Thread of Death – Jennifer Estep

I couldn’t believe the bitch was dead. Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who’d been head of the Ashland underworld for years, the woman who’d murdered my mother and older sister, was final y, final y dead. And I was the one who’d made her that way. Me. Gin Blanco. The assassin known as the Spider. Now, my kil ing people as the Spider was nothing new. I’d helped more than a few folks quit breathing over the years, whether for money or to help out my friends or for my continued survival. But Mab had been different—and kil ing her had been very, very personal. The Fire elemental hadn’t gone down without a fight—the toughest fucking fight of both our lives. Not that I’d expected anything less from Mab. Not only had she been rumored to be the strongest elemental born in the last five hundred years, but she had also been as smart, cunning, and as vicious as they come. You didn’t get to be the head o f the Ashland underworld and stay there as long as she had without being absolutely ruthless. Oh, no. Taking down Mab had been anything but simple.

I stil couldn’t quite believe she was dead—and I wasn’t. But kil ing Mab hadn’t been without a price. We’d fought each other in an elemental duel, my Ice and Stone magic against her Fire power. According to some folks who’d been there, you could see the flames of our respective magics from a half mile away. I didn’t know whether I believed that or not, but Mab was seconds from incinerating me before I final y managed to stab the bitch in her black heart with one of my silverstone knives. Even then, Mab’s Fire washed over me, engulfing most of my body and burning me down to the bone, and I was about a breath away from dying right along with her. Now, after weeks of healing Air magic and intensive physical therapy, I was final y back to my old self—more or less. I peered into the mirror in my bedroom, critical y eyeing my reflection. This would be one of the first times I’d been out in public since kil ing Mab, and I wanted to be sure I looked one hundred percent, like the Gin of old, even if I knew I wasn’t quite there yet. My dark chocolate brown hair was pul ed back into a sleek pony-tail, while black shadow, mascara, and liner rimmed my eyes, bringing out their cold gray color.

A shiny strawberry-pink gloss covered my lips, softening the heavy eye makeup, while a bronzing powder added some much-needed color to my cheeks. Despite the coppery sheen, a hint of death white stil tinged my skin, reminding me how I’d come close to dying right alongside Mab. I smoothed down a stray hair and plucked a piece of lint off my right sleeve. I’d traded in my usual jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt for a pantsuit. Stark, black, and simple, given where I was going today. Sturdy black low-heeled boots encased my feet, while my usual five knives were hidden on my body. One up either sleeve, one in the smal of my back, and two tucked into the sides of my boots. Just because Mab was dead didn’t mean that I could lower my guard and leave my weapons at home. Quite the contrary. There were stil lots of other dangerous folks in Ashland, people who would just as soon shoot you as look at you—and those were some of the nicer folks in town.

That was one of the reasons I was going out today and had taken such care with my appearance. I wanted to see for myself just how much the underworld landscape had shifted with the Fire elemental’s death and more important what it might mean for me as the Spider and Gin Blanco too. Footsteps sounded outside in the hal way, a steady, familiar tread that I knew and welcomed. A moment later, a soft knock sounded on the door. “Come on in,” I cal ed out. “I’m ready.” The door opened, and my lover, Owen Grayson, stepped into the bedroom. Owen wore a black suit similar to mine over a smoke gray shirt and matching tie. The fitted fabric outlined his body, stretching over the hard, sculpted muscles of his chest and arms, while the dark colors only made him seem more ruggedly handsome, especial y when paired with his blue-black hair and the slightly crooked tilt of his nose. Owen looked at me, a troubled light flaring in his violet eyes.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “You don’t have to, you know. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Not to me, not to the others, and especial y not to yourself.” That’s where he was wrong. I had a lot of things to prove to myself—namely, that I could be the same Gin, the same Spider, as before. Physical y, I was stil weak from my fight with Mab. Stil stiff and creaky, stil saddled with arms and legs that gave out too soon, stil without the quickness, stamina, and strength I’d had before. I knew those things would return eventual y, but I was pushing myself hard to get back to where I’d been as soon as possible. I couldn’t afford not to.

