Mabel sleepily opened her eyes on Christmas Eve and, perplexed, looked at the light shining through her open door. Stretching her arms above her head, she wondered who opened it. She always slept with the door closed, her favorite princess nightlight on in the corner. Aunt Jane would often come home late, after Mabel was asleep, and the child disliked the soft but insistent tapping of heels on the tiled kitchen floor. Aunt Jane had gone away and hadn’t come back—and now Mabel found herself terrified the same would happen with her mommy.
Sitting up and squinting at the sunlight, she saw Prince Fitz in the corner and laughed happily. He was reading the unbound book her mother had written for her. A small smile spread over his face until he reached the last page—the storybook was still unfinished—and he frowned slightly. Elizabeth had never gotten past where the evil wizard separated the princess from, and here Darcy blushed, the prince who bore an uncanny resemblance to himself.
Looking up at the sound of Mabel’s laugh, he grinned widely and hastily put the manuscript down as his daughter catapulted herself into his arms. “Fitz-Fitz,” she cried happily as he held her close and kissed her dark curls. “I thought you’d gone away like Aunt Jane and Mommy.”
“No, ma belle petite, I’d never go away, not if I could help it. And your mother came back. Remember? I even took you to the hospital to see her just before she came home.”
Mabel nodded but would not release her grasp on him.
“And remember we sat together in the kitchen and called her while she was sick? She was so happy to just hear your voice.”
The little girl grasped him even tighter. “Mommy’s been so sad, and she cut her hair.”
Darcy wondered if it was the proud papa in him that led him to conclude that he had never met a child her age so intelligent and precocious. Not even G, whose I.Q. tested near the level of genius, compared at four.
“Could you cut my hair like that? To look like Mommy?” she asked, her soft voice lisping. “I wanna make Mommy happy cuz she’s so sad.”
Her father gently placed another kiss on her forehead before stroking her curls, mussed by sleep. “Perhaps, ma belle, perhaps.”
She stared at him with big, wide eyes that matched his own perfectly. He thanked god every day that Mabel was his perfect, beautiful daughter.
“Why is Mommy so sad?” Mabel asked. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” her Prince Fitz responded firmly. “Maple Leaf, believe me, you did nothing wrong.”
“I didn’t tell,” Mabel promised.
Darcy’s brows furrowed. “Didn’t tell what, Mae?” he asked quietly.
The little girl shook her head. “I promised Aunt Jane not to tell, and-and I didn’t.”
“You didn’t tell,” Darcy reassured her, wondering what her aunt had done that she made his little girl keep secrets. “You did absolutely nothing wrong then or now.” Gathering her up more closely to him, he rocked her gently until the grasp of her little hands loosened.
He sighed softly, trying to decide what to do. Elizabeth was in too weak of an emotional state at the moment to deal with anything else her sister had done, but she was the person Mabel trusted. Mae didn’t know he was her father, only that he was a nice man who would bring her ice cream and tuck her into bed when he could.
Darcy could hear a door open and someone sleepily made their way into the kitchen. Charlotte, he thought. She had been up when he first arrived, so he figured she must have taken a shower without him noticing.
When he had first seen Charlotte in October, Darcy had thought she was crass and a lush, and then when he had begun to suspect that he was in fact Mabel’s father, he had worried constantly over her presence—as well as that of Charles’ unhinged girlfriend.
Elizabeth, however, trusted Charlotte implicitly. Darcy respected the relationship forged since early in their college days. It helped that he had watched Charlotte come through during those days when Elizabeth was in the hospital. Charlotte would stop by during her lunch break to make sure he ate, sat by Elizabeth’s bedside every night and slept there until he arrived to take his shift the next morning after he’d dropped Mae off at daycare. He had rarely seen such devotion between two friends, completely unpretentious and selfless. Perhaps Mabel would tell her Jane’s secret. But first Darcy would try himself to gain his daughter’s trust.
Speaking slowly, Darcy said, “Mabel, you did not do anything to hurt your mother. You know how much your mother loves you and she knows how much you love her. So don’t worry, ma petite.” He leaned back in the rocking chair with the still trembling child in his arms and started to sway back and forth slowly. He felt Mabel’s body relax in his embrace as she drew a deep sigh and began to suck her thumb.
