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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
He put his head in his hands, speaking quickly and so low I had to lean close to hear him.
“Dad means father. She thinks I act too much like her father. But she forgets what a dangerous world this is. She’s too young to be here. I shouldn’t have brought her along.”
“Where are her real parents? Why is it your business, what she does?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know that if she’s over fourteen, there’s nothing you can do.”
“There’s always something I can do.”
He reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a silver flask, which he slopped into his red wine in such a way as to obscure the contents. Stronger liquor, perhaps? Laudanum? A potion? But he didn’t have the eyes of an opium addict—our old butler had had that look, shortly before my mother staked him for incompetence. There were so many smells in the room, so much skin scent in the air, that I didn’t have a hope of puzzling out his secret ingredient.
“Oi, Maestro!” Miss May lounged back in her chair and grinned at Casper. She held up her own glass of deep burgundy wine. “To an excellent bargain.”
He toasted her in return and drank deeply before pouring himself another glass.
Casper and I spent the rest of the meal in our own pool of silence, a tiny island of tension amid the great, lashing waves of flesh and gluttony. He finished his glass of wine and swirled the last drops of deep maroon around and around in his goblet.
He never ate a bite.
The dinner didn’t come to an end so much as the food was sampled and abandoned for other needs. The wine still flowed, though, and the party only became more animated as Keen and the other girls carried platters out to make space. When an elderly gentleman with a curled mustache pulled one of the girls into his lap and yanked down the sheer fabric above her corset to expose pierced nipples, Casper bolted up from his seat.
“Leaving so soon?” Miss May murmured sweetly, her ruby lips against a flushed young man’s ear.
“My niece is unaccustomed to such goings-on.” Casper pulled me behind him, attempting to drag me around the table toward the door.
Without really thinking, I said, “But, Uncle, I think this could be quite educational.”
Quite honestly, I was intrigued. I knew that my mother had had her pets, that her marriage to my father was mostly a political alliance. And of course, that he truly had been my father was in question, if you believed certain circles. But what sport occurred at the Ice Palace occurred behind firmly closed and locked doors. I’d never seen a live naked woman’s body, other than my own. And I’d never seen what lay under a man’s many layers of clothes.
The old man shifted the half-dressed, laughing girl and fussed with his buttons, and I leaned over in amazement, angling to see more. With a snarl, Casper lifted me around the waist and carried me out of the room past the giggling, moaning guests and their quickly disappearing clothing.
He slammed the door and dropped me to the deck, steering me down the hall by my arm.
“Well, that was a little awkward of you, Uncle.” I tripped, trying to keep up with him. “Things were just getting interesting.”
“We may be hitching a ride on a floating whorehouse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stand around and watch you be utterly . . .”
I watched him wince, fighting for the right word.
“Debased? Spoiled? Scandalized? Ruined?” I smirked. “Informed?”
“Let’s just say that those men aren’t used to being told no, and that room is going to get a lot worse.” And then his face went totally white, and he ran a hand through his hair. “Keen. Dear God. I left the poor girl in there. We’ve got to go find her.” He started to walk back down the hall, but I didn’t move, and he soon turned back with worry in his eyes. “Ahna, come on. It will only be a moment.”
“I’m going back to the room. I can take care of myself.” I flashed my fangs and huffed. Being told what to do rankled, and I badly needed a vial of blood.
He stepped closer, one hand around my upper arm and his hair brushing my cheek. “That’s the thing, though. If they find out what you are, who you are, the worst won’t be getting thrown off this boat. They could ransom you, punish you, chain you up. Torture you.” He shook his head. “Anything. Please just come with me now. Don’t make me worry for you both.”
“I’m . . . you . . .” It was hard to concentrate, being so close to him. “You don’t have to worry for me. The men are all in that room and busy. There is nothing to fear out here.”
“You’re right . . . but you might be wrong. Just get back to the room and lock the door. I’ll hurry.”
