“Do you think this Birsha bastard has given up?" Alexa asked, her tone wistful as she wiped an oiled cloth over a well-worn wooden paddle.
I was glaring at a suspicious residue on the riding crop—someone hadn't done proper clean up after their act as we were supposed to—when she spoke, and my answer came out unconsciously.
"Not a chance."
"But no other girls have—"
"No other girls have gone missing because there's only the six of us, and we all know better than to put ourselves in danger," Evie said, arching an eyebrow briefly at me.
I raised my hands. "I've behaved. Recently."
"I think Reddy made Birsha up," Isabella spat out, scrubbing roughly at the laundry in the bucket between her knees.
"Made him up?" Christine murmured.
We were down under the trap doors, where all the props were stored and near the vampires' resting place, taking care of a few basic chores while over our heads, Hugh plotted out a new scene with a female guest act. She was a beautiful lamia—her top half an exquisite human form and bottom half a long snake-like form, with amethyst purple scales and a soft pink underbelly. Isabella had been bitter enough the week before, when Hugh had enjoyed his scenes with audience members a little too much, but she was livid now.
"Don't be absurd," I muttered, grabbing a cloth and working the crop clean.
"I say Reddy just doesn't want to admit to us that some of those beasts get a little too eager with us girls. Brutes. Just like men, but with claws and horns and—"
Evie dropped her own work and marched over to Isabella, slapping a hand roughly over the younger woman's running mouth, bending down to stare hard into her pretty blue eyes. "Hush. Before one of them hears you."
My eyes widened at the pair. "Reddy isn't lying to you. And Birsha hasn't given up, but he just got trounced by our allies, monsters determined to protect women like us, whether we're their lovers or not. So we're lucky right now, but we're not safe. And those beasts aren't all brutes, not unless you ask them to be. Just like we're not all skittish, prudish women who judge a man's worth on having a pretty human face or deep pockets." I was a little breathless by the end of my speech and grateful for the dim lighting down in this basement, so my flushed cheeks might not be so obvious.
"That's lovely," Alexa said, smiling up at me. "Here, here!"
Isabella growled and tossed the wet wad of clothing back into the water, jumping up from the crate she sat on and storming out of the room.
Evie stared between the pair of us and sighed. "I'm not finishing the laundry for her."
I put the crop aside, moving to the crate. "I'll do it. But I'm not apologizing to her."
"She isn't prudish, and she isn't after Hugh for his money, you know, because he doesn't have any," Christine said softly, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. "It's just that she's jealous, of course."
"I'll never go back to fucking human men after Leon and Samson," Alexa said with a shrug. "Perhaps it's the same for Hugh? What's a normal human girl got to offer when you could fuck a woman with an enormous scaled tail for a lower body?"
We all stared blankly back at her until her lips twitched. "Joking."
I snorted and relaxed, about to dunk my arms into the water, when a pair of footsteps stormed over our heads and down the stairs behind me.
"Something's happened," Evie said, sitting up.
And before anyone else could answer, the door banged open. Frank appeared, shaggy black hair wild around his head, face just barely lit from the hall behind him, and lovely brown eyes bright. He was an exceptionally handsome man when not in his were-bear form, and I recalled that Isabella had chased him for a bit when she'd first arrived. That must've fizzled away with her discomfort with monstrous forms.
"She's here. She's back," Frank gasped out.
"Who?" I asked, rising up, a little too eager to leave the laundry behind. It was Isabella's job.
"The girl," Frank said, waving massive hands. "You know. The one. The one with the fancy scientist man who turned into the—"
Evie squealed. "She's here? Now?"
"The girl," as Frank referred to her, was infamous in our theater. She'd attended a performance almost a year ago with a vampire and another gentleman, and they'd put her on stage for our final act, where she'd been strapped into some bizarre stand, electrocuted, tortured with a vibration machine, and then had very determinedly and enthusiastically fucked a giant beast of a man on the stage for all to see. She'd put the audience into an absolute frenzy, and our backstage had been packed to the brim with writhing fucking bodies, all in search of her.
I'd wondered if she was part nymph, like me.
"Here. Now. With a whole pack of monsters. She asked for Reddy."
"Who?" Christine asked as Alexa, Evie, and I scrambled toward the door.
Had she come here for a job? As a guest act? Was she human?
Evie and I laughed, shoving each other through the narrow doorway and out into the hall. I tripped and bounced across the hall into a wall, attracting the attention of the small gathering at Reddy's office door.
I recognized one of the men right away, the delicate and handsome gentleman who transformed into a terrifying giant, as he turned and blinked at my clumsy arrival. At his side was a pale man with ice blue eyes and black hair, who I would've sworn was a vampire if it weren't the middle of the afternoon. Behind the group, flickering in and out of sight, was a cheerful and burly looking redheaded man with a thick beard, standing next to a white marble enchanted statue with gray veins running through. Halfway in the door was a beautiful and bronze man in an elegant white linen suit, his dark and slightly feline slanted eyes glancing briefly in my direction. Finally, at his side, was the Girl.
She was petite, especially when surrounded by her pack of men, with pink, almost sunburned cheeks and a thick head of dark curls, nearly black. She was dressed in rich, draping clothing, not at all suited to London fashion but somehow incredibly stylish. All five of the men surrounding her regularly touched her, not with intention, but in absent and familiar ways.
"Nix? That you crashing around?" Reddy asked, sticking his head farther out the door to glare at me.
I blushed as the six newcomers turned to stare at me. "I'm fine, just tripped," I said unnecessarily.
"Come with us to the dining room. We won't all fit in my office," Reddy said, waving his hand at me and then speaking to the others. "Nix has a few mutual friends looking into matters as well. She'll be able to pass anything relevant on."
My eyes widened. So the girl wasn't here for work at the theater. She was here about Birsha. The men moved fluidly around her, following Mr. Reddy, but she turned and waited for my approach, holding out a hand.
"Hazel Nix," I answered, shaking her offered hand.
She looked human, although very pretty, and as one of the men called to her, she turned her head, revealing a perfectly rounded and normal ear. So just a spectacularly enthusiastic woman when it came to fucking monsters, not a nymph, I thought. I was sure Reddy would make her an offer of a job before she left.
"Your employer said you had a run-in with the killer," Esther said. I nodded, joining her on the way to the canteen. Her voice surprised me. I'd been expecting something more polished and refined, but her accent was sweet and common, not so different from the ones I'd grown up with. "I had a close call with a water wraith Birsha sent to Rooksgrave Manor."
The name struck like a match in my mind, recalling all of Hunter's explanations. "You're the young woman Hunter told me about. The one who injured Birsha?"
"Just a little stabbing," Esther said, shrugging a shoulder, eyes drifting up in thought. "Hunter… Oh! Mary's Hunter?"
I stiffened and nearly growled at the mention of the other woman. "My Hunter," I blurted out, and then flushed. "But I suppose…"
Esther waved her hand at me and beamed. "Oh, I am happy to hear that! He seemed like a lovely orc to me, but I had my hands quite full…literally," she added in a snickering laugh as we stepped into the canteen and her men rose eagerly from their chairs to greet her. "I still do."
* * *