Deadly sting, p.1
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       Deadly Sting, p.1

         Part #8 of Elemental Assassin series by Belle Aurora
Deadly Sting

  Chapter 1

  "That would look fabulous on you. "

  Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, pointed to a tennis bracelet in the middle of a glass case full of jewelry. The shimmer of the gemstones matched the sparkle of greed in his eyes.

  I looked at the price tag beside the diamond-crusted monstrosity. "You do realize that the cost of that bracelet is within spitting distance of my going rate as an assassin, right?"

  "You mean your going rate back when you were actually killing people for money," Finn said. "Or as I like to call them - the good ole days. "

  Finn gave the diamond bracelet one more greedy glance before moving over to a display of shoes. He grabbed a purple pump off a shelf and waggled the shoe at me before holding it up and inspecting it himself. He gazed at the shoe with a rapt expression, as though it were a work of art instead of merely overpriced pieces of leather sewn together.

  "It's the latest style," he said in a dreamy voice. "Hand-stitched lavender suede with custom-made four-inch heels. Isn't it marvelous?"

  I arched an eyebrow. "Have I ever told you how scary it is that you know more about shoes than I do?"

  Finn grinned, his green eyes lighting up with amusement. "Frequently. But my impeccable fashion sense is one of the many things you love about me. "

  He straightened his gray silk tie and winked at me. I snorted and moved over to look at some dresses hanging on a rack near the wall.

  The two of us were out shopping, which was one of Finn's favorite things to do. Not mine, though. I never paid too much attention to what I was wearing, beyond making sure that my jeans and boots were comfortable enough to fight in and that my T-shirt sleeves were long enough to hide the knives I had tucked up each one. As an assassin, I'd learned a long time ago not to invest too much money in clothes that were only going to end up with bloodstains on them.

  But here I was, along for the consumer ride. Finn had shown up at the Pork Pit, my barbecue joint, just after the lunch rush ended and had dragged me all the way up to Northtown, the part of Ashland that housed and catered to the wealthy, social, and magical elite. We'd spent the last hour traipsing from store to store in an upscale shopping development that had just opened up.

  Now we were browsing through Posh, the biggest, fanciest, and most expensive boutique on this particular block. Racks of ball gowns and evening dresses filled the store, starting with all-white frocks on the left and darkening to midnight-black ones on the right, like a rainbow of color arcing from one side of the store to the other. There wasn't a dress in here that was less than five grand, and the shoes arranged along the back wall went for just as much. Not to mention the minuscule handbags that cost ten times as much as a good steak dinner.

  "Come on, Gin," Finn wheedled, holding the pump out to me. "At least try it on. "

  I rolled my eyes, took the shoe from him, and hefted it in my hand. "Lightweight, nice enough color. Not the worst thing you've shown me today. And that skinny stiletto would make a decent weapon, if you took the time to snap it off the rest of the shoe and sharpen the end of it. "

  Finn sighed and took the pump away from me. "Have I ever told you how scary it is that you think of heels in terms of their possible shiv potential?"

  I grinned at him. "Frequently. But my impeccable sense of improvised weaponry is one of the many things you love about me. "

  This time, Finn rolled his eyes and then started muttering under his breath about how he couldn't take me anywhere. My grin widened. I loved needling Finn as much as he enjoyed teasing me.

  "Tell me again why I have to go to this shindig with you," I said when he finally wound down.

  "It's not a mere shindig," he huffed. "It's the opening gala for an exhibit of art, jewelry, and other valuable objects from the estate of the late, not-so-great, and certainly unlamented Mab Monroe. Everyone who's anyone will be there, underworld and otherwise, and it's going to be the social event of the summer. Besides, aren't you the least bit curious to see what the old girl stashed away over the years? The things she collected? What she thought was beautiful or valuable or at least worth hoarding? She was your nemesis, after all. "

  Mab Monroe had been a little more than my nemesis - the Fire elemental had murdered my mother and my older sister when I was thirteen. She'd also tortured me. But I'd finally gotten my revenge when I shoved my knife through the bitch's black heart back in the winter. Killing Mab had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. The fact that she was dead and I wasn't was the only thing that really mattered to me.

