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A Steady Future

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She had never seen anyone be killed before this trip.

Cornelia Robson owned she didn’t have the most exciting life, but this – this was not exciting. It was horrible.

First beautiful Linnet Doyle – Cornelia had admired her looks, even if Linnet’s father had been responsible for ruining her own, leaving them at the mercy of Cousin Marie’s whims for any little luxuries – shot dead in her sleep, on her honeymoon.

Then garish Mrs. Otterbourne – Cornelia hadn’t wanted to say so, but she had once peeked at a copy of a Salome Otterbourne novel that the library was discarding, and it was not edifying in the least – but it was still a horrifying way to die. And poor Rosalie! You could tell that even though her mother was a severe trial, Rosalie loved her.

Then Mrs. Doyle’s maid, not that Cornelia had really known her. Still three deaths on their very short trip down the Nile were a bit disturbing, not that she had ever thought herself in danger.

Then, there was the rather thrilling gathering where Mr. Poirot revealed how everything had actually happened, as opposed to what Cornelia and Mr. Ferguson had witnessed. Cornelia had been thinking to herself how exciting this story would be at home, how no one would believe how much excitement had been packed into one short cruise – even more than Italy and France.

Cornelia had felt bad for Jacqueline, in a way she had not felt bad for Simon Doyle. Jacqueline had planned a crime, helped commit a crime, but she had done what she did for love. Simon Doyle had shot his wife while she slept for her money, money that he had no right to. Mr. Ferguson had argued that Linnet had no right to it either, but politics had never been one of Cornelia’s interests. She might feel sorrow and regret over what would happen to Jacqueline, but she could not deny that she had to be punished.

Jacqueline had accepted it as well, Cornelia knew – Mr. Poirot had let her visit with her under supervision, much to Cousin Marie’s dismay – and had focused all of her attention on making things as easy for Simon as possible. Cornelia wondered what it would be like to love someone that deeply, that intensely, that you were willing to go to the hangman at their side, that you willingly choose the noose over being left without them. Somehow, she doubted that she would find a love like that. Love like that was for women like Jacqueline, with dark intense beauty and passion – not for women like Cornelia, who people might not even notice unless they needed something.

As Jacqueline had said herself, if they had carried it off, she would have shed no tears for Linnet Doyle, who had once been her friend. She would have spent Linnet Doyle’s money without looking back. All of her concern had been for the man she loved, for Simon. She had poured out the whole story for Cornelia, who had decided halfway through that Simon Doyle seemed a rather stupid sort of man. He had gotten into “trouble in the city”, as Jacqueline euphemistically phrased it. She wasn’t certain just what he had done, but surely everyone knew that you couldn’t help yourself to money that wasn’t yours. Cornelia had no doubt that deep down, he had known he was doing wrong, even if he had convinced Jacqueline otherwise – or rather, she had convinced herself.

Jacqueline had declared that she would be strong for Simon’s sake, but Cornelia had never dreamed what she had meant by it. She started shaking again as she saw it all happen in her memory.

Jacqueline, kneeling beside her lover, asking Mr. Poirot if she might kiss Simon one last time, pleading that they might not be permitted another kiss. He had agreed, and she had kissed him. Then, as swift as a snake, she had shot him straight through the heart – a painless death. Before anyone could react, she had turned the small pistol against her own chest and pulled the trigger, her body collapsing in a sad little huddle next to Simon.

Cornelia wondered if Mr. Poirot had known that Jacqueline had a pistol, wondered if he had allowed the entire scene to play out as it had – and if so, why? Perhaps he, too, had felt sorry for Jacqueline de Bellefort.

“Now, now,” she heard Dr. Bessner say as he placed an arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead, “you should not be upset, my Cornelia.”

Dr. Bessner – Karl, Cornelia thought to herself with a smile – was not as handsome as Mr. Doyle or Mr. Ferguson, but he had a calm steadiness that she liked.

They had gotten to know each other better while he was caring for Simon Doyle. Cornelia had learned a little practical nursing in order to deal with her poor mother, who was always suffering from some sort of attack that left her invalidish and irritable. She wasn’t a trained nurse, but she was the only woman on board with any experience. That, and she enjoyed being helpful. And she had initially felt bad for the wounded man, now a widower.

Dr. Bessner had been the first man on the trip – indeed, the first man in quite some time – to pay her any real attention, and Cornelia had enjoyed seeing the sights of the trip with him. Her German was very rudimentary, but he spoke good English and was quite patient with her attempts to speak his language.

She particularly liked the way he called her “my Cornelia”, his accent making her name sound more musical and less prosaic. He had not been the only man to pay her any attention – Cornelia wasn’t counting Mr. Poirot, who was chivalrous and polite, but nothing more – but he was almost the exact opposite of Mr. Ferguson. He had been cocky and overly self-assured and so easily convinced that she would say yes to his proposal of marriage. Cousin Marie had been quite dismayed, once Mr. Poirot had informed her that Mr. Ferguson was not the penniless young man he pretended to be, but Cornelia could not bring herself to say yes. She didn’t care how rich he was.

She simply didn’t care for him.

She had come to care for Karl Bessner, and had been quite surprised – but pleased! So pleased! – when he had asked her to marry him.

