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Poison Promise(Elemental Assassin #11)(1) by Jennifer Estep

1

“Someone has a birthday coming up.”

The voice in my ear rumbled in a low, slow way that was as sexy as all get-out, but I still grimaced at his words.

“Don’t remind me,” I grumbled. “I’ve been trying to forget about that particular date on the calendar for weeks now.”

Holding a backpack in one hand and my phone in the other, I stopped inside the doorway, letting the college students stream out of the classroom and move into the corridor. They hurried toward the exit, along with the professor, all eager to get away from the hallowed halls of learning as quickly as they could, but I stayed where I was until the sounds of their cheerful chatter had faded away and I could resume my own conversation.

“What’s so bad about turning thirty-one?” Owen asked.

Even though he couldn’t see me, since we were talking on the phone, I still shrugged as I stepped out of the classroom and ambled toward the doors at the end of the corridor.

“Nothing, on the face of it. It’s just another day and just another number. I won’t feel any different before, during, or after that day than I do on any other. But this time of year . . . bad things always seem to happen around my birthday.”

“Oh.” My lover’s voice slipped from sexy and teasing to quiet and serious in a heartbeat. He didn’t say anything else. He knew exactly what bad things I was referring to. My mother and my older sister being murdered. Thinking that Bria, my baby sister, had also been killed. Fletcher Lane, my mentor, being tortured to death.

“I just . . . don’t want to jinx things by talking about my birthday,” I said. “And I don’t even want to think about the surprise party Finn is planning.”

Silence.

“What party?” Owen finally asked, three seconds too late to be believable.

“The always party.”

“What?” he asked again, genuinely confused this time.

“The always party. The party that Finn always plans for me. The one I always tell him I would rather do without. The one the sneaky bastard always manages to surprise me with anyway, just when I think that I’m finally safe from him and his shenanigans.”

Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, thought that birthdays were a time of great celebration, jubilation, and excitement and should always be marked with cake, presents, and people hiding in a dark room waiting to jump out and scream at you the second you turned on the lights. I was fine with the cake and the presents, but people jumping and screaming in my direction always made me reach for one of my silverstone knives.

Such were the instincts of an assassin.

“He always manages to surprise you with a party?” Owen asked. “Every single year? I find that hard to believe.”

“Yeah, well, I am no match for the mercurial wiles of Finnegan Lane. Three years ago, he threw the party a week before my birthday. Two years ago, he waited until three weeks after my birthday.”

Last year had been the only one in the last ten that Finn hadn’t thrown me a party, since Fletcher had been murdered right around that time. Neither one of us had felt like celebrating anything then.

I skirted around a janitor who was mopping the linoleum floor. The sun slanting in through the windows made the smooth surface gleam like a new penny, but the longer I stared at the drying streaks of water, the darker they became, turning a dull, rusty red and morphing into another liquid. Blood. Fletcher’s blood, oozing all over the blue and pink pig tracks on the floor of the Pork Pit—

“Gin?” Owen asked. “Are you still there?”

I shook my head to get rid of the unwanted memories. “Sorry, I’m still in one of the buildings. The reception is terrible in here. Hang on a second, and let me go outside.”

I reached the end of the corridor and pushed through the doors, stepping out onto one of the quads at Ashland Community College. Stone buildings ringed the open grassy space, and a couple of maples towered up out of the ground, their red- and orange-streaked leaves providing patches of dappled shade that danced over the lawn. After the intense air-conditioning inside the building, the humid heat of the September evening felt like a warm, welcome blanket wrapping around my body. I tilted my face up to the sun, enjoying the sensation, before it turned into the inevitable, muggy, stifling burn.

Students moved back and forth across the quad, staring at their phones as they headed to other buildings or stepped onto the cobblestone paths that wound through campus and over to the parking lots. It was after seven now, and this was the last class period of the day, so everyone was ready to go somewhere else for the night, whether it was to the library to study, home to Mom and Dad’s to do laundry, or to a nearby bar to soak their overworked brain cells in enough alcohol to make them forget everything they’d learned today.

