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Deadly Sting

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Deadly Sting

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Author: Jennifer Estep
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2013
Series: Elemental Assassin: Book 8
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Urban Fantasy
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Synopsis

Red is definitely my color. Good thing, because in my line of work, I end up wearing it a lot.

Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me-- Gin Blanco, aka the Spider--it's just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I'm attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland's fanciest art museum. But it's just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis's priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place.

Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.


Excerpt

1

"That would look fabulous on you."

Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, pointed to a tennis bracelet in the middle of a glass case full of jewelry. The shimmer of the gemstones matched the sparkle of greed in his eyes.

I looked at the price tag beside the diamond-crusted monstrosity. "You do realize that the cost of that bracelet is within spitting distance of my going rate as an assassin, right?"

"You mean your going rate back when you were actually killing people for money," Finn said. "Or as I like to call them--the good ole days."

Finn gave the diamond bracelet one more greedy glance before moving over to a display of shoes. He grabbed a purple pump off a shelf and waggled the shoe at me before holding it up and inspecting it himself. He gazed at the shoe with a rapt expression, as though it were a work of art instead of merely overpriced pieces of leather sewn together.

"It's the latest style," he said in a dreamy voice. "Hand-stitched lavender suede with custom-made, four-inch heels. Isn't it marvelous?"

I arched an eyebrow. "Have I ever told you how scary it is that you know more about shoes than I do?"

Finn grinned, his green eyes lighting up with amusement. "Frequently. But my impeccable fashion sense is one of the many things you love about me."

He straightened his gray silk tie and winked at me. I snorted and moved over to look at some dresses hanging on a rack near the wall.

The two of us were out shopping, which was one of Finn's favorite things to do. Not mine, though. I never paid too much attention to what I was wearing, beyond making sure that my jeans and boots were comfortable enough to fight in and that my T-shirt sleeves were long enough to hide the knives I had tucked up each one. As the assassin the Spider, I'd learned a long time ago not to invest too much money in clothes that were only going to end up with bloodstains on them.

But here I was, along for the consumer ride. Finn had shown up at the Pork Pit, my barbecue joint, just after the lunch rush ended and had dragged me all the way up to Northtown, the part of Ashland that housed and catered to the wealthy, social, and magical elite. We'd spent the last hour traipsing from store to store in an upscale shopping development that had just opened up.

Now we were browsing through Posh, the biggest, fanciest, and most expensive boutique on this particular block. Racks of ball gowns and evening dresses filled the store, starting with all-white frocks on the left and darkening to midnight black ones on the right, like a rainbow of color arcing from one side of the store to the other. There wasn't a dress in here that was less than five grand, and the shoes arranged along the back wall went for just as much. Not to mention the minuscule handbags that cost ten times as much as a good steak dinner.

"Come on, Gin," Finn wheedled, holding the pump out to me. "At least try it on."

I rolled my eyes, took the shoe from him, and hefted it in my hand. "Lightweight, nice enough color. Not the worst thing you've shown me today. And that skinny stiletto would make a decent weapon, if you took the time to snap it off the rest of the shoe and sharpen the end of it."

Finn sighed and took the pump away from me. "Have I ever told you how scary it is that you think of heels in terms of their possible shiv potential?"

I grinned at him. "Frequently. But my impeccable sense of improvised weaponry is one of the many things you love about me."

This time, Finn rolled his eyes, and then started muttering under his breath about how he couldn't take me anywhere. My grin widened. I loved needling Finn as much as he enjoyed teasing me.

"Tell me again why I have to go to this shindig with you?" I asked when he finally wound down.

"It's not a mere shindig," he huffed. "It's the opening gala for an exhibit of art, jewelry, and other valuable objects from the estate of the late, not-so-great, and certainly unlamented Mab Monroe. Everyone who's anyone will be there, underworld and otherwise, and it's going to be the social event of the summer. Besides, aren't you the least bit curious to see what the old girl stashed away over the years? The things she collected? What she thought was beautiful or valuable or at least worth hoarding? She was your nemesis, after all."

Mab Monroe had been a little more than my nemesis--the Fire elemental had murdered my mother and older sister when I was thirteen. She'd also tortured me. But I'd finally gotten my revenge when I shoved my silverstone knife through the bitch's black heart back in the winter. Killing Mab had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. The fact that she was dead and I wasn't was the only thing that really mattered to me.

