Kiss of Venom (Elemental Assassin #8.5) - Page 4

"I heard them talking in the bathroom. They're here for Gin."

Xavier's face tightened, and he nodded. In addition to working as a bouncer, Xavier was Bria's partner on the police force. He knew all about Gin's troubles with the underworld bosses.

"Consider it done," Xavier growled. "You want me to come outside and help you with them?"

"Nah," I said. "That's what Phillip is for."

Xavier looked past me and grinned. "Have you told him that?"

I glanced over my shoulder. Phillip had apparently given up trying to get free of the dance floor. He was now engaged in a very close, very slow, very suggestive dance with not one but two women. He whirled first one way, then another, trying to dazzle them both at the same time with his slick moves and cheesy smile.

"He's going to throw out his back, jerking around like that," I muttered.

Xavier chuckled. "Oh, I don't know. I think that Phillip could give Finn a run for his money when it comes to hamming it up with the ladies."

I sighed and shook my head. "Better make that fifteen minutes."

Xavier chuckled again.

I wormed my way through the crowd, trying to get to Phillip, but I kept getting cut off as people gyrated right into the middle of my path. I'd been on the dance floor for two minutes and hadn't gone more than twenty feet. And Phillip, of course, was now smack dab in the center.

I'd just taken another step forward when a hand touched my shoulder and sidled higher, caressing my cheek. Before I knew it, Sierra, our waitress, had her arms wrapped around my neck and her body plastered against mine. I put my hands on her waist, out of instinct more than anything else.

Sierra took that as an invitation to wiggle even closer to me. "It's about time you got out here on the dance floor, handsome."

"Sorry," I replied. "But I'm not staying. I only came to get my friend over there."

"Now, why would you want to go and interrupt him having a good time?" She grinned, showing me her small white fangs again. "Especially since we could be having an even better time by ourselves. Alone. Somewhere more . . . private."

I dropped my hands from her waist and started to step around her, but she kept her arms around my neck and moved in that direction, blocking me.

"Are you sure there's nothing else that I can get you tonight, handsome?" Her voice was low, husky, and filled with all sorts of promises.

"I'm sure," I said in a firm tone. "But thank you for asking."

She shrugged. "Well, it was worth a shot."

She didn't seem offended, but for some reason, I still felt the need to explain myself. Maybe because I'd done such a lousy job of it to everyone else lately.

"Listen," I said. "You're gorgeous, sexy, and charming. We both know that, and you can have your pick of any guy in this place."

"Just not you."

I shook my head. "I'm already spoken for. You see, there's this woman I lo - "

She waved her hand, cutting me off. "Oh, I know, sugar. You keep staring at Gin Blanco like you're on a desert island and she's the last bottle of water around. News flash, buddy. You do not want to mess with her. She will cut out your heart and show it to you before you die."

Well, that was one of the more colorful rumors that I'd heard about the Spider's prowess, and it wasn't that far from being true. I'd seen her fillet more than her share of bad guys - and she'd done the same to me without even realizing it.

"She's already cut out my heart," I quipped. "And I was happy to let her do it."

Sierra frowned, like she thought I was just drunk and spouting nonsense. Maybe I was, thinking about how Gin held my heart in the palm of her hand. Either way, I gently unwound Sierra's other arm from around my neck.

"Thanks for the dance, but I really have to go."

"If you change your mind . . ." Her voice trailed off suggestively.

"I won't."

After a moment, she shrugged. "Your loss, sugar."

She pressed a soft kiss to my cheek, her vanilla perfume tickling my nose. She gave me one more sly, flirty smile before she danced away to the next man.

I watched her glide away for a moment before glancing back over at the bar. Instead of talking to each other or shooing away the peacocks, Gin and Bria were both watching me. From the angry, pinched set of Bria's mouth, she'd seen the whole scene with Sierra - and so had Gin. Her face was completely blank, but her fingers slowly curled around her drink, as if she wanted to smash the glass against something - my face, most likely.

