The Girl with the Windup Heart Page 20

“Would Cat be inclined to talk to her sister? If Mila sees you, me or Wildcat, she’s likely to bolt.” Maybe not, but he doubted she’d jump into his arms and beg to come home either. He wanted to let her come back on her own, not push her further away.

“She’s already gone off to pay her a visit.” There was a pause—an expectant one. “Can I ask you a question?”

Jack leaned back in his chair. “I suppose.”

“Why don’t you just go talk to the girl?” He tossed a paperweight into the air and caught it. “Tell her you were wrong and ask her to come home. Simple.”

“Nothing’s ever simple where women are concerned, Renn. A fellow your age ought to have learned that lesson by now.”

The cowboy arched a brow, but didn’t take the bait. “Will you look at that. Jack Dandy’s afraid of a little girl.”

Jack folded his hands over his stomach. “That little girl could snap you like a twig, and I am not afraid of her.”

“Huh.” Renn obviously wasn’t convinced. However, Jack wasn’t going to swing at his bait either.

“Any word on how Finley’s doing getting her duke back?”

“Apparently there’s going to be a séance or something. You mind if Cat and I go?”

It was a testament to what a bizarre world he lived in that Jack didn’t even blink at the word séance. “You’re not my employees. You can do as you wish.”

Arms folded over his chest, the cowboy watched him—studied him. He must be one hell of a card player, because there wasn’t even the smallest hint of an expression on his face. If only Jack had gotten to him before King had, because he could use such a fellow from time to time.

“What is it, Renn?”

“You’re an interesting man, Mr. Dandy.” His tone was perfectly blank, as well.

“I try.”

“I don’t trust interesting men.”

“A wise choice. We are very often untrustworthy.”

A pause. Then, Renn said, “Your daddy’s a lord ain’t he?”

Fortunately, Jack was a bloody good card player, as well. “What makes you think that?”

“The way you hold yourself and the way you talk. It reminds me of Griffin.”

“I’m nothing like the Duke of Greythorne.” Griffin King was an honorable prig who wouldn’t say “shite” if he had a mouthful of it. He was all morally upstanding and all that muck. He wasn’t even remotely interesting.

“All right.” The American stood. “You want me to go have a chat with the photographer who took her picture?”

No need to say her name. “No, leave him to me.”

“Right, those powers of persuasion you have?”

Jack smiled. “Something like that.” As Renn turned to walk away, Jack called after him, “You said I should just talk to her. If it was Wildcat, what would you say?”

“That I was sorry and that I wanted her to come back home.”

“I have to say, that’s disappointing. Aren’t you American’s all about grand gestures?”

The cowboy grinned. “It ain’t what you say, Dandy. It’s why you’re sayin’ it. Women don’t want a bunch of fancy words, they want emotion—action.”

His assessment irked Jack. It made sense, damn it. “Have a lot of experience with the ladies, do you?”

“Depends on your idea of experience. Notice I’m not the one of us who spends most of my nights alone.”

“I can have company whenever I want, Renn. Don’t think I can’t.”

The cowboy paused at the door. “You could have five women in your bed and you’d still be alone, Jack.” He didn’t wait for Jack’s reply, just opened the door and walked out, leaving Jack staring after him. Bloody American didn’t know what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, he was also right.

* * *

The costume Elsie had found for her fit Mila like a glove. It was flesh colored beneath black lace, sleeveless and with very short, snug trousers. Elsie had explained that leaving her arms and legs bare allowed people to better see her muscles, and see that there was no trickery involved. Mila twisted this way and that, admiring herself in the dressing-room mirror. A lace mask covered the upper half of her face, as well—to “preserve the mystery” according to Elsie. Her hair was pinned up on top of her head and her lips had been painted a dark red.

She looked like a stranger to herself. Why, she could almost pass for one of Jack’s doxies! The thought made her incredibly happy. The thought of Jack, however, did not. So much for being independent and strong. She missed him. Missed him terribly, and she hadn’t even been gone a full twenty-four hours! Here she was having a brilliant adventure and the one person she wanted to share it with wasn’t there. Maybe she’d invite him to a performance. But what if he didn’t come? No, that was foolish. Jack was not the sort of man who let emotion rule him. That was part of the problem, wasn’t it?

She was glad she left. Jack had become her whole world, and now her world was so much bigger. It wasn’t nearly as frightening as she’d thought it would be. People were lovely! She was doing exactly what she wanted to do, without anyone trying to tell her what she ought to think or how to behave. It was liberating.

“You’re up next, love,” Elsie told her as she stuck her head through the open doorway. She made a clucking sound with her tongue. “You look gorgeous.”

“Thanks.” Up next? Her stomach fluttered. She was going to go out there, in front of all those people, and show them what she could do. Since her creation she’d been told to hide what she was, to protect it. And now, at least to an extent, she could embrace it and let it be a part of who she was. Not what, but who. If she wanted people to treat her like a person—a real, genuine person—she had to think of herself that way, as well.

She left the dressing room and went to take her place backstage until it was her turn. Not even five minutes later, the ringmaster—a man by the name of Maxwell—introduced her. “And now, ladies and gents, The Circus Pick-a-dilly is proud to present a new performer for your entertainment. She may appear delicate. She may look like any other sweet girl, but do not allow your minds to deceive you! She is not like any other girl you have ever known! The one! The only! The World’s Strongest Woman!”

Applause followed, pushing Mila’s heart rate up another notch. She couldn’t do this! Her palms were sweaty and her stomach was in knots. She turned to run away.

