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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Vale put an arm around my waist, and I shuddered as he pulled me close and led me from the room. “The words on that ticket were directions to this gallery. There was something here the duke wanted to see.”
“Ugh. I don’t know why. I feel like I need to go wash in boiling water or something. Like that painting is still staring at me.” I shivered all over like a dog throwing water, trying to get back to normal. “Do you know who painted it?”
The hall outside felt ten degrees warmer and much less haunted, and Vale clicked off the lighter and pulled me into a desperate hug, his hand cupping the back of my head.
“I do not know, bébé. Many are by Lenoir but not that one. He takes on protégés and students sometimes. I will try to find out. Do you feel . . .”
He trailed off, and I wrapped my arms around him, too. If he felt half as shaken as I did, then I was glad to give him my warmth. I couldn’t believe a painting had inspired such horror in my heart.
“That painting hates us,” I whispered, and he nodded as he rubbed my back.
“I did promise you romance, but I didn’t wish to frighten you into closeness.” He pulled away and held my face for a brief, bright moment. “How easily one forgets the hunt when one is hunted.”
“Wait.” I wanted to look through the door again but couldn’t bring myself to do so. “Did you see any paintings of Cherie? Of a Bludman or a human with long blond hair and gray eyes?”
“So far as I know, there are no humans in the cabarets, and if there were another Bludman, everyone would know. I saw no such painting.”
I sighed heavily and slumped over. “Then this whole trip was a waste of time.”
“Not so, ma chère.” He slipped his hand into mine, walking backward and pulling me after him. “We tried. And trying is worth something. We also know that there is something strange about that painting. I will come back during the day, ask around. See who painted it, and the ones of Jess and Edwige, too. Some ideas take more time to bear fruit, but you must not lose hope.”
My steps were shuffling and coy. I felt more than a little like a princess in a palace, surrounded by the dripping gilt and excess of the grand museum. The farther we got from the painting, the better I felt. “You’re right. It’s not like Cherie was going to be here and we were just going to walk in and find her. And it’s not a wasted trip.” I blushed and looked down, tracing the marble in the floor. “I mean, I’ve always wanted to see the Louvre.”
He stopped walking backward and smirked as if he knew exactly what I wasn’t brave enough to say. “Oh, you have always wished to see the Louvre? I think perhaps I can help with that.”
Before I could protest, he’d swept me off my feet and tossed me over his shoulder, taking off down the grand hall at a run. I started to shriek but slapped a hand over my own mouth. Vale ran through the Louvre like a little boy chasing a soccer ball, pointing out unhelpful things such as “Here’s a statue of a naked man with an unfortunate nose,” or “I think those are the king’s petticoats.” I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt, and when he finally stopped and placed me on my feet, we were both out of breath and far enough away from the portrait gallery that the malevolent tension was gone.
“Did you see everything?” he asked.
Without thinking, probably because of the lack of blud in my brain, I blurted, “I mostly watched your butt.”
That got his attention. He was instantly focused on me, his light eyes shining in the darkness. “Did you now, bébé?”
“Oh, well, I . . .” I looked down and fidgeted, very un-Bludman-like.
Light hands settled on my hips as he stepped into my personal space. “What is it you fear, Demi? You walk right up to the line and kick dirt over it and laugh, yet you won’t step over. Do you think a man minds being admired?”
“Of course not. I just . . .”
“Are you ashamed of me, then? Do you not find my backside pleasing?”
“What? No! Vale, come on.” My cheeks were red, my insides all twisted up. “Your butt is . . . awesome. I just . . . I didn’t break into the Louvre with you to talk about . . . this.”
“And yet here we are. All alone in the greatest museum in Franchia. Think of all the things we could be doing here, and yet we stand arguing in a hall. You could always kiss me to into silence.”
For a brief moment, I let myself think of all the things we could be doing—against this very wall, on one of the velvet couches, upstairs in the Sun King’s old bed. And yet . . . I couldn’t.
