Becoming the Dark Prince – Kerri Maniscalco

Hail drummed its fingers against the porthole in my cabin, driving me half out of my mind as I tried— and failed—to count each drop. The cursed pitter-patter was too much to keep up with. I rolled onto my side, shoving my pillow beneath my head, and stared at the raging tempest outside. The sky was still the dangerous bluish-black of night and would probably remain that way well past dawn. Or maybe the weather would surprise me like other recent events had. Outside, ropes creaked, the sound like ghosts cracking doors open. The RMS Etruria unsettled me. Or perhaps it was the maelstrom of emotions stirring deep within me that made me uncomfortable. Jealousy was a miserable mistress to have. It seemed to grow every time I imagined the seductive grin Mephistopheles wore like another mask around Wadsworth. He was especially intolerable after his nightly carnival performances, strutting around like a king of fools. What’s worse, passengers seemed charmed by his deceit. Like taking on the name and persona of a demon of legend was something to applaud. As if hiding his identity with frivolous masks both on and off the stage was a delicious mystery to sink their teeth into. I hated his easy laughter and glittering suits, flashing like stars in the night sky.

I hated his self-serving bargains and perception of everything as a game. I really hated how hard he tried to charm the girl I adored. Right in front of me. But most of all, I hated the ugly beast that Mephisto’s actions roused in me. Partly because of my mother’s Dracula lineage, and partly because it seemed to give him pleasure, my father called me a monster. He said it often enough that it was almost easy to believe. Especially once I took a fascination with studying the dead. Who but an abysmal creature would choose such a dark fate? That gnawing worry mixed with the discomfiting knowledge of my Romanian ancestors was enough to plant seeds of fear—that somewhere lurking beneath my cool exterior, a beast was waiting, hoping to devour the gentleman I pretended to be. I wondered if I loathed Mephistopheles more because of how badly I longed to unleash that monster clawing under my skin. I shoved a hand through my hair, uncaring that it stuck out chaotically now.

Personal loathing aside, the ringmaster wasn’t good enough for Audrey Rose Wadsworth. Not that I had any right to offer such an opinion. I still didn’t believe Wadsworth wanted the pompous peacock of a ringmaster, and, honestly, his efforts to win her over ought to be amusing. Which made me wonder at the twinge of… something… still rising in me at the thought. I’d deduced soon enough that whatever bond was forming between them—at least on her part— was borne out of a bargain; I just hadn’t quite solved the mystery of what he’d offered that was important enough for her to omit parts of the truth. Wadsworth was an unstoppable force while investigating a crime, but there was something more driving her now. Something personal. Spying on them would give me the details I needed, but I couldn’t abide by the idea of surveilling the person I loved like some deviant. I’d promised that she was always free to choose her own path, and I refused to act otherwise because of him. Imaginary talons scraped against my senses, provoking me to act.

Bloody hell. I needed help. I was allowing thoughts of this fool—who’d named himself after a bargain-making demon in a Faust legend, and had so obviously taken on that same dark persona for the stage—to crawl like maggots beneath my skin. Writing to my sister, Daciana, for assistance in the matter would be wise, but the post couldn’t be sent from sea and I wouldn’t get a response until after we’d reached New York anyway. I’d need to sort out these emotions on my own. I sighed and rubbed a hand through my hair again. Of all the complex puzzles the world offered, who would have guessed my emotions would be the greatest challenge of my life? The hail abruptly stopped its assault, drawing my attention to the sudden silence. It was a break in the weather I couldn’t resist. I glanced at the clock. Dawn was still a few hours away, but I must have been ruminating over the ringmaster of the Moonlight Carnival longer than I’d realized.

Demon spawn that he was. I shot up out of bed and quickly dressed. I needed air. If the clouds parted, perhaps I’d get lucky and see the stars. I desired a nice visit with two of my favorite constellations—Ursa Minor and Cygnus. I didn’t expect anyone to be out so early—or so late depending on the circumstances—especially with the threat of another storm approaching. I should have known better than to apply that rule to Audrey Rose. Nothing as pedestrian as the weather would keep her caged when she had a goal to achieve and a young woman’s murder to solve. I knew the theatrical manner in which the bodies were posed for discovery enraged her. Anyone with an ounce of compassion would despise the garish homage to tarot cards that the killer used.