The girls stood there, blocking the way. Each one of them wore a huge grin. They were excited for her. They were there to watch her. Support her. They were simply there for her. That was what turned her around and sent her out into the spotlight. There were some whistles and suggestive calls from the faceless crowd, but the response was mostly positive. It wasn’t a packed house, and that was all right. She wasn’t doing this for the audience.

Her first task was to bend an iron bar that Georges had a man in the audience try to bend first—to show that it wasn’t a trick. The man pushed and strained until his face flushed and sweat broke out along his hairline.

“That eez enough, monsieur,” Georges said gently, taking the bar away. “You will give yourself the seizure, no?”

Then, Georges gave the bar to Mila. As he had instructed earlier, she made a show out of trying to bend it. Making it look too easy was anticlimactic—and would make the man in the audience feel puny and weak. You had to give the audience tension and suspense—what they paid for. The bar gave easily under her strength, but she made it look like a strain. It was so much more fun than she thought it would be! She grinned in triumph at the audience as they cheered.

During the afternoon with Georges, she had learned that she could juggle. There were some distinct advantages to having a mind that used to be a logic engine, and a body that had been built to do whatever was asked of it. No one else could do what she could do. Before that had made her feel alone, but now...well, now she was somewhat proud of it. The audience certainly seemed to enjoy watching her juggle cannon balls! Each one was just a little smaller that her head. Any bigger and they’d be too big for her to hold in one hand. Up into the air she threw them—the height depending on what she had to do before she caught them again. She did a cartwheel over Georges and then caught the balls, keeping them in the air.

She performed for ten minutes total and left the ring to enthusiastic applause. Backstage she was greeted by her friends who hugged her and squealed. They jumped up and down and chattered over top of one another until Elsie came along and shushed them. She also gave Mila a hug. “Good show, luvvie. Knew you’d be a nat’ral.”

Henrietta and Millie had to leave to go perform, but the other girls accompanied Mila back to the dressing room.

“You were so good!” Marissa trilled. “How did it feel?”

“Extraordinary,” Mila replied. Her stomach was still quivering. “I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I was so nervous!”

Gina waved a dismissive hand. “No need to be nervous when you know what you’re doing.”

“I just wish—” She stopped herself.

“Wish what?” Gina asked. The rest of the girls pressed in with wide, curious gazes. For a moment they reminded her of the automatons that had kept her underground not long ago. Her heart gave a tremendous thump. These were not automatons. They were her friends.

Mila looked down at her hands. “Nothing. I just wish a friend could have seen me do all that.”

“Ohh,” they all chorused knowingly, making her blush.

“What’s his name?” Marissa demanded. “Tell us or we’ll vex you incessantly until you are forced to confess!”

“Jack.” She smiled just a little at the thought of him, the scoundrel. “And I wish he was here right now.” Not so much because she missed him—she did, and she wanted him to see her perform—but because this sort of behavior was not what he wanted for her, and he’d likely have a fit if he saw.

“I think you’re about to make a new friend,” Sasha whispered, her gaze directed at the doorway.

They all looked. Standing there with Elsie was a very handsome older man with graying black hair and steely eyes. He was tall and lean, with a warm and charming smile. He was familiar to Mila in some way, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It was as if she knew him—or rather that she ought to know him.

“Girls, you have someplace else to be,” Elsie said in a stern tone—no trace of the cockney. “Not you, Mila. You have a visitor.”

She didn’t understand the tightness around Elsie’s eyes, but the little woman looked displeased, and as her friends filed out of the room, each girl shot her a sympathetic glance.

What the devil was going on?

“Mila, this is Lord Blackhurst.”

Oh. He was the man who liked circus girls. Didn’t someone say he had just picked a new girl? Why would he be there to see her? And why was he looking at her as if he thought she’d be good on toast?

She offered him her hand because that was what Jack told her ladies did when introduced to a gentleman. “Hello, my lord.”

He took her hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a warm kiss on the back of her knuckles. Mila didn’t like the feel of his lips on her skin and pulled her hand away. She thought she saw Elsie smile.

“I’ll leave the two of you alone. Mila, I’ll be in the office.” A subtle warning that she wouldn’t be far away if needed. Then she exited the room, as well, leaving Mila alone with the stranger.

“You put on quite a show, Miss Mila.”

She regarded him warily. “Thank you, my lord.”

Blackhurst smiled at her. “There’s no need to look at me as though I was the big bad wolf, my dear. I’m not going to eat you.” Mila added a silent yet. This man was not what he seemed. Oh, he was charming, but there was something dark inside him.

“I don’t think you’re a wolf, sir. But I do think that perhaps you are a predator of some sort.”

Blackhurst’s eyes brightened. “Do you feel hunted?” He moved closer.

Mila didn’t budge. She could snap him like a twig, and if they tried to hang her for it, her metal neck wouldn’t break. So, even though every instinct told her to run, she stood her ground and let him come right up to her.

“You’re very pretty,” he told her, reaching out to touch her cheek. He thought he could have her simply because of who he was. She knew this, but didn’t know how she knew it. She also knew that he expected her to be grateful for it.

Mila grabbed his hand. “I’m not going to be your doxy.” Suddenly, the true meaning of that word was very clear. A doxy was a woman whose charms were for sale—who men thought they could own for money.

He looked surprised. “My dear—”

“No,” she said firmly. “I won’t be anyone’s doxy.” She didn’t even want to be Jack’s. No, she wanted to be someone’s love, not their toy. Not someone they held the door open for the next morning, or walked out on when they were done. This man wanted someone to wipe his boots on and thank him for the dirt.

Blackhurst’s expression tightened. “How much do you want?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Money, woman. I will give you whatever you want. Name your price.”

She frowned. He couldn’t give her what she wanted. “I don’t have one.”

“Everyone has one.”

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