Trying to discover the identity of a murder victim brings together the vampire Dmitri and a hunter for the Guild, Honor. And as the gruesome murders continue, a lethal sensuality explodes between them.
Crouching on the concrete pier lit only by the dull yellow glow of a flickering streetlight several feet away, Dmitri tilted the severed head toward him with a grip in the dead male’s damp hair, not bothering with gloves. Elena, he thought, would not have approved of the breach in proper forensic protocol, but the hunter was currently in Japan and wouldn’t return to the city for three more days.
The victim’s head had been separated from his—as yet undiscovered—body with hacking slices, the weapon possibly some kind of a small ax. Not a neat job, but it had gotten things done. The skin, which appeared to have been either pink or white in life, was bloated and soft with water, but the river hadn’t had time to degrade it into slime.
“I was hoping,” he said to the blue-winged angel who stood on the other side of the grisly find, “for a quiet few weeks.” The reappearance of the archangel Caliane, thought dead for a millennium, had rocked both the angels and the vampire population. The mortals, too, felt something, but they had no true knowledge of the staggering change in the power structure of the Cadre of Ten, the archangels who ruled the world.
Because Caliane wasn’t simply old, she was an Ancient.
“Quiet would bore you,” Illium said, playing a thin silver blade in and around his fingers. Having preceded Raphael and Elena home from Japan the previous day, he looked none the worse for wear after having been kidnapped and caught in the middle of a battle between archangels.
Dmitri felt his lips curve. Unfortunately, the angel with his wings of silver-kissed blue and eyes of gold was right. Dmitri hadn’t yet succumbed to the ennui that affected so many of the immortals for the simple reason that he never stayed still. Of course, some would say he was leaning too far in the other direction—in the company of those who lived only for the piercing pleasure of blood and pain, every other sensation having grown dull.
The thought should’ve concerned him. That it didn’t . . . that concerned him. But his inexorable descent into the seductive ruby red darkness had nothing to do with the current situation. “He has nascent fangs.” The small, immature canines appeared almost translucent. “But he’s not one of ours.” Dmitri knew the name and face of every vampire living in and around New York. “Neither does he fit the description of any of the Made who’ve gone missing across the wider territory.”
Illium balanced his blade on a fingertip, the yellow glow from the streetlight reflecting off it in an unexpected spark of color before he began to play it through his fingers once more. “He could’ve belonged to someone else, tried to escape his Contract, run into trouble.”
Since there were always idiots who tried to get out of their side of the deal—a hundred years of service to the angels in exchange for the gift of near-immortality—that was highly possible. Though why a vampire would come to New York when it was home to an archangel, and a powerful Guild of hunters dedicated to retrieving those who decided to run, wasn’t as explicable.
“Family ties,” Illium said, as if he’d read Dmitri’s thoughts. “Vampires that young tend to stay connected to their mortal roots.”
Dmitri thought of the broken burned-out shell of a house he’d visited day after day, night after night, until so many years had passed that there was no longer any sign of the small cottage that once stood there. Only the land, carpeted with wildflowers, remained, and it was Dmitri’s, would always be Dmitri’s. “We’ve been working together too long, Bluebell,” he said, his mind on that windswept plain where he had once danced a laughing woman in his arms while a bright-eyed boy clapped his hands.
“I keep saying that,” Illium responded, “but Raphael refuses to get rid of you.” That silver blade flashed faster and faster. “What do you think of the ink?”
Rising to his feet, Dmitri tilted the head to the other side. The tattoo high on the dead male’s left cheekbone—black marks reminiscent of letters in the Cyrillic alphabet intertwined with three scrolling sentences in what might’ve been Aramaic—was both intricate and unusual . . . and yet something about it nagged at Dmitri.
He’d seen it before, or something similar, but he’d been alive almost a millennium and the memory was less than a shadow. “It should make him easier to identify.” Light glinted off those small fangs. And he realized what he’d overlooked at first glance. “If his fangs aren’t mature, he should’ve still been in isolation.”
The first few months after their Making, vampires were scrabbling creatures, little more than animals, as the toxin that turned mortal to vampire worked its way into their cells. Many chose to navigate the conversion in an induced coma, except for certain necessary periods of wakefulness. Dmitri had spent the months after his violent Making locked in iron chains on a cold stone floor. He remembered little of that time beyond the ice of the stone below his naked body; the rigid grasp of the manacles around his neck, his wrists, his ankles.
But what came after he woke as an almost-immortal . . . that he would never forget, not even if he lived to be ten thousand years old.
Wild blue across his vision, the flickering yellow light turning the glimmering threads of silver in Illium’s feathers to pewter. “The Guild has good databases,” the angel said, closing his wings and slipping away the knife at the same time.
