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Venom in the Veins: An Elemental Assassin Book by Jennifer Estep (1)


Chapter One


“Tonight is going to be awesome.”

I looked over at Finnegan Lane, my foster brother. “Really? Why is that?”

He grinned. “Because we’re eating at the most expensive restaurant in Ashland, and I’m not paying for it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Only you would judge the quality of a meal by how much it impacts your wallet.”

Finn’s grin widened. “What can I say? I’m a total food connoisseur that way.”

In keeping with his so-called connoisseur status, he grabbed a roll out of the bread basket in the center of a table, slathered it with honey butter, and shoved the whole thing into his mouth. Finn sighed with happiness as he chewed and swallowed. Then he grabbed another roll and slathered even more butter onto it than he had on the first one. He was probably wishing the butter was melted so he could dunk his entire roll into it.

Being a fine Southern gentleman, Finnegan Lane considered butter a dipping sauce, rather than a mere garnish, and he felt the exact same way about ranch dressing, honey mustard, sour cream, and even mayonnaise on occasion. And I agreed with his assessment one hundred percent, being a fine Southern lady myself.

We were dining at Underwood’s, the city’s most expensive and highfalutin restaurant, the sort of fancy, froufrou place that frowned on treating butter and other common condiments as dipping sauces. Their loss.

Pristine white linens covered our table, along with gleaming crystal wineglasses, polished silverware, and the sterling-silver bread basket that Finn was rapidly emptying. Everything from the linens to the glasses to the butter knives was either patterned, etched, or stamped with a small fork, the restaurant’s rune and a symbol for all the good food it served.

Our table was situated in the back corner, right next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered sweeping views of the Ashland skyline. Down below, the lights burned bright and steady in the surrounding shops and restaurants, inviting people to step inside and get out of the cold, snowy evening. The combined glow of the lights stretched across the Aneirin River, making the water shimmer like a silver ribbon as it curled through the downtown area. In the distance, I could just make out the white gleam of the Delta Queen riverboat casino, anchored at its usual dock.

I admired the view for another moment before staring back out at the restaurant. It was just after six o’clock, and Underwood’s was filling up for the evening. Some diners were already cutting into their grilled steaks and charred chickens, but most folks were clustered around the bar, squeezing in one last business meeting over drinks before either heading home for the day or getting their party started for the night.

Finn and I were here on business too, waiting for Stuart Mosley, Finn’s boss and the president of First Trust bank.

I checked my watch. “What did you say Mosley was doing? It’s not like him to be even a few minutes late.”

Finn finished chewing and swallowing his second roll. “He’s overseeing a few final details for the charity auction tomorrow night. You know, the one with all of Mab’s stuff.” He paused. “At least, the stuff that wasn’t destroyed during the Briartop robbery last summer.”

I made a face. “Oh. That.”

Mab Monroe had been the Fire elemental who’d run the Ashland underworld for years before I killed her for murdering my family. After her death, Mab’s massive art collection had gone to the Briartop museum to be displayed, but a group of giant robbers had crashed the exhibit’s opening-night gala, destroying much of the art. Of course, I’d stopped the robbers, but not before they’d killed and injured several innocent people during their attempted heist.

What was left of the art had been put into storage, and various legal wranglings had gone on for the last several months, until the Briartop board of directors had finally decided to auction off everything for charity. The money raised would go to the robbery victims and their families, as well as helping to pay for repairs and new security measures at Briartop. Something that was desperately needed, since the museum kept getting knocked over like it was a common convenience store rather than a prestigious art institution.

“Mosley’s on the museum board, right?” I asked.

Finn reached for a third roll. “Yep. The charity auction was his idea, and he’s the one who’s overseeing everything, including cataloging and storing the art and arranging for the rest of Mab’s things to be safeguarded until the auction.”

All the talk of the Fire elemental made my hands start itching and burning, and I stared down at the marks branded into my palms, each one a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. Spider runes, the symbol for patience.

Even now, all these years later, every time I looked at the scars, I still half expected the runes to be as red, raw, and blistered as the night Mab had burned them into my skin with her cruel magic. The marks might have faded to their current pale silver, but my memories were as hot and fresh as the rolls Finn kept gobbling down.

