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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I turned my quavering lips into a quirked smile and went up on tiptoes to kiss Monsieur Philippe on the rosy, blood-hot cheek.
“I’m very young, monsieur. Please forgive my shyness.”
A tremor ran through him, and he pulled a silk handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe away the sweat that beaded his brow.
“Understandable, my dear. How young?”
“Only eighteen, monsieur,” Madame Sylvie said.
“Eighteen. And a tame Bludman.” He shook his head, a quiver in his chin. “Mon dieu.”
Madame Sylvie rang her bell again, and the blue daimon boy appeared through the door, which had been ajar. “Blaise, dear, please take Mademoiselle Demi up to Mireille’s old room. You know what to do.”
“Oui, madame.” The boy jerked his chin at me, his eyes flashing a warning. I glanced back at Vale, and he nodded and followed me. A dash of blue told me the boy had collected my gloves.
“Monsieur Hildebrand, gentlemen are not allowed upstairs. You know that. I hope you’ll accept the hospitality of the bar while I conclude some business with Monsieur Philippe.”
Vale quaked with fury, and I wrapped my arm around his and dragged him toward the door with me. He balked, but I was stronger than I looked, and I managed to pull him out before he said something we would all regret.
“Merci, madame. À bientôot, monsieur,” I cooed. As soon as the door shut, a whispered argument began within, and I leaned my back against the brick wall of the hallway.
“If Madame catches you listening in, she’ll beat you with a riding crop,” the daimon boy whispered. He shoved my gloves into my hands, and I slipped them over my fingers before Vale noticed. Not that he was looking at my hands.
“If she ever kisses that pervert again, I’ll beat her with a riding crop.” Vale was suddenly there, in front of me, blocking out Blaise and the lights and everything but his avid, searing eyes. “Run along, boy. Wait at the bottom of the stairs.”
“But Monsieur Vale—”
“Have you ever seen me angry, Blaise?”
“No, monsieur, but—”
“People who anger Hildebrands don’t live to complain. Now, run.”
The boy threw me an exasperated, frightened look and scuttled away. Vale’s fingers tightened around my upper arms, and he half-dragged me down the hall toward a bricked-in niche.
“Vale, you can’t get me in trouble on my first day—”
He cut me off with a hand under my chin and soft lips pressing, insistent and desperate, against mine.
It was the last thing I expected but the first thing my body wanted. With damnable quickness, my arms wrapped around his neck and pulled him closer. An electric current shot through me, making me quiver with heat that pooled low in my belly. When his mouth opened, just slightly, I moaned for more and ran my tongue between his lips, frantic to gain entry.
This, this was what had been missing. This this this.
With Luc, with the boys on Earth. This mad, insane passion. The way his fingers tightened at my waist, the way my hips sought his, the way my heel dragged up the back of his calf as if pointing out the right road on a map. He felt it, too—I could tell by the frantic curling of his tongue, the hardness in his arms as I slid my hands down to his wrists, struggling not to dig in my nails. Everything inside me went liquid and hot, like molten chocolate. He tasted like masala, like chai, like spices both hot and sweet that were too fiery to savor undiluted.
I dipped deeper, chasing his tongue, frantic to remove the taste of Monsieur Philippe from my lips. I was so hot, so hungry, so avid, that I completely forgot I had fangs. Until he pushed away roughly, almost tripping over the leg I’d wrapped around his thigh.
“Come back here,” I growled. He shook his head no, his eyes burning golden in the low lights of the hallway.
“Can’t. You nicked me.”
He stuck a finger to his lips and pulled it away barely painted with blood. My breath caught on instinct, but then I smelled it. Half-tainted. Wrong.
How easily I had forgotten that Abyssinian blood would drive me mad—and not in a good way. Although there were no germs and therefore no diseases in Sang—which, honestly, I still couldn’t quite believe—it would appear that insanity here could be chemically induced in a way that sounded a lot like rabies. Bludmen who drank any Abyssinian blood at all were said to foam at the mouth and bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears, all while running around, blind and screaming and clawing at whatever their talons encountered. It was an ugly way to go that often resulted in the death or dismemberment of anyone else nearby. This made the Abyssinians undaunted warriors, much respected and somewhat feared all over Sang, especially considering that many of them painted their weapons with their own blood.
