The dawn’s early light was crawling across the valleys and the hills surrounding them. Courtland county was still in the grasp of winter but there were hints of the spring to come. Some small, barren patches where the fields of white in between the trees were losing their way to the grey and in some places even green beneath it. It was like a look at hope but there was still so much around it that it was hard to believe that this winter would truly end. The snow was still deep in many places and it seemed well like the shadows were pooling in those hidden cracks in the land. Like they were holding fast to the regions where they thought they could survive the day and they could push off the inevitable summer from coming to claim them. Victor wondered how like those shadows he was. He certainly felt like he might be as foolish as they if he thought that this would come to a pleasant end. Thankfully he was nowhere near that optimistic and yet he was still proceeding for reasons even he was uncertain of. How hard he held to this idiotic plan even though he was reasonably certain that it would mean the death of at least one of them. It seemed fittingly unfair that he should find himself here now. If he were feeling more cynical, he might have started to laugh at this. Here, he’d found himself in the presence of these people who loved him. It was something that he had not yet found in his life and they found him anyway. And now that he’d started to let his love affair with death wane, it had come to his door waiting for him to let it in. How very like love to show up when it was least wanted.

Thankfully he’d been able to sway Paulette and Rosemary to leaving the grounds for the time being. He’d been honest when he told them both that he was somewhat concerned that the poor child had worn many of the same clothes until they were spoiled and coming apart. It was difficult to word such things carefully as it was hardly the girl’s fault. She had once been clothed in much better garments but those were gone quite quickly once she was in the care of that dastardly Old Mary. No, she was no longer a maid and thus he would not see it that she was dressed in rags about the house or uniforms that made her look as though she were ready to work. That simply would not do and he could not stand to think of her being ashamed of her clothes. With a driver that he knew well and trusted to take good care of them, he’d given them the means to drive to the nearby city to give Rosemary a tour and allow them a chance to shop for her. Paulette was more than thrilled to spoil her charge and had been struck speechless when Victor had given her an allowance as well. It was a kinder way to get them away from here and out of harm’s way while he was conducting such rotten business. He still felt a pang of guilt when Rosemary had thanked him so sincerely, hugging him and brimming with excitement. She truly was over the moon at the prospect of showing him the new dresses that she wished to wear on her afternoons when he would let Paulette teach her minor lessons. He knew that if this plan went to rot, she would be shattered. Perhaps even both of them. He was loathe to die with that upon his conscience but he knew that this was the last of the whole affair for the moment. Either it would work because of his own provisions to the plan or it would fail and he would try his best to make sure that he was able to return as best he could. If he failed, it would not be out of lack of care or trying. It was the best he could offer and yet it did not feel like near enough when he thought of the joy in her eyes when she promised to return.

The house, in fact, was nearly empty. He had prepared for this for a few weeks now, insisting that the snow was creating a pall around the house that he was concerned about. Once he had secured the means that Rosemary and Paulette were able to take an extended trip to the city that would leave them happy and safe, he saw to it that the rest of the staff were able to retreat to safer houses to allow them a reprieve from their normal duties. He’d relieved their fears of pay with insisting that the house was entirely without needs for the moment and he was feeling claustrophobic in here himself so he would extend their payment if they would all just kindly leave him be for a week. It had been a strange move to be certain but one that had proven exceedingly helpful. Without as many prying eyes around, he was able to move more rapidly on certain correspondences and he was able to work at hours that suited him better for privacy. With all but his cook and his driver gone, he was allowed these moments of peace before the true difficulties were to begin. He knew that this would come to an end shortly but what was done would not be undone yet. He had prepared as best he could and now this was inevitable.

Victor looked up towards the horizon, watching the dawn come on stronger now, and suddenly he heard a loud, ominous ticking coming from somewhere in the house. It had been some time since he was plagued by the sound of this phantom clock in his home and yet now when he was once again alone, he heard it echo loudly through the mostly empty rooms and halls. At this very moment, it seemed as though it might be speaking to him. As though it called his name and wished for him to find it. He knew that he could not but the pull was becoming difficult to ignore. He wondered, idly, if it might be the call of the widow to come forth to see her. He had not received a call from her in many months now. He wondered if this was her doing, any of it. It would only make sense if she had tired of him. How thoughtless he’d been in believing that she might have let him go. How truly careless he’d been in having loved ones now. And yet he knew this ticking was not her. He knew it was something else. Something much bigger than her selfish whims. Something that spoke to him inside his soul and he knew that on the day that it truly called to him, he would have to answer. On that day, there would be no refusal. Today was not that day.

The clock stopped and nothing but silence filled the air. Victor was struck by the sudden lack of sound and he was nearly pulled away from his window to investigate when he saw the familiar lights of a car he was loathe to see. Mr. Gray had arrived. When he looked at the clock on the wall, one that was nearly silent by comparison to the ticking that he’d just been assaulted by the garish sound of, he saw that the wretch was perfectly on time. As always. How truly frustrating that such an excellent associate on whom he could rely for so much should be so rubbish at anything else in these games that he insisted on playing. Such a mess he’d created. Victor wished that he could turn back now and just lock the door on this whole affair but he knew better. With a heavy sigh, he made his way down to the first floor to greet his less than welcome visitor.

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