But Audrey Rose felt so deeply that the need to right every wrong consumed her. It was visible in the fire in her sea-green eyes, twin embers that seemed to promise vengeance for those who’d been so horribly wronged in both life and death. I fought a smile. It was one of the qualities I loved most about her. I— I abruptly stopped walking as she and her cousin approached from the opposite end of the promenade, no doubt heading for their shared cabin. She seemed relaxed, happy. Her arm was looped through Liza’s, their smiles infectious as they giggled much too loudly and promptly shushed each other before dissolving into even more laughter. I paused, half-considering turning around before they spied me, when my attention fastened on what she wore. Midnight stockings showed off her legs, and her low-cut, red-and-black striped corset was sprinkled with just the right number of sequins to draw the eye strategically to her curves. I swallowed hard and cursed under my breath.

She was dressed like one of the Moonlight Carnival performers, and she was a vision. And I was staring like a besotted fool. I heard Daciana’s voice in my head, admonishing me for getting flustered over something as mundane as clothing. With a great amount of strain, I forced myself to think clearly and logically. And to most certainly stop glancing at the dark silk outlining the shape of her hips… “Oh, Mr. Cresswell!” Liza drew them up short. Audrey Rose’s face registered shock when she looked up and saw me. I studied her expression intently, thrilled to see I was a welcome surprise. I worried she might think I’d been purposely walking by her cabin to check on her. Truthfully, I didn’t realize I’d been heading this way.

I’d been too consumed with my own thoughts. Liza looked between us and bit her lip, trying to keep the smile from her face as she let her cousin go and rushed to their door. She gave a most exaggerated yawn, not fooling anyone with her acting as she feigned tiredness. “I am so exhausted,” she said to no one in particular. “I’ll just be in here, sleeping soundly.” She winked at Audrey Rose and slipped inside, leaving us alone. A curious thing happened to my pulse—it surged. Fear and desire shot through me. A confusing mix I’d need to ponder later when I was alone. For now, I needed to remember to breathe and act like the gentleman I was trying to convince myself I was.

“Cresswell.” She swayed forward, narrowing her eyes. “Is it really you?” I flashed her my most charming look. “Not to worry, Wadsworth. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m actually real either.” Her gaze moved to my mouth and lingered. An expression close to longing crossed her face. It was the same look she’d given me when we’d kissed in her cabin a few nights ago. I recalled the warmth of her body, the feel of her soft skin, the way she’d tasted… I inhaled deeply and focused on solving mathematical equations. I thought of numerators and denominators.

I conjured square roots. Anything, anything to keep from noticing my pounding heartbeat and the way she made me nervous and excited all at once. And then she slowly licked her lips—as if she’d deduced the heat blazing through me, destroying my resolve to set her free. It took all of my willpower to keep myself a decent distance away. One word or plea from her was all it’d take. It was more than lust. More than a physical need. I adored every part of her. If she asked me to, I’d unleash every one of my desires, pleasuring her in a way that would let her know precisely how much I cherished her. Once that happened, there’d be no denying the depths of my feelings.

How wholly and madly I loved her. A fact more solid and tangible than any in the history of the world. I schooled my expression into a mask of ice, hiding the blazing inferno raging within. I wanted her to choose me without being influenced by my own feelings. “Thomas?” she asked, her focus stubbornly fixed on my mouth. “Yes?” My voice came out a bit rough, and I cleared my throat. I was finding it hard to think, to breathe. I wondered at the look in her eyes—the one that seemed to mentally run her fingers through my hair, gently tugging my head back, owning me playfully. I— One thousand nine hundred and seventy-two divided by seven… “Thomas, are you all right? You look a bit peaked.” She wasn’t aware of it, but when she gave something her attention, the force of it was overwhelming.

“Why are you sneaking about this early?” To find salvation from my demons. To free myself from the cage of my room and the fears that threaten to be my undoing. To feel the stinging prickle of snow on my face and forget that there wasn’t a cure for my current condition. Her gaze was a palpable caress as she slowly shifted it downward, igniting a deep male need that startled even me. “I’m not sneaking, I’m prowling, Wadsworth.” I gave her a lazy grin. It was an effort to keep my tone casual, to stop myself from trying to kindle her desire too. Though, judging from the growing longing in her expression and the way she shifted her body towards mine, perhaps she’d fanned those flames on her own. “Why are you sneaking about?” I was going to tease her further, asking if she was coming back from a late-night tryst, and felt a violent, invisible kick to my gut. I cursed myself for thinking up that atrocity and forced my jaw to stay locked together, lest I make a bigger fool of myself.

