Publisher: Roc (April 3, 2012)
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The power swelled inside me, burning, hurting, but I let it center me. Pain means I’m still here, fighting. I envisioned it swelling in my hand in a seething rush, gathering, gathering, and then I sent it out on my resolve like a dark and winged thing riding the magickal wind.
As a handler, Corine Solomon can touch any object and learn its history. Her power is a gift, but one that’s thrown her life off track. The magical inheritance she received from her mother is dangerously powerful, and Corine has managed to mark herself as a black witch by dealing with demons to solve her problems.
Back home, Corine is trying to rebuild her pawnshop and her life with her ex Chance, despite the target on her back. But when the demons she provoked kidnap her best friend in retaliation, Corine puts everything on hold to save her. It’s undoubtedly a trap, but Corine would do anything to save those she loves, even if it means sacrificing herself…
Excerpt: Devil’s Punch
The first taste is free.
I carried the last of Chance’s boxes up to the flat.
Mexico agreed with my ex, physically speaking. The constant sun was similar to Florida, though the weather was milder and more temperate in the mountains, lower humidity, and so his skin glowed golden, a fine contrast against his inky hair. His features were sharp, feline, but sculpted in a way that you could stare for hours and never tire of marveling at the cut of his cheekbones or the curve of his mouth.
Looking at his impossible beauty, I was reminded again that he wasn’t human. He didn’t sweat or grow facial hair. Once I’d written that off as a unique genetic boon, but it was unquestionably more. While his mother, Min, was human, I was positive his father had been something else. I had no idea what.
Smiling at me, Chance was confident again, and I’d always loved that about him. Generally speaking, he didn’t indulge in long moments of self-doubt. He brushed past me on the stairs, carrying a box of linens; he smelled of lemon, carambola, and rosewood, topnotes from his cologne, Versace Man Eau Fraîche. Less familiar than the Burberry he’d once sworn by, but I didn’t smell of frangipani anymore, either. By tacit agreement, we’d decided on a fresh start all the way.
My ex had been serious when he said he’d do whatever it took to be with me, including moving south of the border and starting a new life. The two of us had a complicated history, fraught with old mistakes and regret. But maybe this time, our relationship had a real shot.
His building was simple stucco, painted canary yellow with azure trim, a bold color scheme typical of the neighborhood. Down the block, there was a house painted lavender and mint green. His new place had a fantastic view of the mountains instead of the crowded streets below. I stood by the window, lost in thought. Chance was lucky to find something close to Tia’s house. In Spanish, Tia meant ‘aunt’, and I’d never been clear if people had been calling her Auntie so long, it had supplanted her proper name. At any rate, she’d adopted me as part of her family; I felt like a favored niece with her. In recent days, she’d become my mentor as well.
After we returned to find my store in ruins, Tia let Chance sleep on the couch while he sought a place of his own; it took three weeks for him to locate a one bedroom in the neighborhood. During his search, I sorted out the paperwork and paid the workmen with Escobar’s money; he was the rival drug lord with whom I’d allied to take out the Montoya cartel before they could kill me. The Montoyas put me on their hit list over of the part I’d played in liberating Chance’s mother from their clutches. So maybe joining forces with Escobar wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, but it felt like my only viable choice for survival at the time. Ergo, I made a pact with Escobar to destroy the Montoyas, and when we succeeded, I walked out with a briefcase full of money, well enough to rebuild my pawnshop.
It would be better than before, once it was finished, and I’d still have a nest egg in case of future disasters. With Chance around, such events became more likely. Oh, he had his own money, and he’d help, if he felt responsible, but I didn’t want to depend on him—or anyone—again. I’d learned how well I liked self-reliance.
After Chance shook hands on a rental agreement, he’d offered to let me room with him, no strings, but I didn’t want to start our relationship that way. Living together right off? Uh uh. I’d meant it when I told him I wanted go to slow.
When Tia offered to let me stay with her while I rebuilt, it seemed like the ideal solution. I got a place to live; she benefited from my help around the house and I could drive her around more easily, plus she was training me to the extent that she knew spells and charms. No matter how inept I proved, she never lost patience.
