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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Are you all right?” he asked gently.
“I think so,” I said. “But I’m so sleepy.” My eyelids started to droop closed.
“Stay with me, pet,” he said. “Stay in this world a while. It’s my turn to have you.” He smoothed the hair off my face and said, “How was it?” Just that little touch gave me the tingles. I wondered if I had morning breath and ducked my head.
“It was … totally normal. I woke up in my bed, took care of my grandmother, went to work. It felt like I didn’t get any sleep, but it was fine.” Then it occurred to me that he looked exhausted, too. “Wait. Did you sleep at all?”
“Not much,” he said wryly as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll admit I fell prey to a little catnap in the early morning, but the door was locked and Pem was on guard. Had the strangest dream. I was watching you through this big glass window, and you were in a giant castle all surrounded by short green grass, like someone had cut it with scissors and a ruler, and it was raining. And I was soaked to the bone, water pelting down my collar, through my hair. And you sat inside in a sort of ugly blue dress on a plaid sofa, watching a glowing box. I yelled and knocked on the window again and again, but you wouldn’t look at me.”
“Sounds like a nightmare,” I said, but it struck me to the heart. He was describing my old house, Jeff’s house, the carefully trimmed yard, and my favorite robe.
“It was,” he said. Then, with a smile, as if it didn’t matter, he added, “If you ever hear me calling you in the rain, let me in, eh?”
“Of course,” I said.
But I could tell something in him was unsettled from the dream, and I didn’t want to talk about it, either. I may have felt a little strange in his world, but he would be entirely out of place in mine.
“Oh, and I went back to the estate sale where I found the locket. I got the book it was in.”
“Oh?” He said it lightly. “And what sort of book was it?”
“An empty one,” I said. “Red leather, no title, no words on the pages. Only a family register on the front cover. Your family.”
“Yeah, from the twelve hundreds until now. What year is it?”
“It’s spring of 1904,” he said. “And you’re saying the names were there, but the pages were blank?” He leaned toward me, intent on my words.
“How bizarre,” he said to himself. “When I sent it out to find you, it was a family grimoire, my most prized possession, full of every spell, incantation, recipe, curse, scam, and joke in the family. And in your world, it’s just empty pages. I wonder if you can bring it back with you somehow.”
“But the locket is the only thing that transfers. I mean, I’m wearing the same clothes and hairstyle I fell asleep with here. The makeup doesn’t even pass over.”
“Yes, but the grimoire was enchanted along with the locket. There’s a spell on it, a strong one. It wanted to find you, and it wants to come home to me. It belongs in Sang.”
“Well,” I said, thinking. “It’s under the front seat of my car now, but I can try falling asleep with it in my arms tomorrow night. Although that’s going to feel a little silly.”
“Thank you, love. I wouldn’t trade you, but I’d be glad to have both prizes.”
Our eyes met, and we both smiled a bit shyly. He began to move toward me, leaning in for a kiss, but I put a hand against his chest to stop him, paying careful attention to be sure that I only touched his shirt. My stomach flipped inside, but I wasn’t going to give in.
“Stop right there,” I said.
“Why?” he breathed.
“Because I can’t,” I said. “I’ve just woken up in another world. I can’t go kissing strange men before breakfast.”
“I’m a strange man now?” he said, pulling back to pin me with his sharp eyes.
“I’ve known you for one day,” I said, pushing him farther back so that I could get out of bed. I went to the washstand and looked at my bed-rumpled face and hair in the mirror. With the smudged black makeup, I looked a little like a Victorian consumptive. It wasn’t entirely unbecoming.
“One day, and still a stranger. How many days until I cease to be strange?” he asked playfully, peering over my shoulder at his own tired but well-groomed image in the mirror. Despite having spent the entire night in my wagon, he didn’t have a bit of stubble. His hair was pulled back into a low ponytail, and it made him seem a little less unruly, a little more proper. Whereas I was a mess, but he didn’t seem to mind.
