Unwanted – Jennifer Estep

“You’ve barely touched your barbecue.” I looked up to find Gin Blanco, my foster sister, eyeing me over the top of the cup of lemonade she was sipping. More than half a dozen open take-out containers littered my desk, piled high with everything from coleslaw to baked beans to barbecue chicken sandwiches on homemade sourdough buns, all courtesy of the Pork Pit, the restaurant Gin had inherited from my father, Fletcher Lane. All the food looked and smelled delicious, especially the rich, spicy scent of the baked beans that perfumed the air. Gin was a truly excellent cook, even better than my dad had been. Any meal from her was always a treat. When she’d first arrived with the food fifteen minutes ago, she’d insisted on scooping generous portions of everything onto two large paper plates, both of which she’d pushed across the desk to me, before fixing a plate for herself. On a normal day, I would have already been scraping both plates clean and helping myself to seconds and thirds. But things hadn’t been normal for a while now, and my appetite was the least of them. Gin kept eyeing me, so I plastered a smile on my face and picked up my plastic fork, pretending that I was getting ready to dig back into my food. “Sorry,” I said. “Bria cooked us a huge breakfast this morning.” Gin snorted. “The only things Bria cooks for breakfast are toaster waffles and instant oatmeal. Try again, Finn.

” Busted. Detective Bria Coolidge might be my lady love, but she was also Gin’s sister, and Gin knew her just as well as I did. Not to mention the fact that Gin was a little obsessive when it came to cooking. She probably knew exactly what Bria had stocked in her kitchen, down to the last bottle of spice, and could calculate all the meals Bria could potentially make with the ingredients. Gin’s attention to detail was one of the things that made her such a great assassin as the Spider. “Well, I also stopped and got some doughnuts from the Cake Walk on my way into work this morning,” I said, still trying to steer the conversation away from my obvious lack of appetite. “You know how much I love, love, love doughnuts. All that warm, sweet, sugary glaze and soft bread that melts in your mouth bite after bite. It’s one of nature’s perfect foods.” “So you’ve told me many times,” Gin drawled.

“Funny thing, though. I saw three boxes of doughnuts sitting behind the tellers’ counter upstairs, and yet there are no doughnuts actually down here in your office.” Busted again. Sometimes Gin was far too observant for my own good. “Well, I had my own doughnuts at the Cake Walk before I bought those other boxes. You know how I hate to share.” I let out a loud, hearty laugh. At least, I tried to make it loud and hearty. It sounded more like an owl screeching. “Mmm-hmm.

” Gin arched her eyebrows, not the least bit fooled by my lies, false cheer, and forced chuckles. But she stopped the food interrogation, set down her lemonade, picked up her own sandwich, and took another bite. It was just after one o’clock, and we were sitting in my office in the basement of First Trust of Ashland. I’d moved into the space several years ago, after proving my mettle time and time again as one of the top investment bankers. I’d been absolutely, positively thrilled when I’d finally risen high enough in the ranks to score a large corner (if underground) office, and I’d spent weeks picking out the perfect furniture, rugs, and artwork for my new workspace, along with the attached bathroom. My antique mahogany desk gleamed like polished bronze under the lights, as did the two matching wingback chairs in front of it, including the one that Gin was perched in. The wet bar that ran along one wall was also made of the same rich mahogany, and a green leather sofa that folded out into a comfortable bed sat opposite it. Thick rugs in dark greens and cool grays stretched across the floor, while framed prints covered the gray marble walls, showcasing some of my favorite landscapes and vacation spots. The nighttime city skyline of Bigtime, New York. An aerial shot of the Midway amusement circle in Cloudburst Falls, West Virginia.

The snow-covered streets and shops of Cypress Mountain, North Carolina. Since I didn’t have a window, the prints were my version of a view. I used to love coming into my office, settling into my executive’s desk chair, firing up my computer, and getting to work, figuring out the best investments for my clients and how I could protect and grow their money for them and their families. Not anymore. Not for weeks now. The door was open, and a giant wearing a gray security guard’s uniform stopped in the hallway outside and peered into my office, his face pinched with suspicion. “What’s going on in here?” he muttered. He might be doing his usual hourly check of the basement offices, but the guard’s flat, surly tone revealed what he really thought of me: nothing good. I forced myself to smile at him as though I hadn’t heard the accusation in his voice. “Hey, Jimmy.

