Elena watched the ducks peck at each other in the pond in Central Park and thought about the last time she’d been here. She’d sat on this very bench, musing on the fact that even the ducks couldn’t be nonviolent as her mind fought frantically to find a way out of the mess in which she’d found herself—a mess that had seen her tracking a mad archangel for another immortal as lethal.
Shimmering white-gold over her vision as she lifted her eyes to the sky, an echo of that fateful day. “Hello, Archangel.”
Raphael folded away his wings, his eyes on the ducks. “Why do you find them so fascinating?”
“I don’t. I just like this spot.” Her own wings uncomfortably squashed against the seat built for humans and vampires, she rose to her feet. “Though I think you need to sponsor a new bench over there.” She pointed to a beautiful spot across the way; it’d be shaded by the delicate green leaves of a flowering cherry tree in summer, the soft pink blooms in spring. Right now, with winter’s kiss in the air, the tree was all bone, stark against the evergreens.
“It will be done,” Raphael said with a cool arrogance that made her want to drag him back to bed. “You realize you’re capable of sponsoring many such benches?”
Elena blinked as she always did when she remembered she was rolling in it. Not in comparison to older immortals, of course, and way below Raphael’s league, but her personal fortune was more than respectable when it came to a fledgling immortal. Earned in the hunt that had broken her back, made her bleed until her throat filled with the iron dark fluid, and brought Raphael into her life, the money was currently amassing ridiculous amounts of interest in her Guild account.
“Damn”—she whistled—“I need to start thinking like a rich chick.”
“I will be most amused to watch this transformation.”
Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Just you wait. Before you know it, I’ll be one of the angels who lunch.”
He laughed, her dangerous lover who wore his strength as a second skin and had a face of such violent masculine beauty that she was stunned anew each time she realized he belonged to her. Hair of darkest midnight and eyes of a painful blue found nowhere else on this earth, Raphael was a man blooded with power—no one would ever mistake him for anything but what he was: an archangel who had the capacity to snuff out a life as easily as she might crush an ant.
The wings that arced over his shoulders only deepened the sense of dangerous temptation. His feathers were white, but for fine filaments of pure gold that caught the eye and the light. Flawless wings, but for the astonishing “scar” of golden feathers where she’d once shot him. A few months back, his primaries, too, had begun to turn gold, only for the process to continue past yellow-gold and to a glittering metallic white. Now the sun caught on those primaries as he laughed, igniting an illusion of white fire.
“I’m afraid,” he said after the laughter faded, “I have some news that may regretfully turn your attention in another direction.”
Put on guard by his tone, she ignored the people in the distance whose mouths had dropped open at the sight of Raphael’s amusement, the Archangel of New York not known for laughter. “What is it?”
“I have two pieces of . . . interesting news.”
Elena’s stomach dropped. “Lijuan?” According to Raphael’s spymaster, the batshit old archangel was creating reborn again, if only in small numbers. Lijuan called it giving “life,” but her walking dead servants were nightmares, a plague upon the world—and the worst thing was, many of them knew it, their eyes screaming for help even as their bodies shuffled to follow the commands of their mistress.
Then there were the strange desiccated bodies found near her stronghold that no one could figure out. The general consensus was that they were failed attempts at creating reborn, but whether that was good news or bad news was anyone’s guess. “She’s not—”
Raphael shook his head before she could complete her question, the black silk of his hair rich and dark. “My mother,” he said, “has invited us to a ball.”
Elena pulled a blade from one of the butter-soft forearm sheaths that had been a gift from Raphael. “Excuse me while I stab myself in the eyes—and disembowel myself while I’m at it.” The last time Elena had attended an immortal ball, she’d ended up bathing in the blood of the reborn while Beijing burned around her. And oh yeah, let’s not forget smashing to the earth after being ripped out of the sky.
“I’m afraid I cannot permit that,” Raphael said, in what she thought of as his “Archangel” voice, formal and ruthless. “Who would then keep me amused at the ball? I may otherwise be driven to pluck out my own eyes and I believe you are quite fond of them.”
“Funny.” Sighing, she leaned her head against the muscled strength of his arm, his skin bared by the brown fighting leathers that told her he’d come from a sparring session, likely with Illium. “Why is Caliane having a ball?”
He spread his wing across her own in a susurration of sound that was a familiar intimacy. “Her city and people have fully awakened, and she wishes to formally greet the other powers in the world.” A pause. “My mother may have been many things, but the one thing she has never been is impolite; as an Ancient, she is cognizant of her responsibility to take a part in the ruling of the world, even if it is from a distance.”
Complex, intelligent, once-insane, Raphael’s mother wasn’t a woman who could be put easily into any kind of a category. The Ancient had left her son broken and bloodied on a forsaken field an eon ago, but she’d also risen perilously early from a centuries-long Sleep to save the life of that same son. “When’s the ball?”
“In less than two weeks.”
“I’ll make sure my jewels are glittering and my nails done.”