My hands reflexively curled into fists, hiding the scars, but I forced them open again. A silverstone ring stamped with my spider rune glinted on my right index finger, and I twisted it around several times. Then I raised my hand, grabbed the spider rune pendant hanging around my neck, and ran it back and forth on its silverstone chain. Focusing on the solid, tangible feel of the other runes—my spider runes now—helped me to ignore the lingering phantom pain in my palms and all the horrible memories that came along with it.

“I hope the boss man gets here soon,” Finn said. “I’m starving.”

He reached for the fourth and final roll in the basket, but I smacked his hand away.

“Leave one for Mosley. This dinner was his idea, after all. And as you so eloquently pointed out, you’re not the one paying for it. He is. The man should actually get some food for his money.”

Finn’s green eyes narrowed, and he rubbed his thumb over the hilt of his butter knife like he was thinking about brandishing it at me.

I grinned. “You really want to get into a knife fight with me? Go ahead, sugar. You just go right ahead.”

His gaze dropped to the long sleeves of my black pantsuit jacket and the two knives that he knew I had tucked away there—silverstone blades that were a lot stronger and sharper than the pitiful little one he was holding.

He sighed and put down his knife. “You’re no fun.”

My grin widened. “So you keep telling me.”

A waiter came over to our table. “Ms. Blanco?” he asked. “Ms. Gin Blanco?”

I tensed. “Yeah, that’s me.”

The waiter bowed and held out a bottle of champagne. “Compliments of the gentleman to your right.”

I looked over at the table in question to find a man with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and tan skin staring at me. Liam Carter, one of Ashland’s many criminal bosses, respectfully raised his own glass of champagne to me, as did the two giants sitting with him. I tipped my head, politely acknowledging his presence and his gift, even though I was sighing on the inside.

Even here, in a nice, quiet restaurant, on an evening when I just wanted to relax, I couldn’t escape being myself, Gin Blanco, the Spider, Ashland’s most feared assassin and the supposed queen of the underworld.

The waiter expertly popped open the champagne, poured glasses for Finn and me, and left our table. I didn’t really want any champagne, but it would have been exceedingly rude to ignore the gift, so I lifted my glass to Carter in a silent toast of appreciation and respect and drank a generous portion of the cold, sparkling liquid. He returned the gesture, then started talking to his two associates again.

I took another, much smaller sip of champagne, just to be polite, but the fizzy bubbles created an intense ticklish sensation in my head. I set my glass aside and raised my hand to my face, so that no one would notice me twitching my nose from side to side to alleviate the pressure. Owen Grayson, my significant other, teasingly called it my sour carrots face, like I was a rabbit who had bitten into something she didn’t like.

Champagne almost always made me feel this way, and a couple of mouthfuls was all it took to trigger a violent sneezing fit, something I couldn’t afford in front of Carter or the other bosses dining here. They would think I was a lightweight who couldn’t hold her liquor, which would totally ruin my badass reputation.

Finn sipped his own drink and sighed with appreciation. “What do you have going on with Liam Carter that would prompt him to send you champagne?”

I shrugged. “I’m helping him negotiate a peace treaty with one of his rivals. He’s also been coming to the Pork Pit a lot lately. Supposedly, he just loves my cooking, but I think he’s really there to flirt with Silvio. But so far, Silvio has been resisting his advances. Apparently, Silvio’s coffee date over the holidays didn’t go so well, and he’s a little gun-shy now.”

Silvio Sanchez was my personal assistant and even more reticent and cautious with his feelings than I was with mine.

Finn eyed Liam Carter’s navy suit and gave an approving nod. “Well, he certainly has good taste in champagne and clothes. Those are two definite points in his favor. Silvio could do a lot worse.”

I snorted. “Let me guess. You would judge a man’s dating potential by how expensive his tie is.”

“If I were interested in guys? Absolutely. Clothes don’t make the man, but they certainly can help.” Finn reached up and infinitesimally adjusted his own silver tie, which was already perfectly straight, before smoothing down his gray suit jacket. “Then again, there are those of us who are just naturally beautiful.”

He winked at me, then patted his coif of walnut-brown hair. Once he was sure it was still perfectly in place, he grabbed his butter knife again and started turning it back and forth, like it was a mirror that he was trying to line up with his face.

