Slater's handsome face, his lips painted a glistening red.
She clung to Raphael, shoving away the hated image with desperate hands. "I was the middle child and I liked it. Beth was the baby, but Ari and Belle let me do things with them sometimes." No more words would come, her chest tight with lack of air.
"I didn't have siblings."
The words were unexpected enough that they broke through her anguish. Staying in place, wrapped around Raphael like ivy, she listened.
"Angelic births are rare, and my parents were both thousands of years old when I was born." Each birth was a celebration but his had been particularly feted. "I was the first child born of two archangels in several millennia."
Elena, his hunter trusting him to hold her safe, lay quiet against him, but he could feel her attention, her palm warm through the linen of his shirt. Sliding one of his own hands down her na**d back, slow and easy, he continued to talk, to share things he'd not spoken of in an eternity. "But there were some who said I shouldn't have been born."
"Why?" She raised her head, clearing her eyes with hard swipes of her knuckles. "Why would they say that?"
"Because Nadiel and Caliane weretoo old." Holding her close enough that her br**sts brushed his chest with every breath, he moved his hands up over the curve of her waist, her rib cage, savoring the feel of her skin against his own. "There was concern that they'd begun to degenerate."
Elena frowned. "I don't understand. Immortality is immortality."
"But we evolve," he said. "Some of us devolve."
"Lijuan," she whispered. "Has she evolved?"
"That's what we say, but even the Cadre wonders what it is she's evolving into." A nightmare, that was certain. But a private one, or one that would lay waste to the world?
Elena was in no way stupid. She understood in bare seconds. "That's why your mother executed your father."
"Yes. He was the first."
"Both?" Pain - forhim - arced through those expressive eyes.
"Not at the start." He saw the last moments of his father's existence as clearly as if the scenes were painted across his irises. "My father's life ended in fire."
"That mural," she said, "on the hallway in our wing - it's his death."
"A reminder of what might await me."
She shook her head. "Never. I won't let it happen."
His human, he thought, his hunter. She was so very young, and yet there was a core of strength in her that fascinated him, would continue to fascinate him through the ages.
She'd already changed him in ways he didn't understand - perhaps, he thought slowly, there was a chance she might save him from Nadiel's madness. "Even if you fail," he said, "I have every confidence that you'll find a way to end my life before I stain the world with evil."
Rebellion in those eyes. "We die," she said, "we die together. That's the deal."
He thought about his final thoughts as he'd fallen with her in New York, her body broken in his arms, her voice less than a whisper in his mind. He hadn't considered holding onto his eternity for a second, had chosen to die with her, with his hunter. That she would choose to do the same . . . His hands clenched. "We die," he repeated, "we die together."
A moment of utter silence, the sense of something being locked into place.
Releasing the pain of memory, he pressed a kiss to the pulse in her neck. "We must see what Lijuan has sent you."
She shivered. "Can I have your shirt?"
He let her scramble off his lap, her body beautiful and lithe . . . and strong. Gauging her muscle tone with a critical eye as she turned to look at something on his desk, he made a decision. "Flying lessons begin tomorrow."
She spun around so fast, she almost tripped on her wings. "Really?" A huge grin bisected her face. "Are you going to teach me?"
"Of course." He'd trust her life to no one else. Sliding off his shirt, he gave it to her.
She pulled it on and rolled up the sleeves. It was much too big for her, of course, but she left the ends hanging. When he commented on that, a touch of color streaked across her cheeks. "It's comforting, okay. Now where's this stupid gift?"
Elena saw Raphael's lips shape into the barest hint of a smile at her bad-tempered words, but he didn't comment. Instead, he walked to a cabinet in the corner, the muscles of his back shifting with a fluid strength that made every female hormone in her sit up in begging attention.
Staving off the lingering echoes of the past with the sensual pleasure of watching her archangel move, she walked to stand beside him as he opened the cabinet to reveal a small black box about the right size and shape for jewelry. She recoiled, taking a physical step backward, her words coming in a hard rush. "Throw that thing into the deepest pit you can find."
Raphael glanced at her. "What do you feel?"
"It gives me the creeps." Hugging herself, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms, ice forming in the hollow of her stomach. "I don't want it anywhere near me."
"Interesting." Reaching in, he picked up the box. "I sense nothing, and yet even without blood, it sings to you."
"Don't touch it," she ordered between gritted teeth. "I told you to throw it away."
"We can't, Elena. You know that."
She didn't want to know it. "Power games. So what? We tell her thanks and send back a bauble or something. You must have a few lying around."
"That will not do." Eyes that had shifted to the shadowed color found in the deepest, darkest part of dawn, before the sun rose to the horizon. "This is a very specific gift. It's a test."
"So what?" she said again. "Archangels play power games. Who the f**k says I have to?"
Raphael put the box on a corner of his desk, his wings whispering against hers. "Like it or not, by becoming my lover, you've accepted an invitation to those games."
Her skin felt as if it was being touched by a thousand spidery fingers. "Can we throw it away after I open it?"
"That won't be bad politics?"
"It'll be a statement." He held out his hand. "Come, hunter. I need a drop of your blood."
"See? Creepy?" Shuddering, she took out one of her knives and pricked her left index finger. "Anyone who gives gifts locked by blood isn't ever going to give you a bath set."
Taking her hand, Raphael held it over the box, squeezing her finger just hard enough to release a single, luminous drop of blood. She watched it hang on her skin for a frozen moment, as if loathe to touch the velvet box, before it fell in a slow, soft splash. The box seemed to consume it, a voracious blackness that hungered for the taste of life. Her hand clenched around the knife. "I really don't want to go to this ball."