I stood, spellbound, as they gracefully leapt from one foot to the other. Some in the crowd watched, but the majority were lost in conversation.
“Such a pity.”
I turned and found Ileana nodding toward the people below. I could not control the gasp that escaped my lips. Gone was the embroidered maid’s costume and peasant dress. In their place was a young woman resplendent in a gown elegant enough for a princess.
A butterfly-shaped appliqué stretched its wings across her ample bust, inviting one’s gaze to travel to the train fluttering off her shoulders. It was almost as stunning as the person wearing it. I couldn’t help but admire this young woman and all she’d done for her beloved land. She was the sort of nobility the world needed. One who didn’t fear to tread in frightening places for the sake of her people.
No wonder Daciana was in love with her. It was hard not to admire her courage and drive.
She nodded toward the crowd. “They never stop to enjoy the magie going on around them.”
“I wasn’t expecting quite so many people,” I admitted. “When Daciana mentioned a small ball with close friends…” I trailed off as Ileana chuckled. “The Cresswells certainly have a flair for the dramatic. At least I know it’s hereditary. Though I do believe Thomas is a bit more theatrical.”
“Daciana has her moments as well.”
We stood in companionable silence for a bit. There was still one thing I hadn’t quite puzzled out. I faced Ileana.
“It was you and Daciana that night in the corridor, removing the body from the tower morgue, wasn’t it? You were chanting…”
Ileana nodded slowly.
“Radu mentioned that the Order performed death rites in the woods. Is that what you were doing? Did you know the train victim?”
“Yes.” Ileana stared down at the crowd, focus inward. “That was my brother. When I found out Moldoveanu was going to perform a postmortem on him…” She swallowed hard. “It goes against our beliefs. Daciana helped me take his body where it belonged.”
“So there is a meeting place in the woods?”
A moment passed and I assumed Ileana was weighing her words, deciding how much to share. “There is a sacred location, guarded by wolves. Most don’t ever get close to it, thanks to folklore and the occasional bone that’s found.” A small smile ghosted across her face. “We feed the wolves large animals. They scatter the bones on their own. It provides a good story for the superstitious. No one wants to enrage Vlad Dracula’s immortal soul.”
“It’s a good method of disguise,” I said. “I’m sorry about your brother. Losing a sibling is horrid.”
“It is. But we can carry their memory with us and draw strength from it.” Ileana clutched my gloved hand in her own and squeezed gently. “Am nevoie de aer. If you see Daciana, let her know I’ll be on the roof. It’s too”—she crinkled her nose—“stuffy in here for my tastes.”
After waving good-bye, I moved closer to the stairs, working up the nerve to head down.
I stood with my hips pressed against the banister, attention lingering on the crowd of colorfully dressed partygoers. Women wore dresses in greens and golds and all manner of reds, from the deepest evergreen to mulled wine.
I ran my hands down my shimmering bodice. Pale yellow and gold gemstones were carefully sewn onto exquisite fabric, giving the appearance of sunlight on snow. I couldn’t deny that I adored the garment and felt like a princess myself. The thought brought on fond memories of the times Grandmama had wrapped me in jeweled saris.
I glanced around the bedazzled room, attention devouring each new shiny treat. Spruce branches hung above windows and mantels, their boughs dusted with glitter. I noticed cleverly placed clusters of mistletoe and steadied my heart.
Perhaps I would indulge in some free behavior myself. If only for one night. The Impaler had been stopped, the academy saved from ruin, and it was time to sit back and enjoy the victory before we found out if we’d passed the assessment course. A letter should arrive soon, and with it word of our fate for the next semester.
A young man cut through the room like a shadow. I watched him weave his way through dancing couples, his destination giving him confidence as he plucked two glasses of punch from a passing tray. He paused at the bottom of the stairs and met my eyes.
Thomas looked every inch the prince he was, whether his claim to the throne was distant or not. My heart sped as he took a sip from his flute but drank me in in larger gulps.
I gathered the layers of my skirts and descended the grand staircase, mindful to keep from tumbling down the steps. For someone who’d claimed to be spending the holiday alone with Mrs. Harvey, I couldn’t believe how many guests were milling about. Daciana would put Aunt Amelia to shame with her hosting skills. Half the residents of Bucharest seemed to be in attendance, with more arriving every moment. A quiet little evening with some friends indeed.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I spied Mrs. Harvey dancing near the edge of the crowd, cheeks pleasantly flushed.
