Angels' Pawn (Guild Hunter 0.6)

by Nalini Singh

Chapter One

“This is a surprise, cher,” Janvier said in that lazy drawl of his, one hand braced on the doorjamb of his Louisiana apartment. “Far as I know, I don’t have a hit out on me.”

“I’m not an assassin.” Folding her arms, Ashwini leaned into the wall opposite the door—sleep-rumpled and half-dressed, Janvier was deliciously sexy. He was also a two-hundred-and-forty-five-year-old vampire capable of ripping out her throat with minimal effort. “Though it might come in handy with you.”

A slow smile crept over that face that was a little too long, a little too saturnine for true beauty. And yet . . . Janvier was the man every woman in a bar would turn to look at, his appeal as rawly earthy as the unhidden interest in eyes the shade of bayou moss, all sunlight and shadows over green. “You wound me. I thought we were friends, non?”

“Non.” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to let me in?”

He shrugged, the muscles of his chest rippling with a strength most people would never guess at from the way he moved, pure liquid grace and charm. But Ashwini knew exactly how fast and tough he was—she’d hunted him three times in the past two years, and he’d led her on a merry dance all three times.

“Depends,” he said, taking a leisurely survey of her body. “You here to beat up on me again?”

“Eyes up.”

Laughter in that wicked gaze as it met hers. “You’re no fun, sugar.”

Only with Janvier did she end up the practical side of the unit. Everyone else thought she was way over on the east side of crazy. “This was a bad idea.” Turning on her heel, she flicked a hand his way. “See you the next time you piss off an angel.” In the normal run of things, the Guild existed to retrieve those vampires who broke their Contracts—to serve the angels for a hundred years in exchange for immortality—and then there was Janvier . . . “Try not to do it this week. I’m busy.”

His hand closed over the back of her neck, a warm, oddly gentle touch. “Don’t be like that, now. Come in. I’ll make you coffee the way it’s meant to be made.”

She should have pulled away, should have gone as far as humanly possible. But Janvier had a way of getting under her skin. She hesitated a fraction too long, and the heat of him seeped into her, a vivid bright thing that defied the ice of his immortality. “No touching.” It was as much an order to herself as to him.

A squeeze of his fingers. “You’re the one who’s always trying to get her hands on me.”

“And one of these days, you won’t dance fast enough to escape.” Janvier had the habit of annoying angels enough to end up on the Guild’s hunt list. But that wasn’t the worst part—right when Ashwini almost had him, when she could all but smell the collar, he’d somehow make up with whoever it was he’d offended. Last time, she’d nearly shot him on principle.

A brush of laughter, his thumb sweeping along her skin in a languid caress. “You should thank me,” he said. “Because of me, you’re guaranteed a healthy pay packet at least twice a year.”

“I’m guaranteed that pay packet because I’m good,” she said, twisting out of his hold so she could face him. “You ready to talk?”

He swept out an arm. “Step into my lair, Guild Hunter.”

Ashwini wasn’t much for allowing vampires at her back, but she and Janvier had an understanding after three hunts. If it ever came down to it, it would be face-to-face. Some of her hunter brethren might call her a fool for trusting a man she had hunted, but she’d always made up her own mind about people. She had no illusions, knew Janvier could be as lethal as an unsheathed blade, but she also knew he’d been born in a time when a man’s word was all he had. Immortality hadn’t yet stolen that sense of honor from him.

Now she squeezed past him, aware he’d deliberately turned his body to ensure a tight fit. She didn’t mind as much as she should have. That was the problem—because vampires were off-limits. The Guild had no rule forbidding such relationships and a number of her hunter friends had vampire lovers, but Ashwini agreed with fellow hunter Elena on this. The other woman had once said that vampires were almost-immortals, after all—to them, humans were nothing but toys, fleeting pleasures, easily tasted, easily forgotten.

Ashwini wasn’t going to be a snack for any man—vampire, human, or angel. Not that the angels would ever lower themselves enough to consort with a mortal. She’d be very surprised if the effective rulers of the world considered most humans as anything but an afterthought.

“Not what I expected,” she said, walking into the stylish converted loft. Light dominated and had been infused into the décor—the colors of sunset echoed in the bright throws that lay over the earth-toned sofa, the Navajo rugs on the floor, the lonely desert vistas painted on the walls.

“I love the bayou,” Janvier murmured, closing the door behind him and padding over to the kitchen area, “but to appreciate beauty, one must sometimes go to the opposite extreme.”

As he moved about the kitchen with the ease of a man who knew exactly what he was doing, Ashwini allowed herself to admire the male beauty of him. Janvier might be a perennial pain in her ass, but he was built like the sexiest dream she’d ever had—lean and long, his muscles that of a runner or a swimmer, all sleek lines and contained power. At six feet three, he topped her by a good five inches, carrying the height with the confidence of a man completely at ease with himself.

Then again, she thought, he’d had over two hundred years to build that effortless arrogance. “I’m guessing you’re not bothered by sunlight,” she said, checking out the sloping skylight to the right. The bed was right below it—and as the clock ticked over eight in the morning, the sun’s rays stroked possessively over the tumbled sheets.

