The feeling of his lips against hers sent Nellie into a blissful oblivion. It did not matter what had happened, why she was crying or where they were, only him. Hence, she kissed him back with the abandon of a soul who has been reunited with its mate after a long drought. She did not want this joyous moment to ever end.
Yet, her mind had other plans. That pesky voice inside her head would not shut up, reminding her that he was likely doing it again, using her, taking advantage of her and her seemingly undying love for him, only to abuse her when it tickled his fancy. He is not kissing you because he loves you, nor because cares about you, he just wants to manipulate you. He is a lonely man who wants to keep his little slave no matter the cost.
Said thoughts were becoming harder to ignore, and they were about to take a turn for the worst. He hates you, because you lied about his love. This is all part of his evil plan, to submit you, to make you think he could be yours and murder you when you least expect it. He's tried before…He can't love you, he never will. No one will.
Suddenly enraged, Eleanor pulled apart and raised her left hand to punch the man who'd both made her the happiest and the most miserable. She hit him, squarely on the nose. He had no time to react and stumbled backwards in the face of her assault. "Don't you do that ever again!", she warned him. Her tear-stricken face simultaneously conveying her boiling fury and her despair.
He brought his palm to his rapidly bruising nose, the anger that she'd hit him and the shooting pain she'd caused him did not prevent him from following her as she made her way back inside the ship. Because it was now or never, and even if he rationally knew she'd be better off without him, it wasn't so easy to let her go. He loved her, whether she hit him once or a millionth times. "Nellie, wait! Eleanor!"
Harold Winslow's rigid stance greeted them as soon as she crossed the glass door, with her supposed brother trailing close behind. Nellie felt as if all oxygen was leaving her lungs at the possibility of him having overheard, or worse, seen her kissing him. In both cases, their engagement would be broken, and she might even end up in jail. "Harry, dear, what is the matter?" she managed to sound calm, though her head was spinning.
"I was looking for you, Eleanor, everywhere. And you were here, with him" he replied after a few seconds, his tone stern, disproving. Oh, God, she thought. Her heart was pounding out of her chest as her house of cards crumbled before her eyes, the happy life she envisioned that would never be. Away from London, away from Sweeney Todd. Now they'd surely be deported, to rot together in Newgate before they were executed. Her child would never have a chance, all because of her stupidity. She could hardly breathe.
"The Duke of Bedford had passed away and instead of being with me paying our respects as my future wife ought to, you were seemingly frolicking with your brother without a care in the world!" he spat, his deep-set eyes looking accusatory at her.
That's it, he's seen, he knows, we're going to be arrested for incest. Or murder, or both! She felt her legs giving out and a sharp cramp low on her belly. Placing her hand there to soothe the anguished life within was the last thing she did before it all faded to black.
"Eleanor!" both men exclaimed in unison, but it was her fiancé who caught her in his arms before she dropped to the floor. "What did you do to her?" was his first reaction, prompting Sweeney to take a step back. Was he to blame? He seemed to have upset her past her breaking point with his theories, and the kiss. He regretted neither but she was pregnant, he should have been more careful.
"I… Nothing, we were just chatting. Family concerns, is all," he lied but all he got from Mr. Winslow was a scowl.
"People seem to drop like flies in your presence." Harold commented. What he was implying was not lost on Sweeney, but he had no proof. Besides, there were more important matters to worry about now. Namely, Nellie's health and that of their baby.
"We must take her to the doctor." Sweeney's own words surprised him, for he hated the kind. Thieving leeches he would have called them not so long ago, as he fantasized about demise. He could picture Nellie rolling her eyes at his suggestion, quipping something sarcastic at the irony but with her eyes betraying she was touched he cared enough to bring it up. Yet, she couldn't, because she was lying motionless in her fiancées arms as Sweeney's worry skyrocketed the longer she remained unresponsive.
"Nonsense, she just needs some rest. I'll take her to her cabin" Harold stated.
"I insist, Mr. Winslow. A doctor should examine her, so we can make sure she is all right."
