Victoria clung to Victor's hand as they made their way toward her home from the church. In her other hand she held the bouquet that Emily had tossed to her, just before the corpse-woman had dissolved into countless blue butterflies. Both she and Victor remained silent, lost in their own thoughts. It had certainly been a strange night, a night when the dead literally walked around, and one the townspeople weren't soon to forget.
The rest of the dead had disappeared, back to wherever it was they had come, and most of the living had returned home. The moon shimmered against the icy, nearly empty streets. Victoria shivered. Her wedding gown, the dress she had married Lord Barkis in, was long-sleeved but the chill winter air still seeped through it. Victor slipped off his newly mended coat and placed it over her shoulders.
"Thank you," she said softly as pleasant warmth stirred within her. He smiled at her and nodded. She had come so close to losing him.
Dozens of questions for Victor stirred in her mind but she felt too drained, yet oddly satisfied, to say anything. They would have plenty of time over the following days to discuss those recent, bizarre events. For now, it was comforting just to walk beside him, holding his hand.
It had certainly been an exhausting couple of days. Relief flooded Victoria as she realized that she was no longer married to Lord Barkis. Although she didn't want to celebrate anyone's death, he had been an evil man and had come close to killing both her and Victor that evening, just as he had murdered poor Emily many years ago. And just to get his hands on her family fortune…which, of course, was non-existent. Victoria couldn't help but smile as she recalled Barkis' rage at learning that. And now he was dead, having drunk poisoned wine that had been intended for Victor.
A light-headed feeling of panic momentarily jabbed at her. So close…what if she hadn't showed up at the church when she did? Would Victor have been lost to her forever? At least that didn't happen. She clutched Victor's hand tighter and smiled up at him, a smile he returned. She then turned her eyes to the sky, searching for it any sign of Emily. All she could see were the moon and stars, woven with a few wispy clouds.
Emily hadn't been as bad as Victoria had initially thought. She remembered when Emily had shown up in her room, shortly after Victor had briefly returned—had that been only last night? It already seemed like a lifetime ago. She recalled the fear she had felt toward the strange woman, with her long tangled hair and bones showing through her tattered wedding gown. How she had glared at Victoria and insisted that she was Victor's wife, displaying the golden wedding ring on her skeletal hand. And then she had spirited Victor away in a cloud of cawing ravens, with Victor reaching toward Victoria, calling her name.
Victoria didn't know where the corpse-woman had taken Victor but she was certain it was someplace unpleasant. Victoria's cheeks burned as she remembered the terrible things she had thought about her, believing her to be an evil shrew who had stolen Victor away, and how her parents and Pastor Galswells had scoffed at her claims.
But her opinions toward Emily had changed when she saw the kindness reflected in the corpse-woman's tear-filled eyes at the wedding ceremony, when she had held out her hand to Victoria and gave her back to Victor. Emily had remained by her side as Victor battled Barkis and had even placed a protective arm around her shoulders, pulling her back when several pews had been knocked over. Emily had even saved Victor's life, taking the sword thrust that Barkis had intended for him.
Thank you, Emily, for everything you did for us, Victoria thought, lifting her gaze skyward. She felt certain that, had she known Emily in life, they would have been good friends. I promise that I will honor your memory.
"Here we are," said Victor, drawing her from her thoughts, as they walked up to her door. Victoria looked up into his dark eyes and felt that tingling warmth spread through her. I'm a widow now. She had difficulty restraining that joyous thought. This was dampened by the realization that custom dictated that she wait a year and wear nothing but black during that time. Still, she had Victor back. That was the most important. After these recent past events, a little waiting, even a year, seemed like nothing. "Well, I suppose I'll see you tomorrow?" he said shyly, running a hand through his tousled hair.
"Tomorrow, yes," Victoria murmured.
"Get some rest," he said. "It's been a taxing day for everyone." He leaned closer. Victoria raised her face. The warmth within increased as his lips brushed against hers. A part of her feared that someone would interrupt at any moment. No one did and they shared a long kiss.