“You’re going to drive everyone quite mad tonight, Wadsworth. Your dance card will be the talk of legends,” Thomas said, giving me that half-smile I adored as he offered a glass.
I took a sip, needing all the liquid confidence I could take in. Bubbles tickled as they danced along my throat. I quickly took another sip.
“Actually, I plan on standing below mistletoe most of the evening.”
“Might want to reconsider that, Wadsworth. It’s parasitic, you know.” Thomas grinned. “Of course, I’ll screen potential suitors first if you like. Wouldn’t want any of them getting carried away. That’s what friends do, right?”
Young women were going to be hanging all over him, too. His dark brown hair was expertly styled, his suit tailored to his lean but well-defined frame, and his leather shoes were shined to perfection.
He was heartbreakingly beautiful.
“You look… average, Cresswell,” I said with a mostly straight face, noticing he’d been watching me catalogue every detail. The corners of his mouth twitched. “I expected more, really. Something a bit… princely. I’m disappointed you didn’t don a powdered wig.”
Ignoring him, I finished off my punch and set it on a passing tray. My head swam with liquid heat, thrumming through my veins as if it were gasoline waiting for the spark to set it ablaze. Thomas tipped his head back and emptied his own glass with surprising speed. I watched him drink in my entire form again, taking liberties to appreciate each curve my gown highlighted. I still couldn’t believe he’d gotten it for me.
He stepped closer and placed a large hand around my waist, drawing me into a waltz as the music started up. “We promised each other, remember?”
I was having a difficult time concentrating on anything other than his sure footsteps leading me about the room in one intoxicating circle after the next. It was hard to tell if the punch was to blame or if it was entirely the young gentleman before me. I placed one hand on his shoulder and the other in his gloved hand, allowing myself to get swept up in the magic of the song and the fantastical atmosphere. This was a winter wonderland, its contrast extreme against the hell we’d traversed.
“When we were still in London,” Thomas brought his lips to my ear, whispering rumbled words and igniting my blood, “we promised. To never lie to one another.”
He pressed me closer until there was no decent amount of space left between us. I found I didn’t mind as we wove in and threaded through swirling skirts, the crowd of dancers a tapestry of merriment. The rest of the room collapsed into a dream I wasn’t paying attention to. There was something better than dreams, something more tangible in my hands. I needed only to reach out and reassure myself that he was solid. He was no ghost from my past.
“You want the truth, Cresswell?” I wrapped my arms around his neck until our bodies were confused about where each one ended. Until the only thought consuming my mind was to bring him even closer, to let him catch fire from me, too. No one seemed to notice my untoward behavior, but even if they had, I doubted I would care in this moment.
“Tell me.” Thomas dipped his mouth dangerously close to mine for a beat that drew out a savage chord inside me. He ran his hands down my back, soothing, teasing. “Please.”
I hadn’t noticed that we’d managed to situate ourselves in an alcove between potted ferns. Their large, fanlike fronds provided a screen from the party raging beyond. We were alone, away from prying eyes, far from society’s rules and restrictions.
Thomas tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, expression a bit sad considering where we were. “My mother would have adored you. She always told me I needed a partner. An equal. To never settle for someone who’d simper and defer to my role as husband.” He glanced back toward the crowd, eyes misting. “Being here is… difficult. Much more so than I thought it’d be. I see her in everything. It’s silly… but I often wonder if she’d be proud. Despite what others say about me. I don’t know what she’d think.”
I ran my hand down the front of his lapels, tugging him deeper inside the alcove. Darkness made confessions easier—it comforted me in a way the light never could.
“She would be proud,” I said. Thomas fidgeted in his suit, attention fixed on the floor. “Do you want to know what I think? The truth?”
“Yes.” He gazed unabashedly into my eyes. “Make it scandalous, too. This is a bit too serious for my tastes.”
“You look rather…”
My heart sputtered. Thomas was staring intently at me, as if he could divine some secret I’d yet to reveal to myself. I peered into his gold-flecked eyes. In them I saw my own emotions reflected back at me. No walls or games.
“You look like you should stop saying you’re going to kiss me, Prince Dracula.” He flinched as if my words had stung him. I drew his face back to me. “And just do it, Cresswell.”