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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Mmm, unicorn,” I murmured. As I reached for the goblet, I tripped on the kitten-heeled slippers and knocked the slender glass to the ground, where it shattered against the painted wood. A deep red stain spread across the floor, seeping into a white fur rug, and I gasped melodramatically. I felt like a Barbie doll, or at least, as if I had to act like one.
The gentleman cleared his throat in annoyance, probably tallying the cost of the lost wine. “And to think you looked so graceful onstage, mademoiselle. I haven’t brought a second glass.”
He had gone stiff and was looking at his hat. I didn’t intend to woo him, but I needed him to stay close, to lure him into conversation and discover if he knew anything about Cherie. And I needed him to leave the copper elephant with tales that would bring all the other men knocking on its knee.
“Have you a piece of paper, monsieur?”
Surprised and leery, he pulled a billfold from his coat and handed me a single thick sheet that matched the first note I’d received, with only a small letter-press F crest in the corner.
So this was indeed the duke.
I swallowed hard and made a mental note to screech at Charline. It wouldn’t have hurt anything to tell me what was expected, how powerful this man was, what he would do to a woman who rebuffed him, for clearly he was unaccustomed to rebellion. With a smile and a bob of the head, I folded the paper into an origami cup and tucked in the edges.
“Et voilà!” I held out the cup, eyebrows raised under my thick bangs.
The duke chuckled, a very French sound. Or Franchian. In any case, it was utterly confident and appreciative, and it carried the tone of dark, easy promise. Lifting the half-full bottle, he poured the shimmering bloodwine into my makeshift cup. Whether or not he had drugged the first glass, I had no choice now but to drink and hope for the best. Surely a man like this—a powerful, handsome, wealthy man—wouldn’t wish to bed an unconscious form. The seduction and fire had to play a part in it. Dozens of girls would have lain with him for free. He’d probably paid enough for my time to run Criminy’s entire caravan for a year. My heart raced, terrified of giving him what he wanted and even more terrified of denying him.
I caught his eyes as I tipped back the cup, the wine running from the sharp paper corner and into my mouth. It was delicious. No, more than that. It was like champagne made of love and lust and magic, effervescent and smooth and sweet. A fire licked up my insides, and my smile turned real as I caught the last drop from the burgundy-stained paper.
“You have excellent taste, monsieur,” I purred.
His smile returned, and he sat down on the couch of shimmering copper velvet that matched the elephant, one arm along the carved wood back. When he patted the seat beside him, I had no choice but to leave the paper cup leaning against the bottle and saunter to him, hips swaying. I wanted more wine, but more than that, I needed my wits about me.
“Please join me, mademoiselle.” Instead of sitting where he’d indicated, I sat at the other end of the sofa, my legs tucked under the ruffles of the flared dress. The couch was short enough to allow his fingers to play with the curls hanging down from under my hat. “I found your little gift this morning terribly clever. It’s not often I meet a cabaret girl with any fire.”
“But I’m a Bludman, monsieur. I’m filled with fire.”
“Oh, I know. I know everything about you. Even about that little caravan in Sangland, although I have trouble envisioning you performing for the country rubes, surrounded by freaks.”
I turned my snarl into a toothy grin. “I’m flattered by your interest.”
“I make it a point to scout the land before making an investment.”
My eyebrows rose. “So I am merely a piece of property, then? How peculiar. I had always imagined myself a person.”
He leaned close, drawing a finger along my jaw. I shivered as if a shark had brushed against my leg. It’s rare a woman challenges me, Mademoiselle Ward. I find it rather intriguing. But dukes must be careful where they spend their time and with whom. I always do my research.”
“Considering you’re here, I can only assume you found me harmless.”
His fingertip lifted my lip a little further, just over a fang. I struggled to maintain composure, my lip trembling in his grasp. “I consider you anything but harmless. Fortunately, I have ways of rendering a woman, shall we say . . . less dangerous?”
He leaned in for a kiss, my chin in his hand. I whipped my face away and stood, putting the arm of the couch between us. The look he gave me then—he was like a reptile, a lizard, head cocked and eyes hard and fathomless.
