Dawn’s earliest light wouldn’t come for hours yet and Caroline felt like it might never come at all. Why should it bother? Oh no, she must not think like this. No, it must not be true. She’d returned to her room in a daze, completely unaware of anything except that she must get away from that wretched photograph. It haunted her. It was as though the picture she had sought to escape had cruelly found its way to her by her clumsy footprints in the snow and arrived shortly after on her own heels and embedded itself in her rambling mind. It taunted her now with the image that she refused to see. No, she would not believe it. She would never believe it until she saw it with her own eyes. She knew that it could not be what it looked like.
Caroline had clutched to the first thing that she could think of to bring her comfort and she was shocked to find that it was the white caplet that she’d received when she first left the house. How horrible that moment had been. She recalled how it had made her shudder with fear and revulsion. How strange that she should be finding comfort in it now. It had been the package that arrived when someone had tried to convince her of the lie that her father was dead. Papa was fine. She knew in her heart that he was ill but getting better every day. It would be the same with Victor. She knew that her only brother had not fallen ill. No, that was just a wicked lie from that harpy of an old woman. She’d been telling stories, just like all those nasty sisters of hers. Oh and it was just a tale. She knew it must be such a thing. She wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t. No, she could not believe that this horrible truth had befallen them. If she didn’t believe that Victor was alive and well, if not misguided, all would be lost. Her everything was counting on this.
But then there was Charlotte. Beautiful, malicious Charlotte. She had arrived from France, though Caroline had no idea when. It might have been when Victor fell ill. If that was the case, Vivian would not have still been in that house. Those two would not suffer each other for longer than a moment and Charlotte had a reputation that made anyone shudder, even the likes of Vivian. As much as it made her shiver with an instinctive fear at the memory of her lovely face, Caroline felt a stirring of rage too. A rage that she had always known since the day that Charlotte was born and became even hotter when Victor followed two years later.
They were easily the most beautiful children of the family. Though their mother’s beauty had been passed to some of their other sisters, it seemed that the youngest two in the family were able to tap into whatever magic had been a part of their mother’s allure. How it seemed to cost them, though, as Caroline could recall. Charlotte was accused of being wanton from the time that she was just a girl and though Caroline knew that it could never be true, these vile accusations had brought out the cruel streak in her. If there was anyone that she feared in this world, it was her diabolical younger sister, if not for her beauty then for the flickering light in those terrifyingly gorgeous eyes. She was not one to fall in line and she was always thinking. It was a kind of affliction that Caroline had feared when they were young. She could be so vicious when she directed her attention. And yet for some reason, she and Victor, though they would spar almost constantly from the time they could speak, would be nearly inseparable as children. Charlotte seemed to know how to enrage him in such a way that it seemed like one of these days, the two would be the end of each other. And yet he would protect her, even when she was naughty. The lash of their father’s temper fell on all of them but he guarded her in a way that he never did anyone else. And, if Caroline recalled properly, Charlotte always got her revenge for their only brother. At times, it seemed as though her younger sister hated their poor Papa and as she got older, her schemes became more insidious. After their mother died, she only seemed to delight more in tormenting their poor father with her vindictive streak. She also took a special kind of joy in making Nanny suffer. Caroline still remembered well the sound that wretched woman made when she had found the railing had been tampered with and she fell to the first landing, her arm and rib broken from the fall. All because she had raised a hand to Victor when he’d tried to keep Nanny away from Charlotte. They hated each other and yet they loved one another more than anyone else in the household and if she didn’t fear her as much as she did, Caroline might have been driven to a kind of rage from jealousy.
And she was here. She could not have heard of such a thing as his death so fast. She just couldn’t have come so quickly if it was simply a matter of life and death illness. Surely she must have been summoned. The idea sat poorly in her mind and Caroline dashed it from her thoughts. The most vicious of their siblings and possibly the only one with the means to make her way into their lives and she had come to see Victor. There was no doubt about that. Charlotte had not been back to the estate since her wedding day and she had since become a widow and married another. She had no letters to return to the house of happy tidings nor had she tried to contact anyone at all. She could not have known that Caroline was there unless she had already come to the house. Caroline knew she could not have. Not if Vivian was there and that old blind wench had more or less assured her that the witch had been there. That she had taken up residence. Oh yes, she knew what Old Mary had said. She knew that it could only have been one woman who could have made her way into the house through her sultry treachery. She knew that Charlotte would not allow this. She knew that the two women would never sit in the same room together and fight for Victor. One of them would likely kill the other in a battle of silent deception and though Caroline believed in Vivian’s evilness, she did not know if it amounted to the maleficence in Charlotte’s shining eyes.
Caroline paced while clutching to the caplet, her hands going numb as her aching knuckles went white. She wanted to take comfort in knowing that if Vivian had done something terrible, her sister would take care of it. She could do the dirty work with a kind of expert precision that shocked even Caroline. But a part of her hated her for this. She was sent here to bring Victor back. It had been her responsibility to take care of the family and she had been stuck here, hiding. After all this sacrifice, all the things that she had done in the name of love and family, Charlotte would come and do what should have been done over a month ago. She would receive the love and credit for the work that had been done to prepare for this moment. Though she was terrified to the core of her soul of her sister, she resented her even more than she normally did. And now that she was here, if she were the one to see Victor first, she would bring him to the brink of his illness. They always fought, those two. Victor was so weak and she would drive him to become even weaker.
He would never leave her, either. Though they hated each other, she was the one sibling that he ever protected. Spoiled, perfect little Charlotte would always have him to rely on and if she said that she was staying, he would never come.
The hot tears of frustration began to roll down her cheeks as Caroline paced and fretted as her fingers twisted within the soft yarn of the caplet. She must find a way to make this work out. There was so much already lost and she could not face another turn for the worse. Her sister had come and perhaps there was still a way to make this work and there might yet be happiness. But it was hard to delude herself to such dreams when she thought of the wicked woman in whom her beloved brother had fallen victim to and the sinister one that would soon take her place. His very heart would break and he would grow as ill and weak as Papa. Too weak to fight with the likes of Charlotte. If he could even fight anymore at all.
No, she would not believe it! She would not allow herself to even think such a thing. Charlotte would not come to an empty house. Unless she had come to exact her revenge. Oh the thought made Caroline shudder and give in to a pent up sob. She fell to the floor, her face buried in the caplet. It was as though it was a mirror of the last time she saw this wretched thing in her hands. How she would give anything to go back to the hope she felt on that long lost afternoon. How she wished that dawn would arrive already. She would not rest until she saw the proof with her own eyes. She could not believe it until she stood where Charlotte had been, her sight set upon the stones in the background and she would know then. She would know it wasn’t true and that Victor was still alive.