Vale had said he was half Abyssinian, but I didn’t know if that meant his blood would make me only half-mad, or if it would take longer to kill me, or if it would just make me sick for a while. And I definitely didn’t want to find out after I’d just been offered a job and was one step closer to finding Cherie. I would have to be more careful, more controlled, the next time he kissed me.
Because yes, I realized, I wanted there to be a next time. I’d never wanted there to be a next time before.
“Why are you smiling, bébé?” He was leaning against the wall directly across the hall from me, mimicking my posture with one leg kicked up against the bricks. He looked as dazed as I felt, his eyes unfocused and wide. I hadn’t realized I was grinning until he asked, and that only made me grin wider.
“I was thinking about something funny.”
“You think going half-mad is funny? Or you think me kissing you is funny?”
“Neither.” I tried to control the grin and failed. “Definitely neither.”
“Mademoiselle? The ladies will be back soon. Please hurry.”
Blaise’s voice carried, faint and nervous, from the top of the stairs at the end of the hall. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, but I wasn’t ready to be without Vale. He was strange and dangerous, but he was the most familiar thing I had in Paris and also my main link to finding Cherie. And more immediately, I wanted him to kiss me again. After my first taste of passion, I felt open for more, like a book with the spine cracked, waiting for more ink. Just staring at him from five feet away made my heart speed up. Damn, but chemistry is a demanding bitch.
“I guess I need to go.”
He nodded sadly. “If you don’t, Blaise will get beaten. Madame Sylvie is kinder than most, but she doesn’t care to be crossed. And neither does her choreographer. Be careful—they’re two halves of the same serpent.”
“When will I see you again?” The words rushed out of me so fast I felt like Liesl in The Sound of Music and mentally cursed myself for acting like a sixteen-year-old idiot instead of the stylish cabaret girl I was bound and determined to become. The way his searing gaze roamed over my mouth made me feel slightly better.
“I will go around to the other cabarets. Spread the word about a kidnapped girl who’s worth a great deal of ransom. Small and blond, yes?”
I nodded. “Curly hair, gray eyes. Last seen in a salmon-pink dress and bludbunny skull fascinator.”
He stroked my hair gently, his smile going sad.
“Oh.” I touched the polished skull myself; I’d forgotten I’d pinned it on after nearly losing it in the catacombs. “Never mind that last part.” Then, more softly, “It was her favorite.”
“I’ll do my best, Demi. Keep your ears open, eh? The daimons are good at keeping secrets among themselves, but perhaps you will hear something useful. I’ll be back sometime tomorrow. I have a delivery to make.”
“Another cabaret girl?” I said, trying to put on a brave face.
“Oh, I only deliver those once a week. This would be wine. Cabarets always need wine.”
“But where do you get it?”
He shook a finger in my face, tsked, and grinned, his teeth looking, for a moment, as sharp as mine. Something in my heart thrummed like guitar strings, seeing that wicked look in his eyes. When I’d crushed on the knife thrower in the caravan, I’d been told he was too dangerous for me. Maybe Vale was just dangerous enough.
“I’m not a daimon, but I know how to keep secrets, too, ma petite. À demain.”
With a swift kiss that bypassed my glove to send tendrils of fire up my hand and arm and straight to a blush in my cheeks, he spun and walked down the hall with a delicious amount of brigandine swagger.
I glanced toward Blaise’s voice in consternation, not wanting to miss a moment of Vale’s retreating form. When thunderous applause shook the boards under my feet, I picked up my skirts and hurried up the narrow stairs toward the daimon-shaped shadow on the top steps.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle. I thought you would wish to be in your room before the ladies arrived for intermission.”
