Catwoman soulstealer, p.19
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.19
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  Then she strode for the door, Harley and Ivy backing out with little smirks, weapons still trained on Falcone and his men.

  “Tell them good night, Ivy,” Selina said, strutting out the bar door, the Joker’s three henchmen following her like well-trained dogs.

  Ivy chuckled, soft and sweet. “Good night.”

  A petal-soft thump on the floor, a hissing noise beginning, and then—

  Shouts and roars.

  By the time Harley and Ivy were swaggering out into the night to meet Selina, the bar had fallen silent. They’d all have one hell of a headache when they woke up. And realize that she hadn’t called GCPD on them while they were knocked unconscious.

  She only wished she could see Falcone’s face when he regained consciousness. When he understood his reign was at an end, especially after that humiliation.

  Harley half skipped down the cracked sidewalk ahead; Ivy linked arms with Selina. “What happens next?”

  Selina gazed toward the northern horizon. “They kneel.”

  * * *

  —

  Gordon held his officers at bay long enough for Luke to study the site of the prison break at Blackgate for an hour, his suit’s tech analyzing everything from the gas Poison Ivy had used to bring down the guards to the explosives Harley had set in the concrete walls. All orchestrated by Catwoman.

  Out of hand. Completely out of hand.

  Within the prison, the inmates were rattling the bars, taunting him as he passed by on his way out, Gordon in tow. Some spat on Gordon, but the man ignored it.

  “They’ve gotten away with everything so far,” Gordon said tightly. “Now they’re just trying to see what the limit is.”

  Luke knew it. But Catwoman had warned him that worse was coming to Gotham City. Her words still lingered. “If she’s bold enough to do this, then it might be an indication she’ll go after Arkham itself.”

  “No one is that dumb.”

  “She’s working with Harley. She freed three of the Joker’s cronies tonight. She might very well be preparing to free the Joker, either as a gift to Harley or to curry favor from the man himself.” Luke’s blood chilled at the thought.

  Gordon shook his head and opened the sealed door to let them out into the prison’s main waiting area. Cops filled the space, all sizing up Luke as he passed. As Batwing passed—his armor like blue lightning in the fluorescents overhead.

  “We can’t let that happen,” Gordon said, pausing at the doors to the prison.

  Far beyond, out by the border fences, cameras flashed and reporters jockeyed for the best angle to catch his exit. Luke pushed a button on his suit, prepping his wings for flight. Soaring up and out was his best way to escape the reporters—and their questions.

  “I’ve got it handled,” Luke said, shouldering his way through the heavy front doors. “Trust me.”

  Gordon didn’t look convinced, but he nodded.

  Luke took three running steps into the night before flaring his wings and launching skyward.

  He’d handle it, all right.

  * * *

  —

  “I need you to host a gala,” Luke said to his dad the next morning, bracing his hands on his father’s desk. “Please.”

  Lucius Fox raised an eyebrow as he set aside the document he’d been reading. “Do I even want to know?”

  Luke ran his hands over his head. “It’s a huge favor, I know. I promise you—promise you—that no one will get hurt. But I need you to hold a gala in three nights. To raise money for the circus, the zoo, the jail—the public targets that have suffered from Catwoman and her criminal friends.”

  “I assume we will also be displaying an expensive object to be auctioned off for charity?”

  “Exactly.” Luke slid a pile of papers toward his father. “Ask Mom to invite all the people on this list.” It was a mirror of the guest lists of every gala he’d attended where Catwoman had appeared.

  His father idly scanned it. “Your mother worries enough about your readjustment to civilian life that she’ll be thrilled—regardless of the inconvenient time frame.”

  “If anyone can put together a party in three days, it’s Mom.”

  “She is indeed a wonder.”

  For not the first time, Luke wished she knew—about Batwing, about Bruce. About all of it.

  Luke crossed his arms, pacing through his father’s plush office.

  “She’s really gotten under your skin, hasn’t she?”

  Luke knew his father didn’t mean his mother. He gave his father a long look. “She’s taken it too far.”

  Way too far.

  “Be careful, Luke. Making yourself the bait…” His dad sighed. “Just be careful.”

  Luke had no intention of doing so, but he nodded nonetheless.

  The Fox estate had been transformed into a twinkling garden, the halls and ballroom bedecked in bursting white flowers and candles, slender birch trees filling the corners, and cream silk streamers draping across the domed ceiling.

  It was the prettiest place Selina had ever seen. The Venetian palaces hadn’t compared to this. Not even Talia’s luxurious personal quarters held a flame.

  It wasn’t just the signs of wealth—it was the sense of home, even in the ballroom, that radiated from each inch of it. Each room full of places where she’d love to spend an afternoon curled up. Tasteful, elegant, and welcoming.

  A band played at one end of the giant domed space, the dance floor already full. Far more than usual, but the band was better than usual, too.

  But even better: the diamond-and-sapphire necklace displayed in a glass case on the opposite side of the long, rectangular ballroom from where the band played.