"And I insist it will not be necessary. She merely fainted, happens to every lady, even to one that is hale and hearty like Eleanor. Unless she has a condition I'm unaware of…" Harold's blue eyes scanned Eleanor's body but while in the early stages of her pregnancy, her body and the corset concealed that she was with child. Hence, he replied confidently.
"None, but she…"
"With all due respect, I urge you to step aside so I can take my fiancée to my room. Leave her to me." Harold cut him off vehemently and for a split second, Sweeney contemplated unsheathing his razor, to hold it against that very deserving neck because he didn't care to blow his cover and go to jail as long as Nellie got the help she needed. But revealing his identity would also lead to the reveal of hers. He was between a rock and a hard place, but before he made a decision he regretted, something seemed to shift in Harold. "But now that you mention it, a doctor's examination could do no further harm. I have noticed some… quirks of her that perchance merit a physician's opinion. Namely, her seemingly bottomless hunger for someone so petit. Yes, I suppose I'll have someone fetch doctor Allermann."
Without another word, he properly scooped Nellie up with surprising vigour for a man of his age and carried her to their cabin that was merely a couple of corridors away. Equally silent, Sweeney trailed behind as worry utter terror consumed every fibre of his being. The worry he felt that Harold found out about the pregnancy was nothing compared to the paralysing fear he felt when he thought about her or their baby's lives being in danger and hence, he didn't say anything, just followed the man until they reached the wooden door that led to her room.
Harold fished for a key in his pocket and carefully opened, surprising Sweeney that he had a key to her room in the first place. Did she trust him that much? Then, as if Sweeney were his servant, he sent him to fetch the doctor. For Nellie, he did, only to be turned at the door when he returned with the medical professional.
"I'm afraid it's not appropriate for a brother to see his sister so intimately exposed," he argued.
"Neither is for her fiancé, you are not yet married" Sweeney said and the cheeky grin that spread across Harold's face made him yearn for his razor once more. What an insufferable man.
"Before I get the wrong idea about your… interest in your sister, I suggest you take your leave now. What would people say? What would the law say? For just the suspicion of incest is a serious offence…" he threatened, his smile not faltering. He was enjoying this but Sweeney had no fighting ground. Thus, he turned round and made his way to steerage class with a heavy yet resigned heart.
It was for the best, but the pain he felt was akin to being transported to Australia once more. He was losing whom he loved, and there was little he could do about it.
Twelve more hours, the captain had predicted their voyage would take. In just half a day, the shores of New York would welcome them with open arms to their new home, to the land of opportunities, the land of the free. Yet tonight, everyone, everybody was dancing and drinking as if it were their last night before meeting the noose.
Or at least, that's what it felt like for Nellie. She couldn't help it, the overpowering dread that filled her whenever she thought about the uncertainty in her future. She didn't know what had happened, for he refused to tell her what the matter was, but Harold had been cold and distant ever since she woke up in her bed with a doctor checking her vitals after she supposedly fainted. And there were many reasons he could be acting that way, he could have found out about her real relationship with Sweeney and how they were more than siblings, he could have found out about the baby she was carrying, one that there was no way she could be able to pass as his at this point. Or perhaps, he'd simply realised she wasn't worth it, that she was fatally flawed and that making her his wife would be a terrible mistake.
He'd denied it when she confronted him. When she, sick of his callousness and his endless questions bordering on impertinence—and worst of all, his silent treatment— had plainly asked him if he'd like to call off the wedding. His response had confused her even further: the man had dropped to his knees and held her hand, kissing repeatedly as he apologised for making her doubt his commitment, only to grow cold as ice once more when her lies and her otherwise skilful deception did not seem to cut it.
She sighed. They were nearing Sweeney's territory with the contradictory signs, and she did not like it one bit. It was exhausting.
"Nellie, are you even listening to me?" her friend Marjorie called, but there was concern in her blue eyes that made Nellie's stomach churn. She was sick of being pitied.
"Sorry, dear, guess I was away with the fairies for a spell," she replied, avoiding her gaze. Instead, she focused on the dancing couples around them, on the cacophony of sounds, from the faint melody of the Irish fiddle living up the event to the loud cackles of those who'd already had more than their fair share of whatever cheap concoction they dared to call liqueur.
