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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
My nostrils flared, and I put up a gloved hand. Funny, how I’d never had so much power before now, the first time I’d been a minority. And I wasn’t taking his shit. “Please, monsieur. If I might ask a question? Would you be interrogating me if you thought I had killed him with the wrench? Or a knife? Or any other weapon at hand?”
“That question is not pertinent—”
“An attorney might think it is.”
Legrand went silent, and Bonchance stroked his mustache.
The older cop leaned forward, speaking out of the side of his mouth as if we shared a secret. “You must understand, mademoiselle, that as Bludmen are rare in Paris, this is a new conundrum for us. Technically speaking, it is against the law to drink from a human. But if it was self-defense against someone who clearly meant you harm, we must consider it carefully.”
“Messieurs, I beg you. Please remember, during your deliberations, that I was trapped in a very small, dark room with a man who had already tried to kidnap me.” I blinked, letting my eyes tear up. “And I’m also fairly certain that the crash had damaged him internally. Do you have any idea who that madman was?”
Legrand scoffed. “This is a police investigation, mademoiselle, not your personal gossip mill.”
I sat up straighter, dropping the doe-eyed act. “I have a right to know the identity of my attacker.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“And I’d also like to discuss the disappearance of my dear friend Cherie, who was abducted by slavers on the road to Ruin.”
“That is not part of the current investigation,” Legrand snapped.
Bonchance added, “And only the city of Paris itself is in our jurisdiction, you see.”
“You’ll not even take a statement? Not even send out a bulletin with her information?”
Legrand looked as if he might spit again. “The whereabouts of . . . cabaret girls is not our top priority. Girls disappear frequently, mostly as a result of the unsavory habits of your lifestyle. If we spent our time chasing down every loose woman who fell on hard times, we wouldn’t have time to investigate important things, like murders. We’re the ones asking the questions, mademoiselle; you’d do well to remember that.”
I stood, the chair clattering to the ground behind me. “I’m sorry, but are you telling me that you’re satisfied to let slavers kidnap innocent travelers? And that when a madman kidnaps me in a giant machine, I’m not only prevented from knowing his name, but I’m also on trial for killing him in self-defense? Because I’d like to speak to a lawyer. Attorney. Barrister. Whatever you call it in this insane excuse for a justice system.”
Bonchance held out his hands. “Now, mademoiselle. Let’s stay civil and reasonable.”
Legrand’s lip twisted up. “I hate questioning women. So melodramatic.”
Anger flared, my cheeks blazing hot. “So when women are kidnapped, you treat them like criminals? This is clearly a case not only of misogyny but also of racism. Were I a human man, you’d be clapping me on the back and handing me a cigar. But because I’m female, a Bludman, and, in the words you’re too cowardly to speak and which aren’t actually true, a whore, I don’t deserve justice?”
They both stared at me, mouths open.
“Mademoiselle—” Bonchance began, and I almost felt sorry for him.
“Tell me, either of you. Tell me you think that because of who I am, because of what I am, I deserved it. I dare you.”
“We didn’t mean—”
“Tell me,” I said clearly, turning to let my eyes bore through the window in the door, “that every word I just spoke isn’t true, and I will cease to be, as you say, melodramatic.” I sat down daintily. “And I’ll wait for that lawyer now, while I compose my remarks for whichever reporters would consider my little story worthy of their time.”
After a long, dangerous, and painful pause, the speaker squawked, “The mademoiselle is free to go.”
Bonchance opened the door, and I flounced out of the room like the queen of goddamn England. Now I just had to discover who had kidnapped me and where he had planned to take me. I had to find Cherie and prove all those self-righteous good-old-boy hypocrites wrong.
Back at Paradis, I ignored Charline and all my curious coworkers and went straight to the tailcoat I’d stashed in my armoire. There had to be something I’d missed. Gentlemen always left a signature of their grandeur in this world.
I stretched the garment out on my bed, running my fingers along the seams and searching for a tailor’s mark, a tag, a button, anything. It was well made and of the latest fashion, but tiny white stitches showed where the tailor’s tag had been torn from the lining. I sniffed at the thick fabric, scenting oil and hot metal and an unsavory, magic funk. It was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. An odor clinging to the cuff made me gasp—Bludman and pine and vanilla. Cherie. I put my lips to it, breathing it in.
“Did you just lick a coat?”
I spun, hands curled into claws, as Vale swung his other leg over to sit on my windowsill. “Do you ever knock?”
He grinned. “Not if I can help it.”
His fingers drummed on the sill as the gauzy white curtains billowed around him, highlighting the deep gold of his skin and the brightness of his eyes. He was back in his brigand’s gear, all black and shadows, and I unconsciously licked my lips, remembering what it felt like to pull him close by tuxedo lapels and devour him.
“Aren’t you supposed to be mad at me?” I asked.
He shrugged. “My anger burns off easily, like clouds on a sunny day. And you’re not drunk or drugged, so I’m hoping you took my warning to heart.”
“You’re not my boss.”
The grin deepened, quirked, took on a new meaning. “Didn’t say I wanted to be.”
I looked down and swallowed hard, all my earlier bravado fled. “Thank you for the book.”
“De rien, bébé. I’m glad it pleased you, even if I didn’t.”
“You did, but . . .” The apology was on the tip of my tongue, but something held it back.
“I didn’t come here for thanks, you know.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed and jumped right back up, suddenly skittish. “What do you want, then?”
He stood, took a confident but tentative step. “Just this moment or in general?”
“You want to have this discussion now, bébé? Might be easier after a bottle of wine.”
But after my outburst at the police station, I was done with being misunderstood. “Tell me the truth, Vale. Why did you offer to help me find Cherie?”
