The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 17)

Thom stepped behind her, holding a damp cloth to the searing wound on the back of her neck. “What happened?” he asked, gently moving her braid aside and running the cool, wet cloth over her shoulders and down her back. She sighed and tried to relax, but her whole body was tensed as if to run, her breathing fast and high. For all the animals Frannie had dealt with in the bounds of the shop, creatures exotic and angry and scared, she had never feared one before, not even the venomous asp. But of these kittens—turned to blud creatures by some diabolical hand, and in her own house, no less—she was truly frightened.

“I came to feed them, and they attacked me. The rest of the shop is fine. But how is it even possible? They’re the same kittens they were this morning, but . . .”

“But changed.”

“It’s unnatural.”

She handed Thom the bag, and he grasped it so tightly his fist turned white. Remembering the bottle she’d kicked earlier, she hunted around under the butcher’s table in the center of the room. There was nothing unusual about the cheap green glass, except the residue of an opaque pink substance around the mouth. Frannie sniffed it, careful not to touch it.

“Milk and magic and blood? Or blud? Someone’s been here.” She took a deep breath and moved to the door, checking the locks as her face went red with anger. “Someone’s been in my house. Someone did this to my kittens.”

“But why, lass?”

She took the bag back from him, cinching the neck of it tightly and fetching the twine from its drawer. Around and around she wrapped it as the kittens tried to claw and hiss their way out of the gunnysack prison. She tied it off with an overabundance of knots and set it on the floor, then turned the kittens’ crate over on top of it. Then, for good measure, she fetched the iron doorstop and put that on top of the crate.

“D’ye think leaving the wee beasties alive is safe?”

“I don’t have the heart for the alternative. It’s not their fault. I’ll drop them on the doorstep of King’s College tomorrow and let the university study them. I can’t keep them here, but I won’t see them drowned.”

He pulled her into a fierce hug, and she melted into his arms. “You’re the bravest, biggest-hearted creature I’ve ever known.”

She nuzzled into his chest and flinched when he caressed her back.

“You’re hurt, Frannie.”

“I’m a mess.”

“Let me doctor you.”

“I’ll get the kit.”

He held her away, his hands warm on her shoulders and thunder in his eyes. “No, Frannie. No. It’s time to go. Someone wants to hurt you, lass. I can’t imagine why, but they’ve been here, and you can see the lengths to which they’ll go to harm ye. We must go next door or, at the very least, an inn. I can’t keep you safe here if your enemies can steal inside while we sleep.”

She shrugged out from under his grasp, feeling suddenly tender and wounded and past exhaustion. All the panic and strength drained out of her, and she thought of the loose kitten, waiting in the shadows and licking her blood from its teeth. As she pulled the first aid kit from its drawer, she thought carefully about how to proceed with the man she wanted to stay.

“I’m not leaving. This place is my life. The animals are my livelihood. This house is all I have left of my family, and no one and nothing will drive me out. Besides, if someone can get in here, they can get in anywhere. They can follow me anywhere. Better to fight them here, where I know every nook and cranny. If I’m going to die, I’m dying on my terms.”

Thom rubbed his eyes tiredly and handed her the wet handkerchief stained with red. “Don’t mistake bravery for foolishness, my lass. I’ll stand by ye and fight for ye, but I fear your stubbornness will kill us both.” He leaned against the doorway, his head against the wood and his mussed hair sparking in the gaslight. “What is it you want of me now?”

“Come to bed,” she said. “Bring your little knife, and lock my door, and tend my wounds, and keep me safe so I can sleep. We’ll worry about it by the light of tomorrow.”

Thom threw a wry glance at the crate on the floor, the bag writhing with hisses underneath it. With a deep sigh, he scooped Frannie up and carried her up the stairs, just as he had carried her home from the theater.

“If a kitten kills me in my sleep, lass, you’ll get what you deserve.”


Something pulled at Frannie’s consciousness. An annoying sound, and a threatening one, breaking through her dreams. She struggled to sit up, but Filbert was curled up in the crook of her neck, and Thom was wrapped around her like a winter blanket, his bare chest and muscled arms radiating the heat of the fires he so often fought. Shrugging out from her cave of warmth and resettling the kitten at Thom’s shoulder, she realized what had woken her.

The sound of tiny claws, scritching under the door.

