Card Castles In The Sky
Victoria White staggered slightly as she grabbed Miss Liddell before the young lady's head could hit the pavement. Ah – she's heavier than she looks, she thought, adjusting her grip on the limp body. The cat, apparently taking severe offense to these shenanigans (and having its tail stepped on), hissed and disappeared into the crowd. What on earth made her collapse like that? "Miss Liddell?" she asked, worry pitching her voice higher than usual. "Miss Liddell!"
Miss Liddell didn't respond. Out of desperation, Victoria tried giving her a shake. "Miss Liddell!"
Still nothing. It was apparent that, whatever had sent the poor girl into this fainting fit, she was down for the count. Victoria sighed. "Oh dear – now what?"
She pulled her unconscious charge closer to the lamppost and looked around. The crowd that had formed during her little rant (she bit her lip, embarrassed – how could she have carried on that way in public? On the other hand, how could Victor never have told her his troubles?) had already dispersed – though whether out of politeness or because there simply wasn't much entertainment value in watching someone nearly crack their head open, Victoria couldn't say. At least I'm not about to be declared a public nuisance. . .but some help keeping her upright would have been appreciated. She patted Miss Liddell's face, hoping it would help her stir. I can't just leave her on the street – what kind of barbarian would do that? But my arms are already starting to ache. . .sometimes I wish being taught how to be a 'proper lady' included lifting things heavier than a sewing basket. Ugh. . .surely someone will see our distress and stop.
The people passing by, however, seemed much more inclined toward ignoring the situation. The hustle and bustle of the street continued on around them, as if they didn't even exist. A little annoyed, Victoria took a step closer to an approaching gentleman. "Excuse me–"
The man sped up, deliberately turning his head as he almost shot past the lamppost. Victoria's jaw dropped. "Well! I see where manners rank in the big city!"
The man didn't notice her comment (or chose not to), but a couple of ladies walking together did. They gave Victoria and her companion some of the dirtiest looks she'd ever seen, as if the pair had been caught performing indecent acts in public. Victoria countered with a glare of her own. And I thought this was supposed to be one of the better parts of London. Is it really so awful to be seen trying to carry some unfortunate soul to safety?
Relief washed over her. "Christopher!" She grunted softly and adjusted her grip again. "Could you help me, please?"
"What's happened?" Christopher asked, weaving through the crowd with the grace and speed that had served him well during many a battle. "Are you hurt, or–" He stopped, frowning at the unconscious form in his wife's arms. "Who's this?"
"Alice Liddell," Victoria said, looking back down at her sudden charge. It wasn't a pretty sight. Miss Liddell's head lolled loosely on her neck, and her face was frightfully pale. "I met her not five minutes ago – she's a friend of Victor's. We were talking about his current situation, and she was making to leave when – when she just toppled over! It's a miracle I caught her before she broke her head on the cobbles."
"Oh dear. . . ." Christopher set his bag by Victoria's feet, then crouched and scooped Alice into his arms. "Yes, she's well out of it. . .and she's a friend of Victor's?"
"She recognized me from his descriptions," Victoria confirmed. "I don't know why she fainted – she was rather upset right before, but I didn't think – oh, I hope I haven't done something terrible to her," she murmured, wringing her hands. "All I wanted was to let her know the truth. . . ."
"Victoria, darling, you're making very little sense," Christopher said, shaking his head. "What truth? What could you have said to make her drop like a rock?"
"She didn't – she told me – Christopher, they all think Victor's mad!" Victoria burst out, unable to keep it inside any longer. A few heads turned again, but she ignored them. "His parents don't believe him about Emily – they've sent him to a psychiatrist! Miss Liddell here told me that he lives with her at the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth!"
Christopher glanced down at Miss Liddell's still form, then raised an eyebrow. "So being about your age still gets you considered as a 'youth?'"
"Apparently. That's what she told me, anyway – I don't know all the details. I've never even heard of this Houndsditch. . .of course, I didn't really give her a chance to explain, either." Victoria flushed, fiddling with her sleeve. "I, ah, got rather upset when she said everyone thought his experience with the dead was a mere delusion."
"Everyone? Victoria, you and your parents told me your entire town was involved."
"And it seems every last one of them turned on Victor the moment my family left," Victoria said, her anger surging again. And she'd thought Pastor Galswells's rants about how Victor had damned himself were horrible. At least he acknowledged that it had all happened! How dare the rest of the villagers call Victor mad? How dare they deny that Emily existed? How dare they exile her ex-fiancé to a place that seemed most inappropriate for a young gentleman of his caliber? Once, she'd wanted nothing more than to return to the village of her birth – now, though, she'd consider it too soon if she never clapped eyes on Burtonsville again.
Miss Liddell moaned softly, pulling Victoria out of her unpleasant thoughts. Right – Burtonsville wasn't important right now. The health of the girl before her was. "I'll explain later – Miss Liddell doesn't look well at all," she continued, picking up the bag. "I think we should take her back to our rooms and call for a doctor."
"I think you're right," Christopher nodded. "Let's go find a cab, and you can tell me the whole story properly once we're on our way."
"How is she, Alan?"
Alan looked up from lightly sponging Miss Liddell's face with a damp cloth. "Same as before, ma'am," he reported. "Silent and still – I don't think any change is likely to come anytime soon."
Victoria nodded, brushing a stray lock of hair back into place. "Right. . .I asked you that only five minutes ago, didn't I?" she added, squeezing the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry for being such a bother. But she's been unconscious for quite a while now."
"I understand, Mrs. White," Alan assured her with a little smile. Poor woman. . .too soft-hearted for her own good, sometimes, he thought fondly. How many ladies of her class would take in a 'stray' from the streets like this? Then again, how many of them would also treat their servants like members of the family. . .certainly not Mrs. Glover. Thank God I saw the ad in the paper for the Whites! And wasn't scared off when I met the parents. How did the elder Everglots produce her? Perhaps she's actually Hildegarde's daughter, adopted when Lady Everglot couldn't bear an heir. . .certainly makes more sense to me than – ugh, no, let's not think about the Everglot bedroom. . . . "Hopefully Mr. White will return soon with the doctor."
"Oh yes," Victoria agreed, clasping her hands against her middle. "I don't understand why it's taking him so – how long has it been?"
Alan laid the cloth over Miss Liddell's forehead and consulted his watch. His eyes went wide. "Oh my – it's getting on toward tea time!"
"Really?" Victoria stared at the hands ticking slowly around. "But – how – we're in London! Goodness, are all the doctors sick themselves?"
Alan couldn't help wrinkling his nose. "If I may be frank, my lady – with this air, who knows?"
Both Alan and Victoria jumped as the door to the suite burst open. Christopher stood framed in the doorway, a deep scowl on his face and his hands clenched at his sides. Alan subtly moved backward a fraction of an inch. Oh, that was not good. "Sir?"
"Christopher! You nearly scared the life out of me," Victoria said, pressing her hand against her chest. She peered behind her husband. "What happened? Where's the doctor?"
"Doctor – pah!" Christopher barked, eyes dark. "Do you know how long it took me to find a practice that wasn't manned by some fool who doubled as a barber or – in one memorable case – a butcher? I thought this was supposed to be an Age of Enlightenment!" He stormed into the suite, hair flying every which way and mustache bristled to walrus-like proportions. Alan glanced at his charge – nope, no reaction. She really was out of it. "I finally tracked down a specialist, someone who looked as if he had his wits together, but the moment I mentioned the patient's name, he set down his bag and told me there was no point in bothering! Downright refused to come! I even offered to double his fee, but he said–"
Christopher abruptly broke off, unwilling to meet either of their gazes. Victoria folded her arms across her chest. "He said what?" she asked in her steeliest tone, the one she'd inherited from her mother and that said If you lie to me there will be hell to pay.
Christopher sighed and rubbed his forehead. "He said it wasn't worth dealing with the madwoman, and he didn't want to be scarred for life should she wake up in the middle of his examination," he muttered.
Alan blinked a few times. Madwoman? He frowned down at Miss Liddell. The young lady lay supine on the couch, eyes closed and face slack, as she had since they'd brought her in. Occasionally her hands would twitch, or her mouth form a soundless word, but other than that she could have been in training for the grave. Not precisely consistent with the stories he'd heard of people shrieking their heads off or gnawing on their own limbs. "I'm afraid I don't quite understand, sir," he confessed.
"Neither do I," Victoria agreed, pale with shock. "Did – did he explain at all?"
"I managed to pull some of the story out of him, yes," Christopher said. "Apparently our guest is only a year out of Rutledge Asylum. She's known on the streets as the girl who rants and raves at invisible cats and rabbits and once attacked a pair of orderlies wielding a spoon." He smoothed out his hair. "Did either of you ever hear of the Liddell fire?"
Victoria looked blank, but something clicked in Alan's mind. "I have, sir," he said. "My mother showed me the print of the Illustrated News that featured the story when she caught me playing with matches one day." He shivered, the memory playing back. "I'll never forget that picture of the house in flames. . . ."
"I think I know what you're talking about now," Victoria said, understanding dawning. "I never saw the paper, but I heard Mother and Father talking about it. An Oxford Dean and his wife and daughter dying in a house fire. I thought it terribly sad." Her eyes found Miss Liddell's face again, so pale and worn. "So – the daughter lived?"
"One of them – it was her older sister who succumbed with her parents," Christopher corrected with a sigh. "Alice here instead went mad. A year in hospital, ten in bedlam, and now a year in this Houndsditch – which is an orphanage, by the by. Man named Dr. Bumby finds children in pain and gives them a place to stay and someone to talk to while he looks for new homes."
