The moment immediately preceding a kiss—and I mean a truly sincere and anticipated kiss—is one of the longest and most sudden moments that exists. The subtle mix of longing, anxiety, elation, and vertigo would fill the shelves of pubs all over the world if it could only be bottled. But even if you could bottle it, I can’t imagine it would keep long before spoiling.
But, the longer a moment like this stretches on, the easier it is for the more unpleasant emotions to taint the experience. Where once grew anticipation, instead sprouts doubt. Many a couple perished prematurely because one or both parties hesitated in this ever so important moment.
And why hesitate? Why pause if both want the same thing? Why question the shared experiences that rendered mutual affection all but certain? And what on earth should prevent two lovers from renewing such affection?
In other words, Edward had not kissed me since Fernmount.
I watched him across a smoky pub where he talked in low tones with a man etched with dark tattoos. Edward looked laughable, if such a thing were possible, adorned in false bushy eyebrows and a beard. As if this would disguise him from anybody who knew him.
The tattooed man eyed him warily.
I remembered our first lunch together at Doug’s Fish and Chips Pub in Dawnhurst-on-Severn. The owner of that pub had been rough and tumble as well, and Edward had got along with him famously, but that was because Edward couldn’t hide his sincerity. He didn’t have much skill in deception or trickery. No matter. What he lacked in stealth he made up for with money to buy a lot of beer.
Here, in a rowdy Reading tavern lightly adorned with aged Christmas bobbles, we were repeating the same strategy we’d used at pubs across southwest England. First, find someone who might know about the not entirely law-abiding employees of the peculiar carnival we chased. Second, buy them enough beer to impair any ability they might have to see through Edward’s disguise. Finally, glean what information we could from their drunken ramblings.
Unfortunately, until now that had just meant a lot of free alcohol for a lot of scoundrels in a lot of taverns.
A lumbering buffoon stumbled by my corner table, bumping my shoulder. I pulled my hood lower to cover my face.
“Sorry,” the man grunted. I did not reply, opting instead to stare into my tumbler of brandy, still untouched. I wasn’t much of a drinker.
When the Lord returns to the Earth to vanquish the devil and cast out evil, I wonder which He might burn first. Brothels or pubs? I suppose I should be grateful to have a traveling companion who was not interested in either.
Edward stood up and coughed twice before making a zigzag route to my table. He sat himself down with an overly dramatic plop.
“A bit more grace suits you better,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth.
“I’m playing the role,” he replied.
“What role is that? I grew up on the east side of Dawnhurst. I’ve seen a lot of wretched people, but never one quite like Mr. Pendles.”
I let his false name drip from my lips dramatically.
“Well, some of us have traveled beyond Dawnhurst, and we’ve seen more wretched fellows than you have.”
“It’s not a competition.”
“I’m simply stating—”
“Never mind all that. What did that man have to say?” Even now, when it would completely blow our cover and he was being difficult, I longed to reach out for his hand. If only we could run off together instead of chase empty leads.
I had closed that door on myself, though. Edward kept his distance from me because I had requested it. I was so stupid sometimes.
I reminded myself that his lack of affection was for the best. He asked me to marry him, and I said no for more than one reason. He still grieved his father. I was still infected with a magical illness.
If our romance had cooled, maybe it was meant to.
“He told me he’s friends with someone who worked the fair, an impossibly large man in a bowler hat,” Edward said.
My mouth fell open. After many weeks, this might be the most solid lead we’d uncovered. His steely grey eyes sparkled in the lamplight.
“That must be Gerald,” I said. “He was friends with Bram. I met him many times.” It was becoming difficult to keep my voice at a whisper. I never thought that Gerald, the big, hairy, hat-wearing guerrilla, would set my heart racing. “Did he say where Gerald is now?”
“That’s proving to be more difficult,” Edward replied, touching his false eyebrows tenderly. “I don’t think Gerald appreciates being found by strangers.”
“We must do something. This is the best chance we’ve had since we left your estate.”
“Quite right, Miss Primrose.” He winked at me, stood and pretended to be put off, gesticulating as though I’d refused an advance from him. If only. I wouldn’t refuse an advance, even if the alias he had invented for me made me sound like an escort. “Sounds like I need another pint.”
He signaled to one of the pub keepers, some grimy freckled man who still looked like a boy of twelve. I flexed my fingers, wishing I had something to do. Edward insisted that people went to pubs to drink by themselves and sit motionless in corners more often than I thought. I never spent much time in pubs, so I was forced to believe him.
If the tattooed man knew Gerald, we would really be on to something. One step closer to finding Bram. And, if we found Bram, we’d be one step closer to finding a cure for the supernatural malady that ailed me.