“You know why. Because I have a soft spot for lost girls. And so I would have an excuse to keep seeing you.”
“What do you want from me?”
I blushed and turned away, twisting the tailcoat between my black fingers, aware now more than ever how other I had become. In the police station, I’d been furious at their prejudice, at their assumptions. But now, faced with the truth about someone who had no such qualms, I felt strange and unlovable and desperately alien. And so close to my goal yet so very far away.
“What did you think would happen once we’d found Cherie?” I asked.
He stepped close, so close I could feel the heat of his chest against my back. “More truth? As you like. I did not expect to find her. We’ve never found a girl after the slavers took her, at least not whole and undamaged. But I was willing to do anything to find her. For you. And if we did and she was beyond help, I would hold you until you were done crying and help you move on. Give you a reason to move on.”
I clasped my hands against my heart. In a tiny voice that was more human than anything I’d said in years, I said one word: “Why?”
“Oh, bébé.” His arms wrapped around me with the same silken warmth as his sigh, and I leaned back into him. “Biggest star in Mortmartre, and do you not even know your own worth? You’re an adventure. A beautiful, wild, strange, intelligent, rebellious journey of a woman. No cookfires for you, no bookkeeping or weaving or collecting of ribbons. You’re the kind of woman who would leap onto the back of a strange bludmare behind a stranger, gallop for hours without complaint, and plunge into the sewers without a second thought. The kind of woman who willingly walks into a trap to save someone she loves. The women of my tribe are fierce but not as fierce as you.” He planted a little kiss behind my ear. “And you make me laugh. I dearly love to laugh.” His hips pressed against me, a quick brush that was more a statement than a question. “And I like to do other things, too.”
“Stop, Vale. Be serious.”
“And you don’t think sex is serious? It’s the driving force of nature, bébé. Everything a man does is for love or sex.” He chuckled. “Power is about sex. Fame is about sex. Food keeps you alive so you can have more sex. Clothes make people want to look at you, think seriously about bedding you. Not that I generally take anything seriously. But still. You are a fool if you discount what really motivates every single person and creature in Sang.” He paused, sighed in my ear. “You turned me into a poet, bébé. Even the best songs and books are about love.”
“Which one are you talking about? Sex or love?”
He swayed against me, making my hips move. I didn’t fight it; I felt liquid and dizzy. “Maybe both,” he said, and he spun me around to face him, catching my face in his hands and pulling me in with delicious slowness for a deep, lapping kiss that melted my hips into his.
A knock on the door made me jump guiltily away from him, my teeth bared at the innocent rectangle of wood. My door at the caravan had been mostly left alone, and I’d grown to find all the knocking and demands of Paradis as vexing as the spam e-mails I’d received back on Earth.
“What?” I barked, and the door opened just enough to admit Blaise. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and his big, dark eyes trembled with fear.
I beckoned him in, smiling. “Don’t worry, chou-chou. I’m not annoyed with you.”
He perked up and placed a sharp envelope in my hands, the paper thick and heavy with portent. I turned it over, noting that the blood-red wax seal featured crossed paintbrushes and the letter L. Forgetting that I wasn’t alone, I ripped the flap with no panache and pulled a creamy folded sheet from within. The impeccable script in dark purple ink matched the flecks of flower petals embedded in the paper.
La Demitasse, ma chérie,
I must request one final sitting to complete the masterpiece. It shall soon be ready for display at the Louvre, where all may gaze upon your beauty and tremble. Come to me one last time, my star. Tomorrow.
Pride and a strange sort of hunger-lust bloomed in my chest. One more taste of that amazing, delirious draught. One more golden afternoon under Lenoir’s dark and delicious gaze.
The postscript was messier than the rest of the letter, as if he’d lost just a bit of that tight control. “I shall miss our quarrels, ma chérie,” it said. “But I shall enjoy more than words one final toast to your fame.”
“You’re not going,” Vale said, and I spun away from his prying eyes.
“Reading over my shoulder? That’s low, even for you.”
He made a strangled noise, half groan, half growl. “Bébé, please. We both know that’s a fancy invitation to fuck you on the canvas.”
We stood just a few feet apart, but suddenly, a wide and uncrossable gulf opened between us. As if he could see it, too, Blaise backed away and darted out the door.
“For your information, Monsieur Hildebrand, I’ve only fucked one person since I arrived in Paris.”
“That is the past.” He pointed at the letter still in my hand. “While this is an obvious offer for something in the future.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Of course, I trust you! Otherwise, I wouldn’t leave you alone in this glorified whorehouse long enough to hunt teeth and secrets in Darkside. It’s him I don’t trust. Lenoir.” He wrapped a hand around the bedpost, his knuckles white. “Do you even remember last night? You were beyond drunk, as open and easy as a flower. Anyone could have done anything to you, and you would have just lain there, laughing, smiling.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Because I want you awake and looking into my eyes while I tell you with every stroke that you’re mine. Not insensible and silly. Any man who wants that . . .” He set his forehead against the wooden post and sighed. “He’s a coward. And a villain.”
“And what makes you think I won’t sit for the portrait one last time, raise a glass of champagne, and leave with a kiss on the back of my hand? He’s never touched me, Vale. He’s never tried.”
“That’s the thing about absinthe, bébé. When the time comes, he won’t have to try at all.”
I opened my mouth to say a million more things, but then I remembered that I alone knew Lenoir’s secret. That he was a Bludman, like me, and that I needed that fellow feeling in a foreign place, surrounded by strangers. Something told me that if Vale ever learned anything about that, the smile would finally drop off his face forever.
One more trip to Lenoir’s studio, and then it would be over.
One more sip of absinthe, and then I would be done.
Then I would be good.
Then I would be a star.
And Vale didn’t need to know that.