“I’m fine, but I’ll be better when that bitch is dead. You promised me, Gin. You promised.”
“I know,” I said in a soft voice. “But I promised Owen too.”
Eva sighed. “But he has such a blind spot when it comes to Salina. He always has.”
I didn’t tell Eva that I was planning to end that blind spot tonight—permanently. She knew as well as I did that Salina had to be put down. All that remained to be seen now was what Owen would think of me after the fact.
I looked through the binoculars a final time, then put them into the sack of supplies I’d grabbed from Finn’s car. I pulled a few things out of the bag, including some extra knives, and slid them into the pockets on my vest, before hiding the bag in a pile of leaves. As a final touch, I picked up a long staff that Finn had gotten when he’d swung by Fletcher’s house earlier—a staff that hummed with my Ice magic.
A few weeks ago, I’d used the staff to defeat Randall Dekes, a nasty vampire who’d wanted to keep me as his pet. Dekes had stolen my magic by forcibly drinking my blood, but I’d tricked him into using my own power against me, and I’d had the staff ready when he did. Since the staff was made of silverstone, it had absorbed all the magic Dekes had thrown at me. Even now, all these weeks later, the metal felt cold to the touch.
My silverstone knives also contained my Ice magic, from my fights with both Dekes and Mab before him, and they were my backup plan, just in case I couldn’t overcome Salina with the power within the staff. But if that was the case, I’d probably already be dead. Salina wouldn’t be giving me second chances to kill her.
“All right,” I said. “Stand by. I’m going in.”
“Good luck,” Eva whispered back.
I tucked the walkie-talkie into another pocket on my vest. I didn’t tell her that I was wishing for every scrap of luck I could get tonight—and then some. We all knew what was at stake.
Fortunately, the area between the woods and the lawn was still a bit overgrown from all the years of neglect during Salina’s absence, and several large holly and rhododendron bushes had sprang up, providing plenty of cover. I crept from the shadow of one bush to another, easing closer and closer to the mansion. I hadn’t spotted Owen in the crowd with my binoculars, so I had to assume he was already inside—and that Salina was with him, since she hadn’t put in an appearance yet.
The staff made it difficult to be as invisible as I wanted to be, since it was such a large weapon and the silverstone that it was made of gleamed in the sunset. But the movers and shakers were busy bullshitting and sizing each other up, while their guards all eyed each other. The waiters were just trying to keep everyone happy and their heads attached to their shoulders. So no one noticed the dark figure slinking through the shadows.
Finally, I came to the most dangerous part of my journey—a bush that was right by one of the Ice bars. It was far too close to the crowd for my liking, but it was the only way I could get to one of the mansion’s side doors. I waited until everyone was looking in the other direction, then left my hiding spot and sprinted the few feet over to the bush, crouching down behind it and making myself as small as possible.
I counted off the seconds in my head. Ten . . . twenty . . . thirty . . . forty-five . . . As the minute mark passed and no one came to investigate, I figured I was safe enough to make the final sprint from the bush over to the door.
I’d just started to move toward the house when someone planted himself on the other side of the rhododendron I was crouched behind, so close that I could see his legs through the green, glossy leaves.
“Girl,” a cold, familiar voice said.
I stiffened. I knew that voice, knew exactly who it belonged to—Jonah McAllister. Had he somehow spotted me?
“Girl,” McAllister repeated. “Come here.”
I frowned. Those weren’t the words of the man who’d just spied his mortal enemy somewhere she shouldn’t be. I peered up through the branches at him and realized that he was addressing someone else. He hadn’t seen me after all.
The smarmy lawyer wore an impeccable tux like everyone else, and his wing tips had a higher shine than some of the necklaces the women wore. McAllister’s silver coif of hair glittered with a hard, brittle light in the setting sun, and his face had an unnaturally smooth, almost waxy look to it. Jonah really needed to cut back on the Air elemental facials or soon he wouldn’t have any skin left to exfoliate.
For a moment, I considered killing him where he stood. After all the trouble he’d caused me, I would have loved nothing more than to rise up and stab McAllister to death with my knives. But I couldn’t do that without drawing attention to myself. With all the guards in attendance, I wouldn’t get three steps before one of them realized what happened, pulled out a gun, and started shooting. Besides, I wasn’t here for McAllister. No, tonight was about saving Owen and killing Salina—nothing else. So I swallowed my hatred of McAllister and kept quiet as a waitress shuffled over to him.
