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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“No. Please. Y’all—”
Bea pointed at me and shooed me toward the front.
I smiled and fluffed my skirt and forced my shoulders down proudly. Swinging my hips, I led them down the hallway toward the stage, where a wide, curving staircase had been brought in to cover the orchestra pit and connect the stage to the theater floor. The seats were gone, cleared away and stacked along the wall to leave room for dancing.
I paused in the wings, as I’d been told to. At some unseen signal, the orchestra started up with a grand processional that, to be quite honest, sounded like the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. Head up and wearing my fangs proudly, I sashayed onto the stage and stopped at the top of the stairs. The murmuring crowd went quiet, every masked face in the room turning to watch us in hungry silence. The daimon girls fanned out behind me, and I tried to imagine what it must be like to be in the audience. In front, in shades of black and white and red, the vampire starlet promised paradise with her teeth, while behind her, a harmless, glittering rainbow of dancing girls spread like angel wings, ready to provide pleasure just for the joy of sharing themselves. It was like something out of a movie or a fairy tale, except that I felt less like a star and more like a reluctant bride, bought and paid for.
We took the stairs in time with the music. Charline brought a man to meet me at the bottom stair, a foreigner with a red-dyed beard and shoes turned up at the toes. He performed an elaborate bow, the tiny bells on his unusually colorful suit jingling. Every other man at the ball wore dress whites, but this gentleman wore mauve and plum and bright poppy red.
“La Demitasse, at last. I have traveled the entire continent to meet you, my dear.”
“May I present Prince Seti, the ruler of Kyro?”
I resented the warning in Madame Sylvie’s voice but was too well groomed to hiss near the man who had probably paid a king’s ransom for my time. I only smiled, sweetly. “I knew I was waiting for something special,” I murmured, letting him kiss my hand.
The music segued into a quadrille, and I was soon dancing, surrounded by colorful daimons matched with austere men in black, the opposite of my gawdy partner and me. The air grew hot and humid with lust, and the daimons’ laughter shook the rafters. My feet hurt already in the dainty slippers, but I preferred dancing to doing what the prince expected me to do, considering the price he had likely paid for what he thought was my virginity. I would dance all night if it would keep me from the elephant.
After three songs and many polite compliments and murmured thanks, I begged to sit for a moment.
“I will bring you wine, my dear. I brought a special cask from Egypt. Have you tasted camel blud? I hear it’s quite the aphrodisiac to your kind.”
“I can’t wait,” I said, but inwardly, I cringed. Why did rich men keep trying to cram weird animals down my throat? Then again, if camel was half as good as unicorn, I would have no right to complain.
The prince disappeared, and I darted through the crowd toward one of the niches that had been created using the velvet curtains that hung from the walls. I knew damned well they were there so the girls could discreetly provide their services without leaving the theater, but surely it was too early for one of the small enclosures to be occupied? This one still had the flaps open and drawn back invitingly.
Inside, I saw only a long quilted bench. But before I could duck in to hide, an insistent hand caught my wrist and pulled me back to the floor. I spun, barely turning my snarl into the simper that my patrons expected.
“My prince, I didn’t expect you back so soon.”
But it wasn’t the prince, and my heart leaped into my throat. Scowling at the interloper’s wicked grin, I grabbed his spotless black sleeve and dragged him into the alcove.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Enjoying the ball, bébé.”
“They’ll skin you alive!”
“Define they. Define skin.”
Vale strolled to the bench and sat down, knees spread, arms across the back, green eyes glinting like a cat’s in the light of a single lantern hanging from the tent’s ceiling. A rich man’s walking cane was balanced across his knees, and I wondered which tuxedo-clad client he’d stolen it from. I’d never seen him so cocky. I’d never seen him so clean. I’d definitely never seen him so devastatingly sexy. I rushed back to the velvet and untied the thick black tassels that held open the flaps. The curtains closed us in completely, and firelit darkness swallowed me whole. I tied the ropes in a double knot.
I turned to find Vale watching me, his high top hat on the bench beside him. His bare hands were buried in the plush, rubbing absentmindedly as if there was an itch he couldn’t scratch, somewhere just out of reach.
