New Release! Check out this excerpt from SHARPEST STING by Jennifer Estep!

The truth won’t set me free—but it will probably get me killed …

As Gin Blanco, aka the assassin the Spider, I’m used to having a target on my back. But ever since I started investigating the secret society known as the Circle, that target seems bigger than ever.

Still, I’m trying to relax and enjoy the events leading up to my friends’ wedding when I learn that an old enemy has returned to Ashland. And that’s the just beginning of my latest nightmare. Soon, I have Circle goons watching my every move, but I have no choice but to continue searching for a key piece of evidence against the evil group.

The deeper I dig, the more horrifying secrets I uncover, and the more dangerous things become for me and my friends. Just when I think I finally have a handle on things, a shocking revelation shatters my heart and leaves me with an ugly realization—that betrayal is the sharpest sting of all …

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Book

Sharpest Sting
by Jennifer Estep

Series
Elemental Assassin

Genre
Urban Fantasy
Paranormal Romance

Publisher
Independent

Publication Date
October 8, 2019

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Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“I didn’t think our date night would end up here.”

I looked over at Owen Grayson, my significant other. “I thought you were looking forward to our quiet time,” I said. “You, me, together in the dark, having a nice romantic interlude.”

“Oh, you and me together in the dark is one of my favorite things.” Owen’s voice took on a low, husky note that sent chills racing down my spine, and a sexy grin slowly curved his lips.

The moonlight streaming in through the windshield frosted the tips of Owen’s black hair, bringing out the blue sheen in the thick locks, and added a soft, silvery tint to his face, as though he was made of polished marble instead of flesh and blood. Violet eyes, a slightly crooked nose, a white scar that cut across his chin. The small imperfections gave Owen a rough, rugged vibe that only made him that much more handsome to me.

Even better, his minor flaws, both physical and otherwise, fit together perfectly with my own many sins and much deeper faults. Sometimes I thought we were like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had snapped together, despite the small odds of us ever finding each other.

“Oh, yeah. You and me together in the dark is always great.” His grin slowly faded away. “It’s the location that concerns me.”

Several minutes ago, Owen had pulled his car over to the side of the twisty mountain road. In the distance, a large sign gleamed in the moonlight, the letters spelling out a familiar name: Blue Ridge Cemetery.

“Don’t get me wrong. I always love spending time with you, Gin.”

I arched an eyebrow. “But?”

“But when you suggested a date night, I was hoping for something warm and cozy. You, me, a roaring fire, some good food, maybe a nice bottle of wine.”

“We already had some good food,” I said. “Or have you forgotten about the rehearsal dinner already?”

We had spent the last three hours at the Five Oaks Country Club. Our friends Mallory Parker and Stuart Mosley were getting married in a few days, and Owen was a groomsman, while I was a bridesmaid. After running through the ceremony, Mallory and Stuart had treated the wedding party to a private dinner at the club.

Grilled chicken kebabs served with a warm fig dipping sauce. Filet mignon sliders slathered with tangy blue-cheese mayonnaise. Crispy spring rolls filled with sweet-and-sour carrots, cabbage, and other veggies. And those had just been the appetizers. The main course had been roasted, apricot-glazed turkey with apple-sage dressing and mashed potatoes. For dessert, we had enjoyed a decadent pear bread pudding drizzled with warm caramel sauce and topped with vanilla-bean ice cream. The food had been absolutely delicious, and the company of our friends even better.

“The rehearsal dinner was great.” Another sly grin curved Owen’s lips. “But I was looking forward to having a nightcap at your place.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’ve been hanging around Finn too long. That cheesy line sounds like something he would say.”

Finnegan Lane was my foster brother and had been a shameless flirt until he’d gotten involved with Detective Bria Coolidge, my baby sister. Finn still liked to flirt, but everyone knew his heart belonged to Bria.

“You can’t blame a guy for trying,” Owen replied. “Either way, I was hoping for something a little less…”

“Dark, dirty, and dangerous?”

“Yeah.”

I didn’t begrudge Owen his dreams of a more typical date night. I would much rather have been curled up somewhere warm and cozy with him, instead of sitting in his car, slowly freezing in the dark.

But I was Gin Blanco, the supposed queen of the Ashland underworld, and this was my life, like it or not.