His blue tail danced in the orange gaslights as I followed him past narrow wood doors, each bearing a sliding name plaque. Some of the names I recognized from my art history studies, but others were clearly stage names. Melissande had to be Mel, whose sign had an added “et Beatrice.” I also saw Victoire, Calliope, Charmagne, Edwige. And then there were the earth-famous names like La Douce, Chi Chi, and La Goulue. And, of course, Limone. The door Blaise opened for me had an empty placard, and I had a brief vision of “La Demitasse” written there in curling letters. Monsieur Philippe had given me the name, and I would do my best to get it onto everyone’s lips.
“Dang. Is this it?”
My dreams of opulence fluttered sadly to the floor with the dust bunnies. The room was a quarter of the size of the wagon I’d shared with Cherie and contained nothing but a narrow wooden bedstead with a sagging mattress, two ratty old chairs, a bedside table, and some hand-carved hooks for hanging clothes I didn’t own. The walls were a sorry, washed-out blue with a cracked mirror hanging dispassionately in a corner, and the sea-green floors were bare and dusty, in some places so gappy that I could see top hats moving below like shifting herds of cattle. My thighs clamped together instantly, just in case one of them should happen to look up. The lone window opened onto a dark alley.
“It could be worse, mademoiselle. You could be sharing a room with Limone or La Goulue.” Blaise shivered, his skin going over with dark blue spots like a pox.
“Are they that bad?”
I had always loved Toulouse Lautrec’s painting of La Goulue, the saucy can-can dancer who had ruled the Moulin Rouge, high-kicking the hats off her ensorcelled fans. Maybe she wouldn’t make the best roommate, but I still couldn’t wait to meet her in the flesh. Being here in the Paris of Sang was almost like traveling back in time on Earth and witnessing firsthand the larger-than-life historical celebrities from my art history books.
“La Goulue is all too real for my taste, mademoiselle.” The boy shook his head. “They do not call her the Glutton for nothing.”
“What does she feed on, then?”
“There is nothing she will not devour, mademoiselle.” He paused at the door, although I hadn’t seen him move across the room. “If you have everything you need?”
I spun around, which took almost all the space in the tiny chamber. Empty. So empty. “I don’t have anything. Do I get a nightgown or a blanket or . . . anything?”
The small boy shrugged his narrow shoulders. “You must earn it first, mademoiselle.”
He made to dart out the door, and I snatched him by the collar. “Wait.”
He half trembled, half sneered, waiting as if I might strike him. Instead, I sank down to my knees and gave him the closed-mouth smile that made me look sweet instead of dangerous.
“Please call me Demi. Mademoiselle is way too long.”
“Oui, Demi. But you know, La Demitasse has just as many syllables.” And before I could ask him how he had managed to listen in on that conversation, much less how he knew what a syllable was, the impish blue daimon was gone.
There was nothing more to see in my room, of course. I would have to earn a blanket soon or freeze to death at night, if Franchia was anything like Sangland. As the hallway was still quiet, I went out to see if any other famous cabaret dancers called Paradis home. The fanciest door placard by far belonged to La Goulue, and I was certain I recognized the names Jeanne La Folle and La Cascadeuse. All the other names were Franchian, the same names my French teacher had assigned to us in high school.
As I traced La Goulue’s name with a finger, the long bout of applause far below ended, and footsteps sounded on the stairs like a herd of giddy wildebeest. For girls who were light on their feet onstage, the dancers of Paradis were noisy as hell when they were off the clock. As they appeared over the top stair, I felt very much like Simba in The Lion King, about to be run over by a gallumphing herd but without a tree to cling to.
“Attendez. Who are you?”
The woman at the head of the colorful flock stopped halfway down the hall, and I whipped my hand behind my back as if the letters I’d been tracing on her sign had burned me. I knew her instantly, of course. La Goulue as a daimon was very similar to La Goulue from the paintings: thin, sharp, bendy, and with a head of golden hair. As I struggled to find words, her skin shivered over from sunny yellow to the same angrily striped red that I’d seen earlier on Mademoiselle Caprice.
“Bonjour. I’m Demi Ward, but they call me La Demitasse.” I sketched the curtsy Criminy had taught me in the caravan, a courtly gesture that showcased my litheness and made my skirt fan out behind me. After a moment of silence, the entire coterie of daimons broke out in laughter.