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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“He’s in love with her,” Criminy whispered, his breath tickling the curls that hung in the tender spot behind my ear. “He keeps hoping she’ll fall and break her neck, so that he can turn her without guilt and be her knight in shining armor.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. In the vampire stories I’d read, the vampire usually just did whatever he wanted and damn the consequences. There was an odd balance of power at play in this world, if the blood drinker spent his life gazing longingly at a bored girl on a unicycle.
The next car was an aquarium. Behind the thick, wavy glass, floating in crystal-blue water and framed by softly waving water plants, was a mermaid.
I had to look twice to confirm it. Yep, a mermaid, complete with silvery blue tail.
Beautiful blond hair billowed around her head, and she had white clamshells over her breasts. Her eyes were dark with kohl and pinned to Criminy. When we were right in front of her, she swam up to the glass and kissed it with a saucy wink at my escort.
“Sirena,” Criminy said. “The mermaid. Bit of a trollop. Tried to teach her magic once, but she didn’t get on at all.” She was waving madly, so he waved back with a bored smile, saying, “Yes, yes, we see you. Get on with it.”
The mermaid scowled at us and did a backflip, slapping the surface of the water with her tail. I shrieked as cold droplets sprinkled over me, and Criminy pulled me a little closer. My heart sped up as he gently dabbed at my face with a bright red handkerchief.
“Missed a drop,” he said, voice quiet and husky. “Just there.”
His lips barely brushed mine. I wanted to push him away. I should have turned my head and slapped him for taking advantage of me. But I was too busy keeping my knees from buckling and melting into a puddle at his feet. The touch was brief and searing, and it was all I could do to pull back and clear my throat. Criminy didn’t apologize. He just grinned.
Sirena smacked the glass with her hand and went to sulk behind a water plant. Before I could ask if she was fake or real or really magic, Criminy steered me to the next wagon and the strong man, Torno. He was almost a giant, with huge muscles and a waxed black mustache with curled tips. He wore a tan leather suit that extended up his neck into the oddest top hat I had ever seen, molded tightly around his ears and chin. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable and sweaty it had to be inside his costume.
As he did squats, he held a red velvet fainting couch over his head. Seated primly on it was a two-headed boy of fourteen or so. Both heads had scraggly hair the color of nothing and dark eyes that were crafty and sullen. The open collars told me that they were Bludmen, and I watched as each hand lifted a teacup to a different mouth, which slurped and sucked as only a teenager can. When the cups returned to the saucers, the lips were painted with blood. Both heads grinned luridly at me, showing red-stained teeth. I shuddered, and Criminy yanked me forward, saying, “It’s rude to stare unless you’ve paid, pet. They were born that way.”
“I wasn’t staring at their heads,” I said. “I was staring at the bloody teeth.”
“You get used to it.”
Just then, a strange woman walking past us caught my attention. She was actually swallowing a python head-first as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Her skin was a deep indigo black, and her hair fell in braids to her waist. She wore nothing but a shiny corset, bloomers, and snakeskin boots that came to her knees.
“I can’t tell,” I whispered to Criminy when she had walked past. “What is she?”
“Veruca Lindenfain, Abyssinian swallower of swords, fire, and snakes,” he said. “Abyssinians are human, but their blood is so powerful that nothing will drink it. Not even a bludrat wants to go blind and mad. Makes a pretty penny for us, you know, draws a huge crowd wherever we go. Not a lot of her type around, able to walk both worlds and swallow fire, too.”
Next was the lizard boy, stretched out on a log, asleep. He seemed like a perfectly normal teenager who happened to be covered in scales of a sickly pale green. A long forked tongue flapped as he snored.
“He needs sunlight,” said Criminy. “So he says. I think he’s just a lazy bugger.”
The trailer beside the lizard boy was painted purple and pink. I smiled at the two pretty girls whispering on the roof. Even when doing handstands on chairs ten feet off the ground, they just seemed so innocent and girlish and happy.
