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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
If Auguste hadn’t slammed the conveyance door, I would have leaped out to slap Vale for that. Instead, we were rumbling down the road before I could get to him.
I suddenly understood why he was acting so cold: I’d never told him I was only feeding on my midnight visitors. He thought I was prostituting myself. I’d set him straight tonight.
For now, I had Lenoir. And peace.
* * *
If the great artist had again refused to answer the door, I probably would have sat on the step and wailed like a hungry stray cat. As it was, it swung open on the second knock to reveal a glare that rivaled the one my dad gave me the first time I came home drunk after curfew in high school.
“You appear to have forgotten a day, my dear.”
“It wasn’t my fault—”
His lip twitched up in disgust. “It never is. You disappoint me, Demi.”
I cocked a hip and stared at him. “I’m a muse, not a slave. You’re too used to weak-willed daimons. Should I go?”
It killed me—killed me—to say it. I wanted so badly to be back upstairs in the sunlight that always seemed to shine there, even on days as dreary as this one. I wanted to watch the fairies and feel his eyes pry me open like a ripe peach. But the diva in me was already raising her red-painted lip to show fangs. Even the great Lenoir didn’t get to speak to me as if I was a child.
With a long, unblinking, measuring stare, he drifted back to reveal the stairway. I brushed past him, still flouncing, and took the steps at a pace that belied my anxiousness. He followed sedately, silently. He didn’t speak again until I was behind the screen, all but purring as the dress slithered over my skin.
“I waited, you know. All morning. There was an emptiness.”
“I wasn’t having fun, either,” I snapped.
“You’ll sit an extra hour today.”
“You’re not my father.”
A gloved hand clutched my wrist, hard, leading me to the chair waiting in a sunbeam. Lenoir leaned close enough for me to smell the sharp stab of violets and anise and paint oil that clung to him. His lips brushed my ear, and the breath caught in my throat as if someone had pulled the strings of a corset too tight.
“I never meant to be,” he whispered.
I sank into the chair, his other hand firm on my shoulder, pushing me into place. He arranged me gently but with purpose, as if I were a doll without feelings that he could easily choose to break. Did I imagine a caress as he pulled the pins from my hair and arranged the curls on my shoulders? I had to pull my lips back down over my fangs, stop trying to catch his scent. Like his absinthe, Lenoir was mysterious, heady, overpowering, and impossible to resist. The glass was in my hand moments later, and this time, I was sure I felt his fingers linger on mine, curling around the globe of sparkling liquid. One finger under my chin raised my face to his.
“Don’t displease me, chérie.”
I shook my head no, just a little.
As he walked to the easel, I couldn’t help admiring the austere but fashionable cut of his suit and the silent strength in his every movement. His eyes met mine as he slipped on his smock and whipped the cloth off his canvas. He seemed to embody what a Bludman should be, so very controlled and dangerous and beautiful. He must have caught me watching, for his mouth curled up in that rare, rare smile.
“Don’t look at me, Demi. Drink. Look at the fairies.”
The cup was to my lips before I willed it. For a moment, I fought the urge to taste it, knowing that I shouldn’t give in so easily. But that silly instinct disappeared once my tongue darted out to test the swirling sweetness. I took a long drink of the absinthe-laced bloodwine and unfocused my eyes, gazing into a sunbeam that had no right to be there when I was sure I heard drizzle on the windowpanes. It was like looking at one of those Magic Eye posters, waiting for the foreground and the background to switch and the dancing motes of dust to form into mesmerizing patterns. The cats batted at them, purring, and I reached black fingers out to join them, laughing.
It seemed mere seconds before Lenoir was helping me up from the chair, my bones aching and my eyes bleary. My hand was empty. The goblet lay on the thick, plush carpet, one lone drop of glittering red swirling against the unbroken glass. The sunbeam was gone, and the night was starless and black outside. Panic shot through me, but my body felt utterly drained.
“I’m late. Charline’s going to kill me.”
Lenoir led me to the screen and politely turned away. “She can’t touch you, chérie. You’re my star now.”
