“Yes?” Somehow he’d managed to move again without my noticing. He smelled of a sultry, spicy incense. Hints of ginger and citrus mixed with careful notes of vanilla and lavender surrounded us. I resisted the urge to breathe it in deeply. His gaze traveled across my features, openly examining me.

“All I have to do is go onstage during the finale?”

“More or less.” He smiled. “I’m still working out the details.”

Technically Liza would simply be learning the truth, then she’d form her own decision based on facts presented to her. Nothing would be hidden. If she still chose to stay with the carnival and Houdini, then I would not interfere again, though I’m sure Uncle would have much to say regarding that. My palms tingled. I was only bartering for information. I was not forcing her hand or making a choice for her. And all I had to do was show up onstage for his foolish grand finale; it was hardly a taxing proposition. Still…

“Do we have a bargain, Miss Wadsworth?”

Indecision stopped gripping my mind. I could not sit in the comfort of safety, not when the risk was too great to my cousin. That was moral obligation enough. “If I accept your offer—I’ll need more details of what Harry Houdini has hidden. No lies.”

Mephistopheles crossed his heart. “No lies.”

I bit my lip, praying curiosity wasn’t getting the better of me. “Then I accept your bargain.”

Mephistopheles lifted one side of his mouth, and my heart sped in protest. His look didn’t promise there wouldn’t be regrets involved. Quite the contrary. It was too late of a warning, though. I’d already made a deal with the Devil and now I’d see it through.

“What information do you have on Houdini?”

“There’s a woman in America he writes to. Very often.” He shook his head. “I don’t have to be a detective inspector to figure out how much he loves her. Every town or city we pass through, he sends off another letter.” His expression turned from smug to pained. “Even after he met Liza, the letters have never ceased. I fear that, well, to be honest, I know he hasn’t mentioned it to her.”

The scoundrel! In love with another woman, sending her notes from each adventure—and all behind my dear cousin’s back. I closed my eyes, hoping to dull the anger. Pretending I didn’t know what a lying rogue he was would be difficult, especially when I longed to disembowel him.

“Why do you care about Liza’s reputation?” I inspected the ringmaster’s face, searching for any hint to his true motivation. Like most everything else about him, his expression was carefully controlled, giving me nothing but a slight smirk to go on. A smirk with just the right hint of innocence to make the trouble seem worth the risk. “What does that matter to you?”

“It doesn’t. I simply need to give my show a boost, and as the passengers are aware of your forensic background, you, my dear, will play along and claim my tricks are truly magical. If you, an expert in your field, are convinced, then my reputation will improve. Something I’m in desperate need of as bodies keep showing up during or after my shows. This information is strictly a bargaining chip—one I’d not use if I didn’t have need to do so.” A slow grin spread across his face. “Don’t appear so chafed. I already told you, I’m not a decent man.”

I drew in a measured breath. No, he wasn’t. “You do realize how impossible it’s going to be—convincing passengers that magic exists—don’t you?”

Mephistopheles held a hand up. “I don’t believe your job will be as difficult as all that, Miss Wadsworth. Your lovely presence at the right time in the finale is all that I’ll need.”

I puzzled it out for a moment. “Are you asking me to be one of your performers?”

“Only for one night. Though you’ll need to practice with the others every night to catch up.”

“Wonderful.” I rubbed my temples. “You’re forcing me to learn from the criminals you’ve hired.”

“Entertainers,” he corrected.

And possibly at least one murderer. “Well, they weren’t very welcoming when I attended their practice this morning. I’m not sure they’ll assist me with this bargain of yours.”

He stepped forward, that dangerous smile back in place. “Which is why I’m giving you lessons in front of them. Let them see how much I favor you… then they’ll do their best at gaining your attention.”

“But they’ll believe there’s something more inappropriate happening between us.” Another realization clicked in as he nodded. “You’re betting on it, actually.”

“Indeed, my star pupil is already learning.” He beamed. “So now you understand why that… Mr. Cresswell, was it? He’s not to be made aware of our bargain. We need this to appear authentic. Let them think I’m truly wooing you and winning your hand. They’ll be much more likely to bring you into the fold. And I need everything to go smoothly at the finale, especially after the murders. Investors get fickle about attaching their names and money to that sort of thing.”

