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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Let me guess. You think we’re going to live happily ever after, like some stupid fairy tale?”
“Why not?” His stare dared me to laugh or, worse, to argue.
“Because the whole thing is ridiculous,” I said. I despised the bitterness in my own voice. I sounded so damaged. Good. If he thought I was his soul mate for some mysterious reason he wouldn’t let on, let him see the worst of me.
“It’s not ridiculous to me. Perhaps that’s the difference between predators and prey, love. I’ll never stop hunting. But I expect that one day, you’ll stop running.”
“Because I want to die?”
“Because you want to live.”
I stared at him, trying to puzzle out the monster from the man. He looked so confident and graceful, even squatting in the grass. His grin mixed darkness with humor, hunger with promise. Something in me yearned toward him, it’s true. But what did he see in me? I was confused, stubborn, rude, naive, untrusting. I was straddling two worlds, and it was getting increasingly harder to separate Tish from Letitia. I had just learned to see myself as something other than what Jeff had made me. Caught between Sang and my other life, what sort of person would I become?
What’s more, I hadn’t told Criminy what I’d seen when my hand touched his skin, the vision of our future, of my ultimate destiny. Of my doom.
I shivered involuntarily, staring into the distance.
In two worlds, I had seen only one future. And for the life of me, I didn’t know how to stop it.
As the afternoon sun slunk over the moors, we remained in the grass. We were only three feet from each other but acres apart. I’d kicked more bunnies than I could count. The last one had been brazen, hopping over a dazed comrade to nibble my bootlace. I picked it up by the ears and launched it at the pink clouds with a feral howl.
“Isn’t there anything in this world that is what it seems?” I said. “Isn’t anything simple at all?”
“Not that I’ve found,” he said. “But you must admit it’s colorful.”
“It may be colorful, but I’d rather it was easy.”
“Easy things are worth nothing,” he said. “You should know that. Is your other world easy?”
“Most of the time,” I had to admit.
“Do you have a trade, or do you live with your grandmother?”
“I’m a nurse,” I said, feeling huffy. “I help sick people.”
“So you can stop the diseases?” he asked.
“Not really. I mostly help the people who are already dying, trying to make their last days comfortable.”
“You help people die,” he mused. “That sounds quite sinister, and that’s coming from someone who drinks blood.”
“It’s not like that,” I snapped. “I help people to end their lives with dignity, in their own homes, on their own terms. I change dressings, offer them pain relief, that sort of thing. It’s a calling, and it’s something I’m good at.”
“Are they all old?” he asked.
“Mostly,” I admitted. “Although I have one patient who’s only a few years older than me. Mr. Sterling was in a motorcycle crash on Christmas Day, and he never woke up. He was a concert pianist, so we always keep music playing for him.”
As soon as I said the name, Criminy’s attention focused on me, his gaze sharpened. “Your Mr. Sterling,” he said. “What’s his given name?”
“Jason,” I said softly. “Jason Casper Sterling.” Thinking about him always made me a little sad.
Criminy glared up at the sunset, his mouth pursed and his fingers drumming on his knee. I watched him, wondering if I would ever know what was going on behind those cloudy eyes. Finally, he said, “You must be peckish, my dear. Shall we find supper?”
He stood and held out his hand. I took it without thinking. We walked slowly, side by side, toward the caravan, silent. I felt we had said too much, but I expect he felt we had said too little. Neither of us had yet brought up what would happen that night, when I fell asleep. Would I dream bland dreams about forgotten tests and flying through the air, or would I wake up in my other world and make my grandmother’s breakfast and go to work while my body slept here, insensible and inert?
Oh, and there was another thought. A creepy thought. If my body was here, sleeping, while I was living in my own world, I would be utterly vulnerable. Anyone could do anything to my poor body, and from what it seemed, I might not wake up in response.
“You said I’d have a clockwork guard, didn’t you?” I asked nervously.
“Murdoch’s been working on it all day,” he said. “Do you like snakes?”
