Too bad it was a meeting neither one of them would live through.
Through the grate, I watched a third man step into the office—a giant who was almost seven feet tall. He wore a uniform marking him as one of the building’s security guards. The two businessmen hung back while the giant did a sweep of the office, peering behind the desk and the wet bar, then going into the private bathroom and repeating the process with a glance into the shower. The nightly sweep was another reason I’d chosen to make my approach through the air duct, rather than just hiding in a dark corner somewhere.
A moment later, the giant stepped back out into the office. “All clear, sir,” he said. “The rest of the floor has been checked and is empty as well.”
My target nodded his thanks, and the giant left the room, closing the door behind him.
The second man immediately moved over to the bar, grabbed a bottle of Scotch, and poured himself a healthy amount in a tumbler. He swallowed the amber-colored liquor and nodded his head in approval. Then he turned his attention to his friend.
“Any sign of her today?” the drinker asked.
The target shook his head. “Nothing so far.”
The drinker grinned. “Well, since the Spider hasn’t come to call yet and it looks like you get to live another day, let’s get down to business. I happen to have someone waiting up for me tonight. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
My target smiled at that, and the two men opened their briefcases. They spread the papers inside over a table in front of the bar, then sat in the chairs on either side and got to work.
“Now,” the drinker began, “as you can see from these latest tax and earnings figures . . .”
I waited until the two men were thoroughly engrossed in their conversation before I slowly, carefully, quietly, removed the grate from the air duct opening. I paused, waiting to see if they’d noticed the slight, furtive movement above their heads, but of course they didn’t. Few people bothered to look up—even those knowingly being hunted by a notorious assassin like me.
I put the grate to one side of the duct and made sure the gun was within easy reach in its slot on the front of my vest. Then I slowly wiggled forward until I was at the edge of the opening. I drew in a breath, let it out, and slid forward.
I let my weight and gravity pull me down before grabbing the edge of the duct, flipping over, letting go, and landing on my feet facing the two men. They’d barely had time to blink, much less get to their feet, before the gun was in my hand and trained on my target.
I double-tapped my target in the chest, and he dropped to the carpet without a sound. I trained my gun on the second man, who leaped to his feet, put up his hands in a placating gesture, and started backing away.
“Hello, Finn,” I said in a mocking voice to the drinker. “Weren’t expecting to see me here, were you?”
Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, looked at me, a clear plea in his eyes. “You don’t have to do this. You’ve proven your point by icing Owen there already. This whole thing was your lover’s brilliant idea, not mine. Don’t blame me for his mistakes.”
I gestured with the gun at Owen’s prone form. “That’s not how I remember things. In fact, I distinctly recall you being the mouthpiece behind this whole situation. You were the one who kept pushing and pushing me. Well, tonight, I finally push back.”
When he realized I couldn’t be reasoned with, Finn decided to try another tactic—bribery. “I’ll pay you whatever you want to put the gun down and walk away, you know that.”
“I do know that.” A cold, cruel smile curved my lips. “But walking away is not nearly as much fun as this is. You know that as well as I do.”
“No, please, don’t—”
I pulled the trigger twice, cutting off his protests, and Finn joined my lover on the floor.
Then Finn let out a loud, unhappy sigh and climbed to his feet.
“Really, Gin, did you have to ruin my suit?” he said. “This was a Fiona Fine original.”
He stared down at the bright red paint splattered across the black fabric of his suit jacket and gray shirt. Then Finn raised his head and glared at me, his green eyes bright in his ruddy face. I didn’t bother pointing out that the paint had also splashed onto his face and up into his walnut-colored locks. He was just as obsessive about his hair as he was about his suits, and it just wouldn’t do for Finnegan Lane to ever look anything less than perfect.
“I agree with Finn,” Owen rumbled and sat up. “I didn’t think our little experiment would get quite so messy.”
Owen Grayson got to his feet, his chest covered in just as much red paint as Finn’s was. Still, despite his ruined suit, my eyes traced over him, from his blue-black hair to his intense violet eyes to his strong, muscled body. No amount of paint could dampen Owen’s rugged appeal or the way he had of making me feel like I was one of the most important people in the world to him.