Even thinking of it caused my fingers to twitch. I had suffered from its effects for long enough now that it was difficult to remember life without it. I felt a low, budding anger inside of me at all times. I was irritated easily, and occasionally, when my feelings boiled to overflow, I was prone to terrible fits. The worst part was feeling that I was not my own. When the fits came, it was as though I was watching my body through a window.
I had once berated my sister, lashed out at my elderly neighbor, and physically assaulted my best friend. I had even almost done harm to Edward’s mother during our first and only dinner together.
I took a small sip of the brandy. It burned going down my throat, but at least it broke my train of thought. I could not afford to have such a fit in this pub.
A nasty-looking man stared at me from another table. His cheekbones looked like shoulder joints covered in grease, and he had a front tooth missing. I could tell because of the perverted smile he sent in my direction.
I prayed he would not come toward my table.
I looked over at Edward, who was just sitting down to a game of cards. I couldn’t interfere. Who knew what the presence of a woman might do to his inquiry about Gerald? Then again, if I was reading this hobgoblin correctly (and men can be so easy to read) and Edward turned to see said hobgoblin next to me, there was no telling what would happen.
The whiskery ball of grease finished his pint, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and stood up.
That was that. I made a direct line to Edward. I hoped his acting wasn’t as poor as it was last time. When he turned, his eyes went wide with alarm. He looked past me and saw the man waiting at my abandoned table.
“I’ve reconsidered your request,” I said to him, in a coquettish voice.
“My request?” he stammered. There were three other men at the table, and they all eyed me like a Christmas turkey. I had a chance to see our tattooed informant up close. Three dark lines stretched from his ear down his jawline.
“Yes. I’ll sit next to you here and we’ll see if I can bring you good luck, after all.” I sat down next to him and put a hand on his arm. I squeezed it hard, and he finally turned back to the table.
“Looks like you blokes are at a disadvantage,” he said. At least he knew to play along. Two of the men, our new inked friend included, rolled their eyes. The third had dark hair and a pale blind eye. He narrowed his gaze at us, searching for something.
I tried to ignore him, focusing instead on the game, but after a round or two he started to smile.
“That does it for me, gents,” he said. Then he was gone, out the door. I stared after him, uneasy. Or maybe I was still queasy from the sweaty human ball of hair that had chased me from my seat across the room.
The other man grimaced and complained that a three-person game wasn’t to his liking, and soon we were left alone at the table with just the three-stripe man and a couple of empty pint mugs for company.
“Miss Primrose, was it?” Edward asked. I resisted an audible scoff and nodded. “This is Scott.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Primrose.” He stood and made an off-balanced bow.
“Scott, you have to tell the woman about your big friend. Miss Primrose, you won’t believe the tales Scott’s been telling me about this louse named Gerald.”
“Veritable giant he is,” Scott said, tipping back a mug in an attempt to collect its last drops of beer. “One time, I watched him lift a horse.”
Gerald was large, but this was an obvious lie.
“A horse?” I echoed playfully and giggled. This was demeaning. What was I?
“There we were, standing on the corner, when a buggy comes by. It must have been hot as the devil that day, and the buggy came to a stop in a bit of shade. The horse just lies down right there, heat exhausted. The driver tried everything he could think of to get it back up, but nothing worked. Finally, Gerald walks over, crouches down, wraps his arms around the beast’s chest, and lifts it up off the ground. Truest story I ever told.”
I tried to imagine how long Gerald’s arms would have to be in order to wrap around a fully grown horse.
“There you go, Miss Primrose. Didn’t I tell you? Crazy stories,” Edward said.
“Please, just Scott. That’s what me mother called me, me mates call me, and me lady friends as well.” He cocked an eyebrow at me as if to suggest there might be an opening in the last category. I’m sure there was.
“Scott. I don’t know if I can believe a story like that. The man must tower over the rest of us.”
“Aye. He does.”
“It can’t be true.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
Edward tensed next to me.
“I don’t know what you are, but I wouldn’t believe a story like that unless I saw the man myself. A girl can’t trust everything she hears.”
Scott looked perplexed and adjusted his belt. Then he lit up with a brilliant idea.
“Then you’ll have to do just that,” he said. “I can take you to him.”
“Take us to him?” Edward gaped. “Haven’t you been telling me he’s not a sociable man?”
“He’ll make an exception for a pretty face like this one.” Scott nodded at me. “But I never said anything about you coming along.”
Edward’s mouth twisted.
“I’m not going unless Mr. Pendles accompanies me,” I said, placing a hand on Edward’s. It wasn’t necessary, but it felt nice to touch him.
“Oh, come, now—”
“I won’t have it, Scott. Mr. Pendles will you agree to be my chaperone?”
“I’d be glad to, Miss Primrose. Though, I depart from the city soon on business.”
“We could see him tomorrow morning.”
