Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(7)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(7)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

I nodded slowly, collecting my racing thoughts. Somehow, that voice was familiar. He gently pulled me into the shadows, our bodies pressed together most inappropriately, and even though I thought I recognized his voice, I didn’t make his job easy. I’d show him how right my mother was about roses having both petals and thorns.

Digging my heels in, I kicked and tried scratching his arms, with little success. We stumbled into the alley, our limbs knocking together, and he ooomphed as my elbow connected with his stomach. Good. If I died now, at least I’d have some satisfaction of having injured the beast. My momentary victory was short-lived—my bulky skirts weighed down any more attempts at fleeing, and the monstrous fog finally swallowed us whole.

Once we were far enough away from the pub and the gas lamps lining the cobbled streets, my attacker released me as promised. My chest heaved with fear and rage. Bracing myself for a fight, I spun on my heel, blinking disbelief away.

Thomas Cresswell stood with his arms crossed at his chest, a slight frown turning down his handsome features. He, too, was dressed solidly in black, with the addition of a cap pulled low over his brow. His profile cast sharp shadows in the waning light.

There was an almost dangerous aura about him cautioning me away, but anger seethed through my veins. I was going to kill him.

“Are you completely mad? Was that necessary?” I demanded, both fists planted on my hips to avoid strangling him. “You could’ve simply asked me to follow you! And what do you think you’re doing skulking along the streets at this ungodly hour?”

He eyed me warily, then ran a hand down his tired-looking face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he’d possibly been worried. “I could ask the same of you, Miss Wadsworth. But I’d rather save that spectacle for your brother.”

“My—” I didn’t have time to finish my sentence before Nathaniel appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past, looking less than amused. For once, I was without words.

Nathaniel nodded toward Thomas, then grabbed me roughly by my elbow, pulling me deeper into the shadows and out of earshot. I wrenched around, glaring, but Thomas’s attention was fixed on the arm Nathaniel was latched onto, the muscle in his jaw clenching. His reaction confounded me enough to go along with my brother peacefully.

“Please spare me any of your ridiculous stories, Sister,” Nathaniel whispered harshly when we were far enough away. “I don’t even want to know why you thought it a fine idea to traipse around darkened streets while a murderer is stalking women. Do you have some sort of death wish?”

I got the impression this was a rhetorical question. I kept quiet by squeezing the material of my skirts between my fingers. What I wanted to do was shake his rough hand off my elbow where he was still gripping me a bit too hard. I also wanted to scold him for being as overprotective as Father and reacting hysterically.

But couldn’t bring myself to do either of those things.

Nathaniel released me, then tugged at his fine leather gloves until his face slowly returned to a more natural color instead of the blazing red of the Queen’s Guard.

He sighed, running a hand through his fair hair.

“Losing Mother was bad enough.” His voice caught and he coughed the emotion away, yanking his comb out from beneath his overcoat. “Don’t expect me to sit back and watch you recklessly endanger yourself, little sister.” His eyes dared me to say one stupid thing. “It would destroy me. Understand?”

As quickly as my temper flared, my ire was quelled. For the last five years it was the two of us against the world. Father was too lost in sorrow to really be present. Putting myself in Nathaniel’s place, I could see the minute cracks of my emotions shattering should I ever lose him.

“I’m sorry for worrying you, Nathaniel. Truly.” I meant every word of the apology. Then a thought struck. I narrowed my eyes. “Why, might I ask, are you trolling around back alleyways with that devil Mr. Cresswell?”

“If you must know,” Nathaniel said a bit haughtily, adjusting his collar, “we’re not the only ones out here.”

Now this had my full attention. I raised a brow, waiting while my brother scanned the abandoned area around us. “A group of us are doing a bit of our own inquiry. We’ve taken up posts throughout Whitechapel and are looking for suspicious persons. We’re calling ourselves the ‘Knights of Whitechapel.’”

I blinked. The only people who looked sorely out of place were my well-dressed brother and his ridiculous hat-wearing lackey. I could only imagine what the rest of the highborn boys looked like in this neighborhood.

“The Knights of Whitechapel,” I repeated. My brother wasn’t capable of hurting a common housefly; I hated imagining what some diabolical killer might do to him out here in the dark. “You cannot be serious, Nathaniel. What would you possibly do if you came face to face with this murderer, offer him a silver comb or perhaps some French wine?”

A dark look crossed my brother’s face.