I dressed as quickly as I could and dived into the carriage, avoiding Auguste’s quiet but measuring gaze. Lenoir was right about Charline; although she grumbled in Franchian and wouldn’t stop sneering, she didn’t yell at all. I barely made it up to my hoop before they began to lower it in the spotlight. For a brief second, I looked for the dancing fairies, but they were gone. Then the music started, and I was again an object, a plaything, a puppet.
I smiled and spread my legs in a split.
* * *
Charline caught my arm as I bowed offstage, and I jerked it right back out of her grasp with a hiss. She recomposed her face into something similar to politeness.
“Listen, chérie. Tonight, you hurry with your patron. You don’t drink wine. You get sleep. Tomorrow is the debut of our grand finale, followed by a dance, a grand ball. You will be sold to the highest bidder. And you will dance with him, do whatever he wishes. Do you understand?”
I tried to count back the days, but I had no idea what day it was. “It’s time for the finale? With the chandelier?”
She made an elegant huff of annoyance. “Yes, of course. We have been rehearsing like mad while you sleep until noon and swoon for Monsieur Lenoir. Blue will fit your costume and ballgown tomorrow morning.” Charline leaned close, studying my eyes. “Less wine, more blood. We need you with us, Demitasse. Your grand finale can make our mark on the world. Or end us. We are all counting on you, you know. This is your chance to shine.” She gestured to a poster of me, pasted crookedly on the wall over a thick, faded collage of past posters. La Goulue and Jane Avril peeked out, as did a slender acid-green leg that had to be Limone’s. The message was clear: I might not be on top for long, and it was my duty to make it as spectacular and worthwhile as possible.
“But Lenoir is expecting me tomorrow morning.”
Her nostrils flared, and she flashed red with anger. “Lenoir”—she paused dramatically—“can wait.”
I couldn’t turn red, but I could still be pretty scary. I drew myself up tall despite the silly costume, pulled my lips back over my fangs, and took on the predator’s mantle that I spent so much time suppressing. Charline swallowed hard, turned a sickly shade of pink, and made herself smaller. Even if we both knew that I didn’t want her blood, it was clear enough that I could spill it all over the dusty wooden boards if I so desired.
“Then I take the next day off. Whatever day it is. I haven’t had a day off since I showed up here, and I’m damned well taking one. Got it?”
“Of course. Of course. Only fair,” she muttered, hurrying away from me with tapping slippers.
I grinned to myself. I still had it.
* * *
Instead of going directly to the pachyderm after the show, I whipped my arm from Auguste’s hold and ran upstairs to rifle through Limone’s vanity for a pen and paper. I found an elegant stationery set marked with skulls and peonies, still wrapped in its ribbon and including a quill and acid-green ink. It wasn’t exactly my style, but it would have to do.
I am regrettably detained tomorrow. I will attend you the day after, when my schedule is entirely open. Such is the life of a star.
Double-checking the note once more for silly mistakes, I folded it and skipped downstairs to put it in Blaise’s hand.
“Take this directly to Monsieur Lenoir, please.”
He stared at the paper, then looked up at me quizzically. “Désolé, mademoiselle, but I’m not allowed to leave Paradis.”
I’d seen him running so many errands in the cabaret that I’d assumed he performed such duties all over town.
He shrugged. “Not sure, mademoiselle. But Bea says I mustn’t, so I don’t. Never been outside.”
I fought the urge to crush Blaise in a hug. A young, vibrant, lively boy, and he’d never been outside? Never ridden the elevator up the Tower? Never danced through the streets or played ball with the other daimon boys under a bright blue sky? It was possibly the most depressing thing I’d ever heard. But since it didn’t seem to bother him too much, I didn’t want to make it seem like a big deal.
“I’ll ask Auguste, then. Thank you.”
He ran off, and I found Auguste and sent him on his errand. As I passed the open door of Blue’s workroom, I found the old daimon bustling around a huge dress on a mannequin.
“Is that for the ball?”
She sighed and poked her needle through a ruffle. “Of course, kid. Everything is. You ever been to a cabaret ball?”
