleeding’s stopped.” She pulled away the T-shirt, smiled in relief to see she was right.
“Good.” Elena took out her phone.
As Talu listened, the guild hunter angel made a call to what seemed to be the cops.
“So,” Elena said after hanging up, “while we wait for this piece of human waste to be collected, tell me what you didn’t steal.”
Wanting to cry because she’d have to give Sina up now, Talu shoved her ruined T-shirt into the pack, then reached inside her jacket and pulled out her two treasures. Lying seemed a very bad idea and she couldn’t fight Elena and win. She couldn’t run away either. She wasn’t fast enough to evade an angel in the air.
The feather sparkled even in the dull light spilling over from the street but it was the fairy that captured Elena’s attention.
Her smile lit up her whole face. “Look at that. I never saw her before.”
“Her name’s Sina,” Talu said, holding out the feather but keeping Sina close.
“Pretty. It suits her.” Elena angled her head as a siren neared. “That’ll be this asshole’s ride.”
Two cops joined them seconds later and were soon hauling away the junkie. Elena nodded at Talu’s treasures afterward. “Important enough to die for?”
The guild hunter’s startling eyes held hers, the rim of silver around her irises seeming to burn. “Name?”
Talu’s hand tightened around Sina. “Dead.”
“Nearly fourteen,” she said automatically before suddenly realizing what day it was. “No, Iam fourteen. Today’s my birthday.”
“You on the streets?”
Talu began to surreptitiously sneak Sina back inside her jacket. Maybe Elena would forget about the fairy. “Yes,” she admitted, then began to shake her head as her brain finally woke up. Elena was one of the good guys. If she knew Talu was on the street, she’d want to help and help would inevitably mean being sent back to her aunt. “No, I’m not—”
“Too late, Curls.” Elena plucked Sina right out of her hand without ever breaking eye contact with Talu. “Follow me if you want her back.”
It was no real choice.
Walking out onto the sidewalk beside the guild hunter, she found herself dazzled by the long sweep of Elena’s wings. They were so many colors. Black as night at the top, then indigo and so many other shades including that color Talu had heard a teacher describe as dawn. One of Elena’s feathers was as prized as the sparkling feather Talu had put back into her secret pocket.
Other people on the street whispered and moved out of their way but mostly, Elena got quick nods and deep smiles. She was a New Yorker and they were proud of her. Talu was proud of her, too. “Is it nice?” she dared to ask. “Living in the Tower?”
Elena smiled. “I actually live in the Enclave across the river, but the Tower is very nice. A lot of my friends live there.”
Talu couldn’t imagine what it might be like to live in that stunning tower of light. All she knew of it came from the outside, from the ground looking up.
Stopping by a hotdog cart, Elena handed over some money to the beaming owner and said, “Two, with extra everything.” She gave both to Talu. “Eat.”
Talu ate, but she never took her eyes off the fairy in Elena’s hand.
“So you don’t want to go back to wherever it is social services would put you?”
Talu nodded, since Elena had already caught her. “My aunt was going to let her skeezy vampire boyfriends feed from me.” She’d known it’d never be a one-time thing. “I want to go to school.”
Shooting her a hard glance that made Talu freeze, Elena said, “What’s your aunt’s name?” It was a soft question.
Talu numbly shook her head. Her aunt was still her mom’s sister even if she was a junkie who would’ve sold out her niece.
Shaking her own head at Talu’s silence, but not getting angry at her, Elena stopped by a cab. “I’m going to pay this cabbie to take you somewhere. Make sure you don’t get out partway.”
Talu was still gulping down the second hotdog, managed to stuff the rest into her mouth then catch the bottle of water Elena threw to her, having had it strapped to her other thigh. “Until then, Sina stays with me.”
Talu’s stomach was full for the first time in days as she got into the cab.
She stared out the window as Elena strode off down the street rather than taking off into the sky as Talu had expected. But the hunter was waiting in front of the Tower when the cab pulled up.
Talu’s heart thundered. She’d never been so close to the place from which Raphael ruled the city, had never dared. Angels flew in and out from the upper floors and balconies, their wings dark silhouettes against the night sky. She’d never seen so many at one time. But even they couldn’t hold her attention. She looked at Elena’s hand, felt the knots inside her chest finally vanish when she saw Sina safe and sound.
“Here.” Expression softening, Elena put the fairy in Talu’s hands. “They’re sparks of laughter you know. That’s what Aodhan calls them.”
Talu shook her head; she knew she shouldn’t be arguing with the guild hunter angel but she was unable to stop herself. “She’s a dream.”
A smile from Elena. “Yes, I think so, too.” She walked Talu inside the Tower and through an intimidatingly huge and expensive looking lobby. The entire area was watched over by vampires so dangerous that the hairs rose on her arms. No, the street vamps definitely had nothing in common with these lethal eyed men and women.
She didn’t really breathe until she was in the elevator. Looking at Elena, she whispered, “How can you hunt vampires? They’re so scary.”
Elena snorted. “These guys are scary, but the ones that cut and run before their hundred years are over? Mostly, they’re just idiots.”
Talu laughed at the echo of her own thoughts about street vamps, slapping a hand over her mouth too late to stifle the sound. But Elena was grinning anyway and then the elevator doors opened.
Elena led Talu down a corridor painted in a pale gray and carpeted in a luxurious dark gray. It could’ve felt so cold, but there were vases full of wildflowers at several points that made the whole area look cheerful and welcoming.
Reaching half-way down the corridor, Elena poked her head into a room. “I’ve brought you a stray for your project, Honor. Her name’s Talu and she has a hell of a kick.”
She nudged at Talu to go inside.
Talu resisted despite the pounding of her heart, the dryness in her throat. “What project?”
“Nothing nefarious, Curls, though I do salute your sense of distrust.” Eyes holding Talu’s, Elena touched her hand to Talu’s shoulder. “Honor’s set up a program with two other hunter friends of ours to help kids get off the streets—and it doesn’t involve forcing you back into the situation you ran to the streets to avoid.”