“I don’t know any personally,” I said slowly, then, “Wait—my clockwork is a snake?”
“Monkeys are complicated,” he said. “It takes more than a day to fit one. They have personality, you know. But a snake is flexible, fast, and good for protection.”
“Please tell me it’s not some giant boa constrictor,” I said.
I eyed an enormous clockwork bear juggling balls as it rode a unicycle. It was shaped like a polar bear but had copper markings around its eyes like a panda bear. Along with all the clockwork animals, Herr Sigebert had emerged from his wagon that afternoon for oiling and polishing. We had already passed a brass giraffe doing a bizarre contortionist dance and a silver and black ostrich that laid, and then ate, a golden egg. The creatures were surprisingly realistic, beautiful, and more than a little eerie, with softly glowing eyes that actually blinked.
“No, your clockwork will be something small. Wouldn’t be useful if it was ungainly.”
“That doesn’t sound too horrible,” I said.
“You’re worried about your body, aren’t you? While you’re away,” he said quietly.
“Anything could happen to me,” I said. “And I might never know.”
“But it won’t. I’ll be there tonight. I’ll guard you myself. Until we know more about how it works.”
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful …” I began, and I trailed my hand along a royal blue car with a brighter, greener version of the lizard boy painted on it. I didn’t really have the words to continue.
“But you’re worried about locking your unconscious body in a wagon with a known killer and probable lecher?”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“Is there someone else you’d prefer?” His tone was guarded, but I could hear the dare behind his words.
“No,” I said, opting for honesty. “For some strange reason, I trust you.”
“Smart lass,” he said.
We’d reached the dining car by then, and he held the door open for me. I stepped up and in, and he followed and took my arm. But instead of leading me to the buffet, he escorted me to a man sitting alone in a booth. He was handsome, that man, staring out the window, lost in thought, fingers tapping on the table, his long hair cascading down his back in light brown waves. His poet’s blouse was open at the neck, the sleeves pushed up to bare elbows. Instead of breeches, he wore trousers cut off at the calf. He was barefoot, and after one day in Sang, I was a little scandalized. He had to be a Bludman, and a cheeky one at that.
“Letitia, my love,” Criminy said affably, “this is Casper, our harpsichordist.”
The man blinked away his daydreams and turned with a slightly annoyed smile, saying, “Nice to meet you—”
“You!” I cried, cutting him off mid-sentence.
I’d never seen the sapphire-blue eyes blinking at me from their delicate fringe of auburn lashes. But I knew the mouth, the raven tattoo on his forearm, and especially the long, agile fingers constantly tapping out phantom notes on the booth’s table. I’d cut those fingernails back for months.
“Have we met before?” he asked, polite but confused.
“No,” I said. “I just …” I looked to Criminy, who was irritatingly amused. I was amazed, flummoxed, and more than a little vexed that he had sprung this chance meeting on me. “Does he know?” I asked him.
“Do I know what?” Casper said, starting to get irritated, too.
“That you’re a Stranger,” Criminy said matter-of-factly with a charming smile.
Casper shrugged. “Everyone in the caravan knows.”
“She’s one, too,” Criminy said. “And she knows you.”
With a pat on my arm, he smugly strolled down the dining car and slid into a booth next to a nervous and twitching Vil. Probably getting an update on the trailer he was going to lock me into later, the sly bastard. I could feel his eyes on my back from all the way across the wagon.
“I don’t understand,” Casper said, gesturing to the empty seat across the table. I slid in. With Criminy out of hearing range, the man before me seemed to open up and relax. And smolder. “You’re from America? Because I don’t think I know you. I’m sure I would have remembered.” He searched my face, and I searched his, too. His face was … very searchable.