"Oh – well, that sounds very kind of him," Victoria said, smiling.
"Perhaps, but his methods don't seem to have done Alice much good. I wandered the streets for a while after Dr. Johnson gave me the brush-off, looking for more information. Plenty of people have reported seeing her chattering away at nothing, or acting as if she was surrounded by monsters. Not to mention, rumors abound that she killed her own family, either by accident or design."
"What?! How awful," Victoria gasped, pressing her hands over her mouth. "That poor girl. . .I refuse to believe she might have murdered her parents and sister. Victor would never be friends with anyone like that."
"I would hope not," Christopher said. "But yes, I think such talk is just a product of the London gossip mill, without a shred of truth to it. She was eight when it happened – what child would ever be so wicked?" He sighed, turning sad eyes on the patient. "On the other hand, I think we can safely assume she's not as sane as she first appeared. Johnson seemed astonished she was able to talk to you coherently at all. "
"Well, she – she hasn't stirred from this spot since her arrival," Alan said, standing straight and tall and trying not to let on just how badly he'd been shaken by this new flood of information. Alice Liddell, of the famous fire. A girl known for mad fits and attacking people. And his employers had taken her in. What were they thinking? There was soft-hearted, and then there was – this. "That's all I can tell you."
"And I'm not sure if I believe any of this just yet," Victoria added, a familiar stubborn frown upon her face. "She seemed perfectly normal to me – well, up until the point she fainted. But I did startle her with a rather – passionate speech, and she looks like she's of delicate health. Besides, how much can you trust random hearsay? Stories can get badly distorted in the telling. I – I know that very well," she added, shoulders slumping. "And so do the rest of you."
They did indeed, Alan had to admit. Awkward silence reigned for a moment as they all recalled the sudden appearance of a supposedly-dead man on their doorstep, asking after his old fiancée. "Yes, fair enough," Christopher said at last, patting his wife's shoulder. "But a doctor's opinion isn't exactly hearsay, either. While I think we can leave the stories of the mob to themselves, we should probably trust what he had to say on the matter." He rolled his eyes. "Even if it was 'you should really just bring her back to Rutledge and be done with it.'"
"Uh – we should contact the asylum, shouldn't we, sir?" Alan asked, tugging at his coat. "I mean, I understand if you don't want to admit her, but–" But if she wakes up in a psychotic rage, I'd like to have some back-up "–but surely a doctor from there would be willing to treat her?"
"I'm not that fond of the idea, but it is the most logical," Christopher admitted, shaking his head. "Johnson gave me a name to ask for, in fact – Dr. Wilson. I'll take a cab up that way and inquire about him. He can at least tell us how best to handle her should anything – unpleasant happen."
"And I'll go pay a visit the police," Victoria added.
Christopher and Alan blinked at her. "I – don't think you can have someone arrested for not being willing to see a patient," Alan admitted.
"I wish I could, but I was thinking they might be able to point me in the direction of Houndsditch. Someone's got to inform Dr. Bumby where she is. And – and Victor too," she added, braiding her fingers together. "Oh dear, I still don't understand what he's doing there. I suppose I can understand his parents insisting on therapy if they thought he was mad, but – a home for children?"
"I couldn't tell you, my dear," Christopher said, all sympathy. "It seems ridiculous to me too. But that's a good idea. Dr. Bumby and Victor – or even just the latter on his own – should be able to lend us some valuable advice at the least. If he's known her for any length of time, he'll have experience with what these fits consist of." He turned to Alan, tone turning toward brisk command. "You'll be able to hold down the fort here?"
"Of course, sir," Alan said, resisting the urge to snap off a salute. "No trouble at all. I'll keep watch over her until one of you returns. You can count on me."
"Thank you, Alan," Victoria said with a smile, touching his arm. "We really do appreciate it."
"Only doing my job, ma'am. Good luck at the station – and at Rutledge, sir."
"Thank you," Christopher said, offering Victoria her wrap. "Here we are, my dear. . .I'll try to be back soon."
"Same here," Victoria nodded, pinning the garment. "In the meantime – well, amuse yourself however you wish."
"Thank you kindly, ma'am. Safe trip." Alan held the door open for them as they left, smiling after their backs. "Such nice people," he remarked to himself, stepping back inside. "We could use more of them in this world."
He checked once more on the patient – still out, and still not looking likely to wake anytime soon (Alan wondered if it was inappropriate to be glad of that fact). After that, though, he found himself at a bit of a loss. He'd brought a couple of books to read during his time off, along with a pack of cards, but – it didn't feel right to start on a novel or play a round of klondike while he was technically on the clock. Oh, he knew his employers wouldn't mind, but it was a matter of professional pride. Denied his usual outlets, he instead began puttering around the suite – straightening out the linens in the bedroom, checking for dust on the shelves, and rearranging all the flowers in the sitting room vases to best effect. I don't know if the hotel maids love or loathe me, he thought with a chuckle. Funny – I thought this would be a pleasant break from some of my work. Now I'm almost longing to be home just for something to do.
After about fifteen minutes, he ran out of things to fuss with. He stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips, tapping his foot lightly against the floor as he pondered. Hmmm. . .perhaps I should see about room service? It is nearly tea time, and greeting Mr. and Mrs. White with something to eat after their excursions would be much appreciated, I'm sure. He glanced toward the couch. I can't leave Miss Liddell alone, though. . .ugh, but that speaking tube is such a pain in the arse. I wouldn't be gone more than a couple of minutes. What could possibly–
And right on cue, Miss Liddell abruptly sat up.
Alan froze. Uh oh. Now what? "Miss Liddell?" he asked, doing his best to keep a tremor out of his voice.
Miss Liddell didn't seem to hear him, slowly pushing herself to her feet. Alan looked closely at her face. She was still rather pale, and her eyes were wide and unfocused – like she was sleepwalking. She swayed as she stood, rocking to and fro for a moment before she got her balance. She does look ill. . .better dizzy than violent, though. "Miss Liddell?" he repeated. "Are you all right?"
Still no response – Miss Liddell seemed much more interested in staring at the ceiling. She frowned and turned in a circle, expression indicating a deep confusion about her surroundings. Which is understandable, Alan realized. After all, she fainted while outdoors. "You're in the White suite, Miss Liddell," he offered up, trying to be helpful. "My name is Alan. May I assist you?"
Again, not even a flicker of an eyelid. Whatever universe Miss Liddell currently occupied, it clearly did not include him. Instead, she made her way to the door, steps wobbly but determined. Alan followed as she entered the hall. She wrinkled her nose at the walls and floor, then turned and headed for the stairwell at the right end. What – is she leaving? Does she really feel well enough to be on her own? For a moment, relief danced in his heart, but then Alan firmly squashed it down. Damn it, you know that's not correct or kind. She's clearly not in her right mind – you can't let her just wander off! No matter how tempting it is to fob her off on someone else, he added, scowling at his own dark thoughts. The Whites trusted you to keep an eye on her – don't you dare let them down!
He trailed a few steps behind as she reached the door, ready to grab her. To his surprise, though, she just rattled the doorknob, then mumbled something about it being locked. That can't be right. . . . As she turned and squinted back down the other end, he gave the door a try himself. It opened easily. What a strange trick for the mind to play. . .unless she's just not dexterous enough to – oh, where is she going now?
Apparently something at the far end of the hallway had sparked her interest, as she was heading that way at a light jog. Alan followed again, watching as she shot the doors on either side rather disdainful looks. What on earth is she seeing? Obviously not something pleasant. . .I wish Mr. or Mrs. White would come back, he added, running his fingers through his hair. Or that I could slip away just long enough to get a porter or maid or anyone. I'd feel much more secure if I had someone to assist me.
It wasn't long before she came upon the wall at the end. Miss Liddell turned just before she ran into it – and froze, eyes wide with sudden horror. Alan waited to see what would happen next. Her eyes flicked toward the nearest suite, and she took a step toward it, as if intending to seek shelter inside (Oh I hope no one's in that one, I'd have no idea how I'd explain) – but then she steeled herself, clenching her fists and sucking in a deep breath. "The Queen must be served," she muttered, and started walking again.
Alan remained where he was for a moment, processing that. Queen? Surely she didn't think she was in Buckingham Palace. Or if she did, she had a much different opinion of the monarch than most of the country. Maybe her madness causes her to believe Her Majesty is some sort of tentacled monster from beyond the stars. . .actually, such creatures would explain most of Parliament, he thought with a snigger. His mirth faded quickly, though, as he watched Alice wander back toward the stairs, expression growing more and more disturbed with every moment. I've got to get her back into the suite. She's quiet enough now, but if she does take a turn for the worse – well, it's in everyone's best interests if I can quickly lock her into one of the bedrooms. Maybe I should get her something to drink – no, probably best not to give her anything she could throw in my face. But having her sit seems like a good idea. At least, it'll keep me from going up and down this hall for the next half-hour. He jogged up to her as she made faces at some mysterious being on the floor. "Miss Liddell, if I could–" he started, gently taking her wrist.
The scream that issued from her throat nearly knocked him right to the floor. She twisted out of his grip, stumbling as she hit the wall. "Go away!" she shrieked, hugging herself. "You're not real!"
Alan blinked rapidly, trying to think past the frantic beat-beat-beat of his heart. "Not real? I'm the only real thing here!" he blurted, then winced. Did I really – you know, I'd heard madness is catching. . .don't argue with the lunatic, Alan. Just get her settled! I should be able to hold her still – I spent all that time chasing Glover's dogs, didn't I? He tensed, then lunged, hoping to tackle her to the ground.
