“You’ve barely touched your barbecue.”
I looked up to find Gin Blanco, my foster sister, eyeing me over the top of the cup of lemonade she was sipping. More than half a dozen open take-out containers littered my desk, piled high with everything from coleslaw to baked beans to barbecue chicken sandwiches on homemade sourdough buns, all courtesy of the Pork Pit, the restaurant Gin had inherited from my father, Fletcher Lane.
All the food looked and smelled delicious, especially the rich, spicy scent of the baked beans that perfumed the air. Gin was a truly excellent cook, even better than my dad had been. Any meal from her was always a treat. When she’d first arrived with the food fifteen minutes ago, she’d insisted on scooping generous portions of everything onto two large paper plates, both of which she’d pushed across the desk to me, before fixing a plate for herself. On a normal day, I would have already been scraping both plates clean and helping myself to seconds and thirds.
But things hadn’t been normal for a while now, and my appetite was the least of them.
Gin kept eyeing me, so I plastered a smile on my face and picked up my plastic fork, pretending that I was getting ready to dig back into my food.
“Sorry,” I said. “Bria cooked us a huge breakfast this morning.”
Gin snorted. “The only things Bria cooks for breakfast are toaster waffles and instant oatmeal. Try again, Finn.”
Detective Bria Coolidge might be my lady love, but she was also Gin’s sister, and Gin knew her just as well as I did. Not to mention the fact that Gin was a little obsessive when it came to cooking. She probably knew exactly what Bria had stocked in her kitchen, down to the last bottle of spice, and could calculate all the meals Bria could potentially make with the ingredients. Gin’s attention to detail was one of the things that made her such a great assassin as the Spider.
“Well, I also stopped and got some doughnuts from the Cake Walk on my way into work this morning,” I said, still trying to steer the conversation away from my obvious lack of appetite. “You know how much I love, love, love doughnuts. All that warm, sweet, sugary glaze and soft bread that melts in your mouth bite after bite. It’s one of nature’s perfect foods.”
“So you’ve told me many times,” Gin drawled. “Funny thing, though. I saw three boxes of doughnuts sitting behind the tellers’ counter upstairs, and yet there are no doughnuts actually down here in your office.”
Busted again. Sometimes Gin was far too observant for my own good.
“Well, I had my own doughnuts at the Cake Walk before I bought those other boxes. You know how I hate to share.” I let out a loud, hearty laugh. At least, I tried to make it loud and hearty. It sounded more like an owl screeching.
“Mmm-hmm.” Gin arched her eyebrows, not the least bit fooled by my lies, false cheer, and forced chuckles. But she stopped the food interrogation, set down her lemonade, picked up her own sandwich, and took another bite.
It was just after one o’clock, and we were sitting in my office in the basement of First Trust of Ashland. I’d moved into the space several years ago, after proving my mettle time and time again as one of the top investment bankers. I’d been absolutely, positively thrilled when I’d finally risen high enough in the ranks to score a large corner (if underground) office, and I’d spent weeks picking out the perfect furniture, rugs, and artwork for my new workspace, along with the attached bathroom.
My antique mahogany desk gleamed like polished bronze under the lights, as did the two matching wingback chairs in front of it, including the one that Gin was perched in. The wet bar that ran along one wall was also made of the same rich mahogany, and a green leather sofa that folded out into a comfortable bed sat opposite it. Thick rugs in dark greens and cool grays stretched across the floor, while framed prints covered the gray marble walls, showcasing some of my favorite landscapes and vacation spots. The nighttime city skyline of Bigtime, New York. An aerial shot of the Midway amusement circle in Cloudburst Falls, West Virginia. The snow-covered streets and shops of Cypress Mountain, North Carolina. Since I didn’t have a window, the prints were my version of a view.
I used to love coming into my office, settling into my executive’s desk chair, firing up my computer, and getting to work, figuring out the best investments for my clients and how I could protect and grow their money for them and their families.
Not anymore. Not for weeks now.
The door was open, and a giant wearing a gray security guard’s uniform stopped in the hallway outside and peered into my office, his face pinched with suspicion.
“What’s going on in here?” he muttered.
He might be doing his usual hourly check of the basement offices, but the guard’s flat, surly tone revealed what he really thought of me: nothing good.
I forced myself to smile at him as though I hadn’t heard the accusation in his voice. “Hey, Jimmy. Everything’s fine. Just having lunch with my sister, Gin.”
