Wicked as She Wants
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“Oh, but I want to,” I breathed, mesmerized by his smoldering blue eyes. Every detail of his face called to me, and I reached a finger toward his cheekbone.
“Oh, dear Lord.” He sighed. “Not now.”
“Back to the cabin. And I’m locking you in, whether you like it or not.”
As he turned to lead me back down the hatch and into the halls of the airship, Miss May’s voice rang out over the burbling sound of water, calling, “Maestro! Our bargain!”
He rubbed a spot between his eyebrows and shook his head as if trying to clear it. “Keen!” he shouted, and when she ran over, he said, “Take Anne to the cabin. Lock her in. Wait outside. If anyone asks, say she’s ill. And if she wants something to drink, tell her no.”
“Aye-aye, Maestro.” She was clearly delighted to be escaping our adventure on the deck.
I balked against her tugging. I wanted to watch Casper play. With an impudent bow to Miss May on her throne, he walked to the harpsichord and sat, flipping out the tails on his coat. After cracking his fingers, he began to play a song I hadn’t heard before, and people lined up to dance. Keen pulled on my arm, but I was entranced.
Not by the pageantry of the Maybuck in full swing.
Watching him play the harpsichord was magical. His posture. His single-minded focus on the keyboard. His boots pounding time on the ground, making his thighs flex in a fascinating sort of way. And most of all, his fingers, free of their gloves, flying over the keys with a sensuous familiarity that made me tingle in a way I’d never tingled. Both of Keen’s shoving hands couldn’t budge me from where I stood, watching Casper become an entirely different creature, transformed by his art.
“Ah, my dear. You’re even more beautiful than the music. Glowing.”
I tore my eyes away from Casper and gaped into the smoky-red glasses of a man I hadn’t seen at our first dinner on the Maybuck. He must have come on in Barlin. I couldn’t help staring at his odd burnished-leather waistcoat, which buckled twice under his neck and around his chest, almost like armor.
“You’re too kind,” I said, coming to my senses now that I wasn’t ogling Casper. I had been in a fog for a moment, mesmerized by his peculiar magic. But my thoughts sharpened, and I took a step back from the man, who stood just a little too close for my comfort.
“And are you enjoying the festivities?” The man’s accent was thick, his voice cruel. He stepped closer. Even from behind the smoky lenses of his glasses, his eyes were piercing in their fervor.
“No. I’m feeling poorly and will be returning to my room.” I tried to sidestep him and reached for Keen.
With the sparse movements of a fencer, he snagged my outstretched arm, tucking it into his, and propelled me across the deck. I couldn’t exert my full force to escape him but resisted as much as I thought I could. He was as hard as stone, and I began to panic. My eyes flew to Casper, but he was focused on his harpsichord, utterly lost in his music. Behind us, Keen tugged on the man’s coat, calling, “Sir! Sir! Beg pardon, sir!” over and over. He ignored her.
“Everything to your liking, Van Helsing?” Miss May called in her most obsequious voice. “Miss Anne is an obliging creature, ain’t she?”
I heard the threat implicit in her little speech. One look at the decorated rail of the deck, one inhaled breath of cloud-crisp air, told me that I wasn’t giving anyone any reason to find fault with me.
“Very,” he answered genially, but I could hear the steel underneath.
He steered me toward the low glass tank. My steps grew short as my body instinctively shrank from the salt water within. What was he playing at?
“And do you know why you glow, my dear?” he said in my ear, his thick glove squeezing my arm hard enough to leave a bruise on a normal woman. I flinched for effect.
“It must be the fresh air,” I answered, trying to play my part.
He leaned close. I saw one of the whores watching us from across the deck, her smile tilting up in the corner. She nodded knowingly, as if she knew what was happening. But she couldn’t have imagined what he was saying to me.
“Tsk. That’s not the reason. You glow because you’re a Bludman. The glass of my spectacles was especially made to reveal your vile kind to my eyes. I’m a sort of trophy hunter, you see.”
“You mistake me,” I said, but I heard my own voice waver.
“I don’t mistake you at all. Ahnastasia.”
His hand tightened another notch. The pressure would have broken a Pinky’s arm at that point, and I would surely have bruises for at least a few hours. I clenched my teeth and held in the hiss fighting to escape.
By then, we were standing over the tank. I could smell the horrid salt of it, and I turned my head and closed my eyes as the light spray from the fountain caught on the breeze and blew against my cheek. It burned.
“Do you know much about the creatures of the sea, princess?”
“I know nothing of the sea.”
