I hated the girl.
I hated everything about her, from her painfully thin body to her big, wounded eyes to her absolute eagerness to do whatever my father, Fletcher Lane, told her to.
Most especially, I hated the fact that Dad had decided to train her to be an assassin instead of me.
The girl set a triple chocolate milkshake down on the counter in front of me. “Here you go, Finn.”
Her voice was soft, just like everything else about her. Soft brown hair, soft gray eyes, soft, small body. Even her clothes were soft and big and baggy and utterly forgettable. She never raised her voice, she never interrupted a conversation, she never did anything the least bit dangerous or naughty or risky. It was as if she was determined to draw as little attention to herself as possible and blend into the background no matter what.
She annoyed the hell out of me.
I didn’t even say thanks as I stuck a straw into the frothy concoction and started sucking down the milkshake.
“Do you like it?” the girl asked, a bit of hope creeping into her voice. “I followed Fletcher’s recipe, but then I decided to add in even more chocolate to make it really rich and creamy.”
The milkshake was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and even better than the ones that Dad made for me here at the Pork Pit. But I wasn’t about to tell her that. Most days, I didn’t even bother to speak to her.
I grunted. “It’ll do, I suppose.”
Behind the counter, Sophia Deveraux gave me a sharp stare. Most people would have been intimidated by the look, since the muscular dwarf was as hard and blunt as the girl was soft. Sophia wore solid black from the bottom of her heavy boots to the T-shirt that covered her chest to the leather collar that wrapped around her neck. Even her hair was black, and she’d painted her lips the same dark color. Sophia was the real deal—a Goth through and through. She made the wannabes at my high school look like kids playing dress-up, which, of course, they were.
Sophia’s pointed look didn’t faze me in the least, since I knew that I had both Sophia and her older sister, Jo-Jo, wrapped around my finger. The dwarves had helped Dad raise me, and I knew that they thought of me as their own son. For some reason, though, both Sophia and Jo-Jo had taken an immediate liking to the girl, fussing over her just as much as they did over me. I didn’t know why. I didn’t think there was anything to like about Gin.
Gin—that’s what the girl called herself. Heh. We all knew that wasn’t her real name, but Dad had accepted it anyway. He’d even given her a last name too—Blanco. Gin Blanco. As if that wasn’t the cheesiest thing that anyone had ever heard.
But Dad hadn’t stopped there. He’d created a whole new identity for the girl, claiming that she was some distant cousin of his that he’d taken in after her family had died in a car wreck. She’d been with us several weeks now, and Dad had bought her clothes and fed her and even enrolled her in school with me. Since she was thirteen and I was fifteen, she wasn’t in my class, though. One small thing to be happy about.
Since I was tired of looking at Gin, I swiveled around on my stool, still sucking on my milkshake. It was Monday afternoon, and business was a little slow at the Pork Pit, Dad’s barbecue restaurant in downtown Ashland. Only a few customers sat in the blue and pink vinyl booths in front of the storefront windows, although they were all eating their barbecue sandwiches, baked beans, and thick, steak-cut fries with obvious enthusiasm.
A girl about my age put down her napkin, slid out of her booth, and started following the pink pig tracks on the floor to the women’s restroom. I smiled at her as she passed. She stopped a moment to look at me, and my grin widened. With my walnut-colored hair and green eyes, I was the spitting image of my dad and just as handsome as he was. I winked at the girl, who giggled, ducked her head, and hurried on by.
Normally, my dad, Fletcher Lane, would have been here, sitting on a stool behind the cash register and reading a book in between helping Gin and Sophia dish up barbecue. But Dad was off on one of his jobs tonight, killing people for money. As the assassin the Tin Man, it was something that he was exceptionally good at.
And now, he was determined to teach Gin everything that he knew.
He’d told me about his plan last night, even though I’d seen it coming way before then. A few weeks ago, a man named Douglas, one of Dad’s disgruntled clients, had stormed into the restaurant and almost killed him. In fact, Douglas would have killed Dad and me too—if Gin hadn’t stabbed him to death with the knife that she was using to chop onions with at the time.
For some reason, Dad thought that made Gin a prime candidate to become an assassin, just like him. Hell, he’d already given her a name—the Spider. Another fake, cheesy name to go along with her other one.
