Kiss of Venom – Jennifer Estep

“You’re an idiot.” I glanced over at my best friend, Phillip Kincaid. “Really? I’m an idiot? Because I’d say it takes one to know one.” Phillip snorted and took another sip of his Scotch. He studied me over the rim of his glass, his bright blue gaze calmly staring past the blank mask of my face to see the real man lurking underneath. Funny, how well he could still read me, even though we’d been estranged for years and had only recently reconnected. After a moment, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at me. I sighed, knowing that he’d keep grinning like a fool until I asked him the inevitable question. “And why, exactly, am I an idiot?” “Because we’ve been here an hour already, and you haven’t so much as made eye contact with a single woman.” Phillip used his drink to gesture out at the scene before us. “And there are plenty of them to choose from, Owen. Blondes, brunettes, even a few redheads. Humans, vampires, giants, dwarves, elementals. Whatever floats your boat.” Phillip was right.

There were plenty of women inside Northern Aggression, Ashland’s most extravagant nightclub. We were sitting in a booth in the back, giving us a clear view of the rest of the club. Men and women of all shapes, sizes, and ages happily grooved to a rocking beat out on the dance floor, while others clustered two and three deep around the elemental Ice bar along the wall, slugging down drinks and already looking forward to the next round. Smoke spiraled up into the air as folks inhaled cigarettes, cigars, and other things that weren’t exactly legal. The thick gray clouds clung like a layer of fog to the red crushed-velvet drapes that covered the walls. Northern Aggression was the sort of place where anything went, either back in the more private VIP rooms or out here in plain view. Some of the folks who weren’t dancing, drinking, or smoking were engaged in more . passionate pursuits. A couple kissed deeply at a table off to my right, their bodies melded together, their hands roaming over each other as though the rest of the world didn’t exist. Meanwhile, the booth behind me rocked back and forth in time to the athletic acrobatics of the couple there, although the thumping music mostly drowned out their hoarse cries of pleasure.

A particularly vigorous rocking of the booth made me sigh, lean forward, and take a final swig of my gin and tonic, finishing off the drink. Phillip had dragged me out to the club tonight to celebrate his recovery from being shot in the chest during a robbery gone wrong at the Briartop art museum a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe it was a robbery gone right, considering that Clementine Barker and most of her gang of giants had ended up dead in the end. But thinking about that night conjured up so many memories for me, especially of a beautiful woman in a blood-red dress— “Hi, sugar,” a voice said loudly enough to be heard over the music. Maybe it was the slightly mocking way that she drawled out sugar, but the sound of her voice made my head snap up, thinking that she was here tonight, hoping that she was— But it wasn’t her. Instead, a pretty woman with tan skin, hazel eyes, and black hair that was spiked up almost like a mohawk stood in front of our booth. For a moment, I thought that she’d come over to talk to Phillip, since he’d been actively eyeing the ladies ever since we’d arrived, but then I realized that she was holding a round tray. The gold heart-and-arrow pendant that glimmered in the hollow of her throat marked her as more than just a waitress, though. The rune was Roslyn Phillips’s symbol for her luxe nightclub—and all the hookers who worked here. Several men and woman wearing the same necklace circulated around the dance floor and through the crowds at the bar, their gold runes flashing like neon signs underneath the club’s black lights, letting everyone know that they were open for business.

All of them were buff, beautiful, and baring a lot of skin, leaving little to the imagination. Most of them were vampires, and all of them would do whatever you wanted them to—for the right price. The waitress cocked a hip to one side, her red-leather miniskirt riding up even higher on her toned thighs. “Hi there. My name’s Sierra. Can I get you boys another round?” Phillip gave her a slow, syrupy smile. “Sugar, you can get me just about anything that you like.” She giggled at that, having probably heard the same lame line from at least a dozen other men already tonight. She grinned at him, revealing a pair of small, pearl-white fangs. Phillip gave her a saucy wink, which made her giggle a bit more.

Then Sierra turned her seductive smile to me. “What about you, handsome? See anything on the menu that you like? Anything at all?” She drawled out the word anything, then licked her crimson lips, letting me know that she was on the menu too, as if that rune around her neck hadn’t already clued me in to that fact. Phillip smirked and waggled his eyebrows at me again, but I shook my head. “Just another drink for me, please,” I said, pushing my empty glass toward her. She pouted a little, but she scooped up our glasses and sashayed away. Phillip leaned out of the booth and watched her go, admiring the view. “That was a wasted opportunity, if you ask me,” he said. “She was cute.” Sierra was cute, but she wasn’t my type—because she didn’t have clear gray eyes that could look right through you or a smile that could light up a room with just the barest curve of her lips. I didn’t bother telling Phillip all that, though.

