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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Master, we have decided,” Torno said as he curled his kettlebells. His clockwork dog begged at his feet. “We will stay here and practice, try some new tricks maybe. There is nothing illegal about lifting weights, eh?”
“Not that I know of, old friend,” Criminy said with a chuckle. “But what of safety?”
“You don’t think a strong man can protect a bunch of little ladies?” Torno bellowed. “Also, we are having the clockworks, and crossbows, and Mr. Dregs. And Eblick.”
“What on earth can Eblick do?” I asked, stunned. Unless a Copper tripped over him while he was dozing in the sun, I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly help.
Sitting up, the lizard boy sleepily blinked his eyes. He seemed a brighter green than before, his limbs less rubbery. The exercise and oil must have helped. He turned to us and, with a placid smile, said, “I’ve good news, m’lord. Just found out I’m venomous.”
And he opened his green-lipped mouth, showing a set of gleaming yellow fangs.
My new dress didn’t fit nearly as well as my old one. It was an inch too long, and the burnt orange didn’t do as much for my complexion, but it still felt good to be decent again. After Charlie Dregs had started staring at my thin gentleman’s shirt and unconsciously licking his chops, Criminy had shooed Emerlie and me into Mrs. Cleavers’s wrecked wagon, hissing, “Nothing flashy.”
Emerlie giggled. “What’s the fun in that, eh?” she said, sliding her yellow-and-purple arm through mine and dragging me off.
My options were limited, without a seamstress around and with most of the costumes trampled or half-finished. And thus, the unfashionable pumpkin dress with puffed shoulders and a ruffled placket that made me feel like Beth from Little Women instead of Mina from Dracula. The droopy bonnet didn’t help my ego, either, but at least it covered my ears with their damning holes.
Honestly, I didn’t care what I looked like so long as we could get on the road to Manchester. Now that I had made my decision, finding the locket was the next step. But it wasn’t just for my own selfish needs anymore. I had to keep Criminy and his people safe, and that meant stopping Jonah Goodwill, no matter what. With my arm through Criminy’s, we set off toward the hideous city on the hill. We left Pemberly behind to help guard the caravan, but Uro was on my wrist, ready to be of service—if only I could remember to use him.
On foot again on the endless moors, it was funny to think of how new and strange it had felt just a few days ago. Now it was like retracing my steps. Except that this time, we knew exactly where we were going. Straight to the enemy’s lair. Either he was waiting for us, or we would be there, waiting for him.
“Did you see anything else?” Criminy asked me again. “When you touched Tabitha?”
“Nothing of the future,” I said. “Just them striking a deal, him leaving her alone on the island to wait for us.”
“I know why he wants the locket, but I wish I knew what he wanted with you,” Criminy said, and I could tell that his thoughts were far away. “Maybe there’s a way to find out.”
“I guess if you found one of his underlings, I could glance him,” I said.
“Too risky. They’ll be looking for us in the city. There’s another way, though. I hate to ask you again, love, but could I have a drop of blood?”
“Just a drop? No problem. Anything for the locket,” I said, holding out my arm. It was my new mantra.
“Not yet,” he said, patting my hand apologetically. “We need to find a pool first.”
Criminy reached into his coat and pulled out the same brass device he’d used to find Erris. He fiddled with the dials and spun slowly in a circle, fixing his eye on the horizon. Finally, he stopped, and I followed his gaze over the hills toward a thick wood bursting with bright green.
“That’s not too bad, then,” he muttered. “Not entirely off course.”
I had no idea what he meant.
As soon as we were off the road, the bunnies started to plop out of the grass and follow me, but I was so accustomed to their gentle, hungry stares by now that punting them was automatic.
Just as we reached the wood, something startled in the shadows, making the branches and bushes shudder. Birds burst from the trees like feathered fireworks, screeching in terror. Then the thing inside snorted.
“Shite,” Criminy said. “It’s a bludstag. This is not part of the plan.”
“Do I run?” I whispered.
“No. Don’t move. Try not to show fear. They can smell it. They like it.”