I grimaced. Once again, I'd upset Gin without even trying, just like I had when I'd brought Jillian Delancey to the Briartop art museum a few weeks ago. It had been a total fluke, Jillian being in town and wanting to see the exhibit of Mab's things. Since I'd had an extra ticket, I'd figured it wouldn't hurt to bring her along with Eva and me.

I just hadn't realized that night would cost Jillian her life.

That hadn't been my fault, any more than it had been Gin's. No, the blame for Jillian's death rested on the dead shoulders of Clementine Barker, along with Jonah McAllister, who was regrettably still very much alive. But I couldn't help but feel guilty all the same. Not only because Jillian was dead but because when I'd seen Gin at the gala, I'd forgotten all about Jillian, even though the two of them had been wearing the same dress. And then, when Clementine had thrown a body into the middle of the crowd, crowing about how she and her men had finally killed the Spider, I'd been so shocked, so horrified, so convinced that it was Gin, that I hadn't even realized that Jillian wasn't in the rotunda with the rest of the hostages. Once again, I'd failed a friend.

Oh, I knew that I couldn't have done anything to save Jillian, that she'd been killed before Clementine and her giants had taken everyone prisoner, but I still felt the weight of her death - and Salina's too. They were dead, and I wasn't, and I wasn't sure how to move forward from that cold, inescapable fact.

Someone bumped into me, snapping me out of my thoughts. Gin was still staring at me. I hesitated, then waved at her. I pointed toward Phillip and then at the front doors of the club, as if I was getting him and we were leaving and going home for the night.

We were going home - eventually. I just had a little problem to take care of first. Two of them, actually.

After a moment, Gin returned my wave, before swiveling around on her seat and facing the Ice bar. Bria glared at me a few more seconds before doing the same.

I sighed, knowing that I'd screwed up again without even meaning to. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I waded over to where Phillip was still boogying the night away. Now his two dance partners were practically draped over him, one on each arm, and the grin on his face told me exactly how much he was enjoying their attention.

I waved my hand, catching his eye, and jerked my thumb toward the doors. Phillip started to protest, but he must have seen the tension in my face, because he smoothly kissed one woman's hand, then the other, before murmuring some excuses and regretfully leaving them behind.

He followed me to the edge of the dance floor. I risked a glance over my shoulder. Gin was still sitting at the bar, her back was to me, and she was chatting with Bria again.

"You know, you could always go over there and buy her a drink," Phillip murmured. "I thought that things had gotten a little better between the two of you after the Briartop heist."

"They are better," I said. "I just don't know how to get them back to where they were, to where we were before . . ."

"Before Salina."

I shrugged. Phillip knew the rest of the whole sad, twisted story as well as I did.

"You should make some grand romantic gesture," he said in a confident, knowing tone. "Women love that. Flowers, candy, jewelry."

I didn't tell him that I'd already done that - sort of - by giving Gin the rune necklaces that had belonged to her mother and her older sister. The snowflake and ivy-vine pendants had been among Mab's things at the Briartop museum. Mab had murdered Gin's family when Gin was thirteen and had kept the necklaces as some sort of sick trophy.

I'd noticed Gin staring at the necklaces and had realized what they were before Clementine and her men had taken everyone hostage. After the crisis was over, I'd found the rune pendants stuffed into a garbage bag with some of the other jewels that the giants had taken off the partygoers. It had taken me a couple of days and a lot of hard work to clean up the runes and make the silverstone shine again, but it had been more than worth it to see the look of amazement and wonder on Gin's face when I'd given the necklaces back to her at the Pork Pit -

"Flowers, candy, jewelry," Phillip repeated in a firm voice. "Those three things have gotten me out of more sticky situations than any gun ever has."

I shook my head. "That's because you're so utterly charming that you convince every woman who crosses your path that she's going to be Mrs. Phillip Kincaid. Naturally, they get upset when that doesn't happen."

