Azrael, once the most powerful Angel of Death to grace the golden floors of heaven, hunched his shoulders against the sharp wind that blew off the Mississippi River and funneled into the twisting streets of New Orleans.
He'd fallen six months ago—fallen and burned—and he still hadn't gotten used to the stench that could fill the alleyways. Especially during Mardi Gras.
Why did humans worry so about dying and facing the devil in hell? This mortal realm was hell to him. With the voices, always crying out, the bodies, always too much, the sins—
Everywhere. No matter how hard he tried, there was no escape from the mortal sins that surrounded him.
More than enough sin to tempt an angel whose wings had burned away when he fell.
The scream broke through the night, close, and Az's head whipped to the left. Over the odor of rotten garbage, stale cigarettes and old booze, he caught the scent of ... fear.
And animal. Not just one beast, either.
"Stay away from me!" The voice again, a woman's, and now he could hear the fear mixing with rage in her screamed words.
Even as hard, biting laughter floated to his ears, Az found himself heading toward the mouth of another alley. Heading toward the sound of her screams.
As he rounded the tight corner, Az saw the men first. Three of them. Big, hulking guys who'd closed in on their prey. Az couldn't even see the woman, but he knew she had to be in the middle of the half-circle of men. A brick wall waited behind them, trapping her. There was no place for her to flee.
Az entered the alley and waited.
The cold whisper of Death hadn't come to this place. Not yet. If it had, Az would have felt the presence of another Death Angel. He always could sense his own kind, even if he wasn't ruling the cold bastards anymore.
But Death wasn't there. So the woman wasn't about to die, at least not yet.
Just then, the woman shoved through her attackers, and he saw her face. Wide, desperate green eyes, pale skin, dark red lips and—
"Help me!" She yelled the words at him.
Az didn't move. For thousands of years, his job had been to watch those who were dying. To wait until the last moment—and only then had he been allowed to touch. As a Death Angel, his touch killed. It took the soul straight from the body, and he carried that precious burden to the realm that waited beyond this world.
His job ...
He'd watched innocents die. Seen them slaughtered in times of war and peace. Seen murderers walk the earth, killing over and over, and he—
"Asshole, help me!" She snarled at Az, and he blinked. "Don't just stand there staring," the woman snapped. "Help—"
A guy with black hair and a leather jacket grabbed her around the stomach and hauled her back against him. "He knows better than to go gettin' involved, Jade." A heavy drawl coated his words. "Knows that if he tries playin' white knight ..." The guy looked up with a crooked grin that flashed too-sharp teeth, "he'll get himself killed."
That was when Az noticed the claws that had risen to wrap around the woman's throat. Not normal human fingernails. Instead, two-inch long, razor sharp claws sprang from the man's hand.
So not just regular mortal jerks. "Shifters," Az muttered as he rolled his shoulders. Interesting. Perhaps the night had just picked up for him.
All three guys were sporting claws and toothy grins. But the woman—no, no sign of claws or fangs from her, and she smelled ...
He frowned. He'd recently developed a taste for the sweet fruit, and even ten feet away, he could catch the female's heady fragrance.
His body tensed.
"Back away!" Another man snarled. This one had a dark, tribal tattoo that snaked up his arm and the side of his neck. "Back away or start bleeding."
Az didn't back away. He kept his hands at his sides. Finally, a challenge. And here he'd been bored for days. "Let the woman go." His voice rang out, calm but strong.
The tattooed shifter laughed, then he charged right at Az. Az held onto his control—careful, careful—and when the shifter swiped out with his claws, Az tossed a ball of fire right at the fool.
The jerk howled in pain and dropped to the ground, rolling as he tried to put out the flames.
The woman stared at Az with eyes gone even wider as her lips parted in stunned surprise. He almost smiled. Poor little human. The humans never realized just how dangerous their mortal world was.
They truly were lambs out walking blindly with wolves. Or shifters.
"Duncan, fuck!" The shifter still holding the woman stared in shock at his burning friend and then glared at Az. "You just asked for death."
Az didn't stop his smile from spreading this time. "No, you did."
The shifter threw the woman against the nearby wall, and Az heard the sickening thud as her head hit the bricks. Then the leader and his backup dog both charged at Az. Az thought about playing with more fire, but he opted to get his hands dirty this time. He punched out, striking so fast he knew the shifters wouldn't even be able to see the movements of his hands and body, and in seconds, they were on the ground, bleeding and broken.
He dusted off his hands. Hmmm ... He hadn't even gotten blood on his knuckles. Perhaps he was getting better at this business of physical fighting.
When he was sure they weren't about to rise, he stepped over their prone bodies and stalked toward the woman.
He hadn't just watched this time. The knowledge sank into him as he approached her. An innocent hadn't died while he looked on. Az reached for her. A faint line of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Gently, because he could show gentleness, he wiped the blood away and gazed down at her.