Her heart felt as it would burst with joy as she reluctantly turned from Victor and let herself in. The vast dining room was still in disarray from the unexpected visitors, chairs overturned and dishes scattered everywhere. She shuddered as she took note of the uneaten wedding cake that still stood on the table. I can't believe I was that wicked man's wife, even if for a few hours, she thought, fighting the anger she felt toward her parents. It was they who had forced me to marry him, even when I told them I didn't want to go through with that, that I didn't love him. But they'd never understand love. They didn't even love each other. Still, they were broke and desperate. Victoria felt that that realization didn't excuse their actions but it did make it easier for her to forgive.
Where were they, anyway? She searched the large, mostly empty mansion and found them in their bedroom. Her father Finis was clutching his beloved musket in one hand and shaking, while her mother Maudeline sat on the bed with her arms crossed.
"Victoria!" she shrieked, glaring. "You scared us half to death! Where have you been?"
"A-are they gone?" Finis gasped, displaying a fear that she had never seen him express.
"Yes. Everything is back to normal."
Both sighed, audibly relieved. Finis lowered his musket.
"And where's your husband, Lord Barkis?" Maudeline asked, peering through the open doorway beyond Victoria, as if expecting to see him.
"He's dead." Victoria took pleasure in their wide-eyed expressions. "He accidently drank poisoned wine at a wedding ceremony. But—"
"Dead? The scandal!" Maudeline burst, her voice rising to a shriek. "What will the neighbors think? We won't be able to show our faces anywhere. And you realize that we are still poor?"
Victoria struggled to keep from laughing. "So was Lord Barkis. He only wanted to marry me for my money." Satisfaction filled her as she looked over her parents' shocked faces. "But Victor has returned and he is the one I will be marrying."
Before they could say anything else, she turned and strode toward her bedroom.
It was only when the maid Hildegarde helped Victoria out of her corset that she realized how exhausted she was. It's strange how I don't realize how uncomfortable these wretched things are until I take them off, she thought, tossing it aside and slipping into her nightgown. Victoria next unpinned her hair, allowing the soft chestnut tresses to fall around her shoulders. She started to brush her hair and noticed Hildegarde still standing besides her, nervously twisting her apron.
"I'm going to retire, dear," she said softly. "I'm thinking about giving your parents my resignation tomorrow."
"What?" Victoria turned toward the tiny, elderly woman and took her hand. "What do you mean? You've been with us forever."
"I saw my late husband Thomas tonight," she said, her eyes growing misty. "I was only with him for a short time before he had to return to the Land and the Dead. Still, he promised to wait for me. Tonight made me realize just how short and precious life is."
Victoria sank onto her settee. Hildegarde couldn't leave!
"For years, my eldest son, who lives in the country with his wife and children, has been asking me to leave this place and move in with them. I was so seldom able to visit since I didn't have many days off and he lives quite far. But I think now is the time. I look forward to spending my days playing with my grandchildren."
Hot tears burned Victoria's eyes but she blinked them back. She seldom cried but the thought of losing Hildegarde brought her close. Hildegarde had worked for the Everglots ever since Victoria was a small child. She had been more of a loving mother to Victoria than Maudeline had ever been. Victoria had always had the feeling that her parents hadn't wanted children, that she'd been merely thrust upon them, an accident. She especially felt that, being a girl, she had been a greater disappointment to her father. He wanted someone whom he could share his passion for guns and hunting with, not a girl who would frequently hide in her room, absorbing herself in novels of romance and adventure…books she hid from her practical-minded mother. It was only later, after Victoria had developed into an attractive young woman, that they realized they could use that to their advantage and marry her off to someone with means. Fortunately, that worked out for her in regards to Victor…
But Hildegarde had accepted her for who she was and had even snuck her many a romance novel herself. Victoria didn't have many friends growing up since she was privately tutored so her maid had become someone she could confide in.
I can't be selfish, she thought, putting her arms around the woman's small, frail body and embracing her tightly. She briefly thought of Emily and the sacrifice she had made that night. Besides, I now have Victor. "I'll miss you," she whispered. "But I know you will be happy. I promise to visit you every chance I get."
"Come, Miss Victoria," Hildegarde said, leading her to the bed and drawing back the covers. "You look exhausted. I'll tuck you in one last time, just as I used to when you were a little girl."
A hot tear tickled Victoria's cheek as she slipped beneath the silken sheets. She smiled briefly up at Hildegarde but dropped to sleep as soon as her eyes closed.