Mephistopheles leaned against the doorjamb, gaze dropping to my robe. I felt my breath leave my body in a whoosh as if I’d been punched. This was the worst possible situation. I could not let Thomas overhear our conversation because of the bargain, and I could not admit to the ringmaster that a young man was already in my chambers. If Mephistopheles said anything about the cancan last night, I was certain Thomas wouldn’t let the subject drop until I fessed up.

“Hello, Miss Wadsworth. Were you expecting someone else? You seem like you’ve swallowed an egg.”

He made to invite himself in, but I held my arm out stiffly. “What are you doing here?”

“Good day to you, as well,” he said. “It’s amazing—you have no issue with our meeting in darkened nooks on the ship, or coming to my cabin at indecent hours, but heaven forbid I initiate a private meeting. The shame.”

“If you wish to speak with me,” I said, keeping my voice low, “then we shall pick a place to meet. In public. Preferably when I am decently dressed and have a chaperone.”

“Was Liza acting as your chaperone last night?” He peered around me, making a show of inspecting my quarters. “Are you hiding a secret lover I ought to be aware of?”

“I’m in the process of buffing my scalpels,” I said, indicating the medical bag on my nightstand. “If you’re not careful, I might use those blades on your sparkly suits.”

“Threats are unbecoming and don’t suit you.” He sniffed, feigning hurt. He turned to leave, then pivoted back. Even at dawn he wore a mask, reflecting the orangey reds of the rising sun.

“Oh, and you ought to tell Mr. Cresswell to remember his hat. I see it’s sitting out on that vanity of yours. Wouldn’t want anyone to have the wrong impression, now, would you? Thank goodness your cousin is pretending to sleep, else people might really start talking.”

Before I could deny or claim it as my own, the ringmaster stuck his hands in his pockets and walked swiftly down the promenade. The sound of his sullen whistling added to the chorus of wind and waves. I curled my hands into fists, wishing I could muster up loathing him. Having two young men around who felt the compulsion to share each annoying observation they made was enough to drive anyone mad.

Once the door clicked shut, Thomas pushed the dress aside, brows raised. “Now might be a good time to discuss Mephistopheles, especially since your uncle has asked me to watch after you. What’s so important that he needs to call on you at this hour? Doesn’t he know that level of impropriety is strictly my area of expertise?”

I walked over to him, bent down, and cupped his face in my hands, relishing the feel of his warm skin without a layer of silk between us. “We will discuss everything soon, I promise. But right now I need to get dressed and you need to leave before someone finds you here.”

After sneaking another glance at my “slumbering” cousin, I pressed my lips to his, soft and gentle at first, then let go of polite restraint. Thomas didn’t seem to mind the distraction; he pulled me near as our kiss deepened. With great effort, I kissed him gently, then sat back on my heels. It was most decidedly my favorite form of sleight of hand.

“We wouldn’t want anyone to have the wrong impression,” I said, unable to hide my smile. “They’d assume we were in here kissing.”

“We wouldn’t want that, now.” Thomas shook his head, and somehow we were kissing again. “It would be highly indecent. Being almost alone. In the room of the girl I want to marry. The one who keeps refusing me.”

“Thomas… I… you know I’m not refusing you,” I said. “I want to do this the correct way. My father deserves to be included. Please don’t think it indicates hesitation on my part, I’d—”

“A wedding?” Liza popped up from the covers, eyes wide with delight. “I must help plan it! What season are you thinking? Spring would be divine. The flowers, pastels! Winter is also breathtaking in the right application. Your black hair would look gorgeous against ice blues and whites.”

“A wedding, elopement. I am in favor of any season or occasion.” He hopped out of the trunk, then helped me stand, giving me a chaste kiss. After he plucked his top hat up from the vanity, he smiled. “We will worry about the details later.” He glanced back at the table of clues I’d laid out. “In the interim, I’ll see what I can figure out about those. Maybe some connection will make itself known. Oh, and Liza?” He turned a grin on her. “I look rather breathtaking in pale colors. Spring is just around the corner, too. Perhaps you might start there.”

With a tip of his hat, he slipped out of my cabin. Listening as Liza prattled on about wedding ideas, I went back over to my trunk and rummaged through the silks and velvets.

“Your father is going to be so pleased,” she said, that dreamy look still on her face. “I cannot believe you’ve not mentioned his intentions sooner. I do hope that Harry will propose—we make a decent match as well, don’t we?”