  She’d barely looked for Luke, even if it was his house. She’d spotted him by an archway, greeting almost every guest, when she arrived. All of them had seemed grateful for the security at both of the gates along the drive, stationed at every door.

  Selina had seen it as a challenge.

  Fifteen million dollars. That’s how much the Fox necklace was worth.

  Taking it when there was so much security? An added bonus.

  Clad in a long-sleeved red dress, Selina had quickly surveyed the initial details of the ballroom, bypassed Luke, and greeted his mother instead. She could barely bring herself to look too long at the kind, glowing woman who had welcomed her into this house, the woman who she’d be stealing from. At the tall, handsome man at her side, the spitting image of Luke in a few decades, who greeted each guest as if they were a close friend.

  So the hellos had been quick, before Luke could finish greeting the guest before him and turn their way, and Selina had headed into the crowd, letting the swish in her hips do the talking for her.

  They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since that night, though he’d knocked on her door twice. She hadn’t felt like answering.

  In the past two hours, she’d felt him watching her, though. As she danced with countless men, as she drank and ate with the various ruling ladies of Gotham City. And now, as she danced with an aging business titan, a coy, bland smile on her face, she felt Luke’s stare from across the room.

  He was in the middle of a conversation with a truly ancient old man—good. The old man seemed to be talking his ear off, and though Luke seemed to be truly listening…Selina ignored the glance Luke cast her way. Perhaps she was being unfair, perhaps a bit sensitive, but…

  She could still hear his cold words. About how he didn’t care what she did. She didn’t care if he apologized or not.

  It had been her mistake. To hope for a different reaction.

  The song rolled to a close, and Selina stepped out of her current partner’s embrace, offering a smile to the old man. Before she’d made it a step, a deep voice said from behind her, “Mind if I cut in?”

  The old man
only gave a charming bow before backing away.

  Selina stared up at Luke. He stared back at her.

  “Hello,” he said, his voice a bit hoarse. He was in his Marines uniform, dashing as ever.

  Causing a scene by walking away would only draw attention to her presence. With the necklace in the balance, her best chance of remaining undetected lay in being seen here, but not really noted.

  “Hello,” Selina said, offering up a hand for him to take.

  Luke kept silent, sliding a hand around her waist as he took her hand and led her into the next song.

  Selina cringed a bit as a sweet, old jazz melody filled the ballroom.

  Not this song. Anything but this song.

  It wasn’t the song from Carousel, but…How many times had she heard Maggie play this, singing along as best she could? How many times had she slow-danced with her sister in their kitchen to this song?

  Her body turned distant, the dress stifling. Every beat and note a stab to the gut. She could barely look at Luke, at anyone.

  Fighting the pain rising in her chest, Selina fixed her gaze on a spot over his shoulder.

  Luke made it through the first verse and chorus before he asked, “Not a fan of jazz?”

  The question pulled her out of the fog of memory long enough to look at him. It was another life ago. Another world. And this new world she inhabited…“I love jazz, actually.” It was the truth.

  “Then why the grimace?”

  She could never explain. Not really. “Someone I…They loved this song.” She shook her head. “Old memories.” It was as much truth as she could offer.

  Luke swallowed. “I’m sorry for how shitty I acted the other night.”

  Selina stiffened. “It’s fine.”

  Luke frowned. “It’s not. I’m never at my best after a fight, and with the pain and exhaustion, and when you mentioned your date—”

  “Oh, so it’s my fault you snapped at me?”

  An older couple whipped their heads toward them. Luke led her a little farther away, voice low as he said tightly, “I didn’t say that.”

  “Yes, you did.” Her jaw clenched as she looked away, searching for an escape route off this dance floor that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

  He cleared his throat. “I reacted badly. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

  “What do you even care?” The words were cold, flat. Not at all the lilting drawl she wielded with Holly.

  “I thought we were friends,” he said carefully.

  Again, she looked at him, no light or amusement in her voice. “I don’t have friends.”

  A muscle flickered in his jaw. “Well, I’m trying to change that.” Selina said nothing. He went on, “And I’m trying to apologize to you.”

  She only watched the band behind him, her face a mask of calm cold.

  “Holly,” Luke said.

  She hated that name. Was growing sick of that name.

  He loosed a breath. “I’m sorry. I mean it.”

  He sounded sincere.

  Slowly, Selina met his earnest brown eyes.

  She didn’t bother to keep her wariness from her stare. Wariness and…exhaustion.

  Holly. He thought he was dancing with Holly.

  It didn’t matter. Not when she had so much to do to bring this city to its knees. Not with the weight of her mission pressing on her. It had been pressing on her for longer than she could remember.

  Luke said, his voice rough, “Some days, I feel like I’m still back there. Overseas. Most nights, my body and mind can’t tell the difference. And most days, I feel…half here.” He swallowed, as if unsure where he was going with this. “I’m still learning how to return to being normal again. If such a thing exists.”

  Selina let his words sink in, his honesty.

  She scanned his handsome face. “Being normal is a trap.”

  He blinked.

  Selina whispered as the song came to a close, “Don’t let it cage you.”

  * * *

  —

  The last of the guests had been taken home by their drivers two hours ago.

