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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“I’m so sorry, bébé. I missed it. Didn’t think you’d be onstage for several days and made Blaise promise to let me know as soon as you were on the schedule. You surprised the hell out of everyone today. Twice.” He stepped close behind me, his hands landing gently on my shoulders as if testing the tension in me after the glass-throwing incident. His voice went soft. “Were you hurt?”
I shook my head no. “Told you I was mostly indestructible.” My eyes strayed to a poster on the wall that showed Limone dancing, and I spun around suddenly. “Wait. How did you know I was in Limone’s room if you just showed up? Were you coming to see her?”
He choked on a laugh. “Oh la la, so jealous. Do you think I’d be bringing a daimon a bottle of stolen bloodwine? And do you think I’d actually want to spend time with a nasty tart like that, even if she could stand me?”
His firelit eyes found mine, and my heart wrenched at the light golden-green that recalled the moors of Sangland. I pushed the homesickness down to focus on the thrill I experienced every time he settled on me.
“Blaise said Limone was gone and you’d spent the afternoon in here, and there’s a convenient window, and I had some news, so I took a chance. I do believe that’s the quickest I’ve seen a girl move from backstage to stardom. I have never heard of a crowd going mad like that.”
I looked down, the scrap of creamy paper in my corset catching my eye. “Well, I did receive a proposal from a duke. I guess that’s a good start, right?”
Vale’s nostrils flared, and with that same uncanny talent Criminy had, he suddenly seemed a foot taller and wider, capable of pummeling a tiny duke into the floorboards with a fist. “Which duke?”
“You mean there are more than one?”
Half giggling and half worried, I pulled out the paper and unfolded it. I hadn’t actually read it after taking it from Madame Sylvie and was more than a little curious about how a duke might offer to buy a woman’s body and time.
The new girl is a delight, and I will be the first to taste her charms.
The usual details apply. Please have her delivered after tomorrow’s show.
The handwriting was overly curly but hasty, and I could see the lust written into every loop. Although I hadn’t considered the offer for even a moment, anger flared at the assumption.
“Doesn’t look like he’s offering you a choice, bébé.”
“I always have a choice.”
“Will you go to him?”
“I’m not some piece of meat . . .” A fierce grin replaced my rage. “Wait. I understand you’re a bit of a brigand,” I said. “Do you work on spec?”
His grin matched mine. “I’ll need a down payment, you understand.” He pointed to his cheek.
I lightly slapped it. “The whole point of this plan is that I’m not that kind of girl.”
“And I appreciate that, especially as pertains to dukes. So I’ll extend a line of credit, but you’ll owe me interest.”
“Oh, I think you’ll like this plan. Now, hand me that bottle of bloodwine, and get ready to take notes. Here’s what I need.”
* * *
It was all business after that. I told Vale what I needed, and he agreed to get it. But when I tried to tip up the bloodwine to test the airiness of unicorn blud again, he snatched the bottle from my hand and shoved the cork in harder.
“The rest of this vintage will make it easier to find Cherie. And buy your supplies. I only offered you a taste, bébé. Not the entire bottle.”
“But I wasted it!”
“That’s your fault, isn’t it? Perhaps next time you will trust me.”
I stuck my tongue out at him, and he returned the gesture. Throwing me a kiss, he slipped out the window with the bottle in his bag and a last, hot gaze that swept up and down my body and ended in a look of desire and regret. The room felt suddenly empty and quiet, so much so that I had to wonder if he’d even been there. Leaning out the open window, I found a narrow ledge and darkness, hazy with streetlamps. Vale had disappeared. Only the glitter of shattered glass around the fireplace and the lingering warmth of wine on my lips told me that I hadn’t imagined him in my room.
Alone now, I felt the little pangs and annoyances of a long fall and a thrilling debut. Slight aches, including the balls of my feet, much abused by my first public can-can. We would need better shoes if we were to perform it every night. My back still stung, thanks to my tumble from the catwalk, but it hadn’t affected my performance. When I undressed and sucked in a big breath, I had to wonder if perhaps I’d bruised a few ribs. In the excitement and adrenaline, I’d completely ignored the needs of my body. And I was deliriously hungry for blood, of which I had none. At that moment, I would have gladly licked the bloodwine from the floorboards, had any spilled there during my little rage.