By the time she was across the room and ready to grab the lost white bludkitten and stuff it into her ewer, the cheeky thing was already gone. The door across the hall was open, and Casper stood there, looking even more debauched and beautiful than usual, his shirt undone down the front and his breeches unbuttoned. Frannie tried not to stare and failed.

“You been scratching at my door?” he mumbled.

The spell was broken, and her eyes snapped up to his bloodshot ones. “Go back to bed, bounder. And if you see a kitten, watch out for its teeth.”

“I’d like to feel your teeth. Want to join me, darlin’?” He gave her a dimpled, sleepy smile, and she slammed her door and spun around in a huff.

Thom watched her from the bed, propped up on one elbow, with her grandmother’s quilt artfully draped over his waist. With one wide thumb, he stroked Filbert’s head, and Frannie blushed when she remembered what else that thumb had stroked last night.

“I am plagued by attractive men and bludkittens,” she muttered to herself. “And I’m not wearing nearly enough clothes to deal with either.”

She went to her closet, fingering the ripped indigo taffeta of last night’s gown. The first time in years that she’d gone out, and someone had barely missed shooting her with an arrow. But who would wish her ill? All the trouble someone was going to, trying to harm her. Charles was lazy if nothing else, and these shenanigans weren’t his style. An incendiary device through her window. A viper on her doorstep. An arrow at the theater. And a crate of her beloved kittens, birthed and raised by her hands, turned into fierce, foul creatures that hungered for blood. Had she been alone last night, had they found her sleeping, who knew what might have become of her? She shivered as she pulled out a thick tweed skirt and jacket. She would also wear high boots and her most heavily boned corset. She had meant it when she had told Thom she wouldn’t leave her home—but she wasn’t a fool, either.

Thom had saved her, again and again. But could it be a coincidence that the two handsome men in her house had arrived on the same day as the first threat against her? She couldn’t think of anything anyone could want from her, aside from the rooftop garden, which no one knew about, not even Maisie. And if that was the ultimate goal, wouldn’t setting the building on fire be a bad idea?

Frannie realized she was simply standing in the light of her window, her hand sweating under the thick leather glove as she gazed at the gray sky.

“Pensive much, little dove?”

She turned to Thom, trying to shake the fancies from her head.

“I can’t puzzle it out. There’s no good answer. There’s no reason to want me dead.”

Thom stood, scratching the ice-blond hair on his chest down to where it disappeared into his kilt, which was the only thing he wore. He caught her staring and winked before sitting to strap on his belt and pull on his stockings and boots.

“I must work today, lass. They need me, and I need the job. I’ve a friend at the precinct, and I’ll be asking him to patrol the block, tell him I saw some unsavory characters hanging about.” She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand. “No. I’ll not tell the Coppers the truth or ask them to come inside. I know how much your secret means to ye, and I’ll keep it to my death. But at the very least, they’ll be nearby should something happen before I can get back tonight.”

“You’ll come back?”

He shrugged into his shirt and tucked it loosely into his kilt. When he held out his arms, she went to him willingly, and he pulled her close on his lap. “What’s your favorite food, lass?”

She didn’t even have to think about it. “Frosted cakes from the bakery on High Street.”

“I’ll bring some tonight, if you don’t mind the company.”

She smiled and looked down, running a finger down the V of his shirt. “So long as you’re coming for me, not because you feel you must.”

“Oh, I must. I can’t kiss you if you’re not around, aye?”

“But I don’t want to be a chore.”

He put a finger under her chin, and she let him lift her face until their eyes met. His were the gold of baked bread in the center and green as grass around the outside, and they crinkled at the corners with his smile. “Taking care of his woman is a man’s most serious job. I failed it once. I’ll not fail it again.” Shivers trilled up her spine as he brushed his lips over hers, sure and soft but still as searing as a brand.

“Thom, I—”

He stood, pulling her with him and gently cradling her face to kiss her again. “Until tonight,” he murmured. “I’m bringing cakes. Be careful, little love.”

She watched his kilt as he sauntered out the door, amazed, surprised, and worried all at once. His boots sounded on the stairs, and she imagined him making his way through the pet shop, pausing to pat the puppies or poke a finger at the mynah that still echoed his voice after a night in his company. The door closed with a jangle of the bell, and she moved quickly to the window to watch him walk down the street. His hair was a bird’s nest, but his jacket hid the mess she’d made of his shirt, at least, with blood and kisses and wrinkles. Halfway up the sidewalk, he turned to her and blew a kiss, and she drew back from the window, cheeks aflame at being caught out.