Winter’s Web – Jennifer Estep

“I LOOK RİDİCULOUS.” I stared at my reflection in the mirror above the long counter that ran along the wall. Even though I had been peering at myself for the better part of a minute, I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Normally, my wardrobe could best be described as functional. Black boots, dark jeans, a longsleeved T-shirt, a fleece jacket if the weather was cold. I never invested a lot of time or money in my clothes, since they had an annoying tendency to get ripped, torn, and covered with other people’s blood. But today I had left functional behind for flamboyant. A royal-blue silk blouse with ruffles running down the front stretched across my chest. As if the color wasn’t bright and bold enough, the entire garment was also covered with shiny thread, glittering sequins, and tiny feathers, all in black. I looked like I’d killed a couple of crows and was proudly wearing their fluttering feathers as some sort of macabre trophy. Plus, the sequins caught the light with every breath I took, and they winked at me in the mirror like dozens of little evil eyes. But that was only the beginning of my unfortunate ensemble. In addition to the dead-bird blouse, I was also wearing a black leather lace-up corset covered with even more black feathers and sequins. The tight corset pushed my breasts up to new and impressive heights, and my sudden abundance of cleavage was on display for all to see, thanks to the blouse’s deep scooped neckline. The plunging neckline also showed off the silverstone pendant resting in the hollow of my throat —a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays.

A spider rune, my rune, and the symbol for patience. A matching ring stamped with my spider rune gleamed on my right index finger, and the same symbol was branded into each of my palms. Tight black leather pants and knee-high black leather boots, both trimmed with royal-blue thread and even more black sequins and feathers, completed my outrageous outfit. Normally, royal blue was one of my favorite colors, but this outfit screamed Look at me! in all the wrong ways. The only good thing about the atrocious ensemble was that the abundance of thread, sequins, feathers, and flounces hid the two silverstone knives I had up my sleeves. Another knife was tucked in the small of my back underneath the horrible corset, and two more rested in the sides of my boots. “Well, I think you look great,” a bright voice chirped, interrupting my dark musings. “Really in the spirit of the season.” A man stepped up beside me and checked his own reflection in the mirror. His long-sleeved shirt and pants were both made of bright green velvet trimmed with even brighter purple silk stripes, making him look like an oddly flavored candy cane.

A matching green-and-purple-striped velvet hat with three long, pointed, floppy ends topped his head, while the toes of his green velvet slippers curled up to form soft purple triangles. Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, reached up and carefully adjusted one of the shiny silver bells on the end of his hat. All that velvet made his eyes seem greener than usual, although the ridiculous hat hid most of his walnut-brown hair. “What are you supposed to be again?” I asked. Finn lifted his chin with pride. “I am a court jester, ready to entertain the masses with my charming wit, amazing skills, and dashing good looks.” “Really? Because I think all that green velvet makes you look like one of Santa’s elves who couldn’t find his way back to the North Pole.” Finn glared at me, but the other people in the room snickered at my joke. “Forget about you.” I held my arms out wide.

“I don’t even know what character I’m supposed to be.” Finn grinned and opened his mouth, but I stabbed my finger at him in warning. “If you say serving wench, then I am going to make you eat that jester’s hat, velvet, bells, and all,” I growled. He cleared his throat, changing course. “Well, I was going to say pirate queen, but why don’t we just go with assassin? After all, that is your usual nighttime occupation.” I made a face, but he was right. During the day, to most normal people, I was Gin Blanco, owner of the Pork Pit barbecue restaurant in downtown Ashland. But at night, to the shady folks on the wrong side of the law, I was the Spider, a deadly assassin and the supposed queen of the city’s underworld. “Well, pirate queen, assassin, or whatever else you want to call me, I still look ridiculous,” I grumbled. “Fletcher would roll over in his grave if he saw me dressed like this.

” Fletcher Lane had been Finn’s dad and my assassin mentor. And just like me, Fletcher had always been far more comfortable in his old blue work clothes than anything else. “Nah,” Finn said. “He’d laugh his ass off, then make us pose for pictures.” He was right again. The two of us shared a smile at the thought of the old man, and then my brother shook his head. “Don’t blame me for this,” Finn said. “This was all Owen’s idea.” “Oh, trust me, I haven’t forgotten that.” I turned to look at the other man in the room.

He too was dressed in costume, although his was far more subdued: a black silk shirt under a dark gray leather vest, along with matching gray leather pants and black boots. Like Finn, he was also wearing a hat, but his was much simpler, a black leather cap with two long flaps that covered his ears, along with most of his black hair. Despite the costume, the sight of his strong, muscled body and handsome features, including his slightly crooked nose and the scar that cut across his chin, made my heart skip a beat, especially when he fixed his violet gaze on my gray one. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Owen Grayson, my significant other, rumbled. “I am but a humble blacksmith today, remember?” I huffed and crossed my arms over my chest. Instead of being intimidated by my continued grumbling, Owen stepped forward, grabbed my hand, and dropped to one knee in front of me. He grinned. “Although this humble blacksmith is always happy to serve his lady, the Spider, a fearsome pirate queen assassin and the purveyor of the finest barbecue in all the realms.” I huffed again at his cheesy words and theatrics, but I couldn’t help but grin back at him. “You are getting way more into this than I expected.