Instead, he got a mouthful of carpet as Miss Liddell took off running. He scrambled to his feet as she shot down the hall, faster than he would have thought such a malnourished young thing could go. "Oh damn. . . ." He took up the pursuit, hoping that she wasn't about to smack into the far door – or worse, get it open this time and take a tumble down the stairs.
Fortunately, her mental path decided to curve before she reached the stairwell again, sending her right back into the suite. Unfortunately, she didn't slow down in the slightest, and Alan reached the doorway just in time to see her racing pell-mell across the sitting room and toward the little balcony. "Miss Liddell!"
Whether she heard him, instinct warned her of the danger, or sheer luck slowed her feet, he didn't know – but she managed to skid to a stop before she could crash into (and possibly go over) the railing. She gaped as the open air, cringing away with arms uplifted, as if trying to protect herself from some invisible monster. Then her head snapped downward, eyes wide and horrified. She wobbled dangerously for a moment – then, as he finally caught up to her, she collapsed again, lying in an ungainly heap on the old stone. Alan stood over her limp form, one hand pressed against his chest, wondering if he dared try to pick her up. What if she wasn't really unconscious, but just waiting for someone to come near? What if she tried to throttle him the moment he touched her? Perhaps it would be smarter to barricade himself in a bedroom and wait for relief? I wouldn't be surprised if another guest has already summoned the police, thinking somebody was being murdered. . . .
As suddenly as she'd fallen, Miss Liddell sprang back to her feet. Alan yelped and stumbled backward, losing his footing and landing hard on his arse. Her gaze flicked toward him, and then away, fresh confusion clouding her face. Then she spread her arms, closed her eyes, and threw her head back.
Alan wasn't sure what about the motion did the trick, but a strange, subtle change came over her. Her back straightened, making her look just a little taller. Her legs grew strong beneath her, and her arms stopped their trembling. Her expression smoothed out, the underlying anxiety stripped away to reveal a surprising confidence. Then her eyes opened – and it was like looking at another woman. Gone was the frightened young mental patient who shouted at shadows and feared the sun. In her place stood nothing less than a practiced warrior, steely and proud. Alan gulped, painfully aware of just how vulnerable he was. Oh no. Keep away from the spoons, keep away from the spoons –
Miss Liddell, however, seemed to have no interest in spoons, or even in him. Her gaze was locked on the sky, bright and amazed, marveling at wonders only she could see. She gasped and gaped, pinwheeling her arms as if she hoped to swim off the balcony. Then she let them drop, pressing herself against the railing with a bright smile on her lips. "Not what I expected at all," she whispered, taking a deep breath. "But I will certainly take a Cardbridge over Queensland."
Alan blinked a few times. Cardbridge? What on earth is – maybe she meant – no, she's an Oxford girl, why would she say anything about Cambridge? He was just about to ask her about it (despite all his common sense yelling that it was much better if she didn't notice he was alive), when she abruptly whirled around, darted back toward the hotel –
and started straight up the wall.
Alan stared as his charge mounted the brick, making her way toward the sun. She climbed very well for a young woman in such a poor-looking dress, he noted vaguely. Perhaps she'd practiced on trees in her youth. Not the most lady-like of activities, to be sure, but then hardly anyone was going to accuse Alice Liddell of being the most lady-like of –
You know she's getting away, the more rational part of his brain put in. The woman you were supposed to be looking after?
Alan scrambled to his feet. "Miss Liddell!" he yelled, waving his arms like the lunatic she was. "Miss Liddell, come back!"
But Miss Liddell was beyond hearing him – he could just barely hear her saying something about a pig snout. He threw himself against the wall and tried his best to follow her up, but his childhood had been spent on a very flat farm, and scaling trees and rocks had never counted among his favorite activities. The bricks were quite unforgiving, and it took his shoes slipping just once to make him abandon the effort as futile. The roof – I've got to get to the roof! He shot back inside, through the suite and down the hall, practically crashing into the stairwell. The stairs upward beckoned, and he took them two at a time, panting hard but unwilling to slacken his pace. She can't have that much of a head start – can she? Oh no, oh no. . . .
He burst onto the roof, and managed a brief skim of the concrete before his lungs demanded that he bend over and give them a chance to catch up with the rest of him. After a minute sucking in air, he felt well enough to stand and make a proper survey. A forest of little chimneys met his eyes, a few spewing spoke from various fires below, but no human figures lurked among them. "Miss Liddell!" he called with what strength he had left.
A flash of someone in mid-leap caught his eye, and he turned just in time to see the wayward madwoman land with shocking grace on the roof next door. Before he could even think of getting the breath to follow, she'd disappeared among the maze of clotheslines that graced that building's head. Alan groaned and slumped against the nearest tower of brick, running his fingers through his sweaty hair. "Oh no. . . ."
The Whites were going to kill him.
"You would really think they'd make the police station more welcoming. Or, at least, do something about the smell."
Victoria wrinkled her nose as the cab pulled up outside the rather ugly brown building. Goodness, she'd swear London had never stunk this much when she was a girl. Of course, she'd only come once, back when they'd actually had enough coin to enjoy the Season, and she'd spent most of her time being shuttled between the theater, the shops, and the parties thrown by the elite, who could afford to fill their homes with sweet-smelling sachets and the like. She was hardly the perfect judge. Not to mention that Bow Street wasn't precisely the nicest part of town – not the worst, not by a long shot, but still not exactly the kind of place a viscount's daughter should really be seen. And one had to make allowances for the fact that it was a gaol too – she'd never heard of a criminal known for his cleanliness. But the officers could at least try to set a good example, she thought, shaking her head. Just a quick coat of paint would do wonders for the whole block. It would certainly make my errand here more palatable.
Well, that was neither here nor there. She was here for a purpose, and she wasn't about to let bad paint jobs or mysterious malodors send her on her way. She slipped out of the cab and smoothed her skirts. "Could you please wait here?" she asked the driver. "I shouldn't be too long."
The man shrugged. "So long as you're willing to pay for the wait."
"Not an issue, I assure you," she promised. "Really, I should be right in and out."
"Fine by me," the man nodded, settling back in his seat and tipping his hat over his eyes.
"Thank you." Victoria turned and started up the front steps. All right. . .what exactly do I say? she wondered, hands clasped and fingers wriggling against each other like anxious grubs. "Excuse me, my name is Victoria Everglot, and – and have any of you heard" – no, that won't do. Surely they've heard of Miss Liddell. "And I need some help getting a certain young lady back to her home. Do any of you know the way to Houndsditch?" I guess that's all – what's going on in there?
She paused just outside of the doors, frowning. It sounded like someone was having an argument. She leaned forward and strained her ears. Yes, that was definitely shouting. . .she wasn't about to walk right into a brawl, was she? Admittedly, I've survived worse. . .I can duck right back out if it's a bad time. If worse comes to worst, there must be something by the door I can use to defend myself. Steeling her nerves, she grabbed the handle and stepped inside.
"Well, you certainly didn't do Alice any."
Victoria's jaw dropped. A shockingly-familiar figure was pacing the elevated floor before her, ripping his fingers through his hair as if he wanted to scalp himself, face as dark as a thunderstorm. The other occupants of the room, all officers of the law and all built like boxers, watched him like he was a cannon ready to go off. "Two hours," he spat as she gaped. "I missed her by a mere two hours–" He suddenly spun on his heel and threw his arms toward the sky. "What else could possibly go wrong today?!"
". . .Victor?"
The sound of his name seemed to startle him as much as it did her. Victor Van Dort stumbled as he whipped around, eyes wide with shock. For a moment, they just stared at each other, utterly lost for words. ". . .You have got to be kidding me," he blurted at last.
"I'm – thinking much the same, if I'm honest," Victoria confessed, mounting the steps to meet him properly. He looked much the same as she remembered – black hair smoothed back except for that one stray lock that fell over his forehead, large brown eyes set in a pale-even-for-Burtonsville face, and taller than almost everyone else in the room. But there was a strange tightness to him that she hadn't seen before, like he was caught in a corner, on the verge of fight or flight – and leaning toward fight. The anger hadn't quite left his gaze either, smoldering at the back of his eyes. It was disconcerting, to say the least. He – he seemed so soft-spoken and shy during the rehearsal. . .he didn't even raise his voice when he was facing down Barkis! And now I find him ranting and raving in the middle of a police station. Is this the real you, Victor? Or has living in Whitechapel encouraged bad behavior? "Goodness, what's happened? I've never seen you like this before."
Victor sighed and hid his face in his hand. "I'm sorry," he murmured, sounding more like himself. "I d-didn't mean to cause such a scene. It's just–" He dug his fingers into his forehead. "A friend of mine has been missing for a while, and she was supposed to be here, and–"
And this would be quite the coincidence, wouldn't it? "Are you talking about Miss Liddell?" Victoria asked, taking a chance.
Victor's head snapped back up. "What – how do you–"
"I met her just a little while ago, not far from here," Victoria said, unable to quite stop herself from smiling. It was hardly appropriate, given the situation, but – well, why shouldn't she be happy to deliver news about his friend? It was obvious that the poor man was worried sick. "She mentioned that she knew you. And that you were living at–" She stopped, all traces of cheer leaving her. "Are you really at a place called the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth?"
"Yes – it's a long story," Victor said, rubbing the back of his head. "But that can wait – you saw Alice? How was she?" He swallowed. "Did she seem – c-coherent?"
Uh-oh. It appeared those rumors Christopher had heard had had more truth to them than Victoria had wanted to think. She bit her lip and dropped her eyes, feeling incredibly awkward. "Well. . .yes," she said, twisting her fingers together. "Up until the point she fainted."
