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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
And it only got better, each time I had it.
“How much, Demi?”
I shrugged elegantly and nearly fell off the bed. “Just a glass.”
Vale leaned close, his face more serious than I’d ever seen it. Normally, I was the stiff, controlled diva, and he was the mischievous brigand, the clown. But now I was loose as a goose, and he was so tightly wound you could almost hear the gears grinding inside.
It struck me as funny, and I swallowed a giggle and poked his nose with my finger and said, “Boop.”
Vale was so tense he was all but vibrating. “Demi. Mon dieu, woman. Will you never listen to me? Not even once? Absinthe is serious, bébé. It is poison. It is dangerous.” His hands cupped my face, but again, the kiss didn’t come. With his thumbs, he pulled down my eyelids, and I rolled my eyes. “Drink all the bloodwine you want. Get drunk every night, preferably in my vicinity. But I’m begging you never to take absinthe again.”
I wrenched out of his grasp and rubbed my eyes. “You’re totally harshing my buzz, man.”
“You could go into a coma, Demi.”
“Your mom’s in a coma.”
“You could die.”
“I’d die happy.” I flopped back again and rolled my head over the pillows, my attention caught by what I thought was a brass octopus offering me millions of diamonds.
Vale’s hand cupped my scalp behind the sweat-plastered curls, pulling me forward and out of the little reverie inspired by the glittering chandelier. “I wouldn’t,” he said with a heavy gentleness. “And neither would your friend Cherie. Have you forgotten her already?”
That finally broke through the dizziness—that anger. “Of course not. Of course I haven’t forgotten her. She’s like my sister!”
“And are you any closer to finding her? Have you done a single thing today, asked a single question? Or have I been running around Paris, spending my hard-earned francs to buy up teeth, in the hopes that you’ll see how much I care for you?”
I pushed away from him, but my arms were too weak to have any effect. He only held me tighter. But he couldn’t stop me from talking. “I don’t know where to begin, Vale! This life eats me up. There’s not a spare moment. I’m lost and dizzy and exhausted and constantly hounded, and I’m still no closer, just rolling old men’s bodies, my hands deep in their moist pockets. Just waiting every moment to be kidnapped, to be stolen away like a child in the night.” Something knocked at the back of my brain, and the sudden realization would have taken me to my knees had Vale not been holding me. “Oh, shit. I should’ve just let the elephant take me away. I had my chance, and I totally blew it. It’s what I want most, and it terrifies me. I just had to fight, didn’t I?”
“You are a fighter, bébé. Do not blame yourself for following your instincts.”
“But I do. And these teeth—are they even hers? Will they bring me any closer to finding her at all? If I stop to think about it for even a heartbeat, I nearly go mad with grief and frustration. But the absinthe quiets it. Only the absinthe and your mouth give me any peace at all, you bastard, and how dare you throw it back in my face?”
I wanted to shake my head, but I wanted his hands on my body more, so I let him hold me there and give me a significant look that made me feel even more warm and loose-limbed than I already was. I swallowed hard and sat forward, and Vale’s hand slipped around to cup my jaw, his thumb stroking my cheek. “Please, Demi. Please, bébé. We’ll look harder. But no more absinthe.”
My lips parted as I leaned forward to kiss him, and he jerked back. “Why, Vale? I don’t understand . . .”
“I can taste it on your lips.”
“So I want nothing to do with wormwood and blood.”
I moved forward again, murmuring, “Don’t be silly. Lenoir said—”
He stood smoothly, from his haunches to his feet before my eyes could track him. He’d managed to lay me gently on my pillows, but I felt the loss of his touch so keenly. “Lenoir,” he breathed. “What else did he tell you, bébé?”
“That it was harmless. That the stories weren’t true. That Bludmen weren’t . . .”
“Weren’t . . .?”
I sighed. “I forget the word.”
“Of course you do. He wants you to forget.”
“He doesn’t. He wants to paint me. Wants to make me an even bigger star. Wants my portrait hung in the Louvre, surrounded by crowds.” I was in his arms again before I could blink, my head cradled against his shoulder like a child.
