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Web Of Lies

Web Of Lies, June 2010
Elemental Assassin #2
by Jennifer Estep

Pocket
Featuring: Gin Blanco
384 pages
ISBN: 143914799X
EAN: 9781439147993
Kindle: B003KN3M6S
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
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"Gin Blanco may be retired, but that doesn't mean she's stopped killing."

Fresh Fiction Review

Web Of Lies
Jennifer Estep

Reviewed by Rosie Bindra
Posted September 16, 2010

Fantasy Urban

Retired assassin Gin Blanco just wants to be left alone to run her restaurant, the Pork Pit, but trouble still seems to find its way to her doorstep. First an attempted robbery at her restaurant has her taking down two punks who were just looking for some kicks. Then the front windows of the restaurant are shot at. Surprisingly enough, though, Gin isn't the intended victim of this shooting. With her curiosity getting the best of her yet again, Gin hunts down Victoria Fox, the girl who she thinks was the shooter's intended victim, to find out why someone was taking shots at her. In the process, Gin finds herself coming out of retirement to do a pro-bono job helping Victoria and her grandfather.

Victoria's grandfather has been fighting off a coal mining mogul who is hell bent on acquiring their land; land that's been in Victoria's family for generations. When they turn the pressure up by sending a dwarf to teach Victoria a lesson, Gin steps in to save the girl and finds herself offering to help the family with their problem. Surprisingly, Gin finds Detective Donovan Caine there, as well. With a little help from Caine, with a lot of his disapproval thrown in, Gin sets out to take down a fellow stone elemental and his empire.

Who would have thought a blood covered assassin could be so addictive? I can't get enough of this series. Gin Blanco and her murdering ways are highly addictive. WEB OF LIES is the second book in Jennifer Estep's Elemental series and, while we still have all the death and mayhem we can handle, we also get a little more emotional and learn more about Gin and her past. I loved delving into Gin's background and discovering what events shaped her. I thought the flashbacks with Fletcher Lane were great because we get to see what kind of relationship he and Gin had before he died.

Though this series is definitely urban fantasy, I can't wait for the next book so we can dig a little deeper into the little bit of romance that there is. With Donovan Caine still on the fence about what to do about his attraction to Gin, a new guy is making his move and I am liking it very much. Look for Venom, the third book in the series, to come out next month. I, for one, will be devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Learn more about Web Of Lies

SUMMARY

Curiosity is definitely going to get me dead one of these days. Probably real soon.

I'm Gin Blanco. 

You might know me as the Spider, the most feared assassin in the South. I’m retired now, but trouble still has a way of finding me. Like the other day when two punks tried to rob my popular barbecue joint, the Pork Pit. Then there was the barrage of gunfire on the restaurant. Only, for once, those kill shots weren’t aimed at me. They were meant for Violet Fox. Ever since I agreed to help Violet and her grandfather protect their property from an evil coalmining tycoon, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m really retired. So is Detective Donovan Caine. The only honest cop in Ashland is having a real hard time reconciling his attraction to me with his Boy Scout mentality. And I can barely keep my hands off his sexy body. What can I say? I’m a Stone elemental with a little Ice magic thrown in, but my heart isn’t made of solid rock. Luckily, Gin Blanco always gets her man . . . dead or alive.

Excerpt

“Freeze! Nobody move! This is a robbery!”

Wow. Three clichés in a row. Some­body was seri­ously lack­ing in the imag­i­na­tion department.

But the shouted threats scared some­one, who squeaked out a small scream. I sighed. Screams were always bad for busi­ness. Which meant I couldn’t ignore the trou­ble that had just walked into my restaurant—or deal with it the quick, vio­lent way I would have pre­ferred. A sil­ver­stone knife through the heart is enough to stop most trou­ble in its tracks. Permanently.

So I pulled my gray gaze up from the paper­back copy of “The Odyssey” that I’d been read­ing to see what all the fuss was about.

Two twenty-something men stood in the mid­dle of the Pork Pit, look­ing out of place among the restaurant’s blue and pink vinyl booths. The dynamic duo sported black trench coats that cov­ered their thin T-shirts and flapped against their ripped, rock star jeans. Nei­ther one wore a hat or gloves, and the fall chill had painted their ears and fin­gers a bright, cherry red. I won­dered how long they’d stood out­side, gath­er­ing up the courage to come in and yell out their trite demands.