“Yes, sir. Champagne, sir?” she asked.
McAllister sniffed. “It’s about time. I was wondering if Salina was going to make us all thirst to death.”
I listened to the faint bubble of the fountains in the distance. I didn’t think there was any danger of that tonight.
His champagne fix satisfied, McAllister dismissed the waitress with a wave of his hand and moved toward the center of the crowd. I waited until the woman had turned back toward the bar before racing over to the side door.
The door was standing open, and I slid behind it, using it to shield me from anyone looking in my direction. I paused and peered around the edge, making sure no one had noticed me and was coming my way, but I’d made it undetected. My eyes scanned over the crowd, taking in all the underworld sharks like Ron Donaldson, Beauregard Benson, and Lorelei Parker and the bodyguards they’d brought along with them.
I also spotted Kincaid, standing by himself next to an Ice bar. His blond ponytail glimmered in the sunset. Looked like he’d used the right conditioner after all. I wasn’t surprised he’d shown up, even though Salina had tried to murder him. If everyone cut themselves off from all the folks who’d tried to kill them over the years, no one in the entire underworld would be able to do business.
The food, the guests, the lawn—the scene was disturbingly similar to the one I remembered from all those years ago when Mab had murdered Benedict Dubois, right down to the blue-green tablecloths gently flapping in the breeze. Everyone was a little older and grayer, but they still could have stepped out of one of the snapshots in Fletcher’s file. Back then, everyone had laughed and talked and drunk themselves stupid right up until Mab had started barbecuing Dubois on the very spot they were standing on once again. I wondered if any of the guests were thinking back to that night. I wondered if any of them would appreciate the cruel irony of what Salina wanted to do to them.
As I looked at the crowd, I thought about walking away from the original plan—about finding Owen, grabbing Kincaid, getting them away from the mansion and lawn, and then just going on our way and leaving the sharks to Salina to feast on. Her killing them all would make my life so much easier. More than a few of the people here had sent their goons after me these past few months, and they’d keep right on doing it as long as they thought they had a ghost of chance of taking me out. But if all the power players were dead, there would be a lot fewer folks interested in coming after me, at least in the near future, and my family and friends would be safer too. Yes, letting Salina have her revenge on them was a very, very tempting idea.
But in the end, I couldn’t do it. Sure, I was an assassin. I’d killed people for money, but I couldn’t condone mass murder, and that was what Salina had planned. She wouldn’t limit herself to just the folks who’d stood by and done nothing while Mab had tortured and killed her father. Salina would eliminate everyone there, from the gangsters to their husbands and wives to the waiters serving them all. As the Spider, I’d always tried to avoid collateral damage, but it seemed like Salina delighted in causing as much of it as possible, given what she’d done to Katarina and Antonio.
Assassins chose to kill specific people for specific reasons. I didn’t know if that made me better than her, but it at least made me different—at least I had a smidge of soul and a scrap of conscience left.
But first, I had to find Owen. I turned away from the crowd and slipped into the mansion. Lights blazed inside, banishing the shadows I would have hidden in, so I tightened my grip on the staff and hurried forward, determined to find Owen and get him out of here.
I eased down first one hallway, then another. I’d expected to see empty rooms or dusty, sheet-draped furniture, but everything from the end tables to the light fixtures gleamed, as though they had all just been polished. According to Finn, the Dubois estate had fallen into severe disrepair after Benedict’s death and Salina’s forced defection, but the place before me was immaculate, as if it had just been cleaned from top to bottom.
This wasn’t the work of someone who’d come back to town a few days ago. Salina must have been planning her return for months, to get her massive house in such pristine shape. I wondered if she’d decided to come back to Ashland before or after I’d killed Mab. Didn’t much matter. All that did was making sure I put a stop to her.
Every once in a while, footsteps would sound, signaling that a waiter or guard was coming my way, and I’d have to duck into one of the rooms, slide behind the curtains, or crouch behind a piece of furniture. But everyone was preoccupied with making sure the dinner went smoothly, so no one noticed me. No one realized the Spider was in their midst.
