WORD COUNT: 4654 words
DISCLAIMER: Oh, how I wish they were, but no, they are not mine.
NOTES: Written for the Gwen Saves Arthur challenge over at ag_fics. We were given three items (based on a range we'd selected) and had to write a story based on 1-3 of those prompts. These were my prompts: this picture, the quote, "Pleasure is the bait of sin." - Plato, and "an assassin's hit. I decided to do something hopefully fun and kickass, along the urban fantasy vein, and won best overall and best AU.
SUMMARY: Set in an urban fantasy modern AU. As a member of the Guild, a protectorate union that shields the general populace from the darker forces of magic, Gwen DeGrance must stop an assassination on the most powerful family in the city.
Her job was to look inconspicuous. A fixture, a shadow, a ghost…any one of the euphemisms could apply. In fact, all three had been thrown at her at one point or another in her debriefing.
Gwen DeGrance didn’t need a primer on how to satisfy her mission. She’d taken the job at the hotel her target would be spending the week specifically because of how close she could get without compromising her cover. What she did need was a stiff drink if it kept going like it had been. Nothing had gone wrong—not yet, anyway, and not ever if she kept her head about her—but the more time she spent watching Arthur Pendragon, the more frustrated she became.
He wasn’t an idiot. She told herself that over and over again. With his father getting older, Arthur had become the heart and soul of the Pendragon dynasty. He managed all their people, mediated all of their problems, maintained dozens upon dozens of businesses that relied on the Pendragon name and fortune to keep them going. He’d worked his way through mailrooms and kitchens, offices and boardrooms, to learn as much about the inner workings as possible. It was the mark of a great leader, and someday, when Uther handed over the reins, he would be a brilliant managing director.
He just had to stop mooning over the woman who’d bespelled him into forgetting much of what he’d always done.
Not to mention, surviving the bitch’s impending assassination hit.
From where she stood in the corner of the banquet room, Gwen had the perfect vantage to watch the two of them eating their meal. They sat towards the end of the long table, seemingly oblivious to the various conversations going on around them. Sophia looked particularly alluring this afternoon, in a diaphanous dress that bared her slender arms and set off her porcelain skin. She’d worn her hair up, too, with only a single pendant at her throat to mar the graceful line of her neck. Men who weren’t involved in her private conversation with Arthur kept turning their heads to stare at her, an effect she was all too aware of, Gwen knew.
As far as Gwen knew, too, that was the primary reason she’d been sent to dispatch Arthur. Because her otherworldly charms could besot even the best of men.
Arthur wore one of the dark tailored suits that made his eyes seem bluer and his shoulders broader. He hadn’t eaten much of the lunch sitting in front of him, choosing instead to lean toward Sophia and listen to whatever prattle she was using to seduce him into trusting her. The earpiece Gwen had sneaked back to HQ to filch from the supplies cupboard could pick up voices from a hundred yards away as if they were standing right behind her, but most of what the couple had exchanged had been inane flattery and small talk.
She would’ve been bored out of her mind if it wasn’t for the added bonus of getting to watch Arthur as much as she wanted.
A signal came from the head waiter at the front of the room for the serving staff to begin clearing away the dishes. Gwen fell in line with the others, keeping her head bent, her hands busy, her ear always on everything Sophia and Arthur were saying.
“That’s silly,” Arthur teased. “You have nothing to be nervous about.”
“You’re lovely, but I really do.”
“Everyone can dance.”
“I’m sure you’re being too hard on yourself.”
“I’m not. You’re much better off finding someone else to take tonight.”
“Well, I’m not. You’ll just have to muddle through the night with me.”
Gwen refrained from rolling her eyes. How could he not see how Sophia was manipulating him? She might not even be using any of her sidhe powers on him by this point. It was such a blatant female trick, he could’ve fallen for it now that he was already trapped in her snare.
Want him free, so he can fall for you instead?
She gritted her teeth. Sometimes the devil on her shoulder really annoyed her. I’m doing a job.
He’ll be dead if I don’t stop her.
And then free for you to ask out.
Oh, shut it, will you?
It didn’t, but she could more easily ignore its taunts to focus on the menial task at hand. With her arms full, she headed for the kitchen, where the head waiter hovered at the entrance to shoo them along.
“Listen!” He waited for the din to die down and all eyes to turn in his direction before continuing. “We have new numbers for tonight, so we’re cutting the staff down. Don’t worry about missing the hours. If you’ve been moved off the schedule, it’s because you’re on to work the convention this weekend instead.”