  His parents had headed to bed thirty minutes after that, and Luke had feigned exhaustion as well.

  But as the clock struck two, he remained cloaked in the shadows of the ballroom, the light on his suit dimmed as he watched the necklace across the room glint in the moonlight streaming in through the wall of glass doors leading onto the veranda.

  He’d been waiting for over an hour now. Had listened as the estate workers turned off the lights and either left or found their own rooms in the sprawling house.

  She hadn’t come during the party. A small disappointment.

  Perhaps she’d deemed the added security not as a challenge, but as suicide. Luke had sent them packing. He didn’t want her to see the whole thing for what it was: a trap.

  Two-ten.

  Two-fifteen.

  Then—

  Luke kept as still as one of the statues flanking him as she appeared.

  She slipped through the glass doors from the veranda without a sound. She’d disabled the house’s alarm system, then. Interesting.

  Catwoman moved across the parquet floors, little more than a shadow herself. Every movement fluid and graceful. Calculated and controlled.

  She halted before the glass case on the pedestal—studied the necklace glinting within.

  Her claws slid free.

  Luke’s muscles tensed, every instinct telling him to spring.

  Yet he still watched as she scratched a claw in a circle around the glass. As she held out her awaiting palm right beneath, catching the disk before it could shatter on the floor. Expert, swift work.

  No sign of Harley or Ivy. The slate veranda beyond the glass doors was empty, save for a few potted boxwoods, the manicured lawn glistening with dew in the moonlight.

  Perhaps she didn’t want her friends getting a cut of tonight’s prize.

  Catwoman again scanned the ballroom—as if listening for something. But Luke kept pressed into the shadows, the pillar in front of him hiding any sign of his body, his armor.

  She returned her attention to the case, the necklace within. Her hand slid into the circle she’d opened up, claws glinting as she reached for the jewels.

  Luke sucked in a breath. He had the evidence he needed, recorded on his suit’s camera. Proof of intent. His knees bent, readying to lunge.

  The attack happened so fast it took Luke a heartbeat to realize what was going on.

  Not from him.

  The attack didn’t come from him.

  A slim female figure, clad in loose black clothes, pounced from the shadows. From above. From the windows lining the wall right below the domed ceiling.

  And as the woman landed on silent feet, sending Catwoman leaping back, slamming into the stone base of the case as she went, Luke got one look at the tan-skinned woman’s face, half hidden beneath a black hood and scarf over her mouth, and knew who she was.

  Tigris.

  One of the most notorious and deadly members of the League of Assassins.

  A League member—a powerful one—had arrived in Gotham City. Luke had read Bruce’s file on Tigris, on all the known assassins for the League.

  The woman had killed her way across the world—and those kills were often ugly.

  The perfect representative of the League itself, the organization that was larger, wealthier, and far more dangerous than any of the criminals in Gotham City. Mercifully, the League had yet to try to expand into this city. Luke’s blood iced over at the thought of Tigris being just the start.

  Catwoman rolled, claws gouging deep lines in the wood floors to steady herself as she jumped to her feet.

  They stared at each other for a long moment; in her black hood, only Tigris’s eyes w
ere visible.

  Far bigger players are coming to Gotham, Catwoman had said. She’d warned him.

  Worse things than the Joker and his cohorts. Worse things like the League of Assassins.

  And if the League had set its sights on Gotham City after all these years…

  His parents were in this house. Sleeping upstairs.

  Luke had a heartbeat to decide: to warn them to get to their panic room, or to join the fight to stop Catwoman and Tigris.

  Catwoman moved before he could pick. She charged right at Tigris.

  The assassin braced her feet apart.

  Catwoman feinted left, then bolted right. Right through the open door from the veranda. Avoiding the crash of glass that might send his parents or employees investigating.

  Catwoman made it twenty feet onto the slate tiles of the veranda before Tigris was after her.

  Luke sprinted outside and halted dead in his tracks as the assassin launched herself upon Catwoman.

  It should have been over immediately.

  But Catwoman did not go down.

  They fought in a black whirlwind, no weapons. Just fists and feet and limbs. Neither went for the weapons on them; even Catwoman’s bullwhip hung untouched at her hip.

  Fast. So damn fast he could barely track them.

  Catwoman, even on the defensive…she held her own.

  Where Tigris would have knocked her feet from under her, Catwoman nimbly dodged the blow. Where Tigris would have slammed her fist into Catwoman’s helmeted face, the punch was blocked. Strike, move, block—over and over.

  Luke had no words for it.

  He’d never seen anyone fight like that.

  When Tigris landed a brutal blow to the ribs, she took it. Didn’t stumble. Kept moving. And the punches that Catwoman threw were deadly, like Tigris’s, but he’d seen that style before. Whatever training Catwoman had gone through, boxing had been a part of it. And no small amount of gymnastics, from the ease with which she bent and moved.

  She danced on her feet, weaving beautifully. She’d taken whatever she’d learned in the ring and modified it. Amplified it. Luke stopped naming the techniques and maneuvers after he recognized six of them.

 
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