Words failed as he strode over and gathered me into his arms. His eyes, while slightly filled with mirth, were dark and deep enough for me to drown in. Our last stolen kiss felt like it had happened ages ago, and every nerve in my body tingled with anticipation.
God save me, I wanted him.
One of his hands slowly trailed down my back, and my breath hitched, igniting something in his gaze that practically undid me. Never one to disappoint, he bent his face to mine, a smile curving those wonderful lips as he tilted my chin up.
“Have I swept you off your feet yet, Wadsworth?”
Without replying, my mouth was on his. I hadn’t yet pulled my gloves on, so my bare fingertips roamed over his skin, and he replied in kind. Each stroke consumed my senses until all I could think of was where his hands might explore next, and the expanding hope that his lips might follow their careful path. His love was pure yet intoxicating, sweet and powerful. I’d never tire of this—of touching him and being touched by him.
As if he knew exactly how he made me feel, he slid his hands over my shoulders and up into my hair, moving until our bodies pressed together. I could have sworn there was an electric current running over every place we made contact. He whispered my name while dropping kisses down my throat and along my bare collarbone, stopping right where my locket lay. A need greater than propriety overcame me. Heart pounding, I tugged his suit jacket off and maneuvered us toward my bed.
Thomas gently laid me down, his body hovering above mine. It might not be medically possible, but I swore if he didn’t touch me again soon, I’d combust. He ran a thumb over my bottom lip, gaze thoughtful. “I love when you look at me that way.”
I searched his eyes. “How?”
“Like you might possibly love me in the same extraordinary way that I love you.”
Any tether of self-control I’d clutched at slipped from my grasp. I drew him down until his weight settled on me, marveling at how incredible it felt to share a bed with him. I traced the strong lines of his jaw, getting lost in the golden flecks of his eyes before slowly bringing my mouth to his again. When his tongue touched mine, I nearly lost my senses.
Kissing him was my favorite indulgence, and he certainly enjoyed spoiling me.
“Perhaps you’re right. We ought to get married on the boat,” I said, breathing heavily. I might be ready to do more than kiss him, especially if he kept tracing those idle circles on my bodice. With a knowing grin, he kissed me once more, then resumed his attention to my neck. His teeth grazed the sensitive skin of my throat as his hand slipped down to my hip. Saints help me. “Do you think there’s a priest? Father couldn’t possibly be that mad if we eloped. Uncle might agree to be our witness… or Mrs. Harvey.”
Thomas pulled back enough to look into my eyes, his wicked grin returning. “Miss Audrey Rose Wadsworth, conqueror of my soul—you are an absolute fiend. You’d like to flout tradition simply because of your need for my body.” He held a hand over his heart. “I swear I have never loved you more.”
Warmth spread to my face. “You’re impossible.”
“Impossible not to adore.” With a seemingly great amount of effort, he pushed himself up and assisted me to my feet. There was still a hunger in his eyes that matched my own, and I wondered which of us would go mad with want first. I dragged my gaze away from him and settled it back on the bed, devising a way to reverse a few moments in time. “Have I ever told you about our country estate?”
I blinked at the sudden change in topic. “I don’t believe so.”
Thomas moved his hands up my wrists to my arms, then glided them down to my waist. He brought my body to his, lips ghosting over mine, and I fought to remain in control. I had the impression that if I were to kiss him again, neither one of us would regain our composure. In that moment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the proper thing.
“Once we’re married, I’d like to take you there,” he whispered. “I’ll send most of the staff away. We’ll have all the privacy in the world—no more sneaking about. When you look at me the way you are now, my virtue is perilously close to corruption. And I’ve never been a very pious man, Wadsworth.”
Heat pooled in my core at such a shocking declaration. I found I couldn’t wait for the day we stopped holding ourselves back. “You truly are a scoundrel, Thomas Cresswell.”
He chuckled. “Ah yes, but that sparkle in your eye indicates you adore it. And I love nothing more than pleasing you, so I’ll do my best at being the worst.”
“How romantic of you.”
“I thought so, too.” He glanced at the clock on my nightstand. “I’m afraid your uncle might murder Mrs. Harvey if we don’t hurry back. He was eyeing up the knives when I left, and I don’t believe he was contemplating which was the correct one to use on his filet.”
I forced my gaze away from his mouth. Thoughts of actual murder shattered any remaining heat I’d felt between us. I sighed. “Let’s go save our chaperones, then.”
Thomas shrugged his jacket on, then exited through Mrs. Harvey’s room. I studied my reflection in the looking glass, adjusting dark curls that had slipped free. I touched my lips, hoping they didn’t appear swollen with kisses to anyone else’s eye. I couldn’t wait to write to Liza, she lived for this sort of romantic detail. She’d be shocked and delighted and—I gasped as if I’d been struck a hard blow. I’d momentarily forgotten she was missing.
