The occasional rattling of the glasses broke through the chattering as the train continued down the rails. Although they had finished their meal, the scent of delicacies still welcomed them eagerly. Briar glanced away from the window to scan the room. Surely someone new had entered while she was distracted by the view.
When she didn’t notice anyone worth a second glance, she returned her attention to her friend. Briar frowned slightly as she noticed how little Jane had eaten. It was unlike her.
“Are you feeling unwell, Jane?” Briar asked as her friend looked hesitantly at her plate before meeting her gaze.
“A bit nauseous is all,” Jane said, taking a sip of her water. “Perhaps a bit of traveling sickness, nothing to worry about.”
Briar nodded, tugging a piece of hair behind her ear. “Maybe it’s best if you rest up a bit, we still have a few more hours.”
“Are you sure?” Jane tugged at her sleeves before sighing. “I know how eager you are about exploring the train together.”
Briar laughed, waving her hand. “Don’t worry your head about that, I can find my way just fine on my own. Besides, men seem to think women more approachable when alone.”
Covering her mouth with her hand, Jane laughed before standing from her seat. Briar followed, taking a last glance at the empty dishes. Seeing as Jane was swaying a bit on her feet, Briar offered her an arm and together they headed for their shared cabin.
As they passed well-dressed men and women, Briar kept her smile gentle and sweet, even when her eyes wandered a daring second too long. They met a pair of bright blue ones, and her pass slowed for a brief moment. She would have bitten her lip if Jane hadn’t slapped her hand, causing Briar to jump and turn.
“I was only looking.” The words fell from her lips without much thought. It had become a habit to use the excuse whenever she was caught.
Jane laughed in response, patting the hand she slapped only a moment ago. “Calm down, Briar, I’m only teasing.”
“Did you see his eyes?” Briar asked. “They were bright enough to taunt the summer sky.”
“Were you always this poetic?” Jane continued to laugh.
Joining her laughter, Briar nudged Jane’s shoulder with her own. “Shut it.”
As they arrived at their cabin, Briar made sure Jane was comfortable before leaving. She took one last glance at her friend before saying her good-bye. Her eyes were closed as she rested her head on a pillow. A soft blanket covered her dress as lay on the bed, the fabric rising and falling with her breathing. It didn’t feel like she had a fever, so Briar brushed it off as nothing. Jane would be fine if she rested a bit.
“Don’t trouble anyone too much,” Jane called as Briar slip open the cabin door.
A mischievous grin spread across Briar’s face. “That I can’t promise.”
Briar slid the door shut, smiling at the nickname. She continued down the narrow hallway before realizing she had already gone this way. Spinning on her heels, she bumped into someone who had been right behind her, not expecting her sudden turn.
Firm hands gripped her shoulders to steady her. An apology lay ready on her tongue but disappeared as she looked up at the stranger. Stringy, white hair fell over the man’s face as if he hadn’t cared for it in weeks. Shallow cheeks made his cheekbones prominent, his pale skin close to being the same as is hair.
It was as white as his hair, and so were his lips and the corners of his eyes. Briar froze in place, but couldn’t look away as her gaze found his pupils. They were dilated as they searched her face, unfocused. He continued to blink abnormally, reaching for his head as he let go of her. The rain rocked, causing him to stumble back, reaching for the window railing for support.
“Apologies, Miss,” he mumbled before clumsily making his way past her, continuing to support himself.
Staring after him, a shiver ran down Briar’s spine.
“Excuse my friend.” Another man passed her. Dressed completely in black, he didn’t turn to her as he continued to speak, “He’s not used to traveling.”
“It’s alright,” Briar managed to say. Before she could glance at his face, the man took long strides after his friend. Still frozen to her spot, Briar continued to stare long after the two men were gone. Only when another passenger left their cabin did she snap from her trance.
Briar turned, as she planned on doing, only to rethink it immediately. Something was off about those two men, and her curiosity took the better of her. An unthinkable thought had risen in her mind, and with each step that she took the eagerness for conformation grew.