Jimmy’s dark eyes narrowed. “Is she on the approved guest list? I would hate to tell Mr. Mosley that you broke his new security protocols.”
I ground my teeth together to keep from sniping back at him. Jimmy would love nothing more than to tattle on me to Stuart Mosley, the bank’s founder, and he wasn’t the only one. All the employees wanted me gone. The sad thing was that I couldn’t blame them for their hostility.
Not when I’d gotten their friends and coworkers killed.
Gin had also picked up on the guard’s nasty tone, and she turned her chair to the side so she could see him better. “Oh, sugar,” she drawled. “I’m always on the approved list around here. Tell me something, Jimmy.”
“What?” the guard muttered again.
“From what I understand, Mr. Mosley prides himself on his employees’ politeness and professionalism. I wonder if he would approve of you speaking to one of the senior bank officials like that. And in front of his own sister, no less. Perhaps we should call Mr. Mosley and ask him about proper protocols.”
She smiled at him, but the cold look in her wintry gray eyes would have frozen most people’s blood outright. Despite the fact that the giant was almost twice her size, Jimmy swallowed and took a nervous step back.
“I–I don’t think that’s necessary,” he sputtered. “Enjoy your lunch, ma’am. You too, Mr. Lane.” Jimmy bobbed his head at Gin and beat a hasty retreat down the hallway.
Gin waited until the sharp echo of his footsteps had faded away before she swiveled her chair around and faced me again.
“You enjoyed that,” I accused.
“Intimidating a bully with a bad attitude? Absolutely.”
She gave me a smug grin and leaned back in her chair, happy to have defended my honor. But her satisfied expression slowly melted away, and a few seconds later, she was eyeing me again, concern creasing her pretty face.
“Although I wouldn’t have had to do that if you would just stick up for yourself,” she said. “What happened was not your fault—”
I snapped up my hand, cutting her off. “I really don’t want to talk about my coworkers’ low opinions of me right now.”
Gin realized that she’d pushed me enough, so she changed the topic. “Approved guest list? I take it that’s another new security measure?”
I grimaced and tossed my fork down onto my plate. “Yeah.”
First Trust was Ashland’s most exclusive bank, serving the city’s social, magical, and—especially—monetary elite. But it was also the bank under the most scrutiny, thanks to me.
A couple of weeks ago, Deirdre Shaw, my long-lost mother, had shown up in Ashland, claiming that she wanted to finally get to know me, her son, after being gone for the last thirty-three years of my life. I’d thought my mother had been killed in a car accident when I was a baby, so her appearance had thrown me for a loop. A dozen loops, actually.
My dad had never talked about her much, but I’d always been curious about my mother. Deirdre had been everything I’d ever wished for—kind, caring, considerate, charming, beautiful. But even more than that, I’d seen so much of myself in her fun, flirty, boisterous manner, and I’d thought that we were so much alike. I’d felt an instant connection with Deirdre, and I’d happily let her into my life, both professionally and personally, working with her as a client here at my bank and introducing her to Gin, Bria, and the rest of my friends and family.
What a sad, stupid, gullible fool I’d been.
Getting close to me had been nothing more than an elaborate plot on Deirdre’s part to gain access to First Trust so that she and Rodrigo Santos, a giant thief, could rob the bank. Deirdre hadn’t cared about me at all, a fact she’d proven in the most coldhearted way possible, by using her Ice magic to burn and torture me when I wouldn’t give her the access codes to Big Bertha, the bank’s most secure vault.
Even now, weeks later, I could still see Deirdre looming in front of me, the blue-white flames of her Ice magic flickering on her fingertips, smiling widely as she leaned forward and unleashed her power, freezing me one slow, agonizing inch of skin at a time—
“Finn?” Gin asked. “Are you okay?”
I blinked, shoved away the awful memories, and dropped my hands to my lap so she wouldn’t see my fingers curled into fists. “Of course.”
Gin kept staring at me, sympathy and understanding flashing in her gaze, but I didn’t deserve either one of those things, so I lowered my head, picked up my fork, dug it into my baked beans, and shoved them into my mouth. The beans were wonderful, made even more so by my dad’s secret barbecue sauce that Gin had cooked them in, but they turned to ash in my mouth.
Everything tasted like cold, bitter ash these days.
But I forced myself to keep eating, swallowing bite after bite, although the food felt like lead weights slowly piling up in my stomach. Gin picked up her own fork, and we finished our lunch in silence.