"Sorry," I said. "I have no desire to go gawk at all of Mab's shinies. They're not doing her any good now, are they? I'm quite happy simply knowing that she's rotting in her grave. And I still don't understand why you insisted on dragging me out to buy a dress. I have plenty of little black numbers in my closet at home, anyone of which would be perfect for this event."

Finn snorted. "Sure, if you don't mind wearing something that's ripped, torn, and caked with dried blood."

I couldn't argue with that. Funny how killing people inevitably led to ruined clothes.

Finn sighed and shook his head at my lack of interest in Mab's many treasures. "I can't believe you won't go out of simple curiosity and unabashed greed. Those are certainly the reasons I'm going. And probably half the folks on the guest list. We've just covered why you need a new dress. As to why you have to go with me, well, naturally, I asked Bria first, but she has to work. I need someone to drink champagne with and make snide comments to about everyone else in attendance. You wouldn't deny me that pleasure, would you?"

"Perish the thought," I murmured. "But what about Roslyn? Or Jo-Jo? Why don't you take one of them instead?"

"Roslyn is already going with someone else, and Jo-Jo has a date with Cooper." Finn used his fingers to tick off our friends and family. "I even asked Sophia, but there's some classic Western film festival that she's planning to catch that night. Besides, she'd probably insist on wearing black lipstick, a silverstone collar, and the rest of her usual Goth clothes instead of an evening dress. Since I don't want to be responsible for any of the old guard having conniptions or coronary episodes, you're it."

"Lucky me."

"Besides, it's not like you have plans," he continued as though I hadn't said a word. "Other than sitting at home and brooding over lost love."

My eyes narrowed and I gave Finn a look that would have made most men tremble in their wing tips. He just picked up a strappy, canary-yellow sandal and admired it a moment before showing it to me.

"What do you think? Is yellow your color? Yeah, you're right. Not with your skin tone." He put the shoe back on the shelf and turned to face me.

"Look," Finn said, his expression serious. "I just thought it would be good for you to get out of the house for a night. You know, dress up, go out on the town, have a little fun. I know how hard this last month has been, with you and Owen on the outs."

On the outs was putting it mildly. I hadn't spoken to Owen Grayson, my lover, since the night he'd come to the Pork Pit a few weeks ago to tell me he needed some time to himself, some time away from me, from us.

But that's what happens when you kill your lover's ex-fiancée right in front of him. That sort of thing tended to make a person reassess their relationships--especially with the one who'd done the killing.

No matter how much I missed him, I couldn't blame Owen for wanting to take a break. A lot of bad stuff had gone down in the days leading up to me battling Salina Dubois, a lot of terrible secrets had been revealed, and he wasn't the only one who'd needed time to process and come to terms with everything. I might understand, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

Even assassins could have their hearts broken.

"Gin?" Finn asked in a soft voice, cutting into my thoughts.

I sighed. "I know you're just trying to help, but I'm fine, Finn. Really, I am. The important thing is that Salina is dead, and she can't hurt anyone else ever again. Owen and I ... we'll eventually work things out."

"And if you don't?"

I sighed again. "Then, we'll both move on with our lives."

I kept my face calm and smooth, although my heart squeezed at the thought. Finn started to say something else when one of the saleswomen sidled up to him.

"Good afternoon, sir," the woman, a gorgeous redhead, practically purred. "What can I do for you today?"

We'd already been in the store for five minutes, and I was mildly surprised that it had taken someone this long to come over to us. In my boots, worn jeans, and grease-spattered black T-shirt, I didn't look like I had two nickels to rub together, but Finn was as impeccably dressed as ever in one of his Fiona Fine designer suits. The perfect fit showed off his strong, muscled body, while his walnut-colored hair was artfully styled. Add all that to his handsome features, and Finn looked just as polished as the jewelry he'd been admiring earlier.

The saleswoman's eyes trailed down his body and back up. After a moment, she smiled at him, and then subconsciously licked her lips as though Finn were a hot fudge sundae that she wanted to gobble up. At the back of the store, a second saleswoman eyed her associate with anger. While Finn had been waxing poetic about bracelets and shoes, the two of them had been having a whispered argument about who got the privilege of waiting on him. Looked like Red here had won.

