I told the waiter to put the bill on Finn’s tab, and Owen and I left Underwood’s and got into his car. We didn’t speak on the drive over to Fletcher’s house—my house now. Owen steered his Mercedes Benz to the top of the driveway and put the car in park, but he didn’t turn off the engine. Instead, he stared out the windshield into the darkness—brooding.
I wondered what he was seeing—what he was remembering about Salina. The time they’d been together, the things they’d shared, how she’d made him feel when they were alone in the dark, their skin touching, their hands exploring, their bodies arching into each other.
My heart pulsed with jealousy at the thought of them together, but I stayed quiet. Owen hadn’t been a virgin any more than I had been when we’d gotten together. We both had pasts—Owen had just seen more of my dark, violent one than I had of his.
He finally sighed. “Ask away. I know you want to.”
“You and Salina?”
He nodded. “Me and Salina.”
“How long ago?”
“A lifetime,” he murmured. “Maybe two.”
I waited for him to go on, to talk about how they’d met, the time they’d spent together, or even why they’d broken up. He didn’t say anything, but his face, his whole body, was tight and tense with emotion—with pain. Whatever had happened between them, it hadn’t ended well. Still, I kept quiet, waiting for Owen to tell me about them in his own way, in his own time. That’s what he’d done for me when I’d run into Donovan while on vacation in Blue Marsh. I figured I owed Owen the same courtesy.
He sighed again. “Anyway, it’s over, and it has been for a long time now. I hadn’t seen or heard from Salina in years . . .”
“Until she left that message at your office last week.”
He nodded. “Right.”
And that would have been about the time Owen had started acting distant and distracted. Ah. Lightbulb finally on, and a bloody little slice on my heart and ego to go along with it. To realize that Owen had been preoccupied because of Salina—and that my lover hadn’t told me the first thing about her until forced to tonight. Reunions with old lovers rarely went well, and it seemed like there was more history between the two of them than most. Still, I didn’t care too much about Owen’s past with Salina, as long as he knew that I was his present—and, most importantly, his future. Something I planned on showing him tonight.
I reached out and trailed my fingers down his face. “Come in?” I asked.
He hesitated. “I really shouldn’t. I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow.”
“I understand,” I murmured, keeping my face smooth and hiding the hurt that pricked my heart.
Owen gently reached for my hand and kissed my palm, right in the middle of my spider rune scar. “Rain check?”
“Of course.” This time, I was the one with the faint voice.
Owen hesitated again, then leaned over and pressed his lips to mine—but he pulled back far too soon, like he’d been guessing how long he should maintain the kiss and the allotted time was up. I managed to smile at him, pretending I didn’t notice the sudden distance between us, distance that Salina had somehow created just by walking into the restaurant.
I got out of the car and shut the door behind me. Owen put the vehicle in gear and turned it around. He paused to wave good night to me, and I lifted my hand in return. A moment later, the car disappeared down the driveway.
I stood there alone in the dark and wondered who the hell Salina Dubois really was, why she seemed to have such an effect on my lover, and what I was going to do about her. Because this was a matter of the heart—and one problem that all my knives and all my prowess as the Spider wouldn’t help me solve.
Despite my unease and questions about Salina, the next day was business as usual at the Pork Pit, the barbecue restaurant I owned—right down to me checking for booby traps.
It was just before eleven, and I’d spent the last twenty minutes looking at everything in the restaurant storefront, from the well-worn but clean blue and pink vinyl booths to the long counter that ran down the back wall to the framed, blood-spattered copy of Where the Red Fern Grows that hung on the wall beside the cash register. I peered underneath each one of the tables and chairs, examined the front door for any signs of tampering, and checked every single one of the windows for the slightest hint of a crack, chip, or break. I even got down on my hands and knees and followed the paths of the faded, peeling, blue and pink pig tracks on the floor all the way back to the men’s and women’s restrooms. Then I examined both of those areas top to bottom as well, just to make sure nothing was hidden in a trash can or taped to the back of a toilet.
“Anything?” a harsh voice rasped.
I walked back out into the storefront and looked at the source of the voice: Sophia Deveraux, the dwarf who was the head cook at the Pit and chief Spider-related body dumper. Sophia had sat in one of the booths, calm and cool as could be, while I checked for traps, but she was causing quite a stir on the street outside, as people saw her through the windows and stopped to stare at her.
