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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
But I’d never lacked confidence in my own abilities as a predator, not until a stronger Bludman’s hands had pinned my wrists, finally showing me where I fit in the world. Whatever Casper was, he had saved me when I couldn’t save myself. I wasn’t the ultimate killing machine my mother had always told me I was.
Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Somehow we ended up back at our door, Casper’s arm around my shivering shoulders. He withdrew with a gentle pat, hovering near, probably afraid I was going to fall over without him there to hold me up. For once, I wasn’t angered by his attentiveness.
“I’ll be in my bunk.” Keen disappeared into the closet and slammed the door. Her next words were muffled by thick wood. “Enough bloody excitement for one night.”
I looked down at my only dress, the thick, tawny cloth splattered with wine stains and blood.
“How am I supposed to clean this up? I have no wardrobe, no maid. Do we even have running water on this flying hatbox?”
Casper looked me up and down and flushed, then turned to dig through my trunk. He handed me a wad of soft white cloth.
“It’s bedtime. Here’s your nightgown. Just go to sleep, and we’ll deal with it in the morning, when everyone is . . .”
“Less coital?” I offered.
“More clothed and sober.”
“But what about you?”
“I’ll go outside to keep watch. The other passengers will just think I’m drunk. I’m possibly the only person besides you who isn’t. So that’s new.”
He went for the door, and I panicked. “Wait.”
“Yes?” His gaze was steady, roving over me as if hunting for sore places.
“Would you mind . . .” I took a deep breath, searching for the right words. I was accustomed to ordering people around, not asking favors.
Casper’s face softened. “Shall I stay in the room until you’re asleep?”
A small smile and a nod were all I could muster.
He pulled a book out of the trunk and began to read by the light of the wall sconce. After a contemplative look, I went into the bathroom to disrobe. It was the same size as the closet and very primitive, just a toilet, a spigot, and a mirror, but all I needed was the privacy. It felt wonderful to unbuckle the corset and peel the filthy layers from my skin. I’d never worn clothes so heavy and tight and binding. Or, for that matter, so smelly. I pulled on the light cotton nightgown Reve had packed for me and tiptoed to the bed, leaving my soiled clothes on the ground. Casper did me the courtesy of not looking up, and I turned on my side and pulled the velvet coverlet over my shoulder.
As I fell asleep, I couldn’t help thinking about Casper, listening to him breathe as his bare fingers whispered over the pages of his book. I’d watched him drinking. He’d had glass after glass of wine, and he’d surreptitiously mixed in his own special brew from the flask with every refill. He should have been drunk. But he wasn’t. Either that, or he was a good actor. And under the smell of red wine, filling the airless room, there was still something else, irritating me like an itch I couldn’t quite scratch.
“Good night, Ahna,” he whispered. As if I finally had permission, I slept.
I was trying to muddle through Casper’s book when the door opened the next morning. I hadn’t seen Casper or Keen since waking up, and I was bored already, sick of the small room and unaccustomed to being trapped. The book was dull, nothing but music theory and dizzying arrays of notes. Casper’s company would be a welcome diversion, if only for the bickering. Maybe that was why there was something teasing in my tone when I said, “And where have you been?”
“Picking out the perfect gown to highlight your eyes.”
The voice belonged to a woman, and I stifled my instinct to attack her as she emerged from behind the door with an impish smile. My nose registered that it was a stranger, a woman, and someone similar to Casper, in that she had that mild underlying stink.
“Can I help you?” My voice was frosty, my stare unforgiving.
She had short, smooth hair, black and shiny against creamy white skin that shone in the orange light. Her dress was in a loose, foreign style, with a flowing skirt and a fitted bodice, the entire garment almost see-through. One hand held folded blue cloth, and the other one stroked suggestively down her collarbone as she closed the door and leaned back against it.
“You’re lovely, you know,” she murmured in a cultured London accent. “I couldn’t keep my eyes off you at dinner last night.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, just glared.
