Black Widow Demon
The Demon Outlaws series
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
Publisher: Entangled Publishing
Date of Publication: November 26th, 2013
Cover Artist: Kim Killion
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.
Tidy towns often concealed dirty secrets. And this small mining town was too tidy for Blade’s liking. It was nothing like he had expected.
Nestled amongst the foothills of the Godseeker Mountains, it suffered from too-uniform construction and a general lack of aesthetic design. But after several months of crossing the desert alone, Blade’s standards were not all that high. He wanted a bath, a hot meal, and a soft bed.
A bed he could wake up in alone. The two-foot goldthief, one of the more dangerous variety of snakes in these parts, he had found in his blankets that morning had been an unwelcome surprise. Fortunately, Blade was neither a restless sleeper nor easily startled and possessed a great deal of natural patience. Once the sun came up on the desert, the well-rested serpent had slithered off on its own without incident.
Blade studied the mining settlement deep in the valley below from the outcropping of weathered sandstone. Layers of desert dirt coated the rooftops, painting the entire town a dull shade of gray. Beyond it, the hills rose to flat peaks of a vast rocky mountain range, sparsely forested with juniper and yellow pine. Narrow ribbons of silvery water streamed down to filter through sand dunes on the valley floor and irrigate the town’s gardens, ones that were now spent and shriveled by this time of year. Behind and above, past the top of the mesa, stretched the desert.
This bold new settlement had sprung up arrogantly close to what had, until recently, been demon territory. It possessed no protective ramparts, something Blade thought a serious oversight on the part of its founders. Demons might be gone, yet the world contained any number of mortal dangers.
When he considered his near-empty pack, however, and that this was the first sign of civilization he’d come across in several weeks, its proximity to evil and its underwhelming neatness was not enough of a deterrent. He did not know for certain what had drawn him back to this land of his youth, anyway. He’d had no particular destination in mind. Perhaps, after more than a decade away, it was time to lay old ghosts to rest.
He patted down his clothing to confirm that his knives were secure and at hand. He doubted if he would be recognized here, or if it would mean much to anyone anymore if he were, but he’d already received his second chance in life and he intended to treat the gift with respect.
A slight breeze stirred the warm, late afternoon air and he made a face—he stank, no doubt about it. If he did not get that bath, he could forget about finding the hot meal and soft bed. Although waking up alone would be guaranteed.
As he turned, he detected movement at the far edge of the town, near the dunes. From this distance it was difficult to say for certain, but it looked as if they were building a very large bonfire. He wondered what they were celebrating.
Shrugging his pack higher on his shoulders, he picked his way off the outcropping. Once on the valley floor, he carefully circled the town to approach via the main street that cut through its heart. It was time to go home.
* * *
Fair trial, be damned. Without the arrival of some sort of miracle, come nightfall the townspeople intended to burn Raven at the stake as a spawn.
She sat in a makeshift jail cell on the edge of a rough wooden bed, its wool blanket scratchy beneath her flattened palms, and her feet dangling well off the whitewashed pine floor. The jailor’s chair and a desk with a crooked leg were the only other furnishings in the room, and were well out of her reach on the other side of the iron bars.
For the hundredth time she mentally raced through her options. All of them involved killing her stepfather. But her first attempt was what had gotten her into this trouble.
She toppled to her side and tucked her clasped hands beneath her cheek, staring at the bars. It was his own fault that she’d stabbed him. He had slipped his hand down the front of her dress. When she defended herself, he’d had the nerve to blame her for his wrongdoing. He claimed she had tempted him.
Then, he’d told others her mother had slept with a demon and that Raven was spawn.
The injustice of her situation quivered through her slight frame. She was not a whore, and she would rather be burned as a spawn than become one for him. If Creed knew how her stepfather had touched her, he would kill him on her behalf. Her friend, however, was miles away and knew nothing of this.
Time crept by as the shadows deepened.
The front door of the jailhouse creaked open and she sat up with a start, her heart hammering in her chest. She blinked her eyes against the sudden stream of light from outdoors.
Justice appeared before her—Justice in the form of her stepfather, and not any sudden righting of wrongs. Hate unfurled in her stomach at the sight of him.
She rose from the bed and stood at the bars of her cell. His gait was stiff as he walked into the room to set a lantern on the desk. She had jabbed the knife into his thigh and that the wound pained him filled her with joy, although he had been lucky. That was not where she’d aimed.
“There is still time to change your mind,” he said to her, speaking softly so as not to be overheard in case anyone lurked outside the jailhouse door. “I can help you exorcise the demon in you.”
Raven met his eyes. It was a talent of hers that she could sometimes read people’s darkest thoughts, particularly when emotions ran high, and his were darker than most.