Elena’s expression hardened again, but this time, Talu knew the guild hunter’s anger wasn’t directed at her. “All you have to do is go to school and not do drugs or alcohol, and they’ll find you a safe place to stay, make sure you have what you need.”
Talu’s eyes stung. Blinking rapidly, she stared at Elena. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” said a clear voice from the room. It was followed by a woman with deep green eyes, black hair and a gentle expression that didn’t hide the way she moved—like a hunter. “Come in so we can talk about it.” She turned to include Elena in her smile. “Can you stay, Ellie?”
“No, I’ve got a hunt to complete, but Talu has Sina for company.” The hunter began to walk backward down the corridor. “Curls—I’ll give you some self-defense lessons once you’ve settled in. Agreed?”
Talu didn’t want Elena to go, grabbed at the possibility of further contact. “Agreed,” she said and watched Elena until the hunter disappeared into another room.
“She’ll take off from a balcony there,” Honor said. “Want to see?”
Nodding eagerly, Talu followed Honor to her own balcony, which had a railing. She was just in time to see Elena sweep off the railingless balcony next door in a glory of color made even more brilliant by the lights of the Tower; the guild hunter rode the air currents for a long distance before she began to use her wings to maneuver around the skyscrapers lower down.
“I really don’t have to go back onto the streets?” she whispered to Honor once she could no longer see Elena in the sky.
The dark haired woman nodded, her smile so warm that Talu couldn’t help but smile back. “Let’s go figure out where you go from here.”
“Okay.” Despite her words, Talu deliberately lagged behind. Just long enough to bring Sina out from the pocket where she’d tucked her and whisper, “Thanks.”
The fairy on her hand didn’t answer, just continued to smile that mischievous smile, but something made Talu glance back over her shoulder… to catch sight of a falling star streaking across the night sky.
Talu was a child of Manhattan, a city girl through and through. She’d grown up watching angels sweep across the sky on wings of ivory and starlight and striking blue and deepest black. Sometimes, they went so high they were far beyond the tops of the tallest skyscrapers. Other times, they swerved through the skyscrapers as if they were playing a game with each other that made them laugh and sometimes drop so fast toward the earth that she’d gasp, thinking they were about to crash.
They never did. Not until the Falling, when so many of them had fallen from the sky. Talu had been scared and afraid for them, had wanted to do something to help, anything. But she’d only been a kid, one who’d seen her mom die from cancer. Back then, she’d just been trying to survive herself, but she’d still cried heartbroken sobs for the angels.
Then had come the battle, more angels broken and bloodied.
After Elena rescued her from the streets and introduced her to Honor, Talu had asked Honor if any of them were still hurt, if she could help somehow. Honor could’ve told her she was a fourteen-year-old with no experience at being a nurse except for when she’d looked after her mum, but the hunter had put her to work as a runner for the wounded angels who were so badly injured, it would take them months to recover. She’d fetched books from the Tower library, food and drink, whatever they wanted.
It had hurt her to see them so shattered, their wings sheered off, their flesh torn and their bones jagged shards that stuck out from their skin, but Talu hadn’t glanced away if an angel looked at her. She’d smiled and asked if they needed anything. Mostly, they’d been in too much pain to ask for anything, but they’d almost always smiled back. People smiled if you smiled at them. Beautiful angels included.
She’d even made a friend. Izzy had been one of the worst hurt. She’d visited him all the time after the healers said it was okay. He was older than her just like all the angels were older, but he wasn’t really old. Elena called him a “baby angel”. He always blushed when she did that, but it made Talu understand that even though Izzy had lived more than a hundred years, he was sort of like her—a teenager.
Talu thought he might around nineteen in human years.
She was fifteen and a half now. She’d been one of Honor’s kids for almost exactly eighteen months and her life was so different from before that she could hardly believe it. Then, she’d been hungry and dirty and fighting just to stay alive. Now she was an honors student and she had her own small room at the Tower itself because her foster mom was a vampire who was stationed there. Like all Tower vampires, Talu’s foster mom was scary tough, but she treated Talu like a daughter. Sometimes, they went out on shopping or dinner “dates” that were fun even if they did make Talu miss her mom until her heart ached.
But she knew her mom was smiling down at her. She’d be laughing at how her little Talu had ended up with an angel for a friend. Izzy was sitting with her on a railingless Tower balcony right now, eating candy corn from a bowl she’d placed between them. She wasn’t afraid to have her feet dangling so high in the air that the yellow cabs on the street below looked like ants—she knew Izzy would catch her if she fell. It’d be really embarrassing but she wouldn’t die. Last week, Illium had caught Jakob when the other teenager unbalanced while trying to impress a girl. He was grounded because of that or he’d be sitting here with them.
“How come you like candy corn?” she asked Izzy, as the wind tried to tug her halo of curls out from the braid in which she’d contained it.
Izzy looked at her with blue eyes so clear, they were like sunlight on water. “Why not?”
“You’re an angel?”
“So?” He took a big handful. “Everyone likes sugar. Mmm, sugar.” Stuffing another handful into his mouth, he spoke around it, his words garbled. “Must have more.”
Talu laughed and threw a piece of candy corn at his head. His blond hair was curly too, but nowhere near as wild as hers. Her best friend, Nisha, teased Talu about her having a crush on Izzy, but she really didn’t. He was her friend, and a lot of the time, he treated her like a big brother. He’d even warned her not to let Jakob get her in trouble. She’d had to roll her eyes at that because Jakob wasn’t bad; he just got silly sometimes because he wasn’t used to being one of Honor’s kids yet.
He’d only been in Honor’s foster program six weeks and he thought if he got into trouble or did something wrong, they’d throw him back on the streets—so he was trying to make it happen fast. Because hope hurt when it was stomped on. He didn’t yet understand that once Honor took a kid as her own, she didn’t let go.