“You’d be surprised what I’d manage should the need arise.” Nathaniel gritted his teeth. “He’d soon discover he’s not the only one who can induce fear. Now, then”—he angled me back down the alleyway toward the lone figure standing near the end—“Mr. Cresswell will see that you make it home safely.”

The last thing I wanted was to be escorted home by Mr. Thomas Cresswell. He was quite smug enough. “If you’re staying out here, then so am I.”

I planted my feet, refusing to budge, but Nathaniel simply dragged me behind him as if I were made of feathers.

“No, you’re not.” He handed me off to my classmate. “Take the carriage to my house, Thomas. I’ll come back on foot later.”

If Thomas was annoyed with Nathaniel bossing him around like a common servant, he didn’t show it. He simply wrapped his long fingers around my arm, tethering me to his side. I hated the surge of my pulse at his touch, but no longer struggled to break free. I stole a glance, noticing the smirk on his face.

He didn’t grip me as if I were an unruly child in need of scolding, choosing instead to hold me back from Nathaniel, as if he were the one in need of rescuing. It was high time someone noticed I was capable of looking after myself. Even if that someone was an infuriating boy. An intelligent, arrogant, handsome boy. I stood a little straighter, and Thomas chuckled—a delicious, rumbling sound I wouldn’t mind hearing again. My brother spared me one last look.

“Be sure to place a stick atop that windowsill in the drawing room.” He smiled broadly at the death glare I leveled at him. “Sorry, little sister. But I do believe you’ve had enough excitement for one evening. Count your blessings you encountered only the two of us out here and not someone more sinister.”

“Come,” Thomas said, directing me toward the carriage. “Your brother’s right. Something wicked lurks in these shadows.”

I twisted around to stare at him. “Something more wicked than you?”

Thomas opened his mouth before catching on to my teasing, then laughed in a way that set my heart racing again. Perhaps he was the most dangerous thing I could encounter out here, and my brother hadn’t a clue. One fact was slowly taking shape: I was in jeopardy of admiring Mr. Cresswell against my better judgment. A gust of wind tangled my hair, bringing with it a chill that caressed my skin.

I glanced around for my brother, but he’d already been taken by the fog.

FIVE

DARK AND HIDEOUS THINGS

WADSWORTH RESIDENCE,

BELGRAVE SQUARE

8 SEPTEMBER 1888

“You’re looking rather unwell this morning.” Father glanced at me over his paper. “Perhaps you ought to return to bed. I’ll send up some broth. Last thing we need is to have you coming down with an influenza or worse. Especially as winter draws near.”

He set the paper down and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Out of our family members, Father was the only one who appeared unwell. He’d been perspiring a lot lately.

“Are… are you feeling all right, Father? You look a bit—”

“How I look is not your concern,” he snapped, then quickly amended. “You needn’t worry about my health, Audrey Rose. Attend to yourself. I should like it very much if you didn’t leave the house again for some time. I’ve heard more disease is spreading in the slums.”

After adding a few drops of tonic to his tea, he continued reading the news. I wanted to point out that gaining an immunity to certain things would keep me healthier, and the only way to gain such immunity was by leaving the house, but he’d never tolerated my knowledge of science or medicine. Keeping me in a bubble equaled safety to him, no matter how wrong that notion was.

He sipped from his tea, his presence filling the room but not warming it. My attention drifted to the clock. I needed to meet with Uncle soon. Nathaniel was still sleeping, so I was on my own for leaving the house.

I politely cleared my throat. “I’m in need of some new dresses and shoes”—I dropped my gaze, peering up through my lashes, feigning embarrassment—“and other more delicate items…”

Father waved me off, thoughts of corsets and undergarments too much for him to hear about despite his fears of my poor health. He blotted at his nose with the same handkerchief, then returned it to his pocket.

“Do what you must,” he said. “But be home in time for supper and your lesson on running a proper household. Your aunt says you showed little improvement last time she visited.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes at his predictability. “Yes, Father.”

“Oh,” he said, wiping his brow once more, “wear a mask when you leave today. There’s talk of more East End sickness.”

I nodded. The “mask” was nothing more than a cotton neckerchief I tied about my nose and mouth. I doubted it would protect me from anything. Satisfied with my obedience, he went back to reading, the sound of his teacup hitting the saucer, his sniffling, and the flipping of pages our only talkative companions.

   
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