It should have been me that he was planning on training—I was his son, his flesh and blood. My mother had died when I was a kid, and it had always been just the two of us. I just didn’t understand what Dad saw in Gin that he didn’t see in me. What he thought that she had that I didn’t. I was older than her, smarter, stronger, tougher. I was already as good a shot as Dad was with his guns. I wanted to learn the rest of the business too, but Dad didn’t see it that way. He said that Gin would make the better assassin, that she had the patience for it, and I didn’t.
That had hurt worse than anything else that he’d ever said to me.
The milkshake soured in my stomach, and I suddenly felt like I’d been drinking poison instead of melted chocolate. Maybe I had been. I’d seen what Gin had done to Douglas with that knife. She’d stabbed Douglas over and over like he was a piñata that she was whacking all the candy out of. I wouldn’t put anything past her, not even offing me so she could have my dad all to herself.
I turned back around to the counter that ran down the back wall of the restaurant, sat my empty glass down, and pushed it away with one finger.
“You must have liked it,” Gin said, still looking at me. “You drank all of it.”
Instead of responding to her, I got to my feet, grabbed my leather jacket off the stool next to me, and put it on. It was the second jacket that I’d bought in as many weeks. Gin had given my first one away to some homeless kid, just plucked it off the coat rack in the restaurant like it was hers instead of mine. Something else that she’d done to piss me off. That poisonous feeling curled up in my stomach, burning like acid.
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m out of here.”
“Where?” Sophia rasped in her harsh, broken voice.
I shrugged. “I’ve been invited to a party. I plan on going and having a good time.”
Gin frowned. “The one that Fletcher told you last week that you couldn’t go to?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Fletcher’s not going to like that,” Gin said in that soft voice again, the one that made me grind my teeth together. “Especially since it’s over in Southtown. That’s why he told you that you couldn’t go in the first place. Because it’s dangerous over there.”
Next to Gin, Sophia grunted her agreement.
“I don’t care what Dad does or doesn’t like,” I growled. “Because he certainly doesn’t give a damn about what I do or don’t like. For example, I didn’t like it when he brought you in here. I still don’t. But yet, here you are anyway.”
Gin didn’t flinch at my words, but for a moment, the faintest flicker of hurt filled her eyes. For some reason, it made me feel like shit.
“Finn,” Sophia growled, clearly wanting me to apologize.
For a moment, I opened my mouth, intending to do just that—to force out a gruff Sorry. I knew that Gin had been through something horrible, something that had forced her to live on the streets. Hell, I’d seen the spider rune scars that had been branded into her palms—a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays, one on either hand. But I just didn’t understand how or why her problems had become Dad’s problems—and now, mine too.
“It’s okay, Sophia,” Gin said. “Let him go.”
Then, she turned away, grabbed a knife, and started slicing a tomato. That was all that she did. She didn’t yell or scream at me, and she didn’t give me another wounded look. She just turned around and went about her business like I wasn’t even there, like I didn’t even matter to her or anyone else
She had no right to do that—no fucking right at all. This was my dad’s restaurant, not hers. He was my dad, not hers. But here she was, slowly taking over, taking away, everything that was mine.
That poisonous acid flooded my veins again, burning even hotter than before. I wasn’t going to apologize to her. Not now, not for anything—ever.
I stalked across the floor, opened the door, and left the restaurant without looking back.
I’d had too much to drink. Or maybe just enough. It was hard to tell. Everything seemed soft and hazy in the dark.
The party had been held in an abandoned building over in Southtown, the part of Ashland that was home to the vampire hookers, pimps, and homeless bums. There’d been lots of loud music, lots of girls, and lots of booze. Everything else was a bit of a blur. Now, I was walking back to the Pork Pit, planning to use my key to let myself into the restaurant so I could sleep in one of the booths for the night. Dad would give me hell in the morning for disobeying him, but going to the party had been worth it.
Getting away from Gin for the night had been worth it.
A group of us had left the abandoned building together, but one by one, my friends had peeled off, going their respective ways, until now, it was just me. I wasn’t too worried, though. I was only about ten blocks from the Pork Pit now. I could make it ten more blocks before I passed out—
One minute, I was stumbling down the street, trying not to trip over the cracks in the sidewalk. The next, I was pinned up against the side of a building by two guys, with another guy standing in front of me, holding out a knife. I still wasn’t too worried, though. Muggings were as common as sunsets in Ashland, especially down here in Southtown.
“Hey, hey,” I said, giving them a crooked smile. “There’s no need to be rough about things. Take my wallet if you want, although I’ve got to warn you, there’s not much in there.”
