He grinned. “Oh, she’ll want me. I’m even more irresistible to women than your friend Finn is.”
I had to laugh at his confidence, if nothing else. My chuckles were just fading away when the bell over the front door chimed and a guy stepped inside the restaurant. He was a dwarf wearing a plaid shirt that was too tight for his muscled upper body, jeans, and a pair of dusty cowboy boots. He started flexing his hands as soon as he stepped inside, and his gaze cut right, then left, like he was looking for someone specific to give a beat-down to.
I sighed. I knew the type—some low-level hood who wanted to move way, way up in the underworld food chain by taking out the Spider.
The dwarf looked in my direction, and his eyes narrowed, indicating that he’d found his target—me. I put down my book, straightened up, and gave him a cold smile. Kincaid noticed my evil grin, and he swiveled around to see who I was glaring at with murder in my eyes.
The dwarf took a step forward, like he was going to charge me right here in the storefront, but he froze when he saw Kincaid. The dwarf’s eyes widened, and he started chewing on his lip—thinking hard. Kincaid arched his eyebrows in a silent command, then made a shooing motion with his hand.
The dwarf didn’t have to be told twice. He turned around and practically ran out of the Pork Pit as fast as his cowboy boots would carry him. Kincaid turned back around to me.
“Funny thing,” I said. “Since that night at Salina’s, no one has come into the restaurant and tried to kill me. Until right now.”
“That is funny . . . since we both know how infinitely lovable you are.”
“Why, Philly,” I drawled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say that was a joke.”
Kincaid grinned at me. “What can I say, Gin? You bring out the worst in me.”
I thought of Owen, and my chest tightened. “Yeah, I tend to do that to people.”
He looked at me, but he didn’t get up to leave. Instead, he stared at me, an amused smile on his face. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already.”
“Forgotten what?” I asked, having no idea what he was talking about.
“We had a deal, remember? You kill Salina, and I get the folks gunning for you to back off. As many as I can, anyway. You held up your end, and I intend to do the same with mine.”
I frowned. “That dwarf? He was one of yours?”
“Of course not. I would never be so crass as to send a hit man after you. Let’s just say I’ve let it be known that I’ve developed something of a grudging fondness for you. He saw me, and he thought better of things. That’s all.”
I might have mocked him about it on the riverboat, but Kincaid was one of the few people in Ashland who actually had that kind of clout. If he wanted to throw a little goodwill my way, fine by me. Still, I couldn’t help but point out the obvious.
“Technically, we never had a deal because I never agreed to kill Salina for you.”
He grinned. “I know, but she’s dead all the same. And I couldn’t be happier about that.”
I snorted. “Despite how happy you are, it won’t last, and you know it. I’m too tempting a target for folks to ignore me for very long.”
“I know,” he replied. “But I figured you could use a break, after everything that’s happened the past few days.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
I worked at the restaurant the rest of the day, then went home. Normally, I didn’t mind being alone, but tonight, Fletcher’s house felt especially empty, despite all the odd knickknacks stuffed inside. Or maybe that was just because my heart felt like a hollow shell now that Owen and I were . . . well . . . I didn’t know what we were right now, but we weren’t together.
And it fucking hurt.
I didn’t have an appetite, so I poured myself a glass of gin and took it and the rest of the bottle into the den in the back of the house. I downed the drink, relishing the sweet burn of the liquor as it slid down my throat. I reached for the bottle to pour myself another round, but I stopped. Getting stinking drunk wouldn’t ease the ache in my heart, and it sure as hell wouldn’t make me feel better in the morning. So I pushed it aside and leaned back against the couch.
My eyes lifted to the mantel and the four framed drawings there. My mother, Eira’s, snowflake, representing icy calm. Annabella’s ivy vine for elegance. Bria’s beautiful primrose. The one of the neon sign outside the Pork Pit that was my homage to Fletcher. My gaze lingered on each one of the runes, and a strange mood seized me.
It had been a while since I’d taken any art classes at the community college, but I still had some supplies on hand. I rummaged through one of the drawers in a table in the den and found a sketchpad and some pencils I’d stuffed in there when I’d moved back into Fletcher’s house last year.
I put the pad on my lap, grabbed a pencil, and started drawing. Thirty minutes later, I had a fifth rune—Owen’s hammer. The symbol for strength, perseverance, and hard work. All things he had, all things he excelled at. My fingers traced over the symbol, and I wished that I could show it to Owen, wished he was here with me now.
But he wasn’t—and I didn’t know if he would ever be here again.
I was sitting there staring at the rune when a sharp knock sounded on the front door, followed by a key turning in the lock. Besides me, only a few people had a key to the house—and Owen was one of them.
