The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 2)
But she knew it was lovely—she lived there. Frannie narrowed her eyes at him. Was the fool going to flirt?
“My father started it before I was born. I didn’t change much when he and my mother passed on.”
Her shoulders bunched as she poured hot water from the kettle into her mother’s old teapot. Always the same question.
“No clockworks. I’ve always felt there’s a certain magic to the old ways. Animals used to be everywhere. Now they’re rare and special. People who want clockworks can totter off to artificers and the modern shops on High Street. People who want warmth and charm and quirkiness will always find me here.”
“Charm and quirkiness, eh? Where I come from, they would call you ‘vintage’ and ‘timeless’ as the highest compliment.”
He smiled with his dimples, and Frannie sighed to herself. So he was the same as all the rest. They couldn’t help getting fresh, even when she dressed in her mother’s old patched things and didn’t paint her face as a lady should. She looked down past the teacup in her hand to the thick, solid cloth of her tweed skirt.
“Been told I look like a London sparrow.” She poured the tea with a deft hand. “Small and brown and quick, flying away whenever somebody gets too close. And brown hides the stains of the creatures, bless them.”
Casper looked down, chastened. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I’ve only been in London for a few weeks, but you’re the first girl I’ve met who wasn’t dressed in the brightest colors possible and who didn’t detach half of her wardrobe the moment she was behind closed doors.”
“Is that a put-down or a compliment?” she said sharply.
“Just an observation.”
Frannie rolled her eyes—it was clear girls rarely dismissed his charms. “And what’s your story, then? I saw your costume earlier. You a ringmaster in the circus?”
He shuddered as if she’d stuck him with a hatpin. “Nothing like it,” he said, face gone dark. “I’m a musician. Getting a bit famous, actually. They call me the Maestro.”
Taken aback, Frannie stared at him. “The Maestro? The man with the magic hands, who can invent songs that rival the angels’ choirs and play them faster than the devil’s fingers?”
“The very one.”
She whistled through her teeth as she handed him the saucer and cup. “The Maestro’s famous hands, glove-deep in cat litter. I’ll be damned. You should have said something.”
He sighed. “All I can say is thank you. You found me half-dead in a puddle of sick and offered me your brother’s bed.” Her eyes narrowed at him. “I assume that’s his portrait, on the wall? The three of us look like triplets. Will he mind having me in his room?”
He flinched at her frosty tone. “Anyway, I’m not going to complain about a little honest work.” He sipped the tea, grimacing. “Lord knows I could use some.”
She wasn’t sure how to act, now that she knew he was famous. Other than a naval admiral stopping in for a parrot once, she’d never met anyone remotely important. Even the fine lords and ladies who wished for high-profile pets sent their servants to handle the distasteful exchange of creatures for coin. Still, it wasn’t as if she had forced him into servitude. And aside from his cheeky flirting that pressed overly close to old wounds, he hadn’t been too much trouble.
“How’d you end up in the street, Maestro?”
He sipped, but she didn’t see his throat move. Strange.
“Enjoyed the party too much, I suppose. I was headed for the . . . a friend’s flat, and then everything went black.”
“You’ll not be up to such high jinks here, you know. Puts the birds off their feed.”
He chuckled. “I promise to do my carousing elsewhere. It’ll be good to have a place where I’m hidden and not coddled. But what’s your story? I want to know more about you.” He grinned at her, and she sidled away as she sensed his interest rekindle.
Luckily, the bell rang just then. She gladly left Casper behind, hurrying through the curtain to greet the stiff nanny and richly dressed little girls waiting, pink-cheeked, to pick out one of her darling kittens.
“Such a fine, soft coat! And such bright eyes!” the nanny said, inspecting every inch of the kitten with a professional flair. “This is the fourth establishment we’ve visited, and this is truly the most superior specimen in all of London.”
Frannie just smiled. Her patrons never knew her secret, but they paid handsomely for her results. Her parents had taught her well.
Frannie sold the kitten for a tidy price, of course. She pressed a pamphlet on care and feeding into the nanny’s hands in exchange for a heavy purse that still wasn’t heavy enough. Before they left, she made the little girls promise not to tease the creature too badly.
