Sleep eluded Blade.
He would have thought the
opposite should be true, considering this was the first time in years he had
approached it without pain. Perhaps it was because he was alone in Ruby’s bed.
Each of the women who
lived at the saloon had two attached rooms at their disposal. One, they used
for working. The other was private. When Blade shared Ruby’s bed, he stayed in
her private room. He punched a pillow to distribute the feathers more evenly.
He did not know what to
make of the half-demon. Airie, he
corrected his thought. Or her
relationship with Hunter. He pitied his friend though, and envied him, too. Not
because of her looks, which were stunning enough, but for the way she seemed to
occupy Hunter’s thoughts so completely. He could not remember Hunter ever
allowing a woman to distract him before. The fact that she had done so told
Blade far more about her character than her healing of his leg.
Hunter’s hatred of demons,
however, ran far deeper than Blade’s. He did not know what had happened in
Hunter’s past to make this a truth, but he did know that Airie was going to
have a difficult time getting beyond it, assuming she’d want to try.
He stretched out on his
back beneath Ruby’s plain cotton sheets. Faint light trickled through the drawn
muslin curtains, but he could see the contents of the room clear enough. A
small writing desk with a ruffle-skirted chair, a chaise longue adorned in many
multi-colored silk cushions, delicate oil paintings on the walls he suspected
she’d created herself in another lifetime. She was feminine but practical. He
rested the back of his head on his bent arm and stared upward at nothing in
Now that he had a life to
offer her, he was going to ask her to marry him. They had been friends a long
time. Together, they would run the saloon. They would offer a haven to more
women who needed one. And now that he could protect them properly, the women
would not have to work on their backs unless they wanted to—which, Ruby assured
him, some of them did.
Airie had given him back
so much more than the use of his leg.
It was early yet. In
another hour, the women would rise and head to the kitchen to prepare for the
day. The majority of the saloon’s business tended to happen in the late
afternoon and early evening because Blade did not encourage the rougher, late
night crowd. The potential for roaming demons proved another deterrent to
He rolled from the bed,
drew on his trousers, and took the back stairs to the kitchen where he knew
Ruby would have taken the little boy so she could work.
The scene he walked in on
was what he had expected. Ruby stood at the stove, her hair caught back with a
scarf and her face shiny from the heat, while Scratch—Hunter needed to do
something about a real name for the boy—sat on the floor near her feet. She had
given him a pot and spoon to play with.
Scratch smiled up at him,
and Blade’s heart caught. He wondered what a child of his own might look like.
She glanced up from the stove. Her eyes darted to his leg, then away, as if she
didn’t want to be caught staring.
As far as Blade was
concerned, she could stare all she liked. She had seen him at his absolute
worst. Now she could see him for the whole man he had once been, although he
hoped he had grown better than that over the years.
He was not proud of his
past. Before he asked her to marry him, he planned to tell her about it. He
cleared his throat, nervous now, and she stiffened as if she knew he was about
to say things she didn’t want to hear.
“I was an assassin before
you met me,” Blade said to her back.
Some of the stiffness went
out of her spine. Her tone, when she replied, was neutral. “That’s not a
Of course it wasn’t. She’d
seen him practice with his knives. She knew he’d murdered the woman Mamna had
condemned. What she did not know was how he had become one.
“I killed my uncle when I
was fourteen.” That earned him a bit more of her attention. “He raised me after
my parents died. I hated the bastard. He beat me and made me work in the mines
like a slave. There wasn’t a bit of kindness in him.”
“Then it sounds as if he
Blade had always thought
so. The rest of the community, however, had not shared his belief. The mining
tunnels his uncle owned had collapsed shortly after, leaving them unworkable,
and he had been blamed for the bad luck.
“My uncle was a leader of
the Godseekers. He had been one of the goddesses’ favored, and according to
local legend, chosen by them to become the Demon Slayer. I had no choice after
I killed him as to what I’d become. Only the lawless would do business with
For the first few years he
had not asked questions regarding who they contracted him to kill. Women and
children had been among their numbers, although very rare and speedily done. As
time went on and his skills improved, he had become more select. But when he’d
tried to cross the desert on his own, his lost battle with a demon meant he
again had no choice with regard to his future.
Until he met Hunter, and
then Ruby, he had made very few choices of his own other than that initial
decision to kill his uncle.
He did not regret that
When he finished talking,
and laying out the bare facts, he waited a long time for any response. She
continued to stir the pot on the stove, a frown on her face, and beckoned for
him to remove the fresh bread from the oven. Above them, he could hear the
other women starting their day.
She banged the spoon on
the edge of the pot before setting it on the counter and turning to face him.
“Does Hunter know you were once a Godseeker?”
“I was never a Godseeker.”
He had never admired them or followed their beliefs. “But Hunter knows I was
from the north. He knows I killed my uncle.” He gave her a half-hearted grin.
“Apparently I babble when I’m feverish.”
Blade did not ask what he
had babbled to her about. Her manner suggested he might not want to hear it.
“He knows the Godseekers are trying to kill him. He doesn’t know my uncle was
predicted to become the Demon Slayer because that no longer matters. Hunter is
the far better choice.”
“Your uncle was chosen by
the goddesses,” Ruby said.
