Four Years Later…
Victoria limped through the streets of Whitechapel, using the grimy walls for purchase as the pain in her abdomen increased every few minutes. She paused suddenly, dragging in harsh breaths. The evening had cast London in shadow, though the day’s warmth remained. Summer had been kind to the city, and Victoria had taken it as a good omen for the birth of the child that grew within her.
Although, at that present moment, she cursed under her breath as the agony overwhelmed her. She had sworn to Christian that she would be well, and that she only needed to go and speak with Mrs. Graves in Whitechapel, to go over the list of orphans who had been given refuge at the Galbury Orphanage.
Naturally, he had insisted on accompanying her, and she had duly refused, claiming that it was a trifling endeavor that would take her no more than a few hours. She had even forgone their carriage in favor of a hackney carriage, so she might have some anonymity upon her arrival at the orphanage.
Since the events of the Mayfair Kidnappings, as they had come to be known, Victoria and Christian had become celebrities of a sort. Especially as, a short while after their marriage, they had opened the first of five orphanages in the poorer districts of London. Orphanages that actually did what they were supposed to—taking care of unfortunate children who had lost everything, and provided them with love, and care, and kindness, not to mention an education and all the necessary tools to succeed in life.
The pair were universally adored by high society and ordinary folks alike. The upper echelons revered them for having rescued their missing daughters, while those less fortunate adored them for the fact that Victoria was one of them, and had bridged the divide, in some respects, by sharing her newfound wealth among them.
And, though she and Christian had been married some four years, she had continued to keep the secret of her father’s involvement in those kidnappings. As her father had said they would, high society soon forgot about the traumas that had befallen them, and the search for the mastermind had been called off a few months after the rest of the perpetrators had been sentenced.
Guilt still lingered in Victoria, that she had allowed her father to escape, but at least peace had been restored, and she had been able to do something useful with her new position as Countess of Galbury. That went some way toward appeasing her discomfort.
I should not have gone alone… I should have listened… Oh, my love, forgive me… Perspiration poured down Victoria’s face as she stooped in the street, a sharp stab of pain shooting through her. After more than three years of longing for a child, she and Christian had been blessed, at last. Although, it did not feel like a blessing just then, in the darkest depths of Whitechapel, with no means of getting home and those nearby simply walking past her as if she were a drunkard.
The baby is coming… oh goodness, the baby is coming… She gritted her teeth as the pain subsided somewhat, though she knew it would be back. Determined not to give birth in the dirt, she pressed on along the street, her knees trembling and her chest heaving with the exertion. The pains had set in during her walk from the Galbury Orphanage to visit an old friend, whom she had helped some years ago, to find her missing son. But she had never reached that house, and now she was too far from either her friend or the orphanage to make it there in time.
“Victoria?” a voice echoed out of the gloom, prompting her to lift her head. A blurred vision stood in the dim light, silhouetted. The tone sounded familiar, but her strained mind could not pinpoint why.
“I… need help,” she gasped regardless.
The figure stepped forward and grasped her about the waist, hoisting her up into strong arms. “Victoria? Don’t you recognize me?”
She blinked slowly, as the face came into focus. Her heart lurched in shock. “Papa?”
“It’s me, my girl. And it looks like we need to get you somewhere safe.” He carried her down the street and hailed a hackney carriage. A driver stopped immediately. “Take us to Mayfair,” her father instructed, before bundling Victoria inside.
She drifted in and out of consciousness as the carriage rattled along the London streets, not knowing if she was in the midst of a dream, or if this was entirely real. All the while, her father cradled her in his arms, as though she were a child again, pushing back the damp strands of hair that plastered her forehead.
“You’ll be all right, my girl. I promise, you’ll be all right,” he murmured.
“Papa? How… can it be you?”
“I came back.” He smiled down at her. “I went away, like you said I should, and I had time to think about all the wrongs I’d done. I realized you were right—I needed to let go of all my hate, and all my vengeful feelings, or it’d destroy me. So, I did. And then, I came back, so I could watch over you, and make sure you were safe.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. “You… came back?”
“I did, and I’m glad, because it let me see all the wonderful things you’ve done. You’ve made me proud, my girl. Prouder than I can possibly say, and while I’m sure I didn’t deserve the reprieve you gave me, after what I did, I’m so very pleased that I still have my freedom.” He rocked her gently. “I wouldn’t have been able to watch all the amazing things you’ve done, if I didn’t.”
“Papa…” she whispered, grimacing against the next onslaught of pain.
“You’re safe now, my girl. I’ve got you. I’m going to make sure you get home to that husband of yours, so you can have this child without worrying… My grandchild.” Tears glistened in his eyes. “You just hold on, Victoria.”
Everything happened in a delirious blur, with Victoria crying out through the agonies that overcame her. She was vaguely aware of the carriage arriving at her Mayfair home, and her father carrying her up to the front steps. She remembered the door opening and chaos breaking loose, once the household realized what was afoot.
Next thing she knew, she was in her bedchamber, with her father gone, and a midwife gripping her hand and telling her to push. She did so, howling like a wild animal as she fought to give life to the child she had been carrying all these months. It hurt like nothing she had ever endured before. Worse than any injury she had received in the line of duty, and that had included some near brushes with death, at the sharp end of blades and the unfortunate end of a pistol’s barrel.
Suddenly, before she was even aware of it, a shivering cry pierced the air. Her eyes opened to the sight of the midwife wrapping a pink, plump-cheeked creature in blankets. The older woman delivered the perfect parcel into Victoria’s hands, as she stared down in surprise.