But today wasn’t about my physical limitations. No, today—today was about my state of mind. Today was one of the necessary steps to recapturing that mental toughness that had served me so wel over the years. Once I got that back, everything else would fol ow. That’s why I was so determined to go through with this particular outing. I wanted to be the old me—starting right now. I didn’t tel Owen any of my thoughts, though. He’d already spent far too long worrying far too much about me. So had the others. They’d al spent the last few weeks taking care of me, healing me, helping me with my rehab—even cooking for me.

I appreciated their care and concern, but it had been hard for me to take it slow, to let myself rest, relax, and heal. Now, after al these weeks of recuperating, I figured it was time for me to look after myself again. I walked over to Owen and wrapped my arms around his neck. He put his hands on my waist and drew me closer, the warmth of his fingers and the heat of his body driving away the faint, nagging chil I’d felt ever since I’d kil ed Mab. “I’m sure,” I said in a firm voice. “We both know I need to do this. I need to go there and see her— for al sorts of reasons.” “I know,” Owen murmured, concern and worry deepening his voice. “But I don’t like it. You’re stil not ful y recovered.

What if someone notices that? What if something happens?” I grinned at him. “Then it’s a good thing you, Finn, and everyone else wil be there watching out for me. Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen.” Not today. I didn’t say the words, but I could tel Owen was thinking them just like I was. This was new territory we were entering, and neither one of us knew quite what to make of it. I didn’t think anyone in the entire city knew exactly how things were going to play out, and I imagined that al the other folks in attendance today would be waiting to see what happened and which way the wind was blowing, just like Owen and I would be. I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him, flicking my tongue against his lips. Owen opened his mouth, his tongue stroking against my own.

More warmth pooled in my stomach, driving away the last of the chil . As we kissed, I ran my hands through his hair, then down over the chiseled planes of his face, enjoying the heat of his skin, his mouth, on mine. No matter how much I touched him, I always marveled at the strength of his body and the desire he was able to ignite in me. It thrummed through my veins like a siren’s seductive song, whispering of al the pleasures that could be had between us. “You know, we could just forget about going out and spend the rest of the day in bed,” he murmured, and kissed the side of my neck, even as his hands slid down to the buttons on my suit jacket. “As tempting as that is, you know we have someplace to be,” I replied, running my hands across his broad shoulders. “Unfortunately, this is an appointment that I just can’t miss, no matter how tempting your proposition may be.” Owen drew back, his eyes shimmering with heat. “Rain check, then? Tonight at my place? If you feel up to it, of course.” I arched an eyebrow.

“Is that a chal enge, Grayson? Because you know how much I love those—and showing you just how up to it I am.” He grinned and lowered his mouth to mine. We kissed again, long, soft, and slow, teasing each other with promises of tonight, before final y breaking apart. Owen held me tight for a moment before final y dropping his hands from my waist. “Come on,” he said. “If you’re stil determined to do this, then we need to go. We wouldn’t want to be late.” I snorted. “Oh, no. We definitely wouldn’t want to be late for this.

” We walked downstairs, where the others were waiting in the den of Fletcher Lane’s house—my house now. Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, had his arm slung around the shoulders of Detective Bria Coolidge, my baby sister, no doubt murmuring sweet nothings into her ear, since Roslyn Phil ips was looking at them both with an amused grin. Jolene “Jo-Jo” Deveraux was sitting on the plaid sofa, flipping through a beauty magazine, while her sister, Sophia, was looking at the rune drawings that were propped up on the mantel: a snowflake, an ivy vine, a primrose, and the neon pig sign outside the Pork Pit. Al symbols of people I’d loved and lost over the years. My friends and family were al dressed in somber, serious black, just like Owen and I were. Finn wore one of his many Fiona Fine designer suits, while Bria sported a jacket and white silk blouse over a skirt. Roslyn also wore a black jacket and skirt, both of which highlighted her gorgeous curves. Jo-Jo had on a dress topped by her usual strand of pearls. A smal black hat sporting a white lily perched on the side of the dwarf’s head, pinned to her white-blond curls. For once, we al matched Sophia’s usual dark clothes.

