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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Of course, that didn’t work. That sort of thing never does.
I ran my fingers over it. There had to be a way. Then I pressed the jewel on the front, and the locket popped open.
I gasped as red liquid burst from inside, splattering my hand with scarlet drops.
Whatever it was, it burned, and I dropped the locket onto the counter, where it spun for a second, scattering a constellation of red on the bathroom counter.
I ran my hand under the cold water. The stains stopped burning but didn’t wash away. I lathered up with antibacterial soap, but they didn’t budge, so I got out the nail brush. Looking up at the mirror, I saw myself standing there in a ragged tank top and baggy pajama pants, scrubbing my hand until it was raw and pink. The stains seemed somehow brighter, so I gave up.
I couldn’t help but wonder, what sort of ancient prankster filled a locket with staining red acid and then hid it in a book? It was its own antitheft device.
The locket lay innocently on the bathroom counter amid more pesky red spots. No point in scrubbing those right now.
Then I looked closer and noticed that the red drops had made tiny pockmarks in the granite. Little red holes, eaten into solid rock. I ran my finger over them, puzzled. It didn’t make sense—I should have been full of holes, too. But I wasn’t.
I didn’t think too hard about it. I was more curious about the locket itself, which was finally open. The red stuff had drained out, so I picked it up and held it under the light.
Inside, trapped under glass, was a delicate portrait in watercolor. The man was fascinating, and I was transfixed by his piercing eyes, which challenged me from under delicate but sharp brows. His long dark hair looked as if it had been yanked from a tidy queue just moments before and left rebelliously loose to annoy the painter. His mouth was small and somewhat cruel, quirked up into a knowing smirk. His cheekbones could have cut paper. He wore a high white collar that was carelessly open, an indigo cravat hanging untied.
I loved Jane Austen, so this rogue in a cravat was right up my alley, like an extra-naughty Mr. Darcy. He was the complete opposite of stocky, clean-cut, all-American Jeff—another point in the mystery man’s favor.
I could almost see a thought bubble rising above his head. I dare you.
“Dare me to what?” I said.
He didn’t have an answer for that.
I tore my eyes from the image and considered the other side of the locket, looking for the portrait of his lady. Instead, there were words engraved there, and I could almost make them out.
“Viernes toa meo,” I whispered, tracing the letters. I knew a smattering of French and Spanish, just enough to order a sandwich and find the bathroom, and the words seemed oddly familiar but made no sense. Portuguese, maybe? Or Esperanto?
“Who are you?” I said out loud. “And who carried you over her heart?”
He didn’t have an answer to that, either. I would probably never know, unless I went back to the estate sale and dug around in the attic for clues. Maybe there was a larger portrait that I had missed lurking somewhere in the house, or something written in the book. Between the old lady and the locket, I hadn’t even cracked the spine or looked at the cover. But it would be easy enough to spot—a deep, oxblood red that stood out from the other, dusty brown tomes, which is why I’d noticed it in the first place. I made up my mind to go back to the estate sale the next day, then snapped the locket shut and slipped it back over my head and under my tank top. I felt a little silly.
Now that the locket’s mystery was solved, real life seeped back into my thoughts. After my time with Nana, I was more bothered than ever. If she was in more pain and not telling me, was she telling her doctor? Was the cancer getting worse, or were the chemo drugs the problem? Worst of all, where would she be if I hadn’t come back from Alabama right when I had? Sometimes I thought I was the only thing willing her to live.
I’ve always fallen asleep instantly, and my dreams were a fertile place for solving problems. I hoped to find the answers I needed that night.
I was cold and reached for my blanket. There was nothing there.
My tank top and pants weren’t there, either.
Neither was my bed.
Now, that was curious.
I opened my eyes as I pressed myself up from the chilly stone. I was completely naked. Except for the locket, which hung against my heart. But it was no longer crusted with age and grime. It was shining and perfect, the brilliant gold glinting in the deep blue stillness of early morning.