They were safe here.
Those pretty eyes looked at her with a smile inside them. Her own eyes were brown, just like her skin. She liked her eyes. They reminded her of her mom; she’d always called Talu her “mini-me.” The memories made her smile, especially the ones of how her mom had so often thrown up her hands in despair at getting either of their hair to behave.
That was when her mom would break out the fruity-smelling curl stuff and they’d go out with their hair a “beautifully wild halo” around their heads. Her mom’s words.
“What is it, Talu?” Izzy asked when she didn’t say anything.
She bit her lower lip. “Will you come with me to visit my mom?” The city had buried the person Talu most loved in a shadowy corner where there was no sunlight, but Talu took her flowers and balloons, made sure her grave was neat.
Her mom had hated mess.
Izak closed his hand over hers. “Want to fly there?”
Swallowing the knot in her throat, she made a face at him. “You can’t fly me. I’m too big.” She wasn’t fat, but she wasn’t skinny either. On the streets, she’d been hungry a lot. Then Elena had found her and brought her to Honor and everything changed. Jakob did naughty things because he was scared; Talu had eaten too much, afraid it would all disappear.
After a year and a half, she knew it wouldn’t, but the extra food was still sticking to her.
“Are you calling me weak?” With that insulted statement, Izzy dropped off the edge of the balcony, his wings arrowed in to make him sleeker in the air.
“Izzy!” she called after him, but he’d dropped so fast he’d disappeared out of view. Face falling, she ignored the candy corn. “I’m sorry!” But the wind whipped away her words.
Sitting with her elbows on her thighs, her chin braced in her hands, she tried not to cry. She’d wanted to introduce Izzy to her mom. She knew her mom wasn’t in that grave, so cold and dark, but it felt good to go there, to speak to her.
“Eeee!” The sound was ripped out of her as someone came up behind her and scooped her up in their arms before dropping off the balcony. “Izzy!” She wrapped her own arms tightly around his neck.
He laughed, his blonde curls windblown. Then he turned and swept around a skyscraper with sleek precision. Heart thumping, Talu realized he was in no danger of dropping her. She pushed at his shoulder. “You’re strong, you faker.” He’d been making her fetch things for him after convincing her he was still healing.
His grin lit up his eyes. “Hold on.”
Talu screamed but it wasn’t in fear. Her eyes watered from the wind, her plaid shirt pulling up at the back. “This is so fun!”
Izzy turned again.
Ducking her head against his neck, Talu blinked away the wind-driven tears. When she looked back over Izzy’s shoulder, it was to find wide-eyed people waving at her from inside an office building. She waved back, sure her smile was big and funny and excited.
When Izzy said, “Which way?” she understood what he wanted to know.
She told him.
They landed at the cemetery ten minutes later. Her mother wasn’t buried in the city itself. There wasn’t enough land and they’d been poor. This place only put a small square in the ground to show where people were buried, but Talu didn’t need the marker now. She knew exactly where to find her mom.
“Mom, you’ll never believe it!” she said, coming down on her knees beside the plot and beginning to pick out the small weeds that had sprouted in the two weeks since she’d last visited. “I flew with Izzy!”
Izzy started to help her clean up the weeds, also gathering up the remnants of the balloons she’d brought last time. “She screamed like a girl,” he told her mom.
Threatening to throw some weeds at him, Talu laughed. “I did,” she admitted. “It was so exciting!” She took out the tiny bronze fairy she always carried with her and placed her near her mom’s name—every time she saw that fairy’s smile, she felt a warm feeling deep inside her.
She spoke all about her adventure in flight, remembering midstory to introduce Izzy. “This is my friend, Izak, but he said I can call him Izzy. He’s not my boyfriend,” she whispered when Izzy went to throw away the things they’d cleared from around the grave. “I’m studying hard. I don’t have time for boys. I’m going to be a doctor I think. I’ll make you proud, Mom.”
Her eyes got all hot and wet.
Returning, Izzy knelt beside her, his wing sweeping along her back and his arm around her shoulders. He tugged her close to his side, held her while she sniffed and missed her mom. “It doesn’t hurt so bad now,” she said to him. “I know she’s happy because I’m happy. I have friends and a safe place to sleep.”
“You don’t just have a safe place to sleep, Talu. You have a home.”
She smiled. “Yes. I have a home.” Pulling back, she wiped off her tears using the back of her shirt sleeve, then dug into her pants pocket. “You want to help me blow up some new balloons?”
They sat in the sun for a long time, sometimes blowing balloons, other times just talking. A few other people came to the cemetery during that time, but though they looked startled at seeing Izzy’s wings spread out on the green of the grass, they didn’t interrupt. Except for a little boy who just wanted a balloon and to pet Izzy’s wing.
It was a good day.
One Night In The Refuge
I hope you enjoy this little glimpse into the past, when two of our favorite dangerous angels were just beginning to grow into their wings.
Illium crept down the hallway, freezing in place when he heard movement. But no, his parents were still asleep.
He continued his creeping, trying really hard to keep his wings from making noises by dragging on the floor—only it was so tough! His wings were bigger than his body right now. His father told him he’d grow into them but at the moment, he could only fly a little far before becoming tired.
And they were heavy when he walked, but his mother said if he didn’t learn to hold them up, they’d go all droopy and fall off. Illium wasn’t sure she wasn’t fibbing, but he knew for sure that all the strongest warrior angels held their wings off the ground—you had to be strong to be a warrior, so Illium would be strong.
Sometimes, the older kids teased him by saying he couldn’t be a warrior because his wings were blue, but he figured he could always color his wings like some angels colored their hair. His hair already had colors.
Eee, he was at the door! Not the back door though, the one that dropped off into the gorge. His mom really would scalp his feathers if he went out that door. The wind currents in the gorge were really powerful—after Illium kept wanting to sneak out, his dad had taken him out into the gorge, let him fly there, made him see for himself.