“If you start admiring your reflection in that, I’m going to take that knife away and cut you with it,” I warned. “Knives are for eating. Or stabbing people. Nothing else.”

Finn grinned and opened his mouth to respond, but his gaze flicked past me, and he waved at someone across the room. “Ix-nay on the ill-kay talk. Mosley’s here.”

I looked in that direction. Stuart Mosley pointed us out to the hostess by the entrance and headed over to us, winding his way around the other tables and nodding at the folks he knew.

Mosley was a dwarf, around five feet tall, with wavy silver hair, hazel eyes, and a hooked nose that made him look like he’d been punched in the face more than once. Like Finn and most of the other men in the restaurant, Mosley was wearing an expensive suit, although his was a dark, anonymous navy instead of my brother’s more stylish and flashy pewter-gray.

He reached our table. “My apologies,” he rumbled. “I had to handle a few last-minute details for the charity auction tomorrow night.”

I nodded back at him. “Finn told me as much. Please sit. We were just looking over the menu.”

Mosley settled himself at the table, and the waiter came over and took our drink orders. Scotch for Finn and Mosley and a gin on the rocks with a twist of lime for me. Gin for Gin, as was my tradition. A few minutes later, the waiter returned with our drinks and took our dinner orders.

Mosley downed his Scotch in one long gulp and signaled for another, which the waiter quickly deposited on the table. Then he sighed and shook his head. “I swear, this event is going to be the death of me. I just spent the last hour debating whether we should have white roses or orchids at the auction site tomorrow night. An hour! As if I care about the flowers.”

I hid a smile. Stuart Mosley might be one of the most influential men in Ashland, but he’d never struck me as a society schmoozer. From the tidbits Finn had told me over the past few weeks, the other board members were driving the dwarf plumb crazy with their increasingly elaborate and expensive ideas for the auction.

“This was supposed to be a low-key event, but they’ve turned it into a damn circus,” Mosley kept grumbling. “If it were up to me, I’d have the auction in the middle of a field somewhere. But no, we had to have food and flowers and music and a venue.” He spat out the last word like it was a curse.

“And just when I think everything is finally settled, someone wants to change the flowers at the last minute. I thought that white orchids were perfectly fine, but no, apparently, I’m wrong, and white roses will be far more elegant.” He spat out that word as well, as though he had heard it so often that he wanted to permanently remove it from everyone’s vocabulary.

“Well, look on the bright side—it will all be over with tomorrow night,” Finn said, trying to be cheerful.

Mosley massaged his temples. “Trust me, I am well aware of that, and I am counting down the hours.”

After a few seconds, he sighed, dropped his hands, and steepled his fingers together. “But the two of you didn’t come here tonight to hear me complain. You came to talk about Fletcher.”

Finn and I both sat up a little straighter. Fletcher Lane was Finn’s late father and my assassin mentor, so he’d meant the world to both of us. He’d also been friends with Mosley, who seemed to know all about Fletcher’s tendency to help people who couldn’t help themselves, especially as the assassin the Tin Man.

“Anything you could tell us might be useful,” I said. “Anything at all, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. Especially when it comes to Fletcher and the Circle.”

The Circle was a secret society that was responsible for much of the crime and corruption in Ashland. Mab Monroe had been heavily involved in the group, and so had my mother, Eira Snow. Something that had come as quite a shock to me, since I’d thought that Mab had killed my mother and my older sister, Annabella, because of a long-standing family feud between the Monroes and the Snows. But the truth was that the other members of the Circle had ordered Mab to murder my family—something they were going to pay for dearly.

Ever since I’d found out about my mother’s involvement with the shadowy group a couple of months ago, I had been tracking down every single scrap of information on the Circle and its members that I could find. My search had eventually led me to several safety-deposit boxes that Fletcher had entrusted to Mosley to watch over at First Trust bank.

“Well, I know that you’ve seen all those photos Fletcher left behind in his boxes,” Mosley said. “And by now, I imagine that you’ve identified everyone in the pictures. The folks who are still alive, anyway.”

Finn and I both nodded.

“But other than that, I don’t think I can be of any help,” he continued. “Fletcher never told me much about the Circle. Just that the people in those photos were some of the members, that they were all extremely dangerous, and that I should be careful if I ever had any dealings with them. All I ever really knew was that Fletcher was keeping an eye on those folks. I asked him about the Circle, of course, more than once. But for some reason, he just didn’t want to talk about it. He always seemed…sad and a bit…regretful whenever I brought it up.”