“What do you think?” Owen asked, looking through the windshield. “Are we clear?”

I checked the time on my phone. Ten minutes had passed since we’d stopped and Owen had stuck a plastic bag in the driver’s-side window, as though we were having engine trouble. Owen and I had been waiting to see if we were being followed, but not a single vehicle had zoomed by. Most people didn’t like visiting cemeteries in the daylight, much less on a cold winter’s night.

I peered into the woods that flanked both sides of the road, but nothing moved in the shadows, and I didn’t see any human-size shapes lurking farther back in the trees. “We’re clear.”

We got out of the car. Owen popped the trunk, and we each grabbed a thin black vest, along with a pair of heavy-duty black coveralls. Owen put his vest and coveralls on over his navy suit. I ditched my heels, zipped my vest and then the coveralls up over my royal-blue pantsuit, and shoved my feet into a pair of socks and then boots. We both pulled black toboggans down over our hair, completing our transformation from normal folks out for a night on the town to a couple of cat burglars up to no good.

Then again, as the assassin the Spider, I was almost always up to no good.

“You ready?” Owen also grabbed two shovels out of the trunk.

“Yeah. But why are you suddenly so eager to get on with our mission?”

Owen grinned, his eyes glimmering like amethysts in the moonlight. “Because I still have hopes for that fire, food, and wine tonight.”

I snorted. “I’m starting to think fire, food, and wine is code for sexy times.”

Sexy timesNow you sound like Eva.” His grin widened. “Although my sister does have a way with words.”

I crinkled my nose. “You are totally ruining your attempt at suave, seductive charm by bringing up your baby sister.”

“Well, then, I’ll have to try harder and make it up to you later.”

“Promise?” I teased.

“Promise.” His low, husky voice sent more chills down my spine.

Owen reached out, grabbed my hand, and pressed a kiss to my knuckles. The heat of his skin soaked into mine, and those chills pleasantly zipping through my body settled in my stomach and spread out, turning into warm waves of anticipation.

Owen released my hand and straightened. “After all,” he murmured, another mischievous grin spreading across his face, “this humble blacksmith does so love to please his pirate queen assassin.”

I groaned. “Don’t remind me about the renaissance faire.”

A couple of weeks ago, Owen and I had attended the Winter’s Web Renaissance Faire in Riverfront Park. What had started as a fun, innocent event had quickly spiraled into a dangerous confrontation, with Owen getting kidnapped and both of us almost dying at the hands of Darrell Kline, a greedy, disgruntled accountant who had wanted to steal everything from Owen.

“Look on the bright side,” he rumbled. “At least we won’t run into any costumed characters with swords tonight.”

“No, but we might run into Hugh Tucker and some Circle goons instead.”

The muttered words slipped out before I could stop them. Owen’s grin vanished, and a troubled look filled his face.

I grimaced. Way to kill the mood, Gin.

Hugh Tucker was my personal nemesis, a smart, cunning vampire who worked for the Circle, a secret society responsible for much of the crime and corruption in Ashland. For the last few months, I had been investigating and slowly killing my way through the Circle ranks, trying to find the group’s leader, the person who had sent Fire elemental Mab Monroe to murder my mother and my older sister. A few weeks ago, I’d finally found that leader, the head of the monstrous hydra, as it were.

My uncle Mason.

The revelation had come as an absolute shock, like lightning striking my head, a knife plunging into my back, and a bomb exploding underneath my feet all at once. I’d known that my mother, Eira Snow, had been a member of the Circle, but I hadn’t realized that my father, Tristan, had also been part of the group. My father had supposedly died in a car accident when I was a kid, so I didn’t remember much about him, and I knew nothing about his family.

I had certainly never dreamed that his brother, my uncle, was the root cause of so much pain, misery, and suffering in my life. But now that I’d found out about Uncle Mason, I was determined to kill him.

“Gin? Are you okay?”

Owen kept staring at me, that troubled look still on his face, so I forced myself to smile as though nothing was wrong.

“You’re right. We won’t run into any costumed characters tonight, which is a definite plus after what happened at the ren faire. So let’s go.”

“Why the sudden hurry?” he asked.