Water dripped off their boots and spread across the faded blue and pink pig tracks that cov­ered the restau­rant floor. I eyed the men’s footwear. Expen­sive black leather thick enough to keep out the Novem­ber cold. No holes, no cracks, no miss­ing boot­laces. These two weren’t your typ­i­cal, des­per­ate junkies look­ing for a quick cash score. No, they had their own money—lots of it, from the looks of their pricey shoes, vin­tage T-shirts, and designer jeans. These two rich punks were rob­bing my bar­be­cue restau­rant just for the thrill of it.

Worst fuck­ing deci­sion they’d ever made.

“Freeze!” the first guy repeated, as if we all hadn’t heard him before.

He was a beefy man with spiky blond hair held up by some sort of shiny, hair-care prod­uct. Prob­a­bly a lit­tle giant blood in his fam­ily tree some­where, judg­ing from his six-foot-six frame and large hands. Despite his twenty-something years, baby fat still puffed out his face like a warm, ooz­ing marsh­mal­low. The guy’s brown eyes flicked around the restau­rant, tak­ing in every­thing from the baked beans bub­bling on the stove behind me to the hiss­ing French fryer to the bat­tered, bloody copy of “Where the Red Fern Grows” mounted on the wall beside the cash register.

Then, Beef­cake turned his atten­tion to the peo­ple inside the Pork Pit to make sure we were all fol­low­ing his demands. Not many folks to look at. Mon­day was usu­ally a slow day, made even more so by the cold blus­ter of wind and rain out­side. The only other peo­ple in the restau­rant besides me and the would-be rob­bers were my dwar­ven cook, Sophia Dev­er­aux, and a cou­ple of customers—two college-age women wear­ing skinny jeans and tight T-shirts not unlike those the rob­bers sported.

The women sat shocked and frozen, eyes wide, bar­be­cue beef sand­wiches halfway to their lips. Sophia stood next to the stove, her black eyes flat and dis­in­ter­ested as she watched the beans bub­ble. She grunted once and gave them a stir with a metal spoon. Noth­ing much ever both­ered Sophia.

The first guy raised his hand. A small knife glinted in his red, chapped fin­gers. A hard, thin smiled curved my lips. I liked knives.

“Chill out, Jake,” the sec­ond guy mut­tered. “There’s no need to scream.”

I looked at him. Where his buddy was blond and beefy, rob­ber num­ber two was short and bone-thin. His wispy hair stuck up due to uncon­trol­lable cowlicks, instead of an over­abun­dance of prod­uct. The locks were a bright red that had prob­a­bly earned him the nick­name Car­rot at some point. Car­rot shoved his hands into his holey pock­ets, shifted on his feet, and stared at the floor, clearly want­ing to be some­where other than here. A reluc­tant side­kick at best. Prob­a­bly tried to talk his buddy out of this non­sense. He should have tried harder.

“No names, Lance. Remem­ber?” Jake snarled and glared at his friend.

Lance’s bony body jerked at the sound of his own name, like some­one had zapped him with a cat­tle prod. His mouth dropped open, but he didn’t say anything.

I used one of the day’s credit card receipts to mark my place in “The Odyssey.” Then, I closed my book, straight­ened, slid off my stool, and stepped around the long counter that ran along the back wall of the Pork Pit. Time to take out the trash.

The first guy, Jake, saw me move out of the cor­ner of his eye. But instead of charg­ing at me like I’d expected, the half-giant moved to his left and jerked one of the girls up and out of her booth—a His­panic girl with a pixie hair­cut. She let out another squeaky scream. Her thick, beef sand­wich flew from her hand and spat­tered against one of the store­front win­dows. The bar­be­cue sauce looked like blood run­ning down the smooth, shiny glass.

“Leave her alone, you bas­tard!” the other woman shouted.

She jumped to her feet and charged at Jake, who back­handed her. He might only have been a half-giant, but there was still enough strength in his blow to lift the woman off her feet and sent her careen­ing into a table. She flipped over the top and hit the floor—hard. A low groan sounded.

By this point, Sophia Dev­er­aux had become a lit­tle more inter­ested in things. The dwarf moved to stand beside me. The sil­ver skulls hang­ing from the black leather col­lar around her neck tin­kled together like wind chimes. The skulls matched the ones on her black T-shirt.

“You take right,” I mur­mured. “I’ve got left.”

Sophia grunted and moved to the other end of the counter, where the sec­ond woman had been thrown.

“Lance!” Jake jerked his head at the injured woman and Sophia. “Watch those bitches!”