I could feel the prey animal within urging me to keep away from his predatory grin. But he was just a person. He could walk in the daylight, he showed up in mirrors, he didn’t sleep in a coffin. He wasn’t dead. But I somehow kept expecting him to be more of a monster.
“I think you’ll always be strange,” I said softly, looking down at the red flowers painted on the china bowl. “Where’s the pitcher of water?”
“Pitcher of water?” He laughed. “What do you think this is—the sixteen hundreds?”
He reached to a small dial on the side of the washstand and flicked a switch, and water began to pour out of the mouth of a ceramic cherub set into the wood under the mirror.
“We tap the caravan’s pump into the aquifer whenever we park, you see,” he said. When the bowl was filled, he flicked the switch, and the water stopped. “When you’re done, the drain is below the bowl. Just pick it up and dump it down. It’s a little old-fashioned, but it’s better than beating your stockings against a rock.” Seeing the look on my face, he laughed. “Don’t you have running water in your world?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess I thought things were less modern here.”
“Less modern? You don’t even have clockworks where you come from, you said.”
“OK, OK. You win. You’re more modern,” I said. “Can I get dressed now?
“Of course. Do you need any help with your laces?” He said it casually, but there was a hungry curiosity in his voice that amused me.
“Probably,” I said. “But I need help with everything. Can you send Mrs. Cleavers over?”
He laughed that high, wild laugh of his and said, “Mrs. Cleavers doesn’t make house calls, pet. She’s a very important lady. But I’ll send a girl over. I’m better at taking the laces off, anyway.”
He sauntered out the door with a smile on his face and his copper monkey on his shoulder, calling, “And come to the dining car for breakfast when you’re ready, love. Lots to do.”
Moments later, someone tapped on my door, and when I opened it an inch, I saw the back of a head plastered in strawberry-blond curls and a riot of purple and yellow leather. A small clockwork bat clutched her shoulder, rubbery wings folded and red eyes blinking bright. It was the girl I’d seen on the tightrope yesterday.
“Hello?” I said.
She spun around and gave me a bright but fake smile. It reminded me of the look a popular girl once gave me in high school right before she asked to borrow my homework.
“Hi, doll,” she said with something like a cockney accent. “Master Crim said you needed lacing up and whatnot, so here I am.”
She stepped past me into my car and looked around, appraising. I could almost see dollar signs in her light blue eyes.
“Did this up quick for you, didn’t they, love? Nice couch, redid the chaise, brought a new mirror. Fixed all the scratches Pietro left behind, poor lad. You must be quite the fancy!”
“Oh, not really,” I managed to squeak out before she’d shoved open the door to the bedroom.
“Cor,” she said. “Silk bedding, too! I know what Master’s thinking there, eh? Lovely little nest for the lovebirds. Where’s your corset and pantalettes, now, love? We got breakfast still.”
She was like a sparrow, sharp and quick, and her words flowed out in a musical stream. Gone was the bored look I’d seen yesterday, replaced with the cunning eyes of a pickpocket.
“I’m Emerlie,” she said. “Emerlie Fetching. Originally from Blackchapel, of course, which you’ll notice from the accent, eh? Learned the tightrope and tricks from me pap, he was an old hand at the caravan. I do the unicycle, rope dancing, fiery hoops, the lot. Been with this show for three years now, and it’s fine enough, eh?”
“Eh,” I said, handing her the black corset and stepping into the petticoats before pulling the nightgown over my head. Her chatter made it hard to concentrate on anything.
“Oh, that’s lovely stuff, now. Fine lace on those, must be from Franchia. Now, this cincher’s good, thick stuff. That Mrs. Cleavers knows her way about a closet, eh? Sewed this suit for me, said that if I wouldn’t dress as a lady, I wouldn’t dress as a man, neither.” She dimpled and giggled, as if we were best friends sharing a secret. “Got one in the works for me as’ll pop your eyes, all lime and magenta. Now, clutch the door frame while I start pulling, and hold in your breath, that’s a good lass.”