“How’d you get in?” I asked, just to have something to fill the space besides my spooked breathing and his scent, that musky chai that spoke of wildness and wind blowing over a thin veil of respectability.
“The same way I always do, bébé. You know that.”
“But why? Why risk it? What if Madame Sylvie saw you?”
“Hypotheticals don’t interest me, not with you standing there, dressed like that.” He curled a finger and smirked. “Viens sur mon coeur . . . Tigre adoré.”
My body jerked toward him like a puppet on tight strings, as if Baudelaire’s words in Vale’s dusky voice were a command in a language I didn’t know I knew. Tiny steps in satin slippers carried me whispering across the ballroom floor, until the rounded skirt of my gown brushed his knees like a satin jellyfish.
“That’s more like it.”
He whipped his cane around me, holding me caged with both arms tight against my corseted waist and the polished wood at my back. His black tuxedo pants dented my dress, the distorted black-and-white designs briefly reminding me of a zebra that had lost the game and twitched under a lion’s heavy paws.
“But aren’t we fighting?”
“If you wish, bébé. Use your claws to punish me. I don’t mind.”
“The prince—” I started lamely.
“Forget him. He’s been detained.” He looked up, winked at me. “I am a bit of a prince myself, you know.”
“Prince of the brigands?”
“Prince of the Brigands of Ruin. Prince of the wild moors. And my palace is a hell of a lot bigger than his.”
I raised one eyebrow, suppressed a smile. “And how big is it?”
He chuckled. “Enormous, bébé. I’ll show you one day. My palace is as big as the sky.”
“Then why don’t you claim it?”
He shook his head when I broke an unspoken rule of our flirting. But he recovered quickly, a golden fire dancing in his eyes. “Maybe you’re right, bébé. Maybe I should start claiming the things I see as mine.”
He jerked the cane forward and dropped it, and I fell into his open arms as it clattered to the floor. His hands were clever as he spun me, and I ended up sitting across his lap in the black-and-white cloud of my dress, his arm around my back. My mouth was still open in surprise, and before I could close it, he was kissing me, his other hand firm on my chin to hold me, just so.
Oh, God, that kiss. I’d had plenty of blood since yesterday’s absinthe, but I felt suddenly as drunk and dizzy and reeling as if I had just completed a wild tarantella dance, spinning and spinning and spinning. He had kissed me before—rough as the brick in the hallway, soft as the swing of a trapeze in the breeze. But this kiss matched the cozy, heart-red velvet lair that held us, a little world outside of real life.
If Lenoir’s absinthe was glitter and fairies and sunbeams, Vale’s kiss was the opposite: endless star-strewn skies and the intimacy of turning your face away from eternity to steal a moment, dark and secret. His mouth tasted of spices, of cinnamon and chai and mint, of uncut cocoa and bourbon vanilla and not-quite-blood-but-close-enough. I was careful of my teeth despite the furious passion he called forth, desperate to keep the kiss, catch the moment, intent on its path like a comet blazing a sure arc through the night.
He kissed me slowly, and I understood that he knew it, too, knew that it was precious as only stolen things could be. The prince had bought my time and, so far as he knew, my body, but Vale knew his business and would take what others didn’t watch closely enough. He turned his head, his tongue dipping deep to taste me, caress me, heat me from within with the branding burn of cherry-hot iron. But he didn’t taste of metal and blood to me; he only tasted of himself. And I wanted more.
The hand around my waist stroked down to explore my curves through the airy layers of tulle and satin. He groaned but couldn’t reach me, even though he pulled me tighter against his body. My fingers were tangled in his cravat, pulling it untied of their own volition as I gasped into his mouth. The starch of his collar made my fingertips gritty, and I made a little growl as my talon caught in the knotted silk.
“If your hands need work, move lower down, bébé. We don’t have enough time for the grand reveal.” Holding my jaw, he kissed the corner of my mouth and moved down, slowly, softly, his lips murmuring over my throat. “Not that it’s going to stop us.”
“Dangerous thing, thinking. Just feel.”