Of all the times to picture the ringmaster with his arms around her… “You’re deflecting.” Her clever eyes narrowed again, homing in on my expression. “Have you discovered a clue? Was there another murder?” I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak yet. Images of her curled into someone else, her hair spilling like a secret over his chest, still assaulted me. I kept my gaze on her face, refusing to glance down at her costume. And the expanse of skin it revealed. Despite my best efforts, when a blast of wind shot through the promenade, I looked. I only meant to see if she was cold and needed my jacket, but her corset was pulled so tightly together the swell of her breasts stole my senses. I wanted to snap the stays and run my… nine hundred and ninety-eight thousand divided by twenty-six was thirtyeight thousand, three hundred eighty-four and— As if my mind invented a bucket of imaginary iced water to douse me with, I suddenly wondered who’d helped her into her costume. Jealousy writhed inside me, striking at all common sense and decency.

I slowly exhaled, my breath curling in tendrils of smoke. I imagined I looked like the dragon my ancestors had named themselves after. That thought slapped the idiocy from me. I wasn’t a fire-breathing monster, nor would I ever be. I needed to focus on her, not my insecurity. I needed to trust her, even when I didn’t understand what her goal was. If I could do that in our work space, there was no reason I couldn’t stop being a jealous idiot now. She stepped closer. “Are you all right?” I was still fighting the urge to hunt down the ringmaster and toss him overboard, struggling to overcome my insecurities so I could have the sort of romantic relationship built on wholeness I strongly craved, trying to solve a string of gruesome murders, and attempting to prevent myself from becoming the monster my father convinced me I was by setting the girl I loved free. At the moment, that girl was making the last part extremely difficult, the more she seemed to want to wrap her arms around me.

I longed to touch her. First her mind, then her heart, and, finally, her body. I wished to own every inch of space between us and fill it with each emotion I’d ever suppressed or pretended away. I wanted to strip my soul bare for only her to see and then do the same with my clothing, giving her everything I had of me. Scars and all. “Thomas?” she asked again, brow crinkling with concern. “Are you all right?” I lifted a shoulder. “Never better.” She shivered, and I knew it wasn’t my obvious lie that had affected her. I shrugged my jacket off and placed it about her shoulders, my knuckles accidentally brushing the top of her breasts as I secured a button at her chest.

The contact sent a searing lick of fire through me as quick as a lightning bolt. Her breath caught, and she flicked her attention up. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to wipe the longing from my face. I stepped back as a wintry mix of rain and snow began to fall. She moved with me, a huntress sighting her prey. The trouble was I wanted to be caught more than I wished to run. “I thought about you tonight,” she murmured, fixing me with a stare that promised all sorts of beautifully wicked things. “I drank the green fairy and danced with abandon. Don’t worry,” she swayed forward, and I held very still as she placed her hands on my chest and slowly, carefully, dragged them down to rest over my heart, “it wasn’t inappropriate. I’m saving that honor for you.

Remember?” I would have to be dead to have forgotten when I’d remarked not so long ago about drinking wine and dancing inappropriately together. I inhaled slowly, trying to form a coherent thought, a task proving to be especially difficult. Warring feelings battled for supremacy. That persistent, pure, white-hot envy as I pictured her dancing with someone else, surpassed only by an overwhelming satisfaction that she had been thinking of me. I hated the jealousy—it made me feel monstrous and out of control. She deserved better. I deserved it too. Our courtship wasn’t yet official; regardless, I didn’t believe in having rights to dictate to another. It was hideously outdated. I’d much rather she choose me.

“I closed my eyes and imagined I was dancing with you,” Audrey Rose said. Her green gaze was mesmerizing as she pulled me closer, tipping her face up. “It made it easier… acting. I don’t think I’m very good at it. The stage isn’t any place for me. But I wanted to try. I thought I could help those women.” Missing pieces clicked into place. She wasn’t falling for the ringmaster; she was making it look that way. Hope rose and then crashed against the shore of my insecurity.

I shoved it aside. She was here, edging closer, staring at my mouth like it was a work of art she’d love to study. I’d be a fool to ruin everything by allowing doubt to shove itself in. “Perhaps you should stop acting and take advantage of me now.” She arched a brow, feigning surprise, but the pleasant flush of her skin gave her true feelings away. “Fiend.” I held my hand out, a genuine smile twitching across my lips. “My dearest, Wadsworth. I was talking about dancing with me. What were you thinking about?” “Kissing you.