Back in the steerage dining saloon as they celebrated the not so negligible feat of surviving the trip when shipwrecks were the order of the day, Nellie couldn't deny the relief she felt now that she was amongst her kind. Just being Nellie Lovett, the lower-middle class baker with no formal education and nobody gave a tinker's cuss about it. Nellie was getting sick of pretending to be someone she was not, to the point that she even contemplated calling off the wedding herself.
Harold didn't love her, she was certain of it now, that he was infatuated at best. And even if that eventually led to some form of love, it wouldn't be the real Nellie he'd fall for, because he would never see but a glimpse of that woman. Hers would be a life of lies, beyond any she'd told before for her entire identity would be built upon a castle of falsehoods and half-truths. Was she truly so delusional to think she would be happy if she married Harold? No, but at least she'd have money. If she'd stayed with Sweeney, she'd have neither love nor money, only misery, pain, and sorrow. But at least, that'd be real.
"You miss him, don't you? You wish he were here tonight…" Marjorie's outlandish claim got her attention, and she snorted in irritation.
"I do not. I am much better without that addlepate round me. I can't wait to get to New York, so I won't have to see his angry scowls ever again. He repulses me," she declared so firmly, that she almost believed it. But her friend looked confused.
"I thought you were marrying him?" she questioned. "Since, you're still wearing his ring."
Looking at her hand, at the golden band encircling her finger and the rose-cut amethyst gemstone in the middle that must have cost more than her monthly earnings back in the pie shop, she realised her friend meant Harold. Why would Marjorie mean Sweeney? She was the one thinking of him, and that was very telling. Still, she shook her head nonchalantly.
"Yes, of course I'm marrying Harold. I thought you were talking about somebody else. I do wish Harold was here, but he is celebrating with his kind." That was a lie, because despite being invited to socialise with the better sort, she'd chosen to spend her last night aboard with her commoner peers and hadn't even asked him to accompany her. In this party that resembled a bacchanal more than it did the fancy event taking place upstairs, she was certain she would not see Harold—nor Sweeney. She needed a break from the heartaches and the men who were driving her madder than she already was.
"I didn't want to bring it up, Nell," Marjorie began. "Because you looked happy, but I'm not sure anymore. I mean, you look awfully tired tonight, dear, your eyes are a bit puffy as if you've been crying all day…. You still love Charles, don't you?"
"I do not" she was quick to answer, but the quivering in her voice betrayed that this was another one of her lies. And before she knew it, her eyes were watering, her heart screaming to let it all out battling against her tireless mind that urged her to be careful. "I… don't know. He's hurt me so much; I don't think I can forgive him for what he did to me. But I guess… when you've loved someone for so long, it's just hard to stop. He's like a bad vice, I can't quit. Maybe it's not even love, really, because not a day goes by when I don't ask myself how demented I must be to love someone like him. Maybe it's just an obsession, an addiction, or maybe it's indeed love. A dark, twisted form of love. It's like I've been possessed or something, he has this pull on me. But I know he doesn't love me, that he doesn't even care, so it's quite feckless to be discussing this when I'm engaged to a man who, at the very least, offers me better prospects for the future."
"You still love him! If you love him, there's always a way!" the younger woman exclaimed to a perplexed Nellie. It was as if she hadn't heard anything else but her admission that she still loved such a man. Such a simple-minded thing, she was, so Nellie couldn't expect her to understand the nuances in her stance when it came to Sweeney and it would be pointless to even try. Despite this, the baker found her reaction somewhat endearing. She too, had been that foolish once, wholeheartedly believing that love would conquer all. She'd been forced to snap out of it in the rudest, most painful awakening, but she hoped her friend never had to. "Especially with a child on the way!"
Nellie's eyes popped open like saucers and her first instinct was to place a hand over her mouth to shush her, then look around to make sure nobody else had heard. With this hoard of busybodies, there was no doubt the gossip would reach Harold's ears sooner rather than later and that was the last thing she needed. But fortunately, everybody seemed to be engrossed in their own debauchery to pay attention to their conversation. "What child? There's no child."