I stopped long enough to heft my backpack, with its pens, notebook, and copy of You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, a little higher on my shoulder. The book was for the spy-literature course I was taking. I liked learning new things, so I was something of a perpetual student at the college, always signing up for a class or two every session. When I was younger, the classes had helped kill the time between my assignments as the assassin the Spider. Now the classes helped kill the time between people trying to murder me because I was the Spider. Funny how much my life had changed in the last year.

“Gin?” Owen asked again. “Are you still there?”

I meandered toward the parking lot where my car was. “Anyway, as I was saying, every year, I beg and plead for Finn to forget about throwing me any sort of party, and he always pays absolutely no attention to me whatsoever.”

“Do you want me to talk to him?”

I snorted. “You can try, but he won’t listen.”

Owen laughed. “Yeah, probably not.”

“Just try to rein him in a little bit, okay? I don’t need some enormous party with streamers and balloons and stuff. A nice, quiet dinner with you, Finn, and Bria would be great.”

“Streamers and balloons? Sounds like he really goes all out,” Owen teased.

“You have no idea,” I grumbled again. “Those parties?”

“Yeah . . .”

“One of them featured a petting zoo. Finn rented a bouncy house for the other one. Set it up on the lawn outside Fletcher’s house. I came home from work one day, and surprise!”

Owen laughed again at my snarky tone. “I’ll see what I can do.”

We started chatting about other things, and I let his voice wash over me, enjoying the deep, familiar rumble of his words. All the while, though, I focused on my surroundings, scanning the quads, peering into doorways, and easing around corners in case anyone was lying in wait for me. A vampire baring his fangs in anticipation of sinking his incisors into me. A giant flexing her hands, eager to wrap them around my throat and strangle me. A dwarf rolling his shoulders, ready to tackle me and beat my head against the ground. A Fire elemental cupping flames in the palm of her hand, preparing to roast me with her magic.

Just because no one had attempted to kill me at the community college yet didn’t mean that some enterprising fool wouldn’t have the bright idea to try. They’d certainly made the effort pretty much everywhere else I went. So many people had tried to murder me at my barbecue restaurant, the Pork Pit, that I’d lost count of how many of them I’d killed instead.

People had been trying to take me out ever since I’d killed Mab Monroe, the head of the Ashland underworld, back in the winter. With Mab gone, there was an opening for a new king or queen of crime in the city, and many folks saw my murder, the Spider’s murder, as a stepping-stone to the throne.

Me? Well, at first, I’d just been trying to fly under the radar and survive all of the assassination attempts. But now people were really starting to piss me off. You’d think that I had killed enough lowlifes for all the others to get the message to leave me the fuck alone already, but apparently, brains were not in abundance in Ashland. Shocking, I know.

But I made it over to the parking lot without anyone jumping out of the shadows, shouting, screaming, and trying to shoot, stab, bludgeon, or magic me to death. Still, I remained vigilant as I approached my car, since this area was close to Southtown, the dangerous part of Ashland, home to gangbangers, hookers, their pimps, and down-on-their-luck homeless bums. And those were some of the nicer folks around here. They wouldn’t care about murdering me because I was the Spider. They’d be more than happy to kill me for my phone, my car keys, and what might be in my wallet.

I stopped at the end of the path and scanned the lot in front of me. Like most places this close to Southtown, the area was a bit worse for wear. Jagged cracks zigzagged across the pavement, before collapsing into wide potholes, while the white paint that marked the parking spaces was so faded that you could barely make out the lines. Fast-food bags, crushed cigarettes, and jumbo-size soda cups overflowed out of the trash cans, and the steady breeze sent them gusting along the blacktop, along with the tinkle-tinkle-tinkle of glass from broken beer bottles.