He smiled. He’d never seen her suck her thumb and he had assumed she was over the habit. Perhaps she was except when she was terribly worried.
“Do you know what ma belle petite means?” he asked her, crooking his head so that he was looking into her eyes.
Mabel removed her thumb and said immediately, “It means you love me?’
He smiled, and Mabel smiled, too. She put her fingers into the deep indentations in his cheeks, and he smiled even wider. “Yes, that’s what it means. My little one, I love you. And I always want to take care of you and your mother. I won’t let anything bad happen to either of you.” He managed to keep smiling despite the shadow that passed over his thoughts with those words. He had brought Wickham into their lives and Wickham had hurt both his own sister and now Elizabeth. But Darcy knew he could not allow his own struggles to show on his face as he tried to reassure his daughter.
“You love us, Mommy and me, Fitz-Fitz?” she asked, her eyes widening in delighted surprise.
“Yes, and I want to take care of you. But I am going to need your help.”
“Me?” she piped up, excited at being important.
“Yes, ma belle, you,” he responded, tickling her and making her giggle. When she stopped, he said, still smiling, “I need to have you trust me.”
“I love you, Fitz-Fitz,” she told him. He took both her hands in his and kissed them, making her giggle again. He said, “Good. For me to take care of you and Mommy, I need to know everything that Aunt Jane told you. It’s okay for you to tell me. You understand that, Maple Leaf?”
The little girl stopped smiling and bit her lip as she considered this. He waited, his thumbs gently stroking her hands, giving her all the time she needed. Mabel finally whispered, “She said something bad would happen…”
Darcy managed to quell the wave of hatred for Jane that swept through him. Unable to smile, he bit his own lip, unconsciously mirroring his daughter. He said, “I will take care of you, but I need to know first. Please, Mabel, please tell me.”
He waited until finally the little girl nodded and began to disclose the secret. Once she started, the words tumbled out quickly, and she buried her face in Darcy’s neck so that he had to listen closely to hear her hurried words. “Mommy was coming home late. I dunno why and Aunt Jane said she’d take care of me. But she looked upset. She gave me a cookie and told me to be good and go play. Then the man came over.”
Darcy’s ears pricked up. “The man, Mabel? What man?”
“The nice one with the smiles. The one on tv.”
He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Charles, he hoped, hadn’t done anything stupid. At least he wasn’t a complete stranger, although he couldn’t believe that – he bit his lip again. He wouldn’t think that. He wouldn’t come to any conclusions until he Mabel told him everything.
“Then what happened?” he coaxed as he gently ran his fingers through her hair. A slight creaking at the door made him look up and he saw Charlotte, still in her pajamas and bunny slippers, standing in the doorway, listening intently. She nodded briefly to him before putting her finger to her lips, indicating for him not to say anything about her presence.
“Then—then Aunt Jane put me in my room and told me to be very quiet. She closed the door and I played with my dolls until it got dark. I got so hungry and I tried to leave, but I couldn’t open my door.” She grasped more tightly to Darcy and he gently soothed her. “I could hear them but they wouldn’t let me out. And when the nice man finally left, Jane opened the door and told me never to tell or something bad would happen. I was so hungry and she told me to wait. And when she went into the bathroom, I ate the cookies on the counter and then I got sick.
“I didn’t mean to and Aunt Jane yelled at me and I …” Mabel paused and blew out a sigh. “I tried to hide and I was throwing up. I messed up her bag—she said I rood it—“
“You mean ruined?”
“Yeah, ruin,” Mabel repeated slowly. “I’m sorry. Aunt Jane said it cost a lot of money. And she slapped me. I tried to stop crying. I did try, but I couldn’t.”
Darcy gripped the arm of the rocking chair, his knuckles white. Willing himself to be calm, he said, “So Aunt Jane asked you not to tell?”
“She said if I told anyone the nice man was here that she would tell Mommy I threw up and Mommy would be mad and something bad would happen. I sorry. Fitz-Fitz, can you –can you tell Mommy?”
Darcy glanced over at Charlotte and could see the angry expression on her face tinged with worry in her eyes.