Victor's entire upper body slumped forward as he let out a barely-audible groan – clearly that hadn't been what he'd wanted to hear. "Oh no. . .Victoria, please tell me you saw where she went," he begged, clasping his hands before him tightly.
Victoria blinked. "Went?" she repeated. "Victor, she's with Christopher and me."
Now it was Victor's turn to look puzzled. ". . .What?"
"Well, I couldn't just leave her on the street, could I?" Victoria said, putting her hands on her hips. He really wasn't thinking right, was he? At least she could ease his mind a bit. "And since I have no idea where this Houndsditch is, we decided it was best to take her to our hotel room – we're visiting some friends of Christopher's in the city. She's not even awake yet – or, at least, she wasn't when I left. Actually, I came here looking for some help for her. Christopher tried to fetch her a doctor, but the man refused to come once he said who the patient was!" She resisted the urge to add a nasty comment about said doctor, instead just shaking her head. "I honestly had no idea she'd come straight from the station. If I'd known, I would have brought her right back."
"Yeah, we'd just let her loose after Fred picked her up as a public nuisance," one of the officers said in a gravelly voice, looking rather embarrassed. "Didn't think she'd get back into trouble so soon. . . ." He rubbed his face with a callused hand. "Bumby really is gonna have my–" his eyes flicked toward her "–badge on a platter, ain't he?"
Victoria was astonished. "Would he? For you trying to help?" Wasn't someone who took in orphans supposed to be kind and understanding?
"The proprietor of Houndsditch is not the most pleasant of people," Victor said, twisting his tie tightly between his hands. Victoria was reminded of his little nervous fit after she'd startled him at the piano – was that nearly a year ago? How times changed. "Where are you staying? I've got to get her back to the Home – or at least keep her from wandering off again. She does that a lot lately, I'm afraid."
"The Canton – Christopher's friend Robert recommended it, and it's not too far from here," Victoria told him, fidgeting with the top of her skirt. "You're certainly welcome to come with me and fetch her – we were hoping to find you anyway. Though, um. . ." Oh, how did she bring this up? "Christopher told me that there's rumors that she can't tell fantasy from reality. She isn't – dangerous, is she?" I couldn't believe someone so small and fragile-looking could attack anyone, particularly with a spoon. . .but then again, Victor successfully dueled Barkis with a fork, didn't he? Oh God, and I left Alan alone with her! I know he could defend himself if she tried anything, but still. . . .
"Only to herself, most of the time," the rough-voiced officer said, tone sympathetic. Victoria wondered if it was horrible of her to feel relieved. "Has these funny fits where she wanders around thinking she's somewhere else. Ain't that right, Fred?"
The officer at the front desk nodded. "Aye. She don't see things like we do. When we was asking around before, fellow told me he heard her ranting about caterpillars and how useless they were. Another said she was screamin' about the National Railroad ripping up her head."
"Infernal Train," Victor corrected.
"Yeah, that," Fred agreed, then blinked. "Wait, how–"
"She told me about it, the last time she was herself. It's a much less friendly train than the ones we've got in the Underground, I can say that for sure." Victor shook his head, expression dreadfully worn. "Please, let's go now. Every minute we delay is another minute something can go wrong."
"Right, let me just get my hat – what, did you think I wasn't coming too?" the gravelly officer added as Victor looked at him in surprise. "My fault the little chickadee was set free from her cage – least I can do. And you never know if Splatter might try something if I ain't there to keep an eye on you."
"He's left me alone all this week – and he doesn't usually come by this way, does he?" Victor argued.
"No, but – better safe than sorry, right? Mean, that's what got us into this mess."
Victor sighed, conceding the point. "True. And the last thing I need is him giving me trouble right now."
Victoria swiveled her head between the two of them, baffled. Were they speaking some sort of code? "I'm sorry, I'm completely lost – who or what is a Splatter?"
"You ain't talking about Jack Splatter, are you?" another policeman put in, tone disbelieving. "'Cause – I know it's going around that some swell knocked him on his ar – er, his nether regions, beggin' your pardon ma'am," he corrected himself, tipping his hat at Victoria. "But you ain't saying–"
The gravelly officer clapped Victor on the shoulder, lumpy face lit by a brilliant smile. "Yup! This here's the twig who got the better of our favorite Haymarket Hector!"
Victoria hadn't the slightest idea what a "Haymarket Hector" was, but judging by the man's apparent given name and the way Victor's cheeks flushed strawberry red, she guessed it wasn't a good thing. "I'll – I'll explain on the way," her former fiance muttered, refusing to look at her. "Let's – l-let's just go."
"All right," Victoria agreed, deciding it wasn't right to push him just yet. He looked about ready to melt into the floor as it was. "My cab is right outside – I doubt he'll mind the extra fare." On impulse, she reached out and gave Victor's hand a quick squeeze, not caring that it might be inappropriate for a married woman to be so forward with an old suitor. The people who wrote the manners books had never encountered a situation like this, she was certain. "You'll be back with her soon enough."
"I hope so," Victor mumbled, shoulders low and heavy. "She's been gone nearly a week, and – and every time I think about the d-danger she might be in. . . ." He shuddered.
Victoria gave him an encouraging smile as she led the way back to the door. "You needn't worry about her right now," she said reassuringly. "Alan's keeping an eye on her while my husband and I are out – and I know he wouldn't let anything happen."
"Sir, she's gone!"
And I may as well have said "according to plan," Victoria thought as she took in her manservant's disheveled appearance with an internal wince. When will I learn that fate never resists the temptation?
"What?!" There was a black and white blur as Victor darted in front of her, grabbing the unfortunate Alan by the shoulders. "Where did she go?"
"The roof!" Alan replied, stabbing a finger at the ceiling. "Though she's not up there any longer, I can't find any sign of her now–"
"The roof?" Victoria repeated, staring. All right, that was a wrinkle she hadn't been expecting. "Alan, what are you talking about?"
"I'm not even sure myself, ma'am," Alan confessed, pulling free of Victor. "It all happened so fast. . . ." He took a deep breath, forcing calm. "Not long after you and Mr. White left, Miss Liddell finally stirred. I tried to speak to her, see if she was feeling better, but she didn't even seem to know I was there. Instead, she made her way into the hall and started randomly wandering up and down, muttering to herself. I attempted to guide her back to our rooms, in case she hurt herself, but she screamed the moment I touched her! Then she fled to the balcony and collapsed! I followed, just in time to see her spring back up and start staring at the sky as if she'd never seen it before. Then she mumbled something about – Cambridge?" Alan ran his fingers through his hair, an attempt at neatening it that failed utterly. "Honestly, it sounded more like 'Cardbridge' – and then–" His finger jabbed at the ceiling again. "She climbed right up the wall! I was too shocked to do anything at first, and when I finally got my wits back about me, she was already halfway to the top! I raced up there as fast as I could to try and catch her, but she – she'd disappeared by the time I made it." He covered his face with his hands. "I'm so sorry, I really am. It's just – how often do you expect a lady recovering from a swoon to make like a spider up the side of the building?!"
"When it's Alice, more often than you'd think," Victor's officer friend, who'd introduced himself as Harry Hightopp on the ride back, said with a shake of his head. "Ain't your fault, sir. I've chased her over rooftops meself – she's a crafty one when it comes to high places. Seems to know every secret way to get from one house to the next."
Victor slumped against the wall, groaning. "Oh no. . .I was so close. . . ."
"She might still be around," Christopher said, ever the optimist. Victoria quite appreciated that during moments like these. "She's a slip of a thing – how far could she get?"
Victor looked at him a moment – then, with no warning, burst into wild laughter. Victoria found herself staring at him yet again as he bent double, clutching at his chest. "Oh, Mr. White, if only you knew!" he gasped out between giggles. "The only time I've ever caught up with her was when she was lying unconscious in a burning building – yes, that was the Splatter incident," he added with a glance at her. Saying the name of the – pimp (Victor had knocked out a pimp, what on earth had his life become) seemed to encourage him to calm down, and he straightened again, sucking in a few breaths. "She's likely halfway to China by now."
Poor Christopher's expression suggested he was wondering if Victor needed a stay at that asylum he'd visited. She couldn't blame him – it was hard not to think that after such a display. Fortunately, among her husband's skills were amazing powers of mental recovery. ". . .Well, we – we can't just sit around here and worry, can we?" he replied, standing tall like the officer he used to be. "Alan, come with me – we'll check the buildings on either side, ask if anyone's seen her."
"Right, sir." Alan looked at Victor, bottom lip caught between his teeth. "I am sorry, Master Van Dort. I never meant for her to escape. I understand you're a friend?"
Victor nodded. "Like Constable Hightopp said, it's not your fault," he said reassuringly. "She really does have a talent for slipping away before you know it. . .and it couldn't have helped that you didn't know as much as you ought about her – d-delicate state of mind." He ran a hand down the side of his face, pondering. "Cardbridge – no, she's never mentioned that before. Must be a new domain."
Alan blinked, tilting his head. "Sir?"
"N-nothing, just thinking aloud." Victor took a deep breath, then stiffened his spine, an expression of fierce (if tired) determination gracing his face. Victoria was suddenly struck with how similar he looked to when he'd been telling Barkis to "Take. Your hands. Off her." So much anger. . .Victor, what have they done to you here? "You're right, Mr. White. We can't just sit around. While you two search the buildings, I'll take the street. People do see her, it's just a matter of finding one who saw in what direction she was heading." He turned toward the door, shoulders squared. "Come on, before she–"
"You look like you could use a cup of tea," Victoria interrupted, placing a hand on his arm. Perhaps it was wrong of her to keep him here when he clearly wanted to be out and about, but she could see the exhaustion lurking behind his eyes. He'd already confessed to pushing himself to the limit in keeping an eye on Alice in the carriage earlier. A few minutes with a cup and a soft chair beneath him would probably do the poor man a world of good. And, selfishly, she simply didn't want him running off just yet. They hadn't talked in months, and there was quite a few things she wanted to discuss. Not the least of which was what in God's name was wrong with his parents. "How about I call for a pot while they go out on the search?"