A variety of gang runes and graffiti tags had been spray-painted onto the concrete barriers that cordoned off the lot from the construction site next door. The words Vaughn Construction were embossed on a metal sign hanging on the chain-link fence that ran behind the barriers, although the V in Vaughn had been turned into a giant red heart, thanks to some tagger’s artistic talents. I made a mental note to get Finn to find out what Charlotte Vaughn was building here. Or perhaps I’d pay Charlotte a visit one night and ask her myself.

I didn’t see anyone, but instead of moving forward, I held my position and reached out with my magic. People’s feelings, actions, and intentions sink into whatever stone is around them, and as a Stone elemental, I can hear and interpret all of those emotional vibrations. Like, say, if someone was lurking behind one of those concrete barriers, a gun in his hand, ready to rise up and shoot me the second I was in range, then the barriers would mutter to me, the same way a man might mutter under his breath as he impatiently waited for me to hurry up and get here, already.

But the concrete and the pavement only grumbled with displeasure about all of the spray paint, cracks, and potholes that marred their surfaces. No one was here to try to kill me. Good. Perhaps I would actually get through one day without having to fight for my life.

I strolled through the lot, listening to Owen and still looking for any signs of trouble, but my silver Aston Martin was right where I’d left it. I’d bought the car a few weeks ago at Finn’s insistence. He had demanded that I have my own Aston, since I had a bad habit of getting his keyed, beaten, dented, bloodied, and generally destroyed.

I glanced around a final time, still half-expecting some idiot to pop up from between two cars, yell, and charge at me with a weapon, but I was the only one here, so I focused on my conversation with Owen again.

“So what’s on tap for tonight?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I thought we would stay in and have a quiet evening. You, me, a nice dinner, perhaps some quality time watching TV in my bedroom.”

“Watching TV? Really?”

“Well, if you absolutely insist, we can skip the TV-viewing portion of the evening,” Owen suggested in a husky tone.

Even though he couldn’t see me, I still smiled. “Let’s.”

He laughed, and we kept chatting as I pulled my keys out of my jeans pocket and unlocked the car door—

“Where do you think you’re going?”

The harsh words and the smug tone that went with them made me stop and look over my shoulder. While I’d been talking to Owen, three twenty-something guys had entered the parking lot, all of them wearing jeans, polo shirts, and sneakers. A girl the same age hurried along in front of them, her arms crossed over her chest and her head down, her speed increasing with every step as she tried to get clear of the guys.

The girl’s backpack bounced on her right shoulder, and a large pin shaped like a pig holding a plate of food, all done in blue and pink crystals, winked at me. I frowned. I knew that pin. It was a rough approximation of the neon sign that hung outside the Pork Pit. Sophia Deveraux, the head cook, had ordered a whole box of the pig pins and had given them to the restaurant’s waitstaff to wear.

I focused on the girl and realized that I knew her too. Long, wavy black hair, hazel eyes, bronze skin, pretty features. Catalina Vasquez. She worked as a waitress at the Pit and took classes at the college, just like I did.

And it looked like she was in trouble, just like I was most days.

Catalina scurried forward, moving as fast as she could without actually running, but the guys weren’t going to let her get away that easy. One reached forward and grabbed her backpack, jerking it off her shoulder and making it fall to the ground. Books, notepads, pens, and more tumbled out of the bag. Catalina scowled, but she didn’t make a move to bend down and pick up her stuff. Instead, she stood her ground, her hands clenched into tight fists, as though she wanted to throw herself at the guys and give them a good pounding.

I leaned against the side of my car, watching the situation unfold.

“Listen, Troy, I’ve told you before. I’m not into drugs. I don’t use them, I don’t buy them, I don’t sell them, and I sure as hell don’t date guys who do,” Catalina said.

Troy, the guy who’d grabbed the backpack, stepped forward. He was around six feet tall, with dirty-blond hair, brown eyes, a beefy build, and a mean smile. My own lips curved in response in a smile that was far meaner than his.

“Ah, come on, Cat,” Troy purred, stepping closer to her. “Don’t be like that. We used to be friends. We used to be a lot more. I remember how good we were together, don’t you?”

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