That’s because Sophia was Goth. Today, the dwarf wore her usual black boots and jeans, topped off by a white T-shirt that had a bright red cherry bomb in the center of it—one with a lit fuse. The bomb’s scarlet color matched the spiked silverstone collar ringing her neck and the cuffs on her wrists. Her lipstick was as black as her hair, and smoky shadow arched over her dark eyes as well, making her face seem as pale as the moon in comparison.
I eyed the cherry bomb T-shirt, wondering if Sophia had worn it as some sort of joke, given the volatile nature of the Ashland underworld these days. It was hard to tell with her sometimes. The dwarf didn’t talk much due to her voice, which had been ruined years ago when she’d been forced to breathe in elemental Fire.
“Anything?” Sophia asked again, sounding like there was a cheese grater scraping against her vocal cords.
“Nope,” I replied. “Nobody left us any nasty surprises. So you can go into the alley out back and tell the waitstaff to come on in.”
Sophia nodded, got up, and walked the length of the restaurant before pushing through the swinging double doors that led into the back.
I looked over the storefront a final time, double-checking to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Checking out the Pit was something I did every morning now, given all the folks who would love to see me dead. In addition to using them as their personal or business symbols, elementals could also imbue runes with their magic and get those symbols to flare to life and perform specific functions—like firebombing my restaurant and hopefully killing me in the process. It would be far too easy for a Fire elemental to casually stroll by the restaurant late one night, pause a moment, and trace an incendiary rune into the wooden doorframe that would erupt in flames as soon as I opened the front door the next morning.
So far, no one had tried that particular trick, but it was only a matter of time before someone thought of it—and I planned to be ready when they did. That was why I checked the restaurant, and it was why I kept an eye on all the diners who scarfed down the thick, hearty, barbecue sandwiches and other greasy Southern treats Sophia and I served up at the Pit.
Satisfied that no one had laid any traps for me, I flipped the sign on the door over to Open and moved back behind the counter to start cooking for the day.
Given the warm, bright, inviting May sunshine, it didn’t take long for folks to leave their offices, head outside, and flock to the restaurant in search of an early lunch. Catalina Vasquez and the rest of the waitstaff seated everyone and took their orders, before bustling back over with their drinks a few minutes later. Meanwhile, Sophia and I manned the ovens, the stoves, and the french fryers. I also mixed up a batch of Fletcher’s secret barbecue sauce and set that pot on one of the back burners to simmer away. I breathed in, enjoying how the sauce’s spicy cumin kick mixed with all the other rich, dense flavors in the air.
In between cooking and dishing up food, my gaze went from one diner to the next, but they were all focused on their meals and companions. Oh, they still watched me, of course, giving me quick glances out of the corners of their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking. After all, I was rumored to be the Spider, the assassin who’d killed the supposedly unkillable Mab Monroe. The whispers were more widespread among the underworld denizens, but they were slowly starting to circulate among regular folks as well. Hell, I was something of a tourist attraction in Ashland these days, and people came from near and far just to get a glimpse of me, sit in my restaurant, and eat my food. I’d even heard rumors that some particularly enterprising soul was selling T-shirts with the slogan I ate at the Pork Pit . . . and lived! emblazoned on them, but so far no one had been bold enough to wear one inside the restaurant.
I gazed around the storefront once more, but none of the current crop of customers looked like the type who’d come here to cause trouble or try to murder me, so I went back to my cooking. Maybe today would be a calm day. I hoped so. I needed some time to think about Owen, Salina, and what her reappearance might really mean to my lover—and how I could keep her from messing up what I had with Owen.
But it wasn’t to be—because Phillip Kincaid strolled into the restaurant around two o’clock.
Kincaid had sandy blond hair that was slicked back into a low ponytail and strong, pronounced cheekbones a model would have been envious of. He wore a dark blue suit that showed off the strength of his tall, thick body, and he looked almost as good in the expensive threads as Finn did in one of his designer duds. Kincaid wasn’t movie star handsome—not like Finn—but there was something about him that caught your eye and made you take a second look. Something in the easy, confident way he carried himself, and the coldness in his vivid blue eyes.