Her name wasn’t on the list he posted next to the door. She kept her features even, playing along when another girl crowed about having the night free for a date, but her thoughts were riotous, possible scenarios tumbling over and over in her head about what could happen if she wasn’t there to keep an eye on Sophia.
Most of them ended with a dead Arthur.
His father was the one who made deals with the devil. Arthur didn’t deserve being the casualty.
She had to find a way to get to that party.
As soon as she could get away, she made a dash for the service entrance. The alley was deserted, but she positioned herself as far away from the doors as she could get and still have some privacy. She didn’t want to be caught out if someone decided to come out for a smoke.
“I have a problem,” she said as soon as the other end of the line picked up.
Gaius sighed. “And here I was hoping you’d tell me the job was done.”
“I wish.” Briefly, she outlined the issue. “She’s going to make a move tonight, Gaius. I’m sure of it.”
“Well, I agree with you there. She’s been there for two days already. She doesn’t normally take that long.”
Because Gwen had made sure Arthur was never alone long enough for Sophia to succeed. If she couldn’t work the party, who knew what might happen?
“Can you get me an invitation?”
She could practically hear the man’s scowl. “You’ve already established an identity with the staff. What if they recognize you?”
“It’s too risky.”
“So is letting the sidhe win by killing Arthur Pendragon.”
“Take someone’s place on the schedule.”
“It’s too short of notice. Come on, Gaius. All I need is to be on the invitation list. I’ll take care of the rest.”
She held her breath as she listened to him mutter about last minute changes, but no more arguments were forthcoming. “Fine,” he finally said. “Your usual cover. But I want you out of there as soon as Arthur leaves, understand? If anyone from the hotel identifies you, the sidhe will know we’re involved. The entire Pendragon dynasty will be at risk then.”
Her heart leapt. “Understood.” For all of Uther’s under the table arrangements, the Pendragon name was the glue that bound much of the city together. Without it, darker creatures would try to wrest control, and the ensuing chaos would bring terrible times to those lacking the power to fight it. If only he hadn’t attempted the alliance. The sidhe had seen straight through his manipulations. Assassinating Arthur was their means of warning Uther he wasn’t as omnipotent as he would like to believe.
But then again, neither were they.
She glanced at the time as she disconnected with Gaius. She had four hours to prepare for a black tie event.
Time to move.
Gwen hovered at the edge of the lobby, pretending to be looking for something in her clutch as she watched the doorman bow his head at Arthur’s arrival. In spite of what she’d overheard at lunchtime, he’d arrived alone. She had no idea what had happened to Sophia, but she wasn’t going to question her good fortune.
He looked even better than he had earlier. The suit was replaced by a sharply tailored tuxedo, and he’d opted for tails rather than a shorter jacket. A scarlet waistcoat broke up the black and white, but she barely noticed the color for the brilliant smile he shot another couple in greeting when he passed by.
Her stomach flipflopped. A girl could almost think that Uther had made another deal at Arthur’s birth to have such a perfectly gorgeously son. And she’d bet anything that cow Sophia didn’t even notice.
Without Sophia on his arm, she decided to go with Plan B. Counting off in her head, she turned toward the ballroom at the same moment he passed by her. They collided perfectly, and her clutch went flying, the few items it contained scattering across the marbled floor.
“Oh!” She scrambled to catch them, bumping into Arthur even more. His hand shot out to steady her elbow, and she pinned the tracking device she’d palmed under his lapel when she clutched him to keep from falling. “I’m so sorry! I’m such a klutz sometimes.”
“Not a problem.”
She extracted herself as quickly as possible. Her gold dress had long, loose sleeves that gathered tight at her wrists to hide the knives strapped to her forearms, so the less physical contact she made the better to keep them secret. To make up for the demureness of the neckline and sleeves, however, it was completely backless, and she gave him an excellent view when she crouched to gather up the few bits that had gone flying. She caught him looking at her legs, as well. When standing, the dress barely covered her bum, but she’d chosen something short for mobility as much as she had for showing off what assets she could.
He knelt down to help, smiling as he kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. “Are you here for the party?”
She nodded, though when his warm fingers brushed against hers as he passed over her compact, a tingle went up her arm. “Except my date just canceled on me,” she said, straightening. “It’s going to be a very long night.”
“You’re in luck. My date rang to let me know she was running late, so I find myself in need of company.” He held out his bent arm to her, that charming smile she’d seen bestowed on Sophia too many times now aimed in her direction. “I’d be honored if you’d allow me to escort you in.”
The best she’d hoped for was planting the tracker, but how could she say no when her thighs quivered just from the way he looked at her? It meant nothing—she was too much of a professional to believe otherwise—but walking in on his arm was probably going to be the highlight of this entire job. Well, that and saving his life, of course.