Finn, being Finn, noticed the woman's obvious interest and immediately turned up the wattage on his dazzling, slightly devious smile. "Why, hello, there," he drawled. "Don't you look lovely today? That sky-blue color is amazing with your hair."

Red blushed and smoothed down her short skirt. Her gaze flicked to me for half a second before she focused on Finn again. "Do you and your... wife need some help?"

"Oh," he said. "She's not my wife. She's my sister."

The woman's dark eyes lit up at that bit of information, and Finn's smile widened that much more. Despite the fact that he was involved with Detective Bria Coolidge, my baby sister, Finn still flirted with every woman who crossed his path, no matter how old or young or hot or not she was. Dwarf, vampire, giant, elemental, human. As long as you were breathing and female, you could count on being the recipient of all the considerable charm that Finnegan Lane had to offer.

"But my sister could definitely use your help, and so could I. What do you think about this color?" he asked, picking up the purple pump once again. "Don't you think it would look fabulous on her?"

"Fabulous," Red agreed, her eyes wide and dreamy.

I might be standing right next to Finn, but I was as invisible as the moon on a sunny day. I sighed again. It was going to be a long afternoon.

#

Twenty minutes later, after being dragged from one side of the store to the other, Red showed me to a fitting room in the back. Rightfully insisting that he knew more about fashion than I did, Finn had picked out several dresses for me to try on. Red placed the gowns on a hanger on the wall before brushing past me.

"I'm going to check on Mr. Lane and see if he needs anything," she said.

"Of course you are."

Red hightailed it over to the jewelry case where the other saleswoman, a well-endowed blonde, was leaning over and showing Finn the diamond bracelet he'd been admiring earlier--along with all of her ample assets. Red stepped up next to Blonde and not so subtly elbowed her out of the way. Blonde retaliated by shoving her breasts forward that much more. The two of them might as well have filled up a pit with mud and settled their differences that way. That would have been far more entertaining than the petty one-upmanship they were currently engaged in.

I rolled my eyes. Finn was the only man I knew who could inspire a catfight just by grinning. But it was a show that I'd seen many times before, so I stepped into the fitting room, closed the door behind me, and started trying on the dresses. The sooner I picked something, the sooner I could get back to the Pork Pit.

Too tight, too short, too slutty. None of the garments was quite right, not to mention the fact that Finn had chosen more than one strapless evening gown. My cleavage had never been all that impressive--certainly not on par with Blonde's--but of more importance was the fact that strapless gowns were not good for knife concealment. Then again, Finn didn't care about such things. He didn't have to. He could always tuck a gun or two inside or under his jacket, which suited him just fine, as long as the weapons didn't mess up the smooth lines of the fabric.

I was just about to take off the latest fashion disaster--this one in that awful canary yellow that definitely wasn't my color--when I heard a soft electronic chime, signaling that someone else had come into the store. I wondered how long it would take Red and Blonde to tear themselves away from Finn to see to the new customer--

A surprised scream ripped through the air, along with a sharp, smacking sound. The pain-filled moan that followed told me that someone had just gotten hit.

"Don't move, and don't even think of going for any of the alarm buttons," a low voice growled. "Or I'll put a couple of holes in you--all of you. Maybe I'll do that anyway, just for fun."

Well, now, that sort of threat implied that the person making it had a gun--maybe even more than one. I perked up at the thought, and a genuine smile creased my face for the first time today. For the first time in several days, actually.

I cracked open the fitting room door so I could see what was going on. Sure enough, a man stood in the storefront, right in front of the jewelry case. He was a dwarf, a couple inches shy of five feet tall, with a body that was thick with muscle. He wore jeans with holes at the knees and a faded blue T-shirt. A barbwire tattoo curled around his left bicep, which looked like it was made of concrete rather than of flesh and bone. He held a revolver in his right hand, the kind of gun that could definitely put a large hole in someone, especially if you used it at close range.

Since it didn't look like the dwarf was immediately going to pull the trigger, my gaze went to the other people in the boutique. Blonde was the closest to the gunman. She had one hand pressed to her cheek, probably from where the dwarf had reached across the counter and slapped her, while her other hand was clamped over her mouth to hold back her screams. She wasn't entirely successful at that, though, and a series of high-pitched squeaks filled the air, almost like a dog whimpering.