"Oh, c'mon, you don't have to lie to me!" She smiled a knowing smile that left Nellie defenceless. "I may not be a mother myself, but I come from a big family and I know when a woman is expecting, your face changes, as does your appetite and of course, your body. Fear not, your secret is safe with me" she reassured her. "Congratulations, by the way."
It wasn't often that Nellie was left speechless, but her friend's sharp observation had left her so. She had certainly underestimated Marjorie, and she did not feel like denying it anymore, so she nodded. Once the cat was out of the bag, she couldn't help but feel like a weight had lifted off her shoulders. She allowed herself to smile warmly, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, as she brought her palm to her stomach, as if to cradle the life within. "Thank you. It was certainly unexpected, and definitely inconvenient, but it happened and I'm happy about it. I've always wanted to become a mum, you see?"
"And you will be the best one" Marjorie told her, and her smile only grew. She'd forgotten how wonderful it was to have a friend to perk someone up. "I'm guessing Charles is the father?" Nellie nodded curtly but her friend seemed even more excited. "And he loves you, you can be a family! You don't have to marry Mr. Winslow just for the money, Charles will provide for you…"
"You know nothing." Nellie spat, disgust in her voice as she banged her fists against the table. She was so sick of everyone assuming she was marrying Harold just for the money. Because she was, yes, but they didn't know what had driven her to it. She no longer believed in love. Besides, apart from his money, she was marrying him for security and that was something she valued above everything else, given her circumstances. In her frustration, she noticed her friend jumping, her eyes filled with regret. Nellie's heart dropped. Just because almost every person she'd met had been cruel to her, that didn't give her carte blanche to be mean to the very few who seemed to care. She was better than him.
"Sorry, it's just…" she began. "Charles doesn't love me, he loves nobody. He can't love."
"I don't know what he's done to you," Marjorie admitted, and Nellie looked down. It was too painful to even think about. The younger woman held her hand for support. "But he does love you. I mean, have you seen him since you made your engagement to Mr. Winslow? Moping around like a lost soul, he's practically mourning you. The loss of you."
Nellie shook her head, taking a deep breath before confessing the bitter truth. Or part of it. "No, if anything, it's not me who's mourning. I mean before we chose to leave for America, he lost someone. The only woman he ever loved. If anything, I'm just a consolation prize, the last one standing between him and solitude for the rest of his existence. That doesn't mean he loves me, but he thinks he needs me. To have me around the house cooking his meals and cleaning after him, and warming his bed every night. That's the only thing I'm good for." Her voice was surprisingly calm and collected, the many nights she'd spent crying over it had numbed her to the pain of realising herself a convenience, the one to call when he'd committed murder or when he was feeling horny or both. Always a need, never a want.
"That woman you mention, that's his first wife, right? Yes, Jonathan mentioned that Charles told him about her. Lillian, wasn't it?" It wasn't, but Nellie didn't bother correcting her. Because this was the confirmation he needed, that Sweeney was still thinking about her. His beloved wife, he would never forget her. She already knew, but nevertheless, it stung. "He said that he loved her, but that he loved an idealised version of her, loved her in a superficial way. But that he loves you, with your flaws and virtues, he loves all of you, deeply."
Her breath hitched in her throat. It can't be true, can it? No, of course not. She cursed her gullible heart for even contemplating falling for it, when his actions spoke much louder than any words Jonathan might have heard spew out of his lying mouth. Why would he even tell him that? He doesn't even trust his own shadow and he'd rejected Johnathan friendship as far as she knew. Oh, she saw it clearly now, he lied to Jonathan so those lies reached her ears and hopefully manipulated her into calling off the wedding and forgiving him. And she was supposed to be the cunning one… "That's just a load of codswallop. If he loved me, he wouldn't treat me the way he does."
