We’d weathered the storm that was the RMS Etruria and had grown impossibly stronger. It gave me hope for our future. I not only proved to myself that I was no one’s monster, but Audrey Rose had decided on me.
I wouldn’t care to repeat it, but in the end, I couldn’t deny being grateful for the test.
Even if lingering feelings of homicide did persist.
Just a little.
FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK CITY
14 JANUARY 1889
Wadsworth shook her head, her lips set in a determined line. Liza was wise enough not to glance in my direction for assistance. She’d tried that a few times, and Audrey Rose would have none of it. I set my pencil aside, glancing at the diagram of a shoe I’d made, pleased by the measurements and style.
“Oh, no,” Audrey Rose groaned at the large, powdered wig Liza was holding out. “No, no, no. I will not wear that hideous wig again.”
I choked on a cough, earning a swift glare from both girls. I raised a brow. “The powdered wig was very… Marie Antoinette. It suited you.”
Audrey Rose cursed. It was a wildly filthy string of expletives. I was trying—and failing—not to fall over laughing. “It’s not funny, Cresswell! I’m supposed to be recuperating, taking it easy. This,” she motioned to the riot of dresses scattered across the chairs and floor of the sitting room, “isn’t conducive to peace.”
Liza crossed her arms. “If we didn’t put on plays for your benefit, you’d die of boredom. Uncle’s banned us from taking you to the theater until your fracture is less… whatever the proper term is… so we’ve brought the theater to you. Now stop being difficult. This play requires a wig.”
I hid behind my sketchpad, doing a miserable job of keeping my shoulders from shaking with suppressed laughter. A pillow flew across the coffee table separating me from Audrey Rose. I glanced up, surprised to see her dissolve into a fit of giggles herself. Something tight unwound in my chest, bringing a bit of warmth to my cheeks. I loved when she set herself free.
“Ugh!” Liza said, tossing her hands up. “I need someone to sing soprano with this role. My voice doesn’t reach the same octaves and will sound ridiculous. You must put the wig on.”
The girls glared at each other—a silent battle waging between them. I admired how much Liza loved her cousin. She never let her fall into despair and also never pushed when Wadsworth was truly frustrated. Liza read people much the same as I did, but on an emotional level. And she was right to continue now. Wadsworth had been particularly restless all morning. Some days were worse than others, and the dropping temperature and barometer changes always seemed to cause more pain.
In the margins of my experimental shoe designs, I’d been keeping notes about weather patterns over the last week and possible connections to shifts in Wadsworth’s increased symptoms.
I don’t think she noticed, but I subtly watched each wince, each slight pause she took while re-situating herself on the settee or bed. One constant pain remained when she first stood. Her leg troubled her more than she cared to admit. I had nothing to compare it to personally, but recalled my mother speaking openly about her chronic pains before she died. She told me one of the hardest parts of her condition was the permanence of the pain—how it chipped away at her mood gradually.
I was too young and inexperienced to help then, but that wasn’t the case now.
I sighed and held a hand out. “Give me the wig. I’ll show you both how it’s done.”
Audrey Rose straightened, eyes narrowing. “You sing? Since when?”
Since never. But I was willing to give it a go if it would make her laugh so freely again. I shrugged. “I am a man of many talents and mysteries, Wadsworth. Please try to not look so surprised. It’s rather detrimental to my fragile ego.”
Fifteen minutes later, Liza had me sitting on a piano bench, clad in the powdered wig with pink bows and fake birds, crimson lips, and a painted mole on my left cheek. I hadn’t even had an opportunity to dazzle Wadsworth with my singing ability before she collapsed in a fit of laughter.
I crossed my arms. My pale blue suit directly out of the court of King Louis XVI pulled tightly across my back. I prayed that I wouldn’t split the seams. I’d never live it down. Liza plopped onto the settee next to Audrey Rose, biting her lip so hard I thought she’d injure herself.
“You’re both terrible human beings,” I said, keeping a mostly straight face. “Don’t be surprised when Satan ushers you both straight into Hell.”
Whatever control they’d had—which was very, very little—shattered. Liza gripped Audrey Rose tight, wheezing with laughter. I feigned injury and lifted my chin, determined to keep that smile on Wadsworth’s face at the sacrifice of my remaining dignity.
I inhaled deeply, puffing my chest out with great exaggeration, and began playing the piano. I belted out, in my most high and clear voice:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Baked in a pie.
I hid my own laughter as Audrey Rose toppled onto her side, tears leaking from her eyes. Pretending to not notice just how horrendous my tone was, I added a flourish to the family nursery rhyme’s chords on the piano.