He’d just say that I was being melancholy and maudlin, mooning over something that I couldn’t have, something that I’d been stupid enough to throw away, something that I hadn’t truly appreciated until it was gone. Phillip took my lack of response as a sign to keep right on talking. “C’mon, Owen,” he murmured, his gaze zooming over to a gorgeous redhead enthusiastically swiveling her hips—along with everything else—out on the dance floor. “We came here tonight to have some fun. Or have you forgotten?” With his slicked-back blond ponytail, intense blue eyes, and strong, muscled body, Phillip attracted more than his share of admiring glances, especially given the sharp white Fiona Fine designer suit that he was sporting tonight. With my black hair, violet eyes, and far more subdued navy suit, I was the muted dark to his blazing light. I wasn’t as pretty as Phillip, especially given my crooked nose and the scar on my chin from a long-ago fight, but I wasn’t invisible either. I got my share of interested looks too. I just didn’t feel like returning any of them. Yep, Owen Grayson was officially on wingman duty tonight.

“Oh, no,” I replied in a mild voice. “I haven’t forgotten anything. But it looks like you have—all about Eva.” Phillip quit ogling the redhead long enough to narrow his eyes at me. “What do you mean by that?” “C’mon, Phillip. I might be an idiot, but I’m not blind,” I said, mocking him with his own words. “I see the way the two of you look at each other.” He grimaced. “And I can see that you’re not too happy about it. So I thought that I wouldn’t bring it up tonight.

Or any night, for that matter.” This time I waggled my eyebrows at him. “My baby sister being not so secretly in love with one of Ashland’s most ruthless crime bosses. What’s not to like?” Phillip’s grimace deepened because every word I said was true. Eva was crazy about him, and Phillip felt the same way about her, despite the fact that she was still in college and he, owner of the illustrious Delta Queen riverboat casino, wasn’t exactly one of the nicest guys in town. Then again, nice guys only got one thing in Ashland: dead. Still, I couldn’t judge Phillip, at least not for his profession, since I’d done plenty of bad things over the years myself. Not to mention the fact that I’d spent the last several months dating an assassin. I let out a breath. “Look, I’m sorry.

I didn’t mean that. Not really. I want Eva to be happy, and you too. It’s just . ” “You think that I’m too old for her,” Phillip finished. “And that what I do and who I am are too dangerous for her to be around. And you would be absolutely correct on all counts.” Eva had recently turned twenty, while Phillip, a childhood friend of ours, was about ten years older. He was right. I didn’t like the age gap, but I was more concerned about Eva becoming a target for all of Phillip’s enemies who might use her to hurt him.

Instead of agreeing with him, though, I shrugged, not sure what to say that wouldn’t make things worse. Something that was becoming more and more of a problem lately. My mouth and the words that erupted out of it kept getting me in trouble with the people I cared about. Sierra returned with our drinks, keeping me from digging myself in any deeper. Phillip slugged down his Scotch in one quick swallow, put his empty glass back on her tray, and told her to bring him another one. I pushed my gin off to one side of the table, having lost my thirst for it. We didn’t speak, and the pulsing music did nothing to break the sudden awkwardness between us. It was only after Sierra brought him another drink that Phillip finally looked at me again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to lay a hand on Eva.

” “I know—I know you wouldn’t do something like that.” I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. Because I had misjudged Phillip in the past. Hated him, reviled him, thought him to be the worst sort of scum imaginable and actively wished him dead—for years. And I’d lost so much because of it. Because of Salina Dubois and all of her damn lies. Doubt flickered in Phillip’s eyes, and I knew he was wondering whether I really meant what I’d said. His suspicion was well earned, and it hurt as much as if a giant had punched me in the stomach. Every time I thought that I was finally moving past what Salina had done to me and my loved ones, something like this came up—some small, stupid, thoughtless thing that I said or did that brought up all of the past anguish, anger, and accusations. But I had no one to blame but myself.

I was the one who had inflicted Salina on everyone simply by blindly loving and trusting her. But before I could reassure Phillip once again that I knew that he would never hurt Eva, he frowned and looked toward the front of the club. “Well, well, well,” he said, letting out a low whistle of appreciation. “Look who else came out for a little fun tonight.” I glanced in that direction and immediately froze. She was on the tall side and slim, with a walk that was somehow simple and seductive at the same time. Unlike most of the other women, who were wearing as little as they could get away with, she wore jeans, low-heeled black boots, and a black leather jacket over a scarlet tank top, all the better to conceal the knives she carried. She almost always wore dark colors, but they suited her. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the club, but there was something about her that caught your eye and made you keep watching her. Maybe it was the small, amused smile that always seemed ready to play across her lips or her long, confident strides or the cold, clear light that burned in her gray eyes.

Whispers sprang up in her wake as she moved through the club, but she ignored them. She’d gotten good at that these past few months. She’d had to. Still, some of the murmurs drifted over to me, despite the music. “Is that her?” “Oh, yeah, that’s her, all right.” “Better steer clear, man. Or she’ll carve you to pieces.” Of course, the music ended just in time for everyone in the club to hear that last statement, and the woman in question paused to stare at the dwarf who’d said it. His mouth gaped open, and he shrank back, trying to disappear into the crowd. She let him.

Her eyes flicked around, calmly going from one face to another, but suddenly, everyone was very interested in heading back out onto the dance floor or getting a drink from the bar. After a moment, she walked on. Gin Blanco. The assassin the Spider. The woman I loved—the one I’d betrayed.


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