I exhaled. It was only a hall. No vampires or werewolves. Certainly no malevolent force stalked me to my rooms. Unless my wretched imagination could be counted. I hurried along, the swish of my skirts urging my heart into a trot despite my mind’s attempt at soothing my fears.
I passed the boys’ floor and continued up the stairs to my tower chambers, not pausing again until I heard the soft click of my door shutting. I pressed my back against the wood and closed my eyes.
A sharp snap had them flying open again, scanning. My focus landed on the fireplace, at the twigs glowing near-white and orangey red. The mystery sound was nothing more than firewood crackling in the hearth. A normal sound that should be pleasant on a blustery evening. I sighed, moving toward my sleeping chamber. Perhaps if I crawled into bed and left this day behind, things would truly be better in the morning, just as Anastasia had said.
When I entered my room I perceived something was amiss. My bed was undisturbed, armoire and trunk closed. But on my nightstand an envelope stood propped against an oil lamp, my name written in script I recognized as readily as my own. I’d watched him scrawl out medical notes during autopsies with Uncle all this past autumn. My heart raced for an entirely new reason once I read it.
Meet me in my chambers at midnight.
Heat sizzled under my skin, pooling in my core. Going into Thomas’s rooms this late at night was… reckless and would most certainly ruin me. I was positive it’d also be grounds for expulsion. Not to mention the death of my reputation. No decent young man would ever want me for his wife, regardless of how innocent our visit was. Sneaking into his rooms was far more dangerous than any immortal ghost haunting this castle, and yet I feared it less. I wanted to see Thomas, to apologize for the way I’d overreacted earlier. He did not deserve the brunt of my anxiety.
I paced around my bedroom, letter clutched to my chest. I couldn’t bear the thought of how Father might react to my soiled name, and yet an idea took root and didn’t relinquish its hold. If I was so apprehensive of marriage, then perhaps being caught wouldn’t truly be the death of me. It might very well be my rebirth.
I glanced at myself in the looking glass. My green eyes twinkled with hope. And excitement. It had been such a long time since I could recall seeing that spark of intrigue.
Without another thought, I left my chambers and found myself knocking on Thomas’s door as the courtyard clock struck midnight. The door swung open before I’d had time to drop my hand. Thomas motioned me in, his attention sweeping the hallway behind me as if he were expecting someone else to be wandering down the corridor so late at night.
Perhaps he was as nervous as I was. I subtly inspected the room. His frock coat lay discarded on one of three oversize leather chairs. A tea service breathed steam on an end table set between two chairs. On a sideboard there were a few covered platters of food and a carafe of wine. Seemed Thomas was ready to feed a small army. I faced him, trying not to notice the button that had been undone at his throat, or the sliver of skin it revealed.
“Thomas… I must apologize—”
He held a hand up. “It’s all right, you have nothing to be sorry about.”
“Oh?” I asked, sinking with relief. “If you’re not after an apology, what is so important that you dramatically summoned me down here? If you imply it’s for a tryst, I swear I’ll—I’ll… I’m not sure. But it won’t be pleasant.”
“You need to work on your threats a bit more, Wadsworth. Though the way your cheeks flush while you say ‘tryst’ is amusing enough.” He grinned rather broadly at my scowl. “All right. I asked you here because I wanted to discuss Wilhelm’s death. Not too romantic, I hope.”
I slumped back. Of course. “I’ve been trying to think of diseases with his symptoms, but haven’t had any success.”
Thomas nodded. “I didn’t study him for long, but he appeared quite pale. I’d wager that it wasn’t only because of his ailment. Though perhaps it’s as simple as the frigid weather. His lips hadn’t turned blue yet, however. Very odd indeed.”
I cocked my head. “Are you suggesting something a bit more sinister, then?”
“I—” He laughed, the sound jarring me into standing straighter. “I actually don’t know. I haven’t felt quite myself since our arrival.” Thomas paced along the perimeter of the room, hands tapping his sides. I wondered if that was the true reason he’d been ready to leave the academy so quickly. “Being unable to make connections to symptoms and facts sooner. I… it’s unpleasant. How do people tolerate it—this inability to deduce the obvious?”
I managed to only roll my eyes once. “Somehow we manage to survive, Cresswell.”
Instead of indulging him further, I brought our conversation back to Wilhelm’s strange death. “Do you believe we might have been able to assist him? I keep thinking if we hadn’t lost him, we could have administered aid.”
