“Love her? You couldn’t possibly love her,” she snarled. “Not like you loved me. Not like you still love me. I know you still love me. Just give me a chance to remind you what it was like, what we were like—together.”
She reached for Owen again, but he shook his head and stepped even farther away from her.
“No, Salina,” he said. “Whatever we had was over the second you hurt Eva. I’m just sorry I didn’t know what you were really like back then so I could have protected my sister from you and tried to get you the help you need. But know this: our history together is the only reason I’m not killing you myself for what you did back then and everything you’ve done since you came back to town. You can either get yourself some help, or you can leave Ashland and never return. There is no other option.”
Let Salina leave Ashland? That wasn’t what we’d talked about—not at all. Looked like I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been completely honest about my intentions toward the water elemental.
If it comes down to Owen and Salina in the end, he won’t be able to kill her—and then she’ll murder him.
Eva’s voice whispered in my mind. She’d said those words to me the night she’d told me what Salina had done to her. I hadn’t wanted to believe they were true, but it looked like Eva had been right all along.
I stood there in the courtyard, torn between stepping back out into the hallway to find the stairs that led up to the second floor and staying put. Part of me wanted to continue eavesdropping on their conversation, but I also didn’t want to leave Owen alone with the water elemental. Not now, when he’d just rejected her. If worse came to worst, and she made a move against him, I could blast her with my Ice magic from down here. It wouldn’t be as good as ramming one of my knives into her heart, but it would probably buy me enough time to find the stairs, sprint up them, and get Owen to safety.
Salina looked stunned that Owen was rejecting her, that he didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. The anger that had been simmering in her eyes boiled up into full-on fury, until her gaze was burning as bright as the bulbs in the crystal chandelier over her head.
“I can’t believe you’re taking her side over mine!” she hissed. “Do you know what a hypocrite that makes you? Your whore of an assassin’s hands aren’t any cleaner than mine. In fact, I’d be doing the world a favor by taking her out of it. How many people do you think she’s killed over the years, Owen? And for what—money? How cheap.”
Owen squared his shoulders. “Maybe that’s true, but Gin has a good heart, something you lost a long time ago, Salina. She might have killed people, yes, but she would never hurt a child, and she would never hurt anyone I cared about. I’m sorry, but it’s over. I love Gin, and she’s who I plan on building my future with. Not you.”
My heart lifted at his words, even as Salina’s crashed and burned. She stared at him in shock, still not quite believing that things hadn’t gone exactly how she’d wanted them to, how she’d imagined they would in her head. Then, all of the prettiness suddenly drained out of her face, replaced by something cold, ugly, and slightly unhinged.
“Very well,” she said in a stiff voice. “You’ve made your choice.”
Owen nodded his head, and some of the tension eased out of his shoulders. He didn’t notice the devious smile that curved Salina’s lips—but I did.
“Guards!” she called out.
Heavy footsteps sounded, and a few seconds later, two giants stepped out onto the balcony. They must have been stationed right outside the door, waiting for Salina to summon them. Even though she’d expected the best, expected that Owen would come back to her, she’d still planned for the worst too. There was definitely a method to her madness.
“Salina, what are you doing?” Owen asked in a warning voice.
“Are the others in position?” she asked the giants.
“Yes, ma’am,” one answered.
“Good. Make sure my darling Owen stays here until after I’ve seen to my other guests. Do whatever you have to in order to keep him under control—short of killing him.”
Owen fought back when the two giants surged toward him, his fist connecting with the taller one’s jaw, knocking him back. Owen growled and drew back his fist for another punch, but the other giant threw himself on top of him. All three men went down to the floor in a heap of arms and legs. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening, not from this angle, but I heard Owen’s grunts of pain.
“Don’t struggle so hard, darling. You’re only hurting yourself. It’s most unbecoming,” Salina murmured.
Then the water elemental turned and left the balcony.
“Salina!” Owen yelled. “Salina!”