I walked over, leaned against the desk, and pointed my paintball gun at Owen. “You should have known better than to let Finn talk you into drinking so much at Northern Aggression. Drunken challenges issued to assassins rarely end well for the challenger. Or challengers, in this case.”
Finn stopped trying to scrub the paint off his shirt long enough to glare at me again.
“As I recall, I wasn’t drinking alone, and you and I had quite a bit of fun later on that night,” Owen said in a husky voice.
“Maybe.” I agreed with a grin. “But Finn was the one who bet me dinner at Underwood’s that I couldn’t kill you both by the end of the month. So you only have yourselves to blame.”
Finn sniffed his displeasure. “You still didn’t have to ruin my suit.”
“No,” I agreed. “I didn’t have to ruin it. That was just an added bonus.”
He narrowed his eyes, but I just gave him my most innocent, gracious, beatific Southern smile.
“Well, it’s getting late, and I’m supposed to head over to Bria’s,” Finn said. “And I obviously can’t go looking like this.”
I rolled my eyes at his put-upon tone, but Owen just laughed.
“Go,” Owen said. “Get cleaned up. We can finish our business tomorrow.”
“Say hi to Bria for me,” I added in a sugary-sweet voice.
Finn grumbled something under his breath about what I could do with certain parts of my anatomy before packing up his papers and briefcase and leaving.
“Well,” Owen said after Finn had shut the office door a little harder than necessary. “You got us both, just like you said you would.”
I grinned again. “That’s what people pay me for. Or used to pay me for.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Good to know retirement hasn’t lessened your skills any.”
I shrugged. We both knew I couldn’t afford to let myself get rusty. Not now, when so many folks in Ashland and beyond would love nothing more than to see me dead. Back in the winter, I’d finally killed Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who’d run the Ashland underworld for years. Pro-fucking-bono, as it were. Mab had murdered my mother and sister when I was thirteen, and her death had been about revenge to me more than anything else. But the Fire elemental’s demise had left a power vacuum in the city, and now every lowlife and not-so-lowlife was clawing for that power, position, and prestige. Some of them thought the best way to get all that was by killing me, Gin Blanco, the semiretired assassin known as the Spider.
So far, I’d put all the challengers in the ground along with Mab, but they just kept on coming. A few weeks ago, I’d brought up the idea of testing and updating the security at all the places I frequented, including Owen’s home and office. There was no point in making things easy for my would-be murderers. Then Finn had piped up and suggested we make it into a contest—with him and Owen trying to outwit me. Of course, that hadn’t turned out exactly like Finn had planned, but I was happy with the outcome. I always liked to win, no matter the game.
“So give me the rundown,” Owen said. “Exactly how did you get into that air duct?”
I recapped my wanderings through the parking garage, maintenance halls, stairwell, office, and air ducts.
“Overall, your security’s sound,” I said. “All we have to do is fix a few holes here and there, and no one will be able to get to you, me, or anyone else in here without bringing down the whole building.”
His eyes were fixed on mine, but there was a blank look on his face, as though he were only listening to my words with half an ear. I know it wasn’t the most romantic talk, detailing how I’d just paintballed my lover, but this wasn’t the first time he’d spaced out on me in the last few days. Something was on Owen’s mind, and I didn’t know what it was. That concerned me more than I would have liked, especially since I’d given him plenty of openings to tell me what was bothering him—openings he hadn’t taken.
Something flashed in his eyes then, something that almost looked like worry, but it was gone too quickly for me to pinpoint exactly what it was. He shook his head and focused on me once more.
“Sorry,” he said. “What were you saying?”
Owen shrugged out of his suit jacket, the muscles in his arms and chest bulging with the motion. Suddenly, I was interested in playing something besides a war game. Something that would be far more entertaining and pleasurable—for both of us. Not to mention keep him firmly in the here and now with me. I didn’t like playing second fiddle any more than the next woman did, especially when I didn’t know exactly what was going on with my lover.
Owen started to loosen his tie, but I put the paintball gun down on the desk and strolled over to him. He stopped what he was doing to watch me, and I put an extra shimmy into my hips. Heat sparked in Owen’s gaze—heat that matched the warmth that was flaring up inside me as well.
“Allow me,” I said.
