|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked After Midnight (Page 20)|
|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
My blud boiled, and I bared my teeth. “You don’t get to decide what I am. No one can do that but me.”
His mouth dropped open as he stood. “Bébé, you can’t want . . . that is . . . I wouldn’t have thought you’d be angry at me for wanting to keep you from being sold as a prostitute.”
I gave a dark chuckle. “I appreciate the thought. I’m just not willing to tolerate the assumption. And I’m keeping notes on all the letters they send, sniffing them for a trace of Cherie.”
Vale dusted off his pants and resettled his shirt while he hunted for his words. In the end, he settled for placing the half-full jar in my waiting hands and shooting me his wicked grin. “We started off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry for burning your clues. You were beautiful last night, bébé. And not in a way that intrudes upon your personal freedom. Beautiful like . . . a wild mare or a sunset. Something completely independent.”
“Thanks? I guess.”
“Do not give me that attitude, chère. You say you’re the one making the rules. I just wanted to check in on you, make sure you are being treated well.” He looked down, rubbed the back of his head. “Considering I’m the one who brought you here, I feel more than a little responsible for your happiness.”
I faltered. It was nice that he cared, but I would have preferred that he was there because he liked me and wanted to be around me. I’d had enough caretakers and had just told him to buzz off in that area. Or, better yet, I wanted . . . “Do you have any news? On Cherie?”
His smile was rueful, his eyes angry and perplexed. “It’s tricky, bébé. The word on the cabaret circuit is that more and more daimon girls are disappearing. No one calls it ‘taken.’ There’s no mention of slavers or kidnapping. But they all seem to descend into drink and worse before just . . . vanishing. Most assume they wandered into the streets alone while under the influence of absinthe and met dark ends. The bludrats will strip any corpse they find, regardless of species. And the gendarmes refuse to investigate.”
A thousand possibilities went through my mind. I imagined street gangs, giant bludrats, open manholes into the catacombs, and the slavers themselves in their dark cowls and plague masks. But then I imagined the damage one angry Bludman could do and the fact that it took an awful lot of bloodwine to render us stupid. And of course, the fact that Cherie had been directly taken, had never gotten so far as to take a single drink in Mortmartre. She was more than some silly drunk girl, stumbling into a dark alley with the wrong man.
I shook my head. “Sounds like something different entirely. Can I draw a poster for you to show them, perhaps?”
He shrugged, a sad thing. “If it will make you feel better. But . . . have you not noticed that having a Bludman in a cabaret is big news? Whoever has your friend is keeping her secret. Especially after your debut, I imagine that any other cabaret hiding a Bludman with any contortion skills whatsoever would instantly set up shop to take advantage of your popularity. And believe me, bébé, if I hear anything of the sort, I will be in the front row to steal her back for you.”
That finally softened me up, and I let the smile spread over my lips. Putting a gloved hand on his shoulder, I looked into his eyes, soothed by their golden glow, so like a cat’s. “Thank you, Vale. She’s everything to me.”
The possessive hardness in his eyes made me angry again. “Of course. She’s my best friend, my partner, the closest thing I have to family. Just because I go through the motions here and get sent to that blasted elephant with dukes doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about her constantly.”
“The pachyderm?” Anger twisted his fine features. “You’ve been to the pachyderm?”
“Last night. With the duke. And you can’t say a damned thing about it.”
We were nose-to-nose now, each filled with fury and breathing hard. His nostrils flared, and the anger writhed off his skin, sharp as cinnamon.
“Oh, I have something to say, bébé.”
I opened my mouth to tell him exactly how much he could say, but he grabbed my shoulders and kissed me, hard. His tongue forced its way past my lips and raked me possessively, and I let out a little moan and curled my fingers into the front of his shirt, unable to resist his pull. His mouth claimed me, his hands moving to my waist and pressing me close.
When he changed angles, he murmured, “Watch the teeth, bébé. Can’t have you going mad.”
