A Darkness Strange and Lovely (4 page)

Pain burst in my wrist. It was the scene from the bank all over again, and I knew I had to run.
Just get on the ship!
It was the only shelter around, and though I didn’t believe walls could really stop Marcus, it was the closest thing to safety I could conjure.

So I thrust myself forward, leaning into the unnatural wind and gulping for air. But the throbbing where my hand once was—it shrieked so loudly, it dulled all my other senses. I shambled forward like one of the Dead.

Then came the first howl, and I froze all over again. It was an unmistakably long and plaintive baying, and with it came a smell. A pungent, dank smell that wasn’t from the river. A smell I
knew
.

Grave dirt.

The stench of the Dead.

Marcus was here, even if I could not see him. He was here, and I was too late. But I would
not
go down without a fight.

The wind battered against me as if trying to push me back to shore. I had to fight to stand tall while I scanned every shadow for yellow eyes.

And as each of my heartbeats skittered past, the howling dogs grew louder. Closer. I could not see them, but I could certainly imagine them: rabid, fanged monsters larger than any real dog.

That was when I saw him—not Marcus, but a young man in line for the second-class gangplank. His slender frame listed like a tree in a tornado, and his head spun about as if he too was searching for these raging hounds. He looked a few years older than me, with wildly flying chestnut curls and a charcoal suit.

He was beautiful—the features and garb of some fairy-tale prince.

And whoever he was, he was as affected by these hounds and this unnatural wind as I was. Perhaps more so.

I stumbled back, too stunned to be scared. Who
was
this young man? He couldn’t be Marcus, could he?

In the space of two ragged breaths, the wind died down. The howling grew distant and then stopped altogether.

But I barely noticed. My gaze was locked on this young man as I slowly walked toward him—and the more I stared at him, the more familiar he seemed. Yet I couldn’t pinpoint why.

My toe hit something, and I tumbled forward. My arms windmilled, yet just before my face hit the pier, a docker threw out his hands and righted me.

“Th-thank you,” I whispered, painting a grateful smile on my lips. He merely looked at me as if I’d had too much drink and resumed his work. I used my distracted moment to regain my wits. To gather up my skirts and dash onward to the second-class gangplank.

But by the time I got there, the young man was gone—presumably on board the ship. It wasn’t until after I had waited in the long queue and finally handed the porter my ticket that I realized something.

Both times my right wrist had ignited with pain and I had heard the hounds howling. And both times it had all ended when I turned my concentration elsewhere.

But what the devil that meant, I didn’t know.

Chapter Four

At the top of the gangplank, a middle-aged man
took my bag and guided me inside. I promptly scoured every nook and shadow for yellow eyes, but the world-famous electric lamps (molded into fish, I might add) clearly illuminated everything—and I quickly realized there was nowhere a person could hide. The bloodred carpet, the wood-paneled walls, and the velvet-padded handrails were constantly trod on or grasped at by servants in black uniforms scurrying past.

By the time we reached a wide staircase at the ship’s center, where a large mermaid balustrade stood guard, my pulse had slowed to its normal speed.

I’d had to steal a ticket to get on this boat, so unless Marcus had bought that final, expensive ticket, he couldn’t get on board.
Except rules like that don’t apply to Marcus
. I ignored that thought. If he got on the steamer, if that raging wind and those baying hounds followed me here, then I would deal with them.

We finally reached my stateroom, and after I tipped the porter, he left me with a key and scooted off into the flow of server traffic. Just as I was about to unlock the door, it swung back on its own.

My heart leaped into my throat, but it was only a pretty young woman in black. “
C’est votre chambre
?”

“Uh . . .” I was too busy trying to calm my pulse to follow her French. “What?”

“This is your room?” She dipped her head and peered at me from the tops of her eyes.

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we are roommates.”

“Roommates?” I repeated stupidly. I hadn’t even considered the possibility, but
of course
second class would mean sharing a cabin.


Mais oui
.” She stepped aside so I could trudge in, and with a wave to a set of bunks in one corner, she said, “I took the top bed.”

“Oh . . . all right.” I crossed to the bunk and heaved my carpetbag on it. Then I shifted around to inspect the stateroom.

My eyes instantly lit on two more bunks and two elegant black trunks stacked beside them.
So, not roommate but
roommates
.

I turned my attention to the rest of the room. White enamel walls with walnut fittings surrounded portholes and large electric lights. The beds were made up with crisp, white linens, and a navy curtain hung elegantly over them. Squeezed into the center of the room were two navy satin armchairs.

At that moment, the young woman stepped in front of me. “I am Mademoiselle Laure Primeau,” she drawled, holding out a dainty hand. “And you are?”

