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Authors: Sonia Gensler

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BOOK: The Dark Between
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“Do you plan to take photographs at the museum?” he asked, gesturing at the camera.

“Mostly likely not. Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity on our return walk?”

When she tilted her head and grinned, all thoughts of the camera vanished from his mind.

Why did she have this effect on him? Her beauty disarmed him, of course, but it was her air of mystery that captivated him even more. She carried secrets about her, and yet he sensed nothing dark or cunning. Her secrets were worth knowing, and they waited for the proper man to discover them. Were others repulsed by her illness? The very thought filled him with indignation. Her ailment was no fault of her own. She merely required a steadying hand from time to time, someone to keep her safe.

The morning was bright and cool, which made for a pleasant walk. He’d intended to offer his arm, but Miss Atherton kept enough distance between them that he couldn’t do so without being awkward. Her hands were occupied, anyway, for she held a parasol in one and clutched her bag with the other.

He gestured toward the parasol. “Might I hold that for you, Miss Atherton?”

“Have you need of it, Mr. Beale? Are you sensitive to the sun?”

She was teasing him. Perhaps he should have been pleased
by her casual manner—surely that meant she was comfortable with him—but instead he felt terribly young.

Fortunately, there were plenty of sights to distract him. It was a busy morning in Cambridge town as the butcher’s traps and corn wagons made their noisy way to the market. Asher did his best to strike up conversation by noting the fierce glare of one butcher’s pony or a pretty view of the river. Miss Atherton murmured agreement without pausing to study what he pointed out. She walked rather quickly, in fact—so quickly that they arrived at the museum in ten minutes. He had to admire how the exertion made her cheeks flush so prettily. He paid the admission and gestured for her to go ahead of him. She surprised him by holding her ground.

“Mr. Beale, would you mind waiting for me in the West Gallery?” She glanced meaningfully in the direction of the ladies’ powder room.

“Of course,” he said quickly. “Do take your time. I shall be well occupied.”

Her cheeks flushed pink. “You are too kind.”

Charmed again by her modesty, Asher stepped lightly up the stairs to the gallery. He took a catalog from the attendant, intending to use his time alone to review the descriptions of the paintings. He would share the most interesting details with Miss Atherton when she returned, for he wished to be convincing as a man of learning and artistic appreciation.

Asher studied the paintings and contrived brief commentaries for each, but still Miss Atherton did not return. His own mother took forever to primp in the powder room, yet even
she
was quicker than this. He’d thought Miss Atherton’s flushed cheeks indicated exertion, but perhaps she was suffering from a fever? Yet what could he do but wait? He forced himself to
make another survey of the paintings before checking his watch again. She had been in the powder room for twenty minutes.

He walked down the stairs to the entrance hall, thinking to procure a female attendant to politely check on Miss Atherton. He suggested this to the ticket seller, a young man with slick pale hair and a blank expression.

“Are you speaking of the lady who accompanied you earlier, sir?”

“Yes, the lady in grey. I paid her admission.”

“Well, sir, that lady left the museum more than fifteen minutes ago. She seemed in a hurry.”

Astonishment clutched at Asher’s throat, bringing a fit of coughing. With great effort he steadied himself. “Do you know where she was going?”

“No sir, I didn’t think it polite to ask.”

Asher looked about the hall and raised his hands in despair. “But I am responsible for her! How could she just disappear?”

The man shrugged.

Asher stalked away and applied his anger to the door, shoving it open. He looked up and down the street but did not see the dove-colored feathers of Miss Atherton’s hat among the people who milled about the shops. Had she returned to the college? Perhaps she truly was sick. Or worse yet, she’d had another epileptic spell.

Assuming a gentler expression, he turned back to the ticket seller. “Did you happen to see which way the lady turned as she left the building?”

The man thought for a moment. “I do believe she turned right, sir.”

So she hadn’t returned to the college.

Asher walked down Trumpington Street, peering in windows in case she’d entered a shop, but she was not to be found.
When he reached Lensfield Road he stared at the large hotel at the corner. He didn’t think she’d go into such a building alone. Perhaps she’d walked to Coe Fen, for she did seem to enjoy a green space. But why leave so abruptly? Had he offended her in some way? He glanced at the hotel again. A boy sat on the steps, counting the coins in his hat.

“You there,” he called out. “Did you see a lady in a grey dress walk past here twenty minutes ago?”

The boy tilted his head as though trying to remember. “I dunno.”

“Yes or no?”

The boy shook his hat. The coins inside tinkled suggestively.

“You want money?”

The only reply he received was a blank stare.

“You’d better not be wasting my time.” Asher reached into his pockets and dropped a few coins in the hat. “Well?”

The boy looked at the offering. “Sir, the lady offered me more’n that to keep my mouth shut.”

The answer came as a blow. “You actually spoke to her?”

“I dunno.”

This time Asher pulled a note from his pocket and tossed it into the hat. “That should be enough. Now speak up—I’m very concerned for the lady.”

“Well, when you put it that way I don’t mind sharing a few details with a concerned young gentleman.” The boy gestured for Asher to sit next to him. “Now,” he said in a low, confidential tone, “the lady did come by, and she did speak to me. In fact, she asked if I’d seen the tram. She was afraid she’d missed it.”

“What tram is that?”

“The one that runs from Christ’s College to the railway station.” He pointed toward the cross street. “It creeps along
Regent and I has a good view of it from here. I see a great deal whiles I wait to help gentlemen like you with their bags.”

Asher thought for a moment. “So you think she was heading to the railway station?”

“She didn’t say, sir, but I can’t think why else she’d take that tram. There’s an eleven o’clock to London that’s very popular with our patrons.”

