I needed to collect myself before I saw Thomas again. I’d pretended otherwise, but I’d seen the concern crinkling his brow. The extra care in the way he’d tease or annoy me. I knew precisely what he was doing each time he irked me. After what my family had gone through, any other gentleman would have treated me as if I were a porcelain doll, easily fractured and discarded for being broken. Thomas was unlike other young men, however.
Much too quickly I came upon my compartment and threw my shoulders back. It was time to wear the cool exterior of a scientist. My tears had dried and my heart was now a solid fist in my chest. I breathed in and exhaled. Jack the Ripper was never coming back. As real a statement as any.
There were no career murderers on this train. Another fact.
The Autumn of Terror had ended last month.
Wolves were most certainly not hunting anyone on the Orient Express.
If I wasn’t careful, I’d start believing Dracula had risen next.
I allowed myself another deep breath before I tugged the door open, banishing all thoughts of immortal princes as I entered the compartment.
KINGDOM OF ROMANIA
1 DECEMBER 1888
Thomas kept his focus stubbornly fixed on the window, his leather-clad fingers still drumming that annoying rhythm. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap.
Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Harvey was resting her eyes once again. Her soft snuffles indicated she’d fallen back asleep in the few moments I’d been gone. I stared at my companion, but he was either blissfully unaware or likely pretending to be as I slipped into the seat across from him. His profile was a study of perfect lines and angles, all carefully turned to the wintry world outside. I knew he sensed my attention on him, his mouth a bit too curved in delight for mindless thought.
“Must you keep up that wretched beat, Thomas?” I asked. “It’s driving me as mad as one of Poe’s unfortunate characters. Plus, poor Mrs. Harvey must be dreaming awful things.”
He shifted his attention to me, deep brown eyes turning thoughtful for a moment. It was that precise look—warm and inviting as a patch of sunshine on a crisp autumn day—that meant trouble. I could practically see his mind turning over brash things as one side of his mouth tugged upward. His crooked smile invited thoughts that Aunt Amelia would have found completely indecent. And the way his gaze fell to my own lips told me he knew it. Fiend.
“Poe? Will you carve my heart out and place it beneath your bed, then, Wadsworth? I must admit, it’s not an ideal way of ending up in your sleeping quarters.”
“You seem awfully certain of your ability to charm anything other than serpents.”
“Admit it. Our last kiss was rather thrilling.” He leaned forward, his handsome face coming entirely too close to my own. So much for having a chaperone. My heart sped up when I noticed tiny flecks in his irises. They were like little golden suns that drew me in with their enchanting rays. “Tell me you don’t fancy the idea of another.”
My gaze swiftly trailed over his hopeful features. The truth was, despite every dark thing that had happened the month before, I did indeed fancy the idea of another romantic encounter with him. Which somehow felt as if it were too much of a betrayal to my mourning period.
“First and last kiss,” I reminded him. “It was the adrenaline coursing through my veins after nearly dying at the hands of those two ruffians. Not your powers of persuasion.”
A wicked smile fully lifted the corners of his mouth. “If I found a dash of danger for us, would that entice you again?”
“You know, I much preferred you when you weren’t speaking.”
“Ah”—Thomas sat back, inhaling deeply—“either way, you prefer me.”
I did my best to hide a grin. I should have known the scoundrel would find a way to turn our conversation to such improper topics. In fact, I was surprised it had taken him this long to be vulgar. We’d traveled from London to Paris with my father so he could see us off on the impressive Orient Express, and Thomas had been a beguiling gentleman the entire way. I’d barely recognized him while he chatted warmly with Father over scones and tea.
If it weren’t for the mischievous tilt to his lips when Father wasn’t looking, or the familiar lines of his stubborn jaw, I would have claimed he was an impostor. There was no way this Thomas Cresswell could possibly be the same annoyingly intelligent boy I’d grown too fond of this past autumn.
I tucked a loose wisp of raven hair behind my ear and glanced out the window again.
“Does your silence mean you’re considering another kiss, then?”
“Can you not deduce my answer, Cresswell?” I stared at him, one brow raised in challenge, until he shrugged and continued rapping his gloved fingers against the windowsill.
This Thomas had also managed to persuade my father, the formidable Lord Edmund Wadsworth, to allow me to attend the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science with him in Romania. A fact I still couldn’t quite sort out in my mind; it was almost too fantastical to be real. Even as I sat on a train en route to the school.