” Owen flashed me another grin, then climbed to his feet. He was still holding my hand, and the warmth of his skin soaked into mine. “Oh, come on. It’s not every day we get to dress up and go to a renaissance faire.” “Especially one called Winter’s Web,” Finn chimed in. “How perfect is that? Why, it’s like they picked an icy spider theme just for you, Gin.” I gave him a sour look, but I couldn’t argue. The name was right on the nose, especially given my moniker as the Spider and the elemental Ice and Stone magic flowing through my veins. From what I’d read online, the faire was a biannual event sponsored by the Ashland Renaissance Players, a group dedicated to showcasing all things medieval, magical, and the like. Winter’s Web was the first faire of the year, with the second one to follow in the summer.

I shook my head. “I still can’t believe you thought that going to a ren faire would be fun. Or that you actually bid on the tickets during a silent auction back during the holidays. Didn’t you say the organizers had a ski trip to Snowline Ridge? Now, that’s what I would have bid on. Or that spa weekend in Cypress Mountain.” “Oh, there were all kinds of trips and getaways up for grabs. I bid on several of them,” Owen said. “Trust me. I know how much we could all use a vacation, especially given our latest run-in with Hugh Tucker.” Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Finn frantically slicing his hand over his throat, not so subtly telling Owen to shut up.

Owen grimaced, knowing it was too late to correct his mistake. Saying that Hugh Tucker was my personal nemesis was putting it mildly. Tucker was the vampire enforcer of the Circle, a secret society responsible for much of the crime and corruption in Ashland. A few months ago, Tucker had tried to get me to join the Circle, and when I’d refused, he’d tried to kill me. But my relationship with the vampire was far more complicated than mere nemesis status. To my shock, I’d learned that my mother, Eira Snow, had been a member of the evil group—and that Tucker had loved her. Tucker’s feelings hadn’t kept my mother from being killed on the Circle’s orders, but they had led the vampire to help me more than once. Although Tucker’s help always came with plenty of strings attached and usually involved him manipulating me into killing his enemies. Clever bastard. Over the past few months, the ugly revelations about Tucker, the Circle, and my mother had just kept on coming and coming, like a freight train that kept running over the tracks of my heart no matter how hard I tried to derail it.

But I’d slowly fought, clawed, and killed my way through the Circle ranks until I had finally identified the group’s leader and the man ultimately responsible for the murders of my mother and my older sister, Annabella. My uncle Mason. That recent discovery had been a particularly surprising and brutal gut punch. My father, Tristan, had died when I was young, so I didn’t remember much about him and knew nothing at all about his relatives. I was currently searching for Mason so that I could kill my mysterious uncle for everything he’d done to me and my family, but I wasn’t having any luck finding him so far. Finn kept flapping his hand at Owen, who cleared his throat, breaking the awkward silence. “Although I have to admit that I don’t remember actually bidding on the faire tickets,” Owen said, changing the subject. “But at least Jo-Jo was able to find us some costumes.” “Anytime, darling,” a light, feminine voice drawled. “And I think you all look fabulous.

” I looked over at the middle-aged dwarf lounging on one of the cherry-red salon chairs that filled the room. Unlike the rest of us, Jolene “Jo-Jo” Deveraux wasn’t wearing a costume. Instead of swaths of leather or velvet, a long white fleece housecoat patterned with tiny pink roses covered her short, stocky body. Given the early hour, her white-blond hair was still done up in pink sponge rollers, although she’d already applied her favorite pink lipstick and other makeup. A mug of chicory coffee steamed on the table by her elbow, and the rich, dark fumes tickled my nose and overpowered the chemical scents of the perms, hair dyes, and other products that Jo-Jo used in her beauty salon. Despite her thick housecoat, Jo-Jo’s feet were bare, and she was idly rubbing her toes back and forth over the tummy of Rosco, her beloved basset hound, who was lying on his back, with his stubby legs sticking up in the air. Every once in a while, Rosco would let out a little grunt of pleasure, but his eyes were closed, and he was fully enjoying his belly rub. My friends and I had shown up at Jo-Jo’s house about an hour ago so she could give us our costumes before she opened her salon for the day. The dwarf had also done my makeup, rimming my gray eyes with silver shadow and liner and painting my lips the same royal blue as my awful blouse. She’d also used some of her many rollers, hot irons, and combs to curl, twirl, and tease my shoulderlength dark brown hair out and up to new heights.