I bent over, pressing my hands to my center and dragged in a deep breath, trying to quell my nerves. I was a terrible wanton thing, getting so distracted by Thomas’s lips. I swore to do better the rest of the voyage.
A moment later, he knocked on my outer door like a proper gentleman escort. I pushed my worries aside, opened the door, and accepted his arm. He was right—there wasn’t anything we could do for Liza while trapped on this ship. Once we made land in America, I could orchestrate a better plan.
“Ready?” Thomas asked. I nodded. We moved as swiftly as my silken shoes permitted into the inner corridor that led to the saloon.
We checked our overcoats—and Thomas’s white silk muffler—with an attendant and hurried down the hall, Thomas striding confidently in his full-dress suit. I paused, gaping at a rose he wore, fastened through his dress coat’s buttonhole. I hadn’t noticed it before I’d taken his jacket off. Truthfully, I hadn’t been thinking of much outside of our embrace.
He caught my stare and winked. “They’ve got hothouse flowers on board for a shamefully indecent price. Clearly, I thought of you while dressing. Do feel free to return the favor anytime. Only, perhaps you ought to do it in reverse.”
My clever retort died on my lips when the doors were swept open for us by two liveried attendants. The color scheme was the same black-and-white floors and sparkling ink-blue curtains from yesterday, but tonight there were silver and gold accents. Flowers, candelabras, and strands of beads made up centerpieces, a waterfall of excess riches.
What caught my attention—and most everyone else’s, judging from their wide-eyed looks—were the masked performers filing into the room, twirling silver swords as if they were batons. Light bounced around off their blades, sending a flutter into my heart.
They were an army of performers, dressed for battle. Any one of them might turn their weapon on a dinner guest. Worse yet, all of them held the power to make this feast a bloodbath.
My steps faltered. I couldn’t imagine a spectacle that would please a hungry killer more and hoped I was wrong.
KNIGHT OF SWORDS
2 JANUARY 1889
“It’s all right, breathe.” Thomas guided me to our table and pulled my chair out, though there were waiters at the ready. A few of them blanched, but they did not dare step forward and remove him from the task he’d assigned himself.
At Thomas’s show of chivalry, Uncle Jonathan lifted his attention from his fork and knife. He stared, expression inscrutable, and Lord only knew what he thought of Thomas’s careful attention to me. I doubted he could hear my heart thudding, but irrationally worried the words I KISSED THOMAS CRESSWELL MOST WANTONLY were suddenly painted above my brow.
A smile started at the edges of his lips as if he’d dissected the very thought from my head. “Audrey Rose.” He nodded as my escort took the seat beside him, across from me. “Thomas. You’re just in time.”
Mrs. Harvey sat on my right—across from my uncle—and gave me a nod of approval. “You look beautiful, dear. That color suits you well. Eggplant is such a marvelous shade for dreary January evenings! Hides a multitude of sins, as well.”
At my furrowed brow, she motioned to a slight stain on her pale dress. It appeared to be liquid in nature, though I couldn’t be sure.
“Thank you, Mrs. Harvey.” Before I could remark on the fashionable gown and dazzling jewels she wore, the lights dimmed. Being aboard a ship fitted with electricity was enchanting, especially when it was used it to create a thrum of excitement.
I glanced around the room, taking note of anyone who appeared nervous, but no one stood out. Captain Norwood hadn’t announced the truth regarding Miss Prescott’s death, mostly for his own good, but also because the Prescotts had asked for discretion. Diners chatted excitedly at their tables, silent, and swordsmen and women continued swinging their blades, and all was strangely well. Maybe Thomas was wrong. Maybe tonight’s show would not end in death. I picked up my goblet and sipped, releasing the last bit of tension from my spine.
Smoke flitted along the bottom of the curtains, teasing yet promising a blaze just out of sight. My palms dampened my sheer gloves. It was almost time. I peeked over at Uncle, but he was preoccupied with his supper. He tore into his filet with a singular focus he usually reserved for the dead we studied. Apparently he didn’t believe that murder was on the menu again this evening. At least not in this room.
“Esteemed passengers of the Etruria,” the ringmaster crooned, appearing once again from the cover of thick smoke. I shuddered at the memory of him appearing just as suddenly last night. “Welcome to night two of the Moonlight Carnival! The Wheel of Fortune has chosen an extraordinary performance. For your viewing pleasure, may I present an evening of thrills. Chills. And, quite possibly, spills… of blood!”