Thomas snorted, but his expression was laced with mild disgust. “You sound like him now. In fact, I dare say that you enjoy being around him, just admit it. Is that what—”

I reached over and turned his face to mine. “He will neither harm me, nor come between us, Cresswell. I don’t care what sort of illusion he tries casting. My heart is yours, no sleight of hand will steal it.”

Before he could argue, I leaned forward and pressed my mouth to his. He drew me closer, his hands sliding around my waist, two anchors in a sea of unknowns. We stayed like that, kissing beneath glittering constellations and sporadically falling snow, until the sounds of late-night stragglers broke us apart.

With effort, Thomas escorted me to my door and bid me good night with a chaste kiss. I looked up at the moon, thoughts as scattered as the stars. If Thomas was correct, and I’m sure he was, then who was the ringmaster and what was he either running from or hiding?

I slipped into my room and glanced at the clock. Midnight was fast approaching. After exchanging my fur for a wool overcoat, I listened at the door connecting my room to Mrs. Harvey’s, relieved to hear her quiet snoring. Hopefully she’d sleep through the night and not check on me. There was no way I’d fall asleep now, so I crept along the quiet end of the promenade, hoping to find out some answers from the man in question himself.

“There you are, the curious Miss Wadsworth. I wondered if you’d venture out a second time. But are you here to finish our little chat, or is there something more to your meeting me?”

Mephistopheles emerged from the shadows of the rowboats, a demon rising out of the foggy mist, a wine bottle dangling from one hand. His mask now reflected the moonlight, making me shiver—I wished he’d take the horrid thing off.

“Ah. That’s it.” He gazed unabashedly at my form. “Come to steal back your soul? I may be feeling generous this evening, but not that much. It is mine and I do not share.”

I rolled my eyes. “You fancy yourself quite a bit. Why do you care if I like you or not when you have an entire ship of passengers who are captivated by such theatrics? Shouldn’t you be bothering one of them? They would appreciate your lurking about, brooding. Not to mention”—I eyed him closely—“my cousin says that trapeze artist, Cassie the Empress, is quite smitten.”

He set the bottle down and leaned against the wall, a movement that was too casual and common for him somehow, and scrutinized me. Thomas was right—now that I was looking for it, he did seem to have an air of station about him. One he hadn’t cultivated by observing the wealthy, but by practicing and living it since birth. There was much more to him than he let on.

“Are you in possession of so many friends that you needn’t make another?” he finally asked. “What injury have I wrought upon you to deserve that barbed tongue? I’m simply getting to know you. I don’t see any crime in that. Yet there you stand, ready to convict me.”

“Don’t think I missed that performance earlier or your intention behind it.” I marched over to where he leaned against the wall of rowboats. “You’re trying to create a rift between me and Thomas. I consider that to be injury enough.”

“And?” he asked. “Was he so offended by my kissing your hand? If he was, then you ought to look into finding another beau. Jealousy is a disease that spreads. If anything, I’ve done you a considerable honor by rooting out that cancer of an emotion. You’re quite welcome.”

“It would take something much more inexcusable to break us, and I guarantee it is impossible, so don’t even attempt it.”

“There you go,” he said with a toss of a hand. “If you two are unbreakable, then I might try as hard as I want to gain your affection. Where’s the harm in that?”

“It is indecent and wholly unnecessary considering you and I don’t even know each other, and another woman is in love with you. You are playing a game and I won’t take part in it.” I tried keeping myself from shouting, but my voice rose all the same. I took a moment to compose myself. “And it is unkind. If you truly want to be friends, that’s hardly the way to go about it.”

“I’m a showman. I am not kind. Nor am I decent.” He lifted a shoulder as if he were simply commenting on something as insignificant as the weather. “If you expect me to be either, you will be disappointed.”

I glared at him, hands curling at my sides. “Then why, pray tell, did you wish to meet again?”

He had the absolute nerve to smile at me. “Based on your experience with forensic medicine, I have a revised proposal for you. And it isn’t of the marriage variety—ah, please don’t look so sad.” I all but bared my teeth, and he tossed his hands up in placation. “I’m only kidding, Miss Wadsworth. I require your assistance with my show.”

He paused, watching to see if I had any arguments thus far, which I did not.