“You could make a lot of money. I could teach you.”
“It’s not all bad. I can make sure you enjoy it.” She walked toward me, hips swaying and painted lips quirked up on one side.
The only thing I needed less than a half-dressed snack in my room was a prostitute in my bed. I drew a deep breath and opened my mouth as if to scream, and she drew back with a sigh.
“Oh, don’t fuss. I’ll stop.”
“Playing harpsichord at breakfast, albeit very softly.”
“Why are you really here?”
She grinned and winked, holding up a shimmery puddle of blue silk. “Miss May asked me to bring you something to wear while they clean your clothes. I thought this might suit.”
I raised an eyebrow and reached for the dress. It would be a welcome change, wearing something pretty and light again. I could already imagine the silk sliding over my skin, whispering as I walked. But she yanked it back, her eyes glazing over with hunger.
“That’s cheating, lovely. Off with the nightdress first.”
“Get out. Now.”
She held up the dress, letting the skirt tumble from her bare hands to dance in the air. I crossed my arms over my chest and barely stopped myself from hissing.
“You truly are a beauty,” she said with a sigh. “Are you still a virgin? Miss May would set a price that would keep you in silks for life, you know.”
“I’m not for sale at any price. You delivered the dress. Now, go.”
“You’ve got to pay the price first, little pretty,” she purred. “And everything on the Maybuck has a price.”
She draped the dress over the foot of the bed, the light blue silk shining against the plush velvet. With a confident smile, she leaned close and placed one soft, white hand to my cheek as if to pull me closer. I froze as my beast roared inside. A glimmering curtain of red overlay everything I saw, and I lunged for her bare white throat.
My teeth met in the air, barely a whisper away from her jugular, her hands on either side of my face.
She actually laughed. “Not today, sweetheart,” she said.
Soft bare fingers held my head away with a strength she should not have had. Her pulse hadn’t even gone up. Before she could say anything else, I whipped my face out of her grasp and crawled hastily off the bed. I wouldn’t underestimate her again.
“What are you,” I said, making it a statement.
“Someone who wants to be like you.”
Her eyes lingered on the low neck of my gown. I snatched Casper’s coat off the desk and slung it around my shoulders, tucking it over my chest. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She jerked her chin toward my hands, and I realized they had been bare the whole time. “You’re a Bludwoman in disguise, and that means each of us has something the other wants.”
“I want your blud, and you want my silence. You give me what I want, I’ll keep your secret.”
“Are you blackmailing me?” I asked carefully.
A slow, dreamy, satisfied smile spread over her face. She reclined on the bed as gracefully as water toppling over rocks and said, “As a matter of fact, I am. And now that I think of it, you have two things I want. And from what I hear, you’re only going to enjoy one of them.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You give me your blud or your body, or I tell Miss May that a monster’s hiding on her boat. She’ll toss you overboard into the sea quicker than I can snap.” She held up long, slender fingers and snapped. “Just like that.”
“What do you want with my blud?” I asked. “What good will it do?”
Her eyes glittered as she bit her red-painted lip coyly. “Oh, honey. You can’t be that naive. Did no one ever teach you how to blud someone?”
My nails dug into my palms. I hated admitting ignorance. But I had no earthly idea what she was talking about. And I could barely control myself from attacking her again, the way she had arrayed herself on my bed like food on a table. She was taunting me, and she was loving it.
“Guess not,” she said to herself. She sat up and leaned toward me like a little girl sharing a secret. “See, Bludmen can turn humans into Bludmen. Drinking just a little bit of blud makes a human stronger and less attractive to Bludmen as prey. But once we start drinking blud, once we tip over from a dab to an addiction, we can’t stop, or we go mad. Blud is rather expensive, and most of us halfbluds would sell our souls for the next sip. Being bludded would be much better, but your sort are so selfish.” She shrugged, her slender shoulders rising in a practiced way that made her dress slide off one side, revealing a blue vein just underneath creamy skin. I licked my lips. “You would get to drink my blood, too, you know.”