Her next customer was a daimon fetching his monthly bag of seed for the crow she’d sold him years ago. They chatted politely about the new tricks and phrases the canny bird had mastered. Of all the daimons she dealt with, this gentleman was one of her favorites, a puppeteer from Paris who ran a popular show in Piccadilly Circus. The daimons of Franchia were known for their strangely colored skin, waving tails, and peculiar magic, but they were good customers. Frannie vastly preferred dealing with the ones who fed on happy energy and laughter, and even Maisie, the innkeep next door, refused to offer lodging to the dark daimons who fed on pain and worse things.
“Au revoir, chérie,” the daimon said, doffing his tall hat and bowing. “You must come see the show again soon.”
“One day,” she murmured.
She hadn’t been since Bertram’s passing, of course, and her heart felt heavy as she locked the barrel of seed and rolled it back into place. Bertram had loved Piccadilly.
When she pushed past the curtain to the parlor, she found Casper asleep on her couch, his untouched tea growing cold on the table. After sneaking upstairs, she hid the velvet bag of silvers and changed into an uglier hat. She couldn’t turn Casper out, but she wouldn’t give him reason to eye her like a pastry, either.
Her new lodger slept the day away, and she was free to go about her regular, boring routine. In the past few years, since she had been forced to cut expenses and let her assistant go, she had developed a certain way of doing things. It was almost like being a spinster at twenty-four, but she didn’t mind.
When she went out to her tiny courtyard to hang up the wet towels she’d just washed, a familiar, battered top hat and cunning pair of eyes watched her over the brick wall. She smiled to herself, knowing exactly what would come next.
“You sure you’re ready to have another lodger?” a gravelly voice muttered.
“I couldn’t turn him away, Maisie. He looks like—”
“Any fool can see that. But he ain’t Bertie.”
“I’m not wiping his arse. And he’s not staying forever.”
The old woman harrumphed and shook her head. “Be careful. Reve said he smells like trouble.”
It was Frannie’s turn to harrumph. “Daimon magic. Tell me you don’t believe in that folderol?”
Maisie’s boots shuffled slowly to her back door. “I been running this lodging house since your papa was in a pinafore. Kept just as many daimon lodgers as Pinkies, and I tell you now that when a daimon gives a warning, I take it. Remember what happened last time somebody told you to be careful around a man?”
Frannie dropped her towel on the ground with a splatter of mud as Maisie’s door slammed shut.
“I remember,” she whispered in the silence.
Casper slept until evening. He sprang up from the couch as Frannie was placing a plate of bread, cheese, and fruit on the table by a fresh cup of hot tea.
“Simmer down, duck,” she said. “Did you have sweet dreams?”
“Not in years. What time is it?”
“Dinnertime. Sit. Eat.”
He made a grouchy face that reminded her more than ever of her indignant younger brother.
“For a pretty little thing, you act like an old lady. And what’s with the ‘duck’ thing?”
He didn’t touch the food, but she sat down in her favorite chair and began eating anyway. She was always starving after a day on her feet among the animals, and business had been brisk.
“When my parents passed on in a conveyance accident, I was only seventeen. I became my younger brother’s guardian, and he followed me about like a duckling. Old Maisie next door told me I had to treat him just like a troublesome creature—with unconditional love and complete dominance.”
“What happened to him?”
She dropped the piece of bread that she’d been unconsciously shredding. “He died.”
No matter how many times she said it or thought it, it was never any easier. The silence deepened, and she looked up at him, eyes pricking, daring him to say something sappy so she could tear him apart as easily as the bread.
“That sucks” was all he said, and although she was unfamiliar with the phrase, it rang terribly true.
“It does suck, yes. It . . . sucks very much.”
“You should probably eat,” he said softly, and in response, she threw the bit of bread at him, smacking him right in the face.
His mouth quirked up, and he rolled the bread between his fingers as if he had forgotten how to eat. “Not hungry. And I have to get to the Vauxhall before dark.”
“You’d best run, then,” she said, staring at the clock on the mantel.
When he saw the time, he leaped to his feet and ran off without a word—or his spoiled waistcoat and fancy jacket. He wasn’t wearing nearly enough clothes to be on the street after dark, but he was already gone, and she wasn’t about to chase after the fool.
Frannie stared at her dinner for a moment, finding loneliness in the silence for the first time in a long while. Her eyes started to tear. Being with Casper was . . . so very strange. She wanted to help him, order him around, keep him safe. But he wasn’t Bertram, and the way he looked at her made her all skittery.