Lance wet his lips. Pure, uncom­fort­able mis­ery filled his pale face, but he stepped around his friend and trot­ted over to the injured woman, who had pushed her­self up to her hands and knees. She shoved her wild tan­gle of blue-black hair out of her face. Her pale blue eyes burned with imme­di­ate hate. A fighter, that one.

But Lance didn’t see her ven­omous look. He was too busy star­ing at Sophia. Most peo­ple did. The dwarf had been Goth before Goth was cool—a hun­dred years ago or so. In addi­tion to her skull col­lar and match­ing T-shirt, Sophia Dev­er­aux sported black jeans and boots. Pink lip­stick cov­ered her lips, con­trast­ing with the black glit­ter shadow on her eye­lids and the nat­ural pal­lor of her face. Today, the color motif extended up to her hair. Pale pink streaks shim­mered among her cropped black locks.

But Jake wasn’t so dumb­struck. He pulled the first woman even closer, turned her around, held her in front of him, and raised the knife to her throat. Now, he had a human shield. Terrific.

But that wasn’t the worst part. A bit of red sparked in the depths of his brown eyes, like a match flar­ing to life. Magic surged like a hot, sum­mer wind through the restau­rant, prick­ing my skin with power and mak­ing the scars on my palms itch. Flames spewed out from between Jake’s clenched fin­gers, trav­el­ing up and set­tling on the knife. The blade glowed red-orange from the sud­den burst of heat.

Well, well, well, Jake the rob­ber was just full of sur­prises. Because in addi­tion to being a petty thief, Jake the half-giant was also an elemental—someone who could con­trol one of the four ele­ments. Fire, in his case.

My smile grew a lit­tle harder, a lit­tle tighter. Jake wasn’t the only one here who was an elemental—or very, very dan­ger­ous. I cocked my head, reach­ing out with my Stone magic. All around me, the bat­tered brick of the Pork Pit mur­mured with unease, sens­ing the emo­tional upheaval that had already taken place inside and my dark inten­tions now.

“I said nobody fuck­ing move.”

Jake’s ear­lier scream dropped to a hoarse whis­per. His eyes were com­pletely red now, as though some­one had set two flick­er­ing rubies into his baby-fat face. A rivulet of sweat dripped down his tem­ple, and his head bobbed in time to some music only he could hear. Jake was high on something—alcohol, drugs, blood, his own magic, maybe all of the above. Didn’t much mat­ter. He was going to be dead in another minute. Two, tops.

The red glow in Jake’s eyes bright­ened as he reached for his magic again. The flame flash­ing on the sil­ver blade flared hot­ter and higher, until it licked at the girl’s neck, threat­en­ing to burn her. Tears streamed down her heart-shaped face, and her breath came in short, choked sobs, but she didn’t move. Smart girl.

My eyes nar­rowed. It was one thing to try to rob the Pork Pit, my bar­be­cue restau­rant, my gin joint. Down-on-their-luck ele­men­tals, vam­pire hook­ers, and other bums strung out on their own magic and jonesing for more could be excused that stu­pid­ity. But nobody—nobody—threat­ened my pay­ing cus­tomers. I was going to enjoy tak­ing care of this lowlife. As soon as I got him away from the girl.

So I held up my hands in a pla­cat­ing ges­ture and kept the cold, calm vio­lence out of my gray eyes as best I could. “I’m the owner. Gin Blanco. I don’t want any trou­ble. Let the girl go, and I’ll open the cash reg­is­ter for you. I won’t even call the police after you leave.”

Mainly because it wouldn’t do me any good. The cops in the south­ern metrop­o­lis of Ash­land were as crooked as forks of light­ning. The esteemed mem­bers of the po-po barely both­ered to respond to rob­beries, espe­cially in this bor­der­line South­town neigh­bor­hood, much less do some­thing use­ful, like catch the perps after the fact.

Jake snorted. “Go ahead. The police can’t touch me, bitch. Do you know who my father is?”

In addi­tion to being a Fire ele­men­tal, Jake was also a name-dropping prima donna. A won­der he’d sur­vived this long.

“Don’t tell them that!” Lance hissed.

Jake snorted and turned his red eyes to his buddy. “I’ll tell them what­ever I want. So shut your snivel­ing mouth.”

“Just let the girl go, and I’ll open the cash reg­is­ter,” I repeated in a firm voice, hop­ing my words would pen­e­trate Jake’s magic high and sink into his thick skull.

His red eyes nar­rowed to slits. “You’ll open the cash reg­is­ter, or the girl dies—and you along with her.”

