The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 18)
Here she was, mooning out a window for a man she hadn’t even known for a week. Her mother had told her, when she was young, the story of how her parents met. Her mother had come into the pet shop as a nanny with two little hellion boys under her care. Her father had outright refused to sell them a kitten, on the grounds that the spoiled children would bring the creature to harm.
“What do you recommend, then?” her mother had asked.
“Gelding” had been his response.
Her mother had been so impressed that she asked if he needed any help around the shop, with cleaning cages or handling the creatures. He hired her. The next day, she gave her notice to a frazzled High Street duchess and moved into the room Casper now used, bringing nothing but a secondhand valise and an extra hat.
“It was love at first sight,” her mother had always said with a sigh.
When Charles had first arrived with Bertram for tea, all those years ago, Frannie had thought she finally understood what her parents had meant. She had been infatuated with the exotic charmer, with his slick ways and pretty words, his sly winks and dark eyes. But now she knew the difference between girlish fancy and a woman’s intuition.
Charles had hurt her and left. Thom kept coming back just to keep her safe. Four days suddenly seemed like more than enough time to start falling in love with a real man.
Frannie was jumpy as hell all day. She startled, one hand to the high neck of her blouse, each time the bell rang over the door. Every time a bird squawked and flapped, every time a puppy yipped, she sidestepped as if the white kitten was diving for her flesh. She searched the shadows for adorably malevolent eyes and flinched when a shadow passed the glass in the door. And every time her work took her near the display of tall glass jars, she couldn’t help feeling that the small green snake was watching her. Waiting. The next time a dark daimon came in, perhaps she could sell the pretty thing for a quick profit and be done with it.
Aside from the anxiety, it was a good day for the shop. She sold a corgi pup to a teen girl who’d been blinded in an automaton accident as a child, and watching the girl’s radiant smile as the wee thing leaped all over her, licking joyfully, brought tears to Frannie’s eyes. A charming Bludman and his wife stopped in for a crow, and another orphan brought by a green parakeet in exchange for some cookies and a copper. She packaged up countless bags of seed, biscuits, and treats, slipping lemon candies into the hands of impatient children. Lizards and finches and tortoises left for new homes, snug in pink-and-white-striped boxes tied with black ribbon.
At dusk, she checked outside for last-minute customers before locking the door and flipping the sign. Back in the kitchen, she sipped tea and pulled a bit of string for Filbert to chase, the smell of a shepherd’s pie perfuming the air. Frannie noticed the bludkitten lurking in a corner and readied herself to catch the little menace, should it come after its once-brother where he played by the fire. When Casper appeared suddenly in the doorway, she couldn’t help gasping. His stocking-clad feet had been silent on the stairs, and when the white kitten leaped from the shadows to land on his foot, he poked it with a toe. It sniffed him and hissed and bolted back up the stairs before Frannie could shriek a warning.
“Mischievous little puffball,” he said with a winning grin.
“Catch it! It’s a killer!” she cried, snatching Filbert into her lap with one hand and grabbing a meat mallet with the other.
Casper just laughed. “Barely gummed me. Honestly, girl. You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“That . . . thing. It’s a bludkitten. They all are, except Filbert. They attacked me last night.”
He swallowed down a laugh and scratched his stubble. “Ah, yes. Bludkittens. Of course. The most vicious creatures in London!”
Dropping Filbert into her pocket, she spun around and pulled down her collar to show the nasty scab that had formed where the kitten had ripped into her neck. “What do you think did that?”
“I’m not the expert on animals.” He gave her a searing, knowing look. “But I noticed that Thom stayed overnight.”
She gasped, mouth open, then went to the corner for her broom. She shook it in his face, and he backed away from the dusty twigs.
“You paid for the week, and that gives you three more nights as a lodger here. I’m an honest woman, and I’ll honor the bargain. But after that, you’re out, lad. Calling me a liar and a strumpet in one breath isn’t something I’ll readily forgive.”
“I’m sorry, Frannie. Really. I—”
“You’ll keep to your room when you’re here. No more mucking up the bird seed and neglecting the pups, trying to get on my good side. I don’t have one when it comes to gadabouts.”
He smacked the broom aside, knocking it to the ground. “Is that why you left last night? I arrived at my box with the Magistrate and a bottle of champagne and found it empty.”