It had been hard, so hard. The wind had almost crumpled his wings and thrown him to the stone walls of the gorge. But his dad had made sure he was okay. And Illium knew never ever to go out the back door—not until he was bigger.
But he could go out the front. Okay, maybe he wasn’t meant to go out at night, but this was a special ’casion.
Reaching up to the doorknob, he stretched and stretched. Ugh. It was too far. His mom had made his dad move the handle after Illium kept getting out when he wasn’t supposed to.
Looking around, he saw a chair. But it was too big and heavy and it’d make a lot of noise if he tried to drag it over. His mom woke at just little noises—she said she’d turned into a bat after he started walking—so he had to be very careful.
His wings whispered over the floor as he turned and looked to see if he could—Stupid! Sometimes, he was a stooooopid.
Moving further back into the kitchen, he clambered up onto the chair, then from there onto the table. That should be high enough. Jumping off, he got enough air under his wings to kind of sweep over and grab the door handle. He made a noise, but that was all right, because he was opening the door and dropping to the ground and running out.
Laughing gleefully as his mother’s voice drifted into the night air, he clenched his jaw and beat his wings real hard until he managed to get aloft. He couldn’t wait to be big like Raphael, when he could just take off like it was nothing. Right now, it took forever. But he was fast enough to be up and on the roof of the house before his mom came out. He hid behind the chimney as she flew into the air and went looking for him.
His dad went out the back door, to check the gorge. That made Illium mad. He’d made a promise hadn’t he?
Only when the coast was clear did he pick up the little bag he’d hidden by the chimney when he was playing before dark. Flying off the roof with the bag held to his chest, he winged his way over to Aodhan’s house. He was still wobbly, but he wasn’t as slow as he’d been before.
Reaching Aodhan’s house, he couldn’t see his friend at first, but then Aodhan waved at him from the other side of the roof and flew over to join him. He had a little bag, too.
Not talking because it would be too noisy if they shouted at each other—and they weren’t good enough at flying to go real close without getting their wings tangled—they flew in silence. The grown-ups didn’t all sleep at night so they stayed low, where there was less chance they’d be spotted.
Aodhan was usually too sparkly to hide even at night, but he’d covered himself with the charcoal they’d found in a fireplace, so he only sparkled a tiny bit.
Then they were there, at last.
Landing, they walked to the edge of the gorge, sat down with their legs hanging over the side and their tired wings draped behind them, and opened their bags to pull out their supplies.
“What did you get?” Illium asked his friend.
Sneezing, Aodhan rubbed his nose. “Charcoal makes me sneeze.” His fingers left smudge marks on his bag when he opened it. “I have cookies and I found a bottle of milk.” A big smile. “It didn’t spill!”
Illium grinned and took a sooty cookie. “I made sammiches.” He’d put cheese and tomatoes in them just like Aodhan liked. “And I got grapes.”
They laid out their booty on top of the bags, both bags between them. While Illium ate a cookie, Aodhan ate the sandwich, and they kicked out their feet.
“Look,” Aodhan whispered.
Illium’s eyes widened. “Here they come.”
He knew some grown-ups raced at night. That’s why they’d come to watch, but he’d never thought it would be this fast. They were like the lightning bolts in the sky during a storm, so fast he could barely keep track of them. “Who’s winning?”
They watched, saw Uram take the lead, laugh wildly as Raphael overtook him. Two other angels were behind them, suddenly powered forward. Illium was trying to figure out who the angels were since it was dark and hard to see when he felt a grip on the back of his shirt. A hand gripped Aodhan’s shirt at the same time.
“What do you two have to say for yourself?” his mother asked as they looked over their shoulders at her. Illium’s heart thumped from the surprise and he knew Aodhan’s was probably doing the same thing.
Then his best friend held out a cookie and Illium said, “Wanna watch the race?”
“What race?” Frowning, his mother looked over their heads. “Is that Raphael? Good grief, what are those four doing?”
“Racing!” Illium patted the stone. “Please, Mom. Can we watch?”
His mother looked first at him, then at Aodhan, her pretty eyes bright. “Make a spot in between.”
Grinning, they moved the food to either side and shifted to make enough space for her. She sat down with one arm around him and the other around Aodhan. She tucked them both close, her beautiful wings strong and warm behind them… just as the racers passed right underneath. The wind from their passage blew Illium’s hair back from his face, had his heart beating in fast thumps all over again.
Raphael grinned at seeing them and waved. Then he was zooming around to overtake the two angels who’d gotten into the lead after catching a good draft. Uram flew on his heels, as if just waiting for a chance to slip past.
Illium watched until all four were out of sight but he couldn’t tell who won. “Did you see?” he asked Aodhan.
His friend shook his head, his eyes sparkling in his charcoaly face. “They were going too fast.”
“They’re still racing,” Illium’s mom told them. “I think this is a long race.”
Disappointed at not getting to see the end, Illium picked up a sandwich and bit into it, then lifted it to his mom. She smiled and took a bite. When Aodhan offered her milk, she drank some and kicked her feet just like him and Aodhan. And it was okay that they didn’t see the end of the race. This was fun, too. Sitting here with his best friend and his mom.
Then his dad flew up along the gorge and stopped in front of them. “What, I’m not invited to the picnic?”
And it was even better.
It was the best picnic ever.
A Walk on the Cliffs
This vignette stands alone, so you can read even if you’ve never read the Guild Hunter series.
For series readers, A Walk on the Cliffs fits into chapter 6 of Archangel’s Shadows. It shows a hidden moment between two characters who help run the household of the Archangel Raphael: Sivya, the angelic chef who runs the kitchen, and Montgomery, the vampire who is Raphael’s butler and who ensures the rest of the staff work together as a seamless unit.
I hope you enjoy!