Finn stood about ten feet away from the dwarf. He must have been talking to Red when the gunman entered the store, because he'd put himself in between her and the dwarf. Red had the same stunned, horrified expression on her face that Blonde had.

Finn had his hands up, although his eyes were narrowed, assessing the dwarf and the danger he presented, just like I was.

The first thing I did was look past the gunman and through the boutique windows, just in case he had a partner waiting outside, but I didn't see anyone loitering on the sidewalk or sitting in a getaway car by the curb. A solo job, then.

The second thing I did was study the dwarf to see if it looked like he was searching the store for someone else--me, Gin Blanco, aka the assassin known as the Spider.

By killing Mab, I'd inadvertently made myself a popular target in the underworld, and more than one of the crime bosses had put a bounty on my head, hoping to establish themselves as Ashland's new head honcho by taking me out. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility to think that the dwarf had followed Finn and me to the boutique on someone's orders.

But the only thing the dwarf was interested in was the jewelry. His eyes glinted and his mouth curved up into a satisfied smile as he glanced down at all the expensive baubles. So this was nothing more than a simple robbery, then. Plenty of those in Ashland, even up here in the rarefied air of Northtown. Really, if the Posh owners were going to keep all those diamonds around, then they should have at least hired a giant or two to guard them.

"Move!" the dwarf barked, pointing his gun at Blonde. "Over there with the others. Now!"

Blonde, who'd been behind the counter, hurried around it and stopped next to Red, putting the other woman and Finn between her and the robber. Well, at least she had a good sense of self-preservation. Red knew it, too; she gave her coworker a hostile glance over her shoulder.

I turned my attention back to the robber, wondering if he might have any magic to go along with his inherent dwarven strength and the hand cannon he was sporting. But the dwarf's eyes didn't glow, and I didn't sense anything emanating from him. No hot, invisible waves of Fire power, no cold, frosty blasts of Ice magic, and nothing else to indicate that he was an elemental. Good. That would make this easier.

"Give me the key!" the dwarf snapped at Blonde as he moved behind the counter. "Now!"

With a shaking hand, Blonde pulled a set of keys out of her pants pocket, stepped around the others and over to the robber, holding them out to him at arm's length. The dwarf grabbed the keys and used one of them to open the lock on the jewelry case, instead of just smashing the glass and setting off the alarms. He threw the keys down on the floor and started shoving bracelets, rings, and necklaces into his jeans pockets.

I looked at the knives I'd piled on the bench inside the fitting room alongside my clothes. Normally I carried five silverstone knives on me--one up either sleeve, one against the small of my back, and two in the sides of my boots--but I'd removed them when I'd started trying on the dresses. I couldn't exactly go outside with a knife in my hand, since that would ruin whatever element of surprise I had, and there was no time to change back into my regular clothes. Cursing Finn under my breath, I hiked up the long skirt of the dress I was wearing and opened the fitting room door.

"Darling!" I squealed, rushing into the storefront. "Isn't this dress just the most divine thing you've ever seen!"

I twirled around and managed to put myself in between Finn and the robber. With the yellow dress, I might as well have been a mother duck, watching over her little ones.

"Darling? I thought you said she was your sister!" Red hissed.

A dwarf had threatened to shoot her and was now robbing the store, and Red was still more worried about Finn's marital status than all that. Someone's priorities were a little skewed.

Finn winced and gave her an apologetic shrug, but he never took his eyes off the dwarf.

The dwarf's head snapped up at the sound of my voice, and the gun followed a second later. He stepped to the end of the counter and grabbed hold of my bare arm, his fingers digging into my skin as he pulled me next to him. His hot breath wafted up my nose, reeking of onions and garlic. I hoped he'd enjoyed whatever he'd had for lunch today because he was going to be eating through a straw soon enough.

"Who the hell are you?" he growled, shoving the gun in my face. "Where did you come from?"

"I was... I was... I was in the back, trying on some evening gowns," I said in the breathiest, most terrified and helpless voice I could muster. "I don't want any trouble. Please, please, please don't shoot me!"

The dwarf stared at me for several seconds before he lowered his gun and let go of my arm.