Thomas trusted me completely; however, I couldn’t imagine him not being a little uncomfortable with this arrangement, especially after our earlier conversation. I hesitated. “Thomas is good with keeping secrets. Plus, you might want him participating in the finale, too. He’s very gifted—”

“His reaction to our alleged tryst needs to be unscripted, Miss Wadsworth. Should he fail in his performance, others will know there’s nothing between us. They will never speak to you or want to know you, should they catch even a whiff of dishonesty. I need them all on board with working to ensure the success of this carnival. Nothing will stand in my way, especially not some sensitive lover. I’ve worked too hard and sacrificed much in this endeavor. I will not fail now.”

I stepped toward the railing, allowing the cold breeze to clear my head. Thomas might not be happy, but the ruse would only last four days. In that time I’d be able to protect Liza from Houdini’s lies, learn sleight of hand as I’d wished and apply it to my forensics, and be granted access to the secretive carnival group. The very one that might be harboring a murderer. While it had its detriments, our bargain also had its beneficial points. I needed access to the performers to solve this case, and given their aloofness toward me, this was an opportunity I could ill afford to decline.

Mephistopheles moved to where I stood, his arm nearly brushing mine as he leaned over the railing and watched the moonlight bounce across the sea. This was a business transaction, nothing more. Any warnings of losing my head or heart blew away on the next ocean gust.

“Fine.” I stuck my hand out, pleased when he returned the gesture and shook. “You and I will play our game of pretend, but I require proof for Liza about Houdini. I think the news ought to come from me. When and where I choose.”

He glanced down at our hands, almost appearing surprised at finding them still clasped and abruptly let go. “Any other demands?”

“You are not permitted to kiss me. No matter what. That is a part I do not wish to play.”

“Interesting.” His lips twitched upward. “Very well. So long as you never wish for me to do so, you have my word.”

I kept my focus on his eyes, refusing to glance lower, lest he get any sordid ideas. “Good. We’re all settled, then.” I wrapped my cloak around me and peered down the empty deck. “I’ll meet you after breakfast for—what is it? Why are you shaking your head?”

“We have four days left before the grand finale, Miss Wadsworth.” He held his arm out. “Your first lesson begins tonight.”

When Mephistopheles waltzed into the practice room, a swagger in his stride and a crooked curve upon his lips, chatter slowed, then promptly died down. Knife throwers paused in their target practice; trapeze artists sat upon their swings; all attention turned to their ringmaster. And me. Most truthfully, their gazes were locked upon my hand on his arm. The one I moved ever so slightly upward at his whispered insistence. I had not forgotten what Liza had said about him never showing up to these practices. It was another deliberate move on his part, one containing the most impact.

“See?” He leaned closer, the heat of his breath on my neck. “Look at the way they’re sizing you up, wondering how you earned my favor and how they might wrest it away from you. You, my dear, are now a threat. And a prize.” As if just noticing the quietness of the room, he tore his gaze from mine. I wondered at how authentic he made it appear when I knew it was only another act. “If you’d like a shot at performing this week, I suggest you keep practicing.”

Everyone began running through their routines, well, everyone except for Cassie, the trapeze artist; the Empress. She sat high above us, watching from behind her mask as Mephistopheles guided me to a table and pulled a chair out for me. Once I’d arranged my skirts, he dragged another chair around until our legs almost touched. I batted my lashes, but dropped my voice. “Watch yourself, sir. I’d hate to kick you by accident.”

“You asked me not to kiss you, Miss Wadsworth,” he said, the smile growing larger, “you never mentioned touching in your stipulation. Better luck next time. Now, then. Let’s run through the basics.” He pulled a deck of cards from his suit and placed them in my palm, his hands lingering. “First, you’ll need to hold your cards properly in order to cut them one-handed.”

He adjusted them until they fit lengthwise in my palm.

“This is how dealers hold their cards. For our purposes, you’ll start like this and shift them up toward your fingertips.” He moved the cards from my palm to my fingertips, keeping them in the same position. With clinical efficiency, he drew my pinkie down to the bottom of the deck, securing it comfortably in my grip. “Good. This allows you enough space to cut the deck between your fingers and palm, plus you now have better command over it.”