Sivya was filling the last of the éclairs with cream when Montgomery walked back into the otherwise empty kitchen. Her heart skipped a beat even though she told herself she was far too old for such foolishness. At a thousand years of age, she was no green girl to lose herself over a man. She was a chef of exquisite skill who had the running of an archangel’s kitchen… and she still had to fight the butterflies in her stomach when a certain butler walked into the room.
“The sire and the Guild Hunter will not be needing their dinner till later,” Montgomery said now, his black hair neatly combed and his suit—the same shade—as pristine as when he’d started the day. The white shirt he wore underneath was also as crisp, his black tie precisely in place.
Sivya looked down at the flour-dusted and chocolate drizzled shirt sleeves she’d pushed back to her elbows, thought of the fact her pale blonde hair was falling out of the haphazard bun into which she’d knotted it, and flushed.
Then she remembered how a junior member of her staff had accidentally sprayed cocoa powder across most of the room. They’d all laughed and the sheepish young vampire had cleaned up the mess but for the cocoa dust that had gotten on the light, light gold of Sivya’s wings—she’d intended to wipe it off after she finished with the éclairs, now realized she must look like a child who’d been rolling around in the dirt.
Her blush intensified, wings rustling as she tightened them.
Dark eyes lingered on her face, Montgomery no doubt wondering why she was turning red though she was far from the oven. “You made extra of the sweets.”
“Oh, it’s just as easy to make a big batch as a small one,” she said, looking down at the chocolate glazed tops of the éclairs because it was difficult to hold his gaze when she couldn’t know what hers might reveal. “And they’ll go in a heartbeat once I fly them over to the Tower.” There were a number of young angels stationed there and they not only had stomachs that didn’t end, they were far from home and could do with a little spoiling now and then.
A certain more senior angel also had a weakness for her éclairs. She always boxed up three or four for Aodhan, made sure they got to his quarters.
“You’re planning to fly to the Tower?” Montgomery asked in that English-accented voice that always made her breath catch.
“Yes, now that these are done.” Glad that he didn’t seem to have noticed anything odd in her behavior, she added the final drop of cream, then began to wash out her tools. She wasn’t one of those chefs who was pedantic about making sure everything was put away as soon as it was used, but she liked to straighten up after finishing a task. “It won’t take me long, and most of the dinner preparation is done.” The sire and his hunter mate were never difficult to please.
When Raphael had first taken a mate, Sivya had worried that the new mistress of the house would want to make changes in the staff, but the Guild Hunter was a warrior akin to her archangel. She appreciated the experience and skill of the men and women who worked in this home, and left them to see to their duties without interference—though she never forgot to thank them. And as the Guild Hunter was honest to the core, her compliments meant a great deal to the staff.
“Perhaps Mayim can fly them across after she returns from her break.”
Surprised at the suggestion that her assistant take the éclairs to Manhattan—Montgomery knew she enjoyed stretching her wings with such small tasks—Sivya glanced up. And found herself looking directly into the rich brown of Montgomery’s eyes. “W-was…” She cleared her throat. “Was there something else you needed me to do?”
His expression didn’t change as he said, “I would ask for your company for a walk in the evening air.”
Sivya’s brain stopped functioning for a minute. Lifting a hand to her unraveling hair, she went to say something about freshening up when Montgomery took a single step forward. “You look lovely.”
Flustered into a smile at the unhidden admiration in his tone, she reached back to undo her apron, then pulled it off. Her hands shook as she placed it on the counter. “I’m sure Mayim won’t mind delivering these.” Covering the éclairs with a fine mesh cloth, she faced the vampire who made her feel as much a hopeful fledgling as the young angels at the Tower.
He held out an arm bent at the elbow.
Heart thundering, she slipped her arm through his, conscious of the muscled strength beneath the fabric of his suit. Montgomery might choose to serve his liege as a butler, but she knew full well he was more than capable with a blade; she’d seen him practicing many times in the quiet hour before true dawn.
And yes, she always watched for far longer than she should.
Blood rushing through her ears, she walked with him through the folding glass doors she kept open when she was in the kitchen. Her wings brushed his back since they were walking so closely together. “Oh, I’m so sorry. The cocoa dust will get over your suit.”
“It will brush off.” He placed his free hand over hers to keep her close when she would’ve put distance between them, the warmth of his skin surging into her.
She flushed again, but at least they were outside now, the soft night darkness a forgiving cloak. “I’ve been thinking of a new menu for the next time the Guild Hunter invites the Seven for dinner, or at least those of the Seven within reach at present.” Food was the one thing she knew and the one thing about which she could always talk—even when her nerves were twisted into a hundred small knots.
“What have you decided?” Montgomery’s voice was deep and resonant, a calm confidence to him that was innate.
Sivya told him, knew she was talking too much. She couldn’t stop. Montgomery was younger than her but he was the most centered and together person she knew. Nothing shook him. Even when the sire’s mother had flown unexpectedly into the city, he’d kept his head, ensured Lady Caliane was treated with all the courtesy due to her as an Ancient and as Raphael’s mother.
He was the reason the sire’s home ran like clockwork.
Sivya knew her value, knew her skill as a chef was of the highest caliber. She also knew she ran an efficient and joyous kitchen. But she couldn’t do what he did, which was to make certain all the pieces of the household ran together to create a seamless unit. Sometimes, as she watched him take care of multiple urgent issues without once losing his cool, she wondered if he’d been born with that calm, steadying center on which the entire staff relied.
“It’s a wonderful menu,” he said when she finally stopped for breath.
Sivya bit down on her lower lip to still another deluge of words as they turned to face the glittering lights of Manhattan in the distance, the Hudson River a rippling dark mirror in between.
She had been with Raphael since the day he set up his first true home here and the energy and beauty of his city still sometimes caught her by surprise. Montgomery had joined the household later, ten years after he became a vampire.
At the time, he’d technically been working off the century of service required of all mortals who became vampires. However, from the first, the sire had given him the respect due a man of his skill, and in return, Montgomery had given Raphael his absolute loyalty.
