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  • Home > Jennifer Estep > Black Widow     

    1

    It was torture.

    Watching your mortal enemy get everything she’d ever wanted was torture, pure and simple.

    Madeline Magda Monroe stood off to one side of a wooden podium, her hands clasped in front of her strong, slender body and a serious, thoughtful expression on her beautiful face. Next to her, a city official sporting a brown plaid jacket and a gray handlebar mustache droned on and on and on about all the good things that her mother, Mab Monroe, had done for Ashland.

    Please. The only good thing Mab had ever done in her entire life was die. Something that I’d been all too happy to help her with.

    Then again, that’s what assassins did, and I was the Spider, one of the best.

    Madeline’s crimson lips quirked, revealing a hint of her dazzling white teeth, as though she found the same irony in the speaker’s words that I did. She knew precisely what a sadistic bitch her mother had been, especially since she was cut from the exact same bloodstained cloth.

    Still, even I had to admit that Madeline made an angelic figure, standing there so calmly, so serenely, in her tailored white pantsuit, as though she was truly enjoying listening to all of the prattle about Mab’s supposed charitable works. It was high noon, and the bright sun brought out the coppery streaks in Madeline’s thick auburn hair, making it seem as if her long, flowing locks were strings of glowing embers about to burst into flames. But Madeline didn’t have her mama’s famed elemental Fire power. She had something much rarer and far more dangerous: acid magic.

    Madeline shifted on her white stilettos, making the sun shimmer on the silverstone necklace circling her throat—a crown with a flame-shaped emerald set in the center of it. A ring on her right hand featured the same design. Madeline’s personal rune, the symbol for raw, destructive power, eerily similar to the ruby sunburst necklace that Mab had worn before I’d destroyed it—and her.

    Just staring at Madeline’s rune was enough to make my hands curl into fists, my fingers digging into the scars embedded deep in my palms—each a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A spider rune, the symbol for patience.

    Mab had given me the scars years ago, when she’d melted my spider rune necklace into my palms, forever marking me. I just wondered how many more scars her daughter would add to my collection before our family feud was settled.

    “I’d say that she looks like the cat who ate the canary, but we both know that she’d just use her acid magic to obliterate the poor thing.” The suave, drawling voice somehow made the words that much snarkier.

    I looked to my right at the man who was leaning against the maple tree that shaded us both, his shoulders relaxed, his hands stuffed in his pants pockets, his long legs crossed at the ankles. His hair was a dark walnut, blending into the trunk of the tree behind him, but amusement glinted in his green eyes, making them stand out despite the dappled shadows that danced over his handsome face. His ash-gray Fiona Fine suit draped perfectly over his muscular figure, giving him a casual elegance that was the complete opposite of my tense, rigid, watchful stance. Then again, Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, always looked as cool as an ice-cream sundae, whether he was out for a seemingly simple stroll in the park, wheeling and dealing as an investment banker, or peering through a sniper’s scope, ready to put a bullet through someone’s skull.

    Finn arched an eyebrow at me. “Well, Gin? What do you say?”

    I snorted. “Oh, Madeline wouldn’t use her acid magic herself. She’d manipulate someone else into killing the bird and the cat for her—and have the poor fool convinced that it had been his idea all the while.”

    He let out a low chuckle. “Well, you have to admire that about her.”

    I snorted again. “That she’s a master manipulator who likes to make people dance to the strings that she so gleefully wraps around them before they even realize what’s happening? Please. The only thing I admire about her is that she’s managed to keep a mostly straight face through this entire farce of a dedication.”

    Finn and I were standing at the back of a crowd that had gathered in a park in Northtown, the rich, fancy, highfalutin part of Ashland that was home to the wealthy, powerful, and extremely dangerous. The park was exactly what you’d expect to find in this part of Northtown: lots of perfectly landscaped lawns and towering trees with thick tangles of branches, along with an enormous playground that featured seesaws, swing sets, a sandbox, and a merry-go-round. It was a picturesque scene, especially given the beautiful blue-sky October afternoon and the rich, deep, earthy scent of autumn that swirled through the air on the faint breeze. But the pleasantly warm temperature and cheery rays streaming through the burnt-orange leaves over my head did absolutely nothing to improve my mood.

    At my harsh words, a couple of people turned to give me annoyed looks, but a cold glare from me had them easing away and facing the podium again.

    Finn let out another low chuckle. “You and your people skills never cease to amaze me.”

    “Shut up,” I muttered.

    As the speaker droned on, my wintry gray gaze swept over the park, and I thought about the last time I’d been here—and the men I’d killed. A vampire and a couple of giants, some of Mab’s minions, who were torturing and about to murder an innocent bartender before I’d intervened. The swing sets, the merry-go-round, one of the lawns. Men had died all over this park, and I’d even drawn my rune in the sandbox in a dare to Mab to come find me, the Spider, the elusive assassin who was causing her such consternation.

    And now here I was again, months later, confronted with the next Monroe who wanted to do me in.

    Sometimes I wondered if I could ever really escape the past and all the consequences of it. Mab murdering my mother and my older sister, then trying to kill me and my younger sister, Bria, leaving me alone, injured, and homeless. Fletcher Lane, Finn’s dad, taking me in and training me to be an assassin. My finally killing Mab earlier this year. All the underworld bosses who’d been trying to murder me ever since then.

    The city official finally wrapped up his tediously long speech and gestured at Madeline. She stepped forward, reached up, and took hold of a black rope attached to an enormous white cloth that had been draped over the wrought-iron gate that arched over the park entrance. Madeline smiled at the crowd, pausing a moment for dramatic effect, before she yanked on the rope, ripping away the cloth, while giving an elaborate flourish with her free hand.

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