Thomas stopped pacing and faced me. “Audrey Rose, you mustn’t—”
“Good evening, Thomas,” a sultry voice purred from the doorway.
We turned to see a young woman with dark hair glide into the room. Her face was both angular and dainty. A contradiction that was not unpleasing to the eye. Everything from her perfectly coiffed hair to the enormous ruby in her choker screamed wealth and decadence. And the way she carried herself, shoulders back and neck arched, exuded the confidence of a queen. She turned her little pert nose up and smiled at her subjects.
I watched Thomas’s face light up in a way I’d never witnessed before. I slunk back, feeling conflicted. It was obvious they were quite fond of each other, and yet it stirred something uncomfortable within me. Something I dared not think on too much.
Thomas stood there as if he were photographing each detail of this moment to revisit time and again during the frigid winter months. A bit of warmth to cling to when the snow froze his black little heart. Then, without warning, he burst from his daze.
Without a backward glance, Thomas bolted for the girl and lifted her in a swinging embrace, leaving me all but forgotten.
CAMERA LUI THOMAS
3 DECEMBER 1888
As I watched Thomas and the dark-haired beauty lose themselves in whispered chatter, my own heart shriveled up within my jealous skin. He was allowed to court whomever he wanted. No promises had been made or agreed upon.
And yet… my stomach churned as I watched Thomas with someone else. He might be free to do whatever he liked, but that did not mean I wanted to witness it. Especially at midnight in his chambers.
I stood near a deep blue settee, trying to force myself to smile, but knew it appeared too brittle. It was hardly the girl’s fault Thomas was paying her so much attention, and I refused to dislike her because of my own newfound insecurity. After what seemed like a year of slow torture, Thomas wrested himself from Daciana’s grasp. He took two steps toward me, then halted, head tilting to one side as he surveyed me.
It took most of my effort to not cross my arms over my chest and glare. I watched as he drank in every blasted detail—each exclamation of emotion I failed to hide from his lengthy read of me.
“You do know that expression is my favorite.” He smiled broadly, and I wished one hundred unpleasant things to befall him at once. “So delectable.”
He stalked closer, a confident air in his gait, his gaze never leaving mine, practically pinning me to the ground as if I were a specimen in our old laboratory. Before I could stop him, he lifted my hand to his lips and pressed a long, chaste kiss to it. Warmth rose from my toes to my hairline, but I didn’t pull my hand away.
“Daciana”—he smirked at the reaction he’d teased from me—“this is the enchanting young woman I’ve been writing about. My beloved Audrey Rose.” He kept my hand tucked into his arm and nodded at the other girl. “And this is my sister, Wadsworth. I believe you saw her photograph in our family’s flat on Piccadilly Street. I told you she was almost as lovely as I. If you look closely enough, you’ll see those irresistible Cresswell genes.”
A memory of seeing the picture flashed before me, and shame covered my tongue. It tasted bitter and foul. How very foolish of me! His sister. I shot him a miserable look as I removed my hand, and he laughed outright. He was enjoying this situation entirely too much. I realized he’d orchestrated the entire setup to gauge my reaction.
“It’s so very nice to meet you,” I said, doing a terrible job of keeping my voice steady. “Please forgive my surprise; Thomas kept your visit a secret. Will you be studying here, too?”
“Oh, heavens no.” Daciana laughed. “I’m traveling through the Continent with friends on a Grand Tour.” She squeezed her brother’s arm in a loving manner. “Thomas deigned to send a letter and said I should visit if I found myself in the area. Lucky for him, I just happened to be in Bucharest.”
“My cousin Liza will be ten shades of green once I write to her,” I said. “She’s been trying to convince my aunt to send her on a Grand Tour for ages. I swear she’d run off with the circus if it meant visiting new countries.”
“Honestly, it’s the best way of becoming cultured.” Daciana looked me up and down, a sly smile matching her brother’s lighting her features. “I’ll write to your aunt and beg on your cousin’s behalf. I’d love to have another traveling companion.”
“That would be lovely,” I said. “Though Aunt Amelia can be a bit… hard to persuade.”
“Fortunately, I’ve had experience with difficult people.” She glanced at her brother, who did his best to pretend as if he hadn’t heard.
Thomas poured himself a cup of tea on the other side of the room, and I felt his attention on me as Daciana hugged me close. Her warmth filled the broken bits of myself with that brief contact. I hadn’t been truly embraced in a long while.