Victor frowned at her. "I just came from tea. I'm fine, really."
Victoria arched an eyebrow. "Victor, you were practically in hysterics just a minute ago."
"I think tea would be better for your nerves, Master Van Dort," Constable Hightopp agreed, tone almost fatherly. "I'll go out with Mr. White and Alan here and start pounding the pavement. You're gonna wear yourself down to the bone here if you're not careful."
"Please, Victor," Victoria added, squeezing his arm lightly. "I – I'd like to talk to you. Just you and me."
Victor seemed ready to protest for a moment longer – then the fight went out of his face, and he sighed and nodded. "All right," he said reluctantly, before hitting the constable with a surprisingly hard stare. "But after I have a cup, I'm joining you three. The more eyes, the better."
"Right," Hightopp nodded, then tipped his hat to Victoria. She returned it with a curtsy. "We'll return shortly, ma'am. Sirs, if you please?"
"Lead the way, Constable," Christopher said, following the officer into the hall. "And whatever advice you can give, I'm quite willing to receive."
Alan lingered briefly behind her husband and the policeman. "I'll have a pot sent up from the tearoom," he told her, finally getting his hair somewhat to rights. "I was going to order room service for you anyway, before the – incident."
"Thank you, Alan, it's much appreciated," Victoria said gratefully. Now this was exactly why they'd hired him – he was so attentive and kind. It was just too bad that they couldn't add "and a good guard" to the list. Of course, I doubt I would have done any better in his position. Up the wall – who would have expected that? Besides Victor, perhaps. . . .
Alan nodded, shot one last apologetic glance at Victor, then closed the door behind him, leaving Victor and Victoria alone. Faced once more with her former fiancé one on one, Victoria suddenly found herself tongue-tied. How did she start off this conversation anyway? If she were at home she'd at least have a knick-knack or two to fuss with while she thought. . .she made do with brushing traces of lint off her skirts. "Please take a seat," she encouraged him, needing to break the silence. "I don't feel right leaving you standing."
"I thought the hostess was supposed to sit first," Victor asked, although he did obligingly slump over to the nearby armchair. It let out a dangerous creak as he dropped into it.
"I need to be ready to receive the tea when it comes," Victoria said, glad for the excuse to keep a bit of distance between them. It was bending the rules of propriety, but Victoria had long ago found those to be much more flexible than Maudeline Everglot had ever claimed. Besides, they'd already broken every rule when he'd shown up in her bedroom, surely – that really did feel like a lifetime ago. And now he's chasing a woman instead of being chased. The world has gone upside-down indeed. "I – I'm sure they'll come back with some information about her whereabouts," she offered up, attempting a smile. It came out as well as Victor's try with Christopher earlier. "Or perhaps even with Alice herself! Do you really think she could have left the neighborhood?"
Victor leaned forward, eyes fixed on the carpet. The lost, defeated expression on his face would have melted even the stony heart of Pastor Galswells. "Maybe, maybe not, but. . .I could probably draw a map of London from memory by now with how far and long I've walked across it on my searches," he muttered, even his voice droopy. "She has a remarkable ability to vanish whenever people are looking for her. I don't doubt that they'll try their hardest, but – well, you heard Constable Hightopp." He brushed back a stray lock of hair, which defiantly fell right back into place. "The most we'll probably hear is stories of her shouting at nothing and nearly falling off a roof."
What did one say to that? Victoria had no idea. She absently pulled on her left sleeve as she tried to come up with an appropriate response. You are being a very poor hostess, a voice that sounded much like her mother scolded her. A real lady does not leave her guests waiting for a reply.
A real lady does not have to deal with women out of Rutledge and former fiances thought madmen, Victoria shot back. So leave me alone to think!
Victor, fortunately, didn't seem to think any less of her for not being able to give him any further encouragement. "I meant to ask you what happened to Hildegarde," he said suddenly, lifting his head to look at her at last. "Is she still employed by your parents?"
Ah – now this was a topic Victoria felt comfortable discussing. "No, actually – she's on a prolonged visit to see each of her children and grandchildren," she explained, grinning at the memory of seeing her old maid off right before she and Christopher had started their honeymoon. "She left not long after we moved. Seeing the dead rise made her realize just how little time she might have left in the Land of the Living. She wanted to make sure she'd told all her family how much she loves them before the inevitable." She giggled as she thought of the map where she'd helped Hildegarde mark all the houses. "Given that she has five children, ten grandchildren, and at least two great-grandchildren, all living far and wide across the country, I don't expect her back before Christmas."
Victor smiled back – she'd started to wonder if he'd forgotten how to look cheerful. "Oh, that's lovely," he said, clasping his hands on his lap. "I'm happy for her, I really am. It's wonderful how that incident inspired something so heartfelt on her part."
"Me too." Victoria's smile faded. "Unlike it did with your parents." Oh, she'd meant to lead up to this, come around to it naturally in the course of the conversation – but now that the words were in the air – well, she'd already bitten her tongue once. They were safely away from prying eyes, and the urge to give vent to her true feelings was irresistible. He wasn't the only one who'd discovered how to be angry! She spun to face him head-on, hitting him with something that just skirted the edges of a glare as her hands squeezed the top of her skirt. "Victor, why didn't you tell me they didn't believe you? Didn't you think I'd stand up for you? After being pulled right into the middle of it all?! I would have gladly told them everything I knew! My parents too, in fact – they may not like you, but they would have backed you up! You didn't have to face yours alone and be sent to – to a place that seems just shy of an asylum!"
Victor jerked back in his seat, clearly startled. Hmph – he'd shocked her continually today with the force of his emotions. Fair was fair. Besides, how could he have kept such a thing from her? After what they'd shared! "I-I know you would have," he assured her, fiddling with his tie. "It just – it didn't even cross my mind to tell you. I was – r-rather distracted by meeting your – h-husband."
. . .Right, the tea of absolute awkwardness. She'd managed to forget for a second. "Oh. All right, I can understand that," she allowed, annoyance cooling somewhat. "But afterward?"
"Afterward I was – I wasn't t-thinking very clearly," Victor murmured, gaze finding the far wall. "I did try to write to you, but – the words just never came. And then my parents announced my move to Houndsditch, and when I arrived I s-soon was much more focused on arguing with Bumby. . . ." He let out a deep, disgusted sigh, face falling into a scowl. It was an odd look on him. "Besides, the chances of them actually listening to you were remote at best. I think your parents did tell them about what they saw – something about an eye in someone's soup? – and Mother just took it as proof I'd managed to drive them mad as well. Pastor Galswells has been very loud about the fact that I made the dead rise, and they never paid him any mind at all. I don't think anything short of Emily digging her way out of the earth right in front of their faces will convince them I'm not a lunatic. And even then, it's likely Mother would accuse me of staging it somehow."
Oh – she hadn't known that. She hadn't really discussed the Van Dort visit with her parents – when she'd asked them how their half of it had gone, Maudeline had replied, "We are so grateful you didn't marry into that family," and that had been that. She'd never brought it up again for fear of creating yet more bad blood between them (she wasn't quite to the point of wanting to cut all ties, and she didn't want to get there). And while she didn't know much about Nell, Victor's description of her stubbornness seemed to fit what evidence she'd seen living in Burtonsville. "I see," she hmphed, going back to fiddling with her sleeve. "That's awful. I wish I could help. It's not right that they think you're mad."
"It isn't," Victor agreed, rubbing the back of his head. "But I'm learning to live with it."
Victoria opened her mouth to reply, only for a knock to stop the words before they could come out. She quickly made sure she looked presentable and hurried to the door. One of the maids stood there, balancing a silver tray laden with teapot, cups, sugar, and milk on her hand. "Your tea, Mrs. White," she announced, handing it over.
"Thank you – I'll send Alan down with the dishes later," Victoria said, wishing she'd thought to grab her bag so she could present the young lady with a tip. She'd just have to send that down with Alan too.
The maid didn't seem to hold it against her, simply nodding and then going on her way. Victoria closed the door carefully with a foot and brought the tray over to the table. "You shouldn't have to," she finally continued. "Particularly not in a place like Houndsditch." That had been a clever trick of her husband's, leaving out the fact that the orphanage was located in Whitechapel. . .then again, perhaps he simply hadn't heard that tidbit. And he certainly hadn't gotten Victor's up-close-and-personal view of the place, which made it seem unpleasantly Dickensian. "You're not a youth, nor hallucinating. And while I'm sure you have painful memories, Emily isn't among them, is she?" Victor shook his head. "How does Dr. Bumby 'free' people from those, anyway?"
"He's a hypnotist," Victor explained. "He puts you into a trance, then tells you that you have to forget the memories he's deemed 'undesirable.'"
Victoria arched an eyebrow, absently rearranging the sugar and milk. "Does that actually work?"
"Dr. Bumby claims it does, and Alice has said a few things have gotten fuzzier since she's been in his care – but her travels through Wonderland are bringing a lot of them back, so. . . ." He shrugged. "I'm not the best person to ask – I've been fighting with him over this since April." A hint of a smirk appeared on his face. "My parents aren't the only ones with vast reserves of stubbornness."