“You have a daughter,” the midwife said. “And she’s a beauty, let me tell you that.”
Victoria peeled back the edges of the blanket to reveal the most remarkable thing she had ever seen. Two curious eyes peered up at her, set in the sweetest face that Victoria had ever beheld. Tears sprang to Victoria’s own eyes as she looked upon her daughter for the very first time, for she was relieved to finally meet the person who had been growing inside her. And relieved, too, that she had not had to give birth to this beautiful angel in the grim streets of Whitechapel.
“Hello,” she whispered to the tiny baby.
“I’ll not be a minute,” the midwife said. “I’ll go and fetch His Lordship.”
A moment later, Christian raced into the room and came to Victoria’s side, leaning down to kiss her softly on the forehead before his attention was entirely attracted by their daughter. His eyes widened in astonishment.
“We have a little girl,” Victoria murmured, gazing at her husband with more love than she had ever felt, which was saying a great deal, as she loved her husband more with every day that passed.
“Oh, my goodness.” He shuffled next to Victoria, upon the bed, and put his arm around her. Meanwhile, his other hand brushed the rosy cheek of his baby daughter with a tentative touch. “She is utterly breathtaking.”
“Isn’t she?” Victoria smiled, feeling content.
Christian turned to his wife, tilting her chin up so she had no choice but to look into his eyes. “I was so worried, Victoria. When that constable brought you into the house, you looked so… I cannot even bring myself to say it. But you looked as if you were… as if you were dead. I was beside myself, thinking that something awful had befallen you. Truly, I don’t know what I would do without you, and I pray I never have to find out.”
“Constable?” She squinted up at him, puzzled.
He nodded. “Yes, the man who brought you from Whitechapel in the hackney carriage. He said he found you in the street, in pain, and brought you here as soon as he could get the address out of you.”
Tears welled in Victoria’s eyes as some memories drifted back into her tired mind—memories of her father, scooping her up and carrying her to safety. “Is he still here?”
“No, he left some time ago. Indeed, had it not been for him, I would have gone quite mad. He stayed a while to make sure I knew everything was going to be fine and managed to convince me that you would pull through. At first, I did not believe him, but then I heard your cries, and I realized how foolish I was being,” Christian explained, while Victoria’s mind raced.
She knew there had been no constable. No, it had been her father, who had come back to London after finding peace again. He had been watching over her and had come to her aid when she had needed him the most. Compensation for the service she had given him, in allowing him to escape, when, by rights, she ought to have seen him arrested for his part in the kidnappings.
All debts have been repaid… All the bitterness has gone from his heart, and he has not squandered the freedom I gave him. After all this time, her father had remembered what was important. And, while he could never have his life back, in full, at least he had been able to give his daughter one last gift before he faded back into the shadows. The gift of seeing her daughter born in safety and security, surrounded by the people who would love her the most.
I have you, little one, and I have given hope to so many children across the city, as I promised to. She had been wholly against motherhood, right up until the moment she had married Christian. Then, something had altered within her. Looking into Christian’s eyes, she had come to realize how wonderful it might be, to have a child who was one half of each of them—a creature, brought into being by their love. But only if she could also help the unfortunate souls of London, who had nothing.
Together, she and Christian had done both. Together, they had striven to lessen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Together, they had brightened so many lives, and brightened their own life as a result. Together, they had provided love, and warmth, and education, to countless children, while caring for the lone mothers and destitute families who needed help the most.
“What shall we call her?” Christian asked.
“Mercy,” Victoria replied, without hesitation. For it was her mercy, to her father, that had allowed this tiny child to be brought safely into this world. And it was her father’s mercy toward her that had allowed him to be in the right place, at the right time, having forgiven her for calling in the cavalry, and having released his need for vengeance.
“Mercy,” Christian smiled. “I think it suits her very well.”
“Did the constable leave any address, where I might find him?” Victoria could not help but inquire, just in case.
Christian shook his head. “No he didn’t, though I presume you will be able to locate him at Bow Street, will you not?” He paused. “Although, I didn’t even think to get his name.”
“It is no matter,” Victoria murmured, turning her attention back to her sweet child. “Wherever he may be, and who he may be, he knows I am grateful for his kindness this night. And I will keep him in my prayers, from this day on.”
Christian kissed her softly. “As will I. I owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Oh, if only you knew, my love. For we would not be wed if he had not strayed from the path of righteousness. And we would not have our daughter here now, safe and sound, if he had not found that path again…
Once more, the universe had brought her happiness full circle. It had blessed her for all the good she had done, though she had never asked for a reward. And now, she could continue on in peace, knowing that her father had turned from the darkness that might have swallowed him whole. Not only that, but she could hold her daughter in her arms, and be reminded of the kind, good man that her father was, without having his memory marred by former unpleasantness. He had repented, and now, she could allow herself to forget the bad and think only of the good.
“I love you, Christian,” she whispered.
“And I love you,” he answered, kissing her again.
Here she sat, a woman who had come from nothing and nowhere, now ensconced in her townhouse in London, married to the most perfect man anyone could ask for. She had fortune, she had love, she had peace, and she had the kind of contentment that she had never dreamed possible.
And she knew, with absolute certainty, that her life could only continue to grow in joy and love, now that Mercy had entered their world. For where there was Mercy, there was hope. And where there was hope, happiness would always follow.
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