“Cherie and Demi. The Twisty Sisters,” Criminy mused with a fond wave. The girls waved back—while standing on one hand each. “Don’t worry—they’re both bludded, so even if they fall, they’ll be fine. I found Cherie in a London orphanage, and Demi was a Stranger, bleeding on the moor. Now they’re as close as real sisters and the finest contortionists I’ve ever met. I’ve a bit of luck about me, you know.”
“Maybe it’s not luck,” I said.
“Perhaps,” he murmured, but I could tell that he was pleased with himself and took an almost fatherly pride in his strange carnivalleros. There was more magic about Criminy Stain than what he pulled out of his hat.
More and more people emerged from the caravan to practice, but we stopped in front of a lonely light blue wagon that showed a bit of wear. Painted words had been scraped off recently and violently. Criminy removed a ring of skeleton keys from another of the mysterious pockets of his coat, selected one, and worked the door open. It was musty and dark inside, with broken furniture jumbled about. There was a distinct smell of dog. My nose wrinkled.
“Sorry, love,” he said. “The wolfboy left it a bit of a mess before he ran off.”
He led me inside and pushed a button on the wall. A series of lamps buzzed into life, bathing the dark room in flickering orange light and revealing old wallpaper with black velvet stripes over shiny silver.
“It’s considered a good size,” he said, “for someone just cutting her teeth. We’ll beat the rugs, wash the linen, fix the furniture. Good as new by bedtime. Will it suit you?”
I walked around, touching things. A dainty chair had been reduced to a pile of kindling, and the stuffing was popping out of a silk couch in parallel rips. It was going to take a lot of work to make it livable, but I wasn’t going to mention my doubts about his powers as a magician or a taskmaster. Everyone we’d passed on our walk had bowed or curtsied with deep and somewhat fearful respect. Criminy Stain was a man who made things happen.
“So long as I have a safe place to sleep, I’ll be fine,” I said. “Please tell me pajamas here don’t lace up to the neck.”
“The door locks from the inside,” he said, pointing out four different types of locks on the front door. “And that’s the only entrance. No windows. Made for Pinkies, you see. But we’ll get you a clockwork as soon as possible, too, to stand guard.”
His eyes traveled over my dress like those of a dog looking in the window of a butcher shop. “You can sleep in whatever you like,” he muttered.
I blushed and pretended to inspect a painting in a gilt frame. It showed a herd of elephants trampling a lion.
He cleared his throat. “Now that we’re alone, I’d like you to try glancing,” he said. “As your employer, I need to know what you can do.”
“I don’t know how,” I admitted. “It was more something that happened to me, not something I did on purpose. I didn’t mean to touch her.”
“Try,” he said, and he took my left hand, the one with the compass stained on the palm. He looked into my eyes as he slowly unbuttoned the three buttons and pulled each finger of my glove to loosen it. I just stood there, mesmerized and breathing faster. With a sly smile that made my legs feel like jelly, he brought the glove to his mouth and gently bit the tip of the middle finger. As he held my wrist in one hand, he slowly removed the glove with his teeth. I have no idea how I managed to remain standing, as it was possibly the sexiest thing that had ever happened to me. And our skin hadn’t even touched.
The glove dropped to the floor, and he guided my bare hand to the open neck of his shirt. He closed his eyes just before I touched him, his head falling back.
And then the jolt.
In a second, I saw it, the image filling my mind and threatening to burst out of me. I gasped and fell to my knees. He followed me to the floor and held me by the shoulders as if I was going to fly apart.
“What? What is it? Letitia, are you all right? What did you see?” he said, searching my face as I blinked with wide eyes.
“Nothing,” I whispered.
“You’re lying,” he said.
I was silent. He lifted me back to my unsteady feet, and we stared at each other, another contest of wills.
He raised his eyebrows. I wasn’t getting out of this one so easily.
“I can’t tell you what I saw,” I finally admitted. “I just can’t.”