Everything’s fine. Just having lunch with my sister, Gin.” Jimmy’s dark eyes narrowed. “Is she on the approved guest list? I would hate to tell Mr. Mosley that you broke his new security protocols.” I ground my teeth together to keep from sniping back at him. Jimmy would love nothing more than to tattle on me to Stuart Mosley, the bank’s founder, and he wasn’t the only one. All the employees wanted me gone. The sad thing was that I couldn’t blame them for their hostility. Not when I’d gotten their friends and coworkers killed.

Gin had also picked up on the guard’s nasty tone, and she turned her chair to the side so she could see him better. “Oh, sugar,” she drawled. “I’m always on the approved list around here. Tell me something, Jimmy.” “What?” the guard muttered again. “From what I understand, Mr. Mosley prides himself on his employees’ politeness and professionalism. I wonder if he would approve of you speaking to one of the senior bank officials like that. And in front of his own sister, no less. Perhaps we should call Mr.

Mosley and ask him about proper protocols.” She smiled at him, but the cold look in her wintry gray eyes would have frozen most people’s blood outright. Despite the fact that the giant was almost twice her size, Jimmy swallowed and took a nervous step back. “I–I don’t think that’s necessary,” he sputtered. “Enjoy your lunch, ma’am. You too, Mr. Lane.” Jimmy bobbed his head at Gin and beat a hasty retreat down the hallway. Gin waited until the sharp echo of his footsteps had faded away before she swiveled her chair around and faced me again. “You enjoyed that,” I accused.

“Intimidating a bully with a bad attitude? Absolutely.” She gave me a smug grin and leaned back in her chair, happy to have defended my honor. But her satisfied expression slowly melted away, and a few seconds later, she was eyeing me again, concern creasing her pretty face. “Although I wouldn’t have had to do that if you would just stick up for yourself,” she said. “What happened was not your fault—” I snapped up my hand, cutting her off. “I really don’t want to talk about my coworkers’ low opinions of me right now.” Gin realized that she’d pushed me enough, so she changed the topic. “Approved guest list? I take it that’s another new security measure?” I grimaced and tossed my fork down onto my plate. “Yeah.” First Trust was Ashland’s most exclusive bank, serving the city’s social, magical, and—especially —monetary elite.

But it was also the bank under the most scrutiny, thanks to me. A couple of weeks ago, Deirdre Shaw, my long-lost mother, had shown up in Ashland, claiming that she wanted to finally get to know me, her son, after being gone for the last thirty-three years of my life. I’d thought my mother had been killed in a car accident when I was a baby, so her appearance had thrown me for a loop. A dozen loops, actually. My dad had never talked about her much, but I’d always been curious about my mother. Deirdre had been everything I’d ever wished for—kind, caring, considerate, charming, beautiful. But even more than that, I’d seen so much of myself in her fun, flirty, boisterous manner, and I’d thought that we were so much alike. I’d felt an instant connection with Deirdre, and I’d happily let her into my life, both professionally and personally, working with her as a client here at my bank and introducing her to Gin, Bria, and the rest of my friends and family. What a sad, stupid, gullible fool I’d been. Getting close to me had been nothing more than an elaborate plot on Deirdre’s part to gain access to First Trust so that she and Rodrigo Santos, a giant thief, could rob the bank.

Deirdre hadn’t cared about me at all, a fact she’d proven in the most coldhearted way possible, by using her Ice magic to burn and torture me when I wouldn’t give her the access codes to Big Bertha, the bank’s most secure vault. Even now, weeks later, I could still see Deirdre looming in front of me, the blue-white flames of her Ice magic flickering on her fingertips, smiling widely as she leaned forward and unleashed her power, freezing me one slow, agonizing inch of skin at a time— “Finn?” Gin asked. “Are you okay?” I blinked, shoved away the awful memories, and dropped my hands to my lap so she wouldn’t see my fingers curled into fists. “Of course.” Gin kept staring at me, sympathy and understanding flashing in her gaze, but I didn’t deserve either one of those things, so I lowered my head, picked up my fork, dug it into my baked beans, and shoved them into my mouth. The beans were wonderful, made even more so by my dad’s secret barbecue sauce that Gin had cooked them in, but they turned to ash in my mouth. Everything tasted like cold, bitter ash these days.

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