” I opened my mouth, a quip at the ready, then faltered. All hints of teasing vanished. I hadn’t expected such raw honesty. That was a trick I played. Her smile was slow and immensely selfsatisfied as I blinked dumbly at her. She’d wanted to surprise me and knew she’d accomplished her goal. I couldn’t deny falling deeper under her spell. She touched my lips with her fingertips, gaze darkening. “Will you?” My heartbeat quickened. I wanted nothing more than to capture her mouth with mine, to kiss away the doubt that lingered in the depths of my heart, to give her the affection she deserved.

As I leaned in to give her everything she asked for, I smelled the barest hint of spirits on her breath. At the last moment, I changed my mind. When I kissed Audrey Rose, I wanted to be sure she truly wished for me to. Purposely misunderstanding her, I pulled her to me, and we danced—much too closely and yet not nearly close enough—while crystal flakes of snow fell. We waltzed down the promenade and back until her eyes drooped, and I lifted her into my arms and carried her into her cabin. I tucked her under her sheets and pressed my lips to her forehead. Somehow our evening dancing beneath the stars and snow was more meaningful than sharing her bed. “Goodnight, Audrey Rose.” She likely wouldn’t remember it in the morning, but I hoped she’d think it was a wonderful dream. A memory I might one day paint so I could look back on it long into the future and be filled with the same sense of warmth and peace.

Instead of being distracted by jealousy and bargains that ultimately didn’t matter, I wish I’d been paying better attention to the nightmare that was about to unfold. In four short days, she’d be in my arms, bleeding out. And I’d finally become the dark prince my father knew me to be, as I unleashed myself upon them all. Vintage stage and fog. One DINING SALOON RMS ETRURIA 8 JANUARY 1889 Blood spilled over my hands in warm, rhythmic gushes. For one drawn-out moment, I was frozen, then my world narrowed to an equation. Sterile. Familiar. Calm. The exact opposite of my surroundings.

Chaos reigned on stage, and I was semi-aware of a struggle raging behind us. Jian, the mighty Knight of Swords, had joined Mephisto in wrestling Andreas to the ground, but the murdering fortune-teller wasn’t giving up easily. I watched as each of the Moonlight Carnival performers fought him, taking out both their rage and hurt on the man who’d sacrificed their troupe in order to exact his revenge. A dark, seething anger boiled up. I’d never been particularly violent, choosing to use my talents for deducing the impossible in order to end violence, but a part of me wanted to jump into the brawl and unleash a feral attack on the man who’d hurled a knife into Audrey Rose. I also wanted to avenge each of the innocent women whose lives he stole—all in the same of his own fiancée’s death. I stared at the knife in Audrey Rose’s leg, imagining how it’d feel to slash his throat open with it. I’d never wished for anyone’s blood to be on my hands before, but, as I clutched the girl I loved, her lifeblood emptying onto me and the floor, I prayed for the chance to return the favor on him tenfold. I would gut him while he still breathed and feed him his innards. Jack the Ripper would tremble at my ruthlessness, the brutality in which I carved him open and laid him bare.

Andreas managed to land a punch in Mephisto’s gut before Jian tackled him. He was so close I could almost seize him… but then Audrey Rose let out a quiet, sobbing breath. I turned back to her. I needed to focus. I set my jaw and surveyed the wound. There was too much blood, an indication her femoral artery had been hit. I couldn’t risk removing the blade until I stopped the blood flow. The knife was likely the only thing preventing her from bleeding to death. At that, a sudden, rapid flutter assaulted my chest. Panic.

My mind shut itself down into a sterile, unfeeling weapon. If I thought about the girl lying still beneath me, her eyes slowly losing focus, I’d be consumed by fear. If I allowed terror into my heart, I might as well sign her death warrant. Logically, I knew this; emotionally, I was failing. “Wadsworth,” I said, forcing my tone into a calmness I didn’t feel, “stay here. Stay here with me.” She struggled to look at me, her eyes glazed with a bright sheen. When she finally focused on my face, her expression turned peaceful. I wanted to rip open my flesh and give her anything she needed to survive, even if it meant sacrificing my own blood. “I’m not… going… anywhere.

” Distantly, I was aware of the audience rushing from their seats and voices shouting. Women crying. A stampede of heels and boots on marble floors. Doors slamming against walls as the passengers fled into the corridor. I clamped my jaw together so tightly I heard a sharp crack. I glanced up as Anishaa, the fire-eater, tossed a length of rope to Mephisto, and Houdini used his talents to secure Andreas. Distractions. “Thomas…” Wadsworth’s voice was faint. Too faint. A strange, violent wave of emotions raged upward, threatening to pull me under.

“Don’t leave me.”

.

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