“Yes.” Dmitri had ways to access those databases without Guild cooperation, had done so on many a previous occasion, but it might be a good move to loop the hunters into this case so they knew to alert him to any similar incidents—because the instincts honed by close to a thousand years of bloody survival said he needed to handle this himself, not pass it on to the Guild. “Where’s the bag?”
When Illium produced a black garbage bag, he raised an eyebrow. “I’d have thought Elena would have taught you something by now.”
The angel gave him an unexpectedly solemn look out of those golden eyes tipped with black lashes dipped in blue, an echo of his hair. “Do you think I will fall again, Dmitri?” Memory in his voice, whispers of pain. “Lose my wings?”
Dmitri was unsurprised at the question. Illium wasn’t one of Raphael’s Seven, the angels and vampires who had pledged their lives to the archangel, because he was anything less than piercingly intelligent. Now he met that extraordinary gaze. “You look at her in a way no man should look at a woman who belongs to an archangel.” Illium had a weakness for mortals, and while Elena was now an angel, she had a vulnerable human heart, was mortal in her thinking.
The blue-winged angel said nothing as Dmitri put the head inside the plastic bag. There was no other evidence here for anyone to collect—the head had floated up on the Hudson, been spotted and retrieved by Illium as he flew over the river a mere fraction of a moment before the last rays of the sun were consumed by the night, could’ve come from anywhere.
“She compels me,” the other male admitted at last. “But she is the Sire’s, and I would guard that relationship with my life.” Quiet, passionate, absolute.
Dmitri could have let it go at that, but there was more at stake here than a dangerous attraction. “It’s not betrayal I’m worried about. It’s you.”
Illium’s hair swept across his face in a capricious wind before settling. “In Amanat,” he said, speaking of the lost city newly arisen, “Elena said she needed me to protect her against you.” A faint smile. “It was a tease, but it does her no harm to have someone in her corner.”
Dmitri didn’t dispute Illium’s implied assessment of his own feelings toward the Guild Hunter who was Raphael’s chosen consort. “You’re convinced she saved his life when Lijuan attacked?” Illium’s report seemed implausible, and yet Raphael himself had confirmed some of it when the archangel contacted Dmitri soon after Caliane’s reawakening.
“Only Raphael knows the truth, but I know what I saw,” Illium said, his face strained with remembrance. “He was dying, and then he lived—and the flame in his hands was colored in shades of dawn.”
The same soft colors that lingered on part of Elena’s wings.
Dmitri remained leery. Elena was the weakest of angels, her mortal heart nowhere near strong enough to survive the world of the archangels. “She’s become a permanent chink in his armor.” As Raphael’s second, Dmitri was never going to accept that, though he had vowed to protect her and would carry that vow through to the very end, no matter what the cost.
“Have you never had a woman create such a chink in your armor?” One of Illium’s feathers fell toward the ground but was whipped away and over the water before it could touch the unforgiving concrete. “In all the years I’ve known you, never have you had a lover on whom you placed a true claim.”
“I will watch the roads for you, Dmitri.”
Illium was just over five hundred years old to Dmitri’s near thousand. He didn’t know anything of what had gone on before—Raphael alone knew. “No,” he said and it was a lie he told with centuries of expertise. “Weakness gets a man killed.”
Illium blew out a breath as they reached the flame red Ferrari the angel coveted but couldn’t drive because of his wings, and said, “Do not lose your humanity, Dmitri. It’s what makes you.” He flared out those wings of impossible beauty and rose into the air with a grace and strength that foretold what he might one day become.
Watching the angel fly up into the star-studded skies above a Manhattan stretching awake for the dark beat of night, until he was a sweeping shadow against the glittering black, Dmitri’s lips curved into a grim smile. “I lost my humanity a long time ago, Bluebell.”
Honor was in the subterranean depths of Guild Academy’s main building, peering at an illuminated fourteenth-century text to do with one Amadeus Berg, legendary hunter and explorer, when her cell phone rang. Jumping up at the abrupt burst of sound, she grabbed it from where she’d placed it on the table beside her keys. “Sara?” she said, having recognized the number flashing on the screen as that of the Guild Director’s personal cell phone.
“Honor.” Crisp. No nonsense. Sara. “Where are you?”
“Rare books section of the Academy library.” Dimly lit in deference to the age of the books stored here, and kept at a precise ambient temperature, it had become a refuge, a place few ventured.
