Noel had been given a promotion in being assigned to the lush green state of Louisiana, but the position was a double- edged sword. Though the area was part of Raphael’s territory, the archangel had assigned the day–to–day ruling of it to Nimra, an angel who had lived six hundred years. Nowhere close to Raphael in age, but old enough— even if age alone was not the arbiter of power when it came to the immortal race.
Nimra had more strength in her fine bones than angels twice her age and had ruled this region for eighty years; she’d been considered a power when most of her peers were still working in the courts of their seniors. Hardly surprising when it was said that she had a will of iron and a capacity for cruelty untempered by mercy.
He was no fool. He knew this “promotion” was in truth a silent, cutting statement that he was no longer the man he’d once been— and no longer of use. His hand fisted. The torn and bloodied flesh, the broken bones, the glass that had been driven into his wounds by the servants of a crazed angel, it was all gone courtesy of his vampirism. The only things that remained were the nightmares… and the damage within.
Noel didn’t see the same man he always had when he looked in the mirror. He saw a victim, someone who had been beaten to a pulp and left to die. They’d taken his eyes, shattered his legs, crushed his fingers until the pieces were pebbles in a sack of flesh. The recovery process had been brutal, had taken every ounce of his will. But if this insulting position was to be his fate, it would’ve been better not to survive. Before the attack, he’d been on the short list for a senior position in the Tower from which Raphael ruled North America. Now he was a second- tier guard in one of the darkest of courts.
At its center stood Nimra.
Only five feet tall, she had the most delicate of builds. But the angel was no girlish- appearing waif. No, Nimra had curves that had probably led more than one man to his ruin. She also had skin the shade of melted toffee, a glowing complement to the luxuriant warmth of this region she called her own, and tumbling curls that gleamed blue- black against the dark jade of her gown. Those heavy curls cascaded down her back with a playfulness that suited neither her reputation nor the cold heart that had to beat beneath a chest that spoke of sin and seduction, her br**sts ripe and almost too full for her frame.
Her eyes slammed into his at that moment, as if she’d sensed his scrutiny. Those eyes, a deep topaz painted with shimmering streaks of amber, were sharp and incisive. And right now, they were focused on him as she walked across the large room she used as her audience chamber, the only sounds the rustle of her wings, the soft caress of her gown against her skin.
She dressed like an angel of old, the quiet elegance of her clothing reminiscent of ancient Greece. He hadn’t been born then, but he’d seen the paintings kept in the angelic stronghold that was the Refuge, seen, too, other angels who continued to dress in a way they considered far more regal than the clothing of modern times. None had looked like this— with her gown held up by simple clasps of gold at the shoulders and a thin braided rope of the same color around her waist, Nimra could’ve been some ancient goddess.
“Noel,” she said and the sound of his name was touched with the whisper of an accent that was of this region, and yet held echoes of other places, other times. “You will attend me.” With that, she swept out of the room, her wings a rich, deep brown shot with glittering streaks that echoed the color of her eyes. Arching over her shoulders and stroking down to caress the gleaming wood of the floor, those wings were the only things in his vision as he turned to follow.
The exquisite shade of her wings spoke not of the cold viciousness of a dark court, but of the solid calm of the earth and the trees. That much, at least, wasn’t false advertising. Nimra’s home was not what he’d been expecting. A sprawling and graceful old lady with soaring ceilings situated on an extensive estate about an hour out of New Orleans, it had a multitude of windows as well as balconies ringing every level. Most had no railing— as befitted the home of a being with wings. The roof, too, had been built with an angel in mind. It sloped, but not at an acute angle, not enough to make it dangerous for landings.
However, notwithstanding the beauty of the house, it was the gardens that made the place. Cascading with blooms both exotic and ordinary, and full of trees gnarled with age alongside newly budding plants, those gardens whispered of peace… the kind of place where a broken man might sit, try to find himself again. Except, Noel thought as he followed Nimra up a flight of stairs, he was fairly certain that what he’d lost when he’d been ambushed and then debased until his face was unrecognizable, his body so much meat, was gone forever.
Nimra halted in front of a pair of large wooden doors carved with a filigree of jasmine in bloom, shooting him an expectant look over her shoulder when he stopped behind her. “The doors,” she said with what he was certain was a thread of amusement in that voice kissed by the music of the bayou.
Taking care not to brush her wings, he walked around to pull one open. “I apologize.” The words came out harsh, his throat unaccustomed to speech these days. “I’m not used to being a—” He cut himself off in midsentence, having no idea what to call himself.
“Come.” Nimra continued to walk down the corridor lined with windows that bathed the varnished floors in the molten, languid sunlight of this place that held both the bold, brazen beauty of New Orleans as well as an older, quieter elegance. Each windowsill was set with earth- toned pots that overflowed with the most cheerful, unexpected bursts of color— pansies and wildflowers, daisies and chrysanthemums.