“What he wants,” Vale whispered in my ear, “is for you to give in completely, a little at a time.” He placed my head back down, and I puddled limply amid the down pillows. With infinite care and a face as hard and sad as weeping stone, he drew the covers over me.
“But he’s an artist—” I started.
“Oh, bébé. He’s a man, and all men are liars.”
He slipped out the window without looking back, and I giggled softly to myself.
“Liar!” I yelled to the darkness.
* * *
When I next heard banging on my door, I was far less drunk and much more annoyed, in part because I couldn’t remember what had happened at Lenoir’s or why Vale and I had quarreled. He had refused to kiss me—I knew that much. And there was something about Cherie, about me not trying hard enough to find her. As if plundering bodies and making myself a sitting duck weren’t enough.
The knocking made me grind my teeth, tasting something black and twisted, licorice and soot.
The knocking continued, louder and more insistent, and I took off my boot and threw it against the wood.
“Demitasse, forgive me, but the gendarmes are here for you.”
I sat up, blinking back against the sun piercing my curtains. “Am I to have no peace?”
The door opened, and Charline smirked at me. “You wanted to be a star, and stars have no peace. Dress quickly. The photographers are outside the front door, waiting to snap you.”
I groaned and rolled to my feet, testing whether my legs would hold me up. It was iffy. Bathing with rose water from the ewer, I couldn’t help noticing my face. It was a total mess, the kohl and mascara dribbling down my cheeks in dried tear tracks and the lipstick bow smeared across my chin. God, and Vale had seen me like this last night? No wonder he hadn’t kissed me. I looked like Courtney Love after a bender. I scrubbed it all off and rubbed in an expensive cream made of crushed pearls—a gift from a nameless suitor—before reapplying my makeup and touching up my hair. Even dressed to the nines, I felt itchy and off, and I vowed to take a long, hot bath after the night’s show, even if it meant I had to pay Auguste to drive me to a public bath house. My time at Lenoir’s yesterday had promised to be relaxing, but I felt more tightly wound than ever, as if nothing would satisfy me until I tasted the absinthe again.
Wait. Had I promised Vale I wouldn’t drink it again? I didn’t think I had.
He’d been right about one thing, though: I had let the giddy whirl of fame get to my head, and I wasn’t trying hard enough to find Cherie. By light of day, I felt silly and lazy and guilty. And ready to get tough about finding answers.
With every hair in place and long satin gloves covering my arms, I sashayed down the stairs and out the door, blowing kisses to Mel and Bea and the rest of the girls, who watched and whispered. And no wonder—I’d nearly been killed in a giant elephant and had then disappeared for a day with the most famous and notorious artist in the world and come home too drunk to walk. Even for a cabaret girl, I lived a wild life.
Are you okay? Bea signed, and I nodded and signed, Thank you.
As soon as Auguste opened the front door, flashes of light and clouds of powder erupted. The photographers crowded around, their reporter partners shouting questions in Franchian and Sanglish and waggling huge feather quills in my face to get my attention. I drew the veil on my hat down over my eyes and took the hand the mustachioed gendarme offered me. But instead of gently holding my hand as if I were getting into a carriage, his leather glove clamped down around my wrist, and he all but dragged me into a waiting constabulary conveyance. The appointments were far rougher than I was accustomed to, and I clenched my hands around the wooden bench as the thing grumbled down the cobblestones, battering me against the sides behind iron bars.
“At least I’m not in manacles,” I grumbled.
The younger, nastier gendarme snorted. “Against my recommendation, I might add. Please cause trouble. I beg you.” He not-so-subtly stroked the sleek gun resting against his hip. It looked like a futuristic metal ray gun, but I was willing to bet it was filled with seawater that would burn my skin and possibly leave me with permanent scars. He’d probably never had a chance to use it before and was just praying to give it a whirl.
I crossed my legs and gave him a sultry smile. “You’re not the first man to say that to me, Monsieur Legrand.”
