Home > Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(15)

Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(15)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

He brushed a piece of hair from my face, then slowly moved his lips from my jaw to my ear and back, kissing my bare skin until I was convinced we soaked, unhurt, in a pool of fire, and each of my fears and worries of being caught burned away. “Then we ought to be very quiet.”

He lifted me higher and I stared into his eyes, losing myself in the sensation of running my fingers through his damp hair. He looked at me like I was a goddess—like I was fire and magic and spell work combined in human form. I traced a finger down to his collar, teasing the first button open. I suddenly wanted to see more of him; I needed to. I tugged his jacket off, leaving his shirt on, though it might as well have been off. Soaked through, it left little to the imagination. A faint image on his upper chest bled through the fabric. I leaned in. “What is that?”

He glanced down as if he hadn’t a clue, then shrugged. He unbuttoned the first few buttons and pulled his shirt open, revealing a tattoo. They’d become quite popular with the upper class, but I hadn’t thought he’d be interested in such fads. Not that I minded. It was… tantalizing. I touched it with my fingertips, careful to avoid the red splotches around its edges indicating it was fairly new. He watched me, his attention intent and focused, while I inspected it.

“A skull and rose?” I finally asked. “It’s beautiful. What does it mean?”

“Oh, lots of things.” He drew back, exhaling, a self-satisfied smile in place. “Mostly it’s a study in contrasts; light and dark, death and life, decay and beauty.” His expression turned thoughtful. “To me it also symbolizes good and evil. Placing it on my heart proves love conquers everything. Naturally I needed a rose on my body forever, too.” He kissed me, slow and sensuous, as if to make sure I didn’t misinterpret his innuendo. “When you saw Prince Nicolae’s tattoos you seemed intrigued, so I deduced you’d enjoy it. I hope that’s true.”

I gave him a bemused look. “You’re free to ornament your body however you’d like. No permission needed.”

“Truthfully, I thought it’d be a good reason for you to take my shirt off.”

I grinned. Thomas enjoyed saying shocking things to gauge my response. There was no reason I couldn’t match him in that area. “Your deductions might not be as sharp as you think if you believe I lack motivation, Cresswell.”

His jaw practically hit the floor. Immensely satisfied, I bent my head, kissing the inked area above his heart. With or without the rose tattoo as a permanent marking, Thomas Cresswell was mine. When a small gasp escaped him, I covered his mouth with my own, claiming him fully.





23 JANUARY 1889

“It’s so good to see you again!” I wrapped first Daciana, then Ileana in a warm embrace. “I’ve missed you both terribly. Please sit.” I motioned to the settee in the parlor.

Thomas’s birthday party was a few hours away and I wanted time for just the girls, so I’d arranged for a tea service. I couldn’t help but recall the many times my aunt had wished for me to host high tea and how uncomfortable I’d been. True friends made all the difference.

“How’s the academy faring after all that happened?” I asked. Ileana had pretended to be a maid to help uncover who might be murdering people in and around Bran Castle. It was where we’d first met, and it felt like ages rather than weeks had passed since I’d last seen them.

Ileana perched on the edge of the settee and Daciana sat beside her. “They’re recovering well enough. Moldoveanu is as attentive to his students as ever.”

I smiled. It was a polite thing to say, considering the headmaster was as pleasant as a head full of lice. I poured them both cups of tea. “And the Order of the Dragon?”

Daciana’s eyes lit up as she took the offered cup of Earl Grey. “It’s always interesting. Though it would be doubly so if you and Thomas joined our ranks. I know he didn’t seem all that interested before, but we’d love to have you both. There are so many cases, we’re overtaxed.”

Tempting though their offer was, I did not wish to belong to any organization, even a secret one that sought justice as much as I did. We’d be required to travel wherever the Order deemed necessary and infiltrate places like Ileana had. I’d learned aboard the Etruria how hard it was to go undercover and knew acting was a talent I didn’t possess.

“I’ll keep that in mind for the future, though you shouldn’t rely on it,” I said carefully, not wanting to offend. “I’m quite content with picking my own forensic cases. But I’m always here to listen and offer advice if you need it.”

Daciana set her teacup down and gathered me into another hug. I squeezed her back, fighting a sudden prickle of tears. “Join or not, but please come back to Bucharest. The house is lonely without you.”

A moment later, Liza waltzed into the room, a small gold-foiled box tucked under each arm. She brandished the boxes like they were spoils of war. “Who would like some chocolate?”