Once I’d choked down as much food as I could handle, I pushed back from my desk, stood up, and started putting the lids back on all the take-out containers. Gin watched me, but I still didn’t look at her.
“Don’t worry,” I chirped. “This won’t go to waste. I’ll take it all over to the guards’ break room, and Jimmy and the rest of the guys will lap it up. They’ve already asked me if you deliver.”
More lies, since all the food I’d taken to the break room over the past few weeks had gone untouched and been unceremoniously dumped in the trash. But I wasn’t about to insult Gin and her cooking by telling her the truth.
“Sure,” she said. “Just call the restaurant, and I’ll do lunch for the whole bank one day. Anything you need, Finn. You know that.”
I grimaced again. I did know that, and it was one of the things that made me even more miserable. I might have been suckered in by Deirdre’s lies, but Gin had been suspicious of my mother right from the get-go. But I, being the blind, stupid, stubborn fool that I was, hadn’t listened to Gin’s repeated warnings or the nagging little voice in the back of my own mind.
Truth be told, I’d been absolutely awful to Gin, Bria, and Jo-Jo Deveraux, ignoring them all in favor of spending time with my so-called mother. But my selfish stupidity hadn’t kept Gin from figuring out Deirdre’s scheme, breaking into the bank, and risking her own life to rescue me during the robbery. Because that was just the kind of caring person, just the kind of devoted sister, Gin was to me, the colossal idiot.
And what made it even worse was that Gin didn’t blame me for any of it, even though Deirdre had almost killed her twice, once here at the bank and then again when Gin had been kidnapped by Hugh Tucker, Deirdre’s boss. My sister didn’t yell or scream at me. Not even once. All she did was check on me every single day, ask me how things were going at the bank, and bring me more food than an army could possibly eat.
She might be an assassin, but Gin Blanco was far and away the best person I knew.
And I’d failed her miserably.
The familiar guilt churned in my stomach, but I ignored it, put the lid on the last of the take-out containers, and set it off to one side with the others. The motion revealed a large crystal candy dish perched near the front corner of my desk. But there were no peppermints in this dish, just a large pendant made of jagged diamond icicles that had been fitted together to form a heart.
Gin had snatched the necklace off Deirdre the night I’d killed my mother. It had been a foolish risk to take, especially since Hugh Tucker and his giants had been trying to murder her at the time, but Gin had wanted me to have the icicle-heart rune.
All these weeks later, I still didn’t know what to do with the damn thing.
At first, I’d brought it here to the bank to serve as a reminder never to let myself be played for a sentimental fool ever again. And it had certainly worked. Every time I looked at the rune, a cold, tight fist wrapped around my heart, as though Deirdre were reaching into my chest and freezing me from the inside out with her Ice magic.
More than once, I’d thought about just throwing the necklace into the trash, since that was exactly what I’d been to Deirdre. Trash. No one had ever made me feel as worthless, useless, and foolish as she had.
But the truly sad thing was that despite how much I hated Deirdre, I couldn’t quite bring myself to discard all of those sparkling diamonds. My greed kept getting the best of me, just like it had her. Yet another way I was like my mother, whether I wanted to be or not, and something that made me feel like shit all over again.
Gin noticed me staring at the rune, but she didn’t comment on it.
“Well,” she said, getting to her feet, “I should head back to the Pork Pit. Silvio set up some meetings with a couple of underworld bosses this afternoon.”
She made a face. The other bosses considered her the head of the underworld, although Gin had recently found out about Hugh Tucker and “the Circle.” The vampire worked for the secret society, which was supposedly responsible for a good portion of the crime and corruption in Ashland. Tucker’s revelation about the Circle, along with the bombshell that Gin’s mother, Eira Snow, had been involved with the group, consumed Gin just as much as my guilt over Deirdre ate away at me.
We were both chomping at the bit to open a safety-deposit box that my dad had left for us and see what clues it might contain about our mothers and the Circle. I hadn’t been able to get into the vault yet, since Stuart Mosley was still sorting through the contents of the boxes that Deirdre and her crew had forced open during the robbery. Mosley should be done with those boxes soon, and then, maybe, finally, Gin and I could get the answers we both needed.
Gin looked at the icicle-heart rune again before clearing her throat, walking over, and gently squeezing my shoulder.
“It’ll get better, Finn,” she said, her gray eyes on my green ones. “Your coworkers, the flashbacks, how you feel about everything. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday, it will get better.”
I knew that she was talking about herself as much as she was about me. So even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I forced myself to smile at her again.
“Of course it will,” I lied.