He scowled and stared at his clenched hands. I had an enemy for life, but it was worth it.
The conveyance stopped in front of a grand edifice, all soaring white stone and gargoyles and carvings, classic Paris in this world or my own. Inside, it was noticeably less charming, the windows mostly covered and the gaslights a sickly yellow. The floor was dark and slick and made each footstep echo, each muffled thump or shriek bounce eerily off the walls. I walked between the gendarmes, head back as if they served me instead of compelled me. I still wasn’t exactly sure what they wanted, but I knew it wasn’t good. My job now was to turn the tables and get what I wanted in the most dramatic and diva-esque way possible.
I gave the older gendarme a quirked eyebrow as he held up a pretty lavender box of éclairs that I had to assume were the Sang version of cop doughnuts.
“Unless they’re filled with blood, monsieur, I must demur.”
“Oh, la. I had forgotten.” He stifled a laugh and shook his head, and I liked him the better for it. He would clearly be playing the role of Good Cop in today’s drama. “I’m afraid we don’t keep blood on hand, mademoiselle. I do believe you’re the first Bludman we’ve had in the station.”
I waved him off. “I understand. A few years ago, I would have gladly eaten half that box.”
His jaw dropped, showing teeth that had clearly seen too many pastries. “But . . . you were once human? I have heard tales but assumed it was merely supposition.”
“I was born just as human as you, monsieur.” I batted my eyelashes, knowing that when I wanted to, I could look like an innocent seventeen-year-old. “Fortunately, on the cusp of death, my godfather was able to change me over. But I do miss the sweets.”
The younger gendarme spit on the ground. “Blasphemy. The girl is clearly lying.”
I fought the urge to hiss and claw his face off. “Tell me, are those éclairs filled with vanilla cream, chocolate ganache, or pudding? I always preferred the vanilla cream, myself. Especially the real kind, made with butter and Madagascar vanilla.”
The older gendarme’s mouth twitched. “These are chocolate ganache,” he said, patting his belly. “My favorite.”
“Let’s get this over with,” the younger one grumbled, and they led me through a thick metal door with a small, barred window near the top. Inside was a sturdy wooden table and three chairs. The older gendarme pulled out my chair for me, and I sat daintily, crossing my legs at the ankles. The gendarmes sat across from me, each one shuffling his papers and preparing his pen.
“Sergeants Bonchance and Legrand, questioning Mademoiselle Demi Ward, also known as La Demitasse, regarding the events of March nine,” the older gendarme said loudly and clearly, glancing at the window in the door in a way that told me we had a witness.
“Please proceed,” a metallic voice boomed through a rudimentary speaker.
“Mademoiselle Ward, please tell us everything that happened on the night of March nine.”
And I told them, conveniently leaving out the bit about having the hottest sex of my life with a costumed brigand in a private alcove. When I got to the moment when the copper elephant ripped free of its moorings and began to charge through the streets, the younger gendarme, Legrand, raised a hand.
“Mademoiselle, just to clarify, could you please tell us why you were to meet the prince in this pachyderm?” The nasty quirk of his thin lips told me to tread carefully.
“I have no idea what he might have had in mind, monsieur. I was merely asked to pay my respects to a visiting dignitary.”
“On your knees, mademoiselle?”
I smiled sweetly. “I’m a citizen of Almanica, monsieur. I kneel to no one.”
“So you’re saying no money changed hands? That there was no understanding?”
“Not with me. I had barely spoken twenty words to the prince beforehand. Whatever expectations he might have had are his own business. But pray tell, Monsieur Legrand, how does this apply to my attempted kidnapping?”
“That’s Sergeant Legrand,” the smaller man growled.
Bonchance put a kindly hand on his arm. “Let’s get back on track, lad.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “Now, can you tell us how you incapacitated your kidnapper?”
Another saccharine smile. “I hit him twice in the head with a heavy wrench. I assume that self-defense isn’t yet against the law?”
Bonchance shook his head no, but Legrand leaned avidly forward.
“Interesting. But how did the gentleman in question come to be exsanguinated?”