I was frantic for a moment, my arms crossed over my chest, my eyes searching the strangely quiet woods around me. The stone slab was in a foggy clearing surrounded by a ghostly ring of birch trees. A few birds began to sing, breaking the silence. But their songs were somehow wrong.
Then I laughed to myself.
I was dreaming, of course.
Just another one of my crazy lucid dreams.
I’d had realistic, colorful, full-sensory dreams my entire life, and I was quite accustomed to this moment. In my dreams, I left behind the self-doubt and worry that had dogged me for the past few years. I was stripped down to the essential Tish—the me I wanted to be. I reveled in the lack of consequences. In my dreams, I was free. And yes, frequently naked.
No big deal. I could do anything I wanted to.
Time to explore the world.
After hopping off the stone, I dusted off my dream-butt. I spun slowly in a circle, looking for a path to follow, some sign of where the dream would lead.
I was startled when I saw him there, leaning against a birch tree. Seconds before, I was sure I was alone, and then he appeared as if by magic.
It was the man from the locket. He had the same insolent, daredevil, knowing smile, the same unruly hair. One tall black boot was kicked up against the tree behind him, and his arms were crossed over his chest, stretching the shoulders of his black tailcoat.
“You’re here,” he said simply.
“Do I know you?” I asked, which came out more haughtily than I had intended.
“You will,” he answered, kicking off the tree and walking toward me. “After all, you’re wearing my locket. And I’ve been waiting for you.”
His accent was clipped and British, just as I would have expected.
“I imagined you with more clothes,” he said.
“And I imagined that you ended at the collarbone,” I said.
He threw back his head and laughed, a laugh so full of fierce joy that it was unsettling. No one laughed like that in the real world. They were too self-conscious of what people would say. I hadn’t laughed that way in a long, long time.
“Come along, then, love, and let’s get you covered,” he said, and he began to unbutton his coat.
“I don’t normally talk to strangers,” I said, arms crossed.
“And I don’t normally escort naked hoydens about the countryside,” he said. “But if you stand around here uncovered for too long, something even more dangerous than me is going to find you. Besides, I can’t take you home like this. It has to be respectable.”
“What has to be respectable? And where do you think you’re taking me?” I asked, but he was already shrugging out of his coat and holding it out to me.
“Go on,” he said. Then he grinned like a wolf, showing his teeth. “It won’t bite.”
I wasn’t too worried about being naked, but if he wanted me to wear his coat, that was fine. The air was chill and clammy, raising gooseflesh on my arms. I shrugged into the coat, and he buttoned it up to my neck. As he twisted the top button right under my chin, our eyes met, and I had to blush and look down. Too intense, his gaze. He was just a little taller than I, rangy but muscled, as I could see through the open neck of his shirt.
I wasn’t used to things tight around my neck, and I struggled to unbutton the top button.
“Mustn’t,” he said, his glove catching my hand. “That’s the most important one.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” I growled as he swatted my hand again. “What is this—Victorian England? No one buttons anything up to the neck, unless it’s snowing,” I complained. But I left the button alone.
“Victorian England?” he said. “Never heard of it. But showing your neck is dangerous here. Showing any skin, really. If it were anyone but me, you’d most likely be dead.”
He held out his arm, and for lack of options, I took it. His black coat was worn but thick and beautiful, fitted and darted in a way that made me feel curvy and pretty, even with nothing else on. His own shirt fluttered in the breeze, the scarlet waistcoat enhancing the paleness of his skin.
As we began to walk, I breathed in the scent of his coat. It smelled lovely, like berries and wine and something sharp and green. I got a little light-headed, drawing in the aroma.
He was watching me, and he chuckled. “Do you know how a man tames a wolf?” he asked me.
“No,” I said.
“You get some clothing you’ve been wearing for a while, and you toss it in with her. In the cage or the cavern, where she sleeps. That first one, she rips up, shreds it to nothing. The second one, she just mouths it a bit, gets a taste. Inhales, like you’re doing there. The third bit of clothing, she starts dragging it around, loving on it, sleeping with it. And then you’ve got her under your spell. She’s got the scent of you, wants to keep it around. She’ll follow you anywhere.”