Briar was tempted. A handsome young man had caught her eye as she searched through the booths. He was sitting alone, and his charming smile was quite inviting. Biting her lip, she wondered if this young man could offer her as pleasant a time as his gloved fingers seemed to suggest. Glancing around the carriage, which was nearly empty. She doubted the older woman dozing off in the corner would mind.
“Thank you,” Briar said as she sat herself down across from him, the previous men losing her interest.
“John Smith,” he offered, raising his chin the tiniest bit with pride. “What a pleasure you could join me, Miss . . . ?”
“Briar Blakewell.” Tugging at her own gloves, Briar inspected his features. Blond curls, a bit messy but in an adoring way. His rounded face gave him a boyish look, but the broadness of his shoulders made up for it. Briar made mental note of his thin lips, not quite sure what to think of them. They seemed more appealing when he was still grinning up at her.
“Miss Blakewell,” he purred, leaning forward over the table, “first time visiting London?”
Briar shook her head, deciding to amuse him with a small laugh. “Oh no, Mr. Smith, London is my home.”
“Oh?” Mr. Smith raised his brow. “Then what were you doing so far from home?”
She waved her hand. “Visiting family with a friend.”
Mr. Smith opened his mouth to respond, but his words did not register as Briar’s eyes fell on a figure that rose from their seat. She stood without thinking, unable to look away from the pale man from before. How could she have missed him?
Slowly, he turned, holding his head as before. Squinting his eyes at her, his dry lips parted. Attempting a step forward, Briar was pushed back by Mr. Smith. He was . . . smaller than she expected.
Mr. Smith held his arm out to the man, his back turned to Briar. “Stay away from him,” he said, forcing her farther back. When she didn’t appear all that frightened, he added, “Do you know what this man is?”
Deciding to play dumb, Briar shook her head. After all, it was rather obvious, as obvious as Mr. Smith wanted to play her knight.
“He’s a vampire.”
Covering her mouth, she faked a gasp. “That can’t be true.”
Briar frowned as Mr. Smith grasped her hand, not feeling as attracted to him as when he was still seated. “I’ll keep you safe, Miss Blakewell, there is no need to feel frightened.”
Prying her hand from his, she took a step back. “Good, I’ll return to my cabin, then.”
Mr. Smith turned to her, eyebrows raised in surprise. She frowned a bit but assumed he knew as much as her about the vampire in front of them. Looking back up at him, she watched as he continued to blink and hold his head.
The most feared and hated vampire in London.
Briar had expected more from him.
Not wanting to actually return to her cabin, Briar moved past Mr. Smith, retracting her hand as he tried to catch it once more. As she reached Dante, she stopped. His eyes narrowed again, and for a brief second, they cleared.
Huffing an unladylike laugh, Briar jutted her chin. “I’ve seen worse.”
Not waiting for a reaction, she left.
When Briar finally returned to her cabin with Jane, her feet had tired and her mind bored. She had expected more from a first-class train. Men from outside of London simply didn’t look as appealing anymore. Though, most men were too old for her, which was also a waste of space.
Briar frowned as she noticed the people standing around her cabin. How rude.
“Excuse me,” she said, adding a demanding tone to her voice. “Excuse me, this is my cab—”
Her words fell quiet as the crowd parted for her, revealing the gruesome scene. Jane, her best friend, lay lifelessly on the bed. A large bite wound on her neck, her skin drained from all color. Her brown eyes stared up blankly, wide in an expression of terror and pain before darkness had taken her.
Not quite believing what she was seeing, Briar followed the blood trail that stained Jane’s once beautiful dress and the carpet below her limp, outstretched hand. At the end was another puzzle piece, and it simply did not match the image. Almost as lifeless as Jane, Dante sat propped up against the opposite wall of the room. If it wasn’t for the way he was heavily breathing, Briar would have declared him dead as well.
His mouth was covered with Jane’s blood, his fangs visible through his parted lips that were no longer dry.
Having seen enough, Briar closed her eyes briefly before stepping away. Everything after that was a blur, except for one thing. Clear as day, Briar’s mind repeated the words on a loop.
They would pay.