Noel found himself fighting the desire to stroke their petals, feel the velvet softness against his skin. It was an unexpected urge, and it made him pull back, tug his shields even tighter around himself. He couldn’t afford to be vulnerable here, in this court where he’d been sent to rot— it wasn’t a stretch to believe that everyone was waiting for him to give up on life and complete what his attackers had begun.
His jaw set in a brutal line just as Nimra spoke again. While her tone was rough silk— the kind that spoke of secrets in the bedroom and pleasure that could turn to pain— her words were pragmatic. “We will talk in my chambers.”
Those chambers lay beyond another set of wooden doors, these painted with images of exotic birds flitting through blossom- heavy trees. Feminine and pretty, there was nothing in the images that spoke of the hardness that was part of Nimra’s reputation, but if Noel knew one thing after his more than two centuries of existence, it was that any being who had lived more than half a millennium had long learned to hide what she didn’t wish to show.
His guard up, he walked in behind her, closing the painted doors quietly at his back. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it wasn’t the graceful white furniture scattered with jewel- toned cushions, the liquid sunlight pouring in through the open French doors, the well- read books set on an end table. The plants, however, were no longer a surprise, and they gave him a sense of freedom even as he stood stifled and imprisoned by his broken self, his pledge of service to Raphael, and thus to Nimra.
Walking to the French doors, Nimra closed them, shutting out the world before she turned to face him once more. “We will speak in privacy.”
Noel gave a stiff nod, another thought cutting through his mind with punishing suddenness. Some of the angelic race, old and jaded, found pleasure in taking lovers they could control, treating those lovers like… fresh meat, to be used and then discarded. He would never be that, and if Nimra expected it of him…
He was a vampire, an almost- immortal who’d had more than two hundred years to grow into his power. She might kill him, but he’d draw blood before it was over. “What would you have of me?”
Nimra heard the menace beneath the outwardly polite question and wondered who exactly Raphael had sent her. She’d made some quiet inquiries of a scholar she knew in the Refuge, had learned of the horrific assault Noel had survived, but the man himself remained a mystery. When she’d asked Raphael to tell her more than the bare facts about the vampire he was assigning to her court, he’d said only, “He is loyal and highly capable. He is what you need.”
What the archangel had not said was that Noel had eyes of a piercing ice blue filled with so many shadows she could almost touch them, and a face that was hewn out of roughest stone. Not a beautiful man— no, he was too harshly put together for that—but one who would never want for female attention; he was so very, very male. From the hard set of his jaw to the deep brown of his hair, to the muscular strength of his body, he drew the eye… much as a mountain lion did.
Dressed in blue jeans and a white T–shirt, utterly unlike the formal clothing favored by the other men in her court, he’d nonetheless overshadowed them with the silent intensity of his presence. Now he threatened to take over her rooms, his masculine energy a stark counterpoint to the femininity of the furnishings.
It annoyed her that this vampire of not much more than two hundred could inspire such feelings in her, an angel who demanded respect from those twice her age and who had the trust of an archangel. Which was why she said, “Would you give me anything I asked?” in a tone laced with power.
White lines bracketed his lips. “I’ll be no one’s slave.”
Nimra blinked, realization swift and dark. It did her vanity no good to see that he believed she had to force her lovers, but she knew enough of her own kind to understand the thought wasn’t unwarranted. However, the fact that it had been the first one in his mind… No, she thought, surely Raphael would have warned her if Noel had been misused in that way. Then again, the archangel who held enough power in his body to level cities and burn empires was a law unto himself. She could assume nothing.
“Slavery,” she said, turning to another set of doors, “offers no challenges. I have never understood the allure.”
As he followed at her back, she had the sense of having a great beast on a leash— and that beast wasn’t at all happy with the situation. Intriguing, even if it did prick at her temper that there was so much power in him, this vampire Raphael had sent in response to her request. That, of course, was the crux of it— Noel was Raphael’s man, and Raphael did not suffer the weak.
Once inside the chamber, she nodded at him to close the door behind himself. She wouldn’t have thought to take such measures even a month ago, she’d had such trust in her people. Now… The pain was one she’d had to live with for the past fourteen days, and it had become no easier to bear in that time.
Walking past the smooth and well- loved wooden desk situated beside the large window, a place where she often sat to write her personal correspondence, she lifted her hands to unlock the upper doors of the armoire against the wall. The curling tendrils of a fine fern brushed the backs of her hands, a whispered caress as she revealed— set into the back wall of the armoire— the door to what appeared to be a simple safe, but one no burglar would ever be able to crack.
Retrieving a tiny vial half- filled with a luminescent fluid from within, she turned and said, “Do you know what this is?” to the man who stood immobile as stone several feet from her.
A shuttered expression but there was no discounting the intelligence in that penetrating gaze. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.”
So beautiful, she thought, watching the colors tumble and foam within the vial when she tilted it to the light, the crystal itself etched only with a simple sigil, signifying her name, and thin, decorative lines in fine gold. “That is because this fluid is beyond rare,” she murmured, “created from the extract of a plant found in the deepest, most impenetrable part of Borneo’s rain forests.” Closing the distance between them, she held it out toward him.