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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“A skinny little blond ice monster?” I said in mock indignation. “I’ll have you know that my presentation ball was the most beautiful in Freesian history.”
“I saw the sketches in the paper.” He looked me up and down, and I sat up straighter, wishing for the frame of my hair and the hypnotic power of a beautiful dress. Brown would never be my color. “You were like a porcelain doll, before they drained you and left you for dead. But you must admit that it was quite the wake-up call. For both of us.”
“I must have been very frightening.” I looked down and fiddled with the tassels on the pillow.
“You were nothing but the beast,” he said gently. “It wasn’t your fault. I can’t believe you were that close to drained and still able to come back at all.”
“It was the music,” I admitted. “That and the blood.”
“You’re a Beatles fan, huh?”
“Inside joke. Between me and Keen.”
“I like jokes,” I said, trying not to sound as if it mattered.
“Sorry, princess,” he said. “But your Mario is in another castle.”
Before I could ask what that meant, Keen burst through the door. Casper and I jumped apart, although we hadn’t been anywhere close to touching. The girl smirked and tossed a blood orange in the air.
“Dinner’s in an hour, and we’re expected to dine at the main table. I told Miss May that Anne’s probably too pukey to show.”
For reasons I couldn’t yet contemplate, the thought of Casper walking into that room of half-clad women and a smiling Miss May made my ferocity override my fear.
“Dinner? Oh, I wouldn’t dare miss it.” I smiled sweetly at their matching expressions of surprise mixed with dread. “But at least I’ll have a good reason not to eat, now that you’ve spread the word about what a horrible traveler I am.”
“Do you really think it’s safe for you to go?” Casper asked cautiously, as if I was going to attack him for questioning me. Which, I supposed, was a reasonable fear, considering my previous behavior.
“I don’t know what sorts of tales the people of Sangland tell about Bludmen,” I said, unbuttoning my hat and fluffing my short hair, “but so long as we’re well fed, we have great control. Nearly all of our lower-ranked palace servants are Pinkies. My first memory is of having my hand smacked for trying to bite a maid’s leg. My manners and self-control are impeccable.”
“Except when you’re attacking the Maestro or killing innocent people,” Keen added, and my heart stuttered in horror.
“She couldn’t help attacking me. And she hasn’t killed anyone in at least four years.” Casper shot her a disapproving look. “You know what they say about when you assume.”
“I’m not the one who’s an ass,” Keen muttered, but she gave me a sly wink before she slunk back out the door.
“Get back in here, Keen. It’s not safe for a girl like you—”
With admirable quickness, she shut the door before he could finish.
“I am cursed with unruly women,” Casper said to himself.
But I was still staring at the door Keen had just slammed. That proved it—she’d seen me with the boy on the bank. But why hadn’t she said anything? Did Casper have a clue? And, more important, what did she want from me as payment for her continued silence?
“Do you think you’ll be able to get through dinner? Do you need another vial?”
Casper slid off the bed and rummaged in the trunk for a tube of blood.
“How many do we have?” I wasn’t hungry, of course, but I needed to pretend that I hadn’t utterly bloated myself last night while he was sleeping.
“Enough to get you home, I think.”
I thought about counting the vials and doing the calculations in my head, but it just made me dizzier. For now, I’d be content to leave the mechanics of the journey to fate. If the worst came to pass, surely there was some nasty little cabin boy that could be spared. But I took the vial from Casper and drank it lustily to bolster my charade.
“Much better.” I held out the empty vial with a tame smile. “Dinner should be a snap.”
At the time, I utterly failed to understand his facial expression, an unflattering mix of amusement, horror, and impending disaster.
After dinner, I understood.
I would have dressed for the occasion, but I had only one dress. In a minor huff, I settled for pinning up what little hair I had left and doing my makeup in the Pinky style. To be honest, I was enjoying that part of the masquerade. I’d never pretended to be anything other than the willful brat that I was, and it was refreshing to be free from royal expectation. In a fit of rebellion, I unbuttoned my blouse and rolled up my sleeves, grateful for some air on my skin.