Clearly so, but. . . . "I'm surprised you haven't just run away," Victoria admitted, finally taking her seat. "Your parents may be paying him, but surely they can't actually keep you there."
"I – I was hoping I could tough it out. . . ."
Victoria stared at him. Seriously? He'd seriously thought that was the best course of action? Victor winced under the force of her disbelief, looking away with a grimace. "Yes, I know, bad plan, but – it's s-scary, going out on your own for the first time." His eyes flicked back toward her. "Did you think of running away before – Barkis?"
"Now I feel like I'm caught in the tide, pulled out to sea. . . ." Victoria found herself rubbing her wedding ring as the worst morning of her life replayed itself in her mind. "Briefly," she admitted. For a moment, right at the bottom of the stairs, she'd considered running out the servants' entrance and disappearing into the woods. It had worked for Victor, after all. "But I didn't want – my parents so desperately needed the money. . .and I had no idea where on earth I could go."
"That's exactly my problem – finding work and a flat in this city is harder than you might think," Victor sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "I – I thought I'd found something this morning. . .a clerk's position on Threadneedle Street. I know just enough about figures and ledgers that I thought it would be a perfect fit." He slumped forward again, a look of utter dejection on his face. "They rejected me outright simply because of my last name. Accused me of 'slumming.' And none of the men from the factories will even look twice at me. Mother and Father send me an allowance – deliberately small – so I do have some savings. . .but if my address changes, not only will the money stop, Mother will likely stampede up here, and then. . . ."
And then it's being locked in your room, with the doors and windows boarded up, sharp words about "family duty" ringing in your ears, Victoria finished for him, quietly disgusted. Seemed his parents and hers weren't so different after all once you got down to the nitty-gritty. She picked up the lid of the teapot, staring at the swirling tea. Did she actually dare – Christopher wasn't here, but it was the kind of offer she would wish she'd get if she was in his place. And her husband was a wonderful, understanding man. . . . ". . .Christopher and I could probably afford to give you a loan," she finally blurted. "We're not nearly as rich as your parents – or even mine in the good days – but something to keep a roof over your head should be fine."
"Really?" For a split second, Victor's face lit up as he seemed to ponder the possibilities. Then it dropped again. "That would still bring Mother and Father running, though – Dr. Bumby would tell them I'd left. I don't – he's already threatened me with 'radical treatments,' if he convinces them I need more – 'professional' care. . . ." His breathing quickened. "If you ever heard Alice's stories about Rutledge, you wouldn't sleep for a week. What your husband saw was just the tip of the iceberg."
"I don't doubt it," Victoria admitted, stomach churning. She'd heard very little about what happened in places like Rutledge, but those tidbits that had reached her ears. . .well, it had been enough to shake her to the very core when her mother had declared she needed a straitjacket. If she hadn't been so frightened for Victor's safety, she might have given up the story then and there.
Though – that gave her an idea, actually. "What if I talked to Dr. Bumby, though?" she suggested as she poured their cups. "Having someone to corroborate your story would help, wouldn't it? If he was convinced of the truth, your parents would have to leave you alone." Hers had, anyway, at least about that issue.
Victor's face turned surprisingly sour. "Oh no they wouldn't – did I mention Dr. Bumby is my tenth psychiatrist?"
The teapot rattled in her grasp. "Tenth?!" she repeated, stunned.
Victor nodded grimly. "Though he's only the fifth I've been made to pay any mind to," he qualified. "After Dr. Wilson decided I was, if not perfectly fine, all right enough for normal company, Mother and Father threw him out and started bringing in every other doctor they could think of. They'd already gone through eight by the time we found you."
Victoria had not realized psychiatrists were so thick on the ground near Burtonsville. Of course, money made the world go round, and the Van Dorts' fortune was such that they probably could have brought in people from America on a hot air balloon. ". . .Then they must at least be running out of possibilities," she insisted, pushing away such fanciful notions.
"Maybe, but that leads us right back to R-Rutledge." He held up a hand to curtail any protest. "And don't think they wouldn't do it, Victoria. They've already said they're willing to go to any extreme to make me 'well.' I don't want to drag you into that."
"I've been part of this since the moment you and Emily appeared on my balcony," Victoria retorted, setting down the teapot and picking up the sugar. And since I was threatened with my own stint in a madhouse, but you're unsettled enough. "I want to be useful. What if I could convince Dr. Bumby? You could get away while they were looking for the next fellow."
"Maybe, but Dr. Bumby's a stubborn arse too," Victor muttered, then flushed at being caught indulging in such crude language. "Ah, s-sorry. But it's true. He's awful, Victoria, he really is. He rides roughshod over everyone's desires in therapy, he absolutely refuses to listen to any opinion that's not his own, he makes the children wear numbers for some convoluted reason of 'patient privacy' that I'm not sure I believe, and whenever he tries to be charming, he – he comes off a little like Lord Barkis, honestly."
Victor caught herself picturing her departed husband in a doctor's coat and glasses. It wasn't a pretty sight. "He sounds lovely," she said, allowing her more sarcastic side to shine through. "But I suppose he wouldn't be in charge of so many children if he wasn't good at his job."
"I'm not so sure about that," Victor said, leaning heavily on one hand. "I can't say for certain about the children, but Alice. . .I'd swear she was doing better before he started stuffing pills down her throat and insisting on extra sessions. And his only response to her hallucinations has been recriminations and threats to send her back to the asylum!" He huffed, glaring at his teacup as if that was the source of all his problems. "He's more of a bully than a doctor. I have no idea how he got to be so well-thought-of."
"Neither do I, and I've never even met the man," Victoria muttered, spooning in her customary two sugars. What had she told her husband? Stories get distorted in the telling – though how they got this changed around was beyond her. He's surely not rich enough to pay off everyone who thinks lowly of him, is he? "But even if he is – Barkis-like–" Ugh, she still loathed having to say the man's name "–another eyewitness can't hurt."
"Unless he considers you as mad as I am," Victor unhelpfully pointed out. "He couldn't do anything to you about it, thankfully, but he wouldn't listen either. And even if you did convince him – there's no way around telling him that I genuinely did try to marry Emily, is there?" His fingers found his Adam's apple, gently rubbing it. "You saw me there, with the poison at my lips. He'd seize upon that as a sign of mental instability right away."
"Oh come now," Victoria grumbled, frowning. "Surely you've convinced him you have no desire to – go Below, right?" At least, I hope you don't. . . .
Silence hung thick in the air for a few moments. Then Victor took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "That's not the m-main charge against me, Victoria," he said, every syllable smothered in reluctance. "N-Ne-Necrophilia is."
Victoria thought she deserved some sort of medal for not dropping the sugar. As it was, the carpet under her feet got a slight dusting. "What?!"
Victor nodded, looking like he was about to vomit. "Father's fault – apparently the town crier announcing I'd eloped with a corpse gave him – i-ideas," he said, biting his lip. "I've told them time and time again, there was no – I d-didn't – but they – well, telling them that I w-wanted to marry Emily wouldn't help my case even if they were convinced she was real."
"I – I can see that now," Victoria said, stunned. Oh God, and she'd thought people thinking him suicidal was the worst that could happen! This was – how could that cross any proper-thinking person's mind? "I had no idea. . .now I'm very glad I didn't bring this up in front of Constable Hightopp." She finally set down the sugar, running her fingers through her hair. "I'm so sorry for you. Oh, I hate feeling like my hands are tied!" she added abruptly as fresh anger welled up within her. This was stupid, it really was! And she was not about to accept defeat so easily! "You're sure you won't accept that loan? I'd have to talk it over with Christopher, yes, but – or maybe I could convince Mother and Father–"
"Victoria, do you really think they'd help me?" Victor cut in, shaking his head slightly.
"They owe me for Barkis," Victoria snapped back, folding her arms across her chest. Oh, did they ever. She'd be using that to pull favors from them for years. "I may not technically be nobility myself anymore, but they are for all their lack of wealth. A few words here and there, perhaps a few borrowed pounds to smooth things over. . . ." She whipped her hand to and fro before her. "It could make all the difference!"
"Not for Alice."
Victoria stopped, blinking. "That's the crux of it," Victor continued, absently tangling his tie in his fingers. "You can help me, maybe, but you couldn't help Alice." His eyes found hers, full of raw emotion. "I want out of there, Victoria, I want it almost more than I can stand – but I can't leave her behind. She's my best friend, and she's not well. You and Alan saw that. I can't leave the Home until I know she's safe. I don't know if that's with Dr. Bumby, with another psychiatrist, or even smuggled away with me once I figure out the best way of fighting off my parents, but. . . ." He sighed. "You and yours are the only ones outside of Constable Hightopp that have ever offered to assist me in my search – and thank you so much for that. Everyone else. . .they don't give a d-damn, pardon my language, about her. Except as – well." His eyes darted away from her. "You know the kind of people I punch nowadays."
"And threaten with their own cleavers, though it sounds like he more than deserved it," Victoria agreed, leaning on her hand. He had her there. If he was willing to go to such extremes with a – Haymarket Hector (she still didn't quite understand the nickname, but there was no way she was going to ask) – for her sake, then asking him to leave without her was the height of foolishness. "I understand, Victor. If she's in this much pain, she does need someone to look after her." Her eyes and voice softened. "You really do care for her, don't you?"