I leaned over and kissed his cheek. I breathed in his rich, metallic scent, then drew back. “You’re not the only one looking forward to fire, food, and wine tonight. The sooner we leave here, the sooner we can get there.”

“Work first, nightcap later?” Owen teased me again. “That could be your new motto as the Spider.”

“When it comes to you and me?” This time, my smile was completely genuine. “Definitely.”

* * *

I shut the trunk, while Owen hefted the two shovels up onto his shoulder. Together, we left the car and headed into the trees.

I took the lead, slipping through the shadows and scanning the surrounding woods, with Owen creeping along behind me. It was just after nine o’clock on this clear February night, and the luminous full moon and pinprick stars brightened the landscape, as did the crusty patches of snow and ice that still dappled the ground from the most recent winter storm. The woods were utterly still and quiet, and not so much as a breeze rattled the tree branches.

The silence should have reassured me, but a frosty finger of unease slid down my spine, even colder than the night air, and I palmed one of the knives hidden up my sleeves. The mark stamped in the silverstone hilt pressed into the larger, matching scar embedded in my palm—each of them a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A spider rune, the symbol for patience.

A pendant shaped like a spider rune hung from a chain around my neck, and the symbol was also stamped into the ring on my right index finger. My Ice magic rippled through both pieces of silverstone jewelry.

Normally, the cool touch of the jewelry on my skin and the solid strength of my knife in my hand would have comforted me but not right now. Or perhaps my continued unease was caused by our destination, along with our mission. I scanned the landscape again, but I only saw the same trees, ice, and shadows as before. The woods seemed to be completely empty, and even the owls, squirrels, and other animals had vanished for the night.

A few minutes later, we reached the edge of the woods. Owen stopped beside me, and we peered out at the area before us.

Blue Ridge Cemetery.

The moon- and starlight clearly illuminated the cemetery, which spread out for acres. An uneven carpet of dull brown winter grass rose and fell with the hills and ridges that creased the land like wrinkles grooved into an elderly dwarf’s face. Tombstones of all shapes and sizes dotted the ground, from square slabs to Celtic crosses to tall, elegant spires topped with wings and other symbols. A few trees rose up here and there, their bare branches hanging over and casting long, bony, fingerlike shadows onto the tombstones below. The shadows filled in many of the names and dates carved into the markers, making the old weathered letters and numbers look like they had just been stamped on the stones in thick, wet black ink.

Most people would have been creeped out to be in the cemetery at night, but I had an extra reason to be uncomfortable: I could hear the tombstones’ wails.

Love, hate, anger, grief, rage, despair. Over time, people’s feelings sink into whatever stone is around them, and few places conjured up more deep, wild, varying emotions than a cemetery. As a Stone elemental, my magic let me hear the soft sobs and bitter, plaintive wails of everyone who had grieved for loved ones, as well as the sly, smug murmurs of happiness from those who had been delighted to see the deceased go into the ground. The sorrow and the satisfaction made for an odd, disturbing, disparate chorus, and the incessant screeching between the two factions caused a dull headache to bloom in the back of my skull.

“Gin?” Owen asked. “Are you okay?”

I blocked out the stones’ cries as best I could and scanned the grounds again, but I didn’t see anyone lurking behind a tree or crouched beside a tombstone. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

We left the woods and went over to a gray stone path that curled through the grass like a dull, tattered ribbon. Owen and I followed the winding walkway for about three hundred feet before stepping off the path and climbing up one of the hills. We stopped atop a ridge that featured a massive maple looming over five graves, each one marked with its own separate tombstone. Another, much larger stone statue shaped like a snowflake was set into the ground above and behind the tombstones, denoting this as a family plot.

The tombstones represented the five members of the Snow family—my mother, Eira; my older sister, Annabella; my younger sister, Bria; and myself, Genevieve Snow. Of course, Bria and I were still alive, although, sadly, the rest of our family was very much dead, thanks to Mab Monroe and Uncle Mason.

Owen rested his hand on my shoulder, letting me know he was there if I wanted to talk. I flashed him a grateful smile and squeezed his hand. Then I moved over to the fifth and final marker—the one for my father, Tristan.

His tombstone was the oldest and most weather-worn, and I crouched down and yanked off the dead kudzu vines that had snaked across the stone. It didn’t take me long to get rid of the frozen, brittle tendrils and reveal the writing underneath.