“This is a touch tank. Within are the golden jewels of the ocean. Bright corals, waving anemones, tiny crabs, toothless sharks, harmless fish, even a baby Kraken, if Miss May isn’t lying, although she probably is. It’s considered greatly sensual to touch the soft, fleshy body of a Kraken. Would you like to try?”
“I would not.”
He took my hand and forcefully unclenched my fist, gently tugging at my satin glove. My fingers sprang closed like a trap.
“I want you to feel the Kraken, princess. Put your hand in the tank and touch it.”
“And if I won’t?”
“Everyone will know you for what you are. I’ll kill you and collect the reward and your fangs. And you’ll be the ninety-seventh bloodsucker I’ve destroyed.”
My hand hovered over the water, shaking in his unforgiving grasp. Behind me, Keen gasped. Casper’s playing didn’t skip a beat. He had moved into a rousing quadrille, and everyone’s feet were pounding on the floor.
Over the merry sounds of the dance, Miss May’s voice rang out. “Don’t be scared, Miss Carol. Van Helsing will take care of you. The Kraken doesn’t bite!”
I looked at Keen. She knew what would happen if I touched the water. My skin would burn, and everyone would know what I was. Either way, I was doomed.
“Now, princess,” Van Helsing hissed in my ear.
I took a deep breath and fought to keep the beast down. When the blud took me over, I was all brawn and no brains. And I needed an intelligent solution more than I needed a bloodbath.
“Let me go, and I’d be glad to touch the Kraken.”
He released me. I pulled my glove back up over my wrist and shook my arm, trying to get the feeling to return to my fingertips. Taking a step back, he gave me a slow, vicious smile.
I scanned the deck, barely containing my panic but ready to take a desperate chance. No one was watching us. I reached for the edge of the tank, grabbed it with both hands, and pushed it as hard as I could. The glass rocked for a moment, the water spilling away from us and splattering over the deck. Then, in one fluid movement, I yanked the glass back toward us as hard as I could and leaped away. The tank fell in slow motion, the water sloshing in a graceful, slopping wave. Van Helsing was but a simple human, of course—he hadn’t moved quickly enough and fell with the tank.
I was already halfway across the deck. I turned to watch as the tank shattered over the man’s fallen form, raining broken shards of glass, bits of coral, and flapping fish all over the wood of the deck. Crabs skittered drunkenly over the boards, their claws snapping. Panic broke out, the women shrieking and the men running about drunkenly.
I was down the steps before the salt water could touch the hem of my dress.
I huddled in the closet, waiting for a flood of seawater or an angry Miss May to claim me. When the door banged open, I cringed only a little. The blud in my wine had sharpened my senses. I could tell by the smell that it was Casper, and he was alone.
“Ahna, where are you?”
I unfolded myself and crept out of the closet. “Are they coming for me?”
“No. Everyone’s too busy cleaning up. No one saw what happened. Including me.” He watched me, waiting for answers.
“He knew me.” I checked the floor for seawater before slipping off my boots and gloves and curling up on the bed, my arms wrapped around my knees. “He knew what I was. Who I was. He called me Ahnastasia, and he tried to make me touch the water. So I pushed it over on him.”
He nodded. “That worked out well, then.”
I gaped at him, heart racing. “Well?” He shrugged. “It’s a disaster. Van Helsing wants me dead! He tried to force me to touch salt water. He hunts my people. He’s a monster.”
“Was a monster,” Casper said softly, crossing the room to sit on the foot of the bed.
“Surely the tank didn’t kill him,” I said, confused.
“Almost. Five hundred gallons of water and a ton of glass is a lot for one Pinky. But that didn’t kill him. I did.”
His gloved fingers unfurled to reveal the jagged stem from the goblet he’d broken earlier. Droplets of blood clung to it, and I unconsciously licked my lips. Casper placed it gently on the bedside table, just out of my reach.
“I’ve never killed anyone before. And he probably would have died on his own before the night was over. But he was trying to say your name. To say ‘Ahnastasia.’ ”
Hearing my name on his lips drew my attention away from the bloody glass and back to his face. He seemed different to me somehow.
We stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment.
“How do you feel?” he finally asked.
I took inventory and rubbed the place on my arm where Van Helsing had held me. “I feel shaken. A little bruised. You?”
“I need a drink.” He reached for the bottle on the bedside table, knocking the goblet stem to the ground with a growl. Sitting back, he uncorked it and took a long swig as his eyes captured mine. I held out a hand for the bottle.