When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing,
“Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?”
The king was in his counting house, counting out his money.
The queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey.
Liza fell off the settee, landing in a heap of discarded dresses. Miraculously, I kept a straight face as I finished the last of the song, stood, then bowed deeply at the waist. My cursed wig crashed onto the piano keys and the girls cried from giggling so hard.
An hour later I set two chocolate-and-mint tortes down. One for Wadsworth, and one for me. She gazed at the dessert and grinned. “You’re spoiling me, Cresswell.”
I cracked the outer chocolate shell of mine and moaned while dipping my spoon into the mousse filling. “Which is for purely selfish reasons, since it allows me to spoil myself too.”
“Naturally.” She shook her head. “I had no idea you could sing so… loudly. Tell me,” she teased, “which alley cat gave you lessons as a kitten?”
I snorted. “I’ll have you know alley cats across the globe take offense to that.”
We settled into our sweets, and I finished mine off with a strong cup of espresso. The bitterness of the coffee paired well with the sugar, and I found myself wishing for more of each as I set my cup down. Perhaps I was just nervous to broach the next subject.
“Well?” she asked, drawing my attention away from thoughts of bakeries. “What are you pondering now?”
I crinkled a brow, trying to not show my surprise. “How do you know I’m pondering?”
“You stare longingly at your empty plate. Like you’re hoping for something else to appear, so you can keep sorting out your thoughts before you share them.”
She gave me a self-satisfied look when I blinked back at her. She really was getting too good at reading me. I stretched my legs out, stalling. “I’ve been thinking about what we talked about in Romania. About…” I rubbed a hand through my hair. “About whether or not you’d like to begin a formal courtship.”
She became very still. My heart slowed. “Are you asking permission to write to my father?”
“Yes.” I met her gaze unflinchingly. “I’d like to formally and publicly court you. I’d like to be yours officially, if you’d accept me.”
She bit her lip, and for the life of me, I couldn’t decipher if she was pleased, terrified, or searching for an excuse to delay my request. She swiftly reached for my hand and held it against her heart. It was pounding like a war drum. I drew my brows together, and she laughed.
“Of course, I accept you, Thomas!” She brought my hand to her lips and kissed it, her smile growing. “After everything that happened on the Etruria… I was…” she exhaled. “I wasn’t sure if you’d still want to court me. And then when you didn’t say anything after… I thought—I’d hoped you’d ask after we’d discussed Mephistopheles. When days passed and you didn’t bring it up, I didn’t think you wanted to.”
I studied her closely. “Did you think I’d changed my mind about us?”
“Honestly? I couldn’t be certain.” She lifted a shoulder. “I made mistakes that affected you. You have every right to change your mind and make your own choices because of them. I could hardly blame you if you wanted nothing more to do with me.”
I was the one who went very still. “And you would have let me go?”
She opened her mouth and closed it, considering her words carefully. She tucked a strand of raven-colored hair behind her ear. “You always let me choose. It would’ve been hard, but I would do the same for you. Always.”
Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, we’d moved closer to each other. Our knees brushed, sending a jolt of feeling through me at the contact. My pulse fluttered. “I still choose you, Audrey Rose.” A tear slipped down her cheek. I gently brushed it away. “Would you be all right if I sent your father a letter also requesting a betrothal?”
Her answer was a kiss. The kind that shattered dark walls and replaced them with light.
FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK CITY
20 JANUARY 1889
I stared at the ink bottle, palms curiously damp as I rolled the nib between my fingertips. I’d spent the better part of the last week mentally practicing the exact wording, knowing the precise points of punctuation and where they’d fall. How the piece of parchment would look with the negative space between the words. The commas and exclamation marks that would never properly express my enthusiasm. The pauses I wanted to take, the points I’d make in favor of why I’d be a perfect suitor. It might not be mathematically probable, but I was certain no one loved another as much as I loved Audrey Rose.
Dear Lord Wadsworth, esteemed Baron of Somerset,
I write to you under great duress. I cannot seem to properly ask to formally court your daughter and ought to be put out of my misery at once. Please send a vicious brood of vampire bats to dispatch me at your earliest convenience. It would clearly be an improvement over this letter…
Your daughter’s hopeful yet stupid suitor,
I crumpled the parchment and tossed it into the rubbish bin. I hadn’t had this much trouble asking his permission for us to attend the forensic academy in Romania. This should be no different. Except it was. Much different. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine speaking to Lord Wadsworth in person. I pictured blurting out that I wanted to marry his daughter. I wanted to take her into my arms and selfishly never let go. I wanted to wake up to her every morning and fall into bed together at night…