He tipped me back over his arm, letting my head fall against the bench to expose my throat and arch my back. He pulled off his glove with his teeth and ran rough fingertips down my neck and over my collarbones, down to where the heart-shaped neckline of my corset forced my breasts up deliciously on a clever little shelf.
“Close your eyes, bébé.”
“Isn’t it my turn to participate?”
“Not yet. You perform for everyone, all the time. Let me perform for you. You’ll get your chance to star, I promise.”
I searched his eyes, but it was as hopeless as hunting for something lost on the moors. I was mesmerized by the hunger and an odd kindness there. Did I trust him?
I trusted him enough with my body . . . if not yet my heart.
I closed my eyes and tipped my head back all the way, giving myself up to him for the second time. He slid me down so my ass was on the bench, my back arched over the bulge in his lap, and my head on the other side of the softly cushioned seat. I didn’t know what to do with my arms, but he placed them, one by one, over my head. My legs stretched out under the poof of the skirt, and I kicked off the little slippers to rub the soles of my feet on the velvet, the closest thing I’d felt in years to walking barefoot in mown grass. My body had never felt so alive, so open, so straining and wanting. I was willing to let him have his way again—for a time.
I thought he would go for my breasts, taking advantage of the benefits of gravity and a supportive corset. I held my breath, waiting for the sweet rasp of fingertips on aching nipples. Instead, his palm cupped my jaw, his thumb tracing my eyebrows. One finger brushed over my false eyelashes like a butterfly kiss, then drew a line down my nose and over each cheekbone. As he traced my lips ever so gently, he murmured, “So beautiful. So beautiful, bébé.”
I lifted a corner of my lip, showing a fang—half dare, half self-pity.
“Even that. Ferocious little tiger. The men of my tribe like fierce women.”
He touched a finger to the fang but didn’t test its sharpness. I could feel my heart beating in my ears, my breath coming fast and forcing my ribs against the corset. I squirmed, wishing for his hands in the places that called for them. All this touching and tenderness was a fine gift, but now was not the time for pleasantries. The beast inside me was done with worship and ready for action.
I sat up, sinuously arching and twisting to straddle him, my knees on either side of his hips.
He laughed and held my hips tight. “Like that, is it?”
“You said you liked fierce women.”
“Did I mention I like them in my lap?”
“You talk too much.”
He started to say something else, but I kissed him first, sloppy and open-mouthed and injecting every single thing I wanted into the way my tongue swirled and plunged against his. He moaned and rocked his hips, and somewhere under the poof of my skirt, I felt his response and settled more firmly down. Oh, yes. That was exactly what I wanted. Knees spread wide, I put weight in my ass and rubbed, slowly, up and down his length. For the first time in Sang, I had cause to thank Aztarte or Saint Ermenegilda or whoever made up the rules that there were no germs and no accidental pregnancies, at least not for Bludmen. My body knew exactly what it was doing, and what it was doing now was getting ready to fuck a brigand insensible.
I took what I wanted, ferociously, unapologetically, and he loved it. His hands clenched my hips, grabbed my ass, helped me move, grinding with me in time with the orchestra’s waltz. I had always liked long hair, but the curves of his skull under my hands had a sensual quality, an intimacy, that I found interesting. I ran a finger along his earrings and captured his jaw to hold him while I changed angles. He lifted me a little, and my hands fell onto his broad shoulders, onto a tuxedo jacket that hid too much of his body for my taste. I tried to pull it off, but he grabbed my hands, one on each side.
He spoke directly into my panting mouth. “Time is short, bébé. Use your imagination. For now.”
When he loosed me, I grabbed the back bench behind his head to steady myself. He used a thumb to flick one breast over the edge of my corset, his lips tightening over the taut nipple. I went still as he sucked, his teeth lightly scraping as he lifted the other breast from the corset, too. I couldn’t breathe as he toyed with one, suckled the other, licked them with wide strokes of his tongue. While his hands and mouth were busy, I reached to the front of my skirt and yanked the ribbons that held it in place. The knot came undone, and the grand skirt billowed away like a magnolia falling to the ground.