Blade could not hide his
distaste. “That was what he would have people believe. He was a handsome man,
who was nothing more than one of their pleasurable toys, although so arrogant
he couldn’t see the truth of that. He could as easily have made up the story to
give himself greater importance than he deserved.”
“Is it true that a goddess
will lead the Slayer against the demons?” she persisted.
He shifted his weight,
forgetting his leg no longer needed to be favored, and straightened. He felt as
if he had grown several inches taller overnight, and his back was stiff from
the change in his posture. “You can’t believe stories that are told second
She watched him with
thoughtful eyes as he stretched his back muscles. “What if Airie is that
“She healed your leg,”
“That doesn’t make her one
of them.” He exhaled. “I grew up on stories of the goddesses. I remember their
visits to the northern mountains from when I was a child. They were never what
the world would have you believe. Call them goddesses and demons if you like,
but in the end they are all immortals, one and the same.” He heard doors
opening and closing upstairs and knew he had to hurry. “I have something I’ve
wanted to ask you for a long time,” he began. He wouldn’t ask her now, not when
privacy was no longer assured, but he’d give her an opportunity to think about
it rather than spring it on her unannounced. “Perhaps tonight?”
Her smile became fixed and
falsely bright. “We’ll see,” she said. “The last few days have been poor ones,
moneywise. If business picks up, I may be working. If not, there’s a child in
the house to consider.” She nodded at Scratch, who had been so silent he was next
to invisible. Blade wondered that he had not stepped on him when taking the
bread from the oven. “You should go back to bed for a few more hours,” she
advised him. “There will be plenty of time for questions in the future.”
She did not want to talk.
A sense of unease assailed him, but he let it go. “You’re probably right.”
He climbed the back stairs
to her rooms. Instead of her private bedroom, he slipped into her working area.
She’d chosen red as a
color scheme, an obvious play on her name. The room was decorated in satins and
silks, with lush dressings hanging from the walls and varieties of intimate
lace strategically spilling from open drawers. Beneath the king-sized bed she
kept a box filled with what she referred to as the tools of the trade, but she had never offered to use them with him.
He sat gingerly on the
edge of the bed, mentally comparing this room to the one he occasionally shared
with her. He realized that he knew very little about either her or her
background. In fact, she knew far more about him. He rubbed his leg out of long
Ruby knew what he wanted
to ask her. She was going to say no.
And he, fool that he was,
was going to ask her anyway.
On the afternoon of the
third day, Blade knocked on the door to Ruby’s private room.
She sat in the chaise
longue, surrounded by colorful cushions, a book upside down on her lap. She
smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes in the way it once had when she
looked at him. She didn’t offer him a seat either, or ask what he wanted, with
that little lift to her voice that told him he could have anything. Their
relationship had changed, and he didn’t know why.
He did know. He simply
could not believe that it mattered.
“Marry me,” he blurted
out, and felt like a fool. This wasn’t how he had intended to ask her.
She carefully lifted the
book, marked the page, and set it aside. Then, she sat up straight and looked
at him. “Why?”
A wagon rolled by outside
in the street, its wheels clattering noisily over the slickened ruts. Her
response was not what he’d expected. Yes
and no were straightforward answers.
He hadn’t anticipated having to explain himself. He wasn’t certain he could. “I
should have asked you a long time ago.”
“Why didn’t you, then?”
“I felt like half a man.”
Ruby deserved the truth even though he didn’t like going down this road. “You
She studied him. “Maybe
now I think you deserve better.”
A fine-edged knife of pain
slid into his chest. “I’m not perfect.”
“Neither one of us is.”
She patted the seat beside her. He sat, careful not to crush her skirt, feeling
clumsy and awkward on the feminine piece of furniture. Her eyes had gotten
suspiciously shiny. “When I first met you, you worked very hard to walk again,”
The pain eased. “We can be
married inside of a week.”
She took his hand, linking
their fingers, and spoke with a gentle grace. “You aren’t that man anymore. But
even then, you never worked hard enough to turn a relationship between us into
anything more than friendship. I’m not sure why you should want to, now.”
“Why do women always have
to think things to death?” Blade asked.
She laughed. “If we didn’t
do the thinking, nobody would.”
“Marry me,” he repeated,
more desperately this time, but she was shaking her head.
“I would never have said
yes, even if you’d tried harder.” She took a deep breath. “I’m a whore. It
hasn’t been a bad life. I have more independence than most women. But if I ever
change my mind about marriage, it will be for someone who’s never known me as
one.” She held up a hand when he would have interrupted her. “I’ll tell him.
I’m not ashamed of it. What’s important is that if the time ever comes, this
life will be in my past and it will never have been a part of his.”
“My timing was bad,” Blade
Ruby squeezed his fingers.
“Terrible. But there was never going to be a good time, so it doesn’t matter.”
He’d known all along she’d
say no. That was probably the real reason he’d never asked her before. But he
should have, if only to show her that he cared.
But by asking her now,
he’d freed them both to move on with their lives. He touched her face with the
fingertips of his free hand, then kissed her, somewhat ashamed of the relief he
felt. He got to his feet. His heart wasn’t unscathed, but he would survive. He
knew she would, too.
“I would have made a good
husband,” he said.
She clasped her hands in
her lap, looking lovely in the light filtering through the muslin curtains.
“You will,” she assured
him. “But not for me.”
left, closing the door behind him.