Casper stayed in the room while I went through my ministrations, reading a book he had pulled from the trunk. I was curious—was he staying because he didn’t trust me, or was he just as worried about going to dinner as I was? I’d never been among whores and degenerates before. Still, it was oddly comforting to have him nearby, his steady breathing helping me to relax.
It was a short walk down the hallway to a closed door and a brass plaque announcing the captain’s quarters. I kept my eyes shut and my hands clamped on his arm. Despite what I’d said of my control, the smell of human bodies was nearly overwhelming, not least of all Casper’s. He had returned to the same open-necked costume he’d worn at the Seven Scars, and I realized I’d have to grow accustomed to seeing the blue veins pulse in his neck, wrists, and hands. I dared to peek at the arm I was holding, nothing but loose linen separating my teeth from his golden skin. Licking my lips, I took a deep breath to test my resolve, but all was well under control. I no longer wanted to rip out his throat. Thank heavens I’d snatched that boy on the bank.
Casper stopped me in front of the door and whispered into my ear. I froze.
His breath tickled the exposed curve of my neck, and a little thrill ran through me. I held very still, waiting to feel it again and shiver. I missed the first part of what he said and caught just the tail end.
“If you think you’re going to lose control in here, just act like you’re going to be sick and run out. I’ll make your excuses. Niece.”
“Thank you, Uncle Casper,” I said sweetly and breathily in his ear.
He swallowed hard and stumbled toward the door.
I smiled. Two could play at this game.
The door swung open on a writhing mass of flesh. Feeling safe from the dangers of my kind, the whores and their customers were dressed to show as much skin as possible. One girl wore only a tight red corset and bloomers and boots, the bright scarlet plume from her tiny hat dipping all over the table as she laughed. The lady next to her had the tall white-powdered hair of the last century and was dressed in a gorgeous brocade gown fit for a queen—except for the fact that the front panel was missing, exposing her legs from ankle to thigh when she stood to reach for the wine. Another posed in an odd outfit of nothing but sleek black leather and shiny silver rings. Her hair was short and slicked back like a man’s, and there was actually a small piece of metal through each of her ears. I unconsciously licked my lips.
Those three caught my eye, but the overall impression was of temptation, glamour, costume, delight, and a massive amount of wickedness. The men lounged and laughed and ogled in a state of undress that was outrageous, according to my conservative upbringing. Cravats untied, shirts unbuttoned, no hats, and one gentleman appeared to be wearing some sort of plaid skirt with a furry purse. I blushed and looked away.
Casper’s hand tightened on my arm. We’d been standing in the doorway for all of three seconds, and no one had acknowledged us. I was sure my complexion was an unbecoming shade of mauve. Casper sighed and steered me to a chair in the far corner, placing himself between me and the fellow in the skirt. I looked around for Keen, but she was nowhere to be found.
“Bonjour, darling,” trilled the girl dressed like a queen, who was sitting on the other side of my corner. She gracefully pulled her long legs out of a stodgy-looking old man’s lap. “You aren’t a new girl, are you?”
“This is my niece, Anne,” Casper said. “A passenger. She’s to be a governess in Freesia. And you’re Jeanne.”
“Oui,” she said with delight, holding out her bare, bejeweled hand for his kiss. “I see my reputation precedes me, even in the pious Sangland.”
“I played for you once, in Paris.” Casper released her hand with a distant smile. “We performed a Franchian lullaby together.”
“Ah, yes. I remember now. We did other things, too.” Jeanne dimpled behind her fan. “With my scarf and a horse whip, non?” And she laughed, a sound both carefree and practiced, like gilt-edged leaves dancing in the breeze.
Casper cleared his throat and grinned at me, shrugging. I gave him a withering glare. He met my eyes for a few seconds longer than was necessary, until the look became something else entirely. I cleared my throat and searched the table for a napkin. There wasn’t one.
