Home > Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(12)

Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(12)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Aunt sniffed indignantly, turning her nose up. “Your grandmother’s home is lovely. Will Lady Everleigh be joining us this evening?”

“No, Aunt. She was in India according to her last letter, but insisted we stay here while I…” I glanced at my cane. I hadn’t mentioned my injury to my father in any letters, and he’d been too quiet since entering the home. Seeing his attention directed at my leg with a furrow in his brow, I knew why he’d been silent. I had much to explain. “I—”

“It’s so good to see you both,” Liza said, snapping into action. She rushed forward to kiss her mother’s cheek, fussing like a hen when she stood back. “It feels like ages have passed! How was your voyage? The weather has been a fright! All the snow and sleet has been miserable. The hems of my dresses have seen better days.”

For a moment that stretched uncomfortably into the next, my aunt didn’t deign to respond. She scrutinized her daughter as if she were a stranger offering her a bouquet of dog poo. Liza had never openly disobeyed her mother before; she rebelled in her own subtle ways. I was the one Aunt Amelia had to save, what with my corpse fascination and poor judgment in young suitors. When Liza abandoned London to sail across the Atlantic with Harry Houdini without so much as a word, I can’t imagine my aunt ever saw that betrayal coming.

Before she could comment, Liza called for the butler. “Have someone draw a bath for Mama immediately. I’ve also got dried lavender and rose oil in the washing room.” She turned a radiant smile on her mother. “Lavender is so soothing, wouldn’t you agree? I’ve been reading up on herbal blends. Who knew there were so many uses for petals?”

As slick as anything, my cousin looped her arm through Aunt’s, steering her up the stairs and away from me. Thomas stepped forward and dipped his head politely at my father. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Lord Wadsworth. I trust you journeyed well?”

Uncle sidestepped our little trio and shook his head as he disappeared down the corridor. He muttered something that sounded an awful lot like “good luck to you both” followed immediately by “pompous ass.” I glared after him. I’d thought he and Father had put their feud aside when they’d worked together to get me into forensic school in Romania. Apparently there was still much work to be done on their relationship as well.

Thomas feigned ignorance over my father’s belated response. I, however, was ready to toss myself out of the nearest window; my nerves were near bursting. Father inspected Thomas for another heart-stoppingly long moment before nodding. It wasn’t quite the warm welcome I’d hoped for, but it certainly wasn’t the worst given the circumstances. He’d entrusted Thomas with watching over me—no matter that my broken leg was a result of my choice and there wasn’t a thing Thomas could’ve done about it. On the contrary, sometimes I’d catch him watching me limp and wondered if he wished he’d taken the knife and possibly died instead.

“We journeyed well indeed. Though I cannot say the same for my daughter.” He pointedly glanced at my cane. “I imagine there’s quite a story behind this.” He met my gaze, his expression softening. “If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments to speak with Audrey Rose. Alone.”

“Of course.” Thomas offered another polite bow, then straightened. He winked at me and hummed his way along the corridor Uncle had disappeared down, leaving me alone to deal with the many questions and worries I saw flashing in my father’s eyes.

I drew in a deep breath. It was time to plead my case about a possible betrothal. “Shall we move to the sitting room?”

It was hard to fathom that nearly two months had passed since I’d last seen my father. He was more robust than I remembered—his face had more color and his eyes were bright. Gone was the ashy pallor that clung to him like a second skin. I exhaled slowly. I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been that he’d fall back into his addictions in my absence. Sadness still crept in around the edges, but he seemed in command of it now instead of the reverse.

He sat at an oversize writing desk, fingers steepled as he took in this new version of his daughter. I stood as still as I could manage. “You didn’t mention the cane in any of your letters.”

I swallowed hard, focus fixed on the dragon’s-head knob. A thought struck as I pulled strength from this symbol of Thomas’s house—he’d found a way to be with me, to ease my nerves while I spoke with my father. He truly thought of everything.

“I apologize, sir. I didn’t want you to be upset unnecessarily. I—”

“Sweet girl.” My father shook his head. “It was not an admonishment. I’m worried. When you left, you were whole, and now…”

“Make no mistake, Father. I am still whole. Neither a limp nor a cane will slow me down.”

“I did not mean to offend.” He smiled gently. “I can see you’re adapting well. Give me time to do the same. You know I can be a bit—”

“Overbearing?” I asked, not unkindly. “All I require is love and acceptance.”