I undressed and slipped on a night shift I found in Limone’s armoire, a far nicer one than the ragged, worn thing I’d borrowed the night before. Would Limone come back for it? And did I care? Probably not, and no. Just as I had once walked the caravan, telling myself that it was home and I should forget Earth, now I paced Limone’s room, telling myself that it was mine and I should forget the caravan.
I couldn’t put down the duke’s note, couldn’t stop reading the cold words that turned me from a thinking, feeling woman into a commodity. Even after six years in Sang, I still hadn’t internalized the general sentiment that women were things to be used and, when they’d outlived their use, discarded. Women had practically no rights here, unless they had a father or a husband to stand behind them—or a big-ass sword to swing at whoever threatened them. The caravan was better than most places, thanks to Criminy’s liberal worldview, but here in Paris, I was on my own. And I was practically chattel.
I had no idea what Madame Sylvie had planned for me, whether she had any control over my destiny and my body—or whether she thought she did. This duke could likely own the lot of us if I made him too angry. The shit would probably hit the fan in the morning, but what did I care? My answer to the duke was already in motion, out of my hands, and if Sylvie didn’t like it, I would find another cabaret and teach them the groundbreaking, scandalous dance I’d just invented.
I undressed, turned down the lamp, and slid between the rich coverlets. The bed was luxurious compared to what I was used to, the feather mattress cupping me like angel wings under blankets as soft as melted butter. I stretched and writhed and stared longingly at the window. I’d noticed since becoming a Bludman that lust and hunger were painfully intertwined. When I hadn’t had enough blood, my thoughts grew dark with needs I’d never known on Earth. And when I couldn’t stop thinking about a guy, I couldn’t stop thinking about his blood and staring at the little vein in his neck. The last guy I’d dated had been poor Luc. He’d been hot, but his daimon blood hadn’t appealed, and neither, I’d soon realized, did his personality. I’d wanted Marco Taresque and had spent more than a few nights in my wagon car thinking about what it would feel like to drink the knife thrower’s blood while he traced my body with the points of his daggers. But Marco had been too old for me and then rightfully claimed by Jacinda, and my hungers had cooled.
The caravan meant two vials a day, one show a night, very little lust. A simple life.
Now I was again at the mercy of a hunger that didn’t quite fit. I wanted Vale, but I didn’t trust him, and I couldn’t drink from him. Still, something in me kept watching the curtain billow from the open window anyway, hoping to see his pointed boot slip over the sill, bottle in hand and eyes on fire with mischief. Was it foolish to think his kisses could sustain me?
Something had been bothering me all along, some restless sense that I had forgotten something important. I went over every look, every word in my conversation with Vale. I could never sleep when something evaded me like that and had sprung from my bed after midnight more than once to Google an actor’s name or pull up a thesaurus online back on Earth. I couldn’t stand being eluded.
And that’s when I remembered it. Vale had said that he had news. I’d glossed right over it in my excitement over the show, and he’d never returned to the subject. News about what? He had to mean Cherie, but he hadn’t said her name. I leaped out of bed and went to the window as if he might be lurking outside, waiting for me.
Of course, he wasn’t. That was just stupid.
As I slunk back into bed, the thrill that had lit up the night vanished. I’d been so self-obsessed that I’d forgotten the entire reason I was here. I had let Cherie down again. There wouldn’t be a third time. Despite what I’d told him, Vale could have all the pecks on his cheek he wanted, if only he would bring my best friend back.
* * *
The next morning, an unmarked package arrived at the duke’s doorstep. Underneath the beautiful wrapping that I could only describe as Tiffany blue despite the fact that there was no Tiffany’s in Sang, the duke found a box. Inside that box, packed carefully in bunched tissue paper, was a cow’s tongue.