Her friend's expression was one of sympathetic understanding, but she was not deterred when it came to proving her. "Nellie, I don't know what that man did to you, and I don't think you're going to tell me, but it's painfully obvious that he is in love with you. Have you seen the way he looks at you? How his expression softens, as if he'd just realised what love is. I'm sure it doesn't speak of his character but that frown is off-puting, and it completely fades away when you're together. And it's also in the way he worries because that shows he cares and…"
"Enough!" Nellie yelled, sick of talking about Sweeney. Couldn't she see she was trying to move on? "He's hurt me! More than anyone has ever hurt me, and I don't care what you think you've perceived because facts are facts, and the facts are that he doesn't love me! Trust me, I'd know."
"Sorry… I was just trying to help" Marjorie apologised, but Nellie didn't want any of it.
"But you were not helping. I've made up my mind to marry Harold and even if I'm not madly in love with him, I know I'll be better off married to him than to Sweeney" Marjorie nodded, overcome with the shame of overstepping and Nellie felt her frustration slowly ebbing away. "I don't want to fight with you on our last night together, you've been a good friend to me so let's just drop it, shall we? The man is dead to me now, and we do not mess with the dead. Let's just talk about something else, like Agnes Milford and her shoes she supposedly stole from… Wait, isn't that…?"
She stopped dead in her tracks when her eyes caught sight of a figure in the distance. Plump, wild-haired, with that characteristic smile of hers… It couldn't be, couldn't it? She was dead, yet it was impossible to err in her identification. Her mouth agape in monumental surprise, she visibly jumped when she felt a gentle tapping on her left shoulder and she turned around to see just another ghost—one she'd prematurely tried to kill just moments ago.
A whirlwind of emotion coursed through her as she stared at him, the woman in the distance now seen through the prophetic lens of a tragedy-warning banshee. Because she never expected to see him here, she thought herself safe in the crowd, but there he was. Looking more handsome than ever in a proper suit, his hair combed back and he was smiling softly, as if instead of a villain he was her dashing Romeo. They said demons could adopt many forms, and there was no doubt in her mind that their earlier invocations had brought him to her in the way she always dreamed he'd return after 15 years at sea. Yet, it was a mirage.
"May I have this dance?" he dared to ask, his obsidian eyes sparkling with something akin to…
"No." She would not be swayed nor persuaded. The weight of his actions acting like a ball chain around her ankles, even when her heart and soul wanted to fly to him.
"Come on, Nellie, dance with him!" Marjorie encouraged, not at all surprised by Sweeney's arrival, as if she knew… For the first time she saw her not as a clueless yet well-intentioned friend, but as a traitor. She'd been set up.
"No." she repeated, turning back so she was no longer facing that face. So she didn't see him crumbling in the most fantastic performance she'd seen him giving. It was then that she noticed quite the coterie of busybodies around their table, greedy eyes watching them in anticipation. The ill-fated lovers seemed to be more interesting than their otherwise relentless pursuit of debauchery. And they seemed to have picked a side.
"Dance with him!" they said, over and over again in a cacophony of disembodied voices that were making her dizzy. "C'mon, he came all the way here just for you. He hates parties, yet he is here." This time, she didn't know if it was them of her heart talking, but she'd had enough. There was only one way to shut them up.
"Alright!" she screamed, and everyone cheered as they partied just slightly to allow him to lead her to the dancefloor. Then, the room seemed to grow silent, only the thumping of her heart thundered in her ears.
"Let's do a slow one now. For all the shy lovers out there, hoping this is the last push they need to confess their feelings" a band member announced in his thick Irish lilt, and Nellie craned her neck towards his voice. Standing behind him with a victorious smirk on his face as his eyes met hers, was Jonathan Denton. Of course, she should have known Marjorie would not be acting alone.
Her anger grew, and she found herself stepping onto Sweeney's toes, purposely, so he'd release her. He grimaced at the sudden pain, but the hand holding hers—nor the one in the small of her back sending goosebumps all over— did not budge. She tried again, but it yielded the same results.
"You can try to hurt me all you want, but I'm not letting you go. Not until the song is over. You agreed to dance with me, and I know you keep your promises." he told her, his voice stern yet calm. She relented, but not without a dramatic eye roll to show her displease.