“My life is really complicated right now, Vale.”
“Yes, and that is why it’s good to have someone on your side.”
“You’re already on my side.”
“But I could be on your inside, too.”
A fire burst into life in my belly and radiated outward. I knew what he meant, but it was the double entendre that really caught me. And maybe it would have been easy to give in. But I knew how relationships happened in Sang, and no matter what I had thought about romance from the confines of the caravan, I wasn’t ready to give up my autonomy and start letting him call the shots. Especially when his first demand would be that I stop seeing Lenoir and drinking absinthe.
But I couldn’t tell him that, so I chickened out and went for the cheap shot.
“Maybe once I’ve found Cherie. But until then . . .”
“Until then, you dance on your side of the line.” He dug tight fists into his eyes. “And I dance along with you. From the other side.”
“I have responsibilities.”
“You keep saying that. As if I don’t know. Mon dieu, bébé, do you hear yourself?” He rubbed his head as he paced back and forth, more agitated than I’d yet seen him. “I have halted my life to help you. I have not been back to my tribe since I found you. I haven’t seen my horse. Do you think I am a boy playing a game?”
“I do, actually. You’re using me to avoid your real responsibilities.”
“You are the only thing I’ve ever cared about besides horses! You are my responsibility! So do not toy with me, because I am not a toy.”
His passion shook me, and I was torn between running away and clawing off his clothes to screw him senseless on the floor of the Louvre. But I did neither. “I’m not used to you being serious, Vale.”
“Perhaps I hide my true intentions behind jests because in truth, bébé, the way I feel about you terrifies me. But you don’t wish to hear that.” He pulled out a pocket watch and checked the time. “But for now, let me return you to your giant, lonely bed, as I know you have . . . business tomorrow.”
I snorted. “Oh, so you get to sleep with all the girls at Paradis, but if I don’t fall at your feet and do whatever you say, you get to call me a whore? That’s fair.”
Vale’s jaw dropped, and I’d never seen him look so caught out. “Bébé, no. That’s not what I—”
I put up a hand. “That’s exactly what you meant. You imply it almost every day. And I’ve never slept with any of them, never even kissed them. So let me do my job, and I’ll let you do yours. Which way is the bathroom with the ladder?”
Giving me a long, charged, measuring look, he pointed down the hall. “I might hide behind humor, but you, ma chère, hide behind cruelty.”
I started walking with my back as straight as a curtain rod, and he followed. We didn’t talk all the way through the Louvre, which had lost its midnight luster for me. Down through the hole in the floor, we were silent. Tromping through the sewers, we didn’t say a word.
And I hated it. God, how I hated it. But he hadn’t apologized. And he needed to.
Conveyances were scarce, but at least the one we finally landed had more room in it, which meant we weren’t forced to touch. The air was too thick with resentment for words, anyway. Still, he insisted on seeing me to the back door of Paradis.
“Thanks for a shitty date in a sewer,” I said.
“And thank you for ruining a lovely experience in a romantic museum.”
We stared at each other, breathing audibly through our noses.
“Weren’t we supposed to go see some shady friend of yours and bleed me out?” I spat.
He shook his head, smiling the saddest little smile. “It was only pretense, bébé. Just an excuse to enjoy your company. I was going to take you out for a stroll. There is no way I would put your blud into another man’s hands. Not now.”
“Well, why didn’t you fucking say so? You romantic idiot!” I stormed upstairs, hating the way my hat was bobbing stupidly and even more the way I felt like a spoiled, silly child.
“Good night, bébé,” I heard just before I slammed my door.
There was something on my pillow, and I picked it up with hands still hot with anger.
It was a small book. “The Elements of Signing with Style” was printed in gold on the cover, along with a hand making the Okay sign.
I ran downstairs to screw his brains out and confess my feelings, in that order.
The hall was empty.