“Demi, surely you understand that I’ve made an arrangement with Madame Sylvie? A great deal of money exchanged hands. Normally, I don’t mention such crass topics, but you appear to need a reminder of your precarious position.” His hand patted the couch again, harder this time. “Sit.”
“Ah, but sir, you haven’t made an arrangement with me. No money has found my hand. And so, you see, I haven’t agreed to anything.” His face was going over red, so I looked down, batted my eyelashes at him. “I don’t normally mention such crass topics, but I may be the last virgin in Mortmartre. I’m only eighteen, and I wasn’t prepared for . . . this.”
It was a lie, of course. They were all lies.
But he believed me.
And he didn’t care. His breath caught.
“Eighteen,” he said, slowly and carefully, “is more than old enough.”
“Not for me, monsieur.”
He licked his lips. “Surely we can agree on a compromise?” Leaning back and twitching his coat aside, he revealed his bulging “compromise,” and a rush of rage overtook me.
“You want my mouth on you, monsieur?”
“Very much, mademoiselle.”
I grinned, and the sight of my fangs made him gasp. “As you wish.”
And I dove for his throat.
I didn’t kill him, although I wanted to. But I did make a terrible mess. I’d never fed from a human before, and my teeth slid across his skin like a car over black ice. When his arm latched around my waist, I bit harder, finally opening the skin and releasing a dribble of blood. My tongue found his neck with the impersonal kiss of licking a stamp.
Although Criminy had strictly forbidden feeding from customers and Cherie had never drunk from a live victim, the two-headed boys of the caravan had plenty of experience and loved to brag. Catarrh and Quincy had shrugged their extra-wide shoulders, saying that where they’d come from in Freesia, two minutes of drinking could conclude a full day’s work for lucky humans with a healthy constitution.
While Quincy filed his teeth, Catarrh detailed how very easy it was to make the bloodletting enjoyable for them if we wished. Bludmen did have a sort of residual magic. That was how they got away with snitching blood in the darker corners of the freak tent. Their willing victims never complained and sometimes enjoyed the experience so much they left a copper behind. The high-necked gowns and winding cravats meant to protect the humans from us sometimes protected indiscreet Bludmen from the repercussions of a pilfered meal.
Knowing that feeding from the duke could, much like my stage antics, be another triumph or end with me being chased out of the city with fire and pitchforks, I tried to make it as good for him as I could without sacrificing my honor. Judging by the way he tried to drag me onto his lap and over the bulge in his expensive trousers, it worked. He was putty in my hands, whimpering and blissfully writhing under my lips. When he moaned and shuddered suddenly against me, hands digging hard at my waist, I knew we were done.
I pulled away with a long, seductive stroke of my tongue. He lay back, drained and panting.
“That was the most sensual experience of my life, my Demitasse.”
I stood, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. “Happy to oblige, monsieur.”
I slipped on his frock coat, opened the copper door, and walked down the stairs of the elephant’s leg on the balls of my bare feet. The night was dark and cold and still when I emerged, stepping out of the elephant’s foot to run across the courtyard and into the cabaret. The halls were empty, the theater silent. With a sniff of disgust, I plundered the coat’s pockets, all empty, and dropped the expensive pile of fabric on the boards, disappointed to find not a single whiff of Cherie on its lapels. Feeling humiliated and cheap, I ran up the stairs, not stopping until I was in Limone’s old room, now marked with a sign reading “La Demitasse” in curling silver letters, just like I’d dreamed of seeing on my first night here.
Thankful my window was closed and locked from the inside, I curled up in my bed and quietly shook. The duke’s blood made me feel strong, beautiful, invincible. It was almost enough to quiet the tiny, shouting voice saying that I would be thrown in jail in the morning. But it had been my only choice.