“Eleven, you say?” Asher looked at his watch. “Do you think I could make it in time by foot?”

“You’d have to take it at a gallop, sir, though I suppose ’tis possible—”

But Asher had leapt off the steps before the boy could finish.

Chapter 9

E
lsie secured a seat to herself by spreading out her belongings and casting a sour stare at anyone who dared look her way. Alas, there was no escape from the noise and stench. Children squawked and wailed until her temples throbbed and she longed for a drop of the dose.

Before her accident she’d traveled often with her family, and in those days she always looked forward to riding the train. She loved how the lushly upholstered walls and seats, the curtained windows and gaslight sconces, transformed the compartment into a miniature sitting room. When her brothers allowed her the window seat, she sat mesmerized as the sheep-speckled countryside rolled past.

Until today, however, she had never traveled third class.

To pass the time she checked and rechecked the contents of her bag, jumping in her seat when the guard banged through the carriage door and called for tickets. She retrieved hers and returned the bulging bag to the seat.

The man stared as he reached for her ticket. His yellowish-white whiskers hung from either side of his mouth like the tusks of a walrus. “Is everything all right, miss?”

“Yes, of course.” She averted her gaze.

After an eternity of fumbling with the ticket, he handed it back and moved on. Her bag had tipped over, so she pulled it and the camera into her lap and clasped their comforting bulk to ease the trembling in her hands.

An hour later she breathed a sigh of relief as the train finally rumbled into King’s Cross Station. Leaving her parasol behind—
he
would think it gaudy—she pushed her way through the horde that spilled out of the crowded carriage. It didn’t occur to her to be afraid of the station. She dissolved into a nervous wreck in the schoolroom or at social gatherings, always hating the inevitable moment when all eyes were upon her, but teeming train stations did not fluster her in the least. Blending into a crowd was liberating.

Elsie fought the tide of third-class passengers to find the porters, knowing they would cluster near the first-class cars. She caught the eye of one young man in uniform and, offering her most dazzling smile, asked him to direct her to the nearest cabstand. He readily obliged, but his cheerful sincerity deflated when she failed to pass him a coin.

She little cared whom she offended, for she was too eager for the first glimpse of
him
. Elsie had no doubt he would be at the museum. He had loved to recount the days before he came to Peverel Place, when he’d spent his hours sketching and painting in the galleries. Before her father had sent him away, he’d told her she would find him there, should she come to London.

She jostled through the crowds, undaunted by stiff shoulders and aggressive elbows, until finally she made her way to the street. The sky was low and dark—the air choked with coal smoke even in August—but at least it did not rain. For a moment she considered walking the distance to the museum. She’d save herself a shilling, and her path lay through residential
neighborhoods. Yet she dreaded the prospect of appearing to him as a sooty and bedraggled mess, so instead she joined the queue for the next hansom cab. Once seated, bag and camera case clutched in her lap, she shouted the destination to the driver through the trapdoor. The driver’s whip cracked, and she steeled herself as the horse leapt into a brisk trot. She hardly noticed the scenery as the cab sped along Euston Road. Rather, she passed the time imagining his expression when he recognized her.

When they turned the corner onto Great Russell Street, the grand columns of the British Museum rose up before her. The cab jerked to a halt. Elsie helped herself down and paid the shilling, stepping carefully around the clumps of manure. She took the steps quickly and breezed through the vestibule with little thought for propriety. Ignoring the manuscript room to her right—he would not care for that—she turned left into the Roman Gallery and paused to scan the room.

He was not there.

She glanced all around, panic tightening her throat until her gaze moved beyond the gallery to the Graeco-Roman room, where a young man stood before an easel. It was
him
, she was certain. She recognized the auburn waves of his hair, too long for fashion but lovely to run her hands through when she cradled his head in her lap. Elsie looked down at her hands, willing them to stop their silly shaking, and lurched forward to greet him.

She gasped when she crashed into the very solid form of a gentleman rushing in the opposite direction through the gallery.

“I do beg your pardon, miss.”

She reared back to look up at him, shaken by the sudden contact. He was a handsome young man with dark hair, but that wasn’t what made her stare. No, it was the light that
suddenly shimmered around his head that mesmerized her. She stared stupidly as the tremors began.

He peered at her. “Miss, are you well?”

Never had it come upon her this quickly. The orb about his head shimmered and danced, and her own head began to throb. She tore her gaze away and fumbled in her bag for the dose, afraid it was already too late.

“My medicine,” she cried. “I’m going to be … very ill.”

The brown bottle was not there.

The young man grasped her upper arms as she staggered against him. She vaguely heard him calling for help as the darkness began to pull at her, sucking her through a ghastly tunnel. She closed her eyes and prayed for calm.

Finally the dreadful pulling sensation ceased. A sudden cold chilled her. She opened her eyes to find a woman walking toward her from the darkness, her pale face drooping with sorrow.

Elsie moaned, for she knew the woman was dead.

Asher had kept his eyes on the grey feathers of Miss Atherton’s hat as he followed the other passengers off the train. But when he passed her seat, the bright yellow of her folded parasol caught his eye. In her haste, she’d left it behind. As he retrieved it, he saw the white label against the dark fabric of the seat. Her medicine lay there—the bottle of Chlorodyne that had soothed her convulsions the first day he’d met her.

He stared … until he felt an impatient shoulder pressing into him. He plucked the bottle from the seat, ignoring the grumbling behind him.

On the platform he watched from a safe distance as Miss Atherton spoke with a cheerful young porter. Once she moved on, he offered the porter several coins to share the details of the
conversation. It was easy enough to watch as she hired a cab and then to do the same himself. Clearly she was preoccupied, for she never turned to look behind her.

BOOK: The Dark Between
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ads

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