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” he cooed as he bundled up Mabel even closer, “I swear. Thank you for telling me and I promise that that will never happen again.”
After a few minutes, Mabel pulled away and looked into his bright blue eyes. “Your eyes are like mine,” she stated. “And your hair.”
He smiled softly. “Yes, ma belle, that is why you are a princess.”
“Is Mommy a princess?”
“I think so,” he confided.
“Then why is she so sad?”
Darcy bit his lip and looked at the discarded manuscript. When had she begun to write it? he wondered. “She’s sad, little one, because of the bad wizard in ‘The Forgotten Prince.’”
Mabel looked at him questioningly.
“The wizard came and made your Mommy sad, but he’s gone now.”
“Mommy’s the princess?” she asked, looking at the loose pages of what had become her favorite bedtime story.
“Y-yes,” her father responded. “But the evil wizard has gone away, and we,” he touched his forehead to hers, “are going to pack up all your things and Mommy’s and go to a castle in the sky with her so we can make her happy again.”
“A castle?” Mabel asked excitedly.
“Yes, a castle.” He smiled. “And,” he added, “there’s another princess there who would like very much to meet you.”
“Is she like us?”
Darcy laughed, thinking of Georgiana’s dark brown curls and blue eyes. They weren’t piercing like his and Mabel’s; instead, they were a soft blue grey that showed a hidden depth he wasn’t certain he’d ever understand. “Yes, she is. Now,” he got up and Mabel squealed as she tightened her grasp on her father, “perhaps you would like some breakfast, petite.”
Gently placing her on the ground, he watched his daughter rush past Charlotte into the kitchen, her hair flying about her. He looked at Charlotte and nodded self-consciously.
“I’d always wondered what Mabel’s father was like,” she remarked as she caught his eye.
He blushed. “Mae doesn’t know,” he whispered softly.
Darcy startled when she placed her hand softly on his arm. “If you hurt either of them, I will kill you,” she warned, but he saw a gentleness in her eyes.
“I know. I may just kill Charles Bingley and Jane, actually, for the same reasons.”
Charlotte nodded. “Let me take care of the anorexic starlet; I’ll leave Charles to you.”
He held her gaze, silently assenting.
“You’ll be an excellent dad,” she remarked. “Take care of them for me, okay? I love my Mom, Dad, and brothers, but Eliza and Mabel are my family, too.” Charlotte had asked Elizabeth to join and her family this year for Christmas, especially since Jane was no longer in the picture and after everything that had happened, but her friend had refused. She also insisted that Charlotte go home instead of staying in the city with her and Mabel. Now, with Darcy there, Charlotte knew that it would be alright to go. Her friend and adopted niece would be safe and loved.
She turned and went into the kitchen where Mabel was attempting to pour milk on her cereal and making a mess of things.
“I promise,” Darcy swore to the empty room.
Lights flashed above her and I saw an angel, of that I’m sure. Shining wings, cut black and yet a shimmering silver, enveloped her as the heavenly creature’s talons scratched at her blurred eyes and raked across her pale arms. Blood seeping through the slits of her skin, she felt the liquid searing through her veins. “I saw your face in a crowded place,” a menacing voice echoed throughout the metal tunnel she was enclosed in, the fluorescent lighting beginning to blind her vision as she was encased in the whiteness.
As his lips touched hers seductively, she tried to pull away, but the talons dug deeply into her shoulders and she cried out in pain into his kiss. “My love is pure as I am,” the angel taunted, the echoic sounds torturing her confused mind. It was so inhuman – so other – almost bestial.
Then she was flying high, higher and higher, the light causing her to sob out although no sound came from her chapped and swollen lips. The angel changed, “You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful,” over and over again until the words had no meaning any more. They were only noises, like fingernails on glass, tearing about her brain, stripping her skin from her bones as she screamed out in agony.
Elizabeth woke up with a start to see the sun streaming through the hotel windows, the room intensely quiet but for her rapid breathing. Shutting her eyes against her terrifying memories, she wondered where Fitzwilliam had gone.
It’s Christmas Eve, she recollected.
Cautiously she emerged from the bed and saw a note on the bedside table: “Gone to get Mabel. I’ll be home soon.”
She smiled slightly. She was home.