“Don’t worry, pretty boy,” the guy with the knife said. “We will. And we’ll take your blood too. Every last drop of it.”
He smiled, revealing two dark, tobacco-stained fangs in his mouth. Ah, hell. They were vampires. Hungry ones too, from the way they were eyeing me.
Suddenly, I was extremely worried.
If I’d been sober, I probably could have fought back, broken free from the two vampires who were holding me, and then run like hell. But I wasn’t sober and the third guy had a knife. The odds were not in my favor. Still, I started struggling anyway, but my limbs felt slow and heavy, like I was trying to fight through water. The vampires just laughed at me and tightened their grips. Damn. If I got out of this in one piece, I was never drinking again. Well, not for a month, at the very least.
“Hold him still,” the guy with the knife said.
One of the other vampires forced my head back against the cold brick, exposing my neck. The vampire with the knife licked his lips and leaned forward. I winced, waiting for the pain that I was sure to feel from his vicious bite.
For some reason, instead of tearing into my neck with his teeth, the vampire let out a low grunt instead and slumped forward, his body pressing against mine.
“Blake?” one of the other vampires said, looking at his buddy. “What the hell are you doing? Quit fucking around. The rest of us want a taste too.”
He reached out and shook Blake, who flopped back and crumpled into a heap on the sidewalk.
“What the hell?” the third guy said.
I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. Instead, I was looking at the slender figure in front of me—Gin Blanco.
She looked rather ridiculous, standing there in the dark in her baggy jeans and fleece jacket, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, a bloody knife clutched in her right hand and a clean one in her left. I recognized the silverstone knives. They were two that Dad had given her to start practicing with—and she’d just used one of them to save my life.
“Leave him alone,” Gin said in a voice that was as hard as the brick building above our heads.
And suddenly, I saw what Dad did in her—the fierce determination, the strong will, the unwavering loyalty. Even though I’d treated her like shit tonight, like shit every night since Dad had taken her in, Gin had still cared enough to follow me home from the party just to make sure that I got back to the Pork Pit okay.
I knew it as instinctively as I knew that I would never treat her bad again—ever.
The two vampires looked at each other, then at their fallen buddy, and then back at Gin. They let go of me and launched themselves at her. Gin was waiting for them. She knifed the first guy in the chest, driving the blade into his heart. He went down without another sound. But the other guy was quicker than she was. He managed to drive her to the ground and started grappling with her, trying to knock the knives out of her hands. But Gin fought him back just as hard, trying to stab him to death before he took the weapons away from her.
My head a little clearer, I stumbled forward, dug my hands into the vampire’s shirt, and pulled him off her. I forced the guy to my left and rammed his head into the brick wall. He moaned and flailed at me with his arms, so I heaved him back and then shoved him forward. Again and again, until his head was a bloody, pulpy mass of flesh. Then, I let go. He didn’t get back up.
In a minute, it was over. Gin and I stood there, breathing heavy, as the vampires’ bodies cooled at our feet. I looked up and down the street and listened, but I didn’t see or hear anyone. Good. The street being deserted had gotten me into this mess in the first place, and now, it was going to me out of it. Murders were just as common as muggings in Southtown, and I knew that the cops wouldn’t search too hard for the vampires’ killers.
Then, I looked over at Gin, with all sorts of questions in my green eyes.
“I followed you to the party,” she said. “And hid outside until you came out of the building.”
It was close to midnight now, and I’d been at the party for several hours. I couldn’t believe that she’d spent all that time just waiting for me to stumble outside. I certainly wouldn’t have had the patience for that sort of thing—or been thoughtful enough to do it in the first place. Maybe Dad was right about Gin. Maybe he was right about a lot of things.
She frowned, like the answer should be obvious. “Fletcher wouldn’t like it if anything happened to you. And I wouldn’t either.”
And just like that, all the poisonous jealousy that I’d felt toward her vanished. She was trying so hard—to please Dad, to please me. The least that I could do was meet her halfway, especially since she’d just saved my life. Maybe some of Jo-Jo’s Air elemental magic was rubbing off on me, but I had a funny feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time that Gin got me out of a tough spot. I only hoped that I could do the same for her someday.
“Come on, Gin,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “Let’s go home.”
She wiped off her bloody knives on one of the vampire’s shirts and slid them back up the sleeves of her jacket. Gin scrubbed her hands clean too before slipping her left one in mine. Her fingers felt small and warm and strong in my own.
We stepped over the vampires’ bodies, and together, we headed for the Pork Pit.