My pulse quickened. Finally, this pathway might lead us to some answers.
“This better be worth our while,” Edward said in his overly affected dialect.
“It’ll be worth it. It’s not every day you get to meet a giant like him. Besides, if you like my stories, wait ’til you hear his. Running around with a ruddy carnival, there’s no telling what he’s seen. Meet me at St. Mary’s tomorrow at ten, near Castle Street,” Scott said, scratching his cheek.
“Tomorrow at ten,” I repeated. “In the meantime, you will excuse me. I’m afraid I’ll catch a chill unless I can get to bed. Mr. Pendles, will you escort me back to my lodgings, so I make it alright?”
“Of course,” Edward replied. “I’ll pay my bill, and we can be on our way.”
We exchanged a handshake with Scott, and Edward went to the bar. I stood a small way off from him, doing my best to look occupied. However, some morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I shot a glance back to the little imp that had been waiting for me.
He noticed me looking and made his way over.
I panicked and considered sitting down at Scott’s table before deciding it would be better to join Edward at the bar. But my indecision cost me dearly, and the man had closed the gap.
“What’s a pretty ‘lil thing like you doing here?” he asked, trying to smooth back his thin locks of hair.
“I’m here with my fiancé,” I spat out. That was my go-to lie of late. I’d used it enough that I almost forgot it wasn’t true.
“That’s a fancy French word,” he said.
“The man I’m going to marry. There, at the bar. So, if you’ll excuse me—”
“You don’t seem like the marryin’ type the way you curl your lip and flash those pretty eyes like you do. Come on, why not go for a walk with me?”
The anger bubbled inside me, my magical malady searching for an excuse to erupt.
“I think you’ve had too much to drink,” I said, clenching my teeth. My fingers twitched.
“I think I’ve had just enough.” He grabbed my arm. My hand flew as if on its own and slapped him hard across the face. My nails left a small gash on his cheek. The patrons immediately near us halted their conversations, gifting me an eery quiet. The dark magic inside of me stirred like a child waking from sleep.
The greasy little man rubbed his cheek gingerly.
“You’re feisty. I think I deserve an apology.” He reached for me with more than playful intent. I tried to slap him again, but he caught my wrist in his hand. He squinted at me ravenously and pulled me toward him.
I felt a pang of fear before Edward tackled him to the ground.
“You should tend your manners better,” said Edward, struggling to hold the man down.
“You her handler, then?” he asked with a devious smile.
Edward punched him hard across the face before standing up.
“Are you hurt?” he asked me.
The greasy man had found a wooden chair. He swung it clumsily against Edward’s back. Edward took the blow with a grimace, but I knew it would take more than a drunken bumbler to injure his broad shoulders.
Edward turned, grabbed the chair, and tackled him again. Unfortunately, by now they had attracted a good deal of attention. Two other men grabbed Edward by the arms. Edward kicked one of them in the knee, eliciting a roar of pain.
The other took the opportunity to punch Edward in the jaw. That’s when Scott jumped into the fray, and I lost track of any logical sequence of events.
“Stop it! Knock it off!” I cried, a mix of concern and fury. Edward would blow our cover if that stupid false beard came off.
The barkeep placed a gentle but firm hand on my shoulder.
“It’s best if you just stay out of this one, miss,” he said, his freckly face glossy in the firelight.
I considered taking his advice and walking out the door when I heard the chilling sound of police whistles. Several officers of Reading’s Police Force entered the building, batons in hand, and before I knew what happened, they had the brawl broken apart.
I immediately noticed a difference in the demeanor of the Reading Police Force compared to the one at Dawnhurst. At home, Sergeant Cooper and his band of officers worked comfortably and personally through the cases of our small city. I couldn’t deny that even if they now hunted me. But the officers before me now looked mechanical, like gears in a clock.
“Cut all that out,” said a tall, muscular man. “Come now, gents. Let’s not forget it’s almost Christmas.” He had jet black hair that stuck out neatly under his constable hat. Sarcasm dripped from the word Christmas like water from an icicle.
I glanced at Edward. His fake beard hung halfway off of his face, which smarted with a sizable bruise.
“What have we here?” the dark-haired man continued. He strode toward Edward with a sense of foreboding, his hands clasped behind his back.
“That’s the one, Inspector,” said a man near the door. I turned and saw the pale eye that had dismissed itself from our card game not long before. He grinned deviously.
The Inspector held out a baton to lift Edward’s chin. He looked all a mess, and his disguise, which may have worked on drunkards in the dark light of taverns, would be obvious to a practiced policeman. I winced in embarrassment as the Inspector gently tore the rest of Edward’s beard off. I told him he should have grown a real one.
“Well, boys,” the Inspector called to his men, “Christmas has come early. This, here, is Edward Thomas.”