He released me and stormed down the hall, already intent on his next errand. I took the rare chance to admire his backside in the tight breeches and the way his coppery hair floated behind him, lit by the orange lamps. He really was a fine physical specimen, whatever he was. What had truly captured my attention, though, had been the look in his eyes and the purpose in his stride. He wasn’t just protecting his meal ticket—he really was afraid for me, the predator who had promised to put his head on a pike. And the only reason he was willing to leave me alone was to go save the insolent young girl who had recently accused him of acting too much like her father. No matter what Casper’s sharp words might have said, he honestly cared about us both. I was annoyed—but oddly touched.
I turned back to creep down the long hall, taking time to read the plaques by each door. The Leather Room. The Brocade Room. The Silk Room. The Damask Room. All fabrics, and lush ones. Did each girl have her own room, I wondered, or were they at the mercy of any wealthy passenger who beckoned? And who would normally have used our chamber, the Velvet Room?
I was so interested in my surroundings that I didn’t notice the man waiting in the shadows until he was close enough to stroke my cheek.
“Are you lost, little snowbird?”
It took every ounce of self-control I had not to hiss, let my shaking hands curl into talons, and rip into him. Instead, I stepped back and put my hands in front of me in a gesture of supplication that I’d seen frightened maids use when my mother was on a rampage. I blinked, opening my eyes wide, and simpered at him.
My immediate impression was of an ermine in the summer, small and dark and deft. But his smile was after something more carnal than meat, and his sharp teeth matched my own. A Bludman—but for some reason, I couldn’t smell him, and that scared me even more.
“Please, good sir. I am a maid and a passenger here, not one of . . . not a . . .” I stumbled over the word. What would a girl call a whore if she didn’t know what a whore was?
“Not a lady of the night?” His snicker was teasing, but I could hear an accent under the words. I looked more closely.
He wasn’t dressed like the other men on the boat, in clothes that showed status and wealth. Aside from eyes so light they were nearly white, everything about him was shadowy, down to the leather that held all of his weapons and the kohl ringing his eyes. He didn’t seem to belong there at all, and that’s what made unfamiliar fear trickle down my spine.
“Ah, but you are a different sort of lady, and it is the night, and we are alone. And I think you won’t want to scream now.”
One black-gloved finger moved toward my face, and I pursed my lips to keep from biting it. I was a roiling storm of emotions. My natural instincts to maim and kill and drink raged against my self-control with every thump of my hungry heart against the tight leather corset. And my ingrained behavior, the princess in me, was insulted that this man would dare to touch me and make pretty, lying words at me as if he was offering candy to an innocent Pinky child.
I began to understand the bone-deep fear of prey. This man wasn’t a soft duke or an aging baron. He didn’t belong on the Maybuck, which meant that no one knew he was there. Would it be anything close to a fair fight? He was bristling with weapons, and I was sorely hampered by leather and canvas and lace. Even if I managed to kill him, I would expose myself as a Bludwoman and follow him over the side to the sea far below.
So that left me in the position of any other young girl: I was in his power. I had to find a way to escape him before he hurt me or drove me to a killing fury. Or both.
He took a step toward me, a knowing smile on his lips. I took a step back, hands still up.
“Please,” I said again. “My uncle will be back soon. He’s the Maestro. He’ll be most upset if my person is assaulted in any way.”
“He’s not your uncle, little flower. And whoever he is, if he brought you on the Maybuck, he didn’t have much concern for your honor.” Quick as a whip, he swung around, one hand on either side of my face, trapping me against the wall. So I played prey. I cowered.
“Besides, I’ll return you in good shape,” he whispered in my ear, the scent of blood and wine heavy on his breath. “I’ll get you warmed up for your future husband. Do the hard work. You’ll thank me for it. For warming you up.”
I gulped and turned away as he nuzzled my neck where I’d unlaced the thick collar of my shirt. One of his hands fumbled with the cloth of my skirt, as the boy’s had the night before. No wonder women wore so many layers of clothes. My hands slapped his away, but his fingers only dug harder into my flesh.
