Home > Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(14)

Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(14)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Whether that was true or not, it smelled divine. Steam rose in fragrant tendrils of lavender, lemon balm, and eucalyptus, relaxing both my muscles and my soul. I was constantly moving as of late, always rushing from one problem to the next without pausing to restore myself. I wasn’t used to taking careful note of each of my movements, and found the learning of it to be tedious at best. Though my body was a stern professor—it let me know when it had had enough and would continue teaching the same lesson until I became an apt pupil. I must learn to pace myself or suffer the consequences.

Death. Murder. Even while relaxing I couldn’t escape such horrors. I closed my eyes, trying to erase images of the most recent mutilated corpse from my mind. I loathed that a woman might be brutalized by her killer and then again by the men investigating the crime. It was an unfair world—one that showed no mercy for those who needed it the most.

Hoping the bath salts might draw those thoughts away, I sank lower, the water now tingling against my earlobes. A door to my outer rooms opened and closed, the soft click reminding me of a bullet sliding into the chamber of a pistol.

I sighed. So much for stealing a few restorative moments alone. Was it the chambermaid coming to stoke the fire? I silently prayed my aunt hadn’t come to read any passages of scripture. I dipped further into the water and pretended I hadn’t heard her enter, focusing instead on unkinking each muscle. Soon enough, footsteps approached and I wished a thousand unpleasantries upon the intruder.

“Wadsworth?” Thomas called quietly, then pushed the door open, halting as I nearly splashed him in my haste to cover up. Of all the—

I crossed my arms in a feeble attempt at modesty. “Have you lost your senses?”

“If I hadn’t before, I certainly have now.” He blinked slowly, trying and failing not to stare at me in the tub. He didn’t have the courtesy to even blush—he looked positively dumbstruck. As if he’d never encountered a body without clothing before. Perhaps just not one with a still-beating heart. I’d be flattered by his obvious response if I wasn’t so flustered.

“Get out!” I whispered harshly. “If my aunt or father sees you in here—”

“It’s all right. We’re engaged.” He shook himself from his stupor and knelt beside me, a small devilish smile playing on his lips. “That is, if you’ll still have me?”

“Father agreed?” Forsaking propriety, I almost leapt from the water into his arms, stopping myself at the last moment. “I can’t believe you kept that from me all afternoon!” I sat back and his focus shifted to where my bare shoulders met the water. His gaze darkened in a dangerously seductive manner, awakening a growing need in me. “At least be a gentleman and turn around.”

His expression hinted that he was far from a gentleman at the moment, and a quick inspection of my face confirmed I liked it. Excitement thrummed through me. I couldn’t deny enjoying the power of his deductions when he directed them at me, and I wondered what that extreme attention to detail focused entirely on my body would feel like.

“As a properly engaged couple, we’re permitted a few more liberties. For instance, we might spend time alone, behind closed doors.” He purposely scanned the bathing chamber, nodding toward the door. “Seems a shame to let those liberties go to waste.”

The scoundrel had the unmitigated gall to indicate joining me in the bath. As I turned that thought over, my entire body heated up, having nothing to do with the steaming water. I found the idea of bathing together to be—I splashed water onto my face. When I looked at him again, I noticed a slight furrow in his brow. “Was there something else?”

“Other than informing you that we’re finally, truly engaged, dear fiancée?” I nodded, the word sending a little thrill through me. As if recalling he had a purpose more important than flirting, he pulled a small royal-blue pouch from his jacket pocket, his attention now fixed on it. “My sister arrived bearing gifts.”

I almost jumped from the bath again, but settled for craning my head around Thomas to see if his sister was making an appearance in my chambers, too. “Daciana’s here?”

“She and Ileana arrived shortly after supper. I meant to surprise you.” He ran his thumb over the velvet pouch, seemingly lost in another place and time.

“Cresswell?” I gently prodded, my concern growing. “What is it?”

“A letter.”

He sounded so sad, my heart nearly broke. I motioned to the little pouch, wanting to drag him from his despair. “That’s the strangest letter I’ve ever seen.”

He glanced up through thick lashes, humor flickering in his eyes before he looked away. “Instead of being terrified of her imminent death and thinking only of darkness, my mother wrote us letters. She wouldn’t survive to see either of us married, but…” He shook his head, swallowed hard. His emotions were on full display, unlike earlier, during the autopsy, when he’d seemed so cold and remote. “She wrote one for me to read upon my engagement.”