I am not a piece of meat for your amusement.
Hope this charm is to your “taste.”
By lunchtime, a new card had arrived, tripling his price.
When Madame Sylvie delivered it herself, demanding to know what I had done to inspire him so, I laughed and threw the creamy paper into the fire.
“I told him he couldn’t buy me. At any price.”
She tapped her foot, shook her head. “Someone will find your price, ma petite. That, or they will take you and tell you what you are worth after the fact.”
I grinned, showing her my fangs. “Let them try.”
Everything had changed overnight. After Madame Sylvie left, fed up with my feral and cocky attitude, Blaise appeared with a teacup of warm, fresh blood and a nicely folded napkin. An apothecary’s glass jar sat beside it on the tray, filled with notes. Apparently, this was the preferred way to win a cabaret girl’s attention, and I went through them one by one, sorting them into little piles on the silky bedspread.
They promised me love, adoration, bedroom skills, trinkets, private rooms in costly hotels, and willing necks that longed to see if it was true that a Bludwoman could incite a climax just by feeding the right way. I was half disgusted and half fascinated, and as the unfamiliar names and their offerings swirled together, I called Blaise in and requested a notebook and a pen. I made a spreadsheet of names, their offers/requests, the quality of the paper and handwriting, and their perceived creepiness. Each of these men was suddenly on my list of suspects, a self-selected group of supposed gentlemen who thought of women as things to possess and who might have a reason to abduct a young, beautiful Bludwoman and keep her somewhere in secret for their own selfish purposes.
No one bothered me as I worked. No one knocked on my door or called my name or demanded my attention or help. Cabaret stars, apparently, were allowed to sleep in. I luxuriated, reading the newspapers and gossip magazines Limone had kept in a slippery heap by her bedside. Paris was a place of beauty, intrigue, sensation, and melodrama, worlds away from Criminy’s quiet caravan, where Emerlie’s whispers were the only true source of scandal. Fashion in London was clearly years behind Paris, which was odd, as they were less than a day away in a fast airship. With dresses and the disappearance of bustles on my mind, I turned a page in my new notebook and sketched costume ideas for Blue and practiced signing “La Demitasse” with an ink pen, just in case cabaret stars were required to autograph things.
One time in the caravan, I had asked Jacinda if her writing could make me a star and had been disappointed when she tried to let me down gently. Now I was a star, and I had no idea what that meant, except that dozens of men wanted to do raunchy things to me, and if I did well enough, I might find myself stolen by kidnappers in scary masks—and that was my goal. And yet all I could think about was a half-Abyssinian brigand’s eyes, his hands on my waist, and the prickle of brick against my back as he kissed me. A dozen different hungers held me, things I shouldn’t have wanted yammering over the one thing I needed most: my friend safely back by my side.
A light knock on the door startled me, and I huffed a “Yes?”
It was Charline, wearing a painted smile that was at least half false. While she must have loved the monetary benefit I would bring to the cabaret under her tutelage, she had to hate that I had tricked my way to the top instead of earning respect the old-fashioned way. I couldn’t keep the snark out of my own smile. At least Sylvie had accepted her defeat gracefully. The bagload of silvers cleaned up off the stage last night probably helped.
“Entrez, Charline.” No more Mademoiselle.
“Did you sleep well, chérie?”
“I’d like to discuss tonight’s show.”
My grin widened. “I’d love that.”
She cleared her throat and pulled out her red notebook, and I noticed that it matched mine exactly. So they’d given me one of her private stash; no wonder she was annoyed. “What we must decide is whether to replicate last night’s act or try something entirely different. Of course, it will not be such a . . .”
Charline pinched the bridge of her nose. “Indeed. It won’t be a surprise. But it doesn’t inconvenience the rest of the girls, and we already have the equipment and music. I’m sure you’ll want to work with Blue on costuming, and I did have some ideas.”
She held out her notebook, and I held out mine. The two drawings had nothing in common whatsoever, and laughter burbled in my chest as she fought the urge to screech at me in her typical manner.