He picked me up and carried me over to a gnarled plum tree on the outskirts of the forest. He handed me his coat and set me on the lowest branch, hissing, “Climb,” before he disappeared.
I moved up a few branches until I was out of mauling distance, then settled in a fork to watch. I spotted Criminy creeping through the underbrush, and then I looked at the huge shape in the bushes. The sleekly muscled stag was hunting Criminy in turn, its head low. I was scared for Criminy, but it was fascinating, watching two predators stalk each other.
Criminy threw a large stick just a little to the side of the stag, and it screamed and dove toward the noise, fangs bared. With the elegance of a lion, Criminy ran and sprang. His arms encircled the beast’s neck, and the talons of his black-scaled hands sank into the bristling brown fur. His face contorted into an inhuman mask of feral rage as his open mouth, sparkling with his own fangs, sought the stag’s throat.
I couldn’t look away. His teeth slashed through the fur and flesh, spraying blood as the beast bellowed. The sound died to a gurgle as Criminy ripped out a chunk and spit it out. As his blood-painted mouth closed over the wound and the stag’s body began to tremble and jerk, Criminy’s cloudy eyes looked up and met mine.
He was an animal. He was terrifying. And he was beautiful.
I realized that I was biting my lip, that my hand was wound into the ruffled fabric at my chest. Something in me was drawn to the carnage. Like so many women before me, I was a slave to the caveman brain, that deep old part of my DNA that whispered that ferocity would keep me safe and fed and alive and that I should most definitely find the fiercest creature around and hump it.
No problem there.
I’d never seen this kind of violence before.
And part of me was disgusted at being … my God, was I aroused by this? But part of me understood and accepted this vitality, this necessary savagery. What Criminy was doing to the stag, it would have readily done to me.
He took a last gulp and stood. Eyes never leaving mine, he wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his bare hand. He stepped over the huge carcass and stalked toward me through the low grass of the copse, pulling out a black handkerchief to clean off the blood. As if hypnotized, I perched in the crook of the tree and watched him. My senses were high, and I could smell him on the breeze, smell the blood, hear his footsteps crushing the grass. I wanted to climb down to him, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away.
In seconds, he was under my tree, looking up to where I stood on my branch, just eight feet off the ground. He held out his arms, the black scales of his hands glistening in the weak sun. Without a thought, I stepped off the branch and fell, my skirts billowing around me.
He caught me, of course, one arm under my knees and one around my shoulder.
“My hero,” I said, breathless.
He chuckled once, low in the back of his throat, and then he kissed me, and I could taste the stag’s blood in his mouth, meaty and warm, and I didn’t care. I twined my arms around his neck and kissed him back, just as fiercely.
Still kissing me, he carried me toward a birch tree and set me on the ground. With a growl, he lunged and pressed me up against the trunk, his hands tracing my face once before hungrily stroking down my neck, my chest, the curve of my corset, the swell of my hip. All the playfulness and teasing from our last encounter was gone. This was pure animal lust.
And I wanted it.
He found the hem of my dress and tugged it up, violent and sure. My hands wound around his neck, through his hair, tugging the queue loose. Just like in the locket, daring me to answer his call.
I strained against him and squirmed as his hands plunged under my skirts and upward, past the foamy black petticoats, caressing my thighs. For the first time in Sang, I was damned glad that they hadn’t invented women’s undergarments. As his finger moved against me, sure as pulling a trigger, I moaned and rocked into him.
Without thinking, I ripped off my gloves and undid the laces of his breeches, my fingers more nimble than last time. His hand moved more quickly against me under my dress, the texture of the scales strange and delicious as they rubbed back and forth. Some tiny part of me, the old, tame Tish who lurked far off in my brain, was disgusted. The rest of me was triumphant and joyous and fierce and sure. This was what I had chosen, and I would enjoy every second of it.
I freed him from his breeches, and he moaned against my mouth to feel my hands on him, rubbing up and down, reveling in the soft touch of warm skin on warm skin after days of confinement behind cloth.
