Bitter Bite(Elemental Assassin #14)(87) by Jennifer Estep
The footsteps grew louder and closer, until they stopped right behind me. Whoever was standing there wanted me to turn around, to strain and struggle to try to see him, but I stayed still and faced front. He’d step into the light. Every cockroach did, eventually.
I started counting off the seconds in my head. One . . . two . . . three . . . five . . . ten . . . fifteen . . .
I hadn’t even made it to thirty before a man walked past me, stepping into the space between Deirdre and me.
Black hair, black eyes, trimmed goatee, snazzy suit. He looked the same as always, except for the fact that he wasn’t obsessively checking his phone. Instead, for once, he looked straight at me.
“Hello, Ms. Blanco,” Hugh Tucker said. “So nice of you to join us.”
* * *
I looked at Tucker, then at Deirdre, then back at Tucker.
“So you’re the man behind the curtain,” I said. “Hiding in plain sight all along.”
He shrugged. “Something like that.”
I’d wondered why he didn’t act like a typical assistant, and now I knew. Deirdre had been working for Tucker this whole time, not the other way around like they’d led everyone to believe. But even more interesting was Deirdre’s reaction to her boss. Her body trembled, her fingers curled tightly around the arms of her chair, and her tongue darted out to wet her lips. Whoever Tucker really was, Deirdre was practically shaking in her boots at the sight of him. Then again, he’d been torturing her for the last few days. Prolonged pain was enough to break just about anyone.
“You’re probably wondering why I brought you here, Ms. Blanco.”
Instead of the bland, polite murmur I remembered, Tucker’s voice was rich and deep, with a sophisticated slant and the faintest hint of a Southern drawl. Not only that, but he seemed taller, more interesting and vibrant than before. Even his suit was brighter, a royal blue that brought out the bronze color of his skin. He’d been playing the part of the harmless assistant this whole time, and now the snake was shedding its skin to reveal its true, venomous nature.
“Not particularly. I imagine that you want to kill me for fucking up your ice heist.”
He arched an eyebrow at my snarky tone. “Yes, well, I did warn Deirdre about the dangers of involving Mr. Lane and, by extension, you in her scheme. Repeatedly, I might add. Of course, Deirdre and I have already had a long discussion about that.”
Deirdre couldn’t hide the shudder that wracked her body.
“Despite my many warnings, Deirdre insisted that she could handle you. Obviously, she was wrong about that.”
I grinned. “Why, Tuck, you flatterer. Are you saying that I’m a badass? Because I totally am. I told Deirdre as much the first day she sashayed into the Pork Pit, but she didn’t believe me. And now look where she is. Why, you couldn’t have ended up in a better spot, Mama Dee.”
I smirked at Deirdre, who struggled against her handcuffs again. “You bitch! This is all your fault!” She looked at Tucker. “My plan was solid. It would have worked, if not for her.”
The vamp arched his eyebrow again. “Would haves are for other people, Deirdre. Not you, and especially not us. All you got from the bank was a lousy two million in cash, not the hundreds of millions that you promised us, that you owed us. You risked everything on this plan, and it has blown up quite spectacularly in your face. You know what that means.”
Deirdre had already been horribly tortured, had already sat in that chair and suffered for days on end, but her face still paled, and a sheen of sweat popped out onto her forehead at Tucker’s casual promise of her impending death.
“So,” I drawled, “you’ve already tortured Mama Dee, and now you’re going to kill her. Why, exactly, am I here, then? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, as I’ll be quite happy to sit here and witness her death. Bring me some popcorn, and I’ll even do the play-by-play commentary.”
“But?” Tucker asked.
“But this is a weeknight, and I’ve got a barbecue restaurant to open in the morning. Couldn’t y’all have just called and told me where to find her body?”
For the first time, a spark of anger shimmered in Tucker’s black eyes, belying his polite words and calm expression. “You’re here because we wanted you here. To see this. To see what happens when people displease us.”
“And who, exactly, is us?”
His lips twitched, as though I were a child who’d done something to amuse him and he was holding back a laugh at my expense. “You really don’t know anything, do you? About how things actually work in Ashland?”
I shrugged. “Ostensibly, I’m the head of the underworld. So that means that everything goes through me.”
This time, Tucker let loose with a hearty, amused chuckle that almost made him seem likable. Almost. “Mab never told you anything, did she?” he asked. “And neither did your mother.”
I couldn’t have been more shocked than if his goon had doused me with another bucket of water. Of all the things he could have said, of all the names he could have dropped, I wasn’t expecting him to bring up my mother. This time, my hands were the ones that curled around the arms of my chair as I struggled to hide my surprise. “What does my mother have to do with anything? She’s been dead for almost twenty years now.”
“You always thought that Mab killed your mother because of some long-standing family feud between the Monroes and the Snows.” Tucker gave me a look that was almost pitying. “You believed exactly what we wanted you to.”
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