She no longer had any reason to disguise her contempt for him. “You would love to see me humiliated, stripped naked, and flogged to within an inch of my life. Then you would take me. Afterward, you would drink my blood because you believe what it contains can give you a demon’s strength.”
His face flushed with anger. He had been a handsome man once. Still was, in fact, despite the silver threads lacing his brown hair and the deep creases around his eyes and mouth. He had a presence about him that commanded a high level of respect. But Raven saw the ugliness simmering beneath the surface. Her mother had died a broken woman because of him.
Hatred and fear fed her strength. She gripped the cell bars so tight, she knew when she released them the imprints of her fingers would remain.
You could break free if you choose.
That inner voice terrified her far more than the man who faced her.
Her stepfather’s eyes followed hers to the bars that contained her. “That’s it, little demon,” he taunted, his words soft. “Show the world what you are. What the blood you say I’d love to drink contains. How far do you think you could run then? How safe from the Godseekers’ assassins would you be?”
That was what stopped her. She did not want people to think of her as a demon spawn. She did not want to be hunted, nor for Justice to be proven right in anyone’s eyes. She had to find another way to escape.
When she did, she would kill him.
“There are some who suspect you for what you are,” she said in return. “If I burn, more will begin to doubt you. They will watch you.” Her glance flickered to the amulet he wore around his throat. “And eventually, when the goddesses fail to return, no matter how many so-called spawn you torture and kill, the people will turn from you.”
Justice hooked the wooden jailor’s chair with his foot and swung it around, favoring his injured leg, then sat with his arms folded across the chair’s spindled back as if he had all the time in the world. He planted his chin on the crook of one elbow and studied her.
She had never fully understood the way he watched her until a few short nights ago. Now, she read raw hunger in his expression and thoughts. Her dinner rebelled at the memory of his touch on her bare flesh.
“It seems people have already turned from you,” he observed.
He, too, spoke the truth. Raven had not believed that people she’d known her whole life would go through with his plan. She had hoped they would see the wrongness of it long before now. Sundown, however, had already passed.
Despair settled in with the night. No one had come to her rescue. Creed, her only real hope, was far away, and oblivious to her situation. If she chose to save herself, it meant releasing a presence inside her she had never before allowed to be free.
The thought frightened her. There would be no turning back from it if she did.
The ugliness of her stepfather’s thoughts decided it for her, though. She would not burn, and she would not live in fear. She would not be broken by him as her mother was.
She would save herself.
She wore the same dress he’d deemed indecent two nights prior when the nightmare began. Tracing a finger along its prim neckline, she let her eyelids droop to examine him from beneath a dark fringe of thick, curling lashes. Her golden-toned skin gleamed in the lamplight as she pressed against the bars of the cell.
Justice swallowed, then with unsteady fingers gripped the amulet he wore around his neck. Once, a long time ago, he had been a goddess’s favorite. The amulet protected him from the seduction of another immortal.
But it did nothing to protect Raven from him.
“Whore,” he spat at her, and with that single utterance, she knew she had lost.
“Enjoy your final moments of glory,” she said, dropping her hand to her side. “Women cannot all be whores and spawn, and Faith will not remain silent forever. Not after tonight.”
It had been a wild guess on her part, based on what she’d read of his ugliest desires, but her words struck home. His face reddened, then paled.
Fear flamed in her chest—not for herself, but for the frail, timid woman she had named.
What had she done?
“Undertaker!” Justice shouted, half turning toward the door. It opened at once, and a tall, gaunt man stuck his head into the room. “It is time.”
Raven watched her stepfather lift a heavy black key from a hook on the wall behind the desk, then move to insert it in the lock on the cell door. She held her breath, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Justice drew his hand back without unlocking the cell door and regarded her thoughtfully. He turned back to the battered desk, then rooted around in a drawer. He hauled out a shining pair of handcuffs crafted from silver metal that had been mined in the nearby mountains and hardened with a special alloy. “Hold out your hands.”
She did not want to be bound. If she were, she would be twice as helpless. “No.”
“If you do not,”—his tone was harsh and deliberate, his eyes hard—“I will burn the jail down around you.”
She felt the truth in him. He would do it. Stunned into obedience, she held out her hands and he snapped the cuffs in place. Then, he opened the cell door.
Undertaker reached in to capture her arm.
“Don’t touch her!” Justice snapped, slapping the other man’s hand aside. Undertaker turned to him, his bushy black eyebrows raised in silent surprise. “She’s a spawn. If you touch her, she can claim you.”
The lie came so easily to him.
And yet, it was not quite a lie. Raven could not claim a man. But she could cloud his thoughts long enough to defend herself from him. Justice had the knife wound in his leg to prove it.
“Ask him how he knows that,” she said to Undertaker, her gaze never leaving her stepfather. “Ask him how he touched me, and for what purpose.”
