Becoming the Dark Prince (Stalking Jack the Ripper #3.5)

Becoming the Dark Prince (Stalking Jack the Ripper #3.5)

Kerri Maniscalco

“The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.”

—King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4

William Shakespeare




4 JANUARY 1889

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—

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