“What finger?” She drew her brows together. “I haven’t the slightest notion what you mean.”
While Dr. Wadsworth continued his medical inspection, I quickly filled Liza in on the severed digit that had been used to bait Audrey Rose. I methodically explained the note, the threat, and how it was designed to rattle us into submission. When I finished, she slumped against the doorframe and held a hand to her forehead.
“Poor Audrey Rose,” she finally managed, looking a bit ill. “I cannot imagine what she went through. Whose finger do you believe it was?”
I shrugged, attention straying over to the bed. Audrey Rose’s breath stuttered before smoothing out again. I nearly launched myself to her side but held back. “There was another body found in the cargo hold during the finale. It’s missing an entire arm, so it stands to reason parts of it were used. In fact, I—”
“Thomas,” Dr. Wadsworth warned. “Enough. Have you had success with getting any tonic into Audrey Rose?”
“Minimal.” I sat forward and rubbed at my brow. “Maybe a few droppers full.”
“If she doesn’t stir soon, we’ll have to consider…”
I counted to one hundred, my focus channeled into that task alone. I didn’t want to hear anything else, and, eventually, I was left alone with the dying half of my soul.
“I admit, if she wakes, this vigil might edge in your favor. Have you even slept?”
I glanced up sharply, still feeling much too feral to tolerate anyone, let alone this reckless fool. “You’re an abysmal human being.”
The ringmaster raised his brows. “You sound like my father and brother. Why, exactly, am I so terrible now?”
“You’re still trying to manipulate her while she clings to life. All you care about is collecting prizes. Bloody hellfires, you don’t care about what she wants.”
“Is that so?” He snorted. “I came here to see how you both were faring, and that’s a manipulation.” He shook his head. “If that’s how you’d like to view it, I’m game. Tell me, how’s the old saying go? ‘Winning her hand.’ Or ‘winning her affection’ or… you’re a smart chap. You can see the pattern here.”
“The operative term you used is ‘old.’ Winning is an archaic way of looking at romance. Her heart isn’t like a cheap round of cards. Love isn’t a game. It’s a choice.”
An obnoxious grin spread across his face. “Careful now, Mr. Cresswell. Your inexperience is showing. Women enjoy being pursued. It thrills them.”
“I’m not going to argue over something ridiculous here, now.” I reached over, smoothing a damp strand of hair from her face. “If you truly do love her or have affection for her, why not try honesty?” I flicked my attention to him. “I’ll tell you why. Because you fear no one will fall in love with the man behind the mask. So you resort to trickery and illusion. You wield manipulation and call it romance. Getting someone to tumble with you in the sheets isn’t anything to boast over. You are the one who’s horridly inexperienced with courtship and love. If you feed someone enough lies, of course they’ll get swept up in them. Why wouldn’t you want someone who understood the real you?”
He set his jaw, gaze hard. “What makes you think she doesn’t know the real me?”
I snorted now, not deigning to respond. He waited over a week to confess his real name to her. I couldn’t imagine hiding from the world more literally and figuratively.
“By all means, pursue her if you feel real affection,” I said. “But do it as a man worthy of receiving her love. No tricks. No illusions. Strip away your lies and be vulnerable. And if you can’t manage that? You don’t deserve her.”
He seemed to be considering that. Something I hadn’t expected crossed his features—regret. “You must fancy yourself quite valiant. Should I find a brilliant white horse for you to ride in on?”
I leveled a cold look at him. “This isn’t a fairy tale. I’m not a white knight or some morally incorruptible prince.”
“If you claimed to be either of those, I’d know one thing for certain.”
“And that would be?”
“That you’re a villain and a liar. Same as me.”
We were quiet for a while after that. He moved to the other side of the bed, gazing down at her. It was hard to decipher the new expression on his face. I didn’t know if he was truly regretful of his actions, or if he regretted not hiding them better.
“Don’t you ever tire of being so admirable?” he asked. “It’s such a boring way to live. Rushing around, saving damsels in distress.”
“If you think doing the admirable thing is easy or comes naturally, you’re more na?ve than I thought,” I said, in a rare moment of truth with him. “I fight against my innate selfishness because I love her. I want to be better not just for her, but also for me. I want to be the sort of man who earns her trust and love and then works to keep it by growing into an even better person.”
Mephisto stared at me like I’d just unlocked one of the most treasured secrets in the universe. He wiped his expression clean soon after, as if he hadn’t meant to expose that much vulnerability, but I saw it all the same. Maybe he’d be better now that he knew better.