"Just so you know, that's the ugliest damn dress I've ever seen," he said. "You look like a fucking daffodil."

He shook his head and reached inside the case to grab another handful of jewelry. The second his eyes dropped to the diamonds, I stepped forward, yanked the gun out of his hand, and drove my fist into the side of his face.

With his dense, dwarven musculature, it was like smashing my knuckles into a cement block. My punch didn't have much effect, except to make him stop looting the jewelry case and focus all his attention on me, but that was exactly what I wanted.

"Stupid bitch!" he growled, stretching his hands out to grab me. "I'll kill you for that--"

I pistol-whipped him across the face with the gun. My fist might not have had much of an impact, but the sharp edges and heavy, solid weight of the weapon did. His nose cracked from the force, and blood arced through the air, the warm, sticky drops spattering onto my skin.

The dwarf howled with pain, but he reached for me again. I tightened my grip on the gun and slammed it into his face once more. And I didn't stop there. Again and again I hit him, smashing the weapon into his features as hard as I could. The dwarf fought back, wildly swinging his fists at me over and over again. Despite the blood running in his eyes, he was a decent fighter, so I grabbed hold of my Stone magic and pushed the cool power outward, hardening my skin into an impenetrable shell.

Good thing, since the dwarf's fist finally connected with my face.

Given his strength, the blow rocked me back, and I felt the force of it reverberate through my entire body, but it didn't shatter my jaw like it would have if I hadn't been using my magic to protect myself. Still, the dwarf took it as a sign of encouragement that he'd finally been able to hit me.

"Not so tough, now, are you?" he snarled, advancing on me again.

"Tough enough to do this," I said.

I waited until he was back in range, blocked his next blow and then used the gun to coldcock him in the temple. His eyes widened, taking on a glassy sheen, and then rolled up in the back of his head as he slumped to the floor.

"You know, Gin, you really should warm up before you tee off on somebody like that," Finn murmured, leaning across the counter and staring down at the dwarf. "Wouldn't want you to pull a muscle or anything."

"Oh, no," I sniped, letting go of my Stone magic so that my skin would revert back to its normal texture. "We wouldn't want that. Have I told you how much I hate shopping?"

Finn just grinned, and pulled out his cell phone from his jacket pocket to call Bria and report the attempted robbery. I used the long skirt of the dress to wipe my prints off the gun, and then put the weapon down on top of the jewelry case.

I'd just started to head to the fitting room to change back into my own clothes, when the two saleswomen blocked my path. They both looked at me with serious expressions. They were probably going to thank me for saving them--

"You know you have to pay for that," Red said.

"Oh, yeah," Blonde chimed in. "That's a ten-thousand-dollar dress you just got blood all over."

Blood? There hadn't been that much blood. It wasn't like I'd sliced the dwarf's throat open with one of my knives, which is what I usually did when bad folks crossed my path.

I opened my mouth to respond, when I caught sight of my reflection in one of the mirrors on the wall. Dark brown hair, gray eyes, pale skin. I looked the same as always, except for the flowing yellow dress--and the blood that covered my hands, arms, and chest. Actually, being covered in blood pretty much was the same as always for me. But the dwarf had bled more than I'd thought, and the fancy gown now looked like it had come straight out of a horror movie where everyone dies at the big dance.

I started to push past the two women, but they crossed their arms over their chests and held their ground. Apparently, the sight of a ruined dress was more offensive than the fact that I'd just bludgeoned someone unconscious right in front of them.

"I just saved your snotty little store from getting robbed, not to mention kept that dwarf from probably killing you both, and you actually think you're going to charge me for it?" I stepped forward. "Keep talking, and this dress won't be the only thing in here with blood on it, sugar."

Red paled. After a moment, she stepped aside. I turned my cold gaze to Blonde, who sucked in a breath and stepped aside, too.

I stomped past them, went into the fitting room, closed the door behind me, and peeled off the gown. I put it on its hanger and placed it on the back of the door. Now instead of being canary yellow, the top of the dress had taken on a bright crimson color, and blood had even oozed down the full skirt, giving the whole garment a garish, tie-dye effect.

Still, as I stared at the disastrous dress, I couldn't help but smile.

Finn was right.

Yellow really wasn't my color--red was.

Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Estep


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