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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
She sighed, the gentle smile never leaving her face as she watched the bee twirl in circles at the end of its shining tether.
“That’ll never be me,” Keen muttered.
“Just don’t do what I did and sell yourself too cheaply, darling.” Kitty smoothed my hair and gave me a pointed look. “You’re worth more than diamonds, no matter what anyone tells you.”
But of course, I already knew that. And I wasn’t planning on selling myself at all.
“Same goes to you, lass.” She chucked Keen under her chin. “If they won’t leave you alone, claim to have a stomachache and come find me. I’ll keep you hidden. At the very least, keep busy with fetching food, and don’t trust a single one of them.”
“I never do,” Keen said, her steely resolve winning a smile from me.
Kitty got up to open the door for us, but something made her pause. She stooped and rummaged under her dress, then held up a small dagger.
“Take this, and if anyone tries to force you, use it,” she said to Keen. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”
Keen fit the dagger into the top of her boot.
“I didn’t hear nothing,” she said.
“Here we go.” Keen paused at the bottom of the stairs. Beyond, I could see a razor’s edge of the night sky. The last time I’d been up on deck, I’d been covered with blood and helping to dispose of an unconscious pirate. Quite frankly, I was more scared of the dinner party. I could hear Casper’s music playing as backdrop to conversation and giggling and the clink of glasses. In an unusual show of solidarity, I linked my arm through Keen’s and ascended the stairs to the windy deck.
For some reason, I had expected a banquet like the ones at the Ice Palace. That was foolish of me, of course. Dinner on the deck of the Maybuck was a messy, tawdry affair, and no amount of sequins would make it anything other than an excuse for brazen misbehavior.
“And so the Maestro’s niece finally decides to join us.” Miss May ambushed us at the door, engulfing us in a lavender-scented and ample-bosomed squeeze. The leather cups of her corset dug into me painfully. “How are you enjoying your room, Miss Carol?”
After a moment of confusion, I remembered that she was speaking to me.
“I find myself wishing for more windows,” I answered, pretending that I hadn’t been caught breaking her main rule. “Although it’s my maiden voyage by airship, I’m surprised to find it doesn’t feel as if my feet have left the ground.”
Miss May threw her head back and cackled. “Oh, bless you. Ain’t nothin’ maiden about this old boat, and never was. But the Maestro says he’s shown you the library. If that’s not enough freedom for you, you’ll have to take on some passengers of your own, if you know what I mean.”
“My niece is all booked up.” Casper’s arm clamped around me like an iron vise.
Miss May waggled her eyebrows at us. “Being on the Maybuck is sure to loosen her up a bit, one way or the other. Now, be sure to dance with some of the gents, girl, and maybe you’ll get a tip or two.” She waved a hand at the men sprawled around the deck.
“You’re not dancing with any of them,” Casper growled in my ear, his hand tightening over mine.
He swung me away from Miss May, and I took in the full view of the deck for the first time since we’d embarked. It was dressed like the stage for a play, with painted mermaids and sea monsters and coral hiding the rigging and forming niches to shield writhing bodies from prying eyes. Instead of one big table, there were a few small ones around the rails, leaving plenty of room for couples to entwine. And on the far side of the deck stood a long glass tank, about waist-high, filled with rocks and the flash of fins. Beside it, an aged gramophone played a wobbling waltz that didn’t hold a candle to Casper’s talents.
The deck was beautiful, but it seemed like a useless gesture when the wealthy customers were clearly just there for the women. As my mother often said, “Why buy the maid when you can get the blood for free?”
I was just about to ask Casper about it when a familiar voice said, “Enjoying yourself, Anne?”
Cora’s cool hand slid down my shoulder and squeezed my arm. I recoiled with a snarl.
Casper’s arm cinched tighter around me as we faced her side by side.
“Can’t afford the professionals, so you have to go for the free wares, eh, Maestro?” Leaning close, she whispered, “You get what you pay for, you know.” She smoothed her black bob and ran her hands knowingly down her dress.