  "Sorry," I said. "I have no desire to go gawk at all of Mab's shinies. They're not doing her any good now, are they? I'm quite happy simply knowing that she's rotting in her grave. And I still don't understand why you insisted on dragging me out to buy a dress. I have plenty of little black numbers in my closet at home, any one of which would be just fine for this event. "

  Finn snorted. "Sure, if you don't mind wearing something that's ripped, torn, and caked with dried blood. "

  I couldn't argue with that. Funny how killing people inevitably led to ruined clothes.

  Finn sighed and shook his head at my lack of interest in Mab's many treasures. "I can't believe you won't go out of simple curiosity and unabashed greed. Those are certainly the reasons I'm going. And probably half the folks on the guest list. We've just covered why you need a new dress. As to why you have to go with me, well, naturally, I asked Bria first, but she has to work. I need someone to drink champagne with and make snide comments to about everyone else in attendance. You wouldn't deny me that pleasure, would you?"

  "Perish the thought," I murmured. "But what about Roslyn? Or Jo-Jo? Why don't you take one of them instead?"

  "Roslyn is already going with someone else, and Jo-Jo has a date with Cooper. " Finn used his fingers to tick off our friends and family. "I even asked Sophia, but there's some classic Western film festival that she's planning to catch that night. Besides, she'd probably insist on wearing black lipstick, a silverstone collar, and the rest of her usual Goth clothes instead of an evening dress. Since I don't want to be responsible for any of the old guard having conniptions or coronary episodes, you're it. "

  "Lucky me. "

  "Besides, it's not like you have plans," he continued as though I hadn't said a word. "Other than sitting at home and brooding over lost love. "

  My eyes narrowed, and I gave Finn a look that would have made most men tremble in their wing tips. He just picked up a strappy canary-yellow sandal and admired it a moment before showing it to me.

  "What do you think? Is yellow your color? Yeah, you're right. Not with your skin tone. " He put the shoe back on the shelf and turned to face me.

  "Look," Finn said, his expression serious. "I just thought it would be good for you to get out of the house for a night. You know, dress up, go out on the town, have a little fun. I know how hard this last month has been, with you and Owen on the outs. "

  On the outs was putting it mildly. I hadn't spoken to Owen Grayson, my lover, since the night he'd come to the Pork Pit a few weeks ago to tell me he needed some time to himself, some time away from me, from us.

  But that's what happens when you kill your lover's ex-fiancee right in front of him. That sort of thing tended to make a person reassess his relationships - especially with the one who'd done the killing.

  No matter how much I missed him, I couldn't blame Owen for wanting to take a break. A lot of bad stuff had gone down in the days leading up to me battling Salina Dubois, a lot of terrible secrets had been revealed, and he wasn't the only one who'd needed time to process and come to term
s with everything. I might understand, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

  Even assassins could have their hearts broken.

  "Gin?" Finn asked in a soft voice, cutting into my thoughts.

  I sighed. "I know you're just trying to help, but I'm fine, Finn. Really, I am. The important thing is that Salina is dead, and she can't hurt anyone else ever again. Owen and I . . . we'll eventually work things out. "

  "And if you don't?"

  I sighed again. "Then we'll both move on with our lives. "

  I kept my face calm and smooth, although my heart squeezed at the thought. Finn had started to say something else when one of the saleswomen sidled up to him.

  "Good afternoon, sir," the woman, a gorgeous redhead, practically purred. "What can I do for you today?"

  We'd already been in the store for five minutes, and I was mildly surprised that it had taken someone this long to come over to us. In my boots, worn jeans, and grease-spattered black T-shirt, I didn't look like I had two nickels to rub together, but Finn was as impeccably dressed as ever in one of his Fiona Fine designer suits. The perfect fit showed off his strong, muscled body, while his walnut-colored hair was artfully styled. Add all that to his handsome features, and Finn looked just as polished as the jewelry he'd been admiring earlier.

  The saleswoman's eyes trailed down his body and back up. After a moment, she smiled at him and then subconsciously licked her lips as though Finn were a hot fudge sundae that she wanted to gobble up. At the back of the store, a second saleswoman eyed her associate with anger. While Finn had been waxing poetic about bracelets and shoes, the two of them had been having a whispered argument about who got the privilege of waiting on him. Looked like Red here had won.