"Of course I do – like I said, she's my best friend," Victor replied, a fresh smile spreading across his face. "I never thought I'd meet anyone like her. Certainly not in Whitechapel. She's intelligent, and strong, and imaginative – oh, Victoria, you should hear her stories about Wonderland!" he cried, leaning forward, hands clasped in his lap. "They're just incredible! Every time she starts one, I've got to grab my sketchbook, because otherwise my fingers itch to illustrate what she's talking about. She's got mechanical ladybirds that tote around exploding acorns, and fish that are half-frog and spit poison, and a Cheshire Cat that never stops grinning, and a Mock Turtle that cries no matter his mood, and – and whole kingdoms made up of living cards and chess pieces. . .I've never been so inspired in my life! And she listens to me go on about the Land of the Dead – about Emily and Bonejangles and all of them – and while she doesn't believe me, she at least plays along. She's said that if I am mad, it's the gentlest, nicest madness she's ever seen, and that she hopes the afterlife really is like that for her parents and sister. She also likes butterflies as much as I do, and – well, she's a cat person, but no one's perfect," he chuckled. "We've been all over the East End together, and you can thank her lessons on surviving there for me being in one, not-ill piece. The Splatter incidents aside, of course. . . ." His face darkened for a split-second, but quickly lit up again. "The children tell me I'm the first person to make her laugh in ages – can you believe that? Me, making someone laugh – without the help of a particularly ridiculous pratfall, I might add. It's such a nice laugh too. . .and she. . . ." His gaze dropped to his hands, folding and unfolding themselves. "She's seen me at my worst, found me struggling to escape the d-darkest recesses of my mind – and got me out with the first real hug I've had in ages. She's always there with a friendly ear whenever I need one, and she puts up with all my little quirks and nervous habits. Even said that she liked them. And for my birthday, she – she drew me a picture of Emily's piano in the Ball & Socket, despite the fact that it's very hard for her to put pencil to paper these days. Because she wanted to do something special for me. For me. When all I want in the world is to do something special for her. To see her happy. See her smile." He looked back up again, gazing off into the middle distance with dreamy eyes. "She's got the most gorgeous smile I've ever seen."
Staring at her ex-fiance in shock was getting to be a bad habit. Victoria couldn't help it, though. When had he learned to make speeches like that? The Victor in her memories was a stuttering, stammering mess, either constantly searching for words that never came or blurting out random thoughts and then trying to cram them back in. Rambling on like he just had, particularly about a woman. . .it seemed completely antithetical to everything Victor was.
But it was his expression that really hit her. The softness in his eyes, the warmth in his smile, the overall glow shining through his skin. . .she closed her eyes and went back to her bedroom in the old Everglot mansion, across from a man who was cold as the grave and looked as if he'd seen a ghost. "But then, on m-meeting you, I felt – I should be with you always," he'd told her, dreadfully shy but smiling hopefully all the same. "And that our wedding c-could not come soon enough." He'd sounded sincere – in fact, he probably had been. But looking back on it, there was a faint guardedness to his manner, and a sense that he'd been trying to butter her up just as much as prove his feelings – likely in preparation for telling her, "Except I'm afraid I accidentally married a corpse." Speaking of which – she skipped ahead to when she'd entered the church, and seen Victor begin his vows to Emily. His eyes had been warm and gentle, his voice clear and sure – sure enough that Victoria hadn't been able to bring herself to interrupt. But it had lacked the pure adoration she'd heard just now – the strength of feeling that could only come when you'd actually known someone for more than a day. With them, there had always been the knowledge that he'd been forced or coerced somehow, tumbling in the current. Here? There was nothing held back, nothing muted by lack of time or extreme circumstances. She opened her eyes again and looked him full in the face, warmth spreading through her. This was – this was –
Victor finally came back to himself, blinking as he noticed her stare. "Oh – t-that was q-quite the speech, wasn't it?" he said, turning pink and drumming his fingers against his knuckles. "I'm sorry, I–"
"You're in love," Victoria whispered.
His cheeks turned the color of cabbage roses – it was rather adorable. "Am I really that obvious?" he asked shyly, rubbing the back of his head.
"When you go on like that, you are," Victoria said, fighting back gleeful giggles. Oh, this was wonderful! She'd so hoped that he'd find someone to fill the hole she'd left in his heart. And Alice – well, she was just overflowing it, it seemed. "Oh, Victor, I'm so happy for you! Getting to know someone really does make all the difference, doesn't it?" she couldn't help adding with a playful wink.
"It does," Victor said, glowing again. "Er – n-no disrespect to what you and I briefly shared, of course. I liked you from the moment I saw you. But Alice. . .I've bared my soul to her. And not just through the piano. The way I feel now – it's – it's–"
"More complete?" Victoria guessed. He nodded. "Trust me, Victor, I know exactly how you feel." Her thoughts went to Christopher – the touch of his hand grasping hers, the sight of his eyes turning warm and liquid with love, the taste of his lips as they sought hers out with sudden fervor. Oh yes, she understood completely. She squeezed her hands together, full of a joy that was almost maternal. "I'm just thrilled that you've found someone whom you adore so much! Though I'm sorry her – illness is getting in the way of your relationship."
It was if she'd slapped him instead of offering her heartiest congratulations. Victor's face fell very nearly to the floor. "Don't be," he mumbled, head dropping forward. "T-there isn't one."
Victoria blinked, taken off-guard. What did he mean by that? "What? Victor, you just described her as your best friend."
"And that's all she is," Victor murmured. "All she could ever be."
A faint understanding dawned. "Because of Wonderland?" Victoria asked, sympathy welling up inside of her. She supposed it was rather hard to court someone who had a hard time staying in reality.
Victor touched the knot of his tie, working his thumb into the folds. "Well, it's not helping at the moment, but – e-even if her mind wasn't tormenting her regularly, I – I still wouldn't say anything," he admitted.
Victor's eyes flicked up to her. "Because she'd never feel the same way," he finally confessed. "I made a horrible first impression on her – I'm still a bit surprised we ended up being such good friends. And – and she's so strong, so determined, so – so vital–" His gaze locked on the carpet again. "Why would she ever want someone like me?"
. . .He did not seriously believe that. After everything that had happened earlier in the year, he could not – Victoria folded her arms, giving him a hard look. Suddenly it seemed rather more plausible that he'd lost his mind. "Victor, that is the silliest thing I've ever heard."
Victor's head jerked up, surprise all over his features. "What? I–"
"This is exactly the kind of attitude that let you believe I would actually marry Barkis, isn't it?" Victoria continued, glaring harder. She'd quietly wondered why he found it so easy to give up on her, especially after she'd made her feelings so plain before. "You truly think no one would ever want to be your wife."
"N-not her, at any rate!" Victor protested, shaking his head. "You've met her, Victoria! Surely you've seen–"
"What I saw was a nice young woman who, while badly mistaken about your mental state, clearly cared about you a lot," Victoria cut him off, eyebrows low. How could he be this ridiculous? And he claimed to be this girl's best friend! Granted, Victoria couldn't really tell how Miss Liddell felt about Victor romantically, but still. "You didn't hear just how fondly she spoke about you. And the moment I explained things to her, the first thing she did was whirl away saying she needed to find you. I'd bet half a guinea that if she hadn't fainted she would have burst through the door of Houndsditch ready to beg your forgiveness."
"Well, ah, t-that may be so, but–"
"I'd also like to note that you've already known two women who very much wanted to marry you based solely on first impressions," Victoria added, in a tone that dared him to refute it.
"Am I married to either of them?"
And now it felt like he'd slapped her across the face. Victoria jerked back, stunned by the harshness of the words. Victor's expression softened. "Sorry," he sighed. "That – that came out nastier than I intended." He fixed her with a firm stare. "But it's the truth. Emily gave me up in favor of freedom, and you just lauded the virtues of longer courtships and marrying friends."
. . .Okay, it appeared she'd actually deserved a bit of that harshness. "Yes, yes, fair enough," she allowed, covering her face with her hand. God, she'd give anything for their past together to be less problematic. . . shaking her embarrassment off, she leaned forward, unwilling to give up the fight. "But Victor, it's as clear as day you're in love with her. She's going to figure it out eventually – especially if she's as smart as you say." Her eyes narrowed again. "Besides, when you think about it, you not speaking up about your feelings is what got us into the mess with Emily, isn't it? You could have cleared the whole situation up in five minutes had you properly explained to her it was a mistake." Try to say that wasn't your fault!
"I know," Victor muttered, massaging his forehead. "I regret that, I really do."
Aha! "You see?" Victoria said with vindictive pride. If only he'd been willing to talk about his feelings, they could have sent Emily back to her grave quietly, and –
And she would have never met her husband. . .a wave of disloyalty and shame washed over her, and she ran her fingers over her ring to steady herself. "Now, granted, that ended up being a rather good mess, what with helping her find peace and stopping Barkis from hurting anyone else. . .but the point still stands," she insisted, meeting Victor's gaze. "Would it really hurt to tell Alice how you feel? Knowing someone loves her might give her something else to fight for when she's in this Wonderland."
"Or it might scare her into thinking I'm about to suffer a premature, unnatural demise," Victor snapped back, the anger in his voice returning. "She's lost her entire family to fire, Victoria. The look in her eyes when she speaks of it. . .I know it's why she doesn't like to get close to people."
"You're a very notable exception."
"And I cause her enough worry already!" Victor waved his hands before him. "Forget about whether or not she returns my feelings for a moment – the mere idea of s-someone loving her again might mean – she'd t-think about w-what happened the last time and then – and then she might – she might. . . ."
His voice faded as his head drooped, but the words hung in the air, loud enough without being said: She might leave me.
Just like you did.