“Then you shall have both in abundance.” His eyes misted. “Well, now. Since that’s settled, on to other matters. Jonathan tells me you’ve been taking to your forensic studies quite well. He believes your skill will surpass his in the near future.”

I blinked at the sudden pricking sensation. “He hadn’t mentioned that to me.”

“I daresay he won’t, either. Not until he’s sure it won’t go to your head. The fool.” Father’s eyes twinkled. “He also tells me that Thomas is a fine suitor. I must admit, when I agreed to send you to Romania, I didn’t anticipate receiving a request for an audience with him. At least not so soon. I don’t know if it’s wise to entertain thoughts of courtship or betrothal now. You are young yet.”

Here it was. I gripped the dragon a bit more tightly. “To be honest, sir, I hadn’t planned on feeling so strongly for another. I-I tried fighting it, but I truly believe I’ve found my equal. I cannot imagine a more perfect partner to walk hand in hand with through life.”

“Please. Sit.” Father indicated the tufted chair across from him. Once I perched on its edge, he continued his inspection. “You’re almost of age, but I fear there’s much you’d be giving up. Why not come back and ask me this in a year’s time? If your love is true, it won’t be hindered by another few months. If anything, it will blossom further.”

It felt as if someone had struck a blow to my chest. Each time I imagined this scenario, I didn’t see my father pushing off our betrothal. A few months ago, he’d been secretly trying to match me with a detective inspector who hailed from an impressive family. Now he wanted me to wait. Neither of those spoke of what I desired.

“With all due respect, Father, Thomas and I have withstood events most couples will never face. We’ve been tested, and each bump, twist, and crack hasn’t broken us. It’s only made our bond stronger. I could wait another year or two or ten, but it wouldn’t matter. The truth remains that I am in love with Thomas Cresswell and I choose to share my life with him.”

“What of your studies? Will you give up what you’ve fought so hard for simply to become a mistress of a house?” Father took a sip of wine from a goblet I hadn’t noticed. “Granted, Thomas hails from quite a lineage, so your home will be grand. Is that what you want from life? If you choose not to marry, you’ll be heir to our property.” He looked at me closely. Here was yet one more choice. One more bar being removed from my cage. “Once you marry, all of that will revert to your husband. And he will be fit to do with it as he pleases without your counsel. Are you certain that’s what you wish? Do you know Thomas enough to trust him with such matters?”

I waited for it, the tremor of fear. The familiar thrum of hysteria building in my body, urging me to flee. It didn’t come. If anything, my resolve turned molten hot before hardening into something unbreakable.

“I trust him entirely. He hasn’t simply told me things to win my affections and trust with words; he’s shown who he is through his actions. Never more so than when we traveled here last month. Thomas and I will write our own rules. I won’t stop my studies and he won’t stop his. Ours is a love built on mutual respect and admiration. I love Thomas for who he is. He doesn’t wish to change me, or cage me, or turn me into a perfect doll to tout about.” I took another deep breath. “In the event our marriage dissolved, he would never take my home or property from me. But,” I quickly added, seeing my father about to seize on that thread, “I do not believe ours will be an unhappy union. On the contrary, I believe this is the beginning of our story. We have countless adventures ahead of us.”

Father sat back, the leather of his chair creaking, and took another sip of wine. We stayed in comfortable silence, regarding each other for a few moments. It wasn’t unpleasant. A fire crackled in the corner; the scent of leather and sandalwood wafted about. It was cozy and it felt good to simply be around my father again. Finally, he took a deep breath, seeming to come to his decision. His expression was utterly unreadable.

“Please have Thomas come in.”

“Sir?” I asked, hating the edge of worry in my voice. “You will agree, won’t you?”

“I may.”

Relief sluiced through me. I practically stumbled out of my seat and threw my arms around my father’s neck. “Thank you! Thank you so much, Father!”

He held me close, chuckling. “Now, now, child. Save your thanks for a little while more. Let’s first hear what your Mr. Cresswell has to say.”

Post-mortem set, London, England, 1860-1870.





22 JANUARY 1889

I snuck into the parlor and cracked the door open, watching Thomas stand outside the sitting room, squaring his shoulders as if readying for war. I supposed it was a battle of sorts—he’d be fighting for my hand against a father who didn’t wish to relinquish it just yet. It took all of my self-control to not go to him. He appeared determined, yet the way he stared at the closed door hinted at his own nerves. Not much ever subdued Thomas’s swagger, though it appeared that my father’s presence was doing a wonderful job of it. I’d made one more request to my father, and now it was up to Thomas to win this scrimmage for us both.

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