Forgetting about any cursed rules of the world, I reached over, water dripping onto the hexagon tiles, and laced my fingers through his. “Oh, Thomas. Are you all right?”

A single tear slipped down his cheek as he nodded. “I’d forgotten, almost, what it was like. Listening to my mother’s advice. Her voice. The soft accent that was never quite British or Romanian, but somewhere in between. I miss her. There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t wish for another moment with her. I’d hoard it away forever, knowing how precious it was.”

I gently squeezed his hand. In this most unfortunate circumstance, we understood each other too well. I missed my own mother terribly. While I was thrilled Father had finally agreed to our engagement, the wedding planning and celebration would be difficult to go through without her. Her absence—along with Thomas’s mother’s—played a large role in our second request to my father. I hoped he’d consented to that as well.

“It is a gift, having her letters to look forward to,” I said. “They’re invaluable little mementos—proof that some things are truly immortal. Like love.”

Thomas swiped at his nose, smiling, though his expression was still too despondent for my liking. “Beyond life, beyond death. My love for thee is eternal.”

“That’s beautiful. Was it in the letter?”

“No. It’s how I feel about you.” I swore my heart stuttered a moment. The young man who London society claimed was nothing more than a cold automaton had created poetry. Thomas quickly opened the velvet pouch, tipping its contents onto his palm. A gold ring set with a large crimson jewel lay there like the deepest drop of spilled merlot or crystallized blood. I gasped as he held it up to the light. The unblemished stone was quite literally breathtaking.

“Red diamonds are the rarest in the world.” He turned it one way, then the next, showing off its magnificence. I couldn’t stop staring at it. “My mother told me to follow my heart, no matter what others might counsel, and give this to whoever I choose to wed. She said this stone represents an eternal foundation, one she hopes is built on trust and love.” He inhaled deeply. “I’d already jotted down those lines for you, ‘Beyond life, beyond death; my love for thee is eternal.’” At this admission, he blushed. “When Daciana brought me this letter today—the very day your father gave us his blessing—and I read that line, it felt as if my mother was here, offering her own blessing not just for me but for you, too. She would have welcomed you as her daughter.”

He took my left hand in his, his gaze now locked onto mine. I knew him well enough to realize how serious he’d become, how important these next words would be. His coldness this afternoon in the makeshift laboratory was self-preservation; he was preparing to open himself more fully than the corpse we’d flayed apart.

I remained still, as if one unexpected movement might frighten him away.

“This ring is a gift from my mother, passed along from her mother and so on. It was once owned by Vlad Dracula.” Without breaking my stare, he nodded toward the jewel. “It’s yours now.” Gooseflesh rose along my arms, catching his attention. “I’ll understand if you’d rather have another diamond. My family legacy is rather—”

“Majestic and incredible.” I cupped his face, noticing a slight tremor go through him. I knew it hadn’t anything to do with the bathwater. Thomas Cresswell still didn’t believe he was worthy of love. That his lineage was some sort of dark curse. I thought he’d banished his doubts by the end of our voyage here. Some monsters were harder to slay, it seemed.

“Thomas, I had chills because I’m honored you’d share your deepest fears with me.” With this bloodred diamond, he was giving me another piece of his heart. It was a gift rarer and more precious than the stone he wished to place upon my finger. “I will wear it proudly and cherish it forever.”

I worked my mother’s pear-shaped diamond off and put it on my other hand, pulse racing as Thomas slipped his family heirloom onto my ring finger. It fit like it was always meant to be mine. He kissed each knuckle, then drew my arm around his neck, uncaring that he was getting his shirt wet.

“I love you, Audrey Rose.”

Without prompting, I placed my other arm around him. My shoulders were now completely out of the bath and I was perilously close to being exposed further, but I didn’t care. Thomas’s body was both shield and comfort as he pressed it firmly against me.

“I love you, Thomas.” When we kissed, I swore the earth shook and the stars burned brighter. Thomas moved out of my grasp long enough to hop into the tub, fully clothed, and pulled me onto his lap. Heat shot through me at the unexpected but welcome contact. “Are you quite mad? I’m not wearing any clothes!” I whispered, laughing as he dunked under the water, then shook his head like a dog. Droplets pelted me. “My aunt will die from the scandal!”

   
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