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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Aren’t you worried about the bunnies?” I asked.
“Oh, no. They won’t bother me,” he said.
“Why not? They just like naked women?”
“They like naked anybody. But I’m not to their taste.”
Looking down at him in the watery morning sun, I began to notice little details that I’d overlooked on our walk. He seemed to be in his early thirties, but his skin was unusually smooth. His dark, glossy hair didn’t have a single strand of gray. And no stubble. He smiled brightly then, showing me his teeth.
They were very pointy.
“What are you?” I asked, my voice low. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“What do you think I am?” he asked, still smiling.
“A vampire,” I said.
“What’s that?” he asked. As if he’d never heard the word and couldn’t decide if it was an insult or not.
“How have you never heard of vampires? It’s like we’re speaking two different languages,” I said, bemused to see him finally acting anything less than smug.
“You’re smart,” he said. “And you heard him call me Bludman. Surely you understand.”
“Fine. You’re a man. But there’s something different about you.”
“You’re starting to piece it together, love,” he said. “This is a different world from yours, which means that there are different rules. Your world must be a soft one. Nearly everything here runs on blood. That’s why it’s called Sang, I think.”
“The world is called Sang, or this country is called Sang?”
“The everything is called Sang. We’re now on an island called Sangland, approaching the city of Manchester. There are villages and cities, mayors and Coppers, Pinkies and Bludmen, but the name of it all is Sang.”
“Sang,” I mused to myself. “In the past tense. I like that. But what’s a Pinky?”
“You’re a Pinky, darling,” he said with a fond smile. “You eat plants and animals and drink water, and your blood is all meaty and hot and fragrant, bringing pink to your cheeks. The cities are full of your kind, of all different colors and sorts. But they all taste about the same.”
“You eat people?” I said with an involuntary shiver.
“Eat people? Chew them up, like a cannibal?” He laughed, another crystal-clear sound ringing through the silence. “Never. Just drink of them. And not directly, not anymore. From vials, mostly.”
“So that’s what a Bludman is?” I asked, pronouncing it as he had, like “blood-mun.”
“I am,” he said with a bow of the head. “My kind can be born or made, and I’m born.”
“Are you dead?” I asked. I had to know.
“Do I look dead?” He chuckled. “Honestly, where did you hear such tales? I’m alive; my body just works differently from yours. I’m a predator, see. And you’re the prey.”
“What about that rabbit?” I asked. “Are you saying that’s a vampire bunny?”
He followed my pointing finger to the offending creature and held out his finger to it. This one was an albino with bright blue eyes, and in my world, it wouldn’t have lasted five minutes before a hawk or a fox scooped it up. Here, it was bold as brass. The rabbit sniffed him and hissed, then hopped away in a sulk.
“That was a bludbunny,” he said. “And they start out sucking blood, then eating flesh, then cracking bones until they’re round as balls. There are no real rabbits left, munching on carrots and flowers. But there are bludrats and bluddeer and bludhogs. Pretty much all of the wild animals are blood drinkers, outside of the old-fashioned predators—wolves and the like. They keep the eating animals, the cattle and chickens and pigs and such, contained inside the cities. To keep them pure. And in one piece.”
“Oh,” I said. I suddenly felt like a bit of watermelon at a picnic, with untold armies of ants marching in, unstoppable and overwhelming.
“You don’t feel safe anymore, do you?” he asked. “Don’t worry. Nothing can harm you so long as you’re with me.”
“But what happens when I leave you?” I asked him. “You can’t spend all your time following me around and strangling rabbits.”
He laughed and pulled at the grass. “Don’t tempt me, woman,” he said.
I watched him playing with the long blades of grass, weaving them into patterns as he hummed an unfamiliar song, a waltz.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“I’m letting you get used to the idea of me,” he said idly. “I’m pretending to be harmless. Is it working?”
“Until you smile,” I said weakly, and he smiled again, his face radiant.
“Can’t help that, love,” he said. “Not around you.”
“You sound like a lovesick puppy,” I chided. “Or is it a lovesick bludpuppy?”
That garnered a laugh, and I felt as if I’d won a prize.
“Lovesick bludpuppy,” he said. “Oh, I like that.”
I couldn’t look into his eyes anymore, because I could see a sort of adoration in them that made me nervous. I traced whorls on the stump with my finger.
“Just so you know,” I said, “I just ended a bad relationship, and I’m not really looking for another.”
“You may not be looking for it,” he said, “but maybe it’s come looking for you.”
“In a dream?” I asked. “My brain probably conjured you up because you’re the exact opposite of my old fiancé. I may not be taken, but that doesn’t mean I’m available. I can’t have you looking at me like that. But you seem … nice enough.”
I didn’t really have words for what he seemed.
He chuckled to himself, low in his throat. There was something sinister there, roiling under the surface like eels in a lake, dark and dangerous. But there was something wildly attractive about it, too.
“What?” I said.
“You’re buying it,” he said. “You may say it’s a dream, but you’re empathizing, trying to make me feel better. I am no longer a figment of your imagination.”
“I’m not buying anything—I’m playing by the rules,” I said, feeling a bit prickly. “No point in dreaming if you don’t dream the dream.”
“There’s a bit of poetry in that,” he said, smiling at the grass in his hands.
Then I felt his full focus on me. I tensed.
“Look into my eyes, Letitia.”
“Call me Tish,” I said out of habit.
“Never,” he said fiercely.
I looked down into his eyes. I couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop myself.
His eyes were the color of the ocean, a shifting grayish-brownish-greenish, alternately cloudy and clear. They didn’t blink. The stare was so intense that a bolt of recognition and understanding shot through me, settling in my belly like a jigger of whiskey, hot and sweet.