Her mind immediately supplied her with an exquisitely detailed image of Janvier’s long-limbed body tangled up in those sheets. The rush of blood in her ears almost drowned out his next words.

“Looking for weaknesses, hunter?” Walking over, he handed her a small cup filled with a creamy brew that smelled like no coffee she’d ever had.

“What is this?” She took a suspicious sniff, felt her mouth water. “And of course. Then I could just push you into sunlight and watch you fry.”

His lips quirked up, the upper one a little thin, the lower eminently bitable. “You’d miss me if I was gone.”

“Old age is giving you delusions.”

“That is café au lait made with a blend of coffee and chicory.” Watching as she chanced a sip, he nodded to the bed. “I love sunlight. Vampirism wouldn’t have been the least attractive if I’d had to spend my life in the dark.”

“You’d think with all the vampires walking around in daylight, that old rumor would die, but no, it keeps on chugging,” she said, soaking in the distinctive flavor of the coffee. “I like this stuff.”

“It suits you.”

“Bitter and strange?”

“Exotic and luscious.” He ran a finger down the bared skin of her arm. “Such beautiful skin you have, cher. Like the desert at sunset.”

She stepped out of reach. “Go put on a shirt and get your mind out of bed.”

“Impossible with you around.”

“Pretend I’m holding a rifle. In fact, pretend I have you in the crosshairs.”

Janvier sighed, rubbing at a jaw shadowed by morning stubble. “I love it when you talk dirty.”

“Then this should rock your world,” she said, ordering herself to stop thinking about what that stubble would feel like against her skin. “Blood, kidnapping, feud, hostage.”

Interest sparked in the moss green. “Tell me more.” He waved her toward the bed. “I apologize for the mess—I wasn’t expecting such exquisite company.”

Walking over to put her coffee on the counter, she hitched herself up on one of the bar stools instead. Janvier grinned and chose to sit on the bed, hands braced behind him, jean-clad legs crossed loosely at the ankles. Sunlight danced over his dark brown hair, picking up glints of pure copper that played beautifully against the burnished gold of his skin.

Vampires as old as Janvier were almost uniformly pretty, but she’d yet to meet one with the Cajun’s charisma—or his way of having friends in pretty much every city and town he’d ever traveled to. And that was why she needed him. “There’s a situation in Atlanta.”

“Atlanta?” The barest of pauses. “That’s Beaumont territory.”

Bingo. “How well do you know them?”

He gave her that loose-limbed shrug of his. “Well enough. They’re an old vampire family—not many of those around.”

Seduced by the scent, Ashwini took another sip of Janvier’s potent brand of coffee. “Makes sense. I heard the angels don’t discriminate along familial lines when it comes to choosing Candidates.” Of the many hundreds of thousands who applied to be Made almost- immortal every year, only a tiny fraction ever reached the Candidate stage.

“The Beaumonts buck the curve,” Janvier continued. “They’ve managed to get at least one family member Made in every generation. This time, it was two.”

“Monique and Frédéric. Brother and sister.”

A nod. “That kind of success makes them a powerhouse—with Monique and Frédéric, the Beaumonts now have ten living vampires connected by blood. The oldest is half a millennium old.”

“Antoine Beaumont.”

“Cutthroat bastard,” Janvier said in an almost affectionate tone. “Would probably sell his own children upriver if he thought he could profit from it.”

“A friend?”

“I saved his life once.” Lifting his face to the sun, Janvier soaked in the rays like some sybarite on a European coast far from the humid, earthy embrace of a Louisiana summer. “He sends me a bottle of his best Bordeaux every year—along with a proposal that I should consider marrying his daughter Jean.” Pronounced in the French way, the name sounded sensual and electric.

Her fingers tightened on the hand-painted coffee cup. “Poor woman.”

He turned his face back to her, devilment in his eyes. “On the contrary, Jean is quite keen on the match. Last winter, she invited me to keep her warm in a most beautiful cabin in Aspen.”

Ashwini knew when she was being played. She also knew Janvier was fully capable of spinning a tale to keep her there—purely for his own amusement. “I can bet you Jean isn’t thinking of Aspen right now. In fact, it’s a good bet she’s thinking only of murder.”

“The situation?” And there was that quicksilver intelligence again, the thing that kept drawing her back to him in spite of her every vow to the contrary.

“Monique is what, Jean’s great-granddaughter times nine?”

Janvier took a moment to think about it. “Perhaps ten, but it matters little. Jean dotes on the child. Antoine calls both Monique and Frédéric his grandchildren.”

“The woman’s twenty-six,” she pointed out, “hardly a child. And her brother’s thirty.”

“Everyone under a hundred is a child to me.”

“Funny.”

“I do not talk of you, cherie.” His smile slid away to expose a darker edge, one that had seen centuries pass. “You carry too much knowledge in your eyes. If I did not know you were human, I’d think you, too, had lived as long as I.”

Sometimes, she felt as if she had. But the demons that clawed into her mind night and day had no place in this discussion. Breaking Janvier’s too-perceptive gaze, she said, “Monique’s been kidnapped.”

“Who’d dare rise against the Beaumonts?” Open shock. “Not only are they a power in their own right, but the angel who controls Atlanta holds them in high favor.”

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