“Good. You’re not too far.” The sound of papers rustling. “Tower needs a consult and you’re particularly well qualified. When you—”
Honor didn’t hear the rest of the director’s words because her ears crashed with a thundering rush of blood, her face heating until it felt as if her skin would peel off from the burn, leaving her flesh exposed to the cruel air. “Sara,” she blurted out, fingers clenching on the edge of the desk, the bone showing white against skin that had once been a light brown touched by sunshine and was now dull, pasty, “you know I can’t.” Her terror was greater than any pitiful surviving shred of pride.
“Yes, you can.” Sara’s tone was gentle but firm. “I won’t allow you to bury yourself at the Academy forever.”
Her hand squeezed the phone, her heart racing so fast and jagged it hurt. “And if I want to be buried?” she asked, finding the will to fight in the same bone-crushing fear that had sweat beading along her spine.
“Then I’d have to get tough and remind you that you are still under contract as an active hunter.”
Honor’s knees collapsed, crumpling her into a chair. The Guild was the only home she knew, her fellow hunters her family. “I’m an instructor.” It was a last-ditch attempt to claw her way out of this.
“No, you’re not.” A denunciation no less ruthless for being soft voiced. “You haven’t taught a single class in the months you’ve been there.”
“Honor.” A single, final word.
She fisted her hand on the desk, staring unseeing at the haunting blues and passionate reds of the illuminated manuscript she’d dropped with a shocking lack of care on the polished wood. “Tell me the details.”
Sara blew out a breath. “Part of me wants to wrap you in cotton wool and keep you safe and warm where nothing can hurt you,” she said with a fierceness that betrayed the generous heart beneath that tough exterior, “but the other part of me knows I’d be helping to cripple you and I refuse to do that.”
Honor flinched. Not because the words were harsh, but because they were true. She wasn’t whole, hadn’t been whole for the past ten months. “I don’t know if there’s enough of me left to scrape up, Sara.” Sometimes, she wasn’t sure she wasn’t still in that filthy pit stained with blood, sweat, and . . . other bodily fluids, that her current life wasn’t an illusion created by a fragmented mind.
Then Sara spoke and the very razor of her words was a welcome reinforcement that this was the truth. Because surely if she’d dreamed herself into a fantasy to escape the brutal reality, she wouldn’t have made the Guild Director so unyielding?
“Ransom and Ashwini didn’t risk their lives to pull you out just so you could turn around and give up.” A reminder of the hands that had undone her bonds, the arms that had helped haul her up into the painful light. “Find the pieces and stitch yourself back together.”
Honor’s stomach was a churning mess by now, her free hand clenching and unclenching compulsively. “Is this where I salute and say, yes, sir?” Her words held no bite, because she remembered waking time and time again in the hospital to see Sara sitting beside her, a ferocious, protective force.
“No,” the director replied, “you say you’re heading up to get your ass into a cab. It’s only half past eight so you shouldn’t have any problems flagging one down.”
Chills crawled up her spine; perspiration shimmered on her upper lip. “Is it an angel I’m meeting?” Please say yes, she begged in silent desperation. Please.
“No, your meet is with Dmitri.”
An image of a man with skin of dark honey and a face that was cruel in its beauty. “He’s a vampire.” It came out a near soundless whisper. The vampire as far as this city, hell, this country was concerned.
Sara didn’t say anything for a long time. When she spoke, she asked a single shattering question. “Are you happy, Honor?”
Happy? She didn’t know what happiness was anymore. Maybe she’d never known, though she’d thought she’d learned something of it by watching the biological children in the foster homes she’d been shuttled around after she left the orphanage at five. Now . . . “I exist.”
“Is it enough?”
She uncurled her fingers with effort, saw the half-moons carved into her palms, red and angry. The Guild had paid for a counselor, would continue to pay for one as long as she needed it. Honor had gone to three sessions before realizing she was never going to speak to the lovely, patient woman who was used to dealing with hunters.
Instead, she tried to stay awake, tried not to remember.
Fangs sinking into her breasts, her inner thighs, her neck, aroused bodies rubbing themselves against her as she whimpered and begged.
She’d been strong at first, determined to survive and slice the bastards to ribbons.
But they’d had her for two months.
A lot could be done to a hunter, to a woman, in two months.
“Honor?” Sara’s voice, touched with worry. “Look, I’ll get someone else. I shouldn’t have pushed you so hard so soon.”
A reprieve. But it seemed she had some tiny remnant of pride left after all—because she found her mouth opening, the words coming out without her conscious volition. “I’ll be on my way in ten minutes.”
It was only after she hung up that she realized she’d picked up a pen at some stage . . . and written Dmitri’s name over and over again on the writing pad she’d been using for her notes. Her fingers spasmed, dropping the pen.
It was starting again.
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