“I didn’t know we were getting a new girl.” An older woman leaned across the table. She was dressed smartly and in a modern fashion that I had to assume was very de mode, although her dress was hemmed above the knee.
“I’m just a passenger,” I answered for myself. “But your hat is exquisite. Where did you get it?”
She smiled, not the fake smile of a prostitute but the genuine smile of a woman whose genius has been recognized. “Like it, do you? It’s my own work, dear. I was a milliner before I took to the air.”
Her voice was refined and high London, and her manner told me she’d been raised properly. How had she ended up on the Maybuck, I wondered? I liked her instantly, and not just because of her bonnet.
“If she is new, I’ll take the first plunge,” the man in the skirt said with a heavy brogue, leaning behind Casper to run a hand up my arm. “She looks juicy as a plum.”
Casper leaned back, crushing the man’s arm. “She’s a passenger. Off limits.”
The man withdrew his arm with a jerk, rubbing the velvet sleeve of his fine coat. “Look, laddie. You needn’t be brash. I’ve a purse full of coin. There’s a price for everything.”
“She’s my niece, my lord, en route to Freesia as a governess,” Casper growled with barely contained rage. “And I’ve been charged with protecting her innocence. Surely a gentleman understands an oath of such magnitude?”
“Bonny, she is.” The man ignored Casper to lean across the table. He was ruggedly handsome and knew it, probably a good fighter, with broad shoulders and huge hands. Another predator. I batted my eyelashes at him, feigning naive curiosity. His long lips curled into a knowing smile.
“Freesia’s full of monsters, wee thing. You’ll go there to watch a Blud Baron’s spawn, and they’ll eat you right up. Wouldn’t you rather be a lord’s mistress? Nice little cottage in Glasgow, weekly allowance, pretty dresses? I won’t use ye too hard. Eh?”
I heard a cracking noise and looked over to find Casper’s hands flexing, his teeth bared. Before I could decide how to extricate myself from my first proposal, Casper leaned over and whispered something into his ear.
“Perhaps another time, lass.” The man scooted his chair back abruptly and found a different seat at the other end of the table.
“What did you say to him?” I whispered to Casper.
“None of your—”
“—goddamn business,” I finished for him with a sigh.
“Exactly, yes,” he said in a dignified voice as the table went quiet.
Miss May posed dramatically in the doorway. After slamming it shut, she swaggered into the room and to the head of the table. She was dressed as a lady pirate, with the most covering bits of her costume missing. She swung one booted foot up onto her chair, letting the fluttering petticoats drip from her knee and offering a view that made me cough and look away.
“Welcome, all, to the Airship Maybuck, the world’s first and best floating pleasure ship. Everything on this boat is for sale, at a price. You know the rules, or you wouldn’t have made it past the dock. Pay for what you take. Mind your manners. And no fighting. Break a rule, and you’ll find yourself in the brig or thrown overboard. Until then, enjoy yourself. We’re here for your pleasure.”
Her grin made it very clear that it was somewhat for her pleasure, too. Everyone cheered, and the men managed somehow to untangle their limbs from the ladies long enough to raise a toast of wine to the ship’s captain. She raised her glass in return, and the little girls in their white gowns filed in through the door with platters of food that I couldn’t identify. It was all meat or trash to me, but there was a lot of it.
Just then, I noticed that the pretty girl carrying a smallish pig was none other than Keen. In a diaphanous white gown, with her hair and face washed, she was like an angel, all huge brown eyes and long lashes and that mischievous grin that made me want to drain her and then strangle her for being so foolish.
Casper stiffened beside me, grabbing her wrist as she set down the piglet with a chaste curtsy.
“What are you playing at?” he hissed.
She yanked her arm back. “I make my own choices. And you’re not my dad.” She offered him a blinding smile and scampered out the door. A hand from the crowd reached out to smack her on the rump, and I felt Casper shaking with anger beside me.
“What’s a dad?” I whispered.