I snapped back to attention. “That’s a lie. It can’t be true. You can’t just change your species by drinking someone’s blud.”
She rose sinuously from my bed and smoothed the coverlet, her gaze lingering on the bedside table, where an empty wine bottle sat.
“Ask the Maestro about it,” she said with a secretive smile. “He’ll tell you the truth. And then you come find me. Wear that dress, either way. I’ll give you until midnight to decide. Body or blud.”
She sashayed across the room with practiced grace, her slippers whispering over the boards. Turning at the door with a self-satisfied smirk, she added, “The name’s Cora Pearl, by the way.”
“You’re a dead woman, Cora.”
“Sure I am, honey.”
I heard her laughing all the way down the hall. When the room was silent again, I slipped out of the nightdress and into the blue gown, with my back to the door and a blush hot in my cheeks. She had made me feel dirty and foolish, and the dress now seemed tawdry and revealing. Whatever I chose, she’d turned me into a traitor or a whore, and I couldn’t even kill her for it. I locked the door and fluffed the pillows and buried myself under the blankets, wishing to hide for the first time in my life.
I had no idea what time it was, but midnight would come too soon.
When the doorknob jiggled, it might have been minutes later, or it might have been hours. I was no closer to making my decision.
“Go away!” I pulled the thick covers up to my chin.
It was Casper. I darted to the door, unlocked it, and dove back into bed.
Casper walked in looking sorely put-upon. When he saw me cowering under the blanket, he had to laugh.
“You’re hiding from me now?”
“No, I’m hiding from the hordes of pirates and prostitutes who insist upon attacking me,” I mumbled peevishly. I dropped the covers, then remembered how much my blue dress revealed and pulled them back up. He stifled another laugh in a cough. “If you’re not here to attack me, are you here to feed me?”
“I’m not your manservant, princess. You can eat anytime you need to. The blood’s been in the closet all along.”
I slid out of bed and knelt to rummage in the box in the closet, painfully aware that half of my back was revealed by the flimsy blue dress. The glutted rush of the boy on the bank was long gone, and my run-ins with the pirate and Cora had left me ravenous. I popped the cork from a vial and stood. And then I froze.
His eyes reminded me of a wolf I’d once seen. I hadn’t been hunting that day, and neither I nor the wolf had been paying particular attention to our surroundings. I rounded an outcropping, and there he was, ice-spangled white fur dancing around deep blue eyes.
In Casper, as in the wolf, there was neither desperation nor mercy. Only dead stillness and an odd, patient hunger. I couldn’t look away. A strange little thrill quivered down my spine like the thrum of plucked strings, and I had to focus on my breathing to keep from betraying myself. Never show weakness. Never blink first.
He broke the tension, whipping out his dimpled smile like a dagger, saying, “So are you going to drink that or what?”
“Of course” was all I could manage.
But I kept my eyes locked on his as I drank. I imagined it was his blood on my tongue, hot and wet. He returned the stare with a dark grin that made me wish I could read his thoughts. Two gulps and the vial was empty, and he watched me lick my lips. Altogether, the scene lasted about twenty seconds and felt more intimate than draining the boy on the bus with his hand twitching against my thigh.
“I see Cora found you with the dress.”
I almost fumbled the vial as I put it back in the box. With my back to Casper, I said, “She was very . . . persistent.”
I wasn’t quite sure how much to tell Casper. In my former life, I had confided only in my old nursemaid, Verusha. Had I met Casper on my own terms, I probably would have had him killed or beaten within moments. But now, trapped on the Maybuck, he was the closest thing I had to an ally. And if what Cora had said was true, there was a lot more to the world than I knew. In the dark room with no pocket watch, I had no idea how much time I had left until midnight, but there were things I needed to know—and fast.