It was good to wake refreshed and without a headache, even if I was sleepy and still conflicted over my time with Vale and our troubling good-bye. I was alert enough to slip the book back under my blankets before Blaise entered with my teacup of blood. When he presented a second vial nestled in his tiny blue hands, I shrugged and drank that one, too. Wholesome warmth bloomed in my belly, but when I licked my lips, I longed to taste bloodwine tinged with Lenoir’s special cocktail of absinthe. Tomorrow seemed very far away.
The morning was a flurry of makeup, hot hair tongs, fitting dresses and skirts, and the occasional sting of a pin when Blue wasn’t satisfied with the fit. Fully dressed in my Demitasse costume, I called for a break, taking a quick cup of perfectly warmed blood handed over by the surly bartender. The afternoon belonged to two run-throughs of the chandelier act in my new outfit while dangling high over the stage. Charline and Sylvie knew me well enough now to avoid the fury they would have caused by requesting that I start my practice just a few feet from the floor. I never slipped, never faltered. The confidence and grace of a predator were well suited to performing onstage, and all the high-quality blood had done its work. Even Charline was pleased, and when the curtain went up on a packed house, I was ready.
Every performer dreams of the flawless opening night, and that night I had mine. No one missed a cue. The daimon orchestra’s music was perfection. The girls had never smiled so brightly or kicked so high. The collective gasp as I descended on a giant golden chandelier covered with dripping faux diamonds—well, I drank up their adoration and wonder with the hunger of a daimon. They loved it. They loved us.
They loved me.
And I loved performing for them. This was what I’d dreamed of every night in Criminy’s caravan. A packed house, a sea of tuxedos and faces suffused with red. The hot kiss of spotlights, the breathless exultation of a standing ovation. I was a star, and no one could take it away from me.
The only thing that was missing was Cherie, and as they lowered the chandelier to the stage for our final bow, I felt a stabbing ache deep in my heart. I’d had enough time to become famous, but all I had of my friend were a ragged hairbob, two pulled fangs that might not even be hers, and a jar full of meaningless notes that didn’t give me a single clue as to where she might be. As I bowed and was buffeted by the patting hands of my daimon friends, I swore to myself that after tonight and the insanity of the ball, I would redouble my efforts to find my partner. Stardom was empty without her.
Normally, I hurried to the elephant once the curtain was down, but tonight I let the avalanche of laughing daimon girls carry me back to Blue’s room, where most of them changed every night. Mel and Bea helped me squeeze out of the costume and into the waiting black-and-white ballgown, and Blue double-checked the seams and retied the ribbons before I was allowed to leave. The dress was a wonder; the white organza fit perfectly and spread from the tight corset waist to a wide bell skirt that was so out-of-date as to reinvent fashion in one night. Determined black lines swirled over it like iron scrollwork on a gate, as if one need only grasp my waist and pull to open me wide. Kohl-rimmed eyes with black feather eyelashes and a slash of bright red in a Cupid’s bow at my lips marked me as a Bludman. My bloomers had become all the rage, I noticed; all the girls were wearing them, albeit in more colorful and ridiculous versions than my plain black ones.
As Blue pinned up my hair, I watched Mel and Bea get dressed at another mirror. They helped each other tenderly, with little touches and smiles. Mel whispered to Bea, and Bea answered in gestures, some of which were becoming familiar after a few hours with the book. They made a lot of sense, actually, the gestures describing the words cleverly. I saw Bea sign the words for scared and nightmare and hungry, and Mel pulled her into a hug and rubbed her back before kissing her gently on the lips. When Blaise ran by, they pulled him into their embrace, and my heart wrenched at how nice it must be to have a relationship of such easy affection and trust.
“Good luck tonight.” Blue’s grumble broke my musings as she slipped a half-mask over my face. “You’re going to need it.”
I thanked her and headed to join the gaggle of girls waiting by the door.
“You go first,” Mel said, dragging me forward a little. “It’s you they want.”
I turned to look at my friends and coworkers. They were so beautiful and bright and sparkling, their half-masks doing nothing to disguise who they were. Their skin and smiles couldn’t be hidden.