She intended to give him the silent treatment, like he'd done many times. To give him a taste of her own medicine and dance with him physically, while her mind attempted to conjure a kinder lover. But it wasn't helping, for his predecessors whose experiences with her could compare were not much better. Similar monsters, under different names. Unrequited, weakened, selfish, doomed lovers. And her dream man, the ethereal vision of perfection she summoned in her darkest days, seemed to have materialised and he was holding her close and they moved about the room to the music beat.
"How are you feeling?" he spoke again, unaware of her internal tumult. "After you fainted… I told Mr. Winslow to get a doctor and I wanted to ask him about you, but he was nowhere to be seen today. I was worried about you, Eleanor."
She didn't know what struck her as odder, the sound of her full name coming out of his lips when she'd gotten used to him calling her by the sweeter, simpler Nellie unless they were fighting, the admission—or the lie—that he was worried, or that he claimed to have been the one concerned enough to call for a doctor when Harold had told her otherwise. In his own words: "Your spineless brother left me as soon as you fainted, that cowardly rat, probably because he knew he was responsible for your predicament. Tell me, Eleanor, what brought this on?" And she'd naturally lied to him, but what Harold told her about Sweeney did not seem out of character. He'd rather flee than face responsibility for his actions. And now he was affirming otherwise. Who to trust?
It was a lot, so she focused on answering the question, rather succinctly. "I'm fine."
"And the baby? How is the baby?" He seemed eager to know and God forbade her thinking he could mean it. That he could care for that small, defenceless creature that didn't move his heart one bit when she told him she was expecting, her perceived saving grace was nothing but an aggravating factor for him, yet another reason she should die. She'd seen it in his eyes that night, and no matter what he said now, she would not forget.
"It's fine, not that you care…" she responded nonetheless, and she found a small relief in saying out loud what she'd convinced herself was true; that her baby was fine. The doctor hadn't said anything, and she'd guessed he was still clueless about the pregnancy. And she hadn't bled, hadn't felt but that single cramp before she fainted. That had to mean the baby was fine, right? But what if he wasn't? Oh, Lord, what if there was no baby?
"Who did you steal that suit from?" she asked him all of a sudden, anything to prevent her mind from thinking about everything that could go wrong. Sweeney suspected that was the reason for the abrupt change in the conversation, or perhaps it was because she truly believed he did not care. He didn't press on in any case, if she'd attempted to murder her and the child, he'd too have his reservations and they would be more than fair.
"Rented it from Mr. Parry" he answered, referring to the travelling tailor who had some pieces from other seasons he didn't mind renting or selling to his fellow passengers. It had costed him a pretty penny, but she'd always told him how she wished he dressed differently, more gentlemanly. She wore her best every night at the shop and it wasn't a good look to have him perched on the railing with an untucked shirt and stained trousers. And he wanted to please her tonight. "Do you like it? He said the fabric was velveteen, I've seen it in your dresses, like the one you're wearing tonight, so I thought it'd be to your liking."
His voice quivered almost imperceptibly, and he bit his lip in anxious awaiting for her response. Being honest about his intent was not something he was used to. Weeks ago, she would have melted at his nervous stance, at his desire to please. Or to be frank, she'd have been as happy as a clam just to hear him say he paid any attention to her dresses. Today, however, it all seemed spurious.
"I don't. You look ridiculous, like a corpse ready for viewing after embalming." she said. She knew she was cruel; she did not care. But it was true, she did not like it, for those clothes did not represent who he was, the essence of him that she'd fallen in love with. She was sick of pretence.
Her mockery did not affect him, for he knew it was coming from a wounded heart. He too said many things he didn't mean, things he later regretted, just because he was hurting. "You, on the other hand, look beautiful. You are beautiful."
And she was, clad in an exquisite gown of black velveteen with white lace at the hem and the upper part of her heart-shaped bodice. Her hair messily pinned up and her face bare save for rouge on her lips. She'd done nothing special, yet there was something about her tonight he couldn't quite put a finger on, a certain glow that made her more resplendent than the bright full moon adorning the sky tonight. How he loved her…
"Cheap flattery won't get you anywhere" she said coolly. But Nellie Lovett was not as unaffected as she tried to make him believe, for her heart was melting at his words, at the way he was looking at her and when he smiled an uncharacteristic smile full of… love—or what she always thought that would be like—she almost lost it. Overwhelmed, she looked away. Nothing good could ever come from caving in whenever he was sweet to her. She'd learnt her lesson the hard way.
