And I feared it would forever remind her of a terrible decision she’d made. A sudden, overwhelming bout of guilt rose in me. I choked it down. The air seemed to thicken. I went to pull at my collar, to ease the fear that kept raking its claws down my throat. Maybe she would forever associate my presence with her injury. Maybe the very sight of me was troubling. My life began and ended in the few heartbeats it took for her to respond. She smiled tentatively.
“The price of love doesn’t come cheaply,” she said. “But the cost is worth it.”
I shot up from my seat, unable to keep my emotions in check anymore, and let go of her hands. If I didn’t leave now, I’d only make this harder. Love should never, ever cost someone something. It should be a free exchange. What happened—she almost destroyed herself for me. I was not worth all that.
“You ought to rest now.” I couldn’t meet her green-eyed inquisitive gaze, though I felt it on me like a physical blow. “Your uncle will be in soon to discuss travel arrangements. And I know Liza has been stomping around outside, too.”
I moved swiftly across the room before I lost the nerve to do so.
“Thomas…” she said, her voice soft, hurt. “What—”
“Rest, Wadsworth. I’ll return again soon.” I grabbed my hat and overcoat, needing to be outside with the frigid wind clearing my thoughts. It took all of my collective will, but I managed to exit the room without turning back. She needed to be rid of me—I was like a slow-moving toxin, corrupting her slowly over time. Leaving was the most unselfish action I’d ever taken, and it felt miserable.
FIRST CLASS PROMENADE
9 JANUARY 1889
I gripped the railing, ignoring the bite from the near-freezing temperature of the metal, and concentrated on counting each passenger that disembarked. I’d gotten to fifty-two before stealing a glance at Audrey Rose. Her attention was stubbornly fixed on the crowd below, the muscle in her jaw as tense as her stance. I wanted to wrap her in my arms, to press myself against her, inhaling her floral scent and kissing her until she returned to me from that cold and distant place she’d retreated to. But I wanted her to choose her path—Mephisto or me—without interference.
Even if it killed me.
Her breath caught and my resolve to give her space broke. “I’ll be with you again soon enough, Wadsworth. You won’t even know I’m gone.”
I held still, waiting for her to deny it. To call me foolish. To demand I stay. She didn’t. Instead, “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“The fact remains I am needed here, in New York, as your uncle’s representative.” I inhaled deeply and forced myself to keep staring at the passengers. I needed to let go. “I will join you as soon as I can.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tear streak over her cheek.
My resolve slipped.
She angrily swiped it away, leaving me to guess her exact emotions.
“Aren’t you supposed to say something like ‘I’ll miss you terribly, Wadsworth. These next few weeks shall be a slow sort of torture, I’m sure.’ Or some other Cresswell witticism?”
The battle I’d been fighting ceased. I faced her, doing my best to keep my emotions in check. “Of course, I will miss you. It will feel like my heart is being surgically forced from my chest against my will.” I took another deep breath. “I’d rather be run through with every sword in Jian’s arsenal. But this is the best for the case.”
If I repeated it often enough, I might soon believe it. The hopeful expression on her face vanished. I wasn’t sure if it was the imagery of a knife so soon after her injury or if mention of the case had annoyed her.
“Then I wish you well, Mr. Cresswell.” Her voice was clipped. The sharpness sliced at my aching heart. “You’re right. Being upset is silly when we shall meet again soon.”
I wanted to reach for her. To draw her into my arms and fight for her love. But to do that would go against everything I’d promised her before. I would not manipulate her in any way. A strange sensation coiled in my center, though, striking at my conscience. Something wasn’t sitting well about this—I couldn’t escape from the worry I’d missed a valid point.
I hesitated, replaying the last few moments in my mind, trying to decipher each nuance of expression, each shift in tone. I had to be missing something—
“Mr. Cresswell?” A detective politely cleared his throat, destroying the last of our time together. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been close to figuring out an important point and hid my irritation. I tore my gaze from Audrey Rose and acknowledged him. “We’re taking the bodies ashore now. We require your presence en route to the hospital.”
Part of me wanted to tell him to go on without me. I needed one more moment to sort this out. Except I wasn’t sure another moment would matter. I couldn’t bring myself to ask Wadsworth directly if she wished to pursue a courtship with Mephistopheles. And I didn’t think another sixty seconds would help me figure out the puzzle of her dark mood.
The officer politely waited.
I nodded, the movement feeling mechanical while my mind spun in other directions. “Of course,” I heard myself agree. “I’m at your disposal.”