Tristan. Beloved Husband and Father.

The words flowed across the stone in a simple script, along with the dates of his birth, June 2, and death, March 24, and the corresponding years. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and snapped some photos of the tombstone, zooming in and focusing on the dates. Then I texted the photos to Bria, and also to Silvio Sanchez, my personal assistant.

My sister had left the rehearsal dinner early to work a shift at the police station, so she didn’t respond, although my phone chimed with a new text from my trusty assistant less than a minute later.

Got them. Starting work right now!

“Silvio?” Owen asked in an amused voice.

I tucked my phone back into my pocket. “Yep. There is something seriously wrong with that man. No one should be that eager to work, especially not this late.”

Silvio had also been at the rehearsal dinner, and I had told him where Owen and I were coming afterward. My vampire assistant had an annoying habit of tracking my phone and car, so it was just easier to tell him what I was up to rather than trying to keep it a secret. Silvio had made me promise to send him what was on Tristan’s tombstone so he could start digging up info on my father and see if he could find any clues that would lead me to Mason.

My mother had claimed that my father died in a car accident, although I doubted that was true. No, I had a sneaking suspicion the Circle was behind Tristan’s death, just as the group had been behind my mother’s and Annabella’s murders.

Perhaps Tristan hadn’t liked being under his brother’s thumb and the two of them had some falling-out that led to Mason eliminating my father. Then, later on, Mason had ordered my mother to be killed when he learned that she was planning to expose the Circle. At least, that was what I thought Eira had been planning. So much of this was still just hunches and guesswork on my part.

I’d come here hoping to get some answers, but the information on Tristan’s tombstone didn’t tell me anything new. Frustration flooded my stomach, curdling the fine dinner I’d eaten earlier. Owen was wrong. My motto as the Spider should be More Questions, because that was all I ever seemed to get regarding my parents and Mason.

Owen slung the shovels off his shoulder and crouched down beside me. “I never realized it until right now, but you’ve never told me your father’s last name.”

“That’s because I don’t know what it is.”

He frowned. “Why not?”

“My father died when I was five, so I barely remember him. Ever since we discovered that Mason is the head of the Circle, I’ve been thinking back, trying to remember every little thing I can about my father. But Tristan is just this vague, hazy image in my mind—a nice smile, a warm laugh, a pair of gray eyes like mine.” I shook my head. “I don’t know if that image is real or simply what I want him to be.”

“And Mason?”

I shook my head again. “Nothing. I draw a total blank when it comes to him. I don’t remember anything about my father’s family. I always assumed Tristan didn’t have any family, but of course, now I know that’s not the case. But no matter how hard I try, I haven’t been able to remember anything helpful about Tristan, not even his last name.”

Owen pointed to my mother’s marker. “But Snow is your mother’s last name, and yours too. Not your father’s.”

“I was hoping Tristan’s last name would be on his tombstone, but it’s not.”

“Maybe your father decided to use your mother’s last name,” Owen said. “Maybe he didn’t want anything to do with Mason, not even something as simple as sharing the same surname.”

“That’s what I think too. That Tristan was so disgusted with Mason and the Circle that he disowned himself from their family.”

At least, that was what I hoped. I didn’t want to contemplate the idea that my father might have been just as evil and horrible as Mason was.

“Well, Silvio is working on it now, and if anyone can figure out my father’s last name and where Mason is hiding, then it’s him. But we have another mission.”

Owen lifted the shovels and tapped them point-first against the ground. “Are you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to. I know how hard this is.”

“I appreciate that, but we need more information about the Circle, and this is the only place I can think of where Fletcher might have hidden it. Even Silvio hasn’t been able to crack all the codes in that Circle ledger, and we’re running out of time to decrypt the info before Mason and Tucker target us again.”

A few weeks ago, during an auction of items from Mab Monroe’s estate, I had stumbled across what seemed to be a blue book of Circle secrets. Hugh Tucker had been after the ledger, as had Alanna Eaton, a vampire cannibal. That book had turned out to be a decoy, but I had still ended up with the genuine item. Fletcher Lane, Finn’s dad and my assassin mentor, had given the real ledger to Stuart Mosley for safekeeping years ago, but Fletcher had never gotten a chance to tell Mosley what to do with the tome.