Despite his striking looks, Kincaid was on my radar for another, less pleasant reason: he happened to be one of Ashland’s top underworld sharks, with a network of giant enforcers and other rough types who worked for him. Kincaid had been one of the few heavy hitters who’d dared to go toe-to-toe with Mab when she’d been alive. Now that the Fire elemental was dead, Kincaid had even more power, as he’d spent the last few months picking up some of the pieces of her old empire and consolidating them into his own operations.
The last time I’d seen Kincaid had been on his luxe riverboat casino, the Delta Queen, back in the fall. I’d gone to one of his parties to kill Elliot Slater, a giant who was stalking and terrorizing a friend of mine. I’d never spoken to or had any real interaction with Kincaid, other than watching him smile at me at Mab’s funeral, but we both knew who the other was.
I expected to see a giant bodyguard or two step into the restaurant behind Kincaid, but the door swung shut behind him. Phillip Kincaid, walking into my gin joint all by his lonesome. Interesting. Somehow, though, I didn’t think he was here for the food, no matter how good it was.
Sophia heard the bell over the front door chime when Kincaid opened it, and she looked up from the warm sourdough buns she was slicing. She recognized him too, her black lips flattening out into a thin, hard line.
“Trouble?” the dwarf asked, her fingers tightening around the bread knife in her hand.
“We’ll see,” I murmured. “Stand by for now.”
Sophia grunted and went back to her slicing.
Kincaid scanned the inside of the restaurant, looking over everyone and everything, much as I’d done earlier. Then, to my surprise, he walked over, unbuttoned his suit jacket, and took a seat at the counter right in front of where I was slicing ripe tomatoes, sweet red onions, and crispy lettuce for the day’s sandwiches.
Catalina grabbed a menu and started to go over to Kincaid, but Sophia headed her off and pointed her to a customer who needed a drink refill, leaving him to me.
Kincaid sat at the counter and watched me slice the vegetables. The surprising thing was that I didn’t sense any judgment or rancor in him. Not like when Jonah McAllister came in. The lawyer always sneered at me, but Kincaid just looked at me with curiosity—and wariness.
I chopped my way through a head of lettuce, amusing myself by imagining it was McAllister I was cutting into, before he finally spoke.
“Gin Blanco.” His voice had a slow, seductive Southern drawl to it, the sort that would make a woman melt on a hot, steamy night, although I could hear a faint twang in his words, as though he’d been raised more poor country than his slick city suit let on.
“Phillip Kincaid.” My tone was as frosty as his was warm.
His eyebrows arched up. “You know me.”
“And you know me. So let’s cut the fake surprise and niceties and get down to business. What do you want?”
“Well, right now, I want a sweet iced blackberry tea, a bacon cheeseburger, potato salad, baked beans, and a slice of that cherry pie in the cake stand. It looks absolutely delicious. And would you be so kind as to bring it all out together, please? I always hate waiting for dessert.”
I gave him a hard, flat stare, but Kincaid just smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. He didn’t show a hint of doubt or fear in the face of my wintry gray gaze. If anything, his own eyes brightened in what looked like delight, as if I’d passed some sort of secret test by not responding to his obvious charms. Well, if that was the game he wanted to play, I’d be more than happy to oblige him—right up until I stuck one of my knives in his chest the second he showed his true colors.
“Why, coming right up, sugar,” I said in a drawl that was as slow and syrupy as his.
Kincaid’s eyes narrowed at my mocking tone, but he kept his smile on his face. He had balls, I’d give him that, coming into my restaurant and acting like just another customer. Then again, so did all the other lowlifes who did the exact same thing. I wondered if Kincaid had more brains than the others did. One would assume so, given how long he’d managed to survive swimming in the underworld muck. You didn’t achieve Kincaid’s level of staying power and success by being a pushover or stupid.
Sophia helped me fix Kincaid’s food, and a few minutes later I set his plates in front of him. He wasted no time in tucking a white napkin in at his chin and digging into his bacon cheeseburger, side dishes, and pie. He ate them all at once, taking a bite of burger, then one of potato salad, then beans, and finally one of pie, instead of waiting to eat his dessert after he finished everything else. Every once in a while, he’d break up the pattern with a swig of tea. Curious. So was the fact that he ate so quickly, as if he was afraid I was going to reach across the counter and snatch away his plates before he’d had his fill.