Sivya was deeply happy he’d chosen to remain in Raphael’s employ even after his mandated term of service was over. She had always enjoyed working with him but over the past year… well, she’d begun to realize that Montgomery wasn’t only a distinguished butler, but a handsome man who made her feel things she’d never before felt.
“You’re quiet,” he said, his thumb stroking gently over the back of her hand. “Is something the matter?”
Tiny prickles of sensation spread from his touch, across her skin, through her nerves, into her veins. “I don’t want to talk your ear off.” Montgomery never said anything that didn’t need to be said. Not like Sivya. She could chatter all day long about a hundred small things.
“It gives me great pleasure to hear the things you say. You’re filled with so much joy it spills over to everyone in your vicinity.”
Her thundering heart, it just melted at the sincerity of his response. Daring to turn, she looked at the clean line of his profile. She lived in the home of an archangel but it was Montgomery who drew her eye and tonight, she could look at him without fear that he’d catch her staring.
Then he turned to her and her breath, it froze in her chest all over again.
Holding her gaze, he moved his arm so that her hand slipped out. He caught it as it fell, lifted it to his mouth and pressed his lips to the back of it, his eyes never breaking contact with her own. The caress made her shiver. “Will you walk with me tomorrow, too, Sivya?”
Chest rising and falling in a jagged rhythm, she nodded. “Yes,” she whispered aloud, to make certain there would be no misunderstanding. “Yes, Montgomery. I’ll walk with you again tomorrow.”
His lips tilted up, his eyes warming from within, and all at once, he was as young as she felt tonight.
Her own smile bursting out of her, she said, “Will you eat a bite of my éclairs?” Vampires couldn’t process much solid food, but a bite wasn’t out of the question.
“I always do,” he said to her surprise. “Why do you think your count is always off by one?”
Startled into laughter, she leaned into him as they walked back to the kitchen arm in arm.
An Unexpected Guest
Author’s note: If you haven’t read the Guild Hunter series, this story is full of spoilers – but it does stand on its own, so if you don’t mind spoilers, happy reading. For Guild Hunter series readers, this is an incident that was mentioned in Archangel’s Heart but never described.
Elena ran her hand through Raphael’s hair, then across the muscled breadth of his shoulders. “Now, what did I tell you?”
Her consort did that thing he was starting to do—he smiled. Except this smile was more than a little wicked. “Do not be scary,” he said, managing to mimic the stern tone in which she’d given the order.
Scowling at the violently powerful archangel who was her eternity, Elena pointed a finger at his magnificent chest. “No joking. You will do your best to be non-scary.” As far as most mortals were concerned, he couldn’t ever be totally non-scary.
He was an archangel, power fused into his very cells. He had the ability to topple skyscrapers, destroy entire cities, crumple empires. He would never be anything but Raphael, the Archangel of New York. But, extraordinary as it was, he was also Elena’s.
“Elena-mine.” Raphael stroked his thumbs over her cheekbones. “I promise not to smite your friends to dust.”
“Raphael!” She slapped his chest when he burst out laughing. “This new sense of humor of yours needs serious work.” But her lips tugged up because this man was real in a way the archangel she’d first met had never been. Remote and cold and cruel, he’d lived high in his Tower above New York, distant and dangerous.
He remained as dangerous, but he now had a vein of mortality in him formed of his love for Elena. That mortality scared her at times because it made him vulnerable…but it also made him her Raphael.
“Come, hbeebti.” He stepped to the very edge of the railing-less Tower balcony on which they stood, Manhattan a tiny toy city far below. “Let us go to this party.”
Snapping out her wings, Elena swept out into the night, her beloved city sparkling around her. Raphael flew wingtip to wingtip with her, though he could outpace her a hundred times over.
She turned and smiled at him. “Hey, Angel Boy.”
A raised eyebrow. “Are you talking to me, Consort?”
She laughed at his icily archangelic tone. “I love you.” He was attempting the impossible for her, trying to give her what she needed because her heart would always be mortal.
The flight to Guild HQ was a short one. They arrived to find it brightly lit up in honor of the Guild’s anniversary. Other institutions might’ve held some kind of fancy black-tie do, inviting movers and shakers.
Thankfully, all the people at the top of the Guild were former hunters. They knew the thing to do was to throw one hell of a party with a dress code that was hunter-casual. That party was the social highlight of the hunter calendar. Plus ones or twos were welcome as long as they knew the single rule of the night: fun was the priority.
Elena flew directly to the outdoor training area—it was the best place to land and it happened to be party central. The wide back doors to the Guild had been thrown open, the inside party area flowing out into the outdoor section. That section had been decorated with flaming braziers and colorful fairy lights. And pink plastic flamingos smoking cigars.
Elena saw Ransom’s hand in that particular touch, probably with Demarco’s help. Elena’s contribution was a cocktail bar staffed by two experts at the craft. While the Guild always had a full open bar at the anniversary party, elaborate cocktails were out of the hunter skill range. Weirdly—to her—Elena was filthy rich as a result of the hunt that had first brought her and Raphael together. It felt good to do something fun for her friends.
She landed first, closing her wings quickly so as not to hit anyone. Not that her fellow hunters would mind. If they were already drunk, they’d probably try to snag a feather instead.
“Ellie!” Demarco lifted her up in a bear hug. “I thought you were bringing a date?” It was a laughing comment, no one having taken her seriously when she’d RSVP’d a plus one on the electronic invite.
Elena grinned, returned the hug, then looked up.
Raphael came down in a glory of wings that glittered in the light thrown by the braziers.
“Fuck me.” Demarco’s mouth fell open.
It wasn’t the only one.
Every hunter in the vicinity, even the ones already wearing giant pink flamingo hats and drinking hard cocktails, froze in place. Elena felt her stomach dip. It had been funny for a second… but these were her friends. And Raphael was her heart. She wanted the two to meet even though she knew that was close to impossible.