Humans were too weak. They could be broken and killed far too easily. He knew. He'd killed thousands of them in his time.
He lifted her into his arms and her head rolled back against his shoulder. The scent of strawberries was stronger, and a strange ache burned in his chest even as a rough tightness filled his body.
Her lashes cast dark shadows on her cheeks, and the flickering glow of a streetlight fell through the alley and hit the black curtain of her hair.
Holding her carefully, he turned toward the alley's entrance. Police sirens screamed in the distance, and, though it was already nearing dawn, he could still hear the drunken laughter that floated on the breeze.
During Mardi Gras, no one ever slept in this city.
"D-dumb ... bastard ..." It was the shifter who'd held the woman moments before. He spat blood on the ground and tried to rise. Failed. Since Az had broken both of his legs, the guy would need to shift in order to heal. Az figured he had a few more moments before the man had enough strength to shift.
Before any of them did.
And he and his human would be long gone by then. Tightening his arms around her, he stepped over the broken bodies once more and ignored the growled curses that filled the air.
As he left the alley, he tossed one last stare back at the shifters. "Come after me, and you'll only find death." He felt it was only fair to warn them. If they chose to ignore his helpful warning ...
Then they could meet death.
The rage in their already glowing eyes had another smile lifting his lips. You'll come for me. So be it. He turned and stalked into the waning night with his human.
She was soft in his arms, a lightweight. Did she know how lucky she'd been? Probably not. In his experience, most humans were completely oblivious to the dangers that surrounded them.
The majority of humans roaming the earth didn't even know about the existence of the Other, all of the paranormal creatures that often walked right beside mortals. Demons, vampires, djinn—all of the so-called monsters were real.
Humans just didn't realize that fact.
The woman he held was a human who'd survived a pack shifter attack. He figured the odds of that survival were usually about a million to one.
Of course, those odds changed considerably when a Fallen became involved.
Few creatures on this earth were stronger than he was.
He snaked through the streets, turning left, right, and no one he passed so much as blinked in surprise at the sight of an unconscious, bloody woman in his arms.
He'd just reached the steps of his apartment in the Quarter when an animal's roar reached him. The loud, ferocious cry of a big cat.
Az stilled. The men had shifted faster than he expected.
He hurried inside his apartment and kicked the door closed behind him. Then he carried her to the couch. The woman's eyes were still closed when he placed her on the cushions and a faint moan slipped from her lips as he eased her out of his arms.
Az stepped back and stared down at her. Pretty, he supposed. She had delicate, almost innocent features that were belied by the plump fullness of her mouth. His gaze tracked down her body. Humans were obsessed with sex. He'd always known that, so he supposed human males would be pleased with the woman's curving body and long, long legs. He was—
Pleased as well.
Az blinked. What the—
Her eyes opened. No innocence. Big, dark green and so deep Az took one look into her eyes and thought of tangled sheets, naked flesh, and the pleasures that humans took in the dark.
I want pleasure.
Her brow furrowed as she stared up at him. Then he saw understanding come flooding back to her in an instant. She jumped up and let out an ear-splitting shriek.
When she went to run by him, Az just stepped out of her way. If she wanted to race right back to the pack ... "It will just be your funeral," he said, shrugging. He'd done his good deed for the century.
His bored tone stopped her. She glanced back over her shoulder at him and blinked.
"They're probably hunting you now." He walked away from her and headed toward the window that looked out over the street. "Hunting us," he added quietly and realized he was anticipating the fight. When had he come to crave the fury? When had the bloodlust grown so within him?
She stood as still as a statue before his door. Her hand was up, hovering above the doorknob, and he could almost feel the fear rolling off her in waves.
But then she took a deep breath, and he saw her small shoulders straighten. She shoved back the heavy tangle of her hair and turned to face him. "How did you get us away from them?"
Az shrugged once more.
She took a step toward him. "You ... you know what they are, right?"
Amusement flared in him. "I did notice the claws." Rather hard to miss those.
She blinked, and her eyes narrowed as she studied him. He'd never seen quite that shade of green before. She crept closer, bringing that light scent of strawberries to him. When she stopped, she was less than a foot away from him. It would be so easy to touch her.
Though he knew well just how dangerous a touch could be.
Yet she stood close enough to kiss. But angels weren't supposed to kiss mortals ...
You're not an angel anymore. The whisper came from deep inside of him. The same tempting whisper that he'd been fighting since his fall.
You're not an angel. Do what you want.
You're not an angel. Take what you want.
He was discovering that he could want many things.
The top of the woman's head barely reached his shoulders. She tilted her head and stared up at him. Then her gaze swept down his body.
Az stiffened even before she whispered, "What are you?"