“Diamonds and glass look a lot alike, Miss Pearl,” he said stiffly. “Fortunately, I can tell the difference.”
“I can tell things, too, you know.” With a significant glance at Miss May, she sashayed across the deck to the waiting gentleman who’d been eyeing her appreciatively. So she hadn’t told. Yet.
“Playtime’s over,” Casper whispered, pulling me toward the door.
“No.” I dug in my heels and snatched my hand back. “I’m sick of being pushed and pulled and moved around like a doll. I’m not leaving until I’m satisfied.”
“There are plenty of gentlemen here who would be willing to accommodate you,” he snapped. “It’s for your own good. Please, Anne. Let me escort you back downstairs.”
“Only after I have a glass of wine.”
Standing close, facing me, he was a tempest, a wall, a statue. Implacable, hard, and angry. And yet, somewhere underneath, amused.
“Fine. One glass of wine,” Casper said. “Lord knows I need it, and you need to explain to me exactly why you’re up here, dressed like that.”
There was an odd fire in his eyes as he bowed me toward the refreshment table. He walked just a shade too close, and I was aware of every minor movement of our bodies. The velvet of the dress clung to my skin, moving with me, vastly different from the complex and revealing costumes of all the other girls in the room. But no one was looking at me. They were all too busy with one another. Except for Casper.
At the table, I reached for a slender glass goblet and nearly knocked it over with a shaking hand. Casper caught it deftly and poured it half full of deep red wine. I fidgeted with the stem as he poured his own. Without blood mixed in, it didn’t smell remotely appetizing, but I could pretend if it would buy me a few rare moments of fresh air.
“Wait.” He reached for the flask in his waistcoat and poured a dollop of something red into both of our glasses. “Now you can actually drink it.”
I took a sip, and that’s when I finally realized what he was.
I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to figure it out, but the blud in my glass could mean only one thing.
Casper was a halfblud, too.
It finally made sense. His odd, musky smell, his strength, his recklessness, the way he stayed alive barely eating anything. And now I knew why he wasn’t scared of me. And why he’d laughed when I’d tried to kill him in my first, desperate moments of rebirth.
He was a halfblud. Just like Cora.
Great Aztarte, how had I been so blind?
All this time, and he had never mentioned it. He must have wanted my blud as badly as Cora did, yet he’d said nothing. He hadn’t really hidden his true self, but it had probably taken me much longer than it should have to understand.
I tried to ignore my shaking hand as I sipped the wine, tasting the blud of my own species for the second time. It was heady, thick, and deep. As it slipped down my throat, something in me untangled, like a knot unraveling and trailing ribbons down my spine. I relaxed a little, felt my mouth slide into a slow smile.
“How do you feel?” Casper asked me.
“Lovely,” I said. And I meant it.
He watched me for a moment, then took a step closer. “Ahna—Anne—are you okay? Your eyes are strange.”
“Mmm.” I lifted the glass back to my lips. I needed more.
“Stop.” When he tried to take the glass from me, I fought him.
“No. Want more.”
“You’ve got to give me the goblet now.” His whisper came in a rush, his breath hot on my neck. “You’ve got to stay on your toes here. We’re surrounded by . . . people. And enemies. Now, give over.”
He took a deep breath through his nose. As I opened my mouth to say that he looked like an angry bludmare, he dashed the top of the goblet to the ground, leaving the jagged stem in my hand.
“Why did you do that?” I nearly shouted.
“It’s for your own good, darlin’. And mine.”
He took the stem from me and set it on the table, then whistled to Colette and Victoire. They ran over with cloths to mop up the mess as he put an arm around my shoulders to move me away from the thick red puddle.
“Anne, you mustn’t drink that again.”
“Oh, but I want to,” I breathed, mesmerized by his smoldering blue eyes. Every detail of his face called to me, and I reached a finger toward his cheekbone.
“Oh, dear Lord.” He sighed. “Not now.”
“Back to the cabin. And I’m locking you in, whether you like it or not.”
As he turned to lead me back down the hatch and into the halls of the airship, Miss May’s voice rang out over the burbling sound of water, calling, “Maestro! Our bargain!”