"I know," he replied, and he decided to change topics once more. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable. "Do you remember the first time we waltzed?"
She nodded curtly as the memories flew in, not at all unpleasant. She remembers it as if it were yesterday, the electrifying touch of his skin, the soaring of her heart when he spoke. "How I've lived without you all these years I never know, my dear, my pet…" and especially, that "my love". Those two words said nonchalantly made her believe that her wildest dreams could finally come true. That he could love her, her! Nellie Lovett, amoral, improper, some would even call her a mumbling cove, or just a wagtail. Not a woman anyone would fall for, surely, but he might! And he'll marry me, take me to the sea, to spend the rest of our lives together, even when my breasts sag and my belly pouches and I'm too weak to blow the grounsils all night long. He would still be with her then, she dared to imagine, that he would never leave her, because it was her mind that had impressed him, not her many attempts at seduction. He is different, he will be.
The jaded Nellie of the present stared at her past self with mockery in her eyes. Silly little Nell, you were too drunk in love, your head spinning from the waltz to realise. He was just like the others. No, he was worse. Used you thoroughly, wanted to toss you to the fire when he was done. She wanted to hate him. "This will be our last dance."
"I know," he replied, his tone solemn. No protest, no question, not one last attempt to convince her that he could change, he seemed to have surrendered. Then what was the point of this charade?
"Then why are you here? Why are you wasting my time with all this? Dressed to the nines, asking me for a dance when you hate dancing, and parties, and people? I don't want to see you. After we get to New York tomorrow, I'm marrying Harold and our paths will never cross again. I'm not changing my mind, I really am not."
Her words stung, but he didn't allow himself to crumble before her eyes. "I know, and I respect that. All I want is for you to be well, Eleanor, and I understand you don't want me by your side, after all I did to you." She nodded, his words tasting like validation, like vindication. It was the closure she needed. "But I wanted one last memory with you."
Her heart, and the world around her seemed to stop upon hearing his words. One last memory with her. Not arguing, not crying, not even trying to put on a bandage on a bullet wound in the form of passionate kisses and sensual caresses until their minds shut off. No, this was raw, real, a man and a woman with troubled yet kindred spirits and tortured hearts, twirling around in each other's arms. As if it were them against the world. Like it could have been.
For the first time, Nellie, found herself wishing she'd done things differently. That she'd told him the truth about Lucy from the start. She was beyond salvation, that poor thing, not even passable as a prostitute, with her mind too far gone and her body too wretched by disease. She'd told herself that she'd done it to spare him the suffering, better to think her death that alive yet mad, nothing but the carcass of the woman he loved. But that wasn't why, or not only. The truth was that she'd been frightened today that as soon as he found out Lucy was alive, he would have run to her, leaving Nellie forever.
Yes, perhaps he would have stormed off her parlour never to be seen again, devoting the rest of his days to finding a cure like a madman, like she feared. But perhaps he simply would have grieved all but her bodily loss and moved on—perhaps, and only perhaps, into the arms of the woman who'd waited for him for fifteen years. And Lucy's throat would not have been the last one he slit, for he would have recognised her, and Nellie not the lying witch who deserved to burn like her kind, but the supportive friend she always strived to be. She just wanted to make him happy, to love him.
And her fears, her selfishness, had won the battle. She'd taken that chance from him without a second thought. She told herself that he would never know…
Doomed from the start, with nobody but herself to blame, the relationship, the twisted partnership they built in those long months was rooted in deceit and nothing remotely true could ever come out of it. But she still remembered that one look in his eyes on that fateful night, just before he recognized the mangled corpse of his wife and realised she'd betrayed him. It was akin to the one he was giving her now. It wasn't love, it couldn't be love, yet it felt like it.