I might be going to a renaissance faire, but this was still the South, where hair only came in two categories: big and bigger. “At least you guys got to wear pants,” another voice groused. “How did I end up in this monstrosity?” High heels clattered on the floor, and a woman a few years younger than me stepped into the salon. She was wearing a bright, neon-pink silk dress that could best be described as poofy. The neckline, the sleeves, the skirt—there was some ruffle or flounce everywhere I looked. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing was also covered with pale pink sequins. They matched the ones on her pink high heels, as well as the pink crystal tiara sparkling on her head. I wasn’t the only one who had shed her usual low-key look for the ren faire. Bria Coolidge, my baby sister, might be a tough-as-nails police detective, but right now, she resembled a Southern belle princess crossed with a glittering disco ball. Jo-Jo had also done Bria’s makeup, and she’d given my sister a soft, dreamy look, with pink shadow and silver liner that brought out her blue eyes.

A matching pink gloss covered Bria’s lips, and her blond hair had been set into loose waves. My sister was lovely as always, although I couldn’t say the same thing about her dress. “That is really . pink.” That was the least offensive adjective that came to mind. Bria glowered at me. “I know. I look like an oversize flamingo. With ruf les. And sequins.

” I grinned back at her, not even trying to hide my amusement. Owen’s lips twitched up into a smile as well, and Finn let out a loud snicker that had Bria planting her hands on her hips and turning her hot glower to him. Finn’s laughter abruptly cut off, and he went over and put his arm around her waist, drawing her close. “Well, I think you look smashing no matter what you wear,” he said, trying to be diplomatic, since he was her significant other. “Besides, I’ve always had this court jester and princess fantasy . ” He let his voice trail off and suggestively waggled his eyebrows. Bria crinkled her nose. “Ewww.” But Finn was not deterred. He never was.

He bent down and whispered something in her ear that made Bria’s glower melt into a speculative look. “Later,” she murmured. Finn kissed her cheek. Bria smiled, then reached up and flicked one of the bells on his jester’s hat, making it ting-ting-ting out a merry tune. Jo-Jo took a sip of her chicory coffee to hide her own smile. “I’m sorry, darling, but that was the only princess dress I could find on such short notice. There weren’t many costumes to choose from, which is why your outfits don’t exactly match the Renaissance period.” “It could be worse.” I pointed at my own hideous shirt. “You could be wearing feathers, like me.

” “At least you get to hide in the Pork Pit truck most of the day.” Bria sighed and picked at one of the sequins on her poofy skirt. “I have to walk around and let people take pictures of me in this thing. Pictures that will be online forever. Xavier is never going to let me live this down.” Xavier was Bria’s partner on the force and another one of our friends, although he was missing the faire. Lucky, lucky man. Finn held up his hands. “Hey, it wasn’t my idea to pimp us out and make us actually work at the faire. That was all Grayson’s genius plan.

” “As I’ve told you many, many times now, the Ashland Renaissance Players donate part of the proceeds from their ticket and concession sales to food banks, homeless shelters, and other charities,” Owen said. “Darrell, one of the guys in my office, is really into the whole ren-faire scene. When I told him about the tickets I’d won, he said that the Renaissance Players were having trouble finding volunteers. So I thought we could help out.” I put my arm around his waist. “And that’s one of the reasons I love you.” He grinned back and pulled me closer. “Don’t worry. We’re only volunteering for a couple of hours. We’ll still have plenty of time to walk around and enjoy the faire.

” “Volunteer?” Finn shuddered, as though the word was some awful curse. “Don’t you know that I only play the part of the fool for money?” “And here I thought you did it for free every single day,” I drawled. Finn rolled his eyes at my teasing, then turned back to the mirror and checked the bells on his jester’s hat again, making sure they were perfectly draped in place. “We need to get going,” a low, eerie voice rasped. “Gotta get the truck set up.” More footsteps sounded, and another woman entered the salon. Sophia Deveraux was a dwarf like her sister, Jo-Jo, although she was much younger, with a thicker, stronger, more muscled body. Sophia was wearing a ruffled white silk shirt patterned with tiny grinning black skulls, along with black leather pants. The tops of her knee-high black leather boots were turned down, revealing the soft white interior, which was also patterned with black skulls. A large black crystal skull pendant with royal-blue heart-shaped eyes hung from her neck, while a silver cutlass dangled from her black leather belt, along with a small old-fashioned spyglass.

A white bandanna patterned with small black skulls covered her head, and the ends of her black hair had been dyed a bright blue and dusted with matching glitter. Smoky shadow rimmed Sophia’s black eyes, and her lips were the same royal blue as mine. Sophia had kicked her usual Goth style up several notches for the ren faire. The rest of us might look like we were playing dress-up, but not her. Sophia totally owned that outfit from top to bottom. I let out a low, appreciative whistle. “Now, that is what a badass Goth dwarf pirate queen assassin is supposed to look like.” Sophia winked at me, then grabbed the cutlass off her belt and brandished it high in the air, as though she was calling her rowdy pirate crew to order. “Yargh!” she cried out, shepherding us out of the salon. “To the faire!”



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