Chapter 10

That night Collinwood was in an uproar. No sooner had Julia staggered into the house, carrying the sobbing and injured David, than Barnabas arrived as well, with Victoria unconscious in his arms. She had a dislocated shoulder and two streaming wounds in her neck, and Barnabas's shirt was covered with her blood; but she was alive—barely.

As Elizabeth and Mrs. Johnson hurriedly applied first aid, Julia and Barnabas offered somewhat disjointed explanations. David had gotten into Roger's camping gear and sneaked out into the woods to play with fire; meanwhile, Barnabas had rescued Victoria from her attacker, who had gotten away. Amid the crisis, no one questioned how both Julia and Barnabas had happened to be out in the woods in the middle of the night, at just the right time.

"We've got to get them to the hospital," said Roger. "You too, Barnabas."

"I'm not hurt."

"You're in shock," he insisted. "Let us take you to a doctor."

Barnabas was indeed gray-faced and hollow-eyed, and trembling all over; but he put out his hand in a gesture of finality. "I'm all right. I'm going home."

There was something in his voice that even Roger dared not challenge. As the Collins family drove off to the hospital, Barnabas returned to the Old House. When the police came to his door later that night to question him, he received them calmly, gave them a vague but plausible version of events, and regretted that he couldn't be of more help; but after they had gone, he did not receive any visitors or emerge from the Old House for several nights. What state he was in and what he did during that time, only Willie Loomis knew.

My name is Victoria Winters.

As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she clung to that thought—her name, her identity, and no one else's. A life ahead of her. A fate not yet written.

Occasionally she had a vague awareness of her surroundings: being half led, half carried into the emergency room; lying in a hospital bed with an IV in her arm; and then waking up in her own room at Collinwood. Elizabeth and Mrs. Johnson were standing over her bed, watching her anxiously.

"What happened?" she croaked. Her throat felt parched.

"It's all right. You're safe now." Elizabeth's cool fingers smoothed her hair back from her forehead. "Cousin Barnabas saved your life."

"Barnabas . . .?"

There was something about Barnabas, something she desperately needed to tell them, if only she could remember what it was. But her memories of the past few days were a dark fog, and there was a strong sedative coursing through her veins. She slept again. . . .

She was at the Old House, in the parlor. The windows were open, the curtains fluttering in the warm, honeysuckle-scented twilight. It was so beautiful here. As she looked on her gracious surroundings, her heart filled with love and a sense of belonging.

"Barnabas?"

She was certain he must be here—in the next room, surely—but there was no answer. "Barnabas, where are you?"

She was alone. No, not alone. Something was wrong.

Turning slowly, she saw the Collins family standing by the hearth, dressed in the clothes of a bygone century. Even as she recognized their faces—Roger, Elizabeth, David, Carolyn—from some hidden recess in her mind rose other memories, other identities: Joshua. Naomi. Daniel. Millicent. The wounds in Millicent's neck were open and raw. She was holding hands with a handsome young man Victoria had never seen before, who she knew instinctively was named Jeremiah. And there was a sweet-faced little girl, clinging shyly to Elizabeth-Naomi's long skirts, whom she recognized as Sarah.

Then there were others—oh, so many, crowding all around her, and yet she could see each one clearly—their faces, their names, the terrible longing in their eyes. Men who had known violence, isolation, and despair. Women who had handed down heartbreak like an heirloom through the generations. Children who had never known security or peace, who were haunted still by a nameless, ageless fear.

Help us, Victoria Winters. Their collective plea resounded in her consciousness, swelling and then ebbing, like waves of the sea. Help us.

"How?"

Never leave. We need you.

She saw the living Collinses, too, more clearly than she had ever seen them. Carolyn, abandoned by her father; David, abandoned by his mother. Roger and Elizabeth, distancing themselves from their children and from reality—Roger by shutting himself in his studio, Elizabeth by drifting off into her own private world—neither of them able to face or comprehend the dark forces that threatened Collinwood. They needed her, too.

And Barnabas. Oh, Barnabas most of all.

Help us.

Never leave.

Help us. . . .

When she woke again, she remembered everything.

And she began to realize what she had to do.

Barnabas finished nailing the last board in place, sealing off the ruin of Josette's room, and laid his hammer down. Then he walked through each of the other rooms, gazing at each beloved object, as if to say goodbye.

He could not say goodbye to his family at the Great House. Going back there was quite out of the question, after what he had done to Carolyn—to Victoria. . . . Better to leave their world quietly, as he had entered it. And now, at last, he was ready to leave for good.

Curiously, he felt no fear or grief now, but only a bleak resignation. It was as if all petty, self-serving emotion had been killed in him the moment he looked down and saw Victoria half-dead in his arms. Once he had realized he was capable of that, hell and the grave had no terrors for him. As long as he existed, Victoria would not be safe; therefore, his existence must end. It was as simple as that.

Willie was waiting for him in the entrance hall. "Anything I can do for you, Barnabas, sir?"

"Actually . . ." Barnabas closed his eyes for a moment, as if in weariness. "I think I'll just sit in the drawing room for awhile. Go and open the drapes in there, will you? There's a fine moon tonight."

There was a fine moon, but it was too late at night to see the moon from the drawing room's east-facing windows. Willie chewed his lip, vaguely suspicious of whatever Barnabas had in mind, but did as he was told.