Security didn’t even ask for her name when they reached it, and she sailed through without a body check. Gaius’s fears were for naught. She’d worn her hair down and curly since everybody at the hotel saw her with it pulled back and up, but nobody gave her a second glance as more than Arthur’s date. Even if it wasn’t for real.
Inside the ballroom, she expected Arthur to politely disengage and go off in search of more suitable company, giving her the vantage to watch him and make sure Sophia didn’t make a move, but instead, he turned to her with a smile and said, “Let’s dance.”
She’d been wrong.
Slipping into his arms for a slow waltz was now the official highlight.
“I’m sorry,” he said once they’d settled into a proper rhythm. His broad hand engulfed her, while its mate was solid and gentle at the small of her back, branding her bare skin with his heat. “I didn’t introduce myself properly out there.”
She smiled. “I knew who you were, Mr. Pendragon.”
Her smile deepened. “Arthur, then.”
“And I still don’t have the pleasure of knowing your name.”
“No, you don’t,” she teased.
“You’re not planning to run away at midnight, are you? Because if you are, I’d like a fair warning. I need enough time to find some pitch to spread on the stairs.”
“My slippers aren’t made of glass.”
“No.” Tilting his head, he cast a long, appreciative look down the length of her body, but the commentary she expected to come never materialized. “You have to tell me your name, though. I won’t stop asking until you do.”
The staff knew her as Gwen, but her alias from the party was something else. When she opened her mouth to answer him, however, she was startled to hear, “Guinevere.”
His crooked smile seemed deeper when he met her eyes again, his blue eyes warmer. “Now was that so difficult, Guinevere?”
The way it rolled off his tongue, the emphasis so uniquely placed, turned her bones to liquid. She stumbled, the inelegance very out of character for her, and his arm tightened around her waist to maintain their smooth tempo.
“Won’t your date be upset to see you dancing with me?” Her voice squeaked a little as she tried to divert their conversation away from flirting. Gaius would kill her if he could see her now. This most definitely was not how one went about preventing an assassination.
“That sounds suspiciously like you’re trying to get rid of me. Did I step on your toes and not realize it?”
“Oh, no, you’ve been wonderful.” Her face heated as she caught herself blurting out the confession, and she caught her bottom lip and looked away at the other dancers before she incriminated herself further.
His head bent, his lips hovering at her ear. The breath of his words tickled a curl against her temple. “Then let’s enjoy this one dance. Who knows? Maybe I’m the one who turns into a pumpkin at midnight.”
His joke relaxed the tension that had sprung up at the show of her attraction to him. Though she melted into the rest of the dance—nobody could kill him while she was this close—she refused to allow her gaze to settle. The fact that Sophia hadn’t arrived yet was good for Gwen the woman, but not so much for the mission. The sidhe did not just give up. Until Sophia was stopped, Gwen couldn’t let down her guard again for a second.
No matter how good the hard body pressed against hers felt.
Stepping away when the song ended was bittersweet, but Gwen smiled in spite of the squawking of the devil on her shoulder. “It was lovely. Thank you, Arthur.”
He cocked a brow. “You’re abandoning me? I was kidding about the Cinderella thing.”
“I know, but something tells me to be wary of your date.” Her smile faded. “It might be wise for you to do the same.”
He bowed his head, though she suspected in goodbye rather than acceptance of her warning. “It’s been my pleasure, Guinevere. I hope we get this opportunity again.”
She walked away before she could change her mind. “I do, too,” she murmured.
Her feet took her straight to the bar, though her brain was still enough in control to order her a still water instead of the shots she wanted. The dance had been a step too far. Arthur was a job, not pleasure—
He can be both, you know…
—and she had to remember that. The stability of their society’s entire structure relied upon Arthur becoming the new head of the Pendragon dynasty someday. It was too late to reform Uther. Arthur was their only hope.
Though her face never cooled, the water did the trick in calming her racing nerves. Gwen smiled at the bartender when he came to take her empty glass, then turned back to face the party, scanning for Arthur. She was an expert at picking him out of a crowd. Somehow, she always seemed to zero in on him right away. Now, however, the familiar chisel of his strong profile was nowhere to be seen.
She did one more sweep, even while her hands worked at her clutch to pull out her phone. A minute. That was all. She’d only turned her back for a minute, and Sophia wasn’t even here yet. How had he escaped her attention so quickly?