“Ellie!” Ashwini’s voice, the other hunter waving her over to the high table she was sharing with her husband—who happened to be a vampire.
Her voice seemed to break the frozen silence. Someone gave a loud “Whoop!” followed by, “This is now officially the best party in New York! Suck on that fancy-pants tuxedo types!”
Feet thundered, more cries went up, and the atmosphere turned guild hunter normal. Elena’s heart eased. She knew the comfort wouldn’t last—Raphael’s sheer power would become overwhelming to even strong hunters very soon, but for now, both her worlds were in harmony and it was a brilliant New York night.
Joining her friends, Raphael beside her, Elena went to accept the cocktail Ashwini handed her. Of course the other woman had known she was about to land. Ashwini was spooky like that.
“Forget that girly umbrella drink.” Ransom thrust a glass into her hand. “This is a real cocktail.”
She took a drink… and almost passed out. “What is this?” she asked after she’d stopped coughing. “A Long Island Iced Tea on steroids?”
Ransom grinned and tapped his glass to Elena’s. “It’s my special celebratory drink. I was the only one who bet you’d turn up with Raphael.” He held out a hand to Raphael.
The two men shook before Ransom said, “You want to try my special cocktail, Raphael?”
Lifting the glass to Raphael, Elena said, “Try a sip first to see if you want your tastebuds burned off.” The alcohol was still zinging its way through her system.
Her archangel was clearly in a playful mood—and that was a word she’d never thought she’d use to describe him. He took the glass and threw back the contents like it was water. “A little weak.”
The hunters around them cracked up laughing. And for the twenty minutes that Raphael was able to stay, before his power began to pulse too hard against human senses, the man Elena loved with all her heart and soul interacted with her friends as if there was no gulf of power and strength between them, both sides setting the outside world aside and being in this moment, in this joy.
“That was the best Guild party I ever attended,” she said to Raphael later that night, while they lay skin to skin in their enormous bed, Manhattan a glittering carpet beyond the large floor-to-ceiling windows. “I’m also starting to realize that you must’ve been a wild one when you were a few hundred years old.”
Sadness filled her for a second, a sense of loss for a time she could never experience.
Then Raphael laughed and told her the story of how he and several other young angels had once thrown a party so raucous, they’d been banned from the Refuge for a year, and the sadness faded. The past had shaped them, but the future was theirs to shape… and they’d do it together.
© Copyright 2016 by Nalini Singh
“You have to go now.”
Andromeda looked up from where she was lying perfectly comfortably in a nest of blankets, reading her book. Cuddled up beside her was the large snow leopard that had somehow managed to climb his way up to the aerie and now refused to leave. She’d have been terrified of the dangerous growling creature if she didn’t live with a dangerous growling creature anyway. “What?”
Coming to crouch down beside her, Naasir scowled. “You have to go.”
She closed the book and set it aside before getting up into a kneeling position to face him. “Is there a reason you’re throwing me out of our home?” If she’d learned one thing after falling in love with her wild lover, it was to take him both exactly at his word… and to look underneath.
Naasir was honest to the core, with none of the shields and shadows others kept between themselves and the world. He was also highly intelligent and found great pleasure in playing games. The games he played with her were always affectionate and wickedly amusing, but he had the capacity to be sneaky when he felt like it.
“I have to do something secret,” he told her now.
Then he leaned in close… and snapped his teeth at her.
Andromeda snapped hers back.
Grinning, he tumbled her to the nest of blankets. He made sure to keep the upper half of his strong and muscled body off her so he wouldn’t crush her—but settled himself firmly in the juncture of her thighs.
“We can’t rut now,” he told her sternly. “I have something very important and secret to do.”
Digging her hands into the metallic silver of his hair, she pulled his face down to her own. “You’re not supposed to tell me you plan to do something secret. That just makes me insanely curious.”
A gleam in his eye. “Good.”
Growling in her own throat—really, he was a terrible influence—she went to say something else when the snow leopard decided he’d had quite enough of being ignored and tried to nudge his head in between their bodies.
Instead of being irritated, Naasir scratched the top of the animal’s head. “This is what it will be like when we have cubs,” he said proudly. “They’ll interrupt us and demand attention and be stubborn and we’ll love them.”
Andromeda’s face flushed. He was so certain that they would have cubs that she could do nothing but believe. Naasir was too unique for anyone to predict what might happen; most people thought him a vampire but he wasn’t. He was his own being, unique in all the world… unique enough to be biologically compatible with an angel.
Running her hands through his hair again, she lifted her head to pepper his face with kisses. He growled against her but it was a playful and smugly pleased sound. He never made any effort to hide how very proud he was of having “caught” a mate who adored him.
The snow leopard butted its head against her cheek until she gave in and, exasperated, kissed its face too.
Naasir laughed in pure delight. “He can stay, but you have to go.” Pushing up off her with a fluid grace she’d seen in no other, he reached down and lifted her up onto her feet. Then he picked up her book and put it into her hands. “You like Jessamy. Go play with her—but no secret games. Those are ours.”
Andromeda thought about arguing, but she was far too curious about his plans. “How long?” she demanded with a scowl. “I was enjoying reading in my nest.” He’d made her that nest of blankets, high above the rocks and the snow of the Refuge.
“Until dinnertime.” Putting his hands on her shoulders, he walked her out of their aerie and to the edge of their railingless balcony. The snow leopard padded behind them. When Naasir leaned in to bite and suck at her neck, pretending to sink his fangs into her flesh, the snow leopard pawed jealously at her legs.
Giggling, Andromeda turned to look over her shoulder—and into the eyes of the wild creature who was her own. “I’ll be back at dinnertime and not a minute later. Do your secret thing.”
A flash of brilliant white teeth against skin of darkest brown that held an undertone of true gold, her silver-eyed lover unrepentant and as untamed as the snow leopard that leaned against his legs.