Raphael’s lips curved again as she slid away the knife and held out her hands to display unpolished nails clipped hunter-short. The back of her left hand was bruised from a tussle with a recalcitrant vampire she’d retrieved for the Guild a few hours before, and her palms, when she flipped over her hands, proved to have a plethora of calluses.
Even her newly immortal body couldn’t erase those calluses, not when she worked constantly with weapons. “I don’t think a manicure is going to cut it.”
“Should you ever touch me with court-softened hands, I will know an imposter walks in your skin.”
Some women might’ve taken his words as an insult; they made Elena want to initiate a very public, very hot kiss. “So,” she said, promising herself she’d indulge that particular need as soon as they were alone, “what’s the other piece of news?”
“Perhaps I should take your weapons first.”
Elena tried to think of what could be worse than attending a ball with the most powerful, most vicious angels and vampires in the world, and came up with, “My father wants to have dinner with us?”
“No, it is not Jeffrey.” The suddenly brutal angle of his jawline made his opinion of her father clear. “Come, we cannot talk of this where we may be overheard.” Stepping a little away from her, his wing sliding off her own, he said, “Do you wish to attempt a vertical takeoff?”
Elena thought of the number of witnesses, pitted that fact against the straining effort it would take for her to get aloft. That teeth-gritting struggle would betray weakness in a way that would reflect not only on her, but on Raphael—and an archangel could never be seen as weak, for the sake of mortals and immortals alike.
In all probability, she’d have made a different choice even a few months ago, she’d been fighting so hard to retain her sense of self in the new world into which she’d been thrust. Now she understood far more about the intricacies of the balance of power in the world, understood, too, that while Raphael might occasionally frustrate her with his protectiveness, he had no desire to clip her wings.
“No, not here.” Walking into his arms, she folded back her wings, and he took them effortlessly into the air, his hold steel around her waist, his heartbeat strong and steady.
Crashing waves and the salt-laced sea, rain clean and bright, that was Raphael’s mental scent and it lingered in her every breath, made her body ache. Always, he made her ache. Shifting slightly in his hold, she pressed her lips to his throat, felt his pulse speed up.
“Would you dance with me above Manhattan?”
Her breath caught at the sensual murmur, the idea of their bodies and wings intertwined in the rawly sexual act pure adrenaline in her blood. “Not yet. I don’t think I’m that brave.” Raphael might possess the archangelic ability to shield them from all sight, but she would still be able to see the city below. “I like dancing with you above the sea.” Loved feeling the sheer power of him as they plummeted from lethal heights to hit the water. “Tonight?”
“I am seduced.” Easing his hold above the cloud layer, he claimed her mouth for a darkly passionate kiss that made her br**sts tighten, her body eager for the wild promise of the night. “Ready?” he asked when their lips parted, his body hard against her own.
At her nod, he removed his arm from around her waist and she fell through the gossamer kiss of the clouds . . . to unfold her wings and circle up on an updraft, the exhilaration of flight in no way lessened by the fact that she’d had a year to get used to the astonishing wonder of it. Is it urgent? she asked. What we have to discuss?
Not so urgent that we cannot fly.
Looking up, she watched him wing his way higher and higher with breathtaking ease, until he was a faraway dot in the sky . . . then felt her heart stop as he dropped, a sleek arrow of white-gold that shot past her, accelerating until she could see people screaming in the park below. A second before what would’ve been terminal impact for a mortal, Raphael spread his wings and shot back up.
You terrified everyone. Her own pulse was in her mouth, her blood thunder in her ears.
Humans need to be terrified every so often. It keeps them from crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
You ever think maybe archangels should be challenged once in a while? she countered. That it’d take care of the whole arrogance issue?
Anyone may challenge me.
When he executed a turn toward the Hudson, Elena followed, the river winds riffling through the strands of hair that had escaped her braid. How can people challenge you when they’re so afraid?
It didn’t stop you.
Well, he did have her there. But—I’ve always had a dash of crazy in me.
Flying wing to wing with him, she swept out over the water, following the river north, before turning to head to their house in the Angel Enclave. Situated along the cliffs on the opposite side of the Hudson from Manhattan, it was a magnificent building that offered sweeping views of the city, but for Elena, it was simply home.
Montgomery has prepared something special for you. Do not break his heart.
Elena grinned at the thought of the butler. You know Montgomery and I have a mutual love affair. Coming down on her feet on the still-green grass of the lawn that ended in a steep drop into the Hudson, she watched Raphael land, his wingspan incredible.
“A storm,” he murmured, his eyes on the clouds that had begun to boil over Manhattan. “It grew quickly.”
So quickly that she hadn’t noticed anything while in the air. “It’s not another Ancient waking up, is it?” she asked, the tiny hairs on her arms standing up at the memory of the last time the city had suffered inclement weather.
“No,” Raphael said to her relief. “It’d be an extraordinary thing for two to rise within the span of a year—this is likely nothing but the first lash of winter. Still, we will watch to make certain. We cannot forget that the Cascade is in full effect.”