“Are you sure you wouldn't prefer I speak to her?" Hunter asked, his palm resting in a possessive spread over my back.
"You can for your own sake, but not for mine," I said.
Hunter only smiled as we stopped by the stairs that led down to the dressing rooms. It was late afternoon, still hours away from the Sunday night performance, but the theater was unusually quiet.
"I'm sorry, for interrupting our day," I said, and meant it.
Hunter had kept his previous promise, and I'd woken with his face between my thighs and my cunt still tingling from all his efforts the night before, and a few of my own for him in thanks. We'd bathed and spent the day in his house, with him giving a bashful tour that ended in his office, where he'd explained his cargo and exportation business with a charming excitement that did nothing to actually make any sense of all the terms and names and numbers. It didn't matter. I'd liked listening to him speak with confidence.
"We have tonight, tomorrow, the rest of the week," he said, shrugging. Then he beamed at me and added, "Longer, if you like."
It was as sweet a statement as it was troubling. Was that all it would take? The offer of staying longer, and then I would vanish from the theater? Have a life with Hunter? Never see Ronan again, or give Nireas the opportunity to explain himself?
"Come and wait in my dressing room for me," I said, and Hunter followed me down the stairs.
Even downstairs was uncommonly quiet, although I thought I caught the whisper of voices in some of the dressing rooms we passed on the way to mine. Stranger still was the sight of Nireas hovering at Mr. Reddy's door, his back to us.
Hunter squeezed my hand, slipping under my curtain, and I walked slowly toward the giant at the door. He turned before I reached him, and his eyes widened in bright alarm, a finger raising to his lips as my mouth opened to ask what he was doing.
He jerked his head toward the door and my eyes widened. Nireas was snooping? I tiptoed closer and he bent to my ear, whispering.
"Birsha. He's here."
I froze, immediately understanding why the theater was quiet, why everyone was hiding. Our boogeyman was here in Mr. Reddy's office.
"I've heard the act was a success for you," a smooth, cold voice spoke, not loudly, but just clear enough for Nireas and me to listen.
"It certainly added variety," Mr. Reddy grumbled.
"I'd like to offer you another two weeks of use. I plan on viewing the performance myself this evening."
"You've been generous enough already. And I'm sorry to say, but it won't be on tonight's bill."
"You cut the act?"
I flinched at the sharp note of Birsha's voice, and one of Nireas's hands reached for mine.
"Our actress was attacked on Friday," Mr. Reddy snapped, just shy of the actual accusation. "And I don't have any to spare."
"Ah, yes. Miss Nix." His voice was crisp around my name, the bite of sharp teeth through a fresh apple. "My man speaks very highly of her."
Constantine, I mouthed. Mr. Reddy grunted on the other side of the door.
"I'm looking for new stock myself," Birsha continued. "And surely by now your audience tires of a girl so long in the tooth. I could buy her off you."
Nireas stiffened and our fingers clenched, the bite of pain distracting from the urge to storm inside the room.
"You know I don't sell my girls," Mr. Reddy said.
There was a pause of quiet, and I was afraid to breathe or be heard.
"We'll speak frankly. I know what she's worth and I'm prepared to retreat, to offer you the price that would save your pathetic little stage and curtains and timid little beasts who perform in exchange."
Nireas was pulling me slowly and gently closer to his side, a long arm at his back circling around my shoulders. Because neither of us truly knew in that moment what Reddy's answer would be. Or maybe I had a guess, and I was already preparing to ask for Hunter's help, anyone's, to save me from the man that cold, sharp voice belonged to.
"No, my girls aren't for sale. Not at any cost. And if we are speaking frankly, I don't believe there's a prize you could win or steal or buy that would satisfy you," Mr. Reddy said.
Nireas tugged and guided me back from the door. "Come on," he whispered. "You don't want that man to see you."
But I resisted, some note in my ageless employer's voice telling me he wasn't finished.
"And of all my girls, Hazel's the last one I'd let you take. Not because of what she's worth, but because she's been loyal to me for as long as I've known her. I'm a burden on that girl's back, and she's been carrying me without complaint for almost a decade. I'm almost sorry for you that you'll miss her tonight; she's a sight to be seen. But she'll never serve in one of your houses, not while I live."
"Very grand and dramatic," Birsha said, clipped and cool.
My eyes shut as Nireas pulled me away, a moan trapped in my throat that I refused to let escape.
"You need to get out of here before he, I don't know, sniffs you out," Nireas hissed.
I shook myself and brushed the heartache stirred up by Mr. Reddy's words out of my head, then led Nireas to my dressing room. He stopped as I pulled back the curtain and stepped inside, Hunter waiting casually on the chaise inside.
"Never mind. Wait here. I'll let you know when he's gone," Nireas whispered. I nodded, and he pulled the curtain shut again.
"How did it go?" Hunter asked.
I shook my head and crossed to him, holding my hand up for him to stay put and then helping myself to his lap.
"I didn't speak to her. Birsha is in Reddy's office," I said.
"What?" Hunter hissed.
I shared what I'd overheard, and Hunter settled slightly.