“I saw your face when your cousin came onstage that first night—you do not approve of the carnival or her role in it, do you?”

That was untrue. “That is none of your concern.”

“Isn’t it, though?” He grinned again and I thought of all the ways I might pry that smile from his face. “What if I told you I could assist you? You desire to help your cousin be free of the show and Houdini. I know a secret that would aid your cause. Only if you help me. Do we have a bargain? My assistance for the price of yours?”

I was desperately curious about the secret he knew, but had learned the price of curiosity. He must have seen something in my expression, though, something that gave him hope.

“There is one stipulation. You cannot utter one word of our deal. Not to Mr. Cresswell or your cousin, or anyone else aboard this ship. If they were to find out… well, I would be forced to play my hand and tell your secret.”

“What secret?” I bristled. “I have done nothing to worry about.”

“Are you certain?” he asked, all innocence and deceit at once. “I doubt Liza would ever return home if she discovered you were to blame for her inevitable heartbreak.”

“I have not even agreed to this, and yet you’re already blackmailing me?”

He lifted a shoulder again. “You didn’t say no straightaway, did you?”

I stared at him, working out the offer and trying desperately to rein my emotions in. My initial inclination was to say no, slap him with a discarded glove, and walk away. To rush off in the opposite direction and not lay eyes on him again before we reached America.

It would be the wisest choice.

The safest.

It was also the choice that was selfish and would neither help my cousin nor myself. I’d been raised to use inaction as a security net, but it didn’t lend itself to exploring uncharted waters.

Mephistopheles stepped closer, a wolf scenting his prey. I could see my distorted image reflected back in the filigree of his mask, and I shuddered.

“I will give you what you most want, Miss Wadsworth. Your cousin free from ruination and disgrace, all without you having to play the role of villain. And I will get what I most want in return for your help.”

“What is it that you most want? Surely it cannot simply be my help with the show.”

“Your cousin, if rumors are to be believed, is no longer able to assist. I do need another pretty girl to help dazzle the crowd. That’s all.”

“I cannot perform nightly—it’s preposterous to believe my uncle would be all right with it, especially after he’s the one who’s forbidden Liza from that very thing.”

“I don’t require your help every night. Just for one show in particular.” He gazed at me intently. “Do you want to free your cousin from Houdini or not?”

My palms itched. I did not want to think about Liza’s tattered reputation should her romance with Houdini either end or become widely known.

“Liza will be laughed at, mocked, scorned,” Mephistopheles pressed on, knowing he’d found the correct thread to tug that would unravel my resolve. “Her family destroyed. She will never host another tea, be courted by a handsome gentleman, or be invited to a lavish ball.” He took another step forward. “She loves those things, doesn’t she? Will you stand by, watching as she sets her entire life on fire for a man who is sure to disappear once the smoke clears?”

A cloud floated past the moon, darkening the skies for a moment. It was midnight and I’d already been warned about those types of bargains.

He leaned in, his gaze locked on to mine. “Do we have a deal?”

Late nineteenth-century circus performers





3 JANUARY 1889

His gloved finger ghosted over my cheek, never directly touching it, but making my pulse speed up nonetheless. I did want my cousin to come home. I wanted her to be happy and free from judgment. But I knew I was wading in murky waters. Just because I saw how much devastation her choice would cause did not grant me the right to choose for her.

Love was a tricky, complicated thing—so morally gray. Both grand and terrible things were often done in its honor. But could something truly be done out of love if it had the potential to hurt the one at its heart? I wavered.

“Sounds like a fair deal, does it not?” he said. “All you have to do is participate in the finale—without telling a soul what you’re doing—and everything you desire will be yours. I’ll even give you those lessons in sleight of hand I’d originally promised. Since you have become somewhat of a celebrity in London society, your presence will lend credibility to my scientific work; my assistance will save your cousin. What do you stand to lose?”

His opening words came to mind immediately, “Which will you lose before the week is through? Your heart? Your head? Perhaps you, too, will lose your life, your very soul.” The shadows near us loomed closer. My heart banged around. The bargain sounded too simple, too easy, for me to agree to. Which meant there was some hidden benefit for Mephistopheles and some detriment to me. I studied his carefully composed expression.