But she didn’t order the giants to stand down, and she didn’t come back. He kept fighting to get free, even as the other men kept hitting him. They were all tangled together, which meant that I couldn’t risk using my Ice magic. I also abandoned my plan of searching for the stairs. That would take too much time now. Instead, I laid my staff down on the floor, grabbed a chair from against the wall, carried it across the courtyard, and put it right below the balcony where Owen was still struggling. I backed up to the opposite side of the courtyard, calculating the height and angles. Then, I ran forward, jumped up into the seat, leaped onto the very top of the chair, and launched myself into the air.
I managed to get high enough to grab hold of the bottom edge of the stone balcony. I hung there for a moment, like a spider dangling in the breeze, and then pulled myself up and over the side. The giants were too busy trying to pin Owen to the floor to notice me come up behind them, knives ready.
I fell on top of one, my blades punching into his back. He screamed with pain and clawed at me with his right hand. I pulled my knives out and plunged them into his body again, sawing through his thick muscles.
The other giant’s head snapped around at his buddy’s screams, and he lashed out at me with his fist. I managed to dodge his blow, yank my knives out of the first guy, and get back up on my feet. The giant I’d wounded tried to stand, so I kicked him in the head as hard as I could. He groaned and slumped back down on the floor.
The second giant scrambled to his feet and held up his hands in a classic boxer’s stance.
“If I were you, I’d be running at this point,” I hissed.
He came at me anyway. He swung his fist at my face in a quick jab, but I dodged the blow and stepped in closer to his body, ramming my knife into his chest. The giant screamed as I pulled the blade out and stabbed it into his chest a second time. He put his hands on my shoulders, trying to throw me off him, so I drew my blades across one of his arms, then the other. The giant fell to his knees, blood pouring out of his wounds. I kicked him in the head as well, and he flopped on top of his friend. Neither man was dead, but they’d bleed out soon enough. All I cared about right now was making sure Owen was all right—and stopping Salina.
I slid my bloody knives back up my sleeves and dropped to my knees beside Owen, who was on his back on the floor. “Owen! Are you okay?”
I helped him sit up. His face had already started to swell from where he’d been hit, and blood trickled out of his now-broken nose.
“Gin?” he said, struggling to focus on me. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving you. And everyone else here, despite my own best interests.”
“What?” he asked, his eyes clearing and his voice sharpening. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”
“Salina has a little more planned than just a simple dinner party and business powwow. I’ll tell you about it on our way out of here. Let’s move.”
I managed to get Owen up onto his feet. My lover swayed back and forth, still dazed by the giants’ blows. He shook his head, trying to get rid of the cobwebs.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had no choice. Salina said—”
“That she’d kill me,” I finished. “I know. Eva found the note.”
I put my arm under his shoulder, and we left the balcony and stepped out into a hallway. I finally spotted a set of stairs, and I helped Owen walk in that direction and then down to the ground floor, filling him in on what Salina was planning and why she’d really asked all the Ashland crime bosses here tonight.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Killing all those people is extreme, even for Salina.”
“The fountains, the location, the guest list, it all fits. You told me yourself that Salina changed after her father’s murder. I think this is the real reason she came back to Ashland—to get her revenge. I think this is all that she really cares about, except for you.”
Owen stopped walking and looked down at me. “How much of that did you see on the balcony?”
“Enough.” I couldn’t keep the hurt out of my voice.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Gin. Let me explain—”
I held up my hand, cutting him off. “We can talk later. Right now, I have to go after Salina. I have to stop her—”
A scream shattered the night air.
Owen and I stared at each other.
“Salina,” I said, moving over to grab my staff from where I’d left it on the floor by the fountain. “She’s started it already. Get out of here! Go!”
Owen shook his head. “No, I’m coming with you. Maybe there’s still a chance I can talk her out of this.”
I wanted to yell at him that it was too late for that, that Salina wouldn’t stop until everyone was dead, but it was something he had to realize for himself. “Come on, then.”
We hurried through the mansion and made it back to the side door that led out to the north lawn. The screams had quieted down by this point, and I forced myself to creep up, open the door a bit more, and peer around it.
Several giants stood on the lawn, positioned in the gaps between the bubbling fountains. Each had guns pointed in at the crowd they’d shepherded into a tight knot in the middle of the ring of fountains. Given the incredulous looks most of the folks were giving the giants, I was willing to bet these were the men Salina had stolen from the other underworld players the past few days. The water elemental had hired the giants to murder their own bosses, promising them who knew what to get their cooperation.