He jerked the girl back against him, and the flames coat­ing the knife burned even brighter, tak­ing on an orange-yellow hue. The sil­ver­stone scars on my palms—the ones shaped like spi­der runes—itched at the influx of magic. I tensed, afraid he was going to do the girl right here, right now. I could kill him—easily—but prob­a­bly not before he hurt the girl with his magic. I didn’t want that to hap­pen. It wasn’t going to hap­pen. Not in my restau­rant. Not now, not again.

“Jake, calm down,” Lance pleaded with his friend. “No one’s mak­ing any trou­ble. It’s going just like you said it would. Quick and easy. Let’s just get the money and go.”

Jake stared at me, the flames danc­ing in his red eyes match­ing the move­ment of the ones on the knife blade. Pure, mali­cious glee filled his crim­son gaze. Even if I hadn’t been good at read­ing peo­ple, that emo­tion alone would have told me that Jake enjoyed using his magic, loved the power it gave him, the feel­ing of being invin­ci­ble. And that he wasn’t going to be sat­is­fied just steal­ing my money. No, Jake was going to use his Fire power to kill every­one in the restau­rant just because he could, because he wanted to show off his magic and prove he was a real bad-ass. Unless I did some­thing to stop him.

“Jake? The money?” Lance asked again.

After a moment, the fire dimmed in Jake’s eyes. He low­ered the glow­ing blade a few inches, giv­ing the girl some much-needed air. “Money. Now.”

I opened the reg­is­ter, grabbed all the wrin­kled bills inside, and held them out. All Jake had to do was let go of the girl long enough to step for­ward and grab the cash, and I’d have him. Come on, you bas­tard. Come and play with Gin.

But some sense of self-preservation must have kicked in, because the beefy half-giant jerked his head. Lance left his post by the injured woman, tip­toed for­ward, snatched the money out of my hand, and stepped back. I didn’t bother grab­bing him and using him as a hostage. Guys like Jake weren’t above leav­ing their friends twist­ing in the wind—or stuck on the edge of my blade.

Jake licked his thick, chapped lips. “How much? How much is there?”

Lance rifled through the green bills. “A lit­tle over two hundred.”

“That’s it? You’re hold­ing out on me, bitch,” Jake snarled.

I shrugged. “Monday’s a slow day. And not many peo­ple like to get out in this kind of cold weather, not even for barbecue.”

The Fire ele­men­tal glared at me, debat­ing my words and what he could do about them. I smiled back. He didn’t know what he’d got­ten him­self into—or who he was mess­ing with.

“Let’s just go, Jake,” Lance pleaded. “Some cops could come along any second.”

Jake tight­ened his grip on his flam­ing knife. “No. Not until this bitch tells me what she did with the rest of the money. This is the most pop­u­lar restau­rant in the neigh­bor­hood. There had to be more than two hun­dred dol­lars in that cash reg­is­ter. So where did you hide it, bitch? You wear­ing a money belt under­neath that greasy blue apron?”

I shrugged. “Why don’t you come and find out, you pathetic fuck?”

His eyes grew darker, red­der, angrier, until I thought the spark­ing flames flick­er­ing inside might actu­ally shoot out of his magic-tinted irises. Jake let out a furi­ous growl. He shoved the girl away and charged at me, the knife held straight out.

My smile widened. Finally. Time to play.

I waited until he got in range, then stepped for­ward and turned my body into his. I slammed my elbow into his solar plexus and swept his feet out from under him. Jake coughed, stum­bled, and did a header onto the floor. His tem­ple clipped the side of one of the tables as he went down, and a result­ing bit of blood spat­tered onto my jeans. The sharp blow was enough to make Jake lose his grip on his Fire magic. The prick­ling power wash­ing off him van­ished, and the flames snuffed out on the knife in his hand. The hot metal hissed and smoked as it came into con­tact with the cool floor.

I looked to my right. The woman Jake had thrown across the room scram­bled to her feet and pre­pared to launch her­self at Lance. But Sophia grabbed the girl’s waist and pulled her back. The woman started to strug­gle, but the Goth dwarf shook her head and stepped for­ward, putting her­self in front of the cus­tomer. Lance swal­lowed once and backed up, ready to turn and run. But Sophia was quicker. The dwarf punched him once in the stom­ach. Lance went down like an anvil had been dropped on him. He crum­pled to the floor and didn’t move.

One down, one to go.