We were still kissing, tongues hungry and violent, like two dogs snapping at each other. He pulled away to kiss my neck and found more cloth there. Growling, he set his teeth against it, and the pressure through the fabric was exhilarating. I laughed and nibbled his ear, our hands moving together in the tangle of clothing below, building in speed. Then he jerked up my skirts, and his fingers were replaced by something better, and in one savage thrust, he was inside me. I was grunting and panting, my back rasping against the rough bark of the tree.
I wrapped one leg around him, and he growled in my ear as he plunged even deeper into me. I squealed and pulled him closer, and he lifted my other leg around him. I thought I would split in two in the most wonderful way as I rode him, my back pinned to the tree and my arms wrapped around his neck and my legs wrapped around his waist, ruffled skirt trailing to the ground.
He struck that secret place inside me again and again, splitting me like a ripe plum, juicy and ready to burst. It was too soon, but I couldn’t stop, couldn’t slow down to enjoy it. As I cried out, he caught my breath in another sloppy, deep kiss, and I pulsed in release as I tasted blood and berries. He shuddered inside me, fighting to the last, and I pulled back before he could bite my tongue as he climaxed.
We were both shaking as the savagery of the interlude drained away. He lowered me to the ground and caught me up when I stumbled.
I blushed and turned away to settle my skirts, which were all tangled up over my petticoats. When I felt his hand on my shoulder, I turned in surprise, and he gave me a shy smile and held a red handkerchief out on his glove-clad hand. I returned the smile and mopped myself off under the dress with my back to him, grateful that my clothes hid the aftermath of our lust from the relatively bright light of day.
When I turned back around, holding the stained hanky, he had put his own clothing to rights. How the man always managed to look both dapper and careless was beyond me.
“Just leave it on the ground, love,” he said with a teasing grin. “That’s going to make some lucky bludbunny very happy. Now, let’s see what our fine Magistrate has in store for you.”
I knelt on the moss by the spring, fussing with my skirts. After what had just happened, I should have been past modesty with Criminy, but he could make me blush with nothing but a grin. And it definitely wasn’t shame or embarrassment that I was feeling. Now that I had made my choice, it occurred to me that I wanted him not only to want me but also to esteem and respect me. I had gone from actively avoiding his adoration to trying to win his favor, and I felt more than a little awkward.
“I don’t get it,” I said, self-conscious as I tucked the orange ruffles around my ankles. “I thought you didn’t drink from blud animals.”
By my side, Criminy dug through his coat with deft hands, assembling the tools he needed to work his magic. Fidgety and inelegant by comparison, I waited to play my part. Asking him questions helped me forget my physical and emotional discomfort and took my mind off contemplating what had just passed between us, which was really a very muddled experience.
“I can feed from them,” he said. “But they don’t taste very good. It’s the same reason most Pinkies don’t eat predators. Grass-fed creatures are much more succulent. But when it’s an even fight and a valid kill … well, it gets the blood pumping, and winning the war matters more than the gourmet taste.”
On a flat rock by the pool, he laid out a dagger and a murky glass bottle.
“You don’t mind, then?” he asked softly, playing with the dagger, the same one he’d used to kill the bludrat. He scoured it with sand repeatedly and rubbed it clean on the moss.
“What, watching you kill and eat a deer?” I asked. “Obviously not. It was … different. But not bad.” I looked down, too, fiddling with my boot lace. “It was fascinating. You were very beautiful.”
He laughed at that.
“Oh, yes, nothing more beautiful than watching a stag have its throat ripped out,” he said. “Scares the living daylights out of most of your kind. Further evidence that Bludmen need to be locked up. Enslaved. Drained. For we have violent tendencies, you know, and aren’t fit for polite society.”
“That’s just because they don’t have to kill their own meat,” I said. “People forget what it’s like when it’s life or death. I have patients who are dying and need help but are scared to have a needle put in their arm. They live such a soft life that they would risk death because they’re afraid of a tiny piece of metal.”
“Utter balderdash,” Criminy said, polishing the knife on his breeches. “I suppose people really are ridiculous, no matter where you go.”