I couldn’t tell him that I was shaken to the core.
I shrugged away from his grasp and picked my glove up off the floor. I turned my back as I slipped it on and clumsily buttoned it. It was as intimate as dressing after a one-night stand, and I couldn’t face him until my hand was safely covered again. But I felt his eyes on my back, exerting his power. Or trying to.
“Why won’t you tell me, love? Was it something bad?”
“I can’t tell you,” I repeated dumbly.
“Whatever it is, if it’s important, I need to know,” he said. “Was it the Coppers? A fire? Imprisonment? Poison? Draining? Death?” He paused and, with a defiant tilt of his head, asked, “Or did you see something of my past?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I’m not accustomed to being exasperated,” he said, his voice ragged with feeling. “I don’t want to force you to tell me, but I will, if I must.”
“You can’t force me to do anything,” I said. “You won’t.”
He spun me back around to face him, and the look on his face was terrifying and more than a little thrilling. Anger and danger and excitement and desire were eloquent in his sharply cut features. No one ever had power over him, and now I did, an insignificant Pinky. A human.
“Look,” I said. “Nothing is going to happen to the caravan. It’s my problem, not yours.”
He put his hands on my shoulders, and I could feel the tension between us through the gloves and the thick brocade, like magnets that couldn’t decide whether to repel or attract.
“Your problems are my problems, for as long as you’re in this world,” he said. “Don’t you see? I brought you here. I’m responsible for you. You’re mine.”
“Excuse me?” I barked. “You don’t own me.” I tried to jerk away from him, but he held me tightly, his hands as strong as iron wrapped in velvet.
Jeff had called me his responsibility, his baby, his darling. His, his, his. My instinct was to run away from Criminy, too. Still, I sensed that he meant something different when he said, “You’re mine.” But whatever those words meant in this world, whatever they meant to him, I wouldn’t let myself give in.
I tugged away, but he only held tighter, and my heart wasn’t in it. The vision had stolen my fire. Part of me was tempted just to melt into him. Sure, I felt what he felt, the energy and heat and inexplicable longing between us. But underneath it, at the very core of me, was a fierce need for freedom. A stubborn rebelliousness.
And I couldn’t forget the constant worry about Nana, far away in another place, waiting for me, needing comfort and care that only I could give. I had a life there, in my other world, a life I was just starting to rebuild. This new, confusing vision of my future was just too much. I closed my eyes.
“I’m not yours. I don’t even work for you yet. My name is Tish Everett, and I belong to myself.”
“No, pet,” he said, taking a menacing step closer. “You belong to me.”
He sighed and pulled his top hat from somewhere inside his coat. He beat it against his leg once and twirled it up onto his head. Then he looked at me with eyes full of secrets and grasped both of my hands. Warmth bloomed between the gloves, a whisper of cloth always between us.
“Think what you will, love, but you know what they say of glancers.”
“I don’t,” I said, looking down to avoid his burning gaze.
“They can see everyone’s future but their own.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head.
He was wrong again, though. Touching him, I had seen what would happen to me.
And I was scared.
It was a long, charged moment, him waiting for me to look up, me waiting for him to let go. When the knock came at the door, his hands dropped, and my eyes opened. We stepped away from each other. I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to compose myself. He smoothed his hair and kicked a chair, reducing it to another stack of scrap wood.
“Come in,” he said, composed and commanding once again.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, sir,” came a high, twitchy voice. “But you summoned me?”
The head that poked through the door seemed alien, until I realized that the man was wearing leather aviator’s goggles that covered his head and neck. His eyes were rendered huge, and he blinked fearfully and hiccupped like a screech owl on speed.
“Thank you, Vil,” Criminy said. “Please see to it that this wagon is made habitable for our newest star. By tonight.”
The man pulled a worn journal and a brass pen from his flapping leather jacket and licked the tip of the pen, saying, “And what’s to be painted on the side, sir?”