She drew up tall, her hands balling into fists. “Someone shot a crossbow at me, and I took that as my cue to leave. You might have noticed, if you’d ever looked away from your adoring crowd.”
He opened his mouth to shout back and froze, his entire posture changing from self-righteous anger to solicitous concern in the span of a heartbeat. “Someone shot at you?”
“Aye, with an arrow. It ruined my best dress and barely missed me, and Thom carried me home in the crowd at intermission. Did you not find the arrow in the seat?”
“No matter how full of myself I might seem, I’d have noticed that.”
He moved to a stool and sat, his eyes far-off.
“Why you, Frannie? Do you have any enemies?”
“Thom asked me the same question, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told him. I have no enemies. Nothing worth taking. Nothing worth killing for.”
He snorted. “Speaking of making a killing, you wouldn’t believe how badly I beat Edwin’s ass last night. Trying to trick me with a new song. Like I don’t know them all already. You did see that part, didn’t you?”
She took Filbert from her pocket and set him on the table, and he rubbed his face against her finger and purred, as a kitten should. “That was cruel of you. That poor man. Nobody likes someone so superior.”
His mouth quirked up. “Oh, plenty of girls like it fine. Just not, as you so astutely pointed out, the nice ones.”
“Don’t you have to go ruin another musician’s day?” She glanced pointedly at the back door.
“I don’t play tonight. Do you want to—”
“I have plans.”
“Plans that don’t include my lodgers.”
He stood and laughed wryly, running a hand through his hair.
“And you think I’m cruel,” he muttered.
“I told you not to set your cap for the likes of me.”
The look of defeat and pain in his eyes struck Frannie to the heart, but she didn’t look away. “I’ll be upstairs, getting drunk and writing poetry,” he said bitterly over his shoulder.
She felt a little guilty but not enough. “Watch out for bludkittens.”
And he was gone.
She had the table perfectly set when Thom arrived. The hot pie placed just so, the fluffy crust marked with an X. Fresh salad from the garden upstairs and warm bread from the baker across the street. A bottle of white wine as yet uncorked. Candles reflecting off silver goblets. Two plates waiting for the first time in years and a third, empty plate for his promised cakes.
The white kitten was still on the loose, but she felt safe enough to take off her jacket in the warmth of the kitchen. The bag of four captured bludkittens had been dispatched to King’s College in the heavily gloved hands of one of Maisie’s lodgers, a college lad who studied the blud mutation and had nearly fainted with joy to see their sharp teeth poking through the burlap. Frannie was still too worried to leave Filbert alone in her room, so the poor moggy had been dropped into an old birdcage on the counter with a deep bowl of mush and a brightly colored cloth mouse she had bought from Reve and filled with catnip from her garden. He seemed happy enough to be trapped, and she was free to focus her attention elsewhere.
A knock sounded on the back door, his voice calling, “It’s Thom.”
She opened it for him, and he pulled her into a warm embrace. She smelled smoke and soap in his still-wet hair when he handed over his bowler. It looked nice, hanging on the hook beside her shopping bonnet.
“Here’s your treat, little love,” he said, placing a pretty blue box in her hands. “Did you miss me?”
He’d brought half a dozen cakes, although she’d expected only one at the dear cost. Admiring each confection, she placed them on the family porcelain, smiling prettily at the sugar flowers and butterflies. She nodded at one of the chairs, and after hanging up his jacket, he took it, inhaling the steam rising from the pie with a look of pure bliss.
“It’s been years since I’ve had proper cooking. Wrappies and fireman’s food can’t beat such a fine spread.”
Pleased and blushing, Frannie cut him a thick slice of pie. He poked a fork under the buttery crust and smiled as if he’d found a long-lost childhood friend.
“Eat up, man. I know you’re hungry.”
“Aye. Fighting fires and kittens is tough work, I’ll have ye know.”
He dug into the food as she poured the wine. She was overcome with a pleasant sense of comfort, of rightness. For the first time in forever, her shop felt like a home. She’d only managed a few bites of piping-hot pie interspersed with shared smiles when the shop door banged open, sending the birds into a frenzy. Thom had his dinner knife in hand; he turned the blade subtly as he flung aside the curtain and stormed into the shop, blocking Frannie’s view.
“Ah. Frannie’s plans. She likes ’em big, stupid, and armed, I see.”
The words were slurred and bitter as Casper all but fell in through the door, a bottle in each hand.