For a moment, his face grew somber. "There's only one woman who's going to be Mrs. Phillip Kincaid."

I knew that he was talking about Eva. I could see it in his eyes, but I made myself snort, as though I didn't care one way or the other about the burgeoning relationship between the two of them. "If she wants you."

"Oh, she'll want me," Phillip said with a confident grin. "Everyone does."

"Now you sound like Stuart."

"Who is Stuart?" he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"I'll tell you all about him and his friend Richie - outside," I said. "Now, come on. We have some peacocks to deal with."

Chapter 5

Phillip and I left the bump and grind of the dance floor behind and stepped outside. I breathed in, enjoying the freshness of the summer night air after all of the smoke and sweat inside the club.

The interior of Northern Aggression might have been all lush elegance, but the exterior was surprisingly featureless, like a corporate office building. The only thing that set the building apart was the neon sign over the entrance, which was shaped like Roslyn's rune. The heart with an arrow through it burned a bright, bloody red, then a sunny yellow, then a burnt orange, casting its intense light out over the folks waiting to get past the red velvet rope at the entrance to the club.

A few people looked up from their phones, cigarettes, and conversations as we walked past but quickly lost interest and turned their hopeful attention back to the giant bouncer manning the velvet rope. I filled Phillip in on Stuart the giant and Richie the dwarf and their plans for Gin as we headed toward the parking lot.

When I finished, Phillip let out a low whistle. "So now they're following her around Ashland, just waiting for her to let her guard down long enough to try to kill her? Sounds like some folks are getting a little desperate to get rid of the Spider."

"I don't know why. It's not like Gin is trying to take Mab's place or anything like that. All she wants is to be left alone."

Phillip shook his head. "That's not going to happen, and we both know it. Not until someone steps up and takes control of the underworld. Right now, everyone is just trying to hold on to what they have and position themselves as best they can. As much as I hate to say it, at least with Mab around, there was some semblance of order. You don't want to know how many men I've lost these past few months to fools storming onto the riverboat, thinking that they can rob me and intimidate my customers. Not to mention what happened to Antonio."

A shadow passed over his face, causing guilt to cut through my stomach like one of Gin's knives. Antonio Mendez had been Phillip's right-hand man on the Delta Queen, but more important, the giant had been Phillip's friend. Salina had used her water magic to suck all of the moisture, all of the life, out of Antonio, and he'd died on the riverboat's main deck. Salina might have been the one who actually killed the giant, but I still felt responsible for his death - the same way that I felt responsible for all of the hurt that Eva, Phillip, Cooper, and Gin had experienced because of Salina.

Because of my foolish faith and trust in her.

There was nothing that I could do for Antonio. Not now. But the same wasn't true for Gin, so I pulled my keys out of my pocket and popped open the trunk of my Mercedes-Benz. The trunk was a mess, full of tools and odd bits of metal I had picked up here and there, but I knew exactly what I was looking for and precisely where it was. Like Gin and her knives, I never went anywhere without my weapon of choice these days. I reached down into the mess, and my hands closed around a smooth, firm, familiar hilt. A moment later, I pulled my blacksmith's hammer out of the trunk and into the neon glare cast by the heart-and-arrow sign.

The hammer wasn't a traditional weapon, but it was mine. After spending so many hours, so many years, in my forge, it felt far more comfortable in my hand than a gun or a knife ever would. Besides, with so many giants and dwarves in Ashland, it was good to have something that would really pack a punch and level the playing field. Drive the hammer into someone's knees, and he would go down screaming, no matter how tall or tough he was. Slam it into someone's head, and his skull would crack like an eggshell, no matter how thick and strong his bones were.

I twirled the hammer around and around, moving it from one hand to the other and limbering up my shoulders. After being hunched over in the booth, it felt good to move, to stretch - and to be doing something to help Gin, rather than hurt her again.

The hammer was made of solid silverstone, although you couldn't really tell, given how much soot and ash had blackened it over the years. And there was something else that made the hammer special: my magic.

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