Her fingers flew over the touchscreen, the phone connecting to the tracker she’d planted on his jacket. It was moving. She did a quick calculation of the distance based on what she knew about the ballroom’s dimensions, then shifted her gaze in that direction.
To settle on the doors that led straight to the bank of lifts.
Cursing under her breath, she bolted toward them, weaving amongst the guests so adeptly, nobody even looked at her. She flat-handed the door and was met with an empty corridor.
The nearest lift dinged softly as it rose through its chute.
There was only one reason for him to be going upstairs. Leave it to Sophia to lure him away to a room. Gwen should have anticipated the sidhe would use sex as her final bait.
She wasted precious seconds waiting for another lift to come, her eyes locked on her phone the entire time. Arthur was still moving. An upper level, which meant a suite. Better noise protection, too, which worked for both of them. Sophia likely chose it for its isolation, but the fewer witnesses Gwen had, the better.
By the time the doors in front of her whispered open, he’d stopped. Readings told her how high he was, but she had to do quick calculations to figure out what floor to push. Her foot tapped impatiently as the lift shot upward, and she watched the growing numbers without blinking, bracing for the fight to come.
She was right about the suites. This wasn’t an executive floor, but it was the next best thing. Each was comprised of two bedrooms with ensuites and a formal sitting area. The foyer was mostly private, so that business could be conducted with staff without interfering with what might be going on inside, should the guest prefer. That would work to her advantage.
The tracking device led her to the suite at the far end of the hall. An emergency exit was only a few feet away. Another smart choice on Sophia’s part. It was exactly the sort of location Gwen would have picked. After confirming the murmur of voices within, she pocketed her phone and pulled out the master key she’d stolen her first day on the job. It slid effortlessly through the lock, and she held her breath, waiting to hear if anyone inside acknowledged the faint click.
The voices continued, uninterrupted.
With a tight grip on the door handle, she slid off her shoes and left them outside the door. Stealth was her best weapon, at least until she had Sophia in sights. Even if there wasn’t an immediate threat, she had already decided tonight was the night. Arthur deserved to be safe, whether he realized he was in danger or not. And Gwen needed to get as far away from this assignment as she could possibly get before she fell in over her head.
“…back to the party.”
“Really?” Sophia sounded like she was pouting. “But I told you how rubbish I was at dancing.”
“It’s not just about dancing, you know. There are very important people down there. I have an obligation.”
Gwen bit back her pleased smile at the annoyed tone of his voice. It was about time he started seeing through Sophia’s manipulations.
“Then why did you come up here?” She was closer. From the levels of their voices, Arthur was nearest the door, but that might not stay that way for long. Sophia answered her own question, and Gwen’s skin crawled from the magic lacing her words. “Because you wanted to see me, Arthur. Isn’t it about time we stopped playing games?”
Oh, yeah, you bitch. Time is now officially up.
Creeping toward the edge of the foyer, Gwen halted when her eye caught the mirror on the opposite wall. The reflection gave her the perfect view. Arthur stood with his back to the door, while Sophia slowly ascended the few steps from the sunken lounge area. She was dressed in another of her flowy gowns, and her eyes gleamed from the power she was wielding. Her teeth had already sharpened to their natural fangs. She must have entranced Arthur, otherwise he would have noticed.
Gwen might not have magic of her own, but she’d been taught by the best how to fight it. Her hands slipped inside her sleeves, extracting the pair of matching blades she preferred. She held motionless, listening to the soft swish of Sophia’s skirts against the rich carpet, the rush of her blood calming to battle proportions. Unlike others, she didn’t get flurried in a fight. She went eerily still. It made her one of the most effective assassins in the Guild.
For a moment, Sophia edged out of view, blocked by Arthur’s broader body. Gwen fought the urge to look around him, her fingers tightening around the hilts of her knives.
Come on, come on…
A wisp of hair. A glimpse of a cheek. And there was Sophia again, standing in front of Arthur, her taloned hand reaching out to stroke his face.
Instincts took over. Gwen whipped around the corner and let the blades fly. She’d already made the mental adjustment to reverse the image burned on her brain, but still, she held off on rolling out of the way of an answering attack long enough to see if she hit her target.
One knife missed. It sliced through the sleeve of Arthur’s coat where he’d reached for Sophia in the split second he’d been out of Gwen’s sight.
The other embedded in the side of Sophia’s throat, exactly as Gwen had targeted.
Sophia reached for the knife, yanking it out with a furious cry as she tore her burning eyes away from Arthur. Gwen dove sideways, grateful for the short skirt. Behind her, a vase full of roses burst into flame.