“Are you calling me a wolf?” I asked.
“Are you calling me a man?” he said.
“What else would you be?”
He shot me a wicked grin full of pointy teeth. I started and then shook it off.
“I’m not scared,” I said. “It’s my dream. Nothing can harm me.”
“A dream?” he said, one arched eyebrow raised. “You think this is a dream?”
“I know it is,” I said coolly.
He grinned. “Sweetheart, you couldn’t conjure me if you tried.”
We glared at each other then, a battle of wills.
Motion caught my eye, and I looked down to see a small brown rabbit tenderly nosing out from the wood. It hopped and halted, hopped and halted, almost to us.
“Did you dream that?” he said.
“The rabbit? Sure, I suppose I did,” I said. “He’s a cutie. Probably represents my kindness. Or innocence. Something like that.”
The rabbit sniffed my foot, nose twitching, eyes bright. I smiled.
And then it bit me, sinking fangs into my bare ankle.
I shrieked and, without thinking, kicked it. It shrieked, too, tumbling head over fluffy white tail through the air and landing with a thump in the grass. When it finally righted itself, it turned to hiss at me before darting back into the underbrush.
Hmm. That was different.
I looked down. My ankle was bleeding from two puncture wounds. And it hurt. Bad.
“You’ll have to watch out for that one now,” the man said with another sly grin. “He’s got a taste for you.”
“Still not scared,” I said. “Just a bunny, fangs or not. It’s all in my head.”
“He’s got friends,” the man said. “And they’ll be back, and they all have fangs. And you’re bleeding. If you think you’re strong enough to fight off a warren of bludbunnies, I assure you that you’re wrong. You’d better come with me. Now.”
I wasn’t buying it. I needed to take control of the dream. I held out a hand with fingers splayed and focused my will.
“Zzzzzzzsssst! Pshew! Zzzzist!” I said. But nothing happened.
“What in Sang are you doing, love?” he asked.
My arm dropped to my side. “I was trying to shoot lightning bolts out of my fingertips,” I said. Then, quietly, “It usually works.”
“Told you it wasn’t a dream. Do you want to try flying, too?”
Sheepishly, I gave a little hop, but my feet came back down to the ground.
“No,” I said, feeling sullen and embarrassed and on the verge of outright panic. Things weren’t going at all the way they usually did. He should have exploded in a ball of blue lightning by now.
“If you’re done playing around,” he said, “we really should get moving before something smells that blood on your ankle.”
Again, the glove waited for my hand. I considered.
It was just a dream, whether or not the usual tricks worked. Might as well see where it went. He couldn’t be more dangerous than a pack of deranged, bloodthirsty rabbits. I took his arm again, and we began to walk down a strange sort of path formed of two deep ruts in the earth. They were about six feet apart and very straight, cut as if by a machine.
The sky hung too low over a landscape of bleak, endless grasses and small copses and woods. It made me think of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The air was hazy, almost smoggy, but that went with my dreams, where things were often obscured or blurry until I was right up on them.
As we walked, something began to form in the sunrise haze ahead, dark shadows standing stark against the pearly lavender clouds.
“That’ll be the caravan,” the man said conversationally. “My caravan.”
“Ah,” I said, unsure what to say.
The silence between us deepened. He seemed pleased about something, but I was suspicious of his good humor. There was something going on, something obvious that I was missing, that he wasn’t telling me. Squinting into the haze, I saw smoke rising from the caravan and tried to puzzle out the shapes.
“Is it a train?” I asked.
“You’ve never seen a caravan?” he asked. “Oh, love, you slay me. You’re like a babe in the woods, trying to pet the bludbunnies.”
His accent was growing on me, something close to British but with a touch of pirate growl. Very musical. I wanted him to talk more, even if what he said made no sense.