"Good lad." Barnabas smiled wanly and patted him on the shoulder. "Go on, now. I'd like to be alone."

"I'll be in the parlor if you need anything."

"Thank you, Willie."

He lit a candle, then sat down in a tall-backed chair facing the windows. Outside, all was silver-hued darkness; inside, the glass dimly reflected the candle flame and the chair (apparently empty) in which he sat. An interesting image, he thought detachedly—a kind of memento mori.

How long would it take, he wondered? Would he linger long enough to actually see the sun, to feel its warmth, before it consumed him? Or would the first ray that touched him be the end of sight and sense? . . .

Sunrise. He closed his eyes, remembering Martinique. Sunrise on the beach. A beautiful woman with dark hair and hazel eyes, gazing out to sea . . . a woman he had never seen before but would have recognized anywhere, at any time, as the one woman in the world for him.

Goodbye, my love.

"Hello, Barnabas."

His eyes flew open. It was still dark, and he was not dreaming. Trembling, he slowly rose from his chair and turned to face Victoria, who stood in the doorway.

She looked well, if a little paler than usual. Her expression was gentle; there was no fear or accusation in her face. But there was a bloodstone cross around her neck—an ornament whose significance he could not possibly mistake. He recoiled slightly at the sight of it.

She knew. She remembered everything. And yet she had come here alone, unarmed. Why?

He cleared his throat, unsure of what to say. "How . . . ?"

"Willie let me in." She smiled. "Don't be angry with him. I think he's worried about you."

"What are you doing here?"

"I've been worried about you, too." Hesitantly, she came a little nearer. "And I never got a chance to thank you."

"For what?"

"For saving my life."

Impossible to respond to this. He swallowed hard.

"How is everyone?"

"Dr. Hoffman had to go back to New York," she said, "and the Collinses are in Europe. Roger and Elizabeth decided the kids needed a change of scene. They'll be back in a few weeks."

"And they left you alone? Are they mad?"

"I'm not alone. I'm staying with Mrs. Johnson and her sister in town."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I trust you."

"Then you're a fool." He turned back to the window, to the emptiness where his reflection should have been. "Get out of here, Victoria. Leave this accursed town. You can't save me or anyone but yourself."

"I'm not leaving," she said quietly. "Collinwood is my home now, and the Collinses are the only family I've ever had. I won't abandon them. And that includes you."

There was a silence. She came nearer still.

"You did save my life, you know. You called me by name—my name—and caught my arm when I fell. I remember."

"I nearly killed you."

"But you didn't. And you didn't kill Carolyn either."

"I've killed before."

"I know. But it wasn't you, not really. She made you do it—made you what you are. And I think, deep down, you're stronger than she is. It's you that I trust, Barnabas. Don't you see?"

He closed his eyes on sudden tears. "Angélique will come back," he predicted gloomily. "Sooner or later, in one form or another. She'll never let us have any peace."

"Then we'll find a way to stop her. Together."

"But if I cannot control myself—if I can't protect you—" He looked into her sweet face and earnest eyes, and his hand reached out, tense with longing, to touch her cheek; but he stopped himself about an inch away. "No, my love, it's insanity for you to stay in Collinsport. You must go."

"Do you love me, Barnabas?"

"Do I?" He smiled ruefully through his tears. "More than you know. For longer than you can imagine."

"I mean me. Not Josette."

"You are Josette."

"Not anymore," she said firmly. "All my life, before I came here, I wondered who I was. I never felt sure of anything except my name. . . . But knowing that I've had this past life—this past love—I've finally begun to realize who I am now. I belong here, on this land, with this family. And I belong with you. Josette was robbed of her life with you, but I won't be."

Before he could say anything, she drew his face down to hers and kissed him. For a moment he forgot the danger she was in—forgot everything, in fact, but the unutterable sweetness of being near her, and the truth in what she'd said. They did belong together, as they always had. She could not leave him; and neither, he realized, could he leave her.

When she finally drew back, he took a step back as well, to prevent himself from clasping her in his arms and never letting her go. "You'd better go back to Mrs. Johnson," he said with what composure he could muster. "The sun will be up soon. And Victoria . . ."

"Yes?"

He paused. Of the many things he wanted to say to her, he could only find voice for one. "Be careful. Don't go out alone."

She smiled somewhat mysteriously. "I never am."

Before he could ask what she meant by that, she had gone. He listened to her footsteps through the entrance hall and out the front door, with Willie's following closely behind. Good man, Willie.

Again Barnabas wandered restlessly through his house; but this time, it seemed, he saw his surroundings through new eyes. The beautiful things in each room were beautiful still, yet somehow no longer important in themselves. He passed Josette's sealed-off room without sorrow; there was nothing for him in there. Love was no longer an ancient memory to be locked up and brooded over, but a living force once more—a source of hope.

Angélique had not won. Not yet. And when she did return, she would have to contend not only with Barnabas, but with the woman he loved. Victoria was aptly named indeed: brave, true, unconquerable spirit! He loved her now more than ever.

Now, for the first time in centuries, he could feel—not merely imagine—the presence of many souls who loved him, whom he had loved well in life. There was hope, then, not only for him but for all the Collinses, the living and the dead. He could not abandon them any more than he could abandon Victoria. Here, on his ancestral ground, close to his true love, was where he belonged. And here he would remain.

Home.