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 particular.
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 customers.
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 surprise.”
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 deserved it.”
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 me.”
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 one.
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 hand.”
She watched him with thoughtful eyes as he stretched his back muscles. “What if Airie is that goddess?”
“She healed your leg,” Ruby said.
“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 habit.
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 deserved better.”
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,” she said.
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 said.
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.”
Paula also co-authors paranormal romance under the pseudonym Taylor Keating.
Find Paula and her books
Black Widow Demon
Demon Outlaws #2
Amazon, BN, Book Depository
Demon Outlaws #2
Amazon, BN, Book Depository
Passionate and headstrong, half-demon Raven is nearly executed on the orders of her fundamentalist stepfather. She escapes from the burning stake using the gifts of her otherworldly heritage and the help of a mortal stranger named Blade. Now she’s set on revenge, and only quiet, intense Blade stands in her way.
A retired assassin weary of the weight of his past, Blade has crossed the desert to seek out a new life. His journey is interrupted when his conscience demands he help Raven find an old friend who can help her. Saving her from her need for revenge and delivering her into the hands of loved ones means he’s one step closer to redemption.
But as Blade’s sense of duty becomes something more and threats, both mortal and immortal, stalk the woman he can’t abandon, he could very well fall back into the life he’s trying so hard to escape.