Frustration surged through me, but I wasn’t surprised. Fletcher had loved keeping secrets, and he would have been especially careful with one of this magnitude. I doubted he would have told Mosley anything about the Circle if he hadn’t had to rent those safety-deposit boxes from the dwarf in order to keep the information safe.

Still, I wondered at Mosley’s assessment of Fletcher’s emotions. Why would the old man be sad about the Circle? Much less regretful? This puzzle still had a lot of missing pieces, so I decided to focus on one of the few leads I had.

“What about Mason?” I asked. “Did Fletcher ever mention anyone by that name to you? Anyone at all?”

I held my breath, hoping, hoping, hoping that I might finally get an answer about who Mason really was, other than the mysterious leader of the Circle and the man who was ultimately responsible for my mother’s murder.

Mosley drummed his fingers on the table, thinking. But after a moment, his fingers stilled, and he shook his head. “Not that I recall. There are a lot of Masons in this town. I’ve done business with several folks with that name, but no one sticks out or seems like they could be the person you’re searching for. I’m sorry, Gin.”

My breath escaped in a loud, disappointed rush, but I forced myself to smile at him. “It’s not your fault. Sometimes I think Fletcher was far too sneaky for his own good.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Mosley smiled back at me, but sadness tinged his expression. “Ain’t that the truth.”

* * *

The waiter returned with our food, and we dug into our meals. My black-pepper-crusted steak was perfectly cooked and seasoned, while my potatoes au gratin were baked to a delicious, crunchy golden-brown and loaded with gruyere cheese, sour cream, chives, and bacon. It was hard to beat a gourmet steak-and-potatoes meal, especially at Underwood’s, where it was always done right.

While we ate, Mosley regaled Finn and me with all sorts of tales about Fletcher, from the silly to the serious. The two of them had been far better friends than I’d realized, and they’d done everything together from fishing to facing off against various bad guys.

Fletcher’s death would always be a cold sting in my heart, and I would always feel guilty that I hadn’t been able to save him from being murdered, but it was nice to reminisce about the old man and how much we had all loved him. It eased the ache of his loss, at least for tonight.

We were eating dessert—caramel-apple cheesecake topped with vanilla-bean whipped cream, warm caramel sauce, and dried apple chips—when Mosley snapped his fingers.

“You know what? I do remember something else, an old book that Fletcher left with me. I think he was going to put it in a safety-deposit box.” His cheerful expression faded away. “But he never got the chance to tell me what to do with it before he died.”

Hope sparked in my chest.

Finn leaned forward, his eyes bright with excitement, as eager as I was. “Where’s the book?” he asked. “Do you know what’s inside it?”

Mosley shook his head. “Nope. I respected Fletcher’s privacy, so I never looked through it. All I know is that the book is in my new house, buried in a box somewhere. I’m almost done putting stuff away from my move, and I’m down to my last few boxes. I should be able to find it in a day or two—”

His phone rang, cutting him off. Mosley picked up the device and grimaced as he stared at the number on the screen. “If this damn auction doesn’t kill me first,” he muttered.

“Problems?” I asked in a wry tone.

“Unless I miss my guess, there’s been some new crisis with the flowers.” His lips curled in disgust, and he shook his head. “I would ignore it, but she’ll probably just keep right on calling until I answer. Please excuse me.”

“Of course,” I murmured. “Take your time.”

He flashed me a grateful smile, then got to his feet and swiped his finger across the screen. “This is Mosley.”

He started talking into his phone and slowly wandered away from our table.

And that’s when I realized that we were being watched.

A woman sitting alone at the end of the bar swiveled around on her stool, her dark gaze sweeping back and forth across our table, watching Finn and me.

Finn didn’t notice her, so I scraped up the last bite of my cheesecake, ate it, and set my fork and plate aside, acting perfectly normal. All the while, though, I stared at her out of the corner of my eye so she wouldn’t realize that I’d spotted her.

She was quite lovely, with long, wavy brown hair, dark eyes, and bronze skin, and her little red cocktail dress hugged her body in all the right places. The bright scarlet made her stand out against the backdrop of dark suits, and more than one person eyed her with obvious interest.