My breathing sped up, my chest straining against the corset. The more I fought him, and the more he fought the cloth hiding my scent, the more I realized that I was truly in danger. Even without unleashing his sharp teeth, he was besting me. His beast was stronger than my beast, and I began to push him away in earnest.
“I like it if you fight me a little, vixen,” he murmured, his voice husky.
Left with little choice, I sighed and jerked away from his hand. And then I head-butted him.
I heard the crack and saw stars, but it bought me only a moment of mercy.
“You nasty little bitch.” He touched the split skin on his forehead and snarled, snagging both of my gloved wrists and pinning them painfully against the wall over my head. He tucked his blud-covered forehead into my shoulder, beyond the reach of another head-butt. Shoving his hips hard against me, he said, “You owe me your maiden’s blood now, little flower, and I’ll have it.”
His tongue darted out to slide up my face, until he pulled back in surprise.
“You! On this ship! How can—”
Before he could finish, he went completely stiff and shuddered, then vomited blood and wine all over my skirts. He dropped my wrists and fell to his knees, and I screeched and danced away from him, trying to fling the wine-soaked filth from the only dress I owned.
There was a loud thud as boot met face, and my attacker fell to the boards. When I looked up again, Casper stood like a vengeful god over the man’s inert body, his face white with rage and his eyes promising murder. His hands were taut white fists at his sides, and he was panting in a way that made all his veins throb with a song as lovely as his music. Keen stood just behind him, her crafty glare and alert stance at odds with the frilly, diaphanous gown.
“Did he hurt you?” Casper’s voice was soft, flat, deadly.
Rubbing my forehead, I gave a weak chuckle and said, “No, but I split his forehead open.”
He gave a humorless snort and kicked the body over with a high black boot. When he saw the man’s unusual dress, he inhaled through his teeth.
“Know what that is?” he asked.
“A Bludman. Not someone who belongs here.”
“That’s a pirate. An assassin or a scout, maybe. But you’re right, he doesn’t belong here. And we’ve got to get rid of him—fast.”
Casper looked up and down the hall before picking the pirate up under his armpits and dragging him quickly away. Keen grabbed the man’s soft black boots, and they were soon tossing him overboard from the empty deck. I grinned as I watched the body fall into the midnight clouds and noted that I didn’t feel airsick at all.
“We tell no one.” Casper scanned the hollow sky as if expecting a skull-plastered ship to be waiting nearby. “If Miss May hears of pirates, they’ll search every crevice of the Maybuck. If they find what’s hidden in our room, we’ll be exposed and tossed out. We’ll just have to hope he was alone.” He rubbed his fist and cracked his knuckles. “God, that hurts. I must have punched him in a knife. Or a bone.”
“You punched him?”
“Right in the kidney.” His lopsided smile was full of pride and dimples. “I read somewhere that it can make you throw up, being punched in the kidney.”
“You didn’t read it. I told you,” Keen muttered. “Learned it on the street.”
“Effective, if messy.” I smiled at Casper, caught off guard by our strange situation. “Well done.”
He held out his arm, and I took it, careful not to get gore on his shirt as he guided me back to our room. I didn’t read the plaques on the doors this time—the barely lit passages didn’t feel as safe as they had before, and I wanted to be behind my own closed door. The fact of the matter was, I was shaken.
For the first time in my life. I didn’t feel like a princess or a beast or a Bludman. Just a creature grateful to be alive. My first real taste of physical fear wasn’t sitting well with me. I’d faced off with the largest, fiercest predators the tundra could produce. Ice bears, timber wolves, wolverines, and me armed with nothing but my own sharp teeth and nails and determination to master the enemy. I’d faced my mother in one of her world-famous dark moods. I’d floated into the clouds, shivering against wood boards and waiting for the moment the wind carried me overboard and into the sea.