“I’m Eleanor Fitt.” I gulped, suddenly hot with embarrassment. “I-I’d shake your hand, but . . .” I lifted my bandaged wrist.

Her eyes widened. “
Mon Dieu.
” She hastily withdrew her hand. “I am sorry. That looks . . . painful.”

“Yes, it was.” I twisted around to my carpetbag, not wishing to dwell on my injury. “Where can I put my things?”

She sighed. “I fear the other ladies ’ave already claimed most of the space.” Skirts rustled behind me, and when I glanced back, she was draped over one of the chairs. “If you do not ’ave much, then you should use the drawer beneath the bed.”

I nodded and set to placing my few items—extra underclothes, a hatbox, a nightgown—in the drawer. At the bottom of the bag, I found the stack of Elijah’s letters.

Gnawing the inside of my mouth, I eyed them warily. Then, as quickly as possible, I withdrew them and stuffed them beneath my spare petticoat before finally crawling onto my bed.

Laure eyed me from her chair, and I eyed her right back. She looked to be a bit older than Jie—twenty-five years at the most.

“You are traveling alone?” she asked.

“Yes. And you?”


Oui
. But I am an old maid—you are so young. How can you travel alone? You ’ave no family?”

My stomach twisted.
My daughter is now dead to me
. I dropped my gaze. “No . . . I have no family.”

“Ah. But that is sad,
non
? I ’ave a family, but—”

The cabin door flew open, cutting her off. I shot to my feet, ready to fight . . . but it was only an angular, gray-haired woman shuffling in. An auburn-haired girl of eight or nine skipped happily behind her.

Laure’s expression soured, and with clear displeasure, she stood. “
Bonjour
, Madame Brown. We ’ave our final roommate.” She motioned to me. “This is Mademoiselle Fitt.”

The older woman curtsied primly, all the while openly examining me. “You are traveling alone?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said, not bothering to hide my own return-examination. She was long faced and unfortunately hairy around the chin.

“This is my granddaughter, Lizzie.” Mrs. Brown motioned to the girl, who gave me a bright grin—revealing her own unfortunate feature: exceptionally large front teeth. “Lizzie, get your parasol. We are going to the promenade deck to watch the ship depart. Would you care to join us?”

Nothing about her expression suggested she wanted me, so I forced a polite smile. “No thank you, Ma’am.”

Her gaze shifted to Laure. “
Mademoiselle
?”


Non merci
.” Laure bared her teeth in a terrifying grin.

“Found it!” Lizzie trilled, whipping up a lacy parasol. She skipped back to Mrs. Brown’s side and, after giving Laure and me a little curtsy, trotted from the room. Mrs. Brown followed.

Once the door was firmly shut, Laure’s lips twitched up mischievously, and she rubbed her hands together. “
Mademoiselle
, you ’ave scandalized her.”

“You mean by traveling alone?”


Oui. C’est magnifique
.” She snickered. “Now, if you will excuse me, I believe I will go to the promenade deck and watch us depart—
without
the Browns for company.” Then, with a wink, she left.

I fell back onto my bed and draped a hand over my eyes. As much as I also wanted to see our departure, it was safer to stay locked away until the Philadelphia wharf—and I hoped Marcus too—were long gone. Once we had sailed the hundred miles of Delaware River to reach the ocean,
then
I would allow myself to roam the ship.

An image of the chestnut-haired young man flashed in my mind. If he could hear those dogs and feel that wind, then perhaps he would know what was happening. Perhaps he could explain. Or—if he was as lost as I—we could try to muddle through it together.

And since he was somewhere on this ship and we were stuck here for well over a week, I had every intention of finding him—and finding out what he knew.

 

Hours later, I found myself curled into a ball on my bed. After an evening of rocking, I was so queasy, I couldn’t even stand—much less try to explore the ship. When I heard the Brown ladies come in to change into dinner attire, I could only screw my eyes tighter and pray that this nausea would vanish.


Oh la
,” Laure said, hovering over me. She had just finished donning her evening wear. “You are ill?”

I cracked open an eyelid. “The boat . . . it won’t stop moving.”

She laughed. “
Oui.
That is ’ow it usually works.” She flicked her hand toward the portholes. “It helps to be outside, you know. Watching the ’orizon keeps your digestion calm.”

She dragged me into a sitting position. “And it is best on the first-class promenade deck.”

“But we aren’t first class.”


Pas de problème
. One must simply sneak onto the first-class deck when all its passengers are at dinner.”

She helped me stand. Her eyes briefly settled on my missing hand but then passed on to my undoubtedly green face. “I can take you there and then we can go to dinner.”