Any other curandera wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. By dealing with Maury and summoning his mate, Dumah, to solve my problems, I’d marked myself as a black witch, one who trafficked in demons. Maury was the entropy demon I’d set free from Kilmer, who saved my life when one of the elders stabbed me that horrible night in the forest. When that debt came due, he had me summon his mate in repayment. I managed to trick him on the letter of the agreement, so while Dumah writhed inside the circle, I renegotiated our terms. In the end, I wound up with his reluctant acquiescence to use his mate as backup against the Montoyas. When push came to shove, I did. I fed those men to a demon to save my own life.
That decision made me anathema to those who worked on the side of right and light, though in all honesty, I was hardly a witch at all, having just realized I could access my mother’s magick, along with the awful touch that once comprised my sole skill. When my mother died saving my life, I gained the ability to read objects with a touch, known among the Gifted as psychometry, but my talent wasn’t natural and painless; it carried the pain of the fire that claimed my mother. In the dark Georgia woods where I found her necklace, I touched the metal and unlocked the rest of her abilities. From that point, I felt the difference in blood and bone. I knew that spells would respond as they never had before.
Fortunately, Tia had studied the darkness of my choices, and then she shook her head. “What I see you’ve done, that’s not your heart,” she’d said. “I know you.”
Most wouldn’t be so kind or understanding. Already, I’d noticed a few people crossing the street to avoid me. As in the US, there were gifted in Mexico, but because of my crippled abilities—and the limitation of the touch—I hadn’t been able to ID them unless we made contact, and our talents sparked. Now, with my witch sight, I could spot them from a distance, not an aura, but a halo of dark or light, depending on their gift and how they used it. My own was a grimy mixture of bright and shadow, mottled from my contact with Maury and Dumah. I tried not to look at it more than I had to. If there was a way to scrub off those choices, I didn’t know what it would be. No, the consequences would remain with me forever. Even if I spent my lifetime doing good deeds, practicing white magic, at best, I would be—to others—a nether witch who denied her fundamental nature.
Even if the snake doesn’t bite, it’s still a snake.
Yet despite ostracism from some of her friends and colleagues, Tia took me into her home. I’d asked,
“Don’t you mind? They won’t speak to you anymore. You’re an outcast now…like me.”
She’d given me a fleeting smile. “I’m too old to care about such things, child. I don’t have much longer, and I choose to spend those days helping you. At least you’re willing to do my shopping when my legs hurt. That’s more than I can say for Juanita Lopez.”
I’d laughed, because Juanita was one of the worst; she’d hated me since my return when before she’d paid no attention to me at all. Apparently, my mother’s magick made me register on their visual radars well, whereas the touch had permitted me to run silent. Now I was a target. Marked. Tainted.
With effort, I put the dark thoughts aside. Tia had been kind to me. I would make sure she didn’t suffer. She’d helped me with the grimoires I inherited from my mother, explaining various techniques. And she teased me mercilessly about Chance. He was good with her from experience with his own mother, Min.
“You should keep this one,” Tia would say. “You’ll make beautiful babies.”
I always laughed. It was almost, almost enough to make me forget other pain. But I’d lost so much. Jesse, my almost-boyfriend, who didn’t remember me. My best friend, Shannon, who I missed even more than the man I’d thought I might love. In Laredo, I’d cast a forget spell—and screwed it up, giving the charm too much power—and fogged myself right out of their minds. Deep down I hoped the phone would ring soon.
That the effect would wear off, and they’d both yell at me, and then everything could go back to the way it was.
But we don’t always get what we wish for. So far, my cell phone had been silent. No Shannon. No Jesse. And for obvious reasons, no Kel. He wasn’t—couldn’t—be here. It was awful that I wanted him to be, even a little bit, with Chance waiting for my attention. Kel wasn’t for me; rationally, I knew that. He was nephilim, committed to fighting for all eternity. He didn’t have a life apart from his orders, and so there was nothing for me there. It had been around two months since I’d seen him, three weeks since I’d come home. I shouldn’t be thinking of him. I should file our brief connection under Mistakes I’ve Made, or more accurately, Things I Want But Can’t Have.
Yet I found myself looking for him. Searching the crowd for him. Of those I’d lost recently, he was one I couldn’t stop hoping would come back. Sure, I could call him, but what would I say? Hi. Missed you. Killed anybody amusing lately? You just didn’t trifle with someone who reported to archangels. So I remembered and I missed him and tried to put the pieces back together. Too bad they’d all been broken into jagged shapes that cut when I tried to connect the edges.