“Fool,” Sophia hissed. It came out wet and thick. Blood dripped from the knife she carried as she swept around the enchanted Arthur. “You think you can stop us? If it’s not me, it’ll be another.”
“I do, actually.” She’d come to a stop at the end of the sideboard that housed the suite’s complementary bar. Scuttling around behind it, she groped blindly for anything she could use as a weapon. “Call me an optimist.”
“Well, I suppose that’s one word for you.”
Her fingers curled around what felt like a corkscrew. She couldn’t let Arthur out of her sight for much longer. Though Sophia held him in her thrall, Gwen couldn’t risk trusting that she’d want to get rid of the witness to her crime first.
Glass shattered over her head, forcing the issue. The defensive move would be to roll to the side, but Sophia would expect that. Gwen chose to leap up and over the sideboard, through the raining glass. She kept her head bent, her eyes protected. Arthur hadn’t moved, while Sophia stood where Gwen had anticipated, Gwen’s knife ready to make the blow. She whirled when Gwen burst free behind her, but though she was fast, Gwen was faster.
The corkscrew tore through the flimsy material to crunch through flesh and bone, straight into Sophia’s heart. Her eyes widened almost comically, like she couldn’t believe Gwen had actually done it, then jumped past Gwen’s shoulder to Arthur.
Magic flared in their depths. Terrified Sophia would get a last spell in, Gwen twisted the corkscrew deeper.
Sophia collapsed like a rag doll, the light fading from her eyes. Behind Gwen, the enchantment she’d woven around Arthur dissolved, and Gwen stepped away from the body in time to meet his confused gaze.
“What’s going on here?” he asked.
“One second.” She darted past him back to the foyer, scooping up the clutch she’d left there. Her bloody fingers smudged the clasp. She had to cradle her phone against her shoulder to keep from transferring the blood to the device. “Gaius? I need a clean-up crew.” She gave him the suite number. “And hurry.”
“Well?” Arthur asked when she disconnected.
She did not want to have this conversation, but as far as she could tell, there was no way around it. Gaius could figure out later if they needed to bring in a specialist to erase Arthur’s memories of the events. “I’m a member of the Guild. I was sent here to stop an assassination attempt on your life.”
Still frowning, his gaze slid down her body, lingering on her bloody hands, then on her legs though she’d done nothing to injure them. When he glanced at Sophia’s broken body, he grimaced. “Well, bugger. I fell right for it, didn’t I?”
“You believe me?” Most people didn’t.
“Why shouldn’t I? You’re the one still standing, and you’re not trying to kill me. I’d say that goes a long way for your credibility.”
She sagged in relief. Until she’d heard the words, she hadn’t known how badly she wanted him to understand. “Good. That makes this easier.”
“What did my father do now?”
“How do you know it has anything to do with him?”
He smiled. “Because it always has something to do with him.”
As much as she wanted to explain… “I can’t go into details. I’m sorry.” The blood was starting to get tacky on her skin, and she held up her hands in apology. “Do you mind if I go wash up?”
He gestured toward the nearest bedroom. “Go right ahead.”
She nodded gratefully, but halfway there, his voice stopped her again.
“Are you sure you’re not Cinderella?”
Gwen snorted. “Hardly.”
“So it’s just a coincidence your shoes are gone?”
“More like convenience.”
“There must be a story there somewhere.”
“Sorry, but no.”
“You could make one up. I’d hardly ever know the difference.”
“Why would you want that?”
“It gives you a reason not to leave after your crew arrives. Well, it gives me a reason to ask you to stay, anyway.”
Her heart leapt, but she kept her features calm. “That wouldn’t be a good idea.” She only made it a couple more steps before…
“Is your name even Guinevere?”
She needed to lie. Guild rules were very strict. She had no place in his life, as he had none in hers. Now that the job was over, she would move on to the next assignment, while he went back to wooing debutantes in search of the perfect woman to help him lead the Pendragon dynasty into a new era.
But one look at the sincerity in his blue eyes and her resolve failed. “Yes,” she said quietly.
“So if I were to petition the Guild about hiring a beautiful woman with your name, they’d tell me how to find you?”
“You have someone you need me to kill?”
“No.” The crooked smile returned. “But I’m sure I can think of something you can do.”
With a roll of her eyes and a shake of her head, Gwen disappeared into the bedroom, leaving Arthur standing out in the lounge alone. Her breath came out in a whoosh.
Gaius was going to be furious with her. Arthur was never supposed to know who she was.
Her mouth curved, unable to contain her pleasure.
Arthur knew who she was. He wanted to know more.
For once, the little devil on her shoulder had nothing to say. Gloating was pointless. It already knew they had both won.