My last week in London had been stuffed full of dress fittings and trunk packing. Which left too much time for them to become further acquainted, it seemed. When Father had announced Thomas would escort me to the academy along with Mrs. Harvey due to his illness, I’d practically choked on my soup course while Thomas winked over his.
I’d barely had time to sleep at night, let alone ponder the relationship budding between my infuriating friend and usually stern father. I was eager to leave the dreadfully silent house that ushered in too many ghosts of my recent past. A fact Thomas was all too aware of.
“Daydreaming of a new scalpel, or is that look simply to enrapture me?” Thomas asked, drawing me away from dark thoughts. His lips twitched at my scowl, but he was smart enough to not finish that grin. “Ah. An emotional dilemma, then. My favorite.”
I watched him take note of the expression I was trying too hard to control, the satin gloves I couldn’t stop fussing with, and the stiff way I sat in our booth, which had nothing to do with the corset binding my upper body, or the older woman taking up most of my seat. His gaze fixed itself to my own, sincere and full of compassion. I could see promises and wishes stitched across his features, the intensity of his feelings enough to make me tremble.
“Nervous about class? You’ll bewitch them all, Wadsworth.”
It was a mild relief that he sometimes misread the entire truth of my emotions. Let him believe the shudder was completely from nerves about class and not his growing interest in a betrothal. Thomas had admitted his love for me, but as with many things lately, I was unsure it was real. Perhaps he only felt beholden to me out of pity in the wake of all that happened.
I touched the buttons on the side of my gloves. “No. Not really.”
His brow arched, but he said nothing. I turned my attention back to the window and the stark world outside. I wished to be lost in nothingness for a while longer.
According to literature I’d read in Father’s grand library, our new academy was set in a rather macabre-sounding castle located atop the frigid Carpathian mountain range. It was a long way from home or civility, should any of my new classmates be less than welcoming. My sex was sure to be seen as a weakness amongst male peers—and what if Thomas abandoned our friendship once we arrived?
Perhaps he’d discover how odd it truly was for a young woman to carve open the dead and pluck out their organs as if they were new slippers to try on. It hadn’t mattered while we were both apprenticing with Uncle in his laboratory. But what students at the prestigious Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science would think of me might not be as progressive.
Wrangling bodies was barely proper for a man to do, let alone a highborn girl. If Thomas left me friendless at school, I’d sink into an abyss so deep I feared I’d never resurface.
The proper society girl in me was loath to admit it, but his flirtations kept me afloat in a sea of conflicting feelings. Passion and annoyance were fire, and fire was alive and crackling with power. Fire breathed. Grief was a vat of quicksand; the more one struggled against it, the deeper it pulled one under. I’d much rather be set ablaze than buried alive. Though the mere thought of being in a compromising position with Thomas was enough to make my face warm.
“Audrey Rose,” Thomas began, fussing with the cuffs of his cutaway coat, then ran a hand through his dark hair, an action truly foreign to my normally arrogant friend. Mrs. Harvey stirred but didn’t wake, and for once I truly wished she would.
“Yes?” I sat even straighter, forcing the boning of my corset to act as if it were armor. Thomas hardly ever called me by my first name unless something awful was about to occur. During an autopsy a few months back, we’d engaged in a battle of wits—which I’d thought I’d won at the time but now wasn’t so sure—and I’d allowed him the use of my surname. A privilege he also granted me, and something I occasionally regretted whenever he’d call me Wadsworth in public. “What is it?”
I watched him take a few deep breaths, my focus straying to his finely made suit. He was rather handsomely dressed for our arrival. His midnight-blue suit was tailored to his frame in a way that made one pause and admire both it and the young man filling it out. I reached for my buttons, then caught myself.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said, moving about in his seat. “I… think it only fair to disclose this before we arrive.”
His knee knocked into the wooden panel again, and he hesitated. Perhaps he was already realizing his association with me would pose an issue in school for him. I braced myself for it, the snip of the cord that tethered me to sanity. I would not ask him to stay and be my friend through this. No matter if it killed me. I focused on my breaths, counting the seconds between them.
Grandmama claimed the phrase “Renowned for their stubbornness” should be inscribed on all Wadsworth tombs. I didn’t disagree. I lifted my chin. The chugging of the wheels now counted off each amplified beat of my heart, pumping adrenaline into my veins. I swallowed several times. If he didn’t speak soon, I feared I’d be sick all over him and his handsome suit.