“You all right?” Chance asked, coming up beside me.
The mountains were beautiful, dark green and pointed lie weapons against the darkening sky. Where I’d grown up, it was relatively flat and the countryside tended toward swampland. Until coming here, I’d never lived at high altitude. It changed everything from cooking to taking a walk. Everything felt like more of an achievement at seven thousand feet.
Including moving day.
I nodded. “Just tired. You fit a lot of boxes in the Mustang.”
“I’m a good packer. We used to move around a lot.”
“You and Min?”
His silence felt like an affirmative. Then I wondered why I didn’t know more about him, why I’d permitted his reticence. A woman surer of her self-worth wouldn’t have; she’d insist on learning about her lover. And if he didn’t care to share, she’d move on, looking for someone who wanted to be a partner, not a manager. The mistakes in our rearview didn’t all belong to Chance.
At length, he offered, “I think she was hiding from someone.”
“Your father… or the Montoyas?”
“Both? Min doesn’t talk about the past much.”
“And you didn’t press her.”
He shook his head. “I never wanted to disappoint her. She’d get this look, like I should know better than to ask. Like it was… impolite.”
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing?”
“What I’ve read suggests that it is. Which is weird—that I’m reading what it’s like to be Korean, but I’m American… and I’ve learned what I know about relating to people from my mom.”
“Did she ever have a boyfriend when you were growing up?”
Chance laughed. “Never. Not that they didn’t try. But she always seemed like she was waiting for someone.”
“For your dad to come back?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry if this is frustrating, but some of it, I really don’t know. She tried to give me a normal, American childhood, as much as she could, as much as we could afford.”
“Well, at least you’re telling me straight out that you don’t have the answers,” I said, smiling. “That’s more than I got before.”
“Let’s unpack a little more, and then I’ll get us something to eat.”
The nice thing about the neighborhood, there were several tortillerias and taquerias within a couple of blocks, where I could buy rice and beans, tacos, and the like. The taco joints stayed open super late, too, as they were a favorite of the college drinking crowd.
“Will you stay over?” he asked.
I laughed. “You don’t even have a bed. But nice try.” In truth, he had little furniture. The Mustang carried his personal belongings, his books and his clothes, but it couldn’t hold a sofa. “I’ll take you shopping tomorrow in the El Camino. I should be able to fit what you need, if we make multiple trips.”
“Thank you, Corine.”
I didn’t know what he was thanking me for—the offer of help or the second chance between us—but when he leaned down to kiss me, I forgot to wonder. His mouth tasted of tea and lemon with a hint of salt. It was a sweet nothing of a kiss, full of hope and expectation. Happiness swirled through me, despite everything I’d lost.
I forced myself to sound brisk. “If you had your way, we’d make out on the floor all night. Get to work.”
He grinned, shameless and beautiful, and my heart fluttered. The last of the light shone on his raven dark hair, limning it blue. In profile, he was still the best thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t want to love him again; I feared it, but he had a siren’s call bound up in his tiger eyes and tawny skin. With Chance, I suspected—in the end—I would walk into the water, smiling, and let it close over my head.
An hour later, I finished putting away his kitchen things, so at least we’d have cups and plates. The previous tenant had left some rusty wrought iron patio furniture on the balcony, so we’d eat there, watching the sunset. I let myself out while Chance hung clothing in the bedroom. I ran lightly down the stairs; the hundred pesos in my pocket would more than buy our dinner.
The taqueria lay two blocks down the hill. After passing the gate, I jogged them easily, thanks to my time in the jungle. I was fitter than I had been in years.
Because the food was good, there were a few people waiting outside. The man at the counter took my order and then I joined the queue waiting. I got tacos al pastor, rice and beans. Takeaway came in simple containers and wrapped in paper. I cradled the bag against my chest and retraced my steps. The security guy recognized me and didn’t demand my ID this time. He opened the gate just wide enough for me to slip through and then I headed for Chance’s flat. He met me at the door and relieved me of our repast, carrying it out to the balcony without being asked.
I guessed he realized there was nowhere else to eat. But in my absence, he’d fixed up the area with a couple of potted plants, cushions Min had embroidered, and candles. With the sun setting over the mountains, it was breathtaking.
“Absolutely. I can’t you managed all this so fast.”
He winked. “Not a problem. I just unpacked the box labeled ‘Seduction’.”