We spent the better part of the morning talking about our work and our lives, and Liza had them howling with stories from her misadventures in the country. For the first time in a long while, I was surrounded by a boisterous, happy family. Death and sadness did not invade this sacred space—it was a time for laughter and living well. I wanted to capture this moment and hold it close to my heart forever. I had an uneasy feeling it wouldn’t last.

I glanced at the clock in the parlor, pulse mimicking the rhythm of the second hand as moments ticked by. I’d checked the dining room twice already—everything was perfectly set. The roasted whole pig lay proudly on a bed of herbs. But the true gem was the dessert station.

It was piled high with tortes and petit fours and French macarons in petal pinks, icy blues, and pale yellows and greens. The chef had even managed a stunning lilac shade I’d never seen before. There were lemon cakes with lavender-infused frosting, puddings, cinnamon buns smothered with icing, and candied plums. I’d also seen to it that a Catherine Basket would be brought out later, the frozen cream fruit confection laid atop a silver service tray covered in fern fronds. It wasn’t the only iced-cream treat I’d commissioned—I’d designed a near-life-size replica of a swan to add a bit of whimsy to the table. The perfect dessert offering for a man with an insatiable sweet tooth.

“Miss Wadsworth?”

I turned at the sound of the butler’s voice. “Yes?”

“The mail just arrived.” He handed me a letter. It was a heavy cream envelope with no return address. I raised a brow.

“This is postmarked last week,” I said, turning it over.

“Weather has been difficult on the postal service, Miss Wadsworth.” He pointed a gloved hand toward a stately piece of furniture. “An envelope opener is in the top drawer of the secretary.”

“Thank you.” I waited until he’d closed the door again before making my way over to the ornate piece of furniture. Like everything else in Grandmama’s home, the edges were covered in a fine lace filigree made of gold. I found the letter opener and tore into the mysterious envelope.

It’s been too long, but worry not, I’ll see you soon enough. Be ready.

I flipped the card over, searching for any clue regarding the sender, but that was it. Two lonely lines. It was written in a hand I didn’t recognize, but it had a feminine feel to it, if such things could be applied to ink on parchment. I cursed myself for sending the previous letter up in flames. Now there was no way to be sure if it had been sent by the same person.

Daciana and Ileana were shopping for their presents for Thomas, so I’d inquire about it when they returned. Since the post was delayed, they’d probably arrived first. I exhaled. That was likely it. My nerves over Thomas’s party—and our engagement announcement—were granting my imagination permission to act out.

To ease my worry, I returned to the dining room, checking it over once more. Aunt Amelia walked in, her sharp gaze landing like a blow on each detail of the room. I went to fumble with my gloves, then stopped. The birthday party would be a success because we were celebrating Thomas. Little did my aunt know, we’d also be celebrating our shared news. I didn’t want to ruin my evening by developing an acidic stomach because the linens weren’t pressed within an inch of their lives.

Tonight, the only thing that would stand out in our memories was being surrounded by our loved ones. In ten years, I’d think back to the butterflies fluttering in my center, the quiet anticipation of unveiling the dessert table along with my ring.

Bolstered by what truly mattered, my own gaze swept across the room as surely as it assessed the dead. I was confident in the laboratory. I would be here, too. There was no reason I couldn’t marry the two parts of my life together as well.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” I asked cheerfully. My aunt pursed her lips but nodded. “Thomas will be pleased with the whole roasted boar. Though I suspect he’ll be mesmerized by the sweets.” I lifted my cane, pointing out the table filled with desserts from all over the world. “I imagine he might skip the main course entirely.”

Aunt Amelia drew in a long breath. The idea of eating only sweets obviously broke all sorts of polite society rules, though she was too well-bred to argue if Thomas wished to dine on pastry. He outranked everyone in the house, though he never acted as if he did.

She cleared her throat delicately. “The iced-cream swan is exceptional. I can’t imagine the artistry involved with crafting the mold. The details of the seeds for eyes is…” Aunt wet her lips, seeming to think long and hard about her next words. It was a miracle. “It’s a feat even Her Majesty would be inspired by, I’m sure.”

“Thank you.” I flushed, pleased by her hard-earned praise. I walked over to the life-size sculpture. It was grand. Liza had chided me for fussing, but the end result was magnificent. “Those are actually licorice drops. I hired a confectioner as well.”

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