But perhaps the most surprising thing was the fact that my mother had written the book.

I had recognized her handwriting immediately, and Silvio and I had been working to decode the contents ever since. My mother had been some sort of accountant or bookkeeper for the Circle, and the blue ledger chronicled assassinations, kidnappings, and other crimes the group had committed, orchestrated, and profited from, as well as bribes and payments they had doled out to various people.

Silvio was still trying to crack the last few bits of code, but the ledger hadn’t been quite the smoking gun I was hoping for. Sure, it cataloged some of the Circle’s dirty deeds, but most of the crimes were more than twenty years old, and many of the people associated with them were long dead. I wanted—needed—more information about the Circle’s past plots, as well as what its members had been up to in recent years, so I’d come to the cemetery to try to get it.

“Do you really think Fletcher knew how Tristan was connected to the Circle?” Owen asked. “And that Fletcher left something here for you to find? Buried in your father’s grave?”

I shrugged. “If anyone knew about Tristan and Mason, then it was Fletcher. Besides, the old man seemed to know everything else about the Circle.”

Owen tapped the shovels against the ground again, still unsure. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t want to dig up my father’s grave, but Fletcher had left me information in this cemetery before, and it was the only place I hadn’t checked yet.

Owen shifted his stance, and a bit of moonlight slid past his body and hit the tombstone, illuminating a small dark spot in the lower right-hand corner. I scooted forward and leaned down to get a better look at it.

“Find something?” he asked.

“I’m not sure.”

The spot was right above the grass, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t cleared away the dead vines. I yanked up a tuft of grass and tossed it aside, then leaned down lower so that I could get an even better look. It wasn’t a spot at all but rather a rune that had been carved into the tombstone.

And not just any rune—a small circle surrounded by thin rays. My spider rune.

“Fletcher,” I whispered.

I traced my fingers over the rune. Unlike the name and dates on the tombstone, which were neat and smooth and had obviously been done by a carver with professional equipment, this symbol looked thin and jagged, as though it had been crudely scratched into the stone with a blade meant for something else—like an assassin’s knife.

I stared at the knife in my hand, then dug the point into the stone and drew a short line with the blade. My gaze snapped back and forth between my mark and the rune already on the tombstone. They matched exactly.

“Fletcher,” I whispered again. “You sly fox.”

The old man had once again left me a clue from beyond the grave. My heart lifted, excitement zipped through me, and I surged to my feet and turned to grab one of the shovels from Owen. To my surprise, he was also on his feet, frowning and looking off into the distance.

“Something wrong?”

He stabbed his finger toward the bottom of the hill. “There’s a freshly dug grave down there.”

“So what? This is a cemetery.”

Owen shook his head. “So there are no flowers on it. And look where that grave is. I know that spot, Gin, and so do you.”

I peered in that direction. A grave had been recently dug at the bottom of the hill not too far away from where we were. No flowers were strewn across the turned earth, and no funeral wreaths were propped up on metal stands. But what made my heart sink was the grave’s location. Owen was right. I knew that spot all too well.

“That’s Fletcher’s grave.” Shock blasted through me, but it was quickly drowned out by sick understanding. “Someone dug up Fletcher’s grave.”

“Who would do that?” Owen asked. “And why?”

It took me a moment to force the words out past the hard knot of emotion clogging my throat. “Because they were looking for clues, just like we were. They must have thought there was something in Fletcher’s grave—or his casket—worth stealing.”

Owen’s eyes narrowed in understanding. “Like a blue ledger full of Circle secrets?”

“Yeah.”

I kept staring at the grave, not wanting to believe that someone had been so cruel as to disturb Fletcher’s final resting place, even though I was here to do the same thing to my father.

Then my assassin training kicked in, and I realized how much danger we were in. Not only had the grave been freshly dug, but a couple of shovels were propped up against Fletcher’s tombstone.

“We need to get out of here,” I told Owen. “Right now. Before whoever dug up that grave comes back—”

It was as if my whispered words made the very worst possible thing happen. Footsteps crunched on the frosty grass, and two giants rounded a tree and stepped into view at the bottom of the hill, heading straight for Fletcher’s grave.

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