Bitter Bite(Elemental Assassin #14)(51) by Jennifer Estep
Lorelei shook her head. “It was some woman who said she worked for Deirdre’s charity foundation. Apparently, Deirdre and her minions have been making the society rounds, asking everyone to show off their Sunday jewels.” She paused. “For the children, of course.”
“Moonshine makes you catty.” I grinned. “I like it.”
Lorelei toasted me with her glass and took another sip.
“Well, I didn’t like her attitude,” Mallory said. “She swaggered in here, acting like she was doing me some big favor by asking for my jewels. And she had the nerve to talk down to me. I’m three hundred and thirty-three years old. I’m not senile. Hmph.”
I grinned again. I could imagine Mallory dressing down the charity worker. “So what did you tell her?”
“I told her no, that I liked my diamonds right where I could see ’em—namely, on me—and not behind some flimsy sheets of glass.”
Hmm. Now, that was a possibility I hadn’t considered. Clementine Barker and her cadre of giants had almost pulled off the crime of the century at the Briartop museum back during the summer. Perhaps Deirdre was planning to do the same. All that jewelry would make for a nice score.
It made sense . . . but then again, it didn’t. Why bother cozying up to Finn if she was going to rob the museum? Deirdre had already put her exhibit in motion before she’d first contacted him. What was I missing? What angle was I not seeing?
Maybe Deirdre’s scheme and her interest in Finn were two different things. Maybe she really did want to be part of his life but without giving up her criminal enterprises, whatever they might be. Or maybe Deirdre wasn’t planning to rob the museum at all. Maybe I just thought that was her plan because of the previous robbery attempt. Surely she wouldn’t be so obvious and so dumb as to repeat Clementine Barker’s mistakes.
“What did the charity worker say when you told her no?” I asked.
Mallory shrugged. “She thanked me and went on her way.”
“That’s it.” She shook her head, making her diamond choker sparkle. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I know it’s not much, and I wish that I could tell you more. I wish that I could give you some of the answers you want, and Finn too. He’s a sweet, lovely boy, and I consider you both dear friends. But I’m afraid that all I have are old photos and memories.”
She gave me a sympathetic look. So did Lorelei. But it wasn’t their fault that I hadn’t found anything on Deirdre yet. I was going to keep right on searching and spying on Mama Dee, no matter how long it took. No matter how many lunches I had to cook for her and no matter how many times I had to sit and smile when all I really wanted to do was punch her in the face.
“Are you okay, Gin?” Lorelei asked. “You look like you want to hit someone.”
I gave them a bright smile and pushed my mason jar back over to Mallory. “You know what? Pour me some more of your liquid torture. After the week I’ve had, I could use it.”
The next night was the grand opening of the jewelry exhibit. Even if I hadn’t been invited by Mama Dee herself, a whole passel of assassins couldn’t have kept me from seeing what was supposed to be her crowning achievement.
The event was being held at Briartop, Ashland’s largest, fanciest, and most self-important art museum. And, lately, the most maligned, given all the deaths and injuries that had resulted from Clementine Barker’s almost-successful heist back during the summer.
Briartop perched on top of a rocky ridge of an island in the middle of the Aneirin River and was accessible only by crossing an old-fashioned whitewashed covered wooden bridge. Given the previous robbery attempt, the police had come out in full force for tonight’s event, and groups of officers were stationed at both ends of the bridge, shining their flashlights into every car and examining invitations before they let anyone cross over to the island itself.
Owen showed our invitation to the cops, who waved us on through, then steered his car across the bridge and into the receiving line of vehicles crawling up the hill. He handed his keys off to a valet, and we walked arm in arm toward the museum.
Even by Ashland standards, Briartop was impressive: five stories of gleaming gray marble, with a coal-black slate roof and fat, pointed turrets that made it look like the Southern version of a fairy-tale castle. Crenellated balconies clung to the front of the building like square, narrow spiderwebs, adding to the castle illusion, while four massive columns flanked the main entrance.
More cops were stationed outside the entrance, along with the museum’s own guards, all of them checking invitations a second time just to make sure that no one slipped past them who wasn’t supposed to be here. If Deirdre was planning to steal the exhibit jewelry, she would have a hard time getting through all the security. But if that wasn’t her plan, then what was? Worry wiggled like a worm on a hook in the bottom of my stomach. Try as I might, I still couldn’t see what her endgame was, much less how or even if it involved Finn.
Owen and I got in line to have our invitations checked again. Tonight’s event was black-tie to the max, and the folks milling around the museum entrance had risen to the occasion, with the men in classic tuxedoes and the women in glittering gowns. Even among the highfalutin crowd, Owen attracted more than his share of attention. His blue-black hair gleamed under the lights, and his black tuxedo jacket stretched perfectly over his broad, muscled shoulders, making him even more ruggedly handsome than usual.
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