“But . . .” I waved helplessly at my gown as we made our way to the door. “This is all I have to wear.” Heat crept up my neck, and at the sympathetic swoop in Laure’s eyebrows, I dropped my gaze.

She sighed. “Then you can stay on the deck, where it is no matter what you wear, and
I
will go to supper.” She towed me toward the main stairwell I had circled around earlier, and we climbed it three floors up before finally stepping into the first-class saloon.

“This is where all of the first-class passengers will spend most of their day-to-day time,” Laure explained as we walked through. “It is not so different from the second-class saloon.”

I nodded, my eyes flicking around. The room reminded me of my family’s parlor—or as the parlor
used
to look before I had sold everything. There was a grand piano in one corner, oak and ebony bookcases along the walls, and red velvet armchairs and sofas strategically placed throughout. Skylights overhead showed an orange sky, and plate glass mirrors shone with reflected light.

We reached a door at the end of the room, and Laure planted her shoulder against it and shoved. “The wind outside is strong. Nice but strong.”

The instant she got the door open, air blasted into me. My heart flipped, and my ears strained, expecting to hear hounds at any moment.

But no—this was a different wind. A real wind.

Tugging at my sleeves, I followed Laure onto the giant, empty deck. Smokestacks and masts spanned before me with awnings placed strategically between. Chairs and benches were also around, and Laure guided me to one at the ship’s aft.

“Sit ’ere!” She had to shout to be heard over the wind. “It is the best view, and you can watch the sunset. I will ’ave a server bring you something to eat.” She deposited me on a bench facing the western sky. “And if you think you will lose your stomach”—she patted her bodice—“do not do it in our room,
oui
?”

“Yes.” I gave her a tight smile. “Thank you.”

She swatted my words aside. “See you in the cabin later.” Then she whirled around and strode off. With a sigh, I slumped back on the bench. I
did
feel better now.

We were still within sight of the coast, but it was too distant for me to discern much beyond marshland.

A squat waiter soon arrived with sea biscuits and an orange. He declared them the “best foods for a sea-ailed stomach” and then left me to munch on my meal.

I rather liked the biscuits. They were crisp and salty and did much to put my stomach right. I stayed there on the promenade deck until long after the sun had faded. Until swaying electric lights blocked out any starlight, and when I eventually found myself shivering, I decided it was time for bed.

But of course, just as my luck would have it, I heaved back the saloon door to find the room completely full. Worse, at least fifty pairs of eyes immediately turned to me.

With a gulp, I slipped my stump into the folds of my skirt and walked inside with as much poise as I could muster.

But the wind grabbed hold of the door and slammed it shut with a loud
bang!
, shooting me forward like a drunken rocket.

All at once,
hundreds
of pairs of eyes shot to me. All the women in their beautiful pastel gowns—gowns such as those I’d once worn and loved myself—and the men in their black suits, so crisp and handsome, watched me. To think this life had almost been mine . . . to think I’d been reduced to picking pockets to get on board . . .

Someone nearby giggled. Then came a chortle, a whisper. In less time than it took for me to gather up my breath and resume my steps, the room erupted with twittering.

My face ignited. Sweat popped out on my brow. With my gaze cast to the floor, I strode through as fast as I could. It wasn’t until my stateroom was in sight that I slowed to a normal pace and sucked in air. I paused at my door and chided myself for being so daunted by a bunch of silly people. After facing an army of Dead, one would think a saloon full of rich folk would be as easy as pie.

Jie would have found it all hilarious—nothing scared her.

Joseph would have given me a knowing smile, his back straight and his demeanor a thousand times more elegant than any of
those
people.

And Daniel . . .

I leaned against the door, my legs suddenly too wobbly to stand.

I always tried so hard to
not
think of Daniel.
T
o avoid remembering how his lips twisted up mischievously when he laughed. How he glowered when I got too close to his inventions. How he doffed his gray flat cap or flicked my chin with his thumb.

Or how he’d tasted when we’d kissed . . .

I huffed a breath and fumbled for my room key.
You are strong and independent,
I told myself as I unlocked the door.
Capable and clever. No males needed.

I turned my cabin door handle and pushed in.
You are powerful and—

My thoughts broke off. I screamed. Crouched beside my bunk was a slight young man with chestnut hair and a charcoal suit. He turned his head toward me. “Eleanor—you’re here! It’s about time.”

My breath froze in my lungs, but not because he knew my name. I couldn’t breathe because staring out from his handsome, round face was a pair of gleaming yellow eyes.

Other books

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
The Fregoli Delusion by Michael J. McCann
Fool Me Once by Lee, Sandra
Unraveled by Lorelei James
Beginning with You by McKenna, Lindsay
This Way to Heaven by Barbara Cartland


readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2021