Justice slapped her hard across the face, and her head snapped back. Pain blossomed, blinding her. The world darkened.
“You disrespect your mother’s memory when you speak like this. She was an innocent, lured by a demon—just as you tried to lure me. She raised you to be better.”
Raven’s eyes watered, the pain now more than physical, but she refused to shed tears. He had not married her mother out of love or respect for her innocence. She had been a beautiful woman, a master artisan and an asset for him to own, nothing more, and he had destroyed her.
Raven touched the back of one shackled wrist to the corner of her mouth and wiped away a trickle of blood. It left a dark smear on her skin in the fading light. Undertaker had given her candy when she was a child, yet he’d neither made a move to protect her from Justice’s blow nor uttered one word of protest against it. Pity for him displaced the hurt in her heart. He was simple-minded and easily led. She read no malice toward her on his part.
Her chin went up and she gazed steadily at both men. “There is no need for either of you to touch me. I will walk on my own.”
She displayed all the dignity she possessed as she crossed the small jailhouse and stepped into the cool embrace of the night.
Inside, she was shaking with anger and fear. She did not want to die.
But living would come at a heavy price.
He had been wrong. No celebration was planned.
With his angular face freshly shaven, shoulder-grazing black hair damp and tied back with a worn leather thong, Blade noticed the increased activity in the dusty, darkening street the instant he stepped from the bathhouse.
He’d bought a change of clothes to wear, leaving what he already owned behind to be laundered. A wool-lined coat of soft, supple leather that fell to his hips, allowing for easy access to his knives, was his one major investment. Cold ruled in the mountains.
While he was happy to be clean again, he disliked the feel of his knives in their new and unfamiliar hiding places. He especially disliked it now, when night was falling and people had gathered in tight little groups, their hushed voices filled with unmistakable tension.
Years of training, received long ago but never forgotten, had him react to it out of instinct. He inched the knife in his sleeve closer to his palm as he pressed deeper into the shadows. Invisibility was an assassin’s greatest weapon.
He eavesdropped on the conversation of three men who were standing around the corner of the building from him, on the street.
“She has always been strange.”
“Perhaps,” a second conceded. “But being strange does not make her spawn.”
Blade’s interest spiked. The goddesses had disappeared from the world nearly thirty years before, and more recently, demons had been scoured from the earth. During the years in between, the shapeshifting demons had ruled the desert, luring mortal women to them for pleasure. Half demon spawn, like their fathers, were male—monsters born in demon form to mortal mothers who had not survived their delivery. Demons, in turn, killed spawn at birth. Blade knew of only one true, living female spawn in existence—and her mother had been a goddess, not a mortal woman.
“She bewitched my son,” the first man complained to the second, defending his stance. “If not for Creed’s interference, he’d be her slave now. With Creed gone, I don’t know what will happen to him. He has started to follow her again.”
“Creed thrashed your son to within an inch of his life for following her around like a pup in the first place,” a third man pointed out. “He claimed your son tried to touch her against her will.”
“Creed spread that lie because he is already bewitched by her.”
“If he is bewitched, how could he leave her for training?”
“Who says no to assassin trainers when they are recruiting?”
No one could deny the truth of that observation, Blade thought. Those who declined recruitment ended up dead.
The second man spoke up again. “I’m not certain luring a man for pleasure warrants burning a woman at the stake.”
The third man murmured an uneasy agreement.
“It’s not the pleasure part that warrants it,” the first one insisted. “It’s the bewitching. Raven enslaves men. You’ve seen how the young ones look at her, and how she pretends not to notice. People always said her mother slept with a demon,” he added. “But when it was a girl that was born, and the birth didn’t kill her, everyone thought they were wrong.” A note of worry crept into his tone. “Who knows how many more spawn there might be? What if there are more like her?”
Blade, from his hiding place in the shadows, propped his broad shoulders against the wooden wall of a building and tipped his head back to stare at the emerging stars, lost in thought.
Women had only the protection of men in this world. Some men were better protectors than others. Many were no protection at all. But who was he to judge?
He had once been an assassin, although he had never worked in the service of the Godseekers. He had been strictly for hire, killing men, women, and children alike, without the luxury and freedom of choice. Once he had reached a level of skill that let him name his own price, he became more selective in the work he accepted.
Even at his lowest and most desperate, however, he had never deliberately made anyone suffer. Whether the woman named Raven was spawn or not, he wanted no part of this.
What was happening here was not his problem....
About the Author:
Paula Altenburg lives in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, with her husband and two sons. Once a manager in the aerospace industry, she now enjoys the freedom of working from home and writing fulltime. Paula currently writes paranormal romance and category romance for Entangled Publishing. Visit her at www.paulaaltenburg.com and follow her on Twitter @PaulaAltenburg.