The letter Mephistopheles had supplied seemed to catch fire in my nightstand. Once Liza read it, her heart was going to shatter. I offered a tight smile, unable to break the news to her just yet. “I have no doubt you’ll marry a man who makes you very happy.”

There were only so many secrets I could keep before I started to unravel.

The Fool tarot





5 JANUARY 1889

I tucked my hand into the crook of Thomas’s arm and tried not to gawk at the transformation of the ship as we made our way down the now-crowded promenade. The public rooms and long covered deck of first class had been re-dressed as if they were private carnival tents in a floating bazaar.

The gentlemen’s smoke room was filled with warped looking glasses; the dining saloon boasted tightrope walkers and acrobats and… clowns. I shuddered at their garish face paint, deciding I’d much rather splice open a bloated corpse than be locked in a room with a single clown. I sped up, not wishing to linger anywhere near them, and Thomas chuckled. I flashed him my finest scowl, which only made him laugh harder.

“Removing intestines before luncheon is all right, but clowns are where your limits end?” he asked. “You never cease to amaze me, Wadsworth. What if I dressed up like one and knocked at your door later? Do you think you’d faint into my ruffle-sleeved arms? Reviving you might be worth the makeup and silly costume.”

“Don’t make me sneak spiders into your cabin,” I said. “I am not above dirty warfare.”

“You delightfully cruel woman.” His eyes practically danced with mischief. “What does it say about me that I find myself even more attracted to you after that threat?”

“It means you are as darkly twisted as I am, my friend.”

We continued down the promenade and paused to watch Sebastián, the contortionist, twist his body in ways that boggled my anatomy-centered mind. He lifted his chin in hello and scuttled across the deck as if he were an arachnid. I laughed aloud as Thomas hurried us away.

I couldn’t stop the double beat of my heart when we came upon the newly transformed music room. An ornately lettered sign sat propped out front that promised secrets of the past, present, and future to be divined by THE AMAZING ANDREAS; MYSTIC AND SEER OF ALL FORTUNES.

He hadn’t included his tarot namesake, the Fool, in his title—a smart choice considering I doubted that would attract many believers. I stopped walking, forcing Thomas to come to a halt, as I recalled another time I’d encountered someone with claims of seeing into the future. During the Ripper investigation a man named Robert James Lees had offered his assistance to Scotland Yard, claiming he’d had direct communication with one of the victims. Not wanting to miss a potential clue, Thomas and I had traveled to his home, taking him up on his offer to divine secrets of the recently deceased.

Chills meandered down my spine—I had a feeling it wasn’t due to the cold ocean breeze snaking down the open-air corridors. Mr. Lees had claimed to have spoken with my mother—and as much as I disbelieved such nonfactual nonsense, I’d found what I’d been looking for just as my mother’s spirit had told him. Whether it was luck or pure coincidence, there was something to it. Or at least something worth investigating. Perhaps I might unearth a clue for this investigation, one that might end these murders for good.

On a ship filled with devilish debauchery, hope seemed to be the deadliest sin of them all. I felt it tugging me forward, taunting and teasing me with the promise of something I knew to be impossible. Andreas was a showman, not a diviner. He could no more tell me who killed those women than he could bring forth my mother. Thomas inspected the sign I was transfixed by and then my face. He smiled sadly, dissecting my emotions and deducing their root. In times like this, I was grateful for his uncanny ability to read my moods.

“Would you like to have your future read by the Amazing Andreas?” he asked.

“You don’t believe in fate or fortunes.”

“No, I don’t.” He grinned at my exasperated expression. How one man could be utterly charming in one instant and sharp as a blade in the next was utterly maddening. “I’ll meet you back here in a little while.”

I peered into the black-and-white-striped curtains that hung in place of a door, biting my lip. “Is that a polite way of saying you’ll not be joining me? What about Uncle’s proclamation that you must escort me everywhere? A leash only extends so far, you know.”

“I will never be your keeper, Audrey Rose.” Any traces of humor vanished. Thomas lifted my hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to it, causing my heart to race for a new reason. “Plus, it’s a magnanimous gesture to not distract either yourself or the Amazing Andreas with my own exemplary skills at divining the future.” He laughed when I rolled my eyes. “That and I saw a stand on the main deck selling pastry fried in melted butter and doused in sugar.”