My hand slid to the place under the mattress where I’d hidden my coins and the pouch of Criminy’s sleeping powder. Although I trusted Mel and Bea, there were dozens of daimon girls I still didn’t know who had access to my room every moment that I was gone. My treasures were still there, and it suddenly occurred to me that not only did I have a powerful and mutually beneficial gift for the men who bought my time—because I knew without a doubt that the duke wouldn’t be the last—but I also had a way to render them unconscious while I hunted for clues. A tiny sprinkle of the harmless sleeping powder would give me plenty of time to search each body that found its way into the copper elephant for any hint of Cherie or the slavers. Tomorrow night, after the show, I would begin my investigation.
I could only hope that my second gambit would turn out as well as the first.
* * *
My sleep was long and delicious, right up till the dreams turned from the mad clapping of packed crowds to the thunder of hooves and a black conveyance, the air shimmering from spotlights to smoke rent by the flailing legs of screaming horses. But in the nightmare, Cherie was torn crying from my arms by a man in a bird mask, our talons breaking as we were ripped apart. I woke gasping and muttered, “Holy shit.”
As if on cue, my door opened to admit Blaise with a dainty teacup filled with deliciously warm, high-quality blood. On the tray sat the same apothecary jar filled with notes, even more than before. I sat up, rubbing my eyes at the sunlight filtering through my open window. It felt like a dream within a dream within a dream.
“What’s going on? Am I in trouble, Blaise?”
He giggled into his hand. “I don’t think that’s what they’re calling it, mademoiselle. Read the paper.” I unfolded the Parisian newspaper on the tray, the fear in my heart giving way to curiosity. I had fallen asleep half dreading Madame Sylvie’s harsh screech or the stomp of gendarmes with billy clubs and guns filled with seawater. After all, feeding from humans was strictly forbidden and punishable by death in Franchia, as it was in Sangland. Blaise, fresh blood, and a newspaper had to be good news.
The first page was all politics, the second all society. Boring. A full-color page caught my attention. It was a slick insert titled “Diversions,” and the main illustration featured a slightly familiar, if overly beautiful, slender girl with dark hair and bangs kicking one red boot high over her head.“La Demitasse: The Angel of Paradis,” the headline said.
I read the story hungrily, knowing that at least half of it would be lies. As Criminy had always said, journalists were worse than novelists, because novelists at least try to tell some truth. Mortmartre has ever been the pleasure district of distinguished gentlemen and high-spirited daimons, but a new addition has the crowd clamoring for more. A Bludman? In Paris? And performing? Do not faint, ladies, for she has been proven as safe as a muzzled and broken bludmare by Monsieur Philippe himself. Our esteemed Duc de Fournier agrees, saying only, “La Demitasse is a singular creature of unparalleled grace and beauty, and I look forward to giving her more of my attention.”
Tickets through the next week were sold out before noon at Paradis, and interested parties may inquire from Madame Sylvie regarding personal boxes and champagne. A grand finale is planned to stun and surprise all viewers beginning Saturday next.
Your heart will be this Bludman’s next victim!
I sipped my blood and laughed.
So they would indeed be coming after me . . . with roses and bottles of bloodwine. I’d triumphed again, this time by simply doing what came naturally. If the duke continued to spread his story, then my parlor trick would become feeding daintily from my suitors while waiting to search their bodies or be kidnapped.
I could do that.
* * *
That afternoon, I had a costume fitting and was politely requested to indulge Charline with a rehearsal. I acquiesced gracefully, knowing deep inside that while I had to keep up the untouchable-diva front to the gentlemen who wanted my favors, I didn’t want to be a bitch to my coworkers and employers. Criminy had included rehearsal in every day’s plan, so it felt good and refreshing to go through the motions and accept a page of overly polite notes from Charline, who actually had excellent ideas on improving my work on the hoop. Thanks to last night’s drink from the duke, I was sated and strong and smiling when I sauntered back to my room, enlivened by solid work and feeling like a queen.
I sensed the man waiting within before I opened the door this time. Vale sat by the fire, feeding my apothecary jar of notes and love letters into the flames.
“What the hell, Vale?” My new skirts tangled around my legs as I jogged to him and snatched the half-filled jar of notes from the rug by his side.
His look was dark, threatening, and I drew back a little even though he posed me no danger. “They wish to make you into a whore. At the very least, a kept thing. It makes me sick.”