Stepping off the ledge, Andromeda spread her wings, then swept across the snow-draped landscape around them, waving goodbye to both Naasir and the snow leopard before she winged around toward the Refuge proper. Naasir didn’t like being close to too many people, but he also didn’t like being too far from his friends and family, so his aerie was private from the Refuge but within an easy travel distance. It took Andromeda only a few minutes before she was above the pathway that led to the Library.
Jessamy glanced back at her as Andromeda landed a little behind the angelic Historian and Teacher. “Andi,” she said, her lips curving into that deeply warm and luminous smile that was pure Jessamy. “I thought you planned to stay in with Naasir today?”
“He told me I had to leave the house because he wanted to do something secret.”
Jessamy laughed. “Come, we can share a cup of tea while we discuss the surely astonishing possibilities.”
Both of them knew that with Naasir, it would be nothing predictable.
She was all but bursting with excitement by the time she flew home through the colors of sunset. The snowy landscape below her rippled with red and gold, but she was focused on the home high in the trees that was now Naasir’s and her own. He’d extended it by another two rooms after Andromeda moved in.
Naasir had been adamant that they add an extra room for the cubs they were going to have. Andromeda might’ve blushed through that entire conversation, but butterflies flooded her stomach each time she thought about having a wild little boy or girl with the man who was her heart.
She knew already that their children would not be well-behaved little angels. They’d probably accidentally eat the school’s pet rabbit, would take great delight in hanging upside down from the branches of the aerie tree, run naked through the Refuge… and charm her to the very core of her being. Exactly like their father.
Frowning when she saw the surfeit of snowbirds perched near or around the aerie, she came to a neat landing on the balcony. “Is it my imagination or do these birds look really fat and well fed?”
A growling sound came from inside the aerie. It wasn’t the snow leopard—he’d padded out to welcome her, was rubbing his body against her legs. Leaning down, she gave him a couple of strokes—he had a tendency to sulk just like Naasir if she didn’t pay him enough attention.
Her mate walked out right then. “I burned it,” were his opening words, his eyebrows drawn ominously together.
Andromeda’s eyes grew wide. “Burned what?”
“Our romantic dinner.”
Every bone in her body melted. Hand fluttering to her heart, she whispered, “You were trying to cook me a romantic dinner?”
Another rumbling growl from inside his chest.
Putting her book down on the small table out on the balcony, she walked over to press her palms against his chest. He was half naked as he liked to be inside the warmth of the aerie, his tiger stripes darkly visible. “I’m sorry it got burned,” she said softly, “but it makes me very happy to know you were trying to make me a romantic dinner.”
He leaned down and nipped at her lower lip—not sharp, not painful. Just a sign of his frustration. She was about to coax him into a kiss when he grabbed her hand and drew her into their home. She entered to the luxuriant smell of cream and cheese and other delicious, mouthwatering things.
He’d opened out the table they kept folded and out of the way unless in use. It was dressed in a crisp white tablecloth and in the center sat a large pot with a lid over it. Andromeda thought of the burnt dinner, and then she thought of Naasir’s favorite food. “You remembered I don’t like raw meat?” she asked, deciding that if he hadn’t, she’d eat it anyway.
“You’d just waste it,” he grumbled.
Tugging her to the table, he pulled out a chair and nudged her into it. Then he went around the table to stand across from her. Holding her eyes with the extraordinary beauty of his, he lifted up the pot lid.
Andromeda dropped her gaze… and gasped, both her hands flying to her mouth. “I thought you said you burned it.” It came out a whisper.
“I did.” His voice was a rough purr. “So I made it again.”
Andromeda stared. It was a pasta, creamy and rich—and one of her favorite dishes in the coldest times. Naasir would often watch her as she made it, but she hadn’t realized he’d actually been paying attention. Enough attention to make it for her.
Throat thick and eyes hot, she dropped her hands to her lap and watched as he dished out the pasta onto a plate, then took the plate and came around to sit on the chair beside her. Picking up her fork, she scooped up a bite and brought it to her mouth. The textures, rich and creamy, melted on her tongue. “This is really good,” she said on a moan of sensory pleasure.
A wild, dazzling smile from her mate.
Barely avoiding stabbing him with the fork when he put down the plate and leaned in to kiss her, Andromeda wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back just as wet, just as deep. Afterward, breathless, she said, “This is the best romantic dinner.”
Naasir’s chest rumbled against her. Then he was up on his feet and leaving the table to head off deeper into the aerie. Used to her mate’s ways, Andromeda ate a few more bites of the meal he’d made her and waited for him to come back. When he did, it was with two ornate candlesticks in hand. He put them firmly down on the table. “I forgot these.”
Astonished all over again, Andromeda rose to go around the table until they stood toe to toe. Tilting back her head, she said, “Is all this because I said that it was so romantic how—”
Naasir interrupted her with a possessive kiss before she could repeat her words about the dinner another angel had made for his wife.
Digging her nails into his chest and able to feel the fine, fine fur that had appeared there, she pulled back to gasp in a breath. “This is wonderful,” she said when she could speak, “but you don’t have to be like other men with me. I love that you’d give me all your raw meat if I asked and that you bring me fascinating flowers you find in your prowls through the wilderness, and how we race on the ground and in the sky, and how you love me.” Naasir’s idea of courtship wasn’t like anyone else’s, but it was exactly what Andromeda needed and wanted.
Primal silver eyes locked with her own. “I know,” he said, smug and arrogant and wonderful. “But you need this sometimes.” A wave at the table and the candlesticks. “I’m your mate. It’s my job to give it to you. Just like it’s your job to play secret games with me.”
Joy bursting inside her, Andromeda rose on tiptoe to speak against his lips. “Isn’t it your job to rut with me too?”
Three seconds later, he growled playfully as he tumbled with her into her nest of blankets and she thought how very wonderful it was to be loved by Naasir.
© Copyright 2018 by Nalini Singh