  Finn, being Finn, noticed the woman's obvious interest and immediately turned up the wattage on his dazzling, slightly devious smile. "Why, hello there," he drawled. "Don't you look lovely today? That sky-blue color is amazing with your hair. "

  Red blushed and smoothed down her short skirt. Her gaze flicked to me for half a second before she focused on Finn again. "Do you and your . . . wife need some help?"

  "Oh," he said. "She's not my wife. She's my sister. "

  The woman's dark eyes lit up at that bit of information, and Finn's smile widened. Despite the fact that he was involved with Detective Bria Coolidge, my sister, Finn still flirted with every woman who crossed his path, no matter how old or young or hot or not she was. Dwarf, vampire, giant, elemental, human. As long as you were breathing and female, you could count on being the recipient of all the considerable charm that Finnegan Lane had to offer.

  "But my sister could definitely use your help, and so could I. What do you think about this color?" he asked, picking up the purple pump once again. "Don't you think it would look fabulous on her?"

  "Fabulous," Red agreed, her eyes wide and dreamy.

  I might be standing right next to Finn, but I was as invisible as the moon on a sunny day. I sighed again. It was going to be a long afternoon.

  * * *

  Twenty minutes later, after being dragged from one side of the store to the other, Red showed me to a fitting room in the back. Rightfully insisting that he knew more about fashion than I did, Finn had picked out several dresses for me to try on. Red placed the gowns on a hanger on the wall before brushing past me.

  "I'm going to check on Mr. Lane and see if he needs anything," she said.

  "Of course you are. "

  Red hightailed it over to the jewelry case, where the other saleswoman, a well-endowed blonde, was leaning over and showing Finn the diamond bracelet he'd been admiring earlier - along with all of her ample assets. Red stepped up next to Blondie and not so subtly elbowed her out of the way. Blondie retaliated by shoving her breasts forward even more. The two of them might as well have filled up a pit with mud and settled their differences that way. That would have been far more entertaining than the petty one-upmanship they were currently engaged in.

  I rolled my eyes. Finn was the only man I knew who could inspire a catfight just by grinning. But it was a show that I'd seen many times before, so I stepped into the fitting room, closed the door behind me, and started trying on the dresses. The sooner I picked something, the sooner I could get back to the Pork Pit.

  Too tight, too short, too slutty. None of the garments was quite right, not to mention the fact that Finn had chosen more than one strapless evening gown. My cleavage had never been all that impressive - certainly not on par with Blondie's - but of more importance was the fact that strapless gowns were not good for knife concealment. Then again, Finn didn't particularly care about such things. He didn't have to. He could always tuck a gun or two inside or under his jacket, which suited him just fine, as long as the weapons didn't mess up the smooth lines of the fabric.

  I was just about to take off the latest fashion disaster - this one in that awful canary yellow that definitely wasn't my color - when I heard a soft electronic chime, signaling that someone else had come into the store. I wondered how long it would take Red and Blondie to tear themselves away from Finn to see to the new customer -

  A surprised scream ripped through the air, along with a sharp smacking sound. The pain-filled moan that followed told me that someone had just gotten hit.

  "Don't move, and don't even think of going for any of the alarm buttons," a low voice growled. "Or I'll put a couple of holes in you - all of you. Maybe I'll do that anyway, just for fun. "

  Well, now, that sort of threat implied that the person making it had a gun - maybe even more than one. I perked up at the thought, and a genuine smile creased my face for the first time today. For the first time in several days, actually.

  I cracked open the fitting-room door so I could see what was going on. Sure enough, a man stood right in front of the jewelry case. He was a dwarf, a couple of inches shy of five feet tall, with a body that was thick with muscle. He wore jeans with holes at the knees and a faded blue T-shirt. A barbed-wire tattoo curled around his left bicep, which looked like it was made of concrete rather than flesh and bone. He held a revolver in his right hand, the kind of gun that could definitely put a large hole in someone, especially if you used it at close range.

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