Heart pounding, I put the drawing aside, got to my feet, and went out into the hallway, hurrying toward the front of the house. I skidded to a stop just inside the door, waiting for whoever was outside to come on in and show himself. The lock clicked open, and the door swung forward.
But it wasn’t Owen standing on the other side—it was Bria.
My baby sister stepped inside the house and held the door open for someone coming in behind her—Roslyn. Both women were carrying canvas bags full of . . . something. I couldn’t quite tell what.
“Hi, Gin!” Roslyn called out, putting both of her bags into one hand so she could pull the door shut behind her.
“Roslyn. Bria. What are ya’ll doing here?”
Bria raised an eyebrow. “You told me to come by anytime.”
“Me too,” Roslyn chimed in.
I shook off my confusion. “Of course, and you’re always welcome. Both of you—you know that. I’m just . . . surprised, that’s all.”
Bria and Roslyn exchanged a look. Then they both came in farther, passing me in the hallway and heading toward the kitchen. They dumped their bags on the table and started unpacking the items inside, which included some cheeses, crackers, chocolates, fresh fruit, a bottle of wine, and a couple of books.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
I picked up one of the books and turned it over so I could see the cover. The words Little Women glinted in silver foil.
“Book club,” Roslyn said, opening the kitchen drawers in search of something.
“Remember, you were joking the other day at the Pork Pit that we should start our own book club. Well, I talked to Bria, and we both thought it was a fine idea, especially now . . .” Roslyn winced, and her voice trailed off, but I knew what she’d been about to say.
Especially now that you and Owen are having problems.
My heart twinged with pain, but I was gracious enough not to call her on it.
“We thought it would be fun,” Bria said in a quiet tone. “For all of us. Roslyn and I have spent the last few days reading Little Women.”
The two of them looked at me, the question of whether they should go or stay clear in their eyes. They were obviously trying to cheer me up, and their gesture touched me. I knew they wouldn’t have read the book if Roslyn hadn’t seen me with it at the restaurant. I hadn’t had many true friends in my life, and I was glad that I’d found them. So even though I didn’t really want company, I plastered a smile on my face.
“I think book club sounds like a great idea. Thanks for thinking of it—and me.”
“Excellent!” Roslyn said and turned her attention back to the drawer she was rifling through. “Although where’s your corkscrew? I don’t see one in here.”
“I think Finn stuffed it in one of the drawers in the den the last time he was here. I’ll get it.”
Bria and Roslyn started chatting about how good the food looked and what sort of plates they should put everything on, while I went into the den. After a couple of minutes of searching, I found the corkscrew stuffed down behind one of the couch cushions.
“Finn,” I said, laughing a little and shaking my head.
I’d just turned to go back to the kitchen when my eyes landed on the drawing I’d done of Owen’s hammer rune. I stopped and picked up the paper, my fingers tracing over the rune, a sharp, pulsing ache in my heart once more.
But like it or not, the pain and the uncertainty were things that I just had to live with, like I had so many other hard, painful things in my life. Owen and I had hit a rough patch, thanks to my actions, and his too. Now we had to deal with the consequences and fallout as best we could. Owen had asked for some time, and I needed the space and separation too. Maybe more than he did. Time to realize that Owen had loved someone before me. Time to realize that part of him would probably always love Salina. Time to realize that her death had hit him harder than I’d thought it would—harder than I thought it should. But who was I to judge? I wasn’t exactly the poster child for emotional health. Quite the opposite.
Besides, Jo-Jo had said that everything would work out the way it was supposed to. I’d taken her words to mean that Owen and I weren’t done, that she saw a future for us. It might take a while, and there might be a lot of heartache along the way, but we’d get there. I knew we would. I had to believe we would.
I just had to.
I carefully tore the sheet with Owen’s rune out of my sketchpad and propped it up alongside the others on the mantel. Maybe it was time for a change regarding the drawings. I’d always thought of them as the runes of my dead family, but maybe, maybe I could start thinking of them as tributes instead. A way to celebrate the people I loved.
Or maybe the love Owen and I had shared was just as dead as my mother, sister, and Fletcher.
No, I thought. Our love wasn’t dead. It was just a little battered and bruised. It would eventually heal, and I was determined to do everything I could to help it along. If that meant giving Owen time and space to himself, then that was what I was going to do—no matter how much I just wanted to be in his arms right now.
“Come on, Gin,” Bria said in a loud voice. “The wine isn’t going to open itself!”
“Be right there!” I called back.
My friends had come to cheer me up, and I was going to let them. So I had a broken heart—so what? I’d gotten through worse, and I’d get through this too. This time, I was just grateful that there were people here for me, people who cared about me.
I looked at Owen’s rune a final time, then fixed a smile on my face and headed into the kitchen to eat, drink, talk, and laugh the night away with my friends, my family.