I obliged, and she started yanking, nearly as cruelly as Mrs. Cleavers. When she finally tied off the laces and I exhaled, I felt oddly at home in the tight garment. It was uncomfortable, but everything was in place, right where it should be. Emerlie flung open the armoire and whistled.
“When’s the big day, eh, love? That’s the fanciest damn wedding gown I ever seen.”
“Wedding gown?” I choked.
“Surely, lass, you’ve noticed, as there’s a frothy white confection here in your armoire? Or did it skulk in at night, when you was sleeping?”
“I saw it,” I said. “But I didn’t know it was a wedding dress. I just thought it was white.”
“And for what other reason does a lady wear white?” she scoffed. “It’s a dirty damned life, and that’s for sure. So the master hasn’t asked you, then, eh?” I could see calculations behind her eyes. I guessed that gossip was currency among the small family of the carnival.
“No,” I squeaked.
“Oh, well, it’s only a matter of time, then, what with him giving you this loverly wagon to yourself and a boxful of fancy dresses. Now, let’s see, which dress? Must be this one. The burgundy. Suits you. Let’s get it over your head, then.”
She held out the dress to me, and I dove into it, just as I had the day before. She continued chattering as she laced all the laces and smoothed the dress down over me, but I was silently shrieking in a corner of my mind. Why had that presumptuous lecher installed a wedding dress in my closet? Was I going to wake up one day from my other life already dressed and standing at an altar? Just like in my glance at the book?
She found some little pots of makeup in a drawer and went to work on my face. It seemed Emerlie never stopped to breathe, her words just tumbling over one another like a box of puppies as she worked.
“I gots me own Bluddy hopeful, I do. And how he ever expects me to love him, I’ll never know, the odd bugger. Stands around mooning at me all day, waiting for a word, and what am I to say? Go away, ye perverted bloodthirsty monster? I’m not like you, miss, I was raised to be against that sort of thing, and the thought of kissing him, and him wanting to eat me the whole time, it’s just wretched, eh? I don’t know how you do it, miss, and I’m sure.”
“How I do what?”
“Love a Bludman,” she said, her nose wrinkled up. “With the strange eyes and the smell and the skin and the blood.”
“What’s wrong with the eyes and the smell and … whatever you said?” I asked.
“Well, don’t you smell him? The blood and death, all meaty and coppery?”
“Criminy doesn’t smell like that,” I said, confused. “He smells like … berries. Wine. Something herby and green. Maybe it’s cologne?”
“The Bludmen won’t wear a fake scent,” she said. “And it wouldn’t help, as strong as they smell. And the eyes, always looking like there’s a flame there, fire and shadows. They look like hell to me, miss, and no offense. Like the devil’s eyes.”
“I think it’s kind of pretty,” I admitted shyly.
She looked at me, doubtful, and said, “Well, at least you must agree it’s hard to watch them drink the blood. See it coloring their teeth, turning their lips red?”
I shrugged. She was holding a little pot of bright red rouge and a small brush, and apparently she hadn’t noticed the irony.
“Food is food,” I said. “It’s not like they’re killing anyone.”
She shivered. “They’re a heartbeat away from it every second. Like a bludrat gnawing at a carcass and watching you, and you know what it’s thinking about.”
“That boy, the one who cares for you. What’s his name?”
“Charlie Dregs,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “And he’s not half bad, for a Bludman. Best Punch and Judy show I’ve ever seen, the way he works them puppets and clockworks. But still. How could it ever work out? My parents would kill me. My grandfather would come after him with a torch. The children would be halfbluds, and nobody likes them. Why buy your trouble?”
“What about Casper?” I asked cautiously.
“The music man?” She shrugged. “Right handsome, if he weren’t a Stranger, and no offense.”
I didn’t know how to inquire further without seeming nosy, and I sensed that anything I said would soon be on the lips and ears of everyone else in the caravan. She lapsed into a very welcome silence as she finished painting my eyes. Her prejudice confused me. I supposed that if one were raised to hate and fear Bludmen, one couldn’t help feeling that way. But I just didn’t feel such revulsion around Criminy, and in Sang, I supposed that made me very odd.