Rather insulting question. "I'm the man who saved your life." Did she need to know more? He didn't think so.
Her hand lifted and pressed against her mouth. A small trace of blood still rested near her lips. "There were three of them, and, you're big and all, but there's still just one of you."
She might just be one of the most ungrateful humans he'd ever encountered. Stifling a sigh, Az inclined his head. "You're welcome."
She stared in surprise for a moment. Then she laughed. A soft, strangely lyrical sound spilled from her lips, and her wide smile lit up her face.
Not just pretty.
Az tensed as the wave of need hit him. Not lust for blood or death. This time ... the lust was just for her.
You're not an angel anymore. Take what you want.
"Yeah," she said, as her laughter faded but the smile still lingered on her lips, "thanks for saving my ass." Then she held out her hand to him. "My name's Jade. Jade Pierce."
He stared at her hand. She wiggled her fingers at him. Slowly, Az lifted his own hand and caught those wiggling fingers. Soft. "I am Azrael." He dropped her hand. He hadn't used the name Azrael in centuries. "Most just call me Az."
"Well, Az, it's a pleasure to meet you." Her gaze slid over his body again. "But I'm gonna have to ask, once more, just what are—"
The door crashed in behind her. She didn't scream this time, but maybe Az just didn't give her a chance to scream.
Because as the three black panthers—fully shifted panthers—leapt into the room, jumping over the broken door, Az grabbed Jade and threw her toward the couch.
Then he ran right for the snarling beasts.
He should have known better than to let down his guard. Shifters and their damn acute senses. They'd caught his scent, her scent, and followed them right through the Quarter.
"I warned you," Az snapped and leapt at the nearest panther. He caught the beast's front paws and shoved the giant cat back. "You should have listened." There would be no more warnings now. Only death.
With a twist of his hands, Az broke both paws and tossed the cat back through the door.
Ruined my door. That panther had—
Claws dug into his back, driving deep into muscle and scraping bone. Hissing against the pain, Az snapped his teeth together and whirled around in a blur. He reached out as fury slammed through him and Jade's horrified yell rang in his ears.
Attack. Destroy. Kill.
He touched the panther, and the animal stiffened beneath his fingers. The beast's blazing gold eyes locked on him. Az's breath heaved as he demanded, "Ready for hell?"
The scent of flowers swept into the room, blowing in on the breeze from outside. It came right into his home and seemed to surround the shifter.
Az knew well what that scent meant. An Angel of Death was close. Despite what humans may have thought, Death didn't smell like rot. Death was sweet. The better to tempt and lead away the souls.
Az lifted his hand. The panther fell to the ground. The fur melted away, and he stared down at the tattooed body of the man who'd chosen to seek death. "I warned you."
A whimper had Az's head rising. The other panther crouched, and its head swung back and forth between Az and the body on the floor. Az lifted his hand, palm up, toward the beast. "Want to join him?"
The panther spun away and leapt through the window. Glass shattered, and Az bit back a snarl of his own. Something else to fix, dammit.
He rushed to the door. Both the surviving panthers were racing away. His brother Sammael would say they were hauling ass.
Finally. They'd realized they should fear him. And it had only taken the little matter of death to drive that point home.
"Oh my God!" The wild cry came from his elderly neighbor. He glanced over just in time to see Ms. Hattie McRae duck back inside her apartment. Great. A frantic call to the cops was probably being made.
Looked like he wouldn't be repairing the place after all. Time to clear out. Again.
Whenever humans found a dead body, they tended to ask endless and useless questions. When they asked those long and boring questions, he'd discovered the cops didn't like it when he told them to fuck off.
"You ... killed him." Whispered from behind him.
Az straightened slowly. His back burned and his shirt stuck to the blood coating his flesh.
"How?" Jade asked. The floor creaked as she came closer to him.
His wounds would heal, but for the moment, the pain had his teeth grinding together. Now wasn't really the time for explanations. Not that he felt like offering any to her.
With a wave of the hand that had killed, he motioned toward the busted doorway. "Flee while you can." Another warning. Hopefully, she'd be smart enough to actually listen to him and get the hell out of there.
He'd do the same. Leave this place. Find another dwelling.
"Flee?" She repeated, voice rising a notch.
Sucking in a deep breath as he turned, Az nodded. "Yes, before the police arrive and find—" He gestured to the body. "Him." Because it didn't look like he'd killed a panther. No, now it looked like he'd just murdered a man. At the moment of death, shifters always returned to their human forms.
She knelt near the body. "There aren't any wounds on him."
No. He didn't have to wound in order to kill.
Jade fell back onto her butt and stared up at him. "How'd you do it?"
Excerpted from ANGEL IN CHAINS by Cynthia Eden Copyright © 2012 by Cindy Roussos. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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