So she shut her eyes and leaned against him, enjoying the solid reassurance of his shoulder, and hoped she would not see Jacqueline in her dreams that evening.

***

The trip back to London was a little tense. Cornelia had been able to get a telegram off to her mother, promising a letter as soon as possible. She was a little sad not to have her mother at her wedding, but she had a sneaking suspicion that one of her mother’s health issues would have flared up, rather than risk Cousin Marie’s displeasure.

Karl’s plans had already included a trip back to London, where he had friends, before traveling back to his clinic in Czechoslovakia.

Luckily, he wasn’t the only one traveling in that direction, since Cornelia could hardly travel alone with a man she wasn’t married to. Cousin Marie had to travel back to London to catch her ship to sail back to America. Mr. Poirot lived in London. The Allertons and Rosalie Otterbourne were also traveling back to London, so the issue of propriety was handled.

Cornelia had the impression that Mrs. Allerton rather enjoyed poking at Cousin Marie, and Karl had wired to London to see about hiring a nurse-companion to make the trip back to America with Cousin Marie. Mr. Poirot had given her the name of a dressmaker and one of his own cards, telling her that it would smooth the way for her to acquire a wedding outfit.

They would be married quietly in London at the Embassy, and then travel to Czechoslovakia. Cornelia was quite looking forward to the train trip, especially since she would be able to do as she pleased, rather than tending to Cousin Marie’s needs.

Karl’s proposal had not been as romantic and flowery as the ones she had read in novels, but his admiration of her had been sincere. Cornelia was a thousand times more satisfied with his simple sincerity than with someone else’s flowery compliments, and while she was not an expert on kissing, she found kissing Karl to be quite pleasant indeed. There was no rushing and fumbling, only steadiness.

The idea of helping in his clinic might not be a super romantic one either, but Cornelia thought it would be fascinating. After all, she had already spent a great deal of her life dealing with people’s problems simply because she happened to be their poor relation. With Karl, she would have more choice about whose problems she took on.

She was looking forward to it.

***

Cornelia sat at the delicate vanity table in the guest room, studying her reflection. The dressmaker Mr. Poirot had suggested had outdone herself, making Cornelia a lovely and simple ivory wedding-dress, as well as a smart dove-gray traveling suit for tomorrow. Cornelia had the sneaking suspicion that she had severely undercharged her, given the speed with which the garments had been obtained. Karl had engaged a Miss Bowers to travel back to America with Cousin Marie, and Cornelia was almost sad she wouldn’t get to witness the rather peppery and competent woman deal with Cousin Marie.

She had also gone on a shopping trip with Mrs. Allerton and Rosalie, who would also need a trousseau shortly, and found a luxurious ivory silk slip and negligee, trimmed with the most beautiful lace. It had been the most ridiculous splurge, but she was only going to be a bride once – and Cornelia wanted to enjoy being a bride. Perhaps she didn’t have an extravagant dress and bridesmaids and a lavish reception, but she would have this.

Now, after the ceremony where everyone except for Cousin Marie had smiled, after the early dinner which Mr. Poirot had insisted on treating the guests to, after an evening spent looking around every time someone called her Frau Bessner, Cornelia was alone in their bedroom. She had excused herself because she needed a little bit of time alone, and because she wanted to slip into her extravagant purchase and look her best when Karl came up to bed.

She turned in surprise at a knock on the door. Cornelia had known it would be him, but she was thankful that he gave her a moment to ensure she was ready. “Come in,” she called.

Cornelia rather enjoyed the look on his face as he saw her sitting there in her silk negligee, with her tawny curls tumbling around her face. It was not just that his smile had a way of transforming his face, but that he looked at her in a way which didn’t make her feel big and clumsy, as she’d often felt. There was an open admiration that made her feel…beautiful. He had told her how much he liked her figure, but it was rather nice to see it reflected on his face.

“You are beautiful, my Cornelia,” he told her, before saying something in German that she couldn’t quite catch, then bent down to kiss her and take her breath away, his fingers gliding lightly along her neck and underneath the negligee in a way that made her shiver as she caught at his shoulders. Part of her his mouth left hers. His lips skimmed along her neck, as he pushed back the sleeves of her negligee. “So lovely.”

“No one has ever said that to me,” she whispered as she tilted her head back to give him better access.

His hands tightened on her shoulders for a moment. “You must let me show you then. Often.”

“I..I would like that,” she said, before she leaned forward to kiss him, this time. Then he was sweeping her up into his arms and carrying her towards the bed.

***

There were only Karl’s friends to see them off the next morning, for which Cornelia was quite grateful. She wasn’t quite sure she could face Cousin Marie without blushing, and felt sure that the events of last night – and how much she had enjoyed them – must be written on her face for the whole world to see.

They would cross the Channel by plane – another extravagance Cornelia had never experienced – and then travel by train from Paris to Prague. Karl had presented her with a Baedeker guide of her very own that included Prague, so she could learn about the city that would soon be her home, as well as a German grammar book.

Their home, she thought with a smile. It was their home, their clinic and their future they were traveling to.

Herr Doktor and Frau Bessner.

She liked the way that sounded.