“I’m already mad. Shut up and kiss me.”
“I like you when you’re angry.”
I gave him no choice, kissing him hard but without fangs, mouth wide and eyes closed. As cold as the duke’s practiced attempts at wooing had made me feel, Vale filled me with passion, half furious and half hungry. I took a step backward, pulling him with me, still kissing him. Step by step, we stumbled toward the towering, soft bed, his thighs brushing against mine as our tongues danced and licked. With my back to the bed, and one more nudge from his thighs, my butt hit the mattress. His controlled fall took me to my back and brought him over me on his elbows, the kiss never breaking.
“Mm. You’re good,” I murmured.
I took his lip, gently but as a warning, in my teeth. “What are you implying?”
He drew back, raised an eyebrow. I let go of his lip. “That you’re a good kisser. Every word out of my mouth isn’t a fight, bébé.”
I grabbed his chin in my hand, licked his lips. “Then stop talking and kiss me.”
“Normally, I’d argue, but you’ve made it clear that you are a woman who does what she wants.”
With a growl, I hooked a leg over his and rolled him over onto his back so that I straddled his hips, my skirts cascading around us in a puddle of black ruffles. “Damn right I am.”
I leaned down to kiss him again, and he didn’t resist at all. His hands found my hips, and I settled in to take whatever I wanted, slow and deep, my fingers tracing the buzzed stubble of his hair. When the knock came, I hissed at the door and hoped that whoever had interrupted that kiss was human and edible.
I sighed and quickly arranged my skirts so that Vale was barely visible. His bemused smile told me that he looked forward to seeing how I handled the sticky situation. “Yes, Blaise?”
The door creaked open, and the young daimon cleared his throat. “Madame Sylvie asked me to tell you that you’ll be in the pachyderm again tonight with another very important guest. The great Lenoir wishes to paint you.”
Vale shifted beneath me as if he might rise up and argue, but I planted a hand against his chest and let my talons prick, just the tiniest bit, through my gloves.
“Thank you, Blaise.”
But the boy didn’t budge. I spun to raise my eyebrows at him in inquiry.
“The duke was much impressed to learn that you were unspoiled, mademoiselle. It’s said that you’ll make your fortune in one night, should you choose to do so. The gentlemen have already begun to bid.”
The door shut softly, and Vale erupted, tossing me over. “You’re a virgin?” he hissed.
I blushed hot. “No. But I would’ve told the duke anything to keep him away. That’s just what slipped out.”
He licked his lips, rubbed his jaw. “Probably just made them hungrier for you. That will be a tough lie to hide one day, bébé.”
“Then we’ll have to find Cherie soon, won’t we? Before anyone has to find out.”
“I’ll do my best. I am doing my best.” He fell back on the bed as if suddenly realizing that I still straddled him and he wished to enjoy the view. Elbows out and feet crossed on the ground, he grinned. “Lying to the duke. Such spirit, bébé.”
“He also thinks I’m eighteen.” Feeling his interest coalesce beneath me and knowing we couldn’t take it further just now, I slipped off his body and stood beside the bed, rearranging my costume in the mirror. “And tonight I meet Lenoir.”
Vale bolted up again, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Demi, no—”
I spun on him, staring daggers. “No?”
“No. . . torious. He’s notorious, bébé. A Lothario. Paints all the stars of the cabaret.”
“And that’s bad?” Hands on hips, I waited for him to choose his words. “That’s not what I want?”
“Bébé, do you know what happened to Jane Avril? Nini?”
“I’ve seen their paintings . . .” By Toulouse Lautrec, in my world. But still.
He stood to pace the room. “But where are they now? Not running their own cabarets. Not touring Sangland. They rose to the top, Lenoir painted them and everyone assumes slept with them, and then . . . nothing.”
“Good! That’s what I want! That’s how I’m going to find Cherie.”
“And you’re not frightened? Of disappearing?”