I moved deeper and deeper into the mansion, checking every room and every hallway I came to. Finally, I reached the center of the structure, which featured an open-air courtyard surrounded by balconies on all four sides. Another fountain, this one also shaped like a mermaid, gurgled in the middle of the area, and a variety of pink, blue, and green roses clustered together in urn-shaped, white stone planters that had been arranged around the fountain.
I’d just started forward to check the rooms that were attached to the courtyard, when I heard voices murmuring, one soft and sweet, one deep and masculine. It took me a moment to realize the sounds were coming from above my head. I craned my neck up and spotted Salina and Owen standing on a balcony on the second floor.
For a moment, everything stopped, and my heart clenched.
Salina looked as beautiful as ever, in a long, slinky dress made of aquamarine crystals sewn together in a scalloped, scale-like pattern. Her mermaid cuff bracelet flashed on her right wrist, and large diamond studs twinkled in her ears. She had her arms wrapped around Owen’s neck, and her lips and body plastered to his. She let out a soft little moan in the back of her throat and pressed herself that much closer to him. Owen didn’t seem to be returning her kiss, and his arms weren’t even touching her, but still, it hurt all the same. I pushed the feeling aside and made myself stay cold, hard, and calm. That was what I needed to be right then to save Owen and everyone else there—whether they actually deserved to be rescued or not.
I’d just started forward to find a way up to the balcony when Owen pulled Salina’s arms from around his neck and stepped away from her.
“Stop, Salina,” he said. “Stop.”
She sidled right back up to him, a pleased smile on her face. “I knew you’d come. I knew you couldn’t stay away from me, any more than I could stay away from you.”
Owen sighed, grabbed her hands from where they had crept back up to his shoulders, and stepped away from her. “That’s not why I’m here tonight, and you know it. I came because you threatened to kill Gin. You need help, Salina. You’re not well, and I think even you know it.”
The smile never left the water elemental’s beautiful face, but her eyes narrowed a little at his blunt tone. “I need help? Why? Because I want revenge for what everyone did to my father? For the horrible way I was treated? For the horrible way you let your so-called friends treat me? I don’t see anything wrong with that. Besides, your friends are all still alive.”
She didn’t add for now. She didn’t have to.
Owen shook his head. “And what about Antonio? Or Katarina? They had nothing to do with your father’s murder or anything else, other than that they were Phillip’s friends—but you still used your water magic to kill them. That was a horrible thing to do. It seems like I’m always talking about the horrible things you do, instead of the good ones.”
Salina twined her arms around Owen’s neck and raised her mouth to his, kissing him for all she was worth. He froze, apparently surprised by the fact that she just kept coming at him no matter what he said. I bit back a curse and scanned the courtyard, looking for the stairs that led up to where they were standing. Every few seconds, though, my eyes flicked up to Owen. I hated being indecisive, but I just couldn’t stop myself from eavesdropping.
“Come on,” Salina murmured against his mouth. “You remember how good it was between us? How alive we always made each other feel? I certainly do. No man I’ve been with has ever held a candle to you. I’ve spent too many nights to count dreaming about you, Owen. Dreaming about coming back to Ashland and being with you again. Can you tell me you haven’t thought the same thing? Haven’t dreamed the same thing? Haven’t wanted the same thing?”
Once again, Owen pried off Salina’s hands and mouth. This time, he pushed her away. “I’ll admit I’ve thought about you over the years. Even dreamed about you and how things might have been.”
Every word he said was like a dagger in my heart. This—this was how he really felt about Salina. This was how much he loved her, how much he’d always loved her.
“But that was before I knew why you really left Ashland all those years ago,” he continued. “That was before I knew you tortured Eva with your water magic. That was before you tried to kill Phillip and then Cooper and Gin. I can’t forget that, any of that—ever. Not even for you.”
Owen took another step away from her.
Anger flashed in Salina’s eyes, and her face tightened. “It’s because of that assassin bitch, isn’t it? That’s why you’re pulling away from me. Because of her.”
“Yes, I met her, and I finally decided to quit thinking about the past, about you, and get on with my life.” He stiffened. “Her name is Gin, and I love her, Salina.”