Owen watched with dark, hooded eyes as I unknotted his tie and let it fall to the floor. Then I ran my hands across his chest, marveling at the warm muscles there, before reaching up and undoing the top two buttons of his shirt. I pushed the fabric aside, leaned forward, and pressed a soft kiss to the hollow of his throat. Owen’s arms snaked around me, pulling me close, and his fingers began pressing into my back, urging me on. I definitely had his full attention now.
“Why don’t I help you get out of that ruined suit?” I murmured. “In addition to killing people, this assassin also happens to be exceptionally good at cleanup.”
A sexy grin spread across Owen’s rugged face, softening the scar that slashed underneath his chin. “Really? That’s something I’d be very interested in seeing.”
I led him into the bathroom. The door didn’t even shut behind us before my lips were on his and I forgot about everything but the pleasure we could give each other. There would be time enough to figure out what had Owen so worried—later.
Much, much later.
Our war games finished, it was time for me to collect my prize—dinner at Underwood’s.
The next night, Owen and I took his car over to the restaurant, which was located in a classy, older building in the city’s financial district. Owen pulled up to the sidewalk where a crimson awning bore the restaurant’s name, and we got out of the car. While he handed the keys off to a valet, I stood on the sidewalk and reached out with my Stone magic, curious about what I might hear. The brick of the building whispered of money, power, and plots, mixed with lighter notes of dishes and silverware tinkling together. Not unpleasant sounds, but ones that told me just how many dark, deadly schemes had been hatched here over dinner, dessert, and a nice bottle of wine.
Owen took my arm, and we went inside and rode the elevator up to the third and top floor, where the maître d’ escorted us to a corner table. Crimson linens covered the table, which had been set with fine white china, delicate wineglasses, and silverware that had a more highly polished luster than some diamond rings. Three crimson tapers shaped like forks burned in a crystal candelabra in the center of the table. The fork was the restaurant’s rune, representing all the good meals that could be had there, and the symbol was etched into the plates and silverware, as well as being stitched into the linens in gold thread.
Underwood’s prided itself on its excellent food, service, and luxurious trappings, but what I appreciated most was the view. The brick had been stripped from the walls and replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows, letting diners look out over the Aneirin River, which wound through this part of downtown. The shops and lights along the river made the surface of the water glimmer like a silver ribbon unspooling into the black velvet embrace of the night. In the distance, I could just make out the white gleam of the Delta Queen riverboat casino. From this angle, the riverboat looked lovely, pristine even, but, as with so many things in Ashland, what lurked beneath the pretty, polished surface was a different story.
A waiter took our drink orders—whiskey for Owen, gin and tonic for me—and handed us each a leather-bound menu. No prices were listed on the creamy white pages. Underwood’s was Ashland’s fanciest and most expensive restaurant, the kind of highfalutin place that charged you an exorbitant amount just for drinking tap water—and even more if you wanted a refill. But Finn was paying tonight, so I had no qualms about ordering whatever I wanted and enjoying every single sip of it.
“Too bad Finn and Bria couldn’t make it,” Owen said.
I snorted. “Please. Finn could have put off his meeting if he’d really wanted to. He just didn’t want to sit through dinner and listen to me gloat about how I’d won our contest and ruined his suit. Can’t say I blame him.”
“Well, then, I suppose you’ll just have to make do with my company tonight,” Owen teased.
I reached over and threaded my fingers through his, enjoying the warmth of his skin against mine. “Oh, I think I can manage.”
We talked and laughed all through dinner. The food was excellent—black-pepper-crusted steaks, along with soft, sweet sourdough rolls, perfectly grilled vegetables, and mashed sweet potatoes generously slathered with honey butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. Our waiter was attentive without intruding, and none of the other patrons paid us much attention. Even though crime bosses like Ron Donaldson and Lorelei Parker were also eating here, they merely glanced in our direction and went back to their meals and dinner companions, content to leave well enough alone—at least for tonight.
Owen and I were having a lovely evening. Until Jonah McAllister walked into the restaurant.
Among those in the underworld, McAllister was probably the person who hated me the most—with good reason. Last year, I’d killed his son, Jake, for trying to rob the Pork Pit and then wanting to rape and murder me. Plus Jonah used to be Mab’s lawyer, so I’d cut off his meal ticket and a good deal of his power and influence as well when I’d taken her out.