I shook my head. “No. Because I’m expecting it. If the same people who took Cherie are taking the cabaret girls, and if the girls Lenoir paints disappear, then it seems like the fastest way to get where I’m going is to get painted by Lenoir and disappear.”
“You’re insane, bébé. Suicidal.”
“I’m a Bludman, Vale. And he’s just a painter.”
“A painter with a reputation.”
I laughed brightly. “Then I don’t need to worry, do I? Because I’m not going to sleep with him, and if he tries anything, I’ll drain him. He’ll paint my portrait, and I’ll get even more famous. And considering he’s painted some of the girls who’ve disappeared, maybe I’ll smell Cherie.”
Vale shook his head. “You’re buying trouble, bébé.”
I tossed my hair. “Wrong. Trouble is buying me.”
Another knock at my door startled us both.
“Your costume, La Demitasse,” Blue called. She snickered. “But I can wait a moment if you’re busy.”
Vale kissed me, hard and quick, and I stopped breathing. “Just promise me one thing, bébé.”
He cupped my face, ran a thumb across my lips. “Don’t trust him. Don’t trust anyone.”
And then he was gone, leaving me hungry for more than his words. I waited until he’d slipped out the window before opening the door for Blue.
“Windy day.” She held out an armful of silvery fabric. “But the wind is wise, don’t you think?”
“Full of hot air,” was my only answer.
He meant well, but I hadn’t left Criminy’s nest just to be bossed around by another man.
I would meet Lenoir and decide for myself.
The show was flawless, of course. I’d long ago ceased to doubt myself or my abilities, thanks to the natural grace and confidence of a predator. As Auguste ushered me back to the elephant, I smoothed my hair and patted the sweat on my forehead. I could still feel the heat of the stage lights and the hot press of hundreds of drunk, lust-filled bodies. The men in the audience were so rabid for me that Charline had rearranged the finale so that all the other girls formed a tight, interlocking line of high kicks that no one dared to breach. That’s right—in Sang, the first true can-can line was invented just to shield me from my admirers.
At the elephant’s leg, Auguste paused and fussed with me for a moment, setting my hat at an angle and pinching my cheeks, although I didn’t know how he could see me in the darkness.
“You don’t want to displease him, miss,” he said, his voice low and rich like coffee. When he opened the door and bowed, I went in alone, my nerves on fire and shining out my eyes.
From what I understood from the papers I’d read in Sangland and the few discussions I’d had in Franchia, Lenoir was an amalgamation of several Impressionist painters from my world. At the very least, his body of work included things I remembered as the work of Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Toulouse Lautrec, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But the man himself was said to be a mystery and a wealthy man. He was the only artist in Sang who couldn’t be bought, who chose his own commissions and pursuits. And now he had chosen me.
My heart was beating so loudly that I imagined it echoing against the copper as I took the winding stairs upward. Was Lenoir already here, waiting for me, or would it be like last night, when I had a few moments to compose myself? There was no way to know, although Auguste’s brief primping made me suspect that I was already being judged by the timbre of my footsteps. I was more nervous than I should have been, probably because while I had confidence in my skills as a contortionist and dancer, I had never felt glamorous or seductive. Lenoir painted only the most beautiful girls, the stars, and I felt a little like a fraud. But I quickly smothered that little voice of doubt in my heart and put on my best smile as I entered the chamber.
He was there on the couch, watching me with the sharp eyes of a hawk.
No. That’s not true. Hawks have kind of stupid, round, golden eyes. Lenoir’s eyes were too smart, too dark, already narrowed as if measuring me for a frame. His Van Dyke and hair were ink-black, with one streak of distinguished white. But it didn’t lessen the man; quite the opposite. There was a confident, smooth stillness about him that drew me in like a vacuum. A sexy vacuum. I breathed in deep and barely held myself from hunching over into attack mode.
Lenoir smelled of Bludman, which meant I’d finally found my link to Cherie.