The Goth dwarf wore a pantsuit similar to mine, although she’d accessorized hers with heavy boots and a black leather col ar around her neck. Black lipstick covered her lips, and pale gray glitter glistened in her hair. I cleared my throat, and everyone turned to look at me. “Wel ,” I said. “I guess this is it.” “It’s about time,” Finn groused. “We’ve been waiting down here forever.” Bria glanced at the clock on the wal . “Yes, if by ‘forever’ you mean five minutes.” Finn smiled at her, a sly look in his green eyes.

“Time is money, cupcake, especial y when it comes to my time, what I do with it, and particularly who I do it with.” He leaned over and whispered something in her ear, which made Bria stiffen and caused her cheeks to explode in a fiery blush. They were a new couple, having hooked up shortly before Mab’s death, and Finn stil had the ability to shock my sister. Stil , despite her blush, her features softened into a smile as she looked at him. Finn gave her a slow, shameless, saucy wink. He liked teasing her. It was nice to see my sister smile, something she hadn’t done much of lately. I wasn’t the only one who’d suffered at Mab’s hands. Despite my efforts to keep her safe, a bounty hunter had kidnapped Bria and delivered her to Mab’s mansion, where the Fire elemental had spent a long, long night using her magic to torture my sister. Burning Bria with her cruel, cruel Fire.

Finn and the others had rescued Bria while I battled Mab, and Jo-Jo had used her Air magic to heal al of Bria’s wounds, but the damage had stil been done. My sister had been quiet and withdrawn these past few weeks. I knew she was stil trying to come to terms with that horrible night and al the fresh, painful scars it had left on the inside, just like I was—scars that no amount of magic could ever heal. My guilt over Bria’s capture and torture was like a knife in my stomach, one that twisted in a little deeper every time I saw the dark memories in her eyes. I wanted to make it up to my sister, wanted to ease her pain, but I just didn’t know how. “It’s time to go,” Owen said again. Sophia turned and left the room. Finn and Bria fol owed her, along with Roslyn and Owen. That left just me and Jo-Jo in the den. The middle-aged dwarf got to her feet and walked over to me, her black heels clacking on the floor.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Jo-Jo asked in her slow Southern drawl. “It might be harder than you think it’s going to be.” I nodded. “I know, but today’s the day, and I’m as ready as I’l ever be.” Jo-Jo reached out and grabbed my hand, gently squeezing my fingers with hers. I breathed in, and her perfume tickled my nose with its sweet scent. “Don’t worry, darling,” she said. “It’l be fine. You’l see.” I looked at the dwarf, wondering if she was using her Air elemental magic to peer into the future, but her colorless eyes were clear of the milky white clouds that sometimes wisped through her gaze.

“I know it wil be fine,” I said in what I hoped was a strong voice. “Mab is dead. She can’t hurt me anymore. She can’t hurt anyone anymore.” Jo-Jo cocked her head to the side, making the lily nestled in her hair bob up and down with the motion. “The dead can hurt us just as much as the living can. Sometimes even more so. You should know that by now, Gin.” The dwarf squeezed my hand again and walked out of the den. Somehow, I held back the shiver that threatened to sweep through my body at her ominous words and fol owed her.

Thirty minutes later, Owen stopped his car behind a long line of other vehicles that were parked on the side of the narrow, winding road. In the passenger’s-side mirror, I saw Sophia steer her classic convertible into the spot behind us, and there were more cars behind hers that were pul ing over as wel . “Are you sure you can’t get any closer?” Finn asked from the backseat. “No, I can’t get any closer,” Owen said. “Do you not see al the other vehicles here? Besides, it won’t kil you to walk, you know.”

.

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