It was amazing, the difference between a pale, wasting, inert body and a living, breathing man. The Mr. Sterling I knew had a shaved head and scrawny arms and drooled. But the Casper before me was tanned and gorgeous, like a poetic version of Robinson Crusoe. And I couldn’t believe how many sponge baths I’d given him, without him even knowing it. I caught my eyes wandering down his open shirt and snapped my gaze back up to his face. I had to tell him something unpleasant, but I didn’t want him to stop smiling that gorgeous, movie-star smile.
“There’s no good way to say this, but I’m your nurse in our world. You had a motorcycle accident six months ago, and now you’re brain-dead. I’m so sorry.”
“Brain-dead,” he said to himself. “Figures. My mom told me that bike would kill me.”
“What happened?” I asked. I had to know.
“I don’t remember. I just showed up here on the ground one day, naked. After the first rabbit bit me, I kept a big branch with me. Killed a deer with it, too. And then I came across a body without a drop of blood on it or in it. I put on his clothes and wandered around until I found the caravan. When Master Stain heard my story and saw me play the harpsichord, he offered me a wagon and a job.”
“Do you like it here?”
“Are you kidding?” he asked with a laugh. “It’s a dream come true. I’m a concert pianist, and these people have never heard of Beethoven or Mozart. They think I’m a god!”
I had to giggle at that. He was gorgeous and charming in a gentle, bluff sort of way—the complete opposite of Criminy’s dangerous allure. I liked him immediately and felt at home in his presence, as if we’d known each other forever. I leaned closer.
“So what’s your story?” He smiled, showing dimples. Was he actually flirting with me? I was suddenly self-conscious and had to resist the urge to fiddle with my hair.
I told him my own story, from locket to fainting. But I left out the part about how I was supposed to be Criminy’s magic mail-order bride.
“Are you really stuck here?” Casper asked anxiously. I got the feeling he wanted me to say yes.
“Indeed, pet. Are you stuck?” Criminy asked, appearing suddenly at my side and sweeping me out of the booth.
“What choice do I have?” I called over my shoulder as Criminy’s arm snaked around my waist and whisked me away to a steaming basket of what looked and smelled like fried chicken but was probably extra-crispy bludbunny.
I was more than a little distracted and kept stealing glances at Casper. He leaned back in his booth, smiling at me with dimples as he flipped a coin back and forth over his knuckles. After I fumbled my fork to the floor, Criminy sighed and took over, filling my plate and guiding me to our private booth. He lashed the curtains closed more forcefully than necessary.
“Lad was acting a bit familiar,” he said, swirling the blood in his goblet with narrowed eyes. “He doesn’t speak to anyone much. I think I preferred him when he was sulky.”
“I know him,” I said, still amazed. “I’ve taken care of his body for months. And he’s been here all along—his mind has, at least. What a strange coincidence.”
“I don’t actually think it’s a coincidence, love,” Criminy said. “I take in whatever Strangers I find, if I can use them. I like to confound the Coppers, and misfits go well with misfits. He found us quite near here, so perhaps locations in your world coordinate somehow with locations in Sang.”
“So you took him in just because he was a Stranger?” I asked.
“And because of his songs. Starting to regret it a bit.”
“And did you turn him, too?”
“Me? Turn him? Hell, no.” He laughed, one sharp note. “That’s not a Bludman. Whatever made you think he was one of us?”
“The way he’s dressed,” I said, feeling confused and silly.
“Ah, that,” he said thoughtfully. “Now, that’s a different story altogether. He’s a clever boots, that one. You’ll have to ask him one day.”
By the time we finished dinner, Casper was already gone. For Criminy’s sake, I tried to conceal my disappointment. We stepped into the twilight with calls of farewell from the carnivalleros, and I admired the stars as we strolled through the misty night. The constellations were very strange, and, just like the clouds, they seemed impossibly close. The moon hung like a broken dinner plate caught in the branches of a far-off tree.
We stopped in front of a burgundy wagon so shiny with moonlight that I could see myself reflected in the still-wet paint. It didn’t look like the shoddy car of the ex-wolfboy, and my name wasn’t painted on the side yet, but I knew it was mine.