I turned my atten­tion back to Jake, who’d rolled over onto his side. Blood dripped down the side of his head where he’d cut him­self on the cor­ner of the table. The half-giant saw me stand­ing over him, curled halfway up, and slashed at me with his cool­ing knife. Idiot. He didn’t even come close to nick­ing me. After Jake made another flail­ing pass with the blade, I crouched down and grabbed his wrist, bend­ing it back so he couldn’t move it. I eyed the weapon in his locked hand.

“Fuck,” I said. “Get a real knife. You couldn’t even peel pota­toes with that thing.”

Then, I plucked the blade from his chapped fin­gers and snapped his thick wrist.

Jake howled in pain, but the noise didn’t bother me. Hadn’t in years. I shoved him down onto his back, then strad­dled him, a knee on either side of his beefy chest, squeez­ing in and putting pres­sure on his ribs. Giants, even half-giants like Jake, hated it when they had trou­ble breath­ing. Most peo­ple did.

I adjusted and tight­ened my grip on the knife, ready to drive it into his heart. A flimsy weapon, but it would do the job. Just about any­thing would, if you had enough strength and deter­mi­na­tion to put behind it. I had plenty of both.

A small, choked sob sounded, draw­ing my atten­tion away from Jake and his high-pitched, keen­ing howls. My gray eyes flicked up. The girl hud­dled under­neath a table a few feet away, her knees pulled up to her chest, her eyes as big as quar­ters in her face, tears slid­ing down her flushed cheeks.

A posi­tion I’d been in, once upon a time.

A cou­ple of months ago, the girl and her tears wouldn’t have both­ered me. I would have killed Jake and his friend, washed the blood off my hands, and asked Sophia to get rid of the bod­ies before I closed up the Pork Pit for the night.

That’s what assas­sins did.

And I was the Spi­der, one of the very best.

But I’d had an epiphany of sorts two months ago when my men­tor had been bru­tally tor­tured and mur­dered inside the Pork Pit—in the very spot Jake and I were in right now. The old man, Fletcher Lane, had wanted me to retire, to take a dif­fer­ent path in life, to live in the day­light a lit­tle, as he was so fond of say­ing. I’d fol­lowed Fletcher’s advice and quit the assas­sin busi­ness after I’d killed Alexis James, the Air ele­men­tal who’d mur­dered him.

“Hmph.”

Behind me, Sophia grunted. I looked over my shoul­der at the dwarf, who still had hold of the other woman. The girl was unsuc­cess­fully try­ing to pry the dwarf’s stubby fin­gers off her waist. Good luck with that. Sophia had a grip like death. Once she had you, she didn’t let go—ever. My gray eyes locked with Sophia’s black ones. Regret flashed in her dark gaze, and the dwarf shook her head just the tini­est bit. No, she was say­ing. Not in front of two witnesses.

Sophia was right. Wit­nesses were bad. I couldn’t gut Jake with the two girls watch­ing and get rid of the body after­wards. Not in my own restau­rant. Not with­out blow­ing my cover as Gin Blanco and leav­ing every­thing behind. And I wasn’t going to do that. Not for a piece of trash like the Fire ele­men­tal. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t let Jake know exactly who he was deal­ing with.

I waited until there was a lull in Jake’s howls, then tipped his head up with the knife point and gazed into his eyes. They’d lost all hint of their red, fiery magic. Now, his brown irises were wide and glossy with panic, fear, pain.

“You ever come to my restau­rant and fuck with me or my cus­tomers again, and I’ll carve you up like a Thanks­giv­ing turkey.”

I slashed down with the knife, break­ing the skin on his beefy neck. Jake yelped at the sting and clawed at the slight wound with his sausage-thick fin­gers. I slapped his hand away and nicked him again. The smell of warm, cop­pery blood filled my nose. Some­thing else that hadn’t both­ered me in a long, long time.

“Every time you move, I’m going to cut you again. Deeper and deeper. Nod your head if you understand.”

Hatred flared in his gaze, tak­ing the edge off the pain and panic, but he nodded.

“Good.”

I clipped his tem­ple with the knife hilt. Jake’s head snapped to one side and fell onto the floor. Uncon­scious. Just like his friend Lance.

I stood up, wiped my fin­ger­prints off the knife, and dropped the weapon on the floor. The half-giant didn’t stir. Then, I got to my feet and headed for the girl, still crouched under­neath the table.

She shrank back against the legs of a chair at my approach, like she wanted to melt into the metal. Her pulse flut­tered like a mad but­ter­fly in her tem­ple. I put my friend­liest, most trust­wor­thy, charm­ing, South­ern smile on my face and crouched down until I was eye-level with her.