Nellie melted into those obsidian orbs as a lone tear fell down her cheek. He gently wiped it with his thumb and her heart ached, her stomach knotted. It was too late for them now, yet everything but Sweeney faded away as she thought about what could have been.
Neither said another word, for there was no need to. Lost in each other's eyes, they danced for what felt like hours.
"Eleanor." A deep voice behind her made her jump, and she and Sweeney pulled apart as if struck by lightning.
Blinking a couple of times, she realised that the waltz was long over, the band was no longer on stage and the previously bustling party had been reduced to a bunch of drunkards loitering around. She'd completely lost track of time but the look of barely concealed anger in her fiancé's eyes. Oh, dear…
"You! I told you to stay away from her!" he yelled at Sweeney, as a shocked Nellie's gaze travelled between the two. What were they not telling her? Did this have anything to do with the doctor issue or was there more? Harold did ask a whole lot of questions about her supposed brother Charles. In any case, she knew she had to calm the waters before Sweeney predictably reacted to Harold's verbal onslaught. His finger was poking his chest accusatorily and Sweeney's eyes were darkening as his anger rose.
"There, there, dear. What's this all about? We were just dancing! We've been dancing since we were little, we learned together at Madam Humphrey's in Blackpool and it's just something we have always enjoyed. Just a silly waltz, certainly not something worth fretting over." she lied, her voice sweet as molasses to soothe what seemed to be jealousy. Of her supposed brother, which made it even more puzzling.
If he hadn't seen them kissing, which she did not know for sure but it was unlikely because he hadn't confronted her and the wedding was still on, then perhaps he too had seen it, what Marjorie claimed to have, what she just recently took a glimpse of; that strange look resembling love. But even then, it could just be family love or just general appreciation! For if that had been lust in his eyes, they'd surely be behind the bar shagging like rabbits. She could never have resisted Sweeney in that heightened state of emotion she was in.
Harold was taking it all out of context, but she knew jealousy rarely made sense. Because look at her, still insanely jealous of a ghost! Hence, to reassure him, she pressed her body flush against him and helped his face to rest on the generous swell of her bosom. Nothing better to melt a man's troubles away.
"Come with me!" he ordered her, grabbing her hand with an urgency that gave her an idea of what would happen next. He would lead her to his cabin and take her roughly, staking a claim on her. And she would have no choice but to comply, but to aim to please like the dutiful wife she wished to become. Even if tonight, she was certain it would be Sweeney she'd see when she closed her eyes, and she would not attempt to fight it.
The barber stood, watching them leave with a saddened expression but there was nothing he could do. It was the way of the world, a groom reclaiming his bride from the arms of a man who'd lost every right to call her his. This was it, it was over, this was the last time he would see the woman whose love he squandered, because tomorrow, the rich would disembark first. He would be lucky to catch one last glimpse of her, and he would try everything to, but if he couldn't, he would always have tonight.
All of a sudden, there was a sharp pang in his chest. Bringing his hand to it, he could feel his heart thumping from within as his pulse began to race. Was this what dying feels like?, he wondered but he was not scared. Without his baker, he didn't have much left to live for. Yet that ultimate relief did not come nor did any kind of physical pain. He didn't know what this was, if these were further symptoms of the worst heartache he'd ever experienced—because this time, it wasn't a lustful judge who stole his love from him, it was him who'd pushed her away. But it did not seem to go away, if anything, it seemed to grow with every passing minute. There was now a persistent tugging at his soul, urging him to move forward as a sense of dread came over him. He suddenly knew.
He strode towards the saloon class cabins. He had to see her, that was the only thing he knew. But when he knocked on the door of both hers and Harold's like a possessed werewolf in a full moon, nobody answered. Pressing his head to the door, he heard nothing. Panic rose in his chest. If he hadn't taken her to the room, where could they be? So late at night, dining saloons and kitchens were closed. He checked the deck, still nothing and chances were slim that they were in somebody else's cabin. It was then that it hit him: the loading dock.
Not wasting another second, he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Luckily, he still had a key. As soon as he managed to open the heavy door, he was faced with the most harrowing image, making his blood run cold.
It was that man, holding a gun at Nellie Lovett's head.