A guy decided to try his luck, and he swaggered over and started chatting her up. But the woman ignored his attempt at suave charm and leaned to the side. Her gaze focused on Finn and me for another moment, then skittered away to someone else.

Stuart Mosley.

Even though that guy was standing right in front of her, still talking, the woman was squarely focused on the dwarf, who was now pacing back and forth along the wall, growling into his phone.

My eyes narrowed. Why was she interested in Mosley?

My spider rune scars started itching and burning again, almost as if they were trying to warn me about this potential new threat. Or perhaps that was just my own always-simmering paranoia immediately boiling up to red-alert levels.

The guy asked her something, probably offering to buy her a drink, but the woman shook her head, grabbed her red clutch off the bar, got to her feet, and walked away from him. She headed toward the dining area and started skirting around the tables, her gaze still fixed on Mosley.

I elbowed Finn in the side, making him drop his last bite of cheesecake onto his gray silk tie. He gasped in horror, tossed his fork aside, and dabbed his napkin at his tie. He managed to wipe off the cheesecake, but a big blotchy spot remained behind from the caramel sauce.

“This tie is a Fiona Fine original that Bria gave me for Christmas,” he muttered, shooting me a dirty look. “It is my very favorite tie, and now it has a stain on it, a stain that will probably never come out.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll buy you a new one.” I discreetly tilted my head in the woman’s direction. “Focus, Finn, focus. You ever seen her before?”

He finally quit glaring at me and shifted his attention to the other woman. After a moment, he perked right back up again. “No, and that’s a shame. Because yowza! Remember what I said about clothes helping to make a man? Well, that dress is doing the same thing for her.”

“She’s not a bank client?”

He studied her a little more closely, then shook his head. “Nope. I’ve never seen her at the bank.”

The woman left the maze of tables behind and made a beeline straight for Mosley. She also popped open her red clutch and reached for something inside.

I dropped my hand below the tabletop and palmed a knife. I started to surge to my feet to cut her off from Mosley, but Finn touched my arm, stopping me.

“Wait, Gin,” he murmured. “Wait. Relax. She’s not going to do anything to him in the middle of the restaurant. Besides, Mosley can take care of himself. Let it play out.”

I stayed seated, although my fingers tightened around my knife. The feel of the spider rune stamped into the hilt pressing against the larger, matching scar in my palm steadied me and helped me rein in some of my worry.

Finn was right. Whoever she was, the woman wasn’t going to hurt Mosley in front of all these witnesses. Not even the most brazen assassin would do something that stupid.

Mosley finished his call, and the woman sidled up to him. She favored him with a wide, dazzling smile, showing off the fangs in her mouth that marked her as a vampire, and then leaned forward, giving him an up-close and personal look at her impressive cleavage. I tensed when she pulled her hand out of her purse, still half expecting her to come up with a weapon…but she only drew out a gold tube of lipstick.

The woman uncapped the tube and ran the red lipstick over her pouty mouth, giving Mosley her best come-hither look and letting him know that she was available for whatever he wanted.

“See?” Finn leaned back in his chair. “She’s just trying to pick him up. She probably wants someone to pay for her drinks and dinner. Quit being so paranoid, Gin.”

He might be right, but if that was the case, then why hadn’t she let the other guy at the bar do that? That man had been right in front of her and more than eager to buy what she was selling, but she’d ignored him in favor of walking all the way across the restaurant to try her luck with Mosley instead.

I shook my head. “I still don’t like it.”

“Well, you’re in luck, because neither does Mosley,” Finn replied.

Sure enough, the dwarf politely shook his head, turning down whatever the woman had proposed. He started to walk around her, but she moved in front of him, blocking his path. She tried again, but Mosley shook his head, the same as before. This time, he did move around her, heading toward Finn and me.

Mosley had his back to the woman, so he didn’t see her dark eyes narrow, her red lips pinch together, or her manicured fingers curl around her lipstick tube like she wanted to bean him in the back of the head with it.

But I did.

I had never seen her before, but in that moment, I realized something important: she wasn’t the kind of woman who took no for an answer. Whatever she wanted from Mosley, she was determined to get it.

Finn had been wrong before. I wasn’t paranoid, and tonight wasn’t going to be awesome.

It was going to be dangerous.