As if my mind invented a bucket of imaginary iced water to douse me with, I suddenly wondered who’d helped her into her costume. Jealousy writhed inside me, striking at all common sense and decency. I slowly exhaled, my breath curling in tendrils of smoke. I imagined I looked like the dragon my ancestors had named themselves after.
That thought slapped the idiocy from me. I wasn’t a fire-breathing monster, nor would I ever be. I needed to focus on her, not my insecurity. I needed to trust her, even when I didn’t understand what her goal was. If I could do that in our work space, there was no reason I couldn’t stop being a jealous idiot now.
She stepped closer. “Are you all right?”
I was still fighting the urge to hunt down the ringmaster and toss him overboard, struggling to overcome my insecurities so I could have the sort of romantic relationship built on wholeness I strongly craved, trying to solve a string of gruesome murders, and attempting to prevent myself from becoming the monster my father convinced me I was by setting the girl I loved free. At the moment, that girl was making the last part extremely difficult, the more she seemed to want to wrap her arms around me.
I longed to touch her. First her mind, then her heart, and, finally, her body. I wished to own every inch of space between us and fill it with each emotion I’d ever suppressed or pretended away. I wanted to strip my soul bare for only her to see and then do the same with my clothing, giving her everything I had of me. Scars and all.
“Thomas?” she asked again, brow crinkling with concern. “Are you all right?”
I lifted a shoulder. “Never better.”
She shivered, and I knew it wasn’t my obvious lie that had affected her. I shrugged my jacket off and placed it about her shoulders, my knuckles accidentally brushing the top of her breasts as I secured a button at her chest. The contact sent a searing lick of fire through me as quick as a lightning bolt. Her breath caught, and she flicked her attention up. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to wipe the longing from my face.
I stepped back as a wintry mix of rain and snow began to fall. She moved with me, a huntress sighting her prey. The trouble was I wanted to be caught more than I wished to run.
“I thought about you tonight,” she murmured, fixing me with a stare that promised all sorts of beautifully wicked things. “I drank the green fairy and danced with abandon. Don’t worry,” she swayed forward, and I held very still as she placed her hands on my chest and slowly, carefully, dragged them down to rest over my heart, “it wasn’t inappropriate. I’m saving that honor for you. Remember?”
I would have to be dead to have forgotten when I’d remarked not so long ago about drinking wine and dancing inappropriately together. I inhaled slowly, trying to form a coherent thought, a task proving to be especially difficult. Warring feelings battled for supremacy. That persistent, pure, white-hot envy as I pictured her dancing with someone else, surpassed only by an overwhelming satisfaction that she had been thinking of me.
I hated the jealousy—it made me feel monstrous and out of control. She deserved better. I deserved it too. Our courtship wasn’t yet official; regardless, I didn’t believe in having rights to dictate to another. It was hideously outdated. I’d much rather she choose me.
“I closed my eyes and imagined I was dancing with you,” Audrey Rose said. Her green gaze was mesmerizing as she pulled me closer, tipping her face up. “It made it easier… acting. I don’t think I’m very good at it. The stage isn’t any place for me. But I wanted to try. I thought I could help those women.”
Missing pieces clicked into place. She wasn’t falling for the ringmaster; she was making it look that way. Hope rose and then crashed against the shore of my insecurity. I shoved it aside. She was here, edging closer, staring at my mouth like it was a work of art she’d love to study. I’d be a fool to ruin everything by allowing doubt to shove itself in.
“Perhaps you should stop acting and take advantage of me now.”
She arched a brow, feigning surprise, but the pleasant flush of her skin gave her true feelings away. “Fiend.”
I held my hand out, a genuine smile twitching across my lips. “My dearest, Wadsworth. I was talking about dancing with me. What were you thinking about?”
I opened my mouth, a quip at the ready, then faltered. All hints of teasing vanished. I hadn’t expected such raw honesty. That was a trick I played. Her smile was slow and immensely self-satisfied as I blinked dumbly at her. She’d wanted to surprise me and knew she’d accomplished her goal. I couldn’t deny falling deeper under her spell.
She touched my lips with her fingertips, gaze darkening. “Will you?”
My heartbeat quickened. I wanted nothing more than to capture her mouth with mine, to kiss away the doubt that lingered in the depths of my heart, to give her the affection she deserved. As I leaned in to give her everything she asked for, I smelled the barest hint of spirits on her breath. At the last moment, I changed my mind. When I kissed Audrey Rose, I wanted to be sure she truly wished for me to.
Purposely misunderstanding her, I pulled her to me, and we danced—much too closely and yet not nearly close enough—while crystal flakes of snow fell. We waltzed down the promenade and back until her eyes drooped, and I lifted her into my arms and carried her into her cabin. I tucked her under her sheets and pressed my lips to her forehead. Somehow our evening dancing beneath the stars and snow was more meaningful than sharing her bed.