He rubbed a spot between his eyebrows and shook his head as if trying to clear it. “Keen!” he shouted, and when she ran over, he said, “Take Anne to the cabin. Lock her in. Wait outside. If anyone asks, say she’s ill. And if she wants something to drink, tell her no.”
“Aye-aye, Maestro.” She was clearly delighted to be escaping our adventure on the deck.
I balked against her tugging. I wanted to watch Casper play. With an impudent bow to Miss May on her throne, he walked to the harpsichord and sat, flipping out the tails on his coat. After cracking his fingers, he began to play a song I hadn’t heard before, and people lined up to dance. Keen pulled on my arm, but I was entranced.
Not by the pageantry of the Maybuck in full swing.
Watching him play the harpsichord was magical. His posture. His single-minded focus on the keyboard. His boots pounding time on the ground, making his thighs flex in a fascinating sort of way. And most of all, his fingers, free of their gloves, flying over the keys with a sensuous familiarity that made me tingle in a way I’d never tingled. Both of Keen’s shoving hands couldn’t budge me from where I stood, watching Casper become an entirely different creature, transformed by his art.
“Ah, my dear. You’re even more beautiful than the music. Glowing.”
I tore my eyes away from Casper and gaped into the smoky-red glasses of a man I hadn’t seen at our first dinner on the Maybuck. He must have come on in Barlin. I couldn’t help staring at his odd burnished-leather waistcoat, which buckled twice under his neck and around his chest, almost like armor.
“You’re too kind,” I said, coming to my senses now that I wasn’t ogling Casper. I had been in a fog for a moment, mesmerized by his peculiar magic. But my thoughts sharpened, and I took a step back from the man, who stood just a little too close for my comfort.
“And are you enjoying the festivities?” The man’s accent was thick, his voice cruel. He stepped closer. Even from behind the smoky lenses of his glasses, his eyes were piercing in their fervor.
“No. I’m feeling poorly and will be returning to my room.” I tried to sidestep him and reached for Keen.
With the sparse movements of a fencer, he snagged my outstretched arm, tucking it into his, and propelled me across the deck. I couldn’t exert my full force to escape him but resisted as much as I thought I could. He was as hard as stone, and I began to panic. My eyes flew to Casper, but he was focused on his harpsichord, utterly lost in his music. Behind us, Keen tugged on the man’s coat, calling, “Sir! Sir! Beg pardon, sir!” over and over. He ignored her.
“Everything to your liking, Van Helsing?” Miss May called in her most obsequious voice. “Miss Anne is an obliging creature, ain’t she?”
I heard the threat implicit in her little speech. One look at the decorated rail of the deck, one inhaled breath of cloud-crisp air, told me that I wasn’t giving anyone any reason to find fault with me.
“Very,” he answered genially, but I could hear the steel underneath.
He steered me toward the low glass tank. My steps grew short as my body instinctively shrank from the salt water within. What was he playing at?
“And do you know why you glow, my dear?” he said in my ear, his thick glove squeezing my arm hard enough to leave a bruise on a normal woman. I flinched for effect.
“It must be the fresh air,” I answered, trying to play my part.
He leaned close. I saw one of the whores watching us from across the deck, her smile tilting up in the corner. She nodded knowingly, as if she knew what was happening. But she couldn’t have imagined what he was saying to me.
“Tsk. That’s not the reason. You glow because you’re a Bludman. The glass of my spectacles was especially made to reveal your vile kind to my eyes. I’m a sort of trophy hunter, you see.”
“You mistake me,” I said, but I heard my own voice waver.
“I don’t mistake you at all. Ahnastasia.”
His hand tightened another notch. The pressure would have broken a Pinky’s arm at that point, and I would surely have bruises for at least a few hours. I clenched my teeth and held in the hiss fighting to escape.
By then, we were standing over the tank. I could smell the horrid salt of it, and I turned my head and closed my eyes as the light spray from the fountain caught on the breeze and blew against my cheek. It burned.