Spider's Trap(Elemental Assassin,book 13)(39) by Jennifer Estep
She grinned. “Because you can’t go looking like that.”
At two o’clock that afternoon, I found myself someplace I had never been before in all my thirty-one years.
An old-fashioned Southern garden party.
Lilies, pansies, hydrangeas, forsythias, mums, and other flowers in all shapes, sizes, and colors spread out as far as the eye could see, interspersed with all sorts of curling vines, green leaves, and perfectly pruned bushes. Maple, oak, and poplar trees towered over the area, providing a bit of shade from the autumn sun. The warm rays lent the remaining red, orange, and yellow leaves a rich, vibrant shimmer, making them seem as though they had been sculpted out of polished metal. A faint breeze gusted through the lush garden, teasing the green tendrils of the weeping willows and mixing the blossoms’ scents into one strong, heady perfume. Black wrought-iron benches crouched here and there in shady spots under the trees, while white flagstones had been set into the manicured lawn, in paths winding through the garden and out into the landscapes beyond.
But roses were by far the most prominent flowers here. A series of arched whitewashed trellises circled the area like soldiers standing at attention, each featuring a different color of rose, starting with white and slowly deepening to pale pink, sunny yellow, and blood-red before giving way to midnight-black blooms on the final trellis. Naturally, this spot was known as the Rose Garden, one of more than three dozen different themed areas that made up the Ashland Botanical Gardens.
And what was a gorgeous garden without a fancy party?
Round tables clustered together in the center of the trellises, each one covered with a white silk cloth embroidered with shimmering silver roses—the rune for this particular garden. Dainty white china tea sets hand-painted with different colors of roses perched on each table, along with silver platters of pimiento-cheese sandwiches and buttery scones and crystal bowls filled with fresh strawberries and cream. White rose-shaped candles flickered in glass hurricane lamps in the middle of each table, the melting wax adding more rosy perfume to the air.
I shifted on my feet, my black stilettos sinking like spikes into the grass. “I’ve never seen so many rose-covered whatnots in one place before. Including me. I feel ridiculous,” I grumbled.
Jo-Jo threaded her arm through mine. “Well, I think you look fabulous, darling.”
Fabulous was not the word I would use to describe myself right now. For one thing, I was wearing a dress. And not just any dress. The pinkest, laciest, frilliest thing you could possibly imagine, patterned with, you guessed it, roses. Not only that, but there was a fair amount of crinoline under the full, flowing skirt, making it poof out that much more, as though I were a human bell. I half-expected the fabric to go ding-ding-ding every time it swished against my legs. A large black hat with a floppy brim topped my head, and Jo-Jo had insisted that I also don black satin elbow-length gloves and one of her pearl chokers. All put together, I felt like an extra from Gone with the Wind. Fiddle-dee-dee.
“I do not look fabulous,” I grumbled again. “I look like a doll on top of someone’s wedding cake but without the creepy fake smile.”
Jo-Jo patted my gloved hand. “We’ll have to work on that, then. Fake smiles are practically a requirement at these parties.”
I shot her a dirty look, but she chuckled.
“Well, I think you look great too,” another voice chimed in.
I glanced to my right at the woman standing next to me: Roslyn Phillips, the owner of the Northern Aggression nightclub and significant other to Xavier. She’d been invited to the party too, and she looked every inch the sweet Southern belle in a mint-green dress with a long, flowing skirt that featured a rose pattern. A matching hat perched on top of her head, while a diamond solitaire nestled in the hollow of her throat. All the green brought out the beautiful color of her toffee eyes and skin and her black hair, which was curled into loose waves. I’d always thought that Roslyn was beautiful, but she looked truly stunning today, the perfect picture of feminine elegance, grace, and beauty.
“You’re just saying that because you came through with the dress and heels for me at the last minute.” I paused. “People really pay your workers to dress up like this at Northern Aggression?”
Roslyn’s nightclub was a place where you could pay for anything your heart desired, which apparently included pink frou-frou garden dresses.
Roslyn grinned, showing off the small pearl-white fangs in her mouth. “Everyone has their fantasies, Gin. Prim and proper Southern lady is a lot more popular than you’d expect, especially in Ashland.”
I blanched at the thought.
“Just think of it as another disguise, darling,” Jo-Jo said. “All the better to blend in with the crowd. Fletcher taught you that, remember?”
“Oh, great,” I muttered. “Bring the old man into it. I’m sure wherever he is, he’s laughing his ass off at me right now.”
Still, the thought of Fletcher brought a smile to my face, and I let Jo-Jo and Roslyn lead me deeper into the garden.
The Ashland Botanical Gardens were located on some lush acreage up in Northtown, close to Jo-Jo’s salon. Ostensibly, today’s event was a fund-raiser to benefit the gardens and help with other local charity and conservation efforts, but really, it was just an excuse for the rich society types to mix, mingle, and talk trash about each other behind their white gloved hands.
The event was also ladies-only, much to Finn’s disappointment. He’d called to let me know that Harold Smith’s burner phone was another dead end, with only a few cryptic texts from Pike on it, and I’d told him what I was up to.
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