“Nope. Never been to a ball at all.” I was pretty sure Homecoming at Riverdale High didn’t count.
She shook her head sadly and jabbed the needle through the fabric, pulling it taut again and again. “It ain’t the sort from fairy tales. Normally, I’d tell the girls to relax and enjoy it. But I think I just need to remind you to step lively and not kill anybody that grabs you wrong.” She gave me a significant look over her half-moon glasses. “Daimons and Bludmen got a lot in common, but you got to understand. We’re not predators. We’re prey. The girls here need what the men give them and don’t mind the exchange most clients demand. Like eating a food that ain’t your favorite—you can still live on it, can’t you? Don’t judge ’em for it. If you don’t want something, just disappear. Understand?”
I wasn’t sure that I did, but I ran a hand over the thick corset and long, frothy skirt. “This is for me, isn’t it?”
She nodded, a pin sticking out from the corner of her mouth. “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but be careful out there. You stay in Paradis, you’re mostly safe. You leave here, bad things could happen. Did they tell you Victoire disappeared?”
I shook my head. “No one tells me anything.”
“They keep it quiet. But it’s getting worse.”
I glanced into the hallway, too worried to ask if girls ever disappeared from the pachyderm.
“You got somewhere to be, don’t you, kid?”
I sighed and looked at the door. “More of the same.”
“Girls come here, they want to be stars. You know what stars want?”
“They want to be girls again. And they can’t. Not ever. Now, go.”
I hurried out the door and down the hall, feeling for the first time as if I was avoiding something besides grasping hands. Blue’s words had made me feel small and helpless, and the pachyderm and a throat full of blood seemed a good enough place to hide my blazing cheeks from her pity. I darted through the drizzle, head down, and ducked into the elephant’s leg, leaving my waterlogged boots to dry on a step. Upstairs I found the duke, the first man who’d written me and the first one who’d purchased my time. When I saw him standing there, wine bottle in hand, my heart sank. What if he wanted more than what I’d given him last time? What if he wanted what the daimon girls were glad to provide?
And if not him, what of the man with the deepest coin purse tomorrow?
“Bonsoir, monsieur,” I said coyly.
“La Demitasse, you’re a vision.” It was a lie. I was sodden and shaking. He poured a glass of wine and held it out enticingly. I could smell the unicorn blood and snow from across the room, and I wanted it. Badly. All of it. I bit my lip. I had to take control. And there was only one way.
I sashayed across the room, took the goblet from his hand, and sipped delicately, savoring the kiss of blood and magic on my tongue. But then I set it down and stepped close to whisper in his ear.
“It is delicious, monsieur. But there’s something I want even more.”
I could smell the change in blood flow as his face went red and he swallowed hard. I untied his cravat and pulled him toward the couch by his jacket lapels. He followed willingly, the powerful diplomat reduced to a hungry, overexcited little boy. He said nothing, his mouth hanging open like a randy goat’s.
With a hand on his chest, I shoved him back onto the couch and straddled him.
“Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” I whispered.
And then my teeth found his neck. It was becoming my best way to shut someone up.
I fled barefoot from the elephant like Cinderella being chased by her glass slippers, a ticket from the Louvre wadded up in my fist, the only helpful thing I’d found in his pockets. The duke hadn’t spoken again, had simply jerked and moaned when my blood magic helped him find his relief. It was grotesque but helpful, the way that happened with my clients. I giggled to myself, considering how this happened every night. I had become silent but deadly.
I had a foot on the stairs up to my room when Vale called my name, his voice soft and urgent as it echoed down the hall. We both knew there was no one else around to hear it. My heart lurched as it always did when he was near, but my brain was impatient. I really did need sleep, not to be up half the night thinking about the mysterious brigand. Still, I stopped. I couldn’t not stop.
I turned back to wait for him. He didn’t hurry. He never did.
“Bébé, it’s all set. Run up to your room to lose the bustle and grab your boots, and we’ll take some blud and get your book. And maybe some information, too.” He held out a disreputable umbrella and grinned. “Enough room for us both under here, if you stay close.”