The sudden attack of guilt was like a blow to the stomach. Victoria squeezed her hands together, trying not to be sick. All that anger she'd seen in him, all that pain. . .the East End wasn't to blame for it all, was it? It was her vanishing in the middle of the night right after Emily had gone on, making him think that everyone he'd ever loved would – "Oh Victor," she said, hearing the break in her voice but not able to do a thing about it. "You – you know I didn't mean–"
"I do," Victor said immediately, his own expression suggesting he felt worse than she did. "I understand it wasn't your choice to be dragged away, nor to believe me dead with Pastor Galswells ranting on like he does. And I'm certainly not going to blame Emily for moving on once her business on – or below – Earth was done. But–" He stopped and swallowed, voice trembling now. "Victoria, she already l-leaves me every time Wonderland calls her back. If she did it deliberately, even in an attempt to protect me–" He shut his eyes, as if trying to block out the thought. "I – I tried to follow Emily D-Downstairs again once we got back to Burtonsville," he abruptly admitted, forcing Victoria to hold back a gasp. "I didn't – t-there didn't seem to be anything left to live for. And when I realized s-she truly wasn't there anymore. . .it was worse than dying. I couldn't draw, couldn't compose. . .I just was, in the worst possible way. And I'd b-barely gotten a chance to fall in love with either of you! If – if I lost Alice. . . ." His fingernails dug into the back of his knuckles, almost drawing blood. "I can't go through that again, Victoria. I just can't."
God, he looked just like a puppy who'd been kicked so many times it wouldn't know what to do if kindness replaced the boot. Victoria reached over the table to put her hand on his. "I understand," she whispered. How well would she have moved on if it hadn't been for Christopher's presence? "But Victor. . .I don't want you to be alone all your life, wishing you'd said something, either. She told me you were her best friend too. Isn't it possible she cares enough about you not to dissolve your friendship over this? Even if she doesn't return your feelings?"
Victor's response was a tired shrug. "It's a moot point right now," he mumbled, clearly wanting to end the conversation. "I don't dare tell her while her mind rages like this. Having something else to worry about might cause her to topple right over the edge back into catatonia – and I will not be responsible for her going back to Rutledge," he added, voice firm.
Well, she'd be a monster if she tried to argue that. "All right," Victoria sighed, admitting defeat for now. "But – at least consider talking to her once she's coherent again." She put on her best pleading look. "Please. I know the risk is great to you, but – the reward could be even greater."
"I –" Victor swallowed, struggling to resist, but seemed unable to refuse her doe-like eyes. Manipulative, perhaps, but if it got him to be less stupid. . . . "I'll think about it," he promised reluctantly.
"Good." Victoria pulled back, abruptly remembering that they were supposed to have been drinking something during this little argument. Whoops – mark another tally in the 'less than perfect hostess' column. "And now your tea's surely gone cold – let me pour you a fresh cup," she apologized, picking up his saucer. A smile slipped onto her lips as she remembered an old question. "I've been wondering how you take it ever since you visited us before."
That managed to get a laugh out of him. "Three teaspoons of sugar and enough milk to almost turn it white," he informed her. "Satisfied?"
"For the moment," Victoria chuckled, balancing the plates in her hands. Then her mood turned serious again. "Though I don't think I'll really be unless those three come back with either Alice or some information on her whereabouts."
Victor nodded, leaning on his knee. "Same here, Victoria. Same here."
"Safe trip back."
"Thank you, Victoria," Victor said, shaking her hand. "Enjoy your visit to London. I'm sorry my overly-complicated life intruded."
"Oh, please, it was no trouble," Victoria assured him. "I hope they find her soon."
"Constable Hightopp assured me he and his fellow officers would be working around the clock," Victor said, offering up a rather stiff smile. He glanced over the trio. "Thank you again for all your help – all of you."
"You're welcome," Christopher said with a nod.
"I'm just sorry I couldn't keep her in one spot," Alan muttered, still under a dark cloud of shame.
"It's fine – I know how she gets," Victor told him, rubbing his hands together. "You did the best you could, I'm sure of it. Don't let it trouble you any further."
"You're positive you won't come with us for supper?" Victoria asked. "The Ship and Turtle is said to have excellent turtle soup. I'm sure a real meal would do you a world of good."
For some reason, that made him wince – oh, right, wasn't one of Alice's imaginary friends a turtle? Whoops. "I appreciate the offer, Victoria, truly, but – not even a filet mignon would help me now." He rolled his eyes. "Besides, if I'm away too long Dr. Bumby will be even more cross with me than usual, and I'd rather not have to listen to him scold me like a five-year-old again."
Victoria nodded reluctantly. "All right. Perhaps we'll see each other again before we go."
"Perhaps. Again, enjoy your visit." He offered his hand to Christopher. "Good to meet you again, Mr. White. Tell your old comrades 'hello' from me. And thank you for the cab."
"I will," Christopher said, shaking Victor's hand. "And it's no trouble, I assure you. I sincerely hope Alice finds her way back home before too long."
"Thank you," Victor said, voice low. "I do too."
With that, he climbed into the waiting carriage. Victoria watched as the driver pulled away from the curb, then let her head thunk against Christopher's shoulder. "Why is it we always meet under the most awkward of circumstances?"
Christopher placed a comforting hand on her back. "I'm sorry, Victoria. I wish I could guarantee you a pleasant visit with him for a change."
"Well, it wasn't exactly unpleasant, just – first I believe him lost to me in the Land of the Dead, then he appears on our doorstep. Then I believed him picking up the pieces in Burtonsville, only to discover he's stuck here in London in a home for mentally-ill children!" Victoria pulled away from her husband, shaking her head and sending a few loose tendrils of hair flying. "Every time I see him – every time I think he's gone on to something better – it turns out he's in a worse place than before! It's just – it's not fair, that's all!"
"Pardon me for saying so, ma'am, but life really isn't fair," Alan pointed out. "And – well – the Land of the Dead is a very hard story to believe."
"I know, but Victor shouldn't have to convince those who experienced it," Victoria growled, her passions inflamed again. "How dare his parents–"
"Now, now, none of that," Christopher said, wrapping his arm around her. "I know you're ready to fling yourself at the elder Van Dorts and this Dr. Bumby they've hired, but let's not do so in such a tizzy, all right? You help no one if you look like a madwoman."
"Right, right," Victoria grumbled, massaging her forehead. "I know I need to keep my temper better. It's simply so frustrating. I wish he'd accepted the loan at least. I'd feel better if I knew I'd helped him out of that pit he's found himself in. But he won't leave without Alice, and she – well, she needs the help of a good psychiatrist," she admitted, dropping her arm. "I'm not sure that psychiatrist is Dr. Bumby, but still. . . ."
"She certainly needs someone," Alan agreed, tapping his foot. "If you'd seen the way she was carrying on in the hall. . . . I don't know if she's all that dangerous so long as you keep her away from the cutlery, but a menace to herself? That I can buy."
"I'm afraid I can too – Victor himself confessed to it," Victoria mumbled. "She was just so nice when I met her. . .and Victor, he. . . ." She trailed off, wondering if it was her place to share what she'd discovered. Victor seemed to have wanted to keep it a secret. . . .
Christopher, however, gave her a knowing grin. "I do believe he's over you now, Victoria."
That was why she loved this man – his talent of getting her to laugh no matter how depressing the situation. "So you noticed it too."
"Oh, my darling, I'm sure all of London knows," Christopher replied with a wink. "You can tell it just in the way he says her name – the fellow's practically mad himself with love." His shoulders slumped. "A shame she's in no fit state to appreciate it."
"It wouldn't matter if she was – he refuses to tell her," Victoria told him, rolling her eyes. "He honestly thinks he's not worthy of her."
"Not worthy of a madwoman?" Alan blinked. "Master Van Dort doesn't think very well of himself, does he?"
"No, which is something else we can probably attribute to his parents," Victoria said with a scowl. "We had a bit of a fight over it. He's terrified that if he confessed his feelings, she'd–" her eyes went to the sidewalk as fresh guilt washed over her "– leave."
Christopher's grip on her tightened. "Victoria, that wasn't your fault."
"He said as much," Victoria said, twisting her hands together again. "But it's not really true. Maybe I couldn't help being dragged away, but the fact remains that my suddenly vanishing has to play a part in him feeling like that. And – I don't want to be responsible for him losing someone he loves. That's the whole reason I nearly let him marry Emily. But – I don't know how to help him anymore."
Silence reigned over them. Then, suddenly, Christopher said, "You know, we could easily afford another week or two in our hotel."
Victoria looked up at him, puzzled. "Er – yes, but – your friends won't be expecting us to call on them any longer than planned."
"No, they won't. Which means, perhaps, we could send out some inquiries of our own." He grinned at his surprised wife. "I don't know if we can pound the pavement like he does, but there's probably a detective who's willing to take a case like this. And we can tell Robert and the others to keep an eye out for her – why, Bobby was the best tracker I ever had in a squad!"
"I could probably wrangle something too," Alan said, starting to smile himself. "Seek out Constable Hightopp on his beat and give him a hand? Or question the cab drivers, they surely see a lot. . . ."
Warmth spread out through Victoria's body. She'd surrounded herself with the best little family she could ever ask for. "I would like that," she said, indulging in a perhaps-not-quite-proper hug of her husband. "Oh, Christopher, you're far too good a man."
"Nonsense – I'm just someone who enjoys a happy ending." He squeezed her back. "And a good bowl of turtle soup. Shall we?"
"We shall," Victoria nodded, pulling back and making sure her coat was buttoned. "And perhaps, if we're lucky, Alice will be causing a scene in the kitchen."
"That has to be the strangest sentence ever to start with 'And perhaps if we're lucky.'"
Victoria giggled. "Well, I'm afraid that's what you get for marrying me. Any regrets?"
Christopher pressed a quick kiss to her lips. "None whatsoever."