“Come on, sweet­heart,” I said, hold­ing out my hand. “It’s over. Those men aren’t going to hurt you now.”

Her choco­late eyes darted to Jake lying on the floor. Her gaze flicked back to me, and she chewed her lip, her teeth white against her tof­fee skin.

“I’m not going to hurt you either,” I said in a soft voice. “Come on, now. I’m sure your friend wants to see how you are.”

“Cas­sidy!” the other woman called out since Sophia still wasn’t let­ting her go. “Are you all right?”

Her friend’s voice pen­e­trated Cassidy’s fear­ful daze. She sighed and nod­ded her head. The girl reached out, and I grabbed her trem­bling hand. Cassidy’s fin­gers felt like thin, frag­ile ici­cles against the thick scar embed­ded in my palm. I tugged the girl to her feet. She eyed me with under­stand­able cau­tion, so I kept my move­ments slow and small, not want­ing to star­tle her.

“I’m fine, Eva,” Cas­sidy said in a low voice. “Just a lit­tle shook up is all.”

Sophia let go of the other woman, and I stepped back. Eva rushed for­ward and caught her friend in a tight hug. Cas­sidy wrapped her arms around the other women, and the two of them rocked back and forth in the mid­dle of the restaurant.

I walked over to Sophia, who was watch­ing the two women with a flat expres­sion on her pale face.

“Friend­ship. Ain’t it a beau­ti­ful thing?” I quipped.

“Hmph.” Sophia grunted again.

But the cor­ner of the Goth dwarf’s lips turned up into a tiny smile.

The two girls hugged a minute longer before Eva pulled a cell phone out of her jeans.

“You call the cops,” Eva told her friend. “I need to let Owen know I’m okay. You know how he is. He’ll freak when he finds out about this.”

Cas­sidy nod­ded her head in sym­pa­thetic agree­ment and pulled her own phone out of her jeans. The two women started dial­ing num­bers, instead of ask­ing me, the restau­rant owner, to do it for them. Not sur­pris­ing. If you wanted the cops, you called them your­self. You cer­tainly didn’t depend on the kind­ness of strangers to do it. Not in Ashland.

I frowned. Cops. Just what I needed. Some of Ashland’s finest get­ting an eye­ful of me, the for­mer assas­sin, a Goth dwarf who liked to dis­pose of dead bod­ies in her spare time, and the two guys we’d so eas­ily dis­patched. Not the kind of atten­tion I wanted to draw to myself, even if I was retired now. Noth­ing I could do about it now, though.

Sophia went back to the stove to check on her baked beans. Eva spoke in a low voice to some­one on her phone. Cas­sidy fin­ished her 911 call and sank into the near­est chair.

The girl stared at Jake on the floor, then her brown eyes flicked to the bloody knife. Her lower lip quiv­ered, her eyes grew glossy, and her hands trem­bled. Try­ing to hold back the tears. Some­thing else I’d had to do, once upon a time.

I walked over to the counter and picked up a glass cake plate filled with the black for­est cook­ies I’d baked this morning.

“Here.” I took the top off and held the plate out to her. “Have a cookie. They’ve got plenty of sugar and but­ter and choco­late in them. They’ll help with the shakes.”

Cas­sidy gave me a wan smile, took one of the choco­late treats, and bit into the con­coc­tion. The bit­ter­sweet choco­late melted in her mouth, and her eyes bright­ened with plea­sure instead of worry.

Eva fin­ished her call and sat down next to her friend. Her hands didn’t trem­ble as she snapped her phone shut, and she looked at Jake with a thought­ful expres­sion. The only sign any­thing had hap­pened to Eva was a red welt on her cheek, where her face had smacked into the floor. The girl had a level head on her shoul­ders and a firm grip on her emo­tions. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t crash later.

I held the plate out to her. “You too.”

Eva took a cookie, broke it in two, and stuffed half of it into her mouth. Not shy, either.

I also plucked one of the choco­late treats off the stack. Not because I had shaky nerves, but because they were damn good cook­ies. After a month of try­ing, I’d finally per­fected the recipe.

I looked at the two uncon­scious men on the floor. Lance lay spread-eagle next to one of the booths where Sophia had dropped him. Blood con­tin­ued to drip from the cuts on Jake’s throat and tem­ple, stain­ing the floor a rusty brown.

I grabbed another cookie off the plate and watched him bleed.


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