My eyes snapped shut.
“I can’t feel this way. Whatever magic you’re using, stop it.”
“My magic won’t work on your heart,” he said. “Or else I’d have used it already, had you dancing back to my wagon like a marionette on a string.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” I said.
“Truer words were never spoken,” he said, although I felt that we had agreed on different things.
“My name is Tish Everett. I’m a nurse, and I take care of my grandmother, and I live in an apartment, and I have a cat. This is a dream. Any moment, I’m going to wake up,” I said behind closed eyes, my heart beating in my ears.
I needed to be free. I needed time to find myself in the safe little cocoon I’d created in my world. I needed to take care of my grandmother, my responsibilities. I didn’t want to feel a pull like this mystifying longing for a dangerous stranger in his bizarre, bloodthirsty world. It scared me.
Until he spoke.
Damn him and his sexy accent.
“Look at it this way, love. If it’s a dream, then whatever you do here doesn’t count. Dreams are for experiencing things you can’t in real life. You can feel, love, kill with impunity. Nothing matters; dreams are your heart’s playground,” he said, his voice musical and low.
“And if you’re in another world entirely, then your grandmother and your cat aren’t here. You may never get back. You don’t know how to get back, anyway. You might as well do the best you can here, make whatever life you can. You don’t want to be alone in Sang, believe me.”
He must have sensed my resolve weakening. The smooth voice went on, insinuating itself into my ears and settling in, growing roots.
I wanted so badly to give in.
“Either way, your best bet is to trust me. Come with me. Join me.”
His voice dropped so low that I could barely hear it.
“Be my love,” he said.
I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a command.
“But why?” I asked. “Why you? Why me?”
“Let’s just say that we both have our dreams,” he answered. “And sometimes, they take a very long time indeed to come true.”
The few birds sang in the silence, and I wondered if they, too, craved flesh. The grass rustled. Someone began playing a flute near the caravan, and the eerie trill danced through the air between us.
“It doesn’t matter which part is the dream or who is dreaming whom. My heart is my own, and I’m not looking to share it,” I said finally.
I felt as if I was standing on a precipice, and I had to take a stand. I had sworn that no man was going to tell me what to do ever again, even if he was just telling me to love him in return.
“Whatever you think I may eventually feel for you, for right now, you’re going to have to back off.”
“I don’t like following orders,” he said quietly.
“Neither do I,” I said.
The flute song rose and fell between us, breaking the tension into ripples. I watched him shred the little web of grass he had woven. It fluttered away in the breeze.
“It would appear we’ve reached an impasse,” he said.
“So what now?”
He tossed the last bit of grass to the ground and inspected his green-stained gloves, then shook himself like a dog. When he met my eyes again, the charged power of his gaze was gone, replaced by a mask of bright, manic energy. He leaped to his feet and did a strange little jig, then held out his hand with a flourish. A bouquet of flowers appeared there. When I reached to take it, it disappeared, and a little cloud of confetti burst from his sleeve and settled over me.
I clapped slowly and sarcastically but couldn’t help grinning at him.
“We go to Criminy’s Clockwork Caravan,” he said. “We’ll find some clothes for you, feed you, introduce you around. The crew’s about half Bludmen, half Pinky, so you’ll feel at home. And there’s a very strict order of things, in the caravan.”
He smiled crookedly and held out his arm. “Your blood is safe with us.”
I didn’t feel safe, neither in body nor in heart. Why was I drawn to this odd, inhuman man? I had felt his tug when I opened the locket, but I had thought it was fancy and romance, the impossible longing for something noble and beautiful from long ago. I thought it was the same sort of harmless yearning I felt for Mr. Darcy. But here, near him, smelling him, I recognized the feeling for what it was. Attraction. And passion. And maybe fear—the exciting kind.
He was right, though. I had nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to. I found myself committing to the world of Sang, whether as a dream or as an alternative dimension. Maybe I had a head injury and was lying on my bathroom floor in a puddle of blood, dreaming strange dreams as Nana left message after frantic message on my voice mail.
That thought made me shiver, and he turned to look at me.
“All right, love? You look as if a goose has walked over your grave.”
I tried to play it off as a joke. “You have geese here? Or are they bludgeese?”
“Birds drinking blood?” He chuckled. “Do they have teeth where you come from? Because here, it’s just ruddy little beaks. I suppose they could peck you to death, if you held still long enough.”
We had reached the caravan again, and I braced myself for further bewilderment. Everything seemed slightly off-kilter, and I was walking into an unfamiliar place full of strangers and people who wanted to drink my blood. Still, nothing moved except for tendrils of smoke on the breeze, and it was eerie. I could see the same monkey in the same fez, sitting perfectly still on the caboose. I was amazed that any animal could sit still that long.
“What’s with the monkey?” I asked. “He must be really well trained.”
“Well trained? Love, you’re a riot,” he said, laughing again. I was powerfully drawn to that laugh, and I barely even knew the man. Or inhuman monster. Or apex predator. Whatever he claimed to be.
“Pemberly, wake!” he called.
A flash of green light surged over the monkey’s open eyes, and they blinked several times. It leaped into the air and did a little jig on its back legs, its tail forming a perfect question mark.
“Pemberly, come,” Criminy called, and the monkey swung down to the ground and ran to his outstretched arm, climbing up to sit on his shoulder, tail curling around his bicep.
The monkey turned to look at me, and I realized that the coppery fur was actually cunningly crafted metal. I could hear a subtle ticking from within, and when the eyes blinked, there was a metallic click.