Whatever else she was, Salina was exceptionally clever. She played for keeps, and she never did anything halfway. I had to admire that about her. In her own way, Salina was as ruthless as Mab had been. No surprise, since she’d been twisted by the Fire elemental’s cruelty, just as I had been.
A few of the folks crept toward the giants, as if they couldn’t believe their own guards would turn on them, but the glares and guns pointed in their direction sent them scurrying back. Salina stood next to the mermaid fountain, beaming at everyone, as if she wasn’t planning on murdering them in another minute, two tops.
I pulled my walkie-talkie out of one of the pockets on my vest. “Finn? Finn? Are you seeing this on your laptop?”
He got back to me a second later. “You mean the giants with the guns making sure everyone stays in Salina’s little water trap? Yeah, I see it.”
“Then get ready to move,” I whispered back. “I’m going to take out some of the giants and create a way for folks to get away from the fountains and the water.”
“I’ll do my part,” Finn said. “Bria and Xavier just pulled onto the street, along with another cop car. I’ll tell them what’s going on, and we’ll be ready to go when it’s time.”
“Good,” I said. “And tell them to be careful. Salina’s too far gone now. She’s not going to stop for anyone.”
Owen stiffened beside me, but he didn’t say anything. I put the walkie-talkie back in a pocket on my vest and looked at him.
“Do you think you can distract her long enough for me to deal with one of the giants?” I asked in a soft voice. “You’re the only person she might listen to, even if it’s only for a few seconds. But once she realizes what you’ve done, how we’ve tricked her, she won’t be happy, especially not with you. She could attack you again.”
He nodded. “I know. I can handle Salina.”
“Okay. Then follow my lead.”
I slipped out of the mansion and crept over to one of the Ice bars that had been planted on the lawn. The bartenders who’d been stationed there had been pushed inside the ring of fountains along with the others, giving me plenty of room to maneuver. Owen slid in beside me underneath the bar, his breath tickling the back of my neck.
“I’m going for the giant right there,” I said, indicating the man closest to me. “You distract Salina. Wait for my signal, then move.”
I crept over to the edge of the bar and peered around it, scanning the crowd for Kincaid. The casino boss stood on the far side of the giant I was targeting. Like everyone else, he was focused on Salina, but maybe I could change that. I palmed one of my knives and angled it into a patch of fading sunlight. Tilting the blade back and forth, I created a small sunspot flashing in Kincaid’s eyes.
He grimaced, blinked, and turned in my direction, just as I’d hoped he would. Kincaid’s eyes widened when he spotted me. I slid my knife back up my sleeve and held my finger up to my lips. Then I pointed at the giant and made a slashing motion across my throat with my finger, trying to let him know what my plan was. My crude signals must have worked because Kincaid nodded back and started sidling in the giant’s direction, careful not to draw attention to himself. Kincaid wasn’t my friend—not exactly—but I wasn’t leaving him to Salina’s wrath. If nothing else, I could at least get him away from the fountains as quickly as possible.
“I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here tonight,” Salina’s voice floated over to me. “You’ve probably guessed by now that dinner will not be served.”
She laughed at her bad joke, but no one else joined in. I peered around the side of the Ice bar. Salina still stood by the mermaid fountain, addressing the crowd of angry, frightened people in front of her.
“Many of you here tonight may remember my father, Benedict. Many of you probably remember the last dinner party he gave.”
Salina’s eyes went from face to face, daring people to meet her cold gaze. Most of the guests stared back at her with blank expressions, not understanding what she was getting at, but a few shifted on their feet and dropped their eyes from hers.
“Of course, the real reason you probably remember that dinner is because that’s the night my father died—the night he was murdered by Mab Monroe right on the very ground you stand on now. Many of you were here then. You saw exactly what Mab did to my father—and not one of you lifted a finger to help him or to try and stop her. Not a single one of you.”
Murmurs of unease rippled through the crowd. I wasn’t the only one who could hear the crazy loud and clear in Salina’s voice now.